Morning Service led by our Minister, including a Celebration of TGIS - Thank God it’s Sunday !
This sermon is taken from John 17, verses 13-26
Back in 1980, a new minister was called to a church in what was then East Germany- the Communist side of the wall. It was not a good time or a good place to be a Minister. The Communist regime, although not forbidding Christian worship, made it quite clear that this was officially an “atheist” country and people of faith were regarded with suspicion. I remember myself hearing Christian parents who had brought their children up in East Germany, tell of the terrible dilemmas facing them when it looked as though any young people professing Christian faith would be refused a university place. What do you do?
So no, this was not a good time or place to be a Minister and this man was not really sure what to do. He could see that the vast majority of people in his country were not happy. The Communist regime, despite having had some great ideals, was simply not working for them. The people were weary, frustrated, angry and frightened. Any protests were brutally supressed. Any attempt to leave and go elsewhere meant literally risking your life. What could he do?
In 1982, the Minister decided to try one thing he could do: hold a Prayer Meeting. Every Monday evening there were Prayers for Peace in his church.
Not many turned up. If as many as 12 attended, that was reckoned to be a good night. But they did not give up. The Minister put up a notice outside the church which read “Open to All,” which was a powerful message at that time. The church was the only place where people felt they could speak freely about what was going on in their country.
Then things started to happen outside the church. Changes were taking place all around the world as Communism was starting to crack in many countries but there were still horrific reports of brutal suppression of any protests. Gradually, almost without noticing, the prayer meetings became larger. Increasing numbers of people -with or without faith, turned up. Other churches in other places were following suit. By the summer of 1989 the prayer meetings had developed into silent, peaceful vigils out on the streets. There was no violence, at least, not from the those who were praying. But the numbers were starting to alarm the authorities. The Minister was ordered to stop these meetings but by this time, he was in it “too deep.” Something very powerful was happening and he could not stop it.
On the night of 9th October 1989, the largest peaceful rally yet was planned and the people were warned that soldiers and armed police would be out on the streets and they would mow them down. 8,000 people gathered in the church for prayer; other churches were open too and around 70,000 people came together in the city streets. As the armed police and the military confronted them, ready to strike, an amazing thing happened. At the last minute, they stood back and let the people march by. The massacre that had looked certain to happen, did not happen. One month later the Berlin Wall came down and you know the rest…..
We human beings are naturally a problem-solving race. When we are in a difficult, painful, situation, we find a way out of it. We make plans; we develop strategies; we take action and we create a way through. Always. Nearly always…. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation that looks absolutely impossible. No matter how long we think; no matter what good advice we take; no matter how hard we are prepared to try; there is just no way through. Think for a moment of any situation you have found yourselves in or have known someone else to be in- when it looked as though there was absolutely nothing you could do.
The name of that church in East Germany was St Nicholas’ church in Leipzig and the Minister was Pastor Christian Fuhrer. Many congregations and Ministers in this country today feel that they are in an impossible situation, just as Pastor Fuhrer was. The Christian faith is becoming increasingly marginalised; local churches are struggling to survive and faithful, hardworking people simply cannot see what they might do. What can we do? The cultural tide has turned and we cannot stop it. But nor can we see that a totally secular society is making people any happier, any less stressed, any better cared for when they are in trouble, any fairer or more just. There are a lot of weary, frustrated, angry and frightened people in our country too. But what can we do?
In our reading, Jesus Christ was in what you might call an impossible situation. He was facing betrayal, an unjust trial and certain death. He was leaving behind a very small group of very weak followers, most of whom would run away and leave him when he was arrested. He had done his best to teach them the truth of God, inspire them in faith, get them ready to face life without him but things were not looking good for the future. So he prayed.
And maybe the story of St Nicholas’ Church reminds us that the one thing we can always do, even in an impossible situation is to pray. Not necessarily with a long to-do list for God: this is what we need you to do, please and then this, and then this. Because if we are in an impossible situation then we have already exhausted the possibilities ourselves. In an impossible situation we simply come before God, knowing that we have reached the end of our strength and ingenuity and, if there is a way forward, it will have to come from another source. Pastor Fuhrer simply invited his people to pray for peace in the world and with no idea how that peace might ever be achieved. Jesus simply asked that his followers might be protected from evil, held together in love and somehow pass the Gospel message on to the next generation. There was no agenda; no to-do list; simply the placing of an impossible situation in the hands of God. It sounds fearfully naïve but the prayers of 12 people in Leipzig started something that changed the world. The prayers for Jesus’ 12 disciples started something that changed the world.
Many people today, even those with faith, suggest that there is no need for churches anymore; for a gathered faith community and for buildings which take huge amounts of time and money to maintain. They don’t need the hassle. They can pray on their own if they need to. They can spend time in therapeutic meditation. They can go for a walk in the great outdoors and that is all they need. Why should religious people try to confine God to one particular place?
Of course we can and we should pray alone. And yes of course we can pray anywhere and anyhow we like. And no, of course God is not confined to any particular space. But coming together to pray as a community has some truly awesome qualities all of its own.
