What? Who chose THAT Bible reading?

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Speaking on a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and from chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel- 2 challenging sections… lets just say I was slightly more worried than I sometimes am. The text below is part of what I said- there was a whole chunk which only came to me 10minutes before I got up to speak, which you’ll need to listen to on the website to hear, and also sometimes its easier to hear compassion than to read it…

There are some weeks when the Bible readings we set just line up really well, and as a preacher you’re in the equivalent of a sweetshop… where do I start? And there are other weeks where there’s just one simple idea that clearly speaks… and then there are weeks where you look at your feet, a bit embarrassed and wonder where to next? In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth we have throughout one of the biggest tellings off in the whole Bible- for 16 chapters Paul says, in various ways ‘you have every reason and opportunity to be like this, but instead you are…’ ‘just look at yourselves- you’ve let the school down, you’ve let your parents down’… all that… in this passage we have ‘I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly- mere infants in Christ’- to the church he founded in one of the greatest cities of the world… I gave you milk, and you’re still not ready for solid food… Go back right to the start and look at the basics- its not about the person, its about God- its always been about God… Paul is addressing Christians here, and his word to them is- God is it. God is at the heart of our faith, at the heart of our Church, at the heart of our vision and our activity, at the heart of everything we do. Our worship is about drawing close to God, praising Him for who he is and what he has done- and the choice of song and the musical instrument used should be irrelevant. We are allowed preferences, for sure- we are individuals and we’re called to unity, not uniformity. But if our desire to sing ‘this song’ or our dislike of ‘that song’ gets in the way of encountering God… then we are right with the Corinthian Christians…

We often hear the verse  ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ to remind us that God uses different people at different times of our faith journeys- and that is true, but the point behind it is that there was a disagreement going on, which was threatening to split the church because Christians had allowed their preferences to become more important than God.

A difference of opinion that is poorly managed turns into a disagreement that turns into an argument, then a feud… and somewhere along the line there is something that cannot be said…

The seeds we plant and we water are the things that will grow in our lives.

What seeds are we planting?

Jesus, when speaking in the sermon on the mount as we heard, is speaking to those who’ve chosen to come and listen- to the not-yet-but-on-the-way-to being-called-Christians, most of them Jews.

And he refers back to their laws- having previously said that he’s come to fulfil the Law, he now goes much further- not only don’t kill, but recognise that anger is the first step towards murder so be reconciled; not only don’t commit adultery, but don’t even let your thoughts head in that direction… divorce- no, its not an option that those approaching marriage should have- the ‘we grew apart’ line is just that- a line we hear… its not true. It was a decision, or a series of decisions not to keep growing together… and then this section about oaths and promises- interesting, we might think making a promise is a sign of commitment, but Jesus speaks against them- do not swear, just let your yes be your yes and your no be your no…

This gives us a hint of something important here- Jesus has just highlighted the importance of one particular covenant promise- marriage, and how significant the breakdown of that is, and then goes on to say that his followers should be cautious of making promises… because we can break them…

In the context of the earlier statements, and within the sermon on the mount where this whole passage is set, Jesus sets these incredibly high aims- the beatitudes, the challenge to be salt and light, to fulfil the law etc… but in tension with this is just, us- the hearers of this word, the readers of Pauls letter and us… and we get angry, we entertain silly ideas, we don’t have the integrity that we might wish for… and so we beat up on ourselves for our failures. But… in between, there is the grace, the forgiveness, the healing, the transformation… the possibility… the hope.

And love helps us to take hold of that hope and the possibility of transformation, and work at it…

Love of God for us, and our love of others.

In Paul’s great rant to the Corinthians there is a passage that I’m sure you’ve all heard- but I want to read part of it again… having torn a strip of them for so much, Paul writes  ‘And now I will show you the most marvellous way… If I speak in the tongues of men andof angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have a faith that can move mountains and have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is… Love never fails…

This, he’s saying, this is what we’re meant to be like- this is what we’re meant to show to the world…

This is what we’re meant to show to Barnstaple, to Newport, to Hillcrest and Rumsam, Old School and Clinton Roads- to Park Lane and Cherry Grove, to all the places we live- and to those where we don’t. This is what our prayers tonight and whenever we gather together in prayer are about- that we might grow in love and show love, that God would soften people’s hearts to know love.

