Monthly Archives: Sep 2015

How to Measure Success! – Sunday 13th September 2015 – Mark 8:27-38

Divine_Direction_00037502FOLLOWINGCHRISTTakeUpYourCrossISAIAH 50:4-9a, James 3:1-12 & Mark 8:27-38


I guess that most of us would want to be seen by others as successful. We’d like to be able to say that we have made something of our lives. None of us want to be seen as a failure.

How do you measure success?

Is it climbing to the top of the social ladder? Keeping up with the Jones=s? Getting promotion at work? Moving to live in the better area of town? Being liked by everyone?

How have you gone about achieving success? … Our OT reading used the phrase, “I have set my face like a flint.” How might we phrase that in today’s language?  – Go for it, no matter the cost – Climbing over dead men’s bodies – The end justifies the means?

Ambition, determination, wholehearted commitment to our goals. Quite good things in themselves. Often, however, when our hopes for ourselves conflict with the interests of others we can produce all sorts of justifications for less than generous attitudes and actions.

Our readings speak about wholehearted commitment.

Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Immediately Jesus turns to his disciples and explains his deepest commitment. This is a turning point in the Gospel of Mark. It is almost as though a dark cloud blots out the sun. Everything seems wonderful in the story until we reach chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel. For the disciples, it has been wonderful following Jesus. Now, darkness and danger looms. Jesus speaks about his death and he sets his face like a flint towards Jerusalem, nothing is going to stop him fulfilling God’s will – nothing will deflect him from the path of the cross.

And Jesus calls his followers to the same kind of self-sacrifice, “If anyone wants to follow me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

In a complete negation of all that the world says, success for Jesus is measured in terms of apparent personal failure. It is in the journey to and through the cross that success is achieved! In Jesus’ weakness, God’s purposes are fulfilled. …

In his letter, James highlights how easily our tongues lead us into hypocrisy. We say one thing and do another, or we say one thing in church and something completely different in another context. He challenges us to be consistent in our commitments, to walk the walk as well as talk the talk: to be those who live out their Sunday faith on Monday, and Tuesday, and every day of the week.

In our reading from Isaiah , the Suffering Servant, sets his face like a flint into the suffering that is coming his way – confident of God’s help to endure. There’s no disgrace, no shame, in the torture he faces because he knows that he can trust God for his future, for his ultimate vindication.

How strange and different these attitudes are. How different to our own attitudes?

We strive to protect ourselves. We’ve taught ourselves to be self-reliant. “Look after number one – no one else will!”

We’ve learnt to see weakness is shameful. Success in the world’s terms is important to our sense of self-worth. We don’t like all this talk about denying ourselves and about taking up our own cross. We cannot be seen to fail, even if that means that we need to put others down.

Success, for Jesus, was all about failure and shame. Somehow, in some way that we find difficult to explain, evil spends itself like waves crashing on a beach, when it meets Jesus at the Cross.

The message of the cross is that evil is ultimately defeated in our world not through aggression but through suffering and death. And we don’t like to hear it, we don’t want to hear it. I want my revenge if I am hurt, I want those who hurt me to suffer and to the extent that I give in to my desires, I feed the cycle of unease and distrust.

Jesus calls us take up our cross, to bear shame for the sake of the kingdom, not to retaliate. We are called to set aside self-protection and look to the interests of others – to deny ourselves. We are called to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross – most often in the smaller things of life – the petty disagreements, the small misunderstandings.

We are called to use our tongues to build and not destroy. How? Our first reading gives us a clue:

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens  – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”

Says Isaiah – we need the ‘tongue of a teacher’ – the openness that doesn’t hoard knowledge (because knowledge is power) but shares it with others. Openness that shares ourselves with others. Openness which allows us to share the glory and praise with others. Openness that makes ourselves vulnerable so as to lift others from their weariness. Words of encouragement rather than gossip. Building not destroying.

And, says Isaiah, we also need to be willing to listen. We can’t close our minds in some sort of self-righteous crusade. (We know what’s best and we’re going to do it. Blow everyone else!)

You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want. Zig Ziglar quote - success comes from helping everyone, especially your peersNo. … It was because Christ was open to others, vulnerably sharing himself with them listening to their needs, that he set his face like a flint to the cross. Because he was aware of others – he chose suffering and death. The challenge for us is to be so open with others that we are prepared, ultimately, if necessary, to set aside our well-being, our comfort, so as to meet their needs.

So, how do we succeed?

Jesus answer would be, “By becoming vulnerable. By being willing to die, by being willing to embrace failure.”

A very different measure of success!

