Sunday, December 09, 2007
In this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ We also hear the voice of Isaiah giving us his vision of the Kingdom of heaven: It’s a place where the wolf and the lamb live together and where God’s judgement results in equity for the poor and meek.
John the Baptist is not a cuddly character and his message this morning is not a cuddly message. The ordinary people of Jerusalem and Judea come to him to repent and to be baptised, but when the Pharisees and Sadducees come for baptism, he proclaims: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!’ For those of us who suspect that we may have some Pharisaicial tendencies ourselves, this can make for uncomfortable reading.
The American Christian author Frederick Buechner has this to say about the process of repentance: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'"1
This morning, I want to think about this idea of looking at the future and saying ‘Wow!’ Because I don’t think that repentance is so much about focussing on what it is that we shouldn’t be doing as it is a process of looking at what life can be like under the reign of God.
Especially in Advent, when we are looking forward to God himself coming to live with us, repentance is about catching a vision of what the Kingdom of God might look like. And once we’ve caught this vision, we are called to be contagious and infect others with it.
Prevention is not the Answer
I just want to put forward a brief defence of this process.
There are those who might say ‘Well, that’s all fine and good, but the problem with society today is that it has no morals, no ethics. What we really need to do is to stop people from sinning. We need to stop them drinking and gambling their time and money away. We need to stop them neglecting their children. We need to stop them committing adultery. And now that I’m talking about it, I need to concentrate on stopping my own besetting sins. I really need to make an effort to stop being easily angered, to stop being so selfish….or…you can fill in your own besetting sins.
Now here is a demonstration of why I think that thinking about repentance as focussing on stopping our sins won’t work. Are you ready for the demonstration?
OK. Whatever you do, I want you to not think about the colour blue. OK? Do not, under any circumstances think about the colour blue! And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey. And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey riding a camel. Worse and worse, do not think about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone!
OK, now, be honest. How many people are thinking right this moment about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone? And how many of you were thinking about that when you came to church this morning? ‘Gee, I hope the preacher doesn’t talk about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone! I’m trying to give that up for Advent.’
The human mind doesn’t do very well at the task of not concentrating on something specific and that’s why this technique doesn’t work very well. And it’s for this reason that I believe that trying to promote the Kingdom of God by making a list of sins that we ought not to be committing is a completely ineffective approach to spreading the Gospel.
Methodism and The Kingdom of God
Now, there are many people, particularly outside the church, who think that this is exactly what the church does: that we preach against sin all the time.
But, I don’t actually think that Methodism has a tradition of doing this. Preaching against specific sins isn’t something that I’ve particularly encountered in Methodism. I’m sure that there are exceptions – there always are – but that’s not historically been the way we’ve approached the Gospel.
Historically, I think that the Methodist Church has approached the Gospel message by painting a picture of the Kingdom of God. And, at the beginning, at least, I think we not only painted this picture of the Kingdom, but we lived it out.
Methodism did catch a glimpse of a picture of the Kingdom and it was successful in being contagious with it.
Travelling preachers didn’t preach and then call for people to get down on their knees right there in the street and accept Jesus as their saviour. Early Methodist travelling preachers invited their listeners to join Methodist classes and it was within these classes that people gradually came to Christ in the company of Christian brothers and sisters.
These were often people who were considered to be so poor and so unfit to mingle with polite society that they were not fit to go to church. Suddenly, here come the Methodist societies saying: ‘You are welcome in our classes and you are welcome in our chapels. God is the God of everyone and he’s your God too.’
Illiterate people who were simply considered fodder for the mines and the factories were given the opportunity to learn to read and their children were given the same opportunity. People whose lives were viewed by polite society as expendable were told that they were of as much value to God as anyone else. All of this, I believe, was an acting-out of a vision of the Kingdom of God.
True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'" (Buechner)
The Kingdom of God, 101
So, as I often do, I bring to you this morning a question for which I don’t necessarily have my own answer. That question is ‘How can we look out into the future and say “Wow!”’
Because I don’t really agree with those who say the Church has lost its way because it no longer preaches about sin. I think that the Church has lost its way because it no longer has a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.
Whatever we in the 21st century might think, the authors of Scripture thought that the Kingdom of God was going to be a literal, physical Kingdom. Jesus’ contemporaries thought that Jesus would return in their own lifetime and inaugurate this Kingdom. And ever since that first generation passed away, the Church has had to make sense of the fact that this has not yet happened.
Add to all of the above the baggage of our own generation and all the Second Coming predictions of wacky Christian sects (mostly American, of course) and it’s easy to see why we no longer have a clear vision of the Kingdom. The Kingdom seems rather embarrassing and somewhat superstitious.
But over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, we are told that in the Kingdom there will be two important things: 1) peace (Shalom) – there will be forgiveness and reconciliation, not just between God and humanity but also between people and, indeed peace in all creation; 2) and there will be justice for the poor, the meek and the oppressed. Their lives will be redeemed and seen to be of worth.
This was the vision of the Kingdom that fired John and Charles Wesley. They were worried about their own eternal, spiritual salvation to be sure, but they also had and communicated a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.
What makes you say Wow?
So what is it that makes us say ‘Wow!’? What will help us get a clear vision of The Kingdom? I suggest that this is an important question for every church in this circuit and for the circuit as a whole?
I want to leave you with one concrete example of something that made me say ‘Wow!’ Last week at Foley Park, we had a young woman named G come speak to us from an organisation called ‘Night Stop’.
Night Stop operates within the Wyre Forest District and it finds beds for homeless young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Volunteer hosts offer Night Stop’s clients a bed and meals in their own homes for between one and three nights until Night Stop can find them accommodation elsewhere.
G told us that a great many of these young people are homeless because they have been kicked out of the house by their parents. A good many of them are kicked out because their mother or father gets a new partner who doesn’t want them around and their parent sides with the new partner.
Someone asked about whether it was safe to take such a young person into their home and G told us that the clients are all vetted for suitability before being sent to host families. In fact, she said, many of the young people are suspicious of the hosts simply because they cannot understand the idea that a complete stranger would take them in for a few nights. This sort of kindness is something totally outside their experience.
She read to us a story written by one young woman who was taken in by Night Stop and who now works for them. Night Stop provided that young woman with the opportunity to make a new start and get her feet on the ground and feel like a worthwhile person. In turn, she wanted to help others in the same way.
Night Stop made me say ‘Wow!’ because I think it embodies everything that the Prophets and Jesus had to say about God’s Kingdom. It’s an example of human beings reaching out to other human beings. It provides young people with the possibility of turning their lives around and it is the embodiment of a ‘poor’ person finding some kind of justice and help. I think it is a small glimpse into the Kingdom of God.
As we go from our worship this morning, I want to invite all of us to repent. Or, as Frederick Buechner put it, I want to invite all of us to come to our senses and think about what is really important.
I want to invite us to spend less time being sorry about what has happened in the past and to spend more time thinking about what God is doing in the world that makes us say ‘Wow!’ And I want us to think about what it is that makes us say ‘Wow’! What makes us say ‘Wow’ as a circuit? As individual congregations and even as individual church members?
Is there something someone else in this church is doing that makes you say ‘Wow! I wish I could do that, but I can’t.’? Perhaps you can support that person in their ministry.
My prayer this morning is that each and every one of us will catch a vision of God’s Kingdom. I pray that we will be so enthused by this vision that we will say ‘Wow!’ and communicate our enthusiasm to others.
In the words of John the Baptist, my prayer is that, this Advent, we are all enabled to repent, because I believe that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near. Amen
1 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC; HarperOne, 1993, New York p. 79.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Readers of The Church Times will recognise an illustration from John Pridmore's commentary this week. I think Pridmore's commentaries are truly inspirational and I try not to write my sermon before reading them. Long may he continue to write!====
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. So reads the second half of Isaiah 2: verse 3.
I suppose it’s the sort of thing we expect to hear from a prophet. And, given that this first Sunday in Advent is devoted to The Prophets, we probably don’t find this verse terribly surprising at first glance.
But what is surprising about this morning’s reading from Isaiah is the fact that much of Isaiah’s prophecy is directed toward calling Jerusalem to repentance. Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s day, is an unending problem from God’s point of view. Jerusalem is a symbol of self-sufficiency and a national, self-serving religion. It is a symbol of country’s focus of faith in the nation rather than faith in God.
Yet despite all these problems, Isaiah is given to see a picture of a new Jerusalem where God resides and where people of every nation acknowledge God as their Lord. In the new Jerusalem which Isaiah has seen, it is God whose judgement and arbitration of all nations has resulted in international peace. And is because of the rule of God that nations are able to exchange weapons for tools of peace.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we are told that, as we look forward to the coming of the Lord, we are to keep awake and to keep ready. Our waiting and our readiness are not to be passive things, but they are to be active things.
So what does any of this mean for us? And how does it affect our lives today?
