Do not fear: Sermon for Epiphany

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday – as I read it, and came to the end I thought (and said as much to the congregation) “That was shorter than it seemed when I wrote it!”

I was right! I’d forgotten that I’d printed it double sided, so I only read the first and the third pages, missing out everything between the two asterisks… I don’t think it mattered terribly, but I still feel a bit of a muppet!

Jeremiah:31:7-14 Psalm 84 Ephesians:1: 3-6,15-19a Matthew 2: 1-12

Today’s Gospel reading starts with fear and ends with joy. At the beginning the Magi, the Wise Men, the Seers from the East arrived at Herod’s palace and spoke of a baby, born to be King. And immediately Herod felt threatened. He feared that everything he knew would be taken from him, and that he would lose his power and his riches. And all Jerusalem was afraid – for they knew that if Herod was angered he’d no doubt take it out on them. And isn’t this so often the way today – the leaders of our countries want to hang onto their power, and their status, and because of this the ordinary people seem to be the ones who pay. Whatever your politics, I am sure that you can think of an example for yourself, for regardless of political beliefs this appears to be the way of the world.

From his very birth onwards Jesus challenges people. He turns worlds upside down. Perhaps now, we don’t quite realise how the incarnation, the idea that God has become human, was such an earth shattering notion for those living at the time. Although the Jewish people had an idea of a God who saves, a God who would, one day, come again as the Messiah, the thought of him breaking into humanity was unthinkable.

But the question that faced Herod is the one that faces us: how will you react to the child who has come to bridge the gap between the Divine and the human? Of course there will be fear: as Herod was afraid of losing all that he held dear, when facing the Almighty we too might fear losing control, losing security, of being asked to give things up. But we can choose to enfold ourselves in this fear, and close ourselves off from the wonders that Jesus offers us, or we can choose to stand, naked and shivering before God, afraid yet open to all that he will give us.

For if we recognise that Jesus is God’s outrageous gift of generosity that changes lives, then we can begin to move from the restrictive fear that Herod felt to the liberating joy that the Magi experienced as the star led them to the place where they could meet God. If we accept that Jesus is the bridge of hope and redemption we can move from despair to hope, from emptiness to fulfilment and from darkness to light. Jesus, Word made flesh, the physical presence of God, takes us from the reality of the incarnation to the unfolding realisation of who and what God is and does as we approach Epiphany. Without God’s inspiration and engagement, humanity would have remained stuck in a place far from hope and far from heaven.

God’s gift to the world was his taking flesh, being born, but we need to accept that gift. We must recognise our need, before we can understand the wonder. As Denise Levertov writes in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”: It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.

(*) One of the phrases that Jesus said often during his ministry was: Do not fear. And it is that fear that he came to take from us.

Fear is the source of so much that is evil in this world: because people fear what will happen to their jobs they begin to abuse those who they think are to blame, because people fear what they don’t understand there is a rise in Islamophobia, in anti-Semitism, in homophobia… , because people fear they don’t have enough money, or possessions, there is a downturn in generosity, in caring for others. Fear breeds fear… When we forget that God is in control, it is then that we too feel fear, and that fear begins to cause us to become what we do not want to be, we recognise “the taint in our own selves” and we build walls between us and God, between us and others.

But Jesus tells us time and time again: do not fear. Even his name, given to Mary at the Annunciation, is a reminder that we have no cause to fear: Jesus, meaning God Saves.

Sometimes as a preacher there is a mystery as to why those who put the Lectionary together chose certain readings to go with certain others; but today there is no real mystery. The reading from Jeremiah is one that speaks of the hope for a future when God brings his faithful people home from exile. They will need to fear no more, for God is with them, he is faithful and true, and will fulfil his covenant. Human helplessness and hopelessness will be transformed by the unshakeable presence of God. The Psalm too speaks of the joy of knowing that God is close, and the Epistle reminds us that we – you and I – are adopted members of God’s family and it celebrates the belief that in Jesus, God plans to embrace all people and the entire created order.

The good news is that God chooses humanity. God is on our side, and will travel with us throughout history. We have not been left on our own or to our own devices. We have not been left without meaning to our lives, or directions to travel. We have choices and hope, because God chooses to identify with us. God chooses to accompany us throughout the journey of faith and life.

This is what the Incarnation is about – Emmanuel, God with us. God with us through the turmoil of life. God with us in the joys and sorrows. God with us when we don’t feel close to him. God with us in the valleys and the mountaintops. God with us at the start of a new year, full of uncertainty and confusion. Do not fear.

And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that it is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. (*)

Whatever our fears may be, Epiphany reminds us that we can live our lives in a new light. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.

It is the greatest news that ever was, is, or shall be. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; have no fear.” May you and I always seek to live in the light of his promise.

CHOOSE LIFE: Last week’s sermon.

I’ve cheated a bit with this post, just copying-and-pasting my sermon. But there you go! Sometimes we’re lazy, here at Dormouse Towers! You can read other sermons, should you wish to, at Oh, taste and seewhich is the sermon site for Christ Church

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Psalm 1 – Philemon 1-21 – Luke 14:25-33

It seems to me that the readings today are all talking about choices.

The reading from Deuteronomy is taken from Moses’ last address to the people of Israel: they are on the very borders of the Promised Land, the land that God has been leading them to over many years, through the wilderness where time after time, patiently, God has been teaching them lessons, and sustaining them through adversity. And here they are. Moses knows that he will not be entering this land of milk and honey with them, but he stands to remind them once more of God’s word: Follow me, be faithful to me, and I will give you all that you need. Turn your back on me, and the consequences will be dire.

