Tuesday, 17 February 2015


Sermon preached at Wood Green Mennonite Church
Sunday 15th February 2015, 3pm.

Reverend Smith was shaking people’s hands at the door.
            One by one the members of the congregation filed past
            “Thank you so much…”
            “Lovely sermon today…”
            “very uplifting…”
            “Oh, you were so helpful today…”

Reverend Smith resisted the urge to reply
            “in what way?
            “how was it helpful?
            “what area of your life did it challenge?
            “how did God speak to you?

This really wasn’t the time or place
            Not with another hundred or so hands to shake
            Another hundred or so smiles
            Another hundred or so brief pastoral encounters

“Pastor, thank you so much for the worship”
            said one elderly lady with grey hair
            “you were really in touch with the Lord this morning.”

As she said this, Reverend Smith thought to himself “if only you knew”
            His mind was already on how he was going to try
            And sort out the argument he had had
            With his whole family
just before leaving home to come to church

He looked past her to his wife and children
            All smiling happily
            Keeping up the image of Happy families

And so the members of the congregation
            Smiled their way out of worship
            With the rousing tune of the final chorus
            Still ringing in their ears

They got into their cars,
            And set off back to their lives
            Back to the trials, stresses, strains,
            And problems which they had been able to happily forget about
            For the last couple of hours

Reverend Smith sat down,
            after another half an hour on the door,
And looked round at the small groups
            Still hovering in the corners

He thought back over the service
            Yes, it had gone well
                        The worship had been uplifting
            The music very professional
                        The sermon was one of his better ones
            Very challenging, and assuring people
                        Of God’s love for them

And suddenly it dawned on him

That through the whole time
            Not one person in the entire church
had demonstrated the slightest degree of honesty.

He had been operating out of a façade himself
            Forcing the pastoral smile
            While wanting to curl up and die inside
                        out of guilt at the things he had said
            only a few hours earlier

The congregation had, to a person,
            Not been honest with him or each other

If the answers to his often repeated “how are you today?”
            Were to be believed
            One hundred people were fine, not grumbling, and doing okay
            thank you for asking

Actually no, 99 were doing okay.
            John had indicated that he had a problem
            But there had been so many people queuing behind him
            That there had been no time to talk or pray with him.
            Or even to find out what the nature of his problem was

They had all rousingly sung the songs
            The volume of the singing
had been quite up to its usual standard
            if not slightly louder!

The Amens to the prayers had been resounding
            And the Hallelujah’s during the sermon
            Had been very inspiring
                        ………(Oh, nevermind!)

Well, thought Reverend Smith
            Is it likely that all those people
                        Were really able to worship happily today?
            Is it likely that they were able
                        To sing the happy songs
                        The songs which told God how much they loved him
            Is it likely that they managed to mean every word

Somehow Reverend Smith thought it unlikely

After all, if he was in pieces inside,
            And he was a Reverend
            Why should he expect more from the congregation

What if the truth was more depressing

What if two hundred people
            Had come together to meet with each other and with God

And had spent the whole time deceiving
            Each other

Surely this couldn’t be the case could it?

But what if it was?

What if the way the church was structured,
            the way they always did things

Forced people into behaving a certain way
            Smiling a certain smile
            Singing certain songs
            Praying certain prayers

When actually most of them could not
            In all integrity
            Mean a word of it!

What would it take for the worship of his church
            To allow people the space
                        to be honest about
            where they were before God

What view of God would be necessary
            For people to be able to own their hurt,
            Their anger, and their frustrations
            before God

What about those people who were angry with God
            For the way their lives had gone?

Was it really realistic to expect them to sit there
            and pray happy prayers, and sing happy songs?

And so Reverend Smith wondered…

What does the Bible say to people
            Who have had it up to here with happy songs?

Who feel that they never want to sing another happy song again?

And Reverend Smith’s thoughts turned to Psalm 137…
            That well-known psalm
            with the little-known ending

And it was especially to the last verse that Reverend Smith’s mind went

Psalm 137:1-9
    By the rivers of Babylon--
        there we sat down and there we wept
        when we remembered Zion.
    [2] On the willows there
        we hung up our harps.
    [3] For there our captors
        asked us for songs,
    and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
        "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

    [4] How could we sing the Lord's song
        in a foreign land?
    [5] If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand wither!
    [6] Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
    if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy.

