Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Podcast

Generosity Brings Life

In March 2012, an executive director of an investment bank resigned, saying that ‘… after nearly 12 years at the firm, the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it. His resignation letter went on..

‘… It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the past 12 months I have seen 5 different managing directors  refer to their own clients as muppets… I hope that this can be a wake up call to the board of directors [to] weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm…’

Money can have terrible power to corrupt. Even if we have little of it, we easily fall for the devil’s lie that a little more will sort out our life.  If money is the measure of all things then it slips into the driving seat of our life and soon starts to break the speed limit. As Christians, the measure of all things must be the love of God.  Money is morally neutral - neither good nor bad - but Jesus has quite a lot to say about it recognising the powerful hold it can have over us and how the accumulation of it can displace God at the heart of our being. But if we get the relationship between faith and money right - it can be transformative and life giving.

Jesus did talk a lot about money - 11 of 39 parables talks about money.  1 in 7 seven verses in Luke’s Gospel talk about money.  The word for money (used by Jesus or in connection with Him is used 25 times in the Gospels.  Whilst Jesus seems to talk about money more than any other single issue, He never does so in positive terms - money should not be stored up, rather it and possessions should be given away. He teaches we should not be preoccupied with wealth, constantly trying to acquire it, but that instead we should rely on God’s provision for us.

Jesus talks about and demonstrates often the outlandish, extravagant generosity of God more generally.  This morning’s Gospel is one of many great examples of that.

According to the norms of His day, Jesus shouldn’t have been sat near, talking to or receiving anything from this Samaritan woman. Such was the enmity and hatred one group for the other. Yet Jesus’ loving encounter with this woman, which began with asking for something simple, ended in an offer of the extravagant love of God which transformed not only this woman but her whole community.

Friends, generous giving and living like that brings life - not just to those who immediately receive. Just as when you throw a stone in a pool, the ripples spread to the edge, so it is with the love of God.

But it goes deeper still than that. Cast your mind back to the beginnings of Scripture.  In Genesis 2, God makes everything but there is no-one to tend and care for all that is. So God makes a man from the stuff of creation - from the soil, and God breaths into his nostrils the breath of life and he lives.

Just as God’s giving breathes life into his creation, so our giving enables fresh life elsewhere.  In the same way that God’s giving expresses His love for us, so our giving allows us to express love and compassion in turn.

Our giving to the church does two things - it pays the bills (heating lighting, insurance, human resources and so on and it must), but it also allows us to respond to God’s invitation to participate in His work in the world, His mission, and in doing so, lets us be caught up with Him in his giving of new life - God works through us, both as individuals and as churches.

A letter was pushed through the vicarage door : ‘Dear Vicar, I'm sorry I can't put more money on the plate, but my dad hasn’t increased my pocket money for ages. Could you please preach a sermon about that? Love, Claire. Age 10’

We are called to give generously of what we have - not of what we might have - in response to what we have received from God.

And so we are called to give regularly, and to give generously.  Proportionate giving enables us to assess our generosity - it is a ‘yardstick’ or measure, rather than law. As Anne reminded some of us last week - the Church of England suggests that we should give 5% of our disposable income, and as I said - Scripture calls us to tithe - to give a tenth of what we have.  Either way, if our yardstick shows that our giving is just one or two per cent of our income, it is difficult to believe we are being truly generous.  St Paul understood this, and he encouraged the Corinthian Christians, in his second letter, to understand it too: 

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work…. He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God

Our giving brings blessing and life to others, you only have to have watched a few minutes of Sport Relief on Friday night to totally understand that - the transformative power of our giving in the lives of those receiving - we are challenged to give in response to God’s generosity to us, rather than in expectation of what we might receive in return.

Friends, these things seem tough to preach and still tougher to hear, but if we get the balance of what we give wrong, then we are not listening to what Jesus says again and again and again about the money we have. It’s not even just about giving to support overseas work - it is about seeing the hand of God at work wherever - internationally, nationally or even locally - right here - and generously joining in for the flourishing and life of people and God’s church.

