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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?   

 

 

Finding the sweetspot of vocation: 6th Sunday after Trinity

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

7 July 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

10
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-6th Sunday after Trinity: Proper 9

 

Isaiah 66:10-14

Psalm 66:1-8

Galatians 6 (1-6) 7-16  

Luke 10:1-11, 16-

 

 

For decades of my life I sat in a pew on most Sunday mornings. The rest of the week in those years I was teaching in a variety of settings – great schools and ropey schools, girls schools, boys schools, mixed schools, day schools and boarding schools. I was also teaching in family centres and women’s centres and at The University of Sussex. I encountered thousands of students of all ages, and had hundreds of colleagues. I had a smidgeon of influence over my husband, who was managing hundreds of people, and I was bringing up my own child, and, it seemed, the dozens of friends she dragged in over the years.

 

Throughout those decades, no-one in the Church hierarchy seemed especially interested in my worklife. Nobody ever asked, ‘well what are the issues for you in your teaching, your research, and your parenting’? ‘Do you find conflicts between your work and your faith’? ‘How could we help you in your job’? To be honest, I didn’t really expect them to. I expected that clergy would primarily talk to me about how I could help them in church activities.

 

And then one day I thought I heard a voice calling me to work for the Church. After a few years of ignoring it, I tentatively approached my Vicar to discuss the possibility of becoming one myself. And suddenly I found a whole gamut of church resources being thrown at me – I was given books to read, interviewed many many times by all sorts of people including Bishops, I was sent off on courses and retreats. Eventually I was trained full time for two years and they still make me go on mandatory training days because the work I do now is so important that I just have to get it right!

 

And of course I’m grateful for this investment the Church of England has made in my development. But I also think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the situation I’ve just described. Let’s start with the maths. I used to speak in front of and interact with hundreds of people a day; now I’m lucky if I speak with 200 a week. The strategy is wrong too.  If we want to change the world we need to invest in the people who spend their time in the world rather than focusing on the people who spend their time in the Church. The problem underlying all this is a false separation between ‘the church’ and ‘the rest of life’ which means that for many of us, what we do between 10-11 on a Sunday morning doesn’t carry over to that hour on a Monday morning.  I really think I would have enjoyed my Monday mornings more, found even more purpose in them, had I been consciously trying to bring aspects of Sunday into the week -- the peace for instance, that I’d shared on Sunday morning, the nourishment I’d received, the alternative ideas that I’d considered, the sense of building community-- into the week. Yes the work we do in church – making music and coffee and smiling at the preacher is really important, but probably the main work God’s got for you begins when you walk out that door.

 

And that is why today’s Gospel reading, though it contains bits that are puzzling and foreign, is actually still enormously important for us to understand today.

 

Jesus sends out these 70 people to the towns nearby, saying prepare the way for me. What’s the modern day equivalent? You or I may at some point go on a specific mission trip, perhaps we’ll work in an orphanage or hospital in Africa – and that would be a fantastic and life changing adventure I’m sure. But Jesus in this passage is not sending his people off to foreign climes. Israel is a tiny country. They were going off on their mission trips like we drive a half hour or so to work. Back then the vast majority of people lived and worked in the same place, the same building even. Today most of us have several different spheres of activity. And in each of these mission fields we have a choice. We can plant, prepare, nurture and open the place up to the work of God. Or we can frustrate, obscure, criticize, work to rule, and help to close a place off to the goodness of God.  

 

Notice that Jesus gives lots of practical advice to the 70 about how to be good missionaries. A lot of the stuff about sandals and cloaks and eating what’s set before you may sound foreign to us. That’s because it is foreign. Jesus was talking to people in Palestine 2000 years ago. But the fact that he cared about the details, even to the point of teaching them about how to cope with rejection, means something for us today. In this passage we’re given a strong nudge to get out there and help God to change the world… but we are reassured that He cares about the details of our ventures – it’s not just an empty vast command.

 

God inspires and works with us in ways that seem both Motherly and Fatherly. In the lovely passage from Isaiah which Genevieve read, God is describes as a mother, nursing us, comforting and carrying, and in the most surprising and delightful image, bouncing us on her knees. This is where we start with God, and this we where we return. Sunday morning here in church should be a place of mutual rejoicing – a place where you feel God rejoicing over you, and feeding you at his table. The more imaginative of us might even be able to sense God dangling us on his knee.

