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Seasonal Communion - Summoned by Bells
Annual Service of the Friends - November 2008
This service actually began about a quarter of an hour ago. It began when the bells rang out to summon people to church. The bells represent the voice of the Good Shepherd calling home his sheep. It's a correspondence which comes out very clearly in those villages in the Alps and indeed, in the Yorkshire Dales, where church bells are rung each day at nightfall to guide home those in danger of becoming benighted on the hills. It is also a correspondence that applies equally, though less literally here. In our service this morning we will reflect on who the bells call out to here and to what it is that they call them.
Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep and my sheep know me. But there are sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold, whom I must bring in, and they too will listen to my voice. There will then be one flock and one shepherd."
Reading: Luke 15, 1 - 7
Another time, the tax gatherers and other bad characters were all crowding in to listen to Jesus; and the Pharisees and the doctors of the law began grumbling among themselves. "This fellow,'" they said, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." He answered them with this parable: "If one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the missing one until he has found it? How delighted he is then! He lifts it on to his shoulders, and home he goes to call his friends and neighbours together. "Rejoice with me!" he cries. "I have found my lost sheep." In the same way, I tell you, there will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.
1. The Call To Community
The church bells stand for the voice of the Good Shepherd calling home his flock. They do so in the mountains. They do so here. One of the groups to whom they call are those who have become separated from their companions.
In the mountains we can imagine a predicament such as this:
"I didn't stop for long. All I had to do was to replace a broken bootlace. I said to the others, "You go on. It'll only take me a minute." "Are you sure?" they said. "Yes," I said, 2it's getting late. I'll soon catch you up." Perhaps it took a bit longer than I expected, because when I stood up they were out of sight. I set off after them as quickly as I could. It was only when I began to stumble that I realised how dark it had become. Soon I couldn't really see the path. It suddenly seemed to have got a lot colder."
Here in the parish, one can easily imagine someone saying something like this:
"Lots of us have to go it alone. Some of us never had partners or families to share the journey with. Some of us have lost our partners and seen our families disperse. Some of us are cut off from the society of others by illness of body or mind. I am one of those who has to go it alone. Often I feel lonely and afraid.
To each of these people, in their predicament, the bells call. To the person on the mountain, they bring the assurance that they are not alone and guide them down to the security of the village. To the person in the parish they issue an invitation to the security of a community. One would like to think that a person who responded to their call would one day say something like this:
"Every Sunday I would hear the church bells ring. One day - I don't know why - l answered their call. I went up to the church. It took me all my courage to go through that door.
It wasn't at all what I expected. I expected them to be all po-faced and holy. Instead the place was full of people all yacking their heads off - checking how each other was, organising things, discussing the previous day's Fete, just saying hello. And they made me welcome. "Hello." they said. "You're new." They gave me my books. They found me a seat, and generally looked after me. I knew then that I didn't have to go it alone any more. I'd become part of a community."
Through the bells, the Good Shepherd calls out to the lonely and the separated, drawing them back into the warmth and security of a community.
2. The Call That Gives Us Back Our Bearings
The church bells call out to the lonely and the separated. They also call out be it in the mountains or here in the parish, to those who have lost their bearings.
In the mountains one can imagine some-one saving something like this:
"I thought there was no way I could ever get lost. I knew those hills like the back of my hand. I'd grown up here. Even in the dark, so long as I could see the shape of the hills, I'd know where I was. But that night I had something on my mind. I didn't notice the danger signs. Before I knew it the cloud was down. All the things that gave me my bearings had gone.
The equivalent experience here in the parish might go something like this:
"When I was a kid, I was sent to Sunday School. They taught us about God. They taught us to pray. They taught us what was right and wrong, good and evil. I never missed Sunday School. I said my prayers religiously every night. But as you grow up you drift away from it. There was study and social life. There was work. Then came marriage and the family. There was always something more urgent to do. But now I look around and it seems to me as if something has gone wrong. We seem to have lost the plot. The things that don't matter seem to be all that matters, and the things that really do matter no-body bothers about. I don't know where I am any more."
To each of these people in their predicament the bells call. To the man on the mountain, they give him back his bearings and allow him to plot his route home. The person in the parish they call back to a place where he can rediscover his bearings and begin to plot his way ahead.
One might hope to hear that person one day say something like this:
"One Sunday I heard the church bells ring and I said to my missus, "D'you know, I think I'll go to church." She looked at me as if I'd gone mad. But I went and I kept on going. And d'you know why? Because I felt joined up again. I felt that the person I was and the person I wanted to be had re-connected. I'd got my bearings back."
Through the bells, the Good Shepherd calls out to his lost, offering them the chance to get their bearings once again.
3. The Call To Service
The bells call to the separated and the lonely. They call to those who have lost their bearings. But, most of all, they call to those who have simply lost their way. To those lost on the mountains they show the way home. To those who have lost their way in life they call to a new ideal.
That ideal is the life of sacrificial love made flesh in the person of Jesus, the Servant King. It is an ideal summed up in the words we shall hear at the heart of the sacrament we now celebrate:
Our bells ring out as the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling the lonely into a community, giving back their bearings to those who have become disorientated, and summoning the lost back into the service of the Servant King. But without this building, there would be no bells to ring, no community to which to call people, no place where new bearings could be found or new ideals embraced. Before we end our service, therefore, it is only right that we pause for a moment to give thanks for this place and to all who work to care for it and maintain it, and particularly, at this their annual service, for the work of the Friends. To all of you all of us are very grateful.
And now, to end, we join together on a prayer for our church:
God our heavenly Father, make the door of our parish church wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship and a Father's care, and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and uncharitableness. Here may the tempted find succour and the sorrowing receive comfort; here may the careless be awakened to repentance, and the penitent be assured of your mercy; and here may all your children renew their strength in you and go on their way rejoicing, through Jesus Christ our Lord.