Sunday, 16 September 2007

Trinity 14 - sermon time, only a bit late

Year C Proper 18
Jeremiah 18.1-11
Psalm 139.1-5 & 12-18
Philemon verses 1-21
Luke 14.25-33

Tough Stuff

It’s very nice to be back here at Yelling after some time since I was last here. It is even more special because it was seven years ago this week that I was licensed in Yelling Parish Church to the Papworth Team to serve in these parishes, and as I hope to renew my license this week I have the opportunity to reflect on what this last seven years have meant both to myself and to these parishes…

Not that I plan to spend the next few minutes talking about all that has happened or sharing stories of those I’ve married or buried or baptised in these past seven years – though I have been privileged to share in some momentous events here and to be a part of some poignant and powerful pastoral events in my time.

But looking back over my time here I have to be honest and say it’s been hard. This isn’t a complaint, and if it had been too much I wouldn’t be wanted to stay! But it has been a tough few years. Personally I have to say that I have been on quite a steep learning curve in my personal, pastoral and professional life. I know I’ve not always been right, and there have been some things I could have done better, things I didn’t do as I should have, and things I wish I’d known when I arrived. But I hope and trust that I have learned and grown in my time here, as many of those in our Parishes have done also.

Our parishes have been through major changes too, in personnel, in our times and styles of services, in the fabric of our buildings and the organisation of our Team. Many of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive but alongside that we have lost some very special people, we’ve struggled with the issues facing our villages today and we’ve had pain and sadness alongside the joy and the rewards of our ministry.

For those who think that this Christianity lark is a doddle and that Churches are havens for the weak, a short time in our villages would soon show what a nonsense that is.

I have had people say to me that ‘religion is a crutch’ and that it props up those who are too weak minded to carry on without some kind of spiritual panacea. Actually, if we were to carry on that metaphor I would say that religion isn’t a crutch, but a stretcher, because the only way we can truly encounter God is by being carried there by his grace, and through grace alone.

But it is difficult to be a Christian. It’s not a way out of the ‘real world’ but a way which makes us sensitive to the pain and brokenness of our society and the world around us. Christian faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering or pain, in fact it more often than not makes us more aware of the suffering of others and prevents becoming apathetic or uncaring towards one another or the world.

But none of this should surprise us. Being a Christian is hard, and today’s Gospel reading is quite clear about that. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. Jesus compares following him to setting off to war, or preparing a major building operation, not something to be taken lightly, and not something to be undertaken without planning to see it through to the end. Even more so he says ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’.

Crosses would have been a relatively familiar sight to the people Jesus was speaking to. A grisly and long lasting form of execution it was used as much as a deterrent to those thinking of disobeying Roman law as a way of punishing lawbreakers. Crosses were put in prominent places where people would see them, and before each crucifixion the condemned would be forced, as in the Good Friday story we know so well, to carry their cross to their place of execution – a very public spectacle.

So Jesus refers to something that is both familiar and shocking to try and give some idea of the cost of discipleship. There is no hint in this passage, or indeed in any of Jesus words, that being a disciple is an easy option, or the route to a cushy life. In fact throughout the Gospels Jesus talks of his own homeless status, about the need to endure suffering, about the threat of persecution, about working hard and about absolute devotion to God’s cause – a devotion that is equivalent to hating family, friends and even life itself.

But this suffering is not an end in itself, it often comes as a part of the life of the disciple, part of every life – but we don’t follow in order that we might suffer, but we endure suffering that we might be faithful. Our call is not to suffer, but to remain true to our faith and to the truth of Christ no matter what we endure.

And even from suffering God can bring life. Jesus suffered and died on the cross that he might defeat the greatest suffering, that of death and the power of sin. Then through his faithfulness was brought back to life again through the power and the love of God.

And in our Old Testament Reading for today we have a beautiful, though still slightly uncomfortable, picture of suffering and how God can bring beauty out of brokenness. The well known image of the potter and the clay reminds us that God does allow the world to break us in the same way that a piece of clay may go through many different stages of being broken, remoulded and remade before it is finished. From that brokenness comes a work of art, a vessel which may be something of great beauty, or something with a purpose and a reason. It isn’t a easy process, but in our own Christian lives we need to trust that God is doing something to bring healing out of pain, to bring something good out of even the worst times and events.

Let’s pray not that we might escape all the troubles of the world, but rather that through everything we may endure and be faithful, allowing the potter to reshape and create something new, fashioning from the struggle something beautiful and filled with purpose. And let’s pray that we will have the faith to see God at work, even when it seems the struggle is too much.

May God bless us in all we endure, and give us strength, faith, hope and love.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Sermon for Trinity 13, Proper 17

Trinity 12 (2001) Year C RCL Principal

Practical Spirituality

If I had 5p for every time someone told me that ‘Christianity is boring’ – I’d be at least two pounds better off by now!! It’s a common misunderstanding. People confuse the trappings of the Christian Church – whether it’s smells and bells, or guitars and choruses, with the Christian Faith – and if they don’t like the way things are done, then obviously the Church is boring.

