Take Time

July 19, 2009

( 2 Sam.7,1-14; Ephes. 2, 11-22; Mark 6,30-34 & 53-56)

Do you like sandwiches? I like them as a meal, because I usually don’t have to prepare them. Either we buy them, or my husband makes them, because his sandwiches are tidy and don’t tend to fall apart when you lift them up as mine do. But what really makes a sandwich is the filling!

Our Gospel reading today is like two parts of a sandwich without the filling. We hear in Mark 6, 30-34 about the disciples returning from their first foray into ministry without Jesus, full of excitement; and how Jesus plans a time of quiet debriefing for them and a recharging of batteries in a desert place; but his plans are thwarted when the crowds arrive, hungry for spiritual and material food. Then, in verses 53-56, we find Jesus and the disciples again searching for a quiet space across the lake – but again being overwhelmed by the demands of the crowds seeking teaching and healing.

The ‘filling’ in the sandwich is Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water – miracles designed to show Jesus exercising divine control over the material world. You will get the flavour of that filling over the next five weeks,  as the lectionary sets passages from John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and the discourses on ‘The Bread of Life’ as the gospel lections for those Sundays.

Perhaps we may wonder why those who planned the lectionary gave us these two passages for this Sunday’s Gospel, the bread on the outside of the sandwich, rather than the more interesting ‘filling’. But the resulting passage does give us important pointers, both as individuals and as congregations, to the way we should exercise ministry in Christ’s name.

In our readings today we recognise many familiar features of Christian life and ministry. In Samuel we hear of David’s plan to build a suitable temple for God. Many of you will be involved in maintaining this building, and in keeping it clean and beautiful for each Sunday, so that it is a worthy place in which to worship God.

In Ephesians we are reminded of the work of evangelism and reconciliation. May of you are involved in taking the Good News to people from many different cultures in this locality and throughout the world, and some of you may also be involved in trying to build bridges between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

The passage from Mark is a snapshot of busy parish life. We hear of the disciples reporting on their mission activity, of Jesus reacting to the needs of his ‘flock’ and of the apostles and their master travelling from one place to another, meeting the spiritual and physical needs of those they meet. It gives the impression of lives full of activity, meeting the diverse needs of everyone who approaches.

What it doesn’t show is how this busy life of service and ministry is sustained, or how it is related to the will of God, or what is the cost of it.  Sometimes a busy life can be driven not just by a desire to serve others, but also by a need to avoid facing the big questions of life, even a need to avoid meeting with God, for fear of what that might do.

A number of years ago, I studied for a Masters Degree in Applied Theology. The course was open to anyone in any kind of Christian ministry, ordained and lay, working for the Church or in the secular sphere. One of the things we were taught was how to be ‘reflective practitioners’; how to take time out from the everyday practice of ministry to think and be self-critical, to read and study both the Bible and secular writers, in order to judge whether what we were doing was effective, how it could be improved, and whether it was what God would want us to be doing.  It taught me that being a good Christian minister did not necessarily mean filling every moment of the day with activity; the quiet times before God were an essential part of effective ministry too.

Of course, it is not always as easy as that. Every Christian minister will recognise the scenario in this passage of Mark. After a particularly busy time – Christmas or Easter, or even just the weekend – you are in desperate need of time to yourself, to unwind and to prepare for the next sermon or round of duties. But your carefully planned time disappears  as the phone rings, people call at the door and parish and domestic crises demand your attention.

And I am sure that people who are not in official ministerial positions find the same thing happens to them. Whatever good intentions they may have about  regular time for prayer or Bible Study, other things intervene and they find their ‘time with God’ has disappeared.

One of the consequences of failing to take time out to reflect is shown in a small way in the reading from 2 Samuel. David has been busy doing God’s work – fighting the Philistines, uniting the Israelite tribes, capturing  the city of Jerusalem as their capital, and building a fine palace for himself and his family. Now, he decides, is the time to make his capital city even more splendid by building a magnificent temple to his God. But in all this activity, he has failed to listen for what God now wants of him.  Even his new chief adviser, the prophet Nathan, is too dazzled by recent success to speak God’s will. Luckily Nathan does make time to listen to God – as he will do again very soon, when David strays from the path of right and connives at the death of one of his commanders in order to steal away the man’s wife. The story is a warning to all of us who expend so much time and energy on building and maintaining a physical ‘temple’ or church for God that we forget that the real temples in which God dwells  are our own bodies.

That point is made in the passage from Ephesians, which speaks of the members of the church as citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, growing together around Christ the cornerstone into a holy temple in the Lord. That passage also reminds us of the ultimate cost of ministry – that our power to minister comes through the cross and the blood of Christ.

