Status Quo and The Christian Imagination

Sermon for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
October 25th 2015

Mark 10:46-52

Status Quo and the Christian Imagination

And I must begin with an apology to any denim clad disciples of 70s British Rock music . . . but it’s not That Status Quo . . . 🙂

Nothing more threatens the existence of the word as we know it, that we have become so accustomed to, than the gospel of Jesus Christ

These last few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the Christendom subversion of Christian Faith and Life. That distortion made Christian faith publicly acceptable, respectable even – Although Jesus reminds us ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you . . .’. But a respectable religion is of course no threat to the Status Quo. Certainly nothing to get crucified over. We adopted a form of Civic religion which pretty much legitimised the world as we know it. No one need get crucified anymore – just follow the rules . . .
So ‘The Kingdom of God’ from being something which one knew by faith, supposedly became a visible earthly rule and thus legitimised the way of the world – ‘the Rich man at his castle and the poor man at his gate, for did not God make them high and lowly and order their estate . . .’ For the marginal in this world, there was of course the comforting idea of heaven when you die, but the idea that Jesus called us into a radically new form of existence, which would often find its adherents in radical conflict with the Status Quo?? This largely disappeared from view

And this disappearance led to what we might call a Constantinian imagination, in which Christian Life became reduced to Spiritual messages to comfort people in the midst of lives which were irrevocably fixed. The World was and always will be happy for people to dispense such advice, especially if you can turn a profit doing so . . .‘The little book of Calm’ anybody?? . . . just don’t let people begin to imagine that there might be something else, like the Reign of God which calls for you to a radically different life in the midst of those around you – calling the lives of others into question purely by doing so.
Oh, by all means See God in Creation, if it pleases you, understand your existence in terms of Love, but please make sure you pay your taxes on time and are back at your desk on Monday . . . and whatever you do, don’t announce the Reign of God in the world, now, and here!! Don’t go talking about a New Life in following Jesus, with staggering possibilities, blind people being healed, the dead raised, finding life in giving up your life!!! No, its a spiritual message . . . Sell your possessions and give to the poor??? – if people start to go after that, why, the world economic order might collapse . . . so say the jailers of imagination, even sadly in our midst . . . Church reduced literally to a ‘chaplaincy of the imprisoned’ – not a dangerous jailbreak . . .

The Constantinian imagination is one which imprisons, one which is full of fear, at root afraid of Jesus Christ, for the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God in and through Jesus has radically set us free. That it is True –  the Reign of God is present in Christ, in the power of The Holy Spirit – all bets about the nature of our lives are Officially off . . . The door is Open . . . With God, All things ARE possible . . .

In England – I acted as a mentor for a Christian drug rehabilitation centre. Holgate House was and is quite a remarkable place. Sat in a hollow by the River Ribble in Northern England – it was a place where people came and many were set free. At a surface level from their drug addiction, but deeper down, from their spiritual enslavement, without which the addiction would never be cured.
Underlying all addiction there is spiritual enslavement – its just that some addictions, some forms of slavery such as drugs, threaten the Status Quo, – others addictions, for example buying your identity through shopping, or ‘making a life for yourself’ by working every hour of the day, addiction to the self pity and bitterness, these are socially acceptable – indeed the Constantinian imagined church may well encourage you to shop for your True Identity – find fulfilment in your work whatever it is . . . or send someone round to you to say, there there, you poor thing . . . but NOT to announce, ‘The Jail doors are broken – you are free to go’ You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave (sorry – back to 70s Rock 🙂 )

But Holgate house was and is about annoujncing the doors are broken and you can be free  by confronting the Truth. When I first visited there I went home and told Sarah, I’ve just seen the Kingdom of God. What I encountered was a group of people who in their desperate plight reached out to God in Christ and engaged one another in living in the Light of truthfulness. There was no wallowing in self pity allowed, for no healing could be found there. They confessed their sins one to another, they held one another accountable for their actions in community, and 75% of them did not revert to their former life, a statistic which always draws incredulity from those who know the field well.

Of the 25% – well on the whole they didn’t engage, preferring the prison of the self to the Light of authentic Life, for which one had to stand accountable. Of those 25% a large number had become so accustomed to life in prison, that they truly understood how threatening the thought of true freedom was – but perhaps more tragic were the wealthier members of the community who imagined themselves to be free, yet who couldn’t see they were enslaved. They couldn’t in a sense believe they were there – they didn’t own their behaviour – ‘this sort of thing doesn’t happen to someone like me’. HArder for a Rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven . . .
By and large they found themselves in Holgate house with people from a much lower socio economic background – not the sort of people with whom they associated. The idea of sharing their lives, of laying them open, of confessing their weaknesses, of being held to account by THESE people . . . But in truth, they were no different to those who had become institutionalised by life in prison. No different to those outside, enslaved in a thousand different ways. Denying the darkness of their lives, they were strangers to the Light which was offered. As Jesus said, ‘If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness’
This living in the darkness was fundamentally a failure of Christian imagination – a failure to See who Christ is, and to Know the Gospel of Jesus, who sets us free to follow Him in Joy. As revealed in the healing of Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus is the opposite of the Rich Young man we heard of a couple of weeks to go. We might say that he has nothing to lose in following Jesus and everything to gain . . . but of course that is not true. Both are enslaved – It is true of each and every one of us that to follow Jesus we have to give up all we have. If the Rich man was like the wealthy drug addicts, Bartimaeus was like my drug addict friends who had been a long time in prison. Begging was not a great life – but it was a way of getting a living. There were enough devout Jews who gave alms to the poor. Life in some regards was better for beggars then – for our contemporaries who live on the streets there is no social pressure to help. In Jesus time giving money to the poor was socially ‘the right thing to do’. So in asking to See, Bartimaeus was relinquishing his worldly security every bit as much as those disciples who had left their nets.

