Thursday, 18 August 2011

9th Sunday after Trinity - God-given responsibility


Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Two thousand years ago there was just one Christian denomination, and we have the beginnings of it described right here in the Gospel. In fact it’s rather interesting that the name Jesus gave to Peter for Church, Ecclesia, was a political word in the first century which was used for an assembly of self-governing citizens. I’ll come back to that shortly.

But in the beginning there was just one denomination. Only it didn’t stay that way. Cracks were soon evident when St. Paul started preaching to people who were not Jews, and the early Christian Jews tried to impose the rules of the Jewish Torah, the Law, on them. Right at the start there was a struggle for power. It didn’t take us long really did it, to let our humanity get in the way.

So we started off with one denomination, but then it split, and split again. Would you believe that, at a rough estimate we think there are now 38,000 different denominations! Now of course some of these are very small with maybe a few hundred in them. But you get the point all the same. With that in mind let’s look at the Gospel reading.

By this time of the year a lot of people have been on their summer holiday. Today’s reading seems to be set in terms of some kind of holiday too, with Jesus taking his disciples away from their ministry in Galilee and further north to a place called Caesarea Philippi, which is a really lush and green place with a wonderful river, the river Jordan, flowing through it.

In effect this is basically where the source of the Jordan is. If you’ve been to the Lake District you can get some idea of the surroundings, only you have to imagine it’s really hot too. It’s truly beautiful - I know because I’ve been there twice, including this year’s trip.

But perhaps for us the most interesting thing about it was that it was also a place where lots of pagan idols were worshipped, so I find that it’s rather amusing the way that Jesus gets them to a place where there are all these statues to these other gods and then says, ‘Okay, in the midst of all these pagan idols, who do you think I am?’

Peter is the one who gets the right answer, that Jesus is actually the Son of God, and when this story comes up in Mark’s Gospel it comes right slap bang in the middle, showing that this is a pivotal point in Jesus’s ministry, when the disciples finally understand who he is, paving the way for him to teach them about his coming sacrifice and lead them to Jerusalem.

But that’s not what I really want to think about today. As I was reading this passage I saw something about which I suppose I had never really thought of the implications. For me what I find so groundbreaking is Jesus’s reply to Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.’

A couple of months back our school had an auction, and some of the things offered were experiences rather than something you would own. One child got to be head teacher for a day and another was a class teacher for a day. In a sense Jesus seems to be saying something similar only this is for real. Jesus, the Son of God, seems to be saying that when it comes to church, Peter, and by implication those who followed him, were going to be given the responsibility for making the rules, and God would stick to their choices.

Think about that. This is like a parent saying to their child, I am giving you a house next door to mine, and you can set the rules for how we will behave in both houses. What you say is OK, I’ll accept as being OK. If you don’t like it, then I won’t allow it either.

This is God treating us as grown-ups and giving us responsibilities. Some of you may remember occasions when I have said in sermons that sometimes it seems that God doesn’t always tell us what to do when we ask for advice, but expects us to make adult decisions as maturing Christians. It seems to me that this is an example of the same thing. Jesus gave Peter the responsibility for shaping the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

It seems to me that God gives us an awful lot of responsibility for ourselves as a church. Have you ever thought of that? We’re meant to become mature and make responsible decisions, but I wonder how well we’ve done with that so far.

Whilst many people have found faith over the last two thousand years it definitely hasn’t all been good. There have been so many divisions over styles of worship, over interpretation of the scriptures and over styles of leadership, resulting in this huge number of denominations that I began with. And now the Anglican church is in danger of splitting again.

I wonder what it is that causes these splits? We often blame it on people at the top, but I think it starts with people like us. It seems to me that it’s all down to wanting to get our own way, to be the one who makes the decision that everyone else lives by. We’re so sure that we are correct in what we believe, or how we worship and so we want to exclude anyone who sees it differently.

I have many times sat in services where a modern translation of the Lord’s prayer has been used, only to hear someone quite loudly saying it in the traditional words, as if to get across their point that their preferred version is the one that must be used. This is the attitude that begins a split.

But there is another result, one which has been happening insidiously in this country for a while. People who are Christians, or who are thinking about the faith, who see this attitude eventually get fed up with it and simply leave the church, and they don’t go anywhere else. Next weekend I’ll be working at the Greenbelt Christian festival and I know that of the 15,000 people there, many of them will be Christians who have abandoned church because of exactly these kinds of internal power struggles.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try to get mission work happening, and bringing the good news to our friends and families; unless we learn to live with each other in love and stop trying to get our own way, people will be turned off religion and will leave. And if you don’t believe me I can tell you that it’s happened here since I’ve been vicar when we lost a young couple who got fed up with being told their baby was too loud.

