Worship: Finding your family
Holy Communion Service conducted by our Minister, to include the re-dedication of our Pastoral Visitors and Link Visitors.
This sermon is taken from Jeremiah 1, verses 4-10; Luke 4, verses 21-30
Finding Your Family
Last Sunday we left Jesus, so to speak, in the pulpit of his home church in Nazareth. He had just read the Scriptures- the passage in which Isaiah had prophesied the coming of God’s great Saviour, the Messiah. Jesus had looked at the congregation and announced, “Today, right now. This prophecy is coming true in the place where you are.” Wow. The people were waiting eagerly to hear what he would say next. “Watch this space” I said.
Now we know what happened. The congregation did not like his sermon and threw him out of their synagogue. Oh dear….
Why did they not like what Jesus said? First, some of them were a bit dubious that he seemed to be suggesting that he, personally, was the promised Messiah. They were impressed by him, but they knew him too well. This was the little boy they had watched playing football in the street and chased out of their gardens when he teased the cat. His father was the local carpenter. How could someone so “ordinary” be the Messiah?
Second, they did not like the direction his message was taking. Jesus was suggesting that this Messiah was not only for them but for all nations. He was the Saviour of the world, not just the Jewish people. And he quoted their own Scriptures at them to prove it. These were people who had been brought up to value their “separateness;” their unique status as God’s chosen people. How dare this young man whom they themselves had nurtured in faith, spent hours teaching the scriptures, turn around and preach this controversial message at them? Who did he think he was? What right had he to tell them that they must change their whole way of thinking?
Remember Jeremiah hesitating when he heard the voice of God telling him that he must be a spiritual leader of his people. “I am too young,” he says, “I have not got the authority.” He had a point there. We love the children and young people here. We try hard to make them feel welcome, to include them in our church life, to nurture them in faith, to let them speak when they have something to say. But how would we feel if one of them suddenly turned around and told us things we found hard to hear?
I can remember being a “young person” in a church and I was as passionate and committed to faith as any young person could be. I had great deal to say but not a great deal of tact in saying it. A few older members of the congregation did, understandably, tell me where to get off. But to their credit, most continued to love and encourage me, accepting that wisdom and grace do tend to come with age.
I wonder, could Jesus be accused of being insensitive here? Was he just too young? He was preaching to people whose homeland had been taken over by the Roman Empire. And before that, there had been other super-powers who had marched in and governed their land with an iron fist. These people dreamed of being free to govern their own country, to spend their own money, to feel secure in their own homes. Was this really the right time and the right place to start preaching multi-culturalism?
The novelist Rumer Godden wanted to write a novel about a Benedictine Convent, and she wanted to make sure that she got her facts right, so spent a lot of time meeting with the nuns, listening to their stories and letting them comment on her manuscript. So, although “This House of Brede” is fiction, it is based in truth.
Enclosed nuns are as susceptible as any other community to personality clashes and difference of opinion. Two of the strongest personalities in Brede- Dame Maura and Dame Agnes were known to have been at loggerheads for years, despite having the grace to be at least civilised with each other. One of the newer nuns, Sister Philippa heard of an old friend of hers, a vulnerable young woman, who was desperately ill and fighting for her life. The Abbess gave permission for any of the nuns who wished, to keep a vigil of prayer in the chapel through the night. Philippa was told that she could be there for the first two hours and then she must leave and get some rest before coming back. Philippa obediently got up to leave the chapel at the appointed time and saw first Dame Maura and then Dame Agnes coming in to pray. They would kneel together, their differences forgotten, to pray for a young woman in danger. And then, “how big we are,” marvelled Philippa.
When people discuss different forms of worship and what makes an act of worship really powerful, my memories take me to those times when people who may have had little or nothing in common, have joined together in prayer for something which is bigger than themselves and have called on a power which is greater than themselves.
I think of the Sunday morning in my last church, when a young husband and father had just died of cancer and of the power holding our grief in that act of worship. I think of the time when my own son was fighting for his life in Poland and I was with him. “I thought the roof was going to blow off the church as we all prayed for him that morning” said one of our members. I think of the Wednesday morning here, when our Men of Leisure heard that one of their members had suddenly lost his beloved daughter and of how we stood and prayed together. We were not even all of the same religion, much less of the same tradition, yet we prayed together for peace and comfort for a brother tragically bereaved. I think of the multi-cultural prayer vigils in city streets after an act of terrorism. I have always taken real, and I think, justifiable pride in the fact that our congregation here contains people of widely differing beliefs and understanding of the Christian faith, yet you can come and pray together and work together for the kingdom of God. And then how big we are…..
