Sunday, 26 October 2008

Finished notes for 26/10/08

Who do you think you are?

Those who don’t watch TV might have allsorts of different answers to this question.
But many of us here will immediately be thinking of our family trees:
‘Who do you think you are?’ is the title of a BBC series, which helps famous people to look into their family trees. Often the programme is surprising, it can be very moving, and whenever I’ve watched I have found it fascinating.

A recent one that sticks in my mind saw Ainsley Harriott – the bubbly chef whose origins were in the West Indies – discover that he was not descended only from slaves, as he had always thought, but that his family tree also included a slave owner.
Poor Ainsley was left pondering questions of his own sense of identity – he had previously felt proud that his ancestors had struggled against and risen from slavery, and now he says he feels more mixed emotions – with the knowledge that his family were more complicit in the slave trade then he previously thought.
For many of us, ‘who we are’ is shaped by stories of the past: that is part of the fascination of the programme and of genealogy in general.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus has been facing questions from the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Saduccees – questions about taxes, questions about life after death, and now this question about the greatest commandment. The commandments are what shape the people of God – they are part of the great story of the past which gives the Jewish people a sense of identity as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the people who followed the great Moses through the wilderness to the promised Land. The commandments are part of the past that shapes the present: so the question is ‘where does Jesus stand?’ ‘who does he think we are?’ when he is asked which of the commandments is greatest?

You can see how the trap might work – if Jesus says the greatest commandment is ‘do not kill’ they can say he’s soft on idolatory: or maybe the question reflects a genuine desire to see whether Jesus thinks it is more important to love God than to preserve the life of others.
Jesus’ answer is brilliant: the books of Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus are full of laws, statutes and commandments of God – but Jesus brings together just two that manage to summarise all the others – Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:5) and Love your neighbour as yourself (Lev 19:18).
Jesus honours all God’s commandments, he doesn’t seek to leave any part of the past behind, and yet he frames all that has been said in the past in a new way. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus because they see him as a trouble-maker, who encourages law-breaking (such as eating with sinners and forgiving sins) and may well cause insurrection against Rome – they want to discredit him and ultimately they want to be rid of him.

Jesus is clear about who he is- someone firmly rooted in the past but pointing to a new way of relating to God – the God who is with us now, and not only in the past.

The past is important – and it helps us to live today. Today we’ve received the wonderful church record which reminds us of all the treasures of the past we have inherited here.
We have evidence of the many gifts and talents with which people of past centuries have expressed their love of God and neighbour.
But I’m sure Jesus would not want us to keep our eyes firmly on the past, but would want us to be inspired by the example of the past to use our gifts and talents in our love of God and neighbour.

And I also think there’s a third element to our love which Jesus also exemplifies and which we came across in our reading from the letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is writing to a new Christian community – only 20 years after the death of Christ. They are not people who share a great history, they would certainly not be all Jews, but Paul reminds them that they do share in the good news of the coming of God’s love in Jesus. He also talks about the love he, Paul, has for them, and the love they share as a family in Christ.
Love God and love your neighbour is Jesus’ summary of the law, and as Paul tries to instruct the Thessalonians in sharing the love of God with their neighbours he says also ‘love one another’ – be like brothers and sisters to each other. Paul models care for the church, and speaks of how he has treated them gently. Paul wants to build a loving community, which has a healthy interest in its shared past, and which remembers the teaching of Jesus to love God and love neighbour. Such a community will know who they think they are – to the glory of God.

And so we meet around Christ’s table – eyes on the past but feet firmly in the present as we seek to form a loving community which will show what it means to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.. and all to God’s glory.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The thoughts of others...

I found it helpful to look at the revgalblogpals site today (I often do!) - there's a link just to your right >>>> see!
I posted this back to my e-friends (mostly across the pond)

"I did a bit of reading around the Thessalonians & came up with a good question 'who do we say that we are?' - would fit with Reformation Sunday, too.
But I'm not sure yet how to address the question:
People of God, of course - not just following Moses, but following whoever God sends
People of Love - for God & neighbour
People of the way - loving one another, forming a new community who follows Jesus..."

and since then I've thought - people of the past (thinking about the church record)
people of the future - surely God hasn't finished with us yet.

