Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fanatics R Us?

Matthew 10:24-39

Preached at St Francis' Church, Hilsea, Portsmouth, on 22 June 2008.

After some introductory remarks...(as this was my first visit to St Francis' Church)...

Let's get down to this morning's gospel reading shall we? Tough stuff this, isn't it? Verse 34-36: Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother in law; and one’s foes will be members of one's own household!

Now, as tempting as it is, I have to resist the temptation to tell some mother-in-law jokes at this point...mainly because, as you may know, I choose to publish my sermons on the Internet...and I have a mother-in-law!

And actually, Jesus doesn't seem to be joking when he says that his followers may have to make some pretty tough decisions about where their allegiance is. "Whosever does not take up his cross, and follow me is not worthy of me..."and so on. To us Western Christians, this speech of his seems rather odd, even a bit fanatical doesn't it? Its the sort of thing that we expect to hear the Mad Mullahs of Al Quaida saying to their brain-washed followers. To us, who have the freedom to worship wherever and whenever we like, all this talk of witness, persecution, poverty and martyrdom seems to represent another world altogether.

But we should remember that in every generation since the time of Jesus, his disciples have been in situations in which these words of Jesus ring true...painfully true. Let me read to you an account of something that took place just about six weeks ago, in Indonesia... I think I should warn you...some of this will be difficult to listen to...but not half as hard as it was for those who had to go through it...

"On the night of the 2nd of May 2008, the mainly Christian village of Horale was attacked by a mob from the neighbouring village of Saleman which is predominantly Muslim. The attackers (whether they were Muslims or not is unknown) burnt down 120 houses, three churches and the village school. Four Christians were killed and 56 wounded. Fifteen hectares of crops were destroyed as well as 20 fishing boats and 2 motor-cycles."

Many awful things happened to a number of individuals during this attack - but too awful to repeat here, especially with children present in our service. But I will put a link to the published story on my blog.

(source: http://www.barnabasfund.org/news/archives/article.php?ID_news_items=411 accessed on 21/06/08)

I don't know about you, but this story - and the many more like it that are going on all around the world, force me to ask some pretty tough questions of myself. Could it be, for example, that we here in the West have somehow tamed the Christian faith, re-fashioned it in our own image to such an extent that it is no longer seen as a challenge to the society in which we live? Have we become so contaminated by the world around us, that the world no longer sees us as a threat to its selfish, violent, materialistic way of life? Could it be that we have become silent, when we should be upsetting the money-changers' tables? Could it be that instead of calling for justice, the relief of poverty, the end to war, and the love of God, we are rather content to let the rest of the world carry on exploiting the poor, blowing each other up, and hating one another?

But there are places in the world where Christians do still stand up for what they believe...and when they do, often find themselves at the sharp end of persecution, torture, and death. Just as Jesus said would happen. The Christian faith, if it is fully and openly declared, is dangerous to the world. It speaks of a way of life that is exactly the opposite of the way that most people chose to live. It is a way of peace, not war. It is a way of self-control, not Friday night leglessness on the streets of Southsea. It is a way of poverty and simplicity, not materialism and consumerism. It is a way of faithfulness to one another, not sleeping around with as many partners as possible. It is a way of finding contentment through giving things away, not getting more and more of them. It is a way of embracing and welcoming the stranger, not finding ever more complicated legal ways to 'keep the scroungers out'.

So, from another perspective, this chapter need not be alien to us at all. It boils down, into concentrated form, what the Christian life essentially is. And what is it? It is a confession, a stated sure belief, that God has acted decisively in Jesus; it is a way of placing our loyalty to God, revealed in Christ, over and above all other loyalties...even the deepest loyalties of home and family.

Now - let's think about that for a moment. I have lived in or near Portsmouth, for the last 16 years...and I know how important family ties are in this town. When I used to run the YMCA hostel down in old Portsmouth, we once had a young man staying with us who was, how shall I put it, a right old pain in the posterior. I shall call him Johnny Smith - which was not his real name - and he was a member of what we will call the Smith family...one of the 'old families' of Portsmouth. Johnny, unfortunately, was constantly drunk, always abusive to my staff, never paid his rent on time, and often violent. Well after a number of warnings, and a lot of prayer, we had no choice but to evict him from the hostel. As he was ejected out of the doors, his parting words were: "You've messed with the wrong guy...I'm a Smith! I'll get my family to sort you out!"

Sure enough, a few hours later, about half a dozen of his family arrived...in a right old mood. I honestly thought they were going to smash all the windows in the YMCA. It took just about every ounce of my diplomatic skills to talk them into not kicking my head in... mainly by reminding them why they had kicked Johnny out of their own house in the first place.

There is an old saying, that blood is thicker than water...which is sometimes used to justify all sorts of feuds between families. In some feuds, it doesn't matter who is right or wrong...it matters only that someone's family has been insulted. It's what the Mafia does. And, frankly, its what some families even in Portsmouth do.

I don't know about you...but I think that that way lies madness. If we all began jumping to the defence of someone who was clearly in the wrong, just because they were a member of our family - or our playground gang - then pretty soon the whole of society would crumble.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. Families are one of the most important structures in our whole society. The best families give us companionship and love, a place to feel secure, a place to make mistakes, and still be accepted.

