Monday, September 13, 2010

Time To Be Heroes

Hebrews 11.29 - 12.2
Luke 12.49 - 56

"Heroes" is the name of a cult television series - with a huge following at the moment - about ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary abilities. They have to ask themselves: Who am I? What does having these powers mean for the world around me? How should I live my life - shameful or proud? And should I hide or live out in the open? And if this world of hidden powers is revealed, will the ordinary world ever recover?

But this is only one of a rash of similar films and television programmes. The X-Men, created by Marvel comics and immortalised in a series of films, is another example of the super hero genre, this time featuring people with mutant genes which give them special powers or abilties. Why is Wolverine like me? The likeness may not be immediately obvious but it’s because, like me, he doesn’t need to carry a comb in his pocket! The X-Men stories are a rattling good yarn, but they’re also a metaphor for the everyday struggle that many people face against prejudice, racism and bigotry.

Then there are the countless Star Trek heroes, of course, boldly going where no human being has gone before, their phasers politely set ‘to stun’ as they explore strange new worlds.

And there are the traditional heroes of folklore, like George and the Dragon, as well as the modern feminist subversions of the genre. Now, instead of damsels in distress being rescued by brave princes we have brave princesses too. Here’s one riding on her white charger.

Finally, of course, there are all the real heroes of human history. In the history of our country the gallery of famous heroes ranges from Queen Boudicca bravely fighting the invading Roman armies two thousand years ago to Winston Churchill leading the nation in the struggle against Nazism in the middle of the last century.

But there have also been countless unsung heroes and heroines. A television programme this week featured a waste disposal worker who still goes to work every day, tidying up the depot and encouraging his colleagues with his constant good humour, even though he has a rare form of incurable cancer. And a radio programme featured the British and Pakistani aid workers in Pakistan who are bravely crossing flimsy footbridges over the swollen River Indus to take packs of emergency supplies to stranded villagers, risking their lives every step of the way. The modern road bridges have all been swept away and only these one hundred and fifty year-old footbridges, built during the Raj, still remain.

This picture shows one of the more substantial rope bridges and it looks pretty safe, but remember the picture was taken before the flood. Now imagine the water raging and surging just below the traveller’s feet and remember that all of the other bridges have already been lost so this one might be next.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrew or Jewish Christians in his care reels off a long list of heroes, people who were inspired by their faith in God to do amazing things. They overthrew oppressors, established justice and saw God’s promises fulfilled.

It might seem a bit tame to be a spiritual hero when compared to an X-Man like Wolverine, but not a bit of it. These spiritual heroes shut the mouths of lions, fought fires, put whole armies to flight, went to prison for what they believed in or else hid in caves and holes in the ground. The writer says that they were too good for a world like ours.

And yet, he says, they pale into insignificance alongside the example of Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For our sakes, and for the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him, he endured the cross and we must throw off all the doubts, hesitations and fears that prevent us from being heroic and find the resolution to follow him.

The collection of strange and colourful sayings from Luke’s Gospel seem to be making a similar point. Jesus warns his followers that being a disciple isn’t about finding peace and quiet or having an easy life. It calls for spiritual heroics. Sometimes we will be called upon to stir up trouble. And sometimes following Jesus will cause division, even among our own families and friends. Above all, in order to be a spiritual hero we have to be able to read the signs of the times, and to recognise when decisive action is going to be required.

I am sure that, like the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is talking about the need to rescue suffering people from disaster, oppose injustice and speak out against oppression or wrongdoing. So I don’t want to try to score cheap points or read into these passages things which really aren’t there. While there is such a catalogue of disasters going on across the world - especially in Pakistan - that would be absurd. Praying for the heroes caught up in those situations, and supporting them as best we can, should be our first concern.

However, I will draw just a few parallels with our own situation, here at Sandal, as we stand on the brink of an exciting and challenging time. I know that some people aren’t very happy about the changes we are making, and that there is some apprehension still about how we will cope while the church is out of action. Services will be a little different sometimes in the weeks ahead. Coffee may be served at an earlier time. The toilets may be outside for a while, and so on. But I am sure we shall be able to cope if we can show a little resolution. Fortunately, it will only be lengths of wood which will be sawn in half, so there really isn’t too much to worry about.

You will find that the stewards and the other leaders of the church stand ready to provide any extra help and support that’s needed. So please don’t hesitate to ask if you’re at all uncertain about anything that’s happening, or about where to go and what to do, and what time it’s all taking place. Because we do appreciate that, at least to begin with, different service times and different arrangements will be confusing and if I don’t get myself confused at least once then I’ll be very surprised.

An advert for The Times once said ‘Times change but values don’t’ and I guess some people may feel that all of this upheaval is unnecessary because what we have around us - our pews, the layout of our church and so on - is already valuable and has plenty of life left in it. But, of course, while some things never change, and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, he does challenge us to read the signs of the times because one of the tasks which he calls us to do is to connect with the people around us and persuade them that we have something relevant to say to them.

The changes we are making may be purely cosmetic in themselves, but we hope they’re going to give us the tools and the flexibility that we need to address ourselves more clearly to contemporary ways of learning and living. And if that sounds a bit like ‘management speak’, which it probably is, then another way of putting it is that a flexible space, with comfier chairs, a more welcoming environment, plenty of IT and so on, could be a real asset in the Church’s mission. But, of course, lots of expensive kit is no substitute for the content of our mission. If we’ve nothing to say, and if we’re not reaching out to people and meeting them where they are, all the changes in the world won’t make any real difference.

That’s why the questions which I started with, from the ‘Heroes’ television series are relevant to our church as well, and to our life together as would be spiritual heroes. Like the heroes in the series we have to ask ourselves: What is Sandal Methodist Church? What are we trying to do, and how are we sharing God’s power and love with our community? What does having access to this love and power mean for the world around us? How should we live when we’re outside the church - shameful or proud? Should we hide our faith or live out in the open? And if this hidden world of God’s power and glory is revealed to the people around us, will Sandal ever recover?

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