Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sunday Nov 1 2009 - Radical Hospitality

This was another "supply preaching sermon" and I was asked to speak on the topic of "Radical Hospitality". This was one in a series of five sermons preached on the five areas covered in UMC Bishop Robert Schnase's book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

This sermon is not a precis of the chapter in Bishop Schnase's book although it draws from Schnase's work. This is a thematic sermon and I chose the following texts: Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 25:31-40.

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Introduction

Good morning everyone and thank you for your hospitality this morning in inviting me to join in your worship and share Scripture with you today.

And I guess it’s appropriate to thank you for your hospitality this morning because “Radical Hospitality” is the subject that I’ve been asked to speak on this morning. As I understand it, today is the second in a series of sermons on the subject of “the five practices of faithful congregations”.

But I expect that some of you may be wondering “What has hospitality got to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ?” It might seem somewhat obvious how being a hospitable congregation could help a congregation to grow and thrive, but you might not see a direct connection between hospitality and the message of the gospel.

God & Hospitality

So the first question I want to think about this morning is “What has hospitality to do with the good news that we proclaim as Christians?”

I don’t know what sort of images the word “hospitality” conjures up for you, but I expect that for most people, it conjures up images of dinner parties or maybe weekends away at a friend’s house.

But stop and think for a minute what hospitality meant to the people of the ancient near East. For a person from a nomadic desert culture, traveling from nomad settlement to nomad settlement, a question of hospitality might very well mean the difference between life and death.

It was usually the custom to allow a passing stranger to spend a night in your town or settlement, but then the expectation was that the person would move on. However, permission to camp overnight was by no means assured.

It was the normal social custom to view strangers with suspicion and as a potential threat to the community. (I wonder if that sounds familiar to us today?)

But remember our passage that we heard from Deuteronomy this morning: The reader is told that God himself loves the stranger and provides the stranger with food and clothing. And then God’s people are commanded to love the stranger because they themselves were strangers in Egypt.

“Loving” the stranger certainly goes beyond what we normally think of as hospitality in our society. The biblical concept of “loving” someone, as you probably know, is not just about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you; it’s about going further than that and actually putting their needs and welfare before your own.

And this is actually what the ancient custom of hospitality was all about. In the ancient near East, “hospitality” was an elaborate custom that included both testing and obligations on the part of the host and guest. Once the tests had been passed, the host and the guest were bound in a formal and permanent relationship that required both to look after each other in the same way that they would look after a member of their own family.

The guest was required to offer hospitality to the host if the need arose in the future and the host was always responsible for the safety of the guest. The host was required to do anything to secure the safety of the guest, even giving up his life in defense of the guest, if necessary.

I wonder if you hear an echo of any kind of familiar themes here?

I think that there is a very real sense in which we can say that God invites us as strangers and sinners into his Kingdom. In order to fully benefit from this Kingdom, we are invited to repent, just as the stranger is tested. And, as the host who is responsible for the welfare of his guest even if it means dying, God died in order to save us from the ravages of sin, death and the power of evil.

So, rather than having nothing to do with the message of the Gospel, I think that hospitality has much to do with it. God gives us undeserved and unimaginable hospitality and we are called as his children to give hospitality to others.

God welcomes the sinner and the stranger and calls us also to welcome the sinner and the stranger in response to his welcome.

In fact, we are called to love the stranger. We are called to extend a welcome that is not only friendly and hospitable but also to give a welcome that is risky, possibly dangerous, and which puts the needs of the visitor before our own needs.

I wonder how many church congregations actually manage to do this?

Radical Hospitality

I said earlier, that the title of this sermon is radical hospitality.

Why radical hospitality? Why not friendly hospitality? Or pleasant hospitality? Or nice hospitality?

I hope you are beginning to see that the nature of true biblical hospitality is radical; extreme, even. God’s hospitality in welcoming us into his Kingdom and offering salvation to us was costly. It wasn’t easy or “nice” and it wasn’t just friendly and pleasant.

And if we are going to communicate the height and depth and breadth of God’s love to other people in our own congregations, we too will have to engage in some costly hospitality.

A story is told of a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany named Uwe Holmer.

Now, those of you who remember the East German regime know that to be a Christian in Eastern Germany was a risky business, let alone to be a Christian pastor. The regime discriminated against Christians and one of its policies was to make it impossible for the children of Christian parents to attend university or enter any of the professions which required a university degree.

Pastor Holmer and his wife had ten children, all of whom were denied university places and who had to make a living through manual labor. The person who was responsible for East Germany’s educational policy for 26 years was Margot Honecker the wife of East Germany's premier, Erich Honecker.

And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the East German regime was toppled. Erich and Margot Honecker were seen by many people in East Germany as their enemies. They were indicted for criminal activities and evicted from their home. The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go. No one wanted to have anything to do with the Honeckers.

It was at that point that Pastor Holmer’s family invited the Honeckers to live with them.

However, their fellow citizens were not terribly pleased with the Holmers’ hospitality. The pastor’s family received hate mail from the German public and many members of his church threatened to leave in protest.

The hospitality offered by Pastor Holmer was not just nice or even just noble. This was a radical hospitality. A risky hospitality. A dangerous hospitality that put him and his family at risk. This is an example of truly radical hospitality.

Wat on earth could cause a person to give shelter to people whose life’s work and ideals had directly hurt his children's futures? And what on earth could cause someone to continue to give shelter to them in the face of threats and abuse from fellow citizens? Nothing on earth. Only the peace and love of God that passes all human understanding could cause someone to do such a thing.

Radically Hospitable Churches

Are we capable of this kind of radical hospitality?

I’ve got to be honest with you. Part of me hopes that I could behave this way in the same circumstances and part of me hopes that I will never be tested in such a way. But yet, I am inspired by Pastor Holmer. His actions draw from me the highest form of admiration.

And I believe that if we think about this story as a sort of benchmark for “radical hospitality” then some ideas that we regularly throw around about “being a hospitable congregation” begin to pale in comparison.

In his book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”, UMC Bishop Robert Schnase defines radical hospitality like this:
“An active desire to invite, welcome, receive and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.”
Hospitality isn’t just about smiling at visitors who walk into the doors of our church. It’s about an active desire to welcome and care for new people.

I wonder how many congregations consider themselves to be friendly churches but whose caring and friendship is based on the fact that the members of the congregation have known each other for many years?

Sometimes being a new person in such a group can be like going out to dinner with a newly-married couple as they sit there staring into each other’s all evening. They may be friendly between themselves and they probably genuinely want to be friendly with other people, but they are too wrapped up in each other to think that their friends might be feeling excluded.

As a cradle Christian who has spent most of my life going to church, my bet is that many if not most congregations are like this. We feel certain that we are prepared to be friendly to new people but, really, we want them to fit in with what we’re already doing and conform to the established group behavior.

In the UK, a poll was taken recently which – among other things – determined that it took the average person about two years after beginning to attend a new congregation to feel that they really belonged. Two years! That means the new people have to make an incredible commitment. They have to attend church for two years feeling like they are strangers before they can begin to feel comfortable.

That’s certainly not radical hospitality. I’ll leave you to decide whether you think its “hospitality” at all. If it takes someone two years to feel that they belong in a congregation then that congregation is not living out any kind of active desire to welcome and care for new people.

Looking Outward

So what does it take to be a radically hospitable church? In his book, Bishop Schnase lists some practical ideas that I will mention briefly this morning since I want this to remain and sermon rather than a lecture on strategic change management.

But there is one thing that the Bishop’s suggestions all have in common and that is that every single suggestion is about looking outside of the congregation to the needs of those who are not members of the congregation.

And when we focus on people outside our group, we are focusing on serving others rather than on being served ourselves. Or, to put it another way, we are focusing on the biblical concept of love. We are focusing on what is good for other people rather than on what is good for ourselves.

