Monthly Archives: October 2016

A familiar story? (Kingdom 1c)

Zacchaeus may only appear as a story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10), but it is a familiar story to many – and perhaps familiarity does not help us see its value.  Jesus is going through town when he calls to a figure up a tree to come down and offer him a meal.  The crowd don’t like it – this is a Tax collector (collaborator with the Roman occupying power, cheat, outsider . .).

Apparently Jesus has seen more in this man.  Zacchaeus not only gets down and offers a meal, but he offers to make up to anyone he has cheated, and gives away half his money!  This is a real turn-around (repentance, in Christian language).  Jesus emphasises his ministry “to seek out and to save the lost”, something we may be glad of, but which the crowd are suspicious of.  The disciples (then and now) have to learn both what Jesus is doing, and who is part of this new “Kingdom” family.  Who is “safe”?

The picture we may miss is of the disciples, Jesus, with Zacchaeus and perhaps the blind beggar (healed on the way into town) eating with a group of doubtful characters, some of whom may be about to follow Zacchaeus into a new life.  Outside – by their own choice, but perhaps unaware how serious that choice is – are those who prefer to criticise and stick with “their own kind”.

Safety is – learning with the disciples.

Expectations (Bible Sunday)

When Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-24), he announced the fulfillment of prophecy going back centuries, the opportunity for his hearers to be involved in the turning point of history, the moment God’s plans were put into action.

And they didn’t want to know.

They should have been ready.  The scriptures they read week by week, and discussed, had all the clues.  The Messiah was expected, the Servant was known from Isaiah – this was nothing new.  But the lack of expectation meant that Jesus could not be heard.  It was as if God was not welcome in synagogue.  What happened there had to conform, to affirm the social order and its leaders.  If Jesus wanted anything to change, Who Did He Think He Was!?  (a rhetorical question – a correct answer would have saved them).

It is not difficult to see how it could happen.  Social pressures can make us blind to what God is saying and doing.  But will I go to worship with an expectation of meeting God, of hearing – perhaps what I don’t want, or expect, to hear?  Will my congregation be ready to hear, pray, pick up the clues from scripture?  Will it matter enough to override other plans, assumptions, and the weariness of another week?

Jesus went to worship, but the congregation could not hear God.  It is the worst thing that can ever happen to a congregation.

Go on, and on, and . . (Pentecost 22c, Proper 24c)

Sometimes you find something which is hard to make sense of.  Perhaps you think it is telling you what you don’t want to hear – or, even worse, what you think other people might want to throw at you.  Take Luke 18:1-8, one of Jesus’ stories about a widow and an unjust judge.  Is it a justification of nagging? a suggestion that God is reluctant to listen and has to be bullied?  I think not (but it may explain why the other gospel writers don’t include this story).

This is about persistence, but to understand its significance we need to look at the story.   Jesus makes the point that we should always pray, and not become discouraged or lose heart.   Why would that happen? Because things don’t seem to be going our way, aren’t working out the way we expected or hoped.

So the story is about a widow (no influence, money . .) and an unjust judge (not bothered about justice – but hoping for a bribe, except that in this case, not much chance of that). He can’t be bothered to give justice – until he reckons its worth it for a quiet life.  Is God like the judge? No, Jesus is saying EVEN if a judge like that (who doesn’t care for justice, people . .) can be persuaded, HOW MUCH MORE will God (who longs to give good things) answer our prayers.  He isn’t comparing God and the judge, but making the contrast.

So, why do we need to persist? All the parable tells us is that persistent prayer works. We aren’t told why – but we can have a guess.  Sometimes our prayers sound as if we are giving God good advice on how to run the world. We flit from subject to subject. But the things that we come back to are the things that matter most to us – and the things we are prepared to get involved with.  God is prepared to work with us.  He is even prepared to change the way he deals with things according to what we will take on. And – we might guess – persistence, coming back to one subject again and again, is an indication that we mean business, and he can work with us.

Let me give you an example. We might pray for our church. We often do. The success of that prayer is not about how good we sound when we pray, or how carefully the words are crafted or read, or how long we keep producing more words. But if people who really want a thriving Christian community (so turn up, work, put up with and solve problems), the more God effectively can use them in his plans, and the greater the blessing.  That is only a guess at how it might work. But it does take seriously this parable (that we need to persist in prayer and not be discouraged), as well as the reminder in Matthew 6:7,8a that heaping up empty phrases gets us nowhere.

