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Christian Unity and Inter-faith Harmony

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

23rd January 2011

Book: 

1 Corinthians

Chapter: 

1

David Teall

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which always falls during the season of Epiphany, began last Tuesday and, looking a little ahead, the first week of February has been designated by the United Nations as the week of Inter-faith Harmony.  I would like to consider these topics this morning in the light of our reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.

Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus, where he was staying at the time, somewhere around 54 AD, to a congregation that he had founded several years earlier in Corinth, the capital city of the Roman Province of Achaia.  Corinth, at that time, was a large and prosperous urban centre with an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population.  The congregation there reflected this diversity and were largely Gentile.  A few were persons of local importance but most were of lesser means and lower social standing.  It is likely that they lived and worked in many different quarters of the city but came together regularly for a shared meal and worship.

In this morning’s reading, taken from the very beginning of the letter immediately after the customary lengthy salutation, Paul is appealing for unity amongst the congregation at Corinth.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

The congregation at Corinth were squabbling with one another and rival groups were jockeying for control.
So engrossed had they become in arguing about details that they were failing to follow the way of Jesus.  As a result, some had become arrogant and indifferent to immoral behaviour, some were failing to support the disadvantaged amongst them and some were boasting that they had special religious wisdom or knowledge.  To use a modern expression, they were failing to see the wood for the trees.  Paul, taking full advantage of the wider perspective afforded him by writing from the other side of the Aegean Sea, used his letter to urge them to step back and see the greater picture and let love be the governing power of their community.

Of course, all that was over 2,000 years ago.  We’ve had plenty of time to learn from their mistakes haven’t we?  Surely there can’t still be groups of Christians that believe that they have some form of knowledge or understanding that somehow makes them better than other groups of Christians?  Surely not?

Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that question.  The situation has not got better, it has got worse.  Paul would be horrified to know the extent of the squabbling that still continues between different groups within the church whose mission, as we heard in his letter this morning, should be simply to ‘proclaim the gospel’ – the good news of Jesus Christ.

So what can be done about this problem?  Will groups of human beings ever be able to discard the notion that they have some exclusive knowledge that makes their point of view so much better than anyone else’s?  I have my doubts, but I would like to share with you two well-known stories which, between them, give hope that it may indeed be possible.

The first is a story that the children acted out for us in a Family Service a year or so ago about a group of blind men who came across an Elephant for the first time.  One reached out his hand and felt a leg and declared an elephant to be ‘like a tree’.  Another felt the trunk and said an elephant was like a snake.  ‘No No!’ said a third who had felt the tail:  ‘an elephant is like a rope’.  Each was convinced that he knew the truth about an elephant.  In one respect each was at least partly right, yet those of us blessed with the gift of sight can see that none of them had come close to describing an elephant

This story contains an essential concept that has to be grasped before progress can be made in bringing opposing groups together, no matter what the context.  There is no such thing as the truth or, if there is, it is not the lot of humans to know it.  There is my truth and your truth and both are equally valid.

For the second story we have no Family Service to think back to so you are going to have to imagine it for yourself.  Look, if you would, at the stained glass window over the high altar or, if you cannot see it from where you are sitting, close your eyes and imagine it.  Now imagine that the glass has become clear and you can see beyond, not Hall Yard, but a huge, tall conical mountain.  The top, for the moment, is shrouded in cloud, but the foothills can be plainly seen.  They are covered in thick, dense, impenetrable woodland.  Now, hold that picture of the mountain in your mind for a few moments and prepare yourselves to go on a journey.  As time is short, although it would be nice to walk, I’ve arranged for Scotty to beam us all into a clearing deep inside the wood on one side of the mountain.  I suggest you close your eyes for this bit if you would, but I promise it won’t hurt a bit.

Right!  You can open them again now. We’ve arrived and now it gets personal.  The woodland is even thicker and denser than it looked from afar and it is very dark.  You try a few steps into the undergrowth but there are briars and thorns that trip you up and cause great pain.  Fortunately, though, there is a well-marked path leading upwards from the clearing so your journey can continue.  A Guide tells you that this is the path that leads towards the light and gives you a book of directions.  He explains that there is a path all the way but sometimes you will struggle to see it because you are not looking in the right place.  Sometimes it will appear to go off at a strange angle and you will be tempted to take a short cut through the undergrowth.  ‘At such times’, he advises, resist the temptation, re-read the directions and stay on the path.

You study the book of directions and set off.  For much of the time the wood seems very dark but every so often it thins a little and you get a glimpse of the light somewhere way above you.  The first time it happens you don’t really believe it but after several more glimpses you become more certain.  The light is definitely there and you are moving towards it.  But then you come to a long dark patch and maybe you are not quite so sure. ‘Keep going’ says your Guide who is keeping step a little way behind you, ‘this path will take you to the place that you seek.’

Eventually the wood starts to thin and you can see the mountain itself.  Its summit is still shrouded in cloud for much of the time but it does appear to be thinning.  As you look to your left and your right you can see other people on other paths.  They too are seeking the light.  Looking back you can see that some of the paths had been running very close and almost parallel to yours.  Others had come from the other side of the mountain but all are now converging.

At the start of your journey, at the bottom of the mountain when you were the furthest from the light, you were also at your furthest distance from the people on the other paths.  Now, near the top, you can see quite clearly that they are seeking the same destination as you.  They started in a different place and followed a different set of directions but now, almost at the top, you are walking side by side.  The cloud has gone.  Your destination is clear.  Hold that vision for as long as you can because:

I forgot to say:  Scotty’s transporter is only good for 5 minutes so here we are again back where we started.  Our journey took a little longer than expected but there is just enough time to reflect upon what we learnt from it and ask some questions.

Did you recognise the path that Scotty beamed you onto?  Were you able to give names to some of the things mentioned like the light, the book of directions or the path itself?  What did you make of the paths which, when looking back had been running almost parallel to your own all the way?  Or those which had started from the other side of the mountain but which were now converging on your own?

And now, imagine that when Scotty energised his transporter you had been a Muslim or a Jew or a member of almost any one of the great religions of the world or even Richard Dawkins, and ask yourself the same questions.  In what ways would your answers be different and in what ways would they be the same?

Think on these things throughout the remainder of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and onwards into the Week of Inter-faith Harmony.  Talk about them and pray about them for your answers are of the utmost importance.

Tootling with Vigour

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

12th December, 2010

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

11

I read in the newspaper recently that there are about three septillion stars in the universe, and that, every second, 65 billion neutrinos pass through each of my eyeballs [and yours!].  Anyone who knows what a ‘septillion’ or a ‘neutrino’ is, please tell me afterwards!  We now know how tiny a place we human beings occupy in the visible universe, and science explains so much of why our bodies are as they are.  The President of the Royal Society recently wrote that the Society’s founding 350 years ago “signalled the emergence of a new breed of people – described ... as “merchants of light”.  They sought to understand the world by experiment and observation, rather than by reading ancient texts.”  He also wrote that the application of science has led us to a risk of irreversibly degrading the earth’s environment. 

Holy Scripture, unlike Science, deals with un-measurable human experiences, especially our failures to do what is obviously right, by exploring the rich mystery of our lives, which the best intellects cannot penetrate and the most eloquent words cannot precisely describe.  A recent book [1] has shown that, in the West, the best ideas about human nature have always been shaped by the interplay of science and technology with philosophy and theology, and that recent developments in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering call for fresh reflections on what it means to be human and how we might shape our future.  So let’s look carefully at some of the church’s “ancient texts”, to see why their different focus is so important for the inspiration of good human achievements.

Next year we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and remember with gratitude the sacrificial courage and dedicated skill of those who, over centuries, produced a version of these ‘ancient texts’ in English.  Translation of the texts’ permanent truths from a different cultural background adds to the mystery of their subject-matter.  Bill Bryson gives an enjoyable example of correct but strange translation – a warning in English to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn.  Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour.”  Much Biblical language can sound rather like that.

The Bible records millennia of human wrestling with life’s mystery, recording and revising the insights gained, so it is not a structured science textbook.  There are some parts we will reject for good reason.  Look in Deuteronomy at commandments for stoning people and animals to death, or Psalm 137, which ends: “Happy is the man who ... takes [Babylonian] babies and smashes them against a rock”.  Try following that with a choral evensong’s “Glory be to the Father”!  Think of the medieval church’s official resistance, because of a phrase in a Biblical poem, to Galileo’s insistence that the earth moved round the sun, or consider the view of some Christians today, following their reading of the Book of Revelation, that all-out war with the Muslim world is needed to bring on final Armaggedon and, for them of course, their translation to heaven.   

