Saturday, 30 July 2011
All roads lead to Rome! The masterpieces of civil engineering, like spokes of a wheel, connecting the outer cities of the Empire to the hub at the centre, to where it’s all happening in 55AD - the information super-highway of the first century, global networking before the terms ‘global’ or ‘networking’ were ever invented. And Paul used them to spread the gospel throughout Greece and Asia Minor and to send letters to the scattered congregations of new believers, including the one in Rome. And let’s face it, Paul knew a thing or two about roads – after all, he’d had an amazing life-changing encounter with Jesus on the one to Damascus.
In America, near Boston Massachusetts, in the village of Lexington, the road divides into two at the village green. At the fork in the road, 236 years ago the British took the wrong fork to come unexpectedly face-to-face with the American patriots. In the panic, the first shots of the American Revolution rang out across the green and the rest, so to speak, is history. Incredible consequences – all because of a fork in the road. Perhaps satellite navigation or a road map would have helped.
The Israelites had all the navigational aids; they had the road map to heaven. They had the adoption – God’s children, part of his family; they had the covenant promises given to Moses, to Abraham, and to David; they had the law – God’s own words to guide and instruct them; they had the Temple – God’s house, a place to speak to Him and to worship and praise Him, and they had the glory and the blessings. They received all the privileges of being chosen, of being close to God – of being a people intertwined with the life of God.
So why is Paul full of sorrow, of inconsolable grief? How did he get from the exaltations he expressed of nothing being able to separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus, to this? From the dizzy heights of the expression of love to the depths of sorrow and unceasing grief? A grief expressed even more vividly when he says he would wish to be separated from the very thing he said he could never be separated from; he would be cut off from Christ for the sake of his own people. This is a man who loves the family he is part of; a man who would sacrifice his own salvation for the salvation of his kin.
But they had the road map – didn’t they?
Satellite navigation systems have a habit of guiding drivers up the most unsuitable roads. Newspapers often report stories of lorry drivers being directed up impossibly narrow tracks or people blindly following the instructions bringing them perilously close to the edge of a precipice. Satellite navigation seems to send us into a state of ‘suspended reasoning’ where all commonsense, all rational thought seems to disappear. We say to ourselves ‘follow the instructions, keep on track’ and in following we seem to lose our sense of focus, our overall sense of direction, the big picture. We miss the obvious and then things don’t quite go according to plan.
The Israelites might’ve had the road map, but at the fork in the road they took the road away from faith in Christ. In the detail of keeping the faith given to them in the promises and the covenants and the law, they had lost the big picture and Paul was sad. His brothers and sisters, his contemporaries, his people, rejected the gospel message; they didn’t have faith in the Son of God. They didn’t recognise Christ, the Messiah, even though his flesh was their flesh and his human nature came from them. Paul says the people of God are like an olive tree, but some of the natural branches, the Israelites, have been broken off because of unbelief. God’s self-giving love is expressed completely in Jesus and faith in him marks out the true people of God … therefore the Israelites blessings were incomplete.
Does this mean that God’s promises have fallen short? How can we trust God if he has broken his promises to his chosen people? If the ‘chosen people’ have chosen the wrong road, then it’s gone seriously wrong, hasn’t it? Has God changed his mind?
Or maybe, he’d just planned it that way. The Israelites knew all about the love and mercy of God. They’d taken the wrong fork in the road before, but God worked His plan, even through their disobedience. In the desert they’d worshipped idols and complained about the state of their diet and God had shown mercy and some did reach the Promised Land. The Old Testament is full of stories about how God saves and redeems His chosen people; He doesn’t let them down, even when they disobey, even when they go they’re own way. But the law was intended to be temporary – to guide the people of Israel until Christ came and when the promises made to Abraham, Moses and David came to fruition in Christ. In Christ, God revealed His once and for all, saving plan. Later in the letter to the believers in Rome, Paul’s anguish is played out and all is not lost. This was God’s plan all along. The rejection of the gospel message meant the gentiles got to hear the good news, God’s saving plan was open for all, and those Roman roads became the conduit to all nations. And Paul’s own conversion is testimony that Israelites also came to faith. This was part of the bigger picture; this was the part the Israelites didn't see.
