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/

Holding Place

This is a holding place for sermons that need to be posted.