And Then What?

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It was quite by accident that we found ourselves in a great crowd watching a religious procession, not like any religious procession you would find in an Anglican setting.  There were dancing dragons carried on poles.  There were golden lions, larger than life.  There were the stories of the gods acted out on flat-bed trucks, groups of dancing children, and, at last, came the gods themselves, carried on poles.  We were, it seems, celebrating the birthday of one of these gods.

 

We happened to be standing near to a Chinese café, which had set up a shrine on the pavement in front, an altar with incense and fruit.  Each passing dragon and lion stopped and honoured the shrine.  And at the end, when the gods themselves came by, the café owners emptied out bags and bags of imitation paper money in a heap on the road in front of the altar and set it alight, there on the public highway.  This was money for the deceased ancestors, to ensure that they wanted for nothing in the afterlife.

 

Way back, when the funerals of the ancestors had been held, the families had burned paper models of cars and computers and white goods, so that the dead would have had all that they needed to live well in the eternal lands.

 

But this was Kuching, Sarawak, and this was an ancient Chinese faith long since expunged in the Chinese mainland and brought here by the diaspora in the 17th and 18th centuries.

 

And then, 18 months later, just 2 months ago, we were in China itself, and we visited Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples.  Though these temples were generally reconstructions for the benefit of the tourists, there were a lot of young people engaged in worship.  And to outward observers, the worship seemed to be pretty much the same whichever kind of temple we were visiting.  A fistful of lighted incense sticks was held above the head and the worshipper bowed north and south, east and west.  They were there to gain blessings, but also to worship the ancestors.  The sense of connection to those who had gone before was massive.

 

The week after we got home, we held our All Souls tide service at St Chad’s to remember and give thanks for those who have died, welcoming the families of the funerals we had held over the last year.  One woman said to me at the end, “I have been coming to this service for 6 years, and now I know I need to let go”, which was huge progress, an important step on the path of bereavement.

 

Every time we go to a funeral, it challenges us to think again about what happens to us when we die.  Most people bat the question away as it flutters through their consciousness – it’s certainly not something people in my parish want to think about too deeply.

 

The Church believes in the Resurrection of the Body.

 

In this Season of Advent, the church is preparing for the coming of Christ – in two ways.  Christ is born as an infant in the animal room of a simple house in Bethlehem, God gives up the glory of heaven to be born as a human, with all the mess and misery that means.  We call that the incarnation – the enfleshment, the embodying of God.  Human bodies are so important that God chooses to share that experience and show himself, his love, to us.

 

And the second awaiting is for Christ again, for Christ returning at the end of time.  It is a key theme of Advent.  We are called to open our eyes and look around us and see the signs of the fulfilment of that promise.  Christ is coming again.  Maranatha!

 

And when Christ comes again, the dead will rise from their tombs and be a part of the new heavenly kingdom in which God lives with his people, where there is no darkness, no sin, no death, nor mourning, no crying.

 

And that’s what the church calls the Resurrection of the Body, the embodying, the enfleshment, the incarnation of the human beings who have died and whose first bodies have been returned to the earth, to dust, and to ashes.

 

We will be raised, and we will be raised bodily, because Christ himself rose from the dead.  In the second lesson, Thomas is none too sure about this.  He cannot believe the disciples’ story that Jesus is alive again until he sees for himself.  He needs to know.   The next week when the disciples are gathered behind closed doors, Jesus appears and invites Thomas to see the prints of the nails and touch the open wound and feel the real flesh.  Jesus’ resurrection body is a real body.  It is recognisably Jesus.  It retains the wounds of earthly life.  But it can pass through locked doors in a way not known to humans.  It is the same, and it is different.

 

And that tells us what we might expect of the Resurrection Body.  That is what I hope for at the end of time, when I am raised again – a transformed body, a renewed body, a body that can live eternally in a redeemed and re-created world.

 

Ezekiel had a vision of a vast field of dry bones coming together to form skeletons which are then enfleshed and filled with the spirit of life.  The prophet was not talking about the resurrection of the body at the end of time, but about how we live this life, here on earth.  He imagined a life restored, so that the people of Israel could return to the land and to community, living in God’s way, inspired by God’s spirit.  The resurrection of the body will come about, but in the meantime, we are invited to live the resurrection life here and now, to live as those who are fully alive and fully expectant.  In Advent we are called from darkness into light, from blindness into sight, from dull routine into God-given possibilities.  We are called to face the hard questions of our own frailty and mortality, so that we can lay a-hold of living now.  Birth and Death are bound together.  We are waiting for the birth of a child who is going to die so that we might fully live.

 

When I die, my children will not offer up paper models of the goods I might need in the afterlife.  I trust they will not even burn my books to provide post-mortem reading.  I do not need to bring matter into the hereafter, because one day, I will be returning to matter, to abide in the glorious kingdom.

Imagine

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Imagine.  Just imagine.

 

A world where the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and pretty well all the leaders of the world ….

