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goats

Last Sunday before Advent, Christ the King, 22nd November 2020 Sheep and Goats

Matthew 25vv31-46

 

Last week, Claire looked at the Parable of the Talents.  Three slaves are given large amounts of money by their master while he goes away.  This parable has traditionally taken to be about how we should respond to the gifts and talents that God gives us.  Claire was struck by how unsympathetic a character the master seemed, the unrestrained capitalism of requiring the servants to increase their original holdings, how we tend to sympathise with the servant who just buried the money, and how out-of-proportion his punishment seemed.  It is not an easy passage,

 

Neither is today’s parable of the sheep and the goats.  Partly because it seems to say that eternal judgement is based on what we do, and partly because it consigns the unrighteous to eternal punishment.

 

Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of a collection of Jesus’ teaching on the end times, spread over two chapters.  It depicts Jesus (the Son of Man) on a throne in heavenly glory, with all of mankind before him.  Jesus separates the people into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

 

Shepherds and sheep are quite a common biblical theme, from Psalm 23 – the Lord’s my shepherd, the shepherds coming to the manger, to Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd.  Separating sheep and goats may sound a straightforward shepherd’s task.  Sheep and goats here are pretty different here (picture of UK sheep); even we could do it – if we could make them go where we wanted.  In other countries it is more of a challenge (picture of sheep in Israel).  We have lived in both Kenya and Nepal, where the sheep are, like these, a bit scruffy, not always white, and can have horns.  Goats can be many colours, quite shaggy, and do not always have horns.  You can usually work out which is which, but it can be challenging.  Mind you, sometimes the goats make it quite clear what they are (photo of goats in a tree).

 

The Son of Man, who is now referred to as the King, welcomes the sheep people into their inheritance, the kingdom, prepared before the creation of the world.  And he says that this is because they had cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, in need of clothing, or in prison.  The sheep, now called the righteous, have no recollection of ever having looked after the King.  But, he says, whatever you did for the least of one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

 

The king then becomes distinctly goatist, and tells them that they had never cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, sick, a stranger, in need of clothing, or in prison.  They again say, but we never ever saw you in such need.  The King tells them whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.  The goats are sent into eternal punishment, the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

 

We discussed Claire’s sermon and the Parable of the Talents in our homegroup this week, and I found it really helpful.  Two things came out for me.

 

  1. Parables are stories.

 

They are not specific instruction on how to live.  They are imaginative pieces that speak to different people differently.  In our homegroup it was intriguing that some people found the parable spoke to a specific part of their current experience, highly relevant now, while others took it more generally.

 

Not every point in the parables means something.  There is no one-to-one correspondence the details and real life.  Actually, this parable is a bit of a muddle.  How often do you find a king hungry and thirsty, or in prison?  And the terminology is all over the place: is it the Son of Man/the King/the Lord/or Jesus?  Are these people/sheep/goats/righteous/cursed.  (And why is he so down on goats?)

 

The parables are usually making a wider point, but their format allows them to speak to you individually.

  1. You need to take the gospel as a whole.

 

It is dangerous to take one verse from the Bible, one saying of Jesus, and to make it the foundation of our belief.  Particularly when that verse is an imaginative story that we are slightly uncertain about.

 

When we allow the parables to speak to us, the problem is that we often feel inadequate, unworthy, miserable sinners, and think that any warnings within are aimed directly at us.  Resist this!

 

It is not the thrust of Jesus teaching, or the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, or even the Old Testament, that God is watching you in order to judge you and condemn you.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son, forgiveness is given freely to the son, despite his selfishness in running off and squandering his inheritance (Luke 15:11-31).  In his ministry, Jesus offers forgiveness to the sick, to those in trouble.  Jesus says to the penitent thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, not because of the life he had lived, but because he had turned to Jesus at the end (Luke 29:39-43).

 

You can note that several of the parables about judgement – the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-36), the Ten Virgins (25:1-13), the Wheat and the Tares (13:24-30), the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35) – are only in Matthew, a gospel which appears to be written with a Jewish readership in mind.  Part of the meaning of these parables follows on from the Old Testament prophets in scolding Israel for its rejection of God.

 

Nevertheless, in any approach to the gospels, we have to take Jesus’ words seriously.  There are parts of the Old Testament that are difficult, and do not seem to reflect the God we see in Jesus.  Paul seems a bit cranky sometimes, and does appear to be speaking to his time and culture in some of his pronouncement.  But we are Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ.  We need to try and understand what Jesus was trying to convey in the parable, and not dismiss it.

 

There is clearly a warning here.  The Kingdom of Heaven is for those who are kind, caring, generous.

 

I notice a couple of other things, though.  The righteousness are not doing good because of a fear of hellfire.  They were not even aware that they were doing good.  When Jesus rewards them for their kindness to him, they have no idea what he is talking about.  This is not forced, grudging charity, only done because they have to do it.  It is a natural, joyful outworking of the Kingdom, a response to God’s great generosity.  It is a sign of the Spirit within, not a requirement.

 

The unrighteous do not get this.  If they had known it was Jesus, of course they would have fed him or given him a glass of water.  Durr.  But that is not what Jesus is getting at.  In the goats, there was no sign that the gospel has touched them.  Their hearts had not been changed.  There was no love.

 

Still, we end up with eternal punishment.  Last week it was darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Here we have the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  How do we reconcile a loving God with this?

 

Well, remember, this is a parable, a story.  What does it mean in reality?  I do not fully know.  I am encouraged by views like that of C.S. Lewis, who in The Great Divorce, has one of the characters say “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell.  But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself.  All that is fully real is Heavenly.  For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”  Maybe that is it.

 

Today is the festival of Christ the King.  We celebrate Jesus the Christ, who, as the second person of the Trinity, God’s Son, is given all power in heaven and on earth.  But he was not one to stand on the status of his majesty, but was born as a baby to show us the Father.  Yes, there are some warnings in his words, but also a lot of encouragement in his words and his actions.  May his love grow in us.

Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen

Matthew 25

 

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

 

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

 

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

 

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

 

hole in the ground

Second Sunday before Advent, November 15th 2020

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Talents

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read something over and over and ended up being less sure about its meaning the more you read it?

 

I found this happening to me this week with the parable of the talents. I used to think I knew what it meant. Perhaps you know what it means! I’d like us to explore this morning what it feels like to read scripture with an open mind and an open heart.

 

It’s certainly a good little story – easy to remember and retell. It has a familiar fairy tale beginning: a man goes on a journey. Before leaving he summons his three servants and entrusts each of them with a large some of money. Again, the structure is like a fairy tale – we know the drill – the first servant did this; the second one did essentially the same, on a smaller scale, and the third – did something rogue.

 

In some fairy tales, the third person stands out from the others by being the surprising hero. Think Jesse and his sons in the OT: each son came before Samuel but none was right, till the youngest, David, turned up. And against all the odds he was THE ONE. Or take this well-known story: there are two older sisters who are ugly and unkind but the youngest, Cinderella, who sweeps the hearth, emerges as the true princess.

 

I wonder whom you most identify with in this parable. Getting in touch with our gut reactions when we read scripture seems important because it tells us about ourselves and might be a good first step before we engage more cerebrally. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables were often unsettled by what he said. The Samaritan wasn’t supposed to be good; the reckless son wasn’t supposed to be treated generously; the workers in the vineyard weren’t all supposed to receive the same wage. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. There would have been outrage! There would have been post sermon fallout! There would not have been a polite handshake at the church door and the comment: ‘nice sermon, vicar.’

 

It’s much harder for us to come fresh to the parables, because after decades of listening to sermons on them, we’ve been told what they mean, and by and large we read them theologically, not personally.

 

So I invite you to listen to the story again and try and discern whom you most identify with. Try in this exercise to put away what your brain and church training is telling you and focus on the emotional impact. I sometimes worry that listening to a large number of sermons about what this and that means, has inured us to reacting honestly to Jesus’ words and being able to see their force in today’s situations.

(read story out loud)

Here’s what happened when I did this exercise in the week. This is my stream of consciousness, if you like (I would love to know how yours went – were you able to get into one?)

