As human beings we have a problem. For our most powerful sense – Sight – is also the one most easily taken hold of and deceived. We live in an age where visual stimuli assault us at every turn, increasingly so that we can be sold things. To compound matters to a significant degree, we now carry devices with us pretty much all the time, whose power over us is rooted in this weakness to have our attention stolen, to the point that we often find ourselves looking at our cell phones for no reason whatsoever.
In this age as much as any other if not mores, our Sight needs to be returned to us, that we might See truthfully.
So as when we seek to heal someone of an unhealthy addiction, we take the desire that is distorted and for a while put it to one side. To use a Christmas metaphor, we go cold turkey 🙂 When we want to speak of things that are outside the realm of our physical seeing, indeed perhaps to remind ourselves that there are things beyond the realm of sight, or better to our Sight so that we might behold the true nature of all things – there is perhaps no better time than in the depth of night.
For as the sun hides the stars and the entire Universe from our gaze, and our cell phones seem to rob us of the ability even to see those around us – thus the created lights of the World hide from us The Light, the light of Life. The Truth of our existence.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness
The Light shines in the darkness
The Light which is the Life of all people. The Light by which we Behold the Truth of our own existence – The Light by which we See clearly, by which we Behold All things – Everything.
For the message of Christmas goes well beyond anything that we might care to consider – out into the depths of space and time – filling them and completing them,
Here in the depths of the night we listen to words of John, coming to us from ‘the beginning’ When John wishes to speak to us of the coming of Jesus into the world, he opens his account ‘In the beginning’ In speaking of what we like to call The Christmas Story, John wants us to pay attention to the story of Everything. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth . . . and God said . . . Let there be Light, and there was light – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . . in Him was Life and that Life is the Light of all people
Whilst it is true in some very limited sense to speak of the birth of Jesus as occurring 2000 years ago, that is only a fragment of a much greater truth – that the birth of Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph, and Angelic announcements in the night, is the Revealing, the Appearing of that which is true ‘from the beginning’ and also that which is true ‘to the ages of ages’. It is the Revelation of the entire work of God in the World . . . To See truthfully, to see Truth in its entirety, to See all things, our gaze must be restricted, drawn to a single point, a pin prick of light in the Universe, in the sign that is a child lying in a manger – to recover our sight we need to begin in the darkness in order to see Jesus
If the physicists are to be believed, and being a physicist myself I guess I have to declare an interest in physicists being believed, were we able to stand outside of the universe – an impossibility – we would see all of space, and therefore all of time. We would in a moment see everything from East to West, From North to South – from its beginning to its end. All space, all time – but we do not need to take a space ship to get outside of all space and time – for to Behold the Word made flesh is to begin to See all things – to have our sight restored, that we might truly be able to see all things
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it like this in speaking of the coming of Jesus into the World ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
For the One born to us in the depths of this Holiest of Nights, He is the Alpha and the Omega, He is the Beginning and The End. ‘[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ He is the Light that is the light of all people. He is in all and through all and above all . . . He Encompasses All things in His Being
One of the old Saints of the church says of God, ‘A circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere’ – This Word of Life which calls forth the entirety of Creation is revealed in the Centre of Creation, in the One who sustains all things
The Incarnation, the birth of Jesus we might say is the coming into the world of Centre of History, a Centre that is Everywhere and at all times. That has no boundary. A Love without borders. This is the meaning of History., the meaning of all things.
The Lord shall come to his Temple
“I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
Today we celebrate The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Hidden from the gaze of the world, the infant Jesus is brought as the law prescribed to the Temple for the purification of Mary. Bringing with them two turtle doves, as Leviticus 12:8 ‘If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtle-doves . . .’ Of course we leap to readily to the assumption that Mary cannot afford a lamb, or maybe she does bring a lamb, or indeed the Lamb . . .
Temple worship – temple ritual and rites – it all sounds very strange to our ears, after all, we’ve moved beyond rites of purification for women after childbirth – blood is just that, blood . . . Yet if we are to recapture a Christian imagination we need as I said a couple of weeks back to get rid of the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary . . . To See where we are is to have the eyes of our heart enlightened, our Imaginative world illuminated by the Truth of our existence. Blood is not just blood, the Temple is not just a religious building in Jerusalem two millennia ago. And we’re not alone in needing our imaginations opened – even Mary and Joseph marvel at the words of Simeon and Anna the prophetess – in a sense they also do not know where they are, or who indeed is this child
Over my holiday I was reading the latest essays of Wendell Berry – the farmer, poet, essayist and novelist. Having read him for some years now, I was very aware of the how his essay writing, always excellent had developed a deep maturity as he comes towards the end of his life. He writes about our relationship with the Land, with Place, with Earth and Soil – and much of his energy has been taken up writing about the despoliation of the world brought about Modern Agriculture. He reflects upon several generations of farming by his family, of how the land bears the scars even from the days of the first settlers in his native Kentucky – before the machines came – revealing a lack of sensitivity to the Creation – and with our readings in mind and pondering Berry’s writings I couldn’t help but be drawn to almost the closing words of his finest novel.
