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The story of your life

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett on December 16, 2019, with gratitude for the reflections of Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas and Craig Barnes that informed this message.

Scriptures:
Micah 5: 2-5a
Luke 1: 26 – 55

What is your favourite Bible story?
I have been asking people that questions for a number of years now. What I have noticed is that people are having a harder and harder time answering it. It used to be that people would quickly say, ‘Noah’s Ark” or “David and Goliath” or Jonah and the Whale”. Then, there came a time when people struggled to name any story from the Bible at all. 

I remember distinctly one baptism class, the parents did not know any Bible stories. Finally, one woman blurted out, “the Christmas story”. When I asked her, “Tell me about that story.” She said, “It’s about a baby?”

I hesitated to tell you that story because I did not want us simply to say, “Isn’t it terrible that people don’t know the Bible stories anymore?” I tell you that story because that is the context in which we are the Church now. 

Most of us grew up in a world where the stories in the Bible played some role in shaping how we saw the world and how we lived our lives. How many of you know what I mean when I say, “The Good Samaritan”? How many of you have some sense that, when you see someone in need, the right thing to do is to stop and help them? At the very least, it occurs to you that that is what you should do. The story of the Good Samaritan — at least the way the church has told that story, shapes the way we see the world, the way we act in it. 

The stories of the Bible no longer function that way for most people.

We all live by some script. That script shapes us: who we are, our identity; what we do, our mission or purpose in life. The script tells us what will make us happy and what will keep us safe. At least, that’s the promise that the script makes. 

As I have been hosting this week’s gospel story in study and in prayer, I have been thinking about a script we often tell young people in our culture. It goes something like this: “You can be anything you want to be. Just reach for your own star; pursue your own dreams; set your own goals and don’t let anything stop you.”

Have you heard that script? It is meant to inspire young people. It is meant to encourage them to work hard to accomplish something wonderful; to become all that they can be. It intends to send them out into the world with the hope and passion they need to shape their lives the way they choose to shape them. “You choose your life.”  That’s the promise the script makes.

Maybe it works for some people. I don’t know any of them. I do know people who are hustling really hard as they try to live into that script. For most people, that script just sets them adrift in a broken world that has lost its way. They keep making choices; they keep following their dreams . . . but their choices don’t work out the way they thought they would. Still believing the script, they choose something else: another career, another partner, another place to live, another group of friends. They keep hoping that the next choice will give them the life, the identity, that they want. 

The problem is that all that choosing and chasing dreams and reaching for the stars is hard on the human soul. The script doesn’t make us happy or safe. It doesn’t give us what we need to become who we are created to be. It wears away at our sense of self. When we try to self-construct our lives by making choices, we don’t find our lives. We lose them. We lose our selves.

The Church offers an alternate script:

Not, “You can be anything you choose to be” but, “God has chosen you. God has a holy purpose for your life.”

Not, “Go out and work hard; pursue your dream; make your own life” but, “God gives you the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives you the strength and courage you will need to live into God’s good and holy purpose for you.”

The Church offers that script in the story of a young peasant girl in a small village in Galilee. Her name was Mary but the angel Gabriel tells her she is not just Mary. She is “Favoured One”. She is “Beautiful with God’s beauty”. She is a person in whose life the Lord God is present and at work. She is “the mother of Jesus, Holy Son of God.”

Mary did not choose to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. She received that life, that identity, as a gift from God. She received it, not by making choices but by being chosen; not by choosing her own destiny but by being given a good and holy destiny.

We tell this story year after year because what God has done for Mary anticipates and models what God does for you and for me. Whenever the Church baptizes someone, the Church proclaims, “You are God child. You are not alone in the universe. You are beautiful with God’s beaut. You are chosen and cared for and held in love and grace. You don’t have to try hard to make your life count for something. God has already made something of your life. You have a place in a great and wonderful story that began long before you got here and that will continue on long after you are gone.”

The best part of the story happens when God, ruler of the cosmos, commander of angel armies, creator of all that is, chose to become flesh. This God chose to ‘move into our neighbourhood and dwell among us, full of grace and truth’. Jesus lived his life healing the sick, feeding the hungry, drawing us toward God. The story ends wonderfully with God winning the victory over all the forces of evil so that wars come to an end and peace and justice cover the earth.

That’s the story that Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and John all get caught up in. That’s the story you and I are in. That’s the story in which you and I have been given a significant, holy part to play. There is a mission to your life.

It all comes as a gift, as grace. The only choice you have to make is whether or not you will receive the gift. Will you receive God’s sacred, good work in your life?

