Breaking Down Barriers

Mark 5.21-end

The people in our gospel story today couldn’t have been more different.

 

First, there was Jairus, a respected and important member of the community.

 

He was a leader of the synagogue, and as the synagogue was central and important to the whole community, he was a significant member of society.

 

It was Jairus, among others, by whose invitation Jesus preached in the Capernaum Synagogue.

 

He was bold and desperate enough to reach out publicly to Jesus for help at the time of his greatest need.

 

Then, there was the unnamed woman who touched Jesus’s cloak in the crowd.

 

She too was desperate, but years of being shunned and despised and an awareness that she shouldn’t be out in society made her choose a more private approach.

 

Despite their differences, though, these two are connected by the theme of barriers.

People, including some Christians, seem to like putting up barriers between people.

The barriers might be between those who are considered godly and those who aren’t, according to a set of rigid criteria.

They might be barriers of race, gender, sexuality, language, accents, clothing or wealth.

They might be barriers about how and when and where people worship.

Sadly, barrier-building has happened a lot in the Church in the past and can still happen now.

I find this strange, though, because it seems to me that Jesus was all about breaking down barriers.

 

He welcomed women and children and treated them as equals, at a time when that was unheard of.

 

His disciples were amazed when Jesus told them not to send children away but let them come to him.

 

As a Jew, he spoke to non-Jews and was concerned about them, at a time when it was common to look down on non-Jews.

 

He spoke to a woman by a well in Samaria and granted the prayer of a Syrophoenician woman, while his disciples looked on in confusion.

 

Jesus also broke down another barrier, one which seems strange to us today – the barrier between clean and unclean.

 

This is what we hear about in today’s Gospel reading.

 

The idea of being clean or clean was about whether a person was considered pure under religious law and therefore able to worship God or if there was something which had stained them.

 

It was a ceremonial rather than moral idea – various animals were considered unclean, as were certain skin conditions.

 

They weren’t immoral but they weren’t worthy of God.

 

Importantly for our reading today, though, a woman was considered unclean while bleeding, and dead bodies were also unclean.

 

And if you had contact with an unclean person, you were also made unclean.

 

This had serious consequences as, if you were unclean, you were both a social outcast, shunned by others, and a religious outcast who couldn’t go to worship God until you’d been made clean again through a religious ritual.

 

Jesus, though, took no notice of this in today’s gospel reading.

 

It describes him praising a woman who touched him for healing from chronic bleeding and talks about him taking the hand of the dead daughter of a local religious leader to bring her back to life.

 

Technically, Jesus was now unclean and an outcast, having had contact with two unclean people, but it didn’t stop him reaching out to help.

 

In the process, Jesus showed that there is no condition which cuts us off from the mercy and love of God.

 

In both of these miraculous healings we see Jesus demonstrating the steadfast love of the Lord.

 

This love brings genuine healing and hope to those who have experienced enormous suffering and loss.

 

The woman is restored to health and society; the young girl is restored to life, and in the process the ancient taboos of the law are broken.

 

No one is excluded from the kingdom of God, from the love of God or from the help of God.

 

In saying all this I’m conscious that there are times when prayers seem to go unanswered.

 

There are times when illnesses aren’t healed, people die anyway, and our worst fears come to pass.

 

This is a great mystery which the greatest theologians have trouble explaining, but I think we can be sure that, whatever it looks like, we are all equally loved, held and supported by the God who, in the words of Lamentations, ‘does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’.

 

There are no people who God doesn’t want, no ways to put ourselves beyond his help, and no barriers that he won’t cross to reach us.

 

Us human beings still put up barriers between people, both inside and outside the Church.

 

But I wonder what it might be like if we took more notice of Jesus’s example of breaking down barriers?

 

What if we reached past our social barriers to get to know people who are different from us, or who we look down on?

 

We might be surprised at the good people we find and the ways in which our lives become richer.

A Ship of Fools, or Calming the Storm

Sermon on Mark 4.35-41

 

what ship plays with icebergs

and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?

what ship on the throw of a dice

feeds a prophet to his fishy destination?

what ship breaks its spine on the rocks

and turns the waves black with lubrication?

 

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who seem to be

 

what ship is built on a dry highland

is launched in a downpour

and flies on watery wings to the peak of a mountain?

what ship has a crew

of taxmen thieves and fishermen

who decide in the howling storm

to make a small sleeping carpenter

their captain?

 

yes

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who only appear to be.

