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”

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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.

Today’s Sermon: Courage & Vulnerability

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 / Psalm 27 /Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

To be honest with you, when I read the readings proscribed in the Lectionary for today, my first thought was “Can I preach about something else?!” My second thought was to wonder why on earth these strange, and frankly perplexing, little readings had been put together. What was the theme that was running through the minds of the people who put the Lectionary together? At first glance the theme seems to be “Little Snippets of Scripture that don’t fit anywhere else”

But as I read them, and researched around them, I started to see that there is a thread that holds them together – I think! I want to base my sermon on the Gospel reading most of all, but I hope we will see how these readings are connected.

I wonder if you know someone to whom the term “pig headed” can be applied? Someone who, once set upon a course of action, refuses to be diverted from that course, however foolish or detrimental the results may be. I grit my teeth here and refuse to mention Brexit! Well, for me, at first glance, I think that this reading shows that Jesus could be referred to as “pig headed” Here he is, heading towards Jerusalem, when some well-meaning Pharisees come to him and suggest that, as Herod wants to kill him, Jesus would probably be safer away from the area. And instead of thanking them, and scurrying away to a place of safety, Jesus basically tells them to go back to Herod and tell him that he, Jesus, is not changing course for anyone.

Some commentators put forward the idea that the Pharisees weren’t being quite as charitable as they may, at first sight, seem, and in fact were trying to get Jesus to go away because he was causing trouble for them.  Jesus realised this, and, in telling them (possibly sarcastically) to “go back to that fox” he was letting them know that he understood what they were doing. Whether this is the case or not, Jesus certainly seems to be showing classic signs of pig headed stubbornness…

But you know, there is another side to this picture, and that is the courage that Jesus showed. He knew that this was going to end badly for him – but he knew that there was no other way of showing God’s all-encompassing love for humanity than by going ahead. By opening himself up, by becoming completely and utterly vulnerable, even unto death, Jesus demonstrated the lengths God would go to for us. This is the way of the Gospel of Christ: the way of love and sacrifice over the way of power and dominion. It is always a way of courage.

A way of courage because it takes real courage to make oneself open and vulnerable to others. But this is what Paul is reminding us to do in the reading from Philippians. “stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” he writes “Imitate me as I follow Jesus’ example”. He describes how those of the world have their mind set on worldly things, and how we are called to be different.

We are being called to be in a community: a community that shows love and concern for the world. A community that is willing to open itself up, to be vulnerable, to follow Jesus’ example wherever that may take us. But you know, those words are so easy to say, and so difficult to do…

How often have you glanced at a beggar in the street, and decided not to give them money because, well, let’s face it you’re down to your last few euros, and they’ll probably only spend it on drugs anyway? Or not stopped to ask someone if they needed help because you didn’t want to look silly? Or you haven’t volunteered for a task because you’re worried you can’t do it, and you’ll end up with egg on your face? So, maybe that homeless person wasn’t able to buy a hot meal that day…or the person who needed help didn’t get it…or the task went undone…

We don’t want to look silly – we don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to give our last few euros – we don’t want to be vulnerable. But it is this way of vulnerability and openness that God calls us to follow.  But it requires strength and it requires courage

The word “courage” comes from the Latin “cor”, which means “heart” and perhaps this can remind us that living courageously means living from the heart, being authentic, being vulnerable. And while we’re looking at etymology, the word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin, meaning to “wound or to hurt”. Christian courage is whole hearted living, accepting ourselves, and every other person, as loved by God, and thus deserving love, empathy and respect from us. It is realising that there is no community of love and belonging where there is not regard and respect for everyone. But Christian courage also means opening oneself up to being wounded and hurt by those of the world who do not understand. It means being willing to be rejected or made to feel stupid.

Doesn’t this go against everything that we’ve been taught by the world? Don’t trust other people – they’re out to rip you off… don’t open yourself up, people will take advantage…look after yourself, and let the others go hang…Fight for your rights…But that reading from Philippians reminds us that we should not be following the example that the world sets us. These are values to be rejected. Instead we should remember the commitment we made to God, the covenant we made with him: however impossible it seems, we will follow him.

