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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not helping!

Poor old Peter – he never seemed to be able to be right for very long, did he? In the passage from Matthew that was set for last week – did you hear it, I wonder – he was the one who proclaimed that Jesus was the true Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But now we see him getting it wrong. He was only trying to help, but somehow it didn't work.

Jesus was telling them that he was probably going to have to die, and Peter says “No, I won't let that happen!” And Jesus is so tempted – supposing Peter did fight? I wonder, what would have happened – not that we are ever told that. Peter did have a sword, we know – he had it in the Garden of Gethsemane. Unusual for a fisherman to have one, but Peter did, and he may well have known how to use it. But probably he would have been overwhelmed and died, and the result would have been the same. All the same, it must have been so heartwarming for Jesus to know he had a friend who was prepared to put his life on the line. But no – Jesus mustn't listen. This was the voice of the tempter, always so near, so insidious, so tempting.... “Get thee behind me Satan!” he says. “Peter, you're not helping!”

Peter was trying so hard to help, but really, he wasn't helping at all.

That happens sometimes. I asked the children earlier to try to remember a time when they had tried to help and it all went wrong. Or perhaps you can remember such a time? You thought you were being helpful, but you weren't.

I think this happens to us as Christians far more than we really care to think about. We think we are being helpful, showing others about how lovely it is to be a Christian, but really, we are putting people off.

Take one example, for instance – street preachers! Now, you know and I know that it takes a very great deal of courage to go out there and proclaim your faith in the middle of the street, to hordes of shoppers who haven't the time or the energy to listen, or to commuters who just want to get home and put their feet up. But why is it that so often you listen to what they have to say and cringe? All too many seem to think that the Good News is that you are a sinner and God is going to condemn you! Is that helping?

I remember once I'd had to go up to Oxford Circus to buy something – I can't now remember what – and there was a street preacher who had decided, for some reason, that all the people going shopping were there just for their own selfish pleasure and started berating them for consumerism. I was very tempted to point out to him that he really didn't have a clue, but didn't. I expect he went home very pleased with himself, but was he helping? I don't think so!

But there's me being judgemental, and that won't do, either. I am as bad as any – I try to preach love, not judgement, as you know, but is what I preach reflected in my own life? I don't think so! Well, not all the time, anyway. It's so not easy to get it right – often, we want to comfort a friend, for instance, but what do you say? So often, whatever we say is wrong!

I'm sure you've found this as often as I have – a well-meaning friend tries to comfort you when you're upset, but actually makes things worse! I know sometimes being told that God will never fail me or forsake me really hasn't helped when it's felt that this is exactly what has just happened! I know, obviously, that God hadn't failed me or forsaken me, but at the time, it felt like it! But sometimes people simply won't acknowledge the reality of our feelings: “Oh no, you don't feel like that”, or “Oh no, you don't believe that!” It doesn’t help. I remember once being told, by someone who really ought to have known better, that if I didn't find God's promises true – I forget which one I was complaining about – there was something wrong with me!

Well, quite probably there was – but it really didn't help for the person to say so. God doesn't always work in ways that are as straightforward as we would like to believe, does He? The Holy Spirit is a rushing mighty wind, not an electric fan. Or, if you like, he is not a tame lion! God does exactly what God wants, and because He sees round corners in a way that you and I simply can't, we don't always know what's going on. And being told that if we believe thus and so, or pray in these words rather than that, then our pain will wrap itself up into a nice little ball and go away really isn't helping!

We will see our loved ones again in Heaven, no doubt – but that doesn't help when we want to see them fit and well here on earth, does it? The thought that we will, one day, see them again is a great comfort once the worst of the pain is over, but it's no comfort at all when there is a great big black hole in the middle of your life where they once were!

Of course, we have all mouthed pious platitudes at friends in trouble – I know I have. And I don't suppose it helped, any more than it helped when friends mouthed pious platitudes at me! The Bible may say thus and so, but in the real world, people have feelings and emotions and although God simply adores us, he never promised we wouldn't have trouble and pain. Nor did he promise that we would be aware of him while we were having it – only that he would never fail us or forsake us. And he did promise that he would work all things for good to those who love him, but he didn't promise that would exclude the bad things!

I think a lot of the time it's because we don't know what on earth to say! We want to make ourselves feel better by clinging to the truths – and don't get me wrong, of course they are truths – that we have found in the Bible. But sometimes it's just simply the wrong thing to say. Or perhaps it's the right thing to say at the wrong moment! Someone whose marriage is in dire trouble simply doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't divorce – they need to be loved and held and allowed to cry. Someone who finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't do sex when they're not married.... bit late for that, I should think! Again, we need to learn how not to be judgemental – and oh, how hard it is to learn that!

And perhaps we need to learn how not to give advice! Often, the best answer to “What should I doooooo?” is “What do you think you ought to do?” or “What choices do you have?” Usually, I think, people make the wisest choices when we help them find out for themselves what to do, rather than tell them!

