Striving

This is a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  In our parish today it is “Stewardship Sunday,” the day that people return their giving pledges and there is a focus on the needs of the Church; and as such the sermon is focussed on that, with reference to Philippians 1.

I read a story this week about a wealthy young man who had donated one and a half million dollars to a local youth centre.  The youth centre was fantastic; giving young people without many opportunities, skills and tools and – most importantly – hope, that transformed their lives.

Now, the young man who gave this gift was also a very committed and active Christian. In church every Sunday, involved in various activities, and so forth.  But when he was asked whether he would consider giving a gift the size of the one a half million he had just given to a secular cause, to the church, his answer was “Lord, no, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

An extraordinarily generous gift to the youth centre changed lives.  The same gift given to his church – he was afraid – would be met with incompetence and a lack of vision.  So he didn’t give anything like that to his church.

And – to the extent that his assessment of his church was correct – I’d say he was right in his decision.  Money given to the church is supposed to be about fulfilling our mission – about changing lives by bringing people into encounter with God – and if we don’t have a vision for doing that, or if we’re not good at doing it, why on earth would anyone want to give us money?  Or how could I justify standing here and telling you that it’s good and God wants you to give?  Giving has to be matched with results.

Here’s the thing.  It’s not that God wants you to give, as if the church existed so that the vicar could have a comfortable house and we could turn the heaters on.  (Although the vicar is glad to have a comfortable house and that we can turn the heaters on).

It’s much more than that.  It’s that God wants us all to participate in the church as a community which makes a difference.  A church which changes lives.  A church which proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ, which teaches and nurtures people in living relationships with God, a church which responds to human needs with loving service.  And that takes our time and our skills, and yes, also our money.

We don’t give to keep the doors open.  We give so that, by keeping the doors open, we can change lives.

This is what Paul means when he writes to the Philippians and praises their “sharing in the gospel,” and implores them to strive side-by-side with him.  He doesn’t just mean that they had come to a point of personal conviction, or even that they came along to worship once a week, but that they had decided that they were going to dedicate their lives to achieving God’s purposes in the world.

That’s what it means to be a Christian.  To strive side by side with one another in God’s mission of transforming the world.

It’s good to give money to that end.  My pledge to you, on receiving these financial pledges, is that that will be our priority in what we do.  That our planning is going to prioritise projects and activities which make a difference.  That if something doesn’t contribute to the mission of God, we’re not going to waste your time and energy and money on it.

More than that, I also pledge to you that we’re going to seek to be as effective as possible in doing so.  There are a number of areas where, frankly, we need to improve how we do things, so that what we invest of ourselves can have maximum impact.  This is why, by the way, in my email message from the vicar last week, I asked for a volunteer who might be willing to create and maintain a parish Facebook page.  In this day and age, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist; and if even the like-minded people who live within easy walking distance of us don’t know that we exist, how can we build relationships with them which will further the mission of God?

That’s something of an aside but it illustrates an important principle; we need to be very intentional in how we do things, to maximise the difference we can make.  We have to put the days of just doing what we’ve always done behind us, and instead commit ourselves to doing the best we can in a constantly changing environment.  That may well involve drawing on expertise we don’t currently have, and developing skills we haven’t needed before.  And seeing that as an invigorating challenge rather than a heavy burden.

We are positioned to make a unique contribution to our local community.  There are other people who teach, nurture, care, and strive to establish justice.  Those secular endeavours are good and I’m not knocking them.  There are other churches who each offer the particular strengths of their own tradition.  Their efforts, too, are good, and I’m not knocking them either.  But as each of us have benefitted from a Christian tradition which is open, liberal and progressive in its outlook, as well as deeply rooted in Scripture and the prayers and insights of millennia of the saints, we too should offer that to our community as a treasury of resources.  Our society is crying out for real relationship with its creator, and we are poised to make the introductions… if we’ll only step out and do it.

In my letter which went out with the stewardship materials, I described stewardship as “the inspired and hopeful use of God’s gifts” to us.  I chose those words very deliberately.  I talked about our giving as inspired because it ought to be the result of our catching a glimpse of what is possible.  And I talked about it as hopeful because it ought to be done with the intention of making real and concrete what is, right now, only in the realm of possibility.

