Clear the Path for the Kingdom!

2538548_11eb2a6overgrown-footpath

Photo © Copyright John Light and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

 

(Advent 2. Yr. A. Is. 11, 1-10; Romans 15, 4-13; Matt. 3, 1-10)

 

Did you know that Hertfordshire has over 5000 footpaths, totalling almost 2000 miles or 3000 km?

 

They are the responsibility of the County Council’s Rights of Way service, which ensures that landowners keep them accessible and reinstate them after ploughing, and that they are properly signposted; but the day to day maintenance is carried out by the Countryside Management Service, which works with the county and local councils and uses a team of volunteers to clear vegetation, and provide steps on steep inclines, and boardwalks where the ground is rough or waterlogged. The volunteers, known as Footpath Friends, not only join working parties to clear and reconstruct the paths, but also adopt a path each, and undertake to walk it four times a year, to discover any work that needs to be done, and report it, so that the Countryside Management Service can prioritise what needs to be done.

 

John the Baptist, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, urged the people to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight’. I see that as a sort of spiritual version of the work of the Countryside Management Service, clearing away the brambles so that the message of Christ can get through. John indicated that the way to do this preparation and straightening was to repent, because the paths needed to be opened for the Kingdom of God, a new reality that was coming near.

 

What did this mean for the people of his time? And what does it mean for us now?

 

The Kingdom of God, better translated as the Sovereignty of God, is not a place, but a new way of existing, thinking and being, a deep change to the very foundations of social relations, so that everything is submitted to God’s ultimate purpose and God’s sovereign will. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words which are translated as “repent’ (shub in Hebrew and metanoia in Greek) indicate this is not just an expression of sorrow for wrongdoing, but a radical reversal of the way we think, feel and act. It demands a complete renewal of life, turning from the old ways to the new, a rebirth into a new being. When we become part of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God becomes part of us, and the new way of life it brings is meant to flow through us and out into the world.

 

Each of our readings from Scripture this morning tells us something about this new reality that is coming.

 

Isaiah, living at a time when the hope was that the kings of David’s dynasty would embody and enforce God’s purpose, describes the new reality using royal imagery. At the time this was written, the descendants of David had suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign conquerors. All that remained was a stump. But even so, the prophet expresses the hope that a new line, a shoot, inspired by the power of God’s Spirit, will emerge, and will transform the role of the king. Immune to propaganda and bribery, he will embody the values of the ancient covenants with God, giving justice to the poor and the weak.

 

Isaiah’s vision then expands the transformation that the new regime will bring from the life of the Jewish nation to the entire world. The new way of living and relating will spread from Judea to all the nations of the world, who will place themselves under God’s rule through the ‘shoot’ of David’s line.

 

Not only human nations, but the whole creation will be born again into the conditions that existed at the creation, when animals lived in peace with each other and with humanity. And lest we think that is far fetched, just remember how human greed and injustice destroys the natural world as well as promoting conflict in human society. Climate change and the destruction of the rainforests and the arctic,and the poisoning of the oceans has led to loss of habitats for animals, birds and fish, and sometimes, loss of entire species. Living according to the values of the covenant with God means caring for vulnerable creatures as well as human beings, and could transform the world.

 

 

Paul is writing to members of the Christian Church in Rome, a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile converts, who he assumes have already experienced the transformation brought by following The Way, the path signposted for them by Jesus Christ. Living under the sovereignty of God, they are to live a life that glorifies and gives witness to that sovereignty. They are to imitate Christ and welcome all, both Jews and Gentiles, regardless of their wealth or talents or any lack of them. They are to be filled with the Holy Spirit and show in their lives the joy and peace between former enemies that living in the Kingdom of God means.

 

As members of the Christian Church in our time, this passage challenges us. How good are we at showing to those outside our joy and peace in believing? How good are we at welcoming into fellowship those currently outside the church, not for what they could contribute, but solely for the glory of God?

 

Paul is full of hope and confidence that the Kingdom of God is already being lived in the Christian communities he and the apostles have established.

