Friday, 25 February 2011

Second Sunday Before Lent: worry...

Romans 8:18-25
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 6:25-34
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

At last spring seems to be on its way. I think everyone would acknowledge that we’ve had a difficult winter. It’s been colder than many of us can remember, and it’s taken its toll on the community. All of the clergy and local funeral directors have sadly had to cope with more deaths than we’ve had in this season for a long time, and I find that to provide me with some sobering thoughts.

One of the tasks that I have therefore had to do rather a lot more of over these last few months has been giving tributes at funerals. I believe that the main task of a funeral address is to begin the part of the grieving process that depends on our memories of the person.

The addresses that I give usually therefore carry a number of stories which requires listening carefully to both what’s being said, and what is meant. There is a need to capture something of the best parts of a person, but we don’t always get this right. There is a story of a vicar who went to visit a grieving family and, since he’d never met the person who had died, began by asking them about him.

“Well”, they said, “he was a miserable old so-and-so really”. They went on to paint a not terribly complimentary picture of the deceased. This particular vicar rather took them at their word and he began his funeral address by saying, “Well, as you all know, he was a miserable old so-and-so.” Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising that it really rather backfired on him because, whatever we think about someone when they’re alive, once they’ve gone what we really want is to remember their best parts.

But what if... What if all of our eulogies had to be absolutely honest? What if that vicar’s model of beginning by saying how miserable the deceased was because it was the truth became the norm? What would actually be said about us? So that got me to thinking about this and what mine would say, and I’m willing to bet that there is one line that pretty much everyone of us would also have.

Mine might say something like:
“He ran around a lot, always looking busy and trying to look like he at least had some inkling of what he was doing, but he might have achieved more if he wasn’t so worried about what people thought of him or whether he was going to get everything done. He would certainly have been a much happier person and far easier to live with if he could only have seen each day for its merits rather than being so worried about what was going to happen six months down the line. He never really learnt to enjoy each day.”

Have you ever wondered what your eulogies might say? I bet that for most of us there would be a line there similar to mine, ‘If only he or she had stopped worrying, they would have enjoyed life so much more.’

I believe that one of the biggest problems facing us as Christians is worrying. It saps our energy, keeps us up all night, and has the potential to make us very ill. Anxiety can lead to long term treatment for depression and the potential for drug or alcohol abuse when it gets out of hand,
but even just what we might think of as ordinary low-level worrying reduces our ability to enjoy life.

So why then do we actually worry? I suspect that there is a very good reason why worry evolved in the first place. It seems to me that, if worry remains as controlled concern, it is a way of turning possible events over in our minds until we find a solution to what looks to be a potential problem. It may well originally have been a form of problem solving.

Some of you may have had that experience of going to bed with a problem, sleeping on it (not worrying about it) and waking up with the solution. Our unconscious mind has this remarkable ability to work away at a problem when we’re not aware of it, and then feed us the answer when it’s figured it out. This is a perfectly natural human gift and a way of making decisions. But worrying is not helpful and I think there are three reasons why.

Firstly, worrying paralyses us. When we can see a problem coming, if we worry about it, absolutely nothing is achieved. Worry is a symptom of our psychological systems not working like they’re supposed to. It’s meant to be that a problem presents itself, you prayerfully look at it from all the available perspectives, you find the best solution available, possibly by sleeping on it, and then you act on it. Either the problem is solved or it isn’t.

But worrying persistently impedes that process. Instead of finding a solution we go into this spiralling loop that drives us ever deeper into despair because instead of looking at just the original problem, we start imagining all sorts of new scenarios that need yet more possible solutions which conjure up new problems that set us off on a new train of worry. It’s like a negative feedback loop that stops us in our tracks.

A few months ago it became apparent that someone, probably the American secret services, planted a computer virus in the Iranian nuclear facilities. In order to enrich uranium for potential weapons use they have to centrifuge it at ultra-high speed. The computer virus told the centrifuges to accelerate, to just keep speeding up, faster and faster, until they destroyed themselves by spinning at rates way above their design spec.

That’s a good metaphor for what worry does to us. We psychologically spin faster and faster, completely paralysed, until we collapse. Worry makes us exceed our design specifications. So that’s the first reason why worry is bad for us, because it paralyses us, and ultimately it breaks us.