Children and Dogs – Mark 7:24-37

6th September 2015

Mark 7:24-37

Children and Dogs ….

In the light of the events of the last few weeks the Gospel set for 6th September makes uncomfortable reading. I wonder what you make of it? … What does Jesus mean when he talks about the children and the dogs? Does it sound racist? Was Jesus being racist? That seems to be a blasphemous question to ask. Doesn’t it? ……..

“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Why did Jesus say those words? Was it just rhetorical, aimed at getting the response it did? Was he just quoting a standard Jewish phrase? Was he, perhaps, working out his theology on the hoof? Learning as he went along? Applying what he had been taught by others and then discovering that it didn’t work or it was wrong, only realising as a result of this incident that his calling was wider than just to Israel?

On the surface, in the first instance, he seems no different from his disciples. … Was it the woman herself that changed his mind? ……. What was going on? ………….

We know that the Jewish establishment in Jesus’ day was concerned above all with purity. Last week we heard Jesus challenging hypocritical ritual purity laws. This week our gospel raises questions about racial purity. Just who does God see as his people. For many Jews the issue was clear – only the chosen people, only Jews. God wasn’t concerned for others, for the Gentiles.

Over past month or so, we have seen graphic images of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and we have heard reports of many being killed crossing the sea or in lorries in different parts of Europe. How should we respond to what we hear and see. There is a very strong lobby which wants us to be fortress Britain. We are too full says that lobby. We cannot take any more. Yet the figures are striking. Since the start of the Syrian crisis the UK has taken 216 Syrian refugees – 216 in 4 years. The camp near the channel tunnel has about 5,000 refugees wanting to come to Britain, that sounds a little more demanding. But the most astounding figure is the number of refugees who have been granted asylum in Germany in the past year – wait for it – ¾ million. Yes, ¾ million. In this context, what is our response to be, put up walls and exclude those most in need? Britain for the British! Fortress Britain. Keep everyone else out?

The rhetoric is disturbing – words like ‘swarm’ have been used, among others, which effectively allow us to ignore the true human stories of refugees and see them as a blight upon our lives – as animals (dogs) rather than people. Only the picture of the little boy dead on the beach has brought us up short.

When we read the Old Testament story we see that there was a constant tension in the life of Israel between those who believed that the Jewish race should be pure and ethnically ‘clean’, (whatever their reasons) and those who had a much broader vision. So Nehemiah and Ezra enact laws to prevent Jews marrying foreigners. Yet the stories of Ruth and Jonah, probably written at around the same time, suggest that God is interested in the outsider and the foreigner. Ruth, who became the grandmother of King David (the person who became the symbol for the nation of Israel), was a hated foreigner, a Moabitess. And in Jonah, it is Nineveh, the hated Assyrian enemy city, that repents.

Jesus grew up in a community for whom those issues of racial purity were very important. Israel for the Jews, no one else! That attitude would have been accepted as normal, an unwritten truth that the community accepted and which no one challenged. At some stage Jesus had to confront those attitudes in himself and his friends and family. Was this Gospel story the moment when it happened? …

Ultimately Jesus healed the woman’s daughter. But did he go through some sort of conflict within himself first? ……….. Does that help us when we grapple with our own feelings and ideas? Does it help to think of God/Jesus having similar struggles and overcoming them? Was this incident, for Jesus, just a little like the temptations in the wilderness – a real struggle? Or was it no more than the equivalent of swatting a fly? Easy? After all he was God, wasn’t he? Nothing too big or difficult for him!

But Jesus was a real human being who had to learn and grow just like us. The toddler who had to take his first steps, the five year old who had to learn to read. ……

We have a struggle to engage with now. It is a real struggle for the heart of our nation. Are we going to be xenophobic, focused only on ourselves or are we going to be the open, welcoming nation, that for much of our history we have been? ……

There are no easy answers, …. but I want to live in a country, in a world, where people matter; where we respond to real need with a generous and open heart. I want our children and other people’s children to grow up in a world which seeks to set aside prejudice and is open and welcoming.

In the churches of the Parish of the Good Shepherd, Ashton-under-Lyne this morning we bring a number of children to be baptized. The words of our baptism service talk about God’s blessing and love for those children. I want them to grow up in a world where people are valued for who they are. I want God’s love for them to be seen in those they encounter day by day. I want our lives to be attractive, drawing people into closer relationship with God.

There will be difficult choices along the way, but we will need to choose to be open, to place love and concern at the heart of our motives and actions. And as we do so we will begin to be a community that we can be proud of, a community that children that we bring to baptism can also be proud of.