Saturday, 24 June 2017

God hears us? Hagar & Ishmael...

Genesis 21: 8-21
I wonder if you’re still watching or listening to the News? Sometimes it just seems as if there is so much bad news, one thing after another, I have great sympathy with people who say they are having a rest and not keeping up for a while – they just can’t bear any more.
And yet, we who say we believe in a loving God surely need to watch and listen and hope and pray – and ask ‘where is the love of God in all this?’.

In just the last two weeks we have had the attack on London Bridge, the Grenfell tower fire, the attack on Finsbury Park mosque, and continuing terrible news of the ongoing war in Syria, as well as violence in Pakistan.
That some of this violence happens in the name of God is especially appalling.

But I really believe our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today can help us.

I expect we are very familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac; but today we heard the story of another son of Abraham – his older son Ishmael, born to Sarah’s slave-girl, Hagar.

If we read back to chapter 16 of the book of Genesis, it was Sarah’s idea that because she hadn’t been able to give Abraham children, he should have children via her slave. Once Hagar was pregnant, Sarah felt she was looking down on her mistress, and (with Abraham’s agreement) she was harsh to Hagar, and Hagar ran away.

While Hagar was pregnant and in the wilderness an angel came & told her to return to Sarah with God’s blessing. Hagar was told to name her son Ishmael – which mean ‘God will hear’.
Hagar returns, the boy is born, and he is called ‘Ishmael’ – God will hear.

And so Ishmael – God will hear – could be the title of the story we heard today.
Once again Sarah is displeased – this time seeing the older of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael, playing with her son – the younger boy, Isaac. Again Sarah & Abraham don’t care about Hagar, and again she ends up in the wilderness – this time cast out, with the container of water having run dry. Our hearts go out to Hagar as she realizes her son is near to death – and she lays him in the shade and goes a distance away to sob, as she can’t bear to see him die.

But God will hear – hear not only her cries, but the story says ‘God heard the child crying’ and an angel of the Lord comes and shows Hagar where there is a well to revive them both.

Ishmael – God will hear.
God hears Hagar & Ishmael and cares for them, just as he will care for Sarah and Isaac.
God will hear the one who is cast out, who is a slave, who is not the favoured one.

Perhaps the news in our time would be different if people would recognise that God blesses all of the children of Abraham. God blesses Isaac, through whom the ‘chosen people’ of Israel would emerge, whom we would call Jewish; and God blesses Ishmael, through whom the people of the Arabian desert, many of whom will later become Muslim, will emerge. And as for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we too are children of Abraham, through the lineage of Jesus.

Our story tells us that God will hear – hear the Jew, hear the Muslim, hear the Christian. And nothing in this story suggests that God will not hear any other person besides – he is the God who will hear. He will hear the slightest whimper of a dying boy, and he will hear each sparrow fall to the ground, says Jesus.

Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian, who is a Presbyterian minister, has said of the story of Hagar and Ishmael:
“it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”

This is a story about the great mercy and compassion of the God who will hear, who will bless and who will walk with all people.
Ishmael’s story ends with “God was with the child as he grew up”, and in the very next part of this chapter of Genesis, it is said to Abraham “God is with you in all you do”.

This is close to scandalous – God will hear Ishmael, and will protect him against the evil, callous plans of Sarah & Abraham; God is with Ishmael. This makes some sense – a God who helps the helpless.

But then God is with Abraham, the perpetrator of evil, the callous father of this poor boy – God will hear him, too. What a shocking story this is – God does not take sides in this battle between Ishmael & Isaac, the sons of Abraham and the sons of Hagar and Sarah. There is not a difference between one race, who God will hear and protect, and the other race - those whom God will ignore.
Ishmael – God will hear – and he is listening to the cries of all humanity.

This is the news of a God of love which really could change our world, for here is not only justice for the oppressed, but mercy for the perpetrators.

On the 26th of May this year, terrorists attacked a bus of Coptic Christians in Cairo, and shot and killed 28 people. You might know that the Coptic church, originating in Egypt, is one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

Bishop Angaelos of the UK Coptic church, was asked if he had a statement to make about the so-called Islamic terrorists, and these were his words
“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but you ARE loved.”

It seems barely credible, but the promise of Ishmael is that God hears and loves those who show violence and hatred – even while he stands alongside the victim and the injured.

What would this message of love mean for the driver of the van at Finsbury Park mosque, for the people who should have ensured the safety of the residents of Grenfell towers, for people who plan knife attacks on innocent people going about their ordinary lives…?
Ishmael – God will hear.
God is with you.
You are loved.

And as for us – Ishmael – God will hear. God will hear us when we are confused, or despairing, and when then news all seems bad.
And God will use us to share his good news with the world, if we will let him – you are heard, you are blessed, you are loved.