First, it draws people together, especially at times when we desperately need to feel that we are not alone. Look at the aftermath of terrorist attacks, like the one in Manchester- people came together to pray. Some were praying to a God they knew by name; not all were praying to the same God by the same name; others were just calling out for help to any loving, eternal power that might be able to hold them as they faced an impossible situation. But the coming together in prayer brought a strength and an inspiration that they might never have found alone.
In coming together to pray, we can inspire one another, we can reassure each other that we are not crazy or naïve; we can encourage one another so that we do not give up. There must have been times when those 10 or 12 people in Leipzig really wondered why they bothered turning out on a Monday evening to huddle together in a cold church to pray for a situation that showed no sign whatsoever of changing. There were almost certainly many weeks when the only reason they came was because they did not want to let the others down or they did not want the Minister to get discouraged and was this a good enough reason for going? But just suppose they had given up………..?
Second, communal prayer can provide that protection Jesus prayed for. As we all know, it is incredibly difficult to maintain faith all by yourself. It is incredibly difficult -I would say impossible- to live as good a life as you could do without support. We live in a complex world and it is frighteningly easy to get sucked into lifestyles that destroy us or others; to lose our way and end up in places we never wanted to be; to sink into bitterness and cynicism and forget how to enjoy life; to contribute-even without knowing it- to some serious evil in our world. What was incredible about those prayers in Leipzig, Pastor Fuhrer was to say, was that even in a country where most people had only ever lived under an atheistic regime (first Nazi Germany and then Communist), in coming together to pray for peace, they totally resisted any way of violence. Whether they claimed Christian faith or not, they were following the way of Jesus. Communal prayer had protected them from the anger, the hatred, the violence they could so understandably have fallen into. “Keep them holy,” Jesus prayed. “Keep them safe from evil.”
Third, communal prayer renews a sense of power in us. As people come together to pray, they start to feel that maybe there might just be a way forward after all. Maybe we are not merely helpless pawns in someone else’s game. Maybe even we might just start something that God can bring to fulfilment in time. Communal prayer reinforces our sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Discussions on “good worship” never reach a unanimous decision because different people appreciate different ways of worship: high church ritual, charismatic music, prayers out of a book, prayers spoken spontaneously, children making a noise, children making no noise, Quaker stillness, Gospel choirs- we all engage in worship in different ways. But for myself, the most memorable and awe-filled worship has been when people have come together to pray in an impossible situation when there is nothing else we can do; when hearts are opened and worshippers are of one mind- coming together to ask for help. That is when I have felt the power of prayer, a power that comes from God to work in us and through us.
When I heard of how the armed police and the military simply stood back and let the peaceful protesters in Leipzig pass through, I thought of that famous story in the Bible of how the Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt. Pharaoh sent his army after them and the slaves had reached the sea. They were trapped. With the sea on one side and the soldiers on the other they were, to put it mildly, in an impossible situation. But Moses called out “stand still and see the saving power of God.” And, the story goes, the sea itself opened and the slaves passed safely through.
In our scientific culture we ask whether it is right to tell that ancient story to our children. For how can anything like that possibly have happened in the real world? And then I think of Leipzig and well, actually something like that did happen. The underlying message of the Exodus story is that the power of God and the faith of his people can move what look like insurmountable obstacles and this has happened over and over again, even as recently as 1989.
And so, on TGIS Promotion Sunday, when we recommit ourselves to passing our faith on to the children in our care, I would ask that we think seriously about what we most want to give to them. And I would suggest that holding the faith community together; providing a time and a space for prayer is still a most precious and necessary gift. We want to show them a power that will be there for them; a power that they will discover in them; a power which, when explored with others might just have the capacity to change the world.
I know that we still live in a culture of self-determination: believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything. And children are encouraged to take part in all kinds of activities that will build up their confidence and self-belief. Which is great. But there will be times when self-belief is not enough; when you are either thrust or place yourself into an impossible situation from which you can see no way through. And then despair sets in, followed by self-destruction in one form or another.
We can still offer our children something more. We can still provide a space and a time for prayer. We can still offer the belief that God can show the way through even when all other possibilities fail. We can still open the way to that greater power which, with us, can transform the world. Can there be anything more precious to give our children?
And if some of us are thinking, well I have done my best but my children have rejected my faith or have become too busy with other things to attend church or put up such a fight when I try to bring them that I wonder if it is worth it; or if we are thinking that, as a church we have done our best to provide a good, creative and fun environment for families to bring their children into; our TGIS leaders work so hard, yet still the numbers of children attending remain depressingly low and look set to sink lower-what are we supposed to do?
We too can pray. Every month in our Newsletter there are the names of children who have been baptised or Dedicated here or have joined TGIS at some later stage. We can pray for them. We can pray for our own children and grandchildren. We can pray for our TGIS leaders. We can pray for ourselves, that God will use our faith, our love, our church to inspire more children and families to faith. We can pray and we can invite others to pray with us.
As many of you know, we are this month applying to our Synod for help in funding a professional Christian youth pastor to work with us here. And do you know what that Synod fund is called. It is called “Turn the Tide.”
It has happened before. It could happen again.