Covenant Service.

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2012-01-08 by abookflog

Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
8th January 2012
Readings: Luke 8:25-26Matthew 14:22-34 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

It feels to me as though as a church we spent much of last year in the teeth of a storm. It was a storm above all of loss and grief, as we said goodbye to Lesley and to the London Mennonite Centre, both its physical incarnation in Shepherds Hill and our previous certainties about that relationship. For some the storm was personal too – illness, especially depression, moving house, seeing organisations through upheaval and change.

That feeling of having passed through a storm felt very vivid and I’d like to linger over it a little longer.

Please pass round this picture – which you’re welcome to keep if you’d like.
In a moment we’ll hear a few verses from Luke 8 and I’ll invite you to look at this picture and imagine yourselves into the thick of that storm, whether on the sea of Galilee or some other stretch of water you are more familiar with. Perhaps the storm is exhilarating and surviving it leaves a sense of triumph or at least relief – “we made it!”. Or perhaps the storm is so violent that it is just plain scary, loud and wet, leaving us exhausted, battered and bruised, like Jonah spat out and limp on the beach. Maybe it feels lonely out there, far from the shore, or maybe there’s a rich sense of being in it together, clinging to others for safety, literally in the same boat. Perhaps there’s frustration at being kept from our plans, blown way off.

Luke 8:22-23

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out,
23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.

Let’s have a moment’s silence to bring before God the storms of the past year…

So where is Jesus in the midst of this storm? Maybe some of have asked us that over the course of this past year: “Where is God when we need him?”. If I’d been in that boat I think I’d have been infuriated and incredulous and disappointed with Jesus’ inaction: he’s fast asleep for goodness sake! I wonder if I hear that in the words of the disciples as the story continues. As we listen I invite you to take this second card and picture yourselves into the drenched wind-tossed boat and the terror of the storm:

Luke 8:24

They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.

Let’s pause again to remember the ways in which we saw God come to the rescue over the past year, whether spectacularly or in the quiet realisation that God was with us, had been with us all along…
And before we leave that image of the storm let’s hear the end of our story and another story of being almost overwhelmed by a storm on the lake immediately after the feeding of the five thousand.

Luke 8:25-26

25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

Matthew 14:22-34

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.
23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,
24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.
26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

So in the end, in both stories, the boat lands safely.
But I’m not sure we are quite there yet. We are, I trust, in calmer shallower waters but I’m not sure we’ve landed quite yet. At the vision day we began to look at who and where we are, where we have come from and where we are going, but found it hard to dream concretely for the future. I used the image of Noah’s dove looking in vain for a twig to land on or even to break off, and eventually having to return to the ark empty-handed – or empty-beaked. I don’t think we are empty-handed ourselves – we are trying new ways of being together and of opening ourselves more to others and we have the prospect of Lena’s work with us, our plans for walking church and working with the findings and recommendations of our mission audit. But I don’t think we’ve quite found a branch to settle on yet or a beach to land on.
I guess that could feel frustrating. And I think it is important that we keep up the momentum and maintain a sense of urgency – our small numbers and our bedraggled finances will force some decisions on us soon. But I think we also need to pray and trust and be patient. I’m not a particular fan of the theology of Teilhard de Chardin but I think his spirituality may have something to offer, at least in the shape of this poem inviting us to trust in the slow work of God:

Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We would like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet, it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability –
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time,
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

There is real wisdom I think in this commendation of being willing to live with a degree of instability, anxiety, suspense and incompleteness and of giving our ideas time to shape themselves, allowing a new spirit form within us. I hope that for some of us that is where the vision day left us, with a willingness to let that happen.
And I think there is wisdom too in Alan Kreider’s recommendation that we follow the GPS. I had my first brush with a dedicated GPS gadget over Christmas when my brother took us out into the woods geocaching. But Alan’s GPS is an acronym for “Gifts, Passion, Service”. I’d like to suggest that as part of letting our ideas mature gradually, letting a new spirit form in us, we spend a few minutes thinking about – and writing down – what we think are our gifts and passions as a congregation, gifts and passions which continue to be part of our DNA after many year and gifts and passions which are only in embryo. If we look inside our church where do we see our corporate heart leap and our corporate eyes light up? Where do we sense that God’s hand is leading us?

I’ll keep whatever we write. I hope I can pass it on to Phil in connection with the mission audit or that it can be useful preparation for future conversations based on the report from the mission audit and as we think about where to go from there.
So the questions to reflect on are
“What gifts do I think are well represented in our congregation?” and
“What passions do I have which I believe are shared by the congregation generally?”
I suggest that you take a little while to think quietly on your own, then write them up on the sheets at the front, them spend some time looking at what others have written and let that feed your own reflection. Add what you need to as new thoughts come to mind.
(If you don’t want to keep your pictures please pass them back to the front now and if you do please put them somewhere safe where they won’t be trampled as we do this exercise together.)

[interactive activity]

As we prepare to read the covenant together, I’d like to take us back briefly to where we’ve been. We started in the storms that the past year brought us and remembered where and how God had come to us in the midst of fear and towering waves. Then I wondered whether we were already safely on the shore or still looking around for a beach to land on or a branch to settle on. And now as we look to the future we have looked inside our congregation and asked God to light up to us the things we care about the most and the gifts we can offer so that this can guide us as we seek our way forward.
Let’s give our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s hand is leading us, and accept the anxiety of feeling ourselves in suspense and incomplete. As we face into this year together and with God, as we hope and pray for growing clarity about our calling, let’s trust in Jesus to meet us in the storm and accompany us to the shore, and let’s trust in the slow work of God.

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