But Jesus says to us, through this reading, that we have an even higher loyalty...a loyalty that only a God could claim...a loyalty to Him. And that, Jesus warns, will bring division even between members of the same family. Because God, who made us, and is transforming us and who loves us has an even higher claim on our loyalty than our families....even if our families don't acknowledge him.

Just one last thought. What did Jesus mean when he said, in verse 34, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword"?

Well, the first thing we must say is that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. It is abundantly clear from the rest of the Gospels that the last thing Jesus came to do was put a sword in anyone's hand. "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."

So what sword might Jesus have been referring to? Like so many of Jesus' statements, we are rather left to wonder and ponder his meaning. However, I think we can get a bit of a clue, by turning to one or two other readings from the New Testament. Here's a small selection:

Ephesians 6:17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Hebrews 4:12For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

In both these cases (and many others in the New Testament) the word sword is used as a metaphor. The sword represents the Spirit and the Living Word of God - something that is so fantastically pure and true that it cuts to the heart of every situation.

It is the Spirit of God which produces the Fruit of the Spirit of God, which we know from the book of Galatians to be: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. And the sword of the Spirit divides the fruit of the spirit from the fruits of the flesh. It, or rather He, offers us the choice. Instead of love, we could choose hate. Instead of joy, we could choose misery. Instead of peace, war. Instead of patience, anger. Instead of kindness, selfishness. Instead of goodness, evil. Instead of gentleness, harshness and judgmental attitudes. Instead of faithfulness, infidelity. Instead of self-control, doing whatever we like...regardless of the consequences.

So when those around us, perhaps our neighbours or some of the other inhabitants of our city, perhaps our Government, perhaps multi-national corporations founded on greed and materialism, perhaps even members of our own family choose not to follow the path of the Spirit...how do we respond?

Who is it who commands our loyalty?

Let's pray...

Heavenly Father...we confess to you that there are times when we forget just how much loyalty we owe to you. You have shown us how to live, in peace and harmony with one another and with you. And yet sometimes we choose to go the way of the world. Will you send your Spirit on us afresh, showing us clearly the path of life you would have us follow? Will you fill us to overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit? Help us to be people who declare your love, your way of living, to those around us - whatever the cost. For we ask it in Jesus' name, and in the prayerful hope of the completion of the coming of the Kingdom of God.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Matthew 9:35 – 10.8 - Healing the Sick

Preached at St Mark's Church, Derby Road, this morning.

Last week, you may recall, we heard Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. This week, however, we hear Jesus sending his disciples out into the towns around Israel. And as he sent them, according to verse one of chapter ten, he gave them authority over unclean spirits, and the authority to cure every disease and every sickness. And this tantalising authority is backed up by the fact that, as we saw in the opening verses of the reading, Jesus himself "went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness". (Mt 9.35)

Now, I don't know about you, but I find myself really intrigued by this story. I find myself asking "why is it that if Jesus healed the sick, and if he gave his disciples the same authority to heal the sick, why is that my prayers for the sick don't have the same dramatic effect? Why isn't our church packed every Sunday with people who are dancing down the isles, having thrown away their wheelchairs, or their crutches...healed?"

It's a perplexing question isn't it? Let me put the question another way...why does God allow sickness and suffering to take place...especially when Jesus himself seemed to be so concerned about healing it? I know its a question that many of us have pondered...and it is one that is linked to the rather larger question that many people ask...why does God allow people to suffer in earthquakes and typhoons...such as we've seen in places like China and Burma in recent weeks?

So I want, this morning, to try to offer some kind of answer... something that will help us to understand why so many people we know, and indeed so many of us, continue to suffer from all kinds of sicknesses and ailments...as well as beginning to get a handle on the bigger questions of suffering caused by natural disaster. Before I go any further, however, I need to say one thing very clearly...this is a huge subject. Entire books have been devoted to trying to answer this question...so I'm going to have a hard time doing it in the next ten minutes. And frankly, even if I had a whole day to explore this topic with you, I still think we would struggle with the issues it raises. What I hope, however, is that this short sermon will stimulate debate...debate over coffee after the service, or debate on my website throughout the week.

Right...let's get down to it...and let me offer you a picture to contemplate. Imagine, if you will, that an aeroplane is coming in to land. Imagine that just as it is approaching the earth, the fuel lines to the engine suddenly snap...and the plane starts to plummet towards the ground. Imagine then that, out of the blue, a huge hand comes down out the sky...as God decides to save the aeroplane. The hand scoops up the plane...and deposits it gently down on the ground.

Sounds a lovely idea doesn't it. But let's think, for a moment, what the consequences of such an action would be. If God could be relied upon to suspend the laws of physics every time a disaster is about to happen...what would the results for human civilisation be? Well...I think they'd be rather like this...

For a start, aeroplane engineers wouldn't have to worry about doing a good job anymore. Instead of well designed aeroplanes, built to the highest standards of human ingenuity, we could just put people in bits of balsa-wood, with a rubber band, and shove them off cliffs in the general direction that they wanted to go...because God would stop them from crashing into the sea...and would deposit them safely at their destination.

