Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Eve

It is nearly time for the child to be born.

The birth of a child is always good news. In the bit of the world I come from – the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, there’s a poet who’s well known - Sam Laycock. In his poem ‘bonny brid’ – written about the birth of yet another child to a poor family during a time of famine in Lancashire, he manages to be realistic about how hard it is and yet strikes a positive note of good news at the birth of a child:

Tha’rt welcome, little bonny brid ,
But shouldn’t ha’ come just when tha did;
Toimes are bad.
We’re short o’ pobbies for eawr Joe,
But that, of course, tha didn’t know,
Did tha, lad?

Cheer up! These toimes ‘ll awter soon;
Aw’m beawn to beigh another spoon-
One for thee;-
An’, as tha’s sich a pratty face
Aw’ll let thi have eawr Charley’s place
On mi knee.

(For those who want to see more about the poem, there's a webpage here)

It is nearly time for the child to be born. And that birth is Good news.

It’s a night for good news. We’ve nearly got to Christmas day. Whatever isn’t done now – shopping, cleaning, delivering - will have to remain undone.
It is nearly time for the child to be born and for the world to rejoice.

And so we hear Isaiah promising a time of rejoicing, a time when the Lord God will come and live among his people.
It is nearly time for the child to be born – and that child is Christ the Lord – God among us at last.

But then we hear what John’s gospel has to say about the coming of what he calls ‘The Word’.
It is nearly time for the child to be born – and that child is the one who is not always recognised by the very world that he made. Yet John is clear “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

But just before that John says something even more amazing. He talks of children of God, born not through human desire and human will and human will, but by the will of God.

It is nearly time for the child to be born.
And some will say that that child is born because an angel told a virgin it would happen. And perhaps when you hear John speak of amazing birth, you might assume he’s speaking about the birth of Jesus himself.

But he isn’t – John is talking about the amazing truth that the gift of Jesus and his love makes it possible for all who believe in God’s love to become children of God – born by divine, not human means. John has nothing to say about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, he is talking about our birth – yours and mine. John says that we can be born as children of God, if we just believe in his adoptive love.

It is nearly time for the child to be born.
And that child is you.
God bless you with love this Christmas. Amen.

Christmas Day

A very short reflection...we all have turkeys to cook, don't we?

Christmas Day
So all through Advent we have been looking at the Advent gifts ‘ God can’t wait to give’
The lit candle – hope in the darkness.
The Word of God - which brings comfort.
The water - which reminds us of John the Bapitst & the new life from God.
The baby, born to Mary – who shows us how God chooses to enter the world.
Today’s final gift – is.. a crown (a simple paper crown from a cracker!)

We are reminded that the child, Jesus, the baby born to Mary & placed in the manger, is the King of all. He will grow to heal, teach, lead and ultimately to save people. His life, his death & his resurrection will demonstrate the amazing gift of the love of God.

God is born in human flesh – come to be among us and yet born to be our King and our Lord.

The crown also reminds us of the 3 wise ones who are traveling to worship this baby king – with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But the crown also points us to the most amazing thing about Christmas – because we all know if we find a crown in our crackers this lunchtime that this crown is .. for us. (I will put the crown on here. And yes, I will look silly!)

Through this wonderful gift of Jesus at Christmas, God crowns us with love, comes to be with us for ever, and makes us his children and the heirs of the promise that we are all sons and daughters of the most high God – loved and precious as the richest royalty.
Enjoy your gifts, whatever they are, and enjoy God’s greatest gift of love. Amen.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Advent 4 notes

Advent 4 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38

The Advent gifts ‘gifts God can’t wait to give’ just keep coming. We have had the lit candle – a sign of the light of hope in the darkness; the Word of God, which brings comfort; and the water – to remind us of John the Baptist and the promise of new life. This week’s final gift is…a child (photo of a baby), which reminds us that God decides how he will come into this world.

The idea that a child can be God’s gift to us is certainly not earth-shattering. I had a friend who used to joke ‘children are a gift from God – don’t tell him where you live!’. But Advent tells us that God does not just give us the gift of a child – but that the child who comes is God’s gift of himself.
We know this – it is why we sing ‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel – God with us’.

But you might wonder about the relevance of the reading from the second book of Samuel, where David wants to construct a home for God. Through the prophet Nathan God makes it clear that he, God, will decide how and when he will be present with David. God reminds David of all that he has done for him – bring with him al his life as he lifted from obscurity and caring for sheep to be the most renowned king of Israel. Instead of David making a home for God, God promises to make a house for David – a family line which will stretch through the generations, all the way to Joseph and therefore to Jesus.

God does not need David to build him a house – God will decide how he will be present with God’s people. And when the time is right, God will not come to dwell in a house at all, but in the most unexpected way possible.
The gospel reading from Luke takes us to the very start of God’s plan to dwell with us – which we know as our Christmas story.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary & tells her she will have the child who is to be the sign of God with us – the Immanuel – the incarnate son of God. God chooses Mary – God chooses birth – God chooses to be truly human. Mary agrees – and The Word is made flesh.

Depending on which gospel account you read, the angel also appears to Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to marry Mary as he had planned – and the couple who are chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus are all sorted out.

After that it might feel as if the plans go awry: first there is the Roman census which bring the couple & everyone else of David’s line to Bethlehem – just as the baby is due to be born. Then there is no room at the inn, and so the God of all creation is laid in a manger.

After the careful planning to be brought into the world, we might be tempted to think that God has let the planning slip rather – and allowed the birth to take place in less than ideal surroundings.

But when Luke tells us about the angels appearing to the shepherds there are songs of great rejoicing - good news to all the earth. Then the angels say a strange thing ‘this will be a sign to you. You will find the child wrapped us and lying in a manger’.

A sign to recognize Jesus? But the star and the angels take the shepherd to the place – surely there aren’t a huge number of babies born in Bethlehem that night , that the only way to recognize Jesus is that he is the one in the manger. So if the sign isn’t about identification of the right baby, of what is it a sign?

We immediately associate the word manger with our nativity scenes, with the account of Jesus’ birth. But of course a manger is the feeding trough for the common animals of Jesus’ time – the donkey, the cattle, the sheep and goats.

The sign which the angels refer to could be just this – that this Jesus who has come to dwell with us has come to be foodstuff, like straw in a manger – he has come to feed the world.

This is the child who will grow to feed the five thousand.
This is the child who will grow to offer his friends bread & wine and say ‘this is my body, broken for you’ ‘my blood, poured out for you’.
This is the child who will give up his life so that the whole world may know life in all its fullness.

Christ is born and is laid in a manger – as a sign that God is here to dwell with us and to feed and heal and change the world.

And so our Advent gift is of the baby who is truly God with us , for us, in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Advent 4 initial thoughts

This coming Sunday I have two more Carol services & just one 'preaching service'.

The theme for this week is Mary: ‘God decides how he will be ‘housed’ in this world’
Object in the 'bag' will be a baby photo

The readings are
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

I heard a great sermon on the significance of the manger from Susan Durber at Westminster College, & I think I want to contrast to care with which preparations are made for any baby being brought into the world - and especially the birth of Jesus - and the whole 'laid him in a manger' bit. Luke has the angels tell the shepherds this is a 'sign'. A sign of what? presumably the identity of this special baby: Jesus, the one who will feed the world, who will be the bread of life for all.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Advent 3 notes

Readings this week:
Isaiah 61: 1-4
John 1: 6-8, 19-28


Advent 3
Today’s advent ‘gift’ from God: is water.

I don’t expect any of us will find ourselves unwrapping a bottle of water this Christmas day: but we couldn’t manage long without the gift of water.
What does water mean to us? We associate water with life – growing, drinking, washing, cleansing.

We have heard in the gospel reading how John the Baptist comes baptising with water – he is offering a new start, a turning around, repentance. John offers people a new beginning – but he is clear that his role is only to start people on the path to a better life. John is the forerunner for the Lord who is to come – he is clear that what people really need is not his baptism with water, but what Jesus has to offer: a new life knowing that God is with them.

So our gift of water is only a sign of the Advent gift of life. What does this life look like?
Stop for a moment & hear the voice of John the Baptist ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’.

What is it the Lord comes offering us? The prophet Isaiah declares:
“He has sent me to announce good news to the humble, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to those in prison.. to comfort all those who mourn.”

For the people of God at a time when their country has been invaded, their leaders have been taken captive and their sons have been slain in battle, God, through Isaiah, is offering what they most want, most need, most long for. Like water to someone dying of thirst – God offers the gift of life worth living.
When you hear these words from Isaiah you might remember, perhaps, that in Luke’s gospel these are the words with which Jesus begins his ministry, when he is about 30 years old. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the good news of comfort, liberty and healing. Jesus brings life in all its fullness.

We might wonder just how Jesus brings us this most wonderful gift.
We might even be tempted to jump ahead from Bethlehem with its manger and stable, wise men and shepherds – to jump ahead to a time when Jesus actually does something, begins healing & teaching.

Jesus himself was to grow to be thought of as a wise man, and to refer to himself as the Good Shepherd. Is the story of the birth of Jesus anything more than a humble beginning to the story of an extraordinary life?

The story of the birth of Jesus to Mary is not only found in the gospel stories of our Bible. The Koran – the holy book of the Muslims, also tells the story of an angel appearing to Mary to tell her she was to have a special child, even though she was a virgin. But in the Islamic tradition the story goes on to describe how Mary is rejected by her village & forced to give birth alone. Mary is only believed about the angel and all that stuff, and received back into the village, when Jesus, still a babe in arms, miraculously speaks and tells the people that she is telling the truth and that he is a prophet.

