Tuesday, 20 September 2016

'The Divine Dance of Redemption' - transcript of sermon - St. Marys and All Saints, Trentham 18th September 2016

Luke 16.1-13 'The Parable of the Shrewd Manager'

On my recent holiday, I took two real books and one on my Kobo.

On the Kobo I had ‘Soulfulness’ by Brian Draper. Then I had Paula Gooder’s sequel to ‘Heaven’ – ‘body – biblical spirituality for the Whole person’ and finally Tom Wright’s ‘God in Public’ – How the Bible speaks truth to power today.

I read all three books concurrently (not finished them yet) and was delighted with the way all three books coalesced.

Draper’s ‘Soulfulness’ picks up the idea of ‘mindfulness’ which is very much in vogue at the moment. In case you are not familiar, mindfulness is a discipline of being in the moment, being aware of each and everything around you and what you are feeling. Not being distracted by phones or agendas or anything else.

Draper develops this from a Christian perspective and invites us to ‘soulfulness’ – knowing who we are truly are in God and from that place of knowing to be able to engage with others and with all of God’s creation.

Paula Gooder picks something of this up as she explores Paul’s view of the body.  

She argues that for the most part in the West we have a Platonic view of the body and the soul or spirit. If we conceive of any existence at all beyond death, it is very often as some sort of real ‘me’ that is defined as soul or perhaps spirit. 

This soul/spirit will escape from this nasty world and flesh and blood and will go to live with God in a spiritual realm for all eternity.

We might also add to this the triple decker universe that despite all our science still prevails in the common consciousness.

God and heaven are up there, we are here on earth below and hell is somewhere down below the earth.

Gooder argues powerfully for a better understanding and appreciation of our bodies as they now are and explores what Paul says they will be like as resurrected bodies. 

Paul’s famous treatise on this is 1 Corinthians 15 – in verses 42 for example we read…

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;   

In our Creed we say, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ 

Our bodies are important – and an important part of our identity. What we do with them is important and how we treat other people’s bodies is also important.

This brings in Tom Wright who has written a great deal about an earthed focused reality. 

Post-modernist argue against all meta-narratives, all big stories, everything is relevant. That gives rise to that wonderful quote ‘all truths are relevant except that statement that all truths are relevant.’

Wright argues that the Scriptures offer a very important meta-narrative, a big story of how God created this good earth and is bringing it back into good order. 

One day it will be redeemed, renewed and reformed and we might say, re-populated with resurrected people.  

He argues powerful that whilst the ‘enlightenment’ brought great benefits it has also given us at its outset the guillotine as a clean efficient way of killing your political opponents during the French Revolution. And then those clever Nazi’s scientist who designed and developed an even more efficient way of killing thousands. 

Also the great Western democracy that during the recent banking crisis of 2008 managed to find $700 billion dollars to bail out the banks and keep the system afloat. All at the same time as continuing to demand crippling loans debts from poor countries in struggling sub-Saharan Africa. 

Wright argues that the Scriptures offer a powerful critique on all power structures and rulers and governments.

The scientific enlightenment and rational thinking pushed God up into the attic like some harmless old man. A few folk may like to go and visit him occasionally, but eventually this will all die away.

Much to the annoyance of many atheists, the rumour of God has not died or gone away. Therefore, they are lashing out and declaring people who believe in God have a deficient gene. For them, there must be a logical and scientific reason people continue to hold onto a belief in God.

The Scriptures give us an overall picture, that this earth is God’s good creation.

That one day it will be redeemed, restored and renewed. We are not going to float away as disembodied spirits to live in some ethereal heaven God knows where.

The Scriptures help us to understand the story of God’s outworking in this enterprise.

And in Jesus we see that matter matters to God.

And although the canon of Scripture is closed its outworking continues for each and every generation and for each and every situation. We are invited into the story as well – we are invited to read our Scriptures not so much as way of developing a personal piety but that we may speak truth into power, that we may offer a prophetic voice to the world as it ‘groans in its birth pangs’  Romans 8.22.