So very briefly, what are some practical suggestions?

Bishop Schnase suggests that every group that meets in church, every committee, and every activity should be constantly thinking “How can we reach out to those outside our church? How can we make our activities more welcoming?” Even those individuals concerned with maintaining the building can reach out.

Are there facilities for young families to feel comfortable? Is the building accessible to those with mobility problems? A really simple thing like are all the rooms correctly labeled? Are Vacation Bible School or Sunday School classes run for the benefit of church members or for the benefit of children whose parents don’t come to church? Can the choir put on an activity that makes young families feel welcome? Does the congregation keep in touch with families who visit the church at Christmas and Easter and invite them to other events? At the most basic level, will people from outside the church be able to understand your bulletin if they read it?

The Bishop suggests that every group in church should think about one thing that they can do that focuses on reaching people outside the current members. And this attitude of reaching out should become an on-going habit. He notes that “Institutions produce what they are designed to produce.” And he is challenging us as Christians – because I don’t think that this is just a problem of the UMC – to design our “institutions” to be places where change and outreach are built into the fabric of how we do things.

Before I conclude this morning, I want to briefly tell you a story about a part of my training for the ministry. I was required by the British Methodist Church to attend weekend seminars on a monthly basis. These seminars were designed to teach us by example how to nurture the spiritual lives of our congregations.

Most participants attended for two years but every six months a group of people would leave the group and a new group of people would arrive. The whole system was designed to accommodate this change.

And I promise you that we didn’t really do anything differently than many good prayer groups or Sunday School or bible study groups do. We didn’t really do any strange activities that you might imagine when you hear the word “radical”. All we did was expect the group to change. We expected new people to arrive and we expected to make room for new people in the group and to offer them genuine hospitality. We expected that people we’d come to know and trust would leave and we expected to “let them go”.

We didn’t spend a lot of emotional energy resisting change and we didn’t invoke the silent mantra of many a congregation “Because God doesn’t change, the church must not change either.” All we did was look outward and welcome the new people instead of seeing them as threats or as individuals who upset our existing group dynamics.

Bishop Schnase suggests a relatively “simple” solution that each individual in a church and each group simply think about how they can welcome new-comers and my experience would suggest that it really is as simple as that. When we really begin to live lives that genuinely seek the welfare of others, our lives begin to bubble over with joy and freedom and we become very effective witnesses to the Good News of the Gospel.

Conclusion

The good news of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Or, to look at it another way, God offered us hospitality when we were still strangers.

In sending Jesus to die and rise again for our salvation, God was looking outside of himself to our needs. God said “These people need saving and I’m the only one who can rescue them.” He didn’t say “Oy! These people are messing up the beautiful order of my good creation! What is a Creator God to do?”

God doesn’t ask us to become holy before he invites us into his Kingdom. He doesn’t demand that we cease to be strangers and sinners before he offers us hospitality. Rather, he goes out into the highways and byways and invites strangers and sinners into his Kingdom and then he invites us to repent so that we can grow in holiness.

The good news is that God is eternally looking outside of himself to the welfare of others; we learn this when we practice the love of God in exuberant worship. The good news is that God gives us an exciting purpose to our lives: to look outside ourselves to the welfare of others; we learn this as we practice the love of our neighbor.

My prayer is that the reality of God’s hospitality for us will fill our hearts anew this morning. And I also pray that, filled with joy at the salvation we have been given and filled with thanksgiving at God’s hospitality we will go from this place determined to spread Christian hospitality to everyone we meet.

May God bless this congregation as you continue on your journey to be an evermore fruitful congregation. Amen

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Oct 11 2009 - On the Road to the New Jerusalem

In August 2009, I returned to the United States for family reasons after 20 years of living in the UK. I left the Northeast Ohio / Cleveland area in 1975 when I went to university, and I never expected either to leave the UK or to return to Northeast Ohio. But life brings us unexpected twists and turns along the way.

I am not currently employed as a pastor although I'm currently doing s small amount of supply preaching. Below is the first sermon I preached as a "supply preacher" in the US. I am switching to US dating and spelling conventions. The sermon is longer than many of the previous sermons on this blog due to different custom.

I was asked to preach this sermon in a series of sermons on the broad topic of "return from exile". (Ironic, isn't it?)

This is a thematic sermon and the texts used were Zechariah 8:1-8 and Revelation 21:1-7.

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Introduction

Good morning everyone, and thank you for your hospitality here this morning and for inviting me to share in your worship and your meditation on Holy Scripture this morning.

Today is one of those instances that demonstrates what I believe is God’s sense of humor. As you heard earlier, I’m an ordained minister (“Elder”) in the Methodist Church of Great Britain and I lived in England for just over 20 years from 1989 until August of this year.

But I was born in East Cleveland and raised in Euclid. I left Northeast Ohio in 1975 to go to college and, as the years went on, I began to assume that I would never return to live in this area of the world. But my British husband and I moved to Hudson this past August to be nearer to my parents who are aging and need family near them.

And this morning is not only the first sermon that I have preached in American Methodism; it is also the first sermon that I have ever preached in the United States.

So you can see that today is something of a milestone for me, but I have to tell you that I do think it’s indicative of God’s sense of humor that the broad topic that I was asked to preach on is the topic of the Return from Exile.

Being From Somewhere – What Does it Mean?

Because a big question in my life recently has been: After 34 years away from Northeast Ohio, have I returned home or have I left home?

What, exactly does it mean to “be from” somewhere and how does “being from” a place shape our lives and who we are?

As I was preparing for this sermon, I immediately thought of Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh works at my local gas station just up the road. The first time I went into the gas station, he asked me if I was British and I explained my story to him.

Now it turns out that Mr. Singh was born in the Punjab, in India. I’m not sure, but I think he’s about my age. Mr. Singh came to this area of the world when he was ten years old. So he’s actually lived here longer that I have!

It starts you thinking: What does it mean to be “be from” somewhere? Especially in this day and age when people can move around very freely.

And I imagine that the Judeans who were returning to Jerusalem from Babylon might have understood this question of identity and “being from a place”. Because it took about a generation and a half for the Judeans to be able to leave Babylon and to make the journey back to Jerusalem.

So we can suppose that the vast majority of people who “returned” to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple had never lived in Jerusalem and they had never lived in a free Judea.

And I think that there is a parallel with us, as Christians. We are asked, as part of our Christian discipleship, to be part of God’s plan in building a New Jerusalem, but none of us have ever lived there.

So today, I just want to stop and take our bearings and ask the question: Are we still on course for our trip to the New Jerusalem? Do we, in fact, know where we are going?

Where is the New Jerusalem and what does it look like?

The New Jerusalem, of course, is a metaphor. And, like all good metaphors, it needs unpacking. Also, like all good metaphors, there are probably no Right Answers either. So I’m going to try to unpack it now with the caveat that this is my perspective. If you disagree with me, so much the better because it will get you thinking about what it is you believe.

The New Jerusalem

So, “The New Jerusalem”: Where is it? What is it? What does it look like?

Of course, the City of Jerusalem itself meant something important to those people who had been in Exile in Babylon.

Jerusalem – Zion – was the City of God. The place where the Temple was located and therefore the place where Judah believed their God physically dwelled. The dream of the Judeans (Southern Kingdom) in Exile was that they would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, and once more Yahweh would dwell with them and he would be their God and they would be his people.

But, the thing is that, although you can go back to where you came from, you can’t go back to when you came from.

I can come back to Northeast Ohio, but I can’t come back to Northeast Ohio in 1975 and I can’t come back to Northeast Ohio as a 17 year old girl.

During the generation that Judah has been in Exile, Judah has begun to understand its God in a different light.

