Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Lent 2 Year A

Lent 2 (2008) Year A RCL Principal
Different Disciples

One of the problems I have had with Christian life is not about being a Christian – it’s about how other people see Christians. Apparently we are all the same, often thought of as goody-goody’s, not really connected to the real world, we’re hypocrites, and we’re judgemental. And that’s just the comments I’ve received from my visits around the villages – my usual response is, ‘well, there’s always room for one more’

On the other hand, one of the great joys of being a Clergyperson who doesn’t really fit the stereotype is that I can shock people into thinking about whether there prejudice or stereotypes about the Church have any grounding in reality! They usually don’t – to be honest I don’t know any clergyperson that fits any of the stereotypical wet, slightly bumptious, clueless but amusing picture painted by the sitcoms.

And the fact that our ministers in the Church are all different is a reflection of the diversity that exists in our Churches. Not just the differences that exist between denominations and traditions, but the very real individuality of every one of us in the Church.

And this difference and diversity could not be more apparent than in our two readings for today. First of all, from the book of Genesis, we have Abram (not yet called Abraham, that comes later) being called by God. It’s pretty blunt – get up, leave your homeland and go where I am telling you. There will be great rewards for your faithfulness, but in order to gain these rewards you will need to leave everything behind and go to somewhere else which I will reveal as we go along. And the reading ends simply that ‘Abram went, as the Lord had told him.’
No questions, no complications, no hesitation. Complete acceptance of God’s command and simple faith and trust mean that Abram moves as God commands. Good for him!

A somewhat different story in our Gospel, however. I do love this story. In a slight departure from our Year of concentrating on the Gospel of Matthew we have a passage from St John’s Gospel. We hear the story of Nicodemus, a seeker, a Pharisee, someone who is desperate to talk to Jesus, to ask questions, to dig deeper. Nicodemus is someone with a responsible position in his faith community, a leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee. He is on the council that offers leadership to the Jewish faith. He is someone who is probably well respected, well educated and well to do.

And he comes to Jesus by night. That cryptic line could mean that he comes secretly, that he comes under the cover of darkness, afraid to be seen consorting with this radical teacher and challenger to conventional faith. It could also just mean that he is so busy that he had no time during the day to see Jesus so had to make an extra effort to see him at night. Whatever, we see that Nicodemus made that effort, he wanted to ask questions, to speak to Jesus.

And Jesus comes back with some quite deep, quite startling answers. He responds to the questions with a challenge, a challenge to follow, to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit and to accept the life given by God. It seems to me that Jesus respects Nicodemus enough to be blunt with him, he sees that this Pharisee for all his learning, his responsibility, his background, needs to make a choice, needs to decide for himself what the truth is and how he is going to follow.

In the end Jesus points to himself, using his favourite description of himself ‘the Son of Man’, and says that the ‘Son of Man’ must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Jesus makes that bold declaration, one that we all know ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’.

Nicodemus remains silent. We don’t have any indication of how he reacted to this. But if we jump on to the end of the Gospel we read his name again when he and another member of the council (Joseph of Arimethea) are willing to take the risk of asking Pilate for the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Nicodemus had remained on the council, he’d not taken the step of joining Jesus band of followers – but perhaps he’d continued seeking the truth, maybe he’d even visited Jesus again, asking questions, wondering which way to go. That’s all speculation, what we do know is that Nicodemus is named again and that he was probably named because he would have been familiar to those who read the Gospel first. Perhaps he joined the followers of Jesus at that time and was there to witness the appearance of Christ after his resurrection? We don’t know – but we do see him there, performing with Joseph of Arimethea, a service to Jesus. Perhaps despondent, perhaps wishing he had made a public commitment before this time – but willing to take the risk of being associated with Jesus after his execution.

Nicodemus is someone who could not do what Abram did, he seems unable to just pack up and go in response to Jesus challenge. But we are shown in the Gospel the grace of a God who gives us all another chance, and who brings Nicodemus to the point where he too is willing to take a risk of faith, and do something for Jesus.