John, preaching before the ministry of Jesus started, has a much harder and more challenging message. Unlike Paul he is not an insider talking to the insiders in the faith. He is a one time insider who is now an outsider, and is challenging the insiders for their failure. He strikes at everything that gives the religious people of the time their confidence that they are first along the way into the Kingdom of God. Your membership of the Jewish people, descent from Abraham won’t get you there, he says. Neither will your rituals and sacrifices. The covenant with God is about much more than circumcision and sacrifices. Just like the outsiders, he tells them, you need a complete change of thinking and lifestyle; and as a symbol of this, he replaces the priest-supervised ritual of sacrifice in the Temple with cleansing with water, the ritual that was used when Gentiles converted. To those who don’t change he promises, through metaphors drawn from agriculture, a doom-laden future. No wonder the religious authorities were appalled!

 

Yet, according to Matthew, many of them came out to hear John, even though he attacked them in such violent language, and even asked for baptism. We can only wonder why they did so. Perhaps they were tired of the system, which, however dutifully they followed its rules, didn’t bring them peace of mind. Perhaps they were ready for a change. Perhaps they were willing to put their faith in an outsider, no matter how unpalatable and offensive he was, in the hope that he would usher in a changer for the better?

 

Does that sound familiar? What does that say to the church of today and the society of today? Are we committed to a way of life which has some Christian values at its heart, but, in practice, has moved far away from the challenge of Jesus’ teaching. If we have, is that why people will follow anyone who promises things will be different?

 

Unlike many of today’s leaders, religious and political, John doesn’t claim the role of ‘Messiah’ for himself. He is always pointing to a greater power, the future incursion of God’s Holy Spirit into the world embodied in the person of God’s Messiah. John sees his role as the Forerunner, the Footpath Friend, who is simply preparing the way for the greater things to come.

 

We are insiders in the Church of today. Do we put all our faith in our membership of the Church, and in coming to worship on a regular basis? Is that confidence in our own admission to the Kingdom of Heaven justified?

 

Or do we sometimes allow ourselves to be challenged by the voices of outsiders to reflect on whether we have really repented and changed our thinking and lifestyles, perhaps at some cost to our own comfort; are we really living under the Kingdom of Heaven? Does our repentance show in changed lives, or is it just words? Or do we still have work to do, clearing the paths of our own lives, our church lives, and the values of the society we live in, so that the Way of the Lord is clear for the message of the Lord to get through.

 

The Kingdom of heaven is coming near! The Advent challenge to us all is to prepare the Way for Christ to be born again in our hearts and in our world.

 

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting’

heaven

2 Thess. 2, 1-5,13-17. Luke 20, 27-38.

I get the impression people nowadays don’t talk much about life after death, or Heaven and Hell – except to make jokes about them. They are much more concerned about their life in the here and now, and how to make it as rich and satisfying as possible.

 

We may think about it a bit more at this time of year, when we go through the seasons of All Saints and All Souls and then Remembrance Day, but even so our thoughts tend to be concentrated on those who have died, rather than our own death and what may await us after it.

 

This wasn’t the case in the Christian community in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, however. The Day of the Lord – the day when Jesus would return in triumph to judge the earth – was expected to occur very soon, and there was constant speculation about what would happen, how the faithful would know when it was approaching, and who would be among the saved.

The Christian community to whom 2 Thessalonians was written were distraught. The Greek original says they were ‘shaken out of their minds’ by people who said the Day of the Lord had already come, and Jesus had returned – perhaps because they had seen nothing of it, so assumed they were not among the saved.

 

The apocalyptic writings of the time, of which we can see examples in the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew, and in Revelation, predicted a series of events which had to occur before the Lord’s return. Though the details varied, the general tenor of these predictions was that things would get much worse on earth before things got better with the Second Coming.

 

The writer of the letter first attempts to reassure his readers, by reminding them of this timetable, and assuring them that the predicted events have not taken place. But much more importantly, he reminds them of the character of the God whose judgement they await: that God loves them, and chose them in the earliest days of the Christian mission; and that God’s grace continues to strengthen, encourage and comfort them in the good works they carry out in his name.

Throughout Christian history, different groups have looked at what was happening in the world around them, and thought that Judgement Day was fast approaching. But perhaps the point of those predictions was that there will always be such things happening in the world, so judgement is always close at hand, and always ‘not yet’.

 

Belief in resurrection of those who were saved was a very new one in the world of first century Judaism. Some of the religious groups – notably the Pharisees – believed in the resurrection of the righteous; but more conservative groups, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in it at all, because it wasn’t a belief that was found in the Torah.