Did you hear what Mary said when Gabriel gave her this message? She said, “How can this be?” “How can this be since I am a virgin?” There is always something that makes it hard for people to trust the story. Moses said, “You can’t mean me, God. I stutter too much.” Jeremiah said, “You can’t mean me, God. I am too young.” Isaiah said, “You can’t mean me. I am not good enough.”

What is your, “How can this be?”
What is your, “You can’t mean me, God.”

Whatever it is, it is not a big enough problem to keep God from pulling you into the story and giving your life within it. Your sense of inadequacy? it is just a call to prayer. It is a call to move deeper into your relationship with Jesus. It is a call back to the heart of God.

You say, “Yes” to that call as you take yourself God and you remain close to that place where you can hear the voice that call you, “My child, my beloved, beautiful with God’s beauty.” That’s the true script of your life. 

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People would tell me it was my best sermon. It was the sermon they remembered the most. Except I never preached it as a sermon. I only mentioned it in the introduction to an appeal for help with a church function.

Once a month or so, the church would place red folders (like the kind some churches use to record attendance and visitors) at the end of each pew. Inside each folder was a sheet of paper listing some “opportunities to serve.” People are encouraged to read through the list, see if something interested or excited them, and then sign with their name and telephone number.

The tasks that were listed were usually short-term and very concrete. For example, we asked for people who were willing to bake a cake for some event, to help out in vacation Bible school, to help drive a new refugee family around, to help plan Advent worship services. You could sign up, help out, and then be done with it.

One Sunday, I introduced the red folders by saying that I had heard recently about a minister who said to his congregation, “Sometimes when we are asked to do something, we say `Yes’ even though we want to say `No.’ We say `Yes’ because we’re afraid that, if we say ‘No’ we’ll feel guilty. Instead, we say `Yes’ and feel angry because we’re too busy, we’re not really interested in doing the task, we’re feeling pressed into doing it. If the choice you’re facing is between saying `yes’ and feeling angry or saying ‘no’ and feeling guilty, I want to encourage you to go with the guilt. Say ‘no.’ ”

After sharing this story, I encouraged our congregation to take this same attitude toward the appeals for help in the red folders. “You should not sign up unless it is something you want to do,” I said. “Go with the guilt!”

The phrase caught on. Many of our most dedicated, faithful and over-worked folk received it with a tremendous sense of freedom and relief. Some worried that the important but less glamorous work of the church wouldn’t get done. They were afraid that everybody would take it as permission to be lazy, to avoid their responsibilities.

There was a possibility that people might react that way. But two factors worked against it. Firstly, the hardest workers in any church don’t usually work out of duty or obligation. They love their Lord and they love God’s Church. They believe in what their church is trying to do. Out of love, they give their time and money and energy with great generosity. They might wish that others would contribute more of their fair share. They may use words like “responsibility” and “duty” to describe it; however, they would probably admit that the work they do for the church isn’t mostly a matter of duty or obligation. It’s a matter of love.

The challenge is not to get people to work harder out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to get people to love God more and to believe more passionately in the mission the Church is accomplishing.

Secondly, the “go with the guilt” message was part of a bigger shift in our congregation’s way of being the Church together. It developed out of a belief that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Body of Christ. The Spirit gives gifts to the church’s members. These gifts fit together for the well-being of the Body. Not everybody will enjoy doing the same things. Some people love crunching numbers; some people love pushing brooms. Some people love the time they spend in the kitchen, some people love the time they spend serving at the local mission.

The challenge is to trust that God knows the work that needs to be done to keep His Body functioning well, and that God is supplying the gifts among Christ’s people to do it.

We must believe that the Spirit is at work in people’s lives pushing, prodding, and pulling them to serve their Lord. The challenge for us is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to respond to that pushing, prodding and pulling in creative and daring ways. Because we’re all learning and growing together, it is all right to try something, even if it doesn’t work out the way we had expected or hoped. It is more important to have tried it.

I love telling the story about Daniel Brown who was pastor of a very large and busy church in California. When people ask him how the church got to be so successful, he tells them that they just kept trying so many things that, by the law of averages, some of them had to work! We all need to work on that “law of averages,” trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout.

Sometimes God leads people in directions they’re uncertain that they want to go. When people say that they aren’t sure of themselves, we need to encourage them not to let that stop them from moving ahead. If they are venturing into new territory, they can expect to feel uncomfortable. They can take things slowly, one step at a time, as God gives them the courage to move ahead.

One of the advantages of the red folders idea is that they allow people to try out new tasks in small chunks. Newcomers don’t have to jump in by volunteering to be the Chair of a committee. They can help set up tables and still feel they are contributing.

