Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 19th 2014 – ‘Of inheritances . . .’

Sermon for Sunday 19th October 2014
Evensong

Proverbs 4:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:12

‘Of inheritances . . .’

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, and my mother’s favourite,
he taught me, and said to me . . .

As most if not all of you know, when in England I was a very keen walker of the Lake District fells – knowing most of the 200 of them well enough to be able to wander around them in the mist without map or compass. The irony is that I had grown up very close to the Lakes but only rarely ventured out upon those hills in my youth, even though amongst my prized books were beautifully hand drawn guides to all of those hills. It was only when I lost contact with them, moving away for college and work, that I started to feel their draw.

And how much those sentiments echo what we all to often sense in remembering ‘those whom we love but see no more’. Of late my thoughts have returned often and with increasing frequency to the person of my father – and specifically to the months, days and hours leading up to his death at the age of 63, and it ha been a journey of unearthing treasures I had not seen, or seen and discounted.

Six months before his death, my father had major heart surgery. the surgeon had intended to do a triple bypass, but on closer inspection ended up bypassing all four coronary arteries. He also noted some severe damage to various valves. My father recovered very well from this surgery, so well that his own doctor expressed her great surprise with how well he was doing. So it was that he was fit and able to come to my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. I was there too, but very very unwell . . . which as it turned out was no bad thing.
I had been, and to some extent remain a not untypical ‘eldest son’. And as the scriptures remind us, the relationship of the eldest son and the father, from Adam on through, Esau, Absalom and of course the characters in Jesus’ parables, well they are not always the easiest. My father was a very frequent business traveller, and especially in my teenage years his absence allowed me space to flex my muscles as the Alpha male of the pride, taking over the territory. Many of my memories of my father in that period are of him being very tired, and of how his return frequently led to small scale, but not insignificant conflicts as we battled over the space.
Thus I at least had had difficulty being in any sense close. And it was at my Grandmothers’ party the Lord kindly supplied me with a fairly drastic dose of food poisoning, brought on I suspect by a large plate of whitebait. Thus incapacitated and weakened, my father came to sit with me, and with my strength for a while subdued managed to speak with me in a way I suspect he had often wanted to. How much we need to be weakened to truly hear.

I remember how he told me, he wished he had made much more of his Christian faith as he told me he had seen me do over the years. Foolish pride blinds you to many things – I was heart blind and so I confused gentleness and deep humility for weakness. My father’s comments strengthened my pride and reinforced my self perception as the stronger of the two of us. I never stopped to ponder ‘Where did my faith come from? What was its root?’

Less than two months later, he was dead. I still remember that night, more than 20 years ago now, in great detail . . . but that does not mean that I had necessarily attended to the details.

It was about 11:30 on the night of August 5th, 1993. I’d gone to bed as usual at about 10:30. I wrote up the day in my journal (which I still have) – pondering God’s movements in my life, reflecting on the scriptures I’d been reading, and wrote some words, about the NT reading we had this evening to which I shall return momentarily.

I was on the edge of sleep when the phone rang. It was my mother and the tone of her voice told me something was terribly wrong. My parents had been out for an evening walk in the Dorset countryside – there had been a somewhat unusual encounter which I may relate at another time, but they had not made much of it – they had returned home – my father had read the paper, gone upstairs, knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom, got into bed and suffered a massive heart attack which killed him almost instantly.
It was very difficult to say much – I remember saying I’d come straight down, and hanging the phone up. Immediately the Alpha male kicked in. I remember saying to Sarah, ‘big brother time’ – now was the moment that my life thus far had prepared me for. I was the one who was to run things, and of course first of all I needed to be the one to see to my mother’s needs and to look after the funeral details.

I remember lying in bed, praying. And the most profound Gift, God saying clearly to me ‘It is OK’ – I KNEW in that instant something of the Joy which passes all our understanding – which keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ – followed by a terrifyingly intense sense of the profoundest grief and loss – but how oft do incohate sobbing and howls come from places we have not yet explored?

As the days unfolded, I was wondrously upheld – there was in some sense an incredible joy that made no sense at all to me, but was very real. In the midst of grief Joy. As my brother and I did the rounds of banks and funeral directors – making arrangements, tying up knots – both of us knew something which seemed to flow out of us and at times had a profound impact on those we met. One poor young bank teller having to flee the room in tears. In a sense we’d lost so much, yet in that emptiness, God seemed to flow out like a river.

It was actually only two or three years later, looking back in my journal that I uncovered some of the treasure. The night my father had died, as I said, I had been reflecting on the passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we heard tonight. Where Paul describes the Apostolic life thus : We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing . . . I had written ‘I am not sure I know the reality of this in my own life’ Searching back over the chronology of the evening, I realised that I had been writing and reflecting on that passage as Dad had died . . .

Of late as I have been connected back to elements of the faith of my youthfulness – I have been forcibly reminded once more of my own weakness, that this isn’t ‘my faith’ as much as something that has been granted to me as gift, and that God used my father in ways I had not seen in that specific regard.

