Friday, 17 February 2017

Be perfect? A slap in the face.

Leviticus 19: 1,2 12-19,  Matthew 5: 38-48

This week is our last chunk of the sermon on the mount before the lectionary asks us to look at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then we go into Lent and start preparing for Easter. And what does Jesus offer us, in this final bit of teaching? A slap in the face.
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left… love your enemies..
be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

It all feels so impossible, so unattainable, so much like a slap in the face. I have been thinking all week about being perfect. How can I do that? How can I even try?
Why is Jesus asking me to do the impossible?

Then I read this translation of the passage in “The Message”. The Message is written by an American scholar of NT Greek, Eugene Peterson, as his attempt to make the Greek original come to life for a 21st century audience.
So here is how Eugene Peterson reads Matthew ch5 v38-48 

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Suddenly ‘be perfect’ has become ‘grow up & live generously and graciously’. This is because Peterson is translating the word ‘telos’ – which does have a sense of perfection, but also means ‘the end or the goal’. Jesus is not trying to set an impossible ‘bar’ for our behaviour, but to drag us, with him, into being fully alive, fully grown up, fully what God has made us to be.

It’s not a slap in the face to reprimand or rebuke, but a call to wake up and follow Jesus into being people of the kingdom.
Jesus has already warned his listeners that they need to wake up and look again at the laws of Moses, the sort of thing we heard from the book of Leviticus.
Jesus warns that we shouldn’t for a moment think that following him means we don’t need any laws any more – and maybe that’s the sort of thinking that Jesus has in mind when he says to those who are following him ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets – I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill’. There’s that idea of perfection, or completion again.

If we look at the laws we heard today from Leviticus, I don’t think there are any there we would want to say should not apply to us as Christians : Leave a harvest for the poor, do not steal, lie, swear falsely, or exploit others. Judge justly, do not slander, and do not hate, but love others.
There is a concern for doing the right thing, living the right way, and caring especially for the poor, which is shot right through so many of the laws of the Hebrew scriptures.
If some people think that following Jesus is an alternative to following the law, Jesus says do not follow the law less, but follow it more closely – exceed what you think is the letter of the law – aim for perfection, completion, the end and goal that is the kingdom of God

The problem with rules and regulations is that there are different ways of ‘following’ them, aren’t there. Think of someone who is operating a ‘work to rule’ at work, for example. The attitude becomes ‘you can only make me do what it absolutely states in my contract of work I must do and no more’. The rules become the limit of what is required of that person, rather than the foundation for the work they do, which may well include things which aren’t actually written down anywhere at all. The danger of this attitude to rules or laws is that it can lead to a grudging acceptance of how to behave.

We know that Jesus faced this sort of attitude from people of his time, because we have the example of the rich young ruler who says to Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark ch 10).
When Jesus says ‘you know the commandments..’ the young man says ‘I’ve kept all those’.
But when Jesus says ‘then give everything you have to the poor’ he goes away saddened, because he can’t bear to do that.
He didn’t realize that the law to care for the poor might actually extend to giving up his own wealth. He thought there was a limit to the law.

But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear ‘you must be perfect, as God is perfect’. Our following of God’s way cannot have a limit, any more than God’s love has a limit.

Maybe Jesus’ slap in the face is meant to bring us to our senses.
I will love my friends but hate my enemies ….slap
I will love those who love me..slap
I will be good to those who are like me…slap

In God’s kingdom we are expected to do better than that!

Of course Jesus doesn’t just talk about accepting a slap in the face: he will practice what he preaches.

As we follow Jesus into Lent to the cross we will find that following his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane the officers holding him will spit at him and slap him in the face. Jesus will not fight back, and we will be inspired by his example of self-sacrifice on the cross & then transformed by God’s love greater than death as we celebrate resurrection.

This is the perfection, the goal and the end of Jesus’ life: to bring us into the reality of God’s love in God’s kingdom, so that we may be part of that love and that kingdom.
May that love so fill us that we will be more the people God has made us to be – following Jesus, perfectly, to the end.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The lens of love

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 Matthew 5: 21-27

We heard teaching from Jesus from ‘the sermon on the mount’. Last week – if you were following the lectionary – we heard how Jesus talks of the blessing of God on the poor, those who mourn, the reviled to the great crowd of all sorts of people who have gathered around him to hear what he has to say.
This is good news – the blessing, care and love of God for those ho most need it. How the crowd must have felt cheered by what they heard,
The love of God is great enough to stop down to the lowest and the least, to the rule-breakers and the unclean, and to bless them.

