Here’s my sermon for tomorrow. I’m preaching at another church in the circuit, and I get to kick off a sermon series they are following on the seven signs of a healthy church. ‘Energised By Faith’ is the first of the seven signs. What I’ve prepared is heavily influenced by my recent reading of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Faith of Leap‘, but I hope I’ve put my own stamp on it.
Recently, my wife and children and a friend left me for Beaver Camp one weekend, while I stayed home to take church services. On the Saturday morning that they set out, I expected our daredevil eight-year-old daughter to be excited. But our cautious seven-year-old son was excited, too.
“What’s in the programme?” I asked. Out came the list: tug of war, slippery bungee, rifle shooting (with blanks, I hoped), archery, hammock making, inflatable slides, rope bridge building, cooking full English breakfast around a camp fire, barbecue, curry. I was exhausted just listening to them reel it off!
“Why are you asking?” they interrogated me.
“Because I want to talk about it soon in a sermon,” I replied.
“Because I want to talk about how following Jesus is meant to be an exciting adventure,” I told them.
My daughter yawned. She has teenage attitude five years early. “But church is boring,” she complained. “Sitting in the adult service for ten minutes before going into Sunday School is boring. I prefer all age worship!”
Put that attitude down to, well … attitude, but don’t miss the fact that many perceive church and faith as boring. It was never meant to be. I went on to talk with my children about how in the Bible faith in Jesus was an exciting and dangerous adventure. But that isn’t what we often notice in our churches.
And in a week when I kick off your sermon series about the seven characteristics of healthy churches with the first of those characteristics, ‘Energised by faith’, would we not think that associating the word ‘faith’ with ‘energised’ might mean that faith is rather more dynamic than it often is?
Honestly, what do we make of it when we listen time after time to hearing that someone in our church had a ‘quiet faith’? If that means peaceful and serene, then fine, but if it means their faith never got in the way of someone else and led to energy or even conflict, then something is desperately wrong.
Think back to our Bible readings this morning: when Paul commends the faith of the Thessalonians, it involves imitating him, even in facing persecution, and becoming an example to other churches in the region. It involves their faith being known here, there and everywhere, not least for their rejection of idols in order to serve Christ. Is that ‘quiet faith’?
And when the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith”, and Jesus replies, talking about mustard seed faith that can tell a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, is that quiet faith? No! Whatever the text means, we can be sure Jesus doesn’t lead his disciples into growing quiet faith.
These two passages aren’t untypical of the New Testament. Jesus calls men to leave their occupations and follow him at the drop of a hat, just as God told Abram to leave everything and go somewhere unspecific in the Old Testament. When you get to the Book of Acts and you see the apostolic church putting into practice the Great Commission of Jesus, you see daring and courageous faith exhibited by Paul, Peter, Stephen, Philip and others.
By that reckoning, we should stop a lot of the silly talk in our churches that says someone is ‘faithful’ when all we mean is that they are ‘regular’.
Anyone who knows me for any length of time will hear me quote time and again something the late John Wimber said. Let me ask you this: how do you spell ‘faith’? Whenever anyone replied by saying, F-A-I-T-H, Wimber would say, “No”. The answer, he said, is that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K.
Faith as an adventure, a living on the edge, is normal. But you wouldn’t guess it from some of our churches, and I wonder whether the lack of it has contributed to our decline. Could it be that churches are declining, at least in part, because we have lost the daring, risky side of discipleship that is fundamental to faith in Jesus?
David Murrow is a television producer in the United States. He got bored with his Christian faith, and started exploring other religions, including Islam. He noticed that Christianity was the only major religion to have a major deficit of males in comparison to females. He wondered whether this might have anything to do with his boredom.
At the risk of grossly over-simplifying things, he discovered the work of an historian who showed that while there had been a seven-hundred-year history of reduced adventure in the Church, a major effect on this was the Industrial Revolution. By and large, as the men had to find work in mines, mills and factories, often far from home, the women who stayed behind rightly kept the notions of gentleness and nurturing. This showed itself in the rise of church nurseries, craft groups, Sunday Schools, soup kitchens and the like – all worthy and honourable things. However, with the men less able to contribute, the sense of adventure declined. In time, it became a vicious circle.
