Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – 2014. The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom

Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – 2014 – Year A

Isaiah 49:8-16
Psalm 131
Matthew 6:24-34

“The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”

As most of you know, my family celebrated my 50th birthday by throwing me out of an airplane at 15,000ft! Perhaps that is toying with the truth 🙂 Actually they knew that I harboured a wish to skydive, but weren’t too keen on the idea . . . and for their concern I was and remain, duly grateful 🙂 So rather than offer me simply a skydive, they offered what to their minds were two less risky alternatives – lying in bed for a day – or lying in bed for two days 🙂 I jest, although the stats would show that I am far more likely to die in bed than skydiving 🙂 Actually they offered me parascending and hang-gliding. They were I think a little unhappy that I still chose to skydive – even though my careful research had revealed that it was by far the safest of the three options available!

Our society is a tremendously fearful one. Revealed in many ways, not least our idolatry of good management. We idolise management and pay good managers well because we are afraid of the alternative. On Friday I spent what should have been my day off at a Governance workshop for the Diocesan Council – it was a good workshop, but the more I immerse myself in the narrative of the Scriptures, of the Life of God with his people, the more alien such things seem to be in terms of the Kingdom of God. We seem in the church to imagine that Good Management and sound governance will usher in God’s Kingdom. However loudly we proclaim this Not to be the case, our actions reveal the truth about us. The Church spends far far more time in management than prayer. The Fear of the Lord far less evident than the Fear of ‘getting things wrong’. It sometimes seems to me as if we believe we can actually ‘manage God.’ As if the Holy Spirit can be directed into  the plans and strategies we have so carefully put in place. And to be frank, God laughs.
The French mathematician Laplace once presented to the Emperor Napoleon his mechanical model of the Solar System, The Emperor who was clearly not an insensitive man asked Laplace – Where does God come into this?’ the mathematician answered ‘Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis’. Put another way, The Universe can get on quite happily without God. And if often strikes me that we would at best struggle to begin to describe How God fitted into our life in the church. Certainly the ‘visitor from Mars’ would be hard put to find any evidence.
As a result of which we are afraid, for now everything is utterly in our hands . . . we bestride the world and confront the great moral issues of our time – We have to figure this all out by ourselves, which is a terrifying thought. So we try and manage things and if we are of a religious bent we get on with our managing and ask that God might bless it, but in our heart of hearts we do not actually think that things come about other than by our efforts. This is revealed not only in lack of prayer (we are perhaps the most prayeless age of the church), but also in self congratulation when our plans come to fruition, or self condemnation when they fail. God is small in our consciousness. Even though the One who ushers in the Kingdom of God explicitly tells us not to worry about what tomorrow will bring, after all, you might die in your bed tonight . . . but I’m back where I left off last week, how we avoid concrete obedience to Jesus, because after all, what does a first century Galilean know about the reality of our modern lives.

