|Minister's Sermon - 9th September 2019|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church |
Sunday 8th September 2019 10.30am
Luke 14. 25-33
One of the delights and the challenges ministers face as we move from appointment to appointment, is not only the differences between them, but the differences we find within. My first appointment was in a church formed 2 years before, from the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church, in the village. In my last appointment, I knew all about the social work and looked forward to it, but I discovered that a fascinating aspect of the West London Mission is the Chinese community of Christians at Kings Cross. In each of these places, I had much to learn, but we were also on a journey together. As we tried to discover what it meant to be united while also valuing our diversity. And even ‘though the journey was sometimes difficult, the result of the hard work we needed to do, was ultimately life-giving. Over the past year, I’ve wondered what unity and diversity looks like, here in Chandler’s Ford. Our differences aren’t immediately obvious. Even ‘though some of us didn’t grow up in the Methodist Church, and for others our denomination doesn’t much matter, we are a Protestant Christian Community. We’re not ethnically diverse, but there is cultural diversity, between generations. I suspect that some of you won’t thank me for pointing out those differences because you’d prefer to see this church as united. Yet, I think it’s important to see the differences within and between us, because they are at the root of issues about worship that I keep hearing about. I hear that some among us are thinking of leaving, because they don’t Church with Choices, or the music we have on the first Sunday of the month. I gather others think we’re not moving fast enough to include contemporary music in services. I’ve also heard that some people don’t like the bread and wine we use for communion, yet I also know that for some among us, gluten, egg, dairy and some chemicals, are literally life-threatening. All these things matter. They matter, because as well as the differences they reveal, they also remind us that we’re still alive and kicking! That what we do in worship matters to us, for us as a community of faith, and for our witness to the community of Chandler’s Ford. As I’ve reflected on today’s readings, and read what other say about it, I’ve heard things that I think might help us find a way forward. Like today’s readings it’s challenging. Creating united communities out of diverse or divided ones isn’t easy, because human beings find it hard, to let go of what matters most to us. But it is not hopeless. And it’s not hopeless because the road that Jesus invites us to travel on to Jerusalem, is also the road that leads to the resurrection, and to new life.
Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem again. He’s accompanied by large crowds – presumably following him in the same direction – so he speaks to them to make sure they understand the implications of following him to Jerusalem. His words sound shocking ‘though the Good news has softened them. “Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and, yes, even life itself.” The words in Greek say, “unless they hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and, yes, even life itself.” Jesus said something similar earlier on, where he warns that families might become divided over his message, and that following him might cause family strife. I think we us can understand that, but this saying, is more difficult. Does Jesus really want us to hate our families and our very lives? I don’t think so! So, what’s going on? There are times when Jesus exaggerates to make his point and he’s doing that here. In Matthew’s Gospel there’s a similar saying, about where those who follow him, should place their primary allegiance. And the word “hate” is also used in a Hebrew phrase, that’s also used, where there is an issue of commitment. All this leads to the conclusion that Jesus isn’t suggesting his followers really hate their families. But that he’s calling them to be more committed to him and to place commitment to him above loyalty to our families. The next saying reinforces this one. “Those who do not carry their own cross and come after me cannot be my disciples.” For Jesus, discipleship is defined by following him and “carrying the cross,” and this means giving up self-interest and other loyalties and remaining loyal to him. He knows it isn’t easy to do either. But he never says faith is easy or low-cost. So, those who want to travel with him to Jerusalem, need to consider whether or not they can do as he asks. To reinforce the point about the cost of discipleship, he offers two parables. In the first, a landowner, is building a tower. But if he hasn’t estimated how much it will cost, it’s possible he’ll run out of funds, so the project won’t be finished. And then those who see the unfinished tower will laugh at him. The second story is about the need for a king to assess whether or not, he has enough troops to win, given that his enemy has more. If he can’t win, the wise thing, would be to negotiate with his enemy before they meet in battle. In both parables, Jesus is saying, if you can’t commit yourself to finishing the journey, it’d be better if you didn’t start. Because following me is all or nothing. His summary reinforces his point. “None of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.” In Jesus’ day, following him, really did cost something – if not everything. Families really were divided over following the Jewish prophet from Galilee. And Jesus didn’t want his audience to misunderstand what was at stake, if they were planning to continue their journey with him, because the life of faith, is demanding. Debie Thomas says this of it. “It’s a full soul, full body, full mind endeavour that requires renunciation. And surrender. And a re-ordering of our identities, our priorities and our desires. It requires ‘hating’ what is too narrow, too exclusive, and too insular, and learning instead to love what is broad, inclusive, and boundless.”
