Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Faith on a Trampoline

Faith on a Trampoline: Matthew 15:21-28
Preached at St Nicholas (8am) and St Mark (10am) on Sunday 17 Aug 2008
One of the more disturbing things about getting older, is that I'm discovering that I just don't bend like I used to. That was brought home to me recently - with special pain - when I had a go on my nieces' trampoline. "Come on Uncle Tom", they said, "you have a go!". "Oh," thought I, "that looks fun!". So I heaved myself up onto the trampoline, and started to bounce. Everything was going well, until I decided to do a little trick I learned when I was ten. It was just one of those simple trampoline tricks when you sit down for one bounce, and then stand for the next one.
So, at the apex of a bounce, I tucked my legs under me, and went for the sit-down bounce. What can I say? The pain! The pain! And I even think I might have said a word or two that should not normally pass from a Vicar's lips!
While I was recovering, later that day, I remembered something I had read in a book by an American theologian and pastor, called Rob Bell. Bell says that we should think of the Christian faith as being a bit like a trampoline. And, he says, it is when we begin to jump on the trampoline of faith, that we realise where the springs come in. He says, "When we jump, we begin to see the need for springs... The springs aren't God. The springs aren't Jesus. The springs are statements and beliefs about our faith that help give words to the depth that we are experiencing in our jumping. I would call these [springs] the doctrines of the Christian faith."
Bell goes on to describe what he means about the trampoline springs being the doctrines of the Christian faith. He points out that many of the doctrines - the beliefs - that we hold dear are in fact ideas which have been developed over the centuries since Jesus. For example, the Doctrine of the Trinity.
We have come to understand God as being three persons in one. For, he says, "while there is only one God, God is somehow present everywhere. People began to call this presence, this power of God, his 'Spirit'. So there is God, and there is God's Spirit. And then Jesus comes among us and has this oneness with God that has people saying things like 'God has visited us in the flesh'. So God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit, and as Jesus. One and yet three. This three-in-oneness understanding of God emerged in the several hundred years after Jesus' resurrection. People began to call this concept 'the Trinity'. But the word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn't use the word. But over time this belief, this understanding, this doctrine has become central to how followers of Jesus have understood who God is. It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it [in the times before Jesus]. It is a spring, and it was added [to the trampoline of faith] later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches." (Bell, R. 2005, Velvet Elvis, Zondervan, pages 22-23)
Now I'm sure that by now, some of you will be wondering what any of this has to do with this morning's Gospel reading. Well, let's look at the reading now - in the light of this idea that the trampoline of faith is held up by flexible springs.
What we have in this morning's reading is a strange glimpse into Jesus' mindset. We see a non-Jewish woman arguing with him - arguing that even though she is a Gentile, her daughter should be entitled to receive a blessing from Jesus...and especially a healing from him. The strange part of the story is that Jesus appears to resist this idea. He says that he was called first to the children of Israel, and (in language that we find quite shocking), it would be wrong to give what was meant for the children to the dogs (refering, in this context, to Gentiles.) The woman, however, doesn't give up at this rebuff...she argues that even dogs get to eat the scraps from the children's table. Jesus then grants the argument to her...she has won the debate. He credits her with great faith, and heals her daughter.
Theologians have wrestled with this passage for generations. Could it be that the part of Jesus which was decidedly human was a bit racist? Did he really think of non-Jewish people as 'dogs' - until this debate with this particular Gentile opened his mind to the possibility that his mission should include non-Jews as well.
No, I think the purpose of this story is to show that Jesus himself understood that doctrines and beliefs had to be flexible...that there are springs on the trampoline of faith. He knew that those around him viewed him as essentially a Jewish Messiah. By using wholly uncharacteristic language - that of children and dogs - I think he was in fact 'playing to the crowd'. He was using the language that they would have used to talk about non-Jews...Jesus was encouraging the crowd around him to change their dogma, and their doctrine. They believed that the Messiah would liberate the Jews alone. But Jesus came to liberate the whole world. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that dogmas and doctrines have to be flexible. We cannot hope to contain God by our words - for God is, and always will be, greater, bigger, more magnificent than anything we can say about him, or assume we know about him.
So where does this leave us? Let me ask you - how flexible are the springs of your trampoline of faith? Are we ready to hold up some of those springs, examine them, let them flex a little, as we seek to discover more of what God has in store for us, for this community, and for the world? I wonder how much more God might have to show us...if we are willing to flex the springs of our trampoline a little.
In the autumn, after the summer holidays, we are planning to start a new home-group for the parish. Initially, we'll meet at the Rectory - because I've been given a great big lounge we can meet in! The purpose of the group will be to let our springs start to flex. It will give us the space to take out some of the key Christian doctrines and dogmas, and then hold them up to the light. We will stretch them, and oil them, and then reattach them to the trampoline - believing that the trampoline will bounce even higher, even better, for having done so.
So, what I'm asking you to do today is to start thinking about whether you might enjoy that process. If you know immediately that you could embrace such a house-group...then let me know after the service. It would also be helpful for me to get a sense of what evening of the week - or which day-time, you would find most convenient. If you have a computer (or are reading this on the website) by all means email me with these details.
But most of all...let me encourage you all to keep bouncing on the trampoline of faith. It really can be a most exhilarating ride!

