Saturday, January 23, 2010

We're on a Mission from God!

Luke 4: 16-22

Do you know who the Blues Brothers are? The Blues Brothers were a band created by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in the 1970s, which went on to make a block busting movie in the early 80s. The movie centred around a mission that had been given them - to pay some outstanding tax, owed by a Convent which had brought them up as boys. The Convent was run by a terrifying Mother Superior...a nun who the Blues Brothers called 'the Penguin'.

The Blues Brothers decided that the only way they knew how to raise that kind of money for the Penguin was to bring together their old 'rhythm and blues review' band - and put on a concert. In the process they manage to get blown up, extort money out of another band, break up the families of their old band members, terrify a restaurant full of wealthy diners, and get chased across the county by the entire Chicago police force and most of the American Army. But it doesn't matter. They are certain that they will fulfill their task because, as they keep reminding themselves..."We're on a mission from God"!

Of course, what the movie-makers were doing was parodying history. The claim that 'we're on a mission from God' has been a dangerous, often evil justification for all sorts of horrors. The Muslim armies that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in the 8 and 900s thought they were on a mission from God. The Crusaders who marched down from Western Europe to 're-conquer' Jerusalem thought they were on a mission from God. So did Al Quaida, when they blew up the Twin Towers. So did the Taliban soldiers who battled for the capital of Afghanistan last week.

So, does that mean that God doesn't set mission targets? Should we ignore anyone who says that God has sent them on a mission. Well, no. That would be rather like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just because some people have perverted religion for selfish ends doesn't mean that religion itself is wrong. Only the people who have made it wrong are wrong. Religion - any religion - can only be judged fairly by the teaching of its founder.

In today's Gospel, we heard Jesus declaring his mission. It wasn't a mission to conquer anyone. It wasn't a mission to take up arms against anyone. No...listen again to the mission that Jesus believed that he had been given by God; a mission that he read straight out of the Scriptures, from the 61st chapter of Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

This, then, is Jesus mission. Its a mission of mercy...a mission to the poor, and the imprisoned and the blind and the oppressed. Its a mission which is rooted in God's passionate love for his children - a love which flowed out through Jesus and touched the lives of the marginalised of the world. In this simple quotation, Jesus states his absolute priority for the poor. He re-emphasises the message of his birth - the birth in a stable, attended by shepherds; the message that God is for the poor and the marginalised...and by extension, against the rich and the powerful.

Of course this is not just an earthly, political vision. It's not only a declaration of love for the poor and the sick and the blind of Jewish society. It's also a spiritual vision. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus' absolute priority for the poor is re-emphasised in the so called 'Sermon on the Plain' - in chapter 6. "Blessed are you who are poor", he says, "for yours is the Kingdom of God". But in Matthew's gospel, this same message is given a different 'spin'. Like a diamond, with many faces, Matthew helps us to see the spiritual as well as the political message. In Matthew, chapter 5, during the "Sermon on the Mount" we hear Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God".

Taking these two 'spins' - these two interpretations of Jesus' words, written down decades after he spoke them, we see that Jesus left his followers with two very clear senses of his mission priorities: First, they were to show God's love to the poor and the sick and the blind and the oppressed. But they were also to be people who reached out to the poor in those who didn't yet know the richness of a life lived with God, those who were oppressed by the cares of this world, and blinded by the vacant promises of wealth and consumerism, or held captive by the arid promises of war and violence.

So, Jesus calls his followers to an essentially two-pronged mission. Change the world, but also change hearts. Call people to live justly - but also call people to live with God.

Perhaps that is why so many well meaning attempts at changing the world over the centuries have ultimately failed. I sat down to read the Communist Manifesto last year.  I was interested to see what it was that had inspired people like Stalin and Chairman Mao to create such turmoil and upheaval in Russia and China. I found it a fascinating document. So much of it makes absolute sense...and so much of what it condemns is still very much in evidence in our world. The rich are still getting richer...just look at what has happened in the banking world. And the poor are still getting poorer...just look at the awful horror or Haiti - made so much worse by the poverty and corruption of that nation. Whilst banks are awarding themselves wages of billion dollars - the Government of Haiti is crippled by a loan of just $890 million. Unable to feed its people or repair its infrastucture, or educate its children - for the sake of a loan of less than 100th of what bankers are paying themselves this year.

Marx and Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto, were right in so many respects. They correctly identified the issue - that the wealth of the world is held in the hands of too few greedy people. But whilst their diagnosis of the disease was right, their prescription for the cure was not. They believed that justice for the poor could only be won if the poor themselves took it from the rich. They argued for the proletariat to rise up and over-thrown the bourgeois. They argued that goods should be shared equally among all people.

