Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday 19 August 2007 - Division and Peace

Today, Foley Park Methodist Church worshipped together with the Kidderminster West Team Ministry at Holy Innocents' Anglican Church. I preached and the Gospel reading was not exactly one that you might wish for at an ecumenical event: Luke 12:49-59.

There are strong Girardian overtones in this sermon. For Girard fans, it's a sermon and not a lecture on Girard; I'm not trying to set out Girard's anthropology, but I believe from the commentaries that it explains this reading well.



It was just about a year ago that I came to my first Sunday worship service at Holy Innocents. Just like today, it was a service for all the churches in the Kidderminster West team ministry and it was my first Sunday in Kidderminster after moving house. I wasn’t supposed to worship at Foley Park Methodist until the first Sunday in September and so I thought I’d come to worship here with my Anglican brothers and sisters.

In the year that has passed, I have got to know the people who attend the Wednesday morning communion services quite well. And I’ve been very pleased to find that both the members of the Kidderminster West Team Ministry and the members of Foley Park Methodist Church are eager to get to know each other better. I’m very keen on ecumenical cooperation and I hope that, as time grows on, our relationship will build and that we’ll be able to cooperate together in our Christian witness in this part of Kidderminster.

So I think it’s slightly ironic that as we worship together this morning in unity as Christian brothers and sisters that we are given a Gospel reading like the one we have this morning: ‘
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’

At first glance, this seems like a rather jarring thing for Jesus to say, particularly in the Gospel of Luke where ‘peace’ is one of Luke’s central themes. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah proclaims that Jesus will guide humanity in the way of peace; the angels sing of the peace that the baby Jesus will bring; and the 72 are sent out in front of Jesus to proclaim peace to all they visit. The word ‘peace’ is used in Luke’s Gospel more times than in any of the other Gospels, yet apparently in today’s reading Jesus is now saying that he comes to bring division even amongst the closest of relations.

The Gospel reading this morning is an urgent call to repentance as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. Jesus, the Son of God, has come into the world and it is time for all of Luke’s readers – including us – to decide which direction they will take. Will we continue to walk in the direction away from the Kingdom of God or will we repent, turn to Christ and walk in God’s direction?

To choose repentance is to choose to be separated from what ‘the world’ holds to be true. To choose repentance is to choose God’s way and God’s Kingdom.

Peace is a Divisive Issue

What I’d like to suggest this morning is that ‘peace’ – God’s peace in God’s manner and in God’s Kingdom – is a divisive issue. I believe that division amongst people, including close family members is a consequence of Jesus’ call to the Kingdom of God, not the desired end-product.

Peace is a divisive issue because, in our sinful world, it’s not safe. God’s peace is particularly dangerous because he calls us not only to reconciliation with himself but also with other people.

What is safe in a sinful world is power. Specifically, in order to be safe, we need to be the person or the group who wields sufficient power to silence those who threaten us or disagree with us.

We can see very directly how this works at the national and international level. Human history consists of a long litany of wars: of one nation or society looking to conquer another. Historically, human society has not put its faith in peace through reconciliation but in the idea that if we can gain enough power over our enemies, we can keep them in perfect submission and thus ensure our own peace.

This was exactly the philosophy of the Roman Empire. It was prepared to be tolerant up to a point but ultimately, the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, rested on the might of the sword.

Of course, when it comes to relationships between individuals, power plays are a lot more subtle. Gone are the days when personal disputes were settled by battles and duels.

But often in our relationships we still jockey for the position of power. Sometimes we try to achieve the status of being the most successful, the most attractive or the most intelligent person in our peer group. ‘Peace’ is maintained as long as our friends don’t challenge our self-perception.

There are also times when we need to think that we are absolutely in the right and that others are absolutely in the wrong and we are therefore loathe to seek or grant reconciliation. The tenuous stability that results between people in this kind of situation is not what God means by peace. This is a stand-off. It’s a stand-off rooted in the ‘worldly’ belief that we hold so dear: that ultimately I will be proven right and will be vindicated, so I don’t need to seek reconciliation.

But time is short. Whenever we live and whoever we are, if we are human, the time that we have to share in relationship with other people and with God is short. The wisdom of the Kingdom of God cries out to us: what is more important to us, to be right, or to reconcile with those we love before it is too late?

The Way of the Cross

As I said earlier, in Luke’s Gospel, this teaching happens as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified.

In Jerusalem, Jesus will lay down his life willingly in order to reconcile us to God. For our sake, Jesus – God incarnate – did what we are incapable of doing: he put himself in a position of powerlessness for the sole purpose of achieving reconciliation with us. God became powerless and humble not because he was in the wrong but because there was no other way for humanity to be reconciled with God.

