Category Archives: Ashton-under-Lyne Blog

Harvest 2019 – John 6: 25-35

This is a shortened version of a post from 2015. ….

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” – John 6:35 .

These words from Jesus follow the story of the feeding of the 5,000. …

We have all probably experienced what is is like to be physically hungry. Just as those 5,000 who were fed by Jesus did. However, in the context of that miracle, Jesus talks about our hunger and thirst – not so much physical but spiritual.

Just as we feel hunger, all of us experience deep longings at the core of our beings which need to be fulfilled. Longings to be accepted, to be loved, to count for something, to make an impact, for others to see us as significant, as important or as strong.

Often these longings are well hidden away, but at times we encounter them in powerful ways. Perhaps in grief over the loss of a loved one, perhaps in the dark of the night when we are less in control of our emotions, perhaps at the point where everything seems to be going so well for us, yet something seems to be missing.

So many of us are driven to fulfil these longings for significance, for meaning in our lives. Perhaps we become workaholics, or we become demanding and jealous in our relationships, or we pursue success at the cost of everything else, or we turn to alcohol or drugs, or … some of us, to add a little levity,  even go shopping.

It’s part of the human condition! We long for our deepest needs to be met and we search for ways to make this happen!

Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Or to put it more succinctly, “I am all you will ever need.”

All those desires for meaning, for hope, for significance, for love – those thirsts, those hungers. Pursue me, get to know me, spend time with me – and I will meet them. This is not just some idle promise made by a preacher looking for something to say on a Sunday evening. These are the timeless words of Jesus. They are Jesus promise to us.

And note: he doesn’t say “I’ll find you something to do for me, and then you’ll feel better” No, Jesus is talking about our very being, the very core of who we are, the bit no one else can see. Right at the core of who we are, that’s where Jesus will be – meeting our deepest desires for wholeness. And not just sparingly, but overwhelmingly, generously, and, just as in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, there’ll be plenty of leftovers, flowing out of hearts that are truly loved. For once we really know that we are loved, we can really begin to love others.

Our thankfulness to God will overflow in love towards others. This is ultimately what our Harvest Thanksgiving is all about. We express our gratitude to God for God’s love and provision for us and as we do so we seek to make a difference in the lives of others. … We give because we have ourselves been given so much.

Faith or Faithfulness? Luke 17: 5-10

What does it mean to ‘have faith’?

Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and plated in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can screw up enough faith, if you pray hard enough, if you really believe, then you’ll be able to do powerful things. You’ll be in control of life and God will be able to work through you! If you are just prepared to leap across that chasm believing that I will miraculously get you to the other side, then you are my disciple!  ”

But is he really? ……  Or is it rather the case that we hear him saying what we think he is saying rather than listen to him properly. After all, what do we say when things go wrong for us? …… “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is this illness happening to me?” … It is as though we do really believe that we have the power to make our circumstances right, just be being better people, by having more faith?

And so, when we hear the word ‘faith’ we so often think of something rather like the flexing of spiritual muscles, or determinedly screwing ourselves up to believe. “If only I had more faith,” we say. “If only I really believed.” … And so many of us fail to achieve this … and as a result so many turn their back on ‘faith’: “It does not work,” they say.

And so when we hear those verses in Luke 17 we hear Jesus saying something, perhaps quite sarcastic: “Faith, don’t talk to me about your faith, you have not even got enough to fill a mustard seed, if you had you’d be doing all sorts of marvellous things in my name.”

But when we do so, we miss the point.

called_chosen_-faithful_part3-680x300What Jesus is actually saying is something much more like this: “Faith is about trusting in an all powerful God, it is about living faithfully to what you believe, it is about faithful service. Just a tiny little bit of that kind of faithful living will change the world.”

Where is the evidence for reading the Gospel this way?

