Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday 28 December 2008 - God in the Mess

I couldn't preach this morning and ignore what has happened in Gaza this weekend with over 250 people dead. The sermon is based on the Gospel reading from the Common Worship Lectionary rather than from the Revised Common Lectionary. Luke 2:15-21

===

The Messiah Has Come

In today's Gospel reading, we hear once again the end of Luke's story of Christmas. There have been miraculous appearances by angels, there have been shepherds and there have been hymns of praise, both earthly and celestial. Everything in Luke's narrative points to Jesus as the Messiah so that the reader is left in no doubt as to who Jesus is or what his significance is.

And, finally, when the momentous events have been accomplished and the shepherds and the angels have departed, Mary is left to ponder all of these events in her heart.

Then the next thing that happens in Luke's narrative is the circumcision of Jesus. Luke is affirming yet again the status of Jesus as the Messiah, the one through whom God's promises to the human race are to be fulfilled. Circumcision is a sign of God's covenant promise with his people.

Listen to what a modern Jewish rabbi has to say about the rite of circumcisions as an expression of God's covenant and what that means[1]:
'There will come a time when all human beings will live in full dignity and freedom....The covenant is that bond through which God and the Jewish people dream together and work together toward an alternative reality, a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.'

Other Mothers

Over the last week or so during the season of Christmas, we have been hearing stories of shepherds and lambs and wise men and gifts and mothers and babies. And our young ones have been acting in nativity plays; and the week of Christmas has been a time for celebrations and feasting and maybe a bit too much activity as well.

And I can't help but think that against this backdrop of our celebrations, the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza has fallen apart in the last fortnight and hundreds of people in the region of the Holy Land have been killed this weekend.

I don't want to take sides or appear to take sides. The current violence has a long and complicated history and there is always more than one side to any conflict. But as I was thinking about Mary's ponderings and her hopes for her own child, I came across the stories of two other mothers in the Holy Land.

The first story is Hava's{2]. A Jewish mother of three in a town called Sderot. On the 19th of December she said:
'A rocket landed 10 metres from my house last week. The ceasefire may have officially ended today, but in reality it was over long before that. I don't feel protected here, not at all. I hope that Israel does go into Gaza even if citizens there get hurt. Because here in Sderot we are getting hurt. Life is very difficult. We have my husband's salary from the bed factory here in Sderot, but it's barely enough. I am sure there are simple citizens like me in Gaza, who want nothing but to wake up in the morning, go to work and take care of the children. But if I have to choose between my son or someone else's son, I choose my son.'

...And what mother wouldn't?

The second story is Mirvat's[3], a Palestinian mother who lives in the Gaza. Her family was caught in the crossfire of a gun-battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. Whilst taking cover in their own living room with her five children, her oldest son and daughter, aged 18 and 17 were killed by snipers when they accidentally moved into the snipers' view.  Mirvat said:
'We feel like there is no reason to live any more....'We have to talk to the other side, we have to have peace, so that we can all - us and them - live safely.'

And what mother wouldn't want to live in safety with her children?

Christ our Saviour

So here we have the ponderings of three mothers: From Scripture, the pondering of Mary on Jesus' Messiahship and what that might ultimately mean. And from our world, the pondering of two mothers in an imperfect and dangerous world who are afraid for their children and their future.

Jesus came to the world as the Prince of Peace and yet it appears that we have no peace. In such circumstances, talk of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest can sometimes seem hollow and unreal.

The Christmas image of the baby in the manger may be a sweet picture, but ultimately the message of Christmas is not meant to be charming or bucolic. The message of Christmas is that God is in this messy world with us. And that he is here in fact as well as in Spirit.

The baby lying in that crib at Christmas will ultimately share the everyday sorrows of human life as well as all its everyday joys. But Jesus will also experience the worst that human life has to offer: betrayal, humiliation, shame and a painful, violent death. His last words will be words of forgiveness and his last act will unite us with God and with God's forgiveness forever. And his resurrection will be a sign that God is a God who is completely alive and without reference to death.

The message of Christmas is ultimately a message of hope, but is not a saccharine or unreal hope, but a gritty hope born out of the worst that humanity can do.

When human beings suffer at the hands of others and can still forgive, then we recognise the human dignity of those who hurt us and we access a dignity in ourselves that can only come from the Spirit of God. And when we we suffer randomly at the hands of life's circumstances, it is God's Spirit that gives us the strength to continue in hope.

Conclusion

The beauty of the incarnation does not lie in the sweetness of one newborn child. The beauty of the incarnation lies in the fact that God's salvation came through the reality of this world and through the reality of Jesus' humanity. Salvation does not come because human beings are removed from the world but because God has come into the world.

As we come to The Lord's Table in a few minutes, I pray that we, like Mary, will ponder the mystery of the incarnation in our hearts. And I pray that we will not only ponder this mystery but that we will trust in God's promises and that we will and pray and work for a world where all mothers dare to hope for a future of peace on earth for their children. Amen

Footnotes

[1] Rabbi Shai Held at: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/lifecycle/Ceremonies_For_Newborns/Overview_Contemporary_Issues/The_Circumcision_Debate/A_Difficult_Rite.htm Accessed 27 December 2008
[2] BBC Website, 15:13 GMT, Friday 19 December 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7791522.stm Accessed 27 December 2008.
[3} BBC Website 15:54 GMT, Thursday 18 December 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7790255.stm Accessed 27 December 2008.

Sunday 21 December 2008 - Making Room for God

This sermon is based on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38

===

Introduction

For at least the last fortnight, every time I've gone to the Supermarket and I'm making polite conversation with the person behind the till, the conversational opener has been 'So are you ready for Christmas'?

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and hopefully that means that we are now almost ready for Christmas. Not just in terms of decorations and Christmas cards and arrangements for Christmas dinner but that we've prepared room in lives for the coming of the Messiah.

That's the question that I'd like to think about this morning: How do we make room for God in our lives? It strikes me that both the stories we read from Scripture this morning are about making room for God.

Building a Temple

In the first reading we heard this morning from 2 Samuel, King David wanted to build a permanent Temple for God.
And at first God says 'yes' but then he changes his mind and sends the prophet Nathan to tell David about the change of plans.

Now, building a Temple for the God of Israel might sound like a pious thing to do, but it wasn't entirely without an ulterior motive. In the Ancient world, 'building a temple for the god of our nation' was rather like building a magnificent town hall might be in our culture. It would have brought King David status both with his people and with the nations around him.

David had his own ideas about how to 'make space for God' in his world and in his life. And God had quite another idea.

At the end of the day, King David 'made space for God' by obeying God's commandment, even though it might have seemed to David that he was forsaking the kind of show of power that a King needed in order to rule successfully.

The next thing that happens in the story is that God blesses David and guarantees him that he will be the founder of an enduring dynasty blessed by God. What seemed at first like bad news turned out to be a blessing and God makes a place for David and his descendants in the history of God's saving purposes.

Building a Messiah

And then, of course, there is Mary's story. Mary is asked to make space for God in a most extraordinary way.

In fact, the word 'extraordinary' probably doesn't do her experience justice, just like the term 'greatly troubled' (used in the NIV) doesn't either. The word used in Greek means something more like 'terrified'. Mary is terrified by the angel. And terrified of what is being asked of her.

But the Angel tells Mary not to be afraid. In Scripture, this is always the instruction when an Angel of God appears: 'Do not be afraid of God's messenger. Do not be afraid of God's message'.

Mary is told that she will be given the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill what is being asked of her. And she responds with a most extraordinary and revolutionary hymn. The Magnificat comes from the mouth of a servant-girl but it does not seem to come from the mouth of a scullery-maid but rather from someone more like the Matron of the House.

Mary too made room for God and what seemed at first like bad news turned into a blessing.

This is not a woman overcome against her will by the Spirit of God, but a woman who is empowered from within by the Spirit.

