Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sermon 11 August 2013. The Journey of Faith and Hope. Robert Hebrews 11: 1 – 3 & 11 – 16 Luke 12: 32 – 40

More or less every day when I pick up the post from the door-mat, there’s one thing I can be quite sure of – there will be at least one and probably more than one expensively produced brochure inviting me to sign up for a cruise or other kind of holiday to some exotic locations, beautifully illustrated with pictures of a dream world of luxury. There is obviously a huge market for travel abroad, while the traditional holiday locations which served Britons for generations – Blackpool, and Margate for instance – now languish unloved and unvisited. Many of us have developed an insatiable appetite for stretching our horizons.

This is not a new phenomenon, although Abraham would not have been acquainted with a cruise liner. Very roughly 4000 years ago when Abraham was 75 years old, he and his family were living in what the Old Testament calls Ur of the Chaldees (you need to have Genesis chapters 11 and especially 12 to hand to understand what is happening here). Ur is in what was then called Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and part of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ where the great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, flow down towards their confluence.

Abraham was called by God to leave his home and settled agricultural way of life, and become a traveller -  a nomad - seeking a new home to which God was calling him. And in order to get there he had to become a more or less permanent ‘camper’ – living in tents. They made their way up river north-west for a distance of some 500 miles – as the crow flies, considerably more if he you are following a river on foot.

Later they travelled south down the Jordan valley for another 500/600 miles as the crow flies, until they reached Canaan, which was to become God’s promised land for Abraham’s descendants.  God had promised Abraham a son and heir even though he and his wife Sarah were, in human terms, beyond child-bearing age. Abraham obeyed God’s call and went on this extra-ordinary journey because he had complete trust that God would fulfil his promise, and that Abraham would found a great nation.

So this was not only a huge exotic adventure in terms of travel, but it was a spiritual journey of trust and promise as well. It was undertaken in faith and in hope that God had a purpose for their lives, a spiritual destination, as well as a geographical one. Indeed, the writer of this letter to the Hebrews wants to emphasise that journey’s end for Abraham – because of his faith – was not an earthly place. His true home was going to be in heaven. It’s important to remember for every Christian that when we talk about ‘home’ it’s not just some place in the UK. We are travelling towards our true home which is in heaven, where God has prepared a place for us.

When I read this passage, my mind travels straight to John Bunyan’s classic ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Our spiritual adventurous travel journey is not over until we have crossed that final river, and been welcomed home on the other side. It’s a vital help to put these enticing travel brochures that come through the letter box into a better perspective. It also draws us to our Gospel reading this morning, where Jesus tells us to build our treasure, not in earthly coin, but to concentrate on building treasure in heaven, our true home. And where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.
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So we need a very different kind of travel brochure. No matter how young or old we may be, we are on a spiritual journey. And God’s Holy Spirit gives us strength every day for that journey. We can’t say ‘We’re too old to change’ because Paul rightly tells us in 2 Corinthians 4: 16 that “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day,” as the Holy Spirit gives us strength to grow in faith, in Christian knowledge, in character, and in lives that shine with the light of Christ.

This Christian travel brochure tells us not to be too settled where we are; not to become stale and too content with the familiar routine. We have so much yet to learn; so much to grow; so ambitious to travel spiritually closer to God in our relationship through prayer, through study of God’s Word, through worship and sacrament; through experience and character building. We still have far to go..

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All this sense of moving forward and adventure in faith and hope can be applied to our church just as much as to our individual spiritual lives. Some of the brochures and reports recently about the renewal project refer back to what was called my ‘challenge to the church in 2006’. I’ll tell you what I had in mind. It seemed to me that the interior of our lovely church was becoming just a bit shabby and showing its age. If you were going to a hotel, for example, you might look at it and say ‘It needs a make-over – it needs freshening up.’ And I had a picture in my mind of this building re-decorated, with new comfortable seats, with a lovely new floor, and with new lighting which would not only help us see better, but which would highlight the most beautiful features – the roundels, the roof and so on instead of just pointing downwards.

And I thought that we would be so proud of the beautiful church we have, that it would rejuvenate us all spiritually, and draw us all together, and bring in new members. The building can go on a spiritual journey as well as the individual, and the one can inspire the other. I still like to think that this is possible.
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So August is the month for holiday travel. But we need a spiritual travel catalogue as well with dreams to be fulfilled. If Abraham can start at 75, we can hardly say we are too old and set in our ways! That’s why, for the writer to the Hebrews, he is a role model, a hero to be followed, not literally, but in his spiritual openness, and total trust in God, believing that what he had begun, God would bring to fulfilment beyond his dreams. And our Gospel for today ends with a vital call to be alert, and never fall back into just going through the old routine. Not only is that the road to spiritual deadness and decay – (there is a true saying that you can’t stand still as a Christian, you either move forward, or you fall back) – but we must remain alert because we know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s return, and who would want to be found spiritually sleeping? Don’t go to sleep spiritually in August – make preparations for a new spiritual travel adventure. Last Tuesday was the Feast of the Transfiguration – one of the very greatest spiritual experiences Jesus ever had. With God, spiritual adventures lead to wonderful new blessings and experiences. Get the new spiritual travel brochure – and sign up immediately!  Don’t miss out!


