Saturday, 26 September 2009

And for the lectionary...

The Mark reading is particularly knotty this week - so here's a short reflection for the 8am service!

Taking responsibility.. for one another Mark 9: 42-50

“If your hand causes your downfall.. cut it off”.
Can these really be the words of Jesus? In our world we are a familiar with Islamic Shariah law as a proposed punishment for theft – cutting off the hand of a thief - and the thought of it is awful and barbaric. But Jesus is not suggesting a form of punishment – he is not talking about what we should do to others – he is using dramatic language to encourage people to take responsibility for their own actions. “If your foot causes your downfall – cut it off”.
In other words, have nothing to do with the sort of excuse for behaviour which says ‘it wasn’t my fault, it was my roving eye, my lousy childhood, my physical urges – that made me do it. Jesus wants us to take responsibility for our own bodies and what we do with them.

But Jesus is also clear that our responsibility does not end with responsibility to ourselves – we are also responsible for what we do to others “if anyone cause the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck”. We are responsible for what we do with our lives – and responsible for the damage we might do to others.

And finally, Jesus says “you must have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another” – our responsibility to others shouldn’t stop at not doing others harm – we must actively seek their good.
And if all this talk of taking responsibility for ourselves and for others and for peace itself feels like too much – it is good that we meet around the Lord’s table. Here as we face the challenge of his Word to us we also receive the promise of his gift to us – God’s gift of his very self, to feed and strengthen us, and to be present with us always.

Sermon for Harvest

27-9-09 Harvest
I’m probably betraying something about my age if I say that one of my favourite funny films is ‘Ghostbusters;. I was reminded of a particularly silly line from it when I looked at today’s psalm.
One of the ghostbusters , Ray Stanz, is investigating a building and says ‘listen…do you smell something?”

Were you struck by the similar line in the psalm
‘Taste – and see that the Lord is good’.

Maybe it is a deliberate mixed metaphor – taste and see: or maybe the writer of the psalm means that we can use many of our sense to find that God is good.

We have certainly used our senses today.

We felt the refreshing splash of the water of baptism – promising Daniel the love and presence of God with him always.
We see around us the bounty of harvest – and perhaps smell it, too, if we’re lucky: the apples are always my favourite smell, and the flowers look gorgeous too. Our senses are full of the wonderful things the earth has produced, and we have heard the reading from Joel reminding us that we should give thanks to God, who made this earth and sends the rain so that we can enjoy our harvest.

It may be that we have sneaked a taste of something already: but if not we have the bread and wine of communion to look forward to. Taste and see that the lord is good; taste and remember all that Jesus said and did; taste and be given a sneak preview of the feast which waits for us in heaven.

This harvest festival – especially as we celebrated Daniel’s baptism – I hope you can use all your sense to enjoy God’s gifts to us.
But Psalm 34 says a bit more than just ‘God is good’ – it starts
‘I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.’

And Jesus warns his listeners ‘do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’.
Harvest thanksgiving isn’t just about saying ‘we’ve got lots of food, yippee!’. It is about growing in thankfulness towards God.

An Australian pastor, Brian Houston, talks about ‘ 5 Ways To Build A Healthy Soul’ and states that one of those is ‘Teach your soul to boast.’
If we boast about our own achievements or wealth, we reveal our own insecurity, but if our soul boasts in God, it shows we are remembering who is really responsible for all these good things.
I think Brian Houston’s other ways to build a healthy soul also relate to our celebrations today:

Teach your soul when to be quiet.
Sometimes we need to just stop and take in everything God has done for us – using all our senses.

Educate your soul

We have used our sense of hearing to listen to God’s word, and so our gratitude to God is not just about this harvest – or even God’s love for Daniel, but about all God’s gifts to all people throughout all time.

Fill your soul with hope
The great thing about remembering God’s gracious love to us is that we know it never ends – God gives this and every harvest, love Daniel and every child, is with us today and every day.

Teach your soul to be accountable
God gives us the earth, gives us the seasons, gives us the rain: but we still have to rely on human work to produce a harvest. And we each have to eat responsibly – too much of the wrong sort of food from God’s
harvest is bad for us.

