Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent 1 - Are we there yet?

Mark 13.24-37

Are we there yet?

Have you ever been on one of those very long journeys with a very young child?  Clare and I once took Emily on a three day journey to Romania, via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.  She was about five at the time, and we drove for around 14 hours each day.  So I’ll leave you to imagine how often she used the immortal words “Are we there yet?”!

There is something about human beings that we see most especially reflected in the young – although I think that is because they are less accomplished than us at hiding it.  I am referring of course to our impatience.  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, now!

I am as guilty as anyone.  My family tell me that I am the hardest person to buy presents for, because I have a tendency to just go and get what I want, as soon as I want it!  Last year I complained, in a sermon to St Mark’s, that this results in my only being given socks for Christmas…and half the congregation went out and bought me socks!  I had about 30 pairs of socks to open last year.  So this year, I’m going to complain that all anyone ever does is buy me bottles of wine!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  That is a deliberate ploy on the part of the church Fathers. They set out, like Jesus, to do something which would contradict and challenge the normal way that society does things.  In theologian-speak, we talk about this as being ‘counter-cultural’ – that is, a way of doing something that is counter (or opposite) to the culture around us.

So, the New Year for the rest of society starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important (as though the turn of the Calendar was something to be celebrated).  But the Church, deliberately, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

In Advent, we celebrate the coming into this world of Jesus, Son of God – our Rescuer, our Teacher.  We look forward to the Christ Mass, when his first coming in poverty is our focus.  But in Advent, we look ahead with hope to his Second Coming, with justice and mercy in his hands.  Christians can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.

We look around at a world in which the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.  We look at a world in which people regularly open fire on each other.  We shake our heads at the greed which caused punch-ups and injuries on so called ‘Black Friday’ in super-stores. We see the people of West Africa, dying from Ebola because they don’t have our western systems of healthcare.  We see these things, and we say to ourselves, “this is not how it is supposed to be!”.  And we yearn for the transformation of the world that God promises us through his Son.   We yearn for it, we hope for it.  And naturally, we don’t want to wait for it!

This sense of hope that God will one day put all things right is rooted in a long, long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible – which Christians sometimes call the Old Testament – is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  The prophet Isaiah, for example, looked around him at wars between the kingdoms all around Israel.  He despaired of what he saw, but looked forward prophetically to a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation”, and when they will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and the spears into pruning hooks”.

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah prophecies that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

But, human beings are too stubborn.  We don’t want to wait for God’s teachings about love, justice and mercy to bring about the change in society that we want.  So we take up arms against those with whom we disagree, and we attempt to bring about justice and peace with the barrel of a gun. I wonder, why do we kill people who kill other people to show that killing is wrong?

People often ask me how God could stand by and watch people killing, and torturing each other, or oppressing each other, or making their brother and sister live on less than a dollar a day.  I tell them this: God is not standing by.  Thousands of years ago he gave us a simple list of 10 rules by which to live – we call them the 10 Commandments.  They included some pretty simple stuff – don’t murder, and don’t go lusting after things you can’t have.

But did we listen?

So he sent us a whole series of prophets, like Isaiah, who kept on reminding us that peace and justice will only reign when people listen to the teachings of God.

But did we listen?

So he sent us not just a prophet, but his own son – a man who was so much like God that people who knew him said ‘this man is God’.  And he repeated the message of thousands of years before.  Summarising the Law of God, he said, ‘Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself’.

But did we listen?

God has done anything but stand by while the world ‘goes to hell in a hand-cart’.  Having sent his Son, he established the Church – and organisation of people who would carry on calling the people of the world to repentance….calling their neighbours and friends to live by God’s laws…and continuing to prayer with their hearts and their hands those profound words, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

And that, finally, is what Jesus calls us to carry on doing…until the time that God’s reign is completely and definitively established.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when that day will come.  Only God knows when the Kingdom will be finally and fully established.  But, he gives us a sacred task to carry out until that day finally comes.  We are those who, in the words of the Gospel, are to ‘keep alert’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a man who goes on a journey, and commands his doorkeeper to be on the watch.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom…alert for the moment when the master comes.

But, while we wait for the completion of the Justice and Mercy of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.

Last year, I took around £2,500 to Ghana, to bring the simple gift of water to a priest and his family…thanks in no small measure to the donations that many people from this parish made.  Justice and mercy were enacted that day.  In a very real sense, Jesus came to Father Angelo and his family.

And every time a family is raised up out of poverty, Jesus comes.

Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes.