Nearly meeting time, so I'll try to come back with more thoughts - or even the final notes - by Friday (Saturday IS my day off - and some kind poeple have been reminding me of that!).

26th October 2008

The readings (if we're not celebrating Bible Sunday):
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 The death of Moses
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 How the gospel was brought to Thessalonica by Paul
Matthew 22: 34-46 Yet more opposition to Jesus - with the question 'which is the most important commandment?' - Jesus answers that the greatest commandment is 'Love God & your neighbour as yourself'.

Realising I knew nothing about Thessalonians I did a bit of reading around. I was surprised to learn that this is thought to be the earliest of Paul's letters (about 50 AD/CE): to a very new group of Christians from the artisan class of Thessalonica. They are facing persecution because their rich employers feared that by turning away from worship of the pagan gods these new Christians would jeopardise the prosperity of the city.

The question for the church in Thessalonica was 'who do we say we are?' - Paul is anxious to build up a sense of belonging, of family-like relationships, of shared values.

Then from the very new to the very old - Jesus gives an answer to the Pharisees which makes it clear that he is not teaching something new, but something very old and very basic - love God & your neighbour.

I think I can see some links here, from the law & prophets, through Jesus to the new church - & on to us.
But what about Moses??? Still thinking about that - although I note that the reading also contains a mention of Joshua.. maybe the people of God had to face the question 'who are we? - if not followers of Moses, then what?'.
And to add to the complexity we are receiving a church record on Sunday - a wonderful and careful record of all that is in the church..all that we have inherited.. but the past isn't all that we are.
The question 'who do we say we are?' may be the key...
More posting when I've done more thinking!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sermon notes for Sun 19th October

What is Caesar’s/ what is God’s

If you came to church to get away from news of the Credit Crisis and global recession – I’m sorry, but you can’t.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to treat church as a holy space, where the worries of the world can’t intrude: sometimes we preachers make this worse by talking about ‘going out from here back into the world’. But the fact is that we are still in the world as we sit here in church. We may find here a sanctuary where it is a little easier to remember we are in the presence of God, but we cannot shut out the world: we remain in it, like it or not.

And neither are we here to exchange platitudes about what God might think of the state of the world. We are here to wrestle with what it means to be followers of Christ in our world, with all its headaches and its wonder.

There are apparently 66 more shopping days til Christmas, and you won’t thank me for mentioning it today! A friend sent me a link to an internet site ‘is it Christmas yet?’ – and when you click on it, it just has in large letters ‘NO’.

But Christmas will come, and with it a celebration of the fact of God become human (which is central to Christmas – at least for some of us) reminding us that God knows what it is to wrestle with the world, with flesh, dirt and blood, and with money, politics and economics.

In our Gospel reading today we hear how the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trick Jesus with their question of taxes. Some of us were looking at this passage at the Four Churches meeting on Wednesday evening and remembered that the Herodians were the politically-savvy, the ones supporting Herod as Rome’s puppet-king: they would have argued that paying taxes was necessary for the smooth-running of the country (by Rome).
Meanwhile the Pharisees were the ultra-religious, the ones who believed in the people of Israel as the people of God.
They would have seen any coins bearing Caesar’s image and the inscription declaring him emperor and god as a blasphemy – this is why there were money-changers in the temple, because sacrifices for the One true God couldn’t be bought with this terrible Roman coinage. You will have realised that the Pharisees were anti-tax paid to Rome.