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Preached at St Mark's Church, Derby Rd, Portsmouth, on 3rd Aug 2008

Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Last week, in our gospel reading, we were given a series of metaphors...pictures which help us to get an idea of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. I'm sure you remember - the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like treasure, like a pearl of great price - and so on. In other words, we were being asked to think about just what a precious, valuable, life-changing idea the Kingdom is. And we were also being invited, through the metaphors of the yeast and the mustard seed, to be aware that God is the one who is bringing his Kingdom about, day by day, year by year, as more and more people turn to him. If you want to read my sermon on that topic, then let me invite you to look it up on my website - the address is in the pew news.

This week - the focus changes. In the story of the Feeding of Five Thousand, we are being invited to move beyond mere words, mere allegories and metaphors, into an actual demonstration of Kingdom principles at work. What we have before is essentially a simple story. Jesus has been pursued by a great crowd. The text tells us that in fact there were far more than five thousand people - because in typical patriarchal fashion, all the gospel writers only bother to count the men in the crowd! There were also women and children...so, we might surmise that there may have been as many as 15 or 20 thousand people in the crowd that day. When evening falls, the disciples come up to Jesus and say "Don't you think we ought to send these folks away to buy some food". But Jesus has other ideas. Taking a few loaves and fishes, he blesses them, and starts to distribute them among the crowd. The food somehow multiplies - so much so that there are 12 baskets left over.

How that happened exactly is a subject on which scholars have debated for centuries. Was it an actual miracle of multiplication? Or could it be that people had, in fact, brought food with them? After all, there are not many people who would go out to a deserted place - miles from home - without at least packing a few sandwiches for the kids. The people of that time are not all that different from us. Children still squinnied when they were hungry. So perhaps, when Jesus started to distribute the five loaves and two fish, many other people started to open their picnics up - and began to share with each other. After all, if people of those days were anything like us, you can be sure that most people packed far more in their picnic than they would need!

Whether or not this story was about an actual multiplication miracle, or whether something much more ordinary took place, we can be sure that what took place was significant. So significant, in fact, that it is the only miracle (other than the resurrection) that is recorded in all four Gospels. Perhaps, like with the story of the calming of the sea, Jesus' power over matter, his divine power, was once again being demonstrated. We could, if we wish, quite legitimately read this story as a demonstration of Jesus' status as the Son of God - Lord of the Universe.

Or, if we choose, we can learn that by a simple act of example, he encouraged others to open their hearts, and share what they had, with their neighbours.

There are two lines in this story that I would particularly like to draw your attention to. In verse 16, after the disciples had suggested sending the people away to buy food, Jesus replies, "They need not go away...you give them something to eat". Then, a few lines later, after he has blessed the food, in verse 19, Jesus gives the food to the disciples, for them to pass it on to the crowd.

There's a real challenge to us in these few words. God is the source of all life, and the provider of all the food in the world. But he gives the task of distributing that food to us, his friends and followers. The disciples could quite easily have decided amongst themselves that five loaves and two fish was not nearly enough food to go round. They could have taken the blessed food, and just eaten it themselves. But no, Jesus commands them to share what they have. Here we see a really important Kingdom principle at work. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about getting and keeping, its about giving and sharing.

