Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin

There's a long tradition in Judaism.  It's a tradition of complaining.  Of course, the Jewish people don't have a monopoly on the art of moaning...we are all capable of it from time to time!  But its something which emerges time and time again in Jewish literature.

Sometimes there are things to moan about - undoubtedly.  I was moaning last night about an appalling system of finding a way to pay online for Elizabeth Bain-Doodu's ticket to the UK! But there was a particular kind of moaning which really got under Jesus' was the kind of moaning done by religious people who are sure that God loves them, but that he would be far from happy about some other people!

At the beginning of today's Gospel story, we hear that all sorts of "tax collectors and sinners" were coming near to Jesus to listen to him.  The text goes on:  "Now the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!"  Jesus response is to tell them the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

On the surface, these parables are well known to us.  At a simple, basic level they teach us that God and the Angels in heaven rejoice over every lost soul which turns to God.  But there's something more going on in this story...something, like most Gospel readings, which has the power to challenge us.

As human beings, we have a tendency to judge others - don't we?  We are awfully quick to jump to conclusions about the motives of other people.  I hear a lot of it, as a priest.  People will complain to me about another person, convinced that such a such a person has behaved in a particular way because of some negative characteristic.  Such and such a person is said to be 'nasty' or 'cruel' or 'lazy'.  Such and such a person 'should have remembered what I told them a few weeks ago...but they forgot.  They don't care'.  And so it goes on.  Time and time again, we are all capable of ascribing attributes to other people - even though we have no idea what made them appear to act the way they did.  Perhaps they were stressed.  Perhaps they were tired.  Perhaps they were distracted.  Perhaps they were simply mis-understood.  But we feel, don't we, that we have the right to judge complain about them, to moan.

At the same time, we recognise that we are failing human beings ourselves.  All of us know, don't we, that we are capable of being all the things that we accuse others of being.  We are all capable of being stressed, tired, distracted, mis-understood, uncaring.  And we confess that to God...we pray for God's mercy on us.  We seek his forgiveness and healing, because we know that we need it.  But, as failing human beings, whilst we seek mercy and understanding for our failings, we too often seek justice and retribution for the failings of others.

There's an old Native American saying which is worth us remembering:  "Never judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins".

And the challenge of these parables, which Jesus told to those grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, is this:  Jesus calls us to celebrate with God, because God has been merciful not only to us, but to others as well - even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.

There's an old Jewish story which tells of the good fortune of a hard-working farmer.  The Lord appeared to him one day, and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbour.  The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for 100 hundred cattle.  Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed...until he saw that his neighbour had received two hundred.  So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbour had two hundred acres!  Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbour had received more than he.  Finally, he stated his third wish:  that God would strike him blind in one eye.  And God wept.

The parables of the lost sheep, told to those grumbling religious-types, expose the grudging spirit that prevents us from receiving God's mercy.  Only those who (like the Angels in heaven) can celebrate God's grace to others, can truly experience that grace for themselves.

So what does this mean for us?  What is the challenge that we might take away with us today?  First, it is surely the challenge to stop judging other people.  We know ourselves from the inside - we know every thought and emotion that flickers through our brain.  We know ourselves, subjectively.  But we can only ever know our brother or sister objectively - that is from the outside skin that they portray to the world.  We cannot know what their upbringing has done to the person they are.  We cannot know the stresses they are coping with today.  We cannot know what has happened to them, and what has affected them, even in the last five minutes...let alone the last day, week, month or year.  What right does any one of us have to judge another person?

Secondly, we are challenged to be like the Angels in heaven who celebrate God's grace for others.  God's grace is extended to everyone of his sheep - and even most especially to the very lost of sheep.  So the next time you encounter someone who doesn't think like you do, perhaps even about the most important of theological issues - don't refrain from celebrating the fact that they too are experiencing God's grace.  Whoever that person is, whatever their beliefs and background, if they are communicating to you that they have found God, rejoice with the Angels in heaven.  Perhaps they are a Muslim, who believes that God loves them.  Rejoice.  Don't judge.  Perhaps they are a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Pagan.  If their life reflects the grace of God - if there is kindness and love in their being...rejoice with the Angels.  They may not have understood God correctly yet...but are you so sure that you've got God taped down?  I'm sure I haven't!