In our lives we like to be in control, to know the plan. At the moment, lots of us are busy preparing for a holiday and that’s stressful at the best of times. We have to think ahead and sort out a destination, then make sure the travel arrangements are ok and the dog or cat’s booked into their holiday home, and then in the few weeks running up to the holiday, make sure all the washing’s done, and we have enough of that crucial medication to last a fortnight, and then finish the packing. And then, finally, we relax because it’s all sorted and under control – phew, breathe a sigh of relief. But … then… a volcano in Iceland erupts. And suddenly all the planning in the world, all the decisions, all the stress, counts for nothing. That feeling of ‘it’s not fair I’ve been looking forward to this all year’ or ‘it never goes right for me’ all those ‘I had it all under control and now I haven’t’ sort of emotions come to the surface. We try to put it right by complaining … loudly, trying different airlines, different airports or we look at the wind forecasts to predict when we can get away (have we ever looked at the wind forecasts before?). Oh yes, and then.. if we remember or when we are really desperate ... we might pray to God – God please sort this out! We hate to lose control because we lose our sense of direction and we cannot predict what the outcome might be. But we only have part of the story – the bit that is our microcosm of the bigger picture, the bit maybe where Cinderella’s still in the kitchen doing all the work – we can’t see the part where she goes to the ball or tries on the glass slipper.
But God knows the whole story – he sees all the parts of the picture. It’s His plan – it may not look ‘right’ to us but He loves us and through His mercy we can trust in Him, despite how it looks.
Maps are intricate things. Opening a neatly folded Ordinance Survey map reveals the landscape, bit-by-bit; each new segment reveals something about the rest. As each piece is unveiled we get a different perspective on what we’ve already seen and on what’s to come. Looking at a single segment, we can never know each meander, each tiny track or lane, the intricate detail and interconnectedness, or know where each fork in the road goes.
In the village of Lexington, the road divides into two at the village green but the triangular-shaped green is actually bordered by three roads. Coming down Massachusetts Avenue, to pass the green, the road builders ensured that whichever fork you take, you might end up at a different point but on the same road.
Saturday, 16 July 2011
What is going on?
A child gets upset with its parent and screams “I hate you! You don’t love me! My life is terrible!”
News Corp, deadly prison break in Mexico, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Israel and occupied territories, Tibet, second Japanese nuclear reactor closed down, eight European banks failed a stress test, last heir to the Hapsburg Empire has died, Colin & Chris Weir have won £161m, Italian MPs approve a tough budget, Kurdish rebels kill 13 Turkish soldiers, troops kill Kashmir ‘militants’, Afghan blast kills five civilians, Citigroup profits jump as bad loans turn good ....
Some people face seemingly impossible choices, as Abram did when commanded by God to take his son Isaac for sacrifice.
How are we to make sense of all that is going on the world? So much beauty, so much love and joy, but at the same time so much pain and bewilderment.
Does it mean that all that we see around us is meaningless and random? Should we abandon our trust in an all-loving, all-powerful Father? Or should we retreat into a siege mentality that takes great comfort in the beliefs and practices of our faith, but fails to see how they connect with the realities that we see around us each day?
Jesus and Paul in our readings today show us a different way.
Jesus paints the vivid picture of a farmer subject to industrial sabotage; he has planted wheat and an enemy has also scattered darnel seed, a weed, to clog up the crop. This is a merciful and encouraging parable; Jesus is telling us that there will be a good crop, but that we cannot tell what it is before the final harvest. Judgement will come, and it is a good thing that murder, rape, selfishness, theft, lying, and all the rest will not be left unpunished. Salvation will come for all who have responded to God’s kind offer of eternal life. We, however, do not know or cannot tell who will fall into these categories.
