Tag Archives: agendas

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Telling Christmas (Christmas III)

How do you tell the Christmas story? In the New Testament Luke tells the story as we know it best – angels visit John the Baptist’s father, and then Mary; there is a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, and the shepherds’ visit.  Matthew takes Joseph’s perspective, and tells us of the mysterious wise men.  Mark starts his gospel later, as the adult Jesus bursts on the scene set by John’s baptisms.

John? – John is more reflective.  (John 1:1-14)  He tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (v5)  But the English translations cannot quite get the word – “overcome” can also be “understood”.  (Check out the different translations!).

The darkness was pretty obvious.  The world in which the baby was born was violent, unjust, hard for many people in many ways.  You could say the same today – I don’t need to point out the problems of our world (political, ecological, military, medical . . ) or invite you to detail the problems and threats in your own life at the moment.  Of course the darkness doesn’t understand the light.  Those who need to win at all costs cannot understand love and service; those who don’t care if their lifestyle ruins a world for others will never want justice, let alone to share equally in God’s plans.

The point John wants to make – the Christmas point – is that the darkness has not put out the light.  It shines on.  Despite the plotting of Herod to murder all rivals, despite the indifference of the innkeeper and his favoured guests to the needs of a young, but poor, mother, the baby is born and shines.

That’s our celebration.  Not that everything is wonderful – there is still plenty of darkness – but that the light shines in it.  Where the light shines, the darkness is dispersed.  Each person chooses.  Either you welcome the light, following Jesus even when it is difficult, reflecting light into new corners; or you block the light, and leave others in your shadow.

But you can’t stop the light shining!  That’s good news.

Not what I expected! (Advent 3a)

I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).  Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted.  Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.

Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else.  The question is direct, “Are you the one?”  Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester.  (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.)  So John sends to ask a question.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer.  Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw.  Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand.  Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.

Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold.  He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  Why?  Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom.  We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.

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.

Money (Pentecost 19c, Proper 21c)

What is money for?  It’s strange how, in a materialistic culture, we don’t ask the question.  An Economist would probably give an answer about the convenience of avoiding barter for all transactions – true, but not entirely helpful.

Looking at Luke 16:19-31, or indeed remembering Jesus’ disciple Matthew the Tax collector, we do at least see some ways of getting it wrong.  The rich man of the parable found that his wealth meant he didn’t have to think about other people, and got into the habit of seeing the poor as available to run errands for his convenience.  Matthew left a career in the financial sector (well, I suppose that is how we would describe it now -?) for the uncertainties of travelling with and learning from Jesus.

If we try to ask what Jesus taught about money, it is not quite straightforward.  While one rich young man was told to get rid of his wealth and follow (Mark 10:17-23), that was not true of all his followers.  Some came from the families of tradespeople (the fishermen, for example, left their father in the boat with the hired men – Mark 1:20), some like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the women who funded Jesus ministry, clearly had wealth.

At the same time, there is no encouragement to see wealth linked to status.  There are warnings in this story against letting wealth get in the way of relationships (compare James 2:1-10).  I think it would be fair to say that having money – even at the average of British life – gives added responsibility (in using it as God’s managers), and added temptations (to misuse it).  Given that we in the west are wealthy, why is it that we so seldom ask what money is for, and how we might judge our use of it, and what are the good and bad models?

Costs (Pentecost 16, Proper 18)

We sometimes say that we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Some people can tell you the exact price of a car, a dress, a watch. Odd then that we don’t count the cost of discipleship, when Jesus talks clearly about it (Luke 14:25-33). True, discipleship is a gift. Our faith is something given us by God’s grace, – but the running costs are high! In fact v33 is a problem. What does it mean? “none of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
Some have accepted a vocation to life as monk, nun or friar. By giving up personal property, they find a certain freedom – although the community has to have ownership of some things to enable their life, and it is of course a community without children. That’s the point of v 26 – if family loyalties count for more than loyalty to Jesus and faith in him, faith isn’t possible.

I think that is also what the little parables about building a tower, or making war, are about. In both cases, there’s no point unless you can see the project through and finish it successfully. So in Christian life, don’t start unless you’re serious! Get half way and try to pull out, and you’re in a mess – half a tower is useless, half a war if much more dangerous than none. Half a faith – a faith that is only serious in some ways – is the same. It doesn’t work, it causes trouble.