Now before anyone complains, I am not saying that all men are of the same style and all women are alike. The irony of me preaching this is that I am someone who was born with scoliosis, curvature of the spine, and this has affected what physical efforts I can make all my life. I of all people would not argue for a ‘macho’ culture in the church. It does exist in places, and it can be ugly. But you and I know that many men outside the church view it as like a lifeboat – ‘women and children first’. If we have downplayed adventure and risk, which are at the heart of the faith to which Jesus calls us, is it any surprise?
Might it be, then, that in order for the church to be ‘energised by faith’, one thing we urgently need to rediscover is this sense of living on the edge? Could it be that faith for us needs to be something where what we aspire to do can only be delivered by God, and if God doesn’t come through, we’re sunk? Could it be that too often what we call faith is really ordinary human action that is explicable in other ways, and we don’t like to admit it?
Now you will say to me that the church needs to be a safe place, never mind all this talk of danger and risk, and I will agree with you – up to a point. We do need to be a safe place for the broken and the wounded. In that sense, we are a little like the spiritual equivalent of a hospital. But just as hospitals aim to treat people so they can return to ordinary life and not spend their whole lives on a ward, so our aim is the healing of people in order that they might return to the action.
It may be worth remembering the exchange in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ that the children have with Mr and Mrs Beaver when they first hear about Aslan, the lion, who serves as the Christ figure.
“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
And of course the Narnia novels, along with that other great twentieth century Christian fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings, depict faith as an epic adventure. Can Narnia be rescued from permanent winter under the White Witch? Can Frodo and his friends dispatch the ring with its terrible curse and defeat Sauron and all the armies of wickedness? How will they cope with Gollum, who cannot be trusted as he vacillates between good and evil?
What C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien describe in those stories is an experience of fellowship being deepened as people go out on a limb in daring faith. It is something that has been observed through other disciplines, not just literature or theology. Those who study human society in anthropology and sociology have noticed this, too. Now I can give you the long words if you really want them – they are ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ – but what it all comes down to is this: when a small group of Christians gets together to work on a mission project that puts them out beyond their comfort zones, they are pulled together into a much deeper sense of fellowship than they experience in any other form. The home group doesn’t compare. Certainly coffee after morning service doesn’t amount to much fellowship, compared with what these people experience as they forge new frontiers in the name of Christ.
Here is just one example of what I mean. It’s an experience I had in my first circuit as a minister. An elder at the local United Reformed Church had a vision to bring the teenagers of the churches in the town together for worship. This wasn’t too difficult. Representatives of most of the churches came together to form a planning group, and we started holding youth services every six weeks, going around various local churches, taking over their evening services.
However, youth services like that were altogether too safe and predictable. The teenagers needed something more credible, and relevant to their culture. We found an empty shop in town, and borrowed it for a very low rent from the landlord while he looked for new tenants. It was the days of the MTV Unplugged programmes and CDs, and we did ‘worship unplugged’, only having room for a simple acoustic set-up in the cramped shop.
But more young people were coming, and we reluctantly went back into church premises. We took over the URC church hall and decorated it appropriately. However, the teenage Christians wanted to be able to invite their non-Christian friends, and we were crowded for space. As we leaders talked, we realised there was only one viable option: we would need to move into the local night club.
One of our number, a businessman, approached the owner of the night club. He was willing to hire out to us, one Sunday night a month, and agreed that no alcohol would be served on those nights. However, the cost of renting the club was well beyond any level of finance we had ever raised for the project. What should we do? We were out of our depth.
As we talked, we concluded that God had always been stretching us that bit beyond what we had got used to each time. This was surely one more example of the same. We agreed to the night club owner’s terms, not knowing where the money would come from. But when we did, some wealthy local Christians backed us financially, and we never lacked the money to hire the club.
