Friday, 29 October 2010

All Saints - Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich...


Ephesians 1:11-end

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 6:20-31
Blessings and Woes

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I love running. I’ve never been able to go very far; about three miles was my limit, perhaps a little less, but I especially used to enjoy running it as fast as I could, and I could just about manage eight minute miles around the hills of Tanworth. Not brilliant, but OK for a man in his forties. So I love running, except that perhaps I should put it in the past tense.

I loved running, not just because of how good it made me feel, and how virtuous I though I was, but also because everyone tells you how good it is for you, and that if you run you will be healthy. Except that wasn’t what happened. What actually happened was that I pulled my Achilles tendons, and that’s not healthy. In fact it was very painful and for a while I could barely even walk.

Sometimes our expectations of a particular activity get turned on their head. I’m not running at the moment, and I may not ever run for pleasure again; I’ll just have to see. Everyone says running is good for you, but it wasn’t good for me.

So what do people say about religion being good for you? I often hear it said that my generation and the one which is following it are the most spiritual generations for years, as we really search for truth. But I think I want to ask us all, not just the younger generations, just what it is we are expecting and why we are searching? I think that the question we may be asking is, when it comes to the spiritual, what’s in it for me?

You see I am horribly afraid that we’ve got it all wrong when we think religion is good for us, that we should be seeing its benefits. I think that might be completely the wrong way around.

It’s what we might call the Principle of Reversal, where the outcome you get is the polar opposite of the one you expect. I expected good health from running and got injury, so what do we expect from what we believe? You see I think that for many people they expect their beliefs to help them to cope with the stresses and strains of life, and indeed that’s what we all do isn’t it?

When we have a sick member of the family, we pray hard for them. We may even ‘phone our friends and ask them to pray as well. After all, isn’t God supposed to be there to help us? Well, yes, in as much as those who are good parents would always feel that they are there for their children. But that’s only half of the story when it comes to families. Being a member of a good family also carries responsibilities, not just rights.

And that is where Luke’s Gospel in general, and today’s Gospel in particular, can make us feel very uncomfortable because, throughout his writings, Luke highlights the way in which the Kingdom of Heaven is founded on the Principle of Reversal, and given that today is All Saints Day, and I take that to include all those who call themselves Christians, we had better take note of what that means for our responsibilities as a part of this family.

In this reading we see first the good news that those who are poor, hungry, in anguish or rejected because of their beliefs will be blessed. This is the upside of the Principle of Reversal. Those who are comfortable find it far too easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of others, but God doesn’t, and he affirms that their eternal future will be very different from their present.

That’s the Good News. However, it doesn’t stop there. The four woes follow on from those whose positions are the exact opposite of the four blessings.
Woe to the rich, the well fed, those filled with mirth and those about whom everyone speaks well. The heavenly Principle of Reversal is not Good News for these people, and that’s why it’s so challenging.

It’s not that we should be aiming to be in sorrow, reviled, poor and hungry. Those are not held up as examples. That is just Jesus giving them hope. But for us it should be very challenging because we are the well off, the comfortable, and those who know how to say and do the right things in public so that people speak well of us.

It challenges us because it shows that being a Christian is not about making an adjustment with our lives so that we don’t feel too uncomfortable with passages like this. No, being a Christian means that we have to live counter-culturally. We have to live and do and say the things that are right, even if they make us unpopular and misunderstood by our neighbours.

Now this is not a message I take lightly. Even the story I began with was challenging. I boast about how I used to be able to run three miles in under twenty five minutes, and complain that it hurts a little now for me to run. So what! It makes a good sermon opener, but it begs the question, how aware of the needs of those who can’t even walk am I; are we?

For those who have been crippled by disease, a story like that illustrates all too clearly that we take our riches and our good health for granted, not realising that for a huge proportion of the world’s population don’t even have access to clean drinking water, let alone running shoes.

Passages like this should not be ignored because they remind us that we cannot simply ignore the fact that, as some of the wealthiest people on the planet, God expects us to look out for the needs of the poorer members of our Family.

How much do we give? Do we give just enough to salve our consciences or do we give until it really has an effect on our lives? You may have heard this phrase before, ‘Live simply so that others might simply live.’ The new car/dishwasher/computer/stereo - did we need that more than a hundred people who could have had cataract operations in the developing world if we’d given the money away?

This is hard stuff to preach, and trust me it was hard to write too, because in telling you this I am having to face up to it more in my own life. Over the last couple of weeks we have been thinking about wrestling with God, and our possessions and bank accounts have to be some place where we wrestle with God, because we are potentially the kind of people that Jesus is saying woe to.

