Ian. Nigel and I had originally planned a talk which was very loosely based on a sermon given over 60 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr (1). His sermon was unusual and he made some points that we felt were just as relevant today.
Here and now
The essence of his sermon was that the parable in the Gospel wasn’t a picture of the afterlife. It was about how we should live here and now. And that each of us are both Lazarus and the rich man:
- We’re rich in that we’re better off than many. Through circumstances we have a better education and better opportunities than most in the world. But we each have a Lazarus at our gate. Someone who needs us to reach out to them, to show them a little practical love and compassion. Before we can’t. Before we run out of opportunities to do so.
- We’re also the Lazarus to God. God as the all-powerful rich man. But rich in grace & rich in love. Completely unlike the rich man in the parable, God is forever looking to bridge the gulf. He takes every chance to reach out.
God expects us to follow that example. To reach out to others at every opportunity. To mind the gap between us and everyone else.
It had all the soaring rhetoric that you’d expect from Martin Luther King Jr. We were channeling our inner Martin!
But we’re not going to give you that sermon… Instead Nigel’s going to talk about Bury Football Club!
More serious than life and death
Nigel. Bill Shankly famously said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them it is much more serious than that”.
Seeing the reactions of followers of Bury FC a month ago now, when the football club was expelled from the Football League, gives credence to that point of view. In a great outpouring of grief there were tears, anger, passionate outbursts; and when words failed, a lot of shaking heads and faces reflecting a feeling of despair. Fans, young and old, have spoken in terms of bereavement akin to losing one of their family. There was a real sense of loss, of helplessness.
Whilst there was a lot of shouting that it was someone else’s fault, there was also a questioning among fans “could we have done something to prevent this situation happening? Should we have put an effort into building up the fan base, promoting increased attendances, making the club membership bigger, bought more season tickets? Given that we looked upon ourselves as such great supporters of the club should we, perhaps have had a greater part to play other than simply turning up week by week?”
In all this it comes home to you that football supporters do have a great sense of community: of belonging, common identity, being in fellowship and being part of a family.
I came to live in Bury in 1978 and started attending Gigg Lane around 1980. My youngest son joined me not long afterwards and has been a loyal home and away support ever since. My stepson told me that he remembers the day I first took him to Gigg 31 years ago. He too has been a regular attender since then. I took my eldest grandson to watch Bury and though he didn’t remain a regular attender he still considers himself a fan – especially when in China (where he works) reminding the Chinese there are other teams besides Premiership ones.
Barbara recalls watching Bury FC when she was a teenager and when we married in 2008 she joined me as a season ticket holder. It has all been a big part of my life - of our personal family life. So we too relate very much to the emotional outpourings of Bury FC’s demise. I know there are several fans – and even a former player - here this morning who could tell similar tales. It’s a family thing!!
No more church?
I mention this because it made me think of another family of which we are a part – the church family. A family of which I have been a regular member since 1983 – the year I opened the door in response to Jesus’ knocking! It got me thinking what if our church wasn’t there anymore? What if we couldn’t meet together? Or if there weren’t enough of us to keep going, to keep our buildings going, to finance our activities? What if the Church of England took the decision to close us down? What sort of grief would be felt then? Would we have a feeling of loss like we Bury football fans are experiencing.
Don't just book it
And talking about loss and things that you think will never happen – what about Thomas Cook? Before last weekend if you were asked to name a solid, reputable, dependable travel agent many of us would be saying Thomas Cook. They have been around for over a hundred years, a market leader, a pillar of the travel establishment. What was the advert – If you want a holiday don’t just book it; Thomas Cook it! And hundreds of thousands of us did every year – until last weekend! Bang! There it was gone!
Like Bury FC there has been very emotional scenes, much wringing of hands, tempers frayed. Employees in tears; thousands have lost their holidays, thousands of travellers stranded overseas – like Barbara and I on Monday in Minorca.
Now the parallels aren’t exactly the same as Bury FC and Thomas Cook but I say ‘what if’ in relation to our churches because it is easy to take so much for granted. What if through neglect, or ambivalence, or lack of interest our churches on Walmersley Road did disappear? Could we be in danger of heading the way of Bury FC or Thomas Cook? What if the churches that we took for granted would always be there come what may, suddenly weren’t there anymore? Is it time to look at ourselves and take steps to fix things before it’s too late? Could this be a wake-up call?
Speak of God's love
Jesus tells us what we need to do; he makes it clear what needs to be fixed perhaps we do need to take heed. Speak to our community of God’s love and care; reach out and help those in need; share what we have with those who have not; live in love and peace with our neighbour; give hope to the hopeless. In doing these things we will build up the body of Christ, which is the church.
Perhaps we need to be more pro-active? If we don’t we may well find ourselves mourning the loss of something which we took for granted would always be there and suddenly.... it gone!! There would be a massive chasm yawning open in our lives! We need to mind the gap before it's too late.
People who don't get the point
Back to Ian. Which brings us back nicely to our Gospel reading. At the end of the parable, the rich man never does get it! The parable turns from a story about a dramatic reversal of circumstances and how we should mind the gap, to the question of people who do not get the point. If Moses and all the prophets supply enough reason to treat others with dignity - and people still don’t do it, when they know the truth already - then even the miraculous return of Lazarus will not convince them. (2)
In many ways the stories of Bury FC and Thomas Cook are parables too. And we have to ask whether any of us will learn the lessons drawn by Nigel about Bury FC, Thomas Cook and our two churches?
Because the end of the Gospel parable calls us to confront ourselves concerning what we do. Do we, you and me, really actually change when we hear a sermon or talk? Do we do anything different as a consequence of hearing God’s Word?
People do change
Someone once wrote that a sermon only really ends when people do something as a result. So, what’s the point of preaching if people don’t act on the Word that they already know?... Well, preaching lives in the hope that we might change, that we might do something different. Because sometimes it really does happen! People do change.
On the morning of the Resurrection the women came back from the tomb and testified, preached, to the disciples, as to what they’d seen. But the disciples, those people who knew them best and that they’d spent so much time with, essentially told the women that they were speaking absolute rubbish. (3)
Came home wondering
But whilst, as a group, the disciples rejected the message, Peter had heard enough to go and check it out for himself. He doesn’t have the same experience as the women. He didn’t meet any dazzling men dressed in white giving news updates. But he knows something big has happened. Something puzzling & troubling. And he returned home wondering…
Without the testimony of the women he’d never have gone to the tomb at all. He’d have had no reason to look for himself.
We each have a story
So, the message from Nigel and I is: go, share your experience, tell about what you’ve seen, testify to what you know to be true. Because whether you know it or not, or like it or not, you’re all preachers! You each have a story to tell, a testimony to give. It can be over a cup of coffee or at the checkout or from a lectern or a pulpit. But go.
Most will probably think that you’re talking absolute rubbish. If so, you’re in good biblical company! But if just one person goes and looks for themselves and comes back wondering, then it will be worth it.
And you know that Nigel and I have a slip of paper from the Bishop of Manchester which makes us Authorised Lay Ministers to this Benefice.
But at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to all of us: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
That tells us that all of us, every single one of us, has been commissioned as an authorised lay minister. Our authority, yours and mine, comes from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Our slip of paper is the Bible – and we’re sent to the world, not just this Benefice.
So, let’s get on with it. Amen
- Anna Carter Florence: Preaching as Testimony. Chapter 6.
- Think about this parable as the 5th in the series starting in Luke 15 with the Parable of the lost sheep. They all have something to say about our relationships with people or with money or with both.