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Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Servant of the Rest





“If one of you wants to be great,” said Jesus, “you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”

“If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest.”

We’ve heard those words so often that they tend to just skim over us, don’t they? We know that Christians are supposed to be the servants of all; we know that Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet; we know that he is identified with the suffering servant that we have just read about in Isaiah.

Yet we never believe them. We don’t obey them. We never have, right back to the earliest days of Christianity. Right back in the book of Acts, within days of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were squabbling about who got precedence at the dinner table. The Greeks complained they were being neglected in favour of the Jews. This was back in the days when the church was small enough they could all live together, and I expect you remember what happened. The elders of the church said, “It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God's word in order to handle finances. So then, friends, choose seven men among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and we will put them in charge of this matter. We ourselves, then, will give our full time to prayer and the work of preaching.”

One thing to specially notice is that the men who were chosen to serve dinner had to be men known to be full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. The elders knew, if the people didn’t, that to be great, the helpers, often known as the first deacons, needed to be servants of all.

St Paul, a few years later, is horrified by the way the Christians in Corinth are behaving. “None of you” he says, “should be looking out for your own interests, but for the interests of others.” This is in the context of whether one could, or should, eat meat that had previously been offered to idols – and it was difficult to buy meat that hadn’t been – or whether if you did, it was participating in the ritual. Paul leaves it up to you, but he points out that if you say: “Why should my freedom to act be limited by another person's conscience? If I thank God for my food, why should anyone criticize me about food for which I give thanks?” then you aren’t really giving glory to God because you aren’t looking out for other people’s faith.

And when it comes to the way they behaved when they went to Holy Communion, he was appalled: “Your meetings for worship actually do more harm than good. In the first place, I have been told that there are opposing groups in your meetings; and this I believe is partly true. (No doubt there must be divisions among you so that the ones who are in the right may be clearly seen.) When you meet together as a group, it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat. For as you eat, you each go ahead with your own meal, so that some are hungry while others get drunk. Don't you have your own homes in which to eat and drink? Or would you rather despise the church of God and put to shame the people who are in need? What do you expect me to say to you about this? Shall I praise you? Of course I don't!”

But it wasn’t just the people of Corinth who kept on putting themselves first. St James, our Lord’s brother, has to point out that it’s seriously no good saying you have faith if your faith doesn’t lead to action. If you know someone at Church doesn’t have enough to eat, or doesn’t have enough money to pay for heating, you won’t do much good by just saying “God bless you, stay warm and well fed!”

And on and on down the centuries. Right down to us, today – we’ve all heard the egregious stories coming out of the United States, where some so-called Christian men seem to covet power to the extent of wanting to have it over women’s bodies, even. And where Christianity seems to be linked to right-wing politics in a way that we on this side of the Atlantic cannot understand.

However, having said all that, there are, of course, masses of exceptions. Just last Sunday, Archbishop Romero was made a saint – he, of course, was renowned for his work among the poorest and most marginalised people in El Salvador. He didn’t espouse the liberation theology that was so popular at the time, but he did believe that the then government needed to respect human rights. In a famous speech, he denounced the persecution of those members of the Church who had worked on behalf of the poor, commenting at the end: “But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people's defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.”

Archbishop Romero wanted the church to remain united. He denied that there was one church for the rich and another for the poor, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. He was, if you like, the servant of all the rest. And he was martyred for it, shot while celebrating the Eucharist in a hospital chapel.

But Archbishop Romero was only one of many Christians down the years who has spent his life in the service of others. Think of all the many, many missionaries who felt called of God to leave their homes and their home countries and to travel to distant lands to share God’s love, either through direct preaching and teaching, or perhaps through showing God’s love through ministering to the sick. But even they, sometimes, forgot that they needed to be servants of the rest. They assumed, often wrongly, that their own culture was the best, and tried to impose it on everybody else, often with disastrous results. Sometimes they assumed that they were the only ones who knew anything, and nobody from the local culture was fit to lead a church. The ideal missionaries, of course, were the ones that worked themselves out of a job, but so few of them were ideal. Many of them, probably quite unconsciously, enjoyed the power they had and wanted to cling on to it.

As it seems that James and John did, in our Gospel reading. They asked Jesus whether they could have the places of honour in his kingdom, to which Jesus replied that even if they could suffer as he was about to, those places weren’t his to give. And, “if one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest.”

It must have turned their world upside-down. The servants – the poor, marginalised ones who had to work for other people instead of being their own masters. They were to be the great ones? I’ve said before that the stories Jesus told about the Kingdom of Heaven, about God’s country, were apt to make people wonder, and here was another aspect of it! And, as we have seen, it wasn’t one that came easily. Although there were many, many people who did believe it and obey it. There were the women, many of them not even named in our Bibles, who followed Jesus, and who, I am sure, made sure that everybody had something to eat, and a blanket to sleep under, even if that night’s bed must be under a hedge. We see them in our churches today, the ones who get on with things – making coffee, washing up the cups, sweeping the floor, often the first to arrive and the last to leave. And doing it without drawing attention to themselves, too. And those who work quietly in the community, doing what they can to help the poor and marginalised, even if that’s only an occasional donation to the food bank, and perhaps a smile at a harassed supermarket cashier.

So many of us – probably most of us – find it hard to be the servant to the rest. We pay lip service to the necessity, but I don’t know about you, but I find it really hard to put into practice. And the trouble with this sort of sermon is that you end up feeling guilty, and thinking that you must be a terrible person for not being as willing as you might to put yourself last – even if you almost always do put yourself last! Or perhaps especially if!

