Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dec 26th

Dec 26th Isaiah 63: 7-9 Matthew 2: 13-23

So here we are, caught between Christmas and New year. The bin is full of wrapping paper, we’re wondering quite where to put the presents and looking forward to al those delicious left-overs of Christmas dinner. The new year beckons and we wonder what 2011 might bring us: and in our papers we read stories of political unrest in Korea & Pakistan, of the terribly sad deaths & diappearances and the unhealthy scrum of the sales…what happened to the story – just yesterday of peace on earth and good will to all people?

Matthew, bravely, tells us what happens immediately after the magi have returned to the East. Here is the unsavoury part, the bit that gets missed out of our Carol services. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, and Herod in his fury orders the massacre of all the boys aged two and under in the whole region in his attempt to rid himself of the threat of this rival so-called ‘king’ of whom the magi spoke.
Some of the most compelling and dreadful Christian art involves the depiction of this ‘massacre of the innocents’ – the terrible brutal killing of a whole generation of babies.
Meanwhile, Jesus, the target of Herod’s wrath – escapes.

It is only human nature to ask ‘why’?

If Christmas tells us God is with us, why does there seem to be more bad news than good? And if Jesus has truly come as saviour of humanity, why so early in the story do we get the very reverse – the birth of Jesus causing a terrible massacre, while Jesus himself is saved by the warning of an angel?

These are questions we almost daren’t ask, for fear of not being able to answer them. But ask them we must.
If God is truly with us, God is with us in the bad news as well as the good.
The message of God incarnate is not a sickly-sweet, reality-defying tale of ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, the arrival of an unearthly one who causes no offence. ‘God with us in Jesus’ is the God who takes on flesh and blood and bone and sweat to stand shoulder to shoulder with a world where terrible things happen and will continue to happen.

Nothing could have been achieved by the infant Jesus being slaughtered by Herod – his mission to bring Good News would have died with him at that point.
Yet Jesus was not spared slaughter indefinitely: he was truly human and subject to the same laws of nature as each one of us. So the moment of accepting incarnation, being born in flesh, was also the moment of accepting a mortal death. And with the wisdom of hindsight we can see that sooner or later the authorities were going to take issue with his radical message of God’s love for the least and the lowest, Jesus’ breaking of the rules of order in society.
Jesus is not entirely spared the massacre of the innocents – God merely delays his fate so that the Good News can first be heard and the kingdom shown in Jesus’ life.

So where does this leave us? When the innocents of today are massacred – by soldier’s sword or terrible accident or human folly – how can there possibly be Good News? Jesus shows us God with us: weeping with the sorrowful as the God who truly shares our humanity, nerving us to stand for justice and peace against all the odds, calling us forward into his kingdom of light.

And isn’t this better news, in the end, than being told that God is with us only in the good parts of our lives – when we are strong, or victorious, or feel blessed?
When life is at its darkness, we are promised light.
When pain threatens to overwhelm us utterly, we are promised hope.
When innocence dies, we are promised new life.

This is the real good news, the true depth of God with us, the gritty truth of incarnation, of God made flesh.

And if all this isn’t amazing enough, as we stand at the brink of the New Year God offers us a promise and a challenge.
He will be with us – here in all our worship and whenever we are in need in this year to come.

But we are not promised protection while those around us suffer. We are called to be the body of Christ, to be God enfleshed for the suffering and the hopeless. We are called to offer the Good News in a hurting world – God with us, in 2011 and until the end of time.

So may we use the future god gives us to grow in the knowledge of God with us and to share that Good News with our neighbours.
In Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Day

Yes, it's short - do I expect complaints on christmas morning? NO.

Christmas morning
You might have felt that the whole week has been building up to this morning – that’s certainly the way it’s been in my household! – but for the modern-day Magi – those who like to watch the stars and planets, the big event this week was the lunar eclipse on Tuesday morning. At about 6.30 in the morning, the moon passed into the shadow of the earth & so for a little while went first a coppery-colour & then quite dark – until reappearing as the relative positions of the earth, moon & sun, shifted.

No, I didn’t get up at 6.30am – but there was some wonderful footage on the BBC website – and a very excited astronomer describing what we could see. He said ‘there’s the moon, a quarter of a million miles away; and you can also see Venus, very brightly – 46 million miles away. And in the opposite half of the sky there’s Saturn, a billion miles away. It’s at a time like this we can see our place in the solar system’.

All those millions and billions make me feel that our place in the solar system is very small and insignificant. It’s at a time like this we can see our place.

But today is Christmas Day – and at a time like this we can see our place in God’s universe.
Isaiah says :
‘Break forth together into singing… for the Lord has comforted his people…and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.’

Meanwhile John describes how the one through whom ‘All things came into being… became flesh and lived among us’. It’s Christmas – and at a time like this we remember that despite the enormity and vastness of the universe and the glory of the God who holds it all in being, we are blessed with a child, in whom we can see all the glory and truth of God.

At a time like this, God comes to us in flesh and blood and bone.
At a time like this, God comes in bread & wine & celebration.
At a time like this – at this time, may we know God with us.
And may we know a Happy and Blessed Christmas. Amen

Christmas Eve!

Not sure I have time to post everything I'm saying over the next, mad 48 hours: but here's this evening's reflection:

Christmas Eve.
It’s been a hectic few weeks, hasn’t it: and I’m sure I’ve complained as loudly as anyone - so much to do, so much to plan and think about, constant lists.. and then the snow to make everything that bit more difficult!
And then the blessed Angels sing ‘Peace on earth’ – and we wonder how to even get a moment’s peace, let alone how to pray for peace for our mad world.

I’ve got an uncle who is forever sending me emails of jokes & little quotes & things. This was one of his better ones: a wonderful quote from a 7 year old named Bobby: "Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

It’s really tempting to spend a few minutes giving you a talk that goes ‘never mind all the presents & cards & decorations & stuff’ the REAL meaning of Christmas is this – the birth of Jesus. ..

..so create a space to stop and think and pray and then you’ll know the real meaning of Christmas.

But the real meaning of Christmas is that God became human, that God takes all the human stuff seriously. God shows us that all of our lives are important – not only spiritual, heavenly airy-fairy bits. God being born in Jesus means that God is earthy, grounded - real. The phrase ‘The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’ is not a clue to the unearthly nature of Jesus – it’s just the romantic imaginings of a Victorian hymn-writer. There would have been crying, and not just from Jesus – but I’m sure from Mary & Joseph too!

The real meaning of Christmas is that it is all real – that God comes to us in all the ordinary stuff of life – crying babies, overbooked inns, cold shepherds, so-called ‘wise’ men who are lost & won’t ask for directions.
God comes to all of us & all of this world in all of our mess and frenzy. God comes to us – in Jesus.

So whether this Christmas you are ready or not – whether you are happy, lonely, filled with regrets, fearful, angry, or just a bit jaded, listen to the angels’ song ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all people’.
And know that God is with us in all of our Christmases.

Every ordinary place & ordinary person can become part of God’s heaven & filled with God’s love.
So may we be blessed by God’s love and know real peace this night & always. Amen

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Reflections for Advent 4

So, here's the bones:

Matthew 1: 18-25

Then 'Joseph's story'
Well, everyone knows the story of Mary & the angel. But you can’t blame me for not believing it at first. I’ve seen it before, you know, some of my friends... Betrothed a long time and – well, they get a bit impatient and accidents happen & they get married pretty quickly. But we weren’t like that – Mary & me. We were content to wait, do it right.
Then she came & told me about the baby. I was devastated. Well, I knew it wasn’t mine – so I naturally assumed it was another man. ‘Let me tell you about it’ Mary said – I didn’t want to hear it – I didn’t want to know who it was and how much she loved him more than me, and how sorry she was for letting me down & hurting me. I didn’t want to hear her say anything.. I just wanted to get away. I stormed out & left her standing there shaking her head.

My brother said to me ‘Have her stoned – her and her fancy man – whoever he is – that’s the law. Report her and at least have the satisfaction of seeing her punished’.
But I said to him ‘Reuben – I still love her, that’s why this hurts so much – I’ll just break off the engagement quietly and in a month or so she can marry the father of her child and I’ll just have to find someone else.’
And I thought that was the end of it: a sad & sorry end, but there you go.

Then I had the weirdest dream – an angel came & told me to marry Mary: he knew my name and everything! He said that this child was from the Holy Spirit and that we should call him Jesus and that he would ‘save his people from their sins’.
I have no idea what all this means, or what the future holds in store… but I went straight to Mary when I woke up. She laughed and cried and kissed me – and said that she had tried to tell me about the angel for herself.

It’s a good thing God took it in hand and sent me his messenger.
So now I’m looking forward to marrying Mary and meeting this ‘Jesus’ and raising him as my own, precious son.
I wonder what he will be like…


Luke 1: 26-35

Then Mary's story (after The Rev. Sherrie Dobbs Johnson's Midrash "Mary in the stable")
It often happens to women – being falsely accused of wrongdoing..
The new bride of a handsome widower. . . .People say she was going with him before his wife's head was cold in her grave.
The young woman who married the only man who ever treated her like she was gold instead of giving her gold-plated necklaces and bracelets and rings. . . . People say she married him for his money.
The dark-skinned woman who lives with a dark-skinned man, yet has a light-skinned baby. . . . People say, "No way!" could that baby be her man's child.
Wrongly accused – judged-misunderstood.

