This morning's sermon for my trial service to become a Methodist Local Preacher "On Trial".
While I have been preaching for a while, I'm not officially qualified to preach within the Methodist Church. This is the second level (should I pass following reflection on today's service.).
Tried to do something different with this one. No point in staying with what's safe, or sticking to what I'm good at... The chance for feedback was too good!
NOTE: I'm not comfortable with scripts, and even though this is scripted, I didn't stick to it. I really need to invest in a recorder so I can find out what I actually say in these services!
I grew up in a relatively small town in Suffolk… Nice isn’t it?! (PIC) Nothing particularly huge has come from the town (other than me) since the man who has a statue at the top of the market place:
Thomas Gainsborough. Even then, he’s not the most household of names, particularly in younger generations.
Anyway, in Sudbury my dad appeared to know everybody, and everybody appeared to know him. As a result, growing up I was known by association. Everywhere I went I was “Alan’s son”… My name rarely mattered because his reputation went first. Thankfully it wasn’t a bad reputation…
Once I left school I also left the town. Since then I’m still known in relationship to my dad wherever he has gone before me, but those place where I’ve gone first I have my own reputation. Occasionally that’s not as good a reputation as I’d have if my dad had gone first, but I am all me. In fact I’ve noticed a role reversal to the point where when my dad comes to visit and people meet him he can be found basking in the reflected glory if being “Marc’s dad.”
We started our readings this morning with Ezekiel (18:1-4; 25-32), and the unfairness of God. Particularly that the children were supposedly suffering for the sins of their fathers. Why would God subject them to such a thing? The injustice felt by the people was that they shouldn’t be allowed to suffer and die because their ancestors had sinned against God. They needed their own reputation!
Whilst they bemoaned that they appeared to be reaping the penalties afforded to their forefathers, I bet they weren’t so quick to complain about the benefits that God had lavished on the generations because of the faithfulness of their grandparents.
Either way, God makes it clear that something else is happening: That he loves each person by their own right, and according to who they are, that each person’s sin shall be counted against themselves, and equally that they’re positive actions and relationship with God are also to be counted for them and them alone.
No longer could the parents be blamed for the pain of the child, and no more could they revel in the glory of their parents either.
Instead of being in the shadow or reputation of the father, they had to forge their own way.
I wonder how many of us are sat in church today because our parents first brought us here?
I wonder how many of us have always called ourselves a Christian on the merit of the religion we inherited from our families?
I wonder if for any of us we’re still in that place?
Today each of us are seen by God as individuals, not as the sum of those who gave us life, but in light of the one who brings life. We are called to be us, to take responsibility for ourselves, for the sins we commit and the offering we bring to God.
God will show and prove his love to us and he will treat us fairly, based on who we are, and on what we have done.
Are you ready for that?
As someone in church today, whose are the stories you tell? Whose is the testimony that springs to mind? Are they yours? Do the stories you tell ring true of the faithfulness of God to you, and a personal relationship with him, or instead are our stories reminiscent of a time when God was in relationship with someone else?
Maybe we know that God is still moving and active, and we bask in the reflected glory of our leaders, of our minister, of certain theologians, believing that their efforts are enough to ensure our salvation and save us as their “family”… After all, we’re good Methodists, and God must’ve loved the Wesleys…
It sounds a little far-fetched when I say it like that and we’ll fight against it, but I know I can sometimes be guilty of thinking like that…
God tells us in Ezekiel that it is up to us to take responsibility for our own lives, our own faiths, our own words and deeds, and the consequences thereof.
So how do we go about that?
Jumping into Matthew (21:28-32), and we come to the story of Jesus’ we heard and thought about earlier (in the service).
Jesus sums up how we’re supposed to be as we come out of the shadows of our ancestors and take responsibility for ourselves, our lives, our words and our actions.
I wonder which character you related to most? Do you find yourself more often saying something affirmative but not following through, or saying something negative and later on still following through. Or are you the sort of unmentioned person who sticks resolutely to what you say, be that in agreement or opposition to what’s asked of you?
I’d love to say that I am reliable enough to always be true to my word, whichever word that might be, but the thing is, I’m not sure I am. Far too often I can be guilty of saying one thing and doing another.
That’s a character flaw not only in my day-to-day life, but also in the outworking of my theology.
Let me explain: Over the years I’ve come to realise that I am a theologian.
Some would say that I began to be a theologian 11 years ago when I started my degree in youth work with applied theology - that is youth work combined with what theology looks like in practise.
Personally - though I didn’t realise it at the time - I’ve come to think that I have been a theologian for a very long time. It was even before I did my first preach before I was 15, or before I led my first service at 12, or even before I became a Christian at 10.
I would go as far as to say that I have been a theologian for as long as I have been thinking coherently (and I don’t mean only after 10am and 2 cups of coffee…) about God and about life.
I wonder if you think of yourself as a theologian? Often people think you have to study theology, or wear a collar, or be a bit nerdy and an intellectual to be a theologian. But that’s not the case.
A theologian is anyone who thinks about God, anyone who seeks to know him better, and see how he relates to us and our world.
