Monday, 14 August 2017

"If it is you.." - sermon for 13th August

 Matthew 14: 22-33, 1 Kings 19:9-18

As a united church – sharing in the traditions of both the Methodist church and the United Reformed Church  - you might be aware that things are not looking too good in either part of the church at the moment. Numbers are falling, churches are closing, ministers are getting harder to find… and we are wondering what the future holds.

It is easy to relate to Elijah, especially in the part of his story we heard today. Things are not looking too good for Elijah. The people of God have abandoned worship in favour of idols, many prophets have been killed, and Elijah is threatened too. “I alone am left” says Elijah, and he’s ready to give up. Then the earthquake, wind and fire pass by, followed by God’s presence in the stillness. And Elijah is told to go and anoint new kings, and Elisha as a new prophet – and God promises “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, who have not worshipped Baal”. Elijah feels alone, rejected, threatened, but in fact he is NOT alone. God has a plan, and there are 7,000 people where Elijah felt like he was the only one.
I often think of Elijah when I’m feeling down and sorry for myself “it’s all up to me” “ only I am bothering…”. I am not alone, God is faithful.
And when we are considering the future of the church, or our part of the church, we need to remember Elijah too. We are not alone. We are never abandoned. God is with us and God can act to make a new start.

And the gospel reading shows us what it means to have God with us in Jesus Christ. The story begins with Jesus sending the disciples back across the lake while he dismisses the crowd of over 5000  - the crowd he has just fed - and spends time alone in prayer. And then, in the depth of the night, as the disciples struggle against a head wind, the most amazing thing happens – Jesus walks across the lake towards them.
I am not surprised the disciples were terrified – wouldn’t you be?
The storm is wild, the night is dark, they just want to get to land. And through the dark and the storm comes a figure …walking on the sea. What??

Maybe they had already lamented the fact that Jesus wasn’t with them when the storm started – after all Jesus had already shown them on another occasion that he had the power to still the storm. But the last thing they expected was for Jesus to come and join them in the boat by walking on the water. This is not normal – maybe it is even an evil spirit or something – a sign that something awful is going to happen to them.

And then the figure speaks – it is Jesus, and he tells them not to be afraid. Hearts start to beat a little more normally, and maybe if Jesus is there he will sort the storm out for them, too.
And then Peter does a very strange thing. Peter calls out 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water'.
Peter says ‘if it is you… prove it? Is Peter genuinely unsure that it is Jesus? But then surely a more natural thing to say would have been 'if it is you speak again? or come closer?
Or maybe “if it is you.. save us! Come and still the storm; or come and help us get back to shore; or come into the boat with us”.
But Peter says “if it is you, command me to come to you”. Is Peter perhaps sure now that it is Jesus & is he trying to gain 'top disciple' standing by doing what Jesus does? Is Peter so carried away by seeing Jesus do this amazing thing that he wants to join in?

I can't help comparing this with John's account of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the beach. Remember?

After the death & first resurrection appearances of Jesus, the disciples go fishing, and then spot a figure on the beach. John says “it is the Lord” & again it is Peter who is first out of the boat. He wraps something round himself, because he’s naked in the boat, and swims to shore while the others bring the boat in.

Maybe Peter is just impetuous and can’t wait to be with his Lord – putting his friends, the other fishermen, and even the safety of the boat itself to one side in his eagerness to join Jesus.
“If it is you, command me to come to you”. You have to admire Peter’s loyalty and reckless abandon!
And at first it works: he, too, walks on the water. Then he notices, or maybe he remembers, the storm – the high wind, the huge waves – and he is afraid and starts to sink. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” and Jesus reaches out and catches him and together they get into the boat. Then the part that perhaps we all remember. Jesus says to Peter “Why did you doubt? Oh you of little faith”.

This might seem a bit unfair, Peter getting criticized for trying and failing to follow Jesus, when the others haven’t even tried. We might feel that we are firmly on Peter’s side. In fact we might feel we are always on Peter’s side. We all like Peter, don’t we? - because he is fallible, like us.

But why does Matthew tell us this strange story of Peter’s rash decision to get out of the boat?
In fact only Matthew’s gospel includes this part about Peter in this story, although Mark & John tell the story of Jesus walking on the water. One suggestion is that Matthew puts Peter in this story, as in other stories, to stand for every disciple of Jesus.

Peter is the rock on which Jesus builds the church. Peter is the faithful, foolish, fallible disciple.
Peter is not just like us – he is each one of us.
If this is a story not just about Peter but about each one of us, what does this story tell us about our following of Jesus? Our faith, our doubt? Our need to call out "Lord, save me!"...
Maybe what Peter calls out to Jesus becomes a question to each one of us ‘if it is you..’

If it is you in this story, how are you getting on with following Jesus. If it is you, are you prepared to get out of the security of the boat and risk the storm? If it is you, dare you trust Jesus to help you? If it is you, what do you do when you feel you are sinking? If it is you, what help do you need? If it is you, do you find it easy to believe – or easier to doubt yourself, your family, your friends. If it is you, do you doubt that you’re worth saving, or doubt that Jesus can help?