But, as so often when it comes to Christianity, it’s probably not a thing we can learn how to do by ourselves. Some years ago now, I had one of those epiphanies that come all too rarely in our Christian lives, when a couple of verses strung themselves together in my head. The first was from our reading today: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” And then I thought, “And the Son of Man does only what He sees His Father doing.” Does that mean, think you, that God, too, wants to serve us, to give us good gifts, not grudgingly and unwillingly, but gladly, pressed down and running over! I think it does. And one of those gifts, as we know, is God’s Holy Spirit within us, filling us to overflowing, making us more like Jesus. And part of that will be making us more able to serve one another without making a great big noisy fuss about it. Part of it will be making us less enamoured of power and status, and more willing to settle for being just another person. And part of it will be, for some of us, God whispering “Well done, my good and trusty servant!”








Sunday, 30 September 2018

In or Out?


I’m a Proud Grandmother at the moment –
my two grandsons have been invited to extra training by their local football club;
one of them to goalkeeper training,
and one to extra under-6 training.
So Robert and I are very proud of them both,
and hope they grow up to enjoy playing for their team, no matter what level.

Playing for a team is great, isn’t it?
I don’t have all that much experience, as I was never very good at games,
but at one of the competitions in France that Robert and I used to skate at,
they used to award the country with the most points a trophy.
That was frequently team GB, not because we had the best skaters –
we didn’t –
but because we mostly fielded the largest team!
But even still, there is simply nothing on earth like the feeling you get when you are standing there, by the podium,
and the National Anthem is played and the Union Flag is raised!

It’s great being part of a team, isn’t it?
Or perhaps being part of a group, or a gang of friends.
At least it can be.
But suppose you are left out?
Suppose you’re the one who is always the last to be chosen
because you’re hopeless at games?
Suppose you’re the one they jeer at and laugh at?
Suppose my grandsons find that, when the time comes to pick teams, they are always either left out or in the most hopeless team,
the one that is not expected to win….

Here’s another suppose.
Suppose you were part of a group whose function in life was to do nice things for people –
perhaps you did shopping for old people, say,
or you knitted blanket squares for charity.
And your group got together each week to catch up on what you’d been doing, and perhaps have a meal together,
or generally have a bit of fun together.
You’re a group, a gang, and it shows.
People know who you are.
They like you.

But then supposing you suddenly discovered that someone else was doing the same nice things as you were.
The specky, nerdish kid that nobody likes.
He was also fetching shopping for old people,
or knitting blanket squares for charity,
or whatever it was.

I wonder how you’d react.
Would you think, oh, that’s nice, good for him.
Or would you think, here, how dare he?
He’s not one of us, what does he think he’s doing?
We’re the only ones who do that job!

I think both Jesus and Moses came up against this attitude in our readings today.
“How dare they!
They’re not part of our group –
tell them to stop!”
For Jesus, it was when one of the disciples discovered that someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name,
but it wasn’t anybody they knew and, as far as they were concerned,
he had never met Jesus and he wasn’t One of Them.
“We tried to make him stop,” explains John, “but he wouldn’t!”

But what was Jesus’ reaction?
“Don't stop him.
No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down.
If he's not an enemy, he's an ally.
Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side.
Count on it that God will notice.”

And something very much the same has happened in our Old Testament reading, too.
Moses has got fed up again –
Moses frequently gets fed up!
This time, the children of Israel have been grumbling because they don’t like the food.
God has been supplying them with Manna –
nobody knows quite what that was,
but it was a basic food source for them while they were wandering in the desert.
Anyway, although they hated being in slavery in Egypt,
they are beginning to miss all the fish,
and the melons,
the leeks,
the cucumbers,
the onions
and the garlic.
Well, I don’t blame them, really –
I think I’d miss those things if I couldn’t have them!
But not worth being a slave for!
Anyway, God is a bit cross with them and says that okay, they want meat –
fine, he’ll give them so much meat they’ll get sick and tired of it!
At this stage, Moses doesn’t know how on earth God plans to do this –
later, we learn it was flocks of quails,
which are a type of rather delicious game bird –
and it all seems a bit much, so he gets his 70 elders, his team leaders, together to pray.
And while this is happening, the Holy Spirit falls on the elders,
and they begin to speak forth God’s word.

This was unusual in those days –
the Holy Spirit didn’t come to people as a matter of routine,
in the way that he does today,
so when it did happen, it was thought to be a mark of God’s favour.
And there are two of the elders who, for whatever reason, haven’t joined the gathering.
Their names are Eldad and Medad, and they have stayed in the camp –
but because they are elders, the Holy Spirit has also fallen on them.
Oh dear.
So, of course, someone comes running up to tell Moses, and his heir, Joshua –
the same Joshua for whom the book of the Bible is named –
says “Well, aren’t you going to stop them?”

Moses, I think, roars with laughter.
“Are you jealous for me?
I wish that all God's people were prophets.
I wish that God would put his Spirit on all of them.”
A wish that, of course, came true at Pentecost.

But do you see?
It’s all about wanting to exclude people, isn’t it?
They’re not part of the gang, so they can’t do what we do.
They mustn’t be allowed.
They must stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name, or they must stop speaking forth God’s word in prophecy.

Oh dear.

Not good.

Well, yes, we know that in theory, but do we know it in practice?
It’s all too easy to exclude people, isn’t it?
For a wide variety of reasons.
Primary school kids sometimes form gangs whose whole idea is to exclude the opposite sex:
No Girls Allowed;
No Boys allowed.
That’s relatively harmless, of course –
but then you get the ones who exclude people whose skin colour is different, or who perhaps have some kind of disability.
Or who are of a different religion –
it is a very short step between reckoning that they’re mistaken in what they believe, to reckoning they, themselves are bad people for believing it.

None of this is nice;
it’s the road to ethnic cleansing, to genocide, to the Holocaust.
A road humanity has trodden all too often, and will probably tread all too often in the future.

But almost worst is when it happens in the Church.
You will probably know better than I do the story of what happened when Black Christians first came over to this country with the Empire Windrush and its successors,
and it’s not pretty.
But that’s not the only form of exclusion, even if it is the most obvious one.

