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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Goliath and the Storm

Well, these are two very familiar stories that we have just heard read, aren't they? David killing Goliath, and Jesus calming the storm. I'm sure I've known them since I was in Kindergarten, and I expect you have, too. Let's look at them more closely, and then see what, if anything, ties them together and what, if anything, they have to say to us as God's people gathered here this morning.


So then, firstly David and Goliath. Just to remind you, in the part of the chapter that we didn't read, as it would have made the reading far too long, we learn that the Israelites under King Saul are at war with the Philistines, and things aren't going well. The Philistines' champion, Goliath, is challenging someone to single combat, which was a recognised way of finishing a war – you often find this happening in novels, especially if you read the sort of historical fantasy novels I do! Anyway, Goliath was rather terrifying and none of the Israelites felt able to stand up to him.

Now three of Jesse's sons are fighting with the army, and David, the youngest, is mostly responsible for looking after the sheep. One day his father tells him to leave all that, and to take some food to his brothers and their commanding officer in the camp, and to come back with news of what's going on and whether his brothers are all right. So David goes off.

And, of course, when he gets there, he hears all about Goliath's challenge, and the reward the king has put up for defeating him – a big financial reward, plus his daughter's hand in marriage and tax relief for his family, the usual sort of thing that heroes always are promised! David keeps asking about this, and his eldest brother tells him to shut up and go home: “You've only come to watch the fighting. Now go away and look after your sheep and stop being such a smartarse!”

But David, quite rightly, takes that as merely elder-brother-itis, and goes on asking until he understands what is happening, and what is at stake. Then he has a little think. He can kill lions and bears and wolves when they threaten his flock, he's been doing so for years. How is Goliath going to be any different? So he goes to the King and says he's up for it. The king says “Don't talk nonsense, you're just a boy, how could you possibly fight a professional soldier?”

David explains about the wild animals and points out that if God has kept him safe from those, he'll surely keep him safe from Goliath. The King is rather desperate by now, so he says, okay, have a go.

They load up David with armour until he can scarcely walk – do you get the impression they are laughing at him? But David, as we heard in our reading, said he couldn't manage with that. And with a stone and his slingshot, he hits Goliath square in the forehead, breaking his skull and killing him. And, just to finish off the story, David grabs Goliath's sword and cuts his head off with it, and the Philistines all run away, so the Israelites are victorious.

There are some rather odd bits of this story, of course – apparently, in the earliest versions nothing is said about David taking food to his brothers, but he's just there with the army all along, and they omit those verses where Saul appears not to know who David is, despite the fact that earlier in the book he has appointed him as shield-bearer and court musician. And Goliath's height is rather more realistic – instead of being over nine feet tall, he is described as over six feet tall, which is still enormous by the standards of the day! So some of the ambiguous bits are probably from a folk tradition of the story that got mixed in. There are also questions as to whether that sort of armour was worn at that sort of date, and whether the tradition of challenging someone to single combat existed in that culture, and so on and so forth. But I don't think they matter, because it doesn't make the story any less true, even if some of the factual details are arguable.


So let's fast-forward nine hundred years or so and go a little further north along the Mediterranean until we reach Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. We don't know exactly where they were, it doesn't say. What it does say is that Jesus has been teaching all day, and vast crowds came to hear him, so he stood in a boat so that everybody could see and, we hope, hear. And at the end of the day, he suggests that they cross to the other side of the lake, and he collapses, exhausted, on to a cushion in the stern and falls asleep while the disciples row across.

I don't know if you've ever been to Galilee? I haven't, although my parents have. But some years ago now, one of the ministers in the then Brixton circuit went, and when he came back, he told us that he had actually been on a boat on the lake when one of the sudden storms blew up, and that it really had been quite scary. And I've been looking at some videos on YouTube, and it really does seem quite stormy. I believe these easterly winds can blow up very suddenly, too, and it might have been fine when they set out.

So there are the disciples, many of them experienced fishermen who know about the sea of Galilee, struggling to control the boat in the storm, and there is Jesus, sound asleep. So they wake him up and yell at him: “All hands on deck, there! Don't you go sleeping as if you don't care whether we drown or not!”