God gave us responsibilities for setting our own rules in church. We responded by having power struggles and they begin at grassroots levels, here in the pews. Unless we are willing to live with each other’s differences in love, the Church of England is going to have a hard time growing, because people won’t stay. So let us see if here, in this church, we can set an example of living responsibly, in love as one family. Amen.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

8th Sunday after Trinity : Question, Question, Question!


Romans 11:1-2, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?

...for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

I consider myself to be very lucky in that I have parents who are not only willing to discuss what they believe with me, but they are willing to challenge me about something I may have said or preached, and they will also talk with me about things in the world which cause them to wrestle with their faith.

I find these conversations immensely helpful, and to those of you with children I would certainly advise having open hearted conversations about faith with them, according to the level that they are at. What I have to say today springs out from one of those discussions that we had when we were all away together in Cornwall two weeks ago.

You see last week I preached about the stilling of the storm, and about how Jesus walked on the water out to the disciples in the boat. If we probe the story of Jesus we find other such miracles such as the feeding of the five thousand. These appear to be instances where the Lord showed quite dramatic control over the natural world, and we are rightly told that these are occasions where the divinity of Christ was demonstrated.

Yet we have also just raised, through a retiring collection, £450 for famine hit Somalia and the Horn of Africa. In that region there are over 11 million people in immediate need of help, but they make up just a fraction of the 160 million people in the Horn of Africa, of which about 40% live in areas prone to food shortages.

It seems that the major problem they have is the failure of the rains causing a terrible drought. What we have to face up to and wrestle with is that Jesus showed, time and time again, that he is Lord over nature. If he is Lord over nature, and if God is love, why doesn’t he send the rains to the Horn of Africa?

I know that some Christian groups may feel quite happy to stick their heads in the sand and come up with a nice simple easy answer, but I don’t think that’s us. However, there may not be an answer that we can actually get our heads around. As far as we are concerned though, what I want to show you, through our scripture readings, is that wrestling with God to try and get him to give us an answer is an established biblical principle, and we should not be afraid of doing it.

Yes, God is almighty, and yes, his ways are higher than our ways, but nevertheless there are many stories of people in the Bible wrestling with God and we have two of them before us today, so let’s turn first of all to the new testament reading from Romans.

In this passage we can see direct evidence of St. Paul having wrestled with an issue which greatly concerned him, and I suspect worries some of us too. The lectionary readings supply only a very small part of Romans 11 but I would recommend you go away and read all of it to get the full force of the argument.

St. Paul’s quandary is basically this: Jesus came to the Jews and yet most of them rejected him. Indeed the very letter that he is writing is addressed to the church in Rome, many of whom have no Jewish connections at all. So if God chose Israel for all time, how could he now reject them? Indeed has he now rejected them?

The evidence seemed to be that this was indeed what God had done and this is what St. Paul had to wrestle with because it made no sense to him. As you read Romans 11 in its entirety so you can see how he develops his argument that God has not rejected his chosen people. He draws on the example of Elijah pleading with God saying that he thought that he alone was the only believing Israelite left.

But God said to him that this was not the case, and God had preserved for himself a believing remnant of seven thousand, so God’s first answer to St. Paul was not to necessarily believe the evidence of his own eyes; go deeper.

Secondly St. Paul came to the conclusion that it had to happen this way, that Israel’s heart would be hardened so that the gospel would come to the gentiles, such as us here in the West Midlands. We are living proof that this element of St. Paul’s wrestling was absolutely correct.

And thirdly, St. Paul hoped that his preaching to the gentiles would shame some of his own people into becoming believers, that at the end all Israel would be saved. This is something about which we have no answer. But the principle is nevertheless established, that St. Paul wrestled with God over an issue that he couldn’t understand, that so many Jews had not followed Jesus, and he got some but not all of the answers he was looking for. The principle is simply, if in doubt, wrestle.

If we look at the gospel reading we see this principle again. Jesus appears to be taking a break from his ministry to the Jews, perhaps because of yet another wearying encounter with Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, and he is taking a break in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Yet even there he couldn’t get any rest because a Canaanite woman tracked him down to ask him to help her daughter.

His response to her shocks us, as well it should, and perhaps we should be inspired even here simply to wrestle with God about what his Son says. He affirms that he has only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but he does so in such disparaging terms, by essentially likening her to a dog. Now she could have walked away at that point, and maybe that is actually part of the message here.

But she didn’t. She clung on and wrestled with God, with Jesus. She basically said that she was happy to accept the epithet if that would get her daughter the help she needed. Now I know that we feel guilty sometimes for wrestling with God over issues that we don’t understand, that to do so betrays a lack of faith, yet what we hear from the lips of Jesus is quite the contrary to that.