I find her thoughts on today’s Gospel passage, helpful as I think about our what’s happening here, in our worship. I read them, on Thursday, while I was at Wesley House in Cambridge. I was there for a supervision course. One of my tasks as a Superintendent minister is to offer regular supervision to the ministers. To reflect with them on their work. To support them as they struggle with challenging issues and process difficult emotions. And explore their development needs. So that they, their churches and the wider circuit, can do God’s work and not just our own. Supervisors also receive supervision, and part of the course, was to share in group supervision. So, on Monday, I asked for help with thinking through what I need to do about the questions we have about our worship. It might be clear to you what I should do next, but it wasn’t at all clear to me, if I’m not to add to our division. The purpose of the supervision wasn’t to tell me what to do, or even to make suggestions, even some people had similar experiences. It was to help me think it through and make decisions about what next. One thing, I decided, was that I would speak about them in this sermon. Because ignoring the issue, as if it’s not happening, isn’t constructive. But I didn’t know precisely what I would say until I read Debie Thomas’ reflections. She begins with a story, and then asks three questions that helped me, reflect on the reading and our situation. Her story from the Jewish tradition. “A large, multi-cabined ship sets sail across the ocean. A passenger whose cabin is on the lowest level of the ship decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin. Sure enough, the ship begins to sink. When the other passengers realize what’s happening, they rush to the man’s cabin. ‘What are you doing?!’ they yell. The man looks up from the hole and says, ‘It’s my cabin. I paid for it.’ And down goes the ship.” Shall I repeat the story? As a large passenger ship with several levels, sets sail across the ocean, one of the passengers on the lowest level decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin. So, the ship begins to sink, and when the other passengers realize what’s going on, they rush, to the man’s cabin. “What are you doing?!” But the man takes no notice. “It’s my cabin and I paid for it,” he says. The ship goes down. So, that’s the story, and these are the three of her questions. What do I consider “mine”? Who is my “we”? What I am willing to “hate”?
What do I consider mine? One of things that supervision does for ministers, is to reveal the assumptions, that we’re not conscious of. One of mine, was that I didn’t have enough experience of worship in larger churches, to see a way through. I was attached to “my” view. And it wasn’t very helpful. My supervision helped me to see that my experience of working with diversity and difference is relevant here. So, what is “mine” isn’t only about the things we have, or own. It goes further than our homes, possessions, money. It’s also about our views of ourselves, how we should use our time, and live our lives. And it also has implications for our relationships with other people, our jobs, our independence and health, and our religious and political beliefs. How possessive about these things are we? Do we cling to them? How dependent are we on them for our identity? Jesus’s call to discipleship is a call to non-possessiveness of all these things. He invites us to un-attach ourselves from them. Not, not to have them, but not to place what is “mine” first. For that place is for God. So, what does this mean in relation to worship, at Chandler’s Ford? What I see, is an invitation to notice how attached we are, to as particular way of worshipping. Do you think you can only worship God in the way you prefer? Whether that’s with contemporary music and the band or hymns and an organ. Whether you prefer a short short-piece and lots of interactive activities or a longer sermon. Whether it’s with silence or lots of words. If you can only worship God in particular ways, your challenge today, is to consider why you are so attached to it and are not open to other ways of worshipping God. Because following Jesus isn’t primarily about our worship preferences – ‘though we have them. The point is what we do with them. If we insist that “my way,” is the only way, then, we have some work to do. For “mine” and “my” will ultimately sink the ship.
The next question Debie Thomas asks, is, “who is my ‘we’?” One of the things, supervision does, is to offer ministers a way of being accountable for ourselves and the ministry we exercise. It invites us to ask, to whom am I accountable, and for whom am I responsible? Thomas wonders, “How narrow or how wide is the circle that encompasses ‘my people,’ the people I will love, welcome, serve, and make sacrifices for? Can I embrace a ‘we’ that is broader and riskier than any I’ve embraced so far? A ‘we’ that transcends race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and all other socially constructed categories? How aware am I, on a daily basis, that the ship - the whole ship, not just my corner of it - has an irrefutable claim on my life?” It’s a question that’s pertinent in the life of our nation and world, but today, I want to reflect on it from the perspective of worship. I want to say, that as members of the church, we are accountable to God, and have a responsibility for those who come and those who haven’t yet come. Our services need to help us worship God in ways that suit our spirituality. They need to feed us and help us to grow. They need to help us respond to God’s love and resource us for our lives in the world. And they need to be able to do that for all of us – and be open to being changed by those who haven’t yet joined us. That is challenging. But we are trying. Mark, Dawn and I met in the summer, to talk about starting a conversation about these things. And it will get going soon. But it’ll only be useful, if together, we can think about worship across the whole church. Not just the part that’s “mine.” Or that I prefer. Worship happens in our four services at 9am, 10.30 and 6.30pm. It’s happening now, with the younger age groups, and in Messy Church on a Saturday. It also happens at weekday other groups for children and young people, in house groups, and in the fellowships. So, if you can only think of “we” in relation to the things you do, or worship as your Sunday service, your challenge today is to consider whether you can be open to a bigger “we.” Because we don’t follow Jesus on our own or with people like us. “We” is the whole body of Christ. Of course, we all have our friends, and the groups that make us feel we belong. The point is what we do with them. If we insist, that everyone in the church else must be like us, or express their belonging in the same way we do, then we have some work to do. For “we” will ultimately sink the ship.
