|Minister's Sermon - Sunday 26th May 2019|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Reading 1: Acts 1. 1-14 |
Reading 2: John 5.1-9
I want to begin with a video, produced for Thy Kingdom Come, as a way of setting everything else I’ll say this morning in some context. There are several videos for the initiative, and most are by the Archbishop of Canterbury and since he inspired these 10 days of prayer, I thought I’d play one of his. But then I found one by Gareth Powell - the Secretary of the Methodist Conference. And he speaks about how prayer leads us into action using John Wesley as an example. It’s called, “Called to participate,” and it features the New Room in Bristol.
We are called to participate… to participate in God’s kingdom through our prayer, action and through our giving. I’ll come to those later in this sermon. But before that I want to look at the Gospel reading.
Jesus is on his way again. After meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, he returns to Capernaum in Galilee, where he heals the son of a royal official. Then after this, he heads for Jerusalem, where there is a festival. Jesus’ almost constant movement speaks o me of someone who crosses boundaries easily, who refuses to be limited by his community’s view of where he should go, what he should do, of who is in or out. Someone comfortable with change. This is in sharp contrast with a man who has been waiting in one place for 38 years! It isn’t clear why Jesus goes to Beth-za-tha. John doesn’t tell us. Instead, he tells us that it’s a pool with five porticos or porches. The detail is a reminder that Jerusalem is a city built on the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, and that Jesus is about to break it because it’s the Sabbath. The grandeur of the place, contrasts ‘though with sight that meets Jesus, “A large crowd of sick people… the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed.” Their presence has become a fact of life in the city whose law promises comfort and hospitality to people who are poor. Yet, Wes Howard-Brook, says, anyone “living the covenant between God and humanity would be outraged at this sad spectacle of a shuffled-aside multitude.” (1) And, that of course, would include Jesus. We’re not surprised by his outrage. Indeed, it also invites us, to wonder whether we are outraged enough, about those pushed to the edges of our society. But that’s another sermon – not today’s.
Jesus focuses on one person in the crowd. A man who had been sick for 38 years. We’re not told why he was sick. We assume he can’t walk, ‘though there are many illnesses that would prevent him from getting to the pool, quickly. The unique thing about him is that he’s been there for 38 years. So, he’s not just sick, he’s also old. And so commentators suggest 38 years is the span of a generation, so he’s been sick, longer than anyone can remember. At that age, in that time, he must have thought that there was little hope of a change in his circumstances. Yet Jesus challenges this. The translation we heard, says he asks, “Do you want to get well?” A better translation of this question, is “Are you willing to become healthy?” Either way it’s a strange question to ask someone who is ill. Debie Thomas calls it “jarring.” (2) And I suspect that’s because we’re not really hearing what John intended us to hear. For that, we need to understand what’s behind the Greek words, John uses for “willing” and “healthy.” The word for willing, was also used in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and the woman at the well in Samaria, and Wes Howard-Brook suggests it’s a similar invitation to re-birth here. (1) An invitation, to someone who’d waited 38 years and given up hope of his life ever changing, of ever being re-born or transformed. The Greek word for healthy isn’t as easy to understand, because it’s rare in the New Testament, and it isn’t about being healed or cured. Which is why it doesn’t do to translate Jesus’ question “Do you want to get well?” Becoming healthy has more to do with making changes that lead to healthy living. It’s a process, not something static, and it’s a word that implies action. Choosing something over something else.
