Saturday, 20 July 2013

Liquid Family Communion 21st July 2013 - Sermon for the Word Zone Genesis 18.1 - 10a & Luke 10.38 - 42

Trees have taken on a new level of importance over the last couple of weeks.  Have you noticed how they’ve come into their own?  I overheard a conversation in Camberley between two mums, “I’m helping on a school trip.  We’re going to a farm,” said the first one, “are there any shady trees?” asked the second.  And then again the next day, trees came into a conversation I had with a teacher.  “We've got sports day tomorrow” he said, “It’s gonna be unbearable… there’s no trees out on the field”!  It’s strange how we can shift our focus so easily from the big event – from the day out, from the sports day, to the trees!

Abraham knew a thing or two about trees and big events.  In the Middle East you watch out for the trees.  They signal that water might be nearby, they act as a reference point on the horizon, but mostly they provide shade from the relentless sun.  Abraham made his home near some big oak trees.  In the account in Genesis the writer gives us details so that we can almost picture and feel the place, especially given the weather here over the last few weeks; Abraham’s sitting at the entrance to his tent, near the oak trees, in the heat of the day.  

Now Abraham’s, well to put it bluntly, no ‘spring chicken’.  He’s been a wanderer but at 99 years old, as you might expect, he’s more settled now.  He’s done well since God told him to leave his country, his people and his father’s household; God’s blessed him and made him promises; he’s made a special kind of agreement or covenant with him.  God’s promised him descendants (as many as there are stars in the sky) and he’s promised that his descendants will be a great nation, and he’s promised land to him and his descendants for ever.  But Abraham’s still waiting … waiting for the big event; to be a great nation, to colonise land, you need descendants. To have descendants, you need a son, and they are still waiting for theirs.

Maybe that’s what he was pondering as he sat in the heat of the day – who knows,  
but as he’s sitting, he looks up and sees three strangers standing nearby and as soon as he sees them he hurries to meet them.  Can you imagine hurrying in the midday sun?  He gives them all his attention and bows low to the ground to honour them as if they were of a higher rank.  “If I have found favour in your eyes”, he says, “Do not pass me by”.   What he means is, “if it’s ok with you to accept my invitation, then I would be honoured to serve you.”  He offers the usual desert hospitality for travellers, a little water so they can wash their tired, dirty feet, a chance to rest in the shade of a tree and something to eat.  Then in a whirlwind of frenzied activity, he hurries to his wife Sarah, tells her to quickly make a large amount of bread with the best flour, then he runs to the herd of cattle to choose the best calf, so that the servant can hurriedly prepare the food.  The food is more than just ‘something to eat’, it’s the best he has - and this 99 year old man, who has been relaxing in the heat of the day, hurries, runs, and moves quickly to provide for his guests!

Martha would understand Abraham’s actions.  She too offers hospitality to her guest;
she opens her house to Jesus.  And she too is busy in the preparations.  But Abraham does something else; he does something Martha doesn’t do … as the strangers accept his hospitality, as the meal is set before them, he stands nearby under a tree.  Not sitting, not in the tent with his wife Sarah, not clearing away or fussing or worrying, but standing.  It would be easier for an old man to sit.  It would be easier to get a servant to watch the guests, but no, he stands attentively, ready to respond.  And as he stands attentively, the strangers ask him a question, “Where is your wife Sarah?” they ask.  And he replies immediately and without hesitation “there in the tent”.  Then all is revealed – one of the strangers is the Lord God.  And he announces the big event,  “I will return next year” he says, “and your wife will have a son”.  

If Abraham had been distracted like Martha, been worried about what the servants were doing, been upset about many things like she was, he might have missed it – the one piece of news he needed to hear – the announcement of the fulfilment of the promise – the announcement they were expecting a son. 

In providing attentive hospitality to his guests, Abraham encounters the Lord God and hears what God has to say to him.  Abraham doesn’t give hospitality in order to get a son back in return; God has already promised him and Sarah a son before they even entertain the strangers.  No, this is about responsiveness, paying attention, encountering God in offering hospitality to strangers.  And in the encounter, the roles are reversed -  Abraham and Sarah the hosts become Abraham and Sarah the guests because God welcomes them into the joy of the special (covenant) relationship he has with them; the announcement of a son welcomes them into the future events when the promises he has made to them will be fulfilled.  The hospitality of welcoming strangers is not a social event, but a holy event. 

