A Halfway House Confused
Holy Communion Service led by Revd Jennifer Millington, to include the reception of new church members
This sermon is taken from Matthew 13m verses 24-30
A Halfway House Confused
The house in which I lived as a teenager had three exits: a front door, a back door and a side door. Each of these doors had a wooden sill and one day my father decided that all three needed sanding down and re-painting. He took a lot of time and trouble over this but finally the front step was finished, the side step was finished and he went around to put the last coat of paint on the back step. The back step was finished. He drew a deep breath of satisfaction, came back to the side door cautiously to step indoors- and there in the fresh paintwork was the cat’s paw print. I cannot repeat the precise words he said….. let’s just say that the cat’s future both in this world and the next looked pretty bleak.
Dad was a perfectionist. Every house we lived in was decorated and re-decorated to the highest standards. And it took him some frustrating years before he came to terms with the fact that if your aim is to create a home for yourself, for your naturally untidy wife, for your four growing children and for your cat which is, well, a cat, it is never going to look like something out of the Ideal Homes Exhibition. And more to the point, nor should it. A home (as opposed to a show house) is a space where a whole family live and work; where children play and pets get into all the wrong places. It is a space where food is prepared and eaten and spilled. It is a place where friends of all ages will come and quite possibly forget to wipe their feet on the way in. A house which is immaculately clean and tidy may be a lovely house but it is not a home and good parents want to create homes.
I suspect that we all have something of the perfectionist in us- wanting to get at least one aspect of our life absolutely right. And there is nothing wrong in aiming to live and work to the highest possible standards. But our vision of what “perfection” will look like is not always a trustworthy vision to follow.
How many new parents have had a vision of what their “perfect” child will be, only to find that they give birth to something that neither looks like, sounds like or behaves anything like their perfect vision? Mercifully, many end up laughing at themselves and admitting that actually, the child they have got is “perfect” in its own way because he or she is their own child whom they love with all their hearts. But sadly, there are some who are determined to squeeze their child into that original vision of perfection and the results are not happy.
How many political leaders have had a vision of a “perfect” society in which every single member will have enough to eat and a place to live but, in order to create that vision they have had to silence dissident voices and maintain the peace with ruthless levels of violence? Can you call such a society “perfect?”
“Perfect” says Nicole Kidman at the end of the film, ‘Stepford Wives,’ “does not work.”
For in her experience, a vision of what wifely perfection might look like has in fact, totally destroyed the loving, trusting relationships on which good marriages are based.
As today we are celebrating Church Membership, why not fantasise for a few moments on what a perfect church might look like? I am a Minister. I have fantasies of what a perfect church might look like- would it not be wonderful to have a church filled with totally committed people every Sunday; never any apologies for absence at meetings; never any desperate pleas for volunteers because people would be queuing up to drive for the Friendship Club or help with the Baby Group. A church where every member would be capable of explaining, simply and forcefully what they believe and why they believe it. A church where the financial giving was so high that we could afford a whole team of paid professional staff to work here as well as give generously to Christian work in other places.
In other words, a church where there would be no space for those who felt like failures; those who struggled with their faith; those who had questions they could not answer; those whose lives were so mixed up and stressed out that they could contribute little in terms of time or money. A church in fact, that is not the church of Jesus Christ….
And what might your fantasy of a perfect church look like? Quite possibly, I sometimes sense, for busy people, a perfect church would be one where you were not asked to do anything, a church where you could come on a Sunday to receive spiritual nurture without having a long to-do list in your pocket. A church that, six months…a year down the line might gradually stop feeling quite so much like “your” church because everything has been taken out of your hands.
Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like… a field that is full of weeds as well as wheat.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a field that looks nothing like we imagine a perfect field to be. For a “perfect” field would surely have only healthy crops rippling gently in the breeze, and without a weed or a stone or a pest to be seen. But “the kingdom of heaven is like… a field that is full of weeds as well as wheat.”
The servants in the story are not happy about this. They say, “look, there are all these weeds growing in our lovely wheat field. Let’s go and root them up, quick.” But the owner holds them back. He says, “No, wait.” If you try to achieve the perfection of a weed-free field now, you might well end up with half the wheat gone too. Wait for the harvest, when the wheat will be strong enough to be separated from the weeds. Then the harvesters will see clearly what is worth keeping and what is not. The weeds can be thrown away and the good wheat gathered into the barns. But for now, “the kingdom of heaven is like a field that is full of weeds as well as wheat.” OK……..
I see two very powerful messages in this parable.