The Bible knows a Lot about Fear. It reveals it as the condition of humanity separated from God. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
Separated from God, we are afraid. We are afraid of God himself, for He is a stranger to us, and all HIs world is strange to us and we are afraid of that also – we are afraid of growing old, we are afraid we shall not have enough to live on, perhaps we are afraid we will not have enough to eat, we are afraid of losing our faculties . . .
The Lord God called to the man, and said to him “Where are you?” Perhaps the most poignant words in all of scripture. I read this week of a child who was lost in Paris for four days, because his father had not managed to get on the same Metro train as him. I shudder at the thought not least because I too once lost one of my children in a town, it is a truly awful thing. The cry of our Parent – from whom we are hiding “where are you?” is an agonised one, which will lead to the agony of the Cross.
And our reading from Isaiah finds that parent seeking out his hiding children, trying to coax them out of their places where they have hidden from Him. Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” God’s Saving help is announced in every word of Scripture – God continues to speak of all the goodness he wishes to shower on his children “They shall feed along the ways on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;  they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down. for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.  And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 
I am seeking to bring my children home!! Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.  Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people,
 and will have compassion on his suffering ones. God seeks his exiled children to bring them home
So why, we may well ask is the Fear of the Lord understood as the beginning of Wisdom. If our Fear of God is misplaced? If God only desires Good for his children? And it is true that Being Afraid of God is not human. There is Fear and there is Fear. The English language at times is so poverty stricken. We need to move from fear to Fear. Our ‘Being Afraid’ needs to be transformed
Jesus commands us to abandon our worries about food and the rest. And immediately fear stands at the gate.  ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ Money is a harsh master. We try and take care of it – we are afraid it might leave us. Because we hide from God, money which seems to loo so large in our consciousness terrifies us. It distorts our loves and destroys our lives.
On Thursday this week I spent a good part of the day with folk from ‘Christians against Poverty’ – an unashamedly Christian organisation recently come to these shores from Bradford – the Diocese from where I came! Indeed we saw a video of their premises, tucked in behind my old cathedral 🙂 They are devoted to helping people out of debt, that condition which reveals most clearly the nature of our enslavement to money. And we saw some wonderful testimony of folk who had been helped (It brought a tear to my eye, not something of which I am often guilty, not least because we were told of many who have become Christians through their explicitly Christian work (CAP NZ has looked after over 500 families in debt – 247 people have become Christians through their work))

[Here is a Video of the Work of CAP in the UK – I am very proud to say that my eldest daughter works at Jubilee Mill 🙂 ]


So the power of money is a thing of Terror to us – we fear it.  But Jesus goes on to explain what serving God is like, in terms of lack of worry. Do not worry what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear for the Gentiles rush after all of these. Jesus is of course speaking here to Jews, God’s people, like Isaiah speaking to them of God’s Loving search for them – as I said last week, only re-inforcing what they have always known. For God, Jesus says ‘feeds the birds of the air’ – he clothes the lillies of the fields such that even King Solomon was never so attired (how sad we spend so much time on our own appearance when there is infinitely more beauty in a single leaf or flower than in all the latest designs from the Paris cat walk . . .)
So we must ask – If Fear is transformed, what new form does it take? What is this truly Healthgiving ‘fear of the Lord?’ Well I think the best way to explain it is to use an example most of us will have experienced, but few if any will remember. When we were born and indeed if we were fortunate, for the first years of our lives, our parents, especially our mothers dominated our perception. They were our life. We had little sense of ourself except our basic needs for food, warmth, protection and if we were blessed, we received all of these. Our Parents were our World. Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth – one or the other must consume your imagination, one or other will entirely shape your world. You will love one or the other. But love of wealth leads only to anxiety – it is a nervous fear. Love of God is Holy Awe – the perception of who God is, His profound Love for us so fills our imaginations that all worry disappears. In the way that a tiny baby knows no fear but only the overwhelming of the compassionate presence of its parent
the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Are we hearing these words of the searching compassionate God of the Old Testament? Or is our imagination still poisoned by the lies of the evil one? God says through his prophet, yes, even a nursing mother may forget her child, yet I will not forget you ‘Look you are inscribed on the palms of my hands . . .behold my hands, my side, my wounds of Love, the glorious fruit of my search for you.
Lent starts on Wednesday. In the minds of most of us, this can often be seen as a time for beating ourselves up – terrible sinners that we are – we cry out ‘Lord have mercy’ because we imagine God with a huge stick desiring to punish us for our wickedness – again where Does that image come from? Not the one who has Pity on us. When we cry out in Lent, ‘Lord have mercy’ it is not as one who cowers in fear, but as one who has seen in Jesus that God is the one who takes away our fears. That we cry out like the blind man, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me. And he answers – They shall feed along the ways on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;  they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down. for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.
As we go through Lent we will be joining together to think about what it means to be the church, to share in this Life of God, to know the true fear of the Lord. As I hope to show, this Fear that radically frees us from our fears. That being so Set free to Fear God in this way, we might begin the journey towards being the people He would have us be. Until that happens we cannot begin to imagine what it might be to Seek the Kingdom of God . . .
Earlier this week I was reminded in our daily bible reading of the fact that an old name for God was ‘The Fear’, specifically The Fear of Isaac, which led me to this beautiful passage from the writer Frederick Buechner with which I close. It comes from his novel The Son of Laughter, who is of course the Patriarch Isaac. “The Shield was another of the Fear’s names. According to Laughter, it means he shields the seed of Abraham the way a man starting a fire shields the flame. When Sarah was about to die childless, the Fear gave her a son. When Abraham was about to slaughter the son, the Fear gave him the ram. He is always shielding us like a guttering wick, Laughter said, because the fire he is trying to start with us is a fire that the whole world will live to warm its hands at. It is a fire in the dark that will light the whole world home.”
The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, it is the doorway to seeking his Kingdom, it is the beginning of our journey towards home,.

