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.

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Lost.

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(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?

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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?

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God of Law or God of Grace?

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Hebrews 12. 18-29; Luke 13, 10-17.

I wonder how you picture God?

At home I have a collection of images of the divine from some of the Eastern religions, known to my children as “Mum’s heathen gods”.

IMG_0924There are Hindu gods, with their many arms to show their powers and characters, some of them, like Ganesha and Hanuman, with animal heads. Then there are the different images of Buddhas, some fat and jolly, some serene and detached from the world.

 

I’ve got fewer images from the Christian tradition, but I do have icons and photos on my wall which portray Jesus, Mary and the Trinity in different ways. One of the things I have asked people to do during Confirmation preparation is to draw their idea of God, and that brings interesting responses. You tend to get lots of elderly men with beards, sandals and long white robes; but one 14 year old girl drew a picture of the world cradled in loving hands – which I thought showed some spiritual maturity.

In Judaism and Islam, you have a prohibition on making images or drawing pictures of God, and some strands of Christianity have also observed this at different times. So in these religions you tend to get pictures of God drawn with words. Christianity in particular has gone in for defining God by creeds and statements. But another way of giving a picture of God is through stories. It’s a way Jesus used, through his parables, and it’s also one way used by the Gospel writers, as they tell us about how Jesus acted.

In our Gospel reading today, Luke gives us two opposing pictures of God. On the one hand, Jesus shows a God who relates to humanity through grace, compassion and inclusion. He sees the woman’s need and responds to it, even though she hasn’t asked for help. He calls her from the edge of the synagogue (which symbolises her exclusion from active society as a result of her ailment) and places her in the centre. He lays hands on her – breaking all the taboos in the Old Testament Holiness Code on interaction between male and female – and tells her to stand up straight and hold her head high. He makes her well, restoring not just her health but her place in society. He calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’ emphasising her dignity, and her equality with the men around her.

On the other hand, the leader of the synagogue demonstrates his belief in a God who relates to humanity through law, fear and exclusion. His only concern was with the rules, especially the complicated oral law which specified what a faithful Jew could or could not do on the Sabbath. To break that law risked angering God. His spiritual blindness meant that he could not rejoice in the good done by Jesus, simply because he judged it was done at the wrong time. He was so keen to obey the letter of the law, that he failed to observe its spirit.

According to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the Sabbath law was to celebrate release from oppression and slavery, yet this man could not rejoice in the release of the woman from oppression by the evil of sickness. His misjudgement about the purpose of the Sabbath was compounded by his own hypocrisy: he would work if it was necessary to feed or rescue one of his animals, but he could not accept healing done on this day.

Pointers to both the God of law and the God of grace can be found in the Jewish tradition. Particularly after the exile in Babylon, strict adherence to the Law and separation and exclusion were seen as the way of preserving Jewish identity and loyalty to God. But there was also another strand, which portrayed God as the God of all nations, who wanted social justice and inclusion.

For Christians, Jesus is the icon of God, the one who shows us what God is like. In the New Testament, too, there are passages like our reading from Hebrews, which portray a terrifying God, who threatens humans who transgress his laws, and whose wrath needs to be satisfied by a perfect sacrifice: passages which inform the theology behind verse 2 of our offertory hymn, a theology in which I don’t believe. But Luke’s stories tell us about a God who wants to heal people and include the outcast, the God of grace, the God that Jesus reveals to us; and that the proper response to that revelation is to praise God and rejoice (as the people in the synagogue did) not carp and condemn (as the leader of the synagogue did).