Firstly, there is the whole of the reading above. In the first two verses Jesus talks about faith – but then he goes on to talk about masters and slaves. He could be talking about the way in which the physical world should obey its masters, those masters being his followers who have faith. But I don’t think he is. Let’s just focus on Luke 17:10 which tells us so much about ‘faith’ …

Jesus says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

‘Faith’  is all about being ‘faithful’. We are slaves, servants of our master, and the greatest and the best thing that we can say of ourselves is that we have lived faithful to that calling – we have served our master, we have lived faith-fully.

Second, there is that word ‘faith’; ‘pisteo‘ in the Greek. It is used consistently through the Greek version of the bible for being faithful, trustworthy, sure and true. Just here in Luke:

Luke 12:42                faithful and prudentfruitosp_faithfulness

Luke 16:10-12          faithful, faithful, faithful

Luke 19:17                trustworthy

In each of these cases, and throughout the New testament, it is the same root word,  ‘pisteo‘. So when Jesus uses the word ‘faith’, he is not asking us to screw ourselves up to believe, but he is asking us to live faithfully to what we believe, to be his trustworthy followers. To be faithful and prudent. “Those who live this way,” says Jesus, “Are people of faith. … And, (in the figurative language that he is using) it won’t just be a mulberry tree that is uprooted, even the gates of hell will not prevail against them.”gar-19

Angels and Mirrors ….. John 1: 47-51 … Michaelmas 2019

First, I have to say that I believe in Angels … both as God’s messengers and as beings that sometimes intervene.

A true story. … A few years ago now, my wife, Jo, my mother-in-law, Elisabeth and I were travelling back from West Wales to Leominster where Elisabeth lived. The A-roads in the area are relatively narrow and they twist and turn with high hedges either side. It was late in the evening and dark. Just after rounding a sharp 90-degree bend, a tyre blew on our car. It was a dangerous location and the road was too narrow to be changing a tyre without some sort of ‘protection’. Jo headed round the bend with a torch to flag down drivers and let them know of the obstruction ahead. We all tried our mobiles. … There was no signal. We tried to work out where the nearest house was but could see nothing.

At that moment a Range Rover stopped near Jo and ask what the problems was. The driver left his vehicle beyond the bend with hazard lights flashing walked over to our car, changed the tyre, shook our hands and left. We did get chance to say thank you. But before we knew it he was on his way and gone. We encountered an angel!

Let’s set aside ‘Angels’ for a moment and think a little about the Gospel reading set for Michaelmas in 2019. … John 1: 47-51.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? … Do you like what you see?

I am still surprised by the age of the person who looks back at me out of the mirror. I feel as though I am no different than I was twenty years ago but the mirror does not lie!

Many of us when we look in the mirror can be quite critical and wish that a different face was looking back at us.  And yet, if we say these things to someone else, they often wonder what we are talking about!

If we see an image that we wish was different – others don’t seem to see the flaws that we can see.  Those close to us see the face of the person they know and love – yes, not perfect – but certainly not someone who needs to worry about their appearance!

I am always surprised when I read a column is the glossy magazines that come with weekend papers, and hear someone famous or beautiful, or both, talking about themselves. It is as though someone who seems attractive and self-confident has looked in the mirror and as a result they are surprisingly over-critical of the face that looks back at them, the person that they see.

And it’s not just our looks, is it. … We can underestimate our abilities, our gifts and skills; we can be reticent about trying out something new because we think that we’ll be no good at it; we can even get some kind of distorted sense that it’s wrong to think about the things that we’re good at, in case we’re thought to be overconfident or boastful!  Sadly, so often, this holds people back from reaching their God-given potential – using their gifts and talents to help others and being comfortable with who they are.

Many of us keep parts of ourselves hidden even from our nearest and dearest.

Nathaniel, in our Gospel reading, was probably no different – he assumed that he could control what people knew about him. And then he met Jesus. … Jesus seems to know all about him, without having met him.

Jesus sees Nathaniel coming towards him and says ‘Here’s a true Israelite – without a false bone in his body.’ Nathaniel is amazed ‘How do you know me?’ he asks. ‘Ahh… says Jesus, ‘One day before Philip brought you to me, I saw you sitting under the fig tree’.