Faced with a question of politics versus religion, what does Jesus say? Does he argue that he’s a religious person and won’t proclaim on political matters? Does he side with one or the other of these groups, and therefore alienate the other side? He gives a wonderful, wise and thought-provoking answer. Politics or religion? Caesar or the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob? Tax or no tax?
He refuses to allow them to be separated:
“Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s”
Caesar made the coin – give it back to him.
“and render to God that which is God’s”.
But where is God’s stamp seen? The reading from Exodus reminds us that even Moses could not see God’s face – no-one could point to God’s image on a coin and say ‘that coin is God’s’.
Jesus leaves us pondering – what is it that we have to give back to God? Where do we see God’s image?
Well, surely we have to give back to God what God has first given us: at our meeting on Wednesday we reflected that we often speak of giving up our time for a meeting – but actually that time is first given to us by God. When we meet to do God’s work we are only giving back to God some of the time he has given us – rendering to God that which is God’s.

And where do we see God’s image? The book of Genesis tells us that God made human beings in his own image – we each bear the stamp of God.
If we are to “render to God that which is God’s” we will be giving back our very selves – there is nothing that we are, nothing we can do, nothing we can earn that is not God’s.
Jesus deals with the political question of taxes – and places it firmly within the context of God’s ownership of the world, God’s kingdom.

I think this leads to three conclusions for us in the present credit crisis.

Firstly, we need to be aware of the human stories within the economic figures. We cannot separate the political from the wider human picture – we cannot forget that behind each figure is a person, beloved of God. 1.6 million unemployed in the UK at the moment means 1.6 million people seeking meaning for their lives, as well as a stable income. So we must pray and hope and support the people behind the headlines where we can.

Secondly, we cannot simply stick our heads in the sand and say this is a political problem and nothing to do with us – we cannot just leave this to others, perhaps to politicians to worry about.
The writer of the first letter to the Thessalonians says faith leads to action; love leads to labour; hope leads to perseverance. We cannot shrug and say we are religious and not political people – Jesus refuses to separate the two. As God’s people in God’s world we must think and act in God’s name.

Thirdly, when we are hit personally by what is happening – by the loss of a job by the falling value of assets, by reducing income, by worries about our pension – we can hold onto the fact that God is intimately concerned with us and by what happens to us. The Jesus who wrestled with the question of taxes is alongside us as we wrestle with the questions of our day.
When despair & panic are the order of the day we can remain calm, held in God’s hands, in a world in which the political and the religious are linked,
now and forever
Amen.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Thinking...

Readings:
Exodus 33: 12-23 - God says to Moses you shall know my name & Moses asks to 'know God's ways' but God's face remains hidden
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 The writer says faith leads to action; love leads to labour; hope leads to perseverance
Matthew 22: 15-22 Jesus faces the question about taxes & tells his questioners to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, & to God that which is God's.

Over the last few weeks I've been trying to start my sermon with an 'issue' and then see what the Bible has to say t us on that issue (what do you mean, you hadn't noticed??).

The big issue at the moment remains the credit crisis.
What can we do in the face of greed, of gloom, of lack of confidence??
I'm aware of a number of people here in the villages who have lost their jobs, so I don't want to sound smug on this - it is hard to work out 'God's ways' in all this.

So what does Jesus say... 'give to God what belongs to God' - the Caesar bit is simple, it is marked with the face of Caesar - but we can never see God's face marked on things - we need to be more attentive, it isn't so obvious. But what do we have that isn't what God has first given?? Surely everything is God's - so we need to be ready to give it all to God, to use it all for good, to live as those who know we are recipients of God's generosity.

So... I need to give this some more thought!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Sermon for Sun 12/10/08

Philippians 4: 1-9, Matthew 22: 1-14


What God gives/ what God requires

On Thursday night I had the very noisy pleasure of an evening with the cubs!
We were talking about the My Faith badge, and one of the activities they need to do to get that badge is to talk about a reading or prayer which means something to them. To get them thinking we made a foldy thing (demonstrate) in which normally you write something silly like ‘you smell’ but to get them thinking about what faith might mean to them they were writing inside something they thought was important.
They had some great ideas ‘love God’ ‘love your enemies’ ‘forgive people’ .. though I think ‘you’ve got a big head’ did creep in there somewhere!
But it got me thinking about the relationship between what we do and what is important to us, and the love God offers us. All the things the cubs came up with were about what is required of us, how we have to behave. They were very good at valuing things like ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’, and they even remembered the things Jesus said such as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and ‘turn the other cheek’, but not one of them talked about the love of God for us which Jesus showed us.
Perhaps we would all have done the same and focussed on Jesus laws of love rather than the love itself. We know it isn’t simply that if we behave well, God will love us: God loves us first – we celebrate that at every baptism and every communion service. Yet often we remember what is required of us and forget the offer of love God gives us. How can we fill our lives with the good things which God wants to give us?