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our community café, Jesus comes.

Every time a poverty stricken family is fed by the Portsmouth Foodbank, Jesus comes.

And so, we are entitled to ask, like every small child, ‘Are we there yet?’.  The answer, as every car-driving parent knows is ‘nearly’.    We are nearly there!  Signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  See the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Matthew 25: The Sheep and the Goats

The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25: 31 - 46  - The Sheep and the Goats

As you know, today is the Feast of Christ the King – the Sunday before Advent.  It put here, in the church’s year, to remind us to keep our eyes fixed on the end of the story, while we contemplate the beginning of the story at Christmas.  The humble babe of Bethlehem  was destined to be the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords…Christ the King.  To help us picture that ultimate destiny, Matthew gives us today’s story, of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  

There is one particular detail about this story that is worth contemplating - before we get to the heart of what it is saying.  When I say the word "sheep" to you - I daresay that you have a vision in your mind of something round and fluffy, with a big thick woolly jumper.  On the other hand, the word "goat" brings to mind something bigger, stronger, with a rough wiry coat, and big horns.  In fact, that was not the image that Jesus had in mind.

Something I’ve learned through my trips to Africa in recent years is that primitive breeds of sheep and goats are remarkably similar.  It is actually quite difficult to tell them apart. Woolly, English sheep, and strong wiry English goats are the result of selective breeding over many centuries.  In fact, a shepherd who might be separating them, one from another, in Palestine has only one visible marker to guide him in a hurry - namely that sheep's tails point downwards, and goat's tails point up.

The story of the Sheep and the Goats comes at the end of a long section of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus has been talking about the End of All Things.  It all starts back in Matthew 24, when his disciples say to him "Tell us...what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

So this parable, which is part of Jesus' response to their question, could easily start with the words "At the end of the age"...or, as we might say, "at the end of the day".

At the end of the day, this parable teaches us, there are only two kinds of people.  They are pretty similar, these people - it’s hard to tell them apart, in fact.  They all lead fairly normal lives, they marry, have children, go to work, watch Eastenders.  But there is a difference.  And the difference is found in the way that they relate to other people. 

All the people of the world, the sheep and the goats, are surrounded by others in need.  There are homeless people, and hungry people.  There are thirsty people and naked people.  There are sick people and prisoners, ripped away from their families by their own fault, or by the oppression of the countries they live in. 

At the end of the day, the difference between the lost and the saved is indicated not by the way they look, but by the way they behave.  The difference is seen in the way they respond to the hungry, homeless, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Jesus is saying "if you want to know who will be saved, look at the quality of a person's the decisions they make about others in need".

That is the heart of the story of the sheep and the goats.  At the "end of the age", at the "end of the day", how I have lived towards other people will show whether or not I have attained the salvation of my soul. 
But of course, it’s not as simple as that.  How I have lived towards others is only an is the outward sign of something much more profound that is supposed to be going on inside of me.  Every human being is capable of being generous, from time to time. Even the most evil human being you can imagine is capable of generosity, occasionally - if only to their own family members.  Adolf Hitler was famous among his friends for the gifts he gave them.

I wonder how many of us have supported Children in Need this year?  Good for you, if you did.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.  But woe to you, if that is all you have done for others this year!  I feel nothing but sorrow for those who can only respond to the plight of others when it is put in front of them in graphic detail on the television.  My friends, such people are goats.  They are the ones who look like sheep, but whose obedience to the radical call of the Gospel is only skin deep. 

Becoming a sheep - a true believer, a true Christ-ian, takes a complete transformation of our inner being...or what the Bible calls being 'born again'.  Crucially, it takes a daily commitment to the abandonment of 'self'.  Earlier in Matthew's gospel, specifically Chapter 16, Jesus says this...listen to him:

"I anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

Salvation, or being 'born again’, is not achieved at a moment in time...just by saying a prayer.  It is the work of a lifetime,  to keep on keeping on...carrying our cross.  

Let’s look at Jesus himself as an example.  When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up his rights to everything, even the robe that he wore, and the life that he had.  But even while he was doing so, he found time to forgive his executioners, make provision for his mother, and give a comforting word to a thief.  When Jesus calls us to 'take up our cross', he means that for us to find salvation, we need to embrace that kind of radical giving.  And then, when the moment of testing comes (as it did for Jesus) the way we find ourselves behaving will be the evidence for the kind of life we have led.  

