Sunday, June 22, 2014

Not in your own strength

One of the joys of teaching with the Federation's Congregational Institute of Practical Theology is visiting churches and seeing the work that is being done for the kingdom by students on the course.  Two and a half years ago Joy Leathers was called to ministry at the Oakamoor Memorial Free Church. During the last two years it has been great sharing with Joy on our course.  It will be great to join her at Winchester Cathedral in the Autumn for her graduation.  It was even more special to join her, her family and her church to celebrate her ordination to the ministry.  I was privileged to preach at the service and shared these reflections ...

Not in your own strength
A sermon preached by Richard Cleaves at the Ordination of Joy Leathers
at Oakamoor Memorial Free Church
Saturday, 22nd June 2014

It has been a joy to share with Joy in preparation for ministry and a special joy to come and share in Joy’s ordination – a recognition given by our wider fellowship of Churches that Joy is called to the ministry in the one church worldwide of Jesus Christ and inducted into the ministry of this particular church.

It’s good to be back in the North West Midlands Area, having spent 8 years here and come to meetings here at Oakamoor too.

So … what have you let yourselves in for?

Sharing in learning  with our Foundation Degree in Practical Theology

The inspiration, I think of our approach to training is that it is done very much in the work place – a Foundation Degree is put together in the work place which is for us is in our churches and delivered in partnership with a university – the University of  Winchester.

That means that we are for the most part all of us involved actively in local church ministry of one kind or another – I in Highbury Congregational Church, Cheltenham, Joy here in Oakamoor.  We all learn from each other – and grow together as we share with each other.  That’s what’s brilliant about sharing together on our course.   As much as anything is the sense of belonging to a supportive community of people sharing together, explrinig together and learning together.

And that experience is nothing new.

Jesus calls his followers to be disciples, learners for life,

It is not insignificant that Jesus was highly regarded as Rabbi, Teacher, and that the followers he drew to him came to be seen as Disciples, learners.

And being the wonderful Jewish Rabbi and teacher that he was Jesus’ teaching is for the most part done by asking questions.   From the point when  he was 12 and his parents found him in the Temple “sitting among the teachers” listening and asking them questions all through his teaching ministry Jesus loved asking questions.  Sometime read through the gospels and count up the number of questions Jesus asks.  The whole point of this very Jewish approach is to get people thinking – and in that process giving a response.

I promised my son that I would answer my grandson every time he asks a question – Taid, (that’s the North Walian Welsh for Grandpa) why is …  Taid, what is …   He is now coming to the end of his first year in school and I am wilting at the challenge my son smilingly challenges me to remember.

Maybe I should respond with another question – I’ll have to try that tack!

It’s what Jesus does.

1) In a Pastoral Ministry we are called to listen and ask questions

In a pastoral ministry those two things said of the 12 year old Jesus are pretty precious – listen and ask questions – sometimes in pastoral context the gentlest of questions – just to prompt people to share – how important it is to listen.

But in a teaching ministry too – how important to listen – and to respond – and to explore faith.

That’s the challenge of Jesus at the very last as well.

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”         

We are in the business of getting people to recognise that there’s always something else to learn – we are in the business of making disciples of all nations.

That involves teaching these new disciples to obey all the commands Jesus has given

Quite some challenge.

It would be good to have a handbook – what does it involve.

A Handbook for Disciples

I have a feeling that’s what Matthew’s gospel is.

He brings together the teaching of Jesus and clusters it into five books – just like the five books of the law.

And there’s a structure – again a very Jewish way of doing things – very much in the spirit of Middle Eastern thinking.  In our way of thinking things have a logic to them that starts at the beginning and works through to the punchline at the end.

But there’s a different way of thinking – that sees the most important thing at the beginning.

So the first lot of teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5,6,7 starts with blessings – blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice for they will be filled  and ends with the choice – either be like the wise man who built his house on the rock or the foolish man who built his house on the sands and not only listen to the words of Jesus but act on them.

