Saturday, 27 September 2014

Harvest


Isaiah 5: 1-6
Matthew 6: 25-30

What are we doing when we celebrate harvest festival?

I have been following quite a few conversations on Facebook this week – some headed up by people who say “harvest festival is sentimental tosh and in any case most of the harvesting happens in August in the UK and not in September or October, so the church should stop wasting its time” and the other point of view being “harvest festival reminds us to be grateful for our food and teaches children that milk comes from cows, not Tesco’s”.

I wonder whether the fact that you’re here at this service means you love harvest festival – or are you just here because you have to be and are you secretly loathing every minute? Don’t panic, I’m not about to take a vote.

What I’m going to do is suggest (in that way that preachers usually do) that our celebration of harvest should be neither a sentimental occasion that doesn’t go far beyond “don’t the apples smell great” (though they do, of course!) nor a cynical “this has got nothing to do with our modern world”.
Harvest festival can be a chance for us to think carefully about our place in the world, our duty of stewardship, and the urgency of using the power we have over the created order, for good and not ill.

And I used the word ‘urgency’ there quite deliberately. There is a really urgent need for us all to get our heads around our place in creation, before it’s too late.

Back in August I had a great holiday, camping in Pembrokeshire. It might seem like a strange choice of activity of holiday for some, but I went to a public lecture on climate change,
given by Professor Tavi Murray of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – one of the few women who have been working on the science of glacier erosion in Greenland. From what she said, and from some reading and discussing I’ve been part of since, I have come to grasp three facts about climate change:
1. Climate change is real, weather patterns are changing faster than ever before and human beings are causing it.
2. The effects of climate change are not just fears for the future, they are realities now, especially for the poorest people in the world, who find it hardest to protect themselves from the effects of hurricane and flooding, and can’t just “move house”.
3. We  - human beings - can make a difference to the world and stop the damage of climate change, but we’re all going to have to work and fight for it.

But this view of the world is not just a scientific or political view – I think it is also a deeply theological view, a view that is about God and our relationship to a world that has been created by God. At harvest festival we have an ideal opportunity to think about our world, our place in the world, and the place of God in our world.

So let’s just look at our Bible readings.
The “song of the vineyard”, from Isaiah is a warning from the prophet about the human duty to take the world seriously. It was written at a time when God’s people were split into two kingdoms – of Israel and of Judah. Life was pretty hard in both places – and in fact the Northern kingdom of Israel would eventually be conquered in 722 BC and the Southern kingdom would be conquered by a different power in 586 BC – about 140 years later. Some people hearing the story of the vineyard thought that it was a warning that God would no longer take care of his people – disaster was coming and it would be an “act of God” – maybe even punishment from God.
The problem with this sort of message – if we apply it to how we feel about our world today – is that it can make us fatalistic – convinced that we are powerless and should just abandon ourselves to our fate.
But if you listen carefully you hear that what the people are being warned about is not the forces that surround them, which they are powerless to do anything about, but their own action – their own “fruit”. God says to his people “why did my vineyard yield wild grapes?” – and if you read on to verse 7 Isaiah explains that the Lord God was looking for justice from his people, the vine, but found only bloodshed and injustice.

In this world of ours, as in that world of Isaiah, God expects his people to act justly, to be a force for good in the world.
So Isaiah teaches us that we can’t blame God for climate change, but we need to accept our role as stewards of creation.

Jesus also teaches people who are feeling anxious and uncertain about life – after all he’s talking to a people whose land is occupied by the Romans.
“Do not be anxious – isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field…”.
I think for many years I simply thought that Jesus was giving us his version of the song “Don’t worry – be happy”. God looks after birds and flowers and so he’ll look after you too – it’s not your problem.

If that was the message of what Jesus was saying then we’d be off the hook on climate change. Don’t worry – it’ll be alright, God will take care of us and get us out of the mess we’ve got ourselves into.
But looking again at this passage, I think Jesus is saying something rather deeper than just ‘flowers and birds are OK and you will be too’. Jesus says ‘consider the lilies of the field’ – look at them, look at how the world works, think about the natural created order. Yes God made it and ordered it and cares for it, but he also placed everything into an ordered whole. In modern scientific terms we talk about an ecosystem – a web of life, things interconnected, relying on being in balance. And human beings are just a part of that ecosystem – like the lilies and the birds, we are created beings with wants and needs .. and in the case of human beings responsibilities.
God calls us stewards of creation – those who care for it, tend it, have power to change things for the good of all creation.