Just this last week I was out praying, in particular over this stage in the life of our church, I having a cup of coffee and reflecting that my father had constantly told me, ‘The Lord will provide – he always has done – he has never left us destitute’. His gentleness – his humlity had made his life very very uncomfortable – he was ‘a businessman’ – hence his frequent overseas trips and so much of what he encountered in the world of business grieved his soul. Despite his amazing gifts, he could more than get by in a wide range of languages from French to Arabic, from Swahili, to Greek –  he never ‘got on’ in the business world, precisely because of his Christian faith. At one juncture he knew that he would have to leave his job. What was being demanded of him, he could not do. But as he said, at that very moment, God sent a visiting African bishop to our church. He needed a lift to a nearby town and my dad on an impulse went to visit someone he hadn’t seen for many years, who told him ‘I don’t know if you are looking for work, but my company has something that may very well suit you . . .’ God always provided – he always does. I know that deep within, otherwise we would not be here, but where does that faith in me come from??

As I further reflected I went back in my mind over the events of that night in 1993 . . . they had returned home – my father had read the paper, gone upstairs, knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom, got into bed and . . . I was stopped in my tracks. I had always known but not Known, always seen but was so blind ‘he knelt down by the bed to say his prayers as was his custom’ – And I saw him there, 63 1/2 years old – doing what he had always done – kneeling by his bed to pray . . . and I thought of how many times he must have gone to bed wearied by his eldest son, and prayed . . .

And I saw that I’d been blind. For the first time for many many years, I saw him in a completely fresh light, and my heart was filled with deep deep gratitude for my father, which as I left the coffee shop I was expressing to God in prayer. Turning towards home . . . I lifted my gaze to see a red sports car, registration THXDAD. And I rejoiced in a gift that cannot rust or fade or be stolen by thieves . . .

As I wrote these words, my mind went to words of St Paul to his ‘true son in the faith’, Timothy – I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. Where did that faith come from? From my father – on who’s knee I learned to pray, who’s last act was the act of his life, to kneel in gentleness and humility, and to pray

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
and be attentive, that you may gain insight;
for I give you good precepts:
do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father,
tender, and my mother’s favourite,
he taught me, and said to me . . .

What did he say? What is your inheritance?

Many are called, but few are chosen. Sermon for Ordinary Time 28, Year A

Sermon for Sunday October 12th, 2014
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Exodus 32:1-14
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

“For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The writer to the Hebrews says this, “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” Last Sunday we were blessed, and I use that language advisedly, we were blessed by the presence with us of Mother Keleney and her friends from the Community of the Sacred Name. Once more we were confronted with the truth of Jesus’ brother James observation ‘Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’ People who have little, and indeed since the Christchurch earthquakes far far less, yet RICH in faith, as exemplified in Mother’s preaching urging us ‘Church, push on into God and his Kingdom!’
A group of people who in our terms have EVERYTHING to worry about, a living example of lived obedience to St Paul’s words ‘do not worry about anything!’ Fearfulness throughout scripture is revealed as Sin. Those who shrink back are lost. Like the man who hid his talent – Jesus asks can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? One of the reasons we worry is not because we have so little, it is because we have so much! Our home contents insurance renewal has just come up – and once again I am asking myself, why??? After all, nothing I particularly value is replaceable :-) Whilst there are hungry to be fed, and naked to be clothed, what am I doing spending money insuring my possessions?? What exactly am I afraid of? Perhaps not The One who commands me to live with an open hand to the poor??

If you remember Mother’s sermon, you will remember that she spoke of the leadership of Moses – and his singleness of vision and purpose. Such it was that he was more than prepared to leave the people at the foot of the mountain for what seemed to them a complete age to learn from the Lord upon Mount Sinai – a reminder again to those who are ordained that their work is not  to be rushing around ‘holding things together’ but primarily to do with God.  When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” I must admit, hearing these words again, and the call of the people, I can’t help acknowledging my own anxieties about taking Sabbatical next year. Setting off on a journey with a community and then disappearing for three months! The echoes are clear :-) Will I come back to find the people running riot? Will Andrew have erected a golden calf in my absence!! :-) Clergy and I cannot say I am immune to this, all too often live responsively to the anxieties of those they are called to lead – rather than in faith, especially when the journey of the Church is one into uncharted territory, as we are currently exploring. God does his most important work with his people in the context of such uncharted territory – where we have nothing but Him – It is there that we learn faith. Of course it is so often the Poor that have vibrant faith, for they have no-one else in whom to trust
So it is in the uncharted territory of the wilderness of Sinai, away from  comforts that God tests his people – tests their metal – sees if for all their words of faith, their faith is enacted – performed – lived out. Whether they trust in the LORD, or whether their faith is a sham, idolatry masquerading as faith. ‘Having the form of religion, but denying its power’ They can say they trust God until the cows come home, but never step out to show that that is true.

The temptations are always the same – in the absence of a visible God to put your trust in what you can see. This story of Aaron in his anxiety throwing in his lot with the people is one which is not only old, but ever new. We might read this and think, what on earth has this to do with us? A golden calf??
But as St Paul reminds us, using this very incident ‘I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. [What is Paul saying here?? He is pointing us to a profound mystery, they like us were baptised into Christ, they like us partook of the Eucharist, the life of Christ, even though in temporal terms this was long long before] Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’

This story has EVERYTHING to do with us.  Idolatry is always the way of false faith, cross avoiding faith, faith which knows nothing of sacrifice. Faith which does nothing. But here also is the twisted genius of Idolatry – that it masquerades as the real thing. Listen again to the reading from Exodus Aaron said to [the Israelites], “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”

The memory of the Exodus is still fresh – they cannot deny that a god  or gods have rescued them from the Egyptians So Aaron making the calf says – ‘Here they are!’ How much easier to believe in a god you can see and feel and touch . . . and of course as the years go by and the memory of what The LORD had done for them, how much easier to begin to believe it was all a dream, and not to be trusted . . .  indeed one might speak thus of the Church in our day – how long is it since we have seen the mighty hand of God acting amongst us?? Have we forgotten? Has it all become nothing more than a half remembered dream?? Who will stand up amongst us and give testimony to the saving power of God amongst us? Mother Keleney and the sisters? Did not the prophetic word leave its mark?