There was a Status Quo to Bartimaeus’ existence – a form of comfortable existence . . . but as with my drug addict friends, it was no life at all . . .  So Bartimaeus is looking for Life, to be set free . . . whatever the cost . . .

Yet his story is about more than an individual freedom – it goes far far further than that. In many ways it is a story of finding true freedom in giving up the idea of individual freedom – for it cannot be found without others. And it is not safe! It is a way of existence that calls into questions perhaps everything that we have been trained to take for granted regarding the nature of our lives – about their stories. It is an existence which is not about worldly security – it is an existence which is disinterested in money, or career, or earthly citizenship. It is an existence which reveals the Truth of Mr Beaver’s words about Aslan – he is not Safe, but He is Good. If you are looking for a safe and secure existence then the world offers many varieties, all of them deadly and completely at odds with the Gospel. To follow Christ means that we must eschew the safe. Most dangerously, Daring to Know and be Known. It is Life together in the community of Christ, the community of the New Creation present in Jesus. Our fundamental problem is that our dreams of a better life are far too small, our imaginations shriveled, hiding from one another, hiding in the shadows.
Few, very few can imagine, and thereby desire anything more desirable than a good life on the worlds terms followed by what we call ‘heaven’. After all That is the story we have been sold since birth . . . But only God is Good . . .The Rich young ruler went back to his cell grieving, the wealthier clients of Holgate house returned to their illusory drug addled existence . . . and yes, many beggars continued to sit in the dust. How many beggars did Jesus come close to? Yet few took the Risk of crying out to Jesus,  My teacher, let me see again. In the end, they did not believe they could be free, or worse, having seen what true freedom in Christ meant, it was too Bright for them – they preferred the darkness. And in the illusory Constantinian imagined world we have created, the Risk of faith seems too much for us. It’s not a story we can control – Many do not believe . . .

But Bartimaeus does, and the people want him silenced, as in the end they seek to silence Jesus, so they will seek to silence all those who seek him in Truth. ‘Don’t tell us about another Kingdom! Don’t live in a way that calls our lives into Question! – In effect, be religious by all means, better be Spiritual, but don’t be the Church of Jesus Christ’  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet . . . We might imagine that the crowds tell him to be quiet because he is making a noise, disturbing the peace, and indeed he is. As Jesus said, ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace but a sword . . .’ Bartimaeus is heralding The King – the One who is destined for the fall and the rise of many – and so threatening ‘the way things are’. What the Scriptures call, The World.

It’s an imagining we engage with and unconsciously absorb every moment we spend watching the Television, or reading the Newspaper – it is a World from which any announcement of the Kingdom of God, of the Rule of Jesus Christ is utterly absent. Of course the Constatinian Imagination teaches us that ‘its woven in their somewhere, you just have to look’, but without any explicit mention of Obedience to Jesus Christ, it is but another of the world’s lies, perniciously dressed up in supposedly Christian garb. For when Jesus turns up on the scene, Kings do not sleep, everyone is disturbed – when Jesus comes on the scene, the world has but one answer

Bartimaeus MUST be shut up because if Jesus is the King, then All earthly authority is radically called into question, and thus the very foundations of the lives we have built for ourselves on those authorities, those stories, those Imaginings. For those who were there this meant the Roman Empire. Rule #1 for a quiet life – a comfortable life – a safe life – don’t call the powers that be into question – keep busy, keep your nose clean, pray even, but DON”T go announcing that the World’s true King has stepped onto the scene. From Herod, to Pilate, to Nero, to Domitian, on and on the announcement of the Reign of God in Jesus Christ is Dangerous – and we have lived for many many years without realising that. Aslan is Not Safe – Life with Jesus is usually Not comfortable, not least because of the company we keep. The Christian Imagination is profoundly dangerous . . . it endangers everything . . . for the Son of Man must be crucified, and if He must be crucified, then so must all that follow him, and ultimately the very fabric of our lives in the world must go to the Cross. If the way of life is to follow Jesus, then Everything must Go
Life has many difficulties which are common to all – funnily enough . . . the world’s promises of a safe and comfortable existence turn out to be lies . . . but LIfe with Jesus has many more perils than that . . . Yet it is Joy!! It is True Happiness!! It is The Good!!! – it is worth everything, and it is more than worth crying out about . . . but it requires a renewed imagination and a desire for freedom which transcends any and all fears, even of death . . . For it calls into question that which we have come to call ‘life’

Funnily enough as I sat down to write this sermon, a friend posted a personal dream of hers. Rather cheekily, and with half my mind on what I was about to write, I asked, ‘So what is the first step? Or is it Just a dream??’ As we all know, the harshness of the World wake us from dreams – but what of the Kingdom of God, What of the Rule of Christ, what if That is The Reality. My friends at Holgate house, many of them Knew that there was another Life – Life in Christ – they did the dangerous work of imagining that Life,which kept them on track – but they would never have done it without one another, and mutually shaking one another awake – constantly calling one another to account – refusing to live with Sin in their life and confessing one to another – Crying out above the crowd which tried to silence them – ‘Jesus,  Son of David, have mercy on me’. Part of the Constantinian imagination in effect marginalised the Church refusing to allow it to be what it was and Is –  a people with a Different Existence – a Different Life – a New People – literally a New Race as the New testament called them – a people whose Life was that of the Crucified and Risen Jesus. A people who had refused the deceitful cup of the world, who had drunk from the Cup of Christ – who had thrown of the cloak of beggars, who had adopted the mantle of True Sonship in following their King.