Those who wrote Deuteronomy, and those who read it afterwards would recognise that Egypt represented captivity, but not just physical enslavement but also spiritual enslavement to idolatry and its ultimate hopelessness. The response given by the people of Israel to this choice would shape the nature of their future relationship with God. So, when they are called by God to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” this refers to much more than physical life. The language of ‘life’ embraces good health, blessings, happiness, and fruitfulness. It also carries the sense of living, over the course of one’s entire life, in steadfastness and righteousness. Opposed to the good life is the one who chooses another path, who does not hear and turns away from God to other gods. For the former, the consequences will be prosperity, numerous offspring, and a life filled with blessings. For the latter, there will be only death

Unfortunately, the people of Israel failed to listen to God’s voice in this final sermon of Moses. That first congregation, on the border with the Promised Land, could have rooted themselves where the soil was good for growing, but instead their disobedience led to defeat at the hands of their enemies, and subsequent exile.

The Psalm too speaks of those choices: do you “follow the advice of the wicked” or “delight […] in the law of the Lord?” Those who follow God are given that reward of being like trees planted by streams of water, and that everything they do shall prosper. I do think however, that we need to be very careful about how we take that verse – everything they do shall prosper. It sounds as though, as long as we follow God’s promptings, everything in the garden will be rosy. Nothing will go wrong. It is by taking verses such as these literally that the rather hideous “prosperity Gospel” ministries have grown up: those churches that claim that if you are a good Christian, you will become rich, you will be able to afford a good house in a good neighbourhood. Basically, that one’s faith in God is linked to one’s material wealth and physical wellbeing.

But we know that this is not the case: surely the example of Paul should give one pause for thought. He had faith beyond anything most of us could ever hope for, and yet he was neither materially wealthy, nor was he physically strong. In the reading from Philemon, he talks about how Onesimus has been a helper to him during his time in prison, physically weakened, and how he longs to keep this fit young man close by, to continue to support and help him.

But Paul knows that he needs to let Onesimus go, to allow him to return to Philemon, where he will, as Paul hopes, be accepted into the household once more. We don’t have any idea of what went wrong between Onesimus and his master, but we do know that not only is Paul being given the choice regarding whether he holds on to Onesimus or not, but Philemon is being asked to choose between hanging onto bitterness and anger over whatever Onesimus did in the past, or offering forgiveness to this young man who has become such a useful worker for Christ.

In a way, Philemon is given a choice between holding onto his past life – continuing to hold a grudge against Onesimus – or moving forward into a new life, working for Christ with this young man at his side. The Israelites too were given a similar choice: to move forward into a new stage of their covenant with Yahweh, to step into the Promised Land in obedience to him, or to hold onto the disobedience and sinfulness of their old lives wandering in the desert and succumbing to temptations to worship false idols.

And I think this is the choice that Jesus is offering to his listeners in the reading from Luke. It is a hard reading, using stark language that shocks us. Is Jesus really telling us to hate our family? To capture the attention of his listeners, he uses the imagery of crucifixion, of battles, of mockery.

But in the end what he is doing is offering us a choice:

Do we hold onto our past lives – here represented by family – or do we choose to reject our old ways and to go forward with Jesus? Of course, Jesus isn’t saying we must reject our family and our friends, but what he is saying is that we must weigh up what following him will cost us, and if we decide to follow him, then he comes before all others. And he warns us – it won’t be easy.

In using the imagery of picking up one’s cross, Jesus is telling us that we need to understand that actually, for those who delight in the law of the Lord everything we do may not prosper – at least, not in the accepted thinking of the world. If we decide to follow Jesus then everything will NOT be rosy, we will be asked to do hard things, we may be asked to face hard decisions: but if we are faithful to God, then he will be faithful to us.

During the second part of 2017 I had been feeling that I had rather let go of God, and I had been praying that I would find a way back to him. In November of that year I went to the COMB organised Vocational training conference in Budapest. During the days there I not only became more and more aware that God was going to ask something big of me, but that through this I would become closer to him. I felt very excited, a little apprehensive, yes, but excited. What would it be? Was he going to call me to ordained ministry? Was he going to ask me to take a bigger part in Christ Church? How was God going to bless me, and prosper me?

How? As some of you know, it was in December 2017 that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Blessing? Prosperity? I don’t think this is quite what the prosperity gospel has in mind!

But, actually, yes. It was a blessing. It was a cross that I had no choice about, but it was through the experience that I became closer to God once more. It certainly wasn’t the way I’d have chosen, but I do believe that it shows that while we may not understand the way God calls us to follow him, it will bring the peace, and the prosperity, that the world does not understand.

The radical language used in Luke reminds us that the choice that Jesus offers us is uncompromising: change your lives but be aware that there is a cost to this discipleship. It may cause consternation in family and friends, there will be competing loyalties. It may cause division and unrest, but at the very heart of what Jesus asks of us, is love.

It’s a challenge, but it is an exciting and rewarding challenge. Faced with a world where many people are finding themselves increasingly isolated and where politicians and advertisers play on their fears and encourage them to bar their doors and lock out the world, the call to live as a part of a community that pulls down the walls and encourages us to push beyond the shallows into the deep waters of love, is an exciting invitation indeed. It doesn’t come easily though. Love is something that has to be worked at. Shallow love is easy and costs little, but the real challenges and the real rewards come to those who push beyond their comfort zones and invest some solid commitment and some solid work into building deep and grace-filled love.

