Thursday, December 18, 2008
In the meantime, one of the members of our Parish sent me an intriguing fact today.
What's the absolute middle verse of the Bible?
It's Psalm 118:8: "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man".
Further intriguing data about this verse includes the fact (apparently...I haven't checked for myself) that there are 594 chapters before Psalm 118, and 594 chapters after Psalm 118.
If you add 594 to 594...you get 1188. (Which...in case you don't get it...looks rather like the reference to the middle verse...Psalm 118:8)
Makes you ponder doesn't it?
Is it that God has deliberately arranged the Bible in this way, so that we are meant to understand this as the absolute centre of his message to us?
Or is it that the Bible is so full of good advice for living that wherever the centre is, one is almost bound to find such good advice.
I don't know. And perhaps we aren't meant to know.
Perhaps that's part of the mystery.
In any case, in a world which is falling apart, economically and environmentally (and in just about every other way one can think of) its a verse we might all do well to ponder.
Let me type it again..."It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man".
Friday, December 05, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Church's new year...the date from which our lectionary starts. (A lectionary is a list of readings which are set for the whole church). So I should wish you a Happy New Year really. It's a strange choice, on the church's part. Logic, as Mr Spock would say, would dicate another weekend for the start of the Church's year - perhaps Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost (thought of as the birthday of the Church).
But when the Church first agreed that Advent was the start of the year - they knew what they were doing. God's spirit was, I think, leading them to quite a profound view of the rhythm of life, and the rhythm of the church's year.
Waiting is something we all have to do from time to time. We wait for the dinner to be cooked, we wait for that new job to start, we wait for that wedding, that birthday, that major event in our family's life...or for the arrival of Christmas once again.
Waiting does us good. It teaches us to live in the moment...to be aware of what is to come, even to anticipate it with joy. But we learn, too, that life goes on, and that God is at work in us even on the darkest of winter days. By waiting we learn to curb our desires, to be content with what we have...to look for God and for happiness among the day to day - and not to invest all our hope in some future event.
All of us know what it is like to say 'if only such and such would happen...then everything would be alright'. And all of us know that hollow feeling of disappointment when what we have yearned for doesn't actually satisfy us. If you are fortunate enough never to have experienced that, then ask the millionaire lottery winner...who yearned to win their millions...and then found that having them did nothing to alter their bad relationships, or their addictions, or their general dissafisfaction with life. Ask the child who strained towards Christmas, looking forward to it with every fibre of their being, and then found that Mum and Dad still argued, and there were no batteries for the toy. Ask the compulsive shopaholic who imagines, from time to time, that just one more dress, or one more pair of shoes, or one more computer game will bring them them happiness they crave.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury describes the Christian faith as having a 'now and not yet' quality about it. We live our faith in the day to day, seeing the Kingdom begin established all around us through the every day actions of love which take place between all people of good will. But we also see the places where the Kingdom is not yet... and with the prophets and apostles of old, we yearn and we wait for 'thy kingdom come, thy will be done'.
Tonight (website note: at the Advent Carol Service with our friends at the neighbouring parish of the Ascension) we will be hearing the stories of waiting once again. We will be reminded of Abraham who had been promised much by God, but who had to go on with the day to day job of living obediently while he waited for God's promises to be fulfilled. We will be reminded of the prophets, and their Jewish followers...who looked forward with longing to the coming of the Messiah. We will think about the Mother of our Lord, who had to wait through the nine months of her pregnancy, and then the early years of her Son's life to see what the Angel had told her come to pass.
As we listen again to these stories, we shall be alert to the 'now'... to this holy moment of coming together, as people of God from two different traditions but united in love. We shall be alert to the activity of God in our lives, in our parishes, and in our world. We shall be alert to the dance of God, dancing the beat of the rhythm of life. We shall be alert to the voice of God - announcing and assuring us of his coming among us with grace and with power. "I am coming." "I am coming".
Amen! Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus!
Friday, November 21, 2008
Here's a video I made of this reading some time ago. Some of the images in it - especially scenes of The Judgment - will help understanding of the sermon!
If I was Dr Who, and if I had a Tardis, I could take you back in time ...about 700 years...into the darkness of the Middle Ages.
In most churches of that time was something which would have made you gasp...if you were not used to such things. There, suspended above your head - usually painted on the wall - was often found a depiction of the Day of Judgment. Such pictures usually followed the same pattern. They showed Jesus, sitting on a throne, - the King of Kings - with all of humanity divided on either side of him.
On his right were the righteous...pictures of saints and good people who would be welcomed into heaven...the sheep of today's gospel reading. But on his left would be the 'goats' - those evil-doers who would be condemned to eternal punishment.
These pictures of the Last Judgment were a pretty unsubtle message to the great mass of churchgoers. Many of them, of course, could not read - and grand murals of the Last Judgment were designed to get a clear message across: watch out, or you might find yourself on the wrong side of the throne!
Some of the artists who painted these last judgments, all over the world, were a pretty cheeky lot. There are still some famous ones which, for example, portray well known politicians of the time as being among the goats. And there are even some which showed bishops and priests as being among those who were condemned to hell! Cheeky so-and-so's! Thankfully, especially for us priests, the majority of these Last Judgment paintings were covered over during the Reformation!
But there are still enough of them around, in medieval churches across the land, to remind us that when the Scriptures refer to Jesus as our King - the King of Kings, in fact - they mean business.
Let's just think, for a moment, about what it means to live under the reign of the King of Kings. Perhaps it might help if we were to shift our language a little. Very few people in this modern world know what it is like to live under the real power and authority of an actual Monarch. Perhaps it might help us to say that we live under the 'government' of God. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus choose to place ourselves under his rule. We choose to follow his government...his laws and ways of doing things. That's what it means to be a citizen of heaven.
But Scripture has a way of challenging us - even we who have signed up to the 'God-party'...to living under the Government of Jesus. Passages like today's gospel - and those medieval church paintings which were drawn from it - they give us cause to wonder whether we've truly grasped the full implications of what we have signed up for. This passages drives us to ask how fully we have grasped the reality of living under the Government of God. It asks us to think about how we have behaved towards the weakest members of our society - the sick, the hungry, the stranger and those in prison. Or what we might call the 'last, the least, and the lost of our society'.
I generated a little controversy last week, when I publicly questioned the City Council's attitude towards Travellers (or Gypsies as we sometimes call them). I got really angry to see a quote in the local newspaper from our City Council Leader, in which he was reported as saying "We don't want Travellers here". And that was after the Government has asked local authorities to look for sites where Traveller communities can put down roots, and become members of local communities.
You see, I think that a society is judged by how it treats the weakest of its members. And Travellers are treated, by us, like Samaritans were treated by the Jews. And how the Jews were ultimately treated by the Nazis. They are the scapegoats...the ones we blame for litter and crime...as though if we got rid of Gypsies from our City, then all the crime and litter would disappear as well! So I wrote a letter to the newspaper...in the vain hope that I might persuade our politicians to think again.(To see what I wrote, click here)
You see, according to the Gospel, Jesus is to be found precisely among those people who are the last, the least and the lost of our society. When we shun those who are not like us...those whose way of life we disapprove of...are we not in danger of shunning Jesus himself?