I am Mary, a teenager who is about to have a baby without the benefit of marriage.
I am engaged, but my fiancé and I have never had sexual relations. People laugh at me when I tell them this. While that hurts, what my fiancé believed was more important: If not by him, then by whom?
His face when I tried to tell him.. I thought he would never believe me.

Thank God for angel who told Joseph I was not made pregnant by any human, but that the Spirit of the Lord had put this new life into my body. I told him – that’s what the angel told me, too!
Then we laughed. he is such a good man, my Joseph. We wonder what it will mean to give birth to the Saviour of the world. We're going to name him Jesus, like the angel said!

So let the people talk. Let 'em laugh. I said to the Lord those months ago, "I am yours." I meant every word I said.
And now I wonder about this child I bear: how can such a tiny baby save the world?

Then a Reflection on these stories.
As we listen to Joseph’s story and Mary’s story with all their wondering and questions, we may well have questions of our own.

What will this birth mean? - shame & scandal; or life & hope?
Perhaps we are so familiar with the ‘happy ending’ we see of the nativity scene on the Christmas cards that we forget how difficult it must have been for Mary & Joseph. Mary said to the angel ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ – but there must have been times in the next 9 months when she wondered if she should have objected a little more to God’s plan.

Mary & Joseph each face the facts of what is happening – including the visit from an angel and have to decide what they should do - run & hide? grin & bear it? Or listen to what God's messenger is telling them and live with the consequences?
What about us? Can we allow this story to challenge us – to spur us on to new commitment to God’s plan for humanity? Dare we offer to be a part of the kingdom of God?

And finally as we listen to this story of the birth of Jesus from Mary’s and from Joseph’s points of view we might wonder where God is in all this. Is it God who is sorting out the mess, by sending the angel to tell Mary & Joseph what to do? Or does God cause the mess in the first place, with this plan for Jesus to be born?
Or maybe, that night in Bethlehem, in a stable, among the animals, the straw, the blood and the sweat, we will look at the mess and see God right in the midst of it.
God with us.
Amen.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Advent 4

I've been looking in particular at
Matthew 1:18-25

which gives the birth of Jesus very much from Joseph's point of view.
I'm thinking of balancing it (as the gospels do) with Mary's point of view, and then bringing us to our own point of view, as we look at some fairly simple questions:

what will this birth mean? - shame & scandal; or life & hope?
what should I do - run & hide? grin & bear it? listen to what God's messengers are telling me?
where is God in this? sorting out the mess? causing it? right in the midst of it?

If I have time (hah!) I think I'd like to write reflections by Mary & by Joseph, with time to think in between & then a concluding reflection bringing it 'home'.
Oh yes, and I have a wedding on Saturday & 2 carol services on Sunday to finishing organising too!

Because someone asked 'Where is it?'..

... here are the notes from Sunday's sermon at the adult baptism. It seemed to make sense to people. I hope so.


I have to confess I’m getting to the stage when I’m losing track of what day it is. Twice last week I thought it was Friday when it wasn’t – once on Wednesday and once on Thursday. The problem with these days as Christmas is getting closer is that they’re all a bit the same – loads to do, a mixture of writing cards, opening cards, writing more cards, buying and wrapping presents, thinking about food & drink and (for me at least) preparing lots of services. I may not know what day it is – but I know it’s very nearly Christmas – the signs are all around in The TV adverts, the shops, the music, the lights & trees... it all seems to have come round incredibly quickly.
We are all filled with expectation & excitement... or apprehension & dread, depending on your psychological make-up. It’s soon going to be Christmas.

So I’d forgive you for wondering why we have had a reading not about the birth of Jesus, but from 30 years on, when Jesus has started his work and preaching. John the Baptist has baptised Jesus and then John has been put in prison for his condemnation of his ruler, Herod. John is beginning to wonder whether Jesus is the Messiah after all. He sends his disciples to ask “Are you the one, or must we look for another?”.
Jesus tells him to look at the evidence “the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news”. If Jesus was a modern day teenager he would simply say to John ‘Am I the one? Like, duh!’.
Who else but the Messiah could do those things?
When all these good thigns happen, you know God is at work in his world.

Darren, your baptism is just the beginning of a journey for you today. You want to be a good Godfather, you want to help to shape and guide a young life, and so you have taken this step of baptism yourself. You are responding to the evidence you have seen of God at work in the world in new life and new hope.

I want to give you – and all of us – a challenge today. You know it’s Christmas because of the evidence all around you. But right at the heart of Christmas is this message that God came into the world in Jesus. John the Baptist was challenged to look for the signs around him and I believe we are each challenged to look for the evidence around us. Look for goodness and new life, hope and joy in he world – and when you find them, think about the presence of God in them.

But it’s even more challenging than that. You might hear in the Christmas story about Jesus Christ - who was the word made flesh 2000 years ago. But you might wonder how people can see & hear that for themselves, as John did? How can the world of today see the human face of the one who is God with us?

People need to see the face of Christ today in us – that’s why the church, to which you’ve just been joined in baptism, is sometimes called the body of Christ.
Listen to the story the church tells; look at the love in the lives of the people who are part of the church; and think about what your part is going to be in showing the love of Jesus in the world.
Look for the evidence of God – and then be prepared to be that evidence for your godchild and for the whole world. And may God help each one of us to live up to that same challenge – in Jesus name. Amen.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 3

Yes, posts are getting later. Yes, it's my "busy time". No, I'm not ready for Christmas - but then, I feel like coming over all deep & theological & saying 'I'm not meant to be ready yet - it's still Advent'.

So this week's readings are:

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Challenge number one is that we have one of our 'Creative church' services this week (when we try to present the Word other than simply by someone reading all 3 readings as the 'Readings', and invite people to respond in some other than simply by listening and coming forward for communion).
Challenge number two is that we have a baptism of an adult (sprinkling, not full immersion) this week, and so potentially have people there who wont be too clued up on the first Isaiah and how important the later redactions of the text are.
Challenge number three is the usual one about passages from later in Jesus' (and John the Baptist's) life being used here to help us reflect on the identity of Jesus as we prepare for his coming.
Challenge number four for me is that I also have a different service to lead later the same morning & I'm starting to feel like there aren't enough hours in the day (what with also having umpty Carol services & the like to organise). I think I might cheat a little and prepare something on 'Mary' that I can use both this week & next for similar services at different churches.

So:
We have decided to shorten the Matthew reading and make that the only one for the service, read in a 'dramatic' way:

Matthew 11: 2-6

Narrator:
Messengers from John the Baptist.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him,

John: (off stage) ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Narrator: Jesus answered them,

Jesus: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Advent 2 - final version

So for those who like to play 'spot the difference' - the end is quite changed!


Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12

Of all the characters we might find on our Christmas cards – Mary, Joseph, Kings, Shepherds, angels… I have never once seen one with an image of John the Baptist. Of course at the time of Jesus’ birth he would only have been a baby himself, but although he’s recognised as a prophet who points us to Jesus the Christ, he’s really not the stuff of Christmas cards – wild, scary, with a rather daunting message of repentance. In fact just this week a friend sent me a picture of John the Baptist looking suitably wild & woolly and saying ‘Merry Christmas you brood of vipers. Now repent’. Not available in all good card shops anytime soon.

John’ message isn’t an easy one. “Choose” says John – choose to repent and be baptised or choose to perish. And don’t think you can hedge your bets by

being baptised but not really changing anything else about your life: to the Sadducees and Pharisees who come for baptism with no mention of repentance or change of life, John spits out vitriol in abundance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.

I have spent quite a lot of this week wondering why we bother with John the Baptist – I’m certainly not going to be using his baptism policy in any of the four churches. But I have eventually concluded that the question of choice is as relevant now as it was to John’s hearers.

On Wednesday I heard George Carey, from Archbishop of Canterbury, promoting ‘Not ashamed day’. He was claiming that Christians in Britain today are in fear of being persecuted as a minority and was encouraging people to stand up for their faith. Now as it happens I disagree with him about the persecution part: Christians in Iraq are being driven from their homes by violence against them because of their faith – that is persecution, not anything we face in this country.
But maybe this campaign has a point: that Christians are asked to choose to stand up and be counted. If you choose to follow Jesus, you need to be unashamed to declare your choice.

We might find the prophecy from Isaiah much easier to live with than the one from John. Isaiah brings a message of peace and safety for all when the Lord comes.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah describes the Lord choosing between good and evil and choosing for the poor. In the kingdom of God even animals will choose the right things to do – to save rather than to harm. So the lion and the lamb will lie down together, munching on straw; and little children will dance around the nests of dangerous snakes without coming to any harm. This is a time of peace with freedom, a time and place where no harm will come to God’s people.

It might seem that John – with his blood and thunder message, is out of step with this peaceful image. But John’s role is to tell the world about the coming of the Messiah – to declare the way of the Lord. And Jesus comes not just offering peace, as Isaiah foretells, or pointing to the choice of others – whether God or wild animals - to do the right thing. Jesus comes declaring that now is the time when all people must make a choice.
The Lord, says John, will separate the wheat from the chaff – he will offer people the choice of being for him or against him.

