Politics, Prayer and Identity: Taking Risks with the URC.

Politics, Prayer and Identity: Taking Risks with the URC.

 

Sermon by Ed Cox at the Induction of Craig Muir, 14 February 2009

Luke 9:7-20

I have been a bit greedy with my gospel reading this afternoon: it is actually three chunks of text rolled up into one. The first concerns Herod’s perplexity. Then, the Feeding of the Five Thousand; and thirdly, Jesus with the disciples. But sometimes it’s important not to take our readings in isolation. And this is true here. The famous story about the feeding of the 5000 is topped and tailed by 2 short passages all about identity. Before the main story you’ve got Herod asking ‘who is this guy going around doing all this healing & preaching?’

Then after the main story you’ve got Jesus asking his disciples: ‘who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?’

And I think that what Luke is doing here is prompting us to ask that same question? Who is this Jesus? But rather than answer it with a kind of abstract description, Luke answers it by painting a picture, by telling a story: the story of the feeding of the 5000. It’s all about who Jesus is. It’s all about identity.

Who do the crowds say I am?

Now many of you are probably looking at me and wondering – who is this guy? You’re probably beginning to weigh me up –suit, tie, haircut, voice, style etc. I give off plenty of clues. But those of you with a bit of technical savvy might be a bit more sophisticated. Perhaps you might choose to google me on the internet!

Well – to save you the bother: You’ll find out that I’m a bit of a policy-wonk. I’m interested in all things community – community involvement, community development, community cohesion, local democracy, councillors, neighbourhoods. And you’ll find that I’m currently a Policy Adviser to the Secretary of State for Communities – Hazel Blears. But you’ll also find that I live in Manchester, and I chair something called the Levenshulme Inspire Partnership. A group of agencies that are working together to transform Levenshulme United Reformed Church into an all-singing all-dancing community centre.

Well, that tells you a bit about what I do – but what about who I really am? Now google won’t tell you that. For that, you’ll have to go onto my Facebook profile! Facebook? How many of you have come across Facebook? Some people will tell you it’s the best thing since sliced bread. You can find friends and send each other messages and share sermon ideas And join groups on anything and everything. But in my experience – it’s the biggest tool for procrastination ever invented. You can spend hours on it – and some people really do. In fact, you need to know that Craig is rather partial to Facebook. And I thought you might like to see his front page from today …

 

But what strikes me about Facebook is that it’s all about identity. People are always putting up messages about themselves and each others for all to see. And they are all about how they define themselves. Identity so important to us – who are we?

Sometimes we treat identity as a dirty word but identity was important to Jesus too. What did people think? What did his friends think? But I want to ask the question this afternoon? Who do the crowds say we are? We – as members of Stoke, St Columbas and Wyken churches. We – as representatives of the United Reformed Church. Who do people say we are?

Here’s a quiz for you.

How big is the URC? – how many churches? How many ministers?

Are we growing or declining?

Who is our General Secretary and our Moderator?

When were we founded?

What was the theme of last year’s General Assembly?

What is your favourite bit of the statement of Nature, Faith and Order? – can you recite it?

Who is your favourite well-known URC member? – why?

Have you seen our new website?

 

Now what about if we went on to the streets of Coventry and asked people who they thought we were. “I’m a member of the URC – what do you think about that?” What do you think people would say?

Compare this to me saying I’m a Coventry City fan. I love Robbie Williams. I work for Marks & Spencers. It means something – people know what Coventy City, Robbie Williams or M&S stand for. They can associate things with Coventry City – stories of FA Cup Finals & stadium moves. We know what it means to be a Robbie Williams fan – the tattoos, TakeThat, the drugs. And if someone works for M&S you can talk to them about the quality of their pants, or the adverts, or the downturn. They’ve got stories to tell – there’s a shared language of identity. If you say you’re a Coventry City fan, you know what it means. If you say you love Robbie Williams, you know which albums you should have. If you say you work from M&S, you won’t think twice about pulling on that lovely black embroidered fleece.

My point is this: It is no wonder that people don’t know who we are – because so often we don’t have a story to tell. We’re not sure of our identity. We not confident to put on the badge. And if we don’t have that confidence then we don’t get into conversations about it.