He commends her faith for wrestling with him, and she gets exactly what she wanted, the healing of her daughter, even though she was not a Jew and was not part of Jesus’s plan. Incidentally, I have no doubt in my own mind that Jesus intended his message to go to the non-Jews eventually, it’s just that that was reserved until after his resurrection and ascension.

So what we have in the Gospel reading is more of the same kind of thing that I’ve already said; that we are encouraged to wrestle with God; if in doubt wrestle. We may get some of the answers, as St. Paul did, or we may even get all of the answer, as the Canaanite woman did, even though that story left us with the uncomfortable title of ‘Dog’ that Jesus gave the woman, something that I will let you wrestle with yourselves.

And so that brings us back to the famine in the Horn of Africa. Why hasn’t God acted to bring the rains, given that Jesus demonstrated his power over nature? We all know that the planet is a dynamic system, and not necessarily predictable. We know that our weather systems are not as straightforward as we might wish them to be, yet in the face of so many potential deaths, why doesn’t God give us a miracle like Jesus did on several occasions?

So we have to wrestle with the situation, and the first thing we find is that it is nothing like as simple as the rains having failed. Part of the problem is that some farmers in the area have lost the incentive to grow crops because of the dumping of excess food on to local markets at prices that local farmers could not compete with, so there was economic mismanagement.

There has been a steady loss of livestock through the dry period which has left farmers with nothing to sell in order to buy food. Then many farmers have had to eat their own crops in order to survive, but have then had no crops left to sell in order to buy food, and in the midst of this has been a devastating internal conflict in Somalia.

On top of all of this has been a steady deforestation, with almost 20% of Somalian forests being lost over the course of the last 20 years. As the forests go, so the deserts creep in as the ground becomes steadily more dry and arid. In addition to all this, some of the farming land in the Horn of Africa has been sold or leased to foreign countries like China who then grow crops for their own countries, not for the locals.

Kenya and Ethiopia are struggling with the same conditions, but their governments have systems in place to get aid to where it’s needed. Somalia, however, doesn’t, which is why so many people are on the move.

As we begin to wrestle with the crisis we can see that yes, there is a problem with the rains not coming, but aid has been able to reach many of those where there is good government because systems are in place. But once human conflicts and economic mismanagement are allowed to interfere with an already fragile ecosystem, so the famine has been allowed to take hold and reach the crisis it has become.

So why doesn’t God step in and do something about it? This is the issue we have to wrestle with, and I’m afraid I am not going to give you all the answers. You need to do some wrestling yourselves because this is a part of growing towards maturity in faith. But I can give you some pointers in terms of questions to ask.

The first question is not, ‘Why did this happen?’ but, ‘Since this has happened, have I given enough of my own resources to help alleviate the disaster?’ Remember, where much has been given, much will be required.

Secondly there is a principle of judgement established in the Old Testament book of Hosea (8:7) which is that if you sow the wind, you shall reap the whirlwind. In other words God allows us to live with the consequences of our actions. Those of you who are parents will know that often the only way a child can learn is to be allowed to make the mistake.

If they want to play with fire, they have to accept that their fingers will get burned. Yet this sounds callous when we think of a God who calls himself love. But is it? God could step in, but so often he seems to be allowing events to take their natural courses according to the natural laws of the universe. That may be because if we have a constant stream of miracles, where then will there be space for people to choose to have faith. Faith where there is constant proof is not faith

Furthermore, if God is forever proving himself with miracles he will also take away our free choice to turn to him. Remember, after many of his miracles Jesus told the onlookers not to tell what had happened. Miracles are meant to be rumours of glory, not proofs of it.

So if you strip away the forests, and don’t irrigate, and don’t plan for what happens when the rains don’t come, then you have all the ingredients for a perfect storm. As one interviewee put it, ‘Drought may be an act of God, but famine is an act of man.’

In my own mind I feel that, having wrestled with it, I can’t blame God for a situation that could have been averted, but I still wrestle with him over why the rains didn’t come. Was it purely so that they could learn to take responsibility? Isn’t the high number of deaths too high a price to pay? Or is it simply that, having set the laws of nature up, God rarely intervenes in the job he has given them to do.

But this I do know. Whenever I wrestle with God, whatever the issue is, a part of his answer to me is always, ‘How much of it is your fault, and what are you going to do about it?’

St. Paul wrestled with God and got some of his answers. The Canaanite woman wrestled with God and got what she wanted but left us with questions, yet was called a woman of great faith. At the end of the day, the best teaching I can give you is this: question, question, question. You may not get all the answers, but wrestling with God is a sign of faith, not doubt, so don’t ever feel you shouldn’t do it.

Remember, in all humility, that you are only a human and will not be able to understand all the answers, and you may not necessarily get them. But you should still question, and wrestle, because that is a part of growing in maturity. And finally, even if I may not be able to supply you with answers, I am happy to be a sounding board for you as you work through the questions you have. Amen