Friday, 14 October 2016

Zachaeus and change

Closing Reflection for Synod (also the readings for a few week's hence)
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12        Luke 19:1-10     

We live in a world which wants to polarise – right or wrong, left or right, In or out. And we live in a world of rapid change – new gadgets, new occupations, even new countries.

And so as Christians living in a rapidly changing, ever more polarised world we might want to claim that we are people of stability.
Our God never changes: our faith is stable and we sing, with Anna Letitia Waring:

In heavenly love abiding      
no change my heart will fear
And safe is such confiding   
for nothing changes here.

And yes, it is true that God is outside as well as inside time and space and so is eternal and ever reliable – but I don’t think the Bible points us to holding onto a faith that should never change and to living lives that should cling to the past and fear the future.

Paul, writing to the Thessalonians praises, even boasts of, their steadfastness and faith – but he also describes how their “faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing”.

Following Jesus is a dynamic thing, it involves change, travel, journey, so that , like the Thessalonians, we can be ever more worthy of God’s call on our lives and fulfil “every good resolve and work of faith”.
As the next year or so unfolds we will hear more and more about the URC’s new emphasis on discipleship “Walking the way – living the life of Jesus today”. Walking the way – not standing still or even, God forbid, digging in our heels against the march of time.

I wonder what Zacchaeus was expecting that day he shinned up a tree to see Jesus pass by? It was not so much an act of steadfastness and faith, but more a desire to be a spectator or a by-stander as the famous rabbi passed by. He ran ahead – to find a good tree and get settled in it to watch… and suddenly found himself the centre of attention as Jesus says "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

Jesus isn’t prepared to leave Zacchaeus where is – safe and passive and quietly observing. The kingdom of God has come close – and it’s not a spectator event.
When Zacchaeus opens his house and his life to Jesus, he opens his heart to change. It’s time for Zacchaeus to get off the fence as surely as he gets down from the tree and get moving in answer to Jesus’ call.

Jesus himself sums up
"Today salvation has come to this house…For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.".

Wrong becomes right; the lost become found;
tax-collector becomes benefactor, as Jesus changes Zacchaeus for good, for the good.
I can’t imagine Zaccahaeus singing ‘nothing changes here’, but he certainly learnt what it was to abide in heavenly love.

We have spent today learning about changes, making some changes, facing up to changes.
We might be facing changes we have not sought, and we do not welcome.
We might be longing for more and faster changes so that this world becomes more like the kingdom of God for which we long.

Whatever the change, whatever the future, God the Father goes before us, Jesus the Son walks beside us, and the Spirit drives us on.

May God be with you all to hold you in his love and change you into the person he has made you to be. For the sake of the Kingdom. Amen.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Enough faith.

Luke 17: 5-10

This story of Jesus and the disciples is an odd one, isn’t it.
The story begins with the disciples approaching Jesus with a seemingly reasonable request:  “Lord! Increase our faith!” .
Jesus has been teachingthings like: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you. Forgive even when it’s not deserved. Give without expecting anything in return. Be ready to take up your cross.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the disciples ask for an upgrade. If we are going to be those kinds of disciples we’re going to need a boost to our faith.

But the way Jesus responds makes me think of the scene in the film “Oliver!” where the beautiful blond haired urchin takes his emptied bowl of gruel and asks “Please, sir, can I have some more?”. You will remember the roar of disapproval from Mr Bumble - the portly man in charge -  “MORE?!”.

Jesus’ response to the disciples feels a bit like that “More… faith?” and he tells them that if they had faith as small of a mustard seed, they could command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and replant in the sea…and it would obey.
He then proceeds to ask them whether a servant would be so cavalier as to demand a meal with his master, or special praise for doing his basic household duties.
Now, this may strike us as a little odd because we know Jesus wasn’t in the habit of speaking unkindly about slaves or people of low status. In last week’s lectionary portion of this gospel, he tells how the miserably poor and sick Lazarus will be taken into the bosom of Abraham, and he had many parables to tell about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, where the lowest and the least are given special honour.

So what is Jesus trying to say to the disciples?

It might help us to think a little about the Hebrew word ‘Dayenu’ – it means ‘it would have been enough’.
I first encountered the word in a jolly little song which is often sung at the Jewish festival of the Passover. It’s what some people call these days ‘an ear-worm’: a catchy tune which is hard to get out of your head once you’ve got it there the chorus goes “Day-dayenu, day-dayenu, day-dayenu, dayenu dayenu”.

