Thursday, 21 February 2019

Blessed – really? (Epiphany 6)

Luke 6: 17-26    

When did a sermon last take you by surprise?
For most of us – when we’re sitting in the pews, anyway – it’s time to settle down, pop in a mint imperial, and wait to hear some interesting things about God, or the Bible, or the life of Jesus.

I wonder whether the crowd who first heard what we heard Jesus say today had similar expectations to us? Or has they seen enough of Jesus in action to feel that they might hear something amazingly radical?
Because actually that’s what they got.
“Blessed are you who are poor…
 “Blessed are you who are hungry now …
 “Blessed are you who weep now …
 “Blessed are you when people hate you…"

All this preached to people who had been told that those who are blessed by God will be rich, and fed, and will laugh and be respected.

Their mindset was that surely God blesses and rewards his people with good things and punishes evildoers? People who are ill have been made that way by their sin or the sin of their parents; those whose lives are broken and filled with suffering should be treated with contempt, because they must be far from God’s love. This is Jesus reversing everything that his listeners thought they knew: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated.. are blessed by God.

And just in case they think they have misheard or misunderstood, Jesus presents them with another reversal of fortunes:

"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Jesus isn’t cursing the people who are rich, full, laughing or praised by others – Jesus never cursed any of the people he met, he only blessed, cured or engaged with them. Jesus is stating the fact that those whose lives are good now are not specially blessed by God – they are just materially fortunate, and they run the risk of being complacent, or judgmental of others, and so finding themselves far from God.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus is recorded as saying this in Luke’s gospel – Luke has set his story out in a way which should make us expect something like this.

When Mary is told by Gabriel that she is going to give birth to Jesus, she responds with the words we know as the Magnificat, which declares the upside-down values of God’s kingdom “God has scattered the proud …He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things,and the rich He has sent away empty.”.
When Jesus begins his ministry, as Luke has been telling us over the last few weeks,  he is rejected in his home synagogue; he has faced conflict over his cleansing of a leper and his healing of a paralytic; he has called Levi the tax-collector to join his disciples; and he has been questioned about his approach to fasting and the Sabbath. The Pharisees are baffled by Jesus’ unconventional life and his lack of interest on all the things normally regarded as ‘good’ and ‘Holy’ as Jesus tries to move them from law to compassion to grace.

So I wonder what the crowd who had gathered to meet Jesus thought of this strange new teaching, where sinners and outcasts are the most welcomed in the kingdom of God?
We are told that many in the crowd have come to Jesus to be healed – they want to see what this Jesus can do. But Jesus wants them to know that God’s kingdom isn’t just about people being made to feel better – it is about what God wills, what God’s values are, how they can live their lives turning towards God.
The Good News that Jesus comes to proclaim is that life in all its fullness is not about how they feel now, or what they do now, or who they think we are – the Kingdom is open to them - all of them – God’s love is for them, whoever they are, whatever their lives are like, however they feel.

It was true for Jesus hearers that day, and it’s true for us:

If you’re poor – the kingdom is for you
If you’re hungry – God will fill you with good things
If you are weeping – God will wipe every tear from your eyes
If people hate you for what you do in God’s name – you will be rewarded.

And if you’re rich, full, laughing, spoken well of… if life is easy for you – watch out! These things won’t last forever, and they might blind you to what is important. But God’s love is still waiting for you to turn away from the shallow things of this life and see the reality of God’s kingdom where ALL will be welcomed.
Perhaps we’ve lost a sense of how surprising this Good News is. You probably don’t hear many sermons here based on a ‘prosperity gospel’, which teaches that worldly riches are a sign of God’s blessing. But I think we all need to stop and think every now and again that this Kingdom, where the lowest and the least are said to be the most blessed, is come among us in Jesus Christ.

I heard a fascinating conversation about 2 weeks ago about a church wondering whether they could accept help, to run a Food Bank, from non-Christians. They wondered if non-Christians would dilute the message of the Food Bank that the churches wished to bless the poor with this gift of food. Maybe they would be surprised to hear Jesus say “blessed are the non-Christians, who have an innate sense of what it means to love their neighbour”.
What could Jesus say that would surprise us?
“blessed are those who wonder if God exists”
“blessed are those who never go to church”
“blessed are those for whom life is a constant series of disasters”.
Jesus wants all his listeners to know that the good news is for them, that the Kingdom is open to them, that God loves them, us, all.

Poor/rich
Hungry/full
Weeping/laughing
Hated/admired.

