Saturday, October 16, 2010

Protection and Persistence

Mark 4 and Luke 18

Now here's a question to conjure with...why are we about to baptise Ashton Philip Michael Davis?

The baptism of children is something that most parts of the Christian Church have done since the earliest days after Jesus walked the earth.  But there are some parts of the church - particularly those known as 'Baptists' who would say that what we are about to do makes no sense.  They would argue that baptism should only be given to adults who have professed a faith in Jesus.  For them, baptism is a sign of conversion...a sign that the person being baptised has chosen to follow Jesus.

But that's not what the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches have taught.  For us, baptism is much less about our faith, but about what God wants to do in us.  Baptism doesn't depend on depends on God.  Through Baptism, we declare that God loves Ashton...and that God welcomes Ashton into life on earth, and into the church.

There's a measure of protection offered here as well.  For centuries, parents have called priests to the bed of sick children, and asked for them to be baptised.  That was my experience in fact.  When I was born, I suffered from a condition which twisted my stomach around 360 degrees.  It meant that no food would go down into my tummy.  Well, as you see, I've overcome that particular difficulty now!  But I still bear the very large scar of an operation which was needed to untwist my tummy.  But before the operation was carried out, my parents asked for a priest to baptise me.  They were seeking a sign of God's protection on their son, and assurance that if anything went wrong...if I had died on the operating table...then God would have continued to protect me.  In fact, my poor Mum was so distraught that she prayed "Oh God.  If you will only save my son, I will give him to you."  I will leave you to imagine her joy when about 30 or so years later, I told her that I was to become a priest!

Just now we watched a video of the time when Jesus stilled a storm.  He did so as a way of offering protection to his disciples.  He demonstrated that he had power to protect them, power even over the weather itself.  But there was a much deeper point that he was making.  This was not an invitation for the followers of Jesus to become 'weather wizards'.  Rather, Jesus was living out a powerful story - a story in which whatever life throws at us, God offers his protection to us.  Whether we live or die, God's protection of God's children never fails.  

Because we are human, and we live an earthly experience, we tend to see things only from an earthly point of view.  We tend to forget that God sees things from an eternal perspective.  For God, even death is only a door-way...a door-way to an eternal existence of never-ending love.  Baptism is a sign that God wants only the best for us...God wants us to live life that goes on for ever.  God wants us to be God's children - and, through baptism, to offer our children to God as well.

Now here's another question.  Have you ever heard the phrase 'born again Christian'.  Through baptism, the church has always taught, we are all born again.  We are born once when we enter this world...born into the physical reality of our body.  But then, through baptism, we are born again of the Spirit of God.  Our spirit is awakened.  It is enlivened to the presence of God.  Baptism is a bit like lighting the touch-paper of our soul.

So that's something of what baptism means - and what Ashton's baptism will mean in a few minutes.  Its a sign of God's love.  Its a sign of God's protection, through this world, and on into eternity.  Its a sign of the awakening of our Spirit.  And its an invitation to each one of us who has been baptised that we can live a renewed, energised, transformed life, by the power of God.

So why is it that so many baptised people don't belong to churches?  Why is it that people seem to reject God's offer of living a renewed, energised, transformed life?  Well, its because ultimately, God only offers his love.  God never forces himself on us.  God's offer is free, and without charge to us.  God's love is free and unconditional - for all of us - and any price was paid by God himself, through Jesus.  Fat, thin, black, white, gay or straight, male or female, young or old - God's love is unconditional and free to you and me.   But free, unconditional love needs to be accepted.  If God were to force his way of living on us, he would be little better than some kind of puppet master...pulling the strings of our life.  God says to us, each one of us who has been baptised "I give you a choice.  Its up to you whether you choose to live my way, the best way - or whether you try to live life on your own, without my wisdom, without my protection, without the friendship, support, challenge and encouragement of my church."

Whether Ashton one day decides to accept that invitation will be up to him.  No-one but Ashton can make that choice.  And no-one but you can make that choice for yourself either.  But let me offer you this little encouragement and challenge....