Is it any surprise that as a group of Christians, we experienced deep fellowship, deeper than the average Bible Study group? We did read the Bible and pray together – fervently! We also hung out together, eating pizza, watching videos and drinking non-Methodist liquids. We helped one couple move house. We babysat. We picked each other up when we were down – in my case, they rallied round when I had a broken engagement. Most of those things would happen to some extent in ordinary church fellowship, I know, but I can only testify that they were deeper in that group. To this day, I have never known better friends than the members of that group, and I miss them terribly.
Friends, could God be calling you to go beyond the boundaries of what you have done for him in faith before? Believe me, if you are willing to live on a knife edge for Christ by faith because he has called you, then every aspect of church life – worship, community, discipleship and mission – will be infused with an energy you have not known before.
Trinity Methodist Church: is God calling you to dive in at the deep end?
I don’t think I’m going to preach a brand new sermon this week. The Lectionary Gospel and Epistle are both fascinating: both Luke 7:36-8:3 amd Galatians 2:15-21 (especially if you take the latter in its context from verse 11 onwards) raise the question of table fellowship being used as a sign of who is included in or excluded from the people of God. In the case of the Luke reading, I don’t think I can yet improve on a sermon I preached three years ago on it, despite yesterday reading the chapter on the incident in Michael Frost‘s recently reissued expanded edition of Jesus The Fool. (Highly recommended, BTW.) When it came to Galatians, I again dug out Tom Wright‘s book from last year, Justification, which inspired my recent sermon about justification based on Romans 5:1-11. However, this time, much as Wright enlightened my understanding of the text, I didn’t come away feeling I had something to share with a congregation in a sermon.
So I thought I’d point you to something else on the web. Someone else, actually. Last year while I was on sabbatical, I blogged about my encounters with the extraordinary George Kovoor, current Principal of Trinity College, Bristol. Well, George has just launched his own website, Kairos Global, and I commend it to you. At this stage it’s rather sparse, but you can start to gain a feel for the ministry of this remarkable man. The lead article that begins on the home page will certainly give you a flavour. There are also a couple of videos, showing five-minute extracts from longer presentations. One is also available on YouTube, so by the magic of WordPress I reproduce it below:
I can’t say I can work out what he’s doing broadcasting on TBN Europe in the company of the Creflo Dollars of this world, but Jesus didn’t worry who he mixed with (any more than the late Rob Frost worried about broadcasting on God TV) and at least it gets some sound teaching out there.
I think George’s site will be well worth watching, especially if it is updated frequently. If his admin can put on some of his talks, whether text, audio or video, in full, it will be invaluable for all of us who care about the evangelisation of the West – and, indeed, the entire world.
Oh, and for something lighter, you can always join the Facebook group George Kovoor Is Mad.
After dipping into it over a couple of weeks, I’ve finally completed Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare For Exile‘. When it first arrived in the post and I looked at the contents pages, I was disappointed. Ninety pages of history and only fifty of contemporary application: I wanted more of the latter. Further, when I read the final three chapters that concentrate on how we should prepare for exile in the western Church, I thought I was reading little I hadn’t encountered elsewhere or already concluded for myself. Many of the usual authorities are quoted: David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and so on.
Yet I think this is a significant book. Why?
Firstly, because the history matters. What Whitworth shows in those first ninety pages is just how fundamental the category of exile is to vibrant faith. Not only does he establish it as a much more critical theme of Scripture than we generally acknowledge, he shows from centuries of church history how it is often people and movements who have been forced into a posture of exile that have brought renewal to the church and society.
Secondly, because Whitworth writes as an Anglican. My guess is that being the Established Church has made it harder for the Church of England to come to terms with the thought that the Christian Church is going into exile in this country. For someone like him to write persuasively about a stance of exile is important.
Thirdly, because Whitworth seems to be writing as a charismatic, where one might expect him instead to write a book called ‘Prepare For Revival‘. However, revival gets scant mention in the book. I think its first mention comes only on page 134, where it is admitted as a possibility but Whitworth expects something different:
But if the historical process identified in the central section of the book still has some way to run (although arguably it could be overturned by an extraordinary Christian revival), which I believe it has, the process of secularization may well continue apace.