And Jesus, instead of helping to pull on the oars, which is probably what they expected, addresses the storm and it calms down as quickly as it came up. And he asks why they were still so afraid? Where, he wonders, was their faith.

But of course, this demonstration of his power over nature made them even more afraid than ever.


So, then, what is the link between these two stories, and what do they have to say to us today?

I suppose the obvious link is that, in each story, people were out of their depth. They couldn't control the situation. The Israelites had no way of coping with the Philistine army, and especially not with Goliath and his challenges. The disciples couldn't cope with the storm. They were out of their depths, and everybody was afraid.

David, when he went up against Goliath, or so we are told, said firmly that he was going in the Lord's strength, not in his own. He refused to put his trust in bronze armour, but in the weapons he knew, backed up by the Lord's righteousness.

The disciples were unable to trust in their usual methods of getting home safely when the wind started to blow. The oars simply would not co-operate, as the winds were too strong, and those who didn't know how to row were wanted to bail, but they couldn't keep up, either. It wasn't until Jesus intervened that they were safe.

So it's a bit about trusting God when things go pear-shaped, but, as we all know, that is easier said than done! So maybe it's a bit about not panicking when things get out of control. If we can't trust God – and, as I've just said, that is often easier said than done – if we can't trust God, then let's look round for someone who can. In the Israelite's case, this was David. He trusted God, he didn't panic when he faced Goliath, and he trusted that God would use his skills to defeat the enemy. And that is exactly what happened. The Israelites relied on David's faith, and God saved them.

And for the disciples, their faith was fast asleep in the back of the boat. They, at that moment, couldn't trust God to save them, but Jesus could, and did. He didn't panic when he saw the boat was swamped, he trusted that God would use his power to still the storm. And that is exactly what happened. The disciples relied on Jesus' faith, and God saved them.

Now, all too often, we are the ones who panic, who can't cope, when the situation has got out of our control. I know I am. But wouldn't it be lovely if we were the ones who people could rely on to have faith? To not panic when we saw what the situation was, to trust God to use our skills – or to intervene directly in some way – to save the situation.

Mind you, if we were like that – and I'm sure some of us are, although not me – then it is just as well we don't know it, or we'd start to rely on our faith and not on God. It's one of those paradoxes, like it always irritates me – does it you? - when people talk about the power of prayer, as it isn't the prayer, it is the God who answers prayer.

But I think we should all aspire to be that kind of person. And you can't be one just by wishing. It is really only by God's grace, by God's power at work within us, that we can become the people God created us to be, people who don't panic when life gets out of control but who trust God, either directly or through the use of their skills, to sort things out again.

But we can grow into that kind of person, by using the means of grace available to us – prayer, fellowship, the Scriptures, Holy Communion. But being aware, as Wesley was aware and reminds us in his sermon on the means of grace, that they are only a means, not an end in themselves. They need to be used to bring us closer to God, so that God can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make us more the people we were created to be. We will become more like David, and less like Saul. Amen.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Talents and Calling

This is a very special occasion, isn't it? It's such a rare thing – far too rare – that we commission a Local Preacher on to the Full Plan. And it's a wonderful thing when it happens, when the Church acknowledges that not only has God called Felicia to this wonderful work, but that she has worked as hard as she could to prepare herself.

Those of us who are preachers – and perhaps some of us who are worship leaders, too – will probably be remembering their own commissioning services. I wonder how you felt? I remember feeling very scared – somehow, for some reason, they thought I was ready! Even now, the best part of a quarter of a century later, I sometimes wonder when they'll find out what a fraud I really am.....

Yet I know I was called, as we know Felicia has been called, and as all of us have been called to serve God in some way or another. As in the Gospel reading we have just heard, where three people were given very particular gifts.

This story is a very old friend –
most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days.
Indeed, it is –
or used to be –
often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard.
If God has given you talents, they say,
then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.

But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense –
although it can be taken that way.
It’s about money.
Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money.
It is about gifts, and the way we use them, but on face value, the story is about money.

A talent was serious money back then.
Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer;
maybe more.
Serious money.
So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him.
One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one.
I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios,
and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.