Jesus was inspired by his deep study of the Old Testament and we are introduced to him in the New.  In reading and discussing the Scriptures usefully we must be open to Jesus’ teaching and example, applying the two great commandments he selected from the Old Testament - to love God and our neighbour - so that we can hear in our hearts the living Word of God, the Father of all human beings.   

This morning’s “ancient texts” are about our opportunities to make a new start in righteous living, rather than being discouraged by our failures.  The factual times in which the Scriptures were written were as chaotic and full of terrible events as our own.  Order and Justice seemed as unattainable to most people then as they seem to us today.  Today’s psalm and the extract from Isaiah are both poems which express the Old Testament message of God bringing Order out of chaos, and challenge the whole community to exchange selfish mind-sets for the deeper reality of God’s all-encompassing Justice.  A couple of generations after Jesus, and in very testing times, the book of James urged the avoidance of theoretical faith, and exhorted patient, practical responses to the liberating word of God, remembering that “The Judge is standing at the gates.”    

Today’s Gospel reading is about two cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, both deeply committed to their ancestral Jewish faith, despite their nation’s collapse.  John, following the prophets, had encouraged people to change their mindsets, and Jesus at his baptism had been clearly endorsed by John.  Thereafter their ways had separated.  John, in desert penury, had offered people a once-only opportunity to change their mindset; Jesus, sharing everyday life with ordinary people, insisted that the opportunity was always and repeatedly available.  John, now a hapless prisoner expecting the death sentence, wanted re-assurance that Jesus would lead the people aright.  In his reply to John, Jesus explained how he encouraged ordinary people by emphasising God’s constant blessings, rather than his condemnations.  Using Isaiah’s poetic language [2], he says [in the ‘Good as New’ version], “Go back to John and ... tell him that blind people are getting their sight back, disabled people are able to get about again, outcasts are being restored to the community, deaf people can hear, many are getting a whole new life, and those who don’t count for much in our society have had Good News for the first time in their lives.”    

There can be no doubt that ordinary people have remarkable capacity to respond to challenge, as some recent newspaper reports have shown.  Think of the schoolgirls in the middle of a demonstration who recently linked hands round an empty police van to protect it from yobs, or the remarkable youngsters who care so assiduously for their incapacitated parents.  Or listen to this:  “When PC Dave Hill heard on his radio about an explosion at Edgware Road tube station, he and a colleague changed course and went straight to the scene without stopping to think.  At the mouth of the underground tunnel, it occurred to him that there could be a second [explosive] device, but he carried on into the dark.  Asked why, during the inquest into the deaths of the 52 people that died in the 7/7 bombings, the policeman simply replied: “Because I was there”.  It was a refrain that was heard, in varying forms, throughout the evidence.  Ordinary men and women who had performed extraordinary feats, who had, in some cases, literally taken a leap into the dark to help injured passengers in desperate need of help, repeatedly down-played their heroism. What enabled these people to act so calmly and efficiently?  Or, to put it another way – what turns ordinary people into heroes?" One expert emphasised training.  Another expert said “... you don’t have to be special.  With the right mindset and opportunity, most people are capable of heroic acts.”  [3]

Jesus challenges us to change our mindsets and train to achieve what he called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  If, this Advent, we can overcome our hesitations and past failures, there will be no lack of opportunities to meet people’s deep needs or to stand up for what is right.  Next week, our Advent inspiration will be the committed response of a very young woman called Mary, who found herself unmarried and pregnant in an unwelcoming society, and who remained constant to that commitment through the disturbing years that followed. 

Let us use to the full the resources and fellowship of the Church, in training for the life-enhancing way of the generous, self-sacrificial, unpompous Jesus of Nazareth.  So we will become ‘merchants of light’ as we engage tangibly with people’s needs by the committed use of our time and talents, tootling melodiously but, in the face of obstacles, tootling with vigour! 



[1] Murphy and Knight, Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion Ashgate 2010.

[2] ch 35, 5-6; ch 42, 18; ch 61, 1.

[3] Guardian 26 Nov 2010.

That We May Merrily Meet in Heaven

Given by: 

Jeremy Firth

Date given: 

14th November 2010

Book: 

None

Chapter: 

None

Return to Oundle Home Page

That We May Merrily Meet in Heaven

(All Souls Thanksgiving Service Nov. 14th 2010)

Way back in the 1960s I came across a play that I greatly enjoyed, full of the slightly eccentric and free spirit that we associate with England and the English at their best, a spirit usually slightly at odds with authority but still tolerating it so long as it doesn’t get too overbearing. The play was ‘A Penny for a Song’ by John Whiting, not widely remembered, but one line has always stuck in my mind. One of the characters says, ‘You know, your life is made up of the things you remember.’

Quite an alarming thought for those of us becoming more and more forgetful by the day; but perhaps we should not be too alarmed. The things we tend to forget are the mundane details of daily life and there are worse things to forget. Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to the Headmaster of the first school I taught at as a newly qualified teacher. In my first term the headmaster said hardly a word to me for the first four or five weeks; then one day I saw him crossing the road plainly intent on speaking to me. I thought, ‘This must be important – something to do with a pupil, or the school, or even education itself!’ He came up to me, leaned confidentially forward and said, ‘I say, Firth, have you seen my car anywhere? I can’t remember where I left it.’ Not too serious a lapse of memory. But the following summer there was an Old Boys day at the school. The Headmaster was greeting them as they returned to the school and he went up to one young man and said, ‘ Hello! Now when did you leave?’ To which the young man replied, ‘Actually, sir, I teach Geography here. You appointed me last year.’ Rather a more serious lapse of memory.

I used to wonder how anyone could be so forgetful but I have no difficulty in understanding it now. Actually he was a good Headmaster who remembered his staff most of the time and ran a good school. But forgetting people is an embarrassment. Yet while we seem to forget more as time goes on, there are also wonderful moments when memory comes flooding back to us quite unexpectedly. Most often this happens when we meet people we haven’t seen for a long time and they kindly introduce themselves afresh. Remembering and being remembered enriches our lives and gives significance to them. Perhaps we should say, ‘Our lives are made up of the people we remember’. They are what really matter to us. And tonight we have come here to remember loved ones who are no longer with us. They make up a great part of our lives because we remember them and always will. They live in us.

But is that the only way they live? Is death the end for those we love except for a memory that lives only as long as we do? And eventually will nothing remain of us except a memory in those who knew us? Life leads to a question --- the question of what comes after it. Is there something or nothing? The Christian faith says emphatically that there is something.

There is a prayer I like very much: ‘Pray for me as I will for you that we may merrily meet in heaven.’ ‘Merrily meet.’ It sounds like those re-unions when you see people again whom you haven’t seen for a long time and you remember all you went through together in the past --- and you laugh about all the comic errors and mistakes you made and all the apparent disasters, those near-squeaks and close shaves you had --- you laugh because it all worked out all right in the end --- you came through everything to this re-union. And now you can look back and laugh. Jesus said that heaven will be like that: he said it will be like a great banquet or party, a time when we shall look back with gratitude and laughter as we remember all we shared of life down here. Because memory will play a part in heaven too just as it does on earth.

But memory there will not be tinged with sadness. The Bible tells us that God ‘will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away’. Jesus told his disciples a great deal about heaven --- he was very clear that there is a life after this one. He said among other things that he was going away ‘to prepare a place for us’. ‘In my Father’s house,’ he said, ‘there are many rooms.’ And here we get a picture of heaven being like a family home --- a place where we shall be at home with those we know and love. They and we do not just live on in the memories of others. We shall live together in our Father’s home. As we heard in our reading, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’.

These are some of the pictures of heaven that the Bible gives us and that Jesus himself affirmed and said were realities. But how do we know he was right? Why should we believe what he says? There is one supreme reason why we can trust what he says.

While he was on earth he said and did wonderful things and showed such humanity and love towards others that men and women came to believe he was more than just an ordinary human being. Many believed he was the Messiah, the Chosen one of God. But then came apparent disaster. He was arrested, put on trial and crucified, and it seemed as if all he had done and said had come to nothing. Death, it seemed, had defeated him and all the hopes of his followers were destroyed. Death was the end of all their dreams --- they were just dreams, it seemed, buried in the tomb with Jesus. The disciples went into hiding fearful of what the authorities who had crucified Jesus might do to them. They were disillusioned, afraid and demoralized.

Yet three days after the crucifixion, just three days later, their mood changed utterly. Why was this? Because, as history records, three days later Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb and he began to appear to his disciples, not just once but a number of times over the next forty days. The disciples became convinced by the evidence of their own eyes, ears and hands (they touched him as well as talked with him) that he was alive again --- that he had risen from the dead. And they became convinced that he was not just an extraordinary man but God himself in human form.

