Saturday, 23 September 2017

Harvest - workers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16

The labourers have been hard at work: all around us there are cut fields, full barns, plentiful stores. And here in church we have the fruits of harvest – carrots, apples, bread. God has blessed us with plenty and we have come to sing our gratitude.

So it’s good that we have heard a gospel reading dealing with harvest and plenty. But where we might expect gratitude we hear grumbling instead.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”.

Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’ and we try really hard to nod our heads wisely as Jesus declares the largesse of the landowner, who pours out abundant grace on those who only worked one hour. We know in our heads that God loves us all with a love so outrageous and so generous that it cannot be described as ‘fair’.

This parable may be trying to convince our heads that this is a story about God’s grace and we should accept that, but don’t we find our hearts get left behind because they are still crying out “but it isn’t fair!”.

30 years ago, when I was a young teacher, I took a school assembly on this parable of the workers in the vineyard. I told the story, and concluded that God’s love is not meant to be fair – it is for us all, regardless of how hard we work, or how rich we are.
Assembly ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, the children and teachers trooped off the first two lessons of the day, and by coffee time I had nearly forgotten what I had said. Until I entered the staff room. Immediately I was cornered by some of my colleagues – how could I tell that story, how could I believe that, it is patently NOT FAIR. Next I’d be saying that newly-qualified teachers should earn the same as the head!
But of course I was a newly-qualified teacher – it seemed to me that rewarding the one who the least, who was quaking in their boots, who wondered whether they’d have enough money to get through the month, was not such a bad idea.
I told the story because I believed in the grace of God and God’s outrageous love, but I read it rather differently because I could identify with the low paid!

So can we try to help our hearts feel this story from the other point of view?
The ones who were not hired had to endure the constant failure to be picked – first thing and then at 9 and noon and three. Not until 5 o’clock, when there is only one more hour to work, are they hired… and even then they must wonder what they will receive. Will it be enough to feed their families that night?
Imagine, then the flood of relief to receive a full day’s pay – enough to live on, despite all the waiting and the worrying. And imagine how grateful you would feel, to be given enough.
Poorer people – like these relieved and grateful ones in the parable who only worked one hour – have much to teach us about gratitude.

In May I was lucky enough to go to Zimbabwe for just over a week, to see some of the projects which the URC support through our giving to Commitment for Life & Christian Aid.
The very first place we visited was a garden project, where a water pump has been installed to enable older people – many of them widows – to grow their own food. The gardeners came out to meet our bus with singing and dancing. Once they had sat us down in the shade of  tree, one of them, Florence Kona, said,
"Our lives have changed. My child is now a builder in Mutare. We have learnt about book keeping, recording monies, cleanliness and how to spend money wisely. This garden has given my family better food and money to buy things we need. We hope you continue giving.
We thank you, we have prayed for you without seeing - but now we see you face to face!".
The people we met wanted to express their gratitude for the help we give – not grumble that we are so rich we could afford to fly out 7,000 miles to see them.

We are here because our harvest is plentiful – but we are very conscious that it is not so in every part of the world. And even in countries of plenty, not everyone gets a share – ask those families who rely on food banks and community larders to get through the month without hunger. I’m sure in this harvest celebration we want to put on record our gratitude, not our grumbling.

Jesus often used parables to talk about the kingdom of God – the way we should live our lives. But I don’t think he simply meant us to hear this story and think ‘we should be grateful and not grumbling’.
It is good if this parable makes us want to cry out against injustice, because when we are truly grateful for what God has given us, we want fairness for all, because all are God’s children.

This parable speaks of the generosity and giving of God – of God’s grace  - which is boundless.
As we give thanks for what God has given us, we are challenged to recognize how blessed we are, but also, I hope stirred to seek justice so that all God’s children can be fed.

Those of us to whom so much has been given need to give thanks, and then spend our lives and our strength trying to be people who are as generous as God.

Our gratitude and our generosity should be boundless – as boundless as God’s giving to us – until the whole world rejoices in having plenty to eat, and the whole world knows of the boundless love God pours out on us all.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Proper 15 “Whose God?”

Matthew 15: 21-18, Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Sometimes I wonder whether to keep watching the news – it certainly doesn’t aid restful sleep, some nights.
The coverage of the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia have been particularly disturbing.

White supremacists, upset at the proposal to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, a general from the Confederate – pro-slavery – side of the American Civil War, marched through the streets with flaming torches chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”.
It is not surprising that anyone who was not a Southern, white, young or middle-aged man would have felt they were being warned to get of off the streets – they are ‘Our streets’ chant the mob, not your streets.