 

The Master

I didn’t much like him. His moods seemed rather changeable. One minute he’s congratulating a servant, the next he’s getting irate. He’s described by the third slave as ‘reaping where he didn’t sow, and gathering where he didn’t scatter seed’, which I take to mean he benefits from others’ hard work without necessarily acknowledging their input. He’s the most unlikely person to say “I stand here today on the shoulders of others who have gone before me”. He puts profit over people, calls another human being ‘worthless’, which Jesus said we shouldn’t do, and casts him out because he’s been ‘unprofitable’. I imagine him shouting when he says ‘give his talent to the one who has five; for to those who have, more will be given…but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’, which is probably the origin of the unfortunate misquotation: ‘God helps those who help themselves’. I have to be honest – it made me think of the outgoing president of the United States.

 

The first and second slaves

I felt pretty neutral about these two. They were obviously very capable. Like very gifted stockbrokers both somehow managed to double the money entrusted to them, but there’s no information about how this was achieved. Often with very large returns, there has either been a high element of risk (which could’ve backfired) or others might have been treated poorly in the process of maximizing profit – think ‘gig economy’. Because they’ve been successful in their investments, they will be going on to higher things. I want to be generous and say they were faithful; but taking the story at face value, I feel they were being rewarded for being successful. And they were pretty lucky: in the 1980s we took out an endowment mortgage with the suggestion it would return at least triple over 25 years. I can tell you that ours spectacularly underperformed.

 

The third slave.

Even just saying that and I already feel myself to be on the side of the underdog. I mean it’s bad enough being a slave, but ‘third slave’? Did you hear about the research that showed that people who’d played Mary or Joseph in their primary school nativity had gone on to earn more and be more successful than those who were given, like me, ‘third angel’, or ‘third shepherd’, or even ‘back end of donkey’?

 

So – third slave. He’s apparently the least able, and he has a negative view of the Master, whom he calls harsh. But is he right? Being entrusted with money brings him out in a cold sweat. He’s a careful guy. Refusing to join in with the trading scheme, he digs a hole in the ground to keep the money safe. There’s something either pathetic and sad or courageous and prophetic about that digging. When the master comes back, he safely returns the money.

 

We’re all being told to play it safe at the moment: stay home, save lives, protect the NHS, etc. I think the third slave would be seen as a good citizen at this time. Perhaps he knows the banks are corrupt so he’s done the only sensible thing: the equivalent of hiding his savings under the mattress. For which he gets a rollicking, and is not merely sacked, but thrown into outer darkness, whatever that means. It seems a slight over reaction.

 

So that is my emotional response, and the reason I found this talk so difficult to write, is that my emotional response is at odds with my theological intimation. I don’t know if that ever happens to you. If you were able to hear the story straightforwardly and feel nothing but praise for the slaves who invested their master’s money and contempt for the one who was afraid – I kind of envy you! That would have been much simpler, and it’s always easier to go with the flow…

 

But let’s just go with feelings for now. I wonder what comes to mind about the times we live in today, when this parable is brought to bear? We are seeing more and more the limits of unregulated capitalism – this was one of the things we talked about as a group of us looked at Naomi Klein’s book “On Fire” this week. I know this is a political thing to say but it would seem that the trickle down effect hasn’t worked – instead the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and sometimes I feel ashamed to be British.

 

The government tried really hard to resist the call of Marcus Rashford to provide free school meals for the children of poor families over half term, arguing that local councils to whom they’d already given money could provide. They later bowed to intense public pressure and completely changed tack.

 

Wealth creation isn’t wrong in itself; the problem comes at the distribution stage. There is a lot of power in someone famous saying: “I remember what it was like to go to bed hungry”. It helps us imagine what that must do to a person’s view of life, how the world must truly seem like a place of scarcity instead of a place full of  – what? – the generous abundance of God?

 

Maybe we should feel compassion for the third slave because Christ is to be found with those who have nothing, who feel worthless, who hunger and weep in the dark. The parable of the sheep and the goats, immediately following this parable even suggests when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner; that is when we unknowingly minister to Christ. And not to feed the hungry is seen as worthy of judgment, just as some judged the government for failing to feed children over half term.

 

The very fact that some of us might feel sympathy for the third slave shows the deep effect of the Christian message on the Western imagination; something argued by Tom Holland in his book Dominion, so I make no apologies for feeling this way.

 

On the other hand, am I trying to justify myself? Am I over sentimentalizing the parable and reading my own personal perspective into the text, rather than drawing out the original meaning (eisegesis, not exegesis)? These are all questions of hermeneutics, and they are important.

 

So what is my head telling me about this parable? What is your head telling you? What is significant about this master coming back to settle accounts? What does it mean to be faithful in the lesser things?

 

The best way I can describe what I think it means theologically it is by quoting the poet Mary Oliver in The Summer Day, a poem in which she spends the day contemplating the beautiful outdoors. Everything around her is an abundant gift from the creator, even the grasshopper whom she watches as she ‘lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face’. It’s all a free gift and given for our enjoyment. Therefore, in view of all this grace she asks in the last two lines:

 

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?’

 

Contrary to the expectations of that child who goes to bed hungry and knows only scarcity, there is in fact a beautiful and plentiful world out there, given us by a prodigious God, for everyone to enjoy. When we know this, when we let that abundance flow freely through us and out to others in a channel of blessing, when we are generous we discover that the more we give, the more we receive – that is the law of abundance – like the law of compound interest, the more you invest, the more you get back, exponentially.

 

So be careful with parables – don’t lose the shock factor! Let yourself be stirred up. A parable means something is ‘thrown down alongside’ something else. It’s a metaphor, like saying ‘God is a rock’. We can all guess what we mean when we say ‘God is a rock’’. At one level this illuminates our understanding of God, but at another level it obscures it. Because God is in fact quite beyond a rock – God is in fact so different from his creation that in many ways he is unknowable (for those of you who like labels, that’s the difference between kataphatic and apophatic spirituality). So I think we have to be careful assuming the master of the parable is God or Jesus, for example.

 

And one last thought: as we move liturgically towards Advent, we can’t escape the idea of the wrapping up of history, particularly the role of judgment. Matthew chapter 24 and 25 is one whole discourse about the question put to Jesus: ‘what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt. 24:3). Jesus tells this parable at the end of his ministry, shortly before he is handed over to darkness where he will hold nothing back for our deliverance.

 

So we read scripture and scripture reads us. If you have a strong reaction to something in the bible, listen to it! The bible has broad shoulders. Judgment is a difficult topic for us, but judgment is not a bad thing in itself. If you recoil from the idea of judgment, just remember that not a small number of people celebrated the judgment of the American people this week as they voted out Donald Trump by a margin of 5 million.

 

How are you investing today?

mountains

Sermon on the Mount /Beatitudes – Sunday 8th November 2020

Matthew 5: 1-16

If you have been connected with the church for any length of time you will be familiar with this gospel passage you will have heard it read and preached on probably a large number of times. This is the start of Jesus discourse of the Sermon on the Mount. The text is very straight forward; there are no hidden meanings, the hearer is not left trying to work out the meaning; it is not like Jesus’s encounter with the pharisees or the religious authorities.

The words maybe straight forward but the implications are not and every time you revisit them you find new depths, new challenges. Today is remembrance Sunday so some will be particularly poignant and as we are approaching advent, the time we use to prepare for God coming into the world you may also want to reflect on them both as a whole or perhaps individually in whatever way you feel led.

First though, take note of Matthew’s first sentence. “Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down. His disciples gathered round him, and he began to teach them”. So, this is not addressed to the crowd but to those who have already made a commitment, these are the hard yards so to speak.

These eight beatitudes are not singular and separate so it is not like some are called to be merciful whilst others to be peacemakers. They are Jesus’s specification, his expectations of the qualities; the character of Christian people. And this is for all of us not just for those we might look to as “super Christians”.

So, let’s look briefly at them and see what can be teased out for each of us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This means we are to live without a need for our own righteousness. It is inner emptiness; no outer need for reputation. In business the higher up you go the more you have to tow the party line, that’s the price you pay. You have to act in a certain way follow the rules. Jesus is saying avoid this. It is very easy to say and behave in a way that is contrary to ‘the truth’- we do it to survive to be accepted by the group.