The verses list all the ways in which God has blessed the people of Israel, but it’s done in a particular pattern:

If He had rescued us from Egypt, only rescued us from Egypt
but not punished the Egyptians,
It would have been enough! (Dayenu)

If He had punished the Egyptians,
but not divided the Red Sea before us,
It would have been enough…

If He had divided the Red Sea before us,
but not supplied us in the desert for 40 years,
It would have been enough…

If He had supplied us in the desert for 40 years,
but not brought us to the land of promise,
It would have been enough…

If He had brought us to the land of promise,
but not made us a holy people,
It would have been enough…

I hope you’re getting the hang of it… it goes on for 15 verses, each time with the chorus Dayenu.
I have a Jewish friend who can’t stand the song!
The song is first found written as a song about 1000 years ago – but the concept of remembering all the ways in which God has rescued, blessed, and saved his people is the whole purpose of the Passover meal – and the statement ‘dayenu’ – ‘it would have been enough’ is thought to be a very ancient practice.
We know that Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover – and when they did they may well have said of God’s great acts, that any one of them ‘would have been enough’. Dayenu.
Is that what Jesus is saying to his disciples when they ask for more faith? “Enough” ,‘dayenu’ you already have enough faith – you don’t need more.

Then what is the purpose of Jesus’ description of the servant? The faithful servant doesn’t ask for more – doesn’t ask for rewards or upgrades – but gets on with the task of serving. That is what faith in Jesus is about – not having more and more proof of God’s blessing, not being filled, on demand, with a great sense of purpose, not being lifted into some holy state of certainty that Jesus IS God with us – but serving, following, trusting.

Great, flashy shows of faith are about as useful as uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea: real faith is falling into line behind Jesus and seeking to serve the kingdom of God of which he teaches.
Maybe the mistake the disciples make isn’t so much in asking for more faith, but in thinking they don’t already have enough, in thinking God’s grace is insufficient.  I think we can imagine Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as he warns the disciples that they already have enough faith.

But surely Jesus performed miracles himself? Why did he not hold himself in check and after a hard day of teaching mutter ‘dayenu’.. enough?
The miracles – the signs and wonders performed by Jesus and described in the gospels  - always had a point. They healed, liberated, fed, blessed, restored and comforted people. And so they pointed to the mission of Jesus and the purpose of the Kingdom he announced.

If we are to be disciples of Jesus who are full of faith – faithful – we need to follow Jesus as closely as we can. We don’t need to ask for evidence from God that we are on the side of the blessed, but we need to follow Jesus by answering his own call to us to …heal, liberate, feed, bless, restore and comfort people.
And all in service of Jesus and for the glory of God.  Amen.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lazarus and the rich man

1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19-31

Well, the message of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems clear enough – beware being “rich and haughty” (as the letter to Timothy puts it) or else you will burn in hell. After all “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.

But doesn’t the story worry you more than a little, the more you listen to it?
The rich man dresses finely and feasts sumptuously, the poor man, Lazarus – a name that means ‘God is my help’ – certainly has no-one else to help him – his is starving and covered in sores. But it seems the rich man never did much more than step over him.
They both die – and the tables are turned. The poor man “whom God helps” is taken to be with Abraham: the rich man is in torment. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus and calls out “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”.

There are at least two puzzles here: the rich man knows the name of the wretch he never helped in life ‘Lazarus’. He knew who he was – or at least he knew his name – but he never gave him even the scraps from his richly-laden table.
And even from the grave he can’t stop being the one with all the influence and power – he thinks he can cajole Abraham into using Lazarus as his servant – to cool his tongue.

Even now it seems the rich man hasn’t learned the lesson of how to treat Lazarus properly. So we might feel that he was asking for the refusal that he gets from Abraham – “there is a great chasm between us”.
This is grim stuff. Is Jesus really telling us that all our deepest fears about eternal judgement and heaven and hell are true? And is he trying to frighten us into behaving better in this life by telling us about the fiery torment that waits for us otherwise? None of that seems to square with the good news of salvation that Jesus spent so much of his life talking about – so perhaps we’d better keep thinking about the story.

Where does the chasm between poor Lazarus and the rich man come from? Surely it was the rich man himself who created it – in his earthly life each time he ignored Lazarus, each time he failed to wonder whether he should share some of his sumptuous feast, each time he refused to look down on the ground just by his gate. The divide between rich and poor was created and maintained by the rich man’s selfishness. So by the time they both die there is indeed a great gulf between them.

