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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Be joyful always

I'm not putting the text up, as it was, in all but minor details, identical to that which I preached three years ago, which can be found here.

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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday 2014

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So, Advent.
It’s almost an anomaly nowadays, isn’t it?
Out in the world, people are starting to celebrate Christmas already –
the shops have had their decorations up since the beginning of last month, or even earlier,
and the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities will be starting any day now.
And the endless tapes of carols and Christmas songs that are played in the shops, I should think they’d drive the shop assistants mad!

But here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for another four weeks.
We are celebrating Advent,
and it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent.
Those churches that have different colours for the seasons have brought out the purple hangings,
and many will have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.

But Advent is really a season of hope.
We look forward to “the last day when Christ shall come again”
to establish the Kingdom on earth.
We also look back to those who’ve been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’ Mother, Mary.

Today, though, our readings are about the coming King.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet,
and perhaps the people for whom he was speaking,
longed and longed to see God in action.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written very late,
after the people of Judah had returned from exile.
They would have remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the olden days,
in the days of Abraham and Sarah,
of Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses,
and of David the King –
and then, they would have looked round and said
But hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”

They reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No-one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

It does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God,
but somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and this world’s total abandonment of God.
You know, there’s nothing new –
we complain that people don’t want to seek God today,
and our churches stand empty,
but there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!

And, of course, as it turned out,
God hadn’t abandoned his people at all!
Jesus came to this earth, lived among us, and died for us,
and Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.

But Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading,
that his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of the story, either.
Somehow, someday, he will come back again.
He obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth,
and rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how.
But he draws pictures for us:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

It is a scary thought, isn't it, with the world as unstable now as at any time in the past century.
What’s more today, as at no other time in history,
communications are such that if Jesus were to come back,
we’d know about it almost as soon as it happened –
look how quickly news spreads around the world these days.
Half the time you hear about it on Facebook or Twitter before the BBC has even picked up on it.
And Jesus' return would be something totally unmistakable.
But lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come back any minute now,
and Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to come home.
We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come.
And we get to the stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Like Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world, and wish that He would hurry up.

And that’s perfectly natural, of course.
Some folk have even got to the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God completely.
But Jesus said it will happen,
and one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.

But that doesn’t mean that we can blame God –
if You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened.
Every generation has been able to say that to God,
and it’s not made a blind bit of difference.
So maybe there’s something else.

You see, in one way, Jesus has come back.
Do you remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost,
in that upper room?
God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered there,
looking like tongues of fire,
and with a noise like a rushing mighty wind,
and the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus.
And we know from history,
and from our own experience,
that God the Holy Spirit still comes to us,
still fills us,
still empowers us.

One of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us space to examine ourselves
and see if we have drifted away from God,
to come back
and to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit.
Then we are empowered to live our lives
as Jesus would wish.
We don't have to struggle and strain and strive to “get it right” by our own efforts.
God himself is within us, enabling us from the inside.
Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow, but actually enables us to do it, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Robert and I very much enjoy ice dancing,
although we have never been very good, and as we get older,
we don't get any better, either!
Rather the reverse.
And no matter how hard we've worked, we've never been much good. But supposing somehow the spirit of a very good ice dancer could get inside us,
and actually make our bodies move in the right way,
and show us how it's done from the inside.
That would be so much better than anything our coach could tell us, or anything we can learn from watching videos.
We would be enabled to dance better.
And that’s what God does –
by indwelling us with his Holy Spirit,
He not only shows us what to do, but enables us to do it.

All of us will face the end of the world one day.
It might be the global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be the end of our personal world.
We expect, here in the West, to live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do just that.
But we can’t rely on that.
You never know when terrorists will attack –
or even muggers, or just a plain accident.
We can’t see round corners;
we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

But whether it is tomorrow,
or twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now,
one day we will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to face.
And we need to be ready.
We need to know that we have lived as God wants us to live –
and when we’ve screwed up,
as we always do and always will,
we’ve come back to God and asked forgiveness,and asked God to renew us and refill us with his Holy Spirit.

We can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be bringing us nearer to the coming of the King.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christ the King

 I forgot to record the children's talk, sorry.  Scroll down past it for the recording of the main sermon.

Children's Talk:
Okay, so who can tell me something about sheep? Why do farmers grow sheep? What do they provide? (Meat; wool). We don't see many sheep her in London, do we? Sometimes we see pictures of sheep in the Bible, often we see a shepherd carrying one round his neck, like a scarf. Well, my brother is a shepherd, and he tells me that this is one of the best ways of carrying them, only what the Bible doesn't show is the very nasty things they are apt to do all down your front while you are carrying them!