So what are we supposed to do? What did Jesus mean:
“none of you can be my disciple unless you give up everything you have.”
It is not that everything is bad – we know Jesus enjoyed parties, & people. We also know that he owned nothing that would get in the way of his mission.  What he is saying to us is that Christian discipleship must be the most important thing, or nothing. If we don’t want to live out our faith more than we want other things, it won’t work, and is in danger of being a waste of time.

Does anyone do that? Well, I think it is something that we grow into. You get into a situation, and have to decide – it may be whether to put yourself out, to make an effort you would rather not. And so you grow, and next time, that answer is a little easier.Of course, you can also fail – no, I’ll try that another time, I really can’t be expected to do this. And nobody can know – you can’t do everything! But you will get to know whether you keep saying No to God, or whether you say Yes often enough to be stretched and grow.

We are not called to be wandering beggars; but we are called to be ready to use whatever we have in God’s service. No, it’s not mine, its on the list of things available for use as God directs. If you haven’t got much, the list isn’t very long. But if you have, the temptation to hold back is greater. Jesus wasn’t against the rich, he just knew that when it came to counting the cost of discipleship, they would find it more difficult to pay.

Tough Jesus? (Pentecost 6c)

This week takes us to Luke 9:51-62, which is interesting for what it tells us about Jesus.  It starts with his determination to go to Jerusalem – he “sets his face” (or, in The Message, “steeled himself”).  This is the tough Jesus, disciplined to the point of being hard on himself, we sometimes forget.

It contrasts with his reaction to an inhospitable Samaritan village.  (They, as Samaritans, would not assist those going to Jerusalem because of the dispute over God’s chosen location for worship).  James and John, nicknamed “Sons of Thunder”, want to incinerate them, probably drawing on the example of Elijah – 2 Kings 1.  Elijah may have been demonstrating the power of God against bullying force, but Jesus shows the power of God in merciful restraint – and the group walks further for supper.

With the three would-be disciples, the tough side seems to return:

  • does the first candidate want to join in with Jesus success? or is he perhaps poor and wanting an easy life?  We don’t know, but are reminded that discipleship guarantees neither success nor freedom from care and trouble.  Jesus’ followers may share some of Jesus’ harder experiences!
  • Jesus wants the second to follow, perhaps seeing the good in him.  But is it that the good impulses lack focus, prioritisation and urgency?  How many people now avoid doing what God would call them to (and thus their real fulfillment) by rather aimlessly “doing good”?
  • the third is a volunteer, but looking the wrong way.  Christians have to accept forgiveness, leave behind the past, including bitterness and retribution, and move on.

Perhaps Jesus was aware that he dare not wait to collect these three because of the urgency of his journey to Jerusalem.  But we also have an urgency in faith.  The window of opportunity – to share faith, to be the Church God intended and needs for his plans for our world, is limited.  Things are changing – rather faster after the Referendum result this week – and more than ever we, like Jesus, need focus, prioritisation, and urgency of action.

Gerasene demoniac dialogue (Pentecost 5c)

Some years ago I developed the idea of scripted dialogue in place of a monologue sermon.  It has some advantages – a conversational style, encouraging the idea of talking about scripture and its application, emphasising the relevance of text to contemporary Christian life etc.  This is a dialogue, for two readers in place of a sermon, which I “translated” from a sermon written previously, on the gospel passage Luke 8:26-39.  Comments welcome:

A It’s been quite a week: an MP has been killed, apparently while doing her job and doing it well; at the same time we are looking forward to an important referendum next Thursday

B and there’s a football competition, too!

A Indeed. You might wonder if that reading about the man Jesus healed in the cemetery has any relevance.

B It seems to me typical of Jesus that he is concerned about somebody that everybody else has given up on. There is no suggestion that anyone is looking after this man, keeping an eye out for him, leaving him food or clothing, but Jesus doesn’t bypass him and go to the “important” people.