You are better off outside the system; you don’t have to play the game.

Blessed are those that mourn for they will be comforted

Claire in the all souls service last week mentioned how tears and grieving are part of remembering. There is salt in our tears and some evidence that it carries away toxins from our bodies. Jesus here is also describing the state of those that weep who have something to mourn about. They feel the pain of the world; those who can grieve and cry understand. Especially today on remembrance Sunday to understand the futility of war and to weep for the hatred that it perpetrates for the dark side of humanity. This is to not look for perpetrators or victims but to weep for the tragedy it is. God’s tears are always for everyone.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  

This Beatitude is a quote from Psalm 37 v 11 “But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace”. Conflicts more often than not is about is about the possession of land or resources and the use of violence to obtain it or hold on to it. So, the powerful win out. Not only in war but in our society, we are bound up in ownership and possession. Jesus is turning this on its head and saying no it is the small that will inherit.

Is not possession an illusion when the light of the kingdom of God is shone onto it? After all what do we truly possess; but this is ridiculous talk unless you understand the story/the gospel and the good news it is.

Francis of Assisi – told us never to own anything so that we can be open to everything.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

What is the message here? Is it make sure you are never satisfied? Keep yourself in a constant state of dissatisfaction. When we move through layers of prayer past superficial desires, we find out what our real desires are and it is always God

Saint Augustine – “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God”

Even the wealthiest person is never satisfied; that is the character of greed you always want more/a higher dosage to achieve the old satisfaction. Jesus is saying why not go in the opposite direction? Directly and positively choose emptiness until it loses its terror.

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Mercy is like the mystery of forgiveness. By definition, mercy is unearned, undeserved and not owed. If it isn’t all of those it is not experienced as mercy. If you think people have to be merciful, or, on the other hand, try to earn mercy, you’ve lost the mystery of it and with it the heart of the gospel. Don’t we have a gratuitous and generous God who just loves and saves? God has made a covenant which is not broken from his side. It can be broken on our side by clutching to our sins and beating ourselves up instead of surrendering to the divine mercy. By not doing that are we saying we are better than mercy. I’m only going to accept when I’m worthy? Only in humility can we live in and after mercy.

Only when we understand what God has done for us, dying, becoming powerless and not withholding anything can we both receive it and give it away.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God

When the heart is right, seeing will be right. If your heart is cold your vision will be distorted. Perhaps you don’t like someone; you want to hurt someone because they hurt you. There may be coldness and unforgiveness or rejection so your heart is not pure. So, Jesus call is for purity of heart and correct seeing will follow.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.

Again, is this at the heart of things peace making is reconciling. Jesus is not on the side of violence but on the side of the non-violent. We still see all too often that people, nations think they can bring about peace by violence but that only leads to oppression. The peace that Jesus offers is very different and is based around justice and self-sacrifice. It calls on us to sacrifice any false power, prestige and possessions. The peace that Jesus gives is different to that which the world gives.

The beatitudes can be life changing and a blessing if we let them. They will be a blessing to us so that we can be a blessing to others. But here on remembrance Sunday when we think of conflicts and wars both worldwide or in different parts of the world with the powers not listening or hearing this counterintuitive message it all seems beyond us and not something we can affect.

Perhaps this is where the second part of the reading comes into play, the call to be salt and light. Think about salt for a moment small grains, when you put it on your food you cannot see it but you know it is there and it makes a difference.

So, we start where we are with those people we come into contact with every day. For each of us that will be different; and there are as many different life stories as there are people on this call.

As all of you know I work for an insurance company and ultimately, I have 25 people who report to me and who I am responsible for. I spend 8 to 10 hours a day five days a week with them in various groupings. How do I bring what God expects of me to bear in those encounters on a daily basis?

With there being 25 people, I come across a wide range of situations some good and some bad and I want to act with integrity each time. Do I get it right all the time; of course not, far from it. So, I’ve reflected about the past year and share some anonymous situations.

During this time three people have suffered bereavements’, one lost a son and another a father to COVID-19. Because of working in different ways, a lot being from home people have suffered with mental health issues, some genuine and some not. Still others have problems with anger who are not able to vent in the normal way. There are those because of the isolation who have lost confidence in who they are and what they can do.

God expects me to be, do and act in a way that is consistent with the beatitudes. This is a challenge for me. I wonder what is God calling you to at this moment?

Perhaps another way to look at it.

I’m sure we have all heard of IQ – logical intelligence our capacity to process and apply knowledge in a rational fashion. Apparently for a long time this was the only sort of intelligence that was recognised as important and valid. However, other types of intelligence are now recognised. Where I work there is a lot of talk about EQ – emotional intelligence which is considered just as important as it provides the awareness of other people’s feelings, as well as our own. It enables empathy, compassion and the capacity to respond to other people’s pain. It enables us to ‘read’ people at an emotional level. Unlike IQ which is generally thought to be fairly static EQ can be cultivated and grown.

However, when we think about the beatitudes, we are perhaps looking at a third area that of SQ – spiritual intelligence. SQ drives us to explore the big questions: why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Which path should I follow? Spiritual intelligence is about the big picture; it looks for an overarching sense of meaning to life. SQ like EQ, I would suggest, is something that also can be cultivated and grown.

Spiritual intelligence is thinking with the soul looking for the deeper answers. Church should be a place where we can do that. For sure this is a place where beliefs are taught and affirmed but it must also be a place where spiritual intelligence is nurtured. This means creating the space where beliefs can be questioned and doubted and explored in an open fashion. Where we can explore argue and debate and come up with new meanings about what faith today looks like. In other words, SQ prompts us to criticise or question the status quo, allowing us to imagine situations and possibilities that do not yet exist.

So, what does spiritual intelligence look like in practice what are its qualities. Perhaps to name a few but there will be others.

  • Self-awareness – an understanding of what makes us tick, in terms of values and motivations.

 

  • Empathy – the ability to identify with others and share in their feelings.

 

  • Humility – having a measured sense of our place in the wider scheme of things.

 

  • Resilience – remaining positive in the face of adversity and able to learn and grow from mistakes and setbacks.

 

  • Receptivity – staying open and welcoming towards diversity and difference.

We need to continue to cultivate this within our community here to journey with each other to help each other grow to be blessed and to be a blessing. To help with this the diocese have developed a personal discipleship plan which we will be exploring here. This is an accompanied faith journey with a mentor to help us question, grow and feel more confident to live out our lives in all areas of life. More will be shared about this over the coming weeks.

The beatitudes a lot to think about, reflect on and act on. Amen.

 

love

Make sure you get this right! – Sermon Sunday 25th October 2020, Trinity 20

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-end

 

We heard read just now from the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew, the hated tax collector who was summoned by Jesus to leave behind his shallow life of avarice and greed, called to his life’s true vocation as a disciple of Jesus with the simple words, ‘Follow me!’ (Matt 9:9). Why did Jesus do that? Out of love, of course. And why did Matthew follow him, share 3 years of his life with him, write a book about him and ultimately give his life for him? Out of love.  It is in his gospel, Matthew’s gospel, that we read of the Pharisees who asked Jesus the question: which is the greatest commandment in the law? And Jesus replies with those words we know so well, quoting from the OT in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matt 22:34-40). I wonder how Matthew felt on writing those words as he reflected on his own conversion to love.

 

How do we hear the command to love? How does it sit with us? I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being commanded to love. How does that work? Does it sound a bit like the sergeant major? ‘Pull yourself together, Croft! Stand to attention! Polish those boots of yours and put your cap on straight! And love God and your neighbour!’  This came up in conversation with Hamish Preston one day and he pointed out to me the way that it really does sound quite military and therefore it jars a bit. It’s more like this, to love God and neighbour is the absolute heart of the matter. You cannot, you must not miss this. Jesus said it himself, on this hang all the law and the prophets – that is, everything you know about God in the Bible is focussed here. If you want to live life right, properly ordered, aiming in the right direction, it will begin and end with the love of God. Get this right and the rest will follow. And God isn’t some slave-master, demanding our servitude; he is not insecure, somehow needing our love; no, in fact if we catch the faintest glimpse of God we can’t help ourselves.