But what if neither King David nor Mary had been willing to make room for God in their lives? What if they had not been willing to listen to the voice of God? What if they had not been willing to obey it?

What if David had seen Nathan's prophecy as a political plot to stand in the way of his glory and political ambitions? What if David thought he knew better than God how to make room for God?

And what if Mary had been unwilling to be the mother of the Messiah because the task was just too difficult? What if Mary had protested that she was unworthy of such a task? Or indeed that she was unprepared for it? What if Mary had simply been unwilling to make room for God?

Making Room in our Lives

The question I asked earlier was: How do we make room for God in our lives? And, in a minute, I'm going to leave you with that question to answer for yourself.

I just want to offer a few observations.

1) Sometimes it's hard to make room for God in our lives because we fail to hear God's authentic voice and we let the voice of our culture's prevailing values drown it out. That would have been a very easy thing for David to do: 'Of course God wants me to build him a Temple. Nathan is a fake.' For example, I think we get seduced by this sort of thinking when we apply our cultural model of 'success' on to church or our cultural model of 'popularity' on to being a Christian disciple.

2) Sometimes it's difficult to make room for God in our lives because a task seems daunting or because we are afraid.
I'm sure many of us can think of examples from our own lives where were failed to follow God's leading because we felt afraid and unprepared. I suspect that churches do it too, when we work to an unspoken agenda that everything we do needs to be 'successful'. (And I'm preaching to myself here...) Perhaps there are times when we need to be less afraid of failure and ready to try things that might not work out.

3) Sometimes it's difficult to make room for God in our lives because we feel unworthy. At times like this, we forget that no one is worthy in and of themselves. But it is through the power of God's Holy Spirit, that he uses flawed human beings to do his will. Friends or family sometimes ask us to do things that we don't feel 'worthy' of doing: be a best man, stay with an expectant mother in labour, give a tribute at a funeral, but we often do these things out of friendship and love, even if we don't feel worthy. If God calls us to a task, he won't force us to do it, but he will equip us for the task if we say 'yes' just as he equipped the young girl Mary for a most daunting task.

Conclusion

So I leave us all with that question this morning: 'How do we make room for God in our lives?'

David and Mary made room for God in ways that they did not expect to do and both were blessed in ways they didn't expect.  

I pray that we may be given the grace to make room for God in our own lives and may we be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be agents of God's blessings.

In these last three days of Advent, may our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour. Amen

Sunday 14 December 2008 - Pointing to Good News

This is a bit different. Sometimes rather than having a sermon, we do discussions and I don't post these as they are just notes. In this particular case, I was preaching in a church that's not my own so I didn't have the confidence to go with a full-fledged discussion in case the congregation didn't talk enough! 

This church has no children on a Sunday morning, so the Discussion happened in the 'children's slot' early in the service and the sermon came in the usual slot. The texts are: Isaiah 61:1-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

====

Discussion

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and it is traditionally the Sunday that focuses on the work and mission of John the Baptist.

And this morning we have two scripture verses. One from John about John the Baptist himself and one from Isaiah. The emergence of John the Baptist into the life and times of the Jewish people signalled the end of prophetic silence. In John, God began to speak to the Jewish people again through prophets.

This morning, I wanted to begin with a discussion about prophecy. What does prophecy mean to you? Who is a prophet? What does a prophetic message sound like? Are there prophets in the church today?

OT prophets were rooted in the history of Israel. Came from different traditions and had some different understandings of that history. All of the prophets believed in the election of the people of Israel by God as his people. Covenant - spelled out mutual obligations. Their concerns were all about the breeches in the covenant.

One of the big prophetic disagreements was whether God would remain faithful to his covenant if the people of Israel broke their covenant (Isaiah & Ezekiel - yes; Jeremiah - possibility that God would dessert)

Christians believe that God's final word through the prophets was one of hope and promise. No matter what the people did, God would remain faithful. For Christians, John the Baptist is part of the beginning of this new era of God's faithfulness.

Sermon

Introduction

Today's Gospel reading points us to John the Baptist and it is something of a remarkable reading. The reading is remarkable in that it is really the only passage in Scripture that tries to deal theologically with John's mission and identity. But the passage seems to be a lot more concerned with telling us who John is not rather than telling us who John is. It's not so much concerned with exalting John as an important prophet but with saying emphatically that John is not the Messiah.

I think that this possibly because the function of a prophet is to point away from himself or herself and to point to toward God. And John's function, as the first prophet the Jewish people had in a number of centuries, was to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promise to all of humankind - a promise that he was going to keep through the Jewish people.

Pointing Toward God

All of this reminded me of another sign pointing to God, although I'm fairly certain that's not what its sponsors intended.

The sign - or rather signs - that I'm thinking of were the ones that the British Humanist Association put on the side of London busses in October. You probably read about them because they received the endorsement of Richard Dawkins, the scientist and high-profile atheist. The signs read: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'

I wonder if you'll think I'm off my trolley for saying that these signs point to God? Perhaps you think that they point away from God, and not to God.

But I think that they do point to God - or rather to 'A' god. And I'd venture to say that this god is the god that many people who don't have a faith believe in (if that makes any sense!) But even worse, it's the god that they think
we believe in.

'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'

Implicit in this statement is the idea that if there is a God, then my friend, you'd better be worried and you better not be enjoying yourself! This is the picture of God as the Great Referee in the sky. An all-powerful being whose job isn't to teach us, to nurture us or even to sympathise with us. God is the Great Referee whose job is simply to watch us playing out our lives and to blow the whistle and impose a penalty whenever we set a foot wrong. If we receive too many penalties then eventually we will be out of the game: plenty of things to worry about, then.

Waiting for God

So, here we are in Advent, and the Church is waiting for God to come down to earth, to come and mingle with us, to walk with us, talk with us, and participate in our life. But if the British Humanist Society's view of God is right then we'd all better duck and cover.

I'm sure we all know - or know of - at least one individual in our lives who is always critical. Someone with an uncanny knack to see the flaws and mistakes of others and who is not willing to overlook them, but who is more than happy to point out those shortcomings to anyone and everyone who will listen. If God is like that, then who would want to have anything to do with God?

If our message is 'There probably is a God. So be very worried and stop enjoying yourself!' then who in their right mind would want this God to arrive? Who in their right mind would want to have Advent - a season of four weeks eagerly anticipating the arrival of this disapproving kill-joy?

Insiders or Outsiders?

But my question is: what are we doing as the Christian church that puts forward a different image of God? Not what are we preaching, but what are we doing? How are we behaving as Christians? How do we treat others?

Do we wholeheartedly communicate the message that God loves people who are not like us? Or do we communicate the message that God will love you if - and only if - you become like us?

One of the most frequent criticisms people outside the church tell me is that church people are hypocrites. When I ask people what they mean, they often can't answer or they respond with a story about how they have been disappointed by the church in some way. But I wonder if they mean something like: 'You tell me that God loves me just as I am, but you act like he'll only love me if I'm like you'.

Do we really treat people outside the church or of other religions as individuals who are created in the image of God? Do we treat them as individuals who God knows and loves just as he knows and loves us? Or do we assume that we have all the answers about God or about 'religion' because we are Christians and they are not?

Here are just two examples of the sort of thing that I mean:

First Example. When we complain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because this is no longer a Christian country, what do we mean by that? That we are moral and that others are not? At a recent bible study, someone noticed that the author of a book we were using actually made the claim that since morality comes from God, only Christians can be moral people.

Second Example. The President of Conference recently told a story of a Methodist congregation in what is now a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. The congregation had sold its church hall about 30 years ago and the hall has been resold twice and was now home to a Muslim school where children are taught the Koran. The Methodists have no idea how to engage with their Muslim neighbours because they believe that their reason for relating to this Muslim school would be to convert them to Christianity. So their message is 'You're not worth getting to know unless you become like us.' Now I'm quite sure that this isn't the message that this congregation
wants to communicate, but that's what's happening.