This is not easy- this is deeply challenging for us. This is love your enemy territory, this is mind how you speak of others when they are and aren’t around… this is how we answer the phone, post on Facebook, drive our car, treat our colleagues and all the rest…

And this is the miracle. That because of his love for us, somehow, sometimes, when you really wouldn’t expect it, we find it possible to do this. Its because of his love for us that says yes, you can be saved, forgiven, healed, transformed- and those things repeatedly… as often as required. Its because of that, that we’re empowered and enabled to love… its so much easier to respond to someone who has shown you consideration… but someone has to go first or it never gets started…

So let us love, and in that love let us be united, reconciled, pure, commited and filled with integrity.

Amen

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Jesus, you’re confusing me!

So, looking at a few of the parables at the moment- those stories that Jesus told which were deliberately meant to teach something, but seem to do so in a roundabout way that leaves us scratching our heads… we were looking at the Parable of the Talents, which is found in Matthew chapter 25… and here is what I shared with folk. Interestingly, and in a quite groovy way, we had 3 different preachers speaking on the same passage in our 3 services yesterday, and while we all picked up on different aspects and made different links to our own lives/contexts, there was a very cool and solid message of risk-taking coming through… read on:

I remember acting this out years ago, and we had the spoof ‘parable of the 10 talons’ with a vampire… I don’t quite remember whether there was meant to be a huge depth of meaning to that… The thing with this story which Jesus told, as with a number of them- like the parables of the prodigal son, the sower and the good Samaritan, is that many of us have heard it many times, and we know the bits we like- the son is welcomed back, the good soil produces crops, the stranger helps- and in this one ‘well done, good and faithful servant’… the reward that comes to those who are faithful and persevere. The thing is that each of these stories has a sting in its tail (no pun intended)- the prodigal is as much about the hardness of our hearts, the sower about God’s abundant generosity, the good Samaritan challenges us to love with that same generosity of spirit.  So what about the parable of the talents…

There’s a phrase right at the start which gives us a hint- ‘at that time’ in the NIV… what time? In this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is teaching about his return- the end of things, when the Kingdom of heaven is fully present… its not the same as those parables that talk about ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’, which speak of now, into our lives here and now- this is very much looking towards the future… when Jesus returns, on the last day when everything will change. So the first thing we need to have straight is that the judgement in this story isn’t one that is made on our lives right now- the final judgement will only be on the final day. Until then we’re living in the period at the beginning of the story- the master has gone on a long journey and not yet returned. At that point, we will be judged by what we’ve done, by how we’ve lived- but we’re not there yet… Just as at the end of any exam, match, meal etc things reach their final conclusion, so they do in this context and will do when Jesus returns. This isn’t a negative message- a reminder that things have direction and purpose: that the church is not left to drift along

So for us now, we’re in the place of the servants who’ve been entrusted with something by their master, and we have to decide how to act. Often when someone gives me something to look after, I’m incredibly careful, even cautious, about how I use it- I would be worried to get a scratch on something, or to crease it… one the very few occasions that I’ve met with a financial advisor they’ve concluded that I am ‘risk averse’- which some might find amusing given that my hobbies include lots of things that come under the ‘extreme sports’ banner… Many of us have a tendency to do the same, I’m sure.  The thing that challenges me, in the passage we had read to us, is that this is the wrong answer- when we hear of the masters return, the servant who’s been careful and cautious doesn’t receive a word of praise or commendation for not breaking things but is condemned for their risk averse attitude.

