Mediocrity, Greatness and Calling

‘It just goes to show that anything is possible’ said one Olympic commentator to another as they remarked on yet another Team GB Gold. ‘Really?’ I thought to myself. Do they really mean that a slender 40 something clergyman with a rather sedentary lifestyle could, with sufficient dedication and a £43 million training budget, become a gold medallist at Tae-Kwon-Do? There must be limits.

Yet our culture constantly tells us to ‘follow our dreams’ and ‘we can do anything if we try hard enough’. From children’s films to business self-help books, the consistent message comes across that greatness is just within reach, that our inherent specialness only need be released for us to achieve amazing things.

This may seem fairly harmless, after all it is good to have a vision and pursue it with dedication, and who knows what we might capable of until we try? Yet we also need to be humble and realistic. Apparently psychologists are receiving increasing numbers of calls from people who are distressed because they’re not exceptional. It nags at them constantly because they have not achieved the dream. These people aren’t catastrophic failures – far from it, many would be described as successful by those around them – yet because they’re not excelling they feel they have failed.

By definition we cannot all be exceptional. Furthermore those who are exceptional in a particular area may be under par in others or have made massive sacrifices to get there.

Fascinatingly there has been a backlash, and articles about the joy of mediocrity are springing up across the internet. They argue that people shouldn’t aim to be mediocre what they do, but where necessary accept it and find value in quality of life, family and just being. I can’t see mediocrity as a concept catching on though.

The Christian faith has a particular perspective. One which argues that each one of us is special because we are infinitely valuable to God. Our worth and identity does not lie in being exceptional compared to everyone else, but in being a unique and loved child of God. Only you can do what you do – only Annabelle’s mum can be her mother; while there may be many medium managers in Tesco, only Tony has that role in such and such a place and with particular people. More profoundly, God created you so that you could be yourself in relationship with him, beginning now and lasting to eternity. Each one of us has a unique call and is wonderful in God’s sight.

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Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

The Lost Coin – Luke 15:1-10

One of the small hidden bonuses of being a Vicar, is that I am never short of an umbrella. Whenever it rains, whether I am in church or at home, I know there will be a healthy stock of unclaimed lost property. It’s remarkable how many things are never reclaimed: glasses, coats, even car keys (with that latter I wonder: how did that person get home?)

Some items are so essential that you just can’t give up searching. Have you ever lost your phone with diary on it? Occasionally happens with me, and the house must be turned upside down.

Jesus parables often use familiar situations, like anxiously mislaying something precious and spending all day looking for it. The story of the lost sheep is perhaps the best known of all parables, and the lost coin is its less familiar cousin. (The plot is virtually identical: v.8-9.)

It always struck me as a little bit odd that the woman throws a party. She loses her coin, finds it again, and hosts a celebration. So how does she pay for the food and drink? It’s as if she gets her coin back and gives it away again.

But, I’ve discovered, apparently it was the custom for women to wear their dowry as a kind of headband. The coins would be linked together on a string across her forehead. This woman has ten silver coins, given by her family when she was married. They represent the family’s investments, and her savings in case her husband dies before her. Losing one of them is like mislaying a tenth of your pension fund. No wonder she lights a lamp, spring cleans and searches high and low.

As she was given it when she was married, the coin is also like a wedding ring. I was with Susannah at a play park when a little girl’s grandpa lost his wedding ring in the sand. You can imagine the anxiety as family were called over. Fortunately granny was level headed: Don’t move grandpa, she called. They couldn’t see it on the surface, so they gently raked the sand, there was a glint: all was well and there was great celebration when the lost was found.

The value of the ring may have been a few hundred pounds, yet the sentimental value was far more. It’s the same for the woman in the parable – the coin stands for her husband’s love, the bond uniting them.

And Jesus tells us in v.10 ‘Just so there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. The point is that we matter to God even more than the coin matters to the woman. God loves us immensely. Not for what we can do for him –who is God that he should need us? God is not some kind of hard up factory foreman who needs all the workers he can get. No, he searches for us because he loves us, because he values us for who we are.

Understand that and it can make a big difference to the way you see yourself. For knowing that you are loved by God is the most stabilising foundation. So many people’s self esteem depends on their achievements or what people think of them. Not so for the Christian – we know that we are treasured by God. Many insecurities come because people are not sure they are valued. The lost coin tells us that each one of us is valued by God.

