Sunday, 4 November 2007
Out on a Limb…(pun intended)
Zaccheus is a very attractive figure from scripture, or rather the quaint story that we associate with him being a little man who shins up a tree to see Jesus is attractive to us. From the Sunday school song ‘Zaccheus was a very little man’ which I remember from ‘days of yore’ (whatever that means) to the wonderful transformation that sees him giving back what he took from others and following Jesus.
But I doubt he was a very attractive figure to those who knew him. We all know, I’m sure, that tax collectors like Zaccheus became rich by adding to the burden of tax demanded by the Roman authorities. Not only were they collaborators with an occupying power, but they were – more often than not – dishonest and greedy. They were not popular – so much so that one of the greatest insults hurled against Jesus was that he ‘ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners’.
Yet Jesus called him, invited himself to eat at Zaccheus house and changed his life. And in order for this to happen Zaccheus made the first move. He literally went out on a limb to see Jesus, and Jesus responded to that longing and met him where he was, giving Zaccheus a new purpose, a dignity and showing compassion and the grace of God to him.
There’s a lot of risk in this story, Zaccheus had to climb a tree, maybe not a big tree, but he exposed himself to public ridicule, particularly as he was probably not the most likely to receive a ‘mr popularity’ award in Jericho.
Then there’s the risk that Jesus takes by reaching out to this man. It’s easy to think that Jesus knew how Zaccheus would react, that this tax collector was open to Jesus’ message – but if Jesus was anything like us, and my reading of scripture is that he was very much like us – then reaching out to another person means that we set ourselves up for the very real possibility of rejection. For all Jesus might have know, Zaccheus could have been up that tree for the novelty value of seeing this miracle worker. He might not have been willing to deal with a genuine encounter with Jesus at all, but could have disappeared off into the crowd never to be seen again. It’s all very for us with hindsight and a Sunday school familiarity with this story to see the happy ending, but there is every chance it may not have ended up this way, Jesus wasn’t to know. After all, we only have to turn to the end of our Gospels to see how some reacted to him, with mocking, torture and crucifixion.
So there was a certain risk on both sides in this oh so familiar story.
Just as there is a risk every time we share the life and the love of Christ with those around us.
When I look around our congregations I see a huge amount to good work being done by Christians in our villages, a group of Christians who are overwhelmingly compassionate, thoughtful and caring. I can honestly say that in my life as a Christian I have never seen such a pastorally minded group of people, people concerned to put the love of God into action.
Yet there is often a reluctance to make it clear that we do what we do because of the Gospel of Christ. We don’t always name Jesus or even let others know that we are Christians. Now there are times that we do what we do just because that is how God has made us, and that it reflects the love of Christ that dwells in us. We aren’t looking for credit, nor to do a good PR job for the Church.
But we are, as Christians, called to live the Gospel in a way that it is proclaimed in word and deed. To take the risk of naming Jesus, and sharing Christ with our neighbours and friends.
But it’s a risky business, and I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty, or pressured, or resentful. It’s not just an issue for us as individual Christians – and I include myself in this, because despite the collar it is sometimes hard to speak out about faith for fear of turning people away! The issue of taking risks is something that the Church at large is having to tackle in terms of our calling to share in God’s Mission to the world.
In the past couple of years the phrase ‘fresh expressions’ has come into currency in the Church of England. In the US they have a somewhat more dynamic description of the same kind of movement ‘the emergent Church’. The groups which come under this banner are seeking to advance the Gospel in our post-Christian culture, by asking questions about our Church conventions and tradition, but seeking the core of Christian faith, and being willing to try new ways to express their worship, their faith and their commitment to the Gospel.
It is risky, and Churches meeting in pubs and schools, outside of the usual service times and with differing formats can cause those of us in more ‘conventional’ congregations a certain amount of discomfort. But it is part of being willing to proclaim the Gospel in ways which reach out to a very different world to the one which our traditional styles do. And many who would not respond to the usual ways we have of being Church are exploring faith through these new congregations.
And we come again to the need for all of us to be willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. To reach out as Jesus did to Zaccheus and to be a part of the lives of those outside our walls, rather than apart from them. In the first chapter of the second letter to the Thessalonians that was our second reading for today we are given reassurance of God’s presence with us even in suffering, and a prayer that we will be, as it says in verse 11 ‘worthy of God’s call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith,’
Following Christ and sharing his Good News is a risky business – but then we must recognise that those who are seeking Christ are taking risks too, just like Zaccheus they are often out on a limb, detached from the culture that makes up their lives and hearing things which are disturbing and have the potential to turn their lives upside-down. We must respect the risk that others take in their own journeys of faith even as we ask God for the grace to take rishs ourselves – in our own personal walk with Christ and in the lives of our Churches. as St Paul says in verse 12 of 2 Timothy Chapter 1 ‘So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ’
Monday, 29 October 2007
Today is the Last Sunday after Trinity, it is also the Feast day of the Apostles St Simon and St Jude, and on top of that it is ‘Bible Sunday’ – so our thoughts this morning are focussed around the idea of the feast of God’s word that is our Bible. And I have only minutes to get to grips with the subject. So here goes, oh and for those who were at Team Evening Worship last week who recognise any of this, my apologies, some of this had to be said again!
How would you describe the Bible? (Few suggestions?) Word of God is the usual one. It is a title we need to be careful of, though – JESUS IS THE WORD OF GOD (John 1.1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’) I have a high regard for the Bible, it is foundational in my faith, it guides me, leads me, tells me the roots of the Christian story and invites me to join in. But I do not worship the Bible, I worship Jesus Christ.
How would you feel if we did as members of Sikhism do? If we treated the book of the Bible with such reverence and awe that we gave it its own bed to sleep in, and every morning took it out of bed with a procession and placed it on its reading stand. The act of worship in a Sikh temple basically involves reverencing the Granthi – the Holy Book, and listening to it. It is believed by Sikhs to be the living embodiment of truth. I don’t wish to imply any disrespect to the Sikh religion, what is contained within the Granthi is worth listening to and living by – but that is not how we as Christians are supposed to relate to our holy Scriptures. I think it is fitting that the main service is many Christian Churches is the Eucharist, which draws us towards an understanding of the word of God which is living and active – encountered in one another and in bread and wine – made real and solid, not simply in words on a page but in flesh and blood.
We are those who follow Christ, the living Word. In the Bible we are given stories, ideas, explorations, struggles, – but we are not called to worship the Bible. The response of many Christians to a difficult issue is ‘the Bible says’ – as they pull out a verse which is often out of context and relates to a different culture, a different era, a different world to where we are today.
In the Second letter to Timothy that we have been following over the past weeks in our service, chapter 3 verse 16 says, as I spoke on last week, ‘All Scripture is inspired by God’. But what exactly does that mean? Well if you read some other translations of the Bible, or even go back to the original language of the New Testament, Greek, you will find that the word ‘inspired’ means something like ‘God breathed’ – all Scripture is ‘God breathed’.
