Minister's Sermon - 30th September 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church’s Harvest Festival Service

Sunday 30th September 2018 10.30am

Genesis 8.15-22

Mark 9:38-50

Millstones. Drownings. Maimed bodies. Fire. Eye-eating worms. Today’s Gospel reading is hard to hear. It’s not that we’re not used to harsh and graphic images, but we associate them with the Old Testament, with the angry god who flooded the earth. Not with Jesus, who took a child in his arms, and invited us to welcome “these little ones.” And yet this is Jesus, who says it’d be better to be drowned, or have a hand or foot cut off, or one of our eyes cut out than “cause one of these little ones to lose faith” - or as other translations say – cause one of these little ones to stumble, be scandalised, sin, offend, or trip up. And all of these words are important, because Jesus isn’t only talking about what we believe, but about the way we put our beliefs in practice – which is the ultimate measure of our discipleship.

But if we’re going to take Jesus’ harsh words seriously, we need to understand why he’s is talking like this. At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking frequently and openly about suffering, dying and rising again. He’s on the road to Jerusalem. He knows he’s running out of time. So, he keeps trying to turn his disciples’ thoughts from their very human thoughts, to God’s strange wisdom. Two weeks ago, we heard the first prediction of his death, and Peter’s attempt to protect him from the danger ahead. Last week, we heard a second shorter prediction, and the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest. Jesus’ response was to take a child in his arms and to tell them that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him, and not just him, but the one who sent him. Today’s Gospel follows immediately. Maybe we can imagine him. He’s standing teaching the disciples, with the child in his arms, when John interrupts him with a story about someone casting out demons in his name. Jesus replies to his interruption. “Do not try to stop him… whoever is not against us is for us…” But then resumes the teaching he was giving before he was interrupted, and tells how they’re to treat, “these little ones.” In Mark’s, and Matthew’s Gospels, the “little ones” are Jesus’ followers. In the first century, Christians were outsiders, living on the edge of the Jewish and Gentile communities. So, I think that allows us to see “these little ones”, as anyone who is marginalised, on the edge, an outsider. And with our understanding that the earth’s eco-systems, are interconnected, and that humans, birds, animals, plants, insects are inter-dependent, it also includes any pushed to the edge by human greed. Having been misunderstood, ignored and then interrupted, I suspect it was Jesus’ frustration with the disciples, that led to him use such graphic metaphors. How else was he going to them their attention? How else could he help them understand that what we do and say, that what we prioritize, matters? That being his disciples should be at the core of our very being? Belief that can be easily set aside is not the faith he calls us to embody. Then or now. Because the choices we make have life and death consequences. And if our choices prevent any of God’s little ones from “living into… fullness as a disciple [or]… as a child of God,” it would be better to lose the part of us, that led us to choose as we did.

You may think it’s me that’s exaggerating now. Do our choices really have life and death consequences? Can we really affect the way others live into their fullness as a disciple and a child of God? Are we really responsible for the ways we use the gifts God has given us all? Well, you’ll not be surprised to hear that my answer to these questions is: yes, yes and yes! We do. Jesus’ metaphors invite us to be accountable for our beliefs and our actions. And today, because it’s harvest, and we’re celebrating the good gifts God provides for all creation and humanity to live full lives, I want to reflect on these things by thinking about the earth’s climate and food.

