Monday, August 13, 2007

I know I know... it has been all quiet on the western front. All sorts of reasons for that.

I have to say that the last few weeks have been really hard with one thing and another and I have been really wrestling with some quite deep issues which I hope I might outline in another post later in the week.

Firstly below are 3 sermons preached over the last couple of months. There were a couple of others that I really wanted to add here but they seem to have been deleted which is a shame. Here goes...

Firstly from Trinity 3:
In these Sundays after Trinity, having realised that the challenge we face as churches is to live and love as a community of love, emulating God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we then need to ask ourselves - what does that sort of community look like? I believe that this morning’s Gospel give us another very clear picture.

This is a Gospel not to be read from a lectern, heard standing in a pew or preached about from a pulpit. We meet Jesus on the move. As he travels from place to place we clearly and succinctly what it means to be a disciple - that that commitment will always involve some shake up of our conventional, comfortable and static ways of living.

This morning’s Gospel opens the traveling ministry of Jesus, and Luke presents for us here several glimpses of a very mobile Jesus, but not just wandering from place to place, but with a specific, well-communicated destination in mind.

Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. The emphasis on direction is also an expression of Jesus’ resolve to head there. Every disciple, even for us today, is called to follow Jesus on this same journey of discipleship, listening and learning from him on the way. It is no accident that Jesus’ destination is mentioned - the place where Jesus would finally suffer and die - the very mention of Jerusalem should remind us that there is a close link between following Jesus and rejection. Jesus appears to be warning that the road of loyalty to God will involve suffering, shame, and multiple bumps of rejection.

Are we aware that we follow a rejected leader? Whichever way we read the statistics, there are somewhere around 59 million people who reject us as a Church and our leader each week. It was no different for Jesus himself, and his detour to the Samaritan village I believe was not an attempt to win over some of Judaism’s closest siblings, but to remind disciples in every age that following him will be a strenuous exercise. With our pursuit of comfortable middle class values, if we remove the rosy tinted, new Labour, sunset at the end of the movie spin that the Resurrection can place on this sort of Gospel, are we need to ask ourselves whether we really are prepared to be so thoroughly associated with one that continues to fly in the face of what Christianity is really about - being nice - and who continues to really challenge what we might consider to be decent or polite?

Following Jesus seems incredibly attractive, when we understand what it is he offers the world, but that’s especially the case when we do it on our terms. ‘I’d like a relationship with God the creator and eternal life, but...’ We all still have that ‘but’, but not even burying the dead, saying farewell to family, are not good excuses to taking up the offer to follow when it is presented. Jesus says forget social etiquette, forget comfortable living - are you coming with me or not?

This Gospel really challenges our 21st century world and our own lifestyles. We are largely stable citizens, hopelessly fixed in a safe environment of a comfortable home and a regular income. We are in no way adequately prepared for the discipleship, the mission that Jesus calls us to and every moment of every day we are challenged to contradict all that Christ calls us to as his disciples. All of us, if we are honest find comfort and security from our homes, cars, jobs, foreign holidays, our friendships or family. In following our rejected leader are we prepared to consider rejecting those things that are not necessary for our journey with him? When following Jesus becomes a priority for us, all other things fall by the wayside, and I still haven’t got it right, I cannot speak for you...

So what sort of a community is the Church called to be? We are to be mobile, ready to move to be where Jesus calls us to be with him. The Church Universal has answered that call as follows her Lord in some of the most difficult and challenging places in our world - she has turned away from the world’s values and norms and is alive in places where she will be persecuted because of her Lord, is thriving in the face of poverty, and prophetically challenges the cultures that claim that they do not need the message she bears.

But what of us locally - are we mobile enough to be disciples everywhere in our community? Can we reject the security of our liturgy, our buildings in favour of following Christ into new patterns of worship, or the pubs or Tescos? Are we able to reject our securities and go and speak of Christ out there, where he is? Are we prepared to go with Christ to the places where we will also be rejected, amongst those who do not want to hear what we have to offer? Or are we only really concerned with what our neighbours, or the family or our friends will think of us?

