Remember, remember!

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(I Thess. 4, 13-18; Matt. 24, 1-13)

 

“Remember, remember the 5th of November….”, and the 1st, and the 2nd, and the 11th; and, if you went to one of the family of schools I attended, the 25th; and if you are Scottish, the 30th; and, if you are American, the fourth Thursday, whatever date that falls on! This time of year, in secular life and in church life, is all about remembering.

 

Angela Ashwin, in the introduction to this season of the Church’s year in her book ‘Woven into Prayer’ says:

“At this time of year, beginning with All Saints’ Day on 1 November, we remember that we are part of the communion of saints stretching across time and space. Our prayers, whether offered alone or together, are caught up with the great outpouring of praise and worship of the whole people of God. The commemorations of All Saints, The Departed (All Souls) and Remembrance Day are all part of this time. It has been rightly pointed out that this season is ‘a celebration both of the reality of God’s rule and of the final ingathering. The need for a strong Christian awareness of these truths, to counter the secular culture at this time of year, with Halloween and its ghosts and witches, has never been greater’.

The origins of Halloween, before it was taken over by commercialism, and the chance to sell costumes and sweets in vast quantities, seem to lie in anxieties about what happens to those whom we love and remember, but who are separated from us by death. Are they at peace? Does death change them from the people we knew into malevolent spirits, bent on wreaking harm on the living? Does it matter how they died? Does God still care for them?

 

Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica was written in response to similar concerns. The new Christians who worshipped there believed that Christ would soon return, and judge everyone, and that all the believers would be swept up with him into the glories of the Kingdom of God established on earth. But as time went on, and Christ had not yet returned, some of the church members died, and the new Christians began to get worried about their fate. Would they still be saved if they died before the return of Christ, or would they suffer some other fate?

 

Paul’s letter is meant to reassure them. He paints a picture, using metaphorical language taken from the Hebrew scriptures, of what the Second Coming will be like – trumpets, and angels, and Christ descending from the heavens, and taking the believers to be with God always – and reassures the people of the church that their friends will not be lost, but will share in that resurrection with them, whenever it comes.

 

That is why he urges them not to be as sad as those without any hope of resurrection. He is not telling them that they shouldn’t mourn those whom they have loved and lost; just they shouldn’t despair, but preserve, amid their sadness, the hope that there is still something glorious ahead, for both the living and the dead. He urges them to remember this, and to comfort one another by sharing the hope of things to come.

 

Similar doubts and questions concern many people nowadays, especially in a time of war, when many people are killed, often in dreadful circumstances, and sometimes there is not even a body to bury, and a place to go and remember them. Our task as Christians, Paul says, is to encourage people with the Gospel; that God’s mercy and love are infinite, and that living in the way Christ taught us and showed us, will bring us into union with him in this life, a union that cannot be destroyed, even by death.

 

The parable we heard from Matthew’s Gospel is also talking about the return of Christ. He is the bridegroom whose arrival we are waiting for, and the wedding feast is the celebration of the triumph of God’s purposes, and the inauguration of God’s kingdom over the whole earth. And we are the bridesmaids, waiting to light the way of Christ, the bridegroom, as he arrives.

 

The parable, like Paul’s epistle, teaches us about the way we should be living until that day comes. As we look at the world, where so many still think fighting, killing, maiming and destruction is a way, sometimes even the only way, to sort out differences between religions, ethnic groups and countries, it is easy to despair, and, like the bridesmaids, to fall asleep and stop trying to do anything to change things, or to provide a beacon of light amid the darkness.

 

That is normal and human, and I’ve no doubt we’ve all felt like giving up and shutting out the world from time to time. But the problem is that despair doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t solve problems, or bring justice, or abundant life.

 

But, sometimes, there is something that reassures us that there is hope, that the bridegroom is close, and we need to do something to prepare the way for him. Some of us, in spite of our moments of despair, will have reserves of faith, built up in the times of waiting, and so we can make our contributions to those preparations. But some of us, like the foolish bridesmaids, won’t have any reserves left, and will be left behind, and risk seeing the opportunities pass, and being barred from entry  to the wedding feast.

Our readings today are about Christian remembering, Christian living and Christian hope.

Christian remembering looks back, with thankfulness and love to those who have lived in ways that please God in the past. We learn from previous generations, both from their wisdom and sacrifice, but also from their mistakes and failures.

 

But Christian remembering is also to do with the present, with remembering that, as so many of the parables teach us, God works in small, surprising and often unseen ways. God’s reign doesn’t just arrive with the flourish of trumpets at the end of time; sometimes it comes with a still small voice, that we will miss if we are not listening for it. We need to remember that God in Christ is always coming to us, and be alert to the signs of God’s presence in the darkness of our world, and make our own contribution to (as the children’s hymn goes) lighting up the fire and letting the flame burn, opening doors to let Jesus return’.

 

We need to build up reserves of faith, hope and love, so that whenever we see God at work we can join in, engaging our communities and getting involved with people in their struggles: peacemaking, tackling poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and climate change in the name of Christ.

