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Difficult Questions

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th October 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

22

Matthew 22: 34-46

David Teall

Much of the news in September and October each year is dominated by the Party Conference Season.  One by one the Party Leaders appear on our screens making promises of what they will do to make this country a better place, and one by one the political commentators and the leaders of the other parties do their best to trip them up with difficult questions. 

Challenging others by asking difficult questions is a recurring theme in chapters 21 to 22 of Matthew’s gospel which we have been listening to over the last four weeks.  Following the description of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 21, the gospel records several difficult questions, some addressed to Jesus and some by Jesus to others.

In Chapter 21 verse 23 the chief priests and elders asked Jesus: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  Jesus dealt with this by a ploy that any politician today would be proud of:  he asked them a question about an unrelated subject that they simply could not answer.

Following this neat deflection Jesus posed a number of difficult questions through his favoured device of telling stories to which his listeners could relate in the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet.  He also fended off a question on tax with that memorable line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  When reading these verses I can’t help but wonder how Jeremy Paxman would have coped with Jesus if time had not separated them by 2000 years!

The opening line of today’s Gospel reading refers to the one difficult question in chapter 22 that is not included in the table of Lectionary readings, a complex question about resurrection posed by the Sadducees to Jesus.  The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Judaism who traced their origins back to the family of Zadok, David’s High Priest.  Tom Wright describes them as the ‘let’s keep things as they are party’ who felt threatened by the Pharisees, an unofficial but powerful pressure group of Jewish legal experts who were intent on imposing their very precise interpretation of ‘The Law’ on the whole of Israel.

It is against this background that a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus with the question:  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

So, how difficult a question is that?  How many commandments were there in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus to choose from?  Any offers?

It makes a good Quiz question this as it all depends upon how we define the word ‘commandment.’  If we consider any time that God speaks and says either ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ to be a commandment then there really are quite a lot.  Even with this broad definition there are still plenty of debates to be had about what is a commandment and what is not so there is no absolute answer to the question.  However, many Jews consider the answer to be 613 of which 248 are positive (thou shalt) and 365 are negative (thou shalt not).

What we know as the Ten Commandments actually account for 14 of the 613 commandments.  The total comes to 14 rather than 10 because the statement about not worshipping idols includes 4 separate commandments: not to worship other gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them and not to serve them.  Similarly, the statement about the Sabbath includes 2 separate commandments: one to keep the Sabbath holy and the other not to work on it.

So, after that little diversion, back to the Gospel reading:  how did Jesus answer the question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  This time there was no side-stepping: he gave the perfect Jewish answer that not even the Pharisees could question:

‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We hear these words expressed as a Summary of the Law every week as we prepare to make our confession.  We tend to think of them as the words of Jesus but they are not, for he was quoting from the Hebrew Bible.  The first, or Great Commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second, sometimes called the Golden Rule, from Leviticus 19: 18.  Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of these two commandments put into practice.

The importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity.  We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and (in Mark) with all our strength.  When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past.  To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives.  In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few.  Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few if any of us here could exist without money or personal possessions at all.  It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the Great Commandment.

One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children.  Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred.  Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant.  By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls.  We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.

Whereas the importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity, the importance of the Golden Rule is in its inclusivity.  When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves, that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence.  We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.

The word ‘love’ in both the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule is translated from the Greek word agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that God has for us.  It is with this same love that we are commanded to love both God and our neighbours.  Furthermore, as if the command to love our neighbours with this type of love were not demanding enough, the Golden Rule goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as yourself.’

This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours.  Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share.  Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.

So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise?  Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other?  The answer is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere and celebrate today / next week.  We can also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people such as Alan Henning, who would describe themselves as very ordinary, often do quite extraordinary things.  From their actions we know that such love is possible, but what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?

One possible answer can be found in the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians from which we heard this morning:

We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.  Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

“To be as gentle to others as a nurse caring for her own children.”  Can we do that for all our neighbours ... ... ...
or is that too difficult a question?

Amen.

Words: 1,532

15th Sunday After Trinity Year A

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

28th September 2014

Book: 

Philippians

Chapter: 

2

As we pause to take on board the complexities of the big underlying issues of Parliament`s decision on Friday for our country to join the air strikes on ISIL in Iraq, we should think about the wider impact of this action and beyond the argument that this is taking place to make life safer on our own streets because that consideration starts with concerns mainly about personal interest and the need to just make only our own lives as secure as possible.

