Saturday, 25 June 2016

‘Follow me’ - Proper 8

Luke 9: 51-62, Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

I daren’t ask whether you were left crying tears of delight or despondency when the result of the referendum was announced on Friday morning.
The result itself (52% in favour of leaving the EU in total, but with widely different results from area to area) shows that the citizens of the United Kingdom are anything but united on this point.

So what are we to think, as Christians, about the state of our country? What are we to do, as Christians, in response to these new circumstances? What do we believe about our role in any changes that happen in our country?

I just use the word ‘citizens’ and you might remember (or you might not!) that the word is used in the statement concerning the nature faith & order of the URC. It’s in the hymn book – at number 761, just before the national anthem.
We first have this statement:

‘We believe that Christ gives his church a government distinct from the government of the state. In the things that affect obedience to God the Church is not subordinate to the state, but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ, its only Ruler and Head.’
This claims our non-established history: church and state are separate, and we, the church, are accountable to God. The congregation are then invited to affirm this by saying
‘while we ourselves are servants in the world as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom’.

In Jesus, we believe, our identity is not primarily as a citizen of this or any other country, but as a servant in the world and as citizen of God’s eternal kingdom.

Whichever way you voted on Thursday and regardless of the result, you are now what you were last week – a citizen of God’s kingdom. What does this mean for how we live?

Firstly, how we handle division and difficulty and difference.
James and John are busy getting it wrong again. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and has sought hospitality in a Samaritan village. The village has refused to accept and welcome someone they see as a Jewish pilgrim to Jerusalem. We know that tensions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are nothing new – they are basic human nature – and the gospels tell us of the real conflict at the time between Jewish and Samaritan people – so this is no surprise.

Jesus has previously sent out the 12 disciples to proclaim God’s kingdom and warned them that they will not be received well everywhere. He has told them ‘As for those who will not receive you, when you leave their town shake the dust off your feet as a warning to them.’

But faced with this lack of hospitality to Jesus himself, James & John want to retaliate more strongly  ‘Lord, do you want to call down fire from heaven to consume them?’.

Jesus turns and rebukes them. However extreme the rudeness they endure, they are not to lash out against those who are different.
Whatever happens in this country and beyond in the years to come, it will never be right to attack or demonise those with whom we disagree.

But in case this sounds like sticking your head in the sand and not caring very much, I think there is a second thing that Jesus immediately goes on to say about commitment and passion.

To the person who says to Jesus ‘I will follow you wherever you go’, Jesus wants him to know what that means – Jesus has no home to go to, in fact we know he is headed to the cross.
Then Jesus says to two people ‘follow me’ and in effect they both respond ‘yes, but…’
First let me go and bury my father
First let me say goodbye to the people at home.
Following Jesus, being part of the kingdom, being fit to be called a citizen of God’s kingdom, is a total commitment. We are not called to be indifferent to our enemy, we are called to love them.
Jesus does not tell us not to be passionate about living our lives and recognising those who see things differently, but he tells his followers that they need to make their passion the things of the kingdom, the living of a life totally committed to God.

The third thing I think God’s word has to say to us in a post-Brexit world is that we are never alone in our work to build God’s kingdom of peace, love and joy for all.
Jesus is about to send out seventy two of his disciples to proclaim the coming of the kingdom. He repeats his earlier warning about not being accepted everywhere, but he also says ‘whoever listens to you listens to me’.
Citizens of the kingdom are not just people trying to make the world a better place, screwing up their courage, using al their energy, desperately trying to be better people.
When we commit ourselves to following Jesus, we will never be alone – we are walking with Jesus, following his way, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The letter to the Galatians speaks of freedom in the Spirit.
Paul understands human nature – he warns against ‘fighting one another, tooth and nail.. all you can expect is mutual destruction’. But he tells the church that the answer to fighting our human nature is to submit to and be led by the Spirit.
We know we are told to love one another, but we find it so hard to do, as human nature leads to conflict and sin.
‘But the fruit, or the harvest, of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self-control’ says Paul.

In a divided world, the Spirit unites us.
As we seek to commit ourselves to follow Jesus, the Spirit leads us.
Where our human nature lets us down, the Spirit transforms us.