In other words, imagine a world in which the laws of physics are suspended every time someone is about to come to harm. Such a world would be a very different place to the one we know. It would be a world in which there were no consequences to anything we did. It would be world which was so controlled by God, that we would be little more than puppets... Lego characters for God to move around the board of life, as he pleased. And, more importantly, it would be a world in which we would have no opportunities to learn from our mistakes - no opportunity to struggle and grow...to become better than we are...to become more and more like the God in whose image we are made.

But what about sickness? Why doesn't God do something about sickness?

Well, let's think about the world that God has made...instead of the Lego-land version that he could have made. He has made a world in which certain laws and rules apply. One of those laws is that life, in all its forms, is constantly changing and evolving. Its part of the glorious complexity of a world which is designed precisely so that we will have the best possible environment in which to grow and develop to our fullest potential. An ever changing, always dynamic system of life...in which we can become the best we can be. One of the consequences of a dynamic, changing, world is that viruses which we have fought off tend to mutate into new, resistant strains. Tiny changes in our genetic code can produce unexpected results - sometimes good ones, like stronger bodies and better immune systems, sometimes bad ones... producing genetic conditions that are hard to live with. These are essentially random occurrences...the random results of a complex system which is ultimately designed for our benefit. The question for us...the question that God poses the whole human race...is 'what are you going to do about it?'.

Its as if God says to humanity..."I have designed an environment in which you will live, that has certain laws. If you shoot someone with a gun, they will die. But if you apply a bandage to a wound, it will heal. If you build sub-standard housing in an earthquake zone, thousands will die. If you keep on heating up the atmosphere, typhoons and hurricanes will grow stronger… AND IF YOU FAIL TO USE THE INTELLIGENCE I HAVE GIVEN YOU FOR THE COMMON GOOD, THEN PEOPLE WILL KEEP ON DYING FROM DISEASES THAT YOU HAVE THE CAPACITY TO CURE."

I wonder what the world would be like if human beings had lived, for the last 2,000 years, the way that Jesus called us to live. Jesus told us to love one another, not shoot one another. He told us to work together for the common good, not squabble over which one of us could grab the most of the earth's resources for themselves. If, over the last 2,000, we had poured all our intelligence and potential into finding cures for disease, or designing earth-quake proof buildings, instead of devising every more ingenious ways to kill one another, we could have cured cancer centuries ago.

There is lots more I want to say about this...but time is against me. Let me just end by asking one further question that may be on your mind as a result of this morning's reading. I imagine that some of you may be asking, "If all that's true...why did Jesus go around healing people...and why did he give authority to the disciples to do the same?".

Well, as is so often the case with Scripture, the answer is in the reading itself. Matthew, Chapter 9, verse 36, says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd". Jesus' acts of healing arose out of his immense compassion for those he saw in pain. It was as though, in Jesus, the love that God has for the world - a love which created a world of magnificent potential because he wanted people to grow - just couldn't take the pain anymore. Being among us, and being both fully God as well as fully human (as church tradition teaches us) Jesus' human compassion gave vent to God's healing love.

But we should note, Jesus didn't cure all the sick of Israel. This morning's reading tells us that Jesus could cure every kind of sickness - but the reading does not say not that he cured every sick person in Israel. Neither do the rest of the Gospels. Take for example, the story of the pool of Bethesda, in chapter 5 of John's Gospel. According to John, "a great number of people used to lie there - the blind, the lame, the paralysed". But Jesus didn't heal them all. In fact, he just singled out one man. When Jesus learned how long the man had been lying there...for 38 years according to John...compassion seemed to get the better of Jesus. He seems to have set aside the normal rule - that human behaviour has consequences - and reached out instead with a more immediate compassion.

But there’s something else to note, coming out of this morning's reading. Jesus didn't just go around the villages and towns healing people. Matthew tells us that he first went around "proclaiming the good news of the kingdom". Jesus proclaimed to everyone who would listen to him that there is another way...that it is possible to live a life that embraces kingdom values. It is possible for us to change society - to be salt and light, to be his hands and feet - and to call the rest of the world to stop embracing the darkness of hate, and greed, and warmongering and to turn to the light of generosity, and community, and co-operation.

It is there that the healing of the sick will begin. Every time one of us reaches out to put a coin in the collecting box of cancer-research, or the Parkinson's society, or any number of other such causes, we bring forward the day when healing will be available to everyone who suffers. Every time one of us visits a sick person in the hospital or at home, we bring some of Christ's overwhelming sense of compassion into their lives. Every time one of us stands up against the assumption that might is right, and argues for peaceful co-existence instead of more war and death, we play a small part in changing hearts and minds to be more like those of God. Every time one of us shares with a neighbour or friend the good news that God has shown us the better way to be human, we do our part in helping to usher in the kingdom...a kingdom in which, as the book of Revelation promises us, "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain...for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev.21.4).

And finally - does this mean that we should stop praying for the sick? Absolutely not. Something the gospels show us very clearly, is that time and time again Jesus was moved, out of compassion, to heal those who were brought to him by their families and neighbours. We have every reason to think that Jesus will still be moved by our love for each other - and by our loving offering of one another to him.

The gospels give us ample room for believing that God always answers our prayers. "Ask and it will be given to you" (Mt 7.6). "Which of you if your child asked for bread would give them a stone...how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask for them". (Mt 7.9). And I believe that God always answers our prayers for healing and wholeness. Sometimes those healings can be dramatic cures - but, when you think about it, all cures are only temporary - because life is a terminal condition! We are all going to die one day. I think frankly, that the healing that is offered is more often healing for the soul, healing of the inner person - the sense of wholeness that comes from God, and from being loved and valued by the church community around the sick person.