 

It wasn’t a belief that was found in the Old Testament much at all. There is a passage in the book of Job which sounds as if it is talking about resurrection; “I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth…. then in my flesh I will see God” but the problem is we read it through Christian spectacles. What is more, when we listen to the words, many of us hear them sung to Handel’s marvellous music from the Messiah – and with the addition that his lyricist put in speaking about the resurrection of Jesus.

Job may be talking about seeing God and being vindicated by him after death – but it is more likely he was saying that he expected God to appear and vindicate him on this earth.

blake_book_of_job_linell_set_17-ds

We know that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which makes it all the more obvious that their question to Jesus, which Luke recounts in chapter 20, was posed in order to trap him, and not for any desire to know what he really thought. It was based on the practise of levirate marriage, ordered in the book of Deuteronomy, which ruled that if a man died without fathering a son, one of his brothers had to marry his widow, in order to father a son for him, to ensure that the family line did not die out. Nobody observed this rule by New Testament times, so the question was wholly specious.

 

Jesus avoided the trap, and at the same time gave his own teaching about the life of the world to come. His answer taught that there is a difference between life in this world and the next. In this world, the only way to ensure that your legacy lived on was to marry and to have a family; in the world to come, life is eternal. There is no more death, so there is no need for sex and marriage to ensure your line lives on.

But Jesus then goes on to indicate that there is some continuity between this life and the next, with a complicated rabbinic-type argument about the patriarchs. When God spoke to Moses, he proclaimed himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but only living things can have a relationship with God. So Jesus is saying that in some sense, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live on, and gives us hope that we will too. Though there is discontinuity, there is also continuity through God who is the Lord of both this world and the next.

 

Jesus doesn’t actually tell us much about the life of the world to come. He does indicate that it will be different from life in the flesh – which rather puts paid to all those pictures of Heaven which see it as just like the best of this life, only in abundance; depending on your tastes and circumstances, heaps of good food, wine, nubile maidens, blissful music or just eternal rest!

far-side-heaven

The lack of detail can be rather frustrating to us humans. We like to know what’s coming, so we can prepare for it properly. We want to know whether we will still survive as individuals; we want to be assured that the relationships which we value in this life, and which have sustained us, will continue in the world to come. Jesus refuses to give us answers about that, as he refused to give a specific timetable for his return.

 

We don’t have the language or the concepts to depict what resurrection life will be like. Most of the attempts to do so, from the depictions of Paradise and Hell in classical art to images of angels with harps on clouds are profoundly unsatisfying. We have clues from the disciples’ experience of Jesus after his resurrection, but they don’t actually help a great deal. But the details should not be important to those who have faith.

last_judgement_michelangelo

We need to share Job’s confidence that God loves and supports us in this world and the next. We need to hear with the Thessalonians the assurance that God’s grace and comfort and strength will never leave us. We need to concentrate on living the resurrection life in this world, so that we may be judged worthy to share in the life of the world to come.

 

For some people in our world, this life is more like Hell than Heaven. We see some of those people on the news, day after day, particularly those living in war zones, or fleeing as refugees. If we follow the teaching of Jesus about loving and serving our neighbour, and particularly those who are poor and marginalised and without earthly possessions, then he assures us we are serving him. We are already beginning to live the life of the Kingdom; we are anticipating the resurrection life. If we sincerely try to live that way, then surely we can affirm that “we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”, and wait for whatever that may turn out to be, without fear.

syria1-1

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Essentials of Prayer

secondtemple

(Psalm 84, 1-7; Luke 18, 9-14)

 

Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.

 

There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.

 

There are the sounds of the animals and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.

 

Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.

 

One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.

 

He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.

images

The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.

 

At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. His attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up to the Temple, unjustified and unforgiven.

 

As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”

 

According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.

 

Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.

 

And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered marriage or church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we also have groups who have set up up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who accept women to the role of Bishop.

 

Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the teaching, life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.

 

But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.

 

The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasted about his own actions, which went way beyond what was required by the Law. He was the man who has everything – so he really had no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, was in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.What’s more, he judged others by their outward appearance, and projected his own prejudices on to them.

 

In contrast, the tax collector had no illusions about himself. He knew his occupation automatically put him outside the circle of the faithful. He beat upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requested nothing based on his own merits. He did not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who was publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presented just one petition to God and threw himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition was granted.