The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money.
And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back.
Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more:
the text just says “A long time”.
And while he is away, things happen.
The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital.
Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange.
Perhaps they open up a business of some kind –
a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses.
We’re just told they traded with their money.

I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too.
They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary,
while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.

But what of Number 3?
He’s quite comfortable already, thank you.
He has a good, secure job;
he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself.
It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves,
he was the one chosen to see what he would do,
whether he would have the courage to invest that capital.
And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage.
Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all?
The consequences don’t bear thinking about!
Better play safe.
Very safe.
Not the bank –
not with the current banking crisis, thank you very much!
Okay, maybe his money would be safe,
but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t.
Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes.
So that’s what he does;
the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into
old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer.
And he gets on with his life.

And then, one day, the Master comes back.
I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would,
or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.

And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth –
chauffeur-driven Rollers,
Philippe Patek watches,
Louis Vuitton briefcases,
the best smartphones on the market,
and, finally, able to present the Master with
share certificates
and bank statements
and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.

The Master is delighted.
“Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to them.

“You’ve been faithful in little things” –
not that little;
a “talent” was, as I said, serious money –
“now you’ll be put in charge of great things.
Enter in to the joy of your Master!”

And then along comes the third servant.
On a pushbike.
And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order.
“I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains.
“supposing it had all gone wrong
What would you have said to me?
You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money,
and I was too scared to try.
So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”

And the Master is seriously annoyed!
“Oh, look here!” he said.
“So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay,
but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me,
so I could have had the interest?
Just not good enough, I’m afraid.
Take him away!”

The story is, of course, part of Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven,
and I think it isn't easy for him to put things into words that really don't go into words!
You may remember other stories he also told about it,
trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers,
talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become
a huge shrub,
or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise.
I don't know if you realise that these stories don't say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers,
as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles,
and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately.
And yeast –
or sourdough, more probably –
was not really associated with people of God,
since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread,
which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread.
And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit –
women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.

And, actually, it’s the same here.
Particularly for the third slave –
you what?
He should have put his money in the bank​?
To earn interest?
I don’t think so!
Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”.
So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that?

So what does it all mean?

How is it relevant to a commissioning service?

This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times,
something we don’t really like to think about these days.
Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour –
there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything.
And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.

He says nobody knows when it will happen –
and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen –
but the idea is to be prepared.
“Who,” Jesus asks,
“are faithful and wise servants?
Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time?
Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job.
You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”

The earlier part of this chapter
told the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids,
and whether you would rather be with the wise bridesmaids in the light,
or the foolish ones in the dark....
well, not quite that, but you know what I mean.
The sensible girls were prepared and ready –
the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.

So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well;
he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like,
when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it.
But one thing he does know –
we need to live as if he were never coming back,
but be prepared for him to return any second now!
It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.

It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time –
although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both.
It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.

We are all, I expect, Christians here;
all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator.
And some people make the most of it!
Most of us do, I am quite sure.
We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God,
we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is,
and making a point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day.
We don’t find it easy –
nothing worthwhile ever is easy –
and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate.
But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God;
our job is to be open to being grown –
and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.

But there are others around –
not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment –
but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life –
and then got stuck.
Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change.
Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it.
And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too.
“You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them.

But Felicia has not done that. I've known her for some years now, ever since she first began to be aware that God was calling her to be one of “Mr Wesley's preachers”. I know how hard she's worked to get where she is today, not least because when she started out, her English really wasn't very good, and she sometimes struggled to understand what was going on. It's been a long struggle, and I know there were times when she didn't find it easy. The London Course, which is how she trained, is very intensive – for fifteen months they meet almost every week, and there are several weekends away for periods of more intense study. No long holidays, the year you do it! And you have to preach every couple of months, and a qualified preacher has to listen to you and then send a critique to your tutors which you aren't allowed to see first! Really hard work. But Felicia did it, and I've had the privilege of watching her grow and become better and better at it over the last few years. So congratulations, Felicia!

And may we all follow your example. We're not all called to preach, but we are all called to be God's people. We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that.
We need to become what we can become, in God.
Much has been given to us already;
now we need to be open to God working in us.