Whether recruited to follow Jesus or simply following him out of one’s own accord, disciples are those who bring their undivided attention to their own journey with Jesus. They are unencumbered people, concerned only with what lies ahead and not behind. They are people on a mission, God’s mission. Like the plough operator concentrating on guiding the plough blade ever so straight, the faithful follower of Jesus is the one whose eyes are fixed exclusively on the Kingdom of God, the one willing to be rattled free from secure surroundings, the one open to rising from the suddenly strangely comfortable pew, and rejoin a journey that we agreed to take part in here. (FONT). Amen.

Secondly from Trinity 8:
As I do wedding preparation with the happy and loving couples that I see, one of the things that I stress with them is that the success of their marriage is based on a number of things. Two of the most important are that they, perhaps most obviously love one another, but more importantly that they communicate. They need to talk with one another, openly and honestly about everything.

Jesus uses the language of real intimacy to remind the disciples of a similar lesson. The success of their relationships depend on the openness and honesty of conversation, but not with each other or even with him, but with God in prayer.

Throughout his ministry Jesus makes prayer a priority. He prays at his baptism. He prays before he calls his disciples, he prays as he is transfigured on the mountain and on other occasions. Jesus is even praying at the opening of this morning’s Gospel reading.

Jesus’ disciples have obviously heard that Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, has taught his disciples how to pray, and so they too want to learn from their own teacher. Jesus responds by teaching them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.

There is some real debate about whether Jesus teaches this as a prayer to use in this form, or to see it as a framework or structure. Either way it sits formally at the heart of our worship each time we gather together - the irony of this is not lost on me - as the opening words of the prayer are anything but formal.

Jesus calls God ‘Abba’, literally ‘daddy.’ It shows us the intimacy of their relationship together as Father and Son. Jesus speaks to God as a child to his father: confidently and securely and yet at the same time reverently and securely, and he encourages his disciples of every age to address God in the same way. In prayer, Jesus teaches us, we are talking intimately with God who is like a loving parent who gives, sustains and nurtures life.

The heart of this prayer is about God’s kingdom coming and the rest of the prayer reveals the sorts of things that characterise this coming new age. The disciples will see God’s kingdom coming in and through Jesus himself - a kingdom where the poor are blessed and the unrighteous are judged. Here, Jesus encourages us to pray for God’s reign over all creation. In other words, to pray for the coming of the kingdom is pray for the promised renewing of the relationship between God and people through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The prayer of the disciple should place God’s kingdom first and our own hopes and desires second, although they maybe one and the same.

Here Jesus reminds us that God cares for our everyday needs, and asks that he would give us food day by day. Those words should take us back to God providing manna in the wilderness for the Israelites and of Jesus sending out his disciples with no staff, no bag, no bread or money. We need to rely completely on God for the basics in life. In the supermarket, capitalist economy that’s harder than ever to do - perhaps less so if you live in Twewkesbury or Gloucester at the moment. It is at the very heart of being Christian - to trust God for everything.

Jesus’ teaches us that prayer is dead without action. God is seen by others in the world through the actions and words of contemporary Christians. People know that God exists and loves and cares by the way we act. Jesus presumes his followers would forgive, as he had, because we have been forgiven so much by God. Forgiveness does not come easily for us, and it cost God everything. No excuses though, forgiveness is at the heart of the prayer that we pray, not just for ourselves but for all others. It is the will of God and God’s help is available.

Jesus encourages us to ask and seek, pray confidently, but to pray only for life’s necessities. He assures us that in those circumstances God will hear and respond giving us that which we really need - the good things of the kingdom - the gift of God the Holy Spirit - the abiding presence of God himself in circumstance and every trial.

Jesus encourages us to be persistent in prayer, but it’s more than that. He encourages us to almost become irritating like the neighbour at midnight. He encourages us to go on asking for healing or the ending of a terrible conflict, beating on heaven’s door until the knuckles bleed, knowing that ‘Abba’ hears us and as a loving God, likes to give. Prayer is not a checklist to be worked through each day, but we should pray like we mean it and depend on God for a reply.