What we do know, however, is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who are led by the Spirit of God. We are Spiderman, not Batman: in other words, we do not strap Christianity on like a set of useful gadgets, but we live the life that wells up within us. Paul addresses all of us who would like to come through the judgement: if we have the Spirit in our lives, then we are children of God and we will live forever, because we are united with Christ. Everything that is true of Christ is true of us. He will live forever, so will we. He calls God “Abba, Father”, so do we. He reigns in glory, so do we, at least in principle, in foretaste. Colin & Chris Weir have won £161m; it very probably is not in their bank accounts yet, but they have already started mentally spending the money – they are counting on it. In the same way we are basing our whole existence on being united with Jesus; his Spirit buoys us and comforts us and encourages us. We are one with him.
This means that we are one with his sufferings. The scripture tells us that Jesus suffered and died on the cross for us, once, at a particular moment in history, and our forgiveness and new nature comes to us from that bright flash of salvation history. In a real sense, however, his sufferings go on, in the face of every starving child, abused wife, unjust legal decision, tsunami and earthquake. The whole of creation, marvellous and wonderful, is out of sorts, is imperfect, falls desperately short of what God created it to be.
We do not fully understand why this has been allowed. However, the fact that we feel concern, sorrow, outrage, shame, desperation, is a confirmation that we are truly human. We are echoing the love and concern of our God, who sent his Son, and of Jesus who freely chose to come, and of his Spirit, who feels with us a longing, and an agony to see this world remade as it truly should be.
The word for this is hope, a certainty that God will cause things to turn out well, even though we do not know all the details. It is again to be fully human. It is why stories and films point (nearly) always to the happy ending – we cannot help ourselves, it is the way that God has made us and the way that we have been remade in Christ.
What can we do about this? In one sense, nothing, but to rely upon the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. In another sense, there are tried and tested ways that we can live and walk in the Spirit.
Members of the Community of Aidan and Hilda live by a ten point way of life.
Point 6: Care for Creation
We affirm God's creation as essentially good, but spoilt by the effects of human sin and satanic evil. We therefore respect nature and are committed to seeing it cared for and restored. We aim to be ecologically aware, to pray for God's creation and all his creatures, and to stand against all that would seek to violate or destroy them. We look upon creation as a sacrament, reflecting the glory of God, and seek to meet God through his creation, to bless it, and to celebrate it.
Point 4: Spiritual Initiatives Through Intercession
The Community affirms a world view that recognises the reality of the supernatural and of spiritual warfare. As Cuthbert and others 'stormed the gates of heaven', so we also need to engage in and to become familiar with intercessory prayer. We do not project on to the supernatural what belongs to the sphere of human responsibility. We affirm national initiatives in intercessory prayer.
We can make a difference. This may be in the relatively small ways, becoming a FairTrade Church and paying attention to recycling. It will be in the bigger ways, by committing ourselves to individual and corporate prayer, to see God’s kingdom come, his will be done, on earth, here, now, as it is in heaven. This is to live in hope.
1. What novel or film sums up for you a “happy ending”?
2. For you, is this world more a hopeful place or a place of concern?
3. What does it mean to you to be “led by the Spirit”?
4. What particular concern, personal or global, would you like others to join with you in prayer about? Do it now.
Tuesday, 12 July 2011
This week I am preaching a sermon in three parts, and I give you full permission not to listen to it, or at least to be selective. Ear plugs may be of some use.
The passage in Romans 7 last week expressed graphically the fact that we know the theory that we are forgiven and accepted in Christ, and yet we find ourselves seemingly helpless to stop ourselves doing sinful things. The good news, Paul tells us, is that we do not have to stop ourselves sinning – we rely upon the Holy Spirit to live with and in us. He sets us free. Do you know the difference between Batman and Spiderman? Batman wears a suit and straps on gadgets to help him be a superhero. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider – it’s in his blood. We have Christ within us, living the Christian life, not merely bolted on.
Next week we move to the second part of Romans 8. If Christ is in us, we are led by the Spirit as children of the living God. We are family. We share in the running of the family. We saw when we looked at the early church in the book of Acts that a key aspect of being Christ’s is our koinonia, a Greek word that can be translated as fellowship, sharing, participation.