 

This poem by Simon Jenkins suggests that living the Christian life is a bit like travelling on a ship of fools. This talk is about being on a boat with Jesus, and what you might expect to happen on that watery journey.

 

Our gospel story shows that if you’re on a boat with Jesus on the Lake of Galilee then you should expect storms.

 

Galilee is notorious for its storms. They come out of clear blue skies with shattering and terrifying suddenness.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, voyaging across that lake, you might expect to encounter just such sudden storms.

 

And of course, that boat, that lake, those storms, can be seen as metaphors about us and the bumpy ride that we often find ourselves on.

 

We can put ourselves onto that tiny Galilean boat, into the story of that stormy day.

 

So, in your life, if you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might expect confrontation.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about yourself. You might not be a fisherman, accustomed to travelling this way. You may be a tax collector, a civil servant, a landlubber. Sickly and shaken, out of your depth, you may have to face your weaknesses, on a boat with Jesus.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about God, too. Things like, when there’s a crisis, when there’s a storm, finding that God seems to be asleep. You’re panicking, you’re fearful, you’re being tossed and blown by the most awful winds of change. And though you know that God’s there with you, God doesn’t seem to be paying any attention. Just when you need him most, if you go looking for Jesus’s help, you may find him asleep.

 

And when you wake him – it’s up to you to wake him – if you’re on a boat with Jesus you might expect to find more questions than answers.

 

Questions like, how do I wake up God? Do I have to tiptoe around, give a little nervous cough, in the hope that the Almighty will stir and notice me waiting there? Can I shout at God, when the storm is loud, can I scream to get God’s urgent attention? Is it ok to pray that way?

 

Questions like, can I argue with God? Call God to account: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”.

 

And if I do get into an argument with God, many many more questions:

Why is this happening to me?

Why do innocent people suffer?

If you’re a God of love, why all this horror?

If you’re a God of order, why all this chaos?

If you’re so powerful, why do you seem so impotent?

What does the future hold for us?

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might feel like you’re on a ship of fools.

 

Why put ourselves through all this when we could stay calmly on the shore?

 

But some only appear to be fools.

Jesus spoke, and calmed the storm. Overcame the evil in the wind and waves. Let the waters become the sailors’ friend again, no longer their enemy. He restored order to creation. He encouraged the amazed disciples to look deep inside themselves to see if there was any faith there, that might liberate and awaken them to see beyond fear to the loving eyes and strong arms of God.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you should expect storms, and many questions.

 

But you should also expect God to turn your eyes to another view of the world, one in which storms will be stilled, even if not when you expect. One in which questions will be answered, but maybe not how you imagine.

 

The story of this little boat which Mark told is a metaphor for our spiritual lives. But it’s also something the Bible says happened in time and space. We mustn’t forget that Jesus lived this, in the physical, because that awakens us to expect that, in a mysterious way, he lives with us in the physical here and now, with all its storms and chaos.

 

Jesus is with us in the storms of life as he was with his disciples on Galilee that day. So, when those times come yes, we can shout at God to wake up, we can argue, we can ask questions.

 

And in return we can expect Jesus to ask us to let our fear go the way of the wind, to embrace faith.

 

For storms are real, and so are doubt, fear and despair, but within them stands God, reaching out to pull us to safety.

 

It may look foolish to get into a boat with Jesus, but some only appear to be fools.

Religious humblebragging

A Short Mid-Week Communion Talk

Matthew 6.1-8, 16-18

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the word “humblebrag”?

It’s a kind of ugly word, in my opinion, but it perfectly captures a particular phenomenon.

It refers to saying something which is designed to seem modest, self-critical or casual while actually highlighting something you’re very proud of.

For example, someone might say “I just spent £2000 on a handbag because I’m so terrible with money”.

Or they might say, “I don’t know why people keep complimenting me on how I look”.

It happens a lot on social media, maybe because it’s easier to do behind a keyboard than directly to someone’s face, where they might laugh or challenge you.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about the religious equivalent of humblebragging – doing good things to get praise from others.

He highlights those who want to be seen giving money so that everyone will know how generous they are.

Those who flaunt their spirituality and prayer life so as to seem holier than everyone else are also condemned.

And those who make a big deal about fasting so that everyone is impressed by their dedication are also not in favour.

Giving, prayer and spiritual disciplines can be good things to do if done for the right reasons – but those reasons don’t include earthly rewards.

A more recent example I came across was someone saying online that Christians should be exempt from lockdown regulations because of all the work churches do to help others.

