The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
A couple of weeks ago at the Halloween workshop, dressed in a costume which Margaret described as a cross between Gandalf and Darth Vader, I gathered the 100 kids together to tell them a scary story. Inspired by the story of Elijah searching for God’s voice in Earthquake and storm and fire; the loud tragic events of his day and age. Eventually, and to his surprise, God’s voice comes to him in the gentle blowing of wind in the entrance of a cave. I took some literary licence in my re-telling of the story to be sure - among the events was a great war - but the key premise was there - God is with you through the best and worst of times, even ahead of you but will call to you in the most unexpected ways.
Each year we remember those who lost their lives in war. We remember those in the past and present who have lost their own lives in hopes that others wouldn’t loose theirs. It isn't about glorifying war or about nationalism, after all we are an international community. It is about remembering well those who by chance of fate were caught up in war and died because that is the world we live in. Those who chose to answer a call to defend others, those who chose to put their life before that of somebody else. Remembering them well means that we too need to have a willingness to make sacrifices for others, to create the society they fought to protect and enable.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear about Jonah, often called Jonah the Groaner. He was called by God to tell the people of Ninevah to change their ways, but he knew it wouldn’t work, he knew they’d probably just stone him for raining on their parade so refused to go, running and hiding in the stomach of a whale. But God was there and drew him back to Ninevah so he could tell the people to change their way. And to his surprise, and theirs they did change their ways and saved themselves..
Yesterday the PCC had it’s away day to discuss what St John’s is and what we want to become. We were coming up with ideas of what we could do creatively to respond to God’s call to us in this place. We focused on five main areas Outreach, Liturgy, Hub of the Community, Children & Young People and Growth particularly among young professionals. But this is an ongoing process, two small groups will look at how to describe our ethos and what goals we want to achieve over the next 2, 5 and 10 years. These groups will need to consider the many flip charts and post-it notes written on yesterday, they will engage people in conversations within the congregation but also in the community and use the analysis of the questionnaires (all 96 of them!!!) Which is a fantastic response. It shows how engaged we are as a community.
But in all this, we are listening for God to see where God is calling us. As Rowan Williams has put it: To see where God is and how we can join in. This process can lead us, like Jonah, to unlikely places going in unlikely directions. It’s not necessarily what we’d expect.
The church I was attached to in Cambridge underwent a major re-ordering of their entire building. As we were meeting in the school hall they started again to think about how they would use the space. One of the more outlandish ideas that came out of their listening and thinking was to help small business startups, by providing space for meetings and mentoring.
It came out of left field but in a time where there was a real need.
Where is St John’s headed, what are the crazy ideas God is calling us to take seriously, I don’t know, but we need to be ready to respond, like we have to the questionnaires. Not just with money but with time and energy.
I want to end with a quote which you may sound a bit like it could be Churchill, but was in fact written by an Oxford academic for the voice of a wizard who I apparently look like. Tolkien was able to write about war in a very real way, perhaps because of his own experience at the Battle of the Somme in the first world war.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
as he tried to make sense of the unfortunate turn of events leading to him into a fools errand behind the enemy line.
"So do I," said Gandalf, [in response] "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
While we may not be asked to make the sacrifice which too many young men and women have made in hopes of bringing peace to the world. The calling we receive from God to bear the good news, to reach out to our community, can often seem risky and scary. It can lead us into places we don’t expect or particularly want to go, but it is not for us to choose the times we live in, but to decide how to respond to the call to engage with them.
After all, in our Gospel reading, what did Simon, Andrew, James and John think they were going to do when the deserted their fishing, their families and their livelihoods to follow Jesus. They were called, like us, to share Good news, that God is active in this place, loving all whom God has created, that the Kingdom of God has come near. And so we go out from here sharing that love in ever changing and creative ways. And as we stand at the memorial outside, let us honour those we are remembering by rededicating ourselves to respond to the needs of our time.