Jesus modeled prayer by praying, particularly at key points in his life. Prayer is not a theory to be pondered, or an incantation using the right words, but a practice to be lived. Jesus prayed as a priority and kept close to God through it.

We too need to pray, asking God to open us to the presence of the Holy Spirit who guides in every aspect of life, and not so much to tell God things but to find out what God wants of us. Prayer is the means by which we each receive the will of God, the power of God and the love of God in us and into the world still just as Jesus did.

Prayer is about talking openly and honestly with God our father about every aspect of life, it is about listening to him - knowing that he loves us - and remembering not so much whether God is with us but whether we are with him. Amen

Thirdly from Trinity 9:
The moral of the story from the gospel reading today would certainly seem to be ‘You can’t take it with you!’

I remember a item on the Esther Rantzen programme many years ago where they were running an investigation into selling central heating by going from door to door. One aspiring sales rep knocked on the door of an old man and asked whether he would be interested in getting central heating fitted

The old man replied that he wasn’t, saying ‘I’m not going to be here long enough to make it worthwhile’

‘That’s no problem’, said the salesman, ‘we’ve go a scheme where you can take it with you’

‘Listen mate’, said the old man, ‘Where I’m going I won’t need central heating’

Whatever the spiritual destiny of the old man, his response certainly made the young sales man think

A bit like today’s gospel reading. Is it just about not being able to take things with us when we die? Or is it about the focus of our lives whilst we’re here?
It is interesting watching the photographers at a sports event take pictures. From time to time they change the lens on their cameras to enable them to change focus and change their position to get a different perspective

Perhaps in this passage Jesus is challenging his listeners to change the focus and perspective through which they see life and to get a different focus and perspective for themselves

It starts off by someone, knowing Jesus was well versed in Jewish law, asking Him to tell his brother to divide his inheritance with him. Tell him not to be greedy and let me have some. In Jewish law at the time, inheritance was strictly governed; when the father died the estate (mainly land) was passed to the sons, the eldest son getting a double portion and the rest being split equally

So it could be interpreted that the man asking the question has already received his inheritance too but his brother has got more and so he’s asking Jesus to get some more for him, perhaps to even things up a bit – now who’s being greedy?

But life then was much the same as it is now, we often want what other people have, especially if we think they’ve got more than we have and we’ve been badly done to…
Being concerned with inheritance has always been important for the Jews, whether that was the Promised Land or the lands that passed through the family. But Jesus stops them in their tracks and says it’s not the physical inheritance that’s critical, it’s the spiritual inheritance

The Jews were still focused on the physical inheritance of the Promised Land but had almost forgotten their spiritual inheritance as being he chosen people of God. They’d got the wrong lens on their cameras and needed to change to get the right perspective. And Jesus was telling he man who asked him the question that he was focusing on the wrong things

Paul, in Colossians puts it this way, he says, ‘set you hearts on things above… …not earthly things’. And that’s a difficult thing to do. So often we are like the questioning man, we want more worldly things and possessions for ourselves

We don’t think we’ve got our fare share, irrespective of what others have got, we want more
But as we begin to focus on God it puts other things in their rightful perspective. Jesus is not saying money isn’t important – but He is saying it’s not the most important thing in life

So the question to us today is, ‘Where is our focus and perspective?’ Are we worried and concerned that we won’t have enough? Do we think we don’t have our fair share?

The Gospel shows that it doesn’t matter what we have or what we accumulate in a physical sense, that’s not important. What’s important is focusing on God, trusting in Him to proved not just for our needs today, but for our eternal inheritance through Jesus Christ, an inheritance we can take with us. That’s not to say we don’t need to play our part in meeting our physical needs

But Jesus reminds us, as he reminded the questioning man, we shouldn’t focus on them to the exclusion of everything else, especially a focus on God, the ultimate provider. Amen.

Finally from yesterday Trinity10:
John Bunyan’s last sight of Christian and his companion Hopeful, in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is of the two pilgrims at the end of their journey, as they enter the City of God. Bunyan has one glimpse of the city shining like the sun. He sees a throng of crowned figures. He glimpses “them that had wings”, and catches the sound of their singing.