Well, the Gospel message is not all about pie in the sky by-and-by. I think perhaps that we are told about the coming Kingdom of God not so much to provide us with information as with motivation.
It can be hard to stay motivated, however.
Perhaps our difficulty in staying motivated is a case of remembering how things were in the past in church and wishing that they could be that way again. Or perhaps it’s a case of feeling that decency is society is deteriorating in comparison with the way it was in our youth.
We might sit here and think ‘Well, it’s easy for Isaiah to talk about the coming reign of God when swords will be turned to ploughshares, because he lived in a time when people feared God. Isaiah didn’t have to face the problems that we have today.’ Well, listen to Isaiah just one chapter later (Isaiah 3:5): The people will be oppressed, everyone by another and everyone by a neighbour; the youth shall be insolent to the elder, and the base to the honourable.
That hardly sounds like The Good Old Days. And it hardly sounds like Isaiah doesn’t have a clue about the sort of issues that we are facing today. And yet, even in the middle of all this, Isaiah claims to have seen a vision of a world at peace. He claims to have seen a vision of people labouring for the production of food rather than for the production of weapons of war.
How can we catch a glimpse of that in a world where there is new unrest in the Philippines, in Pakistan and in Burma? Not to mention old unrest in Korea, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Holy Land? How can we catch a vision of a world turned toward the purposes of God in a society where the church ain’t what it used to be?
How can we keep our eyes on this New Jerusalem – on the purposes of God – without losing our motivation? How can we see God’s vision if it doesn’t necessarily look like what we’re expecting?
Guns into Sewing Machines
The image of ‘swords into ploughshares’ is a powerful one and one Christian charity in Mozambique used this idea in a very literal way when the decades-long civil war in that country ended. The charity, the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM), was sponsored by Christian Aid and they recount the story of a man named Sousa Manuel Goao.
Senhor Goao was kidnapped at gunpoint by rebel forces in 1981 when he was 23 years old. He was forced to march 150 miles bare-footed to a training camp near the South African border. The prisoners were barefooted to prevent them running away but anyone who did attempt to escape was shot in front of the other prisoners. In order to survive, the rebels had to hunt wild animals, raid farms or attack civilians.
The war lasted 18 years and ended in 1992 but the United Nations forces which were meant to disarm both sides failed to find most of the weapons in the country, as most of them had been hidden and people were afraid of being reported to the government. But later in the decade, CCM came up with the idea of collecting weapons themselves. In 2001, Senhor Goao handed over his guns to CCM and in return, he received three sewing machines.
CCM is a small organisation, and it was working with a couple of old trucks that keep breaking down – but it nonetheless managed to collect more than 100,000 guns, hand grenades and rocket launchers. It was far more successful than the official agencies because former rebels feared being prosecuted by the government.
CCM provided former soldiers with ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines and these tools made the difference between life and death for many of the people who had nothing. When CCM wondered what it was going to do with all the weapons, it came upon the idea of disarming them, cutting them up, and giving the metal to local artists who turned them into sculptures. They even made chairs and coffee tables out of cut-up Kalashnikovs.
Mozambican Bishop Dinis Sengulane said the following about the CCM project: ”I say to people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake: one day it will turn round and bite you. We tell people we are not disarming you. We are transforming your guns into ploughshares, so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread. We are transforming them into sewing machines so you can make clothes. The idea is to transform the instruments of death and destruction into instruments of peace and of production and cooperation with others.”
Conclusion: Keep the Faith
This is one very powerful – and almost literal example – of turning swords into ploughshares.
The call from the Prophets on this first Sunday in Advent is a call to keep the faith. It’s a call to keep faith in God and in his purposes for the New Jerusalem when swords will be turned to ploughshares and where Christ will reign as the Prince of Peace. And it’s a call to keep this faith even when we are tempted to think that faith is not possible.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God grows from small mustard seeds. This morning, we have heard some examples of how small seeds can grow. Sometimes we have the satisfaction of seeing our seeds grow into healthy plants. Sometimes we don’t even have the opportunity to see them germinate.
But we are nonetheless called as Children of God to keep on planting the seeds. If we remain alert and on watch, we will find our opportunities.
We are told about what is to come not to provide us with information, but with motivation. If we keep our eye on the prophets’ vision of the New Jerusalem, our motivation will remain strong.
As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, I pray that each of us can stay focused on the image of God’s Kingdom. And I pray that we may each be empowered to acts of kindness and mercy and to keep faith in the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Today we celebrate the festival of Christ the King. But today is also the last Sunday of the Church’s cycle of the seasons. With the coming of Advent next Sunday, a new cycle of festivals and seasons begins and we will prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, God-with-us in human form.
And so as this old year draws to a close it’s fitting that we end the year by recognising and affirming the Kingship of Christ. And it’s fitting that we acknowledge our belief that he is the one who will rule in the coming Kingdom of God.
The issue I want to explore this morning, however, is what do we mean by the word ‘King’? And what does it mean to acknowledge Christ as our King?
A Royal Figurehead
Queen Elizabeth II is obviously not a King, but her reign probably embodies what it means to be a monarch of a Western country today.
As I’m sure you all know, the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary this week,
but the celebration at Westminster Abbey of this partnership between two individuals was nevertheless a public affair because of the identity of the two people involved. As one newscaster put it, the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip has been a marriage that has always been punctuated by duty.
There are some people who think that they would fancy such duties as the Queen has, but I’m not one of them as I think that she has a demanding ‘job’. I actually think that she has what I’d call a pastoral role; she may not be a pastor in a church or in a school, but the nation does look to her in times of trouble to visit and encourage people - even if this is in a formal and official capacity.
And so the public admires the Queen - as it admired her parents - for her devotion to duty and her willingness to be among the people and encourage the nation.
And the Kings and Queens of other Western countries: The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, to name but a few, play a similar role in their own countries, albeit usually on a smaller scale. Although these royals are figureheads, they are nonetheless important figureheads who somehow embody the nation, its existence and its values.
I’m just not sure that our experience of Kings and Queens today is entirely what the early church meant when it talked about the image of Christ as King. Does the celebration of Christ the King bring to your mind a picture of a man remote but mild, dressed in royal finerery, for a state occasion? A figurehead, perhaps. A Head of State, perhaps. But not anyone with significant political power.
The Perils of Power
Ancient kings were certainly not figureheads and, even if they themselves were personally remote from the people, their decisions were anything but remote. Ancient kings may have been either good or bad, but they had power to significantly affect the lives of everyone under their rule.
Perhaps today’s equivalent of an ancient King is a Prime Minister, President or Ruling Political Party. The effects that a bad king could have on his people were significant and life altering.
We have only to look at Zimbabwe today to see one example the devastation that can be caused by a government wielding unfettered power against its citizens. This is a country where anyone who is even remotely suspected of being in opposition to the government is immediately imprisoned. Property is often confiscated and loved ones killed. In the summer of 2005, over 22,000 people in the slums of the capital of Harare were targeted because of their alleged opposition to the government; and people’s homes, communities and livelihoods were destroyed overnight. Today, many of the country’s own citizens do not have the basic necessities of life and South Africa recently reported that Zimbabwean refugees are regularly arriving in South Africa at the point of starvation.
This is an example of the horrible consequence of a modern government using unfettered power selfishly and for its own benefit. This is the kind of power that ancient kings had. They had not only the potential to for good but almost unfettered power to destroy the lives of their subjects.
God’s Reign Begins on the Cross
Scripture and Christian tradition, however, teach that the Kingship of Christ is something different.
Jesus is not a powerless, figurehead King who can only be pastoral. He is a King with real power for good or for evil. But his is also a King who refuses the temptation to enter into the game of Might Makes Right. Christ is King, but he refuses the temptation to play Superman.
When we understand this, we can begin to understand the significance of using Luke’s account of the crucifixion as the Gospel reading for the festival of Christ the King.
To wield unfettered power in the cause of Good was Jesus’ temptation in the desert and it’s the temptation that the unbelieving thief presents to him again in today’s Gospel reading: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save us all. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the temple, gain political power and use that power to crush evil.
But Jesus is a King whose reign begins on the cross. And Christians throughout the ages have been forced to grapple with this image of a King who refuses to save himself in the way that we would normally expect: by coming down from the cross.
This image of a dying, defeated King who nonetheless claims victory is a scandalous image and it’s supposed to be a scandal. On this last Sunday in the church year, let’s not skip forward too quickly to Easter Sunday. And let’s not turn the crucifixion into some kind of transaction that is too easily understood as a simple exchange between Jesus and the Father.
Let’s sit for a moment and be confused and outraged by the image of a King who refuses to come down from the cross as we would have him do.
If we turn the story of Jesus into the story of a Superman who eventually does use the method of Might Makes Right to crush evil, we’ve missed the point. The Christian faith affirms the Kingship of Christ in defiance of everything that denies it, including his apparent defeat of the cross.