 

Every morning an email from Christian Art plops into my inbox and I read it as part of my prayer. Reflecting on the greatest commandment, this is what Philip van der Vorst, who is training for the catholic priesthood in Rome, writes:  Today’s reading goes to the very heart of all Scripture. Jesus tells us what our central duty, responsibility, and even privilege in life is: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’ Jesus doesn’t mention the soul, the heart and mind as if they were separate categories of love, it is one love. But by spelling out heart, mind and soul, Jesus stresses that we are to love God with every part of our being. The depth of our love for God should sit in each of these areas. To love God with our heart means that our life revolves around Him. He is the center of our daily life wheel. He is at the forefront of all that we think and do. To love God with our soul means there is genuine emotion and passion towards God. This doesn’t mean that our love for God is to be controlled by our feelings. But it is yet important to find God in our emotional nature. And then to love God with our mind, does not just include the intellectual life, but also a sense determination, active choice and using our free will to seek God. Loving God with all our mind balances out our emotions and steers the direction and path on which we walk, pursuing God. 

 

The love flows both ways, of course and we can only love at all because God loves us. The apostle John put it like this in his first letter: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). I have a book by Brother Roger of Taizé entitled, ‘God is love alone’; the title says it all! At the very heart of God, in all his awesome power is something that we too share: love. This is true of God since mysteriously, the One God is Three: Father, Son and Spirit: the community of God, the Trinity, bound together by love and in love. Our communities: families, friends, neighbourhoods, churches are all reflections, images of that love that spreads out so generously from God Himself.

 

How do we begin to love God? It must be something that comes from our hearts, although the outworking of it will be in our actions. Coming to love God isn’t so much something we do, as something we allow to happen. What I’m going to say now has been said so often in this church that it almost feels like a cliché! I refer to Jeremy’s sermon of a couple of weeks ago when he spoke of finding time for prayer; and Mark’s sermon on 24th August when he talked about contemplative prayer. It’s about deliberately putting ourself in a place of stillness, gently letting go of worries about yesterday, today and tomorrow and being quietly present with God. Allowing God to slip in gently into our lives. It’s about noticing – noticing the beauty of an autumn day; not just an idle glance, but a long look, and allowing the thought to come in, that this is an expression of the love and beauty of God and allowing that to warm our hearts. It’s about taking precious words of scripture and lingering over them, perhaps even memorising them, repeating them to ourselves, allowing them to soak in and move us. As I said earlier, it’s about allowing ourselves to catch a glimpse of God: once we do that, we can’t help but love him.

 

The outworking of the love of God in our hearts (which is the same as the presence of Christ within us) will, indeed must show itself in love of our neighbour – and indeed, in love of ourselves, for Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. I’m proud to say that we are pretty aware of this at St John’s and there is a lot of love being shown in various ways: helping with shopping, doing the decorating, giving lifts, delivering prescriptions, visiting, supporting, involvement in Communicare, Hope into Action and so on. I’d like to reference another sermon that was preached recently, a very moving one by Ian Maynard when those of us who have white skins, like me, heard what it can be like not to have a white skin, and felt very uncomfortable in the process. I was powerfully reminded that all forms of prejudice and racism are the opposite of love.

 

I’m guessing here, maybe wildly, that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is not one of those places that your well-thumbed Bible opens itself to. But I was struck by our first reading today and the way it revealed the tender heart of Paul as he spoke of the way he conducted himself among the men and women of Thessaloniki: ‘…we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.(1 Thess 2:8,9). Isn’t that beautiful? The scary apostle Paul himself knew love.

 

Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel-prize winning biologist. Recently, on a podcast I was listening to, he described the pot plant sitting on his desk as his relative! In the sense that all living things on the earth, whether plant or animal, insect or fungus, fish or tree, human or pot plant are biologically related. We are all related! Did you know that we share 25% of our genes with plants?? What would it mean to regard the whole created order as our relatives – or perhaps as our neighbours. Because that’s exactly what they are!! And in so doing, love them. In saying this, Sir Paul was, probably without knowing it, echoing the words of St Francis of Assisi, who named all created things as Brother, Sister, Mother or Father and thus related himself to them. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, humanity has increasingly regarded the planet and living things on it as a commodity to be exploited – and we are now reaping the whirlwind of that, quite literally.  Maybe if we, as a human race, can come to regard the creation as a relative, a neighbour, a loved brother or sister, we can begin to turn back the tide of climate change. So let us see our planet and everything on it as our relatives, our neighbours, our friends, gifts, and love them.

 

I’m going to end with a poem. I want to balance the command to love with an invitation to first of all receive love. A child cannot learn to love unless he or she first receives love: then it’s possible to return it. In the same way, we will not be able to love God or our neighbour or indeed even ourselves if we don’t first receive the love of God. So sit back and listen, and maybe even go back to this poem and let it feed you. It’s ‘Love’, by George Herbert. You’ve heard it before. In this poem, think of Love as God.

 

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.

 

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.                                                                                                        Richard Croft

peace

Sermon from Sunday 11th October 2020 – Trinity 18

Philippians 4:1-9: Rejoice Always

 

I am going to be looking at our epistle reading today, from Philippians, rather than at the parable of the wedding banquet.  I really like the letter to the Philippians, in that it is so personal, and Paul clearly likes the church there.  When he wrote the letter, Paul was (most likely) under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28v16).  There had been a Jewish plot in Jerusalem to kill him, which ended up with him being taken into custody by the Romans, and when he appeared before the Roman governor of Caesarea, he had appealed to Caesar, and been taken to Rome (Acts 23-28).  The Philippian church had sent a gift to support him (4vv10-20), and this was a thank you letter, and to let them know how he was.

 

The letter is generally very encouraging, and does have some wonderful bits in it.  In 2vv6-11 there is the marvellous Christian hymn about Jesus that starts: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…  We have been working our way through Romans in the past few months, and that feels much more like a theological treatise.  It is good stuff, but hard work, quite difficult to follow.  Philippians is much more personal and accessible.

 

Our reading is the final page of the letter: parting greetings and instructions.

 

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

 

This is an extraordinary statement for a Christian leader.  It would, as Sir Humphrey says in Yes, Minister, be “brave”.  You hear people say “Do as I say, not as I do”, but this is “Do as I do”.  It is a challenge, and one that I find humbling as I deliver this sermon.  But it speaks of the way faith should spread into our whole lives, changing us, making us more like the Lord.  We will not always succeed in being like Jesus, be then God’s love and forgiveness is always there to come back to.

 

The church in Philippi was not perfect.  Two women, Euodia and Syntyche are having some sort of dispute.  We do not know what it was about.  Interestingly, Paul does not take sides, but urges them to be of the same mind as the Lord.  And he asks the others in the congregation to help them do this.  Again, there is clear affection there too, as the women have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.

 

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

 

This is another glimpse of how a love for Christ can spread into all parts of our lives.  IN EVERYTHING, by prayer and supplication (and in a minute we shall look at Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS).  God is always with us, and we should cultivate an awareness of God with us, and a response to it.

 

We had an interesting discussion with friends last weekend about church: what it should be, and where it will go post COVID.  One point that came out strongly is that Christian life is most definitely not just about church.  Attending church, in church or on Zoom, is one expression of faith, but should not be the only one.  Church may be a starting point for faith, but not the end.

 

For me, there have been some positive features about the coronavirus lockdowns.  I am no longer speed three nights a week in Bristol to work in the office there.  But because I have no commute, either to Bristol or in Bristol, it is easier to fit in some quiet time with God in the morning, before I start work on the computer in the bedroom.  Regular prayer is a good thing.  We can make it into an ought, and sometimes it will feel like an ought, but it can be very precious and sustaining.  It will take different forms for different people.  Within the church, I know of people who take a time to read a devotional book, study the Bible, pray as a couple, spend 15 minutes just being silent, listen to the Pray As You Go podcasts, meditate on a gospel story; and there will be many others.  Hard work sometimes, apparently unfruitful sometimes, but over the long term, a source of strength and a way of letting God in.

