What People Want
The changing needs of our local communities
Morning Service led by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This service will be shorter than usual, to enable people to join the Food Festival in Orpington Town Centre at 12 noon.
This sermon is taken from Matthew 11, verses 2-11a
My Turf/Your Turf: God On The High Street
GOD ON THE HIGH STREET
When I say, “God on the High Street” what kind of pictures come into your mind? Several different ones have gone through mine.
The churches in Warsaw I told you about last week, where the congregations were spilling out over the pavements. Christians doing mission on the streets, as in The Turning.
Local churches situated on the High Street, engaged in community activities, such as drop-in cafes, play areas for children, Food banks, space for quiet prayer.
Some pictures were not so positive. You can picture some kind of religious “ghetto” where only people of a certain race and a certain faith are allowed to walk. In the Suffolk town where I began my ministry in the 1980s, people could still remember when their High Street was divided between “church” businesses, as in Church of England people and “chapel” businesses, as in United Reformed Church people. And the Church of England vicar’s wife could well recall the outrage she had caused by unknowingly shopping at the “chapel greengrocer.” What kind of god is that to have on the High Street?
Sometimes it is hard to create any kind of picture at all because you cannot really see a connection between God and the High Street. God is God and the High Street is the High Street and do the two really have anything in common? (Apart from the fact that both are said to be declining sharply in popularity…) Let’s leave it for a moment and turn to our reading.
John the Baptist had done some really great ministry. As a young man he had left home and gone into the desert to learn what God was calling him to do. He came out of the desert convinced that God had appointed him to tell the people in his country that their Saviour, their Champion, their Messiah was on his way. It was John’s job to get the people ready.
It is quite likely that he felt just as sick in his stomach as the people from the churches in Orpington who are seriously contemplating going out on the streets to “talk God” in the last week of the month. And that John was thinking, it will never work….
But for John, his ministry did work. Hundreds of people came to hear him speak. And, as Jesus pointed out, John was no “champagne celebrity” courting people with his glamour and style. Nor was he a weak prophet, pandering to the popular opinions of the day. John was real and people were looking for something real. John helped them to transform their lives. They were baptised in the river, washing away their old lives; preparing for something new.
But then John got into trouble. He spoke out against the King having married his own brother’s divorced wife. John had every right to speak out. Jewish law decreed that this marriage was illegal. But how often does the law really get the better of serious power? John was thrown into prison and he was beginning to suspect that he would never get out. So, he sent this message to Jesus: are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? Did John have his doubts about Jesus, or did he have doubts about himself? Probably both.
There were two types of Messiah people tended to hope for. One was a political Messiah, who would lead his people into battle against their enemies and restore them to political independence. The other was a religious Messiah, who would fill the places of worship, get everybody praying and studying the scriptures again. Jesus did not exactly fit either of these types, so John was maybe wondering if he had been mistaken. Had he been pointing to the wrong man all the time? Or he been deluded about the message he thought God had given him? When you are in a dark place, as he was, the dark thoughts attack you from every possible angle. I have failed. I have always failed. I will die, having failed.
John would not have been human if he had not experienced some sense of self-doubt. We all have our doubts about God, our doubts about the church and our doubts about ourselves. But John, although human, was also, as Jesus said, a man of God. Which meant that what he cared about more than himself was the people he had been sent to minister to. He had been called to preach the love, the power, the saving grace of God to them. He had been called to help them turn their lives around.
Now he was no longer there, what was happening to them? Had they descended into despair and cynicism? Were they still suffering under enemy occupation, believing that God had deserted them? Were they listening to dark voices telling them that God was an illusion? This, I suggest, was the urgency in his message to Jesus- are you the one? Are you going to be able to save your people?
Jesus did not try to explain himself. He just told John what was actually happening. No, there did not seem to be a political revolution on the cards nor even a religious revival. Jesus described his ministry in words taken from the prophet Isaiah who, at another dark time for the nation, had promised a Champion who would make a profound difference to people’s everyday lives. This Saviour would relieve pain and heal sickness; he would comfort the broken-hearted and help the fallen to stand tall; he would proclaim good news to the poor, giving them hope and self-esteem; he would work for social justice, not through violence but through peaceful action. This was precisely what Jesus was doing and he told John so. And blessed, he said, happy are those who can recognise these signs of God’s presence with his people.
I think it is true to say that most people are not deeply political. I mean, many do not even bother to vote, and actual membership of political parties is a minority interest. I think it is also true to say that most people are not deeply religious. Even those with faith and a serious commitment to their church have no desire to spend their every waking moment in prayer, worship and Bible study. Most people, I would say, simply want to get on with their lives. They want to work and play; create homes and families; live safely and with a sense of security; make choices about what they will and will not do; live out their lives to a good age; and hopefully leave the world a better place than they found it.