Shepherds have to look after their sheep all the time. They can get horrible illnesses – their feet can get dreadfully sore, and sometimes flies can lay eggs in them, and the maggots try to eat them. And the wool can get all icky and manky, especially around their tails, so the shepherd tries to keep that area clean, and often shorn.

And quite often, there isn't enough grass in the fields for them, so the shepherd comes round with a tractor and trailer every day to provide extra feed for them – and yes, the stronger sheep do push the weaker ones aside, just like sometimes at school the bigger kids push the little ones aside. And when that happens, of course, the teachers intervene to make sure the little kids are able to have their turn in the playground, or at lunch, or whatever.

But the people the prophet was talking to would have known about sheep more than kids in school, so his picture made sense to them. And when the Prophet said that God would send a King to be their shepherd and take care of them, who do you think he was talking about? Jesus, of course! And today is the day when we think extra specially about Jesus as King, and we remember that He is also the Good Shepherd. Amen.

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Main Sermon:
Today is the very last Sunday of the Christian year, and it is the day on which we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.

I wonder what sort of images go through your head when you hear the word “King”. Often, one things of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach, jewels, servants, money…. and perhaps scandal, too. What do you think of when you think about a king? The modern monarchy is largely ceremonial. Our Queen reigns, but she does not rule. All the same, I’d rather be represented by a hereditary monarch who is a-political than by a political head of state for whom I did not vote, and whose views were anathema to me! But it hasn’t always been like that.

We think of good, brave kings, like Edward the Third or Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”. We think of Elizabeth at Tilbury: “Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”

Actually my favourite Elizabeth quote is when she was very ill, and one of her courtiers said to her, “Your Majesty, you must go to bed!” to which she replied, “Little man, one does not say 'must' to princes!”

Or we think of Richard the Lionheart – I’m dodging about rather here – who forsook England to fight against Muslims, which he believed was God’s will for him. Hmm, not much change there, then.

But there have been weak kings, poor kings, kings that have been deposed, kings that have seized the crown from others. Our own monarchy is far from the first to become embroiled in scandal. Think of the various Hanoverian kings, the Georges, most of whom were endlessly in the equivalent of the tabloid press, and cartoonists back then were far, far ruder than they dare to be today. You may have seen some of them in museums or in history books. The ones in the history books are the more polite ones.

But traditionally, the role of a king was to defend and protect his people, to lead them into battle, if necessary; to give justice, and generally to look after their people. They may have done this well, or they may have done it badly, but that was what they did. If you’ve read C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you might remember that King Lune tells Shasta, who is going to be king after him: “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.”

And when we think of Christ as King, we come up against that great paradox, for Christ was, and is, above all, the Servant King. No birth with state-of-the-art medical facilities for him, but a stable in an inn-yard. No golden carriage, but a donkey. No crown, save that made of thorns, and no throne, except the Cross.

And yet, we know that God has raised him, to quote our first reading, “from death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next.  God put all things under Christ's feet and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things.” Christ was raised as King of Heaven.

And it is the Kingdom of Heaven that he preached while he was here on earth. That was the Good News – that the Kingdom of God is at hand. 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.”

Jesus does lead us into battle, yes, but it is a battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And through his Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us the armour to enable us to fight, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, et cetera, et cetera.

Jesus requires that His followers forgive one another, everything, all the time. Even the unforgivable things. Even the abusers, the tyrants, the warlords…. Even Jehadi John, and the other leaders of Islamic State.

And in that Kingdom of Heaven, he will judge the nations, so our reading tells us. We will be separated into the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. I gather that in ancient times, your flocks tended to be mingled, sheep and goats together, and sheep didn't really look like today's sheep, so it was not always easy to tell them apart at a casual glance. But the King has no problems; they are separated, the one group to be rewarded for the way they have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and so on, and the other to be punished for the way they have failed to do this.

It is often rather an awkward sort of passage for us, as we believe – and rightly – that salvation is by faith, we cannot earn it. No, of course we can't; it is God's free gift to us through Christ Jesus, we know that. But we also know that faith doesn't happen in a vacuum. If it means anything, it changes our lives. Things are never the same again.

We know all this. We have seen it happen, if not to ourselves then to our friends. We know all about the little voice that says “I need someone to go on Facebook and send a loving message to X”, or “I need someone to see to it that this church is kept clean and tidy”, or “I need someone to knit Christmas stockings and Easter bunnies for church funds”, or whatever. Even sometimes the bigger things: “I need someone to be a street pastor” or “I need someone to stand for election as an MP”.... we all know that voice.

