Saturday 24 June 2006

Into the Abyss?

Sermon for Sunday 25th June 2006
Gospel: Mark 4:35-41
‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
Can you imagine how rebuked the disciples must have felt when Jesus spoke those words? – They must have really stung! Jesus does not attempt to hide his frustration, his disappointment, his incredulity. The disciples are at sea in more ways than one! They are lacking in that essential gift that is Confidence – Confidence in Christ. Throughout the New Testament it is a phrase that occurs frequently, whether in 2nd Timothy, Hebrews, the letters of John – it is seen as a mark of the early Christian, a characteristic of their faith – confidence in the one whose name they proclaim…confidence in the person of Jesus Christ.
This story is but one of many where the disciples show again and again their lack of confidence in the one whom they follow. Right up to the Cross and beyond we see this crisis of confidence as a constant in their discipleship.
But that was then – this is now: Where do we see ourselves in that story? Would we be with Jesus despairing at the lack of faith of the disciples or would we be cowering below decks – fearing for our lives?
I suspect that a lot of the time and despite 2000 years of Christian history we would spend a lot of time below decks fearing the worst – hoping the storms would go away.
We are not that different than the disciples – We lack confidence – we demonstrate that in the way that we witness to the world and what is more our lack of confidence is becoming increasingly obvious to the World. We Christians are failing to inspire people with a confidence in Christ and that is something that ought to really worry us because that means that we are not engaging properly with the world in which we find ourselves. We need to remember that our faith is one of Incarnation – Word made Flesh - and that has implications.
In another age the Church was the centre of society – It was the powerbase (for better or worse) – It was the centre of community – of learning – of education – of medicine – it worked hand in glove with kings and governments. Everybody came to the Church for something or other – because the Church had power.
That is no more – those days are gone (and incidentally perhaps not such a bad thing) but the problem is that as Church we have not woken up to the fact that we are no longer the centre of the Universe – the centre of peoples lives! We still expect the world to come knocking on our door! Any recent surveys in church attendance will show that increasingly people are not knocking on our church doors – the Church is increasingly marginal in their lives and does not seem to be a part of the new world in which they find themselves.
And how do we respond? – We sit scratching our heads – trying to dream up strategies that will make church more attractive – we seek to make it more relevant – to find new ways to bring people back to Church (and if we are really honest with ourselves ‘Back to God’). There are a couple of problems with this approach – the first is that nobody’s listening or watching (or at least not the people we want to reach) – We are outside of their field of vision! The second problem is that we assume that the Church is where we are and that it is they who need to come to us! And of course we have a lot of arguments on our side – the Church as we know it has a long history – a great tradition and a historic witness to Christ through the ages. But as I said before the World has moved on and now we find ourselves in a lonely place where only occasionally we are intersecting with the wider society and the World.
So where do we go from here? The answer is in the question, and the answer is that we need to GO – go out – go into new places – uncharted waters (like the disciples in todays Gospel) but with confidence in the presence of Christ always with us. Indeed if we go back to the beginning – to Mark Chapter 1 (only a few chapters before today’s Gospel) we hear Jesus calling his first disciples.
And what was the call? Come on over to my place? Make yourselves comfortable – set up camp and everyone will come to you? NO – The call was this: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”
I must say that the older translation “fishers of men” while not PC sounded a lot better, but in fact the more modern rendering of that verse makes it clear that we are called to action that is ongoing – we are not called only to be, but to act, and of course that action is made even more explicit in Mark Chapter 16: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation”
We are not very confident in the face of such a charge or a challenge – Like the disciples we want to know where we are and we don’t like going into uncharted territory – much better to stay in familiar waters and wait for everyone to come to us. Part of the problem is that we misunderstand God’s relationship to us. We want a roadmap for life – something that will tell us what to do at every turn when in fact what God gives us is not that, but in fact something far greater: His Presence. That is what he gave to the disciples in Christ on the lake that day – his presence – not a course to avoid the storm or a forecast that would have stopped them encountering the storm but a presence that will hold them and help them through the storm. God knows that that is what we need – he knows that we as Church are a mixed bag - he knows that the Church is made up of sick people – hypocrites – dysfunctional – inconsistent and weak people and yes even that word which I confess to having a difficulty with sinners! We try very hard to make the Church the community (or a club) of the perfect and the righteous and in so doing turn many away who feel unworthy or ashamed to come to us, but God knows what we really are. He knows that we need his presence – that we are far from perfect and that even if he gave us a map we would probably read it upside down anyway and end up even more lost. It’s a bit like stopping somebody and asking for directions – They can respond in 2 ways: 1 – tell you the way or 2 – go with you on the journey. I believe that God does the latter.
So we too are called to go on a journey with Christ. We have a choice we can follow or we can find somewhere comfortable along the road and make it our home. That is what the Church has done since time immemorial but its not working anymore!
People are pushing out the boundaries – People are going into uncharted territories in search of new realities and indeed in search of meaning – WHY? Because they can! – Because the World in which we life offers possibilities and potentialities our parents could never have dreamed of! And the Church for the most part is not going on that journey – it has decided to stay at basecamp! Centuries of tradition have given us too much to loose! And yet if we read today’s Epistle from 2nd Corinthians there is that wonderful phrase; “Having nothing and yet possessing everything” . Perhaps we really do have too much to loose. We want to be possessors when in fact we are being called to be seekers and followers…..and like all who go on a long journey it is easier in the long run to travel light. We lack that basic confidence that is the mark of the disciple – a confidence in the presence of Christ in our midst. That was the recurring problem for the first followers of Jesus and that is our problem too. We don’t like uncharted waters…. And when we loose confidence in Christ we put our confidence instead into institutions like Churches which of themselves have no life except that which Christ breathes into them. It is a difficult truth to swallow but Church if it ever was is no longer a static entity but a fluid reality more like a river in which many of our people are being carried along. Can we let go of enough to join them on that journey – can we really embrace that vision of “having nothing and yet possessing everything”? I leave you with that question. I’m not sure I know the answer yet but I know it is something that we will have to face up to if we are to fulfil our calling to “proclaim the good news to the whole creation”.