 

Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. 

 

I came across an unpublished poem by G.K. Chesterton:

You say grace before meals.

All right.

But I say grace before the play and the opera,

And grace before the concert and the pantomime,

And grace before I open a book,

And grace before sketching, painting,

Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;

And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. 

 

John Stott was an Anglican priest who was, for many years, at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, though with an international ministry.  He was the Queen’s Chaplain for most of his life, and many of you will be familiar with him through his books and talks over many years.  He was also a keen birdwatcher.  In my quiet times this week I have been using a book written by him called, The Birds, Our Teachers.  Since I am also a birdwatcher, this appealed to me on several grounds.

 

In the introduction he says that he considers that Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6v26, Look at the birds of the air, means that all Christians should be birdwatchers, which seems perfectly reasonable.  The book talks of lessons that we can learn from birds, a study he calls ornitheology.

 

Stott quotes a Ghanaian proverb, Even the chicken, when it drinks, lifts its head to heaven to thank God for the water.  [www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNrijjpkNAE].  This view of chickens is a good reminder of giving thanks in everything.

 

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 

 

Mark talked in a sermon the other week about deciding not to watch the news because it was so negative.  What you concentrate on will be what your mind is full of.  So consciously turning towards that which is good, which can mean doing good rather than avoid anything upsetting, is another way of turning ourselves towards God.

 

And the reward: And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 

 

Jeremy Thake,

St. John & St. Stephen

 

 

journey

Lessons for the Journey – Sunday 27th September, Trinity 16A

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

In the Lectionary we’ve been in Exodus for a few weeks now. This morning is no exception. The alternative was a short passage from Philippians, which is a message about being of one heart and mind, and in Matthew’s gospel we have an exchange between Jesus and his accusers on the subject of authority.

At first the readings don’t appear to have much in common, but I think there’s a lesson in each for us at this time as we simultaneously emerge from lockdown and head perilously close to it again.

So I’ve called this talk: Lessons for the Journey. In Exodus the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and this seems rather a good description, I think, of what it’s felt like to be church in the last six months. We’ve had to leave what we knew of as normal, without really knowing what our destination will be. It is certainly difficult to make plans whilst in this in between stage, so do keep praying for the Church Wardens, Christine and myself as we navigate this period, with the help of Tanya and the music leaders and IT gurus amongst us.

The escape from slavery in Egypt is one the foundational stories of the Old Testament, but it’s about a lot more than gaining physical freedom. There must be some human tendency, I think, to forget the gains we have made and the blessings we have received. It seems that as soon as we get what we longed for, we want to go back to what we had before.

The Israelites had longed for freedom; they’d no doubt prayed for it over many generations. And God heard their cry and sent them deliverance in the form of Moses and Aaron, to get them out of Egypt.

But it seems no sooner were they out of Egypt, they wanted to return. ‘The people complained against Moses, and said “why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our livestock and children with thirst?”’ This was one of the first of a catalogue of complaints against Moses that would continue for 40 years.

As Danielle Strickland has pointed out, in her book about Exodus, you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. The Israelites’ wanderings in the desert turned into a long lesson that God was trying to teach them: that is, where God leads, he always provides. The wilderness taught them the very hard lesson of trust. I’m not sure they even got it by the end.

And perhaps that’s a good place for us to start in terms of lessons for our journey. Many people feel like they’re in the wilderness at the moment. It’s an in between time – we’re not out of the woods yet as far as Covid goes – but at the same time, we’re in a different place than we were six months ago. I’m not sure if to you it feels worse or better than in March when all this began…

Being in between demands a spirituality that can thrive in a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. A liminal space is where you have left the shore of the old place, but have not yet arrived at the new place. You have to let go of what you had before, but before you can embrace what is coming, you are living with neither one thing nor the other. That was me this time last year as I spent exactly two weeks not technically being the minister of either Whitchurch or St John and St Stephen’s! Being in liminal space can be daunting, but it can also be liberating.

In the wilderness the Israelites were free outwardly, but it would take a lot longer to become free inwardly. They had lived in subjugation for so long, they had forgotten how to take responsibility for their own moral actions, and they complain to Moses like children. Instead of trusting God’s provision they feel God has abandoned them to an early grave.

As we are in between what we remember as normal, and what things are beginning to feel like now, we are also in liminal space and need to trust that where God leads, he also provides.

I wonder, what has been your experience of God’s provision?  Do you feel that you need to take matters into your own hands when it comes to a crisis, or do you find it easy to trust that God will provide? I don’t know about you, but my experience of God’s provision is that sometimes it feels as though it’s a bit last minute; it doesn’t necessarily look like how I imagined it would be, and it tends to emerge piecemeal rather than ready-made.

But emerge it does, and often when we are listening to one another and sharing what we really need from each other. This is what we’re trying to do as a leadership team as I meet weekly with Christine, Ian and Rosemary.

Our church family is being moulded through this crisis. New IT skills are emerging (painful though it may feel sometimes!); we are making new connections with people who have not felt able to come to church in recent years, and we are thinking about a more diverse worship offering.

I wonder how your spirituality is developing in this time? Maybe you can find someone to talk this through with. On Tuesday a group of us met to be trained as encouragers/mentors so that eventually you will be able to have a one to one conversation with someone who’s mature, about your walk with God, and it might prove quite life changing in this liminal time.

So to briefly look at the other two readings: and here’s one thought from Philippians and then one from Matthew. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Boris Johnson read this passage at a recent Battle of Britain Commemoration Service (slide).

This is basically our country’s mantra at the moment, straight from the bible! Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer has said it is our ‘collective responsibility’ to manage the present Covid upsurge and Boris Johnson has said we must ‘Act now together’. The gift of the church to the world is that we know where the impetus to consider others before ourselves comes from. Its origin is not a begrudging sense of duty, but nothing less than the self-emptying of Jesus Christ – technical term: ‘kenosis’. If Christ, who was divine, emptied himself of power in order to serve others, we can take our example from him.

Which leads us finally to Matthew, and the true nature of authority. Authority is also a hot topic at the moment. It is alluded to in each of the three readings; in fact you could say it’s the thread that ties them together. In complaining at Moses, Exodus makes it clear that the people were really complaining at God, and rejecting his authority. They do the same when later they ask Samuel for a king to be set over them, like the other nations have. And the moral of that story was: be careful what you wish for.

Christ’s authority is predicated on his self-emptying. Only by going down, can he go up, as it were (to use the language of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards). Death precedes resurrection and only Christ’s sacrificial death disarms the principalities and powers. Yes, every knee will bow: this is the wish of all tyrants that every knee would bow to them, but only Christ will legitimately receive universal homage.

In Matthew, Jesus is challenged to defend his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” is the Pharisees’ question. He answers with another question and a parable. In effect the three readings pose these three questions: Was Moses’ authority from God? Was John the Baptist’s authority from God? Was Jesus’s authority from God? The answer in all three cases is yes. But only those with obedient hearts were able to perceive this. That’s why following God is less about ‘can you answer these questions correctly?’ and more about ‘is your heart in the right place?’

It’s like a man who had two sons, says Jesus: their father asked them for help in the vineyard. The first said okay, but didn’t go. The other initially said no, but later he went. Which one is heading into the kingdom, is the question. The Pharisees didn’t recognize God in John the Baptist and they don’t recognize God in Jesus. And they’re the religious ones! All is not as it seems in the kingdom, and all is not as it seems with regards to authority.

Authority is being tested in our public life as never before. The safeguarding of our common life in this country depends more than ever on people being obedient to political authority. It’s something we may not have given much thought to before Covid, but when our personal and social freedoms are limited by rules pertaining to the virus, the authority of our leaders, and our own obedience, is really tested.

We don’t easily follow leaders who seem, for whatever reason, not to deserve our obedience. That’s why when public trust in leaders is low we’re in trouble. As well as structural authority, we recognize authority based on experience and then inner authority, which is harder to define. The crowds followed Jesus, not because he had authority bestowed upon him by an outward structure, and not even because he had the relevant life experience, but because he had that inner authority – wisdom-authority. The word ‘authority’ in Greek is ‘ex-ousia’ meaning out of one’s being.

