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.

 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13.31-33 and 44-52. Mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls and fishing nets.


Matthew 13.31-33 and 44-52



He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

So, we’re back after a week, hopefully well rested and refreshed but spare a thought for our disciples as we join them for a third time as they listen to Jesus’ parables. Jesus was on a roll: these are, what, his third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh parables in one sitting? If I was one of the disciples I’d have lost the power of rational thought by now!

We start with the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.  Unlike the two parables of the sower we’ve already looked at these are (mercifully) short: perhaps, like any good teacher, Jesus recognised that his listeners had limited concentration spans. There are no long narratives and no deeply hidden meanings here. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We’ve done the hard stuff. This is by way of consolidation.”

Yes, they are simple stories but they’re not just about how little things turn in to big things.  They’re more about how the Kingdom of God takes over everything around it.  So, yes, more of, “The Kingdom of God is like this” stories.

The mustard takes over the field.  The yeast takes over the bread.  They’re small and seem insignificant, but they change everything around them.  That's how the Kingdom of God works. It’s good to be reminded about that because sometimes we simply fail to see that sort of change. Perhaps we aren’t looking for it. Perhaps we don’t recognise it when it happens. Perhaps it takes us by surprise when it does happen.

I’ll give you a simple example: I started to work in Armley prison about eighteen months ago and it’s busy. It’s don’t-have-time-to-think busy and that means that it’s really easy to miss signs of the Kingdom on a daily basis.

Just before Easter I ran a Lent group on one wing. Twenty-two men opted to attend and they took part with great enthusiasm and showed some real perception and evidence of spiritual depth. A couple of weeks ago we confirmed eight of them. Now it’s not easy being a man of faith in a prison: but these men, regardless of their crimes, had come to a point in their faith journeys where they wished to make a public declaration of that faith; to show true penitence and to strive to live a changed life for the remainder of their sentences and to seek to live as better role models to those around them - and many have noticed the change in these men’s lives, other men who are not generally easily impressed.

There’s a strong belief amongst the regular chapel-goers in the prison that you can move on from the shame that lead so many into mental health problems and a downward spiral of self-loathing; that you can be released from all of that to start afresh even if you know you’ll never leave prison. For these men, coming to a deeper understanding of God was also, inevitably, to come to a deeper understanding of themselves. At some time in the past – and I take no personal credit for this – something started to work in the lives of these men: something initially as tiny as a mustard seed or a flake of yeast set in motion something that would grow and flourish and, to borrow from the parable of the sower, to “bear fruit thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.”

I think the point is that often we don’t see the wood for the trees and because things don’t always work out in church life in the ways we expect, we lose heart and fail to recognise that something is happening but it’s something different, or it’s happening to someone we don’t see any more because of something that we said or did some time ago which set in motion a chain of events which has taken time to come to fruition. We may never know, but because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

The Kingdom of God is like this.

And we move on to the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl.

In ancient times, and in an unsettled country like Palestine, where there were no banks in the modern sense, it was a common practice to conceal valuables in the ground. The Middle East are keenly alive to the chance of finding such stashes: the whole region is a potential archaeological treasure-trove.

I can’t help wondering what the first man was doing in someone else’s field. Maybe he was a hired helper for the man who owned the field, or maybe he was just passing through. Or maybe the field was for sale and the man was looking it over before deciding whether to buy it. Jesus doesn’t tell us but whatever the reason he was there, he found an amazing treasure, maybe coins or jewellery, who knows? This was a great surprise! He didn’t expect to find it, because he wasn’t looking for it but instantly the man knew that the treasure was incredibly valuable and was inevitably full of joy over this discovery. I have to say this never happens when I am gardening but I have been watching that BBC series with Fiona Bruce where people have found an art-work and are desperate to find whether or not it is genuine. If it is genuine, of course, it is usually incredibly valuable. It’s the same with her other programme, The Antiques Roadshow.