You may or may not know that this Circuit supports a charity called L’Arche, which describes itself as “a worldwide federation of people, with and without learning disabilities, working together for a world where all belong”.
One of their communities is quite near here, and one of the Circuit’s former Manses is used as a hostel for some of their workers.
All well and good –
but I wonder how comfortable we would be if a group of people from the local community rocked up to church one Sunday to worship with us?
I hate to have to admit it, but I’m not sure I would be very comfortable just at first, not until I got to know the people. Would you?

Or if, as happened in a parish in Stoke-on-Trent a couple of years ago, we were overwhelmed by an influx of refugees looking for somewhere to warm up,
just for an hour or so…
and were unable to do so at the local Mosque, for whatever reason?
I gather the church in Stoke-on-Trent was not at all pleased with its vicar for opening the doors to refugees, and many left –
but many new people have joined the church and been baptised, because of the welcome they received.
And for others, they just want a place where they are able to pray,
even if they don’t yet want to become Christian.
Could we do something like that if God asked us?
Would we?

Or how welcoming would you feel if a gay or lesbian couple joined us for worship – again, I’m quite sure once we got to know them, we’d accept them for who they are and like them very much
but, as you know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
And if you get thrown by their arrival, and show you’re thrown –
well, maybe they’d get the impression they weren’t welcome?
And maybe if they did feel welcome, they might bring their friends….

Oh dear.
We really aren’t very good at being tolerant and open and affirming and welcoming, are we?
It’s partly human nature, of course; we come to this church because this is where we feel at home, this is where our friends are.
It’s our Christian community, and we like it just the way it is.
But the church exists, as I’m sure you’ve heard me say before, for the benefit of those who are not yet its members,
not just for those who are!
And we don’t like that, so we try to limit God:
who is in, who is out?
Who’s in God’s gang?

But God doesn’t.
We’re not Christians because of what we do or don’t believe;
we’re Christians because God loves us and has sent his Son to die for us.
We have responded to that, but that’s not what has saved us –
God has!

Some years ago now, there was a man in America who, for a variety of reasons, decided to spend this year worshipping in a different church every Sunday,
not just Christian churches, either, but Jewish and all sorts.
I followed his blog for a couple of months;
I can’t remember how I first found it.
It was fascinating reading his journal, and watching his faith grow and develop.
On one occasion, he went to a church that he found constraining –
they were, for his taste, too negative, too full of “Thou shalt nots”.
And after some thought –
and argument with people from that church who commented on his reflections –
and a Sunday spent worshipping in a Church that was rather more to his taste, he had this to say:

“I don't care who you are,
what you've done,
who you voted for,
how often you read the Bible,
or what your political stance is on gay marriage or abortion.
I don't care if you are gay, straight, or bisexual.
I don't care if you've had sex with a thousand people
or you're forty years old and saving yourself for marriage.
I don't care if you are Methodist, Catholic, Muslim,
or you sat next to me at the Church of Scientology.
GOD LOVES YOU.
Not because of what you can do for him,
but because he's freaking God,
so he doesn't need you to do a damn thing.
He loves you because he made you.
He created you to be the jacked up person you are,
and he loves you in spite of your flaws.
You're the Prodigal Son.
So am I.
And God is running toward us with open arms.
Nothing else matters except his desire to welcome us back home.
And he's waiting.
Despite the thousands of rules Pharisees will lay on you to convince you that you're unworthy of God's love,
God says you are worthy because of the sacrifice Jesus made two thousand years ago.
Period.
Bottom line.
End of story.”

To which I could only respond:
“Amen!”
And, that being the case, how dare we exclude anybody?
They may not worship God the same way we do;
they may look different, or behave differently.
They may have quite different views about all sorts of issues that we think are important.
But, as Jesus said, “Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side.
Count on it that God will notice.”

And then Jesus went on to give a warning:
“On the other hand, if someone –
however insignificant they might seem –
is believing in me and you put up a road block and turn them back,
you’ll be made to pay for it.
You’d have been better off being dumped in the middle of the bay wearing concrete boots.”

You see, it does matter.
We are all part of God’s kingdom, and woe betide us if we try to exclude anybody, or try to make someone else feel they don’t fit in.
God is Love –
and woe betide us if we try to cut anybody off from that love.
Just because they aren’t on our team doesn’t mean they’re crap players!

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Whole Armour of God

I finally worked out what I'd done wrong so that the recording didn't record on the last two sermons!  There were several changes from the text, so do have a listen.....




Last week, Robert and I took our grandsons to visit the museum of Jewish life, up in Camden Town. It is actually quite an interesting museum to visit in its own right, but the main reason we went was that there was a temporary exhibition about the life of René Goscinny, the man who wrote the text of the Astérix books with his colleague, Albert Uderzo.

Now, I expect you all know Astérix the Gaul, who, with his friend Obélix, lived in a little village in Brittany which refused point-blank to accept the Roman rule that covered all the rest of what is now France. And specialised in making the local troops’ lives a misery. But it’s about those Roman soldiers that I want to think this morning, and I’m hoping we can get a picture of a Roman soldier, as drawn by Mr Uderzo, up on the screen.

I’m sure, of course, that you have heard about God’s armour before! The belt of truth – truth is so vital to all our dealings with God, and with God’s people. It’s not just about always telling the truth; that too, although there are times when that is not the kindest option – you wouldn’t tell anybody that their bum looked big in this, even if it did, and you certainly wouldn’t tell a grieving widow that her husband had been the biggest crook going and you had loathed his guts! It’s about telling the truth, but it’s also about being truthful about yourself, especially to God. You see, it’s no good hiding the bits about yourself that you don’t like – God knows them all anyway.

And you know all this stuff, too. You know about the breastplate of righteousness – God’s righteousness, not ours. You know about the shoes of the Gospel of Peace – for although we are called to fight against what St Paul calls “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”, although we are called to fight against them, we are called, above all else, to be peacemakers.