If we are prepared to take that road, to follow Jesus into a new pattern and depth of loving relationships, we need to be under no illusions. Do not imagine that we’re likely to be thanked and applauded for it. Any time we take steps that are seen by others as socially disruptive, we can expect to be accused of irresponsibility and failure to do our duty. But this is what Christ asks of us when he calls us to follow him. Forget what others might say, Jesus says, forget who you were before: what are you going to do now ?

Maybe you have not quite made the decision to follow Christ – the words recounted in Luke are hardly persuasive and reassuring! In many ways they are off putting: it will be hard, says Jesus. You must be prepared to face opposition and indifference; you need to be ready to see beyond your own pettiness and prejudice to love others who do not love you. Think about it, says Jesus, but then take up your cross and you will be led into ways of peace and prosperity that the world can only dream of.

And if you have already put your hand into the hand of God, and promised to follow where he leads you, then perhaps you need to remind yourself to stop yearning for the prosperity of this world, but to look forward again to what it is that Christ offers us: he offers us a part to play in creating a world where God acts with steadfast love, justice and righteousness. He calls on us to do his work in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

It will be hard; it may ask of you more than you thought you could bear; but it will be worth it.

Lord God We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing your will on earth as it is in heaven;

we find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with your justice and peace and mercy.

We find freedom when we embrace your way of living; a way of living that is defined by love

Help us to always choose your way. Help us always to choose life. Amen.

Yesterday’s sermon

If you should be interested, here’s a link to

  1. Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand’s website
  2. The website where we publish the “weekly message” (though not always weekly…)

During the summer, the Eglise Reformée, who own the building, have their Sunday morning services there, so we have to have our service at 17h30. Not terribly convenient for people like me, who travel from some distance to get here, but there’s nothing to be done.  Because many of our parishioners go home to visit family, or take the opportunity to tour Europe, during this time, we took the decision to only have services every other week. It’s not ideal, but it does mean that the service leader doesn’t spend hours preparing a service for two people.

Yesterday I was taking the service – the one Eucharistic service in July. My sermon is on the site “Oh Taste and See“, under the title “Being and Doing” If you go to read it, it would be nice if you left a comment, evenif it’s just saying “Hello”!

I can just imagine Martha saying “Those vegetables won’t peel themselves, you know!”

 

It’s been a long road… Today’s sermon.

READING ACTS:9:1 –  18

A Damascus Road conversion – this is a phrase which many people understand as meaning a complete about face, being changed from one point of view to another that is diametrically opposed, a U turn. Even if people don’t know much about St Paul, it is the dramatic turn of events on the Damascus Road that they usually know about. Very little about what went before it, and probably even less about what went on after it. And to be honest, I wonder if some of us are in the same situation – I know that my knowledge of Paul’s life is sadly lacking. I know he went about preaching to a lot of people, and that he was a copious letter writer, and that much of the theology of the Church today is built on his understanding of the revelations of God. But I don’t really know much about him…

Well, it seems that few backgrounds could have better prepared Saul, as he was known before his conversion to Christianity, to be the chief persecutor of the early church. He was born in Tarsus – “no mean city” as he liked to describe it – which was a major Roman city on the coast of Southeast Asia Minor. Tarsus was a centre for the tent making trade and from Acts 18 verse 3 we know that Saul was a tentmaker as well. It says there that he stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who were tent makers “because he was of the same trade”. Although Saul was well known was a teacher of the Jewish Law, he would have still needed a profession to support himself, as teachers of the Law were not paid for their services; thus he was a tent maker.

However, in Acts 22:3 it tells us that Saul was actually brought up in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel, who was the most illustrious and respected rabbis of the day. Perhaps he and his family moved from Tarsus when Paul was young, but his father taught him the rudiments of tent making even then. Whatever it was that brought Saul to Jerusalem, it gave him the opportunity to study Jewish Law under a great teacher. This training prepared Saul to become one of the Pharisees, who were the religious elite of Judaism. He was the kind of pupil every teacher dreams of, zealous, enthusiastic and interested – I bet he always got his homework in on time! So much so that he outstripped his peers in enthusiasm for the traditions and in his zeal for the Law. He had the opportunity to observe the Council and come to know many of its principals and inner workings. He would have been there to watch encounters between the Council and members of the Way, as Christianity was called in its early days, and to be astounded at the blasphemies that were being revealed. And he was there at the stoning of Stephen, which galvanised his commitment to traditional Judaism and set him off on a mission to seek out and destroy as many believers as he could. As Acts 8:3 reports “ As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison”.

He was then devout, energetic, outspoken, enthusiastic, stubborn, and full of fire for what he saw as God’s way. Perfect to rout out the blaspheming Christians and put them to death. Even more perfect for what God had in mind for him…

Because, as we know, God had great things planned for Saul… But first he had to realise and to understand that what he had seen as great blasphemy – that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, is also the Christ, the Messiah, God in human form come to save the world from its sins and to open the way to a new and different relationship with Jehovah, the God of Abraham – this blasphemy was in fact the Truth. And how on earth was God going to do that? It would need something huge and dramatic to convince Saul of Tarsus. So huge and dramatic was what Saul of Tarsus got.