So, citizens of God’s kingdom, be of good cheer, and continue to serve the world by following Jesus in the strength of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Still, small voice of calm (proper 7)

1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a ;  Luke 8: 26-39

I wonder how last week felt for each of you?

Perhaps you’ve recently had a holiday, or you managed a nice trip out somewhere last week, or someone gave you a nice surprise and you’re feeling happy, loved and relaxed.
But I’m guessing perhaps not.

My week was stressful, if I’m honest – the changeable weather, a busy diary, a few family worries, and then.. the news.

First there was the violence at what is supposed to be a football competition: such hatred of opposing sides, such readiness to turn to violence.

Then there was the attack on the gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando – which left 50 people dead after a night of atrocity. Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s and had gone to the club to dance.

Finally the completely shocking tragedy that was the murder of Jo Cox, a 41 year old MP who had just been meeting members of the public in her constituency.

Right now, this week, the world feels to me like a whirlwind of violence and awfulness and there is no peace anywhere. It’s almost too much: and I come here before my God in search of help. If you feel like that, too – turn with me to the Word of God.

Elijah is a man in fear of his life. He has angered Queen Jezebel, having triumphed over the prophets of Baal.
Elijah has had a pretty torrid time – facing up to King Ahab, predicting and then living through the drought, challenging and ultimately slaughtering the prophets of Baal. But now Jezebel has sent Elijah a message not just threatening, but promising, to have him killed: and Elijah flees for his life. Elijah decides that it would be best just to lay down and die, and give up on God’s call to prophecy.
But God hasn’t finished with Elijah yet – he still has work to do, and so sustained by food and drink from angels he goes to the mountain to meet with God.

In a passage which is impossible to forget, Elijah encounters amazing, terrifying and wonderful signs of great power: wind, earthquake and fire. It is almost as if all the anger and fury and terror in Elijah’s head explodes out into the world around him.
But then there is silence – the sheer silence – and then Elijah hears God speak to him.

God shows Elijah that whatever is going on around him, whatever assails Elijah, God’s quiet purposeful presence is also there. Elijah is not protected from the terrible events of his world – but he can know that God is with him in the midst of it.

Sometimes when our lives are at their busiest and scariest and noisiest, we need to find a place and a time to stop and listen and know that God is with us.
Is that enough to help? Maybe sometimes it is. But perhaps we need more then that, today.

The story of Jesus and the man who calls himself ‘legion’ is also a scary story on first reading, but it contains a word of hope for us. God is not only with us when the violence hits, Jesus shows that he can transform that violence, and bring the calm and order that belongs to the kingdom of God.

Jesus has crossed the sea of Galilee and is met by a wild-eyed, naked man – the others of his city have tried to tame him and even chain him up, but he has broken loose and now lives among the tombs, far away from ordinary life. Her is a person assailed not by the violence of the world around him, but by deep unrest within himself.

Jesus heals this man by sending the spirits which have tormented him into a nearby herd of pigs, which immediately rush into the lake and are drowned.
The change in this man’s life is so complete that he sees the torment that has been in his mind rush out of him to be destroyed forever.
The people of the city come out to see what has happened: and they find the man clothed and in his right mind.

Jesus has transformed this violent, unhappy tormented man into someone who can live at peace with himself and his neighbours.

When the world is too much for us, Jesus can heal us of our fear and torment and bring peace.
Maybe we all need to hold onto that when life is difficult.

But that fact that this is a communion service points us to a deeper truth again.
Yes, God is with us, if we stop and listen.
Yes, Jesus can heal us if we allow him to touch our lives.
But in this sharing of bread and wine we say something else, even more amazing.
Jesus asked his followers to break bread and share wine and remember the offering of his body and blood.
In Jesus, God went through the greatest torment, the worst violence, the deepest terror – and emerged resurrected, still living and loving.
He wants us to share in this communion meal to know how completely he shares in our lives; he wants us to know that he understands; he wants us to know that even death is not greater than his love for us.