But I’m not pretending that this is a straightforward challenge. Understanding our identity is a complex and sometimes difficult task – some aspects of it are easy: simply knowing a bit more about the URC and our roots and traditions is something that we could all try a bit harder to get to know. But let’s be honest – we live in a society that is largely cynical and resistant to Christian faith.

There is a huge amount of what I call agnostic acquiescence – people who on balance might feel that there probably is a God but there’s not much point doing anything about it – and certainly not talking about it. People who will always have better things to do on a Sunday morning. But did you know that 72% of people in this country call themselves Christian – and yet barely 12% actually do anything about it. Perhaps getting their spiritual kicks from a nice walk in the park. When we consider the responses to the deaths of soldiers or major public figures or the growing numbers of roadside memorials, it is clear for all to see that the germs of faith infuse many aspects of our contemporary cultural practices.

But what is perhaps more alarming is the growing hostility that it being generated by a vociferous band of atheists fronted by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the National Secular Society. You might have seen their recent bus campaign. Big adverts on buses saying: “There probably is no God – so enjoy your life.” (I think the probably in that sentence is very telling). These people are very clear about their identity – what I find so sad is that it is an identity based on what they are against rather than what they are for.

Last week, my boss Hazel Blears, gave a speech at the Evangelical Alliance Conference and she was talking about the role of churches in the economic downturn and she said that Jesus would probably understand what its like to live through a downturn because many of the problems he confronted had to do with money, jobs and practical problems. And for the National Secular Society it was as if the world had fallen in. They immediately wrote to all the papers saying politicians shouldn’t be allowed to preach sermons; public figures should keep their faith as a private matter; some of what they said was really hateful.

So I’m not pretending for a moment that holding a Christian identity is easy. But let us be clear: the society in which we live today is not that different from the society in which Jesus lived. In first century Palestine, the vast majority had some kind of faith or another but it was infused with strange cultural practices – very often the kinds of practice that suppressed women, marginalised disabled people – and generally preserved the status quo. And let us remember that the gospel of Luke was written by a Greek doctor for a largely pagan, gentile audience. In fact, the passage that we have read this morning gives us a lot of clues as to the kind of society that it was.

 

Our reading begins with Herod being perplexed. Perplexed.It’s a great word for society today. In part perplexity is about complexity – things are just too complicated to fully understand: John rising from the dead, Elijah appearing – or was it another ancient prophet? – and then there’s this Jesus guy – Herod was getting confused.

And in part it’s about disbelief. Herod was sure he’d chopped off John’s head – so had he come back to life? Or had some ancient prophet emerged staggering from his tomb? You can understand why Herod didn’t believe these things he was hearing. You can understand why he was perplexed.

People are perplexed by religion today. And again, it’s often a mixture of confusion and disbelief – you ask anyone to explain contemporary religion: Well you’ve got the Muslims who believe in one God they call Allah; which may or may not be the same as the God the Christians called God – depends who you speak to. And Christians say they’ve got one God but actually he comes in three forms – including Jesus –  most Christians say that Jesus was God, but Muslims think he was just a prophet and they have Mohammed instead.

But the Jews don’t have anybody – but they do have the same Bible, except they don’t have the New Testament …

Do you see what I mean – for someone who has forgotten all of their RE from school it’s a minefield. No wonder they’re perplexed … and that’s before we even start to consider the different Christian traditions – the RCs and the CofEs and URCs and the NTCGs.

 

And there’s disbelief around today too. Weeping statues. Bleeding hearts. Miracle cures.

You name it – somebody will be peddling it in the name of religion. It’s no wonder that so few people get involved in Christian faith today, from the outside the whole thing is totally baffling.

So what are we to make of it all? Without some careful guidance it’s easy to get perplexed.

But tucked away at the end of this section are 6 little words which are easy to overlook but in my view are very significant. Having described Herod’s perplexity it says: But he tried to see him. And I think this is a really important dimension of perplexity:

Although its confusing. Although its founded on disbelief. There’s something about perplexity that is inquisitive: perplexity suggest that you want to understand. And this was true of Herod – he wanted to see this man he was hearing about; he wanted to understand all the things that were going on. And it is true of our perplexity today. I find that as soon as you get into a decent conversation about faith then people are really keen to understand and to know more. Their perplexity should not be confused for a lack of interest – on the contrary – many people are really keen to understand and to know more.