We are not offering an escape plan from earth to heaven aboard the good ship 'The Church’ with Jesus at the helm.

Jesus taught us to pray – Your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it in heaven.’ In your life, in your home, in your family......

Let’s not just pray it – let’s do it…

All of this and I have yet to mention Luke 16 and the parable of the ‘Shrewd Steward’ to which I now want to turn briefly.

This is a problematic parable and there are numerous interpretations and ways of considering it.

However having said all that I have said so far, it is important to allow the idea of God ‘so loving the world’ to inform any reading and reflection on this passage, or indeed any passage of Scripture we may be reading.

Although we may struggle to understand some of the things Jesus says here, one point is very clear.

Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

Standing in the great tradition of the prophets, he announced that God was visiting His people in fulfillment of all the promises they had hoped for, longed for and prayed for over thousands of years.

This was the year of God’s favour; this was the year of Jubilee.

However, He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. John 1.11

In the story Jesus tells of the shrewd steward, the steward can see which way the wind is blowing, he can tell what’s coming up, and he acts, decisively and quickly to ensure he is safe and saved.

The people of God, the Children of Light could learn a lesson here. Jesus is offering them an opportunity – which they are either not seeing or if they do, they are rejecting it.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Luke 13.34

There is much more that we could tease out of this passage and I do commend it to you for further study.  As always, when you are looking at a passage of Scripture do remember to explore it in its context.

Remember that Chapters and verses were only added in the Bible during the 12th & 13th century and whilst helpful for referencing they can isolate passages.

For example, this passage follows on from the stories about ‘lost things’ – a coin, a sheep and finally the Prodigal son. Following on we have the story of a Rich Man and Lazarus, which helpfully reflects back on the story of the shrewd steward.  

The rich man had failed to heed the messages of Moses and the prophets and had neglected to care for the poor and weak and vulnerable – he was now paying the price!

Let me offer one more observation of how this passage might speak prophetically today.

The story tells us that shrewd steward got some his master’s debtors together and ‘adjusted’ what they owed.  This could have been ‘usury’ – charging interest on money loans, something forbidden and against the Law.

One way around this was to take interest in kind – like oil and grain for example.

Therefore, it may just be that the steward is taking off or reducing the amount of interest.

The Master cannot of course say anything without condemning himself.

It could also be that the ‘extra’ was the steward’s commission on top of the loan.

Think of the loans to poorer countries I mentioned earlier.

Or, think of Pay Day Loans and Archbishops Justine Welby’s ‘War on Wonga.’  Not only did he speak out and draw attention to their malpractices he encouraged an alternative in Credit Unions and set up the Mustard Seed Appeal. The first six months of 2016 saw a total of 313,679 people contact StepChange for debt advice. 

We are called as the people of God to be informed by our Scripture.

We are called as the people of God to work towards a realized Lord’s Prayer.

We are called as God’s people to model a different way of ordering affairs. 

We are called as God’s people to offer a prophetic voice and a critique to the whole of life, especially and in particular politics and our politicians and leaders.

We need to gain confidence (not arrogance) and proclaim that Jesus is Lord of the Universe and is in the business of redeeming the cosmos and everyone is invited to join in the Divine Dance of Redemption.

Now that is an image to play with as we begin to watch ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’ 

Consider the discipline and hard work undertaken.

Reflect on the history of a particular dance and about its current interpretation. 

Think about the teamwork of all those involved with a whole range of skills and talents.

Above all – without bodies none of this could happen!

‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

Time to dance… 

 Let us pray;

Give to your people at this time:
A new vision of your glory;
A new experience of your power
A new faithfulness to your Word
And, a new consecration to your service,
That Your Holy Name may be glorified
 and Your Kingdom advanced
Where You live and reign,
   forever One God, unto the ages of ages.