The master’s property is to be used, not stored. Its to be put to work, allowed to become what it has the potential to grow into, rather than held stationary. Here, and in every church, we’ve people with many gifts, talents and abilities, and we should encourage folks to use those, of course. But that’s not the whole of the message for us: the church as a whole needs to willing to take more risks. This last week we welcomed 240 pupils from Park School into the church… about half of them had never been into a church before. We had a format that worked from previous years, that we knew the teachers were happy with, but out of discussions it became clear that the less structured parts of the sessions were what really engaged pupils… and so we allowed them to ask the questions for almost half of the time here- with a panel answering them as the questions (sight unseen) were asked. And each day we ran out of time before they ran out of questions, and their questions ranged all over the place- some really challenging, some a great opportunity to share. But at the end of the sessions, each one of us had grown and developed, and each of those young people had heard about the Christian faith from a group of people for whom it is at the heart of our lives.

When we risk things for our faith, when we put it to work, our faith grows, and we grow, and others grow around us, and the church- the kingdom of God, grows too. And if we live like that, we need can be confident that when we stand before our master we will hear those words ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. Being faithful to God isn’t necessarily the same as being faithful to our history, but we’ll leave that for another time!

Have a good day, and take some risks for your faith.

E100- over halfway, and tempted to give up…

In long-distance running there is a phrase ‘hitting the wall’. Its when you get to a certain point where you just don’t see how you can continue. Your legs are lead (not jelly- that was a few miles back), your tank is empty and you just want to curl up on the floor, close your eyes and for it all to be over.

Well-trained runners know its going to happen and have techniques for getting through that stage. They might be able to go further before it happens, and it might not be so terrifying… but its still out there.

This week, in the long distance Bible Challenge of the E100, we’ve passed the halfway mark- we’ve gone from Old to New Testament… for some it might feel that its an easier ride now (at least in terms of getting your heads round it), but for others who’ve struggled through Proverbs, the prophets, Kings and Exodus there may be a sense of ‘what? we’re only halfway?’

Interestingly, today’s passage from Matthew 3 talks about the baptism of Jesus, and then his time in the desert… from the highs of a close encounter with God to the time of temptation and difficulty… When you’ve made a commitment to do something, or just started out, there may be a first flush of enthusiasm but what keeps you going when that fades? How do we keep committed for the longer term? Talking about discipline and routine is helpful in once sense, but it can also allow us to forget that reading the Bible is part of our relationship- if we’re following Jesus we’re not just in a training regime.

For me its always about remembering the big ‘why’… why do i pray? why do I read the Bible? why do i live as a Christian? because of God’s love for me, my love for God- because of the relationship rather than the specifics… just as in my relationships with people I may meet them in different places and share life differently with them over time, so my relationship with God is growing and dynamic because I am a living creature.

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

So you live in a society where God apparently guides you, and is the leading force behind your people’s culture. Where for a period of time the leaders understood themselves as standing in the gap, hearing God for the people and with the responsibility to lead the people towards God, and where on occasions they had understood that blessing to be for and on behalf of the wider population- the whole region rather then just their own people group… but its all been quiet for a long time on the heavenly front. No kings, no judges, no prophets, or at least none that were shown to be faithful to God by their words and actions.

What does it mean to be the people of God when God seems to go quiet? Does it mean that you’ve been given all you need, all the guidance that a people can reasonably expect and so now you just need to get on with it? Does it mean that God has turned away and left you for good this time- and if so why? Is it a test? Is it just one of those things- you have to wait for some things in life, like exam results or the sunrise.

And then, in the silence, a voice speaks- first in one place, and then in another- first in the Temple to a priest (where you might expect it) and then in hicksville to a young woman (which was definitely unexpected).

You know how at the end of the night, when the sun has yet to appear, things often go quiet, and the light changes so slowly and night shifts imperceptibly towards day… and then there is the first moment when the sun itself peeks over the horizon.

The passage I’m referring to is Luke chapter 1– the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus. The priest is Zechariah and the young woman is Mary and the beginning of the new day is the message that the great prophet John the Baptist is soon to be born, and the dawn that is coming is the birth of Jesus- a new day dawning on the world, the coming of the kingdom of God in a new way where there is no silence between heaven and earth.  And we still live in the beginning of that kingdom- on the brink, with sorrow and fear and tragedy and loss beside us even as we see the growing signs of the light, the love, the healing and the life of the promises coming into being around us each day.