You know about the shield of faith – how it is used, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect each other, too. The Romans knew about that, and Mr Uderzo drew at least one picture of them in “tortoise” formation. Could we see that picture?
Although in one book I read, it is described thus: “The Company had tried that formation—practiced it often, used it rarely—but the sergeant remembered how it felt, how it hindered the troops, blinded by the shields, crowded together. It was hard to walk without bumping into someone, hard even to breathe when they'd done it in the hot southern climate. She didn't think cold would make it easier.”
Moon, Elizabeth. Deeds of Honor: Paksenarrion World Chronicles (p. 94). Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

So not easy – but if it protects your friends? Anyway, once again, you know all about this; you will have had sermons on this passage many times. The helmet of salvation, too, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, St Paul tells us.

Our Roman legionary had all these things – well, their earthly equivalents, anyway – and both St Paul and his readers would have been familiar with them, as they would have seen the legionaries out and about in their towns, perhaps garrisoned there, perhaps just marching through. But it was a picture they all knew. This is what a soldier looked like. They knew all about belts and breastplates, shoes and helmets, swords and shields in ways that we can only know from pictures and cartoons. Although we do see our police with riot shields sometimes, and we know they wear bullet-proof vests and helmets on occasion, so perhaps it’s not quite so strange to us, if we can put it in modern terms.

But how do we get this armour? How do we “put on the whole armour of God”? Where do we find it? Are we terrible people when we find we don’t have much faith, or much righteousness?

Um, no! The clue is in the name – the whole armour of God! It is God’s armour, which God gives to us as we need, when we need.

I am sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon where a phrase of Scripture simply jumps out and hits you in the face, even though you have read that passage many, many times before. The other week, I was preaching on the story of Daniel and Bathsheba, and while someone was reading the story to the congregation, this verse jumped out at me. This is God speaking to David through Nathan the Prophet: “I made you king of Israel and rescued you from Saul. I gave you his kingdom and his wives; I made you king over Israel and Judah. If this had not been enough, I would have given you twice as much.”

“If this had not been enough, I would have given you twice as much.” Sometimes we struggle – well, I say “we”, but I know it’s true of me, and thus tend to assume it’s true of everybody – sometimes I struggle to think of God as generous, of God as the one who gives and gives and gives! We only have to ask! It’s not like that awful prosperity theology which says you have to “prime the pump” by giving, usually to the preacher, vast sums of money so that God can bless you. God doesn’t work like that. God gives and gives and gives, because God loves us.

And so it is with the armour that we need to protect us. God gives and gives and gives more than we need. We don’t have to plead and beg with him, but just say “Help!” and the help is there. Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil; we may struggle to resist temptation, and perhaps we feel we lose more often that we’d like. I know I do….

But the point is, we need to practice all this. I’ve said this before, I think – we choose to be God’s people, we choose to let God love us, but so often we don’t practice it. We don’t spend time with God – and St Paul tells us, in our reading from Ephesians, that prayer is the best weapon there is. We don’t spend time with God because spending time with God very often involves looking at ourselves, and really not liking what we see! So we avoid God, rather like Adam and Eve did in the garden after they had eaten the fruit.

And, of course, that is totally the wrong thing to do. What we ought to do – and I’m speaking to myself every bit as much as to you – what we ought to do is to spend more time with God, look at the bits of ourselves we hate, and give them to God, too! And then spend as much time with God as we can – not necessarily praying in words all the time – we couldn’t, anyway – but being aware of God’s presence with us.

It isn’t always easy. In our Gospel reading, we heard how many people found Jesus’ teaching about eating his Body and drinking his Blood far too difficult to cope with, and went away. We have grown up with eating his Body and drinking his Blood through Holy Communion, so it doesn’t disgust us the way it did his first hearers, but we all have our own sticking-points. But when Jesus asked the Twelve whether they, too, wished to leave, Peter replied on their behalf: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. We have chosen to serve God, we have chosen to put on the whole armour of God. We have chosen to be God’s people. And God himself will give us what we need to enable us to be God’s person in a largely secular society. What we need, and more than what we need – the whole armour of God, in fact.

We didn’t have our Old Testament reading earlier, but I’m going to have it now, to end this sermon, as in it, Joshua asks the people to choose whether they want to serve God or not. And the people choose to serve God. So Nike and I are going to read the beginning of the reading, and then we are all going to join in the verses where the people reply. They’ll be up on the screen. It’s from Joshua chapter 24. And let us use the people’s words as our prayer of recommitment to God.

Narrator: Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem.  They stood before Joshua and before God.  Joshua retold the whole story of their people. He started with Abraham, reminded them of the hardships of slavery in Egypt, and recounted the way God led them out of slavery.  He reminded them that God had been with them while they wandered in the wilderness and had given them their new homes in the Promised Land.  Then Joshua said to all the people,

Joshua:  Now therefore honour the Lord, and serve God sincerely and faithfully.  Put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Narrator:  Then the people answered,

People: Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight.  The Lord protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.  And, the Lord drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.

Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God. Amen.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

It's you, dear

This is substantially the same as the sermon I preached three years ago!  And yet again, the recording didn't work - I think I need a new app.   However, it is not the end of the world, as something set me off coughing and I couldn't really stop, so perhaps just as well....


I want to talk about our Gospel reading in a minute,
but first of all, we need to look at the Old Testament reading,
the story of David and Bathsheba.
This is, in fact, the second week of this story –
you may or may not have heard the first part last week,
but just in case you didn't, I'll recapitulate.

David is now King of Israel and Judah, a united kingdom.
He has built a very splendid palace in Jerusalem,
and is one of the richest and most powerful men in the region.
And, like many rich and powerful men, he has a high sex drive, and, of course, many women find riches and power very aphrodisiac.

So David can more-or-less have any woman he wants,
and, quite probably, the reverse is also true –
any woman who wants the King can have him!
And there is Bathsheba, Uriah's wife,
who allows herself to be seen while having her ritual bath –
and responds to the King's summons.

