Sunday, 7 December 2008
From Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 3: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." This verse is taken up in Mark's gospel, too: "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'." Mark applies the verse to John the Baptist, and we'll come to him in a minute, but first of all, let's have a look at when it was originally written, and why.
No-one really knows who Isaiah was. Almost all scholars think that the person who wrote Isaiah chapters 40-55 is not the same one who wrote the first 40 chapters. There might even have been a third person who wrote the last few chapters. too. These various prophecies have become gathered together into what we know as the book of Isaiah, but it does seem clear that they are different people, as the style of writing is different, and they are addressed to different audiences. The first Isaiah, the one who saw God in the Temple, was a priest in Jerusalem just before the people went into exile. The second one was writing just before the people returned in about 538 BC. His premise is that the time of punishment is over, that Israel will be going home soon.
We don't know what his name was, or how his call to be a prophet came, or anything about him except for his writings. He usually gets called Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that his name actually was Isaiah, although I did once hear someone wonder just why Mr and Mrs Isaiah had chosen to call their son, "Second". Yes, well, never mind, let's call him "Isaiah", for convenience. Now, many of the prophets spoke or acted their prophecies, and they had followers who wrote down what they said and did, which is how it has come down to us. But scholars think that this Isaiah actually wrote down his stuff, and read it aloud later. He was a poet, and his work is too complex, too literary, to have been spoken.
They also think, by the way, that the first chapter of the section, chapter 40, that was our first reading today, was written last of all, as a sort of introduction to the whole of Isaiah's message.
Isaiah is a prophet full of hope. His God is unique, the creator, the redeemer, and he is also a God of love. Some of the loveliest passages about God's love come in Isaiah; think of verse 11 of the passage we read today: "He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep." Isaiah knows God, and knows he is loved. He knows God's people are loved, too. That was the message that they needed to hear, stuck in exile in a distant land. Their redeemer was coming, and they should prepare a way for him.
Our whole concept of God as Redeemer comes from Isaiah. In those days, you see, there wasn't a police force, and it was down to the injured person's relations to deal with any wrongdoing. And the nearest male relation, who usually took on the burden, was known as the go-el or redeemer. If someone fell into financial difficulties and had to sell up, the go-el was supposed to buy the land or property. And if someone was so poor that they had to go into slavery, the go-el was supposed to buy the person back. The "redeemer", therefore, in ancient Israel, was the person who restored people and property to where they rightly belong, and if someone didn't have anyone in their family who could act as redeemer, then the King had to do it.
Isaiah, then, sees God as Israel's redeemer, bringing God's people back to Israel where they belonged.
Of course, we Christians see Jesus as our redeemer, bringing us back to being with God, where we belong. And Mark picks up the "Prepare the way" verse and runs with it, telling us that John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness.
John the Baptist, of course, was a prophet. Luke tells us that his father was a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem, and his mother was a cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. And John was a very late child; his mother had given up all hope of having a baby by the time he arrived.
John was about the same age as Jesus – again, Luke tells us that Mary and Elisabeth were pregnant at the same time. So he would only have been a young man when he started preaching. He seems to have come from the desert, certainly according to our reading today, so we have to assume that he went off there as a very young man to think and to study and to listen to God. When he came back, he was a prophet. He wore skins, he ate locusts and wild honey, he gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"
Well, there hadn't been a proper prophet for many years, and it became very fashionable to go into the desert and hear John. Huge crowds went; it was better than the cinema! John got incredibly frustrated by this.
All these people, but none of them wanted to really hear what he had to say. None of them were really willing to repent, to turn right round and go God's way. Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Not that they interfered with him, mind you – could have been nasty, if they had. But they didn't want to know! Very frustrating.
But there were the other kind of people, too. People who really did want to listen to John, to hear what he had to say and to act on it. People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan. And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.
And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way. And yet he wants to be baptised – surely not! Surely it should be he, Jesus who baptises John? John's always known that when the Messiah came, he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet, slaves' work, that. John mutters something to this effect, but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"
And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, "Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!"
