Friday, 29 July 2011

Blessings in the darkness

Readings: Genesis 32: 22-31
Matthew 14: 13-21

I know I’m showing my age – but one of the first films I remember seeing was Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”. I loved the little flying Fairy Godmothers with their gifts for the little princess – and I shuddered at the appearance of Maleficent – the Bad fairy Godmother who came with the curse – the bad news that the little girl would prick her finger on her 16th birthday and die – although in fact she only falls asleep.

I feel a bit like Maleficent today – here we are gathered on this happy occasion of Nia’s baptism, when we celebrate God’s blessing of her: but I want to remind you of some of the bad news around, some of the many hazards and difficulties. How are we meant to make sense of God’s blessing in a world where so much can go wrong?

The funerals have begun for the 76 people who died in Norway; our TV screens are full of pictures of people

starving in Eastern Africa; and nearer to home this village has been shocked by the death of a young woman, Heidi, who was only 38.

It’s tempting to say ‘well let’s just shut the doors and forget the world outside and concentrate on the good and Holy things happening here’. But our Bible readings – and maybe our experiences of life, tell us that God doesn’t just bless us in the happy times of our lives, in fact we might even be more aware of God’s help when times are hard.

We heard about Jacob wrestling at the ford at Jabbok. Jacob is a pretty colourful character: he’s the father of Joseph (with the technicolour dreamcoat) and has four wives – Rachel & Leah, who are sisters & their slavegirls ZIlpah & Bilhah – and that’s how he ends up with 12 sons, including Joseph.

Jacob has been out of the country: a few years before he tricked his brother, Esau into giving up his rights as first-born, when Esau returned home from hunting desperate for the stew Jacob had made.

Then when his father Isaac was old and blind he tricked him into blessing him and not Esau. And so Jacob had had to run off to live with his uncle, Laban, to avoid Esau’s revenge. Still frightened of Esau, Jacob has sent 220 goats & 220 sheep, 30 camels, 40 cows and 30 donkeys ahead as a gift for Esau, trying to fob off his brother with gifts, while he hides at the back. Then he decides to cross the ford back home.

That is when he meets and wrestles with ‘a man’ until daybreak. Some people have interpreted this story as being an encounter with an Angel, with a messenger of God. Jacob’s account is “I have seen God face to face” – he feels he has met God himself. And as he wrestles in the darkness and the fear, all alone, he knows he is blessed by God. It’s hard and it’s scary but God is there.

Now don’t panic, I’m not going to suggest that we build an obstacle course between here and the font, so that Nia gets a taste of what it feels like to struggle for God’s blessing. But I hope that when the struggles come in life (and they will, won’t they, because life is like that) she will know that God is with her however scary and hard it seems.

The people who came to listen to Jesus in that story of the feeding of the 5,000 learnt an important lesson about God’s love for them. They were hungry, and in the middle of nowhere and Jesus’ disciples were sure there wasn’t anywhere near enough food. But Jesus made sure everyone was OK: there was more than enough of God’s love to bless everyone that day – all 5,000 – no-one went home hungry.

When we think we can’t cope, when it’s scary, when it’s hard – when we’re desperate: God’s love is there.

So we should celebrate today – God’s blessing is here for Nia, and for each one of us, whatever life brings.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Mustard seeds & messy churches!

The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-33,44-52)

Listen, then, to the parable of the vicarage garden.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a vicar who had in her garden great quantities of ivy, cow parsley and ground elder. She watched as these plants grew until the whole garden was thick and green and almost impenetrable. And when there was a street party for the Royal Wedding the local children made dens and forged paths with sticks and declared the garden ‘brilliant’; and muntjac deer came and could eat without causing any real damage; and the wood pigeons came and waddled about feeding and grew so fat they could hardly leave the ground. And the vicar decided she’d better not try to become a member of the village gardening society.’

Those who cast a glance over my fence will realise this is not entirely fantasy. I have a dream that one day when I retire I will grow vegetables and pretty flowers and sit in the shade sipping something cool and
enjoying it all. But right now my garden is something else: something slightly wild and unkempt, but a place that some creatures find welcoming in a way that perhaps other gardens can’t be. I think the muntjac have learnt that they won’t get chased away : and the black and white cat from who-knows-where is so at home that when I venture out into my garden (usually to attend to the bins) the cat gives me a very old-fashioned look which says ‘who are you? get out of my garden!’.

Jesus offers us a whole string of short parables to try to explore different facets of what it means to talk about God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s place.
The nearest to my heart, given my attitude to gardening, is the parable of the mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like someone who takes a mustard seed and plants it in a field. This tiny seed grows to be a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.

