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Leavers’ Eucharist, The Queen’s College, Birmingham , 14.6.84
Gen 12.1-4a
1 Cor 9.19-23
Mark 8.27-38  

I would like to invite all of you this evening to
           
Drop Dead!                Get Lost!        and       Stay Put!

DROP DEAD!!!         Many of us have heard these words in years past as the ultimate cutting remark, cutting the other person dead, as a crude denial of the worth of their humanity.
           
But that is not what I mean.  For, ‘Drop Dead!’ epitomises part of the joyous invitation into Christ that I would hold before you.  St Paul would have understood what I mean, for he wrote to the Christians in Galatia ,

I have been crucified with Christ;
I live, but no longer I, but Christ lives in me,
and that which I now live in the flesh,
I live by the faith of the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself up for me. (Gal 2.20)

        I live, but no longer 'I', this self-centred, self-sufficient, defensive and threatened ego, but Christ lives in me ---
        And the way to this freedom lies in heeding the words of tonight's gospel to take up one's cross and follow Jesus, so that Paul can express it as 'I have been crucified with Christ'.
        Think of the impact of that in the first century AD.  Here was the most humiliating, ignominious and shameful form of death that was known.  Here. equalled only by being boiled in oil, was the most excruciatingly cruel and painful form of execution known in the first century world.
        And yet, Paul, with deep joy, can assert that the only way to live in Christ is to be abidingly crucified with him.  And all the evangelists bear witness that the only way to know Jesus as the Lord of one's whole life is to go with him in the way of the Cross.
        Now, all of us, staff, students and families alike, have come here together at Queen's to learn Christ, and I would suggest to you that the only way to continue to learn Christ is to learn to die, in effect, to drop dead.
        Let me spell out what I mean.  We all have come to Queen's with some level of assurance that we have been called by God to use this time to grow more deeply into Christ.  We have all come with a vision of Christ, a knowledge of the Father who sent him, and an experience of the power of the Spirit in our lives.  Some students have come with years of experience as local preachers or licensed lay readers behind them.
        And yet, all students at Queen's have been required to look at how to speak, how to relax and how to move, followed by how to conduct worship and how to prepare sermons.  Those who most need help in these areas are very often those who are most sure that they are already quite competent, thank-you.  Time and again one is called to heed the invitation to Drop Dead to off-putting mannerisms of voice or body that may hinder our effective showing forth of Christ.
        In our understanding of the scriptures, of worship, of theology, of ourselves and of others, we are repeatedly invited to Drop Dead in order that we may enter more deeply into learning Christ, in order that we may completely show forth the whole Christ.  Only thus may we, with St Paul, be able to say, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ".
        Let us face it.  It is painful to die.  'I have been crucified with Christ' is no platitude.  It is a very costly cry, even if a joyful one.  And Paul is able to say it only because he has made the leap of faith into the one who loves him, even the Son of God who showed his love by dying for him, the love of God from which nothing can separate us, not even our studies or the chapel.
        If we get the wrong answer to an arithmetic problem, it doesn't bother us too much, for we have not staked our lives on it.  But when we are invited to consider whether or not we may be inadequate or even wrong in our understanding and our attitudes in what pertains to our ministry, either present or future, this can be very threatening, for these are matters that are very central to our own sense of well-being.
        It has been said that one cannot learn anything that one does not know already.  That is, unless you and I are prepared to hear it, unless we are prepared to bear the cost of hearing it, it cannot be heard, for it can be too threatening to our own sense of self-identity.
        It is only if we know ourselves to be held with love as the uniquely beloved that we can dare to hear the challenge to 'Drop Dead' to our old ways and to enter into new ways in Christ.
        And so there is a task that falls to each and everyone of us, to hold one another in love and acceptance in Christ, so that each of us and those with whom we shall minister, may be free, for the sake of growing into Christ, to hear and to heed the gracious invitation to DROP DEAD.

        If you now, indeed, are ready to Drop Dead, then it is time to tell you - RIGHT HERE AND NOW - GET LOST!!!
       