In the name of God – all merciful, and ever-loving,


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Trinity 1 - church anniversary

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7,  Matthew 9:35-10:8
It is good to be here today, to help you to celebrate your 100th anniversary as a United Church.
As we were thinking about some of the events of 100 years ago in the all age talk, earlier, you may have been wondering how different the world of 100 years ago really was to our world today.
At a time of violence and uncertainty and upheaval – during the first World War – people had to make a decision to act in faith, with hope for the future, to bring good news to the people around them by forming this church.
I see from the website that your strapline today is “Knowing and showing the grace of God” – and in our world of continuing violence and uncertainty and upheaval you, too, need to act in faith and reach out in hope.

Abraham is something of a by-word for faith. Yet in the reading we heard, we arrive at a bit of a crunch point for Abraham.
He has travelled, at God’s bidding, from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran and then out into the desert, towards Canaan.  Throughout his travels God has spoken to him and promised to be with him wherever he goes, and to bless him with many children. Now here he is at the Oaks of Mamre and he sees three strange visitors.

He could, perhaps, have let them walk by and the story might end right there. He could have given them basic hospitality, as any desert-dweller would in the heat of the day: and that’s what he says he is offering – water to wash their feet, rest in the shade, a little bread … But in fact Abraham goes over the top – he orders Sarah to take three measures of flour and bake cakes – that’s enough for about 200 pitta sized ‘cakes’; he gets a servant to kill a calf, he serves the visitors himself and he stands by as they eat.

Abraham offers his whole attention, and in return he is offered news of a great blessing. Sarah will, at last, have a child. And she laughs in disbelief – but later laughs with joy and names her son ‘laughter’ – Isaac.

I wonder if this story makes you smile rather wryly – if God is so ready to bless Sarah, who was thought to be past the age for bearing children, why could God not bless us more here in Wells, with more people, better ideas, a new chapter of life?
Have we let God just slide past us somewhere and not opened our ‘tent’ to him, or have we not done enough to entertain the God-given presence in our midst?
If God is blessing us to know and show his grace, what will that mean for the people around us, especially for a fearful and hurting world? How can we offer good news to those around us?

The other reading we heard was Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God and then sending out the twelve apostles to do the same.
“Go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”.

Jesus doesn’t offer his disciples a comfortable life, a place to rest and call their own, he wanders this earth and tells them to do the same – so that all people may hear the gospel, the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus sends them out, and later when they return he teaches them using parables.

Remember Sarah’s three measures of flour, which she takes to make bread to welcome the angel of the Lord?

Jesus tells his disciples this parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who takes three measures of flour – and hides in it some yeast, which leavens the whole of the batch”.

The kingdom of heaven is like this, says Jesus – like yeast, working in secret to make the whole loaf good.

Here is my yeast - safe in its tub – lid securely on, nice and dry and usually kept safely in my cupboard. Keep the plastic cap secured tightly, say the instructions on the tin.
It also says on here ‘making you a better baker’ – but not if I keep it in the tin it isn’t. While it’s safe & contained it can’t do a thing, Jesus says – it needs to go out, to be mixed in, to be hidden and dispersed if it’s going to do its work.

As we celebrate today it might be tempting to pat ourselves on the back for surviving for 100 years as a united church, let alone for making a difference to the lives of people in Wells.
This place, this ‘tin’ has served you well and you are right to celebrate.

But this celebration is also about asking where Jesus is sending you. You need to be taking good news into a world which desperately needs it. I don’t know where you’ll end up doing that, for the sake of the kingdom, but I pray that wherever you are you will be yeast, lightening the world around you, making a difference for the kingdom, changing in God’s hands so that you will all be better witnesses of the God you have known here.

When Abraham was in Canaan, south of Haran, he kept meeting God, hearing God’s voice, recognizing God’s presence. He took stones and made altars to show that God was there, at Shechem, at Bethel, and at Mamre.
God was in every place he went: God was everywhere.

God is in this place: you have known it and felt it and celebrated it week by week over many years, and I pray you will continue to do so for many more years.

But do not doubt that God is waiting for you everywhere else in this wide world – and know that the love of God the Father, the Son & the Holy Spirit will be with you, today and always, here and everywhere, now and forever.

Go and share the good news of God’s love
Go and be good news for your community
In Jesus’ name.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

We’ve got a story to tell.
What do you think it is?
Take a few minutes to just share ideas with a few people around you. What is the story to tell? How could you share it with other people?

Every now and again in my Christian life I learn something that makes me think ‘why have I never thought of that before?’. A friend sent me her sermon, written for this Sunday, for Pentecost, to read. In it she had said that the disciples were “gathered all together to keep the feast of Pentecost – and that’s a feast that’s about celebrating the giving of the Law”.

That was my light-bulb moment. The story of Easter doesn’t start with “it was Easter” the story of Christmas doesn’t start with “it was Christmas” but the story of Pentecost starts with “it was Pentecost”.
Pentecost was already a thing – it was the Jewish festival that came 50 days after the Passover. If you’re sitting there thinking ‘well, yes, I knew that!’ – why has no-one ever told me before?

