Saturday, October 1, 2016

Slaves for Jesus

Luke 17.5-10  Slaves for Jesus

From time to time, people wonder where I got the title of Canon…well let me tell you.
A few years ago Clare and I gave hospitality for a couple of years to a priest from Ghana, who was studying in the UK at the time.  When his time with us was over, the Bishop of Cape Coast conferred the title of Honorary Canon on me, as a gesture of thanks.  Subsequently, I was made a Canon of Ho as well…after supporting the work of Bishop Matthias there.  So you get two Canons for the price of one with me!

One of the privileges of being a Canon is the right to preach at the Cathedral to which one is attached.  So, a few years ago, I found myself in the pulpit of Cape Coast Cathedral – looking out over a sea of Ghanaian faces.

Cape Coast Cathedral is a very moving place.  The building is, in fact, the former Garrison Church of the British Army, from the days of the slave trade.  It is built just a few feet from the walls of Cape Coast Castle, where so many West Africans were sent out in awful slave ships all around the world.  I will never forget visiting the Castle, where the guide pointed out the door to the slave dungeons, in the courtyard.  Above the doors to the dungeons was a small, white building.  The guide asked “DO you know what that building is?  It was the very first Christian Church in Ghana!”

I’ll leave you to imagine my emotions.  There was I, a recently invested Canon of the neighbouring Cathedral, standing with a crowd of tourists in my clerical collar, being told that the very first church in this country had been built over the doors to a slave pit.

Then, the next day, I stood in the pulpit of that same Cathedral.  It would once have been filled with white faces and British Army uniforms.  But now, I was the only white face in the place.  I couldn’t help reflect what a remarkable transformation God had achieved in that place.  I was grateful, of course, that it was ultimately Christians who brought about the end of the official slave trade.  And grateful too that the ancestors of those slaves had been so blessed with God’s grace, and filled with loving forgiveness, that they could make me – and ancestor of their oppressors – a Canon of their Cathedral.  It was a humbling moment, I can tell you.

Slavery is, of course, a key metaphor of today’s Gospel.  At the time of Jesus, slavery was a normal part of human life.  Even though later Christian writers, like St Paul, were destined to speak against slavery, Jesus didn’t get into that particular inhumanity to man.  Jesus was concerned with all inhumanity to man – and prescribed love for one’s neighbour as the remedy for all the evil we do to each other.  But Jesus also used the world around him, as it then was, to draw out stories to teach his followers.  So, in today’s Gospel, he uses the analogy of a slave.

Jesus describes how no slave could possibly expect to be able to come in from the fields and expect to flop down at his master’s table.  Instead, he would fully expect to keep on serving his master – carrying out the functions of a servant.   Jesus is saying, effectively, ‘don’t expect time off for good behaviour when you are my disciple!’.  Being a disciple of Jesus is not a part-time occupation.  We don’t get to decide to be a follower of Jesus one day, and then to ignore him the next.  That isn’t what the life of faith is all about.

Faith, even as small as a mustard seed, can bring about incredible transformations.  But what kind of faith is this.  Later this morning, in Café Church, we are going to be exploring what the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ actually mean.  I will be suggesting – for discussion – that faith is not about believing a set of ideas about God.  It’s something very different indeed.

Our word faith has its root in the Latin words fides and fidelitas – from which we get the word ‘fidelity’.  We normally use that word today to describe the faithfulness between two people in the bond of marriage.  But it has resonance for the bond between us Christians and our Master, too.  To follow Christ is to be faithful to the person of Jesus, and especially to his teachings.  It means trusting that Jesus’s words and teachings have the power to save us from ourselves.

Take the example of Jesus’ attitude to wealth.  Time and time again Jesus warned us of the dangers of accumulating too much wealth.  “Make treasure for yourselves in heaven, where it cannot rust or be stolen”.  “Don’t fill up your barns with wealth – you can’t take it with you when you die”.  “If you have two coats, give one to a brother or sister in need”.  And yet, we – the slaves of the Master – all have a tendency to only follow his teachings so far – don’t we.  I know I do.  We say to ourselves, that ‘a little bit of charity is ok…but let’s not go overboard.  We might not be able to afford that expensive holiday we fancy, or that new luxury car, or that upgrade to our kitchen’.

There’s a story I like, about a rich man who wanted to show his young son what it was like to be poor.  So he took his son to live for a few days on the farm of a poor shepherd.  At the end of their time, the father asked his son what he had noticed about the differences between his life, and life on the farm.  The son replied:

  • “I noticed that I have one dog in my house, but farmer has a whole flock of sheep and three dogs.
  • I noticed that I have a swimming pool which takes up half our garden, but that shepherd had a whole lake at the bottom of his.
  • I noticed that we have lights in our garden at night, but that Shepherd had all the stars of heaven
  • I noticed that we have high walls around our property to protect us, but the Shepherd had friends coming and going all the time, who would protect him if he was ever in trouble.
  • I noticed that we are poor, and the Shepherd is very rich”

I’ve seen just such things in Ghana.  My very good friend, Bishop Matthias, is a poor man.  He drives a car that is 15 years old, and (as I discovered coming down a mountain last year) has broken brakes.  (I’ll tell you that terrifying story on another occasion).  He lives in a very modest house, and has to scrabble-around every month for enough money to keep the lights on.  And yet, his house is always full of children (many of whom he adopts), and the door is constantly being knocked by friends – from all over his Diocese, his town, and the world.

And so, finally, in the midst of all the wonderful work that is going on at the moment in our parish – from the clocks to the re-wiring, from the weathervane to the floodlighting, from the new Play Café to the hall toilets…I have to wonder why it is that we spend so much of our time, as a congregation, raising money from outsiders.  Why do I spend as much time as I do chasing funds from local councillors, the National Lottery, trust funds and organising fundraising events?  Why is so much of our progress made using volunteers who are not members of our congregation – whether they be charity shop workers or volunteer builders?

In other words, why can’t we…the core congregation of this church, simply pay local tradesmen for the work that we know needs to be done for the good of God’s mission here?  Could it be that we, the slaves of our Master Jesus, haven’t yet fully understood what following him really means?  Could it be that some of us think that following Jesus is a part-time occupation – something we do on Sundays for a couple of hours, but something that doesn’t actually touch our lifestyles, and our wallets, during the rest of the week.

How shall we – each of us – judge ourselves and our faith?  How shall we each weigh the level of our commitment to being slaves of the Master?  Well, quite simply, if you want to know what a person’s priorities are, find out what they do with their money.  The choice we make about where we spend the wealth God has given to each of us is the clearest indication of the depth of our faithfulness to the Master.