Saturday, October 10, 2015

Camels, needles and rich men

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15  & Hebrews 4. 12-16  & Mark 10.17-31

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Right now, if I’m perfectly honest, I wish I was in Ghana – as indeed I will be next week.  It would easy to preach on this text among people who are often desperately poor.  It is easy to rail against the inequity of the world, to people who have nothing.  In those circumstances, the preacher can call on all the inbuilt sense of injustice in his congregation.  Ghanaian congregations will call out ‘Amen!’ or, as my friend Matthias frequently does ‘Preach on!’.   The preacher can raise the tone and the excitement of a sermon to fever-pitch.  Oh, I can imagine it now…

This is the cry of God.  This is the two edged sword of the word of the Almighty!  It divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The mighty word of God cries out to the rich, “Beware!”  You have oppressed the poor.  You have lined your pockets, and built your mansions, while 90% of the world is starving.  You have gold taps, while billions of people have to carry their own water from the river.  Beware!  The day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night.  Amos accuses you to…You have trampled on the poor.  You have taxed them, so that you can build your fine houses.  Beware!  You have planted fine vineyards…but you shall not drink their wine.”

Preach on!  (I can hear it now).  Ay-men!

Oh yes, it would be easy to preach like that in Ghana.

But here in Havant, it’s a little more difficult, isn’t it?  Here in Havant, it is tempting to offer words of comfort to people who may be fearful that the preacher is about to ask them for their mortgage deeds! 

It is tempting, for example, to repeat the old preachers trick about the eye of the needle.  Over many years, western preachers have offered a little hope to western congregations, by suggesting that in Jesus’ day they used to be a pedestrian-only gate into Jerusalem, called the eye of the needle.  Such preachers would offer the hope of heaven to their congregations by saying that it was just possible to push a camel through that pedestrian passage.  Therefore, they would conclude, it is possible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.  He just has to work out how to accomplish it.

Unfortunately, however, scholars have more recently shot that particular fox.  There is, in fact, no archaeological or manuscript evidence that there ever was a pedestrian gate called the ‘Eye of the Needle’.  It didn’t exist.  Nothing.  So, the only conclusion that we can draw is that Jesus meant his metaphor quite seriously.  He was talking about an actual camel, and an actual needle – and the practical impossibility of threading the one through the other. 

What we don’t know, and can’t know, is how big a twinkle there was in Jesus eye when he said this.  Was this a joke?  Was he deliberately using a comic image to make his point?

Well, probably, yes.  There’s a lovely moment that Mark captures for us in the text.  The rich young man was keen to show that he had kept all the laws and done all that was required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  But Jesus’ response, painted by Mark, is lovely.  Mark says:  ‘Jesus looked at him, and loved him’.  That’s not like Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels, and often the most compressed.  There is a sort of breathless quality to Mark’s writing.  He goes from story to story, place to place, very efficiently.  But here, at this moment, he pauses and he gives us this beautiful detail…”Jesus looked at him, and loved him”.

We can use the eyes of our imagination to picture the seen.  We can imagine Jesus looking at the rich young man with a knowing smile and with love in his eyes.  We can imagine him looking deeply into the man’s soul, and realising that for him the problem was material.  He was keeping all the religious laws, but he had this nagging feeling, which wouldn’t go away.  He had this sense that somehow keeping all the laws wasn’t enough.  There was something still preventing him from moving forward in his relationship with God.  So he came to see Jesus.  He came to see if Jesus could diagnose the problem.

And Doctor Jesus puts his finger on the problem.  Wealth.  It was the man’s wealth that was holding him back.  It was the single greatest obstacle on his journey of faith.  Doctor Jesus saw that the only way the man would be able to move forward would be to shrug off the weight of his wealth.

Wealth can affect us all that way, can’t it?  For one thing, it can make us reliant on ourselves, rather than others or God.  We lull ourselves into a false sense of security.  We tell ourselves that with our reliable monthly salary or pension, with our private health insurance, with our substantial well maintained house, all will be well, and we will never have to reach out to anyone, or even to God, for help.

