Saturday, 17 September 2016

Trinity 17 Shock treatment 18th September 2016

We all need shock treatment from time to time.

It's a way of getting our attention when we're deluded or distracted.

Our Lord has a gift of shocking our complacency that the scriptures hand straight on to us without spin.

Take that shocking Gospel reading. Did we hear the Son of God, who is truth, commend dishonesty?

Or that sock-it-to-them passage from Amos striking at injustice?

And, shocking in another way, that lesson from 1 Timothy 2 begging prayer for the established order as if those in authority were God's appointees beyond challenge?

The one most evidently bearing the Queen's authority shocked me last week. I was shocked by her speech on education, but it got me thinking. 

Grammar schools were one of her four prongs to expedite getting more good schools. I was impressed by her concern for those consigned to poorer schools by their post code and began to wonder if  even in Horsted Keynes we can do as she says and get Cumnor, Walstead and Ardingly to share their gifts with St Giles School.

Sometimes we're made to wake up, sit up and listen. Today's readings are shock treatment. You could argue they don't need a sermon - save in the case of the last reading, an explanation - so that my task this morning is to give some forward  lines once we get our breath back from the hefty challenges they have given without mincing words. 

Before I go further, then, some explanation of the Gospel:
[The] master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

What did Jesus mean?

Some suggestions from scholars, and I warn you, I’m going with the most shocking!

Theory 1: the point of the parable is not the servant's dishonesty, but his wise decision-making in the time of crisis. He’s an example of decisive thinking and action to save yourself which the coming of Jesus invites.

Theory 2: the servant, as a man of the world, is an example of diligence. What if we had the same diligence about God’s kingdom as we do towards our work or hobbies?

Theory 3: the steward was acting within his legal rights reducing the debts as he did. Luke 16 is a parable against excessive profits, the same kind of judgment uttered by Amos in the first Lesson (Amos 8:4-7).  That’s also one of the most shocking passage in the Bible Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, [who] practise deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals… The Lord has sworn… I will never forget any of their deeds. Shocking stuff, which is why Christians have always been concerned about good finance in the public domain. There’s as much about wrong use of money as wrong use of sex in the Bible and the Church forgets that at her peril. So much for interpretation 3.

Theory 4 on Luke 16 is my favourite though. It runs like this. Our Lord knew his commending of this servant for such unjust behaviour is so absurd no one would believe it. How ridiculous to commend a cheater who expects to be commended for his dishonest actions! Understood this way, Jesus is here attacking the Pharisees who made a very big show of giving very little money to the poor.

I can’t imagine Jesus teaching without humour. His gift or mocking irony is so pointed it would bring people up short, touch their hearts and loosen emotion into laughter. In this case laughter directed against those claiming to be religious who are in fact self-serving cheats.

Enough on the first and last reading – make of them what you will, however the Holy Spirit impacts you – now for that second reading. It is shocking in a more subtle way. I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. It begs our prayers for the established order as if those in authority were God's appointees and beyond challenge! Isn’t the Holy Spirit who gives at times a quiet and peaceable life also at times working to challenge the powers that be?

The Holy Spirit like today’s scripture is given to both comfort and challenge us!

Today’s scripture might shock and trouble us if we’re guilty of injustice, financial dishonesty, hypocrisy, giving little to the needy or holding to an uncritical support of the established order of society, as in the predictable backlash against the idea of selection I mentioned.

Let me tell you, though, what I found most shocking in today’s scripture because it is a statement of the most important thing in the world that we let slip from being most important.

It comes half way down that second reading from 1 Timothy Chapter 2 in verses 3 to 6: God our Saviour… desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

It is profoundly shocking that God loves us all – that God loves you and me through and through – and that knowing our need he should come among us to demonstrate it for all time in the sacrificial gift of Jesus.

God loves us all and desires all to be saved, but he knows we’re guilty of injustice, cheating, hypocrisy and narrow attitudes about the way things are. He knows our sins make us incapable of union with himself - for a holy God can have no fellowship with evil. God therefore has provided the loving remedy, giving his Son as a ransom for all.

