Saturday, 29 September 2012

Harvest.. and a baptism

Joel 2: 21-27
Matthew 6: 25-33

It would be easy to be smug today, wouldn’t it?
The church looks beautiful, the weather’s picked up again, and of course Ellie is gorgeous – and the rest of us have scrubbed up Ok too.
Is there really anything more to say than ‘aren’t we lucky!’ and maybe ‘thank you God’.

But I think there is a bit more to say than that – as we’ve heard from our Bible readings  - one kept saying ‘be not afraid’ the other ‘do not worry’.  On the face of it they’re not very cheerful and ‘harvesty’ – nor are they particularly good news for a baptism.
But actually if we were to wish Ellie anything at this start of her journey of faith, then freedom from fear and freedom from worry would be a pretty good start.

We meet surrounded by flowers and fruit and we heartily give thanks for all the gifts with which God has blessed us. But we are reminded that people do worry about the harvest, that they are sometimes afraid that there won’t be enough, that there will be drought, or flood, or pests. This is a reality for many people in the world today, even if we have learnt to rely on our freezers, or tinned goods and our imports.

What if there isn’t enough? What if something terrible is waiting for us just round the corner? What if God somehow forgets us the next time he’s dishing out the favours? Do not worry. Don’t be afraid. God is with us.

The reading we heard from Joel were the words of a prophet at a time when God’s people were largely reliant on the food they could grow for themselves, and when their harvest had suffered terribly over a number of years from drought and then from locusts. But speaking on behalf of God, Joel says to the people ‘never again will my people be shamed’ – they should stop fearing the worst and realise that God is with them, whatever happens.
Jesus takes this even further ‘do not worry about what to eat or drink or wear, your heavenly father knows you need all these things. But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness’.
Once we remember that God is with us and cares for us and will make sure that we have the basics of life, we can turn our attention to what life is really about.

We are here – Ellie, all of us – to be part of God’s kingdom, to be people ruled by God. That means remembering that we are God’s children, fed and clothed and cared for by God; and it also means remembering to give thanks to God and finding time to ask what God wants of us. As loved children of God we are called to love others. So we shouldn’t just celebrate our harvest today, we should ask who around us hasn’t got enough and try to share with them. That’s why we’ve been collecting food for the Cambridge foodbank.

That’s part of what Jesus means by ‘seeking God’s kingdom’ and ‘seeking God’s righteousness’ – looking for the right way to live according to God’s rules, which are about being grateful for God’s blessings and loving enough to be a blessing to others.

So do not worry, do not be afraid. Do not forget that we are all God’s loved children – all as precious and special to God as Ellie is to her family.
And surrounded as we are by God’s gifts to us, let’s be truly thankful and ready to play a part in making our world God’s place, where all will be blessed as we are.
Today and every day. Amen.

Friday, 21 September 2012

What does it mean to be a disciple?

Mark 9: 30-37

As we’ve been plodding through Mark’s gospel in the last month or so this question has kept coming up one way or another: What does it mean to be a disciple?

Marks’ gospel is 16 chapters long, so more than once you might have heard me say in a sermon on chapters 8, 9 or 10 ‘we’re about half way through Mark’s gospel’. You might have heard me talk about tipping points, or see saws, or points of no return. Mark’s gospel spend the first half talking about what Jesus said & did & where he went, and then from chapter 11 it’s the entry into Jerusalem & down hill all the way. Chapters 8 & 9 & 10 have a special, in-betweeny feel about them, and some things just keep coming up.

Who is Jesus?
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Who are his disciples?
How do we walk God’s way, not our way?
And today’s passage covers a lot of this ground.

Jesus talks about his suffering and death
The disciples don’t understand
They argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest?
Jesus shows them a child.

This is not the first time Jesus has spoken about his death: in fact it’s the second. The first time, thanks to the lectionary, was just last week in our timescale – just back a chapter in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus asks the disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’
Then he talks about his suffering and death
The disciples don’t understand – Peter tells him not to talk like that
Jesus tells Peter to think about God’s way not the human way
Jesus tells the crowd to pick up their cross and follow.
I don’t think the similarities are just coincidence – Mark is trying to make a point, as he puts his gospel together.
Jesus is walking the road that leads to Jerusalem and death. But this is not the way of defeat – it is God’s way, and Jesus wants us to follow him in God’s way. This is very difficult to understand – so the disciples get cast in the role of the people who find it hard to understand, so that we can see how they arrive at an understanding of what it really means to follow Jesus.

Jesus keeps telling them what will happen (he will do it again – for the third time in ch 10 v 33) & they do not get it at first. But finally – just before the entry into Jerusalem – it’s third time lucky and they will start to see – just as blind Bartimaeus will be enabled to see. And when Bartimaeus sees, Mark tells us.  “he immediately followed Jesus on the way”.

Mark wants us to see. He wants us to understand where Jesus is heading – to suffering and death & finally resurrection. When we see, we will then need to follow in that way.