This beautiful work is the life story of a man named Jayber Crow, told in his own words, and a story richly woven together with Nature, Place, People and very very beautifully textured. It is the story of a small town barber, woven into which is the story of a secret love – of Jayber’s love for Mattie Keith, someone he watches grow up in the township, and marry Troy Chatham.
Chatham looks at the land he inherits from Mattie’s father as ‘Resource’ – he wonders how to make more money from the land – a typically modern preoccupation. As in this Rational Scientific age we’ve stopped asking the question, ‘What Is the Land?’ We now only ask – what can I use it for. . . so he gives up on the uneconomic mules and borrows money to buy tractors,. These of course he is assured will make him a better farmer. He fells the old stands of trees which are in his way as he goes for a monoculture farming. On hills and slopes that cannot bear it. Pretty much as we imagine human beings are, he treats the Land also as Tabula Rasa, a Blank slate on which to write his own story. So All the boundaries come down, and all the woods are torn up, All except for one small wood. The best of the woods, which Mattie’s father has left to her, The Nest Egg.
Troy like so many small famers caught up in the bewildering abstract world of ‘scientific farming’ and ‘high finance’ gradually ruins all the land, until all that is left is The Nest Egg.
And then Mattie falls terribly ill, she goes to hospital where it is clear that she will die. Whilst she lies in her hospital bed, in one last desperate throw of the dice Troy sells this beautiful wood to timber men to pay off some of his debts . . . but Mattie gets to hear
At the End, Jayber goes to visit her in hospital where she is slipping away. Emaciated and wired up to the machines of Modern medicine – she senses him come into the room and tells him what he already knows “Jayber, Oh, he’s cutting the woods”, and then “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
And one cannot hear those words from a good Christian writer without hearing the familiar words of Simeon “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . .” But as the words of Jesus ask us, ‘do we know what makes for our peace?’
Another book I read was the simple and beautiful ‘I heard the Owl call my name” The story of an Anglican priest living with and amongst the Inuit in Western Canada – reading that I was haunted by the constant reminder of the Deep Sadness in the eyes of the people, as they saw all that they held dear, most especially their place within the Creation, as like so many before them they too were ripped up like trees, moved out of [sic] the land by well meaning people – all in the name of progress
Well you may ask – what on earth has any of that to do with the Feast of the Presentation? With Jesus coming as a child to the temple?
And you would not be alone. Curiously amongst the several versions of the Lectionary for this Sunday our Lectionary is unique in telling us that the Psalm set is Psalm 24, but ‘just’ verses 7-10. These verses about Lift up your head you gates, lift them high. If we were paying attention we’d note that we used the whole Psalm. but surely its just these 7 verses which are about the Lord coming to the Temple – the rest is about Creation. ‘The Earth is The LORD’S and all they that dwell therein, for it is He who has established it upon the seas, and set it firm upon the rivers of the Deep . . .’
The compilers of our lectionary would have us separate out the Creation and The Temple . . . As I have said before Temples are placed in The Temple. The Genesis account of the Creation with its seven days matches the ordering of the tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple in its sevenfold structure
You cannot separate them out . . . but we have. Temple and Creation. For example how often do we hear words like ‘Well now we must get out into the real world to do the Real Work of The Kingdom . . . what exactly have we been doing here? What holds the universe together? Our efforts? Or our prayers? Does Praying actually in some True sense ‘Do’ something?
the idea that Worship is like going to the petrol station for a fill up . . . Do we realise, do we See what we are doing when we are here? I have spoken from time to time about the movement in Space which takes place in the liturgy. Is it ‘just’ a model? ‘Just’ bread and wine? ‘Just’ words? Are those amongst whom we sit ‘just’ other parishioners? What is human being anyway?? Who are we? What are we? Where are we?