If someone is giving you a hard time, when you are feeling tired and irritable, then you may well tell that person, either crudely or politely, to 'Get Lost!'
        But just now I did not simply tell you to 'Get Lost', but rather, to 'Get lost - right here and now'.
        Let's start with 'right here and now'.
        Many of us have come to this college from the 'real world' - the world of commerce and industry, the world of working with real people with real problems in the social services, education, nursing and the like.  And a large number of us will be going out at the end of this service both literally and symbolically into the real world of circuit ministry and parish life.  How often we find ourselves looking back to our jobs or ahead to our ministry as being the place where life is real and earnest.  I think most of us feel that at times, and perhaps some of us feel that most of the time.  But I would suggest to you that there is a very substantial amount of heresy in this view, and that unless we come to terms with it, this feeling will stunt our ministry in Christ - not only in the future, but RIGHT HERE AND NOW.
        For we have come from the real world, and we shall go to the real world, but we shall only do so in the fullness of Christ as re recognize and live with the fact that we are in the real world, God's world, the world he has placed us in, RIGHT - HERE -AND - NOW, in The Queen's College, Birmingham.
        There is a part of us, perhaps of all of us, that doesn't always like to hear that.  It is like being in the countryside, looking for a place to spread our blanket, have a picnic, and take a nap.  We look across a fence and see how green the grass looks on the other side.  We see nothing but the tops of the grass, and it looks continuous and velvety, as though we could like on it in comfort.  But yet is we look down at our feet right where we are, we do not see nothing but grass.  Instead we see some hummocks of grass, quite a bit of dirt, and probably a number of pebbles and stones.  Not at all the kind of place we would choose to lie down on.
        And so, in high hopes, we clamber over the fence to the greener pasture, only to find that we are confronted once more by hummocks of grass, patches of bare earth, pebbles and stones, and quite likely with thistles or nettles thrown in for good measure.  And now it is the grass on the other side of the fence that looks greener and more inviting.
        This all too human propensity for climbing over the fence to reach seemingly greener pastures is simply being met in another form when we find ourselves beginning sentences with the words, 'If only ...' or 'Just wait until ...'.
        But as one real wag has put it, 'If only circumstances had been different, I would have been the same person'.  For it is not so much what happens to us that determines who we are as it is how we react to it.  And that brings us right back to here and now at The Queen's College, Birmingham.
        I suspect that many of us have looked across the fence, so to speak, at the prospect of coming to a theological college with great anticipation.  Here was where we were going to find a truly committed Christian community, united in purpose and vision.  Here was where we were going to be equipped and built up for our future ministry, building a superstructure of skills and knowledge upon the solid base of our life and faith, gaining the confidence to express a clear and cogent reason for the faith that is in us.
        But in the event we have found ourselves in a community more diverse in outlook than we expected, often far less united in expectations than we had hoped for.  We have come with at least some degree of confidence that we truly understood the Christian faith, that we had grasped the scriptures, that, in some sense, we were all right, Jack!  And then we found that in many areas our confidence started to crumble.  Much of what we had taken for granted as being solid stone foundations seemed to be attacked with air hammers wielded by the teaching staff and sometimes even by our own familiar friends.  It doesn't seem like what we thought we came for, and we feel that we don't need anyone to tell us to get lost, for we have already gotten lost, right here and now.  Perhaps we look across the fence and wonder if we shouldn't have gone to an all-Methodist college or an all-URC or an all-Anglican one.  Well, I went to an all-Anglican college, and I experienced exactly the same thing, so I really do not think that would help at all.  For, unless I am very mistaken, this experience is a well-nigh universal one that is simply par for the course.
        And I would go even further and say that I think it is an experience that is quite properly and even necessarily a part of our ministerial formation, pertaining not just to right here and now at Queen's, but to the whole of our future ministry.  For we are the ones called to minister to the whole of a Christian congregation and beyond.
        Each of us has a way of understanding the Christian faith and all that it entails that especially makes sense and appeals to us.  But if we are to minister to all of the people whom God loves, then we must get alongside them, not where we are, not where we wish they were, nut where they are, with their own pattern of belief and practice.  With St Paul, in the reading we heard from 1 Corinthians, our calling is to become all things to all people - not in the sense of being wishy-washy, but in the sense of helping them in terms that they can understand and affirm, to see the grace, the demand, the opportunities and even the judgement that face them in their own situations in the light of the Gospel.  Starting from where they are, our calling will be to deepen and extend their vision and commitment.
            With Abraham, who, for obedience to God, left the security of his country, his kindred and his father's house, to go he knew not where, I would invite you to continue in the years ahead in the freedom to 'get lost': the freedom to say, 'I don't know' rather than to trot out preconceived solutions or answers; the freedom to avoid seeking our own security by taking up a simplistic position or by imposing an overly-simple decision; the freedom to avoid stereotyping people and situations in order that we may feel that we are in command.  Above all, the freedom to try to get alongside people so that with St Paul we may become a servant of all.  For he who seeks to save his own life shall lose it, so get on with it, and 'Get lost'.