And that is one of the great things about God – because he knows us all so well, he knows what each of us needs to show us the way. We saw this in the Gospel reading. Having betrayed his Lord three times Peter was no doubt feeling despondent and a failure. So Jesus took him to one side and offered him the chance to reaffirm his love for his Risen Lord. And what I like about this story is the way Jesus gently gets Peter to realise that all the way along, through all of the pain of the crucifixion, Jesus had known of Peter’s love and devotion, that his denial had been a lapse, but that his love for his Master had never faltered. For on the third asking “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you!” You have always known; you know what I need and you meet that need… Jesus gave him what he needed. In our modern world there are some, who like to question and debate, and there are Alpha courses where questions are welcomed and debate is continued; Jesus meets them in their questioning, gently providing answers. For others, sadly, they need to hit rock bottom before they will listen to what God is saying and be able to take his hand; for people like me, brought up in a Christian home, there is a gradual realisation of what God has done, and a quiet handing over of ones life to the Lord; and for yet others, stubborn and convinced that they know where they are going, there is the Damascus Road experience. Which is exactly what Saul got. Whichever way we need to finally convince us, everyone has to, at one point or another, submit to the will of God.

Perhaps the chief irony of Paul’s calling (for we must call him Paul, now he has changed, and had his life turned round) was that he was called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” We are told in Acts 9:15 that God tells Ananias that Paul “is a chosen vessel to bear my name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel”. The irony of this, and a demonstration of how, if we’re truly honest, we can see God doesn’t always make things easy for his followers, is that Paul had been a Pharisee, the very title meaning “to separate”. Some Pharisees would not even eat with non-Pharisees for fear of being contaminated by food which was not ritually clean. They kept themselves separated from women, from lepers, from Samaritans and especially from Gentiles. So Paul was being asked to make a U turn from all he had been taught, from all that was ingrained in his upbringing, and to mix with Gentiles.

And let’s make no bones about it – he found it hard. He was being asked to do things that were not natural to him – to mix with foreigners, to treat women in the same equal way as men. It took Paul years to re-evaluate his perspectives and to bring them in line with the heart of God for the world. But his character, which God knew and loved, stood him in good stead – his stubbornness meaning that once he realised what God wanted he would have struggled even with himself and his natural tendencies, with his enthusiasm and zeal for God shoring him up in his darkest times. When we become Christians God asks us to change our perspective, he doesn’t ask us to change our characters; he has made us as we are, and loves us. Whether we are shy, hot headed, stubborn, not particularly clever, outgoing – whatever we are, God can use those parts of our characters to his good and glory as long as we are open to him. Just as he used Saul’s character to make Paul, ambassador to the Gentiles, so he can use us to do his will.

But, as I said, this about face wasn’t easy for Saul, he needed time to think, to re-evaluate all that he had done before. It can’t be easy for someone to suddenly revise the entire theological basis on which he’s been living. No-one – least of all Paul – likes to admit that they’ve been wrong. No wonder he needed to spend a lot of time in prayer. And in order to help Paul face what needed changing God sent two things.

First, he gave Paul “time out” – he was made blind for three days, making it a necessity for him to be still and not to move about. All he could do for those three days was to sit and think, and to talk to people. And I think to it was here that Paul may have had his first lesson in humility and in the need to depend on other people. I get the feeling that the old Saul had never depended on others before; he had everything he needed to forge his way in the world, he was self assured and confident. Imagine how difficult it would be for this know-it-all Saul to have to listen and learn from others, which is what he would have to do, as any young Christian learns from those who are more mature in their faith. So he needed to be brought down a peg or two – I don’t suppose God took any pleasure in it, but he knew the necessity. So, in his blindness, Paul learned to depend on others for his food and for every other need, and he had time to sit and think and learn – about himself, about the Way, and about what it was God required of him. He was given time to be able to talk to others.

And this is the second thing that God gave Paul. He gave him a friend. Because, if you think about it, this new Christian wasn’t necessarily going to be welcomed with open arms into the Christian community. He had been heading to Damascus in order to hunt down, arrest and ultimately to kill the Christians who lived there. And suddenly he was claiming to be one of them. Well, was this a trick? Had he really changed? Who was going to be brave enough to find out?

I really admire Ananias. He had no doubt heard that Saul, the scourge of the early Church, was on his way to Damascus; he would have known Saul’s methods, his eagerness to persecute those who followed the Way, and I am sure that Ananias was scared. Maybe he had already prepared himself to be hunted down, arrested, imprisoned and ultimately put to death for his beliefs. And then, as is his way, God asks Ananias to do something that, on first sight, seems utterly ridiculous.

In a vision, God spoke to Ananias, “Go to the street called Straight and inquire at the house of Judas for one Saul of Tarsus”… And basically, Ananias replied,

“You must be joking…I’ve heard what this man does to people – and you want me to go and speak to him…?”

But God replied, “I have great things planned for this man”. And he might also have added, “and you will be the one to start these off.”

Ananias must surely have been terrified, but he went obediently to lay hands on Saul that he might receive the Holy Spirit and to baptise him. And as a result Ananias witnessed the spiritual birth of one of the early church’s greatest spokesmen. He also saw a dramatic demonstration of the truth that God’s grace can overcome anyone’s background.

But what would have happened if Ananias hadn’t trusted God enough? If he had refused to believe that God was asking him to do such a seemingly stupid thing as go and introduce himself to the persecutor of the followers of Jesus? We will never know, as thankfully Ananias was obedient to God. But perhaps it should cause us to pause and think – who might God want us to approach with his message? Who do we harbour doubts about, believing that they will never change, never enter the faith?

If Ananias had not responded to his call from God, perhaps God calling Paul would have been worthless, for he would not have been able to take the next steps towards growing into a charismatic leader and tireless preacher of God’s word. We should wonder, now that God has called us – in whatever way – how can he use us to bring others, however unlikely we might feel they are, into his love?

