The Truth Business

The sermon that I have included here is one I preached recently that seemed to elicit quite an interesting reaction. A couple of people responded with great appreciation and another person expressed concern that they “wanted their minister to be more ministerial”. I suspect that what this person wanted was a “religious professional” and what I was trying to do was to be honest about myself and how I feel about my role as a minister.

I well remember an elder in a previous charge who had been a newspaper editor (of the “Old School”),  once telling me, that ministers and journalists should have a lot in common as they are both in the truth business. I have always valued that comment. There is always a risk that a journalist will twist the truth and make a story “juicier” in order to sell a newspaper and so honesty takes second place to a good story. The risk for the preacher is that they tell people what they want to hear or say things that he thinks he ought to say. That is not necessarily being honest. So, here is the sermon. I would be interested to know if you think that there should ever be a conflict between truth telling and preaching.

Sermon preached on Sunday 18th October 2009

“You do not understand what you are asking” Mark 10: 38

The disciples of Jesus want prominence, power and status within Jesus’ “organisation”. They squabble amongst themselves, vie and push and shove and fall out with each other, as disciples of Jesus have done ever since.

Let me say one thing that might sound controversial: It is more important as a Christian to be human than it is to be religious.

What the disciples wanted for themselves were religious honours and privilege, what Jesus was reminding them of was their all too real humanity. In the Nicene Creed, we say of Christ that “he was made man”. In John’s gospel, we read, “and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” neither the Creed nor the Gospel say he became anything other than a man. He was not described as a priest or a bishop or as one set above or apart from the common herd of humanity. He became a man.

The longer I am a minister, the less religious I am becoming. Of course, the institutional church is something I still love, (and get frustrated by in equal measure!) I wish to follow Jesus, probably with more determination than ever, but the trappings of the church, that I admit once held out a certain appeal, seduce me less and less.   Of course the risen body of Christ needs to be incarnated by an institutional church. I do not have any difficulty with the existence of “the Church”.

What I am coming more and more to feel, however, is that the task of the Church is not so much a Christian one as a human one. God addresses us as human beings as much as he comes to us as a human being. He attends to the depth of the human condition by living it. It is not a matter of membership or institutional identity that matters. And so the task of the church is not its own self – preservation or glorification, it is not to make people more religious but more human. The church’s role is to enable the life of Christ to spring up in the person and in the community. Our primary task in the world is not to tinker with and perfect, or even extend the institution, it is primarily about enabling people to encounter the living God and become more fully alive as people made in the image of God, living life in all its fullness. “In Him was life and the life was the light of men” John 1:4.

Roland Walls, who lives in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin, just outside Edinburgh tells a story of when he was asked to go and minister in an inner city parish in the heart of Sheffield in the 1950s. He did not quite know how to start and how to get alongside people in an area of multiple – deprivation. All he knew was that it wouldn’t do any good to hide in a church building. He knew that many people feel themselves so unworthy or inadequate that they would not dare approach a church. He also realised, even in the 50s, that the church could be dangerously disconnected from the rawness and reality of how people lived their lives.

So, having heard about the French “worker priest” movement, a group of Christian ministers who worked alongside people in their daily lives in factories or shipyards or building sites, wherever people got their hands dirty, Roland thought that was for him. The movement had spread to a tiny community in London and he decided to pay them a visit. Perhaps with a little irony, he found he had to get to their little office by passing Lambeth Palace, the vast and very grand London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He found his way to a grubby little cul-de-sac called Pratt Street and, on top of a greengrocer’s shop, he found the “Jesus Caritas” Centre, which this worker priest movement called itself. (Apparently, someone thought it might be good to translate this name into English, so they put up a sign, “Jesus Love” on the door. A few weeks later, they received a Littlewoods Pools Coupon addressed to J. Love Esq!)

During conversations about preparing worker priests and enabling people in ministry to find a way of being alongside the 80% of the human race who are not in church on a Sunday, he asked their leader how long they kept people in training. “Oh, anything up to 10 years came the reply”. Roland asked, “So, when are they ready?” The reply was very stark and very human, “they are ready when they are prepared to fail”. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews points out as we heard earlier, “even the High Priest is beset by his weakness” Hebrews 5:2. This is surely the message of Jesus’ encounter with his scheming disciples. They want to raise themselves up above their besetting, flawed human condition and Jesus has to rebuke them and remind them that they are “only” human, that they should not get above themselves.

The disciples want to get on, they want to be lifted up above the crowd and become mighty ones, revered and released from the all pervading sense of their own botched human condition. And Christ, the incarnate one, the one who became flesh and dwelt among us, knows that to be any use at all you need to be prepared to stand in the mud, to embrace your humanity, your human poverty and frailty. As Christ emptied himself of status and prominence and power, so he is inviting his disciples not to hanker for these things but to embrace their humanity. It is more important to be human than it is to be religious, or to aspire to be some kind of spiritual aristocrat.

For many years I have worried about a trend in myself. It is this thing about getting to be less and less religious, less and less hung up on the structures and the dog collar wearing and the advancement of the Christian religion. I have worried because if it is my job to “whip up religion in other folk” and I have less and less of it in myself then maybe there is a problem. And then I read the narrative of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples and he says to them, “you do not know what you are asking”. But he goes on, he does not leave it there, he says to them, “you will drink the cup I drink and you will share my baptism”. But sharing in his minisrty is not about ruling and being mighty and a cut above, “whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve”.

And this, surely, is the ministry in which each of us has a share, a ministry of humanity, not a high and mighty ministry, not a “churchy,” “lording it” type of ministry but a ministry of humanity and love. A ministry in which one sees and shares in the pain of others, feeling with compassion for the lost, walking in solidarity with those who limp and hirple through life, carrying the marks of life upon them. We are called to a ministry of loving, sharing, meeting, living, feeling and caring. Are not these some of the greatest words and greatest works of human existence? Are not they also earthy words and works, very connected to the mud and tears, the vulnerability and naturalness of human existence? Someone whose writing I love, in a rather acerbic aside, once described churchy, pious people as engaging in “remote metaphysical chatter” and I have to say some of the characterisations of vicars and ministers in the media (such as the minister in Dad’s Army) give the strong impression of being “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use”, to quote a famous phrase.

Now, you may then say, what is the point of the church, now that you have taken a swipe at its ministry? When we gathered some time ago as a congregation to think about our role and vision for our ministry in the community in which we are set, someone said that the church must have, amongst its many roles, “an intercessory task on behalf of the world”. I have thought a lot about that comment ever since. By that, I do not think that this person meant that we should be bombarding God with tasks and requests. Intercession on behalf of the world is not about giving God information. Rather, I think that this role is about nurturing the life of prayer and enabling us all to stand naked before God in all our human frailty, brokenness, vanity, weakness and waywardness. It is about helping us to expose the raw and often hurting state of our humanity. In prayer, we pay attention to the empty handedness and helplessness of the human condition and then allow the Spirit to fill that void.

The disciples wanted greatness for themselves and sought escape from their wretched human condition, but the incarnate one reminds them that it is in open, passive emptiness that we can be filled, and sometimes we hide behind the trappings and finery with which we surround ourselves in order to avoid being exposed.  But, like these worker priests, and the disciples too, we are only really any use when we embrace our humanity rather than our religiosity. We are only ready when we are prepared to fail.

I remember John V. Taylor, the late former Bishop of Winchester, writing that if your religion brings you more fully to life then God is assuredly for it, but if your religion diminishes your capacity for living life in all its fullness then you can be certain that God will be against such religion. So, I believe that God is far less interested in how religious we are and is far more concerned with how alive we are.                                                                                                                                                                                Amen.

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