We all need shock treatment from time to time. We need shocking out of selfish concerns and many delusions and distractions into seeing afresh the profound truth of Christianity.

The body of Christ. Amen.  The blood of Christ. Amen

This morning’s scripture wakens us to human failing but it does so with a reminder of how awesome this service is. We have sin in our lives but we also have Christ in our lives, mediator between God and humankind.. himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

There is nothing we can do – however base or despicable – that can make him love us less. There is nothing we can do – however noble or selfless – that can make him love us less.

That’s a shocking yet affirming thought and it’s the main thing of Christianity we’ve got to keep the main thing, though it means fighting off oh-so- plausible distractions!  Let’s pause to see what the Holy Spirit is saying to us individually through the scripture passages and what has been said about them.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

St Giles Festival 8am 11th September 2016

The scripture readings on this our Patronal Festival of St Giles give us a window into heaven and advice on how we get there.

The visionary John exiled on the island of Patmos is given consolation from God to share with his persecuted fellow believers. They are to fix their gaze on the consequences of keeping faith which will appear soon, the consequences for faithful believers of the death and resurrection of the Lord:
They are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Immensely powerful poetry – and only God inspired poetry can speak of what’s of course beyond time. This window into heaven was followed today by the passage from Luke Chapter 6 (p1041 Lectionary) which speaks again of the reward for bearing hardship: Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you…   rejoice in that day and leap for joy your reward is great in heaven Luke 6:22-23

A window into heaven from Revelation, and advice on how we get there by bearing hardships as Christians in the second reading.

Then our Saint, what does blessed Giles add to the mix? And lastly what are we to take away for practical application on this Festival Sunday?

We know little about Giles save his being a French Saint whose cult was brought by the Normans and that he is paradoxically the Saint of cripples and hunters.

The word bridge comes to mind. The dedication of St Giles Church is a reminder of how the population of this village and its surrounds has seen immigration – a Frexit if you like, the French leaving their continent in the 11th century. The very architecture of St Giles bridges Saxon and Norman, as you can see above me with the Saxon bits left in, or the North door which is Saxon even if it’s been moved by both Normans and Victorians.

The bridging of St Giles is more graphically illustrated in our wooden medallion besides the organ – there he is stuck with the arrow protecting the deer.  The story runs that 7th century Giles lived in southern France as a hermit in the forest and there was a deer who sustained him on her milk. Hunters one day tried to kill the deer and shot an arrow at her but Giles jumped over the deer and took the arrow. This is why he’s patron Saint of both cripples and hunters. I think the story makes him a bit more biased to the first than the second – but that’s a distraction to my main thought that Giles, as a bridge Saint, reached out to the deer at a cost to himself.

Christians reach out to the vulnerable and get wounded. We are active symbols of Christ who reaches out to sinners and suffers on their behalf.

To live like a bridge is to get walked over.

So to practical application.

I can’t risk showing my political colours with a desire to bridge the French-English divide, and some of you may walk over me on that!

I must say, staying with friends in France last month I detected little sadness over Brexit, but my own conviction is its better to bring nations together than pull them apart. I’m not going to defend the Norman invasion however.

If St Giles and the history and architecture of this Church are a bridging tale relevant to the potential bridge breaking of June 2016, what do we make for ourselves of the second element of St Giles as bridge icon.

It’s a reminder of the Lord Giles encourages us to serve, the Lord who died in our place to live in our place, who died for our sins so we can live with new life by his Spirit.

The readiness of Giles to bear hurt in reaching across the deer is a reminder of the need to be ready to build bridges. As Pope Francis said recently ‘Those who build walls and break down bridges can hardly be called Christians’. We’re getting a bit of politics this morning aren’t we!

The pains you’re bearing in your soul are most likely linked to bridge building. It’s hard to live with divided loyalties, with unresolved agendas, but you’d be less than you are if you closed your heart and pulled up the drawbridge in those situations.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you…   rejoice in that day and leap for joy your reward is great in heaven.

Come Holy Spirit and make us bridges, your bridges so we may put love where there’s no love and see love grow!