The evidence for the resurrection is very powerful; there are people with keen minds and legal training who have set out to disprove it but have ended believing it because the circumstantial evidence is so detailed and so strong. Briefly, Jesus’ body was never found; no convincing explanation for its disappearance has ever been made except that he rose again; the Romans and the Jews who had condemned him certainly didn’t want the resurrection to be believed but could not find any way to discredit it. Most striking of all though was the change in the disciples from a frightened, cowering group to people who stood up and proclaimed their belief in Jesus as the Son of God even at the risk of their own lives. They were convinced because Jesus had appeared to them and they had recognized him for who he was. The resurrection was a reality and the truth of Jesus was worth risking death for.

Why is this important to us today? If Jesus rose from the dead it validates the claim he made while alive to be the Son of God; it gives him the power and authority of God and what he say carries that authority. In short he speaks the truth. And what he says among other things is that like him we shall rise from the dead and share the life of God with those we love. There is a life after death.

That is the belief of the Christian church and has been for the last 2,000 years. It is not just a dream, just a nice idea. It is reality and it is founded on a historical event: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, witnessed by many people who lived alongside him, and valid for all time.

That is why tonight we can commend our loved ones to God in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

Harvest Reflection on Genesis 1

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th September 2010

Book: 

Genesis

Chapter: 

1

David Teall

Alongside the large pool where boats turn around at the bottom of Foxton Locks near Market Harborough is a large area of unused land trapped between the canal and the farmland beyond.  It is an impenetrable mass of nettles, thistles and brambles making it a complete no-go zone for all but the smallest animals which can sneak in at ground level.  Every time I pass it I am reminded of the old story about a young priest who, having been brought up in a city, was sent to serve his curacy in a small village.  Walking through the village one morning he stopped to talk to a farmer who was digging potatoes on his smallholding.  “Isn’t it wonderful” he said to the farmer, “what God can produce from such a small piece of land?”  The farmer scratched his head, looked around his field and replied:  “He didn’t do so well when he had it to himself!”

What the young Curate had failed to express is that farming, like all successful human endeavours, is a partnership between man and God.  When we come together each year for our Harvest Festival it is to thank both sides of that partnership for what they have given to us.  We thank God for the animals and plants that feed us and for the land upon which they live and grow and we thank the farmers for their skill and labour in looking after the land, caring for the livestock and growing the crops and all those involved in bringing their produce to our table.

Our reading from Genesis this evening took us back to the very beginning of the partnership between God and man.  The story, of course, is not a factual account of the mechanism of creation but a myth – a story that attempts to explain something of the nature of God in terms that we human beings can understand.  As such it contains some essential truths that are as relevant today as when they were written including the nature of the partnership between God and man.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

It is that word dominion that is the key to the partnership, but it is all too often quoted out of context.  Other translations of the bible use either the word rule or reign, which are words that we are more familiar with, but to understand their meaning we have to look at the whole sentence.  It begins: ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’  This is not talking about physical appearance but the very nature of God whom we know to be loving, caring and compassionate.  It was only after He had given us the capacity to exercise these qualities that He went on to give us the responsibility of reigning over the rest of His creation.  That is the essence of our continuing partnership with God:  to have dominion over His world and to exercise that dominion with the same love, care and compassion that He shows to us.

Our New Testament reading, which is, in fact, a quotation from Jeremiah, looks forward to the day when the whole of mankind is working in perfect partnership with God.

They shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

The world has not reached that day yet, but the partnership between God and man has led to some huge advances in Agriculture, even over the very short period of my lifetime.  When I was a young boy growing up in Nassington the corn was still cut with a reaper/binder and the sheaves placed in stooks in the field to dry before being carted back to the farm and stacked.  The harvest, which involved every willing hand from the village, started in August and continued well into September or even October in a wet year. When the stacks were broken open later in the year to be threshed the average yield of wheat was around a ton per acre.  Today the same fields are harvested by a team of three contractors in just a couple of weeks with average yields of over 3 tons per acre – a three-fold increase.

To the countless millions who have died of famine over the ages the prospect of a three-fold increase in food production would have seemed like the answer to all their prayers.  Unfortunately, it has not turned out to be as simple as that.  During the same period the world population has also increased three-fold, from
2 to 6 billion and the countries with the greatest population growth have not been those which have seen the greatest increases in yield.  The world as a whole has more food, but there are more mouths to feed and an increasing need for those who have to help those who have not. This too is part of the deal – part of the covenant – part of our partnership with God.

And what of the future?  The Human population of the earth is still growing rapidly and is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of this century – five times the population that I was born into.  How are we, as Christians, going to respond to the huge challenges that this will bring to the world of agriculture and to our partnership with God as we exercise dominion over His world?  There are going to be some very difficult decisions to be made.

The dramatic increase in crop yields over the last 60 years has been brought about largely by a combination of the increased use of artificial fertilisers and plant breeding.  Many of the fertilisers are manufactured from raw materials such as natural gas, a commodity that is rapidly being consumed, mainly for energy by the affluent west.  How are we to balance these competing demands on limited resources?

Increases in yield from the use of traditional plant breeding techniques appear to have reached a plateau.  Scientists tell us that further advances will need the more refined techniques known collectively as Genetic Modification or GM.  These techniques offer the prospect of crops that are resistant to disease and pests and so don’t need expensive, polluting sprays to control them; crops that will grow in less fertile soil; crops that will grow in much drier conditions.  Are we to view the use of these techniques as mankind interfering in God’s realm – that of creation - or are they an example of the partnership between God and man working effectively to provide daily bread to more of His children?

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful and most productive parts of God’s earth and we enjoy the luxury of knowing that we have a bountiful supply of bread for our tables.  This evening we offer thanks to both sides of the partnership that provide it for us.  We thank God for His mercy, for His generosity, for His love, for His compassion.  We thank the farmers and all those who work in the production line between field and table for their labour and for their faithfulness.  We thank those who work in plant and animal breeding programmes and those who work in the agro-chemical industry for their valuable contributions towards increased yields.  Finally, we pray for wisdom to discern a path through the difficult decisions that face us that will keep faith with and honour our partnership with God.  Amen.

Where is he when you need him? What would he do?

Given by: 

Rev. Stephen Webster

Date given: 

3rd October 2010

Book: 

Philippians

Chapter: 

1

Photo of Rev. Stephen WebsterWhere is he just when you need him? Have you ever found yourself saying that? Where is he just when you need him?

‘Oh,’ says Richard just before going on Sabbatical, ‘I always judge the Fancy Dress at Benefield Fête. Can you stand in for me this year?’

‘No problem’ I say. Exactly how difficult can it be judging a Fancy Dress competition? Actually as it turns out – nearly impossible.  3 months on I’m still haunted by guilt.

‘It’s very simple’ says John Nicholson Churchwarden and Fancy Dress Officer for the Parish of Benefield ‘5 ribbons: First, second and third and two highly commendeds. We start in 5 minutes.’

‘Great’ I say. How difficult can it be?

5 minutes later  in front of me a line of beautifully turned out children. There’s Pippi Longstocking and a firefighter and Little Miss Muffet with little brother as Spider. There’s a milkmaid and Snow White and two Princesses. All in a line smiling. Each one wearing an expression that says, ‘Pick me – this is very important to me.’ Nothing to choose between them.

8 children. 5 ribbons. What am I supposed to do? 3 children to be rejected and I have to decide.

Where is Richard just when you need him? And the answer was of course Northumberland. What would he do?

Well I’ll just say 5 minutes later there are 3 children staring at their feet one with quivering lip because of the cruel man in the dog collar and 3 months on I’m still haunted by guilt.

Mind you I got off lightly compared to the judge of the pet competition. 1 baby tortoise, 1 rabbit, 1 guinea pig, a dog and a chicken. The chicken had to be locked in Church on account of the dog who had lately stood trial before a magistrate for attacking chickens.

Where is he just when you need him? What would he do if he were here? Have you ever found yourself asking that?

Today we reach the second in our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Last week we had a reading from Acts 16 and we met Lydia the first Christian in Philippi the first Christian in Europe. We heard how she became a follower of Jesus and was baptised.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians is written 10 or so years later.

‘What would Paul do if he were here?’ I think that might just be the question Lydia would be asking herself 10 years on, ‘Where is Paul just when you need him?’

