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A Prelude to Holy Week and Easter

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

6th April 2014

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

11

Lent 5 Year A

What will you be celebrating on Easter Day? And why? I think the gospel passage this morning takes us a long way in finding an answer to these questions. It is an extraordinary account for many reasons. Most of all because at the centre is the bringing back from the dead a man who has been in his burial tomb for 4 days. There is probably no rational explanation unless he was buried by mistake but even if an explanation could be found it is the meaning of what goes on here that we are most of all left to consider. This passage coming just before Jesus` arrival in Jerusalem, part of the narrative unique to John`s Gospel which focuses on the intimacy of Jesus` relationship with his friends and the dialogues when he talks about them and all his followers dwelling and being bound together with a strength of love not to be found anywhere else.

We actually know very little of Lazarus, more about his two sisters, Mary and Martha. I think this is significant because much of the account is about them and written from their perspective. We can speculate about Lazarus` death which appears to have been sudden and he seems the sort of person who lived a bit on the edge of things perhaps he was disabled or had a mental illness. Most of those who Jesus restored to acceptance by a community began on the edge, like the man blind from birth. Each account contains the element of exclusion by the majority of people`s attitudes and prejudices and backed up by the legalistic blame culture fuelled by some of the religious leaders. I think Lazarus bound in his tomb could represent others similarly bound by the intolerance and fear that take hold in cultures where difference and diversity is not valued. The people who have stood by him and continue to do so are his sisters.

We find quite a lot in the gospels about these 2 women. The scene where Jesus has a meal at their home and Martha is too driven in trying to get everything just right that she does not have time to enjoy the company of Jesus. The same Martha who in today`s reading testifies, and she is one of the first to do so, that for her Jesus is God`s Son, the Messiah. Then there is the later story of Mary covering Jesus feet with expensive perfume and drying his feet with her hair; she is the one person who seems to comprehend that Jesus is moving towards his death. And it will be women who stay close to Jesus on his journey to the cross and in John`s Gospel  we have another Mary, Mary Magdelene who is the first person to meet the risen Jesus in the garden.

For Mary and Martha the death of their much loved brother was a tragedy. The emotions of their grieving described in the passage are clear, there is anger that Jesus did not come earlier, there is the weeping including by Jesus and though there is an acknowledgement that the teachings of their faith tradition gave hope of a resurrection at the end of time, it is the reality and finality of loss, and of being overwhelmed by it, that make the now a desperate time for those closest to Lazarus.

Let`s remember also that women in particular in first century Palestine were left very vulnerable by the loss of a close male relative and not just financially. Culturally women were usually excluded from playing a full part in the community but in Mary and Martha we find two people who constantly challenge this second class perception of women. They are determined that their lives should not be defined only by the circumstances of their brother`s death and its impact on them and others. Probably it is this that is the most striking thing within the whole account that it is they, Mary and Martha, who come from the story unbound; they who find a way to live again and they who find courage and strength and show to others goodness and love.

Jesus tells a parable shortly afterwards about a grain of wheat first dying in the ground so that fuller life can emerge and this gives a picture of what I think goes on for Mary and Martha. The grieving sisters brought back to fullness of life through the unbinding of the memory of who Lazarus was; and I think we can leave open a suggestion that one meaning of the passage is that it will be the memory of the life he had, probably one in which he faced many challenges, that will holds firm for them in the future, rather than the impact of his death.

60 years or more years after the days of the two sisters and Lazarus, this passage is placed by the Gospel writer as a prelude to the death and resurrection of Jesus. There must have been a massive impact on others in the future with this remembrance of  the two women who had experienced and lived with close family loss and who also partly through this came closer than anyone else to understanding who Jesus is, what is life was for and what his death and resurrection will mean.

So in the end I think the passage is placed here because the Gospel writer wants to help us understand more about the death of Jesus and the tragedy this was for those who loved him most. And then also to show how the followers were unbound by the resurrection and then able to live and grow together in love as they lived as Jesus` risen body, the community of the church. As people living in a world of pain and as people showing Jesus` compassionate love for all.

For us as that community today, this raises great and big challenges. It asks of the church to prioritise its work alongside the grieving, the dying, those who live with mental illness and in being alongside all those who society finds most difficult to integrate and include.

It also asks us to question the values of consumerism that make people want something because someone else has it and has given a value to it. The different way is to consider how Jesus defined value and gave value to human need and human loss. Giving value to lives not defined by the aspiration of wanting money and possessions but built around the accepting, inclusive and releasing love that Jesus showed. At its centre the willingness to put others first, a recognition that sometimes sacrifice is needed and most of all as was seen with Mary and Martha to be with another person in helping and supporting them to begin to live fully again however raw and fragile emotions are and however long the journey ahead may be.

Come change our love from a spark to a flame

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

23rd March 2014

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

4

David Teall

In September 1972 I started my new job as Head of Biology at King’s School, Peterborough.  For a while I commuted from Stamford but, the following year, Pat and I moved into our newly-purchased property in Huntley Grove, about a hundred yards away from the back door to the science labs at King’s.  The house needed a lot of work to turn it into our vision for a home which we couldn’t afford to have done, but were confident that we could do ourselves.  So it was that, on the day we received the keys at about 4 o’clock one afternoon, we set about pulling down an old lath and plaster partition wall to enlarge the kitchen.  We were soon completely absorbed in what we were doing for it was something that we had planned for what felt a very long time.  Eventually, when the wall was down and we had swept out the room, we decided to have a bonfire in our back garden and burn the old laths.  Being thin and very dry they burnt a treat with flames climbing high into the night sky.  The fire seemed a fitting finale to our evening of work.  Then, to our surprise and horror, we found ourselves confronted by a very angry neighbour who was not in the least impressed by our fire.  “What sort of time do you call this to have a bonfire?” he yelled.  We looked at each other with not the slightest idea of the time between us.  “About 10 o’clock” I replied hesitantly.  “10 o’clock! You must be joking!” retorted the neighbour.  “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning!”  We hastily snuffed out what remained of the fire, made profuse apologies and drove back to Stamford reflecting upon our first evening in our new home and how we had managed to keep going until 2.00am without our evening meal and without noticing just how late it had become.

Some 35 years later I found myself engaged in another first, though this was in the morning, not the evening.  It was the 24th February 2008 and I was here at this lectern delivering my very first sermon.  Many of you were here.  Easter was at its very earliest that year and it is at almost its latest this year, so then as now, it was the Third Sunday of Lent and the Gospel reading was John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  A brief two sentence reminder then, of what I had to say then:

There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament:

Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah:   ‘I am he,’  he said  ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

For me, that remains the most important sentence in the reading. but it was only the beginning of a remarkable story.  Immediately after Jesus had made this revelation the disciples returned and his conversation with the Samaritan woman ended.  Its repercussions, however, were only just beginning.  The woman rushed back into town, so enthralled by her conversation with Jesus that she forgot the original purpose of her journey and left her water jar by the well.  When she arrived she told the people about her encounter with the Messiah and persuaded them to go out to the well to meet him themselves.

