Monday, May 09, 2016

Mistakes: A Sermon for Ministers

It was one of those moments when my mouth engaged before my brain.  I was being interviewed for a parish job, and had just been asked what I would do if someone refused to work with the Parish Child Protection policy.  "They can't be allowed to work with children" I said, and almost immediately began to soften it.  "Of course, I would speak with them and try to help them engage with the policy first" and so on.  But knowing what I began to know shortly afterwards, I think it was one of the reasons that I was offered the job.

After several days of being followed and spoken about, however accurately, by a slave-girl with a spirit of divination, Paul finally loses his temper.  "Very much annoyed" is how Luke puts this.  He turns round and orders the spirit to leave her.  Those who read Paul's letters carefully might wonder how he managed to last for "many days" without getting cross earlier.  There is, no doubt, a scholarly argument somewhere that uses this as further evidence of Luke smoothing things over as he writes the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul was not canonised for his patience!

The result is not good.  The fate of the slave-girl is not mentioned, but she would have been less valuable without the spirit, and the opportunities to make money for her owners from fortune telling.  As for the apostles, well they are arrested, beaten and imprisoned.  Their group is split up (what begins as a 'we' passage ends as a 'they' passage).  That phase of mission is over.  One can imagine what Silas had to say to Paul that night in the cell, and it is mostly about Paul's need to hold his temper in check.  Perhaps he quoted Galatians 5.22 at him, reminding him that the fruit of the Spirit is patience.

It was a mistake.  And we all make them.  I know that I can get angry when it is counterproductive.  I've made many other mistakes.  To date they have not got me arrested or beaten up.  But they have closed down opportunities for mission; they have led to weakening relations in ministry teams; they have led to friends and colleagues reminding me of scripture and of my own words.  We all make mistakes.  They have consequences.  But they are never the last word.  A book that I've been reading over this weekend puts it this way: "a saint can fail in a way that a hero cannot do, because the failure of a saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God" (Rupert Shortt, God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity (Hurst and Co., 2016), p. 70).

All our ministry belongs to Christ.  It's not our ministry at all, it is Christ's ministry that we are privileged to share.  So it is not about success and failure, it is not about how we make mistakes and cock it up.  It is Christ's ministry, and Christ works in and through us.  Christ even works in and through our mistakes.  To paraphrase the book: 'a minister can fail in a way that a hero cannot do, because the failure of a minister reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the minister is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God'.  Ministry is always about God, it is not about us.

That night, after Silas had reminded Paul of his writing on patience, there were prayers and singing.  Then there was an earthquake and the prisoners could escape.  It always reminds me of the great hymn, 'my chains fell off, my heart was free I rose, went forth and followed thee'.  If I were in prison and the doors were opened by an earthquake, I think I'd be out of there in an instant.  I might even take it as an act of God in freeing me.  But that is not how this story goes.  This time Paul was patient.  This time he waited.  He waits and keeps everyone else with him. Their jailer, fearing that he will be punished for allowing the prisoners to escape, is saved first from suicide.  Then he and all his household are saved by believing on Jesus and being baptised.

Paul's mistake is not undone, but it is redeemed.  Christ is at work bringing new opportunities even when that mistake seems costly.  Paul and Silas take the surprising decision to stay put in prison, when it seems that they have been miraculously freed. And salvation comes to a whole household.

We all make mistakes. They have consequences. But they are not the last word.  When you came for your induction at the beginning of your curacy, I told you to make good mistakes.  I'm not sure whether Paul's mistake is a good one or not.  But his mistake is not the last word - in the night he is freed and remains in the prison that he can bring salvation to the jailer and his household.  We all will and do make mistakes.  I at least am tempted to see them as disastrous and to despair.  Our mistakes do have consequences, but they are not disastrous.  Christ is at work in us and through us, even through our mistakes.  That seems to me to be borne out in many passages of scripture - from Abraham's misadventures in Egypt through to Jonah's attempts to run away from God.  Above all it is seen in the crucifixion of Jesus, when a whole series of mistakes and errors leads to the death of an innocent man, and the end of his mission to God's people.  Yet the creativity of God is at work even in the face of death to bring salvation to the whole world.  One of the paradoxes of the cross is that it is through human sin, not human virtue, that God works to save all humanity from sin.

Ministry likewise is cross-shaped and marked by God's creativity.  We belong to a God who is creative and constantly at work in and through us, so that our mistakes are never the final word unless we see them as the end of the story.  So continue to make good mistakes - they are the best way to learn.  But whether our mistakes are good ones or bad ones, never despair at them.  Christ is at work in and through even our mistakes to bring salvation to this world and to its people.  Amen.

First given at Diocese of Derby IME Weekend, Launde Abbey, 8.5.16

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