Who'd have thought it! Transcript of sermon St Mary's Rolleston (Evensong) 18th September 2016

Ezra 1 & John 7.14-36

‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’ 

So closes 2 Chronicles with a theme picked up in the opening chapters of Ezra.

Ezra and Nehemiah are supplements to 1 & 2 Chronicles albeit there is some confusion and conflation between Ezra and Nehemiah.

All good stuff for Biblical studies; however, this is not where I would like to draw your attention.

Linking in this reading from Ezra with our reading from John’s Gospel I would like us to consider the phrase ‘Who’d have thought it.’

(Which by the way is the name of a very nice pub in St Dominic’s in South East Cornwall)

Cyrus the Great who had defeated the Babylonians gives an opportunity for the exiled Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the temple.

Again, a study of the Scriptures and other source documents will tell you it didn’t happen just like that, but that is not the point I am trying to get across.

Isaiah writes about Cyrus,

who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”   

Isaiah 44.28 - and again in Isaiah 45.1-3

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed “I will go before you
    and level the exalted places

I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut through the bars of iron,
 I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

To the Lord’s anointed, to Cyrus the Persian, ‘who’d have thought it?’
God is sovereign and will work through whom he will work...

…“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” “Do not stop him, Jesus replied, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  Luke 9.50

Who are your allies, your friends? Who are those who might help forward the purposes of God and who might not yet be signed up as fully active Christians?

You might find yourself saying, ‘who’d have thought she or he would have helped.’

This may have a very particular point with regard to the rebuilding of the Temple, the house of God.

Now we know about the Temple and how it was destroyed in AD70.

We also know that we, our very bodies, are now the Temple of God,

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 1 Cor 6.19.

Yet we have an inheritance of buildings as places of worship and of prayer. 

Buildings that can stand as icon of God’s presence.

It may be that you need to seek out those, who like Cyrus, would be willing to help with the maintenance and upkeep. Not wanting to push this too far but do hold in mind Cyrus didn’t lay down how exactly how the temple was to be rebuilt. 

Therefore, as long as the people of God remain in control and keep in mind the missionary purposes of God then we can welcome help from Cyrus.

The Second Temple built by the returning exiles was the one Jesus would have known and where we find him as we pick up this story from John’s Gospel.

 Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach.  The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught.

This was the Feast of the Tabernacles – the time when the Israelite's would build small huts on their roofs to remind them of their dessert wanderings after escaping from Egypt.

And as the people listen to Jesus they are puzzled, very puzzled.

And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” John 7.12

‘How is that this man has such learning when he has never been to rabbinical school?’

He teaches with such authority.

But we know this man, we know his mum and dad, we know where he comes from.

This is a rich passage and you can hear people trying to fathom out just who this Jesus was. Even for those whom came to believe and acknowledge Jesus as Messiah, must have been saying to themselves ‘who’d have thought it?’

Perhaps none more so than James, the brother of Jesus who came late to an understanding and belief and yet was to become the leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem.

As one Jewish friend of mine said, the problem I have with Jesus is that it is difficult for one Jew to believe another Jew could be divine!

And as you read this passage do you not wonder how Jesus came to this kind of realization, to be able to make such claims. To be able to speak with such authority and confidence picked up by Luke in his story of Jesus at the Temple as a young boy.

It was customary and keeping with rabbinical tradition that Jews in their teachings would refer to the teaching of another rabbi or holy book…

You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not murder,’ and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment Matthew 5.21

C S Lewis, the novelist and academic after converting from atheism to Christianity, said this of Jesus:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God: or else a madman, or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.

Finally let me remind you of Jesus’ forbear – David and the story of his being chosen and anointed.
 But the Lord told Samuel, “Don’t look at his appearance or how tall he is, because I have rejected him. God does not see as humans see. Humans look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks into the heart.”