What might it mean for us to live as such a people? That is where the hard work of dangerous Christian Imagining is done . . . or perhaps we just turn over and go back to our dreams?

The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Sabbath, Work, and Identity

Sabbath, Work, and Identity

Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 18th, 2018

Joshua 14:6-end

Matthew 11:28-12:14

Just this week I was at a presentation at a local school where the guest speaker told us ‘I am living proof that it is possible to have a career in the Arts . . .’ I really didn’t know exactly what to make of this. For underlying the proposition was an imperative ‘You must have a career . . . we all have to have a career’ Or put another way – one cannot just be an artist, one has to earn a living . . . To say that earning a living is antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ is a truism, but to our modern ears perhaps it is an absurdity . . .

We live in what the German philosopher Josef Pieper called a culture of total work. He was writing 70 years ago – in many respects his work was as prophetic as it was contemporary. What with the advent of phones which carry your emails, not a few of us know an existence where work fills every waking hour . . . and work defines us, it gives us our ‘significant identity’, our value in the world. If you doubt this, look at the reaction  on people’s faces when Sarah tells them her work is to tend to house and home and garden and bring up our children . . . or note how many folk turn up at funerals to discover the truth of the person behind their work . . . even our latter days should we live that long are ‘Retirement’ – in other words defined by our work, and the idea that one must earn a living is of course a subtle if unconscious driver in terms of how we treat those who do not . . . for example children

When people ask our children ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ They will often be met by cheerful laughter. Laughter is the only way to deal with Totalitarian narratives about our existence. And of course it is a Totalitarian Narrative – be it Covertly in Capitalist systems, or overtly and more truthfully therefore in Communist systems ‘Work is good for you’, Work gives your life a sense of meaning, ‘Work makes you free . . .’

Contrary to this totalising narrative of Work and Identity, the Jewish people were given the Sabbath. This practise marked them out, and we might perhaps be tempted to say that therefore it is the most important practise for the people of God in this day of ‘total work’. Sabbath set limits to our work. As the LORD set limits to the sea saying to its proud waves ‘Thus far and no further’ [Job 38:11] so Work was held back so that it did not flood their existence. And indeed the children of Israel had every reason to practise Sabbath given their history. As the footnote to the fourth commandment said ‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your GOd brought you out from there with a mighty arm . . . It was the occassion of the Egyptians groaning under the slavery of Pharaoh the Egyptian culture of ‘Total Work’ which had occasioned the LORD to reveal himself to Moses and set them free – to bring them out and form them into His people. To forget the Sabbath was for your self awareness to be drowned under the sea of Work, it was to forget who you were as a Jew, that is One who had been saved from ‘total work’ by God, and FOR God. It was to forget God, and all cultures of ‘total work’ are fundamentally atheist, however religiously observant they are.

The Sabbath was a multi dimensional claim on Existence itself. It was about who you were – your identity – NOT what you did. Sabbath told you that your Life was only with others. “YOU shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”

When the powerful do not rest, neither does anyone else. People who work all the time require others to do the same. When those with money will not rest from shopping,  others must be dragged from rest to serve them. When the CEO is sending emails seven days a week, every minion must pay constantly pay attention to their inbox . . . Pharaohs throughout the ages are tormented by dreams, and the whole empire must rush to serve them and calm the fears of the self made life.

And therein was the key to Sabbath, for Total work is the fruit of Anxiety, the refusal to accept life as a Gift, the deep rooted belief that life had to be earned. It is the failure to know yourself as the child of the ‘Father in heaven who knows you need all these things’, and who sets you free to seek the Kingdom of God. It is total amnesia.
Sabbath told you were a Child of the Father, Loving God with heart souls mind and strength (as a child loves)  identifying  with the One who rested. ‘For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day’.

You rest because God your Father rests. Nowhere in scripture is human work related to God’s work except in Jesus. Identifying human work with God’s work was but a covert attempt to secure our existence for ourselves, rather than accept the Gift of Sabbath. The Scribal tradition used one verb for God’s work, and another for human work, there is no 6-day a week correspondence. But there is one verb for Rest. It was in Sabbath that Israel’s identity as the child of God was known . . . The Sabbath had nothing to do with Work, except as restraint from the primal sin of forgetting the Father who knows your needs and instead making a Life for yourself.
And thus the Sabbath day alone was Holy. As God alone is Holy, to be invited to Sabbath is to be invited to Participate in the Life of God – to be His child.

For many many years the people of God had suffered under totalitarian regimes from North and East and South, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and now finally the Romans, the Jewish people had desperately clung onto their sense of who they were through Sabbath observance.

And the Pharisees  understood that it was Their role, their Sacred duty to act as the guardians of Jewish identity, and thus to secure the existence of the Jewish people, and thus they were Anxious about the ‘correct understanding of the Sabbath’, not least because that interpretation was one which ruling powers  had accommodated themselves to and allowed to continue . . .

