Saturday, 31 July 2010

Notes for August 1st

Apologies to regular readers - last week I was on holiday (Devon - lovely!) & I'm back this Sunday for just one week before 2 more weeks off - normal blogging will resume for August 22nd.

But here's this week's:
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Priorities

I’m delighted to have had a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes this morning. It has long been a favourite of mine, since discovering chapter 12, verse 12 whilst studying for school exams:
“there is no end to the writing of books, and too much study is wearisome”.
That could, of course, be the end of this sermon: but I think it’s worth our risking getting weary for a little while, to look at what our readings have been saying about priorities.

A few weeks ago we were looking at the story of Martha & Mary.
Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping to prepare the meal as she should, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work all by myself?”.
In today’s gospel reading the dispute is between 2 brothers:
“Master, tell my brother to divide the family property with me”.

Jesus’ advice to Martha was to look beyond the norms of her society (where the women would automatically be expected to wait at table) to see what was really important at that moment – Mary has chosen the ‘better part’ in listening to Jesus. Martha has to adjust her priorities.

Jesus’ advice to this brother is to look beyond the priority of material wealth & fair play, to see what really brings life – “Be on your guard against greed of every kind, for even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not bring him life”. To drive the message home he tells the parable of the rich fool.

The parable is not unlike a warning from Jeremiah (ch17):
“Like a partridge sitting on a clutch of eggs which it has not laid, so is he who amasses wealth unjustly.
Before his days are half done it will leave him, and he will be a fool at the last”.

In a sense Jesus is more harsh to the fool in his story – he doesn’t suggest that the man has gained his wealth by unjust means: but the judgement is just as real and as final. It is not how the fool gains his wealth that is the problem, it is his attitude to possessions once he has got them. His thoughts are dominated by how can he capitalise on his wealth and gain more, rather than how he can use his wealth for the good of others, or even how he can really enjoy it himself.
Jesus concludes: “that is how it is with the man who piles up treasure for himself and remains a pauper in the sight of God”.
At the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes, as we heard, the writer points out the futility of all endeavour. He agrees with Jesus that it is not just immoral gain that is futile, but then goes further and claims that it is not even just selfish gain that is wrong - it is all gain, all work, all effort – even wisdom itself – because “both wise and foolish are doomed to die”.
“Futility, utter futility, everything is futile!” says the writer.

So what is the point of life? On the one hand, this teaching about the transient nature of life can feel depressing & yet it can re-align our priorities.
Our priority should be relationship, love, that part of life which goes beyond the time-bound.
The poet Raymond Carver expresses it this way:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
Earthly possessions, in the end, are of no account: we are here to love and be loved.

But the critique of this attitude from the liberation theologians of Latin America, working with the poorest of the poor, has been that the contemplation of the things of heaven should not become a substitute for involvement here on earth. A proper consideration for relationship with God and concern for his priorities should educate us as to how to deal with earthly matters and possessions, and how to relate to other people - especially poor people.

So what are our priorities as we meet here to worship today? Presumably not the acquisition of wealth above all else, or we would be out earning money, not sitting here at all.

But as we come to this communion table we are faced with God’s priorities in this world.
Self-giving even to and through the point of death.
A body broken to be shared by all.
Love stronger than death.

This communion can act as a point of reference for us, to help to get our priorities right, whatever the decisions we face in the days to come.
So this is not going to turn into a sermon about the importance of giving money to charity, or about the evils of filthy luchre: Jesus challenges us to be released from all greed to live our lives and enjoy the gift of love.
To God’s greater glory.
Amen.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Sermon notes 18-7-10

Mary & Martha
Who doesn’t know the story of Mary & Martha? It’s one of the gospel stories that I don’t think we could forget if we tried. Every part of me longs for Jesus to say ‘Yes, poor Martha, let’s both come & help you & we’ll all carry on talking in the kitchen’ – and he never does.
So if it’s such a familiar story, how can we get something fresh from it? I hope so, if we put three different things alongside the Gospel story.