What an amazing transformation!  Here was a woman who was ostracised by her own people because of her immoral way of life.  So afraid of their taunts she had come out to the well in the heat of the day, rather than the cool of morning or evening, just to avoid making contact with them.  Now, here she was, rushing back into the town to address them and tell them of her encounter at the well.  Jesus had chosen to reveal that he was the Messiah, not to his Jewish friends, the disciples, but to a Samaritan woman.  She, in response, had become the first Evangelist, spreading the word of Jesus to all whom she met.

The Samaritan woman was not the only one who was deeply affected by the encounter:  Jesus too was excited.  As the towns’ people came out to see him his disciples urged him to eat, but he would not.  He knew that his mission was to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God to all people, not just to the Jews. He had spent 30 years preparing for this moment, and now it was happening.  Of course he was excited, so excited in fact that he stayed in the town for two days to continue his conversations and, as John tells us, “because of his words many more became believers.”

Two days, of course, is a long time.  Talk for much more than 10 minutes here at the Lectern and you can guarantee at least one person will be taking a sneaky look at their watch!  What on earth did Jesus talk about for two days?  John does not tell us, but he does tell us the result:  “Now that we have heard for ourselves,” the Samaritans said, “we know that this man really is the Saviour of the World.”

The Title “Saviour of the World” would have been well known to the Samaritans for it was claimed by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus for himself.  Now, after two days in the company of this itinerant Jewish preacher who had first appeared in their midst begging for water from a woman of ill repute, they were ready to proclaim him as the Messiah, the true Saviour of the World.  Not just the Saviour of the Jews, but the Saviour of the World including, of course, the Samaritans, and you, and me.

In contemplating the enormity of this it is interesting to note that the Samaritans were expecting a teaching Messiah, like a second Moses, rather than the Jewish hope of a conquering Messiah, like a second David.  Perhaps that helped them to recognise and accept Jesus as their Saviour.

Week by week, as we come to church, we hear the words of Jesus that were recorded by the Gospel writers specifically to enable future generations to hear what had excited them so much.  We hear them, yes, but are we excited by them?  Do they have such an impact upon us that we forget what we had planned and rush off after the service to repeat them to our family, friends and neighbours like the Samaritan woman?  Are we ever so excited by the prospect of building the Kingdom of God that we cannot eat because we feel compelled to continue the work, just as Jesus did after his encounter at the well?

We Brits are not terribly good at being excited are we?  Apart from certain sporting events and the occasional pop concert we prefer to keep our emotions under wraps.  I recall a swimming gala at the all-girls school where I taught in Sussex when the Headmistress stopped the proceedings to admonish the girls for cheering and whistling which she considered unladylike.  “You may clap” she conceded, “and you may say Hurrah – once.”

The message of today’s Gospel reading is clear.  We should be excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We need to stop hiding the light of Christ under a bushel or a dirty old bucket and stop being apologetic about our faith.  In the words of our Gradual hymn, we need to change our love for Christ and for one another from a spark to a flame.  And if that flame leaps up so high that our neighbours can see it from the next street then let us say Hurrah for that – but only once, of course!

Note:  The Gradual Hymn was Beauty for brokenness by Graham Kendrick which includes the chorus:

God of the poor,
Friend of the weak,
Give us compassion we pray,
Melt our cold hearts,
Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love
From a spark to a flame.

Living the Questions

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

23rd February 2014

Book: 

Genesis

Chapter: 

1

Genesis 1: 1.  “In the beginning, when God created the universe …”

 We live in a culture dominated by scientific method.  It should not surprise us that the foundational document of our Christian version of the ancient Jewish faith, the Book of Genesis, is often ridiculed by unbelievers – and paid scant attention by most of us who are believers.  In these days, churchgoers are regarded as weird, especially by young people, following primitive and unbelievable descriptions of what life is about.  So today’s OT reading, the opening words of the first Book in our sacred Bible, poses squarely for us the question – Why take Genesis seriously?  Is it still foundational, or can we ignore it?

The answer depends on how we respond to the text – unquestioningly, or recognising that the Bible is an untidy library bearing the thumbprints of multiple ages and cultures.  We CAN use it as a quick summary of HOW the vast physical universe was formed, and some Christians regard it as their sacred duty to maintain such an approach.  I don’t!

The writers of Genesis did not set out to present an account of HOW the Universe was formed.  Immediately after the first ‘creation’ story, which is on our pew sheets, there is a second one, whose pragmatic details are inconsistent with the first.  OT scholars find traces of yet a third creation story in other OT Books.

These different accounts of HOW the universe was formed simply use creation stories told in the Middle East at the time Genesis developed into the form we have today, about 600 years before Jesus, but with a long history of story-telling behind it.  The stories are simply the carriage for conveying accumulated wisdom, tested against generations of human experiences, about WHY our individual little lives have meaning.  The wisdom it carries is still compelling.

Now, a question for those of you involved in drama.  Why each of Shakespeare’s plays has five Acts.  It wouldn’t be difficult to have a very highbrow discussion about potential for dramatic tensions and contrasts, but just like the Genesis situation, the reason for 5 Acts was pragmatic and confined to the circumstances of a long time ago.  Stage lighting involved 5 [not 4] candle changes! – hence, very pragmatically, five Acts.     

So what is the foundational wisdom that Genesis holds out for us?  Quite simply, it is that our individual little lives have permanent meaning and purpose because the mysterious energy that creates and develops the physical universe out of meaningless chaos is FOR us, made eternally as He is.  God is Love and regards us as potential colleagues, whilst leaving us free to take the different consequences of living consistently or inconsistently with the divine energy.  We experience the truth of this wisdom by living in this faith as we confront the moral chaos around us, and base our hope on this experienced Love.

Today’s Psalm gets the first part of this message but fails miserably to understand the consequence that Jesus drew – as we will explore in a minute.  Today’s Collect does get it: “You have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image, teach us to discern your hands in all your works and your likeness in all your children.”

The OT laid down ‘the Law’ to guide our choices, but this became so complex that only a small number of dedicated experts could observe its details.  What about our failures to observe the Law, and what about our motives, which can transform a lawful act into immorality?  Genesis’ opening words are repeated in the opening of St. John’s Gospel, which we hear at Christmas to celebrate the solution to such problems that Jesus demonstrated.  “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”  Jesus, having absorbed the OT’s wisdom, re-presented it in stories, not Law, and by his resolute example invited people to enter into what he called the Heavenly Father’s kingdom, a re-statement of God’s enduring love for us as asserted in Genesis.

