Friday, 25 January 2013

Sunday 20 January 2013, Just Walk Across the Room, Week Two, Living in 3D, Luke 15, Bruce

Last week we introduced the idea of Just Walk Across the Room.  We talked about being willing to enter the Zone of the Unknown, and listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  We finished by encouraging each other to Just Go!  I wonder if you have noticed any change in the way that you have engaged with people in the last week?
Of course the question arises, what do we do if we have a conversation with someone?  What do we think about?  What do we pray about?  What do we do?
The suggestion this week is that we become 3D people.  First, we Develop friendships.  There is not enough friendship in this world.  There are many lonely folk.  God is calling us to leave our comfort zone, our cocoon which is so protective, and purposefully reach out to others.  You might call it living in “search mode”. 
Does this seem a little strange?  I think that this is what Jesus is pointing to in the three stories that he tells in Luke 15.  He has been meeting all sorts of people in the market place, and the good religious Pharisees are alarmed and upset at the characters that Jesus is spending time with.  They criticise him for it.  There is a sort of internal logic that runs: God is like us.  We can see that these folk are living disreputable lives, and we disapprove.  God obviously condemns them as well.  We are right to stay clear of them.
Jesus responds to this way of thinking by telling stories.  You can imagine a Pharisee turning over in his mind the stories, about a sheep, about a coin, about a son.  What did they all have in common?  Lostness.  And in each case the thing that was lost was precious to someone, and they went out of their way to find it.  There was effort, and commitment and involvement; a shepherd combing the countryside.  A woman sweeping each corner.  A father pining and keeping watch.  They all longed to find that which was lost.  And there was a narrowing down; a hundred sheep, ten coins, a wayward boy.  I wonder if the penny dropped, realisation dawned that Jesus is talking about how the Father loves everybody, indiscriminately, lavishly, without exception?
Jesus is here describing the motive force that is impelling him to go around meeting people – God loves the lost!  And so do we.  We value them by reaching out in friendship.  You might say that you do not have time for 100 new friends!  The truth is that they feel the same way!  If, however, we reach out to 100 folk, how wonderful it would be if we found one, or two, or perhaps three true friendships?
And so we walk across the room, literally or metaphorically.  And it may be that we are meeting someone we would not normally spend time with.  Someone with a different coloured skin, or who supports a different political party, or who seems much less cultured or polite than us(!), or perhaps seems richer or better dressed than us.  There are no strings attached.  This is not a trick or a technique.  We merely want to be friends, and that reflects the heart and character of God our Father.
And what do we do?  We Discover stories.  It is good to get to know people, and to value them for who they are.  I know some folk are worried that I am advocating that we should all be evangelists, plaguing people with gospel truths, whether they want to hear them or not.  Actually I am strongly suggesting that we do the opposite.  It’s good to listen.  We are not telling anyone what to do.  We are not saying that we have all the answers.  We are merely showing interest and sharing our Father’s concern.  We are prayerfully reaching out, but with no strings attached, and we are seeking to be ready for those precious, rare moments when it seems that someone might like to explore a relationship with Jesus.
This brings us to our third point, Discern appropriate next steps.  Keep praying in your heart all the time, looking for any promptings about the way forward.  As a friendship grows, we may find that they tell us their stories and that we are entrusted with their real concerns and needs.  In small groups this week we are going to consider “forks in the road”.  These are when we are faced with a choice about what to do or say.  As we were saying earlier, it’s good to listen.  There will be many times when the Spirit’s quiet prompting will be to say or do nothing, when it would be unhelpful to bring God into the conversation, or to invite someone to church.
Equally, there will be times when we are led to some small step forward.  We might perhaps lend a book or leaflet that has been a blessing to us or that we feel would be helpful.  We might offer some practical advice or help.  We might even offer to pray for them on a regular, consistent basis.
May we each have the Father’s yearning heart, the Son’s self-giving searching love, and the Spirit’s gentle caring impulse to reach out in friendship to all we meet and know.

Discussion pointers for midweek groups

1. Can you identify either of the following patterns in your own life? 
‘cocooning’  (safe in a comfortable Christian circle of friends)
or ‘connecting’  (increasing love and desire to connect with people outside the faith)

2. Christ-followers need to be intentional about mixing with people who are far from God.  When/if you notice yourself veering towards a cocooning pattern, can you think of ways of moving towards connecting again?