But it’s also about praying for a change of mind and a change of heart in us - giving is not about paying our dues, or about fund raising - as both of those imply money given to join a club or financially supporting the stays quo. Rather our giving needs to in response to the love of God so that we can share that love in turn. As Mother Theresa said:  “Let us more and more insist on raising funds of love, of kindness, of understanding, of peace.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Podcast

A Journey Into Generosity

John Wesley, as in the brother of Charles Wesley the hymn writer and together the founders of what we today know as the Methodist church, grew up in poverty. Their father was a minister in the Church of England, serving in a poor parish, and they regularly struggled to make ends meet.

When John followed his father into the ministry, he found himself surprised not to be serving in a poor parish like his father, but instead teaching at Oxford university and he was eventually elected as fellow of Lincoln college. There he earned the princely sum of £30 a year - more than enough for a single person to live off and he enjoyed relative prosperity.

While at Oxford, an incident changed his perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. 

Perhaps as a result of this incident, Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds.
Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.

Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

Wesley’s generous giving was a direct response to his growing faith in the God who loves the world so much that He sends His Son to us so we can receive that love in ways we understand. As the great Billy Graham once said - ‘…Being a Christian ( is more than just an instantaneous conversion - it ) is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ…’

This sense of wanting to know more, so as to make an informed decision about Jesus’ ministry, was exactly why Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the first place. Nicodemus had heard much about Him and he recognised God was at work in and through Him, but he wanted to know more for himself. It is something that many of us do over our lives as assess and reassess our priorities, and it’s a journey of discovery that Isabella begins today by virtue of her baptism… Her faith and trust in God will grow through the support and prayer of all of us, but especially her parents and Godparents, but also an experience of the love of God through each of us too.

God sending His Son to the world in love demands a response of love from each of us. That response cannot and must not be so heavenly minded to be of no earthly use as someone once said…

A man bought his wife a beautiful diamond ring for Christmas.  After hearing about this extravagant gift, a friend of his said, "I thought she wanted one of those plush four-wheel-drive vehicles."  "She did," he replied. "But where was I going to find a fake Range Rover?”

Our response to God’s love must be genuine and heartfelt - we cannot fake it.  God know’s where we are on that journey and our growth in love and trust of Him develops over time - transforming us as we go.  Let me give you a personal example of what I mean from one aspect of my own life.

When I went to church first as a child - I was given a single coin as ‘collection’ to put in the plate.  For many years that was the right thing to do. Like paying my Cubs subs each week.  Many of us get stuck here though.

In my late teens - allowance - £50 - gave £5 a month to the church. This was what I was encouraged to do but it was not my choice but I recognised it was good to do.

Many years as a student and then youth worker I didn’t get that balance right.

Now, we have a yardstick.  I have no problem telling you what we do. My stipend equates to around £1200 a month, so we give just short 10% of that back to God through His church, meaning we give £100 per month. That’s not all we give, because we are members of the National Trust and the Open Air Museum for example, so we give charitably monthly to them too.  For us, our giving is not exclusively done in the church, as I am sure yours isn’t, but God gets first call on our money in thankfulness for all that we receive from Him.

Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born again.  It’s a phrase which has had a bad reputation; it’s come to signify perhaps a certain type of Christian, a faith journey with a dramatic conversion moment, a particular sort of theology.

But new birth in Christ is just what happens when we commit to following, commit to changing our direction, to being guided by God and not our selves, committing to our journey continuing on His paths.

New birth is what is happening for Isabella as she is baptised and is on offer to each of us afresh today.  As food sustains the body and helps us grow, so does the love of God. Looking at a photo of a child aged 2 and then 20, you can see the same identity and likeness but they have matured, so it is with God’s love for us - it sustains and matures us - but helps us to grow into His likeness over the years.

God’s love for us is so great that God would have sent His Son if we were the only person left on earth.  Jesus said - God loved the world, loved Claire, Andy, Isabella, Euan, so much that he sent His Son so that we may have eternal life, transformed life, generous life in the now. As that love transforms all of our life, we willingly respond in love in turn. What we give in terms of how we use our time, how we use the talents and skills we have as well as how we use our our money is a measure of our love for God. 

Antiques roadshow illustration & hallmarks - shows authenticity, who lovingly crafted. It validates that what the vase looks like is authentic and can be identified and valued.