 

But God also calls us to another kind of joy, the joy of changing the world, the joy of getting out there and making a difference. And Church needs also to be a place which asks the kinds of questions fathers are prone to ask… “how’s work going?’ ‘what kind of changes are you preparing for in your company, in your family?’ ‘how courageous are you at bringing the values and priorities of Christianity into your workplace?’ ‘How do you cope with success and rejection?’

 

These two aspects of God – the mother, if you like which nurtures us and the father which sends us on a mission – they work together to bring us sustainable lives of faith, characterized by joy.

 

When the 70 return from their work, they are excited. They have seen things happen. They have faced rejection and shaken the dust off their feet. They have made a difference. You can imagine them bursting with stories from the mission field – even the demons obeyed us, they exclaim. They realize that they’ve been working in harmony with a spiritual force much greater then they individually possess, and that is exciting. Jesus also gets excited and in the verses following this gospel reading he sort of blurts out, ‘Father I thank you that you have shown such things to these ordinary people’.

 

This afternoon we hope and that Andy Murray will repeatedly find the sweet spot of his racquet as he connects with the ball. Any of us who have played tennis will know the joy, the sound even, of that sweet spot. The sweet spot of mission is finding what you have to offer the world, and working with God there, right there, to hit with great power and accuracy.

 

I’m reading a book on this subject which is peppered with stories of people from all walks of life who take their professional skills, their talents, their compassion and their desires and use them on behalf of God’s kingdom. A lady called Margaret, who volunteers for 20 hours a week in a primary school, talks about the joy and fulfillment of her work. ‘I don’t know, she says, ‘God just wired me to be a teacher. Not so much on a grand scale, but more of a one on one. This is something I’ve always dreamed of doing’. Derek lawyer recalls his previous role in the church as a Sunday school volunteer, a job he dreaded. Now he offers free legal advice to impoverished people and says he ‘gets a ton of joy.’ ‘By the grace of God’, he says, ‘I can speak the legal language that they need’.  These two and many others are making a huge difference in their communities because they have found their vocational sweet spots and they are supported by their Church in the work they are doing.

 

One of the most exciting things I did over this past week was to introduce Underground’s Katy Weeks to the very inspirational woman who has built up the Pen Green centre for children and families in Corby. I almost cried as I watched this 60 year old woman and Katy batting back and forth their different visions of supporting children by creating a place for them. Katy was completely fired up as she toured the centre, met the staff  and realized that she was not alone. They invited her to attend their seminars at no cost, and offered us access to supervision and fund raising software. As we got into my car at the end of the morning, Katy said she’d died and gone to heaven. A telling phrase. Pen Green, a place entirely constructed with  the needs of the most vulnerable children in mind, does truly afford a glimpse into the kingdom of Heaven. And I was so happy to be able to give that bit of vision to Katy. Getting the right people together who can bounce off each other, using their talents and energy to further the work of God in the world – well that’s one of my vocational sweet spots. When I’m able to play a shot from there, it brings me the kind of joy which Luke is trying to describe at the end of this gospel reading. It’s the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself, the excitement of wondering what might happen next, coupled with the freedom to shake the dust off if it’s not working.

 

Now that I tend to stand at the front of the church, I want to apologise to you if we haven’t supported you in your own game. We want to. And within the constraints of the 24 hour day, we hope to do more to encourage and equip you to bring the kingdom of God to the places you live and work. If you’d like to talk to Philip or me, Lloyd or David about these things, please ask. If you’d like a mentor type person, perhaps from your line of work, please ask – you know I like to fix people up! If that sounds too much, but you’re facing some big issue at work and you’d just like to talk it through, ask.  Perhaps you’ll conclude that a ‘faith at work’ discussion group, like many churches have, would work well here – let us know. Maybe you’d like the occasional speaker, or god forbid more sermons on the topic… Perhaps you’d like to meet with a group of people across several towns and villages who work in your field. We can work on that too. The number 70 which is 72 in some versions of the Bible, is symbolic. Both numbers symbolize a lot of people. A lot of us are called to go out into the world to bring make the good news of Jesus a reality for people. Those original 70 are sent two by two, and we also are not sent alone. Alone we will struggle, but with the support of our God who is interested in the smallest details of our missionary lives, and with the support of his Church walking hand in hand with us, we are promised that we will be able to find that sweet spot where as they put it 2000 years ago ‘even the demons obey us!’ Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God of Prepositions: Trinity Sunday

Given by: 

LLoyd Caddick

Date given: 

26th May 2013

Book: 

None

Chapter: 

None

The God of Prepositions Trinity Sunday 2013

As a very raw curate with a few months’ experience, my Vicar told me I was going to preach on Trinity Sunday.  “How do I do that?” I asked.  “Tell ‘em about God or worship, and preferably both”.  I have been living with that ever since and this is my report on where I have got to, so far.