3. Were there ways that you related particularly towards “Super” Dave’s story?  e.g.
·         negative religious experiences
·         witnessed a close friend submitting their lives to Christ
·         significant loss – eg death of a close relative or friend
·         lengthy journey to faith in God

4.    Bill Hybels says, “everyday seemingly insignificant things can become divine life-altering tools in the hands of compassionate Christ-followers.” 
What role did the following everyday things play in Dave’s journey toward God?
                books/tangible resources;                 time;          recreational interests

5.    Expressing a heartfelt emotion also played a major role in Dave coming to faith in Christ.  What did you think when Bill told Dave, “I’m not going to heaven without you, Supe”?
                How does this comment reflect a ‘bottom-line value of love” towards Dave?
Have you ever felt this way about someone in your own life? If so, did you tell them about it?  If you didn’t, what stopped you?

6.    Why do you think it is so important to understand people’s own stories before trying to
       engage in spiritual discussions with them?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sunday 13 January 2013, Epiphany 2, The Baptism of Christ, The Greatest Gift, Bruce

Welcome to week one of a four week series entitled “Just Walk Across the Room”, and to a talk entitled “The Greatest Gift”.  We do this on the Sunday when we particularly remember the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John, when Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and heard his Father’s voice.  Jesus is God’s great gift to us.  Some gifts have a real effect on us.  If I give you an alarm clock but you never set it or use it to wake you up, have your really “received” it?  If I give you a membership of a club, but you never bother to go, have you really received and valued the gift?  In the same way, God’s gift to us of his Son Jesus has a profound effect on any one who receives him.  In the words of our collect today, we “recognise him to be our Lord”.  Our attitudes and lifestyles will be changed as we become more like Jesus.
Epiphany is the missionary season of the church’s year.  We celebrate the glory of Christ shining out, and our part in it.  If we have received the gift, so we also recognise that we have the greatest gift to pass on.  The single greatest gift we can give people is an introduction to the God who created them, who loves them, who has a purpose for their life.
We are talking about evangelism.  I can imagine that this will raise all sorts of emotions, and possibly fears, in the hearts of many here this morning.  I am not talking about learning a method or a complicated formula, or going out of your way to be embarrassed or humiliated.  What if I were to suggest that it is as simple as taking a walk across a room?  The course is based on a book of that title written by Bill Hybels.  In it he relates the true story of an Afro-American man whose life was changed when a stranger extricated himself from the circle of friends he was with, walked across the room, and extended the hand of friendship.
How do we go about sharing the greatest gift?
The first point is to be willing to enter the Zone of the Unknown.  Just to talk to someone we do not know can seem uncomfortable.  Bill seems to suggest that there is a reserve we must overcome, and he is from Chicago.  We Brits might find it even harder!  We all find it easier in a group of familiar faces.  Even groups of clergy tend to stick together.  This is very human, natural, understandable.  But I believe that if we are really made in the image of God, and wanting to be like his Son Jesus, then we are called to leave the comfortable place and enter the Zone of the Unknown.  We have the greatest gift, and we want to pass it on.  This is for every one of us.
But we might quite naturally be concerned that we will make a mistake and get things wrong.  Yes we might, unless we have some help and guidance.  We are learning to listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Did you notice that an essential part of Jesus’ baptism was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?  Did you notice our first reading from Acts 8? 
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria.15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