There's been a lot of talk in the press recently about football clubs.  Pompey's administration, and now Liverpool's take-over.  It all reminds me of what a wise friend once asked me.  He said this:

"What does it take to be a footballer?  You need to practice don't you...if you want to be really good?  You need to take that football out into the yard, and then you need to practice keepy-uppy, and smashing the ball into goal against a brick wall, and dribbling the ball around some old traffic cones.  If you practice really really hard, you might be able to play keepy-uppy for hours on end.  You might be able to score accurately every time.  But let me tell you this.  You are not a footballer yet.  You will never be a footballer until you've been out on a playing field, with a team."

Being a Christian is a bit like that.  Oh, its possible to be a sort of Christian on your own.  God never stops loving you.  God never stops caring about you, even if you rarely pray, and never open your bible.  Its possible to believe that God exists, and even that Jesus lived and died for you - without necessarily thinking about things any more than that.  But, let me tell you - you will never be fully alive, fully awakened, fully engaged with the things of God until you have joined spiritual forces with the people of God.

Being a fully awake, fully alive, fully 'born again' Christian takes commitment; and it takes persistence.  Remember Jesus' story of the widow who kept demanding justice from a judge.  Some people confuse this story with the idea that you have to keep on asking in order to get God to listen.  Some people think that Jesus is saying that we have to keep battering on the doors of heaven, until God listens.  But that is to read the story at much too simplistic a level.  After telling the story, Jesus explains what he means.  He says "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them?"  Jesus says that God is nothing like a reluctant judge, who gives in to the widow, just to shut her up.  Instead, God is willing to act straight away.  God longs to bring justice to all those who cry out to him...all the poor of the world, all the oppressed, all the suffering.

But there is a sting in the tale.  Jesus concludes:  "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?".  It's a rhetorical  question.  Jesus is asking, "Does anyone care?  Will there be anyone living a faithful life, through whom God's justice can be brought about?  God is willing, very willing.  But are we?  Will God find faith, or rather 'faithfulness' on earth...faithfulness to his teaching, faithfulness to the promises of baptism, faithfulness to living the Way of God?"  Jesus is asking "who are the people who will stand up for God, and for God's children?".  But perhaps we don't care enough.  Perhaps we would rather not get involved.  Perhaps we are rather too interested in our own lives to care very much about what happens to the rest of God's children.

So that's the question I want to leave with us all this morning.  As we come to baptism Ashton, we come to offer him a choice.  Its a choice that he is too young to make now...but the rest of us, most of us, are old enough to be able to make that choice for ourselves.  Are we content to live half-lives, with our spirits only just awake?  Or are we prepared to place ourselves entirely under God's protection, and to be persistent in the pursuit of his Kingdom, his way of life - following his teachings, and living his life which goes on for ever? Are we prepared to stop kicking the ball around on our own, and to get really stuck in to the team?  Are we prepared to see what North End could really be like if God's way of life could be released here through us?

The choice is yours.  The choice is mine.  Let's offer the same choice to Ashton now...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Please and Thank you

Luke 17: 1-10

In the 1980s, I used to run a hostel for refugees, in South London.  It was a vast, sprawling, YMCA for about 300 asylum seekers, mainly from East Africa.  At the time, there were wars going on between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and civil war had broken out in Somalia.  Uganda was under the grip of Idi Amin, and many young Africans had sought peace and shelter in England.

In those days, I was young - believe it or not!  Picture a fresh-faced youth, just out of music and drama school, who had decided - idealistically - to lay aside the pleasure of performance in favour of a life a Christian service.  I was, I confess, a little naive!  And I still had a lot to learn about different cultures, and the ways that different people do things.

There was one particular resident in our hostel who used to really bug me.  Every time that I was working on the Reception desk, he would come in and ask for his key, or his post.  But he wouldn't do it 'properly'!  He used to just put his hand on the counter and say "Room 232".  Then, when I gave him his key, he would simply walk off. To me, this behaviour seemed just plain rude!  Over a number of days of being treated like this, my temper had started to rise.  Then, one day, I saw him walking through the doors of Reception, approaching the counter again.  "I'll show him!", I thought to myself.  "It's time for a little lesson in politeness".