Today’s Gospel reading is part of a collection of Jesus’ teachings about the true happiness found in right relationships with other people and the environment which are equally dear to the Father, finding riches there and not as commonly sought.  He asks us to consider and look at wild life, not to imitate it but to limit our enthusiasms for greed and false understandings of our status. As the ‘Good as New’ translation has it: “Centre your mind on God’s New World.  Use your energy to create a just and fair society.  Then you can all live it up!”

The late Michael Mayne, Dean of Westminster, put the teaching rather well:  “Vision is quite simply about … seeing the world as God’s world.  It means refusing to conform to the world’s standards and values, or to go along with that cynical pessimism which some call realism but is in fact a terrible, destructive despair.  To believe in God is to believe that there is a power for good in the world, a power that makes itself known in the deepest and most creative drives and forces in people and in nature: a power that in the last analysis is irresistible.” [God’s Consoling Love]

Opportunities to live out this faith, individually and with others, abound.  In the midst of the usual torrent of bad news and shady dealings in our newspaper a few weeks ago [Guardian 29 Jan p14] was the story of an 8 year old Iranian schoolboy, Mahan, who was being bullied at school because his diseased immune system had caused the loss of his hair.  His teacher noticed the demoralising effect on the boy.  Instead of preaching at the other boys, he shaved off his own hair and arrived at school with Mahan.  In no time, said the report, his entire class shaved their heads and the bullying stopped.  The teacher said “Mahan’s classmates have become supportive of him and a smile is back on his face.” 

Muchelney is a village about the same size as Laxton, and it has recently been in the news because of flooding.  Its medieval church is on the highest land.  As soon as the crisis began it was much used by people to sit in its tranquillity or light a candle symbolic of their prayers.  As the only community space in the isolated village, church members organised it as a place where post, papers and shopping could be collected or sent by the ferries.  The emergency services are given hospitality there, interdenominational prayer services were held, a Sunday lunch-time communal meal provided, isolated people visited, and hospitality offered to those flooded out of their homes.

We too, here, are developing new roles for this church to recognise and meet local needs, where the synergy of those living in the Genesis/Jesus Way can offer support.  The novelist, Alexander McCall Smith describes an African country parson preaching in the Cathedral in Botswana:

“There are people who say that what we are doing here has no meaning. That it is superstitious, wishful thinking.  …  Is it wishful thinking to imagine that it is only through an effort to love others that a hard and unhappy world may be transformed into a world of kindness and compassion?

There are those who worship money and success … who do not care about the suffering of others as long as they are all right.  There are those who think that science and mastery of the physical world will bring us to happiness and save us at the end of the day.  ... I do not think that science alone will deliver us from our greed and stupidity ….  that a big car or a big house makes a big man.  I think that the measure of whether a life has been a good one is how much love there has been in that life – love both given and received.”  [Double Comfort Safari Club 78-79]

I will finish with an American poet’s response to the continuing challenge of Jesus, which she [Negus, I have mislaid the reference] called ‘Christpower’.

“Look at him!

Look not at his divinity, but look, rather, at his freedom.

Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power, but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away.

Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him, but look, rather, at his courage to be, his ability to live, and the contagious quality of his love.

Stop your frantic search!  Be still, and know that this is God: this love, this freedom, this life, this being;

And, when you are accepted, accept yourself; when you are forgiven, forgive yourself; when you are loved, love yourself.

Grasp that Christpower, and dare to be yourself.”

That is the message of Genesis!

 

 

Will you come and follow me?

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th January 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

4

David Teall

Matthew 4: 12-23

As you enter the ruins of the ancient town of Capernaum on the shore of Lake Galilee you are greeted by a notice which declares, in English with appropriate graphics: Holy Place:  No dogs, cigarettes, guns or short clothing.  Whether or not this accurately portrays the four things in life that are most offensive to God it surely represents at least an attempt to maintain something of the Kingdom of God within the boundaries of the town where Jesus began his public ministry.

 

Today’s reading contains three of the recurrent themes found in Matthew’s Gospel:  The fulfilment of Scripture  in verses 14 to 16, the salvation of the Gentiles in verse 15 and the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in verse 17.  Matthew’s use of the expression ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ contrasts with the expression ‘The Kingdom of God’ favoured by Mark and Luke.  There are many theories about this difference but the most likely stems from the fact that the author of Matthew was a Jewish Christian who had yet to throw off the Jewish practice of avoiding saying or writing down YHWH, the word for God.  This left him with no option but to use a different word to express the same concept which has nothing whatsoever to do with the afterlife but rather a world in which all people obey the will of God. 

Obedience is not something we humans are very good at though, is it?  Going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden it is something we have found a bit of a struggle.  Even when God’s will is clear we can always find a very good reason why it doesn’t apply to us or why it would be perfectly reasonable to delay doing anything about it until tomorrow.

That thought brings me to the most startling part of today’s reading.  It’s not the fact that Jesus chose four lowly fishermen to be his first disciples, though I shall have more to say about that later, but that they followed him ‘immediately.’  Not the next morning when they had talked it over which each other and with their parents; not at the end of the month after they had had time to sort their affairs out a little and make arrangements for someone to look after their animals; not in a few years’ time when ‘things will be a little different’ or some such phrase but immediately.

So what are we to make of that?  Did Jesus really demand that these four working men walk away from their responsibilities without so much as even a goodbye to their friends and family?  There are, of course, those who take every word in the Bible literally who would condemn me for even asking the question but for me such arguments run the risk of missing the really important message contained within the passage:  The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent.

Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were all called to follow Jesus in a literal sense as he travelled from place to place healing the sick and teaching all those who came to listen to him.  But what of us?  What does it mean to follow Christ in the 21st century?  Just what is involved in ‘Building the Kingdom?’

Our Gradual Hymn today [Will you come and follow me] gives us a few pointers to help answer this all-important question.  I would be grateful if you would find it again. This hymn was written in 1987 by John Bell, a Church of Scotland Minister and a member of the Iona Community.  Like all his work it is rooted firmly in the Bible.  The first four verses between them contain twenty one questions addressed by Jesus to each one of us beginning with “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” The fifth verse gives a suggested response.

The twenty one questions are an interesting mix reflecting both the demands of following the teaching of Jesus and the difficulties faced by anyone who chooses to answer his call.  It would take too long to go through all twenty one questions so I have chosen one from each of the first four verses that I find particularly challenging.

In the first verse I have chosen the question: “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same.”  That has to be the scariest question of all doesn’t it, and surely the one that was racing through the minds of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John after Jesus approached them in Capernaum.  It is one thing to respond to a clear specific request like “could you call into the doctors’ and pick up my prescription”, but quite another to answer a call that could take you absolutely anywhere.

We are all creatures of habit.  We know what we like and don’t like.  We have our comfort zones and we like to stay within them.  Answering the call from Jesus means putting your trust in him entirely and going wherever he leads, just as his disciples did on the shores of Lake Galilee.

It will not have escaped your notice that the second part of this question is the same in all five verses: “and never be the same.”  That sounds scary too, for we don’t like change any more than stepping out of our comfort zone, but actually it is a positive thing.  When I look back to my own life before I answered the first call from Jesus at my confirmation I needed to change - Lord how I needed to change.  And, of course, I still need to change because the process is continuous and never ending, at least not here on earth.  I was reminded of that by a story posted on Facebook by one of my daughters last week:  Following the death of a much loved pet a family were pondering the fact that dogs have a much shorter life than humans.  After the adults had failed to come up with a convincing explanation the six-year old, who had obviously been listening at Sunday School, produced his answer:  “Humans need a long time to learn how to love each other and be nice all the time.  Dogs know that already so they don’t have to live so long.”  I’m not entirely convinced that applies to every dog I have ever encountered, but the bit about humans needing a long time is spot on!

In verse two I have gone for the question: “Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare.”  This can apply at many different levels: In more than 40 Nations on earth today, including Afghanistan, Syria and parts of the Palestinian Territories on the West Bank, Christians have to risk far more than a hostile stare to profess their faith.  Indeed, in some of these countries it is illegal to own a Bible, to share your faith or teach your children about Jesus and in others there is the real danger of physical abuse or even death.

Here in our green and pleasant land we have the legal freedom to profess our faith but, in our increasingly secular society, we certainly can and do encounter the occasional hostile stare.  Even within the structures of our church, speaking out can engender such hostility: Prophets have never been universally loved.

My challenging line in verse 3 is “and do such as this unseen?”  By force of brevity this statement tells only half the story for all things are seen by God and that, of course, is all that really matters. The problem is, we humans have what can be an overwhelming need for approval.  Knowing that our good deed has met with God’s approval is not always enough: we need a parent or our spouse or maybe our boss to tell us how wonderful we are too.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola recognised this problem in that wonderful prayer of his:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

I pray it often, but I still find it a struggle at times.

For my final selection I have chosen “Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around.”  That is a real challenge for it demands both action and humility which are not comfortable bedfellows.  Reshaping is not a passive act but demands rolling your sleeves up and getting involved in the thick of things and, by its nature, making changes which will not always be popular.  The humility is needed when trying to discern the will of God in the situation under question and ensuring that you are not pushing forward your own personal prejudices disguised under the banner of Christ.

So that has faced up to the challenges, but what of the final verse: I can’t really finish without looking at that.  Here, it is the first line that demands my attention every time I read it: “Lord, your summons echoes true.”  There are many times when I wish it didn’t but I cannot escape the central message of today’s Gospel reading:  The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent.  Let us go from this place renewed in our resolve and get on with the job!

Who? Me? Surely not!

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th October 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

18

Luke 18: 9-14

David Teall

When Pat and I were first married and living in Peterborough one of our favourite days out was to go to Cambridge.  We would maybe hire a punt for an hour, have a wander around the grounds of one or two of the Colleges that were open to the public and do a little window shopping.  We didn’t have the money to buy very much in those days but something that I did usually manage to find the money for was one or two post cards to add to my collection.  These were not picture postcards of the sites of Cambridge but a series of cards called Pot Shots, each one printed with some little gem of home-spun philosophy.  I’ve still got many of them and they still bring a smile to my face as I read through them.  I’ll read you one or two:

My stack of Pot Shots used to be much larger but over my years as a teacher I ended up giving many of them away to teenagers in my care whilst attempting to help them move successfully from the life of a child to the life of an adult.  I remember very clearly showing one such card to a teenage boy who was making himself unpopular by constantly bragging that he knew far more than anyone else in his class.  The card said:  “People who think they know everything are very annoying to those of us who do.”  Sadly the young man had not yet learnt about the finer points of satire for he looked me straight in the face and said very seriously: “Yes, they are very annoying aren’t they?”

Jesus understood the dangers of believing that we know it all, particularly with respect to our relationship with God.  Today’s gospel is a glorious example of him using his skill as a story-teller to shock his audience into thinking hard about this problem.

To help us understand the story, let us first consider the scene.  Jesus was talking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”.  We are not told who they were nor the context in which Jesus was speaking to them.  Were they Pharisees, members of that Jewish Sect that gets singled out in the story that follows?  Jesus was bold, but he was not foolish, so probably not.  Were they a group of his disciples who were getting a bit too full of their own importance?  That would seem more likely, but the truth is we don’t know.

Though we know little of the audience, we do know quite a bit about the two main characters in the story, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were very devout and believed in rigorous observance of the Law as laid down in scripture.  They are given a hard time in many of the gospel stories but this probably reflects the conflict between them and the emerging Church at the time the gospels were written (around 70AD) rather than the way in which they were perceived at the time of Jesus.  As readers of the Bible, we have picked up on that later prejudice but, to the audience that Jesus addressed, the Pharisee in our Gospel story would have been pictured as a devout Jew: the goody in the story, not the baddy. 

By contrast, the Tax Collector was undoubtedly the baddy.  Once again, as readers of the Bible, we have learnt that Jesus often favoured those who were marginalised so we have a tendency to cheat as we listen to the story and identify ourselves with the character we have learnt comes out on top in the end.  That would not have happened when Jesus first told the story.  Tax Collectors were genuinely hated.

They were hired by the Romans, the occupying force, to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor.  And, as if that were not bad enough, their usual practice was to add on a further percentage to keep for themselves as a result of which they became very wealthy.  They were regarded by the people as criminal and corrupt, the clear villains in any story.

So, with these thoughts in mind, let us now try to picture the scene painted by Jesus in the way that his listeners may well have pictured it.

The two men are in the Court of Israel, the Inner Court of the Temple.  The Pharisee is standing well forward in the middle of the courtyard where he can be seen with his arms held open speaking his prayer out loud.  It is a confident and pious prayer of thanksgiving beginning “God, I thank you” or, in the original Greek, eucharisteo – that word Karen told us about two weeks ago.  There is no petition and no confession but it is not a bad prayer.

The Tax Collector, by contrast, is sitting or kneeling somewhere near the edge of the courtyard out of public view and very probably facing the wall.   His prayer is one of penitence.

There can be no doubt that those who first heard this story would have identified with the Pharisee with an expectation that Jesus would reassure them that he, the Pharisee, would be the one who was justified.  But he didn’t.  As a master of the story-tellers’ art, Jesus turned their expectations upside down and shocked them as he declared that it was the Tax Collector who was justified.  Why did he do that?  To make them think.