I’m old enough to remember the long, hot summer of 1976. It’s my first memory of drought. The canal in the village I lived in, and the reservoir above our village, dried up. I don’t know whether or not that heatwave was the result of global warming. But there’s little doubt that the heatwaves we’ve had in recent years are the result of climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels. And that our climate is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Hurricanes and typhoons have always been destructive, but the damage they’re doing, is much greater now. The deserts are expanding. Natural habitats – on land and in the sea – are being lost and with them, birds, animals, plants, insects and fish. The ice caps are shrinking and sea levels are rising. The impact of it all, is felt far more severely in poorer countries, and amongst those living on the margins. And for those living on the low-lying islands in the Pacific it is a matter of life or death, as rising sea levels threaten, not only the eco-system and their harvests, but their very existence. Last Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly, King Tupou VI of Tonga – who is a Methodist and takes faith seriously - spoke for Pacific Island leaders, and called for action on the “defining issue of our time.” “Climate change,” he said, is having a “devastating impact,” and poses “significant security threats to us as island States.” When we think of security threats we think of terrorists. For the Pacific Islanders, the threat is that the very land beneath their feet, is disappearing. And we should be in no doubt. Sea levels are rising as a result of the burning of fossil fuels in industrialized nations since the Industrial revolution. And the consequences are being felt most, by those Jesus would call, the little ones. Last week, I read an article about a report written by the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment Climate. It said that its final report will be watered down because its findings are too frightening. Climate change, the original report said, will lead to greater migration, and melting artic ice might disrupt the gulf stream – among other things. But these, and other findings, are to be cut out. Despite the fact that the world’s governments are nowhere near meeting the commitments they made in Paris in 2015, many are still not ready to hear, the full consequences of our actions.

In 1989 I visited Los Angeles, and while I was there, visited a church which proudly showed me their foodbank. The same happened when I was in Hong Kong in 2011. I appreciate the support churches give to people on the edge. But I also had questions. Why are were food banks in rich countries? And why weren’t they challenging their governments about it? Of course, they’re doing their best to help vulnerable people, as communities and churches are doing all around this country. But this leaves me feeling uncomfortable. One of the scenes in the film, “I Daniel Blake,” was in a food bank. A young mum was eventually persuaded to go to the food bank by a friend who’d noticed she was starving herself. When the woman helping her turned her back, she opens a tin of baked beans, and eats them cold… It wasn’t fiction. It was based on real experience… And this is our country… Two other reports have struck me this week. Both highlight how vulnerable people are being driven deeper into poverty, and are not sharing in the harvest given to us all, by God. The Nationwide Foundation report was about housing. I read it after we’d received a leaflet from an estate agent sharing the good news that rents and house prices in Chandler’s Ford and Romsey have outpaced the South East average over the past year. The report was a stark contrast to this. It highlighted how the shortfall in social housing has led to a doubling of the private rented sector in the last 25 years, which sounds great on one level, but the introduction of universal benefit has made landlords wary of renting to anyone receiving benefits. So, people are being driven into unsuitable, and increasingly costly homes. With the result that some people are left with as little as £5 a week for food. The second report was published by the Social Metrics Commission. More than half of the families living below the breadline, it said, include at least one person with a disability. And an increasing number of families with children are relying – not just on free school meals – but breakfast and supper clubs as well to feed their children.

If our choices have life and death consequences… If they affect the way others live into their fullness as a disciple and a child of God… If we’re responsible for the ways we use the gifts God has given… What are we to do about the way the most vulnerable, those Jesus called “the little ones,” are being affected by climate change and poverty? Well, we need to begin by owning the fact that the lifestyle we enjoy, comes at the cost of other people and the earth, living into fullness. And, that it is preventing us from living into the fullness of the disciples, Jesus calls us to be. But rather than beating ourselves up, I want to quote Debie Thomas’ weekly blog, because she offers us a more constructive way of becoming the disciples God calls us to be.

Debie writes about the time she and her husband were going through what she called a trying time in their marriage. “Our therapist,” she said, “offered a piece of advice I’ve clung to ever since: ‘what would it look like for each of you to help the other person succeed? Instead of calling out each other’s faults; instead of focusing only on your own comfort and rightness; instead of making an already hard road even harder for your partner to travel; what if you each committed to helping the other succeed? What if you cleared paths for each other? Removed obstacles for each other? Helped each other towards success?’” She continues. “My eyes still fill, typing those words, because they’re profoundly healing and hopeful. They also, I think, get to the heart of what Jesus is saying in this passage. Look at the stumbling blocks you place in front of yourselves and each other, he pleads with his disciples.” So, what would it look like for us to help those who are not reaching their potential as children of God, to succeed? What would clearing the paths look like? What would removing the obstacles they face look like? Well, we’ve already begun, in this harvest thanksgiving service. As we’ve brought food for the foodbank and money for Christian Aid’s “Breaking the Barriers” Programme.