There are, of course, elements which are common to this account and what we are told in the Christian gospels. But for Muslims, Jesus is a prophet and not the Son of God – as soon as he can start to prophesy he can bring truth and understanding to people, he can do God’s work on earth.
The difference for us as Christians is that who Jesus is carries more importance than what he says or does. Jesus brings God’s promises of a time of peace and gladness and love before he can do anything at all – just by being here. We tell the good news of God with us in Jesus Christ – of the divine become human and entering this world as a helpless baby.

What does it mean to say that God gives us himself in Jesus?
It means that the phrase ‘God is with us’ is so much more than an empty promise or meaningless platitude. God has come to live among us to experience and understand our human condition, and then to transform it.

The truth of God with us takes us light years away from our pre-packaged, high pressure, high-spending Christmas. What we buy, what we eat, who we see is all secondary to the fact that God has touched this earth, taken on our human life, and shown us a glimpse of his heaven, where there is healing for our wounds, comfort for our sorrow, freedom where we are trapped.

We might wonder how this happens. Is Mary really a virgin when she gives birth to Jesus? Even if Jesus is the son of Mary & Joseph, how is he also the son of God? Why is this baby the one who shows us God?

All I can say is to quote the angel when Mary protests that she cannot become pregnant “with God, all things are possible”.
We cannot know how, but we are told that God enters our world in Jesus Christ: a helpless, crumpled, human baby.

Here is the greatest gift of all – wrapped in human flesh – the God of love come to us where we are, as we are, to make us all we are made to be.

Like the water that gives us life: God’s love is here – freely available and bring refreshment, new life and a fresh start.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Notes for Advent 2

Advent 2
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1:1-8

This Advent I’ve been inspired by the John Lewis adverts on the TV. If you haven’t seen them yet, they star a 7 year old lad waiting for Christmas. We see him staring out of the window, looking at his advent calendar, trying to make the clock go faster, and finally gobbling down his peas on Christmas Eve so he can go to bed, where he shuts his eyes tight & tries hard to get to sleep. On Christmas morning he finally wakes up, but rushes straight past all his presents… because what he’s been waiting for is the chance to get a badly-wrapped present out of his wardrobe which he proudly takes in to give to his mum & dad.
The punchline is “For gifts you can’t wait to give”.
I’m not being sponsored by John Lewis, but when I got one of their bags, having bought some candles for Whittlesford URC, I thought I would use it.
But my version is modified –
“Advent: for gifts God can’t wait to give”.

Last week the gift was a candle – a sign of the advent hope God gives us: the light shining in the darkness.
This week the gift is the Bible – a sign of the ‘The Word of God’. What sort of gift is that?

We heard today from an earlier part of Isaiah from last week’s reading – today’s part of the book is known as second Isaiah – written at a time when the people of God were in exile. The Babylonian army had invaded Jerusalem and taken away many of the people and all of the leaders into Babylon. The people were in a terrible state – either left at home with no leaders, or living in a strange land among a strange people.

This was the time when (In Psalm 137) the psalmist writes ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’.

To these people in the misery of their predicament, the prophet speaks the word of God : ‘Comfort’.

I wonder whether the word comfort is too soft for what the prophet believes God has in mind.

We use ‘comfort’ as the name for a fabric softener, we speak of comfort blankets and comfort zones. If you were to comfort someone you might imagine something soothing, full of platitudes – but the prophet is certainly not wanting to just say ‘there, there’ to God’s people!

Isaiah’s comfort has much more of a sense of purpose – almost force. The prophet is told to cry out to the people and assure them that although it might feel as if God has abandoned them, God is still with them, and will give Jerusalem ‘double for all her sins’. The pain and suffering is very real, but God will give them enough to sort out all their problems and more.

When the prophet speaks of the valleys being lifted up and the mountains and hills being made low, he may be speaking of the lengths people will go to, to prepare the way for God to come. But he might also be talking about the effect on the lives of people when God does come.
We all know about the peaks and troughs of life. We may never have experienced being held against our will in a foreign land, but none of our lives are immune from the holes into which we sometimes find we’ve sunk – illness, depression, financial worries, concerns about family or friends. There are times when we feel we have sunk into a pit.
The prophet says, more than that he declares, he cries out - that God will come and the valleys – and everyone in them – will be lifted up. God’s word of comfort is a promise that he will not leave us to languish – he will rescue us.

The prophet is realistic about our human lives ‘surely the people are like grass…the grass withers, the flower fades’ - we know the uncertainty of life – the only certain thing is that it will come to an end. But by contrast, the word of the Lord will stand forever – God’s presence and God’s rescue is a certainty in our uncertain world.

However bad life feels, however deep the pit, however shaky our foundations, the prophet Isaiah declares to God’s people then and now “Here is your God!”.
This is not a promise of comfort at some undefined point of the future – this is a promise that God is here, now, with us.

And God has come to act, not to offer platitudes or to sprinkle fairy dust.
He will feed his flock, gather the lambs, carry them, and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the God who saves his people from their pit.
Real comfort is to be found not in words which make us feel better, but in a properly worked out escape plan!

You might wonder whether Isaiah’s phrase ‘for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it’ is focussed too much on words and not on action, but the great thing about the gift of God’s word is that it is an active force.
When God speaks – things happen. Remember way back in the beginning of the account of creation – each thing is brought into existence by the word of God – God says ‘let there be light’ and there is light.

So when God says ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ – that glory is already here. The word of God is timeless – it is for the past, present and future – and promises us the comfort of God’s presence with us for all time. So the beginning of Mark’s gospel sees the fulfilment in that time of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger preparing the way of the Lord with the coming of John the Baptist.

John declares that the glory of the Lord is to be revealed in the one who comes after him, Jesus – the one who will call himself Good Shepherd, who will come to save all God’s people.

So receive today’s Advent gift – the Word of God – the promise of God’s presence with us forever. Receive the gift, live in the knowledge of the comfort and salvation God offers, and be ready to share that gift with all who need to hear it this Christmas.
In the name of Jesus – the one who come to us. Amen.

Monday, 28 November 2011

What, no sermon?

I did preach on Advent Sunday - but sadly, just as I had finished my sermon notes my Hard Drive died. It is now replaced but of course the sermon has gone! I made some notes in long hand (using paper & pen) & I'm not sure anyone noticed on Sunday - but it does mean there is no electronic version of the what I said. Sorry.

Thank goodness I'd saved the Advent ideas here, though - because that has gone, too!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Advent ideas

I'm very grateful to Neil Thorogood of Westminster College for his ideas about Advent
downloadable here, along with a whole host of ideas from the wonderful Westminster staff.

I've decided to have a theme running through Advent: "The Gifts God can't wait to give". (Yes, I also owe inspiration to the John Lewis ad here - if you haven't seen it
(It still makes me cry when I watch - I think its beautifully filmed & a lovely sound track).

So, each Sunday of Advent I will pull out of my modified John Lewis bag (modified to read 'God's Advent - for gifts God can't wait to give) a symbol of the Advent theme for that week, as an intro into the sermon. This means I now need to sit down and decide what my theme will be for each week of Advent - but when I've done it, it could take a lot of the heat out of preparing worship for the next 5 weeks! So here's the outline:

Advent 1 Theme = hope
Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37
‘The day of the Lord – who comes’
Object: a candle to light (hope in the darkness – you could use this to then light the Advent candle)

Advent 2 Theme = God’s Word
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8
‘The voice that calls out ‘prepare’
Objects could be: Bible

Advent 3 Theme = John the Baptist
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8,19-28
‘The forerunner of the Messiah’
Objects could be: font (or a tap!)

Advent 4 Theme = Mary
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38
‘God decides how he will be ‘housed’ in this world’
Objects could be: baby clothes or a baby photo

Christmas Day Theme = the birth
Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-14
‘God with us’
Object: a crown (to help focus upon all that Jesus is);

Friday, 18 November 2011

Christ the King - notes for Sunday

Christ the King
In a week where the news has been full of further protests against banking practices, unrest in the Arab nations, and financial questions about the euro, unemployment and recession, it might be tempting to look for a breather when you come to church.
But I think our Bible readings today make us think about our world and question still further: Where is God when life is difficult and unfair? What use is prayer when we’re struggling? Why can’t the Bible help us to make ethical decisions about money or power or what to do with our lives?

I'm particularly struck by the Ezekiel passage.
Three times we find the phrase, in the words spoken by the Lord God 'I myself..'.
I myself will search for my sheep.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

You might think all this ‘sheep’ talk is a long way from where we are. But clearly, through Ezekiel, God is wanting to tell his people that he will care for them. The leaders of Israel – prophets, judges, kings, don’t always get it right, of course. And when those leaders are doing a bad job, the prophets accuse them of being bad shepherds of the people. Shepherds are meant to care and tend, to lead the flock to safe pasture, to defend them against attack, to bring them all safely home.
Psalm 23 talks of God as the shepherd who cares, and this prophecy from Ezekiel picks up a lot of the same language, and might also remind us of Jesus parable of the good shepherd.
God will provide his people with a king – David – who will be a good shepherd. But more than that, God himself will search for the lost, care for them as a good shepherd does, and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
And this judgement is maybe not as people might have expected – God is not the shepherd who passes a practiced eye over the flock and sees which animals are thriving – are well-fed and strong, and prefers to choose the big animals as the ones to breed from. God does not judge the large as being the best.
God’s judgement is more like me when I’m feeding ducks.You know how it is. You throw in some food, onto the surface of the water – and there’s always one or two ducks who are quicker and bigger and more aggressive than the rest – they get to the front, they chase the others off, they gobble up more than their share. I get very upset when I’m feeding ducks - I try to throw the food nearer to the quieter, hungrier, smaller ducks at the back. I get very cross with the ones you know have had more than their share and I try to even things out.