I don’t want to make it sound like the desire for revival is unworthy. At its best, it is a longing for a society suffused with the Gospel. However, in some charismatic circles, it has degenerated into something else. It is the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue the poor beleaguered church. Worse, it is the fantasy we indulge to prevent us thinking about painful reality.
Next in my reading project for the rest of the sabbatical is to look at some of the stuff on ministry. Not the ministry and personality type stuff yet, for two reasons: firstly, the survey for ministers doesn’t finish until the 30th, and secondly, Waterstone’s still haven’t got my copy of Leslie Francis‘ ‘Faith and Psychology‘ that I need to accompany my thinking. It’s still out of stock at the publisher’s.
At this point, I want to look at whether traditional doctrines of ministry are fit for purpose in a world where, in Whitworth’s expression, we have to prepare for exile. That is, a world where the church needs to be missional. A diverse culture that calls for varied Fresh Expressions as well as some continuing forms of traditional church. That is, the ‘mixed economy’ church of which Rowan Williams has spoken.
In this world, emerging church and missional church thinkers have criticised our inherited understandings of ministry. They say that ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care might make sense if we lived in a true Christendom where all were believers and the task of the church were to call people back to a faith from which they were lapsed, but it is not our situation. So writers like Frost and Hirsch in ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come‘ call for churches (not necessarily individuals, note) to express the fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4: apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic as well as pastoral and teaching.
I want to examine the strength of this critique. If it is valid (my gut feeling is that in some form it probably is), then what does it mean for those of us in the historic churches? To do this, I see the need to look at three key areas.
Firstly, New Testament understandings of ministry and leadership as a foundation. However, that is not necessarily simple. Is there one pattern of New Testament leadership? Many think not. You can pick the ‘fivefold pattern’ out of Ephesians, and you can pick ‘bishops and deacons’ from Philippians. Which (if any) do you choose, and why?
Secondly, I need to look at the tradition. In my case, that means Methodism, with its official stance and varying views – some of it difficult to pin down, because our approach is rather pragmatic.
Thirdly, it means looking again at the missional literature and practice. Neil Cole‘s ‘Organic Church‘ and (when it arrives from Amazon) ‘Organic Leadership‘ come highly recommended, and I’ll be tackling them on top of my already wide reading in the emerging and missional area.
Obviously, this is going to occupy me beyond the sabbatical, and I’m going to want to read other things that interest me too! In the long term, this could well be the core of the PhD dream.
Starting out with a book from the first of these phases means that today I’ve begun to tackle ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘ by Ritva H Williams. It’s not simply an aggregation of texts: she says in the Introduction she is going to argue that the early church took some of the social conventions about leadership and subverted them for their own purposes. If that is the case, then we might have an interesting foundation for creative approaches to Christian leadership and ministry in our culture. It could make the case for Methodist pragmatism being extended beyond what we say we have ‘received’, which is sometimes treated in a rather fixed way, despite our pragmatism.
All this talk about ministry could be so introspective, and that would fit my nature as an introvert (but then we’re back to the Myers Briggs stuff again!). However, I want to offer something to the church, not simply clarify my own thinking. If all I do is sort out my own thoughts, I’m still left with tensions and frustrations with the institution.
Having finished my summaries of The Starfish And The Spider yesterday, I spent much of this morning dividing them into natural sections. It turned out that meant eight. I uploaded the first one, and to my surprise got a comment from none other than the Tall Skinny Kiwi himself, Andrew Jones. Many will know Andrew as the doyen of Christian blogging and an engaging, irenic voice in the missional world. He is a scholar and a gent to take the trouble to pass by this obscure backwater blog and leave a comment. I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way, but I felt honoured.
By the way, numbers two to eight in the Starfish series will appear over the next week, one a day, scheduled to appear at 9:00 am each day.