First of all, I’d like to put the story alongside a modern-day experience.
My daughter Ellie is home for the holiday now, and doing what all self-respecting teenagers do – as little as possible. Whilst lying inert on the sofa the other day she was watching a programme called ‘Come dine with me’. Basically a group of strangers take it in turns to have each other round for dinner every night for a week, and they each give each other points out of ten – and the one with most points at the end of the week wins £1000.
In the episode Ellie was watching - and I just happened to catch a little of, too – one woman was so behind with her preparation of the meal that when her guests arrived she had to keep rushing in and out of the kitchen. The table was decorated & she’d even bought little presents for everyone; the food looked good when it came (perhaps because it was just coming up to my lunch time) the wine had been carefully chosen and she’d even put a flag up a flagpole for goodness’ sake.
Yet she didn’t score high points, because her guests felt she didn’t spend enough time talking to them – she was forever rushing off to the kitchen.
I thought of the programme when I re-read the story. Martha is trying to be the perfect hostess for Jesus – but her very busy-ness means she is not being a good hostess at all, because she’s working so hard she’s actually neglecting her guest.
And let’s put the story alongside something else – the story which Luke pairs it with – the Gospel reading which comes just before it: the story of the Good Samaritan.
Here’s Luke doing his ‘one man’s story; one woman’s story’ pairing. The lawyer asks a question ‘What must I do to gain eternal life?’; Martha asks a question "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?. Two questions about ‘doing’ – one from a man, one from a woman.
The message of the story of the Good Samaritan (which Jesus tells in response to the man’s question) is that love of your neighbour means love of everyone and anyone – and might actually involve getting your hands dirty. Love, says Jesus, is practical.
‘Too right!’ Martha might say, ‘the sentiment of love alone doesn’t butter any parsnips!’.
Yet just to make sure we get the whole message, in this very next story, right after saying ‘love is practical’, Jesus says, in effect, ‘love isn’t just practical’ – love is also listening, attending, learning.
The life of faith isn’t only to be spent in frenzied activity: it is to be a life of thought and care coupled with active, practical service.
Luke wants us to understand the role of both the head and the heart in following Jesus.

So – finally, what do we see if we place our two New Testament readings alongside each other – pairing the Gospel story with the part of the letter to the Colossians which we heard?

What Paul has to say has enormous scope and grandeur – it may even be that he was quoting an early hymn about the greatness of Jesus Christ.
He is the image of God, the first born of all creation, the one in whom everything was made.
He is the head of his body, the church, the one in whom God reconciles the world to himself.
He has reconciled each one of us, made us his friends.
He offers us the hope of glory.

Can you feel how Paul starts way out with cosmic powers and comes down nearer and nearer to home – to God’s offer of love to each one of us in Christ?

So Martha understands the greatness of her visitor, Jesus, and wants everything to be perfect for him. But Mary accepts the personal offer Jesus gives her, to sit at his feet and talk together.
Martha might wonder whether she is worthy to be Jesus’ real friend, the sort who sits and listens to what he has to say. And of course in the society of Jesus’ time his offer to Mary is an astonishing one – that she, a mere woman might sit and listen, rather than merely waiting on this important guest.
But that is what Jesus offers and that is what Paul’s letter echoes:
The God of all creation, the ruler of the planets, wants little Mary to sit with him and hear what he has to say to her.

‘Mary has chosen the better part’ says Jesus. Not because listening to words of love is always better than performing acts of love, but because both are needed to truly follow Jesus.

So we have drawn aside to worship this morning. We accept the offer to sit and hear the words of God’s love for us, we stop rushing around long enough to grasp again how precious each one of us is to God, and then filled with this assurance we can put love into action once more.
In the name of Jesus.
Amen.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Sermon notes 11-7-10

Luke 10:25-37 - If Jesus is the Good Samaritan.

This has to be one of the most familiar stories the Bible has to offer us. Jesus tells us about 3 potential helpers who find a man, robbed and beaten, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Just as we have jokes which begin ‘There was a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman…’ so in the time of Jesus there were jokes which began ‘There was a Levite, a priest and an ordinary Israelite…’ – and the hero of the joke was always the ordinary Israelite. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan he takes this familiar pattern and changes it, to make his listeners sit up and think. So the hero, the third person to come along, is not an Israelite, the one like his listeners, and liked by his listeners, but the hero of Jesus’ story was the Samaritan, a person who would have been ignored and even hated.