The second reason is a little darker. Worrying is a symptom of us wanting to be in control. Why is it that we get into these mental causal loops that paralyse us? It’s because we’re imagining every possible scenario in order to maximise the possibility of bringing about our own desired outcome. We’re probably being selfish.

In other words we desire that our own will is what is done, so we examine all the alternatives so that we can figure out what actions we need to do to maximise the potential for getting our own way. Need I remind you that one of the prayers Jesus taught us includes the words addressed to God, ‘Your will be done...’ So as well as paralysing us, worry is symptomatic of us wanting to wrest control away from God, which leads to the third problem with worry.

Worrying is a sign that we are not trusting God. Now I know and firmly believe that we live in a freewill universe. I know that things can go wrong because God does not treat us like robots and the universe is not a wind-up toy, it’s a place into which chance and causation are intimately interwoven.

That means that there is space for joy and sorrow because you need real freedom for there to be real love that chooses to respond to God rather than love that has no choice because it’s programmed in. We can’t alter what happens by worrying about it, and the very act of persistent worrying suggests that we don’t trust God to bring about the best outcome possible given a series of events in our lives.

So worry paralyses us, it’s symptomatic of us wanting to take control from God and it indicates that our prayer lives are not deep enough to allow us to believe that God is with us and that we can trust him.

I think that’s why worrying is such a target for Jesus. Have you ever wondered about how happy he himself might have been? He’s often referred to as a man of sorrows, but is that altogether fair? He plainly knew that he was going to die for his people at some point, yet it didn’t exactly seem to paralyse him and stop him from eating and drinking and having a good time, something that the religious authorities criticised him for.

So we can only assume that the reason worrying became such a target is because he didn’t worry, but he could see how life-denying worry is. Don’t forget that in John’s Gospel Jesus said, ‘I came that they should have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ Jesus is wanting to set us free from worrying because when we stop worrying we begin to live again.

And this is also true for us as a church, as we consider our work over the last twelve months and look to what will happen in 2011. I am not for a moment saying that we shouldn’t plan. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t be financially concerned by the way we still have to rely on random donations and legacies in order to make ends meet because we’re not giving sacrificially enough to actually run the church.

But there’s no point in worrying about it. Instead we find the antidote in the epistle where St. Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

So I can tell you that everyone needs to consider whether they can increase their giving, but you either will or you won’t. If you don’t we’ll have to do less, but I hope you will increase your giving. Likewise, and more importantly, I can go on telling you that we all need to be more committed in prayer to our mission as a church, so that we grow in discipleship and can do a better job of meeting the needs of the people in our community.

You will either listen to me and engage more deeply with God and we will grow as God honours our prayers, or you won’t and we’ll shrivel. So I won’t worry, but I will pray, and I will hope that you will all spend more and more time in prayer as well. Growing in our relationships with God will open the way for us to grow as Christians and grow as a church.

And there’s no point in us worrying about the future of our church. We will either sustain our mission by working and praying, trusting God and growing, or we won’t. But I will hope that this church becomes a steadily brighter beacon shining in this place. Worry paralyses us but hope motivates us. Hope is the answer. So how do we let go of worry?

Well let me finish with some words from Mary Crowley, “Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He's going to be up all night anyway.”

Friday, 18 February 2011

Third Sunday before Lent: Being perfect or just growing up.

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matthew 5:38-end
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s a good job Jesus doesn’t demand too much of us really isn’t it. I mean, how can we possibly manage this? Isn’t the whole point of the gospel that Jesus came to bring us forgiveness by his death and resurrection because God knows we can’t be perfect? This doesn’t make sense, and there’s a good reason for that, because this is another one of those places where our translations are not quite adequate.

On this occasion, though, it’s not their fault. The difficulty is that in every language there are many words that don’t have a complete equivalent in the language that you are translating into, and so it is with the word that St. Matthew uses here. Perfection, for us in theological terms, means something that is completely sinless, totally without blemish, but that may not be what Jesus meant.

For example, when I was a young lad I remember the first time Dad bought a new car. He only ever did it twice, but that first one sticks in my mind because I can remember standing at the window waiting for Dad to arrive home with his brand new white Opel Record estate. I can’t have been much more than five years old, but I was so excited, and I can still clearly remember him driving up the drive.