So Jesus words ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . .’ come, not like a comfort blanket, like a bumper sticker slogan for hard times, but high explosive claim for all of Identity and existence, in a situation which reeked of fear. Fear of losing their national identity, and fear of what the Romans might do to them if things were pushed too far . . . For of course it was eminently suitable to any occupying power that there was an agreement with the power brokers that after a day off, everyone would be back at their desks . . . (Middle management has always been a position of Curse . . . ) and here comes Jesus, talking of giving Rest, and No words about six days shalt thou labour . . . Jesus, as he had done with the law on Murder and Adultery, had revealed the Fourth commandment, the Sabbath also to be a limit on human evil, and consequently a limit on their participation in the Life of God, a limitation upon the Reign and Rule of God to just one day in Seven.

The fullness of Life which Jesus came to proclaim and to enact was prefigured in the Sabbath Command, like all the law, a school teacher to point us to the Good, but its total fulfilment was revealed in Jesus. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I will. Jesus as he speaks with his disciples is pointing to himself as the one who truly reveals the identity of God’s people . . . In the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus we are invited to the participate in Holy Time – not one day in seven, but ‘Eternal Life’  – to a Life defined not by our work, but by our, parentage as children of our Father in heaven . . .

Jesus words were and are a total claim on the people of God and their true identity . . .and this is why the Pharisees ‘went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him’.

For surely They were the true guardians of the identity of Israel, and if they along with the Herodians and Scribes could deliver a pacified workforce, taught ‘six days shalt thou labour’, they could keep their position, and keep the Powers that be happy. God may have commanded rest, ‘but the world cannot work unless we work like crazy on the other six . . .’ and everything before the ‘but’ is always negated . . .
Matthew gives us the fullest account of how Total is Jesus‘ claim regarding himself and thus the  Identity of all of the children of God. Jesus’ conflict about Sabbath isn’t finally about Work and Rest, it’s about Everything to do with the Identity of God’s people, those who bear the name of Jesus Christ – those who Participate in God’s Holiness, in his very Life. It is the breaking of Sabbath Consciousness into all of existence, in and through Jesus Christ

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  The Pharisees defined Sabbath and thus all of Israel’s existence. But Jesus completely reinterprets the fourth commandment, and makes himself the centre of it, this command that links the existence of God to the existence of the people of God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. David and his companions. Jesus and his disciples . . .

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Pharisees rebuke him for allowing children and disciples to cry out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna to the King’. The crowd tell Bartimaeus to shut up when he cries out ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ Any word of a new King will bring it all crashing down and reminding the people that the king had eaten the Holy Bread when they were hungry. The people as we know from the feeding of the 5000 are hungry – Life under Roman rule is harsh for all the accommodation of the Jewish rulers with the Powers that be . . . As to this day, there is always a good market for ‘spiritual messages’ which make one feel nice when life is harsh, but do not threaten the status quo . . . But Jesus is demolishing the status quo. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? For indeed are not all God’s people priests?? A royal priesthood? A holy Nation they were called, ever before the Sabbath commandment was given . . . Jesus again calling his fellow Jews to their true identity I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. Sabbath – Kingship – Priesthood – Temple. Who truly is the King of the Jews? To whom do they belong? What defines them? Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . the yoke the symbol of the King . . . The Pharisees considered themselves to be the guardians of the identity of God’s people, and in so doing left them enslaved – denying that they were a people radically set free by God. Jesus takes all their precious signs of identity and says, these are mine, and My people are Free.

Finally this Sabbath Life, this Eternal Life is revealed in power, as Jesus heals,  ‘to show that the Son of Man has authority on earth . . .’. This is a total claim for Authority – a total claim on Identity. These, Jesus is saying are my people. , and ‘the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.’

And so the True existence of the people of God is revealed in the Resurrection, the eighth day, the day outside of the workaday existence, the New Time, the time that is Eternal – and for almost all the church’s existence, the body of Christ has not mentioned Sabbath. Augustine gives it the briefest of mentions, Aquinas too . . . but to this day Catholic and Orthodox theologians don’t mention it . . . Life was marked by Human work, growing food, tending for the sick, bringing up children, study and scholarship, art, the hungry fed, the elderly revered and listened to for their wisdom – and in and through all of it, Celebration and Worship – every day prayer and worship.
But following the Reformation ‘Sabbath’ begins to make a comeback . . . as do such phrases as ‘Hard work is good for you’, ‘Work makes you free’.  The ladies of C17 Holland were much taken with that new blue and white fashion, Delft China. This it is fairly clear was the root of Consumerism – and following hot on its heels ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’, after all, if one wanted all these new consumer goodies that the Industrial revolution was pouring out, one needed to earn more money, one needed to work for more than the basic essentials of life, and one needed to justify this new found zeal for work, for new forms of work and money making. The Scriptures called this Greed, but . . .  if one needed to do that , then there were and indeed are more than enough apologists to work out neat sophisticated arguments for more work, for denying that God’s work and human work are not the same . . . where of course people weren’t enslaved . . .  so we were brought Consumerism, The Work Ethic, and now a plethora of books on the Sabbath . . . for after all, in this brave New World we have Created for ourselves, everyone needs a rest from their work . . . as if that were the meaning of Sabbath . . . and everyone of those books as far as my researches suggest written by a Protestant writer . . .