Unfortunately, what neither Bathsheba nor David had any way of knowing, given the state of medical knowledge back then,
was that when you have just finished your monthly purification rituals is when you are likely to be at your most fertile.
And so it comes about that Bathsheba finds herself pregnant,
and there's no way it can be anybody other than David's.

And they panic.
David could arguably have got away with it,
but he wasn't going to abandon Bathsheba like that, and, it's probable that it was she who panicked.
Uriah, from what we read about him, strikes me as very much the kind of person who always does the right thing,
no matter what the personal cost to himself,
and in this case, the right thing to have done was to have had Bathsheba,
who had obviously committed adultery,
stoned to death.
Yes, killed.
Even if he hadn't wanted to do that.
He was far too prim and proper to sleep with his wife while on active service, no matter how hard David tried to make him do that –
if he had, he would have accepted the coming child as his own, and their problems would have been solved.
But he refused, because his country was at war and he was a soldier on active service,
and wouldn't even go and see Bathsheba, even when David got him drunk, but just slept on his blanket in the guard room.

So David feels he has no option but to get rid of Uriah,
which he does by causing him to be sent into the front line of battle,
and get killed.
And as soon as it is decently possible, he marries Bathsheba.

End of story?
No, not quite.
You see, it might seem to have all been tidied up and nobody any the wiser, but they had forgotten God.
And God was not one bit pleased with what David had done.

So he sends Nathan the Prophet –
brave man, Nathan, wasn't he? –
to say to David that there is a man who only had one sheep, just one, and a rich bully had taken that sheep away from him.
So David said, well, who is this bully, I'll deal with him –
he can't get away with that sort of thing in my kingdom, so he can't!
And Nathan looks him in the eye and says, “It's you, dear!”

And, then David sees exactly what he has done.
The lust, the adultery, the deception, the murder.
He looks at himself and does not like what he sees, not one tiny little bit.
He doesn't know what God must think of him,
but he knows what he thinks of himself –
and he knows, too, that he needs to repent.
Which he does, and some of the words he is said to have used have come down to us:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness;
   according to the abundance of your compassion
      blot out my offences.
  Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness
   and cleanse me from my sin.
  For I acknowledge my faults
   and my sin is ever before me.
 Behold, you desire truth deep within me
   and shall make me understand wisdom
      in the depths of my heart.

Turn your face from my sins
   and blot out all my misdeeds.
  Make me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
  Cast me not away from your presence
   and take not your holy spirit from me.
  Give me again the joy of your salvation
   and sustain me with your gracious spirit;

And so on.
There's a bit more, but I've not quoted it all –
it's Psalm 51, if you want to have a read of it.

Anyway, the point is, his repentance is genuine, and he will be reinstated.
The child will not live, though.
And there is that lovely scene where the child is born,
and David is told that it cannot live –
it hasn't “come to stay”, as they used to say –
and he prostrates himself before the Lord in prayer.
And the baby duly dies,
and the servants are at a loss to know how to tell him,
thinking that if he's in that sort of mood, he might well shoot the messenger, but when they have stood outside the door for ten minutes going “You tell him,”
“No, you tell him!” he realises what's going on –
and when he finds out that the baby has died,
he astonishes them all by going and washing his face and going to comfort Bathsheba,
and when asked, he points out that while the baby was still alive, there was hope that God might yet be persuaded to let it live,
but now that it's dead, there's no hope;
and yes of course he minds,
but it won't help anybody to lie on the floor rolling about in grief.

And as we know, just to round off the story, Bathsheba and David do eventually have another child, who becomes King Solomon, arguably the greatest King of the combined kingdoms.

David's main fault, I think, that started the whole sorry saga, was greed.
He was greedy for life, and for women, and for pleasure.
He wanted to have it all, and had to learn the hard way that it wasn't all his.

Jesus says much the same to the followers in the Gospel reading, doesn't he?
It takes place almost immediately after Jesus has fed five thousand or more people with a small boy’s packed lunch.

He then sends the disciples on ahead of him, so he can spend some time in prayer and being quiet for a bit –
in some of the gospels, we’re told that he’s just heard about his cousin John’s execution and needs a bit of space to grieve.
Anyway, he then walks across the lake to join the disciples,
and next day the crowd finds him on the other side of the lake than they’d expected.

But Jesus reckons they’re not following him because of his teachings,
but because they want another free lunch.
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs,
but because you ate your fill of the loaves."
And this is not what he plans for them.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.”

Jesus points out that in the wilderness, it wasn’t Moses who provided manna for the children of Israel to eat, but God.
And it is God who gives the true Bread from Heaven.
“I,” said Jesus, “am the Bread of Life”.

You know what I’m reminded of here?
The story of woman at the well, a little earlier on in John’s Gospel.
She asks Jesus to work the pump for her, which he duly does, but he tells her that he is the Living Water, and any who drink of that water will never be thirsty again.
Same sort of principle.

Many –
not all, but many –
of those who followed Jesus did so because they wanted the spectacular.
They wanted a free lunch from a small boy's packed lunch.
They wanted to see the healings, the deliverances, the people collapsing on the floor as evil spirits left them, and so on.
They weren't interested in the teachings,
in the way your faith has to manifest itself in actions or it isn't really part of you,
in loving their neighbour, in feeding the hungry....
they were wanting to believe in Jesus without having to become Jesus' person.
I don't want to pre-empt what you'll doubtless hear about next week,
but many of them walked away when the teachings got too hard for them to cope with.

And what about us?
What about you and me?
Are we just interested in the next thrill,
the next sensation,
the next fashion?
Are we willing to be Jesus' disciples,
and pay the price that the Bread of Life requires –
all of us.
Even the dreadful bits, even the bits that we'd rather keep hidden.
David had to surrender all of himself before he could receive God's forgiveness.
Can we do that?
It's very far from easy,
and I don't pretend to be able to, at least, not all the time.
It has to be a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment surrender.
And when you find you've taken yourself back again, as it were,
then it's all to be done again.
What it needs, of course, is the will on our part to be Jesus' person,
even if we don't succeed all the time.