 

  • Care about the poor
  • Bring justice to those who have no power to demand it for themselves
  • Deal effectively with the wicked who hurt and oppress and defraud others
  • Strive for peace

 

Imagine.  Just imagine.

 

A community where ….

 

  • People are welcoming and hospitable
  • people live in harmony,
  • where people encourage and support one another instead of constantly criticizing
  • people are kind to each other, and help each other

 

Imagine.  Just imagine.

 

People who …

 

  • know who they are, loved and cherished by God
  • whose personal qualities come out of their faith and walk with God
  • who live with integrity – what you see is what you get, and what you get is good
  • who want to do what is right and good

 

Imagine.  Just imagine.  God wants us to imagine.  Because when we imagine, we can start to make things happen.

 

Let me take you through some snapshots:

 

On Thursday afternoon, a woman called at my door because she needed a food voucher for her family.  They were being transferred on to Universal Credit.  Universal Credit is the new benefit that is bringing together various different benefits that people used to get.  It is paid once a month in arrears.  As I understand it, when you go on to Universal Credit, you have to wait several weeks before you get any money at all because you don’t get anything at all for the first week, and then you’re paid in arrears.  How are people going to manage in the meantime?  There were 3 children in that family.  It seems that the government is happy for them to go hungry.  They might get up to 3 Foodbank Vouchers, which would give them food for 3 days at a time.  And we’re coming up to Christmas.

 

That is not the kind of world I want to imagine, but it is the world we live in.

 

Have you seen the film “I, Daniel Blake”.  It won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.  It was made in Newcastle and is the story of a man, a joiner, who has a massive heart attack and can’t work and has to go on benefits.  The disability assessment says that he must look for a job, even though the consultant and the GP say Daniel can’t work.  So he is sanctioned.

 

Yes, it’s a film, but it’s based on reality.  It’s the kind of thing I see regularly when people knock at my door.

 

That is not the kind of world I want to imagine, but it is the world we live in.

 

This weekend, there has been a big collection at Tesco of food items for Gateshead Foodbank.  Volunteers have been encouraging shoppers to buy something extra for people who are going hungry.  Tesco also contributes massively to the Foodbank.  These collections are essential to bring in the food that is given out each week.  The Foodbank also relies on the gifts from churches and other organisations.  And money is needed as well to cover overheads such as the warehouse.  People are amazingly generous.

 

And alongside that, the Bensham Community Food Coop provides food to local people in need, including asylum seekers and refugees.  Again, it is founded on the generosity of people who share time and skills, and give food and money.

 

Imagine.  Just imagine we had a bit more of that.

 

I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 yesterday morning.  One of the guests was Jaime Thurston who started 52 Lives, a website which aims to change the life of one person each week.  There was the teenage single mum who was given a laptop which enabled her to do well in her studies and go to university.  There was the seriously ill girl whose bedroom was decorated by strangers.  The boy whose mum had died and he had been badly bullied, who wanted so much to go to Alton Towers.  Jaime posts the stories on the websites, and people can volunteer to help.  There are over 100,000 people involved in helping.

 

What makes the difference in all these stories is, not so much the gifts and the money, but the love and kindness that is shown.  It can be life changing to those who receive the help. And, I would say, it’s good for the people who reach out and help.  But the idea of changing one life a week – that is such a powerful vision.

 

Imagine.  Just imagine we had a bit more of that.

 

Advent is a time for re-imagining our world.

 

Christ is coming.  We look forward to the birth of a baby in a humble stable in Bethlehem, a baby who changes everything, even our priorities.

 

Christ is coming.  We open our eyes to anticipate the coming of Christ again at the end of time, when we will be judged for what we have done and for what we have failed to do.

 

John the Baptist strides in to the picture and calls us to repent.  He’s quite harsh! “You brood of vipers”, he says, “don’t assume that being a regular churchgoer is going to save you from disaster.”  And though he’s saying it – in some form – to people 2,000 years ago, his message is for us too.  Reflect on your life so far.  We have all done things we regret.  Tell God in our heart.  We all have quirks of personality that have a negative impact on others.  Recognise them, and talk to God about it.  God will always forgive us and help us start again.  Think about your own life.  What is God doing in your life?  Is God leading you to the kind of life that makes a difference to our world? To the community? To your own flourishing?

 

Imagine.  Just imagine!

 

Advent – What it means

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On Thursday, I was talking to Year 3 at St Aidan’s Primary School – that’s 7-8 year olds – about Advent.  They had lots of questions.  They wanted to know about Advent candles and Advent wreaths and what it all means.  And it was really good to have that conversation with them because so often, our culture skips over Advent and goes straight to Christmas.  Christmas trees are already up.  Black Friday has pressured us into buying things we don’t need and don’t want.  The Christmas films are coming on the telly; Bad Santa 2 is out in the cinemas; the Christmas muzak is blaring in supermarket aisles: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…’  No, no, no!