And I’m aware that this all sounds a bit crazy, as if I’m living in Narnia or another fairy land. But the thing is that I know in the last day, in my normal life, I’ve seen God touch the life of a sane intelligent man, I’ve prayed for miracles in the lives of desparate strangers, and I’ve had my own prayers answered through conversations and phone calls. God works in the ordinary and the humdrum, bringing his Kingdom into our lives… and the sound is breathtaking.

E100 day 12- dream on dreamer

So, anyone who was a lived through the 80’s or 90’s can’t help but have the tune to the Lloyd-Webber musical Joseph running through their minds when they read passages from Genesis 37 onwards.

Yesterday it was all about the first dreams and the technicoloured coat, and the really bad move that it is to put your dreams before your older brothers… just as a general principle you shouldn’t tell them you’re going to rule over them, especially if they outnumber you and you live in a society where sibling rivalry and untimely death aren’t far apart.

Today, the story has moved to Egypt (is it just me or does that place have a seriously bad rep in the beginning of the Bible?). Joseph has been sold as a slave and he’s working for Potiphar.

Now, two interesting thoughts here- firstly, God blessed the whole household because of Joseph. That’s pretty cool, eh? If we’re ever wondering about the bonus side-effects that might come along when we commit to following God and prioritise our relationship with him, here’s one possible one: everyone around you gets blessed. Joseph was still a slave (though in a fairly elevated position) so its not as though it was an immediate release for him, but by being faithful to God and faithful in his work, the things he was responsible for were blessed. Notice I’m not using words like ‘prospered’ or ‘succeeded’ because I think we automatically see those things leading to financial or material success… blessing is less tangible and also less immediately obvious. It might be a sense of warmth, welcome or peace rather than a new office, but which one will lead to a more motivated team and a greater level of support?

Secondly, Joseph turns down the lady of the house. Now she may have expected any slave of the house to be her property, she may even have been legally right to do so, but Joseph knew his principles and he stuck to them, in the face of temptation (Potiphar’s wife is always stunningly beautiful in your mind and in every picture… well done Joseph for resisting the sneaky but gorgeous bird… but what if she’d been 50yrs his senior, overweight and with stinky breath? Now it becomes a case of well done Joseph for thinking of a way in which you can talk your way out of the situation without insulting her). Unfortunately, either way, Mrs Potiphar isn’t happy, and so Joseph is thrown in jail for attempting to ‘make sport’ of her.

And in the midst of all this, he has only his dreams… that somehow his family will bow down to him. I reckon that Joseph would have been content to just get home, and to be the one bowing down. But maybe he still needed to learn something about grace and forgiveness, maybe he was still bitter (and it’d be hard to blame him for that).

But down in the prison, the same things are happening- Joseph is faithful, and things around him go well, and someone notices, and he gains responsibility. Interestingly, success comes to Joseph not when he dreams, but when he works. Eventually he is summoned to the court of Pharaoh, and there he interprets a dream, but wisely starts by saying ‘I can’t do this, only God can send dreams and only God can help me to understand them’- which is a measure of his wisdom… he’s experienced what happens if you just spout these ideas out, and now he’s learnt.

I’m just hoping I don’t have to be thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, transported to another country and then imprisoned in order to learn wisdom.

E100 day 10- and now, presenting… the same guy but with a limp and a different name

What’s in a name? I mean, really… what is in a name? Does it really define anything about someone? Some names have meaning because of their origin- usually traced back to the country that they originally came from.

Andrew apparently means strong, while Andy means balding and facetious… who’d have guessed? But more significantly, who decides? I was Andrew as a (really not very sporty or strong) child, and then became Andy before I became bald, and as for the facetious bit…

In the Bible, and Genesis chapter 32 is one example of this, people sometimes change their names after an encounter with God…

So Abram (exalted father) became Abraham (father of many), and now Jacob (he grasps or deceives) becomes Israel (he struggles with God)… but what is in a name?

I was watching the film ‘Life of Pi’ the other day, which has a great section about how the main character gets his name… he earns it and in doing so casts off the names that others have given him… it demonstrates something about him, rather than the things other people have put onto him.

