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