Don’t lose the last words, “will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” Its easy to run down, get tired, think other people ought to be doing things now. Christians need persistence.

Thank you (Pentecost 21c, Proper 23c)

Why does saying “thank you” matter?  Is it anything more than manners (of the sort children have to do, and adults think they have grown out of)?  Perhaps so.  The story of 10 healed lepers, of whom only one returns to Jesus to offer thanks, is interesting.  (Luke 17:11-19).

It seems all 10 are healed, and stay healed – we have to assume the cure was “certified” by the priest, allowing them to return from isolation to normal life.  Perhaps it was the urgency of getting that official all clear that led them to hurry off.  But the tenth stops to give thanks, and we see how thanksgiving recognises a gift.  Recognising a gift means also recognising the giver.  Knowing that the most important things we have (life, health, intelligence, opportunity . .) are a gift from God is an understanding that changes our view of the universe.

Of course thanksgiving is a large part of worship – and making that a public statement is important in our witness to what God has done for us, that is our faith.  We don’t do a lot of thanksgiving or praise in our western culture.  Politicians, celebrities and others known to many are more likely to be gossiped about or criticised, to the extent that public thanks or praise sound strange, if not strained.

So, what benefit does this leper get from his return to thank Jesus?  He is reminded of, and acknowledges, the gift of healing.  He opens a relationship with the one who gave him his cure.  More than this, Jesus says “your faith has made you well” – not fit, or un-leprous, but well.  Being well covers far more.  We might imagine that some of the 9 healed lepers remain angry at their treatment, fearful of further illness, keen to settle old scores . .  To be well is to be freed of so much more than physical illness.

 

Harvest (Harvest c)

Harvest Thanksgiving!?  Deuteronomy 26:1-11 might seem strange: the farmer is to take some of the first of his produce, and publicly acknowledge it as God’s gift. Then he is to celebrate, sharing with others, including resident aliens. You might find that interesting, even quaint, but a little remote. We don’t farm, and too often we don’t give thanks, or recognise the gifts and goodness of God either.

Giving thanks is important. You don’t give thanks for what is your due, your earnings – though you might say thank you to someone who makes the effort to calculate and hand over your wages. And too often we imagine that what we have is our due, earned by hard work. Think a little harder. Yes, you may well have worked and saved. Where did the energy come from, the intelligence that made it possible, the life without which nothing would have happened? Natural processes – yes, certainly they are the means, but unless you believe it all to be chance without reason or purpose, then God’s providence is responsible.

For Christians, life is a gift, as is health, energy, intelligence. Work, though it can be mindless and dehumanising, should not be so and is what we are meant for. So we recognise that God is the giver of so many good things, and we give thanks. Sometimes thanksgiving is reduced to good manners, something to teach children – and reject as adults. That’s a mistake. Giving thanks is a reminder of gift. It establishes a relationship.

Thank you God, for food and shelter, often taken for granted or forgotten. Thank you for the goodness and generosity with which you give – not confining us to grey barrack block housing and endless tasteless porridge to keep us alive. Now – what was it you intended me to do with the life, energy, and intelligence you gave? How can I react to the danger in which we have placed the very environment of the whole earth? We could talk about the ecological crisis, and how we respond. We could talk about vocation – the “calling” of each Christian to find how their gifts and personality are meant to be used with others for the good of all. . .

You might think that I am building too much on an Old Testament harvest liturgy, but I would point you to Jesus words (John 6:25-35) as he debates with those who came to the feeding of the 5,000, and want more free lunches. What do they have to do? To trust the one God sent – Jesus.  Not to keep rules, but to learn from the bread of life, and live in relationship to him and in the way he lives in relationship – to God, creation, and other people.
Thanksgiving for harvest is old, and still important. Giving thanks reminds us of gifts received, and opens a relationship. We have to resist delusions of self-sufficiency, and learn proper dependance on God. Oh yes, and we have to celebrate, sharing with all sorts of people!