So this harvest festival, as we consider the gifts God has given us – gifts of fruit and grain and garden – let’s also remember our gift of stewardship.
Our climate is changing – this is not just an act of God – it is our responsibility, and Isaiah and Jesus both teach it is our responsibility to do something about it, too. We can reduce our carbon footprint, use less energy, be happy to consume less, and press others – and especially governments to act on climate change.

Give thanks to God for the beauty and order of the world – and pray for the strength to tend it and care for it, even as we are held and cared for by God’s love, seen in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Obedience – doing what God wants


Matthew 21: 23-32; Philippians 2: 1-13

Jesus teaches the parable of the two sons. Which son does what the father wants? Actually, neither. The father wants a son who says he will do the work, and then goes and does it.

But I don't think Jesus tells the story to make us believe that what God, our Heavenly Father, wants from us in instant unquestioning obedience.
The God of the Bible seems to go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to give his children, you & me, freedom of choice. He places his creation in a world of infinite variety, provides pointers for behaviour in the form of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets and then patiently waits for each person to turn to Him of their own free will. However long that takes – he is waiting for the wayward to return, not so that God can give him or her a flea in the ear, but so God can throw a party.

No wonder Jesus so often uses the term Father for God. Just as a human parent wants their child to grow to be an independent, thinking and caring person, so God the Father prizes human flourishing over human obedience.

So if Jesus' parable is not about snapping to attention to say " yes sir" and obeying the Father, what is it about?

We have reflected on the fact that neither son gets it right. Saying the right thing " yes sir " but not acting on those words is wrong. But it is also wrong to dismiss the request " I don't want to", to use words which show disrespect , even if later you relent and do the right thing.
Jesus is perhaps wanting us to speculate about the right response. To ask ourselves what the perfect child would be like – someone who managed both to say and to do what is right in the father’s eyes.
So Jesus could be pointing to the rightness of a way of life in which speech and action, feeling and thought, head and heart, even love of God and love of neighbor, are in harmony.

Jesus tells the story because there grumbles from the chief priests and the elders that Jesus is mixing with the wrong sort of people – “tax-collectors and prostitutes” and they are questioning Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom.

The chief priests and elders say they are people of God and are listening to God, but they do not follow Jesus.
The tax-collectors and prostitutes are following Jesus, although their lives do not yet show that they are putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.

Maybe both groups need to think more carefully about what it means to be people of God in word and in deed.

But Jesus is particularly scathing in the way he talks to the critical chief priests and elders. He says to them “tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you”. There seems to be no doubt that the so-called ‘religious leaders’ need to brush up on the integrity of the words and actions. They could start by thinking about what it means to love others, at the very least.

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi hits the nail on the head:
“Leave no room for selfish ambition and vanity, but humbly reckon others better than yourselves. Look to each other’s interest, not merely to your own.”
We do not need to be concerned so much as to who is reaching the kingdom of God first – we need to be asking how we can be part of ensuring that the way is clear for everyone to come to know God’s will, God’s way and God’s love.

Then Paul holds up for us the most perfect example there has ever been of obedience and integrity, in Jesus Christ.
“He humbled himself and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross”.

While the chief priests and elders are asking Jesus who has given him the authority to teach about the things of God – especially to sinners, they are missing entirely the example he is showing them of what a life lived in step with God actually looks like.

In Jesus we see love for God the Father and love of others – whoever they are – in perfect balance. We hear teaching of love and compassion for all, and we see that love and compassion healing all who need it, and ultimately healing the world itself by going through death to demonstrate the limitless nature of the love of God for each and every one of us.

Jesus is the perfect son – the one who both says what is right and does what is right.

But before we get too caught up in praise of Jesus and forget the challenge Jesus then gives us, let’s hear Paul again:
“So you to, my friends, must be obedient”.
Jesus does not show us what perfect obedience and integrity looks like so that we worship him, but so that we follow him.

But don’t despair if you find the Jesus standard of integrity a high one. Paul also reminds us that
“it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose”.

If we are to be more like the ideal child of the Father, which Jesus points to in the parable,
we need the help of the Holy Spirit to give us the desire to be obedient to the will of the Father
and we also need the Spirit to empower us to carry that desire through into our actions.