The writer of the letter to the church at Philippi gives clear instructions
‘All that is true, noble, just, pure, loveable, attractive, excellent, admirable, think on these things’.
If we can fill our minds and our lives with what is good, then we will experience joy – the joy of the Lord, the joy that comes from knowing we are children of God living in God’s world and surrounded by God’s love. This, says Philippians, brings peace to each one of us, enables us to show others consideration, and takes away all traces of anxiety.

The problem with human nature is that we sometimes behave as though God’s love was a reward for doing good: when actually we know, if we stop to think about it, that God’s love is a free gift to us. If our life and our heart is cluttered with all the things we know we should be doing we can miss the simple, liberating truth of God’s love for us.

Jesus tells the parable of the wedding banquet.
Those who are originally invited don’t turn up. They each have excuses –but they each refuse to come. The host of the banquet decides he must fill his hall with guests – and so he sends his servants out into the streets to round up anyone they can find and invite them in to eat and drink.

So far, this is a wonderful story about God’s generosity and the free gift of God’s love for everyone. This is good news for those who think they are not good enough for God – God comes and finds us and welcomes us into the banquet. See how generous God is – even those of us who think ourselves not fit to be God’s guests find ourselves at God’s table.

But then comes a second part of the story. The host finds a man who is not dressed properly for the banquet, and has him thrown out. At first reading this is hardly fair – the man was virtually dragged in off the street so how was he to know that he needed to wear his best clothes?

Think for a moment what would you do if you were invited to a party at the last minute?
You’re sitting on the sofa, pyjamas on, drinking your cocoa and watching the TV. Your doorbell goes… and it’s your next-door neighbour inviting you in to join a party because they haven’t got enough guests. You could make your excuses and slope off back to the sofa, or you could decide to go & quickly change into your glad rags. But what you wouldn’t do is go straight in without changing out of what you were wearing, as if you were doing them a favour by being there. If you’re invited to a party, however unexpectedly, you try to respond appropriately and look the part.

That is the point Jesus is making. The invitation to the banquet is sudden and unexpected, and the new set of guests are all jolly lucky to be there. But there is still something expected of them – they should try to dress right and look right, behaving like the honoured guests they are.

The kingdom of heaven is like this. The cubs were right about the things Jesus said about how we should live – these are the appropriate ‘clothes’ for people of God’s kingdom. These things are our response to God’s invitation: as loved children of God, we are expected to love God and love others in return.

Here, today we are freely invited by Jesus to join God’s banquet for all those God loves. All can eat and drink and know God’s love for them. Yet as honoured guests we are also expected to live the part – to go from here as God’s people to share God’s love with others.
So go with the food God gives, strengthened to be God’s own for the world, in the name of Jesus.
Amen.


Note: the demonstrated 'foldy thing' is known to some as a 'cootie catcher', Directions for making & playing below:

Playing with Cootie Catcher.

Choose a color then close-and-open the Cootie Catcher once for each letter in that colour, leaving it open at the end so that you see four numbers inside.

Second, choose one of the four numbers, and close-and-open the Cootie Catcher that many times, again ending with it open.

Last, choose one of the four numbers, and lift.


Directions to make:

Use a square piece of paper.

Fold two opposite diagonal corners together, then open back up.

Fold the other two opposite corners together, then open back up.

You should have folded lines like this. The lines cross at the center of the paper.

Turn paper printed side down. Fold all four corners to the center of the paper.

Flip your paper over.

Again, fold all four corners to the center of the paper.

Fold any two sides together. Make sure the numbers are in the inside.