So may this harvest, this water of baptism, these Bible readings and this communion delight our senses and build healthy souls, so that we may live and grow to God’s glory.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Come ye thankful people...

Harvest celebrations on Sunday (27th Sept) and a baptism, so I'm going with the theme of 'taste and see that the Lord is good', and basing worship on the 5 senses 'taste, hear, smell, feel & see that the Lord is good'.
we have the water of baptism to feel, the Word of God to hear, the harvest goods to smell, the communion to feel (& taste) & everything around to see... that the Lord is good.

I'm taking the year B harvest readings but adding in Psalm 34, so my readings are:
Joel 2: 21-24 & 26
Psalm 34: 1-8
Matthew 6:25-33

I want the service to have a really celebratory feel.

OK - better go & think some more.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Sermon notes 20-9-09

With apologies for late posting!

Following Jesus (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37)

Who’s the best? Who’s the greatest?
The new Guinness Book of Records has just been published. I know this because various news bulletins have been full of amazing people – the tallest man in the world (8 foot 1), the woman with the most body piercings (4,225) and the person with the longest fingernails (over 28 feet long). I admit I find every edition of the book fascinating: who is the fastest, the first, the best.

The first title for the followers of Jesus – even before they were called ‘Christians’ was “followers of the way”.
What would it mean to be the best follower of the Way?

Jesus’ disciples, in the Gospel reading that we heard, give a great example of what it does NOT mean.
‘What were you talking about while you were on the way?’ asks Jesus.
The disciples say nothing – they are ashamed. If you listen carefully you can actually hear feet being scraped on the floor in that reading.
It’s one of those questions, like when a teacher says ‘what that in your hand?’ – as you are about to pass a note to your friend that says exactly what you think of that teacher – and yes, that’s the voice of bitter experience talking..
‘What were you talking about while you were on the way?’ says Jesus.
‘Help!’ They’ve been been found out - because the disciples had been arguing precisely over the question of which of them was the greatest. Perhaps they were wondering which of them was the most loyal follower of Jesus, or which of them was his favourite, or which of them was considered by other people to be the most important. They wanted to know who was the best.

Jesus has something to teach them about being a great follower of the Way. A follower of the Way must not think of being best, but of being least, the servant of all. Then he finds a child, and puts them in the centre of the group. ‘Whoever receives a child like this receives me’.

This is even more surprising than we might think – because children of Jesus’ day were not thought to have any human rights, as we would think children should have today: until they reached adulthood children had very little voice in society. Following Jesus, being a follower of the Way, is about accepting a humble position and being ready to give a place to someone who is even more humble or unimportant in the eyes of the world. The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, but Jesus makes it clear they shouldn’t be looking for the greatest, but making sure they find a space for the least.

Of course the Followers of the Way are just human beings, they are not perfect and they make mistakes. The letter of James is obviously written to a Christian community that were experiencing problems! In last week’s reading James complained about the harm that the human tongue can do, and in this week’s reading he turns to this age-old issue of rivalry and competition. ‘What causes this strifel among you?’ he asks.
Perhaps this community was asking ‘who is the best?’. James attacks jealousy and bitterness and upholds values of modesty, wisdom, consideration, and kindness. The followers of the Way, says James, are to be peace-makers.
But how can people ‘make’ peace?

It might seem a trivial example – but the rival sport shoe firms of Adidas and Puma are showing the way. Adi and Rudolf Dassler started making sports shoes together in their mother's wash-room in the 1920s. They fell out during World War II, probably over political differences, and founded the two firms - Adidas and Puma on either side of a river in southern Germany in 1948. The town of Herzogenaurach was also split, with residents loyal to one or other of the only major employers. Tomorrow, for the first time ever, employees of both companies will shake hands and then play a football match. The two companies have arranged this to support the Peace One Day annual non-violence day, which is always held on Sept 21st.
We can choose to be peace-makers: we can reach out the hand of friendship, or we can shake a fist in rivalry.
James is clear that a Christian community, followers of the Way, should be seeking peace.