Yet too often we ignore it. We go about our business as though we were no different from anybody else. We act as if the Kingdom of Heaven was something completely irrelevant to us. And worse, we act as if the King of Heaven was irrelevant. This poem was written sometime between 1603 and 1648 possibly by someone called Thomas Ford, and it is still true today:

“Yet if his majesty our sovereign lord
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say "I'll be your guest to-morrow night."
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! "Let no man idle stand.

Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall,
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.4

Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place."

Thus if the king were coming would we do,
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleas'd, to think no labour lost.

But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All's set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a stranger,
And as at first still lodge him in the manger.”

“We entertain him always like stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge him in the manger”.

Must we? Shall we not follow this King, whose Kingdom is not of this world. He is the king who rides on a donkey, the king who requires his followers to use the weapon of forgiveness, the king who surrendered to the accusers, the scourge, and the cross.

Are we going to turn away from this world, and its values, and instead embrace the values of the Kingdom? I tell you this, my friends, most of us live firmly clinging to the values of this world. I include myself – don’t think I’m any better than you, because I can assure you, I’m not! We all cling to the values of this world, and few of us truly embrace the values of the Kingdom. We still lodge the King of Heaven in the manger. But He will forgive us as we acknowledge our failure and try again to embrace those values, which are so foreign to our own.

As we reach the end of one church year and look to the beginning of a new one, may the one whom we know to be King of the universe and ruler of our lives guide us in our journeys of welcome and forgiveness, that our churches may include all whom God loves, and our hearts may find healing and wholeness. Amen!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday 2014

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My father claims he has heard of a preacher who concluded his sermon on the Gospel passage we have just heard read by asking his congregation “Would you rather be with the wise virgins in the light, or with the foolish virgins in the dark?” which did not, of course, get the answer he was hoping for!

But the point of that reading, as, indeed, the point of the one from Thessalonians, is that we can't see the future. We can't see round “the bend in the road”. We don't know when we will die, or, indeed, whether our dear Lord will return before that happens. We have no way of knowing the future, and therefore, we need to be prepared for almost anything.

But today is Remembrance Day, when we think of the past, rather than the future. Never an easy day for preachers.

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 those countries that were part of it did not lose somebody. 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 did lose all their sons – it was a hard time. And the flu epidemic that came immediately after caused yet more deaths and unhappiness.

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. My grandfather, the one who was not wounded in the first war, was career army, and saw service in the desert, I believe. He came through unscathed, except for breaking his leg in a trivial accident that had nothing to do with the war, and was glad of it as he took the opportunity of the enforced leave to visit his family, who had not seen him for four very long years. But many didn't survive – either casualties of war, or of the concentration camps. And I gather the years straight after the war were full of confusion and muddle, as countries tightened up their borders and decided who should, and who should not, live there.

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. 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. Maybe we do. Our history in this 21st century hasn't been exactly grand, has it? We have been pleased, this past couple of weeks, that our troops have finally left Afghanistan – but over 400 of them never will leave. And should they have been there in the first place? It's a vexed question.

But there was the invasion of Iraq, for which the atrocities of 9/11 were just a pretext. And now there is unrest in so many places in the near East – Ukraine, for a start. And Syria, life must be absolutely awful there. It doesn't seem five minutes since we were watching a documentary about education in Syria, and now children are probably very lucky if they get to school at all.

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 those soldiers who were convicted of torturing Iraqi prisoners. And who knows – they may just have been the tip of the iceberg. If there was a culture of treating your prisoners with disrespect.... and then people wonder why you get extremist organisations like Islamic State – I know, and I know you know, that the vast majority of Muslims feel just as much horror and despair about Islamic State as we do, but I can also see, and I expect you can, too, just how they got pushed into extremism by the behaviour of some of our troops, and the attitude of not only our troops, but also our governments.

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, back in 2001. 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 was 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, 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 is there in Afghanistan, and Syria, and Ukraine, and South Sudan, and Palestine and all those countries where there is no peace, and life is very frightening.

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 most of these campaigns were. I do know, though, that people are suffering, through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in Dafur and Jerusalem and Damascus, and other places where they lost loved ones. They are still suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their faith – and, indeed, in places where Islamic State or Boko Harum has any say in the matter.

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.

For who knows when it will be our turn? The foolish virgins in Jesus' story were the ones who reckoned it would never happen, and failed to make preparations. We must and will remember those who died in war, but we will also remember that we have asked God to be in control of our lives. So we must be ready for whatever He might ask us to go through. And always, always be prepared to help make peace. Amen.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

What Belongs to God - a sermon for Freedom Sunday

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Please note that although this starts off the same as the sermon preached on this Sunday in 2011 and 2008, it finishes very differently.

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, Austria has 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! I don't know what the newer Euro countries, like Estonia and Poland have, but it wouldn't be impossible to find out! That might be a nice game to play with my grandsons when they are a little older, perhaps – but they would learn them too quickly, I think.

