Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Good Friday - The Centrality of the Cross

In previous years, when I have spoken at the Good Friday service it has often been to do with one or another aspect of the theology of the cross. I’ve tried to teach about what the Trinity went through with the universe-shattering reality of God the Father turning his back on God the Son as Jesus took on our sin, and became sin for us. But this year it’s not about the theology but the principle - the principle of the cross being central to our lives.

In effect, by talking about giving throughout Lent this has been the principle we have been engaging with, the giving of our selves, which finds its true focus here, at the cross. Everything up until now has been milk though rather than solids. At the cross, if we engage with the vital need for all Christians to place the principle of the cross at the centre, we are weaned and become spiritual adults. The self-sacrifice Jesus made is our model for life.

Our main reading this afternoon was from Isaiah 53. Written several hundred years before Jesus was born, it seems to describe him exactly. A man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering who was crushed by the Father in order to make his life an offering for our sin. These are unpalatable bits of theology. They are politically incorrect.

We are rightly uncomfortable with the idea of God doing this to a part of himself for the sake of drawing us back into relationship with him, but I wonder why. Is it because we don’t like the idea of God inflicting and undergoing suffering in order to take away our sin, or is it perhaps more because on some deep level we are disturbed about the lengths that Jesus would go to for our sake?

Let’s not be in any doubt about this. Jesus died on the cross because of us. If any single one of us had been the only sinner in the world, the love of God is so great that he would still have gone to the cross to bury the differences between us, to destroy the chasm that sin opens up. The only difference is that we would have been the one who had nailed God to the cross.

The theology of the cross helps us to understand what Jesus accomplished by being crucified, but the principle of the cross is, in a practical sense, much more challenging. The theology of the cross explains things in such a way that allows us to say, ‘Oh yes, I understand, that’s very interesting’, but the principle of the cross is in these very disturbing words of Christ:

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, Luke 14:27

It’s not about theology. It’s not about styles of worship. It’s not about what we wear to church. It’s not about whether we get to robe up, or lead prayers or have a seat on the PCC. It is about this ultimate principle of giving, of giving ourselves for the sake of others without there being anything in it for us. That’s what Jesus did and it’s what Christians are meant to do.

But do we? Why do you think there are church disagreements? Because we’re not carrying our own crosses. Why are there power struggles in the church? Because we’re not carrying our own crosses. Why are people dying for lack of food and water? Because we are not carrying our own crosses.

As long as it is about what ‘I’ want, not what ‘you’ need, we are not carrying our own crosses. And Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Why is that? I think there are two sides to it. If we carry our own cross the needs of others will take precedence over our own needs, but also, in caring for the needs of others we will learn a great truth about God that cannot be taught by words.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean. Henri Nouwen was one of the most profound spiritual teachers and writers of the twentieth century. He was a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest born in the 1930s. He was ordained at the age of just twenty five and studied psychology and moved to the US to study in the 1960's.

Such was his academic brilliance in his subject that he went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard, but in 1985 he left it all behind to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. After a year he moved to L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada.

It was there that he met Adam, a man with profound disabilities who could do nothing for himself. Henri Nouwen, international teacher and priest, became Adam’s carer. He began with the question, “Lord, is there any way Adam can know you as I do” but ended up asking the question, “Lord, is there any way I can know you the way Adam does?”

He called him, ‘Adam: beloved of God’ because in Henri laying down his own life and abilities and taking on the role of a carer he learned a great truth, which was that Adam was like Jesus. Adam did not need to accomplish anything in order to be loved by God. Adam was so profoundly disabled that he couldn’t accomplish anything; he could barely even feed himself.

By laying down his own life and taking up the cross, living the life of self-sacrifice, Nouwen learned at the very depths of his being that God loved him as a person and not his accomplishments, or how he looked or what he had acquired.

Now I can stand here and teach you and I this until I’m blue in the face, but unless we try and live it, we will never understand it. Henri Nouwen had been a priest for decades and had taught spirituality and written dozens of life-changing books, but it was in laying down his own life and taking up his cross that he finally learned the truth on a profound level, that God loved him for who he was, just as he was.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” says Jesus. Why? Because unless we lay our own lives down to one side we cannot appreciate and respond to his love for us. We will go on trying to earn it, when we can’t. Remember, if you had been the only sinner, he’d still have come. And still he comes, day after day, to ask us to lay down our lives, take up our cross, and live for others.

