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.