Do you do notice yourself doing that? Well you already have this morning. You have sung words about God, you have discussed the word of God. You’ve come up with thoughts about where you are in the light of who God is. You chose what to focus on in prayer, maybe because they were things you thought God could do better, or were within his power.
The following idea came up in the preaching course content I was looking at last week.
As an introduction to theology it highlighted four expressions of theology, and the places we get our ideas from. The challenge for the trainee preacher is to identify where those different areas come into our services. As I introduce you to them, I wonder where you think they have shown up in our service, and where they come into your Christian walk, if at all:
Normative Theology: The theology we learn and adopt through our traditions, scripture, creeds, liturgies and church;
This morning we’ve drawn from our scripture with our reading, our tradition with our lectionary, our liturgy with the Lord’s prayer… Even the very clothes you chose to wear this morning may well have been influenced by your “normative theology”: That tradition of Sunday best, where we dress up for God could be explained as part of our theology.
Formal Theology: The theology we learn and adopt from other theologians and thinkers;
This is where the academic side could be argued, but only briefly. You see, theological thinkers can be found everywhere. Throughout your bookshelf at home there might be books by Christians about how to pray, about grace or love. They might be explicitly Christian in their theme and content… But you will also regularly find yourself engaging with theological thinkers as you read or watch the news, as you delve into films and music, as you read that latest novel that the person next to you recommended. Not all of these start off as theological reflections - though the likes of Mel Gibson, Bono, CS Lewis and countless others are explicit in the meaning behind their works - but our culture is littered with people sharing with us their ideas about who God is, who Jesus is, what the purpose of it all is.
What about the theology of those people who go out of their way to fight for fair trade? Or children’s rights? Or the majority of the charities that we support or encounter daily? If I were a gambling man, I wouldn’t get much return for betting on the fact that more often than not these charities have Christians permeating their ranks, if not as founders.
Espoused Theology: The theology we talk about, and the things we say we believe;
Continuing our thinking about charities, there is something to be seen in their mission statements, in what they stand for, and how they talk about what they believe.
The same goes for our churches.
The same goes for us.
We can often talk a good game when it comes to theology. We can talk about how God loves us, and tell the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what God wants from us.
We might become more articulate in our thinking and talk about how Christianity relates to politics, or science, or the news.
We may well find ourselves bemoaning the state of the world, the problem of this fallen, God-forsaken place, and that God wants it restored to how he created it.
This is our “Do as I say…” as we try and tell the world about God’s heart and purposes. Then “Not as I do…” comes from my failings in the last area of theology:
Operant Theology: The theology we live out and enact.
And then there’s this area of our theology.
I don’t know about you, but this is the most difficult.
What do my actions say about my God?
I can talk here as long as you’ll let me about how we should be as Christians, what we should be believing… But what happens when we’ve all drunk our tea?
I think church tea is where it all goes wrong for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the tea here is lovely, and church tea is always better than church coffee… But it does something to my words, or at least to my intentions following the words I’ve heard.
I can be resolute in my wanting to live it out right up until I have a cup of tea. After that I often feel like I’ve been at a good service, or remember some of the hymns, but the power has gone.
There’s very little of my learned theology from my degree that I remember the proper terms for. I work better with simple descriptions and definitions rather than all that Greek. But there are two words that continue to rattle around in my head: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy.
Orthodoxy is about having the right words, the right belief, the right theories and doctrines. Some important stuff in there, and something to aspire to to be known as people with the right doctrines and beliefs, but I’d far rather be known for my orthopraxy that follows from my orthodoxy.
Orthopraxy is all about right practice and right action. It deals with the outworking of our faith and belief, how we not only claim and talk about the grace and love of God, but how we live it out in our everyday lives.
Jesus’ parable confronts the religious powers of his day who talked a good game, who dressed the right way, and claimed the titles associated with the righteous, but their hearts were flawed. They didn’t follow through from the words to their interactions towards others.
Jesus told them that it’s not enough to declare that you know the Torah, the laws given to guide God’s people, laws given to declare love towards God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength, but also to love the neighbour as the self. It has to be coupled with following through on the requirements.
Jesus shames them further to say that it is better that people initially refuse or have no knowledge of him but respond to belief with actions later on than they just talk about it.
I don’t know about you, but I regularly get it wrong.
If only there was some sort of model or example we could follow…
Oh, wait… There might just be one…
The lectionary points us towards Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where in chapter 2 he says this:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…
What does it mean for us to humble ourselves?
What does it mean for us to be obedient to God?
What does it mean for us to work out our own salvation?
Tom Wright, in The Day The Revolution began highlights that this poem tells the story of Jesus with the cross in the centre, it talks about the central role of Jesus in the history of the human race and the life of Israel, the importance of Jesus in our response and in our history. Without Him, we're lost.
“For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
It is at his name that we bow and are made complete. It is the grace and love that he shows to us that we are to pass on in word and deed. It is by letting God work in us that we are able to see our theology become more than words by being translated into love and action. It is by his work that we achieve both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
May we give ourselves to him to be used.
Remarcable is one man blogging about Youth Work, Theology, Family, Life and those other random things that come to mind.