But the Christian Faith is certainly not boring. And in fact, if you ever get into a conversation with someone about faith then it will usually emerge that people find Jesus, the founder of our faith, fascinating. They just seem to be able to separate Jesus and Christianity – and the latter is given the label boring.

The Christian Faith, however, is (or perhaps we should say the Christian Faith should be) exciting, challenging and disturbing. Exciting because our faith comes from Jesus, the son of God and Son of Man, the holy one, the Messiah – who showed us how we are truly meant to live, challenging because this same Jesus never lets us rest on our laurels, but constantly calls us on to new and different things, and disturbing because Christian Faith can turn our world upside-down and make us think, even make us change so we become more like Jesus ourselves.

Take this morning’s reading from the Gospel for instance. Jesus has been invited out to dinner – and if we look carefully at the passage, he has been invited by the Pharisees in the hope that they might catch him out. Rather than setting himself up for a fall, Jesus makes a very practical observation about how people chose the place they wanted to sit at the meal – and offers an alternative way, a challenge, to the way that things were being done. Without actually pointing the finger, Jesus offers a dig at the way those who were trying to catch him out acted.

Jesus then takes this a stage further by saying that when we invite others to share our meals, and to share our lives, we should expect nothing back. Our sharing should be done out of a desire to serve the kingdom of God, and any reward will be in God’s good time.

All at once Jesus has challenged the Pharisees way of doing things, he has offered a very practical piece of advice, and he has made a point about the kingdom of God. Not bad for a one paragraph story.

And this, in so many ways, offers some ideas about what Christian faith is really all about. Jesus is concerned with the real world, none of this boring otherworldly ‘out there’ stuff – but a practical, everyday faith that informs even our seating arrangements. AND at the same time Jesus shows that his concern is fixed squarely on God’s agenda and the way that God does things

Christianity is a mixture, it’s a faith that is spiritual, concerned with the deeper meanings of life, and at the same time it is a faith that calls us to take note of the things that are going on around us. We, as Christians are to be grounded in the real world, in the everyday, in the practical things of life.

And this point is well made in the verses from the letter to the Hebrews that we heard earlier too. For those who might have caught the New Testament readings of the past few weeks then you might realise that we’ve gone through quite a lot of the letter to the Hebrews over the past few weeks. We’ve had these wonderful passages about faith and heard all the heroes of faith from the Old Testament and about their link with the first Christians. Now the author links that great heritage of faith to some very practical advice about what Christian Faith is about.
1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have;
There we are again, a concern with the real world, held alongside a deeper level of the life of the Spirit. I think the best way to talk about this is to describe our faith as being a ‘Practical Spirituality.’ We are not called to (as one Christian writer once said) have our minds so concerned with heaven that we are of no earthly use. At the same time, though, our Christian Faith is not just about the world we see – but about eternity, about the life of the spirit, and a calling to know and love God, to worship in Spirit and truth, to know Jesus and know ourselves known by God.

If our faith holds this practical spirituality in balance then we are in no danger of being boring, the Church is in no danger of being irrelevant, and Christians will be those who carry on Jesus role of challenging the way the world is – of drawing people’s attention to the way God wants us to be, and of showing people the love of God, and the hope of the kingdom of God.

The best advert for the Church is not how we do things in this or any other building. It’s not our care of our Churches, nor our music, or what we wear, it’s not whether we have trendy motorbiking Vicars. The best advert for the Church is a Christian who is alive in faith. The best advert, the way that people will be attracted to or put off faith, is you and I. If our numbers are dropping, it’s not just because of the time of our service, or because of the type of service we have, it’s because people aren’t invited to take part by their Christian friends, or because the Christian Faith is seen as boring and irrelevant due to the fact that everything we seem to do is so boring and irrelevant. The things that are growing in the Church (and don’t be put off by the papers, the Church of England and some other denominations are growing) are the activities put on by Christians which show their concern for the communities around them.

The Churches that are growing are those who meet the needs of families, who try different things, who offer opportunities to pray together, to socialize, to study the Bible, to look at the Christian faith. These Churches offer every kind of Christian Worship on Sundays, 1662, Common Worship, the Roman Missal, Methodist Services, Taize worship, informal praise, whatever – but it is the Christians that are a part of them that draw other people to the Churches.

Perhaps we need to stand back and ask some hard questions about why we are here, and why we do what we do. We need, I believe to sort out our priorities as Christians, and then consider what kind of Church God wants us to be. When we put our faith into action, people are attracted. When we are welcoming and open, people will come. Until that time we can worry about the times of services, the heating, the service books, our hymns, or whatever, but none of it makes any difference if our lives of faith don’t shine in such a way that those who see us are impressed by our faith, and therefore want to be a part of what we do, and to share the life of our Christian fellowships in these villages.

May God give us grace, and strength and vision to be Christians who make a difference in this world and in our villages, and who draw others to the light of Christ through our lives and witness. Amen.