I think it's things like this that communicate to others the message that 'God will only love you if you're like us'. Or to use the Referee metaphor: 'God will only love you if you're part of the team.'

However, in today's reading from Isaiah it is not those with the power and status of the established Babylonian order who receive God's loving care but rather those who are outside.

With Human Dignity

I guess I'm asking the question, 'Do we treat other people - people of different faiths and people of no faith - as dignified human beings who are as loved by God as we are?'

When the Christian church is being all that she can be, it is one of the few places in our society where an individual can go and be himself or herself without a mask and without playing a role. Church is one of the few places where we can be just ourselves without being a client, a patient, an advertising target, an employee, a charity case or an expert.

If you want to know my answer to the question: What is our purpose if it is not to increase our numbers, if it is not to promote revival, if it is not to get other people to join us? My answer is: Our purpose is to love other people unconditionally, to really believe and to treat each person as if he or she was a precious child of God for whom God earnestly desires healing, freedom and wholeness. In this way, the church can be truly prophetic and the church can truly point to God.

Conclusion

My prayer is that each of us will truly take on board the extent of God's amazing unconditional desire for healing and wholeness as expressed in the reading from Isaiah. I pray that each of us may be able to own it for ourselves and that, in our joy and gratitude, we will be able pass on that love to others.

God probably
does exist. So rejoice and celebrate his amazing love. Amen

Sunday 7 December 2008 - Zechariah's Meditation

This is a partly-narrative sermon based on Luke 1:5-20 for Advent 1.   There is a great deal of influence here from Trevor Dennis' book The Christmas Stories.

====

God Will Come Out of Hiding

'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I'll never forget those words. A brother priest said them to me just before I was one of the five chosen to enter the Temple sanctuary.

We were talking about the Empire - the Roman Empire - and about our hopes for the future of the Jewish people.  Hopes that seemed rather far-fetched given the rule of Herod-the-Great and his son over the last 35 years or so.

Oh the two Herods were Jews alright. But they were in bed with the occupying Roman Empire, doing the will of Rome rather than of God. It was hard to see how God would have anything to do with the Jewish people when our leaders were colluding with the enemy. After all, as priests we knew that the prophets taught that we needed to be pure as a people before the Messiah would come to us.

Anyway, we were talking about these things, my brothers and I. Our section had been called to Temple duty. But you have to understand that there were so many priests that each section served the Temple for one week at a time twice a year. And most of us had a lot of waiting around to do. The chances of actually serving in the sanctuary were pretty low. There were so many of us in the section and we were chosen by lot so that God could make the decision himself.

I myself had never been chosen before. That was somewhat unusual, but not completely. There were others who had never been chosen. Some had been chosen two, or even three times.

Anyway, we were sitting there talking about the fate of the Jewish people and my brother priest had just uttered those words: 'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I confess that part of me thought 'As if!' and the other part of me thought 'Please, God!' And then we drew lots.

To my utter astonishment, amazement and complete disbelief, God chose me to serve in the sanctuary that day.

It all seems rather understated now, that statement: 'God will come out of hiding'. Neither one of us knew that God was going to come out of hiding that very day. And my wildest dreams could not have imagined what waited for me in the Sanctuary.

You know all about the events that happened next. You just heard the story.

Is it any wonder that I was struck dumb after seeing Gabriel and hearing everything that he said? I mean, I went into the Sanctuary expecting to offer incense to God. I didn't expect a messenger of God to come out from behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies and talk to me!

And I certainly didn't expect to be told that my wife and I would have a son in our old age who would be a prophet - 'great in the spirit of God'. Like Sarah in the Torah, I laughed in my heart and I doubted a great deal. I mean, wouldn't you? I'd not exactly had any time to get used to such a preposterous idea.

My great regret was that, when I left the sanctuary and came out into the Court of Israel, I was not able to bless the people with the other priests. This was a duty that I could not perform and a privilege that I had looked forward to all my life. As far as I knew, this would be my only opportunity to exercise my priestly office, and the opportunity was denied me.

A Son is Born

To tell you the truth, at the beginning of the whole thing, I expected to get my voice back in a couple of days. I thought it was just shock. Then, as the days and weeks drew on, I became more and more resigned to the fact that I might never speak again. I prayed that I might one day regain my speech, but I wondered if my dumbness was the payment exacted by God for lifting his curse of barrenness upon Elizabeth.

Despite the sadness of losing my voice, Elizabeth's pregnancy was a time of great rejoicing. We both come from the priestly clan and all through our lives we had been blameless in keeping all of God's commandments. For many years, we suffered from the belief that God was displeased with Elizabeth; why else would he not bless her with sons and daughters? And, of course, there had to be a son to carry on the priestly tradition of our family.

Sometimes it seemed to us that our condition mirrored that of the Jewish people: God was silent and his blessing was withheld. But now, Elizabeth was able to hold her head high: her righteousness was vindicated. God had blessed her and was working his purposes through her. And the proof was there for all to see.

Family and neighbours all rejoiced with us. Elizabeth and I were chosen by God to be the parents of the first prophet that Israel has seen for generations. Some say that he is the reincarnation of Elijah.

We named him John, just like the angel Gabriel told us to do. That went against tradition, of course. But it seemed to us that God is about to do a new thing. We are on the brink of a new era and it seems that God has finally come out of hiding.

Faithfulness

Zechariah and Elizabeth were unique people.  Not only were they the parents of John the Baptist, but their story of childlessness and subsequent fruitfulness is one of a handful in the bible.  In Scripture, every time a child (a son!) is born of a barren woman, the child is a child of very special significance in the purposes of God.

The birth of John the Baptist ends a period of many centuries when God did not speak to his people.  John the Baptist will be the prophet of a new era, the prophet a new testament. Although he began a new prophetic age, there was nonetheless continuity with the former prophetic age.  

Zechariah and Elizabeth were undoubtedly unique but they embodied many human concerns about God:  Where is God in all of this? Where is God in my life? Where is God in history?
God did not act in their lives as they expected him to act, and possibly not as they thought he 'ought' to have acted.  However, they remained faithful and the were used by God in a most unexpected way.

God has promised to his faithful people that he will remain faithful to us.  And the security of that promise rests in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one we await during Advent.  We are living in a new era, and God has come out of hiding.

I pray that we may we be given the grace and fortitude to persist in our faith even when we cannot see God working as we might want him to do.  May we be given a change of perspective so that we can see God's activity in the world where we least expected it.  And may we have the wisdom and courage to follow in the direction of God's leading, even if it means changing our expectations. Amen

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday 23 November 2008 - Sharing our Gospel

This is a thematic sermon based loosely around the texts of Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46.

The Gospel text deals with the 'separation of the sheep and the goats'. A number of commentaries suggested that this parable is not about the judgement of Christian believers or about the judgement of Jewish people, but about the judgement of 'the people' - those outside both the Jewish and Christian faith (or, as some suggest, those who have never heard the Gospel message). In any event, this parable should give us some pause about thinking that we can ourselves judge who will be separated out of God's Kingdom.

This is a rather gentle sermon. Some will think it's not hard-hitting enough given the Gospel reading. This particular congregation has been through a lot of loss recently, hence the approach that I've taken here. Ultimately, the Kingship of Christ and the reign of the fullness of the Kingdom of God will be Good News.

===

Seize the Day

Carpe Diem. The English translation of this Latin phrase is 'Seize the Day'. And my bet is that most people who know the meaning of this phrase probably know it not because they learnt Latin in school but rather because they are familiar with the film Dead Poets' Society starring Robin Williams.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, Williams plays one of the central characters: a maverick English teacher named Mr. Keating, teaching in an elite US boys' boarding school in the 1950s. One of Mr. Keating's great personal passions is poetry. But I think that it would be fair to also say that his absolute central personal passion is this phrase 'Carpe Diem' - 'seize the day'.