I seem to have got a long way from Peter, but it's all part of the same thing, really. “Lord, I'll never let this happen to you!” Peter was in denial about what was to happen. How often we deny what our friends are feeling, we tell them they don't feel like that, or worse, that they are wrong to feel like that. Oh, I've been there and done that – obnoxious little prig I was, when I was younger! Probably still am!

Peter wanted to make himself feel better, as much as Jesus: look how supportive I'm being! But that wasn't what was wanted just then. What Jesus needed, arguably, was a shoulder to cry on, or even someone to buy him a pint and let him have an hour or so to relax and forget about what was looming. Denial didn't help. The wrong kind of being supportive didn't help. Tempting Jesus to look for a way out of it didn't help. Peter was trying to be helpful, but in the end, he was not helping!
This is all very depressing, really! I'm sure we've all remembered occasions that we look back on and cringe at what we said to someone that really didn't help, that made matters a great deal worse! But that, of course, is not what I want to leave with you today. Yes, the street preachers I started with need to learn where people are, not where they think they are, so they address themselves to the problems people are actually facing, not what they think they ought to be facing. Yes, we need to learn how not to be judgemental, how not to give unwanted advice, how not to try to make ourselves feel better by regurgitating the “Christian” answer to a problem that really doesn't address how our friend is feeling.

But the point is, we are human, and we're always going to get it wrong some of the time. And the One to whom we go for forgiveness when we do get something wrong is also the One who will help us and enable us to get it wrong less often. God the Holy Spirit can, does and will help us to get it right.

Look at Peter again. This is the same man to whom God gave the knowledge that Jesus was – is – the Messiah, God's anointed one. This is the same man who denied Jesus three times. This is the same man who leapt over the side of his boat to swim to the shore to greet the risen Lord. And this is the same man who was anointed so powerfully at Pentecost that one sermon converted three thousand people!

If God can use Peter, despite Peter's propensity for putting his foot in it, God can use us. And that's why we shouldn't despair when we find we are not helping – we should, instead, ask God how we can help. And listen to the answer! It isn't always the obvious “Christian” thing – in fact, very often it isn't. Perhaps, if people don't tend to come to us for support and reassurance, they have learnt they won't find it from us. But as we make ourselves more and more open to God; as we learn that we don't have to be perfect, we just have to be Christians; as we learn more and more to listen to God and to expect the unexpected, so people will come to us more and more. Amen.

Children's Talk: Not helping

So, you younger ones.
Do you have to help at home?
What sort of jobs do you do?
Perhaps you make your own beds,
or keep your bedrooms tidy,
or do you help Mum in the kitchen?
Some of you older young ones do the cooking sometimes, I know –
I heard all about that delicious roast chicken.....

When my daughter was little, she had to keep her room tidy,
and she had pet mice,
so she had to keep their cage clean
and make sure they had enough food and water and so on.
And later on she used to cook sometimes –
she's a great cook, and I love going to meals round at hers.
When I was a little girl, we had to make our own beds and help with the washing-up after meals –
my parents didn't have a dishwasher back in those days.

But sometimes, when you try to help, things go wrong, don't they?
I remember several dropped plates when I was trying to dry the dishes –
that wasn't very helpful.
And I vividly remember burning a panful of sausages beyond recall, which was also not helpful –
I didn't know how to cook them, and guessed wrong.

Can you think of some times when you tried to help and it all went wrong?
In our reading, Peter was trying to be helpful, and it didn't quite work.
And I'll be looking at some more ways in which we can be unhelpful in a little while, after the music group has led us in worship!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Waving or drowning?

These are two very familiar stories we've heard read this morning, aren't they? The story of Joseph and his – I was going to say his technicolour dreamcoat, but that's Andrew Lloyd Webber, not the Bible! And the story of Jesus walking on the water, which is the one episode that people who know nothing of Jesus seem to know about.

So anyway, Joseph. Talk about dysfunctional families – his was the very worst. His father had been a liar and a cheat, as had his maternal grandfather. And Joseph himself was the spoilt favourite – his father had two wives, you may remember, Rachel, whom he loved, and Leah, whom he didn't but was tricked into marrying anyway. He also had a couple of kids by Leah's and Rachel's maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, but Rachel, the beloved wife, had had trouble conceiving, so Joseph and his full brother Benjamin were very precious, especially as Rachel had died having Benjamin. He, it seems, was still too young to take much part in the story at this stage, but Joseph was well old enough to help his brothers – and, we are told, to spy on them and sneak on them to his father. And stupid enough to boast of self-important dreams.

It's not too surprising that his brothers hated him, is it? Obviously, he didn't deserve to be killed, but human nature is what it is, and the brothers were a long way from home and saw an opportunity to be rid of him. At least Reuben didn't go along with having him killed, although he did sell him to the Ishmaelites who were coming along.

Joseph has a lot of growing up to do, and we all know the story of what happened and how, in the end, he was able to forgive his brothers and help save them from famine.