As Brian McLaren reminds us, Christianity is not, an “evacuation faith’, concerned with ensuring that a select few of us escape when the end of the world comes. It is not just a hope of bliss in eternity, which does nothing about the state of the world now. It is about following Christ in the commitment to build the Kingdom in the here and now, to heal what is wrong with the world now, to live and be Good News for everyone now.

Christian remembering also looks forward, to that state of things that the visionaries of the faith have spoken of, to the perfected world and society that we hope for, and to God’s final ingathering of all souls. Remembering and holding on to that vision  is how we build up the resources to work in hope and co-operate with what God in Christ is already doing. That is the way we can remain alert, and be ready when the Bridegroom comes. That is the way we are inspired to live out that vision and that hope now, and become agents of grace, healing and salvation to hurting, hopeless people now, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ. Amen.

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Love, Love, Love!

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(Leviticus 19, 1-2 & 15-18; Matthew 22, 34-40)

 

 

If you wanted a simple statement of the Christian faith, two verses from today’s Gospel reading would provide it: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

 

And this creed would be an acceptable summary of the essentials of the faith for many of the other great world faiths too – after all, Jesus took them from the Torah, the Jewish Law, and said the whole understanding of the Law, and the sayings of the prophets, depended on these laws; and the Muslim faith sprang from the same roots.

 

But how do we put this, the Great Commandment, into practice?

 

Love God?

 

When we say we love God, what image do we have of the being we are loving? Is it an angry old man with a beard, who is constantly spying on us, and judging us unworthy; punishing us with disease and natural disasters when we fail; forever oppressing minorities and women, supporting war, armies and big business, happy with the destruction of the planet; guarded by minions who won’t allow us access unless we can answer a whole host of doctrinal questions correctly?

 

I think that’s the very opposite of what God is. God is spirit, neither male nor female. God is the Ground of our Being, revealing Godself in the loving relationship of the Trinity. God is Creator, Father and Mother; God is Friend, Redemeer, Saviour, Brother and Sister; God is Sustainer, Comforter, Guide and Sanctifier. God is Love.

 

The way we love God is not so very different from the way we show love to another human being, particularly one with whom we have an intimate relationship, like a parent or a spouse. We spend time with them, getting to know them; so we move towards God in prayer and meditation, saying ‘I am here’ and we enjoy doing so. Loving God should be a pleasure, not a duty. We read what people believe God has revealed to them, especially through the scriptures, and particularly through Jesus. We make ourselves open to the Holy Spirit.

 

Sometimes that means communicating, speaking and listening. No relationship of love can grow if communication ceases. But sometimes it may mean just being silent together. Those who love each other don’t always have to use words to communicate.

 

If we love God, we will share God’s interests and work to make God’s dreams come true. We will say and mean “Your Kingdom come, your will be done”. We share God’s concerns and care about those things and people and causes that God cares about, bringing them before God in intercession.

 

We will show our appreciation of God, expressing gratitude for the good things that we have been blessed with in our lives. But we will also have the confidence to share our anxieties and our doubts, our needs and our fears, and even sometimes our anger.

We should not have to pretend in front of someone we love.

 

We will respect God, and honour the divine in our lives, saying and meaning ‘Hallowed be thy name”.

And we will say sorry! Do you remember the line in the film Love Story: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’? That’s nonsense in human relationships and it’s nonsense in our relationship with God. Love means always saying sorry when we need to, always seeking to rebuild the relationship when it’s been damaged, always being honest with one another.

 

If we practise loving God with every part of ourselves, heart, soul, mind, and strength, we will grow closer to God, until we are more and more filled with the fullness of God, and our love for God, our neighbours and ourselves will grow and deepen.

 

Love neighbour?

 

Then we will find it easier to love our neighbour. The rules we heard in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus are a guide to how we should show love for our neighbour, reflecting the Ten Commandments and the guidance of the prophets.

 

But this gives us only the basics, something like ‘primary school level loving your neighbour.’

 

To those for whom the rules in the Torah were first written, neighbours were restricted to fellow Israelites. Neighbours were ‘people like us’ and ‘people we like’. Jesus gave us a different definition. He taught that our neighbours were also people who were very different from us, those whom we’d been taught to dislike and fear, even our enemies. Neighbours are anyone and everyone: not just our own kind, but all of humankind.

 

As Paul taught us in Galatians), in Christ there are no differences which justify us treating each other differently. Differences are no longer a threat, but a gift, enabling us to work as a body or a team, with each person contributing their own skills and talents to the unity of the whole.

 

This means that, whereas once upon a time, it might have been necessary for us to cling to our own kind, and fight those who were different to survive, we now recognise that we need to find a way to live with those who are different from us in our crowded cities, crowded countries and crowded planet. Otherwise, we will not survive.

And the way to live together is to love our neighbours. The Scriptures don’t just leave that as an ideal; they translate it into practical action. The Ten Commandments and the law codes of the Torah give us a base from which to start. Jesus drew the Great Commandment from them: from the Shema in Deuteronomy, which commands love of God; and from the passage we heard in Leviticus, which teaches love of neighbour. But the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the Epistles take it further: serve one another, wash each other’s feet, carry one another’s burdens, be at peace with one another, do not judge one another, encourage and edify one another, offer hospitality to one another, do not grumble against one another, be humble towards one another, and so on and so on.