A Yes, and that links with the MP’s murder. Jesus is reminding us that everybody matters to God, and should to us. All the groups Jo Cox was involved with, including minorities and refugees, but also Thomas Mair, however sad or mad he may be. We have to think about caring for all, not just the ones like us, or the easy ones. Jesus wasn’t afraid of dealing with someone demon possessed.

B Now that’s a question! Was he mentally ill, or did he really have spirits in him?

A Christians would have different answers to that. There’s no doubt that mental illness is real, and thankfully we are learning how to treat it successfully. If you know people affected, encourage them to consult their doctor, take their advice – and then make sure you don’t avoid them. Mental illness will affect a fair proportion of this congregation at one time or another. For me, after some years leading a Diocesan Healing and Deliverance Team, I am also confident that demon possession is real – but it has been uncommon in this part of the world. The team that clergy can consult is there to help, and some will need that help.

B So you are saying that mental illness is real, and demon possession can be, too?

A Yes. But let’s go on. Jesus’ concern for this man is not the only point here. What about the reaction of the local people to the event?

B They don’t seem very happy to have a local “problem” solved. I suppose the drowning of the pigs has something to do with it, which doesn’t say much about their values. I wonder if they also found the whole thing – well, frightening. Too challenging to their assumptions, and the accepted order of things.

A I think you’re right, though it is sad. They actually ask Jesus to go away because they are afraid – afraid of someone who has just restored a man they had given up on! I don’t know if there is something there about the Referendum – and no, I am not going to tell you how to vote. But fear is a bad motivation (and seems to have been used on both sides). It is also bad to think that, as Christians, we are allowed to cut ourselves off from other people. How best to move forward, for the good of all, that is the question.

B and we can’t make up your minds how that works out. Think, pray, and vote carefully. So, we’ve talked about Jesus attitude to this man, and then about the community’s attitude to Jesus. What about the ending; doesn’t Jesus usually tell people not to talk about their healing?

A Yes. When he is among Jewish people, he worries that he will be seen as a revolutionary leader – a “Messiah” in political and military terms, leading an army against the Romans – but here he is among Gentiles. He wants this man to be a reminder of the power and love of God, a testimony if you like. He is to live in the community that told Jesus to leave, a reminder of what happened, and how life might be different.

B So he is to do the things we are being encouraged to do now – live as a follower of Jesus, imitating his attitudes and actions out of gratitude, and ready to explain when people asked things like “What happened?” and “Why have you changed?”. I suppose that would have been quite challenging for him, as it is for us, but it certainly gave him something to do!

A – and it gave the people of that community a second chance. With the man living there, and staying in his right mind, they were going to have time to think again

B about the relative value of people and pigs?

A and about what Jesus could do, or what God’s plan for them was. I’m sure they didn’t think they were bad people, but they missed out in a big way that day, and Jesus finds a way to leave them a signpost, if they wanted to look for a better road. It would be sad to think nobody did.

B even sadder than losing the football?

A much more. Some of us believe in life after football, after all!
B Well, that’s our dialogue sketch on this gospel. It’s a bit of an experiment, and its not going to replace sermons, but let us know after the service if you found it helpful as a different way to reflect from time to time – and perhaps even as something to start you talking about scripture and how to apply it.

The Lord is – my Tour Guide? (Easter 4c)

I was in Cyprus for the SAT7 Network Conference (very good, but another story), and we spent three days being tourists afterwards.  That also was enjoyable, but made me think about a contemporary re-write of Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Tour Guide, provided as part of the package.
I shall pay only as much attention as I want at any time, and interpret instructions about departure times and activities as I see fit.
I shall expect attention, my problems sorted and my questions answered;
but I shall not feel any need to be polite, or form a relationship.
If I get into trouble, I shall scream for help,
but if not, I don’t expect my priorities and enjoyment to be interfered with.
If there is good performance and I feel generous, they might be a tip,
but it is someone else’s job to pay.”

Perhaps that’s overdoing it, but I do wonder if the Good Shepherd has not sometimes been replaced.  This Sunday, we remember John 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.”  We may use Psalm 23 (“I have everything I need” – not want!).  A Shepherd directs the flock for a purpose they may not understand.  He protects the sheep from dangers they may not notice, and makes plans they may not be aware of.  To be part of the flock, the sheep have to be – part of the flock.  With the shepherd, under direction.