If we believe in Christ-as-Superman, we will be tempted to say – we would be right to say - ‘There is no God. If there were, where is our Superman God in Zimbabwe? Where is God in Bangladesh? Where is God in my personal suffering?’
But the Christian faith affirms that Christ reigns from the cross. Jesus told the second thief ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. Joining Jesus had nothing to do with dying. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearance of defeat to the truth that somehow God is victorious in the cross.
This is this kind of faith that conquers fear and leads to freedom. This is this kind of faith that gives us the courage to imitate Christ and to live our own lives in the power of the crucifixion.
The Christian faith affirms that Christ on the cross is present in Zimbabwe, that Christ on the cross is present in Bangladesh and that Christ on the cross is present with us in our own personal suffering.
And that’s not meant to be a glib statement. It’s meant to be a troubling statement. It’s meant to provoke at least a little bit of outrage. It’s meant to be a statement of faith.
My prayer is that, as we come before the table of the Lord this morning, we grapple with this troubling, outrageous Christ. The King who gave up his life on the cross, who participates in the suffering of the world and who invites us, by the power of the Spirit, to do the same.
This morning’s Gospel reading paints a stark image of destruction: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s Temple, the most grandiose of all the Temples and the focus of Jewish national identity during the Roman occupation of Israel.
This is a Temple which Jesus has opposed consistently throughout the Gospel of Luke, probably not least because the motivation for its construction was not devotion to the God of Israel, but rather devotion to the nation of Israel – a subtle, but very important difference. Nevertheless, the Temple had always been associated with the physical presence of God among his chosen people.
For the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple symbolised the destruction of life as they knew it. The destruction of the Temple meant God’s physical and real absence from their lives and it meant the collapse of their nation, their way of life and everything that they held dear.
What's Your Temple?
This morning, I want to ask you ‘What is your Temple? And what is our Temple?’
Because I suspect that when we talk about this kind of symbolic Temple that there are more than one and that some are individual Temples and others are collective Temples.
I want to invite us not to pass this reading off as an academic reading that only has some historical interest, because I think it actually has some profound things to say to us today. It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in the mindset that ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ Sometimes we always do it that way because it’s the path of least resistance. Sometimes we always do it that way because we believe that there is only one way to do ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be. Sometimes always doing it that way is a source of security for us: a reliable, unchanging point of reference in an uncertain world that seems to be changing all too quickly for our liking.
The church is also particularly guilty of one variation on this theme: the idea that because God and his love is eternal and unchanging, so too must everything we do in church be eternally unchanging.
And many of our hymns reinforce this idea that not changing is A Good Thing: Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with thee; Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not As thou hast been thou for ever wilt be. Now I suspect that the hymn writer intends to say that God’s compassion does not change, but I wonder how many of us associate God’s never-ending compassion with the idea that there is going to be no change in our relationship with God? Or with the idea that nothing in church ever will or should change?
The problem is that, if we want to grow, then change has to happen. The other problem is that, within the course of human life, change sometimes happens and not always for the better.
If you think that today’s society has problems – if you think you have problems – think about Luke’s readers. Because most scholars agree that Luke wrote his Gospel some time between 70 and 90 AD; and you will remember that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. In other words, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple that is recorded in this Gospel had already happened.
And so I think that Luke’s readers would not read this passage in fear and trepidation, but they would immediately recognise their own situation in it. The Temple has been destroyed. Society as we knew it and the values, people and places we held dear have been destroyed. But Jesus predicted this! Jesus foresaw it! Let’s keep listening and see what we can learn from Jesus about how we are to go forward!
I don’t think that Luke wrote this passage to instil fear and caution into his readers. I think that he wrote it to give his readers guidance and hope.
Yet today in 2007, we can still recognise the signs of the times that Luke’s Jesus talks about. Sadly, none of this is ancient history, but it’s all too contemporary and real.
Nation rises up against nation and so we have the West fighting Islamic terrorism, Palestine fighting Israel and North and South Korea at loggerheads, to name but a few. We’ve had not just earthquakes but also tsunamis; not just dreadful portents but dreadful cyclones; human-created famines in Darfur and Zimbabwe and recent plagues that farmers have had to endure.
We are not arrested and persecuted in this country because we confess Christ as our Lord and Saviour but many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries are. And some lament the fact that the UK is no longer a ‘Christian country’ (whatever that means) and Christians are surprised by and reeling under the realisation that not everyone thinks that being a Christian is a good thing; and some people even think we are dangerous: just as the Roman Empire thought in the early days of Christianity.
When Life Gets Difficult
What is the meaning of all this? Well, as one popular phrase puts it, I think it means ‘No one ever said that life is easy’.
Jesus never said that our lives as Christians would be easy. In fact, as today’s reading demonstrates, he said quite the opposite time and time again. Jesus never said that life was going to be easy. What he did say was that, when life is difficult, when we are really up against it in life, that he will give us ‘words and wisdom’.
When life gets difficult Jesus has promised that he will ‘be there’ for us. He’ll be right here in the mess with us giving us what we need, what our souls will need. Jesus didn’t promise us a magic solution to all our problems and I’d like to point out that what we need might not actually be what we want or what we think we need – and that’s the rub.
It’s tempting to give in to the idea that because things are not going as we want them to or expect them to that Jesus isn’t with us. It’s tempting to think that because things are changing in a way that’s not to our liking that Jesus is no longer with us. I suspect that at least some of Luke’s Jewish readers must have been tempted to despair as the world as they knew it collapsed around them and as they saw their Christian brothers and sisters persecuted for their faith.
It’s also incredibly tempting to try to turn faith into some kind of formula. It’s really tempting to say with the disciples, ‘Give us a sign’. They were probably talking about what we would call astrology: a tangible, observable sign in the night sky that would tell them that Jesus’ reign on earth was about to start. We ask for other kinds of tangible signs that God is with us: happiness, health, prosperity. Or perhaps an emotional feeling of God being with us or a timely word from another Christian. Sometimes God gives us these things, but even if he doesn’t, Jesus’ promise to be with us is utterly reliable.
Jesus didn’t just predict the destruction of the Temple. Jesus promised to replace the Temple with his own Self. Just as Luke is telling his readers ‘Don’t rely on the Temple as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise’, so he might be saying to us, 'Don’t rely on your own Temples – on your ideas about how the world or your life ‘should’ be – as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise. Like the early Christians, we too are being exhorted to look to Jesus as a replacement for The Temple and as a replacement for our own personal Temples.
But this passage is more than an exhortation. It is also a promise. A promise that Christ is always with us, in the power of his Spirit, no matter how dire our circumstances might seem. It’s not a promise to make our lives rosy, but it is a promise to be there in the mess with us.
In a few minutes, we will come together as the body of Christ around the Lord’s table. Christ has promised us that he will be in the midst of us whenever we gather around the table in remembrance of him.
As Advent approaches, we remember that Jesus was God incarnate. God come down to be physically present with his people. The God who felt the physical and emotional pains that all human beings feel also felt the pangs of hunger and the joy of a full belly. He felt the joy of companionship and the agony of loneliness. Here at his table is a physical sign and symbol that God in Christ feeds us and nourishes us with his presence.
And so my prayer today is that each one of us may be strengthened and encouraged by Christ who has promised always to be with us. Amen
Resurrection and the Second Coming of Jesus. These are the themes of this morning’s readings and they are particularly challenging themes. Especially for 21st century Christians where we have lost all the cultural influences that made texts like the ones we just heard meaningful to first century Christians.
There is no doubt that the very early Church – those believers who were Jesus’ contemporaries – expected him to return in glory in their lifetime and to set up the reign of God on earth. The second letter to the Thessalonians is addressed to a group of believers whose faith has been shaken by the growing realisation that they are not going to see Jesus’ glorious return in their own lifetime.
And our Gospel reading is about resurrection. It’s about the blindness of the Sadducees and their inability to see Jesus for who he is, but it’s also most definitely about resurrection.
So what do we make of these two concepts, so difficult for contemporary society? And what, especially, do we make of them in the light of Remembrance Day?
It was the sentence of one commentator on the Gospel reading that really struck me as tying all of this together. I paraphrase what he wrote: The Sadducees belong to this age and are so preoccupied with the details of the marriage system that they are unable to contemplate something radically new, the miracle of the resurrection.
And so too, it seems to me, that part of what we remember today as Christians is our human inability to see beyond ‘this age’. Today we remember our human inability to imagine something new like the miracle of peace.
Remembering the Sacrifice of Others
We remember and recognise the preoccupation of human society with individual and national honour, and we mourn the fact that 89 years after Armistice Day and the end of World War I, the world is still caught up in a system of greed, revenge and violence.
And, of course, today we also remember all the men and women who are currently serving in the armed forces and who have served in the past. We remember especially those who have been injured and those who died in service of their country.
We remember those people on the home front who suffered hardship, who worked for the welfare of their neighbours and we remember those who died as casualties of war.