As for Aaron and his anxieties mirroring those of the people, the  amazing saving act of God was only five minutes old – only a few weeks ago had the horse and rider been thrown into the sea and slavery in Egypt become something that had been definitively been left behind. So the memory of The LORD is still strong for all that , and Aaron invokes the Divine name over the gold calf “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD” By sleight of hand, the people are now not worshipping The LORD, but a calf whom Aaron calls The LORD. He fears the people more than he fears God . . . which is always the way of it. The people of God have an alarming predisposition for the comforting narcotics of idolatry, rather than the challenge of life changing faith. Easier to stick with what we know than face the difficult realities of living by faith . . . inconvenient faith. After all, a golden calf won’t ask any difficult questions of you, won’t require you to go on life changing journeys. It is a pale and ghastly imitation of The Living One.
And this golden calf cannot save us. Oh the irony of those churches in this diocese, and indeed across the Province and the Western world that have closed their doors with a healthy bank balance. Oh the mountains of chalices tarnishing away locked up in safes – oh the glorious robes which the moths are eating away at. All the idols, turned to dust.
Two weeks ago I preached on the theme ‘No Buts!’ The word BUT  is a hallmark of an idolatrous heart – Of course we trust God, BUT . . . Everything before the But . . .

Jesus Life is Invitation – Invitation to a life unknown to those who live not by faith but by trusting in what they can see. And perhaps here is a huge challenge for us – if we have never known what it is to live by faith – And this Life is expressed in terms of a marriage. What more can we ask than to be United with The One who calls all things into being?? God comes to his people and the metaphor is marriage – so a King ‘gave a wedding banquet for his Son’ He sent out the invitations, Everything is Ready!! But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, [Too busy for the demanding life of discipleship . . . How often is the word of life held out and people make light of it??]  ‘while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.’ Let us never forget that the world crucified Jesus. The Crucified One is a ever present reminder of what the World thinks of the Kingdom of God, which is why the Church in its anxieties is continually tempted to come up with a more palatable version of The Kingdom of God, an idolatrous and perverse sham, rather than the call to the Obedience that comes through faith, which calls all of our lives into question. That calls forth from us a totally new way of living . . .

This Kingdom invitation is denied. The messengers murdered – The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. it not the case that we get all squeamish about the wrath of God, because we have such a vapid bland perception of the Love of God? A love which requires nothing of us – a wrath that cannot harm us?? Eternal life a vague wish, but nothing worth changing the path of our lives for, and Eternal perdition? Well who believes in that anymore??

But This Love will not be denied!! The World Crucifies Love – THERE is the figure of our failure to understand Love. But God Raised Jesus from the Dead! The Wedding Banquet Will take place he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. This gift requires a response, the response of faithful obedience – as the Kingdom is announced by John the Baptist and the Jesus, the message is the same “The Kingdom of God is at hand – Repent and believe the Good News” This LOVE requires a changed life!! You were following in the way of death – your Life has to change . . . And one who has turned up hasn’t got it – when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ As our own St John puts it in the Apocalypse And from the throne came a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.” 6Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; 8to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. Without the response of faithful obedience, no one will enter the Kingdom of heaven . . .

And it is all there in the story of God’s people in Exodus who all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink . . . Not long after the incident at Sinai with the Golden calf they came to the borders of the Promised Land. The rescue from Egypt fresh in their memory, they sent spies into the land, amongst them Joshua and Caleb. When they came back they were full of all the wonders they had seen . . . but, there were giants in the land. The anxieties kicked in – faced with potentially costly Obedience to the LORD, or playing it safe, they chose safety. And the LORD said to them, have it your way, none of you (Except Joshua and Caleb’s families,) will enter the Land – you can stay put here in what you call your safe place until you’ve all died. Well as this message is conveyed back to them, they think – perhaps we ought to give it a go – but the door is shut – remember the foolish virgins with no oil??

Many Many were called out of Egypt – Many many were called to learn faith through obedience in the wilderness, but only a few were chosen to enter the Land. God’s banquet, the fullness of Life in the Kingdom, a life of obedience and faith is set, many are called, but some make light of it, others think they have more important things to be doing, others get angry with the messengers – still others turn up, not thinking that the invitation requires anything on their part . . .

I close where I begin, with that encouraging word from Hebrews – Encouraging – giving Courage – Giving a New Heart – a Heart of Faithful Obedient Love – This is the heart of the Church – the heart of God’s people – Faithful Obedient Love. Hear this word

“But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost,
but among those who have faith and so are saved.”

‘Church! Push on into God and his Kingdom!’

‘The moon will turn to blood . . .’ – of signs and inheritances, amongst other things

Last night both sides of the Pacific Ocean saw one of the great astronomical wonders,

a lunar eclipse

 

I was dragged from my slumbers by one of my daughters at around midnight to share (be it briefly) a moment of wonder as the incredible brightness of the directly reflected sunlight disappeared and all the moon was red-orange, with accompanying improved 3D perspective.