Turns out that God, the good shepherd, works a bit like that, too – “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”.
God wants fair shares, not bullying and injustice.
When we’re facing questions in our world about liberty and justice and equality – God is clearly on the side of the underdog – or undersheep in the case of Ezekiel.

The theme of judgement is of course taken up in the parable, too. Jesus tells stories that show God’s concern for fairness – and because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he shows us in his life how God feels towards us all. If Ezekiel’s words are the promise of God acting - God decalring 'I myself' will care – Jesus is that ‘I myself’ of God in a human form – God delivering on his promises to be with us and to care.
So we see Christ's care for the sheep as the good shepherd who searches for the lost and tends to sick and brings the bullies to account.
We might read the parable as a promise that one day – at the end of time – in the far and distant future, the Son of God will come and judge and sort it all out. This might not feel like a very satisfactory hope – that one day, in heaven, all will be well.

Bu the hope is nearer too us than that – because look at how Jesus will judge between people. He will separate them into those who have cared for others and those who have not. Christ's demand, as King of all time, is that we act as those who live by his rules. The demand for justice is not a distant demand for some imponderable time in the future. Jesus Christ demand action for justice now. We are called to be those who are responsible for searching, caring, and tending for the lost sheep of our world.

I seem to end up discussing this parable with people a lot, even when it’s not going to be used on Sunday.

It’s a great story because it challenges so may of our assumptions about what is right and good in life.
If we are people of faith, we might want to say ‘we should care for others because Jesus tells us to’ or even ‘we should serve others because we are serving Christ in the least of these…’. But Jesus is clear that those who have served the poor and the weak were oblivious as to Christ’s presence ‘When Lord, did we see you hungry and feed you?’; and in much the same way the goats – the ones who have ignored the needy, never thought of this as a spiritual matter ‘when Lord did we see you hungry and refuse to feed you?’.
Caring for the poor is not something we do because we are told or because we fear for our immortal souls. It is something we do because we recognise it is right.

In Christ’s kingdom there is life for all – and it is our task to see that all have the offer of life in all its fullness.In the name and through the power of God. Amen.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Christ the King

Readings for this week include:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and
Matthew 25:31-4

Perhaps because I've been looking at the Matthew for the last few weeks, I'm particularly struck by the Ezekiel passage. Three times we find the phrase, in the words spoken by the Lord God 'I myself..'.
I myself will search for my sheep
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

The theme of judgement is of course taken up in the parable, too. But I think I want to focus on Christ as God incarnate - God as 'I myself'.
Christ's care for the sheep - the good shepherd who searches & tends.
& then Christ's demand, as King, that we act as those who live by his rules - searching, caring, tending, for the lost sheep of our world.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Lest we forget

Yes, gentle reader, some of this is the same as last week - that's the beauty of being in four different churches - I felt some of it was equally relevant this week

Many people know how much I like puzzles – sudoko, crosswords, brain-teasers: I find it hard to walk away from an unsolved challenge. Perhaps that is why I love parables so much: they tease our brains, we wonder what they are about, and we try to work out their relevance to us.

So today we heard the parable if the talents.
3 servants are each given a number of ‘talents’ and treat those talents differently. When the owner returns from a long time away, he asks them each what they have done with the talents they were given, and rewards them or punishes them according to what they have done.

Some people read this story about ‘talents’ quite literally and conclude that Jesus is telling us not to waste the talents – the gifts and abilities God has given us.

Unfortunately, this is ignoring the fact that Jesus probably told the story in Aramaic and it was recorded in Greek – so it is really just a coincidence that the English word ‘talent’ has more than one meaning.

But in the time if Jesus, a talent is a sum of money – so this parable is about money, right? Well.. not necessarily, no. In the parables of Jesus, we are encouraged ot think about what the story of ordinary things teaches us about the less than ordinary things of God. This is why jesus uses the introduction ;the kingdom of heaven is like..’ for most of his parables.

I think this parable is more about how we spend our lives, than how we spend our money. And in the context of Remembrance Sunday I think there is an important message here about how we treat the way that other people have spent their lives – or, if you like, how we ‘spend’ or waste our memories.

In the previous chapter before this parable, Jesus talks about the end of time and concludes ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.

Then in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 25, Jesus tells three stories, all introduced with a single sentence ‘then the kingdom of heaven will be like this’ .

First Jesus tells the parable of the bridesmaids, some wise and prepared, and some foolish and unprepared; then the parable of the talents; and then Jesus tells the story of the coming of the son of man and the separation of all people into sheep (who have done the right things in life) and goats (who have got it wrong).

All three stories speak of people being brought to account in some way – of being tested to see whether they have done the right thing. Are the bridesmaids ready to light their lamps and accompany the bridegroom?
Have the servants invested what they were given wisely – or merely buried their talents?
Have the people been like good sheep – sharing with the poor, the naked, the imprisoned?

The unifying question in the three stories seems to be ‘what have you done?’.
So in the parable of the talents the question is ‘what have you done with what you have been given?’.

The servants in the parable have been given money to take care of – one has buried the money for safe-keeping, whilst the other two have taken what they were given and have invested it wisely, so that it makes a profit.

I said at the start that this could be a parable for remembrance Sunday about what we do with our memories. What do I mean by that?

As we stand in silence at the War memorial later, we will be thinking of those who have died in war. Their bodies are buried, their lives ended. Their souls are in God’s hands, but it for us to decide what to do with the memory of their lives.
If we decide that all lives given in war are a waste, that we do not choose to remember, perhaps because we are frightened of being thought of as glorifying war, isn’t that like burying the talent?

They are gone, we say. Nothing can bring them back. We bury their memories with their bodies, we allow both to decay and leave no trace.
But the parable tells us to use what we have been given, to take the gift and invest it wisely and so allow it to be fruitful.
if we keep the memory alive, if we choose to honour their memory, take seriously the lives they laid down, then we will be allowing those lives to have been spent in making our present and our future better, rather than feeling that those lives were wasted in the past.

When we remember the lives spent in war, we allow our remembering to change us, to make us stronger in our resolve to work for peace, determined to use the lives and the time we have been given to make a difference in our world.

We thank God today for those who gave their lives in war – and we determine to use their gift to us – to cherish their memories and to work to make the gift worthwhile – a sacrifice which makes us and our world richer.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

What a waste!

Some of you might remember the Ian Dury song of the same name 'what a waste' (if you get the same 'thrashy' ad first I do apologise - Ian Dury is much better!).
It's kept going round in my head this week as I've been contemplating Remembrance Sunday and (especially) the Gospel reading for this Sunday - the parable of the Talents. I think the idea of being 'called to account' frightens many of us - but accountability is an important part of life.

So, reading Matthew 25: 14-30 in the context of the whole of the chapter I am left with the question of how we spend our lives, rater than waste them: spend time instead of wasting it - maybe even 'spend' rather than waste our remembrance.

I'm hoping this will make more sense when I sit down to flesh it out - meanwhile I still have the thrid of three funerals to conduct this week - so maybe that explains why I'm more than usually concerned with how we spend and don't waste what God gives us.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Give me oil in my lamp

Very late posting this week - I have really had to wrestle with Matthew 25: 1-13!

So this Sunday is the 3rd before Advent, which means that Christmas is starting to loom on the horizon.
I don’t know about you, but I am simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by those little puzzles that you sometimes get as Christmas presents. I’m the sort of person who can’t really rest until the puzzle is solved. I might force myself to put it down from time to time, but I can’t stop myself from coming back to it to have another go at solving it. Christmas Day and Boxing Day can be seriously eaten into by the frustration of a puzzle which is difficult to solve.

A bit like a parable really. Especially this parable. All week I’ve been reading, re-reading – trying to solve the puzzle – what is the point of this parable? What is Jesus trying to teach us by telling it?
Matthew has Jesus conclude the parable with ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’.

I see how this fits with what Jesus has to say in the previous chapter, where Jesus talks about the end of time and concludes ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’. After that teaching we are not surprised to hear Jesus say ‘keep awake’ - but it doesn’t really fit this parable.

All the bridesmaids fall asleep, even the wise ones. What makes them wise is not their wakefulness, but the fact that they are prepared for the ‘job’ they have to do when they are suddenly woken. If you wanted a 2 word summary of their wisdom, it wouldn’t be ‘keep awake’ it would be ‘be prepared’.

But be prepared for what? This chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 25, has Jesus telling three stories, all introduced with a single sentence ‘then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…’ .

First Jesus tells this parable of the bridesmaids; then the parable of the talents, in which the owner suddenly returns after a long absence to see what his servants have each done with the money he gave them; and then Jesus tells the story of the coming of the son of man and the separation of all people into sheep (who have done the right things in life) and goats (who have got it wrong).

All three stories speak of people being brought to account in some way – of being tested to see whether they have done the right thing. Are the bridesmaids ready to light their lamps and accompany the bridegroom? Have the servants invested what they were given wisely – or merely buried their talents? Have the people been like good sheep – sharing with the poor, the naked, the imprisoned?

The unifying question in the three stories seems to be ‘what have you done?’. So this parable, of the bridesmaids, is a warning to think about the task that has been given us and make sure that we are ready to act when the time comes.

And ‘the time’ is the end of time – whether that is the end of our personal time, the end of our life, or the end of all time, a time when God will finally call this whole experiment of life on earth to a halt. We do not know when that time will be – we may even doze while we wait – but when it comes we need to be ready to light our lamps and accompany the bridegroom into the feast.