I have learnt a great deal about God from books and my teachers, but much more that is useful for living the Christian life from my prayers.  The Psalmist tells us, “Be still and know that I am God”, and that is how I start my prayers. I sit and become still; I stop my body from fidgeting about which is much easier than stopping my mind from scatting round all over the place – things to do, people I am concerned about, worries of various kinds.

One way I have found useful is to pay attention to my breathing.  Breathe normally but count your breath; breathe in and watch it go out, one, then the next, in, out two, and so on for five or six breaths.  Then know God; think about what you know of God, put it into words, let it rest in your awareness.  Respond to what you find with a simple phrase; Blessed be God” or “Praise the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me praise his holy Name”. 

But what do we know about God?  What kind of being are we talking about? Where is he?  I have begun to understand what the mystics mean when they say that God is “No-thing”.  They are not saying that God is nothing, that there is no God.  No, what they mean is that God is not a particular thing or person distinct from another.  He is more like those mysterious forces which scientist describe in their picture of the universe, a dimension of life which permeates and includes everything that it; he is, as St. Paul says, quoting an ancient Greek poet, “The God in whom we live and move and have our being”.

To talk about this transcendent and all inclusive reality we have to use language taken from everyday life because we have no other. We take it and stretch it, not to describe God, but to point to him. We use metaphors and pictures like “Father”, “King”, “Shepherd” And people who seek God find they speak of him most truly in personal terms, in the language of relationship.   When I try to put it into words what I know about God, I use prepositions – those are the words which describe relationships; above and beyond, from and for, with and among, in and around. So how do prepositions help us to speak about God?

As far as we can tell, the earliest and most lasting impression of the divine has been the feeling of awe and wonder.  People became aware of the mystery of God through awe-inspiring natural event; like Elijah, they experience the earthquake, wind and fire, but he speaks to them through the “still small voice of calm”.  As the great prophet of the Exile put it, God is “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity whose name (or nature) is Holy; he dwells in the high and holy place, [but] also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit” (Isaiah 57.15).  God is above us and beyond us.  We cannot understand him or grasp what he is “in himself”.  One of the mystics said that God is like a man hiding in a field of corn; you cannot see him until he moves.  We can know God only because he shows himself to those who seek him and know themselves to have fallen short of what we could be.

Over the millennia God has spoken in many and various ways and we are heirs to all that experience. But our Christian picture of God is rooted in the experience of the first followers of Jesus as it is recorded in NT which builds on and focuses the experience of the peoples of the OT.  

This biblical understanding of God starts from the basic assertion “the Lord our God is one”.

 o but this One God makes himself known in all kinds of ways through nature, worship, prophets law – God from whom and for whom. 

 o Through Jesus Christ – what he was, what he taught and what he did – God with us and among us.

 o Through the Spirit of Jesus guiding and strengthening his followers – not just the immediate ones but those who believed through them – God in us and around us.

We find this three-fold experience of God at every level in the NT.  As Christians have thought about this and tried to understand it they very soon formulated it in the doctrine of the Trinity – God is one but known in three main ways. Theologians have made this sound very complicated – at times irrelevant – but over the years I have found it has become simpler and simpler and at the same time more profound, especially when I use prepositions which describe God in terms of relationships.  

God is the source of all that is; the God from whom and for whom everything exists.  God can and does show himself through the natural world which he creates.  The kite which distracted me from writing this sermon as it soared effortlessly over the valley opposite; the wonder of a horse-chestnut tree in full leaf lit up by its candle-flowers; a spread of bluebells through Sulehay wood.  These are some of the “ordinary” ways in which our hearts are lifted to wonder, love and praise.  “Ever since the creation of the world,” wrote St. Paul, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Rom 1.20)

As we consider this natural world we should be thankful for what scientists show us about it in all its wonder – from the immensities of time and space and to the intricacy of the very tiny.  The scientists uncover a world even more wonderful than St. Paul knew it to be.  We believe in a God who did not zap the word into being ready made, but a God who makes a world which through the laws of nature makes itself.  Through these processes life has developed and produced beings with minds to understand the world and its workings and use that knowledge to increase – or destroy – the productivity of the earth, to prevent and to heal disease, or to use the same knowledge to kill.  We see the humility of God who invites us to work with him in making and caring for his world.  Praise God from whom and for whom everything exists. 

