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 (TaizĂ© “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.
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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.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Towards Sunday 5th September

Well, actually the sermon's more or less written - but very unusually for me it's written on paper with a pen - because I had 45 minutes to sit and kill in the car & I had been thinking quite a lot about the gospel reading.. and it just sort of 'came'. Now I just have to transcribe it onto the computer - because I don't trust my own ability to read my scrawl!

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
& Luke 14: 25-33

are the lectionary readings...and I have been thinking a lot because I wasn't sure at first where to go with the gospel reading.
Notes to follow asap.