I know I have read this short piece recently, but I think it bears repeating, especially as we consider Ananias’s faithfulness to God’s call:

There is an old Christian tradition

That God sends each person into this world

With a special message to deliver

With a special song to sing for others

With a special act of love to bestow.

No-one else can speak my message,

Or sing my song

Or offer my act of love.

These are entrusted only to me.

As Ananias was called on to speak the message to Paul, to sing the song of God’s love and to offer his hand of friendship to a man who had once been his enemy, we ask ourselves What is God calling us to do? What is our message, our song, our act of love?

*****

And here’s a rather pleasant country-style song, “The Road to Damascus”

Sermon this week: The Freedom Road

The theme for this sermon is a phrase that has been resonating with me for a few weeks, and one which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry used in his sermon last week: “The Freedom Road”; Now, this will, of course, conjure up different pictures  for different people, dependent on points of view, on personal stories, on the individual’s life experiences. I like the title because, for me, it echoes Jesus’ statement at the beginning of his mission, that he was bringing freedom to the oppressed, and it reminds me also that Jesus brings us all liberty from the oppression and the binding of sin’s chains in our lives. It also conjures up an image of a road winding into the distance that we all can travel, as pilgrims together, welcoming others as they join us on our journey, with Jesus leading us all onwards. But it also reminds us that Jesus called himself “The Way”. So, not only is Jesus showing us all the Freedom Road, but also, in a sense, he actually is the Freedom Road.

The God pictured in the Old Testament is a dynamic God, active in his people’s lives, moving in mysterious ways for the good of those he loves. He brought the Israelites out of Egypt in a most dramatic way; he provided food and water when they were desperate; he guided and loved them through the most difficult of times. He was there; he was Jehovah, the God who rescued his people Israel.

Nowadays, I feel that there is a lack of this sense of a dynamic God. Because many Christian doctrines are modelled on Greek philosophical patterns of thought God can sometimes appear to be more passive. To many people today their image of God is an old man in a white nightie who sits in the clouds, surrounded by angels strumming harps. He may send the odd disaster now and again, just to remind us all that he’s up there, but he doesn’t actually DO anything constructive, he doesn’t actually care.

But in Jesus, and in all that he does, we find that this is not the case; in Jesus we see what God is really like ~ he takes risks for the love of human beings. He does get involved. Jesus knew that he was unpopular with the powerful religious leaders of the day, but this didn’t stop him riding publicly into Jerusalem. In fact one could say he drew attention to it, for not only did Jesus process into the city, but then he had the audacity to go to the Temple, and cause a disturbance there as well!

The Temple was being mis-used; moneychangers and sellers of animals and birds had set themselves up in the courtyards. This in itself was no bad thing, as the Jews were only making it easier for people to follow the commands of the Law. People were able to buy their perfect sacrifices in the place where the creatures would be sacrificed. But the costs were becoming extortionate, and the fact that Roman coinage had to be changed to the currency of the Temple, often at falsely high rates of exchange, meant that the whole set-up had become a racket for gaining money through cheating the ordinary person. It was that that Jesus was protesting about when he went into the Temple, and turned over the tables of those who were there.

Jesus knew what this would mean. He understood that his actions ~ his triumphal entrance into the city, his provocative cleansing of the Temple ~ he understood that these would bring his enemies out of their bolt-holes. He knew this, and yet he still went ahead, for God is a God of action, of dynamics, who takes risks for the people he loves.

As Jesus came, on his donkey, the crowds yelled their hosannas and waved their palm branches. In a way, I find it hard to see how a crowd who were so pleased to see Jesus on one day were baying for his blood only five days later; but I suppose it is an example of what is often called “Crowd mentality”. Most of the people there were swept along by the emotion of it all, little realising or caring who or what they were shouting for. I have heard of an ardent anti-monarchist who found himself shouting greetings to the Queen when she visited the area ~ just because everyone else was doing it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It is hard not to be swept along by the rush of adrenaline. Sadly I think this is what happens with football violence: it only takes one or two to start and soon many others have joined in, carried along by the excitement, the rush of blood to the head.

So we have a crowd, some of whom believe Jesus is the Messiah from God, come to rid the country of the occupying Romans, others shouting for the man who healed them, or brought peace to their hearts, and yet more simply having a good day out in the sunshine. They may never have met Jesus face to face, and so may have little or no opinion about him, but others have met him, and meeting Jesus always brings a response.

For some the response would be hatred, for he was upsetting their comfy little lives.

To the Roman occupiers he was another of the tiresome Jews who called themselves Messiah. It may be hard for us to believe, but during Jesus’ time there were many people who thought they were the Messiah; they had followers too, and they were nearly always executed by the Romans. To the occupying forces Jesus was simply another of these. But maybe there was something more to Jesus ~ maybe the others hadn’t had such a great following, maybe the others hadn’t healed. Whatever it was, to the Romans Jesus was a symbol of all they disliked, such as the Jews desire for freedom from oppression, and the Romans wanted to get rid of him.

Jesus was upsetting the lives of the religious leaders of the time. He was reinterpreting the scriptures, and the Law; he was speaking to God with an unsuitably intimate turn of phrase; he referred to the religious leaders as whited sepulchres; but worst of all, he committed blasphemy by calling God “Father”, and by implying, if not actually stating, that he was God also. This man needed to be got rid of… and fast!