The sick man avoids the question. “Sir, I don't have anyone here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets there first.” His reply, invokes an old folk legend, that says when the water is stirred by an angel the first person to get into it will be healed. He’s got stuck. He’s lost hope, because he’ll never able to get to pool quickly enough, and no one has helped him. “His hope is almost a parody of Jesus’ offer of ‘living (moving) water’” (1) to the woman at the well. “This life-giving pool only serves one at a time, and not a single [person] will help” (1) him achieve his dream. And yet he’s stayed there. Waiting. So, there must be something (however small) left of the dream. Jesus isn’t bothered with the folk legend ‘though, he cuts through it, and the man’s loss of hope. He says, “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.” And these three interrelated commands reverse 38 years of suffering. Wes Howard-Brook asks why no one had cared enough to say these empowering words before? ‘Though that might raise a question about whether this was a physical healing or not? And maybe we’re not expecting that? But whatever happened, the man becomes more-healthy, picks up his mat and walks away. I think it’s worth noticing that the man doesn’t ask to be healed. “There’s no indication in the story that he even knows who Jesus is… Jesus makes no reference to belief… [He] doesn’t dwell on… the loss and waste of the thirty-eight years the man can’t get back. And…he doesn’t heal the man on the man’s terms… Jesus simply tells the man to get up and walk. And he does.” (2) What this tells us is that “Jesus is always and everywhere in the business of” rebirthing us and enabling us to become healthy. This is who he is. It doesn’t depend on us. So, “Are you willing to become healthy?” is a question he’ll never stop asking, because God’s desire is for our wholeness, freedom, and thriving. “And,” Debie Thomas says, “he understands that there is a painful, surgical power in the question itself. Confronting the… question of what we want - what we really want - is how the work of” becoming healthy begins. (3)
I want to shift focus at this point, because I want to apply this story to the church. To this church, as we approach our gift day, in the context of the 10 days of prayer for Thy Kingdom Come. I want to ask the question Jesus asked the man, to you, to us. “Are we willing to become healthy?” And I want to do that by looking at three questions. What is our dream? Are we willing to be reborn, to change? And what does “being,” or “becoming healthy,” look like for a church?
I’m not yet certain what dream we - the people of Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church - share. I know our mission statement says: “Our purpose is to worship God and, helped by the Holy Spirit, to love each other, to care for those in need and to share the love of Jesus with those in the community around us. We will do this as a church that seeks inclusion and challenges exclusion.” I know our strap line, is, “Making more faithful disciples of Jesus.” And I know one of the ways we’ve chosen to do that, is through youth and children’s work, because we employ a youth worker as part of the staff team. So, it seems good to me that the focus for our Gift Day in 3 weeks-time, is mission through youth and children. It fits with our mission statement and strap line. And the hope is to raise £10,000 to enhance work we’re already doing. To buy some portable staging and lighting for the “Hand In Hand” puppets, some small tables and chairs for children’s groups, and a speaker bar for the Dovetail TV to improve the sound for Messy Church. And these will also be available for other groups. There is a letter for church members in the foyer. Please collect yours if you haven’t already got it.
I’m impressed by the work this church does with children and young people. Most weeks about 100 children, teenagers and their parents and grand-parents come to the week-day groups we run. Another 50 – 70 to monthly activities. And there are more at Dovetots Plus during the holidays, in Easter Is, and so on. Over the past years, John has focused increasingly on intergenerational mission activities, that introduce families into the life of the church. Recent research says, children are more deeply drawn into church life when we work with families. And John’s intention is that the adults and children who come to Dovetots and Dovetots Plus, “Who let the Dad’s out?” and the Puppets Group, might also be attracted to our monthly Messy Church. And that’s happening. Of course, it’d be great if there were more children and young people here on Sunday, but you all know how much family life has changed over the past 40 years. And I think we can be thankful that families are as engaged in the life of the church as they are.
The gift day offers us an opportunity express our thanks for what God is doing in the lives of the children young people and families we work with. Because that’s the real point of it all. It’s how God is touching people’s lives through us. It’s about enabling them to see – through what we are and do - that there is more to life than the media, their peer-group, and society, say there is. It’s about saying – in our words, our deeds and our presence – that they are loved by God. And if you’re not able to help with week-day activities (and even if you are), giving money so that we provide staging, lighting and sound bars says you’re welcome here!