The self-sacrifice, humility and willing powerlessness of Jesus on the cross for our sake is the good news of the Gospel but it is also the scandal of the Gospel. Jesus Christ was vindicated not by gaining coercive power over his enemies but in laying down his life and, importantly, in rising from the dead.

This is a vindication – a declaration of Jesus’ Lordship – that the world does not and cannot recognise. In worldly terms, the resurrection is unbelievable and Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross is both dangerous and absurd.

‘Peace’ – God’s peace in God’s manner and in God’s Kingdom – is a divisive issue. The Gospel is a divisive issue. Reconciliation is, ironically, a divisive issue. The world believes that peace through reconciliation is a nice idea but one that ultimately does not work. The world believes that peace can only be won through power.

The world believes in the Peace of Rome but not the Peace of Christ.


In a few minutes, we will come together at the Lord’s Table. The celebration table of the Kingdom of God, a celebration that is physically present with us here and now.

My prayer is that, in coming together with our Lord and with each other, we will recognise our essential unity in the body of Christ and look for ways to cooperate and grow ever closer together. And I make my prayer in the name of Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord. Amen

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday 12 August 2007 - The Authority of Jesus

Today's sermon is a narrative sermon based on Matthew 21:23-32


If you ask me, the really big trouble started when Jesus entered into Jerusalem in the manner of the Messiah and then proceeded to knock over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. Both of these activities were a direct slap in the face to the Chief Priests, the servants of that traitor Herod.

Of course, no one is going to ask me, seeing as I’m a woman…

I’m sorry, we haven’t been introduced. My name is Esther; I was – still am – a disciple of Jesus. Oh, not one of The Twelve, you understand, but I spent a great deal of time following Jesus around and listening to his teachings during his lifetime.

I was a young widow, you see. My husband had been killed in an accident just weeks after we were married. No-one wanted me after that. I was bad luck, they said. Cursed. My choice was to rely on charity or, well…I don’t even want to think about the other alternative.

When I was at my lowest, I met Jesus and the crowd of disciples following him. They willingly made me part of their community, took care of me and even encouraged me to contribute to their work.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Jesus and the crowd of his disciples saved me, and I don’t just mean in a literal, physical way, although they did that too. I didn’t become a disciple of Jesus just for the charity, you see. Jesus touched my heart. He was talking of renewal: of the renewal of the people of God and of individuals. A New Creation.

And, as his followers during his lifetime, we were living that renewal, proclaiming the good news of God’s love and regard for people like me: the poor, the captives and the outcast. We were actually changing peoples’ lives as we told them the good news that they matter to God and that God has a plan for them.

Anyway, enough about me. I was talking about that day in the Temple.

Jesus had knocked over the tables of the money-changers, which enraged the Chief Priests and Elders. You see, the High Priest is the ultimate authority in the Temple and no one has the right to challenge the way things are done in the Temple except the Messiah. Jesus even quoted Isaiah, implying that the Temple was his house.

So, it wasn’t surprising that the Chief Priests wanted to know how it was that Jesus thought he had the right to do these things.

Did Jesus think that he was doing these things by God’s authority? That’s the question I think that they really wanted to ask him. Of course, they didn’t think that Jesus had God’s authority; they seemed to think that Jesus was fooling himself, or maybe even that his authority came from Satan.

So Jesus said to them: I was baptised by John. Where do you think that John got his authority?

Well, obviously, the Chief Priests didn’t think that John’s baptism was from God, but they could hardly say that in front of all of us and in front of the crowd in the Temple! On the other hand, if they acknowledged that John’s baptism of Jesus had been blessed by God’s Spirit, then they would have been acknowledging Jesus’ authority as Messiah. So they were caught between a rock and a hard place.

You could tell that Jesus’ answer made them angry. This upstart rabbi from Galilee, standing against the rightfully appointed Priests of the Lord, claiming in deed if not in word to be the Messiah. This country bumpkin had got the upper hand by answering them – the sophisticated Jerusalem experts – in a superb, probing, rabbinic form.

There was tension in the air. You could cut it with a knife. We all wondered at the time whether Jesus wanted to get himself killed.

But Jesus didn’t stop there! In for a penny, in for a pound, he began to tell a parable about two brothers. For everyone who knew Jesus – whether his supporters or his enemies – it was obvious who the two brothers represented. It’s people like me – and worse, tax collectors and prostitutes, Samaritans and thieves – who are like the first brother. The one who actually went out and worked for the father even though he said that he would not.