By contrast, in a tribute to the film director Richard Attenborough the play write Trevor Griffiths said of Attenborough, whose films included Gandhi and Cry Freedom, “For him it was about doing what was right and what was needed and this was never initially to do with you, it was always first about the other. The creation, another person, another country or an abstract concept like slavery or racism. You have to do what is necessary and the right thing, and part of that for Attenborough as a storyteller is to tell the truth.”

Jesus was a great storyteller and while 5 of his stories, the Good Samaritan, the Sower and the Seed, the Lost trilogy, the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Sheep and the Goats might be the A List, this autumn our Sunday readings remind us of many others of these unique, challenging stories which seek to tell the truth about the world as it is and about how it could be for the better.

In addition to the stories we also have collections of wisdom sayings that help us in this journey towards truth.

One comes in the passage from Ezekiel and this has not stood the test of time. The prophet critiques the phrase “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children`s teeth are set on edge” which has the message that children can only be what their parents aspire to or wish for. The prophet says of this No No No, life is about learning to take personal and individual responsibility and that the learning of the greater good is the key, so people are not left to dwell on life with a sense of malaise and hopelessness, that we can do nothing to make a real difference. Jesus would say this of the teachers of the law in his day, that they hid behind a continual critique of everyone who tried to do the right thing and just left the people with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Next week`s Gospel includes a wisdom verse from Psalm 118 which Jesus knew and helped him to teach his followers about how his death would not be the end of their journey towards finding the truth instead only the beginning. Before that we have these provocative parables that begin with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where on seeing a fig tree with no fruit he compares this to the fear inducing, disempowering teaching of the religious leaders. And in our passage today these leaders start on Jesus seeking to undermine where his vision and hope come from. The exchange has a hint of comedy as he returns their question and they are left to say “We don`t know”.

So he tells some stories, some parables.

In the first one two sons, representing all humanity, are asked to sort out the needs of the world. The first, perhaps overwhelmed by the task, says no but goes away, thinks about it and comes up with some plans. The second, perhaps thinking he should do something or like the world leaders this week at their climate change conference expected to do something, says yes and then does nothing about it all. In Jesus time some members of society took the blame for people`s fears and isolation, today rather than tax collectors and prostitutes it might be migrant workers and displaced people. Understanding and recognising the human need of every person was behind the way Jesus sought to show the inclusivity of God`s love and he targets the religious leaders of his day for their lack of humanity and compassion.

And he continues with a second story, even more provocative towards these religious leaders. In it he directly challenges their motives and challenges their negligence and hypocrisy. (“Good as New” translation). And the wisdom verse from the Psalm 118 which resonated so much with the early followers, quoted in Acts and the letter of Peter.

The speaking up and acting for the forgotten, those stigmatised by attitudes of a particular time and those marginalised through poverty, this became the cornerstone for a way of compassion at the heart of Christian discipleship. In recent times Mother Teresa advocating and acting on behalf of the poor, Desmond Tutu on behalf of those prejudiced against through racism and apartheid and now in his 80s he is speaking up for those most affected by climate change. And that cornerstone concept we find visible in the leadership of Gandhi, thinking of his inspirational life and his challenge to each individual to themselves be the change they would want to see in the world.

A website worth a visit is “The Charter for Compassion” built around these words of Gandhi and around the common golden rule of all major faiths to do unto others as you would want them to do to you and so treat others with the concern and kindness you would like them to show towards you.

In the great poem, the hymn of Philippians, it is said of Jesus; “...he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus understood fully what his own journey was about and where it would lead and this is shown in the way his radical message of hope found in his stories provoked those who had the power to take his life.

His followers later understood this too and in their lives were able to show God being at work in them. From the stories Jesus told they understood that it was a radically different way of life that would be needed and Paul gives a voice to this that was true for them and remains at the heart of how as followers today we should be. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, be of the same mind, have the same love, in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interest of others. Letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Great Faith

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

17th August 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

15

     Abominable violence and desperate misery dominate the world news, and personal disasters attack our self-confidence.  In these circumstances, can the Church’s faith in God’s eternal care revive us from helplessness? 

     A little girl wrote to God, asking “How did you get invented?”  Archbishop Rowan Williams replied: “… I think God might reply a bit like this:- 

‘Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised.  They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was very beautiful, or really mysterious, and wondered where it came from.  They discovered me when they were very, very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.  Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible…’   

And, [he continued], [God] invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions.  …  I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf.”  Quiet thoughtfulness, asking awkward questions, and reading what people wrote when doing their best to communicate experiences of God’s goodness, are a sound way of grounding our lives in reality.