The first part of Jesus’ question to the man, was, “Are you willing…” Remember that Jesus also used this word in his conversations with Nicodemus and the woman at the well in Samaria. And that Jesus is also inviting the man who’d waited for 38 years to be re-born, changed, transformed. He’d given up hope of his life changing. ‘Though maybe not completely because he was still there. So, what about us? Have we given up hope of children being part of the life of this church? Or are we willing to embrace ways of working with children, young people and families, that we’re not familiar with, and are outside our comfort zone because they’re not happening on Sunday? And I wonder if you find this as jarring, challenging and painful a question, as Debie Thomas suggests the sick man found Jesus’ question? I ask not to hurt, or to condemn. But because – like the sick man - we have to ask ourselves whether we’re willing to face realities we might be resisting. First, we have to face the reality that this so-called “main service” that we love, isn’t equally loved by everyone. It’s not particularly child or family friendly, so if children and families are to come regularly, and stay as they get older, we need to make space for everyone, in this or other services, so that everyone is being nurtured as faithful followers of Jesus. And second, we need to accept that Sunday church isn’t the best time for everyone, that Saturday – or other days of the week - work better. But that doesn’t mean it’s not church. Messy Church is church for those who come and who don’t come here. It’s our 5th congregation. And those who come, are coming through Dovetots, “Who let the Dad’s Out?” and other ways. So, if you want to meet some of the children who belong to this church, come and be reborn, changed, transformed through Messy Church!
And that brings me to the second part of Jesus’ question which was about being or becoming healthy. Jesus asked, “Are you willing to become healthy?” Are we willing to make changes that lead us to healthy living? Are we willing to change the way we think and act? Becoming healthy is a process, not something static, and it’s a word that implies action. Choosing some things over others. There’s been a lot of research done on what healthy churches look like. Churches of all sizes and shapes can be healthy. ‘Though research suggests they share seven characteristics. Healthy churches are outward-looking and energised by faith. They seek to find out what God wants, they face the cost of change and growth, and they operate as a community. They make room for all, and they do a few things, and do them well. Is this Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church? I wonder if like the man at the pool, our answer might be predetermined. He thought he’d only be healed if someone could get him get into the pool. Whereas Jesus ignores the pool and invites him to do something that will help him become healthy. To get up, pick up his mat, and walk. I wonder if we think we’ll be a healthy church when there are people from all age groups, and lots of children in services, and we’re worshipping in a particular style. But the healthy Church research doesn’t focus on what churches do, on activities or practices, the particular ways we express our faith. It focuses on whether churches have the attitudes and values that lead to change, to transformation, to being reborn. Healthy churches, seek to find out what God wants, and one of the ways we find out what God wants, is to look at where God is active. I believe God is active in our work with children and families. Healthy churches are outward looking. Our work with children and families is. And healthy churches operate as a community. Intergenerational mission – where people of all ages participate in God’s kingdom - is happening in our youth and children’s work. My (almost) final question is, are we prepared to face the cost of change and the opportunities for growth that God is challenging us with, in and though this work. Because if we want to become a healthy church - we must.
I said that was almost my last question. My last is will you continue to pray? Will you pray using your pipe-cleaner or booklet or in your usual prayers? And will you pray about how much your gift-day offering – as a in thanksgiving for the ways God is opening up in the lives of those on the edge of our community – will be? Unless prayer underpins who we are, and what we do, we’re simply a group of people. Even the thing we think is most important – worship – cannot happen without prayer. And as Gareth Powell reminded us right at the beginning, it’s prayer that draws us ever-deeper into God’s life, and through prayer that we’re being prompted to participate in the life of God’s kingdom. Just in case you’re thinking of reminding me that Jesus healed the man by the pool without him doing anything, I’m not talking about the way we come to faith, but the way mature Christians we become ever-more faithful disciples. This church is a church full of people with different gifts, different hopes, and different dreams. We bring different things to the church. And we hope for different things from it. Yet we are a community. A community that eats together around a variety of tables. A community God is drawing into God’s life. And when we pray, as individuals and as a community, God is at the heart of our life - inviting us and those we pray for - into an ever-deeper communion of love, generosity and praise. Amen.