But in today’s reading it might seem that the mood has changed.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

If the unclean have reveled in Jesus’ teaching about God’s blessing, they should not imagine that Jesus is lifting the laws of God.
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law – I have come not to abolish but to fulfil it”.

Jesus does not try to set up a conflict between the gospel of love and the law of Moses – I don’t believe he would would have much time for the argument that the New Testament does away with the old.
Instead, Jesus is telling his listeners that Love is the lens through which we read the law.

This is not new – it is entirely consistent with the way in which we heard the laws described in Deuteronomy.
 Moses says “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish”.
God says to the people of Israel – choose life. Choose to walk in God‘s way. Choose to be mindful of God’s laws, and to keep them – not because otherwise you fear punishment, but because this is the way to live full and happy lives. So do not kill – not because you will be punished by God if you do, but because when everyone keeps this law society is richer and better. Do not break God’s laws, because in laying down the laws, God has shown people the best ways to live. Love is the lens through which we read the law.

In the same way  Jesus warns his followers ‘if you are angry you will be liable to judgement’.
If you are angry with someone you are choosing the path that leads to sin – the path that ultimately can lead to murder. Jesus wants his followers to orientate themselves towards the will of God – to know how to turn at every twist in the path of life. Jesus wants us to choose well, and to choose always what enhances life and affirms and builds up, rather than destroying life and hope.

To underline how important it is to make the right choices, even when they seem small choices, Jesus points out that anger can eventually lead to murder, that looking lustfully can eventually lead to adultery, that divorce should not be entered into lightly and thoughtlessly, any more than marriage should be in the first place.

And in case his listeners think that sin is only about big things and not the little choices, Jesus uses some dramatic language:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Jesus doesn’t want us to be able to blame a wandering eye or itchy fingers for what we might think of as ‘minor’ sins. Jesus wants us to be wholehearted in our walk in God’s way - loving God with all our heart, soul mind and strength and choosing the right path, even in the little things of life.
So love becomes the lens not only through which we read the law, but also the lens through which we examine our lives.
The good news so far is that we are not walking in fear, trying to be good in order to avoid God's wrath & judgement. Life is not about obeying God’s orders, it is about following God’s order forla good life.
But it’s still not feeling like really good news, is it?
It still seems that so far we’ve been thinking about what we need to do to get our lives right. If love is the lens through which we read the law and the lens through which we examine our lives, this reading and examination feels intensely uncomfortable.

The danger with Laws is that they can seem like they are creating a limit to love and even lead to excluding people. Those who keep the law are clean, those who do not are unclean. But Jesus starts with blessings for the poor and wretched – he points us to a deeper understanding that love has no limits. For Jesus, God’s law is not an external structure which keeps us on the straight and narrow, it is deep within, a guiding ethic or principle. God, from love, gives us the Law to help us choose a rich, good life, and God reaches out to us to fill our hearts with love so that we have the inner resources to live lives of love which are mindful of God’s law.
The lens of love not only allows us to see more clearly, it also focuses the power of God into our lives, like a magnifying glass on a sunny day.

Jesus says know you are loved & blessed, be ready to share that Good news with the world, but don’t think you can live however you like – live as children of God who walk in God’s light. Jesus will move on, in the sermon on the mount,  to teach about revenge, love, giving, prayer and money. But the conclusion of this ‘sermon’ is simple ‘do not worry. Your father in heaven knows what you need’.

God knows the strength we need to be enabled to make all the right and good choices in life. So it is good that we meet today in the Lord’s house. Here we have a reminder of all that God’s love has done for us and all that God wants to give to us. In bread and wine we celebrate Jesus’ giving of his very self – Jesus outpouring of his life to demonstrate God’s love which knows no limits: not even death.
It is God’s love which can make us able to live God's way, so that we can be children of God who shine with the light of our heavenly father’s love.

To God’s praise and glory. Amen

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Epiphany 3 - Called by Jesus

Isaiah 9: 1-4, Matthew 4: 12-23

The calling of the first disciples – fishermen called to leave their nets and follow Jesus – is a familiar story, but this week as I have thought about it I have been haunted by a question.
What has this story to do with our call to follow Jesus? Why are we still reading and listening to this story and what is our call?