People who are exploring new directions in their lives can sign up for short-term experiences. They can be part of the worship planning team for six weeks and then be done with it. Those who are busy elsewhere and who cannot commit a large chunk of time can help out in short-term activities and still know that they are contributing.

Believing that the Holy Spirit has placed more than enough gifts among us, the congregation was always looking for ways to allow people to contribute their gifts in ways that take account of the realities of their lives and that will help them grow. Our energy was spent less and less on trying to convince people to do the very important work we thought needed doing. Over time, the congregational focus changed from “getting the programs done” to “growing the people.’

New questions became important: How can we help people discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? How can we help them become conscious of the gifts they have and don’t have? How can we help them take down the blockages that keep them from responding to the Spirit’s work? How can we help them overcome their fears? How can we provide new opportunities for them to experience the wonder and privilege of being used by God in His work of healing the world?

The church can still get caught in worrying where it will find the people to meet the agenda which is already planned. But the direction it is moving in, is one where growing joyful servants of Jesus Christ is the focus.

0f course, there are some risks in moving in this new direction. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring forward anyone to run a program that the leaders consider vitally important for the Church? What if nobody wants to teach Sunday school? What if nobody wants to be in charge of keeping the building in shape? The self-images of the minister and of the congregation are at stake. As clergy, we’re very used to trying to meet the expectations of the congregation. As congregations, we strive to offer the kinds of programmes that we think people want. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t come through for us?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church is learning to trust God instead of ourselves. If the Holy Spirit has not provided persons or gifts to run a particular programme, perhaps that programme doesn’t need to be run—at least not by us. If we don’t run it and people miss it enough, somebody will consider it important enough to commit time and energy to it—eventually. If we don’t run it and nobody misses it, then it wasn’t needed after all. Sometimes we can forget that we are not the only congregation that God is working in. Some work God will give to us to do. Some work God will give to another congregation to do. We don’t have to “do it all.” God asks us to be faithful to the call God places among us. That will keep us more than busy!

All of this means that we must, first and foremost, be a people of prayer. We have to stay close to God to hear what God is saying to us. If there is nobody to do something that we think needs doing, is it a sign that we aren’t hearing God’s call to us? Or are we trying to do it the wrong way? Or is there somebody who needs some growth and encouragement before being ready to take up the work? Or is this work given to another congregation to do? Prayer will help us find the answers. And even when we are sure that it is something we are called to do, we will still have to stay close to God. God is the One who will give us the courage and energy and joy to do what God asks us to do.

“Go with the guilt.” I didn’t know it when I said it, but it was a first step towards growing and serving our Lord with delight and joy.

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A prayer based on Mark 10: 17 -31 and Hebrews 4: 12 -16. Prayed after singing “Open my eyes, that I may see

Jesus, Saviour, Friend,
you come into our lives
and you summon us out
beyond the safe places we try to create for ourselves.

We pray that you will open our ears
that we may hear the glimpses of truth you have for us
but, the truth is,
we do not always welcome your powerful Word.

You see us as we are;
you love us enough
to cut through our defences and excuses.
You summon us to live with
a vulnerability,
an openness,
a love
that is beyond us.

So we are grateful
that you do what we cannot do —
you walk with us along your Way:
you work within us,
setting us free from the things that hold us;
your Holy Spirit
takes what we offer
and infuses it with
mercy and grace beyond our own.

You entrust us with work more holy
than we would choose for ourselves.

Jesus, you have been through weakness and testing,
through disappointment and rejection.
You trusted in God’s faithfulness in all of that.
And in you, God overcame every power that binds us
and won our freedom
and gives us new life.

Open our hearts
to receive the mercy you offer;
open our lives
to receive the help you give.
Amen.

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Gracious God, extravagant, God,
your goodness overflows into our lives.
You pour out abundance,
you wrap your love around us all our day.
What a wondrous world you have created.

We give thanks for the bounty of the earth,
for those who work the land and harvest the crops,
for those whose work provides us with food on our tables.

We give thanks for those who work for healing
of our bodies,
of our minds
of the earth.

We give thanks for those who learn and teach
for wisdom and knowledge and guidance.

We give thanks for those who struggle for truth and justice,
for those who risk their lives for others,
for your people throughout the earth who seek to follow you,
for those who bear witness to your Way and your grace in our world.

Surrounded by signs of your care for us,
Immersed in your abundant gifts to us,
we turn to you in trust.

Move us from worry to peace
that rests in your good keeping.

Move us from anxious grasping to
living with open hands
and open hearts
and open spirits,
ready to receive from you
life in all its fullness,
the heights and the depths
permeated through and through
with your grace,
with you,
our Saviour,
our Redeemer,
our Shepherd,
our Lord.  Amen.