But it wasn’t just the high-up people in charge that, when meeting Jesus face-to-face, reacted with hate. Ordinary people too could well have felt this way. Imagine how you would feel if you were there in the Temple courts, going about your daily, legitimate business, when this jumped-up nobody from the country town of Nazareth appears, and calls you a thief and a cheat. Many would be disgruntled, upset, and could have reacted to Jesus with hate.

People were being shaken out of their familiar lives ~ and many didn’t like it.

But coming face-to-face with Jesus could also elicit great love and commitment; people were liberated from the constraints that had held them for so long and reacted with gratitude and love.

There was blind Bartimaus, who Jesus met just previously to his entry into Jerusalem. In healing him, Jesus took away his livelihood; admittedly begging was a precarious way of making a living, but at least it was a familiar thing. When he was healed Bartimaus would have to find a job, would have other responsibilities which his blindness had exempted him from. He too was shaken from his familiar routine, but met Jesus with love, and, when told by Jesus to “Go your way”, Bartimaus went the only way that he could: he followed Jesus, he trod the way of the man who had set him free.

Maybe even in the temple precincts, there were those who faced Jesus with love, who were freed to follow their hearts. I don’t know how many of you know Dennis Potter’s play “Son of Man”, but there was a part in it that I really like. Who knows if it really happened? I like to think that it did. Jesus strides into the Temple, and turns over the table of one of the moneychangers, who reacts with anger and dismay; he then turns towards another moneychanger, who stands behind the table, and, with a small gesture of acceptance, the man takes hold of his own table and throws it to the ground.

“Are you with me?” Jesus asks.

“Yes, I am with you,” comes the reply, “Always I have longed to do what I have just done.”

He had been held fast by his job, knowing it wasn’t right, but unable to break free. Then Jesus enabled him to do what he had always longed to do, to travel the Freedom road.

Jesus offered this road to all. As he rode into Jerusalem he showed himself unafraid of ~ or, at least, willing to face ~ all the hatred that this would stir up. He was willing to take risks for those he loved, even if their response was to turn their backs and to repay him with hatred and death.

And what of today? What does this mean to us, here in Clermont Ferrand? We too have been offered freedom by Jesus, and we have had the choice. Many of us here have made that choice, and our response was that of the moneychanger in Dennis Potter’s play. We turned over our old lives to follow our Lord. He gave us sight to see where we had failed him, and we took the chance to begin our journey on the Freedom Road.

When Bartimaus followed Jesus into Jerusalem he was lining himself up on the side of the unpopular one. But despite this, he was willing to take the chance. He trusted the man who had brought him liberation from the chains of blindness and poverty of life. This is what we must do also.

Jesus asks us to follow him in his Way, and although, as it was to Bartimaus, that way might be strange to us, we must trust in our Lord to lead us in the steps of the dance he wants us to dance. It is scary sometimes, it is joyful, it is sorrowful; at times it is hard, and we stumble over unfamiliar steps, but at other times our feet seem to fly and our spirits are at one with God.  In Jim Cotter’s book “Prayer in the Morning” there is a line which never fails to lift my heart whenever I read it: “Spirit of the Living God, open my whole being that I may dance your life this day”.

When we are open to the Living God, the dynamic God who was embodied in Jesus, then we can only dance our way along the Freedom Road.

Jesus showed us how far God was ready to move for those he loved; he was ready to die for them, for us. In riding into Jerusalem, Jesus came face-to-face with many people who reacted in different ways: some with hatred, and some with love, and others just went along for the fun of it, they were, in a way, indifferent. It is still the same today; there are those violently opposed to Christ’s message, and who hate him, there are those who love him and follow him, and there are those who are indifferent… but as those indifferent people in Jerusalem were influenced to shout Hosanna! by the disciples as they shouted for their Lord and Master, then maybe in the same way, we might also persuade people to join us on the Freedom Road through our liberated and liberating dance, led along the Way by our Lord, the Living God, the Loving God, the Way of Life himself.

 

Today’s Sermon: The Prodigal Son

Here we go…the sermon I’m preaching today.

WHO’S WHO?

READINGS: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Prodigal Son)

I wonder how many of you, once you realised what today’s Gospel reading was, thought “Oh, I know this one”, and stopped listening? I know that when I was preparing this sermon, that’s almost what I thought! I know this one. I know how it ends.

I have to admit that it’s actually these well known texts that are often the most difficult to preach on – because it’s all been said before, and you’ve probably heard it all before. So, all I can do is remind you of what other preachers before me have most likely said to you before…

The first thing that so many preachers concentrate on – quite rightly – is the enormity of the love that the Father showed in the story. The father that is, so often, seen to be a picture of God and his abundant, all-encompassing love. In fact, I have heard this story renamed “The Prodigal Father” as the word “prodigal” means extravagant to the point of wastefulness – and this is how he welcomes back the lost son. No thought of the loss of dignity as he runs down the road to greet his son, no thought of cost as he throws a lavish party, killing oxen and inviting the neighbours, no thought of what the lost son did to hurt him, but just an outpouring of joy that he has, at last, come home.

And this, we are so often reminded, is how God reacts when we return to his arms. One commentator writes “The Father is truly the Prodigal – one who loves extravagantly and does not withdraw love in the face of the disrespect, greed, resentfulness and surliness shown by his sons. The God we see mirrored in the prodigious welcome of the father is, in fact, the same God we saw in the extra care offered to the barren fig tree by the gardener”

There are no strings attached to God’s love: all he needs us to do is to take the first step. Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World” tells how a father, estranged from his son during the Spanish Civil War, puts a notice in the paper “Paco,” it read. “Meet me on Tuesday at noon in front of the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven. Papa” When the father went to the rendezvous, there were 800 young men all named Paco, all yearning to be reconciled with a father who wrote “All is forgiven.” Not “All will be forgiven if…” but “All IS forgiven”. No strings attached. I love you. Welcome home.