Then there is the God who is with us and among us to bring right a world gone wrong.  In Christian terms we learn of him from the man Jesus, whom Andrew and Peter and the others followed.  He taught them the real way of God’s Kingdom as self-giving love.  He showed them what that meant by the way he lived and died and rose again.  They learnt that God was in Christ.  The old prophet used a metaphor to describe the ideal King for whom he was waiting; he would be called Emmanuel, God with us.   It is no metaphor to say that in Jesus God is with us; in him God’s Kingdom is among us, within us.  Within twenty years Paul was able to quote a hymn which spoke of Christ Jesus being in the form of God, yet emptying himself of all save love.   He humbled himself as a human being to learn obedience to the point of death on the Cross and being exalted by God.

As we ponder Jesus, what he said and did, we see God in him, God with us and among us, working to bring right a world gone wrong.  We see it wherever people work to prevent or cure disease, to remove the conditions which create poverty, to challenge injustice and oppression.  In Jesus we see God putting himself at the disposal of the creatures he made and asking us to help him.  Again the humility of God.

Then there is God in us and around us.  Jesus told his disciples that they would be given a helper who is the spirit of truth to guide them into his truth and to strengthen them for his work.  Christians first experienced this at Pentecost when they found themselves driven into the streets to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  At times in NT and at times since, some Christians have had similar noisy, ecstatic experiences.  Usually however the Spirit speaks to us in less obvious ways.  When Paul was working in Turkey, the Holy Spirit forbade him to go down to the Mediterranean coast, so he tried to go north to the Black Sea.  Again the way was blocked and he found himself led to the port of Troas opposite Europe.  There Paul dreamt a Macedonian Man asked him to “Come over and help us”.  He saw this as a divine call to leave Asia and go over into Europe.

I know from my experience in the ministry that this kind of thing does happen; for no particular reason you feel you ought to visit someone and you discover why when you get there.  Or again, we all know the still small voice of conscience which tells us something we intend to do is wrong, or prompts us to something challenging. We can ignore it and deaden it but it comes back.  That’s when we know God in us and around us – a God who allows us the freedom to work with his guidance in remaking the world or not.  Again the humility of God.

Easter Sunday 2013

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

31 March 2013

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

20

Easter 2013 – Kings’ Cliffe and Bulwick
Readings: Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24
Isaiah 65: 17-25
John 20

It’s been a long winter.  Last Saturday I went to a memorial service in north Yorkshire for a young lad who’d ended his life under a train. Afterwards, inching our way back down the A1 in a swirl of drifting snow, we passed dozens of cars spun off the motorway, crunched into ditches and against barriers.

I began to write my Easter sermon whilst looking over a lawn blanketed in snow. Big  pigeons and crows were hopping about, frantically trying to find a green shoot poking above the white. I’ve not seen a smaller bird for weeks. I finished this sermon yesterday, looking out on a sky full of snow flurries.

What can we say about Easter when the natural world is not playing its seasonal part? And when all around us we see the wreckage of lives spun off the road, and the lambs which should be leaping have been frozen stiff?

Britain in the so called spring of 2013 is still waiting for those green shoots of recovery. Every can of food donated to our little food bank back there in the corner is gone within about 24 hrs. Life for many is painful, for others simply tedious. The media seem to be desperately casting about for new leaders who can offer hope – Pope Francis, Justin Welby… Boris Johnson?  Meanwhile mighty England cannot defeat Montenegro in football and everywhere people are brassed off.

Shortly before my ordination nearly 2 years ago, my daughter asked pointedly, ‘so what hope can the church offer my generation?’  She didn’t believe in any of it, and zoomed off on her gap year travels to find herself. She found herself, actually, in Aushwitz on the very day that I was ordained. And in that place of utter utter hopelessness began an emotional and intellectual journey which would lead her back to God.

