Thursday, September 25, 2008

Walking the Talk

Matt 21:23-32. Preached on Sunday 28th September - at the Harvest Festival at St Mark's Church

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

Not for the righteous...

John 3. 13:17: Not for the Righteous...

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 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.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Serpent and the Cross...

Sunday 14th September

According to my Catholic friends, today is the Sunday of the Holy Cross - in which the readings and prayers are designed to help us focus on the meaning of the Cross.  

There are some who find the whole idea of focusing on a Roman instrument of torture rather a strange thing to do.  If Jesus had been executed by some of the world's other (and more modern) means, perhaps we wouldn't have a cross as a symbol of hope at all.  Perhaps we would be wearing little silver electric chairs round our necks, or little nooses, or little hyperdermic needles?  It sounds really rather macbre when you put it like that, doesn't it?

So why has this instrument of death become such a symbol of hope for so many people?

In John's gospel we read "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up" (Jn 3:14).  Sounds all rather weird, doesn't it?  Until we dig a little deeper into the story of Moses and the serpent that was lifted up...

The story goes that the people of Israel, while wandering in the wilderness, were being attacked by snakes.  (According to the story in the Book of Numbers, this was a punishment from God because they wouldn't stop complaining.  A note of caution may be needed here: like many, many, stories in the Bible, we would do well to think of this as a story, laden with meaning, rather than a historical fact!).  When the people complain to Moses, God tells him (for reasons that are not abundantly clear) to fashion a serpent out of bronze; and then to attach it to a pole.  The people are then told that anyone who has been bitten by a live snake simply has to look at the bronze one, and they will be healed.  

So, by trusting what God has said - however bizzare it may have appeared to them - the people find that by looking at the serpent, they find the promised healing.

Now, jump forward about 1000 years, to the time of Jesus.  He draws upon this famous story, and tells his followers that, just like the bronze serpent on a pole, he too has to be 'lifted up'.  He explains that this is so 'that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life'. (Jn 3:15)

There is a fundamental issue of trust at stake here.  The Israelites were asked to trust that just by looking at a metal snake they would be healed of real-snake-bite.  And in the same way, Jesus asks his followers to trust that by fixing their eyes on him - and especially on him on a cross - they will find eternal life.

What is going on here?  What is so significant about the Cross (and especially about Jesus' death upon it)?   That's a question that followers of Jesus have debated all through the centuries.  There are many, many, different theories about what is going on - some of which are specifically debated through the pages of the Bible, and others which the Bible points us towards.  Here are just some of the theological terms which get used when these debates really get going (if you are interested in understanding any of them, try googling them!):  redemption, penal substition, ransom, sacrifice, atonement, (and vicarious atonement!), moral influence theory, governmental theory and propitiation.  It's enough to make your head swim!  Isn't it?

The truth is, no two groups of Christians will be able to tell you that they agree precisely what actually happening on the cross.  (If anyone tells you that their interpretation is the only one, be suspicious!).  It is, to use another word employed by the church, a 'mystery'.  (Which is a technical term that doesn't simply mean 'I haven't got a clue'.  Its more like saying 'I've got a fairly good sense of what's going on, but I'm happy to leave the details up to God'.  It's about trust, again.)

Let me take you back to the quote I used earlier.  Jesus said that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (Jn 3:15).  So what does it mean to 'believe in' Jesus.  After all, there are lots of people who believe that Jesus existed - but they don't go as far as to 'believe in him'.  In other words, what is the difference between someone who believes that Jesus existed (and was a jolly nice bloke) and those who trust in him for their very eternal future?

Well partly, it means trusting that Jesus - and through him God - knew what he was doing on the Cross.  It was, somehow, essential for him to go through that pain and suffering for us.  The veneration of the cross - which many of my Catholic friends will be doing today - is precisely about that.  Its about focusing on the moment of Jesus' death as something that was essential, life changing and pivotal for humanity.  It remains a 'mystery'...but a 'mystery' that points to a deeper reality.

But believing in Jesus means something else as well.

It means trusting that Jesus was the truest, most perfect, reflection of what God is like.  It means trusting - in the face of all the alternatives that this World can offer - that his way leads to life.  It means trusting that giving and sharing is a better way of life than getting and keeping. It means trusting that giving up ones life for others is a better way than keeping one's life for oneself.  It means trusting that love really is a viable alternative to hate.  It means trusting that being part of a company of believers is better than trying to do it on your own. 

In other words, finding 'salvation' is much more than simply trusting that Jesus knew what he was doing on the Cross.  It means being completely transformed, 'by the renewing of your mind' as St Paul said.  It means trusting that the Way of the Cross - the Way that Jesus walked - is a Way that leads to life. 



Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Where two or three are gathered...

When two or three are gathered...

Matthew 18:15-20
(For Wednesday 10th August 2008)

Have you ever found yourself at a church meeting with only a couple of other people?  You know what its like - you have organised a venue, booked the room, bought the coffee and biscuits, planned an agenda...and only two other people turn up.