I try to avoid getting drawn into online arguments, but I felt I had to point out that we don’t do things for what we can get out of them here, but for heavenly rewards and out of love.

Jesus urges us to do good things quietly and truly humbly, because in this way we’re not motivated by looking good or getting praise.

Instead, we’re motivated by doing God’s will, knowing that even if no-one else notices God does.

We may be noticed and praised, and that’s always nice, but it shouldn’t be why we do things.

Our focus and aim are always to love God and others and do what good we can.

And we can rest assured that every good act and loving impulse is noticed and will be rewarded by our Father in heaven, without any need for us to be religious humblebraggers.

 

The Holy Trinity & Geometry

Holy Trinity Church, Great Paxton

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Quite a while ago, I did an online course about Quakers, just out of interest. People could make comments and ask questions as we went along, and one thing I remember is someone asking why a certain person talked about the importance of praying directly to God but then prayed to Jesus instead. It seemed she hadn’t grasped that for Christians Jesus is God.

She’s not alone in her confusion because we set a puzzle in Christianity by saying there’s only one God and then talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say this is a mystery: three persons but one God. Three sides, like the three leaves of the clover leaf; three ‘states’, like water, mist and ice, but one element. But none of the many images we use are exactly right, and it’s a well-known saying among preachers that it’s impossible to preach on the Trinity without falling into heresy. So, it’s no wonder that most Christians, let alone non-Christians, feel confused about the Trinity.

We need to understand as much as we can, though, or we lose a great gift. So, despite the dangers of trying to describe the Trinity, I’m going to talk geometry for a while. Many people think of the Trinity as an isosceles triangle, with two long sides leading up to the Father at the top, and a short side at the bottom with Jesus and the Holy Spirit at each corner. This reflects our human way of putting things into hierarchies. It works well for providing good management in business and industry and is vital for effective armed forces. You get a clear line of command, everyone knows what they can and can’t do, and everyone knows where to lay the blame when things go wrong. But, there is no hierarchy within God. In theology speak, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal.

Another way of thinking is to see the Trinity as an equilateral triangle. Here, the three persons are distributed equally, but then we often fall into only ever addressing one of them.

But we could also see the Trinity as a circle. In a circle there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom, just an eternal dance round and round. And this, I think, is a good way of seeing the Trinity. We can imagine God, always there, always the same, always existing in a perfectly balanced relationship.

But, you might be wondering, what difference does this make? Why the geometry lesson? Well, this is important because the belief that God is Trinity is the basis for the belief that God is also love. If God were not Trinity, but just a solitary individual, the most we could say with confidence is that God sometimes or often chooses to act lovingly but is not in himself love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we say that, even before there was anything outside God for him to love, God’s nature was expressed in the loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot help but love because God is a relationship of love, an eternal circling dance.

And this is not just some inward-looking love or an abstract idea. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of love that we recognise: it’s personal, dynamic and creative. It’s full of delight and generosity and wants to be shared. It longs for everyone to see the true loveliness of the beloved, delights in all their successes, and longs to help in their difficulties. And we, the beloved, are invited to join that relationship, to be in God, and God in us. Instead of searching after God we’re invited into the circle. Instead of praying to God, we pray in God.

This, I think, is why we get the story of Nicodemus this morning. Like many religious people, Nicodemus believes to some extent that God is love. But to him God’s love is measured and sensible and follows a set of rules. And he’s worried that Jesus might not be following the rules like he should. He’s gone further than many of his contemporaries, to give him credit, but not yet far enough. Jesus challenges him to let go of his measures and rules and launch himself into the unmeasurable totality of God’s love. God doesn’t love us when we’ve met some requirements, when we’ve changed enough to be lovable, or when we’re lucky enough to be born with the right colour or gender. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. Hence, the climax of this passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. ‘This is the point of it all’, says Jesus, ‘that God’s beloved people may live with us forever, in our circle of love’.

So, the Trinity isn’t just an idea for theologians to argue about, or a mathematical puzzle. Instead, it’s the basis of who God is, our relationship with him, and our hope for the future.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

Fruit of the Vine

Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter/Year B/John 15.9-7

Last week we heard about the importance of abiding in Jesus like branches on a vine so that we can bear much fruit.

This week we go on to find out what that fruit is – and it turns out to be love.

Love is the fruit of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and love is the fruit of our relationship with God.

There are different ways to respond to this.

Some of us might focus on the words, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”, “you are my friends”, and “I have chosen you”.