 

Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.

templeexterior

How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do?

It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who, he judged, wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.

 

But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God.

 

With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.

icon-pharisee-and-tax-collector-by-tatiana-grant

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Persisting in Prayer

(Proper 23. Year C. 2 Tim. 3.14 – 4.5; Luke 18, 1-8)

widow2

Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it. It becomes an earworm.

I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”. You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!

This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.

This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for people. He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt.

A contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.

On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone. But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate.

A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.

And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.

The introduction to the parable tells us that is about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.

But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.

Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray. The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.

But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die. And now it is coupled with a question about prayer.

Many of us have problems with prayer. For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end we give up. Prayer, and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address. But, in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.

It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.

It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.

It is not a one-way conversation. In the Old Testament, Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.

Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what God expects us to do to help resolve them.

We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.

Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. It is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’.

We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.

praying-1382663__180

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prayers. 18 September ’16. Mission Week.

 

 

 

 

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow”  in our care for our world and its people.

 

We pray for those in positions of power and leadership, especially in this country, that they may reflect your unconditional love shown in Jesus of Nazareth as they make decisions about energy production, about military action, about financing health and social care, about caring for refugees, especially children, and about our relationship with our close neighbours and allies.

 

We pray for ourselves as we care for our environment, as we do what we can to reduce pollution and global warming, as we cast our votes and influence  opinion, and as we care for those in need in this country and throughout the world.

May we grow in wild hope.

 

Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow” in our knowledge of Jesus, his words and his example to us.

 

We thank you for those who brought the knowledge of Christ to this country, and those who went from here to take that knowledge to other parts of the world, and for all the societies like USPG who share that knowledge now between different cultures and peoples.

 

We pray for those who translate the scriptures, those who teach, those who reflect on the application of the Bible and the Tradition in the modern world; and those who communicate with the many who respect Christ, but dislike Christians and the Church. We pray for all those who use the media and especially social media to communicate their faith, that they may respect the findings of the physical and social sciences, and the research of linguists and historians, and may always reflect your infinite, unconditional love.

 

May we grow in passionate faith.

 

Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow” in our care for one another

 

We thank you for all those in our church and our wider community who give time, and talents and money to care for those in any kind of need.

 

We pray especially for those who care for others with little reward or public recognition. We pray for those who care for people in need who are not popular with the community, and for those who run personal risks to do so.

 

We pray for ourselves, that we may reflect your unlimited, unconditional love as we care for each other; and we pray for those in need who have asked for our prayers.

We pray for your comfort to be felt by those who mourn, especially the relatives of those who have recently died,  and of those whose anniversaries fall at this time.

May we grow in outrageous generosity.

 

Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

 

Living God, may we reflect your love as we prepare to grow in this coming week

 

We pray for everyone involved in the Grow Mission activities this week. Resource and bless us, we pray.

We pray especially for the activities that reach out to the elderly and marginalised in our communities.

 

May this week be a time of refreshment, renewal and joy .

 

Father, live among us  Keep us in your love

 

We offer these prayers in the name of our friend and brother, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Posted in Prayers | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lost.

IMGP0694

(1 Tim. 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)

 

My family will tell you that I’m addicted to Facebook!

 

One of the pages that I check up on almost every day is the page covering the district where we live.  It’s a great source of local news, recommendations and information.

 

People frequently make use of the page to ask for help with things that have been lost: bikes, mobile phones, cats and dogs – and this last week, a ferret, and, sadly, two women who have gone missing from home.

 

There was no social media to locate things that had got lost in the time of Jesus. If you wanted to find them you had to set to, exert a lot of effort in the search, and even take some risks. Hence the joy when what was lost was eventually found.

 

In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that were lost and found. The best known one is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which should more accurately be called the parable of the Two Sons. That is different in many ways from the two we heard this morning; not least because the son in that story got himself lost, and was able to make some effort to help in his return. In the case of the coin and the sheep, the lost things bore no responsibility for their state: it was their owner who had lost them, and therefore it was up to their owner to find them again.

 

sheep-3In the case of the sheep, it was unlikely the man owned all of the 100 sheep; if he had been wealthy enough to own that many, he would have been wealthy enough to employ someone else (a hired man) to look after them. It is more likely that they belonged to an extended family, or a clan in the village, and certain of the men folk had the duty of looking after them. Since they represented the wealth of the community, it brought shame on the shepherd to have lost one of them.