So this is the earplugs moment. I am going to talk about money. If you are a visitor, or still considering whether you would like to be a member of this part of Christ’s family, the church, please feel free to stare into space, update your Facebook status, tweet, or otherwise pass the time. I will alert you when I am finished.
I last did a talk like this at All Saints Tide, when we were facing a £20,000 deficit on the year. I commented on the generosity of folk, but how that the number of people in planned giving had decreased. As a result, several large donations came in and the eventual shortfall was much smaller. The evidence of the first six months is that people are being very generous, but costs are going up, and we again face a substantial deficit on the year. Please therefore take a moment; if you are not a member of Planned Giving, you could make a real difference by joining. Many of us facing straightened circumstances, but you might be in the blessed position that you have the ability to give more than you are giving at the moment.
Earplugs can come out now.
A farmer went out to sow his seed. This raises questions for me.
Did he set out to carelessly waste 75% of his seed? Or did he realise that 30% of 25 is 750, 60% is 1,500, and 100% is 2,500?
More importantly, how can we prove to be good soil? How can we be the ones who hear the word and understand?
Answer: we cannot. But we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We can allow him to motivate and guide us.
When events seem to conspire to prevent us taking notice of God and his word, like birds pecking away the good seed off the path, the Holy Spirit comes to help us stop, listen, and receive the word.
When things seem to get worse precisely because we are following Christ, when we face trouble and persecution, the Spirit helps us to trust God more rather than to walk away.
When we get caught up in the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth, when we are either struggling for more money, or so comfortably well off that our latest hobby, sport or pastime is filling all of our time and attention and taking all of our energy, the Holy Spirit helps us to maintain a proper perspective and to seek after the simple life.
Jesus says: Those with ears, let them hear.
1. “Christ is in you”. What does this mean to you?
2. What do you think it means “to be in the realm of the flesh”? (Romans 8:8)
3. What does it mean to you to be “good soil”?
4. Pray for each other, to be effective partners and sharers in the Spirit.
Saturday, 2 July 2011
“Besom” - a broom, especially one made of a bundle of twigs tied to a handle.
My birch twigs see all the dark corners of people’s lives;
where the detritus of life gathers,
where the dirt sullies the sparkle and sticks – like glue.
But I don’t just see … I make changes,
I sweep into those places where people struggle to be someone,
to be something or even just to be.
I sweep where the history of grime affects the present;
where people struggle to keep on top of everyday living,
where people feel the world is against them,
where people can't afford to start afresh.
Why bother, you might ask?
You’ll only have to brush again next week?
Or maybe you’ll have to go and brush somewhere else?
But, even that temporary respite gives comfort.
Knowing that someone wants to sweep away your suffering,
and knowing that someone cares, makes a difference.
My birch twigs though are useless individually,
but collectively, working together, they hook onto the dust,
marshalling it away from the edges, into neat little piles.
Backwards and forwards, side to side,
sweeping away the past – tidying –
giving the opportunity for someone to launch into a different life,
to make a fresh, clean start.
Sometimes, I hear people saying things like:
“that broom is wonderful – a miracle tool – what a difference!”
or “Look how clean that floor is”
“Is it the twigs, how they are arranged round the handle?”
or “Is it because it’s eco-friendly and made with all natural materials?”
No … of course not. You see, I am just a broom,
useless by myself…useless without the one who wields me,
the one who transforms my inert, spikey, brittle twigs
and round, wooden handle into something useful.
The one who knows where I need to go,
the one who turns me in the direction I need to follow,
who gently encourages me to get alongside,
the one who creates the real sparkle,
the real light to lighten up those dark places,
the one who cleanses and refreshes.
And who is it?
He’s the name above all names: -
the one who heals outcasts,
the one who touches lepers,
the one who speaks to the unspeakable
He’s the one who we serve to serve others.
He’s the one who says:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will
find rest for your souls.”