When we give someone a name, we might put some thought into it, and have good intentions, but we don’t, and can’t know how that name will affect the person- so Jacob could have been intended as a gentle joke, or a warning (you were born grasping your twin brother’s heel, don’t always be grasping those in front of you), but it seems that it became a description of how he behaved. It wasn’t until this second encounter with God that he is truly changed- he grasps and grapples with his opponent, in the late night wrestle-fest, but neither has the upper hand, until God touches him on the hip, as if to say ‘you struggle and fight and do all you can in your own strength, and you refuse to give up, which is truly admirable, but you must know that my strength is beyond your understanding, so now be still’. And Jacob, who is now becoming Israel, lies there, with no clever words, no tricks- he knows that he is powerless. And when he is powerless, God blesses him.

I’m just hoping that God doesn’t have to dislocate my hip to get my attention…

E100 day 8- testing, testing… can you hear me?

Abram has become Abraham… woohoo! Amazing… but he still doesn’t have any kids. He’s been given this promise by God that he’ll be the father of a nation, but so far all that’s happened is he’s got a longer name, and some flocks of sheep and goats. Not quite what you’d expect.

And now, at last, tada- a son is born, in Genesis chapter 21– thats 9 chapters and 25 years since the first call, the first promise. And maybe Abraham had at times asked ‘can you hear me?’, or wondered whether his prayer link to God was working…

It’s easy to look back at times like that and call it a test- God was testing you, it was a testing time for my faith… but when its happening to you now it rarely feels like a test… it feels more like something you want to stop- you’re not thinking about how well you’re coping, just about getting through.

And here in chapter 21-22 we see another situation that’s often called a test- God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (the one who is the answer to the promise, remember?)… and we look at it and whisper ‘its a test, a difficult one, but a test, and I’m sure Abraham will do fine’; while if we’re honest we’re thinking ‘so glad that God hasn’t asked this of me’.

I have a think about tests, and the thing is that I don’t really like them. And I particularly don’t like surprise tests. I’m really not keen on surprise tests being dropped on you by people who love you. And so I struggle with the idea of God dropping these tests on people like Abraham and the rest of us. I may be right out of whack here, but I struggle with this.

Maybe I prefer continual assessment- everything is a challenge, opportunity or test… in every situation we can flourish, shine, scrape through or completely flunk it… And rather than God being there like the examiner, waiting to see how we’ve done, God is there alongside us, helping us through…

I guess its all to do with my perspective, my understanding of God- first of all, that He’s there, present, and cares about my existence. Those two understandings are fairly huge in themselves. Then I would add that not only does God care about my existence, but is aware of and cares about everything in my and your lives. That God loves and knows (and still loves) each person and all of the universe. And its from that perspective that I view and try to come to terms with the narrative that we’re looking at in the Bible- I know its not a neutral stance, and it lacks intellectual rigour, but its my stance and hey, this is my blog…

Anyway, I’m going to go and check whether the microphone is plugged in, and have a chat with the Man… and hopefully I’ll remember to try and listen to Him too.

E100 day 7- trust me… don’t look down, just trust me

It’s the kind of thing you say to someone stuck in a tree, or at the top of a cliff… but as you say it you know they’ve already looked down, and that’s the problem. The problem isn’t the branch they’re on, its the lack of branches below it… its not the cliff or the ledge… its the ground at the bottom, and the distance in between.

As Woody Allen (who despite everything else and all the weirdness was a clever writer) said-

‘It’s not the falling I’m bothered about, its the sudden deceleration at the end I’m afraid of’

Or maybe it was-

I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of landing

I can’t remember which, and I’m going to be really old fashioned and not check it out on quotepedia or anywhere else (if you want to, feel free, and please let me know which one’s correct)

Anyway, the link from this to Genesis chapter 15 is?