 

As usual, Luke balances a story about a man with a story about a woman. It could be that the coins represented the woman’s dowry. She could have been wearing them around her head as a headdress, or around her neck as a necklace. Whatever they were, they IMGP0693represented her family’s wealth, and to lose one of the ten was very serious indeed. The woman would have rarely left her house so she knew where she had lost the coin. Hence the effort sweeping the dirt floor in a windowless house and the cost of lighting a lamp in daytime in order to try to retrieve it.

 

Luke shows Jesus telling these stories in response to criticism from the local religious leaders about the sort of people he socialises with. Not only does he accept invitations from ‘tax collectors and sinners’, )Luke’s catch-all phrase for all those who don’t measure up to the high standards of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law), Jesus even returns their hospitality, inviting such people to come and eat at his table.

 

Even more than now, in the time of Jesus, meals were very important; who was invited, where they sat in relation to the host, the courtesies shown to them, and even the quality of food that was served were very important indicators of your social status, relative to the host and other guests. And having been shown such hospitality, if you were not to lose face, you had to return it in equal style. So, you would normally only invite those in your social network, people like you; it would be a waste of your time to invite people who couldn’t pay back the honour, and even more, those who would diminish your social status. Jesus demonstrates the love of God when he socialises  with ‘the lost’ – those who can never pay him back, those whose company brings him no social status.

Since, in the Bible, formal meals were often used to stand for the Kingdom of Heaven, and the final heavenly banquet to which all those in God’s favour would be invited, what Jesus says and does with regard to sharing table fellowship is an important part of his teaching about who is to be regarded as the most significant members of the kingdom.

 

These two stories though, are not just about God’s love and concern for those who the religious leaders regarded as hopelessly lost, or about Jesus’ association with them. They are a challenge to his critics, who he is saying are responsible for losing these people from the Kingdom, and a challenge about their lack of effort to retrieve them. And that is a challenge not just to the religious leaders and committed religious believers  of Jesus’ time; it’s also a challenge to the leaders of the church in our time, and a challenge to us!

So who are the people we have lost from active participation in the Christian faith, and how do we find them?

When I have lost something, I find that a good way to start the search is to go back in my memory to the time I last had it, and to try to trace my steps from there.

There are a lot of statistics that show the decline in religious practice generally, and in the Christian Church and the Church of England in particular. Many of them compare the position now with the position in the 1960s. Weekly attendance in the Anglican Church has declined from around 5% of the population in 1960 to around 2% now. Forty years ago usual attendance on a normal Sunday was around 1.25 million people – now it is 784,000. The average urban church congregation now numbers 60; the average rural congregation just 19. The decline is getting steeper, year on year; average weekly attendance declined by 12% in the last decade. This decline is not just found in the Christian churches: Counting Religion in Britain found that only 11% of Britons now attend any sort of religious service regularly (and regularly is once a month, not weekly), 65% practically never attend any sort of service.

 

More detailed statistics show the decline is the greatest among the young adult age groups. On the whole, older people are more churchgoing. The decline among children and younger adults is much steeper than the decline among older people. The figures show that the main reason for the decline in affiliation and attendance is not adults leaving the church; it is that the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood, and in turn their children never attend. So retaining children and youth is critical, because it is far easier to raise people as churchgoers than to turn the unchurched into churchgoers.

 

So trying to ensure that we do not lose our children and young people is very important; our children and youth work should be a priority. It won’t be as easy as it was in the days before TV and computers and the internet, when sometimes the main social life for children and younger people was centred around the church. Now, there are lots of competing activities, many of which are organised with a sophistication the church cannot hope to equal. But the church can offer a personal interest, a safe environment, and a care for children and young people as unique and beloved children of God, rather than just consumers, valued only for their spending power.

 

Mostly however, the church will have to go out and search for those we have lost since their baptism or confirmation, or since their parents were regular churchgoers. We will have contact with some of them in schools, through school visits and assemblies, which are important because they may be the only time these children and young people come into contact with a Christian speaking about their faith. We are asked to think particularly about this contact today, which is being kept across the churches as Education Sunday. Such valuable contact needs careful planning, and need to be as interesting as we can make it. I remember being warned very early on in my training to remember that no-one mc_logo_xlwas ever bored into faith! Messy Church is another way we can make contact without being boring, which is why I think it is so important!