But the puzzle of the parable is still not entirely solved, is it? Because if we take this parable with the story at the other end of the same chapter, we might feel we have another problem.
The story of the sheep and the goats contains these words to the ‘righteous’, the good people
“I was hungry & you gave me food, I was thirsty & you gave me something to drink… I was naked & you gave me clothing.”
What might Jesus say to those who are faced with foolish bridesmaids who have run out of oil? “I was short of oil and.. you told me to get off to the dealers and buy some for myself.” .

Why doesn’t the Jesus who exhorts us to share with the poor tell a story in which the bridesmaids share between themselves & are all welcomed into the wedding feast?
Because this is a parable about being ready for heaven and not a story about how to keep lamps lit. The ‘oil’ of the parable is not a physical commodity which can be shared between the bridesmaids – ‘having oil’ is a metaphor for ‘being ready’.
And whatever that readiness means for each of us, it isn’t something that can be shared. We can ask one another if we are ready, but only in your own heart can that readiness really be there.
Being ready for Jesus to come to us isn’t a physical matter of being busy, or being good, or even being awake. Being ready is a spiritual matter.
So how can we be ready? One way is to acknowledge that the end will come. We cannot live our lives as if they will go on forever – as if this is all there is, as if the world we know is all that should concern us.
Our physical needs have to be met – and Jesus is clear in the story of the sheep and the goats that we also need to think about the physical needs of others.

But in the end our lives are not merely about the physical, but about the spiritual and eternal. The purpose of the bridesmaid is to be prepared to shine her light; the purpose of the servant is to invest what the Lord has given; the purpose of the righteous people is to care for the weak.
Our purpose is to love. We are made to be in a loving relationship with God. The ‘oil’ that cannot be shared is our readiness, our capacity to respond to God’s love, in this world and the next. So thanks be to God for this meal, in which we meet God & are invited to know & share his love & be fitted for heaven. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Notes for Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s always interesting to get Christians together & find out who does and who does not consider themselves to be ‘Reformed’. I think as I was growing up (as a part of the United Reformed Church - formed by the union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians) we were more likely to use the term ‘non-Conformist’ than “Reformed’: though as time goes on I think I prefer the more positive title of Reformed. And it’s particularly interesting to ask Anglicans where they stand, because they need to decide whether the formation of the Church of England was, at least in part, a response to the European Reformation or merely a split from Rome, so that they feel more Catholic than anything.

But if you’re worried about this turning into a history lesson or an exercise in tribal allegiance instead of a sermon, let me remind you that being Reformed means, among other things, taking the Bible seriously. So let’s do that.

At one level it sounds as though both Micah and Jesus are thumbing their noses at authority. Micah says :
“I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.”

Whilst Jesus declares: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

It would be easy to say something like 'the Reformation challenged the authorities of that day & won through - thanks be to God’. Micah & Jesus both show us that we should always be ready to question authority. This is what one American Old Testament lecturer, Fred Gaiser, has called the approach of 'hey Martin (Luther) got it right and so do we!'.

So today I want to preach Reformation but not as a historical 'hoorah' - rather as a challenge to all of us to never forget that we need to keep our eyes on God's gracious working among us.

So what is really happening in the time of Micah? How was God’s grace in action then?
The prophet Micah preaches against those calling themselves prophets in his day who were telling the people of God only what they wanted to hear – that God was with them, that all would be well. Micah, in contrast, talks of the judgement against his people for the way they are refusing to walk in God’s way, but then ultimately of God’s salvation which will come to his people when they turn back to him. When Jerusalem subsequently fell to their enemies, God’s people found in Micah’s prophecy an explanation for what had happened, and eventually did indeed become faithful to God once more.

So, yes, Micah criticizes the leadership of his time, but it is all God’s people whom he is calling to a new faithfulness. He is not simply telling people to ignore their leaders and choose new ones, he is telling people to take responsibility for their own lives under God. That is the difference between revolution and Reformation.

Meanwhile Matthew tells us about Jesus’ teaching, and again we hear the grace of God in action.
It is interesting to notice that this is the beginning of the last section of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel before the crucifixion, and if we look carefully, we find ia counter-balance to this last section of teaching in the first section in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ teaching, which is the Sermon on the Mount (in chapter 5).

At the start, Jesus teaches the disciples in the hearing of the crowd, here at the end he does the opposite – he teaches the crowds in the hearing of the disciples.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches about blessings – the beatitudes ‘blessed are you when…’ – here at the end he is about to embark on a series of ‘woes’ = ‘woe to you when…’
Having begun his teaching by trying to set his listeners on the right path, Jesus ends his teaching by warning against the wrong path. So in what seems like an all-out attack on the Pharisees, Jesus uses these stereotypical characters “the Pharisees’ to warn his listeners against living lives which do not echo their religious beliefs.
What you believe must inform what you say and do, says Jesus. Remember that Jesus’ greatest criticism was reserves for ‘hypocrites’ of all kinds – those people who say one thing and do another.

It is said that Calvin locked the doors of the Cathedral in Geneva other than for worship on a Sunday, to remind his people that God was not only to be found in the Cathedral, but everywhere in the world beyond.
The Reformed sensibility teaches us that our 'religious' lives are not just what we do in church, but how we treat others in 'the world'.

So Reformation Sunday is not a time to celebrate the victory of one way of being a Christian over another, or a chance to rail against what we perceive to be the faults of our leaders – in the church or in the political sphere. It is a time to celebrate the grace of God, which come to us through God’s Word. It is a time to take seriously Gods living Word to us, and to be open to continually being re-formed, to have our hearts set on fire to get out there & live God's way.

May what we believe and what we say and do be evidence to the world around us that the living God hasn’t finished with us yet, whether we choose to call ourselves Reformed or not.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Reformation Sunday - so what?

This coming Sunday is 'Reformation Sunday', but it seems to me to be a good Reformed principle to look in detail at the set Bible readings for the day.
So my texts will be:
Micah 3: 5-12
Matthew 23: 1-12

I'm very struck by the criticism of "authority" in both Micah & by Jesus in the gospel.

It would be easy to say somehting like 'the Reformation challenged the authorities of that day & won through - thanks be to God. This is what one OT lecturer has called the approach of 'hey Martin (Luther) got it right and so do we!'. (Fred Gaiser, here

I want to preach Reformation but not as a historical 'hoorah' - rather as a challenge to all of us to never forget that we need to keep our eyes on God's gracious working among us.
The Reformed sensibility teaches us that our 'religious' lives are not just what we do in church, but how we treat others in 'the world'.
I hope we can celebrate but also have our hearts set on fire to get out there & live God's way... more to follow - although wouldn't it be interesting to see people's reactions if that was the whole sermon?!

Friday, 21 October 2011

What do you know?

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 Matthew 22: 34-40

I have lived my life in fear for the last 10 years or so.. ever since one of my brothers revealed that if he was ever on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ I would be his friend to phone to help him if he had a Bible question. Imagine the pressure of being on national television (heard, if not seen) and having to give the right answer: and imagine the embarrassment when it was revealed that even thought I had got the simple question wrong, I was in fact a minister of religion.

Sometimes I wonder what sort of questions I might be asked, which part of the Bible the question compilers might choose. Perhaps today’s readings have given us a clue – because probably the best known bit of the Bible is the 10 commandments. Well, I say best known – but most of us are a bit hazy about exactly what they are.
Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not covet thy neighbours ox… or was it ass…
Isn’t it strange how the commandments telling us what not to do stick in our minds most firmly.

In 2004 the Methodist Church invited people to text in their choice of an 11th commandment.
The winning entries were:
Thou shalt not worship false pop idols
thou shalt not kill in the name of any god
thou shalt not consume thine own body weight in fudge
and thou shalt not be negative.

Actually, as we heard, the book of Leviticus includes a lot more positive advice about how to live a holy life, or how to live as God wants us to live & how it is best for us to live.

Through Moses, God says that people need to be holy – they need to live lives of love and decency and respect, because that is what we were made for.
Then, in one modern English translation of Leviticus, it says this:
“Be fair, no matter who is on trial – don’t favour either the poor or the rich…Stop being angry and don’t try to take revenge.
I am the Lord, and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself.”

The 10 commandments themselves are not all negative:
Worship God alone.
Do not make idols.
Do not misuse God’s name.
Remember the day of rest, the Sabbath.
Honour your father and mother
And then the 5 which I mentioned earlier – do not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or be envious of other people.

When the Pharisees ask Jesus ‘which is the greatest commandment’ it’s meant to be a trick question. We all know how difficult it is to agree which is the best or most important of anything – I’ve got fed up of watching these ‘best films of all time’ type TV programmes, I end up staying up til midnight to see what’s number one – only to end up saying ‘oh, rubbish, Sound of Music is much better than the Terminator’ – or whatever it is.
Jesus is meant to be onto a loser – if he says ‘You must not kill’ is the top commandment, people will say ‘Ooh, he doesn’t think worshipping God is important, then’ or if he says the most important commandment is ‘Respect your parents’ he can be criticised for not being tough enough on crime!

So what Jesus says is very clever – he sums up all the 10 commandments in 2 phrases ‘Love God with a your heart & soul & mind’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’. Love God, love other people – that’s it.

So Jesus gets out of the trick question very neatly.
But he does something else – Jesus is really clever because he makes us think about what the commandments are really for. They aren’t a set of rules to be followed like mindless robots – and God isn’t watching & waiting for us to slip up so that he can punish us horribly for breaking the rules. The commandments are there to help us work out what life is really about – what we are here for. And they tell us that we’re here to love God & love other people.