Because contrary to popular opinion, Christian hope begins not with us all dressed in white singing despite our diversities with John and Yoko around the white piano…. In stead it begins with a clear hard headed look at human pain and suffering. Like the film Les Miserables which takes on the misery of life, opening with those harrowing scenes of men who are enslaved, of women forced into servitude. Limbs missing, teeth missing, pock marked, lovely Ann Hathaway cutting her hair, transformed from angel into traumatized victim. Much was made of the film’s relentless drive to present a realistic, rather than a Hollywood, view of poverty.. Ironically in its efforts to show the grittiness of real life, Les Mis picked up an Oscar for best hairstyling and makeup.

Les Mis of course is an overtly Christian story, owing much to the original. This week in our churches, and to some extent in wider culture, we have relived that original story of God working to bring us home, as he carries on his back the weight of human sin.  It is all in technicolor on Good Friday… fear, greed, peer pressure, mob rule, weak leadership, the exultation of those who torture for sport, the professionalism of those who torture as work… we see it all as Jesus of Nazareth takes it all.

He takes it all without fighting back, without smiting, or whinging, or cursing or pleading. The man who claims to show us who God is, takes all the ugliness of our human nature onto his back, into his heart, opening his arms for us on that cross.

The message of that story for us here today, is that God accepts us as we really are. Even people at their very lynch mob worst, baying for blood, he loves. Contrary to popular opinion, and unlike other understandings of God, the Christian God does not ask us to clean up, take a ritual bath, achieve some kind of dietary or even sexual purity, before we come to him. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, sings the old hymn, there’s a thing Christians call grace which begins with an honesty about what is wrong with our lives, and then imagines God joining us there. Right there.

That honesty about the pain and suffering which is alive and well even in our glossy world is Good Friday. The honesty about the meaninglessness and emptiness of our world is Holy Saturday. And this day too is hugely significant.

When the hair cutting and teeth ripping out and hot tears are over, there is another aspect of life which doesn’t really make it into many Hollywood films and this is the plodding boredom, the waiting around, the staring at frozen ground, willing the daffodils to open up. God is with us here too. When we can’t imagine how we’re going to get through the lonely hours between teatime and bedtime. Or between the ages of 92 and death. This is Holy Saturday, and God somehow, in a way we cannot always sense, is with us here too. Christian hope doesn’t ask us to deny that life can often seem empty, and that we are often alone.

But it keeps pushing us towards Sunday morning.

In John’s account of that Sunday, which we’ve heard this morning, Mary Magdalene sits weeping in the garden. She is aware of someone standing before her, and thinks it must be the gardener. In the most moving of reunion scenes, she hears her name through her grief.  Mary, says Jesus. Master, exclaims Mary.

Christian hope on Easter Sunday, and any other day of the week, begins when you hear Jesus say your name, and you respond like Mary.

The other day I casually asked my daughter what hope she now felt Christianity offered her generation. ‘Identity’ she said off the top of her head. Jesus offers us a new identity, which isn’t located in any of the things the world says are important – looks, or friends or grades or success. And I thought about the huge significance of Jesus’ word ‘Mary’, pretty much the first word spoken after his resurrection. In that word, was a depth of recognition and affirmation, a delight in the person before him, a desire to be connected to her, that inspired Mary to become the apostle to the apostles, as she ran off to tell them, “I have seen the Lord and he is risen indeed!’

Each person in the gospels who subsequently encountered the risen Christ had a sort of tailor made intimate conversation, which dealt with them in all their difference and particularity. And each of us can expect different kinds of encounters with Christ, depending on who we are. I’ve been very moved by this book by the writer Francis Spufford, who attempts to describe how Christianity feels to a skeptical middle aged man in the early 21st century. His book is called ‘Unapologetic – why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense’ and his chapter ‘Big Daddy talks about how an intimate encounter with God might happen today. I’m going to leave this book at the back of church. If you’re feeling skeptical, please feel free to borrow it, or order yourself a copy.

But back to the original Easter. Later on that Sunday and in the weeks following, the church was born, Jesus said ‘where two are three are gathered there am I also’, theological debates and interpretations of the jewish scriptures in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection began. Jesus was recognized in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus – thus encouraging the sacrament of communion – and his spirit was poured out in extraordinary ways on the feast of Pentecost.  