 

It’s Advent.  Let’s remind ourselves about Advent.

 

Advent is the beginning of the church’s year.  And the church’s year begins quietly – not with champagne and fireworks and dancing, like we might do on New Year’s Eve.

 

But there are some visible differences from last week.  There are no flowers.  We don’t have flowers in church in Advent and Lent.  The colour is purple.  I am wearing a purple chasuble and stole, and the colour on the altar and the pulpit is purple.   So it’s a solemn season.  It’s not quite the same as penitential Lent, reflecting on our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, but it’s a thoughtful time, a reflective time.  We didn’t sing the Gloria today, praising God in the highest heaven – did you notice?  We are using the purple service books, which don’t include the Gloria.

 

Another one of those subtle differences that you may not notice is that we move to the next year of the lectionary.  The lectionary is the pattern of readings set for every Sunday.  I don’t have to sit down each week and decide what bible readings we have, they are set out for me for a period of three years, Years A, B and C.  And when we finished the last Sunday of Year C, as we did last week, we start again at Year A.  And in Year A, the emphasis is on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B is Mark and Year C is Luke, with bits of John spread between them and at special times in the year.  If we wanted to study a special theme, we could stop using the lectionary for a few weeks and use bible readings appropriate to the theme, but the advantage of the lectionary is that we cover pretty much the whole bible – it’s like having a balanced diet.  The wonderful thing is, though I don’t generally choose the readings we have Sunday by Sunday, there can be such amazing coincidences, when the readings have something very real to say about what is going on in our world today or in our church or in our lives.

 

The children at school were particularly interested in the Advent Candles.  They got a bit confused, because there isn’t ONE way of doing Advent Candles – there are many variations.  Advent Candles are a relatively recent introduction into our church practice, starting in the 19th century.  They can come with 4 red candles and one white candle, or they come with 3 purple candles, one pink candle and one white candle.  On the first Sunday of Advent, today, we light one of the coloured candles.  Then next week, we will light the first candle and the second candle.  And it builds up each week till all four coloured candles are lit on the 4th Sunday of Lent.  The white candle is lit at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and it represents the coming of Jesus as a baby.  This year, we are using 3 purple candles which are lit on weeks 1, 2 and 4, and the pink candle is lit on week 3, which reflects the joy that is mentioned in the psalm for that day.

 

Advent is a time of preparation – not so much preparation for a feast and a festival, but getting ready for the coming of Christ, for the incarnation, which is about God becoming a human being, for Jesus being born as a baby.  It’s about getting ready inside, dusting down our prayers, polishing up our commitment to Christ, stirring up our desire for the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, that is what Advent means – it was a Latin word which meant the solemn arrival or a god or emperor.

 

We are waiting for two things:  We are waiting for the coming of Jesus.  And we are also waiting for Jesus coming again at the end of time.  As a church we have been waiting for 2,000 years, and we are still waiting.  Christ will come again.  We know that.  And at Advent, we renew our watchfulness, looking out for the signs that Christ is coming and he will make all things new.  Key words for advent are watching and waiting.

 

The bible readings for the four Sundays of Advent take us on a journey:

  • Starting with the readings for today, the first Sunday, with prophecies of a future time when God will dwell with his people;
  • We then spend two Sundays thinking about John the Baptist, whose role is to prepare the way of the Lord;
  • And then the fourth Sunday is about turning towards the birth of Christ.

 

There are lots of layers to Advent.  I didn’t tell the children in school about the big themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell, which are also part of Advent.

 

What does Advent mean for us?  I know December is busy.  I know there is a lot to do.  But I would encourage you to engage with Advent, to help prepare yourself spiritually for Christmas.  You might spend a little longer on your prayers.  Or join us for Morning Prayer every now and then.  Or you could take the Sunday readings home with you and read them during the week and reflect on them.  You might want to get one of the many books to help you think about Advent.  Some of my favourites include:

  • Kenneth Stevenson, Watching & Waiting
  • Janet Morley, haphazard by starlight

In the Orthodox Church, Advent is a time of fasting, and they eat a vegan diet. Anglicans are generally a bit weak on fasting.

 

To be honest, I have hardly begun to explain Advent.  There is a lot going on in this season.  It is so easy to sleepwalk through Advent.  Today’s readings encourage us to wake up, pay attention, be alert.  Things may well start to happen!

Christ our King

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Today is the last Sunday before Advent, the last Sunday of the churches year, and the church dedicates this Sunday to Christ the King.  In some ways, it’s a theme that goes alongside Ascension Day, when we celebrate Christ’s ascension to heaven to be king of all the earth.  But on this Sunday, we are thinking particularly of the nature of Christ’s kingship, what kind of king Christ is.