Many people have claimed that Communism would have been supported by Jesus. Jesus, they say, had a deep, abiding hatred of the bourgeois and the powerful. "He would", they say, "have been on the side of the poor - and would have wanted the poor to be blessed."  And in many ways they would be right. But remember Jesus' two-pronged mission statement - a mission that was political and spiritual. Jesus knew that real change for the poor would only come when there was a change in the heart of the rich. For the rich to help the poor, the rich had first to become poor in spirit...conscious of their need for God. Indeed, for the poor to help the poor - for people to love their neighbours as themselves - they first need a spiritual awakening...a waking up to the knock of God on the door of their heart.

"Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me." (Revelation 3:20)

That's why Jesus commission to his disciples included a spiritual as well as political imperative. At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' final commission to his disciples is, once again, two-pronged. First, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them...". There is the spiritual commission. Go and make disciples. Disciples are people who follow their master. Disciples, in Christian terms, are people who know their need of God. Those who are baptised are those who have repented, or who are learning to turn away from human ways of doing things, and turning towards God.  They are the poor in spirit, who are promised the Kingdom of God.

 Then, the second part of the commission: "...teach them to obey everything I have commanded you". Jesus' commands are the clear, unambiguous teachings. Love God, Love Neighbour. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned. Or in today's quotation from Isaiah: "bring good news to the poor...proclaim release to the captives...recovery of sight to the blind...and let the oppressed go free".

So - mission statements are interesting things. But unless they have that combination of the political and the spiritual, they are doomed to failure - as the communist parties of the world have discovered.

Last week, as you know, I published a draft five year plan...which we will be working on together next week. One of our choir members who shall remain nameless, Bill!, said to me after the service "Didn't Stalin publish a five year plan?". I know he was joking...his tongue was firmly in his cheek. But of course he was right.

But I rather hope that there will be a fundamental difference between Stalin's five year plan and ours. Stalin set out to positively squash religion. Karl Marx had taught that religion was a kind of opium for the people, which kept them subservient and drugged by the bourguois.  So Stalin was determined to stamp out the spiritual dimension from Russian society entirely. His new Russia would be founded on science, and justice for the poor. There was no place for the spiritual in Stalin's plan. There was no vision of God at the heart of Stalin's plan and, as we know, "without a vision the people perish". (Proverbs 29:18)

Our plan, however, will have a spiritual core. Before we even think about the things we want to do together over the next five years, we are asking ourselves questions about the kind of people we want to be. My suggestion is that we want to be people who pray, learn and serve...but you may have other ideas; ideas I want to hear at next week's conference.

But in the meantime, I want to leave you with a challenge. Before we can truly say what we want to do together - it is helpful to think about who we want to be as individuals. My challenge to you, this week, as you prepare for the Conference is to think about what your own mission statement would say. Take a sheet of paper, and sit quietly for a while - thinking about your life. Where have you been? Where are you going? What would you want people to say of you after you have gone?

That's a great question isn't it. There's an modern proverb I like...which I try to remind myself of from time to time. It goes something like "when looking back over their life, there was never a man who said 'I wish I had spent more time at work!'"  What would you want to be able to say of your life when you look back over it?

What is your mission statement? What are the words that sum up who you are, and who you want to be? Do you want to be a person who is known for their charity, or for their greed. Do you want people to comment on your external beauty, or your inner beauty? Do you want to be a better parent, or grandparent? Do you want to give more time to prayer, or to serving others? Or do you want to spend more time in front of the TV? It's your choice. You have, as St Augustine taught us, the free will to do what you want with your life. But what are you going to do with it? What is your mission statement?

Perhaps if we each take a little time this week to think about that question - we might all come to next week's conference with a clearer sense of what kind of church we want to be...and of what "mission from God" we are being given.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Setting off on the Journey

Matthew 2: 1-12

I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved snow and ice, wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles.

I wonder whether some of you, like me, have wondered whose clever idea it was to put Christmas in the middle of winter! I mean - wouldn't it make a lot more sense to have Christmas in the the Australians do. Then we would be able to meet up with family and friends on the beach, or in our gardens - with lots of space for people to sit, and room for the kids to run about. But instead, we go on mammoth journeys, in the heart of the coldest months, to squash ourselves in Auntie Nellie's front room, six to a sofa, and try to catch up with one another over the excited squeaking of small people opening presents!

But I digress. My real point was that many of us will have made journeys over these last two weeks. Not, I suppose as arduous as the journeys made by the Wise Men to Bethlehem, but journeys none the less.

We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong. Jesus never was the King of Jews...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross. He was never proclaimed as King by more than a crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday - who quickly changed their minds when they realised that he was no war-lord. He was never legally anointed as King, unless you count the anointing with perfume by an un-named woman in Bethany. To become a King - the sort of King that the Magi were expecting to find at the Palace in Jerusalem - you would have to have been born to a royal father, or to have conquered a country by war. Neither of these things happened to Jesus. In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world". No, the Magi were wrong. The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. After Herod had learned from them that a new King had supposedly been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under two years old. Matthew records the figure of two years as being 'in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi'.(Mt 2:16)

So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Wise men? Perhaps not.