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 money-changers 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. There isn't really any difference between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, because, ultimately, everything belongs to God.  Even the holy people, the Pharisees, had to use these coins when they went to the market.  There isn't really much difference.

Yes, we need to be good citizens – both Jesus and Paul make that clear, one way and another. And yes, that includes voting as and when we're entitled to do so, and paying such taxes as we rightfully owe, but it also includes making a fuss when things aren't going as they should.

For instance, why do we still need food banks and soup kitchens? I think it's disgraceful in this day and age, and I emailed my MP about it; of course I only got back the vague sort of answer that if and when his party came to power they would Do Something About It – I'd really like him to be asking Questions in the House every week or so to find out what the Government is doing about it.

And maybe we should be writing to him – or her, if you're up this end where it's Kate Hoey, rather than down my end where it's Chuka Umunna – about traffiking. As I said at the start of the service, we've been asked to think about that today, as yesterday was World Anti-Traffiking Day.

We've all read horror stories about people who came over here in all good faith, thinking they were going to be found a sensible job and somewhere to live, and then they found themselves enduring slavery, and worse than slavery. There was even a case here in Brixton, not just so long ago. And the people involved are afraid to get help, as they are here illegally, and may well have fled very difficult situations in their home countries. The people who offered to “help” them, quote unquote, were preying on their fears as much as on their hopes.

There was the case of the Chinese cockle-pickers, some years ago, in virtual slavery up in Morecambe Bay, who were forced to work when it wasn't safe and were drowned.

We have all read stories about girls forced into prostitution, and so on. And I have a horrible feeling that these ones are only the tip of the iceberg. We must and we will pray for these people, obviously, but also, if you even suspect anything like that is going on near you – report it! If you don't want to go to the Police, I'm sure Anti-Slavery International or Stop the Traffik would help – in fact, I recommend a visit to their websites as there is a lot of information on there, including ways in which we can help.

You see, there isn't really much difference, is there, between giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and giving to God what is God's. These poor people are, each and every one of them, someone for whom Christ died. Someone who God loves so impossibly much he couldn't love them more. I'm sure God's heart breaks when one of his beloved children is sold into suffering, raped, beaten, overworked, not paid at all.... and I'm afraid it happens rather more frequently that we would like to admit it does.

One of my favourite books is called These Old Shades, and in it, a child character is taken to Versailles, where the King is holding court. And on the way home, the child says, “The King was lovely, just like on the coins”. I often wonder whether, if we were an image on a coin, people would recognise us. Perhaps, if we are whole-hearted about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, and recognising that really, there's very little difference, maybe they would. And in the meanwhile, let's do what we can to stop the injustices of our modern world. Amen.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Children's talk - two brothers

Unfortunately, I made a nonsense and failed to record the main sermon - probably just as well, since I hadn't much voice!  It is almost identical to the one I preached on this Sunday three years ago, the text of which may be found here.

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Once upon a time, long, long ago in a galaxy – well, a country, anyway – far away, there lived a man with two sons. Not unusual, of course – there are lots of people who have two sons, my daughter does. But these two boys, and their dad, feature in several of Jesus' stories.

Daddy was a farmer, we are told, and one morning at breakfast-time, he said to the boys, “Right, lads; busy day today, I'm going to harvest the big field. Either of you free to come and help?”

The younger boy shakes his head. “Sorry, Dad; I'm booked, I'm afraid. Told Sammy I'd go round to his today.”

“Not a problem,” said his father. “What about you, Joe?” to the older boy.

“Yes, I can come!” says Joe. “What time do you want me?”

“Oh, make it about 10:30, we'll be able to use you then. Great. See you later!”

All very well and normal, you might think. But then what happens? Joe, in the hour or so between the end of breakfast and 10:30, when he said he'd be at the field, begins to have second thoughts. It's a horribly hot day, he could go swimming with his friends; Dad wouldn't really mind, there were plenty of other helpers.... and eventually, his brother sees him heading off with his trunks and a towel under one arm, obviously not heading for the harvest-fields.

So the brother does a bit of thinking himself. Yes, Sammy was half-expecting him, but harvest was harvest, and it was pretty sure he'd be wanting to help his Dad, too. So he grabs a passing servant and sends him round to Sammy's with a message that he couldn't come, after all, and heads off down to the field.