I know it’s not all plain sailing for us. I know that many of us carry deep burdens of responsibility that keep us awake at night crying out to God for help, and here Jesus speaks the words of hope that there will be a better future.

But in terms of our financial well-being, we need to be very aware of the message here, that there is in the Kingdom of God there is a principle of reversal in operation, and we need to live up to our responsibilities.

Today is All Saints. I want to be numbered as one of those Saints, and since you’re reading this, it’s likely you do to. Then we’d better make sure we look out for the needs of those entrusted to us. Amen

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Bible Sunday : Is this the word of the Lord?


Romans 15:1-6
Please Others, Not Yourselves
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.
For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 4:16-24
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

‘This is the word of the Lord’. It’s a phrase we use so often that I wonder whether we really think a great deal about what we’re actually saying, that we’re affirming that these words come from, or are inspired by, God. There are some difficult passages in the Bible and sometimes I almost find myself wanting to say, ‘Is this the word of the Lord?’! But today, in the church’s calender, is called Bible Sunday and we’re going to think a little about what we really think of the Bible using today’s readings.

We begin with the Romans passage, and just to put some context on it for you, at this point in the letter St. Paul is writing about disagreements in the Roman church, mainly about what it was permissible to eat. Now you have to remember that Paul was a liberal in his day. Although he was a Jewish Christian he primarily worked as a missionary to Gentiles, non-Jews like us.

That meant that much of the work that he was doing was amongst people for whom the Jewish Law, the Torah, had never had any meaning. They hadn’t grown up with it, and so knew nothing of the Jewish belief that they still had to keep the law even if they were a Christian, and so Paul found himself challenged about whether new Gentile Christians should also have to keep the law, or whether their freedom in Christ meant there was no need.

Eventually he decided that their spiritual freedom meant they should not be shackled by Jewish law and were therefore free to eat whatever foods were going. However, although he believed it was permissible, he also knew that there was something above that freedom which was love for other sisters and brothers in the faith who had not reached the same conclusion.

This was of particular concern in Rome because the church there was a mixture of Gentile and Jewish Christians, and so it was likely that more of the Jewish Christians would feel it was improper for them to eat food prohibited by Torah.

The gentile Christians would have had no such compunction, but Paul was instructing them that they should not please themselves in this matter if it hurt other believers. First and foremost they should love each other which meant they should respect the choices another made.

But on this Bible Sunday the challenge for us is where these Jews were getting their teaching from, which was, of course, the Bible. All the rules about what to eat came from the Bible, and those who felt a particular way about their heritage and what was written in their Bible felt that they should continue to keep the Torah even though they had found freedom in Christ.

St. Paul, also a Jewish Christian, believed otherwise, and that the Christian teaching about being free superceded what was in their Bible. Now we can see why this was such a big issue for them, and in a moment we’ll look at a modern parallel, but St. Paul was saying that even above freedom in Christ came the command always to love your neighbour, and so it was vital not to antagonise and upset others who lived differently because of what they read in scripture.

Now although this all took place two thousand years ago, it has a surprisingly strong parallel in the modern church.

The Church of England is struggling to hold itself together as it faces a number of challenges about what it believes. The one which is currently most prominent is the debate over whether women may be called by God to be Bishops. The issue for us today is not so much who is correct, but where they get their information from on which they base their decision, and how they then behave.

You see there are a number of clergy, bishops and even most of a congregation that are considering leaving the Church of England to join the Roman Catholic church because that denomination does not recognise the priesthood of women. Their reason for deciding to move is their belief that scripture teaches that women should not lead churches. However, lots of people disagree with them.

The problem is that if it were truly the case that the Bible clearly teaches women could not be Bishops, as they are suggesting, why is there such disagreement within the Anglican communion? You see there are many, myself included, who simply do not think that this is what the Bible teaches. Certainly you can find verses which suggest that women should not lead, but you can also find contrary verses, as well as a theology inspired by phrases from St. Paul that explicitly declare absolute equality.

Can you see how this parallels what St. Paul was writing about? Two parties in disagreement over what is right; both with valid reasons for their stance. Is this really what scripture is for? Should we really be using it as a prop for our philosophical and theological arguments? I mean, if I want to I can justify slavery and stoning, as well as having a few extra wives, all from scripture.

Bible Sunday is meant to be about us celebrating the written, inspired word of God, and the first reading is all about how scripture should promote love, unity and so on, yet in the real world that’s a million miles away from how some in the church are acting. Why is that? I think it’s because, all too often, we don’t use the Bible as it was intended. Let’s have a glance at the Gospel reading and I’ll show you what I mean and what I think scripture is actually meant for.