Why was it obvious, you ask? Well, because Jesus had spent so much of his time associating with those of us who the religious authorities didn’t consider worthy enough to worship God.

It’s not that Jesus didn’t have time for the so-called holy people. He talked with them, debated with them and he accepted their hospitality. If the authorities had repented, Jesus would have willingly taken them into his Kingdom too. It wasn’t a simple role-reversal that Jesus was after. He wasn’t trying to exclude the priests and elders from the Kingdom of God the way that they excluded us.

It’s just that Jesus also did have time for the rest of us – the discarded people of society. Jesus showed us that we matter too. He’s demonstrated to us that God has faith in us and that God values us. Jesus told us that we too are beloved children of God and that God wants us to be part of his Kingdom too!

Jesus showed us that repentance really is possible for everyone. That a person can never fall so low that God won’t forgive him.

Of course, the second son represented the Chief Priests and Elders. The one who gives every appearance of being his father’s faithful servant but who then doesn’t act on his promise. That was another big slap in the face to the religious authorities. You can see why they began to think about getting Jesus out of the way.

Of course, all that was many years ago. And as the years have gone by, Jesus’ parable about the two brothers comes back to me every now and then.

At the time that Jesus told it, I saw myself clearly as the first brother. I was, after all, a widow, a discarded woman, someone branded cursed and unlucky but Jesus’ disciples took me in and made me part of their family.

As I’ve grown in the Lord, though, I’ve sometimes found myself acting or thinking like the second brother – the one who acted righteous but didn’t actually do his father’s will. I suspect that all people of faith have found themselves in the same position at one time or another.
I’ve also come to see that sometimes the church itself acts like this.

It’s not a comfortable thing to see, of course. But I think that this is the way that the Lord helps both the church and his individual disciples to grow.

God wants us to proclaim his good news both as individual believers and as a church. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, all of humankind is offered the kind of second chance that I was offered. When the church lives and functions at its best, it can offer to the world a tiny glimpse of God’s New Creation.

God’s good news is that, in the New Creation, all people are to be invited to his wedding feast; not just invited guests but also those in the highways and the byways. The rich and the powerful, the poor and the vulnerable, all are invited to the table of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, I see that you will soon come before the table of the Lord. Before you do, I invite you to give thanks to the Lord that you have been included in his celebration feast. I also invite you to think about how you as a church can proclaim the good news to the world in which you live…the good news of the Lordship of Christ and of God’s extravagant generosity toward all of humankind.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sunday 5 August 2007 - Greed

This sermon is based on Luke 12:13-21


(Luke 12: 15)
Take care! Be on your guard again all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

This morning’s Gospel reading is often called ‘the Parable of the Rich fool.’ But don’t be fooled by the title; because the parable is not so much a parable against wealth as it is a parable against greed. And, I think, hand-in-hand with greed, we are also being taught some lessons about the sin of self-centredness, the sin of making our own lives and our own welfare the be-all and end-all of our focus.

This reading from Luke 12 speaks right to the heart of our society and our personal lives. Because greed and self-centeredness are not just modern problems. Sinful human nature has ordered ‘worldly’ values around greed since ancient times. The underlying problem is that the world does not always recognise greed as being a bad thing. In fact, worldly society often orders itself around the assumption that greed is either good or amoral.

The Heir

Before we even begin to look at Jesus’ parable, let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and the man who came asking him to settle an inheritance dispute. This problem is hardly unique to the ancient world.

I’ll bet that if I opened up the floor right now, each of us could tell a story about wills and inheritance. Maybe a story like today’s story: where one child or beneficiary is worried that he or she isn’t getting their fair share of the inheritance and they take other beneficiaries to court. Or maybe you’ve heard a story of bitter parents, convinced (rightly or wrongly) that their children were only looking after them because they were worried about getting the inheritance.

This is a story with which we are intimately familiar in our everyday lives. Furthermore, in Jesus’ time as in our own time, there were clear procedures for deciding fairly who gets what. These laws were interpreted and applied by rabbis and that was the capacity in which Jesus was being asked to act. He was being asked to interpret the law – presumably in the man’s favour – so that the man’s interests would be looked after.

But Jesus refuses to do so. He doesn’t want to play the part of the rabbi-judge in this instance. Some of us may wonder why?

Doesn’t God care about fairness and justice? Doesn’t God care about the law? The law that the man wants Jesus to uphold is the law written in the Torah; why would God be indifferent to his own laws? How can God be a God of truth and justice if Jesus is refusing to rule in this man’s favour?