But this insight is one the Christian community has had to learn again and again, especially as the Church turned from a movement into an institution. Institutions tend to be much more comfortable serving a God of law, with clear rules defining what and who is acceptable, and what is not. Some rules are necessary for community life; but the tendency is to go beyond what is necessary and try to keep the community pure and obedient by fear of breaking ever more complicated rules, a process which tends to exclude people, rather than include them, and oppress them rather than liberate. Though St Paul argued that we are justified by our faith, not by our works, by the grace of God, not by keeping the Law; and the writer of the letter to the Colossians argued against teachings that said the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and food laws were as important as loving all members of the community, the restrictive rules crept back into the life of the Christian community. To counter what it regarded as heresy, the church drew up creeds, and demanded adherence to them as a condition of membership, persecuting those who could not accept these word pictures of God. Even the multitude of laws about what could be done on the Sabbath (now Sunday rather than Saturday) came back, so that it became a time of oppression not liberation. The Puritans forbade music, dance, sport, anything that might make the Sabbath a day of joy. The gloomy Victorian Sunday was maintained with the same hypocrisy seen in our Gospel reading, resulting in situation where rich people could avoid work on the Sabbath day, but the poor could not.

 

One result of this trend is that, while Jesus is seen as an attractive figure by many, a true icon of the God of grace and compassion, Christianity itself is rejected as reflecting only a God who excludes and punishes. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!”mahatma_gandhi_religion_5335

Many people, including those from inside different Christian denominations, have admitted to sharing this anxiety that the institutional church doesn’t reflect the God of Grace that Jesus came to show us. That has serious implications for our mission, and our attempts to commend our faith to an increasingly indifferent and unbelieving society, because our practice will inevitably reflect our picture of the God we serve.

So the Gospel today face us with a challenge, not just about how we mark the Sabbath, but also how we picture God and how that picture influences the way we serve God in the Church and the world.

What sort of God do we worship and praise today?

What sort of God did Jesus show us?

A God of rules or a God of love?

One who keeps some of his sons and daughters bent over and burdened, or one who wants them all to stand up straight and hold their heads high?

A God of law or a God of grace?

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Are you a Hope Addict?

Are you a hope addict?

(Genesis 15, 1-6; Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16; Luke 12, 32-40)

 

I saw a picture of a piece of graffiti during the week. It asked the question: “Are you a hope addict?”

 

According to our readings today, the answer for every Christian disciple should be “Yes!” Christians are meant to be people of faith, and according to the writer to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.

 

But what does this mean? Is faith, as so many non-religious people think, simply “Believing six impossible things before breakfast,” a skill which the White Queen advises Alice to practise in ‘Through the Looking Glass’? Or is it actually a quite different way of living in the world, based on what we believe and hope is the ultimate reality behind it?

 

Genesis and Hebrews give us a picture of Abraham as a person of faith, and an example of of how to live in faith. The earlier chapters of Genesis tell how Abraham received a call from God to leave his home city, his relatives and his familiar way of life in his old age, and to travel with his wife, Sarah, to an unknown land, to set up home among foreigners and strangers. He has to be prepared to start again. If he does this, he is promised blessings from God: a personal blessing in that he will have a legitimate child of his own as his heir, and that he will become famous, wealthy and the founder of a new nation; but also that, through him, blessings will come for the benefit of the whole world.

 

Though the promise of a child in their old age seems to be nonsensical, Abraham and Sarah commit themselves to following God’s directions for their lives in faith in its fulfilment. They don’t themselves see the total fulfilment of the promise beyond the birth of Isaac, and neither do many of their descendants. They are commended because they live as if the hope is reality, even when it seems very doubtful that it will be fulfilled, and so play their part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition.

 

The New Testament indicates that we Christian believers are meant to regard ourselves as children of Abraham and Sarah: not in a religious or racial way, but in the way we commit ourselves to doing God’s will and bringing in God’s Kingdom. Hebrews refers to them as ‘our ancestors’ and urges us to follow them in seeking a heavenly country and city in which to make our home.

 

Luke also speaks of  a way of life that is based on values different from the usual secular ones. Since the disciples expected an imminent return of Christ in glory, they were to sit light to earthly possessions, and reject earthly attitudes of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and possessiveness. They were to share what they had with the poor, and build up the treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than their personal fortunes. They were to be constantly ready for the coming of Christ, which could happen at any time.