 

It is even more difficult at secondary level than primary; pupils are much more likely to answer back and argue, and will base their arguments on a set of values that they see as being disregarded in the beliefs and practices of many religions. Important values to the younger generations today are respect for difference, acknowledgement of the discoveries of science, history and literary criticism with regard to sacred writings as well as secular books, and an absolute opposition to denying people their rights – so no discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality is likely to be acceptable.

 

We will also have to go out from our church buildings to make contact with older people who have lost contact with church. Before the days of the welfare state, the church had a lot of contact with non-churchgoers through social work, providing homes for children and unmarried mothers, hospitals and education. Now that money for education and care is getting tighter, it may be that the churches will have to step up to fill in the gaps, as they are already doing in many areas, in projects like  Food Banks. Such work will not bring quick results, but will need to be sustained over many years of patient provision, living the faith, accepting people as they are, so that people see the love of God reaching out to them through what Christians do in Jesus’ name.

 

These parables of the lost give us a picture of God  painstakingly searching out those who have become lost to faith and membership of the church, concentrating every effort on the work, and rejoicing as each one is brought back into the fold, one by one. They challenge us all to do this work in God’s name.

 

How are we, each one of us, being asked to search out the lost in our communities today?

IMGP0692

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carry your Cross.

What-Does-It-Mean-To-Take-Up-Cross-Daily Deuteronomy 30, 15-20; Luke 14, 25-33.

In today’s readings we get two different pictures of the religious life. In Deuteronomy we get what might be called the prosperity gospel – which was a theme which ran through many of the books of the Old Testament and is still preached by some strands of the Christian church today.

This approach says if you do what God wants, keep the rules, and perform the right rituals then you will prosper, have a good life and live a long time. If you don’t, you won’t.

The trouble is, so often real life doesn’t work out like that. We all know really good people who have suffered enormously; and nasty and evil people who have prospered. And saying that the apparently good ones must have secretly sinned doesn’t wash; if, like Job, they maintain they are unjustly punished, what answer is there for them?

In the Gospels, and particularly in our reading today, we get a very different picture of the life of the faithful. Jesus doesn’t promise prosperity to those who follow him. Rather, he warns them to expect family conflict, loss of possessions and even death as his disciples. In that time, to carry your cross meant you were a dead man walking. This picture runs counter to all our normal human priorities. We try hard to ensure life, prosperity and health for ourselves first and our family next. In today’s consumer society, it would be a very incompetent advertiser who tried to sell a product on the basis that its USP (unique selling point) was poverty, suffering and death.

Luke places this warning at the point where Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, a journey that will end in his arrest, trial and death. He is being followed by enthusiastic crowds who have heard his teaching and seen his miracles, and probably believe he is about to bring in the good times for them. What he said is shocking enough to us – even in this individualistic time, we don’t expect to be told to hate our families by a religious leader. It would have been even more shocking in a time when individuals had no significance apart from family and community. What this passage describes, however, is the experience of Jesus, and his disciples, and the early Christians – that following Christ can be an immensely costly undertaking, and that we ought not to commit ourselves to it without proper thought about that cost.

Nowadays, we do tend to think a bit more seriously than people once did about becoming a Christian. It is not the social norm that it once was in this country. But we don’t really expect church membership to be very costly. We don’t expect to have to carry a cross. But when we do have a cross to bear, sometimes it makes us give up our faith altogether – because deep down we secretly hold to the Deuteronomic teaching that faithfulness to God will bring us worldly success and prosperity.

It’s not so everywhere. A Gallup Poll found that the poorest countries tend to be the ones where religion is felt to be most important in people’s lives. In countries like Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and Indonesia 99% of people thought religion was important in their lives; in Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and the UK less than 27% did so. Yet these are countries with high numbers of people suffering from stress related illness – countries with crosses of a different kind from the very poor ones.

As human beings, we cannot escape the cross. Everyone suffers in some way at some time in their lives. There are many different sorts of suffering. There is the suffering we see in the media every day of the week: suffering caused by natural disasters, as a consequence of war and civil strife; suffering from poor sanitation and lack of medical facilities. There is suffering from persecution for your faith, or your race, or your gender or your sexuality, made even worse when the persecution comes from your neighbours and even those who share your faith. There is suffering from sickness, whether physical or mental, both our own and the illness of those close to us. There is emotional suffering, when relationships break down, or when we are unjustly accused, or our sense of self-worth is damaged by unemployment. There is suffering from depression and the loss of a sense of the presence of God.