Why might she be asking that? Well let’s think about what has happened in Philippi since that day Lydia got baptised. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Lydia is not the only follower of Jesus in Philippi. A whole community of followers has grown up - a Church.

A number became Christians at the same time as Lydia. You can read about them in Acts 16. Lydia is a wealthy woman. She’s a runs a business trading in valuable purple cloth. And some of her household became Christians. Her family and the people who work for her. Then there is that deeply troubled slave girl possessed by spirits used by her owners to tell fortunes to earn them money through Paul she has a healing encounter with Jesus. Her owners are so angry they provoke a riot and get Paul and Silas thrown in gaol.

In gaol Paul and Silas don’t stop telling people about Jesus and through them the Roman Gaoler probably a rough and ready ex-soldier becomes a Christian too - he and his household.

So Good News: there’s a Church in Philippi. Made up of all kinds of people. Wealthy Lydia  – a Roman gaoler – their households – relatives, children, servants and maybe a troubled slave girl.

Rich and poor; slave and free; cultured and uneducated; old and young - all with a story to tell of Jesus’ love for them together : the Church of Jesus.

Mind you Paul and Silas weren’t able to stay long. They were soon being escorted out of town by the authorities. Moving on to Thessalonica here soon another Church was springing into life.

But more Good news: the Church in Philippi has continued to grow. They’ve never stopped telling their friends and neighbours about Jesus. And together through the Holy Spirit they have encountered the living Jesus who died for them and rose again.

And they’ve had visits too in the early days from Paul himself and more recently from other Christian leaders. More than ten years after Lydia came to follow Jesus there is a growing church in Philippi. Good News.

But there’s bad news too. Philippi is a proud Roman city. The Roman emperor is worshipped as a god. In Rome followers of Jesus who refuse to do this are being executed. And in Philippi there’s growing persecution.

And there’s hostility too from the Jewish community. This claim that Jesus is God’s long-promised Messiah they want it silenced. And to make it worse there’s a massive row going on in Church. Some people who say they are followers of Jesus have recently arrived in Philippi and they’re causing no end of arguments.

They’re saying that to be a proper follower of Jesus first you have to follow the Jewish faith in full. Men need to be circumcised. Everyone should follow all the Jewish food laws and rituals  or they aren’t real Christians. Well – Lydia doesn’t remember Paul saying that. Surely what mattered was only that Jesus loved her and gave Himself for her by dying on the cross.

She knows Him the risen Lord alive in her life through the Holy Spirit. Surely that’s what makes her a proper Christian. Can it be that for these last ten years she wasn’t a real Christian after all?

And that’s not the only row going on in Church. Two of the leaders two women each responsible for a homegroup - both lovely women in their own right - Euodia and Syntyche they can’t stand each other. They can’t stop bickering. And Lydia can’t help but think that what they’re really arguing about is simply who is the most important.

Hostility from outside. Arguments and rows inside. ‘What on earth is happening?’ thinks Lydia ‘isn’t this church just going to collapse. If only Paul were here he’d know what to do. Where’s Paul when you need him?’

And the answer is of course far away in prison on trial for his life.

As soon as news reached Philippi that Paul was in prison they were so concerned that they’d had a collection specially for Paul and they sent young Epaphroditus to visit him taking gifts to make his life a little easier. And with a letter telling Paul all about their problems.

And that’s why this evening is so exciting. It’s the evening of the first day of the week when they gather after work for worship. And after months away Epaphroditus is back. And he’s got with him a precious scroll. A letter from Paul. If Paul were here what would he do? We’re about to find out.

Epaphroditus stands up in the meeting breaks the seal – unrolls the scroll and begins to read;

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus to all God’s Holy people… at Philippi  he begins I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy… being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion... God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Paul is chained up in prison. He is threatened with execution. So what does he do?

He remembers Lydia and the Christians in Philippi. And he prays for them. He thanks God for them. He longs to see them again. When he thinks of them he is filled with joy. And when he hears of their troubles he writes them a letter.

‘You are God’s people’ he says, ‘the Church isn’t going to collapse. He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.’

What is evident from these opening words is that Paul loves his fellow Christians. He loves them. ‘I thank God for you’ he says, ‘in all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy… I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.’

He thanks God for them. He prays for them. He longs for them. He loves them. All of them. What does Christian love look like?

Just pause a moment and look at the people round about you now: your Christian brothers and sisters: all God’s holy people in Oundle.

I thank God for all of you. In all my prayers for all of you. I long for all of you with the affection of Jesus.

Do we thank God for each other? Do we pray for each other? Do we know each other? Do we care for each other? Do we have affection for each other?

I’ve recently been re-reading this.  Nobody’s Child by John Robinson. I expect many of us have read it. I’m re-reading it because we’re discussing it in October’s book club.

October 20th. Put it in your diary. If you haven’t done so already – read it. Buy the book from the bookstall. Come along. Everybody welcome.

Shortly we’ll be praying for John and Gillian and they’re family because they’re our link CMS mission partners on Thailand.

In Nobody’s Child John tells his story; of growing up never knowing his mum or dad never knowing his family; of life in and out of abusive foster homes and children’s homes of time in borstal and briefly Armley prison; of life homeless and living on the streets.

And then he tells of the day someone said, ‘Jesus loves you John’ - the beginning of a transformation.

He tells of how he became a Christian and someone who had never known his family - suddenly had a family. He wasn’t ‘Nobody’s Child’ any longer he was God’s child and he had lots of brothers and sisters. All kinds of people with different stories to tell but with one thing in common: brothers and sisters loved by God for whom Jesus had died.

Brothers and sisters like pastor Tony and Sylvia who simply took John into their home and let him live with them; brothers and sisters like Joey and Bridey from the local traveller site – with whom John used to pray. Brothers and sisters like Carol the Nun and Paul the Police Officer.

John – who’d once had different kind of dealings with the police – went as a guest to Paul’s passing out parade and was later his best man. What struck me reading John’s book again was this reminder about the Christian family.

All of us so different with our different stories but through Jesus made brothers and sisters made family.

What an unlikely collection of people John’s new family. Pastors and travellers nuns and police officers and John.

‘I will always remember what they did for me,’ writes John, ‘with gratitude and fondness. They helped me receive God’s healing and they accepted me into their lives.’

John’s unlikely new family. The Philippian Christians: an unlikely family too. A wealthy cloth dealer a gaoler and a slave girl the people in their households.

Rich and poor; slave and free; cultured and uneducated; old and young. And of course Euodia and Syntyche.

‘I thank God for all of you,’ says Paul ‘I pray for all of you; I long for all of you with the affection of Jesus.’

What about you and me? What about our unlikely family here at St Peter’s? Do we thank God for each other from our hearts? Do we pray for each other? Do we care for each other?

And surely the answer is ‘Yes’ but maybe our love could abound even more.

I’ll just finish with some questions:

Staying for coffee is so hard. Who on earth will talk to you? But is today the day to give it a go?

That person whose face you recognise but whose name you don’t know is today the day to introduce yourself and talk to them?

A brief chat on a Sunday morning  it’s so difficult to get to know people isn’t it? Is to day the day to ask about joining a home group?

And those home groups…could we care even more? Share more honestly about what’s going on in our lives? Really care for each other and pray for each other and help each other?

‘I thank my God every time I remember you’ writes Paul ‘in all my prayers for all of you I always pray with joy, And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more.’

 

 

 

Lydia + Baptism

Given by: 

Rev. Stephen Webster

Date given: 

26 September 2010

Book: 

Acts

Chapter: 

16

Photo of Rev. Stephen WebsterI have here a photograph. You’ll be pleased to hear it’s one of my holiday snaps. As most of you won’t be able to see it I’ll describe it to you. It is a picture of Samuel. Samuel is 6. In the picture it looks like Samuel is sprinting. But in fact he’s in mid air. Beneath him is turquoise blue water. When I say beneath him the water is about 10 foot beneath him and Samuel is leaping. But to understand the significance of the picture you have to know what was happening before.

The picture is taken on the island of Sark in the Channel Islands. It’s taken at a lovely little rocky inlet called Port Gorey. It’s a hot day. A number of us are leaping off the rocks into the beautiful turquoise sea. Jumping off the rocks straight into 40 foot of water; water so clear you can see the bottom.

Now the water isn’t tropical. In fact it’s a good deal less cold than water off England. After a few strokes it’s fine. But to call it hot would be overstating the case. So there we are swimming in this beautiful water on a baking hot day. And there are Samuel and Daniel on the edge out of the water – looking longingly at us in it.

It looks beautiful. It looks so much fun to be in. But there is a problem. Surely it’s going to be cold. And there are no steps. There’s no lowering yourself in. There’s only one way in. You have to leap off a ledge ten foot above the water.