Sermon for Sunday August 22nd – Stewardship

Sermon for Sunday 22nd September – Stewardship Sunday

Luke 16:1-13

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.

Amen

Through the Bible in a Year – March 22

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 12-13; 2 Cor 7-8; Psalm 104

Paul despite eschewing what is falsely called ‘wisdom’, leaves no rhetorical technique unused as he goads, exhorts and strains to call froth the Life of Faith from his Corinthian brothers and sisters. And here he has his work cut out, for centuries of faith have proved without demur, that the poor are far more generous than the rich.

That it is far easier for the poor to enter the kingdom, than the wealthy

However much it may stick in our craw to think in these terms, it is only what Jesus has told us.

If we are comfortable with life as it is, we will do little to enter by the narrow gate. Indeed in a world of relative comfort, even the narrow gate is transformed into ‘asking Jesus into your heart’ – a call which has no scriptural warrant as it is used in contemporary church life. All is a life of ease.

Yet here in the sharpest point, where Mammon in exposed for the false god it is, where the simple sign of repentance, sharing that which we have with those who do not have is laid before us (Luke 3:11), we rationalise our way around the clear command of Jesus as effectively as the wealthy Corinthians do.

Sadly we do not recognise that this invitation to share is an invitation into the very life of God. The invitation to life in the kingdom is rejected.

Through the Bible in a Year – February 2

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 20-21; Acts 8; Psalm 41

Out of death comes Life. As the early church readily testified, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. And at first it seems that everything is getting darker. Although the Life of the Risen one is so manifest amongst them, death is still a tragedy – loud lamentation is called for. The Resurrection stands before the tomb of Lazarus and weeps.

We live in an age which so seemingly devoid of Life, that often people will quote ‘death is nothing at all’, but this is chloroform to the senses and the Life in the Spirit.

And so the blood of the first witness (martyr), scatters the seed of the gospel – and as it is one of the seven set apart to serve at tables who has been chosen first to follow Christ in death, so another of the servants Philip who spreads the word in Samaria. In the early church, the ordinary table waiters are those who are also called to bold witness. And we have the dramatic encounter between Simon the magician and the apostles.

After the apostles discover that the word is bearing fruit Peter and John are sent and pray over those already baptised in the name of Jesus (perhaps those referred to in John 4:1?), that they might receive the Holy Spirit. But Simon is captivated by the signs – and money. For him money and magic are closely related as they are today – more precisely power and money. Money confers Power, money buys power – but the sharpest of divisions is drawn between the Life of God and that conferred by Mammon – Silver and Gold have I none. The destitute apostles are full of the Holy Spirit. As with Ananias and Sapphira, our values are so distorted by our culture that we find Peter’s response to Simon harsh. But Peter divines truly – those captivated by money and its power are still in chains of wickedness . . . there are perhaps few amongst us to whom the Lord would not say, ‘Unless you give up your possessions you cannot be my disciple’.