We tend to recognize spiritual authority when we see it in someone. It’s often not vested in the loudest person, but in the one listening, the one waiting for the right moment to offer a pearl of wisdom. It’s not something we can manufacture; instead it is born out of lives joyfully submitted to Christ.

So, Lessons for the Journey: Firstly we need a spirituality that is able to deal with liminality. Secondly in our present crisis, it is noteworthy that being unselfish is suddenly very much in vogue. And finally, the kingdom is indeed, as Peter pointed out last week, a topsy-turvy one: like Christ, we have to go down before we can go up. Spiritual authority comes from an inner attitude of humility and obedience to Christ. This is only kind of authority with which we can speak or act as Christians at this time.

 

coins

Evening Prayer 20 September 2020

Matthew 6.19-end

Tomorrow is the day we remember St Matthew and our lectionary encourages us to start celebrating him with evening prayer today.  The collect, with its prayer that we ‘forsake the selfish love of gain and the possessive love of riches’, reflects Matthew the tax collector’s willingness to leave his lucrative, but corrupt, job and follow Jesus.  Matthew, Levi, Zacchaeus were all caught up in the economics of running the Roman empire.  They were recruited as tax collectors, and the way they earned their wages was by commission, if you like – collecting what was demanded by the Romans, but adding extra to cover their living expenses.  It was open to abuse.

We probably feel fairly complacent thinking about Matthew.  After all, none of us are tax collectors and we’re probably not too bound up in ‘the selfish love of gain or possessive love of riches’.  Nevertheless, like Matthew, we are caught up in an economic system, not necessarily of our choosing, that favours accumulating wealth at the expense, not only of those struggling financially in our own country and even more so in poor countries, but also at the expense of the earth as we relentlessly deplete its resources in order to fuel the way of life to which we have become accustomed.  And it’s a way of life that feeds on worry about whether there will be enough – a point Jesus makes here.

Once you become accustomed to something you can stop seeing it clearly.  It becomes the norm.  It affects the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you travel and perhaps most damagingly, how you view people who don’t seem to fit that norm, who are outside the norm.  I think this may what Jesus is getting at when he speaks about the eyes in this reading – if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light (v22).  You start to see more clearly;  to see things differently.

In this season of creation tide we are being challenged to open our eyes to how our way of life may be damaging our planet and so many of God’s people.  Because we are part of the system we can feel helpless.  Matthew, Zacchaeus, Levi, all offer hope.  They all found themselves exposed to a different set of values from the ones they had learnt to accept as the norm in Roman Palestine.  Almost certainly they would have heard Jesus’ teaching, seen how he was with his disciples, seen his followers dancing to a different drum, as it were, from the one which they had to follow.  They were faced with a new story, a different narrative, and it attracted them. With all 3 men the result was movement.  They were sitting, but now they get up (or get down from the tree – Zacchaeus!) and they move.  Matthew moves from his solitary seat in the tax booth, he stands (thus becoming more visible, like Zacchaeus) and joins the community of those following Jesus and, like the others, so importantly, practises generosity – he has a party, sharing his food and home. Zacchaeus of course says he will pay back double what he has taken dishonestly.  They have moved way outside their comfort zones.

We too can hear a different narrative from the one that drives our current western lifestyle.  We can be exposed to what the writer of Matthew’s gospel might have called kingdom values.  And we can respond by doing what Matthew does- joining with a group of like minded people, those disciples following Jesus.  We are part of a church that seeks to live differently, that upholds values that may be at odds with our current economic system.  Look out for some of the things this church is doing and join in, whether it’s through a walk round the parish with eyes open, or monitoring our use of plastic or energy, or joining in national protests, tackling investments in fossil fuel….  We can no longer continue living as though the poor don’t matter.  It’s costing us the earth.

 

Christine Bainbridge

vineyard

GOD’S TOPSY-TURVY, CRAZY, WONDERFUL KINGDOM – Sunday 20th September 2020

  1. Jesus was a shocker

 

Jesus was a shocker, and I use the word not in that playful way which I might use when my grandson has done something naughty but actually quite clever.

 

No, Jesus was deep down shocking, truly taking people’s breath away, as when he called into question the legitimacy of long-held religious traditions, or challenged commonly accepted displays of pride, pomp and prejudice.

 

The chapter before the one in which today’s gospel comes provides three very striking examples of this and provides useful background for the gospel we shall study in a moment.

 

The first arose out of a question put to him by a group of Pharisees and was listened to most attentively by Jesus’ disciples.

 

Can, went the question, you divorce your wife on any grounds? (And the grounds could be something as simple as burning the evening meal or being observed chatting with a strange man in the street) At that time divorce could only be initiated by the husband and was, if anything, easier than today. Jesus took his hearers back to the beginning, to God’s words of a man ‘leaving and cleaving’ in an enduring relationship that might – and only in very particular circumstances – be ended in divorce. So stunned were Jesus’ disciples by his words that they joked that it might be better after all not to be married than to be saddled with a marriage from which one could not escape!

 

The encounter with the Pharisees was followed by the appearance of children brought to be blessed by Jesus whom his disciples did their best to chase away. Jesus stopped them and said that it was to ‘such as these’ – the very young but also the vulnerable, powerless, forgotten, side-lined, ignored and sometimes abused – that the Kingdom belonged. They remain deeply challenging words.

 

If Jesus’ attitude to casual divorce and his commendation of children and the like stunned his hearers, his statement, ‘Truly it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ left them flabbergasted. The words were, of course, Jesus’ sad comment on the departure of the rich young ruler. To the disciples the words sounded so hard; the young man was zealous and enthusiastic, and wasn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing anyway? Peter remonstrated, ‘We’ve left our boats and business. What’s in it for us?’ Jesus assured him that he and his fellows would be rewarded in due course and ended with the words which introduce our gospel, ‘The first will be last and the last first.’

 

  1. No way to run a business!

 

The setting for today’s parable is grape harvest. Palestinian vineyards were famous and their wines popular. A conscientious vineyard owner comes early in the day to recruit labourers from the local market square. It is still a familiar scene in many a Middle Eastern city. Carpenters can be seen standing with a bucket, saw and spirit-level, decorators with a paint roller, others with shovel and pick.

 

It is striking that in this parable it is the vineyard owner himself who hires the labourers. He agrees with the first ones he hires the wage for a day of one denarii. It was, I gather, a reasonable wage. We may remember the Good Samaritan in that parable left the innkeeper with two denarii for the lodging of uncertain length of the one whom he had brought to the doorstep.

 

Three hours after the first hiring, the vineyard owner himself is back again to hire more workers with whom he agrees an appropriate wage and he returns again and again at intervals to recruit more. It is extraordinary behaviour. There is no suggestion that he was incompetent, and he would surely have known at the beginning of the day just how many men (possibly women) he needed. And then, incredibly, as the day cools and the sun begins to settle, he returns again to the square and there he finds some men still

there, desperate and dejected, wondering how they can return home to their hungry families empty handed. Similar thoughts must pass through the minds of millions of day workers deprived of work around the world today.

 

The vineyard owner asks why they are still there? ‘Because’ they say, ‘no one has taken us on,’ – perhaps it was because they looked already pretty spent and useless. Have you ever had that feeling of being the last one selected in the playground for a team? I have. The owner of the vineyard took them on, furthermore, he respected their dignity; he did not give them a handout but rather a hand up. It was compassion not necessity that drove him back to hire labourers.

 

  1. A digression – about parables

 

Last Sunday I was almost at church when I realised I had not got my face mask, and I turned home not wanting to look forgetful in front of the churchwardens, whom I was actually quite sure would have made provision for forgetful people anyway, and I was really quite keen to show off my nice bronze coloured face covering. As I walked home to get it, I remembered Jesus telling a parable of the fate of someone who was ejected from a wedding for not being properly dressed and wondered if he would tell a parable of face masks.