Of course, as we know, John wasn't always quite so sure – you remember how when he was in prison, awaiting death for having criticised the royal marriage once too often, he suddenly got a fearful attack of doubt and sent to Jesus saying, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" and Jesus has to reassure him. And in the end, of course, John gets executed, and Jesus is devastated by his death, and tries to go off by himself, but the crowds follow him....
Well, this is all very well, but it's all long ago in history stuff. What does it have to do with us this Sunday morning in the 21st century?
Well, we are in the season of Advent. And Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. It's not just about writing cards, choosing presents, putting up decorations, preparing cakes and puddings, eating mince-pies, arranging family parties, and so on. That too, of course. But it is, or should be, a time of preparing ourselves for Christmas. For the coming of the King of Glory as a child in the manger at Bethlehem. In years gone by, many people would fast throughout Advent, and I know people who still do. They don't literally abstain from food for the whole month, but they might well deny themselves some pleasure or other – that of eating sweets, perhaps, or of watching certain television programmes. As a reminder that they are preparing themselves.
These days, we tend to moan that Christmas is too commercialised, but I rather think that is inevitable when we share the festival with non-Christians. And in a way, watching the shops decked out in their Christmas colours and full of stock they don't have at other times of year is rather fun. I've always loved walking through shops which sell Christmas decorations, and when my daughter was a baby, her first winter, she used to gurgle with pleasure on being taken for a walk through Woolworth's, for instance – we used to go most days, not to shop, but so she could enjoy the colours and sparkles as only a small baby can! Even now, I still enjoy it, and some shops are very clever. But, of course, what they want you to do is to buy their products. And why shouldn't they – after all, they have a living to make. It will be sad if Woolworth’s does go under after all these years – let’s hope they survive.
Christmas is lovely. Sometimes we do get all Scrooge-ish about it, and mutter and grumble about the commercialisation of it. John Betjeman, that great poet of the 20th Century, wrote back in 1955:
The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound -
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'
And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there -
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know -
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
'The time draws near the birth of Christ'.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.
That's the point, isn't it? “He still would be a distant stranger, and not the Baby in the manger”. But He did come down, he isn’t the stranger. We know Him. He dwells in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our ways of preparing for this may be “extremely odd”, but they are fun anyway. But I think we do need to prepare ourselves, to remind ourselves that the feasting, the presents, the parties, the decorations are only part of the story. We, too, need to prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
I often quail when I’m faced with a very familiar Gospel story to preach on, as I never know whether I shall be able to say anything that you haven’t heard a million times before.
This story is a very old friend – most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days. Indeed, it is – or used to be – often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard. If God has given you talents, they say, then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.
But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense – although it can be taken that way. It’s about money. Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money. I think it’s also about other things, too, but we’ll come to that in a minute.
A talent was serious money back then. Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer; maybe more. Serious money. So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him. One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one. I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios, and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.
In many ways, I prefer Luke’s version of this story, where each of the slaves are given the same amount of money, and come back with different amounts. But today we have Matthew’s version set in the lectionary, so let’s go with that.
The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money. And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back. Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more: the text just says “A long time”. And while he is away, things happen. The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital. Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange. Perhaps they open up a business of some kind – a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses. We’re just told they traded with their money.
I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too. They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary, while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.
But what of Number 3? He’s quite comfortable already, thank you. He has a good, secure job; he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself. It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves, he was the one chosen to see what he would do, whether he would have the courage to invest that capital. And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage. Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all? The consequences don’t bear thinking about! Better play safe. Very safe. Not the bank – not with the current banking crisis, just look at Northern Rock! Okay, maybe his money would be safe, but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t. Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes. So that’s what he does; the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer. And he gets on with his life.
And then, one day, the Master comes back. I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would, or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.
And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth – chauffeur-driven Rollers, Philippe Patek watches, Louis Vuitton briefcases, talking and emailing from their Blackberries all the time, and, finally, able to present the Master with share certificates and bank statements and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.