We need the Spirit to fill and transform us so that we are better disciples of Jesus, more like him, more holy, more one with God the Father.

We need the Spirit to help us to see what sort of child of God we are – do we say the right things but find them hard to carry out? Or do we do the right things because we know we should, but without whole-heartedly embracing them? Or do we just stumble and mess up from time to time?

God our Father waits patiently for us to return to him, to ask ‘what do you want me to do’ and to dedicate ourselves to loving God and our neighbour as we grown more like Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

May we grow in obedience, to the glory of the One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, 19 September 2014

“Are you envious because I am generous?”


Jonah 3:10-4:11, Matthew 20: 1-16

Reading both the parable of the workers in the vineyard and the end part of the story of Jonah together, I am struck by a question from the owner of the vineyard:
“Are you envious because I am generous?”. It is the question the vineyard owner asks the grumpy slaves – but it could so well be the question God asks Jonah when he is grumpy at the end of the story.

How grumpy are you feeling this morning? Whose side are you on when you hear these stories?
Are we on the side of Jonah “I knew you would spare the people of Nineveh and make me look like an idiot”, or on the side of the people and animals of Nineveh – who have listened to Jonah and changed their ways and ask for mercy.
What do you think?
Pride and ego, or Mercy and compassion?

Meanwhile in the parable, where do your sympathies lie?
Do you find yourself sympathising with the workers who were hired first? They work hard, all day – in the scorching heat. They have toiled and slogged and earned their daily wage. And then they find that the slackers who have only worked since 5 o clock in the evening get exactly the same wage. Like grumpy children, the workers grumble about the landowner’s decision ‘It’s not fair!’.
Or are you on the side of the landowner – who can pay what he chooses.
What do you think?
Rights and fairness, or Mercy and compassion?

However grumpy you’re feeling, you know you’re meant to be on the side of mercy and compassion: but it’s really hard. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Well, honestly, sometimes – yes.

When I was a school teacher, I once did an assembly on this parable – and as I entered the staffroom at break, nearly 2 hours’ later, my fellow teachers were nearly ready to lynch me because they had been so incensed by the unfairness of the story. It is not fair on those who worked harder – we can see that, feel it on our bones. The union reps in the staff wanted me to understand that we needed pay differentials in life, to help us all to feel valued for the work we did! The way the landowner acts in this story - it’s just not fair.
So yes, sometimes we are envious because the owner is generous.

But just for a moment let’s look at the story another way: from the point of view of the desperate workers who had no work. All day long they had been in the marketplace, waiting to be hired. Each time someone came looking for workers, they might have stood up a bit straighter, tried to look ‘hire – able’, strong, hard-working, reliable, tough. And each time they weren’t hired we can imagine how their shoulders might have slumped.
Early in the morning, the fittest looking ones are hired & go off to work, knowing they will be paid that day and have something to take home to their hungry families. At nine o’ clock, some other lucky ones had gone off – to at least do most of a day’s work. At noon and at 3 the same person had come back and hired a few more. But by five there were just the most desperate left. No point in going home early, no money in their pockets, no food to share with anyone. Another day with no work, no pay, no hope. Then the question comes  ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’
“because no-one hired us”,
‘then go into my vineyard and work til evening’.
After a couple of hours it’s pay time. No wage has been agreed – they line up not knowing what they might get – what fraction of the daily wage they might be given.

And they are given the whole day’s wage.
Unless we’ve done that kind of piece work we can only imagine how it feels to unexpectedly get the full day’s wage. But then those who have worked half a day – and even all day in the hot sun – get exactly the same agreed daily wage. Much grumbling ensues: and the landowner asks the grumblers ‘are you envious because I am generous?’.

Would you begrudge the desperate men their daily bread? Are you envious because I am generous?”

You see it’s all too easy to see this parable as one which is not fair to those who work all day. But what about those who wait all day? How hard is it to spend all day not knowing whether you will be chosen or not, and beginning to suspect that you might have missed your chance. And wondering what you will eat that night.

And we know that Jesus told this parable because he had people coming to him and wanting to know who was going to enter God’s kingdom, and how, and what reward his followers could expect.

We know that when we hear this parable we burn with the unfairness of life, in which those who work tirelessly for God and for others have to bear the sting that God loves a wretch who turns to God after a life of debauchery just as much as he loves each one of us. We work in the heat of the day, and get no more reward than those who don’t.