It teaches us grace too, because the love of God is freely given. We do not have to win God’s regard, nor do we need to strive to stay within the Lord’s affection. His love for us is constant. He longs for those who have wandered to return to him and allowed Jesus to die to save them. Yes, God urges us to repent, to turn away from sin, not because sin stops him loving us, but because the barriers we raise cut us off from his cascading love. So when we do good it is not to justify ourselves, but rather it is a grateful response to his love, and a recognition that doing good is the right way to live.

Getting to grips with the message of this parable may also change our prayers. If we know that God loves us for who we are, then it follows that he enjoys knowing us. He appreciates our company. So prayer is more than presenting a list of requests to the Lord, it is spending time in his presence.

You can talk to him about the day, look back on what has happened, let him into your worries for the future. You can be honest with him, essentially chat. A vicar I knew had a wonderful way of describing prayer: he said it was ‘wasting time with God’. In the way that you might just sit and waste time, leisurely chat with a friend, enjoy their company. There are bound to be times when prayer feels more like a task or a duty, but remember when you pray, God wants to know you.

And if he wants to know you, he wants to know others too. Verses 1 and 2 tell us the background to these two parables: ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling and saying ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

How tragic is that! They couldn’t see that here were people coming to life and truth! They couldn’t see the wonder and joy of bad people being forgiven and made whole! They Pharisees couldn’t see that they themselves were sinners, and needed God’s forgiveness! It’s been said that evangelism is ‘one begger telling another where to find bread’ – but they couldn’t see it like that. And so rather than rejoice over the growth of the kingdom they chuntered about Jesus’ poor taste in company. Happily, Jesus’ words did bring change, and Pharisees like Paul eventually shared in going to find the lost.

If we’re to hear the message of this parable, I think it means three things. Firstly, God’s people need to seek out the lost. The shepherd didn’t stand in one place calling out ‘Come by’. He sought out the lost sheep. Churches throughout history have been very good at being visible in one place and inviting people ‘Come in and see’. But we also need to go out. We also need to act intentionally to reach those who haven’t heard the gospel.

Just last week our Children’s Worker and I had a visit from a major grant making trust. They’re deciding whether to support Becky’s work here – please pray that they do! One of the key questions for their trustees is: ‘Do we try and get people to come to church, or do we go to where they are?

The Trust Secretary was telling me that in Northern Ireland there’s a new move away from the church setting up toddler groups or lunch clubs. They find it’s too heavy on resources and you spend all your time trying to get people to come to things. Instead Christians in Northern Ireland are helping the groups that already exist, and being salt and light there. Interesting idea.

In our own Group, Becky provides Sunday clubs for children and we want children to grow up in the church. But we also recognise that if we want to reach them all then we have to go to the schools – for that’s where the children are. Like the shepherd, we have to go out, intentionally seek the lost.

How do you and I do that? In our villages and at work?

On the 22nd September at 7.30 pm we’ve got a meeting in Holy Cross to plan our vision in the Gauzebrook Group for the next three years. Questions like that will be really important and I want to hear your views. Please come.

Secondly, the parable tells us ‘Don’t be like the Pharisees. Rejoice over the lost!’ I know a Vicar who got his first parish a few years ago. The church was looking for someone outgoing who’d grow the congregation. They got what they asked for – and some more! After a while he made some changes to the morning service. Which worked – the congregation doubled!

It wasn’t long before he got complaints. ‘We need to buy more coffee nowadays and we don’t know how much’. ‘All these children are very noisy.’ ‘The Vicar doesn’t have time to speak to us anymore.’ That church got what they asked for, but they also found that growth involves sacrifice. Like the Pharisees, rejoicing in the lost didn’t come naturally, it was easier to see the challenges that the lost brought.

So thirdly, Jesus invites us to enter into the world of lost things. To imagine life without God – what does it feel like to be lost? Do you remember a time when you had no direction, were not aware of God’s presence? When you had no-one to turn to? Surely we can feel for those who live and die without having heard God’s call to turn to him and be forgiven? Surely people’s eternal destiny puts our little inconveniences into perspective? When we think on these things and ask for God’s heart of love, we can begin to feel his passion for the lost.

Some of the lost are more like the sheep, others like the coin. What about us? Were we like the sheep, wilfully wandering from the right path, its own worst enemy, before God sought us out and called us back? Or were we like the coin, fallen down a corner, mislaid in a dark world that has lost its way, our spirituality all dusty and cobwebby? Jesus describes two slightly different situations, but the response in both cases is the same: God seeks the lost. He looks until he has found. And when a sinner responds to God’s call, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.