So, if that is the message you need to hear today from this story, then take it. Remember the love that God is boundless; it comes with no strings attached. God is waiting for you. All is forgiven.

But…maybe you’re thinking well, we know this, don’t we? We are reminded every Sunday when we take communion.

And so, another side to the story that preachers often focus on is asking Which of the two sons are you?  Are you the Son who has turned his back on all that his father has to offer him, and gone to live a profligate life in another country? Are you that son, who needs to recognise all that he has lost and needs to come back to the family fold? Or are you the other son – the one that struggles to welcome back the younger son because he feels hard done by. He feels that there is all this rejoicing over the sinner, when he, the one that didn’t go away, the one who stayed and slogged through the daily routine, doesn’t get anything – not even a pesky goat to share with his friends.

And isn’t this often the case – that our desire for a God of “fairness” (or at least, what we see as “fair”) instead of a God of mercy aligns us with the older son, the one who refuses to go to the party, and instead stands outside grumbling about how unfairly he has been treated by his father. It reminds me a little of the story of the workers in the vineyard – those who started later in the day received the same payment as those who had been working all day, and the second group of workers, who had been out in the sun the entire day were not happy about it! We like the fact that God is merciful and just – but it needs to be what we see as justice! We want to make God like us; we want what we see as justice to be his justice – when it should be the other way around.

Often too, in our complaining that “life isn’t fair” we forget to recognise how blessed we actually are. I don’t particularly like the hymn “Count your blessings,” but I do recognise the truth of the lyrics: Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. If we can do this, if we can pause and recognise the many things that God has done, does, and will do, if only we ask, then we too will see and experience our father’s bounty.

And so, sometimes preachers will ask you to think about how you respond to the abundant love of God – like the younger son, who throws himself humbly on his father’s mercy, and receives a welcome like no other, or like the older son, who grumbles and complains, and doesn’t actually recognise that had he only asked his father for that goat to share with his friends, his father would have probably thrown in a case of wine to make the party go with a swing!

But another commentator made a startling suggestion: what if we think of God not as the father in the story, but as the younger son. The son who comes over the horizon, bruised and hurting, filthy and unwelcomed. The son who needs to be welcomed. The son who needs to be washed, and loved, and made to feel human again? The son who needs to be fed, clothed, invited in…

Then the question becomes: who are you? Are you the father who does not see the filth, who does not worry about a loss of dignity, but who opens his arms, and treats this bruised and hurting person as royalty? Or are you the older son, who hangs back and mutters about it not being fair, this person is taking away from me what should be mine…

We are asked this question every day when we see refugees or migrants desperate for support; we are asked this question when we pass by a homeless person, or turn away when someone asks for help; we are asked this question when we don’t say anything as our colleagues talk about scroungers taking what isn’t rightly theirs, or when people are insulted for being Muslim or Jewish. We are asked this question every day: do you see beyond the dirt and the need to a human being needing respect and dignity, or do you see no further than the headlines in the tabloids?

David Henson, the commentator who asks this startling question writes: What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded? And if God comes to us like this, how do we respond? As the Father does, subverting social norms and opening his life to the chaos that the Prodigal brings? Or as the brother does, maintaining society’s values, but closing off his life to loving the other?

If we think about the part of the narrative that comes before the story of the Lost Son, we hear the religious leaders of the day, chastising Jesus, complaining that he ate with sinners and prostitutes. This wasn’t a matter of simply transgressing social norms. To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept, who you dined with, determined who you were. To the people of the time, because Jesus supped with the unclean, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the worst of the worst, Jesus, too, was the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute, the worst of the worst.

Jesus is the prodigal.

He asks us whether we will accept him, even if he reeks of what we think is unwashed sin.

He asks us whether we will embrace him, unclean and unsavoury to our tastes, with the lavish grace of a banquet.

He asks us whether we will run out to meet him when we see him lost, alone, bedraggled, and abused; whether we will be eager and expectant to do the irresponsible thing of living out the Good News.

He asks us whether we, like the father in the story, have the generosity to accept him as he appears; or whether we, like the brother, will demand that God not be so irresponsible and insist that God come to us only in the ways we find acceptable.

And I ask you – and I ask myself – what will you do? How will you respond?

 

 

Today’s Sermon (but not by me!)

This post includes the sermon preached at Christ Church today…I wasn’t there, as I needed today to rest a little, to recuperate and to think about next Sunday, when I am preaching! Yesterday became a day of cleaning and admin, and this morning was a bit like that too. However, I have managed to cross all but one task off my To Do list, so I’m feeling very pleased with myself!

It was Lee, one of our members, who preached today. It’s a good sermon, and I thought you might like to read it:

 

Lent is about remembering where we are, as we are remined on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We receive ashes to remind us that we are made for abundant life – and that death is part of the journey toward greater life.  The season of Lent developed as an act of solidarity with those who were preparing to be baptized at the great Easter Vigil, and it became an opportunity for all the faithful to practice returning to the center, and being re-grounded in what is most essential.