The trouble comes when bad luck, or market crashes, or an unexpected car crash rips away our self-reliance.  Then, we find that we need others, and God, after all.  But, for many who find themselves in that situation, they have forgotten how to do it.  Pride in one’s own self-reliance prevents us from reaching out for help.   

Many such poor souls find themselves lonely and cut-off from the world in their final years.  They are too proud to seek help.  They are too proud to admit that they are lonely.  Too proud to seek out the company of people who they would once have thought beneath them.  And so they choose the alternative – miserable isolation, fear, and hatred of the world outside.  These are the habitual letter writers.  This is ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ whose only way of interacting with the world anymore is to write poisoned pen letters to the Editor of the Telegraph.

Wealth was the problem for the rich young ruler.  But it isn’t everyone’s problem.  Many wealthy people manage to live beautifully balanced lives, which overflow in generosity to those around them.  Wealth itself is not evil.  Money is not, in itself evil.  It is the love of money which is at the root of all kinds of evil (as St Paul teaches us).

But there are other obstacles to faith too.  Every one of us is likely to have some obstacle to our own growth in faith.  It’s perfectly natural.  And it’s very real.  Part of the job of a Pastor, like me, is to help people identify what the obstacle in their life might be.

Perhaps it is some unresolved anger, or hatred for another person who has wronged you.

Perhaps it is some habit that you can’t shift, but which consumes you to the point of being fixated upon it day and night.

Perhaps it is an addiction – to sports, to video games, to porn, to alcohol, to gambling – each one calling you away from the life of faith into the dark place of addiction.

Perhaps it is just plain laziness.  Perhaps you (and I) are just too darned lazy to take on the discipline of being a follower of Jesus.

I don’t know.  Only you can know.  But what I ask of you now, as I sit down, is that you ask yourself this question.  What is my personal obstacle to moving forward in my faith?  

If the Rich Young Ruler had to sell all his goods in order to advance in his faith, what do I need to rid myself of?  

What is God calling me to dispense with, to put away, to fundamentally change in order that I might go forward in my faith?

Let’s pause, for a few moments, and think on these things…


Friday, October 2, 2015

Serving the Lord of the Harvest

(Genesis 2.18-24  Hebrews 1.1-4; 2.5-12 & Matthew 25.14-30)

Sometimes, you just have to say “Thank you!” don’t you?  Because we have got so much to be thankful for haven’t we?  Come Ye Thankful people come!  God is just SO very good to us...isn’t he?

I mean - think about it. God is the all-powerful source of all being and life. He did not have to create the Universe like this. He could have created a Universe any way that he wanted to. He could have made one that was entirely black and white - devoid of any colour. He could have made one in which food had no taste - or in which his people had no taste buds.  Imagine not being able to taste what chocolate was like!  He could have made a world that didn’t have sunlight, and mountains, and rivers, and oceans.  He could have just made one which was all flat desert.

But he didn’t. God created a world which is teeming with life, and variety, and colour and sound. He gave us delicious food. He gave us every kind of resource that we could need. He gave us families and friends - and communities in which we can live together.

And so, we come together on a Harvest Sunday to thank Him for all his amazing gifts to us. We come to say, “thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love!”

In our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, just now, we were reminded of words from Psalm 8.  “What is man, that you should be mindful of him?  You have made him little lower than the angels…you have given him dominion over the works of your hands.”   Did you pick that up?  The idea there is that God has given control of the whole world to human beings. 

The theme was picked up in our reading from Genesis, the great mythological creation story, during which God brought all the animals of the world to the first man, to see what he would name them.  Elsewhere in the Genesis story, God gives the Man a command that he should ‘take care of the garden’.