The film portrays Mr. Keating as a man whose central mission is to help each one of the boys to think for himself and to discover his own unique talents and abilities. And so the scene is set in the film for the inevitable tragedy that is to follow when these boys start thinking for themselves rather than following the paths that their parents have laid out for them and which they expect the boys to follow unquestioningly.

Because once you learn what your passion is, you can never unlearn it.

Paul's Gospel / My Gospel

The Apostle Paul certainly knew what his passion was: the grace and love of God as disclosed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Once a Jewish Pharisee passionate about God's unswerving love for the Jewish people, Paul's dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ transformed him in a person who became passionate in his conviction that God's unswerving love is for all people regardless of race, gender, or social status.

We might find it difficult to understand Paul's obsession with the Gospel, but imagine growing up being taught that you have the most fantastic treasure on earth because of the circumstances of your birth only to be told later by God himself that, actually, every single person on earth has access to the same great treasure.

Perhaps if we think of the Gospel message - God's Good News - as a treasure we can get some sense of Paul's enthusiasm and why he felt that he literally had to go to the ends of the known earth to tell everyone.

Because once you learn the Good News, you can never unlearn it.

Now, not everyone is as privileged as Paul was to have such a dramatic personal insight into the Gospel.

But I'd like to float the idea this morning that many of us will have our own ideas about what God's good news is - about what the Gospel message is. Or probably more accurately, we will all have our own different insights into the One Gospel.

For Paul, his insight seems to have been something like 'No matter who you are, where you come from, or what your lot in life, God loves you.' For Jesus, I think it was something like 'God is our Loving Father'.

For me, my version of God's Good News is something like 'Where love is, there God is'. For a friend of mine, his version of God's Good News is 'God believes in you'.

Other versions of the Good News that I've heard people talk and preach about are: 'God loves each of us as unique individuals'; 'There is no sin that is too big to forgive'; 'Never stop hoping'; and what I call the 'Footprints in the Sand' gospel: the idea that God is with us in the trials and difficulties of life.

These are all just a few examples of what I'm calling 'personal gospels'.

Each of us has our own unique Good News about God, our 'personal gospels' because we are all different. Taken together, all these billions of unique insights into God's Good News can't even begin to express the totality of who God is. But nonetheless, we try to express the entirety of God's being and his goodness. I think we try because we are human and it's human to want to communicate and share with other human beings.

Christ the King

Today is the celebration of the festival of Christ the King.

It is also the last Sunday in the church year and the Sunday when the Church tries to express in some way or another the inexpressible perfection of God and the hope that he offers to us in Christ.

And so the Church uses the ancient images of the arrival of a perfect Kingdom and a perfect ruler. And we use the images of fair-play and justice for all: images of the poor being fed, the ill being healed, and those who have been unfairly imprisoned being at last treated fairly. And we dream that those who exploit the vulnerable and take advantage of weak will be banished from God's new reality and that justice and peace will reign. We anticipate a future where everyone will be able to 'Seize the Day' - especially those who don't have that opportunity at present because of their life circumstances.

'Christ the King' is a symbol, an image, a human attempt to express something that is essentially inexpressible: God's love, justice and goodness. As human beings, we will never fully understand these things in this life, but we can share our personal good news - our personal insights into God - with each other.

So this is my challenge to us this morning: that we share our personal gospels with each other. Not as an exercise in converting the other person to my way of thinking, but rather as an exercise in me hearing the other person's Good News. Because together, all our personal gospels form a more complete picture of who God is and they help us each to learn and grow. These are examples of treasures that we can share with each other and grow as a Christian community in the process.

Because once you learn more about the Good News, you can never unlearn it.

Conclusion

My prayer this morning for all of us comes from Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. Amen

Sunday 16 November 2008 - No Buried Treasure

This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30

Introduction

For the last two Sundays, the subjects of our Epistle and Gospel readings have been the Second Coming of Christ (and the reign of the Kingdom of God) and our place as believers in that Kingdom (the resurrection life) Today is no exception as the assigned Scripture readings continue to look at these subjects from yet another angle.

As I said last week, Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is an answer to the concerns of the church at Thessalonica - 'When Christ returns to earth in our lifetime and the Kingdom of God comes, what is going to happen to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died?' And Paul's answer to them (he's still expecting Christ to return in his generation) is 'Don't worry, they will not be second class citizens in God's Kingdom but they will also participate fully in the Kingdom life'.

The Gospel as Light of the World

Today's reading from Thessalonians is part of Paul's closing of the letter. And Paul takes the opportunity to remind them that the coming of God's Kingdom has already begun and that they are a part of it. And he uses the images of darkness and light to make his point. In 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 (NIV) he writes: 'But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.'

I suppose that many of the Thessalonians and many people in society today might want to respond incredulously 'How on earth can anyone claim that the Kingdom of God has already begun? Are you blind to all the evil that is going on in the world? Blind to the Roman occupation? Blind to the suffering in the Congo? Blind to people in Gaza who are starving? Blind to the current economic crisis?'

And I think that, theologically, the church's answer is 'No we are not blind to evil and injustice, but we also have hope for the future that God's certain intention is that evil and injustice will end and that they will be replaced by his Kingdom.' We believe that God has promised that as surely as the sunrise follows the nighttime, that evil and injustice will most certainly end. Paul makes this point a number of times in his first letter to the Thessalonians and, now at the end of his letter, he reminds us once again of the Church's glorious hope: The Gospel of Christ is the light of the world and we have been entrusted with that light.

The Gospel as a Great Treasure

In today's reading from Matthew, we have yet another image of the the Gospel message: the image of a great treasure.

How great a treasure is the Gospel? Well, it's like fifteen years' wages for a labourer (one talent). And that's just for starters because, although one of the servants in the story was given 15 years' wages, another servant was given 30 years' wages and still another 75 years'. The message of the Gospel is a huge treasure! As a child might say, the Gospel is as wonderful as a hundred million gazaillon years' wages.

And what does God want us to do with that treasure? God wants this treasure to be invested, he wants the talents to be spread around and wants the light to make the whole world glow But instead of spreading God's light all over the world, the church is often times guilty of hoarding it for ourselves, like a treasure buried for safekeeping.

Don't Bury Your Treasure

So if we are share our treasure better, what might this mean for church-going Christians at a practical level?

First of all, you might be glad to hear that I'm not trying to say that I think we should be out knocking on doors asking people if they've accepted Jesus into their hearts. Personally speaking, I actually think that this form of witnessing comes under the category of the third servant: it's an activity that meets our needs rather than the needs of others. As someone put it, it comes under the category of 'Because I need to tell you this, therefore you need to hear it.' Which is exactly the sort thing that this parable is warning against, I think.

But hold on to your pews because this parable is certainly not meant to make us comfortable or complacent. Rather this parable is a call to believing that the Kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven not by things staying the same but rather by things changing. If the church doing things the way we've always done them were the key to the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom would have come along time ago.

Now, I have to confess that I don't have any easy answers at a practical level about how to magically turn 10 portions of the Gospel into a great harvest. But I do have a few observations from the text.

First of all, the third servant was following the traditions and customs of his time: valuable treasures were to be buried. It was actually the first and second servants who we acting in a way that the prevailing culture would have called irresponsible.

The third servant was behaving as if God was that 'better safe than sorry' God who I talk about sometimes: He thought that God's main demands on his disciples is that we shouldn't break rules. When, in fact, God's main concern is that we spread his treasures about with abandon.

Church Idols?

But worse than that, the third servant seems to think that the religious customs of his time are not human-made customs, but that they actually are the will of God. I think that perhaps this is a lesson to the church: 'Which of our human customs do we confuse with God's calling? Which of our human customs do we idolise?

I honestly don't think that God cares if we have pews or chairs (although the Methodist Property office certainly does!) I don't think that God cares if we sing traditional hymns or Matt Redman worship songs. I don't think that God even cares if we stop worshipping on Sunday mornings and have a meal and a worship mid-week instead.