Jesus seemed to know everything about Nathaniel – from just having seen him under a fig tree. … From that glance, Jesus was able to decide that here was someone he wanted in the group of his twelve closest companions. No lengthy interview, not gathering of references – Jesus just knew.

We see this throughout the Bible, that God, that Jesus, knows things about people that enable God to give those people a new direction in life.  Jesus, meeting the woman at the well, surprises her because he knows about her past – and instead of feeling embarrassed, she runs off to tell her town all about this man. They put their faith in him – she’s an unlikely evangelist!

God is not a distant authoritarian figure judging us from afar, but a God who is tender, who is loving, who knows and experiences the messy-ness of life.  God knows us, warts and all, and keeps on loving us. God sees the good and the bad in us, and keeps on loving us. God is saddened when we stray from the way of living that he knows is best for us – but he’s not there with a notebook putting down another note about our failings, he’s longing for us to recognise where we get things wrong and to turn to him to show us how to live differently.

God lovingly ‘created our inmost parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb’ and who is saddened when we don’t like the way we look, because we’re rejecting his gift of creation.

God made us who we are, giving us unique gifts, and is saddened when we don’t use them, as if we’re saying that we know better than him.

What do we see when we look at ourselves in a mirror, or in our weakest moments? Is it an image that we have developed ourselves, is it based on rude and unfair comments made by someone in the past, or is it going to be based on what God thinks of us. A God who knows me and loves me.

In the grand scheme of things, that is all that really matters.  That knowledge allows me to be truly me, the me that God has created, known and called.

What does this have to do with St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael and Michaelmas?

Just this, I think. …. Angels are messengers. The most famous are Michael and Gabriel. They bring God’s message to his people. They speak the words of God. Overwhelmingly in the Bible we see Angels bringing words of hope, encouragement and blessing, whether it is to Abram and Sarah, to Jacob or to Samson’s parents, or to Gideon or to Joseph or Mary or Zechariah, or to us.

Angels are truth-speakers and overwhelmingly their message to us will be encouraging and up-building, they see us and speak to us through the eyes and mouth of God. They see us as children of God.

Michael and Gabriel, and Jesus, all call on us to be the people God intended us to be, loved and loving, blessed and blessing others, full of grace and gracious towards others.

And finally. ……………………. Angels drive Range Rovers!

The Dishonest Steward – Luke 16:1-13

I find it almost impossible to talk to people when the TV is on. Somehow the television just grabs my attention. Perhaps more amusing is what happens to me at the cinema. I’m one of those people who get completely engrossed in the film, so completely drawn into the story that I’m oblivious to anything else.

I once went with some friends to watch Braveheart (Mel Gibson) – if you’ve seen it you’ll remember that there were lots of graphic battle scenes. I’m told that every time anyone got hit by an axe or a spear my body convulsed in sympathy. After one particularly grusome bit I glanced along the row and was embarrassed to find all my friends watching me rather than the screen. … As we were leaving the cinema a friend grabbed my arm and said that it was almost as entertaining watching me as watching the film itself.

Films are meant to take a hold of us. Good films draw us into the plot. The skill of a film director is measured by how well s/he is able to draw us into the story. Gifted preachers and story tellers are just the same; they draw us into the plot of their sermon or story.

Do you remember the story in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan confronting King David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He told him a story about a poor man with only one lamb whose rich neighbour took the lamb to feed a guest. David was indignant when he heard the story and shouted, “The man who did this deserves to die”. … And after a long pause, Nathan replied, “You are that man”. … He had trapped David. His skilled storytelling brought David to the point where he couldn’t but admit his guilt.

Jesus was the best story teller of all. His stories interested, gripped and intrigued people. People were drawn to listen and to make judgements on what he said. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells one of these stories. A story which seems to condone dishonesty. Perhaps you can imagine the possible responses of those who heard the story:

Some might have said, “There you are, I told you there was nothing wrong with the way that I am running the business. If Jesus says its alright that’s good enough for me”.