 

But rules can only take us so far in showing love towards our neighbour. The example of Jesus guides us to look beyond the rules, towards a deeper sympathy and empathy for those we are called to love in God’s name. That is the beginning of wisdom, and a love for God and neighbour that is no longer limited by rules and law codes, but which truly reflects the love of God for all humankind.

 

Love self?

 Then, there is a third part to the Great Commandment to love, which is often neglected. That is, we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

 

I am sure that makes many of us feel very uncomfortable. We have been trained that we cannot be good Christians unless we deny ourselves, reject our own pleasure, and that self-love is a sin. But there is a good sort of self-love, holy, healthy and Spirit-led, as well as a bad and unhealthy sort, a good enjoyment of God-given pleasure as well as an addictive and destructive enjoyment of it. And we won’t truly be able to love our neighbours, or God, unless we first learn to love ourselves.

 

God gave human beings senses to enjoy the world which was created by God, and meant to be enjoyed. But if we concentrate only on our own pleasure, and particularly if it takes over everything and begins to rule our lives, we are no longer experiencing it in a healthy way. Often people try to escape from themselves, and from their own misery and dissatisfaction with themselves, into excessive enjoyment of food, or drink, or possessions or sex, and that becomes destructive of themselves and of those around them.

 

Healthy self-love involves honesty about ourselves, our good points and bad, not self-deception. It involves self-control, not self-indulgence, self-giving, self-development and self-examination. It involves self-acceptance, and the rejection of bitterness, jealousy, and the projection of the bad parts of ourselves onto our neighbours through racism, sexism and religious prejudice.

 

The self-love taught by the Spirit means loving ourselves, warts and all, the way God loves us, so we can join ourselves to God in the one self-giving love that upholds us and all creation.

 

Loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves is, Jesus said, the key to understanding all the Law and the prophets. It is the lens through which we must read and interpret the Scriptures and the tradition, and through which use our reason and interpret our experience. Loving God comes first, and as we nurture that love through prayer and worship and wrestling with our faith, we will be enabled to love ourselves as God loves us, and love our neighbours as God loves them – with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

Love God, love neighbour, love self.

As the Beatles sang:

Love, love, love.

 

This sermon was inspired by chapters 42, 43 and 44 of  ‘We make the Road by Walking’ by Brian D. McLaren. and you will find many echoes of those chapters in it. In the children’s address which preceded this sermon we looked again at the Ten Commandments; and after the sermon, we said the Lord’s Prayer together slowly, thinking particularly about love for God, our neighbour, and ourselves.

 

 

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Invitation to the Wedding.

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(Philippians 4,1-9; Matthew 22,1-14)

 

There are few things more likely to cause a family row than organising a wedding. It should be a time when everyone is happy, but it’s amazing how hot under the collar people can get about where the wedding is held, whether you have button holes or orders of service, how much to spend on the reception, and, above all, who to invite. I am sure many of us can remember long discussions over wedding guest lists, especially the thorny question these days of whether children are to be allowed at the reception; and maybe, the irritation when the old friend of our parents, who they insisted had to be invited, doesn’t turn up, leaving a place that we could have easily filled with one of our own friends.

 

So perhaps we have a certain sympathy with the king in today’s parable – though not with his reaction.

 

As we hear from the details, a wedding feast in New Testament times was a major affair, involving the slaughter of animals fattened for the occasion, providing meat which wouldn’t keep in the hot climate. The celebrations and feasting probably went on for several days.

I went to a number of Jewish weddings when my husband was working, since several of his partners were Jewish. They didn’t go on for several days, but they were lavish affairs. I can remember one where we had a brief buffet after the wedding ceremony, then later in the afternoon sat down to a meal, which had eight or nine courses, and we left after the dancing and before the supper, which was served at about 10 pm. But even if I couldn’t cope with the amount of food on offer, they were very enjoyable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to refuse an invitation to attend one.

 

What then, do we make of the parable we’ve just heard?

 

In scripture, a great banquet always stands for the End Times, the consummation of history when God will intervene and the good will be rewarded (invited to the feast) and the wicked will be punished (by exclusion from the party). We find pictures of such feast in Isaiah, told to reassure the Jews who are being persecuted that they will be at the party; and by St John the Divine in his picture of the new Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21.

 

This parable appears in two of the gospels in slightly different forms. When Luke tells the parable of the Great Banquet he gives no reason for the feast. The great man sends out his servants with invitations, and the people they invite refuse, making various excuses: “I’ve got some new property to look at”, “I’ve got a new pair of oxen to train”, “I’ve just got married”. The great man is annoyed, but he doesn’t punish them: he simply sends out his servants into the town to invite others in, the poor the crippled, the blind and the lame. And when the places still aren’t full, he sends his servants out again, further afield into the countryside, to find still more strangers to enjoy his feast.

 

When Jesus told the story, it was probably intended as a warning to the leaders of the Jewish nation that, unless they returned to obedience to God, and listened to his servants, the prophets and Jesus himself, they would lose God’s favour, which would be transferred to those they despised, the outcasts in society. The original story told by Jesus probably ended with the invitation to other guests to come and enjoy the banquet of salvation.