For Jews and Christians living about the time that this was read there was an idea that Scripture was living and active. There were many many books that came within the understanding of Scripture – so when the writer of this letter to Timothy talks of Scripture he is not talking about the Old Testament as we know it, and the New Testament has not even begun to appear yet, except as letters to Churches. The writer of this letter is talking about the tradition of Scripture – the books of law and prophets and the Jewish books that seek to interpret the law and the prophets. And the Jewish people had no concept of gathering all the scrolls together and making one definitive list, that did not happen until well after the time of the New Testament.
This principle is one that we have lost. We have encapsulated Scripture and claim that it is a solid block that cannot be tampered with. We forget that the Bible isn’t a book, it’s a library, with many different textures and stories woven together. Many Christian claim to know what it means and to use their interpretation to guide them throughout their life – but without recognising that they see Scripture through very different eyes from the ones who wrote and collated it so many years ago.
I believe that Scripture is living and active. That it leads us beyond itself to the God who is behind it all. I believe that we can use Scripture to guide us and teach us, to lead us into truth. But I do not believe that we do so by simple picking it up, saying ‘Oh, the Bible says this or this’ and then applying that straight to our lives. No I have more reverence for the Bible than that.
The Bible is a collection of thoughts, some of them good, some bad, that lead us to knowledge of God and a relationship to Jesus Christ. Reading the Bible should not give us a nice cosy feeling that we have the truth all sorted out – rather it should disturb us, and shake us from sleep, it should be like a slap in the face that calls us to follow Christ more faithfully.
You see, the Bible often does not have answers to every question we have. As a minister I find myself asking many questions – both about my faith and about God. This is especially the case as I wonder about the way life is going to change for Jo and I when our baby is born in the near future. It’s also the case every time I officiate at a funeral, or speak to someone of their difficulties in life. And the Bible does not give me a definitive answer to questions such as why things happen, instead the Bible offers me the understanding that God is alongside us in life and in death, in the times we feel empty and alone, in the times we feel elated.
Look at the Psalms, for instance, the ‘Theology’ in some of them is terrible and does not fit well with the Christian message – The Psalmist talks of death being the absolute end, that no one who dies will ever be able to praise or see God. In the light of the resurrection of Christ, however, and the understanding that has grown up since then we believe that God offers us life eternally, in all its fullness. But though the Psalms may be incomplete they do offer us a picture of how we might be honest before God. In this way they are inspired, they allow us to be ourselves. In one Psalm the writer says of the Babylonians ‘blessed is the one who dashes your children’s heads upon the rocks’. A sickening image, and one which we would in no way ascribe to, but it gives us an idea of how to be honest before God, not to hold back our anger, our fear, our feelings.
And so Scripture offers us stories, ideas. As a whole it gives us ‘The Story of Faith’ from a perspective of the Christian Church. And it allows us to join in that story, to tell it ourselves, to make it our own story and to add our own stories to it. What I am saying is that I don’t think we should just take Scripture as it is – we must acknowledge that we are in a process of interpreting scripture. Scripture is living and active, and that means that we have to work at discerning the truth beyond the words.
To truly engage with Scripture takes work, it takes study, prayer and meditation. We need the eyes of faith in order to see its truth, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us. We need to be open to new ideas, to be willing to admit we were wrong, to move on and be shaken by God speaking through the Scriptures.
The problem often with the way in which we read scripture in Church is that it all sounds the same, we have short passages read out of context and even the best preacher (and I don’t count myself in that number) can only give so much background to each Biblical passage week by week. We need to look at Scripture ourselves, to read it, perhaps with the aid of Bible notes, day by day. Not to read it for the sake of reading the Bible, but to delve into this wonderful feast of faith that is the Bible. Last Sunday I got the small group that came to Team Evening Worship to consider the different types of writing that our Bible contains – the styles of writing, which we call Genres, within the Bible. We came up with quite a long list – and if we were advertising it in the way in which movies are advertised then some gravelly American voice would have their work cut out ‘War, romance, poetry, story, parable, myth, history, biography, faith, letter’ all of this kind of writing and so much more make up our Bibles, and just asking ourselves as we read ‘what type of writing is this, and where did it come from’ can offer us insight into the depth and variety of our Scriptural diet.
We should take time to read the bits we don’t like, not just the bits we do, we should struggle with the food laws in Deuteronomy, or a huge wedge of genealogy every now and then in order to ask ‘why is this here’ and ‘what can I learn from this’, or the question that I was taught to ask at every point of my training ‘where is God in all this?’ This is not an approach that fits well with taking Scripture as a solid block, instead it is a process of learning, of seeing where scripture leads us, of being unafraid to ask difficult questions and not expect easy answers. I pray that we will all grapple with Scripture and allow it to grapple with us. Amen.
Thursday, 4 October 2007
In reports in the news media, from comments I hear at Church meetings and around the place I get the feeling that we are a very nervous Church at the moment. We are told our congregations are dwindling, there are competing ‘entertainments’ which distract people from involving themselves in Church life, people are interested in ‘spirituality’ (whatever that means) but not in ‘institutional religion’ – except, it seems, for various forms of fundamentalism which offers a safe haven in a rapidly changing world. Within the Church ongoing rows bubble away over the ordination of women, now concerned with consecrating women as Bishops, and over the ordination of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages, and to top it all every now and then up pops a conspiracy theory aimed at taking away the little authority the Church has – whether the Gospel of Judas, the daVinci code or any other fashionable excuse for dismissing the Church.
And some of this is true. There are a lot of things which are stripping away the authority and influence the Church has built up over many centuries. People are less afraid to criticise the Church, and we find ourselves ridiculed or, more often than not, ignored in our present day society. Many people lament the fact that we no longer have the respect we once had, or that people no longer consider Churchgoing a duty as they once did. As if somehow we deserve to have our Churches full, and for people to listen and take note of our every pronouncement.
These days it seems the Church is only noticed when there is some negative news, like a child abuse scandal, or some form of sexual or financial misconduct, or sadly, as we have seen recently in the news, when a Vicar falls out with his or her congregation in a spectacular way and they feel the need to bring this up before a Consistory Court.
But, and this may come as a surprise, we do not have any right to expect respect, or to be heard, just by virtue of being ‘the Church’. And we shouldn’t expect to either. Jesus certainly didn’t expect this would be the case.
22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. 23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
1 ‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.
Jesus knew that following him and proclaiming his message was more likely to lead to condemnation than adulation. And that our message was not an easy one to hear – even though our message is weighted towards love and grace and forgiveness, it is still a message of calling, of faithfulness, of living to a different standard, of faith, of trust, of hope. These aren’t actually things that people seem terribly keen on if it cuts into their lives of self sufficiency, self obsession and self absorbtion. If it prevents them enjoying the things they want to enjoy on their own terms.
But this isn’t new. Look at today’s parable. We have the familiar, though disturbing, parable known traditionally as the parable of Dives and Lazarus. One in which a rich man through his selfishness finds himself condemned to eternal punishment and a poor man through his suffering finds the reward of the next world.