As I have suggested over the past weeks, Jesus does not come to us as a ‘spiritual salve’ for when life is hard. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’ is the gentle demand on the whole of our existence, that we do not live to work, rather the goal of our existence is Love of God and Neighbour.

Yes. There is work to be done, the hungry must be fed, the sick healed, the elderly and frail cared for, children brought up to know who they are . . . did you know that the word ‘School’ literally means ‘leisure’ I’ve been telling one or two of my young friends this . . .The land must be cared for and tended, its wounds cleansed and repaired . . . food must be grown – but the goal of the whole creation of all existence is Life with God. Thy will done on Earth as in Heaven. As St Paul puts it – everyone should do some work with their hands, so that they have something to share with the poor. That is Human work

The Sabbath commandment which is a restraining ordinance, points to the deeper truth of the Life which is known in Jesus Christ. Knowing our existence is secure in Him. To refuse this gift is to refuse life itself. Our insistence upon Total Work – our refusal of Life not as something to be toiled for but as a Gift of our Father, leads us to a deep and destructive amnesia . . . forgetting that we belong to the one who ‘gives us Rest’ – and it is destroying us, and it is destroying God’s Good Creation
Work has overstepped its bounds and the whole creation is now led back into utter slavery and despoilation. As Isaiah prophesied, ‘The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.’ [Isaiah 24]

Our reading from Joshua concluded – The Land had rest from war . . . our wretched Greed has meant that it is many years since the Land knew such rest . ..  Sabbath Rest included the land. Every seventh year the Land was to lie fallow. This was a sustaining ordinance. As Sabbath restrained our evil desires to make lives for ourselves, so for the Land to bring forth her increase, required us to be restrained in our work, restraining our evil. The Land had to have rest. And as the Gospel is good news for the poor, those enslaved, the Lord will see that the Land, HIS good Earth has Rest.

As the Sabbath Command was given to restrain evil, so too the Command of the Lord restrained the proud waves, and set their limits. We have thrown off the gentle yoke in our quest to earn a living – creating a world of ‘total work’ – and the waves are rapidly encroaching their bounds.

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways, reclothe us in our rightful minds . . .

Luke the Evangelist

Sermon for Luke the Evangelist
2 Timothy 4:5-17
Luke 10:1-16

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’

1 Samuel 4:21

I think that when we hear today is the feast of Luke the Evangelist we might have a couple of responses. Firstly we have a bit of a problem with ‘Evangelism’, and secondly we might ask – don’t we rather prefer to think of St Luke in terms of healing ??

Well perhaps our problem lies as much with healing as it does with Evangelism . . .

Over the past few weeks, I have referred on occasion to the complete distortion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which was occasioned when ‘Christianity’ came into being. That is to say when the Way of Jesus Christ was turned into a religion, most effectively by the fifth Century Roman emperor Theodosius, although Constantine is the name most associate with this change.

From a mass movement mainly amongst the persecuted and marginalised followers of Jesus – ‘Christianity’ was born as the Religion of all. And because it was ‘of all’ the words of Jesus became ‘spiritualised’ As I said a few weeks ago the Church moved from being those who sought a glass of water, who were hungry and fed, who were naked and clothed, who were in prison and visited, to that Religious institution who carried out such good works, before often returning to comfortable homes . . .

No longer was one ‘not to resist an evil doer’. No longer was taking money on interest a bad thing . . . no longer did the ‘Church’ suggest one could not be a soldier and a follower of Jesus . . . Jesus’ message became a ‘spiritual message’, with a promise of ‘heaven’ hereafter, and business as usual before you died. No longer was anyone persecuted for their private belief – after all what threat is such a ‘religion’?? The Sermon on the Mount became a message about heaven, completely ignoring Jesus warning about hearing and doing or not doing in the story of the House on the Rock, and of course no one for a moment could think that the Poor were blessed – rather it was the pious, ever so ‘umble and self deprecating ‘poor in spirit’ who were truly blessed, despite the fact that for Jesus ‘the poor in Spirit’ the anawim, were those who barely scraped living on the land . . .

But, and here is the horrible irony . . . in spiritualising Jesus’ words, in getting all spiritual, the Spirit disappeared . . . And this is best illustrated by the famous story of St Thomas Aquinas and Pope Innocent II. The Pope was showing the great Doctor of the Church the splendours of St Peter’s Church in Rome, and said ‘Look, Thomas – no longer can we say ‘Silver and Gold have I none, and the St, well schooled in Scripture retorted – and neither can we say ‘in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk’

Peter and John had neither silver or Gold – why would they? They were Jesus’ people, utterly dependent upon the hospitality or otherwise of the world, like their Lord, with nowhere fixed to lay their heads. So they cannot give the lame man alms, but they are not so much spiritual, as their bodies are full of the Spirit. So they declare to the lame man, stand up and walk – and he does . . . as St Luke reminds us . . .

Of course, God has not left himself without witnesses . . . amongst the poor churches, you still here of these things – or the Church in Africa and what I’m trained to call ‘The Far East’ The Bishop of Singapore I’m given to understand won’t ordain anyone who doesn’t have a ministry in raising the dead . . . but such messages from the edge, from marginal people, like the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus by women . .  these messages are easily dismissed . . . and we look for other understandings of The Kingdom of God, locating it in human ‘progress’, or ‘scientific breakthroughs’, or the like.