So there is a question: Is the Lord your Shepherd (with this understanding), or do you see him as your “tour guide”?

Good Friday with Luke 23

Reading Luke’s account of Jesus death suggests several points of contact with life today.

Luke 23:1-5
Jesus is brought to Pilate, Roman governor, and we notice that truth is the first casualty in the campaign to get rid of him. ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 23:2 Yet Jesus had answered differently on taxes – “ give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 20:25 and he had been careful not to claim Kingship, knowing that it would be misunderstood – Messiah was a different kind of king.
We might think about truth. How the truth about ourselves and those around us is important in an age of PR, spin, and confrontational presentations. Pilate was cynical “What is truth?” John 18:38, but Jesus had earlier suggested ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:31,32

Are we ready to see the world, and ourselves, as God sees?

“Father, help us to care about the truth, the reality you see. Show us the world from your perspective, and help us to understand Jesus, ourselves, and your priorities.”

Luke 23:6-12

Herod had his own agenda, and Jesus didn’t fit. He is not going to make the effort to listen or understand – it is much easier to mock. The soldiers join in. Like so many people, they realise that Jesus is dangerous – taken seriously he might challenge their assumptions and prejudices, might make them want something different and better. Don’t listen, poke fun, victimise.
We wouldn’t do that – would we? In theory all Christians are followers of Jesus, bound to obey and serve him above all. Yet service has not always been our main reputation, and obedience is difficult.
Put it another way, many of us, just like Herod, have our own agendas. I don’t mind being church as long as . . but I must keep time for . . I’ll do that, but don’t ask me to . . The mockery of Jesus comes because he doesn’t fit in their list of priorities.

Are we ready to change our priorities to fit in with Jesus?

“Lord, forgive all those things which mock your direction of my life. My own agenda of what I want, my laziness, my pride. Remembering a Lord who gave all for me, help me to learn his way in everything.”

Luke 23:13-25

Pilate as governor has the responsibility of administering justice. The Roman occupation was not always popular, but if it was fair, it would win acceptance, and if not, opposition would grow.
He knows what is happening – he says Jesus is not guilty, but is too weak to find a way not to listen to the crowd (no doubt carefully manipulated). Is he stupid, not up to the job? He must know that his credibility, as well as Jesus life, is at stake. But he is driven by the mob voice.
We would think someone who claimed “the voices made me do it” was a case for psychiatric help. But how often do we say, “It’s not right, but it’s how you have to do it at work”; “None of my friends would think twice about that”; “it’s how things are”. And how often do we deliberately support someone trying to do right when it is criticised or unpopular?

“Father, help us to practise justice. Not rules and judgements, but standing out for right, supporting those who take the way of caring, not cheating, not causing pain and wrong. Let our voices be those that speak what is good, true, right, pure, lovely and honourable. (cp Phil 4:8)”

Luke 23:26-46

So they take Jesus and crucify him with a batch of criminals, and that’s – not the end of it at all. There are all sorts of consequences, and that’s why we read and ponder.
Some of them are quite minor – a visitor is conscripted to carry the cross, the soldiers share some clothing. Some are strange and unexpected – darkness, a curtain torn and opened.
But the most important go two ways. Jesus warns the weeping women of greater loss of life to come. Jerusalem will suffer siege and defeat – it happened in AD70, after the rebellion. Is this the inevitable consequence of rejecting the opportunity Jesus offered? Will taking the way he does not lead always carry great danger?
Jesus is not looking for revenge. He asks forgiveness for those who crucify him. He makes a promise of hope to the penitent thief. One consequence of his death is the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, service and peace.
But the choice is not forced. We have to make it, and go on making it. Words are easy, but faith has to show in daily life, truth telling, agendas, justice. The consequences of Jesus death were not at all what his enemies expected. They bring hope, and perhaps also danger. What do they bring you?

“Lord, as we have spent a little time reading again the story of Jesus’ death, let us go to take full advantage of its consequences. Teach us to accept forgiveness, and to offer it. Give us the hope he won, and the readiness to explain it to any who ask, as we live as his disciples.”  (cp 1 Pet 3:15)