And these two extremes are encouraging for all of us who seek today to be followers. There are people in our congregations who are absolutely sure of what Christian faith is about, and seem to suffer from very few doubts about how things should be done, and what God wants for our parishes. There are others who ask questions, for who faith involves wrestling in heart and mind with questions of meaning and truth. There are those who embrace their doubts and who are unafraid to say that they are not sure, that they are still seeking. There are many of us who are between the two, and whilst sure about some things regarding our faith, are open to speculation of others.

And there are some of us who can go from one end of the spectrum – from absolute certainty to questioning everything and back again – on an almost daily basis!

And all of us, wherever we are on the scale, are needed in the Church. We need the questioners, the doubters (and doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is). We need those full of ideas and certainties. We need those who want to rush forward and try something new, we need those who want to hold on to the old and who ask why we should discard things.

All of this is part of the richness of who we are, and reflects the richness of God’s calling which is for all people. And if there are still those who are under the misunderstanding that everyone who goes to Church is the same, it is our task to let them know that this is not the case, and to draw them in to be come a part of God’s varied fellowship of faith. It is we who are trying to follow who are the best adverts for the faith which means so much to us.

One day all of our questions will be answered, but until then we share our doubts and our certainties and if we work together then we will share our faith with one another and with a world which is no in need of the faith and hope and love that only our God can provide.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Sermon for the Start of Lent

Lent 1 (2008) Year A RCL Principal

Short Cuts

The great thing about living somewhere for any length of time is that you get to know the area, and you find your way around it in such a way that you learn all the short cuts. Having lived in London on and off for twelve or so years I used to be quite adept at find the back routes to places which avoided the traffic – or at least, may have taken us a little out of the way, but meant we did not have to sit behind a row of cars for ages.

I am just getting to the stage now where I am getting the hang of where to go and when during the day to avoid traffic. Though I have to say that riding the motorbike has made me lazy, as I rarely find myself stuck behind anything when I can nip around the side.

But, if I’m honest, short cuts, often aren’t short cuts at all, they take us out of our way, they can even take longer than sitting in the traffic we so often rail about.

But we do seem to live in a world that is besotted with short cuts, with the so-called quick fix. Instant coffee, Instant gratification, video-on-demand, the internet etc etc. We all (and I include myself in this) have fallen into the trap of thinking that all of this makes our lives easier, faster, better.

Well, some ‘instant’ things, some short cuts, are useful – but how often that computer which was meant to speed everything up seems to suck up a huge amount of time, how often the phone conversations seem to go on forever when a visit would have lasted a few moments, how often our shortcuts take us out of the way from where we should be going, and lead us from the best route towards where we want and need to be.

And it’s this short-cut mentality that faces us in our readings for today. In our Old Testament Lesson we have that ever so familiar passage from the book of Genesis, the story that we call the fall. In the story Adam and Eve long for a short-cut to be like God, so they taste of the forbidden fruit. They couldn’t wait, they wanted, so they took and ate. The story tells us that despite the freedom and the innocence which was theirs, they wanted more, and when tempted, they gave in – and their short cut was the route to misery and exclusion from the paradise that had been theirs.

In contrast we have, in the other familiar story for this Sunday, the account of Jesus temptations in the wilderness, at the start of his ministry. We know the story so well, we hear it every Lent, we remember the devil testing Jesus, offering him the shortcut to fulfil his immediate desires.