Now I would caution about taking this parable too literally as a description of how God sorts out the afterlife – it seems to rule out the possibility of forgiveness and grace, and has no mention of faith or trust in Christ. Like many of Jesus’ parables it paints a vivid picture of the consequences of our actions, and challenges us to live to God’s standards, though we may not necessarily believe in a literal hell where people are punished for eternity for their deeds we are warned how seriously God takes us neglecting our neighbour and not working to end the kind of injustice that causes the suffering endured by Lazarus.
But i want to particularly highlight the last words of today’s parable.
30He (Dives – the Rich man) said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He (Abraham) said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Not being listened to is not a very new thing for Christians. It does no good to lament our lot, complaining that we don’t have the power and influence we once had – and there are very good arguments against that power and influence for it seemed to breed corruption through the whole of the Church and meant that the Gospel message was often lost in the midst of religious trappings and a desire for money and to keep the power over people’s lives that this position brought.
It should cause us to ask, though, what is it that would make people listen to our message? If preaching the Gospel of the risen Christ cannot convince people, as the parable implies, then what is it that will draw people into new life?
Well there is an implication from the passage that it is our deeds that make a difference. Rather than focussing on the life beyond, we should focus more on the life we lead here. Not so that we might earn a place in paradise, but so that the way we live is consistent with God’s values. In contrast with the rich man in today’s parable these values consist of humility, compassion and doing what one can about injustice. It seems to me that being rich was not that man’s problem – but his attitude and use of that wealth was. The Gospel is for rich and poor, it calls us to recognise our need for each other, and calls us to share all that we have with one another without begrudging those in need. In this way our Christ-centred values are lived out, with grace and love and faith.
And alongside this we are called to live out our lives faithfully, with love and forgiveness, with a calling to moral purity, gathering together as the God’s people sharing life and love and worshipping God. Recognising our own need of grace and of God’s touch of healing and forgiveness. It is this that earns us the right to speak out the Good News of Jesus Christ. Lives lived to God’s standards, inspired by God’s holy Spirit and heeding the calling of Christ. We call upon God for grace to live as he demands and in living this way we are able to invite others to share in this great story of redemption that we are privileged to share in.
This should embolden us in our proclamation, too, as we find our who lives consistent with the message of truth which we are a part of. We have no need to be nervous, for the numbers who attend our church, those who respect our Clergy or the privilege which our Church has enjoyed in previous generations are not marks of our faith. The test of whether we are successful as a Church is not whether we have lots of people coming, but whether we are following Jesus, and learning to love God, our neighbours and our selves with all that we are. May God give us his grace that it might be so. Amen.
Sunday, 16 September 2007
Psalm 139.1-5 & 12-18
Philemon verses 1-21
Not that I plan to spend the next few minutes talking about all that has happened or sharing stories of those I’ve married or buried or baptised in these past seven years – though I have been privileged to share in some momentous events here and to be a part of some poignant and powerful pastoral events in my time.
But looking back over my time here I have to be honest and say it’s been hard. This isn’t a complaint, and if it had been too much I wouldn’t be wanted to stay! But it has been a tough few years. Personally I have to say that I have been on quite a steep learning curve in my personal, pastoral and professional life. I know I’ve not always been right, and there have been some things I could have done better, things I didn’t do as I should have, and things I wish I’d known when I arrived. But I hope and trust that I have learned and grown in my time here, as many of those in our Parishes have done also.
Our parishes have been through major changes too, in personnel, in our times and styles of services, in the fabric of our buildings and the organisation of our Team. Many of these changes have been overwhelmingly positive but alongside that we have lost some very special people, we’ve struggled with the issues facing our villages today and we’ve had pain and sadness alongside the joy and the rewards of our ministry.
For those who think that this Christianity lark is a doddle and that Churches are havens for the weak, a short time in our villages would soon show what a nonsense that is.
I have had people say to me that ‘religion is a crutch’ and that it props up those who are too weak minded to carry on without some kind of spiritual panacea. Actually, if we were to carry on that metaphor I would say that religion isn’t a crutch, but a stretcher, because the only way we can truly encounter God is by being carried there by his grace, and through grace alone.
But it is difficult to be a Christian. It’s not a way out of the ‘real world’ but a way which makes us sensitive to the pain and brokenness of our society and the world around us. Christian faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering or pain, in fact it more often than not makes us more aware of the suffering of others and prevents becoming apathetic or uncaring towards one another or the world.
But none of this should surprise us. Being a Christian is hard, and today’s Gospel reading is quite clear about that. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. Jesus compares following him to setting off to war, or preparing a major building operation, not something to be taken lightly, and not something to be undertaken without planning to see it through to the end. Even more so he says ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’.
Crosses would have been a relatively familiar sight to the people Jesus was speaking to. A grisly and long lasting form of execution it was used as much as a deterrent to those thinking of disobeying Roman law as a way of punishing lawbreakers. Crosses were put in prominent places where people would see them, and before each crucifixion the condemned would be forced, as in the Good Friday story we know so well, to carry their cross to their place of execution – a very public spectacle.
So Jesus refers to something that is both familiar and shocking to try and give some idea of the cost of discipleship. There is no hint in this passage, or indeed in any of Jesus words, that being a disciple is an easy option, or the route to a cushy life. In fact throughout the Gospels Jesus talks of his own homeless status, about the need to endure suffering, about the threat of persecution, about working hard and about absolute devotion to God’s cause – a devotion that is equivalent to hating family, friends and even life itself.
But this suffering is not an end in itself, it often comes as a part of the life of the disciple, part of every life – but we don’t follow in order that we might suffer, but we endure suffering that we might be faithful. Our call is not to suffer, but to remain true to our faith and to the truth of Christ no matter what we endure.
And even from suffering God can bring life. Jesus suffered and died on the cross that he might defeat the greatest suffering, that of death and the power of sin. Then through his faithfulness was brought back to life again through the power and the love of God.
And in our Old Testament Reading for today we have a beautiful, though still slightly uncomfortable, picture of suffering and how God can bring beauty out of brokenness. The well known image of the potter and the clay reminds us that God does allow the world to break us in the same way that a piece of clay may go through many different stages of being broken, remoulded and remade before it is finished. From that brokenness comes a work of art, a vessel which may be something of great beauty, or something with a purpose and a reason. It isn’t a easy process, but in our own Christian lives we need to trust that God is doing something to bring healing out of pain, to bring something good out of even the worst times and events.
Let’s pray not that we might escape all the troubles of the world, but rather that through everything we may endure and be faithful, allowing the potter to reshape and create something new, fashioning from the struggle something beautiful and filled with purpose. And let’s pray that we will have the faith to see God at work, even when it seems the struggle is too much.
May God bless us in all we endure, and give us strength, faith, hope and love.
Sunday, 2 September 2007
If I had 5p for every time someone told me that ‘Christianity is boring’ – I’d be at least two pounds better off by now!! It’s a common misunderstanding. People confuse the trappings of the Christian Church – whether it’s smells and bells, or guitars and choruses, with the Christian Faith – and if they don’t like the way things are done, then obviously the Church is boring.
But the Christian Faith is certainly not boring. And in fact, if you ever get into a conversation with someone about faith then it will usually emerge that people find Jesus, the founder of our faith, fascinating. They just seem to be able to separate Jesus and Christianity – and the latter is given the label boring.