Don’t look down- don’t worry about what might happen, the thing you fear, don’t focus on your worst case scenario… instead look at the now, the place where you are and listen to the voice that says ‘I am here with you, and I have a plan, and it will be ok’. Sometimes in life we’ve heard those words and struggled to trust them, sometimes we may even have given someone that reassurance while knowing that this is a new definition of the word ‘OK’.

Abram (note, still not Abraham) is listening to God, who is saying ‘I’ve got a plan for you and your family, it’s a big plan, and it involves some tough stuff but they’ll inherit this land’. And all the time Abram is thinking ‘I don’t have any children, and the missus and I aren’t young anymore… is this one of those interesting, blue-sky thinking plans?’

The answer is yes and no- yes, because it was something that Abram and Sarai didn’t think possible, and no, because it was as simple as possible- you’re going to have a child and he’ll start the dynasty that will become Israel and through whom the world will be blessed.

Just in closing, a thought- what was so special about Abram and Israel? A friend expressed this really well just the other day… they weren’t special except in one way- they understood that there is one God of everything, rather than one god for every different thing.  That was it.

E100 day 6- lets make like a banana

‘and split.’

Ok, so that may not have been how God spoke to Abram when he invited him to leave his home and journey to a new place (Genesis chapter 12 if you want chapter and verse), but it certainly worked.

We were thinking about how we hear God- and of course this led to what kind of voice God has… the consensus at the table seemed to be a deep voice that was sometimes loud- though it has to be remembered that the round table conference I was facilitating was my children at breakfast…

We could get the idea, too, that God could speak with written words- just as we know what someone is telling us to do by reading a letter or note… that was fine.

The harder one is/was thinking about how we hear God speaking in our hearts… is it simply that we have enough knowledge of the Bible (God’s Word) that we’re able to know what God would have us do in a given situation- the whole ‘WWJD’ thing- by reading the Gospels and reflecting on them I can try to do what Jesus would do today in this place… but that doesn’t encompass the idea of relationship- that’s just knowledge and imitation, really. (Don’t get me wrong- knowing about God and imitating Jesus isn’t a bad idea, its just not the same thing as knowing God and being guided by Jesus).

Abram seemed to know God, and heard God speaking into his life- whether audibly or in his heart. Abram also seemed to continue to get to know God as he journeyed- putting time aside for it.

Abram didn’t always fully trust God or get things right (see the whole Egyptian episode where he pretended his wife was his sister…).

But God still spoke to Abram and worked in and through him.

All of which gives me some hope, even when I slip up.

E100 day 5- stop your babbling!

So am I already failing in my attempt to post every day, or am I instead simply recognising that I just won’t do it because of other commitments? And rather than trying to force myself into it and feeling guilty for failing my own expectations, it may be better to do what I can, to enjoy doing it, and to do it well…

‘Slacker’ I hear you reply, ‘you’re a vicar and you only work one day a week.’ Which may be true, but all that coffee doesn’t just drink itself, you know.

Anyway, enough of that, and back to where we should be- Genesis chapter 11, looking at the tower of Babel. Or rather, looking at the ruins where it stood, or maybe even just looking at the pile of materials that never got turned into a tower… first question I have, did they actually build much of it?

Second question, what on earth is going on here? We were trying to think it through… people are trying to do something, based on their own confidence, and God seems to be unhappy about it… are we to understand that God doesn’t like the idea of humanity achieving anything without his input, which seems rather petty, or is it something else? Is it to do with arrogance, with seeking to make ourselves into gods and masters of our own destiny, with a refusal to acknowledge that the heavens are beyond our reach?

And the whole language thing- God decides to cause confusion to stop humanity from doing anything further… rather than reading this as, again, petty God wanting to stop us from achieving, maybe it’s that God saw their first plans and understood that if people no longer acknowledged anything as having authority over them, then what would stop them from destroying the whole world on a whim… I don’t know, I’m just thinking here.

And then I’m reminded of how this passage is bookended by the events of Pentecost- on that day people from all over are able to understand each other because of the power of God’s Holy Spirit… the day of unbabbling, when foreign languages no longer divided them… and when it happened, all heaven broke loose and thousands of people recognised the truth of God in their lives.

Which was pretty cool.