It might sound a bit mushy – and it might not surprise you to find out this originated in the United States – but one way of referring to the Bible is as ‘God’s love letter to us’. I said it sounds a bit mushy – but it’s true: the stories and poems and letters in the Bible are all recorded to try to help us know about the God who loves us and wants to talk to us and guide us.

I started by wondering whether the 10 commandments were the best known part of the Bible. And I think that knowing is really at the heart of following Jesus. But not knowing what all the rules and commandments are, or even knowing which could be considered most important – Jesus points us to a knowledge that is not about facts, but is about relationship.
The most important thing is to know God, and love God in return; to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to celebrate it; to know that our love for other people is a vital part of being alive, and to want to serve them.
And know this: Jesus meets us at this table, to feed us, fill us and guide us in knowing God more fully. Thanks be to God. Amen

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Final version

Perhaps I wimped out, but I decided that some people might get so upset by the 'God's backside' phrase, That I've dropped it!

God turns his back
Sometimes a sermon starts with a text that is a struggle to understand. Sometimes life throws up such hard questions that the sermon needs to start there. And sometimes the two things come together. This week I have been wrestling with the reading from Exodus (33:12-23) but also wondering what we do in those times in life when it feels that God is far from us and doesn’t really care. And I hope the reading actually gives us some help with our questioning.

So what is the Exodus story all about? Moses is having a wobble - and you can't really blame him. After much pleading with Pharoah, and many miraculous interventions from God, God’s people have been released from Egypt. Then the people wander in the wilderness, complaining about the lack of food and water – and again are miraculously provided for by God.

Finally the people have arrived at Mount Sinai, and Moses goes up the mountain to receive God’s law. This is no quick task – there’s far more to this law than just the 10 commandments - and the people grow tired of waiting and set up the Golden Calf to worship. God is furious and sends Moses back down the mountain: Moses is furious and smashes the tablets bearing the 10 commandments. Then God orders the people to travel away from Mount Sinai towards the promised Land.

But it seems that God, too is having a sulk and is ready to give up on his people altogether. He tells Moses that although he will send an angel to show God’s people the way, God himself will not accompany them. So Moses, in the passage we heard, is trying to convince God to come with the people, to stay close to them all the way to the Promised Land.
At one level this may feel very removed from our experience of God - we don't chat with God & insist that he acts like we want & then demand, as Moses does 'show me your face'.
But we do know what it is to go through times when we are not sure whether God is with us or not. And perhaps, like Moses & the people of Israel, we know how it is to forget the good stuff that has gone before -the times when we know God has been with us - when we are faced with a difficult time in life and a sense of God's absence.

So, like Moses, we may call out in dostress for God to show us his face.
And what do we feel we get when we most need to know God with us?
God turns his back on us. Well, thanks, God.


But to Moses, God makes it clear that he is not refused the sight of God's face because God does not care enough to bother - God in fact goes to a lot of trouble to show himself, but to spare Moses too much. It is not good for us to see too much of God with us. What would life be like if we knew always, exactly what God thought of what we do - if we lived face-to-face with God?

What if we could feel every disappointment we cause God? What if we knew exactly what God wants of us and if we knew exactly where we would fail God, even before it happened. What if we could see each step of our life before we lived it? Life would be almost unimaginably different. Somehow life is only life if we are allowed by God to find our own way - to know something of God with us, but not to be so stifled or so controlled that we cannot really live at all.

Perhaps instead of thinking that God turns his back on us, we can see that God spares us his face. He gives us room to discover his will, rather than forcing us to live in the full glare of God’s presence.

But this doesn't mean that God doesn't care - he knows Moses by name, he allows Moses to plead for God's help & presence, and he shows him his back - not because he has turned his back on Moses, but so that Moses can freely follow.

Moses discovers that God will lead his people to the promised Land.
God will give his people glimpses of his glory, but never subject them to the full realization of his will, leaving no room for their own free wills.
God will never abandon his people.


And this same God will never desert us, however far he may feel from us.
God deals with us as he deals with Moses.
God knows us by name,
God gives us glimpses of his presence,
God leads us home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

God's backside

Back in May I went to a 'festival of preaching' where one of the speakers was Anna Carter Florence. If you've never heard of her, find some of her preaching & read it - she's fabulous! She was telling us that in order to preach you first have to let the Word 'pass over your body'. Since then, I've tried to preach on whichever text has gripped me most (even if sometimes I've felt I had to wrestle hard to get some sense out of it).

So this week my text has to be
Exodus 33:12-23

What is this all this about? Moses is having a wobble - and you can't really blame him. But it seems like God, too is having a sulk and is ready to give up on his people altogether.
At one level this feels very removed from our experience of God - we don't chat with God & insist that he acts like we want & then demand 'show me your face'. But we do know what it is to go through times when we are not sure whether God is with us or not. And perhaps, like Moses & the people of Israel, we know how it is to forget the good stuff that has gone before -the times when we know God has been with us - when we are faced with a difficult time in life and a sense of God's absence.
And what do we feel we get when we most need to know God with us? God's backside.
Well, thanks, God.

But to Moses, God makes it clear that he is not refused the sight of God's face because God does not care enough to bother - God in fact goes to a lot of trouble to show himself, but to spare Moses too much. It is not good for us to see too much of God with us. What would life be like if we knew always, exactly what God thought of what we do - if we lived face-to-face with God?
What if we could feel every disappointment we cause God? What if we knew exactly what God wants of us - if we could see each step of our life before we lived it? Life would be almost unimaginably different. Somehow life is only life if we are allowed by God to find our own way - to know something of God with us, but not to be so stifled or so controlled that we cannot really live at all.

But this doesn't mean that God doesn't care - he knows Moses by name, he allows Moses to plead for God's help & presence, and he shows him his back - not because he has turned him back on Moses, but so that Moses can freely follow.

Probably by the time this makes 'first draft' rather than initial thoughts, I'll have taken out references to God's backside, for fear of offending people so much they stop listening. Watch this space...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Come to the party - but not as you are.

Matthew 22: 1-14 - the parable of the wedding banquet

Jesus’ parable, as ever, paints an exaggerated, almost ridiculous picture.
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who invites people to a party, but they don’t come. No, more than that, they refuse to come & they murder the slaves who have come with the invitation. So the king sends troops to destroy the non-attending, murdering guests and burns down their city. I think they can consider themselves un-invited!
Then the king sends out for more guests, gathering anyone and everyone off the streets. This king goes to enormous trouble to makes sure the feast is full of guests. If you went a sense of how ridiculous all this is, imagine the gates of Buckingham Palace being thrown open to everyone for the Royal Wedding this year and the Queen encouraging everyone from the streets to tuck in to the wonderful food.
But, back at the parable, a man is spotted who is inappropriately dressed – so the king orders the servants to bind the guest hand & foot and throw him out.
This seems terribly harsh on the man – how could he know, when he left the house to go to the market, that his King would order him to be scooped up to fill the seats at his banquet? But presumably everyone there was in much the same boat, and yet the rest have somehow managed to find a wedding robe for the event. So what’s going on in this parable?

Well, first of all I think Jesus is deliberately painting a slightly peculiar picture to help us to understand the almost desperate welcome God offers. Like a king who almost press-gangs guests into his palace, God will go to any lengths to welcome everyone into the kingdom. But what then? How should we react to the surprising invitation to be part of the kingdom? Jesus says we should react with more than just a nod and a thank you. What more does God require?

Just picture the scene. It’s Saturday night and “Strictly come dancing” is about to start. You have on your oldest, comfiest jumper & you’ve kicked your shoes off. The popcorn or peanuts are just within reach on one side of you & your favourite drink is to the other hand. Then the door-bell rings: it’s a neighbour wanting you to join them for a party, right now! If you decide to accept the invitation, you’re not simply going to slop across the road as you are, are you? – you’ll quickly change into something appropriate, because unexpected though the invitation is, and much as you might prefer the evening you’d planned, if you’re going to accept the offer you need to accept it graciously and respond accordingly.

So what response does God require of us, if we are to accept the gracious invitation to be part of the kingdom? Jesus warns that although the invitation is to all, this is not cheap grace, which we can accept almost grudgingly, but requires us to appreciate that we are guests of the king and need to behave like it. God’s grace is for all – but we must change – not our clothes, of course, but our attitudes to others, our love, our purpose.

The invitation this morning is to take this bread and wine. All are invited, none are excluded. But God requires us to come suitably prepared to celebrate – ready to be part of the invitation to others, ready to be changed into people of love and grace, ready to meet the King and know his love.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

What will he do? God's vineyard.

After a sudden epiphany when I realised that Jesus does not answer this question 'what will he do?', I have re-shaped the sermon a bit. And thanks to those friends on facebook who helped me conclude my thoughts about fruitfulness - have a gold star!

What will he do?

This week's wrestling is with the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. The other lectionary reading helps us to remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures 'the vineyard' was God's Promised land, inhabited by God's chosen people. I think we have to beware an anti-semitic reading of this parable that says 'God throws out the Jews and put new 'tenants' in his vineyard: us!’.

So what does Jesus say about this owner of the vineyard?
He is persistent - almost to the point of stupidity. The first slaves are beaten, killed and stoned. So what does he do?
Sends more! - and they are 'treated in the same way'.
Isn't this the point at which we expect the owner to bring in the bailiffs & clear the place out & either put in new tenants or sell & get out of wine-production altogether.
But no, our persistent/foolish owner sends his son, saying 'they will respect my son'. But it comes as no surprise to us to find that these lawless tenants kill him too. Now what will he do?
We think we know the answer, don’t we – the owner will do what he should have done in the first place - sort them out. He is far more patient than we might expect, but in the end he wants his vineyard to produce wine.