The Master is delighted. “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to each of them. “You’ve been faithful in little things” – not that little; a “talent” was, as I said, serious money – “now you’ll be put in charge of great things. Enter in to the joy of your Master!”
And then along comes the third servant. On a pushbike. And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order. “I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains. “supposing it had all gone wrong What would you have said to me You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money, and I was too scared to try. So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”
And the Master is seriously annoyed! “Oh, look here!” he said. “So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay, but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me, so I could have had the interest? Just not good enough, I’m afraid. Take him away!”
Jesus is, of course, talking about the Kingdom of Heaven here. Last time I preached at King’s Acre, he was also talking about it, trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers, talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become a huge shrub, or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise. And I pointed out then that these stories didn’t say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers, as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles, and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately. And yeast – or sourdough, more probably – was not really associated with people of God, since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread, which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread. And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit – women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.
And, actually, it’s the same here. Particularly for the third slave – you what? He should have put his money in the bank? To earn interest? I don’t think so! Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”. So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that? Yikes!
So what does it all mean? This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times, something we don’t really like to think about these days. Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour – there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything. And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.
He says nobody knows when it will happen – and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen – but the idea is to be prepared. “Who,” Jesus asks, “are faithful and wise servants? Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time? Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job. You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”
And the Gospel for last week – although you may not have thought about it as it was Remembrance Day – was the story of the wise and foolish virgins, and whether you would rather be with the wise virgins in the light, or the foolish virgins in the dark.... well, not quite that, but you know what I mean. Again, the sensible girls were prepared and ready – the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.
So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well; he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like, when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it. But one thing he does know – we need to live as if he were never coming back, but be prepared for him to return any second now! It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.
It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time – although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both. It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.
We are all, I expect, Christians here; all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator. And some people make the most of it! Most of us do, I am quite sure. We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God, we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is, and making point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day. We don’t find it easy – nothing worthwhile ever is easy – and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate. But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God; our job is to be open to being grown – and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.
But there are others around – not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment – but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life – and then got stuck. Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change. Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it. And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too. “You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them. Why?”
The good slaves, in this story, took what they were given and doubled it. The bad one didn’t want to know, and buried his money. It’s a picture – and only a picture – and must be taken alongside the other pictures we have of the end times. But nevertheless, it is a picture we probably need to take seriously. We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that. We need to become what we can become, in God. Much has been given to us already; now we need to be open to God working in us. Amen.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
You know, of course, that Remembrance Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and Belgium, and barely a family in this country did not lose somebody. Come to that, I expect barely a family in Germany didn’t lose somebody, either. Both my grandfathers were involved in this war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost both its sons. Indeed, many families on both sides did lose all their sons – it was a hard time.
Those of you whose roots are in this country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started, and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job organising the invasion of France And so it goes on. There are things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next generation.
But then, my generation grew up with the threat of the atom bomb over our heads we knew, no matter how much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.
And, of course, during that time there was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Or your parents did. Peace is very rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.
Of course, once we had got past 1989 and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something wrong with this picture.
But then, people forget. There is a saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them. And we all know how true that is. Each May, we go on holiday to the Plateau de Vercors, in the Alps above Grenoble . There is a village there, called La Valchevrière, which is nothing but ruins, except for the church. The village was destroyed by the Occupying Power in the 1940s because they were harbouring members of the resistance movements, and sheltering Jewish people. It has been left in place as a monument to the French Resistance, and as a reminder that nothing so dreadful must ever be allowed to happen again. Fine – until you remember the “ethnic cleansing” that went on in Bosnia and Serbia, in Rwanda, and in other places and may well still be going on. People forget, and the worst sort of events of history are repeated.
And so the saga continues, war and terrorism – for the boundaries are very blurred – don’t forget that today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s honoured freedom fighter, depending on who wins. At one stage, having been imprisoned for terrorism was almost a sine qua non of being a Prime Minister of a newly-independent country. War and terrorism, terrorism and war, then, continue right up to the present day.
