Morning Service on the First Sunday in Lent, led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Luke 4, verses 1-13
Monica Dickens was washing up in her kitchen and, as she turned the taps off, she could hear her elderly father talking in the next room. But there was no-one else there. Who could he be speaking to? She peered round the door and saw him sitting alone talking- to himself? “It wasn’t my fault,” he was saying. “It wasn’t my fault, you see… I wanted to go. I was willing to give my life for my country. But it was my eyes, you see. They wouldn’t take me. It wasn’t my fault.”
Monica’s father had been too short-sighted to enlist in the First World War. But, she wrote, he had done wonderful work, helping the families of soldiers and rehabilitating men into civilian life when they came back. Yet fifty years later this uneasy memory had surfaced… He would rather have gone out to be shot.
“How did they do it?” she asked. “How did the generals and recruiters and propagandists brainwash thousands of men not only into going out into the mass slaughter of trench warfare but going willingly? Or was the brain washing self-induced by the treacherous romanticism of those long prosperous years without a war? At the end of his long life my father, who had the luck to stay behind while his brothers went out to be wounded and killed, could still be troubled by the indelible guilt of not being found worthy to join the glorious dead.”
The Holy Habit of service-perhaps the most difficult one of all. Because “service” went right out of fashion in the twentieth century and so far, shows no sign of a revival.
“It is a glorious thing to serve your country.” “Why should I,” asked the people of the nineteen sixties. “My country has done nothing for me except two World Wars and a huge economic depression.”
“Serve your King!” “Why should I,” said people after the abdication of Edward 8th. “My king cares nothing for me.”
“Serve your “betters”- the aristocracy, the land owners, the people who could afford to pay you to live as their servants. “Why should I,” said the shop and factory workers, who had thankfully walked out of 24/7 domestic service. “They are no better than me and they care nothing for me.”
“Serve your God!” “Why should I?” said the people who were reeling with horror at the tales of the Holocaust and the treatment of prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps. “Where was God when all those innocent people needed him?”
We do still just about take on board the notion of self-denial now in order to gain something good later. Save your money now, rather than spending it on wine, women and song and you will be able to enjoy the security of owning your own home. Forget teenage parties and work long hours at your homework and you will one day be earning a high salary. That is OK. But sacrificing your life, your health, your family, your happiness to a country which would only present you with poverty, rejection and another war- forget that. And sacrificing time, money, personal inclinations to serving a God you could not see, and evidence of whose love had appeared to be in very short supply- forget that too. The threats of future hellfire and damnation or promise of heavenly bliss which had served to keep many churches full up to the end of the nineteenth century no longer cut any ice with the people of twenty and twenty-first century Britain. Service was for mugs.
I sometimes feel that Christian ministry in the twenty-first century seems to be a lot about persuading people to do things they really do not want to do.
Like getting out of bed on a Sunday morning after an exhausting week, in order to come to church. Like diverting some of the money you have exhausted yourself earning all week into either church or charity work. Like spending some of the precious little spare time you have doing good (and unpaid) work for church and community. Like engaging with needy people who look set to cause you no end of stress. Like forgoing that life of glorious sexual promiscuity which everybody else says they are enjoying, for a committed relationship.
“Service” to God or to others seems to be about doing what you “ought” to do rather than what you “want” to do. And if there is no obvious or desirable reward, why should you do it? And I am supposed to give you a reason…..
OK, I went back first to the verses in Acts about the first Christian community, where we find the original list of Holy Habits: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They had everything in common, sold property and possessions to give to anyone in need. (That is “giving” and “service.”) They continued to meet daily in the temple for worship. They ate together in their homes with gladness. They praised God and enjoyed the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily.”
On the one hand that list and that lifestyle look pretty formidable- don’t even think about it.
But even in those few verses, you get the impression of a lot of joy. No-one is being coerced into this. No stern priest or minister is ordering these people how to serve. They are doing all this spontaneously, joyfully, passionately. And the local community, who had easily as many reasons to be cynical about life and religion as people have today, were impressed. They saw something precious in this little group. They wanted to join in.
Then I looked at the story of the temptations of Jesus. On first reading it looks very much as though he was being tempted to do what he wanted to do rather than what he ought to do. Go for physical pleasure and financial gain rather than preaching; do something spectacular to draw the crowds rather than live by the truth; rule by power rather than by love. They are common enough temptations. As our prayer suggested, we are all faced with these kinds of dilemmas. And what is wrong with money, celebrity and power if they are used wisely? Nothing really…..