King David was not a wicked man.
He did a very evil thing when he allowed his lust for Bathsheba to overtake his common sense, but normally he was God's person –
and when it was pointed out to him where he'd gone wrong, he came back.

My friends, let's be like David.
When we go wrong,
when we take ourselves back and live our own lives again,
and when we realise we're doing that,
then let's recommit ourselves into God's hands.
He will be there to welcome us back with loving arms.
“There you are, there you are at last!
Welcome home!”
Amen.


Sunday, 29 July 2018

Feeding the Five Thousand

Unfortunately the recording didn't "take" - don't quite know what I did wrong, but I went to turn it off at the end of the sermon and there it wasn't!  So no audio on this one, I'm afraid.  I did change one or two bits of the text, but nothing to affect the meaning.

Introduction

The story of how Jesus fed the five thousand is an old friend, isn't it?
But it is a very important story indeed.
It's the only story that occurs in all four Gospels, apart from the Passion narratives!
So it must be pretty central if all four Gospel-writers thought it worth recording,
particularly John, whose Gospel is rather different from the other three.
I think it deserves a closer look this morning.
It is one of the central episodes in Jesus' ministry
It happens just after Jesus hears that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered.
Jesus is naturally very upset by this;
he respected John as a prophet of God,
as well as the fact that he was a relation.
Jesus wants to go off by himself to talk to God about it and grieve, but the crowds follow him.
In fact, he does get a chance to go off later,
but then it is very late indeed,
and the disciples go on home without him, according to instructions,
and he catches them up by walking on the water.
But at this stage, that hasn't happened.
Jesus hasn't had a chance to get away by himself,
and the crowds are there, tired and hungry.
John says it was about 5,000 people,
but Matthew says that was only the men –
it was about 5,000 families,
so anything up to 20,000 people.
The disciples know that Jesus ought to eat,
and they could use a break themselves,
so they try to get him to make everyone go away.
But they've all followed Jesus further away from town than they meant, and it would be rather a long way to go back without a breather first, and some food.
But there is no food –
and nowhere to buy any,
even if they could have afforded it.
Just one small boy,
who shyly goes up to Andrew and offers his packed lunch,
if that's any good to Jesus.
Of course, I don't suppose the small boy was the only one with food.
After all, there were mothers in the crowd,
mothers with small children.
They would have made sure they were well-provisioned for the day.
Probably many of the men had lunchboxes
or whatever they carried their food in;
certainly the children would have.
Mothers do tend to see to it that their families are provisioned,
and few people would go out for the day without some sort of arrangements for lunch!
But it was, so we are told, a small boy who was the catalyst,
who offers his lunch.
And Jesus takes it,
and blesses it,
and breaks it,
and shares it.
And everyone has enough food, and there are twelve basketsful left over.
So what are we to make of this story?
I think there are three points I want to make this morning.
Firstly, the story tells us something about Jesus;
secondly, it tells us something about God;
and thirdly, it tells us something about ourselves.

Something About Jesus

So what does the story tell us about Jesus?
This sort of food-stretching isn't unique to him, you know!
It happens in the Old Testament, too.
Elijah goes to stay with the Widow of Zarephath during a famine and promises that her oil and flour won't run out if she will feed him, too.
Which she does,
and it doesn't.
Elisha, Elijah's successor,
performs a miracle very like Jesus',
making 20 barley loaves stretch to feed 100 people, with some left over.
Which mightn't sound too bad to us, but those loaves were only about the size of our baps –
and if you were only given 1/5 of a bap,
you might well want to complain that it wasn't quite enough!
So this kind of miracle was something that prophets did.
You might have noticed that John doesn't tend to record Jesus' miracles unless they teach us something about who Jesus is.
So on one level, in John’s gospel, the story shows that Jesus was not only a prophet like Elisha, but something greater.
And did you notice something else?
Jesus took the food,
blessed it,
broke it
and shared it.
Doesn't that sound awfully familiar?
Doesn't that sound like something we do some Sundays,
those Sundays we have a Communion service?
In John's gospel, the story leads straight in to that famous speech about "I am the Bread of Life",
and, in fact, John doesn't bother to record the "Do this in remembrance of me" that the other evangelists have –
for him, the symbolism of this story and the Bread of Life speech are sufficient.
So the story is saying something about who Jesus is;
it is showing us that Jesus is a prophet,
and more than a prophet.

Something About God

Then secondly, the story tells us something about God.
You see, Jesus says elsewhere that he only does what he sees his Father doing.
And one of the things that always strikes me about this story,
when I read it,
is the amount left over.
Twelve basketfuls.
It isn't that there was just enough food to keep everyone going until they got home.
It isn't that there was enough for everyone to have a decent meal.
There was enough for everyone to have a decent meal and still have masses left over!
That seems to be so typical of Jesus, though.
When he turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana,
he made enough wine to stock a young off-licence,
never mind be enough for a few guests at the tag-end of a party.
And when people were healed,
they were healed!
He made a proper job of it,
even if it took him two goes.
It's typical of Jesus, and it's typical of God.
I mean, look at the sort of extravagance we see in the natural world –
all those desert flowers, for instance,
and nobody knew they were there.
All those stars,
all those universes.....
This story, with the twelve basketsful left over,
reminds us that God is generous to the point of extravagance.
And also, it was Jesus who broke the bread and shared it out.
He did the serving.
It was Jesus,
elsewhere in John's gospel,
who kneels with towel and basin,
washing the disciples' feet.
It was Jesus who said of himself,
"The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve."

So this story helps to remind us that God longs
and longs
and longs
to give us, his children,
more good things than we can possibly handle.
God wants to serve us,
to heal us,
to make us whole,
to give us what we need –
not just grudgingly,
barely enough,
but pressed down, shaken together and running over!

