Follow My Leader
Morning Service led by Revd Jennifer Millington including the baptism of Charlie John Scott Mulligan.
This sermon is taken from Mark 1, verses 14-20.
Follow My Leader
Do you ever sit and shout at the television? Who do you shout at? The referee in the football match? The contestant on the quiz show when you know the answer and she does not? The Government making statements about the NHS or Brexit? Donald Trump whenever he or his tweet appears on the screen?
I shout at the television. I shout at the “Soaps:” Eastenders, Coronation Street and the rest. They are supposed to be about real life; ordinary people like you and me, living ordinary lives. Yes, right…..
Not only are there murders, explosions, kidnappings and multiple accidents every few months or so; not only do relationships have a life expectancy of about three weeks; not only are children born and then mysteriously disappear as their parents are seen living it up in the coffee shop, pub or bistro; not only do the majority of soap weddings end up with no-one actually getting married; what really makes me shout is the way in which a character can simply walk out of their soap life carrying one suitcase, heading for a totally unknown future, leaving their family, friends, a fully-furnished house, a job and no-one seems to think that this is perhaps a bad idea.
After the actor has had a break and decided to return, back the character comes, again with one suitcase. As if by magic, one person offers them a home, another hands them a job on a plate, and the previous partner, even if they have married someone else, is ready to welcome them back with open arms. I shout “this is not real. It is not real life.”
Maybe some of you wanted to shout at our Gospel reading: here is Jesus wandering round the countryside preaching, with no visible means of support. He walks up to four men who are working in the fishing business, earning money to keep their families; says “follow me,” and they leave their nets and follow him. They are not even carrying one suitcase. And, if we are here to learn how to be good followers of Jesus, is this the kind of thing that is expected of us?
What do I do when I shout at the Soaps? I turn the television off because there is no point in watching stuff that has nothing to do with the real world.
What do we do when we hear a Bible story about men walking out of their homes and lives to follow Jesus? We switch off. That is not going to happen to me because I believe in living in the real world.
May I just point out though, that not everybody who “followed” Jesus literally walked out of their life. Not everybody who was called by Jesus was called to do what Andrew and Peter, James and John did. Jesus also had loyal followers who remained in their own homes and carried on with their jobs. They were farmers, shepherds, traders, civil servants, soldiers, even landowners. They were the people who, in time, built up the local Christian churches and who gave generously to support the travelling preachers. Down through the centuries, most people who have “followed Jesus” have actually remained in the home, the job, the family in which they started.
There is a prayer I have used more than once in this church, based on a verse in the Bible that asks, “where is the road that God comes down?” This prayer points out that there are, in fact, many roads by which God can arrive in a human life and here are some of the “roads” on that list. See if any of them sound like yours:
Sunday Schools, where we once heard God’s love and purpose for us;
Homes, where our parents brought us up to know God;
Sundays when we were feeling bad and came to church to find comfort;
Friends and neighbours who invited us to a church event;
A christening, where a baby was welcomed and given a name;
A stirring of conscience, feeling bad about ourselves and needing to offload;
Searching for something real when nothing else in life seemed worthwhile;
Enjoying the music and atmosphere of church worship;
Hearing someone talk of the difference Jesus had made in their life and wondering what it was all about;
Picking up a Bible and finding some words that really spoke to us;
Hearing what old people had to say; hearing what children had to say.
There are so many ways in which people come to realise that God is there, wanting to get involved in their lives. After 33 years in Christian ministry, I have lost count of the number of different roads on which people have travelled and found God.
When Jesus first preached to his people, it says that he was telling them “good news” from God and about God. He was letting them know that God was right there, wherever they were in their lives and that God was asking them to respond to Him. For Simon and Andrew, James and John, their response sounds like a very dramatic one- walk right away from their old life and start a new one. But for others, even though they remained in the home and the job they already had, the response could be equally radical. Everything in their lives might have looked the same, yet to them it now looked totally different. The way they looked at life, at their family, at their work, at their money, at their country, at themselves was now different. Because it was not just about them anymore. It was about God.
Those of you who were told Bible stories as children will remember the one about Jonah. It is not the kind of story you forget. Jonah was called by God and he did not want to follow. So, he ran away to sea, where a huge storm blew up. He was thrown overboard into the stormy sea and swallowed by a great fish. Inside the fish, he prayed for God’s help. The fish then threw him up onto dry land and Jonah did as God had told him. It is a great story. The Toddler Group here love it, especially when I do the bit about the fish spitting Jonah out. But what was I saying about the “real” world? Even the soaps have not gone quite this far…..
But just think for a moment- what swallows us up in life? What drags us down into dark places? What sweeps us away to become people we did not want to be and into situations we did not want to go? What swallows us up alive? Greed? Loneliness? Fear? Anger? Grief? Despair? Self-hatred? Addictions?