Turn these stones to bread – instant gratification for Jesus hunger. Take the shortcut which leads away from your self-discipline, your desire to set yourself apart, give in to self indulgence, use your power, trust in yourself and what you can do…

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ There are deeper needs than hunger, says Jesus, and bigger concerns than ‘what I want’ or even ‘what I can do’

OK then, try again. Jump from the temple, God will protect you – the Bible says so. For Jesus, this temptation must have been strong, it would have taken away the need for his own faith – a short cut to knowing God’s touch on his life. It could have meant leaving behind his doubts, his fears, and living a life of supreme self assurance. But it would have taken him away from the route of faith and trust which he was to show us by his example. ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’

Right, third time lucky, perhaps. Jesus is shown all nations, all those whose allegiance is away from God. If he will only bow down and worship the Devil then all of it will be his. Well, this is the shortcut that could have made his ministry quick and easy, couldn’t it. No worries about rejection, no need to slog away at spreading the message, no matter what the cost – it would all be sewn up in a matter of moments.

But actually, the purpose of this ministry was not so that people were deceived, or easily led, but that they had the choice to know God or not, a choice that would not be foisted upon them, but one freely offered, and one that needed to be lived out, shared and taken by everyone for themselves. It was about each individual turning to God and making that decision, not being tricked into it by the deception of evil. ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.’ quotes Jesus.

It’s interesting to think about how much Jesus knew of what he would go through in his life. I don’t believe he had foreknowledge of all that he was to go through, because to have known that would have prevented him from being truly human, and would negate the words of the letter to the Hebrews that Christ was ‘exactly as we are, yet without sin’. To know the future is not human, it is a divine quality.

But I do believe that Jesus could see the difficulty of the path ahead of him as he considered his ministry, and I believe, as I have preached before, that these temptations were not just once, but he constantly faced the temptation of taking the short cut, of looking for the easy route, of heading away on another path.

But despite the hardships he faced, an itinerant preacher criticised and often in conflict with the authorities, living a hand-to-mouth lifestyle in the company of some frustrating disciples. Despite the fact he knew to challenge the existing authorities, secular and religious, was likely to lead to punishment and death – Jesus took the long route. Not out of a masochistic desire to suffer, but because he knew what his mission was. His faith, his love of God his father drew him on, no matter what.

And as we approach lent, this time when we examine ourselves and ask what God would have us do with our lives – we should perhaps be asking ourselves about our own attitude to faith – what are we doing? Are we looking for the easy way, the comfortable way?

For those of us who have been Christians for any length of time we will know that Christianity is not the easy way, it can be a hard slog down the steep and narrow way. Christianity is not a crutch for the weak as many believe, but is a choice of discipline, of love, of faithfulness. It’s about being willing make the right choice, even – perhaps especially – when it is not the easy choice.

Our challenge this Lent is to consider where God might be leading us, and whether we feel we have the strength to make whatever choice is put before us. It won’t always be hard, but often it won’t be easy. God’s Holy Spirit will help us with that choice though, and as with our Lord, will sustain us whatever comes, if only we will trust him.

May you all have a holy and blessed Lent as you seek God, that you may live in the fullness of his life.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Being a Disciple

Team Evening Worship
3rd Feb 2008
Exodus 13.17-14.end

Discipleship: To be a Pilgrim

I can remember a day my life changed – after a few hours of delay (something for which my wife is still struggling to find complete forgiveness) I found myself driving at a slightly faster speed than I am used to up the road past Wood Green to Hinchinbrooke Hospital, where I rushed through the corridors with a very pregnant, very ‘in labour’ wife and voila – well, not really ‘voila’ there was a fair amount of pushing, breathing, pushing and even some shouting involved – just under an hour later (yes, I had left it a bit late) a little person appeared who (along with her brother) has never let life be the same again.

I used to get annoyed with people for saying how much having children changed lives. I knew it was the case, having come from a rather extended family children were very much a feature of my own upbringing – brother and sisters younger than me, lots of nephews and nieces etc etc. It was all there, in my head, the knowledge of what it would be like having children. I knew it changed things, I didn’t want to be told – again and again!

But actually, the knowledge, even the experience of having young children in my life over the years didn’t come close to what would happen when these little people actually appeared! I now realise that those people who used to annoy me were genuinely trying to help me, and prepare me for the change of having children of my own.