I think that the answer to these questions lies in Jesus’ statement ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

I suspect that if this man had come to Jesus saying that he’d got more inheritance than his brother and he wanted Jesus to command his brother to take his fair share as the law required, that Jesus would have willingly played the part of a Rabbi-judge.

I think that Jesus declined to play judge in this situation because he knew that the man was motivated by greed and self-interest. Although the man appeared to be invoking justice, the man was not actually motivated by fairness, he was motivated by self-interest.

The Parable

But in this particular story Jesus doesn’t confront the man with a direct judgement of his sin. Instead of admonishing him directly, Jesus provides both him (and us) with the opportunity to change our ways.

The parable that Jesus tells is also quite applicable to the 21st century.

Here is a farmer who has been suddenly blessed with an excellent crop. God has sent a harvest that is far more than he himself can use.

So what does the farmer say to himself? Does he say ‘God has sent me a harvest that far exceeds my needs. Let me see who is hungry and who can use my excess.’? No, he doesn’t.

Rather, he congratulates himself on his talents and ability as a farmer. The harvest is no longer a wonderful blessing with which to bless others. It’s become a storage problem – which, of course, it is if the farmer intends to keep it all to himself.

But, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you. The man’s life is required of him unexpectedly. Not only was the farmer not able to benefit from God’s blessing, he also missed the opportunity to shower blessings on others.

One can only hope that his heirs did not act like the man who asked Jesus to judge between him and his brother!

Challenges: for Christians and Society

I think that there are challenges for individual Christians in this parable as well as challenges for society in general.

At the individual level, it could be too easy for a preacher to sound like he or she is saying that everyone here needs to give more money, time or talents to church. I’m not saying that and I hope it won’t be understood that way.

But here are some pointers to where individual challenges or invitations may lie:

God might be inviting some of us to become increasingly concerned about the rights, interests or welfare of other people around us.

God might be challenging someone else to deepen their awareness that everything – absolutely everything – we have is from God, including our very lives.

God might be inviting some people to be more free with their time or money and to give it away more cheerfully.
God will challenge each of us differently, and I don’t know where he is challenging you.

But I think that greed and self-interest are not just individual issues; they are social issues as well. Of course, these are a lot harder to change!

Here are some thoughts about how this parable applies to our society; you may or may not agree with me.

First, as a society do we question the idea that corporate profits must grow every year? If the population stays roughly the same, where do extra profits come from? Often they profits must come from exploiting the poor, the vulnerable, the gullible or encouraging us to consume things we don’t need.

This parable suggests that perhaps a Godly society would share its profits with those in need.

A second observation. Our whole system of national and international government is still based on the idea that each country looks after its own economic and political interests. This may strike many of us as the safest and most realistic way to govern in a hostile world, but it’s hardly in line with the Great Commandment. This is not the way the Kingdom of God is to be governed.

If we are hoping and praying for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to understand that obeying God is not just a matter of individual morality. We need to understand that God wants us to do more than say ‘I’m only responsible for what I do, I can’t have an influence on the rest of society.’

Equally, we are not free to say that sin is mainly a social problem that has nothing to do with individuals changing their hearts and behaviour patterns. God calls the world and its people to repentance and conversion at both an individual level and a social level.

The Good News

So where is the good news in this stew of human greed and self-interest which has not improved at all since Jesus told his parable?

(1) Well, for a start, the good news is that God is not a human being! The good news is that God is not greedy or self-interested in the human sense of the concept. All of God’s actions toward his creation are generous and life-giving and are concerned with the well-being of his creation. When we use our free will to sin against God, against other people or against God’s creation, God works to restore and repair what our sin has destroyed.

(2) The good news is that God blesses us every day with many blessings. We know as a fact that God blesses us daily and we also grow in our ability to become conscious of these blessings on a daily basis as we come to know the Lord better.

(3) The good news is that God has created each one of us to be agents and messengers of his blessings in this world we inhabit. The Greek word for ‘angels’ means ‘messengers’; so, in a very real sense, we are called to be angels to other people. The more expansive and generous our spirits become and the more we give God’s gifts away, the more we become the people that God created us to be and the more we grow in holiness.

(4) And finally, the good news is that God’s table is always laid for us. His door is always open for us; the door is never shut and it’s never locked. Repentance is always possible, conversion is always possible, forgiveness is always possible. We are always invited to the table of the Lord and God wants us to invite as many guests as we can.

As we come to the Lord’s Table in a few minutes, may our hearts expand to embrace all the love that God wants to give us and may we find freedom and joy as we learn to give that love away to others. Amen