Do not expect this to happen overnight. The true reality of this is that we learn to carry our own cross and there are absolutely no short-cuts. It is in the day-to-day principle of living like this that we begin to grow. Yes, becoming a Christian can be a true conversion which takes place in a moment of time, that one day you are not a Christian and the next day you make a decision and you are. But being a disciple is far more involved. Being a disciple is about learning discipline, learning as an apprentice from your master who is the Lord Jesus.

So what, then, is this principle of the cross? It is a lifetime journey of learning simply to live as Jesus did, in the shadow of giving of yourself away for others. It is dying to yourself. It is the ultimate act of giving. It is a path we all have to tread, and if we are forever asking whether we are getting what we want, or moaning because things are not going how we want them to go, then we must look and see what path we’re walking on, because the chances are it’s not the one to Calvary.

And if we walk on our own paths we will never understand or appreciate the love of God.

So let me ask you a few questions.

In Matthew 10:39 Jesus says, ‘Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This is what Henri Nouwen did, and he discovered the truth of it in caring for Adam.

Are you tired of trying to get things the way you want them?
Are you weary of trying to be seen to be better than anyone else?
Are you holding on to your life so tightly, trying to get your way, that you are losing your life?

If the cross is central, then we will be prepared to die to all of our desires for the sake of the one who died for us. He showed us the way. We need only follow, because that’s what disciples do.

But don’t expect to get there immediately. Don’t expect to feel the weight of the cross on your shoulders on your first day on the job. But do expect the splinters to begin to bite when you start trying. And be prepared to see the effect it has on the lives of others. Amen.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Palm Sunday: Pilgrims and Power-Seekers

Readings1 Timothy 6:6-11
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

Luke 19:28-40
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’


Picture the scene, as it’s not so different from our own weather experiences. It’s a warm spring early morning, and although you can anticipate the dry heat of the day that will come, for now the sun has not long been above the horizon and its presence is comforting, warming, and joyful - not yet oppressive. The dawn chorus is past, but only just, and the people are coming out of their homes to begin the work of the day.

We know Jesus had a base at Bethany since that was the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine their house as a meeting place for the party of disciples about to head into Jerusalem. There would have been a sense of excitement, not because they knew what was going to happen, but because they were going, ‘Up to Jerusalem’ as pilgrims arriving for the Passover festival.

Remember that a great many of Jesus’s disciples were northerners, from Galilee, so coming all the way down into the hot dry south to go to their capital city for a religious festival was quite a happening. They would have been excited. There might even have been a bit of a carnival atmosphere about it. Have you ever had that kind of experience?

St. Alban’s diocese has a pilgrimage every Easter Monday for the young people of the diocese to make their way to the Cathedral for a special Easter service led by all three bishops of the diocese. When we moved to Bedford for my curacy one of my jobs was to take an active role in leading the youth on that walk, and I always loved that sense of togetherness.

Even though Bedford was a good 30 plus miles from St. Albans, we would still walk the whole way. Easter Sunday we would be sent out on pilgrimage by the whole congregation after the morning service, and off we would go. We’d get to Luton by nightfall for a pizza supper, and then get up at the crack of dawn, if not before, and trek off to do the remaining section. There was a real sense of togetherness and excitement despite all the blisters.

And we’d meet up with others on the way, as we drew closer and closer to St. Albans. There would be conversations about who had walked the furthest, (we always won those), and who had the best banner, and then a real sense of triumph, joy, excitement and maybe even relief as we came out of the countryside, and at the top of a valley looked across to see the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Albans standing proud on the hill in the distance.

Pilgrimage is an incredibly joyful occasion, something that many people never get to experience these days, and there is no reason to think that for the disciples it would have been anything less than that. I suspect also that few of them really understood what was about to happen, despite some of the ominous happenings and sayings of Jesus.

Instead there would have been a sense of joy for many of them. It’s quite possible that there would have been children present as they were far more family oriented than we are, and for some of them they would never have seen the glorious magnificence of the huge holy Temple of God perched on the top of Temple Mount.
This also helps us to clear up an issue that often confuses us. Here, at the beginning of the first Holy Week, there seems to have been a sense of celebration of who Jesus was. ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord’ is quite something to be shouting, with a sense of expectation that Jesus really is the anointed one, the Messiah, sent to save the people.

