Hard Times Ahead

I appreciate, very much, the opportunity to travel around, and to meet with Brothers and Sisters in Christ across the many different contexts of this wonderful Diocese.

A few months ago I had a very strange experience on a visit to another Parish in another region of the Diocese.  In the days leading up to my going there, I experienced a puzzling sense of déjà vu, about it all.  When I looked back in my diary I found that it was exactly three years (give or take a couple of days) since I had last preached and presided in that Church.  And because, as some of you will know, our lectionary [the readings and themes which are set for each Sunday] work on a three year cycle,  I quickly realised that the Bible readings and the theme of the service were going to be the same when I visited them, as they had been when I was there three years before.

So I was faced with a dilemma, a dilemma common to many preachers (although not often talked about in public!).    I had to work out in my mind whether they would notice if I dusted off my sermon from three years before and gave it to them again, or whether it would be better for me to write a new one!

Well… I didn’t take the easy option, and I started my sermon again from scratch.  Even though when I got to that Church, I found that we were singing exactly the same hymns as we had done three years before, so perhaps they wouldn’t have noticed after all!

Going back to a place after some time away, provides the opportunity to ask questions about how things have changed and developed.  I was very conscious before I visited that Parish that I was not only wondering about how they had changed, but I was thinking about how the Diocese has changed over the last three years, and how I have changed as well.

I guess visiting you again here this morning, I could ask those same questions.  How are things changing developing here, both within the life of the wider community of Merriwa, and in the way that we are responding to those wider changes within the life of the Church?

When we recognise that we are on a journey, a journey that will take a life time (both as individuals and as a community within the life of the Church) its important to have those moments of stopping and reflecting on how things have changed and developed.

When I was a boy, Billy Graham came to London, and I was one of the first people to go out near to the main stage in response to his call for people to come forward after he had been preaching, to respond to the message.   I imagine that there are people in our congregation whose commitment to Christ and the life of the Church started or was energized by that kind of experience.

The following day, I decided to go back to the football stadium again in Upton Park to hear Billy Graham again, and even though I knew that I wasn’t supposed to, I felt that I was in a better position on the second night to make a commitment to Christ and wanted to go out to the front again.

And the next evening I went back again.  Each night I felt like I had understood a bit more about what this was all about, and decided that what I had done the previous night was not nearly as good as what I intended to do this time.  For some of us, there will have been a discernable moment that we can look back to, when we made a decision to follow Jesus, and to fashion our lives by his life.

It might have been when we were confirmed, or at a special service or mission, or youth camp, or in response to a particular change that took place in our lives.  But there is definitely, for some of us ‘a moment’.  For others of us, there won’t simply be one particular moment like that, but as we look back over our lives in the life of the Church there will have been a series of moments when something special has happened for us and which has given us a new enthusiasm to remain committed to God and the Church.   Nothing terribly exciting, but ongoing reassurances of God’s love for us, and our faithfulness in return.

However we came to make a commitment by accepting for ourselves the commitment which he has made for us, we have signed up to a journey that will last for the rest of our lives.  Our Gospel reading this morning could not make that plainer.

As we read the Gospels week by week, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t start by giving his disciples a manual which explains fully how everything needs to be done, and how it is going to turn out in the end.  Instead, through a process rather like drip-feeding, Jesus draws the disciples into an ever increasing commitment and understanding about what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Whilst some of those first disciples had extraordinary moments of initial commitment to Jesus, that decision to follow him (or rather the decision of Jesus to invite them) wasn’t a one moment event, but an ongoing journey of being drawn more deeply into an understanding of Jesus’ life and purpose.

Sometimes, as I read the Gospels, I wonder whether those first disciples would have been so eager to follow Jesus at the beginning, if they had known then, what they came to understand later.  Take Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel passage which we have heard today, for example.   One of the disciples talks to Jesus about how wonderful the Temple is.  (And from what we can work out it certainly was one of the most beautiful and imposing buildings in Jerusalem).

The building was important not only for its beauty, but because Jews believed that in a special way, God lived there.  God’s presence, in other words, was understood in that time to be more tangible in that place than anywhere else.  It stood out not only for its beauty, but for its hope for the future as well.  The hope that all would eventually be well, because God resided there with his people.

Well, if the disciple who commented on the beauty of the Temple to Jesus was expecting him to agree, he had another thing coming.  According to Mark’s Gospel (and the incident is re-told later in slightly different ways in Matthew and Luke as well) Jesus uses the opportunity of focusing on the Temple to teach his disciples that things are going to get worse before they get better.  There will be wars, says Jesus, and natural disaster, and those who follow him will be persecuted.

Imagine how the disciples feel as they hear Jesus mapping out what is to come.  We can almost hear them saying to him, “this is not what I signed up for.”  In many ways that kind of response may be true for us as well.  When I went to theological college to train in preparation for ordination to the priesthood there wasn’t very much emphasis on my need to be able to lead a congregation of people in sharing their faith with others.

In the seminary that I lived in, we were taught that as long as we were faithful everything would be alright in the end.  And we spent much time thinking about how we would look after people who were already in the Church, and much less time (in fact almost no time) thinking about how we would reach out to those people who had no connection with the Church at all.

Just like the disciples on their ongoing journey with Jesus, coming to understand more deeply the consequences of following him, each one of us, is having to re-learn what it means for us to be full members of the life of the Church, actively engaged in sharing the good news of Jesus with others.

Our parish ministry team here, is a visible sign that in the stage of our journey as the Church, the responsibility for ministry in this parish belongs to all of us, and not just to a few of us.

We happen to be in a period of time in Australian society when active membership of the Church, as a sign of commitment and faithfulness to God has largely been forgotten.   There are still glimmers of Christian culture and language in our wider society, but by and large, commitment to God, through active participation in the life and witness of the Church continues to be in decline.  Our own Diocese, like many denominations in Australia has been in membership and influential decline for many years.  It took us a long time to wake up to that fact, but in recent times it has been pretty clear, even if the Church at large, has (by and large) carried on as if nothing has changed.

There was a time when we presumed that all Australians were Christians, and that all that we needed to do was to build churches and ring the bells and people would come.  When new people stopped coming we largely carried on doing what we had done before, and simply concentrated on looking after the people who were gathering already.  If there was to be outreach to those who lived around us we largely understood that to be the task of the person that we paid to lead ministry.

But we, like those first disciples, are on a journey of discovery with Jesus as well.  We have had a much clearer idea than we have had for a long time, that every one of us in the life of the Church has been called to witness to God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom which is summed in the life and values and hope which we find in Jesus.  Some people are more pessimistic than I am, but I don’t believe that the lack of connection between the Church and our wider society can’t be turned around.

Mission begins in God, not in us; but God does use us to bring his mission to fulfilment.  In our Gospel reading Jesus teaches his disciples that things may not always go well.  There may be wars, there may be natural disasters, there may be persecutions. In our day it is not so much those things which affect the Church, but rather an indifference, and simple un-interestedness by most people in the wider community to what the Church stands for, which is our greatest problem.

The question for us, is the same question which Jesus asked of those first disciples:  “Are we willing to continue with him on the journey?… and if so, how will we encourage others to join this journeying community too?”