Those of us who regularly spend time in the Community Cafe, downstairs, know that from time to time we encounter some very damaged individuals.  All of human life passes through the door of our cafe...and I frankly wish that more of you were there to see it and encounter it.  There are young mums with restless babies.  There are elderly people seeking a friendly word and an encounter with someone - just someone - someone to help drive back the lonliness of living alone.  There are people with mental health issues.  There are people coping with alcohol or drug dependency.  There are people whose personal hygiene perhaps leaves something to be desired!  There are workers, and there are lay-abouts.  There are creative geniuses, and there are committed volunteers.  Time and time again, what we see in the cafe, are small signs of grace.  Someone will lay a hand on a shoulder - and a smile will light up a face.  Rejoice with the Angels.  Someone will offer a lift home to a neighbour, or someone will set up a craft-session in the corner.  Rejoice with the Angels.  Someone will dig deep, and give money for the work of the cafe - generosity flowing outwards - rejoice.  Someone will spend an hour, patiently listening to the old lady with no teeth who can hardly get her words out...just loving her, listening to her.  Rejoice with the Angels.

God's grace is at work in everyone.  God never stops looking for the lost sheep, or the lost coin.  He never stops igniting little fires of wonder in the hearts of his children - even the most apparently unlikely ones.

I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one lost soul who turns - even an inch -towards God than over ninety-nine Churchgoers who are already secure in their salvation.  Let's join in the celebration of God, by walking alongside those who are beginning to turn to God - even as we learn how to get better at turning - at repenting.  Let's never judge them...judgement is the job of God, not something he delegates to us.  Instead, let's love them, and celebrate every spark of God that shines through.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hate your Parents for Jesus?

Luke 14: 25-33

Have you ever joined something on a whim? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Perhaps you, like me, have been tempted by offers of joining a 'Wine Club', or perhaps signing up for the Reader's Digest. I did that a few years ago, thinking that I might enjoy a monthly digest. But I quickly regretted that decision, I can tell you. Day after day, the Digest would send me for their 'Grand Draw', offers to buy the latest collection of books, holiday packages, money advice. By email and by post, I was deluged! I felt like I was wading through a sea of marketing material. Help me! Save me from all this junk!  You see, I really hadn't understood what being a Reader's Digest customer would entail.  I had failed to count the cost of membership.

At the beginning of today's Gospel reading we read that 'large crowds were travelling with Jesus'. Who were these crowds? Well, undoubtedly they were - like us - a mixture of people with a whole mixture of motives for trekking round the Galilean countryside with this new prophet. Some of them would have been waiting for Jesus to declare war on the Romans. Some of them would have been simply curious to see what all the fuss was about. Some of them would have recognised something holy, and have been drawn to it. Some of them would have been desperately searching for a miracle - perhaps a healing from a long-term illness, or a miracle that would transform their poverty. Some would have been simply thrill-seekers...waiting for Jesus to turn some more water into wine, or to see him walk on water...just so that they could be amazed and amused.

To all these people, according to the text in front of us, Jesus turns and says: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple". You can just imagine the reaction, can't you? People would have looked at one another, puzzled. "What did he say? Did he really say I have to hate my family to follow him?  Has he gone mad?!"

Well actually, they probably wouldn't have said that! Scholars tell me that the word we translate as hate in English bibles should probably be translated as something nearer to 'love less'. In other words, Jesus was saying that we should love our families, and even our own lives, less than we love him.  Which is still a pretty stark thing for a preacher to say.  I wonder how you would feel if I started demanding that you should love your families, and even your own life, less than me!  I think I'd be lucky to get out of here alive!

But Jesus is claiming something really important here.  He is claiming that our love for him, and therefore our love for God must come first in all our priorities.  He is pointing to the fact that sometimes we are forced to make a choice between what our families want us to do for them, and the behaviour that God requires of us.  Because let's face it, our families sometimes have a very strong hold over us.  Sometimes our families do things that we know are wrong - perhaps illegal, perhaps even immoral.  But somehow, because they are our family we feel that we can't interfere.  

Instead, Jesus says that his agenda, his good news, must take priority even over the family.

Just now, at the beginning of our service, we recited the 'Beattitudes'.  You know...'blessed are the poor', 'blessed are those who mourn', blessed are the peacemakers' and so on.  The Beattitudes are Jesus' manifesto for a broken world.  The Beattitudes encourage us to imagine what the world would be like if the poor were blessed by the wealthy.  He imagines a world in which the mourning parents of Pakistan and Niger could be comforted by the wealthy pockets of the west.  He imagines a world in which his followers become peacemakers who share the Earth's resources, rather than war-mongers who conquer each other's oil-fields.