Here we can see Jesus using scripture prophetically to say something about himself and his mission. Everyone present is talking in positive terms about Jesus. But then it all turns sour. Jesus goes on to interpret scripture to them, showing them that God’s vision for salvation was far wider reaching than just for the Jews, and that maybe they might even be excluded if they didn’t recognise him for who he was.

They were outraged and tried to kill him. Our first impression is that Jesus might have been using scripture badly, as a vehicle for pushing his own beliefs. But actually what he was doing was much more subtle, and I believe he gives us the key to how scripture is really to be used.

You see what Jesus actually did was use scripture as a mirror to show the people who they were. He used scripture to challenge them so that they could see themselves as they really were.

Yes, scripture does teach us, and it does encourage us, and it does give us hope, but it does a far more important job than that: it exposes us and reveals our intentions, and unless we face up to who we are, we can never grow as Christians.
This is what Jesus did, and in showing his home town their shortcomings he enraged them. And scripture will do that too. But that is why I preach from scripture: because it is meant to make us think; it is meant to get under our skin and challenge us about who we are and how we live; it is meant to be a tool of the Holy Spirit to change us.

The writer to the Hebrews put it better than I could ever hope to. This is from Hebrews 4:12:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Back at the beginning I said that sometimes I feel like saying, ‘Is this the word of the Lord?’ about some of the difficult passages, but I guess that’s the whole point of scripture; it should sometimes be used by the Holy Spirit to make us question our motives, our beliefs and our reason for behaving as we do.

Those people who are currently using the Bible as a tool for suggesting that women should not be allowed to lead dioceses should be asking themselves what the Holy Spirit is saying to them about themselves through the scriptures they are using. In fact I would say the same thing about those who are using the Bible as a tool for excluding anyone whose philosophies are different from their own. What does the use of scripture in that way say about you yourself?

Whenever we criticise someone else we are always saying more about ourselves than about the object of our criticism. How much more must that be true when we use God’s inspired word to us as a tool of exclusion?

So yes, I believe the Bible is the word of God to us. And yes, I believe it can teach us about God. But I also want to emphasize that I think the Holy Spirit is the One who best wields it as a tool when She reveals truths to us about ourselves through reading the Bible.

But the question I now have to ask you is, do we read our Bibles in such a way as to allow it to do that?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

20th Sunday after Trinity: When heaven seems silent despite all our prayers

Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1-8
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

‘But the steep and rugged pathway, may we tread rejoicingly’. We sing it easily, but it’s a tough prayer to pray. I want to talk about tonight about whether this is a realistic attitude in the times when God seems silent and our personal worlds are falling apart. I wonder, if we’re honest, what are our experiences of real life and prayer?

It may be that for some here you have not had to tread a difficult path where God seemed silent. But some of you may be in the midst of a desperate struggle that no one else knows about, and you might be wondering why God hasn’t helped. And some of you may have watched others suffering, whilst praying for them and wondering why God didn’t intervene. And some of you may be wondering where God is in the midst of our prayers that seemingly go unanswered.

Let me start by saying that this is a huge subject. Books and books have been written, and I cannot do justice to the subject in one sermon. I think, however, that I can perhaps shed some light on it, but to do so I will have to suggest some controversial ideas, and you may not agree with me, and that’s ok. It’s very important that I say that my beliefs on this are still being wrestled with.

But I have found that the answer I grew up with to be a cop-out. That is that we can’t understand God but have to trust that he knows best. I don’t think that really works in the midst of tragedy on a personal scale where there seems to be no apparent intervention from God. So let’s begin with the Gospel passage before looking at the Old Testament reading

The parable of the unjust judge is a kind of ‘anti-parable’. Usually when Jesus tells us a story we assume that one of the characters is meant to be like God or the kingdom of heaven, and another like us, but every so often Jesus sends us what the Americans would call a ‘curve-ball’, a story that doesn’t do what we expect it to and catches us out, and this parable is one of those.

In fact to emphasize that point, Jesus refers to the judge as one who neither feared God nor had respect for people. He’s making it clear that the judge is not meant to be God. The whole point to the story is that God is not like the unjust judge, and that if even the unjust judge will listen to the woman, how much more does God listen to us?

But let’s be honest, it doesn’t always feel that way does it. If I were to talk to each of you individually, you could all tell stories of something that you asked God for, but which never materialised. Several of us have experienced this very recently.

Jo was a dear friend from my curacy in Bedford. She was one of the people who taught me early on that, as a priest, if you want to draw near to people you have to be vulnerable with who you are in yourself; you have to be willing and prepared to wear your heart on your own sleeve if you want people to share what troubles their hearts.

