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4th September 2022

Keeping and Discarding

Passage: Luke 15;1-10


A few weeks ago, I went into Bromley to meet someone for coffee and, when I got home realised that I had lost my jacket. I phoned the most likely place-the coffee shop- to see if it was there, but it was not. There were one or two other possible places where it might have been but to investigate them would take a lot of time and, after no more than five minutes pondering, I decided that, as the jacket was at least 25 years old; had a paint stain on one shoulder which I had never been able to remove; and had been looking a bit frayed around the edges for a long time; it was not worth the search. I let it go.

Five minutes……if only all our decisions about keeping versus discarding were so simple. Just think of the personal dilemmas over which old habits, previous friends, past homes are worth fighting to get back after we have lost them, and which are right to let go? In this church at present, we are facing the same challenge in at least three different ways: first, church life after Covid. Some things are “back to normal” and some things are not. What do we work to restore and what do we leave to die? Second, the Golden Jubilee of the URC which asks us as a denomination, what in our traditions we keep and what we now let go? And third, as this church prepares for a ministerial vacancy, priorities need to be re-set. What does this congregation want to keep and what to discard? And none of these questions are likely to be answered in five minutes……

Life and faith, by their very nature, move us on but there seem to be few ground rules when it comes to keeping/ discarding. We will have our own natural inclinations one way or the other. You will know people who really value their past: they are members of the old girls’ association at school, the Trefoil Guild for former Girl Guides; the local history group for their area and they enjoy exploring
But you will also know people who want always to move on; never stay in one place, determined to throw off their past. I have seen how different people deal with grief: some will cope by getting rid of everything associated with the one they love, and others cope by holding on to everything. And the same is true of the church. Some people find inspiration in traditions of worship they have known all their lives; others find inspiration in doing something new. And I am fully aware that there are members of this congregation whose taste in words and music means that they enjoy hymns written before 1880 and others whose taste in words and music means they don’t like anything much written before 1980. And none of this is about right and wrong but about personal inclination.

Even in the Bible you find arguments on both sides. Jesus told of the lost sheep and coin, both of which were searched for and restored. There were prophetic teachers before Jesus who taught that God’s work was to bring his people back to their former land, their worship and their code of practice.
BUT, Jesus also spoke of the futility of putting fresh wine into old wineskins or of using new cloth to patch a threadbare cloak. And the prophetic teachers also taught that it was not good to keep harking back to the past because God was always doing something new. Thanks…..
We are looking for guidance and, as in the URC decisions are mainly taken by the congregation as whole, each member of which will have different opinions, please God, what are the ground rules?

I went back to Jesus’ little stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin. As with so many of Jesus’ little stories, these two can really “pack a punch.” Because they are not just nice little tales of people losing, then finding something. They are telling an incredible truth about God: namely that God always, always believes that we are worth searching for. No matter how dirty, shabby, broken, far away we are, God will never give up. He will always come looking for us.
The religious leaders were criticising Jesus for mixing with “bad” people, those thought to be outside the perimeter fence of God’s kingdom. Their religious tradition taught that God set high standards of behaviour and that it was the job of holy people to maintain those standards by ostracising those who failed to live up to them. Any compromise would threaten the purity and security of their faith.

Jesus never denied that God set high standards for behaviour, nor that God’s kingdom was largely created by the elements of personal righteousness and social justice, but these little stories demonstrate the most powerful kingdom element of all- that of redemption. Here is the awesome truth that there is no human life so “lost” that God will not think it worth searching for. There is no human life so broken that he cannot pick it up, take it in his hands and restore it. And in this lies our ultimate hope. We all, as St Paul said, fall short of the glory of God. We all fail in some way to live up to the standards God expects.
So, either we give up on ourselves as the “sinners” in our reading had done; or we withdraw into the safest place- often a faith community- where we think we can just about manage to keep out of trouble, and (spiritually) raise the drawbridge to keep out anything or anyone that looks like trouble. This was what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had done.

In telling these stories, Jesus is offering reassurance both to those currently inside the religious community and those outside. The religious leaders are scared of discarding anything because they want to keep their already fragile religion safe. But they need not be scared because even if they make mistakes; even if they end up in a place where they feel lost, God will come to find them because this is what God does.
And those called “sinners” have more or less discarded everything about their faith, feeling that they have no place in the community; no voice to be heard; religion has no relevance to them, and they have no relevance to religion. They are scared even of starting to pick up a few pieces of faith because they fear ridicule, condemnation, failure. But they need not be scared because it is God who values them and God who comes looking for them. It is the hands of God that will carry them back to the sheepfold or place them in the crown of precious coins. Because this is what God does.

I am not sure that you could call this a “ground rule” for keeping or discarding. But I am sure of five things:
First, that a people who trust in the God who will never let them go, are people who will grow the confidence to make wise decisions. If they are standing on the solid ground of faith in God themselves, then they will create a church that is founded on solid ground.
Second, a people who trust the God who will never give up on them are people who will not be afraid to take risks in God’s name because their hope will be in that God to lead them and to re-direct them if it becomes necessary.
Third, a people who trust the God who will never give up on them, will hold faith in their church. They will not be afraid to engage in decision-making. They will not, when a decision has been discussed and prayed about, throw a wobbly and walk out if that decision is not the one they were hoping for. Nor will they sit on the side-lines and wait to see what happens before committing themselves to anything. Their hope will be in the God who never gives up on his people.
Fourth, a people who trust the God who will never give up on them, will never give up on the world. They will pray and protest, give and serve, rejecting any social policy that holds certain lives cheap.
And fifth, a people who trust the God who will never give up on them, will have the proclamation of this message at the heart of every single thing they do: whether in talking to each other after church, engaging with people in the market place later on, phoning someone they have not seen for a while, safeguarding the most vulnerable, offering prayer in times of trouble even when afraid of having the offer flung back in their face, speaking even hesitantly about their faith, creating opportunities to share that faith with others in simple ways, because when you finally grasp the awesome truth that God has never give up on you, you cannot find it in you to give up on anyone else.

When Jesus sat at table with his friends, breaking bread and pouring wine, he was giving himself totally to them. Because this is what God does. And, as they shared the broken bread and outpoured wine, they were committing themselves to him because this is what God asks. And this will be our challenge but also our glorious hope for the future. Amen.