The coming of the Lord is the coming of freedom - but the freedom to choose well in life and learn to follow Jesus Christ.

So in Advent we are given the freedom of choice and the ability, if we will use it, to take time to clear some space for ourselves so that we can choose to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
John’s message to us is that we are offered the chance to turn, to repent and to follow Jesus, the one to whom John points the way.

We’re coming to the time of year when no doubt we will be offered many different screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ story ‘A Christmas Carol’. I used to think that it was a shame that this story, and not the story of the birth of Christ, seems to be the one which dominates our televisions. And yet I never fail to be touched by the story of repentance. Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with the reality of who he is and chooses to changes his ways. Dickens novel ends with this description of the repentant Scrooge:
“and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”.

Advent is about being prepared to see God with us. We can choose to live as those who are following Jesus; we can choose to see God in the world – intimately involved with and linked to all that is; we can choose to keep Christmas.
God bless us, everyone. Amen.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Sermon for Advent 2.. so far

If anyone reads this sermon you might think there's a funny jump from the penultimate paragraph to the final one - yes, I think so too: but I'm not sure what else i want to say just yet - think I need time away from it & then will come back & see whether something comes. You might also notice that I've not gone with the 'stump of Jesse' or the 'wilderness' theme (see posts below).. perhaps I should have!


Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12

Of all the characters we might find on our Christmas cards – Mary, Joseph, Kings, Shepherds, angels… I have never once seen one with an image of John the Baptist. Of course at the time of Jesus’ birth he would only have been a baby himself, but although he’s recognised as a prophet who points us to Jesus the Christ, he’s really not the stuff of Christmas cards – wild, scary, with a rather daunting message of repentance. In fact just this week a friend sent me a picture of John the Baptist looking suitably wild & woolly and saying ‘Merry Christmas you brood of vipers. Now repent’. Not available in all good card shops anytime soon.



John’ message isn’t an easy one. “Choose” says John – choose to repent and be baptised or choose to perish. And don’t think you can hedge your bets by being baptised but not really changing anything else about your life: to the Sadducees and Pharisees who come with no mention of repentance or change of life, John spits out vitriol in abundance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.

I have spent quite a lot of this week wondering why we bother with John the Baptist – but the question of choice is as relevant now as it was to John’s hearers.

On Wednesday I heard George Carey, from Archbishop of Canterbury, promoting ‘Not ashamed day’. He was claiming that Christians in Britain today are in fear of being persecuted as a minority and was encouraging people to stand up for their faith. Now as it happens I disagree with him about the persecution part:
Christians in Iraq are being driven from their homes by violence against them because of their faith – that is persecution, not anything we face.
But maybe this campaign has a point: that Christians are asked to choose to stand up and be counted. If you choose to follow Jesus, you need to be unashamed to declare your choice.

We might find the prophecy from Isaiah much easier to live with than the one from John. Isaiah brings a message of peace and safety for all when the Lord comes.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah describes the Lord choosing between good and evil and choosing for the poor. In the kingdom of God even animals will choose the right things to do – to save rather than to harm. So the lion and the lamb will lie down together, munching on straw; and little children will dance around the nests of dangerous snakes without coming to any harm. This is a time of peace with freedom, a time and place where no harm will come to God’s people.

It might seem that John – with his blood and thunder message, is out of step with this peaceful image. But John’s role is to tell the world about the coming of the Messiah – to declare the way of the Lord. And Jesus comes not just offering peace, as Isaiah foretells, or pointing to the choice of others – whether God or wild animals - to do the right thing. Jesus comes declaring that now is the time when all people must make a choice. The Lord, says John, will separate the wheat from the chaff – he will offer people the choice of being for him or against him.

The coming of the Lord is the coming of freedom - but the freedom to choose well in life and learn to follow Jesus Christ.

So in Advent we are given the freedom of choice and the ability, if we will use it, to take time to clear some space for ourselves so that we can choose to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
John’s message to us is that we are offered the chance to turn, to repent and to follow Jesus, the one to whom John points the way.

Our repentance, our turning round our lives in order to follow Jesus, also involves seeing the world in a new way. Advent is about being prepared to see God with us. We can choose to see the world only as the material: or we can choose to see God in the world – intimately involved with and linked to all that is.

So our Advent prayer is for peace for ourselves, our neighbours.. for the whole world: the peace of the coming of Christ to hearts , minds and lives, in the child of Bethlehem & in this bread & wine.
To the Glory of God. Amen.

Monday, 29 November 2010

More thoughts...

Have just been thinking about wilderness, largely because I readthis

Jesus' story ( as told by Matthew) begins with the genealogy, but also with the wilderness.
jesus' ministry starts with 'you are my beloved son' but then Jesus is sent to the wilderness.
Even creation itself starts with wilderness and then the naming of humanity.

Is there something about the desert, the bleak place, the emptiness that helps us to take in what this sense of being one of God's own people really means?

Advent 2

Readings for this week are:

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

All of which seem to speak of continuity, of descendants, of relationship over time.
Where are we in this succession?
I am reminded of a recent morning spent mooching around Canterbury cathedral, where the windows depicting the figures of Old & new Testament were described as an early version of 'who do you think you are' - linking the monks in worship with their roots in the people of God.
I also notice that December 1st commemorates Nicholas Ferrar, deacon of Little Gidding and founder of a religious movement there, devoted to prayer and study of the scripture. Before his death he said to his community: `It is the right, good old way you are in; keep in it'.
I think I'm minded to say something about our true roots, our true way, our real 'tradition' in Christ: at this time of year when we tend to think about family & friends & where we have come from only in terms of our little span of life.
Being a descendant of Jesus means choosing to follow, to keep in the right, good, old way. And maybe there's a link between keeping in the way and that old phrase 'keeping Christmas'...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Advent Sunday sermon notes

Advent Sunday

Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 13: 11-14
Matthew 24: 36-44


It’s coming. You can’t stop it. You can’t slow it. You can’t avoid it. You can’t escape it. It’s coming and it will catch you up and engulf you & there is nothing you can do about it.

No, for once I’m not ranting about the impending celebration of Christmas: I’m talking about the love of God, the presence of God, the reign or kingdom of God.
Advent Sunday is about the start of the season when we get ready for what God does at Christmas.
It is about shifting our attention away from ourselves and from human activity and looking for what God is doing and will do. If there is a pithy Advent message today, it is stop trying so hard and doing so much and simply accept that God is coming to you – nothing is required of you except to accept it!


I’m reminded of the hoary old preacher’s story fo the 5 year old boy who got lost out in the forest near his home. As ot grew darker and darker and as the temperature and then the snow started to fall, his parents grew wild with worry and began searching frantically, each going in a different direction to cover the ground more quickly. Then the boy’s father spotted him, huddled under a bush, wrapped up tightly in his thick coat, fast asleep. As the father lifted him up the boy opened his bleary eyes and said ‘Daddy, at last I’ve found you!’.

We are no more capable of finding God than that boy was of finding his father – and we need to remember at Advent, that it is God who does the travelling – God comes to us – we reflect on God’s activity not our own.
So we hear from Isaiah of a time when God’s place, God’s mountain, will be the highest and greatest in the world – when all people will be drawn to God and when there will be absolute peace – when swords will be hammered into ploughshares. This was a wonderful promise for the people of God of the first Isaiah’s time: the kingdom of Israel has been split into two and both the kingdom of Israel, in the north and the kingdom of Judah, in the south were facing threats from neighbouring kingdoms. War was a fact of life for the people to whom Isaiah was prophesying, and they must have longed for the kind of peace, brought by God, that he promises.

The letter to the Romans looks forward to a time of salvation for all – when the day – the day of the lord – will finally come and all will be light. Although the church at Rome knows they live in a time of darkness, when God’s light has not yet fully dawned, they are told to be ready, and told to put on the armour of light, to be children of light and followers of Christ, even in the darkness that surrounds them.

And Jesus warns his followers that they do not know when the end of time will come, but that it will come unexpectedly and suddenly.
Immediately following this teaching, Jesus tells the parables of the wise & foolish virgins, and of the sheep and the goats – stories of being ready, and of being judged at the end of time.

God will come; life as we know it will change forever; there is nothing we can do except wait for God’s time.

But what are we meant to do with these promises?

They sound a bit like empty promises – ‘a time of great peace & salvation’ – you don’t see much sign of that happening anytime soon, do you? Maybe these prophets got it wrong – maybe God has given up on his world, after all.

Or maybe these promises make us feel that there really isn’t anything we can do except to wait, passively, for God to act. I said that Advent was about God coming to us – so let’s wait & see what God is going to do.

But of course we are not waiting in a vacuum for God to act – we are approaching Christmas and remembering that God has come into the world.
God has come – we don’t need to search or seek or strive. Advent means God is coming to us – whether we like it or not.
And Jesus Christ came to announce that ‘ the kingdom of God is among you’ – we may not be able to see a world of perfect peace yet. But we can live as those who belong to the kingdom, because we know God is here already, that the reign of God has begun, even if God’s rule is not yet complete.
God’s rule of the whole world is not complete, and the timing of that is God’s and not ours, but we can try to make God’s rule more and more complete in our own lives.