About two years into my curacy it became clear that Jo was quite seriously ill as she began to become prone to fainting fits and anaemia. The diagnosis was what we all feared as it became clear she had cancer of the bladder. So we began to pray for Jo, and for all her family.

I think that deep down I had probably known for a while that the treatment was buying time, not a cure, but we prayed for healing nevertheless. I moved here to become vicar but we stayed in touch with Jo and the family, all of whom had become important to us and regularly visited here, and so it came as a shock when Jo told us she had started coughing badly and had been diagnosed with lung cancer - not as a secondary but a separate cancer.

And still we prayed. Then her husband died after many years of heart problems last year, and our prayers became more fervent, but sadly Jo lost her battle in September this year. We had prayed repeatedly, but still she died. She died as she had lived: a woman full of faith and trusting in God. But she still died. Many of you will have been through similar instances. Some of you may have had answers to prayer and some may have witnessed miracles. They do happen. But not every time. Why?

So what is intercessory prayer? Is it just badgering God like a little child badgering away at a parent to wear them down and finally get what they want? Do we give up when we’re not getting what we want, or is prayer rather different from that? Well I think we can start off fairly simply. In most types of intercessory prayer, when we’re asking for something from God and it doesn’t happen we could liken it to children asking for presents from their parents.

Imagine, for example if your child wants a playstation all for themselves and has made it clear that they have no intention of ever letting anyone else play with it. That would be a selfish request and you might say no on those grounds.

And what would you say if your five year old asked for an electric chain saw? Of course you wouldn’t give it to them because at their age it would be way too dangerous for them. Or how about if your ten year old asked for a car and you could afford to buy them one? So why wouldn’t you give it to them? It’s simply because at that stage in their development, they’re not mature enough yet to handle it.

Or even, what if your child asks for a push along scooter. That sounds reasonable, but what if you had actually intended to buy them a bicycle? Then perhaps you wouldn’t give them what they were asking for because you had in mind to give them something so much better.

Something similar often happens when we pray to God for something. God may have a very good reason for not giving it to us, so that prayer seems to go unanswered. The question is, what do we do about unanswered prayer for something that seems very worthy, like a friend who is very sick? Surely that’s a worthy request?

That’s where the story from the Old Testament can shed some light for us. The lead up to this story is that Jacob is expecting to encounter his older brother Esau. Many years earlier Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright and had fled for his life. Now, with Esau coming for him, an older and more mature Jacob is concerned for his family and so sends them away to safety.

Then comes a curious incident. While Jacob is waiting during the night, an apparently dangerous stranger approaches Jacob and they begin to wrestle. There is a curiously ancient myth tied into this story as the stranger makes it clear he must be gone before daybreak, but behind that it becomes clear that in some way this man is tied to God because Jacob is renamed Israel, and that name has a literal meaning.

El was a common name for God, and wherever you see it there is an attachment, such as the archangel Michael which means, ‘Who is like God?’, or the angel Gabriel meaning, ‘Man of God’. In the case of Israel the name literally translates as, ‘The one who strives with God.’ And the naming of the place where it happened, Peniel means, ‘The face of God’.

Yet for me the thing which comes over is not that Jacob struggled with God, but that his hip was put out of joint so that he would always limp. Wrestling with God changed him. It marked him.

And that I think is the key to this whole mystery. I believe that God invites us to wrestle with him when we don’t understand why our prayers are not answered, but we must be aware of this one fact, that if we do so it will change us and we will never be the same again, and like Jacob, we may earn a new identity, and we may end up walking with a metaphorical limp.

The congregation here will remember that three years ago my eldest sister, Helen, died after a long struggle with a brain tumour. We prayed hard for seven years for her, but still she died.

After her funeral I went away for a couple of weeks and wrestled hard with God. Actually I’d been wrestling hard for seven years, and wrote quite a lot about my own theories, some of which I’ll come to in a moment. The reality though, is that the experience changed me in ways I can’t begin to describe to you.

It would be fair to say that, from a spiritual perspective, I walk with a limp now, yet feel closer to God than I have ever felt. God invited me to wrestle with him, and he held me close after I had taken up the challenge.

But there’s one more very important point that came out of this wrestling that says a great deal about why he pray. Just because good things were brought out of the tragedy of losing my sister, doesn’t mean for one tiny moment that I think God inflicted Helen’s illness on her, anymore than I think he did to Jo. So why weren’t our prayers answered?

I think that it’s to do with freewill and choice. In this short space of time I can’t fully explain all of my reason behind this, but I think that prayer and suffering are linked to the way in which God created the universe.