And then from 1 Corinthians 1.25-27

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, and sisters, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.…

Who’d have thought God would have called you and me to this place at this time to help with the further and fuller realization of the Lord’s Prayer working towards the redemption of the whole cosmos.

For as ‘Michael Quoist in his book ‘The Christian Response’ says…

‘You are a unique and irreplaceable actor in the drama of human history, and Jesus Christ has need of you to make known his salvific work in this particular place and at this particular moment in history.’

Let us pray…

O Saviour Christ, in whose way of love lays the secret of all life, and the hope of all people, we pray for quiet courage to match this hour. We did not choose to be born or to live in such an age; but let its problems challenge us, its discoveries exhilarate us, its injustices anger us, it possibilities inspire us, and its vigour renew us. Pour out upon us a fresh indwelling of the Holy Spirit; make us bold and courageous in sharing faith in both word and deed for your Kingdom’s sake we ask.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

'Contentious Jesus' - transcript of Sermon St Anne's Brown Edge 14/08/16

Jeremiah 23.23-29, Hebrews 11.29, 12.2   12.2, Luke 12.49-56

I imagine a goodly number people tasked with preaching today when they turned to look at the Lectionary readings felt their hearts sink and thought to themselves, as I did, what on earth do you make out of this passage from Luke’s Gospel.

These words of Jesus might be near the top of the list of ‘things we wish Jesus hadn’t said.’ With talk of divisions among close family members, casting fire down upon the earth and calling people hypocrites.

Therefore, I did as I inevitably do when faced with some difficult Biblical questions. I seek out two of my favourite Biblical scholars to see if they can help shed some light upon the matter.

They are Paula Gooder and Tom Wright. I highly commend their books to you. 

In particular, I would really recommend reading Tom Wright's ‘Everyone’ series on the New Testament.

Tom Wright, like Paula Gooder, has an expansive knowledge of the Bible and both are literate in Greek and Hebrew.

Therefore, what is going on here in this passage - and don’t worry I am not a Biblical scholar and this is not going to be a lecture or anything like that.

However, I hope to offer some insights that may begin to help us understand at least a little bit more of what this passage might be about.

Firstly, we need to understand a few important things.

One of those is that it was not until the 13th century that the Bible was divided up into chapters and then further divided into verses in the 16th century.

Whilst chapters and verses are a useful addition for referencing, it can mean when we read the Bible we see it only in bits and pieces.

The short passage we read from Luke must been seen in the context of a wider story.

Luke tells his Gospel story in two halves with sub-divisions.

The first half is set in Galilee and his early ministry and the calling of the disciples. 

The second half tells about Jesus’s journey down into Judea as he heads towards Jerusalem, enters into his final week, then the crucifixion and resurrection and for Luke ending with the Ascension. 

(Picking up the story of the Ascension is how he will begin his second volume work, The Acts of the Apostles)

The critical hinge verse is Luke 9.51…

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

It is also worth remembering that journeys are an important feature in Luke’s Gospel. (Emmaus Road)

As Jesus makes his way down to Jerusalem, you can feel the tension mounting and see the dark clouds looming on the horizon.

It is not exactly clear whom Jesus is addressing in this passage under our consideration. In chapter 12. Verse 41 we read, ‘Peter said, Lord, are you telling us this parable for us or for all?”

Then in verse 54, ‘He (Jesus) also said to the multitudes….’

Another important thing to bear in mind, which is obvious, but sometimes so obvious we do not see it…

That is the use of metaphors and allusions. For example, we might say that someone or something has made our blood boil. Which incidentally is about 100c and if your blood ever did boil, it would kill you. We know it is a metaphor and our blood is not actually boiling.

Yet another important factor is that many of the allusions and metaphors used in the New Testament would have been well known and recognized by Jews at the time of Jesus.

Take for example the divisions among families that Jesus talks about here in Luke’s account. In the book of the prophet Micah 7.6 we read…

For a son dishonours his father,
a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.