 

Which is why it’s so important that we have got a story to tell. So that when people ‘try to see him’ – we’ve got something to say. And I’m not talking here about having all the answers – for as we shall go on to see – very often knowing Jesus raises as many questions as it does answers. Very often it fuels our perplexity. But too often we don’t even engage with that perplexity. We allow confusion to chase its tail and feed a sense of purposelessness in life. We allow disbelief to fester in a corner and bubble over in anger and resentment. If we are to be true to our Christian identity then we need to see our Herod’s coming. We need to be ready to engage with people’s perplexity when they try to understand.

 

And some of that story is about our church. It’s about what we stand for in the United Reformed Church. If we know some basics about why we’re special then that can help people in their perplexity. If we understand and love our tradition we won’t be so perplexed 

and we can start to talk and share with other people.

But our Christian faith runs much deeper than our denomination. It’s about what it means to be followers of Christ. It’s about what it means to be disciples constantly struggling to answer who is this Jesus guy? It’s about what unites us across the denominations and inspires to go on seeking unity in all of our diversity. It’s about who Jesus is today.

And so I want to devote the rest of this talk to the story of the feeding of the 5000 and how Luke used the story to deal with Herod’s perplexity. And to try to understand better how this story might help us today – Christians and non-Christians – in our own 21st century perplexity. I want to set out 5 characteristics of what it means to be followers of Christ: 5 things that I believe should characterise our Christian faith; 5 challenges to Craig – and to you as the churches witnessing in this place at this time.

 

The first characteristic of Jesus’ identity that we see from the story of the feeding of the 5000 is that Jesus was political. I don’t mean political in the sense of supporting a particular political party or standing for public office – though I do think that both of those things are worthy activities and we need far more Christians involved in all kinds of party politics. But Jesus ministry was political insofar as it was very public and asked questions of the powers that be.

Why otherwise would Herod have been at all bothered about who Jesus was? You see, Herod knew that the power that he had over the Jewish people was entirely dependent upon them accepting his authority. As an outsider and a representative of the Roman Empire, Herod was a very political figure. Quietly he knew that many people bitterly disliked him – and his power came not through the ballot box but by fear and intimidation. If another character came along who questioned or subverted that authority then he knew that could undermine his rule. That was no doubt a key reason why he had had John beheaded. And so to hear that there was now someone else pulling big crowds and carrying out miracles immediately gave him cause for concern.

And I wonder whether Jesus was feeling the political heat because the story of the feeding of the 5000 begins with Jesus withdrawing privately with his disciple to the city of Bethsaida. I wonder whether actually he was trying to get out of the limelight for a while? But the crowds were having none of it and it says that they followed him to the city of Bethsaida. But rather than turn them away – or move on to another place – it says that Jesus ‘welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom’ and went on healing.

For me, what is important about this is that although Jesus didn’t court controversy, he certainly didn’t shy away from it. When the crowds came looking for him he didn’t back off. He wasn’t afraid of speaking out – even when he very well knew that he was upsetting the authorities and risking a backlash. In this sense his ministry was incredibly public and incredibly political. Rarely are any of his miracles or parables not somehow questioning the powers that be, rarely did he hold back from subverting vested interests for the benefit of the crowds. Doing miracles for free rather than sending people to the temple authorities for healing – indeed questioning their authority and saying all people had access to God.

This is why he was becoming so popular.

In fact, it could be argued that to the followers who gathered in Bethsaida, Jesus identity was first and foremost a political one. This is the reason why I think Peter had begun to realise that Jesus was, as he put it, “The Messiah of God”. Because, for the Jewish people, the Messiah was the one who was going to come and save the Jews from their Roman oppressors.

 

I wonder how controversial the United Reformed Church is today? How public is our ministry? How political is our ministry? At a national level it could be argued we have quite an impressive record, but when was the last time we championed the cause of the people of Coventry? When did we last subvert a decision made by Coventry City Council or speak out about a matter of local justice? – an asylum case, a local pay dispute, a housing issue.