As a physicist and also as someone of relatively advancing years, this was nothing ‘out of the ordinary’. In physical terms, the moons orbit took it briefly into the full shadow of the earth, directly opposite the sun. So whilst not in shadow the radiance of the moon was at its highest, sunlight being almost directly reflected of it to the eye of this sleepy observer.  Then, the moon being at a fairly average distance from the earth, a fairly broad spectrum of longer wavelength light was refracted through the earth’s atmosphere, making the moon more orange than the deep red associated with the biblical image of ‘the moon turning to blood’, which would require the moon to be closer to the earth allowing only the longest visible wavlengths, red, to curve round the earth. Just another lunar eclipse . . .

Of course given this ‘explanation’ – the apocalyptic biblical account – Acts 2:20, drawing on Joel 2:31 expanded in Revelation 6:12, seem at best silly, to our way of thinking. Even though some seem to continue to think otherwise. It’s ‘just another lunar eclipse . . .’ after all. Yet, immediately one may well ask – what happened to ‘Wonder’? Put another way, our faith actually teaches us that Creation is ablaze with the Glory of God, ‘every common bush afire . . .’ so indeed it is not that these things do not signify, but rather that everything signifies. Literally everything is freighted with significance . . . a view which since the unravelling of the sacramental understanding of the world, begun about a thousand years ago, has gradually become more and more elusive, and those seeing things in ‘the mundane’ are readily dismissed as ‘lunatics’.

One of the aspects of Christian faith which most disturbs is precisely that which is meant to, its apocalyptic or revelatory nature – a tearing back of the veil from our eyes that we might see things as they are in their essence, rather than as they have been translated to us through the dulling lens of culture, in our case one which keeps the spiritual and the ‘real world’ poles apart. And it is disturbing for these aspects find their focus, not in the outer reaches of biblical strangeness, Revelation and the latter part of Daniel, but in Jesus himself. [Those struggling with the end of this coming Sunday's gospel, might do well to read Revelation Chapter 19:6-9 for a clear interpretation ] It is after all Jesus who speaks most of uncomfortable realities which we would rather not see. Jesus who speaks of Hell – Jesus who declares woe to the Rich. And Jesus who speaks of signs . . .

I remember as a young Christian – not yet fully conversant with Jesus’ words regarding signs, that they were for those who were barely believing, not the provenance of those who had fully cast in their lot with the man from Galilee – asking for a sign and getting one. The small, but faithful and lively Anglican church of which we were part in the English city of Bradford had several home groups and also wanted to tell people about Jesus through the Alpha Course. The then Vicar, I am sure more than aware of the juvenility of my faith, all the same asked me to either co-ordinate the groups, or set up Alpha. I duly agonised over this for several weeks. They both seemed good to me, and I hadn’t the faith just to cast lots, so on the way to work on the bus I asked the Lord to give me a sign . . . I stepped off the bus and setting off to walk up to my workplace, lifted my gaze to see a car pass by, registration A1PHA . . . which pretty much sealed the deal :-)

I had cause to remember that this morning when, crawling from my bed after a disturbed night, I went off to do what is necessary at that hour, drink a huge coffee and go for a walk to pray in the new days light. As I walked along, I was thinking about the point in life of the church of which I am privileged to be the Priest. The sense that we are being called to learn more deeply what it is for the Lord to provide for our needs. And so my thoughts turned to my dad, who died more than 20 years ago, and his constant testimony ‘we have never had much, and there were moments where I had no choice but to leave my job and didn’t know how I might continue to provide for you all [business life was often desperately hard on his good and gentle soul] , but God always provided’ And I was caused to give great thanks for that inheritance of faith, that had caused us to live with little thought to our own needs over the years and rather be available for what God was calling us to . . . however hard at times those choices had and have been. But that was not all . . .

Eldest sons traditionally have a difficult time with their dads. I was no exception. He was frequently out of the country on business, leaving me as the Alpha male ( :-) ) until his return, when the territory had once more to be disputed. One of the losses of this was that I had difficulty seeing him for who he was – and thus I missed Signifiers . . .

As I gave thanks I continued to pray and walk and the Lord reminded me of something to which I hadn’t attended, another burning bush. On the evening he had died, he had gone out for a walk with my mother, and then come home, retiring to bed at about 10 as was his custom, and as he did every night, kneeling down beside the bed in prayer. He then got into bed and died.

I knew this but didn’t SEE. This morning I saw. And my heart was filled with Deep gratitude and I know I have a long journey ahead of me to mine this treasure, this Gift . . .

Setting off to walk home, I lifted up my eyes to see a car coming towards me, registration THXDAD . . .

So I walked on, pondering Inheritance. On the one hand a financial gift which had been converted into a car, which was already showing signs of dilapidation and like all things will turn to dust – and then this miracle of Life . . . and I thought of all those years of kneeling at the bed to pray, and Wondered at the Inheritance beyond my finding out my dad had bequeathed me in and through that . . .

Jesus told a story about inheritance

One day he was out and about when someone came up to him and demanded ‘Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me’ Jesus, the one who embodies the Mishpat, the Justice of God, seems less than enamoured at this request – his response a rebuke to the one who seeks ‘fair shares’

‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

He then goes on to use the occasion for a parable, one the power of which may elude us, as we do not often read the Scriptures with the story of the people of God as narrated to us thus far, in view.