So when my African guest walked up to the counter and said "Room 232", I just stood there, staring at him.  After a brief pause, I said "Room 232 what?"  A look of blank incomprehension came over his face.  He repeated himself.  "Room 232".  And I said, "Room 232 please!  You have to say please".

Again, there was a moment of stunned incomprehension.  Then a little light dawned.  "Room 232, please", he said.  Satisfied, I took the poor man's key from the hook behind me, and then dangled it in front him.  "Now, when I give it to you, you have to say 'thank you'.  Ok?".  "OK." he said, "Tank you".

I was jubilant.  From my perspective, I had taught this rude man some proper English manners!  I smiled a nice superior smile as he went off to his room.  Then, as he went out of Reception, an elderly, motherly receptionist who had worked at the hostel for 30 years, sidled up to me and said, "You do realise, don't you dear, that in his language there is no word for 'please' or 'thank you'?"

I was crushed.  What had I done!  I had humiliated that poor man.  I had used my power over him to make him feel no longer welcome, but criticised and small.  I suddenly saw that I had a lot to learn about him, and about his country.  And I swore to try never to judge another human being again, without learning a great deal more about them.

But as well as that little bit of growing up, I had learned another important lesson.  I had learned that in some cultures, the concept of 'please', or 'thank you' is an alien idea.  In such cultures, people do things for each other for many reasons...but never for thanks.  They do them because they can.  They do them because the act of giving to someone else is a pleasure in itself.  They do them out of a deep sense of duty.

We also have that idea in our culture - especially in the way that good parents look after their children.   No-one expects a baby to be able to say please or thank you, but that doesn't stop us from giving good things to them.  There is pleasure in such giving - and duty as well.

Today, we are confronted with a parable from Jesus which falls a little strangely on our ears.  We don't have slaves - thank God.  But here is a story about a slave, and about their master.  Jesus says to his followers - "Suppose you had a slave, working for you.  When that slave comes in from the fields, do you invite him to come and sit at your table and eat with you?  No.  You tell him to put on his pinny, and to go and make your tea".  In Jesus' day, and in Jesus' culture, there would have been nothing unusual about that.  No slave would have expected to be thanked for the tasks he performed.  Those tasks were his duties.  He didn't expect the word 'please', and he would never have got the word 'thanks'.

Then, having reminded his students of what it was like to be a master, Jesus turns the story around, and invites his followers to see themselves as slaves...slaves of God.

Why does he do this?  Are we not Children of God?  

This story comes as the climax of a long discussion between Jesus and his disciples about what it means to live faithfully as one of God's children.  First, Jesus warns his followers that they should never be a stumbling block to another person's faith.  I could start a whole new sermon on that!  But essentially, Jesus is essentially warning his followers that we should never act in such a way that others are put off from having faith in God.  If the children of God do not represent God as God should be seen, what's the point of being a child of God?  Many people might wonder whether the way that certain Christians behave in other countries - dominating them, taking away their natural resources, using armies to enforce obedience...all of these are ways in which the supposed Children of God sometimes let God down.

Then, Jesus goes still further in describing the way that a faithful child of God should behave.  He talks about forgiveness...and saying that his followers have the right to rebuke people who do wrong, but they must also be prepared to forgive, over and over again.

But this is too much for the disciples.  This kind of faithfulness is hard.  So they cry out to Jesus - "Lord, increase our faith".  They recognise that the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live has very high standards.  Never be a stumbling block.  Rebuke the offender, but never stop forgiving them.  This is not normal human behaviour!  Normal human behaviour is to do what we want, when we want; and to hold a grudge for as long as we want to hold it.  The disciples recognise how hard it is to live up to Jesus' standard.  So, they look to him for the grace, for the power, to live as he calls them to live.  "Increase our faith", they pray.