I have wrestled with the question all week – whilst I’ve been in meetings, answering emails, taking phone calls, writing letters. What is the call of Jesus in all these places – and what has my life to do with the fishermen on the shore of the sea of Galilee two thousand years ago?

While I was living with and wrestling with that question I had to make a long-ish car journey. One of the joys of my role across the South Western synod is that I spend quite a lot of the time in the car on my own, which means I get to listen to the radio – usually Radio 4. 

And so on Friday morning I found myself driving up the M5 just as Desert Island Discs came on…
‘and our castaway is the choreographer Wayne Macgregor’. 

I confess that my hand was reaching out for the buttons to change stations…but then Kirsty Young described this man I had never heard of “Born in Stockport in 1970 to Scottish parents, he was inspired by the John Travolta films he watched and took ballroom, disco and Latin American dance classes…”. 
I thought at least his choices of music would be interesting. 

Then Wayne Macgregor started talking about his life as a dancer and about the importance of the body ‘when I look at you I have a sense of your physical signature… you look in a state of readiness, yet relaxed, open’. 
I was struck by the irony of this disembodied voice coming out of the radio telling me how vital the physical body is to fully communicate.
As the programme continued, I wanted to hear more from this fascinating person, Wayne Macgregor – yet I realized I was not being drawn to what he does – I have never knowingly seen his work as a choreographer – 
but there was something about his passion, his interests, his way of being, which made me listen to the whole programme.

This lesson in the importance of being and not just doing took me back to the call of the disciples.

The account in Matthew’s gospel begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. 
This is the prophet who describes his call to be God’s prophet: who is touched on the lips with a burning coal, from the altar in the temple, by an angel and who becomes God’s messenger as a result. 
Isaiah has been called to be something very special – God’s prophet -  and in the passage we heard (and which Matthew quotes) Isaiah describes the call of God to the land of Zebulun & Naphthali.
This part of the land God has given his people has been despised as small and insignificant, but is to be a place of light and joy and rejoicing.

Matthew says that with the coming of Jesus this time of light and joy is here – and Jesus calls the disciples to be part of the coming of that kingdom. 

We are told that they leave their nets, that they are told by Jesus they will no longer be fishermen – but they, and we, are not told what they will do instead. 

Jesus says ‘follow me’ and ‘come and see’ – come and join in, be part of this kingdom movement, be part of my gang and learn what I know about the love of God.
They are told only what they will be ‘followers of Jesus’, ‘fishing for people’, turning to the kingdom’. Jesus does not tell them they will teach and preach and heal and found a church, and in some cases suffer a martyr’s death – he does not say what they must do, but what they must be – children of God, people of the kingdom, followers of Jesus.
So what about us – what are we called to be ?

A friend was telling me recently about the course she is on to become a spiritual director. They have been learning about how to help other people to find their calling in life. Many people concentrate on what they must do – what job, or what activities outside of work, or what tasks in the church – but they were learning to ask people how they will be, rather than what they will do. How will they be loving, patient, joyful, kind, people of the kingdom in whatever they do?

The little quote that we are human beings not human doings is so pithy that I’ve seen it attributed to at least five different people. But however first said it, it’s worth thinking about – what, who, how should we be comes before what we should do. And when what we can do is diminished, what we can be remains.

I have visited many people in my ministry who had become too old or infirm to do a the things they used to do – especially people who had previously been very active in the church. I have seen how hard it can be to no longer be able to do all those things – but the people who take it best are the ones who get that their status as a loved child of God is not in danger because they cannot do, because their identity as a child of God is something they can just…be. Jesus calls us to follow – to be. There is nothing greater than to be…loved.

This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity so perhaps it is a good time to think about what Jesus calls us to be not only as individuals but as a whole church.
We sometimes get caught up in what we can do – and not do – together as Christian denominations. With whom can we share communion? Whose ministry do we recognise? Who shares our understanding of mission and service to our community? I have lots of discussions with church leaders of other denominations where we get talking about unity for mission and doing loads of stuff – but the great times are when we can just be sisters and brothers together.