 

So it’s maybe a surprise that the Gospel reading today shows us Christ on the cross.  Pilate had ordered a sign to be hung over Jesus as he was dying:  the king of the Jews.  It was meant as an insult.  Pilate is saying to the Jews:  here is your king and he is dying as a criminal.  I am in power here and don’t you forget it.  Jesus is saying:  I am your king, and this is what it means to be king, to give up everything, even your life, even your honour, even your dignity, for the sake of the kingdom.

 

That’s the kind of king Christ is.

 

He had said to his disciples:  those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  And now he was showing them what that meant.  It means to put others first and put yourself last, even when that harms you, even when it leads to your demise.

 

That’s the kind of king Christ is.

 

And in the letter to the Christians at Colossae, Paul is reminding them that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he is what we can see of God.  When we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus.  Christ who is our king is also God.  Christ is king, because that is part of God’s nature.  God created everything, and that includes all those who rule on earth and exert power in the world.  But God is in charge.  Christ is king over all the systems and governments and ideologies.  They may think that they are in control, but they are wrong.  Whatever power they hold is subject to God.  Those who rule unjustly will come to an end and their authority will be crushed.

 

And that’s worth remembering at a time when world politics is all over the place, and people can’t agree on the right way forward.  In the end, Christ is in charge.  It may not always seem like it, but in the end, Christ will make things right, but that happens in God’s time.

 

That’s the kind of king Christ is.

 

And Paul says also that Christ rules also over the invisible powers, the power of darkness, the power of lies and deceit, the power of death and destruction, the power of greed and pride and malice and hatred.  None of these can win out in the end.  Because God’s power, the power of light and love is greater than all these.

 

That’s the kind of king Christ is.

 

So Christ our King is God, he is in charge of the world we can see and rules over the invisible powers that we don’t understand, and he is a king who gave himself up to death for us.  That the kind of king Christ is.

 

And we are called to follow him, to give him our allegiance, to enthrone him in our hearts, to dedicate our lives to him.  When we do that, we become citizens of another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.  And Christ calls us to live as his citizens now.  It affects every part of our lives, and we have to work out what that means for each one of us.

 

I invite you to reflect on what that means – I am going to read a prayer, a reflection:

 

Jesus, anointed one, Jesus the Christ,

Come, reign in my heart,

Be my king,

Rule in my life.

 

Open my eyes to see things your way;

Open my ears to hear your voice guiding me;

Open my heart to your presence in all things.

Shape my priorities,

Shape my will and my desire.

Be the centre of my life, my goal, my end.

Let me live for you.

 

Let me live as a citizen of your kingdom.

And let your kingdom grow and flourish

Here, in my heart, in my church, in my community.

In your kingdom, the poor have enough to eat,

Those who live at the edges are welcomed in,

Those who are imprisoned by their attitudes and addictions,

Those who are chained by their hurts and memories –

They are set free.

In your kingdom, we can see clearly.

In your kingdom, our hurts are healed.

May your kingdom come,

And may I be a part of it.

 

Jesus, anointed one, Jesus the Christ,

Come, reign in my heart,

Be my king.

 

If you would like a copy of the meditation/prayer I have just read, I have left some in the hall so that you can take one and use it as part of your own prayer and reflection.

 

Also, I want to give you some homework.  You know the three lines from the Lord’s Prayer:  your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  This week, reflect on those words.  Think about what it means for you.  Think about what Christ’s kingdom is like, and what does it mean for us to do God’s will in our world.

 

You might want to keep a small notebook and write down the thoughts that come to you.  And let me know how it goes.

Remembrance Reflection

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We will remember

Those killed as a result of war.

So many wars, so many battles, so many conflicts.

 

We will remember

The dead of all sides,

The weeping brides and mothers, the orphaned children,

The same loss whatever the politics, whatever the cause.

 

We will remember

Those who were maimed,

Carrying injuries that change their lives, their futures, their hopes.

 

We will remember

The devastation and destruction to homes, businesses, economies, cultures.

 

We will remember

Those left homeless, without jobs or livelihood;

Those left stateless, and those left bitter and empty.

 

We will remember

That war doesn’t usually bring peace

But generally creates more hurt and division.

 

We will remember

The politicians who use war as a tool

 

We will remember

That there is one world

And our brothers and sisters come in every shade and colour of skin,

Speak every language under the sun,

And have the same love of family and country.

 

We will remember

That we are all in this together,

That what I do affects my brothers and sisters on the other side of the world,

That my choices make a difference.

 

We will remember

That we don’t all agree, and we don’t have to agree.

We see life differently and that difference enriches us.

 

We will remember

That when we disagree, there are other ways of resolving our differences

And if we work to understand the other guy, then we are enriched.

 

We will remember

those who do not remember,

those who want to kill the infidel,

and demolish other faiths and cultures.

 

We will remember

That peace is not peace

If it is built on injustice or lies or oppression.

 

We will remember

That we are all made in God’s image

And when we kill or maim,

It is God who suffers most.

 

We will remember

That this is God’s world

But we try to run it our way.

 

We will remember

That our God is a god of peace,

Who longs for us to live in peace.

