Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The importance of leaving

I preached this sermon at an occasional service held in the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva to welcome new colleagues and valedict those leaving. My thoughts were occasioned by my own imminent leaving the pay of the WCC and a desire to encourage others to consider whether it was also time for them to go. Sometimes people develop false perceptions of their own significance and benefit to their work. And there is always a temptation to hang on to a well paid job, even if others see you as a time server. We should always be asking the question of whether we are in the right place.

These notes don’t contain the more pointed extempore commentary delivered on the day.

Notes for a sermon at the Service of Welcoming and Sending Out, 17 November 2008 in the Chapel of the Ecumenical Centre

A question that is frequently put when people know you are leaving, as I have experienced these days: What are you going to do? The presumption that we only leave because there’s something to do, somewhere to go. Like all presumptions it should be questioned.

Is it only a man thing or a cultural thing that there is also a presumption that moving on is to something more significant, better paid, higher status? Even pastors get infected with this – if the new congregation to which they are moving is not bigger, it has to have special circumstances or immense potential.

Of course, moving on to something or somewhere is an important topic for reflection – and I could preach at great length about it, often! But this morning I want to concentrate simply on the significance of leaving in the context of this Welcoming and Sending Out service.

The two passages we had read for us this morning can help us – Genesis 12.1-10 and Matthew 17.1-5.

Abram’s family had moved to Haran from Ur of the Chaldes. They were wealthy with much livestock. There was no particular reason to leave Haran (war, famine, lack of pasture etc) and probably every good reason to stay and prosper. Then Abram gets this feeling that it’s time to move on – some God who he didn’t know had things for him to do. And he didn’t even get to settle where he thought he might be going – passing through and ending up as a refugee in Egypt.

The experience of the transfiguration was so powerful that Peter wanted to preserve it and stay living within in, keeping it for themselves. He proposed a building project – a tendency followed by Christians throughout the ages who spend far too much time being preoccupied with buildings. However, Jesus led them off the mountain into the pain and messiness of everyday life where his love and power were to be found.

So, why is leaving so significant?

Sometimes we should leave because it feels the right thing to do, even when it is not clear where we will go or what we will do. The faith-full act of leaving may open up possibilities that are closed while we are where we are.

Sometimes we should leave to break out of our comfortable existence which inevitably will undermine our creativity and commitment and lead us into unconscionable compromise to maintain our status quo. Living in Geneva may be a snare and a delusion. Yes, we can glory in God’s creation when we see the rising sun shine on Mont Blanc from one window and the setting sun glowing behind the Jura mountains from another. Yes, we can do good with our comfortable monthly pay cheque. This is real life, but not as the vast majority of the world know it.

Sometimes we should leave because we cannot prolong an amazing experience for ever and keep it to ourselves. And it is an amazing experience working here at the Ecumenical Centre. Where else will we come into contact with such a variety of sisters and brothers in Christ with all their variety of tradition and culture? Where else will we have opportunities of understanding how we, our nation, our church, our theology etc. are seen by others? Where else can we begin to understand why others say and do what they do? But all this is to be experienced in the life of the whole world, not just to be the experience of a few fortunate people.

Sometimes we should leave because we have given what we can give and new insights, experience, knowledge and energy are need. It’s a matter of self-knowledge, awareness of needs and, most of all, a matter of personal integrity.

Perhaps most of all we have to leave, sooner or later, because neither I or you are all that important. Before you start protesting, I’m not speaking of the way God loves and values each one of us no matter who we are or what we have done.

It is exceedingly dangerous when:
churches or the ecumenical movement begin to think that they are more important than, or indeed somehow control, the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ;
individuals begin to think they are more important or significant than the churches and ecumenical movement and than the gospel, the good news, embodied in Jesus Christ.

The act of leaving reminds us that none of us is indispensible. That even though we have been given a unique opportunity to contribute and to benefit, there are others who will come after us and make their contribution.

Throughout the scriptures we are reminded that the fulfilment of God’s loving and just purposes involves our faithful response – but it always is God’s purposes and ultimate glory – not ours.

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