There’s a lovely story – of an 18 year old teenager, suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, bound to a wheelchair, who was being confirmed by the Bishop of Maidstone – a few years ago. Apparently the Bishop took the young man aside, sympathised with his suffering, and then asked “How can you want to be confirmed? How can you think God is fair when he leaves you like this?”. The young man is said to have replied, “Its ok - God has got the rest of eternity to make it up to me”

So when someone you love or care for is in need, please pray for them - because God will always respond. He may well bring the healing or the answer you long for, but He will always work something that is far deeper, much more wonderful and which will last for eternity. So we cry out because we are desperate and our hope is in God alone; we learn humility as we come to Him with nothing but our need; and we discover faith as we trust God to do what He alone knows is best.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Matthew 9.9-13 – The Call

Preached at St Nicholas' Church, Battenburg Avenue, this morning.

Let me start by saying how glad I am to be with you this morning. I know you’ve been waiting quite a while for a new Team Rector – and it’s been a five month wait even for me. But here we are – together at last!

I am just at the very beginning of the process of understanding what God has been doing in the place over the last few years, and more importantly, what he may be calling us to do in the future. As part of that process, I’ve decided to stick with the set readings that we are given in the Lectionary – rather than start a sermon series on a given theme. That may come in the future – but for now, I want to invite us all to listen to God as he speaks to us through the regular rhythm of the church’s year, through the lectionary.

Those of you with computers will perhaps have read last week’s sermon on my website. And you’ll perhaps also be aware of the controversy it generated! That’s great! I love an argument…not, you understand, a personal slanging match-type of argument – but a real, earnest debate about things of substance. I certainly hope that you’ll never hear me say that I’ve understood everything there is to know about God. God is someone we need to discover and encounter together – and I hope that by publishing my sermons, we can wrestle together with what God may be saying to us.

Around the argument itself, was a central theme – arising out of last week’s lectionary – that God is the God of blessing – not of curses. I spoke about how he longs to bless us with every good thing. But, based on the parable of the wise and foolish builders, I also wanted to make clear that God gives a choice…a clear choice….between building on the rock of His way of doing things, or building on the sand of trying to go our own way.

Let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading, and ask what else God may be saying to us. I’m going to focus on just the first part of the reading we have heard…because if I try to do the lot, we’ll be here till after lunch!

At the beginning of the reading (in Matthew 9.9-13) we see Jesus calling Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him. It’s a story that we’ve heard so often that I think we sometimes lose sight of the significance of this statement. Jewish Rabbis did not normally seek disciples among the likes of tax collectors – who at best were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupiers of Judea, and at worst were known to be dishonest men who lined their own pockets out of the taxes they gathered. But here is Jesus, gathering around him a right old rag-bag of followers. Not the sons of the wealthy, well-to-do, regular synagogue worshippers – but tax collectors, political activists (like Simon the Zealot) and manual labourers like Simon and Andrew, the fishermen. These were not learned people who had studied the Scriptures, they were ordinary, every-day folk, some of whom had a decidedly shady past – but all of whom, quite obviously, had an openness to hearing God’s call on their lives. They were all people – ordinary people - who had heard Jesus’ call to follow wherever he led…and who were open enough to do just that.

So the first challenge to us, is to ask ourselves how open we are to that same call. Jesus still speaks today – through the pages of Scripture, and through his living presence in His church – and I believe he still says, “Follow me!”. Each of us is asked to think about how we are responding to that call. Are we as open to his call as those first disciples were? Are we as ready to lay aside all that we have known, all the things we have assumed that would always be the same – our job, our homes, our ‘life-plan’…and surrender it all to the Lord of the Universe who says “Follow me”? Jesus says to us, through the pages of Scripture, “I am going forward…I have a plan for this world, and for the whole of creation. But it’s a plan I want to put into action through the people I have created, loved, redeemed and filled with power. I invite you to be my hands and feet to dying world…follow me where I shall lead!”

But there is another aspect to this call – and that takes us to the second theme of this reading. This calling of the normal, the lost, the complicated, is one of Jesus’ very first public acts. And, as we read in verse 11, “when the Pharisees saw this, they said to the disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus’ response their incredulity was to say, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor…I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners”

At first reading, if we are not careful, we could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus is dividing the world into two classes of people…the righteous, and the sinners – as if he is saying that there are some people who have already got their relationship with God sorted…who he doesn’t need to worry about.

But that is not, I think, what he is saying. For one thing, Jesus also ate with Pharisees (on other occasions) so he couldn’t have been saying that they were the righteous. There is no doubt at all that Jesus’ mission was to the whole world…and everyone in it. John 3:16 famously describes God loving the whole world, and sending his Son so that the whole world might be saved. Paul, then, famously elaborated on this idea, saying that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom.3:23).