And the reading from Genesis, and the words of the Psalm that we read together, both tell us how we can do this: through trusting in God. God made Abram a promise that, at first sight, seemed ridiculous – you, an old man with no children, your ancestors will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And despite his initial scepticism, Abram made a covenant with God, sealing it with the traditional sacrifices; a covenant that said “I am yours, and you are mine. Let your will be done”, a covenant that rings with trust in the Eternal God.  And the Psalmist echoes words of trust in God “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” he sings. “The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”

This then is how it is done. This is how we open ourselves to the vulnerability that God demands of us: we trust him. We trust him that in giving our last euros to a person in need we will be doing God’s work; that by offering to help someone in distress, we won’t look silly, but that we will be offering God’s love; that by volunteering for something we are afraid we can’t do, we are saying “I believe God wants me to do this; I will trust in his strength”. We make ourselves vulnerable – but through our vulnerability, God is strong.

Some of us here are following 40 Acts through Lent – a daily challenge, giving us the opportunity to be generous, to think about others and to make ourselves vulnerable and open. We have been asked to carry out such acts as giving away something precious to us, or really taking time to listen to someone who needs to talk, or giving away chocolate bars: each one challenging us in a different way to let go of our egos and open ourselves up so that God can work through us to bring his love into the world – even in a gesture as simple as offering a Mars bar to somebody and saying “This is for you.”

And so, my brothers and sisters, I urge you in this period of reflection before Easter, when we remember the ultimate sign of God’s courage, love and vulnerability, be willing to make yourself open to hurt in the service and love of others. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a sacrifice to a vengeful God, but rather a gesture, an outpouring of God’s love, so great that he conquered death and opened the way for us to step into eternal life.

We owe it to him to show that love to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon today: All Mouth & No Trousers?

Hello, everyone. This is just a quick post (though maybe not to read!!!) from me. Hopefully I’ll have time to post tomorrow, but there’s no promises – completing my bills for September took longer than anticipated today, so I didn’t have time for the other things I had to do, so they’ve been shunted to Monday, which means Monday is fuller than I wanted it to be!!

Anyway, I thought I’d cheat a bit by posting the sermon that I preached today. If it’s not your cup of tea, no problem. I hope that tomorrow’s (possible) post might be more your “thing”!

But, for those who might be interested, here it is.

All mouth and no trousers?

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7/ Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16/ Philippians 2:1-13/ Matthew 21:23-32

There’s a saying where I come from: “He’s all mouth and no trousers” – that is, he is someone who is very willing to voice his opinion, or say what should be done, or promise the earth, but, when it comes down to it, is less than willing to back up those opinions with action, or deliver on those promises. I suppose it’s the equivalent of saying that someone “walks the walk, but doesn’t talk the talk”.

And throughout the readings we have heard, we are given examples of people who have plenty of mouth, but not so much on the trouser front. The people of Israel had already seen God at work in their lives: he had brought Moses to them as their leader, he had led them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, so they could escape the pursuing army, showing the way with the pillars of cloud and fire, providing food in the wilderness…All of these things revealing the fact that God was on their side.  When everything was going their way, they were more than happy to proclaim God as their deliverer, to praise him for what he had done for them. But it seems that, as soon as there is a tiny grain of doubt, all the previous evidence of God’s providence and care was not enough for them: when faced with another challenge – the lack of water – they showed no trust in YHWH, their God, but rather started grumbling, and threatening to stone Moses, their appointed leader. “Is the Lord with us, or not?” they demanded – clearly having already decided that no, the Lord wasn’t with them.

Within the hearts of the Israelites there was a distinct lack of humility.  During their wandering in the desert, God tested the Israelites in various ways, putting them in a position where they must declare their true allegiance.  Will the people allow YHWH to be their God by trusting that he will feed and rule them.?  All through the testing the people fail again and again, by grumbling, by a lack of trust, yet God still provides. In this story too, the Israelites still did not trust God. When faced with another challenge, they didn’t hold onto what they had learned about their God, or what they had previously proclaimed, but rather looked for someone to blame for this most recent test, lighting on Moses. But then, as he pointed out, their quarrel was not with him, but with God: in not believing that God can, and will, provide for them, they are declaring that their allegiance lies elsewhere.