 

Matthew added more details, again drawing on the traditions of scripture, and has even included another parable, about the wedding garment, to make the point more strongly, and to turn it into a warning for his own community.

 

First of all, he turns the feast into a wedding banquet. The Old Testament writers often used marriage to stand for the covenant between God and his people the Jews. So Matthew is telling us about a King (God) who prepares a feast for his son (Jesus) and sends his servants (the prophets) to invite his subjects (Israel) to attend. They don’t take his invitation seriously, as they should, and some of them even abuse and kill his servants (as Matthew tells us some of the prophets were treated). So, Matthew’s story tells us, God will turn his back on the Jews, and allow them to be killed and their city destroyed, as happened to Jerusalem when the Romans punished the nation for their revolt in AD 70. For Matthew, this part of the story was an allegory of the history of salvation, showing how God’s favour was lost by the Jewish nation and transferred to the Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus.

 

But Matthew was well aware that conversion and baptism was not the end of the story. His Christian community, just like ours, contained both good and bad; people who lived the Christian life to the full, who were ‘clothed with Christ’ as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians ( 3.27). They were the people who had put on their wedding garments.

 

But there were others who had accepted the invitation to join the community in full expectation that this would give them a guaranteed place at the salvation banquet; and yet these people were not living a Christlike life. Those, Matthew’s version warns, will be thrown out of the community of the saved, and at the final judgement there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth rather than joy and feasting for them.

 

The early Christian community had a very concrete experience of putting on their wedding garment when they were baptised. For the adult converts, the baptism ceremony involved going down naked into the baptismal pool, and coming out to be clothed in a new white robe as the symbol of their new life in Christ.

 

For many of us, the experience of baptism was many, many years ago, perhaps in our infancy, before we can really remember. We may have ‘put on our wedding garments’ again, figuratively, when we were confirmed; and we put them on again each time we renew our commitment in the renewal of baptism vows. But how many of us are really wearing the garments of faith all the time?

 

We may feel ourselves superior to those who reject God’s invitation, and never darken the doors of church; who excuse themselves because they’ve got a house to maintain, or a new car to try out, or because their family takes up too much of their time. But, as this  parable warns us churchgoing alone will not guarantee us a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, unless we clothe ourselves in Christ.

 

St Paul, writing to the Philippians tells us how: stand firm in your life in the Lord, work to spread the Gospel; be joyful in your work for Christ; be at peace with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and be gentle with everyone.

 

I want us to think a little more about just one of those things, the last one: be gentle with one another. It is easy to be gentle with those we know and love, our families and our friends. But, because of the media, we now make judgements about people we may never have met; and sometimes those judgements are not gentle, but harsh and condemnatory. One way in which this attitude is fed is through the newspapers we read and the news channels we view on TV or online.

 

These tend to see everything in black or white; they tend to portray people as either wholly good or wholly bad, instead of the mixture of good and bad we all know ourselves and others to be. Once the media have decided someone is bad, they seem not to accept any possibility of change, no chance of redemption. So we get people labelled as ‘monsters’, and often a witch-hunt stirred up by the media, which makes their lives impossible. When you read your newspapers, can I ask you to remember Paul’s words ‘be gentle with one another’ and if the paper you read, or the source you hear the news from is one that seems to go after people in this way, consider changing to another that doesn’t.

 

Paul tells us we must trust in God, give thanks for all the good things we enjoy, and pray constantly for ourselves and others. If you pray for people, you cannot hate them, or believe they are a monster. Above all, Paul  says to us, fill your minds with what is good and true and pure and honourable. If we do that, we may anticipate our invitation to God’s banquet with confidence.

 

 

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Serve and Obey

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Hebron’s Vineyards

Yr. A. Proper 21 ( Phil. 2, 1-13. Matt. 21, 23-32)

While I was flicking through the channels on the TV recently, I caught a bit of a repeat of a programme from years ago, called ‘Supernanny’. It showed a mother struggling to bath her child, and put him to bed, being guided by Jo Frost, aka ‘Supernanny’ in the techniques to make him obey her. It took 45 minutes to get the child undressed and he was merely washed all over with the flannel, because he pulled the plug out of the bath, and refused to get in it. When I stopped watching, he was ranting around his bedroom, while his mother was being instructed to sit quietly in the middle of the room, avoiding eye-contact, and to put him back into bed every time he got out until he fell asleep. The child was 3 years old, and had been having things his way for all his life, and his mother had no idea how to regain authority over him.

The programme caught my attention because earlier in the same day I had been talking to a teacher about how hard it was to teach Reception class children (4 year olds) these days, because they were so used to being indulged at home, that they refused to do anything that didn’t suit them. Both of our readings today are on that same  theme of obedience.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges his readers to live in harmony with one another, and advises that the way to do so is to imitate the humility and obedience shown by Jesus Christ.

