Sermon: Priorities - Pilgrims' Way

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Preached on 19th November 2006
(Vision Day)
by Reverend Keith Harbour

This sermon is in response to our ‘Vision Day' to a recent Retreat I've had and to this week's Ministerial Training Day led by our Methodist President Designate, Martin Atkins.

First a story about priorities.  A couple were jetting off on holiday.  At the airport check in the man said to his wife, "I do wish we'd brought the piano."  "Good gracious," she replied, "We've already got a dozen bags and we agreed we'd got everything we needed, why do we need the piano?"  His reply was one of real priority,  "I put the holiday tickets on it last night."

Sometimes we make priorities of things that are really only of secondary value. 

Here's a true story of an experiment with Monkeys.  We share 85% of our DNA with them.  Four of them were put in a large enclosure that had a long pole stretching to the ceiling, at the top of the pole was a bunch of fruit.  Monkey number one decided to climb the pole and get the fruit, but just as he reached it jets of water were sprayed on all of them.  Number one quickly descended the pole.  A second Monkey gave it a try with the same result.  By the time a third Monkey tried the other three, squealing, pulled him to the ground.

One of the Monkeys was taken out of the enclosure and new one introduced.  He saw the fruit and was straight up the pole after the goodies, but with great squeals the other three pulled him to the ground.  Another of the original Monkeys was replaced by a new one who made for the fruit with the same result.  Eventually, when there were four new Monkeys, none who'd been soaked, the same behaviour applied.  None of the new Monkeys knew about the spray, but all knew they mustn't climb the pole, none knew why.

The experiment shows how ‘we work in community', in harmony,  BUT we don't always ask the reasons why we do things.

Linking that to church life, there are a lot of things we do, and a lot of things we avoid doing, but neither have rhyme nor reason, nor have much, if anything to do with the ‘Teaching of Jesus', it's just that we've been programmed to act that way by our forbears.

Judaism and the Temple is a prime example.  At the time of Jesus, and for centuries before, even at the time of Jeremiah, the Jewish people had developed a deep devotion to the Temple.

But worse than that, the Temple had become the object of worship, the essential nature of Judaism.  Perhaps no one knew why this had become so, but when people questioned it, like Jeremiah, they were ridiculed and accused of Blasphemy and put into prison.

Jesus clearly teaches that ‘Worshiping the Temple'  was not a healthy religion.  Jeremiah warned them, so did Jesus, the Temple, will be destroyed?  But God, Yahweh, who they ought to worship, was a lot bigger and grander than the mere Temple, despite it's huge and ornate stones, despite it's organised and detailed devotion.

One thing our ‘Vision Day' or as I prefer to say ‘God's Vision in us Day' has revealed is that there is a lot of  people want us to ‘get back to basics' a lot of talk about what is ‘essential' ‘what really matters' for us as Christians.  Where are our priorities?

The fact is that in our church life there are things we say and do, which may be OK as social activities, but have little, if anything, to do with the teaching of Jesus - somehow we are programmed to see them as essential.

Pews, Organs, Pulpits, 10:00 am on Sunday. Committee and Council meetings, electronic wizardry, our preferred liturgies, five hymn sandwiches.  Hierarchical Government and Complex Structures.  You may feel some of these things are important while others get in the road.  But what I'm saying, as both Jeremiah and Jesus did about the Temple, they are not the essentials of our faith, and some even get in the way of our faith.

Methodism, like Christianity, began as a Movement, now it has become church, and sadly, in many ways, has become a Monument.  Someone cynically said all Christianity needs is a Church building, a car park, a priest and enough money to pay his stipend.  If this is how we think we are no different from the Jews and their Temple Worship.

What do your really, really, care about?  Do you care about Poverty?  Do you care about the Destruction of the Environment?  Do you care about Domestic Violence? 

Do you care about Child Abuse and Child Nurture?  Do you care about Wholeness and Healing?  Do you care about Christian Values in Society or the lack of them?  Do you care that not a lot of new people in the West are giving their lives to Jesus?  Do you care about Loving Relationships?  Do you care about a Loving Relationships and a Committed Relationship with God?  Do you care that we grumble about the Health Services while a child in Africa dies of diarrhoea? 

I trust you all do care about these things, and see them as our Christian calling to care.  Perhaps some of them are priorities - things we should be taking seriously, passionate about, making into the essential nature of the life of this church.

And we should make a deep and strong effort not to let other things push the essentials out of place.

Here is a ‘Lighthouse Story'.  A Lighthouse on a bleak and dangerous coast was tended by a Keeper. Each month he was supplied with enough oil to keep the light burning every night. One day a woman asked for oil so her children could stay warm. A farmer visited him and asked for oil for a lamp so he could read.  Still another man asked for oil to keep his engine running.  The Keeper was a gentle and loving man and saw each need as real and couldn't refuse the requests. Unfortunately towards the end of the month the oil ran out, the lighthouse had no light to shine into the darkness.  Three ships were wrecked and over a hundred lives lost. 

A Government Official investigated the cause of the shipwrecks, the Lighthouse Keeper explained what he'd done and why.  "You were given one task," said the Official, "To keep the light burning.  Everything else was secondary, the essential thing that was needed you failed to do."

We are a ‘Lighthouse for Christ'.  Granted it is not always easy to discern and tease out nor to put into action.  But if we don't get the essentials right then there is no hope, either for us, for the life of this church, nor for the well being of those around us.

There's no other way than trusting Christ, seeking his guidance and relying on his grace. Without Christ we get the essentials wrong.  By not putting Christ first our priorities fall out of shape.

‘The Second Vatican Council'  met from 1962 to 1965.  It's task was to find a way for congregational renewal.  (i) Do we sit back and let God do it for us?  OR (ii) Do we do it ourselves and just get on with what we think is right.  They chose the middle way, somewhere between the two with a lot of prayer and deliberation.

Eventually, some years later, Mother Mary McNamara, was given the task of formulating the results.  Very basically this is what was produced from a large report.  If  the church seeks renewal it must

  1. Revisit the New Testament, particularly the teaching of Jesus.
  2. Return the ‘Charisms' of its founders.
  3. Read the ‘Signs of the Times' the needs of the age we are set in.

The church, if it is be really what God wants and really find newness of life, must re-shape its life using these three premise'.

I can't fall out with the Second Vatican Council, but as a Methodist I want to call us a Movement rather than a church.

Where do I see we are as ‘Morpeth Methodist Church, a Centre for the Community?'  Our building work of recent years, our Pilgrim's Way venture, our Vision Day, means we are a Congregation In Transition.

In many respects, the church we knew and loved, of forty or fifty years ago, has become redundant, it is dying, and in many cases it is dead and buried.  The hard facts are that to survive and to be an effective part of Christ's Mission, we need, desperately need, to be a Congregation In Transition, from the old to the new, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into a congregation for the twenty-first century.

Please work with us, to this end.  I am not the Hierarchy of this church, neither are the Stewards, nor is the Church Council.  We are all servants of God and co-workers in his Kingdom.  Let us together be a Transitional Congregation, on our ‘Pilgrim Way' 

Please pray for our ‘Pilgrims' Way Group' and our Working Groups.  Please join us if you can.  Please work with us when we lay down the challenges of what we believe is Christ's Way Forward for us.  Please take the risk that our world needs, that our forbears, charismatically took, that is totally in line with the Teaching of Jesus.

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