And yes, thanks to my other friend, Wikipedia, I know now that Pentecost was also known as Shavuot or the Feast of
Weeks, and since part of the purpose of the festival was to give thanks to God for the Law, the tradition was to spend the first evening of the festival in all-night study of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures ( our Old Testament). The other tradition is to read the whole of the book of Ruth.
You knew all this? Why did no-one tell me??

The disciples didn’t just happen to be together in that reading we heard from the second chapter of Acts – they had gathered to thank God for the Law, to read the Scriptures, to celebrate what God had given his people.
Then.. pow!

When they think they are in for a nice, orderly, sensible celebration of the God who has acted in history – God’s power shows up. The Holy Spirit turns their expectations upside done and inside out & makes Pentecost a celebration of what God is doing now – bringing the church into being, converting frightened, bewildered followers of Christ into living breathing, prophesying, witnesses of the God who is doing a new thing.

The disciples become the church and are given the power to communicate with people in their own language – to spread the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to all points of the compass – North to Mesopotamia, South to Egypt, East to Asia, West to Rome.
The story of the God who is born among us in Jesus to live with us and for us, to die at our hands to show us the depth of his love, to be raised from death to bring us everlasting hope – that story of God’s kingdom of hope and joy and redemption is for everyone, and the disciples are driven out by the power of the spirit to take the message to the streets of Jerusalem and right across the world.
The week before last I was worshipping in Mbare Uniting Presbyterian Church in Harare – I was lucky enough to be on a visit to Zimbabwe with the URC’s Commitment for Life project and Christian Aid. The worship was joyous.
Three choirs, each one marvelous; percussion instruments that just kept popping up in different places to get the rhythm just right; people dancing, swaying, clapping and cheering…and right at the front six of us from the UK doing our best to keep up.

The most amazing point of the service for me was the prayers just before the sermon. Everyone praying together – in their own time, according to their own needs and inspiration, in their own language, at their own volume – but mostly, if I’m honest LOUDLY.
I have once heard it attempted in this country – but when we are British we might mumble a bit for a few moments, so long as we think no-one is listening, and quite quickly the prayers subside so we can get on with the rest of the service.

The prayer in Mbare went on.. and on.. and on. And eventually the choir started singing, but the praying didn’t subside , so we went back to praying for another few minutes, until a second time the choir started singing and this time everyone joined in with the singing quietly, and the prayers subsided, leaving a deep sense of expectation that God was truly in this place, and we were ready to hear the sermon.
A mighty noise, the raising of many voices, a deep hush – it was awe-inspiring.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost must have been all that and more.

So what are we doing this morning? Are we just listening to the Bible story – the story from nearly 2000 years ago – and giving thanks to God for what he did then? Or are we prepared to risk the chance that God might show up, that the Holy Spirit might come here and now and turn our life and our church and our worship upside down and inside out?

I have a confession to make at this point. I like my worship – ordered. It’s all very well in Zimbabwe, it was a bit like a holiday, it was different and exciting and nice for a change. But I like to know where I’m going in a service – I like to know how long it’s likely to be, whether I have a chance to eat a sweet in the sermon, I like to know where to sit and when to stand and I like it best when I know the hymns. And the Holy Spirit at Pentecost says – tough!
God’s power cannot be confined to just one way of doing things, the good news certainly can’t be locked up in the church, there will always be new things happening in God’s kingdom.

Just as I learned something new about the meaning of Pentecost this week and thought ‘why did no-one ever tell me?’  there are people around us every day of our lives who find the concept of faith in Jesus a mystery. Why does no-one ever tell them?

The Holy Spirit shows us that we need to find many languages to speak.
Not just, literally, different tongues – but other ways of communicating about God’s love – through works of charity and mercy, through fighting for justice through praying for peace.
I could understand very little of what the congregation in Mbare were singing – but the smiles, the clapping,  the dancing for joy, told me everything I needed to know. In the poverty of Zimbabwe, where drought is becoming more common and the rains of Summer more violent, because of global warming, people knew God’s love and rejoiced in it. They danced down the aisle to put what offering they could afford in the basket at the front and then they danced out of the church to share their joy with everyone around.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came, Peter reminded people of the prophecy of Joel.
God promises to pour out his spirit on all flesh – men and women, young and old, slaves and free. There will be visions, and dreams and signs… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
How easy was it, earlier in the service when we talked about ‘having a story to tell’ and what it might be?. Did you notice that the young people found it easier to come up with answers? ‘Your sons and your daughters will prophecy’.

We see how the Spirit works in different ways, through different people, in different tongues. God comes in power to break down barriers, to send us out with Good news, to turn our churches inside out so that all people can hear the good news and be saved.

Are you ready? Me neither. Let’s go! And see where the Spirit takes us.