It rather depends on what we think the Bible means by the word ‘sin’ doesn’t it? So let me try to explain what I think of, when I see the word. I take, as my starting point, that God, by definition, is the most holy, most pure, most sinless being there is. If he was anything else, he wouldn’t be God. God is, by definition, the yardstick by which we measure sin. Got me? Therefore, anyone who does not measure up to God’s perfection, God’s absolute sinlessness, is by definition, and in the Bible’s technical language, a sinner. Mother Theresa? Martin Luther King? Ghandi? St Francis, St Nicholas and St Mark? All sinners (as they would themselves freely acknowledged).

So this definition of sinner – in its most precise sense…I fear….rather includes you and me as well! None of us, however much we pray, however many good things we do, however many times a week we come to church, none of us is capable of being as sinless as God. So, by definition, we (as Paul says) are all sinners…and have fallen short of the glory of God. The only way that we can become ‘the righteous’ is if God, by his grace, makes us righteous…but that’s a topic for a whole different sermon!

The second point of this reading is to say to us; we should not be surprised at who else Jesus calls to follow him. If Jesus can call me…with all my un-God-like-ness, all my sin…then I should not be surprised at who else he calls. It is not for us, like the Pharisees, to sit in judgment and imagine that we can decide who is righteous and worthy, or who is a sinner. Of course we are all capable of recognising sinful behaviour – or to pick up from last week, we are all capable of discerning who appears to have their life built on sand, instead of rock. But how someone behaves now, has no bearing on whether or not God is calling them now as well. Just as Matthew, the money-grabbing tax collector was called.

So, I say, we must not be surprised when Jesus calls people who are not like us, as well as calling us. Jesus will call people who don’t like the same music as we do, who don’t learn in the same way that we do, who don’t worship in the same way that we do, who don’t have the same likes, dislikes, tastes, hang-ups, pre-conditions, prejudices, social background, economic circumstances, family context, sexual preferences and theological understandings as we do. Jesus calls us all to follow him, and to be transformed to be more like him. Jesus calls people to be his hands and feet to a dying world…and also his eyes, and ears, and mouth, and limbs, and wobbly knees, and appendix! It takes many parts to make a body…and we are the body of Christ.

So that’s going to mean that we need to be adaptable, and flexible, in our approach to how we encounter the other people that Jesus calls to follow him – and to how we help them – with us - to respond to his call. To that end, I believe, we are going to need to think hard about what it means to be part of His church in this Parish.

Let me offer you an image which helps me to begin to get a handle on how flexible we need to be. It’s a image, or if you like a vision, of a ‘multiplex church’. I’m sure that most of us, at one time or another, have been to a multiplex cinema. When you walk through the doors of such a place, you are confronted with a whole range of choices about what to watch. “Hmm…” you say, “what shall I watch…comedy, horror, action, love story?” And the film you choose to watch will ultimately depend on a whole range of factors…your personal preferences, who you are with, what you’ve enjoyed, or hated in the past, the time of day, what you’ve been reading recently…and so on.

Well, I want to suggest to you, that the church should be like that. We should be able to offer people a wide range of ways to encounter God – as wide as the preferences of people themselves are. There are many more ways of holding a communion service than the one we are holding here this morning. You can do it with bells and smells, you can do it with rock music or folk music, you can do it with robes, or without them, you can do it with noise, or in silence. There are many other ways of worshipping God than with hymns. You can use silence, or arts and crafts, or you can raise your hands to the sky, or you can immerse yourself in the glorious richness of a scripture-soaked choral evensong. You can do it over a meal, or in a housegroup. Or you can meet in a pub, and chat about God with some good friends, over a pint of Old Peculiar. Or you can meet, as your Ladies Breakfast Group did yesterday, over warm croissant and good company. You know those bumper-stickers that say things like “Firemen do it with long hoses” or “Policemen do it in a hurry”, or “Rock-climbers do it in high places”…? Well Christians do it in an infinite variety of ways!

And in each case – the challenge for all of us – is to make each way of encountering God as good as it can be. So I’m not talking about watering things down. I don’t want to create services which are a porridge of lots of different stuff – a porridge which frankly becomes tasteless the more you try to pack in. I’m talking about putting on a banquet of different flavours and dishes – which are individually cooked to the highest standard they can be.

That is my vision of what a healthy church should look like. And in some ways, we are already on that road, in this parish. Here at St Nicholas’ for example, I gather that Bev has been introducing some new ways of worshipping God – Taize-style worship, for example, or the chance for a discussion, instead of a sermon, or a chance for silent contemplation, instead of a regular hymn sandwich. And while some of you have enjoyed those new and different encounters, some of you have been less sure…and have opted instead to worship at one of the other churches in the parish on those occasions. And you know – that’s fine! It’s brilliant. “Multi-plex Church” doesn’t mean that we’ve all got to like the same thing, or find the same kind of worship helpful for us. But it does mean that we need to celebrate our diversity – the wonderful diversity of being in the incredibly diverse people that God has made us.

And it also means one other thing…

When I go to a multiplex cinema on my own, I usually opt for some kind of science-fiction or action film. But if I go with my family, I usually have to compromise a little. For some reason, that I utterly fail to understand, Clare and Emily just don’t get as excited about Star Trek as I do. So, we compromise. In order to have a great night out, as a family together, I have even, on occasion, been known to go to see a chick-flick…like Bridget Jones Diary! And, you know what, when I do, I usually surprise myself. I usually – not always – but usually find that I’ve actually quite enjoyed the experience. I’ve even been known to cry at the end!