So what if Jesus is calling us to be rather than do things together? What if we could look at other churches and see them as filled with people called, like us, to be children of God? Surely we are called to be more loving, patient and kind towards our sisters and brothers in Christ.
And when we have worked out how to be together, we can turn our attention to being the body of Christ – a body which, Wayne Macgregor would say, communicates 80% of the time through the way it is as a body – through its body language and movement. If we can be Christ-like and be his body and be together we might be able to communicate God’s love in Christ in what we do and how we act and move.

I pray we will hear Jesus call us to be what he desires us to be – so that we can be part of the moving of God’s spirit and the building of God’s kingdom, that every child of God might know how loved they are. 
In Jesus’ name.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Back in the preaching 'saddle' after a long Christmas & new year break.
Isaiah 49: 1-7
John 1: 29-42

Perhaps one of the best known images of John the Baptist is the Isenheim Altarpiece. The work is over 500 years old and is presently in the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace.
Even if you haven’t heard of it you might have seen the detail of John the Baptist from it.

John is shown in his camel hair tunic, rather unkempt and in need of a good hair cut, with one muscular arm extended and a long index finger pointing very definitely at the figure of Christ in the centre of the altarpiece. His words from John’s 3rd chapter are shown, in Latin, behind him “He must increase, but I must decrease”.

This is the John the Baptist we have met in our Gospel reading today.

When he sees Jesus, he tells his disciples and everyone around him “here is the Lamb of God”. Two of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus, but everything we are told about John suggests that rather than experiencing a very understandable jealousy, he would be delighted by this. John says “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” and then, later in the gospel those words “He must increase, but I must decrease”. John spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.

Turn to God (points) here’s the lamb of God
Change your life (points) he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
Look for what God is doing in the world (points) here is the Son of God.

John is the human signpost, who spends his whole ministry pointing to Jesus.
As the new year gets under way we would do well to ask ourselves how we as Christians, and together as church, can be this sort of pointer and signpost to God’s love in Jesus Christ for the people around us.

But I know it can be really dispiriting, even terribly hard, sometimes, to be God’s people in the world.
There is so much suffering and bad news – war, terrorism, disease, addiction, poverty… how can we really help – surely it is all too much for us?

The good news, if we feel tired or uncertain or overwhelmed, is that we are definitely not alone.

Isaiah writes of his call to be God’s servant and then says “But …I have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”.
Yet God takes him and assures him that he will make him, with the whole nation of God’s people “a light to the nations”.

This week I was talking with someone who is feeling a call to serve God through answering a call to ministry in the URC. What is it that gives someone the confidence to start thinking about serving the church in that way?
She talked about a sense of ‘burning’ to tell other of God’s love, and we spoke of how amazing it is that God needs people like her .. and me... to show the world what love means. God needs her.. and me… and you in this world.

We are all called to be signposts of love. We should all stand, like John the Baptist, pointing.

But how do we best do that?

Let’s go back to the Isenheim altarpiece.
It was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, which specialised in hospital work. The monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases. The image of the crucified Christ at the centre of the altar-piece is pitted with plague-type sores.
For patients who sat before that altarpiece, John the Baptist pointed to this wounded, suffering, sore-covered Jesus, and showed those patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions.

Isn’t that what our whole suffering world needs? To know that God’s love is not distant or unfeeling or trapped in history. God understands the suffering of our world, has felt it and overcome it, and longs to soothe it even now.

John the Baptist pointed to Jesus Christ, here on this earth, among people, touching, healing, loving, teaching.
He said he knew this was God’s own Son because this was the one on whom the Holy Spirit has come to rest at his baptism, so he knew that the Spirit had enabled Jesus to show God fully to his world.

But before Jesus physically left his followers he gives them a final gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit rests on all of those who follow Jesus, so that they are more than just signposts, they are a living church, Christ’s own body, living to be God’s own.

We – God’s church – Christ’s people – here today – are promised and given that same Holy Spirit. Through the power and work of that Spirit we are made into Christ’s body – the hands and feet and mouths which will show a suffering world God’s love and care among them, with them, alongside them.

Howard Thurman, a mentor of Martin Luther King wrote:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,  To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,  To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

As the memory of Christmas fades and this new year unfolds, God’s Spirit can help us to be pointers to Christ, like John the Baptist, and even to be Christ for our neighbours, so that God’s love can be shared.
So may God’s kingdom come,
In the name of Christ