A Sermon on Not Looking Back

Looking BackHave you ever stopped and listened to the stories that you most often recount to other people when you are in conversation with them?   Have you ever taken notice of the experiences and events in your life that most often fill your mind and are at the fore-front of your thoughts.

The stories that we tell to each other about our own lives are a good indicator of the events and times that we hold mostly closely in our hearts.  So some of us recount stories of when we got married pointing to the deep reality that that was a time in our lives when we felt most fully ourselves.  Others of us retell stories of when our children were young and at home, pointing to a time when we felt most fully alive.  Of course we might also sometimes look back longingly to the time in our lives before we got married, or to the day that our children finally moved out of the family home!  This simply illustrates that for each of us the particular events in our lives that we hold most closely will be very different.

What are the stories that you most often tell to other people when you are in conversation with them?

I know for myself, that when Luisa and I first moved to Australia it took quite some time for us to begin to tell stories about our life in this great land, rather than telling stories about our life in England in the years before.  It has taken a number of years for us to adjust to Australia being our home rather than England.  When we fly there on Sunday evening we will now do so as visitors, and when we fly back in a few weeks time we will be returning here as people who are coming home.  So our story has changed over time.

For all of us, just as we tell stories about other aspects of our lives, we tell stories about our experiences in the Church as well.  I have been trying to listen carefully over the last few months to the stories that you tell about this Church.  It is clear from listening to you that there are some of you who pinpoint in your own minds and memories particular moments in our history which form, for you, the ‘golden age’ of the life of this Parish.  I have been trying to identify when the ‘golden age’ in the past of this parish was for some of you.

Some of you tell stories regularly – perhaps without even being particularly aware of it – about life with Fr Holmes or Fr Turner or Fr Redden or of course one of the two Fr Michael’s.  And there are also some of you that recount stories from further back about this Church when Frs Williamson, Williams and Marshall were here ministering as the Parish Priest.

What are the stories that you tell about life here in this Church?  Have you ever stopped to think about them, and about why they are the stories that are most important to you?

At lunch a few days ago I was asking some members of our congregations how long they had been in the parish and someone told me that they had been here for a long time and had seen many priests pass through here, some good and some bad.  I was able to remind them that all of the priests who have been here have seen parishioners pass through as well – in the same way, some good and some bad.

Given our different experiences we probably couldn’t come to an agreement together about when this Church community was most fully alive, because the stories that we tell for ourselves, are about those times when we personally had significant experiences or learnings, or connections with the Parish Priest and others, or a sense of well being here.  There are probably as many stories about when this Parish was really at its best, as there are people here today.

But there is a general idea in the stories that I hear from you as you look back, that things here are not as they once were.  It would be true to say that as I listen to your stories of this Church community, no one is claiming that we are currently in the golden age of the life of this Church right now, everyone looks back to various times in the past when things have been better for us.  Some of you look back to times when the Church building was fuller with people than it is today, others of you look back to those periods in our story when children and teenagers were a central part of our life in a way that they are not at the current time.  The stories that we tell as we look back at our lives and the life of our Church, connect us with those times when we thought that things were going best for us, and when we were happiest and most fulfilled.

Across the Church in the Western World we are coming to terms with the fact that as we look back at the recent past of our story things have been very different to what happened before.  We are familiar with the fact that for the first few hundred years of the life of the Church, to be a Christian was a dangerous and risky activity.  Followers of Jesus did not have their own buildings to meet together for worship, they met in homes and caves, and amongst the graves where other people would not go: neither did they have a place of dignity in society.  In fact the reverse was true.  To follow Jesus was to give up all status in society, to face persecution and even death.  Ten Roman Emperors in succession – from Nero, to Diocletian – made it the policy of the Roman Empire to persecute Christians.  The turning point came when the Roman Emperor Constantine made a decision to live a life shaped by his belief in Christ.  And under his reign, and the Emperors who followed him, Christianity moved from being on the margins, to the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Church buildings began to be constructed, and over time being a Roman citizen and being a Christian came to be understood as one and the same thing.

By and large – as amazing as that sounds, being a Christian and being a good citizen continued to be inseparably linked throughout much of the Western world for the next 1,500 years.  During that period the Church’s mission to build society, to educate, to care for the sick and those in need, and to tell the story of Jesus was undertaken by both the Church and the wider society.  Our own Anglican heritage in the state Church of England, in which it was presumed that every English citizen was a member of the established Church, is one example amongst many state churches across Europe which were built on the idea that to be a good and loyal citizen was to be a baptised member of the Church.

Many of us were brought up in an Australian society where the basic assumption was that if you were a good Australian you were a good Christian as well, whether you believed and trusted in the hope of the Gospel or not.  It was normal for children to come to Sunday School as a part of the process of growing up to be good Australian citizens, and their parents came to Church not necessarily out of choice, but because of a sense that it was expected.  But in some of our own life times this story has begun to change.  After hundreds and hundreds of years of this way of understanding Church and society, we began to notice in the 1950s and 1960s that the privileged place that the Church had had in Australia and in other Western countries was beginning to be diminished.  We started to experience the fact that people no longer felt that they had to come to Church if they did not want to.

Rapidly in the last fifty years our story has reverted much closer to the experience of Christians before the Emperor Constantine than to the experience of the Church afterwards.  We still have our beautiful buildings, but we know that they are no longer going to be filled with people simply by putting up a sign with the Church service times and ringing the bell.  Thankfully, the privilege in society that we used to enjoy far too much has been slowly eroded, and we now need to earn the trust of people around us, and not simply expect to demand it.  The Gospel of Jesus is now one world-view amongst many in the market place of religious ideas, and we need to put as much effort into commending it to others by our lives and our actions as should always have been the case.  So the story of the Church has changed a great deal during many of our life times.  We may continue to look back on a golden but now passed age, but even as we do so we know that things will never again be as they were.  The future will always be different from the past.

In our Gospel reading today Jesus gives a stern warning to those who wish to look back.  “If you follow me,” he says to those who he meets on the road to Jerusalem, “you will have to be satisfied to not look back to the home that you are leaving behind.  If you follow me there is no time to go back and say goodbye, or even to bury the dead.”  The deep reality that Jesus is pointing to is that it is often much easier to look back at all of the good things that have happened in the past, than to face up to the challenges of what lies ahead.  As ever we have to hold both the past and the future in balance.

In our Anglican expression of following Jesus, we know more than many other Christians the importance of being attentive to the traditions and insights of those who have come before us.  I am not suggesting today that we should stop celebrating the great times that we have had here in the past, or the accumulated wisdom that we have learnt from those experiences.  But to somehow believe that everything will be alright in the end if we just carry on doing what we have always done, looking longingly to the past, in the face of such compelling evidence that the world has changed around us, is to risk missing out on all that God has in store for us in the future.

We hear hard words from Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  To follow him means moving from the security of what we have known in the past, to the uncertainty of sharing in God’s mission here and now.  Jesus says that it is like ploughing a field, you can’t spend your time looking back at the beautiful straight furrows that you have already ploughed, because whilst you are doing so the plough will be veering all over the place in front of you.  No one sings a hymn reading again the line that they have just sung, they always need to read the next line in order for the music to continue.  No one embarks on a journey looking at a map of where they have just been instead of a looking at a map of where they are heading.

Everything around us has changed.  It is amazing that we even need to rehearse this fact, because the evidence is so clear.  We can no longer long for what we have known in the past to be our future.  What is to come for us will be different from all that we have known before.   We need, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, to actively create the next chapter in our story, with hope.  Don’t take it from me, hear it from Jesus: “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”