Half Time Team Talk
I wonder what you think is the point of a sermon. Perhaps to ‘reach’ the people (thus p-reach) as one member put it to me recently? Perhaps to learn about and/or praise God? Or, like good art, perhaps you think good sermons should comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable. What do you think they achieve – if they’re meant to achieve anything? And why is there such great variety in the nature and length of sermons across the denominations? How would you feel, for example, if I just gave a five-minute reflection for a few months, like some Christian clergy do…or a forty-five minute one!!!
All these were issues that we discussed when I was training for ministry and whilst there was a huge diversity of perspectives on the subject, one view that was shared by all was that sermons should be gospel – good news. Well, today’s sermon is going to be a little depressing, I’m afraid. I’m going to take us along some rather dark passages concerning the future of the church that we might rather avoid. But I promise that there will be good news at the end. It will be a bumpy ride but we will get to a message of hope so hold your nerve; stay with me; and we’ll get through it together! First though we head up a long and winding road to meet with Jesus, some invited disciples, and surprise guests on a mountain top.
Reading: Mark 9:2-9
A familiar story for most of us there – the transfiguration of Jesus. Every year, it appears in the lectionary on the Sunday before Lent begins; the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the day on which millions of Christians around the world would normally receive a cross of ash on their foreheads with the words, adapted from Genesis 3:19, ‘Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. Cheery!
In many ways, today’s reading is the centre or pivot point of the gospel accounts. If one were to describe the gospel as a game of two halves, the first half – in Matthew, Mark and Luke at least – is essentially about a teacher and miracle worker who travels around Galilee healing the sick, exorcising demons, and heralding God’s kingdom of justice and joy. After the half-time mountain-top team talk, the second half focuses on the man who, as Luke puts it, ‘has his face set towards Jerusalem’ – who marches toward the city and his expected, impending death. In fact, just prior to the mountain climb, Jesus has predicted his death once again, condemned Peter for questioning it, and has declared that;
‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’
It might well be to these previous words that the divine voice refers when saying, ‘This is my Son – the beloved. Listen to him’.
The question, then, for us today, is what might it look like for us to listen to Jesus? In other words, how will we lose our life for the gospel; how might we look to Jerusalem; what does it mean for us to face death today?
Don’t forget – hold on – good news at the end!!!
First though, I want to propose that for us, as congregations, to take Jesus’ words seriously, we need to look at our own deaths. Not as individuals…well, yes as individuals but not just now. Today, and this Lent period, I encourage us all to consider, with honesty and with hope, what it might mean for our churches to die. And when I say ‘die’, I don’t mean the closure of church buildings – though I don’t discount that either – but I mean more the death of church structures, patterns, and norms as we know them. ‘Phil – we’re reading this script whilst isolated at home or watching from our individual squares on zoom’, you might want to reply – ‘I think we already know something about the loss of what we hold dear!’ And you’d be right, of course, this past year has brought with it much loss for us as church communities – as well as some gains – but I believe that even when we eventually gather together again, we will need to consider, as faithfully and fearlessly as we can, what it means for us to face further loss. To lose our life and perhaps save it!
The truth of our situation, as we well know, is that both our congregations have significantly decreased in size, and increased in age over the years. This is not something for which to feel guilt – in fact, the speed of our decrease bucks the trend of the general loss in church attendance across the denominations and throughout the economically developed world (in part due to other churches closing and joining both congregations, and in part due to the welcome, worship and witness evident within both congregations) and even if this wasn’t the case, any current decrease in number does not demean our faithful living out of the gospel, nor that of our forebears.
On the contrary, a faithful response to the decline in attendance warrants an honest appraisal of our current context and future challenges. At Castle Square, we are already questioning whether some of our midweek gatherings and Sunday services will return on a weekly basis. As St. David’s Uniting Church, our membership has decreased by almost 50% since our founding 19 years ago and we struggle to fill our church officer positions. This situation is only going to become more strained as increasing bureaucracy is handed to churches compromising of an older demographic.
So, what are our options? Well, those of you who attended our discussion evening on death back in December, might remember hearing Simon say that ‘death can be denied, resisted, or embraced’. I believe that these are the options we have in front of us.
First – the denial. We can refuse to accept that at least part of who we are as church is dying. We can pretend that our numbers aren’t decreasing. We can secretly think to ourselves ‘as long as it sees me out…!’ and leave others to face the burdens and reality of our decline after we’ve left the church in one way or another. This is really tempting. Believe me, tackling all this was never on my agenda! So we could deny our death. Though that particular path didn’t work out too well for perhaps the most famous denier in The Bible, did it? ‘Get behind me, Satan’, Jesus said to Peter when he refused to accept the reality of death.
What about resisting it then? Surely this is something we could do? Put on an Alpha course; pray for revival; pay for a youth worker, even…anything to keep numbers up and survive as churches. Well, there’s certainly something to be said for putting more resources into sharing God’s good news with others. The word ‘evangelism’ makes some of us shudder and it would be wise to reflect on why that is – for us to spend some time thinking about how we might invite others into community and the belief that God is already at work in their lives. And yet, whilst this is something we should address, we must also be aware of the mounting evidence which suggests that the shape of church we have today is neither attractive, nor accessible for most non-churchgoers. So we could, and perhaps should, put more energy into the evangelistic side of church life but if we think new seekers will come to our churches in droves, we are naïve, and if our main focus becomes survival of the church, then we are lost altogether! I can totally understand why Peter – speaking out of fear – wanted to build on the mountain top and resist heading back down but Jesus knew better. Jerusalem, and the cross, beckoned.
