Saturday, 6 February 2010

St Agatha's Sparkbrook

What a great church to be in for a birthday; and that is what today was. St Agatha's Sparkbrook kept its festival in style (you would expect no less with Fr John Herve its Parish Priest) - so there was a fine visiting choir from Carver Street, Sheffield, a trumpeter to cheer us up, and altogether a very happy Festival Mass.

If you do not know St Agatha's, it is worth the deviation ... indeed, worth the journey. For me, that was a train (Birmingham has a direct link to Brockenhurst, very wisely) with the trip up on Friday and the return after the celebrations this afternoon.

The great East Window is a replacement - the Germans knocked out the previous one.
Someone had gone to town over the flowers; they were everywhere. Equally, the refreshments after Mass were sumptuous - there are a few pictures (below) of people tucking in enthusiastically.

Fr John is a great host, and although he has only very recently moved back into the Vicarage next door to his other church he put me up in great comfort; and also entertained me and his Churchwarden and Mrs Churchwarden to dinner at the Golf Club (honestly - Golf in Birmingham). That was NOT in his own parish, where the shops are named mostly after Lahore or the Khyber. It is a great and valiant witness that Fr John and his people make in such a predominantly Muslim area.

The very jolly imported Trumpeter kept us on our toes.

So, having gained a taste of the parish, you'd better get down to the bread and butter of a rather mundane sermon. Well, you win some, you lose some... here it is, anyway - you can skip it if you just came by for the pictures:

He has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and freedom

Do you have pavement artists here in Birmingham? You can often see them in London with their box of chalks in Trafalgar Square, doing a copy of the Mona Lisa or some other famous painting. Beside it they will write “All my own work” and expect people to throw coins into their box.

The Saints create works of art; their whole lives are a work of art; but they would never say “All my own work”. Whatever good they have done, they don’t take any of the credit for themselves. And it is what they are trying to teach all of us. S Paul said it, and S Agatha lived by it.

All her life she was trying to live up to her name; you know, I expect, that it means “Good”. Many Christian names have hidden meanings. My mother was Dorothy; which means gift of God… funnily enough, there is a man’s name that comes from the same two Greek words, but in the opposite order. Dorothy comes from Doros, a gift and Theou, of God… reverse these two and you get Theo-dore: God’s gift, instead of gift of God. Unfortunately my Christian name isn’t holy at all – it’s Anglo-Saxon and means something like Strong with a sword – which I am not!

Well, enough wandering down the byways of names. The truth is, all our names change at Baptism; from being for-names they become Christian names; and all of us have to live up to that, the Name of Christian. As for Agatha your Patron, she is called ‘Good’. What a name to have to live up to! But she did, because she did not rely on herself. She asked God to make her good. And there is St Paul, in his letter to us, saying “God has made you members of Jesus Christ… he has become our wisdom and our goodness, our holiness and our freedom.”

Every time we meet to pray, we begin by admitting we are all of us let-downs; all of us have failed. If we are honest, it is not just when we come to Mass that we need to say this. We have to admit it every day .. we’ve done what we shouldn’t have done, and we’ve failed to do what we should. And we have the blessing of the Confessional to help us, too. But we do not stop with our saying sorry; God tells us we are forgiven – here at mass all together, or individually in the confessional - and we get up, dust ourselves off, and make a fresh start.

The reason we can do this is because we are not solo Christians – in fact it is impossible to be a Christian and to be isolated. Christianity is a corporate faith; it’s about belonging - which is why Politicians who say daft things like “there is no such thing as Society” are so very wrong. In the Church, we belong to one another and depend on one another. The word for this, which St Paul underlines, is MEMBERS.

That is a very strong word; it means LIMBS. That is how we belong to Christ – we are his hands, his feet, his eyes .. and no member can say to another “I don’t need you”: from the greatest to the smallest, we depend on one another. And says the Apostle, ‘God has made you members of Jesus Christ.’ We may be a very insignificant part of the body of Christ; but we belong, even if we are only the tip of the smallest toe. The whole body relies on us, and we have the support of the whole body – and if we hurt, the whole body feels it.

There is one very strange thing about the Body of Christ. When only two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, he is present; there is the body of Christ. Yet even in the hugest gathering, say a Papal Mass in St Peter’s Square, or a thanksgiving service in S Paul’s Cathedral, that great body of people is only a tiny part of the whole body. The hand can’t say “I can’t do without you” .. and the whole Body of Christ is far greater than we can possibly imagine.

On any Sunday, millions of people gather across the world; yet even that still is not the whole body of Christ. Christ’s body is not just spread across space, to include every Christian in every corner of the globe; it is also spread across time, and encompasses every Christian who has ever lived. No, we can do better than that. Not 'any Christian who ever lived', we can’t speak about them as if they are gone. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, and so are those who belong to him. So we should not say “every Christian who ever lived”, but rather, every Christian who is alive, since in Christ all come to life. As in Adam all men die … and we are sons and daughters of Adam and so will die; yet also in Christ will all be brought to life. So when we celebrate a saint, we are praying with her, and asking her to pray for us, because she is as alive as we are – or more so.

That is the first part of what St Paul tells us in the Epistle; he goes on, though. He says ‘Christ has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and freedom’. That means it really does not matter that we don’t seem to add up to much. If here in Sparkbrook you are anything like the other Churches I come across, you are a pretty mixed bunch. Probably not specially wise, not specially good, not specially holy. Great! Because then we can rely on Jesus instead of trusting ourselves. How could anyone face up to being a martyr on their own! Your Saint, Agatha did not. Like all the holy Martyrs, she looked to Christ. We don’t have a contemporary description of how Agatha died – but we certainly know how other Martyrs died. The first of them all was Stephen, and he died looking up to Jesus in heaven, and praying that he would forgive the men who were killing him.

Some people call car-bombers and terrorists 'martyrs', but that is a terrible abuse of the word. They are not martyrs, they are murderers. The Christian martyrs give their own lives to God; they don’t take other people’s lives.

Agatha willingly laid down her life for her Lord; her wisdom her bravery, her patience were not hers but the Lord’s. May we too rely on him, who has called us into membership with him, the Lord Jesus, our Widsom, our Virtue, our Holiness and our Freedom. When we present our finished work of art, our life, to Him at the end, the inscription will then not be “all my own work” but ‘all your work’. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.

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