This mustard seed Jesus talks about is not the ‘mustard and cress’ which we might know from our kitchen windowsills – it is a pernicious weed of first century Palestine. The kingdom of heaven is like an out of control weed, a great scourge, something farmers would love to get rid of. But it is not entirely useless. It can provide an unexpected home for the birds of the air – although if we’re honest, flocks of marauding birds are another sight that wouldn’t exactly gladden the eye of the farmer.

But the kingdom of heaven is broader than the farmers imagine – it is not meant to be kept neat and tidy, ordered and sensible – the kingdom is a place of delight and exploration and welcome to absolutely everyone.

Jesus tells his parables to get us thinking. How does God’s love work? Who is included in this ‘kingdom’ Jesus talks about? What does it mean to accept the love God offers?

We see in the parable of the mustard seed that even tiny outworkings of God’s love can produce big results – just as a tiny seed can grow to a large tree.
We know that a lot of the growth that happens, happens almost in secret – we cannot see the great root system that must support a large tree – but it must be there, hidden below the ground, to enable the tree to thrive.

But most surprisingly, Jesus tells us that even a thing some would think a weed can be used to offer a life and a home to other creatures.
We cannot keep the kingdom of God tidy and predictable – we cannot simply apply rules of cause and effect – we certainly can’t keep away those who need to be at home in the places where God’s love is growing.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which grows into a tree and welcomes all the birds of the air. So what should the church of Jesus Christ, as an outpost and expression of God’s kingdom, be like?

A bit ‘messier’ than we would like, perhaps. I don’t mean the building should be untidy – that serves no useful purpose! But I think Jesus challenges us to be less sure of our boundaries and our rules:
to be altogether more fuzzy about who’s part of God’s work and who isn’t. I know as churches we’re all very good at saying that everybody is welcome – but Jesus asks us if we really mean that. Do we welcome the messy weeds of this world, or the birds of the air that other might want to shoo away?

So here’s the advert: Peter Ball – our synod training officer – and I will be putting on a course for local churches in Cambridgeshire called “Everybody Welcome”. It starts in October, and there are flyers about it for everyone. The course will encourage us to think about how we make our welcome really for everybody: even the weed and the birds of this world.

And now I invite you to this table to eat & drink: not because you’ve earned it or you deserve it – but because God’s kingdom of love really is for everybody. Even you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

God's kingdom

Readings for this week include
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

with a real treasure-trove of parables of the kingdom: the yeast, the mustard seed, the pearl, treasure in a field, the net.
I think I will preach on just one: the mustard seed - which I referred to in last week's sermon with the 'other' churches. At one church this week we will have the Godly Play version of the Mustard seed - it is such a short, simple story and yet can provide such food for thought.
I would also like to encourage people to set aside dates in the their diaries for the Autumn for an 'Everybody Welcome' course, making a link with the birds of the air being welcomed in the branches of the strange weed that is the mustard bush.
Also i think I'd like to link the idea of the growth of the kingdom in the mystery of a seed with the Romans reading (Romans 8:26-39) and Paul's teaching about the way the Spirit helps us to be on-anxious about God's love and God's purpose.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Fit for purpose?

Matthew 13: 24-30
Romans 8: 12-25

Fit for purpose? – seeds and weeds

“Fit for purpose” seems to have become something of a buzz phrase. A few years ago I only ever heard people talking about articles you had bought being ‘fit for purpose’ or ‘not fit for purpose’ under the consumer goods act. But in just the last week, for example, there have been questions in the news as to whether bodies such as the International Whaling Commission, the banks’ risk management systems, and the press complaints commission are ‘fit for purpose’, and even whether individuals such as sports stars, journalists and politicians are ‘fit for purpose’. It seems that wherever there are doubts about human performance someone will want to say not just that mistakes have been made, but that somehow these people are not ‘fit for purpose’.
For weeks now we’ve been listening to chunks of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with Paul agonising over human fallibility. If we are created by a loving and powerful God, and if we know that God has shown us right and wrong, how come the world is so full of mistakes. What is it about humanity that makes us not ‘fit for purpose’?

Maybe there’s an answer in Jesus’ parable.
The kingdom of heaven is like field in which good seed is sown, but like last week’s parable, things don’t quite go to plan. An enemy comes and sows bad seed – and so weeds grow among the crop. The field can’t be weeded at this stage without disturbing the roots of the good crop, so the farmer waits until the harvest – then the good wheat and the useless weeds can be distinguished and separated.
At one level it may be that Jesus is simply saying ‘there is good and bad in this world, but separating the two has to wait – good and bad have to grow together for now, until the time is right’.
This provides some sort of answer as to why people do bad things in life and seem to get away with it, why God seems to tolerate our mistakes better than we do!