Something About Us

But the third thing that this story tells us is something about us.
And I'm afraid that it isn't very flattering.
All those thousands of people –
five thousand men,
and maybe up to four times that number when you include the women and children –
all those people, and one, just one, was willing to share what he had!
One little boy who came up to Andrew and whispered, shyly,
"Jesus can share my lunch if he'd like".
Nobody else was willing to share.
Yet most people probably had more than they needed that day.
We tend to take along more food than we'll need, just in case.
And if we make a packed lunch for our family,
if they're going on an outing,
there's usually enough that we could share it,
if we wanted to,
without going hungry ourselves.
But the people in the crowd weren't willing to risk going hungry.
They weren't willing to share their food,
not even with Jesus and his disciples.
That was too great a risk.
Perhaps they wouldn't have minded missing lunch, for once,
but what about their children?
Incidentally, I'm aware that I'm sounding as though the sole source of food was from the crowd,
rather than from Jesus.
I rather suspect it was a case of "both, and" –
I'm perfectly certain that if the small boy's five loaves and two fishes were really all the food there was,
Jesus both could have and would have produced
a delicious meal for everyone from just that.
However, I find it almost impossible to believe that nobody else at all had brought any supplies with them!
Like so much of Christianity,
the truth is probably somewhere in between;
a case of "both, and", rather than "either, or".
And, in fact, the mechanics of the thing don't matter all that much.
After all, someone even commented once in my hearing
that the real miracle was that the boy still had five loaves and two fishes left by lunchtime,
knowing how boys so often eat their packed lunches before the coach has left the school gates!
Seriously, though, the crowd was selfish.
Either they had come out without any food, or,
if they had brought food,
they weren't willing to share it.
Either way,
they expected Jesus to do something about it.
They weren't going to do anything.
They were going to hedge their bets,
to wait and see,
to look out for Number One.
And are we like that?
Well, yes, we are, some of the time, aren't we.
We can be extraordinarily selfish.
I have known people, Christian people,
who will quite happily spend a pound on a Lottery ticket,
but try asking them to give a pound to a missionary society
and see how far you get!
Usually they can't possibly spare more than 10p, if that!
And we can be extraordinarily faithless.
We can't offer more than ourselves to Jesus,
but how often do we offer even that?
The small boy offered what he had –
five loaves, and two fishes.
It wasn't much, but he had the courage to offer it.
Nobody else seems to have had the nerve.
But why not?
Partly, of course, it was selfishness and fear –
if I give my lunch to Jesus,
maybe I won't get any.
Maybe my kids won't get any.
I'm not going to offer;
I need what I have for myself.
But partly it was a different sort of fear.
Fear of rejection.
And that is one of the most difficult of all fears to overcome.
Been there,
done that,
read the book
bought the T-shirt
You don't go to Jesus with your five loaves and two fish because you're afraid he'll shriek with laughter and say
"Who on earth do you think you are!"
You don't go to Jesus and say
"Use me as you will",
because you're afraid he'll either send you off to work somewhere highly disagreeable,
like somewhere with a seriously nasty climate
far away from all your friends and family –
Lewisham, for instance.
Or else we're afraid that he won't!
That he will say "I couldn't possibly use you!”
and sort of throw you aside like a used tissue.
But, you know, that's not God!
We've just seen how God longs and longs to be far more generous to us than we can possibly imagine.
And when we say "Use me as you will", he says "Great!
Now, here's this present,
and do take some of that,
and are you sure you won't have any more of the other,
and you really need some of this, and...."
until you practically have to say,
"Hey, hang on, give me a chance to breathe!"
Oh, but, you are saying,
I've offered and offered and nothing has happened.
God doesn't want me!
Well, I have to ask two questions, then.
The first is, did you really mean your offering,
or did you pull it back as soon as you'd made it.
And the second question is,
are you sure God isn't helping you do exactly what you're meant to be doing right now?
Not all of us are called to spectacular tasks, or to go and work somewhere with a disagreeable climate, and so on.
Not even Lewisham!
Some of us are asked to stay right where we are, and be salt and light in our own families and communities.

Students are probably meant to be studying hard and waiting to see where the road leads to next.
Parents are probably meant to be making a safe home for their children.
The elderly are often such enormous lights to the rest of us –
we need you so much in our churches,
just for who you are and
what you have learnt about our dear Lord as you have followed him!
In fact, it's always safest to assume that God will want you to stay where you are, doing what you're doing.
If that should change, you can be quite sure you will know about it totally unmistakeably!
But God can't use you unless you offer yourself to him,
and he will use you if you do!
And if you hold back, whether from fear, or from selfishness, or from any other motive,
then not only do you prevent the Kingdom of God from going forward in the way God would like,
but you also cut yourself off from all the good things God wanted to give you!

Conclusion

I've gone on quite long enough for one morning!
But this story,
this central story,
of how Jesus fed a huge crowd,
does teach us that Jesus is greater even than Elijah and Elisha,
and does foreshadow the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread that is so important to us.
It reminds us of how extravagantly generous God can be,
and how much he longs and longs to share that generosity with you and with me.
And it reminds us that all too often we can be selfish and afraid,
and hold back from offering what we have and who we are to Jesus.
So lets make an effort this morning to conquer our fear and selfishness, and to offer ourselves anew to the God whose response is always so infinitely greater than our terrified offerings. Amen.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Be careful what you wish for






Our Old Testament reading seems to me to be a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences! Or, indeed, the necessity to be careful what you wish for!

Up until now, Israel has been a theocracy; in other words, it has been governed by God, as ministered by the various judges and prophets, most recently Samuel. It hasn’t always gone well – there have been wars; the Ark of the Covenant had been captured and taken away by the Philistines, but then it was returned with all honour. At the time of which we speak, there was peace in the land – for one of the only times in history, it would seem.