Meanwhile other groups want to protest that they are also their streets, that the USA is also their country, that history should record their stories too.

You will even find extremists  - in the US, in Islamic countries, in the state of Israel - who want to say that God is on their side, that they are the superior people, blessed by God and given the land they live in: they could just as easily chant “Whose God? Our God!”.

In a sense this is nothing new. In Jesus’ time the Israelites had gained the land by defeating the Canaanites, and then they in turn had been conquered and then occupied by the Roman state. But the Jews still looked down on the Canaanites, because they had many gods, whilst the Jews believed in One God. Whose God? Our God!

Yet we have heard today some of the words of Isaiah, where God specifically teaches his people that although he is their God, he is not only their God – he is the God of all lands and all people,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.”

Jesus has come to the Israelites, God’s own people, but he has come to bring in the rule of God and to declare the love of God for the whole world.

So we see a shift in Jesus’ mission through this conversation with the Cannanite woman – maybe we even see Jesus himself growing in his understanding of why he is walking this earth.

Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon – an area we would now call Lebanon.
When the woman asks for help for her daughter, Jesus first ignores her – which is how any decent Jewish man of Jesus’ time would treat a woman he didn’t know – especially a non-Jew, a Gentile.
When she persists and the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, Jesus says to her
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
It was common practice in Jesus’ time for Gentiles to be referred to by Jews as ‘dogs’. But I’m sure it causes a shock to our modern ears when Jesus does that, too. There really is no way of dressing this up – Jesus calls this woman a dog.

We might expect her to either slink away, rebuked for bothering the Jewish healer, or even to react in anger – having come for help, not abuse. But the woman’s reply is courteous and quick ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
Jesus replies, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly.

Whose Healer? Her healer.
Whose Good News? Her good news.
Whose God? Her God.
And what is true for this woman and her daughter is true for the whole world – even us.
There is no-one who Jesus did NOT came to save and heal.
There is no-one for whom he is not the door to eternal life. There is no-one beyond the scope of the love of God.

You might think there is nothing very new is this. We all know that God is the God of the whole world, we don’t believe he is only the God of the United Reformed Church and not also the God of the Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics and all the rest. We don’t believe that God is the God only of the Western part of the world – or that he speaks English but not Chinese.
If we were to chant anything we might chant
“Whose God? Everyone’s God!”.

And yet we sometimes treat others as if they were not part of God’s care, as if they were not beloved children of God.

Church leaders stood linking arms against the marchers in Charlottesville because every time a human being is treated as someone of lesser worth because of their colour or history or gender or sexuality, the Gospel is denied.

God’s love is for all people, all kinds, ages, colours, nationalities.
Everything we do as a church, everything we each do as individual Christians, should proclaim God’s love for all – for the lowest, the least, the poorest, the most desperate.
We need not shout it but we should say it, lovingly
“Whose God? Your God!
Whose church? Your church.
Whose sister, whose brother? My sister, my brother.”
For each person we meet is a child of God, and the Good news of God’s love is for them.

May God fill us with the grace to proclaim this truth and to know and share his love with all.
In Jesus’ name.


Monday, 14 August 2017

"If it is you.." - sermon for 13th August

 Matthew 14: 22-33, 1 Kings 19:9-18

As a united church – sharing in the traditions of both the Methodist church and the United Reformed Church  - you might be aware that things are not looking too good in either part of the church at the moment. Numbers are falling, churches are closing, ministers are getting harder to find… and we are wondering what the future holds.

It is easy to relate to Elijah, especially in the part of his story we heard today. Things are not looking too good for Elijah. The people of God have abandoned worship in favour of idols, many prophets have been killed, and Elijah is threatened too. “I alone am left” says Elijah, and he’s ready to give up. Then the earthquake, wind and fire pass by, followed by God’s presence in the stillness. And Elijah is told to go and anoint new kings, and Elisha as a new prophet – and God promises “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, who have not worshipped Baal”. Elijah feels alone, rejected, threatened, but in fact he is NOT alone. God has a plan, and there are 7,000 people where Elijah felt like he was the only one.
I often think of Elijah when I’m feeling down and sorry for myself “it’s all up to me” “ only I am bothering…”. I am not alone, God is faithful.
And when we are considering the future of the church, or our part of the church, we need to remember Elijah too. We are not alone. We are never abandoned. God is with us and God can act to make a new start.