All of this activity, then and now, is designed to carry on that work of transforming the identity of individuals and cultures, passing down a language of hope and faith from one generation to the next. All of this activity is really important as we each are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

But not perhaps essential. In the vastness of the Easter story – a message of hope and transformation which encompasses all that is evil, all that is empty, and all that is being redeemed, perhaps what we can focus on this year is the first thing Jesus does as the resurrected Son of God. He meets Mary, in the garden, near the tomb and simply speaks her name. She looks up and responds. That’s at the heart of the Easter story, and our Easter hope. That is the essence of the Christian gospel. That we can be known and loved by Christ, and can know and love him in return. All these years later, on this Easter Sunday, Christ seeks you and me out, He speaks our names, and waits for that cry of recognition.

I’m a big fan of the poetry of RS Thomas – an Anglican priest who spent the latter half of the 20th Century trying to keep Christian hope alive in some of the bleakest landscapes of North Wales. His faith was always a struggle; he was not a natural optimist. But he could not escape his sense of the resurrected Christ, who in one poem he described like this:  ‘a face staring, as over twenty centuries it has stared, from unfathomable darkness to unfathomable light’.

This Easter may you have the grace to stare back.

Amen.

Notes:

‘Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense’ Francis Spufford

‘They set up their decoy’ in Counterpoint, RS Thomas

Where there's Muck there's ?

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

3rd March 2013

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

13

  Luke 13, 7: “Cut [this fruitless fig tree] down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?”  [The gardener] replied: ”Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it.”

   We are not an extraordinary meeting of the Gardeners’ Association, but confining fig-tree roots, feeding them annually with manure, is still standard horticultural advice.  Jesus often used normal rural practice to provoke insights about life but, in this parable, what is the manure, the fig-tree, and the fruit; and in which vineyard’s soil is this fig-tree wasting space?  Where there’s muck, there’s … what?  The subject-matter of ‘manure’, in particular, is strange, so see if you agree with my interpretation.    

   St. Luke’s Gospel, as clearly indicated at Candlemas, presents Jesus as “a Light to reveal [God’s] will to the Gentiles, and bring glory to [God’s] people, Israel”. [Luke 2, 29-32]  Given the corrupt state of Israel’s society and its violent control by Rome, this was the daunting challenge Jesus had to accept in the wilderness. How were God’s promises to Israel, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, to be achieved?       

   Genesis repeatedly [1, 26/27; 5,3; 9,6] expresses the fundamental principle that each human individual has God-like potential.  Jesus would have to make meaningfully available, to ordinary people left high-and-dry by fashionable but hollow religious legalism, his prophetic understanding of the Scripture’s deep, but inaccessibly detailed, realism about healthy individuals in a healthy society.    

   Human flourishing was also being diminished by other abuses of power.  Jesus, therefore, also had to provide an effective alternative to cruelly unfair distribution of necessities, exposing the pointlessness of greedy economics. He also had to show the vanity of violent resistance to imperialism.  Strengthening individual people to cope with these three challenges of legalism, self-centredness and violence, lies behind Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ ministry.  The short-cuts of the wilderness temptations - a sort-of Jewish ‘bread and circuses’ - were rejected.

   Such a radical programme, which regarded even vindictive opponents as valuable individuals with divine potential, meant Jesus faced inevitable extinction in the power centre of Jerusalem, to which he and his reluctant disciples were travelling.  Jesus remained serenely secure in the knowledge that his Father’s reign was eternally indestructible.  Brutality, and even death, would be overcome.  

   Luke didn’t write just the Gospel account.  His ‘Acts of the Apostles’ shows how the disciples’ experience of Easter victory caused them to try to live like Jesus, despite the continuing flourishing of the religious, economic and political powers who had crucified him.  These remarkable first Christians, as St. Paul’s Letters show, summarised their determination to fulfil what Jesus had started by describing Jesus as ‘the Boss’.  It was a conviction based on facts, not a liturgical nicety.   

   Luke’s two-stage account therefore shows to his fellow-Christians that the ‘manured fig-tree’ is the people of God sustained by Jesus’ example; the ‘fruits’ are the encouragements given to others with whom we share the ‘vineyard’ of life, where the ‘soil’ is famished by evil powers which both tempt and affect us all.  David’s topic last week showed us the permanent validity and challenge of Jesus’ analysis.  

   By way of comparison with the ‘fig tree’ church sustained by ‘Jesus manure’, what happened at recent meetings of an ‘Atheist Church’? The organisers, two stand-up comedians, expected 20.  200 turned up and, a month later, 300. 