Life can be very harsh. Bad things can just take us over. We might find it hard to believe a story about a man who was swallowed by a great fish and then spat out again after several days but we have almost certainly found ourselves in dark, lonely places, where we feel trapped. So, I thought we might read together some words known as Jonah’s prayer. You will find them on your Order of service and on the screens. Ask yourself if this is saying anything about a place where you have been.
When I was in trouble, Lord, I prayed to you and you listened to me.
I was in a dark place and you answered my prayer
I was swept away, as though to the bottom of the sea
I thought I would never see light or beauty again
I had sunk down to the deepest places and believed I would be trapped there for ever
But you, Lord God rescued me.
When my life was slipping away, I remembered you
And you heard my prayer.
I will praise and serve you all my life
Because you are the one with power to save.
Life can sweep us into places we do not want to be because we are not quite strong enough to keep ourselves safe when bad things happen. What Jonah was saying is that only God could get him out of this dark place where he had ended up. And only God was strong enough to save him from going back there.
This was the “good news” that Jesus was telling. Many of his people were in dark places because of the enemy occupation of their country. They were angry, bitter and easily led into violence. Many were in dark places because of sickness and poverty. They were in despair and had lost all hope. Many were in dark places because they had become swallowed up by greed. They did not care what they did just so long as they could get more money and now they despised themselves. Jesus had come to bring them the saving power of God, which would change their lives.
Faith makes us what we are. What we believe in, what we trust in, what we hope for shapes our lives. If all we believe in and hope for is money, that will take over our life. If all we want and think of is to get our own back on someone who has hurt us, that will take over our life.
Faith in a God who is far more loving and powerful than any other being in the world will shape our lives for good; it will give us a new perspective; it will give us something bigger than ourselves to believe in; it will give us hope even when everything seems to be going wrong; it will pull us back up when we have fallen down.
In the promises we made earlier in the service, we were saying that we want Charlie to find this faith for himself. We want him to have a life that is shaped by God and not just by whatever happens to be going on in the world around him. We want him to know that there is something bigger than him and bigger than any bullies he may have to face, to guide him through life. We want him to find God for himself and we have promised that we will do everything we can to help make this happen.
Are we saying that he will do something radical with his life in the name of God? He might. We never know where the next great, inspiring leader will come from. Simon, Andrew, James and John left their homes and work and family to follow Jesus, became founders of the first Christian church and transformed the lives of thousands with their ministry; centuries later we can think of William Wilberforce, who put his Parliamentary career on the line to campaign for the abolition of slavery; Martin Luther-King, who stepped outside his Baptist Church to lead the struggle for racial equality; Mother Teresa, who left her home in Albania to care for the destitute and dying in Calcutta. They were great people who did great things in the name of Jesus Christ.
But these great people, along with others who we acclaim as having “changed the world” could not have done what they did alone. They needed the prayers, the faith community support, the voices, the money, the action of millions of other men and women who shared their faith and their ideals and so were ready to follow where they led. Most of our children will not be named in the history books as pioneers of faith. But we hope and pray that they will be ready to listen and to support those who do inspire us to make a huge difference in the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Whether Charlie becomes a bishop, a bricklayer or a banker, he can still follow Jesus and this faith will shape the whole of his life.
Living as we do, now, in a multi-cultural and largely secular society, when people refer to Britain’s “Christian Heritage,” many are quick to condemn it. They talk about the brutality of the Crusades; the horrors of the religious wars and persecutions; the self-serving of religious leaders who were close to the King; the hypocrisy of wealthy employers who sang hymns in church on Sunday and paid their workers starvation wages all week. There is truth in what they say but there is a lot about our Christian heritage that was and still is good. Look at the aftermath of the Manchester bombing and the declaration that hatred and evil would not have the last word because the love and power of community would get those people through. That is a Christian message. Look at the morning after the Grenfell Tower disaster- did you notice that it was a Christian church where people were delivering supplies of food and clothes and providing shelter to the victims rather than shrugging their shoulders and turning away? That is a “Christian” attitude. Have you seen how, as Government services have been cut back and cut back, it is the Christian churches who have set up bands of Street pastors to walk out at night where the most vulnerable young people are? And Christian churches who have set up Food Banks for people who would otherwise have nothing to eat?
I am not saying that other religions do not do these things. I am not saying that people who have no faith do not do good. They do. What I am saying is that it is our Christian heritage that has given us such things as free speech, democracy, care for the under-privileged, rejection of violence as any way of solving problems. Despite its many mistakes, the Christian faith has been a huge influence for good in people’s lives, whether they be priests, plumbers or politicians, and through their lives, they have helped to transform nations.
To each of us here today, Jesus has at some point said, “Follow Me.” Some of us have been following for a long time. Some feel as though we have barely started. All of us think we have made a bit of a mess of it somewhere along the way. But the thing about Jesus is that he does not give up. He just keeps turning round and stretching out his hand to help us along. It is good news that Jesus brings to our lives; good news that God is love and that God is here, right where we are. So- let’s take his hand and follow. And let us stretch out our other hand to Charlie and to all children we love and take them along with us.