Luke is an Evangelist – he is one who announces Good News – and he is a doctor, so associated with healing, and the two, Evangelism and Healing go together.

The arrival of Jesus is the end of business as we know it. God has come to judge and to save his people – the harvest is being gathered. Some will hear and respond – others will dismiss it. Some will welcome the evangelists, take them into their homes, others will drive them out. They will all be judged by their response to Jesus – which is one with their response to his body in whom his spirit dwells. ‘Whoever listens to you, listens to me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me and the one who sent me’ Jesus totally identified himself with the Church. The arrival of the disciples in the villages and towns is the arrival of Jesus himself . . . and once again dare we begin to say that in these days?? No. Instead we are commanded to go out and find out what God is up to – ignoring the fact that were we Jesus people, the Spirit of God would dwell amongst us – the Kingdom of God would be completely revealed in our life together.

Jesus send out his disciples in twos – for when two or three are gathered he is there – he sends them out in utter vulnerability. Not from positions of wealth and comfort, not with great learning or any of the other things we arm ourselves with and defend ourselves against the very life of the One whose name we bear. ‘Go on your way. Behold!! PAy attention – LOOK – This is important!! I am sending you out – like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. (Don’t dilly dally on the way, you have urgent business to be about!) Whatever house you enter, first say ‘Peace to this house!’ As the angels pronounced, Peace on Earth – Good Will to all men – so your message is delivered in the Peace of God – soft and gentle like a dove – and if the message is not received in peace, then you will not lose your peace. It will be returned to you. Just leave.

Eat whatever your hosts provide, for they are blessing your work. The worker deserves his wages – and Heal the sick who are there and say to them ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you

We struggle with evangelism because we think it aggressive – but in truth we have more reason to fear because it calls us to go in total vulnerablity dependence and trust. In such vulnerablity, simple rejection and indeed worse are part and parcel of our existence. As St Paul tells Timothy ‘As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully’ The evangelist is one who is daily open to suffering and rejection for he carries the Life of Jesus who is crucifed by the World –  In that childlike vulnerability – with all defenses down, The Spirit of God can rest upon us, and be released for healing.

But we cannot become vehicles for this life, unless we have first heard the Good News and put down our defenses so that the life of God can flow in and out unhindered, and the Kingdom revealed in word and Healing.

Why do we see no healing? Because perhaps we don’t understand what it is to be an evangelist. St Luke stands by to remind us


‘Hell is locked on the inside’ CS Lewis

‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free  . . .’ St Paul helpfully reminds us. And we need reminding, for too many who call themselves Christians are not free – enslaved as they are by their desires. Their lives are one continual ‘Oh, if only . . . I had this or that or the other, then my life would be complete . . . Then I would be happy’. And the demonic ‘god’ of our imagination says ‘there there, poor you, you deserve to have what you want, you have been mistreated haven’t you . . .’

Truly if this is our condition, we have not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we have nothing of worth to share with others. We are like the Rich young man who ‘lacks one thing’, but will only find it in giving up that which he covets most.
Our covetous hearts are what keep us in Hell. (Hell like Heaven being as much a present reality as a future condition). And yes, it is our very selves, our hearts which deceive us, which delude us into thinking that our unhappiness is because we don’t have this or that or the other, or that it is the fault of others. It is our deceitful heart which feeds like Gollum on some ‘lack’ or some ‘wrong’ that was done to us, when someone ‘stole MY Precious’. For we do not have that which we covet most. Gollum is a type of the miserable one who cannot be happy because ‘so and so’ did ‘this or that’, or because ‘without X, I cannot be truly happy’

We will I am sure all be aware of this working as it were in reverse. Imagine a sunny day at the zoo. A careless visitor is stood with his back to the monkey cage, and the clever monkey, seeing his chance puts his hand in the man’s jacket pocket and removes a bag of nuts . . . but Alas!! The monkey cannot get his hand back inside the cage without letting go of the nuts!!!
Sadly of course the monkey is enslaved not by itself but by others – but the Good News is that Jesus Christ has released us from the bondage of sin, of covetousness which holds us bound. The human tragedy, doubly so for those who imagine themselves to be Christian is that we are outside the cage, and we have reached for something inside the cage, and cannot get our hands free. We have been set free, but chose to live in Hell rather than in the glorious liberty, the Happiness which Christ offers as a free Gift. We actually imagine that we are not free, that our dreary existence as Christians would be richer, more True if only we had this or that Treasure. We actually act as if we are inside the cage, and so distorted are our hearts we prefer it . . .

CS Lewis got it right. Hell is locked on the inside. All too many prefer the living death, the non-existence, the Hell of eternally licking their ‘Righteous’ wounds in preference to the Kingdom of God.

But for those who Know Jesus Christ, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” and we abandon everything for it fills us with Joy, with Happiness which NOTHING can begin to diminish – for it is the Totality of Life. The Sadness is when we relinquish our JOY, our Life in Christ for ‘fading treasure’ . . . relinquishing our freedom for a bag of nuts.

Sermon – Abandon Religion!

Sermon for Sunday 11th October 2015

Mark 10:17-31

Abandon religion! Jesus loves you! Follow Him!!

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.’