How very different this is than the world in which we live today. We live in a time when getting and keeping have become such a normal pattern of life, that very few people question it. We live in the time of 'consumerism' - when consuming as much of the worlds resources as we can has become the norm. In fact, we might almost describe consumerism as the new religion. Temples, mosques and churches have been replaced by shopping arcades. The priests of this new religion are the marketing managers, who tell us what we should believe, and more importantly, what will make us happy. "Buy more stuff!" they cry, and find fulfilment. How different that is from Jesus' idea of "Give stuff away, and find fulfilment!". Icons and religious imagery have been replaced by advertising posters. Hymns and spiritual songs have been replaced by jingles and advertisements.

But Jesus still calls to us across the centuries. "You fool!" he says, to the man who has stored up great wealth for himself. "Do not store up for yourself treasure on earth, where is will only rot and decay. Instead, store up treasure in heaven, where it will last for eternity". "Don't try to get - learn to give!"

There's one last thought I want to share about this command of Jesus to his friends, in verse 16: "You give them something to eat..." Here at St Mark's we find ourselves in the middle of a relatively poor community. I know many of you do not have spare cash - and that is also the case for many of the people who live around here. The other problem that I know is very real in this area is the problem of loneliness. House after house contains people who live alone, and who have very few opportunities to find and make new friends - to feel a connection with the wider humanity around them.

That is why some of us have a vision of establishing a community cafe, in the downstairs hall of this building. What we want to provide is a really low-cost option for people who have little money; the chance for them to buy a cheap cup of tea, or a hot snack in the middle of the day. We want to provide a place where our neighbours who live around this building can gather together, in a warm, friendly environment - to find and make new friends...and to learn, at a deep-down level, that even if they are widowed, poor, and in bad health - they are still loved...by us, and by God, and that there is still purpose to their lives. We want to introduce them to the God who says 'give', not 'get', - give of your time to one another, share each others burdens, belong to the family of God.

But to do that, we need volunteers who will be prepared to take up Jesus' command to his disciples..."You give them something to eat". We need people who will commit to just one, or two days per month, to do precisely that...to serve their brothers and sisters of this community.

So let me, in conclusion, ask you to ask yourself...could it be that God is calling me to take up the call to give something to eat to the crowd who are gathered around this church? Could it be that God is asking me to unpack my picnic basket of time and talent, and to share it with my neighbours? If you think that may be so, then please speak to Christine Watkins after the service. Christine has kindly offered to give some of her picnic basket of time and talent to co-ordinate our new Community Cafe...but she needs many other people to open up their baskets too. (Website note: Christine can be contacted on 023 9266 5753 on Mondays and Thursdays between 9.30am and 2pm, or via email to stmarkchurch@portseaparish.freeserve.co.uk )

Think about it...please. We have the space, we have the tables, we have the chairs and the kitchen. We can buy the food. We just need the people who will love and care for their neighbours – and who will “give them something to eat”.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Kingdom of Heaven is like....

Preached at St Francis' Church, Hilsea.

