Invitation to the Wedding.

wedding-invite-1

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Serve and Obey

Hebron's Vineyards

Hebron’s Vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Badge

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Covenant Relationships

golden-anniversary-france

 

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

 

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

 

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

covenant

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Unknown

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What is a cross?

Scan 6

Children’s Address for Trinity 12, Year A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A letter ‘J’ – for Jesus.

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

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

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

Any more ideas?

Scan 5

Posted in Uncategorized

Follow Me

Take up your Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But again, there is a reassurance at the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many crosses

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Feed the children or go to the dogs?

Canaanite woman(Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Rom. 11, 1-2a & 29-32; Matt. 15,21-28)

 

What are we here for?

What is the task of the Church?

 

The standard answer, if you look on a lot of church websites, is that we are here for mission and evangelism. We are sent out (our mission from God) to share the Good News (the evangel) with the world.

 

That may seem obvious to us now; but our readings indicate that this was not always obvious to the Early Church, or to the disciples, or even to Jesus himself.

 

The story we heard from Matthew’s Gospel (which also appears in Mark, but not in Luke) is a very disturbing one. Jesus travels to the border country where his native Galilee meets the non-Jewish territories of Tyre and Sidon. There, he is met by a non-Jewish woman, who needs his help for her sick child.

 

She does not ask quietly; she shouts! And when she is ignored, she keeps on shouting!

 

His disciples clearly find her a nuisance, and ask him to do something to make her stop: either to exorcise the demon, or to send her away (the Greek word could mean either). But Jesus does neither; he simply states his belief that his mission is only to the Jews, and specifically to the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel, those who have fallen away from their true allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

 

The woman then changes tactics. She comes closer and kneels in front of him. She addresses him as ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’, titles of honour. She begs humbly for his help.

 

Jesus’ answer to her is not only negative, it is blatantly insulting. He compares the message he brings to ‘food for the children’ and her race to the dogs that scavenge around outside the house. Now, many of us keep dogs as pets; they live inside our houses with us, are fed special food, and are loved and cared for. It wasn’t like that in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Dogs were unclean animals, not allowed in houses; they had to find their own food wherever they could, among the floor coverings that would be swept out of the house into the yard

.Canaan dog

 

And even though our attitudes to dogs have changed, to call a human being a dog is still an insult. Just imagine for a moment if a Pakistani Muslim woman came to the house of a Christian minister asking for help, and the minister refused and called her a bitch into the bargain. It would be headline news and the minister would undoubtedly face disciplinary proceedings.

 

Yet, instead of taking offence and giving up, the unnamed woman persists, and uses the same insulting language to press her case, arguing that she is not asking for the whole loaf that would be shared by the master and his family, merely the scraps and leftovers.

 

And then comes the most surprising and challenging element in the story. Jesus, who has been so definite about his mission, appears to change his mind, and grants the woman’s request. As with other healings of Gentiles in the Gospels, he heals at a distance; but he commends the Gentile woman’s faith, in an implicit contrast with the lack of faith of many of his fellow Jews who have rejected his message.

 

In Matthew’s Gospel this story comes between a passage where Jesus answers criticism of his disciples from the Pharisees and scribes, because his followers do not observe the strict laws of ritual cleanliness; and the second ‘Feeding of the Multitude’ miracle, where he feeds 4000 men, plus women and children, which scholars take to represent the mission to the Gentiles.

Taken together, these passages Illustrate the struggle that was going on among the apostles at the time that the Gospels were written about what they were there for; to whom were they sent; who were they supposed to evangelise?

 

By the time the Gospels were written, the mission to non-Jews was already a reality. After the Jewish revolt in AD 67-70, the Jewish centre of the Church in Jerusalem disappeared, and by the middle of the second century, the Jewish part of the Christian Church was beginning to be regarded as inferior, even heretical. Eventually, it disappeared altogether, and centuries of Christian anti-Semitism took over.

 

It was not meant to be like that. In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet known as Third Isaiah speaking to the Jewish people after their return from around 60 years of exile in Babylon. He urges them to live according to the commandments of their God, pursuing right and justice for all. Through that means, he says, foreigners, even the ones who oppressed them, will come to know the one true God. Eventually, they will even come to the temple at Jerusalem to join in worship there. Through the faithful witness of the Jewish people, even in suffering, the whole world will be evangelised and all people will be united in the truth.