Judah’s original understanding of its God was that God was on their side; and we see this idea reflected in a lot of the earlier Old Testament literature. Judah thought that God was for Judah and against other people. Their God would defend them from other nations and he would smash their enemies, when necessary.

But then came the Exile. And what was previously unthinkable happened: Jerusalem was defeated and the people of Judah were suddenly confronted with a new reality.

And so, in much of the biblical literature dealing with the story of the Exile, we begin see the development of ideas like God using foreign powers and kings to carry out his will – something that was previously unthinkable. And we also see the development of the idea that God cares about righteousness and justice and – something that was really unthinkable before – that even foreign Kings can be viewed by God as righteous and just.

Slowly, in the post-Exilic and prophetic tradition, the idea developed that God was not just the God of Judah, but God was the God of all the world. Judah came to understand that God’s sovereignty was not limited to Judah but that his sovereignty was universal.

So here comes our first piece of Good News this morning: The City of God, the New Jerusalem, is a place to which everyone is invited.

Unlike Judah’s earlier understanding, God is not a tribal god. God is not against anyone; he is not against any sort of person. God is for everyone.

No matter who you are or where you are from God wants you to be a citizen of his New Jerusalem. No matter what language you speak, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter what your gender, your marital status, whether or not you are a respected member of your community, God wants you to be a citizen of his New Jerusalem.

God is not just the God of Judah or of the UMC or the Presbyterian Church. God is not just the God of men or women or white people or Native Americans or African-Americans. God is the God of all people.

Ad I don’t know about you, but I think this is really good news! This is the stuff that makes me excited. The gates of the City of God are always open. No one needs a visa to get in. As long as we live, God will never, ever stop inviting us into his New Jerusalem.

The New Jerusalem – a Place of Justice

Now I’m thinking that there might be some people in the congregation who are starting to squirm right about now.

I’m betting that some people might be thinking “Hold on a minute, here! If God invites everyone into the City of God, does that mean that God doesn’t care about right and wrong? Does that mean that God doesn’t care about justice?”

I’m thinking you’re thinking “Pam, if you start telling me that everyone is invited into the New Jerusalem, then what does that say about the existence of right and wrong? Are you trying to tell me that, in the New Jerusalem, anything goes?”

And this is our second piece of good news this morning: that God cares about justice and righteousness. God cares about right and wrong.

No, I’m not trying to tell you that anything goes in the New Jerusalem. I’m trying to tell you that the New Jerusalem is a place where victims can find justice and where the discriminated-against can find opportunity. The City of God is a place where power is not used for personal gain but for the good of the entire community.

This, by the way, is what much of Old Testament tradition tells us is the function of a righteous King: to pursue the good of the entire community and to make sure that the powerful don’t exploit those with less power.

This idea of a Just King is why the prophet Samuel warned ancient Israel not to replace God as its king with a human king, like the other peoples. Samuel warned that human kings would misuse power, send Israel’s sons to war and grab power and wealth for themselves. Which is precisely what happened.

But in the New Jerusalem, God’s people dream of a reign of perfect justice and righteousness where God is once again King.

And no doubt, this is also what the Judean people dreamed of as they returned to Jerusalem from Exile to rebuild the Temple and the City of God.

So the second piece of good news this morning is that the New Jerusalem is a place where God’s justice is the order of the day.

The Church’s Mission

You may, however, have noticed that God’s justice might not seem quite like our human notions of justice. Human justice often majors on punishing the wrong-doer. Human justice relies on the threat of punishment to keep society in order.

In the New Jerusalem, however, justice and righteousness are the order of the day because people’s hearts have been changed by God.

Because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Spirit of God changes the hearts of human beings so that we can accept God’s love and forgiveness, return that love to God and then pass it on to others. The reason that the New Jerusalem is a place where death will be no more and where mourning and crying and pain will be no more is because the hearts of its inhabitants have been converted to the love and service of God.

Now, you might be thinking “Hold on a minute here. You’re talking about the day when Christ will come again; you’re talking about the next life. And all this is fine and good and hunkey-dorey for the next life, but what about this life?”

ell, the thing is that I *am* talking about the day when Christ will come and I *am* talking about the eternal New Jerusalem. But I’m also talking about life here on earth. Because the New Jerusalem, the New Creation, the City of God is something that was inaugurated after the death and resurrection of Christ.

New Jerusalem may be “not yet”, but it is also now. It is both now and not yet.

The reason that there will be justice and righteousness in the New Jerusalem is because the hearts of its inhabitants have been converted to the love of service of God and humanity. And we – the universal church of Christ, those people of all denominations whose lives have been changed and transformed by the love of Christ – we are inhabitants of the New Jerusalem in the here and now as much as in the there and not yet.

As I think Pastor Jim is going to talk to you about next week, it is the job of the church – it is our mission - to build the Temple in the New Jerusalem. It is our job as the church to make the worship and love of God central to our lives. And, in consequence, it is our job to make love and service to our fellow human beings central to our lives.

We have been chosen to proclaim and witness to God’s love and forgiveness in both word and in deed. We are called to tell people of the love and forgiveness of God. And we are called to live as an example to others: to lives of righteousness, justice and truth.

And, for me, this is the third and final piece of Good News for this morning: That the church has an awesome, worthwhile and exciting mission; and that when we are empowered and used by the Holy Spirit, that God can change the world that we live in; God can change the lives of people around us.

And, I don’t know about you, but *I* find it exciting that the God-given purpose of my life is something so worthwhile. The God-given purpose of my life is to let God use me to transform the world. I think that’s awesome.

Conclusion

As we go from this place today, I’d like to remember what this New Jerusalem that we are traveling to looks like and to remember the Good News that we heard this morning.

So our first piece of good news is that citizenship in the New Jerusalem is open to everyone, no matter who you are, where you come from or what you have done in the past.God does not discriminate. Or, as they said in the old days, God is no respecter of persons.

The second piece of Good News that we heard this morning is that the New Jerusalem is a place where human lives are transformed and where God’s values of righteousness and justice reign. The New Jerusalem is a place where human hearts are converted to God’s standards and converted away from the standards of the world.

And the final piece of Good News that we heard this morning is that, as members of God’s Church universal, our lives not only have purpose, but they have purposes of eternal significance. When God entrusted us with the mission of being citizens of the New Jerusalem, he entrusted us with a mission that is both awesome and exciting.

And he promised us his Holy Spirit to help us in our task. The Church is not God; we are only God’s servants. We are God’s hands on earth. It is God who will finally build the New Jerusalem.

As we go forward into a new week, let’s remember where we are going. Let’s contemplate the awe and beauty of the New Jerusalem, but let’s also think and pray about how God might want to use us to build that City.

I pray that God will give each of us wisdom and insight as we contemplate our calling and I pray for that same insight for this congregation. And may the Spirit of God give you strength and courage to be his hands and heart in the world. Amen

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wednesday 29 July 2009 - Live, love, learn

This was the last sermon I gave at my post in the Kidderminster and Stourport Circuit; it was given at an ecumenical service of Holy Communion that worshiped together every Wednesday.

The sermon is based on John 12:1-8.

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Introduction

Today the church celebrates the festival of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Our Gospel reading for today contains all three of these characters as well as Jesus, but it also contains another character: Judas.

If you were going to make a film out of this morning’s story, I reckon that you could turn this into quite an uncomfortable scene.

Lazarus has just been raised from the dead in the previous chapter and, although the text doesn’t say it explicitly, we imagine that Jesus is having a celebratory meal with these friends who he loves. Mary then does something that would be as embarrassing as someone in our society hiking her skirt up to her thighs.