So for a long time Samuel and Daniel look longingly at us walk up and down the ledge. ‘I’m going to jump’ they say.            

And several times we all count down ‘5,4,3,2,1 JUMP!’ only to find them still standing at the top.

And then suddenly and luckily someone catches it on camera there is Samuel leaping – taking the plunge. For ages standing on the outside looking in. Then finally leaping in. And after that – well Daniel wasn’t far behind and for the rest of the holiday it was all we could do to stop them leaping off rocks into water.  

Standing on the outside looking in. Can you identify with that feeling?

I have a friend who regularly goes on skiing holidays but can’t ski. She says she specialises in Après Ski. But there must be moments when she wishes she wasn’t just on the outside looking on – but joining in.

On the outside looking on.

It’s an experience we can feel in Church.      Maybe we come every week but for some reason we can’t quite put our finger on somehow feel we’re not fully part of what’s going on. Or maybe we don’t often come to Church at all and when we do we feel a bit like onlookers.   

Today in our first reading we meet a person who feels that they are on the outside looking in. Her name is Lydia. In homegroups over the next few months and in sermons on Sundays we’re going to be studying Paul’s letter to some Christians in a city called Philippi. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And today – before we even begin looking at Philippians we’re going to look today at how there came to be Christians in Philippi in the first place.

That first reading we had from the book of Acts told us the story. We hear about someone called Lydia who is the first person in Philippi  in fact the first person in Europe         ever to hear the message of Jesus and to become His follower. But when we first meet her  Lydia is someone standing on the outside looking in.

‘On the Sabbath day,’ it says in Acts 16,        ‘we went outside the city gate to the river… We… began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from Thyatira called Lydia… a worshipper of God.’

Lydia is an outsider. She comes from Thyatira not Philippi. And literally she’s an outsider. We meet her outside the city.     To practise her faith that’s where she has to go.

She is a ‘worshipper of God.’ What bible writers mean by that is something very specific. She is someone who though not born Jewish is attracted by the Jewish faith. She grew up in society and a family that worshipped many gods but at some point Lydia encountered Jewish people and came to accept their belief in one God.

And in Philippi – which is a long way from Jerusalem the home of the Jewish faith that makes her an outsider. She’s rejected the gods        worshipped by nearly everyone in the city. And Philippi is a proud Roman city. One of the gods they worship is the Roman Emperor himself.   And she has rejected Philippi’s gods.

There’s no room in Philippi for people like her. There’s no place in Philippi for a Jewish place of worship. So on the Jewish holy day the Sabbath people like her who worship only one God have to go outside the city.

Lydia the outsider. But Lydia isn’t just an outsider in Philippi she’s also an outsider in the Jewish community she’s adopted. She’s not actually Jewish. So she can’t fully take part in Jewish worship either.

If she ever went to the temple in Jerusalem she would not be allowed inside. She’d have to stay in the outer courts the courts of the Gentiles. Not able to take part in the prayers. Unable even to watch. Not even an onlooker - just an outsider.

Lydia is an outsider among the people of Philippi. And she’s an outsider in the Jewish community. She believes in God. She’s interested in Him.             She wants to know more. But she can’t fully take part. She can only ever walk up and down on the edge never fully belong – never plunge in.

So what does God have to say to those who just feel like outsiders looking in? What does He have to say to Lydia? Well this Sabbath as she’s outside the city along comes a follower of Jesus. A man called Paul.

In the twenty years since Jesus death and resurrection Jesus’ message has swept through the countries we now call Israel, Lebanon and Syria and Turkey. Communities of Jesus’ followers – churches have sprung up in town after town after town. And today is the day Jesus’ message first arrives in Europe - first arrives in Philippi.

Paul and his friends find this group of women outside the city on the Sabbath day and they begin speaking with them about Jesus.

‘One of those listening’ we are told, ‘was Lydia… and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.’ This outsider – who has never fully belonged she hears something in Paul’s message that makes her heart respond.

Well what was Paul’s message? What did he say to her?  We can be pretty sure what Paul’s message was from reading the letter he later writes to the Philippians.

His was a message about Jesus. In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes this, ‘Jesus – although He was in very nature God made Himself nothing, being made in human likeness, taking the very nature of a servant.’

The God who Lydia had begun to encounter in her adopted Jewish faith - He was the God who had left His heaven and walked earth’s dusty roads. He was the God who had entered our world as one of us as a human being so that we human beings might come to know Him.

He was the God who came to us as the man Jesus who loved and served and welcomed those treated as outsiders.

He was the God who became our servant by dying on a cross for us so that we might know forgiveness for the wrong in our lives.

And He was the God who has defeated death. 3 days after Jesus died on a cross. He was raised from death and met again with His followers.

That was the message that Paul preached. About the God of love who wants us to know Him. The God who welcomes outsiders like Lydia. The God who in Jesus died for us and rose again. A God who says you don’t need to be on the outside any longer. Take a leap  - plunge in – know Me.

And Lydia’s heart responds. Literally she plunges in. Under the water of the river to be baptised. Symbolically past mistakes washed away and a new life begun.  And today - two thousand years later we’ve seen another baptism. The promises Joe made today are the same promises Lydia would have made.

“ I turn to Christ - I turn to Jesus.        I repent of my sins - I turn away from all that’s wrong in my life. I believe and trust in God.”

“I believe and trust.”

Maybe for years Lydia has believed. She’s looked on from the outside and believed there was a God. Now for the first time she is able to know God and to trust Him.

Belief and trust they are slightly different.

 *           *           *

Before I got ordained I was a teacher in a secondary school. One year I went with my tutor group of 11 year olds on a residential at an outward bound centre in Wales. We spent our week walking, caving climbing and canoeing - and one day on an abseil tower.

One at a time the children would climb all the way up the 50 foot tower where stood the instructor and me.

Knowing nothing about abseiling I saw my rôle as a kind of comforting caring presence. Watching at the top of the tower I soon had the principles of abseiling worked out.

Holding the rope you lean backwards until your body is parallel with the ground below. You’ve got a safety harness on so you can’t fall. And you simply walk down the tower holding the rope – which someone slowly feeds out.

Hold the rope tight - lean right back - walk down the tower. Simple.  

‘Lean right back’ I’d say, ‘Stop trying to cling to the tower. You need to lean right back. Then you can just walk straight down.’

Well the time came when the last child made it safely to the bottom of the tower. ‘Your turn,’  says the instructor.

Harness on I step rather gingerly towards the edge and stand with my back to the 50 foot drop. I look down. Big mistake. Far below me 30 little expectant faces looking up.

‘Now lean back,’ says the instructor. And leaning back is the very last thing I want to do. When you’re standing with your back to a sheer drop just about the last thing you could possibly want to do is actually lean back over it.

No what I want to do is cling to the tower. ‘Just lean back Mr Webster.’ Shouts an encouraging child. ‘You just need to lean back.’

Well there’s nothing for it. Every one of my class has just done it so I can’t possibly bottle out. And of course slowly as I lean back gripping the rope until my knuckles are tight I realise that it’s OK. The rope holds my weight. The more I lean back the more I realise that I can trust the rope to hold me and I can walk down the tower.

Belief and trust.           Just standing at the top watching my class abseiling I had some clear beliefs. I believed that if only they would leant back they would discover that rope would hold them.

That was belief.           But trust. Well trust only came when I held the rope myself.

Trust only came when I stood on the edge. Trust came as I very cautiously began to lean backwards over a 50 foot sheer drop - and began to realise that the rope really did hold my weight.

“Do you believe and trust in God?”  That’s what Joe was asked. That’s what 2000 years ago Lydia was asked.

Belief is one thing. Believing things about God. Trust is gradually learning that this God I believe in - actually I can trust Him. I can entrust my life to Him. I can lean on Him and He will take the weight. Some people like the like dramatic plunge approach to faith. [hold up picture] But others prefer the abseiling approach.

Gently and gradually exploring and testing faith. Cautiously leaning back and seeing if it holds weight. Gently learning to trust more and more.

If that’s you then can I recommend the Alpha course starting this Tuesday in St Peter’s?

‘Come and explore’ is Alpha’s motto, exactly the approach for those who like abseiling.

But whether it’s dramatic plunge or gradual abseil-style testing doesn’t matter.

The point for Lydia was that she was no longer outside looking in. She now knew the God who made her and loved her and could begin to learn trust Him with her life.

 

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Buy Now Before it's too Late!

Given by: 

Rev. Stephen Webster

Date given: 

19th September 2010

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

16

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Buy Now Before it’s too Late!