But this peace was precarious. Samuel was getting old now, and his sons, who were his obvious successors, weren’t doing a good job. Unlike their father, who was as upright as – well, as an upright thing, they were susceptible to taking bribes, and justice was not always served as it might have been.

Also, the people of Israel had been looking round at how things were done in other countries. They didn’t have dreary prophets interpreting God’s will at them all the time. They weren’t led into battle by priests guiding an ox-cart with the Ark on it. They had a King! They were led into battle by a King on a beautiful horse, wearing armour glittering in the sun. They didn’t have to spend hours in prayer before they could get on with it….. Anyway, everybody had kings. Why couldn’t they have a king?

So, as we heard in our first reading, they went to Samuel and said, “look here, you’re getting old, and your sons aren’t anything like you – we want a King, please, now.”

Samuel is very hurt by this, and does what he always does in time of trial – he goes and prays about it. And God says to him, more or less, “Well, now you know what I feel all the time, the way people reject Me. And really, it’s not you they are rejecting, it’s Me.” And, at God’s instruction, Samuel goes and asks the people if they are sure they want a king. Sure, there is the grandeur and the pomp and circumstance – but there is also the tithes; the conscription; the droit de seigneur where the king thinks he can, and will, have any pretty girl he chooses….. there are a lot of bad things that might and will happen along with the good.

But the people are convinced. Prophets and judges are old-fashioned; they want a King. Monarchy is definitely the way to go.

And, as we know, they got permission to have a King, and Saul was appointed – and anointed – King. But as we know, he wasn’t altogether satisfactory, and there was war again, and, eventually, David became king, and then his son Solomon, but after that it all went rather pear-shaped, and the Kingdom was divided into two. And after a series of rather ineffectual, weak kings, the majority – the Ten Tribes – were taken into captivity and absorbed; the two tribes of Judah were also captured, but managed to retain a distinct identity. Mind you, we are not told what would have happened had they remained a theocracy….

So what is this all about, and what does it say to us today? I’m certainly not advocating a return to theocracy – one only has to look at so-called Islamic State or Boko Harum to see that it can and does stifle people’s freedom of choice. And monarchy itself is nearly obsolete. Our own Queen reigns, but she does not rule.

The King may well have done all the dreadful things Samuel warned against: “He will make soldiers of your sons; some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, and others will run before his chariots. He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men, and others in charge of fifty men. Your sons will have to plough his fields, harvest his crops, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials.”

But a good King – and there have been many throughout history – a good King protects his people, as well as exploits them. And a good King leads by example. C S Lewis, in his novel “The Horse and his Boy”, expressed it thus:
“For this is what it means to be a king:
to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years)
to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

Being a King is not just about privilege and luxury – but for a bad King – and probably for every good King there has been a bad one – for a bad King, it is all about privilege and luxury. The people needed to be careful what they wished for.

But one of the main problems of a Kingdom, mostly, is that it is up against others. Kings have to fight because other people want their Kingdoms. Sometimes these are kings from other sovereign states, and other times they are internal contenders for the throne; people who think that the king really isn’t doing as good a job as he might and they would do a better one. Civil War. Satan’s Kingdom divided against itself – as Jesus points out in our Gospel reading – is always going to fail and spiral down into chaos and darkness.

So let’s contrast this with God’s kingdom, that Jesus tells us so much about.

He told us lots of stories to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree.
How it is worth giving up everything for.
How “the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And some of the stories were very unsettling to his hearers. Imagine, if you will, that there is a place you’ve always wanted to visit.
It sounds as though it’s really wonderful –
permanently great weather, fantastic scenery,
lots of great places to visit,
lots of walking, or swimming,
great bars and restaurants,
you name it, this place has it!
And you long and long to go there,
but you don’t know how to get there,
and what’s more, you don’t know anybody else who has been there.
All the things you’ve heard about it are rumour or hearsay.

And then one day someone comes along who very obviously has been there, and he starts to tell you all about it.
But –
oh dear –
it’s not at all what you thought!
Weeds everywhere, attracting masses of birds which could and did eat all the crops!
And the food, far from gourmet, is rotten bread made by women!
And then, he goes on to tell his special friends in private –
but you hear about it later –
the place is so infinitely desirable that people sell all they have to get tickets there!

That’s the Kingdom of God for you. The mustard seed that Jesus spoke of – well, mustard was a terrific weed, back in the day – grows like the clappers, and still does – and nobody in their right mind would have planted it. Besides which, it would have attracted birds, which would then have eaten the other the crops. And the yeast that leavens the whole of the dough? Well, for Jews, what was really holy and proper to eat was unleavened bread, which you had at Passover.
You threw out all your old leaven –
we’d call it a sourdough starter, today, which is basically what it is –
and started again.
I remember being told in primary school that this was a Good Idea because you need fresh starter occasionally.
But the thing is, leavened bread was considered slightly inferior –
and the leaven itself, the starter –
yuck!
It isn’t even the bread that is likened to God’s country, it is the leaven itself!
And did you notice –
it was a woman who took that leaven.
A woman!
That won’t do at all!
Again, for male Jews, women were slightly improper –
and who knew that she wouldn’t be on her period and therefore unclean?
And she hid the starter in enough flour to make bread for 100 people!
She hid it.
It was concealed, hidden.

Not what people would expect from the Kingdom of God, is it?

Be careful what you wish for! You wanted a King, instead of God; a King who would introduce conscription, would confiscate your bit of land and give it to one of his favourites. A King whose country would be manifestly unfair and unequal. But that was what you thought you wanted.

And then you got God’s Kingdom. A place that was totally not what you expected. A place of justice and mercy and love and forgiveness; but also a place where your most entrenched ideas are turned upside-down; where what you thought you knew about God turned out to be all wrong…. And yet, a place so worthwhile, so wonderful, that you would sell all your possessions to get there.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it was worth wishing for a King so that we could know Christ as King of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.