So what does it mean to be a disciple?
It means asking ‘where is Jesus going?’ concluding that he is walking God’s way, and deciding to walk with him, so that we dedicate ourselves to walking God’s way, too.

In the snippet we had of Marks’ gospel today, the disciples, still clueless about the whole suffering and death of Jesus, are arguing about who is greatest. There can be no better demonstration of the fact that they haven’t grasped what following Jesus is really all about. They still hope that this is the way to glory and power and privilege, and that they had better manoeuvre themselves into pole position for this coming kingdom of God.
Jesus wants them to know that, again, just like Peter last week, they are thinking on human lines, making human plans, wanting human power, not walking God’s way. God’s power is shown in weakness, God’s kingdom will come through self-offering, God’s way is the way of service. God’s greatness does not look the same as human greatness.

And to prove the point Jesus takes a child – a little child, because Jesus scoops the child up in his arms – and says ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me’.

In Matthew’s version of this teaching, Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom like a child – but here he talks about serving the kingdom in a child. There is no place in the kingdom for human status – the smallest child must be served, because in serving the littlest we serve Jesus, and in serving Jesus we serve God himself.
What does it mean to be a disciple? It means learning from Jesus how to walk God’s way & learning that walking God’s way means serving even the least person – even a small child – because in every child of God we serve God.

Over the next 5 weeks in the lectionary we will get more instalments of Jesus teaching to the disciples about what it means to be a disciple – as Jesus teaches them about serving others, living with others, keeping the law, being servants of all, and finally we’ll arrive at the healing of blind Bartimaeus, when we all get to see what’s going on!

But for today, we need to continue to ask ‘what does it mean to be Jesus’ disciple?’ It means accepting God’s way, not our way, for our lives. It means looking for those who might be least and littlest in our world, but whom we should serve because through them we serve God.
As we worship as three churches together today, three groups of people all trying to be disciples of Jesus, perhaps we should be asking ‘how can we serve each other?’ ‘ how can we walk together in God’s way?’ and ‘who are the little ones beyond our walls whom we are called to serve?’.

May the God who in Christ opened the eyes of Bartimaeus open our eyes to see God’s world in God’s way and to seek to follow Christ in serving the world.
In Christ’s name. Amen.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Who do you say that I am?

Mark 8: 28-37

Jesus has a question. It may not seem like it at first, but it is a vital question.
‘Who do you say that I am?’

Don’t you think it’s interesting that no-one gives the obvious answer – son  of Mary & maybe of Joseph (though the rumours are that Mary was already expecting before the wedding). Jesus the rabbi, the teacher. Jesus the miracle-worker. Jesus of Nazareth.

Clearly the disciples understand this is an important question – Jesus isn’t looking for the obvious answers – he wants to know what it is about him that makes people want to follow. It’s a question which asks ‘who do you think you’re following?’

Some say John the Baptist, other Elijah, or one of the prophets. This is not just a carpenter’s son  - this is someone one worth following, not just a teacher – a prophet – maybe the great prophet Elijah, maybe a more modern prophet like John the Baptist.

But who do you say that I am? asks Jesus.
Peter blurts out the right answer ‘you are the Messiah’.

Jesus is not just someone worth following, then – he is the one worth following – God’s chosen, the Christ.

You can’t just hang around with Jesus in an aimless sort of way – his idea is not to spend a few decades with his disciples doing a bit of good here and there.
If the disciples are truly following Jesus they need to be whole-hearted about it – they need to know that following Jesus is the most important thing in their lives. He is not just a good friend – he is God’s anointed and is they are following him they need to put their whole lives into it. He is the Messiah.

But for now this is a secret, and they are to tell no-one.
But Jesus lets them further into the secret – he is God’s chosen who will undergo great suffering and be rejected and will be killed, and after 3 days will rise again. Peter can’t stand any more – he tells Jesus to stop saying such things. And Jesus is clear ‘Get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’.
Human success may demand one course of action from God’s chosen, but Jesus is walking God’s path – and it is a path which leads to self-offering and death.
These whoe-hearted followers of his need to know that he is asking for them to walk with him on the most dangerous and life-changing road – which will lead through death to new life.

Then Jesus calls the crowd to him – once again Mark wants us to know that Jesus is about to say something everybody needs to hear. ‘If anyone wants to be my disciples let them take up their cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever wants to save their life will save it’.

Following Jesus is a whole-hearted business, but it is not only for his inner circle of friends, it is for anyone who dares to give themselves completely to it. The crowd may not yet know what is in store, but Jesus tells them that if they will give up control over their own lives and put their whole trust in walking with him, they will save their lives.

As the story of Jesus’ life unfolds, the crowd will see him take up his cross and suffer and die. At first sight this might look like defeat, perhaps even proof that Jesus was not worth following.
But after 3 days Jesus will be seen to be risen from death, given his life back in a hew and eternal way by God the Father – given back his life and more in reward for being prepared to lay down his life for others.