It seems that it was inconceivable in the early church for them to exist without a living experience of the Holy Spirit.  A little later in the service I will say to you “The Lord is here!”  and you will respond “His Spirit is with us!”  He is the one who inhabits our praise and helps us as we meet Jesus at his table.  He is also the one who is with us and in us as we go to work or go shopping, to the gym or to a club, care for the children or grandchildren, drive a car or ride a bus.  He is the one who is changing us to be like Jesus.  One of his top priorities is to change us into “walk across the room” people, who will follow Jesus and share him with our families and friends, neighbours and colleagues.  Every single one of us. 
But how?
Just remember that we are walking in the Spirit every day.  It is not that I happen to be a Christian and I happen also to play golf; I might be a follower of Jesus who plays golf with my friends.  It is not that I am a Christian and I happen also to shop regularly at “….” Supermarket; I am a follower of Jesus who is taking the presence of Jesus with me amongst the shoppers and staff.  Whether I am in an office or in school, at the surgery or riding a horse, wherever I am, I am walking with Jesus.  I am salt in the world, a light shining in the darkness.  Salt can be very useful in purifying and cleansing, but not if we keep it closed up in the container.  It needs to come into contact where it is needed.
Now if you are anything like me, you will be uncomfortable at the thought of sharing Christ’s love with others, because I am such a bad advertisement for Jesus.  To use an out of date analogy, I do not always do what it says on the tin; I am concerned that my life does not adequately reflect the faith I would love to share.  The heart of the gospel is that we are not good enough.  We were never good enough, and we never will be, at least in this life.  But God has demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 8:5)  We walk across the room, not to say how wonderful we are, or our church is, but how wonderful Jesus is.
He is wonderful because he made the same walk.  In the familiar passage from Philippians 2 we are asked to have the same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus had:
6Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
    he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
In other words, Jesus left his Zone of Comfort – heaven, glory, the Trinity, and came to live on earth in a way that was far from comfortable.  So this brings us to our third point: Just Walk!  He lived this out again and again as, prompted by the Holy Spirit, he had encounters with many sorts of people.  On one occasion he deliberately separated himself from his circle of friends and disciples, to spend time with a disreputable woman, who was also a Samaritan.  At first she argued and changed the subject, but I get the impression that Jesus was happy just to talk to her and see what his Father God would do.  You can read about it in John 4.  When you do, you will see that what started in an unpromising way ended with many people from her village coming to find out more about this man, who spoke to her in such a special way.
You might imagine that, years later, the Christian community in that village might have asked themselves the question, how did we become Christians?  And one of them might have responded that it all started with that man, Jesus, who took a walk from his comfort zone to meet a woman who was on the edge, to share God’s love.
I know from my own experience that this is not easy.  We live busy lives with lots going on.  But I do encourage you to take seriously the fact that we have received the greatest gift – Jesus, and we can do our part in sharing that gift with others.
As I close, I wonder if you would like to cast your mind back.  Was there a person who “walked across the room” for you, who helped you in your path to meet Jesus, to encounter God and grow in Him?  Let us give thanks for all those who have shared the love of Jesus with us, and let us also pray that we can become people who share Jesus with others.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Epiphany, Sunday 6 January 2013, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, Bruce