Before I go on to look at this story in today’s context, an aside about the word ‘justify’ as it appears in today’s Gospel.  Many a book has been written about the meaning of this seemingly simple word but in this story it means the restoration of the relationship between an individual and God. 

So, with these thoughts in mind, let us imagine that Jesus was here amongst us in 21st century England telling this story today.  Who might he portray as the devout follower of the Law and who as the sinner?  You might like to talk about that after the service but, given that nationally only about 5% of the population regularly go to church, then he might well portray “A member of the congregation of the Parish Church” as the devout follower.  That’s you and me folks!  And what about the penitent sinner?  Who could that be?  I have no doubt the popular press could give him some suggestions; a Banker perhaps or a Benefit Cheat depending upon the colour of the Masthead; but as this version of the story is entirely in your imagination you can pick your own villain!  Just keep in mind the fact that in the story that follows, Jesus turns our expectations on their head and it is the penitent sinner that is justified and has his relationship with God restored.

However it is told, this parable is an invitation to us all:  an invitation to reflect upon our own claims to righteousness and the extent to which we recognise and repent of our own sinfulness.  It carries a clear message about the danger of becoming complacent and failing to recognise our own shortcomings.  Do we understand that message and accept the fact that it applies to us or, like the boy to whom I gave my Pot Shot card all those years ago, do we think the message is just for others?   Amen.

Words:  1,237

Advent Sunday

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

1st December 2013

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

24

What does this strange reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel [24:36-44] mean?  Do you ever think how strange it is that, every Sunday, we listen to extracts from ancient documents originally written in another language for peoples of other cultures?  What have they to do with life today?  Yet the Church, from its Jewish beginnings, has always used Holy Scripture in this way.  Today, Advent Sunday, we re-start our annual cycle of normal weekly readings, using St. Matthew’s account of the significance of Jesus’ life.  This morning, I want to stimulate us to take this Gospel more seriously.

We are familiar with Matthew’s wording, liturgically, for the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount, but liturgical lilt from long usage may insulate us from the intended impact of the words. 

After the Crucifixion scattered groups of people, in varying stressful circumstances, discussed how they should follow Jesus’ life and teaching.  He had left no written records, so separate Christian communities created permanent substitutes for the oral eye-witness accounts which were disappearing.  The Gospels, therefore, were not created as philosophical textbooks.  They were practical documents about someone who had confronted a harsh world, making sense of the ancient but complex insights of the OT.  One writer expressively calls it ‘The Way Opened Up by Jesus’ [Jose Pagola].  They help us to understand Jesus’ radical plan to realise a more humane world.

Perhaps the Church’s final selection of four Gospels which cannot entirely be factually reconciled with each other, was a typical church committee compromise; attempts to create a unified account did not succeed.  But we benefit by having four different assessments created for four sets of circumstances.  Matthew re-arranged Mark’s Gospel and other sources to deal with his community’s concerns.  We can similarly use this Gospel to evaluate our personal and communal challenges.

We know almost nothing about this Matthew.  The Gospel’s contents indicate it was written about 50 years after the Crucifixion, for a Jewish Law-abiding group calling themselves a ‘church’.  In the Roman Empire at this time, Jews, whether Christians or not, lived stressfully.  The Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, in exasperation at Jewish revolts, about ten years before the Gospel was written.  This was the kind of disaster, reflected in today’s Gospel reading, foreseen by Jesus as inevitable if Jewish resistance merely attempted to match Roman violence.  

In addition, Jewish Christian communities were formally expelled from Judaism by a rabbis’ council which had met not long before Matthew’s Gospel was written - hence Matthew’s alarming polemic against the Jewish religious leaders.

We celebrate Christmas and Epiphany by merging the first two chapters of Matthew’s and of Luke’s Gospels.  These chapters are irreconcilable as history; they are introductory parables, explaining the underlying meaning of the following narrative which, as in the other three Gospels, will begin with John the Baptist at the River Jordan.  Despite the breach with orthodox Jews, Matthew insists that Jesus came to fulfil the Jewish scriptures [5:17].  The Introduction emphasises that Jesus is Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God, God-with-us, as promised by the OT.  We may not be sufficiently familiar with the OT to understand the meaning of these titles as well as Matthew’s people would have done, but we can get the gist.  Trust Jesus’ way of life; he’s right, and he is kosher!

 Matthew emphasises Jesus’ challenging insistence on the two ‘Great Commandments’ to love God and neighbour, which encompass all the Law and the Prophets.  Religious inclusiveness, adequate energy for our efforts, and forgiving support for our failures are the Gospel’s necessary consequences of such high standards.  The Gospel ends with the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, all authority having been given to Jesus in the Kingdom of God in earth and in heaven.  

Matthew collects Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God into five great chunks, reflecting the five OT books attributed to Moses.  The teaching is expressed mainly in stories, not in rigidly detailed rules, about how to practice the two Great Commandments.  Because this is the right way to be truly human, such efforts psychologically reward us now and provide a basis of hope for the hereafter.  Death, for those who practise living in the spiritual realities of the one Kingdom of God, is not the terminus it otherwise seems.  As Charles Wesley so eloquently wrote:  

“Let saints terrestrial sound their praise with those to glory gone; for all the servants of our King on earth, in heaven, are one.” 

In all this, Matthew shows Jesus dealing with practical, not airy-fairy, ideas.  Jesus did not proclaim God’s Kingdom as some unrealisable ideal, but as a practical programme.  It was not an intellectual belief in doctrines and moral stances which ask almost nothing of us in terms of really changing our mind-set.  It involves a determinedly chosen lifestyle.  By taking two extracts from Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer, let’s look how Jesus confronted realities of economic, social and political abuses of power with nothing other than his human integrity and his unflinching acceptance of early death.

“Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our debts as we forgive …”  How lightly this sentence trips off our tongues.  In Matthew’s and Jesus’ Jewish background the Law, the fine print of the Old Testament, structured and systematised the equitable distribution of land, to provide a material basis of life for people.  The land, it says in Leviticus, “belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it.” [25:23].  So, the Law forbade interest, controlled collateral securities, reversed dispossessions, remitted stale debts and liberated slaves. 

“Your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. … For yours is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory for ever”  - more sentences over which we liturgically slide.   The violent power of the Roman Empire had arrived forcefully at Jerusalem in the generation before Jesus, and it spread to his native Galilee around the time of his birth.  The land laws would have seemed like bad jokes to the Roman conquerors, who regarded land as theirs to administer, for maximising profit for them and the local society leaders who benefited from compromise with them.  The kingdom, the power and the glory belonged to the Romans.  When Jesus openly promoted the spirit of Biblical land laws in the Kingdom of God, he inevitably attracted hostility from Roman officials and wealthy collaborators.  Pilate, given his imperial responsibilities, got it exactly right.  Jesus, in his early thirties, got a criminal’s violent death.

