Footscray Baptist – 1st August 2004
It was the best job in the whole world, well at least in Australia. It had prestige, power, it was working with a great organisation, it would mean the possibility of having an impact on some big issues. It would mean making a difference in public opinion and community attitudes. And the job was mine! The interview had gone really well, the people seemed nice, lots of my friends said what a good fit it seemed for me, and God seemed to be in the whole idea of me taking the job.
At the time, I was reminded of a great quote, by Fred Buechner, that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” – and that seemed to be where I was being called. One friend sent me a Bible passage from Lk 5:18 when he heard I had the job, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Wow, I was going to be there! It all seemed to fit with this new job.
I was scared, overawed, but as I started the job, I felt that God was in this, that I had been called there, and that although I knew I would make mistakes, I felt that the real challenge was, as I wrote on the first day on the job, to “Trust God and Be Myself”.
A year later, it had all fallen apart. Not only had the job gone, the dream of impact, of power, of prestige had turned into something that could only be described as a nightmare. Without going into too much detail, it was the worst time of my life, I felt traumatised, belittled, incompetent, angry, depressed, misunderstood, empty, betrayed. And God had left me alone. Promises of God’s strength, wisdom and help were a joke. The idea of serving God had turned into a joke. Dare I say it, at that time, the idea of God was either a joke, or – in the words of Jeremiah as written in the original Hebrew in Jeremiah 20:7 “LORD, you seduced me, and I was deceived. You overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.”
Well this may not be the best way to start a sermon about serving God and being involved in mission. But there is a link back to the sermons we have had over the last three weeks. Tim Costello spoke to us 3 weeks ago about the Great Reversal, that in the story of the workers in the vineyard, God shows his freedom – not only to treat all people equally – but that in God’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last first. Rainer reminded us, over the last two weeks, that our calling is to be the light for the world and the salt for all humanity, that service for God involves standing with and acting for those who are marginalised, who have no-one else to speak on their behalf.
All of which brings us back to the Bible reading that Marlene read to us before, from Romans Chapter 12. The Good News Bible has as its heading for this chapter, “Life in God’s Service”, which fits really well with the words in the chapter. The power of this passage, which matches the idea of the Great Reversal, is that Life in God’s Service means not only a different kind of Service, it also means a different kind of Life.
The key to how to be involved in a different kind of service, how to live out a different kind of life, how to apply Jesus’ idea of the Great Reversal, is in the two beautiful verses at the start of the chapter: “Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”.
What we see in the Gospels, in the teachings and life of Christ, what Tim Costello described as the Great Reversal, is the same as what Paul is describing here in Romans: Do not be conformed to this world but be TRANSFORMED by the RENEWING of your mind.
I believe that this is at the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of how we should be living as Christians, AND at the heart of what God is calling us to as Footscray Baptist Church. We are being called to a different kind of life, one that at one level might not make much sense, one that does not fit in with how our friends may be living, or with what other churches might be doing. And for me, as I struggled to make sense of what had happened in my life and why God had seemed to desert me when I most needed him, it has been this passage that has meant the most to me. I can’t say that I completely understand what happened to me, and there are still times for me, a few years later, that I feel overwhelmed by what happened, but it has been this passage that has helped me to hang onto a different way of seeing the world.
I guess, for a long time in my Christian life, I believed that all I had to do in life was be faithful. Life in God’s service meant trying to understand what God was calling me to do, and then doing it. So long as I did my best, God would do the rest, and He would turn my humble efforts into something else – success, mission, impact. And if I was faithful, God would not abandon me, he would not let me fail. Didn’t that verse say, “That I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”? Well that was good enough for me.
And for a long time, that approach seemed to work. I honestly believe that God did bless the work we undertook at Westgate, that there was a season, or Kairos, when things went really well and it was amazing what a small group of people were able to achieve. We were successful. I was successful – both there and in other jobs. Sure there were moments of failure, times when things did not go according to plan, but I was able to learn from them, to realise the mistakes I had made, and re-adjust, try again.
But nothing prepared me for a situation where despite my hard work, nothing seemed to be going right. Where, despite my attempts to act with integrity and wisdom my efforts got thrown back in my face, where people seemed to be saying, “This is not just about the mistakes you are making, this is about you! You’re the problem, Tim!” Try as I might, I could not cope with this, this was not success, this failure – and I was failing in the very thing that God seemed to be calling me to.
Now I don’t know if you have ever been in a situation like that. I suspect that it is more common than we like to believe. Sometimes it is easy to gloss over the pressure that we can experience in work, or in other parts of our lives, when long cherished dreams can suddenly appear crushed, with no hope in sight, when all we have worked for, is gone. When a business goes bad. When a relationship in which we have invested ourselves and our dreams turns into something without hope, or possibility of change. And if we are honest with ourselves, God often seems a million miles away in these situations.
But for me, this passage holds a glimmer of hope. Think what it means to be a living sacrifice. More importantly, who does this term remind you of? I think of Jesus, whose whole life embodied the ideal of offering himself as a living sacrifice, in everything: his words, his actions, his attitudes, his teaching, his commitment to God. And yet I also find it re-assuring to remind myself that despite his success, his impact, his love, his example for others to follow, at the end of his life, he died alone. And one of the last things he said was what?“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The good news about the life of Jesus, about following his example of being a living sacrifice is that he allows us to say “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And in saying it, we know that Jesus shares in our experience of being abandoned.