Now into the third week of the Season of Lent, our Sunday Gospel prepares us to hear Lent’s call to repentance. Today’s reading is found in the chapters of Luke’s Gospel that describe Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. During this journey, Jesus teaches and heals. He also responds to those who question and challenge his authority and actions. Luke tells us that some among the crowds report to Jesus that there has been a massacre of Galileans by Pilate. The intention of the crowd seems to be to ask Jesus to explain why these people suffered. It was commonplace then, as it still can be now, to view people’s suffering as evidence of their sinfulness.  Jesus challenges this interpretation. Those who were massacred were no more or less sinful than the ones who report the situation to Jesus.  Jesus replies that even a fatal accident, a natural disaster, should not to be interpreted as punishment for sin.

But then Jesus goes on to say, “if you don’t repent, you’re going to die, too.”  Many Christians (and non-Christians) still hear this as a great threat of retribution.  It’s not.  It IS the same reminder that the ashes bear – we’re all terminal, we all come into this world with a more or less fixed span of life, and yes, some of us do depart this life earlier than expected.  What Jesus is saying is that life abundant or eternal life is to be found in turning back to what is most central.  Know that you will die, and live as though this moment is eternally significant.  Love God with all you are and all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then continues with a parable about a barren fig tree.  In this parable, we find an image of God’s patience and hopefulness as he prepares his Kingdom. God calls us to repent, and yet God is merciful. He delays punishment and tends to us so that we may yet bear fruit.

The fig tree is fruitless.  The owner wants to cut it down – it’s useless.  But the gardener counsels treatment and patience.  He offers to treat the fruitlessness  by digging and fertilizing.  Digging around the tree will prune the roots, and stress the tree.  That stress is a good thing because it creates something of a crisis.  Usually it will reorient the energies of the tree toward bearing fruit rather than just growing more branches and leaves.  Fruit trees and grapevines that aren’t ever pruned don’t produce much good quality fruit – they simply turn “weedy.”  Digging around the tree will get rid of weeds competing for nutrients, and it will open up the soil structure so that water and nutrients can get to those roots.  Adding fertilizer will ensure that the tree gets the nutrients it needs to produce fruit and not just more leaves.

So what might that mean for us?  Digging around our roots means letting go of the unimportant.  What might our roots be growing into?  Are they seeking living water – or emptiness? This tree needs compost.  It’s a reminder that the stuff we try hard to avoid, the messiness of incarnation, is absolutely essential to real life.  We will not bear fruit or find life abundant unless we’re willing to encounter the smelly and the dirty and the lowly around us.

There’s another word for digging, root pruning, and manuring – repenting.  They mean the same thing – letting go of what doesn’t produce fruit, drawing back from what isn’t life-giving, putting our energy into what is life-giving, and turning toward what is fruitful – in direct encounter with the presence of God all around us, and deep within us.   What most of think of when we think repentance is stopping our naughtiness and being sorry so that we may be forgiven our sins.  That isn’t it.  Sin isn’t naughtiness.  Sin really is about distance from God.  Things are sinful in that they increase our distance from God, or, they result from our distance from God.

Repenting and returning is not just about ceasing sin, turning from sinful activity.  Repentance and return happens in seeking, accepting, inhabiting the Kingdom of God proclaimed by God in Jesus.

It is at hand, that Kingdom.   God’s kingdom is not something mythical, not other worldly, not something we need to wait for until the end of days… No.  The kingdom of God is something far more commonplace that that: The kingdom of God is simply how things are supposed to be.  We know how things are supposed to be, we can smell it, we know it when we see it.  See the quiet joy of a mother nursing an infant.  Gaze at a mighty river endlessly coursing or a beautiful sunset or a sea otter floating peacefully in the waves.  We know what is right and good and joyful when we see it.  We know what to do.  We know how to be.  We know to be ourselves as God intended us to be, but goodness, it is hard to stay on that path.

Well, it is for me, anyway.  Besides a small percentage of severely broken people with deep pathologies, we know the difference between right and wrong, truly; we know the difference between good and evil, between what we should do and what we should not do, how we should conduct ourselves in the world and how we should not.  Sure we have lots to learn because much of the world is not as it seems and is not as we have been taught, but in our hearts we know light from dark. We know when we are on the wrong side.  We do.  But if only it were as easy as knowing.  We must repent and return, constantly.

One of the key understandings of repentance and returning is making things as they are supposed to be.  Now that is exceedingly hard to do in the context of a society (if not a civilization) founded on principles directly not in line with the way things are supposed to be, but it is possible.  We can repent and return.  We can take baby steps towards the kingdom, which, brings us back to the matter of compost.

What do we have to discard of ourselves on the compost heap of existence?  What in our lives, our beings do we need to excise and purify in the mighty 150 degree furnace of a good compost system?  This is a way to approach repentance.  This is a way to understand our return to the kingdom of God.

Is this that unlike God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Horeb?  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  This is not the way it is supposed to be.  Empire.  Slavery.   The subjugation of a people under harsh taskmasters.  This is not the kingdom of God, and here, God intervenes, and ordains a man; an orphan, a refugee, a survivor, God ordains Moses to go down to Pharaoh and lead God’s people to the promised land.

The trouble is, we don’t go from bondage to the promised land in a single bound.  This is the journey of Lent.  This is the journey of repentance and return.  Because like those Galileans slaughtered in the midst of worship, or the workers killed as the tower of Siloam collapsed, the end often comes unexpectedly.  We have today to work on our relationships with each other and with God.  Repenting and returning is a daily process, a daily reconciliation of the way things are supposed to be.  It is no less than a daily practice of envisioning and realizing the kingdom of God.  We have our work cut out for us.  Dig at those roots and add good compost. Think on God’s Kingdom. Repent and Return.    AMEN.