It may be entirely co-incidental, but ‘Christianity’ as we know it has pretty much died at the peak of the ‘you can have it all!’ generational myth. Interestingly, any resurgence we see is amongst the young, those who have woken up to the fact that ‘the party is over’. True there are one or two ‘mega churches’ out there, but their message is pretty much along the lines of ‘you can have it all and Jesus is the cherry on the cake’. Church as it were for ‘those who seem to have it all yet have that strange sense that something is missing.’ and all you are lacking is ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ (Perhaps one of the great heresies of our this or any other age)
Repentance? Well that’s just ‘changing your mind’ ‘Seeing the world differently’ ‘promising to be a moral person’, and if you’re doing these things, well then Life is Good, AND I am a Christian. What more could one want?

We’ve all known this ‘Christianity’ well. ‘You know my life is so blessed – I am surrounded by so many lovely things and I have my wonderful family . . .’ or ‘you know so and so, they are so lovely, and have such a wonderful life, what a pity they’re not ‘Christian’’, or ‘you know the other day I was rushing to get to an important business meeting, and I prayed, Lord I SO need a parking space, and do you know one opened up right in front of the building where my meeting was. Jesus makes my life complete . . .’ In such a ‘faith imagination’ Jesus’ words “You lack one thing [?]; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” are as shocking and confounding to us as they were to the man and Jesus’ disciples . . .

After all, didn’t Jesus say ‘You lack one thing’? Surely that was what he meant?? A personal relationship with him, so I can pray to him when I need to, when I need a little help through the tough moments we all go through in our lives?? After all, isn’t that it? Filling up that God shaped hole we’re all created with?? That’s the message we need to get out there – And Look! Along comes a buyer!! ‘As Jesus was setting out on a journey man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ This is the stuff of a modern evangelists dreams!! Hey Jesus! Someone wants to be ‘a Christian’!! I mean look! You haven’t even had to go and find him, or develop a relationship with him, he’s just like a fish dying to jump into the boat with you. And he asks The Question!! Wow!! ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life. You didn’t even have to talk him round to spiritual matters!!!

‘What must I do to inherit . . .’ and therein lies his misunderstanding, and perhaps ours also – like the person who has got everything and lives a good life whom we may well know – perhaps they are our neighbours? Or our children? They’ve put in the hard yards in life  – a life of ‘doing and getting, and if you’re lucky, inheriting ‘ and are enjoying the rewards, but something is lacking, or we think there is  . . . surely they just need this something extra, and all will be well??
This man in front of Jesus has Success written all over him . . . until he gets down in the dirt before Jesus . . . because he thinks that there is something missing. ‘I’ve navigated life pretty well, by the standards of my religion – why else would I be wealthy after all unless I’d lived a ‘good life’ – I’ve kept all the commandments since my youth . . . yet somehow it doesn’t seem to add up. What must I do to inherit eternal life??
‘You see it’s like there is a hole in my life . . .’ and the evangelist thinks – he’s put it so well, puts his arm round him and says. ‘Don’t you know that God has made us all with this little hole in our lives and we just can’t be content until we have that relationship with God as well. God completes our lives . . .’ It is highly seductive . . . and, after all – isn’t it true?? Lets face it, aren’t the people we look up to the one’s who have made it And are Christians? They’re the ones who have made a Real ‘success’ of their lives?? Those poor Christians with their chaotic lives, well they really rank somewhere below successful non Christians . . .

So far, so religious. To this point, this is pure religion. A spiritual seeker looking for some deep truth which will complete his life – give him a sense of peace when his life isn’t going too well – like a beautiful sunset, or the smile of a child . . . And this is the problem with religions as the ‘church’ is now finding now to its cost, religious people that we are – there are many things that will do just as well as a means to having our own version of ‘The Good Life’. Give us our own version of ‘Peace and contentment with life’ –  ‘Bhuddism does it for me’, or Islam (the polite version that you’d be happy to take to tea with your elderly aunt of course), or . .  ‘I’ve really got into mindfulness – it gives me such a sense of the spiritual, of peace’. Or for so many of our fellow Kiwis, the three B’s – the BMW, the Batch, and the Boat . . .  fire up the fourth and fifth, the Barbie and the Beer . . . Why would I want to be a Christian? After all, isn’t it just an accident of our birth? And after all religions cause wars don’t they – and they do . . . I mean you pretty much can have it all in life, and so, understandably folk drift away, having found pretty much all the fulfilment in life they need, thank you very much.
And we hear these things and wrestle with them and think that there is so much truth in all of that, why bother with ‘Christianity’ after all. Isn’t there ‘Truth’ everywhere in all these other religions, and ‘as we know’ ‘Christianity’ is just one religion amongst many, one story we use to make sense of ‘our life; – indeed if we’re being honest even atheists have a hook on the Truth???

But there is something about this man, which perhaps isn’t quite like our condition. His ‘Religion’ isn’t doing it for him, he’s not content, and he knows it. I must admit I’d not previously noticed the urgency of the man’s request – he runs up to Jesus – he gets down on his knees before him in the dust – and he flatters Jesus – ‘Good teacher’.
As a man of substance in the community, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal he has demeaned himself by running to Jesus – he goes further, he abases himself and gets down in the dirt before Jesus, and then tries to twist Jesus’ arm, this is how the World works, this is how you get by in business, making the right connections, flattering your targets, and it is also the classic stuff of religion – working out the trick to  persuade the gods to come up with the goods. ‘Good teacher’ He is VERY religious. He is an expert in getting what he wants – just let me know what do I have to do to inherit eternal life . . .
“I Must Know how to inherit eternal Life. I’ve got everything else in my life sorted, but I haven’t got This – I seem to be locked out on ‘the big secret’” –  He is desperate . . .