There are many, perhaps the majority, who believe that God created a universe in which he is in complete control and in which he knows what is going to happen. But if that were the case, why would we bother to ask for something from God? Why even pray? Some of you may have wondered about this for yourselves. I think it’s too easy to just sit back and say, ‘It’s going to be ok. I trust God because he has it all under control.’ But does he?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely convinced that God could have created a universe in which absolutely everything was under his complete control. He could have done that. But I don’t think he did. I think we know on a deeply instinctive spiritual level that God does hear our prayers, and that sometimes he either alters his plans or, if we wrestle with him, he will reveal more of his plans to us so that we can see why things are the way they are.

But, and here’s the controversy, I do not believe God has created a universe in which he knows exactly what is going to happen next. There is a difference between planning a future and knowing it absolutely. I think God plans, but also loves and listens.

I believe creativity and freedom are woven into every strand of the universe. Just as God calls us to maturity, so also in the universe itself we see a growth and development along similar freedom and collaborative lines. The third Testament of God, that of the created world, reveals to us the way in which complexity has grown slowly from simplicity. Sentient life-forms like us can trace our heritage back and back.

But for there to be complex life, God must have spun into his web of creation the space to mutate. The positive side is growth, but not all mutations are good for life. As I have wrestled with losing friends and family to cancer, so I have wrestled with the idea that God created the universe like this, so that everything within it would have space for growth and change.

And that means there must be mutation. Without it there would not be us, but because of it there is also disease and death. So why did God do it this way? Why not create a controlled and safe universe where every prayer is answered exactly as we desire?

Imagine standing right next to a bonfire. Guy Fawkes night isn’t far off so it’s not hard to imagine is it. You cannot stand next to a bonfire without feeling its heat. You have no choice in the matter. If someone said to you, ‘Is the bonfire real?’ you would think they were nuts!

God wants us to choose to love him, to seek him out, and when we do so he reveals himself to us. But if God had created a universe in which he was readily, physically present and answered every prayer, we would never have had any choice, in the face of his love and majesty, over whether we wanted to love him back; His love would simply overwhelm us.

For us to have freewill, it simply had to be this way. God had to create freewill and freedom for all of his creation, and then remain veiled himself, so that we would see hints of his presence, and listen to him calling us, but that the choice to seek him would remain ours, and so that God would grow a family who chose to love him rather than one who had no freedom to do anything else.

And it may well cause us great hardship. And I still haven’t stopped wrestling with this, but the truth of it is, if I am right, and this is all about freedom and freewill, then the future is open. God has plans but he chooses to work them out with us in collaboration, and here’s the bottom line: that’s why we pray.

Somewhere inside we know that he listens, and this is the reason why. The future is not all set in stone. There is freedom in the shape of what is to come, and God listens to us as a parent listens to their child. Because he loves us, he listens to us and can be influenced by our desires. Sometimes he says no, and we can’t see why. I don’t know why I have lost two friends and a sister to cancer and another friend to suicide. It makes no sense. And still I wrestle.

But I take heart from this - that me wrestling with God, that us wrestling with God, is a sign of his compassion and love for us and of the freedom he gives us. He is bigger, more loving and more gracious than we can ever know. Amen.
(Mail me if this stirs up issues you want to talk about)

If you want to read more on this, the following two papers are where I've summed up these ideas in more depth with more background:-

Cudby PEF, 'Openness Theology - A new evangelical approach to the Epicurean paradox', Modern Believing, Vol 46:2 (2005), 13-21.

Cudby PEF, ‘Openness Theology Part Two - Dealing with the Shortcomings’, accepted for publication by Modern Believing.

Thanks also to Roots magazine for inspiration on this one.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

19th Sunday after Trinity : Real Gratitude


2 Timothy 2:8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Luke 17:11-19
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’


Last week at harvest thanksgiving I preached more or less about saying thank you. I explained that it was a good and gracious thing to thank each other for the work that we do, but such gratitude should not be a part of an arm twisting exercise to get people to commit themselves to helping out in church.

More importantly, I described Jesus’s view that working in the service of God was simply what Christians were supposed to do because we are God’s servants, and therefore when we serve we are doing exactly what we ought to do and that we shouldn’t be doing it in order to receive gratitude. This week we’re going to think a little more about gratitude and we’re going to see it in its proper place.

I was lying in bed on Tuesday night mulling this over and found myself with a question. Why exactly do we say thank you to someone? I’ve already shown that it’s not an honourable way of getting someone to do something because then it becomes a form of bribery. What then is its proper place and reason? I think it’s this.