It is a familiar tale, uncomfortably so for we who are wealthy . . . ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” So far, so familiar. He has a good year – made good profits we might say – the odd thing in our ears is his question ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ If we do well, we seldom ponder what we will do – the answer our culture gives us is clear – store it up against unknown futures . . . but to Jesus listeners, his response is scandalous. For the righteous, the question does not even enter their head – your barns are full? You have excess?? Everyone knows the answer – Love your neighbour as yourself! You have done well, feed those who have not, your Life is with your neighbour. This was written DEEP into Israel’s story, and everyone knew it. When John the Baptist comes, his message of repentance is simple. Your brother has nothing, you have more than you need – it is a no brainer for anyone who loves God, or claims to love his fellow man. No one argued with John. He was only setting forth what the people of God had ALWAYS been called to.

With that in mind, as Jesus goes on, the crowd must have gasped ‘Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” How is it I ask that we do not see ourselves in this response?? I’ve had a good year, I am going to enjoy the fruit of my labours for many years to come . . . We do not gasp in horror at the man’s response, for it is our response . . . our culture has not only disconnected the physical from the spiritual, that disconnection has bored deeply into our souls so that we see no problem with the fact that some starve whilst we ‘eat, drink and are merry’ The disconnection means we no longer see our life is with our neighbour, and like the Pharisees with their interpretations of the Law, we have developed ways of interpreting Jesus’ words to make sure we don’t have to take them literally. Physical and Spiritual cast asunder . . .

. . . as we see when we interpret Jesus’ final line . . . But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ We ‘spiritualise’ the last response – for those of Jesus’ time, this was impossible. Jesus’ hearers knew his meaning – to live with an open hand towards those in need – to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked etc. was to be rich towards God. Jesus makes this utterly explicit in the parable of the sheep and the goats . . . this night your life is being demanded of you.

Jesus’ message is clear. Terrifyingly so.

This message remained the teaching of the church long after the Resurrection, indeed it was a signifier of the Risen one amongst his people. That the teaching of Jesus was continued, whereas now it is abused and ignored. To have faith is to liv in obedience to Jesus words.

If we have so little faith we need a sign (John 14:11)??

Well, last night the moon turned to blood . . .

Everything signifies

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison

No Buts . . . Blessing flows from Obedience – Sermon for Sunday September 28th

Sermon for Sunday 28th September, 2014. Christians Against Poverty Sunday
Isa 58:1-12
1 John 3:11-17
Matthew 21:23-32
“No ‘buts’”

I expect that this will not be news to anyone here – I am deeply troubled by what is called ‘Spirituality’. Often it seems to be nothing more than therapeutic self centredness. Whereas, The Life known to us in Jesus is radically Other centered. ‘Love God with all your heart, soul mind and strength – Love your neighbour as yourself.’ This Life is outward, not about Us. We are called to participate in God’s extravagant Love. Jesus really isn’t all that bothered about ‘the state of our hearts’ – he just wants us to discover our life in the devoted love of God and of others. LISTEN!!
 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. Do this and you will Live. Life floods in in the wake of Obedience.
And, it is in its  abandonment of any talk of Obedience to God in Jesus, that ‘Spirituality’ shows it’s true colours. ‘Spirituality’ subtly suggests to us that we can be at once ‘close to Jesus’, we can ‘have a personal relationship with Jesus’ whilst simultaneously ignoring the words of Jesus. I’ll repeat that – ‘Spirituality’ suggests to us that we can be at once ‘close to Jesus’, ‘have a personal relationship with Jesus’ whilst simultaneously ignoring the words of Jesus. ‘Do this and you will live!’

Brothers and sisters – let me speak plainly – if we do not seek to live lives of faithful obedience to Jesus, we do not know him. Any sense of his closeness is nothing but the echo of our own self centered heart, without obedience.
As our beloved brother, St John the Evangelist, the one who hears the very heart of Jesus warns us, and starkly “Whoever says, ‘I know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar”.  No buts . . .

Do This and you will live!!! Obedience to Jesus produces LIFE – Blessing!  This is ALWAYS the order, Blessing is the fruit of Obedience. We step out in pure obedience, not seeking anything else but His command, and are blessed. So we pray ‘Forgive us – as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us’ Blessing the fruit of Obedience; ‘Give – and it will be given to you, a full measure, pressed down and running over’ – ‘Give and it will be given you’ Blessing is the fruit of Obedience; Jesus puts this most plainly in the Beatitudes ‘Blessed are the merciful – for they shall be shown mercy’ Blessed are those who in obedience are merciful. We step out in obedience, we step out into the actions of God, Mercy, forgiveness, Generous Giving – and God Blesses this. This is the true meaning of ‘the step of faith’ . . . And this is no new teaching . . .