It can be a little overwhelming to read the story of the Sheep and the Goats. It can make us wonder whether we are ever doing enough to help the last, the least and the lost. Especially when we see poverty, sickness, loneliness all around us in our own City...and on our TVs.
It is right, of course, that we should each ask ourselves the question, all the time. Am I doing enough? Could I do more to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger? But we must not go overboard with worry. Jesus himself, in the story, says "just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me". One of the least of these...
We are members of the body of Christ. As we work together, each one of us doing what we can to touch the lives of even one of the last, the least and the lost - then we are doing what we have been commanded to do. Working together, each of us making our own contribution, however small, we CAN change the world. We can, by God's grace, establish the Government of God in our own city streets.
This is our vocation. This is what we are called to do - we who are the citizens of heaven. The word 'vocation' has the same root as the word 'vocalise'... it means a call... a cry from our King of Kings that we are invited to respond to. It is for each of us to pray and to explore with God and with one another what it is he is calling us to do - as part of his Holy Government Policy of bringing peace and justice to the least, the last and the lost.
Every one of us has a vocation...a calling. For most of us, that calling will be one that is lived out through our daily lives, in our workplaces, schools, and families. But for some there is a different calling... a vocation to become a priest, or a deacon, or a reader; someone who is set apart for a particular task within the church... the task of leading, encouraging and where necessary challenging the church and its people.
The Church of England is currently experiencing a shortage of such people. There is a need to set apart more people who can take on that role of preaching, teaching and leading. So I'm going to finish with one last challenge for you to contemplate...
Could it be that God might be calling you...yes you...to be set apart for the task of being a priest or a deacon or a reader in the Church? Is that something that you have been wondering... something that perhaps God has been prompting you to think about? If it is, then let me encourage you to get in touch. Let's think and pray together about how God might be calling you - whether he is calling you towards the priest-hood, the diaconate, or towards any other form of vocation. All of us have a vocation...a calling. But sometimes we need the help of others to crystallise that calling into something definite... something we can act upon.
But something we can all be certain of is that all of us - all of us who live as citizens of the Government of God - are called, all the time, to keep on loving and reaching out, to the last, the least and the lost.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Saturday, November 15, 2008
In a few minutes we will be baptising these five children into the Church. But why are we doing it? What's it all about? I mean, its a bit of an odd thing to do isn't it...to pour some water over someone's head in the name of God?
Well, perhaps the first thing to say about baptism is that it is a very ancient practice. We know that for at least 2000 years, Christians have been doing this simple thing to each other. It stems out of a command that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them to carry on his work: "Go into all the world and make disciples - baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:18) Jesus himself was baptised, in the River Jordan. So baptism is something that we do out of obedience to Jesus. We do it because he told us to...even though we might not understand it very well.
The second thing we can say about baptism is that it is a sign, a symbol - of something much deeper than what we shall see on the surface. (Note for website only: The technical term for this, within the church, is the word "sacrament" - which, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, means something that is an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace".)
We see signs all around us, don't we? In the last couple of weeks, many of us have been wearing poppies - as a sign that we are grateful to those who have given their lives for our freedom, and a sign that we care for those who have been injured, or left without a family member because of war. Do you see what I mean? The flower, on its own, means nothing. A poppy is a poppy - a pretty red flower...nothing more. But because we understand that it symbolises something more, something deeper - then the poppy takes on a whole new meaning.
So what is it that baptism is symbolising? Well, pretty clearly, it's a symbol of washing and cleansing. Christians believe that baptism is an essential part of the process of having our sins washed away.
But what is sin?
Sin is anything that gets in the way of us truly becoming the people that God created us to be. It's the bad stuff, the general rubbish and clutter of our lives, that comes between us and God. It's a difficult word, isn't it? We have somehow got used to thinking of sinners as being those people who do the very worst things. Murderers, thieves, rapists, and so on. But that's only partly true.
Scripture tells us that 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Rom.3:23). We've all 'fallen short'. I'm a sinner...and I hope that you'll forgive me for saying this... we are all 'sinners'. I'm not insulting you...honestly! I'm just using the word in the way it was meant to be used! None of us, if we examine ourselves honestly could ever claim to be perfect. And that's the dividing line. We are either perfect, like God. Or imperfect...and therefore sinners.
But God never gives up on us. God is always reaching out to us, and offering us the chance to become more and more like him. He offers to take away our sin, and helps us to become more and more God-like. More like the people, created in God's image, that God intended us to be.
Baptism is a part of that process. It's an outward sign that God is at work in us. It's a sign of our saying 'yes' to the process of becoming more like God, and less of a sinner. For the children here who are old enough to understand what is going on, its a sign that they are saying 'yes' to becoming more like God...and that they are willing to let God touch them, and draw them deeper into himself. For little Sarah - who will probably scream when I pour water on her head - it's a sign that her parents, on her behalf, are saying 'yes' to God as well.
But why would we want to do that at all? Why would we want to become more like God? The story of the Good Samaritan, that we just saw on the screen, is a pretty good example.
In that story - which Jesus told - a man was going on a journey. While he was walking along, minding his own business, he was set upon by a group of thugs. It's rather uncomfortably similar to the murder of Brett Carpenter on our own City streets in this last week, isn't it? (Website readers: see this link for more details.) The story of the Good Samaritan has all sorts of things to teach us.
For example, it teaches us about the need to stop judging other people because of their race, or their background. Samaritans were hated by the Jewish people that Jesus was talking to. But Jesus showed them that such hatred was pointless. A Samaritan was just as capable of being a good neighbour as anyone else.
The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a different way. It shows us that it is possible to live a life that is based on giving, instead of getting. The Samaritan in the story simply gave...of his time, his money, his medicine, his bandages... without looking for any reward. Except the satisfaction of simply doing good. I wonder what our society would look like if all of us lived that way. It's just possible that if more people embraced Jesus' way of living, that this world would be a far happier, far more sharing, far less destructive place for us all to live in.Ultimately, that's what these children and their parents and God-parents are signing up to today. It takes courage to stand up at the front of a church in the way they are going to do in a few moments. And it takes courage to say "yes" to God's way of living...and "no" to doing things the old way. It takes courage to embrace God, and reject sin. It takes courage to step out on a journey of faith...and that is courage that I welcome and applaud.
Now - let's do some baptising!
Friday, November 14, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Friday, November 07, 2008
The video I shall be using is below. Please note that this page will only be available for a short while, as I do not hold the copyright for some of the material I have used. It is offered in respectful memory of those who gave (or were forced, by conscription to give) their lives in war. If anyone who owns the copyright to these images, or soundtrack, wishes me to remove this video, please email me - and I will immediately comply.
If I had delivered a sermon, it would have been one which suggested that Jesus' solution to the problems of the world (i.e. love one another) is still, after 2000 years, very far from being implemented. A topic for continued prayer - and action - by all people of good will, I suggest.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
Readings: Psalm 130 & 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 &51-58
“Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary we all carry about with us”. So, says Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. And we know what she means, don’t we? We are who we are, to a greater or lesser extent, because of the memories that we carry about with us - especially the memories of those we have loved, those whose lives have touched us in some way.
The word “remember” has its root in the old word for body parts - members. To “re-member” someone is therefore, essentially, to put that someone back together in our mind.