What will he do? Asks Jesus.
And have you noticed that in the parable as we heard it, it is the crowd who answers the question, not Jesus. “They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

Jesus does not answer the question which he asks, ‘now what will the owner do?’ – he asks the crowd for an answer.
And when they give the sensible, human answer ‘he will finally sort them out’, Jesus says "Have you never read in the scriptures: `The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?. Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
When the crowd gives the obvious answer to his question, Jesus reminds them that God’s world is different from our world – God’s logic is different, God sees things differently. What we cast away, God treasures. We would lose patience with these tenants. Jesus never says that that is what God will do.

So what if this is not a parable told to show the Pharisees that God has had enough of them and is bringing in a new thing called Christianity? What if Jesus is trying to say that God’s endless patience is the sign of God’s kingdom, and that when we judge others and want God to punish others, that is when we are far from the kingdom? If we want to be part of what God is doing in God’s world, we need to be as patiently, endlessly forgiving as God – then our lives will show the fruits of the spirit – love, joy peace, patience, kindness.. and so on.
So, says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom.

Matthew puts this parable at the end of a very varied string of events, all recorded in Chapter 21.
First Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws the money-changers out of the temple. Then he curses the fig tree because it is not producing fruit. Then Jesus' authority is questioned by the chief priests and elders of the people. Then Jesus tells 2 parables - first the one about the sons who are asked to work by their father and say yes & no, and then this one of the tenants.

Throughout these events, which of course are in the lead up to a lot of resistance to Jesus, and finally to his arrest and death, there seems to be recurrent themes about bearing fruit, being part of the life of the kingdom, and doing what is required.

Jesus tells this parable against a background of questions about who is and who is not a part of the kingdom, who is on God's side, who is living the right way in the sight of God.

And Jesus is clear in the parable - God is endlessly patient, he is not going to give up on people if they fall at the first hurdle in following Jesus. Yet God is looking for a harvest for results, for the fruits of the kingdom, for people who seek God's will and do it. And it is precisely the patience to bear with those who are not yet part of the kingdom which makes us fully paid-up citizens of Gods kingdom!

There may be wrestling and difficulty - there will even be persecution and death - but God wants us to be people of faithful fruitfulness, who never lose sight of God's kingdom and never lose faith in God’s way of bearing with people.

So what does this fruitfulness look like in our lives – as individuals and as churches?

I think in some people’s eyes it looks like foolishness. So close to harvest we probably think of fruitfulness as something lush and lavish and wonderful. It can be wonderful – but in a totally different way: more like the scrawny weed that breaks through the concrete against all odds, than a mouth-watering bunch of grapes. The fruits of God’s kingdom are the sort of hope that keeps us going when all seems bleak. The sort of hope that sits and waits as the body of Christ lies in the tomb on Holy Saturday, believing that God’s love will triumph in the end on Easter Sunday.
If we show the fruits of God’s kingdom we try to be as forgiving as God is.. even when the world tells us to hit back. We trust that God’s love will never leave us – even when all the tangible proof seems to point in the opposite direction.

And if all this sounds like hard work and we wonder whether we can keep bearing this kind of fruit, God offers us nourishment at this table.

This bread and wine remind us of Jesus’ offering of himself, the ultimate sign of God’s endlessly patient, self-emptying love. The life laid down for us, but also the life restored by the ultimate sign of God’s kingdom – the power of the resurrection.

Eat, drink – be restored – and may God’s love help your life to bear the fruits of God’s kingdom.
To his praise and glory.
Amen.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What will he do?

This week's wrestling is with the parable of the tenants in the vineyard:
Matthew 21:33-46.

The other lectionary readings help us to remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures 'the vineyard' was God's Promised land, inhabited by God's chosen people. I think we have to beware an anti-semitic reading of this that says 'God throws out the Jews and put new 'tenants' in his vineyard: us!

So what do we learn about this owner of the vineyard? He is persistent - almost to the point of stupidity. The first slaves are beaten, killed and stoned. So what does he do?
Sends more! - and they are 'treated in the same way'.
Isn't THIS the point at which we expect the owner to bring in the bailiffs & clear the place out & either put in new tenants or sell & get out of wine-production altogether.
But no, our persistent/foolish owner sends his son, saying 'they will respect my son'. But it comes as no surprise to find that these lawless tenants kill him too.
Now what will he do?
What he should have done in the first place - sort them out. The owner is far more patient than we might expect, but in the end he wants his vineyard to produce wine.

So, says Jesus the kingdom of heaven will be given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom.

Matthew puts this parable at the end of a very varied string of events, all recorded in Chapter 21.
First Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws the money-changers out of the temple.
Then he curses the fig tree because it is not producing fruit.
Then Jesus' authority is questioned by the chief priests and elders of the people.
Then Jesus tells 2 parables - first the one about the sons who are asked to work by their father and say yes & no, and then this one of the tenants.

Throughout these events, which of course are in the lead up to a lot of resistance to Jesus, and finally to his arrest and death, there seems to be recurrent themes about bearing fruit, being part of the life of the kingdom, and doing what is required.
Jesus tells this parable against a background of questions about who is and who is not a part of the kingdom, who is on God's side, who is living the right way in the sight of God.

And Jesus is clear in the parable - God is endlessly patient, he is not going to give up on people if they fall at the first hurdle in following Jesus. Yet God is looking for a harvest for results, for the fruits of the kingdom, for people who seek God's will and do it.
There may be wrestling ad difficulty - there will even be persecution and death - but God wants us to be people of faithful fruitfulness, who never lose sight of God's kingdom.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A diversion

This week I am not preaching on Sunday - but I will, instead be preaching on Saturday, at the induction of my friend, Rachel, to be warden of the URC's St Cuthbert's centre on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.see here for more details

My part is to reflect on the passage about Jacob's ladder:
Genesis 28: 10-17

Here is a first draft of what I'm likely to say:


“Way way back many centuries ago: not long after the Bible began,
Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, a fine example of a family man…”

Except that in the reading we just heard we catch up with Jacob long before Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice get hold of him. This Jacob is not a fine example of anything – except perhaps a rather slimy, cheating piece of work. Jacob is the younger twin, the second-born, and not the one who is supposed to inherit the lion’s share of his father wealth and blessing. But first he tricks his brother Esau into promising him all his rights as first-born (by catching Esau when he’s hungry and offering him a bowl of stew); then, with the help of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him his blessing by cooking his dad’s favourite goat dish and using the skin to make his arms seem hairy like Esau.

So in the bit of the story we just heard he is leaving home partly to get away from his murderous brother, Esau and partly to go and find a suitable wife. This time it’s Jacob who’s hungry and alone and probably wondering whether all this conniving was really worth it.

And then God appears to him in a dream. He sees a vision of a link between heaven and earth – but not a way for him to claw his way up to a prime position in heaven as he’s tried to claw his way into prime position in the family. This link between heaven and earth is populated with angels, God’s messengers. Jacob’s ladder is the way in which God stoops to communicate with earth – it is proof that God has a love for people and a plan for their lives, and if Jacob will just stop scheming for a moment he might hear what God has to say. You see, up til now in the story Jacob hasn’t much time for God at all – in fact at one point in talking to his father he refers to ‘The Lord your God’. Jacob doesn’t see how God has any part to play in his plan for his life – until this point when God speaks to him and promises ‘I shall be with you to protect you wherever you go’. The promise to bless Abraham, his grandfather, and Isaac, his father, now becomes a promise to bless Jacob himself.
And when Jacob wakes up he realises ‘surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it’.

Now far be it for me to suggest that there are people here who until now have not realised that God is in this Holy Island of Lindisfarne: the clue here is in the title. But for Jacob it seems there is no hint of the divine presence until his dream. Yet perhaps the really surprising thing is not, in any case, the geographical place that God is found, but the fact that God is found in the life of a lying, cheating, scheming, non-religious, disrespectful no-hoper like Jacob. Even in the worst of us, even at the hardest times, God is in this place; God is at work; God is with us wherever we go.

I pray this place, this ministry into which Rachel is entering, all those who come into contact with St Cuthbert’s Centre, each one here and each one who comes may know the truth that God is in this place, so that it can be like Jacob’s ladder, joining heaven to earth, through the grace of God.
Thanks be to God.

All being well, after this we will sing no hopers, jokers and rogues - a folk song I just love and which fits this occasion wonderfully.

Monday, 12 September 2011

It's not fair!

I realise it's only Monday - but struck by an item of news about modern day 'slavery' and inspired by a reflection by Anna Carter Florence on the hardship of waiting here
I've just sat down and written a first draft of the sermon.


The parable of the workers in the vineyard:
it’s NOT FAIR!

This last week a disturbing story emerged of workers allegedly held in slavery on a traveller site in Leighton Buzzard. In 21st century Bedfordshire, grown men were picked up in vans and promised labouring work and somewhere to live at £40-£80 per day. But when they got to the caravan site they were put in small sheds or rundown caravans with too little food, had their identity papers taken and their heads shaved and were made to work with no pay – whilst being told that of they tried to run away they would be beaten up.

And all this in a neighbouring county to ours. At first I could scarcely believe it – and then as news of the case grew it became clear that this is not the only place in our country – today! - where this has happened.