In other accounts in the Gospels we even hear people crying out, ‘Hosanna’ meaning ‘Save us!’ So there seems to be this sense of Jesus being recognised for who he was, even if the people had been thinking more of a political saviour, a warrior-king, than the man of sorrows that he was. How, then, did we go from this loud acclamation on Palm Sunday, to the shouts of ‘Crucify’ less than a week later?

It’s down, again, to the idea of pilgrimage. That sense of excitement of people from all over the place streaming up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival is what we observe. These were the simple ordinary folk from the outlying villages, and some, like Jesus and his disciples, from much farther afield. The ones crying out calls of ‘Hosanna’ were pilgrims on the road who had met Jesus. These were not necessarily the residents of Jerusalem, although residents may well have come out to greet the pilgrims without knowing who it was that was with them.

The centre of power is the place which rejects Jesus because his arrival could mean the loss of their power. He came with a Gospel of taking up our own crosses, and the centre of power had no intention of doing that. Jesus was a threat to them; a threat that had to be dealt with. And curiously, that brings us to the colt, which in a village would have been a donkey’s colt. No villager could have afforded a horse.

There is something in what Jesus says about the colt which highlights this difference between the power-seekers and the pilgrims. Consider Jesus’s words. He tells the disciples to go ahead and find the colt that has never been ridden and untie it. If anyone asks why, reply that the Lord needs it. Now that visual image of a donkey’s colt and the Lord sitting on it is the complete antithesis of the clutching after power and influence that takes place at the centre in Jerusalem, and what Jesus says about the donkey can focus our minds.

There are two words that describe the donkey’s state, and the action they must take with the donkey. The first one describes its current state, dedemenon, which means ‘having been tied’. In English we just add the prefix ‘un’ to describe the act of untying, but in the Greek there is a different word, lusantes, loosening. There is a state of being tied up and then the action of being loosed. Why did they loose it? Because the Lord needs it.

This is a point of the story that we miss if we’re not careful. Jerusalem was going to crucify its Messiah, just like it had so often killed its prophets. Why? Because the people were tied up with their desire for power and influence and wealth. The Lord came to loosen them.

Think again about the colt. It would have been useless to Jesus if it had still been tied up. It wouldn’t have been able to move. That is quite literally what desires for power, influence and wealth do to us. They bind us. If we want our own way it becomes like being tied to a stake from which we cannot pull away. How much use are we to the Lord unless we let him untie us, loose us, from the shackles of our desires to be first, to be noticed?

‘Loosen the donkey’s colt’ says Jesus, ‘and if anyone asks why, say, “The Lord needs it”’. The colt was no use unless it had been loosed. The powerful people in Jerusalem were tied up by their desires to hold on to power, and so they were of no use to the Lord. In fact the real and true horror of this is that not only were the Jews who were bound up by their desire for power no use to the Lord, they ended up actively working against him.

One of the biggest problems with materialism is that we cease to be able to understand spiritual things. I’ve spent time on several occasions in conversation with people eager for power, and when the conversations turned to spiritual matters I might as well have been talking in a foreign language. They couldn’t even begin to understand what I was meaning. That’s the effect of materialism and the desire for influence.

And because of the ways in which we are insecure, what follows on from that is predictable. If we cannot understand something, we may well feel threatened by it, and move to eliminate the threat. The people at the centre could not understand Jesus. His actions had always been to step away from power, and so he was all the more threatening.

People who want or have power cannot understand people who shun it. As St. Paul said of Jesus in the letter to the Philippians, (2:5)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
We still see exactly the same attitudes in politics today. Two thousand years and humanity has not changed one iota. Many want to rule but few want to serve.

And sadly the same applies in church. There’s the church whose Rural Dean had to step in because the secretary had kept its wardens in the dark that they were nearing the end of their legal tenure whilst getting her own preferred candidates into place. There’s another church where the bishop had to appoint a hard-nosed vicar to break the power of a group who had gradually stepped in and taken all the positions of responsibility.