Epiphany means unveiling, revealing, letting the light and the glory shine out. 
The big debate is about when Christmas ends, and when Twelfth Night begins.  (The custom used to be to mark the beginning of a day from sundown the previous evening, and so Twelfth Night Officially began last night.)  It is part of a world of Christmas that is safe, familiar and mainly for the children.  Presents are bought and exchanged, food and drink are consumed, games are played, and we act out the Nativity, with (mostly) children playing the parts.
But now we go back to the real world.  Back to work, back to school, back to business and news as normal.
Gays can be bishops (apparently), women cannot be bishops, the killing continues in Afghanistan and Syria, there is still unrest in Egypt, there are rapes in India reportedly every 20 minutes, we have seen the shooting of children in Pakistan and in elementary schools in America, riots go on in Northern Ireland over the non-flying of a flag.
The Gospel claim is that this is precisely the world described in the Christmas story.  Jesus was born into a fractured, violent world.  Famously, some were hostile to him (like Herod), some were indifferent (like the teachers of the law), and some worshipped him (like the Magi).
The strangers who arrived from the East were Magi, the latest in a long line of holy and learned men who had been the intellectual and spiritual force in Persian Society for centuries.  The prophet Daniel had become an honorary Magus when he interpreted the dreams of rulers in Babylonian and Persian times.  They predated Zoroaster, but had become associated with the Zoroastrians, and had become a powerful force in Parthian politics, charged with choosing the next king.
The arrival of these men, however many of them there were (the earliest traditions suggest there were 12), possibly with a retinue and armed escort, would have been a shock and an alarm to Herod.  He had ruled in Palestine for 40 years, thanks to the Romans.  He ruled a frontier state that had changed hands frequently in the border wars between the Parthian and Roman empires, with Rome in charge at present.  He himself was not a Jew, but half Idumean – a race that were ancient enemies of the Jews, so there was alwaus a question mark over his kingship.  He was known as Herod the Great.  He built many notable buildings, including starting the temple of the time of Jesus, and on occasion had been wise and generous, giving gold to the people at times of famine.  He was also famously suspicious and fearful of any attempts to supplant him, and murdered many potential rivals and also family members to secure his position.   In 4 BC the Roman emperor was aging, the Parthian succession unsure, Herod himself was old and infirm and getting more paranoid – and these strangers from the East with a track-record of king-making appeared and announced that someone else – a true Jew - has been born to be the rightful king.  Herod was troubled.  As he was famous for his vindictive ways, it is no wonder that all Jerusalem was troubled with him.  It was if Spaniards had arrived at the court of Elizabeth I to announce that James would be King.  Or if Americans had arrived at the headquarters of President Bashar Assad to announce who would now be in charge of Syria.  This might even be a complicated attempt to provoke a war with Parthia.  How not to make friends and influence people.
Except that it was all a bit of a mystery.  No-one else seemed to know anything about a new born king.  The bible experts could find a reference tucked away in the prophet Micah, but it hardly seems to have stirred much interest.  The cunning king sends the Magi to narrow the search and find out precisely where the new king is to be located. 
Much debate has taken place about exactly what they saw in the sky, how literally to take the account, whether a star did actually move across the heavens.  The record though is that they were led unerringly to the spot, and they rejoiced as they went.  They found the holy family living in a house, so some time had elapsed since the birth.  It is possible that Jesus was now anything up to two years old, so we get this picture of a toddler receiving gifts.
And what are we to think about him?  In Matthew 1 we read that the angel had told Joseph that Jesus would save his people from their sins.  Now the Magi have arrived, announcing that Jesus is a king, the king of the Jews.  Herod and his advisors are in no doubt that this is a claim to be the promised Messiah.  The first recorded words of Jesus’ public ministry at “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)
What are we to think about him?  That he is a Saviour and a King.  He is the King of the Jews.  But he is not limited just to the Jews.  The readings selected for the feast of the Epiphany remind us that the kingdom of heaven extends over all the earth.  So we have these star led chieftains at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, as part of the Christmas story, announcing that Jesus is king of the Jews but also that he is king for every gentile as well.  Matthew ends his account with Jesus commanding us “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19,20)
Epiphany means unveiling, revealing, letting the light and the glory shine out.  The Church every year celebrates the great missionary season, when we remember that we have a treasure, we have been entrusted with something precious, and that it is for sharing.  I encountered this when Jane and I attended an Anglican church to arrange for our banns to be read in January 1980, and received a call to reach out.
This world that is so far from perfect, there is so much to distress and alarm us, it seems to be so dark.  It is precisely in this world that we are called to let our light shine and to make Christ known.  The arrival of these strangers from the East to worship Christ is a call to each one of us to lift our eyes above the humdrum and the ordinary, and the negativity and low expectations that can drag us down.  We are called to share in worship of the king of the universe, and to share him with those we live amongst.
The Magi travelled over 1000 miles.  There are many ways that we can respond to the call make Christ known – to manifest or “epiphany” him.  Some travel to Uganda or China, or to Farnborough.  Where is God calling you to travel to?  Next week we start a short series called “Just Walk Across the Room”, which is designed to help each of us share our individual story of Jesus with friends and neighbours.  Most of the congregations in Camberley will be doing this over the next month, as a preparation for Camberley Connections in March, when we will welcome some students from Wycliffe Hall and work with them for a special week of faith sharing.
God’s “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Ephesians 3:17), as we work together to share our story of Christ.  Some will be hostile, some will be indifferent, but there will be some who will be profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be welcomed in to worship the King of all.
Discussion Starters
1.       Gold for a king, incense for a priest, myrrh for a sacrifice.  If you were forced to choose only one of these, to represent Jesus, which would it be and why?
2.       Which is more important, the gifts that the Magi brought, or the fact that they came at all?
3.       What do you think is “the mystery of Christ”? (Ephesians 1:4)  How might this relate to Camberley Connections?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sermon for Sunday 30 December 2012 – Luke 2: 41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

