Saturday, May 19, 2007

Faith

My thoughts for Sunday... (the pre-preach continually amended version - which changed a bit more in the proclaiming!)

Easter 7 – Sunday 20th May 2007
John 17: 20-end
Acts 16: 16-34

How often these days do we hear about ‘the decline in church attendance’ and other such statements from the prophets of doom who seem to delight in proclaiming a newly emerging godlessness in our society. It’s a fairly regular phenomenon though I’m not interested in bandying statistics around this morning. I was interested though in comparing these “shocking modern habits” (in inverted commas!) with a sermon I read recently by 17th century clergyman Jonathan Swift – probably most famous as the author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. In his sermon Swift was addressing some fairly serious church issues of his day, “first” he says, “men’s absence from the service of the church, and secondly their misbehaviour when they are here.” In elaborating on the issue of absence, Swift speaks of the trivial excuses given to excuse attendance at the public worship of God – some having their affairs ’so oddly contrived as to be always unluckily prevented by business; with some it is a great mark of wit and deep understanding to stay at home on Sundays; and others again discover strange fits of laziness, that seize them, particularly on that day, and confine them to their beds. Others are absent out of mere contempt of religion and lastly there are not a few who look upon it as a day of rest, and therefore claim the privilege of their cattle to use the day for eating, drinking and sleeping after the toil and labour of the week.’
Issues not so far removed from our own modern communities it seems to me – though perhaps with less cattle and more car cleaning in evidence today!

And Swift also had a bee in his bonnet about the way people conducted themselves in church back in the 1600’s, mentioning that some continued in a perpetual whisper of conversation often involving the slating of a neighbour, minds wandering in idle, worldly or vicious thoughts (I’m not sure how he recognised that one from the front!), some being determined to ridicule whatever they heard and the worst misbehaviour says Swift, is of those who come to church to sleep!

These concerns, particularly those relating to church attendance, are not that far removed from our own concerns and prayers today.

Concerns that people would come to know the amazing gift of Christ and come and meet in worship and fellowship as part of his church; that even among the faithful there would be a new commitment to the church as the body of Christ; and that we would be able to communicate to many who have no background of being in church what’s expected while we’re here.
(It doesn’t hurt for longstanding churchgoers to reassess every so often whether what they expect in church is what they think is important or what God thinks is important either!).

In every generation there will be challenges in and for the church – it was so in the times of the earliest churches – we only need read Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth to see that; it was so in the 17th century church of Jonathan Swift and it is so now. What is essential is that we don’t get discouraged about the task of sharing and living out our faith, or start to feel that God is not at work in his church or the world any longer. Perhaps our prayer needs to be ‘Lord increase our faith’?

In our comfortable western Christianity, there can so often be lethargy about our faith. We’re so often able to create for ourselves a comparatively rich and secure environment that makes us forgetful of our dependence on God and that can lead us, when things start to prove testing, to question and doubt him because of our discomfort rather than turn to him, depend and rely on him.

If we turn to our reading from Acts and look into the situation of Paul and Silas, we certainly don’t see lethargy of faith there!
It could be said that Paul and Silas had had a pretty bad day! We find them in Philippi. They had started out by going to the place of prayer, had found themselves provoked into casting out a spirit of divination from a slave-girl there, in the name of Jesus. Having angered her owners by this sudden loss of their income, they found themselves dragged into the marketplace, accused before the authorities, attacked, stripped, beaten with rods, severely flogged, thrown in prison, and their feet fastened in stocks.

These men, with their companions, had been travelling from place to place, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ – declaring his death and resurrection for all humankind and the new life promised in his name; but now they’re imprisoned and the feet that had travelled to spread good news were instead fastened in the stocks.

Imagine that. How would you feel? What would you be saying? What would you say to God?

Jesus said there would be suffering and persecution for those who follow in the way of the cross, and yet as soon as it hits us many assume that God has abandoned them, or that their belief in him was wrong in the first place. But Jesus said, “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And despite what has happened to them here we find Paul and Silas, at midnight, praying and singing hymns to God.