There’s the vicar who wasn’t allowed to get his own way with the diocese so he led his church out of Anglicanism to become a free church. Free from what? Certainly not free from their vicar’s drive for power. These are just three examples I’ve come across in my own experience or have had shared with me, and there are plenty of others. And every time we do this, the people of God crucify the name of Jesus again.

‘But’, you may say, ‘Surely this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t seek after power.’ Thankfully, for many that is true, and we can usually tell who they are. Listen again to these words from the first reading. ‘...there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it;’

and this, ‘shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.’ You can usually tell the people who are like this, because they seem somehow contented. They have learned to love and accept that they are the person who God made them to be, and they don’t need to prove it to anyone.
So we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I contented? Or am I striving because I have something to prove to others?’ Essentially the question is, ‘Am I a pilgrim or a power-seeker?’ I would argue that the two are mutually exclusive.

Now don’t get me wrong here. This is not a question of judgement; it is a question of whether we want to be loosed by Jesus, literally untied and set-free to follow him, to be a pilgrim, to be of use to him. If we want to be set free, he will set us free, but it’s not an easy journey. I have personally found it difficult, but not impossible, to turn away from the high profile roles.

Am I going to be a pilgrim or a power seeker? Are you going to be a pilgrim or a power-seeker? What’s more important, what God thinks of you or what other people think of you. In everything that we do we should consider, ‘Is the Lord calling me to this, or wanting to set me free from the need to prove myself?’

Pilgrims are on the road to heaven, but they cannot avoid going via the cross, and we will consider that on Friday afternoon. Power-seekers are searching for their own end. That’s a very wide and welcoming path because it appeals to our nature to get the best for ourselves.

But it is a self-destructive way, and it exploits other people. It is not the way of Jesus, and it cannot be the way of his followers, yet it is such an easy trap to fall into, and we may not even realise we’ve been caught.

What have you wanted to do with your life?
Was it your desire or have you sought God’s advice?
Are you able to lay it down if God asked you to for the sake of doing something else?
Are you content with who you are becoming, even if you have not yet become that person?
Or are you aware of so often needing to prove yourself?

Have you been dominated by a power-seeker?
Did it make you seek power for yourself?
Did it make you feel useless, unworthy of love?
How did you respond?
Do you feel the need to prove yourself?

Do not feel condemned if you are becoming aware of not being as much of a pilgrim as you would like to be. Remember the words of Jesus. ‘Untie it, and bring it here’. The Lord wishes to loose us, to set us free, to pick us up from the power road, turn us around, and set us down on the pilgrim trail.

Let that same longing grow in your own heart to be one who is walking with excitement towards heaven, rather than one who is trying to draw attention to themselves.

God gives each of us gifts to be used in his service, and it is as we lay them down at his feet that he gives them back to us to be used for his glory rather than ours. Amen.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Fifth Sunday of Lent - Robbing God or extravagant love?

Most of my sermons are preached at myself; perhaps this one even more than usual...


Malachi 3:6-10

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.

John 12:1-8
Mary Anoints Jesus

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’


Picture the scene if you will. There is a room full of men. Maybe, just maybe, there might have been a few women present too, but mainly this would have been men. They were surrounding Jesus, all reclining around a long table or two. The presence of the women would have probably have been in terms of those who had cooked and served the meal. Certainly that’s what John tells us happened with respect to Martha.

And then in walks Mary. Now you have to understand that although they were sisters, Mary and Martha were quite different people. Martha was hugely pragmatic. She focussed on the jobs which needed to be done. Mary was a visionary who could see the world differently. She had spiritual perception. Martha saw Jesus as someone whose needs should be taken care of in a practical sense. Mary somehow ‘saw’ that there was more going on.

So in walks Mary and you sense the room going quiet. She goes and kneels at the feet of Jesus and unbinds her hair, something that a respectable woman would never have done in public, let alone in a room full of men. Then she takes out a large sealed glass pot of pure nard. Elsewhere we find that it was worth about three hundred denarii which is about three hundred days wages.

Put that into modern world terms and you are beginning to get a feel for the extravagance that is about to take place. I don’t know what you earn, but let’s say this is a jar of perfumed ointment worth about £18-25,000. Heaven only knows how long Mary has been saving in order to have that much money. Maybe it was the entire family fortune?