We see another reaction to God’s challenges illustrated in the Gospel reading: the Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and questioned him about who gave him the authority to act as he did. This comes in the midst of Jesus’ last days – he had already entered Jerusalem as a King, welcomed by the people, he had already cleansed the Temple courts of thieves – and the chief priests were getting edgy. They wanted Jesus dealt with. They couldn’t – or didn’t want to – recognise where his authority came from, they couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see that Jesus was doing the work of God. They had seen him healing the sick, they had seen him working miracles, they had heard him preaching of forgiveness, of the end to oppression, the endless love of God but, rather like the Israelites in the wilderness, despite being shown over and over the God that is working for them, they disputed the authority behind Jesus’ actions and words. Perhaps they themselves felt uncomfortable in the face of what Jesus was saying and doing, because their reaction had not been as it should have been. They talked the talk of desiring the Kingdom of God, of caring for others, but when challenged, we can see that they did not walk that walk.

And perhaps Jesus picked up on this, as he went on to tell the story of the two sons in the vineyard – the son who initially refused to help his father, but then had a change of heart, and the other son, who agreed readily, but didn’t follow through on his promise. Which one, asks Jesus, did his Father’s will?  The first, the scribes answer – I can almost hear them thinking “Well, der – obviously the one who did the work!”

And then Jesus deals the killer blow – which are you? He challenges. And then replies, you have heard the word of God, both in the scriptures, and revealed in me, and yet – despite your fine words about following the Law – you do not repent, and truly do as God would have you do. You are like the second son, who promises much, but delivers nothing.

In their quarrelling, and demanding of answers, the Scribes and the other leaders of the Temple reveal themselves to be lacking in humility. They try to trick Jesus, but bicker among themselves about how to answer his questions without showing themselves in a bad light; in refusing to recognise the authority of God in what Jesus is doing and saying, they reveal their lack of allegiance to that God. They are not concerned with following the Word of God for any other reason than because it makes them look good.

And so, throughout the readings we see the thread of how time and again, people react to God’s challenge with a lack of humility, with a concern to look good or to find someone else to blame – but not with a real thirst to do God’s will, and bring his Kingdom about on earth.

We have been challenged in these readings, for the question that was implied in Jesus’ demand “which one of these did his father’s will?” is a question that is put to us: which are you? What do you do when faced with a challenge from God? Sitting here in Christ Church each Sunday, we say, and sing, and pray so many things. But the challenge is: what exactly do we do when we leave church and go into the world?

Are you – am I? –  like the son who says “Yes, Father, I love you and want to do as you ask” but then actually does nothing to back up his promises? Saying all the right words, but never quite following up on them.

Or maybe you haven’t said “Yes” yet? Maybe you are like the first son who has said “No, thank you, it’s not for me.” In telling how this son changed his mind, and finally decided to do as his Father asked, Jesus reminds us that the future is open for you. Like the first son, and like the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus referred to, the way to changing your mind and joining the workers is there. Those who work for the Kingdom are welcomed by God, whenever they accept the challenge.

Or are we like the third son? The son who says, “Yes father, of course,” and goes off, happily whistling, to labour in his father’s vineyards until the end of the day.

Hang on, I hear you say, there isn’t a third son! Well, no, not in the story that Jesus told in this situation there isn’t. But in the story that Jesus told in his life, there is. In Jesus’ life we see the Son that is described in Philippians: Jesus, the Son of God. The Son, who doesn’t consider his own status, the Son who was obedient, the Son who did his father’s will and put others before himself.

The Son who showed us the way to true humility: the humility of service. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul entreats them to show the same attitude as Christ, as he says, “each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others” For Paul, these are the actions that reveal Christ in the world. In these verses Paul outlines how this humility of service, this willingness to serve others, can have a truly restorative effect both within the Church and beyond. One commentator states “true Christian love flows from the disposition to unseat concern for self as the driving force of life and replace it with a practical concern for others”.