And that's the key - to this whole passage.  The disciples, perhaps at an instinctive level, are recognising that without God's power, we can do nothing for God.  They are recognising what St Paul later recognised when writing to the Ephesians; that it is by God's grace alone that life and salvation are found (Eph 2.8).  We are incapable of doing anything to earn God's favour...instead God gives us his favour, his forgiveness, his New Life, as a free gift.  The very faith by which we live is itself a gift from God!

And just at the moment when the disciples seem to have grasped that essential fact, Jesus goes still deeper.  He tells them the story of the 'worthless slave' - the slave who simply gets on with his allotted task, without expecting any reward or praise.

You see, our human instinct, perhaps drummed into us by our earthly parents and teachers, is that we expect to receive some kind of reward, a pat on the back, a word of thanks, when we do what we are supposed to do.  Teachers will tell you that reward is a far more potent weapon than punishment when dealing with children.  We like a little reward now and then.  I like a little dish of chocolate, after a long day at work!  Its my little thank you.  My little pat on the back after another 18 hour day.

But Jesus' story of the worthless slave challenges this little kink in our character.  God owes us nothing for doing good.  In God's kingdom, doing good, doing right, doing what God expects, is the norm.  We should not expect God to say 'thank you', any more than I should have expected that YMCA resident to say thank you to me for simple doing the job I was paid to do.  We do good because it is right.  We live faithfully because it is our duty.  We forgive others their trespasses, because we are commanded to do so - and because, by the mysterious process of God's grace, we find healing when we do so.

And if we are honest, this is sometimes a difficult thing for us to do.  So many of you are involved in serving God in this parish.  You pray for others, you serve them through administration, or cleaning, or maintenance, or face-to-face service in the community cafe, or singing in the choir, or teaching our children, or welcoming strangers at the door.  Through this parable of the worthless slave, Jesus asks us all to examine ourselves.

Why do we do the things we do?

If we do them because the Rector occasionally remembers to say 'thank you' - then we will quickly be disappointed...because, let me tell you, the Rector will often forget to say 'thank you'.  That's Vicars for you.

If we do these things because we hope that others will notice how dedicated we are, and praise us for being fine Christians...then we will be crushed.  Sooner or later, we'll do some little thing wrong, step on someone's toes, move someone's precious object...and all the credit we thought we had built up in other people's minds will be wiped out.  That's people for you.

If we do these things because we hope that by doing so, God will notice us, and reward us, then we have mis-understood the nature of God's love.  God loves us.  God loves us, regardless of what we do for him.  Do we think that God needs us to tend the flowers, or serve coffee after the service, or preach the sermon?
Perhaps we might consider the question that Eliphaz asked of Job, in the oldest book of the Bible:

"Can a mortal be of use to God?
Can even the wisest be of service to him?
Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?"  (Job 22:2-3)

God created the world without our help.  God brought us to life, without our help.  God sustains this Universe without our help.  God saved us from ourselves, through Jesus, without our help.  There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace and love.  God loves us - regardless of what we try to do for God.  God's favour and blessing are matters of grace...they cannot be earned.

Instead, God calls us to live as Children of God.  We are called to love others, because it is what God our Heavenly Parent does.  We are called to forgive others, because its what Jesus does.  We are called to serve others because we are God's willing servants - the ones who at the end this service will pray that God will send us out as living sacrifices.

This is the life of faith.  Faith that could uproot a mulberry tree and see it planted in the sea is the kind of faith which just trusts God...trusts that God knows what God is doing when we are called to render service to one another.

There are two kinds of faith.  There is the kind of faith which reads the parable of the mustard seed and mulberry tree as an invitation to ask God for miracles.  That's a very embryonic kind of faith...its just the first step on a much longer road of true faith.  The kind of faith which Jesus calls us to is 'faithfulness' - faithfulness to his teachings, faithfulness to prayer and worship, faithfulness to never causing anyone else to stumble, faithfulness to forgiveness, faithfulness to a life of loving and serving others.

O God, I pray, that you would increase our faith!