 

Like Abraham and Sarah, they were commanded not to be afraid of the future. Living life in faith meant living it in the confidence that God was in control, and that God’s plans would ultimately triumph. Jesus assures the disciples that, though they will have to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality, God wants them to experience it, and wants to give it to them. Christian faith and hope means believing that all of life in this world, as well as in the next,  is ultimately in the control of  One who is like a loving parent, rather than governed by the forces of evil.

 

What then are these passages saying to us about the way we live our Christian lives today?

Are we meant to ignore what we know about human biology, and believe that a woman past the menopause can bear a child? Is every Christian meant to throw up their job, sell their house and wander off to colonise some foreign land in the name of God? Are we all meant to give away everything we earn or inherit, and live off other people until such time as Jesus descends from the heavens, and a completely new sort of world order is inaugurated?

 

Personally, I don’t think so. I think we are meant to use the intelligence God has given us, and the research done by scholars into the Scriptures, to interpret the meaning of these passages. That means first of all, recognising the sort of writing they are, and reading them in the context of that, rather than taking everything literally.

 

So, Genesis comes from the genres of literature known as myth and legend, the sort of literature that portrays a world where human interact with other sorts of beings like giants and demons, where animals can talk, and where people live to a great age. The religious truth of this literature doesn’t depend on those things actually happening. So, in this passage,  I wouldn’t take literally the ages given for Abraham and Sarah when they left Ur or when they had Isaac; what I think we should take from the story is their example of living in hope and complete trust in God’s promises, and continuing the have faith even when things didn’t seem to be turning out the way they were promised.

 

Hebrews was written to a people with a similar world view, so it does take such details literally; but we don’t have to. We know very little about the background of this piece of writing; we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or what the circumstances were that prompted its composition. We don’t even know if it was a genuine letter, or a collection of sermons or a pastoral treatise.

 

There are even problems about what exactly it says in some places, and specially in the way it defines ‘faith’. The Greek original uses technical philosophical terms, ‘hypostasis’ and ‘elegchos’, for the words which are translated as ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ in verse 1.  It may actually be asserting that faith is the reality of things not seen; that is, believing has itself a kind of power to make things happen, because what we believe affects the way we live, and so the reality in which we live. It may also be asserting that faith is the proof, rather than the conviction about what we can’t see; that is that living as if God’s Kingdom exists on earth is actually the proof that it does. Abraham lived in this way, the passage says, and so should we. This is why God affirmed  of Abraham, and if we live in the same hope and trust, God will affirm us.

 

In Luke, Jesus uses a mixture of Semitic exaggeration and parable to teach his disciples about the proper way to live as a citizen of the better country to which Abraham was journeying. It is not just a matter of what we do in our spiritual and religious lives; God is as much, if not more concerned with what we do in our working, social, economic and political lives.

If we think God’s rules should control the world, then God has a say in how we use our money as well as how we conduct our relationships. If we think God’s blessing means justice, freedom, health and prosperity for everyone, then when we make political and economic decisions, we need to side with the poor, the sick and the outcast, rather than with the powerful and rich.

 

If we believe that the peacemakers and the humble are the truly blessed, it affects how we deal with situations of war, and with conflict in our personal lives. If we believe that Christ’s coming is not something that may happen at some distant time in the future, but happens every time we are asked to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick and those in prison, it makes an enormous difference in how we live out our faith in practical ways, and what we think is really important in our religious lives. If we believe that love and sacrifice are the values that truly reflect the ultimate reality that is God, then those are the values that will guide the way we live now, in spite of the frequent evidence that seems to deny this.

 

Our faith gives us the guide to how we live our lives in our earthly kingdoms, in anticipation of the future triumph of the heavenly kingdom. That is the way of life that Jesus calls us to. That is the way of life which will answer the prayer of many that God’s kingdom should come. That is what is means to live in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.

 

That is what it means to be a hope addict!

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You can’t take it with you!