Then they shut up the gates. As the vision fades and he wakes to where he is, in the cramped little lock-up on Bedford bridge, Bunyan adds: “which, when I had seen, I wished myself among them.

In some senses what Bunyan was trying to do was to make real for his day, what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was doing in their day - to remind their readers of the centrality of faith in the life of the believer, and the journey that faith leads us on toward God.

We heard that strong passage on faith from the Letter to the Hebrews, and it is certainly a topical subject. Faith, we hear, read, and know very well is on the decline in our country and in Europe in general, and has been for a long time.

But what does the word ‘faith’ mean? There is no doubt we use it in a number of different ways. We talk of 'the Christian faith', or 'the Jewish faith', or 'Islamic faith'; and we mean a set of beliefs and practices in each case, some not unlike each other in fact, others special to each religion. But that set of beliefs is like a set of boxes on a form: can you tick them all? how many can you tick? -- on a scale of 1 to 5.

But does that go to the heart of the matter? A person may tick most of the boxes, even all of them, but you might feel that they were not really people of faith. For 'faith' has another meaning: loyalty, trust, attachment: to a particular religion, yes, but more than that, attachment, loyalty to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Christian community as his people. You may not be able to tick all the boxes, the list of formal beliefs as they have come to be stated, but your attachment, devotion to God and to Christ is firm.

Or maybe you find that, as you may put it, 'faith' ebbs and flows, goes up and down: like inefficient water pressure or central heating. But we need not take that too seriously: it is a matter of mood -- how we feel on a particular day. Often there is not much we can do about it anyway; but we can learn from it that God in no way depends on how we feel about him -- how could he? In fact, at least within the Bible shows again and again that God does not rely on our faith in him to be constant. Rather what we see from this morning’s Epistle reading is that - thank God he doesn’t - because what makes faith work in that sense is his never ending faith in us.

But the reading we heard points us in yet another direction. Faith is trust -- through thick and thin, with Abraham as a prime example. In that sense, faith is therefore a little like love. Of course it is reasonable, and common, for people to say that such faith makes no sense: we are trusting in what we cannot see or prove. 'Faith', we heard, 'is the conviction of things not seen'. It is a way of putting our minds together and going for it, lettering God’s love for us to make up any shortfall and allowing it make sense of our lives.

That is why faith is like love. Who can justify their love for this person rather than that? Well, we can point to various characteristics: things that attract, even make sense of our loving. But others may well say: Yes, I see all that, but all the same, your attachment of love, whether for marriage or for friendship, is in part irrational: you have simply chosen, and, within your choice, you will explore. That is faith.

So faith, like love, is always unfinished -- like Abraham's faith in the reading. We should be wary of any people who have everything sewn up, an answer to all questions. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that we, little 'we', could get God clear, know and understand all about God? With God, there is always more -- as indeed in human loves. As Hebrews put it, we 'desire a better country', 'are seeking a homeland'. God is always 'more', always 'beyond'. Having faith in that sense is not just about Bunyan’s vision of a better hereafter a goal or an end, but it must also be about developing a new way of seeing -about allowing God to renew our here and now. Like Abraham it is about being able to believe from a distance and to accept almost as fact, what the Gospel promises in the future, but allowing that future to shape our present and to see with God’s eyes. There’s a lovely passage in the diary of Thomas Merton, where he describes just that. He writes: I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the shopping precinct, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people around me, even though they were complete strangers. It felt like waking from a dream. It was as if I could see the secret beauty in their hearts, the deep self where sin and ego can't reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God's eyes. Of course I couldn't say it. You can’t go up to people and tell them they’re walking around shining like the sun. But if only they could see themselves as they truly are … If only we could all see each other that way all the time. I suppose the problem would be that we'd fall down and worship each other.

St Paul taught us that God accepts us, relates to us, not as a reward for our good deeds, not for our achievements, but on the basis of our sheer, pure faith -- our wanting, our being with and for him. Our motto will be not 'look what a good boy -- or girl -- am I', but 'God be merciful to me a sinner'. Amen.



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