And can you imagine what must have been going through her mind when she went to the market in the middle of Jerusalem with all the money she had ever saved, and spent it all on one jar of perfumed ointment with the express intention of what she was about to do here? How long had she had to work herself up into doing this? How very nervous must she have been.

So the room is completely hushed now, and she puts her hands around the neck of the bottle and snaps it off - shattering the silence yet somehow deepening it further. There’s no going back now, and she begins to pour the perfumed ointment all over the feet of Jesus. And then she begins to wipe his feet with her hair. And then the room is in an uproar of disbelief at what they have just witnessed, Lazarus’s sister acting like a harlot, and wasting, in their minds, all of that money in one extravagant act.

Can you imagine the vulnerability of Mary? This was meant for Jesus, but the onlookers had completely misunderstood. Did she begin to crumple? I suspect so, but certainly Jesus immediately comes to her aid in telling them all to be quiet and leave her alone. She has given absolutely everything she ever had in one complete extravagant act of love and thanksgiving. She gave more than any of them could ever have contemplated.

Now contrast that with the reading we had from the last book in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi, where God accuses the people of robbing him. What does that mean? Simply this. The people, by their law, were meant to give 10% of everything back to God through the temple. 10%... And they were not doing so. All God asked was 10%, yet that was too much.

Mary gave her all and her act of love demonstrated that she understood what it was that Christ was about to do. She recognised that he was going to die, and she recognised that his death was somehow vital. Somewhere on some level she had perceived the truth of what was taking place, and so she was moved to respond by an act of lavish love.

The people to whom Malachi was writing were not giving their all. They were not even giving their ten percent. They were withholding their offering from God and he told them that they were robbing him, and it was just ten percent.

So now let us ask the hard question which you have probably seen coming. Mary demonstrated her love for Jesus and her gratitude to him with a lavish display of love, care and understanding, and the heart of God himself was moved by that love. At the other end of the spectrum, the Jews, by their law, were expected to give ten percent, ninety percent less than Mary gave, yet they didn’t, and God exclaimed that they were literally robbing him.

What are we giving? What percentage of our gifts does God get, and what percentage do we keep for ourselves? That ten percent is not just about money, but it certainly suggests that our giving should be influenced by the Jewish code of ten percent. How close to giving away ten percent of our net income are we? I’m not just talking about giving to the church here. What about charitable giving?

And then there’s the gifts and talents we naturally have. What percentage of the time we have for exercising those talents do we give to God? In a run of ten evenings, is just one of those devoted to doing something for God? Or not even that? Do we come anywhere close to the bare minimum in the Jewish law of tithing ten percent of all things? Or perhaps we consider ourselves above all of that, that the Jewish law doesn’t apply to us. Malachi 3:6 says, ‘I the Lord, do not change.’

I suspect that actually we struggle a great deal with this idea of giving ten percent? Yet Mary didn’t. Why? What did she have to move her that the Jews Malachi wrote to did not have? What was her inspiration? I suggest to you that it was this; Jesus was at the centre of her vision. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, if we are not inspired to give at least ten percent of all that we have, then it’s probably because we don’t feel the gratitude that she felt.

And I suspect that the reason for that is simply that in the grand scheme of things, our vision of life does not have the Lord at the centre. So I invite us all to think about this. Good Friday is coming up very soon and at the hour at the cross I will be asking us to consider this question of the centrality of the cross of Christ in our own lives.

When we sing words like ‘Be thou my vision’, do we really mean it? Is that truly what we want to see, the cross of Christ as our vision? Do we truly want that prayer answered? Because if the cross does become at the centre, then it will change our perspective considerably, and I would suggest to you that somehow, ten percent will seem very inadequate. Amen

Saturday, 13 March 2010

4th Sunday of Lent: Sheep love - mother love - from both genders!

Mothering Sunday


2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Paul’s Thanksgiving after Affliction

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may be able to comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

John 19:25-27
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Last week I spoke about a very difficult passage concerning the sheep and the goats, and how Jesus used their similarities and differences to describe the last judgement. We noted that although 1st century middle eastern sheep and goats looked very similar, their behaviour was markedly different, and that goats are destructive.