Fighting over money ( Image by Stuart Miles. Downloaded courtesy of Free Digital Image.net

Fighting over money
( Image by Stuart Miles. Downloaded courtesy of Free Digital Image.net

(Ecclesiastes 1, 2 & 12-14 & 2, 18-23; Colossians 3, 1-11;  Luke 12, 13-21)

 

When we take our daily walk around the area where we live, we see constant rebuilding, extensions and renovation work going on. Bungalows are transformed into 2 or 3-story houses, garages become living accommodation, rooms are gutted and refurbished.  Often we notice what looks like perfectly good bathroom, kitchen and bedroom equipment being thrown out –  basins, sinks, worktops and cupboards being thrown into a skip. It seems such a waste of equipment, to add to the waste of time and money in altering what seem to be quite  adequate houses already!

 

I was reminded of all that building work when I read the parable of the rich fool in today’s Gospel. This is one of the many parables in which Jesus addresses our use of money – a subject he talked much more about than prayer or sex! The idea that religion is about spiritual things was foreign to the Hebrew mind. There is no division between body and soul, the material world and the spiritual. As Genesis teaches, the  world was made by God, God judged it to be good and human beings were given stewardship over it. So God cares about how we use our money and we are accountable to God for what we do with it.

 

So what is this Gospel reading saying to us?

Luke sets the parable in the context of a question from someone in the crowd following Jesus. The question gives us an indication of how Jesus was regarded by people who were not in his inner circle; he was a teacher, and expert in the Jewish law, and could therefore be approached to settle little local disputes.

 

Jesus firmly rejects that role, addressing the questioner rather abruptly as ‘Man’ ( though some modern versions translate it as the kinder ‘Friend’). He wisely avoids getting involved in a family dispute about who gets what after someone dies; we probably can all think of situations where families have been split over an inheritance, and know how destructive it can become. Jesus builds on the question to make a more general point about the problems with wealth, and how destructive it can be to our relationship with God, as well as with each other.

 

The relationship of the man with his wealth is revealed in the dialogue he has with himself. He is already wealthy when, with no effort on his part, he becomes even richer. The increase comes about from good weather and the efforts of his workers. It is a gift of God. He doesn’t recognise this, though.

 

The dialogue reveals that his wealth has isolated him. As so often happens, the more money and possessions he has, the more he withdraws from everyday human contact. He has no family or neighbours with whom to discuss his course of action. He is alone in the middle of what he considers his land deciding what to do with what he considers his wealth.

 

The dialogue reveals how self-centred he is. It is with himself and about himself. No-one else gets a look-in.

He assumes that preserving his possessions is all he has to worry about – and there is no-one, family or friend, to point him towards deeper wisdom. He assumes that human beings are not much more than animals – their bodily wants are all that need to be met for total satisfaction. He quotes a single verse from the same part of Ecclesiastes that our Old Testament reading comes from “Eat drink and be merry” (Eccl.2.24) but because he only quotes part of the passage, he actually misses the point of it.

 

The denouement comes when God speaks. The divine voice reminds the rich man of his lack of awareness, particularly that his riches and his life are both only on loan to him. God calls him “fool’ and some of the commentaries point out that involves a word play in Greek. The word the rich man uses for ‘make merry’ ‘ephraino’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘fool’, ‘aphron’.

 

God reveals that before he can rebuild storage for his possessions, the man will die and be called to account for his use of them. The language used is that used for the repayment of a loan. Finally God says what the writer of  Ecclesiastes says constantly: “the things you have now, who will enjoy them then?”

The parable starts with the rich man, but ends with God. Then Jesus draws the moral from the story:  the accumulation of earthly possession is not what is important; what is important is investing in your relationship with God. And that is really his answer to the questioner who was getting so worked up about the division of his father’s property.

 

So how do we apply this story to our lives today?

 

The Bible does not condemn earthly riches – in some places prosperity is seen as a sign of blessing from God – but it does warn of its dangers in the lives of the faithful. It does not condemn individual property – Jesus was no a communist! It doesn’t say we should all be poor; it recognises that without a certain level of income, people are so concerned with how to exist from day to day that they have no time to think about anything spiritual. What the Scriptures and Our Lord emphasise is that human beings can destroy themselves fighting over wealth. It becomes a problem when people invest their trust in possessions rather than in their relationship with God and their neighbour. What matters is not how much we have, but whether we use it as God wants us to.