So this man went home and sold everything he owned: his house, his furniture, his jewellery and his livestock. Then he took all the proceeds and he bought the field. Clearly, the treasure in that field was worth more than everything else he had. Remember, we’re talking about The Kingdom again here and so Jesus is telling a story about a man who happens upon the kingdom quite by chance.

Then we have the story of a merchant of pearls: another story about the Kingdom. His profession was to look for pearls. This is the only thing that he did in his life: to look for and to find pearls and in doing so he finds a pearl of huge value. This time, though, the discovery of the Kingdom is not just by chance, but it is the fruit of a long search. The merchant of pearls knows their value because many people would like to sell him the ones they find. He knows the value of his merchandise and when he finds a pearl of great value, he goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.

Now why does Jesus tell these two stories, and what is he telling his hearers and us through them? Remember how he starts each of the stories: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...‘ These stories are a picture of the kingdom; they point us to what it’s like being part of God’s people. So what is the treasure? What is the pearl of great price? These two parables point us to the greatest treasure we can know, an experience of God through knowing and trusting in Jesus.

In these parables we have two people: the accidental finder of truth and the searcher after truth. What we have is one man who, not having started in the pursuit of truth, is brought by the apparent randomness of life—a chance meeting, a word spoken at the right time, an example of a Christlike life—to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, to God Himself, and who, finding in Him a peace and joy above all earthly treasure, is ready to sacrifice everything in order to gain it. We then have another man who has been in pursuit of truth. We know people who have no interest in personal faith and we probably also know people who have been looking at spirituality and religious philosophies in their search for an answer to their own sense that there must be more to this life than …. well …. this life.

Well, either way we know the answer, but one of the common elements of these stories is that there was a cost involved and there’s a hint in both stories that might be easy to gloss over, that gaining the Kingdom might require some sacrifice on our part.  We’re fortunate, perhaps, that here in the UK the cost of discipleship has been low. Certainly we may have changed attitudes or behaviours, but for most of us that’s been it. Let’s just remember for a moment, though, that for Christians living in other parts of the world, the cost of discipleship can be very high indeed.

Paul says that nothing else matters, compared to knowing Christ - Jesus is the great treasure, the pearl of great price, and we can experience a relationship him. More than that, we’ll want to share this experience and should want to help others find him too, surely?

Our goal is not just to concentrate on our own personal journey of faith, important as that is, but to make sure that as many as possible, inside and outside these church walls, will also come to find the only treasure that really matters, and come to know God through Jesus.

And then Jesus concludes this round of teaching with a warning: he tells a final parable, this time about a fisherman whose catch includes a wide variety of fish species. The net doesn’t discriminate. We know today that our fishing industry doesn’t bring all its catch to the market: some fish aren’t to our taste. There’s a selection process that takes place before anything ends up on our supermarket shelves and some of the strange or ugly species don’t get there.

On our recent family holiday to Madeira we ate a lot of fish and much of it was new to us. The restaurants there have a tradition: the uncooked fish-tray which they bring round fresh from the market and probably caught that morning and you see all these new and sometimes weird and odd looking creatures that you can pick to have cooked for your meal. “I’ll stick with cod please.” Really won’t cut it.

The parable of the net of fish means that God’s kingdom is available to everyone. It catches all kinds, and our job as Christians is to pull that net through the water of our communities and grab whatever we can. This is God’s way and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable because the Kingdom can catch some unlikely people. I said last week that we need to be careful about making judgements about who’s in and who’s out and we talked about the danger of people setting limits on the grace of God. Some of the most unlikely people will grow into genuine Kingdom people, and some who seemed promising in the beginning won’t last the course. This parable teaches us again, as did last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds, that judgement is ultimately God’s and our responsibility is simply to work with the people the Kingdom of God throws our way, whoever they are because were we not given the responsibility to be fishers of men? Not of some men, the ones like us, or the easy ones to be around, but ALL men. The net of God’s love doesn’t discriminate.
We have to make room for the Kingdom in our lives. We must allow it to take over our lives in a big way. When we allow God to be significant in our lives, we create a path for him to be significant in the lives of other people too.

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.