     When political and economic forces were tearing Jewish society apart, Jesus, an intelligent, questioning nobody, but rooted in the OT’s writings, questioned and then explained in simple terms the Law and the Prophets’ descriptions of how God’s community should live.  Jesus’ teaching challenged individuals to question the stupidity of evil, and therefore change from perverse self-centredness to generous support for others.  In so doing, he declared, they would find strength in the eternal realities underlying Jewish faith, and encourage others.   

   Why then did Jesus at first refuse to help the foreign woman in today’s Gospel story [Matth. 15: 21-28]?  A recent BBC programme about Indian railways showed an imitation British town created by the Raj in the beautiful, cool Nilgiri Hills as one of their holiday retreats.  There was even a “Please Keep Off the Grass” sign!  Prioritising our homeland can provide a limited means of escape from the world’s reality, but that was not why Jesus was reluctant to help the foreigner.  Matthew has already described Jesus rejecting such prejudice when Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant [8: 5-13].   

   Matthew copied today’s Gospel story from St. Mark’s Gospel, so he regarded it as important in his account of how Jesus - an individual completely devoid of social status or organisational power – became recognised as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets for Jews and Gentiles alike.  Let’s look at the story’s context.  

   Like a competent insurgent general, Jesus had to create a strategy for training trusted helpers, and for persuading people against their selfish instincts and habits.  Jesus had to be realistic about what was possible; concentrating on his fellow-Jews was not only common-sense, but followed OT teaching that Jews were to be an example for others.  

   God’s concern for all people was clearly asserted in the Genesis declaration [1: 27] that “God created humankind in his image”.  Today’s readings from Isaiah [56: 1. 6-8] and Psalm 67, together with other psalms [eg 46, 48, 76, 87] and prophetic teachings [eg Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1- 2], also emphasise the importance of Jewish example.  Jesus was, at this stage in his task, still concentrating on persuading, as today’s reading puts it, “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”.   

   Matthew organised his Gospel to show how Jesus had to think through and develop his strategy in stages, each stage followed by a collection of Jesus’ relevant teachings.  The Gospel is not an incoherent lucky-dip!  Our Easter and Pentecost have interrupted Matthew’s time sequence, but we have already covered in this year’s Sunday readings how Jesus began in his home territory, Galilee, and then Matthew collects basic teachings like ‘the Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus, in the next stage, authoritatively deals with individuals’ needs, and teaches his helpers how to do the same.

   We are now in the middle of Matthew’s next stage - the growth of powerful opposition, and Matthew often emphases that Jesus strategically withdrew whenever his activities might attract the authorities’ attention [eg 4:12; 12:15; 14:13].  In this stage, Jesus’ parables will follow about how, despite rejection, God’s kingdom grows.  Jesus is developing helpers strong enough to stand the heat.  

   Last week’s parabolic story of Peter trying and failing to walk on water in a storm [[14: 22-33] illustrates this.  Jesus told Peter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”.  Shortly after today’s story Peter, at ‘The Transfiguration’, will recognise Jesus as fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.  Then Jesus will feel able to end the ‘cat and mouse’ game with the authorities, and openly challenge them in their Jerusalem strongholds.  In Matthew’s triumphant Gospel ending, a community of faithful followers, available to make disciples of all nations, has been created.   

   Now, back to today’s reading in the context of Jesus’ strategy.  The paranoid Galilean king has just executed John the Baptist.  Jesus, still avoiding confrontation, has retreated to a non-Jewish region outside Galilee, where he hopes to be unrecognised.  A local woman noisily addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, recognising what his disciples still haven’t accepted about him, and they are embarrassed. 

   Jesus welcomes the woman’s “great faith”.  According to Matthew, Jesus had said of the Roman centurion: “I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this”.  Contrast Peter’s “little faith” in last week’s episode.  These are early examples of the strategy’s potential.  The strategy has worked, but in today’s challenging world, individual Christians still need great faith to question what is happening, thinking out a strategy for applying the radical Gospel taught by Jesus, and rejecting the odds-and-ends of institutional clutter that clog the Church’s effectiveness. 

   A couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis visited a Pentecostalist church, and asked forgiveness for previous Roman denunciations of Pentecostalists.  He told them the same Holy Spirit creating unity in the Church was also the source of a “very rich and beautiful diversity within it.  Some”, he said, “will be surprised: ‘The Pope went to visit the Evangelicals?’  But,” said the Pope, “he went to see his brothers.”   