1.  Do you sometimes feel that your spiritual journey has come to a standstill and that you are still at the same place as you were, say, a year ago? If so, discuss how you might get moving again.

2.  What might your spiritual travel brochure contain to entice you to travel?

3.  Do you think the church building needs to make a spiritual journey too? In what ways? How might this help you and others on your journey?

Sunday 4 August 2013, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21, Bruce

Who would like the secret of being rich?  How many of us have received a letter or an email from a wealthy resident of an African country who has money in a sealed account that they want to get out of the country?  If you give them your bank details they promise to send you a large amount of money, some of which you can keep?  Years ago there was a spate of round robin letters; send the letter to ten friends, £10 to the name at the top of a long list and in a month or so thousands of pounds will be sent to you.
When a voice in the crowd calls out to Jesus to help him in a family dispute about an inheritance, we are treading on familiar ground.  The closest of families can be divided by fallings out over money.  The reality is probably that there was distrust there before, and our attitudes are revealed – brought to the surface – by how we respond to material things.
So Jesus tells a story.  The rich man obviously feels he is giving himself good advice.  He seems to have large estates and he is maximising his potential for earnings, savings and growth.  He is future proofing himself.  Or so he thinks.  He makes no reference to God or the needs of others; it is all about him.  He thinks that life – true life – consists of an abundance of possessions, and he is wrong.  He thinks that he is rich, but he turns out to be poor.
Jesus is not against eating, drinking and being merry; in fact he is frequently criticised for enjoying food drink and company.  He is concerned that we encounter God and grow in him.
Paul takes up this theme in his letter to the Christians living in Colossae.  Where is Jesus?  He is seated at the right hand of God (3:1).  He is also in us, the settled promise of glory to come (1:27).  Paul follows on from Jesus’ story about a man who set his heart only on earthly things with the advice that we set our hearts on “things above”.
What does this mean?
I do not think it means that we should be “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good”.   “Above” does not mean vertically higher.  The same word is used by Jesus when he says that we should be “born from above”; it is a struggle to translate and is often rendered as “born again”.  I suspect that the meaning is something like be “born from the other”.  And here in Colossians Paul is telling us to live our lives with reference to “the other”.
The other?  We live in two overlapping worlds.  How can we explain this?  On 1 September 2006 I set off on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostellar.  But the truth is that the pilgrimage really started the year before, when the decision was made to go.  For months I carried on everyday life, but part of me was researching, planning, preparing.  I was rubbing cream on my feet, buying maps, calculating distances.  I was thinking and praying like a pilgrim.
I suspect something similar happens when a wedding is announced.  The bride seems to enter a dual universe where life continues as normal, but at the same time every decision is made with reference to the approaching nuptials.
Much more significantly, when we were baptised, each of us entered into a new world where Christ reigns supreme but where we also live amongst those who do not acknowledge this.  There is a temptation to go with the rich farmer and live only on an earthly plane, laughing off any concept of the spiritual having any effect on the way that we live or make decisions.
There is an equal temptation to retreat into a spurious spirituality, a parallel world that has no contact with or relevance to “real life”.  Put bluntly, our worshipping life here can be separated from what we do at home, at school or at work.
However, we are servants of Jesus.   “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”  (1:16)  God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death”. (1:22)  We are to celebrate “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:27)  Again and again we see this apparent paradox of Jesus bridging any gap between heaven and earth; simultaneously he is Lord of all.
If Jesus unites heaven and earth, then so do his followers.  We are called to walk with him and in him, open for all that he has for us.  We are learning fresh ways to think and plan and evaluate.  Suppose you are given a luxury world cruise to look forward to.  But you have already made a reservation at digs somewhere cheap.  Is it not time to cancel that reservation? 
There are those who contend that we are merely highly evolved animals.  If that were true, then our chief preoccupations would properly be procreation and nutrition.  In fact we are more caught up in the corruption of the world as we carry our interest in money, sex and power to ever greater heights, or depths.  Our task is to live in this creation, revelling in it and enjoying it as a gift from our Father God, giving him thanks and praising him for it.  This is to honour the first commandment, to have no other Gods before him. 
Our temptation is to find ourselves taking some aspect of the creation and placing it at the centre of our thoughts and desires, so that our whole being revolves around it.  This is to break the second commandment and to become idolaters.
How can we become rich towards God?  Open your eyes to all that he has given you.  Receive gladly forgiveness, a home in glory, and the freedom to choose now the life of the kingdom.  Paul says that he continually asks “God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (1:9,10).  That is something that God does in us and for us.

Later he says “ Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (3:15,16)  That is something we can do, choosing to school ourselves to follow him in a daily, hourly pattern of praise and thanksgiving and openness to his word.