So I suggest to you that as we begin to develop a more multiplex approach to church ourselves – don’t be surprised if God surprises you! Perhaps if you will try a different way of encountering God, that encounter might just turn out to be pretty wonderful. Or perhaps you might be willing to suspend your normal preferences, for the sake of inviting someone else – someone who is not a regular worshipper of God – to come and try something new.

So…let me sum up.

Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, and a whole motley band of labourers and people he encountered in the countryside and towns. And he still calls ordinary, everyday, hurting, laughing, normal people, like you and me to follow him. He calls us to live transformed lives, which reach out and touch those around us with the good news about God…the good news that he loves us, and cares about us, and has a plan for the world he has made. He calls those like us, and he calls those who are unlike us – and he asks his church to be the place where everyone he calls can find a home, and in which everyone he calls can find a sense of purpose and fulfilment as a member of the body of Christ. And let’s be clear about this…there is no-one he doesn’t call.

So let us ask ourselves… are we ready to answer his call?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bringing a Curse On Ourselves?

I've had a few responses to the paragraph in yesterday's sermon which refers to those people who are experiencing 'social' problems (drug addiction, unwanted pregancies, alchoholism etc) as 'having brought a curse on themselves'.

First let me say thank you to all those who have commented on this issue - either publically by published comment on the sermon (thanks Russell!), or by private question by email. The question people have been asking is whether I've been a bit too hard on people who suffer from those social problems referred to above, by suggesting that they have brought the misery they suffer on themselves. People are suggesting, I think, that I've failed to take account of factors like social context, family upbringing, genetic predisposition etc. Some have suggested that we must view people in these situations as suffering from an illness. They are not, my correspondents suggest, bringing a curse on themselves, as much as they are victims of a social or psychological illness.

Let me try to make what I was saying a little more clear....

First of all, I was attempting to deal with any suggestion that the curse under which such people live is one that is inflicted by God. I was trying to say - and think that I did - that God is a God of blessing, not of curses.

So, assuming that we can all agree with that basic proposition, to where should we look for the curses (of poverty, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy etc) that people live under? I am more than willing to accept that such conditions are often influenced by social conditions and context. Poverty, for example, is often caused by the selfishness of the wealthy who refuse to re-distribute their wealth. Unwanted pregnancies are often influenced by a the promiscuous atmosphere which is prevalent in much of western society. Alcoholism can certainly be brought about as a result of wanting to escape from an otherwise intolerable situation. To that extent, people suffering from those conditions can most certainly be described as victims, or sufferers. A society which encourages high levels of credit card debt, as well as unfettered access to booze and sex, certainly bears a great deal of responsibility for the curse under which many people live.

However, I don't think that is the whole story. But I also tend to think that it is just too easy to blame our personal circumstances on others. The message of the bible is that we are responsible for the actions we take, and the decisions we make. Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous will, I am certain, say that they can only help those who want to help themselves.

There are, of course, certain types of psychoses which render the sufferer completely unable to differentiate, morally, between different types of behaviour. But most people who are in the kinds of situation we are discussing do not suffer from such a psychosis. Most of them are simply people who, in a given circumstance, on a given day, have made a decision to do something that they know was 'wrong' (by which I mean contrary to normal moral law, or to the stated will of God). Perhaps they chose to rack up debt which they know they couldn't really afford. Or they have chosen to allow their drinking to get more and more each day. Or they have chosen to throw caution to the wind when in a sexual encounter.

Let me put it this way. Can you imagine asking a classroom of, say, 14 year olds, whether they thought that borrowing more than you can repay, or drinking 10 pints a day, or sleeping with a non-permanent partner without using contraception was a good idea? I can tell you from personal experience that the VAST majority of 14 year olds would be able to clearly identify all those actions as simply wrong...or at the very least extremely risky.

So what is it that drives so many of them, once they are a little older, to do precisely these things? I beleive that Jesus clearly points to a much more fundamental cause (than simply social conditioning, or genetic predisposition). Jesus says it all comes down to where we place our faith. Do we trust the words of God or would we rather trust the words of the marketing companies? This question is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Will we be like them - imagining that we know better than God? (That's what the Bible refers to as 'sin'!). Or will we trust him when he says 'Don't touch..."?

I think that it is too easy to be influenced by people like Freud, who essentially claimed that all aberrent behaviour could somehow be linked back to a childhood experience, upbringing or fantasy. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul famously states that when he became a man, he put away childish things. We need to challenge some people, frankly, to grow up. It is frankly time that we took responsibility for our actions.

I, for example, am genetically and socially pre-disposed to fancy having sex with every good-looking woman I see. But I don't. Why not? Because I make a choice to live differently...to live under the rule of the Topsy Turvy Kingdom of God.

In the long run, however, it doesn't actually matter whether the curse that someone lives under is entirely their own fault, or whether society or genetic predisposition bears a part of the blame. As Jesus said (blurring the distinction himself), "is it easier to say 'take up your bed and walk' or 'your sins are forgiven'?" The main thrust of my sermon was meant to be that the Church is called to help those who live under such curses to lift their eyes beyond the rubble and the sand on which they have built, and to introduce them to the Father God who says "don't touch...because I love you"

I'm deeply sorry if I didn't make this more clear in the sermon. Hopefully this response will help! Please feel free to comment further, by clicking on the 'comments' link below.