   Every year about 10M adults in England are using services provided by church people.  This is more than half of those using voluntary food banks, lunch clubs, night shelters, relationship courses, financial advice, credit unions, access to the internet, etc.  For example, St. Albans Churches’ social action committee has a telephone help-line open every day and over 200 volunteers helping those who have no one else. 

   The author who researched this said “… it’s not just what churches do, but how churches think and operate, that helps them give something distinctive to their communities.  They do offer material and practical support, but they also offer relationships and social connection, in a word, neighbourliness”.  Such special emphasis on the whole person flows directly from Jesus’ teaching and example.

   Like the woman in today’s story, there are many not denominationally Christian, whose “great faith” stands comparison with Jesus’ approval of hers.  In Galilee today, despite current fighting in Gaza, two Palestinian brothers [Nabeel and Saleem Aboud-Ashkar], well-respected international musicians, coach talented Palestinian and Israeli youngsters at the Nazareth Conservatory, which they founded in 2006.  They, in turn, owe much to an Orchestra previously established by another Palestinian and another Israeli [Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim].

   One brother asserts “how little Arab and Jewish people know about each other,  … The first time I stood in front of Jewish kids, coaching a quartet, it was one of the most unusual moments of my life.  There’s so much separation between the communities here, so little interaction, and so many stereotypes and misconceptions …  Yet after an hour or two, it felt like any other rehearsal.” 

   An Israeli musician [Dan Sagiv] trains 70 Hebrew and Arabic school-teachers to use the same music curriculum.  “I believe,” he says, “with my skills I can change how society looks.  There’s a lot of people doing political discussion, and not enough doing structural work from the bottom.”  These pioneers have questioned apparently overwhelming evil, and then built on their own individual skills to overcome it.

   As we celebrate ‘Communion’ we are not taking part in some arcane cultural rite, but committing ourselves in great faith that God can, by our living in the Jesus way, change ourselves and society.  Quiet thoughtfulness, studying those who did their best to communicate their experiences of God’s goodness, and asking the awkward questions that result, remain the best ways of grounding our lives in eternal realities.  

   Remember the old African proverb: “If you think you’re too small to be significant, you’ve never spent a night in a tent with a mosquito”!

Wisdom

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

6th July 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

11

It is clear that more complex robots will increasingly undertake many activities we humans do.  In a recent experiment, people conversing unknowingly with a computer believed it was human, its responses were so intelligent.  An electronic scientist friend was telling us recently about a robotic drone, programmed to kill an individual identified by its owner as an enemy without further human intervention.  Our friend was so horrified that he had formed an international scientific group to expose and combat this development.  He thought the science was inadequate to cope with the morality involved.   

Being human isn’t just, or even primarily, about being clever.  Inhumane behaviour is often very clever, like the Nazi systems for exterminating Jews.  Wisdom is not limited to measurable facts; the broader and deeper our appreciation of other people, the healthier and more effective our lives will be.

To help us widen our perspective, so that we can overcome our reluctance to do what we know to be right, Paul, in today’s passage from Romans, encourages people to follow Jesus, whose grip on life had been so clear that he had faced out a brutal death.  Jesus focussed his understanding of absolute and universal goodness in the “Father” whose love continually permeates all creation.  In today’s Gospel Jesus, in prayer, refers to his “Father” five times [vv25-30].       

If we believe that Jesus was right in this assessment of reality and we take seriously the Church’s function as his continuing agency, a recent survey of British church attendance makes challenging reading.  It shows a continuing downward slide, slowed only by immigrant Christians and adventurous innovations such as pub and café-churches.  The forecast is dire – down to 8%of the over-15 population by 2025.  If this decline were just a matter of cultural religiosity – the maintenance of habitual rituals, the retention of ancient buildings – it would be regrettable, but not life suppressing.  Because the decline denies Jesus’ realistic insights, it leaves people open to attractive vanities.   

And people are surprisingly ready to worship false gods.  When consumerism fails, spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo often takes its place.  It may be an extreme example, but a woman was recently imprisoned after telling anxious people their problems would be resolved when their money had been used as a spiritual ‘sacrifice’ at a sacred tree in the Amazonian rainforest.  Should the PCC here be worried about organising yesterday’s Gift Day, or do we find the Way promoted by this Jesus agency in this building is not a fraud?