Debie Thomas’ final question, is, what I am willing to “hate”? Some of the things we learn through supervision are, the things we’d rather avoid, ‘though at times we may not know why. Ideas about ourselves that we need to let go of. Perceptions of others that get in the way of us seeing them as people made in the image of God and growing into the likeness of Christ. They’re similar to the customs, beliefs and traditions we’ve inherited that get in the way of us placing God first. So Thomas asks, “What baggage must I abandon? What ties must I loosen? What relationships must I subordinate?” We’re invited to loosen, to abandon, to subordinate so that we can place God, God’s mission and God’s kingdom, first. I’ve said before, that the church is the only institution that doesn’t exist for its own members, but for those who are not yet members. It exists to draw other people into the body of Christ, into the life of discipleship, so that God’s kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. And we need to “hate” anything that gets in the way of that happening. Our future depends on it. Not only the church. But the whole of creation too. And this is the context for our thinking about worship at Chandler’s Ford. It isn’t just for us. Not even for the most inclusive “we.” It’s also for those who don’t belong to us, and might never do, but who look at us and wonder about what sort of God we worship. They’ll see it in our behaviour, our priorities, what we say and through what we do. They’ll know whether or not it has integrity. And their understanding of the Gospel will be influenced by those things we cannot bring ourselves to hate. So, if you cannot bring yourself to “hate” your insistence on having your way or your narrow understanding of who “we” are, your challenge today is to wonder why you cannot place God first. Of course, we are all still growing, and it takes a life time of discipleship to place God first in everything. But if you’re not learning to loosen, to let things go, then please try to begin to learn before we sink the ship.
I know that all of this is challenging, especially because at the same time, we must also care about the survival of the church, about numbers, attracting newcomers and affording it all. And all world that insists, “It’s my cabin, I paid for it.” Yet every time, “we trade the cross in for a low-cost, low-risk version of Christianity… we lose the ship… we lose the opportunity to invest in a tower worth building. Or a holy community worth living and dying for.” If you were waiting for me to tell you the way forward, for our worship, I’m sorry I can’t. But it isn’t what we do, but how we do it, that matters most. So, that’s why I’ve focused on that today. If we’re open to letting go of “my” demands. If we can widen who “we” are. If we can “hate” what gets in the way of God’s kingdom – which is what Jesus invited those who travelled to Jerusalem with him to do. We’ll also experience resurrection and new life. No one ever said following hi would be easy. Ad it isn’t something we do ourselves. It’s possible because of God’s love, grace and generosity. And it becomes ours when cooperate with God and grow ever more fully into the likeness of Christ.
Let me finish with another story from the Jewish tradition. A long time ago there was an old rabbi who loved to teach. He’d taught for so many generations that he could hardly remember them all, but he was most famous for one thing, that he was a mind-reader. Everyone believed in his powers and never doubted them. One day, when he was very old, a child called Moshie decided to challenge him, he wanted to find a way of disproving the rabbi’s powers. He paced back and forward until his feet carved a path in the ground. Finally, he had an idea. He would go into a field and catch a butterfly. Then, he’d hold it in his hands, and ask the rabbi, “what do I have in my hand?” he was sure the rabbi would say a butterfly, but then he’d ask “Is it alive or is it dead?” If the rabbi said it was dead, Moshie would open his hands, and it’d fly away. If he said it was alive, he’d crush it between his hand, and show the rabbi the dead butterfly. With his brilliant idea, he went into a field, and caught a butterfly. And ran breathlessly to the rabbi. The old man was sleepy when Moshie came into his room. The boy held the butterfly, and tried not to squeeze it, or to giggle as it tickled his hands. He asked his first question, “rabbi, what do I have in my hand?” The rabbi began to think and after a while aid, “a butterfly, my child, a butterfly.” Moshie was pleased, and asked, “is it alive or is it dead?” The old man closed his eyes and stroked his long white beard. This time he thought for a long time. When at last he opened his eyes, he said in a soft voice, ‘It’s all in your hands, my child, it’s all in your hands.” Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
8th September 2019