If we have this true humility, as revealed by Christ, and celebrated in the hymn of Philippians, then there will be true and genuine unity within the church and among believers as we work together to serve God in our community and in the world beyond. Then what a powerhouse for change could the church become. The upper echelons of the Jewish temple who came to Jesus with their challenge, weren’t really interested in doing God’s work, and in genuinely understanding Jesus, but rather in looking good in front of the people. And being so involved in bickering amongst themselves, they failed to uphold the weak and oppressed, the sinners and searchers, in their community.

Christ was willing to sacrifice himself for others, even if it meant dying; in the hymn of praise in Philippians we read “He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross”. He calls on us to do the same: to put others first, to fight for the Kingdom here on earth.

You may know of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. He stood up for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, preaching, serving, working tirelessly for the rights of others. Even when he received death threats he refused to stop highlighting the injustices in his community. We may not be called to sacrifice ourselves to the extent that Romero did, but we are called on to put ourselves last, to put others first, just as Romero did, whatever the cost to ourselves might be.

Romero once said: “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?”

Christ preached a gospel that unsettled, because it offered a future to the untouchables, the prostitutes, the tax collectors.  Christ proclaimed a word of God that got under peoples’ skins, because it told them -and us – that injustice and oppression were not to be tolerated, that the sin of mouthing words of love for God and neighbour but not revealing that love in action was not acceptable. And this the Gospel we are called to preach. This is the love we are called to act on.

And we can only reveal that same revolutionary love in action if we are willing to put others before ourselves, if we are willing to acknowledge that what we have is through the grace of God, to declare that our allegiance is with him, because we have seen the goodness and provision and love of God in what he has done for us. And in that humility before God and before those we serve we can answer the challenge that he sets before us.

It’s a bit scary, isn’t it? It’s a big thing.

And how many of us (and, I promise you, I am including myself in this question) are sitting here, listening, and saying “Yes, I will do it.” – but, actually, probably won’t.

And how many are sitting here, already knowing that it’s beyond us, saying “Nope. Sorry, God, I won’t.”

Wherever you are, just remember, the way is open, the future isn’t over. With God’s grace, we can always change. The future is open for all. In the story of the two sons, we know that the first had a change of heart, and, having initially refused, delighted his father by doing his will. We know too that the second son showed willing, but finally did nothing – but we don’t know if, the next day, he too apologised, changed his mind, and did as his father asked. The story is left open.

Our story is left open.

But with humility we can follow the example of the true son, the Son who emptied himself for others, who served his Father, and brought the Kingdom of God to the earth.

I have spoken of Oscar Romero, a man of the Church, who lived his life for the poor and oppressed, who served his God with humility and love. I would like to finish with a prayer written by another man of God, who worked with the poor of his time, bringing the word of God to a society where the rich amassed more wealth at the cost of those who worked below them. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that that greed and self-interest is ‘destructive of that faith which is of the operation of God; of that hope which is full of immortality; of love of God and of our neighbour, and of every good word and work.’ He recognised that if we are only concerned about ourselves, our possessions, our self-worth then we cannot truly love God, we cannot truly serve others.

And in recognition of this, he wrote a beautiful prayer, which is part of the yearly Covenant service in Methodist churches. And for me it echoes the words of that hymn in Philippians, which reminds us what Christ did for us. This prayer reminds us of what we can do for God and for others.

It is actually a very scary prayer. I read it at my baptism, and every time I have read it since , I know that I am a bit like the second son, saying the words that his father wants to hear, but not following through. But I so want to mean them. And so, I hope that finally I may be like the first son who changes his mind, who changes direction and finally takes the road that is open to him to do what his father asks:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

 

Last week’s sermon: The Good Shepherd

This is a bit of a cheat, posting my sermon, but I do like to share them. If it doesn’t float your boat then you can hang around for the next installment of the Cyclo’s trip, which I’m hoping to post tomorrow. But I know some people are interested, so here it is:

READINGS: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Every Sunday, when I was young, my parents took my brother, my sister and I to my Nana’s home, where we would spend the day. We would go to church with her, and then have our roast dinner at midday. Nana would make scones, or potato cakes, and then we would troop back to church, where she would hand out bags of freshly made baked goods to her friends and neighbours, and I would go to Sunday School. This took place in the basement of the huge edifice that was County Road Methodist Church, and I remember that on the walls of the basement room were various pictures considered suitably edifying for young minds. There was Holbein Hunt’s “Light of the World” and there was also a rather insipid painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Wearing a long white gown – eminently unsuitable for life in the fields, I would think – an extremely Caucasian Jesus was holding a lamb in his arms, while other lambs and sheep pressed against his legs. It was a comforting picture – there were rolling green hills in the background, the sheep were plump and just-washed white, there were no predators lurking behind bushes, licking their lips, and dreaming of lamb chops for dinner. Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We as the lambs.

And it is this picture that is reflected, at least to a degree, in the Psalm that we read together, the Psalm that is probably best known of all. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. What a glorious image that is, even to those of us who nothing about animal husbandry; we imagine that picture of the shepherd carrying his lambs, caring for his sheep.

The Psalm tells us of a Shepherd God, who leads his flock to green pastures and still waters, who knows exactly what they need and provides this. All the sheep need to do is to trust their shepherd, to follow his voice, because they understand that he will not lead them to harm. After wandering in the dryness of the hillside, the shepherd finds a place where his flock can rest and be nourished by the green grass. For us, as human beings, the words “he leads me beside still waters” will conjure up ideas of peacefulness and calm; in fact, in sheep terms it is much more important than this. Sheep are not great fans of rushing water: they will drink from it, but they are reluctant to do so, as they are afraid. They prefer still, or gently flowing water where they can drink, without fear, to their hearts’ content. The Shepherd knows this and he brings them to those places where they can feel safe, and take the opportunity to be refreshed.

The Psalmist goes on to say that even in the ravines that the Shepherd leads them through, the sheep can feel secure, as they know the Shepherd will protect them. Even when they cannot see him, they hear the tap-tap-tapping of his staff against the rocky path. They know that his rod, the cudgel he wears at his belt, will fend off any predators who come near. They are safe.

And we can read this Psalm, and feel comforted by the picture that it gives us of our God as a caring Shepherd: if we trust him, he leads us to places where we can be at peace, where we can be nourished; he does not confront us with things of which we are fearful, but instead brings us contentment. Like the flock following their Shepherd, we don’t necessarily need to know where we’re headed, all the details of the journey. Only that we are in the right place, right now, just where we should be. And even when we have to face problems, then we can rely on him to be there, still leading the way and protecting us. Everything is calm, everything is beautiful, everything is rosy. It is that pastoral picture of Jesus cuddling a lamb, with the washing-powder white flock surrounding him, looks of sheepy contentment on their faces.

But, as Rob said last week, it is not in these situations of comfort that we grow. He talked about times of loss and struggle as being the catalysts for knowing and learning. Learning about ourselves; learning about God. As Christians – as human beings – we get very used to being in our “comfort zone”. We do things a certain way, we believe certain things, we behave in certain manners, and when we have to step outside of this zone, we begin to feel uncomfortable, and challenged, and maybe scared. Suddenly we are being asked to do things in a different way, our belief system is being questioned, and we have to consider something we’ve never thought of before.

So far, we have pictured our sheep as obedient creatures who, trusting their Shepherd, will follow him wherever he leads, doing whatever he tells them to do, and responding to his voice. But if anyone has watched One Man and his Dog, or seen sheep being rounded up, they know that this may not always be the case. Sheep are not as dim witted as we often imagine, but – rather like us – they prefer their comforts, they prefer feeling safe to being challenged. However, the sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but they must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.