Our OT reading this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah – often spoken of as ‘The fifth Gospel’ – it was the book of the prophets, which the early church fed upon, which they devoured day after day. Listen once more to a few verses from it – listen for the pattern spelled out over and again.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Do these things and you shall live!! Blessing is the fruit of Obedience – Then Isaiah repeats the story – read it later at home!
Blessing is the fruit of obedience . . . Put another way Life follows Repentance. There is no new life without repentance which in practical terms means turning towards God in obedience to his Life giving word. Turning to the Light. Blessing follows Obedience, no buts . . . Obedience to Jesus, giving all we have and all we are to his purposes – Do this and you shall live!!
In the life of our diocese, we are in the midst of ‘interesting times’, as the Chinese put it :-) At Synod, an obedience question was put to us by our leadership, ‘What does Jesus want us to do with all this money?’ As we cannot fail to be aware, per worshipping member, our Diocese must be amongst the wealthiest  – between our 1000 regular worshippers we have reserves of in excess of $25 Million – that’s $25,000 per man woman and child . . .  Imagine if all of us were given that money and told ‘put it to God’s purposes . . . ‘What does Jesus want us to do with all that money?’ I wondered then and now if we are really serious about wanting to hear the answer? Why do we scratch our heads over this?? Jesus over and again gives pretty clear directions about what we should be doing with our money – we are not short of guidance.  What does Isaiah say??? ‘What does Jesus want us to do with our money?’ If we know Jesus, this is really not that difficult a question to answer . . . no buts . . .
A little later we are going to hear from Sam Harrowfield, the National Development officer for Christians Against Poverty. As we are all aware, the Good News of Debt relief and cancellation is at the heart of their work – their guiding text the words of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, on the Sabbath day . . . from Isaiah . . .  ‘‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.‘ The proclamation of  ‘Good News to the Poor’ – – – by the way, as we consider the bicentenary of The Good News coming to these shores, we would do well to remember that whenever the words ‘Good News’ are heard on the lips of Jesus, the poor are in sight. ‘Good News to the poor . . .’ . Why is the Good News to the poor? For ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ is the year of Jubilee – the year of cancellation of Debt . . .  ‘Hear the word of GRACE! your debts are cancelled’ . . . To be poor in the times of Jesus, as it all too often is today, was almost certainly to be in debt . . . except nowadays in contrast to the times of Jesus, someone else’s debt is no concern of ours . . . in the time of Jesus this was definitely NOT the case
It is very hard for us to understand what debt meant to the people of Jesus’ time. For they understood ‘the economy’ in a very different way to us. We are trained in economic thinking, thus ‘There is enough for all to have what they want, and because there is enough for all to have what they want, if you are poor it is a failing in you, and if you are rich then you have done well. you are responsible for your life, you are your own keeper. I am not your keeper’ ‘If you are poor it is your own fault’ Based on the assumption, ‘there is enough for everyone to have everything they want . . .therefore someone else’s debt is no concern of mine’  . . . And now the creation is close to collapsing under this rapacious doctrine . . . as the poor continue to be so. Yet as we heard last week, God gives according to our need, not according to our deserts . . . and God’s generosity still sticks in the craw of the Jonahs of this world . . . trying to keep it ‘Spiritual’, and damning the poor for their ‘sloth’ . . .
For the people of Jesus’ time, and indeed for most people throughout most of history, a very different ‘economic’ understanding prevailed – one that the Old Testament, the prophets and Jesus himself understood. Here, wealth, that which God provided, is a finite resource. So if one accumulates wealth, like the man who built all the barns, it can only happen at the expense of their neighbour. Human relatedness was paramount. Nothing happened to ‘isolated individuals’ – a category unknown to Jesus. This was most apparent in the case of land which was distributed between all the people, so that ‘every man had his own fig tree, their own vine underneath which to sit’. Thus when one was in poverty, without the means of subsistence, the land, it was because others had an abundance . . . ‘Woe to you’, says the prophet, ‘Woe to you who add house to house, and field to field!!’
We urbanites are immune to understandings based on land accumulation. We think nothing of it. So much of what Jesus says about wealth makes no sense to us and has to be ‘spiritualised’ . . . turned into an abstract about ‘the state of our heart’, ignoring the concrete command of Jesus who says ‘Give to everyone who asks of you’. ‘Spirituality’ loves to ‘Spiritualise’ – to say ‘Yes, but’ to Jesus commands. To ‘say yes’ to Jesus is no ‘spiritual’ thing, it is concrete obedience to him
If we understood wealth in the terms of Jesus, and of the times of Jesus, it is obvious why he tells the Rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Because it is at the expense of the poor that he has obtained them! Jesus is not here teaching us about a ‘spiritual’ truth about not trusting in your possessions. He is simply calling the man to give back what he has taken, to enact Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s favour – he is calling him to obedience – he is announcing the Good News to Him. Enter Eternal LIFE!
The one command Jesus did not mention, when he listed the commands and the man enthusiastically declared, ‘all these I have kept since my youth’, was ‘You shall not covet that which is your neighbours’ In our terms, you shall not accumulate wealth, because it is at the cost of another. And it still is, but our economic systems have hidden that from us, at least to the casual observer, or the one who would prefer not to see . . .
In our gospel reading today, we come close to the climax of the series of challenges Jesus has issued to enter the Life that is eternal – the Rule of God – to participate in the Life of God – the God who lays down his life for his people. As we have heard these past weeks, this is Not to seek for ourselves an apology for wrongs done us c.f. the father of the Prodigal, but to seek out the lost and bring them home – not to withhold forgiveness, but to forgive over and over, as God in Christ has forgiven us – not to give others what they ‘deserve’, but in generosity to give what they need. A whole days wage, for without it you will not be able to eat, even though it took till the last hour of the day to find work. ‘Woe’ we might say ‘to all those who employ people full time but do not pay them a living wage . . .’ [See James 5:1-6] Strangers to the abundant Generosity of God of LIFE, who has cancelled all debts against us. Strangers to Obedience, strangers to Life itself.
Jesus has brought no new teaching. Rather in him, the moment of God’s judgement has come. The call is clear. Repent for the Kingdom is at hand in Jesus. The elders of the Temple, the Pharisees and the rest – they know what God required, but rather than obey, they had developed a complex theological and religious system, much of which was designed to keep them from having to let go of their wealth and with it their power over others. We might say they had institutionalised tax avoidance, more truthfully and in the terms they would recognise, they had institutionalised disobedience to God’s Word. ‘By what authority do you do these things’ they ask Jesus? What things? Overturn the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Overturn the system of disobedience.
Externally they were Religious – externally, like the first son, they said ‘Yes’ to God’s command . . . but then they did not do it . . . John then Jesus come preaching the presence of the Kingdom – calling for fruit worthy of repentance, the fruit of obedience, sharing of what you have with those who do not have . . . and who responded?? The tax-collectors, the sinners – they were streaming into the kingdom. Those, like the second son, whose lives externally had said ‘NO!’ to God’s commands, now were saying YES in droves . . .
The wealthy Pharisees and the rest said ‘Yes, we know what God has said’ . . . BUT you need to be reasonable about these things. These words of God they are hard, they need interpreting for our times and our contexts – our hearts must be changed, it is the journey of a life time . . .’ and the hungry went unfed, and continue to go unfed
The outrageous sinners – those who had said, this whole obedience lark is TOO much . . . but you know, when I think about it, my life isn’t much to write home about. You know I think I’ll give it a go. I have nothing to lose!! It is the tax collector who speaks the truth ‘I have defrauded my neighbour,’ whilst the wealthy elders of the Temple look on askance . . .