Photo of Rev Stephen Webster 

The parable of the dishonest manager. What on earth was Jesus thinking off? Lost sheep, good Samaritans – seed on rocky ground – you can make something of those – but this dishonest manager? No idea.

This man who loses his job – gets revenge by falsifying accounts – defrauds his employer – commended in Jesus’ story! What are we supposed to make of that?

 Best stay with sheep and Samaritans and seeds – and file this one away in the drawer marked “too difficult.”

Well if that’s your response to today’s gospel reading I don’t think you’d be alone. But actually – and maybe what I’m about to say demonstrates that I haven’t understood Jesus’ story at all – I’ve never thought that the meaning of the parable is that mysterious or complex. In a moment you can judge for yourselves but first a story about this coin.

To hold it doesn’t feel like a proper coin. It feels too light. If you tap it it doesn’t sound like a real coin. It’s made out of some cheap alloy. On one side it says ‘Eine Mark’. On the other, ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik’.

It’s June 30th 1990 and I am in Dresden – a city in East Germany. A country which very soon will no longer exist. In three months East Germany will be simply be absorbed into a reunified Germany. So on June 30th 1990 I’m standing on the streets of Dresden. I’ve just arrived. In my pocket some crisp bank notes. 50 East German Marks – Ostmark as they’re known.

All around me there’s a carnival atmosphere. People out eating and drinking and spending, spending, spending. And with good reason. Tomorrow is ‘Währungsunion’ – currency unification. From midnight the Ostmark will cease to exist. Everyone will use West German Marks. And the cash they haven’t managed to change can’t be changed now. Tomorrow it will be worthless. So everyone’s out spending.

Why not have a meal out? Why not use the money while it’s got value? For the East Germans a whole different world is coming; a world where today’s money buys nothing. And I had 50 Ostmarks in my pocket. Evidently I only managed to spend 49.

 *           *           *

Back to our dishonest manager. Jesus often tells stories about bad people, but commends some aspect of their behaviour. There are evil fathers. Even evil fathers don’t give their children stones to eat instead of bread. So a loving Father God will certainly give good things to His children.

And there are cruel judges who don’t care about God or people. But when a widow – the victim of an injustice starts pestering one every day  just to get rid of her he eventually grants her justice.

And If it’s worth pestering an unjust judge then it’s certainly worth being persistent in prayer to a loving Father God.

And of course there are thieves. Jesus says that when He returns He’ll come like a thief – in the night. Now the point is not that He will come with balaclava and sawn-off shotgun. No the point is that His coming will be unexpected. We must always be ready.

Evil fathers, unjust judges, thieves: we’re not generally to imitate them. But Jesus uses one aspect of their behaviour to make a point. Thieves don’t warn you of their coming. Nor will He.

So in today’s reading a dishonest manager. Not to be imitated in every respect. On the back of this story I can’t claim a mandate from Jesus to take my travel expenses form scribble out 50 miles driven and write in 500 miles.

The manager’s dishonesty is not quite the point. It’s something else about his character that we’re to learn from. This manager is facing imminent ruin. His world is about to collapse around him. Accused of being wasteful in verse 1 he’s about lose his job. As soon as a new manager is found he will be out of a job. He only has a short time left before he thrown unprepared into a whole new world.

‘I’m not strong enough to dig,’ he says in verse 3, ‘I’m ashamed to beg.’

Remember those people in Dresden.

Today they have currency. Tomorrow it buys nothing.Today the manager has currency. Tomorrow it buys nothing.

Today he is Manager. Tomorrow he is nothing.

So whilst he is still manager he will use the position to prepare for a different world.

‘I know what I’m going to do’ he says, ‘so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

In these final hours he’s going to use his remaining currency to buy something that will be of value in this new world.

Recklessly he gives away his master’s wealth in order to make friends for the future when he will need them. He calls in those in debt to his master. ‘How much do you owe?’ he asks. ‘Three thousand litres of oil,’ says one. ‘Quick get your bill. Let’s make it 15 hundred.’  ‘Owe 30 tons of wheat?’ ‘Why not make it 24?’

Now there are some men with cause to be grateful. And on that day when he wakes up jobless and homeless - well there’s two men with reason to give him a roof over his head.

With a currency that’s about to be worthless the manager buys something that will be of lasting value in a new and different world. And his employer has to admire this cheeky manager in one regard. He is certainly shrewd.

And it is this one aspect of his behaviour that Jesus wants us to learn from.

A day is coming when the currency of his world will have no value. So he spends it now to prepare for that day.

And a day is coming too, when the currency of this world will have no value.

The day I wake up in the Kingdom of God this  will buy me nothing. It will be worthless.

So says Jesus, use the treasure of this world whilst you still can to buy something that will be of value in heaven.

‘Use worldly wealth’ he says in verse 9, ‘so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into heavenly dwellings.’

And how could I use this    to make friends in heavenly places?

Spend it, spend it, spend it. On food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. On clothes for the poor.

Spend it on the broken and the outcast and the stranger. Spend it to bring hope to the prisoner.

Give it, give it, give it. To Langley House Trust and Mercy Ships and Christian Aid and CMS and USPG and FEISA.

Give it, give it, give it. Because a day is coming when it will buy you nothing. 

‘Use worldly wealth so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into heavenly dwellings.’

 

The Most Important Guest

Given by: 

Rev. Stephen Webster

Date given: 

29th August 2010

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

14

The Most Important Guest

 

Luke 14:1-14

 

The story is told that one day Laura Bush - until 2008 the first lady of the United States - was invited with her husband to be guest of honour at a Republican Party fundraising dinner. 

 The Bushes sat at separate tables and those who got to sit at those tables paid the highest price for their tickets. Amongst the guests on Laura Bush’s table was a man who had paid a huge amount of money for two tickets so he could bring his six foot two 16 stone son Dale. What he omitted to mention to the organisers was that Dale had considerable learning difficulties. Dale took up the seat intended for his father right next to Mrs Bush and - to the embarrassment of nearly everyone at the table - on finding his spoon too small for conveying enough soup to his mouth decided to pick up his bowl and with great slurps drink from it.

 All deeply embarrassed; apart that is from Dale , his father – who seemed oblivious; and Laura Bush – who was utterly unphased.

 In between slurps Dale began to engage Mrs Bush on the topic closest to his heart: actress Drew Barrimore and her films. And to the frustration of other guests Mrs Bush seemed perfectly happy to be engaged. When others attempted to divert the conversation onto matters of Republican politics she would politely respond and then return her full attention to Dale and Drew Barrimore.

 The other guests’ irritation grew. They had paid large amounts of money to have a few minutes to speak into the ear of the President’s wife; they had interests to pursue and wanted something for their money. But Dale; he was just being himself; he had no hidden agenda. He just wanted to talk about Drew Barrimore to this kind lady who listened.

 After the meal George Bush rose to speak. Not long into the speech Dale loudly to exclaimed, ‘Mrs Bush this sure is dull. Do you like tic-tac-toe?’ That’s noughts and crosses to us.

 Just as Dale’s father was about to intervene, Mrs Bush simply put her fingers to her lips, got out her paper napkin and a pen and began to play noughts and crosses with Dale.[1]

 Who is the most important guest?

 Dale was an embarrassment to those at Laura Bush’s table. He was an obstacle in the way of their getting close to Mrs Bush to them being recognised as the most important guest. It seems though that to Laura Bush Dale was the most interesting important person in the room; the only one who without pretence was being himself.

Who is the most important guest?

 In today’s gospel reading there is a meal at an important Pharisee’s house. It’s the Sabbath and Jesus is guest of honour. We can imagine people gathering for the meal. Jesus is a popular controversial rabbi. And the prominent Pharisee in our reading perhaps feels quite pleased with himself for getting Jesus to come to his house for Sabbath lunch.

 At the same time Jesus is known for His unorthodox behaviour and criticism of Pharisees. Here’s a chance for the Pharisees to quiz Him, watch Him, set Him straight – maybe trap Him. So they gather for the meal.

 We can imagine a large room easily accessible from outside the house. As the learned men gather a number of onlookers and eavesdroppers also gather around the edge. This is usual at such gatherings and they are tolerated. After all this prominent Pharisee wants to show off. The famous rabbi is eating in his house.

 Tolerated - except of course for the man who they’re all pretending not to see. The uninvited unwelcome embarrassing guest. The man covered in repulsive unsightly swellings.

 The man they are all pretending not to see. All that is apart from Jesus.Jesus who approaches the man – touches him – and heals him.