And of course we all had to have a look at this new car that no one had ever sat in or driven. The excitement of sitting on the clean new vinyl seats, which were a perfect excuse not to wear shorts in the summer. It even smelt new. Just perfect. For us perfect means shiny, bright, completely unblemished. But was that what Jesus was saying? Did he mean, ‘Be unblemished just as your heavenly Father is?’

I think not, because that is probably not what the word used here, telios, means. It has far more connotations of being complete, of being at maturity, of becoming all that you can become. In fact my old Volvo is far closer to that kind of perfection than my Dad’s shiny Opel was, because my old Volvo has seen a lot of life.

It has racked up a huge amount of character in its 140,000 miles. It has towed caravans, gone to weddings, baptisms and funerals. It's been full of drums/PA/guitars/harps and dragged us all over the place to gigs. It has been everything that a big old estate car should have been. It’s only shiny on the occasions it gets washed but it’s definitely not unblemished. It has life to it because it has become what it was made for, a workhorse to keep people safe in their journeys. My Volvo has more telios about it that Dad’s Opel Record had back in 1971.

So Jesus is not saying, ‘Don’t ever sin again’, because he knows that the likelihood of that is minimal. He is, instead, saying, ‘Become complete, fully mature and everything that you were meant to be.’ We might put it in more simplistic terms - ‘Grow up’!

And in the context of this passage, that makes more sense, because this whole section is about becoming complete, of being whole and mature, and I want to show you one specific way by which Jesus was trying to teach us that, and how, if we follow his teaching, we will be behaving like our heavenly Father.

So let’s cast our minds to the gospel reading. I want specifically to look at the final part, beginning from verse 44, where Jesus begins by saying that we should love our enemies.

Now I should point out that there are no teachings in the Bible that tell us we should hate our enemies. Jesus isn’t making this point to correct some part of the Old Testament law.

Instead he is looking at what comes naturally to us as humans, of hating people who hate us, and telling us that this kind of behaviour is immature; it is not the way to become complete because it is not being like our heavenly Father. The word used for love has its root in the word agape which is the Greek word for the kind of divine centred love that seeks the best for someone, regardless of feelings.

Agape is the kind of love that binds a married couple together when they express their commitment to each other in a way that transcends how they feel on any particular day. So what Jesus is telling us is that we should seek the good of those who are our enemies. But it seems so alien to us. Why would we want to love our enemies?

The answer is very simple. We love our enemies because that’s what God does. God refuses to make distinctions in how he treats people. Jesus uses a farming metaphor here to suggest that all farmers need sun and rain, so God sends sun and rain to all farmers, not just on the ones who love him, but also on the ones who hate him or ignore him, and this is the key point around which everything hinges:-

In administering love, God does not distinguish between those who love him and those who hate him, and therefore neither should we! When we act impartially, and when we actively seek the good of those who would seek evil for us, we are being like God, and in this context, if we begin tolearn to do that, we shall be on the journey to becoming mature, complete. But that’s not the way most of the world works is it.

In general people only treat well those who treat them well in return. It’s a case of, ‘You scratch my bike and I’ll scratch yours’, but that’s not how we’re supposed to be as Christians. Followers of Christ should be saying, ‘Regardless of how you treat me, I will look out for you and your needs.’ That’s what we find written all over the Leviticus reading, that the way of God is the way of loving all people and looking out for their needs.

This is one of the reasons why I have a deeply bad feeling about any organisation, particularly the more secretive ones, that looks out for the needs of its members, over and above other people, and this is something I have heard of too often in business circles. That is anti-Christian. Let the hearer/reader understand.

You see God doesn’t have favourites, and therefore neither should we. So think for a moment about how you treat people with whom you interact. If what we believe has any meaning whatsoever, it must affect how we live on a day to day basis. In what ways do we favour some people over others? In order to become more complete, we need to learn not to do this, but it’s difficult isn’t it!

But think about Jesus’s disciples. It is very likely that from early on Jesus knew that Judas would betray him. Yet at no time do we see Jesus treating him badly. In fact he went on trusting Judas with the money, even though the Gospel writer John indicates that Judas stole from it.

