The third in our series of sermons reflecting on our mission statement – this week from Mother Anne-Marie.
A quick recap. Here at St John’s over the last two Sundays, today and next Sunday, we are exploring in more detail our Mission Statement and particularly the three words which form our action points.
Our mission statement is … I’m not expecting anyone to know it off by heart, but it is: St John’s is called by God to be his people through faith in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit: Worshipping – Growing – Serving.
We have already explored Worshipping and Growing in the sermon slot on the last two Sundays. If you missed either of those, they are up on our website for you to read. Today we are exploring “Serving” – what it might mean to be a serving community.
You might think that serving should be the first word. That doing helpful things for other people is the first call of any Christian individually or of a Christian community. But the words are deliberately in the order they are because they build on each other. If you think of our community as a building, then worshipping God is the foundations, growing in faith and spirituality is the walls and serving is the roof. We serve others because our worship of God, and our growing in faith and prayer and closeness to Jesus, propel us to serve others.
Lots of people serve – people of other faiths and no faith at all. Some people choose a job that serves others – nursing, teaching, social work or things less obvious – we are served when we go in a shop, so the shop assistant is in a serving job, as is the barista at Costa or Nero.
There are many fine community projects and charities out there that are nothing to do with Christianity. The Douglas Brunton Centre, now a charitable organisation called the Westway Community Café and Wellbeing Centre, is reliant on volunteers to keep going. The volunteers maybe Christian but very well may not be. People are motivated to help others for many reasons other than a Christian faith.
So what does it mean for us as a church community to Serve.
In our gospel today, Jesus “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom”. Worship of God in his community of faith was his first priority. It immediately takes us back to the first sermon in this series, the first of the three action point words in our mission statement, the foundation of all we do – worship. Can we all say “I went to church on the sabbath day (for us Sunday) as is my custom”? Our love of God, our creator, of Jesus our Saviour, and the Holy Spirit our empowerer, should be so great that we are compelled to start every week with worship of our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jesus enters the synagogue to worship. He stood up to read from the scriptures, with some expectation I think that he would expound on them. Just as we each week read from scripture and have a sermon. That is part of our growing – Fr Jerry last week used the old chorus “Read your bible, pray every day” to explain how to be a growing Christian. So, we do some of that in church on Sunday, as Jesus’ home community in Nazareth did in their synagogue each Saturday. Remember my image – these are the walls, Bible reading, prayer, reading books about our faith, meditation and contemplation, joining Christian study and discussion groups.
So Jesus reads from the Prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord…..has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Initially Jesus sits down. It seems like there will be no exposition of the scriptures, no explanation, and everyone is staring at him, they expect something, and he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” There is the sermon! Often known as the Nazareth manifesto, these words are Jesus’ mission statement, and over two millennia, Jesus’ followers have made these words their manifesto too. We sum them up in that one word in our mission statement – serving.
It’s a bit of an indictment on human society that these words from the prophet Isaiah written around 500 BC, claimed by Jesus as his mission statement two thousand years ago, should still resound for us today. They are still so relevant.
We have the poor in our midst, those struggling to bring up families on low incomes, those with disabilities whose benefits have been cut, all those who are forced to use the food bank in Caterham. Worldwide the poor are everywhere. What good news are we bringing?
Setting captives free and letting the oppressed go free: there are those who are literally captive – in prison, trafficked, slaves – they are in our midst too. Nearly 84,000 people are in prison in the U.K. They may deserve be there and they may need to be there for our safety, but we may want to ask if there is anything we can do to help with rehabilitation and helping them re-establish their lives on release. Its difficult to give numbers for people trafficked into this country or those subject to what we call modern day slavery – forced to work for little or no money maybe in nail bars or on cannabis farms. Others, be they male or female, are trafficked around the world for the purposes of prostitution. This is modern day slavery. This last week we had the awful revelation of those 39 people found dead in a lorry. They were captives, probably on their way to some form of modern-day slavery. What are we doing to help set the captives free? And this is without thinking of those captive to other things like drugs, alcohol, gambling, or those who find themselves oppressed because of low income or having to work long hours in work that gives no satisfaction, and those who have become captive to money lenders, even the respectable lenders like banks, that hold some people captive because of the debts they have run up. What are we doing for them?
Giving sight to the blind I always interpret as relieving anyone from any kind of disability or illness. We may not be able to cure them, but we can show compassion and give comfort.
And then Jesus says “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. What does this mean?
The Year of the Lord’s favour is a reference to the year of Jubilee which is explained in the Book of Leviticus – every seven times seven years, there would be a year of Jubilee. So, 49 years were counted and on the 50th year there was a year of Jubilee. In this year all debts were to be cancelled, leases on land came to end, as did indentured labour – bonded labour – almost slavery. These all ended and people started again. The year of Jubilee happened sporadically we think in Jewish history, never every 50 years. It was an ideal and had become part of the expectation of the coming of the Messiah. So, Jesus is proclaiming his messiahship and the inauguration of his Kingdom by the use of this phrase, and with it come those very concrete parts of the year of the Lord’s favour, with liberation from bondage, from debts and everything that can drag people down.
This Jesus manifesto is radical, and it has inspired Christians to service. Every so often the church needs a prod to remember this, that its call is to the poor, to the sick and those held captive.
So, what does this mean for us as individuals or as a church community. Individually it means we should regularly examine our own service to others. Now we may no longer be well enough or active enough to volunteer at the food bank or in a night shelter, but we maybe able to give financially or do small acts of service to people we know – a kind letter or card to someone who is ill or troubled – can lift spirits. For those who are younger, active and well, the challenge is to be more sacrificial, to give more in time and in money. And as famous Christians before us have found it may take us into politics and campaigning. William Wilberforce did not just bring an end to slavery in the British Empire by worshipping and praying in our previous church in Clapham. He campaigned and worked through Parliament. He upset a lot of people. And taking this sort of action could lead us to being unpopular and vilified because we work for a change in the accepted social order. What would Jesus have to say about 26 people in our world, only 26 of them – 26 people owning as much wealth as 3.8 billion people on our planet – 3.8 billion who are the world’s poorest. And again whatever our physical capabilities, we can probably all sign petitions and write letters to encourage change for the vulnerable and weakest in society.
But there is good news for us personally. We know from happiness research that those who do more for others, either through direct help or campaigning, are happier people – perhaps because they are less self-absorbed. Jesus knew this without research. Serving others is good for our souls.
As a church community we need to challenge ourselves to what we can do collectively for those in our parish or those further afield. Many of us do support the Caterham Overseas Aid Trust, give to International Needs and Welcare. But do we have the resources in buildings, people or money to do something specifically for Caterham Valley. It may need to start as something small, but it is a question we will be asking ourselves as a church as we explore further what it means to serve.
We proclaim the Kingdom that Jesus heralded that Sabbath Day in Nazareth. It would be fantastic if we were seen to be a serving community, going out to the poor, the sick, and those held captive to show other people what God’s Kingdom is really like.