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

Sermon for Sunday 19th October 2014

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

‘Of inheritances . . .’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did he say? What is your inheritance?

Through the Bible in a Year – May 20th

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Sa 9-11; Heb 11; Psalm 28-29

Contrary to that visible King – that which we see securing us – we are to Learn ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things NOT seen’

Faith as the 11th chapter of Hebrews sets out to describe is summed up in many examples – Abraham – who ‘set out not knowing where he was going’ – Moses who ‘persevered as though he saw him who is invisible’

This is where the age old false dichotomy between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ is resolved. For ‘faith’ is not a set of beliefs – but a Setting of a Life towards something. It is Evidenced in Living Towards God’s Kingdom. As one of my mentors puts it, it is living a life that would make no sense at all, if God did not exist.

Living by faith is perfectly expressed in Isaiah 50:10 – Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? – It is Jeremiah buying the potters field. It makes No sense at all to those who watch on – but it is Life to those who walk without light except that of faith.

Through the Bible in a Year – May 15

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 7-8; Heb 3-4; Psalm 20-21

As we saw yesterday, the Letter to the Hebrews is shrouded in mystery. It also is one which more than any other is full of warnings against falling away, a common theme throughout as we shall see, as we find in today’s reading.

But more than that, perhaps more than any other letter it emphasises the importance of relationships within the church in terms of strengthening faith.

When we consider how being part of the church is significant to our faith often we may think of this in terms of the support we receive when we pass through difficulties which are the common lot of all people. But here in the letter to the Hebrews we discover something far more significant – that of mutual ‘exhortation’ to stand firm in faith. Yes we mature in faith as we grow older, or at least we should, but the essence of that faith remains the same. All too often ‘maturing in faith’ becomes a means by which we in effect ‘turn away from the living God’. In the midst of looking after one another’s wounds common to all, we may well let this slip. As we shall see, the Hebrews clearly were under tremendous persecution for their faith, something we in the Western church know little if anything of.

In the absence of such difficulties we suffer for our faith, the common difficulties of life are intensely magnified. Did not the Hebrews also go through these things as well? Yet their concern is for ‘holding our first confidence firm to the end’.

When we face troubles in this world, common to us all, it is all too easy to lose sight of that which unites us to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our culture, the Individual reigns supreme, and for many in the church, faith has disastrously become a matter of private belief. the Epistle to the Hebrews is strong meat for such a culture of accommodation in the church.

Through the Bible in a Year – May 12

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 2-3; Mark 15; Psalm 18:1-30

Following on from yesterday’s comment, we may not therefore abandon the people of God, for a world which behaves better – for the whole world is complicit in the death of Christ. He comes not to save his own, but for the Salvation of the World, thus the World, in the person of Pilate is also involved. All of humanity.

What kind of faith can say with the centurion ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ To see here in this naked, utterly broken, tortured, dead Jew, the Son of God

Of course we are trained in thinking that somehow Who Jesus is is utterly veiled and hid from our sight at this point. Because it is by the gift of faith that we say the Crucified One is God’s Son, suggests to us that this is hidden . . . and of course it is in a sense – for we are blind. We would rather with many many heretics in the church suggest that the eye of faith sees beyond the mangled flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, to see ‘a deeper truth’, thus revealing our own blindness.

No, the Centurion sees clearly – ‘This is your God’ – the one in whose image we are made.

We flee from this so far and so fast – we sing and speak of Christ glorified and triumphant as if this is not seen clearly at the Cross. As John’s gospel reminds us – Here Is Christ in His Splendour and Glory.

The Cross is not to be reduced to a doctrine of Salvation, or ‘a sign of the love of God’.

No in this dead Jew, nailed to rough timbers of a first century gallows, we see God – Clearly.

It might be well worth asking, how do our churches bear witness to this, for unless we get this, then the Kingdom of God is a closed book to us.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 21

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 10-11; 2 Cor 5-6; Psalm 103

Once more a brief pause to consider a Psalm

This time, 103, one of those often committed to memory and it would be a good practise so to do.

Christian faith, as we have noted, is all too easily turned in on itself – we have ‘a faith’ which secures us. The beginning and end of our faith is our salvation, either in the here, or the hereafter. Whereas the Biblical witness is that the End, the Purpose of faith is the Glory of God.