   One of the organisers described the Atheist church as “a godless congregation that meets … to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate life.   … It’s got all the good things about church without the terrible dogma.  I like the sense of community and who doesn’t enjoy a singsong.”  Awe and transcendence shouldn’t be the preserve only of religious people, he said.  “I would go to a carol service or a friend’s wedding, and there would be so much about it that I really liked – the togetherness, the rituals – but I just couldn’t get past the God bit.” [Guardian, 4 Feb 2013].   

   The Atheist church seeks to meet needs which properly overlap with some of what we have expressed about our church activities.  We said we would promote a hospitable and integrated community; we would provide opportunities for teaching, questions and discussion, and inspiring opportunities for public and private worship, i.e. ‘Awe’ and ‘Transcendence’.

   The atheist’s problem was dogma about ‘God’.  Apply the ‘manure’!  Not for nothing were the early Christians called atheists by those who believed in local, describable Gods.  Jesus’ life was undoubtedly based on an absolute conviction that behind and beyond our lives is an indescribable, inextinguishable energy which cherishes and rescues anyone as we open ourselves to its influence, an experience of ‘the Father’ he invites everyone to share. 

  There is no dogma in Luke’s summaries of Jesus’ teaching – such as his Nazareth manifesto [Luke 4, 16-21], his Beatitudes [Luke 6, 20-37] or the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11, 2-4].  “Blessed are the theologically sound, for they can be smug!” is not one of Jesus’ Beatitudes.  In a quiet moment, analyse the simple directness of the Lord’s Prayer.  All these summaries challenge us to discard false values and stand firmly as part of human society, despite those groups whose power depends on false values of popular correctness, greed and militarism.   

   The Church’s dogma about Jesus is recognition that he held to the seemingly impossible goal he had worked out in the wilderness, even through death, and therefore in human terms showed us the indescribable God who is ‘Father’ and whose ‘Spirit’ is available energy.     The fundamental difference from the ‘Atheist Church’ is that the fig tree’s fruit, the direct consequence of the ‘manure’, is finding ourselves in the welfare of others.  It ceases to be dogma and becomes lived experience as we unearth our true identity buried underneath layers of ecclesial sentiment.

   Recently, a newspaper not noted for its religious sympathies had the headline: “At the sharp end of poverty, faith is the only thing left.”  It described a church project in South Shields, housed in a little room in an abandoned building, counselling people with debt problems.  Thousands afflicted by greedy, cruel loan sharks passed through its small office each year. 

   A Salvation Army officer, a former banker involved in a food bank and a night shelter supported by Sunderland churches, put the challenge to local churches squarely.  “The loan shark is more entrenched and rooted in the community than the church is.  If I need £10 to put food on the table, he is a friend.  What do we have to offer them instead?”  He said that one of the greatest services the churches can provide is a sense of individual worth to people convinced they are hopeless.  A local vicar said that what Christians can do is to try to live in a more hopeful and less selfish way than the world around them.  “We might hope” she said “that we might model a community of people who hold principles showing you different ways.” 

   A government minister has recently welcomed a survey showing that the hours donated by church volunteers to meet local needs in the recession have risen by 36%; that each church in the country, as an average, delivers eight social initiatives; and that three-quarters of these initiatives are self-funded.  The Church Urban Fund last month reported that one in ten Anglican parishes offer organised help with debt and homelessness, and about a third offer informal help. [Guardian: 15 February 2013]  It was on the local TV News, a week or so ago, that Jimmy’s Night Shelter in Cambridge was now so full that five local churches were taking turns to provide and support overflow accommodation in their premises.  

   At the 1972 founding of the Cambridge Theological Federation, Professor Rupp, a profound Biblical scholar, said that “there seem to be two kinds of radicalism.  One cuts itself off from its roots, like a bunch of cut flowers.  Its blooms look good; it is not tied down; it can go places.  But it soon tires and fades   ...  The other radicalism is open and flexible for change because it is still growing from its roots, because at its heart and depth it is always being renewed, creatively, spontaneously, freshly by the life of God in the very ground of its being.” 

   Here, in the part of the fig-tree which is this church community, we are producing some fruit.  If we continue to apply the ‘manure’, we will be enabled to do more.  As we now make our communion with reality in the complex liturgical setting which follows, and in other simpler ways, taking in the life and death and triumph of Jesus will refresh our roots.  We don’t want to be a waste of soil, do we?    

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