From that we thought about how the chief difference between them was the focus of their lives. Although both called Jesus ‘Lord’, the sheep were concerned about the needs of others and lived their lives in the shadow of compassion. The goats, on the other hand were inward facing. Their focus was entirely on themselves. The contrast was between love for others versus selfish love for one’s own needs.

Today is Mothering Sunday, and when we turn to motherhood we can see one important place where selfless love can begin. Selfless love is a capability we all share, both male and female, yet mothers, by virtue of the gift of bearing new life into the world, seem to have a head start. Mothers, you know, more than any of us, what it is to give freely of your own resources for the sake of another.

From the moment of conception the developing child, through what it does in the womb, changes the biological emphasis of its mother. Her body begins freely to give of its own resources for the sake of the life it now carries. That’s what’s going on biologically, and of course what happens biologically will affect your psychology. Many times I have heard stories of women who would give up everything for the sake of her child.

My mother told me of how, in the height of the fear of invasion in the last world war, her mother would keep something large, heavy and metal to hand to defend her children with. She had no thought for her own safety. Without question, her first instinct was the safety of her children. You can see in this what I mean by that head-start in behaving like one f the sheep in the parable. It’s then down what we do with it next.

When we turn to the 2 Corinthians reading, there is an interesting twist in the middle of it. Blink and we miss it. Let me read it to you again. ‘If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort...’ St. Paul is bringing together two truths here which are vitally important. Firstly, whatever happens to himself and his co-workers, his focus is on the needs of those he serves.

This is love in action; sheep love, not goat love; the love that looks out for the needs of others. And secondly, it seems to St. Paul that if bad things happen, they can be used for the good of others, and if good things happen, that can also be for the good of others. Whatever happens to he and his co-workers can be of value in bringing comfort to others.

What we find here is a real challenge about what we do with the experiences of our lives. You see in good mothering we see the archetype of self-giving, the kind of starting place for us all to experience or observe and learn from, but here St. Paul is going another stage forward and saying that whatever experiences we go through can be used for the benefit of others.

Now this is a dangerous statement to make. It is quite likely that there are some sitting here, or reading this later, who could feel deeply troubled at this. Some of us have doubtless been through huge pain and we wonder at how we got through it, and we remain angry at God for what happened, and how dare St. Paul tell us that whatever we went through can be used for good.

I can only comment that St. Paul was perpetually being beaten up, arrested, locked up and ultimately killed for what he believed in. He saw friends turn away from him when the going became too difficult, and on one occasion wrote to his young friend Timothy asking that when he come he bring Paul’s cloak and try and get there before winter.

Paul was in Rome, cold and deserted by all but Luke, yet still doing all he could for others before being beheaded for what he believed. It’s likely that Paul was actually in Rome because he had gone to minister to a church that was being persistently persecuted under Nero. He had run into danger for the sake of the spiritual needs of others.

So when he writes that whatever we go through can be used for the comfort of others, he is not writing empty words of theology, he is writing from the perspective of a man who has lived through hell on earth, and indeed has deliberately put himself in the kind of places none of us would want to go because he saw the desperate sufferings of a church and wanted to go there and help them.

He gave and gave of himself, and through that was able to say that it was his experience that showed him that all of his experiences, both in suffering and in being comforted, could be used for the comfort and aid of others. So these weren’t empty words, but they were signs of a deep mothering instinct in the way St. Paul was looking after the churches in his care.

I have a good friend who I have known maybe twenty one years. I won’t embarrass him by naming him because he may well read this on-line later. He went through a very tough time as a teenager, and he draws from that well an important gift that he gives me over and over again, which is his compassion, forged in the heat of his own suffering.

There have been occasions when he and his wife have been staying when I’ve been upset about something, and he’s just quietly come alongside and been there in a way that understands what suffering means. ‘Come here mate’, he says before enfolding me in a big manly mothering bear-hug.

Maybe you know people like this. They go through some kind of trauma, and rather than being defeated by it, they incorporate the experience into the depths of their very being, and from that they give out to those in need.

This is perhaps one of the miracles of being human in the image of God. We suffer, we all do and we all will, but that is not the last word in the sentence. If we want to, if we choose to, we can turn our experiences outwards and use them, give of them, to help others.