What is wrong with that? Nothing. It is just that life can play tricks on us: throwing us out of work or making us work so hard that we have no time to play; refusing to enable us to create families; throwing us together with people who abuse or betray us, often because they themselves have been abused and betrayed; life will inflict illness, disability and mental disorders upon us; it will take our loved ones from us far too soon. It will leave us uncertain of what is right and wrong, good and evil. It will convince us that we are worthless, and that life is worthless. I would say then, that what most people are looking for is something or someone who will help them through all of this; who will tell them good news; who will offer them some hope. And this, I would say, is where God is needed on the High Street.
The High Street is not in a good place right now. Huge retails chains are going bust; small shops are closing down every day; those who are still working in retail tend to be poorly paid and on zero hours contracts, making it impossible to live with any sense of security. Add to that the increasing knife and gun crime on the streets; the rising number of homeless; the drug dealing; the shortage of visible and effective policing and you might be forgiven for deciding that the best place to do your shopping is at home on your computer.
And what can we, in this church do? In the first place, the High Street’s issues stem from economic and social changes and there is little we can do about those. In the second place, we are a “gathered” church, with people coming here from different areas and hardly any from the High Street. Most of us, if we are honest, hardly ever go into Orpington town centre. We are already struggling, as a congregation, to fulfil the community work we are doing: the Pre-School, Toddlers, Babies, Uniformed Groups, Friendship Club, Men of Leisure, organising special events to which our neighbours might come.….. What can we do? God on the High Street is out of our league.
Do you know how this mission called The Turning started? Right back in 2008, members of a church in the Reading area started a prayer meeting before their usual Sunday service in which they asked God to show them what He wanted them to do. As with most prayer meetings, only a few people attended but they persisted. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, there was this sense of urgency spreading through the whole congregation. More and more church members really wanted to know what God wanted. The prayer meetings got larger and the vision became clearer. There were people out there in the High Street wanting to know more about God and it was this congregation’s mission to go out there and be there to talk to them. Most of them went out feeling sick in their stomach, thinking it would not work, but it did. And it has all spread across the country from there.
This kind of mission has not been the calling of every local church. But ask any congregation who have started a new form of outreach and you will find that it has started with three things: 1-a deep concern for the people in their locality; the stresses and the dangers in their lives; 2-a deep hunger to know what God wants them, as a church to do; and 3-deep, serious, committed prayer, asking for God’s guidance.
I have made it clear that no-one has twisted my arm to support The Turning mission and that I am not in the business of twisting anybody else’s arms. The whole thing goes against my basic nature and it is not the way I have ever done ministry before. And I know full well that I am speaking here for nearly all of you. It might have been easier and perfectly legitimate simply to walk away and say no, we do not want to be part of this. It is not the way we do things and we have our own priorities.
What is keeping me involved, even if I do not make it onto the streets, is my own deep concern for the people in our country today, many of whom are in increasingly dark places and my own deep hunger to know what God wants of me and of this church. Here is an opportunity to find out. If this kind of mission is not what God is calling us here, to do, then spending time in prayer with other Christians during the week of The Turning might at least show us what is God’s way for us. And taking up the challenge to invite a friend to church on that final Sunday, 29th, even if they do not like it and tell you so, might also offer some precious, God-given insights.
Likewise, the Food Festival this weekend: retail in Orpington High Street might be in a steep decline, but eating is certainly not. Which is why the Town centre management have organised the Food Festival and are giving us, the local churches this opportunity to share food with the people in the town centre, right where they are. Bit of a no-brainer, really. And if you will forgive the pun, this opportunity to bring God to the High Street is being handed to us “on a plate.”
Jesus said, Blessed, happy are those who can recognise the signs of God’s presence with his people. Blessed, happy are those who take no offence.
What Jesus came to do was to wake people up to the power of God in them. He wanted them to believe that, because they were children of God, they could heal disease, feed the hungry, lift up the fallen, be good news for the poor, cheer up the despairing, bring hope to those who believed themselves worthless, convincing them that they too were God’s children. There is no need to feel guilty if you are unable to join in the Food festival today. There is no need to feel inadequate if you cannot face talking to people on the streets about God. The “offence,” the sin that Jesus was talking about lay in believing that you have nothing of God to offer the world; that you have no place in God’s kingdom; that God has nothing more He can do with you and through you.
God has worked through ministries as “small” as chatting cheerfully to people at the bus stop and as large as the Billy Graham tent missions. Look and see what God is doing, said Jesus. And don’t insult Him by putting him or yourself down.