Category Archives: Ashton-under-Lyne Blog

Matthew 21: 23-32 – True obedience.

You’ll have noticed two different parts to the Gospel reading set in the lectionary for 27th September 2020. ……

The first, a challenge to Jesus’ authority coming from Jesus’ religious enemies – the chief priests and elders. Jesus confronts some of the highest-ranking, most powerful authorities within Judaism. These chief priests and elders, members of a “scribal elite” class, played important, visible roles in the life of their community and in particular within their religion. Jesus’ catches them out in their duplicity. They are more worried about how they look in front of the crowd than they are about what was true and just and right.

The second, a story about two sons who vacillate between obedience and disobedience to their father. Listening to this second story about the two sons — one who verbally refuses his father’s command to work in a vineyard but later changes his mind and obeys, and another who agrees to toil in the vineyard but does not keep his promise — we might be tempted to moralize it. We may assume its message is simply “Actions speak louder than words!” or “Don’t be such a hypocrite!” or “Obey your father!”

In Jesus’ day, it probably was seen differently. For to refuse your father’s demand made in public would be to shame him and yourself, so you’d say ‘Yes’ even if you had no intention of obeying him. Public face was everything. Jesus challenges this assumption and his listeners pick up on the challenge. Of course, say the chief priests and elders, the one who initially said ‘No’ was the one who did the will of his father. The culturally appropriate behaviour of the son who said ‘Yes’ did not produce obedience to the father. It was the son who started off behaving in a way that shamed him and his father who was ultimately obedient.

So, says Jesus, to the chief priests and elders who have joined the crowd listening to him. You’re the ones who talk publicly about faith and about obedience to God’s will, but you fail to follow through on those public statements when it comes to the crunch.

John the Baptist came preaching and teaching, his message was from God, but it wasn’t you, the religious people, who listened to him, it was the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts. It was the ones whom you condemn, who listened and who acted on John’s words and whose lives were changed through their obedience.

Being religious gives you a standing, a place of honour, in your community but when it comes to the crunch, that place of honour matters more to you than obedience to God’s will!

So, if John the Baptist was the focus of debate in our Gospel reading; if John provided the catalyst to challenge religious dogma and to bring about change; if John’s message drew new people to faith, but left the religious people standing watching on the side lines. What might be this Gospel’s challenge to us, the religious people of our day?

Where might God be at work in ways that we who are religious struggle to comprehend?

Because, if God is active or discoverable in the efforts of someone like John, a wild-eyed long-haired prophet who sets up camp in the wilderness calling for a new world to come into being, a world marked by justice, changed lives, and a recognition that God intends for more than just things staying as they are …… then perhaps people who care about religious language, symbols, practices, and truth should be curious people, bent on keeping their eyes open for new ways in which God might be made known, or ways in which the God’s purposes might be expressed.

We have that responsibility to our wider world – to work for justice, fairness and peace, and to meet human need. … But where might God be asking us to be at work in our own towns, communities and parishes, and in what ways might we act obediently to the Father here?  How might those of us who have said ‘Yes’ to God, be people who come through on our commitment.

Many Churches have Mission Action Plans or equivalents which highlight many things that local parish communities see as the way in which they can make  that ‘Yes’ become real. Does your church have one? If so, are you familiar with what it says? Perhaps, if not, you could ask your church leaders for a copy, explore what it says and perhaps offer to assist with the implementation of the Plan,

Alternatively, you might read the Plan and feel that it needs to change to reflect the circumstances of your own local community at the time you read it.If so, you might want to offer to participate in a review of the Plan.

Or, if your Church has not thought about these issues in the past and as a result has no Plan, You might even want to help to develop one.

But it is not just what our parishes/churches do that constitutes our ‘Yes’ to God. There will be more than this, there will also be things outside the activities of our parish where you see God at work and where a ‘Yes’ to following God will need to become real for you in obedience to God’s will. There may be a community activity which you can participate in, or a gap in necessary provision within your community which you might seek to fulfil as part of your discipleship as a follower of Jesus.

What is God asking of you/us today?

Matthew 21: 28-32 – Shame and Two Sons

An excellent illustration of the dynamics of shame and honour in the parables of Jesus is found in Matthew 21:28-32 where Jesus tells the story of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard The first adamantly refuses, but later changes his mind and goes to work. The second agrees to work, but never actually does.