Well, that's the story Jesus told. And one of the reasons he told it was to tell us that it's never, ever too late to change your mind, not in this life. If you've not been quite sure about God, about being Jesus' person, you can still change your mind.... it isn't too late!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Not Helping

I was unable to record the children's talk as my MP3 recorder decided to die on me; luckily I had another one (more reliable) to record the main sermon, the text of which can be found here.  The text below is roughly (allowing for heckling from certain Swan Whisperers - who did apologise afterwards) what I said to the younger ones, and the recording is of the main sermon: 

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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?
I expect some of you help with the cooking sometimes, too.
My older grandson likes to help making pastry and cakes,
although as he is only four there's not all that much he can do.
But he doesn't like to help clear up again afterwards,
and sometimes we have to get a bit cross to get him to help clear up after lunch!

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 after the hymn.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Being wrong; putting it right

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Our Gospel reading this morning is a very odd sort of story, isn't it? Here we have Jesus telling his disciples that what goes into your mouth doesn't matter, it's what comes out of it – what you say, even, perhaps, what you think – that matters. And then he goes and says something that everybody, certainly today and, I suspect, throughout a great deal of history, finds incredibly offensive.

Well, the first bit is easy enough to understand. Jews and Muslims both have very strict dietary rules, and believe that breaking them makes you unclean, and unfit to be in God's presence. And they also have strict rules about washing yourself before worship, being clean on the outside before, one hopes, being made clean within.

But Jesus was able to see, as his followers couldn't, that what you eat doesn't actually matter. Many of the rules – about not eating pig, or shellfish, for instance – made sense in an era where there was no way of refrigerating food. Eating them might give you a tummy-upset, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if you did. What goes into your mouth, says Jesus, eventually passes through and comes out the other end, but what comes out – well, that just shows what kind of a person you are!

And then a few days later – we don't know the exact date, that wasn't the kind of thing that the first gospel-writers thought important – a few days later he's off in a non-Jewish region, and he is so incredibly rude to the woman who comes begging for healing. What is going on?

Of course, the traditional explanation is that he was testing her. Well, that may or may not be the case, I don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what they think Jesus is like.

The difficulty is, of course, that we can't hear the tone of voice he was speaking in. Did he snap at her, which is a bit what it sounds like? He had ignored her for some time until the disciples asked him to deal with her or send her away. Was he trying to be funny? I wonder how you “hear” him in your head when you read this passage, or one of its parallels.

I tend to hear him as being thoughtful, trying to work it out. You see, in the time and place when he was brought up, he would have learnt to assume that the Jews were God's chosen people, and nobody else mattered. Some things, it would appear, given the situation in Gaza today, never change. But the point is, Jesus didn't know any better, which I think today's Israelis ought to.

It might sound strange to say “Jesus didn't know”, because after all, He is God, he is omnipotent and so on. But we believe – or at least we say we do – that He is also fully human. Unlike the various gods and goddesses of Greek myth, he wasn't born already adult, springing fully formed from his father's forehead, or something. He was born as a baby.

Think about it a minute. A baby. Just like (if there's a baby in the congregation, point to it) or my younger grandson. My younger grandson is eleven months old, and just learning to crawl and to pull himself up to standing. And, of course, he has to learn what he may and may not play with, and what is and is not appropriate for him to put in his mouth – although he is beginning to outgrow that habit. And I bet Jesus had to do the same. He will have chewed on Mum's wooden spoon when his teeth were coming through, and when he was of the age to put everything in his mouth – and later, he will have discovered that it makes a lovely noise when you bang it on the table, and have to learn that not everybody enjoys that noise!

And so on. He had to learn. We are told he grew in learning and wisdom. Remember the time when he was a teenager and got so engrossed in studying the Scriptures that he stayed behind in the Temple when everybody else had packed up and gone home – and then, when his parents were understandably cross, he said “Oh, you don't understand!” Typical teenager – and, of course, Jesus was learning the whole time about the Scriptures, about who God is, and, arguably, maybe a tiny bit about who He was.

And here, perhaps, he is learning again. We can't rely on the Gospel-writers' timelines, they tend to put episodes down when it suits their narrative. And here is Jesus, perhaps having slipped away for a few days' break into Tyre and Sidon, where he was less likely to be disturbed than in Galilee. And then this woman comes and will not go away.

We don't know anything about her, other than that she was a foreigner – Mark says she was Syro-Phoenician, Matthew, here, calls her a Canaanite. Either way, she was basically Not Jewish. An outsider.

You know, the Bible is full of stories about outsiders coming to know and trust Jesus! Just off the top of my head you have the centurion whose servant was healed, the other centurion who Peter went to after his dream to tell him it was okay to do so, and the Ethiopian treasury official. Oh, and Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Philemon himself, come to that, but I think by the time the letter was written, it was becoming more widely accepted that non-Jews could be Christians, as well as Jews.

But at the time, these people were outsiders. No good Jew would have anything to do with them. And Jesus ignores the woman, until his disciples ask him to get rid of her. And even then, he doesn't heal her daughter. Instead, “It's not right to take the children's meat and give it to the dogs!”