Others might have sat in the corner shaking their heads and tutting.

Perhaps others wanted to write in and complain about standards. “This Jesus is teaching things that will corrupt our children”.

Some might just have been confused, … “Why is Jesus condoning something that we know is wrong?”

Others, who were well aware of the moral complexities of life might have felt something of the strength of the dilemma the steward in the story faced. For decisions that many people face in their working lives are not black and white issues but are made up of many shades of grey. Perhaps Jesus is letting us know that he understands the difficulty of such decisions.

Whatever response it provoked, J esus’ story would have had everyone gripped and intrigued. Wondering what to make of it.

We are told, specifically, of two groups of people listening to the parable:

•     his disciples – who seemed to be the main audience;

•     and in the verse immediately after our reading we are told that the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. The response of the two groups and the message they heard was completely different:

Τhe disciples may have been confused by the story but they listened to the lessons that Jesus had for them.

In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus challenging his first disciples about their attitude to wealth and responsibility. The same challenges apply to us! ……

First, Jesus challenges us to use what God gives us here on earth (wealth, gifts & time) for his eternal purposes, for the work of his kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus says that God gives us smaller responsibilities through which we can learn faithfulness to him, before he places heavier or bigger burdens on us (at church or in the world).

Thirdly, (in v13), he reminds us that if money & material things become too important to us we’ll lose sight of the God that we worship. In fact we’ll become worshippers of money and possessions.

Τhe Pharisees, on the other hand, sneered at Jesus. They heard the same as the disciples but they chose not to listen. We know from the rest of the NT that the disciples continued to struggle to follow Jesus but that the Pharisees saw themselves as superior to him. They rejected him and his teaching.

These questions or lessons about money and responsibilities are important ones. Many people in business struggle with just the same kind of issues as the steward or manager in the parable. It is so hard to decide where the narrow dividing line falls between dishonesty or sharp practice and a healthy competition for work. It is sometimes difficult to know when we have crossed that fine line. Ultimately, Jesus seems to be making it clear that money and wealth, jobs and security are all intended to be our servants and not our masters.

Don’t worry if you struggle to understand what Jesus is saying. Keep struggling, for in many ways that is the point of the parable. Let the parable worry away at you. For honest doubt, tentative faith and belief are all part of growing as a Christian.

14042-12697-man_fog_walking_edited-1200w-tn-1-1200w-tnWhen God speaks we always have a choice – we can respond with faith (struggling faith) like the disciples, honesty admitting our doubts, or we can sneer at what Jesus is saying to us, like the Pharisees did. We can turn away from Jesus. There is always a choice. God draws us into the story and brings us to the point of decision, but the choice is always ours. As disciples, we can trust him, struggling to work out our faith in the midst of a confusing world, or like the Pharisees we can reject him, turn our back on him and walk away.

Just telling a joke! – Luke 15:1-10

How do you recognize a joke? What are the signals you look out for?

There’s: ‘Did you hear the one about…’ or ‘A man goes into a pub …’ or ‘A man goes to see his doctor …’

The introduction tells you that there is a funny story coming and you set yourself up for it, you’re ready to laugh!

Have you noticed as well that often when we tell jokes, even though we’re telling a story about the past we use the present tense.

Someone once told me that much as English comedians tell jokes about Irish people. (Although, of course, we don’t do it so often now because we have recognized that it causes offence.) Much as we tell jokes about the Irish, people in Jesus day used to tell jokes about shepherds. They were considered to be country bumpkins of relatively low intelligence. Now I really don’t know how true that statement was. But there is one story in the Bible that really does seem to me to be a case of Jesus telling a joke, or at least a funny story to make a point. And that is the first half of our Gospel reading this morning.

I can almost imagine Jesus starting his parable with the words. ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep …’ And how does the story run? ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep – he left 99 out in the open field and went searching for the one that had gone missing.’