In my imaginary film I can just see Judas portrayed as a model of calm and sensibleness, looking at Mary with an attitude of pity and announcing: “The money you spent on all the drink you’ve just poured down yourself could have been given to poor”…

So when Jesus opens his mouth to speak, we expect that he’s going to take Judas’ part and tell Mary to calm down and stop making everyone uncomfortable. But instead Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone. And the narrator tells us that Mary’s heart is right with God and that Judas’ is not.

Resurrection

Although today is the feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, it’s the character of Judas who is the foil that helps us learn from the example of these three siblings.

Let’s think about the difference between the Judas and Lazarus to start with. Lazarus has experienced resurrection and Judas has not.

None of us has any idea of what it would feel like to be resurrected, but there are people in our culture who have had near death experiences. It seems to me that one universal outcome of such experiences is that people often have a sense of the true meaning and the true value of life.

I imagine that Lazarus might feel that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d lost his life but now he’s found it again and every moment, every day, every taste of food, every drink, every moment shared with a loved one is a sweet and joyful bonus.

Judas, I imagine, thinks that life is much more serious than this. Life is about freedom from political oppression and Judas will stop at nothing to get it.

But although Judas is serious and apparently lacking in a certain degree of empathy, we are also told that he is not straight. Judas’ serious outlook toward life did not prevent him from stealing from the common purse.

Lazarus, along with Jesus, is on the right side of resurrection.

The readers of this story are invited to be on the right side of resurrection as well: the poor will always be with you until the resurrection of the dead and the kingdom of God has come.

Turn your sights to the day when God’s children will live in true freedom. Be like Lazarus and live the resurrection life today.

Workers for the Kingdom

Then we have Martha.

Poor old Martha; I always think she gets a bit of a raw deal. Martha does all the work of the kingdom behind the scenes and, although she always gets mentioned, the picture I have of her is as some sort of generic worker-bee.

And it’s the Marthas – male and female – who are the backbone of the Church, and often the backbone of society’s army of carers. People who quietly do the work of God asking for no recognition or reward who often influence the lives of many for good.

Here again, though, is a contrast with Judas.

I imagine the Judas thought of himself as working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. But I suspect that he also wanted that kingdom to come in a blaze of earthly glory. And I somehow doubt that he would have been content to fade into the background.

Martha, unlike Judas, understands what the real work of the Kingdom is. We are called to be like Martha. When we work, we work for Jesus and for the Kingdom of God. We do not work for personal glory or gain.

Prophets for the Kingdom

And then we have Mary.

Mary the sister who sits at the feet of Jesus learning from him. But Mary who also embarrassingly proclaims her love for Jesus in today’s text.

Mary is something of a prophet. She is happy to ignore what is normally expected in society in order to learn from Jesus. And she is happy to embarrass herself in order to proclaim the profound truth about Jesus: Against all expectations of what the Messiah will be like, Jesus will have to die in order rise again.

The Messiah does not look like what the world expected. The Messiah will not bring about the Kingdom of God the way that the world expected.

That, of course, is the great contrast between Judas and Mary.

Judas insisted that Jesus must follow his expectations. And when Jesus’ Messiahship didn’t follow the pattern that Judas wanted, he was willing to betray Jesus. Mary learned from Jesus. Judas expected Jesus to learn from him.

Need I say: be like Mary, learning from Jesus. Do not make God in your own image.

Conclusion

Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to have been amongst Jesus’ closest friends during his earthly life.

But we celebrate their lives not simply because of their intimacy with Jesus, but because they represent three important aspects of being a follower of Jesus. Resurrection life, active discipleship, and the willingness to pray and learn from Christ.

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together this morning, I pray that we all may be strengthened for the journey ahead. May we learn from Christ, may we seek to follow him actively and may we always keep our eyes on the resurrection. Amen

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday 19 July 2009 - A heart of Reconciliation

This sermon is based on Ephesians 2:11-22

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Introduction


Ephesians 2:14 For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he as made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. I wonder if anyone here this morning would disagree with this idea?

It seems like a no-brainer to us, but it was a hot topic for the early church. A VERY hot topic, in fact. It was as emotional and contentious to the early church as any of our own hot topics are to us.

And the topic of whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised before being accepting into the church was not the only thing the Early Church was arguing about.

In the New Testament, we hear that the early Church was arguing about whether or not to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols or used in Pagan temples. They were fighting about the proper way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and this debate got so heated that Paul even ends up pointing out that some of the early church members might be at risk of eating and drinking to their own condemnation.

The early Church fought about the marks of leadership, about what the fruits of a God-appointed leader looked like and even whether or not Paul himself was a leader appointed by God. And they fought about charismatic gifts: Should supernatural gifts be used in public worship or was worship to be a place of strict order and dogma?

Close to Home?

Whilst we ourselves might think silly the debates about Gentile membership or food sacrificed to idols, some of the other issues might start getting a bit too close to home. We are happy to accept uncircumcised Gentiles in the Church these days, but what is the Church’s track record when it comes to opposing anti-Semitism?

And debates about the nature of the Lord’s Supper or what sort of person should lead or whether or not charismatic gifts are to be used in worship are not debates that are entirely unheard of in the Church today.

So, if we’re tempted to write off this morning’s reading from Ephesians as yet another all-too-familiar no-brainer statement about the unity of Jews and Gentiles, let’s not do that.

Let’s appreciate the seriousness of the emotions behind this particular issue and let’s not feel too smug or superior as we listen to author telling us that through the flesh of Christ, the dividing wall between factions has been broken down and that the former hostility has been turned to peace: to Shalom.

Because, at the end of the day, this reading is not really about Jews and Gentiles both being accepted by God as disciples of Christ. What this reading is about at its most fundamental level is Shalom. Peace.

And Shalom is not just the absence of violence; it is a holistic peace where a right attitude toward God and toward our fellow human beings shows us the potential of human life as it was first created to be. Shalom, is, above all, an attitude of the heart.

Living without Forgiving

A story is told of a famous preacher who was asked by a friend of his to preach at his church’s morning service.

As the famous preacher went up to the pulpit, he looked out into the congregation and saw a very angry-looking woman sitting on the pulpit side of the church. The preacher felt that the anger, which was so apparent in her face, might put him off his message of Good News, and so he decided to preach to the other side of the Church.

The only problem was, in his direct line of sight on the other side of the church was another woman, almost the same age, sitting there exuding as much anger as the first women. The preacher decided that he would have to deliver his sermon somewhere in the vague direction of the centre aisle, which he preceded to do!

At lunch with his friend, he was told that the two women were sisters and they’d had a small disagreement about 25 years ago and they weren’t speaking to each other. The visiting preacher said ‘It’s a good job they don’t live together!’ to which his friend replied ‘But they do!’

The friend went on to explain that each sister had told him that she was prepared to forgive the other, but that the other sister had never asked to be forgiven. Each one concluded that she was not prepared to forgive her sister until the other woman asked for forgiveness.

And so they had spent 25 years living together and becoming people whose anger was apparent for all to see.

God the Reconciler

The Good News that we hear in this morning’s Epistle Reading is that God is not like that.

The reconciliation that God offers to people through his Son Jesus is not a reconciliation that depends on us making the first move toward God, because we can’t. It is not our saying sorry that causes God to forgive us, but rather God’s offer of forgiveness that calls our repentance from us.

The Good News in today’s readings is that God makes the first move toward reconciling us to himself.

Elsewhere, scripture tells us that it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. Of course, we still have to recognize the gift of reconciliation that God gives to us in order to benefit from the gift. And I think that it is really in this recognition that we can begin to achieve the kind of peace – the kind of Shalom – that God wants for every one of us.

The point of my sermon this morning isn’t so much to say to you ‘Be thankful for the reconciliation that God has offered to you by being reconciled with others’, although that is of course true.

