Sermon transcript, 31 May 2015
God is launching the ship by Fr. Dana
Isaiah 6:1-5, Psalm 93, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-16
Before I start, I have a message for you, from I Thessalonians 2:2-3. I’m going to change “we” to “I”: “I always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in my prayers. 3 I remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Truly I thank God for you: you are a blessing to me and to my family, and to the Lord, most importantly – seriously.
A vision of hope
The Old Testament reading begins with Isaiah 6:1. Uzziah was a good king (Israel had some good kings and some rally horrible ones), perhaps the second best since Solomon (Jehoshaphat is hard to compare with), and he reigned for fifty years: that’s a long period of good. But now he’s dead, and there’s a year of mourning, and it was during this year of sadness that Isaiah was given the vision in this chapter. It was a vision of hope in the midst of despair. It was a vision of such hope that every Sunday during the Eucharist we declare a portion of it. Maybe you recognise it: when we celebrate the Eucharist, we declare what the seraphim said in this passage: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of power and might; heaven and earth is full of Your glory.” (from the Sanctus; see Isaiah 6:2-3) The passage tells how overwhelming this experience was, and the effect it had on Isaiah, who said, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” (Isaiah 6:5) – “I’m not worthy of this” – like Peter was when Jesus first met him and provided the harvest of fish. They’d been fishing all night, and Peter said, “Get away from me: I’m unclean, I’m not worthy of Your presence”. (Luke 5:4-8) Nonetheless, God was with us: He was with Peter and He was with Isaiah; He didn’t leave. What He did was in the Spirit: what He did symbolically for Isaiah was that He took a coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips, and his lips were no longer unclean (Isaiah 6:6-7); in fact his whole body was no longer unclean.
In the Psalm we heard that the Lord reigns, that He’s clothed with majesty (Psalm 93:1), and all of these things that we saw in Isaiah. Nonetheless the floods have lifted up; the earth has lifted up in a threat to overwhelm, the floods look as if they’re going to bury us (Psalm 93:3). Yet Psalm 93:4 tells us that “The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters”: those waters that look like they’re going to flood you out are just noise. It’s Satan making proud boasts, but they have no power; and the reason they have no power is that “The Lord on high is mightier… than the mighty waves of the sea”; and His “testimonies are very sure” (Psalm 93:4): we can count on it. That doesn’t make things easy.
The way of the world and the way of the Spirit
In Romans 8:12-14, we heard that those who have received the Holy Spirit are to live according to the Holy Spirit: we are to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, rather than the siren songs of the world, the flesh and the devil. The world is always trying to get us to focus on ourselves: “What’s good for me? If it feels good, do it. You can prosper – who cares about anyone else? You can be anything you want. You can do anything you want.” The flesh says the same things: “Gimme, gotta have it, gotta have it…”, whether it’s money, sex, new car, whatever… That’s what advertising is all about, to appeal to your flesh: “Ooh, I need that!” If you turn away and think about it, you don’t really need it: that car won’t get me to work any faster or any better than the one I have; in fact the insurance would be about three times what I pay on my car now. It appeals to “I want it, gimme, gotta have it, need it, now!” And you know the devil doesn’t have your best interest at heart: he never has. Just ask Adam and Eve.
In the Gospel we heard that all men and women are creations of God, and therefore they’re born of water. Jesus talked to Nicodemus about being born of water (John 3:5), and that makes sense: when you’re an infant in your mother’s womb, you’re surrounded by fluid, and when you’re born the water breaks and it comes gushing out. With our first child, Edye was sitting on a chair in the kitchen when her water broke; it was as if a huge water balloon was sitting on the chair and somebody popped it. She was dry, and there was a flood of water was coming from under the chair. Eowyn was born of water, and that’s enough to make us a creation of God.
That doesn’t make us a child of God. That requires us being born of the Holy Spirit; and when that happens, something happens to us. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” (John 3:8) I’m sure you’ve experienced that: you’ve been walking on the street and all of a sudden a gust of wind blows your hat off or blows your umbrella inside out, and you think, “Where did that come from?”, and it passes, and things are calm again. That’s nature; that’s also, Jesus says, the way everyone is who is born of the Holy Spirit.