 

So Jesus identity was political and public. And linked to this, the second characteristic of his identity that we can discern from this story was that Jesus was outward-looking. We’ve already noted that he was actually trying to get away from it all with his disciples but when pursued by the crowd he chooses to welcome them and continue with his ministry. But as the day was drawing to a close, and people were getting hungry, the disciples said to Jesus – let’s send the people away now, there’s no way we can possibly provide for all of their needs. We simply haven’t got enough food.

 

Who were the disciples thinking about it that situation? Were they thinking about the crowd? – not really. Really, they were thinking about themselves. This crowd was beginning to become a problem. A big hungry crowd started to make them feel pretty vulnerable. So they started thinking of themselves – how can we get rid of them, how can we protect our own interests? They were probably feeling hungry too – but they weren’t going to get their tea until they’d got rid of this lot.

And when we look around us in our different communities it’s so easy to feel like the disciples: Our churches are so small – and the needs of the world seem so great. We’re struggling to get from one Sunday to the next – how can we possibly get involved in all this community activity? We’ve got so much else going on – let’s leave that ministry business to the minister. We so often adopt the same kind of attitude as the disciples – an attitude which says, this is all too much, we’re not good enough and then hunkers down into the safety and security of what is well-known and safe. An attitude which is essentially inward-looking: How are we going to fill our pulpit? How are we going to repair our buildings? Who’s going to make our tea? Very often at the expense of the needs and concerns of the communities around us.

But Jesus says no. He adopts an outward-looking attitude: you give them something to eat. But, but, but – we haven’t got enough money, we haven’t got enough people, we haven’t got enough food. These are no-can-do disciples – and too often we are no-can-do churches.

But Jesus says: Yes We Can! Yes We Can! Are we ‘Yes We Can’ churches? 

But this leads on to the third characteristic that I think that defines Jesus’ identity. Because Jesus isn’t just ‘Yes We Can’ in a kind of irrational or ludicrously optimistic fashion. He’s Yes We Can because he’s got a plan. He’s got a strategy. Jesus is strategic!

The whole of Luke’s gospel is constructed as a careful plan: Jesus slowly progressing towards Jerusalem, each phase of his ministry another step on his journey, another strategic confrontation with the authorities, another lesson for his followers. Its all carefully planned. And that’s true in this story too. Jesus tells the disciples to get everybody to sit down in groups of 50. Why does he do this? And what’s the significance of the fifty?

Well there are all kinds of explanations but the one that works best for me is the argument that although it was probably true that many people didn’t have any food. There would have been quite a few people who did have some kind of picnic but who were reluctant to get it out because they knew they’d have to share it with others. So what Jesus suggests is that everyone gets into groups of 50. And then, as we know from other accounts of this story, he takes a little boy and he uses him as an example of someone who IS prepared to share his food. And I think that on seeing this little boy, prepared to share his food,

and sat in much more manageable groups of 50, people start to reach into their bags and pull out the picnics that they’ve brought with them – and they start sharing them with each other.

For me, the miracle of this story isn’t some kind of magic trick, it is the fact that Jesus creates the conditions in which people learn how to share. This is a miracle of sharing.

And it shows us that amazing things are achievable when we have a plan!

 

So what’s our plan? What’s our strategy? So many churches today are short on miracles? 

– simply because they’re not creating the conditions in which a miracle is likely to come about. How are we dividing up responsibilities? What are we doing to make our ideas seem achievable? What are we doing to make our activities more manageable? Are we depending too much on the minister? – or on certain key individuals? What are we burying in our picnic bags? What are the skills and talents that we have that we’re not sharing with the church? – things we do day in day our at work; things we’re prepared to share in our families, but when it comes to church we never dream of sharing. And how are we listening to our children? What have they got to teach us? How do they set us an example of how to live out the kingdom?

We need plans and strategies to release these resources. But there’s another ingredient that we need if we’re going to work miracles in our churches. And this is the fourth characteristic that I think defines Jesus’ identity in this story. Prayer.