The Ephesians passage also reminds us that we exercise ministry together.  It is all to easy to imagine that we are the only people who are doing the work of God, and that if we re not constantly active, God’s purposes will not be fulfilled. But no one person can  do everything. Paul often speaks of the church as a body, with different people exercising different, but equally essential functions. So, some people will preach, others will sing, others will beautify the building, others will maintain it; some will look after administration, some teaching, some care of the young and old, some will simply be available as a listening ear and a comforting arm. But all will need time out to listen for God’s word to them if they are to minister effectively in Christ’s name.

We don’t hear, in the passage that was read from Mark’s Gospel today, of how Jesus  provides an example to us of the proper balance  between active ministry, and waiting on God. We simply hear of him being constantly available, showing, no matter how much he is interrupted and how often his plans have to change, the faithfulness and steadfast love that is characteristic of God his Father.

But in the missing ‘filling’ of the sandwich, in Mark 6, verses 45 & 46 we read: “At once, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, on the other side of the lake, while he sent the crowd away. After saying good-bye to the people, he went away to a hill to pray”. Those ‘times out’, of prayer and waiting on God, were the source of Jesus’ power, when he was renewed and filled again with the Holy Spirit. If we want to be his body on earth and to carry on his ministry, we must build occasions like this into our lives too.

Of course, we will want to be busy about God’s work whenever we can. Preaching, and teaching, and worship, and discussion and pastoral care are the ‘bread and butter’ of the Church’s ministry. But unless we make time for God, to listen for the divine voice through reading and study, reflection and prayer, the ‘filling’ of our ministry sandwich will be without flavour, and will not nourish the  people of God as it should.

This anonymous poem makes the point well, I think:

Take time to think;
it is the source of power.
Take time to read;
it is the foundation of wisdom.
Take time to play;
it is the secret of staying young.
Take time to be quiet;
it is the opportunity to seek God.
Take time to be aware;
it is the opportunity to help others.
Take time to love and be loved;
it is God’s greatest gift.
Take time to laugh;
it is the music of the soul.
Take time to be friendly;
it is the road to happiness.
Take time to dream;
it is what the future is made of.
Take time to pray;
it is the greatest power on earth.

R & R is an essential component of serving Christ. So, this summer – and regularly – make sure that you take ‘time out’ for God.

Using your talents

July 12, 2009

(Notes for a Family Communion address)

( Mark 6, 14-29 )

If “Britain’s got Talent’ came to X would you go for an audition? What would you do? If David Beckham opened a football academy ( or Andy Murray a tennis academy) would you go for trials? Or if Bill Gates opened a school for computer whizz-kids would you apply?

I know there’s lots of talent among adults in our congregation. ( examples from the congregation – performing and skills like woodwork etc)

Children too ( more examples).

Part of growing up is identifying the talents you have, trying things out, finding out what you’re really good at. Devoting time to being as good at it as you can.

But another part of growing up is learning to use your talents wisely – so they don’t bring harm to you or other people or the world.

Herod’s daughter ( some say called Salome, others Herodias like her mother) had a talent for dancing. She danced so well that she could persuade her father to give her anything she wanted. She was led astray by older people to use her talent to destroy the life of another person. Very wrong. A misuse of talents.

For older people – parents and others who encourage the young – also hard questions about how far you push young people who have talents and what is it for – for the good of the young person – for our own pride or satisfaction – for money or fame ?

God has given all of us talents – may be performing arts – may be sporting – may be writing, or speaking – or talent for medical science or research; or politics or advocacy; or may be something less newsworthy, but equally necessary for society – encouraging people to develop or being kind and sympathetic and simply making them feel better.

At whatever age – need to identify what your particular talent is – then learn to put it to proper use – to build God’s Kingdom on earth – make world a better place.

Herod & Herodias didn’t make proper use of their talents. Ask God to help us to use our talents wisely.

Size doesn’t matter!

July 5, 2009

( 2 Cor. 12, 2-10; Mark 6,1-13 )

Do you remember the ad for the Renault Clio with the slogan “Size matters!”. They were talking about cars – but the church gets het up about size too. Every so often a set of church statistics is published which purports to show declining congregations and church membership, often coupled with gloomy forecasts that churches will close and the Christian religion will cease to exist in the UK in about 30 years time. But, on the other hand, there are claims from one wing or other of the church that only churches advocating their sort of Christianity are ‘growing’, and, by implication, that this proves  their version of the Gospel is ‘right’.

I sometimes wonder if people who talk about size and success in relation to the Christian faith have ever really read their New Testament.

Look at the passage we heard from 2 Corinthians. This shows Paul far from being the honoured founding father of the church in Corinth that we imagine. His position is under challenge from so-called ‘super apostles’ who argue that Paul can’t possibly  be  major church leader: he doesn’t do miraculous signs, he hasn’t had a great spiritual experience, he doesn’t preach great sermons – he doesn’t even look the part!