Slide your thumbs and fingers under the four flaps.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Final version

Too much going on at the end in the last one - plus the mistake, I think, of introducing another text from outside the lectionary, when there's enough to think about as it is.. so here is the final version


A friend of mine has one of these funny T-shirts – ‘God loves you – but I’m his favourite’. She doesn’t wear it very often – it’s hard to know just when is the right occasion: but it got me thinking. Do we really believe that God loves everyone – or do we secretly think that some of us have the right to wear a T-shirt like that without it being a joke? Does God actually have favourites? Are some people ‘insiders’ when it comes to God’s love, whilst others are outsiders?

The story of the vineyard can be quite dangerous – it can lead us to the conclusion that some people – namely Christians, are definitely more ‘in’ with God than others – namely Jews. The danger comes from how we read the story - when we look at this story of the parable of the vineyard there is a real danger of reading the story as an allegory – where each figure in the story stands for a particular person or group of people.

It’s easy to get sucked into this. ‘The vineyard’ is used in the Old Testament as a term for the people of Israel: they are ‘God’s vineyard’ – so it is tempting to see the first tenants as the Jewish leaders. Then the servants who first go to collect the rent are the prophets, and of course the Son of the owner is Jesus himself.

I think Matthew was probably pretty convinced by this sort of allegory – he even changes the order which Mark gives – they take the son, kill him & throw him outside the vineyard – and changes it round to sound more like the crucifixion of Jesus –
they take him, put him outside the walls of the vineyard (just as they took Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem) & kill him.

The problem with this sort of reading of the story is that it ends up becoming very anti-Semitic. If the story tells us that the first tenants are replaced, doesn’t this mean that the Jews reject God’s message & so are thrown out of the vineyard, punished by God, & that then the vineyard, God’s kingdom of love, is given to someone else – the Christian church? It is hard to believe that Jesus meant to tell a story which would entirely dismiss the Jewish faith when we remember that he and his disciples were of course Jewish themselves.

But Jesus begins by saying that this story is a parable. And in any parable we have to not try to work out what each part of the story ‘means’ but what the whole story teaches.

To do this one approach is to look for the surprise in the story. And the surprise here isn’t the way the tenants behave, but the behaviour of the owner of the vineyard – and particularly his persistence.
If you had this sort of trouble with tenants, wouldn’t you be tempted to just give up altogether, cut your losses & give up on wine-production?
But God doesn’t give up: he goes on and on hoping, trusting, trying to find people who will work with him.
We must, I think, understand this story in the context of God’s amazing trust in human nature.
This isn’t a story about the limits of God’s love – God’s love for one group and not another group of people. It is a story about the limitlessness of God’s love.
God keeps trying, keeps sending messengers: he doesn’t give up on his vineyard. And when the bad tenants are finally evicted… he tries again, he puts in more tenants.

This persistence and limitless love of God is consistent with Paul’s story which we heard in the letter to the Philippians. Paul states that he could lay claim to the love of God because of who he is – because of his birth and his belonging to God’s people - but that now his horizons have been broadened by understanding the love of God in Christ, which is for everyone.

So there is a place in God’s love and in God’s vineyard for everyone.

This parable tells us of God’s constant invitation to be part of the life of the kingdom. Whether you fancy yourself as religious or not, whether you are from one racial group or another, God keeps on inviting you to be part of his project of living in a way which shows love for God and neighbour & establishes a community of justice peace & joy. There is no ‘in’ and ‘out’ with God – everyone is invited, again and again, invited to be part of life of God in the world, called to follow Jesus & required to show in our lives the fruits of the Spirit.

As we meet around Jesus’ table, we come to share the meal of his life, and to declare that we are prepared to follow him and be part of the life of God’s kingdom.
As we eat and drink may we know Christ’s risen life and be fed and strengthened to live to his glory. Amen.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Well on the way to Sunday

Here are the notes for Sunday - not happy with the ending yet but I'll come back to it sometime tomorrow..

