“No Service, Thank-You!”
Morning service on the Second Sunday in Lent, led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Luke 13, verses 31-35; Philippians 3, verses 17-21; 4 verses 4-9; 1 Kings 19, verses 1-18
No Service, thank you!
Henry was pleasant, gentle kind of man. I was sitting beside him at a meeting a few years ago at which we were discussing Christian outreach. We had been challenged to think of how effectively we shared our faith, opened up our churches, served the people in our community.
Henry and his wife had recently moved to a new house, not far from their old one and their new neighbour recognised them. He came around to see them and said, “Now look. I know you are church-goers and I want to make things clear. I don ‘t want any conversations about religion. I do not want any invitations to church events. You are welcome to this neighbourhood, but I don’t want to hear anything about God. Right?”
Henry had not even opened his mouth and he was already being warned off.
“How am I meant to share my faith with someone like that?” he asked.
Last week we started thinking about the Holy Habit of service and of its value, both to ourselves as we try to serve and to those we do serve. The Bible makes it quite clear that, as Christians, we have a duty and a privilege to serve the world and its people in the name of Jesus Christ. But what do we do when people say they do not want our service, thank-you?
Henry’s experience with his neighbour may sound a bit extreme but it is not uncommon. We are already warned off the offering of prayer to people in the workplace; we can be called to account if speaking openly about our faith has appeared to offend someone; even wearing Christian symbols is forbidden in some places.
There is a front door in this neighbourhood which has a sign on it saying, “no cold callers or god-botherers.” I am never quite sure whether I should still put one of our Christmas or Easter cards through the letterbox because I think that the reason why I am doing this is not because I am bothering God but because God is bothering me….
An increasing number of people in this country do not want to know anything about religion. Two or three generations have now grown up learning virtually nothing about Christianity except what they hear in the media, which can be summed up as “religion is for weirdos, terrorists, homophobes or people who abuse little children.” I mean, what else do you see in the media about the Christian church? And if people have had no experience of ordinary churches (like ours…), you can understand their hostile reactions. But it still makes our mission to serve a difficult one. Many of us can remember a time when the Christian church was respected in our society; when, even if not everyone attended, people did at least know what it stood for. When you did not have to defend yourself for being a Christian; when the “service” you offered in terms of worship, rites of passage, community groups, youth and children’s work was accepted gladly rather than viewed suspiciously.
And as a local church we feel this challenge- how can we serve our community if 90% of our neighbours see the Christian church as a time-wasting irrelevance and the most we can hope for from the less-hostile 10% is that they might just come here once or twice in the course of a year but will have far more pressing things to do all the rest of the time? You can see why Elijah ended up in his cave on the mountain, feeling like an abysmal failure.
For is it our own fault, we wonder, that an increasing number of the people we are called to serve are saying “no service from you or your church, thank-you?”
There have certainly been some grave mistakes made by Christian communities in the UK over the last century. Many local churches became little more than glorified social clubs where congenial people could amuse themselves and, as one very cynical minister once said, it was less expensive to get involved in church work than to join the golf club……
Some church communities were self-righteous holy huddles, only admitting newcomers on “our” terms and looking down their noses at the outside world. Some local churches simply chose not to look at changing times and changing culture. So long as there were still people enough and money enough to keep the roof on the church and the familiar pattern of activities going, they did not worry. And many “born and bred” church members, although often active in practical service to their neighbourhood, never saw a reason to study their faith, think it through, learn how to share it and explain it to others. Christians on “the front line’ as it were, in the workplace, the neighbourhood, the home, were frankly ill equipped to serve in the name of Jesus Christ.
There have been mistakes made and, let us be honest, we have all been involved in them. And yes, we do need to reflect seriously and to repent wholeheartedly for the part we have played, even if unknowingly, in turning people against God. The danger in too much guilt though is that it can turn into self-pity. “I have messed everything up. I cannot forgive myself. I’m a worthless heap of rubbish. Please feel sorry for me.”
It is not only about us. We also have to recognise the huge changes in our society just over the last thirty years. The church is not the only institution struggling for survival. Look at the number of shops and businesses going to the wall because people today are rejecting the service they are offering. Look at the huge changes in family structures and family routines. Look at the dwindling of resources for health and social care because people are learning to live by different values. Life has changed very fast in this country and we are not the only people finding it hard to keep up.
But the story of Elijah does at least tell us one thing and that is that our situation as a Christian church in 21st century UK is not unique. Right back in the time of Elijah, nearly three thousand years ago, people were turning away from God and rejecting the service of his prophets. Two thousand years ago, Jesus stood and wept over the city of Jerusalem because the people had consistently rejected God’s love and actively persecuted those who had tried to serve them. In the centuries since then, in innumerable times and places, faith has been low, religion has been virtually abandoned, societies have become totally secular. If we avoid the rose-tinted spectacles when looking at the past, we shall see that churches have not always been full. Christian service has not always been welcomed with open arms.