And my goodness, haven’t we done just that!  There is hardly a landscape on earth which human beings have not shaped by their own hands.  The rolling hills of England, for example, were once a dense forest, until we humans cut down the trees, and tamed the land.  The great rolling plains of the Americas have been tamed and tilled into enormous fields of grain.  In land after land, across Africa and Asia, the Americas and the Antipodes, the hand of human beings is seen everywhere.  We have developed the technology to reshape vast swathes of land, and to transport the harvest of the world into every corner of the planet.

But somehow, along with all our technology, all our science, all our cleverness we have forgotten where all this harvest came from.  We have forgotten that all this abundance is given to us - we did not create the world.  None of us, even the cleverest of us, can create life.

Have you heard the story about the scientist went to talk to God and he says, "God, we can now clone humans, make life, and take care of ourselves and we don't need you anymore." and God said "Ok that’s fine, but I want to challenge you to a contest before I let you go. Each of us has to create our own human using nothing but dirt, and the first one done wins." So the scientist agreed and reached down to start making his human, and God stops him and says, "Whoa not so fast!  I made that dirt.  You have to create your own!"

Not only does all this abundant life come from the Creator God, but God also gives us another very special gift.  He gives each of us abilities and talents which can be used – or abused – as we see fit.  God gives us free will, to use our talents for our own self-development, or for the needs of others.  He gives us the ability to make huge differences in the lives of other people, or to make a huge difference for ourselves.  He gives us hands which can work in two directions…either to gather, or to give.  We either sweep the resources of the harvest towards ourselves, or we hold out our hands to others, and share with them.

The same is true of our skills and talents in the life of our church.  Some people come to church because they receive something from coming. 

Perhaps it is the warm feeling of love from other people and from God – which helps them cope with whatever is going on with the rest of their lives.  That is no bad thing.  We all need to be loved and held, especially when life is hard. 

Some of us come because we like the music, or the liturgy, or the architecture.  That’s no bad thing.  We all need a little beauty in our lives. 

But if we only come to church because of what we receive from church, then we have rather missed the point, haven’t we?  The primary functions of the church can be summed up in two very short lines: 
a) to worship God
b) to make God known

Both of those are ‘outward imperatives’.  Neither of them is about what any of us can receive personally from church.  Instead, they are about our calling to look outwards from ourselves.  These ‘outward imperatives’ call us to use our God-given talents and abilities to worship God, and to make God known to the people around us.

So, on this harvest Sunday, as you and I give thanks to God for all his abundant gifts, what are we going to do with the gifts and talents he has given us?  How are we going to harvest our talents in order to worship God and make God known? 

Many of us already give huge amounts of time to those tasks.  All who serve at the Altar or the Choir, or in the Bell Tower.  All who patiently welcome strangers throughout the week.  All who visit the sick and bring them the comfort of communion.  All who raise funds, and steward our resources, or clean our floors, or sell goods in the charity shop.  Each and everyone is using their God given talents in order to worship God and make God known.

But are there some who have buried their talent?  Are there some for whom church is about what they receive, more than what they give?  Are there some who need a little encouragement to learn the deep contentment which comes from using one’s talents for the purposes God created them?  

Have you ever tried to use the wrong tool to do a job?  I know I have.  You know…there’s a screw that needs unscrewing.  But I’m too lazy to go out to the garage and get a screw driver.  “I know!  I’ll use that spoon!”.  It never works, does it? 

Using a tool for the wrong purpose is never a satisfying experience.  Well, we human being are like that.  The Lord of the Harvest made us, and gives us abundance, for one primary purpose:  to worship him and to make him known.   Any other purpose to which we put our talents just isn’t satisfying.  Is it?

I’m going to sit down now…and I’m going to offer you a moment or two for reflection.  Just take a moment, and ask yourself this question:  “Am I using my talents for the tasks God has given me?  As someone built to share, as God’s child, created for the sole purpose of worshipping him and making him known: am I doing what I should?” 

If the answer is yes, then congratulations!  If however, you want to think some more about this question…let’s talk!