My point this morning is rather to point you to the truth that reconciliation is God’s way; It’s God’s way for creation and it’s God’s way for all his children.

Reconciliation is, if you will, one of the central tenets of the Christian faith, it is central to Shalom and it is central to being the kind of people who God wants us to be.

Ironically, it is in reaching out to others by trying to find a point of commonality that our own lives will be enhanced. It is in making the first move toward forgiveness that our own peace will be grow. Just like love isn’t love until you give it away, so too reconciliation isn’t reconciliation until you give it away.

Conclusion

As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, let us give thanks for our brothers and sisters in Christ who came before us and who challenged mindset of denominationalism so that we can freely celebrate communion with each other today.

Let’s also think about those situations where reconciliation is still needed. There are still many of these: I expect in our own personal lives, in our communities, within our own churches and even still between some Christians.

And let’s also give thanks to God for the forgiveness and reconciliation afforded to each and every one of us in Christ.

And may the Spirit enable each one of us to be messengers of peace. Amen

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday 12 July 2009 - Sow Love, Reap Hope

This sermon is based on Ephesians 1:1-14 and Mark 6:14-29. This was also the last sermon that I preached at one of my four churches.

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Introduction

What a contrast we have in the two different readings assigned for today.

The first reading we heard was from the letter to the Ephesians: a letter that is dedicated to explaining the covenant relationship between Christ and his Church universal.

The particular reading that we heard this morning/evening from the beginning of the letter was written in a style that would have been familiar to people in the Greek and Roman world. It’s a eulogy of praise that people might have heard given at a banquet in honour of a wealthy patron. Except that here the words of praise are not directed at a human being but toward God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

The second reading we heard this morning/evening was from the Gospel of Mark as the assigned readings continue through the 6th chapter of Mark. This reading is quite a contrast from the glorious opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians. Here we have a dark story: a powerful man (Herod) who recognizes the prophetic calling of a man of God, but who nonetheless allows the forces of jealousy, anger and hatred to have their way. And John the Baptist is killed because of the evil intentions that Herodias has been harbouring in her heart toward John the Baptist.

It occurred to me that there is a contrast in these two readings between different attitudes of the heart:

The first reading expresses all sorts of Godly and constructive perspectives: the praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with fellow Christians, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.

But the second reading is a lesson in evil. We see that evil arises from wrong-doing and from anger and vindictiveness.

We also see illustrated in this story the fact that evil is given free reign when good people do nothing to stop it.

So my thought for today is ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Or maybe more accurately, ‘Be careful what you think’

Keep your Eye on the Goal

Many moons ago, my husband and I decided that we were going to take golfing lessons together. I still can’t really play golf because I never learned how to use a driver, but that’s a different story.

As those of you who do play golf know (and pardon me if I’m teaching my grandfathers to suck eggs but) this is a game that is not just physical, but it is also mental.

And one of the things that our golfing instructor taught us was that we should visualize where we wanted the ball to go before we took a shot. If we wanted to get the ball on the green, we should visualize not only the green but also the hole that we were aiming for. He also pointed out that the worst possible thing that we could do would be to think ‘Don’t go into the sand trap, don’t go into the sand trap.’

Guess why? Because our brains would be thinking about the sand-trap and visualizing the sand-trap and that’s exactly where the ball would end up going. The combination of the physics of golf and the leverage involved in the game somehow manage to transmit your thoughts into physical action and to have a real effect on the direction of the ball.

As you think, so shall you reap.

Herodias’ thoughts were apparently on revenge. We are not given any details about what Herodias, Herod’s wife, thought and felt prior to asking her daughter for the head of John the Baptist, but we can well imagine the strength of emotion behind this request. How long had Herodias been rehearsing this day in her head? How long had she been wishing for John to get his comeuppance? She certainly seized the opportunity to initiate his death the minute the opportunity presented itself.

In a foreshadowing of Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, we get the impression that Herod would rather let John the Baptist go all things being equal. But events seem to have taken on their own momentum and ordering the death of this holy man is now Herod’s safest option.

Herodias’ evil thoughts led to evil being unleashed in to the world.

A World of Grace and Hope

But look at the contrast with this morning’s Epistle reading.

We move from a world of evil to a world of grace and of hope. We move from a world ruled by the forces of chaotic, incoherent evil to a world ruled by mercy, by grace and by hope. We’ve moved from the Kingdom of Evil to the Kingdom of God on earth.

I suppose that one lesson you could take from what our golf teacher taught Trevor and me is the ‘power of positive thinking’.

But the power of God’s Kingdom isn’t just the power of positive thinking. All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to do anyone any good if hope isn’t real, if the Kingdom of God isn’t real. The words that the author of the letter to the Ephesians uses are powerful words precisely because they are expressions of the underlying truth of God’s rule.

It is certainly true that there is evil in the world. Today’s Gospel story reminds us of its power. But the Good News that Christians proclaim is that, in Christ, the powers of evil and chaos and confusion have been conquered.

That means that we do have real choices, under God, about the influence we have on the world around us. It is not futile to hope. It is not futile to seek to do what is right. It is not futile to forgive.

The choices made by God’s people can and do help to further the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And it is by being careful to tune our hearts and minds in to the will of God that we can be used, as God’s church, for agents of good in the world.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the task of a Christian preacher is both very easy and very difficult. The easy bit is the Gospel message.

The Gospel of Christ is that creation has been set free from the powers of evil and that human beings have real power to choose good. The Gospel of Christ is about the fact that God loves each and every individual and wants to draw each person to him.

The difficult bit for the preacher is that we need to find 50 or more different ways to say this every year!

But, I think that, most of us understand intuitively what is important in life and that is love in all its various aspects and relationship in all its various aspects: with God and with other people.

By turning both our thoughts and our deeds in God’s direction, we gain practice in all those things described in the introduction to Ephesians: The praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with our fellow human beings, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.

My prayer this morning is that, as we prepare for our ways to part from one another on this stage of our journey, we may all grow in the grace and knowledge of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To him be all the glory for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday 5 July 2009 - Being Prophetic

Today's sermon is based on Ezekiel 2:1-7 and Mark 6:1-13

There are some similarities with last week's sermon as these two were preached to different congregations.

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Introduction

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus has just come back from doing great deeds of power in Galilee. He is now in his hometown and it would seem from this morning’s reading that the people are not amused.

I wonder if Jesus would have been better received if he had come into town as a healer? After all, he has just exorcised a demon-possessed man, healed a sick woman and raised a dead girl. And all of these people have not only been healed of their aliments, but possibly more importantly, they have been restored into their communities.

The occupation of ‘healer’ would have been a recognized occupation in first century Palestine. And the healing work that Jesus has just done in Galilee would most likely have been of great value to any community. Jesus wasn’t just dealing in home remedies for everyday complaints (and let’s not minimize their value in a pre-scientific culture); he’d just healed some pretty tough cases.

Ironically, the raising of the young girl might be the easiest of Jesus’ recent healings to explain away.But Jesus has also shown power over something which looks to us like schizophrenia and he’s healed a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. Jesus’ healing power works on the tough cases.

Jesus the Teacher

But Jesus didn’t come into his hometown as a healer. He came into his hometown as a teacher. And in today’s story Mark, unlike Luke, doesn’t even give us a hint what it was that Jesus was teaching in his hometown. But we are told of the effect of the teaching: the hearers recognize it as a powerful message and they reject it angrily.

Carpenters weren’t supposed to teach; who did Jesus think he was? The people of Jesus’ village knew all about him; I’ll bet some of them were pretty convinced that they actually knew Jesus better than he knew himself. These people knew that Jesus wasn’t a teacher and they knew that he wasn’t a healer either. It was almost inevitable that they would reject his message.