Thinking about some of these changes might make us nervous but I think this parable is asking us to stop and consider what it is that we might be doing simply as human custom that hinders the working of the Holy Spirit in us to spread the treasure of the Gospel.

Before I end, I want to say that I don't have a hidden agenda and I'm not to drop a bombshell on you. I'm simply trying to reflect on this passage.

This year, our circuit did a circuit review and, along with other churches in the circuit, we've seen the positive benefits of that exercise. I think it's important that we don't think of review and change as a one-off but rather as something that we must do on an on-going basis as part of our discipleship.

But in the middle of all this remains God's Good News: the coming of the Kingdom has begun and the Kingdom will reign on earth as it does in heaven. If the early church could profess this Good News whilst living in the middle of an occupation army, then we too can profess it in our own circumstances. Our God is a God of freedom and not of fear. His Spirit is there to guide us through the challenge of change. Spirit-led change is an adventure and not a threat.

My prayer this morning is that we will always continue on a journey of trying to discern how we can share the Gospel in a way that serves the needs of others rather than in a way that serves the needs of the Church. And I also pray that we can live joyfully in the freedom of the Holy Spirit so that we are not afraid of change. Amen

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sunday 9 November 2008 - Christ will Come Again

This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with a reference to the day's gospel reading Matthew 25:1-13. It was delivered at a service for Remembrance Sunday.

Introduction

Pity the poor preacher this morning, please.

Our texts for today deal with the subjects of the Second Coming of Christ and the future resurrection of believers who have died in Christ. If you want the very short version of what these texts are about, that's basically it. You can go home now, if you like.

Now, these two doctrines are not quite the hottest of hot topics in the Christian world, but if I'm not mistaken, I think that there are two broad schools of thought about them.

The first school of thought is the literal one: the body that Jesus had in his life was resuscitated and came back to life. And at the second coming our bodies will be resuscitated and come back to life. At the opposite end of this spectrum is the school of thought which seems to see both the Second Coming of Christ and his and our Resurrection as some great metaphor of meaning. These things are not something that thoughtful modern people actually believe in (says the second school of thought), but rather we see them as powerful tools or symbols in the Great Human Search for Meaning.

So what does a thoughtful, modern preacher make of these doctrines? (Well, I strive to be thoughtful, anyway!)

The Thessalonians

First I want to begin by pointing out that the purpose of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians isn't to give them a description of the Second Coming of Christ but rather to encourage them that those who have died prior to Christ's Second Coming aren't going to miss out on any of God's blessings in the coming Kingdom of God.

In this, his earliest letter, it seems that Paul expects to be alive when Christ returns. And I think it's also probable that Matthew also thought that the Second Coming would be something that their generation would see in their own lifetime.  So, although other allegorical interpretations of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins might inspire us and are also perfectly legitimate, I believe that it means what it seems to imply: be on your guard so that you will be ready when Christ returns to earth again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The only problem is that, with the benefit of over 2000 years of hindsight, we know that Christ did not return to earth during the generation of his peers. And we, like every generation since then, have had to grapple with the fact that Scripture seems to believe that Jesus would return in the lifetime of his own generation. So how can we make some sense of these things: of the Second Coming and the future Resurrection of believers?

Describing Colour to a Blind Person

Tom Wright, currently the Bishop of Durham and an internationally-respected bible scholar, provides a helpful framework, I think.

He asks a very interesting question: How would you describe different colours to a person who was born blind with no residual sight?

You might say that Red is a hot, hard colour. You might say that Green is a cool, soft colour. And you might say that Yellow is a dissonant, prickly colour. In describing these colours to your blind friend, both of you would be absolutely aware that these descriptions are extremely inadequate. But we might agree that, as inadequate as the are, the descriptions provide some way of trying to describe the indescribable.

So, just as it would be incorrect for a blind person to insist that yellow does not exist because they can't see it, so too it would be equally incorrect to insist that yellow is 'literally' prickly or dissonant. Yellow exists but cannot be described to a person without sight, nor can that person grasp the fullness of the colour yellow.

Resurrection and the Second Coming

I think that this way of thinking is a helpful tool to use when trying to imagine the resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.

Because the assurance of resurrection into the Kingdom of God of all who have trusted in Christ is a key doctrine for our faith, so I want to try to grapple with it. It is a key narrative of the Christian faith that when the Kingdom of God finally comes, then God will put all wrongs to rights and grief will turn to joy. But I can't tell you exactly what either of these things mean any more than a blind person can explain the fullness of the colour yellow.

Nevertheless, I have a belief, trust and hope in God that we will some how be transformed into the fullness of what we were meant to be from before the beginning of time. (Resurrection) And with that same belief and trust and faith, I believe that God will bring all creation into the fullness of what it was meant to be (The Second Coming of Christ, The Kingdom of God)

To use the classic symbols, our future resurrection life will be lived in the Kingdom of God.

How God will work his purposes out, I don't know. And I don't think that the apostle Paul knew either - that's why we are disciples of the Christian Faith and not disciples of the Christian Explanation.

Conclusion

Today's scripture readings weren't actually meant specifically for Remembrance Day because they are the internationally-agreed readings for this Sunday.

Yet, I think that there is a connection between these readings and Remembrance Sunday. Whatever we believe about the necessity of war in this world, I believe that the bible tells us that there will be no war in the coming Kingdom.

The bible also most certainly tells us that war and death are not part of who God is.

There are people and regimes in the history of humankind that are willing to use war and murder as tools to gain an advantage over other human beings. They think that it is their willingness to kill and to murder that sets them apart and gives them real power. But, through Christ, God has said that there is actually no power in death because all things will be raised to new life in his Kingdom.

For Christians who watch and wait, this is our joyful hope.

For the forces of evil and those who rely on the power of death to define who they are, the coming Kingdom of God is their ultimate demise.

My prayer this morning is that, as Christians, we are encouraged by the hope that God is a God of life. May we pray for peace, work for peace, and look forward to the coming Kingdom of God. Amen

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday 26 October 2008 - Love & the Great Commandment

The text for this sermon is Matthew 22:34-46

Introduction

In 2005, Channel 4 decided that it was going to conduct a nationwide poll among the British people to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments. The thinking was that the original ten commandments are somewhat out of date and that a new set might be more relevant for the 21st century. If Christianity (and Judaism) is no longer considered relevant by enlightened, modern people, what sort of moral code doe the British public feel speaks to our lives in post-Christian Britain?

Interestingly, the British public came up with 20 new commandments. And if you're ever tempted to accuse preachers of being long-winded, do try to remember the fact that it was the general public who felt that ten commandments weren't enough.)

Here are the 'new' commandments which speak to the British public over and above the outmoded moral requirements of Christianity:
1) Treat others as you would have them treat you.
2) Be honest
3) Don't kill
4) Look after the vulnerable
5) Respect your mother and father
6) Enjoy life
7) Nothing in excess
8) Be true to your own God
9) Be true to yourself
10) Protect your family
11) Look after your health
12) Try your best at all times
13) Don't commit adultery
14) Live within your means
15) Appreciate what you have
16) Never be violent
17) Protect the environment
18) Protect and nurture children
19) Take responsibility for your own actions
20) Don't steal

Love is the Commandment

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus answers the Pharisees' question 'What is the Greatest Commandment' with the formula from Deuteronomy: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself. These two commandments - often called The Great Commandment - are at the very core of the Christian faith and they are at the core of our value system.

I also find it interesting that these two commandments seem to appear in our new, secular commandments - the ones that the public claims actually have relevance to our daily life here and now.

And I find it extremely interesting that 'treat others as you would have them treat you' was thought to be the number one 'new commandment' by the British public.
In some form or another, most of the world's major religions mention this principle - The Golden Rule - as being central to their beliefs. Many forms of paganism, for example, believe that the good you do to others will return to you in like measure but that if you do evil to another human being, seven times the evil you have done to them will come back to you.

