The Priority of Mission

I want you to imagine, if you will this morning, a large glass bowl, sitting on a table – picture it in your minds if you can.  The table is in a lecture room, and the professor (the lecturer), has just brought this large empty glass bowl into the room which is packed full of eager students.

As you are watching this empty bowl, the professor takes three large rocks from his bag, and he puts the rocks into the bowl which is still sitting on the table. He says to the class, “look, at this bowl, do you consider it to be full?”  Now, some of the students nod in agreement – yes the bowl is full – but others say that although it is quite full, there are still some spaces around the rocks in the bowl, so it is not as full as it might be.

Next the professor produces another bag from behind his desk, this time full of smaller stones, and he pours these smaller stones into the bowl and delicately moves the bowl from side to side until the stones have dropped through the gaps around the rocks.  And he asks the class again, “what about now, do you consider this bowl to be full now?”  This time most people say yes, but others point out that there are still some air pockets between the small stones further down the bowl which could be filled.

The professor takes a bag of sand, again from behind his desk, and he pours the sand over the top of the large rocks and the small stones, until all of the gaps and air pockets in the bowl have been filled, and he levels the sand off at the top of the bowl, and he asks the class a third time, “is this bowl now finally full?”  And this time the class agrees that it is full.

But just to make sure, the professor takes a jug of water, (I hope as best as you can that you are imagining this happening) and he pours the water into the bowl, over the rocks and small stones and sand until the water is level with the top of the bowl.  And he says to the class, “this bowl is now definitely full, there is certainly no room for anything else in it.”

Well I told this story a few weeks ago to another congregation and a scientist explained to me afterwards that there was still air in the molecular structure of the rock, but for our story we will imagine that the bowl is full!  Then he asks the class what the bowl and the rocks and the stones and the sand and the water is all about.  He asks the class why they think he has done all of this in front of them.

A brave young man stands and says, “Sir, this illustration has shown us that even when we think that we have done all that we can, there is still space for us to do more. If that bowl is our lives, you have shown us that there are always a few more minutes, there is always a little more energy that we can find to complete the tasks which have been set for us.”

But the professor says to the class, “well that is one interpretation of what we have just done, but I want to give you another one.”  He says, “I did not do all of this with the bowl to illustrate that, in fact I did it to illustrate something quite different.

“If you look at the big rocks in the bowl, you will see that had we put the small stones, and the sand and the water in first, those rocks would not have fitted in afterwards. If we had not put the big rocks into the bowl first, before the stones, and the sand and the water, then there would have been no room for us to put them in at the end, after everything else.”

Or in other words, hearing that story this morning together here in this parish – on our parish visioning day – if we do not work out for ourselves, what the big rocks are, the foundations for our life together as the church, (our reason for being); and if we do not then make them the priority at the expense of everything else, then we will be in danger of filling the bowl of our communal life here with all of the smaller things which go on in any charity or voluntary organisation in the community, and finding that we have left little room, little energy, few resources in our life together for the big things which God wants to be doing through us.  That relates to our time and our energy, it relates to what we talk about most, to the way that we set our budget, and the way that we use our resources.

I say all of this very deliberately this morning on our parish visioning day, as we begin the journey of setting a clear vision for our future together… and at the heart of that vision is the decision which we made together last year, when we voted to become a Ministering Community in Mission, along with many other parishes in the Diocese – a community in which each of us shares together in the ministry of the church, and in which a few of us will be discerned and trained for either ordained local ministry or authorised lay ministry to lead the community with our parish priest.

One of the greatest dangers I think, as we prayerfully reflect upon that challenge in this place, is that we may mistake the thrust of that vision as being rather like the first explanation for why those things were put into the bowl, rather than the second.  Because becoming a more intentional ministering community in mission (a community of ministers who gather together, rather than a community of spectators who gather around just one minister) here in this parish is not about squeezing every last bit of energy out of everyone, like that sand filling the last gaps between the rocks and the stones.  It is not about us doing more and more and more – because some of us are doing as much as we can cope with already.  No, its about the other explanation – the one from the professor – the reminder to us that we need to ensure that the rocks are in the bowl before anything else, that we are sure here in this church, about what is central to our life as a community which bears witness to our resurrected Lord, and not only to be sure about what those central elements are, but to have put them first over everything else.