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“Our mission to the world cannot make creation whole again, any more than we can create wholeness in ourselves or our churches. We offer the world only the grace of God, and that can never be confused with problem solving. It is high time we let go of all mission strategies that offer optimistic social agendas for the world. Instead, our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing — healing from the damage people have wrought by playing god in the world”.
Craig Barnes in Yearning: Living Between How It Is And How It Ought To Bep. 174.

So often I hear or read advice to congregations about vision or mission statements that suggest that the church’s mission is about ‘meeting needs’. Congregations are to find a need in the neighbourhood that matches the interests, skills, and passion of their people. Then, they are to develop a programme or project that will meet that need.

I am troubled by that approach. It seems to me that it sets the church as one more provider of a product that others will consume.  How often have you heard someone suggest that one of the failings of the church is that it doesn’t advertise enough? That it needs better marketing?

I know that we are often not ‘on the radar’ for many people. Ask a stranger, “Could you direct me to  . . . Church?”  and there’s a good possibility that s/he won’t be able to do that, even if the church building is in sight. I also know that people often don’t know all that the church is doing in the community. Those are both indications that a congregation needs to get better connected with its neighbourhood.

However, I don’t think ‘church’ is a consumer product. I don’t believe that declines in participation will be fixed by better marketing. I don’t think that the mission of the church is about ‘meeting needs’ or fixing social problems.

I like Craig Barnes’ reminder that the church’s work is be a witness to and a foretaste of the healing and redeeming work that God is doing in the world. And, I am challenged by his comments that “our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing”. That sets the church within mystery, within relationships, within a deep respect for the holiness of life. It seems to me that that is a better description of what we are about.

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A prayer said after the hymn “We Praise You, Creator” in Voices United # 293 and based on Philippians 3: 1-16 and Mark 9: 38 -50

Holy God,
Creator, Ruler, Maker,
Sovereign most high:
we do praise you and adore you.

We praise you and adore you because
your grace dwells among us,
your love goes before us,
your Word is truth that makes our lives
true and holy.

We praise you and adore you
and find ourselves in the company
of a long list of women and men before us
who turned toward you
and trusted you with all that they are,
with all that they have.

From generation to generation
they spoke your Word and gave hope;
they embodied your grace and brought peace;
they walked in your Way and pointed to your truth.

And now, Lord Jesus,
 you have called to us to do the same.

You know us —
searching for ways to speak
hope
and peace
and grace
so that the next generation
is beckoned into trusting you
with all that they are,
with all that they have.

You know us —
our uncertainties
our doubts
our fears.

We hand them over to you.

In your mercy,
gather up our stumbling attempts
to be your witnesses.
Breathe your Holy Spirit
into our words and actions.
Then, open us to
your resurrection power
at work within us
and among us
and through us.

Surprise us
at every turn
and make our lives
a joyful hymn of praise.  Amen.

Assurance of God’s Grace: When you open a space for God, God pours the Holy Spirit into your life. The Holy Spirit works within you and gives you a heart that lives by the rhythms of God’s grace. Lean into this promise and live open to the world-transforming love of Christ.

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Our lives are not just a series of disconnected episodes. Our lives are part of the story God is telling. Even though we cannot always see the design, God has a purpose that God is working out.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, says God, “neither are my ways your ways but the word I speak will not return to me empty. It will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 6-13)

God’s purpose is that we shall “go out in joy and be led forth in peace, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” That is where we are headed, where the journey will take us, where the story will end.

The stories in the Bible provide a roadmap that helps us find our way there. Some of the stories we shall not like but they are stories of the encounter between God and God’s people. They represent the accumulated wisdom of the people who had committed themselves to living in covenant with this God who kept speaking to them and shaping their lives. 

When we set ourselves within these stories — when we take them seriously and meditate upon their meaning; when we let one portion of them be interpreted by the rest of them; when we allow Jesus to be the final re-interpretation of the whole — they stop being strange, peculiar stories of a distant place and long-ago time. They become stories in which God is speaking to us. We hear for ourselves how much God loves us. We hear for ourselves the ways in which God is shaping our lives so that we become capable of receiving that love.

We do not always get the message. There are some parts of scripture whose meaning will remain a mystery to us. However, we keep at it. We keep making our lives available to these stories because, whoever strange the way they speak my sound, it is not a stranger who speak them to us. It is the One who has known us and loved us from the foundation of the world. It is the One who, in Jesus of Nazareth, went to hell and back to bring us home in peace and joy. 

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