Best wishes to all,

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Matthew 7: 21-29: The Wise and Foolish Builders

Here's my very first sermon preached at the parish I now have the privilege of serving as Team Rector - North End, Portsmouth.

This sermon was preached at St Mark's Church, this morning.

You know, the last few months have been rather a lot of fun, in one way or another. One of the advantages of taking up a new job after interregnum, is that you get the opportunity to redecorate your new house before you actually move into it. Now I do realise that's a great privilege. Most of us have to decorate after we move...trying not to fall over boxes and furniture in the process. And Clare and I have done that in the past. But not this time. This time, we were able to go in to the Rectory, and make as much mess as we wanted! And I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who came round and helped...it was very much appreciated.

It's when you get those kinds of opportunities for rampant destruction and re-creation that you start to get a glimpse of what a satisfying job it must be to be a builder. I mean - imagine taking a piece of waste-ground...and creating on it a brand new house...designed in every detail just as you want it to be. The nearest I've ever got that has been building a shed. But even such a modest construction...when you stand back and look at it...gives a little tingle of pleasure.

We all know, don't we, that there's a big difference between having your house built by a professional builder, and having one built by the well-known firm of 'Bodge-it and Scarper'. I used to run a YMCA hostel, in Old Portsmouth, that had been not so much put-up as thrown-up (if you'll pardon the metaphor). A truly dreadful place...rotting windows, cracked walls, drafty, damp and cold. So we knocked it down.

You know, the problem of having good or bad builders has been a feature of civilization throughout the centuries. Jesus, and his contemporaries, knew all about the problem of sub-standard building...some of which was no doubt built by the well known Roman firm of 'Bodge-itum and Scarperum'. In chapter 13 of Luke's gospel, for example, we read about a tower, in Siloam, which fell and crushed 18 people. Jesus knew all about what happened when a building was badly put up...and he pointedly didn't blame God...he blamed the shoddy builders...just as we should when we see the needless deaths there have been in China and Burma during this last fornight.

So, what is it that Jesus is getting at when he tells his story of 'The Wise and Foolish Builders?'. Well, like with so much of Jesus teaching, he is using a parable..a story...to help us understand something much more profound. Jesus is offering us a quite simple choice; a choice that is rather similar to the one that Moses, before him, offered the Israelites - as we heard in our Old Testament reading just now. Moses, on behalf of God gives God's people a simple choice, between a blessing and a curse. Its a simple proposition: obey the commands of the Lord, and you will live under his blessing, and live long in the Land that he has given you. But choose to disobey, and you will be cursed. Its a choice...a freewill choice. Choose the way of God, and have life. Choose to reject God...and you choose the way of the curse.

But we need to treat Moses' words with some caution. When we think about the choice that Moses offered the people, there is a slight danger that we end up picturing God as some sort of heavenly headmaster. If we are not careful, we can see God as sitting up on a cloud ready to dispense house-points to the good children, but a jolly good caning to the naughty ones. That is not, I think, the picture that Jesus wanted us to see. He didn't want us to see God as the good of curses...but the God of blessing. God is not Father Christmas...giving presents to the good children, and a lump of coal to the naughty ones. One of the fascinating things about the Bible, for me, is the way that as we move from the Old Testament to the New, we get an ever clearer picture of what God is like. As Jesus himself said, he came not to abolish the law, but to complete it. And one of the things he wanted to complete was our picture of God. Jesus introduced us to the concept of God as Father...not a grumpy God waiting to gleafully smite the ungodly, but a Father God who wants everyone to live under his blessing. Jesus introduced us to a God who loved the world SO much that he sent his only son into the world, so that the world, through him, might be saved (John 3:16). And we should note here...God so loved the world...not just a part of it...not just the Jews, or even the Christians...but the whole world...including the people on the streets of North End, and even the young toe-rags who vandalise our building. God loves them. All of them.

Jesus introduced us to a God who blesses. He blesses us with the gift of life itself. He blesses us with an incredible Universe in which to live. He blesses us with his own Son to lead us away from the consequences of our sin...and he blesses us with the gift of his holy spirit to inspire, lead and gently correct us.

In that context, Jesus places the responsibility for what happens to the wise and foolish builders squarely on their own shoulders. The house of the foolish builder doesn't collapse because God has cursed him. It collapses because the stupid idiot built on sand. Jesus is saying to us something subtly different from what Moses said all those years before. Jesus introduces us to God who is our Father...not the distant God of the Mountain-top (which tended to be the way that Moses portrayed God)...but as the Father who wants the very best for all his children...and who invites them to build their lives on his way of doing things...on rock instead of sand. If there is a curse...it is a curse that we bring on ourselves. We effectively curse ourselves, if we choose to live other than God's way.

And surely we can see that principle in action all around us. Just a few yards from this building, we are all aware of people who have effectively cursed themselves by the choices they have made. Perhaps they chose to start taking drugs, or drinking too much alcohol, or sleeping around without sensible precautions. The curses they have brought on themselves include poverty, starvation, having no money to feed their family. Or having a family that they don't really want. There are others who have built their lives on the sand of consumerism... believing that having the latest gadget, or the bigger house, or the better car, or a bit of fame on reality TV will bring them happiness. Instead, they often find, they have the curse of debt...and the discovery that the pleasure of owning the latest piece of stuff quickly passes.