But I don’t think Jesus means us to take this parable in isolation. Matthew introduces this parable with ‘Jesus put before the crowd another parable’ – which come straight after the one we commonly call ‘the parable of the sower’, perhaps we want to call this ‘the parable of another sower’ – or most accurately ‘parable of the seeds, part 2’: because Jesus is about the tell the parable of the seeds part 3: the parable of the mustard seed – which grows to become a huge plant – a plant commonly considered by farmers in first century Palestine to be a weed.

So what is Jesus saying in these 3 parables?
Some seed grows well, some doesn’t: it depends where it lands. But the seed that lands in good soil can produce a good crop.

Some seed is good seed – and some is bad: you can’t always tell which is which until it comes time to harvest the crop.

Some seed that seems like bad seed – weed seed – has a use after all because when it grows it produces a home for the birds: an unexpected harvest from something that seemed useless.
The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus – is like these parables of seeds.

We human beings waste a lot of time trying to work out who is good and who is bad – who might be ‘in’ with God, and who might not be, who might, instead, be evil. Jesus warns us to look at the fruits of people’s lives – including our own lives. We know when good seed lands on good soil and produces a good result – we can see the crop that we harvest. Human lives, says Jesus, are like this: if there is a good result – if there is recognisable good fruit – good things happening in people’s lives and in the lives of those they serve – then God is at work – the kingdom of God is present.

Where God’s message of love falls on deaf ears, or produces no effect, where nothing good is growing, then we can conclude that God is not able to be at work in his kingdom here. But Jesus warns us to be patient: sometimes it takes time for the fruits of God’s love to show; sometimes the good stuff is almost hidden by the bad things happening around it; and sometimes what looks like something useless can turn out to be God’s work after all.

Don’t be too quick to judge someone as not ‘fit for purpose’. And that includes yourself. Be patient, says Jesus – just because there is good and bad seed growing in the field of your life doesn’t mean that God’s kingdom can’t be at work in you.

Of course we want to be fruitful and good – to show the Spirit at work in our lives producing love joy faith, patience kindness goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self-control. But no-one can be good all the time – and we shouldn’t waste our time and risk uprooting the good growth of the kingdom by trying to root out the bad in others or on ourselves.

So in answer to the question “what is it about humanity that makes us not ‘fit for purpose’?”, Jesus might say : forget ‘fit for purpose’, no-one is entirely fit for purpose.

But do remember, says Jesus, what the purpose of our lives is: our purpose is to be people in whose lives God’s work can grow – people who show God’s love to others.
Our purpose is love, and even though we know we cannot be always loving, we can still continue to be people in whose lives God’s love grows and changes our world.

May it be so. Amen.

Friday, 8 July 2011

July 10th

Ears to hear?

If you’ve heard the Gospel story before you probably know it as the parable of the sower. But a better title is probably the parable of the seed. The whole point of the story is what happens to the seed. It is scattered by the sower – broadcast, thrown all over the place. The sower is generous, almost wasteful, in the way that he scatters the seed. He doesn’t look at some areas and think “there’s no point in scattering there” – he risks throwing the seed everywhere.

This is a parable – so Jesus is telling us this story to show us what the kingdom of God is like – what God is like – and Jesus demonstrates how this liberal generosity works.

A great crowd of people are listening to Jesus. They are stood on the beach. listening to Jesus talk from a boat. Jesus’ words go everywhere – he doesn’t try to control who hears the message of God’s love – he wants everyone to hear. Jesus starts his story with ‘listen!’ and ends with ‘let anyone with ears listen!’. Anyone with ears – that doesn’t really leave anyone out, does it?
God’s message of love, like the seed, goes everywhere and everyone can hear it. Then what?

Different things happen in different places and at different times – not because the seed, or the message, is different, but because we, the listeners, are different at different times.

At the Parish Church this morning we had a baptism and I gave a short sermon on this parable.
I imagine some people there were not really listening. They might have been there to support the baby’s family, but they weren’t really expecting to hear anything very interesting in church this morning.
The path. The place where the seed has no real chance at all.

Other people there might have been listening, but they were not really ready to take things to heart. By the time the get to the party for little Corra they might say “that was a nice service” but have forgotten any detail of what happened of what was said.
Rocky ground. A place where things can’t go too deep.