I suspect that despite our best efforts to be “different from the world” that sometimes our ideas about service and ministry are not that much different from “worldy” ideas of success. When I think about my own life, my efforts to be faithful, to serve God there, were not really about allowing myself to be transformed. I wanted to be successful, to have an impact. But transformation – as described my Paul in Romans 12 – is something deeper, more mysterious. It takes courage, the kind of courage that we see in Jesus, when he sets his face, and resolutely heads towards Jerusalem, even ‘though he know he is heading towards disaster and his own abandonment.
So what does this mean, if we follow this through? Particularly, what does it mean for us, the people of God at Footscray Baptist Church as we try to work through what mission means for us, in the middle of Paisley Street?
Firstly, we need to face the challenge of what it means to offer ourselves, as a church and as individuals, as a living sacrifice, as people who want to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Without this, our mission, our service may be effective, it may successful, but I believe it will not be the true mission of the people of God, because we are the ones who need to be transformed even as we engage in service to those around us. The journey outwards into the community has to be accompanied by the journey inwards, as we seek to truly know God and to allow ourselves to be known by others around us.
Now, I have come to learn, in stumbling, incomplete ways, that transformation is mysterious, it is not something that can be forced or even planned, because it relies on the grace of God in our lives and in our hearts. But it happens. One of the ways it happens is we are prepared to explore the boundaries of prayer. I read recently a great quote, by Robert McAfee Brown: “Prayer for many is like a foreign land. When we go there, we go as tourists. Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place. Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.” Part of being transformed is learning to put up with the discomfort of prayer, learning that prayer is more than just asking God to bless my endeavours, or to rescue me from failure, but that prayer is listening, even when there is only silence. And I’d love to think that this is something we could do, here at Footscray, that together, we could be seeking to explore the boundaries of prayer, in our worship, in small groups, in spiritual retreats and with other Christians in the area.
Transformation also happens – and I think can only happen – in community. The truth is that although the church calls itself the Body of Christ, most churches are not connected in a way that a body is. More often than not, a church is more like a collection of body parts; different people who are good at different things, but they don’t usually get to connect up together. It is only as we allow ourselves to be known by others, to let our lives be touched by our brothers and sisters in Christ, that we can hope to truly see Jesus in our midst. It is only then that we can hope to start to live out the New Testament teaching about the church being the Body of Christ.
Community is frustrating, painful, confronting and very hard to grasp hold of. But it is also exhilarating, a source of blessing and meaning. And it is real. For most of the last 20 years, Meredith and I either have had people living with us, or lived with three sets of neighbours as friends and members of the same church. For us, and our kids, despite our fights, hurts and wounds, there have been so many times of richness, of shared meals, chores, dreams, tears and laughter. I think we have failed more often than succeeded, but I would not want to trade that experience of the last two decades. If anything, the challenge is to build on it. But even here, we have a great opportunity. Think of the wonderful diversity we already have in this multicultural community. Think of the challenge of following through the question of what it means to really be the body of Christ here at Footscray. Think of the challenge of transformation – not just something that could happen at an internal level, but something that could be a part of all our relationships here. I think exploring community together could be one of the ways that God is calling us forward as a church.
Finally, being transformed means learning to deal with failure and learning the difference between faithfulness and success. Let me say that I am really excited about where God will lead this church in terms of mission and service in the local area. There will be some things that we will do well, and some things that we are going to make a mess of. Just because we are trying to be faithful to God in our mission does not guarantee us success, nor does it mean that we will be protected from failure. Indeed, sometimes, in mission, success is harder to deal with than failure, because it can allow us to get a distorted sense of what’s important and what isn’t. Whatever we do, and of course this applies to all of us as individuals as well as the church together, our primary call is not to be successful in our mission, it is follow Jesus, no matter where he leads us. And as I have learned, and am still learning, sometimes this means apparent total failure.
Of course, there is another part of the Great Reversal – and of transformation. One of things that has been a huge source of comfort for me is the realisation that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the story. Beyond death there is the resurrection. Beyond failure, there is redemption. Beyond abandonment, there is the hope of God’s new beginning. And at the heart of this is learning to wait for God’s action in the world, to wait for the Holy Spirit to make things new..
I love the story of Nelson Mandela. A man who was imprisoned for 26 years, who was not able to reach out and touch his wife – or have any physical contact – for 10 of those years. If ever anyone was entitled to feel bitter about life’s experience, he was. What’s more, he was in the right, and was only imprisoned because of the narrow mindedness and the fear of those in power. And yet, you cannot look at him now, without seeing how suffering has been redemptive within him. That his experience has shaped him, made him more human, more forgiving, that in a real way he has been transformed by his experience. The most powerful symbol of this change was the way he invited his jailors to share the stage when he was inaugurated as President of South Africa. It was clear, that he had learnt to forgive his enemies, or in the words of Romans 12:21, to conquer evil with good.
I wish I could say that after my own experience, I had learnt that same sense of forgiveness, of openness to those who have wronged me. I’m not there yet, but I can say that I am drawn to the hope of this transformation that Paul writes about. And that is my prayer for all of us, that together we might discover mission and God’s call and in this call and mission, we might discover anew: prayer, community, faithfulness and the mystery of God’s transforming love.
“Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”.