Saturday, 3 February 2018

Healed to serve

Isaiah 40: 21-31
Mark 1: 29-39

I want you to imagine a pendulum. Swinging, slowly, to & fro. Not so I can lull you to sleep, I hope, but to help us to explore our readings this morning and think about what they mean for us.

Whenever people think about God, they tend to set up ideas which seem to be opposite, and the pendulum starts to swing.
Surely God is high above everything we know, the maker of all things, the creator of everything from atoms to planets. God is vast, immense, unknowable. One end of the pendulum has people describing God in this lofty, magnificent, splendid way.
Isaiah paints a picture of a God who sits so far from us that we look like grasshoppers in his sight “great in strength, mighty in power”.

But then the gospels paint a picture of Jesus who is ‘God with us’ – down to earth, living a human life, concerned for Simon’s mother-in-law. The pendulum swings the other way as we see God right here with us, in Jesus.
The wonder is that God is all of these things, and more.
The God who created the universe and is worthy of all our praise is also the God who cares for a sick woman, lying in bed with a fever.

And of course in Jesus we see not just God’s care for us, but God’s ability to heal and to save. This would not be news to Isaiah, either, who spoke of the God who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”. God with us empowers us to “run and not be weary, walk and not faint”.

This pendulum idea also applies to our thinking about church. Is church about what we do when we worship – or the service we offer God in our lives? Should we put more effort into the words we use to speak about God… or the actions we do to show people God’s love?
Is prayer more important in life? Or is it more important to share our faith with others?
These are not simple questions – and the answer is never one thing and not the other.
The Council for World Mission – which started life as the London Missionary Society – has produced a book of daily devotions to mark its 40th anniversary as the Council for World Mission. On Friday (February 2nd) the daily devotion was written by Rev Goodwin Zainga of the Churches of Christ in Malawi. He wrote this:

“Evangelism without prayer is powerless evangelism…disciples pray but forget to evangelise”.

We need to remember the whole movement of the pendulum.

And what about discipleship – what should that be about ?
The United Reformed Church has just begun a new focus on discipleship – all sorts of resources are being suggested to help us think about what it means to follow Jesus. You might have seen an introductory leaflet with orange footprints on it – the title is “Walking the Way – living the life of Jesus today”. It might not be a very snappy title but I think it’s a helpful one.
Being a disciple of Jesus means walking the way of Jesus – and that means thinking about how we live the life of Jesus in our lives.

So is discipleship about listening to what Jesus said..
or doing what Jesus did?
Let’s remember how Jesus ‘walks’, so we can walk the way of Jesus.

After the healing of Simon’s mother in law, Jesus cures many who are sick – in body and in mind. The next morning, Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray, and Simon and his companions go hunting for Jesus because everyone is asking for him. Jesus says “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.”.
Jesus resists the temptation to only be seen as a healer – to let the pendulum swing in the direction of healing, and away from teaching. Jesus is here to proclaim the kingdom of God through his healing and his teaching, and the power for this comes from prayer.
This doesn’t sound like a bad model for discipleship: we should pray – as Jesus did, heal – as Jesus did, teach – as Jesus did.

But I think the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law points us to something else which is vital.
Simon’s mother-in-law is sick – she has a fever. Perhaps this year’s flu epidemic has given us a new respect for what it means to be in bed with a fever: I seem to know a lot of people who “missed” Christmas, or have had a lousy start to the new year, because they spent a number of days in bed, with a fever.
Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up and heals her – the fever leaves her and she begins to serve them.
Before she can serve her son-in-law Simon and his friends, before she can do anything for Jesus, she has to be healed herself.

Whatever sort of disciples we are, we must not lose sight of the fact that in order to serve Jesus, we first need to be touched and healed by Jesus.
Isaiah knew of our reliance on God’s touch “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles..”.

So before we go out into the world to serve Jesus – and to heal, teach, or feed others – we first come to this table.
To be fed.
To pray for healing.
To receive God’s touch on the broken places in our lives.

