Monday, 29 October 2007

Bible Sunday Sermon

Bible Sunday (2007) Year C RCL Principal

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

Another sermon! Trinity 17

Year C Proper 21 (2007) RCL Principal

Nervous Church..

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.
Luke 6
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.
John 16
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.
Luke 16
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.