I also said that our giving was a response of love, not obligation.  I know that talking about giving and money in church can often be uncomfortable; that some people are under significant financial strain, and that money in general is a focus for enormous stress and worry.  Please don’t hear anything I’ve said this morning as aimed at contributing to that strain or stress, or as intended to manipulate you into giving more than you would freely choose.  I believe – and Scripture teaches and the church throughout the ages has insisted – that giving financially is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life.  But the level of that needs to be your free choice, chosen because you believe that what we’re going to do together with that money is actually worthwhile and something you want to be part of.

So thank you, all of you, for what you have pledged.  It matters, and what we’re going to do with it matters.  Thank you for taking up the challenge of striving side by side together to make a difference.  I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together over the coming year and beyond.

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On healthy conflict

This is a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:10-20.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But this morning, as we gather here as a parish family, I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in this morning’s gospel reading.  No; the love we heard about this morning says that if somebody sins against you, you go and point out the fault.  You don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen; you deal with it, because the relationship between the two of you is too important to be allowed to disintegrate under the weight of unaddressed issues.

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, there’s a whole section of Jesus teaching his disciples how to live together as the fledgling church.  By the time Matthew came to write this down, his community were already testing those teachings and learning how to survive in a hostile world.  The instruction that Jesus gives them, to prepare them for that survival, isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this big vision to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this now?  We find ourselves at a point of new beginnings.  Over the next little while, the incoming parish council will have decisions to make about our priorities in mission; what’s going to be most important for us to work at together over the foreseeable future.  Making decisions about priorities and plans can be a difficult process; it’s not unusual or even bad or wrong for there to be disagreements and conflict to be worked through, and because we’re human, we can easily be hurt in that.

And I am reminding you today that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t just mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.  What Jesus promises us, in this morning’s gospel, is that as we work at that process, he will be with us in it.  Where two or three are gathered in his name – even if they disagree or have hurt one another – he will be at work with us, and helping us to grow in love and grace towards one another.

It isn’t easy, this business of facing conflict head on instead of avoiding it.  It takes a good deal of courage, and sometimes a steely determination that I’m going to love that other person, whether they like it or not!  That being part of the church means refusing to give up on one another, even when we really would rather just withdraw, put our heads down, avoid problems or pretend they aren’t there.

But we worship a God who is bigger than our poor behaviour and our bad treatment of one another; who’s bigger than our disagreements about what to do next; who’s bigger than our fears and vulnerabilities.  And that God calls us to a bold vision of community, and promises that as we seek to build that kind of bold community, he will be with us in it; and in that way we will be – as Paul put it – the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Belonging

This is a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Romans 12:9-21.

You will have noticed that Daniel, while he’s here today and helping out on the organ, isn’t here every week; in fact he belongs to another church and contributes his gifts and talents to a great degree there.  This is, however, not something everyone has found it easy to get their heads around.  The Sunday after Daniel and I got back from our honeymoon, we each went to our different churches.  And as I was leaving after the service, the vicar of my church bailed me up at the door and said, “I know we might lose you, but now that you’re married, you need to worship under your husband’s headship.”

They did indeed lose me; to a parish which was more interested in nurturing me as a human person in my own right, and less interested in my submission.

But I tell that story today because, following on from last week’s reflection on the church community as one body, our reading from Romans today spells out some of the detail of what that looks like.  Loving one another with mutual affection, outdoing one another in showing honour, contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, and so on.  And the story of my church’s inability to respect the way I did things (or the fact that there might be good reasons for it) is a neat way of illustrating how we – as the church – so often struggle with this.

Paul calls us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers; but so often we subconsciously build a culture of barriers rather than belonging.

So today I want to think a bit about belonging, and how we create a culture of belonging.

Some of the literature on belonging in churches suggests that it might usefully be considered in five aspects: personal friendship, community life, Christian nurture, pastoral care, and Christian service.  So let’s begin to consider each of these dimensions.

One of the things which I see time and again in all sorts of parishes is that people think their community is very friendly, and it is… once you’re “one of them.”  People who’ve been going there for years or decades and know others there very well forget what it’s like to be new, to be nervous, unsure and isolated; and it can be hard for new people to make friends, even though the long-standing members are very busy being friendly with one another!  I’m not saying that’s a particular problem in this parish, but I’d be surprised if it never happened, because to some extent it’s human nature.  Helping people to belong by making friends means that we need to build a parish culture in which every one of us thinks we have a responsibility to relate to those new people.

