Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Advent Sunday - it's real love.

I'm deeply indebted to David Lose of "Working Preacher" for his comparison of Mark's passion account with Jesus' parable - I would hate anyone to think such a brilliant idea is my own!

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

I’m going to begin by showing the 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert, or if that isn’t possible, reminding people of it.

Once again this Christmas we hear the gospel according to john Lewis.
“Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of”.

Monty the penguin gets what he really wants for Christmas – real love.
But is Monty the penguin himself real? It depends how you look at him – in the eyes of the little boy who is his friend, of course he is real. And the love the boy has for him is real, and the new penguin for Christmas – she’s real too.
“It’s real love” croons the background music.  And if that isn’t the real meaning of Christmas, I don’t know what is.

But you won’t find real love at a John Lewis store near you, this Christmas.

So where should we look?

Let’s try Isaiah, shall we. The prophet say to God :
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Plenty of awe – but not a lot of love, it seems.
Isaiah in any case concludes
“you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

Isaiah is warning the people that their sin has caused God to hide – but that they can look forward to a time when God, the God of great and mighty deeds, will be revealed to them.

So maybe Mark’s gospel has something to say about God revealed in love in the face of Jesus Christ.

We heard Jesus speaking to his disciples just before his arrest, suffering and death. In the very next chapter Jesus will be seized in the garden of Gethsemane and taken to the High Priest.
Jesus warns his followers to keep awake and to be ready to discern the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.

Jesus first gives an apocalyptic vision of the end of time – the darkening of the sun & moon, stars falling from the sky..and the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory to gather the elect.
Scary stuff – not much sign of real love here – although we might gain a little comfort from thinking that at the end of time Jesus, who was with God the Father at the creation of all things,  will gather all things back to himself.
But I’m just guessing that isn’t the Christmas most of us have been dreaming of.

So let’s look at the second part of what Mark records Jesus saying
“About that hour or day no one knows…Keep alert, for you do not know when that time will come.”

Then Jesus tells a sort of parable
“it is like a man going on a journey…you do now know when he will return ‘in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn’.

No-one knows when Jesus will return, when God will be fully revealed, when real love will be really visible to this world.

But it may be that Mark gives us some clues about what we should be looking for.
It is possible that Mark believes that the advent of Jesus that has already been witnessed can give us some clues as to what we should be looking for in any subsequent coming of Christ.

Jesus says to look for the coming of the master in the evening, at midnight, or at cockcrow, or dawn.

Mark then divides his story of the passion of Jesus, in the very next part of his gospel account, into those very same time periods:
Firstly he tells of the Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening he came with the twelve…” (14:17).
Next come Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40) because it was the middle of the night.
Then Mark tells us about Jesus’ trial, ending with Peter’s denies Jesus for the third time just as the cock crowed ” (14:71-72a).
And finally  Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial “As soon as it was morning”(15:1).

Do you see the coming of God in this places? Do you see the coming of God’s love in Christ, giving himself up to death? Do you see how this Advent we should be looking for Jesus Christ in all the suffering and sacrifice and grim vulnerability of this world?
It’s real love.

This Advent, I pray we will all see the face of Christ and know the coming of Christ and the flow of the love of God, in the vulnerable and helpless and lowest of this world.
And I pray too that when we feel vulnerable and helpless and low we will know God’s love in Christ in each person who reaches out to us.

That’s the Christmas I’ve been dreaming of. 
And here it is - wrapped in bread and wine.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Reflection for Churches of Cornwall

Based on Philippians 2; 1-11: for the closing worship of the day to celebrate one year on from the signing of our ecumenical declaration of intent on November 16th, 2014.

We meet here, one year on from the signing of the declaration of Ecumenical Intent for Cornwall & it’s a good time to ask what has been, what is and what shall be.

It’s good, too, to look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which he writes about what has been, what is & what shall be:

Paul says of Christ  -
What has been : He had the nature of God, but emptied himself, gave up all he had, became like a human being.
What is : As a human being was humble, he walked way of obedience – even to death on a cross
What will be :  God raised him to the highest place & gave him the name over every other name.

Then (although it is first in the reading, I think it is as a consequence of their identity as followers of Christ) Paul says of the church in Philippi –
What has been:  Your life in Christ has made you strong, you have fellowship with the Spirit
What is: You should have the same thoughts, share the same love, be humble, look out for one another’s interests
What will be ; Then you will be like Christ.

So what about us today, as Christians of Cornwall ?
What has been: we could tell stories of separation, histories of division and difference
What is: we have shared some stories of where we are walking more closely together, seeking unity: in mission, strategy, theology, learning from each other.
What will be: as we grow together we will become more like Christ, more true to the name we are given of Christ’s body. As we go forward together we will grow more like Christ in our humility, love, service, in our seeking of the will of God the Father.

How will that happen? By following Christ more closely: praying more, being more open to the Spirit, and placing our concern for God\s kingdom above all our human organisations.

So may all that we have been, all that we are and all that we shall be glorify God,

Friday, 21 November 2014

Christ the King : the sheep & goats

 Matthew 25: 31-46

As my job as moderator involves driving from Taunton to cover the area from Falmouth to Swindon, I spend a lot of time in the car, listening to Radio Four. I was fascinated this week to hear a trailer for the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, to be given by Dr Atul Gawande on “The Future of Medicine”.

