An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Our Future Belongs to God

A sermon on 2 Samuel 7: 1-14a; Ephesians 2: 11-22 & Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 by Nathan Nettleton

At the present time, this congregation is going through a time of change and considering a number of different possibilities for its future directions. Such a time is both exciting and unsettling. It is easy to get caught up in the possibilities and it is equally easy to panic about what it could all mean and dig our heels in against any change. At such a time, it is natural and necessary to do all we can to discern what God might be saying to us about it all, and part of doing that is listening to the voice of scripture and seeking to discern how its teachings impact on the decisions that are before us. As we do that, it is very important to do it with as much honesty and integrity as we can because, when there is no obvious right or wrong, it is very easy for each of us to latch on to particular bits of scripture which seem to support our particular hopes or dreams for how things might all turn out. This is especially tempting for those of us who are preachers. It is our job to study the scriptures selected for any given week, and seek to discern what they might be saying that is of most importance to our congregation at the given time, and to proclaim that message. It is an easily exploited position, because it is easy to take our own views and weave them with a few choice biblical quotes and thereby steer the conversation along our own preferred paths.

I became very aware of this temptation this week as I studied the scripture readings we have heard tonight. I became aware of it, because the first thing I noticed was an idea that could easily be used to support the sort of outcomes I presently feel most comfortable with. But then as I studied them further, I could also see some ideas that could equally have been exploited if I had been wanting to push one of the other possible sets of directions. And as I looked still further, I found that all three major readings seemed to speak of things that were relevant to our discussions. So what I want to do is simply point out each of these things in turn, and then see if I can draw some threads together in ways which don’t seek to promote any particular direction, but provide caution and encouragement as we seek the ways forward.

In the first reading we heard tonight, from the second book of Samuel, David is all ready to start building the new temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. His reasoning is impeccable. “How can it by right that I, the King, a mere mortal, am living in a fancy palace, while the Ark which symbolises the Lord’s presence among us is housed in a mere tent? It is time to act and to use our wealth and success to build a new place for the people to worship God.” There is no apparent selfishness in David’s motives. He is concerned for the standing of God and for the needs of God’s people who come to worship God. He is concerned that he not be living of the spoils of success himself and failing to advance the cause of God in the world. All good and noble sentiments. And not too dissimilar to some of our own thinking as we contemplate what next. But God said ‘no’. David was jumping the gun, and the Lord said that the time was not right. Just because it seems right to do something doesn’t mean it is your job or that now is the right time. Wait and listen for what God has to say.

This was, of course, the angle I saw first. Several of the options before us would involve major building projects, so the immediate connection was obvious. But some of the options, such as selling this property and merging with another congregation, might enable us to attempt more significant new ministries in a fairly short space of time, while taking out big loans to redevelop this property might set us up for new possibilities that could take ten years or more to realise. So given that I live here and have a bias towards not selling the house I live in, it would be easy to invoke this passage to say that we should not be in a hurry. Just because something looks immediately beneficial doesn’t mean that God is calling us to do it and do it now. But the truth is that this passage was not written about us, and such an method of trying to match scripture to our circumstances would lack integrity. The actual message of this passage is not about the relative merits of quick or slow projects. It is about not rushing the decision, but taking the time to discern what God is saying and being ready to put our own desires and agendas aside to conform to what God is actually calling us to. And that is a caution to all of us, whichever options we might be leaning towards.

The reading we heard from the letter to the Ephesians could probably have been latched on to as a proof text if I was wanting to push the idea of merging with another congregation. It speaks of taking two groups and making them one, of breaking down the walls that divide us and reconciling us as one in Christ. It even uses the imagery of a building project, speaking of us being built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone, and the two previously separate groups being built together into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place for God.

But this passage was not written to address our particular questions either. And while it is true to say that it calls us to a mission of reconciliation, breaking down social divisions and distrust, that is true regardless of where we are located or what shape our common life takes. That is simply one of the givens of being a community of Christ’s disciples. Sitting here in this street, with a huge public housing estate on one side of the street and half million dollar plus town houses on the other, we don’t need to go any place else to find a work of reconciliation needing to be done. The task of breaking down dividing walls and forming a new united people in Christ from previously separated peoples will lie before us wherever we are and whatever we have decided. The decisions will simply rearrange who we can reach and what sort of resources we have at our disposal for the task.

Perhaps it is the gospel reading that speaks most specifically to our questions, but again, not in a way which is going to direct us towards one answer or another. The gospel reading highlights one of the perennial dilemmas facing those who would engage seriously with the needs of the world in the name of Jesus Christ. And that is the tension between the need to respond with compassion to the brokenness of others, and the need to look after ourselves. In this story we hear that the disciples have been out on missionary journeys, and have now returned to Jesus, but there are so many people coming and going, seeking help, that they don’t even have enough time to eat. Jesus suggests that they get away somewhere quiet together to rest and recharge the batteries, but the story leaves the tension somewhat unresolved, because the people follow them and Jesus ends up getting caught up again in the needs of the masses and seemingly abandons the retreat to re-engage in the ministry of care.

Despite the lack of resolution in the story, what is clear is the acknowledgement that engagement in mission should not displace the ministry of care and formation of the disciples themselves. Our responsibility to care for our own people in this congregation must not be abandoned as we begin to look beyond our own walls and respond to the call to reach out. As we evaluate the various options, one of the questions we must put to each of them is, “Would we be biting off more than we can chew? Or would this pathway contribute to the nurture and formation of our own people as well as asking of them new commitments to ministering to others?”

So, while none of these passages, or any other passages for that matter, are going to give us simple answers to our questions and tell us which way to go, all of them have important reminders about things we need to keep in mind as we work it all through. Perhaps the most important things for us to hear in these passages is something else that is more or less stated or implied in all of these readings. And that is that our future rests safely in God’s hands. Our future belongs to God, because we belong to God. In baptism we have been united with Christ and adopted as God’s beloved children, and God’s plans are always for our welfare and our growth. God does not exploit us and rip us off to further some other agenda. The God who has suffered and died for us in Christ can be trusted to go on loving us and seeking always what is best for us. And it is this God who holds the answers to the questions we are asking about our future.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be any difficulties, or mistakes, or disagreements. In our endeavours to discern God’s call we are all fallible. But we are a people in who are being formed as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, and as we continue to feed on Christ at this table and commit ourselves to one another and to God in prayer, we will be able together to discover the shape of that call and how it is to be fleshed out. And we can trust God to be with us. The timing is God’s. Just as God would not let David get ahead of himself, God will oversee the timing of our decision making and our projects. The mission is God’s. Just as God acted in Christ through the church at Ephesus to break down the divisions and hostility between Jew and Gentile, so now God will work in us to identify the task of reconciliation to which we are called and work with us and through us to accomplish it. And we are God’s. Just as God, in Christ, saw the needs of the disciples for a chance to get away and rest and recharge, so too God will keep challenging us not to get so caught up in the busyness of mission that we forget to attend to our own needs for healing, nurture and rest.

Asking such big open questions about the future is both exciting and unsettling. Some of us, and I am one of them, feel a bit unnerved and vulnerable in the face of those questions. But God is with us, and God is saying to us, “Be not afraid. I am with you. The timing is mine. The mission is mine. And most of all, you are mine, my beloved children. I will not let you go. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”


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