And I can imagine the sniggers, the knowing looks, perhaps even the ribald laughter. ‘How foolish, how stupid, typical of a shepherd,’ some of Jesus listeners might say.

And can you imagine the increased laughter when Jesus goes on to say that the shepherd goes home when he finds the lost sheep and has a party. Not a thought anymore for the 99!! As far as this shepherd is concerned they can look after themselves.

It is manifestly stupid. It is a silly story. No sensible shepherd would do anything like this. The loss would be too great. Better to leave the one who is lost and look after the 99 that are still fine. That makes economic sense. And Jesus audience fall around laughing, all their prejudices confirmed.

But laughter has softened them up for the punch-line. … Says Jesus, ‘This is what God is like, this is what it is like in heaven. God is more concerned for the lost than those who are OK.’

God is more concerned for the sinner who needs to repent than he is for the Pharisee who believes that he is righteous. God is more concerned for the backslider than for the good upstanding Christian. God seeks out the lost and rejoices when they are found again – even if in the doing of it, he seems foolish and ludicrous – even if everyone else thinks that God is on a wild goose chase. God chases after the lost, longing to show them his love, longing to draw them back into relationship with him.

This means that if we, in our wisdom, feel sure enough of ourselves to say what is right and what is wrong; if we, in our wisdom, define someone as a sinner. Then, rather than putting them beyond the reach of God’s love, we place them at the centre of God’s love. … Our parable suggests that God is happy to leave us to fend for ourselves as God focusses on them, as he turns his love towards them. The joke is on us!

And if we were to go on to read the story of the Prodigal Son later in this chapter 15 of Luke, it would be little different. In that story the Father is prepared to make a mockery of himself, all for the sake of a worthless good for nothing son. A fine upstanding Jewish father is prepared to suffer the shame of his village seeing him running through the streets to greet his wayward Son. And the story tells us that the Father places the lost Son ahead of the faithful but self-righteous Son! … We’ve got to be fools to miss the point of these parables. God cares nothing for what people think of him. God’s eyes are focussed on those who are lost, spiritually and physically. God’s eyes are fixed on those in need.

This is what God is like. God seeks out those who are lost, who feel unloved and abandoned. God doesn’t mind looking foolish, if only God manages to draw one lost human being back from the brink, back into his arms. And God is so taken up with joy when one of us hears of his love and responds to that love, that everything else for that moment fades completely into insignificance.

God’s love centres on the cross where Jesus died. It is consummated as Jesus rises from the dead. Just like the sheep that was lost allowed the shepherd to pick it up and take it in his arms, so God encourages us all to have that kind of trusting faith. To allow God to throw his arms around us in love. ‘Yes, Lord, I want that kind of love, please be my shepherd, now and always.’

And God calls us to have this same self-negating, self-deprecating, foolish, silly love, that goes after the lost with complete abandon. Nothing sensible, nothing thought out. Just a headlong rush to share God’s love with those who need him. To love and not to count the cost. To seek out those in need and commit ourselves to their welfare.

imagesJohn in one of his epistles says, ‘This is love – not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son to die for us.’ This is the measure by which we judge our love for our partners, for our family for our friends, for our neighbours and for others who are in need. Love that reaches out unconditionally, foolishly, ridiculously without thought for the cost. That is love like God’s love. This is no joke, it’s the gist of Jesus parable set for today!

Time to Choose – Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-35

options-260x185How do you make decisions? A friend of mine makes decision-making into a hobby. I remember him buying a camera – over a couple of months, he bought all the relevant magazines, he spent hours reading through all the available information; gradually building his expertise – what he didn’t know about cameras wasn’t worth knowing. And finally he came to a decision. The process of deciding was as important as the final decision.

Some of us are spontaneous when we make decisions – a bit like me and clothes – I=ll decide one day that I need a new pair of trousers and within half-an-hour they=re bought. Others like to be careful. Jo seems to go round countless clothes shops, possibly over a number of days, before she’ll decide on what she wants – and it could quite easily be the first thing that she saw right at the start of the process.

