Acts 2.14a,36-41 and Luke 24.13-35
There are times, I must confess, when I wonder whether all the effort we put into running a parish is really worth it. Do you know what I mean? I frequently find myself utterly exhausted by the sheer weight of 'things to do' that arrive on my desk, or in my emails, or on my phones, or via face-to-face requests. I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by guilt about the sick parishioners I haven't had a chance to visit, or the latest piece of uncompleted admin from the Diocese, or the Sermon that I just made up off the top of my head (because I didn't have time to prepare) or the staff member who hasn't met with me for weeks because we've both been too busy.
And I know that many of you share the same pressures - or perhaps feel them even more keenly, because unlike me, you are not paid a stipend to be able to work full-time for the parish. You've got to juggle your own ministry in the parish with your work commitments, or your membership of other clubs and organisations, or your caring for family members, or whatever your particular pressure is.
There are days, I must confess, when I feel like throwing in the towel. There are days when I wonder whether all the effort and sacrifice of time and resources, for the sake of the Gospel is really worth it. Are we really making a difference...or are we just perpetuating a system of guilt-ridden clergy and lay people, stretched beyond belief to try to make a difference? Do the improvements that we've made in all our buildings in the last few years really matter? Do the hours of music practice or cafe volunteering or pastoral visiting, or endless Diocesan and parish meetings or fundraising sales actually make a halfpenny's worth of difference?
I wonder whether those two Disciples who were walking along the road to Emmaus felt something similar. Not the pressure of piles of admin, but the pressure of wondering whether the previous years of their lives had been in vain. They had left their homes and their families to follow the man they thought was the Messiah. But all their hopes and dreams for transforming their society appeared to have come to nothing; on a Cross erected at the Place of the Skull.
Oh sure, there were now rumours that Jesus had risen from the dead, but these Disciples hadn't seen him yet. And certainly there was no sign of the redemption of Israel that they had hoped for all these years. Rome was still firmly in charge of their society, and the High Priests of the Temple were still in charge of their religion. The 'corrupt generation' that Peter referred to in his speech in Acts was still in charge. Nothing had changed. All the sacrifice had been in vain. All their work had come to naught. Perhaps it would be better if they just gave up and went home to the quiet solitude of Emmaus? Let someone else worry about the transformation of society for a change. Perhaps those Disciples, going home to Emmaus, will just hang up their sandals, sit in the sun, and let the world go on without them?
But see what happens next. In the midst of their despair, Jesus comes. He walks alongside them for a while, unrecognised at first. He explains that everything that happened in the previous week was all part of a much bigger plan; a divine plan for the redemption of the whole world. The Disciples are intrigued, and suddenly excited. Perhaps all their sacrifice has not been in vain after all. Perhaps God is still working to transform the world. Perhaps Jesus really was the Messiah after all. They want to know more, and they invite the stranger who has been teaching them to come and share a meal...and then, they discover who he really is, in the breaking of the bread.
Does Jesus walk alongside us too, perhaps even as unrecognised as he was to those Emmaus-Disciples? Does he still walk alongside disciples in despair at the apparent fruitlessness of their labours? I think he does. And if we will listen to his voice, I think he will unfold to us something of the divine plan in which we are involved. For when we look at our parish's life through Jesus' eyes, and not our own, we can begin to glimpse the signs of the Kingdom that those Emmaus Disciples were looking for. Whenever a lonely life has been filled with friendship at the Community Cafe, the Kingdom is glimpsed. Whenever someone's soul is lifted into real worship at one of our services, in our refurbished buildings, inspired by our choir or music group, the Kingdom is at hand. Whenever a bereaved person finds comfort in the truths of the Gospel (and the promise of Resurrection) the Kingdom is among you. Whenever, someone repents of their old way of life, and turns towards a life with Jesus, the Kingdom advances. Whenever a hungry belly in Africa is filled because of our donation, the Kingdom is at hand.
Today we look back over another year of service to this community. We will review - briefly, I promise! - the activities of the last 12 months, but more importantly we will look to the future. To those who, like me, sometimes wonder whether all this grind and sacrifice is worth it, I invite you to peer, with me, into that future.
It's a future in which God's plan for North End, Hilsea and Copnor is being unfolded in our very presence - God's plan to transform the lives of the lost and the lonely into lives of purpose and community. God's plan to call every one of the 20,000 people we serve in this parish. God's plan to have vibrant centres of worship which call people away from consumerism and into community. God's plan to touch the lives of every person, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight - with hope and love.
Is that a plan worth straining every sinew for? Is that a plan worth giving up weekends to raise funds, and evenings to have meetings? Is that a plan worth giving up hours to paint and dig and repair and maintain our buildings? Is that a plan worth giving our money too, sacrificially and consistently? Is that a plan worth offering our lives to in every sense? I think it is. And I hope and pray that you do too.
And here's a final thought. For those Emmaus disciples, Jesus was finally made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Who knows why this was? Perhaps it was too dark for them to have seen his face until then? Perhaps his resurrected body and voice were subtly different? Whatever the reason, it was in a moment of brokenness that Jesus was finally and ultimately revealed...echoing the brokenness of his own body upon the Cross. We can find Jesus in our brokenness too.
In a few minutes, bread will be broken for us on the Altar. Jesus' sacrificial death for all humanity will be brought to mind once more. But then, we who are also broken, will gather together on these steps to participate in a great coming together. We will each of us, from all across this parish, receive the spiritual food that Jesus offers us for our ministries in this parish. We will do this together. Our brokenness, mirroring Jesus own brokenness, will be healed by the very act of coming together. We will come together with each other and with Jesus in the great central act of all Christian worship, the very act of Communion with God and our neighbours.
May we each find in that moment, the inspiration, the energy, the commitment and the drive to carry on playing our part in the building of God's Kingdom in North End, Hilsea and Copnor.