These words offer rest for the weary, a promise of acceptance, healing for all of our inner wounds and insecurities, an assurance that everything will be OK.

All we need to do is accept the gift of love and abide in Jesus.

Others of us, though, might find it hard to take these words in. We might’ve been failed too often by those who claimed to love us.

We might’ve been hurt, rejected or abandoned by friends, family or partners, and if this happens too often the idea of abiding in love sounds shallow, unrealistic and unsustainable, and letting ourselves be loved becomes a heavy risk.

Here, we need patience with ourselves and courage as we try once again to open ourselves up to love.

And we need people around us who will understand and support our journey, without judgement or trying to rush us.

We might also find it helpful to remember these words of Julian of Norwich:

“Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it.  This is true of all believing prayer.”

Then there’s the romantic idea of love presented to us in films and books, in which love means finding the perfect person and living with them in perfect harmony forever.

In this idea there are no imperfections to irritate us, no disagreements, just constant happiness.

But this idea lasts only a very short time when faced with real life and so we can end up rolling our eyes and becoming cynical about love.

Love, though, is not some sentimental idea or constantly being blissfully happy.

Love is beautiful, but not because it’s pretty and happy.

Love is beautiful because it goes all in.

It’s willing to take on the ugliness of life, the pain and suffering, to accept others as they are and not how we wish they would be.

It stands by us when relationships end or when loved ones die.

It sticks with us through accidents and tragedies, sin, broken dreams and hurt.

It sits quietly with us when we cry, feels for us, and prays for us whether we know it or not.

Jesus shows us what love looks like throughout his life.

He kneels down and tenderly washes the dirty, worn feet of his companions.

He accepts and welcomes adulterers, oppressors, and outcasts of every kind.

He shows compassion, defends the vulnerable and offers healing.

He loves and forgives, even when betrayed by his closest friends.

He gives up his life in the most gruesome, humiliating way.

Jesus’ love is not pretty or polished.  But Jesus’ love is profound.

Sometimes we forget to go past the words of Jesus about how much he loves us to the part about being appointed to bear fruit.

The blanket of God’s love for us is guaranteed and ours for the taking, but that gift becomes fullest when it’s shared.

We practice sharing that love here in our church community, and then go out to share it with the grumpy neighbour, the family member who drives us up the wall, and all the people we meet in all their wonderful, quirky, confusing and annoying variety.

We might get hurt, we will certainly get it wrong sometimes, but being loved and loving others is what we’re made for, and we will always have the love and friendship of God to sustain us as we grow and bear fruit.

 

Bible Sunday

A sermon on the Bible for Bible Sunday, 25th October 2020.

King James

It’s slightly over 400 years since the publication of the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible in 1611.

This was the only authoritative English Bible for reading in churches until the Revised Version in the 19th century.

Influence

It’s been called “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language”.

“The most important book in English religion and culture”.

And “the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world”.

It’s so influential that Cambridge students of English have to read it so they can understand the many biblical references in English literature.

It’s added 257 sayings and expressions to the English language, more than any other single source, including Shakespeare.

These include “a drop in the bucket”, “a fly in the ointment”, “at his wits end”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “the skin of your teeth”.

And the King James is still the most popular translation in the United States, despite the many different versions that we have now, all produced to keep up with our ever-changing language, better translation techniques and technology.

Culture

But …

King James didn’t get people to spend 7 years translating the Bible just to produce a good read and a source of quotes.

Although we can read the Bible like that and some people do.

They marvel at the beauty of the language, the poetry, the vivid images, the exciting stories.

And they feel they’ve taken part in a cultural activity like reading a novel or visiting a museum.

Before I became a Christian I considered the Bible a book of interesting stories, like other books I’d read, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Scholarship

It’s also possible to spend hours analysing the Bible as if it’s just any other ancient book.

We can decide what kind of writing each part is, when it was written and by whom, what exactly this particular Greek or Hebrew word means, and so on.

I’m not knocking these things – they can help us get a deeper understanding of what’s being said.

They can also help us avoid either interpreting things too rigidly and literally or dismissing everything as myths.

They can help us not take verses out of context and use them to browbeat others or to justify violence, hatred and our own prejudices.

Plus, these things keep biblical scholars happy and off the streets!

But if we get too deep into technical analysis we might forget what the Bible is actually for.

What is the Bible for?

The Bible isn’t just a good story, a collection of ideas, things you should and shouldn’t do, or a fascinating historical document.

Although it contains all these things and more, it’s a collection of books, that changes us by pointing to the living word of God – Jesus.