All these people bring a curse on themselves by a refusal to live God's way. After all, if it was God who cursed them...what business would we have trying to make things better for them? Who would we be if we tried to undo a curse from God?! But it is not God who curses. We curse ourselves, by our choices and actions. The task of the Christian church is to help people who have cursed themselves...who have built their lives on sand. Our task is to help them to look upwards, beyond the sand and the rubble of their lives...towards a loving heavenly father who wants them to have life, and have it to the full!

So, let me ask you - what is it that Jesus calls us to? What is it that he gives us a choice about?

Let me introduce you to the Jesus I've come to know over the last few years. The Jesus I serve is the Jesus of the Topsy Turvey kingdom - the upside down world of the Kingdom of God. This is a kingdom in ruled by a King who rides on a donkey; by the Lord of the Universe who is born in a stable; by the Prince of Peace who is murdered by an Empire of War. This is the source of all life, who dies. This is the Lord whose death brings us life. This is the Jesus who at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount says, 'Blessed are the poor', not the rich. This is the Jesus who says 'Blessed are the meek', not the mighty. Blessed are the merciful, not the executioners. Blessed are those who mourn, those who are persecuted, those who are the peacemakers, not the warmongers. That is the Jesus of the topsy turvey kingdom...who calls us to build our lives on the rock of his way of doing things...not the sand of the way that human beings think that happiness and fulfillment can be found.

That is the Jesus that I want to build my life on...and the Jesus that I want to invite you all to build our church here in North End upon. I am SO excited about being given the opportunity to minister to you here in North End. I know that you've been waiting a long time for a Team Rector - and I'm going to do my very best to serve you well. But let us start out by laying down a few ground-rules shall we?

I'm assuming that you agree with the basic proposition of this sermon, so far...that you too want to serve the Jesus who offers a totally transformed way of life to his followers. I assume that you agree that this transformed life will be one that is based on the way that Jesus showed us it is possible to live...the way of giving and loving...the way of meekness, not power - the way of poverty, not wealth - the way of giving more and more away, not getting more and more. And I assume that you, like me, have heard Jesus' call to his followers that we should go out into the world, and teach the world everything that Jesus teaches us.

And I'm assuming that you are ready to respond to the call of God...wherever he takes us from this Sunday onwards. As we look to the future, I think that we have real cause to be excited - not least because of the preparation that God has already done among us over the last few years. Let me tell you what I see, as someone stepping new into this situation:

  • I see a group of people who have faithfully worshipped God in this place for year after year, while numbers dwindled, and while the world outside has continually tried to tempt you away from God, and towards the new gods of consumerism and headonism.
  • I see a group of people with a wide range of talents and abilities that God has given you to help in the task of building his kingdom. There are musicians here, and flower arrangers, and administrators, and coffee-servers, and prayer-warriors and children's workers and maintenance experts.
  • I see a group of people who have grappled with some really tough issues - and some pretty hard disagreements...but who are still faithfully praying, and worshipping together...and learning what it means (as Ruth said last week) to really love one another.
  • I see a group of people who are part of a wider family - including the families of St Francis and St Nicholas...let alone the rest of the deanery and Diocese. That wider family will continue to be a source of strength andf sustenance for us here in St Marks.
  • I see a building which is a bit tired, and a bit leaky and drafty...but which is in on a site of real significance in this community...and which has real potential to be a beacon of light and love to the people of North End.

In short, I see a community of Christians with real potential... potential to grow, potential to reach out into this community, and potential to share the topsy turvey, upside down Kingdom of God with a world that has misunderstood just what God is like. I want to introduce the people of North End to the God of blessing...not the Grumpy God, but the Father God. I see, and I hope you do too, a community that is ready to build on the rock of Jesus.

So, I'm sure you are saying to yourselves... that's all very nice in theory! Where is this new Team Rector actually going to lead us? Well, I want you to know... I am still very much in thinking and listening mode. I would be less than honest with you if I said that I didn't think we need to make some changes - if we are to really take Jesus seriously when he commands us to reach out with the good news of the topsy turvey kingdom...not keep it to ourselves. I think we might have to use new ways of communicating, especially if we want to reach the younger members of our community. I think we might have to think hard about the kind of music we use at our most public services, and about whether a service of Holy Communion is always the best way to reach out to people who know nothing - nothing - of God. I think that we might have to ask some hard questions about the future of this building. But let me assure you - that I have decided nothing yet...and that I truly want to hear your ideas and your plans before I'll be ready ask you to agree a new vision with me...one that will be based on the best that the past has to offer, but also the promise of the future.

So come with me...journey with me...pray with me...as we seek God - and his purposes for North End - together. I'm looking forward to the journey...and I hope you are too.

Let's pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for all that you have done in this community, and through the people of this parish over so many generations. We feel privileged to be part of a long traditional of faithful people who have held onto you, and to their faith, in the midst of so many other alternatives. But Lord, we want to be people who are looking to the future, as well as having roots in the past. Lord, we want to build on rock, not on sand...and we ask you to be our Master Builder as we look to the future together.

For we ask it in Jesus' name.