And that disconnection from a sense of the Vital livingness of Worship is mirrored in our lack of Seeing where we are beyond these walls. The Creation. Do we Realise Where we are?? I think that those Native Indians with their deep sad eyes Knew and Saw precisely where they were? Mattie Keith Saw. “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
To give s simple example, our rabbit sees better 🙂 I agonise I must admit over having a rabbit in a hutch(and yes I know, the Wrights let theirs run around everywhere 🙂 We are experimenting a little with free rabbit movements but where we come from there are foxes 🙂 ) Yet, here is the think, it is meticulously careful with its space – it doesn’t foul it all . . . It knows where it is, and it takes care of it and the rabbit droppings are located in a very small space.
Question? If we really Understand that we live in and are part of the Creation, the The Earth is The LORD’s, how can we possibly take it to the brink of complete destruction . . .
Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
He Sees – as he looks At The LORD coming to his Temple.
This Creation is The Temple of The LORD – as the prophet says ‘The LORD, whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple . . . but who may abide the day of His coming, and who may stand when he appears . . .
Worship Matters, The Creation Matters – but as woven together – for The Earth is The Lord’s and everything in it
It is all His
As we ponder His Coming to His Temple, we may well ask, have we Cared, have we tilled and kept? Or have we been Casual?
Jayber Crow, his life woven into the land lies down in the soil in a clearing – he became one with the [Creation] but was anything but at peace – ‘I heard the motors speeding along the roads, and [along] the rivers, the tractors in the fields, the airplanes in the sky, and always, always that chainsaw in the woods. I heard the big trees tearing and breaking their way to the ground, and the thump of little creatures run over on the road . . .
This is the World of Faith – to SEE – it is no easy antidote to the World, it is to Know its truth and our place in it . . . and it is also to See our Salvation in Christ who as the Centre of Creation gives light to all who ask. True Faith is Woven into the fabric of Creation – for Creation is God’s and cannot be known or lived in apart from God
Let us pray that the King of Glory may come in
Let us pray that we Know the things that truly make for our peace
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 . . .
Sermon for Sunday 22nd September – Stewardship Sunday
The Good Steward
Today is one of those strange Sundays which I can never find in the liturgical calendar, but which almost all churches seem to celebrate, and that is Stewardship Sunday 🙂
Stewardship -I wonder what image that conjours in your mind? What are our expectations on ‘Stewardship Sunday’. I wonder if folk avoid church on ‘Stewardship Sunday’ 🙂
I wonder if this story resonates? I remember a colleague of mine at the Catholic school where I taught, and he recounted how the local parish priest had visited him and his wife on a dark winters evening. He had come in and without asking after them or their family, reminded them of their financial obligations to the church. and then left. . . as my friend said, ‘I wouldn’t have minded all that much, but he wasn’t our parish priest, we worshipped at another church!’ 🙂
Well, I have never preached on the subject of our giving to the church and I’m not about to break the habit of the last 15 years of ministry. Which you might think must be the end of the sermon, for what ELSE can one talk about on Stewardship Sunday, but money, or deceitful money as Jesu calls it. Like the vain person, Money assumes we MUST be talking about it 🙂 Of course we might think of Stewardship of ‘Our gifts, or time’ and perhaps we’ve heard sermons on that. But I’ve never preached on that either and don’t want to break my duck today 🙂 Partly because preaching on Money, or Gifts or Time, is to preach on things which we instinctively, if wrongly think of as ours, which has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – which begins with the assumption that Everything is God’s.
That we can say of Nothing – ‘This is Mine’. Indeed things, Money distort us and make us want to Own them. Thus we speak of Ours. That is the way Jesus addresses us about Money. He calls it Untrustworthy – Unrighteous – Deceitful – it’s out to trap you, out to make you think it is yours . . . So I don’t want to dwell on those things because we all tend to thinking they are ours however much we deny it – and we will end up with the sort of unhealthy dynamic where if my sermon is particularly skillful, then perhaps I can encourage you to think about giving a little more in these areas?? No
Rather I want to think what it means to be a Steward in biblical terms – what we are stewards of – and how we should respond to today’s gospel reading.
So what does it mean to be a steward? Firstly a steward is a servant. He or she has a master for whom they works. And they are ALWAYS in view. The Christian is God’s Servant, God’s Steward. In a sense being God’s steward is the Whole Active Christian life. Supremely in The Servant, The Steward of The Lord. Jesus Christ, whose Bread is to do the will of HIs Father. We are the Body of Christ – so we, the church are the Servant of the Lord – our very life is about serving God – that is why we are here. The manager in the story is put in charge of his masters things – but he has squandered them. And he realises his time is up, for his master wants an account!! He knows he is facing the sack.