In response, Paul  talks about his visions as if they happened to someone else, and boasts of his weakness. The whole passage is enigmatic. We don’t know what he means when he talks of being taken up to the third heaven. Is it closer or further away from God than the  “seventh heaven” which we often speak of as absolute bliss? We have no idea. Paul also doesn’t give us any details of his “thorn in the flesh”. We don’t know whether it was a physical ailment, or some sort of neurosis or mental disturbance, or even a family problem. All we do know is that he has eventually come to see it as a gift from God, to prevent him from getting too big-headed about his own success.

In his letter, he parodies the complaints of the ‘super apostles’ about him, and boasts of his own weakness, and the insults, hardships, persecution and calamities he has suffered for the sake of Christ. And why? Because Christ shows us a God revealed in weakness – in a man put to death as a criminal on a cross.

What we can take from this passage is comfort.  It tells us that even the giants of the faith have good days and bad days: times when they are in the third heaven and feel really close to God, and other times when they are in despair, in pain, when their relationships with their congregations have all gone wrong, and they feel hopeless and desolate.

This gives us the assurance us that it doesn’t mean you are a bad Christian, it doesn’t mean you are not doing God’s work, if you happen to get ill, or you lose your job, or you get depressed, or your family life is less than perfect. Only God knows  the true significance of such experiences, and God alone is is the judge of our success. Flashy events and big numbers are not necessarily the mark of success in a church  which follows a crucified Saviour.

Our Gospel reading ( like much in Mark’s Gospel) shows that even Jesus himself did not have what we would think of as ‘success’ in his ministry. He was rejected by the religious authorities of his time, by his family ( who thought he was mad! ) and even by the people of his own town. They are impressed at first, but when worldly considerations come to be taken into account ( “he’s only one of us; his father was a carpenter; his brothers and sisters are nothing special; who is he to be putting on airs?”) they turn against him and drive him out. In a way, this passage is  a true life example of the Parable of the Sower from Mark 4, where the Word of God is sown widely, and bears fruit at first, but then worldly things choke the growth and much of the seed doesn’t bear fruit.

As if to reinforce this, in the second half of the passage we heard, Jesus sends the Twelve out to extend his ministry in Galilee. He promises them success – but also warns them that they must expect to face the same rejection and opposition that he has. Failure will be part of their experience as well.

Given these readings, how should we judge the ‘success’ of a church?

Paul often used the concept of being ‘in Christ’ and spoke of the Christian community as being ‘the Body of Christ’.  This says to me that the only criteria of ‘success’ in a Christian context is how Christ-like a thing is.

Jesus was a man who was  as one with God and as one with the Holy Spirit. So anyone and anything which claims to be Christ-like should also be Spirit-filled. Here again we need to be careful. Some sections of the Church appear to claim that the only manifestations of the Spirit are ‘supernatural’ things, like speaking in tongues, freeing people from demon-possession and miraculous healings. But in his letter to the Galatians, Paul also talks about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ being made manifest in the enhanced quality of natural human qualities – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  It is less easy to measure the volume of such qualities than the number of ‘bums on seats’ – but if we were to measure those qualities, wouldn’t we have a very different picture of what constitutes a ‘successful’ and ‘growing’ church?

At the end of April, I attended a conference organised by the Beds and Herts Churches Media trust. It was about Communicating Christian Festivals – how churches of many different denominations and traditions can use the major festivals of the Christian year to reach out into the community and make contact with those on the outskirts of, and outside our congregations. We had sessions on event management,  and how the music we use might affect our success; a Muslim academic outlined a Muslim perspective on Christian festivals ( make them more religious and less commercialised, he said); and the Bishop of Hertford urged us to be bold and take risks, and not just keep repeating  what has worked before.

The Anglican Diocesan Mission and Development Officer spoke of six words which should characterise mission today: simplicity, goodness, prayer, rhythm, companionship and story. Nothing about large numbers or miraculous events there, you note. ‘To be effective in communicating the Gospel, people must see something of God in you. Our lifestyle speaks to people’, he said.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the conference was the Question Time, where panellists ranging from an Anglican Bishop to a Salvation Army Captain answered queries about how to communicate better with those outside and on the fringes of our churches. Among the answers were: “ Relationships are important. You need to cater for people where they are.” “You don’t need trendier worship to bring people back to God; you need a relationship with them so that you can address their needs.” “We should not make too many distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. After all, it’s not true that ‘God so loved the holy people…..’ We  know that ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son….’”.

Again, nothing about large events or flashy events. Just the fruits of the Spirit in action.

The witness of the New Testament to the life of Christ, and the mission of the early apostles guides us to a different way of assessing the successful church. The criteria for discerning God’s presence are shown to have been radically redefined by the cross. God’s true power is expressed in weakness, not in events that demonstrate might and power.

Size doesn’t matter!