 

We will remember

That God rules, God is king,

and he has told us how we can live his way.

We pray that he will give us strength to live it.

 

But we begin by remembering

those who followed the call, took up the challenge,

and went out to defend peace and stability,

prepared to give up their lives for what they saw as the greater good.

 

We will remember.

We will remember.

 

We Remember

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We remember.

 

War is not glorious.  War is mud and blood and death.  War is obliteration sometimes by friendly fire as well as by the enemy.  War is when we have to live with the consequences of decisions made by politicians and by generals, bad decisions, good decisions.  What is a good decision when it brings death to more people, even when they are on the other side?

 

We remember.

 

We honour those who died.  They didn’t expect to die.  They didn’t want to die.  They wanted life.  They wanted adventure.  They believed in their country.  They didn’t understand the politics.

 

We remember.

 

We honour all our enemies.  They were human too.  They had wives and mothers, sisters and daughters.  They didn’t deserve to die either.

 

We remember.

 

Year by year, we remember.  And it doesn’t make any difference.  We still go to war.  We still expect to solve our differences by violence.

 

Lord, have mercy.

 

So wars will continue.  There will be wars and insurrections, conflicts that cause destruction and death.

 

Lord, have mercy.

 

Natural disasters will always happen when you least expect: floods, volcanoes, earthquakes; bringing tribulation: famine, want, death.  New diseases will arise and old plagues will once more gain power.

 

Lord, have mercy.

 

Politics won’t always be kind.  Cruel despots will come to power.  They will play games with your fears.  They will lay heavy heavy burdens on the little people.  They will oppress those who are different.  They will persecute you when you live by the values of your faith.

 

Lord, have mercy.

 

These things will happen, and they will go on happening.  In every generation there will be trouble of all kinds.

 

Lord, have mercy.

 

But you, do what is right.  Stay connected with the Lord your God.  Keep praying.  Look out for the poor and those who are on the margins.  Be faithful.  Stay with the truth.  Remain in God’s light.  Let God be your inner strength.  Find resilience in Him.

 

Lord, have mercy.

This Much

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God says to us, “I love you this much”.   And because God loves us so much, he always runs towards us to bring us home and help us to start again.  Always.

 

Every morning, we crawl out of bed, we draw the curtains to welcome the day, and God says, “I love you this much.”

 

And some days you might be thinking, “But I don’t feel like loving you today God.”

 

But God only replies, “I love you this much.”

 

And some days are so busy, you forget God entirely.

 

But God keeps on saying, “I love you this much.”

 

And some days stuff happens.  Someone annoys you.  You get irritated, and you lash out in anger.  Harsh words are said.  You end up hurting the other person and being hurt yourself.  And your own voice at the back of your head says, “He’s not going to love me now.”

 

But God’s voice reverberates, “I love you this much.”

 

And another voice inside your head is saying, “I’ve had enough!  I can’t forgive my friend any more.  They’ve gone too far this time.”

 

But God is still saying to you, “I love you this much.”

 

And then you get caught up in your own priorities.  You have a life to lead, money to ear, possessions to acquire, continual improvement to make in your situation.  God doesn’t get a look in.

 

“I love you this much.”

 

Or the pain that is life catches up with you, and you have to kill that pain somehow – whether it is medication or drink or drugs – anything that dulls the throbbing insistent agony.

 

“I love you this much.”

 

And you get to your latter years, and there comes a moment when the spotlight is switched on your history so that you can see the dust that has settled on every part of your life till now, so that you wonder what on earth you have been doing.

 

“I love you this much.”

 

Or you’re thinking that actually, you have nothing to worry about.  You haven’t committed any obvious crimes.  You’ve done your duty – more than your duty.  In fact – you should be due some sort of reward for all your good behaviour and setting such high standards for everyone around you.

 

“I love you this much.”

 

Whatever your situation.  Whatever is going on in your life.  Whatever you have done or not done.  “I love you this much.”

 

God loves us so much.  God goes on telling us how much.  That doesn’t mean that God is blind to our inner meanness or self-centredness.  God hears our lies and untruthfulness.  God sees it all.  And he wants us to be the people he made us to be, warm and generous and loving.  He wants us to love him back and to love the people he gave to us.  But when we can’t do that, he doesn’t stop caring.  He just hopes that one day his love will break through and we will respond.

 

Do you hear God telling you how much you are loved?  Does your heart not lift when he calls your name?  The shepherd is looking for the lost lamb, and the lamb who is trapped in a difficult place is bleating, calling out, so that the shepherd can find her.

 

The shepherd is saying, “I love you this much, that I will come and find you in the dark and in the wilderness.”

 

Jesus had just told the story of the Loving Father who ran out to welcome his reprobate son when he came home from wasting his money and wasting his life.  And he was saying: this is what God is like, welcoming us home, whatever we have done.

 

The loving father is saying, “I love you this much.  You are always my beloved child.  Whatever you have done, you are forgiven when you come home.”