How we give is not about extravagance and show, but about how we live and love.  It must be heartfelt and generous visibly showing love of God at work in our lives.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Podcast

The audio of what I preached this morning, but I have to confess that the words are not entirely mine!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Labels on our foods have become very complex. On any given label, you not only have the product name, but the company that made it, along with the a list of ingredients. On top of that you now can get complete information on how many calories there are in each serving, and the amount of fat, and sugar, and on and on it goes. The idea is that as consumers we will spend time assessing this information and use to make informed choices about our own health and well being based on it.  But many of us don’t.  We eat what we want and, in our 24 hour culture, when we want it too, and if we buy too much of it we just throw it away. 

We objectify food.  We don’t think about the range and type we need each meal and each day, we don’t think about where that food has come from and who has produced it.  We just consume it and we do the same with people.

We pass judgement on them based on their height, weight, skin colour, hair style, gender, sexuality and so on and we treat them as disdainful objects if they are not like us.
We objectify our food.  Worse still we objectify people. We use and discard both without a thought, other than when we are satisfied.

Jesus is back in Jerusalem.  He has already been causing a stir. In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel.  Many are displaying an uncertainty as to who He is - is He God’s Messiah - even by his own family members are not exempt from this speculation, let alone the crowd, but at this stage Jesus wants his teaching and miracles to speak for themselves, as the great work of His coming Passion is yet to come.  Yet He has already challenged the Scribes and Pharisees’ authority sufficiently for them to consider sending troops to arrest Him.

So instead of staying out of their way for a bit, Jesus brings the discussion about His identity to them.  He begins teaching at the beating heart of Judaism’s life and worship, the Temple.  The religious authorities seize their chance.

They bring to Jesus an adulteress.  Standing her in front of Him, they were expect Jesus to act as one of them and pass judgement on her according to the Law.  According to the Law the appropriate punishment would have been death, but for Jesus to pronounce this sentence would have been to infringe the prerogative of the Roman Governor, as the Jews did not have the right at the time to execute capital punishment - and in not passing sentence on her Jesus would have been seen to be setting Himself us against Moses himself.  Jesus would incur the wrath of the Jews or the Romans whatever He did. A clever trap indeed.

I have often wondered what is is that Jesus wrote on the ground, especially as no one else in the assembled crowd makes reference to it.  Did He do as the Romans did, and write His judgement down over this woman before pronouncing it? Did he quote scripture?  All sorts of suggestions have been made as to potentially what: Exodus 23:1b - ‘You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness’ and Exodus 23:7a - ‘Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty.’  Another noble tradition says that He wrote the words of the Shema (words bound to the mind and heart and life of a faithful Jew) - ‘Love God with all that you are and love your neighbour as you love yourself.  We’ll never know what Jesus wrote, but this strange act seems key to this woman’s freedom.

All too often we have all sorts of feelings about ‘the other’, another who is not like us and of whom we are ultimately afraid. We objectify them and pass judgement on them from that place of fear.  What was it about the adulteress that frightened and unsettled these religious men? There must have been countless others on that day who broke the Law, why her? It was Jesus they were frightened of, as he so often did, as He saw right into the motives of their hearts. This encounter is about adultery, but not by the adultery of this woman.  It is about the adultery of the Pharisees. It is an adultery we are all guilty of which sees us wedded to one set of moral beliefs whilst using, often bending them, to satisfy our own preferences and prejudices.

Jesus’ ‘Go your way and sin no more’ sits easy with us when said to those whose lives and lifestyle choices are other to us and which make us a little afraid. Out of context Jesus sides with us, and calls ‘them’ to live life our way, the right way.

But we all too easily forget that those oft quoted words are preceded by Jesus’ ’Let anyone among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Jesus does pass judgement as the Pharisees ask but not on the woman, but on the motives of her accusers and on the jeering crowd. None of us can throw a stone, not at her at least.

This is a Gospel of grace.  We are to go and sin no more, knowing that we are not condemned by Christ for who and what we are, for we are reminded by Christ in this holy season of Lent and beyond that we stand as one in the company of the sinful, unable to judge because of our own sinfulness

Lent, is a gift and a time to become aware of who we really are and how we act and react, of who and how we judge, and who ultimately judges us. It is not a season of inward looking self-condemnation, but a pilgrimage of self-discovery where by the grace and life of the Holy Spirit at work in us we sinners are enabled to love God, and in so doing, to love our neighbour, the stranger, the one who is other to us, who maybe frightens us, as we love ourselves.


And here's the audio!