Others find making choices just too hard – they waver over the point of decision, feeling confused, getting depressed. Some wait for circumstances to dictate their options, or try to make others make the decision. If I’m honest I can do that – I’ll often say to Jo, ‘What would you like to do?’ – telling myself that I’m being magnanimous, when actually I’m placing the responsibility on her shoulders.

However we do it – we all have to make choices. And in the end a refusal to choose is in itself a decision. … All choices have consequences – if we chose not to have an operation we must live with the problem it might have solved. If we chose not to have children we have to cope with the consequences of the decision later in life. And conversely, if we chose to have children, we have to face the risk of rebellion. All our choices have consequences.

Moses put a choice and its consequences to the people of Israel. ‘Serve God and live,’ he says, ‘turn away and die.’ He makes it seem quite clear cut.

But was it ever like that? Life is never as clear cut as Moses made it sound. Making the choice to live God’s way, making the right choice, doesn’t bring automatic blessing, wealth and freedom from illness. Jesus highlights this dilemma in our Gospel reading. Holding true to what is good, making right choices will bring us into situations of conflict, people will oppose us. As Jesus says here, being his disciple is about taking up our cross and following him.

At the beginning of our reading, we heard that Jesus was travelling somewhere – he was, in fact, on the way to Jerusalem. He had made a choice, in the relative safety of Galilee, to travel to Jerusalem – a place where, he knew he would face persecution and death. Jesus choices led to his death, a death which through seeming defeat won victory; a death which however we struggle to understand it, brought healing, wholeness and reconciliation with God; a death which was finally defeated by resurrection and new life.

I cannot help thinking that many people have had choices to make that have had the same kind of consequences, choices which have put their lives on the line or choices borne from the fact that their lives are already at risk. Others have had choices made for them, they have been forced to move and to go to new places without their consent. We have a history as a nation of failing to properly support those who face such choices and we have at times forced others to fit in with our choices.

We built our wealth on the back of the transatlantic slave trade – forcing people out of their homes, dehumanising them, devaluing them, making them work, not for a good wage, but as animals at our beck and control. … When, in the period after the war, we found we did not have enough people to work in menial and manual jobs we invited people from the West Indies to move to Britain – yes we gave them jobs, but we treated them too as less than human – you may well remember the signs that were placed in boarding house windows, the anger people expressed when someone different from them moved onto their street.

We, in the West, have a history of supporting and encouraging dictators, particularly in Africa, without thought to the consequences and so, as a nation, along with many others in the West, we bear on our hands the results of those choices – the genocide in Rwanda, the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. And we have shown ourselves less than welcoming to people who have been affected by our actions.

In these times, we face one of the biggest movements of people brought about by that same need to choose. The need to choose between life in a war zone like Syria and the possible safety of our family. The need to choose between our homeland and our lives, martyrdom or an ongoing life of faith in a new country. The need to choose is at the root of almost every refugee or asylum seeker’s story. … Our choices, their choices – all impinge on us all.

mte1oda0otcxnzq5mzc3ntq5Choices like these were made by people like Rosa Parks who refused, on 1st December 1955, to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, spurring the Montgomery, Alabama boycott and other efforts to end segregation. She was arrested, imprisoned, lost her job, but spawned, galvanised, a civil rights movement which spread across the USA.

Jesus asks each of us to choose … to choose to follow him to the cross. To choose to do what we know to be right, but to do so fully aware of the consequences. Following Jesus is about making a choice, a choice to live, to the best of our ability, in the way he lived. The choice is costly, it will mean changes in our lives. It will mean welcoming the stranger, reaching out to those who are different from us. It may mean sacrifices. It may mean acknowledging the shame of our corporate responsibility for the mistreatment of those different from us.

Jesus calls us to follow him to the cross. But not just through the pain of the cross and self sacrifice, but on into resurrection, to new life. Living in the light of God’s love. He calls us to be part of a new world order, to be part of his Kingdom. A kingdom or peace and of justice where we choose to live for the good of all, where all are welcomed and loved.