We too find the commands of Jesus pretty tough. Let’s be honest about this. How often have we said to Jesus, ‘Yes . . . But . . .’, and we all know what comes before ‘But  . . .’ We know what our ‘but’ is saying to Jesus – or should that be ‘our butt’?? ;-) In my ‘darker moments’ I sometimes wonder if Bible study groups are not often groups for helping one another find a wriggle round the words of Jesus  – rather than groups for the support of one another in the face of his challenging commands . . . :-)
‘Spirituality’ tells us ‘you cannot love until you are healed and that will take a lifetime . . .’ ‘Yes God Commands you to love, and all that, but he knows you can’t and that’s ok . . .’ NO! God’s judgement is present in Christ crucified, this is not a journey, this is Krisis! If today you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. Kairos!
No Buts, there is only one door to life, The Good News is that Jesus holds it open. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and ALL these things shall be added unto you. Take no thought for yourself, give yourself to God’s Life, to God’s work and he WILL provide. Blessing is the fruit of Obedience. the Kingdom is at hand. The Judge stands at the door. At the heart of our Life together their can only be one word of response to Jesus’ words of Life, and that is Yes. No buts.
And if you want your heart fixed?? Obedience to Jesus is the way … God will now put his entire life in our hands . . . may our reception of the sacrament, be our Yes to Jesus, no buts.

The Life that is Good – Sermon for 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A – 2014

Sermon for Sunday September 21st
25th of Ordinary Time
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

Whilst I’m not the greatest watcher of the TV, just occasionally I’ll sit down beside my family out of curiosity. And of late I was interested to see what the new Dr Who, Peter Capaldi, a man more of my generation would bring to this institution. And I wasn’t disappointed for in the episode I saw, he grappled with the question of ‘Goodness’ Asking his companion, ‘please tell me, be honest with me, Am I a good person?’

As the episode unwound, the Dr found himself once more confronted by his oldest enemy The Daleks – but one which rather than trying to ‘Exterminate the Dr’, wanted to exterminate the other Daleks. This particular Dalek had had a bit of short circuit and had decided that life would always triumph so it was futile trying to destroy it, better to destroy those who would destroy life. . . . Now of course if we’re at all alert to what is going on here we’ll recognise there is a problem, one that as a whole the world never addresses at a deep level. ‘Is it good to do evil to destroy [a greater] evil?’ . . . Of course we have to call it ‘a greater evil’ as if there were gradations of evil, for otherwise how could we live with ourselves??

Later in the episode Dr Who comes to horrible realisation, that deep within him lies Hatred. Beneath all the beauty and goodness, there is hatred, hatred for the Daleks. And the Dalek, tapping into this hatred sets off to destroy the other Daleks. After all if Dr Who hates, it must be OK, mustn’t it?? The Dr is left in an existential agony, and I think this is a pretty good set up for the series.

The question ‘Am I a good person?’ is answered at once indirectly and also very directly by Jesus. We will remember the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus, with his question ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ But, perhaps trying to curry favour with Jesus, or perhaps because he sees something in Jesus he doesn’t possess (and this incident is all about what we possess . . .) he addresses him ‘Good teacher’ to which Jesus responds with words that we tend to gloss over, but which demolish the way we are taught to think about the world. Jesus says ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’!!! WHAT????

[At this point I could make an extended excursus into why within a Platonic philosophical understanding this is a perfectly reasonable assertion and that we find it shocking because for the last 1000 years or so, Aristotle has been our philosophical father, even for those who’ve never heard of him :-) . . . but I won’t]

‘Am I a good person?’ Asks Dr Who . . . of course we all want him to be good . . . but Jesus would say ‘No, but you’re missing the point. This isn’t about you and your goodness, it is all about God and His goodness. To enter into the Life that is eternal, you must enter into the life that is good, to participate in it, to lose your self in the Life of God’

And our readings today point us very clearly in this direction, as indeed the gospel readings have been doing for the past few weeks.

Today we hear once more the old familiar story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who runs from the Word of the Lord, but without success. God’s purposes will not be thwarted by his people, however unwilling they might be.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”

And as we all know, Jonah runs off in the opposite direction and then there’s the whole ‘Big fish’ thing,  before most unwillingly he travels to Nineveh. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. “And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . .” Which brings us to today’s reading – “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. . . .”