 

But what happens you get found out in your own personal dishonesty, when you have deceived those around you, and suddenly the truth gets out.  You have been accused, and there is no denying what you have done.  Would you risk everything, your whole future, on knowing God is loving and forgiving, generous and merciful?  Would you trust your future to God who loves you?

 

In the story Jesus told, one bad egg did just that.  The next story Jesus told was about the dishonest manager who got sacked and risked his whole future on the generous spirit of the big boss.  He reduces the debts of the Master’s debtors, one by one, reckoning that they will be kind to him when he is on the streets.  The rogue knows that his Master is someone who remits debts, and there is no way that the big boss is going to overturn his action and add once more to the burdens of the debtors.

 

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who owe us.  The rogue gets it.  He is betting on the nature of the Master, which is an extraordinary thing to do.

 

Jesus is saying, we need to put that kind of trust in God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s overwhelming generosity.  God loves.  God forgives.  That is mercy.

 

God is saying to you “I love you this much.”

The question is: are you listening?  Do you trust God when he says that?  Do you hear him when he calls your name?

The Unjust Steward

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This is a sermon I have used before.  It is a study of this Sunday’s very difficult passage using Kenneth E Bailey’s approach:

 

Today’s Gospel reading, the story of the unjust steward, is one of those really difficult ones that have perplexed readers and scholars for generations.  It seems to show Jesus commending the steward who cheats his master for being a thief and liar.

 

So we are going to tackle it today as a Bible Study – please grab hold of a Bible and turn to Luke 16:1-8, on page .

 

The first thing I want to point out is that the Bible wasn’t written with chapters and verses.  A couple of hundred years or so after the books of the New Testament were written, they were divided into sections called titles and chapters.  These divisions don’t bear much relation to what we have now.  The chapter divisions that we know today were developed around A.D. 1227, by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury. Verse divisions didn’t happen until 1551.

 

However, from an early stage, a separation was made between our passage today, the first 8 verses of chapter 16, and what happens immediately before.  Have a look and someone can tell me what it is.

 

The story of the Prodigal Son, or the Loving Father.

 

Because of the chapter division, we separate the two stories; we don’t think of them of having any relationship.  In reality, the story of the Unjust Steward only makes sense when we see it in the light of the story of the Loving Father.  One scholar calls it an “appendix to the parable of the Prodigal Son.”

 

That may surprise you, but the two parables share some common themes:

  • Each has a noble master/father who shows amazing grace to a wayward employee/ son;
  • In each story, there is an ignoble steward / son who wastes the master’s resources;
  • Both the steward and the son reach a moment of truth about what they have done to incur the losses;
  • In both stories, the steward / son throws himself on the mercy of the noble master;
  • Both parables deal with broken trust and the problems arising from it.

 

Let’s look at it verse by verse:

 

v1:     The steward was very likely a farm manager rather than a banker.  In Jesus’ stories, if one person was ignoble, then the other person was noble.  So if the steward was dishonest, then the Master in the story was honest and respected.  We don’t know who told the Master about the dishonest steward.  If the reports had come from other servants, the Master would have held an inquiry.  The fact that he doesn’t tells you that he regarded the source of the information as reliable, probably his friends within the local community.

 

v2:     The Master calls the steward and challenges him:  “What is this I hear about you?”  And he waits for an answer.  Now the steward doesn’t know what has been said about him.  If he is to answer the question, he would condemn himself.  So he remains silent.  And his silence is stunning – in a middle-eastern setting, a fired employee would be pleading with the master, but this steward says absolutely nothing.  So the Master tells him to turn in the books.  In other words, he is sacked on the spot.  Everything the steward does from this point is illegal.  Actually, the Master is behaving with great generosity – he could have sent the steward to jail or sold him and his family as slaves to recoup his losses, but he doesn’t do that.

 

v3:     The Steward goes off to collect the books.  He doesn’t have very long – a couple of hours at the most – before the Master will be expecting him back with the books.  And we hear his monologue, thinking about his options.  He is not up to working as a labourer, and his sense of honour prevents him from working as a beggar.

 

v4:     Continues his reflections.  He wants to be received into someone else’s house – in other words, he wants another job, managing another farm.  He knows that when people know he has been sacked for corruption, no one will employ him.  So he works out a ruse to show how clever he is and to make himself popular.

 

vv 5-7:   So he calls in his master’s debtors one by one.  They are people who are working the Master’s land and pay a proportion of their harvest as rent.  The steward asks them what they are due to pay the Master come the harvest.  He knows of course, because it is written in the book, but the negotiation starts with the question.  He then tells them to change the account to a much reduced quantity of oil or wheat.  Fifty measures of oil was worth 18 months wages to a farm worker.  The debtors go home rejoicing and probably put on a party to celebrate.