And that, I hope, that is what this service will help to accomplish for many of us here today.But the effect that this act of remembrance will have on each of us will be different. Some of us will remember our loved ones with affection and pleasure, quietly celebrating their effect on our lives, thanking God for all they meant to us. They will be, to some extent, a fulfilment of the old adage that “God gave us memories so that we can have roses in winter”. Some of us will be content to rest in the certain, Christian, hope that God, the Lord of the living and the dead, offers eternal life through Jesus Christ.
But for some of us, the act of re-membering will bring unexpected emotions to the surface. Natural, completely understandable, but nonetheless difficult emotions. Feelings, perhaps of anger towards a God who apparently took away our loved one before what we thought was their time. Perhaps there might be unresolved grief which bubbles to the surface. Perhaps there are old wounds relating to our loved one - wounds which have not yet healed. Perhaps we worry about what comes next? What about life after death?
What might our response to such feelings be? - the warm and appreciative ones, as well as the more complex, difficult ones?
Psalm 130, which we heard just now, starts with words that many of us may recognise as our own:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy”.
As many of you will be well aware, the Bible is a collection of writings assembled over many generations - it contains stories, metaphors, history, myth, song and poetry...all of which combine to offer us, if we will but grapple with it, a clear understanding of the God that Christians serve.
Ours is a God who listens to, and understands, our most heartfelt cries - the cries which, as Psalm 130 says, come from the depths of our innermost being - and from the depths of depressions and sadness too. Ours is a God who wants to be with us through all that life throws our way - so much so that he came, as a man, to live among us. Through that time he spent on earth, he experienced all that we experience. Not because he somehow had to do that in order to understand us...but rather that he wanted us to know that he understands...and to be able to trust him completely.
The shortest verse in the Bible, and perhaps one of the most eloquent, is the two words “Jesus wept” - recorded of an event in which Jesus himself was bereaved at the death of his friend, Lazarus. But as that story, and the story of his own resurrection powerfully demonstrated, Jesus had within him the power of God - the power to transform death into life...the power to raise first Lazarus, and then himself, from death itself.
The Christian God is the God who transforms death into life. “Listen”, says the Apostle Paul in the second of our readings, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”. And so, he goes on, exclaiming “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
How are we to respond to that exclamation? Especially, perhaps, when we feel bereft - depressed - lost - because of the death of our own loved one? We don’t feel much like making that kind of exclamation ourselves do we?
Well, I want to suggest to you, that’s where the Christian hope, offered to us in the pages of the Bible, really comes into play. The message of the Bible is absolutely clear...it couldn’t be more clear. We all have a clear choice...to live alone with our grief, mourning the end of life with no hope...OR...we can hold on to the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ offered to us in the Bible, written by people who have experienced God for themselves, rejoicing in the plain truth that this life is just the starting point. Eternal life waits for us, through Jesus Christ... if we will but respond to his amazingly graceful, loving, call.
That’s what the Christians who gather here each Sunday are doing. Some of our practices may seem a little odd, some of our prayers and songs - a little old fashioned. None of us is perfect, and every one of us is grappling with life, death, memories, experiences. But each of us is expressing our ‘yes’ to the call of Christ...our ‘yes’ to his offer of life. When we gather around the Lord’s table we “re-member” the historical event of the Cross, and the resurrection to new life of our God.
And we say, with our lives and by our actions - “Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death is thy sting?”
So, today, we re-member our loved ones. We thank our loving heavenly Father for all that they meant to us, all the ways that their own life and love affected us. But we are also open to the call of God that we should, in the Apostle Paul’s final words “give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord”. We live as people who re-member those who have gone before, but also as people who look forward to the eternal life which is ours to share with them in Christ.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
I was watching a movie the other day. I honestly forget which movie - it was one of those many disaster epics, where the world is about to end thanks to a meteorite, or aliens, or the raising of the water levels, or some such thing. What I remember most about the movie was a tiny little scene - just a bit a humour to lighten the apocalyptic mood. The camera showed us one of those slightly barmy folks with a sandwich-board...the kind that normally says "The End of the World is Nigh!". But instead of that message, in the middle of all the panic and chaos, his sign had its normal slogan crossed out - and instead he had written: "Told you so!"
We find such people amusing because people have been predicting the end of the world practically since the world began. Every few years we hear of another religious sect which has walled itself into a cave, or climbed to the top of a mountain, to await the end of the world...as confidently predicted by their leaders. The internet, and certain types of bookshops, are full of the writings of people who claim to be able to interpret the numerology of the Bible...and who reckon that God has shown them that the End is nearly upon us.
A lot of this apocalyptic doom-saying comes, of course, from the example of the Bible. It was clearly something that was exercising the minds of those around the writer of Matthew's Gospel - as we've just heard. According to most scholars, Matthew's Gospel was written after the year AD70 - when the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, after yet another uprising against their rule by those 'troublesome Jews'. Life for the early Christians was proving to be very hard. They were being persecuted for their faith, thrown out of the synagogues and the Temple, as well as coming up against the might of Roman Emperor-worship. Now, after the Temple has been destroyed, Matthew records a tradition, handed on through the years, that Jesus himself had predicted the Temple's destruction.
What else had Jesus predicted? Well according to Matthew, he had predicted the very persecution that people found themselves going through. It must have been comforting for them to know that their persecution was predicted, and somehow accounted for, in God's plan. Of still more comfort was the promise (in verse 14) that once the Gospel had been preached to the four corners of the Earth, then the end would come, and all the persecution would stop.
These were messages of hope - messages designed to help the newly established 'followers of The Way' (as early Christians were called) to hold onto their faith, and to keep on persevering. Matthew wanted to offer comfort and encouragement to people who were doubting that Jesus was ever going to return as he had promised.
But of course the problem with Jesus words, as Matthew recorded them, is that they are deliberately ambiguous...and they relate to all of human history. Famines, earthquakes and wars are a repeated phenomenon, throughout history. Did you know that according to one recent historical survey, there have only been seven years, in the last 2000, that a war has not been going on somewhere in the world? Seven years, out of 2000. Persecution and suffering by Christians is a common theme of the last 2000 years as well. Even now, as we meet in safety and peace here in England, our brothers and sisters in certain parts of India and Afghanistan are in fear of their very lives. One of the worst effects of the War in Iraq has been that Christians are now fleeing the country - whereas under Saddam, they at least had the freedom to worship.
Perhaps the end is coming soon. Many Christians talk about these as the 'Last Days' - but then that is a phrase that was used by St Paul as well - nearly 2000 years ago. We would be wise not to imagine that the world is going to end tomorrow. The lesson of history is that we should be very suspicious of anyone who tells us that the end is nigh.
On the other hand, we are encouraged to live as though the end was nigh. Jesus told many stories which encourage us to live as if the end was upon us. We can boil all those stories down into one question: "If Jesus came today, what would you like him to find you doing?" (I have a rather facetious fridge magnet at home which captures that thought rather comically. It says: 'Jesus is coming...look busy!'). Would we want to be caught gambling, or giving to charity? Would we want to be caught fighting, or reconciling? Would we want to be caught praising or cursing? Would we want to be caught shopping, or sharing?