We also remember other public servants whose vocations require them to lay their lives on the line for the greater good of society, particularly police and fire brigades.
People who are called by vocation and circumstance to lay down their lives for others are living out the great commandment of Moses and Jesus to love their neighbours, whether or not they consider themselves to be people of faith. And as Christians, we recognise this sacrifice, we respect it, and we thank God for giving these people the courage and grace to consider the welfare of others before their own.
Such actions are not only examples for us, but they must certainly elicit within us a wellspring of gratitude, awe and thanksgiving. And it is for these reasons that today we remember them.
Remembering the Prince of Peace
However, as Christians we are called to remember these people and their sacrifices in the context of the Gospel. We are called to remember those fallen in the service of their country in the context of what Scripture tells us about God’s love for each and every human life.
Our Epistle and Gospel readings this morning remind us that we are also called to remember God’s vision of his Kingdom: a vision of a New Creation where Christ will reign in glory as the Prince of Peace. However we conceive of these difficult biblical notions of resurrection, New Creation and the reign of Christ, we are called to remember that God’s intention for all of his children is life in all its fullness.
As Christians, we remember that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And we remember that the origins of war and national conflict were the same in Jesus’ time as they are today: greed, empire-building, a desire for revenge and the world’s failure to understand that the person who we call an enemy is also a beloved child of God.
As Christians, we are called to stand back from the values of this age so that we can remember God’s vision of the Kingdom and the reign of the Prince of Peace. We are called to imagine a radical new world where the miracle of peace is made manifest.
However improbable it may seem, however cynical the pundits of the world may be about the Church’s message of hope, the Church is called to keep her light of hope burning until the bridegroom arrives. At the core of our faith is not only our conviction that God’s love is for all of humanity. It is also the conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus proves conclusively that such an apparently mad and wide-eyed hope for peace on earth is not in vain.
At the core of the Christian faith is the conviction that the sacrifice of Jesus was worth something and that God himself knows exactly what it means to suffer and die at the hand of human sin.
On this Remembrance Day, let us remember the sacrifice made for us – and being made for us - by all men and women in uniform.
Let us remember the sacrifice of all those who went before us so that we – their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters – might enjoy freedom.
But, as Christians, let us most especially remember that the Church is called to keep alive God’s good news of the coming of his kingdom and of the reign of Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Let us not only imagine peace, but I pray that each and every one of us here today may live out peace in our daily lives.
This morning, we celebrate our Church Anniversary at XYZ Methodist Church. As we talked about earlier, one of the things that we’re celebrating is the community of people who meet here.
Today we are celebrating everyone who worships here on Sunday, whether they are young or old; and we’re also celebrating the groups that use the church building during the week: some groups for worship and prayer, some for singing and making music as well as some community groups and associations.
God has created each individual uniquely in his own image and everyone has different gifts and talents. And - just like the ingredients in a recipe - we all bring different things into the community.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard how Solomon built the First Temple but the bit we didn’t hear about was the fact that King David, Solomon’s father, had prepared the way for Solomon to build the temple. According to stories in both the books of Kings and Chronicles, David planned and provided for the construction of the Temple and Solomon carried it out.
And so, in addition to celebrating all the different groups and people who are part of our community in 2007, we also remember the people who came before us. We remember the people who founded this fellowship 122 years ago and we remember the people who built this building forty four years ago.
The purpose of this remembering is not to dream nostalgically about the past, but to thank God for the life, the work and the witness of those people. We remember how they lived and the love and the concern they showed to us, and we acknowledge all of that before God.
Remembering our mothers and fathers in faith can also help us to have a touchstone, an example of Christian living.
Relationships Can be Difficult
Of course, human relationships are not always sweetness and light, and the difficulties we have are part of being human and part of the risk of being a member of a community.
In addition to telling us the story of Solomon’s building of the Temple, The Old Testament also tells us that God did not allow King David to build the Temple, because David had too much blood on his hands. In fact, as we read the stories of both David and Solomon, we realise that they were very human in the mistakes that they made.
David, as we know, used his power and authority to kill one of his most loyal supporters for his own selfish interests, Yet, because of David’s later and genuine repentance, God forgave him.
Relationships are at the heart of what it means to be human. Some relationships are easy and some are difficult. Some take a lot of effort and some very little effort.
And I think that our relationship with God can be like that too: sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes, our relationship with God seems to go along swimmingly for weeks, months, or years And other times we struggle: either with faith, with closeness, or with perceiving the presence of God.
But to acknowledge the difficulties as well as the goodness in our relationships is a truthful thing, and an authentic thing. And the best relationships are the ones in which we are free to be truthful and authentic. Because, when we acknowledge our differences, our disagreements and even our faults, we can make amends and start to move forward constructively.
We can learn to forgive and we can learn to be forgiven.
Forgiving and Being Forgiven
Forgiving and being forgiven are both difficult activities. For some people and in some circumstances, being forgiven can be just as difficult as forgiving.
That’s because many of us – and I include myself in this category – don’t like making mistakes. We don’t like doing the wrong thing and we don’t like hurting others. And that can make it just as hard to be forgiven as it is to forgive. Because being forgiven means acknowledging that we have done something wrong. Which is what repentance is.
It is this ongoing process of repentance and forgiveness that makes for good relationships between people And it’s that process of repentance and forgiveness that makes for a good relationship between a person and God.
God’s Good News is, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that being wrong can be forgiven. We never have to worry that one day there will come a time when we’ve messed up one time too many and God will no longer forgive us. God has promised that he will always forgive us.
So what’s all this got to do with Church Anniversary?
Well, there is one group of people we’ve not mentioned yet. We’ve mentioned the people who are part of our community today. And we’ve mentioned the people who have come before us. But we’ve not mentioned the people who will come after us.
Over the next few months, we’re going to be doing a review of our church life and we’re going thinking about who we are as a Christian community and what we have to offer the community outside these walls and to the generations who will come after us.
As we do that review, I’d like to call us to make sure it is done in the light of Christ. What do I mean by that?
I mean that we would do well to remember that a loving relationship between us and God is at the heart of being a Christian community. This relationship is one based on forgiveness, on honesty and on the commitment to the truth. It’s a relationship where being wrong can be forgiven. It’s a relationship where God has committed to always forgive us.
As we think about who we are now and who we want to be in the future, some of us will have different ideas; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some disagreement, but all of that is OK.
My prayer is that as we go forward into what is for us a new year, that the Spirit of Christ will go with us and give us strength to continue to be a community who are forgiving and forgiven.
May the Spirit open our eyes and our ears to the work of God in our lives and in the world and help us to respond as we are called. I make this prayer in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Sunday, October 21, 2007
I was 9 years old in 1966. Cleveland, the city in which I was living, was at the time the tenth largest city in the United States. During the summer of that year, Cleveland, like many cities in the United States endured five days of race riots.
The riot itself was sparked off by an incident when an African-American man was told to leave a pub because they did not serve blacks. But like many an incident when social tension erupts into violence, there was almost certainly not one single cause.
I’m equally certain in my own mind that the main cause was the gross inequality in living conditions between African-Americans and white Americans at that time.
I’m not claiming that all inequality has gone in my lifetime, but I do want to testify as a witness to what I observed back then. Even as a child, I understood that people with different coloured skins had two different sets of living conditions. If I sometimes wondered why this should be so, adults would tell me that ‘They don’t need as much to live on as we do.’
The 'brotherhood of man'
This morning, Sue has talked to us about the people of Omwabini and the similarities of our lives.
Once you get to know people, we all have the same basic needs and desires. We all need a roof over our heads, we all need food in our stomachs, we all need basic hygiene and we all need healthcare. We all need to earn a living and many of us have the hope and aspiration that our children will be educated so that they can live productive lives.
One of the most important things we can do if we want to live out the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourself is to put ourselves in their shoes and really understand that every single person is like us. In other words, the most important thing we can do is to try to empathise with another person. To understand that just because a person falls into a category that we consider as being ‘other’ that it’s not true that their needs are less than ours.
If we’re reminiscing back to the 1960s, another favourite phrase of the era was the phrase ‘The brotherhood of man’. As corny as the phrase may sound today, and even though it was not a phrase invented by or used by the Christian church, the phrase communicates a central Christian truth: That all people equally precious and beloved in the eyes of God.
There are some Christians who think that the idea of the equality of all people before God is a ‘worldy’ idea and that the primary duty of the Christian church isn’t to try to break down categories of ‘us and them’ but to try build them up in order to maintain the purity of the church. If we believe this, then I think we’ve missed the significance of Jesus’ life, mission and teaching.
God’s universal offer of love
In the ancient world, there were three ideas about how the heavenly realms operated.
The first idea was that there were many gods in heaven and that each tribe or nation had its own god. The gods, just like the people they ruled over, might fight each other. This was basically humans bringing the human idea of ‘us and them’ into the divine realm.
