Monday, September 13, 2010

Taking Risks for God

Deut 30.15-20
Luke 14.25-33

Have you ever been in trouble for taking a risk? Some risks just aren’t worth taking, are they? Things like running across the road when cars are coming or using a pelican crossing when the picture of the red man is lit up.

I heard someone on the radio say that when he lived in Germany he noticed no one - young or old - ever walks onto a pelican crossing when the red man is lit up. If you do, he said, even if you’re a grown up an old lady will tap you on the shoulder with her walking stick or her umbrella and tell you that you’re setting a bad example to children and young people. He said that people in England would think that was daft but, on the other hand, Germany is a much nicer place to live because its citizens behave more responsibly.

And then, as well as irresponsible or silly risks there are the sort of risks that we might think it’s worth taking, like going on a rollercoaster ride. Rollercoaster rides look very dangerous, especially when the ride loops the loop or takes a terrifying plunge, but all the really dangerous risks have been engineered out of the ride and the only genuine risk is that we will feel ill for the rest of the day - which is why I prefer to keep my own feet planted firmly on the ground.

But what about building a housing estate? Is that a risky thing to do? In Darnall, where I work during the week, a building company decided to build a housing development called ‘Imagine’ which was supposed to be a collection of four, five and six bedroom designer homes in what they described as a vibrant suburb of Sheffield.

They did build some of the houses, but most of the development is still - as they say in builders’ sales brochures - ‘awaiting release’. In other words, the ‘Imagine’ housing development is exactly what its name suggests, something which can only be imagined. Most of the site is just rubble waiting to be dug out to make room for new houses, and the houses themselves are still pictures on a drawing board. The builders have taken a risk. They bought an old factory, knocked it down and started to build something new which they couldn’t actually afford to finish.

Finally, what about a risk from a long time ago? King Phillip of Macedon was a famous general. He led a highly trained and ruthless army which steadily conquered the whole of ancient Greece. When he arrived with his army outside the city of Sparta he sent a message to its leaders: ‘If you do not surrender I will burn your city to the ground.’ He expected them to calculate that the odds of being the first people in Greece to defeat him were not very good. But the Spartans were risk takers. They sent back a one word answer, ‘If’!

Jesus once asked his friends, ‘Who would start to build a new development without first sitting down and working out if they can afford to finish it?’ But he didn’t say that they wouldn’t go ahead, just that they would have to think very carefully about the level of risk. Because the answer is that lots of people start building things like tower blocks without ever being certain that they can afford to finish the job. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. Building tower blocks and housing estates is always a risky business.

Jesus also asked his friends, ‘Which general would attack a much larger army if he hadn’t already decided that his army stood a good chance of winning?’ The Spartans did their sums, and made their plans, and decided they might just be able to beat King Phillip of Macedon. Unfortunately the risk didn’t pay off. Phillip did capture their city and he was as good as his word. He burnt it to the ground.

But armies don’t always have to think they can win before they go into battle. A hundred years or so before the time of King Phillip, a Spartan army of three hundred men had stood against an army of thousands of Persian soldiers knowing that they were going to be defeated, because they had worked out that the battle they were fighting - in a narrow valley between two high mountains - would gain vital time for their allies to put together a fleet of ships that could cut off the sea between the Persian Empire and Greece and force the Persian army to retreat.

Jesus seems to have been making the point that whenever we do things we have to consider the risks. We have to work out the chances of success or of achieving our aims. But he doesn’t seem to have been suggesting that we shouldn’t take risks at all. On the contrary, he said that sometimes we have to be prepared to leave behind our families and risk our whole lives in order to be his followers.

In the picture of King Phillip you might have noticed that one of his eyes looks a bit strange. That’s because he was prepared to risk his life in pursuit of his campaign to conquer the cities of Greece. On one occasion he rode his horse too close to the city walls and was hit in the eye by an arrow. But that setback didn’t put him off, it only made him more determined to succeed. Jesus says that we have to be prepared for setbacks and ready to take risks in order to do his will.

In some ways today’s readings seem very apt, don’t they? But in other ways, the choices which they spell out seem a bit overblown by comparison with the choices which we face. Moses told the people of Israel that they had to choose between life and death, and between good and evil. Those are very stark choices, and very clear-cut ones too.

I think perhaps the choices facing us here at Sandal Methodist Church were a bit more finely balanced. However, in a sense, refurbishing the church and removing the pews is a life and death decision, not for any of us personally of course, but for the whole church community. The people who have argued that it is the right thing to do believe that the church will perish if it isn’t prepared to change and adapt. If we attach too much importance to pews or to the way things look, don’t we risk turning them into idols instead of listening to the Lord and conforming to his ways?

But on the other hand the people who argued against the changes thought that it would be foolish to plan to do something which we couldn’t actually afford - and it’s true that, for the time being at any rate, we have had to scale back some of the changes which we wanted to make because - unless the fundraising is very successful - we won’t have the necessary funds to accomplish everything we set out to do. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course, to go ahead. Like a builder considering a new housing development, the church council has had to weight the risks and take a carefully considered decision. And that decision was to proceed in the faith that what we are doing is indeed God’s will.

Being good disciples is about being prepared to leave behind the things we cherish most - family, familiar things, even life itself - in order to move into the new territory that God wants us to occupy. Following Jesus is about being prepared to leave our comfort zone, to take calculated risks, to be enterprising for the sake of God’s mission.

These changes will not by themselves.help us to choose life In order to do that we will have to consider lots of other things besides. But together we have calculated the cost and we have decided that - on balance - it’s worth paying. I ask for your trust and forbearance in the week’s ahead, and for your prayers for the success of this venture. We live now in an enterprising culture and this is our chance to show some enterprise, not for the sake of our own profit, but for Jesus’ sake.

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