“You lack one thing; Jesus names his condition – and you can almost here the man screaming inside – YES!!! He knows!! I’ve found it. As I said, he is an evangelists dream . . . But you will look in vain through a thousand manuals on ‘how to share the Good News’, mine a million books on ‘Spirituality and truths for life’, follow any and all Religions and  nowhere will you find what Jesus says next . . . go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, take up your cross and follow me.” Whatever Jesus is about, it’s neither ‘Spirituality’, nor ‘Religion’.

For about three hundred and fifty years or so, there was no such things as ‘Christianity’ as we know it. There was a marginal, disparate, often oppressed and persecuted people – who served as a distraction when the government was falling down on its duties to the citizens of Empire – or rather were served up as dinner for hungry lions, or slain by gladiators for the entertainment of the public. . .They were mocked as atheists – the very term ‘Christian’ was one of abuse.
Rome knew what religions looked like – it was flush with them, they abounded everywhere, statues to this god and that. People often had many gods, one for having happy family, one for success in business and no doubt one somewhere or other amongst the ‘Pan Theon’ who could be called upon to find a parking space for your chariot when you were on your way to an urgent appointment with a Senator. Rome knew all about Religion – and these followers of a Crucified Jew didn’t fit the bill. Whatever else it was, this huddled community of Christ followers wasn’t a religious group. ‘Respectable Christian’ was an oxymoron – they didn’t fit into polite and civil society –  and the world has an often brutal way of dealing with those who don’t fit. But the more they were persecuted, the more they were mown down, the more they sprang up!! It was as if this Life was Indestructible
. . . and so one might say it was a stroke of genius on the part of Constantine – following a battle where despite the fact that these Christians steadfastly refused to draw a sword and wouldn’t allow soldiers to join their number, he’d prayed to the ‘Christian God’ and won . . . . . . rather like praying for a parking space and finding one, when so many Christians are praying for a square meal . . . Constantine opened the door to the new religion!! ‘Christianity’ – and everyone was to be a Christian, because obviously the Christian God was the truly powerful one . . . and then, because the words of Jesus are just so useless for living life as we know it, all this stuff about the rich and camels, after all if the Christian God is the God of everyone, surely no one is to be excluded?? So the sophists, the sophisticated – those clever people – went to work and turned it into a ‘Spiritual message’. You see if its spiritual, then you can carry on business as before, turning an honest profit, going to just wars for Caesar, or King and Country. We were taught to prefer Matthew’s beatitude ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, to Luke’s naked ‘Blessed are you who are poor’, brushing away the inconvenient fact that to Jesus’ hearers they were one and the same . . . Rome had been troubled long enough by this odd Jewish sect, but they found a way to coping with it – turn it into a religion – for in general it got along just fine with people with their ‘religious practices’ and points of view. Or as we are now discovering, the World can do remarkably well without them . . . the World in many regards is ‘abandoning religion’ and perhaps we of all people should do too?

Mark’s account of the wealthy man is sparse. Matthew says he is young, Luke tells us he is a Ruler. To Mark a mere ‘man’, but Mark tells us something which Matthew and Luke omit. ‘Teacher’, the man says ‘I have kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him.     Peddlers of religion want us to buy – they discount, they offer two for one, they want to close the deal. And of course they want our money to keep the religious enterprise going . . . An eager ‘Spiritual Seeker’ is easy meat for a ‘Spiritual’ message, as the sellers of a thousand books on ‘Spiritual’ matters know.
But God alone is Good, Jesus alone loves us enough to tell us the Truth. He engages in no sophisticated arguments, he just announces the Reign of God and calls us to follow him – he does this because he loves us. He cares enough to tell us the Truth us that Eternal Life is about an exchange – the life we have made for ourselves, with its Religion as an ‘enhancement’ – which moths eat and rust decays, which ends in the dust from which we came – or the Life in abundance which is found amongst those who have given it all up to follow him.
Perhaps it is good news for the poor because the poor more often have woken up to the lies of the world. Hard work and keeping your nose clean only works for a lucky few, not a tiny few, enough to keep people thinking that it might be worth a try, but – as someone put it, if hard work brought wealth, then the women of Africa would be pluotcrats. Those who have succeeded in the world’s view have most to lose . . . and hearing the words of Jesus, rather than the slick evangelist, often go away grieving . . . looking for another way, another gospel.

Jesus doesn’t come to us with ‘a spiritual message’, or a nice ‘thought for the day’ – rather he comes to announce the Reign of God and locates it in himself, in his body, and thus amongst those who have left all to join their lives to his. ‘The Kingdom is amongst you’     Religion says, You have your life, and there is a ‘Spiritual’ dimension to it, a ‘God shaped hole in your life. Jesus comes into the world and announces ‘There is no God shaped hole in your life, there is a You shaped hole in the Kingdom of God. Follow me’

Perhaps the man is a bit to close for comfort?? How can we be sure he was engaged in flattery when calling Jesus ‘Good teacher’ ? Because if he believed it, he’d have done what he said – And so would we . . . ( but that’s another sermon )’

That Kingdom Jesus calls us to finds perfect expression in His obedience to death, even the death of the Cross – and will again find expression amongst those who have abandoned the world with its lies, and followed him, the one who loves them . . .