 Now there is a wealth of sermons to be preached just on this incident. We could stop and think about just how stunning this incident would be for everyone there. We could look at:

 Jesus’ power to heal;

His willingness to embrace those rejected by others;

His breaking of accepted orthodoxy;

His emphasis on the importance of people over rules.

 But what the lectionary invites us to look at today is what happens next.The healed man leaves and the diners begin to take their places at the table.

 Have you ever seen reported on the news the leaders’ photograph following some international summit? Just beforehand there is a great deal of subtle sidling and even very genteel pushing and shoving as leaders attempt to get into the front row as near American President as possible.

 When the photo is published they hope it will send a powerful unspoken message around the world that their government and their nation – is one of the most important. Something rather similar going on in today’s reading. Jesus watches as the guests all attempt to sit as near the guest of honour and His host as possible.

 Who is the most important guest?

 Jesus ‘noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table,’ says verse 7.

 Who is the most important guest? ‘I am important,’ thinks each one, ‘I want the best seat. I want to sit at the top of the table. I want to be seen as important.’

 *           *           *

 I wonder if God is trying to say something to me because recently each time I have come to prepare a service for St Peter’s the same message seems to emerge.

 A month ago on St James’ Day I was preaching and the set passage Was the description of James and John asking if they can sit at Jesus’ right and left in His kingdom. And Jesus gathers the disciples around and says, ‘whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all.’

 Then on Tuesday I was taking our weekly 8:30 communion service and the passage set for the day was from Luke’s account of the Last Supper. Tomorrow Jesus is to die a slave’s death. Nevertheless half way through the meal the disciples begin to argue about who is the greatest.

 And Jesus says stops them and says, ‘the greatest among you should be like the one who serves.’

 Now today we have this account of the guests at a meal jostling for position trying to be seen in the most important seats. Being exercised by the question, Who is the most important guest?

 Who is the greatest? Who is the most important? How do I get status? Disciples, Pharisees, dinner guests. They’re all asking these questions.

 And they’re the questions that worry world leaders preparing for a summit photo.

 And they were the questions worrying those guests at Laura Bush’s dinner table.

 And aren’t they the questions that sometimes exercise us too? In the places where we work, amongst our friends, in our homes,  in church.

 Are status and recognition things we too yearn after?

 At work, among friends, is there an in-crowd – a powerful person we want to be seen with; if you like ‘at whose table we want to sit’.

 Is our Christian Church activity sometimes affected by these same questions.

 Who is the greatest? Who is the most important? Am I significant?

 And so I join this group or that group do this job or that job because I want to show I am important.  

 Again and again and again we find Jesus turning our values upside down.

 The last shall be first,’ He says, ‘the least of you is the greatest, the one who rules must be the one who serves.’

 How hard it is to really live as if that were true. What does it look like really to live that way? As if the least really is the most important?

 Well Jesus turns to the guests who have been jostling for the most important places and He tells them a parable about a Wedding Reception.

 Imagine how embarrassing it would be says Jesus if when you get invited to a Wedding Reception you went and sat straight at the High Table and the found yourself asked to move because your seat was reserved for someone more important. ‘Then humiliated’ says Jesus, ‘you will have to take the least important place.’

 ‘No,’ says Jesus, ‘instead sit at a seat with the least important guests. Then the host might come and say, ‘friend let’s find you a better place.’ Then you will be honoured. ‘For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

 Now of course Jesus’ words aren’t just a handy tip about wedding etiquette. They have a deeper meaning. Throughout the Old Testament and throughout Jesus’ teaching Wedding Feasts are used as a picture to of life in God’s Kingdom for a day that’s coming when God is King and there’s heaven on earth.

And people like the Pharisees - who know the scriptures and are in synagogue every Sabbath and who think they obey all God’s laws - they’re pretty confident that when God’s Kingdom comes they’ll be the first in.

 At God’s Wedding Feast they’re pretty sure that they’ll be on High Table as God’s most important guests. And the ordinary people - the ones who struggle with their faith and fail and sin - the ones blighted by illness ( and for the Pharisees if God allows you to be sick then you must have done something wrong ) - if they make it in to God’s Kingdom at all they will have the least important places.

 And Jesus parable is a warning to people who think like the Pharisees. ‘You might be in for a shock’ says Jesus. ‘Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.’

 ‘In God’s Kingdom you who proudly think that you are the most important might just find yourselves humiliated. Not on High Table at all.’

 Remember how the meal at the Prominent Pharisee’s house began. Remember that embarrassing guest blighted with unsightly swellings who no-one really wanted to see. An obstacle in the way of the real business of their dinner getting the most prominent seat and being seen as important. But the unwelcome guest they wanted to ignore Jesus spends time with reaches out and touches cares for and heals.

 Who is the most important guest?

 ‘Do you really want a seat at High Table in God’s Kingdom?’ Jesus seems to ask. ‘Then get God’s priorities.’

 ‘Do you really want to be the greatest?’ He asks. ‘Then start by being a servant. Start by seeing the people God loves through His eyes.’

 ‘Do you really want to be close to God?’ He asks. ‘Then do the things that are close to His heart.’

 ‘For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

 ‘When you give a dinner,’ Jesus goes on to say in verse 12, ‘don’t invite your friends and relatives; your rich neighbours who might invite you back.’

 ‘No. Give a banquet and invite the people others overlook. People who are poor or unwell. People others see as unsightly but who God sees as His children and loves.’

 ‘Do you want to be close to God? Then start by seeing the people He loves through His eyes.’

 So what about me and you then? What about St Peter’s?

 Those times when we jostle with each other for our places in Church life.

 When it’s as if we say ‘I want the best seat. I want to sit at High Table. I want to be seen as important.’

 When we do this job or that job join this group or that group - wish we had this rôle and that they didn’t have that rôle-

 and all the time without realising it we’re asking ‘Who is the most important? Who is the greatest?’

 Maybe all the time God is wanting to say, ‘Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop struggling with each other. Love each other. Serve each other. And look outward - look at the people who live in the houses all around you - people who – a bit like you - struggle with faith and sometimes fail - people who I made and love and who I long would know Me.’

 ‘Look outward for  the people others so often overlook, love them, serve them, care for them, invite them, make them the most important guests of all.

 


[1] A fictionalised account of this can be found in:  Curtis Sittenfeld  American Wife  Black Swan  2009  pp563-570

Rich towards God

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

1st August 2010

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

12

David Teall

We don’t have readings from the Book of Ecclesiastes very often yet I suspect that many of you here know the words of Chapter 3 by heart.  They were turned into the folk song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ by Pete Seeger in 1939 and later became a number 1 hit for the Byrds.  Felicity will be singing the song during our communion this morning.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth as it is called in the Hebrew Bible, begins one verse earlier than our set reading this morning.  The missing verse says: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”  These words were traditionally taken to identify the author as Solomon but scholars are now agreed that the book was written by a later author who used this introduction as a literary device to claim the wisdom associated with Solomon.

To understand what The Teacher is trying to tell us we must first consider his use of the word ‘vanity’.  The literal meaning of the Hebrew word hebel from which this is translated is ‘a breath of wind’.  The Teacher uses this word as a metaphor to indicate transience, uselessness or deceptiveness.

Looking at our reading again with this in mind The Teacher does appear to be a bit of an old misery.  If he were going to appear on a television show today it could only be on Grumpy Old Men.  A few years ago maybe he could have taken the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s army:  “We’re all doomed - doomed!”  Or maybe, for those of you whose memories go back a little further, he could have been Senna the soothsayer In Frankie Howard’s Up Pompeii: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”

The depressing outlook of the Teacher has, at times, caused some to question the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible as a book of Holy Scripture.  However, careful reading of the whole book does reveal two important conclusions of the Teacher:

  1.  We must accept our lot and enjoy the gifts that God has given us: our work, our food and our drink.
  2. We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Moving on to our Gospel reading:  on first reading, the Rich Fool in Luke’s telling of the parable was being eminently sensible.  There had been a good harvest and, rather than let the food go to waste, he thought he would build some larger barns to keep it in.  Surely this was a praiseworthy thing to do?  Did not Joseph do much the same thing in Egypt fifteen hundred years or so earlier, and he was revered as a hero?

What is more, surely the Rich Fool was only doing what The Teacher in Ecclesiastes had recommended: he was accepting his lot (the good harvest) and resolving to enjoy the gifts that God had given him? 