 

He probably would not repeat his one about the lost coin because coins are getting to be obsolete, but missing car keys or the mobile would surely feature. Little matches the joy and relief when they are found and that, amazingly says Jesus, is how the joy is in heaven when someone turns back to the firm and tender grasp of God. (Luke 15 vs 7)

 

Helmut Thielecke, the German theologian, philosopher and most courageous pastor to his Stuttgart congregation through the Second World War said of this parable, ‘The setting is very worldly. It tells us nothing that is religious – of incense or miracles – and on the contrary it speaks about the labour market, – the unemployed, an employer and the talk is of hourly wages, labour contracts and rates of pay.’ Jesus was where people were at, so often the church is not.

 

Near the beginning of lockdown some months ago, we listened to John Bell of the Iona Community – sometimes controversial, always worth listening to – addressing the situation of the pandemic and considering what the response of the church at large might be to it. ‘Are we aiming to go back to the old normal?’ he asked. He drew his listeners’ attention to the ministry of Jesus, whom, he said, spent a hundred times more energy in dealing with people – teaching, healing, evangelising, comforting and befriending – than he did on bricks and mortar. John Bell went on to ask, ‘Are we going to shape the life of our churches according to the priorities of Jesus or remain obsessed with the upkeep of buildings and structures, some of which have long been obsolete?’

 

Yesterday, Nancy and I were introduced to a delightful Iranian Christian couple, who have been living in the UK for just 18 months, having been forced from Iran by the regime after 15 devoted years of service in the leadership of the church in Iran, which with no buildings, its members subject to constant harassment and intimidation, has yet learned to live courageously with deprivations and uncertainties, and through the blessed Zoom and continuing ministry in tens of thousands of homes, added some half million new Christians to the church in the last 10 years.

 

  1. Last thing – The parable concluded, and an understanding offered

 

The parable concludes with the vineyard owner’s steward settling the wages in accordance with the owner’s instructions, beginning with the last hired who were paid exactly the same as the first leading to cries of protest, which we can surely imagine. A fair wage for a fair day’s labour! The unions will hear of this! What was Jesus getting at? And who had he in mind when he told this story? Some say he was getting at the disciples who resented the attention given to very new converts. Some suggest it was Jesus’ Jewish followers who objected to the inclusion among their number of Gentiles. I am not sure who he was getting at – perhaps neither of these groups. I do think it is all about grace and the amazing, undeserved generosity of God, who gives us more than we can imagine or deserve.

 

The 70 year-old Christian, who has seen a thing or two, known grief and disappointment, slip-ups and folly, but also the over-arching, unfailing kindness and faithfulness of God, does not for a moment resent the exuberance of new-found faith of a teenager, thrilled that he or she has come to know Christ. Such cannot be earned; it can only be accepted with wondering gratitude and awe.

 

These continue to be uncertain days in which we live but heaven is not under lockdown; the lines are open; God’s voice is not muffled by a mask. He still, like the vineyard owner, turns up in the heat of the day to the weary, and at dusk to the discouraged and, by others, forgotten.

 

Paul, in prison, longed for friends he could not see, his life was precarious and could be ended at any moment with the swipe of a Roman sword, but from his prison he wrote to friends he loved, these words: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4 vss 4-7)

So be it!

 

 

 

forgiveness

September 13th 2020, Trinity 14 – To err is human, to forgive, divine

 

This is a difficult passage. Difficult for two reasons. Firstly, because the subject matter, forgiveness, is difficult. None of us find it easy to forgive. And forgive 77 times, as Jesus said? Really? What am I, a doormat? Secondly, because it’s quite a tough parable, ending as it does with these harsh words: ‘In his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or your sister from your heart’. Does that really seem like Jesus? A few weeks ago in our home group meeting, we read the Lord’s prayer and reflected on it. That line, ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt 6:12), underlined in Matthew’s gospel, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (6:15) caused much heartache. Here’s a thought: Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans before Jesus called him. He knew from bitter experience exactly what happened when people didn’t pay their debts. He was also deeply conscious of his own unworthiness to be called to follow Jesus, to experience forgiveness, acceptance, love and a new mission in life. I wonder if a bit of Matthew’s past is colouring his telling of this parable. This parable doesn’t appear in any of the other 3 gospels. The other gospel with the Lord’s prayer in it, Luke, doesn’t have the line at the end that Matthew does, ‘if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’. I wonder if it’s Matthew’s way of underlining the message, don’t miss this!! Bearing all that in mind, let’s listen to what the parable is telling us.

 

Each of the parables of Jesus contains a ‘what??!’ moment where his listeners would have gone, ‘what? Did he say what I think he said? In today’s parable there are two! The first is where the slave, who owed his master 10,000 talents, was let off the hook, released from his debt, forgiven. This amounted to 100 million denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a labourer. So, billions of pounds in today’s money. Jesus’ listeners would not have expected that – they expected the slave to be sold, along with his family, made to somehow pay the debt (which he never could have done). God is like that master who forgave the debt! We cannot pay our way into his favour, release ourselves from the debt we owe: it is given as a free gift, and must be received in the same way. There is no other way. The second ‘what??!’ moment is where the forgiven slave goes out and promptly screws over a man who owes him a few measly pounds. The callous injustice of that catches up with him and his master sentences him to horrible punishment. Unforgiveness has a dark, negative energy that can infect our souls and kill them; it can take is into our own personal hell, and we all know this. We know too that to lash out and exact retribution will just start off a cycle of resentment and retaliation. Someone said this: ‘Not forgiving puts both parties in prison’

 

I had a lovely patient, a Filipino lady. Her husband had died, and she had met another man and started a relationship. At first all went well and she told me how happy she was. But things turned sour, and the man stole her money. She left him, but became deeply unhappy and angry, and would weep with me and express her bitterness when I saw her. Months passed, then one day, she came to see me for no other reason than to tell me that it was all behind her. Radiating joy, she told me what had happened. As a devout Catholic, she attended mass every week. That week, the priest, in his sermon – on forgiveness – quoted these words of Alexander Pope: ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine’. Those words changed her. She saw that she could not forgive, to let go, without the help of God. And there she was, in church, at prayer, at communion, and she handed the whole sorry story over to God and received, in that moment, the grace to indeed, forgive and let go. To not let that man’s actions continue to have power over her, to steal the joy and contentment in her life. It was a deeply moving moment. The grace of the moment spilled over into me. It still does. Look, it’s spilling out here, now.

 

And there it is. This is a one-point sermon, and the point is that what may not be possible for us, can be possible for God, if we will let him. Forgiveness is not easy, it is hard and it takes courage and resolution. It goes against our natural instincts. If we don’t do it, it will suck the life out of us. We will need to pray. Richard Rohr suggests that we should take time to actually feel in our body the pain and hurt of whatever it was that happened and then, gradually and with intent, bring that to God. Quite often, I think we’re not very good at actually telling God what it is we want. But this could be a very clear prayer: ‘Lord, I have been really hurt by this. I can feel the pain in my body, in my heart. I don’t want to live like this any more, I want to let it go. Please, take this away. Give me the grace to forgive.’  We may need to do that many times, it may not be as instant as it was in my lovely patient’s experience. We could even then go the extra mile and pray for the person who hurt us. This is to go even further against our instinct. It is like trying to straighten out a bent metal bar: we have to bend it in the opposite direction in order to straighten it.

 

So what do we make of our gospel reading, its harshness? Well, let’s not tune in so much to the negative but take into our souls the positive, the great good news – the unconditional, free, full acceptance by God as loved daughters and sons. Let us heed the warning, though, and take the time to come to God with what and who has hurt us. Do I think we can be consigned to everlasting torment because of something someone else has done, and our failure to forgive? No, I don’t. In the end, I believe that mercy wins. But let me end with these words: ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to find that the prisoner was you.’

Richard Croft

cross

Living the cross shaped life

Today we’re thinking about something I’m calling the Cross-Shaped Life.

What does a cross-shaped life look like and what is it like to live one?

I’ve taken the phrase from the gospel today where Jesus warns his disciples he’s going to the cross. Peter, after scoring an A in discipleship last week, gets downgraded by the algorithm to a D, after clashing with Jesus over this.

Peter rebukes him: ‘God forbid that this should happen to you Lord.’ Basically he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer, but Jesus has to point out to him that the Messiah will embrace suffering in order to redeem it.