The blessing of God is for all and for each.
Believe it
Proclaim it
Live it
To God’s praise & glory.
Amen.




Friday, 1 February 2019

Commitment for Life & Epiphany 4

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13, Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Commitment for Life offers us a definition of what it means to be a child of God and a follower of Jesus Christ.
Life-giving faith; Defiant hope; Generous love.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth brings the three things together – faith, hope, love. Paul says what we say, however eloquent; what we proclaim, however prophetic; the sacrifices we make, however total: none of these things compare with what we do.
It is our acts of faith, hope and love which show the “more excellent way” to live.

I talked earlier about praying ‘without seeing’, but I also wanted to share with you some of the acts of faith, hope and love we were blessed to see for ourselves in Zimbabwe when we visited.

We met the leaders of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches. The ZCC has a vision for a strong Christian fellowship working for a united, peaceful, just and prosperous nation. They want to empower and renew the member churches

so that they have a sustainable , transforming Christian presence in Zimbabwe. As Christian leaders they have often been under pressure to support President Mugabe (who was in power when we visited) and now President Mngagwa, but they have a life-giving faith that God’s power will help them to change Zimbabwe by holding all politicians to the values of unity, compassion, justice, integrity, boldness and truth.

We also met people of defiant hope when we visited the capital, Harare. We met a group of lawyers who specialize in land rights: the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association.
Christian Aid helps to fund them to help small villages to stand up to huge multinational mining companies. Zimbabwe is rich in minerals, and the large companies like to move in, thoroughly exploit an area and then move on to another area. Whilst the mining companies are there there are jobs for local people – but they are often dangerous jobs which affect people’s health –
and when the company moves out, the villages are left with environmental damage – polluted water and land, deforestation, tips of spoil and large holes in the ground. The lawyers hold the companies accountable for the damage they do & use the law to try to ensure a good clean-up.
I have one of their documents here critiquing the ‘Mines & Minerals Amendment Bill’… they also run a library to help keep track of legal precedents, and collect evidence from more remote places of what the mining companies are doing.
The four lawyers we met had all received threats because of their work; they admitted they could make far more money working in other areas of law; but they did what they did because they believed in life in all its fullness for all the people of Zimbabwe. They epitomized defiant hope.

My final example is of generous love. We visited a farm supported by the Institute for Rural Technologies (IRT). The farmers – Kenneth & Pauline Ndlovu – had seen taught how to cope better with the drought conditions which are common in that part of Zimbabwe.
They were encouraged to grow sorgum instead of maize, and had been shown how to dig potholes to trap rainwater when it did fall, so that it went to the roots of the crops instead of running off the land, and encouraged to sow along the contours of the land, to slow down the run=off of water,
The Ndlovus have had a four-fold increase in their harvest over the three years they have uased these new techniques.. When we visited, the farm was full of their neighbours, who had all come to give thanks to Christian Aid and IRT. Instead of seeing those neighbours as less successful competitors, each year the Ndlovus has invited them to come and see what they were doing – so now the whole area had benefitted from the training and everyone was enjoying better harvests. Generous love.

Life-giving faith, defiant hope, generous love.

We are called to live like this when we support Christian Aid through Commitment for Life – but I have no doubt that we find that faith, hope and love in the lives of those we seek to help.

The danger with learning about how much people can help on another is that we can reduce the good news to this. Commitment for Life does not mean that all we need to do is work harder to make the world a better place – though it’s not a bad start ! – because we need to remember that this life-giving faith, defiant hope and generous love does not originate in us, but comes from God.

We heard today from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, where Jeremiah receives his call to be a prophet. It starts even before he is born -  ‘when I formed you in the womb I knew you’ says the Lord God. Then Jeremiah is told ‘to go to all to whom I send you and speak whatever I shall command you’. Jeremiah receives what might seem a terrifying call, appointed over nations and kingdoms to pluck up and pull down…
but he does none of this only by his own efforts. The sending is from God, the message is from God and God promises ‘I am with you to deliver you’.

When we are thinking of our response to the difficulties in Zimbabwe; or the terrible situations of others in our needy world; or our own trials and difficulties, the Good News is the same. God calls us to a life of life-giving faith, defiant hope and generous love. But he comes to live that life with us in Jesus Christ to show us what faith, hope and love really look like, and he promises us as he promises Jeremiah ‘I am with you to deliver you’.
-       with us in our prayers.
-       with us today in bread and wine.

Thanks be to God, Father Son & Holy Spirit.

Amen.