Other people might have been miles away through the service. Worries about health, about money, about relatives – all sorts of things can crowd into your head when you sit quietly in church.
Weedy ground. A place where any message of love gets choked by other things.

But some people might have listened and perhaps have noticed for the first time that Jesus talks about God’s love for them. Maybe a seed has started to grow as they’ve realised that Jesus wants them to listen and to hear that God loves them and that their lives could be different and more loving, with God’s help.
Good soil. A place of growth and a place where love can grow.

Jesus says ‘Listen!’ – and some will, and some won’t.
And what about you?
We all have good days and bad days.
Hard days, stony days, thorny days.
Jesus invites you to open your ears and your heart to accept the seed of God’s love.
Let that message sink into you. Be good soil.
See how God’s love can grow in you and produce a wonderful harvest.
Receive the love God offers in Jesus – and be prepared to grow and be fruitful in his name. Amen.

Friday, 1 July 2011

July 3rd

Romans 7 15-25, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

How are you feeling today?
More specifically – how do you feel about yourself? How is your self-esteem?
According to an article I read this week, if you’re the Chief Executive Officer of a company your answer to that question is likely to be ‘I’m perfect’.
Every week for the past year and a half, the Financial Times has asked business leaders 20 questions including: "What are your three worst features?"
In the replies, the CEOs refuse to really admit to any weaknesses – reflecting instead on ‘disguised strengths’. They almost all cite impatience, perfectionism and being too demanding - all of which turn out to be things that it's rather good for a CEO to be.
This led the researcher to suggest that the three worst traits of chief executives are a lack of self-knowledge, a refusal to be honest and a quite extraordinary willingness to give themselves the benefit of the doubt.
(Article here if you want to read it)

But what about you? How do you feel about yourself?

Well, maybe you can relate to the reading we had from Romans, where Paul wrestles with human nature – specifically the question “if we know what is good and right, why can’t we always do it?” – why do we always make mistakes and then hide behind dishonesty and self-delusion?

To help us understand Paul’s debate, I’ve written the Romans reading for, essentially, 2 voices: if everyone could read the part marked ‘All’ and then one half of the church read the paragraphs mostly starting ‘For..’ – which are over to the left of the page, and the other half reads the passages starting ‘But..’ which I’ve indented slightly over to the right, we might understand Paul’s argument.

…Romans 7: 15-25 ‘antiphonally’ (see post below)

Poor Paul! This isn’t just a debate about ‘human nature’ in abstract – it’s a pouring out of how frustrated he feels about himself. ‘I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’.

Apart from, perhaps, any CEOs in the congregation, we all know this feeling: why do I lose my temper and snap at the people I love most? why do I volunteer to do something and then end up feeling put upon and disgruntled? why do I continually say to myself ‘I’ll go and do that in a minute’… I could go on, but I’m sure you have your own pet annoyance with yourself which leaves you thinking ‘I’ve done that again’.

Paul points out that the law, the commandments of God, tell us what is right and good… but we continually fail to keep it.
What is this ‘sin’ that makes us choose the wrong thing, when we know what is right? What is it about human nature that makes us incapable of doing the good we would choose to do? And how do we overcome our faults?
Paul ends up calling himself a ‘wretch’, in complete frustration.

But then Paul suddenly throws in ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ – whatever our mistakes and our own frustration with ourselves, God has an answer to help us – in Jesus.

So in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus say "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Jesus doesn’t just try to soothe his listeners’ angst by telling them that what they do doesn’t really matter, Jesus offers a solution. Walk with me: more than that, come & be yoked to me – linked firmly, like 2 animals pulling a plough together. And recognize that if you’re yoked to Jesus, he is always the stronger partner, so that Jesus can take the weight, bear the burden and bear the load. Jesus says ‘Let me help: let’s do this together’.

How are you feeling?
Exhausted? Fed up with yourself? Frustrated by your own inability to get it right? Jesus says ‘let me help’ in fact, more than that ‘you rest, I’ll take the load’. Here’s Good news indeed – not a spur to try harder and be better people, but proper help!

And how do we keep ourselves yoked to Jesus – how do we keep walking with him and allowing him to help?
Some of it happens here, in the fellowship of the church, as we try to be Christ to one another.
Some of it comes through exploring the Bible, as we deepen our knowledge of and relationship with the God who comes to us in Christ.
And some of it comes in prayer and worship as we hear the invitation: “come - eat , drink, rest & be made new.”

In Jesus’ name. Amen.