But if such a vision is ever to come to pass, Jesus says, the change has to start with us.  With you and me.  You can only change the world one person at a time.  And the first person has to be me.  Or as the old prayer goes:  Lord, let your kingdom come...and let it begin with me.

This Gospel challenges us.  It challenges us to begin to put Jesus' priorities first.  We are challenged to love our families less than God.  If our families try to force us to choose greed instead of generosity - then we are encouraged to follow Jesus, and be generous.  If our families tend to lead lives that are inward-looking, then Jesus says "Look outwards".  

Here's a many times have you heard the expression "Charity begins at home"?  Many people assume that it is a quote from the Bible. isn't.  It was Charles Dickens - and a few other writers before him.  Charity - the outward giving of love to others - springs from the heart, and often from the home, but it should touch the lives of everyone around us.  The family is a vital, and important unit in our community...but it is the community of God as a whole to whom we owe our allegiance, and our charity.

And there's another challenge in today's reading - which links back to my earlier questions - the ones about the Reader's Digest, or the energy deal we might have signed up for.  Jesus says "Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it".  And just before that he warns "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple".  The end of the reading is even sharper, and perhaps even more of a challenge:  "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
These are challenging thoughts.  Jesus is laying down a direct challenge to those in the crowd.  To those who have come seeking a spiritual experience, or perhaps a miracle, Jesus is saying:  "My good news, my gospel, is SO much more than a nice cosy feeling...a beautiful song...or even a beautifully sung Eucharist(!).  My Gospel is a completely radical, life-changing, potentially earth-shattering way of life.  My gospel has the potential to raise the dead, feed the hungry, heal the sick.  It can bring down the mighty from their seats, and lift up the humble and meek.  But if it is ever to succeed, I need my followers to Get Serious!  I need my followers to understand that my Way is the way of self-sacrifice.  My way is the way of putting God's priorities first.  My Way demands your life, your soul, your all.  If the world is to change...the change needs to start with you."  

And then Jesus says, through the story of the man who builds the tower, "Are you sure that you really want to follow me?  Are you really up to the challenge that I am setting?  Are you going to be the kind of Christian who is serious about the world-transforming Gospel of Jesus?"

Because, let's face it...there are two kinds of Christians.  There are the kind who get their sleeves rolled up, who visit the sick, and care for the lonely, and commit to community life, give generously without counting the cost, and so succeed in changing lives.  And those who are content to sing the hymns, meet some friends, put a few pennies in the collection plate, and then go home and forget everything that was said.  Yes, there are two kinds of Christians:  there are those who spend every possible hour, and every possible resource....every possible pound...on the work of the Gospel.  And then there are those for whom Church is something kind-of- interesting to do on Sundays, if they can be bothered to get up, and whose wallets stay firmly closed.

Jesus challenge, through the Gospel reading of today is...what kind of Christian are you?  What kind of Christian am I?  Are you, am I, up to the radical challenge of Jesus?  Is this a disturbing message?  Is this disturbing you?  Well...that's good.   For too long, the church of God in too many places has tried to attract Christians with a nice easy message.  Come to church, sing some hymns, mumble some prayers, eat some bread and that's all there is to it.  Your soul is safe.  The church has, sometimes, domesticated the Gospel - reducing its radical community-transforming message into nice easy personal gospel of salvation.

Let me tell you...that is not the church of Jesus Christ.  The Church of Jesus Christ is a community of people who are SO caught up by God's agenda that nothing else matters.  The Church of Jesus Christ reaches out to the poor, as Jesus did.  The Church of Jesus Christ heals the sick, and condemns injustice, as Jesus did.  The Church of Jesus Christ loves everyone whom it encounters, and seeks to serve their need...whoever they, white, male or female, gay or straight, able-bodied or differently-abled.  The Church of Jesus Christ does not spend its evenings slumped in front of the telly.  The Church of Jesus Christ spends its free time in the service of others.  The church of Jesus Christ does not spend its money on booze and betting...the Church of Jesus Christ spends its money on lifting the community in which it is placed out of the mire.  The Church of Jesus Christ prays "Thy Kingdom come...and let it begin with me!"

That's the challenge of Jesus you and to me.  It couldn't be clearer.  Either we put God first here at St Mark's, or we put our own lives, our families and our own possessions before God.  There could be no clearer choice.  Only one question remains...are we up to the challenge?