Another option – held in a number of cultures and not just by ancient Israel – was to believe in one Supreme God who loves only my nation. So, for instance, the Masai believe that there is only one God and that He protects the Masai and that he aids them in battle against their enemies.
Many Jewish people invoked this idea of God during Jesus’ time and we even get this idea today – witness George Bush’s suggestion that America is engaged in a war against Islam and that God is on America’s side.
The third option is the belief that there is one God who is the God of all peoples, all tribes and nations. This isn’t a modern picture of God as some people might claim. Along with the two other views, we see it already in the Old Testament. The covenant with Noah and then with Abraham is viewed by both Jews and Christians as being indications of God’s universal offer of his love to all people.
And Jesus models this picture of God’s universal love by deliberately violating all the established codes designed to designate who was an ‘outsider’. He violated the ‘us and them’ codes when he ate with tax-collectors, when he talked with and touched women and when he healed lepers.
Jesus taught that there is no person to whom God will not extend his love. There is no tribe or skin-colour or age that puts us beyond the possibility of being blessed by God. There is no gender or disability that puts us beyond the possibility of being gifted by God. There is no life situation, no past sin that put us beyond the possibility of being forgiven by God.
The Gospel makes here-and-now demands
If we are true disciples of Jesus, it won’t do to proclaim the message of a ‘spiritual’ Gospel and then ignore the consequence of the Gospel message in the here and now. As Christians, we are called to proclaim the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness to all people. We are called to make disciples for Christ.
But, equally importantly, we are also called to show the love of God in a practical way. The practical consequence of believing that God offers his love to all people is that our offers of help are not to be restricted only to those who are Christians or who we expect might become Christians. Nor is our charity to be restricted to people like us.
We are called to offer our prayers, our time and our talents for the good of all people.
As we celebrate One World Week, let’s remember Sue’s talk this morning and reflect on the fact that all people everywhere have the same basic needs and the same God-given humanity.
Let’s remember that there is no category of people who needs less than we do, no category of people who is inferior to anyone else and no category of people who is beyond the love of God. And let’s keep in our prayers all those who suffer because someone believes that their lives are less valuable than other lives.
Let’s pray for the peace of God and for his Kingdom to come quickly. Let’s pray for everlasting life for all people and for life before death for those who do not yet have it.
It seems to me that to be a Christian is to obey the Great Commandment to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself. To be a Christian is to try to do God’s will knowing that we will inevitably slip up, get things wrong and sin. And to be a Christian is to know that God’s Good News is that, when we do sin, that being wrong can be forgiven by the grace of God.
But the preoccupation of the people in today’s reading is ‘How many will be saved? Will it be only a few?’ I wonder what answer it was that they wanted to hear? Did they believe that God’s Kingdom was only for the chosen few? Were they worried that they would not number among the chosen? Were they looking for an assurance of their own citizenship in the Kingdom?
Or did the people asking this question think they knew that they were part of the chosen few? Were they asking the question because they wanted assurance that God was going to exclude their enemies from the Kingdom? My suspicion is the latter. I suspect that the people weren’t as concerned with their own participation in the Kingdom as they were concerned about who was not going to be given admission. After all, no good Jew would want to be part of a Kingdom where there was even the remotest possibility that one of their Roman oppressors might be given admission.
‘How many?’ the people wanted to know. ‘What’s the quantity?’ I wonder if they were expecting to hear an answer of ‘Twelve times something’ representing the tribes of Israel?
But Jesus refused to answer their quantitative question and painted a picture instead.
There is a great house party going on. People from all corners of the world have travelled a great distances to be at this party. And Jesus’ current conversation partners seem to be shouting from outside: ‘Hold on a minute! You’ve invited the wrong people into your house! We’re the ones with the genuine tickets! We’re the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!’
What is it about human nature that causes us to divide the world into us and them? When we get caught up in this game of ‘us and them’ we seem to forget to be grateful that we’ve been given tickets to the party ourselves. And we start to get worried about who we don’t want to see at the party.
In the New Testament, the people who engage this kind of ‘them and us’ thinking are usually the scribes, the Pharisees or the high priests. But we are at risk of totally missing the point if we think that these parables have nothing to do with us.
In Christianity today, we have people who are vitally concerned with identifying who it is that will not be invited into the Kingdom: perhaps it’s the adulterers or the homosexuals. Or perhaps it’s the CEOs of multinational corporations or those who continue to exploit the poor.
The twist in the tail, of course, is that each one of us here this morning has a different ‘us’ and each one of us has a different ‘them’. And I believe that ‘all can be saved’ and that all the different ‘us-es’ and all the different ‘thems’ will be invited into the Kingdom, and it’s not for you or for me to decide who God will exclude.
I think the question for you and me this morning is: ‘Who is my ‘them’? And my suggestion is that when we pray our prayers of intercession this morning, let’s remember these people in our prayers.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Mark 6: 37 (NIV) But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?"
Illustration - The Rice Market in Ghana
Last Sunday evening, Channel 4 ran a television show called ‘The Great African Scandal’. It was produced by Channel 4’s religious department and featured the Christian theologian Robert Beckford. Beckford went to Ghana on the occasion of the 50th year of independence in order to understand how international trade policy has affected that country.
It’s important to understand that Ghana has had a democratically-elected government since independence and that it is a stable and free country. It’s also a country rich in natural resources, but it’s significantly poorer than it was ten years ago.
I’m going to tell you just one story from the programme, which is the story of rice. Rice is Ghana’s staple diet and it’s a staple for a reason. Because historically, Ghana’s land and climate was and is suited to the growing of rice.
And historically, the Ghanaian government gave small subsidies to Ghanaian subsistence farmers to support them on their farms to grow rice for their families and a bit extra for a living income.
But in the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demanded that the Ghanaian government stop subsidising its farmers on the grounds of free international trade. And then in the guise of ‘Aid to Ghana’, the American government began shipping subsidised American rice to Ghana, thus making life even harder for Ghanaian subsistence farmers.
We saw pictures of Ghanaian markets flooded with cheap American rice that is more refined and, according to one consumer, ‘more delicious’ than the indigenous product. The end result is that formerly thriving farming villages have been left in poverty and the land has been left fallow.
It’s not that the people are not willing to work - as Beckford found out, the work is extremely hard. It’s not the people are unable to work. It’s not that the land is poor or that the people do not have access to the materials they need to be farmers. It’s that international policy has decimated the domestic and international market for Ghanaian rice.
America and the international trade agencies have destroyed an entire sector of the Ghanaian economy whilst dressing up their destruction as ‘aid to Ghana’.
A Christian Ethic of Sharing
This is all quite a different scenario from verse 37 of this morning’s Gospel reading which suggests that disciples are called to feed others and not to impoverish them.
And so this morning, I want to talk about ‘Why Christians believe that God asks us to share with others’. Because, if we are Christians, the ‘why’ should be important to us.
It’s not just a question of having a vague idea that sharing is good thing or that it would make the world a better place. As Christians, we believe that ‘sharing with others’ is fundamental to who God is, to what we believe, and to the Gospel.
And key to this conviction about sharing is our views about the Kingdom of God and the role of the church in that Kingdom. When we talk about the Kingdom of God, we can only talk in allegorical images about something that we have not yet seen.
The Kingdom of God, the early Christians believed, would be a ‘Kingdom’ where God would reign as king. It would encompass the entire earth and, because God was its sovereign, all people would be treated with justice and fairness and would be fed, clothed and at peace with God and with each other.
In our modern understanding of life, the universe and everything, the idea of a world-wide Kingdom where God is sovereign doesn’t encompass all the ideas and concepts that need to be included in our understanding of the universe, but nonetheless it’s a useful allegory and picture for us.
So, using that picture, as Christians, our hope is that all believers will be resurrected into the Kingdom and that this realm where God’s justice, fairness and dignity reigns will be our home forever.
So what is the role of the church in bringing about this kingdom? I want to suggest to you that the role of the church is not simply to recruit new members to the Kingdom.
Live as if the Kingdom of God were already here
The role of the church is also to live as if we were already people of the Kingdom. To live as if we already inhabited a land where all citizens were regarded with equal worth, a land where true justice reigned and a land where forgiveness rather than revenge was the order of the day.
We are not just to hope to be citizens of the Kingdom in the next life.
We are called to live as if we were already in the Kingdom now. Of course, this is difficult when the world around us does not operate by Kingdom rules but rather often operates by rules of exploitation.
But as Christians, our ethical system is not based on ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people’. We believe that God loves all people and endows each person with equal dignity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Our ethical system is therefore based on the principle that we are to treat others with the same dignity and love that God does. Because it’s based on love, the Christian ethical system demands our personal involvement and it demands that we treat everyone as if they were family members: as if they were our brothers and sisters.