If it is you, here’s good news. The identity of the disciples in this story may be interchangeable – it could be Peter, it could be me, it could be you. But the identity of the one who can help us all is the same. It is Jesus who comes to us when the storm is at its height. It is Jesus who can give us the power to follow him onto the water’s surface. And it is Jesus who will catch us when we fail.

God is with us and we are not alone. And as a sign of that, we share this bread and wine, taking Jesus’ presence seriously, and celebrating his power.

Let us pray:
“Jesus, if it is you who comes to us, hold out your hand whenever we sink. Hold out your hand to touch and save. Hold out your hand and feed us here at your table. Amen.”

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Jacob & Esau – God’s grace for the undeserving.

Genesis 25: 19-34

I love the Godly Play story of Abraham because it tells the whole sweep of the story, but also talks about our place in that story.
When we’re reading any of the historical stoires of the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures, we can read them as accounts which explain for us something of the history of God’s people but they are also stories which help us see what it means for us each to be a part of that people of God.

So in reading or hearing the story of Jacob and Esau, we can read it for what it says to us about their walk with God – and what this means for our walk with God.
The United Reformed Church has resolved to spend the next few years focusing on “Walking the Way” – asking how we can learn how to follow Jesus more closely and so do God’s will more faithfully in our lives.
What do Jacob and Esau have to teach us about this?

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk & writer of 20th century, wrote this:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

How can we try to walk the way God wills for us and how can we gain God’s blessing in our lives?
Jacob – teaches us to cheat, lie, deceive, run away, hide, fight, eventually give up and through yourself on God’s mercy.
In this story of Jacob and Esau the terrible surprise is that God blesses Jacob, not Esau.
So what did Esau do wrong? Maybe it was that he didn’t care – he didn’t ‘desire to do God’s will’.

Some Jewish rabbis teach that Esau’s first mistake is to go out hunting at all.
Jacob is cooking a lentil stew (“mess of Pottage” in King James’ version) – traditional dish cooked when people are in mourning – partly because it is cooked with store cupboard type ingredients – lentils, onions, spices – and partly because there is a Jewish tradition of giving grieving people ‘round’ food, to remind them of the circle of life, and lentils are round. Fairly tasteless, but round. There is therefore a theory that Jacob was cooking the stew because Isaac, his father was still mourning Abraham, his grandfather.

So Esau is breaking his time of mourning by going hunting – and then arrives home “starving” and wants to eat.
Of course Jacob is being manipulative in offering the stew in return for Esau’s birthright – but Esau didn’t have to agree the deal – he clearly thinks so little of his birthright – or maybe be thinks that Jacob won’t be able to see the deal through – that he agrees. Esau doesn’t care.

And whatever you might think about Jacob – he cares about the birthright. He cares enough to force through this deal, and he cares enough about his father’s blessing that he later tricks him with another stew.

So Jacob – who cares, but is, to say the least, sneaky, is blessed by God and becomes known as Israel, and is the father of God’s chosen people.

But Esau, who doesn’t care, loses his rights as first-born and becomes the Father of the Edomites, who are for may generations treated as slaves by the people of Israel.

And it may be that the first tellers of the tale of Esau and Jacob also wanted us to know that Esau didn’t care about God, either.
After the Temple had been built by Solomon, the first born son of every family of the people of Israel had the responsibility to serve in the Temple. Listeners might have been particularly shocked that Esau sold his rights as first-born, not only because of the financial implications, but also because of a ducking out of religious duties.

Esau didn’t care about his rights as first-born, he didn’t care about mourning the dead, he didn’t care about religious duty, he didn’t care about God.
Meanwhile Jacob did care, and though he was, to say the least,  a scoundrel, he gains God’s blessing.

I think there is some tremendously good news for us here.

I don’t know how you feel to be doing this week as a follower of Jesus.
I’ve had the usual sort of week…
I haven’t prayed enough, or given enough time to reading the Bible. I have been ‘sharp’ with some people – even lost my temper and had a little rant at times, and I certainly have had thoughts about throttling some people, even if I haven’t actually gone through with it. I have probably missed chances to be more kind and loving because I’ve been too wrapped up in myself…. I could go on.
I am a very inadequate disciple of Jesus, and in part I’m here worshipping God this morning because I need to ask for forgiveness and a fresh start.

This story of Esau and Jacob gives me hope that God can still forgive me and reshape me and use me in the kingdom. As Thomas Merton says, I believe that when I come to God “the desire to please you does in fact please you”. I am a very inadequate disciple of Jesus – but I care and I’m trying.

And this offer of bread and wine on the table can seal the deal.
It’s not a deal like the one Jacob makes with Esau ‘this stew for your birthright” – God does not ask for my independence in return for this food.
It’s not a trick like the stew Jacob gives Isaac, to convince him that he is actually talking to Esau – we are not trying to set this table and convince God we are something we’re not.
This meal is a gracious gift from God, in fact it celebrates the grace of God in giving us the gift of God’s very self – made flesh and blood and dying and living for us.