That’s the model for us, the maturity that Jesus showed. I wonder what we’d look like as a church if we tried to live like this, and I wonder what kind of business model we could provide if we worked like this. Amen

Saturday, 12 February 2011

4th Sunday before Lent: Hate, Anger, Lust and Life


1 Cor. 3: 1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Matthew 5: 21-37
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Many years ago my wife and I attended a charismatic prayer group of about two hundred people. In fact it was where she and I met for the first time, Ali as a worship leader and singer and me as a mere drummer. We married less than a year after we started going out, but not long after we returned from our honeymoon we began to recognise a disturbing new trend in the teaching at this group.

The leadership was a relatively youthful team, although they had a group of older people who offered them guidance, but what we began to recognise was a move towards what used to be called ‘heavy shepherding’, which is a way in which people are put under the control of a mentor who more-or-less tells them how to lead their lives.

Allied with this was a steadily more dogmatic approach to our faith with a sense of ‘don’t this, don’t do that and definitely don’t do the other’. Ali and I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable but we didn’t really know why. There was something so life-denying in what they were saying and doing, a new list of commandments seemed to be emerging where if you even appeared unhappy someone would tell you that was falling short because Jesus loved you so you had to be happy...

Eventually we could take it no more and, like quite a number of our friends, we left, disillusioned and hurt. Some I know never really spiritually recovered from it, and it has taken me a long while to be able to put into words what exactly was wrong, but I’m sharing this story because it has a great deal of bearing on what we read today in the Gospel and should actually shape our entire approach to scripture.

You see when we read those words of Jesus, they also actually seem terribly life-denying and harsh. Not only do you have to keep a lid on your actions, but if you even think the wrong thing the chances are you’ll burn in hell. This kind of reading is simply fuel for the fire of fundamentalists who seek to control your growth into life as Christians by inflicting fear on you. But is the way we read this really what Jesus was saying?

I want to suggest to you that he was actually being life-affirming, and it’ll be interesting to see whether I manage to convince you of that. You see if I preach the words to you as they stand, all they can do in any of us, if we have any degree of self-knowledge at all, is to bring about guilt and self-condemnation. Anger, lust and all the other things we do in our mind, yep I can tick all those boxes. What hope is there for us?

But what if Jesus is going deeper than the words of the Jewish Law, of Torah, in a way that doesn’t simply make it harder to keep, but actually makes it more positive? So let’s look at what he’s saying, beginning with the statement about anger. I was in a discussion group once when we began to talk about anger. One by one almost every one of us admitted that there were people we had encountered in our lives who we had wished dead because of what they had done to us. It was a refreshing degree of honesty.

Does that shock you, or are you honest enough to admit you have felt the same way at some point? You see that’s the endpoint of anger. In the less controlled that endpoint can be easily reached, particularly where we are fuelled by drink or drugs, but most of us will at some point have seen or experienced something so painful, so unjust, that we want retribution, and if it was bad enough we would want that person dead. That’s why we are warned about anger in our thoughts, because of the horrific endpoint.

You see anger, pent-up and indwelling, will change us. It will deny us life because all we can think of is how to get back at that person. Have you ever had those nights when you couldn’t sleep because of the way your mind keeps turning over the events again and again? Anger robs us of our humanity. It stunts us. And we can excuse it and call it righteous anger, or indignation about something that is unjust, but it still steals away our humanity.

It also robs us of our trust in God. Revenge is a way of saying to God, ‘I don’t trust you anymore.’ Deuteronomy 32:35-36 include these words from God, ‘I will take revenge. I will pay them back... the LORD will give justice to his people.’ If we act on our anger, then we are expressing that we don’t trust God to deal with the injustice we’ve been put through.

Now don’t get me wrong on this. If you are in a close relationship with someone who is causing you pain; physical, emotional or spiritual, letting go of your anger and forgiving them is one thing, but you may also have to walk away from that relationship for your own sake. But where there are incidents of injustice in our normal day to day life, where encounters have gone badly and we feel anger about it, those are the festering wounds that can steal our life from us.

