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Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Things that Really Matter

Some years ago now I went into my father’s study, and found him reading his Bible. I enquired what he was reading, and he told me that he was looking ­ up the passage he had heard in Church that morning, as it struck him that it must have been written for people who owned more than one dog: “The more I called them, the more they went from me!”

Dogs do that. Puppies, especially. And so do small children – if you chase a puppy or a small child, it will run away, in the case of the child usually laughing hysterically until it falls over, at which point it howls. If you’re serious about getting either child or dog to come to you, you need to stop calling, turn round, and pretend you’re going to go away, at which point dog and child will usually come running.

This is a lovely passage, one of the ones in the Old Testament that shows us God as a loving parent, and helps us to understand why Jesus said to call him “Abba”, or “Daddy” - children today who speak Hebrew as their first language usually call their fathers “Abba”, and their mums are “Ima”.

Anyway, the person who wrote this passage, Hosea, was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century BC, so ten thousand years ago. Which is a very long time indeed, but nevertheless! In the Armenian church, they celebrate Hosea and the other so-called “minor prophets” today, 31 July.

Hosea was one of those people who did things to illustrate what he believed God was saying, as well as saying them. He married a woman, Gomer, who was a prostitute, and she continued to go with other men even after she was married to him. This was to illustrate God’s sadness and disappointment that Israel was going after other gods and not worshipping God any more. And there are all sorts of doom-and-gloom prophecies, you know the kind of thing, saying that the people will be taken away into slavery if they do not repent and turn back to God.

­But Chapter 11, the chapter we read today, is a little different. The metaphor changes from a husband-wife relationship to a parent-child one. And God laments, loud and long, that his children will not come back to him. Verses 3 and 4 are maternal in their love for Israel, or Ephraim as it is also known: 
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them.”

The image is of God as mother, breastfeeding her children, who then grow up and turn away, doing the things they know their mother hates. And suffering the consequences, too. And God also hates that:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
. . .
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.”

God’s own law says that Ephraim must be destroyed, but God’s heart revolts against the implications of that law, and refuses to destroy a beloved child. The Israelites did go into exile, as promised/threatened:

“They shall return to the land of Egypt,
    and Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
    it consumes their oracle-priests,
    and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.”

The King of Assyria was put on the throne, and the tribes were lost. Admah and Thingummy – Zeboiim, I think you say it – were two of the Cities of the plain that were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah.

But God didn’t cease to love Ephraim, even though Israel made its own plans, worshipped its own gods, and refused to turn back to God. That didn’t matter to the great Father-heart of God.

In our Gospel reading, we hear about someone else who made his own plans and they went astray. The rich farmer decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store his crops so that he would be comfortable in the future. But do you notice, it’s all “I, me, mine!” “I will build bigger barns to have more room to store my crops”. There appears to be no question of his giving away his surplus this year – no, he plans to be rich!

But then – the heart attack, the stroke, the ruptured artery, and bye-bye rich farmer! And who are all those crops going to belong to now? asks Jesus, cleverly coming back to the question that started it all: “Tell my brother I want my fair share of my inheritance!”

It is not earthly goods that matter. Not in God’s eyes, anyway. Elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers not to store up treasure on earth “Where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal”, but rather to store up treasure in heaven. And that’s pretty much what he is saying here, too.

But what does it all mean for us, and how do we relate it to the passage in Hosea?

It’s about what we value ourselves by, I think. All of us here are pretty well off, by the standards of much of the world – I expect we are all wearing clothes and shoes – and if we are barefoot, it is from choice. We probably have a change of clothes and of shoes at home, and we can wash in warm water each morning and have drains to dispose of used water and other waste. We are going home to eat enough food, to homes that keep out the elements and are warm in winter; we probably have a television and a telephone, and may well have the Internet.

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of those things, as long as we don’t start to value ourselves by how much we have. And as long as we realise that most of the world doesn’t have these things, that millions of people have been forced to leave their homes due to war or famine and to live in makeshift camps with no running water or proper facilities for disposing of sewage, with no jobs, no residents’ permits, no real hope. If they have been lucky enough to be admitted to a European country they still can’t work while their request for asylum is being processed, and even though they get a small allowance, it isn’t really enough to live on, and certainly not enough to lead a comfortable life.

The farmer in Jesus’ story was valuing himself by his possessions, by how much he owned. It is a seductive temptation, isn’t it? Even the Jews were inclined to believe that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and poverty a sign of the reverse. And we have all heard of “prosperity theology” which claims that God wants you to be rich – and so God does, but not necessarily in material possessions! In fact, they are of least importance, when moth and rust can corrupt and thieves break in and steal.

It is the treasures in heaven that God wants us to store up. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions”, and we know that values in God’s country are totally different from values here. But it is in God’s country that we need to store up our treasure!

So we need to stop valuing ourselves by our jobs, or by our income, or even by how hard we work for the Church. We need to value ourselves because Jesus values us. Because Jesus died for us on the Cross, and God raised him from the dead. Because we are loved so much that God found a way to keep us with Him.

“The more I called them, the more they went from me”, said Hosea. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says God to the rich farmer.

