Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Challenge of His Message

The third of my Lenten talks . . .

“Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in secret, preach from the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).

One of the issues I come across again and again in ministry is the person who says, “My faith is just between me and God.” In fact that sometimes almost seems to be the mantra of the Church of England, which I think, in my darker moments, could explain a lot. Like that other regular, “Charity begins at home”, there is virtually nothing in scripture to support it.

Though of course one does have to admit that Jesus did preach against the Pharisees and their very obvious displays of piety. Remember how they liked to stand on the street corners to pray; remember too how Jesus called them “whited sepulchres” - like the whitewashed funeral monuments that looked good on the outside but inside were full of corruption.

Jesus spoke against the Pharisees because their display was designed to draw attention to themselves. They enjoyed looking good, they liked to be noticed.  In the days when churchgoing carried more status than it does these days, there were certainly elements of the Pharisee about in the good old C of E. Anthony Trollope contrasts the quiet devotion of Septimus Harding with the too obvious piety of Obadiah Slope, for example, in the fictitious city of Barchester.

But one thing Jesus clearly doesn’t tell us is that we should keep our message to ourselves. Nor does he say that we should sit back quietly and let the vicar do it all. It’s all very well to say that in these parishes we need a vicar who is out and about, and who talks to people on the street, in the shop, down the pub - amen to all of that I say, by the way - but they do need to be able to identify more Christians than just the chap, or the woman, in the funny collar.

“Ah, but they do know which of us go to church,” you might say. “Excellent, that’s a good beginning,” I might say, “but it shouldn’t be the whole story.” Now shouting from the rooftops would have been easier back in the day of Jesus, when roofs were flat and the weather was warm. What might be the equivalent today? What do people need to hear, how can our message be made relevant to people’s real lives, real questions, and how should we do it?

Dare I mention once more at this point the words Mission Action Plan? That thing we haven’t yet done? Mission: let’s not be under any misapprehensions here. Jesus is talking about doing mission, and he’s saying that we all need to be involved. So what is mission, and where does it begin? Mission is sharing God’s word, sharing God in fact, sharing Jesus - but it begins not with shouting, from rooftops or anywhere else, but with listening. Even if you’re just putting together an advertising campaign for a new washing up liquid, you need to begin with questions: “When they’re washing up, what do people want, what are they hoping for, what isn’t working, what are their anxieties?” No point in putting together a campaign that doesn’t scratch where people are itching. Or a mission.

Action: but, having listened, assessed, we do need to be doing stuff, and not just sitting on our hands. And it isn’t speaking so much as caring that gets the message across. Caring, and inviting. So it’s the right sort of action we need, and to do that, we need a . . .

Plan: I’m usually too impatient to do this well. I have previous as regards rushing into things, and acting too quickly on ideas that really needed more work. Worth remembering: even Jesus took time out - in the wilderness at the start of it all, but constantly through his ministry, too. If he needed it, what makes me think I don’t? Jesus in the wilderness faced up to the problems and temptations that might otherwise have derailed him. Jesus constantly took time to pray, and planning and prayer belong together. God needs to be part of our planning! God needs to be the centre of our planning!

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