A Christian friend of mine once remarked that she liked this pagan principle because it underlines the seriousness of treating other people as you would have them treat you.

I understand what she meant, but I can't help but notice that the Great Commandment doesn't call us to treat our neighbour well because if we don't God will zap us with seven times our own bad behaviour (God forbid!)

Rather the Great Commandments calls us to treat our neighbour well because of Love.

And it suggests to us that there is some kind of important connection between our love for God and his love for us on the one hand and our love for other people on the other hand.

God is Love

Christians believe that love is a force that looks outwards, outside of oneself to the good of the other.

The first of the Great Commandments is to love God with everything that you are: with the centre of your willing and your choosing. This is an invitation to look outside our selves and to focus on the God who loves us and to align ourselves with that love.

But the invitation to love God also comes with the invitation to love other people, to look outside our own interests and even outside the interests of our immediate family and to also take an interest in the needs and well-being of other human beings: People in our community, in other parts of the country and even in other lands.

Created to Love

The Christian author and psychologist M Scott Peck tells a story about one of his clients who felt isolated and cut off from the rest of society.

One day he took her with him to a hospital and asked her to visit with a number of people. (He gave her the excuse that he had to confer with a colleague but, in fact, he had arranged for her to do the visits.) His client visited with these people, who had all been in hospital long-term with serious physical illnesses, and they were very glad of the company. When the visiting finished, he asked his client how she felt and she replied: 'You know, I feel better than I've felt in ages. I don't feel so isolated and I realise that there are other people with problems that are much worse than mine.'

Now, please don't take this as a simplistic 'cure' for depression on my part. My point is simply that I expect that many of us will recognise the truth in that story: that there is a great deal of human satisfaction in looking outside ourselves to the needs of others.

As a Christian, I would say - along with M Scott Peck - that the reason is because God created us this way. We were created to look outside ourselves, to love God and to love our neighbour.

Conclusion

But the wonderful thing about the Great Commandments is that God is at the centre of it all and God is love.

We don't have to worry that every time we miss the mark and fail to do what is right that God or the Universe will return evil to us seven times over. Because at the centre of life, the universe and everything is love. An intentional force that is trying to work all things together for good: God.

My prayer for us this morning is that we may each be strengthened by the love of God and that we may receive more and more of God's love in order to give more and more love to others.

Because at the end of the day and at the end of our lives, what matters most is that we are loved by God and that we love others in return. Amen

Sunday 10 October 2008 - Persecuted Church

The text for this sermon is Luke 12:1-12

Introduction

This week's edition of The Church Times carries an article about the persecution of Christians in Orissa State in India. The Church Times is one of the weekly papers published for the benefit of members of The Church of England: it's their Methodist Recorder, if you will.

The persecution began this past August when Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was murdered along with four of his associates. Swami Laxmanananda was a leader in the VHP, a Hindu organisation that believes that the Christian and Muslim world are both dedicated to the persecution of Hindus.

The thing is that the Swami wasn't murdered by Christians. A Maoist group has twice taken credit for the Swami's murder and defended it's actions They stated that the reason for the murder was that 'Laxmanananda was not fighting for Hindus. He was heading the VHP and implementing an agenda targeted against the minorities. No one speaks for minorities. They are exploited.'[1]

The article in The Church Times tells of horrific violence against Christians in Orissa, describing the situation as 'The sort of horror that dulls the senses or excites overstimulation'. Witness in refugee camps had horrible stories to tell. At least 50,000 Christians have been forced out of their homes and a number have suffered torturous deaths.

What has happened in this area, according to those familiar with the situation, has been a long propaganda campaign against Christians and Muslims that seemed to me to be quite similar to Hitler's propaganda against the Jews. The VHP's message that Christians (and Muslims) are dedicated to the eradication of the Hindu people has been taken on board by many individuals in the area.

The Importance of Truth

This morning's Gospel reading is actually all about the persecution of the early Christian Church although it might not sound like it at first hearing.

Remember that Luke was writing after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the knowledge of these events must have inevitably have had an effect on the way he told the story of Jesus' life. In this section of Luke's Gospel, Jesus is warning his disciples about the coming persecution of his followers - something about which Luke had firsthand knowledge.

The reading is an exhortation to Christian disciples to be bold in proclaiming the truth of Christ when persecution comes and to draw on the strength and the witness of the Holy Spirit for their boldness.

Truth is something that is important for good functioning of human society and it's absolutely vital in the life of the Church.

Luke 12:3 says 'Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops'

Or in simple language, 'The Truth will Out'. If you plot evil in secret, eventually there will be an evil outcome. If you do good in secret, blessings will result even if no one knows who was the source of the initial good deeds.

As Christians, of course, it's easy for us to sympathise with our Christian brothers and sisters in Orissa.

It's easy for us to see in the VHP an example of how an organisation with good intentions turned to evil. Because the VHP arose out of a Hindu movement in the 1950s and 1960s to ban cow slaughter in India and speak up for the Hindu people and for Hindu culture. For a number of decades, it engaged in it's work through peaceful demonstration, petitions and challenging laws it felt to be unjust.
And it opened schools and hospitals for poor Hindus.

But over the years, it became more and more radical and it developed the conviction that international Islam and international Christianity were out to destroy Indian Hindus. And it spread this message of conspiracy until it was unsurprising that violence would erupt in the countryside.

The truth is important and so with the story of Christians in Orissa. Because the mainstream Hindu organisations have been joining with the Christian Church in India to condemn the violence against Christians. But many ordinary Hindus have gone further than mere condemnation: risking their own lives in order to protect Christian neighbours.

We can see that the truth is a complicated business but that's why it's important to tell the truth.

It's even more important in situations where we are tempted to turn some group or another into a scapegoat. When the truth of a situation is not told, then it becomes easier to scap-goat individuals according to some category: all Hindus are evil, all Muslims are evil, all teenagers are thugs, all men are bastards. Whenever we hear these kinds of simplistic statements, the alarm bells should ring and we should suspect that the whole truth of the situation is not being told.

Be True To Your Faith

This morning's Gospel reading tells us that, in the face of persecution, disciples of Christ are not to be hypocrites. In this case, 'hypocrites' doesn't mean people pretending to be better than they are: it means people who don't stand up for what they say they believe.

In the context of the Gospel reading, it means not admitting to being Christians because of fear of persecution. In our own context, it might mean being afraid to admit that we are Christians, but it can also include failing to seek a more complicated truth than one of 'baddies' and 'goodies'.

For us hypocrisy might mean not speaking up to challenge the current mood of anti-Muslim sentiment. Speaking up against anti-Islamic sentiment doesn't mean that we affirm and profess the tenets of the Muslim religion. It simply means speaking the truth that the situation is much more complicated that than a simple story of 'we are good and they are bad'. It is not Muslims who are terrorists, but terrorists who who are hiding behind the name of God to further their own ends.

Of course, acting in truth or speaking up for the truth can be dangerous. Jesus knew that. That's why he promised the Holy Spirit to us as his disciples: to help us to do what is right, even in the face of danger or persecution.

That includes, of course, speaking up for the truth of the Gospel and of the Christian faith. But I believe it certainly also includes speaking the truth in all situations and unmasking any lies told in secret.

Conclusion

It's possible that this sermon was not as 'spiritual' as you would have liked.
I wonder if some of you might even have thought it was too 'political'.

However, today's Gospel reading does talk about standing up for truth in the face of persecution. It reminds us that when we do have the courage to defend the truth, that the Holy Spirit will be with us.

When we hear Jesus say that he is the way, the truth and the life, I believe this statement means that Jesus is the Truth. But I also believe it means that God cares deeply that the truth is told.

Sometimes our faith is not just about what we call 'spiritual' things, but it must also be about what we do: About having the courage to speak the truth on the one hand but also about putting in the work to seek the truth in complicated situations. We should not settle for answers that are easy but rather seek for answers that reflect the truth of the situation.