One of the things about Christmas and the start of a New Year as well as the rest of the year is that we cannot escape Jesus. His birth affected Caesar’s politics, (vv. 1-3), the ministry of the angels (vv. 8-15) and the activities of common men (vv. 15-20). In that day, shepherds were looked upon scornfully, misfits; but God singled them out to be the first human messengers of the Messiah’s birth. His coming touched worshippers (vv. 21-38) and even teachers (vv. 39-52).

The angels sang about Him, and He is still the theme of the greatest music. Luke wrote about Him, and He is still the subject of the greatest literature. The shepherds hastened to behold Him, and He is still at the centre of the greatest art. Teachers listened to Him and marvelled, and He is still the focal point of all truth and wisdom.
In His development as a child, ‘growing up’, Jesus was perfectly balanced: intellectually (wisdom), physically (stature), spiritually (in favour with God), and socially (in favour with man), and He is still the greatest example for childhood and youth today. He alone is worthy of our worship! 'Oh, come!' We sing. 'Let us adore Him!.'
Today, in the gospel reading we catch a glimpse of Jesus as a boy. Joseph and Mary used to go all the way to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Passover. When Jesus was 12 it was time for him to go too, for at 12 a Jewish boy became a man. He then became ‘a son of the law’ and had to take the obligations of the law upon himself. So at 12 Jesus went up to the Passover festival for the first time.
The city would be crowded for the festival. Families and friends travelled there together, the young folk met up with friends and relatives and enjoyed being in each other’s company. After the Passover the women usually set off earlier in the day for they would travel more slowly than the men. Later on the men would set off and the two groups would not meet up until the evening. Mary and Joseph supposed that Jesus was in the other’s company. Joseph thought he was with Mary’s group and Mary thought he was with Joseph and his group.  They supposed him to be with one of the groups when in fact they had left him behind. (Jesus – home alone – news headlines). Every mile they travelled took them further away. It was not until the evening when they had searched the camp that they knew he was missing. As they had travelled a day, it took another day to return to Jerusalem. By now Joseph and Mary were distressed and anxious for the safety of Jesus. As any parent would be.
When they found him he was in the Temple. At the Passover it was custom for the Sanhedrin to meet in the Temple to discuss religious and theological matters. And there was Jesus among them. Jesus was fascinated by them and their words.  He was learning from his teachers. Hum – or were they learning from Him!? (where else would he be - than being with the person and doing the things that he loved doing/hearing/asking?)
You can feel the relief and anxiety in Mary’s voice as she says, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this?’ Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’
In his reply Jesus gently takes the title of ‘father’ from Joseph and gives it to God. As a good Jewish son, now that he has come of age, he must be about his Father’s business. Here is a pointer to who Jesus really is. Being Son of the Father does not free him from obedience to his earthly home. The references to growing in strength and in wisdom and in divine and human favour is the Greek word charis  meaning grace, which are good Jewish qualities as reflected in 1 Samuel 2:21, 26.
We too, like Jesus, can appear to get lost and there are many ways to get lost. There is a lovely story of an absent-minded professor from Edinburgh. He used to travel regularly by train and all the ticket collectors knew him. Once by the gate he was anxiously going through his pockets and after a while the ticket collector asked if he could help. ‘I have lost my ticket’, said the professor. ‘That’s all right sir, we all know you. You can get on the train.’ ‘But’, said the professor, ‘I need my ticket because I do not know where I am going.’ It is easy to get lost in this world. Do you know where you are going?
It can be easy to get side-tracked from time to time and loose our focus on God and our relationship with Him.  It is easy in the business of everyday living to put other things first instead of readying the bible or spending time in prayer, or even trying to find a solution to a problem without asking Him first. We end up getting lost in….. whatever! Which can lead to other problems.
Jesus in coming to earth as a baby and growing up like you and I learnt the law, (rules and regulations of life), obedience, to love, to work, to study scriptures. He has giving us the Rules for Holy Living, so that we don’t get lost in our relationship with him or others.  In the Colossians reading we are reminded that as chosen by God for this new life of love, we are dressed in the wardrobe God picked out for us: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. We should be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave us. And regardless of what else we put on, wear love. It’s our basic, all-purpose garment. We should never be without it. And we should let the peace of Christ keep us in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing our own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. We should give it plenty of room in our lives. We should be helping to instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing with our hearts out to God! Let every detail in our lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way. (Colossians 3:12-17 from The Message).

God wants us to wear the grace-clothes, not the grave-clothes! If our focus is on things heavenly, we will obey God in things on earth, just as Jesus did and especially in our relationship God and with others.
As we stand at the edge of a new year, and within this Christmastide, perhaps we, like Jesus did, in this coming year, may lose track of ourselves from time to time, pray that we do so; so that we can be attentive to what makes us hungry for God–and in turn, what we must do about that hunger. Amen.