How desperate and vulnerable do you have to be to say ‘yes’ to someone who pops up out of the blue and offers you work? Well, apparently the men were picked up from soup kitchens and day centres for the homeless, and the mentally ill. You and your life have to be pretty much at the bottom if an unknown job in an unknown place with unknown people looks like a good choice. Desperate people, with very little in their lives, desperate for work.

There are people like that in Jesus’ parable. When we hear the story, it is all too easy for us to sympathise with the workers who were hired first – they work hard, all day – in the scorching heat. They have toiled and slogged and earned their daily wage. And then they find that the slackers who have only worked since 5 o clock in the evening get exactly the same wage. Like children, the workers grumble about the landowner’s decision ‘It’s not fair!’.
When I was teaching, I once did an assembly on this parable – and as I entered the staffroom at break, nearly 2 hours’ later, my fellow teachers were nearly ready to lynch me because they had been so incensed by the unfairness of the story. It is not fair on those who worked harder – we can see that, feel it on our bones. The union reps in the staff wanted me to understand that we needed pat differentials in life, to help us all to feel valued for the work we did! The way the landowner acts in this story - it’s just not fair.

But just for a moment let’s look at the story another way: from the point of view of the desperate workers who had no work. All day long they had been in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. Each time someone came looking for workers, they might have stood up a bit straighter, tried to look ‘hire – able’, strong, hard-working, reliable, tough. And each time they weren’t hired we can imagine how their shoulders might have slumped.
Early in the morning, the fittest looking ones are hired & go off to work, knowing they will be paid that day and have something to take home to their hungry families. At nine o’ clock, some other lucky ones had gone off – to at least do most of a day’s work. At noon and at 3 the same person had come back and hired a few more. But by five there were just the most desperate left. No point in going home early, no money in their pockets, no food to share with anyone. Another day with no work, no pay, no hope. Just the sort of desperate men who might jump at any offer of work – however uncertain they are about the offer. Then the question ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’
“because no-one hired us”,
‘then go into my vineyard and work til evening’.
After a couple of hours it’s pay time. No wage has been agreed – they line up not knowing what they might get – what fraction of the daily wage they might be given. And they are given the whole day’s wage.
Unless we’ve done that kind of piece work we can only imagine how it feels to unexpectedly get the full day’s wage. But then those who have worked half a day – and even all day in the hot sun – get exactly the same agreed daily wage. Much grumbling ensues: and the landowner asks the grumblers ‘are you envious because I am generous?’.
Would you begrudge the desperate men their daily bread?

You see it’s all too easy to see this parable as one which is not fair to those who work all day. But what about those who wait all day? How hard is it to spend all day not knowing whether you will be chosen or not, and beginning to suspect that you might have missed your chance. And wondering what you will eat that night.

And we know that Jesus told this parable because he had people coming to him and wanting to know who was going to enter God’s kingdom, and how, and what reward his followers could expect.

We know that when we hear this parable we burn with the unfairness of life, in which those who work tirelessly for God and for others have to bear the sting that God loves a wretch who turns to God after a life of debauchery just as much as he loves each one of us. We work in the heat of the day, and get no more reward than those who don’t.

But have a heart for those who wait, for those who are desperately unsure of their reward, for those who only find out at the last moment that all will be well. Give thanks to God for God’s generosity, which extends grace to all and to each: do not be envious because God is generous, but be glad because you know your reward. And trust the grace of God to see that all will be well for all God’s children.
Amen.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Forgiveness

OK -back on track with the lectionary:
Matthew 18: 21-35
and here's a first draft...

Forgiveness
Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness ‘How many times should I forgive?’.
What a good question.
She let me down again – should I forgive her again?
He really hurt my feelings this time with what he said - how can I forgive him?
The crime is so awful, the implications so enormous – where is the place for forgiveness? in the story of the Twin Towers & 9/11, or the death in custody of Baha Musa, or the shootings carries out by Raoul Moat.

What difference would it make to this world if we really took forgiveness seriously? How many times should I forgive?

So Jesus tells one of his parables. A parable about forgiveness.. or maybe unforgiveness.

A slave owes his king 10,000 talents. A talent was about a year’s wages for a labourer. This is a huge sum. Even if the man lives on nothing and gives all that he earns to the king it would take him 10,000 years to pay him back. This slave is in deep, deep trouble. Jesus doesn’t tell us how this man has racked up that kind of debt – but he wants us to know that when the king threatens to sell the man, his wife & children and everything he owns it will still not make more than the tiniest dent into the amount he owes.
He cannot pay this debt.
So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you all I owe’.
No he won’t. He can’t. He can never earn enough to pay the king back – not in a month of Sundays (or approximately 10,000 years).

But the king has pity, releases the man, and, says Jesus, forgives the debt.
But then Slave number 1 bumps into Slave number 2, who owes him a hundred denarii. Now a denarius is the daily wage for a worker – so in other words, Slave 2 owes about 100 days’ or 4 months’ wages. So he begs ‘have patience me and I will pay you’. It may take a year – or even two – but he should be able to pay his debt off, because it’s 4 months wages, not 10,000 years wages.

But Slave 1 – because he is nasty and unforgiving- throws Slave 2 into prison until he pays off the debt.

So Jesus shows us what unforgiveness looks like – pretty stupid, actually, fairly inhuman, if we’re honest: a man who has been forgiven 30,000 times what his mate owes him refuses to be moved by almost exactly the same plea that got him off his huge debt ‘have patience me and I will pay you’.

As so often with Jesus’ parables this is a ridiculously exaggerated story – no-one, surely would be so stupid as Slave 1.

But he gets his come-uppance.
His fellow slaves are as outraged as we are by his awful, mean, nasty behaviour and tell the king what has happened.
Then the king summons Slave 1 and points out ‘I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me - you should have been just as forgiving’.
And then the king does something strange – maybe we miss it because we’re so pleased to see horrible Slave 1 get his just desserts – the king hands Slave 1 over to be tortured until he has paid the whole debt.

What debt? Didn’t the king forgive Slave 1 – so he wiped out his debt. Except he didn’t, did he?

We call this story the story of the unforgiving servant or the unforgiving slave – but we could call it the story of the unforgiving king – because when the king hears what Slave 1 has done he re-activates the debt which he is supposed to have forgiven.

And Jesus tells us this story to help us to think about forgiveness. Perhaps we wonder if Jesus tells the story to show how God forgives. We often assume that any ‘king’ in a parable is automatically meant to be God. But surely we don’t want God to treat us like the king – who forgives but then changes his mind.
So how does God’s forgiveness work, and can it help us with our forgiveness?

Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just 7 times, but 70 times 7 – in other words – stop counting! Forgive, keep being ready to forgive, never give up on forgiveness. But the parable also tells us that forgiveness must be real, and lasting and ‘from the heart’. You can’t just say you forgive someone and then take it back later.

And the parable also reminds us that when we stop to take in how much we have been forgiven, it will make our much smaller amount of forgiveness that much easier to offer. When we recognise that God, compared to the King on the story, is even more generous, even more loving and forgiving, with a grace that lasts and never gives up on us... When we know how we are forgiven, then we know we can afford to forgive. God’s forgiving love can change us into people who can be forgiving – truly, deeply, once and for all – people who offer a forgiveness which lasts – and which changes lives forever.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The gift of baptism

Yes, I'm cheating: having not preached last week I'm using last week's lectionary readings as they fitted so well with the baptism that I'm conducting. Thought that after holidays I could be allowed to cut myself some slack!I also shortened them slightly for the sake of the 2 grandfathers who are reading them and the congregation, most of whom will be the 'baptism party'.

Sermon notes for Sept 4th (baptism)
Romans 12:9-13
Matthew 16:21-26


I was delighted to hear the first reading – the one from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, especially at Harry’s baptism.

Here’s the Bible my Godparents gave me the day I was baptised – aged just under 3 months. You can see that like it’s owner it’s showing signs of wear & tear!
And here inside my Godmother, Marjorie, wrote (verses from Romans ch 12).

It might seem an odd present for a tiny baby: I remember as a child being a bit jealous of my brother – who had a silver egg cup and spoon as a Baptism present, and would use it whenever we had eggs for breakfast! But as I’ve grown, I have treasured this Bible and especially those words from Romans. I feel it’s a present I’ve grown into, rather like baptism itself.

Harry is enjoying himself today, I hope, but I doubt he really understands much of what’s happening and we won’t expect him, young as he is, to remember today. But he will have his baptism certificate and candle, along with any other presents from today, so that he will know that he has been baptised. This means that whenever he wants it or needs it, the church will be here for him – many different denominations, throughout the world – Harry will be part of the worldwide family of God.

Throughout this baptismal service we will keep talking about following Jesus Christ and being part of his church. You might wonder what following Jesus really means: obviously it was one thing for the fishermen that Jesus actually met and talked to and said ‘follow me’ – and it means something slightly different for us today.

In part, being one of Christ’s followers means changing the way we live – being forgiving to others, sharing what we have with those who don’t have enough, showing hospitality – and doing all this as people who are full of love, hope and joy. These are the things that the letter to the Romans talks about.

But you might be wondering what can make us trust God’s love in the first place – what evidence have we got that God actually loves us? The best sign that God loves us comes to us in Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God became a human being like one of us. To show us the true extent of God’s amazing love Jesus came prepared to suffer and die on the cross. This was hard for his first followers to understand, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus tells his followers that we have to do the same as he does – to be prepared to put other people first, to ask ourselves what God wants us to do with our lives, not just to go after what we want.

So in baptism, Harry will be accepting God’s love – a free gift of grace which has been there for him since the day he was born. We, too, can remember that we are God’s special children – each one of us.