We are used to hearing this story, we know it tells us that everyone is our neighbour, that we must ‘go and do likewise’ – and reach out to everyone in need, even if they are not like us. In fact, we’ve learnt that lesson so well that when I once tried to ask a group of young people in Sunday school ‘who is like the Samaritan to us? – who do we hate or feel suspicious of?’ they all said “No-one, Jesus says to love your neighbour whoever they are!”.

But as I've just come back from a thought-provoking General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, I wonder how far our love for our neighbour has got us, as a denomination or as a local church.
At General Assembly last weekend we acknowledged the closure of more than 30 churches, and welcomed just 3. We heard stories of exciting things happening in some places: but I also spoke to plenty of people living with fear, decline & near despair.

What does Jesus say in the story of the Good Samaritan to help us in our struggle to understand how to be the church in the twenty-first century? I think it has to be something more than a message to be nicer to our neighbours, even if Jesus wants to stretch our understanding of who our neighbours are to include those whom we do not like. If the church of Jesus Christ is to survive it needs something more than a message to be nicer to people.
Perhaps it’s time for a new reading of the story.

There is a re-reading of this story from the Orthodox tradition, which might help us to look at this afresh. In some Orthodox icons of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan, helping the beaten man, is shown with a halo. Maybe that's not so surprising, as he is described as 'Good' - but in icons halos are not for good people, but for God's people - the Saints. If you look at the icon, you’ll see that the halo also contains a cross - this halo identifies Jesus. And in case you miss it, it is given the title “Jesus Christ - Good Samaritan.”

Our reading of the story changes dramatically as we remember that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Because if Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then who are we. If we are not the ones doing the good deed in the story – then perhaps we can be the ones who are rescued by Jesus.
This doesn't let us off the hook about 'going and doing likewise', but it stops us getting totally consumed by the trap that the whole purpose of following Jesus is to be driven by the thought that 'I ought to be a better person'.

If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, it means that whatever assails us on the road of life, Jesus is there to rescue us. We might feel that the world today is beating up the church – and if the fact that we are not as many as we were is leaving us feeling battered and broken, there is good news in this story. Jesus is the one who will rescue us – he is the Good Samaritan – he will change and shape and revive his church - not all our schemes and plans and frameworks.

If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, we need to remember that we are the body of Christ. So, Yes, Jesus does tell us to go and do likewise – to love our neighbour, but not just to be individuals who are called to make a difference. We are the body of Christ together - we are called corporately, as the church, to do good in our world, ad to ask how, together we are going to serve the world in the name of Christ. Then instead of hearing the story and asking 'how can we be better people?', the question then becomes 'how can we be more aware of the presence and leading of Christ?'.

If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then just maybe the role of General Assembly, and the role of each local church is to be the donkey - the vehicle used by Jesus to carry us home: the means by which all may brought to safety and made whole.
May it be so. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

July 11th



Lectionary gospel reading is
Luke 10:25-37 - Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan.

As I've just come back from a thought-provoking General Assembly, I think I want to say something about where we're at, as a church. At General Assembly this weekend we acknowledged the closure of more than 20 churches, and welcomed just 3. We heard stories of exciting things happening in some places: but I also spoke to plenty of people living with fear, decline & near despair.

I am reminded, in re-reading this story, of an Orthodox understanding of the characters involved. In some icons of the Good Samaritan, he is shown with a halo. Maybe that's not so surprising, as he is described as 'Good' - but in icons halos are not for good people, but for God's people - the Saints - and particularly, of course, the halo points to Jesus. In some icons (above) the Good Samaritan figure is even named as Jesus Christ.

Our reading of the story changes dramatically as we remember that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. This doesn't let us off the hook about 'going and doing likewise', but it stops us getting totally consumed by the 'I ought to be a better person' trap.
1. We are the body of christ - we are called corporately, as the church to do good in our world, not only as individuals.
2. Whatever assails us on the road of life, Jesus is there to rescue us. Jesus will change and shape and revive his church - not all our schemes and plans and frameworks.

Then instead of asking 'how can we be better people', the question then becomes 'how can we be more aware of the presence and leading of Christ?'. Maybe General Assembly's role is to be donkey - the vehicle used by Jesus to carry us home...