For those who want to be the best at following Jesus, we need to forget ourselves, stop striving for accolades, seek peace instead of competition. When we follow Jesus more closely, we find him in the lowest and the least (just as we find him in broken bread & wine poured out).
If we would be true followers we need to accept a role as servant of all, as Jesus did.

Then the glory will be God’s, not ours, and we will be truly the best because we will be truly blessed.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Thinking... about 20th Sept

Readings for this coming Sunday are:
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

about wisdom and about greatness, and the values of the gospel. My thinking so far is about walking more closely with Jesus - reflecting on the bit in James 'draw near to God and God will draw near to you' - how do we get close to God, how do we live better lives, how do we nurture wisdom.

There is something stirring in me about the dangers of the celebrity culture and the denigration of gentleness and peace...

Will hopefully find time to think about this more carefully tomorrow.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

September 13th sermon

Racial Justice (Mark 8: 27-38, Isaiah 50: 4-9a)

You might wonder why we need to bother with racial justice Sunday, here in leafy Whittlesford. But I honestly think that as Christians we all have a responsibility towards understanding other people and challenging those aspects of our society which, sadly, are still racist.

A few years ago, when I was living in Oxfordshire a member of my church was hosting a young man from the Gambia, Isaac, who had come to the town to have an artificial leg fitted. He had lost his leg when he had broken it playing football and an infection had set in. While he was waiting for the leg to be made after an initial fitting, he used his time to learn about provisions for teaching blind children in the UK – because he was a teacher of blind children back home. He was fascinated by the gadgets available for teaching blind and partially-sighted children and very quickly worked out how he could make those things simply and cheaply for his pupils. But he didn’t like going out into town: not because it was hard to get about with one leg & a crutch – he could run up & down stairs faster than I can – but because people stared at him… because he was black. He felt excluded, unwelcome, a stranger in a strange land. I wonder how he would have felt in Whittlesford?

Wherever we are, the people of God are called to welcome the stranger, to fight injustice and to stand up for the marginalised.
We are called to be messengers who proclaim God’s good news of love and acceptance for all.

We have heard the words of Isaiah about one chosen to be a messenger, one who hears the word of God and has the gift to deliver it, one who will submit to suffering at the hands of people, because he knows that God is his helper and defender. It is hard to hear those words without thinking of Jesus: the chosen of God.

When Jesus asks ‘Who do you say I am’, Peter is quick to answer ‘the Messiah’ In other words, the one who is anointed – chosen by God to be the saviour of God’s people.
Jesus goes on to say ‘anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self.. and follow me’. Jesus is for anyone and everyone who will follow – not to save their own skin but to serve God and others.

At the heart of Jesus’ identity is the desire to reconcile the whole world to God – this is good news for each one of us here.
But it isn’t Good News we can be selfish about - because when we recognise who Christ is we must also follow Christ in loving others – and so be reconciled to those who are different from us. We need to remember that Jesus, who was so different from us: a Galilean, a Jew, a speaker of Aramaic – is the Christ who makes us all one in him.

It isn’t always easy to speak out against division and mistrust, and the words of Isaiah might come back to us.
The one who is chosen by God as messenger has to be ready to suffer for the message, and will be prepared to do this because they know God will help and protect them.

If standing up to racism (or sexism or homophobia) singles us out for ridicule or even suffering, we must still be prepared to stand up for God’s message of inclusion, because this is what it means to follow Jesus.

So when we speak of all people being welcome at this table, we need to mean it. If we are all one in Christ Jesus then we are all welcome as his guests.
So come to this table: you who have much faith, and you who seek it.
You who know you are made whole and you who feel broken.
You who know you are rich and you who have great need.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, come and eat & drink and be strengthened to share God’s welcome with all.
In Jesus Christ our Lord

Saturday, 5 September 2009

September 6th sermon

Mark 7: 24-30; James 2: 1-10

Next Sunday is marked by some churches as Racial Justice Sunday. You might wonder why the churches feel they ought to get involved in action against racism. But today’s reading from the letter of James certainly states quite clearly our responsibility as Christians to the ‘other’ or the ‘stranger’. James writes:
“If you are observing the sovereign law laid down in scripture ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ that is excellent. But if you show partiality, you are committing a sin and you stand convicted by the law as offenders.”