So if we can’t deny death and cannot really resist it, could we embrace it?! What might that even mean? Let’s go to the expert again –
Those of us who know when we’re getting nearer death can do the work of grieving for the loss of our life as, one by one, we let go of the roles that have given us purpose. (Simon).
If we are to embrace death, in some way or another, it will involve a letting go. We see this in individuals as they retire, downsize, step away from certain roles, or accept various limitations. Some deny or resist this, of course. Some will try to cling on to power, control and status like an orange man in a White House or gammon men who think a third of the world should still be pink…but the individuals who seem most content, most liberated, most authentic, are those with open palms, not clenched fists; those who can lay their former life down and might well find a new one.
What might it mean for us to accept our limitations, step down from certain roles, downsize even? That’s for us to discern together. For now, though, we might observe that Peter wanted to build three dwellings on that mountain. We also have three buildings. That was faithful and fruitful when our congregations were three times the size, as our community work. Is it still? Are our current resources and routines blessings or burdens? Going into the Gelliwastad Road building last week and discovering fallen materials both inside and outside the building certainly gave me pause for thought. So we must ask, do our buildings enable us to partner in God’s mission of love – to be church – or do they distract us with the busyness of ‘doing’ church? What might it mean for us to lay down our current life for the sake of the gospel and perhaps save it?
Feeling suitably depressed?!
Okay…time for some good news then! For we know that Jerusalem was the site of the cross, of death, of desolation. But it was also the locus of the empty tomb, of new life, of radical hope. I think that we’re a little harsh on Peter when we use him as an example of a death-denier or resister because…well, who wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t rather have the growing church or triumphant messiah? The cross was no place for his friend and saviour to be because that symbolized failure, pain, loss. No wonder he wanted to avoid it. When he denied and resisted death he had yet to witness resurrection but when he had – when he had encountered the risen Jesus – he finally embraced death, was given the keys to the Church, and willingly walked a path to his own very real cross.
Like the later Peter then, we know that death can lead to resurrection. We’ve even experienced it. Whether through church closure or uniting, the majority of our members know what is it to lose buildings, worship preferences, roles, and control. They also know what it is to experience new life within new congregations. ‘It was like leaving the wilderness and entering the promised land’, is how one member puts the process of leaving their former congregation and joining another. A little like losing one’s church life and saving it!
Of course, a resurrected body is different to the previous one. It can carry wounds…but it might also go places that it never could before!
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be heading down the mountain and will spend some time in the wilderness as we consider the narrative arc of the book of Exodus and what that might have to tell us about being church today. As we do so, I encourage us all to consider and pray about what it might mean for us, as congregations, to walk the way of the cross. Today you will have received an interim report from the vision committee, who are exploring some of these issues. I encourage you to read that, offer feedback to your elder or to me, to pray for the committee. You might also want to purchase and read Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward’, an excellent book that looks at many of these questions from the perspective of our own lives. Some of our Lenten reflections and discussions will be based upon this thought-provoking book.
As we do all this, we need not be fearful. We need not deny or resist. For we walk the path with the risen Jesus. With his strength and guidance, may we embrace the way of the cross. May we turn our faces to Jerusalem. May we hear and heed those words from the mountain top; ‘This is my Son – the beloved. Listen to him!’ Amen.
 We can – and did – disagree on what ‘good news’ constitutes, of course. A fascinating argument that we’ll save for another day!
 Simon, again, last week – ‘We can connect with the God who is creator and saviour of all, and cultivate our relationship with God and other people rather than obscuring God with rules or buildings’.
Prayers for ourselves and others
Living God, we linger between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent. We are between the joy of your appearing and the horror of your murder at the hands of those who would not or could not embrace your way of life.
Perhaps we – like Peter, James, and John – wait for your appearing in dazzling light and unmistakable clarity: We are in need of a glimpse of Jesus who is the way through the mix and mess of this life. The way of joy and justice, solidarity and sacrifice. The way of the cross and the empty tomb.
Our planet is fragile and so is the life that claims it as home. We wonder how long we can simply take what we want with little regard for what it costs your creation. Renew and restore a vision of care for your creation. Remind us to take what we need and no more. Encourage us in a counter-cultural faithfulness that is not about consumerism.
We pray for the people of the world whose names we will never know, whose faces flash across the TV screen in anonymity born of numbers; those who bear the weight of earth’s pain.
We are in need of a glimpse of Jesus who is the truth – the truth that love is stronger than hate; peace is possible; and life can emerge even in the midst of death. We pray for that truth to be known:
We are in need of a glimpse of Jesus who is the life; inviting us to follow in his footsteps as he trod the way of love and justice, all the way to the cross. Help us not to fear death. Not to deny or resist it but embrace it, in the belief that you are with us in our living, in our dying, and in our rising.
Draw us to the rhythm of Lent as it unfolds in our midst. Open us to your light that we might see ourselves clearly, with all our fears and foibles and faith, with all our desires and deaths and dreams.
Help us to see our journey as a place of your appearing – that like Peter, James, and John we may come down from the mountain and set one foot in front of the other, towards Jerusalem and the cross, in your name and for your sake.
And because words can never be enough, we bring you the people and places on our hearts in a time of stillness…
Living God, you are the maker of all that is; you are the source of love itself; and so we bring these prayers to you, in the name of Jesus, our brother and saviour, saying together the prayer he taught us,
Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,
thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory for ever and ever, Amen
Adapted from prayers from World in Prayer, a ministry of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist, Lodi, California, USA. http://www.worldinprayer.org/
Hymns: All creatures of our God and King vv. 1,6 & 7 & ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here!