There’s not much reading I can do to prepare for my week at Cliff College next week. Over the years, I’ve read several titles on the reading list for the unit and am going along for stimulation and edification. The weather forecast remains a concern, especially with heavy snow still predicted for the Peak District on Sunday, when I am due to travel. Conditions have eased around here now, but major roads in this region and others on the way that I would be using still look ominous. The M1 for a start. Since I’m auditing this course at Cliff courtesy of a kind anonymous bursary, I have it in mind to ask if I can switch to another course if I can’t make next week. Right now it doesn’t look promising, but there speaks one with the spiritual gift of pessimism.
I have, however, been gathering material ready for my trip later in the month to Trinity College, Bristol, where I shall be spending a week with Anglican ordinands and other students looking at personality type and ministry. Down from the shelf has come ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘ (no, not by Alan Partridge) by Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton. The subtitle is, ‘Exploring Personality Type and Temperament’. It’s based on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which is being used on the course. I’m armed with the knowledge that I’m INTP.
I also dug out a birthday present from about three years ago. My sister, who is an Occupational Therapist at a hospice, had been on an Enneagram course with the hospice chaplain. She bought me Richard Rohr‘s book ‘The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective‘. Once I knew I wanted to explore this theme during a sabbatical, it seemed right to put it aside until then.
The something else was another Grove booklet I’ve been trying to find ever since we moved here three and a half years ago. Something always goes missing. It’s ‘Personality and the Practice of Ministry‘ by Leslie Francis and Mandy Robbins. Based not on Myers Briggs, Enneagram or anything else, Francis and Robbins use Hans Eysenck‘s personality test based on extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism. I ended up paying to download the e-book version in PDF format, which seemed less wasteful, in the vain hope my original hard copy might turn up one day.
Meanwhile, I found an online version of Eysenck’s test, and here are my results. They tell you a lot about why I want to explore the relationship between personality type and the practice of ministry, because on the surface I just don’t fit the typical stereotypes and expectations:
Eysenck’s Test Results
|Extraversion (27%) low which suggests you are very reclusive, quiet, unassertive, and private.
Neuroticism (77%) high which suggests you are very worrying, insecure, emotional, and anxious.
Psychoticism (33%) moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly kind natured, trusting, and helpful at the expense of your own individual development (martyr complex).
One other good thing today. The post is returning to normal here (shame about the refuse collections). That meant the arrival of Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch‘s new book ‘ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church‘. I put it on pre-order with Amazon the moment I knew about it. Today is a good day. Except for the fact that I paid £10.44 and it’s now £8.53.
Last week we discussed the church that removed a graphic crucifix in Horsham. This week, a similar issue has hit British television. The Daily Mail, Times and Daily Telegraph all report the case of a wedding scene in soapland, where the television crew wanted to remove a cross from a church where they were filming said wedding. On learning that the cross was fixed, they obscured it with candles and flowers.
Why did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for realism. Dry ice wafted through the scene – so just like any church service, then. According to church sources, they said they didn’t want to cause offence.
I didn’t see the show. Not only do I see very little TV, I’m allergic to soaps. I’ve been catching up on the issue after two church members told me about it.
In fairness, the television company has since apologised for the error and conducted an investigation. They believe there has been a misunderstanding over their intentions and motives. I wonder how the story would have been reported if the church had protested directly to Granada first and not gone public until after this investigation.
However, my main interest here is this: it’s curious to see the language used by the church leaders in protesting, and what it might imply. I’m particularly interested in the language of ‘offence’. In the Daily Mail report linked above, Stephen Regan of the Diocese of Chester is reported as saying,
The cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity, and should offend no one.
Er, hold on? The first part of his sentence is correct, but from the beginning of faith in Jesus the cross has been an offence. If the cross has been reduced to symbol in the sense of a corporate logo, then I suppose it wouldn’t offend, but that isn’t what we’re about.
Similarly, James Milnes, the rector of the parish, quoted in the Telegraph story linked above, rightly says that Granada Television had
emptied the church of the very thing that makes it a church
in that the Cross is what makes us the community of God. Absolutely. I once wanted to design a church letterhead as not showing a line drawing of the building, but people around the Cross.