In the Letter to the Romans, we hear Paul struggling to reconcile prophecies such as this with the fact that the majority of his fellow-Jews seem to have rejected Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah. Does this mean that God’s plan has changed, he asks. Paul is proud of his Jewish ancestry, he has been brought up to believe that salvation for the world will come through the Jews, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Yet, he cannot believe that God will reject the Chosen People. The salvation that comes through Jesus is for the Jews first, but through them it is offered to the whole world.

 

Paul’s letters, and the Book of Acts, show the enormous struggle that the Early Church went through to decide exactly how non-Jews should be absorbed into the fellowship of Christ’s followers. They show the apostles going to the Jewish communities first with the Gospel, but being forced through circumstances to take it to sympathisers (God-fearers) among the Gentiles, and finally to take the Good News directly to non-Jews. The Book of Acts portrays this is in a vivid way in the story of Peter’s dream, an incident of such importance that the story is repeated three times.

 

The Gospel story we heard portrays this difference about the path that our mission should take as going right back to Jesus himself. He starts out, as did the first apostles, with a mission directed only to Jews; but through the persistence of Gentiles who have faith, he is persuaded to offer the healing and salvation he brings to non-Jews too.

 

The final words of Matthew’s Gospel describe Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to evangelise the whole world. How do we live out that commission today, in our own churches and our own communities?

Do we live it out?

 

The Gospel reading faces us with hard questions about whether we still operate with ideas of mission which involve feeding the favoured children first, leaving only the crumbs for those we regard as second-best human beings, or even ‘dogs’.

 

Who are those that Christians regard as ‘dogs’ in our world today? The events in Charlottesville in Virginia last week, show that there is still a strand of Christianity that thinks people are excluded from God’s mercy on the grounds of race, or skin-colour, or religion or sexuality. The posters held up by the marchers show that the anti-Semitism which has been such a stain on Christian history is still very much alive today.

 

And who are those we would like to exclude from our fellowship, or shoo away, or silence, as the disciples wanted to silence the Canaanite woman? Isn’t that how the Church tends to treat those who disturb its peace by demanding to be listened to, given equality and a place at the table? Which groups of people tend to be left to pick up the crumbs, rather than being fed?

 

Children?

Those who like noisy modern music?

Those who question traditional ways of interpreting the faith?

The poor (as some of the bishops have said this week)?

The very elderly?

Travellers and asylum seekers and refugees?

People with disabilities?

People who are LGBTI+, gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or intersex, or who don’t conform to what the majority thinks is ‘normal’ in some other way?

Jews and Muslims, and those of other religions and none?

 

Can we, as the Body of Christ hear God talking to us through such people as these, as Jesus heard God talking to him through the Canaanite woman, and demanding not just the crumbs, but an equal place at the Lord’s table for all of these?

 

Only if we can, will these ‘dogs’ be seen God’s children, part of God’s Chosen People, members with us of God’s Beloved Community.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Coming Down from the Mountain

Transfiguration

 2 Peter 1, 16-19; Luke 9, 28-36

I once read an article  about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ʻflu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.

Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales.

We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration.

mount-everest-1   I donʼt go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in mountainous regions, especially the Alps.  We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!

Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses, as we heard, went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ʻstill small voiceʼ. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and they were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.

In the New Testament, some of the high points in Jesusʼ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension – all take place on mountains.

We can see why people who believed in a ʻthree-decker universeʼ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops were often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. But all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a powerful illustration of the glory of God. Whatʼs more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.

IMG_2606

View from Snowdon

So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ʻMy beloved Sonʼ.

It must have been a thrilling moment for  those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.

But human beings cannot live for long on the top of very high mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.

And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers put the story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.

The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesusʼ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for them to believe. Or perhaps they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe. Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on through the agony of the cross to the experience of resurrection. The people of the Apostolic Church, as we heard in our first reading, were sustained through times of trial by the memories those first disciples shared of their mountain top experience.

Many of us will have had ʻmountain top experiencesʼ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience. Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in at Evensong or Carols at Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with a person of spiritual depth brings revelation and a deepening of faith.

But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley , life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubts. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus, and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.

We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.

IMG_1501Those of you who have visited the fjords or other parts of Norway may have been told that during the winter months the sun doesnʼt reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the floor, in perpetual gloom.

When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight. And we need to build into our spiritual lives opportunities to visit the mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through being part of the Churchʼs campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.

Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,