Racism, exclusion of any kind, judging others by their skin colour, or clothes, or background, is a sin. It is laid down in law that we are to love our neighbour, and in the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus makes it crystal clear that our neighbour is the foreigner in need we come across on the road just as much as it is the person rather like us who happens to live next door.

And yet what a puzzling Gospel reading we had. This same Jesus, who told people to love their neighbour, even the despised Samaritans, seems at first to reject this mother’s plea for healing for her daughter, on the grounds that she is a Syrian and not a Jew. We shouldn’t think that tensions in what we call the Middle East are anything new – Jews, Syrians, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, were all living cheek-by-jowl in and around the narrow strip of land where Jesus lived.
Jesus begins by being very clear that he has come for the people of Israel “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”.
The woman comes back at him “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” – and Jesus changes tack and heals her daughter.

This is an amazing story – it comes right in the middle of Mark’s gospel and in many ways it signifies a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.
I think for many years I went along with the understanding that Jesus was just testing this woman – that he meant all along to heal her daughter, but he was wanting to make sure she understood what a big thing she was asking for and that this was, indeed a turning point. Rather like the teacher who waits for the child to catch on before revealing the answer,
Jesus only seems to be saying ‘no’ to her. He’s actually saying ‘healing the daughter of a foreigner doesn’t look right, does it?’
So she can realise ‘no, but I’m a person, too!’
And he can smile and say ‘that’s right, you are’.

But what if Jesus himself is really changed by this encounter?
It could be that Jesus meant it when he said ‘no’ to her at first – that he was only seeing his mission as being to Jews – and maybe to Samaritans, who were like ‘first cousins’ rather than true Gentiles, true foreigners. And it could be that this woman opens Jesus’ eyes to the truly global nature of the gospel and makes Jesus realise that the kingdom of God really does mean a message of love, healing and acceptance for the whole world.

If this seems too much, there is a middle way of understanding what is happening here – that the Syro-Phoenican woman forces Jesus to revise his timetable for salvation. Jesus had come ‘first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ but then, through them to the whole world. This woman may be bringing the time for the Gentiles to experience God’s love forward to right now, rather than waiting for some time in the future.

Whatever is happening in the heart and mind of Jesus in this conversation, the message is clear that God’s love is for all people, even those previously considered a foreigner.
God’s love demands racial justice, impartiality and love for all, an end to discrimination and an embracing of true respect for diversity.
So racial justice becomes a Christian concern, not just something liberal-minded Guardian readers need to think about. And how we read or hear the stories of our world is a spiritual matter, not just a political one.

Robert Beckford is a black British theologian who has presented TV shows on channel 4 about the church and also written, particularly about how the black-led churches need to get involved with issues of racism. He writes:
“If every urban church were to set up a media watch group to listen, critique and when needed complain about oppressive imagery and language, it would go someway towards changing the current negative media approach to representing black life”.
I think what he says could be applied to all of us in the church. When we read stories of a great influx of Polish people looking for jobs, can we ask whether what is written is fair and just to those people – are they stealing the children’s bread, or just gathering up the crumbs? Most people I meet from Poland, Romania and Ukraine and so on are doing the jobs I don’t want to do, and for a lot less money than I think I need to live on.

If Jesus is teaching us to show God’s love to the foreigner, how can we do this, as individuals or as churches: in our attitude to the people we meet or those presented to us in the media? The challenge for us, as it was for Jesus, is to broaden our horizons.
We accept the fact that we are called to love our neighbours and ask for God’s Spirit to save us from falling into the sin of intolerance.
We remember that we were once the foreigners and that God’s love has embraced us and the whole world.
And we take on the responsibility to get involved with building God’s kingdom where all races are honoured and each person is precious. To God’s praise & glory. Amen.