Both Isaiah and the letter to the Romans challenge us to walk already as people of the light. Advent is here – God is coming – so live as those who are already people of light and be ready to celebrate the God who in Jesus comes to us and dwells among us and will never leave us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Notes for 21st November

Christ the King: Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43

This week we have heard the news of the engagement of Prince William, our future king, and Kate Middleton. I couldn’t help thinking that the plans of a couple who have been together for 8 years to get married next year is hardly ‘news’ – but of course as it’s William then this is a Royal Wedding we’re talking about – and Kate becomes, on marrying him, a prospective queen. I even heard the comment made that their years together so far have helped to give Kate an insight into ‘how the family works’. She needs to know what it will mean for William to be King; to understand the responsibility, the expectations, the role.
I imagine that how you feel about royalty will colour how you feel about the news: is it a great source of national celebration, a wonderful excuse for a party, or a terrible waste of public money and time?
As we stand on the threshold of Advent, the lectionary invites us to think about royalty, too, and to consider ‘Christ the King’.
Our expectations of kingship, what we know of how royalty works, how we feel about the relationship between the king and his subjects – all these things will influence how we respond to Christ, the King.

The gospel reading reminds us that as King, Christ does not always rule as people expect. Just as we are getting ready for Advent and preparation for a celebration of the start of Jesus’ life, we are reminded of the end of it.

One of the thieves crucified with Jesus, hearing that he is referred to as ‘King of the Jews’ wants Jesus to prove his kingly status by rescuing himself. ‘If you are a king, get down from this cross’ and he might have added ‘& while you’re at it, rescue us too’.
But the second thief says only ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
Somehow this wretched, dying thief sees a divine truth – that Jesus is a king – is The King – but not as people expect, his kingdom is not an earthly one.

Jesus has shown in his teaching that he is on earth, among people, in order to bring in the kingdom of God, but that his role is one of servant, not sovereign. Jesus is the promised good shepherd, the one for others, the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
For those who expected an earthly king to overthrow the Roman forces and anyone else who would resist God’s will, Jesus is the wrong sort of king. Christ the King is seen enthroned on a cross – not ruling in pomp, but dying in humble service, to teach us that the way of God is not the human road of power.

We have to be ready for Christ the King to overturn our expectations.

Yet our Bible readings also encourage us to think about what we know of Jesus Christ and what else this means for Christ’s Kingship. In the reading from Colossians we meet the image of the one who reigns supreme, who is like God and is sent by God to reconcile all things to God. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created”.

As the annual drama of Christmas approaches – both the church drama of the telling of the familiar story, and the domestic drama of cards, presents, food, plans and preparations – amid all that drama we do well to pause and let the amazing truth sink in yet again.
This child who is coming, this baby in the manger, this scrap of life and hope, this squalling bundle of humanity.. is the King of creation. If the phrase ‘God made flesh’ has failed to make our eyes pop, our jaws drop, and our hair stand on end with awe and amazement, then we’re not taking it in properly. Christ the King become the baby of Bethlehem – God made flesh to save us. That is what our Advent and Christmas should point us towards and help us to realize.

Our expectations of kingship and our knowledge of Christ the king will colour all the celebration that is to come. That just leaves the question of the relationship between King and subjects – between Jesus Christ and each one of us.

How de we relate to Christ the King – are we prepared to let Christ really rule our lives?
What would this mean for each life here?

If we recognise Christ as King it means allowing our lives to be subject to his rule: putting the kingdom of God first in our decisions. What we do and say and think, the power we wield, the money we spend, the way we treat other people: maybe even our response to Royal news – the whole of our lives are not our own, but are part of the kingdom of God. We need to be living as those who wish to see God’s love, peace and joy for all. If Christ is our King we are part of his rule – seeking his will, doing his work, being his body.

May we be ready this Advent to meet Christ the King in ever new and surprising ways and to live our lives more and more as his subjects and servants in this world.
To the glory of God.
Amen.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The end of the year

Well the end of the liturgical year: Christ the King.
I like this chance to take stock before we're catapulted into the madness of Advent & Christmas. Before we get too carried away with babies in mangers, let's not forget that the one who is coming is Christ the Lord of all.
Readings are:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

God will raise up a shepherd from the stock of David.
He is the image of the invisible God first-born of all creation.
The crucified one is recognised as king.

Plenty of food for thought there...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday thoughts

Today is, of course, Remembrance Sunday.
We may be caught between many different feelings: some may wear a red poppy to honour those who fought – especially those who didn’t return. Others may wear a white poppy to pledge themselves to peace. Some may want to look back and thank God that ‘our boys’ won and that this country remained free. Others may want the freedom to be proud of ‘our boys (and girls)’ who are fighting today without facing an accusation of racism. Some may want to remember the victory of self-sacrifice… and others want to be able to forget the horror of war.

Caught in the complexity of all these many feelings, it is tempting to focus on the reading we heard from Isaiah – looking forward to a time when God will create a new heaven and a new earth – with love and peace and prosperity for all people. This is a fantastic reading to remind us that life will not always be this hard and that in the end God will sort it out.
But the letter to the Thessalonians gives Paul’s warning to those who are prepared to wait for God to sort things out and so fritter their lives and their time away sitting around. ‘Do not be weary in doing what is right’ says Paul. Sometimes we cannot simply dream of peace – but have to be prepared to struggle with all the issues to work out what is the right thing to do.

And so we think about our Gospel reading, where we are caught between realism & hope.

This is a relentlessly difficult reading. Jesus says to his followers quite clearly – don’t get carried away by the splendour of the temple – the fine stones and ornaments. Don’t put your trust in your fine building – because it won’t last. In fact, the Temple was destroyed by the Roman army about 40 years later – but even if that hadn’t happened, it would be hardly be as good as new, 2,000 years on – buildings can’t last.

So if we can’t put our trust in buildings, in solid bricks & mortar, what can we trust? People?
Jesus says “Take care you are not misled. For many will come saying ‘ I am he’ and ‘the time has come’. Do not follow them”.
So however charismatic a leader, or whatever the claim they make for themselves, we mustn’t put our trust in other people, either.

No, Jesus says, when you’re really up against it, when you’re seized and persecuted and made to stand up in court to defend yourselves “I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute”. God’s Spirit, given by Jesus, will be what saves us when we face the ultimate test.

We can’t and we shouldn’t trust buildings or people: but we can trust God – the power of God the Father, given by the Son through the Spirit: God is what we can always rely on.
That doesn’t let us off the hard wrestling of ‘what are we to do?’ – it doesn’t mean that we can sit back & hope God will sort it out. God’s spirit, the power of God, will come to help those who follow Jesus – but only when they are really up against it – arrested, imprisoned, and put in trial. Yet in the midst of that trial God will strengthen them and give them the right words to say.

This Remembrance Sunday as we face the question ‘in the face of suffering and warfare and conflict – what are we to do?’, then the Gospel doesn’t release us from that question, but perhaps it helps us to frame the question in a new way - ‘What would God have us do?’. What does it mean, today, to remember, to forgive, to give thanks, to pray for peace? How can we be open to the work of the Spirit in the way we treat other people, especially those with whom we disagree? How can we allow God’s Spirit to change us this Remembrance Sunday, so that we can be agents of peace and forgiveness in a world which longs for both.
God help us, God change us. Amen.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Initial thoughts

This week's readings:
Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Today I led a reflection on these readings for a meeting, based on the gospel reading. I think this will be my starting point for Sunday - which also needs to bring in Remembrance! :

We are caught between realism & the hope of the gospel.

Jesus says to his followers quite clearly – don’t get carried away by the splendour of the temple – the fine stones and ornaments. Don’t put your trust in your fine building – because it won’t last. In fact, the Temple was destroyed by the Roman army about 40 years later – but even if that hadn’t happened, it would be hardly be as good as new, 2,000 years on – buildings can’t last.

So if we can’t put our trust in buildings, in solid bricks & mortar, what can we trust? People?
Jesus says “Take care you are not misled. For many will come saying ‘ I am he’ and ‘the time has come’. Do not follow them”.
So however charismatic a leader, or whatever the claim they make for themselves, we mustn’t put our trust in other people, either.

No, Jesus says, when you’re really up against it, when you’re seized and persecuted and made to stand up in court to defend yourselves “I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute”. God’s Spirit, given by Jesus, will be what saves us when we face the ultimate test.

We can’t and we shouldn’t trust buildings or people: but we can trust God – the power of God the Father, given by the Son through the Spirit: God is what we can always rely on.

That doesn’t let us off the hard wrestling of ‘what are we to do?’ – but it helps us to frame the question in a new way ‘What would God have us do?’.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Sermon notes 6-11-10

Stand firm (2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; Luke 20: 27-38)

Do you ever think about this church in 20 years’ time? or even 10 years’ time & wonder ‘What will it be like?’. I hope it won’t come as shocking news to anyone here that the church as we know it is changing. We know that numbers here on a Sunday are not what they were, let’s say 20 years ago. I can tell you that increasingly when I talk to couples getting married, about what hymns they would like in the service they don’t just say ‘I’ll ask my mum’ they say ‘I’ll ask my gran’. We are all getting older, of course – but research tells us that the average age of our congregations is rising. The church is changing. The church as we know it is dying.

