Thursday, 29 September 2016

Enough faith.

Luke 17: 5-10

This story of Jesus and the disciples is an odd one, isn’t it.
The story begins with the disciples approaching Jesus with a seemingly reasonable request:  “Lord! Increase our faith!” .
Jesus has been teachingthings like: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you. Forgive even when it’s not deserved. Give without expecting anything in return. Be ready to take up your cross.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the disciples ask for an upgrade. If we are going to be those kinds of disciples we’re going to need a boost to our faith.

But the way Jesus responds makes me think of the scene in the film “Oliver!” where the beautiful blond haired urchin takes his emptied bowl of gruel and asks “Please, sir, can I have some more?”. You will remember the roar of disapproval from Mr Bumble - the portly man in charge -  “MORE?!”.

Jesus’ response to the disciples feels a bit like that “More… faith?” and he tells them that if they had faith as small of a mustard seed, they could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and replant in the sea…and it would obey.
He then proceeds to ask them whether a servant would be so cavalier as to demand a meal with his master, or special praise for doing his basic household duties.
Now, this may strike us as a little odd because we know Jesus wasn’t in the habit of speaking unkindly about slaves or people of low status. In last week’s lectionary portion of this gospel, he tells how the miserably poor and sick Lazarus will be taken into the bosom of Abraham, and he had many parables to tell about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, where the lowest and the least are given special honour.

So what is Jesus trying to say to the disciples?

It might help us to think a little about the Hebrew word ‘Dayenu’ – it means ‘it would have been enough’.
I first encountered the word in a jolly little song which is often sung at the Jewish festival of the Passover. It’s what some people call these days ‘an ear-worm’: a catchy tune which is hard to get out of your head once you’ve got it there the chorus goes “Day-dayenu, day-dayenu, day-dayenu, dayenu dayenu”.

The verses list all the ways in which God has blessed the people of Israel, but it’s done in a particular pattern:

If He had rescued us from Egypt, only rescued us from Egypt
but not punished the Egyptians,
It would have been enough! (Dayenu)

If He had punished the Egyptians,
but not divided the Red Sea before us,
It would have been enough…

If He had divided the Red Sea before us,
but not supplied us in the desert for 40 years,
It would have been enough…

If He had supplied us in the desert for 40 years,
but not brought us to the land of promise,
It would have been enough…

If He had brought us to the land of promise,
but not made us a holy people,
It would have been enough…

I hope you’re getting the hang of it… it goes on for 15 verses, each time with the chorus Dayenu.
I have a Jewish friend who can’t stand the song!
The song is first found written as a song about 1000 years ago – but the concept of remembering all the ways in which God has rescued, blessed, and saved his people is the whole purpose of the Passover meal – and the statement ‘dayenu’ – ‘it would have been enough’ is thought to be a very ancient practice.
We know that Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover – and when they did they may well have said of God’s great acts, that any one of them ‘would have been enough’. Dayenu.
Is that what Jesus is saying to his disciples when they ask for more faith? “Enough” ,‘dayenu’ you already have enough faith – you don’t need more.

Then what is the purpose of Jesus’ description of the servant? The faithful servant doesn’t ask for more – doesn’t ask for rewards or upgrades – but gets on with the task of serving. That is what faith in Jesus is about – not having more and more proof of God’s blessing, not being filled, on demand, with a great sense of purpose, not being lifted into some holy state of certainty that Jesus IS God with us – but serving, following, trusting.

Great, flashy shows of faith are about as useful as uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea: real faith is falling into line behind Jesus and seeking to serve the kingdom of God of which he teaches.
Maybe the mistake the disciples make isn’t so much in asking for more faith, but in thinking they don’t already have enough, in thinking God’s grace is insufficient.  I think we can imagine Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as he warns the disciples that they already have enough faith.

But surely Jesus performed miracles himself? Why did he not hold himself in check and after a hard day of teaching mutter ‘dayenu’.. enough?
The miracles – the signs and wonders performed by Jesus and described in the gospels  - always had a point. They healed, liberated, fed, blessed, restored and comforted people. And so they pointed to the mission of Jesus and the purpose of the Kingdom he announced.

If we are to be disciples of Jesus who are full of faith – faithful – we need to follow Jesus as closely as we can. We don’t need to ask for evidence from God that we are on the side of the blessed, but we need to follow Jesus by answering his own call to us to …heal, liberate, feed, bless, restore and comfort people.
And all in service of Jesus and for the glory of God.  Amen.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lazarus and the rich man

1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19-31

Well, the message of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems clear enough – beware being “rich and haughty” (as the letter to Timothy puts it) or else you will burn in hell. After all “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.

But doesn’t the story worry you more than a little, the more you listen to it?
The rich man dresses finely and feasts sumptuously, the poor man, Lazarus – a name that means ‘God is my help’ – certainly has no-one else to help him – his is starving and covered in sores. But it seems the rich man never did much more than step over him.
They both die – and the tables are turned. The poor man “whom God helps” is taken to be with Abraham: the rich man is in torment. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus and calls out “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”.