And then, in the bread and wine of communion we will remember Jesus’ gift of his life given up for us – his body broken and his blood poured out as the greatest sign of all of the greatness of God’s love.

Everyone is welcome to share in the symbolic meal as together we remember Jesus and promise to become part of his life in the world today. Strengthened by God’s love we can go out to be God’s people in the world, following Jesus Christ and putting others first.

So may God touch each one of us this morning, in the name of Jesus. Amen

Friday, 12 August 2011

Transformed...

Completed sermon notes for Aug 21st

Transformed

As some of you know I have been on holiday this last week, so this sermon had to be written a week early, for once. As I was writing it, the news was full of the riots and looting in London and various other cities. Whatever else has happened in the intervening week, I’m sure the riots are still fresh in our minds.

Paul’s letter to the Romans, with it’s call to 'Be transformed not conformed' feels like the good news many people need to hear as we contemplate what makes the think veneer of society break down so dramatically. Don’t follow the crowd, and be conformed but allow God’s love to change you: be transformed.

There have been many theories as to why the disturbances have happened, and I’m sure there isn’t one simple answer. But I saw struck by three comments in particular I heard from people at the centre of areas of trouble.

A mother in Manchester stated “if you treat them like scum, they’ll act like scum”
A resident of Tottenham reflected “these boys in gangs have no sense of belonging or self-worth, except what’s given to them by belonging to a gang”.
And someone caught looting a shop brazenly said ‘I can afford this stuff, but if you can take it for free, you’re going to, aren’t you?’

It is awful to see violence and arson, to hear reports of people losing homes and livelihoods and even lives in the face of what looks like mindless violence. And it is shocking to hear that at the core of some of this there is such a sense of despair and true poverty - the sort of poverty of thought which says you are only worth something if you own the right goods, or belong to the right gang, or are paid huge sums or treated like a celebrity.
- it's time for the church to speak out about what really makes people happy & to stand out against consumerism - not just moaning about 'the state of the world' but offering an alternative.
Maybe we need Peter’s honesty & forthrightness to speak to the world.
Here we are, back with Peter in our Gospel reading. Despite the confidence-inspiring nickname – the Rock – there has always seemed to me to be something very human about Peter – more rocky than Rock.

Last time we ‘met’ Peter in the lectionary he was acting before thinking – jumping out of the boat to join Jesus walking on the water.
In today’s reading we meet another example of Peter’s impetuousness – as well as someone who acts before thinking, Peter is also, it seems, is a blurter-out of what’s in his head.

When Jesus asks ‘who do you say that I am,’ the others disciples don’t have much to say. They’ve been quick enough to talk about what other people have been saying, but when they are suddenly asked what they think, they go very quiet. You can imagine finger-nails being examined, clothing being picked at for imaginary fluff and sandals being drilled into the floor.
But Peter splurges ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God’. He must have glowed with pride to hear Jesus respond ‘Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah’.
Perhaps it is Peter’s very humanity, his ability to be open to what God can do for him and through him, and his readiness to speak out that makes him the Rock on which Jesus can build his church.

Jesus chooses an ordinary person – perhaps better at using his heart than his head – and definitely fallible and imperfect. This is Peter - a rock in the sight of Jesus – someone Jesus will take and teach and forgive and fashion into a stable foundation.

As well as exhorting us to be forthright like Peter, you might be wondering whether what Peter says has any relevance to our troubled world. I think it has.
Peter says to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God’.
In Jesus Peter sees God beside him – speaking with him, healing the wounds of the world, listening to what Peter has to say.

If one of the great ills of our world is a lack of self-worth and a vacuum where there should be a sense of value, our own value or the values of others; then here is the Good News for that situation. Every single person – every young person, unemployed person, black person, every old person, disabled person, overlooked person. Every single one of us can know God alongside us – not as a vague sense of good, or even as a moral compass to help us steer clear of trouble – but as a loving friend, a guiding Spirit, a heavenly Father.

I can think of no better word of Hope than the word ‘Love’. Yes, it is love which binds families and communities together and enables them to re-group and re-build. But first comes the love of God – the love which would hold each one of us like a precious child and which whispers ‘you matter. I care’.

This is what produces the transformation that Paul writes to the Romans about – this is the love which changes and enhances and empowers lives.

As we give thanks to God for the Rock which is Peter, let’s also give thanks for the God who by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ can take each one of us, rocky as we may be, and build us up into the body of Christ, the church founded on Peter, God’s agents in the world. The people who are here to declare to the world – you are loved and precious.
To God’s praise and glory
Amen.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

August 21st

No, I haven't forgotten August 14th - but I'll be on holiday & not preaching. So the plan is to get ahead and prepare for Aug 21st this week. Well, it's a plan - but lots of extra stuff seems to have hit the diary this week...*sigh*

Anyway readings for Aug 21st are:
Isaiah 51: 1-6
Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

My initial thoughts were to preach about Peter - but will all the riots & stuff it seems that Isaiah & Romans are more relevant. 'Being transformed not conformed' feels like the good news many people need to hear - it's time for the church to speak out about what really makes people happy & to stand out against consumerism - not just moaning about 'the state of the world' but offering an alternative.
I may well make reference to the Camping and caravanning club campaign 'Get Rich Quick'
here - especially as I am off in the tent the next day! Happy Times.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

If it is you (final version)

Slightly expanded and amended:

If it is you Matthew 14: 22-33

Last week’s gospel passage told the story of the feeding of the five thousand. This week’s passage begins with Jesus sending the disciples back across the lake while he dismisses that crowd of over 5000 and spends time alone in prayer. And then, in the depth of the night, as the disciples struggle against a head wind, the most amazing thing happens – Jesus walks across the lake towards them.
I am not surprised the disciples were terrified – wouldn’t you be?
The storm is wild, the night is dark, they just want to get to land. And through the dark and the storm comes a figure …walking on the sea. What??

Maybe they had already lamented the fact that Jesus wasn’t with them when the storm started – after all Jesus had already shown them on another occasion that he had the power to still the storm. But the last thing they expected was for Jesus to come and join them in the boat by walking on the water. This is not normal – maybe it is even an evil spirit or something – a sign that something awful is going to happen to them.

And then the figure speaks – it is Jesus, and he tells them not to be afraid. Hearts start to beat a little more normally, and maybe if Jesus is there he will sort the storm out for them, too.

And then Peter does a very strange thing. Peter calls out 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water'.
Peter says ‘if it is you… prove it? Is Peter genuinely unsure that it is Jesus? But then surely a more natural thing to say would have been 'if it is you speak again? or come closer?
Or maybe “if it is you.. save us! Come and still the storm; or come and help us get back to shore; or come into the boat with us”.
But Peter says “if it is you, command me to come to you”. Is Peter perhaps sure now that it is Jesus & is he trying to gain 'top disciple' standing by doing what Jesus does? Is Peter so carried away by seeing Jesus do this amazing thing that he wants to join in?

I can't help comparing this with John's account of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the beach. Remember? After the death & first resurrection appearances of Jesus, the disciples go fishing, and then spot a figure on the beach. John says “it is the Lord” & again it is Peter who is first out of the boat. He warps something round himself, because he’s naked in the boat, and swims to shore while the others bring the boat in.

Maybe Peter is just impetuous and can’t wait to be with his Lord – putting his friends, the other fishermen, and even the safety of the boat itself to one side in his eagerness to join Jesus.
“If it is you, command me to come to you”. You have to admire Peter’s loyalty and reckless abandon!
And at first it works: he, too, walks on the water. Then he notices, or maybe he remembers, the storm – the high wind, the huge waves – and he is afraid and starts to sink. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” and Jesus reaches out and catches him and together they get into the boat. Then the oart that perhaps we all remember. Jesus says to peter “Why did you doubt? Oh you of little faith”.

This might seem a bit unfair, Peter getting criticized for trying and failing to follow Jesus, when the pthers haven’t even tried. We might feel that we are firmly on Peter’s side. In fact we might feel we are always on Peter’s side. We all like Peter, don’t we? - because he is fallible, like us.

But why does Matthew tell us this strange story of Peter’s rash decision to get out of the boat?
In fact only Matthew’s gospel includes this part about Peter in this story, although Mark & John tell the story of Jesus walking on the water. One suggestion is that Matthew puts Peter in this story, as in other stories, to stand for every disciple of Jesus.

Peter is the rock on which Jesus builds the church. Peter is the faithful, foolish, fallible disciple.
Peter is each one of us.

If this is a stiry not just about Peter but about each one of us, what does this story tell us about our following of Jesus? Our faith, our doubt? Our need to call out "Lord, save me!"...
Maybe Peter calls out to Jesus becomes a question to each one of us ‘if it is you..’

If it is you in this story, how are you getting on with following Jesus. If it is you, are you prepared to get out of the security of the boat and risk the storm? If it is you, dare you trust Jesus to help you? If it is you, what do you do when you feel you are sinking? If it is you, what help do you need?If it is you, do you find it easy to believe – or easier to doubt yourself, your family, your friends. If it is you, do you doubt that you’re worth saving, or doubt that Jesus can help?

If it is you, here’s good news. The identity of the disciples in this story may be interchangeable – it could be Peter, it could be me, it could be you. But the identity of the one who can help us all is the same. It is Jesus who comes to us when the storm is at its height. It is Jesus who can give us the power to follow him onto the water’s surface. And it is Jesus who will catch us when we fail.

Let us pray: “Jesus, if it is you who comes to us, hold out your hand whenever we sink. Hold out your hand to touch and save. Hold out your hand and feed us here at your table. Amen.”