In his television programme, Robert Beckford commented that rich Ghanaians were treating poor Ghanaians, the ones who did all the work, as if they were people without feelings, emotions or souls. This is the way that the rich nations of the world treat the poor nations of the world and it’s something that we as Christians cannot condone, let alone bless.
As Christians, we share with other people because we believe they are our brothers and sisters. In our individual lives, we are therefore called to treat all people we encounter as brothers and sisters: as people with dignity, with feelings and with souls.
On a national and international level, we are also called to work against all powers and systems that enable the haves to exploit the have-nots. We can do this by voting, by campaigning for trade justice, by acts of charity which empower people and by supporting Fair Trade.
As we come to communion together in a few minutes, we will come as a local church community to feast with our Lord at his table. As we come to his table, let’s bring with us in our prayers those individuals we know who have yet to know the Lord and those individuals who are struggling in any way.
Let’s also bring in our prayers the families who are being helped by FARM Africa and let’s commit to do what we can for global justice.
I pray that, in our communion, we may all be empowered to live today as if the Kingdom of God is already here. Amen
Saturday, September 22, 2007
This morning, I want to ask the question: 'What is it in life that matters?' In many ways, this is a personal question for each one of us and there are no right or wrong answers. From another perspective, as Christians, our faith will have an important role in informing our values.
We all have points in our lives where we are given to contemplate - sometimes forced to contemplate - what it is that matters to us.
A friend of mine has just moved house to take up her first appointment as a minister. In making this move, the whole family has been consulted over a time period of about five years: husband as well as children. Although everyone in the family agreed to the move, one of her teenagers is finding life quite difficult right now: uprooted from school friends and, it seems, from a budding but fragile sense of identity. What is it that's important in this situation? No easy answers here. Certainly, my friend's child is one of the most precious and important things in her life.
Another friend became a grandmother for the first time last year. Many of you might recognise the scenario, but I was surprised at the effect it had on my friend. For the first few months after her grandson was born, she was walking around acting like a love-sick teenager. You couldn't have any kind of conversation with her without her telling you about the latest cute thing her grandson had done: 'We know it was probably only gas, but it looked like he was giving his mummy the biggest most wonderful smile. He's the most wonderful baby in the world!'
'What is it in life that matters?' What matters to you? What matters to God?
A Difficult Parable
Today's Gospel reading about the shrewd servant is probably one of the most difficult gospel readings for modern people to understand. I suspect that this is possibly because we are used to reading parables in a rather incorrect way. For example, we are used to reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son in a certain way. And no matter how the preacher jumps up and down trying to tell us how outrageous and utterly unthinkable it would be for a son to ask for his inheritance before his father's death, or how unthinkable it would be for a father to then forgive such an action, we still tend to read parables as if they were analogies. The son represents the ungrateful sinner, the father represents God, and so on and so on, and this is what the parable means.
But today we have a parable that is as outrageous to modern ears as many of the original parables would have been to Jesus' hearers and we don't know exactly what to do with it. If we read it in the manner in which we are used to reading parables, I think we get a message that is something like verse 11: 'If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?' To which, I think, we can only
And that's why I am posing the question, 'What is it in life that matters?' I want to suggest that one thing the parable might be saying to us is something about the importance of relationships: the importance of God's relationship with us and our relationships with other people.
To give a quick defence of this approach: this parable comes directly after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the parable of the Prodigal Son. It comes before Luke launches a denunciation on those who make money their priority, which culminates in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which is next Sunday's Gospel reading. Like the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost Son, God longs to draw all people into relationship with him. God will do whatever it takes to form a relationship with human beings: he will search us out and he is even prepared to forgive some pretty outrageous behaviour.
Relationship & The Body of Christ
What is it in life that matters? To love God and to love our fellow human beings and to be in relationship with them. Life is about relationship and, for Christians, all our relationships are fundamentally grounded in the love of God. However feeble or misguided our energies and efforts (and we know that most of our human efforts are feeble and misguided) it is advisable to direct them toward things that will last rather than toward things that will pass away.
Relationship is, I think, at the very core of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to enter into a community via baptism: the universal Christian church, the Body of Christ. In that baptism, we symbolically die to our Self and we rise to become one with Christ in his Body here on earth. We enter into the life of Christ: a life that looks outside of our own private concerns to other people, to the community and to the world.
St. Augustine said that to be baptised is to be baptised into a life of sacrifice, which he defined as 'loving God and loving one's neighbour as oneself'.
With Christ we also enter into the life of the Trinity: into a relationship with a God who is a force for creation rather than for destruction; into a relationship with a God whose nature is - as the prayer book says - always and everywhere to have mercy; into a relationship with a God who empowers us through himself to reach outside ourselves and to manifest his love to those around us.
The Church is the Body of Christ here on earth and we are charged with Christ's on-going mission until the Kingdom of God has arrived. In entering into the life of the Trinity, we benefit from God's creative energy, from his mercy and his strength; we hopefully grow in our own capacity for love and for reaching out to others. Relationship and community are the essence of human life as God created it to be.
It's my hypothesis for this morning that however far away the Dishonest Servant might have been from the will of God, he did at least understand the importance of relationships. Despite all his faults and all his mistakes there was something inside him that told him what was of ultimate worth.
The Dishonest Servant was bumbling and inept and we might imagine that the relationships he formed by buying friendship would not have been terribly satisfying until they were transformed, but at least he had a tiny inkling of what's important.
We can imagine that perhaps, just perhaps, the God who leaves the 99 sheep to look for one in the wilderness might have mercy. We can imagine that perhaps the God who sweeps everywhere looking for the lost coin might have mercy. We can imagine that perhaps the Father who rushes to meet the son who wronged him might have mercy.
In a few minutes, we will come as the Body of Christ to meet with the risen Lord at his table. I pray that, as we do so, we may enter more fully into the life of the God who loves us. I pray that our hearts may be filled with love of God and love of neighbour and I pray that we each find what it is that is important in life. Amen
Monday, September 10, 2007
The heading in my bible pretty well sums up the message in this morning’s Gospel reading. The heading is: ‘The Cost of Discipleship’.
Imagine a politician campaigning for office who gets up at the rostrum and tells his or her expectant listeners: ‘Vote for me and your life will be more difficult than it is now. If I’m elected, there will be sacrifices to make. You may lose your homes and your family.’ I wonder what the reaction would be to such a campaign speech? I actually doubt that the reaction would be booing or jeering because I reckon that it’s quite possible that the crowd might be stunned into silence. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you expect to hear from a politician.
But the thing is, today’s Gospel reading is not a campaign speech and it’s not a recruitment speech. Jesus isn’t trying to convince people to follow him. On the contrary, Jesus is addressing a crowd of admirers who are more than eager – at least they think that they are eager – to become his disciples.
And Jesus is trying to give them an informed picture of what exactly is involved in following him. Rather than thinking of him as a politician campaigning for office, it might be more accurate to think of Jesus as a mountain guide, leading an expedition through the mountains to bring life-saving supplies to a remote village. Jesus is not threatening us, but simply informing us of the very real costs of being his disciples.
And what is the cost of being a disciple of Jesus? At least according to this passage in Luke? The cost is that we are called to prefer the way of Jesus to the way of the world. If circumstances require it, Jesus is exhorting us to bear our own cross for the sake of his name.
Hate Your Family?
Before we go any further, I want to take a side-track for a minute and focus on verse 26, where my text reads (NRSV) ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’
I think that we need to understand the word ‘hate’ the way that Jesus’ hearers would have done. There was a Jewish expression that went: ‘I love A and I hate B’. It was a way of expressing a strong preference. So, if you were to say ‘I love the Japanese and I hate the Chinese’, it wouldn’t mean ‘Every time I meet a Chinese person, I become filled with fury and upset and it’s just about all I can to do keep from punching that person the face.’ The expression would have meant something more like ‘I have a strong preference for Japanese people over Chinese people.’
So, I want to caution us against thinking that Jesus wants us to hate the members of our family. Such a message does not make sense in the light of Great Commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves nor does it make sense in the light of the commandment to honour our fathers and our mothers.
Bearing Our Crosses
The warning that we are being given from Jesus – our guide who is leading us across a perilous mountain path so that we can bring necessary aid to a suffering world – is that his disciples are to be willing to give up the comforts of this world, our families and our possessions, if we are called upon to do so for the sake of the gospel.
More specifically, we are called to bear the crosses that we are given.
As I think I’ve said before, the biblical concept of ‘bearing our cross’ is about what we are willing to do for the sake of Christ and for the sake of being true to the Gospel. In the bible, the concept of ‘bearing our cross’ does not refer to persevering in the face of illness or tragedy, even if we use the expression in this way today.
It is about sitting lightly to the values of this world in order that all our focus may be on the values of the Kingdom of God. We can certainly enjoy all the blessings that God has given us, but we are to understand that these are not ends in themselves. Christ asks us to be willing to let go of them for his sake, if we are called to do so.