I know it is not entirely helpful or comforting, when you are in a difficult place, to be reminded that “many other people have been in exactly the same situation as you,” but the one important truth to take from this is that the fact that an increasing number of people today are rejecting the service we offer them in the name of Christ does not mean that we are crazy or deluded still to offer it.
You see, although faith has dwindled and societies have become secular over and over again in the course of history; there have also been what the Bible calls “a faithful remnant,” a small community of faith-filled people who have continued to believe and to serve. And in due time that faithful remnant has become the starting point of a religious and social revival. We are here today because more than one generation of Christian believers refused to abandon their faith and their call to serve even in the face of rejection and persecution.
We may be in a difficult place right now, but we are not crazy or deluded. How do we keep the faith and keep serving?
Both Elijah and Jesus cried because so many people had rejected God and those who tried to serve them in the name of God. But did you notice the one big difference between Jesus and Elijah?
Elijah cried for himself. Jesus wept for the people.
Elijah cried because he believed that he had failed in his work and had let God down. He had not “succeeded” in his ministry. He had failed.
Jesus cried because he loved those people and hated the thought of them destroying themselves, their city and their nation through their rejection of God.
A woman I once knew spoke of her guilt and frustration regarding her relationship with her adopted daughter. This girl had been so badly damaged by her early years that she gave her adopted mother a hard time. This mother was strong, capable and loving. Why, she wondered, could she not manage to get this girl’s life properly on track? Why was she failing as a parent? Her son in law told her, “you only fail when you stop loving.”
Elijah’s failure was not that people were refusing to listen to him. His failure lay in resenting them and walking out on them because they made him feel inadequate and he found it impossible to love them.
Christ’s love, by comparison, never failed. No matter what people did to him, even when they nailed him to a cross, he reached out in love. And it was this sheer force of love that brought him back from death; that inspired and saved and renewed his followers even when they were treated much the same as he had been. He never failed in loving.
You only have to watch the news to see that our nation is seriously short on love. If the only way children and young people can feel safe and secure is by carrying knives, we are not in a good place. If the tightening laws against racial hatred are still producing hate-filled terrorists, we are not in a good place. If the number of people suffering some form of mental stress and illness is rising to epidemic level, we are not in a good place. Our nation still needs God and it still needs the people of God to look with eyes of compassion and to serve with faith-filled hearts. God sent Elijah back to a nation that needed him. God still sends us out to serve and we shall only fail when we stop loving.
It is still not easy though, is it? We are human beings. We get hurt when people reject us. We find it hard to keep being loving and generous and kind, only to have it flung back in our faces. We get resentful when we give up a lot of our precious time in Christian service and no-one seems to care. We are human. We hurt.
We also live in the South East. It is a good place to be, but it does set high standards of “success.” And the success of any kind of mission- whether Christian outreach, reviving the High Street shops, getting a struggling business back on its feet, putting in special measures at a failing school- success is measured in numbers. How many people have you managed to convince and to change? If you can talk in thousands you are success. If you only talk in single figures, you are a failure. And if you feel like a failure you despise yourself and resent the people who have rejected your service. We are back with Elijah on the mountain, crying for himself and walking out on his people. Totally understandable. I have been in that cave myself more than once. But it is not what we need or what the world needs. So where do we find our coping skills?
I find them in Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi. They were living in a hostile society and finding it hard to cope. Paul gives them two pieces of sound advice. One is to keep their eyes fixed on God. Look at God. See what God is. Then notice where God is at work in the world. When you are tormented by thoughts of your own inadequacy in the face of other people’s rejection, look at what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent- think on these things. Do not be anxious but in every situation, come in prayer to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will fill your minds and hearts. Watch and pray. Look at the world with the eyes of God.
The second is actively to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Take notice, says Paul, of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. The URC General Secretary, John Proctor, writing in Reform this month, said that “evangelism is voicing the good news. Discipleship is living the good news.” As I said, our nation is very short on love right now. People who are ready and willing to serve in love will always be given an opportunity to do so.
As we focus on God and the overwhelming love of God, so we shall find our capacity to love and to serve becoming ever greater. And as we pray with loving hearts for our church and our world, we can be sure that there will be a work of service for us to do.
Let me finish with a little story told by Andrew Roberts, the author of “Holy Habits,” in his chapter on service. There was small non-conformist village church where the worshipping congregation had dwindled to ten people at most. The congregation felt that they had somehow lost touch with the village. So they went out and asked the people, “what do you think of the church here?” One response was “what has the church ever done for us except ask for money?” (Unfair, unreasonable and guaranteed to send you straight back up the mountain with Elijah) But these people changed tack and asked a different question- “how could we serve you?” The replies were far more positive and, from their own observation, once they had started looking, they could see that there was a crying need for a safe place for children to play and for parents to meet. So they transformed their church into a huge play barn and café, retaining an area for worship.
Within three years 42000 people had been through the doors. Not all have embraced the Christian faith but there have been a significant number of baptisms and people coming to faith and the creation of new patterns of prayer and worship. The faithful remnant seem to have started something new and the people around them are receiving their service with respect and gratitude.
So may we look to God and be shown the ways in which we might serve.