But the church of Jesus Christ is nearly 2000 years old: and in those 2 millennia it has changed time and time again – new movements have been born, and died, but the Church is (as a friend of mine put it

recently) ‘theologically indestructible’. She meant that although the form of the Church will change, as it always has, the message of the gospel, the desire of God to reach out to humanity with the Good News of love and welcome and eternal life – that message is eternal. But, yes, this form of the church is dying. So what will it be like?

We might think the conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees is all a bit pointless and irrelevant to us. The Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus with the ridiculous case of the woman widowed 7 times. They do not believe in life after death and they are presenting a case which is almost a riddle to try to illustrate their belief that there is no heaven and no afterlife. Because they cannot imagine the afterlife, they believe it does not exist. I have some sympathy with them.

Often when I meet people to talk about a funeral service the question ‘what is heaven like?’ comes up. The best I can manage is ‘I don’t know – but Jesus promises there is one’. There’s that question again ‘what will it be like?’.

But Jesus answers the Sadducees with the argument that there is eternal life – just not as they are imagining, a life that is merely a continuation of this one. What will it be like? Different, says Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t really answer the riddle of what it will be like. Instead Jesus paints of a picture of the God is who is out of time and eternal – the God of the living – in whose sight all are alive.

Whatever the church of the future is meant to be, we are meant to be the Church of God, the followers of Jesus Christ, the ones who seek the guidance of the Spirit.

Paul exhorts the church at Thessalonica, too, to ‘Stand fast.. and hold firm’.
It seems there are worries in that church about the return of Jesus at the end of time – and questions about why it hasn’t happened yet. But Paul wants them to remain calmly confident that the God who has cared about them since the beginning of time will never abandon them.
The God who has cared about us since the beginning of time will never abandon us. The God who has cared about you since the beginning of time will never abandon you.

So as we cope with the march of time, both these readings can give us hope because they remind us that although we experience time as a linear journey through the year and into the next– God has a different perspective.
Sometimes all we can do is hold on & wait for it all to make sense: then we can trust in the God who is with us, to stick by us.
The God who lives yesterday, today and forever will hold us safely through the journey of what we know as time: and in this lies our hope.

At the heart of the life of the church is a relationship between people and God, through Jesus Christ. That relationship is unbreakable, unbeatable. There will always be a church – the fellowship of those live as people who know God’s love. While God still loves the world there will still be a church. What will it look like? I have no idea. But if we are faithful followers of Jesus we will see God’s will done – and it is not God’s will that the Church should cease to preach the Good news, even if the shape and form of the church changes utterly.

I’m going to give the last word to The Revd Reg Dean who celebrated his 108th birthday this week on the 4th of November – he is believed to be Britain’s oldest man. Reg was ordained as an Anglican and served as a chaplain in India and Burma in World War 2. Following his divorce in the 50s he became a Congregational & then a URC minister.

Asked about the recipe for long and happy life, Reg said: “A faith I can trust; looking for the best in people rather than the worst; the love of friends; and doing things for the joy of it rather than rewards.”.

Of such is the kingdom of heaven – standing firm, trusting God, knowing and preaching love.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Feeling Gloomy

So is it the lack of sunshine on my pineal gland, the shortening days, or the putting away of Summer sandals & breaking out of Winter boots - but I'm feeling gloomy. Actually it's none of those things, it's most likely the fact that one of my churches is having a wobble about existence. It doesn't matter which one it is - all four could point to falling numbers on Sunday mornings, lack of people to do jobs, wondering how to be relevant to the world around... you get the picture. The problem (I am told by a wise friend) is the Decline of the Christian Church in the West. Please note the capitals - this is a BIG phenomenon and as such it is not my fault. But I am the one who will get up on her hind legs on Sunday to preach the gospel to people who are worried about the future.

So what to say?
The readings are:
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 or Job 19: 23 – 27a; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; Luke 20: 27-38

At first sight the OT & Epistle look like 'keep on going' kind of messages and the Gospel looks way off beam with the Sadducees question about marriage in heaven (errr... who cares?). But I am starting to see a link - a shared concern between us and the Sadducees to get the future sorted out, to know exactly what's going to happen. But Jesus doesn't tell us, he just tells us to trust.
And wait and see what God is going to do. And remember that soon it will be Advent & the Lord will come - but not as we expect.

Full notes to follow as & when available!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Early -but short!

"Only" the 8am service to preach for this week - so here's the notes...

Luke 19: 1-10

‘The son of man came to seek and to save what is lost.’ Not ‘who is lost’ but what is lost. Yes, Jesus had come to save Zaccheus, but it wasn’t that Zaccheus was thoroughly bad and lost whilst everyone else around was thoroughly good and OK. Jesus has come to save what is lost – the bits of Zaccheus that had gone astray. And Jesus had also come to save the lost compassion of the crowd around Zaccheus, to show them that this man wasn’t beyond redemption, and that maybe they needed to be ready to love the sinner amongst them. Jesus comes to save what is lost, and this is good news for us – there are bits of our lives where we feel lost, things we know we have got wrong - and Jesus has come to set things right.

That’s the saving bit – putting right what is wrong, bringing hope where there is hurting. But Jesus also says he comes to seek – to look deeply where other have only glanced and dismissed. Everyone knows Zaccheus is a bad ‘un – a tax-collector & a nasty piece of work ; but only Jesus sees the Zaccheus who can turn his life around, pay back four times what he has defrauded & become a loved member of society and a follower of Jesus.

Being God’s faithful people and followers of Jesus involves being ready to be saved by the love of God, but it also means seeing things differently. Jesus comes to seek and save what is lost and one of those things which is lost may be our ability to see what is of God in the world. Can we join with Jesus is seeing differently - in seeking and saving?

We meet here to share bread and wine. What do we see? Not just simple elements – but a share in a heavenly banquet – a gift from God – the gift of a sharing in the life and death and resurrection of Christ. Christ comes to us in this bread and wine to seek us and to save us. So we can be strengthened to follow Jesus – to share in the seeking and saving of all that is lost – in us, in our neighbours, in the whole world.
To God’s praise & glory
Amen.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Late!

Readings for this week:
Joel 2: 23-32
Luke 18: 9-14

Stung by an article on Friday's "Women's Hour" (on Radio 4) that sermons never deal with the political realities - I've taken the current political situation as my starting point this week - we'll see how it goes!


Pharisee & tax-collector.

So finally this week we have heard where some of the cuts are going to fall as the coalition government tries to reduce the deficit.

Inevitably comparisons are made: who will be hardest hit? who will get away with minimal changes to their lifestyle? and the question to which we all want the answer – how will this affect me?

It is human nature to be concerned about ourselves and where we stand in relation to others. We would not have survived as a species if we had no concern at all for our own well being. But as people of God we need to be concerned for others, as well as ourselves, and we should beware any thinking that makes us believe that we are a cut above others.

I think this is part of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the parable we heard today.
The Pharisee is full of self-importance, he has done all the right things, spiritually speaking – and he knows he’s streets ahead of the tax-collector when it comes to righteous living. He has done all the things expected of a person seeking a healthy spiritual life – he fasts twice a week, he has given a tenth of what he has to charity – and here he is in the temple at prayer. He’s doing everything right – except that he looks at his neighbour with contempt, and not with love. He has forgotten the promise of Joel that God will pour our his spirit on all flesh – young and old, slave & free, men & women. God’s love is for all, not just for the Pharisee.

Meanwhile the tax collector dare not even look up to heaven, but says only ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. Jesus says that it is repentant tax-collector who goes away made right with God.

Well, yes - this is the way grace works we believe. It is not what we do that makes us loveable in God’s sight, but it is our readiness to accept God’s love and forgiveness.

But what then?
If the tax-collector simply goes away forgiven and thinks only of his own standing before God, where does that get him?

The more I read this parable, the more I think that Jesus does not mean us to stop at the judgement that ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ – we are meant to question our own relationship with God and with others.
I said it is human nature to compare ourselves with others, but Jesus isn’t asking us to judge between the Pharisee and the tax-collector, he is not even asking us to choose which of them we will behave like: he is offering us 2 slightly cartoon-like stereotypes, so that we are forced to question our own response to God and to others.

Each of the characters offers us pointers about how to behave, and a warning against taking that behaviour too far.
Like the Pharisee, we should think about how we should behave so that we honour God – how we treat our bodies, how we respond to the needs of others, how we worship – these are all important questions. But beware getting so caught up in your own religious behaviour that you start to look down on other people, says Jesus.
Like the tax-collector, know that it is only God’s mercy that can save you, and go home made right with God. But beware getting so concerned only about yourself and about God that you forget the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.
When you get home, made right with God, look around and ask how as a forgiven child of God you can share some of the love with those you meet.

So – back to the cuts.
However we are feeling about the impact on ourselves, all the analysis of what has been done seems to say that it is the poorest in our society who will be hit hardest by what has already happened and what is to come.
How do we respond to this – as Christians and as churches?

Already I hear some people suggest that David Cameron’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ means that churches and other charities will be required to help those who until know have relied on a state-run system of Social Security.

Jesus’ parable challenges us to see ourselves in relation to God and to others as people who receive the great grace of God’s love – who know ourselves forgiven and loved - and who then act towards our neighbours in a way which helps them, too, to know they are beloved children of God.