In verse 16 he says he took the five loaves and two fish and looked up to heaven and blessed them and broke them. And I want to suggest to you this afternoon that this act of prayer fulfilled two key functions: First, it created a moment of thankfulness. It reminded everyone there, that however difficult or troubled their situations, there was still much to give thanks for. At the very least they could give thanks for the generosity of the little boy. But more than that, they could give thanks for the small amounts of food that they did have. And they could give thanks for Jesus and all that he was doing and all that he promised. But secondly, this blessing of bread and fish, put things in a bigger context. Suddenly, the lack of food problem was literally held up to God, it was put in the context of heaven – in the grand scheme of things – and what had seemed a big deal was suddenly put in its rightful place.

Before the prayer people were saying, this is my picnic, I’m not sharing it with anyone else. It’s their own fault if they didn’t bring anything – or if they ate it earlier. I’ll be blowed if I’m going to share my lunch with some cheapskate who hasn’t got enough money to get their own snack. But suddenly Jesus says – hang on. Just think where all this food came from

Just think how much you’ve been blessed. And how much is it really going to cost you to share your food in the context of heaven?

Are we thankful churches? Do we create moments of real thankfulness? Do we stop and think how much God has blessed us – even in the small things? Do we give thanks for all that Jesus is doing in our communities? Do we put our practical challenges and concerns in the context of heaven? Do we give thanks for all that he promises through his death and resurrection? Through planning and prayer, Jesus created a completely new dynamic amongst the crowd. And through planning and prayer we can do that too.

 

Political – Outward-looking – Strategic – Prayerful. And the final aspect of Jesus identity that is exemplified in this story is that he was a risk-taker!

Risk-taking! I think sometimes we think about Jesus as this guy that swanned around Palestine as if he had everything sussed. As if he knew exactly what was coming next. And there are of course those Christians who think that Jesus – like God – was omniscient: he knew everything – past present and future. But I think that there is plenty in the gospels to suggest that this wasn’t the case. He was clearly surprised and challenged by certain encounters when he had to look to God for help. At times he was clearly unsure of the path before him and questioned God about the future – not least as he approached his arrest and execution. And yet not knowing the future, he was still prepared to step out in faith. He was still prepared to take a risk.

Can you imagine the risk he was taking in this story? A large crowd of 5000 hungry men – that’s not to mention their wives and families. 5000 people all hanging on his every word. All looking for his next miracle. The next controversy. All expecting something great. What if the little boy hadn’t come forward? What if they hadn’t got into groups of 50? What if the prayer hadn’t worked? What if the disciples had told him he was mad? What if people hadn’t shared their food? What if?

Are your church meetings full of what ifs? Are your elders always worried about risks? Are you the kind of person that likes to play safe? We need to take some risks. We need to step out in faith. Too often in our churches we like to have things so carefully planned that we don’t leave any room for the Spirit. And if anything looks too risky we step back. And yet Jesus shows us that we need to take a risk or two. We need to step out in faith – not always knowing what’s going to happen next.

And to some extent that’s exactly what you’re doing today as you induct Craig. As let’s be honest – this is all a bit of a risk: A risk for you. A risk for Craig. Who knows how it’s going to work out? Who knows whether the bread and fish will miraculously multiply? Who knows whether this is the little boy coming forward to melt peoples hearts and bring about a miracle of sharing? Who knows whether he’ll release resources? Who knows whether he’ll court controversy? Who knows whether he’ll lead a prayerful revival? Who knows? But I know this. And on this I’ll finish.

When a new minister arrives, it is a moment of huge hope and opportunity. A time to refresh and reassert our identity. Who do people say we are? What are we here for?

How are we going to change?

 

And it is my prayer this afternoon, that as you set about answering those questions, that you remember Jesus – and the characteristics he displays in the story of the feeding of the 5000. I pray that you will be public and political. I pray that you will look outwards towards the needs of the communities around you. I pray that you make careful plans and strategies and hold them up to heaven in prayer. And I pray that you will take a few hopeful risks. For with our identity firmly rooted in Jesus, God can do great things with us. And perhaps when I next come to visit Craig and Christine I’ll be able to stop someone on the streets of Coventry and ask: What do you know about the United Reformed Church? And their eyes will light up – and they will have a story to tell.

 

Amen.