So, we wonder, where is God in all this. What have all these events to do with God. Or, indeed, why, as Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the other side; well, we know that, don't we – look at that poor young man shot dead at Stockwell Station a few years ago who turned out to have been totally innocent. They’ve been having an enquiry about it; you might have been following it on the News. Shoot to kill policy, forsooth!
It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus But he also said that there would always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even while we know we will be unsuccessful.
Robert and I visited New York less than a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed. We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at its height?
Anyway, the first Sunday we were there, we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out to be a Lutheran Church. And I’m so glad we went: the people there were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England. They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had happened; and that the future was very uncertain for all of us, yet they knew, too, that God was in it with them.
And God is in it with us, too. Whatever happens God was there in the trenches with those young men in the first War. God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked planes, too. God was there on the Underground and on that bus on 7 July 2005. We, who call ourselves Christians, sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism; it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
But we must do all that we can to make peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of the campaign in Afghanistan are; I don’t know whether our government is right or wrong. I do know, though, that people are suffering, through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in London and Jerusalem, and other places where they lost loved ones. They are still suffering in Iraq. They are suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their faith and, indeed, in places where Christian people are attacked in predominantly Muslim areas. We’ve been being told only this week how people are suffering in the Congo, although I haven’t quite grasped who is fighting who there. It is undoubtedly a tribal conflict of some sort, like the one that went on for so many years in Northern Ireland – and although there is peace now, I gather that it is not altogether an easy peace.
War causes suffering It is never noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.
And our Scripture readings for today,especially the extract from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, remind us that we totally don't know what's going to happen. Robert and I drove through Tavistock Square about twelve hours before the bus blew up in it three years ago. And who knew, on their way to work that summer morning, that they wouldn't get there, and that for some, life would have changed forever in the worst possible way? If we knew when the thief was going to come, Jesus says, we'd make sure to lock the house!
We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know that if the worst happens, we will be with Jesus.
St Paul reminds us to put on faith and love for a breastplate, and the hope of salvation for a helmet – he rather likes his military metaphors, I notice. But we do need to know that we are enfolded in God's love, surrounded by faith – both our own faith and, on those occasions when that faith falls short, the faith of others in our church, other Christians – and to know that we do believe, at least most of the time, that this life isn't all there is, and that God is in control!
We are hoping and praying that the regime change in America will mean an end to the conflict in Afghanistan; but even if it does, there will be a war somewhere else. Maybe it will affect us, maybe it won’t. But it will affect families somewhere – war always affects some people, somewhere, tearing families apart, making widows and orphans, cutting people off from their homes. So we must pray for peace, and we must dream of peace.
After all, forty years ago, Martin Luther King had a dream. And this week, that dream came true. It can happen!
Sunday, 2 November 2008
In this country, though, we never have gone in much for All Saints, except in church names, like All Saints Lyham Road. We’ve tended to go straight from Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes’ Night with nothing in between. But if the Church suggests, as it does, that we should celebrate All Saints’ Day, then maybe we should do so. And as we weren’t here to celebrate it yesterday, then it is right to celebrate it today, instead.
But what is a saint, anyway? After all, if we are going to celebrate All Saints,
we need to know what saints are.
It seems to me that there are two sorts of saint. The first is a Saint with a capital S. These are often Bible people, like St Paul, of course, but there are also lots of Saints who were, in life, totally dedicated to being God’s person. To the point where, very often, they got into serious trouble, or even killed for it. There was St Polycarp, who was put to death, and when he was given a chance to recant, to say he wasn’t a Christian after all, he said very firmly that he’d served God, man and boy, for something like eighty years now, and God had never let him down, so if they thought he was going to let God down at the last minute, they’d another think coming. Or words to that effect.