    [7] Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
        the day of Jerusalem's fall,
    how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
        Down to its foundations!"
    [8] O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
        Happy shall they be who pay you back
        what you have done to us!
    [9] Happy shall they be who take your little ones
        and dash them against the rock!

The people of Israel in ancient times were a people of Song
            They had rhythm in the blood;
            and their whirling dancing,
            their praises to the one true God,
            everything about the way they were
                        shouted praises to the one true God

They were famous for their praise songs
            throughout the known world

Other nations looked at Israel’s worship tradition
            with awe

But the people of Israel were now in Exile

The Babylonians had conquered them
            And exported them to a foreign land

And so they sat beside the rivers in Babylon
            Looking wistfully at the horizon
            Remembering their beautiful land
            Their beautiful temple

Knowing that it was all in ruins

Their places of worship destroyed
Their homes burned
They knew they were never going back.

So what were they to sing now?
            How did their happy, renowned worship songs help them now?

And all the while the Babylonians tormented them
            “Come on… sing us a song
            “What about your famous worship?
            “What about your joyful dancing?
            “Come on… Give us a number!”

And the Israelites looked at one another in despair
            And there by the river, they wept

They wept with grief as they remembered their homes
            Their temple, their places of worship

They wept that all that had been so good
had been taken from them

They wept that God seemed to have abandoned them…
            How could they cope?
            What were they to do?

They cried out before God of
Their disappointment
            Their sense of bereavement
            Their loss

They asked how God could have allowed this to happen?…

And the Babylonians wanted them to sing a happy song of the Lord?…

So they hung their harps on the trees
            and said to one another

“how can we sing the songs of the Lord
            whilst in a foreign land”

They refused to sing their happy songs,
            because those songs were not the right songs to sing.
Not now, not here.

Singing happy songs now would be lying
            It would be mocking God
            It would be refusing to face up
            To what had happened to them

But they still sang…

They sang of their sadness
They sang of their anger
They sang of their disappointment

They were honest about their feelings

Not for them some effort to push their anger
            Deep down inside
            Where it would fester for years
            Before coming out to haunt them

Not for them some necessity to pretend everything was fine
            When actually everything was awful

They knew that God could take whatever they needed to throw at him

They knew that he could absorb their anger
            They knew that he could cope with their bitterness
            Meet them in their hurts

So they were honest before God, and with one another

And they sang before God
            “happy is the one who grabs the babies of the Babylonians
            and smashes their heads on the rocks”


Well, you don’t get much more honest than that, do you?!

These people knew God well enough to know
            That he wasn’t about to disown them
Simply because they were honest with him about their feelings

Their relationship with God
            Was such that it could withstand
            The brutal honesty of emotions like this

And I wonder if we could usefully ask ourselves the question of whether,
if we hated somebody enough to want their children dead…
we would be prepared to admit it
            even to ourselves,
            let alone to others
            or to God?

Or would we still come along on a Sunday
            To meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ
            To meet with the living God
And behave like the congregation in Reverend Smith’s church?
            All smiles and happiness
            Fooling ourselves, others, and God.

What would it take for us to have a church
            Which modelled the example of the Israelites?

Where we could praise, and sing happy songs
            when we had things to praise and be happy about;
but where there was also the space
            To be honest and open about our darker emotions.

What would it be like to have a church
            where the voices from the dark underside of our humanity,
            could be heard from time to time?

What would it be like to have a church
            where honesty and integrity was more important than anything else?

How can we learn to be honest in worship?
            Honest with ourselves
            Honest with one another
            Honest with God

The first battle to be won here
            is probably learning to be honest with ourselves

A phrase from my days as a student at ministerial training college
            still sometimes returns to haunt me:
            “never underestimate our capacity to deceive ourselves”

It is all too easy to kid ourselves that we are doing fine
            to convince ourselves that we are coping,
            that our relationships are going well,
            and that other people can’t hurt us…

The reality for many of us is that when things get tough,
we don’t like facing up to the truth of what has happened to us
            or is happening to us
It’s much more comfortable to pretend
            that nothing is going wrong,
            not admitting even to ourselves the feelings we have

Possibly because they make us feel guilty…

If I wanted to smash someone else’s child’s head against the rock
            I think I’d feel pretty guilty about that emotion

Much more comfortable to ignore it, and
            Deceive myself into believing
            That I am doing fine.