Let's leave him for the minute, though, and go on to this story of Jesus walking on the water. This is the thing that everybody knows about Jesus, that he walked on water, and even those who don't realise that the Jesus who walked on water is the same Jesus whose birth is celebrated at Christmas know “walking on water” as some kind of metaphor for the divine.

But there's more to the story than that, just as there is more to Jesus than someone walking on water! Jesus didn't go much for spectacular displays of his divine power – that wasn't what he was about at all. In fact, you may remember that he refused to be tempted in that way when he was being tempted in the wilderness. He mostly kept who he was to himself, until the right time came.

And now it was the right time to join the disciples. He had told them to go on ahead while he stayed behind to pray, and at some time in the wee small hours he was ready to join them. They should have been at the far side of the lake by now, but they were up against a contrary wind. I've never been to the Sea of Galilee, but I'm told by those who have that the storms can blow up very suddenly, and the disciples, although experienced fishermen, were struggling slightly.

And then, here is Jesus, walking towards them on the water. Most of them are terrified, except for Peter, who says, “Lord, if that's really you, order me to come out on the water to you!”

And Jesus tells him to come, and he comes, and then he finds he really is walking on the water, and panics. Peter is a strong swimmer, he didn't really need to panic, but in the dark and the cold and the confusion.... well, Jesus grabs him and they get into the boat – and then suddenly it's calm and quiet.

Now, I don't know any more than you do whether this is a true story or not. It almost sounds as though it was a dream; or perhaps it was a legend that got into the story of Jesus at an early stage. Or perhaps it really did happen. At this distance, it doesn't matter; what does matter is that the story got into our Bibles, and so God means us to learn from it!

But what? What can we learn from either this story or the story of Joseph? In a way, the Joseph story is easier.

I am very blessed; I belong to a wonderful and close family. Last Sunday, I had the privilege of witnessing my grandson's baptism – he has a wonderfully close family on both sides, and, as his other grandmother said, a fairly uncomplicated one – only one branch where people have married more than once and had more than one family.

But I know how lucky and blessed we are. It's very unusual – all too many families these days aren't close, don't enjoy spending time with each other, and are what might be classed as dysfunctional. Sadly, even within our church family. We do like to put on a happy face when we come to church, pretend everything is lovely, even when it isn't.

But God sees behind the happy faces to the heartbreak behind. God knows that not all families are happy ones; not all parents can be kind and loving, no matter how much they might want to be. Not all husbands and wives can get along together. And so it goes on.

But when we look at the story of Joseph and his family, we can see that this doesn't actually matter to God. These people became God's chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel. God used them in spite of how dysfunctional, how disorganised, how downright cruel they were.

The story of Jesus walking on the water is, I think, more about Peter than it is about Jesus. If Jesus is who he says he is, then suspending the laws of nature is reasonable. But for Peter, fallible Peter – the one who, if he could get it wrong, did get it wrong – for Peter to walk on water is not reasonable. And Peter panicked and nearly drowned, and Jesus had to rescue him.

I was going to say that Peter is the most human of the disciples; I think, perhaps, it is that he is the one we read most about. We know when he puts his foot in it and says the wrong thing. We know when his faith fails him. We know when he panics and nearly drowns – or, indeed, when he panics and denies Jesus.

And yet: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

God chose Peter long before Peter chose God! Jesus knew that Peter was the one chosen to carry on the work after he, Jesus, had been raised to glory, even perhaps at at time when Jesus had only the faintest inkling of what lay before him.

God used Peter, even though Peter was so human and fallible. And God used Joseph and his family, even though they were so awful. And God can use you, and God can use me.


And there always is a “But”, isn't there?

God couldn't use either Joseph or Peter as they were. Joseph had to grow up and stop being an immature brat. As you probably remember, we're told that he was accused of rape and left to languish in prison for several years, during which time he did grow up, and became an invaluable administrator and was thus able to help organise famine relief when it became clear that there was to be a massive famine. He matured enough to forgive his family, and to help them all settle in Egypt where, for several generations, they were happy and comfortable.

And God couldn't really use Peter the way he was, either. Peter was transformed, of course by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not that he would claim to be perfect, even then, but he became someone God could use.

And you and I, we need to be transformed before God can use us. We need to allow God to work in us, to renew us, to make us into the person he intended us to be.

But the good news is, of course, that we don't have to be perfect! It doesn't matter what our family background is. It doesn't matter how chaotic our lives are just now. What does matter is our openness to God, and our willingness to be transformed.

I'm not sure how much, if anything, Joseph knew of God, other than as the sender of dreams. His transformation was a slow and painful process. Ours may be, too – but I'm sure of one thing, and that is that the more we are open to God, the more we commit ourselves to being God's person, the more honest we can be with ourselves and with God about how chaotic our lives are and how badly we get things wrong, then the easier it is for God to transform us.

And, of course, we don't have to wait for that transformation to have fully happened before God can use us! We can still be used, ready or not. And God does use us, sometimes, often even, without our knowledge. But never, I think, without our consent. Amen.