Monday, September 13, 2010

Facing Up To New Challenges

Luke 10.1-11

What's it like to face a new challenge?
  • Who has moved to a new town or city at least once in their life?
  • Has anyone moved to a new school and had to leave all your old friends behind?
  • Who has taken the sort of holiday where the only thing you know is where you are going, but not where you are going to stay?
  • Who has been on the sort of holiday or business trip where you arrived but your luggage got lost? How did you cope?
I guess the word ‘scary’ applies to a lot of these experiences. Jesus calls us to leave our comfort zone in order to help him build a better, kinder, more peaceful world. He asks us to be prepared - to meet new people, to eat different food, to visit new places and - when we get there - to tell it how it is.

Have you ever played the game, "I packed my bag and in it I put...?" What did Jesus tell his followers to put in their travel bags? Nothing! He asked them to travel very light. Just a toothbrush and a change of underwear. No spare shoes. No backpack or suitcase. Not even a credit card or a wallet full of cash. That’s an exciting and challenging way to travel, and it makes you rely on the hospitality and friendship of the people you meet.

But Jesus says that it’s not about sponging off other people in order to have a free holiday. If we stay with someone, if they give us food and drink and do our washing for us, we’ve got to give them something in return. We’ve got to work for our keep and really help them build that better life which Jesus is promising.

In ‘The Book of the Way’, which was written about six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu said: ‘Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say "We have done this ourselves".’

I think Lao Tsu was talking about something very similar to Jesus. When Jesus tells us to leave everything behind and travel light he’s exaggerating in order to make sure that people who can’t read and write will be able to remember his message. What he really means, I think, is that we need to get alongside other people, share the way they live, listen to what they have to say, start with the tools and materials at their disposal, and help them make things better for themselves.

Lao Tsu’s advice was especially for leaders. But Jesus’ advice was for everyone, because all of us have a chance to work with our friends, and colleagues, and family and neighbours to build a better world.

Perhaps I’m getting old, but I have a problem with Facebook. I guess a lot of people here today have a problem with Facebook. If you’re under 13 you’ll still be waiting to be old enough to join. And some of you may be thinking you’re too old to want to join. And some of you may indeed be asking, ‘What on earth is it?’

Well, in case you don’t already know, it’s a social networking site on the Worldwide Web, and my problem with it is that I’ve just got too many Facebook friends! I have 49 friends at the moment, which probably doesn’t sound very many. One survey of Facebook members found that the average number of Facebook friends is 250! But 49 is an awful lot of friends when they keep posting messages all day long and I’m too busy to read them.

The other day Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, asked if she could be my friend. Well I’m sorry, but that ain’t going to happen!

Another suggestion was that Ann Barker should join my network of friends, because we have seven mutual acquaintances. I thought, ‘But I don’t know anyone called Ann Barker!’ And then I discovered that she was the wife of a friend of mine, but she doesn’t use her married name on Facebook.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, said: ‘A true friendship is a plant which grows slowly. Before you can call it a real friendship it must stand the test of adversity. Try to get on with everyone,’ he advised, ‘But only be close friends with some people and put them through their paces before you give them your trust.’

I don’t think George Washington would like Facebook, because it’s transforming the meaning of friendship. Old ideas of what should be kept private or shared with lots of other people have been turned upside down. On Facebook friendship has become a very elastic idea. Some of us oldies will worry about that, and that’s the reason - of course - why you need to be old enough to join Facebook, because you can’t always trust the other people whom you meet there.

I mention Facebook only because you will remember Jesus said we shouldn’t move around from house to house but make our base - when we go somewhere new - with a few close friends. That could sound awfully cliquey, as though Jesus was suggesting we should cultivate a tiny circle of friends and shut out everyone else. But he clearly didn’t mean that, otherwise what would be the point of sending his followers out to meet new people?

One commentator suggests that Jesus wanted his friends to stay put when they visited a new town because, if they had moved from house to house it could have looked as though they were fussy or ungrateful. But I think he just meant that when you are starting a new project, and perhaps trying to build something from scratch in a new place, you need to build a team of colleagues and collaborators - true friends whom you can trust - and this takes time.

So perhaps that’s something to reflect on next time somebody new wants to be your friend, either on Facebook, or in the playground, or anywhere else for that matter - on-line or in the real world. God calls us to love and be kind to everyone, but becoming friends takes time and we need to be really sure that we can trust someone and rely on them before we make them a close friend and let them into our confidence.

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