So there is a challenge for us in Jesus words - but there is also promise. There is promise that history is His Story. There is promise that God holds all of human history in the palm of his hands. Famine, war, earthquake, persecution, false Messiahs, God is big enough to cope with them all. Jesus' words, recorded by Matthew, help us to understand that God is so much bigger than human history and human events. He stands outside of history, and yet he contains it. He is before human history, and after it. Whether and when the world will be transformed by God into 'heaven on earth' is not really the issue. The issue is whether or not we trust God when he says that he loves us - and how we respond to that love. That's all that ultimately matters: how much do we let the love of God overwhelm us. How much are we willing to let his love flow through us - transforming the world into a new heaven and a new earth? How much are we willing to let the Son of Man rule in our hearts?
A final thought - on a related theme. Today is All Souls Day - and we shall be remembering those we have loved later on, at our 3o'clock Service of Memories. Some people get rather anxious when they think about their loved ones who have died - especially those who died without obviously expressing a Christian belief. It is a question - sometimes an unspoken one - which often hovers between a priest and a grieving family: "where do you think our loved one is now?". The easy thing for any priest to do would be to offer meaningless words of comfort...to go along easily with statements which assume the loved one is now in heaven. But that would, I think, be dishonest.
The truth is, we cannot know the ultimate destination of any human being. When the end is nigh for us as individuals, no-one else is able to judge the state of the human heart...no-one other than God alone. But we can have confidence in one thing - and perhaps one thing alone. We can have confidence that God is good...and God holds all of human history in his hands. We can have confidence that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...so that the world, through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
In other words, we know that every fibre of God's being is bent on our salvation, not on our destruction. God wants 'the world' to be saved...and that surely means everyone in it, or who has ever lived in it. God never stops reaching out for us, loving us, drawing us to the Divine Life. None of us can judge to what extent that process has been sucessful in the life of any individual. We can only trust that God will have done, and has done, and continues to do all that God can do to save everyone.
And so we celebrate All Souls Day with real hope. Whatever the life of the people we pray for today, we hope and trust in God. "All our hope on God is founded"...and we trust that he who holds all of human history in his hands will hold our loved ones too.
Friday, October 24, 2008
"Is this is real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide; no escape from reality". With those words, Freddie Mercury began one of the most famous Rock anthems of all time - the Bohemian Rhapsody. He asks a question which haunts most of us from time to time. Is this it? Is this 'landslide' how it was supposed to be?
Let me ask you. How do you feel about the world? Is it getting better, or worse? For all our technology, and all our wisdom, and all our invention...how does the world seem to you? How is it that there can be so much beauty, so much good, and yet also so much pain, and so much hurt?
According to book of Genesis, when God created the earth, he planted a garden. The story goes that in that garden, God planted a tree...the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God said to human beings, 'I'm giving you a choice. Either you can live as I created you to live, or you can live how you want. You can live 'in the garden' for ever, with me; or you can do your own thing, and die. That tree...the one over there...is the symbol of what you'll choose. Eat of the tree...and you'll choose your way, not mine. Good or evil. Life or death. It's your choice.
Lots of people get very steamed up about whether or not the Genesis story is true - whether it's actual history, or whether its a fable, like Aesop's fables; a story which points to a greater truth.
I think perhaps I had better pause there for a moment - just to let that idea sink in. It might come as a bit of a shock for some of you.
I believe, you see, that we have to be very careful how we treat the Scriptures. If we read them literally - believing that every image, every picture, every story literally happened - then we can quickly find ourselves in very difficult water. We have to use our minds, apply our knowledge and our common sense, and learn to discern what is factual history in the Bible; and what is story, myth, and fable. Now - please understand me. Just because a story is a fable doesn't mean that it isn't true. There is always truth underlying fables - just as there was truth underlying the fables - the parables - that Jesus himself taught. No-one believes that there really was a Good Samaritan. That story is obviously a fable - a parable - designed to help us understand who our neighbour is. Why then should we get hung up on questions about Adam and Eve. Instead of trying to do battle against Science - and arguing that the world is only 6,000 years old - why not look for the truth which underlies the story...the essential truth at the heart of it?
Perhaps the truest thing that can be said about the Genesis story is not whether or not it actually happened...but that it still happens. It is still happening. Just like our ancestors, we are still faced with the same choice...good or evil. Life or death.
At the other end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, there is another tree. That tree is depicted on the sculpture at the back our church - thanks to the vision of one of my predecessors here, Bill Sargeant.
Let me invite you to stand up, or turn around now in your seats...and have a look at it. It's called the Tree of Life - and it has 12 kinds of fruit, so that it produces fruit all through the year. The writer of Revelation, in characteristic fable-talk, says that the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.
So there's a tree at the beginning of human history, and a tree at the end. And we live between the trees. The trees act like markers. Before the first tree, God went on for ever, back into eternity. After the second tree, God will go on for ever, into eterntity. But for a brief, momentary blip in eterntity...we live between the trees.
In today's Gospel reading, we hear part of a much longer description, by Jesus, of the end of time - when the sign of Son of Man (maybe the Cross?) will appear in the sky, and history will be brought to its dramatic end. Now, again, we must be careful not to put too much faith in the precise images he uses. Jesus quite normally spoke in riddles and parables - again the language of fable... challenging us to go beyond the words, deep into the inner meaning of the text. In verse 35, Jesus says, 'Heaven and Earth will pass away - but my words will not pass away'. This period we are living in - here between the trees - this will end. But is that it? Is that what Christianity is ultimately about - waiting for the world to end? To meet some people of faith, you would indeed think that is all it is about.
Some Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on my door a few weeks ago. I leave you to imagine the shock on their faces when the door was opened by someone wearing a clerical collar. "Oh," they said, pointing to the sign on my door, "this really is a Rectory then!". I invited them in - because I always enjoy a good theological debate. And at the end of our time together, I concluded regretfully, that life for a Jehovah's Witness must be a very sad one. They are so focused on the end of the story, so caught up with the details about who will be saved, and when the end will come, that they forget the life that is now. They seem not to understand the real truth of the Genesis story - that we can choose life now, instead of death. They don't see the underlying truth of all the stories and fables about the end of history...the promise that God is Good...and that God will keep on inviting us to choose life, not death.
And that for now, we live between the trees.
I don't know about you, but I want a God who is interested in The Now. I want a God who helps me to choose life now. I want a God who inspires me to help others choose life now. I want a God who gives me a garden of eden to live in, and look after, now. And fortunately, I believe, the real God is precisely like that. Jesus - the man whose connection with God was undoubtedly stronger, deeper, more real than anyone else who has ever lived - Jesus points us to that God. When Jesus says that 'the Kingdom of God is among you' he shows us that eternal life is not something that happens after we die...eternal life starts now! We, his brothers and sisters, are 'inheritors of that promise'. We can choose life now, and begin to never, ever, ever, stop living. We can choose life now. Here, between the trees, is the promise of life. In Jesus words, "life to the full" is available to us now.
May you trust Jesus when he says that death has been taken care of; that you can live forever with God, and that you are never, ever, going to stop living. May you believe that you can be a partner with God in taking care of the world - in redeeming and restoring what has been broken in the world - in bringing healing and life to the places of darkness. May you believe that God calls you to join forces with God - to help make this earth the kind of place is was always meant to be...a garden of life.
