1 May, 2016
Open the Bible to us in a fresh and exciting way, in Jesus Name.
Elephants have very good memories. Once, a visitor to the circus was being shown around the animal enclosure. He was amazed to see a huge elephant tethered to the ground by a tiny thin piece of string and a small stake. The elephant showed no sign of escaping. The visitor knew that it would be no effort at all for the elephant to walk away pulling the tiny lead with it.
“How is it that the elephant stays tied to the spot?” asked the visitor, “After all, one pull and it could surely lift the stake out of the ground and be off.”
“That’s simple.” replied the guide, “We tie them like that when they are babies. Having great memories they remember being held by the little stake. As they grow they never question what holds them back.”
They never question what holds them back.
I want to suggest to you today that what’s true of elephants is also true of people and churches.
The other night we had a few friends over, which is just as well, because we only have a few friends. We all began telling school stories. The stories all had the same plot. Each of us, in our own way, had learned at school that we were dumb, even though, later in life, it turned out we weren’t.
My parents kept moving and so I was at yet another new school. The teacher had allowed each of the groups to name themselves. The bottom group was all boys. They had called themselves the Tigers. The middle group was boys and girls. They had called themselves the Kiwis. The top group was all girls. They had called themselves the Fairies. I sat the test. I can remember deliberately failing it so that I didn’t end up a Fairy.
For whatever reason, most of us have a lie that we pick up somewhere that we are thick, or ugly, or uncoordinated or socially awkward. Like the baby elephant, this lie holds us back from being all that God has made us to be.
I meet people of all ages who have believed a lie told to them from very young. “Oh, I can’t do that,” they say, “I’m ….”
Since churches are just a collection of people, they too have their own self perpetuating lies. “We’re just a small congregation … We don’t have the
money … We are all old people … The church is dying …” All of these things, and many more, I have heard over the years.
Today’s reading from Acts is an important one because it tells the story of
how the Christian faith came to Europe. For many of us this is our origin story. Imagine the Christian faith without Europe. So much of our great art, writing, music and buildings comes from European Christianity. Imagine Christianity without Notre Dame Cathedral, Michelangelo’s David, Mozart’s Requiem, the Anglican Church and hot cross buns. All of these exist because Paul listened to a dream and was willingly to take seriously a woman by a river.
Paul was intent on going in the complete opposite direction but he listened to the prompting of the Spirit and he arrived in Europe – in Macedonia. Once there, he was again prompted. Normally he went to the synagogue and preached. This time he was told of, and went to, believers by a river.
The chief believer was a woman called Lydia. She was wealthy from trading in purple cloth; she had perfected a much cheaper way of using the local shrubs as a dye. She invited Paul to stay in her home. The first act of discipleship of a Christian on the European continent was hospitality, giving of oneself. Lydia opened her home and her heart. This is the ultimate act of vulnerability. She and her whole household were baptized and her home went on to be a centre for faith.
It is possible that even Paul the Apostle was hoping to keep things a little on the modest side. Instead, God thrust him into a new continent. His sphere of influence expanded dramatically. The Spirit enlarged Paul’s territory beyond his envisioning. It was a major work and a heartache – we have the letters to prove it. But without Lydia and Paul we would not be here 2000 years later worshipping God.
The poet Marianne Williamson wrote: “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” God had something greater in mind than Paul did. God can imagine things that we cannot, and improbably, invites us to be a part of it. As Augustine famously said, “God, without us, will not; we, without God, cannot.” God insists on doing God’s thing through us unimaginative souls. So, good on Paul for going.
In just 2 weeks we celebrate Pentecost. Could it be that the Spirit is calling us into uncharted territory: to freely challenge those assumptions that have always held us back, to go beyond what we thought possible and to dream God’s dream for this place?
As we commission the vestry today, what is God’s dream for our church?
I love the story of St Columba, a priest in sixth century Ireland, who got into a rudderless boat and let God take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.
In what ways are we ‘playing small’ in our church? Are we being called beyond our carefully considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unnerving? It is time to unhook ourselves from all that holds us back, to launch out into new directions? In this, our year of growing in numbers and in depth, God has something so exciting in store I can almost taste it.
We are fully grown elephants now. We can break free.
I want to acknowledge the considerable help I got with this sermon from: “Christian Wanderlust,” MaryAnn McKibben Dana, The Hardest Question, 2013.