Thus meditation on Psalm 103, with its total focus on the attributes of God is a useful medicine for the incurvatus soul. It will not let us turn in on ourselves, rather it opens us to God. And so the Psalmist both begins and ends the Psalm with true words of faith – Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me Bless His holy name.

For surely the end of our faith is to Bless God

Through the Bible in a Year – March 19

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 7; 2 Cor 1-2; Psalm 99-101

Paul opens his ‘second’ letter to the Corinthians, following the opening address, with these words

 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

These are words of great comfort and consolation  – and immensely rich and powerful – but I think a word needs to be said about the ‘affliction’ of which Paul speaks, for as becomes apparent he understands it in terms of affliction encountered in the basic Christian condition, discipleship.

There is much affliction that is common to the human condition, but Paul’s words are not addressed to these circumstances, rather he speaks of ‘the sufferings of Christ [being] abundant for us‘. In other words that in the life of faithful discipleship, the community of faith can expect no better than their Lord and Master. The scorn of the world.

Over the years however, as faith has become radically individualised and cerebral – such an emphasis is lost. After all, in a pluralist society who suffers for holding a different set of opinions? When we make friends with the world, rather than with the one who has reconciled himself with the world, we avoid the costly call to discipleship and no little if anything of what it is to enter into Christ’s sufferings.

Furthermore, in two different ways we as Sin directs us, turn the meaning of the story back on ourselves, making ourselves the centre of the story.

One we might understand as the liberal error. We interpret Paul’s words in terms of that general suffering which is common to all, and indeed we so also interpret the Cross of Christ, that it is God entering into the suffering human plight. This is the exact opposite of what Paul has in view here – that we enter into Christ’s sufferings, that we take up our Cross and follow him into a world which is hostile to the Good News.

The other is the Conservative error, which distances the body of Christ from Christ, that denies that we can be involved in Redemptive suffering. It leaves the church as onlookers in the business of Salvation. We are left just called to follow Jesus by holding the ‘right’ set of opinions about him

The Only Christian Faith is enacted faith, performed faith – Faith taking on flesh in the life of the Church.

The Only Christian Life is the Life of Christ, present amongst his people so enacting this costly faith and knowing in their flesh the abundance of Christ’s sufferings.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 26

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 33-34; Romans 4-5; Psalm 74

Once more Paul shows us how all of our story of faith is to be found in the deep history of the people of God. It is a given amongst the Saints of God that the Resurrection of Christ utterly transforms our conception of time, that we are not looking into the deep past, but rather that in Christ, we walk alongside those who have gone before us and at once go with us.

So Abraham is brought to our attention – heed Abraham – look at him. Consider the nature of faith. It is no mere ‘believism’ – rather in stumbling and faltering Abraham – the Abraham who tries as it were to cast off his wife Sarah for fear of those he sees – who is only to open to the suggestion to bring God’s promises to being by his own route, fathering Ishmael in pretty much the same way our earliest forebears eat the apple – yes in Abraham we discover the ‘model’ of faith. The one who believes in the promises of God – who looks to God for his future and in the sacrifice of Isaac will allow his own ‘future’ to die, trusting in the one who raises the dead. The promise through Abraham is shown to rest entirely on Grace. In Abraham, in his obedience it is revealed that it cannot be otherwise.

Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives will find them’

It is no wonder Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ – may we also know the blessedness of forgiveness in the justification that comes through the faith revealed to us in Abraham. A Faith which covers over a multitude of sins, being not like that first trespass. How our Sins can cloud our vision. For those of us who struggle with sin, that is all who are alert to the Life of God in our midst, we all need to hear the ‘How much more’ of the promise of God. The God who raises the dead.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 20

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 20-21; Acts 26; Psalm 67

The Ten commandments, or rather ‘Ten Words’, point at once to the essence of faith and also its greatest perversion.

Faith and obedience are inextricably linked, but all too often an attempt is made to make of Christian faith a ‘morality’ – a way of living, divorced from the saving grace of God.