In the first lecture, “Why do Doctors Fail?”, Gawande explores the nature of imperfection in medicine. In particular, he examines how much of failure in medicine remains due to ignorance (lack of knowledge) and how much is due to ineptitude (failure to use existing knowledge). His suggestion is that more lives could be saved by doctors if they got on with applying what they already know about medicine, consolidating knowledge, if you like, rather than spending so much time and effort pushing back the boundaries of what we know – learning new stuff.

This got me thinking about our lives trying to follow Jesus, to live as good Christians. It’s not easy, is it ?– we often fall short or fail. How much is that failure to live well due to lack of knowledge and how much is due to failure to apply and live what we already know?
Should we spend more of our time trying to understand more about our Christian faith, or should be use our efforts to get on with living what we know?

It’s an intriguing question as we turn to today’s gospel reading.

Jesus’ story of the end of time is not really all that complicated is it ? – whenever you serve the lowest and the least, you serve me, says Jesus. On the other hand, whenever you fail to serve others, you fail to serve me.

It sounds a bit as though Jesus is telling us that to follow him and serve him we have to simply be nice – be as nice as we can, as thoughtful and kind and generous as we are able.

Here is a possible message for today, when in the lectionary we celebrate “Christ the King”. Jesus Christ is the one whom we should serve in all parts of our lives and all the people who we meet in our lives.
Serve others and you serve the King.

But I’m not sure this is an altogether encouraging message of good news, because we’re all still left with the difficulty of being nice – something that is admittedly more difficult for some of us than for others – but even the nicest of us can’t be nice all the time. And does Jesus really want to be seen rather like Santa Claus, keeping a list of the nice sheep and the naughty goats so we can be rewarded not with lots of presents but with eternal life – as long as we’ve been nice enough? Like children waiting for Christmas, does Jesus want us to live in a state of worry that we might be caught not being nice, and miss out on all the goodies?

I think I want to tell you this morning to stop worrying quite so much. The way Jesus tells the story, those who have been good and those who have not been so good are all equally surprised when they are told what has been going on.

The sheep, the good ones, those on the right, are told “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me something to drink”, and so on – and they are bewildered “when Lord did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink?”. They are just as bewildered as the people on the other side who are told “I was hungry and you did not feed me…” they too answer “when, Lord did we see you hungry and not feed you…”.
No-one, whether they served the ‘little ones’ or not, knew what they were doing – somehow Christ was entirely unrecognized.

So it seem to me that Jesus’ story tells us to relax a little – to be unselfconscious about serving others, unconcerned about the reward we might or might not get. Jesus tells his followers on many occasions to love God and love other people – we know it is right to be concerned for the needs of others – and maybe part of what we learn in this story is that Jesus wants us to get on with it.

Also, as Advent begins next week, the story tells us that Jesus is there to be served in others, but that he might go unrecognized. Maybe this Advent we can look more closely for those who need our help and look more closely for the face of Christ in the face of the needy.

If you are looking for someone to serve, I commend to you the URC’s partnership with Christian Aid this Christmas, helping mothers and babies in Kenya through health projects, immunization schemes, and so on. Every £1 we give for that work this Christmas will be matched by another £1 from the UK government. You can find details on the URC denominational website.

And since Christmas is coming, then we can be of good cheer as we remember that ours in not a God who demands our service from on high but a God who comes to be with us so that our world can be flooded with the grace and love we need to be more faithful servants of the world’s neediest.

If we look for Christ’s love this Christmastime, we will be given all the resources we need to be loving to others, so that Christ will be honoured.
May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The parable of the talents

Matthew 25: 14-30

I expect there are at least some people here who share my love of 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 of 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 of 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 to 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 about spending – but more about how we spend our lives, than how we spend our money.

In the previous chapter before this parable (the end of chapter 24), 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 which seem to come as a set, 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 asked of each of the three servants 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.

So what does this parable tells us about the things of God, and the way is which we should act, as people of God?
Jesus’ story tells us to use what we have been given, to take the gift and invest it wisely and so allow it to be fruitful.
Jesus’ question to each of us is – are you spending wisely what you have been given ? – whether that is gifts, money, or life itself.

Now it may be that in hearing the story you got completely sidetracked by the terrible denoument. The third servant was given less by the master – because, we are told at the start, the master gives to each of the three “according to his ability”. When the master returns and discovers that he has not invested wisely, he takes the returned talent away from him and gives it to the first, who had ten “for everyone who has will be given more, till he has enough and to spare; and everyone who has nothing will forfeit even what he has”.

I hope in a way you did find that hard to listen to.
Do we really think that the Kingdom of God is a place where the rich get richer and the poor and the foolish are punished?

But maybe Jesus wants us to feel that sick feeling in the pit of our stomach – a feeling of pity and concern for the underdog, and then to ask ourselves ‘what are we going to do with what we have been given?’.
What are you going to do with that  sense of sickness and outrage, and the need to see fairness? How are you going to vote? Which charities are you going to support? How will you spend your time and energy?

The kingdom of God is a place where there is justice and hope and love for the loveless.
So the people of God need to spend their lives trying to establish the values of the kingdom.

Hear Jesus’ words, puzzle over them and be prepared to live what you learn.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.