God's vineyard Matt 21: 33-46 & Philippians 3: 4b–14

A friend of mine has one of these funny T-shirts – ‘God loves you – but I’m his favourite’. She doesn’t wear it very often – it’s hard to know just when is the right occasion: but it got me thinking. Do we really believe that God loves everyone – or do we secretly think that some of us have the right to wear a T-shirt like that without it being a joke? Does God actually have favourites? Are some people ‘insiders’ when it comes to God’s love, whilst others are outsiders?

The story of the vineyard can be quite dangerous – it can lead us to the conclusion that some people – namely Christians, are definitely more ‘in’ with God than others – namely Jews. The danger comes from how we read the story - when we look at this story of the parable of the vineyard there is a real danger of reading the story as an allegory – where each figure in the story stands for a particular person or group of people.

It’s easy to get sucked into this. ‘The vineyard’ is used in the Old Testament as a term for the people of Israel: they are ‘God’s vineyard’ – so it is tempting to see the first tenants as the Jewish leaders. Then the servants who first go to collect the rent are the prophets, and of course the Son of the owner is Jesus himself.

I think Matthew was probably pretty convinced by this sort of allegory – he even changes the order which Mark gives – they take the son, kill him & throw him outside the vineyard – and changes it round to sound more like the crucifixion of Jesus – they take him, put him outside the walls of the vineyard (just as they took Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem) & kill him.

The problem with this sort of reading of the story is that it ends up becoming very anti-Semitic. If the story tells us that the first tenants are replaced, doesn’t this mean that the Jews reject God’s message & so are thrown out of the vineyard, punished by God, & that then the vineyard, God’s kingdom of love, is given to someone else – the Christian church? It is hard to believe that Jesus meant to tell a story which would entirely dismiss the Jewish faith when we remember that he and his disciples were of course Jewish themselves.

But Jesus begins by saying that this story is a parable. And in any parable we have to not try to work out what each part of the story ‘means’ but what the whole story teaches.

To do this one approach is to look for the surprise in the story. And the surprise here isn’t the way the tenants behave, but the behaviour of the owner of the vineyard – and particularly his persistence.
If you had this sort of trouble with tenants, wouldn’t you be tempted to just give up altogether, cut your losses & give up on wine-production?
But God doesn’t give up: he goes on and on hoping, trusting, trying to find people who will work with him.
We must, I think, understand this story in the context of God’s amazing trust in human nature.
This isn’t a story about the limits of God’s love – God’s love for one group and not another group of people. It is a story about the limitlessness of God’s love.
God keeps trying, keeps sending messengers: he doesn’t give up on his vineyard. And when the bad tenants are finally evicted… he tries again, he puts in more tenants.

This persistence and limitless love of God is consistent with Paul’s story which we heard in the letter to the Philippians. Paul states that he could lay claim to the love of God because of who he is – because of his birth and his belonging to God’s people - but that now his horizons have been broadened by understanding the love of God in Christ, which is for everyone.

So there is a place in God’s love and in God’s vineyard for everyone.
And what does God look for from each set of tenants – from all the people with whom he tries to establish a relationship? He asks for a harvest – for the tenants to care for the vineyard so that there is healthy growth and the production of fruit, & then God asks for an acknowledgement of whose land it is – so that God is included in the sharing of the harvest.

This parable tells us of God’s constant invitation to be part of the life of the kingdom. Whether you fancy yourself as religious or not, whether you are from one racial group or another, God keeps on inviting you to be part of his project of living in a way which shows love for God and neighbour & establishes a community of justice peace & joy. There is no ‘in’ and ‘out’ with God – everyone is invited, again and again.
If we are to be part of life of God in the world we are called to follow Jesus & to show in our lives the fruits of the Spirit.

The picture of a vineyard has one more thing to tell us. I’m sure we can’t hear the word ‘vine’ without thinking of that part of John’s gospel where Jesus says ‘Iam the true vine.. you are the branches. Anyone who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit’.

Our life and health will always come from being united with Jesus Christ. We meet around his table, to share the meal of his life, to declare that we are prepared to follow him and be part of the life of God’s kingdom.
The church is Christ’s body. As we eat and drink may we know his risen life and be fed and strengthened to live to his glory. Amen.