It guides us, teaches us and helps us discover the truth about humanity, God and the world.

It’s not that there’s necessarily an easy answer to every question in the Bible (if there was, Christians wouldn’t argue so much).

But it shows us which way to go to begin or carry on a relationship with God, how to be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit so we begin to live good lives, and where to find real help, peace, hope, guidance and comfort.

Why read it?

But none of these things can happen unless we actually open it.

As an old Chinese proverb says, “a book unopened is but a block of paper”.

There’s a story about a young couple who went on honeymoon and, due to a flight delay, arrived at their hotel in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning they complained that their room was ridiculously small, had no windows and only a single bed settee.

Having booked a honeymoon suite, they’d been given a box room, they complained.

The manager came upstairs and asked if they’d noticed the double doors, which the couple had assumed was a wardrobe.

Beyond the doors was a room with a four‐poster bed, a balcony with a sea view, flowers and champagne.

They had spent their wedding night in the lobby of the best suite in the best hotel in the country.

It can be the same with the Bible if we’ve never sat down and read it properly.

We might know some of the stories or books but stick with the Sunday school stories we learnt as children.

Or we might hear bits of the Bible read here every Sunday but never find out how and where they fit in the overall story.

If we don’t read the Bible for ourselves we could miss out on the treasures it contains.

We could stay in the lobby and miss the good things that are waiting for us on the other side.

This is why today’s collect asks God to help us hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures.

Without all this the Bible is just another book on the shelf and we miss out on its power.

A power that can transform not just us as individuals but our whole society.

Faithful readers of the Bible have set up just legal systems, cared for the poor and helpless, improved working conditions and made widespread education available.

Overcoming some of the difficulties

It’s true that reading the Bible can seem a daunting task.

It’s long, it contains strange names, it has bits we don’t understand and bits that seem just horrible. 

And we all have a million other things that need doing.

But there are lots of Bible reading plans which break it down into small, manageable chunks.

There are books which help with the hard bits.

There are versions written in different styles for different people.

We can listen to it through apps or online.

There are Bible study groups.

Why not ask each other about it – all of us need help sometimes.

And we can probably safely skip the really long lists of names if we want to.

Some benefits

In the process we might be surprised at what we discover, what we learn and how we change if, in the words Colossians, we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.

So, let us keep our hearts and our minds open to what God might be saying to us today through words that have been changing the world for thousands of years.

Questions to ponder for bible sunday

Do you have a regular Bible reading pattern or is the Bible more of a mystery to you?

How can we deal with the more difficult passages involving things like violence, subjugation of women and slavery?

Do you have a favourite Bible passage or Bible translation?

Do you use apps or websites to read the Bible or do you prefer paper?

Are there helpful reading plans or guides that you’d like to share?

A spoonful of cod liver oil

Matthew 20.1-16 / Proper 20

Introduction

The writer Barbara Brown Taylor describes the parable of the labourers in the vineyard as being a little like cod liver oil: you know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

This is one of those parables that offends because it seems to reward the undeserving while sending those who’ve done the most to the end of the line.

To try to understand this parable I think it’s important to look at its context.

Context

Just beforehand Matthew tells us about the disciples coming to Jesus and asking what they’ll get in return for following him, with the implied suggestion that they deserve big rewards.

Jesus in return promises that they, and everyone who listens to his call, will be rewarded generously, with a little twist when he says that the first will be last and the last will be first.

Then, not long after the parable, we have the story of James and John wanting to sit either side of Jesus in heaven, in places of power and glory.

So, both before and after the parable the disciples are jockeying for position, wanting good seats in the kingdom, trying to be first in line when the doors open and the show begins.

And we all want to be first when it comes to getting something good.

Getting in first

On one memorable occasion Keith and I were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Place. This was when Prince Philip was chancellor of the University of Cambridge and would invite a selection of people from the university each year.

Keith being chaplain at Downing College, we got a chance to go and snapped it up.

We got there nice and early clutching our invitations so that we could be at the front of the queue and get in as soon as possible.

There are many times in life when we might want to be at the front of the queue for a special event.

Imagine if you’d got somewhere very early, and spent hours queuing in the sun or rain, and then someone came out and started letting people in from the other end of the queue?

I doubt any of us would be very pleased because it would obviously be unfair.

And this is the problem here with the parable of the workers.

But its’s not fair!

We read it and think, but why should people who’ve turned up at the last minute get the same as people who’ve done most of the work?