 

A proper Christian attitude to money is neatly summed up in John Wesley’s Sermon 44  where he summarises it as: “Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can”.

 

Wesley declares that money is not evil, but should be regarded as a gift from God for the benefits it brings to civilisation and the opportunities it gives for doing good, in the right hands.

 

He argues that we should make, or earn as much money as we can, using all the talents and time God gives us – but within limitations. We should do nothing that harms our own bodily, spiritual or moral health, nor that of any of our neighbours. Today that would certainly exclude working for pay-day loan companies such as Wonga,  criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the excessive interest rates it charges; or working in a company that employs people on zero-hours contracts. It would raise questions about working in certain industries, such as those making and selling chemical weapons. Perhaps nowadays, we would also add to that ‘Do nothing that causes environmental damage to God’s world or God’s creatures”.

 

Second, we should save all we can, and not waste God’s precious gift of wealth on trivialities, self-indulgence or luxuries. He urges his hearers to be content with a simple life, and not to indulge in conspicuous consumption. He also warns agains using your wealth to indulge your children, and provide them with an easier life, because he thinks that is damaging to them. He wouldn’t approve of the elaborate schemes people indulge in nowadays to avoid inheritance tax! He thinks children ought to be left only enough to keep them from need.

Any surplus should be distributed to bring glory to God. Which brings him to his third principle: Give all you can.

He doesn’t approve of storing money in banks, which in his day, were only for the rich  anyway. He wants it to be given away to benefit those in need. Like the Parable of the Rich Fool, Wesley teaches that we have material wealth on loan from God, and as good stewards we should use it for the benefit of ourselves (within limits), our families, and our fellow human beings.

 

He ends: “Give all that you have, as well as all that you are, to him who did not even withhold his own Son for your sake.”

 

The way we use money is not irrelevant to our faith. It demonstrates as clearly as anything our attitude to God. All of our readings today contrast those who seek security in wealth with those who seek security in doing God’s work. The writer of Ecclesiastes is depressed because he can’t keep control of what happens to his money after his death; he concludes that life is therefore meaningless.

 

In contrast Colossians and the Gospel recognise that an obsession with wealth leads to much of the suffering and injustice in the world, to wars, and divisions between people based on race or creed. Both Colossians and the Gospel teach that true human fulfilment comes from a life based on heavenly values, not on human greed.

 

“You can’t take it with you when you go” they say. St. Ambrose put it more elegantly: “The things we cannot take away are not ours”. That’s true of money and possessions; but it’s not true of the spiritual capital you build up if you use money as Wesley and Jesus recommend, for the building of community and the welfare of all. That enables us to become citizens of heaven and inheritors of eternal life, both in this life, and the next.

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The Lord’s Prayer

Praying_Hands

 Luke 11. 1-13)

When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.

I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.

I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. When I take services in residential homes, even if people can no longer sing the hymns, or make the responses, most of them will still join in the traditional words of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s that deeply embedded in their memory.

They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong and Matins according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.

In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: Luke says it was in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.

What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.

One problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage: “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!

How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?

One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day (since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective (since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)

It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.

You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s Prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: many, many years ago, I picked up  versions of all four  gospels  in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport. In Matthew,  the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, ‘give us today the bread which is necessary to us,’ which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.

Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ‘We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form.

And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:

Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,


Source of all that is and shall be,


Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!


The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!


Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!


Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!


With the bread that we need for today, feed us.


In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.


In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.


From trials too great to endure, spare us.


From the grip of all that is evil, free us.


For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,


now and for ever. Amen.

A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.

Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.

But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book ‘Moving Prayer,’ has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray. Nobody will be watching!

A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.

You might find it helpful to read a book or a blog about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s ‘The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ – which can be used by the plain woman just as well. When the Lord’s Prayer was used as the centrepiece of the Week of Prayer leading up to Pentecost this year, there was a lot written about it online.

‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it. As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.

 

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