Wait a minute – that’s not logical. In other words, He’s saying that those born of the Holy Spirit act in ways unexpected by the world: if you’re born of the Holy Spirit, you will do things – not every day, not continuously, but there will be times when you do things that your unsaved friends don’t have a clue about: “Why the… would you do that?” In fact, some of your saved friends may not understand you: “God can’t want you to do that…” Yes, He can. He asked His prophets to marry a prostitute [Hosea 1:2ff] or to lie on the ground for a year [Ezekiel 4:4-6] or to go with no clothes [Isaiah 20:2-5] – but He had a purpose: He was trying to make a point to the people, and the people weren’t listening. He had to get extreme. Extreme sports have nothing on God: that’s playtime; God can be extreme. Those born of the Holy Spirit act in ways unexpected by the world, because the world cannot comprehend the ways and purposes of God. It’s not their fault: if they don’t have the Holy Spirit, they can’t understand the ways of God; our minds aren’t built that way.
Then to prove it, Jesus says that the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross (John 3:14). There’s an example of God’s ways being totally foreign, incomprehensible even to the men who followed Jesus for three years. “The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and be lifted up on the cross.” “What! No, Jesus! Don’t say that! Forbid that!” Jesus said, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:21-23) God’s way just didn’t make any sense to Peter. That’s the way God works.
We’ve been in the harbour of preparation…
What’s your point, pastor? How does that apply to me?
Think of Saint Stephen’s Charismatic Episcopal Church as a ship. It has been in the harbour for twenty years, since its inception. “Being in the harbour” doesn’t mean that we haven’t been doing anything or that God haven’t been doing anything, or that we’ve missed whatever His plan was and He has put us on the shelf – I am not saying that. Quite the opposite: we’re a ship in the harbour because we’re being built and fitted for a journey; and any time God builds something He takes His time. In the USA there is a yearly construction contest: who can build a house fastest? There is a competition where you build from the foundation up and build the whole house in about a day and a half. You can do that, but you would not want to live in that house: after only a few months you would start seeing cracks in the wall, because they didn’t take the time to build it right; the whole goal was to be fast. God’s goal is not to be fast – God’s goal is to build something that will last not just ten, twenty or a hundred years but for eternity. Whenever God builds something to last, He always spends much more time preparing the foundation and the infrastructure than we ever expect.
Look at Jesus: He spent roughly three years in active ministry, from the time He was thirty until His death when he was thirty-three. But He lived thirty years before that: He grew up as a child; He was under the authority of His father; He was learning… just for those three years. But His ministry was not limited to those three years, because when he died His ministry didn’t stop, and when He rose His ministry was transformed: it wasn’t just speaking to people on earth – it was transforming people who hadn’t even been born yet: His ministry still goes on. That was exactly God’s plan from the beginning.
We’ve been in the harbour this long because God is not building a row-boat: something for a couple of people to sit in and paddle around and enjoy the flowers and the birds and then come back to the bank. He is building a mighty sailing vessel with three masts, rigging and sails, to carry a multitude; and He is fitting it to withstand the high seas – not the harbour. We’ve been in the harbour, but that’s not where we’re going or what we’re built for. We’re built for the high seas, and the high seas means storms, high waves, fear, adventure… we don’t know, all of this…. We’re not quite finished: He doesn’t wait until the last little touch is made on the ship; as soon as we’re seaworthy he sends us out. He’s been working in us to make us seaworthy; He’s not finished: there’s more to be done, there’s a lot of learning and teaching and healing that still has to be done; but He has determined that we are far enough along that it’s time for launch.
…but now we are being launched
We can be confident in this, because He’s the one in charge of the timing. On Tuesday afternoon I received this letter from the Anglican Diocese of London, dated 22 May: “Dear Father, You may be aware that St. Margaret Pattens has undergone significant repairs in the last year and more are currently being planned. Along with our emerging partnership with other Anglican churches, we are actively planning for a growth in our mission and ministry, and this will mean significantly more use by ourselves of the church on Saturdays and Sundays. With that in mind, I am writing to formally give notice to you under the terms of our agreement… that your use of St. Margaret Pattens will cease on 1 September 2015.”