What are you valuing yourself by? And incidentally, it’s no good valuing yourself by how much you pray or use the other means of grace. Because it is only through the grace of God that we have any value at all in God’s eyes – but in God’s eyes, our value is enormous! Amen.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Thirsting for the Word

You might want to listen to the podcast, as between having written this and preaching it, there was an atrocity in Nice and an attempted coup d'etat in Turkey, both of which had to be talked about.  I'm told I "gabbled rather", and I expect I did, as I always do when preaching extempore!  See what you think!


I forget who it was who, when asked whether he preferred Martha or Mary, said:
“Before dinner, Martha; afterwards, definitely Mary!”

Me, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Martha.
There she was, desperate to get all these men fed,
and her sister isn’t helping.
And when she asks Jesus to send her in,
she just gets told that Mary has “chosen the better part”.

Yet it was Martha who, on another occasion, caused Jesus to declare:
“I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And Martha herself gave us that wonderful statement of faith:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,
the Son of God,
the one coming into the world.”
Martha was seriously a woman of faith.
And she wanted to show her love to the Lord by providing him and his disciples with a really good meal.
Maybe she overdid it –
the Lord might have preferred Martha’s company, even if it did mean dining on bread and cheese, and perhaps a few olives.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany –
Simon the Leper, that is, not Jesus –
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
At that, some people have said that Jesus was married to Mary; again, we don’t know.
What we do know is that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn’t quite clear.
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died,
even though he knew that God would raise him.
Lazarus, I mean, not Jesus, this time!

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary
are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly rather on sufferance.
But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”,
thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and recent events would show we haven’t really worked it out yet!­

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.

But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
if only Martha could be persuaded that they’d be quite happy with bread and cheese.
But Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.
Later on, yes, after Lazarus had died, but not then.

In many ways, Martha and Mary represent the two different sides of spirituality, perhaps even of Christianity.
Mary, wrapped up in sitting at the feet of her Lord, learning from him, listening to him,
was perhaps so heavenly-minded she was of no earthly use.
Martha, rather the reverse.
She was so wrapped up in doing something for Jesus
that she couldn’t see the importance of taking time out to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
Or if she could, it wasn’t something she wanted to do while there was work that needed to be done.
She expressed her love for Jesus by wanting to feed him,
wanting to work for him.

All of us, I think, are like either Martha or Mary in some ways.
Many of us are more or less integrated, of course,
finding time both to sit at Jesus’ feet in worship, adoration and learning, and time to serve Him in practical ways,
mostly through working either in the Church or in the Community.
Others of us are less balanced.
We spend our time doing one or the other, but not both.
Mind you, it usually balances out within the context of a church;
the people who do the praying and listening,
the people who do the practical jobs that need to be done around the place,
and the people who do both.
And perhaps in an area, too, it balances out,
with some churches doing far more in the way of work in the community than others,
but perhaps less in the way of prayer meetings,
Alpha, or similar courses
and other Bible studies.
And so it goes on.

Our Old Testament reading brings this need for balance very much to the fore-front.
The Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos,
expresses his disgust with those who have failed to be honest and upright in their dealings:

Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave.”’

And then, after a paragraph of warning of physical misery, comes the terrible warning: “The time is coming when I will send famine on the land. People will be hungry, but not for bread; they will be thirsty, but not for water. They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. People will wander from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean and then on around from the north to the east. They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”

They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.” The people started off with dishonest measures, with forcing the poor into slavery, and end up longing to hear from the Lord, but the heavens have been closed off to them.

Why am I reminded of current events? This whole mess in our country, everybody wondering what will happen next; will we really have to leave the EU, and what are the implications if we do? Parliament going into a tailspin and leaders resigning left, right and centre – well, mostly left and right, actually; I think the Liberal Democrat leader is still there. Or he was when I was writing this, but who knows?

I don’t want to go into detail about the causes of this whole disaster; you know them as well as I do. The road this country has chosen to take over the past 50 years hasn’t helped – the erosion of our manufacturing base, the disappearance of industries such as shipbuilding, consumer electronics, aircraft manufacture and most of the vehicle construction industry.  The fact that we were lied to, over and over again, by politicians and by the Murdoch press.... you know all that as well as I do. And I’m finding it incredibly difficult to work out what to say, anyway, as I’m so aware that my experience as a White, middle-class, elderly British woman is so very different to so much of many of your experiences. What, after all, do I know?

But whatever our experiences, however afraid of the future we might be, can we do anything about it?

None of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow; we can’t see round the bend in the road. But there is much we can do – not least, to pray for our country, and for our leaders; for Mrs May as she settles in to the job of being Prime Minister, and the Cabinet she is going to have to choose – and the awful decision she faces as to whether and when to trigger Article 50, and whether she can lawfully do this without the consent of Parliament as a whole... she needs our prayers, I reckon, even if we wouldn’t dream of voting for either her or her party!­

Those of us whose Christianity is more like Martha’s will want to get involved in many different ways; those of us who are like Mary will want to spend time in prayer and perhaps even fasting for this country we call home.

We don’t know the future; but we do know the One who holds the future in his hands. We may long and long for a word that doesn’t come, but we know that we have not been abandoned. We know that we may sit at His feet and drink of His word, and we may, must and will trust Him for tomorrow. Amen.