May God grant us grace to know what is good and to do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Early!

I'm off to a 3-day meeting: so this had to be done early. I'm sure I will want to come back to it before Sunday - but these are my thoughts thus far:


Oct 17th: 
Genesis 32:22-31 
Luke 18:1-8

One of the problems with listening to any Bible readings is that our minds can be so full of other issues. I wonder what’s bothering you as you sit there listening this morning. Perhaps you’ve been worrying about a member of the family – an elderly relative with health problems, or a younger one in financial difficulty; perhaps you’re worried about your own health, or fearful of the future in some other way. Perhaps you’ve confided in someone else or maybe you’re the only ones who knows what it is that you’re bothered about.
With all this potential for distraction going on in our minds and in our live, who are we meant to listen to the Bible? And what can it possibly have to say to us, even if we do manage to still our internal storms for long enough to let the Bible speak to us.

Perhaps as you listened to the readings some sort of image of the events came into your mind. I remember the story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger from a children’s Bible I used to have - it showed 2 bearded men in long gowns standing ankle-deep in water as sun begins to rise. Maybe that doesn’t make you feel any more confident that the story is relevant to your life.

But let’s put the story in context: Jacob has been extremely sneaky – he’s been out of land of his birth since tricking his brother, Esau & fleeing for his life. The years have been good to Jacob: he now has wives, children, huge flocks of sheep, goats, camels, donkeys & cattle - and he is planning to return home. But he is still frightened of his cheated big brother – so he sends groups of animals ahead, telling the people driving them to tell Esau they are a gift from Jacob.

Finally Jacob brings up the rear - but just as he is about to cross final river and enter his homeland he meets... Who or what? Perhaps Jacob is facing his own resistance, fears, guilt personified - is he fighting with his past? in his mind fighting with Esau? fighting with God?

We, clearly, are not wanderers in the desert skulking back home to a murderous brother - but the idea of apprehension, of wrestling with demons inside ourselves if not with angels, may be familiar to us.
Jacob is convinced that in his struggle God is with him - he names the place where he wrestles, ‘Peniel’ - the face of God. Jacob is left limping by his encounter with the stranger, but he feels sure that God has been with him in the struggle.

The persistent widow in Jesus’ parable is also struggling with a stronger force - verbally rather than physically. The story needs to be read carefully: Jesus is NOT saying that to get a blessing out of God we have to nag & harass. Point of the story is to compare the judge with God - to lay this example alongside Jesus’ teaching about God. If an unjust judge will give justice to a widow, even though she has no legal rights, because she plagues the life out of him, how much more will God, who wants to bless people, bless those who are persistent in prayer, says Jesus.

Whatever we have come to church carrying in our minds and hearts, we are not here to batter on God’s door and demand help, or to wrestle with God to wring a blessing out of him.

We are here to pause form all the wrestling and to remember that God’s blessing is with us : even when life feels incredibly tough.
Whatever challenges we face we have here the knowledge that God is with us - not in some namby pamby way, but wrestling, struggling, sweating & grunting. We are here to worship the God who is not aloof and unconcerned but here on the ground in Jesus, struggling with us, dying despite us, defeating death for us. And that same God offers us bread and wine as a sign of that presence which is with us always.

In this communion meal we are offered a blessing from the God who is always waiting to hear, rather than being a despot who bolts the door to us & responds to us only when battered into submission.

So in the midst of the difficulties of life, what does God offer today?
1. Knowledge of his strong presence when things are tough.
There is a lovely phrase in the prayer book, which talks of a God who is ‘ever more ready to hear than we are to pray’. God is there in all our struggles.

2. Promise of a place in the household of God - here is a sign for all of us that the arms of God are waiting for us each time we want to return. The arms of God will not wrestle & rebuff, they are not arms folded in arrogance and reproach - they are arms which enfold and embrace - the arms of the God Jesus called ‘Father’.

A final thought – it could be that in the parable of the widow and the judge we, the church, are the judge & Jesus Christ is the widow – pleading for us to listen, to respond to the voice of love, whatever problems are assailing us. So may we all know God’ love and blessing with us today and forever. Amen.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Short & sweet

What a week it's been - 2 funerals, an art exhibition at one of the churches this weekend, and someone very ill ( but thankfully getting better) in hospital, on top of all the 'usual' stuff. Very little time to think about a sermon - so here's the notes for the 8am 'Reflection', then I must go back to the short sermon for the thanksgiving service (in which I've decided to use the Luke reading but also Mark 10: 13-16 - Jesus blessing the children).


The gospel reading from Luke tells us of the 10 healed lepers – only one of whom came back to thank Jesus – and he was the foreigner, the Samaritan.
I think I remember being taught in Sunday school that this shows we should always remember to say thank you.
As I’ve got older I’ve taken this story as a great comfort when I’ve felt taken for granted. Even Jesus, who could heal people of leprosy, only got a 10% ‘thank you’ rate.
But this time round, I was very struck by hearing this together with the Jeremiah reading.

Jesus heals and receives thank from a Samaritan – it is great to see God’s inclusive love in action. But Jeremiah challenges us to be even more radical and inclusive in our love. The people of Israel, who have been carried off into exile in Babylon, are told to build houses, marry wives, grow food, and generally to settle in the hated land of exile. They are then told to seek the welfare of the city of exile. The people are not exactly told to say ‘thank you’ to the foreigners who have done them such harm, but they are certainly told to bear no grudge. Did you notice the little mention by the Lord God of ‘the city where I have sent you into exile’. Whatever their feelings about what has happened to them and whatever the state they now find themselves in, the people of God are to remember that God is in control of their destiny, that nowhere is beyond his love and concern, and that reflecting God’s radical and universal love, they should not hate or despise anyone.

This is the astonishing gospel of Jesus Christ – no-one is beyond God’s love: not the foreigner, not the down-trodden, not even the ungrateful. All can receive God’s love shown in this bread & wine. Amen.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Sunday October 10th

Readings for this week:

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

For me there's something here about attitudes:
God tells the exiles to get on and live in Babylon, and not to waste their years in pining for what they've lost.
In the gospel reading, Jesus heals 10 lepers & only 1 comes back to give thanks. I think I want to go beyond the stereotypical Sunday school 'So you should always say thank you, children' to say that it is right for Jesus to heal all 10 even if only 1 thanks him - what's right is right, even if it's unmarked or unmentioned.
I like the Timothy reading too: talking about our identity in Christ.
I don't think we'll quite have time for all 3 readings - so may just go with Timothy & Luke (one of the services includes thanksgiving for the birth of a child). What does it mean to live as people touched by God's love in Christ - even if a lot of the time we don't notice it?

Monday, 27 September 2010

October 3rd

Ah, well - I'm being a Godmother again this coming Sunday (a great honour!) so won't be preaching.
But I can heartily recommend this site here
- I think it brings together a lot of the Lukan material we've been looking at over the last few weeks.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Notes for 26-9-10

So here's the 'church' version:


Rich man and Lazarus
(Luke 16:19-31 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

Jesus talks about a division between rich and poor. We know before we even listen to the news or read our papers that there is a huge gap between the poor of this word and the rich: in education, in life-expectancy, in health.. and so on. What should we do about this gap – ignore it? Thank God we’re on the right side of it? Or act.. and if so, how?

In the letter to Timothy, Paul warns that those who are rich should be rich in good works. Particularly in this season of Autumn and harvest festivals, we remember to give thanks to God for all the riches we enjoy and in many places we combine that with some sort of charity giving to those who are less fortunate – the poor in this country or in others. So we have gifts here for the Cambridgeshire food bank, and opportunities at the harvest supper to make some money to help the people of Zimbabwe, and all through September we have been collection for the aid agencies in Pakistan.
We know how lucky we are here in Whittlesford – the harvest yield may have been lower this year, (rain at the wrong times, I’m told) and I know these are uncertain financial times for many people - but none of us will starve. We are rich and we need to be rich in generosity.

Maybe in being generous to others we can avoid the fate of the un-named rich man, who finds, in Jesus’ story, that in the after-life the division between rich and poor is continued, but now with the boot on the other foot.
It is the poor man, Lazarus, who gets named, and who gets the prime spot alongside Abraham, but the rich man is in torment – and in the story is anonymous.
Finally the poor get their reward, but the selfish rich are punished. And all the Socialists said ‘Amen’. And all the givers to charity said ‘Phew!’. And all the higher rate tax-payers are ready to tell Father Abraham that paying tax really does count as giving to the poor.

Whatever our political leanings, we often operate according to the I’m OK/ You’re OK school of thought. You may know the theory : it’s called transactional analysis – the idea that each of us operates in a matrix: I’m OK, or not OK – You’re OK, or not OK. This leads to 4 different states. If we feel we are equal to another person, we may behave as if I’m OK & you’re OK. This makes relationships very easy. But where there are inequalities of status or money or opportunities in life, I may be OK – but you are not OK: or maybe You’re OK & I feel inferior – I’m not OK.
The rich man on earth is in the I’m OK – you (Lazarus) are not OK box.
Lazarus at the side of Abraham may well feel at last I’m OK & you (rich man) are not OK.
The ultimate goal of our psychological well-being is to get to the state where we can say I’m OK, you’re OK.