Now this is isn’t meant to be a trip down memory lane, nor – if you don’t have children – is it meant to annoy, distract or frustrate you. I use this illustration because it is something that changed my life completely. I could have used the discovery of motorbikes, but that’s even more of a specialist interest, or being married, or…. well, the list goes on and on.

But there is another moment that changed my life so profoundly, so radically, that nothing has been the same since. This was in 1980, when I was 11 years old, and took place in a field near the beach at Polzeath in Cornwall. Having been at ‘Covenanter Camp’ for a week (Covenanters were a young people’s Christian organisation which anyone over 11 in the Church I was sent to as a child joined) and having heard again and again this message of salvation, and seeing all that Jesus had done for me, I went to have a chat with the ‘padre’ for the camp and on that sunny August afternoon I gave my life to Jesus Christ.
And nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, has been the same since. Oh I’ve backslidden, made mistakes, got mired down in sin, doubt, despair, struggled with unbelief and deserted my faithful God more times than I want to remember – but since then I know that Christ has walked with me on this journey of faith ever since. And I have never once felt him desert me. At no time can I remember not having that something, a kernel, a mustard seed, or whatever image you prefer, of peace and faith within me, somewhere deep within.

But the best way I can think of to describe what happened at that time is that I started a journey – or to use more common Christian imagery, a pilgrimage. That becoming a Christian wasn’t ‘arriving’ – though many Churches seem to proclaim that the act of giving your life to Christ is the be all and end all of faith – in fact, it was just the start of a long, sometimes complicated, often joyful, always surprising journey. For many people I meet there isn’t any one moment where they could say that they made a particular decision or prayed a particular prayer which started their journey, they grew in faith and have continued with Christ. Not so much a conversion, more a growing into faith. Both are valid, no matter what some might say!

And this theme of journeying is one that has been in vogue in the church for the past twenty or more years. The Church is described in the baptism service as ‘God’s pilgrim people’. We have a shared journey to make, a common destination and a common companion on our journey. Pilgrimage is probably a better word than ‘journey’ because there is a sense of purpose to a pilgrimage, and though sometimes we may wonder where we are being led, if we are open to the spirit of God then we are being led, rather than wandering aimlessly.

And it is with this metaphor of pilgrimage that I want to begin a short series on discipleship. I was going to go through how discipleship is related to discipline, sharing the same root word etc etc but as I think I might have done that before I decided to think slightly differently. Then it struck me – the Exodus!

The Exodus is the defining moment in Jewish history, when taken out from a strange land, the People of God are led by God, and everything changes – from slavery, to freedom. From death to life.

But that moment when they make their way out of Egypt is not the end of the story. In fact the reason I had such a long reading from the book of the Exodus is because there is so much in there that talks of our journey, our pilgrimage of faith.

Lets start at the beginning of today’s reading at verse 17 of chapter 13 of Exodus.
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, "If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt." 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle.
God starts off this mammoth journey by taking the Israelite’s the scenic route – though they were prepared for battle, God saw that facing up to this so early on might actually make them give up together.

And it’s not just at the start of our journey that God sometimes takes us on a circuitous route… We may feel that we are going nowhere, and indeed part our discipleship is that we often have a sense of frustration, that God is not taking us where we are expecting to go! But if we are seeking God’s way, if we are praying and asking God for guidance and are open to him taking us where he wills rather than we will there will be times that God takes us the way that is good for us rather than the way we want! There will also be times when we don’t feel that God is there, that our prayers go into dead air – what some Christians call the desert experience, where our spiritual life seems dry and arid. Through these times God will be with us, though we may not see or feel Him… We have to be faithful (as Moses was in verse 19, taking the bones of Joseph with him in fulfilment of a promise given to Joseph) even though it may not seem to bear fruit. God is with us, just as he was with the people of Israel. We are told that he was always with them ahead of them (and behind them when they needed protection) in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. We may not have such a visible reminder of God’s presence – in fact the last time I followed a pillar of cloud was when I followed a group of vintage motorbikes down the road from Eltisley to Gransden after a car blessing (but that’s another story) – we may not have these visible reminders of God’s presence but we are assured in scripture that God is with us, always, unseen, the comforter, our companion. “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” says Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – reminding us that his Spirit is always here, invisible, unseen – as the wonderful line from ‘Immortal invisible, God only wise’ says ‘Unresting, unhasting and silent as light’.