But for many of us, this is not the message that we want hear and it’s not the kind of God we want. God calls us to trust in him to guide us to stand up for Kingdom values, but if we’re honest with ourselves, what we want is a magical magician God who will sort things out for us.
And so some people in our culture protest: There cannot be a good God because otherwise, innocent children would not die. They say that if they cannot have the God with the magic wand who spares all innocent children from injury and destruction, then they are not prepared to believe in God at all.
But Christians are guilty of wanting to believe in the Magical God myth as well. In one version of this myth we declare that God will give his followers status, wealth and prosperity in this world on the condition that we ‘have enough faith’. Or another, subtler version of this is to turn our Christian faith into a transaction where we exchange our conversion for an admission ticket into heaven.
But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is telling us that being a Christian is not about believing in a Magical God. And that being his disciple is not just about some sort of transaction that lets us into heaven. Jesus is telling us that being his disciple might possibly involve turning our backs on the values of our society and choosing to bear a cross for his sake.
We are not going to get our magical God; but we will be called to bear a cross. Every Christian is called to make choices between following the ways of this world and following the ways of God.
In some countries, being a Christian can very literally put your life in danger. In our culture, being a Christian means being called to use our time, energy and money for goals that are different from those of the world. We are stewards of our resources and our goal is the Kingdom of God where justice and righteousness reign. Christians are not meant to use the precious resources we have been given by God for our own fame, fortune or security.
The images used in the rest of this morning’s gospel readings are interesting ones.
Who would build a tower without a proper foundation? The same people, perhaps, who would build a temple as a focus of national pride but where the true worship of God was absent?
What kind of king would prepare for war without considering whether or not he could win the war? The same kind of king who thought that the war that the Messiah was to fight would be a war against the Romans rather than a war against the forces of Evil?
Who would think that following Jesus meant getting on the bandwagon of the conquering Messiah for an easy ride into the Kingdom of God? Who would think that following the Messiah meant fame, fortune and security? Well, probably the crowd of people who were following Jesus. After all, he had to warn them that being his disciple was difficult rather than easy.
These people probably didn’t want to follow Jesus in order to give anything up. The wanted to follow Jesus in order to enjoy what they had and to get more. (Unlike us, of course!) And Jesus is warning them (and us): being his disciple is not like joining a pleasant hike on a rolling hillside on a sunny summer afternoon. To be his disciple is to be called to navigate dangerous mountain paths in order to bring needed medicine to the world.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to be called to imitate Jesus.
To imitate Jesus is to proclaim the love of God to those who are not respectable and to associate with people who others will not associate with. To imitate Jesus is to proclaim God’s message of justice to people who have enough power to destroy us. To imitate Jesus is visit those who are sick and in prison.
All of this is difficult work. All of it is costly. But Jesus told us that to follow him is to bear our cross.
He also told us that we were not capable of doing this on our own but that he would send us the Holy Spirit to help us to imitate him. Using Jeremiah’s image, God will form us into the kind of vessels he wants us to be if we will let him.
When we get it wrong – as we all will from time to time – God will not dispose of the clay, but will continue to work to reshape us until we become the creations that he wants us to be.
In a few minutes, we will come to the table of the Lord, a physical sign and symbol of the Kingdom of God on earth where Jesus promised to be present among us. In the prayer called the Great Thanksgiving which we pray before receiving communion, we remember Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross.
We remember that, before sacrificing himself for us, Jesus promised to meet our own weakness, pain and suffering with his presence. We remember that Christ is here and that his Spirit is always with us.
As we come to his communion table, I pray that each one of us will ask Jesus to shape us as according to his will. And I pray that we will each be strengthened for the journey as we meet our risen Lord. Amen
 Illustrations of the politician and the mountain guide taken from: Wright, Tom; Luke for Everyone; SPCK, London 2001. p. 180.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
I give to readers the same caution that I gave to the fellowship group. This is a story. It's not an allegory. You can't focus on one character or thing and decide that it strictly represents such-and-such an idea.
People seem to listen more keenly to stories than to sermons. One member of the fellowship group told me that they had been thinking about my story all day.
Once upon a time, there was a bush. But this bush wasn’t just an ordinary bush, it was a very special bush. Because this bush produced magical seeds.
Once the seeds were planted, you never knew what it was that they might grow into. The seeds might grow into a different kind of plant, or they might even grow into an animal, a person or a thing.
Very occasionally, the seeds grew into a magical seed bush, but only something like once in a lifetime. You see, the Creator knows that there shouldn’t be too many magical seed bush in the world.
One day, one of the seeds happened upon a clearing in the middle of the forest. The seed dropped on to the grass in the clearing, and it found itself burrowing deep into the ground: first one foot, then two feet, then five feet.
The seed lay buried deep below ground level for a number of years. Sometimes she wondered whether she had died, but then she realised that if she could wonder if she was dead, she probably wasn’t!
Then, one day, something happened. The seed felt a great sharp rush and then all of a sudden, a great chest appeared. It wasn’t like a chest of drawers, but something more like a treasure chest. Before the seed knew what was happening, a copper coin appeared inside the box, then a silver coin, then a gold coin. The treasure chest was being rapidly filled with copper, silver and gold coins. Not pennies and twenty-pence pieces and gold-coloured pound coins, but real gold, real silver and real copper.
After all those many years of the seed just lying underneath the ground, all of a sudden everything started happening in a rush. No sooner was the treasure chest filled with precious coins when suddenly there was the sound of digging. The five feet of earth that had covered the magic seed and which was now covering the treasure chest was being removed. And the sound of a man’s voice could be heard: ‘Hope! Come here and look at this!?’
Then the sound of a woman’s voice could be heard. Hope joined her husband Promise and they both stared down at the treasure chest. ‘Do you think we should open it?’ Promise asked Hope. ‘How could it hurt?’ she replied. Upon opening the treasure chest and seeing all the coins, Promise and Hope gasped. They lived in a poor village and never had either one of them seen that much silver and gold in their lives.
They looked at each other and realised that their prayers had been answered. The only problem was that the chest was simply too heavy to lift, so they quickly covered it with dirt again. Then they went and sold their home, their furniture and all their other possessions in order to buy the clearing in the forest where the treasure-chest lay.
Not too long later, Promise and Hope were finally able to come back to claim their treasure. They took all the gold coins, the sliver coins and the copper coins and sold them for their national currency. Then, in a celebration of thanks to God that their prayers had been answered, they were finally able to begin doing what they had always wanted to do: they built a hospital for the people of their village, indeed, for all the region around them. They were even able to build themselves a small house in the hospital compound and they began to offer medical treatment to the people in the region.
But let’s get back to that bush that produced the magical seeds. One of the seeds left the magical bush and it got caught up in a current of air. It floated beyond the forest, and it floated beyond the hills, and it floated beyond the plains until it landed several miles out to sea.
As it hit the salt water, this particular magical seed felt itself getting heaver and heaver and denser and denser. He looked to see what was happening and he realised that he had sunk to the bottom of the sea and had turned into a grain of sand. He was swallowed up by an oyster and before you could say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, the grain of sand started being covered by the oyster’s pearl. The grain of sand chuckled to himself thinking, ‘Ah yes, this is rather like being a seed.’
The grain of sand remained inside the oyster for many, many years. And because it was a magical grain of sand, the pearl that formed around it was perfectly coloured, perfectly smooth and absolutely, perfectly round. It was also very, very big. It was the biggest, roundest, most perfectly coloured pearl you’d ever seen in your life.
And then, one day, the oyster was caught up in a fishing net and the pearl found itself in the middle of the village in the hands of Prosper, one of the most successful of the village’s traders. Prosper was contemplating his next move with some glee. The clueless fishermen had sold him the pearl for almost nothing; well, it had been a handsome sum of money, but nowhere near what his Japanese jewllerly contacts would pay for it. This pearl was Prosper’s ticket out of the village. The big break that he had been waiting for all his life.
Prosper wanted to see the world and he was almost 60 now. His children were grown and he and his wife were healthy and fit. This pearl was his big chance to leave the village, travel and settle in the capital city where he and his wife could retire in luxury. No more village life, but a villa in the city with running water, electricity and access to all the entertainments the capital could offer. That was Prosper’s dream.
All that was, of course, before the magical seed bush began to work it’s magic once again. Another seed burst forth from the bush. It didn’t float too far this time. In fact, it floated right into Prosper’s kitchen where the cook was preparing bread for the entire household.
The seed landed in a very large vat that was filled with flour, milk and oil and the seed began to levan the bread. Forgetting that she hadn’t actually put the yeast in the vat at all, but smelling the yeast and noticing that the bread dough had risen, cook began to make loaf after loaf after loaf of bread in a quantity that was much larger than usual. In fact, there was so much bread, that cook had to give it away to people in the village.
And the bread had a very unusual effect on everyone who ate it. Some people continued to live their lives as they had done before but the vast majority started acting differently: some for the better and some for the worse. The strange thing was that you couldn’t really predict how individual people would change.