‘Then God spoke all these words . . .’ – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is no mute idol – he speaks, he addresses those he has set apart from himself to be a kingdom of priests . . . and obedience is only found in response to God. Human Life in its fullness is only ever life which is lived in utterly surrendered response to the One who speaks – whose word is Life, whose word is so life giving that Christ reveals the Truth of our human vocation in being fed on doing the will of the one who sent him.

This is made explicitly clear in the prologue to the Ten Words – ‘I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, our of the house of slavery’ . . . God establishes his relationship with his people. It is his gracious favour and mercy which is the foundation of everything – ‘you shall have no other gods before me’, is the utterly reasonable response. It is as though this revelation of the Mercy of God, must elicit these words from our mouths, ‘We shall have no other gods before us’

As Paul puts it ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship’ And so Paul, as he makes his defence before Agrippa, roots it in the saving acts of God. His accusation against his accusers is in effect ‘they have forgotten whose people they are’, the accusation of the prophets down through the ages. It is not Paul who has got tangled up in some new and strange teaching, this great salvation in Christ is prefigured in the Exodus. This is the God who saves, the God who has never ceased form making himself known and calling his people into a relationship of loving obedience. Indeed this is so Obvioud to Paul, as clear as that shining light on the Damascus road, that he makes what on the surface seems to be the utterly ludicrous statement, that he wishes his hearers were as him in every way, ‘except for these chains’. The man in chains as been set free in joyful loving obedience – those listening are still chained.

At the heart of it is a lived apprehension of the One who is Alive for evermore. Any attempt to live in denial of this, to obey apart from faith only ends in us hearing the words – ‘Away from me you evil doers – I never knew you’. True obedience is never more and never less than moment by moment attentiveness and response to the One who speaks. Whose Command is Life to those who know him.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 18

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 15-16; Acts 24; Psalm 64-65

As the story moves on, we are shown what life with God means.

As we remembered yesterday, the Israelites are called to Remembrance of what God has done for them, and then as they walk with them, he provides – bread for the day. Not an excess, but what they need. Thus he reveals himself to be the source of their life, moment by moment. The bread is sacramental – as all food, it is more than a reminder of God presence. this is the food God has provided – we have it at his hand.

But for the rich there comes a double challenge. We have not learned our faith through such dependence – we forget where all we have comes from. God’s good creation is seen as a Right, rather than a daily gift. The connection is broken and often we will sit down now to eat without any thanksgiving.

We break bread to remember and in the remembering we are given life – but if we take more than that which God has given us, if we Grasp, if we seek to possess more, to take charge of our lives, to secure ourselves against tomorrow, that we might rest easy without faith – it turns to maggots in our teeth. For most of us in the West, the lesson of daily bread is one we have never learned. Perhaps this above all is why the church is so weak? For us, faith is not a daily act rooted in the material gift of God, now it is just a set of beliefs, little or nothing to do with the stuff of our everyday life, so ‘successfully’ have we secured this for ourselves

Through the Bible in a Year – February 17

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Exodus 13-14; Acts 23; Psalm 62-63

One of the great challenges to living faith today is our all too easy discarding of history. We live in a culture where history counts for nothing, such are the apparent advances in technology and our seeming mastery of all things. What has history to teach US?

Yet we see in the instructions of Moses to the children of Israel, Remembering that which God has done is essential to continuing in faith. Precise instructions are given also, this is no mere retelling of a story – it is to be embodied in the continuing redemption of the first born, thus the story is told from generation to generation.

Of course in a sense the Israelites also lived in an ‘ahistoric age’ – no sooner are they free of the slavery of the Egyptians than they forget how things were and want to return – a constant theme of their story those next forty years.

Throughout God is present in the pillar of cloud and fire – a living presence amongst them – but they often will not allow the possibility of God’s future could be better than their known history. God calls them into a future of His making, much as Christ calls us to leave our nets and follow.

Of course it is clear here that it is not that the Israelites have forgotten the past in the way we readily discard it, but rather that they refuse to focus on what God has done in the past as a guarantee of the future.

The future is Always an unknown. The past is in truth all that we ever know.

The call of faith is to recall the mighty acts of God, or his daily small mercies. Thus we grow in faith and submit ourselves into his hands for the future. He has provided daily bread these many days, will he not continue to do so? We too readily discount the Goodness of God, which is both our Source and our End.