There were Saints Perpetua and Felicity, her servant. Saint Perpetua was a young mother, whose husband and father both roundly disapproved of her being a Christian, and Felicity, also a Christian, was expecting a baby when they were taken and put on trial. They were left until Felicity had had her baby – a little girl, who was brought up by her sister – and then they had to face wild beasts in the arena. And so went to glory.
There are lots of other saints, too, whose story has come down to us. Although sometimes their stories are rather less exotic than we once thought. St George, for instance, the patron saint of England: he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He rose to high rank in the Roman army, and was martyred for complaining to the then Emperor about his persecuting the Christians – he ended up being one of the first to be put to death.
And his dragon? Oh, that was a bit of a misunderstanding. The Greek church venerated George as a soldier-saint, and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century. Of course, you can look at it, as they did, in symbolic terms: the Princess is the church, which George rescued from the clutches of Satan. I imagine football fans often see places like Brazil or Argentina as the dragon, especially during the World Cup!
Goodness, the things one can learn off the Internet – however did we manage before Google and Wikipedia?
But not all Saints belong to the dawn of Christianity. There is Thomas More, for instance, who was put to death by Henry the Eighth as he wouldn’t admit that the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon wasn’t valid, or that the King was Head of the Church. And in our own day, Mother Theresa looks likely to be made a saint, if she hasn’t been already, although she died in her own bed. You don’t absolutely have to be a martyr to be made a Saint, although it helps.
So, anyway, those are just a very few of the many “Saints” with a capital S. No bad thing to read some of the stories of their lives, and learn who they were, and why the Church continues to remember them.
Our Saints have one thing in common. Well, two things, actually – the first being that they are dead! The Church doesn’t make people who are still alive Saints, and there is a long process of investigating their lives to make sure they really were as holy and as saintly as they were alleged to have been. That’s partly why a lot of saints were moved to the “Second Division” as it were, because the details of their lives and morals couldn’t be verified. But the Saints, along with a great many other people, are what we now call the Church Triumphant. We, down here on earth, are the Church Militant, and they, who have fought the good fight and got where they hoped they would, are now Triumphant.
But the second, and main thing that the Saints have in common is that they were all God’s people. Their whole lives revolved about God, all the time. Not just on Sundays. They may have led wicked lives in their youth – Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had rather disastrous relationships with women all his life, is alleged to have prayed “God, grant me chastity, but not yet!” – but they all knew what it was to have been converted to Christ, and did their best to live for him, and often to die for him, thereafter.
And it is that quality that we can share. We are, as St John reminds us, God’s children, and are constantly being enabled to fulfil our potential. We aren’t yet the people God designed us to be, at least, I don’t know about you, but I know I’m not! But with God’s grace that will one day happen.
Jesus gives us a blueprint, in the collection of his teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, of the sort of people God’s children are: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others;
hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on. All the sorts of qualities that our world deems totally naff, these are the qualities God’s children will have. No wonder being a Christian isn’t very popular! And yet, it is those of us who most truly display these qualities who are the closest to what we mean by “Saints”.
St Paul gives other lists of characteristics that Christians will display; you probably remember from his letter to the Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience and so on. And he gives lots of lists of the sort of behaviour that Christians don’t do, ranging from gluttony to fornication. Basically the sort of things that put “Me” first, and make “me” the centre of my life.
But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to strive and struggle and do violence to our own natures. Yes, of course, we are inherently selfish and it’s nearly impossible to put God first in our own strength. But the whole point is, we don’t have to do it in our own strength. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit, to come into us, fill us, and transform us. As we are, we would never inherit the Kingdom of God, whether on this earth or in the world to come. But transformed by God’s Spirit, then, in the words of St John, “We shall be like him”. And yet, paradoxically, we shall still be ourselves.
St Paul addresses some of his letters to “The saints in such-and-such a town”. He knew, and they knew, that it was possible to be a saint in this life. The letter to the Corinthians, for example, begins: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “sanctified” means “Being made saint-like”, and it’s one of the things that happens to Christians who are truly intent on being God’s person. You can’t help it; the Holy Spirit who dwells in you does sanctify you, makes you more the person that God created you to be.