Another thing I’ve observed in Africa has been the immense generosity of people who have nothing.  Before I went on my last visit to Ghana, I told Bishop Matthias that I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel anymore, costing money that could be used for mission.  He had always put me in a hotel because he felt slightly ashamed of the poverty of his house.  But instead I begged him to be allowed to sleep somewhere in his house…anywhere.  A mattress on the floor would do me.  Imagine my surprise (and also my slight horror) when I found on arrival that Matthias and his family had refurbished an entire room for me to stay in.  They had repainted the walls, and even bought some new lino for the floor!  I felt awful…but at the same time reflected yet again that in African Christians I so often see a kind of generosity, even in the midst of extreme poverty, that is a beautiful thing to see.  It flows from a lifetime of responding to the need of neighbours all around.

This is the work of a lifetime.  It takes time to gradually pull down the walls of the ego and the self we have built around us.  It takes years to come to the realisation that it truly is in giving of ourselves that we receive, and that in dying to ourselves we are born to eternal life. It takes years to realise that God calls us to live not as individuals, but in communities that care for each other.  

What Jesus called 'the Way' is, in fact, a Way of life.  It demands a complete re-imagining of what we consider important in life.  It means a complete emptying of self...truly giving up my rights, my desires, my feelings, my wants, my purposes:  and the giving out of all my resources to the service of others.  To the hungry and the thirsty, to the naked and the homeless, to the refugee, the Ebola victim, to the sick and imprisoned.

Anything else is just an illusion of true religion.  And nothing at all like the real thing


Friday, November 14, 2014

Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25.14-30

It is very easy to hear this parable as an exploration of the word 'talent'...we can't be blamed, because of course there is an obvious parallel between the idea of a talent as a sum of money, and the talents that we all are given.  But, before attempting to work out any kind of meaning, the first thing that any reader of scripture should do is to examine the context of the passage.  Where do these words fit in the wider story?  What was going on at the time they were written, and the time in which they were spoken.  What do the words on either side of the passage reveal about about the passage itself.  So, let's start there.

This passage of Matthew's gospel comes amidst a long section in which Jesus is talking about the end of the world.  From the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus:

  • foretells the destruction of the Temple, 
  • he describes the signs that will be seen at the 'end of the age',  
  • he predicts the persecutions of the Christians, 
  • he foretells the coming of false messiahs and prophets
  • he describes the 'coming of the Son of Man'

And then he tells a number of parables to illustrate and underline the kind of behaviour that he expects from his followers while we await the end of all things.  He uses the illustration of a fig tree, whose tender leaves foretell the coming of summer to encourage us to be watchful.

Then Jesus turns his attention to the kind of lives that he expects his followers to live, while awaiting the end of the age.  They are to be those whom the Master finds 'at work' when he arrives - not eating and drinking with drunkards, but 'at work' about their Master's business.  Then comes the story of the Ten Bridesmaids, that we heard last week - another encouragement to be prepared and watchful for the coming of the Lord.  Then - at the end of all that! - comes today's story of the parable of the Talents, which we'll deal with in a moment.  Finally, the whole section concludes with Jesus famous story of the end of time, when the sheep will be separated from the Goats.  You all understand that analogy, I'm’s when those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and who visited the sick and imprisoned will be separated for all eternity from those who did not.

Can you see the context in which the Parable of the Talents sits?  The narrative force of the whole section is one of pointing us to the end of days, the end of the age, the Second Coming of the Messiah.  What is clear is that Matthew himself believed that this event was going to happen very soon.  He even records Jesus saying that the end of the world will take place while some of Jesus' original followers are still alive.  But that, unfortunately for Matthew, was clearly a mistake.  That should not concern us, however.  Matthew was only human, and like all of us humans, he was prone to the occasional error.  It is the underlying force of what he records that we need to hear...And here is what he is saying:

Jesus is coming again!  Let me say that one more time...Jesus is coming again!  Its something we declare in the 'mystery of faith' during every Communion service...'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again'.  It is a central tenant of our faith that we believe the Kingdom of God to be both among us now, but also still to come in all its fullness.

But none of us can be sure exactly how Jesus will come again.  Clearly Jesus himself used many different images to illustrate the point..such as:

  • The son of man will come like a thief in the night
  • The son of man will come in glory, and will sit on the throne of that glory
  • The son of man will come on the clouds of heaven

It is impossible for us to discern from such imagery exactly how, or indeed when, these events will take place.  Will Jesus insert himself gently into the world, like a thief in the night?  Will he sit on a throne somewhere, like the United Nations...or will he be seated on a cloud surrounded by angels (however improbable that sounds to modern ears)?  We cannot know.  What we can do is trust that Jesus has come, that he will come, and that he is coming!

