All Change for Autumn

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio’, broadcast 17th October 2020

Recently I was in an online discussion about why people love autumn. There were hundreds of answers. A lot included the beautiful colours, the crisp air, the smell of bonfires and snuggling down indoors while it’s all cold outside. I would also add seeing and hearing flocks of geese flying in their V formations. My chickens always look up at the geese as they go past. I’m not sure if the hens are annoyed about the noise or wish they could fly like that too.

The geese and other birds come to us in the autumn while other birds go south. This makes autumn a time of change for them as much as it is for us. It’s a time when we see leaves changing colour, days getting shorter and cooler, and our thoughts turn to winter. It’s also a time when many people decide to do something like taking up a hobby or starting a course. Such things aren’t just for young people, either. People do degrees and take up new hobbies into their 80s and 90s because we all have a divine spark of creativity in us, whatever our age.

So, as we start moving into a new season, maybe now would be a good time to something different, that will make a positive change for us, however small. This is especially important this year, as we face a rise in coronavirus cases and a difficult winter. I’m going to try watercolour painting, which I may or may not be good at, but I’d like to try. And maybe when you see the geese flying or notice golden leaves they will inspire you to wonder what you could do this autumn to help you through the months ahead and bring something good into your life.

All change for autumn!

With all good wishes

Mel

On being let down by the Church

I’m supposed to be doing my Wednesday Worship right now but I’m feeling rather shaken today following the publication of the report into abuse in the Church of England.


It’s not really news to me but as a survivor of several kinds of abuse, not by clergy but by people close to me, the publication of the final report has touched old wounds.


I was let down as a teenager by a vicar who didn’t take my report of abuse seriously, which was painful enough, so I can only imagine how hard it must be like to live with the pain of being abused by those who we should be able to trust most.


In that light, and with the hope that it might help someone, here is a prayer for survivors that I found online:


Come, Holy Spirit, to rest in our broken hearts and tend to our broken lives.

Bear us up on wings of eagles when our hope lies crushed below the cross of our past.

Release us from the shame and grieving that hobble our pursuit of joy in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

Comfort our pain.

Help us trust in Christ’s complete victory over evil, so we may endure what we have suffered until that day when all we cannot see and cannot know is finally made clear.

Heal us with a fuller understanding God’s grace, so we may be open to sustenance to continue our recovery.

Help us discern the sure direction of God’s whisper when noise and confusion threaten to send us on mistaken pathways.

Provide us generously with Your counsel, so we may not be lost in a wilderness of sorrow, doubt and despair but, rather, are able to hear over our shoulder which way to go, what way turn to choose, which time to rest and which time to push forward.

We ask in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen

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?