Too many people live our their lives in deserts - deserts of arid consumerism, deserts of hatred and enmity, deserts of shattered relationships, war and poverty. May you be the kind of person who plants trees of life...trees of paradise...in the desert.
(I wish to gratefully acknowledge the work of Rob Bell, upon whose thinking much of this sermon is based - especially his DVD called 'Trees'. Go to www.nooma.com for more details.)
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I've decided to create a secondary blog-site, so that I've got somewhere to pour out any random thoughts which I feel like communicating to the world at large. (Go to http://tkennar.blogspot.com )
That means I can leave this main site for what it has largely become - somewhere to give my sermons a second airing, and a chance for parishioners and other readers to argue or comment.
Did you know that you can subscribe to both my blogs? Click on the button marked "subscribe" on the left. If you subscribe, you will receive notification of whenever I leave a new message on either blog...so you can choose whether or not to read it!
Oh yes, and I've also changed the design of this blog (using the handy template facility offered by Google). Obviously, I need to find something more like work to be getting on with...
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Render unto Caesar... Matthew 22.15-22
I have a dog. Her name is Imogen. Don't ask me how she got that name...she arrived with it, from a rescue centre. Sometimes I feel a bit of a berk, standing in the park calling out such a fancy name. But that's not why I'm telling you about Imogen. Anyone who has a dog will know exactly how they tend to behave around the dinner table. Even though Imogen has just eaten an enormous bowl of dog-food, she will still sit, with hunger oozing from every whisker, watching every mouthful that we eat from our plate. You can hear her thoughts...telepathically transmitted through her hungry eyes, and her panting mouth...."Do you really want that last bit of chicken? I could eat that for you, you know...if you need some help. The gravy...yes, that last little smear of gravy on the bottom of your plate...do you need some help with that. I don't mind...really."
And then, when you're washing up, "Do you want that bit of baked-bean juice...on that dishcloth. Chuck it here...I'll sort that out for you." And later, over coffee and biscuits..."I could eat a biscuit...actually a whole packet of biscuits...no, a whole lorry-load of biscuits. Just one biscuit...please!.
Martin Luther had a dog. He used to say, "If only I could pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, no wish, no hope"
But we mustn't give in. The vet has told us that Imogen mustn't have more food than has been carefully weighed out for her. Otherwise she'll get all fat and lumpy - and the old adage that dogs look like their owners will come true! So we have a rule in our house now: render unto Imogen that which is Imogen's, and unto humans that which is humans'.
Of course, when Jesus said the original of that saying - "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's" - he was thinking of some rather grander concepts than canine diets! But what was he, in fact, saying? Many scholars have debated for centuries the meaning of his words - as indeed they have debated many of Jesus' words. Some say that Jesus was advocating a separation between church and state - that he believed in disestablishing the Church of England, for example. Caesar and God are separate - and so the Church of England and the Government of England should go their separate ways.
Others, however, have argued that this wasn't in Jesus' mind at all. Those others are the owners of the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism - they are 'anti' the idea of 'disestablishing' the church. They are antidisestablishmentarianists! (Just thought you might like to know that!)
Taken as part of Matthew's Gospel as a whole, it seems that Jesus was not really all that interested in those kinds of questions. For Jesus, the concept of the Kingdom was an all embracing one. The Kingdom has the power, and the potential to touch every part of life...from the humblest interaction between two people in a family, to the great summits of world leaders. Jesus' claim is that the Kingdom, and it's principles, must (and will) infuse all life.
Jesus talks about the Kingdom (and Kingdom people) as being like salt, which flavours; or light which illuminates; or yeast which causes dough to rise. The Kingdom will spread, Jesus promises, like a sort of holy virus... transforming everything it touches... from religious institutions to whole Governments.
I have to confess to being somewhat of a fan of our Archbishop of Canterbury - Rowan Williams. Like Marvin the Parnoid Android in Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Rowan really does have a brain the size of a planet. I have to run at his books in very small chunks...because his thinking is SO complex (and his sentences SO long!) that it takes me quite a while to begin to catch up to what he is saying. On the subject of the Kingdom, Rowan offers a particularly fascinating thought. He says "there is a provisionality about the Kingdom...a sort of 'now but not yet' quality." I think I know what he means...
He means, I think, that the Kingdom is truly among us (as Jesus proclaimed)...but it is not yet completely established. We see the Kingdom among us everytime a child is saved from hunger, or an AIDS sufferer is welcomed as a member of the family of God. We see the Kingdom every time that human beings reach out with generosity to one another...and every time that love, justice and mercy are shown.
But we all know, don't we, that there are many places where the Kingdom is yet to come. So many place of darkness. So many places where the light of Christ does not yet shine.
We are called to live in this 'duality'. We live as people with one foot in heaven, and one foot on the earth. We must deal with the world as it is...and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. We must pay our taxes, and comply with all the laws that society has erected around our individual freedom. But we are also citizens of another Kingdom. We pray 'thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' precisely because we have caught sight of what the Kingdom is like...and because we want to bring it closer. We know how good it feels to find goodness, love, generosity, and mercy. And we long for more of it. And so, we render to God that which is God's...we give him of our time, and our money, precisely because we long for the Kingdom to be fully established 'on earth as it is in heaven'.
And let's make no bones about it. The more we give, of our time and our money, the sooner that day will come. Our money is oil on the wheels of the Kingdom. Just a few weeks ago I said, from this pulpit, that God doesn't need our money...he is God, after all. He can do whatever he wants. But, God has chosen to work with humans, and through humans. He doesn't want to impose his Kingdom on the earth - he wants us to want it. He wants us to do our part to usher it in. He wants a relationship of love with us in which we give, sacrificially, in the same way as he has also given sacrificially.
And Folks...we do have to think about our giving. Did you hear the story about the £10 note who met his old friend the 50p piece in the street one day? "Where have you been?" asked the 50p piece. "I haven't seen you for ages". "Oh," said the £10 note, "I've been really busy. I've been down the pub, out to a football match, then to the cinema, and then out for a meal. Busy busy busy. What about you? Where have you been?". "Oh," replied the 50p piece. "The same old drudgery for me, I'm afraid. Church, church, and church again!".
Ouch. But there is a germ of truth in it, isn't there?
Enough said, on the topic of money. There are many other ways of being part of the great call to usher in the Kingdom. "Thy kingdom come" is something we all need to pray...if we are at all serious about this thing that we do together each Sunday. And prayer is not always done with words...often its done with actions too. St Francis, one of our patron saints in this parish, said: "Pray always...with words if necessary". We can all of us give time, and energy, and expertise to the task of ushering in the Kingdom - as of course many of you already do...and for which I am very grateful. But that's the task that Jesus give us...that's the privilege he calls us to. That's the honour he bestows on us...to rely upon us, little us, to be his co-workers in bringing his Kingdom of love, and mercy, and justice and peace into this community of North End...and around the world.
