Now is the time for generosity of spirit.
After Assembly. I cried to God – what is the message you want the URC, indeed the world to hear, and all I heard as a still small voice was the invitation “Come back to my Son”
There is the challenge in the readings set for tomorrow - John 4 & Romans 5
- Who is Jesus
- What Jesus has done for us
- The faith, hope, love that this gives us
- Here is the challenge to follow Jesus.
- To recognise who He is
- To completely trust and rely upon
- To bring others to him
- To pick up your cross and follow,
“And you will live”
I want to pick up what I shared at Assembly and keep moving us forward as the People of the Way.
We asked churches to send in photos of new life in their fellowship and the very first one we received is some grinning man digging a hole in a cemetery. Is this what the United Reformed church looks like to the world? – that we are digging our own grave! It certainly sounds like it, when I hear ourselves, overwhelmed by all our troubles, and forever talking about inevitable decline and death of the URC – digging our own grave!
Today we rediscover the way of resurrection!
Today we meet the Living Word of God
Today we walk the way of New Life!
"Come back to my son"
And I hear my Lord saying to us – are you with me? And if we are, then we will bear the pain of the sacrifice that is going to be made of you, and you will discover new life as the United Reformed Church. What will you give up on this journey of Lent
David Grosch Miller has retired to Morpeth and in doing so, had to really think about downsizing – came to the conclusion there are three types of possessions
- What has to be kept that is going to be needed to live in the new home
- What is appreciated by the family and can be given to them now
- What must be given to the charity or maybe sold
We have challenged the national church five years ago to look at ways to prune our costs. Some departments and committees were better than others in cost-saving. I think this is the wrong way round. It sounds eminently sensible to count the cost and cut the cloth accordingly. However Kingdom of God economics don’t work that way.
I believe we should first seek the things of the Kingdom and as I know God shows us what we should be doing, He provides the means – that may be new people, new buildings, new money new ways of doing things – but it may also be from us giving more freely – giving up our buildings, our people to go and be missionaries, our money from our pockets. We could even find rather than cutting costs, some things we should be investing in.
I know of churches that have still not let go of ministers who have long since moved or retired, and ministers who have not let go.
I know churches who have not let go of buildings that have long since closed, or if open have become a hindrance to the gospel and I have been in buildings that won’t let you go as they have a hold on us.
I know of churches that have not left the days of their youth, and can’t let go of behaving like a strong organisation with many members, and I have seen individuals and families that can’t let go of control of how we are church.
I know of churches that seek ministry for their own needs, and I have heard churches constantly asking what they are getting out of something.
No! No! No! Not that this is happening – but No to my telling it! The problem of SWAT analysis – we always concentrate on the weaknesses and threats rather than the strengths and opportunities. We hear the negatives and we either become self-righteous or else if we do identify ourselves we feel dismal failure! Prophecies of Doom are self-fulfilling. The Word of Real Hope is liberating! This is the time for generosity of Spirit.
In the Foreword to the The Appreciative Enquiry Handbook David Cooperrider, Diane Whitney, Jacqueline Stavros. It explains why the book was still needed to justify a second edition - because “ The fundamentals are sound. I believe the core principles (Chapter 1) and their theoretical roots (mini-lectures) remain the bedrock of this practice. Fundamentally, AI is still about changing attitudes, behaviours, and practices through appreciative conversations and relationships - interactions designed to bring out the best in people so that they can imagine a preferred future together that is more hopeful, boundless, and inherently good It is still about socially constructing a shared future and enacting human systems through the questions asked. And it is still about anticipatory learning—finding those positive, anticipatory images of the future that compel action toward them.”