At that point, in most churches I've ever known, someone will usually say "Oh well...when two are three are gathered....".  The rest of the group will smile, weakly, and draw some comfort from the fact that Jesus did promise to be with even the smallest of gatherings!

But is that really the point?  Did Jesus make that promise because he knew that there would be many times that small groups of Christians would gather in dimly lit, scruffy rooms on plastic chairs?  Well perhaps he did.  But I think there was something rather larger going on...

Jesus' statement raises a question.  If it takes two or three of us to gather together in order for him to be present, does that mean that he is not present when we are on our own?  It raises the question of 'where is God?'  

There is a tendency among certain missionaries Christians to talk about 'taking God' to a certain place.  They talk about 'taking God out into the community' or 'taking Jesus into Africa' - or India or wherever.  In other words, there are some Christians who seem to believe that until God has been taken into a given situation, he is not there.    

But isn't that a bit wrong-headed?  After all, as the old saying goes, 'if Jesus isn't Lord of all, then Jesus isn't Lord at all'.  Jesus, and therefore God, is present in all the Universe.  There is no-where that God is not.  There is a Psalm - an ancient Hebrew poem or song lyric - which sums this up rather beautifully:

Where can I go from your Spirit? 
       Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; 
       if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, 
       if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, 
       your right hand will hold me fast.  (from Psalm 139)

Our task, as people who have encountered God already, is simply - no more and no less - to help other people to encounter him too.  Not by 'bringing God to them' but by helping them to recognise that God is already among them.   We are the window-cleaners...the people who remove the accretions of the years, polishing the glass so that others too may glimpse the Infinite.  It is our task to point out to people that the creative, life-giving God is already among them.

That is just what the Apostle Paul did - as we've been reading in our mid-week readings recently.  He went to Athens, and there he saw that the Athenians had built many altars, to all sorts of Gods.  But he spied one altar which was labelled simply 'to the Unknown God'.  It was probably the Athenians way of making sure that if they had not yet learned about a certain God, he wouldn't get miffed at them!  But Paul saw an opportunity here.  He told the learned philosophers and teachers of Athens that he had come to tell them about this 'unknown God' - the God whom they already recognised was among them, but whom they didn't yet know.

Many people that I meet already have a clear sense that God is among them.  They have recognised the hand of God in the beauty of nature, or the smile of a friend, or the laughter of a child.  They are unable to concieve of a world of such complexity and beauty as ours which could simply exist by chance.  In those circumstances, my task is often to simply act as a guide...

Have you ever been on a guided tour?  My family and I were in Rome recently - and we rather reluctantly paid an awful lot of Euros for a guide to take us round the Collesium.  We were jolly glad that we did.  That guide was able to tell us all sorts of things that we would never have worked out for ourselves.  They had learned all these facts and figures about the Collesium - just be living and working there day after day.  And we were able to tap their knowledge...and begin to grasp something of the story of the place.

Christians are called to be a bit like that Collesium guide.  We are people who have absorbed something about the reality of God.  We've lived with God - through the good times and the bad. And we have gained some insights into what God is like, and how God operates; insights that some other people haven't yet got.  It is our task, our duty, our joy and privilege, to share our knowledge with those be their help them find their way along the paths of God. 

But there's another dimmension to this statement of Jesus' as well - this idea that when two or three are gathered together he is in the midst of us.  I think Jesus is pointing us to another vitally important principle...and that's the idea that Jesus, and therefore God, is most easily found in community.  

It is when we discover God together that we discover God most fully.  It is by listening to the stories of other people's encounters with God, that we begin to see where our own encounters have been.  Whether we listen to those stories by reading the Bible (which is packed full of such encounters) or by listening to our brothers and sisters of today - it is vital that we do listen.  We can only be guides, or indeed be guided, if we open ourselves to the possibility of encountering God through, and in, other people.  

That, ultimately, is what the church is all about.  Its the gathering of people who have all had experiences of God, and who want to deepen that experience by sharing it with others. 

Have you ever thought what it might take to become a footballer (or a soccer player if you are an American!)?  You could learn to play with a football in your backgarden.  You could practice scoring goals against the garden wall.  You could learn to do 1000 'keepy-uppies' without dropping the ball.  But you will never, ever, be a footballer until one vital thing has happened.  You will never be a footballer until you have played in a team with other players. 

Christianity is a bit like that.  You can read all the books you like.  You could pray for 18 hours a day.  But until you have shared in the experience of God with other people, you will have missed out on the central point of being a follower of God.  God calls us to live in community with one members of what Jesus called his 'body'.  It is when two, or three, or 50,000 of his followers are together that Jesus can truly be encountered.

A final thought...

That's also what the service of Holy Communion is all about.  Did you know that, according to the church's laws, I cannot celebrate communion on my own?  The church believes that the transformation of the elements - the transformation of the bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Jesus - can only take place when there is more than one person present.  Communion is all about coming together, in community - in communion with one another and with God.  

So - let us never stop meeting together (as St Paul said).  Let us never stop looking for the signs of God around us, and in us, and through us.  Let us never stop acting as guides for one another - showing each other the places we have found God.  And let us never stop coming together for this vitally important task of being in community - in communion - with one another and with God.