But Jesus is not telling this story to tell us how the after-life really will be – lakes of fire, great gulfs, suffering or peace. Jesus seems to want to get us thinking about how we relate as rich and poor here & now. If only the rich man had known he would have acted differently. If only Lazarus would warn his brothers, they would act differently.. but Jesus says ‘if they do not believe Moses and the prophets they will not believe, even if someone should rise from the dead’.

Luke’s gospel is reaching crisis point – Jesus will be the one who is killed and will rise – and even then, some will not believe.

Jesus warns us that we will never reach the Utopian ideal when we can say, either psychologically or materially “We’re all OK – I’m OK, you’re OK”. The kingdom of God is not about creating level playing fields for all – it is about trusting and believing in the God who look at us and says ‘You’re not OK – but you’re loved’. Although the rich and powerful, or the weak and gullible of this world will take Jesus and see him crucified, God’s love could not be defeated. The resurrection shows us God’s solution to the ‘Not OK-ness’ of the human condition – to promise the hope of God’s grace and power.

Now I realize that there’s a danger here – that we become complacent & say ‘since we will never make life OK – let’s not bother. That isn’t what Jesus is saying either. Clearly the rich man in the story is punished for just that sort of ‘don’t care’ attitude towards the poor. Jesus calls us to seek fairness, to work to break down divisions, to be mindful of the weaker voices in our world.
At harvest we should give thanks for all that God gives us – and pledge ourselves to care for our world as best we can.

But most of all Jesus calls us to remember that this is God’s world – and that only God’s love can ultimately heal us of all that is not OK. So may we be open to God’s grace in all our lives – to enable us to live as people who are grateful for what we have, determined to care for the marvellous world God has made, and resolved to trust in God’s strength to help us to live as those who are rich in good works. To God’s praise and glory. Amen.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

'The OK Corral'

Here's the diagram that explains the whole "I'm OK, you're OK" idea, which comes from Transactional Analysis:

An unusual start...

This week I began the working week with a Ministries Committee meeting.
Since I had to write a reflection for devotions i thought I might as well use the Gospel readings form the lectionary:
Luke 16:19-31

So here is what I wrote - my plan is to adapt this for my congregations on Sunday - probably also bringing in
1 Timothy 6:6-19

Reflection
Even as I was driving to the station this morning there was a discussion on the radio about the division between rich and poor and whether the current coalition government has been redistributive in its programme so far. We know there is a gap between the poor of this word and the rich: in education, in life-expectancy, in health.. and so on.

Particularly in this season of Autumn and harvest festivals, we remember to give thanks to God for all the riches we enjoy and in many places in our churches we combine that with some sort of charity giving to those who are less fortunate – the poor in this country or in others.
All of this is good – and maybe in being generous in this way we can avoid the fate of the un-named rich man, who finds, in Jesus’ story, that in the after-life the division is continued, but now with the boot on the other foot – Lazarus gets the prime spot alongside Abraham, but the rich man is in torment. And all the Socialists said ‘Amen’. And all the givers to charity said ‘Phew!’. And all the higher rate tax-payers are ready to tell Father Abraham that paying tax counts as giving to the poor.

Whatever our political leanings, we often operate according to the I’m OK/ You’re OK school of thought. You probably know the theory that each of us operates in a matrix: I’m OK, or not OK – You’re OK, or not OK. This leads to 4 boxes…
The rich man on earth is in the I’m OK – you (Lazarus) are not OK box
Lazarus at the side of Abraham may well feel at last I’m OK & you (rich man) are not OK.
The ultimate goal of our psychological well-being is to get to the state where we can say I’m OK, you’re OK.

But Jesus is not telling this story to tell us how the after-life really will be – lakes of fire, great gulfs, suffering or peace. Jesus seems to want to get us thinking about how we relate as rich and poor here & now. If only the rich man had known he would have acted differently. If only Lazarus would warn his brothers, they would act differently.. but Jesus says ‘if they do not believe Moses and the prophets they will not believe, even if someone should rise from the dead’.
Luke’s gospel is reaching crisis point – Jesus will be the one who is killed and will rise – and even then, some will not believe.

Jesus warns us that we will never reach the Utopian ideal when we can say, either psychologically or materially “We’re all OK – I’m OK, you’re OK”. The kingdom of God is not about creating level playing fields for all – it is about trusting and believing in the God who look at us and says ‘You’re not OK – but you’re loved’. Although the rich and powerful, or the weak and gullible of this world will take Jesus and see him crucified, God’s love could not be defeated. The resurrection shows us God’s solution to the ‘Not OK-ness’ of the human condition – to promise the hope of God’s grace and power.

So in our varied agenda as the Ministries Committee I believe Jesus calls us to seek fairness, to seek to break down divisions, to be mindful of the weaker voices in our church. But most of all Jesus calls us to remember that this is God’s work – and that only God’s love can heal us of all that is not OK. May we be open to God’s grace in all our work. Amen.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Notes for 19-9-10

The Unjust Steward
I spent the first part of this week at a gathering of ministers in the Eastern synod. Before I went I looked up the lectionary readings, hoping that while I was away I might be able to find some time to reflect on the readings, and so come home with a super-duper sermon for you all. My heart sank when I realized that it’s time for the parable of the unjust steward.
So I thought I would be clever and pick the brains of my colleagues. For a few meals I’d ask whoever I was sitting with ‘Are you preaching on the unjust steward this week? – what did you make of it?’. After a while I sensed that people were becoming strangely reluctant to sit with me at mealtimes.
In any list of ‘very hard sayings of Jesus’ – this parable has to be in the top 10 – if not No 1.

OK – so here’s a killer start to a sermon: this parable is really hard to understand and even a group of people with quite a lot of theological training between them would rather not have to say what they think it means. But let’s try to apply some basic principles. As it happens I’m very good friends with Susan Durber – and as it happens she is not only the principal of a theological college, but someone who did a doctorate on Luke’s parables. Also as it happens I quite recently heard her talk about parables in general: so let’s see what I’ve learnt about parables.

1. The idea of parables is to surprise, to shock, to say what is not immediately obvious. A parable is meant to be a bit cartoon-like, it’s meant to jar. If on first reading you’re left asking ‘What on earth is all this about??’ then a parable is doing its job. Even before I met Susan I remember reading C.H.Dodd on the parables, and going away looking for the surprise in every parable. What Dodd actually wrote, back in 1935 was: “A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” .

This parable certainly gets us thinking. It is meant to tease, to baffle, to turn everyday common sense on its head.
If the owner had heard that his steward, his manager, was squandering the owner’s wealth – it is quite natural that he should want to see the books. And if when he sees the books he sees that the steward has quickly written off some of the debts to try to make friends for himself, then common sense tells us that the owner will use this as proof of the man’s dishonesty and will sack him on the spot. Even the steward himself expects this – that’s why he’s trying so hard to win friends in the first place. Jesus teases us – we think we can see what will happen.. but then the owner congratulates the steward on being so shrewd and clever. So the very thing that makes the story hard to swallow is the very point that Jesus is making. So far so good.

2. Second general principle of parables – don’t be fooled into thinking that the most powerful character in the story is always God. Now this one is very helpful here because at least it releases us from thinking that God (the owner) wants people to be dishonest – because that isn’t just jarring, it’s really counter to the Gospel and huge chunks of the Old Testament prophets.

3. Third general principle – try to focus on the parable as Jesus tells it (as far as we can recover that) and don’t get too sidetracked by any attempt of Luke or anyone else to add on ‘what the story means’. This is why I’m focusing on the core of the story and not the bits added afterwards. At least that simplifies our quest for understanding a little, and doesn’t get into this whole “what does Jesus mean by the children of this age, and the children of light” discussion. I’m happy to leave that part for another day – I have enough on my plate just with the story.

4. Fourthly – and the final general principle before we have to try to ask what we learn from this story – Susan suggests that we look at what else Luke tells us in this portion of his gospel – the wider context of the parable.
Right before this parable Jesus tells the story of the lost coin and the lost sheep – last week’s lectionary readings – and then he tells the story of the lost son – the prodigal son – another man who squandered what belonged to someone else – only ion that case it was his father. But the story doesn’t end with the prodigal being forgiven by his father, it ends with the older son refusing to join the party & getting the hump. Now what if this parable of the unjust steward is meant to go with the parable of the prodigal son & his unforgiving brother?
We all find the parable of the prodigal son easy to read – it tells us of the loving forgiveness of the father and reassures that however we get lost in life our heavenly father is always ready to welcome us home. But Jesus doesn’t want us then to sit back and rest on our laurels, he includes in the first parable the older son, and which of us hasn’t empathized with his cry of ‘it’s not fair!’ : he cannot forgive his brother.
So Jesus tells this shocking parable of the unjust steward to show that if in a crisis even a scoundrel like that can be forgiving, then surely all those older brothers out there and all those younger brothers who’ve been forgiven, and all their sisters for that matter too, can all listen to this parable, scratch their heads, and then get on with forgiving others their debts.

The unjust, deceitful steward is praised for forgiving debts – it’s not meant to make sense, it’s meant to make us more forgiving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, 13 September 2010

What??

What a cracking parable Luke gives us this Sunday:

Luke 16: 1-13

First thought - should I even try to preach on this?