        Now I am going to encourage you who are leaving to 'stay put'.  If this doesn't have the pungency of 'Drop dead' and 'Get lost', then let me give it to you in another form.  We have all heard the saying, 'Don't just stand there - do something!'  Well, let me turn it around for you: 'Don't just do something - stand there!'.
        From the vision we have shared here at Queen's, we know full well that we are to go out and 'do something'.  Perhaps not quite so obvious is: 'Don't just do something - stand there!'  Let me spell it out with three sayings:
        From St Paul: 'I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase'.
        From the Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoyevsky: 'God sees the truth, but waits'.
        And from the title of a Bach cantata: 'Gottes Zeit ist die allebeste Zeit', or in language understanded of the people, 'God's time is the in-every-way best time'.
        Following Paul, we can launch out in faith, knowing that it is God who will give the increase.  Following Dostoyevsky, we can persevere, knowing that nothing will be lost.  Following Bach's affirmation, we can be patient in waiting, knowing that our efforts will bear fruit in God's good time, for in him is our hope.
        When you get top your parish or circuit, you will probably experience a honeymoon period of perhaps the first year.  This may well be followed by a rough period when everything seems top rock the boat, especially if you try to do anything significant.  When that happens, stick it through - stand there - and the boat will eventually right itself.
        Don't be a hasty judge of people - when we judge in haste, we are all too often wrong.  When we first arrive in parish or circuit, some people will be very helpful, and it will be a great temptation to think that they are the ones who really count for something.
        But beware: they may be buttering you up to be on 'their side' against the superintendent or the vicar, or more simply to get you in their pocket.  But when the going gets rough, they may well fall away because you no longer fit their image.
        There is only one image you are to fulfil: the image of Christ who is the image of God, conformed to God's sovereignty, the grace and demand of his love, his justice, his mercy - and showing it to all without favourites.
        You will also find that there are reticent people who do not fawn all over you when you come, but who will stay true when the going gets rough.
        'God sees the truth, but waits.'  You wait, too - don't be hasty in judgement.
        You will; be working with and for people.  If you are working with things, you can change them, manipulate them at will, like changing a car's headlights, adjusting the carburettor, etc.  But people have wills of their own.  You want to elicit love - therefore you will have to bide your time.  Things - you can often change; people - you can't change; you can only wait for them to change.  You are to love them as they are, not as you wish they were.  You will not effectively minister to people if you insist on changing them.
        Two final things:  Firstly, beware of building an empire, a personality cult, or something which runs on your dynamism alone: 'I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase'.  You will inherit a cure, you will share it with others, and you will hand it on.  Far netter to build patiently on it, to repair and remodel, than to tear it down.
        Secondly, persevere to the end of your time there - up to the last day - and then you may ask your parishioners and members of the congregation to do the same.  And they will be able to say, 'Our pastor left the day he left and not one day sooner'.  For that is how we shall walk with the Risen Lord who never leaves us.
        God's time is the best time.
        God sees the truth, but waits.
        I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.
        'Don't just do something - stand there!

        It is the love of God in Christ Jesus that sustains us, impels us and constrains us.  It sustains us so that we may dare to drop dead.  It impels us into openness and vulnerability that leads us to get lost.  And it constrains us into patience and perseverance, so that we may heed the cry of: 'Don't just do something, stand there!'.
        As we, both those who are leaving and those who are staying, gather together for this last time around the Lord's Table for the great feast of love, I would, one again, invite you to learn Christ by entering into the joyful pain, the painful joy, of responding to the call: Don't just do something - stand there!  Get lost! - and above all, Drop dead!