But I wonder. Do you remember the wedding at Cana, which we are told is his first recorded miracle? And his mother came to him and said “Disaster! They've run out of wine!” His first reaction was basically, “So what? What's that got to do with me?” but then he went and got the servants to fill those huge amphorae and the water turned into wine. He changed his mind. His first reaction was not to do anything, but if there is one thing he appears to have learnt, it is to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.

And in this case, too. The woman, consciously or not, said exactly the right thing: “But even the puppies are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children's table!”

And to Jesus, that was God's answer. Yes, he could and should heal this woman's daughter. So he did. With the comment that right then, her faith was probably greater than his!

You know, the first time I heard this sort of interpretation of this story, my immediate reaction was “No way!” Jesus couldn't be like that – he couldn't have got things wrong! You may be thinking the exact same thing, and I really wouldn't blame you!

But, you know, it wouldn't go away. Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something, I kept on thinking about it and thinking about it.  Why was this so totally alien to my mental image of Jesus?

Then I realised that, of course, it was because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being wrong”.  There’s a difference between being mistaken and sinning!  And, as I said, Jesus had to be born as a human baby, to learn, to grow. And he may well have learnt, consciously or unconsciously, that as a Jew, he was one of the Chosen, and thus superior to everybody else. But he had already learnt, as we found in the first part of our reading, that keeping the Jewish Law wasn't what made you clean or unclean – so perhaps it wasn't such a huge leap to discover that being Jewish or not didn't actually matter. God still loved and cared for you, whoever you were.

And in the end, I found this thought very liberating.  It made Jesus far more human.  I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never really believed in his humanity!  For me, he had always been a plaster saint, absolutely perfect, never making a mistake, never even being tempted.  I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand, not really tempted at all.  But, of course, it wasn’t like that!  St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that we are”, and if that doesn’t include really, really, really wanting to do it, then it wasn’t temptation!

But if Jesus could be mistaken, if he sometimes had to change his mind, if being perfect didn’t necessarily mean never being wrong, then that changed everything!  Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before.  The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was real.  Jesus really had been a human being, with human frailties, just like you and me.  He had had to learn, and to grow, and to change.  Suddenly, it was okay not to get everything right first time; it was okay not to be very good at some things; it was okay to make mistakes.

And, what’s more, it meant that the Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary person, someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh, someone I could identify with.

As I have frequently said, these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when what we think we believe comes up against what we really believe. Do we really believe that Jesus, as well as being divine, was also human? Do we think of him as having had to learn, to grow, to change. Do we think of him as having made mistakes, having to change his mind, having to – to repent, if you like, since that basically means changing one's mind because one realises one is wrong?

And if that is so, if Jesus is not some remote plaster saint, but a human being just like us – how does that change things? How does that change our relationship with Him? And how does it change things when we make a mistake?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Waving or Drowning

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If you wish to read the text of this sermon, please click here. It is very nearly the same, just one paragraph in the middle changed.

Little brothers - a children's talk

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Well, that was not a very nice story, wasn't it? I don't know how well you know the story of Joseph, and I'll be going into a bit more detail in a little while, but what you need to know is that he had ten older half-brothers, and one younger full brother, and his father loved him very much. I'm sure he loved the older brothers, too, but he was a bit silly about Joseph and made him a special coat, which none of the others had. And Joseph had dreams about his family bowing down to him, and because he was a bit spoilt, he told all these to his brothers, and infuriated them! And in the end his brothers took action to make him disappear.

Do you have a little brother or a little sister? They can be a right nuisance sometimes, can't they, especially when they are naughty and you get into trouble for it. Like when they snatch your toys and insist on playing with them, and you get told to share nicely..... I dunno. My family all tell me that having a big sister is horrible, too – I wouldn't know because, you see, I was the big sister, and of course I was lovely – well, some of the time. But no matter how infuriating my brother and sister were – and trust me, your younger siblings don't stop being infuriating at times even when you're my age. Do they? Anyway, no matter how infuriating they can be, we wouldn't really want to get rid of them, would we? Not seriously, not like Joseph's brothers did. Of course, when we get really, really angry with them and scream “I hate you, I hate you!” at them, at that moment we might wish they didn't exist, but not most of the time.