So, no-one has a monopoly of suffering; nor can we say that one person’s suffering is worse than another’s. We cannot know how heavy a cross feels on another person’s shoulders, and all suffering has the potential to darken and destroy. So, how can we ‘carry’ the cross and follow Jesus? How can we bear our suffering in the way that he did, so that we can find life and meaning in it, rather than it overwhelming us with bitterness and despair?

Let me share with you some insights from a marvellous book, called ‘Finding Meaning and Hope in Suffering’. ( SPCK 2010.) It is by Trystan Owain Hughes, the Anglican chaplain of 41tvNO2qm7LCardiff University. At the age of 37, he was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition which means he cannot stand or sit for long without pain. But instead of this increasing his unhappiness, he drew on insights from his reading, his faith and and his pastoral work to seek out sources of hope and meaning in his ‘cross’.

It’s impossible to summarise the whole book in a short sermon, but I hope that I may inspire you to read it for yourselves to help you to carry your crosses, whatever they may be. Though we cannot escape suffering, we are not entirely without control. We can decide how to cope with it, and what we decide to do can contribute to our suffering, or allow us to overcome it. Changing our way of thinking about suffering is not an easy journey, but doing so can help us to feel better. Hughes quotes often from Victor Frankl a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Frankl said that those who survived the concentration camps were not necessarily those who had robust constitutions, but those who developed a sense of spirituality, a life of inner riches and freedom.

Hughes uses the metaphor of building a tower (from the parable in today’s Gospel reading) to set out a plan of how to carry our cross. The foundations of the tower are Awareness and Acceptance.

Awareness means living in the present – not worrying about the future or constantly going back over the past. It means searching out the moments of beauty and love in whatever situation we are in, what is called ‘practising the sacrament of the present moment’; not rushing through life, but standing sometimes, as a child does, in wonder at the intricacy of life. It means looking for God’s presence even in situations where God seems absent.

Acceptance involves admitting the reality of the present situation and relinquishing the struggle for control. It involves saying “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be”. This is not the same as minimising suffering or passivity or fatalism, but involves embracing a vision220px-The_church_of_SS_Andrew_and_Mary_-_St_Julian_of_Norwich_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1547398 of life that is bigger than the suffering. It often involves waiting patiently, not trying to explain suffering, but believing there is growth even in darkness. It means trusting that God has a plan even if we cannot yet see it; believing, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that ultimately “All things shall be well”.

 

We Christians can do this because our faith tells us that God is not absent in our suffering. The one who Moltmann called ‘The Crucified God’ came through suffering, including the sense of the absence of God, to resurrection. We need to practise awareness and acceptance daily to help us 51V5WvZisOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_to step back from our suffering and begin to build our tower of hope and joy.

Hughes suggests five building blocks for our tower. The first is the beauty of nature – the appreciation of the wonder of our world, which we tend to lose as we leave childhood.

The second block is laughter. Only humans in the animal kingdom laugh and cry, and it seems a faculty without any evolutionary purpose: but laughter is a way of rising above suffering and tragedy to a spiritual realm. G K Chesterton said “The reason why angels can fly is they take themselves lightly!”

The third block is memory. Although unhappy memories can keep people in bondage to the past, happy personal memories can help us to find hope and purpose and see meaning in the present and God with us. So can Bible passages, poems and sounds and pictures. So we need to store away a memory bank of grace that nothing can take from us, to draw on in times of suffering.

The fourth block is art in all its variety – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and film. Somehow art helps us to feel things more deeply and to bring order into the chaos of suffering.

The final block is other people. Suffering can push us into isolation and self-obsession. But it can also help us to empathise with others, and to reach out to help. If we chose that way, then we can grow through our suffering, and, in a way, take revenge on it and deny its power. Many of us will have met people who, in spite of the most intense suffering, exude joy and hope. They are living symbols of the truth that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. (John 1.3)

The Gospel reading calls on us today to carry our cross and follow Christ.

So consider.

What is your cross?

Have you prepared yourself to bear its weight?

How will you carry it, to bring you fulness of life and to give glory to God?

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment