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A sermon for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year C (2019)

The relevant Bible readings are:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33

What a week! This was the week when we were invited to consider the rather unusual prospect of our nation’s Prime Minister lying dead in a ditch. To be fair to him, Mr. Johnson didn’t say that was a position he aspired to, but he did respond to a question about seeking a further extension to Brexit with those very words, “I’d rather be dead in a ditch.” It was only a throw-away line in response to a press conference question, but what he seemed to be suggesting was that he couldn’t envisage any situation quite as appalling as himself going cap-in-hand to the authorities in Brussels to ask their permission to spend £1 billion per month for several more months as a membership fee for a club he doesn’t believe the country should belong to in any case. In a peculiar way, that characteristically BoJo turn of phrase was refreshingly direct after all the Machiavellian machinations that had been going on away from the cameras during the preceding days.

And today’s set reading from Deuteronomy also has a certain directness about it – a simple clarity. 120 eventful years have passed since we met Moses as a baby hidden in a basket among the bulrushes, and now that same Moses is coming towards the end of his life and doing what he can to make arrangements for what will happen after he’s gone. He has appointed Joshua as his successor; one by one he has blessed Israel’s twelve tribes; and now, before he dies, he has something to say to each member of every one of those tribes. He offers them a choice, the unambiguous choice between life on the one hand and death on the other. Life flows from faithfulness to the Lord God and obedience to his commandments. Death is the consequence of infidelity and disobedience. It’s an invitation to God’s covenant people to follow the path which will help them to flourish, prospering in the land of freedom and not to end up lying dead in a ditch.

Fast forward maybe 1½ millennia to the time of Jesus. As we read today’s gospel passage, we see that people are once again being offered a choice. This time the question about their loyalty to God is focussed through their response to Jesus. Now if you heard Mr. Johnson’s ‘dead in a ditch’ comment and thought, ‘that’s just hyperbole,’ well Jesus takes hyperbole to a whole new level as he describes the cost of discipleship. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” Jesus sets the bar very high when it comes to commitment. His advice is to weigh things up carefully before you jump in. Treat the life of discipleship as you would a building project. Nothing stands as such an embarrassing monument to folly as an ambitious building project that has been left, abandoned incomplete because the cash ran out.

Discipleship is costly, says Jesus. Before you set off down that path you need to be clear in your own mind that there’s nothing but nothing that’s more important to you. Give your ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call to follow, and at some point you will end up carrying a cross. Of course, what looks improbable isn’t necessarily impossible. Look back through the twenty centuries that God’s church has been around, and you’ll see time and time again that through God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the way situations should logically have turned out was very far from what actually ended up happening. The Book of Acts explodes into life as a group of Galilean fishermen declare that their crucified leader has risen from the grave – and 3,000 people  hear the message in languages they can understand. That was remarkable enough in itself, but what’s even more amazing is that they respond to it, they have their lives turned around and they start the process of taking what became the Christian faith to every corner of the inhabited world.

We in Western Europe have become used over many decades to seeing our the attendance at our churches shrink year on year. That decline has carried on for such a long time that none of us is old enough to remember times of growth. God does remarkable things, though. We believe that the God who made us all, and who loves every man, woman and child in every generation will find ways of calling people into the Kingdom. Of course God’s ways may not be the ways we’d expect. A very few months ago and a very few streets from where we’re sitting now*, what had once been a Bingo Hall re-opened, transformed, as a centre for God’s work among his people and in the wider community. That Bingo Hall was the Salthouse Pavilion. The story behind its new lease of life has to do with a congregation which had outgrown its premises and needed to move on to that unlikely place as God called them to continue expanding their work. Listen for God’s voice. Be prepared to have him lead you in ways you’d never have expected. Test your commitment against what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel and elsewhere about the cost of discipleship.

And, says Jesus, before you go in all guns blazing, stand back and take a dispassionate look at what’s likely to be the end result. If your army is 10,000 strong and your enemy has 20,000 soldiers in his, can you reasonably hope for a positive outcome? You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say, ‘don’t do it’. After all, he’d have known the story of Gideon’s battle with the Midianites better than you do. I’m talking about the story where the Bible says of Gideon’s enemy, “The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” Gideon’s so-called army was easy to count. From a fairly thin looking 32,000, a series of tests had whittled it down to just 300 men. But those 300 with the least promising weaponry imaginable, but with faith in God, secured the promised victory.

I doesn’t always happen. The same man who brought us ‘dead in a ditch’ says he believes that with a single nation on one side of the negotiating table and twenty-seven sitting shoulder to shoulder on the other side, the one nation’s negotiators can bring home a favourable deal. Plenty of others pour scorn on that idea. But switch your focus from politics to the things of the Kingdom and you see that Jesus doesn’t ask us to play the numbers game. The commander of 10,000 troops could feel pretty vulnerable when faced with twice as many marching towards him. And the man who hates father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters could be desperately isolated and lonely. But Jesus calls us to pledge him our deepest allegiance. He will not leave high and dry. As Luke writes a little earlier in the gospel, we are to “seek [God’s] kingdom, and these things – the ordinary necessities of life – will be given to [us] as well. And we will discover the joy of eternal life in Jesus’ name. Amen.

*This sermon was delivered at Ramsden Street United Reformed Church, Barrow-in-Furness.

In Praise of Younger Ministers

Someone needed to say this. In fact it needs to be said more and more often and more and more clearly.

davideflavell

I recently attended an event where a number of young ministers were accepted for training. I found the whole event inspiring and encouraging. It gave me hope for the Church of the future.

