send in the spies ....
The text of a sermon preached in Leicester Cathedral, 11th October, 2008, at the annual blessing of new and continuing of lay ministers (including evangelists, pastors, prayer guides and Readers).
"Oneness in Ministry" Ephesians 4: 1-6
"A Common Sending Out and Returning" Numbers 13: 1-2, 27-33
"Particular Returnings" Luke 10: 17-20
If those bible readings were chosen to set the scene for this celebration of rich and varied Christian callings then have you noticed one important ministry seems to be missing today?
Where are the spies?
In that first reading – after the long years of preparation and journeying God's people are looking over into the land they have been told will be theirs to enter – they about to become, in today's language, fresh expressions of mission and ministry
- but it started with commisioning spies ….
Well I have yet to hear of any diocesan training course or commissioning service for Christian spies. But presumably they're secret. Spies usually operate undercover. So perhaps they are here, disguised among us, collars up, behind a pillar, muttering secretly into hidden microphones at regular intervals - 'I will the Lord being my helper'.
But can I play with this idea a bit further….?
I am not suggesting adding an 'espionage ministers' to the list today – (something I think the church last officially endorsed during the Spanish Inquisition …)
But I am talking about a quality of character all Christian living requires in whatever ways we offer faith and ministry ….
To be a Christian is to be called to go exploring
- to go asking, seeking, knocking – to be spies of God.
I think that is a quality – a way of life – the world needs to find in us today almost more than any other.
We need to be spies because in this world the things that really matter, the clues that guide us, the resources we need for the journey are often elusive.
Jesus often taught that the most important things in life don't lie on the surface. They are buried, off the main track, glimpsed just out of the corner of our eye …. like treasure hidden in a field or the pearl concealed in an oyster in the depths of the sea.
You have to be willing to be distracted, to go out of your way, or you won't find them.
God is never so revealed as to be obvious. In the bible the main difference between idols and the true God is that you can't see him.
If God has heard of Google he has clearly chosen not use it.
For the times we live in, we need sending out as spies ….
We too are entering unfamiliar country.
We haven't been here before ….
We are a church urgently seeking new ways of being present to a culture adrift from any spiritual roots and unable to recognize its loss. In the face of steady church decline, the search is on for imaginative strategies for growth. To this end there is a bewildering variety of 'emergent', 'fresh', 'liquid', ' pioneer', 'café' ways of being of church. There are brave and imaginative initiatives among them and much to give thanks for. The ministries here today are part of that exploring – and we are very grateful.
But it is not easy.
We must take a road less traveled.
Our Christian identity is so deeply interwoven into this culture and history that we struggle to imagine ourselves any other way.
For many the familiar landmarks by which we navigated and knew ourselves in the world and before God are no longer there or seem to have lost their meaning.
Whole patterns of belonging are changing.
What kind of church (or world) will emerge from this is not revealed.
'We do not see what we shall become' (1 Jn 3.2).
We will be exploring and experimenting for the foreseeable future.
How this feels depends partly upon our temperament.
Some find this very exciting and energising …. others deeply unsettling.
For most of us it is mix of both.
And it is not surprising, with so much at stake, that those first spies came back to the people of God with such conflicting reports.
One group says – that land is wonderful, this is a real opportunity. The people are friendly and welcoming. There's a hall available for our Alpha suppers, there's a John Lewis and a new shopping mall. Come on – let's claim it all for God.
The other group says – there's no way we move in there. Get real. The land is huge and scary, The people there are unfriendly and built like Russian weight lifters. Traffic is a nightmare and their football team won only one game all last season.
Versions of this debate are played out whenever the church tries to talk about mission …
The opportunities are real but the challenges are easily overwhelming.
And it is not just churches that are facing this.
Turbulent and volatile changes are now rapidly re-shaping our society. Our most basic abiding securities are being violently shaken to the foundations.
The call to be spies of God is a missionary call.
Spies are those willing to search beyond the familiar - they immersing themselves in the languages, stories and cultures outside their own, cost what it may … seeking the connections, tracing the real story …..
It is about a call to live at a generous depth.
To a deeper life in God … one that can sustain, renew and re-direct lives in turbulent times.
To those being licensed today - whatever the particular gift and ministry title is yours – let this shape your calling above all else.
Be people who are reaching out - seeking, exploring, digging deep, among us and beyond us …
And teach us in our turn to be spies … kindle our curiosity, deepen our attentiveness, help us to search the clues, spot the signs, to trace the strange conspiracies of grace that reveal another story being told, just beneath the surface – of a greater presence - a place to stand in hope and trust - while all on the surface is so overwhelming and chaotic ….
Like the people in the first reading – we are stepping into the unknown ... and we too will be caught between terror and excitement .
But like them we are part of a story much bigger than ourselves – a reality scarcely glimpsed but compelling - that we are choosing to trust with our lives.
So here we are - stepping out – bold and fearful by turns.
And as we do we will discover again and again the overcoming and transforming life of God in the midst of all this.
So we pray that you may know your empowering and return with joy – telling us that even the demons will be subject to us in his name. (see third reading)
But our security will never be in results, titles or reputation.
One of the great teachers in the early church used to say – 'truly to see God is never to have one's fill of desiring Him.
The reward of the search is to go on searching.'
We will always be the spies of God – in worship, prayer and whole hearted living - searching into the height, width and depths of the love that holds all this in being and will yet bring us to his kingdom of justice and peace
- and at last to the secret of his face.
Thanks be to God