And, we are told, that Jesus wasn’t able to perform miracles because the people of Nazareth (I’m assuming) didn’t have faith in him and his teaching.

Faith in Jesus’ Teaching

I wonder what that means - Faith in Jesus and his teaching? From what Mark has to say, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Jesus’ message might have been one of healing. And Luke’s account of the same story suggests a ‘healing’ message as well: the message that God is not just the God of Israel but of all people.

This is a message that has the power to heal not just individuals, but the world. But, of course, it is also a dangerous message.

Because if we open our worldview to others, if we open our minds to the idea that God might love other people as much as he loves us – that he is on their side as well as ours - then we lose a good deal of human-made security. We will have to give up the idea of building fences to keep other people out of our lives; be those fences literal ones of chain or stone or wood or even – dare I say it – of national borders. And we will have to be open to the possibility that God also works in the lives of people who we view as frightening or as our enemies.

Learning Healing

But if we simply hear this teaching and we don’t apply it in practice because we don’t believe it or because it is too hard, then there isn’t going to be any healing in the world.

If countries continue to operate on the basis of Realpolitik – of deterrent force - then the world will not escape ongoing cycles of warfare. If communities do not seek forgiveness and understanding then strife between people of different ethnic groups will continue in many parts of the world – not least in Northern Ireland. If individuals do not forgive one another and treat one another as precious gifts of God, then families and communities will continue to be torn apart. Children & elders will continue to be abused, and family members will continue to suffer from mental illness, addiction and all manner of stress-related physical symptoms.

Healing is possible, but only if we believe in it enough to ask God for the grace to change.

Embracing Healing

Now that I think about it, maybe the people of Jesus’ hometown wouldn’t have embraced him if he had come to them as a healer. Because healing and repentance have always been linked together. And repentance means to turn around and go in a different direction. Repentance means to walk in God’s direction rather than to walk along the path of prevailing social values.

And going against the grain of the values of wider society is difficult. It requires us to give up a good deal of perceived safety and security. To embrace forgiveness rather than revenge requires us to give up safety and security. To risk relating to those who we find frightening requires us to give up safety and security. And – dare I say it - to risk believing that God loves people outside the church or outside of Christianity as much as he loves us requires us to give up safety and security.

If we think about ‘having faith in God’ in terms of repentance and in terms of seeing life in a way that is different from prevailing social values, it’s easy to see why faith can be difficult. It’s easy to see why living prophetically can be difficult. It’s easy to see why Ezekiel found it difficult to tell the people of Israel that God had allowed the exile to happen because of Israel’s unfaithfulness.

And it’s easy to see why Jesus warned the disciples that their message would be rejected by some people in the community. Nevertheless, Jesus called his disciples to go out into the community and to depend for their well-being on the very group of people who were liable to reject them.

Conclusion

At first glance, it might seem that there isn’t a lot of good news in today’s Gospel reading. But it wouldn’t be correct to take this portion of Mark’s gospel and look at it in isolation from the rest of the Gospel.

It is good news that God is a God of healing. This is not just a God who is a common garden-variety healer; this is also a Creator God whose desire is to heal everything that he has made.

As always, the good news is that Jesus is Lord and that Caesar is not Lord. Peace of body, mind and spirit – the Shalom of wholeness – comes from loving God and loving our neighbour as ourself. God’s peace is not the peace of Rome; it is not the peace that comes from might making right. God’s peace is the peace that comes from seeking to obey the law of God but also by living out that law in a loving way that takes account of circumstances and individual situations.

Because the good news is that God loves all of his creation and there is no one from whom he withholds the offer of his salvation.

Jesus showed us the way; as the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus showed us the character of God. But he didn’t just show us God’s character, he died and rose again so that we could enter into relationship with God.

And that, of course, is the very best news of all.

I pray that as we go from this place, that the Spirit will fill us with the courage to dare to get out into the community and tell those who do not know about the love of God. I pray we will be passionate about proclaiming this message even when it means that the message will not be gladly received. And I pray that, as we continue our journey as Christ’s disciples that we may continue to be amazed by hope, love and the peace that passes all understanding. Amen

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday 28 June 2009 - Following Jesus

This sermon is based on the second lectionary Gospel reading: Luke 9:51-62.

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Introduction

The prophet Elijah was not exactly a compromising sort of guy. You may remember the story of Elijah who, according to biblical tradition, did not die but rather was taken up into heaven by God in a chariot of fire. And you may remember the story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal: how God answered Elijah’s prayer for fire from heaven to start the fire of offering to the God of Israel, even though the offering and altar were soaked with water?

But do you remember the story of Elijah and Ahaziah? Ahaziah, king of Israel, became involved with the prophets of the god Ekron and Elijah gave Ahaziah a prophecy of his impending death that Ahaziah didn’t want to hear. When Ahaziah sent his troops to Elijah in response, Elijah called down fire from heaven on the soldiers and destroyed company after company.

And, of course, it was Elijah who the Jewish people believed would return to earth to announce the imminent return of the Messiah.

No Compromise

What’s all of this got to do with today’s Gospel reading? The reading that we just heard is filled with images that a first-century Jewish audience would have understood to be about Elijah.

In fact, some of the original manuscripts add a reference to Elijah in the text. Some manuscripts have the text: ‘Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did’?

And it’s not exactly an easy text to hear because the text goes on to be just as uncompromising as Elijah was. In fact, more uncompromising: in 1 Kings 19:19 Elijah’s disciple Elisha was allowed to go back and say good-bye to his family before becoming Elijah’s disciple and wandering in the wilderness with him. This evening’s text suggests that those who want to follow Jesus aren’t even allowed to do that.

No compromises. Not only are we not allowed to say good-bye to those at home, we’re not even allowed to fulfill our obligations to our family (not a message I want to hear right now!), nor are we allowed to have a home. Everything must be sacrificed for the Gospel.

Difficult, but not impossible

I hope that you don’t need me to tell you that there is a bit of the famous Near Eastern practice of exaggeration to make a point going on here? I don’t believe that these verses mean to recommend to us a level of discipleship that sounds more appropriate to obsessive-compulsive disorder than it sounds to following God.

Still, these verses are most certainly meant to emphasize the seriousness of being a follower of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to understand that God’s way of life is radically different from the way of life of the world around us.

And its not just about having hope in difficult situations, nor is it about not using bad language nor is it even about following a code of ethics and personal morality that is of a higher standard than the world around us.

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a radically different lifestyle from the prevailing culture.

For those who are called to such work – missionaries, for example – it may mean not having a home or family. And it means not calling down fire and brimstone on our enemies. Because God’s way is the way of dying and forgiving, not the way of killing and vengeance.

Thy Kingdom Come

Today’s reading marks the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel. In one sense, you could look at Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as Jesus’ own journey of discipleship. He has been called by the Father to the mission of dying and rising so that the world may be forgiven. His mission is precisely a mission of dying and forgiving.

His crucifixion and resurrection result in the very real redemption of the universe: Jesus’ salvation goes to the very being of creation. At that level, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection usher in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that God promised to the Jewish people, which Elijah worked for and which the Jewish people have been waiting for.

But Jesus’ mission is also an example to us and it is to be our mission as well. We cannot bring about the Kingdom of God ourselves, but we are called to live as if the Kingdom is already a reality in our lives and in the lives of others. The whole point of our discipleship, the whole point of living in the radical way that we hear about in this reading is to live as if the Kingdom is already here and to be a pointer to that Kingdom.

Jesus’ life was an example of the Kingdom life and, if we are to be disciples of Christ, then we are called to live such lives too, in order to be signs and pointers to the Kingdom. We are to live lives of ‘dying and forgiving’ rather than lives of killing and vengeance.