We always, always, always need to bear in mind that Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew and would have been well versed in the Scripture. Something Luke alludes to in his story about Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve.  Jesus would have read, studied and reflected deeply on the Scriptures.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that we find similar words on the lips of Jesus about families being torn apart and not just on this occasion either. 

As Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, he says to the large crowd following him…

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14.26

This is the serious dedication of discipleship Jesus calls for – even today!

The prophet Micah continues in the next verse…

But for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
    I wait for God my Saviour;
    my God will hear me.

This is the hope that we hear of in the catalogue of the Faithful in the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a wonderful picture gallery of faithful men and woman who looked forward in faith to what God had promised and yet without receiving it in their lifetime.

Jesus comes as the Promise Bearer.

The Promise Bearer many are failing to see and to grasp while they have the opportunity.

Moreover, failing to see Jesus as the Promise Bearer, they bring judgement down upon their own heads like fire. 

John the Baptizer declared…
‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Within in families some will see and embrace Jesus as the Promise Bearer and others will not as prophesied by Simeon when Jesus was brought to be dedicated in the Temple.

Luke 2.34 ‘Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…”

Moreover, fire will indeed come upon them, brought from Rome, as Titus, son of Vespasian put Jerusalem to the torch in AD70.

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem in tears, he said…

 “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.  The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

I hope we now have a better picture of what might be going on here, having seen it in its fuller context and the failure of many to see in Jesus their Messiah, the Promise Bearer, the Word of God in flesh, the hope of all the world.

Is there anything we can take from this story into our week ahead?

Firstly, there is a challenge to us to be faithful and diligent in reading our Scriptures. Here again I would commend to you Tom Wrights ‘Everyone’ series on the New Testament.

We also need to gather with others so that we can study Scriptures in community – helping each other understand and bring insights as we seek to apply the Scriptures to our daily living.

What happens here on a Sunday morning is simply not sufficient to help us live as disciples of Jesus in the 21st century.

It is a little like going into a swimming pool and standing around in the shallow end near to the handrail. God invites us down deeper where we have to take our feet of the floor and trust that all will be okay.

The second thing we can do is with regard to those who do come to faith and in so doing find they become ostracized by their family.

Some years ago, I met a young Christian man in London who was brought up as a Jew. When he converted to Christianity, his family held a funeral service for him. He was dead to them.

This happens frequently enough today.

Two charities that seek to help by standing alongside those who face rejection, persecution and death from family members are;

‘Barnabas Fund’ (www.barnabasfund.org/) 

 ‘Open Doors,’ (http://opendoorsuk.org/) 

I know a little of this personally. I become a Christian on the 1st January 1975 at the age of 24.  In May 1976, I was divorced from my wife who had successfully petitioned for the separation because I had become a Christian. My behaviour had become as such so that she could no longer be reasonably expected to live with me. I walked away from the family home, our two-year-old daughter and our marriage with nothing much more than a suitcase of clothes.

The third thing we can do is to consider where we stand – have we accepted Jesus as the Messiah, do we consider him to be the Promise Bearer and the hope of all the world?

If so, what are we willing to sacrifice and to give up in maintaining that faith, thinking back to our passage from Hebrews? 

Are we able to echo these words of Cardinal Newman…?

My God, you have created me to do you some definite service,

You have given me some definite work to me, which you have not given to any other.

I have my place in your plan; I may never know what it is in this life, but I will be told it in the next.

Therefore, I will trust you in all things.

If I am sick, my sickness will serve you.
If I am worried, my worry may serve you.
If I am in sorry, my sorrow may serve you.

You do nothing in vain; you know what you are doing.
You may take away my friends; you may put me with strangers;
You may make me feel forgotten; you may make my spirits sink;
You may hide my future from me;

Still – You know what you are doing, and I trust you.  Amen

Who or what are you going to put your trust in as you enter into the week ahead?