So when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we are not only celebrating those who have gone before us, although them too. We are also celebrating those among us, perhaps including ourselves, who are “The saints in Brixton”. There aren’t all that many of us, but if we truly become who we could be in Jesus, if we are truly dedicated to being His person, then I reckon we could make more of a difference than we think. Amen.
Sunday, 19 October 2008
Has anybody got penny on them? Or even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?
We’re used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically, given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.
When I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on – the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates of 20th-century monarchs!
Different countries have different things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they have a different design on one side depending on which country issued them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, or a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones have a picture of the Pope!
This convention, of showing the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was thought to be divine.
You might remember how the earliest Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins carried a double whammy for them.
They got round it by having their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the moneychangers that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.
Now, Jesus is in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the puppet-king, Herod.
The question is a total trick question, of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images; it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.
So Jesus asks for a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled, Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?
And we all know what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God.
It’s kind of difficult, at this distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.
So what is Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them. It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we don’t.
I think he’s saying that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. The image of Caesar is on the coin – but we, we are made in God’s image! If we were coins, the writing around us would say “A child of God”, not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s beloved children.
Sure, sometimes God’s image gets marred and spoilt, when we go astray. I’ve seen coins that have been buried in the earth for years, and they go all tarnished, and sometimes, if they’ve been there for centuries, they build up an accretion of gunk round them to the point that you can’t possibly tell what they are. But even that gunk can be cleaned off, with care – and you’ve all seen those Cillit Bang ads where he dips a penny into the fluid and it comes up bright and shiny again!
Maybe Jesus is saying that this is not an issue to divide people – Caesar gets what belongs to him, which is the coin, and God gets what belongs to him, which is us!
This isn’t just about the fact that we probably owe the Government a limited amount of money in taxation, but we owe God a far greater response, of our very being. It is about that, of course it is, but maybe there’s more.
I think, perhaps that we are being called to appreciate a God who isn’t trying to divide us on contentious issues – we’re quite capable of doing that ourselves. God, I think, is trying to make win-win situations, where nobody loses. Look at the crucifixion, for instance. It’s not about whether it was the Jews, or the Romans, or even we who caused it. Grace is for everybody, no matter who. It doesn’t matter who you were; it doesn’t even matter who you are – God looks at what you can become! God’s way is open to anybody. At the crucifixion, blame is cancelled. We don’t have to live that way any more.
That’s one of the reasons why we are told to forgive. There is no blame. We live in a win-win world. We are forgiven, so we need to pass that forgiveness on – not always easy, but we know, when someone has offended us, that sooner or later we will simmer down and then we’ll be able to forgive.
So Jesus is saying that there is no need to choose – both are right. We pay our taxes, but we give ourselves to God.
Maybe, too, he is also saying that this was not the question. It’s not about whether you should pay your taxes or not – or even about whether a true patriot of the day should pay the poll tax. Maybe he is also asking whether people see God’s image when they look at us.
That’s the kind of question I hate, because I always assume the answer will be “No, I’m a rotten Christian and nobody could possibly see God’s image in me!” But that’s me being paranoid, I dare say. After all, we are told that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and that the fruit of the Spirit will be manifest in our lives.
I do think we try too hard sometimes – we try to make ourselves Christians rather than allowing God to make us so! We try to stamp God’s image on us ourselves; we don’t let God do it. Isaiah said something about potters and clay, didn’t he?
Come to think of it, I used to hate the image of the potter and the clay, assuming I’d be moulded in ways I didn’t like and would be made to suffer all sorts of things. Again, that’s me being paranoid.
But we do need to be open to God, to allow him to stamp His image on us, to write His name on us. That’s our job. Whether or not other people see God in us isn’t really down to us. Obviously, if we know we aren’t listening to God, or if we know something is badly wrong in our life and that this is informing our relationship with God, then we aren’t going to be displaying His image. But for most of us, our job is to stay open, to allow God to mould us. To give God, in other words, what belongs to God – ourselves!