But did you notice what happens next? The rich man says (and he’s still trying to order Lazarus about..) “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them”. Abraham’s reply is “they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them”. To which the rich man says “but if someone goes to them from the dead they will repent” and Abraham’s final word ? “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. Even if someone rises from the dead.. like that could ever happen?!

I think Jesus’ parable – like all parables – leaves us thinking.
“Even if someone rises from the dead…”. But that’s exactly what is going to happen. To another Lazarus, according to John’s gospel, and of course to Jesus himself.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us nothing about the heaven and hell of our nightmares, and everything about the love of God which bridges the divisions we create in our world. Jesus came to heal the division between rich and poor, between Jew and Greek, between life and death. Jesus came to show us the kingdom of God, where divisions are broken down and there can be life in all its fullness for all people.

So what is the message of the parable? Certainly there is a warning – of the terrible effects of selfishness and greed: which creates exactly the sort of division that Jesus came to break down. If we want to be people of God’s kingdom we need to be generous, giving, ready to see the person in the street as a person, with value and identity, who is a precious child of God as we all are.
The parable also serves as a reminder – that God’s values turn the things of this world upside down – the rich become poor, the poor rich.
But in the end it is a parable of Good News – that we can be part of God’s upside down kingdom, that we can bring life and hope to those who lack it.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sept 18th - God's care; God's grace; our prayer.

Readings are Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7.

I am preaching at a church's 200th anniversary and instead of a single sermon I am dealing with each reading in a separate reflection.

Reflection 1
Well, happy 200th anniversary. This reading reminds us just why Jeremiah has a reputation for being gloomy.
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”.
But at least Jeremiah helps us to get real about the ups and downs of life. I wouldn’t mind betting that there have been at least some chapters in the life of this church when you have felt like sitting down and crying: when you have felt your joy is gone and your heart is sick. We would not be human if we didn’t sometimes feel that.
But Jeremiah is not just wanting to complain – he is reminding us that God feels these things too and that God hears the cry of his people.
Then Jeremiah demonstrates a real faith in God when he asks the question “is there no balm in Gilead?”. It’s a bit like us asking “is the Pope Catholic?” – it is meant to be rhetorical.
Things may be difficult, says Jeremiah, there’s no sense in ignoring the difficulties in life. But even when we feel we are in a hole, we still believe in a good God. When we feel awful – God knows it and feels our pain too. And there is balm – there is always balm – God will never stop loving us and will always stand by us as we suffer and struggle.
So we look back today and remember some of the good and bad chapters of the last 200 years – and we look forward to all that is to come. We recognise it will never be ALL good, and we hear Jeremiah ask “is there no balm in Gilead?” – is God going to be with us in the future? and will God heal and save and salve? And we answer - Yes!

Reflection 2
Of all the parables Jesus told, this might be the one we might wish he hadn’t bothered with!
It is what theologians call a real stinker.
It is an intriguing story though.
The manager is accused of being dishonest (is he guilty?) and is told he will be sacked. To save his skin he changes the debts of his master’s customers, so that they will owe him, the manager, and help him when he is sacked. But the owner is so impressed by the way the manager has called in the debts, he gives him his job back.
The problem is it can look like Jesus is approving of the manager’s dishonesty – and that can’t be right, can it.
But what if Jesus isn’t saying anything about good business practice and is saying something amazing about grace. What if this isn’t about money, but about forgiveness. Grace is the unexpected shock that means that even when we do the right thing (forgiving debts) for the wrong reason (self-interest) we still get rewarded and we ourselves get forgiven.
I think this parable is a clever story to get us thinking about a life that has nothing to do with just desserts – and everything to do with the shock of grace.
As we move in to the future, we don’t have to worry about calculating how best to get our life as a church sorted out – the manager who has a plan is side-swiped by grace. We should be honest, we should plan as best we can – but we should be ready for what God is going to do – way beyond our expectations. God may yet have a twist in the tale of the life of this church!

Reflection 3
So our first reading promises us that God will have balm for our souls when we need it, and our second reading promises the amazing, shocking, stunning grace of God to forgive us and make us new.
What do we do to access this balm and this grace?
Paul’s letter to Timothy says “make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone”.
In other words  - first pray, then pray, pray, pray and add a bit more prayer.
By praying we are listening for God’s leading, we are putting our concern for others in perspective by asking for God’s help, and we are remembering that all that we have comes from God and we should be thankful.
After 200 years of prayer in this place, really all I can say is – keep praying. Prayer will bring you peace, keep you right with God, and fill you with joy.
So on a foundation of healing, grace and prayer, may God’s church continue to bless this place. In Jesus’ name. Amen.