What kind of operation is this?

Most people have an inbuilt sense of what’s fair and what’s isn’t.

Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work isn’t fair.

And we feel, in the face of a world which clearly isn’t fair, that it’s even more important that God should be fair, so that everything gets balanced out in the end and we get our proper rewards.

So, like the workers in the parable, we grumble when it seems that God isn’t living up to this expectation.

The problem here isn’t that the latecomers who do little get more or better things than us – they don’t, they get the same as us.

The problem is that they get the same as us, and they don’t deserve it, do they?

They’ve come late to faith, contributed less, or are outright sinners.

Maybe they should get something for at least turning up but not as much as us.

Control vs grace

What Jesus is getting at, I think, is our tendency to want to control how God acts and to find a way to get ourselves a better position compared to other people.

We want God to dole out rewards according to our judgements of who deserves what.

In the process, though, we forget that God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of rewards and working our way into heaven.

It’s not a question of ranks or worthiness or who can do the biggest number of good things.

Entry into God’s kingdom is about grace, mercy and forgiveness, given generously and without discrimination just because God wants to.

So, there’s no point anxiously jockeying for position or measuring what we’ve done compared to others because.

Important though our faith and service are to God, they should come naturally from our love for him, not from a desire for a front-row seat in heaven.

And we will all get the good things that God promises us, no-one who comes to him will miss out, and that is good news.

But, of course, even if we can accept that God in his generosity treats everyone who comes to him the same, what about the first shall be last bit?

First and last

Why make the first workers wait until after the last ones?

Well, I think it’s all about the way in which Jesus turns our ideas about first and last on their head.

In human terms it’s the powerful, the influential, the rich, the skilled and the talented who are looked up to and treated as successes.

But in God’s eyes the first are those who don’t have any of those human advantages but come to him with love and faith and do what they can with the opportunities they have – how ever big or small they are.

But in the end it doesn’t matter because, from first to last, and last to first, all will be welcomed, rewarded and loved when the time comes to finish our work and rest with God.

So yes, this parable is a bit like cod liver oil, but if we can swallow it then it will do us all good.

How to deal with conflict

A sermon preached on 6th September 2020

Matthew 18.15-20

Introduction

Imagine two friends in a church far away. Let’s call them Andrea and Louise.

Andrea and Louise used to spend a lot of time together.

They came to church together, had meals at each other’s houses, went on days out, talked and laughed.

Sometimes they had an argument or a misunderstanding, but they always made it up quickly.

Now though, they don’t talk at all.

They won’t even look at each other.

Worse, they talk about each other in unkind ways.

This is making life difficult for others in the church because they’re causing an atmosphere of tension and distrust.

Andrea and Louise, though, can’t let go of this falling-out.

Instead of talking to each other like they used to do they make accusations and snide remarks to others, hoping to get people on their side.

This is leading to divisions and drawing others into their argument.

Some in the church want to ignore it in the hope that it’ll blow over, but instead the problem is just festering.

Others want to boot one or both out of the door until they come to their senses, but this seems harsh.

No-one is prepared to talk openly about what’s going on.

If only Andrea and Louise, or someone else in the church, could apply the words we’ve heard from Jesus today.

Conflict management – step 1

Jesus teaches us that when we have a problem with another person the answer is not complaining to everyone else, ignoring it or trying to shove the problem elsewhere.

Rather, the answer is the much more difficult but also much more rewarding task of sitting down with that person and talking through the issues.

This takes honesty, and a willingness to listen and not be defensive, but it’s the best path to reconciliation.

It might turn out that this great issue was a misunderstanding, or something said in a moment of stress without really meaning it.

I’ve had at least one experience where a small misunderstanding led to a huge rift when it could’ve been sorted out with a proper conversation.

In contrast, I’ve also had an experience where talking through a misunderstanding strengthened a relationship.

Step 2

Sometimes, though, hurts go deep, and we need help from someone else to sort through it all.

So, Jesus suggests a sort of mediation process, where wise and understanding people join in with the discussion to give another perspective.

They may be able to find a way through that those directly involved can’t see.

An issue came up in a place I used to work between two people that would have benefitted from mediation.

Sadly, those in charge, for unknown reasons, blocked it, causing one of the people involved to resign.

If mediation had happened those two might still be working together now.

Step 3

But what if even that doesn’t work?

Well then the wider church community needs to be called in.

This issue between Andrea and Louise is hurting everyone.

It’s upsetting the life and witness of the church, and if they and a few good friends can’t resolve it then more help is needed.