Then we have the Israelites, at the start of chapter 14 being led by Moses to turn back and to camp by the sea. It seems a pointless, confused act – but God is going to use it to show his power.

And we carry on through this passage to see one of the most uncomfortable stories in the Old Testament – at least uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities. What happens to the army of Pharaoh seems to our modern eyes nothing less than mass murder – but we remember that these were those who wanted to enslave the Children of Israel, and even to kill them. The importance of this story is to show that nothing, not even the might of an army, is more powerful than God.

And though we may not like the implications of this story of the crossing of the Red Sea, within it there are reminders firstly that our God is not to be trifled with. God is a God of love, but also a God of power and might. In the hymns and songs we sing, in our choice of Bible readings, in many of the sermons and prayers we hear, we tend to make God out to be a rather pleasant, fluffy, often misunderstood God. A sort of divine Teddy Bear. We talk about our friend Jesus, and we find comfort in our worship.

We must always remember that if we are to be disciples we are called to discipline, and that we follow a God who is awesome, powerful, mighty and far beyond our mortal minds. We cannot have the immanence of God without the transcendence of God – our God is both intimate and awful, close to us and far beyond us. To strip him of his power and might is to make him nothing more than a divine comfort blanket. This is not the God of scripture, the God whose glory blazes, whose voice splits the cedars of Lebanon and shakes the mountains. Our God is great.

But God is on our side too! Amidst the awe and power of this story we also see a God who is gentle, a God who reassures and who saves. Moses answers the people verse 13 of Chapter 14 ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today’.

Did you know that ‘Do not be afraid’ – or ‘fear not’ is one of the most frequent phrases you will find in scripture! Through the Old and New Testaments you will find again and again the Lord (or those speaking on his behalf) saying ‘Fear not…’ To Abram receiving the Covenant, to Moses at the burning bush, to Shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, to Joshua about to take over leading the children of Israel, Boaz to Ruth, Jesus to the disciples again and again in the Bible we have this command – even more frequently than the command to love, or to serve one another – Fear not!

And both in facing up to our Awesome God, and to the calling to be a disciple, a pilgrim, we need to hear that command ‘fear not’. We are told in the first letter of John chapter 4 verse 18 – Perfect love casts out fear. That is God’s love, perfect – awe inspiring, daunting, life giving, surprising, disturbing and challenging – but perfect.

And we see the Israelites having to overcome their fear, both of the Egyptians behind them and the Red Sea before them. They have to step out in faith in order to continue on their pilgrimage, they need the discipline of faith to keep on their journey with God. It is daunting, it is scary – but they take that step, and God saves and blesses them.

Now I am very aware that I have been speaking now for some time and I have only really scratched the surface of this passage! I don’t want to go over and over it – but to finish I want to give some thoughts to take away with us.

Firstly being a disciple means going on a pilgrimage of faith, our Christian life is not static. We are followers, not sitter-arounders. We have to step out in faith.

Secondly, that journey may seem to go to places we don’t understand, or like, or expect – but if we are truly open to God’s Spirit we will be going the way that God is leading us, the way that is best for us.

Thirdly, God is always with us, no matter how it feels, or even how it seems. Trust Him.
Fourthly. Fear Not!

And lastly, we won’t arrive at our destination this side of death! We will always be a pilgrim people – and we should be restless, even as we rest in Christ! We as disciples of Christ, are those called to usher in the Kingdom – to work for peace and justice, to love beyond our limits, to forgive and know ourselves forgiven, to live lives worthy of our calling in Christ. The journey is as important as the destination, let us be faithful in our travelling and travel well, with Christ at our side.