And so Jesus paints a life-affirming picture of reconciliation, and this rang real bells with me. Many, many years ago, when I was in a youth group, there were two sisters. The older one was a year younger than me and the younger one was four years younger than me. When I was sixteen the younger one basically asked me for a date. Now she was only twelve, and I was four years older, and at that age it was a huge gap.

I didn’t really know what to say, so I basically lied, and said that I didn’t actually want to go out with anyone at that time. And of course that caught up with me when, only a couple of weeks later I arrived at the youth group with a new girlfriend. The young lady was heart-broken, and I was too stupid even to have realised what I’d done until someone tactfully pointed it out to me.

Nothing more was said for, maybe eighteen months, but then as a youth group we went to Spring Harvest which, if you’ve never heard of it, is a sort of charismatic teaching conference. At one of the evening sessions we had a reconciliation communion, and at that service we were invited to come and take a piece of bread, but not to eat it ourselves; we were to give it to someone we needed to forgive.

Lo and behold the older sister came up to me with a big beamy smile on her face and explained how angry she had been with me for hurting her little sister. We had a chat, she forgave me, I apologised profusely, we hugged and I left with a piece of bread, but more importantly, she left that encounter with her freedom restored. She had let go of her anger, and that is precisely what Jesus intended.

It was about a restoration of humanity. If we hadn’t gone through that it’s possible that even now, thirty years later, she might still be carrying that thorn in her side about what I did to her little sister by lying to her. Jesus’s words may seem harsher than the law, but they were about setting us free, not binding us up.

The same is true about the commands on lust and adultery. These are directed specifically to men in a culture in which women were legally treated as possessions. But Jesus was pushing through that and saying, ‘These woman are not objects to be desired or owned but equals to whom you should have real in-depth relationships.’ The crime of adultery in that culture was one man against another.

If a man committed adultery with another man’s wife, then his crime was not so much a sexual one as one of stealing another man’s possession. But Jesus went beyond that to say, ‘She is not a possession, she is an equal - a person with her own rights, gifts and abilities. You are not to lust after her as an object belonging to someone else.’ Once again he is telling us not to steal the humanity of another away from them.

And the oaths are all a part of the same argument. You swear an oath because you want to reinforce your honesty in a transaction. But in our God-given restored humanity we should be above and beyond that. Our honesty should be a given. We should be the kind of people who simply say yes or no, and because of who we are and our maturity in Christ, that will be sufficient.

If I say, ‘I swear on the Bible to do this’ I am basically saying, ‘Look, on my own I’m not honest enough to say I’ll do it. So I’ll add an extra something to make you believe me.’ But if we learn to live redeemed lives, then our yes and no will be sufficient because people will trust us.

These passages are entirely about truthfulness, love, honesty and faithfulness. They are about reconciliation and relationship. Our church culture at the moment can’t seem to get beyond, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that and don’t do the other’, all of which steal our humanity by adding one burden of guilt on to another. Jesus seeks to lift our burdens and restore our humanity.

So how about you? Is there a need for forgiveness and reconciliation in this church? Are there people in this family who you harbour anger against? How have you allowed that to subtract from your humanity, and what are you going to do about restoring it?

Let us pray.
Lord, your words sometimes seem harsh, yet are really so life-affirming. Where we have caused pain or been hurt, show us how we can make amends. Anoint our conversations with your love and prepare the way for our reconcilations.. Amen

Saturday, 5 February 2011

5th Sunday before Lent: Is it love or just entertainment?

1 Corinthians 2:1-12
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Matthew 5:13-20
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

When I met Alison I was drawn to her immediately. She was a beautiful young woman, with long dark hair. She’d just come back from a holiday and she must have Mediterranean blood because she catches the sun so easily and so she had a deep olive tan. Those of you who are aware how few details I notice in what goes on around me will be aware of just how smitten I was to have seen all this.

And then on top of being absolutely radiant, she was intelligent and gifted. I heard her lead a session about worship at the prayer group we attended during which she sang several of her own songs. I was in love in a big way. Fortunately she felt the same way, and so, just nine months after we started going out, we were married.

Now the reason I’m telling you this is because this first stage in the relationship that Ali and I have could be likened to what Jesus declares about how you light a lamp and then put it up so that everyone can see it, so that it gives light to everyone. This is very much the first stage in a relationship, when you are drawn in by the beauty of what you see.