First: Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is not about “perfection” as we imagine perfection. This story is about the power of God working even through frail, hurt and broken lives. Jesus could look at a human life and see the greed that was turning tax-collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus corrupt; he could see the pig-headedness that threatened to get Peter into fights; he could see the religious passion in James and John that might turn them into terrorist fanatics; he could see the long-term illnesses that made men and women self-centred; he could see the lack of self-respect that might send women into prostitution. He saw these weeds growing thick and fast in human lives. But he did not wade in with condemnation and break these lives down altogether. He waited in love and in hope, opening these lives up to the power of God that could bring out the best and then allow the worst to diminish and die. God is not fooled. He can see the bad in us as well as the good. But he waits patiently and works lovingly for the good to come to fruition.
Second: the owner of the field believes that the weeds do not have the power to kill the wheat right off. In due time, he says, there will be a harvest and the weeds will then be burned as worthless garbage. But in the meantime, the owner has faith that the wheat can withstand the weeds. How many times do we hear Jesus commending people for their faith? “Your faith has saved you.” “Your faith has healed you.” “I have seldom seen such faith as yours.” And none of these people would call themselves “a perfect religious.” All of them have serious issues in their lives. Yet Jesus can see a faith there, faith as tiny as a grain of mustard seed, he said, that will withstand all the destructive forces that can attack a human life. The weeds will not win.
The kingdom of heaven is like a field in which both weeds and wheat are growing because the kingdom of heaven is about real life and real fields always have weeds as well as wheat. But in the kingdom of heaven the weeds will never take over the field. The time will come when, by the saving grace of God, their power will be lost and the wheat will be gathered safely in.
Leonard Cohen wrote a famous song called “Suzanne.” Like most of Leonard Cohen’s songs, everyone who hears it will interpret it differently but it seems to be about his quest for love and his quest for faith. Suzanne is obviously not the definitive answer to either –she is not his love nor is she his faith. But in this song, for a time she is his guide, his support, his inspiration. She listens to him, nurtures him, holds him, challenges him. Towards the end of the song, she takes him by the hand and leads him to the river… and shows him where to look among the “garbage and the flowers.”
And maybe this is the role of the church in the kingdom of heaven: showing each other where to look amongst the garbage and the flowers; the weeds and the wheat. Holding, nurturing, challenging, inspiring the world in its quest for love and for faith.
For the kingdom of heaven is not about the creation of a community of super humans but about a community with its fair share of weeds as well as wheat: imperfect humans who will get things wrong; who will be led astray; who will fall out with each other; who will fail time and time again in keeping up their commitment to Jesus Christ. Yet these imperfect beings are shaped by God into that “perfect” community, which is the kingdom of heaven. That community is “perfect” not because its members are all perfect but because its members have all acknowledged the ultimate ground of their being: that they are children of God. They seek to live their lives in the power of God. They trust not in their own good resolutions and visions of perfection but in the saving love of God that they have found in Jesus Christ. They believe and they live by the belief that even in the utter garbage of life there will be flowers of faith and love and goodness to be found and that we are here to take each other by the hand and show each other where to look.
No-one ever comes into church membership because they think that they are perfect. We come into church membership because we admit our need of God and we want to commit ourselves to a community where everyone admits their need of God.
People sometimes ask what is the “point” of church membership? Surely you can be a regular worshipper here, help with various church activities, contribute financially without becoming “a member?” Yes of course you can and everything you are and do and give is valued. In practical terms, you might say it makes some difference: the level of the financial contribution asked of us for our denomination’s Ministry and Mission Fund is partly based on the number of members so you might think we would be better off at St John’s with fewer members. But on the other hand, the number of members also plays a part in determining whether a church will have its own full time Minister or half-time or even quarter time….. so think before you resign! Non members may attend church meetings and speak on whatever is being discussed but they cannot vote and every now and again, when there is a ‘big’ issue to be decided upon, such as same-sex marriage or the calling of a Minister some people wish that they had taken the step of membership so that their vote might count.
But these pragmatic considerations are only the working out, the system by which the church community is run. They are not the deep and crucial reason for church membership.
As I see it, men and women become church members because deep down they believe that this is what God wants for their life. They have found inspiration, nurture, comfort and challenge in this church community and for them this has been an opening of their lives to God’s power. Truths have been shown them, hands have been held out to them, this is where they want to belong and they are glad to stand up and say so.
“I do not think for one moment that I have attained perfection,” wrote St Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi; “But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. If on some points you think differently, God will make it clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already gained. Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters…. Our citizenship is in heaven and our Saviour is the Lord Jesus Christ.”