I don't think anyone in my Parishes knows this blog exists, so i feel confident that posting this sermon the night before won't be giving any sneak previews...
My offering for this week...
4 before Advent (2006) RCL Year B Principal
Changes, Chances and keeping our focus
I expect many of you have heard of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross – they form part of our Holy Week services as we think of the deeper meaning of Christ’s final thoughts – ‘Father forgive them’, ‘It is finished’ and other such phrases. Well there are the seven last words of the Church too – or at least according to one of my theological lecturers there are The seven last words of the Church – that is, the words that often come before the death of a Church – are this
BUT WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THAT WAY
I hear that quite a lot – there’s a variation on the theme in that if something is done once in the Anglican Church it’s an innovation, if it is done twice it’s a tradition.
We are very good at getting into habits, ruts even, and making them out to be as sound and as important as our real faith is. In fact whole areas of the Church seem to think that tradition is the whole of Christian Faith, and that it is a loss of tradition that is the downfall of the Church at large.
Actually many of the people I speak to in the course of my ministry like both traditional and more informal forms of worship, and come to Church when they find it welcoming and thought provoking.
But the Church doesn’t handle change terribly well – and that is a problem in the world in which we live at this present time. Change is about the only thing that stays constant at the moment. And in the Church, whether we like it or not, we are having to face an awful lot of changes. Changes as we relate to the world, changes in our dioceses and provinces, changes in our deanery and in our parishes. Change is all about.
In this past few years we have seen changes in personnel in the team, changes in service times, we have three new ministers ordained and another in training for Licensed Lay Ministry (what used to be called ‘readers’), we have an administrator, we have a new Lay Chair of Team Council, and we are seeking to explore different ways of worshipping in response to requests in parishes.
Change change change, and that’s only in our local parishes. Our Diocese is looking at how ministry will serve the towns and villages of this area in the next ten years or so, encouraging more team working and much more lay participation. The Anglican Communion is facing even bigger issues – we have consecrated the first openly gay Bishop in the Anglican Communion and there are concerns about the blessing of same sex unions by Churches in the USA. We are engaged in the Church of England at looking at the ordination of women to the Episcopate and we could well have women Bishops in the coming years. We have entered into a formal Covenant with our brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church and the prospect of full union between the Methodist and Church of England denominations is a very real possibility. I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the issues, only to say that it is (as we all know) something about which many Church members hold very strong and very different views. These issues may see a radical change in the Church or even a major split – though most of us hope not.
On top of all of this we have the role of constantly responding to issues and concerns which beset our world today – from terrorism to eco-theology, from feminism to post-modernity, the list goes on and on.
How is the Church to cope…?
We have wonderful readings for today that basically sum up our strategy for coping with the world in which we live. The readings for today are about focus, vision and where our concerns should be. And it is perhaps best summed up in our Gospel reading for today, words of Jesus from St Mark’s Gospel Chapter 12. When challenged to say which was the most important commandment of all, Jesus replied in verses 29-31 "The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." No great riddle, no complex theology. This is, or at least should be, the focus and reason for all that we do and all that we are as Christians. Of course, living out this high ideal is a lot harder to do than it is to speak about – and it’s worth considering for a minute just what it means to do as Jesus says we are to do here. First of all Jesus reminds using the words from Deuteronomy that were the Old Testament Reading for today that God is one – the only true God. Whatever else conspires to take his place, money, fame, sex, power even religion, is worthless. God is alone the one we should worship and serve, God is the one and only, and should be and mean everything to us.
In response to the greatness and uniqueness of God we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. There are to be no half measures in our devotion to God – just as there are no half measures in God’s devotion to us.
I’ve met many great Christian speakers who can speak with great power and intellectual ability, who seem to have a handle on just about everything – but who have left me cold. I’m not questioning their faith, but some people seem to treat Christianity as an intellectual exercise and are devoted over and above else to the pursuit of rational and logical truth – believing the supreme example of that truth to be Jesus Christ. They love God with all their mind.
Likewise I have met Christians who have a great fervour, who find themselves in tears before God in just about every time of worship, who are devoted to their faith – but at the same time who seem to leave their brains at the door when they go into Church. They believe, but aren’t quite sure what they believe or why – leaving them open to just about every religious fad that comes alone, and they are fair game for just about anyone who has a well presented argument. They love God with all their heart.
There are others who are always working for the Church, doing things for their parish or for the people of the parish, never stopping, rarely taking time for themselves – on flower rotas, children’s duty, sidespersons duty, coffee duty and just about every other rota. These folk love God with all their strength.
And there are others who spend lives in prayer, reading spiritual books, listening to great speakers, immersing themselves in devotional manuals, going on retreats and conferences and quiet days. They love God with all their soul.
And none of these are wrong – but I believe Jesus is calling us in today’s verse to put them all together – to apply all that we are to loving God, to have thoughtful, caring, open, devoted faith. To have a balance of all these disciplines, because so often if they get out of balance then people can lose the focus of their devotion – which should of course be the Lord God.
And as a consequence of this love, of this devotion to our God, our lives will be transformed and we will become wellsprings of love and devotion to others. If we can keep the focus of our love on God and through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, then we become those who are filled with God’s grace and who spread that grace to others.
Then we will be those who, though rocked by storms of change and movement in our world and in the Church, never lose sight of the rock upon which our faith is built, and never lose the need to live and share the Gospel with all people. We will become those who embrace the world and embrace whatever happens in the strength and security of the God who means everything to us and who is our strength and our shield.