Jesus calls us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar...but to God that which is God's. He calls us to live as people who hunger after the Kingdom, as a dog hungers after her master's sausages. He calls us be people who understand that the Kingdom is both 'now' and 'not yet' - and that we are the ones who have been called to be salt and light to the world.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
When I was at school, my P.E. teacher seemed to take pleasure in appointing captains for football teams, and then getting the captains to pick their own players from the rest of the class. He was a sadist. The result, as far as I was concerned was that I was always the last to be chosen. Sad really. But then, despite the achievements of Peter Crouch down at Fratton Park, great tall lanky individuals like me are rarely good football players. In my case, I was such a useless football player, that the captain of the team who was forced to have me would inevitably turn to our sadistic PE teacher and complain "Do we have to have Kennar? It's not fair. He's rubbish!" If there were more than 22 of us boys available to play a match, you could guarantee that I would spend the whole time sitting on the bench.
We had all been called out onto the football pitch. But we were not all chosen to play. Or in Jesus' rather pithy statement..."many are called...but few are chosen".
But of course, Jesus wasn't talking about football matches. Jesus makes his rather strange statement at the end of the parable we've just heard. It's a parable about a wedding feast - in which lots of different people are invited to attend, but only some get to actually stay for the meal...either because they refuse the invitation, or because they get themselves thrown out.
With this particular parable, Jesus is compressing the story of salvation history into just a few short sentences. The Wedding Feast is an allegory for the salvation of the world - right from the initial sending of the prophets to Israel, through the renewed invitation by Christian missionaries, concluding at the last judgment, when the good are separated from the bad.
But this is not just a simple historical survey. This is not a story designed to make Christians feel nice and smug about being invited to the Wedding Feast, while the poor old Jews, or other older religions are consigned to some sort of hell. No, its actually a much more troubling story than that. Consider the last part of the story...from verse 11:
"...when the King came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the King said to his attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'. For many are called but few are chosen."
In early Christianity, the new life of a Christian was often pictured as being like putting on a new set of clothes. It's like changing a dirty shirt for a clean one. We are encouraged to change our old ways of life, and to put on our new Christian identity. (Blog readers might like to compare this idea with Rom 13:12-14; Gal 3:27; Eph 6:11; Col 3:12;) But this man, whom the King discovers sitting at the feast, has not put on his 'wedding robe'. He is among the guests at the wedding...but he has not actually changed his clothes. And so, he finds himself excluded from the party.
This rather troubling man is held up for all of us to consider. He represents the kind of church-goer, the kind of believer, who attends the ceremonies, and sings the songs, and stands up and sits down in all the right places...but who never lets the words of Jesus take root in his life. He is the person who never takes up the invitation to put on the wedding robes.
"Many are called...but few are chosen." It might help us if we dig a little deeper in the meaning of those words. The word that is translated for us as 'chosen' is the Greek word ekletos (in anglicised Greek!). It's the word from which we get the english word 'elected' - and in biblical terms, in means, essentially, 'those who are accepted at the last judgment'. Those who have elected to follow God. Those who have been elected by God to spend eternity with him.
The point of this statement is to say that many many people - in fact, the whole earth - is called by God to put on the new clothes of the wedding feast. But only some will respond to the call. Only some will be elected, or will elect themselves, to respond to the call.
And crucially, as far as Jesus is concerned, some of those who will and do refuse the offer of new life are among us now...in the church...sitting alongside us in the pews.
How are we to respond to this startling idea? Should we start a witch-hunt perhaps...a new Spanish Inquisition...to root out the unelected in our midst? Perhaps I should conduct interviews with everyone in the parish to determine who is in, and who is out?(!).
Perhaps not! This statement of Jesus' is not intended as some kind of invitation for the church to start making decisions about who is and who is not 'in'. It's important to note from the story that it is not the other guests who throw out the intruder. Only the King himself has that authority. But sadly, that is not always the case within the church. Unfortunately, there are some people in the church who think that they have got a monopoly on the truth. They are SO certain that their understanding of Truth is the only one.
So how are we to discern? How are we to tell whether even we ourselves are those whom the King will invite to the wedding feast, or those whom the King will throw out? Well, fortunately, the King has already given us just the information we need to discern whether or not we are wearing the right wedding robes. But to understand what the King has taught us, we need to switch metaphor for a moment...
In chapter seven of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying that it is 'by their fruit' that we will be able to tell false believers from true ones. "A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit", says Jesus in Matthew 7:17. St. Paul picks up the same metaphor when he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit, in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. "The fruit of the Spirit" he says, "is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control".
This parable is a challenge to us, just as it was a challenge to Jesus' hearers, and Matthew's readers. It's a challenge for us to re-examine the very heart of what it means to be a follower of God - a guest at the wedding feast. The follower of God is the one in whom the fruit of the spirit is displayed. The follower of God is the one in whom love conquers hate, in whom generosity conquers greed, in whom justice for the poor and the oppressed burns as it burns in the heart of God. Consider, if you will, the words of God through the prophet Micah...the clearest, most unambiguous test of the follower of God that there has ever been..."And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.". That's it. That's the challenge. Understand that central calling to justice, mercy, and the humbling of oneself before the Creator - and you've understood the heart of the Christian faith.
And as we consider that challenge, we could do far worse than contemplate the last lines of this morning's New Testament reading. Let's hear again Paul's words to the Philippians (4:8-9):
"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."
Saturday, October 04, 2008
I'm going to depart from my normal practice of focusing on the Gospel reading this morning - because the set New Testament reading for today, from Philippians, is just bang-on to where I think we are heading as a congregation. In that reading, we heard Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, saying that he is pressing on towards the goal...for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Paul uses the metaphor of a journey to talk about his ongoing faith and trust in God.
In another existence, (while I was training to be a minister) I used to be a part-time Coach Driver. And I know that when my passengers put themselves in my hands, they were are content to leave the journey entirely up to me. They trusted that the coach driver knew where he was going – and that I wouldn’t get them stuck up some country lane! They trusted that my entire purpose, while they were on my coach, was to make the journey as enjoyable as possible for them.
Following God is a bit like that. When we say 'yes' to having faith in God, we give over control of the journey to God. We trust that God knows where he is going, and that the journey will be the most thrilling, the most fulfilling, the most meaningful journey that it can be...simply because it is God's journey, not ours.
And I think that we can look at our own life together, here in St Mark's as, somewhat of a journey too. But let's look at Paul's description of his own journey, first - and see how it might compare to ours...
Paul starts by reflecting on where he has come from. In the early verses of the reading, (verses 4 to 6) he describes how, in his younger days, he was the most religious Jew of his time. He had been circumcised on the correct day, he was a member of the people of Israel, a 'Hebrew born of Hebrews'. On top of that, he had become a Pharisee - a religious teacher - so he understood the Law of God in great detail, and as far as the law was concerned, considered himself blameless. And as for his commitment, well, he claimed, no-one had more religious zeal than him. He was a persecutor of the Church, who went around seeking out those he considered heretics, and having them stoned.
But let's see what happens next on Paul's journey of life. Paul describes how he encountered Christ - how he found that all his achievements as a religious leader counted for nothing compared to knowing Jesus. In verse 8, he describes all his previous achievements as 'rubbish'. At least, that’s what it says in our translation...although actually, the Greek word he used here was much fruitier than simple 'rubbish'. A direct translation would be something closer to dung...or a certain word beginning with 'sh' and ending in 't'!!