This passage from Philippians is thought to have been originally an early Christian hymn to Christ; it is a sort of creed in verse. It contains an outline of the whole of Pauline Christian proclamation, talking of Christ’s preexistence, his incarnation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension to heaven, and the bestowing on him of the divine title of ‘Lord’. All this, the hymn states, has come as a consequence of Jesus’s total obedience to God. Although divine from the beginning, he lives a human life of total humility, the humility of a slave, and through this pioneers the way to the salvation of all.

In relating the celestial glorification of Jesus to his life of humility, Paul reminds the Philippians, (and us) that doctrine is not just about reciting statements; it is about how we live our lives. What we say is important – but what we do is even more important; and what Christians are called to do is to be obedient to God, as Christ was.

That is also the point which Jesus is making in the parable of the two sons. One son says he will help his father to work the family vineyard; but he doesn’t. The other son at first refuses to help; but then he thinks better of it, and goes and works with his father. The moral is obvious, and his hearers can give no other answer to Jesus’ question than to confirm that it is the son who did the work, rather than the one who said he would, who is the favoured one.

This parable appears only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, and it reflects a problem which Matthew struggles with throughout his Gospel (and which also concerned Paul): after Jesus’ death and the spread of the church into the Gentile world, what is the status of the people of the Old Covenant, the Jews, compared to those of the New Covenant, the Jewish and Gentile Christians?

The parable gives an answer, and it is one that would have been very clear to those from the Jewish religion who heard it. The image of the vineyard was often used to stand for the nation of Israel, for God’s Chosen People. It was the religious Jews who were supposed to do God’s work in this ‘vineyard’. But although in their prayers and their worship they promised to do so, when the time came they failed to turn their promises into action.

It is the outcasts from respectable Jewish society, the thieves and the prostitutes, people who at first glance appear to be disobeying God, who actually are the obedient children, the story says. When the grace of God is revealed to them through the words and actions of John the Baptist and Jesus, they repent – and so become the first to enjoy the Father’s favour. And what goes for the Jewish outcasts also goes for the Gentile converts: anyone who hears the word of God and obeys it will gain entry to the Kingdom.

Knowing what is right is no good on its own; doing right is what is important. As the hymn to Christ in Philippians emphasises, it is only through an attitude of complete humility that any human being can be completely obedient to God.

Of all the virtues, humility is one of the hardest for us to achieve. It is hard for us to practise as individuals and it is even harder for us as part of an organisation. Even the church has failed to live up to its founder’s example. It began as an organisation of equals, operating as the servant of others; but all too soon it was seduced by the ways of the world. It became hierarchical, with some people believing themselves more important than others. It became judgemental, believing that human beings could decide who was acceptable, and who was unacceptable in God’s Kingdom. Its emphasis became distorted; instead of obedience to God, obedience to human rules became the important thing. Like the Scribes and the Pharisees, the Church knew what was right, and said all the right things, but often failed to follow Jesus’ example in what it did.

stfrancisBut throughout the history of the church there have been individuals – some of the great servant saints, like Francis, who have been able to practise humility and obedience, and so serve others as Jesus did; and there have been organisations within the Church, who often inspired periods of reformation by reminding others of how Christians are supposed to operate in the world. Humility is hard for us humans to achieve; but we can do so if we allow ourselves to be filled with the Spirit,the same Spirit that inspired Jesus.

Our readings today offer us an opportunity to reflect again how often and how far we fall short of ‘the mind that was in Christ Jesus’. Humility is not a virtue that is easy to practise in the ‘me’ generation, when we are encouraged to do our own thing, regardless of how it will affect others. Obedience is also not a fashionable virtue today. Of course, there are risks in promising complete obedience to any human person or institution. If the person or institution is evil, that is a route that leads to dictatorship and genocide, as so much of the current news reminds us. But that is not the case in our Christian faith, which teaches obedience to a person who was free of evil, and whose teaching was inspired by a God of goodness and love.

The parable of the two sons invites us to examine the ‘yeses’ and ‘noes’ we say through our lives. We all said ‘yes’ to our Father when we made our commitment in baptism or confirmation. Did we say yes so long ago that we can no longer remember it? Has our initial commitment dulled with time? Has our ‘yes’ mutated into no? Or perhaps, has an initial no changed? In our youthful idealism, we may have rejected the hypocrisy of the Church and vowed to stay independent of the institution? Have we gradually found our way back to God, perhaps through other channels? Can our experience help the Church to find ways to bring other people back to the point where they can say ‘yes’ to God?

One of the most significant (and sacred) activities we humans engage in is decision-making. We constantly shape and reshape our commitments, and so in the Spirit renew the face of the earth. Jesus understood how human responses can change over time and how humans themselves vacillate. Although the parable never tells the father’s answer to his sons, we sense that God as Father looks not at our original responses, but at our actions over time. Just as Jesus could redeem someone from a lifetime of prostitution or dishonest dealings in money, so God refuses to be hung up on our histories.