My prayer this morning is that we will all witness to the truth of Christ as our Saviour and also speak the truth in all situations, even when it is dangerous and unpopular.

And may we each be given the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit as we seek to be beacons of the light of truth. Amen

[1]http://in.ibtimes.com/articles/20081007/orissa-persecutiono-attack-maoist-vhp-leader-laxmananda-saraswati-india-christian-manmohan-singh.htm, Accessed 11 October 2008.

Apologies

I haven't posted any sermons for awhile as it became too onerous.  Rather than try to catch up from the summer, I'm just going to resume from this point on.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sunday 27 July 2008 - Divine Disclosure

This sermon is based on the gospel reading for today's second service: John 6:1-21

===

Divine Disclosure

One of the resources that I used for studying this week’s Gospel text suggested teaching children the story of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus’ walking on water by teaching them the difference between magic and miracles. They even came up with this rap rhyme – which is probably too lame for many children, but since I’m middle-aged, I’m quite happy to recite it![1]

Strings of coloured scarves
people sawn in halves
mirrors, wands and cards…
…magic!

Vanishing balloons,
bendy forks and spoons,
rides on witches brooms…
…magic!

Disappearing cots,
Rabbits out of hats,
Anything like that’s…
…magic!

Candles, corn and flowers,
stories by the hour,
miracles of power…
…Jesus!

Hands that heal and care,
God’s love and truth to share
with people everywhere…
…Jesus!

Hungry people fed,
fish and loaves of bread,
risen from the dead…Jesus!


Especially in their younger years, it makes sense to teach children about the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘miracles’.

But today, I want to offer an adult version of this ‘magic versus miracles’ lesson. I hope it won’t frighten you too much, but I want to use a theological word: theophany. Theophany means an appearance of God to humanity, it means a divine disclosure.

John’s account of these two well-known bible stories – the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water – are accounts of divine disclosures. Both of these stories are theophanies. Yes, both of these events are miracles, but if with think that the main point is simply to say ‘Jesus performed two extraordinary miracles, therefore he must be the Son of God’, we miss out on many layers of richness in the stories. What’s important isn’t so much that Jesus performs miracles as what these miracles say about who he is.

You could make the argument that all of John’s Gospel is devoted to theophany – to divine disclosure. John is the evangelist who makes the direct connection for us that the person who has seen Jesus has seen the Father. John is the evangelist who reports Jesus as saying that he and the Father are one. John’s Gospel is devoted primarily to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. So, I think it’s fair to say that this Gospel is devoted to divine disclosure – to theophany.

So what do these stories say about who Jesus is? How do they disclose to us the nature of Jesus beyond his ability to perform miracles?

Many Clues

There are actually a number of images in these two stories. First of all there are two typical Johannine images: Jesus as the bread of life and Jesus as the light of the world.

In John’s version of the feeding of the 5000, it is Jesus himself who distributes the bread and the fishes. Unlike the other Gospels, John’s story is not so much about Jesus asking his disciples to feed the world as it is about demonstrating that Jesus is the one who is the source of nourishment for humanity. Jesus is the bread of life.

And then there is the story of Jesus’ walking on water. Did you notice that, in John’s story, Jesus does not invite Peter to walk on the water with him? Perhaps the most significant details of this particular story are the darkness and the disciples’ fear.

Jesus – the light of the world – comes into the darkness and sheds the light of his presence. It’s almost a fairy-tale ending, with everything turning out alright in the end, but not before the disciples experience a lot of fear and doubt. Where has Jesus gone? When will he come back to us? Can we be sure that he will return to us? Is this really him? Important questions for the disciples in the boat, important questions for the early church and important questions for us today. And Jesus answer to them and to us is: ‘Do not be afraid’.

Jesus as the Mosaic Prophet

And there is yet another divine revelation in this story. Jesus is the latter-day prophet who stands in the tradition of Moses. With his reference to the feeding of the 5000 as happening at the time of the Passover, John makes explicit what is implicit in the other accounts of this story: That this feeding is connected with Yahweh’s provision of manna to the people of Israel in the desert. And the crowd acknowledges this when they say: ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

And then just in case we fail to be hit in the head with all the obvious symbolism of Jesus’ Messiahship, John – like Matthew and Mark – gives the story of Jesus’ walking on water. A kind of upside-down version of the crossing of the Red Sea. Including Jesus identification of himself as ‘I am’ – translated here as ‘It is I’.

The problem, of course, is with the people’s conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and Jesus’ understanding of Messiahship. The people wanted to turn Jesus into an earthly King and a conquering hero, so Jesus was forced to withdraw to an isolated spot. Jesus knew that his kingdom would have no followers and that it would wield no earthly power. Jesus’ triumph was going to be achieved by dying rather than by killing. A kingship, as Paul said, that would foolishness to both Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus’ upside-down Messiahship is another divine disclosure: about who God is and what his values are.

Conclusion

I think these two stories provide for us a number of pictures of God’s disclosure of himself.

God is a God who holds a banquet and who wants to provide generously for all people, whether that provision seems easy and God-given or whether it needs to be made through the obedience of his disciples.

God is a God who comes to us in the ordinary things of life – bread and fish and bread and wine. And not just these things, of course, but as the Jewish prayers of blessing remind us, God is present in all things.

The God who originally declared his covenant with the people of Israel has declared in Jesus his covenant with all people and for all time.

And finally, God is a God who knows that human beings are sometimes afraid. He knows that we sometimes feel bereft of him as if we were alone in a storm in a small boat in the dark. And he says to us ‘Do not be afraid’. Sometimes his voice can seem feint, but it is a firm promise as well as an invitation.

This is the same God who we meet in the bread and the wine at the Lord’s table. May he be with us now in the ordinary things of his creation. Amen

[1] From Roots Children and Young People, Sunday 27 July 2003, p. 18

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sunday 22 June 2008 - Superior Gifts?

This is a short, non-lectionary sermon based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 A minister from The Methodist Church in Ghana (his Christian name is 'Moses') came to our worship service to tell us about the work of The Methodist Church in Ghana. This was a short reflection in that service.

===

Introduction

1 Corinthians 12:13 reads: ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

Paul wrote this letter to the Christian Church in Corinth about 53 or 54 AD and it wasn’t exactly a letter of congratulations. The problem was that the Corinthians really didn’t live out any kind of understanding that they were all members of one body because of their baptism in Christ. From what Paul writes, it seems that there were a number of divisions amongst Corinthian believers and there seems to have been a good deal of competition as well. We understand from the letter that the Corinthians seemed to be arguing amongst each other about which teacher was the greatest, which followers were the most preferred by God, and which of these factions had received a greater portion of the Holy Spirit.

The Corinthians had been baptised into one body – the body of Christ. And they had been baptised into one Spirit, but they weren’t acting like it at all. They weren’t living in the fullness of Christian love but were still living as if they were of the world: competing with each other of spiritual honours, looking down on each other and even celebrating Holy Communion in a way that created factions in the church rather than unity.

Challenged by Different Gifts

This evening, we have heard the Moses tell us about the Methodist Church in Ghana. I’m as certain as I can be that each one of us here tonight wholeheartedly affirms that we have all been baptised into one body in Christ: Ghanaian Methodists and British Methodists. I’m also certain that each one of us here tonight would agree with Paul’s analogy of the body having many parts, all of which are necessary to the good working of the body, none of which are superior.

As Westerners, I think we have to acknowledge that it is the world outside of Europe and America that is now most receptive to the Gospel of Christ and to the movement of the Spirit. Where we once saw ourselves as missionaries to the rest of the world, it’s we who can now benefit as African and Asian Christian brothers and sisters bring the joy and vitality of the Gospel back into our society. But Christians all over the world have their own function and their own part to play in building the Kingdom of God.

I think that there is a challenge to us in this reading from the Corinthians, though. And the challenge will be different for every individual and for every congregation – it is something for you to discern prayerfully with God. Here is the challenge: Although we might not be like the Corinthians in thinking our own brand of Christianity superior to that of others because of ethnic or cultural differences – at least I hope not! – do we nonetheless have feelings of superiority over other Christians?