Second thought - I've just been learning about parables in general, so can I apply some of the general principles?

a) Looking for the shocking and surprising, rather than the predictable meaning: and b)it doesn't get much more shocking than this.
b) I'm also reminded that we should beware automatically assuming that the most powerful character in any parable MUST be God.
c) In what context is the story first told?

So.. well, it's certainly a shock that Jesus seems to commend the trickery of the steward - surely we expect him (want him?) to get his comeuppance from his boss - even if his 'creative accountancy' does win him some other friends. I'm glad I'm released from trying to imagine God as the 'boss' in the story. And as for context: this comes right after the story of the prodigal son - another wastrel who doesn't get the treatment he deserves.
I'm off on a 3 day 'ministers' get-together' so hopefully will get time to chew over some of this there...alone or with others!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Lost coin story

A re-telling of the story, with all ages in mind : if I was telling it I think I would carry a broom!

The lost coin – the woman’s story

I’m sure you know what it’s like when you’ve lost something. That sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach and the maddening little voice in your head that says ‘it must be here somewhere – LOOK!’. You go round in circles, you look in places you know you’ve looked already, but you’re just getting desperate. The frustration, the sadness, the anger with yourself…where IS it?

That’s just what I was like when I lost one of my silver coins. You might be thinking – one coin, big deal! – but it was a denarius, that’s one day’s wages for my husband, Eli. We’d saved up 10 of them, you see, 10 coins. Enough for a lovely trip away somewhere, or a really special meal for all our friends and family, maybe a great big rug.. we hadn’t really decided what to do with it. But we kept those 10 coins safe.

Then one day I was counting them – I loved doing that, unwrapping the cloth, looking at them glittering in the darkness, feeling the weight of the silver – sometimes I even imagined they had a special smell, like richness. 10 silver coins, our little treasure, our fortune, our treat. So there I was, holding them, counting them.. and I heard a terrible noise ‘Chink!’ – I was sure one of the coins had dropped on the floor – but I looked and I couldn’t see anything. Perhaps I’d imagined it? But then I counted – oh no! just 9 coins. I had dropped one, where on earth had it gone?.

I looked around of course – ‘it can’t have got far’ I thought. Under the mat, you know how a coin can roll – under the table, the chairs. No sign! Perhaps down a crack in the floor? I got on my hands & knees – but just couldn’t see it. So I got my broom out & swept everywhere – plenty of dust, as usual – but I kept stopping & looking in the bits I’d swept up… looking… sweeping…searching… and then - a glint of light in the dust, a silver edge, a curve of.. a coin! There it was! My lost coin – found!

I wrapped it up safe with the other 9 & then I rushed out into the street – my friends were standing by the well – probably wondered what I was so excited about, rushing up to them, dusty and flustered. And I said ‘Great news! I found my coin that I’d lost – my silver coin – leave your water jugs and come in to the house to celebrate with me!’. Soon I was telling them the whole story and we were all laughing and drinking and happy – what was lost had been found.

Something different

This Sunday is our Creative Church Sunday & although I won't be there (other duties call) - I was part of the planning. So here is our plan:


Creative church celebrating new beginnings

Call to worship: Let us worship God – who makes each new day.

Hymn: 377 This is the day

Prayer of approach

How do we feel about any new beginnings we are (or someone known to us is ) facing?
Apprehensive? Scared? Excited? Unsure? Afraid of getting lost?

Story of lost sheep from Luke 15 (from point of view of sheep)

Hymn: 92 Amazing Grace

Prayer for others – written on ribbons, tied to cross as CD plays (Taizé “Jesus, remember me”) – can read prayer or name of person or place for whom you are praying – if you would like to.

Story of the lost coin – from point of view of woman in story

Offertory - chance to give thanks & give back to God

Giving out pennies – shiny, attractive, small – something for you to take away to remember these stories of being lost and being found and of the God who never leaves us lost.
A penny is just a small thing – but Matthew (10 v 29) tells us that Jesus said “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unnoticed by your heavenly Father. And as for you - even the hairs of your head are all counted.”

Hymn: 549 One more step

Blessing: (Philippians 4: 4-7)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A new trick...

A 'Wordle' based on the sermon for today: if I can work out how to print it I'm going to do so for the 3 young people who might be at one of the services.
title="Wordle: Following Jesus"> src="http://www.wordle.net/thumb/wrdl/2370546/Following_Jesus"
alt="Wordle: Following Jesus"
style="padding:4px;border:1px solid #ddd">

Friday, 3 September 2010

Notes for 5-9-10

Luke 14: 25-33
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’.
Sometimes what Jesus says is so shocking that we might wonder whether we’ve heard it right. Jesus telling us to hate?

My daughter Ellie happened to be in earshot as I was looking up the lectionary readings and heard me say “Oh boy!” – so wanted to know what I was reading. I read the gospel reading to her and her response was ‘Well then, Jesus is going to get some very strange people as followers”. If we take Jesus literally I think she’s right – only those who have been very damaged and hurt are usually in a position to say that they hate all their immediate family.

So what is Jesus doing? What does he mean? Well, for a start he’s got us thinking and like any good Jewish rabbi he does that by shaking us out of our complacent rut and saying what we least expect to hear.

All of Jesus’ listeners would have grown up with a good knowledge of the law: even in 21st century Britain most people will know that the 10 commandments are about love, not hate and the more diligent might even know that ‘Honour your father and your mother’ is one of those commandments. The whole commandment is actually “Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land which I am giving to you, says the Lord”. I grew up with my father shortening that slightly to ‘honour your father and your mother that your days may be long’…I think he was joking.

Jesus himself, called upon on another occasion to state which law was most important, summarises the whole of the law as ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself’.
It’s hard to think that Jesus means us to love our neighbours and hate our families – but there it is:
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’.

I cannot imagine that Jesus’ first hearers took that in their stride anymore than we can. Hate – not love?? What is Jesus saying?

We have other examples of Jesus using this sort of exaggeration, often used by rabbis, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’, ‘whoever would take the speck of sin from his brother’s eye should first take the plank from his own’. As stand-up comedy goes I’ve never found it laugh-out-loud funny, but the absurd images do help you to sit up and take notice. So maybe Jesus is using the extreme and exaggerated word ‘hate’ to have the same effect.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ – is an exaggerated way of saying that following Jesus comes first, even above family loyalty or responsibility.

It seems that Jesus had encountered some people who used the commandment to honour their parents as an excuse to get out of the things they didn’t want to do. If a neighbour asked for help with his roof, they might say ‘I can’t help you with repairing your roof, I have to visit my parents – and love your parents is a commandment of God’. But if these people were ready to use loving their parents as an excuse for not following Jesus – not trying to love and serve God, Jesus says ‘hate them!’. In other words Jesus says ‘Don’t put them first in front of everything else in life, including doing what God wants you to do’.
To those who would use the law about honouring family as an excuse to down-grade their discipleship of Jesus, he warns that following must come first.
On another occasion Jesus uses the parable of those called to a banquet (the banquet of the kingdom of God) who give excuses not to come. Again these are excuses which have their origins in the law. One man says “I cannot come – I have just been married”: using as his excuse the teaching from Deuteronomy (24:5) that no responsibilities should be placed upon a Jewish man in the first year of his marriage.

So Jesus, in the parable and in today’s teaching, is warning his listeners against twisting the law to their own purposes. Following Jesus, doing God’s will, being part of God’s rule on earth must come first – this must be the top priority. The law is meant to make this easier, not to get in the way.

But what about us? Jesus wants us to sit up and listen, too – it’s no good relegating Jesus’ words to statements meant to shock and discomfort and challenge other people.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ : what does this say to us?

Jesus isn’t telling us to revert to that stage of life when we could quite cheerfully say “I hate you!” to someone (I have 2 older brothers – I know what I’m talking about!). Jesus is telling us that whatever our excuses and whatever our other priorities, following Jesus and walking in God’s way must come first. And if the shock of ‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ is wearing off, here’s another shocking statement from Jesus: ‘Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be a follower of mine’.

Now, hang on, Jesus! I might understand that ‘hating’ my family is an exaggerated way of telling me not to use my family loyalty as an excuse for half-heartedly following you. But giving up all my stuff? I need my home, my clothes, my creature comforts. I love my MacBook.. and I’d really like a new iPad…
So maybe this is the challenge to me – to all of us.
We’re unlikely to use loyalty to the law and honour of our parents as an excuse to be half-hearted. But if Jesus is asking us to put him first, it means above earning a large income, or having all the things we want, about doing exactly as we please. Now Jesus has really made us sit up and listen – using words like ‘hate’ and ‘give up’ and even ‘take up your cross’.

Jesus isn’t messing around – he is serious about giving up everything – even life itself. We know that this is the way Jesus is walking – and so if we are to follow we need to be just as serious about self-giving and self-sacrifice. Serious – but not gloomy, because we know the way of Jesus doesn’t end at the cross. His life was given up to be restored in the power of the resurrection. In the end, Jesus doesn’t ask us to end our life to follow him, but to join all our lives in his eternal life. To place Jesus first in life is to know life not extinguished, but renewed, fulfilled and blessed.

So as we take this bread and wine we join our lives to the life of the kingdom, through Jesus: with no confusion, no excuses and no fear.
Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words. Amen.