Monthly Archives: November 2017

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Risks everywhere

How do you feel about taking risks? Do you enjoy being scared? For that matter, what do you think Christian faith has to say about taking risks?  This isn’t just a rhetorical opening. I want you to think clearly and have an answer: Does Christian faith encourage risk taking – if so, what sort and when? Does Christian faith discourage risk taking – again, what sort and when?

Jesus tells a story (Matthew 25:14-30) which involves huge amounts of money – a talent was a labourer’s wage for 15 years!!! – so the 3 are given, say £1m, £1/2 m and a mere £200,000. The stakes are high, the servants are not being asked to do odd jobs in their spare time.

How might this apply to us? In my part of the Church we are being asked to move to working in Ministry Areas. – Fewer paid priests, but using the gifts of more people. Parishes working together in areas, with more opportunity to do things that could not be done in one Parish alone. Risks? High stakes? Changes – yes, its all there.  But you might say that these things are part of normal Christian life, mightn’t you?

The challenge, of course, is to take that positively. Not “It’ll never work!”, “Seen it all before”, “You can’t expect me to . . “ negativity, but – well, let’s see what the parable (or is it an allegory?) offers:

Jesus is the master, and the Church members are the slaves. In a difficult time, we are given gifts and the wits to use them – and will be judged on our energy and inventiveness. The gifts may not be evenly distributed, but we all have something to use, – and the amounts are huge!

We might think of spiritual gifts and physical ones, people skills and technical know-how, but don’t forget education, time and money. All of these are given (never owned, just borrowed) for a purpose.

The third slave fails, because he does not understand – perhaps does not want to! His master requires that he be inventive, take risks, and be fruitful. Not bothering, minding his own business, cultivating his resentments, is failure – and a failure for which he is rightly condemned. He has not done what is required of him. [It’s true we might say that God is not like the master, who appears harsh and unreasonable – we have reason to say God is not like that. But the parable makes the point that the servants were given – or loaned – these talents in the expectation, a reasonable expectation, that they would make the best use of them they could.]

What do you think about the future? There’s good and bad, of course, and change which is never easy. But more important, What are you going to do about it? Given a chance, an opportunity, how will you react?

Go back to the beginning. What did you think the Christian faith had to say about taking risks? It’s true that in general we might be expected to be careful, but I hope you understand what this parable has to say. It is important now, not because of the present position of the Church in society, but because the Christian faith requires, of all its members,

  • that they receive different gifts from God
  • and use those gifts, energetically and creatively, in his service

It’s not use coming back and saying “there wasn’t a safe option”; of course there isn’t. Get out there and take risks – that is what is required, and required of you, now, in Christian mission.

Readiness – and Remembrance

I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Ethelred the Unready. I know little about him – but his title suggests he was a very British king, and on the day we in Britain remember our War victims I am reminded of him. My impression – totally subjective and unrepresentative – is that whenever there is a war, the first months are spent in shock and complaint at how unprepared we are to fight. We shouldn’t be, but . .

Of course, you can understand why: there are always other things to do. The cost of a fighter plane, for instance, is huge – and there are always alternatives. We can do without a plane, say the planners, build a new school. Or think of the cost of a new warship – we could equip a hospital for that, so keep the old one going a bit longer . . So it goes on in peacetime, but when war threatens, we don’t like to admit it. Carry on as normal, we say; we don’t want to be seen as threatening, we say; to build up our forces would be seen as hostile, we say. And we go to war unprepared and underequipped. Wasn’t it the case that most of the troops who crossed the Falkland Is in record time had bought their own boots, rather than wear the army issue?

Wars, thankfully, come to an end. But sadly, we don’t seem to be much better at preparing for peace. We ought to be, but . . We’ve all heard of the hope of a “land fit for heroes” after the First War – and know of the grim reality of the Depression, the General Strike and mass unemployment. It seems that today a fair – unfair -proportion of the homeless are ex-services personnel. It also seems to be the case that many of those who engage in violent armed crime have learnt the techniques of combat from military training, but somehow have turned them to unintended use, or have not been protected from the traumas of conflict and its aftermath.

I can’t offer any easy solutions for these problems, but remember them this week as we read Matthew 25:1-13. Jesus tells a story about girls unready for the delayed arrival of the bridegroom. They shouldn’t be, but . . . Interestingly, they all sleep, but as they wake, some are found to be prepared and others not. Shouldn’t they have shared their supplies of oil, you wonder? Well, that depends what that oil represents. It may be that they are not unduly cautious, or mean, but that the oil is something which cannot be shared.

Jesus is thinking of the time when he will return; he is warning his followers to be prepared and ready. Matthew tells the story, knowing that the church can very easily get absorbed in the routine of now – church life, business life, the crises of family – they all provoke a drowsiness. They shouldn’t be like that, but . . . But what will happen when the big wake-up call comes?

Then we discover what people are made of. Faith is the key thing – and faith cannot be transferred from one person to another. Your faith can help other people, but they can’t take it over, or inherit it. When Jesus returns, he won’t only be hoping to find faith. He will look for those whose faith has made them open to grace, and in whose characters and lives the oil of grace has worked a transformation. They will have learnt love; their hope will not be easily discouraged. Humility will help them make themselves useful even in unglamorous work, and their gifts will be put to serve people wherever they are. These are the unsung heroes of wartime – and peace as well.

A crisis shows people up, and some have what it takes and others don’t. We are warned to stock up on the oil of grace while it is available – work with God now, while there is time. Today we remember the casualties of war. Many died young. We record our thanks for the opportunity they gave us to reach a normal span of years in freedom.

And the gospel asks:
have those years we are given brought us to maturity?
have we reached our potential?

Don’t talk about wealth or reputation, qualifications or family size. Talk about faith and character; about the way God’s grace has been received; the way the HS has produced fruit of character and the gifts of service. If we have got it right, we shall be ready:
ready to meet human crisis and disaster
ready for Jesus return to require an account of our stewardship

If not, we shall be selfish, offendable, fragile and proud.
“the bridegroom came, and those who were ready
went with him into the wedding banquet,
and the door was shut.” Mt 25:10

The Kingdom in Difficult Times

How do we live in difficult times?   It rather depends on the difficulty: physical (earthquakes, tsunami, disasters) social (violence, unrest, political confusion), or personal (all sorts of things can throw us – bereavement, job/family/local issues).  Any or all of these can be uncomfortable, and bring a temptation to keep our heads down, go with the crowd . . .

But that is not our Christian calling, and today’s gospel (Matthew 24:1-14) comes from a time of trouble.  What is it saying?

  • the First thing is the readiness to be different Mt 24:4 – don’t be deceived,even by false prophets (24:11). We need to know our faith well enough not to be mislead. Then we may have to stand out from the crowd.
  • If the 1st thing is to be ready to be different, the 2nd is not to be surprised – and don’t be panicked. The point of the warning – and there is a good deal of language like this in the gospels, there as a warning – is just so that we expect it, and are able to say “They said it would be like this”. Don’t worry about it, but do read and remember. Things won’t always be terrible – but when they are, . .
  • And hold on (Mt 24:13,14) Paul says something similar to the Thessalonians in another of today’s readings (1 Thessalonians 2:9-13). Don’t keep your head down, but up – looking to God, and “live the kind of life that pleases God, who calls you to share in his own Kingdom and glory” – a good line!

The Kingdom season reminds us that God’s rule is not yet unchallenged here. We can look forward to a time when it will be, but in the meantime:

be ready to be different

don’t be surprised

hold on, and live well for God.