But being angry can hurt a person! Jesus tells us not to be angry with people in a destructive way, putting them down and calling them a fool and an idiot, even if they are. Well, Jesus doesn't actually say even if they are, he says firmly not to do it at all. So what can we do when we get really, really, really angry with our brothers, or our sisters for that matter? We aren't allowed to leap on them and bash their heads on the floor, no matter how much they deserve it. All we can really do is go and hit a pillow somewhere and tell God all about it. God understands – after all, they wouldn't have put this story about a seriously irritating younger brother in the Bible, otherwise. The thing is, you can always tell God about how you're feeling, even when you're absolutely incandescant with rage. God always understands. Amen.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

God gets involved

This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon I preached on this Sunday three years ago.
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Two weeks ago, when I was last with you, we looked at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and we saw how God was with Ishmael and his mother Hagar, even in the middle of the desert when all hope seemed lost. I don't know what you looked at last week, but if I'd been here, I'd have been talking about what's called “The binding of Isaac”, when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, but God sent a ram just in time – did you know, because I didn't until I began reading around for these sermons, that Muslims think it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed, not Isaac? Or some do. And now, this week, we come to a nearly-grown-up Isaac, and his search for a wife.

Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC –this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.

Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC. Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the latest he could have died was 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age –he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.

When Robert and I were in Italy a few years ago we visited the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.

Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized! However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the sort of food I like!

There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.

The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.

But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And they had all sorts of adventures, and sometimes things went very wrong, but mostly they went all right.

And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.

The servant explains, rather earnestly, how he asked God to show him which the right woman was –would she offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task – camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!

Rebecca's family would have liked a few days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!

We sometimes get alarmed about arranged marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another; we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!

I think Rebecca was very brave going off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?

But one thing stands out about this story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And God led them all to a happy ending.

I wonder how much we actually believe that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe! After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they don't? Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?

Well, the Bible definitely tells us that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does God really care? We thought about this a bit two weeks ago when we looked at Ishmael and Hagar in the desert. And we found that God was there with them, even though it hadn't felt like it.

Many of us have lived through enough bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that, when we look back, we will see God's hand upon it all. God may not have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has worked all things together for good for us.

It's not a matter of God waving a magic wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is happening.

It's more as if God is working with us, moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of decision and what God would like for us to do.

But, of course, as St Paul points out in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and regulations perfectly – how could we?

But Jesus points out that his burden is light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

I am sure Abraham's servant must have felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca. But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!” Abraham's servant trusted God.

I wonder how much we trust God? It isn't always easy, is it? Last week's story, how God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar.And God did do the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.

And now God did show the servant his choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Isaac and Ishmael

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I wonder how old you were when you first heard the story of Isaac and Ishmael. I can't have been more than 6 or 7 when it was part of my primary school Scripture curriculum. Of course, as a child you only notice the superficial parts of the story, and I don't think I've ever looked at it in any great depth before. But it's an important story, because it echoes down to this day.

So, then, Ishmael. The older child. The one Abraham conceived on his slave girl, Hagar, because he didn't see how else he was going to have a child – Sarah, he thought, was long past child-bearing. Hagar and Sarah didn't really get on – Sarah had been very jealous of Hagar when Hagar was carrying Ishmael, and Hagar, one gathers, hadn't exactly helped by showing she rather despised Sarah. Hagar had had to run away from Sarah when she was pregnant, but the Lord had come to her and told her to go back, and that he would make a huge nation from Ishmael.

And the years went by, and they all had loads of adventures which you can read about in Genesis, including fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. And now Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – some translations say he was playing, others that he was teasing or tormenting or mocking him, and we have no way of knowing what he actually was doing. He may even have been doing both – started off by playing, but unable to read Isaac's body language to know when he'd had enough, and ended up with Isaac crying, and Ishmael laughing at him, the way young people do with very small children.

And Sarah is absolutely furious. This had been a special party, to celebrate Isaac's weaning – he would have been somewhere between 2 and 4, I think, rather like Samuel was when he was taken to the Temple. Anyway, this special party, and now Ishmael has upset the boy and made him cry. Is it always going to be like this? And what if Ishmael really meant to harm Isaac?

You can understand Sarah's anger and concern, of course. She is well old to have a small child to look after, and this older half-brother is always going to be perceived as a menace. So for the second time she demands that Abraham send her away, and, heavy-hearted, he does so.

God tells him not to be too upset – his promise is to go through Isaac, but Ishmael is also Abraham's son, and so he, too, will father a vast nation. Ishmael is about 16 at the time. We know, because we are told he was 13 when they were all circumcised, and that was about a year before Isaac was born, so if Isaac is around three, Ishmael has to be 16. But the story makes him sound as though he was younger, and still very dependent on his mother.

Anyway, Abraham loads up a backpack for Hagar, and sends them both off. And they appear to have no idea what to do next, so wander rather aimlessly around until the water runs out. And then when Hagar is despairing, Ishmael resting under the one and only bush, God intervenes, and miraculously provides a well, or a spring, so they are saved.