But Peter doesn’t understand, and none of the disciples really get it either. I’m sure if we had been in their shoes we wouldn’t have understood it. It’s only with two millennia of reflection on the cross and resurrection that we can even begin to spot what Richard Rohr calls this ‘universal and deeper reality at the heart of things’ (The Universal Christ, p.91).

Our reading from Romans is headed ‘Marks of a True Christian’. Sometimes it’s obvious that some of the things that apparently parade as true Christianity are not. One of the worrying things about the US Christian scene is the huge over identification of the Evangelical Right with the Republican Party, which tends to lead to a highly suspect kind of Christian Nationalism. Its general support for President Trump leaves many UK Christians totally bemused.

Conservative Christians in Korea, meanwhile, have been attending mass anti-government rallies and spreading the Corona virus as they do so: is this the mark of a True Christian? We might admire their desire to stand up for their beliefs, but are they just bringing the gospel into disrepute? It’s sometimes less easy to see what is or isn’t true Christianity.

So we have this morning a practical list in Romans of the qualities Paul assigns to a Christian fellowship, and in Matthew, we have the way of the cross that Jesus actively embraces; and not only embraces, but encourages all his followers to embrace.

What does it look like for us to live a cross shaped life, in the footsteps of Jesus?

Three suggestions.

  1. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re loving, but also canny about evil.
  2. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re open and undefended.
  3. A cross-shaped life is one where we’re willing to let go.

 

Loving AND canny about evil.

All you Scots out there will know that to be canny, means to be knowing: it can also mean pleasant or nice; but canny in the sense I’m using it means that we’re not simpletons about evil. Whilst we pursue goodness and peace and all the other qualities one would hope for from Christians, we also have insight into the things that are profoundly wrong in the world: ‘hate what is evil, hold onto what is good’.

There’s a balance here. There will be resistances to the love of God and some of them are violent. The Christian way, though, is to bless enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

With the advent of social media it’s become increasingly hard to resist the easy polarization of goodies and baddies. Putting people into camps is much easier than being honest about our own shadier side. To overcome evil with good, and to pray for enemies, is a very high calling, and somewhat marks the New Testament out from the Old.

But to save us all from becoming like the elder brother who felt superior to his younger prodigal sibling, being canny about what’s wrong should start with our own self-awareness. The person of faith, one would hope, puts their own house in order before starting to demolish other people’s.

That’s why we have a moment of reflection before the Confession each Sunday. I don’t know about other service leaders, but I never quite know how best to introduce this part of the service. There are official words of course, but you can invite people in your own words too.

Ideally we need a balance between being constantly reminded that we’re sinners, and being glib and shallow about confession, because the words are so familiar.

The trouble with a general Confession is that it is general. It’s designed to be said in community and that can be a powerful thing. But where does it leave us as regards to the specific ways we each avoid God and pursue our own programmes for happiness?

I think about the Epistle of James, where the faithful are encouraged to ‘confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed’ (5:16) and the Roman Catholic practice of confessing to a priest. Maybe we each need to find a confessor? How well do you know yourself that you might be able to notice an area of your life that has yet to be redeemed? It might be an uncomfortable thought. Perhaps you feel it wouldn’t be appropriate. Mostly we need other people to point out our failings, but who has the courage or the diplomacy for that?

I think of an unwelcome time in my thirties when a close friend and I fell out over something, and she told me, on no uncertain terms, that I was moody. I was horrified, and also surprised because I thought of myself as very sociable; but after a while I realised she was right. I had to re-think some aspects of my behaviour that I had not been aware of.

And there was an equally unwelcome time in my twenties when a work colleague whom I was supposed to be supervising told me I was bossy. I was horrified on that occasion as well; especially as she then went on to say she wasn’t the only person in the staff room who thought so.

Moody AND bossy. It’s rather an unfortunate combination really. In my 40s I studied the Enneagram, and for those of you who have an acquaintance with Enneagram wisdom I can say that being moody and bossy just about sums up being a FOUR with a THREE wing. Although it was painful, those two observations by a friend and a colleague proved humbling, and I still remain grateful to them for their insight and courage.

Do you know which are your blind spots? The people who do know them, probably better than you, are the people you live with and work with, the people you spend the most time with (and especially your grown up children!) It’s rare to find someone who can tell you without losing you. But to be loved even when our faults are known, is the only love worth having at the end of the day.

So a cross-shaped life is about being loving AND canny, particularly about our own stumbling blocks. The genius of the Enneagram, for anyone who wants to look into it further, is that those very stumbling blocks can become your pathway into greater wholeness, as you allow them to come into the light of Christ.

Open and Undefended.

When we’re conscious of so much that is evil in the world, it’s often hard to remain open and undefended.

We’ve all met highly defended people. They’re like a fortified castle, prepared at all costs to defend borders. They’re difficult to get to know and wary of sharing themselves for fear of rejection.

Understandably, defences come up when we’ve been wounded or we feel our personal security is compromised. But in order to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ we need to remain open. It’s a very hard balance.

It’s never easy to walk a difficult path alongside someone who’s in pain or difficulty, and we see in the gospel the deep and understandable unwillingness of the disciples to identify with Jesus as he heads towards his Passion.

Peter is rebuked in the strongest words, for trying to prevent Jesus from suffering, words like those Jesus used to Satan in the wilderness: ‘Get behind me!’ He is told ‘you are setting your mind, not on divine things but on human things.’ Human things here, I presume, are the normal human impulses: to minimize pain and maximize happiness. That is the programme we’ve all been on in the West for at least the past 300 years. But the Christian is on a different programme.

Undefended people don’t plan to get back at those who have harmed them. They might distance themselves completely from the one who has done them harm (and it might even be vital to do so) but they don’t plan revenge; that would only eat them up from the inside. With a firm belief that justice originates in the heart of God, the Christian can know that justice will be done, but done God’s way.

There’s an interconnectedness in the Christian vision of humanity that acknowledges that everything we do impacts somebody else. Issues of climate and race are issues for all of us. There’s an African name for this interconnectedness: Ubuntu – everything you do affects me; everything I do affects you. It’s the opposite of the kind of zero sum games that students have been forced to play as they scramble for university places. It’s the opposite of how our parliament is arranged with one side versus another facing each other across the benches like adversaries trying to score points off each other.

During the Pandemic, we caught a glimpse of how life might be if we didn’t live as though there was only one winner, but if we acknowledged that we are all reliant on each other; on our delivery people, our shop assistants, our cleaners and our health workers, simply to navigate day-to-day life. We’ve realised during these times that the more a role is about caring for others, the less it seems to be paid.

So living a cross-shaped life means living an open life, an undefended life as far as it is possible.

 

Willing to let go.

In Jesus’ own words: ‘if any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. It’s an important principle for individual Christians but we might try as well to think what this means for a church congregation – to deny itself, take up its cross and follow Jesus.

At this time, as we try and imagine what it’ll be like to go back to worship in the building it might mean we need to let go of certain expectations, and empty ourselves to receive whatever it is God wants to give us.

If you’ve visited the church on a Saturday for private prayer you’ll have experienced sitting very quietly, a little apart from anyone else, with your facemask on, and being still and prayerful. It’s actually been an experience that’s grown on me. Wearing a facemask tends to limit your speaking, and maybe we have to attend more closely to the other, as we cannot make out their expressions in the normal way.

My personal experience in shops has been that this doesn’t make people any less friendly. You can normally tell when someone is smiling, by looking at their eyes.

I can’t help thinking that less speaking and more paying attention to ‘the other’ might be a very good way forward for the Church of England. Jesus chose silence before his accusers, and his inner potency was not lessened because of it – rather it was increased.

If we feel, once we’re back in the church building wearing our masks, that we’ve been effectively gagged in worship, it might be an interesting reflection to consider what that means for our inward communication with God and for how well we listen, and for the state of our hearts. It will certainly not be the case that ‘the still small voice’ is in any way gagged in our midst.

As Jesus said ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. That’s the ultimate letting go. And it leads not to death, but through death to life.

So, the cross-shaped life: Loving but canny about evil; open and undefended; willing to let go. May these qualities mark our church together life as we go into the months ahead.

Amen.