Tuesday, 1 January 2019

"Don't stand in the doorway; don't block up the hall.": a sermon

For those from a Methodist background, the annual Covenant Service, normally held early in the year, is a significant occasion of faith renewal.  

As I was preparing a Covenant Service for another congregation a few years ago, I felt it was appropriate to "tweak" the language of the service somewhat, for two main reasons:
  • One reason was to underscore the fact that, in the Uniting Church and in many other denominations, we have come to believe that the relationship God has had with the Jews since well before the emergence of Christianity is still an active and vital one.  Our covenant with God as Christians should never be a denial of the covenant which Jews continue to enjoy with God.
  • The other reason was to deal with a word whose meaning has changed radically since the days when John Wesley first led a congregation in renewing their covenant.

The word was "to suffer", as in Wesley's phrase "Put me to doing; put me to suffering."

The way we use the word "suffer" now means to experience pain.  Now, there are some religious people who believe that God causes us to suffer, whether as some sort of punishment, or as some sort of test, or to teach us some sort of cruel "lesson".  While some people on the fringe of Christian faith believe this, and while some people in the churches believe it, no mainstream Christian church teaches this. 

Many people outside the churches, in the wider community, are under the impression that we believe this, however.  In fact, in my experience, it's this false impression - the notion that Christians believe God is the source of human suffering - that's one of the really, really big reasons why you'll find people who grow up as part of families of worshipping, committed Christians who then later opt to become convinced, committed, angry and aggressive atheists in adulthood. 

In Wesley's time, and in earlier centuries, alongside our current meaning of "suffering" was another meaning.  The word "to suffer" meant "to allow" or "to let".  So, for example, the translators of the old King James Bible (about a century-and-a-half before Wesley's day) translated the Greek of the gospels so that Jesus was quoted in English saying "Suffer the little children to come unto me."  What he was saying was "Allow the children to come"... "Let the kids meet me".

So what I've done was to paraphrase Wesley's words "Put me to doing; put me to suffering" so that they say "Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen", so as to minimise the confusion.  The Richard Dawkinses and other "secular fundamentalists" of this world have enough ammunition without our adding to it.

And let me say that the art of letting things happen can be a profound ministry.  In both the church and the wider community, there are times when we need to allow something positive to happen even it's not our first choice (or second, or third, or fourth, or even our eighteenth choice) as a way forward.  Sometimes, we need to cultivate the fine art of letting things happen.   

In the Christian church in our own day, the mentality of "Over my dead body!" has proved fatal for many congregations.  If you remember the TV comedy "The Vicar of Dibley", the character of David Horton, played by Gary Waldhorn, was an exemplar of the "Over my dead body!" mentality:  "A female vicar:  over my dead body! ... Blessing animals in church:  over my dead body!"  In many ways, one of the main story arcs of "The Vicar of Dibley" over a number of seasons was David's transformation from an exemplar of the "Over my dead body!" mentality to something far more positive. 

The singer-songwriter Bob Dylan said something similar in his song "The Times They Are a-changing":

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call,
Don't stand in the doorway; don't block up the hall."

"For the times, they are a-changing!"

And now, having referenced John Wesley, Richard Dawkins, "The Vicar of Dibley", and Bob Dylan in the same sermon, I think I'll quit while I'm ahead and remind us that when, in a few minutes, we pray "Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen," we're praying that God will lead us to reject the whole destructive attitude of "Over my dead body!"

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