The Christian Faith, however, is (or perhaps we should say the Christian Faith should be) exciting, challenging and disturbing. Exciting because our faith comes from Jesus, the son of God and Son of Man, the holy one, the Messiah – who showed us how we are truly meant to live, challenging because this same Jesus never lets us rest on our laurels, but constantly calls us on to new and different things, and disturbing because Christian Faith can turn our world upside-down and make us think, even make us change so we become more like Jesus ourselves.
Take this morning’s reading from the Gospel for instance. Jesus has been invited out to dinner – and if we look carefully at the passage, he has been invited by the Pharisees in the hope that they might catch him out. Rather than setting himself up for a fall, Jesus makes a very practical observation about how people chose the place they wanted to sit at the meal – and offers an alternative way, a challenge, to the way that things were being done. Without actually pointing the finger, Jesus offers a dig at the way those who were trying to catch him out acted.
Jesus then takes this a stage further by saying that when we invite others to share our meals, and to share our lives, we should expect nothing back. Our sharing should be done out of a desire to serve the kingdom of God, and any reward will be in God’s good time.
All at once Jesus has challenged the Pharisees way of doing things, he has offered a very practical piece of advice, and he has made a point about the kingdom of God. Not bad for a one paragraph story.
And this, in so many ways, offers some ideas about what Christian faith is really all about. Jesus is concerned with the real world, none of this boring otherworldly ‘out there’ stuff – but a practical, everyday faith that informs even our seating arrangements. AND at the same time Jesus shows that his concern is fixed squarely on God’s agenda and the way that God does things
Christianity is a mixture, it’s a faith that is spiritual, concerned with the deeper meanings of life, and at the same time it is a faith that calls us to take note of the things that are going on around us. We, as Christians are to be grounded in the real world, in the everyday, in the practical things of life.
And this point is well made in the verses from the letter to the Hebrews that we heard earlier too. For those who might have caught the New Testament readings of the past few weeks then you might realise that we’ve gone through quite a lot of the letter to the Hebrews over the past few weeks. We’ve had these wonderful passages about faith and heard all the heroes of faith from the Old Testament and about their link with the first Christians. Now the author links that great heritage of faith to some very practical advice about what Christian Faith is about.
1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have;There we are again, a concern with the real world, held alongside a deeper level of the life of the Spirit. I think the best way to talk about this is to describe our faith as being a ‘Practical Spirituality.’ We are not called to (as one Christian writer once said) have our minds so concerned with heaven that we are of no earthly use. At the same time, though, our Christian Faith is not just about the world we see – but about eternity, about the life of the spirit, and a calling to know and love God, to worship in Spirit and truth, to know Jesus and know ourselves known by God.
If our faith holds this practical spirituality in balance then we are in no danger of being boring, the Church is in no danger of being irrelevant, and Christians will be those who carry on Jesus role of challenging the way the world is – of drawing people’s attention to the way God wants us to be, and of showing people the love of God, and the hope of the kingdom of God.
The best advert for the Church is not how we do things in this or any other building. It’s not our care of our Churches, nor our music, or what we wear, it’s not whether we have trendy motorbiking Vicars. The best advert for the Church is a Christian who is alive in faith. The best advert, the way that people will be attracted to or put off faith, is you and I. If our numbers are dropping, it’s not just because of the time of our service, or because of the type of service we have, it’s because people aren’t invited to take part by their Christian friends, or because the Christian Faith is seen as boring and irrelevant due to the fact that everything we seem to do is so boring and irrelevant. The things that are growing in the Church (and don’t be put off by the papers, the Church of England and some other denominations are growing) are the activities put on by Christians which show their concern for the communities around them.
The Churches that are growing are those who meet the needs of families, who try different things, who offer opportunities to pray together, to socialize, to study the Bible, to look at the Christian faith. These Churches offer every kind of Christian Worship on Sundays, 1662, Common Worship, the Roman Missal, Methodist Services, Taize worship, informal praise, whatever – but it is the Christians that are a part of them that draw other people to the Churches.
Perhaps we need to stand back and ask some hard questions about why we are here, and why we do what we do. We need, I believe to sort out our priorities as Christians, and then consider what kind of Church God wants us to be. When we put our faith into action, people are attracted. When we are welcoming and open, people will come. Until that time we can worry about the times of services, the heating, the service books, our hymns, or whatever, but none of it makes any difference if our lives of faith don’t shine in such a way that those who see us are impressed by our faith, and therefore want to be a part of what we do, and to share the life of our Christian fellowships in these villages.
May God give us grace, and strength and vision to be Christians who make a difference in this world and in our villages, and who draw others to the light of Christ through our lives and witness. Amen.
Saturday, 21 July 2007
Year A, B, C Mary Magdelene
The ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’
Today we remember a rather peculiar saint, someone who wasn’t the most expected of saints, a woman. It wasn’t common in the early church, or even in the church up to recent times, to honour women – except for Mary the mother of Jesus, of course – so Mary Magdalene stands out from the list of those who were remembered in the first days of the Church.
Mary of Magdala is exceptional, there was no way of escaping the fact that she is was the one chosen by Jesus to be the first witness to his resurrection, to the promise of new life for all that came on that wonderful Easter morning. But there is also no denying that this is a rememberance of both celebration and of frustration…
That’s right celebration and frustration. And this reflects much of our faith, even as we celebrate the risen life of our Lord Jesus Christ after his passion, the events of Holy Week and his painful, lonely death. We remember that we are, as I’ve said before, an Easter People, people filled with the joy of the new life of Christ and with a hope that conquers even death. Yet we remember that although the resurrection is the most wonder-filled event of our the Christian faith, we still live in a world which is full of pain and death.
But the resurrection is not a panacea for all of the ills of today’s world. The resurrection does not make everything better. In fact the resurrection highlights how painful this world can really be, as it offers a hope which, in contrast to the state of our world today, shows humanity to be sadly lacking in the great virtues of faith, hope and love. We see in the resurrected Christ one who still bears the scars, the holes in hands, feet and side, of the terrible ordeal of Good Friday. The salvation of humanity was won at a price, that price was the pain and suffering of Jesus that led to the cross.
Within our joy, therefore, is that knowledge of the effect that sin can have. Jesus took the sins of humanity on himself in his selfless act of sacrifice. Easter day transforms that suffering, as it shows the love of God made real in the life given back to Christ who gave his away for our sakes. We rightly celebrate this day, but we remember that it is a part of the week, the Holy Week, we have just observed, and that the benefits of new life come to us through the struggle of the passion of our Lord.
But life has overcome death, love has overcome fear and hate, and the wounds of Christ, though still visible, have been healed. Christ offers to us the hope and the joy of the resurrection that, despite how things may look, does point to the ultimate healing of all people and of the creation itself.