Sunday, 28 September 2008
Gospel reading: Matthew 21:23-32
The story I want us to focus on this morning comes from the second part of today’s gospel reading. It is the story of the two sons. This isn’t the most famous story of two sons, of course; that is the story Jesus told about the lost son. In this story, we could say that we see the two sons when they were younger. Those of you who know teenagers well will probably realise that these must have been boys of 13 or so!
So, let’s look at this story a little There are three characters: the father, the elder son and the younger son. Father seems to be a farmer or landowner. I think he is one of Jesus’ favourite characters, one that he tells a lot of stories about. The gospel writers had to be a bit selective, but I shouldn’t wonder if that particular man wasn’t a well-loved character in Jesus’ stories. Jesus probably gave him a name – why don’t we do the same, and call him Caleb, and call his sons Levi and Simeon. And maybe when Jesus said to the crowds, “You remember Farmer Caleb....” they all sat up a bit and made themselves comfortable, as they knew a story was coming.
We had a story about him last week, if you remember – the farmer who employed more and more workers in the vineyard as the day wore on, and who then paid the whole lot the same, even though some had worked the whole day and some had only worked for the last hour. We meet the whole family, as I’ve said, in the story Jesus told about the lost son. And now we meet him in this story.
He has his two sons, Levi and Simeon. And on this particular day, he needs some help in the vineyard, so he grabs the first son he sees – let’s say it was Levi – and says “Can you give me a hand in the vineyard this afternoon?”
Now, Matthew tells us that the boy said, “I will not.” But I bet that what he really said was something like: “Oh Da-ad! Do I have to? I’ve got masses of homework. And I said I’d go round to Sammy’s house and see his new scrolls.”
And Dad probably said something like, “Oh well, don’t help then. Be like that!”
So Dad goes and finds son number two, Simeon. “Will you give me a hand in the vineyard this afternoon?”
“Sure,” says Simeon. “No problem, Dad; I’ll be there.”
And then what happens?
Come the afternoon, Simeon’s best friend calls round. “You coming swimming?” And Simeon conveniently forgets he’d promised to help Dad, and goes off swimming without a care in the world. Or perhaps he doesn’t forget, but it’s so hot. Dad won’t really mind. After all, he’s of times before. Blow it, he’s going swimming!
Levi, meanwhile, the other son, has finished his homework. He’s about to go round to his friend Sammy’s, but then there’s a little niggle. Dad did want some help this afternoon.
Yes, but why should I help, he argues with himself. It’s my brother’s turn. I helped last week. I’m allowed some time for myself, aren’t I?
But he’s just seen his brother go off swimming. He won’t be helping this afternoon, for all he said he would. Oh all right, Levi says to his conscience. I suppose I can go round to Sammy’s house later. He won’t mind. And anyway, I bet his Dad’s clobbered him for some help, too.
So Levi takes himself to the vineyard, rather unwillingly. But he does work hard when he gets there, and his father is seriously pleased with him. And, as Jesus pointed out, he was the son who was obedient after all.
So then, Matthew tells us, Jesus goes on to explain why he told this story. The trouble, of course, was with the Pharisees. As you will remember from the first part of our reading, Jesus had just had yet another run-in with them, this time on the subject of his authority to teach.
Jesus was always having run-ins with the Pharisees. They were good, religious people, of course, but the trouble was that they did not see God in the same way that Jesus did. They believed that you had to keep the Jewish law absolutely perfectly if you wanted God to accept you. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.
Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were, quite without realising it, imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why.
So you can see that it was absolutely devastating for them when Jesus came along and said “You’ve got it all wrong!”
What? They weren’t being perfect, after all? No, no, this couldn’t be right. They had to be perfect, or God would reject them. Of course they were perfect. Who was this silly teacher, anyway? What right had he to be telling them that they were all wrong? And so on.