So where did he go wrong?  Why, in the parable, did God round on him and call him a fool?  It was because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second:  “We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.”  There was no thought of God’s commandments in his proposal: it was entirely selfish.  He just wanted to put his feet up, eat, drink and be merry.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with his proposal to build bigger barns: it was his reason for doing so that was wrong.   He wanted to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason and with no regard to God.   As Ella Fitzgerald and later Bananarama might have said if they were being more biblical:  “It ain’t what you do – it’s the reason that you do it.”

Ecclesiastes took 12 chapters and an awful lot of groaning and moaning to reach his conclusions.  Jesus summed them up in a sentence:  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Rich toward God.”  That is the key to the lesson from these two readings, but what exactly does it mean?  That’s not an easy question to answer in just a few minutes, but I can give you a few pointers.  It is to do with the value we place upon God and upon our resolve to follow his commandments.  It is about what we can give to Him and what we will allow Him to give to us.  It is about what we are prepared to do to help build His Kingdom here on earth.  “Thy Kingdom come” we repeat every time we say the Lord’s Prayer but just what are we prepared to do to help to build it?  Being “Rich toward God” involves our whole life, our whole being.  It is about everything that we do and, as we have learnt from today’s parable, our motivation for doing it.

To return to our readings, and to link them together, the rich fool was chastised by God because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second.  He was happy to accept God’s gift of a bountiful harvest but he was not prepared to be Rich toward God.

To express that using two different words, one of which we hear a great deal of these days:  he wanted what he saw as his rights (what God had promised him) without his responsibilities (what he had promised God).  As Frank Sinatra once sang (and I promise this is my last song quote!) “You can’t have one without the other”.

Though the message is clear, we human beings are very slow learners indeed when it comes to this lesson.  We want the Government to provide more services but we don’t want to pay more tax.  Trades Unions want more money for their members without regard for the profitability of their company.  Citizens demand their Human Rights with no mention at all of their Human Responsibilities.  Without a doubt, if I could change just one law in this country, high on my list would be to sweep away the Bill of Human Rights and replace it with a Bill of Human Rights and Responsibilities.  For each ‘right’ I would like to see stated the ‘responsibilities’ that go with that right: you can’t have one without the other.  For example:

The Right of Free Expression imposes, both on the media and all of us as individuals, a responsibility to be polite and civil and to be absolutely certain of our facts before expressing our views. 

The Right to Free Assembly imposes upon us the responsibility to behave in a calm and peaceful way and not to use the might of the crowd to intimidate others who do not share our view.

The Right to own Property imposes upon us the responsibility to respect the property of others.

The Right to a School Education imposes upon the children who receive it the responsibility to respect their teachers, to behave well in class and to do the work they are set.

We often hear politicians condemning this country or that because of their ‘poor human rights record’.  I have no quarrel with that as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, what the politicians are judging is the extent to which the country in question has built, or is building God’s Kingdom here on earth.  As we have learnt from our readings today that can only be achieved by being ‘Rich toward God’ and all that that entails.

In our prayers today, and every day, let us ask God “How rich am I toward you?’ and be prepared to listen to the answer.   Amen

Leave the Olives

Given by: 

Rev Stephen Webster

Date given: 

1st August 2010

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

12

The farmer in Jesus’ parable have you ever felt sorry for him? I mean what is a man to do? He’s worked hard, he’s been efficient, he’s had a bit of good luck, and what do you know it? This year the harvest is incredible.

 What would Jesus have him do?         Let all the food go to waste in the fields? No surely building bigger better barns is the responsible reaction to this overflowing harvest. It gives him security. No  more fear about poor harvests in future years. This year’s excess will tide him over.

 So what’s so bad about building a bigger barn to cope with your overflowing harvest? Let’s leave our first century Jewish farmer and let’s go back one and half millennia – let’s go back nearly to the beginning of the story. Let’s travel south from the lush Jordan valley to the arid wilderness between Egypt and Israel. And there we meet a motley band of nomadic desert tribes; the descendants of freed slaves.

 And the God who led them into freedom;        the God who is forming them into a nation is a God who is leading them to a Promised Land.

 ‘When the LORD your God brings you into the land He swore to your fathers’ God says in the book of Deuteronomy, to this desert people, ‘when He brings you to a land with … wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery.’ (Deuteronomy 6:10ff)

‘And when in this land you are harvesting’ says God, ‘and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow… When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.

 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Never forget that once you were slaves in Egypt. This is why I command you to do this.’ (Deuteronomy 24:19ff)

 Leave sheaves in the field? Wouldn’t you be tempted to protest? Leave olives on the branches? Leave grapes on the vine? Leave them for others to pick up? Just give them away? But the harvest is mine. The harvest is mine.

            ‘Oh the harvest is yours is it?’ says God, ‘Remind me – why is it you live in this rich fertile land and not in a wilderness? That was your doing was it? The rich soil, the sun, the rain that was all your doing was it? You earned your abundance – is that it? And that’s why you can’t spare even the excess for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.’

 You see that’s where the rich man in Jesus’ parable begins to go wrong. ‘The ground of a certain rich man’ says Jesus, ‘yielded an abundant harvest.’

 The ground yielded an abundant harvest. One year he was extremely fortunate. The ground yielded an abundant harvest. Rain, sun, and rich soil and this one year - a bumper harvest.

 A gift. Unearned abundance. Poured into his lap and overflowing.     More grain than he knew what to do with. Well what is a man to do?

 Laugh and sing and thank God and fill his barns and shout at the top of his voice, “God has given me more than I could ever know what to do with. My barns are overflowing with – come please – help yourselves.”

 What would Jesus have him do?

 Let the food rot in the fields? No

 Feel guilty that in a world of want he had excess? No

 What would Jesus have Him do? Thank God for his undeserved good fortune and to be generous and open handed and lavish        in sharing the excess with others.

 Because remember : if good fortune is undeserved then so is bad fortune.

 ‘Remember the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow,’ says God, ‘Never forget that once you were slaves in Egypt. This is why I command you to do this.’

 Never forget. Comfort ease excess: they can make you forget.

 ‘When you eat and are satisfied,’ says God, ‘be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of slavery.’

 In his comfort the farmer forgot. He thought he’d earned it. And he forgot God altogether.

 ‘Take life easy’ he tells himself, ‘you have plenty laid up for many years.’

 ‘I am now secure and master of my own destiny’ thinks the farmer. ‘Safe from all disaster.’

 ‘You fool!’ says God, ‘For tonight happens to be the night you will die. And then what have you prepared for yourself?’

 Well so much for the farmer in Jesus’ story - evidently a very wealthy man - but what about us? What does Jesus have to say to us?

 Do you know sometimes I think like the farmer I’m prone to forgetfulness? But occasionally I remember.

 Maybe I’m sitting having a coffee in the sunshine outside Beans looking at the Georgian architecture of our beautiful town. Or maybe I’m enjoying the peace in a boat paddling down the River Nene. Or maybe I’m sitting sipping a glass of wine chatting to friends as I watch Daniel and Samuel play cricket on a Wednesday evening.

 Or maybe it is simply that I remember that I live in a house where my children each have a room and there are rooms to spare. Children who don’t work for a living but receive an education.

 And on my driveway stands a car. And behind my house is a garden not filled with crops but with flowers    just for enjoyment. And when I turn on a tap pure drinking water gushes out. No muddy water lugged from far off wells for me. Pure water that I can pour by the gallon into a bath tub and lounge in. Water I can pour away onto flowers.

 And cupboards packed with food and wardrobes full of clothes. And tomorrow a holiday; days of ease without work no need to labour to keep my family alive.

 For the vast number of people on earth mine is a life of unimaginable luxury. Unearned abundance poured into my lap and overflowing. What did I ever do to deserve being born in Britain in the twentieth century? A land of education and ease and comfort.

 Imagine if you earned £13 000 per year. Maybe some here earn more maybe some less. Just over £1000 a month. Well if you earn £13000 per year - and many earn considerably more - you are in the top 5% of the world’s most wealthy people .

 Of course it’s not always as easy as all that sounds. We live at a time of financial stress and worry.             But let’s make no mistake about it. Generally speaking we are a people amazingly privileged in human history; amazingly privileged among the people of today’s world.

 Well what would Jesus have us do about it? Feel guilty that in a world of want we live in excess? No

 No. I think He wants us to thank God for our undeserved good fortune and to be generous and open-handed and lavish in sharing our excess with others.

 “God has given us more than we could ever know what to do with. Our barns are overflowing – come please – help yourself.” Lavish and generous in giving it away to people in need and to the organisations that help them.

 Open-handed in sharing all that we have. Opening our homes – sharing our possession holding lightly to what we have.

 Remembering the generosity of a God who gives all things - who for us gave up all things - and seeking to follow Him.

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