However, what is strange is the extended quotation from his church magazine:
How can people think it offensive to see a cross in a church, in the same way as you would normally see the Koran in a mosque or the Torah in a synagogue? That is the emblem of this faith.
This has a resonance around the country. It plays into who we are as a nation because I do not think we have a clear idea as English people. We do not really know where we are going.
There is constant attrition to our way of life. You can’t say this or you can’t say that for fear of offending. Who can we possibly be offending?
If ’emblem’ has become ‘logo’, then again one can understand the shock at the sense of offence. But the Cross itself is offensive to many who do not know the power of the Gospel. Muslims would see the death of a ‘prophet’ such as Jesus as being demeaning to the dignity of God. To traditional Jews, one thinks of Paul quoting Deuteronomy in Galatians, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ To the Greeks of Paul’s day, it was foolishness, and it remains that to many people today.
To Christians, it is the glory of God’s love and grace. And that is what I understand the Revd Milnes and Mr Regan defending. However, they cannot expect it to lack offence. Here’s just a thought: do they take things this way because they have an ‘Established Church’ mentality? I’m just guessing, and may be doing them a disservice. If I am, I will apologise. However, Milnes clearly links the issue to the confused current destiny of being English, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark, even if I am wrong.
Yet as the Christian Church in the UK seeks a mission rôle as a minority group in society, I can’t help thinking that more helpful models of church are needed. I’ve spoken and written before, as others of a missional theological mindset have, of ‘exile’ as a helpful biblical model. From the perspective of church history, I find myself heading more in Anabaptist directions all the time. I don’t pretend that’s easy, in fact it risks being painful, but I do think the changed and changing society in which we live means we need to look for some different paradigms on which to model our witness.
In typing this, I am mindful of an interview in the February 2009 issue of Christianity Magazine, with Ann Widdecombe MP (the interview will probably not be online for another month). For anyone reading this who doesn’t know British politics, Miss Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in opposition to women’s ordination. In the interview, she is asked about the current vexed issue of the establishment of the Church of England. She replies:
I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.
But there’s the problem. Claiming the UK is a Christian nation is a fig leaf. Widdecombe would doubtless wish to protect establishment (even though she went over to Rome) for political reasons of constitution, and certainly some of the reasons advocated by politicians for disestablishment are weak and unChristian. But right now establishment is not protecting the rights of Christians in the courts when religious freedoms are trumped by other freedoms, so that some Christians cannot exercise their consciences and keep certain jobs. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic to expect that people won’t find the Cross offensive.
In saying all this, I may of course be putting too much weight on the use of the words ‘offend’ and ‘offending’ as used by Stephen Regan and James Milnes. Perhaps what Mr Regan really means is ‘surprised’. However, Revd Milnes uses his language in a context of objecting to ‘political correctness’, and so I am a little more sure that he really does mean to be concerned about the problem of offence. Certainly, the risk of offending people provided it is with the substance of the Gospel rather than just by being aggressive Christians (step forward Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who inevitably responded to requests for a quote) is a risk we must take today. If we do not, we shall not be faithful to the Gospel.
Interestingly, the Telegraph has this week carried the story of an Asian Christian minister in Scotland who claims he was sacked from an Asian community radio station for supporting Christianity and criticising a Muslim’s understanding of the Christian faith. The station disputes his account, and asked for questions to be put in writing. However, the Telegraph received no response to its fourteen points. If the case has been accurately portrayed in the newspaper (and I don’t think the station’s failure to respond looks good), then sadly this is the climate in which more and more British Christians live. Mr Milnes and his parishioners may have had a rude awakening into it, even if it was a misunderstanding and Granada Television meant no offence. This is not to seek persecution or develop some unhelpful persecution complex, which some Christians play on, but it is, I think, to be more realistic.
Over to you.
What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?
One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?
Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:
Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.
Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.
What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.
You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?
Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.
But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.
I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.
Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks.
What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.
You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.
So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.
I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.
For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.
There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?
I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.
But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?
Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church.
I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.
I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!
The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.
Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?
On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?
Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!
Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.
In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.
Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.
Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
And let’s take risks as a church, too.