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.