There are at least two puzzles here: the rich man knows the name of the wretch he never helped in life ‘Lazarus’. He knew who he was – or at least he knew his name – but he never gave him even the scraps from his richly-laden table.
And even from the grave he can’t stop being the one with all the influence and power – he thinks he can cajole Abraham into using Lazarus as his servant – to cool his tongue.

Even now it seems the rich man hasn’t learned the lesson of how to treat Lazarus properly. So we might feel that he was asking for the refusal that he gets from Abraham – “there is a great chasm between us”.
This is grim stuff. Is Jesus really telling us that all our deepest fears about eternal judgement and heaven and hell are true? And is he trying to frighten us into behaving better in this life by telling us about the fiery torment that waits for us otherwise? None of that seems to square with the good news of salvation that Jesus spent so much of his life talking about – so perhaps we’d better keep thinking about the story.

Where does the chasm between poor Lazarus and the rich man come from? Surely it was the rich man himself who created it – in his earthly life each time he ignored Lazarus, each time he failed to wonder whether he should share some of his sumptuous feast, each time he refused to look down on the ground just by his gate. The divide between rich and poor was created and maintained by the rich man’s selfishness. So by the time they both die there is indeed a great gulf between them.

But did you notice what happens next? The rich man says (and he’s still trying to order Lazarus about..) “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them”. Abraham’s reply is “they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them”. To which the rich man says “but if someone goes to them from the dead they will repent” and Abraham’s final word ? “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. Even if someone rises from the dead.. like that could ever happen?!

I think Jesus’ parable – like all parables – leaves us thinking.
“Even if someone rises from the dead…”. But that’s exactly what is going to happen. To another Lazarus, according to John’s gospel, and of course to Jesus himself.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us nothing about the heaven and hell of our nightmares, and everything about the love of God which bridges the divisions we create in our world. Jesus came to heal the division between rich and poor, between Jew and Greek, between life and death. Jesus came to show us the kingdom of God, where divisions are broken down and there can be life in all its fullness for all people.

So what is the message of the parable? Certainly there is a warning – of the terrible effects of selfishness and greed: which creates exactly the sort of division that Jesus came to break down. If we want to be people of God’s kingdom we need to be generous, giving, ready to see the person in the street as a person, with value and identity, who is a precious child of God as we all are.
The parable also serves as a reminder – that God’s values turn the things of this world upside down – the rich become poor, the poor rich.
But in the end it is a parable of Good News – that we can be part of God’s upside down kingdom, that we can bring life and hope to those who lack it.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sept 18th - God's care; God's grace; our prayer.

Readings are Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7.

I am preaching at a church's 200th anniversary and instead of a single sermon I am dealing with each reading in a separate reflection.

Reflection 1
Well, happy 200th anniversary. This reading reminds us just why Jeremiah has a reputation for being gloomy.
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”.
But at least Jeremiah helps us to get real about the ups and downs of life. I wouldn’t mind betting that there have been at least some chapters in the life of this church when you have felt like sitting down and crying: when you have felt your joy is gone and your heart is sick. We would not be human if we didn’t sometimes feel that.
But Jeremiah is not just wanting to complain – he is reminding us that God feels these things too and that God hears the cry of his people.
Then Jeremiah demonstrates a real faith in God when he asks the question “is there no balm in Gilead?”. It’s a bit like us asking “is the Pope Catholic?” – it is meant to be rhetorical.
Things may be difficult, says Jeremiah, there’s no sense in ignoring the difficulties in life. But even when we feel we are in a hole, we still believe in a good God. When we feel awful – God knows it and feels our pain too. And there is balm – there is always balm – God will never stop loving us and will always stand by us as we suffer and struggle.
So we look back today and remember some of the good and bad chapters of the last 200 years – and we look forward to all that is to come. We recognise it will never be ALL good, and we hear Jeremiah ask “is there no balm in Gilead?” – is God going to be with us in the future? and will God heal and save and salve? And we answer - Yes!

Reflection 2
Of all the parables Jesus told, this might be the one we might wish he hadn’t bothered with!
It is what theologians call a real stinker.
It is an intriguing story though.
The manager is accused of being dishonest (is he guilty?) and is told he will be sacked. To save his skin he changes the debts of his master’s customers, so that they will owe him, the manager, and help him when he is sacked. But the owner is so impressed by the way the manager has called in the debts, he gives him his job back.
The problem is it can look like Jesus is approving of the manager’s dishonesty – and that can’t be right, can it.
But what if Jesus isn’t saying anything about good business practice and is saying something amazing about grace. What if this isn’t about money, but about forgiveness. Grace is the unexpected shock that means that even when we do the right thing (forgiving debts) for the wrong reason (self-interest) we still get rewarded and we ourselves get forgiven.
I think this parable is a clever story to get us thinking about a life that has nothing to do with just desserts – and everything to do with the shock of grace.
As we move in to the future, we don’t have to worry about calculating how best to get our life as a church sorted out – the manager who has a plan is side-swiped by grace. We should be honest, we should plan as best we can – but we should be ready for what God is going to do – way beyond our expectations. God may yet have a twist in the tale of the life of this church!