So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, anymore than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.

And yet...and yet...

The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem. But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to a cave in a rural back-water...and to a baby in an animal's food trough.

And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, - they knelt in homage to him. Jesus, when they met him, was nothing like they expected. But they had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him. They had the wisdom to let their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty slip away; and let the new reality of Jesus take their place.

You see, wise men (and women) are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men, and women, embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.

There is a sense in which we are embarking on a new journey today. Its a journey into a new year, and into a new decade. This is our first Sunday together of this New I wonder what the road ahead might look like for us. Do I dare to make a few predictions of my own?

We have plans! Tomorrow morning, all the clergy and parish wardens will be meeting with our PCC secretary to think about what the future might look like. We plan to bring our ideas to a parish conference at the end of this month - so that the whole parish can join in the task of shaping our future for the next five years. Our plans will include a few specific tasks that we want to get done. We will be sharing ideas like replacing the pews here in St Mark's and improving our'll be glad to know. We'll be thinking about how to expand our Community Cafe and whether to record and album of choir music which might make good Christmas presents for next year!

But, much more important than getting things done, our five year plan is going to suggest some statements about the kind of church we want to be. Despite the manic over-working that often goes on in my house, I have always believed that God loves us much more for who we are than what we do. In other words - we sometimes rush around thinking that we are pleasing God with all our activity...forgetting that God's own words to us are words like "Be Still and know that I am God"...and "Consider the lilies of the field...they neither toil nor spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Take no thought for tomorrow - tomorrow will look after itself." (see Mt 6: 25-34).

Jesus taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God - and that everything else will fall into place around that. (Mt 6.33). So, as I say, our five year plan is going to focus on the kind of Christian Community we will strive to be. Here are some of the words that we are playing with at the moment...

First, we want to be a praying community. We are people who stand on the threshold between earth and heaven. Prayer is that threshold...its the glue which binds our spiritual and practical lives together. Through prayer, we have the opportunity to draw directly from the Well of Life, before going out into the world to quench the thirst of others. So, I'm going to argue that we must, first and foremost, be a praying church.

Secondly, we want to be a learning church. God created us in his image - and part of that image is our capacity to learn and grow. So, I'm going to be arguing that we need more opportunities to explore the Scriptures together - more chances to learn from the wisdom of the ancients that we have inherited. You know, one of the greatest frustrations for the average Vicar is that the only learning that most congregations do is in the few minutes allowed on a Sunday morning for the average sermon. And for those who can't make it to church more than once a month - that means about 10 minutes a month learning about God. I want to change that ratio...I want us to become people who are serious about what it means to learn the things of God.

Thirdly, we want to be a serving church. We follow a Master who washed his own disciples' feet: and following him means being a servant to one another, and to the world that he loves around us. Whether we serve the world through the provision of excellent worship, or through providing meeting halls or a community cafe - we are called into service.

Fourthly, we want to be a visible church. Our three church buildings are one of our greatest assets - they provide a visible reminder of the things of God to the 20,000 people who live in our parish. They are a sacred space in the middle of normal life. They also provide a base from which we can serve the community around us. So I am arguing that we need to make the maintenance of our buildings one of our top priorities - and to look for ways to make our buildings more accessible to the world at large.

Fifthly, we want to be a multiplex church. I know I've talked about this before - but for those of you who don't get the metaphor, let me put it like this. You know what it's like when you go to a modern multiplex cinema. In front of you are a whole range of different movies that you can choose from. Which movie you chose will depend on a whole range of factors - what mood you are in, who you are with, what you have enjoyed before. Worship is rather like that. Some people need to experience worship in lots of different formats before they find the one that really helps them on their journey. I am arguing that we must strive to provide those different ways of encountering an act of service to our community.

Finally - we want to be an all-inclusive church. We are arguing that there is no place in the church for categories of human beings. Men, women, black, white, young or old, parents or childless, able-bodied or differently-abled, gay or straight...the Bible teaches us that we are all one in Jesus. There is room for every human being in the church of Jesus Christ, and our challenge will be to live and act as if we truly believed that.

That's the list. Six characteristics that the Clergy and Parish Wardens are proposing to the rest of the parish. We want to be a church which prays, learns and serves; and which is visible, multiplex and all-inclusive. Those six principles are what we are proposing should act as a kind of star to guide us on our journey. Like the Magi, we should expect to be surprised by all that happens along the way. God is likely to turn-over our expectations, and take us into all sorts of new and exciting paths. But through these six principles - we aim to give the journey a shape...a basic map that we will be able to follow together.

It promises to be an exciting and exciting decade with God. I pray that you are ready to begin the journey!