But there is also a very telling quotation too:- “Be the Change You Want To See In The world” Gandhi
It is happening - I passionately believe the Church is being called by God to engage in this great transformation of peoples’ lives, and communities, institutions and society. When we start engaging with each other in an Appreciative heart then as the conversation begins and the questions are asked we discover a faith in god for all God has given, a hope for the future and a love for living it out today. Walking the Way as disciples, with a heart for Appreciative enquiry to listen to God and our neighbours strips us bare to expose Faith, Hope and Love and the greatest of these – thank you for those places where I see that Authentic Love of Jesus
Synod with all your reserves, churches with all your assets, people with deeper pockets than 90% of the world – come back to my son, give yourself completely and receive all you need for eternal life.
Its Edwardian building was the result of a competition with the Baptists to secure the best architect. Relationships with the Baptist church would never be good. It had a hall built the size of an aerodrome because of the huge pantomimes in the 50s – never had another one. But it was a very busy church – well used and its members worn out by their business. They couldn’t stop. And a Church proud of its world development projects.
But its old damp smelling rambling building was dragging it into a bottomless pit but had to be kept because it was “congre” and beloved by its members. When we seriously were faced with the challenge of what to do – someone said this will tear the church apart.
It treasured its organ, and was indispensable for all the oratorios performed there. It was the organist who suggested we stop everything – and just pray. Up to 70 and more people met every week for payer and after 6 months we voted to demolish , go into the community and seek God there.
To get there that church had to be stripped naked, and the story of the next ten years would be one of pain and struggle – but knowing as never before Jesus is with us.
A Church community ready to die to live
I know a dairy farmer serving his community as a conservative counsellor, and his church as church secretary. It was he who was prepared to give up our beloved church building to unite with the Methodists, and much of our independence to work with the Anglicans so we could better engage the village; it was he who would suffer all this new-fangled worship to relate to young people; it was he who released me to spend more time in house groups and prayer times for the searchers and enquirers; it was he who gave generously of spirit.
A community in Sheffield cried out for help and church leaders met together and literally cried together, and found that generosity of Spirit for each denomination to offer what it could for real and meaningful mission to that estate.
I discovered a letter in which national church leaders cried out about the problems of ageing and declining church congregations, crumbling buildings and lack of money. The letter was written in the Congregational Church of 1939! But in that letter they concluded that these were not the real problems at all – but a desperate need for commitment to the way of Christ. Now is that time again.
"Come back to my Son"
I will be dismayed if Walking the Way is but another programme from London.
I am scared if it is thought of as a magic wand to solve all our problems;
but if it is a call from Christ to follow him, then I have confidence in God alone.
That invitation cannot be cheap grace:
- Resurrection without cross
- Forgiveness without repentance
- Kingdom of God without disciplineship
- Remember where Walking the Way comes from – preparing for evangelism –
Bonhoeffer, in his book Discipleship, he wrote: “From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. Do not interpret or apply, but do it and obey. That is the only way Jesus’ word is really heard. But again, doing something is not to be understood as an ideal possibility; instead, we are simply to begin acting.”
So we can’t wait until we’ve got to the end of the course and been certified!
When Jesus knew all that was going to happen to him he didn’t offer them another mission strategy, church house initiative or even the latest thinking from evangelical publications - he simply told them to go home and he’d meet them there. Just look at the meeting between Jesus and the woman from Samaria – how it transformed her life, then her community, and after Jesus’ resurrection, we learn the area was ripe for harvest.
I was given the picture of a cartoon of Laodicea United Reformed Church, beginning with the shame of Jesus standing outside His Church - but I saw the door open and Jesus go in. I heard the words “Let go” and “Follow me” and then Jesus came out followed by tens and hundreds and thousands of us into the world!
- Let go
- Let God
- Let’s go
- Let’s go with God
To Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and East Midlands and the ends of the world!
Jesus does not ask us to follow where he has not been before. Pick up the cross, as He has walked the path of utter trust in God. This requires mustard-seed faith!