Now we may well ask, Why did Jonah run off to Tarshish? Why was he so reluctant to do what God had called him to do?? We might think ‘ Well it seems like a lot of hard work! He might have been lazy.’ But no, it wasn’t that. Or, we might think ‘well Nineveh was a big city with a terrible reputation and you want me to go into the midst of it and shout out God’s judgement??’ Imagine doing that in Dunedin!! Imagine doing it in the middle of a city which was a byword for violence and wickedness, the seat of the cult of the warlike god, Nimrod, the home of thousands of armoured chariots. Perhaps Jonah was scared . . . but no. Indeed Jonah tells us precisely why he went to all that trouble to flee from the Word of the Lord.

“Seeing the people repent of their wickedness, God relented from what he intended But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Here is the prophet of God shaking his fist at God because he knows him to be a God of mercy, not operating to Jonah’s standards of justice . . . in Jonah’s eyes, they deserve to be destroyed . . . but not in the eyes of God . . . in Jonah’s eyes . . . Jonah was reluctant because deep down, he didn’t want to take part in the Life of God . . . I’ll return to Jonah in a minute

Our gospel, like the gospels of the previous weeks, faces us with a similar challenge. The landowner pays everyone the same. Some have born the heat of the day. They get what they agreed on, but he is generous to those who were employed late in the day, and worked but an hour.
Now there is an entirely coherent account of godly economics underlying this, that people need to eat. For those who live in poverty, a days wages covered your necessities and no more. People need to eat. A days wages will provide what they need . . . and perhaps we can hear voices, perhaps our own saying ‘well this will only encourage laziness’, or finding ourselves with those who have laboured long hours criticising the owner for paying those who had worked but an hour.
Not seeing that people need to eat and perhaps there is not enough work that all can eat . . . the landowners ways seem unjust to us . . . but Jesus seems to suggest that this is the way of God, the only one who is Good. Just like Jonah, those who have worked a whole day find the ways of the Lord indigestible, uncovering their profound hatred of their fellow men. Not seeing the need that they had for food . . . not seeing . . . the landowner says ‘are you envious because I am generous?’ In the very graphic literal translation of the words ‘Is your eye evil because I am good?’ Is your eye evil because I am good?? What do we see?? Jonah sees God’s mercy and he hates it. The workers see some receiving enough to live on although they haven’t worked all day, and they hate that . . .

In other words, does the goodness of God revealed to us what is the truth of our own hearts? Like Dr Who, confronting the terrible truth that deep down he was filled with hatred, what do these parables confront US with?

These stories, Jonah, Jesus’ parables confront us with what is deep within us.
Two weeks ago we heard the challenge that ‘when another member of the church sins against you’ Go to them, like the Good shepherd take no thought for your loss, rather seek to bring them back. Love them! Mercy triumphing over judgement!! but we might say ‘but you have no idea what they did to me!!’

Last week the gospel was the parable of the servant who was released all his debt, yet refused to live in the same generosity towards others . . . each week we pray ‘Forgive as we have forgiven’ . . . God who forgives according to mercy not deserts. Again the same response, ‘but can’t you see what they owe me??’

And Jonah, ‘I know that you are full of mercy, and to be frank I can’t stand it . . . How can we make the world a better place if you insist on having mercy every time someone repents?? There has to be an end to all this mercy . . .’

An end to mercy?? What then would we have??? Who then would have mercy on us??? Of course we can only call for an end to God’s mercy, because we do not think we need it. We can only call God too generous, because we are very nicely off and don’t require anything of him. we don’t see our life in the light of His.

Today, we are challenged about the nature of what we call generosity in the light of the generosity of the Kingdom of Heaven, who gives according to need not to deserts. ‘But if we all lived like God did, the world would go to hell! . . .’ How easy it is to tell the poor that they deserve to be . . . Perhaps this is the only way we can protect ourselves from the realities of our own comfort when others struggle so . . . What IS God’s Generosity?? Brothers and Sisters I believe we are a very long way from knowing this as yet . . . as yet

These stories uncover what lies in our hearts . . . BUT, the Life that is eternal Always triumphs. If we are baptised into Christ, then this is NOT the last word about our condition.     We are not eternally condemned either to lives of meagre generosity, self serving forgiveness or self centered love, like Jonah and the ones who worked through the day. NEITHER are we condemned to be like Sisyphus, eternally rolling the rock up the hill – eternally trying to do a better job of living our lives like God, which seems all too often to be the only remedy preachers offer. ‘Try harder next time, and don’t worry, God is forgiving’, as if it was all about you . . .
When we are baptised into Christ, God by the Holy Spirit goes into the depths of our hearts and there plants something truly wonderful. His Life. His Life becomes the foundation of our existence, the Good Life – however buried under old hurts and the rest. It is there. And we do truly have a choice, to live out of that new life. To live by the Spirit. To reveal who we truly are, children of God.

Christian life is not fundamentally a set of beliefs, or indeed practices – rather it is a new life. The Life of the eternal God within us. This is what we have been given . . . but perhaps we haven’t heard the Good News

We say ‘I find it so hard to love as you love’ God says ‘ I know’
We say ‘I find it so hard to forgive as you forgive’ God says ‘I know’
We say ‘I find it so hard to be truly generous, for my eye is evil and I am only generous to those I think deserve it’ and God says ‘I know’

But I am the eternal God, I alone am Good – let me dwell among you. Let me live in and through you, let me give you my life. Let MY love and justice and mercy and generosity, My goodness live in and flow out through you

This is the invitation to Jonah – it is God’s good invitation to us all