According to some Muslim traditions, Paran, where they settled, is identified as Mecca, which is one of the reasons why it is a holy place for Muslims today. Because, of course, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations.

I am not going to go into details about which tribes he fathered and which he didn't – the sources are unclear and nobody seems to really know. However, tradition has it that he had twelve sons, all of whom became tribes, and their descendants are, of course, the modern-day Arab nations.

Actually, you know, that's really depressing! Because if there has not been peace between them ever since, how many millennia is that, and what hope is there for peace today? People don't change! The tribes of Ishmael and the tribes of Isaac have never been able to live in peace. Just pick up your newspaper or go online and look at the BBC headlines. A lot of what is happening in present-day Israel doesn't get reported by the BBC, but I have a friend who keeps an eye on things and she often posts news stories on her Facebook page that don't make happy reading. The tribes of Ishmael are still outcast in today's Israel.

And elsewhere, as the news bulletins make horribly, painfully clear, they are divided among themselves. The awful situation in Syria, which is leaking out into its neighbours. It's too ghastly – there simply isn't an easy solution to be found. At least we can pray for the situation there – I hope you do pray for Syria, because the more of us who pray for her, the better. It's an impossible situation – but then, we believe that nothing is impossible with God!

So it's all very depressing, and it's a depressing story for a summer morning, isn't it? I wonder what, if anything, we can learn from it.

One of the things I do like about the story is that it shows the people concerned to be real human beings, with human faults and failings. Many ancient myths and stories depict the people involved as in some way super-human, all too perfect, or with amazing super-powers that they can call on in time of need. Genesis doesn't. The people here are human, they have human problems and human failings.

We can empathise with Sarah, I think. At least, I can. We can't, and shouldn't, excuse her behaviour – she was wrong to cast them out like that, and I expect she knew it. But we can understand why she felt the way she did, and why she reacted the way she did. She obviously had a huge problem with jealousy, and if Hagar was youngish and pretty and, above all, fertile, while she, Sarah, wasn't.... well.... And then with Ishmael playing with, or teasing, or mocking – according to your translation – the 3-year-old, who may have been over-tired after the party.... you can see where she was coming from. And she wasn't having “that bastard” inherit any of Abraham's wealth, thank you very much.

And Abraham, too. He has proved himself far from perfect – read some of the stories about him in Genesis when you have a moment. He twice introduces Sarah as his sister – she was, in fact, his half-sister – instead of clarifying that she was his wife, and nearly led important people into sin. And he didn't believe God that Sarah could have a child, which is how come Ishmael was conceived in the first place. But at least here he shows himself unwilling to let the family go. And he gives Hagar a backpack of food and water, and relies on God's promise to look after them.

And God does look after them, we are told. They were thrown out for no fault of their own, they were facing almost certain death in the wilderness, and then God was there, in the middle of the mess, providing water for them and ensuring their survival.

And because God intervened, Ishmael went on to become the father of many nations, just like his brother. Yet Ishmael wasn't the child God had originally planned for Abraham and Sarah, and his sons were not to be “the chosen people”, although I daresay our Muslim friends would disagree with us on that one! But God still looks after him. God is there, in the middle of the desert. God is there, in the middle of the injustice and unfairness that caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast out. God is there in the thirst and the heat and the despair.

And that is true for us, just as it was true for Ishmael. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but God still cared for him. The people of Syria, many of them, are not children of the Covenant – although there is a very strong Christian tradition there, too. But God still cares for them. We ask where God is in the middle of the Syrian disaster. We ask where God is in the middle of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. We ask where God is in the middle of our own personal tragedies.

And the answer is the same as it always was. God is there, redeeming us, in the middle of unfairness and injustice and tragedy.

Perhaps you are suffering that way today – in a desert place where it feels as though God has abandoned you, and certainly everybody else has, and that you are going to die of thirst any minute. I don't mean literally, obviously, but there are times when it does feel like that, doesn't it? And yet God is always there. Sometimes God does intervene to improve matters. Other times, perhaps more often, things don't actually improve, but God gifts us with the skills and grace we need to cope with them. Hagar and Ishmael went on living in the desert, but they learnt how to do this on their own.

God never abandons us. When we call on him, he is there. Sometimes it doesn't feel like that – sometimes we really do feel abandoned, and that our calls are just echoing back from an empty sky. But that is only what it feels like, not what has happened. I don't know why it sometimes seems to take God forever to answer our calls – I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons we'll learn about in Heaven – but I do know he does answer. Sometimes “Be patient, be strong!” is the only answer – but the strength and the patience grows.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a happy story. But it does have one happy and shining outcome – God was there with them in the desert. And God is with us in our personal deserts, and in the global crises and tragedies of today. God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.