The Jesus who healed Simon’s mother-in-law welcomes us all to his table to be healed – and send us all out to serve.
To God’s praise & glory.


Saturday, 23 September 2017

Harvest - workers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16

The labourers have been hard at work: all around us there are cut fields, full barns, plentiful stores. And here in church we have the fruits of harvest – carrots, apples, bread. God has blessed us with plenty and we have come to sing our gratitude.

So it’s good that we have heard a gospel reading dealing with harvest and plenty. But where we might expect gratitude we hear grumbling instead.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”.

Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’ and we try really hard to nod our heads wisely as Jesus declares the largesse of the landowner, who pours out abundant grace on those who only worked one hour. We know in our heads that God loves us all with a love so outrageous and so generous that it cannot be described as ‘fair’.

This parable may be trying to convince our heads that this is a story about God’s grace and we should accept that, but don’t we find our hearts get left behind because they are still crying out “but it isn’t fair!”.

30 years ago, when I was a young teacher, I took a school assembly on this parable of the workers in the vineyard. I told the story, and concluded that God’s love is not meant to be fair – it is for us all, regardless of how hard we work, or how rich we are.
Assembly ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, the children and teachers trooped off the first two lessons of the day, and by coffee time I had nearly forgotten what I had said. Until I entered the staff room. Immediately I was cornered by some of my colleagues – how could I tell that story, how could I believe that, it is patently NOT FAIR. Next I’d be saying that newly-qualified teachers should earn the same as the head!
But of course I was a newly-qualified teacher – it seemed to me that rewarding the one who the least, who was quaking in their boots, who wondered whether they’d have enough money to get through the month, was not such a bad idea.
I told the story because I believed in the grace of God and God’s outrageous love, but I read it rather differently because I could identify with the low paid!

So can we try to help our hearts feel this story from the other point of view?
The ones who were not hired had to endure the constant failure to be picked – first thing and then at 9 and noon and three. Not until 5 o’clock, when there is only one more hour to work, are they hired… and even then they must wonder what they will receive. Will it be enough to feed their families that night?
Imagine, then the flood of relief to receive a full day’s pay – enough to live on, despite all the waiting and the worrying. And imagine how grateful you would feel, to be given enough.
Poorer people – like these relieved and grateful ones in the parable who only worked one hour – have much to teach us about gratitude.

In May I was lucky enough to go to Zimbabwe for just over a week, to see some of the projects which the URC support through our giving to Commitment for Life & Christian Aid.
The very first place we visited was a garden project, where a water pump has been installed to enable older people – many of them widows – to grow their own food. The gardeners came out to meet our bus with singing and dancing. Once they had sat us down in the shade of  tree, one of them, Florence Kona, said,
"Our lives have changed. My child is now a builder in Mutare. We have learnt about book keeping, recording monies, cleanliness and how to spend money wisely. This garden has given my family better food and money to buy things we need. We hope you continue giving.
We thank you, we have prayed for you without seeing - but now we see you face to face!".
The people we met wanted to express their gratitude for the help we give – not grumble that we are so rich we could afford to fly out 7,000 miles to see them.

We are here because our harvest is plentiful – but we are very conscious that it is not so in every part of the world. And even in countries of plenty, not everyone gets a share – ask those families who rely on food banks and community larders to get through the month without hunger. I’m sure in this harvest celebration we want to put on record our gratitude, not our grumbling.

Jesus often used parables to talk about the kingdom of God – the way we should live our lives. But I don’t think he simply meant us to hear this story and think ‘we should be grateful and not grumbling’.
It is good if this parable makes us want to cry out against injustice, because when we are truly grateful for what God has given us, we want fairness for all, because all are God’s children.

This parable speaks of the generosity and giving of God – of God’s grace  - which is boundless.
As we give thanks for what God has given us, we are challenged to recognize how blessed we are, but also, I hope stirred to seek justice so that all God’s children can be fed.