But who are the ‘strangers’ in our society?  We don’t normally have people wandering by in the heat of the day.  Who do we welcome?  Hospitality is at the centre of Jesus’ ministry.  He of course eats with friends like Mary and Martha and the disciples, but he also eats with strangers.  He has conversations with those no one else will and he gets close to people everyone else is trying to avoid.  He welcomes those without a voice in society, those with no social standing, the outcasts.  One writer describes how this translates into modern day living, she says as Christians we are called to welcome and offer hospitality to “the materially disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price…to those seeking for the elusive ‘something more’ that often they themselves cannot name.” (Verna Holyhead – The Gift of St Benedict).  As a church community, how do we do that? 

Like Abraham, we can honour strangers with friendly, inviting words; we can welcome with food and provisions; we can offer a relaxing, healing space where people can pause and take shelter from the busyness and pressures of the day and we can offer an attentive listening ear, ready to respond to the needs of our guests. 

And as we offer attentive hospitality – as we listen and respond to the needs of others – we too participate in a holy event – one where we might hear what God is saying to us – one where God opens his arms wide to us, where we become his guests.  A holy event where maybe we can ‘Encounter God and grow in him’ .

Questions For Discussion

1)   How does our understanding of ‘hospitality’ today differ from Abraham’s or Jesus’?

2)   Can you think of an example where you or someone you know offered hospitality to a   
      stranger?  In Camberley, who might the ‘strangers’ be?  What are the challenges and ‘risks’
      of offering hospitality to these ‘strangers’? 

3)   Have a look at the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15 – 24.  What does the
      Parable tell us about the Kingdom of God?  About hospitality?  (You might want to look at    
      the few verses before as well.)

4)   As individuals and a church community, how can we be more open to “the materially
      disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price…to those
      seeking for the elusive ‘something more’ that often they themselves cannot name”? 

5)   What does it mean to you to be “welcomed by God”. 

Sermon for Sunday 14th July 2013 - Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Luke 10:25-37

 Who is my neighbour or not?

The nature of teachers and students of the law is to question what they are told and to seek clarification from others.  This is as true today as it was in the time of Jesus. The lawyer asks, ‘What should I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asks a question in return: ‘What is written in the law?’ The fact that it is a lawyer of Israel asking the question is evidence for the true statements that we all teach what we need to learn. Moses, the lawgiver himself, had said back in Deuteronomy that the law was all about life: "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess" (Deut. 30:15-18).

It is clear that we are to make choices – to obey God and walk his ways or not.  One leads to life and the other to death. A bit grim! But God is also a restorer. When the exiles return to Yahweh in faith and obedience, he will turn to them and ‘return’ them to their previous state.  When Israel turns back to God, he will turn back to them. SO does this mean that the threat of punishment is undermined? Will it make them say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter? We can always repent and be restored’? Hardly! The historical books paint a gloomy picture of both northern Israel and southern Judah: apostasy and decline, invasion and conquest, death and exile. Those who lived through those tragic years would definitely not have said, ‘It doesn’t matter’. And those who survived into exile ended up dispirited and depressed (see Ezekiel 18:2). The punishment was real and painful.

But when we turn to God, there is Restoration – I like that word. Rest and be restored. When the people turn back to God, he will turn back to them, turn their fortunes around. Further, he will then give them all the blessings and prosperity promised in the first place, and experienced in the early years. And as always, God will be emotionally involved: it stems from his compassion and results in his delight. It will also lead to ‘circumcision of the heart’. For those used to physical circumcision, this is a rich metaphor of personal commitment and heartfelt obedience, in internal attitude as well as external form. Earlier, God commanded it (10:16) now he promises that he himself will affect it.

This passage show God’s knowledge of humanity, his foresight of events, and his provision for restoration. The warning is real: no wonder this is the synagogue reading for the Jewish equivalent of Lent, the ten days of repentance between New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). But so is the promise: the ‘even if’ shows that no situation is irretrievable if there is a change of heart. This does not instantly resolve the painful issues that rear up at the start, but it does give us a pointer for reflection.

So ‘What should I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the law?’  The reply of the man is part of what is written in Deuteronomy 6:5 which says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.’ To this the Scribes added Leviticus 19:18 which bids a person to love his neighbour as himself. The Rabbis sought to define who was a neighbour and at their worst limited this to fellow Jews; Gentiles were not counted as neighbours no matter how closely they lived to Jews. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a challenge to our limited care.

So who is my neighbour?"

What Jesus offers is not far away. It is the common event of a mugging and the also common events of indifference to suffering on the one hand and mercy in response to need on the other. The story is as close as the fear we feel when someone approaches us on a dark pavement at night, as near to us as the people we can walk past without noticing, as familiar as the smell and feel of a plaster on a cut finger.
"Who is my neighbour?" the lawyer wants to know, and so do I. I also want to know, how do I love my neighbour as myself? What about fostering dependency in the neighbour, or wearing myself out or just putting plasters on wounds that need so much more?

