Sermon - 4th March 2018
We know what we say, but what do we do?
Scripture - Romans 8:31-39
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In the spirit of Lent, when we are challenged to reflect in a little more depth on the things we do, and why we do them, I’m inviting you to think about this church - this remarkable family of faith to which God calls us.
It is tempting to think of church as a comforting place: a retreat from the world: a passive place where we sit and let reassuring words wash over us without requiring too much in the way of commitment or energy.: a pleasant, neutral kind of place which makes us feel good.
I could take you to churches which are rather like that. I could probably introduce you to people who think that this church is rather like that - or people who think that we should be even be more like that.
But we’re not like that. We have a purpose - and it’s not to be comfortable or to be a place of retreat from the world. We have a mission to change lives and save lives. We have a mission to lead people to a place where they are free to love, free to live and free to dream. We have a mission to be salt to the earth and light to the world. And the message which inspires our mission is that God loves us unconditionally - or, in Paul’s words from our reading, our message is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus.
Over my years with this congregation I have heard some fascinating comments from people about their experiences of being here. One saying which comes us from time to time is. “This isn’t the same church that I joined”. My answer to that is usually, “Good! We are called to be constantly changing and continually re-forming. We are called to the future not the past.”
Another comment which I sometimes hear is, “I feel I’m giving more than I’m getting”. My answer to that is usually, “Good! It shows that the values of the gospel are working here. We don’t come here to give and to receive in equal measure. We come here to give and not to count the cost. That is how we bring good news to the poor”.
Sometimes I hear the comment, “There are people here I don’t know”, or sometimes it’s phrased as, “No-one spoke to me”. My answer to that is usually to say, “So who did you go and speak to?”
Those are not comfortable answers. Dealing with change, giving without any expectation of reward, and making new friendships are not easy things to do. But the values of the gospel, the values at the heart of Jesus’s teaching, do not make for easy reading - they stand before us as a constant challenge and a vision of God’s kingdom coming into reality.
In his gospel, Luke puts words into the mouth of Mary which declare that the Son of God will bring about profound change. Mary says:
“From one generation to another
God shows mercy to those who honour him.
He has stretched out his mighty arm
and scattered the proud with all their plans.
He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands.”
In the Statement of Faith of our own denomination, the United Reformed Church, there is this powerful affirmation that God’s values come before our human choices:
“We believe that Christ gives his Church a government distinct from the government of the state. In things that affect obedience to God the Church is not subordinate to the state, but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ, its only Ruler and Head. Civil authorities are called to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind, and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.”
And in our own mission statement where we say what the purpose of this congregation is, we say the following:
“We will stand up for all our rights, secular and religious, and we will fight the many forms of tyranny that oppress us”.
None of that is ‘comfortable Christianity’. All those statements contain challenges and calls to action, calls to make changes and to be changed, calls to lead people into free and holy living where no-one is separated from the love of God.
So, if those are the things we say, what do we actually do - here, today, in this family - to make sure that no-one is separated from the love of God?
I hope we open our doors to all who feel called to be here. I am reassured when I see that we presently have up to 16 people who are prayerfully considering formal membership and a firm commitment to this church.
I hope we share spiritual insights which draw people into the mystery of God rather than using language, making rules or building barriers that tell people that they don’t belong in our world of faith.
I think we do something to feed the hungry.
I hope we offer the chance to let go of guilt and to discover a faith which places love at its centre.
I believe we show that belonging to this family does not depend on race, nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, culture or heritage, because we are one in Christ.
I think we do something to fight for people’s rights and to support them and stand as witnesses for them when their freedom and future are at stake.
I believe we have an understanding of faith and sexuality which at one time was revolutionary, is still progressive, and which other faith communities are beginning to acknowledge and to share.
I know we are blest with talented and inspiring people who take what we do and turn it into a harvest of gifts for us all to share.
You will be able to add things to that list from your own experiences. And it is you who do all those things - I just find the words to describe them to you.
You are the church, and that’s what the church looks like in this place. And it looks like that because we embrace change, we give more than we get, and we share our many diverse gifts and insights with love and mutual understanding.
In your reflective moments this Lent, recognise that we are the people God calls together - out of our comforts and retreats:
- to change lives and save lives;
- the people God calls to lead others into a place where they are free to love, free to live and free to dream;
- the people God calls to be salt to the earth and light to the world;
- the people God calls to the future, not the past;
- to scatter the proud with all their plans;
- to fill the hungry with good things;
- to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind;
- to stand up for all our rights, and to fight the many forms of tyranny that oppress us.
May God continue to bless this remarkable church.