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19th September 2021

Into The Unknown: what do You want?

Passage: Mark 8;27-35

Back in 1991, I was invited to preach at the local Women’s World Day of Prayer service. Women’s World Day of Prayer (now simply World Day of Prayer) is held annually, and a service is compiled by people from a different country in turn, then shared in local groups of churches all around the world. The service is very diverse, with songs, prayers, symbolic actions, drama, all set out and the only thing not supplied is the sermon. You get a local person to do this, and I was that person, that year.
I cannot remember where this particular service came from, but it was clearly from a third world nation suffering the effects of global warming and climate change. The service had Bible readings and prayers lamenting the damage we were doing to our planet, first hand stories of natural disaster and a confession that we were failing God as stewards of creation. A few weeks before the service the two representatives from my own church on the planning group came to me deeply embarrassed. “We have been asked to give you a message from some of the committee members: please would you not make the sermon too green.” OK. We had ten pages of service focused on the destruction of the planet, but the sermon must not be too green. …..
Admittedly back in 1991, people were not as aware of environmental issues as they are now. And I doubt that those committee members were totally uncaring about the earth. They just could not see that this had anything to do with their faith. Faith was about your personal relationship with God, not about getting involved in complicated global issues. That is not what Christians sign up for. &&&&&&
In our Gospel story, Jesus has been causing speculation about who he is. He has done some amazing things, said some amazing things and his people, the Jews, on the lookout for a Messiah, are wondering if he could be The One. What are they saying about me? asks Jesus. “They think you are a very holy man, a prophet at least,” say his disciples. And what do YOU think? “You are The One, the Messiah,” says Peter. He believes this and so has signed up to follow Jesus. But then Jesus starts talking about how he will be rejected by their religious leaders, hated by their politicians, and forced into suffering and death. Hold on, says Peter, this cannot be right. This is not what a Messiah is about. A Messiah is about power and everything being great.” But Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that he does not know what he is talking about. Anyone signing up to follow Jesus must be prepared to risk everything, not pick and choose which aspects of faith they want.
I guess that when you enter any kind of contract, the question to ask is “what do you want of me?” And Jesus’ answer is “everything.” Which sounds daunting. We fear becoming the kind of religious fanatics who are so focussed on their faith that they have no joy, no sense of proportion, no tolerance, and most people keep well away from them. We are also scared of taking on too much, thinking well, I am trying to be a good Christian by supporting my church; I am trying to encourage my family in faith; I support various charities- what more can Jesus want? Fair enough. We are all feeling overstretched right now, not to mention witnessing only recently the damage religious fanaticism can cause.
It is just that, thinking about the Bible story side by side with the challenge to that committee in 1991 regarding ecological awareness, I saw a link in people trying to compartmentalise faith; dividing life into this is about my faith and this is not. And, when we compartmentalise faith, we compartmentalise God. For Peter, God was about success, not failure. God was about things going well, not badly. God was involved with the people who believed in him, not with those who did not. God was about restoring his people to peace and prosperity, not about living under enemy occupation. And for those committee members back in 1991, God was about their personal faith, not any political views they might have. God was about their church, and not about their planet. &&&&&&&&&&&
Now this might actually sound as though it makes faith a whole lot easier and less demanding. But it does not. Because when your life takes you into territory you have believed “not covered” by your faith, (and it will) you cannot find God there. The Covid pandemic has raised questions in devout Christian’s minds- where is God in all this? For God is surely about health, not about sickness; God is about being brave not scared stiff; God is about strong relationships, not family strain and breakdown. God is about us doing well at work, not about being bullied or made redundant. God is about everyone in the church knowing the right way forward not about uncertainty; God is about churches growing in a crisis not dwindling. God is about “all things bright and beautiful” not scorched earth, widespread flooding, and toxic waste. John Bell wrote an impassioned hymn called “as if you were not there,” highlighting all the pain and devastation in the world and how it looks to many as though God is not there. And, let’s face it, if you are in a very dark place believing that God is not there, then you are in a bad way.
But thank God, Jesus Christ came into the real world. If there is one vital lesson the natural world can teach us it is that everything is interconnected. Every living organism in the natural world is inter-connected. Every human life is interconnected. Science admits that there is an unknown force behind the creation of the natural world and that there is an unknown force behind the development of humanity. We call this force “God” and we believe that in Jesus Christ we saw his living presence in this world.
If we believe in God as the force behind life, then we must live by that interconnectedness. To compartmentalise faith is to deny the reality of God, which is why so many lose faith when they enter an aspect of life which is not what they believed God to be about. &&&&&&&
Jesus, having set out the path his saving ministry must take- through pain and rejection and death- promised those who followed him that they would gain life, not lose it. Because he, having descended right into the darkest depths of evil and suffering and death, came through victorious, to live a life of such fullness that he could fill all things. Everything comes together in him, wrote St Paul, incredulously. He has reconciled all things in heaven and earth through the shedding of his lifeblood on the cross. He has reconciled us to God. Because now we can see that God is all in all. There is no place so dark or distant or apparently irrelevant that God cannot fill.
So, in seeing God’s presence in the natural world; in hearing God’s voice in those who call out to us from scorched earth, widespread floods and toxic waste, we find it so much easier to see and to hear God in the broken members of the human race and in the shattered pieces that our own lives will sometimes become.
The call to Christians to work and pray and speak out to save the planet is not an optional extra; nor is it yet another item to add to an already over-full to-do list. It is a revelation; a whole new light shed on the reality of God and the saving work of Jesus Christ. “We can have hope,” writes a contributor to the Tearfund project to save the planet, “Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, all things can be made new; everything sin has broken and corrupted is being restored and reconciled to God…. the world is crying out, but God is at work and we’re invited to join him in a ministry of reconciliation – reconciling people to God their Father, but also reconciling people to the creation we’ve been given and seeing it restored. This is the fullness of the Gospel.”
You may have read the list of straightforward suggestions Lesley made in our September Newsletter as to how we might make our everyday lives more eco-friendly. You may have found ways of your own and if so, she would love to hear about them. And these are all ways of following Jesus, of being part of his reconciling work, of saving not only our planet, not only the future existence of the next generations but saving our very selves as we are reconciled with the God who is all in all. Amen.
I invite you now, as we take a few moments to reflect on this, to join in these brief responses from the URC Creation Care liturgy
Seek advice from the beasts, And they will enlighten you From the birds in the sky; And they will show you Speak to the Earth; And Earth will teach you; For which of these does not know? All life is in God’s hand