They simply couldn’t handle Jesus’ teaching. For Jesus said, obey the Law, by all means, but do realise that it was originally written for a nomadic community which needed detailed regulations in order to keep healthy and increase in numbers. The Law, he taught, was your servant, not your master. God was far more concerned with truth, justice and right relationships than he was with whether you needed to give five or ten leaves of mint, or whether you washed your hands like this or like that.
So the Pharisees rejected Jesus and all he stood for. At last, most of them did. There were a few honourable exceptions, of course, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and of course, much later, St Paul. But by and large, the Pharisees, and the rest of the religious establishment of the day, rejected Jesus.
But one group of people did turn to Jesus and accepted his teaching. These were the outcasts, people who had been considered quite beyond the pale so far as the regular religious establishment was concerned. The tax gatherers, who worked for the Roman occupying power and often had to charge excessive commission in order to have enough money to stay alive. Prostitutes. Other people who for one reason or another felt it was hopeless trying to keep the Jewish Law and so had stopped trying.
Until Jesus came, the politically correct response to these people was to ignore their existence completely. Religious people would not have been seen dead with them; what would people think? But Jesus knew that they were longing for God, needing God, and wanting only the least bit of encouragement to turn to Him. And sure enough, when he provided that encouragement, they turned to God in their multitudes. We know the names of some of them: Zacchaeus, Levi, Mary Magdalene. But there were many others whose names we don’t know.
So in the story, Jesus equates the Pharisees with the second son, the one who said “Yes” to his Father, but then did not obey when the crunch came. The outcasts were represented by the first son, the one who had said “No way”, but who after all went and helped his Father.
So what does this story say to us today? We are a long way in time and in culture from 1st-Century Jerusalem. The thing is – and I’m speaking from personal experience here – it’s all too easy to get stuck like the Pharisees. We think that God only loves us when we are perfect, and that we have to be perfect in order for God to love us. Now, said in cold blood like that, it sounds silly. After all, that was the whole reason Jesus came, to provide a bridge between us and God. We know that. At least, we know it in our heads – we don’t always know it in our hearts.
I’ve often said that these Sundays between Pentecost and Advent are a time when we are looking at the outworking of our faith; how what we do in Church on Sundays affects who we are on Mondays. And when we get our faith tied up in knots – I did, years ago, and I don’t suppose I was the only one – we end up not really being able to be who God created us to be and, arguably, not able to do the work we were designed to do. If we’re too busy worrying over whether we are perfect, we can’t be getting on with life.
And, also, if we’re too busy running around trying to be perfect – and I know I used to do this – we’re actually denying God’s love. Even when we see God doing wonderful things, we assume he will only do them for us so that we can spend our time and energy working for him. My friends, the truth is that God loves us. He made us. He is interested in us. He wants us to be whole because he loves us. And because when we are whole we will be able to do more to help bring in his Kingdom, that’s true, but first and foremost because he loves us.
Now, of course, sometimes we do terrible things, and God hates the things we do. But he still loves us. Sometimes we deny him, say we are agnostic or even atheist, but he still loves us, and longs and longs for us to turn to him.
And he still loves us. Every single person, whither Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, or any religion you can think of, and those with no religion at all. Even Richard Dawkins! Even George W Bush.
Those who commit terrible crimes, even terrorists. Those who live honest, upright and sober lives.
God loves us.
The Father in Jesus’ story loved both his sons. He didn’t stop loving the son who did not go to the vineyard, nor did he stop loving the son who said he wouldn’t go. God loved the Pharisees, even though he agonised over their obsession with perfection. He loved the tax gatherers and other outcasts. And he loves me. And he loves you.
So let’s respond to that love by recommitting ourselves to him again this morning. It doesn’t matter if we have never said “Yes” to him, or if we have been Christians for more years than we care to remember. To help us, we are going to sing that lovely hymn, one of my favourites: “Oh love, that wilt not let me go!”