If you are uncertain about what the priorities of this community are, the easiest way to find out is to listen to the conversations which are going on around you when members of the church meet together.  We are setting aside time this morning, to listen to each other’s sense of priority for our future.  If you are not sure what the current priorities of the church are another very simple way to find out what those central rocks are is to look at the accounts of the parish to see what the funds of the church are spent on.  Whatever we might say our priorities are, the things which animate our conversation (the things which we are passionate about), and what we do with our money, are two very simple indicators of what the heart beat of a church is really focused around.

What are the essential elements of our life together as a Church here in this parish – what are the priorities and goals for us as a community?   What are the rocks which we must ensure are at the centre of the bowl of our life together, before all of the peripheral stones and sand is added?  What are the priorities of this church community?  What are our priorities – and how are we using the gifts which God has given us – our time, our talents and skills, our resources – to ensure that those priorities can be achieved?

That is the question at the heart of this vision of Ministering Communities in Mission in this diocese of Newcastle.  Let me break that down for you further into six smaller questions:

Firstly, what gifts and talents has God given to us?  Secondly, what are our needs, and the needs of the community around us?  Thirdly, what is God calling us to do – not only about our own needs (our buildings, our worship, the way that we learn together and care for each other) – but also the needs of those around, to whom we are called to share the love of God through the story of Jesus, and the practical help which flows from it?  Fourthly, how do we need to organise ourselves to make sure that the big vision, is not crowded out by our administration and housekeeping?  Fifthly, what training do we need to develop our gifts further so that we can achieve our goals?  Sixthly, how do we recognise and authorise lay leaders and candidates for ordination (if there are any in the future in this parish) to give them real authority to lead within the life of the Church?

The Bishops of the Anglican Communion around the world (including Australia), at their last international meeting in 1998 said this in their Lambeth Conference report:

“Mission goes out from God. Mission is God’s way of loving and saving the world.  God calls his creatures to a future greater than they could ever make for themselves… But the deeper we go into the meaning of God’s call as it is recorded for us, the more we see that it tells us something of what God is.  God does not simply call; God sends…  We believe in a God who is completely engaged in mission and whose very life is a movement outwards, giving and sharing divine life and joy…   So mission is never our intention or choice.  It has always started already.  We have been caught up in God’s own movement of love by being called to be with Jesus.  To be with or “in” Jesus is never to enjoy some static or private relationship within him; it is to be moving with him from the heart of God to the ends of the earth…  Since baptism is the beginning of our journey with Christ, mission is to be the concern of all the baptised… If being baptised means being drawn into God’s own act of mission, then that divine mission is going on in all of us constantly.  The more we let this divine action through, in our plans, our words and acts, the more it will achieve its purpose.”

Mission is God’s way of loving and saving the world – if you remember nothing else from this morning, go home and write those words on a piece of paper, and stick them on your fridge – and if you are brave enough you might write underneath, “and I am a part of God’s mission” as well.  This morning, immediately after this service, and concluding before lunch, we have set aside time to listen to each other as we seek to discern the future of this Parish.

What we know is that we cannot simply continue the way that we are – the needs of our wider community, and the demographics of our congregation clearly show that for us.  Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is a basic definition of insanity.  God has called us to much more exciting future than that.   So in this Eucharist we pray for the future mission and ministry of our parish, and afterwards, I invite all those of you who care about our future, to stay and to engage in this conversation.

What are the rocks which are central to the life of a vibrant and healthy Anglican Christian community?    What are the priorities of this Church community, what is our vision for the future.

Through careful listening to each other, in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us, I pray that we will move a step further in our journey of answering those questions this morning.