There is a world of lost and wayward people, - seek the lost, call them home, invite them to the feast. Let justice flow…
Look closely again at the photo from Wales – it is not a picture of a grave digger – it is Simon Walkling, moderator of Wales, yes in a cemetery, but digging a hole to plant a tree. I met an amazing Muslim woman in the West Bank, and when I asked her how she could keep hope, she said, “I tell everyone to plant a tree – as this says we still have a future.”
Go plant your footprint, one step at a time into your community, walk with your neighbour and you will find the living Lord Jesus walking with you and ahead of you.
Listen now to his invitation,
“Let go. Follow me” as we all cry “Amen!” “Show us the Way!”
A People Waiting to be Surprised!
God is sovereign! Perhaps that goes without saying. Certainly for us, a Reformed and Dissenting people it should. Its in our life blood, its in our DNA!
Not long ago I had a conversation with a woman of a different Christian tradition who shared with me the problems they are having in her church. She found the situation all the more puzzling as they'd “Chosen” their minister very carefully – detailing what age he’d (yes he) be and his marital status, years of experience, and that his skills would match perfectly what the church needed. I listened with a lot of sympathy as she unfolded what had gone wrong.
But as I reﬂected on that conversation, I realised what a different approach that denomination has to our own. One of the treasures of the United Reformed Church is our emphasis on the sovereignty of God and we work this out in very practical ways through our structures. Some years ago Mission Council discussed and shared what we valued most about the URC and in particular what we believed was unique to the URC. What Faith and Order picked up was that it was the Church Meeting that made us what we are. That Group went on to produce “What is the Spirit Saying to the Church” — a great title and germane to the theme of this short sermon although the contents were deemed a little indigestible by our churches!
But in fact, several denominations have church meetings —- the Baptists and Elim Pentecostals to name but two.
What makes us what we are is often a matter of emphasis rather than being able to point to just one thing. And what I am suggesting is that we emphasise the sovereignty of God rather more than most.
And we see this writ through everything we do, whether we know it or not. We are a people waiting to be surprised because we are a people who deem it not right to control or predict in human terms the direction and future of the church. We are a people dependant on God and both confident and content in God's goodness, recognising God's sovereignty. Our church meetings were never meant to be places where the sovereignty of the local church is asserted or even worse, the sovereignty of the loudest voice or biggest bully in the playground be asserted. Our church meetings were and are meant to be the place where we pray and together seek the mind of Christ and I've been in some wonderful Church Meetings where folk have left saying “I don't know what happened. I came determined to vote one way and left having voted the other way!” Praise God!!
When we call a minister, we are not conducting a job interview. Just occasionally I find myself needing to remind elders meetings of this — beware the secularisation of the church and of our precious processes. We are God's people and God is sovereign — so when we are meeting a minister with a view to him or her becoming our next minister we are seeking the mind of Christ once again — the question is not ever “Is this our woman? Is this our man?” The question is always “Is this God's woman for us, is this God's man for us?”
And the same is true when we elect elders and others to works of service within and without the life of the local church.
Peter had a rude reminder of the sovereignty of God from the lips of Jesus. Peter needed to learn to be a man “waiting to be surprised” — surprised by God. He had God all mapped out — he had read the management hook on leadership for Messiahs! He knew exactly what Jesus should do next. Peter's Holy Spirit inspired confession should now be followed up with strong leadership and the conquering of occupied Jerusalem. Die there? What on earth was Jesus thinking of? Well Jesus was thinking of the sovereignty of his Father — it was the will of his Father that mattered and that‘ s all that mattered! And we see the agony of that in Gethsemane!
Next time you're part of a service that reads the Statement of the Nature Faith and Order of the URC listen for the bits that emphasise the sovereignty of God. There's dynamite in there — theology that led the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth to persuade the Lutheran great Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had been brought up to believe he should accept all earthly authority as from God — even evil ones, that our, sovereign God demands ultimate loyalty and obedience and therefore there are times when obedience to God means disobeying states or monarchs. Dangerous stuff— but then following Jesus often is!