When we say thank you to someone we are acknowledging that they have done something for us, and quite possibly something we couldn’t have done. That ‘thank you’ takes on a special significance when they have done something for us that put them out or that required some effort from them, which is perhaps why we feel disgruntled if we work hard and no one acknowledges our contribution.

But when someone does something very special for us, it has the capability of melting our heart, and we may find ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Or maybe not. You see in the story of the ten lepers who are healed, only one comes back in gratitude to thank Jesus, and it is only to him that Jesus says, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

So now let me really freak you out. The Greek word we translate as, ‘has made you well’, or, ‘has healed you,’ also means, ‘has saved you.’ It’s one of those lovely Greek both/and words like pneuma meaning wind and spirit. So the question I think this passage asks us is, What is the connection between praise and our salvation?

Now we have to be careful here because we must not get caught up in a heresy and start suggesting that our salvation depends on us giving thanks. We cannot save ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good our praise is, it is not our praise which saves us. And yet there is a very real sense in this story that our praise is nevertheless integral to our salvation.

Let me see if I can explain this by looking at the section we have in the second letter of Paul to Timothy. In the middle of this letter is what we think is probably an early Christian hymn which says this:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

It’s one of those kind of hymns that you imagine might have been written by a John Bell equivalent because of the depth of theology and the twist at the end to make us think, and give praise.

The first line about dying and living is reflected at our baptism. When we are baptised we go down into the waters of death and then come out cleansed and renewed in the resurrection. If we are Christians, we live in Christ, and so we have a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. If we have died with him, we will live with him.

The second line is a little stronger because it goes beyond the point of conversion to the nitty-gritty day-to-day life of being a Christian which was in a particular focus at the time of writing because of the persecution they were enduring. As a Christian it is expected that we will endure when the going gets rough, whatever that means for us.

Then comes the negative phrase. If we deny Jesus before people, he will deny us before God. I take this to not just be a literal, ‘No I’m not really a Christian’, if someone puts you on the spot. It may also be about how we live in terms of the care of others. You may remember the parable where people who think they are believers discover themselves to be goats rather than sheep and the Lord tells them he never knew them, and all because they didn’t look out for the needs of others.

But then we get the twist that leads us to praise. Given the line before, when we hear the phrase, ‘If we are faithless...’ we would expect something like, ‘He will be faithless to us’, but instead we hear that glorious truth that regardless of what we do, God will remain faithful. It’s rather like that passage from Romans 8 where Paul declares that there is nothing in all creation that can come between us and the love of God.

We may not reciprocate it. We may not respond. But God will go on loving us. He remains faithful because that is his nature, to go on searching for us, always trying to draw us to himself, even when we turn our back.

That line should surely cause us to praise, to be grateful to God that he is so good. That’s the point of the hymn. But the question it has raised in me is, just how good are we at praising God? From time to time we experience worship in a different church tradition from our own. Some of you may have been to services, perhaps with a band rather than a choir, where the music takes a large part of the service and people raise their hands in worship.

Inevitably I know that some of us will be thinking, ‘Oh yes, the happy-clappies’. But think for a moment. What is going on in those services? The people are simply praising God.

It may not be our tradition, and we might come up with all sorts of reasons to think of it has a dumbed-down form of worship, but the truth is that in those services you find people responding in praise from their guts, from the depth of their being? Do we do that? And don’t for a minute think that kind of praise only comes in modern exuberant worship.

As I think I’ve shared before, in my own private prayers I tend to draw on various different traditions, trying out new forms of prayer, and for the last few months I’ve been using the Franciscan order for morning prayer before I get up, and the thing that has overwhelmed me is that, despite being a hugely traditional prayer book - remember these are monks - every day is filled with praise. Every prayer gives thanks to God.

Listen to this opener from Wednesday. Blessed are you, Sovereign God, creator of all; To you be praise and glory forever! You founded the earth in the beginning and the heavens are the work of your hands. As we rejoice in the gift of the Word made flesh, let the light of your love always shine in our hearts and your praises ever be on our lips, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Blessed be God forever!

That’s not anything that even the most traditional amongst us could call happy-clappy. It is pure praise of God for who he is and what he’s done for us. And there is page after page of it. There are several copies on the windowsill by the prayer space if you wish to borrow one and try it out. I find it has made a huge impact on me to use this form of prayer because it shifts the focus away from me to the one who made me and is saving me.

And that, I think, is the point in the story from Luke’s Gospel. Praising God comes from awareness and observation. We need to look at what he has accomplished in our lives and the lives of those around us. We need to look at the universe in which we live and move, and we have to recognise the power and the majesty of God there. And then we need to look at our own journeys towards salvation and remember, daily, that those journeys are only made because it is God who saves us through the death and resurrection of his Son.