We are not to seek peace of mind and soul by seeking revenge or by seeking to hurt others as much as they have hurt us, but we are to seek peace of mind through forgiving them. We are not to seek peace of mind and soul by one-upsmanship or self-seeking but rather through the consideration of others. We are not to seek satisfaction in life by competition or by trying to be the top dog, but by using the gifts that God has given to us for the benefit of other people so that God may be glorified in it. We are not to use any power that we may be given for our own benefit, but rather for the benefit of other people so that God may be glorified in it.

Conclusion

At first glance, there may not appear to be good news in this evening’s reading, but we can’t take it in isolation from the rest of the Gospel. When we consider this text, which is exaggerating to make a point, we can find many points of good news.

The good news is that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die and to rise again so that we may be forgiven. The good news is that the Kingdom of God is coming and that it is a kingdom of forgiveness rather than vengeance. And the good news for those who love Christ is that we are called into God’s amazing work and that our lives not only have a purpose, but their purpose is glorious. This is a mission that is worth being single-minded about.

As we come to the Lord’s table this evening, I pray that we may be reminded of the good news of God’s kingdom of forgiveness. I pray also that we may each be filled with the kind of unswerving dedication and passion for God’s Kingdom that Jesus himself had. Amen

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday 21 June 2009 - Good & Evil

The gospel reading for this sermon is Mark 4:35-41

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Introduction

I want to pose a question to you this morning – Do you believe?

My question isn’t ‘Do you believe in God?’ And my question isn’t ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ either.

My question is ‘Do you believe in evil?’ Jesus’ contemporaries believed in evil and that included his twelve closest disciples.

This morning’s Gospel reading is all about evil. Mark’s hearers would have recognized the format of this story in the same way that we know what’s coming when we hear ’One upon a time’ or ’An Irishman, A Scotsman and a Englishmen walked into a bar.’

The format of this story about a deity overcoming the wind and the waves was a format used in Near Eastern Cultures. Baal overcame the demon Yam and Marduk overcome the demon Tiamat; these were stories about Good overcoming Evil. The good god overcomes the forces of chaos and evil in order to restore goodness and harmony in the universe. The good god demonstrates his power and that he is in control.

What Evil is Not

But I wonder if we in the West really believe in evil these days? I sometimes think that what many of us are inclined to call ‘evil’ isn’t really evil. And what some of us are inclined to write off as ‘just the way things are’ is, in fact evil. The problem is that we just don’t know what to do about some of these things, so we prefer to deny that they exist. I just want to think this morning about what Evil actually is. You may or may not agree with me on some of the points.

First of all, I think that there is a difference between difficulties on the one hand and evil on the other hand. It is a difficulty of human life, for example, that we become ill or incapacitated. And for many people in
our culture, death is a difficulty or a tragedy. Although in some cultures, death is viewed as a welcome release. But whilst acknowledging that illness, incapacity and death can cause great difficulty and sadness is that emphatically not to be minimized, I don’t personally believe that they are Evil.

Secondly, there is also a difference between not following recommended Christian discipleship practices and Evil. If this seems something of a trivial point to you, I think it’s important to say this because I think that often those outside the Church might rightly be able to accuse us of caring more about denouncing those who don’t do churchy things than we care about denouncing outright Evil.

For example, IMO, it is not evil to choose a Cricket match over Sunday worship, although if you do that on a consistent basis, the choice is likely to be a real effect on your discipleship. Still, it’s not evil. And, you may disagree with me, but I’d hesitate to say that a couple who have had a long-term faithful partnership and children without the benefit of marriage are ‘Evil’. I’d still say that I believe marriage is the better option, but such a relationship isn’t, IMO, Evil. It’s just not good discipleship practice if you are a Christian.

So What is Evil?

So, if Evil is not difficulty and sadness and if Evil is not offending against Christian discipleship, what is Evil? I’m going to take a stab at the following working definition: Evil seeks to diminish human beings both as individuals and as communities. Evil seeks power over others with the objective of instilling fear and chaos and taking away autonomy. So whilst death from natural causes is not Evil, a death that results from intentional abuse is.

Child abuse is evil. Spousal abuse is evil. Torture is evil. Plundering, raping and pillaging is evil. I suspect that we can all agree on those things.

The problem comes when Evil works in a more subtle way, and it becomes difficult to put our finger on it. And I think it’s these subtler versions of Evil that are actually the most powerful.

So, for example, if it’s not downright Evil to live in a faithful relationship without the benefit of marriage…what ‘name’ do we place on cheap sex? When sex and love become completely separated and sex is just another appetite to be filled – one’s partner becomes the equivalent of a Saturday night take-away? When a baby’s arrival in the world is seen not as a precious human life but as a nuisance to be left to his or her own devices. There are teachers in this area who will tell you exactly what I’m talking about. Somewhere along the line, Evil has crept in and taken on a life of its own.

Or, if it’s not evil for me to want to provide for my family, what name do we place on poverty in the developing world? What do we call it when our insatiable demand for cheap goods supports horrendous working conditions in other countries? Somewhere along the line, Evil has crept in and take on a life of its own.

And if religion itself is not inherently evil what do we say when we learn that inhabitants of the city of Karachi have to live without basic amenities because of Taliban insurgents? Or when Protestant and Catholic continue to kill one another in Northern Ireland even years after The Troubles are supposed to have ended? Somewhere along the line, evil has crept in and taken on a life of its own.

Power over Evil

The parable of Jesus calming the storm could so easily be read as something like the following: When difficulties arise and you become anxious or frightened, don’t worry – Jesus is there. And this would not be an untrue reading of this text. It’s just a rather toothless reading of it.

Real evil exists. Sometimes it’s so blatant we can all name it. Most of the time, I think, it’s subtle and we might not all agree about what is evil. That’s when evil can grab hold of the life of a community or of an individual and take away their freedom, their dignity and their autonomy. That’s when perceiving evil as an elemental force of chaos isn’t actually far wrong.

And this parable is telling us that Jesus has real power of this kind of Evil. His power over Evil is so potent that the disciples themselves – who have been following him, listening to him and living with him – end up frightened of Jesus. Because, of course, any kind of power is frightening. Power that can destroy evil also has the potential for being evil itself.

And it is at this point that today’s reading ends: with the disciples terrified.

But there is Good News in today’s Gospel. Because we know from Jesus’ life that God’s Kingdom is a conspiracy of hope and healing. The Good News of the Kingdom is far better than simply that we can rely on Jesus when we are scared or anxious. The Good News of the Kingdom is that Jesus has real power over Evil. And we, as the church who is the body of Christ, also have real power over Evil.

And, although we don’t possess our own supernatural powers, we do share with Jesus the power of Good. The moral compass of self-giving love as outlined in Scripture and Christian teaching can help us to discern good from evil when combined with prayer. The Holy Spirit promises to give us courage when we seek to do what is right and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross and to self-giving love.

Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christians believe that light and life have been woven into the fabric of creation from the beginning of all things. Christ has conquered sin, death and the power of evil and Christ’s power is not to be feared, but rather is to be embraced because it is always used for good.

And I think that’s very good news indeed.

As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning/afternoon, I pray that we may all be blessed with the courage and the power of God to do good and to reject evil. Amen

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday 14 June 2009 - A Conspiracy of Hope and Healing

This is a two-part sermon based on today's gospel and Epistle readings. It's almost twice as long as my usual sermons because this is the first Sunday in ages when I've taken two services in different churches that are both preaching services rather than communion services.

Mark 4:26-34

Introduction – Pay It Forward

I wonder how many people have seen the film from the year 2000 entitled
Pay it Forward?

This is a film about a 12 year old boy, Trevor, who lives with his alcoholic single mother in a deprived neighbourhood in Las Vegas. One day the school's Social Sciences teacher gives the children an assignment: think of an idea for world change, and put it into action. And Trevor comes up with the idea of 'Paying it Forward'.