That’s how it was for me when I met Alison. She wasn’t walking around wearing a veil. She didn’t hide her abilities as a theologian, teacher and musician; she used them, and because of that I was drawn to her.

So what drew you to Christ? Was it the worship that took place in church? Was it the singing, or the language or the prayers? Maybe it was the teaching?

You see this is what we find in the words that St. Paul wrote. When he first arrived in Corinth, he knew that he wasn’t a proficient speaker. He may have been an excellent theologian and a great letter writer, but apparently he wasn’t a terribly powerful speaker. But that was to his advantage, because he wasn’t tempted to try and make a great show in terms of who he was.

Instead he engaged in a ministry that was based on the power of the Holy Spirit so that the people were drawn to God directly rather than to him. St Paul wanted to avoid there being some kind of cult of personality around him, and so he simply engaged in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and so the people were drawn in.

This is all very much like the first stages of love. It’s all about the beauty and majesty of what we see. We are drawn by the way the object of our affection moves; by the things they say and how they say them, and by how they look at us. And so in the first stages of our beliefs, as with our loves, we are drawn by the beauty, or the power of God.

But that’s not enough is it; not for the test of time. Because we all know that this is not true, deep, long-lasting love. The reality is that we change and we age; we grow and mature, and love has to deepen. We cannot be forever drawn to the youthful beauty that was once ours because it is fleeting. Love has to go beyond the city on the hill. Love has to go beyond the light on the lampstand, and this is my greatest fear for the church.

What I mean by that is that I don’t think we’re terribly good at that. I think that we expect our love for God to always remain like those first flushes of youthful love. What I mean by that is that we expect to be engaged by our church worship, and if that isn’t interesting, if the preaching isn’t full of life or if the singing doesn’t take off, then we begin to grow cool and our lives cease to be changed any further. Imagine how short our marriages would be if we had treated our spouses like that.

And this, I believe, is what St. Paul may have found at Corinth. So enamoured were they with the bright shiny worshipping in the power of the Holy Spirit that they thought that was all there was. There were difficulties with speaking in tongues becoming too prominent because it was different and seemed rather special, and the people were being drawn after this amazing preacher or that amazing preacher, and so St. Paul was trying to communicate that there was more to loving God than this.

Back to my relationship with Ali. She remains truly beautiful to me, but it’s no longer a skin deep beauty. I have begun to glimpse the deeper mystery within her of who she is. The more I get to know her, the more I want to know her more. I value her deep insights and wisdom more with each passing year, and that’s what’s supposed to happen in a loving relationship.

That, I believe, is what St. Paul was trying to convey to the Corinthians, that there are great depths to God, depths which are only searched by the Spirit of God herself. If we want to truly begin to engage with God it has to go much deeper than the surface veneer of our worship in Church; it has to be based in lives soaked in prayer and dedicated to good works.

My worry is with regards to how much effort we put into achieving this. Don’t get me wrong; I’m aware that it helps a great deal to have worship which is engaging and sermons that draw us more deeply in to thinking about these things. But does it stop when we leave the building? We live in a culture which is driven by entertainment, and that is reflected in what we do in church.

We have this kind of service, that kind of song, this many candles, and it all helps to keep people coming to church. But does it make us disciples? Does it encourage us to be like Jesus? You see that’s what a disciple is; one who learns from their teacher to be like him or her. So do we learn and apply, or just sit and receive. It’s only in application that we become disciples. Anything less is just being entertained.

I believe that one of the greatest reasons for marital break-up is that we have lost sight of what love is. We’re caught up in the glitz and glamour of youthful beauty, and those with wealth may spend fortunes on trying to retain it. But the real depth of love comes with maturity. Yes, the lamp is on the lampstand to draw us in, but once we have arrived on the threshold, we must journey deeper into God.

You are the salt of the earth. Make sure you continue to taste of salt. The only way we can do that is to go deeper into our relationships with God by disciplined prayer and meditation in our own homes. Then we will shine as Christ’s lights. But in shining as lights we are not to draw people to ourselves, but to direct them into the deeper mysteries of God. May we be inspired to search the depths of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.