Jesus lived in a small Middle-Eastern country battered for centuries by violent conquests.  The latest conquering foreigners, the Romans, had stayed on, confident that, in the real world, violent imperial authority was their divine destiny.  Their presence provoked some violent opposition, commercial compromises and delusions of national integrity preserved by hollow religiosity.  The recent murders of four Jewish and Palestinian schoolboys is raising similar tensions there to those encountered by Jesus.  Jesus promoted emotional maturity where the unity of humanity in the Father contradicts violence, greed and nominal legal righteousness as means of salvation.    

John the Baptist and Jesus came from another culture which understood reality in terms of the Old Testament’s Wisdom.  When John was having doubts whether Jesus was leading people to this tough understanding of reality, Jesus pointed to the people he had helped, and commented that Wisdom was recognised by her deeds.  When he invited the weary and heavy-laden to “find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy …” [Matthew 11, 29-30], this was not sentimental claptrap at a revivalist meeting, but a challenge to conscious involvement in the universal Father’s goodness which would result in emotional security.

But Jesus’ public appeal had very limited success.  Today’s lesson sheet omits verses where Jesus admonished communities which had not responded to his challenge.  The underlying problem was that people had a very different understanding of reality, promoted by apparently wise, intelligent and successful people. Today’s equivalents are not difficult to spot.  In addition to ‘kick-arse diplomacy’ and consumerist exploitation, excessive wealth and hollow ‘celebrity’, with their individual counterparts, there is an all-pervasive, pseudo-intellectual philosophy based on reductionist ‘science’ which treats people as robots. 

If you walk along Stamford High Street and meet the Big Issue seller, on what robotic, objective intellectual basis do you decide whether or not to buy, and why does St. Paul advise that “God loves to see people give with a smile? [2 Cor. 9,7].  The generous, self-sacrificing Jesus Way, by complete contrast, is very clear.  The Good Samaritan, when he saw the injured traveller, was filled with compassion, not by a clever analysis of the situation.  Indeed, the original Greek says the sight of the injured man knocked his guts sideways!

From now on, our Sunday readings from Matthew’s Gospel will be about Jesus serving people’s personal need, exposing the vanity of reliance on wealth, social status or physical power.  And when people still didn’t understand him, often including the disciples, he determinedly continued the challenge even to his brutal death.  His awareness of the reality of the Father’s love overcame his opponents’ temporary power base.   

Perhaps we are reluctant to meet Jesus’ challenge, or to maintain the discipline involved.  Jesus can seem an impractical idealist, even when we glimpse the truth of his stance.  I read recently about an extrovert entertainer [Merrill Beth Nisker aka Peaches Canadian] from a conservative Jewish-Canadian family.  She was described in the newspaper as a gender-bending electroclash artist famed for her hyper-sexualised lyrics.  [don’t ask – I don’t know either!] 

She describes herself as a born-again Christian, and performs her own solo-version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.  “I don’t see it” she said “as a religious piece; I see it as a person with a good idea trying to make good with humanity, who gets misinterpreted and crucified.  I’m not into any organised religion, but I am into people being who they really are.  And Jesus was a guy who had a really good idea.  I mean he was a bit crazy, and he went too far… but it’s really interesting, his story.” [Guardian 14:05:14].   She is commendably open about her approval of Jesus, but do her limits reflect ours?    

From his experience of applying his Christian principles in extreme circumstances Nelson Mandela wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, ….” [Long Walk to Freedom]  That is the Jesus Way!

It is almost 50 years since a coal tip slid into the mining village of Aberfan, killing 144 people, 116 of them children in the village primary school, amongst them the second son of the Rev. Kenneth Hayes, the 36-year-old minister of Aberfan Baptist Church.   He soon found out that his son was missing, but he decided his role was not to dig for bodies but to do what he could to comfort others.  He also led the ultimately successful fight to make the Coal Board pay compensation, and against the Government’s miserable insistence that the Disaster Fund should pay the cost of removing other nearby tips.    

On the Sunday following the disaster, his son still unburied, in his sermon he said “as far as I’m concerned we’ve still got two boys.  We’re only separated for a time.”  Thirty years later, in a filmed interview, he spoke about those terrible days and about verses from Romans which had been his text, and which will soon be our Sunday Epistle:  – I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, …”   That, too, is the Jesus Way!

Who hasn’t heard of Stephen Sutton, who was diagnosed aged 15 with fatal cancer and died in May aged 19.  He said: “I don’t see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more.  I’d rather measure life in terms of making a difference.”   As his mother put it: “while he may have had cancer, cancer did not have him”.  That, too, is the Jesus Way!

