Last year I said that I hoped this would be our last Church Anniversary, not because we’d have closed, but because I hoped we might have united with Farnham Methodist Church, and become one new church. If only we’d been able to hold our Church meeting a few weeks ago, I might have been proved right!
Today our anniversary celebrates 357 years since the formation of the Presbyterian Church in Farnham, 224 years since the formation of the Independent, later known as Congregational, Church, and 145 years in this our fourth building. But I really do hope it will be our last, as we look to celebrate a new church, with many more constituent parts, and some more tangible progress towards a new building.
The hymn that we’ve just sung was one that could have been written for us just now. In the last verse we sang: “extend our church beyond the builder’s plan”. Is Fred Kaan, the author of the hymn, saying that we need to move out and take over South Street and Victoria Road? Or that we go the other way, and takeover the Bush Hotel car park? Since Fred Kaan died in 2009, I’m not sure he’s that interested in the details of changes to our building. What I think that line, “extend our church beyond the builder’s plan”, means is that the building is not the most important thing. We have to go beyond the bricks and mortar, and build the church as God’s people at work in the world. Indeed, the Pilgrim Project is not really a building project at all, it’s the expression of the developing mission of God through our church, which includes building work to enable us to put that into practice.
Inevitably we’re spending a lot of time at the moment thinking about new buildings. Buildings can be very important and they can be worth a great deal of thought and prayer and effort. But for all our work and effort, we must never forget that the Church is more than a building, it’s a movement, it’s people at work, in the power of the Spirit. As someone said, “the Church exists through mission like fire exists through burning”.
Imagine that you go out for the day and come across a National Trust property with wonderfully landscaped gardens and parkland. As you walk you come across a folly, a carefully constructed tower or ruin or lakeside temple, designed to look good, but serving no useful purpose. Then you go into the main house and find there a Museum dedicated to the Victorian age. Finally you set off home, but on the way pass a sign which says “Factory and Outlet – General Public Welcome”, you go to look and find there a number of small businesses in an old converted mill – indeed there is still some specialist weaving in the main part of the building. You can see signs of industry, and there a shop where you can buy clothes and pottery and so on.
I wonder when you visit a Church building, what does it remind you of? Is it like a folly, looking very fine, but of no real practical use? Is it like a museum, strong on nostalgia and the past, but maybe not seeming to have a lot to say about the present and future? Is it like a workshop, turning out things people need?
Once upon a time there was a farm. It was a large farm, much wheat had been planted, and there was the prospect of a bumper harvest. Twelve men work the farm. Each morning they arrive at the farmyard and put the kettle on. They gather a circle of chairs in the largest of the barns and began to talk. They study bigger and better methods of agriculture, they polish the combine, grease their tractors, and then get up and go home. Next day they come back again, study bigger and better methods of agriculture, polish the combine, grease their tractors, and go home again. They do this week in and week out, year in and year out. But nobody ever goes out into the fields to gather in the harvest. Our building only exists to help God’s mission working through us!
Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus send out the disciples to do his work in the world, to change people’s lives, to remove the obstacles that kept people from fulfilling their God given potential, to make a difference in people’s lives.
A man is aboard a ship and he falls overboard. Several people rush to the rail of the ship and peer down. The man in the water shouts up “Help – I can’t swim!” One of the people on board says, hang on, I’ve got a book here to teach you how to swim, I’ll throw it down to you. The second person shouts down, don’t worry, it’ll probably turn out OK worse things happen at sea, its all in the mind, just think dry. The third person, probably from one of our United Reformed churches, shouts down, this is tricky, we’ll set up a swimming subcommittee and email you the agenda next week. But by this time the fourth has jumped in, saved the man and pulled him out of the water.
Jesus challenges us to be people who make a difference in people’s lives. Are the suffering and dying better off because we follow Christ? Are the hungry and homeless finding their lives improved because we follow Christ? Do children have a brighter future because we follow Christ? Are the marginalized affirmed and valued because we follow Christ? Do the self-seeking and corrupt and violent learn new ways because we follow Christ?
We’re challenged, like the twelve disciples of old, to change the world. While there is racism, inadequate education, and poor healthcare, then our job is not yet done. Until poverty is history then our job is not yet done. As long as one man or woman remains literally or metaphorically in chains then our job is not yet done. While there remains one abusive or manipulative relationship then our job is not yet done. While one person is still tired of living and scared of dying then our job is not yet done.
In our Church Meeting we have, several times over the last dozen years, agreed our Vision as a church, agreed our Mission Statement, and agreed how we will put that into practice, that’s to say why we exist, and how we’re trying to put that into practice. We have given everyone a copy each time we have revised it. You all walked past a copy on the wall in the foyer or the wall in the back corridor on your way in this morning. Yet, somehow I don’t think it has sunk in, because people tell me that we don’t have a clear enough vision and mission strategy.
It’s said that after the ascension, when Jesus arrived back in heaven he was met by the angel Gabriel who asked him, “Lord, now that you’re here who will carry on your work in the world?”
And Jesus answered, “well, I appointed twelve disciples and I asked them and their friends to keep the movement going.”
And Gabriel says, “but, Lord, what if Peter forgets and goes back to fishing? What if Matthew goes back to collecting taxes? What happens if James and John and Andrew lose their courage and determination? What happen, Lord, if they don’t tell others and keep the message going? What then? Do you have any other plan? What is plan B?”
And Jesus looks Gabriel in the eye and says, “Gabriel, I have no other plan. I am relying on them.”
Which sounds to me as if we have a job to do.