That’s balanced at the end with Jesus’ final teaching – in 23,24,25 – that begins with woes – woe to those hypocrites who tithe mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.

Then in chapter 10 comes a charge to the 12 as they set out on their mission

Balanced by chapter 18 that’s all about what it takes to be the church.

So what does that leave in the middle – but a talk full of stories in Matthew 13 – that’s all about the kingdom.

2) In a Pastoral Ministry we are called to put the Kingdom of God at the centre

And what does the kingdom entail as we sow those seeds and wait patiently for the harvest?

Nowhere is that more finely put than in the words Jesus used in his first sermon, you have chosen to include in this service – from Isaiah 61

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
    for the LORD has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the broken-hearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn

It’s a wonderful insight into the nature of ministry – into the nature of what it is we all called to …

To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.

It’s about justice, and rebuilding things that have been destroyed; it’s about ministering and serving, about  nurturing and growing.

It’s powerful stuff.

A ministry that involves listening and asking questions – both the gentle questions of a pastoral care that is all about listening, and the probing questions that are the way towards becoming life-long learners.

A ministry that uses the teaching of Jesus as its teaching manual – and then shares that teaching with the kingdom right at its heart – a kingdom of justice, of mercy, of faith, of service, of comfort that transforms people’s lives.

And you can’t do it!

Joy can’t do it.

Actually none of us can do it.

We kid ourselves if we think we can.

3) In a Pastoral Ministry we need to share with each other … and draw on the strength of God’s Spirit

It has to be shared – it cannot be for one person to do alone – it’s not possible.

But then we need a strength from beyond ourselves.

If a week is a long time in politics – it’s an even longer time in football.

Last Sunday at church with the youngsters and again on Wednesday in school in assembly I got the youngsters to re-enact the historic England goal in the Italy match.   How Joe Hart rolled the ball out to Raheem Sterling on the left midfield who fed it forward to Wayne Rooney playing wide on the left wing who crossed it to Daniel Sturridge who with a brilliant flick had it in the back of the net!

I then asked what happened next?  And got the youngsters doing the Daniel Sturridge celebration.   How does it finish/  With two arms raised above, touching his lips with both sets of index and middle fingers and lifting them.   Why?

I tracked down an article in the Independent that

It’s common to find Sturridge using the hashtags #godislove and #godisgood after a Liverpool victory. When he reached a half-century of top flight goals at the beginning of February, the striker tweeted: “Thanks to God for allowing me to score 50 prem goals.”

He viewed the Bible as probably his most prized possession as another article reported …  It's important to me because I am very religious.  I believe that you have to pray, as well as work hard, in order to get what you want in life.  When I was growing up I prayed every morning and night - and I still do that today.

Then after winning a Barclays Player of the Month award back in September he tweated “I do all through Christ who strengthens me.”

That’s it.

None of us can do it in our own strength.

Joy cannot do it in her own strength.

We do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Someone rather naughtily whispered in my ear as we were starting up with our next song – but what does he do when he loses.

I’m ready to re-run the story with the youngsters in church tomorrow … and I have prepared a set of powerpoints for next week’s assembly – for our local vicar to do – we share taking assemblies.

I looked up where that quotation comes from and it comes from Philippians 4.

Maybe something for Daniel Sturridge to reflect on …

I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learnt this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. “I do all through Christ who strengthens me.”  Paul in Philippians chapter 4 verses 12-13

Put that into Daniel Sturridge’s context …

I know what it is to win or lose. I have learnt this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little, whether I win or lose: I do all through Christ who strengthens me.

Put it into the context of ministry – and there are good times to rejoice in but also bad times when things don’t go well.

No matter – remember that it is not in your own strength … those first followers of Jesus were called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  And they couldn’t do it in their own strength.

We each of us are called to be witnesses wherever we are – and we cannot do it in our own strength.

The wonderful thing is that we can do all things in through Christ who strengthens us because this Jesus Christ in the power we receive from the Holy Spirit who is that unseen, yet very real strength we need deep within.

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