Over the last decade, Christian Aid and its partners have been working with remote communities in Africa and Latin America, without access to energy. Their traditional fuel is wood, but the supply of it is increasing short, and gathering it fraught with dangers. It’s women’s work. As they travel further and further afield to collect wood, it’s taken more and more time, and they’ve become more vulnerable to rape attack. In some areas, local sources of firewood are completely depleted, so they’re digging up tree roots preventing the trees from re-growing. Christian Aid has been encouraging them to fuel-efficient cookers, which use a third of the wood, as well as solar energy. This has allowed the trees to regrow, and with more time, the women have become involved in developing primary health-care, improving farming methods, and starting their own businesses. “Breaking the Barriers” takes this a step further. Through it, women can access finance, through savings and loans groups. They’ll receive training in business management, setting up sustainable energy enterprises, and they’ve become part of the global movement of people who are consciously moving away from fossil fuels, to renewable energy.

Programmes like this challenge us too. It’s good to give money, and the EU’s additional £4 for every £1 we give, is really great. But “Breaking the Barriers” also invites us to ask how we might respond to the women’s example of consciously reducing their use of fossil fuel, so that with them, we might respond to the pleas of the Pacific Islanders. I’m struck by this church’s solar panels. At previous churches, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about heating costs – ‘though that always had more to do with reducing spending – than thinking about the impact we were having on the planet. But we need to go further. We need to consider our use of energy and plastics, at home, at work, in school, for holidays and travelling. And to choose to cut something out. I wonder too, whether the way “Breaking the Barriers” is empowering women in Malawi, Ethiopia, Honduras and Burkina Faso, might also challenge us about the way we relate to those on the margins in our country? Rather than simply being given aid, they’re being given the means to make a living, and develop the local health care services and economy. In some of our county’s towns and cities, people have been responding positively to the last 10 years of austerity. Where services have been cut, and the local economy decimated, people have worked together to respond as a community. The result is that some are bucking the trend of their local areas and growing. Foodbanks are part of this movement. But we need to go beyond giving food. We need to ask why in a civilized, rich country, a growing number of people – children and adults – are depending on handouts from concerned people, to stop them starving. We need seek change, using our voices, our votes, and skills – as well as through our prayer - to enable the “little ones” to play their part in the future of our country.

I will not be surprised, if at the end of today’s sermon, you decide it’s ben too political. That I should have limited it to the Good News translation of Jesus’ words about not causing “one of these little ones to lose faith.”. And focused on what we believe. Well, as I said at the beginning, when Jesus talks about what we believe, he includes the way we put our beliefs in practice – which is the ultimate measure of our discipleship. Is it so precious that we’ll not give up easily? Or is it something to be surrendered lightly when the going gets too tough? We reveal this by the way we live. What we do matters. But I also want to say that – even ‘though Jesus’ words are challenging - I don’t think he’s condemning us. He’s rather reminding us that the road to Jerusalem, the way of the cross, is hard. It is costly. And it hurts. For when we take the risk of doing more than giving food and money to the food bank or Christian Aid. When we ask questions. When we use our vote to priorities the needs of people on the margins over our own. When we use our time and skills and put others first. When we commit to reducing our use of the world’s resources it can feel like death. Debie Thomas “Jesus knows what he’s talking about; it hurts to change. It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life.” Yet, we know what Jesus’ disciples did not yet understand, that death is not the end. It contains the seeds of resurrection. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, says this. “It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re punishable and ‘makes God unhappy.’ If sin makes God ‘unhappy,’ it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of the disease.” So, what would it be like, for the sake of our brothers and sisters on this earth and for the sake of future generations, to cut away our disease. To help each other succeed. To help the earth to flourish so that it provides ever fuller harvests. To help each other grow into fullness as Jesus’ disciple and every person born to grow into fullness a child of God. That’s the challenge harvest invites us to embrace. I pray that we might do so. Amen.