If, as some scholars believe, this parable formed the nucleus for the story of the prodigal son, we see there how the father rewards both sons–extending great honour to one who has squandered the fortune, and going out of his way to reassure one who seemed to be obeying his father, but whines about another’s blessing. The root word of parable contains the word for “throw”. Like all parables, this story throws a question at us, as it asks how we react to the yes people and no people we meet every day. Do we respond only to the smooth-talkers, and turn from the crotchety or surly types? Do we surround ourselves with only those who make pleasant small talk, or do we rise to the challenge of the awkward squad? Have we ever taken the time to discover the hidden riches of a quiet person? Next time we attend a party or a social event, perhaps we should apply to those we meet the test of Matthew 21.

So, this morning gives us an opportunity to consider some questions: When have I said a “no” to God or another person that actually became a “yes”? When have I said a “yes” to God or another person that has eventually turned into “no”? Who do I obey? How far am I committed to the humility that was central to the mind of Christ Jesus?

The motto of the secondary school I attended was ‘Serve and Obey’. Not a very popular sentiment during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when I was there, and even less popular nowadays. But one which I think, summarises very well the parable and the passage from Philippians we have heard today.

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Covenant Relationships

golden-anniversary-france

 

(Romans 13, 8-14; Matthew 18, 15-20)

 

I always read the accounts in the local paper of couples celebrating their Golden or Diamond (or sometimes these days, their Platinum) wedding anniversaries. I’m interested in their recipes for a long marriage. But if they say, as they sometimes do, “We’ve never had a cross word,” I have to admit to a moment of disbelief. I simply can’t conceive of a relationship between two fallible human beings in which there has never been any disagreement or conflict. Or, if it is true, then I wonder whether one of the partners has sacrificed his or her own personality and needs in order to conform to what the other demands.

 

Marriage is a covenant, and our readings today are about covenants, and in particular, relationships within the covenant community of religious belief. The New Testament reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans reflects on how the Old Covenant, based on the law given to Moses, is still applicable to the community of the New Covenant; and the Gospel reading is about relationships within that new covenant community, the Church.

covenant

In this passage from Matthew 18, it is not the historical Jesus talking. It refers to an organised church or congregation, a thing which existed only long after Pentecost. It is the absence of Jesus which brings the need for procedures to settle disputes between members of the church. The advice, arrived at after prayer and thought, is then given the authority of Jesus by being placed in the context of his teaching about relationships in the kingdom, including two parables.

 

We know from Acts and the Epistles that the early church, even in the apostolic age, was riven with conflict, just as today’s church is. That’s a normal part of any human relationships. Conflict is not bad or a sign of failure. David Ewart says: “Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflicts kills churches”.

 

What is important is that we deal with conflict with Kingdom values guiding our actions. That means loving others as you love yourself. It means never giving up on anyone. It means wanting the best for others, even if you don’t particularly like them, or if what they want and need may make life more difficult for you. It means having a special care for the weak and the outsider. It means being honest with one another, even when that is difficult, acknowledging differences and not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Andrew Prior says: “Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice”.

 

I think that is true, particularly in the Church of England. But it is also true that Christians can behave in a very nasty way when a member of the congregation, or a group, disagrees with those in authority. This passage from Matthew has been used in such circumstances as a sort of legal process for disciplining dissident members, and eventually, for getting rid of them. That is why it is so important not to take this text in isolation, but to read it in context.

 

The first verses of Matthew 18 recount the disciples’ question to Jesus about ‘who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus replies by taking a child and telling them they must become like a child – without power, without legal status, vulnerable – if they hope to enter the Kingdom. He is emphasising the need for humility.

 

Then he talks more about children, or perhaps those who are new to the faith, or vulnerable, and says if anyone leads them astray, they will be condemned (reflecting the responsibility of leaders to take particular care of children, young people, and those who are new to church attendance). Then follows the passage about it being better to lose a hand or foot or eye, rather than offending others.

 

The third section of the chapter is the parable of the lost sheep. This highlights the importance of making every effort to keep all the members of the Christian community together, no matter how awkward or foolish they may be.

 

After the passage we heard today, Matthew includes the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is shown mercy by his master, but is eventually condemned for failing to show equal mercy to others. This comes in answer to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive a brother who has offended him; to which the answer is ‘seventy times seven’, meaning endlessly.

 

So, the passage on conflict resolution is surrounded by others which outline the context in which disputes among Christians should be resolved. It is a context which highlights humility, mercy, forgiveness, community and making every effort not to offend others, and to keep everyone within the fold. Within the Christian community, resolution of differences is never to be conducted outside the grace of God. We have to recognise that we act as members of the Body of Christ; and that body includes an awful lot of people who are as difficult to live with as we are ourselves.

 

Read within its context, the instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against us personally is not telling us, “This is all you have to do before you get them thrown out of the church”. It is saying “This is just how hard you have to try, (and some!) to effect a reconciliation.”

 

Read within this context, the harsh saying about “Treat them as though they were a Gentile or a tax collector” is not giving you permission to regard those you think are sinners as outsiders. Jesus said the tax collectors would be among the first into the Kingdom of Heaven. So this is saying it is your duty to try even harder to bring them back into full fellowship with you and everyone else. Read within this context, the crucial verse is not this one about cutting people out, but the verse about the joy of regaining a member for the community. As Paul reminded the Romans, love is the fulfilling of the Law.