We live at a point between the ‘now’ of God’s love, the ‘now’ of the resurrection of Christ, of the power and the ‘now’ of the life of the Holy Spirit made manifest to all people, and the ‘not yet’ of the fullest coming of the reign of God, the ‘not yet’ of the consummation that will mark the restoration of wholeness to our world, still broken. It is this now and not yet that is reflected in the fact that Mary Magdalene in our reading from St John’s Gospel, is face to face with the risen Christ but cannot touch him because the fullness of his reign has not come, the not yet exists even face to face with the now of the reality of Christ’s resurrection.
Christian faith has always kept the ‘now and the not yet’ in tension, this is most evident in the fact that the reign, the ‘kingdom of God’ is among us, and yet is not fully realised. We pray every week that God’s kingdom come and his will be done, recognising that it is not yet here, and we live in that tension. It can be a creative tension. Just as we move from celebrating Easter to the joy and the power of Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is this Spirit that makes everything potential, and that opens up possibilities for the life of the believer today.
The Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of ‘Christ in us’ of ‘Immanuel’ makes it possible for us to live lives that reflect the joy, hope, peace and love of God’s Kingdom. Life is lived in the shadow of the resurrection - now we see in part, one day we shall see fully. Our lives can be filled now with the life and energy of God’s Spirit, but the ultimate healing of the world is yet to come.
And so, like Mary Magdalene we realise that we aren’t at the end of things, we can’t hold on to Jesus once and for all but we hold on to the promise of God, for the hope of New life not just for ourselves but for the whole of the created order. We hold fast to all that God has said he will do.
At the same time we must recognise that we are a part of this reign of God that is making itself real in the world today. The coming of the Kingdom is a process in which we are called to be involved. We are the bearers of the New Life. We have suffered in our own way, we are being healed if we open ourselves to God. We carry the scars of Christ in our own lives, as we have shared in his death through Baptism, so we share his new life through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are the ‘wounded healers’ of the world - or at least that is what we are called to be.
Like Mary Magdalene, sent out to share the message of the Resurrection, we are the messengers, the ones with the ‘good news to proclaim’, the evangelists, the heralds. If Christ means anything to us then we will carry his love, his healing, his resurrection to the world around us. We are the salt and the light of this world. We acknowledge our own inadequacies and need of healing, we are honest about the sin that returns to us again and again - but we also know that, painfully slow as it may seem, God is at work in and through us in order to bring us to wholeness. We are in tension between the ‘now and the not yet’, between what we long for God to do and our own shortcomings. When we acknowledge our own need for faith, hope and love, when we ask God for wholeness and healing, for our share in the resurrection life of Christ, then we are equipped, little by little, to bring in the Kingdom of God in our own way.
We bring in the reign of God by making ourselves subjects, by allying ourselves with God’s manifesto for the world. As we learn to live, speak and act like Christ, loving God, ourselves and our neighbour we are making real the kingdom which Jesus proclaims. We struggle in our own lives as we seek to be the people God longs for us to be - living as those caught in the creative tension of ‘now and the not yet’ in the joy and the frustration of the resurrection.
We proclaim the Risen Christ, we are the Easter People, like Mary Magdalene, we are those who know, not in our heads but in our hearts and in the depths of our souls that Christ is alive. It is therefore our task to show that life, to share that life with joy and with hope. We can change the world, little by little, maybe only in small ways, but we are the world-changers who carry on the work started by those who going to the tomb in the early morning one Sunday morning found it empty, and were later to encounter the risen Christ. Those who encounter Christ today have the same motivation as those who met him nearly two thousand years ago, the experience of new life, of the hope of the resurrection.
Allelulia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, allelulia
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
The hard road
A favourite word in our household is ‘faffing’. Whenever Jo or I are in a flap or wandering about looking lost we normally ask each other ‘what are you faffing about?’ or when we are in a hurry to get anywhere (not an uncommon situation) and one of us seems to be distracted then the normal attempt to speed things up is to say ‘stop faffing around’. There is a fair amount of faffing goes on in the McCollum household, and in the past couple of years I have discovered how much children can add to it – not just because of all the things we have to do for them before we go anywhere, but because they are discovering lots of ways of faffing themselves!
For those of you who don’t use this wonderful phrase, faffing is generally messing around, being distracted, not having a focus, and not getting done what needs to be done and generally messing around.
There’s not much sign of that in today’s readings.
First of all Naaman the Syrian in the Old Testament reading is given very clear instructions. Go and wash in the Jordan, seven times, and you will be healed of your skin disease. It’s simple, quick, and involves no distractions. Not good enough for Naaman, though, he was used to important stuff, rituals and the like. he wanted a bit of holy hand waving, perhaps a chant or two, maybe something involving silver bowls or chalices and some blessed ointment would have satisfied him. He wanted it complicated. Fortunately his servant had the good sense to talk straight to him – you’ve come all this way, just do it and see what happens. And voila, healing – and a lesson in humility and simplicity.
St Paul, likewise, in today’s reading from Galatians is equally focussed. Do what is right, stop adding unnecessary religious ritual, circumcision to be precise, and all the Jewish laws that go with that. Be those whose concern is not for the flesh, but for living by the Spirit. Don’t be distracted, focus. In the passage at the beginning there are also some wonderful words about forgiveness and grace, so that the failings of others don’t cause you to be ungracious or superior in your attitude, another call not to be distracted from the way of the Spirit. But there’s a whole sermon in there so I will leave it for now!
And in today’s Gospel reading there is another clear message, a message about focus – live the kingdom, and let nothing distract you. Do not be concerned about people’s reaction to you, but be faithful to the kingdom. Don’t take all you can carry, just take what you need. His calling is to simplicity, no faffing!
There are echoes of last week’s reading where those who came to follow Jesus were told – no one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) for the kingdom of God. There is likewise an intensity to the demands Jesus makes to those who are sent out to proclaim the kingdom, a passion that is called for. And the reason for including this in the Gospels is, I believe, not just to relate a story of something that happened when Jesus was leading his disciples, but a word to those of us who follow today.
There are strong messages for us today about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve preached previously on the fact that being a disciple means being disciplined, and accepting the discipline of Jesus, but today’s reading gives and idea of what that discipline may mean for us today.
Firstly the seventy that are sent out are given a sense of urgency. ‘The harvest is plentiful.’. Now those who have any connection with farming will know that when the crop is ready for harvesting then the work needs to be done pretty quick. This was even more the case in Jesus’ day – when the fields were ready, the harvest needed to be taken in a few days, a couple of weeks at most. With the terrible weather we seem to have had around harvest in Britain over the past few years, there is a sense of urgency here too. But it should be the same for those of us who are Christians. there is a sense that people are ready to hear the Gospel, many are open to an encounter with the living Jesus that will break them out of their stereotypical understanding of Christianity into a dynamic, vibrant relationship with a Christ who is alive and who offers new life to all. Many are seeking meaning in all sorts of ways, through all kinds of spiritual quests, now is the time for the Church to offer hope, love, community, faith and meaning to those who lack many of these things in our fragmented world.
We do this by living and sharing the values of the kingdom of God, by telling our story of faith and inviting others to join. We don’t do it by telling people how bad they are and how they need to turn from their wicked lifestyles. God is the one who convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and forgiveness. In today’s Gospel the seventy were told to say ‘peace to this house’ and to show the good news in the way they healed the sick whilst proclaiming ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’. Not the kingdom of God is coming, but that the kingdom is near.