 

v8:     It is only then that the steward takes the books to the Master and the Master can see for himself the changes to the accounts.  What is the Master to do now?  He has two options:

  • He could send another messenger to the debtors and tell them that the Steward got it wrong. If he does that, he will make himself very unpopular.
  • Or, he can remain quiet and accept the situation, with the whole community celebrating his extraordinary generosity.

And that’s what he does.  That is the risk that the steward has taken, that this generous and gracious Master would respond with even more generosity and grace.  So the Master pays the price for the steward’s salvation.  He praises the steward for his cleverness, for the way he trusted everything to the mercy of his Master.  He is not praised for his ethics, but for understanding the nature of the Master.  And he was willing to act on his perceptions, which took huge courage.  He dispensed forgiveness to the debtors; he wiped off their debt.  That is what God does for us.

 

And the question that leaves us is:  do you recognise God’s generosity and grace?  How far do you trust in God’s mercy?  Can you believe in a God who has forgiven you everything?  Do you behave according to your trust in God?  Do you live as one who has been liberated from debt?  Do you extend the grace you have received to others?  Do you forgive the debts that others owe you?

 

That is the cleverness of the unjust steward.  That is the cleverness that Jesus commends.  That is the cleverness that he asks of us.

Receiving Mercy

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Paul was an educated man.  He was very religious, very upright – as far as he was concerned, he knew what God wanted.  He was young and idealistic.  He would defend his faith to the hilt, even going so far as to harass the people he thought were deluded heretics.  He was even happy to be part of the crowd which murdered a man because of his beliefs.  He didn’t see the evil in his own heart.  He though his violence was justified.  He thought he was doing God’s work.  He thought he was OK.  In reality, he was lost.  He was trapped by the conviction that he was right.  He was trapped because he found people with different views offensive.

 

And then he met God.  God showed him how blind he was, and how impotent.  And Paul had to learn to see again, to see things in a new way, with a new perspective.  Despite everything Paul had done, God forgave him and God helped him start again.  He received God’s mercy.  And for the rest of his life, he was aware of God’s mercy guiding him and upholding him.  And Paul learnt to share God’s mercy with individuals and groups all over southern Europe and the near east.

 

He says it in his letter to Timothy:  I received mercy.  He says it twice: I received mercy.  The lost lamb had been found.

 

 

Paul received mercy, not because he deserved it, but because that’s what God is like, and God needed Paul.  Our God is merciful.  Our God cares about each one of us.  Our God forgives us.  Our God accepts us just as we are.  Our God will help us turn away from the things that hold us back so that we can thrive and go forward.

 

Think about your own story.  When did you receive mercy?  When did you discover that God had taken you into his arms to carry you home?  For Paul, it was that moment on the road to Damascus when the light hit him.  For me, it was long and slow.  I went to church right from being a babe in arms.  I always believed, but there were moments when God came closer and my faith grew.  As a teenager, I delighted in the Lord who loved me.  I was eager to learn more, and studied theology.  Then in my mid-20s, I started to learn more about prayer.  In my 30s, I opened my heart to look more widely, and found I needed to learn more about myself and about God.  In my 40s, I discovered to my surprise that God was calling me to ordained ministry.  Each stage has required a new commitment, a new trust, a new discovery of God’s mercy.  I too received mercy, and what joy it brought me!

 

Think about your faith story.  That’s your homework for this week.  How did you become aware of God’s mercy and what did that mean for you?  Next spring, the Diocese is having a mission, which they’re calling Talking Jesus.  Bishops will come from all over to work with parishes to help them reach out to their communities.  As part of the preparation, they want to hear people’s stories of faith, which can be used to inspire others.  So tell me.  Or write it down for me.  You are all here because God loves you.  You have all met God in some way.    You have received God’s mercy.  What was that like?

 

As we go through life, the way we think about God changes.  The God we know when we are children is different from the God we come to know as we grow up.  It’s not that God has changed, but that our capacity to encounter God deepens.  Sometimes our experiences of life leaves us with distorted images of God, just as Paul’s understanding was shaped by his early training, and had to change when he met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

 

There are things we can do to help us know God better and help us experience the mercy of God:

  • Prayer is essential – prayer is about spending time with God, hanging out with him, getting to know him, having a conversation with him. Prayer isn’t just about giving God a shopping list of all the things we want him to do, but it’s also about listening to God and finding out what God wants.
  • Reading the bible – the Bible tells us in so many ways what God is like, and help us explore for ourselves.
  • Reflecting on our own experience of God. Thinking about what God has done and is doing in our lives.

When we search for God, God lets us find him.  That is part of God’s mercy.

 

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a wonderful picture of what God is like.  In the story Jesus tells, God is like the shepherd who cares for the lost little lamb so much, that he goes out to look for her in all the dangerous places where she might have strayed.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  He comes to find me when I am lost.  He goes looking for you, when life has got you down, when you have turned away from God, when your life is so full of other things that you have abandoned your first love of the shepherd.