The story begins with a man on the downhill road from Jerusalem to Jericho. With his back to the Holy City, he is making his way towards a place that was known for its vice, robbers and corruption. The man is alone. Now this road was notorious for robbers, and it is foolish to travel alone, especially if you have anything precious. Is not life precious? The man is mugged by a bands or robbers, stripped of his possession, his dignity and his health. He is left half-dead and if he doesn’t get help soon he will be dead.

Lucky man: he come a priest. Help is at hand. But when he sees the man, the priest passes on by. Well, if the pries had gone over and touched the man and the man was dead, it would make him unclean and he would not be able to perform his duties for seven days(Numbers 19:11) it would seem the priest was more concerned with ceremony rather than charity. You could hear the common cry: ‘It’s more than my job’s worth.’

The next person to come along is a good churchman, a Levite. Surely there is hope there. The Levite perhaps is frightened that the robbers are still near and the man on the ground is just a decoy. He could use the same excuse of the priest for not making contact. The law was more important than love.

Then came along the Samaritan – a non-Jew. Surely he would not bother. But he does because he is moved with pity for a fellow human being. He goes over to the man and pours oil and wine on the wounds – normal usage for both, though also symbols of peace and joy. He then lifts the injured man up and puts him on his own animal, brings him to an inn and takes care of him. The next day the Samaritan pays the innkeeper and says, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Jesus then asked which proved to be a neighbour. When the lawyer replied, ‘He that showed mercy’, Jesus said, ‘Go and so likewise.’

We are challenged to accept all as our neighbour and to show concern for those we try to avoid; those who get into trouble through their own fault; those who are racially or religiously different, all who are in need or in trouble.

In John 8:48 the Jews called Jesus a Samaritan. Maybe we should heed the words of the Good Samaritan and interpret them as Jesus speaking to us: ‘Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’


1.      Look at Deuteronomy 30:1-20.
What would the Lord do for them (v3-5, 6, 7, 8-9) and why (v1-2, 10)?
What were their options (v15, 16-17, 18) and why was choosing life the way to go (v11-14, 19-20)?

2.      Who are your neighbours? How well do you know them?
3.      Who are the neighbours you would not necessarily become involved with? Do you have a fear, real or misguided regarding these neighbours?

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sermon for Sunday 7 July 2013 – Isaiah 66:10-14

There are many joys in being a parent, and one is the privilege of being able to comfort a child in distress. It is amazing how a sobbing, hysterical child can, in just a few moments, be laughing and smiling once more, simply through the reassuring warmth of a mother or father’s embrace, and words of reassurance. ‘Let’s kiss it better,’ we say, and, although it’s nonsense, it works! The pain doesn’t necessarily go away, but the child knows that he or she is loved. If we can do that for our children, how much more can God do it for us, as we see time and time again in the scriptures, not least in the words of prophet Isaiah.

Have you ever had one of those days? Days where the weather outside is raining and you have a load of washing to dry, the computer was running slow, the battery on your mobile phone is dead and you need to make an important call!  You know these days!

We all have those uncomfortable days, when it is best to stay inside, not make any rash decisions and not talk to anyone because you may just say something you’ll regret. We all have those days, as did our parents, as did all the people who came before us, such as those mentioned in the Isaiah reading.

Isaiah is writing to the people around him who are living during uncomfortable times. Not only were they having one of those days, they were having one of those centuries. They were dealing with the after effects of the exile, a period in history in which they were attacked and the enemy took a portion of the population into captivity. It was many years before they were set free and allowed to go back home. But what they discovered wasn’t pleasant. Their land, their businesses, the place they worshiped was destroyed. They tried to rebuild everything, but it just didn't feel the same.

The land didn’t fully recover from the abuse it underwent, the economy had gone bust and the country was torn in political turmoil. People were stressed out dealing with the economy and everyone felt as though things weren’t improving fast enough. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Our world today!

Isaiah was aware of everyone’s low spirits. He also knew that people have a tendency to only see what is currently happening, reducing all expectations to the present moment. So the he relays to the people a message from God, a message that reaffirms to everyone that God has a goal and will not rest until the world is restored to its rightful state.