Looking at their youthfulness, brought to mind the often heard, but factually unfounded idea that younger ministers “should go away and spend some time in the real world” before they work for the church.

The overtly negative effect of this is to cut the number of years that a minister will serve, (if they come back at all), reducing the amount of ministry available to the Church.

But I’m more concerned with the mistaken attitudes underlying the idea. Here are eight hidden assumptions which show why the statement is so damaging.

  1. It assumes that the Bible is wrong. Paul tells Timothy Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. I expect he could…

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Ordinary 25 Year B – Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour Party

If you’d spent 30 years or more watching from the back benches of the House of Commons as some of the best known men and women in Britain debated the issues which would affect the lives of millions of ordinary people, wouldn’t you want to make that journey of just a handful of yards that would take you to the front bench or even to a place at the dispatch box? Wouldn’t you want to be the one asking the hard questions, pressing for answers, getting involved in the thick of the action, really making a difference – and getting admired & remembered for it? Jeremy Corbyn has been an MP for decades, but in all that time he never really got anywhere near high office, and only a matter of a relatively few weeks back it seemed so obvious that he didn’t stand a chance of being elected Labour leader that some colleagues who didn’t even agree with his brand of left wing politics signed his nomination paper just so that there could be a wider debate than the party looked set to have. And then the unthinkable happened and the man in the donkey jacket won the vote.

Just think of it. Having hardly even been a household name in his own household at the beginning of the summer, suddenly Jeremy Corbyn was choosing a team to join him around the shadow cabinet table and share his struggle to help shape the life of the nation. And then came Prime Minister’s Questions. How very many MPs have longed for the opportunity to raise a whole series of issues with the PM, or to explore just one in depth, putting him on the spot & watching him squirm? When Jeremy Corbyn didn’t make the moment all about himself but presented questions sent in by a handful of his forty thousand correspondents earlier in the week, the media talked about almost nothing else for days. Because that’s not how people are.

Jesus knew what makes people tick, so even if he didn’t overhear a word of what the disciples were talking about as they walked along the road to Capernaum he’d have had no difficulty in guessing what their tense, angry exchanges had all been about. The Transfiguration and all that followed it was still fresh in their minds. Jesus had taken just Peter, James and John with him on that occasion. They were the ones who’d seen his radiant glory for themselves. And surely it was no coincidence that out of all the people who followed Jesus it had been the same three he took with him when he raised the synagogue ruler’s little daughter from the dead.. Peter, James and John seemed to be developing into Jesus’ most trusted circle, his closest confidants.

But that didn’t stop the others wanting to make sure they got as close as possible to where the action was. And astonishingly even those most favoured three weren’t all content to leave the matter there. “two out of three ain’t bad”, Meatloaf used to sing, but that’s evidently not how James and John saw it. Who could forget the occasion when their mum turned herself into a one woman lobbying company on their behalf, appealing for her boys to be given the very best seats – the ones on Jesus’ right and left when his kingdom was brought in? On that occasion Jesus heard the lady out, but answered the young men directly – because they were the ones who thought they were climbing God’s own greasy pole. Jesus’ answer then had more to do with suffering than with glory, and when he tackles the wider disciple group in today’s reading, he spells out in words of three letters that the greatest of them will be marked out not by praise or adulation or an adoring crowd of admirers, but by sheer humility – “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s thirty years spent languishing in the obscurity of the back benches while governments of both colours came and went around him were as nothing to Jesus’ early life. Tucked away in the village carpenter’s workshop, learning the family trade, he’d have been unknown outside his own little community until his baptism in the Jordan started bringing him to wider attention. But even then Jesus wasn’t seeking out the limelight. As Mark records the story, Jesus’ baptism was followed closely by a whole string of miracles. But as you read through the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel, every one of them is accompanied either by a refusal to let the evil spirits Jesus drove out speak of him, or by a strict instruction to the person he healed to keep what had happened to himself. It’s hard to speak of Jesus and ambition in the same breath, but if he was ambitious, his longing was to see his Father’s kingdom come, his rule established in the lives of men and women, God’s very different values changing a world more often marked out by envy and power struggles and by a jostling for position that often leaves the weakest trampled underfoot.

Our other reading speaks repeatedly of ‘selfish ambition’, so quite clearly such a thing hadn’t gone away in the time James wrote his letter, any more than it has disappeared from today’s world. And James contrasts that ‘selfish ambition’ with ‘the wisdom that comes from heaven’; he spells out what that wisdom is like – pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy – almost all of them characteristics you’d look for in vain in an ambitious person headed for the top of the tree, and ready and willing to use other people as the branches to climb on on the way up. Thankfully for those who will hear God’s word and walk in God’s way, our reading ends with an invitation and a promise. It’s an invitation we accept and a promise we claim as we gather around the Lord’s table this morning – “draw near to God and God will draw near to you”.

Surely not an apology?

Well yes – this dinosaur hasn’t got the first clue about blogging, but is about to take the plunge.

Born in Cornwall in 1961, I became a Methodist minister in my 20s and have been on mission to the English ever since. The theory is that my posts here will explore something of my ‘roots’ in my Celtic homeland and touch on the (rather varied) ‘routes’ that have finally brought me to a more settled life rather a long way further north. Who knows what other themes might get picked up if I genuinely succeed in activating a blog which I’ve left lying dormant for more than two years (thank you, WordPress, for bearing with me…)