 

And God cares for every little lost lamb in Bensham, every waif and stray, every one with lifestyles and habits we can’t abide.  They are part of the Good Shepherd’s flock and he wants to pour out his love and his mercy on them.  If the good shepherd came to Bensham, where would you advise him to go looking for the lost sheep?  That’s where we need to be, as a church.  The church is the Body of Christ, and therefore we need to act as the Good Shepherd to the people in our area.  We need to show God’s love.  We need to be merciful.

 

And as we start preparing for the Talking Jesus mission, that’s what we need to be thinking about.  Where are the lost sheep, the ones who are desperate to be picked up and loved by the good shepherd?  And how can we reach out to them?

 

We have received God’s mercy.  How can we share that?

Choose Life

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There was that time when following Jesus became really popular.  He told really good stories.  He healed people.  He gave out free food – bread and fish usually.  It was a great gig.  And everyone you knew was there.  There was a great vibe – it was all about love, and you didn’t get left out if you were poor or sickly or disabled.  In fact, you were warmly welcomed, whoever you were.  It was building up in a real popular movement.  It was the place to be.  Sure, he kept moving about to one place or another, but that was part of the fun.  It was a journey.  We were travelling together.  And the crowd kept growing.

 

And then Jesus went and spoiled it all, warning everyone off.  He really put the frighteners on.   “If you’re going to follow me,” he said, “you have to understand the consequences!”  The upshot was you had to put Jesus first, before family, before loved ones, before everything else.  And conflict was inevitable, Jesus said.

 

I was with my cousin Maryam when we heard him saying this.  Maryam was outraged.  “How can he say that!” she said.  “It’s against the family!  How can he say that the family comes second after following him! That’s just not proper.  It’s just not right!  Everyone knows that family comes first.  Always!  What right does anyone have to interfere with the priorities of the family, let alone some wandering preacher.   I’ve had enough of this!” she said.

 

And her friend Salome added, “It’s in the Ten Commandments: Honour your father and your mother.  And yet Jesus is telling us to hate father and mother.  It’s just not on.    I had such high hopes, but he’s let me down completely.”

 

I tried telling them that it wasn’t meant in the way they had taken it.  Jesus meant that if you were serious about following him, you couldn’t change your mind when it became inconvenient or clashed with other priorities.

 

But they wouldn’t listen to me, and so they went off home.  And they weren’t the only ones.  That was the end of the journey for them.  “Come on”, said Maryam. “Aren’t you coming?”  And when I thought about it, I remembered Jesus’ voice reading from the Scriptures: Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life.  So I said no, I was staying for the time being.  I wanted that life.  I did miss them, Maryam and Salome, but there were still a few people I knew in the crowd.

 

But it didn’t get any easier.  Jesus told a story.  I forget the details, but what it came down to was – if you’re going to take on a big project, you have to think it through and be ready for all the implications.  He meant that following him, Jesus, couldn’t be a frivolous past-time – you had to understand just how much it would cost.  And there would be a cost, though it was nothing to do with money.

 

Looking back on it now, Jesus told those stories to provoke a reaction.  They were harsh, but they pointed to a truth.  You had to look to where the stories were pointing.

 

There was another story too about going to war and weighing up the odds before you set out.  You don’t start a battle when it’s clear you’re going to lose.

 

My friend Joel laughed.  “Like we’re going to start a war!  Fishermen don’t start wars.  What’s he talking about?  He’s lost it now, this Jesus.”

 

Levi didn’t like it either, but he was looking at it in another way.  He was so sure Jesus was the promised Messiah.  He said “Jesus doesn’t need to worry about starting a war to get rid of the Romans!  It’s the right thing to do, the honourable thing.  God will be with him.  The war will be over in a week, a month at the most.  We all know that the Romans have weapons of mass destruction.  They have conquered all the world we know.  Only God can stop them and put things back to how they should be, running our own affairs, taking back control.”

 

They didn’t stay long on the journey after that.  Joel just decided that Jesus was bonkers, and Levi decided that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah he was looking for. He wanted a Messiah who would make a difference.  That’s what he said.  And off they both went.  I was lonely without them, it has to be said, but that deep longing for life was even stronger.  It was like an echo in my head:  Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life.

 

The crowd was thinning out somewhat.  Jesus didn’t make it easy for people to follow him.  At that point on the journey, we didn’t know the full story, what would happen at the end in Jerusalem.  I had heard rumours that Jesus had already started telling the disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and would be killed.  We didn’t believe it at all then.  So when Jesus was telling us that we would have to carry the cross, it was because he knew fine well that would be happening to him.  He wasn’t asking anything of us that wasn’t being asked of him.  Actually, when you think of it, he was telling us, that if we wanted to follow him, that would mean being like him and doing the things he did.  Which was pretty awesome really.

 

Knowing what I do now, would I have done the same thing back then? It was hard, and no one can say it wasn’t. But I go back to the voice in my head: Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life.

 

I chose life.