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.

3 comments:

Kent said...

You're right that we must endure because it's the endurance that builds our character. Thanks for the encouraging words.

Quilldancer said...

Very well said.

Naomi said...

That's a lovely sermon Alastair and rings very true in today's society. I'm sure you've experienced a lot in those 7 years and shared a lot of both the joy and sorrows in people's lives.