150th anniversary service for a church seriously considering closure...
I didn’t choose today’s readings – they are the ones set for us in the lectionary. So I was a bit disappointed to see how gloomy they both seem to be. After all we are here to celebrate the 150th anniversary of this church. Couldn’t we have readings where Jeremiah talks about being blessed by God rather than being destroyed? And surely Jesus usually talked about love – but the gospel reading we just heard seems to be all about hate!
Jeremiah gets a bad name as being always gloomy and negative – but actually in what he sees in the potter’s house he gives us a very thought-provoking model of how God works. God is like a potter, who shapes the clay to the form he chooses: but even the most experienced potters doesn’t make a perfect thing the first time. There is shaping and reshaping, change, variety – sometimes even a complete new start as the potter decides things are not going well and gathers up the whole thing to put it back on the wheel and start all over again.
And so, Jeremiah says, it is with our lives and the life of a nation, and the life of a church.
It is the potter who decides, it is the clay that submits to moulding.
For at least 150 years people in this church have asked – how is God moulding us? What is God’s purpose for us? How can we respond with faithful lives and hearts? 150 years ago the faithful response was to build this church – and you know all the good things that have flowed out of that decision, for each of your lives have been touched by that. What is the next step of that journey? Jeremiah teaches us that the next faithful step is to listen to what God is doing now and wants to do next – and that may involve a drastic re-forming, re-making – something that is so drastic it looks like gathering and starting all over again.
It is hard sometimes for us to know what it is that God plans – to submit ourselves to God’s moulding.
But Jeremiah reminds us that we are not the potter, we are not the planners, we are not the creator – God is. Faithfulness lies in being available to God.
There is a wonderful old Jewish story of Rabbi Zusya, a famously wise teacher. He said that all his life he had striven to be as true to God’s teaching as Moses was, until he realized this: "In the coming world, God will not ask me: ' Why were you not Moses?' God will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?”.
Faithfulness lies in being who God calls you to be. It may be that in the future, faithfulness lies not in being in this church building, worshipping in this way, but in being God’s own people here in Stoke sub-Hambdon in a new way. God will not ask ‘why were you not in that building?’ God will ask ‘why were you not my faithful clay, to be formed by me?’.
God is the potter: God will shape you.
So what about what Jesus has to say to us?
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’.
I cannot imagine that Jesus’ first hearers took that in their stride anymore than we can. Hate – not love?? What is Jesus saying?
We have other examples of Jesus using this sort of exaggeration, often used by rabbis, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’, ‘whoever would take the speck of sin from his brother’s eye should first take the plank from his own’. As stand-up comedy goes I’ve never found it laugh-out-loud funny, but the absurd images do help you to sit up and take notice. So maybe Jesus is using the extreme and exaggerated word ‘hate’ to have the same effect.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ – is an exaggerated way of saying that following Jesus comes first, even above family loyalty or responsibility.
It seems that Jesus had encountered some people who used the commandment to honour their parents as an excuse to get out of the things they didn’t want to do. If a neighbour asked for help with his roof, they might say ‘I can’t help you with repairing your roof, I have to visit my parents – and love your parents is a commandment of God’. But if these people were ready to use loving their parents as an excuse for not following Jesus – not trying to love and serve God, Jesus says ‘hate them!’.
In other words Jesus says ‘Don’t put them first in front of everything else in life, including doing what God wants you to do’.
To those who would use the law about honouring family as an excuse to down-grade their discipleship of Jesus, he warns that following must come first.
But what about us? Jesus wants us to sit up and listen, too – it’s no good relegating Jesus’ words to statements meant to shock and discomfort and challenge other people.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ : what does this say to us?
Jesus isn’t telling us to revert to that stage of life when we could quite cheerfully say “I hate you!” to someone (I have 2 older brothers – I know what I’m talking about!). Jesus is telling us that whatever our excuses and whatever our other priorities, following Jesus and walking in God’s way must come first. And if the shock of ‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ is wearing off, here’s another shocking statement from Jesus: ‘Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be a follower of mine’.
Now, hang on, Jesus! I might understand that ‘hating’ my family is an exaggerated way of telling me not to use my family loyalty as an excuse for half-heartedly following you. But giving up all my stuff? I need my home, my clothes, my creature comforts. I love my church…
So maybe this is the challenge to me – to all of us.
We’re unlikely to use loyalty to the law and honour of our parents as an excuse to be half-hearted. But if Jesus is asking us to put him first, it means above earning a large income, or having all the things we want, or even spending our time and efforts in keeping a building going.
Now Jesus has really made us sit up and listen – using words like ‘hate’ and ‘give up’ and even ‘take up your cross’.
Jesus isn’t messing around – he is serious about giving up everything – even life itself. We know that this is the way Jesus is walking – and so if we are to follow we need to be just as serious about self-giving and self-sacrifice. Serious – but not gloomy, because we know the way of Jesus doesn’t end at the cross.
His life was given up to be restored in the power of the resurrection. In the end, Jesus doesn’t ask us to end our life to follow him, but to join all our lives in his eternal life. To place Jesus first in life is to know life not extinguished, but renewed, fulfilled and blessed.
I know times are hard for many of our churches. I know that good Christian people want to continue to serve God and follow Jesus. But Jesus warns us not to put anything above following him – not even the church itself.
If it is time to stop using a loved and cherished building, Jesus promises that isn’t the end of the journey – we continue to walk with Jesus beside us in or out of a building, in the first flush of youth and enthusiasm and when life is hard and joints are creaking, and whatever we do and wherever we go Jesus walks with us through death to resurrection and new life.
In a moment we will sing the hymn ‘all my hope on God is founded’ – using the stirring tune written by Herbery Howells. The name of the tune is ‘Michael’. Michael was Herbert Howells' son, who died isuddenyl aged just 9 of polio after 3 days of illness.
To come to terms with his grief, Howells first wrote a requiem for his son, but then he wrote this tune – specifically for the words ‘all my hope on God is founded’. Somewhere in his grief and loss, as he adapted to a life without his son, he also wanted to affirm his faith in the God who would never leave him locked in grief and tears.
The hymn ends with these words, which I hope we can sing with the joy of believing:
“Christ doth call one and all, ye who follow shall not fall”.