Monday, September 14, 2015

Being Sustained - A sermon for minstry



So there I was, in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon nursing a beer.  I was there with two old friends, to whom I was very close.  One had written a reference for me for whatever they called BAPs in those days, but neither were Christians.  And then the husband of one of my wife's colleagues came across.  He was, shall we say, less than sober and a bit aggressive with it.  'So why do you waste your time working for the church?' was his opening gambit.  A perfect opportunity for witness, you might have thought.  So, of course, I blew it.  I was absolutely speechless, I could think of nothing to say that would answer him, and that would say something to my friends.  And then Andrew, who I'd lived with for two years as a student, piped up with a most eloquent account of how my faith and my values were intertwined; and how my compassion and my care for others were deeply rooted in my faith.  Cue more speechlessness and, fortunately, a drunken ambling away.

"The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" says the prophet Isaiah.  I guess that most of us in ministry aspire to this, to teach, to sustain, to speak the right word at the right time.  There is plenty of weariness abroad among the people of God, plenty of need for teachers who can speak the right word and offer sustenance.  Yet, there I am, squandering my opportunities for witness, for speaking the right word.  I say this, not so that you can learn how bad I can be at the role of teacher (although those of you who have to deal with me in IME had best learn that fairly quickly).  I say it because I want to reflect for a few minutes this morning on how we can be those teachers; how we get the right word to speak to sustain God's people.

Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and they are speechless.  They've gone through the half-truths that others have said.  'People are saying' (a phrase that you may find familiar), 'People are saying this about you Jesus': you're John, Elijah, a prophet.  It gives them something polite enough to say, as if they have to feed Jesus' ego.  But it preserves them from having to confront what they think, what they hope and long for and dare not speak.  It takes Peter and his size 12 feet to say what no one else will admit to - Jesus is the Messiah.  I think you can imagine Peter getting kicked under the table, or elbowed in the ribs for that.  But Peter gives us the first hint of what we need to be the teachers that God has called us to be.  We need the courage to be truth-tellers; to admit to what we hope for; to speak of what we long for.  Whether you love or loathe Jeremy Corbyn, one of the features of the Labour leadership campaign has been his ability to connect by speaking of what he really believes in.  Similar traits, only much more so can be seen in Pope Francis and in someone like Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad.  We need to have the courage to speak of what we truly hope and long for, however shallow, unpopular, or selfish it might seem.  Because in this story, Peter has mixed motives.  He, and the other disciples do want the Kingdom of God to come in power.  But they are also rather pleased that they are the ones who have spotted the Messiah, and hope to share in some of the spoils of that.  Our hopes and longings will be a similar mixture of desire to serve God, and selfish position or gain.  That is why we need to be honest enough to speak them to God, to confess our mixed up nature, to speak the truth.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Courage to speak of our hope, even when it seems mad.  That's the first thing that we need.  And the next, Isaiah tells us, is to listen.  "Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught".  We need to keep learning.  We need to keep listening to what God has to teach us, that is then the resource that we have to teach others, to sustain them with our words.  I hope that you are learning a lot at the moment.  I hope too that you are learning that you need to keep learning.  If we are to speak of God, then we need to listen to God.  Learning and praying are essential parts of our lives.  We need silence and listening to be a vital part of our prayer lives, we need God to speak the word to sustain us if we are to sustain others.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Listening and learning.  And we need resilience.  "I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame".  Resilience is one of the Learning Outcomes or Formation Criteria that curates have to meet.  But let us be clear, resilience is not the ability to endure anything and everything, to never feel the strain or buckle under pressure.  Resilience is not that at all. It is about getting knocked down and then getting up again.  It is about failing, and then trying again - something else that we have Peter to thank for his example.  Think of a plant bent by the wind, but which rises again when the wind drops.  That is resilience.

Courage to be truth-tellers.  Listening and learning.  Resilience.  All these are asked of us.  But none of them is enough without the transforming power of God.  Jesus in the Gospel reading takes the hope of the disciples, and reshapes it into the Gospel of death and resurrection.  The transforming power of God is to take our hopes and longings, to take our truth-telling, our learning and our resilience, and completely reshape it and surprise us with it.  This is costly, and neither Jesus nor Isaiah promise a cost-free way.  Peter's rejection of the reshaping of his hope is entirely understandable.  But when we see that this is the transforming power of God at work, so is the vehemence of Jesus' response. 

"The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word".  We are all invited to play a role in sharing the transforming power of God.  But first, we too need to be transformed.  And we need to be continually coming back to the source of our transformation if we are to continue to share in God's work of transformation.  To transform, we must be transformed; to sustain, we must be sustained; to speak, we must listen.  We gather this morning to receive.  Whatever our eucharistic theology, we come to the table with our hands open and stretched out to receive.  Whatever other hand gestures we may use in leading worship, the most fundamental is this one - hands open to receive what the Lord has to give us.

Amen.

First given at Launde Abbey, Diocese of Derby IME Weekend, 13.9.15.

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