Take and eat, take and drink, take these things deep into your body, and take these words deep into your soul, there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Come and eat and drink here.
Come and meet with God here.
Come and know Christ’s healing here.
And be at peace.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Do you see this woman?

Luke 7: 36-50

At the heart of our Gospel story, Jesus has a question for Simon the Pharisee,
“Do you see this woman?”.

How could Simon not see the woman!
Standing behind Jesus, weeping over his feet, and kissing them, wasting expensive perfume.  What Simon sees is a sinner, who should not even have been let into his law-abiding house, and who certainly shouldn’t be touching Jesus. Simon sees someone he thinks is utterly unlike himself, who he wants nothing to do with, who he would like to see leave his home & stop being a bother.

Yet Jesus asks “Do you see this woman?” and the shock is going to come for Simon as he sees this woman as Jesus sees her:
“You gave me no water for my feet – she bathed my feet with her tears
You gave me no kiss – she has not stopped kissing my feet
You did not anoint my head – she has anointed my feet.”

Jesus sees a forgiven sinner and, as he illustrates with his story of two people in debt, the one who has been forgiven much, loves much.
Perhaps Simon thought this woman could never be forgiven, but Jesus declares she is forgiven and tells her ‘go in peace’.

Do you see this woman?
Can you see her as Jesus sees her?
Not scarred by sin, but released by love, and deserving of just as much of Jesus attention as a respected, law-abiding Pharisee.
What would it take for us to see as Jesus sees?

I recently read a story of a little girl – just 9 years old – in Los Angeles who has a gift for ‘seeing’ the women around her, whom others don’t notice.
With the help of her grandma, Khloe makes bags for homeless women out of strong, brightly coloured material.
Then she packs the bags with shampoo, toothpaste & toothbrush, soap & so on, and goes out to give them to women who live on the street. She began doing this because she noticed people living rough and realised how difficult it must be to keep clean. She has noticed them, ‘seen’ them, and responded to their need by giving them a bag, a way to keep clean, their dignity.

Simon the Pharisee thinks he see this woman -  a woman of the city, a well-known sinner, who gate-crashes the meal in his house and begins making a spectacle of herself.
But Jesus shows Simon what he is failing to see – her love for Jesus, her gratitude for forgiveness, her grace.

Are there people whom we are failing to see? Or at least failing to see as Jesus sees them.

What about the person who has done you wrong? Do you see them as a person anymore, or as an annoyance, or worse? What about the person you dread coming to sit next to you on the bus? You know the one.. and how your heart sinks when you catch sight of them. Maybe even there is a member of your family whom you’re struggling to understand, tolerate, love – can you see them as Jesus sees them?

But in case you think this sermon is in danger of turning into a finger-wagging ‘go and be a nicer person’ sermon, I think there is someone else who Jesus would really like you to see as he sees… yourself.
Imagine looking in a mirror and hear Jesus say “Do you see this woman?” or “Do you see this man?”.

We all know our failings, our difficulties, our scars.
So does Jesus. But just as surely as he sees this woman others label as a sinner as a forgiven and precious child of God, that’s how he sees you and me.

This last week I had a conversation with a lovely woman, who has spent her life struggling to come to terms with the very negative message she always received from her parents.
Whenever she didn’t do what they wanted, or made a mistake in her young life, she was told she bad and wicked.
To that young woman, and to everyone of us here Jesus says: “I see you. I know you. I love you”.

“Do you see this woman?”.
Can you see yourself?
Can you see as Jesus sees?
If you can know yourself a precious, forgiven child of God, if you can accept the gift of grace from Jesus, then you may want to respond as the woman in our gospel story does – extravagantly, fully, joyfully, thankfully, even shockingly. You can sing the hymn and mean it
“I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved and free”.

If you look in the mirror and cannot yet see see that precious child of God, ask Jesus to show you, pray for the grace to accept God’s love for you. It isn’t a love born out of law-keeping and earned by good works, it is God’s free gift – and it changes lives.
I want to finish with a favourite poem of mine, written by Kaylin Haught, of Oklahoma:

God Says Yes To Me
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is

Yes Yes Yes                                  

Amen, amen, amen.