I see people in all stages of life and in all kinds of different states, and I never cease to be amazed at the grace that simply pours out of some of them. I am also amazed at how others become so self-centred as a result of their experiences. I don’t know what it is that makes a sheep into a sheep, and a goat into a goat, but nearly identical experiences produces different outcomes.

When we suffer, almost all of us begin by being concerned with what has happened to us. Some of us remain in that place forever, and it’s a mystery as to why, whereas others turn away from what they have been through and somehow use that experience to pour out love, grace and comfort into the lives of others.

We saw that in the cross too. While Jesus hung there, his concern was for his mother and his closest friend, rather than for himself. Out of his suffering he brought grace and togetherness for others.

Mothers, perhaps you have a head-start in may ways because your gender so often instills in you the starting point of giving of yourselves through the gift of bearing children. Yet what you have is not unique to you. Being able to comfort others is a capability within all of us, and that’s why the church calls today Mothering Sunday, rather than simply Mother’s Day.

Whilst we give thanks for the role that our mothers, or those who have been like true mothers to us, play in our lives, we are also challenged by the words of St. Paul that whatever we go through can be used for the needs of others, to bring comfort to them. The choice remains ours. Will we give of ourselves to others, like the sheep in the parable last week, or will we focus just on ourselves, like the goats? We have a choice. Amen.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

3rd Sunday of Lent: A case of mistaken identity

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Warnings from Israel’s History

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Matthew 25:31-46
The Judgement of the Nations

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Both of my grandmothers were very lucky ladies. They both lived long and happy lives and both kept their marbles right through to the end. Having said that, they also both had their moments. My father’s mother, or Nana as I called her, was gradually let down by her eyesight. Every Sunday morning it was our practice after church to go and see her for coffee after church, and so it was that whilst having one of our family natters, the doorbell rang.

Nana got up, as sprightly as she had always been, being from Norfolk country stock, and went to answer. From the hallway we heard an exclamation, “Oh Nen, what a lovely surprise to see you”, followed by an uncertain moment’s silence, and then a very embarrassed series of apologies. What had happened was that an elderly Jehovah’s witness had knocked on the door.

It was rather unfortunate for the poor lady that she also bore far more than a passing resemblance to another member of the Norfolk matriarchy, Nen, my Nana’s sister, and my poor Nana had thought that her little sister had travelled all the way from Norfolk on a surprise visit, but it was a case of mistaken identity. The Jehovah’s witness looked like Aunty Nen, but it was a case of mistaken identity...

...And mistaken identity seems to be the theme in our readings today since both are about people who look like the real thing, and yet somehow aren’t. When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter you get the feeling that he is trying very hard to pull a church together that has become very wayward. We don’t know what letter from the Corinthians he was replying to; that’s gone in the mists of time, so we have to try and reconstruct why he was writing from what he said.

A close reading of the text of the whole letter suggests that a division has arisen, not so much within the church but between the church and St. Paul. It seems quite likely that they were becoming influenced by a particular kind of wisdom teaching and had begun to think of themselves as very spiritual, with that spirituality not depending on their actions.

Unlike most of the teachers of wisdom who perhaps prided themselves on their eloquence, St. Paul had made clear that he knew he wasn’t a very good speaker and couldn’t match the ability of some of these wisdom teachers. However, St. Paul was not concerned too much about that. Instead he wanted them to know how convinced he was that how one lived one’s life was of far greater importance than how wise one was or even how seemingly spiritual one was.

This is probably what’s behind that greatest chapter ever written on love, 1 Corinthians 13, since that chapter falls right in the middle of some very important teaching about spiritual gifts. Basically St. Paul tells them all about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and then says, ‘But I will show you the more excellent way...’ and tells them all about love, ie that it doesn’t matter how wise you are, or how many spiritual gifts you might have, if it’s not backed up by practical loving and living, it’s worthless.

And that kind of idea seems to be central to the segment of the letter we read today. St Paul talks about Israel in the wilderness. He explains how they were all there together with Moses and how Christ was with them and they drew on him in their journey. They were very spiritual, yet because they didn’t live lives that were good in a practical sense, God was displeased with them.