Times present have to be analysed and tackled differently from times past, but the contest between individual human dignity and crude selfishness, between the apparently powerless and the powerful, is not confined to a history lesson.  At the recent Church of England General Synod, Archbishop Sentamu of York, in what my newspaper called “an often angry address”, reflected on Christianity’s long commitment to fighting poverty.  He cited the terrible blight of food poverty in Britain, that last year in Leeds alone 27,000 people were diagnosed with malnutrition.  We know only too well the needs in other countries.  He called for a renewal of the spirit that hungered for “a more equitable, a more caring world”. [Guardian 20 November 2013].  Archbishop Welby’s recent politically skilful condemnation of unconscionable ‘pay-day loans’ is another example of the contemporary Church climbing out of its apparent irrelevance by following the Gospel lead.

Pope Francis this week published his first general message: “The Joy of the Gospel”.  It contains so much of a Christianity which has the courage to speak truth to power, within as well as outside the Church’s structures.  “How can it be” he asks “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points.   … today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”  Yet Jesus relied on the potential of everyone to be humane in the spirit of the two Great Commandments, and the Pope challenges Christians individually to live in daily fidelity to the Gospel. 

Matthew’s remarkable record shows a Jesus who challenged every one of us constantly to practise unselfish, non-violent humanity.  As we ponder the times in which we live, as we renew our Christian commitment this Advent-tide, we should pray again today’s Collect: “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility: that we may rise to the life immortal.”  Saint Matthew’s Gospel, especially if studied with all the aids the Church provides, equips us to do just that!   

Use your Loaf

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

22nd September 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

16

 “… the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light.”

Some time ago, so that people’s questions could inform sermons, a question box was put at the back of the nave.  A current question from the box is: “If God loved the world, why is he letting it get in such a mess?”.  It’s a perennial question, because ‘mess’ is a perennial problem.  Old Testament readings date from several hundred years before Jesus  and frequently God’s reputation is at stake because of the destruction and humiliation of what was supposed to be God’s special community.   

The news currently emphasises the horrific circumstances of individuals in today’s biblical lands.   As an example of a country not in the news, Zimbabwe, an estimated 2.2 million people – one in four of the rural population – are expected to need food assistance before next harvest.  I recently saw a Zimbabwean email: “Am still in great mourning over a stolen election.  …  When a country is ruled by leaders who highly crave money and don't care about people's welfare,  …  [w]hat more can people do when those in corridors of power are thieves.” 

What about our future?  The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, is pessimistic about the ability of politicians to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to safe levels, and legal experts are warning of the dangers of outer space being militarised [Guardian, 12 Sept].  Our questioner is right.  The world is in ‘a mess’. 

At the time of Jesus five empires had successively overcome the Jews, followed by the Romans –a small number of very wealthy people were becoming wealthier, and many ordinary people struggled to survive.  What was the Jewish God doing about it, as opposed to the apparently triumphant Roman gods?  People around Jesus wanted to know why, as our questioner puts it, God was letting the ‘mess’ happen.  Today’s epistle [1 Timothy 2: 5-6], written a few decades after Jesus, makes a great claim – that “the man, Christ Jesus” brings God and the whole of humankind together, because “God wants everyone to be saved.  That doesn’t offer exemption from ‘mess’, but a way of living which triumphs over ‘mess’. 

Our Coalition government uses a ‘behavioural insight team’ to ‘nudge’ people into seeing things differently, rather than relying on behavioural regulation.  This was very much the way Jesus focussed his teaching, following examples in the OT which subtly challenged literal-minded religious exclusiveness based on other OT texts.

For example, the ‘Mills and Boon’ style novel of ‘Ruth’ persuasively emphasises that King David was partly descended from a Moabite woman, though Deuteronomy specifically excluded Moabites from God’s people [23:3].  The ‘Private Eye’ style of ‘Jonah’ ridicules an imagined narrow-minded prophet who refuses to help hated foreigners reform their lives.  The ‘Radio 3 drama’ style of ‘Job’ is about an imagined foreigner whom God describes as the most faithful and good person on earth [ch1:v8].  The drama rejects Israel’s exclusive monopoly on God, and biblical claims [eg Deuteronomy [28] that individual prosperity or suffering are divine rewards or punishments.  These stories are persuasive nudges to get beyond the superficiality of rules.

Jesus’ parables are like these written stories.  However, it is inconceivable that the people who flocked around him would have been satisfied with a story taking only the four minutes needed to read today’s parable [Luke 16: 1 – 13].  As an oral teacher Jesus wanted to make people think, and would have elaborated the story to provoke, and respond to, probing questions and discussion about social, religious and economic traditions. 

Towards what insights is Jesus nudging us in today’s pantomime of a parable?  The original audience would have been only too well aware of a widely practised circumvention of the OT ban on usury [Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 15 and elsewhere].   Just like current circumventions of tax laws, widely-attested commercial practice used legal fiction.  The manager had authority to sell goods on credit.  The written contract falsely increased the stated quantity of goods purchased, so the artificially increased contract price included interest without saying so.  The manager cancels these fictitious additions to encourage support for himself when he became unemployed.  Perhaps Jesus exaggerated the interest rates for effect, but remember those of Wonga!  The master and the manager are equally unscrupulous.  So what is Jesus nudging us to understand?   

Was the steward justified in altering the false contracts, the debtors ending up much as they should have done if the Law forbidding usury had been observed?  Was the authorities’ toleration of such a system acceptable?  Was the Law, which was expressly designed to prevent advantage being taken of the poor, workable in practice?  All these worldly-wise subjects are likely to have been discussed.  But Jesus’ focus was the shrewdness of master and manager in achieving monetary advantages.  Why didn’t his followers exercise shrewdness, using their assets to deal with the ‘mess’ around them?  

Jesus was nudging his hearers towards a change of individual mind-set which took seriously that everyone has a role in making real what Jesus called ‘God’s Kingdom’, where every human being is treated supportively.  God’s style of ‘government’, as both Old and New Testaments show, is not monarchic, but a collaborative covenant with faithful people.  With sufficient determination even the biggest ‘messes’ of human need can be cleaned up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian.  Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his part in the bomb plot against Hitler.  Although the plotters failed, their example energised many who had lost hope of overcoming the terrible power of the Nazi state.  Bonhoeffer wrote from prison: “… in Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the world – not the one without the other.”  [Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, [ed. Johnson and Larsen, Apollos, 2013].    