 

Reading this passage within its context also changes the way we hear the final two verses of the passage, about how our requests and our decisions will be received by God. ‘Gathered in my name’ means gathering and acting in a way that imitates Jesus, and following his example. This makes it clear that these verses are not about requesting things for ourselves; rather they are about how God will receive our prayers and decisions about seeking and reconciling those who might otherwise be lost. Those prayers and decisions should be characterised by God’s extravagant forgiveness, God’s endless search for those who may be lost, God’s loving-kindness for everyone, and  particularly for the weak and the vulnerable: the characteristics of the God who Jesus revealed to us.

Unknown

Reading this passage within its context makes us realise how often it has been misused during the Church’s history to persecute those groups whose ideas differ from those of the people who exercise power; and to justify the abuse of individuals, through institutions such as the Inquisition and during various inter-denominational conflicts.

 

Nowadays, we might think it’s not very relevant to the church. When was the last time a local church you were part of formally disciplined anyone? But at the institutional level, in national Anglican churches, and at the international level, in the Anglican Communion, it has become more and more common for one group to demand that another group or individual be disciplined, and expelled from the church over certain issues, especially over different approaches to gender, sexuality and marriage. And for me,  in the way that this is being done, there doesn’t seem to be much reference to the words and the example of Jesus we read in our Gospel passage today.

 

What is more relevant to us at the local level is not the formal legal processes which happen at the level of the national and international institutions of the church, but how we resolve differences between individuals and groups in our congregations, between PCC and clergy, and in multi-church parishes such as ours, between different church communities.

 

Our passage from Matthew (written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes it clear that reconciliation, not exclusion should be the aim of any procedure for resolving differences within a Christian community. Whether it is individuals or groups or even whole provinces that disagree, the ability to forgive and to tolerate difference is the mark of true discipleship in the Kingdom. Making sure that not one member, not one sheep from the Master’s flock, is lost and not one little one is damaged, is much more important than being right. The only thing that is really important is that we act in the name (that is with the character) of Jesus, and that love for all is the guiding principle of anything that we do.

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What is a cross?

Scan 6

Children’s Address for Trinity 12, Year A.

The cross is a very simple shape – the first shape a toddler draws and the shape a very sick or dying person makes to sign their name. But like all simple symbols, has a wealth of meaning.

It is the symbol of our faith, traced on forehead in oil or water at baptism. But if you look, can see lots of other meanings.

A sign post, or cross roads – Jesus showed us we have a choice in life – to follow the wide easy road that takes us away from God – or the steep, narrow road that leads to heaven.

A ‘T’ for truth – Jesus came to show us the truth about God – that he loves us so much he sent his Son so that everyone who believes in him has eternal life

A letter ‘I’ crossed out – We are naturally selfish beings. Jesus showed us how to live for others, not put ourselves first.

A person with open arms – on the cross Jesus was raised up with arms outstretched to draw everyone into a loving relationship with God. Our faith is a relationship, not a set of rules.

A sword – not to harm people with but to fight for right, and truth and justice.

A letter ‘X’ – this stands for nothing and it also the sign for when something is wrong (when your books are marked at school) For our sakes, Jesus made himself nothing; he was treated as though he was the one who got it wrong.

A vertical line and a horizontal line – the vertical line takes our thoughts to heaven, and reminds us of our relationship with God. The horizontal line points out to the world and the people round us. Both are essential to our faith. You cannot just worship God and ignore the needs of others; but you cannot just do social action and not relate to God. Jesus’ summary of the law – love God, love your neighbour.

xxx – kisses, the sign of love. Jesus came to show God’s love for us.

x a multiplication sign – Our job as Christians is to multiply that love and spread it around the world to people who don’t yet know it.

A walking stick – to remind us that Jesus is always with us, to support us when the journey of faith gets difficult.

A letter ‘J’ – for Jesus.

A shepherd’s crook – reminding us that Jesus said ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ and watches over us and cares for us and seeks us out when we’re lost.

A flag or banner – to wave in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Day.

Empty – although the cross reminds us of the death of Jesus, it is an empty cross. This reminds us that though he died, Jesus was raised by God to new life, to show he did teach the truth, he was right, he did point the way to God.

Any more ideas?

Scan 5

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Follow Me

Take up your Cross

(Romans 12, 9-21; Matt. 16, 21-28.)

There’s a version of the Gospel that is preached by some evangelists, particularly some of the tele-evangelists in the United States, which says that if you live according to what the Bible teaches, pray regularly and tithe your income in  gifts to the church, you will experience material prosperity in this life. Pastor Ike in the 70’s said “Don’t wait for pie-in-the-sky by and by. Get yours now with ice cream on top.” The Lord does not want anyone to be materially poor, they say, and they deny the traditional picture of Jesus as a poor person. They argue that he was wealthy enough to support his 12 followers. Rather than having a special concern for the poor, they say, God wants all his followers to be rich, and if they obey him, they will be given the power to become wealthy (and the limousines and private jets of the tele-evangelists are proof that this is right).

There is some support for this view of faith in the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the history books that follow, and in some of Proverbs. They constantly reiterate warnings to obey God and be faithful to the covenant, so that “your life may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” and Deuteronomy 8.18 specifically promises “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to become rich”.