In other words, along his life's journey, Paul discovered that all his rules, regulations, assumptions, laws and religious practices didn't matter at all. All that religious stuff was just muck, dung, sshhhh…. Compared to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord” (verse 8)
Here's something that must give us pause...something to make us wonder.
I'm sure that all of you, by now, have worked out that I do things a little differently than some of my priestly colleagues - especially up here in the Sanctuary. You might have noticed that I don't kiss the altar at the start of the service, like some people do. I don't wear a Cotta, or a cope - and I'm even happy to celebrate communion dressed only in a jacket and clerical collar, as I did during last month's baptism service. I'm sure that there are lots of little religious details that I don't do 'correctly'...and which, perhaps, some of you might have been a little perturbed by. Partly, that's because I come from a different tradition of the church...for many years I worshipped in churches where even wearing a cassock was highly suspect! So sometimes I do things differently simply because I don't know any better!
But the other reason that I don't do many of these things, is that I want to send a message...a clear message...that whether or not I bow at the right time, or kiss the altar, or wear the right clothes...all these things are just traditions, religious practices. They have nothing to do with the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Nothing at all.
They may, of course, be helpful for some people. For some people - perhaps some of you - the drama of worship is very important. It helps people to move beyond the day-to-day ordinariness of life, and to gain a glimpse of a different reality...the reality of heaven. And that's great. If it helps you for me to do some of these things from time to time...then I'm delighted to do them. We will, for example, probably use incense during major festivals of the church's year. I don't mind wearing robes during most services - if it helps you to put aside questions of fashion, and to be able to focus instead on worshipping God.
But I do ask you to remember, that none of these religious practices are what Christianity is ultimately about.
I honestly believe that Jesus doesn't care one jot about whether we bow, or raise our hands at the right places. Jesus doesn't care whether we are wearing the right colour for the season, or whether we light candles, ring bells, or swing incense - or whether we don't. Jesus doesn't care whether we stand or sit at the right places.
No, what Jesus cares about is whether, like Paul, we are journeying towards his heart. Jesus cares about whether we are discovering more and more of what it means to live 'in Him' (as Paul says in verse 9) - letting his love and compassion, his mercy and forgiveness, his heart for the poor and the oppressed flow through us, and into our neighbours and friends. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to engage with his radical message of love and generosity. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to die to self, and be raised to the new life - the resurrection life - that God offers to all of humanity.
What does that mean in practice? Well, for a start, as we sang in our opening hymn, it means counting our richest earthly gains as loss – or rubbish, or dung (in St Paul’s words!) It means surrendering our human perspective on life to the Divine perspective. And that's a radical idea...
It means ceasing to regard ourselves as consumers, whose only purpose in life is to get up, work, make money, spend money, and go back to bed. It means ceasing to regard ourselves as individuals who have the right to exploit others just so that we can pursue our own narrow definition of happiness. It means instead learning to see ourselves as God sees us - as members of a community...as people who are inextricably linked to one another...as people whose actions have consequences for all those around us. It means seeing ourselves as people who are called to love our neighbour, and to let the love of Jesus flow through us. It means seeing ourselves as those who are called to be salt and light to the community around us...calling others into our common life with God, inviting them, with us, to learn to live life to the full. (John 10:10)
I'm sure that all of you are ready, in theory, to embrace this radical call. But, I imagine, many of you are wondering what that means in practice. And do you know what...? I don't know! I can't answer that for you.
Perhaps God will call you to do more within the life of the church...to serve in the community cafe, or the monthly table top sale, or to get involved with flower rotas, or singing in the choir, or serving on the PCC, or writing for the parish magazine, or wielding a paint-brush - all activities that help us all to be effective in reaching out the community. Perhaps, if you are already horribly busy with work and family it might mean God calling you to give more money to sustain our work...to oil the wheels so that we can truly tell God's story beyond these walls. Perhaps God might call you to radically change the path of your life...to embrace a change in career, or perhaps even a calling to a new vocation within the church. Perhaps God will call you to a renewed commitment to prayer and study - like those he has called to take part in the Journey of Life group starting in November.
I don't know. I can't tell you - because God will call each of us to something that is unique, and yet which is vital for the life of the whole community.
What I encourage you to do, however, is precisely what St Paul did. Never give up “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13). Let God be your coach-driver…let him safely steer you on as you learn to rely on his driving skills. God is the blueprint from which we were all made - in his image. God knows how we as human beings were built. He knows how to help us to suck the very marrow out of life…to ‘live life to the full’ (John 10:10). All we have to do is let him take the wheel!
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Sometimes, you just have to say “Thank you!” Because we have got so much to be thankful for haven’t we? Come Ye Thankful people come! Thank you Lord for this new day! God is just SO very good to us...isn’t he?
I mean - think about it. God is the all powerful source of all being and life. He did not have to create the Universe like this. He could have created a Universe any way that he wanted to. He could have made one that was entirely black and white - devoid of any colour. He could have made one in which food had no taste - or in which his people had no taste buds. He could have made a world that didn’t have sunlight, and mountains, and rivers, and oceans. He could have just made one which was all flat desert.
But he didn’t. God created a world which is teeming with life, and variety, and colour and sound. He gave us delicious food. He gave us every kind of resource that we could need. He gave us families and friends - and communities in which we can live together.
And so, we come together on a Harvest Sunday to thank Him for all his amazing gifts to us. We come to say, “thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love!”
But...but...but...we would be blind beyond belief if we didn't acknowledge that there are some people, in some parts of the world, who won't be so joyful in their celebrations today. There are places where crops have failed. There are places where floods have washed crops away. There are places where people won't have been able to enjoy a 'bring and share' harvest supper - like we did last night. What are we to make of such a topsy-turvey situation?
But you know, it doesn't have to be like this. It should be possible for people who have had their entire fields washed away to still be able to praise God this morning...just as we are doing. It should still be possible for those whose crops have dried up because of a lack of rain to celebrate the gathering in of another year's harvest. What am I talking about? How could such a thing be possible?
It would be possible if just one simple, world-changing command of Jesus was actually followed by the people of the world. It’s a simple command. But a radical one. A command which, if we only took it seriously, would entirely change the world as we know it. What is that command? You know. You know it only too well...Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
It doesn't come much more simply than that does it? After all, if we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Questions like..."under what circumstances would I willingly starve myself?". And the answer to that question is uncomfortable. The only people who willingly starve themselves are those who are suffering from an sickness... perhaps a mental, or nervous illness like anorexia. So, I think we can conclude that when a society - or a planet - willingly allows its own people to starve...especially when there is plenty of food to go round...the only conclusion we can draw is that it is a sick society.
The people in India who have recently lost all their crops because of flood waters...and the people in sub-Saharan Africa whose crops have failed...should be still singing God's praises this morning. They should be singing his praise because the rest of the world, the brothers and sisters...the neighbours...of those Indians and Africans should have reached out, and shared the Harvest.
Loving my neighbour as I love myself surely means wishing for my neighbour all the good things I enjoy?
Loving my neighbour as I love myself surely means reaching out and giving my neighbour exactly what I would hope he would give me...if he were in my shoes?
Today's Gospel reading was yet another of Jesus' agricultural parables: two sons have two different reactions to their father's request that they should go to work in the vineyard. One of them says "I will not"...but then later changes his mind and goes to work. The other says "Yes sir, I will" but actually doesn't go at all.