St Giles our Patron, pray that we, like you, may be generous towards the needy, animals especially. That we may face those who hunt and seek the downfall of others, that their eyes be opened to the work of mercy.

Lord Jesus be their shepherd, and guide us all to springs of the water of life, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Trinity 15 (23rd of Year) 4th September 2016

Who’d be a preacher?

We have to set forth God’s truth without making it an obstacle to good living and call for love of the truth that’s wholly practical.

Christianity’s a matter of principle – we need these principles stating and re-stating - but it’s tailored to people, and people fall short in their allegiance to principle.

Those verses in Deuteronomy 30 and Luke 14 shook me up.

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him….. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 

Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.

We’re here this morning to give an hour of our life, Jesus’ hour, for him to impact and take hold of us afresh in word and sacrament and Christian fellowship. We can’t underestimate the value of Sunday obligation. For many of you, all of you hopefully, this morning’s attendance has been a victory, a going out of your way to synchronise a variety of commitments to honour God as the Lord of your life by coming to Church this morning.

You’re here to be one with the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day, in the Lord’s house and round the Lord’s table. Alleluia!

You’ll leave hopefully with more of a taste for Jesus Christ, more set to face the cost of being his disciple and more attentive to what he has for you in the coming week.

Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.

Saying our prayers, coming to Church, reading our Bibles, serving our neighbour and reflecting upon our need for God are expressions of that commitment.

Melvyn Bragg once asked Rowan Williams what God meant to him. Here’s the answer he gave: God is first and foremost that depth around all things and beyond all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of that depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person.

To commit to God as a Christian is to commit trustfully to the eternal God as the depth beyond all things, to see the world as no longer a flat surface but to descend to the heart of things and be impacted. To be caught up into something utterly mysterious and countercultural.

The second reading touches on this, where Paul commends the runaway slave Onesimus he’d helped to faith to his master Philemon. Onesimus had found these depths, that transcend the way the world is, in the person of Jesus. Now, as Paul insists, his being a slave or a slave owner is a lesser point, but not so much less that Onesimus shouldn’t return to Philemon, the master he ran away from. Paul’s letter survives, shortest in the Bible, to affirm among other things how in the depth of things there’s no hierarchy of power.

Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.

Once we’re surrendered we are, in baptism, made equal to one another in a new way of living that’s no longer two dimensional and superficial but one that’s surrendered to God as ground of our being. The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms we read in Deuteronomy 33:27.

Christian belief isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. It’s whole life surrender. It’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living but living your way into a new way of thinking.

Faith’s the act of the whole of our being. Doubt by contrast is a partial business employing that part of the mind that questions what we’re about and what its right to think. This questioning is set for Christians within the wholehearted surrender of faith. We believe in the resurrection not with our minds but as we live out the death of the old self so the Holy Spirit can bring us new life through the agency of faith. We believe in the Cross as we make sense of suffering with the assurance that not all that happens is determined by God's plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love. 

We are loved by almighty love and we are loved for ever, that is the reality Christian faith sees for sure. Paul knew Philemon knew this when he wrote I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 

Could that be said of me, of you? Would it were so!

Over my vacation I read Rupert Shortt’s God is no thing. It’s by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement who’s well familiar with how religion’s seen in Britain today. Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario in which secular humanism predominates the world of ideas with pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. The world over people evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that is being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt was a real tonic. Here is his summary of what we’re about: Christianity - at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts - forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment.

I like that phrase love’s mending of wounded hearts as a description of the dynamic of faith. It’s a long way from that over hasty perception of religion as a bully. Shortt sees the problem for religion and secularism as the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another.

Following God means surrendering your whole life to him.

I can’t escape as preacher underlining that Christian basic this morning, praying it will touch more hearts here at St Giles into whole hearted service, lay or ordained - and, yes, the church won’t survive without clergy so many here should remain open to being called into that overarching ministry of Christian service.  The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms…. God is also the activity that comes to me out of [the] depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformation I can’t imagine.

That transformation isn’t just for you but, like Philemon, for all in your orbit. May this Eucharist fill you with the joy and encouragement that filled him to overflow, so that you can more fully love God and make him loved in the networks you’re part of!