And then we need to ask ourselves, shouldn’t we be wanting to respond to this? Nine lepers received their healing, but only the tenth went back to say thank you.

So I think the message is simply this: Faith without gratitude to God is incomplete, and our lives, if they remain focussed on ourselves, will be hollow things. We need to encounter God in prayer because then we will respond in praise, and only then will our faith be complete. Amen.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Harvest Festival - Doing what we ought to do

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

Today is our harvest thanksgiving, but as well as giving thanks to God for the physical harvest, we are also bringing forward that which we have earned by using our gifts in the Lent challenge. I want us to think a little about this personal harvest in the context of servanthood by beginning with the reading from the second letter of Paul to Timothy before applying that back to the Gospel reading.

In order to understand what’s going on in the second letter to Timothy, it’s helpful to understand some of the events surrounding it and the people involved. Who was this Timothy that St. Paul refers to as his beloved child? And what was the situation that St. Paul was in that prompted him to write to Timothy?

Let me first tell you about St. Paul’s situation. We’re now very late in his ministry and beyond the scope of the story told in Acts. At the end of that book St. Paul was under house arrest in his own lodgings in Rome and people were free to come and go to visit him, and for two years he proclaimed the gospel to all who visited. But although that was the end of Luke’s story, it wasn’t the end of St. Paul’s life.

It seems likely that after this period he was released and continued his missionary journeys for another period of time before being arrested once more and imprisoned again in Rome. However this imprisonment was very different from his house arrest. If we were to read on a few verses Paul tells Timothy about how one of his friends, Onesiphorus, had to search all Rome to find where he had been incarcerated, and this time Paul was in chains.

The reason this letter seems to be so full of emotion is that this time St. Paul knew that his time was up, and I expect that many of us have experienced those times where we are at the end of our tether, and so often that is the occasion where our emotions run freely and we tell people how much they mean to us and how we’re really feeling.

You know how it is when we say to people, ‘How are you?’ and they answer, ‘Oh I’m fine’, even though you know they have a few struggles. But once things get really bad and someone asks how we are, then we may find ourselves in tears because it’s finally all become too much. That seems to be the emotional point that St. Paul is at.

There are some heart-rending moments in the letter, such as when he urges Timothy to come soon, which he does twice in the last few sentences. In those last few lines he asks Timothy to get the cloak he left with Carpus at Troas, and to please come before winter. Basically Paul is saying, ‘I am alone, I may not have much longer, and in this dungeon I am cold and fear what the winter will bring.’ It’s deeply personal.

Two early historians, Jerome and Eusebius, date Paul’s beheading by Nero to AD67 or 68 so this letter was probably written about AD66 . And yet even in the midst of this suffering Paul manages to try and encourage Timothy with words that suggest that maybe Timothy was a quiet and slightly timid man who needed to be more courageous in difficult situations.

So who was Timothy? Well despite St. Paul’s greeting, Timothy was not literally his son. We know this because at the beginning of Acts 16 St. Luke tells us of the first occasion of St. Paul meeting Timothy whose mother was a Jewish Christian and whose father, it says, was a Greek. Their relationship was probably more one where St. Paul began as a mentor but went on to become a deep friend.

When I was in Bedford as a curate a significant proportion of my time was spent with the older teens in the church. One of the joys for us, through the work Ali has continued with them through nChant, has been to watch them grow into adults. With the passing of time the shape of the relationship changed so that there have been occasions when some of them have offered us great support rather than the other way around.

My suspicion is that this was exactly the kind of relationship Paul and Timothy had, of one that began as one thing, with Paul acting as mentor to begin with, but deepened and developed into a friendship on a very profound level over the course of two decades so that Paul depended on Timothy.

And I suspect that Paul and Timothy probably didn’t see each other terribly often, but when they did it was as if no time had passed; I’m sure you know the kind of friendship.

Timothy was, if you like, a third generation Christian. St. Paul refers to his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice as having been believers, so Timothy was someone who had been brought up with faith in the household, and I find it interesting that St. Paul mentions two women, but not their husbands which makes me wonder whether we’re seeing a story oft repeated in our lives now, where it is the mother who brings her children to faith.

And so, as Timothy’s mentor, Paul took him as a companion on his missionary journeys. They were the first Christians into Europe. As trust grew he would leave Timothy in charge of a church whilst he went on to the next missionary project. Timothy was perhaps his closest friend because he was always dependable.

