Thursday, 20 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 The wheat and the weeds


Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43

 


He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’.

 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Do we have any gardeners in the congregation?

My wife is the gardener in our house and she takes full responsibility for the wonderful oasis which is our back garden. I’m responsible for the front which has a pocket-handkerchief sized lawn: I am at war with dandelions. Some weeks ago I noticed how many we had and set about digging them up. The problem was that the more I looked the more there were and what I thought would be a small task ended up as several hours of weeding. The lawn was left in a mess and I wished I hadn’t started. I looked at the lawn again this week and there were more dandelions. It’s a never ending task and it’s so disheartening.

My own poor gardening skills came to mind when I read this passage again.

 “Let anyone with ears listen!” says Jesus.  Parents, grandparent and teachers in the congregation will recognise this phrase: it’s shorthand for, “Are you concentrating? Have you got it?” There’s a big difference between listening and hearing and between hearing and understanding isn’t there? In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is often recorded as saying this, “Let anyone with ears listen!” and it usually seems to be an exercise in hope and expectation over experience because, more often than not, while those he was speaking to may have been listening they hadn’t been hearing or understanding. I can ask you to show you’ve been listening by repeating it back to me. That doesn’t guarantee you’ve understood it.

So, it was with the Disciples and we join them today in the middle of listening to a series of parables. The disciples are often characterised, although less so in Matthew’s Gospel, as being a bit dense. More often than not we read that they had to have a special tutorial with Jesus because they hadn’t understood the nature of the parables and, of course, these are parables that are so familiar to us that we might be tempted to feel a bit sorry for Jesus as once again his most trusted friends and followers struggle with what to us seems so obvious.

Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

We look at the parables today - and this may just be me, of course, - but they lose something by their familiarity: “Oh yeah, I know that one.” And we return to our usual state of happy indifference and pay less attention. “Nudge me when he’s finished.”

The parables of Jesus are stories of their time and reveal the culture and concerns of the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus wrapped up his teaching in examples from everyday life that people could identify with. He talked about family life because everyone was, or had been, in a family; at a time when people built their own homes, he used building as an example; when most people were subsistence farmers, Jesus talked about agriculture, as he does in today’s passage; he used cooking as an example and on other occasions he talked about housekeeping or about buying and selling. “The Kingdom of God is like this ….” By using simple examples from everyday life Jesus made his message more understandable. That impact may be to some extent lost on us today because we aren’t fishermen or subsistence farmers and we don’t build our own houses but we mustn’t underestimate the impact those stories would have had then.

So, the thing about parables, and today’s is no exception, is that they were designed to make people think because they have two levels of meaning: there’s the obvious literal meaning with a frustrated farmer struggling to harvest a crop which had been sabotaged by his enemies who had sown weeds amongst the seeds. Now, I’m thinking that you might have to be pretty dense not to wonder why Jesus chose to tell this story if there wasn’t more to it and there is, of course, but the point is that his listeners were supposed to realise that and struggle to work out the other level of meaning – the moral – of the story for themselves and Jesus didn’t always provide an explanation.

This time he did and it’s quite a challenging message.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like this …..” and in symbolic terms Jesus goes on to describe the world that we live in: a world that in different ways could be identified by every generation who read this passage; a world where good and bad survive side by side. Then Jesus delivered the surprise to those who wanted to rush out into the field and do a bit of serious weeding, “Leave it alone.”

Why?

Well, perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps, instead, we should be asking “who?” as in who was Jesus talking to? We know the disciples were there but at the start of chapter 13, Matthew tells us that great crowds had gathered around him so there were clearly many more people there than the inner group of Jesus’ faithful followers. We know, too, that by this stage in his ministry Jesus was attracting the attention of the religious authorities who, not being quite sure what to make of him, but feeling on the back-foot, were monitoring his every word and action. We can assume that the Pharisees would have been there too, not only listening to Jesus but gauging the reaction of the crowd to what he said.

There’s an obvious difference between grass and dandelion but not so with the weed Jesus was describing, a weed that as it grew, looked indistinguishable from the wheat it grew beside.  We know the weed as Darnel, an annual grass with long, slender bristles that looks very much like wheat. It would be VERY easy to mistake it for the real thing and in a frenzy of weed-pulling, we run the risk of pulling up the wheat with the darnel because they are so intertwined.

Given that parables usually have more than one level of meaning, let’s consider for a moment that in the natural world the weed is the norm. It is the wheat in this story which doesn’t belong. It’s the foreign species introduced and deliberately planted. We know from The Parable of The Sower earlier in this chapter, that the seed represents the word of God and its function is to grow and bear fruit, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred fold. In the parable of the Sower, though, the weeds grow up around the wheat and strangle it.

So, I ask again, who was Jesus speaking to? The answer is the Pharisees not the Disciples, so we can forgive them their confusion and need for a separate explanation. In his parable the Pharisees are the weeds and it was into their established environment that God sowed his word, the word that Jesus spoke.

The Pharisees were the ones charged with the spiritual welfare of the Jews of Jesus’ time – and they were getting it wrong. Jesus railed against the worst of their approach to religion for being inflexible and hidebound in tradition and for having outdated practices from which the love and compassion of God was all too often obscured if not lost completely.

That’s O.K. then. We don’t need to pay too much attention here because we aren’t the audience for Jesus’ words. We’re the faithful disciples after all, not the Pharisees.

Aren’t we?

The issue is that when it comes to matters of judgement, left to our devices – and seemingly from the best of motives - we can still get it wrong: there’s a bit of the Pharisee in all of us, and let’s not pretend that today’s church is so different from the Judaism of Jesus’ day. It isn’t and we face many of the same problems. The Kingdom of God, this side of the grave, is messy. Much as we might want it to be so, there is no perfect church and history is littered with examples of religious groups who have sought to create one by setting themselves aside from what they perceive to be the religious corruption and error of their times. Those attitudes still exist and in the attempt to define pure and incorrupt religion its members inevitably draw up check-lists of what they believe to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, attitudes and beliefs and as they create those criteria they leave others behind or outside the club. If you don’t fit their criteria you’re out. “You’re a false Christian” is one of the most appalling phrases of modern church life. “You’re a false Christian because you disagree with my interpretation/my church’s interpretation of God’s word.”

We see it today in the worst excesses of religious expression and, judged by some of these criteria, you and I are most definitely on the outside looking in, judged as unworthy by those who have decided on our behalf what the limits of God’s grace are. Such judgements lead to exclusivity, not inclusivity and that’s against the teaching of the Gospel because when we tell someone they aren’t accepted we’re putting the first barrier in the way of their coming to an understanding of the full and inclusive nature of God’s love for all his creation. The message becomes, “God loves everyone, but not you so much.” That’s a perversion of the Gospel.

Let’s be honest: we’re human and we’re open to the same impulses as all other people so we’re advised to be cautious. The church is embroiled in all kinds of wrangles: “You’re not a real Christian if you’ve not experienced a baptism in the Spirit, or speak in tongues; if you don’t accept the Virgin Birth; if you’re gay; if you don’t accept the bread and wine as the true and literal body and blood of Jesus; if you don’t believe in an interventionist God; if you don’t believe that Peter was the first Pope; if you don’t believe that every word of scripture is literally the revealed word of God; if you don’t believe that everything that happens to you is part of God’s sovereign plan” and so on.

Do you ever think the church would be better off without those other people who are so clearly wrong and argumentative and with whom you passionately disagree about important matters?

I do, and if you’re like me in that, you’re part of the problem because, like me, you’ve tapped into your inner Pharisee.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it: "God's purpose is not wrathful judgment. God's purpose is redemption, and the road to redemption is by way of reconciliation. Only in that way will the world finally be saved." Today's parable warns us against relying on our human capacity to know fully the mind of God. It also suggests that what might appear to be good and pure to us might not necessarily be so at all.

Look at it from the other perspective: there’s something deeply reassuring about being in the in-crowd. What if you’re not? There are many Christians who have experienced bad religion at the hands of others. They talk of the pain and hardship they experience, of the psychological distress – sometimes damage – that often godly, loving Christian people wittingly or unwittingly inflict upon those they disagree with and who can’t see the distress they cause, leaving those who suffer to feel excluded, abandoned and driven out with no-one to talk to because they fear their pain will be interpreted as disloyalty to a particular church, a member of the clergy, a friendship group or even disloyalty to Jesus himself. We talk of God’s unconditional love but often find that strings have been imposed on that love by others who seek to define the limits of God’s grace. “You can’t be a proper Christian if  ….”

Who is the wheat and who is the weed? Can we really tell? Don’t all our innate prejudices – and yes, Christians have them too – get in the way of objective judgement? We’re just like the Pharisees Jesus told this parable against when they were at their worst but we need to remember that not all the Pharisees were bad people. Yes, they get a bad press, but many were faithful followers of the God of Israel and were, as Jesus often said, “close to the Kingdom of God” and not beyond the scope of his grace. Much good was done by the Pharisees and that’s why it would have been so damaging to go on some sort of crusade to root out the weeds.

This parable is a warning against that. At the end of the parable we are told clearly that it is God who separates the wheat and the weeds.

So, what are we to do?

I think, firstly, we look out for those times when our inner Pharisee gets the better of us: it’s not for us to decide who has God’s favour; who’s in and who’s out. Reconciliation doesn’t come by demonising or ostracising. Our job is to leave the conviction of what is right and wrong in the church to the Holy Spirit, knowing that truly loving our Christian neighbours as ourselves is the way to dialogue and potential change.

The Kingdom of God is like this. Let anyone with ears listen.

 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13.1-9 and 18-23 The Parable of the Sower


Matthew 13.1-9 and 18-23

 
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Well here we go!

One of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard this before?

We know the original story and we know Jesus’ interpretation. We’ve heard it all before so many times.

In fact, if I were to sit down now and ask anyone in the congregation who’s a regular to take over, most of you could come up here and make a pretty good fist of a sermon. (I won’t. Don’t panic.)

This is not just the preacher’s dilemma – “How can I make something so well known fresh?” It’s also the dilemma of the man and woman in the pew – “I can slip into my usual state of happy indifference because I know this one. Give me a nudge when he’s finished.”

A friend of mine was telling me earlier in the week how he intends to keep his congregation on their toes this morning by acting out this parable. When he gets to the part where the thorns choke the new growth he suggested that his congregation would be miming strangling each other.

It does strike me – without wishing to be critical of my friend, after all I won’t have been there to see how it pans out – that we can too easily stick with the Sunday school interpretation of this parable, which is fine as far as it goes: the sower represents God and the seed the Word of God. Note how generously, liberally, almost extravagantly the sower distributes the seed: different people hear God’s word and respond differently. Some heed the word and go on to bear good fruit and others don’t, for a variety of reasons and the parable is good at outlining what it is that gets in the way for people when it comes to failing to hear, or hearing but failing to listen or hearing and listening but failing to understand or hearing, listening and understanding but failing to act.

I’ve never actually preached on this text before, but I’ve taught it in the classroom more times than I care to remember and because I was teaching it in a syllabus for 11-12 year olds I’ve never needed to develop the ideas beyond that fairly simplistic approach which identifies each patch of ground as an individual or a type of person: the person who’s enthusiastic but gets side-tracked; the person who is so overwhelmed by the struggles of living day to day that there just isn’t time in their lives for something new and the person who takes it all in and works with it.

And it does work perfectly well at that level, but where’s the challenge for those of us of, shall we say, more mature years and who have been disciples for half a lifetime if not more?

The more I think about it, the more I recognise that at different times in our lives each of us have received the word of God in all the ways described in the parable. The soils are no longer different types of people but each of us at different stages of our personal walks and struggles with God and his word.

Sometimes life got in the way, even when we had good intentions. Again, hearing the word and following it in all its moral and ethical implications has been, for many of us, a series of steps too far at particular times in our lives. At other times, we’ve heard it, accepted it and allowed it to shape us. At the same time many, maybe most of us here, no longer react to the word of God, hear it or understand it in the ways we did ten, fifteen, twenty or more years ago. We’ve matured and developed; are in the process of maturing and developing in our understanding of God’s word and its call on our lives. When Jesus says, “Let those with ears hear.” we have - but over time we’ve begun to hear something else, something new, something different, something more challenging in the familiar message.

In fact, isn’t that just as it should be?

And isn’t it also true in the wider life of the church? We had no women in ordained ministry prior to the 1990s. Why? Because of our understanding of scripture and church tradition, and now we have women bishops. This week’s General Synod has moved in more than one way in its understanding of the issues around human sexuality and has promoted policies that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: is it the church’s teaching which has helped individuals to change their understanding of doctrine or is it individuals who have helped to shape the church’s understanding of a whole range of doctrinal and ethical issues which come under the broad heading of the Word of God?

Either way the Word of God and the discipleship it feeds into is a living, dynamic force that has the power to speak – yes, to individuals certainly, but also to each new generation as we confront complex issues unimagined by those who went before us - and that is the work of the Spirit.

What’s the alternative? That our faith becomes like that of the religion of Jesus’ own generation and which he railed against for being inflexible and hidebound in tradition and outdated practices and from which the love and compassion of God was all too often obscured if not lost completely? Yet, often without any sense of self-awareness or irony, we too can fall into those same traps because change is threatening.

So, think back for a moment or two? Are there any attitudes or moral certainties that you once supported as faithful and committed disciples which you believed to be scriptural but which you no longer accept or support? Are you any the less a faithful and committed disciple because of that shift in your belief or theological thinking?

There’s a long standing approach in all branches of Christianity which asks, “What would Jesus do?” Perhaps it should be, “What would Jesus Think?” before “What would Jesus do?” because one leads to the other.

So, let me ask you: what do we do when Jesus’ attitude as we’ve come to understand it from what is revealed to us in the Gospels, appears to be in conflict with what scripture seems to say elsewhere? (And that’s not an unlikely scenario.) Which has primacy? Which has more authority? Scripture or the teaching of Jesus – or the perceived spirit of the teaching of Jesus? Are not both the Word of God, given that Jesus is, as John tells us, the Word made Flesh?

Let me ask a different question. Do we believe that God’s self-revelation stopped at the moment the ink was dry on the last document of the New Testament? And if so, what are we to make of more of John’s theology when he tells us that The Spirit, when he comes, will guide us into all truth? Are we still waiting for that Spirit? If the answer is that we aren’t still waiting, then we must accept that the Spirit is alive and engaged in his ongoing task of guiding us into all truth.

There is a principle in worldwide Anglicanism called The Three-Legged Stool. Our faith, our belief and our practice are based on three things which together give balance: scripture, tradition and reason. We ignore any of the three, or give too much emphasis to any of the three at our peril.

So, as we’ve said, it had not been the tradition of our church to have women clergy. Was it that the Word of God, on those early occasions when this was questioned fell, as in the parable, on stony ground and those with ears didn’t hear? Or later, when attitudes were changing that the weeds grew up around the idea and strangled it and those with ears didn’t hear again? “Not now. The time’s not right.” But over time our understanding of the changes in human society, an application of our reason, and the spirit of the teaching of Jesus as found in scripture about the equality of all before God, has led us into a different understanding and a new tradition. Those with ears heard – at last.

It’s a good job God sows - and continues to sow - his Word so liberally, so generously and so extravagantly because sometimes it takes us an inordinately long to time before we hear it unencumbered by our own prejudices, agendas and cultural norms: challenging the status quo doesn’t happen easily and the church moves forward by consensus as it seeks to understand the mind and will of God and the outworking of his word.

You’ll often have had conversations with other Christians who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”. For many who identify in that way that’s another way of saying that their belief is in Scripture as the ultimate authority: the only expression of the Word of God. Other denominations concentrate very heavily on church tradition. Neither is the Anglican way.

When we listen, as we do Sunday by Sunday to scripture read, have you ever thought to ask why it isn’t just left at that and why people like me are tasked with explaining it? Why? Because it’s part of our tradition to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make that scripture speak to us in ways the written word doesn’t – can’t. Every week we’re encouraged from the pulpit to go away and think about what we’ve just heard; to use our God given intellect - reason, as the three legged stool has it - to understand what God is teaching us. At the end of our Biblical readings it tends to be our practice to respond, “This is the Word of The Lord. Thanks be to God.” Other congregations respond differently with, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Thanks be to God.” That’s a bit more challenging.

Now, if to you, that’s starting to sound as if I’m saying that we can play fast and loose with scripture, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Scripture is the Word of God and it is the foundation of our faith, but let’s not pretend that Scripture doesn’t sometimes confront us with problems that it can’t seem to solve by reference to its own texts: where there is confusion in ethics and doctrine, the New Testament trumps the Old. Where there is confusion in ethics and doctrine the spirit of the teaching of Jesus trumps Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. The Word of God also resides outside of scripture in the ongoing guidance of God’s Spirit who works in our hearts and minds to guide us into all truth.

But be wary: In Philippians St. Paul warns us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” Let’s take up that challenge by truly seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church when we hear or read scripture and seek to discern the Word of God outside of scripture.

Amen
 

 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 10.40-42 - welcome and hospitality


“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

 

So, today we have a passage about welcome and hospitality. We all know about hospitality don’t we? When someone calls round, what do you do instinctively? You put the kettle on! The importance of hospitality is so ingrained in us that we do it without thinking: it’s second nature and it’s through that hospitality that we express our welcome. It’s a social ritual that we don’t even think about because it’s so commonplace: “They’ve taken the trouble to get here, they must be in need of refreshment, I’ll put the kettle on.”

It struck me, though, that “welcome” as a concept is a bit over used today: “Welcome to Yorkshire” the road signs say; many people have welcome doormats; we encounter supermarket welcomers these days, but it’s all meaningless if it isn’t accompanied by an attitude of hospitality.

Hold that thought.

Our Gospel writer this morning, Matthew, in this chapter, organized many of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship where Jesus tells us what he expects of his disciples. The twelve were to carry out their mission to preach and teach and heal. They were to dress simply. They were to expect persecution. They were to follow Christ as role model and represent him to others in attitude and behaviour and they were to love God more than their family.

In today’s little extract, though, Matthew subtly changes the emphasis of his teaching away from what is expected of the disciples to what the disciples can expect from those they encounter: he talks about hospitality and welcome and we know from earlier in this chapter that Jesus encouraged his followers not to waste their time where they were not welcomed: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Sounds pretty harsh. We don’t tend to concentrate much on this idea: it seems to strike a duff note in Jesus’ general teaching but in the context of his earlier lament about the harvest being plentiful, but the labourers few, it makes perfect sense because we get an intriguing sense that here Jesus is saying something about how best to maximise precious time and resources. He seems to be saying, “There’s a lot to do and time is short. Don’t waste time where you aren’t welcome. Move on to where you are.” These first disciples had a simple approach:  they were to go to the needy: the sick and blind and crippled; those with leprosy; those who experienced suffering.  They were to go to people who had experienced a real need for God’s help in their lives.  Jesus later said:  “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; it is sick people who do.” 

I find this quite refreshing because, of course, as latter-day disciples we are also expected to follow this principle. We can’t do everything, we can’t be everywhere, we can’t support everyone: that way lies guilt and burn-out. No, we’re to concentrate on those people and places where the signs are encouraging, where there’s evidence of a potential harvest and we would do well to remember the parable of the sower which teaches us that while God’s word is sown everywhere, it doesn’t always take root and it’s for us to discern where there is evidence of growth and to work with that. One of the modern approaches to mission and ministry is to be reactive: to see where God is already at work and to join in with him there otherwise we risk using precious time, resources and emotional energy only to find that it’s wasted. We need to be a bit more like the farmer who sows the seed and then concentrates on gathering in the harvest of what’s grown before worrying about where it hasn’t grown.

This is a message I’ve had to learn in the prison and I’ve had to learn to be guilt free about it: there’s a belief amongst some prisoners that as a Chaplain, I wield huge influence: that I can get someone transferred cells or wings or even prisons; that the Governors are at my beck and call and will do my bidding. Generally, as soon as I disabuse them of these notions, those prisoners rapidly lose interest in me. They aren’t interested in what I might have to offer, only what they hope they can get out of me.

On the other hand I now have a number of cells I can call in on for a cup of tea and a chat and where I am welcomed. Consequently, as I never refuse hospitality, I’ve had to get to know where all the toilets are. So I chat to random people and drink tea. Is that mission? Yes it is in its broadest sense. I’m going to where I am welcomed. Which of the two is the best use of my time? It’s a no-brainer!

So, hospitality as a sign of welcome: there are so many passages in scripture that talk of hospitality. Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him and not to hide yourself from your own? (Isaiah 57) Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13). Now these two examples show how we’re supposed to behave to others but there are also passages that illustrate how Jesus’ followers were received: Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. (Luke 10) and Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us courteously for three days (Acts 28).

For Jews and Christians, such hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Old Testament and was a part of the measure of the Jewish community's faithfulness to God and the same was true in the early Christian communities where hospitality still measured the faithfulness of God’s people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples was a disciplined practice of the young churches.

However, there’s a potential downside to this isn’t there? The travellers in these examples were rarely family or friends. These were people unknown to the community who welcomed them. They were aliens, often foreigners: people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, and different gods. Opening your home was risky.

Today we'd describe such a thing as naïve and dangerous. Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger but such hospitality was central to the Jewish and early Christian identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, because they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God. This is why so many faith groups offer practical help and support to refugees, to the homeless and so on: this is why we collect food at the back which goes to a foodbank to help those who have fallen between the cracks of our welfare state in a time of austerity.

So what’s the moral for us in this passage?

Matthew comes back to this idea later in the Gospel in chapter 25 when he teaches a parable to the people: it’s become known as the parable of the sheep and the goats and it develops the theme of hospitality and its rewards.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

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. 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, 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.’

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

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.’

Now this is a parable that can be taken in two ways: it’s certainly a reminder for people of faith about our responsibility to those in need but it speaks also of those who Matthew was referring to at the start of today’s Gospel extract: those who would find themselves unexpectedly offering hospitality to the passing stranger.

Look at their surprise at finding themselves on the right side of God’s grace, Really? When did we do these things? And the answer is clear: When you cared for someone in need, you cared for me.

So, in offering hospitality we are a means of grace to others and in receiving hospitality we allow others to be a means of grace to us.

Let’s always be that sort of outward looking church: a church where passing strangers find hospitality and sanctuary; a church where we offer kindness, support and a home which might only be temporary but which might become permanent as people recognise that this a place where God’s grace can be found and experienced with no strings.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sunday Sermon for Ascension: Luke 24.44-53


 

Luke 24.44-53

 
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

There’s been a little cartoon doing the rounds on Facebook this week: it shows the risen Jesus high in the clouds with a group of his followers on the ground pointing up excitedly – except one, who’s asking, “Where? Where?” I can’t see him!

The caption is Ascension Deficit Disorder.

In many respects Ascension is a very straightforward celebration: Jesus’ words reminded his followers again of the significance of what they had seen and heard in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of the man who was speaking to them. He was ensuring that they understood all that they had witnessed: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” and as the theological conclusion to this, he ascended, in front of them: teaching fulfilled in their sight.

There is a problem here though, one I used to encounter as a teacher and one I encounter as a prison chaplain: gone are the days when we can assume with reasonable confidence that people do actually know what was told about Jesus in the Gospels, let alone the Law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. No wonder so many new disciples and enquirers, together with those of no faith, have difficulty understanding many of our festivals and today’s texts from the end of Luke’s Gospel and from the start of the book of Acts leave us with many more questions than answers. Why does Jesus need to go? Where does he go? How does he go? Is he coming back? How will he come back? Why are the two accounts so different?

Perhaps we’re all suffering from a touch of Ascension Deficit Disorder.

Yes, it seems that there are more questions than answers in these two texts, especially when you put them side by side and we aren’t going to get to the bottom of most of them – certainly not this morning. What we have here, as with much of the Christian experience, is a matter of mystery that in some sense remains shrouded. Some who seek certainty are discomforted that there isn’t more clarity; others are more content to accept that not all can be known or has been revealed.

Neither view should prevent us from asking questions.

So, let’s start with this one: When is leaving not leaving at all?

The days after Ascension Day are poignant because, for almost the entire year, Christians celebrate God’s being with us, but for these next ten days, until Pentecost, we’re symbolically aware of what it feels like for God not to be with us. When you’ve felt such a profound sense of presence, the ache of loss can create a bewildering vacuum. And into that vacuum may cluster doubt, regret, anxiety and fear.

Jesus does, on the surface appear to be disappearing. It’s interesting to note, then, that the disciples don’t act as though this were actually true. There is no doubt, regret, anxiety and fear. They don’t go away sorrowful, or mourning the loss of Jesus. In fact, the text reports that they are worshiping as they return with great joy, praising God in the temple day after day. They don’t behave as if Jesus is absent at all.

We don’t have to look too far back in Luke’s resurrection account to find others who experienced this same phenomenon. The disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t, in fact, recognize or experience Jesus as present when he walked and talked with them: they were caught up in their loss and grief. It’s only later when Jesus breaks the bread with them that he’s made known to them. And in that moment, when they experience his presence most fully, he’s no longer visibly with them. But rather than thinking that they missed something, they run back to the rest of the disciples overjoyed that Jesus is risen and still present.

It’s also clear that the disciples take up the ministry of Jesus in the Book of Acts and do some extraordinary things: they heal the sick; they raise the dead; they die forgiving those who kill them (as Stephen did) and they endure much of the same treatment as Jesus and they don’t take credit for any of this. Instead they proclaim the living presence of Jesus. In fact Luke’s inclusion of these stories is meant to lead us to conclude that Jesus is very much still around and active, through the disciples.

Jesus ascension isn’t experienced by the early disciples as his leaving or disappearing at all, according to Luke. While he is taken from their sight, he’s not absent at all. In fact, as the newly baptized disciples gathered around the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread and prayer, they experienced the presence of Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to be somewhere else and to show up now and again randomly, he’s experienced as real and present in scripture, read and explained, in the Eucharist and the prayers on behalf of the world, much in the same way that Christians today experience Jesus’ presence in these same actions that together mark our common life as disciples.

I think the problem that many of us struggle with is the idea of heaven as another place, as there are other places in the world that we know little of. If Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to that other place, seems to be the logic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven, is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present. In the passage from Acts, two men in white robes turned to the disciples - and to us now - with their question. "Why do you stand looking up? This Jesus, who has been taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." The men in white robes didn’t comment beyond that but Jesus had: “ … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth," which surely includes where we are right now. The promise of the Spirit, fulfilled and celebrated at Pentecost, is a promise for this earth, this place, this time. Jesus will be forever involved with this earthly life in the power of the Spirit. Understood this way, we have a new possibility, so let’s ask another question: What does it mean that Jesus has gone ahead of us?

If the risen Jesus belongs to the future, then we should understand that he has also ascended to that same future.  The language of our liturgy and hymns, the language of the book of Revelation, the language of our creeds, and our experience all now begin to come together. We experience in worship a “foretaste of the feast to come” because we understand how God’s future banquet has broken in upon our present world of comparative famine. Though we suffer, we understand that in God’s future the victory is certain. When we proclaim our faith in the ascended Jesus, we’re proclaiming that despite events that seem to contradict it, as seen for example this week in Manchester, we can see and participate in the future Reign of God with Jesus in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of Jesus, but his real and life transforming presence. The marvel of this is that if Jesus goes to the future ahead of us, then there’s no place in our journey where Jesus isn’t there to greet us and to accompany us.

I know that in my family life, in particular, I need this understanding more than ever. We’re facing a very difficult journey right now, with the recent death of my mother-in-law and the declining health of my father-in-law. My wife and her sister have been up and down the motorways from opposite directions, visiting and helping their dad, in the fading times of a relationship that they, the sons-in-law and the grandchildren have always counted on as being there. We’re participating in what is, to all intents and purposes, an extended “leave taking” event. It’s a difficult journey for the family, and one that I know many here have already experienced.

What’s surprising to me, though, is that this journey, no matter how difficult it is in different ways for various members of the family, and how bleak the destination may seem, hasn’t at any point along the way, seemed without hope. It may sound trite to put it this way, but the Jesus of the future has been at every turn of this journey so far, even when we’ve not always looked for him and I am inclined to trust that he will be there ahead of my wife and sister-in-law, ahead of my father-in-law, a man of strong faith, each step of the way. I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, but still, we don’t often see what we don’t expect to see. But step by step, I am coming to understand that when I confess that Jesus ascended to heaven, I am confessing that Jesus awaits me in very ordinary places and ordinary ways with extraordinary grace and love. It is comforting, and challenging, all at the same time.

As a family we need, perhaps, to get used to saying that there will be no bad outcomes of my father-in-law’s illness. There will be sad ones, of course, as all who love must come to terms with loss. But that is as God intended. Genuine love is always given in the face of certain loss, but we remain hopeful because our Lord’s future is stronger even than death, and more powerful by far than our grief. In all of this lies the challenge and the comfort.

Another question: What of hope for tomorrow?

Hope for tomorrow means courage for today – and I borrow, here, some of the thoughts of the Revd Dr. Sam Wells from Thursday’s Though ForThe Day from BBC Radio 4.

Here’s the payoff: because the future is now safely in Jesus’ hands, I have more courage to face the challenges of today with hope and dignity. We all do, really, I suppose. The Ascension is the assurance that the battle has already been won, even if it doesn’t seem to be over. We live in the in-between time: between the final victory and the consummation of the reality that is already present in Jesus Christ.

But this is the remarkable fact. The greatest historical argument for Christianity is the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the eleven terrified and dispirited disciples into hopeful, dynamic and invigorated apostles. Somehow the echo chamber of fear became for them not the dismantling of all certainty but the clarification of all faith.

Out of our place of deepest fear comes our encounter with truth. In the last few days many of us must have wondered whether we should now go to that event, get on that bus, go into that crowded place. We’ve heard words of defiance from Manchester and beyond, which has said, “Don’t give in to fear, that would be allowing the terrorists to win.” We know the laws of probability mean our chances of getting caught up in such a ghastly incident are actually very small. But there’s something deeper than that.

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas tells us the object of fear is a future evil that is imminent, of great magnitude, and threatening the loss of something we rightly love. Think about the last part of that definition for a moment. Fear puts us in touch with what we rightly love. Terrorism is about terror. We want lives free from anxiety and we resent and abhor terrorism because it embodies evil and cruelty and creates anxiety.

But we don’t have to be passive victims of fear. We can turn fear to good use if it puts us in touch with what we truly, deeply and rightly love. That’s what’s happened in Manchester in the last few days. Think about the generosity, humanity and compassion that have sprung up from that most dreadful atrocity as people refused to give in to fear.

What happened to the disciples after Ascension Day is that they reflected on and identified what in Jesus they truly deeply and rightly loved; and soon after they were overwhelmed with the power and energy to embody it. Because of the ascension of Jesus, we too now see a future in which we are no longer slaves to fear. We are free to live in a new reality, where death and the threat of death no longer have the power to control us. We are free to live for others in a world that has yet to hear this news. We can live courageously, even in a world where the fighting is still going on around us, perpetuated by those who have not yet heard that the battle has been decided. We are free to experience the Jesus of the future, who still breaks into our present world giving himself to us anew in the teaching, the Eucharist and the praying. We are called to live this future into the present as well. We don’t know where Jesus IS, so much as we know that Jesus is WITH US. We don’t know what the future will bring, so much as we know that the future is safe in Jesus’ hands. And finally, we too can return to the world after our encounter with the Risen Jesus, hearts rejoicing and heads held high as we worship and serve God.

Amen

Friday, 5 May 2017

Sunday sermon: John 10.1-10. Jesus the Good Shepherd


John 10:1-10

 

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Isn’t the countryside lovely? Not to live in, obviously, just for passing through – and even then only when the sun shines. The Yorkshire Dales on a sunny day in July? Bring it on. On a wet day in February without a tea-room for miles? No thanks!

Those of us who live in towns and cities live lives pretty divorced from rural life and in many cases quite ignorant of it given how much we depend on what goes on there for our food. I was once involved in a school trip taking thirteen year olds to Flamingo Land, which is well of the urban beaten track. We were passing a field of cows when one kid asked, “What are they for?”

“They’re cows.”

“But what’re they for?”

“They’re beef burgers at an earlier stage.”

“Oh, I get it.”

So, a Gospel story about sheep. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus employs the imagery of first-century shepherding to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, I know nothing about sheep other than what the washing instructions on my clothing says and I am partial to the lamb option at a carvery,. I also remember my father trying to fool me as a young child that sheep droppings were evidence of a breed of giant rabbits but other than that ….. what a townie eh?

Have you ever tried talking to a sheep? Isn’t it nice to hold the intellectual high ground once in a while? So, that’s another thing I know about sheep: their stupidity is legendary. But their loyalty? Who knew?

So, in order to access John’s passage for today I think we must first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus' choice of image and embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations. It’s worth asking whether this Middle Eastern imagery can have power even in our urban, cosmopolitan, and industrial centres. In fact, isn’t it possible that we long precisely for the kind of relationship between God and us that such imagery promotes?

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherd on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold. There was no longer a door. The shepherd himself had become the door. That is what Jesus is saying: he is the door.

When the shepherd gets up the next morning, Jesus explains, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he‘s brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." The sheep can't spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There's no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to live more fully. So what is Jesus the door to? He goes on to explain: he is the door to abundant life, which means not just in this world but in the next.

We aren’t talking about sheep any more are we? He's talking about us.

Therefore, this meaning of this parable of Jesus is unlocked when we start to think of Jesus himself as being the door but Jesus isn’t only the door into the sheepfold, he’s is also the door out to green pastures. One side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door into the sheepfold where we will find communities of love, communities of justice and communities of peace. The other side of the metaphor is this: Jesus is the door by which we go out to green pastures and experience the fullness of life in all its abundance.  

Now, another thing about sheep is that they seem to lack an independent spirit. They just amble about eating grass; they are relatively defenceless against predators and they easily lose their way. It’s because they are so dense and defenceless that they need a shepherd. Is that us not in so many ways, relatively defenceless against the negative influences of our society without the guidance of our shepherd, Jesus? It’s something of an insult today to be likened to sheep isn’t it? It’s used for people who seem to follow a herd instinct and don’t think or evaluate for themselves: eternal followers, lacking in initiative. That could well be us in the run up to our general election; following a herd instinct; voting as we’ve always voted out of party loyalty without seeing the wider issues – but let’s not get too political today because there are other areas where we follow like sheep, accepting or colluding in our society’s norms when those norms don’t reflect the attitudes and ethics of the Gospel.

And at the same time, if we celebrate this Good Shepherd, there must also be bad shepherds, those who attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their followers. We often read in the papers or see on television accounts of shepherds or leaders, whether they hold positions in the church or in politics or in big business but, nevertheless, are people who have been viewed as trustworthy but who have let their flock down in some way. Whenever trust has been broken and boundaries crossed, it can take months and years for healing and wholeness to return to victims who have been hurt and communities whose trust has been breached. In today’s Gospel, Jesus differentiates himself from untrustworthy or bad shepherds. He warns us that there are others who exploit and cause division instead of expressing love and bringing about healing, unity, and peace.

 We often suffer when our herd instinct becomes stronger than our intelligence. It is a human characteristic - and a failing - that we all too often follow the crowd. We think back to Nazi Germany where many intelligent people blindly followed the lead sheep and the flock of sheep into a war that cost the lives of millions. It has happened so often in human history: It happened in the former Yugoslavia when nationalism led to the break-up of that country with all its attendant atrocities and it’s happening today with the rise of the Far Right in America and France. It’s happening today in Syria and in Russia where authoritarian leaders seek to stamp on dissent and where many are willing to follow blindly. It’s happening today with our cheap and diminished sound-bite politics. The most intelligent and educated among us often don’t want to admit that our herd instinct is stronger than our intelligence but in Jesus we have a shepherd we can unfailingly put our trust in.

On the other hand, though, there is something appealing about the imagery of sheep that trust without fail; about a shepherd who cares without ceasing; about a bond which words can’t fully express. In today’s text, despite any fear about surrendering too much of our independence, we can still appreciate some of the profound meanings of Jesus as door to the sheepfold and voice to the sheep.

I’m sure there have been times in all our lives when, rather like sheep, we have seen the grass on the other side of the fence and it seemed greener when being one of Jesus' sheep didn't sound like such a great thing to be. The book of Isaiah says, in chapter 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” And yet the shepherd continues to love us and call us to follow him. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stood before the people who were sick, who were poor, maimed, blind and lame and looked on all of them, and said, “I will have pity on them for these people are harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd.” Yet we have our shepherd, even when, like those people, we have reached our lowest ebb.

One of the most famous and best loved passages in the Bible is the 23rd Psalm which begins as you know, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want." Now that's a profession of faith. And these words speak to us at different times throughout our lives. Sometimes when we have a lot of concern and maybe that's when we're in a hospital or a prison cell or facing a family crisis or serious problems at work, those words come to us and give us comfort. It is a source of huge encouragement to have a Good Shepherd who seeks us out when we are lost and then brings us back into the fold. It’s wonderful to have a Good Shepherd who calls us by name. That’s the nature of our relationship with Jesus. We are known: he knows us by name.

When I take funerals and ask family members what Bible passage they would like to have read, most choose the 23rd Psalm and that's a good choice, because as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s good to know that there’s a leader, a Good Shepherd who has gone before us and who is also present with us at all times and, as we are still in the Easter season, it’s good that we still emphasise the Good Shepherd who was also the perfect Passover lamb: a Good Shepherd who has given his life for the sheep. As Peter wrote, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that free from sins we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."

We cannot import into the sheepfolds the full abundant life that Christ offers us because, safe as the sheepfold is, the very fullness of that life cannot be found there. Jesus calls us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God's unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, let’s strive to join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Let’s listen for the voice of the shepherd calling us by name. Let’s give Jesus the chance to call us out of the sheepfold so that we may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God. Jesus says, “I am the door. Let me lead you in to a community of love, peace, security and justice and out into the fullness of life both here and in the future.” That’s surely an invitation worth accepting.

Amen.