Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A sermon - Proper 17

Year A Proper 17 Principal

A few weeks back I talked about how we picture Jesus – some of us seem to be stuck with a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ picture – all tied up with Victorian Kitsch and nicely scrubbed children gathered around a blue eyed saviour – some picture a revolutionary, shouting insults are the Pharisees, whipping traders from the temple courts, others prefer a more intellectual picture, with Jesus debating with scholars and scribes.  The list goes on – and having preached on this once I don’t plan to save myself the trouble of preaching by just saying the same thing again.

One of the points I wanted to make, among others, in that sermon was to say that our picture of Jesus, whatever it might be, cannot ever be enough – there will always be more to discover, more that challenges us, more to inspire and disturb.  And so it should be.

And it resonates in today’s readings too if we consider our pictures of God and our understanding of scripture.  We again are challenged, called to consider the demands of faith, of the life of faith, of Jesus’s call to us to be faithful, to be followers, to be his people.

Of course, the Bible is a precious gift – God allowing us to share in truth through Scripture  - but as well as familiarity and comfort, when we find ourselves facing the truth of God’s radical agenda, with the God of fire and of life, the God of hope and of freedom, when we see this God in scripture, then the Bible should shock us, disturb us and make us think again.

But we have to be open to this confrontation – as we see in our reading from the book of Exodus, Moses meets God in this vision of the burning bush but in order to do so he has to turn aside – he has to take time out, to set aside what he is doing, and then he finds himself on Holy Ground, and removes his shoes.

Moses has to act, to turn aside, to be open to the voice of God, and on meeting with God has to be willing to change something – a small thing, perhaps, removing his shoes – but it was a recognition that he stood somehow in the presence of God.  And its not like he was anywhere particularly special, just out in the desert tending crops.  But this was the place where God was (as I’ve said before, the phrase ‘angel of the Lord’ in the Old Testament, has more to it than our understanding of Angelic beings, and refers much more to the actual presence of God)

And from this response to God Moses is called, challenged and sent out to do something that will change the whole course of human history.  He is to lead the children of Israel from slavery to freedom – to head up the Exodus from Egypt – to speak God’s word to Pharaoh, and to be there for what is the defining moment of the Hebrew nation, the journey to the promised land.  It is this journey that brings about the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, it is during this journey that God’s people will receive the first law, it is during this journey that they will be fed by the bread of heaven, it is this journey that makes Israel what it is.

All from this turning aside, and from meeting God and responding with God.  Small steps of faith which changed the world.

And our faith must follow this pattern.  Of being open to God, turning aside and listening, responding and following.  That journey for us must begin with scripture.  When we open our Bibles we are in the presence of God.  We may not take off our shoes but there is a need to turn aside and make time and space to encounter the Bible and allow it to encounter us.  Perhaps we need to consider more what it means to read and be read by our Bibles – to look beyond those parts that we are comfortable with, beyond the stories we know so well, to see those parts which will, as we pray and read and meditate, change us and lead us further into God’s truth.  If we really look at the Bible it will surprise us –  for instance, as I encourage confirmation candidates to do - read a whole Gospel at once and think again about what Jesus is like!  As I mentioned at the start, you will be surprised -  in today’s Gospel reading, for instance, Peter was shocked by Jesus (explain context, just after his ‘confession’).  Jesus reacts with passion, and anger!  Perhaps that’s not how we think of Jesus (gentle, meek & mild).  But, like most Scripture, can shock and surprise us.  For Peter it must have been a bit like being slapped.  He was only saying how strongly he felt about Jesus, only trying to express the fact of how important Jesus was.  The reaction he got must have been something of a surprise.

It’s easy as a Christian to go our own merry way – it’s only through prayer and reading the Bible that God can shake us up.  And GOD DOES SHAKE US UP…

Are we willing to be shaken up?  If we follow the Christian way we will be – it’s not always about ‘what I am comfortable with’ or ‘what I like’.   Our faith is demanding, its not an easy ride – look for instance at the standards which we are called to live by in today’s lesson taken from the Epistle to the Romans

Romans 12.9-21
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 
and there is more 
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
High standards indeed, and its only through learning in prayer, in reading scripture, in knowing the love of God and the power of his Spirit that any of this is possible. And we need to be willing to do things differently, to heed the call of God no matter what that might cost -   Sometimes we do things differently in our parishes, Sometimes we try something different in our meetings, in our groups.  Sometimes we need to be willing to think again about how we meet the needs of our communities and what we must do to be open to them and to serve our villages.

If we are open to God working in us, through us, because of us, then we will find that sometimes we are stopped short.  Sometimes God will do something which makes us stop in our tracks and think again. Like Moses in our first reading, confronted with a burning bush that speaks to him – God can speak in the most unexpected ways.  OR Like Peter, who is strongly rebuked for what he says, despite the fact he is sure he’s saying what is right to Jesus.

Christianity is NOT the easy way.  Jesus is blunt, it’s like taking up a cross and carrying it, knowing that the way is full of pain.  BUT the rewards are beyond our imagining.

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