Eventually the crowd will learn – the whole world will learn, what Jesus has been trying to teach the disciples.
Jesus is the one worth following with all your heart, he is the one walking God’s path. But God’s path is not an easy one, it leads to suffering and death and laying down your life. Yet beyond that it leads to God’s promise of eternal life.

I started by saying Jesus has a vital question.
It’s a question not just for the disciples, not even just for the crowd that day in Caesarea Philippi. It is a question for every living soul ‘who do you say that I am?’.

And we’d better be careful how we answer. If we are prepared to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, the chosen of God, then we’d better also ask whether we are prepared to follow, prepared to lay down our lives for his sake and for the gospel, prepared to walk in the ways of Jesus with every thing we have – with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

These are questions we don’t just answer once in life, they are questions for every day, perhaps even every hour of every day. Are we followers of Jesus? And do we know he is the Lord? And are we prepared to make him lord of our lives?

As we ponder these questions I’m not goijg to ask you to sing a hymn, but to listen to the music and silently follow the words – I think this way the words can sink in more.
371 ‘Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee’ (remain seated)


Saturday, 1 September 2012

'Be doers of the word...'

A right strawy epistle!
Well that was what Martin Luther thought of James.
But  this week I'm going to go with the reading from it (James 1: 17-27) as my main text.

Some of you might groan at that – you may agree with Luther that James is just a list of suggestions of things that Christians should or should not do, that doesn’t add much to our understanding of what it means to be loved by God. Others of you might be quietly cheering inside: at last a sermon full of practical advice about how to follow Jesus, how to actually live our lives, tips for what to do and what not to do, uncluttered by too much questioning of who Jesus was.

I have bad news for you, whichever camp you fall into – I think James is determined to hold together both the theological understanding of Jesus and the practical outworking of discipleship.

Luther’s difficulty with James’ letter was that he felt that in James’ insistence on the importance of works rather than faith alone, he was in danger of supporting the idea that human beings can earn or deserve the love of God. For Luther the message of grace was vital – the love of God reaching out to all of humankind to embrace and to change us.

Even today’s verses from James’ letter are open to question. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’.
So is James saying that what we believe is unimportant and that we should pay more attention to what we do?
I don’t think so.

Today’s passage began with  'every generous act of giving,  every perfect gift is from above'.  The starting point for James is the gracious generosity of God, and not the activities of human beings at all.
 And did you notice that he isn’t just saying ‘everything we have comes from God – every gift is from God’ – James says ‘every act of giving is from God’. Even when we think we are acting on our own initiative, from our own generosity or because of our own goodness, we are actually acting as agents of God.

I love this idea that we live as creatures of grace. The more open we are to receiving God’s love, the more loving we can become. Love isn’t something we achieve be gritting out teeth and trying really hard – it is a free gift of God. I’m sure Luther thoroughly approved of that bit of the letter!

But – and you just knew there had to be a but, didn’t you -  James doesn't let us get away with sitting back and letting God do all the work. He makes it clear that we should 'be doers of the word, not simply hearers of it'. So James makes it clear ‘be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness’.
There is no place in James’ teaching for trying to get away with bad behaviour because God is going to love and forgive us anyway. We receive God’s grace.. and so we’d better behave like God’s people.
But just in case this starts to sound like pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps,  James tells his readers ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.

We’re back to relying on the grace and power of God to change us into the people God has created us to be. The life of a follower of Christ is not meant to be a horrendous effort to live in a way that won’t disappoint God – it is meant to be a grace-filled dance, made possible by God’s spirit within us.

Jesus seemed to have to spend a lot of his time trying to teach people this. We’ve heard one of those episodes from Mark’s gospel today.
The Pharisees – who far from being the pantomime villains we sometimes paint them as, were actually very concerned with trying to live good, God-filled, faithful lives – question Jesus. Why don’t your followers follow the ritual of washing their hands before they eat ?

Jesus calls the crowd to him – he has something important to say – and says ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile’. There’s actually an important bit left out of the lectionary reading, where immediately after Jesus says this he leaves the crowd and enters a house and the disciples ask him to explain the parable. Then and only then do we get the explanation ‘it is what comes out of a person that defiles, for it is from within that evil intentions come’. This is a parable – it is a saying of Jesus to be chewed over. 
So Jesus leaves the crowd pondering what constitutes right behaviour – keeping yourself free of contamination from outside, or watching out for what comes out of you. Is Jesus just talking about washing, or is he talking about the contrast between trying to be good, trying to act like we should, and getting our hearts right.

And what can make your heart right, what can make you full of love and not hate, full of generosity not selfishness, full of kindness, not wickedness?
If we go back to James, he would say ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’. Only God’s love can change hearts. Only the grace of God can so fill us with love that love spills out of us in all that we say and do.

‘Be doers of the word, not simply hearers of it'.
Allow yourself to bask in God’s love for you – come and receive his love shown in Christ in this bread and wine – and strengthened with the food of your pilgrimage become more fully the creature of grace and the child of love that God created you to be.

Through God’s power and to God’s glory. Amen.