Similarly our Stewardship is something of which we are expected to give an account. Individually and as a church. Christ calls us to account. ‘How have you stewarded what I have entrusted to you?’ God is asking us. So our Lives and our Life together is lived out with a view to Christ and His command to us. He is the one we must answer to. And here we have a problem, for frankly when it comes to we modern people, we are so full of our sense of it being Our Life to do what We want to do with, that the idea that we might have to give an account is at best vague. Put another way, we tend to think of God and Christ in very abstract terms. The idea of Judgement, of accounts being made is not close to the surface of our thinking, but we cannot begin to think clearly about Stewardship without this. The Steward in the story is FAR wiser than we are in this regard. ‘the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ He’s VERY aware of his boss and his responsibilities. Put another way, if we are foolish enough to claim to be Christians, then we should know better in the matter of having to give an account.
So Stewards work for another – and they have to give and account of how they have CARED for that which is not theirs. Stewardship is a matter of taking Care of that which is Gods. This is why I do not think Money, or gifts or talents or out time are in view when we think of Stewardship. I want to suggest that Stewardship has little if anything to do with anything we might be deceived into things we think of as ours. Rather they are those things which we feel detached from. THESE are the things we are given to care for. Indeed THERE in a sense is part of the problem. Dishonest Money actually Detaches us from our sense of responsibility – we do not identify with that with which we have been entrusted as Stewards . . .
Three areas of Stewardship that are given into our hands. They define the Entire Active life of the Christian, God places them into Our Care, and will come to ask us what we have done with them.
The Creation – If you like, the original model of the Stewards are Adam and Eve – they are told to ‘Till and to Keep the Garden’. As some of us explored last year – the words have overtones of worship – their tending is to be worshipful – in the sense of treating with the greatest of respect. As we heard a few weeks ago in our musings on Colossians, Jesus is the Second Adam, He stewards Creation in healing the sick and casting out demons, and calming the storm, and cursing the unfruitful tree – He is the one in whom the whole created order holds together and for whom it was made. So As the Body of Christ we are to Steward the Creation.
And when we do, The Creation is a source of blessing to us – The Earth hath brought forth her increase and God, even our own God shall bless us Ps 67:6 – As we tend the Earth, then God blesses his servants through the Earth. God looks after the Good Stewards whose eyes are on looking after God’s good Earth. YET . . . we have as it were sought to make the Earth a source of our own gain, We have not treated it as if it was not ours, to do with as we life, we have not been Good Stewards. And so more and more the Creation is not that vehicle of blessing . . .
Just this week I was reading of one of hundreds of examples of this. How in Alaska – for generations people have with tremendous respect and care fished for Sockeye Salmon. Stopping the fishing if the stocks looked stressed. But now it appears that the huge headwater area is also the site of possible Gold and tin mineral extraction on a vast scale – the Financial worth of the deposits estimated at $ 1 trillion US. Although one mining corporation this week announced it was withdrawing one big corp now has what it likes to call ‘Rights’ on the whole lot (How Proud we are, to say we have RIGHTS on that which is God’s) . . . $1tn, or the health of the Salmon?? History which seems in this regard be heading into an abyss tells us who will win in the end. If you like sockeye salmon, enjoy them this season . . . dishonest wealth distorts our view.
We are given stewardship of our own souls – of our lives before God… I wonder if we have thought of that? For as Christians Our lives are not our own to do with as we will as much as the planet is not ours to do with as we will. Creation, Our souls – belong to God in Christ. To mix the metaphor, How do we tend the garden of our soul?
The rich man calls his Steward to give an account – we are accountable. The Steward is not his own boss – neither are we. How do we tend the garden of our souls wisely? By being accountable for our lives.
How regularly do we sit with someone to give an account of our stewardship of our soul? Of our life with God?
We are meant to do this – we are meant to watch over one another in love. And again money distorts it. We have grown up in a church where the only people who are accountable are those we pay 🙂 They have contracts and terms of service and covenants. And we are SO used to money dictating things that we think there is nothing wrong with this, after all Deceitful mammon whispers in our ears, ‘we don’t want to waste our money, do we?’ . . . – but are we as alert to the wasting souls amongst us?
I wonder how many of us come to worship Sunday by Sunday, but think ‘I feel like such a lousy Christian’ – I wonder how few of us dare to voice this to another – to ask for help – to say to someone else, would you help me steward my soul? Would you in love, hold me to account for my life?