Secondly, Jesus declared that the task of doing as he commanded, of living and proclaiming the kingdom, would not be easy - ‘see I am sending you like lambs among wolves’. He prepared them for rejection, saying that if necessary they had to shake off even the dust from their feet from those places which didn’t welcome them. It wasn’t going to be easy, the message of peace wouldn’t be for everyone, they would have no luxuries on the way, they would have to trust entirely on God’s provision and on the kindness of strangers.
It is humbling to me when I receive news of Christian missionaries, of Simon Hildrew from Bourn, or David and Ann Stearn from ‘team west’ who have gone to work for Christ entirely trusting in the support they receive from friends, family and the Church family. I thank God for their faith, and pray for their part in the mission of God. But they, and many others, should inspire us to consider again how much we trust God to provide for us, and whether we rely on our possessions, or our status at work, or our finances to offer us security at the expense of our faith in God. Jesus again reminds us that there are to be no distractions, no faffing about, the kingdom is to be our focus and our priority. But that this will be hard, we will face rejection and we must trust entirely in God for all that we need.
Thirdly, and lastly in our lessons from the sending out of the seventy. Despite the challenge, despite the hardship, despite the difficulties, despite the rejection – we will find ourselves surprised by joy! In verse 17 of chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel we are told that the disciples returned with joy. Their faithfulness had been rewarded and their ministry had flourished. But again Jesus reminds them, and us, to keep focus. Not to rejoice because they saw spiritual victory, but because they worked for the kingdom. Those closing words in verse 20
‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ don’t mean ‘you can be satisfied that you have a place assured in the afterlife’ but that ‘you have performed service for God’s kingdom.
Again we come to the focus, working for God’s kingdom. And there are another thousand sermons in that phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ but we for now it is enough to remember that the kingdom is concerned with peace, justice, hope, love, faith, forgiveness, grace, life and truth. This should be our focus, and this is our calling – stop faffing about, and follow Christ!
Monday, 2 July 2007
Discipleship and discipline
It does often seem that whenever there is an ordination, or a celebration of ministry in the Church then we try to take the clergy down a peg or two! I say this slightly tongue in cheek, but today’s readings and the readings used in the Cathedral yesterday, and the readings we use on Maundy Thursday every year at the renewal of Ordination vows all have something of a hard edge to them, as if we don’t want the Clergy to become too carried away with their status!
And in many ways this is quite appropriate. For years us Clergy enjoyed a certain status and, indeed, power, which led to arrogance and a certain amnesia about the message we are called to proclaim, one of humility, servanthood and the need to rely on God’s grace alone. Today’s readings bring this home in a rather stark way.
There’s so much it would be possible to say about today’s readings. There is a depth and a richness to what is on offer from Scripture for today that I could quite easily spend a number of hours going through today’s readings and simply talking about what is in there – without any extras or interpretations…
But I won’t.
Spend hours that is. But I do want to look closely at the Bible readings we have for today because I believe that there is a thread that holds them all together – an issue that links them, and about which we get a developing perspective as me move through our readings. That theme is one of discipleship.
Now discipleship is not a popular term these days – because it comes from the same root as the word discipline – and in a world where people do pretty much what they want, when they want and where they want (or at least see the freedom to meet their own wants as an ideal) then the idea of discipline does not sit well with a ‘I want’ lifestyle.
But as Christians Ministers, and all of us as followers of Jesus, we are disciples, those who are subject to the discipline of Christ. Those who have promised to follow. So lets look a little more at that theme and start with the story of Elisha and Elijah from the second book of Kings…
Elisha is a tenacious individual. Elijah keeps telling him to wait and Elisha keeps saying no. Good trait for a disciple I think, tenacity, sticking power, the will to do what’s right whatever – but that’s beside the point.
Elisha’s one wish is to inherit a double portion of God’s Spirit from his mentor Elijah. This is a man who has seen what Elijah – the most important prophet in the history of Israel – has done with God’s blessing. Elijah is such an important part of the Jewish faith that when Jesus is joined by tow figures on the mount of transfiguration they are Moses who represents the law, the torah, the commandments and Elijah who represents all of the prophets. Elijah who, faithful to God proclaims God’s truth in a way that the Jewish faith still honours to this day.
But to return to Elisha, here is a man completely dedicated to the work of God in the kingdom of Israel – a man who is willing to give his entire life to the work of God and to the building up of a kingdom of justice and righteousness, as his master had preached.
Already we have a challenge – if we were offered whatever we wanted would it be a double portion of God’s spirit? Or would we look for something more comfortable, something easier.
Elijah is blunt – you have asked a hard thing. I don’t think that he was saying that this was just difficult to achieve, but that this kind of blessing from God comes with great responsibility. That being willing to work in partnership with the Spirit is being willing to go where we are called, where we are led, being willing to make sacrifices, being willing to take the way that is not necessarily the easy way – but being willing to take the hard way, whatever the cost.
But Elisha’s wish is granted and we are shown a measure of the power that comes with this responsibility as he calls upon the name of the Lord to part the waters of the Jordan and they part before him.
That’s what we are seeing here today, that our new Pries, Paul, is taking responsibility, and even ‘asking a hard thing’ with regards to his calling to ministry. It is not always easy to seek to follow Christ, for any of us, and for those in the public eye who offer themselves to the service of Christ and the Church the pressure can sometimes seem constant.
We remember though that God’s Spirit, though he compels us to follow, though the Spirit makes demands on us, is also the comforter – the one who consoles and strengthens and blesses us. And as ministers, indeed for all of us as Christians, we are called to rely more and more on God’s Spirit as we grow in faith.
And it is that trust in God’s provision, above all else, that makes a good priest, but remembering that all of us (in the words of 1 Peter 2v9
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.It is the calling of all of us to be discipled, to accept the discipline and guidance of the Spirit, along with the promise of grace and comfort that comes with it.
In the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard a few minutes ago we see a number of people who are either challenged to follow Jesus or promise to follow him. And Jesus spells out what this will entail.
First of all it may involve a life with hardship ‘foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Next it may involve being willing to cut off from anything that distracts us from the work of the disciple.. Jesus, employing that exaggeration, that hyperbole that he uses to make a point tells one potential follower (we are told) to ‘let the dead bury their own dead, as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ There is an urgency about that command, suffering no distractions.
Next, being a disciple involves absolute focus. No one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) to the kingdom of God. When ploughing with oxen, I am told, it is imperative to look at a point at the end of the field and head straight forward, if you look to the side, or even worse to the rear then your furrows will soon end up zig-zagging across the field, and then the sowing and reaping are impossible.
Jesus highlights the absolute dedication needed to be a disciple. A dedication we see in Elijah, Elisha and Jesus followers, as well as so many others in scripture. But in pointing out all of these things we are left with a challenge. A challenge relevant both to Paul whose ministry we celebrate today and a challenge for every Christian -
How are we at being disciples?