And the gospel reading shows us what it means to have God with us in Jesus Christ. The story begins with Jesus sending the disciples back across the lake while he dismisses the crowd of over 5000  - the crowd he has just fed - and spends time alone in prayer. And then, in the depth of the night, as the disciples struggle against a head wind, the most amazing thing happens – Jesus walks across the lake towards them.
I am not surprised the disciples were terrified – wouldn’t you be?
The storm is wild, the night is dark, they just want to get to land. And through the dark and the storm comes a figure …walking on the sea. What??

Maybe they had already lamented the fact that Jesus wasn’t with them when the storm started – after all Jesus had already shown them on another occasion that he had the power to still the storm. But the last thing they expected was for Jesus to come and join them in the boat by walking on the water. This is not normal – maybe it is even an evil spirit or something – a sign that something awful is going to happen to them.

And then the figure speaks – it is Jesus, and he tells them not to be afraid. Hearts start to beat a little more normally, and maybe if Jesus is there he will sort the storm out for them, too.
And then Peter does a very strange thing. Peter calls out 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water'.
Peter says ‘if it is you… prove it? Is Peter genuinely unsure that it is Jesus? But then surely a more natural thing to say would have been 'if it is you speak again? or come closer?
Or maybe “if it is you.. save us! Come and still the storm; or come and help us get back to shore; or come into the boat with us”.
But Peter says “if it is you, command me to come to you”. Is Peter perhaps sure now that it is Jesus & is he trying to gain 'top disciple' standing by doing what Jesus does? Is Peter so carried away by seeing Jesus do this amazing thing that he wants to join in?

I can't help comparing this with John's account of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the beach. Remember?

After the death & first resurrection appearances of Jesus, the disciples go fishing, and then spot a figure on the beach. John says “it is the Lord” & again it is Peter who is first out of the boat. He wraps something round himself, because he’s naked in the boat, and swims to shore while the others bring the boat in.

Maybe Peter is just impetuous and can’t wait to be with his Lord – putting his friends, the other fishermen, and even the safety of the boat itself to one side in his eagerness to join Jesus.
“If it is you, command me to come to you”. You have to admire Peter’s loyalty and reckless abandon!
And at first it works: he, too, walks on the water. Then he notices, or maybe he remembers, the storm – the high wind, the huge waves – and he is afraid and starts to sink. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” and Jesus reaches out and catches him and together they get into the boat. Then the part that perhaps we all remember. Jesus says to Peter “Why did you doubt? Oh you of little faith”.

This might seem a bit unfair, Peter getting criticized for trying and failing to follow Jesus, when the others haven’t even tried. We might feel that we are firmly on Peter’s side. In fact we might feel we are always on Peter’s side. We all like Peter, don’t we? - because he is fallible, like us.

But why does Matthew tell us this strange story of Peter’s rash decision to get out of the boat?
In fact only Matthew’s gospel includes this part about Peter in this story, although Mark & John tell the story of Jesus walking on the water. One suggestion is that Matthew puts Peter in this story, as in other stories, to stand for every disciple of Jesus.

Peter is the rock on which Jesus builds the church. Peter is the faithful, foolish, fallible disciple.
Peter is not just like us – he is each one of us.
If this is a story not just about Peter but about each one of us, what does this story tell us about our following of Jesus? Our faith, our doubt? Our need to call out "Lord, save me!"...
Maybe what Peter calls out to Jesus becomes a question to each one of us ‘if it is you..’

If it is you in this story, how are you getting on with following Jesus. If it is you, are you prepared to get out of the security of the boat and risk the storm? If it is you, dare you trust Jesus to help you? If it is you, what do you do when you feel you are sinking? If it is you, what help do you need? If it is you, do you find it easy to believe – or easier to doubt yourself, your family, your friends. If it is you, do you doubt that you’re worth saving, or doubt that Jesus can help?

If it is you, here’s good news. The identity of the disciples in this story may be interchangeable – it could be Peter, it could be me, it could be you. But the identity of the one who can help us all is the same. It is Jesus who comes to us when the storm is at its height. It is Jesus who can give us the power to follow him onto the water’s surface. And it is Jesus who will catch us when we fail.

God is with us and we are not alone. And as a sign of that, we share this bread and wine, taking Jesus’ presence seriously, and celebrating his power.

Let us pray:
“Jesus, if it is you who comes to us, hold out your hand whenever we sink. Hold out your hand to touch and save. Hold out your hand and feed us here at your table. Amen.”