Like all of Jesus stories, this one has many layers of meaning. It was spoken originally to a bunch of religious leaders...and was designed to show them that what they confessed with their lips, they failed to do with their lives. They taught the principle of loving your neighbour...after all it was a principle that was utterly enshrined in Jewish law. But, Jesus accused them of saying the words, without living the action. They talked the talk. But they didn't walk the walk.
And like all Jesus' stories, there's a challenge for us too in these words.
Don't get me wrong. It is not my intention to pile the guilt on...especially on you who have chosen not to do the 100 things you could have chosen to do instead of praising God this morning. Many of you give extremely generously, in time and money, both to the church, and to the wider work of the Kingdom through charities like Christian Aid. You are people who are walking the walk, as well as talking the talk. You are showing the power of the whole idea of loving our neighbour as we love ourselves.
But a challenge remains.
It's up to each of us to listen to God's still small voice in our own hearts...prompting us...pushing us onwards...discovering even more of the joy that comes from living the way he calls us to live.
Let me tell you a secret. God doesn't need your money! God is not interested in your money. God doesn't ask us to open our wallets...he asks us to open our hearts. God doesn't want us to give more, of our time or our money, because he somehow needs it! He's the Lord of the Universe! He can do anything he wants. He doesn't need that £1 coin I found on the dresser this morning and thought would do for the collection.
No...God wants nothing more from us than our love. And he wants to give us nothing less than his Love. Love which might (and indeed should) be expressed through our money – and our time, and our prayer, and our practical help for our neighbours.
But at the root of it all - He only calls us to love, and to be caught up by love, and to experience love.
There are two ways - and two ways only - that love can be experienced. It is either received, or it is given. "As you sow, so shall you reap" says Jesus. He shows us that by giving love, we learn to receive it as well.
Sowing with generosity, means reaping the rewards of knowing, deep down, in our very souls, that we are living in the heart of God.
Sowing with generosity means being part of the cure for a society which is so sick that it lets its own members starve.
Sowing with generosity means opening the doors of our hearts (and perhaps the zips of our wallets too) and letting the love, the generosity, the overflowing abundance of God flow through us...touching the lives of our neighbours with the good things we would want for ourselves.
Sowing with generosity means learning, day by day, to walk the talk.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Preached at a Parish Communion service, at St Mark's, on Sunday 21st September - just before a Parish Conference on the future of our Parish life.
"It is those who are sick that need a doctor...not those who are well."
That's how Jesus responded when the religious establishment around him started to complain that he was spending rather too much time with the scum of the earth (as they thought). There was Jesus, this prominent Rabbi, whom people were flocking from all around to meet - choosing to spend his time in the company of tax-collectors, prostitutes, manual labours and the like.
"What are you doing?" asked the Religious leaders. "Why don't you come and meet with us instead?"
"Because you don't need me." Jesus answered - meaning of course that they themselves didn't acknowledge him - they didn't think they needed him. "But these folks, these 'scum of the earth' as you think of them - they are hungry for me. I have come to call not the righteous...but sinners"
The word 'sinner' is a word that can easily get us tangled in knots. One way of understanding it is to go back to the ancient Greek word that is usually translated as 'sin'. The word is 'hamartia' (ἁμαρτία) - and the nearest way of translating it is to talk about 'missing the mark', or 'not quite getting it'. When Jesus says that he came for sinners, we hear him saying, instead, "I have come for those who have missed the mark - who haven't got it yet".
Jesus' words echo across the centuries. He challenges us. He makes us wonder whether sometimes we too can be a bit like the Pharisees. Jesus prompts us to ask, whether we can sometimes be just a bit too comfortable with our religion, and a little too unconcerned about those who are not part of our circle of friends; our circle of believers. Crucially, Jesus, I think, asks us to think about whether the way we act, here in our churches, is a way that will help others to 'get it'...or whether we are quite happy to carry on secure in the knowledge that we've got it...and that it doesn't matter about the rest.
Last week - as the regular St Mark's folks will tell you - we tried a bit of an experiment here. We had a baptism service - and we were very conscious that many of the people who would come with the baby would not be every-day church-goers. In fact, many of them had possibly never even been in a church before. So, instead of the normal Sunday Eucharist, we introduced a number of new and slightly risky elements to the service – video, upbeat songs, and a dressed-down Vicar.
The result, I think, was very interesting. Our baptism guests seemed much more engaged with what was going on . It was an experiment - and a successful one, I think. There was at least a chance that those who had never quite 'got' the idea of church before, at least had the chance to encounter God in ways that were contemporary and familiar. Maybe, just maybe, some of those who have so far missed the target - failed to 'get it', as far as Jesus is concerned - maybe they just began to scratch the surface of possibility.
Later today, at our Parish Conference, we are going to be thinking about what other changes we might need to make - if indeed we are serious about helping other people to 'get it'. How, for example, can we improve our parish publicity? How can we help the elderly, or the sick, to join in with our community life? How can we get better at sharing the love of Jesus - that we have experienced - with children and young families. And what changes might we need to make to our buildings; changes that will help people to 'get' what we are about?
These, and many more, are the kind of questions that I'm hoping you'll begin to answer for yourselves during our discussions later on. And out of it, I hope that we will begin to truly grasp what it means to be a church which exists not for itself, and not even for its members. We are a church that is called to be salt and light to our community. We are a church which is called to reach out to those who haven't 'got it' yet, not only to those (like us) who are just beginning to get it. We are a church which is called to be a beacon - no, a Lighthouse - of Love, in streets that often know pain, despair, and loneliness. We are a church which is called to minister to the sick, not only to the healthy.
One last thought, before we move on. We are also a church that is called to show the rest of the world that living as Jesus called us to live really is a viable alternative. In so many parts of the world, the solution to all conflicts is to take up arms against a perceived oppressor...to use violence and hatred as a means of settling disputes. But Jesus offers us a very different way of being – a way of forgiveness, and reconciliation. A way of dealing with the hurt and pain that human beings inevitably inflict on each other…and then of moving on. Not because we are clever….but because God is gracious.
Today, we have a new Choir here at St Mark’s…and today, I think, we have a good story to tell. Its a story of having grappled with difficulties – of facing up to issues - and having used love and forgiveness as a way of going forward. I'm really optimistic that today marks a new start for everyone who was hurt by the events of the past - and that is something we should celebrate... something we should be able to tell people outside the church about. Its a story of growing reconciliation, of learning through suffering, a story of hope. Ultimately its a story of resurrection - of new life springing out of death...and that's a story worth sharing.
In a little while, after we've taken communion together, the choir is going to sing "God be in my head" - a song which they have chosen, to reflect their wish that God will be at the centre of all they do and sing together over the coming years. Let us all make that our prayer as well.
So let us be glad. Glad that God is in our midst - and glad that God has invited us to share Divine Love with our neighbours... all those who haven't yet 'got it' out there in our community. Whether it is through a reconciled choir, through our new community cafe, through a creative think about the way our churches feel, or through the new chance to explore faith together on the Journey of Faith course, through the Welcome service at St Faiths, or the Alternative Worship at St Nicholas - we have reasons to be glad. Reason to celebrate. Reason to give thanks to our Father in heaven.