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
Ruth and Redemption
What I hope you have figured out, if you were at the last Team Evening Worship, is that there is a huge amount to think about in the book of Ruth. Coming as it does in the time between the judges and the kings of Israel it is, it seems, an historical book – this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but if we look closely at some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures some things which seem historical may well be allegorical, the book of Jonah, for instance, and of Job. These books may be seen as parables rather than being necessarily historical – though scholars differ about that.
Anyway, this beautiful, exquisitely crafted and theologically broad and deep book offers us lots to dwell upon and consider for our own lives in Christ. Whether strictly historical, or allegorical – or perhaps a mixture of both – the book of Ruth fits in to our history of salvation and to the story of our faith, and closer study can draw us further on in our walk with Christ, if we let it.
What is not in doubt is that this is a story of great beauty, concerned with issues of fidelity, loyalty, love and even with grace. I lost count of the number of times that the words ‘Romance and Redemption’ were linked together when I searched on the web to try and find some material to back up my own intuitions and understanding of this Biblical gem of a book.
The key to the concept of Redemption in the book of Ruth centres around the figure of the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ in Jewish tradition.
Here’s part of a definition from hopeofisrael.net
The "kinsman redeemer" is a Goel. The word means to redeem, receive or buy back. Provision was made in the Law of Moses for the poor person who was forced to sell part of his property or himself into slavery. His nearest of kin could step in and "buy back" what his relative was forced to sell (Leviticus 25:48f). The kinsman redeemer was a rich benefactor, or person who frees the debtor by paying the ransom price. "If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold." (Leviticus 25:25; cf. Ruth 4:4, 6).
The nearest of kin had the responsibility of redeeming his kinsman's lost opportunities. If a person was forced into slavery, his redeemer purchased his freedom. When debt threatened to overwhelm him, the kinsman stepped in to redeem his homestead and let the family live. If a family member died without an heir the kinsman gave his name by marrying the widow and rearing a son to hand down his name (Deuteronomy 25:5; Genesis 38:8; Ruth 3-4).
The definition goes on to talk about having responsibility for vengeance in the case of blood feud and there’s lots more detail,it’s slightly wacky, and i wouldn't agree on all (much? some?) of the theology in it but its an interesting site!
So in Ruth we have this image of the kinsman-redeemer who has the opportunity, indeed perhaps the responsibility of buying back something which his brother cannot afford.
It’s not too much of a stretch to apply this to our relationship with God. The price of sin was so great, for as Romans tells us, the wages of sin is death, that there was no way that any one could pay the price until God himself became incarnate and redeemed us – bought us back from the power of death. Jesus is our kinsman redeemer – made our kinsman by becoming incarnate, assuming our human nature, and willing to pay the price for sin. How about that for starters? When we see the root of our faith in that of our Jewish brothers and sisters we realise a little more of the grace filled love of God, which made provision in the Hebrew scriptures for love to be put into action, but goes even further when we apply that understanding of grace to the work of God in Christ.
But – and this is a big but – the issue of the kinsman redeemer is only part of how we can see redemption in this wonderful book. We see much more when we consider not how redemption is achieved but what redemption means, and even more when we consider that our gracious God has given us a part in the work of redemption.
Look at Naomi’s lament in the first chapter of Ruth, verses 20 -21
20 "Don't call me Naomi, " she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."Mara – bitter, a change from Naomi’s original name, which means pleasure or pleasant. This is how she returns from Moab, a woman broken by the loss of her family and all that she had.
And yet if we look at the end of the book everything has changed, in Chapter 4
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: "Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth."All change! Redemption means transformation. Buying back that which he had a right and a responsibility for transformed the lives of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi especially is no longer bitter, but her fortunes have been changed. Her life has been restored.
16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him.
One crucial aspect of this is how Redemption comes about, or rather through whom redemption comes about. As nearest kinswoman Naomi could have been the one to seek redemption, but she chooses to allow Ruth to pursue this. So it is Ruth, the outsider, the non-Jew who is the one through whom this redemption is wrought, and more than that, by giving birth to Obed at the end of the story, the Father of Jesse, who was the Father of David, she is an ancestor of the kingly line, and ultimately ancestor of Jesus through whom salvation is wrought.
And this is something that should make us take notice. Ruth isn’t the only odd figure in the salvation history that has brought us to God. Rahab the prostitute from Jericho is also listed in Matthews genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus. These women, both outsiders, are grafted into God’s plans and God welcomes them, more than that, God uses them to bring about the greatest gift of all.
It’s a salutary lesson, for those of us who have been Christians for some while, for those who perhaps (maybe not consciously) are quite pleased with the way that God has worked in us, or what God has done with us. Be prepared for God to include the outsider, those who might challenge our preconceptions, indeed our misconceptions of who is in and who isn’t in the kingdom. Redemption isn’t confined to those we think are worthy, God has redeemed all people. Salvation is inclusive, not exclusive, God in Christ has saved us all. No one is beyond redemption.
And all the while, whilst drawing the outsider in, whilst in grace creating the possibility of God’s life spreading to all people and all nations, God works with fragile, frail, sometimes bitter, sometimes obedient humanity.
Perhaps one of the things which surprised me most about this story is that redemption is performed within the confines and traditions of the law. In all of this God works within the institutions which govern Israel. Yes, through including a Moabitess in his plan the kingdom is shown to go beyond boundaries of race or tradition or background, yet all that happens in this book is within the tradition of the kinsman-redeemer. It is, it seems to me, God’s gracious will to not allow our own human limitations to limit the actions of grace. Whether or not we can understand God, and Trinity Sunday is a good day to admit we can’t, whether or not we can grasp his vision, his will for us – God still works with us. As a minister I have to say I am constantly reminded of, and grateful for, the fact that God uses us despite our inadequacies. This isn’t a ‘worm that I am’ moment, I know that God uses our gifts and talents too. Yet we are limited, we have prejudices, misunderstandings, boundaries which we put up often without realising it. God will still include us in his work of redemption. God does not allow our limitations to curtail his work or redemption and we see here that God works within human confines to create a new situation.
And if we look at the wider picture around Ruth we will see in this story the macro in the micro! This story reflects the movement of Israel too at this time, as they moved from despair at the death of Eli, the great priest and minister, to the hope and prosperity which came about through David and on to Solomon.
Our task is to take the big picture and bring it into our world, not to allow this wonderful story of redemption to remain ‘out there’ but to bring it in to our own hearts and lives. As we consider the transformation that comes with redemption, we consider how our prayers, and our part in the redemptive purposes of God can bring transformation to ourselves and to the community around us. Within our Churches, our villages, amongst friends and family. God is calling us to be transformed.
We consider too how we can heed the outsider, reaching out to those outside our Church, but not just for the purpose of making them into ‘pew fodder’ but because God is at work in them – hearing the voice of those outside our accepted norms, listening to those with different understandings of life and faith can bring about change, transformation and growth all of its own.
And we remember that our institutions need not limit God, in fact our boundaries and traditions can offer us a place of safety from which we can explore the dynamic life of faith and love which God offers. Our redemption may not be mediated by the structures of our life and faith, but it doesn’t need to be limited by them either. God works in unexpected places, even if those places are our homes or churches!