I don’t know how the whole church being involved might look but it would be important to avoid turning it into a trial.

Any church trying to heal a serious division needs the humility to recognise that we’re all capable of making mistakes and falling into sin, and that this is not a process of fault-finding but of healing.

Then, as a last resort, people are to be removed from the church’s fellowship.

I’ve found this a hard thing to read before because it sounded like Jesus was suggesting rejecting people and treating them like lost causes.

And in fact, these words have been used to justify throwing people out of churches with no hope of return.

Recently, though, I’ve come across another perspective.

Jesus talks about treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors, the social outcasts of his day.

But these were also the people that Jesus came to look for and save.

These are the people that God doesn’t give up on and calls to come back to him.

So, maybe all hope isn’t lost for Andrea and Louise, even if the church can’t resolve their problem.

Maybe they aren’t to be rejected altogether but just distanced for a bit to allow wounds to heal, while the church continues to care about them and tries to draw them back in.

Conclusion

It takes courage to talk openly about our differences with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I know it’s something I struggle with and I’m sure many others do too.

It takes humility and self-awareness to recognise that there may be fault on our side as well as the other person’s.

And it takes bravery to hold our hands up and say, ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry’.

But when we do try to follow Jesus’s path of reconciliation, we have his promise that he will be with us.

And because we’re working to carry on God’s work of reconciliation in our own lives, we can be sure that he will hear our prayers and help us.

Those are the promises of Jesus whose work for reconciliation took him to the cross. 

On his promises we can depend.

The Canaanite Woman

Matthew 15.21-28

The meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman would’ve been just one among many were it not for the shock of their conversation.

Even though Jesus is sometimes harsh with the Pharisees, we still expect compassion for a woman in need.

And so, when we see Jesus first ignore her and then compare her to a dog, we wonder what’s going on.

I think we can start to get a handle on it by looking at this story in terms of boundaries.

The first boundary is geographical.

Jesus has gone not only to Gentile country but to Canaanite country, the land of Israel’s oldest enemies, in modern-day southern Lebanon.

The Canaanites, who had a reputation for corruption and violence, were living in the Promised Land before the Israelites got there and drove them out.

Some Canaanites remained, though, and so did the bitterness and feuding between them and Israel.

Going there as a Jew could be compared to going from Israel to Gaza today.

So, it was unlikely that any Jews would come there, across that border.

The second boundary is personal.

The passage doesn’t tell us about Jesus’s state of mind, but I imagine he was tired and grieving, and needed some time out.

His cousin, John the Baptist, had recently been killed, thousands of people had been clamouring for his help, and then he’d had the Pharisees arguing with him about petty traditions.

Jesus was and is God, but in his earthly ministry he was God with the limitations that go with being a human being, like tiredness, sadness and frustration.

He needed to set limits and boundaries on the time and energy he spent on helping people, for the sake of his wellbeing, and that of his disciples.

Setting boundaries may sometimes seem like selfishness but it’s vital if we want to serve others joyfully and effectively, and nowhere does the Bible say that Christians are meant to be overburdened and miserable – quite the opposite in fact!

The third boundary is between Jews and Gentiles.

This boundary is revealed when Jesus says that he was only sent to the house of Israel.

This might make us feel left out but Jesus’s ministry follows a pattern that even Paul, the champion of the Gentiles, recognised when he said that the gospel came first to the Jew and then to the Greek.

Israel, as the chosen people of God, was given a special place in the world but it wasn’t for their sake alone.

With Israel’s blessing came responsibility, as way back in Genesis Abraham was told that his descendants were to be a blessing and light for the whole world

Jesus continued Israel’s role by going to his own people first.

However, this passage also teaches us that no boundary should be so rigid that it excludes mercy and compassion.

For all the seeming harshness of Jesus here, he did, in the end, grant the woman’s request, and in doing so he crossed over the Jew/Gentile divide.

After all, he’d just lectured the Pharisees about holding so hard to traditions that there was no room for the loving spirit of the law, and Jesus is no hypocrite.

Here, though, is perhaps the hardest part of the story to deal with: Jesus comparing the woman to a dog.

Obviously, we don’t know how it was said and whether Jesus was smiling or not, and such things can make all the difference between something being an insult or a piece of wry humour.

We do know that ‘dog’ was a common insult used against Gentiles, but that word referred to the feral scavenger dogs who roamed the streets being a nuisance.

The word Jesus uses, though, refers to pet dogs, in fact to pet puppies.