In other words he was saying, ‘Listen you Corinthians, you can look just like the real thing. You can be very spiritual; you can even speak in tongues, and you can be very wise. But unless that means you live differently, you may look like the real thing, but you’re not. You are mistaken about your identity.’

Mistaken identity is also the theme in the Gospel reading where we find Jesus talking about the final judgement. In this apocalyptic image, and remember that apocalyptic images are designed to use our imagination to get an idea of the almost indescribable, Jesus describes the division of all the people who have ever lived, just as a shepherd divides his sheep from his goats.

As is so often the case we will only understand this passage with a little context. You see in this country dividing sheep from goats is easy. I can’t imagine anyone in this congregation who, when faced with a sheep and a goat, couldn’t tell the difference between them. However, if I put a middle eastern sheep and goat from that era in front of you, unless you were a shepherd you would really struggle.

Why? Because their sheep and goats looked very similar. To the non-shepherd it would be very easy to mistake one for the other. But although they look very similar, the behaviour of sheep and goats is very different. Goats are pretty destructive. They go anywhere they want and they eat absolutely everything. Sheep know the sound of the voice of their shepherd and will follow, and they are not destructive.

They looked the same, but their behaviour is different and that is what is so vital in this passage. The sheep have started to help other people because of their beliefs. They are not centered on their own needs but on the needs of others and how they can meet those needs. And perhaps the most beautiful thing about this is that they just got on and did it - it had become so much a part of their selves that they made no big deal of it. ‘Lord, when did we do these things for you?’

But when you get to the goats you find something else. Even though they called Jesus, ‘Lord’, their way of living was all for themselves and they did nothing for those in need. They used their gifts to their own ends to meet their own needs. There was no love for others. They could have been just like the Corinthian church; doing all the right spiritual things, and praying correctly and thinking they were growing in wisdom, but there was no practical loving; no giving of their gifts for the needs of others.

So can I finish by adding two big words - orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy worries about whether we believe all the right stuff absolutely correctly and orthodoxy has the ability to be very destructive. Just about every split in the church comes down to someone using power to say to someone else, ‘You don’t believe the right things.’ Yes, getting our doctrine right is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Orthopraxy, however, is all about right practice and right living, and it should flow from orthodoxy. We believe and therefore we give and we give of the gifts and talents we have. The sheep were sheep because what they believed led them to act to help others. The goats were goats because what they believed did not lead them to help others, even though they called Jesus Lord.

It is very important that we note that the goats also called Jesus ‘Lord’. These people would have called themselves believers; they knew who Jesus was, but they were not the real thing because their belief had not made any difference to how they lived, or didn’t live, for others. Being a Christian must mean we give of ourselves for others. If we don’t, then we’re not the real thing.

This is indeed a difficult message for us to take in, but I would be shirking my responsibilities of I didn’t bring it to us. In this Lent we are thinking about how we use the gifts that we have and these two passages should make us think long and hard about that. The message is that unless what we believe causes us to act, then it doesn’t matter how much like a sheep we look, we’re not a sheep.

It is doubly hard for us because we a re a well-off community, even if we don’t perhaps always feel it, but the temptation of riches is that we use them for ourselves and don’t see the needs that others have. It is not for nothing that Jesus declares that it is easier for a camel to go through the literal eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven.

We may think we give a lot, but, and I will come back to this later in Lent, the mark of a generous person is not how much they give, but how much they have left after they have given. And I am not necessarily talking here about money, and note this, neither is Jesus. Jesus is talking about taking the time to go and see others, to meet the needs of those beyond our immediate circle.

It seems to be that if our beliefs are real, then they generate within us an ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others - to feel empathy for them, and so to want to help. Now in this year’s annual report I have made mention of just how much some people give, and of how we should all be grateful to them. In this passage we see that giving of ourselves is not just good, it is an essential part of being a Christian.

And it is also important to note that there are times when we have to allow ourselves to receive. Selfless givers are hopeless at receiving, which is perhaps why sometimes we don’t look out for the needs of the givers, and why some of the givers really need to have some relief by others picking up the slack.

And so the question we have to face is, how much of our gifts and talents and time do we keep for ourselves, and how much do our beliefs stir us to give of them and of ourselves to the needs of others? Helping others, rather than wisdom or spiritual gifts or good doctrine, is the mark of a true believer. Amen.