The belief came into prominence again, to a certain extent, after the Reformation. Some groups taught that you could tell ‘the elect’, those pre-destined to God for salvation, by their material possessions. This lead to what the sociologist Max Weber called ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’ credited by him with promoting the rise of capitalism in the West.

There is also a version of the Gospel that is taught which maintains that those who have true faith will never get things wrong, and never encounter doubt or despair. If you really believe and trust in God, this version of Christianity says, you will sail through life in peace and confidence.

But the view that God rewards those who are faithful with peace of mind and prosperity in this life did not even hold sway throughout the whole of the Old Testament period. As early as the prophet Elijah, we find him complaining that doing God’s will has brought him only misery and danger – and we get similar complaints against God in Jeremiah, in the Psalms and the Book of Job. Elijah, Jeremiah and Job are driven to complain to God about the divine treatment of them which, they feel they have not deserved.

Perhaps we find it strange that some of the major Old Testament figures berate God so vigorously in their prayers. We are more used to hearing about God’s dependability from those who have faith. But very often the God who replies is not a comforting God. “Stop complaining” the divine voice often says. “You can’t understand the big picture. Life as my servant is not meant to be all honey. Just get on with the task I have given you, and trust me for the future.”

I imagine that in the euphoria of accompanying Jesus on his ministry in Galilee, witnessing the success of his preaching, his miracles and the large crowds who followed him, the disciples must have believed in a version of the ‘prosperity gospel’: that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would throw out the Romans, re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, and that his loyal followers would have pride of place in his administration. No wonder Peter reacted so badly when Jesus began to predict his arrest and crucifixion. That didn’t fit in with his dreams for the future at all.

And, just as God reacted with bluntness to Jeremiah, Elijah and Job, so Jesus answers Peter with a sharpness that we find surprising, calling him by the name of the Devil. Why? Because Peter was doing Satan’s work for him, in preaching the idea that there is a way of doing what God wants us to do which is guaranteed to bring us peace and prosperity, whereas it is much more often the case that, in following God’s commands, people get hurt.

Just as God did with those who complained in the Old Testament, Jesus urges the disciples to get back on the right track, to face up to what is coming for him, and possibly, for them. “Follow me” will not lead to guaranteed peace of mind and prosperity. It may lead to persecution, it may lead to death.

But again, there is a reassurance at the end.

Although sometimes we may feel that God has deserted us, and at times, our faith is not strong enough to get us through the hard times without complaint, there will be justification for those who are faithful, Jesus says; but in God’s time, and in God’s Kingdom, not necessarily on earth.

I find it very reassuring that sometimes the giants of the faith, like Peter, can get discouraged and get things spectacularly wrong. It puts the problems we experience as a follower of Christ into perspective. I am sure that many of you will have experienced times (as I have) when doing what we believe to be the work of God has brought us frustration, exclusion, hurt feelings and problems in life. I am sure, because it is a common experience of the great spiritual writers, that many Christians experience a period, sometimes called ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ when prayer seems dry, God seems to be absent, and our faith is severely challenged.

I have known many faithful Christians who have gone through periods in their lives when everything seems to go wrong for them: a string of people they love have become ill and perhaps died; they themselves have experienced loss of employment or major health problems; relationships have gone wrong; everything seems to be against them. In these circumstances ‘carrying your cross’ is not just a phrase, it is an ever present reality, and what they really want to do is to shout at God that life is unfair. As St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying: “Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few!”

It can be hard to be a member of a church community when you are going through this sort of experience. The dominant atmosphere in the majority of our churches (perhaps as a reaction to the doom and gloom of previous generations) is joy and praise. If you are depressed, if you are going through a period of doubt, if your faith is not bringing you any comfort, if you are bearing heavy burdens, it can be hard to admit it, especially if you have a position of responsibility in the church and are expected to be an example to others.

Our readings today should reassure us that no-one is infallible, and no-one should expect to be happy and confident in their faith all the time. But they also reassure us that, despite appearances, God is not absent.

Hardship, troubles and depression may be part of the road God asks us to tread when we answer Jesus’ call to “Follow me”. But God is there with us, even if we can’t feel the divine presence.

In all circumstances, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, when things are going well and when we seem to have come to a dead end in our faith, the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans give good advice. They tell us to be sensitive to the moods of our fellow-Christians, to be happy with those who are happy, but to mourn with those who are sad.

They encourage us to think the best of what is happening, to be patient in times of trouble and to persevere with prayer, even when it does not give us satisfaction. They encourage us to be humble and to work hard, and not to expect riches and success to fall into our laps just because we are faithful Christians.

They encourage us to love sincerely both our Christian friends and those who may think about things quite differently from us. Above all, they teach us that we need to trust God to sort things out, even through times of persecution, conflict, trouble and failure. God will not reject us if we rail against the divine will – after all, the one whose Son bore the cross for us is not going to be too offended by a few human complaints. But as Paul reminds us, we should strive always for the best in life, for others before ourselves, so that good overcomes evil. That is what we are called to do when we respond to Jesus’ call to “Follow me”.

Many crosses

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