It's a simple idea and it's easily done and it does have the potential to change the world. Trevor explains it this way:
'You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven.'

And so, in the film, a chain of good deeds is begun as Trevor helps three people who, in turn, help three other people. The movement spreads from city to city, initially unbeknownst to anyone until a total stranger gives a Journalist his brand-new Jaguar car. The stranger tells the journalist only that he is ‘paying it forward’ and the journalist begins to investigate this phenomenon.

As the journalist investigates what has happened, the audience learns of a series of good deeds that have resulted in things like…
…a woman being talked out of committing suicide…
…a woman homeless through alcohol and despair finding the strength to try to stop drinking and repair her life…
…and a girl being saved from possibly dying of an asthma attack.

It seems that Trevor did actually come up with an idea that could change the world.

And the idea of ‘paying it forward’ was so compelling that it has sprouted a Real Life imitator: The Pay It Forward Movement and the Pay It Forward Foundation. The Foundation has as its aim “to educate and inspire students to realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so.”

From Little Seeds

This morning we heard the very familiar parable of the seeds and the plants, as told by the Evangelist Mark. And I think that you can probably see the connection here with the idea of ‘Paying it Forward’.

Our good deeds can have an effect on other people far beyond their own ‘size’. In the film, for instance, 12-year-old Trevor tries to help a homeless alcoholic man by giving him shelter in the garage and by giving him food, but the man – Jerry - goes back to his drink. However, it is actually Jerry whose own kindness in ‘paying it forward’ helps the alcoholic woman stop drinking and to turn her life around. Trevor thought that his kindness to Jerry had failed when, in fact, that kindness rippled forward into the future and helped someone else.

And, I think that this lesson is something that we all know: that our own acts of kindness and generosity can often have ripples far into the future in ways that we don’t even know. But it can take a certain level of maturity and patience to actually believe these things. It’s only human nature that we really like to see the rewarding effects of our own good deeds in as direct a way as possible. In fact, I reckon that our natural tendency to respond to reward stimulus would encourage all of us to do good deeds constantly if there was a direct and immediate reward for doing good.

All about God

But this parable is not
just a morality tale. It’s not just trying to teach us a lesson about how to be good disciples – although I reckon it’s doing that too. Today’s parable, as presented to us by the Evangelist Mark, is also trying to tell us something about what the Kingdom of God is like and about what God himself is like.

And I want to pick up on an idea that I found on a blog this week.[1] The person who wrote it is a Lutheran lay preacher in Michigan and she was talking about her version of the Kingdom. Her version of God’s Kingdom is: “a place where people speak and act like people who've been invited into a conspiracy of hope and healing.”

I love that idea of the Kingdom of God as ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing’.

Because I believe that God is all about producing ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing’ And God’s Kingdom is a reality that is organized around people forming a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’. If the message of Christ is meant to be a message of Good News, I don’t think that you could ask for more good news that that.

Imagine this fantasy world where people are whispering behind people’s backs saying things like: “How are we going to let him know how much we appreciate him? What can we do?” “How can we help her out?” Or even “How can we pay that good deed forward”?

And, how different does it seem from our own world where often people ask questions more like: “How can we plot to get him out of office? And which political faction will I align myself with next?” “How quickly can we foreclose on her mortgage?” Or even “How can I pay him back for the things he did to me? How can I make him suffer the way that I suffered?”

Sometimes the world of conspiracy and tragedy and pain can be so pressing and so real that we lose sight of the fact that there is any other kind of reality. We lose sight of God’s reality and of God’s Kingdom. And we begin to think that God is like our world: mean, petty, destructive, vindictive.

But the good news in this morning’s/evening’s Gospel reading is that God’s Kingdom is not about destruction; rather God’s Kingdom is about growth. And it may not appear to us at first glance that the seeds of God’s good news are going to bear any fruit. But just like Trevor’s apparently failed good deed in trying to help the homeless man, the seeds of God’s goodness will in fact yield a rich harvest in the end.

So I hope that we can not simply sowers of these seeds of hope, But that we will also have the faith to trust that growth will occur and to trust that God’s Kingdom is ‘a conspiracy of hope and healing.’

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

In the reading that you just heard from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, the Church in Corinth is longing for the Kingdom of God. They are longing for a reality that reflects a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’. And they are wondering why this Kingdom hasn’t yet come.

And Paul’s answer is ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’.

It’s so easy for these words to sound trite, bland or na├»ve – especially when we are going through difficult times. If you hear the call to faith and hope incorrectly, they can sound like a counsel to constant passivity. But Paul isn’t counseling constant passivity. He says in the last verse of today’s Epistle reading that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. And we, those of us who believe, are called to be agents of that new creation.

But sometimes things happen that we can’t do anything about: accidents, illness, unexpected redundancy….dare I say: crop failures.

Although there are many events in our lives that we do not have control over, we still have a choice as to how we respond to events. We can choose to believe that the universe is conspiring against us. Or we can choose to believe that it is conspiring on our behalf: that, as scripture says ‘All things work together for good.’

The Way of Fear vs The Kingdom of God

The way of what Paul is calling ‘the world’ and ‘the flesh’ counsel us to defensiveness, to fear and to conspiracy theories. In many respects, fear is the opposite of faith.

Fear tells us that loads of illegal immigrants are storming our boarders, sucking the resources from our benefits system; even when the facts tell us that immigrants make a net contribution to the British economy.

Fear tells us that that there is an organized conspiracy against the Christian faith and that Christians should spread the ‘news’ that Christian teachers will soon be discriminated against in law.

Fear tells the banks that they had better move quickly to foreclose on homeowners the minute they miss a mortgage payment and that, somehow, the entire economy is going to be better off that way than by allowing a person to find another job and take up their mortgage payments again.

Fear encourages us to be suspicious of other people and to act defensively and it encourages us to be frightened of any one or anything that is unknown.

Rather than building a Kingdom that is run on the principle of a ‘conspiracy of hope and healing’, the way of fear is to counsel a Kingdom that is run on the principle of ‘a conspiracy of despair and disintegration’. ‘Look out for number one’ and ‘I’m going to make sure that I get mine.’

God’s Way, not Evil’s Way

Paul calls us to turn our eyes toward the new creation and to walk by faith. Paul calls us to Pay it Forward and to enter into a conspiracy of hope and healing. Paul reminds us that these things are the core of God’s New Creation because they are also at the core of Who God Is.

The secret of The Kingdom of Fear is that if you are really willing to threaten other people with death and destruction, you have a good chance of grabbing anything you want. This is the world’s great wisdom.

The secret of hope and healing is that if you really believe in resurrection and in God’s Kingdom, then you have the freedom from fear to dare to do what is right. The secret of the Kingdom of God is that hope and healing are the ultimate reality and fear and destruction are not.

The Kingdom of God is place of ‘Paying it Forward’. It is a conspiracy of hope and healing and a place of life.

Conclusion

We may not have a choice about all the events in our lives, but we have a choice as to how we react to these events. We can choose the way of fear and act defensively and destructively. Or we can choose to walk by faith and not by sight and choose the path of hope and healing.

And the reason we have a choice in the matter is because God is our Creator, our Saviour and our Sustainer. Before the foundation of the world, he chose to weave salvation, goodness, righteousness, hope and healing into the very fabric of reality. And this is very good news indeed.

My prayer this morning is that we may each be given the faith to trust in God’s promise of salvation and New Creation.

And I pray also that when we see the harvest that has grown from the seeds of hope, that we will be inspired to give thanks to the God who constantly conspires for a Kingdom of hope and healing. Amen

[1] See LutheranChik's "L" Word Diary at: hhttp://lutheranchiklworddiary.blogspot.com/