A recent book sponsored by The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and written by a leading City solicitor who is  Chair of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group, is about re-shaping our financial system,  an example of a big ‘mess’ in the news again this week.  He writes: “Many are calling for a rediscovery of the fact that moral principles, linked to a clear sense of public duty, is the friend not the enemy of business in the long-term.  Without morality there is no trust, and without trust there is no business.”  [Featherby, Of Markets and Men, Tomorrow’s Company, 2013].     

Malala Yousafzai was an obscure Pakistani 16 year-old girl, until she was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, another ‘mess’ needing challenge in many countries.  An artist who recently painted her portrait said “Given how much she has already been through and all that she represents to the world, it took a while to adjust to the fact that she is still a very fragile teenager.”  [Guardian 11 Sept 2013 p 4]. 

Individual resistance to vicious dictatorship, facing up to the power of global finance, asserting women’s dignity against trigger-happy traditionalists – these are examples to follow.

As individuals, what ‘messes’ of human need are our hearts open to?  Are we using our assets – our skills, personalities, possessions – to clean them up as shrewdly as those with self-centred vision whom Jesus called “the children of this world”?  If ’mess’ is always present, what can be more properly human than sorting it out? Jesus’ life and teaching show that in doing so we find real significance for our own lives. 

As a church, can we make more use of our communal assets?  Our assets are not just the buildings and funds, but also the weekly Gospel readings in which Jesus’ life and teaching challenge us, and the communion which we celebrate together because the Cross represents sacrificial victory over ‘mess’.  Can we develop our capacity for prayer, so that we focus on real priorities?  Pope John Paul II explained: “Prayer calls us to examine our consciences on all the issues that affect humanity.  It calls us to ponder our personal and collective responsibility before the judgement of God and in the light of human solidarity.  Hence prayer is able to transform the world.  …  New goals and new ideas emerge.”   

God’s answer to the world’s ‘mess’ is ordinary individuals like us nudged into new mindsets, finding their own worries dealt with in God’s kingdom which they enter as they shrewdly clean up.   

Must it be that “… the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light”?  

The Good Samaritan

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

14th July 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

10

David Teall

When I type out my sermons I am usually sitting at my workstation on the landing at home but, on this occasion, I was sitting on our Narrowboat Second Chance whilst moored just above Earls Barton lock on the River Nene on a very wet day last month.  We were coming to the end of a very enjoyable six-week cruise which had taken us on eight rivers in six counties.  We began on the Grand Union Canal near Market Harborough in Leicestershire and headed north-west through Leicester and onto the River Soar.  Once on the river, the number of fishermen increased presumably reflecting the improvement in the quality of water as we left the canal behind us.  We always give a cheery wave to fishermen when we pass.  Most respond with a wave back but a few diligently study the grass around them and refuse to catch our eye.

North of Leicester the Soar runs into the Trent where we turned north-east to take us through Nottingham and Newark and, leaving the Trent at Torksey, along the Fossdyke Navigation to Lincoln.  Part of the Fossdyke follows the course of an original canal built by the Romans and is consequently very straight like their roads.  Just beyond Lincoln we turned south-east towards Boston on the River Witham taking us deep into the Fens where it is said that the locals all have webbed feet!  From Boston we crossed the Wash in a convoy of five Narrowboats with a professional Pilot entering the River Nene at Wisbech.  We very much enjoyed our brief trip out to sea which brought back pleasant memories of the seven years we spent as liveaboard yachties when we first retired.

From Wisbech we made a side trip to Ely on the Great Ouse and then completed our trip up the Nene to Northampton from where a flight of 17 locks returned us to the Grand Union Canal at Gayton, just a few days from our home base.

Before setting off on our cruise I printed off the readings for today and took with me a few of my favourite commentaries.  When I first realised that the Gospel reading was the Good Samaritan I breathed a sigh of relief thinking to myself – well at least I know what it is about.  It is arguably the best known parable in the Bible and through it the word ‘Samaritan’ has come into everyday use,  The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is often used to describe someone who has been particularly helpful and the name ‘Samaritans’ has been adopted by the world-wide charity dedicated to helping people in the depths of despair.

What a contrast to the reason Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of his story.  At the time he told it there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years.  There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17.  From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands.  Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in.  Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.

Needless to say, this did not make them popular with the Jews, a situation made even worse by an incident when Jesus was a young child when some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration.  By making a Samaritan the hero Jesus increased the challenge of his story to the maximum.

So what is the challenge of this, the best known of all the parables?  There are several.  First and foremost it is a restatement of the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, a difficult enough challenge at the best of times, but it is much more than just that.  Through this story Jesus confronts two of the most common excuses we use not to offer help even when we can see that it clearly needed.

The first of these is to find some very good, compelling reason why we can’t help on this particular occasion:  we would love to, of course, but it just isn’t possible.  The Priest and the Levite were both Temple workers governed by strict rules of cleanliness.  The man who had been beaten up might be dead, and to touch a dead body would make them unclean demanding a long ritual to cleanse themselves again.  Their slavish adherence to complex laws led them to disobey God’s fundamental law of love.

Many of the excuses we use today for not helping a neighbour come into this category.  We would love to help, but we are just too busy;   it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to get involved, whatever that might mean;   things like this are better left to the authorities;   it would be against Health and Safety rules or our Insurance Policy.  Occasionally such reasons might be valid in a specific case, but more often than not they are just excuses.

The second excuse strikes at the heart of the central problem that has caused most of the wars in our history: our basic instinct of tribalism.  The Samaritans were a detested tribe who, in the eyes of the Jews of the time, could do no good.  Like all such tribal typecasting, the reality that there is good and bad in us all had been replaced by the self-supporting lie that the Jews were all good and the Samaritans were all bad.  By making the hero of the story a Samaritan, Jesus confronted this prejudice head on.

So, have we learnt to control this basic tribal instinct in the 2000 years since Jesus told this story?  Hardly.  The instinct to categorise people into tribal groups is as strong as ever – we do it all the time.  Fishermen who will not wave to boaters, the stereotype of Romans building everything straight, the folk-story of Fenlanders having webbed feet and terms such as ‘liveaboard yachties’ all involve categorising people into groups and associating a fixed set of attributes with each group.

The examples from our recent cruise may be relatively trivial, but others are not.  In the Holy Land, Jews still prefer to travel from Galilee to Jerusalem via the Jordan Valley but now it is to avoid the Palestinians rather than the Samaritans.  Extremist Muslims and Christians each denounce the other as enemies of God.  Sensation-seeking newspapers run stories about ‘Immigrants’ or ‘Eastern Europeans’ condemning whole groups with a single stroke of the pen.  The need to confront such tribalism remains as strong today as when Jesus confronted the lawyer who was trying to entrap him.  There are 7 billion of God’s children living on the earth today and they are all our neighbours.  Let us pray for God’s help to treat them as such.

