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.”


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

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

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

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

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railed against the worst of their approach to religion for being inflexible and hidebound in tradition and for having outdated practices from which the love and compassion of God was all too often obscured if not lost completely.

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

Aren’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what are we to do?

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

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


Thursday, 13 July 2017

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

Matthew 13.1-9 and 18-23

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

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

Well here we go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, 1 July 2017

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 10.40-42 - welcome and hospitality

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


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

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

Hold that thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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