But have a heart for those who wait, for those who are desperately unsure of their reward, for those who only find out at the last moment that all will be well. Give thanks to God for God’s generosity, which extends grace to all and to each: do not be envious because God is generous, but be glad because you know your reward. And trust the grace of God to see that all will be well for all God’s children.

And if you still burn with the unfairness of the story – perhaps God can use that to inspire us to act in our world in the places where there is deep unfairness. Where workers are not paid a living wage; where big business reap all the rewards while keeping pay at the absolute minimum, where children cannot afford to continue schooling because the family needs their income, where people are devalued because the work they do is unglamorous.
Perhaps Jesus means us to burn with the desire for justice – and then act to make it a reality – in our world, where it really counts, and not just is the world of a made up story.

May God inspire us to act fairly in our lives and our world, so that all God’s children are valued.
In the name of Jesus our saviour and teacher.
Amen.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Living together in unity


A sermon for a unity service, based on Acts 20: 17-38

As we are here to celebrate an ecumenical partnership of the Methodist and United Reformed Church here in Tiverton, I hope we can agree on something, as we read this passage from Acts with its teaching from Paul.
Paul can be a bit annoying.
And in case I get mis-understood here, I mean St Paul.

“…serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews.  I did not shrink from doing anything helpful..”.
It’s all a bit much isn’t it.. Paul’s sense of suffering for the gospel and serving until he drops.
Or is it just me?

But putting our reactions to that aside, what does Paul teach about ecumenism – about different traditions of church deciding to travel side by side, for the good of the people around them?
Paul describes how hard the road can be, sometimes. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches about the fact that following Jesus can lead to persecution and suffering, even imprisonment and death.

From time to time I fill out one of these “lifestyle questionnaires” for some organisation or another – you know the sort of thing : Gender, age-range, level of education, and then the one I find most taxing – ‘leisure activities’.  Because often, tucked away there among ‘cinema and theatre’ and ‘sport – watching’ there is sometimes a category “religious activity”. And I never know whether to tick the box or not.
Can I really, in all conscience, tick a box that describes my discipleship of Jesus as a ‘leisure activity’?
I have given my life to try to seek God’s way and God’s will for me; I long to serve God in all I do and say can I really reduce this sense of purpose and direction of my life to a “leisure activity”? I’m sure Paul would not tick the box.
Following Jesus can be hard and can lead to difficulty, and Paul wants the Christians of Ephesus to be under no illusions.

And I think perhaps Paul would say the same about living together as Christians. It is not easy, it is not a “leisure activity” it not the simplest solution to a lack of resources or a tricky problem with a building, but it is the way to go if we are to follow Jesus and remember his prayer to the father “that they might be one”.

So ecumenism isn’t easy.

And Paul would also, I think, want to remind us that in ecumenism there is give and take. He reminds the Ephesians that Jesus said ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (though, by the way, we’re not sure when or where.. it is not recorded in the gospels).

But we know that giving and receiving are both blessed. Often in Ecumenical situations we look at what we can give, what we can bring to the table - what gifts our own tradition can add to the ecumenical treasure trove. That's important.

But although it may be more blessed to give then receive, that doesn’t mean it isn’t blessed to receive at all ! There is a term currently bandied around in ecumenical circles of ‘receptive ecumenism’ .
This concentrates on what we need to receive from others, and instead of looking at what we can bring (our strengths, perhaps), it invites us to look at the gifts and strengths of others, to notice what we can learn or receive from them. It is a humbling thing, because it calls us all to accept that we do not have the whole truth about Chris,t but we need the insights of others.

So ecumenism can be hard and it involves giving and receiving.
But however irritating we may sometimes find St Paul, we cannot fault the final part of his message to his fellow Christians:
“And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.”

Christian life – and that includes Christian unity – is above all the work of the grace of God.
Our efforts, our energies, our gifts, our ability to love, all pale to insignificance compared to the vast sea of gracious love that God has poured out on us in Jesus Christ.

If you need to be forgiving – remember you are forgiven
If you need to be loving – remember just how deeply you are loved
If you need to work together – remember that you are one in Christ Jesus.
Hard work, giving and receiving, the work of God’s grace – this is what God has called you all to here in Tavistock.

As we celebrate your common life here this evening, I pray that God’s grace and power will be poured out on you, so that you may be one, that the world might believe.

In the name of Jesus Christ our only Lord and saviour.
Amen.