Now – as an introvert myself – please don’t hear that as a call for all of us to be extroverted, in-your-face and pushy!  But it’s about cultivating the awareness of when there’s an unfamiliar face sitting by herself, or standing alone with his cup of tea, and being willing to strike up conversation; to ask that person’s name, to introduce them to someone else.  It’s not rocket science, but it can make a world of difference to helping people feel that they can belong.

Then there’s our community life, outside our worship services.  We have some good things in place here; the monthly barbecue is an easy way for people to belong.  The games afternoon and book club also.  But there’s always more scope to be creative and do different things, which will draw in different people.

And it’s essential to actually invite people to those events; extending hospitality starts with an invitation.  It’s important that these things be in the pew sheet, advertised in the hall, and communicated as well as we can, of course; but nothing will help people belong like somebody saying, “I’m going, why don’t you come with me?”

Being nurtured in your own faith journey is also a key part of belonging; feeling that I am actually growing through being here.  This is where opportunities for prayer, for teaching and study, quiet days and so forth all take their place.  Our services are the primary location for that, but most of us can benefit from more than something a bit less than an hour a week given to it; and that’s why I’m so glad to be starting some Bible study groups.  Other people have asked me about meditation groups and quiet days and they’re definitely on my radar for Advent or next year (I can’t do everything at once!)

From the various options being planned, I really encourage you to find something that can work for you; but more than that, I encourage you to think about who you might invite to come with you; and what we might do that might interest people who aren’t here yet.  How could we offer people opportunities to nurture their spirituality which they might not easily get anywhere else?

Another key part of belonging is knowing that you’ll be cared for when you need it.  I might have criticised my first parish for their attitudes about my marriage, but when I had a casual job and glandular fever meant I couldn’t work for months, grocery vouchers paid for from their offertory plate meant I could eat.  I never begrudged my money being put into that plate, even when I didn’t have much, because I knew that people in our congregation who needed help with electricity bills or school uniforms or whatever else, got what they needed from the care of the congregation.

It’s my impression that our congregations are less likely to need that kind of financial support routinely, but the support should be there when the need is.  And there are other needs; for support in times of illness or frailty (and practical things like transport for some of our members, because we miss them when they can’t drive!); for genuine human relationships and friendships.

The reality about this is that people often look to clergy to make that happen, but I simply can’t do it all by myself.  Especially not when I’m still very new and often don’t know people, or what’s happening in their lives, yet.  I rely on all of you to notice what’s happening with one another, to support one another as you can and to communicate needs so that care can be shared; and when all of that happens, we can be a community where everyone knows they truly belong.

There’s one other key aspect of belonging; and that’s having something to do.  All of us – as I said last week – have skills and gifts and talents to bring into the life of the church, and each of us truly belongs when we’re given permission and scope to use that for the good of all.  And in doing so, we develop a sense of belonging and ownership which really brings a community alive.

And this is not just about what happens in church on Sunday morning; in fact I’d say it’s less about that, and more about the things we do outside that time, engaging the wider community, building relationships and connections which expand our network of belonging beyond people who turn up for church services.  And working out how we do that together is definitely one of the important parts of working out how to live out our mission over the coming years.

There’s one thing I haven’t said yet, that’s very basic but possibly not obvious.

All of these things which build a culture of belonging – friendship, community life, nurturing faith, pastoral care, and being equipped to serve – they all take time.

Over the next few weeks letters to do with stewardship will go out to all of you and you’ll be encouraged to consider your giving and how you can support the life of this parish.

But honestly, far more important that how much money you give (although running a parish does take money) is the time you give.  And not necessarily in formal ways, but in informal ways too; the time to ask how someone’s going.  The time to pray for someone.  The time to invite someone to something.  The time to make a salad for the barbecue.  Small things that make a big difference.

It’s the gift of our time, given to one another generously and unbegrudgingly, which is the glue of belonging; which allows us to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers.  And in our busy lives, where we rush from one activity or commitment to the next, it’s the time it takes to really do community well which is often our greatest lack.

So after all the things I’ve talked about today, I’d challenge you to think about whether you can find half an hour, somewhere in your week, to do something which supports someone else in the parish in some way.  Imagine, if fifty of us did that, we would find 25 hours a week of belonging support; and what a difference that would make!

We all know the human longing to belong, to be accepted and cared for, to be involved and appreciated.  Being a community which provides that for one another is what it means to be the body of Christ, and for our love to be truly genuine.  Let’s make sure that we are.