Those of us to whom so much has been given need to give thanks, and then spend our lives and our strength trying to be people who are as generous as God.

Our gratitude and our generosity should be boundless – as boundless as God’s giving to us – until the whole world rejoices in having plenty to eat, and the whole world knows of the boundless love God pours out on us all.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Proper 15 “Whose God?”

Matthew 15: 21-18, Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Sometimes I wonder whether to keep watching the news – it certainly doesn’t aid restful sleep, some nights.
The coverage of the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia have been particularly disturbing.

White supremacists, upset at the proposal to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, a general from the Confederate – pro-slavery – side of the American Civil War, marched through the streets with flaming torches chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”.
It is not surprising that anyone who was not a Southern, white, young or middle-aged man would have felt they were being warned to get of off the streets – they are ‘Our streets’ chant the mob, not your streets.

Meanwhile other groups want to protest that they are also their streets, that the USA is also their country, that history should record their stories too.

You will even find extremists  - in the US, in Islamic countries, in the state of Israel - who want to say that God is on their side, that they are the superior people, blessed by God and given the land they live in: they could just as easily chant “Whose God? Our God!”.

In a sense this is nothing new. In Jesus’ time the Israelites had gained the land by defeating the Canaanites, and then they in turn had been conquered and then occupied by the Roman state. But the Jews still looked down on the Canaanites, because they had many gods, whilst the Jews believed in One God. Whose God? Our God!

Yet we have heard today some of the words of Isaiah, where God specifically teaches his people that although he is their God, he is not only their God – he is the God of all lands and all people,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.”

Jesus has come to the Israelites, God’s own people, but he has come to bring in the rule of God and to declare the love of God for the whole world.

So we see a shift in Jesus’ mission through this conversation with the Cannanite woman – maybe we even see Jesus himself growing in his understanding of why he is walking this earth.

Jesus is in the territory of Tyre and Sidon – an area we would now call Lebanon.
When the woman asks for help for her daughter, Jesus first ignores her – which is how any decent Jewish man of Jesus’ time would treat a woman he didn’t know – especially a non-Jew, a Gentile.
When she persists and the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, Jesus says to her
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
It was common practice in Jesus’ time for Gentiles to be referred to by Jews as ‘dogs’. But I’m sure it causes a shock to our modern ears when Jesus does that, too. There really is no way of dressing this up – Jesus calls this woman a dog.

We might expect her to either slink away, rebuked for bothering the Jewish healer, or even to react in anger – having come for help, not abuse. But the woman’s reply is courteous and quick ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
Jesus replies, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly.

Whose Healer? Her healer.
Whose Good News? Her good news.
Whose God? Her God.
And what is true for this woman and her daughter is true for the whole world – even us.
There is no-one who Jesus did NOT came to save and heal.
There is no-one for whom he is not the door to eternal life. There is no-one beyond the scope of the love of God.

You might think there is nothing very new is this. We all know that God is the God of the whole world, we don’t believe he is only the God of the United Reformed Church and not also the God of the Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics and all the rest. We don’t believe that God is the God only of the Western part of the world – or that he speaks English but not Chinese.
If we were to chant anything we might chant
“Whose God? Everyone’s God!”.

And yet we sometimes treat others as if they were not part of God’s care, as if they were not beloved children of God.

Church leaders stood linking arms against the marchers in Charlottesville because every time a human being is treated as someone of lesser worth because of their colour or history or gender or sexuality, the Gospel is denied.

God’s love is for all people, all kinds, ages, colours, nationalities.
Everything we do as a church, everything we each do as individual Christians, should proclaim God’s love for all – for the lowest, the least, the poorest, the most desperate.
We need not shout it but we should say it, lovingly
“Whose God? Your God!
Whose church? Your church.
Whose sister, whose brother? My sister, my brother.”
For each person we meet is a child of God, and the Good news of God’s love is for them.

May God fill us with the grace to proclaim this truth and to know and share his love with all.
In Jesus’ name.