And this is where Jesus’ picture of himself as the Good Shepherd comes into play. In today’s reading, we don’t hear Jesus actually use this metaphor – that comes a few verses after those we read today – but we do hear him talking about how his flock know his voice. The shepherd of the sheep calls his own sheep by name and leads them out., says Jesus, and then he continues. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

It is while researching this sermon that I found the answer to something that has often perplexed me about this Gospel reading. I have always been a little surprised how in this passage Jesus skips between metaphors, first saying he is the gate to the sheepfold, and then a couple of verses later, refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. It has never seemed to make sense, as usually Jesus takes just one image and develops it to lead his listeners to understanding what he means. However, I discovered that , in the Middle East of Jesus’s time, the sheepfolds were not individual folds, where each shepherd kept his own flock, but rather they were communal affairs, probably built into a hillside, with stone walls protruding out, narrowing to an entranceway. Various shepherds would bring their flocks to the fold where they would all mix together as they rested for the night. Once the sheep were all in the fold, the shepherds would lie in the entranceway, acting as a gate effectively securing the sheep, and protecting them from harm, from predators and thieves. Then, in the morning, the shepherds would call and chivvy their own sheep out of the fold to find grazing for the day.

So, Jesus could refer to himself as both the gate and the Good Shepherd, because any good shepherd acted as the gate to the sheepfold. Jesus’ listeners would know this, and so when he referred to himself as the gate, protecting his sheep in the fold from thieves and bandits they would immediately picture the Shepherd lying down between his flock and those who would harm them. Literally, laying down his life for them.

There we have it, that image of the Good Shepherd who cares for his flock, and the group of sheep trooping obediently after their Shepherd, because they know his voice, they trust him, they love him.

Well…not exactly.

You see Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English does rather obscure the particular word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.

But this pushing, this shoving by the Shepherd is something that we so often need. Just as the sheep may actually prefer to stay in their fold, surrounded by safe stone walls, don’t we prefer to stay where we feel comfortable? We want to know that we have money in the bank, and a roof over our heads, we feel we need our jobs, our cars, our possessions that surround us. We feel that if we have these things that society tells us are so important then we are doing okay. We don’t want to let them go, because then we might have to face up to facts that we don’t like. We want to hold onto the beliefs we have held dear since childhood, and don’t want them to be challenged, because then we may have to face up to a God that isn’t just on our side, but on the side of the outcasts and the not-quite-our-sort-of-people. We want to feel safe. We want to stay in our comfort zone, in our sheep fold. We want to huddle together with people like ourselves.

But, as I said earlier, if the sheep stay in their fold they will not be fed. It is not good for them to stay there, and so the Shepherd will force them from the restrictive stone walls and bring them out. Because he knows what they need. It is when they are released from the confines of the fold that they will have the freedom to find the nourishment they need. The good grass that will help them to grow, to have life.

A few verses later Jesus says Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. …. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

So what is this abundant life that we can have, if only we allow ourselves to be challenged by our dynamic Shepherd-God?

I believe that this is what is illustrated in the reading from Acts, which told us about how the early church lived and worked together. Let me remind you of what we heard: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Here we read about how the early Christians accepted the challenge set before them by their Lord. We have a picture of them, no longer clinging to their possessions, to what was theirs, to what made them feel safe. Instead they were open to providing for those who were in need. Yes, they retreated into the safety of the sheepfold – spending time together in the Temple – but they did not stay there. They also lived out the Gospel in their everyday lives. One commentator I read talks of the early church “gathering for growth and worship balanced by scattering for work and to communicate the Gospel”. This is the life that our Shepherd challenges us to live: yes, by all means, retreat to the sheepfold at night, where you feel safe with others from your flock. Rest, and be comforted in the sheepfold of the church flock. But do not stay there. In the morning, go out into the world to find nourishment in following your Shepherd. He will lead you to unexpected places, but they will be places where he will go before you, guiding you and taking you further and higher than you might even believe you can go. There will be challenges, but by facing those challenges you will be fed and you will learn about yourself, and your relationship with the one who leads you, because it is only when we are taken out of the places where we feel comfortable that we learn who we are and what we can do. It is only in leaving the safety of the sheepfold that we can be nourished, and grow, and truly learn what abundant life God offers us.

And so, I would like to finish with the words of Adam Thomas, a young minister in Massachusetts, who writes:

The message of the Resurrection is this: life cannot be conquered– not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens–fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus told us: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to in order to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds–whatever they may be–we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.