The shrewd manager sees the time of accounting coming! He realises he has failed big time he realises he is about to be sacked . . . so he thinks ‘I need some friends’ and he takes the bills of his masters clients and in a rush cuts and slashes them – ‘quick rewrite your bill so its half as much – you – cut yours by a third – you cut yours by 80%!’ Of course when his master sacks him – these people will look after him, for he has ‘looked after them – and his master smiles. He’s lost his money, and this scoundrel has taken care of himself 🙂 He is shrewder than the children of Light
Which brings us to our final arena of stewardship of One another.
3) Love your neighbour as you love yourself – This is Stewardship – for your neighbour is a bearer of the image of God. They belong to Him. I wonder if we think about this when we think about our neighbour. The person we meet on the street. The poor. They belong to God -they are put into Our hands. Esepcially those of us who have the financial means to help them. Throughout Scripture, ‘The Righteous person’ is exemplified in the one whom the poor know as their friend. Righteousness and care for the poor go hand in hand.
It is in regard to This stewardship that the story Jesus tells hits home most clearly. The manager – the steward of the rich mans affairs has made a mess of it – we are told he has squandered his property. The man puts money to work, to buy himself friends. And Jesus says we should do the same, and particularly with respect to The Poor. Until Very recently Care for the Poor was understood as Central to Christian piety. But less and less so, as so many Christians ironically grown wealthy, and increasingly separated from the poor. One of the ways Money is deceitful is in hiding the wealthy from the poor. It is worth considering how we live in our society – are the rich and the poor cheek by jowl? No, there are rich neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods. HOw many of us know people as friends whose daily lives are a struggle to feed a family, I wonder? The Righteous are known and welcomed by the poor.
We live separate lives and so The Poor are just an abstraction to us . . . just like God and judgement and giving an account. For many in our society, and indeed sadly in the church, the poor are just an abstraction – we do not sit at table with them, or share their lives, yet I regularly hear them condemned as deserving their poverty, written off as wastrels. THese people who are by and large strangers to us
And the Owner of the house is coming. Next week the door closes. Week by week we have heard Jesus warning his people about dishonest wealth, about caring for the poor. Next week we have the chilling tale of the Rich man and Lazarus. The door closes, The judge has come and the one who lived without a care for the poor man at the gate finds himself in hell . . . This week we are a week shy of this – the manager realises that the judge is on the way – so what does he do?? He transfers his masters wealth to those amongst whom he will have to live. and Jesus notes – the Master commended him for his shrewdness. When the accounts are settled, the man will find himself amongst friends and Jesus says ‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’
He acts out of fear . . . he is not a child of light. He does what he does because he knows he’s out on his ear. We Know that we are utterly loved by the One who has given His World, His people and indeed His Life to us. We have nothing to fear from Deceitful wealth, however loudly it may whisper in our ears that we have to look Care for it. We have been given a far more glorious task of Caring for Creation and Others and through that our very souls
I said at the outset that God wasn’t in view in the Rich man, but perhaps in a sense he is. Yes we like the scoundrel manager have squandered what belongs to HIm. We have squandered the earth, our souls and indeed the lives of others, but perhaps at the last, he might smile upon those who have come to their senses, Woken up to who they are in Christ, and have sought to be the Good Stewards they were created to be.
So Moses finished the work . . . then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.
So God finished all the work that he had done . . .
And God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and he will be their God
The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us, and we have seen his Glory
Throughout the entire narrative of the Bible, like the threads of Gold, blue, purple and crimson, the purposes of God are being worked out – all the while moving to the fulfilment of the new heaven and the new earth, and always prefiguring it.
The Arena of the worship of God was always meant to be Creation . . . God walking in the garden in the cool of the Day and the layout of the tabernacle, with its divisions and lights and sea, and Ark of the Covenant perfectly models the Created order.
In these last days, God himself becomes the tabernacle in Christ, and his people, the church his dwelling place.
The Saving work of God woven throughout the whole story and thus St Paul as he speaks of the Israelites, his kindred in the flesh, he too cannot but speak of God’s work throughout, his word coming down through Patriarchs and prophets in a word of Hope, that at the last, God will be all and in all – that Israel’s unbelief is somehow part of all that God is accomplishing in and through Christ.
For now we see, as through a glass darkly – like Moses we cannot bear the full weight of Glory – we are not yet made perfect in Love, so do not see as he sees. But One does, one who is Love incarnate, dwelling amongst us, and who like Obedient Israel, who camp and break camp as the cloud stops or moves, only does what he sees the Father doing.
At the Last he will weave his vision into the hearts and minds even of frail human flesh. It is of a whole.
[Once more I note that these are like those things which Paul sees in a vision, of which one may not speak, perhaps lacking a sense of the Holy in our age, it is only modern artists who try to portray the tabernacle]