The church of St. Margaret Pattens needs their space, and that’s OK. I’d been feeling that God had something for us; now I know that it’s God’s plan and not my feeling.
It continues: “We have thought very carefully about this and have consulted other colleagues, because we know that this will cause some difficulties for you. It has not been an easy decision for us, as we greatly value what you bring to the mission of the wider Church. If you wish to look for the use of another church, I would be willing to look to see if there would be other possibilities for you. Do let me know your thoughts. With best wishes, Martin Sargeant, Head of Operations.” (I think he’s acting as the Archdeacon.)
We have been notified: 1 September, we are being launched. This is exactly what God has wanted, even if we don’t think we’re ready; but He is doing this. Like Isaiah, we are coming to an end of a very distinctive period in the life of St. Stephen’s. As we saw a couple of weeks ago [from the photos at our 20th anniversary celebration], we’ve got some tremendous memories of what has gone on in this place. But what’s gone on is not because of this place – it’s because of God. And God isn’t going to stop working just because we change places. It’s been good, and God has given us people over the last twenty years who have poured their lives into us for our good. Some of those people are still here, and some of them are still pouring their lives into us even though they’re not here.
We can’t see where we’re going – but God can
But now He is sending us out, and we cannot see where we’re going. That’s the scary part. As in the Psalm, we look out, and chaos fills the world. The seas will probably be rough at times; but God reminds us that though those floods are lifted up, they’re nothing but noise. As when Jesus was asleep in a boat on the Sea of Galilee – and that wasn’t even a big boat; it probably had a single mast with a sail – and the disciple said, “Oh, don’t You care? We’re going to die! Wake up!” and Jesus says, “Don’t you trust Me?” And then He said, “Cut it out!”, and the storm stops. We can have that same kind of confidence, because we’ve learned from the disciples, and from Jesus being asleep in the boat, that it’s OK; we’ve never experienced that before, but we have their testimony. Though the floods be lifted up, God is higher and mightier than all.
The Epistle to the Romans tells us that we are to live according to the Holy Spirit: to follow His leading rather than the lure of the world, the flesh and the devil. So we’re not going to look for a place in a rich neighbourhood where we can get big – unless that’s where God wants us to be. We want to know, “God, where do you want us? Where are You sending us? And help us to understand why You’re sending us there.”
In the Gospel, we find that our path may not make sense to the world; it may not even make sense to us. I don’t know where He’s calling us; but I do know that wherever He calls us to, if we go where He calls us, we will prosper in the ministry that He gives us – maybe not in the ministry that we envisioned, not in the plans that I had, but in the plans that He has.
It is for God’s purpose
My previous Bishop’s favourite word is teleios; it appears in the Bible and is translated in some places as “mature” or “perfect”. One of those places is Colossians 1:28. Referring to “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), it says, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” That’s what God is doing in us: that’s that building in the harbour, that building that will keep going on in us wherever we go. He wants to make us perfect; not so that we can be a trophy on the shelf, but so that we can become perfectly obedient and perfectly carry out His will, and also help others to become teleios. One picture of teleios is a ship; the hull is solid, it’s airtight, all the masts are built and strong, the rigging has been put on, the sails are up, full of wind and ready to go: nothing lacking. That’s what God is doing in us, not for our glory but for His glory, and for His purposes: that we might bring other people on board and that they might become teleios as well.