In chapter 65 the prophet gives the people something to look forward to: a vision of a new heaven and new earth, in which there will be rejoicing, where weeping will no longer exist, and they will all have a place to call home. And then God, through the prophet, offers an image of comfort. Jerusalem, the city that they love, that has suffered politically, economically and environmentally, shall become like a mother, nursing all her residents with bosoms rich in milk. “For the Lord shall nurse and be carried on her arms...As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you: you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:12-13)

The key word here is comfort. Comfort to people who have lost everything. Comfort to people trying so hard to get it back. Comfort to people having one of those days, one of those years, one of those decades. Comfort! What does that word mean to you? What images cross your mind?

It should be no surprise to you that when I hear the word comfort I think of food. Comfort food. Soul food.

Ask me what, and I’ll tell you that a favourite comfort food is my Mum’s Steak and Kidney with Short crust Pastry Pie. But it’s not just the taste of it is the smell of it cooking slowly for hours before the pastry goes on top. It reminds me of Mum and offers me comfort. Until a number of years ago, when we went to see her she would make it you us, ok me!  The best part! How the place smells afterwards, of steak and kidney and seasoning, a reminder that there has been people and food.

That is the power of comfort food. The bond it forms, the comfort it creates. That is part of what makes today’s reading so powerful.  God understands just how uncomfortable and worried the people are, even today, so God offers them and us an image of comfort: a child being breast-fed by its mother, the original comfort food.

There has been a lot of discussion about breast-feeding. The pros and cons, the responsible public actions, the proper age to stop, etc. But the more research that has been done, the more scientists find the benefit of it. Mother’s milk is easy to digest and an excellent source of nourishment. Breast-feeding improves the child’s immune system, staving off infection, reducing the risks of intestinal and respiratory tract problems.

But breast-feeding does something more: it provides the child comfort. The baby, weak and vulnerable, is held in the protective shelter of the mother’s arms. The infant, with its head next to the mother’s chest, can hear the sound of her heartbeat, the source of life. The child can look up and sees its parent looking back.

Taste, touch, sight, sound, every sense incorporated, every sense saying you are comforted, you are mine, and you are loved. Breast-feeding is about a relationship in which one is dependent on, and loved by, another.

Imagine how powerful of an image that is for people during a time of economic, political and environmental hardship. This image invites folks to look beyond their current situation and to look towards a future in which they will be comforted, a time in which their every need is met, a time in which every sense says to them “You are OK, you are well.”

Comfort, like the smell of steak and kidney pie, like a suckling infant receiving its mother’s milk. That is what God wants for us. That is what the Spirit is busy working towards. And that is what Jesus is calling us to offer to one another and to the community around us and to the outside world.

And that comfort comes in so many ways, doesn’t it? Here at church we have members who provide pastoral care by volunteering to visit people at home, hospitals and hospices, offering comfort to the sick and dying, a listening voice to turmoil in a family etc. Week by week, people place food and other items into the Besom box, offering comfort to those in need in our town, Christian Aid week raise thousands of pounds in our local area to comfort those overseas. We are by our Renewal plan offering comfort to the generations who will grace the church doors in the future. We are starting a fund raising event ‘Parable of the Talents’ which I will talk about later in the service. Renewing of ourselves as we seek God’s comfort in our lives so that we can be healed and restored to offer comfort to others. 

How else can we offer comfort? By speaking words of forgiveness, by saying that we are welcoming of all, by celebrating communion and having an open table. Communion, the Lord’s Supper, means so many things. Communion is also a sign of grace, freely given; grace that we receive, grace that we pass on to the person besides us.

Communion is a form of comfort. And like most comfort foods, it’s made from simple ingredients, in this case grain and fruit, two items you can find in almost any home, two items that transcend rich and poor, worker and jobless. The bread, as the body, the wine, as the blood; meant to nourish us, sustain us, let us know we are comforted, we are the Lord’s and we are loved.

Communion is a chance for us to taste, touch, hear, see, a chance for our heart to rejoice, our bodies to flourish and a time for it to be known that the hand of the Lord is with us.

In conclusion, we all have those days. We all have those weeks, we even all have those years.  But we are not alone, nor does our current situation define us. We are more than our finances, we are more than our mobile phone network, we are more the land around us.

We belong to God, and our God is holding us in tender yet strong hands, and our God is comforting, and caring: “Comfort, O comfort my people...” (Isaiah 40:1).

Thank you Jesus for inviting us to the table, to the Spirit that leads the way and to God, our Father/Mother who desires to feed us all with comforting milk. Amen

  • No protector like a mother or father. Consider God’s protection – Psalm 91:1-4.
  • No touch like a mother and father’s touch. Consider the touch of God in scripture.
  • There is no forgiveness like a mother or father’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is supernatural – Jeremiah 31:34.
Consider God’s forgiveness for you.

  • How can we offer comfort to a family, community, world in turmoil and maybe on the verge of burnout,