One young woman who seemed mostly unobtrusive but not very confident went off to the city and became a prostitute. A teenage boy who had always seemed angry became a successful cattle rancher. A middle-aged woman who had been tearful and depressed since her children married began to work in the village hospital as a midwife, teaching new mothers how to care for their babies.
And then, of course, there was Prosper. He’d eaten the magical bread too. Rather more of it than most people since it was his bread in the first place. And he changed too.
Prosper had sold the pearl of great price for, well, a great price. But after eating the magical bread, he lost all interest in moving to the city. And truth be told, he realised that he had a pretty good life in the village with his friends, family and community. One evening, he invited Promise and Hope and their hospital staff to his house for a feast and he informed them that he was giving all his wealth to the hospital.
From that time on, the village thrived. People with no money were able to come to the hospital and get medical care. They were able to make sure that their children were healthy, they learned how to care for themselves and their families and they got medicine when they needed it. Simple medicines, but ones that meant the difference between life and death to them.
What’s more, the magical bush kept working its magic. The people who really paid attention understood that lots of little bits of good luck were being generated around the village. A word of encouragement helped someone go out and do something good that they didn’t have confidence to do before, and the village prospered. Villagers who had bad luck often seemed to be miraculously helped by other people who couldn’t possibly have known about their difficulties.
And, contrary to all expectations, the more the village grew and prospered, the more people in the village looked out for each other. No one seemed to ask the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ Everyone seemed to ask the question: ‘Do my fellow villagers have enough? Are they eating? Are they healthy? Are they happy?’
Some people put all these changes down to the day that Promise and Hope started their hospital. Other people put it all down to the day that Prosper decided to give all his wealth to help the village to prosper. Other people, the ones who understood about the bread, put it down to the day that the goodhearted people in the village actually began to understand and to act on their hearts’ desires.
But no-body ever guessed the secret of the magical seed bush. And even though the bush continued to plant opportunities that could be used for good (or for evil) amongst the villagers, it didn’t ever produce another magical seed bush.
And then one day, for no apparent reason and for no apparent motive, someone looked at the bush and announced loudly: ‘This is a mustard bush! Mustard bushes are weeds! What do we want this thing for in our village? We must burn it!’
And so, with no further ado, the bush with the magical mustard seeds was burnt.
And the Creator declared that, from that day forward, it was to be the angels who would separate the evil from the righteous.
And the village itself continued to live…………ever after.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
When I was in my 20s, a friend of mine from University invited me on a weekend away to some friends of her parents. My university friend had developed a close bond with our host and hostess, whom she called ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ and they were very hospitable people.
They had a big house in the countryside and there were plenty of recreational activities in the area. These people liked to have weekend house-parties and they seemed to make a particular habit of inviting my friend to their home because they knew that she couldn’t afford to get away otherwise.
I was the only ‘stranger’ that weekend. There were four other guests besides me and my friend: two couples who were long-time friends of our hosts.
Our hosts made a feature of the evening meal and they owned large dinner table around which everyone could gather. As everyone was having drinks before dinner, I noticed one place that had a different place-setting from all the rest. It was set with a beautiful hand-made ceramic plate, silver cutlery and beautiful crystal. I remarked on this to the hostess.
She replied: ‘Oh yes. At every weekend we like to set one special place for a special guest.’ I said ‘Oh, what a nice idea!’ and I thought to myself ‘That place is for me since I’m the only person they don’t know well. I’m the special guest.’
When it came time to sit down to dinner, I was still certain that this was my place, but thank goodness I didn’t sit there! It turned out that the place was set for one of their friends – a woman who had just been let out of hospital after having an operation for cancer.
I can’t even begin to imagine how utterly mortified I would have been if I had not been saved by dumb luck from sitting down in that place. I was still extremely embarrassed in myself when I realised that, for all intents and purposes, I had been operating in my own mind as if I was the centre of the universe.
Of course, as embarrassing as this would have been today, it would have been even more embarrassing in Jesus’ time when being seen to be an honourable person was of the utmost importance.
Common Sense & Bad Advice
At first reading, this morning’s Gospel story might be seen as a story about good common sense in a culture which values honour. In such a society, the smartest thing to do is to take a seat in a relatively insignificant place and then wait to be invited to a higher place.
Just about the stupidest thing that you could do would be to take the seat of the guest of honour and then be asked to vacate it. This would expose you as a person who was, in fact, dishonourable.
Because in a society that operates according to code of honour, to be an honourable person is to observe, uphold and defend the values and the society structures of the larger group. In an honour culture the strict observance of group values, systems and structures leads to self-fulfilment and advancement as one is recognised as an upholder and defender of social values.
Any self-respecting Pharisee or Rabbi would see the sense in not taking the seat of the guest of honour without being invited first. That would be disaster!
I think that Jesus’ parable about the dinner guests would have been easily accepted by the crowd as simple common sense advice in a culture that prizes personal honour.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ further recommendation that the properly invited guests to our dinner parties should not be our peers but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind?
It would have been a normal sight in Jesus’ time to see the poor and the disabled at a banquet being given by the rich. These people – who were deemed to be poor and disabled because of some sin they had committed – would be able to avail themselves of the charity of the rich, but they were most certainly not invited guests with seats at the table.
Jewish law and custom required those who had the means to give charity to the poor, but it did not require people to associate with the poor. In the honour system, to associate with the poor, to mix with them, to eat with them at your table, would be to dishonour yourself.
When we give charity to someone, we retain power over them. To mix with the poor or any dishonoured group is to be equal with them and thereby forfeit your own honour.
So, in the first story, Jesus seems to be giving some good common-sense advice to those of us who consider ourselves ‘honourable’ so that we don’t lose our honour.
In the second story, Jesus is suggesting that we consort and associate with the dishonourable people of the world. Jesus is suggesting that we give up our honour.
The Good News of the Dishonourable God
Is there any way to soften Jesus rather difficult commandment in the second story? A number of commentators have suggested ways of ‘softening’ the second story, but I think that if we soften it, we risk losing the point.
The point is that Jesus himself, God incarnate, mixed with the dishonourable, associated with the dishonourable and thereby dishonoured himself in the process.
But we seem to have a schizophrenic attitude toward Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
On the one hand, we will all utter a silent prayer of thanksgiving when we read in Philippians 2 that Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself in the form of a slave to be born in human likeness. But do we really accept those words about slavery and emptying?
I suspect that we don’t. In our minds God somehow manages to remain high and mighty whilst simultaneously debasing himself. And that’s what we want for ourselves too.
Like James and John, we prefer to see God on his throne and we prefer to see ourselves sitting on his right hand in the Kingdom. We don’t want to think about a crucified Christ – even if he rises from the dead.
We are happy to think of ourselves as imitating Jesus by doing good works, but not if that imitation requires us to lose respect in the eyes of wider society.
So far, this morning’s Gospel reading perhaps risks sounding like bad news rather than good news, so where can we find the good news in these passages?
Well, the good news is that God will do anything, absolutely anything, to get alongside humankind. And God doesn’t reserve his hospitality for the honoured guests. God also invites the dishonoured, the poor and the outcasts to his celebration feast.
The good news is that God does not require the dishonourable to take their customary place on the fringes of the celebration; he does not require them to accept charity from a God who maintains his right to wield his power over them. The good news is that God goes out to the so-called dishonoured, makes himself their equal, associates with them and thereby turns everything upside down so that the fringes of the celebration become the place of importance.
And the good news is that, in one way or another, we are all dishonourable people. When God goes out to the fringes of the banquet in order to demonstrate that the dishonourable people are offered citizenship in his Kingdom, he’s going out to invite you and me into his banquet.
I was lucky. I had a narrow escape at my friend’s aunt’s dinner table. Sheer dumb luck meant that I didn’t voice my assumption that I was to be the person at the place of honour. Sheer dumb luck saved me from the shame and embarrassment of sitting down in the place of honour.
But in that narrow escape, I was also given a lesson – a lesson that I’ve had a number of times since then and that I will probably have again in the future! I was shown how I assume that I’m the centre of the universe: how, most of the time I neglect to think of others or to think of God.
But unlike me, God isn’t sitting up in heaven contemplating his divine navel and thinking about what he can do to attract more honour to himself. On the contrary, God is continually looking outside himself: to creation and to all living beings, doing everything that he can to draw everything and everyone into his circle of divine love.
In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table. The celebration of Holy Communion is a sacrament and an ordinance but it is also a physical symbol of the feast of the Kingdom of God. All are invited to this table today because all are invited to the feast of God’s Kingdom.
God goes out into the highways and byways in order to walk among those who are ‘not allowed’ into honourable society, and he invites them into the feast of his Kingdom.
I pray that we will not only heed the invitation to his table, but that we too will also look outside ourselves in order to invite the poor, the outcast and the dishonourable into the Kingdom.