Rather than admitting it to myself
            Facing the guilt
            And beginning the path towards healing

Of course, being honest with ourselves is only the first step

We may know deep down inside that things are far from right

But that doesn’t do anything about the public face.
            The happy smile
            And the twinkly eyes
            That belie the pain underneath

The problem with being honest with one another
            Is that we can’t be honest with one another all the time

We would never cope!

We don’t really want to hear everybody else’s problems
We are too damaged ourselves
            To be able to cope with everyone else’s honesty

But one thing that is worth thinking about here
            Is that one of the main criticisms of Christians
            By people outside the church
            Is that we are a bunch of hypocritical, self righteous whatsits

And if we go round giving the impression that we are eternally sorted
            Always having a happy smile
            with all our problems in the past
Who can blame people for finding that off-putting?

A bit of honesty from time to time
            Would go a long way towards rectifying this

If we could be honest about he fact that
            All we are is a bunch of sinners
            Who just happen to be forgiven

Maybe others wouldn’t find God so intimidating

Jesus, after all, didn’t hang around with the religious, sorted, people.

He said that they didn’t need him

Jesus hung round with prostitutes & foul-mouthed fishermen
                        He took drinks with adulterers
He spent time with people
whose sinfulness was so obvious
            that it offended the church-going types of his day.

And I fear that sometimes we are so dishonest with each other,
            in our attempts to appear holy and happy,
            that we alienate those who Jesus died for?

And my worry is that if this is so,
            we might find Jesus not wanting to spend much time with us
                        Leaving us to our singing
            Whilst he is off spending time with those who need him

But the truth, of course
            Is that we need Jesus just as much as anybody else
                        We still sin
                        We still hate people
                        We still have broken relationships

If only we could find a way of being honest about it

For some of us that place of honesty
            will be found through involvement in a small group of Christians who meet regularly,
a place where we can build the kind of close relationships
            where honesty becomes possible
and where we can find the support from our sisters and brothers
            That will help us through the tough times

Some of us will find the place of honesty as we meet with another Christian for prayer
            Being honest together about what we hear God saying to us

My own journey has found great honesty in the wise counsel of my spiritual director…
            a companion on the journey…
            who has helped me to learn to be honest with God
            and so to grow in my relationship with him

At a simple level, we can find honesty in the opportunities for prayer
that are on offer at church week by week.
            If only we learn not to leave, pausing only to pick up at the door
            our coat and the burden we put down when we walked in

            If life is awful, be honest with someone.
            Get some help, ask for some prayer.

Maybe in these and other ways
            We can be able to learn how to be honest with one another.

And a word of caution.
If someone trusts us enough to be honest with us
            We must treat them sensitively
            Because there but for the grace of God we go

But finally, let us seek to be honest with God.
            And in many ways this is the hardest thing

Being honest with ourselves is tough, and with others is difficult

But admitting our darkest feelings before God
            is a terrifying prospect

How is God going to react
            If I tell him I want to kill my enemy’s baby?

Well, the Israelites told him
            And he didn’t disown them!

Let us look at how we relate to God
            And consider what the opportunities
for honesty and dishonesty are…

What about our prays?

How we pray, and whether we pray,
            may tell us a lot about our relationship with God.

Do we always seem to be saying the same stuff to God
            or finding ourselves not bothering to pray any more,
            or only praying in the same old ways?

Maybe we might start to pay attention
to what it is that we are not saying to God

We may find that we are not being honest with God
            About some area of our lives
Maybe the time is upon us to own up to who we are before him
            And to receive his forgiveness and healing

Again, I have often found that talking to others can help here
            as we seek to understand how we are relating to God

And what about in our Sunday worship
            How do we do there?…

What are the opportunities for honesty or dishonesty
that Sunday presents us with?

We may not be quite up to Reverend Smith’s congregation’s standards
            But I wonder if we often we come close!

Many Christians have a tendency
            to expect victorious, joyous, Christian living
Which is fine - until their lives fall apart.

So sometimes we need to get real ourselves
            and ask just why we think we’re here on a Sunday.

Is it get an emotional lift out of the service
            that will see us through until at least Monday lunchtime?

Or is it to meet in honesty
            with ourselves,
            with others,
and with God
Who loves us, and longs to forgive us
            to heal us
            to renew us
            to refresh us
            And to comfort us

And to teach us to worship him
            in Spirit and in truth.

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