There is of course a strong sense in which Jesus has already come. By sending his Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we might very well conclude that Jesus has already come in great power.  And if that is so, then Matthew was completely right in saying that Jesus would come again while his original followers were alive.  But the majority of commentators believe that the Pentecost event was only a foretaste of the ultimate 'Second Coming' of Jesus.  It has been the tradition of the church, throughout the centuries, that we still await a great climactic event, in which God, through Jesus, will finally intervene in the mess that human beings have made of God's world.  He will reign completely over all the earth.

I'm going to leave those thoughts with you to ponder.  It is for you to work out for yourself what you think the most likely scenario is, through your own diligent searching of the Scriptures.  What is utterly without doubt, however, is the manner in which we are to act, behave and be while we await the Second Coming of our Lord.  Jesus' parables are pretty clear on this point, as I've already illustrated.  We are to be watchful, and about our Master's business.

It’s in that context that I want to suggest a slightly different reading of the parable of the talents.  Instead of thinking of the talents as, well, talents...I invite you to think of them as 'opportunities to do the Master's work'.  Take a look, with me at the text...

At the beginning of the story, the Master gives his servants different numbers of talents - 'to each according to his ability'.  The word 'ability' implies the kinds of talents - skills - that each servant already has.  So, we might conclude, the Master is not giving even more skills, abilities or talents to each servant...he is giving them the opportunity to 'employ', to use, the talents that each already has.

We know, don't we, that human beings are gloriously and wonderfully different.  Each of us has a different bundle of gifts and abilities.  Some have so many gifts that they make you sick!  I might use the illustration of someone like Stephen Fry - who can be a comic, an actor, a quiz-show host, a documentary maker, a talented 'audio-book' reader, a singer, a social activist, a writer, a director...and so on.  He makes me sick!  (Smiley face!)

But there are others who perhaps have just one or two talents...perhaps they just know how to make the best cup of tea in the world...or they have the gift of being able to sit and listen to lonely people who just need to talk and talk.  We accept this difference in people as being 'the way things are'.  Some people are simply more talented than others.  But, to quote Jesus from Luke's version of the Gospel, "from everyone to whom much has been given, much shall be required...Much is required from those to whom much is given, for their responsibility is greater"  (Luke 12.48)

Whatever skills and abilities we have, whatever wealth we have been given in financial terms or in terms of talent, Jesus the Master expects us to use them in his service.  We are not to bury them in a metaphorical field...we are to grab every opportunity to use the gifts we have been given for the work of the Master.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Let me quote from a theologian called Fred Craddock (who I don't think is related to Fanny Craddock, the cook!).  He says this…

“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home...teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and feed the neighbour’s cat.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”.  (Fred B, Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. 193))

Forgive me if I give a personal illustration for a moment.  Many of you have asked me why I am choosing to leave this parish now, at this particular point.  Everything is going well...the Cafe is thriving, we have exciting plans for the future of the buildings here and at St Nicholas.  We have a strong ministerial team, and the hurts of the past have been largely healed.  Why should I want to leave just now?

Well, it’s precisely because I feel that God is calling me to use what talents and abilities he has given me elsewhere.  I feel just like the servants in the story who have been given the Master's money, and told to invest it wisely.  I have tried to be 'about my Master's work' for the last nearly seven years...and I think, together, we've managed to make our Master's money grow...there has been visible growth and life.  But, I also sense from the Holy Spirit, that this is not the only field in which the Master needs me to use my particular gifts and talents.  He is now calling me elsewhere...and I need to respond.

And if God is calling me onwards, into new adventures and new ways of employing my skills - what is he saying to you.  Is he offering you new opportunities for serving the Master?  They may be opportunities in another town, another church even...or they may be opportunities that are right in front of your this town, in this church.  I want to encourage each of you to spend some time this week thinking about that very question.  Go into a quiet place, close the door, turn off all electrical devices, and let your mind wander free through God's mission field.  Is there a homeless person who needs your care?  Is there a family member who would be SO uplifted to receive a call from you?  Is there a function within the family of the church that you could carry out...but which you have ignored for a while?  Is there some money you could give to alleviate the suffering of another human being?

And let me finally, ask you to ask that question with the kind of urgency that Matthew wants his readers to hear.  In other words, what will the Master say to you when he comes?  Will he call you one of his 'wicked and lazy slaves'?  Or will he call you his 'good and faithful servant' and cry 'well done!'?