We have before us this morning a series of short parables about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is like yeast, it is like treasure, it is like a fine pearl, it is like a net.
Before we can begin to unpick some of these metaphors, it might help if we put ourselves in the position of Jesus' first audience, for a moment. We live in the United Kingdom...but really, this is not a kingdom in the sense that Jesus' disciples would have understood the word. We, in fact, live in a liberal democracy, in which the will of the people, expressed through the ballot box, is ultimately what drives our country. Of course - nothing is quite that simple. We are also driven by economic factors, by the prevailing wind of national desires and interests, and by the forces of the media, international companies, and perceived outside threats. But ultimately, our system is about people-power...and it is people, collectively, who decide how we are governed, and in what direction we move. Our Queen - and one day, our King - has no real power to speak of. She - or he - is little more than a ceremonial figurehead.
But in Jesus' day, things were very different. Kings had real power in those days. Kings - and even more so, Emperors - ruled with total power...what the King said, went. If a King declared war...then off to war the nation went. If a king decreed that every child in a town like Bethlehem should be slaughtered (as Herod the Great did after Jesus' birth) then, with no questions asked, innocents were slaughtered. The King decided how much tax should be paid by his subjects. He decided what new buildings could be built. He decided everything of significance in the entire kingdom.
So, kingship, and the idea of a kingdom, was a very real idea for the people of Jesus' time. At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew nation had Kings once again - from the family of Herod. But Herod the Great, and his Sons, only ruled as subsidiary Kings...under the Romans. They didn't have the power of the kings of old. They were rather more like our own Queen...somewhat ceremonial monarchs.
Many Jews longed for the day when a new Kingdom would be established...and a new powerful King set on the throne of Israel. And into this melting pot, comes Jesus, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
But the Kingdom of Heaven was a rather different notion than the Kingdoms of ancient Israel. When Jesus declared that the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God - which is the same thing - was at hand...he was not suggesting a mere replacement for the Kingdom of Herod, or the Kingdom of the Romans. He had something rather more radical in mind.
The kingdom of heaven was, for Jesus, a kingdom in which mighty arrogant rulers would be thrown down from their thrones, and humble and meek people would be raised up. His was a kingdom in which the poor would be blessed, and in which justice and mercy would supersede violence and war. Jesus spoke of a kingdom in which the hungry would be fed, the sick would be healed, and even the dead would be raised to new life.
And this, according to Jesus, would truly be the Kingdom of God...a Kingdom in which God himself would take the initiative to establish his just and merciful rule. Jesus draws attention to this in two of the metaphors that we just heard - those of the mustard seed, and the measure of yeast.

The thing about both of these images is that they speak of something very small, very embrionic, which has the capacity to grow. A tiny mustard seed will grow into a large plant - large enough for birds to roost in its branches. The tiny grain of yeast will grow, and cause the dough to grow, until it makes a full loaf of bread. In both cases, it is part of the essential property of the mustard seed, or the yeast grain, to grow. And that is what Jesus promises will happen to the Kingdom of God.
For Jesus' first hearers - and for us too - this idea is pregnant with hope. Jesus' first disciples could never have dreamed that as a result of just 12 of them choosing to follow Jesus, that billions of people would also do the same. But now, here we are, in a world where well over a billion people willingly declare that Jesus is Lord.
So for us too - there is hope. A modern way of rendering these parables would be to say something like..."the Kingdom of Heaven is like a group of 30 or 40 Christians who gather together week by week in a city of 150,000...until the whole city comes to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord."
We might well ask ourselves what God's Kingdom will look like once it is fully established. Well, perhaps it might be easier to say what it won't be like. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place in which 20% of the world's population owns 80% of its resources. It won't be a place where bad management of finite resources will lead to rising sea levels, the loss of millions of acres of land, and the wars that will inevitably flow from that. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place where countries like the USA and UK make many times more money from selling weapons than they then give in aid to the countries who have had wars with those weapons. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place in which children die from curable diseases because nations would rather kill one another than heal one another. The Kingdom of Heaven won't be a place where people kill one another over the question of what God might be like.
No - the Kingdom of Heaven will, and is already becoming, a place where peace matters more than war, where sharing is more important than having, where consumerism is replaced with charity, where hatred gives way to love.
And we have real hope that God can bring about such a transformation. After all, he is the God who was born in a stable, the Lord of the Universe, who became a refugee. He is the King, who rides on a donkey. He is the dead man, who came to life. Jesus has a track record of turning the world, and its expectations, upside down. We do have reason for hope. There is a God, the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, whose purposes will not be denied, even though we live in a time of rebellion against the King right now.
Our task, then, is to remain faithful to the promise of Jesus...the promise that mustard seeds do grow, and yeast does multiply, and that the Kingdom itself is like a precious pearl, or a hoarde of treasure...something worth giving up everything to embrace, to follow, to pray for, and to help to usher in. Sometimes we might feel like small, weak, mustard seeds as we meet here week by week...but Jesus calls us to a greater vision...and enlarged perspective...of a Kingdom in which God is in control, working his purpose out, as year suceeds to year.