Do we secretly think that our own congregation is somehow more favoured by God than a congregation down the road? Than another congregation in the circuit? Or do we think that we have superior spiritual gifts or understanding than other sorts of Christians? Do we secretly think that our form of worship is better than that of others? Do we even idolise – just a little bit – our buildings or ‘the way we always do things’?

I’m going to leave these questions for you to ponder for yourself as only you can answer for yourself. I will say that I think that no-one is exempt from this phenomenon – we all have our prejudices, including me. And I also want to sound a note of caution you if you think this is a trivial question. My challenge would be – ‘Wouldn’t be a shame to allow trivial differences to come between us?’ I’m sure there are big places where we need to draw a line in the sand and say with Martin Luther ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’, but very often in the life of the Christian church it is actually the trivial differences that become barriers to working together.

The Good News

So where is the Good News in this evening’s reading? If there ever was a motley crew of Christians, it was the Corinthians. If ever there was an assembly that was really struggling with failure to be charitable to their Christian brothers and sisters, it was the Corinthians.

But the Good News is that Paul does not tell the Church in Corinth that God has cast them out of the Body of Christ. Paul tells them, in the opening of this letter, that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus and that they are called to be Saints! Granted, this letter is a strong challenge to the Corinthians to be better disciples, but the sanctification that Paul recognises for the Corinthians is something that is completed in the past; it’s done and dusted. Their salvation is not dependant on their good discipleship but rather on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and their baptism into that life.

The Good News is that God’s love is sure. God is faithful to his promises and our salvation rests on his promise to us in Christ. The Good News is that, whatever our gifts and whether we perceive them to be small or great, God uses them for his purposes. The Good News is that we were all baptized into one body and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

My prayer this evening is that, as a Christian community, we nurture each other in our growth in the Spirit and that we recognise all spiritual gifts and different ways of being Christians as necessary to the health of the church. But most of all, I pray that we may recognise and celebrate the greatest gift of all: the saving grace of God brought into creation by the death and resurrection of Jesus, our brother and our Saviour. Amen

Sunday 15 June 2008 - A Dangerous Gospel

This sermon is a thematic sermon loosely based around the day's Gospel reading: Matthew 9:35-10:23

===

Introduction

I suspect that you are probably familiar with the 1930s American comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are a couple of friends who go through life together lurching from one disaster to another. These are usually disasters that are often caused by their failure to grasp the consequence of a particular situation. Except that Oliver Hardy always has someone to blame for his own incompetence: his friend Stan Laurel. One of Ollie’s (as he is known) oft-repeated phrases is ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.’

In this morning’s reading, Jesus tells the twelve – and by extension us – that being his disciple is going to get us into one fine mess after another if we decide to follow him. In Matthew 10, verse 16, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves’.

Now like all good Jewish rabbis, Jesus sometimes exaggerates to make a point, but I’m not sure that he’s exaggerating here. At this point in the story of Jesus’ ministry, he is beginning to encounter opposition and I suspect that he is beginning to get an understanding of the very real dangers of proclaiming his counter-cultural message. And I believe that Jesus is very plainly telling the disciples that they will be in the same danger if they follow him: That when they proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God that they too will be like sheep in the midst of wolves.

A dangerous Gospel?

The question I’d like to ask this morning is ‘What is it about the Gospel, what is it about the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that makes the message dangerous?’ ‘What is it that makes the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that makes the message foolish?’ As Christians in the 21st century, should our message be a dangerous message or was the danger only for Jesus in his time?

This morning, I’d like to point two of the primary ways that I think that the Christian Gospel is both foolish and dangerous. You are, of course, free to make up your own mind and perhaps to think of your own dangers of the Gospel.

Forgiveness

The first ‘way of the Kingdom of God’ that I believe is foolishness is that the Kingdom is based on forgiveness. This is a topic that could be the subject of several sermons and I’m not going to pretend that the practice of forgiveness is easy.

Nonetheless, this is a patently foolish message in all sorts of ways if you start thinking about the practical applications of forgiveness.

Think of all the people in our lives who it would be difficult or impractical to forgive. Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the person who bullied us in school and whose bullying handicapped us in so many ways as we grew into adult life? Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the drunk driver who killed or maimed a member of our family? Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the individuals who bombed a public square on mothering Sunday or the London tube system during morning rush hour?

It may seem obvious to us that Jesus wanted his followers in his day to forgive their Christian bothers and sisters seventy times seven, but it is equally obvious to us that God understands that some people have hurt us so badly that it is simply not possible for us to forgive them.

As I said earlier, forgiveness is something that can often seem impossible, or at least extremely difficult. I do believe that God understands that it can seem impossible to forgive and I do believe that he will have compassion on those who struggle to forgive and find it difficult.

However, God’s compassion for those who have been hurt does not mean that he lifts the standard. He does not say ‘OK, I understand that it is difficult for you to forgive, so in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness will just be an optional extra’. And I suspect that the disciples were just as challenged as we are at the commandment to forgive seventy times seven and that they felt is was just as impossible as we do.

To proclaim forgiveness in the 21st century is as foolish as it was in the 1st century. Those who proclaim these values wholeheartedly will be like sheep amongst wolves.

Peace & the Rule of God

Another foolish characteristic of God’s rule in the Kingdom is that it is characterised by peace.

Once again, the direct application of Jesus’ teachings on peace seem highly dangerous in our own context today. To make Christ and the Kingdom of God the centre of our political values as well as the centre of our own personal morality would be dangerous as well as stupid.

We can easily accept that Jesus really meant that Rome was an illegitimate government in the eyes of God. We can understand that Jesus thought that the accommodation of the Temple to the prevailing Roman values of the time made the Temple illegitimate. And we can easily agree with Jesus’ opposition to the Zealots’ plan to raise an army of resistance against Rome.

But when we try to apply Jesus’ teaching directly to our own situation, we can see the dangers and complexities very clearly.

We look at our world and feel threatened by terrorism; and we see our precious sons and daughters being killed in foreign lands. We look at our own complicated world, our threatened and threatening world and we think ‘God can’t possibly be asking us to behave as if peace were already upon us; its too difficult.’

The way of peace is not only foolish, it’s downright dangerous. Couple the message of peace with the commandment to forgive others and with the message that the last shall be first and you might end up getting yourself killed just like Jesus. The ways of peace and forgiveness are not practical. They are na├»ve and idealistic and ‘everyone knows’ that the world does not work this way.

The Good News

But Jesus never said that being his disciple was going to be easy. Jesus tells us that we are going to be sent out on mission without any of the usual resources that the world thinks necessary to do a good job. And he tells us that we are going to be like sheep: targets for all the wolves who think that the way of Jesus is foolish and impractical.

But he also tells us that the world is in need of our mission. We, his followers, may be like sheep amongst the wolves, but at least we have a shepherd: the world does not have a shepherd and it is crying out for guidance. Jesus’ mission of spiritual and physical healing is our mission too. It’s the mission of the Church in the same way that it was the mission of the disciples. God’s determination to bring about the Kingdom of God begins with the twelve tribes of Israel, and it reaches fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Christ.

This is the Good News and it’s the Good News that we as a Church are sent out to proclaim. Just like the twelve disciples who Christ commissions here, Jesus’ mission is carried forward by us – the Church of Christ in every age. In this reading, we understand that our mission will not be easy but we are promised that it will be worthwhile; the healing of body, mind and spirit are always worthwhile.

Faith in Jesus will make our mission possible, but it won’t make it easy and it certainly will not earn us the world’s stamp of approval. Nonetheless, just like each one of the disciples, each of us has been called personally into our discipleship.

My prayer this morning/evening is that we may each be given the grace to follow where God leads us. I pray that we may be faithful messengers of his Good News and that our lives reflect God’s love, forgiveness and peace. Amen