In the end we all have to choose, just like those listening to Moses did. Our way? Or God’s Way? Moses advice is ‘Choose life, choose life lived with God?’ Life with the risk of conflict with those who will think us odd, who may at times persecute us. Life, lived for God and for others. A topsy-turvy life of death and resurrection. But abundant life, secure in the knowledge of God’s love.

The Fourth Mark of Mission – 25th August 2019 (Isaiah 61:1-9; James 2:1-26; Luke 6:20-26)

This is the fifth Sunday in our series about the five Marks of Mission. … Just to remind ourselves once again, these are the 5 Marks of Mission espoused by the Church of England:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

We have not been able to follow them in order. We started with the first but then jumped to the third and then the fifth. Returning first to the second mark of mission, we are now going to consider the fourth Mark of Mission. Over recent weeks, we have heard how interdependent these Marks are, we cannot pick and choose between them. Together they describe God’s Mission in our world and we are called to see what God is doing and to join in.

The fourth mark is: To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.

Luke 6: 20-26 contain Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a part of Jesus Sermon on the Mount (or on the plain). I have paired up the blessings and woes below:

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

These beatitudes in Luke are so different from those in Matthew. Matthew separates his blessings and woes by a few chapters. And his message seems spiritual rather than physical. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”

We might ask ourselves questions like: Why do we have two versions of the Sermon in our Gospels? Which is the right one? Surely they cannot both be correct?

Indeed, it is likely that the Luke passage is the earlier of the two. It is more likely that Jesus words have been expanded by Matthew to emphasise their spiritual meaning, rather than contracted by Luke to focus on the physical meaning.

What is most important for us, is that we have both. They speak to each other and they remind us that we cannot just listen to one without the other. The fact that they both exist reminds us that Luke meant what he wrote. He was not being essentially spiritual but speaking about our world and our values.

When Luke says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” … He means it. He paints a picture of God’s ‘upside down’ world in which the poor and hungry are exalted over the rich and powerful.

The question he expects us to ask is: Where am I in these different pairs? Am I hungry or poor. Am I one who mourns and weeps. Am I someone who is persecuted. Or am I actually rich, filled, happy and thought well of?

Who am I?

It can be easy to think we know what words like ‘poor’, ‘hungry’ and ‘rich’ mean. Likewise it can sometimes seem clear who is the victim and who is the persecutor. But it is rarely this simple. What one person calls a terrorist, another calls a freedom fighter.

What does this tell us about drawing conclusions, and how might we become better informed regarding conflict situations? Or even about the realities experienced by many in our own country.

Are they wastrels? Or are they downtrodden? Do they play the system? Or are they overwhelmed by the system and unable to change their circumstances for the better?

Society has always worked on these kinds of polarities. In UK history, the poor usually received the great judgement. White collar crime, such as embezzlement or fraud of significant sums of money, attracted punishment but was usually seen as excusable. Worthy of punishment, yes. But easily put behind you and of little ultimate significance as you pursued your next, perhaps shady, business opportunity. However, the theft of a bag of potatoes because your family was starving resulted in a harsh prison sentence or transportation to the colonies.Convicts transported to Australia at work outside Sydney 1843. [1]

Are we the poor, or are we the rich? I guess it depends on our perspective.

For the majority of our world, all of us here today are rich. Yet in our society are those who are really poor. People who have, for whatever reason, found themselves as outsiders. The numbers are increasing, the need is increasing, even here in our own town. And we have people of courage who are prepared to work for change. Pauline Town’s work with “We Shall Overcome”, [4] Greystones, [5] Infinity Initiatives, [6] Emmaus. [7] All of these have a prophetic witness. They have recognised that our society has failed significant numbers of people. They seek to do something about this reality.

What might Luke’s Beatitudes teach us about our mission priorities?

We are focussing on the 4th Mark of Mission. It calls on us to “Transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.”