When, through our negligence, weakness, or own deliberate fault, we avoid the challenge of Jesus’ yoke, remember the Father’s constant forgiveness and joyous restoration of our humanity which makes the burden light.  When Jesus first made his challenge there was only himself and a small motley crew of other insignificant people.  He, and they, remained faithful to his vision, and others eventually caught up.  So should we.

Dealing with Doubt

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

27th April 2014

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

20

Easter 2  John 20: 19-31

David Teall

In my days as a teacher, if you were feeling mischievous and you felt the need to liven things up a little in the staff room, one of the best ways of doing so would be to announce that you thought all teaching next school year in, let us say, Year 6 or Year 7, should be topic based.  The world of education contains within its vaults examples of some extremely effective topic-based teaching schemes and not a few unmitigated disasters.  You will be pleased to know that I am not going to dwell on this subject for too long but I would like to draw from its debate the difference between two distinct approaches to teaching and learning: nibbling round an apple and serving slices of cake.

Nibbling round an apple involves revolving it five or six times biting just a little deeper each time.  By the time you reach the core you have covered the same ground many times, but you have never been asked to bite off more than you can chew.  Serving slices of cake, by contrast, involves dividing the material to be devoured into slices each one of which includes material from every level from the outside to the centre.  To eat the whole cake you only need to go round it once, but some of the slices can look daunting indeed when placed in front of you on a plate.

The truth is, each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages.  Some subjects lend themselves more to one approach; some to the other.  What inspires one class may leave another cold and what works for one teacher may not work for another.  Good teachers in good schools learn what works for them and adapt it day by day to suit the children entrusted to their care.  Failure strikes when well-intentioned enthusiasts try to impose what worked in one set of circumstances upon an entirely different scenario.

Much the same applies to our learning about God and developing our Christian faith.  We are all different.  What works for me may not work for you.  Indeed, what works for you or me today may not necessarily work for either of us tomorrow.  What we each need to do is to learn what works for us and have the confidence to know that God will walk with us as we travel the journey, no matter how convoluted our personal path may be.

At this time of year in particular it is important to remember that we do not have to understand and accept and believe everything all in one go.  Some of the concepts we are confronted with at Easter are difficult so we do not need to despair if we find them so.  We do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  On some issues that may take a lifetime.

For me, our reading from Acts this morning comes very much into this category.  Listen to a couple of phrases from it again:

This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

And later, in the quote from Psalm 16:

“He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

I still struggle with both of these verses, so how do I deal with that?  How do any of us deal with verses in the Bible or aspects of our faith that we find difficult?  Do we hide our doubts lest they somehow betray us as a lesser Christian?  Or do we just ignore the bits that we don’t like and cherry-pick our way through the Bible accepting the bits that we understand and simply disregarding the rest?

Whilst both of these approaches may offer a way out of an immediate problem, neither of them will increase our knowledge or understanding of God.  Like Thomas in our Gospel reading, we need to confront our doubts for, in doing so, we give God the opportunity to reassure us.  There are various ways in which we can do this.  If we are gregarious by nature we can discuss our doubts with others, maybe over coffee after church or by attending a course or by joining one of our Home Groups.  If we don’t feel comfortable in a group situation we can approach a trusted person and discuss the issue on a more personal basis.  And, whoever we are, we can talk to God in prayer taking our lead from Thomas who was never afraid to ask questions of the Lord.  God understands our doubts and frailties so we need never be afraid to lay them before him.

But what if we do all of these things and we still have doubts?  What then?  I would suggest that this is the time to remember that we do not need to devour the whole slice of cake at one sitting; we can nibble around the apple a little at a time taking as long as we need to reach the centre.  Furthermore, if the going gets tough, we can turn the apple around and nibble at it from the opposite direction.  This is an approach I have personally found helpful in dealing with doubts about the resurrection.  Rather than dwell on the account of the resurrection in the Bible
I start with the here and now:  I know for certain that Jesus Christ is alive today because I have a relationship with him.  If he is alive today something very special must have happened after his death on the cross to make that possible.  I don’t need to understand the precise details of what that was: it is the reality of his presence in my life that is important.

If our doubts persist we need to find a way to set them aside for a while, not, I would like to suggest, by placing them in a box labelled Impossible or Ignore but in one labelled In God’s care.  Over the years, as we continue to pray and nibble around the apple, new insights will hopefully enable us to remove previous doubts from God’s care and place them firmly in the box we label as our Faith.  As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Amen.

Words: 1,098

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.

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