In worship we are called to humble ourselves before a power that is infinitely greater than we are, so inevitably we will find ourselves drawn to those we are worshipping with. For as we pray side by side, focussing our thoughts on God and on our need of God, so our personal pride, our hurt feelings, our differences of opinion become far less significant. In worshipping a power so much greater, we become so much bigger. Jesus was not giving his people an ill-advised lecture on multi-culturalism; he was teaching them something crucial about the nature of worship and, until they had taken this on board, they would never be able to relate to the Son of God, the Messiah.
But what do you do then, if the person in the pulpit says something you really feel uncomfortable about? What do you do if the other members of the congregation seem to be pursuing a course of action that you cannot agree with? What do you do if the Minister tells you to do something that is at odds with what your partner or your family or your manager at work are telling you? These are the kind of things that have divided and subdivided the Christian church right from the start and still do.
Jeremiah was told that God was giving him the authority he needed to lead his people in the ways of God and to stand up to a corrupt government. More than once in the Gospels we hear that Jesus “spoke with authority.” I wondered about that word- “Authority.” What does it mean? And what is the difference between authority and control?
Both Jesus and Jeremiah spoke forcefully, revealing a deep understanding of what was really going on in the minds and hearts of their people; and in the culture of their society. But, as I see it, neither of them tried to control their people, not in the way that the political superpowers sought to gain control over every action, every lifestyle, every belief. The authority of Jeremiah and Jesus lay in the telling of truth. People found it very hard to wriggle out of what they said; to point a finger and say, “you are lying.” They might not have liked what was said and they might have chosen to ignore it, but they could not deny that it was truth. Jesus spoke “with authority.” Jeremiah was given “authority” from God to “prophesy,” not so much as in foretelling the future but in understanding the present. And understanding what it is really going on in the present gives you a pretty good idea of what will happen in the future. Authority is confronting people with truth.
What people did about the truth they heard was up to them. Everybody is different. Each person has strengths and weaknesses. Each person starts life in a different place. Each person will relate to God in a slightly different way. You cannot generate faith through control. You cannot enable people to walk with God by forcing a particular route upon them. God gave us free will and only in exercising this free will can we relate to God.
So you are never going to have a church in which everybody thinks and feels and does the same. But when we find ourselves at odds with others in the faith community, maybe what we should be asking for as we worship, is for God to confront us with truth about ourselves. What is this situation saying about us and about where we are in our walk with God? This is not a guilt trip. Sometimes other people are “bang out of order” and we have every right to feel disturbed and upset. But worship is about setting our relationship with God straight, relating to a power that is greater, more loving, far wiser than we could ever be. It is about setting aside our own personal agendas to receive guidance and strength from God. And God will show us the common ground we share with those around us. God will show us how to think and act in love. God will show us how He creates His family through worship. And although even the best of families will disagree and cause pain to each other, a strong family bond can never be broken. This was the truth with which Jesus was confronting his people and sadly they found it impossible to accept.
Today we celebrate the particular ministry of Pastoral Visitors and Link Visitors in this church community. It is a ministry. It is not a “job”, but a ministry given by God and affirmed by this congregation. It is all about creating links with individuals and with groups; learning about each other, befriending each other. It is an acknowledgement of the truth that we are “a family,” God’s family, and that just as in any family, members need to give time and support to one another, so in God’s family we have a ministry of pastoral care.
Many people have spoken warmly of the support given by their Pastoral Visitor when they have been in a time of crisis and that is really good to hear. But this ministry is not one-sided. It is not about Pastoral Visitors doing all the caring. It is about people on both sides being given the opportunity to get to know someone they worship with; understanding them better; finding their common ground; and often without even mentioning God, finding that they actually help each other to know God better.
Link Visitors are privileged to see groups in action; small communities within this one community. They see how group members come from different places and get to know each other. They support Group Leaders in their particular ministry of shaping and nurturing these little communities. They see microcosms of what the family of God might look like.
Ask any Link Visitor or Pastoral Visitor about their ministry and they will say that it is not always easy and that they are sure they are not doing it as well as they ought but that it is so very worthwhile and that it is as much of a blessing to them as to those they serve.
As the letter to the Hebrews says, “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.”
And both Pastoral and Link Visitors are given “authority.” Not to tell people what to do but to show them the truth in word, in action and in attitude. They have the authority to let people know that they are valued members of God’s family. They have the authority to encourage community building as part of the kingdom of God. They have the authority to offer peace, comfort, encouragement, wisdom, warning as members of the family of God.
Age, gender, theology, experience, background have little or no relevance to this ministry because it is rooted in the worship of God. We look to God for our calling, our empowerment and our affirmation. So long as Pastoral and Link Visitors are faithful in their worship, their ministry will be fulfilled.
In his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S.Lewis said more than once that we are never told another person’s story. He is right of course. We come to worship hoping that God will tell us and help us to understand our own story. But through such worship we find that we are indeed a family; a family that nothing, not even death can destroy. For in worship all are caught up and held together in the eternal love of God.