As just one example, let’s stay with our own town.

Try to imagine yourself now living the life of someone who has, for whatever reason, found themselves on the street here in Ashton-under-Lyne, with no money, no credit cards and no friends to turn to.

What does it feel like in the first few days? Do you still have a sense of hope that things will change?

How does it feel after a couple of months with no income, no friends, and no roof over your head? ………….

Someone kindly helps you to attend the Housing Advice Centre on Old Street [3] and finds a way to get you some food through a Food Bank. Do you feel grateful? Or do you feel an overwhelming sense of shame?

When you find yourself in dormitory accommodation under the “A Bed for a Night Scheme.” Do you feel grateful or scared about those you will be sharing with?

These are the realities for a good number of people each day in Tameside. [2]

What should the church’s response be? ………….. What about action? What could we do?

What could be changed – locally or nationally – to transform the issue?

What about campaigning for change? What about Universal Credit? Is it good or bad? Are there ways to change its implementation that might help? …………………. What is the role of the church in politics (with a small ‘p’)?

Matters of justice – whether justice for children, women, animals, refugees – can provoke strong emotions. What comes up for you when you consider the idea of tackling injustice? How could the church support you in this?

What could we do this year to make a change? What organisations could we work with?

And a final question before I go on the make a few short comments:

Looking at the last beatitude in Luke: What is the difference between anger and hate? How can we help ensure that our ‘fire’ or ‘passion’ is an asset rather than a hindrance in a quest for justice? How can anger at injustice be directed towards real change so that it does not develop into bitterness and hatred but makes a real difference?

So what to do?

First of all, lets talk about these things over coffee today. Is there a challenge we need to take up locally? If not the one I have suggested, are there other injustices that we should address?

Our shared giving is one way in which we make a difference. Our Church Wardens have agreed that homelessness should be the theme of our Harvest in October this year. And while our tins and produce will go the places agreed by each of our churches, our monetary giving will be shared by “We Shall Overcome” and “Infinity Initiatives.” Might you be able to give sacrificially at Harvest this year?

Lets believe too that when we work together with others we can make a real difference. I like the adjacent picture. We might feel small but we can have a big impact. We need to believe in what God can do through us.

What about the many other organisations fighting for justice across many areas of need in our borough. We have already mentioned a number. I had been hoping that Action Together would be here today but it is the bank holiday weekend and that has proved impossible. At the moment I have an impact on our behalf in that organisation. I Chair the Board of Action Together and on your behalf, I work with others to bring about change through a dedicated group of staff who seek to allocate grants, work for political change and address specific needs. What more should I or we do?

What about other faith communities? I recently attended an event at Central Mosque which was raising money for Water Aid in specific communities in the developing world. There are others around us who see charitable giving as an essential part of the outworking of their own faith. How can we work together with them? I Chair Faiths United in Tameside and we recently held a conference to address loneliness. We plan others about homelessness and possibly too about asylum seekers. I do this on your behalf as part of our mission in this place. What else might I do? What more should we do?

We need to take all aspects of God’s mission seriously and we need to remember that this 4th Mark of Mission is one of five. All are important, all interrelated. ……

We are all called to:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptise and nurture believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Prayer

God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. The courage to change the things we can. And the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebhur

 

References

  1. https://www.nla.gov.au/research-guides/convicts, accessed on 29th August 2019.
  2. https://www.tameside.gov.uk/Housing/Housing-and-Homelessness, accessed on 25th August 2019.
  3. https://www.tameside.gov.uk/SafetyandHygiene/Rough-Sleeping, accessed on 29th August 2019.
  4. https://www.thetamesidehangout.co.uk/we-shall-overcome-2, accessed on 24th August 2019.
  5. https://www.homeless.org.uk/homeless-england/service/greystones, accessed on 29th August 2019.
  6. http://www.infinitycic.uk, accessed on 29th August 2019.
  7. https://www.emmaus.org.uk/mossley, accessed on 29th August 2019.