Then, as now, these dogs were generally cherished members of the family, and woe betide anyone who said they weren’t important!

I don’t have a dog now but I used to have a pair of border collie/Labrador crosses.

I loved these dogs, looked after them and fed them.

But, much as I did love them and want to give them what they needed, they weren’t in quite the same position as the humans in the house.

We had our food at our time and they had their food at their time – and maybe they had to wait until we’d finished eating but they would get their turn.

So, it’s not that Jesus is saying, ‘Go away, you’re worthless and I’m not giving you anything’.

Rather, he’s saying, ‘It’s not your time yet, when it is you’ll get everything you need’.

It’s always hard when we don’t get an immediate answer from God, and sometimes God seems most silent when we’re most desperate.

We might’ve experienced this during the pandemic, wondering what’s going on and not getting any answers.

But this woman is not easily put off.

She accepts what Jesus is saying but still believes.

She believes not only that Jesus can help her but that he will help her.

Her faith is not just that God exists and is powerful, but that God is love.

That is the faith that Jesus responds to…a faith insisting that, no matter what he sounds like, his essence is still love and compassion.

She knows that if she can just look him in the eye, his love will not be able to refuse her request.

And she’s right.

There’s an important challenge in this passage: can we believe in God’s goodness even when it looks or sounds like it doesn’t exist?

Even in the middle of a global crisis?

Can we have the kind of faith that a child in a loving family has that her parents will answer when she calls, even if she has to call a few times?

Can we have faith in Jesus…in God?

Not, do we believe God exists…not, do we believe God is all-powerful, or all-knowing … but do we believe that God is love, even when it doesn’t look like it?

Being Beloved

A sermon for Morning Prayer, 19th February 2020

Psalm 72 / James 1.19-27 / Mark 8.22-26

Introduction

A friend of mine has been having a difficult time recently and ended up in hospital for two weeks.

She’s now back home and getting better but it was a massive shock to her and her family.

A further complication, though, is that before all this happened she felt she was being called to do a new big work for God, but now that work seems beyond her and so she’s confused.

I don’t know what the answer to her dilemma is, but it’s got me wondering about what God wants from us.

Doing for God

Do we have to be doing great things for God or is it enough to be an ordinary person doing normal things in an everyday life?

We hear a lot about heroes of faith who do wonderful things, like Solomon in Psalm 72, being a good and wise king.

He judges with righteousness, provides justice for the poor, brings his people wealth, rescues those in need and brings down oppressors, with care for even the most insignificant person.

Then there’s Jesus in the gospel reading, healing a blind person while passing through a village.

And James charges us to care for orphans and widows, that is the people who are most vulnerable and needy in society, while also doing the very difficult task of keeping ourselves from saying things we shouldn’t.

So if you’re not dispensing good things from on high, or able to perform miracles, and if you have only a limited number of things you can do because of circumstances of your life, personality or resources, what then?

This also has a personal dimension for me in that I’m in the early stages of considering whether God is calling me to explore other forms of ministry, and I’m very conscious of my own limitations and what I can and can’t offer.

Beloved

But perhaps we can find hope in a small word near the beginning of James’s letter – “Beloved”.

This one word speaks volumes about who we are and our relationship with God.

When someone is your ‘beloved’ their welfare is your concern.

When they are hurting, you feel it too, and what you want for them is things that will help them flourish, grow and be happy.

So if we are God’s beloved, and the whole story of salvation tells us that we are, then God wants what is good for us, indeed our welfare is his priority, even if it doesn’t always seem like it, such as when we end up ill in hospital.

Sometimes what’s best for us is to be challenged to move on to something new, to be stretched out of our comfortable ruts, to find out that we can do more than we thought was possible, or even to be stopped in our tracks.

But at the same time God doesn’t push us too far, doesn’t want us trying to do things he hasn’t set out for us to do, for that will only lead to heartache and disappointment.

So while the Bible stresses that our lives should be spent in service of God and others, it doesn’t say anywhere that we all have to do everything.

In fact, all we have to do is take the opportunities to serve that are in front of us, whether big or small, do what God puts in our hearts and minds, and what he makes it possible for us to do, remembering that the task of saving the world doesn’t fall to any one of us but to him.

As I’ve heard it put before, “There’s only one Saviour, and I’m not him”.

So yes, let’s do what we can to follow God’s will by caring for others and trying to make our bit of the world a better place, but also give thanks to God that ultimately everything is in his safe hands.