Being an inadequate follower of Jesus is enough – because Jesus comes to meet us at this table and feeds us with himself, so that we can be strengthened to follow more closely in the future.

So come and eat and drink this sacrament to your comfort – and find here the grace of God, as it was offered even to Jacob, offered for you.
In the name of Jesus our Saviour. Amen.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

God hears us? Hagar & Ishmael...

Genesis 21: 8-21
I wonder if you’re still watching or listening to the News? Sometimes it just seems as if there is so much bad news, one thing after another, I have great sympathy with people who say they are having a rest and not keeping up for a while – they just can’t bear any more.
And yet, we who say we believe in a loving God surely need to watch and listen and hope and pray – and ask ‘where is the love of God in all this?’.

In just the last two weeks we have had the attack on London Bridge, the Grenfell tower fire, the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, and continuing terrible news of the ongoing war in Syria, as well as violence in Pakistan.
That some of this violence happens in the name of God is especially appalling.

But I really believe our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today can help us.

I expect we are very familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac; but today we heard the story of another son of Abraham – his older son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s slave-girl, Hagar.

If we read back to chapter 16 of the book of Genesis, it was Sarah’s idea that because she hadn’t been able to give Abraham children, he should have children via her slave. Once Hagar was pregnant, Sarah felt she was looking down on her mistress, and (with Abraham’s agreement) she was harsh to Hagar, and Hagar ran away.

While Hagar was pregnant and in the wilderness an angel came & told her to return to Sarah with God’s blessing. Hagar was told to name her son Ishmael – which mean ‘God will hear’.
Hagar returns, the boy is born, and he is called ‘Ishmael’ – God will hear.

And so Ishmael – God will hear – could be the title of the story we heard today.
Once again Sarah is displeased – this time seeing the older of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, playing with her son – the younger boy, Isaac. Again Sarah & Abraham don’t care about Hagar, and again she ends up in the wilderness – this time cast out, with the container of water having run dry. Our hearts go out to Hagar as she realizes her son is near to death – and she lays him in the shade and goes a distance away to sob, as she can’t bear to see him die.

But God will hear – hear not only her cries, but the story says ‘God heard the child crying’ and an angel of the Lord comes and shows Hagar where there is a well to revive them both.

Ishmael – God will hear.
God hears Hagar & Ishmael and cares for them, just as he will care for Sarah and Isaac.
God will hear the one who is cast out, who is a slave, who is not the favoured one.

Perhaps the news in our time would be different if people would recognise that God blesses all of the children of Abraham. God blesses Isaac, through whom the ‘chosen people’ of Israel would emerge, whom we would call Jewish; and God blesses Ishmael, through whom the people of the Arabian desert, many of whom will later become Muslim, will emerge. And as for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we too are children of Abraham, through the lineage of Jesus.

Our story tells us that God will hear – hear the Jew, hear the Muslim, hear the Christian. And nothing in this story suggests that God will not hear any other person besides – he is the God who will hear. He will hear the slightest whimper of a dying boy, and he will hear each sparrow fall to the ground, says Jesus.

Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian, who is a Presbyterian minister, has said of the story of Hagar and Ishmael:
“it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”

This is a story about the great mercy and compassion of the God who will hear, who will bless and who will walk with all people.
Ishmael’s story ends with “God was with the child as he grew up”, and in the very next part of this chapter of Genesis, it is said to Abraham “God is with you in all you do”.

This is close to scandalous – God will hear Ishmael, and will protect him against the evil, callous plans of Sarah & Abraham; God is with Ishmael. This makes some sense – a God who helps the helpless.

But then God is with Abraham, the perpetrator of evil, the callous father of this poor boy – God will hear him, too. What a shocking story this is – God does not take sides in this battle between Ishmael & Isaac, the sons of Abraham and the sons of Hagar and Sarah. There is not a difference between one race, who God will hear and protect, and the other race - those whom God will ignore.
Ishmael – God will hear – and he is listening to the cries of all humanity.

This is the news of a God of love which really could change our world, for here is not only justice for the oppressed, but mercy for the perpetrators.

On the 26th of May this year, terrorists attacked a bus of Coptic Christians in Cairo, and shot and killed 28 people. You might know that the Coptic church, originating in Egypt, is one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

Bishop Angaelos of the UK Coptic church, was asked if he had a statement to make about the so-called Islamic terrorists, and these were his words
“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but you ARE loved.”

It seems barely credible, but the promise of Ishmael is that God hears and loves those who show violence and hatred – even while he stands alongside the victim and the injured.

What would this message of love mean for the driver of the van at Finsbury Park mosque, for the people who should have ensured the safety of the residents of Grenfell towers, for people who plan knife attacks on innocent people going about their ordinary lives…?
Ishmael – God will hear.
God is with you.
You are loved.

And as for us – Ishmael – God will hear. God will hear us when we are confused, or despairing, and when then news all seems bad.
And God will use us to share his good news with the world, if we will let him – you are heard, you are blessed, you are loved.

In the name of God – all merciful, and ever-loving,