Paul and Silas had plenty of things they could have complained about; if they’d focused on the circumstances in which they found themselves it could have led them to fear and despair – and who would blame them? They might have complained to God that despite all they’d done for him this is what happens to them. But they didn’t.

They lifted their eyes from the situation immediately before them and fixed them on God.

I remember a book I used to have – I can’t remember the title, or the author, or what the book was about – the only thing I remember is a full page cartoon kind of drawing that was in there somewhere near the beginning – and that cartoon drawing has stayed with me. It was a picture of a mountain with a little person standing in front of it trying to look beyond and the caption said something like, “when you have a problem, don’t look at the mountain look at the mountain-maker.” And it was saying that when we fix our eyes on the problem or the situation before us then it’s so hard to see God because all we see is the problem – the mountain. But if we look to God (the creator of the other kind of mountains) instead the perspective changes, we can see beyond and around, we can keep hold of hope, we look to the one who rescues and helps us.

We can read on in Acts and see the amazing thing that happened after to Paul and Silas. But of course when they were there – suffering the pain of their beatings and the humiliation of being in the stocks they weren’t to know what was to come. And yet they trusted God, they lifted their eyes to him – they prayed and they worshipped. Their faith was not dependent on their circumstances, or the outcome – it was dependent on the nature of their God.

They had come to know the fuller picture of God breaking into the human situation in the person of Jesus Christ; they knew his teaching, they knew his love, they knew his suffering and death, they knew the defeat of sin when Jesus died on the cross, they knew that the resurrection meant that he lived again; they knew that though sometimes God broke in and miracles happened they were still to follow the way of the cross; they knew that one day Jesus would return and God would make all things new; they knew of the promise of eternal life with God. And on that day as they sang hymns of worship to God their faith gave them strength and hope. This was no blind faith, but a faith based on one they knew would keep hold of them through life and death.

There did prove to be a miraculous outcome that day (as well as that miracle of faith in suffering) as the prison was shaken, the doors opened and then in the resulting belief and baptism of the jailer and his household; but Paul and Silas would have trusted Christ even unto and through death.

And therein lies our challenge – to grow in the same faith that was expressed by Paul and Silas that day; to choose to worship God and give thanks whatever our circumstances (in all circumstances rather than for all circumstances). Remember too the words of the Psalmist in his call to “praise the Lord and forget not all his benefits.”
When we come to the baptism in a few minutes we will begin by hearing the words ‘faith is the gift of God to his people’. And so let’s be praying that God will increase this gift in each one of us; and pray for one another, love one another – often in practical ways; encourage and support one another and remind one another of God’s faithfulness. At times we will be the one who reminds, and at other times we will be the one who is reminded of these things – this is part of our purpose in being God’s church.

And how do we address the concerns of the church of our day – the concerns mentioned earlier that have been expressed and felt down the ages?
Again, we seek to grow in this same faith demonstrated by Paul and Silas, a living faith that looks into the face of God and sees things beyond the immediate circumstances of life – and we don’t need to look very far at all to see those; that trusts that even when there is pain and hardship God is at work in the world, God is faithful and God is present. And we make this faith known – in love, in prayer, in worship and in service. That is our task – we leave the rest to God.

And today remembering the baptisms that resulted from the faith of Paul and Silas, let’s pray for the baptism of (N) that this same depth of faith would grow in his life, as well as in our own.

Amen.

4 Comments:

At May 19, 2007 10:10 pm, Blogger Sally said...

chelly- I love the emphasis on choice, no matter what the circumstances, I just posted something about Madeline Mccann, as I have heard her mother criticised for praying... thank you for posting this, peace and blessings for your preaching tomorrow
God be with you

 
At May 20, 2007 11:52 pm, Blogger Rainbow Pastor said...

Thank you so much, Chelley for letting me use parts of this this morning and afternoon.

You hereby have a free pass to anything you need from me...

 
At May 21, 2007 8:05 am, Anonymous Chelley said...

Really glad I could help RP! :D

 
At June 15, 2007 12:14 am, Blogger Gern said...

stumbled upon your teapot quite by accident. Funny story actually. I would show up Sunday morning if I knew where. Guessing Anglican or Episcopalian. Right?

Please write more.

 

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