Below is an edited version of my address to this year’s AGM:
I begin my address by paying tribute two individuals who deserve special mention today: our two caretakers, Mary and Lorraine. They are at the meeting point between countless numbers of premises users and the church. They do so with great tact, diplomacy, compassion and care. They are appropriately called ‘care-takers’ because they both take great care over what they do. We are blessed to have them both. They provide a framework for the rest of us because we, too, are ‘care-takers’ – those seeking to live out God’s love, the one who is love, the one who takes care.
The recently adopted update of our Mission Statement has the strap-line: Living God’s love. Much of what we do is not glamorous, but it is vital Kingdom work. Only last week I heard of a member of one of the groups who meets on our premises telling a church member how the church and the group of which he is a part literally saved his life a few years ago. If that does not wake us up to the importance and reality of living God’s love, I fear nothing will. You, by your welcome, by willing to open up the premises to the community, saved someone’s life.
In the last 12 months I have read many books about the life and work of the church. Many reflect the frustrations we face in a local church. Samuel Wells, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, who previously lectured in Christian Ethics in the United States, wrote the most challenging yet the most helpful book, entitled The Nazareth Manifesto. In it he talks about four key words that enable us to live God’s love: God is with us.
The gospel is first and last about ‘God:’ God’s nature and purpose are expressed by the three words that follow (“is with us”). No words can define God, if definition means to limit or to prescribe. God is the root, the rhyme, and the reason for all things. God is goodness, truth, and beauty. God is before all things and after all things. Without God, is not anything that is. Yet without the three words that follow, this central statement of Christian faith has no meaning or context.
The second word declares that the gospel is about now. God “is:’ In that brief statement lies faith that God is always present. For sure, God has acted and will fulfill: but most of all, God is – is here, is present, is now.
These are claims long held to be central to Christianity. But the third word has not always been held in such high regard. God is with. God’s whole being is shaped to be ‘with’. Being with is about presence, about participation, about partnership. It is not about ignoring difference or neglecting otherness. On the contrary, it is about being present in such a way that such contrasts and tensions are made visible, recognized, named, and embraced, rather than ignored, suppressed, or exploited. Being present is above all the supreme character of God.
These three words together become focused on the fourth word: “us:’ This is the miracle of grace. Us – humanity, set amidst the good creation – is the object of God’s attention. This is not an exclusive choice, with losers and outsiders; it is an inclusive covenant, held with fierce intensity, as if each one were the only one.
This, then, is the heart of Christian faith: that God – whose being is “with” – is not just “with” within but determines to be with us. God’s whole life is shaped by the permanent resolve never to be except to be with us.
Here is the direction, the purpose, the goal of the church’s mission: how we live God’s love. Each moment of our story bears the character of God being with us. God is with us when we open our building to numerous groups who do excellent work in helping build community. God is with us when we worship, when we nurture our young and care for the housebound. God is with us when we welcome newcomers and when we give thanks for a good life at a funeral. God is with us when we invite people to a coffee morning or when we celebrate harvest. God is with us when we meet in Church Meeting and when our church committees meet to do their vital work. God is with us when we vote to register to conduct same-sex marriages because we recognise the us is not defined by sexuality. God is with us when we venture outside to serve refreshments when the Christmas lights are switched on. God is with us in every pastoral encounter and through the wonderful work of our Pastoral Assistant and Associate Minister. God is with us in the good administration of the church and thank God for our Church Secretary. God is with us when the choir sing an anthem and when an evening duty officer gives a welcome to a visitor or when we raise money for Christian Aid or Commitment for Life. God is with us through the care of our caretakers. And God is with us in all the care-taking we all do. God is with us. Alleluia.
Thank God that God is named Immanuel. Thank God that God has called me and continues to call me to serve amongst you and with you. It is both privilege and joy.
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith