Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sunday sermon: Matthew 20.1-16 The generous vinyard owner - a parable of God's generosity


Matthew 20.1-16


 
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Does anyone know what the average wage for a Premier Division footballer is?

It’s a great game isn’t it judging people on the basis of their wage or salary? We often measure someone’s worth on what they earn don’t we? Or, as in the case of the footballer, we might raise our eyebrows and make some comment about the madness of a system that pays obscene amounts to some people who seem to add little in real value to society in comparison to those who do, such as nurses, the police, care-workers or prison officers who are paid a pittance in comparison.

When we play that game, if we’re still in work, the essential rule is to compare what we earn - or used to, if we’re retired – with what someone gets who we perceive has less value to society than we do, particularly if that person earns more than us but is less skilled, or educated, or productive. “I work three times as hard for a third of the money!”

Oh yes, if you want to get people upset very quickly, all you have to do is start talking about earnings, and of course, despite the legislation we still don’t have equal pay do we?

And what about if we stop talking in a general sense and make comparisons closer to home? How many times have you heard the lament of the older man who thinks he lost out to someone inferior because of anti-discrimination laws? (In our house we call that sense of entitlement “black-lesbian-in-a-wheelchair syndrome” because it encompasses all the disadvantaged groups in one persona.)

Well, the older man, in the parable’s terms is the man who started working at dawn or nine o’clock and those who anti-discrimination laws have sought to protect are the ones who started at three or five o’clock.
 
 
Money, salaries, equal pay for equal work, anti-discrimination laws: these ideas cause all kinds of tensions within us and it’s with this same sense of discomfort that we approach this parable of Jesus for today.

 When you examine the parables of Jesus, they’re enormously creative. Many people would claim that Jesus is one of the greatest story story-tellers who ever lived and his parables illustrate that point. Why? Because Jesus’ parables are always from everyday life and because of that they speak to people’s personal experiences. They’re from the market place, the farm, the family, the fishing boat, the building site. Well, today’s parable is about another of life’s common themes: salaries, wages, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. 

In short, the story goes like this: there was this man who was a landowner owner and his property included a vineyard and he needed workers to harvest his grapes. He went to the village square at six o’clock in the morning and hired workers who went out and worked all day for twelve hours until six at night. But that wasn’t enough to get the work done, so some more workers were hired at nine o’clock and they worked for nine hours. Then more were hired at noon and worked for six hours; more at three o’clock who worked for three hours; and yet more were taken on late in the afternoon and worked for one hour.  Well, that’s the market economy at work so there’s nothing particularly odd about the story so far – until the landowner decides to pay everyone the full daily rate. Well, surprise, surprise, those who had worked the longest felt hard done by.

Well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? We put in the full effort while someone who works with us is a known skiver but is paid on the same rate. Where’s the justice in that?

What is the purpose of this story? The parables of Jesus are always earthly stories with heavenly meanings. So what is the heavenly meaning of this earthly story for us today?

This is a parable about faith, I think: it’s about people who come to faith in Christ at different times in their lives and who receive the same reward because that’s the deal. The workers who came later weren’t skivers and that’s where the modern comparisons break down. There’s nothing in the story to suggest that they somehow worked with less enthusiasm or commitment.

In John’s Gospel Jesus said, “I came that you shall have life in all its fullness.” What he didn’t say was, “You can only have that fullness of life if you are a cradle Christian. Those of you who came to faith later in life? Well, that’s a shame, because you only get a proportion of what I offer depending on how late you came to faith.” Remember the thief on the cross? You don’t come to faith much later than that, but the promised reward was there for him too.

The deeper meaning of this parable should be clear to us: God is inviting people to be in a relationship with him and he comes looking for us. We’re the people in the market place. In the parable the landowner not only seeks workers, but does so repeatedly until the end of the day, picking up those who were there at the crack of dawn and those who came later. This parable encourages us to see God in the same way, as the one who seeks perpetually with his offer of abundant life made through Jesus.

What we seem to struggle with in the parable, to have the most difficulty accepting, is the landowner’s extravagant generosity. What we often fail to see is that all God’s gifts to us – his generosity and his grace - are undeserved. St. Paul told the Christians at Ephasus this very thing, “For by grace you have been saved …. Not through your own good works, in case any of you should boast.”

When Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life in its fullness” there’s an implied contract there and there was a contract in the parable too: while some people got more than they expected, no one got less. No one got ripped off.

Matthew must have made his point well because we seem to have internalised the moral: we tend not – at least not that I’ve ever noticed – to bemoan the fact that those who come to faith later get the same benefits as those who came earlier but it must have been as issue for Matthew’s community. Jewish converts to Christianity could claim that they had been God’s children all along. There were obviously new converts who had come later and were equally welcomed under God’s grace. There must have been some chuntering about that or this parable would not have been included in Matthew’s Gospel. But we seem to have learnt from it.

So, although the parable doesn’t say so explicitly, it would be right to see this as an ongoing story: the landowner will be back the next day and the day after looking for more workers to bring under his patronage because that is the nature of God.

So, where does that leave us? We’re all here today because at some stage we have come under the patronage of the landowner: God sought us out and we signed up, so to speak. For some of us, that’s been a lifelong process and we’ve grown into that faith: we can’t remember a time when we didn’t have that faith in God. Others of us came to the same faith in a variety of different ways and there may have been a point in time when we can date the moment our faith began.

But how did it happen? These things don’t happen in a vacuum: there were triggers along the way; something we read, something someone said to us that lodged in our minds. There may well have been many of these triggers over time which didn’t come to fruition all at once but which built up over time until it all fell into place. We rightly recognise this to be the work of the Holy Spirit but the Holy Spirit, while she works in the lives of people does that through other people. That’s us: we are the triggers for others. We talk to people, invite them to things, lend them books, whatever and the Holy Spirit does the rest.

To use the language of the parable, we may have been taken on at dawn or at nine o’clock or at midday but there are others still waiting to be brought to the market place so that the landowner can find them waiting for him.

“I came that you may have life in all its fullness.” Isn’t that something we should want to share?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Sunday Sermon - Matthew 18.21-35: Forgiveness


Matthew 18:21-35
 
 

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A priest was called away for an emergency. Not wanting to leave the confessional unattended, he called his rabbi friend from across the street and asked him to cover for him.

The rabbi told him he wouldn't know what to say, but the priest told him to come on over and he'd stay with him for a little bit and show him what to do.

The rabbi comes, and he and the priest are in the confessional. In a few minutes, a woman comes in and says, 'Father, forgive me for I have sinned.'

The priest asks, 'What did you do?'

The woman says, 'I committed adultery.'

The priest says, 'How many times?'

And the woman replies, 'Three.'

Priest: 'Say two Hail Mary's, put £5 in the box, and go and sin no more. You are forgiven'

A few minutes later a man enters the confessional. He says, 'Father forgive me for I have sinned.'

'What did you do?'

‘I committed adultery.'

'How many times?'

'Three times.'

The priest says, 'Say two Hail Mary's, put £5 in the box and go and sin no more. You are forgiven'

The rabbi tells the priest that he thinks he's got it, so the priest leaves.

A few minutes later another woman enters and says, 'Father, forgive me for I have sinned.'

The rabbi says, 'What did you do?'

The woman replies, 'I committed adultery.'

The rabbi, getting it off pat, says, 'How many times?'

The woman replies, 'Once.'

The rabbi said, 'Go and do it two more times, We have a special this week, three for a fiver.'

So, it’s worth getting this out of the way at the start: how are you at forgiving? It’s a struggle isn’t it?

Forgiveness is a process, like grief; it has stages that can be observed and described, though no two people go through the stages in exactly the same way. It’s a bit like this: we hurt, we hate, we heal.

We hurt; that is, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been done to us; we don't minimize it, or try to sweep it under the carpet. And sometimes we wallow in it.

 We hate; that is, we blame the one who has hurt us; we don't excuse what’s happened or try to understand where the other person was coming from, or recognise our own fault in the events. Often we let it eat away at us and we plan petty acts of revenge and endlessly rehearse the event or conversation in our minds so that we come off better.

Finally, when we’re ready, we heal; we let go of the pain that’s keeping us stuck in the past, and move on.

Those stages sound simple, but they always happen inside a storm of complicated emotions. Particularly when the wound is deep, forgiveness comes slowly, and in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Forgiveness may be the hardest work that you and I will ever do.

But what’s the alternative?

Well it’s obvious and most of us here will recognise this scenario: we don’t forgive and we end up obsessed and stuck in the past when most of our family and friends have moved on from support and sympathy and heartily wish that we would too because our obsession, important as it is to us, is starting to seem self-indulgent to those around us. “Not this again. I’m tired of hearing it. Get over it. Let it go. Move on.” Of course, they may not say it but they’re thinking it. Or if we’re honest, sometimes we rather like that feeling of being the hard-done by victim and we can fall too easily into that role in the hope of more sympathy – but the outcome is the same: people get bored with the story.

And, of course, it’s a danger to our mental health and can lead to depression and other complications. An unresolved sense of injustice eats away at our mental wellbeing and makes us emotionally tired and vulnerable.

How many of us are stuck in that cycle of anger and resentment? "No matter what, I will never let go of how you wronged me. I will take this anger, this hatred, to the grave!"

There is no freedom in such hatred because that anger and resentment controls us. It takes over our being, our soul.

There’s a wide range of human behaviour in all of that and I hope you recognise some of it. But we’re talking theory here so let’s look at two simple examples:

Samuel Weisenthal, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, tells a story that raises this question about as strongly as it can be raised. Weisenthal, a Jew, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. One afternoon he was assigned to clean a hospital for wounded soldiers and a nurse walked up to him, ordered him to come with her, and led him upstairs to a bed in which a young soldier, his head wrapped in stained bandages, was dying. He was maybe twenty-two, an SS trooper.

The soldier, whose name was Karl, reached out and grabbed Weisenthal's hand. He told him that he had to speak to a Jew. He had to confess the terrible things he had done. Otherwise, he could not die in peace.

He had been fighting in a Russian village where several hundred Jews had been rounded up. His group was ordered to plant full cans of petrol in a big house. Then they marched two hundred people into the house, crammed them in so they could hardly move. Next they threw grenades in the windows to set the house on fire. The soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to jump out of the windows.

The young soldier recalled, "Behind the window of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothing was on fire. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the child's mother. With his free hand the man covered the child's eyes, then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. We shot....O God....! I shall never forget. It haunts me."

The young man paused and then said, "I know that what I have told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I am asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

There was silence in the room. Weisenthal tells us what he did next, "I stood up and looked in his direction. At last I made up my mind, and without a word, I left the room."

Do you recall one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War--a small girl running naked down the road with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off, and her body scorched by napalm? The man who coordinated the raid on this child's village in June 1971 was a 24-year old U.S. Army helicopter pilot and operations officer name John Plummer. The day after the raid, Plummer saw the photo in the newspaper and was devastated. "It just knocked me to my knees and that was when I knew I could never talk about this." The guilt over the raid had become a lonely torment. He suffered periodic nightmares that included the scene from the photo, accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.

The girl in the photo was called Kim and she survived 17 operations and eventually moved to Canada. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at an event not far from his home.

"If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we could not change history, but we should try to do good things for the present." Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note, "I am that man," and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her and soon they were face-to-face. "She just opened her arms to me," Plummer recounted. "I fell into her arms sobbing." All I could say is, "I'm so sorry, I'm just so sorry."

"It's all right," Kim responded. "I forgive. I forgive."

Two very different examples with two very different outcomes but did you notice that they added something new to the discussion? We had the need for forgiveness and the need to forgive.

Recently, scientific studies are catching up with religious concepts. Over the last few years, studies have been taking place on the concept of forgiveness. Recent research shows that holding on to anger increases your chances of a heart attack as well as cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, boosts your self-esteem and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. Forgiveness also helps you sleep better at night and boosts a positive change in your attitude. "Forgiveness is a decision you make to give up your anger and feelings of revenge," declared psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons. He added that forgiving is not forgetting; it is letting go of anger and hurt and moving on.

"Forgiveness has remarkable healing power in the lives of those who utilize it," added Dr. Fitzgibbons.

Today’s Gospel story pretty much sums up all of this but Jesus adds something new to the discussion: he tells the story of the unforgiving servant – a story made up to make a point. We come here week by week and we make our confession to God in a general sense. (It’s left to our private prayers to go over the specifics.) Then we ask for God’s forgiveness. But this story makes it clear that if we don’t come to God as those willing to forgive others we can’t assume that same forgiveness from God. It’s very much a two-way thing: in asking for God’s forgiveness we have to be as willing to forgive those who we believe have done us down otherwise we’re asking for something for ourselves which we aren’t prepared to do for others and there’s a hypocrisy in that which we need to address.

In John’s Gospel Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness.” Today’s Gospel story makes it clear that forgiveness, receiving and giving, is part of that fullness of life that Jesus brings. It takes two to fall out. It takes one to forgive.

You are not excusing the action.

You are not ignoring the wrong, the sin committed and the person responsible.

What you are doing is setting yourself free from the weight of harm that you have carried, maybe for far too long. Forgive. Let it go. Release it. Throw it out. Take back the God-given power you have for your own life. For some, the time is right. For others, it will take time and healing. Perhaps you need to talk with someone, but take control.

Forgiveness is not weakness. It is not passive, not gutless. Forgiveness is healthy. Forgiveness is freeing. It may take time. It may be one-sided. But it will release us. It will set us free to experience more that fullness of life which Jesus promised.

Let us pray. Our God of forgiveness, too often we carry resentment and hurt deep within our hearts. We feel weighted down and there is little joy in our lives. Reveal to us the freeing possibilities of forgiving. May we find wholeness when we let go of all that weight of hurt and resentment. Through Christ, the Forgiver. Amen.

 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Sunday sermon: Matthew 15.21-28. The Canaanite woman - and a bit of CS Lewis.


Matthew 15.21-28

 
 
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

So, St. Peter is showing a new arrival around the Kingdom of Heaven and all is going well until they arrive at a large wall.

 

“What’s behind here?” enquires the new arrival.

 

“Well,” says St. Peter, “I need you to keep your voice down. This is where the American Fundamentalists are. They believe they’re the only ones here and we don’t like to upset them.”


As Christians we hear a lot about God’s grace and this passage is all about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” as St. Paul writes to the church at Ephesus. What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to God's grace: a question echoing through time – and through Scripture itself.

It’s very tempting to say that there are no limits, for the word “grace” itself would seem to contradict that. If “grace” is the defining description of how God deals with humanity, then grace would seem to overcome all boundaries.  However, if we aren't careful we find ourselves following a theology which suggests that God saves all, regardless of who they are and regardless of what they’ve done. That doesn’t seem to be what Christianity is teaching.

Difficult isn’t it?

In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the limits of God’s grace began to become clear. His descendants were identified by the tribal ties of blood and by specific ways of living and worship, the boundaries of which Moses drew quite clearly under God’s guidance.


Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. Today’s psalm (67), although we didn’t read it, is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.” That doesn’t mean that all would embrace Judaism and the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love his name and to worship him. . “. . These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer…………. for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This becomes particularly relevant in our Gospel reading this morning as a Gentile woman approaches Jesus for help.

So we turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he says. Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, as Paul declares it, has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles and beyond them to the whole world.

Though Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish supplicant draws him to a more inclusive vision. This supplicant is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him. This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing should challenge the church today.

The woman is a Canaanite, a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy boundaries with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus focuses his ministry. This woman comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of knowledge and understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of from the outset.


Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. There’s no answer to the question “why?” There is only this strange, surprising silence from Jesus. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they’d had enough. The woman certainly seems to have got under the skin of the disciples. Still Jesus remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. Jesus has a clear goal, an all-consuming passion about where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision because she’s a Canaanite.

But the woman’s not having any of it. Now she’s in conversation with him and she won’t let the opportunity pass by. His silence had been upsetting, but now his words open a new door. She’s bold, brave and challenging and she presses her case with force. She’s been reduced to desperation, certainly, but she won’t give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth.

And then something dramatic happens: this woman, disadvantaged, an outsider because she is a Gentile and a woman who’s alone in public, challenges this rebuff by worshiping Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection). She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down. You’re the only one I can turn to.” 

Then the most extraordinary thing happens. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how we want to put a positive gloss on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles).  They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of even this rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know. I am not of your house and lineage. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table and I ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”

You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd.
But after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime to the crowd, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And we’re told her daughter was healed at that moment. He who had fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who would feed another four thousand only a short time later, grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

He who was feeding Israel, to whom he was sent, gave an appetizer, as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”

She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy and undeserved help. She’s nothing to bring to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter. In this way she broke through the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come. 

There are two ways of looking at this event. Firstly, the Canaanite woman is a personification of those nations that would hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is the second major theme. But neither of these captures the shock and surprise of the exchange between the woman and Jesus. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of his mission. In Matthew’s Gospel we’ve so far seen a Jesus who has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile.

The woman seems to bring to him the full implications of his mission.

This is important because we’ve already seen Jesus feed a Jewish crowd and shortly we’ll see Jesus feeding another crowd, but this time the crowd is a crowd in a Gentile area, not a Jewish area. This woman really seems to have forced Jesus to rethink his mission and that mission changes as the Gospel story unfolds and as Jesus broadens boundaries in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him: it took an immense struggle to expand the thinking about the limits of God’s grace on the part of Jesus’ disciples and those who followed them, but it began here as Jesus reappraised his mission.

Sadly, that struggle has not yet been overcome. Over and over again the people of God have had to recognize how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. But we keep wanting to establish limits on that grace and God, in his turn, keeps pushing back on them.

We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn. Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often seen in the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they’ve been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. The Canaanite women would not accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter a particular understanding of Christianity.

I’m a great fan of the writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a theologian, and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is a story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story, Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect, but that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to decide who’s in and who’s out.

Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea. Unless we find ourselves behind a big wall in God’s Kingdom, we might just be surprised who else is there.

Amen.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 14. 22-33 Peter walks on water

                        Matthew 14.22-33
 


Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I’m always intrigued to know peoples’ thought processes as they hear or read the Gospels. How do we process these stories? How do we seek to apply them? I’d love to know what everyone is thinking right now in relation to today’s passage.

As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I’ve told you this before, I’m sure, but I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I sat here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee?

I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing at inopportune moments, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained.

But not this time: today’s Gospel taps into a phobia of mine. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. Some years ago, I travelled from Tallinn in Estonia to Helsinki in Finland by ferry and back again – in the depths of winter with a leaden sky and horizontal snow. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.

As we arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately horrified by our ferry: it looked like a tug. It fought with the ice for most of the journey so violently and my travel companions and I couldn’t escape to the outer decks to nurse our misery because of the intense cold – colder than I have ever been before or since. We finally found a place in the bar but we didn’t think drinking would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns.

So we sat there in the most surreal of settings imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples - seasoned veterans clearly - spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin American and ballroom to a live five piece band - including (I kid you not) the theme to “Titanic”. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expected my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!

Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.

I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but initially adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples. So, in order to calm their fears, Jesus identifies himself, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his four-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I;”  and then to Peter, “come”. 

These words might just seem like a quick reassurance but they are full of resonance and meaning and we must imagine them being delivered with great authority. 

“Take heart,” recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” says Moses. And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. It has become another phrase along the lines of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

I think the last time I heard this passage was at a baptism service and it struck me then what a great passage this was for such an occasion: those parents, already part of the church family wanted their child to be equipped to respond to Jesus’ call to “Come”. They wanted him to be able to cope with the storms and the uncertainties which life will throw at him with the confidence that keeping his eyes on Jesus will bring him through; confident that he could, in Jesus own words, “Take heart” and be reassured; that he can overcome his fear because his life had been built on the foundation of he who said, “I am who I am”, and “I am the bread of life”, “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

When Jesus says, “Come,” Peter has to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages and that for me is the key point: we are faced with how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given Gospel passage whether we read it or hear it. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to Peter and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon. The Gospel passages have to have the power to challenge us and to change or they will remain marginally interesting pieces of religious literature, nothing more.

So, in whatever situation we find ourselves, when Jesus says “Come!” we’re faced with the same choice as Peter was.

When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses and who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.

This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. The point of this presence is not to show us that God has supernatural powers so much as to give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, we are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that in the storms of this life Jesus is with us.

In a book I was recently reading, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Let’s Go!” This is, I suppose, the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine and by dodgy politicians. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”

It is hard, isn’t it, to imagine ourselves in such a set of circumstances as Peter however we might seek to put a personal gloss on what “the storm” might be interpreted to mean in our own lives when we are in the midst of our own discomfort and we call on Jesus for help: work; study; relationships; personal crises of faith; frustration with the culture and politics of our time; our own sense of our Christian calling – whatever destabilises us and distresses us. And as we consider ourselves, let’s not forget those whose personal storm is to be driven from their homes with the threat of death hanging over them for being identified as disciples – in Iraq and Syria, in Southern Sudan and Northern Nigeria. What can this passage mean to them? Is there any way that we can respond to Jesus on their behalf when he calls “Come!” rather than concentrating on our own woes, given the contrast in their traumas to those of our own?

We also know that when Peter’s attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus. The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. That’s life. Only fools pretend otherwise.

This isn’t, as some Christians might imply, a story of Jesus as the magic talisman, protecting us from all dangers. No. This is Jesus who enables us to cope in those dangers.

And to see, as Peter does, that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern.

It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too grasp Jesus steady hand? Or will we huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes and routines we have established for ourselves as our inadequate coping strategies to fend off the outside world? The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Sunday Sermon, Matthew 14: 13-21 The feeding of the five thousand and how we understand miracles: a sermon from prison.


Matthew 14:13-21

 
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

So, here we are: this is the summer.

Allegedly.

I don’t know whether it’s something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden, while balancing a cup of cheap beer and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

But that’s just me.

This time of year always puts me in mind of my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley. Have I mentioned my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley before? No? Well, you know the phrase “glass half full, glass half empty”? It makes no difference to her, she’ll drink it anyway. So, I called round one day and she was in a bad mood having bought two barbeque packs from B & Q.

“There” she said brandishing one in my face. “Look at the picture.” The picture showed a barbeque, all set up, with succulent food cooking nicely.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Well, look for yourself.” She said brandishing the open box again. “It’s a bag of charcoal. There’s no food.”

I explained gently, not wishing to make her feel stupid that it was just the cooking element of the barbeque she had bought and that no food was included what with B & Q not generally selling food.

She took it well, I thought, and then turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’d better get the other one out of the freezer, then.”

Today’s Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers.

I don’t know whether you had realised that there is a second miracle of feeding the multitudes. This comes a couple chapters later in Matthew’s gospel – and in Mark’s Gospel too.

Jesus asked them, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him “Twelve.”

“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” And they said to him “Seven.” Then he said to them “Do you not yet understand?”

Jesus poses a very important question, “Do you not yet understand?” and that question is for us today as much as it was for his followers then. Do we understand?

How we understand the miracle stories of Jesus is real problem to some people as if there was only one answer. This is one of the best known of the miracle stories of Jesus: it’s in all four Gospels. Most of us have heard it before and most of us have heard it countless times and because of that most of us believe we understand it. That can make us lazy, “Oh, I know this one. Nudge me when he’s finished.” But the question of what we understand from this event remains important.

Christians have argued down the ages about the true meaning of these feeding miracles. One approach is that everything is to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it is written. The response to this miracle is to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” To some people, doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded in the Gospels is as good as doubting the divinity of Christ. If God exists, then anything is possible surely? If Jesus is the Son of God then we shouldn’t be surprised by such a miracle. That’s a perfectly reasonable understanding of the story.

The problem with this way of looking at the story is that it ignores any symbolism at the story’s heart.

The approach other Christians use is to strip away any of the supernatural bits of the miracle accounts to reveal the morals behind the stories. In this case those Christians have understood the moral to be that when Jesus fed the five thousand he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle, then, was that everyone discovered the importance of sharing with others and caring for them. This approach isn’t to deny the power of God because, as we’ve said, if God exists then surely anything is possible but in this way of looking at the story we see the power of God at work in a much more subtle way: we don’t need great signs and wonders, possible as those are, when God touches the hearts of people to care for each other.

That too is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the story.

But the problem with looking at the story in this way is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s overflowing generosity to his people.

Does it matter?

Really does it matter?

If we can take something away with us from a Gospel passage about the nature of God, does it really matter that you’ve taken one point and you’ve taken another and that we haven’t agreed? We’re all at different stages in our growth as Christians and the Holy Spirit guides each one of us differently. How you understand a passage of the Bible today isn’t necessarily how you’ll understand it in five or ten years’ time. Is it realistic to expect that someone who has been a follower of Jesus for most of their adult life will understand in the same way that someone who has just become a disciple does?

So I ask again, does it really matter providing that we each feel that God has spoken to us in some way through that passage?

So, for what it’s worth here’s what I took from the story – and this is where seeing this story of feeding the five thousand on its own without the other one which comes later, feeding the four thousand, – doesn’t help us to see the full importance of either story because they need to be understood together.

The first miracle takes place in a Jewish area near the Sea of Galilee while the second takes place in an area called the Decapolis, a largely Gentile area, the Gentiles being anyone who isn’t Jewish: you and me. 

Why is that important?

I think it’s important because these two stories taken together reflect Jesus’ mission: they reinforce what Jesus was all about. He came for ALL people.

In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say to his Jewish audience, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” So the good news Jesus brought wasn’t just for his own people, although they heard it first.

St. Paul takes that thought further in his letter to the Romans where he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”

These two feeding miracles are the mission of Jesus to all people acted out, first to his own people, the Jews and then to the Gentiles, everyone else.

So, take your pick: a story about the miraculous power of Jesus revealing that he is God; a story where the example of Jesus shows people the importance of caring for one another or a story which acts out Jesus’ mission to bring salvation to all people.

And, do you know what? I don’t much care which one you go with. Are they not all valid understandings of this Gospel passage? The question each of us needs to ask is, “What is the Holy Spirit teaching ME this morning?” Not, “What’s the Holy Spirit teaching him … or him, but what’s the message for me in this passage?”

The bottom line to all these approaches is found in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

That’s what we’re moving on to here this morning in our Communion service.

Amen.