Now let’s link all of this back story to harvest and the Gospel reading. You see when we talk about harvest thanksgiving we’re doing two things here. Firstly, and rightly, we’re thanking God for the crops which we have to sustain us through another year, and we give thanks for the farmers and their workers who choose a sometimes difficult life to provide food for the nation.

But we also think about a spiritual harvest and about the use of the gifts God has given us, and this is where the readings we’ve had today can help us to get a proper context on these things. I think the issue is how we deal with the use of gifts. Let me firstly say that I am personally very grateful to everyone who gives of their time and their gifts to the church in this place.

Without you there would be no music, no flowers, no young people, no refreshments or coffee shop, the church would be a tip and the sound system would never work. I could go on. But those of you who organise your own teams of volunteers will know that sometimes it takes a lot of work actually to convince people they should use their gifts and get involved.

And sometimes, even after someone is persuaded to help, it’s very easy to lose them if something doesn’t go quite according to plan. I know that some of you really struggle to keep enough people to run the work that you’re doing, and yes, by the way, that is a warning that some of you should expect to be asked to help in the near future!

And once you have people on side and they’re helping then there is the perennial need to keep thanking them for what they’ve done. So I’d like you to ask yourself how important it is that someone regularly acknowledges your contribution. There is a need in human nature for a sense of reward.

I think that this is perhaps more prevalent now than it used to be since there is less of a sense of duty in the national consciousness, but perhaps some of the older members amongst us can shed some light on that. But I know how important it is to me that someone thanks me when I’ve done something well.

Now compare that to St. Paul. The situation he finds himself in is pretty awful. He’s given up the lion’s share of his life to travel and preach the gospel right across the Mediterranean. He’s been beaten up, stoned, whipped, imprisoned, and now he’s back in prison and this time he’s in chains and cold and it looks like the end is near.

You can sense his loneliness that so many appear to have deserted him for their own ends - in other words they wanted some return for their hard work. All St. Paul wants is a little company and some warmth. Near the end of the letter he tells Timothy, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’

He’s not looking for anything more, he’s simply pleased that he has managed to fulfil his ministry. He has used his gifts and the Lord has reaped a harvest through the work he has done. And what do we find when he addresses Timothy? Do we get a long list of thank you’s for doing this, and doing that. Does Paul thank Timothy for the harvest he’s reaping? No. Actually it’s far from it.

In fact it’s quite the reverse. St. Paul actually gently chides him, presumably for being too timid, by saying, ‘I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.’ It’s all quite matter-of-fact. Paul doesn’t thank him simply because he expects Timothy to use his gifts because if you’re a Christian then that’s what you do!

Let’s reflect that back to the Gospel reading because it’s all there for us in absolute black and white. We often make a lot of the passages where we here nice phrases like, ‘Well done good and faithful servant - enter into my rest.’ But what we have in this Gospel passage is a very clear teaching about the gifts that we have been given and it simply this:

It is expected that we will use the gifts God has given us in his service in the church. When we do that, when we use our gifts, and when God is able to reap a harvest through us, that is quite simply how it should be. And whilst we find ourselves saying thank you to each other a lot, and I know how much it means to me to be thanked, but the spiritual reality is that we have been given gifts to be used in reaping a spiritual harvest for the Lord and it is our duty to do so.

When we do, and when we see good things happen, what we should actually be saying to ourselves what we find at the end of the parable: ‘We have just done what we ought to have done’.

Now I expect that some of us might find these words hard. I know I did as I wrote them since, like most of my sermons, I’m preaching it to myself first. But unless we realise this truth, that we all have a duty to serve God in the church, then the current situation will persist.

What I mean by that is that some people will be stretched so thinly that they are on the verge of snapping because we are not prioritising our servanthood as we should.

What then can we take from this at harvest? I believe it is this. We should thank God for the good gifts he has given us. And we should thank God for the physical and spiritual harvest he is giving us. And yes we should thank each other for the hard work that is being put in because it is right and gracious to recognise another’s hard work on our behalf. But that thanking of each other should not be a part of cajoling to get us to use our gifts.

We should be using our gifts and reaping a harvest simply because we are servants of God and servants are meant to work. So we should each be asking ourselves, ‘What is my role? What are my gifts? And what do I need to be giving up in order to serve God in this way?’

So thank you all for using your gifts in the Lent challenge. Thank you to the person whose idea it was. Thank you for using your gifts in the service of Christ and his church for a financial harvest to continue what we’re doing here. But may the work that we have done now be a constant reminder that this is not something special; that reaping a harvest from the gifts we have been given is our duty. As Jesus put it, ‘We have done only what we ought to have done.’ Amen.