And a closing thought – this story, this history, is our story, it is part of the story we are called to tell the world. We don’t invited people into a set of rules and regulations when we invited them into the Church, we invited them into a living, dynamic relationship with a living dynamic God. We need to own our stories, to allow them to sink into our bones, so that they leak out when we meet people.
Not a nice image, but you know what I mean. When we are immersed in the grace that leaps out from these great redemptive stories then we cannot help but shine with that grace and light. People are waiting to hear our story of redemption and of the kinsman redeemer that bought us back from the power of sin and death. Ruth choose to follow Naomi, to serve a God she didn’t yet know, yet whom she had faith in.’ Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.‘ Let us again offer ourselves to where God would lead us in this calling to be his redeemed people. Lets again open ourselves up to his story of salvation, and share that story with those who share our lives.
Adoration – worshipping and praising God for who God is – the Psalms are particularly good at this
Confession (or penitence) – saying sorry to God and asking forgiveness for our sins, asking for God’s help to turn away from sin, called Repentance)
Thanksgiving – remembering to thank God for all God has done for us
Supplication (or asking) – praying for ourselves, the needs of the world, those we love and for our neighbours, bringing before God the things which concern us
Again, this doesn’t mean a certain way of praying, we can use lots of ways to help us to pray.
· Music (singing, playing an instrument, listening to music)
· Praying in groups
· Using written prayers either written ourselves or from books of prayers, or from service books
· Reading our Bibles out loud to ourselves and meditating on the words
The foundation of prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples when they asked ‘Teach us how to pray’
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On Earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever. Amen.
Sunday, 3 June 2007
How does the Trinity help?
Today is Trinity Sunday, so I am going to talk about the Trinity. But I am not going to try to explain the nature and meaning of ‘God in Trinity’. I am not going to tell you that God is like a Shamrock with three leaves, or explain one of the Church’s profoundest teachings using the image of a Triple Decker chocolate bar or of toothpaste with three stripes in - all of these things do not do justice to the depth and wealth of theological thought around what exactly it means to describe God as ‘The Holy Trinity’
Neither, you will be pleased to know, am I going to try and explain any of this theological discussion around themes such as ‘what is the trinity’ or ‘how do the persons of the trinity exist together’ nor will not be exploring the words ‘consubstantial’ and ‘co-eternal’.
The reason I won’t be looking at the doctrine of the Trinity is because, if we’re honest most of us, myself included, would say that the idea of the Trinity is somewhat confusing, that phrases describing God as ‘three in one and one in three’ leave us feeling a bit bemused. Many of us get by without ever really considering what it might mean to describe God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, or ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’ as some prefer to say. The doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ is not first and foremost in our minds when we turn up at Church to worship God, a God who we strive hard to understand even at the simplest level.
This doesn’t mean I think that the idea of the Trinity is unimportant or irrelevant - just that greater minds than mine have made attempts to explain the meaning of the Trinity and have done a much better job of it as well.
This doesn’t mean either that I find the idea of the Trinity boring or unhelpful, on the contrary I believe that God being revealed as Trinity, as ‘three in one and one in three’ is the most exciting thing about Christianity - it makes our faith a dynamic, awe-filled experience - it offers a very different way to understand and know God to most other systems of belief.
It’s just that I don’t want to talk about doctrine and theology - I want to say a little bit about why I get excited about the God of the Bible - about God who is revealed as one and three persons - about a God who is too big for even our imaginations to contain. I don’t want to talk about the nature and meaning of the Trinity, I want to talk about what we can learn from the very idea of God as Trinity - a very different theme.
So, what can we learn from the Trinity? Well first and foremost the Trinity teaches us something about the importance of relationships. It tells us that the first thing that ever happened in the universe wasn’t creation, or a cosmic battle between Good and Evil. The first thing that happened was a relationship, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I’m not going to try and explain how this happens - but it strikes me as foundational to our understanding of the foundation of God - that God lives in relationship.
This should influence how we feel about ourselves. We are made, says the Bible, in God’s image. If we are made to reflect God then being in relationship is part of who we are – we’re not made to stand alone or to struggle by ourselves, we are made to share - to live in community, to relate to one another and to live in the love of God.
In the light of this our relationships take on a whole new dimension - no wonder Jesus said it was important to love our neighbour as ourselves - because in doing that we are reflecting the very nature of God. If we take this seriously we have to value the relationships we have, our friendships, our neighbours, those who go to Church with us, even those we do not like or who think differently from us - even our enemies. We are called to live in relationship with them, we are called to live in love with all people. This is no small thing - it is the very foundation of who God is and who God has made us to be.
The second thing that the idea of the Trinity has to teach us is about the importance of integrity. Integrity is a word that has been made very popular in the past few years - I’ve seen books on it by psychologists, business writers and Christians. It’s a trendy word. But don’t let the fact that it’s overused distract us from its importance. God lives in integrity. That means that thought there are disparate parts within the Trinity, though we describe God as being ‘in three persons’ God is still one, God is still ‘whole’.
Integrity means being whole, it means bringing together all of our internal parts and reconciling all our differences. I know of some Christians who faithfully attend Church, they say all the right things - they are models of ‘perfect Church members’ but when you look at how they act they seem to be different people away from the life of the Church. It’s not that they are bad or deliberately rebelling but that they do not apply their faith to the rest of their lives.
They may be managers who don’t always do what is best for their employees, they may fiddle their accounts, they may not stand up for what is right when pushed into a corner. Whatever the situation, what is lacking is integrity.
Faith should not be a part of our lives, but the whole of our lives. Integrity means we reflect God’s nature as we apply the whole of our lives to being like and loving like God. It means we consider our bodies, minds, hearts and souls to all be in the service of God. It means we give our all to God and seek what is right for ourselves and for others. It means learning to be whole.
My third point about what the Trinity can teach us is this - it’s a mystery. We have to know when to give up trying to understand things that are beyond us. We ask questions of God, about God and because of God and it is perfectly right and proper that we do so. No, more than that, it is good and we should always be applying our hearts and minds to search for truth. Ultimately, however, there is a time to give up - to cease asking questions and just accept that some things are as they are, and there’s no changing them and no understanding them. This is a difficult point to reach, but one which we all need to get to at sometime - it is an acknowledgement of our humanity - that we are finite, limited by our time, place and nature. It also means letting go and letting God - of resting in the knowledge that God is bigger than all of this.
The Trinity teaches us that, when it comes down to it, God is God. God is beyond our grasp, beyond our imaginations and our plans, beyond what we want God to be. God is unknowable, and yet God allows us to glimpse what he is really like - God allows us to use names like Father, Mother, Friend, Companion exactly because he understands our limits and wants us to realise that he is without limit. The names and ideas we have about God are only glimpses, we have to realise that God is a mystery which we will never fathom.
My prayer for all of us is that we will grow in our understanding of this God who is trinity and that the hallmarks of our worshipping community will be tolerance, love, a quest for truth, wholeness of life and a willingness to let God be God.
And to God who is ever Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom all power, might, mystery and majesty belong. To God alone be glory in our lives and in the Church. AMEN