Words: 1,206

Jesus' Subversive Sanity

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

2 June 2013 - 1st after Trinity

Book: 

Galatians

Chapter: 

1

Galatians 1:11, 12: “… the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; … I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

What is the Jesus-based gospel which is good news for today? 

Last week we were going through Luton Airport security and I heard a boy, who looked about 8, indignantly ask:

“Dad.  Why don’t all these people just take only the right things on board, then we wouldn’t have to queue?” 

I often ask a similar question when noting the latest news of human posturing, greed, and violence.  As well as the consequences of our own or other people’s behaviour, our mortal life’s chances can also be very hard.  We are then tempted to retreat into unreal, self-centred worlds which reduce our potential to make things better.  Instead of weak resignation to evil and the usual blame game involving bankers, politicians, foreigners and the like, we Christians should be following the “gospel” – the Good News – about the Jesus Way of living.  Jesus challenged human insanity from a position of social weakness, enlivening those who trusted him.  The target of Jesus’ ministry was the potential of ordinary people like you and me to enjoy being sanely human.   

Archbishop Tutu has asked: “When was the last time you thought going to church was dangerous?  Once,” he states, “we challenged the status quo; now we mostly defend it”, and he calls on us to “recover our subversive roots”.  An American Church History teacher [Phyllis Tickle] has written that, about every 500 years, Christians have a major jumble sale – checking stuff over, asking where it came from, and whether it’s still worth anything.  That is happening now.  Christians are having to ask why the once successful religious marketplace for doctrines and denominations seems both depressed and depressing.  We are being forced to go to first principles and ask: What is today’s subversive ‘good’ news we have “received through a revelation of Jesus Christ”?

How does it come about that an insignificant teacher of 2,000 years ago, having been silenced leaving no written instructions, remains the permanent inspiration for good news?  Jesus and the first disciples were Jews and, in contrast to the cultural practices of the nations around them, Jews had long recognised that the concept of local or multiple ‘gods’ was silly, and so were attempts to circumscribe the mysterious infinity in which we live.  As individuals in a community, Jewish understanding of reality was expressed in ‘Law’ - detailed, practical rules rooted in permanent values derived from experience.  

This complexity left ordinary people adrift so Jesus’ teaching, instead, expressed the Law’s demanding values, leaving people to work out the practical consequences.  Today’s reading from St. Paul, one of the earliest New Testament documents, shows clearly that the first Christians argued vigorously amongst themselves, as well as with other people, about the significance for them of what they remembered, or had learnt, about Jesus.  Every New Testament document was written with an eye to the needs of its particular recipients, struggling to live in the Jesus Way.  It is these arguments and discussions that give us our knowledge of Jesus’ ministry. 

The standard Gospel author in this year’s church lessons, St. Luke, wrote in continuation of his account of Jesus’ ministry ‘the Acts of the Apostles’: how that ministry had been taken up and continued after Jesus had been killed off.  The New Testament documents are imprecise as instructions.  Jesus’ strategy relied on people learning to see life differently – “the born-again”; “the mind that was in Christ”; the “warmed heart”.  How very vague!  

But it worked.  Justin Martyr, about 100 years after Jesus, wrote:

 “We, who formerly … valued above all things the acquisition of wealth …, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.”  [I Apol. 14]

He was beheaded because of his subversive faith.

We too have to work things out for our context as we face what Shakespeare’s Hamlet so eloquently described as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune … the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.  We also have to negotiate the reductionist arguments of the ‘new atheists’, and Church-based distractions of finicky intellectualism, fundamentalist false certainties, and uselessly vague liberalism.  Living the values of Jesus in the company of fellow-practitioners, using Scripture, tradition, rationality and prayer to link to eternal values, is the continuing process by which each Christian generation re-creates the gospel. 

Using values to make decisions is emphasised in a book first written in 1965, now being re-published because of its enduring significance for secular decisions-makers.  Called “The Art of Judgment”, its author, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, went to Oundle School, and was an active Christian.  In the First World War he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and was Deputy Director-General of Economic Warfare in the Second.  He had a distinguished commercial, legal and public career, and developed ideas about individual responsibility in amoral organisations to promote human co-operation and culture. 

He directly quoted the New Testament [Mark 7; Matt. 15] in his book’s introduction [11]:

“Even the dogs may eat of the crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table; and in these days, when the rich in knowledge eat such specialized food at such separate tables, only the dogs have a chance of a balanced diet.” 

He accepted that we have to make ‘judgments’ despite insufficient information, and his underlying message is that humans are more than robots only as they honour values, e.g. responsiveness towards others.  How his voice is needed now!   We cannot, by abstract reasoning, reach some ‘knock down’ proof that faith in the Jesus Way must be right.  Such ‘Faith’ is our value judgment, providing consequent value judgments.  Dare we make that basic value judgment?     

At the beginning of his ministry some of his fellow-townspeople said that Jesus was out of his mind [Mark 3:20-35].  They nearly killed him [Luke 4:29], and in the end the Jerusalem authorities mockingly succeeded.  We have a choice between the apparently insane Jesus and the apparently safe sanity of keeping our heads down.  At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the efficiency of the Holocaust, a psychiatrist pronounced him perfectly sane!  As Thomas Merton, a subversive Trappist monk, puts it:  

“We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his right mind.  The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless.”

We, in this church community, are ordinary people who – whatever our age or circumstances – are challenged by Jesus’ values to respect the unique potential of each person we deal with, thus realising our own potential. 

I was recently talking to an impecunious student.  Moved at the plight of those whom Christian Aid were helping, she wondered how she could contribute.  With trepidation, she accepted a sponsored challenge to live on less than £1 per day for a week.  She used her Facebook to generate interest and support, and raised almost £400, as well as publicising Christian Aid’s work to her friends.  Just as importantly, she gained confirmation that the Jesus values worked for her.  

Last Sunday we attended a grand-daughter’s Confirmation Service, and the teenagers involved had chosen the theme ‘Be Yourself’.  They staged a sketch in which a boasting youth, symbolically wearing a mask, attempted to join the group.  ‘Who are you?’ they asked.  He left them, but re-entered wearing an additional mask, and the same question, the leaving and the masked re-entry were repeated several times – until his head was covered in masks, but still the others did not know who he was, really.  The youngsters then invited the congregation to join them in the ancient wisdom of Psalm 139:

“Lord, you have examined me and you know me.  …  Find out if there is any evil in me, and guide me in the everlasting way.”  

The masks became redundant.    

How we need the values of Jesus’ subversive sanity to realise our human potential!  In this church community, are we bold enough to ‘take up the Cross’ in a determined, business-like, co-operative way?  How can we explore and develop together our version of the Jesus Way for now?   

 

 

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