Sunday, 13 July 2008

An intelligent church prepares the ground

I have been reading Steve Chalke's recent book: Intelligent Church and this sermon is in part inspired by some of the insights he makes in the course of what is an excellent and challenging work:

Sermon for Sunday 13th July 2008

In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 we are very usefully provided with an interpretation of the parable. Seed (the Word of God) is sown in various conditions and according to the ground on which it falls (the people who hear it) it either prospers or dies. And even without the interpretation, anyone with even a basic knowledge of gardening would understand the symbolism in this parable. The hearers of the Word are either shallow, rootless, distracted or lastly deep and receptive to it.

It is tempting to look at these different types of hearers and ask ourselves which group we fall into: Are we shallow and easily swayed? Are we lacking in endurance? Are we too busy surviving to think of the deeper things of life or are we well grounded and nourished, fertile ground for the Word to take root? 

Whatever our answer, perhaps a better question to ask ourselves is this: What are we doing to prepare the ground so that the Word of God can take root and bear fruit in the lives of others? It is all to easy to resign ourselves to the inevitability that for some people God will never be a part of their lives.  We criticize the rising tide of secularism and militant atheism – we despair at those who say there is no God or at least see no place for God in their lives – we speak sadly about the diminishing numbers of young people in our churches and yet we fail to ask the obvious question: Does it have to be this way? Or perhaps to rephrase the question in a more challenging way: what could I do to change things?

It is important to ask this question because we are not mere observers and the Gospel is not merely a description of the Christian life – we are participants and the Gospel is a call to action. I do not for one moment think that Jesus told this parable to describe the various ways of responding to God’s call on or lives but rather to draw to our attention to our calling as his followers.

And what is our calling? To make disciples of all nations or in other words to make Jesus known to everyone we encounter in our lives.  That might sound straightforward enough buts its not! It is counter-cultural – We live in a society which increasingly says that faith is a private concern; that it is a matter of individual devotion and fulfillment!  Who are we to tell others about this Jesus?!   And the tragedy is that we have largely given in to this pressure and allowed the Gospel to be marginalized by being ring-fenced in the private domain.  The truth is that the message of Jesus is personal but it is NOT private! It is of its very essence public! Jesus was and is political – Look at the beginning of his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth as recorded in Luke 4: “The Sprit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”.  Bear in mind that this is in the context of Roman oppression and try and argue that Jesus did not preach a radical political message. And this is no isolated passage  - look at the Sermon on the Mount and you see the same upturning of the social order! Yes Jesus is about the salvation of our souls but he is concerned for our bodies as well. He cared and cares about life before death as he cares about life after it! We must fight against this privatization of the Gospel. Dealing with this same compartmentalization of life, Steve Chalk in his recent book: ‘Intelligent Church’ quotes Archbishop Tutu who said: “If we are to say that religion cannot be concerned with politics, then we are really saying that there is a substantial part of human life in which God’s will does not run……If it is not God’s, then whose is it?

The Gospel does not exist in a vacuum – It had and continues to have deeply practical implications. A vital part of our calling is to prepare the ground for the Word of God.  We expect far too much of people if we think that they will become followers of Christ just because we tell them that it is the ‘right’ thing to do – As Chalke also comments, the theologian Walter Bruggeman once famously said – “people are not changed by moral exhortation but by transformed imagination”.  And maybe when we realize the truth of this it will release us from a burden because it just may be that we are trying too hard! Or to put it another way – we are trying to do the wrong thing! We are trying to make clones of ourselves when we are really called to make followers of Christ.  How many of us in bemoaning the disinterest of our children and others who we call ‘lapsed’ in our community of faith are really sharing the difference that Jesus makes in our lives? Young people in particular are hugely sensitive to integrity and genuine commitment and however much we preach the importance of ‘going to church’ it is a futile exercise if it is not rooted in and motivated by a love of Christ in us.

I think this is the real crisis the Church faces today – We are calling people into an institution when what they are craving is a relationship with God….a transformative relationship that empowers them to be the people that God wants them to be and to do the good that they are able to do.  We are not engaging effectively with the spiritual hunger that is out there!  We are not in the market place – we are not sharing the vision – we are keeping it to ourselves and denying it the air it needs to breathe and to flourish.

And what we are called to is infact very simple – As Chalke puts it:

It is not our job to make anyone believe. Our responsibility is simply to love God and love others….Our communities are transformed because through us, God walks our streets, feels their pain, hears their cries and responds to their need.”

It is in this way that the ground is made receptive to God’s Word – that it becomes Holy ground and we truly exercise our discipleship of Jesus. May we follow him and in that following inspire others to walk in his way.  Amen.


Joakim said...

Nice sermon, thanks - must read Chalke! Jesus, as well a Chalke, calls us to love God & love others.
Granted that the Church - in all our varieties - isn't sowing (or tilling) very well. Yes we must seek to understand why, yes we must change to do better, with God's grace.
But Jesus was completely realistic about the prospects for the seed he sowed, and so should the Church be: not all will bear fruit.
Perhaps another message from the parable is don't despair - rather give thanks for the seed that does yield a fine harvest, as we all strive to sow better in the future!

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks for that - something for next time that reading comes around - just goes to show that there is no such think as a single 'correct' interpretation of Scripture (and especially parables) - we are all caught up in the hermeneutical web :-) If only some of our more hardline colleagues in the Anglican Communion wold admit this we might at least be able to have a real conversation.