Reflection 3
So our first reading promises us that God will have balm for our souls when we need it, and our second reading promises the amazing, shocking, stunning grace of God to forgive us and make us new.
What do we do to access this balm and this grace?
Paul’s letter to Timothy says “make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone”.
In other words  - first pray, then pray, pray, pray and add a bit more prayer.
By praying we are listening for God’s leading, we are putting our concern for others in perspective by asking for God’s help, and we are remembering that all that we have comes from God and we should be thankful.
After 200 years of prayer in this place, really all I can say is – keep praying. Prayer will bring you peace, keep you right with God, and fill you with joy.
So on a foundation of healing, grace and prayer, may God’s church continue to bless this place. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Lost and found

I am preaching at an induction of a minister - adding a church to an existing pastorate. 

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Any new phase of ministry provides a good opportunity to take stock of who we are as Christians, who our Minister is, and what we expect of them, and what our churches are doing in their communities – and how that can changes with this new ministry.

So I’m delighted that in all that thinking the lectionary has provided us with a chance to hear again the story of the lost sheep. It’s a story we might have heard many times.

But I have a question you might not have wondered before: it’s one that comes to us from Godly Play – a way of helping children, particularly, to engage with Bible stories. It asks “where are you in the story?”.

Perhaps you see yourself as an observer or a listener – one of the crowd who were originally around Jesus. Maybe you have been wondering – even grumbling “What is Jesus doing with tax-collectors and sinners?” “Why are there so many dodgy types in this crowd of listeners?”.  “Maybe Jesus should be a bit more picky about who he mixes with?”.

Then how does the story sound, when it ends “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”.
You might want to grumble even more -
You might also be forced to re-think.

God’s love is for everyone, not just ‘decent types’…

Perhaps you see yourself as one of the flock of sheep. One of the good ones, the obedient ones – who stay where the grass is green and there is comfort in the flock, and you can see the shepherd out of the corner of your eye, and you know you are safe. What do you do when you see someone wandering off? Do you put your head down and decide not to get involved? Or do you let out a warning ‘baa’, trying to call the stray back, letting them know where you are, where they can be cared for?

What little experience I have of sheep suggests that they are rarely silent – there is usual quite a lot of calling to each other, the mothers checking out where their lambs are – even when the lambs look big enough to look after themselves. Sheep are not made to be solitary, they instinctively flock, and keep together, and care for each other. Maybe if we are the sheep in this story we should be a bit more watchful and caring of others, looking out beyond our church walls to ask where people need our help and support,a nd how we can provide a place of safety for them.

Or are you the good shepherd? Or do you see Janos (your minister) as the good shepherd? Caring for the sheep, seeking the wandering, gathering the straggler back into the flock, doing all the difficult work, while the rest of you just munch on in the luscious pasture. Well, I’m sure Janos doesn’t see himself in that way – and I hope you don’t either. Jesus is clear when he speaks in the John's Gospel “I am the Good Shepherd”. Ministers of the gospel are, at most, sheep dogs following the whistling call of the Shepherd. 

But of course most of us, hearing the story, will identify most readily with the lost sheep, the stray, wandering foolish one.
Just this week, at the Moderators’ meeting, one of my colleagues was telling me about reading a book by a Roman Catholic priest (he couldn’t remember the title or the author!) but he remembered one story the author told of asking a group of school children why they had chosen the part they had had in the story of the lost sheep, which they had just acted out. One was the narrator, because he loved telling stories, one was the shepherd, because she liked to feel strong. Lots of them were sheep because they really liked making ‘Baaing’ noises. One little girl. Laura, had been desperate to be the lost sheep. ‘Why?’ asked the priest.
“because I want to be found.”

That’s the great thing about being the lost sheep – we don’t stay lost – we are found. And when we are found, the Good Shepherd heaves us up onto his shoulder and rejoices, and the neighbours come round for a party, and heaven itself is filled with joy.
This is our identity in Christ – we are found and saved and rejoiced in.

In this new phase of ministry, I pray you will rejoice together when anyone lost is found, and rejoice in your own identity as treasured children of God and rejoice that you have a minister who is also a precious found sheep in the eyes of God.

The first letter of Timothy tells us how powerful it is to be found and saved and rejoiced in by God.
Paul writes about the mercy he has received in Christ which makes him a servant of God who is filled with overflowing grace. It is this grace of God which takes each one of us and forgives, changes and strengthens us for service.

As minister and churches together, may you be filled with grace and formed into a powerful witness to God’s love, so that others who are lost may be found

To God’s praise & glory.   Amen.