That’s what God is doing; we don’t understand how. We know that’s His purpose; we can’t necessarily automatically correlate the things that are happening to us in our personal lives, in our church – Why is this going on? Why do I have to go through this? Why are You asleep, Jesus? – We don’t understand; but He’s doing it, and we need to trust Him, because the ship of Saint Stephen’s is about to be launched. No longer will we be sitting in the cradle where it’s stable, where we can all sit on one side of the ship and it won’t tip – we’re going out into the water: not just the calm water of the harbour, but we’re going out past the breakwaters that smooth the waves, out to where the sea is rough. And He will never give us more than we can handle. We may be standing at the rail saying “Oh, my God!”, but He will be there. He has a place for us; He has a new place for us. It’s new to us: it may not be a new building, but He has a new place for us that will match the destiny that He has for us; and we can’t see that yet. So we don’t know where we’re going, but He does. He knows exactly where we’re going; He’s had it written down for aeons; we just can’t see it. And so our task is to discern what His heart is; and we need help. We don’t want to follow our flesh or the world or the devil; we want to follow God. I have a vision that God gave me 25 years ago, but I don’t know that that’s the vision for this church. The vision we want is God’s vision; and if it’s God’s vision, it will also be the Bishop’s vision; and if it’s the Bishop’s vision it will be our vision; and we all need to embrace what God wants to do, and to embrace it we have to discover it. And that doesn’t mean, “Here’s what the next 100 years are going to look like.” He may just say, “Just go here, and I’ll tell you what to do when you get there.” But it has to be His word and not ours.
The responsibility of deciding rests, under the authority of the Bishop, with the Rector’s Council, which at present is me, Dcn. Andrew and Dcn. Dado. But we’re not the only ones who hear, and so here’s what I would ask you to do:
- Please pray that God would reveal His will to us and to you, that we would be in unity, not with some “10-year master plan for reaching 500 people” but unity with His plan, and that we would faithfully obey everything that He directs.
- And I ask that you would pray that every scheme and attack of the enemy would be exposed and defeated; because if God has something more than us, you can bet that the enemy is going to pull out all stops to try to defeat it. That’s true of all believers; if all you’re doing is sitting in the pew warming it, Satan’s not going to do much to disturb you, because he already knows you’re ineffective; he doesn’t want to rile you: Heavens! You might get serious. But if you’re striving to do the work of God the way God wants you, he will come against you just as he came against Jesus. He knew Jesus was a threat – he just didn’t know how bad! And so he did everything he could against Jesus. Pray that he will be defeated and that we won’t listen to his plans but we’ll listen to God’s plan.
- And also pray that not one person in our church will be left behind. Change is hard; for some people it’s really hard. For some people change is “Oh, something new! Exciting! This is awesome! This is adventure!” But for some people, it’s “No! I was just getting used to what we were doing. I was just getting the hang of it.” Some people have physical reactions to change, and that’s OK, but we need to help them. We want no one to be left behind.
On a practical level, please send me the address of where you live. I want to plot on a map where everyone lives – not necessarily so that we can get in the middle of where most people are: that might be God’s plan, or it might not – but wherever we go, we want it to be as easy as possible for people to get there. My heart is that we can have a place that we can have 24/7, all the time; we can have men’s fellowship, women’s fellowship, choir practice, informal practices, acolyte training… any time we want without shelling out more money. Maybe that’ll happen; maybe that’s a few years down the road: we’ll see. But if we can have your address, it’ll help us to discern the impact of whatever God is speaking to us. Of course if you’re planning to move somewhere in the near future, it would be nice to know that too. We don’t want to control where you’re moving – that’s your business – but help us to know.
All hands on deck!
Really what this is, going back to the ship analogy: this is a call from the Admiral, from Jesus: “All hands on deck!” Whether you’re in the prayer ministry or healing ministry or young adults or worship or acolytes, or maybe you’re not really involved yet, God is saying, “All hands on deck!” This is getting serious: we’re going on a journey, we’re going on a mission, a mission to build disciples; and we need all the hands we can get, because there’s a lot of work to do. The time of mostly preparation is over: preparation will still go on, we’re not perfect, but now there are other things that need to be accomplished, and we all need to be on board. I pray that God will touch you and me, all of us, to give us a sense of destiny: that He has something good planned for us, and it probably won’t be easy. He could just throw it in our lap – He’s done that before – but if He doesn’t, we need to be prepared. So pray, pray, pray, that His will be done. We have three months; we don’t have to rush, but we do have to be serious and listen. And if you hear the Lord saying something to you, please pass it on, and we’ll share it with the Rector’s Council and the people, and let’s see where this adventure takes us together.