But I thought about the place where Jesus was. He was out in the desert; a dark, bleak and lonely place. He had come to a turning point in his life, knowing that he could not go back to the quiet security of the village carpenter’s shop where his family were. He was called and empowered by God for a world-changing ministry and this was clearly a confusing and nerve-wracking prospect. The desert space is used many times in the Bible as a metaphor for those times where we are in a dark, bleak and lonely place, threatened by fear and depression; living a life that is empty and without purpose; feeling no sense of direction. And what we most want in these places is a reason to live. It is not about “want” versus “ought” because by then we have lost all understanding of what we want or of what we ought to do. We just want some sense of shape and purpose in our lives. Maybe that is what Jesus was looking for: the reason why he had to live; why he had to move out of the desert; what he was here for. And maybe money, celebrity and power just were not enough for him?
Then I remembered the young woman I knew whose husband was dying of cancer asking if she could organise the Junior Church Nativity Play because “she desperately needed something else to think about.”
I thought of the parents we see on television, tragically bereaved by their children falling victims of knife crime or drug abuse who, whilst the politicians are scoring political points off each other with discussions on police resourcing, actually get out there and raise money, promote awareness, form pressure groups and support groups and how this “service” is enabling them to keep living even in the face of unbearable grief.
I think of the people in churches who kept seeing and hearing of vulnerable young adults out on our streets at night, putting themselves in danger of all kinds. These young are unlikely ever to come into our churches, so these Christian men and women became Street Pastors, so incredibly glad to have an opportunity to be where they are most needed.
I think of the real pain we experience when we hear of someone in our church community who has suffered a bereavement or lost their job or had a serious family breakdown. It hurts us too. We feel something of their pain. But what can we do? Well, we have our “ministry of flowers.” Let’s send them some flowers today just so they know we are thinking of them. We can offer them the prayer support of our Prayer Chain or Prayer Focus. Just these two forms of “service” make a huge difference to people in crisis. I know because they tell me so. And this service also makes a huge difference to us. We can do something.
I think of the despair into which the plight of the hungry and the homeless and the oppressed can plunge us. So much pain and injustice in the world and what can we do?
And then we are offered the opportunity to give to Christian Aid (and this year we can even drink wine in the process….). We are offered the opportunity to buy Fairtrade goods, knowing that this is a means of supporting poor people who might otherwise be cheated and exploited. We have the Foodbank box for the hungry people in our local area. What could easily become a mood of total cynicism and despair is alleviated just a little by the opportunity to do something, to serve.
I think of the many people I have worked with in my years of ministry who have taken up some particular role in church life, often with a certain degree of trepidation- can I really cope with this-not to mention reluctance-why should I have to do this- and who have subsequently turned round and said “this was something I really needed to do. This opportunity to serve arose at just the right time for me.”
And I think of the Sundays when I am one of the people who have had to drag themselves here after an exhausting week, wondering why I bother and what is the point of church going in the twenty-first century anyway. And then someone has told me afterwards how God has spoken to them that morning and how glad they are that this place was here for them to come to. And how that has given me new strength and inspiration for the week ahead. Maybe service is not just for mugs after all……
Once Jesus had established that it was by serving others rather than pandering to them, exploiting them or bullying them that he would be the Saviour God intended him to be, he found himself surrounded by angels (messengers of God), filled with the Holy Spirit and with a clear sense of purpose that would remain with him through life, through death and even beyond death.
No, maybe “service” is not such a bad habit after all. Maybe it is “service” in some form or other that does give us a reason to live, a reason to love, a reason to hope, a reason to hold faith. Maybe it is in service that we discover the true nature and presence of God. Maybe service is not an unreasonable burden but a most blessed privilege? A true Holy Habit.
And so I looked up again Frederick Buechner’s amazing definition of the word “vocation.” I know I have used it before but for me it says everything there is to say about vocation and service.
“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God…… by and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a) but if your work is advertising cigarettes, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b).
On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b) but if most of the time you are bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably are not helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
So take time this Lent to listen for the voice of God giving shape and direction to your life.
Don’t be afraid that more will be asked of you than you can cope with. Don’t be afraid that you will be exploited and let down. Don’t be afraid that you will lose out on anything that is worth having. Just let God show you “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”