Tennent comments: “Most Western readers do not sense the real tension in the story. Certainly the first son, who refused to work but eventually did, is being honored by Jesus and compared with the tax collectors and sinners who initially refused to honor God, but were now repenting and entering the kingdom. Western readers find Jesus’ question patently obvious and the whole construction seems to lack the tension that is so ‘often present in parables. However, the tension of this parable is felt when heard within the context of a shame-based culture. From an honor and shame perspective, the son who publicly agreed to work is actually better than the son who publicly shamed his father by refusing to work and telling him that to his face. Even though the one who refused to work later changed his mind and worked while the former never actually obeyed the father, the public shaming of the father is still a greater sin than not performing the task.[1] The first son may have eventually obeyed the father, but the father lost face. The second son may have not obeyed the father, but he protected the father’s public honor.”[2]

 


[1] J. H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew,” Westminster John Knox Press, 1998: p31.

[2] Tennent; “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007: p87.

Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 – A Good Sulk!

One thing I really like about the Old Testament in our Bibles is that we see people in the raw. Nothing seems to be covered up. The Bible refuses to focus only on people who have positive, fulfilling relationships with God. It shows both bad and good in even its greatest heroes – even when they would rather hurl abuse at God than sit quietly and at peace in his presence. The story of Jonah is a case in point.

In the reading set for 20th September 2020, Jonah is sulking; angry & resentful that the enemies of his people should be let off the punishment he thinks they deserve, just because they have repented. Jonah has a problem with God!

Do you remember the story of Jonah? God tells him to go & preach in Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, a hated enemy of Israel, so he jumps on a boat to Spain. God brings about a storm, Jonah realises that he’s the cause and gets the sailors to throw him into the sea.  A big fish swallows Jonah, and three days later spews him out onto the shore – by now a chastened man, ready to do what God wants of him.  He goes to Nineveh, still wanting the city to be destroyed – and tells them that they have forty days in which to repent.  And Nineveh listens, its people repent – God is merciful and does not destroy the city.

This makes Jonah really angry, livid – that God should be merciful to the sworn enemies of his people. Like a sulking child, Jonah spits out his contempt of God – “I knew it would end up like this! If you’d listened to what I said, this would never have happened.” He even has the gall to quote the psalms he knows:- … “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” … Jonah’s not praising God, but saying that God’s love is irritating and inappropriate.

“Let me die – I’d be better off dead,” says Jonah”.  You can just see him, can’t you, sitting down with a sulky face, arms crossed, not looking God in the eye.

We’ve all done it, we’ve all been there.  Self-righteous indignation makes us boil, and we take it out on those around us.  Whether that’s our parents when we were younger, our spouses or very good friends, I guess they’ve all been on the receiving end of our sulks.

How does God deal with it? There’s no attempt at self-defence. That would be my natural instinct in the same situation.  God knows where his prophet is coming from and he loves this angry ball of resentment just as much as ever.  Loving parents on the receiving end of anger and resentment from their children, know that usually it’s a lack of understanding or experience that is behind the outburst.  They know that, if possible, they should stay calm and loving and pick up the pieces once the child has got over their sulk.  So too with God.   He gives Jonah a little time, a little comfort and a little experience in the shape of the vine that enables Jonah to see things from God’s perspective.

The point Jonah had completely missed, that we often forget, is that God doesn’t only love and care for those we think he ought to.  He doesn’t share our lines of demarcation which make some (usually including ourselves) “deserving” and others not. When Jesus started to live out God’s love in practice: spending time with gentiles, tax collectors and prostitutes, religious people were disgusted that God might choose such people for his friends.  Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus tries to help us understand that God’s love is so much wider and more far-reaching than we seem to grasp.

Look at the Gospel reading set for 20th September 2020. In this parable,the first lot of workers see the generosity of the employer to those who started work late, as a raw deal for themselves and resent it. … If our basis for reckoning in life is simply what we’re worth on an hourly rate, then the longest working labourers have a point.

But the owner sees things differently, he sees the needs of those left in the market place, just as God sees all people with their needs and is concerned to provide for them all.

Both in our own lives, and in the life of our churches we can fall into the trap of wondering why God blesses some people and not others.  It’s not fair – why does life seem to go so right for someone we know who never darkens the door of the church, when my life’s difficult?  It’s not fair – why do other churches seem to be growing, when this church is not?

Life doesn’t always seem fair.  But step back, look at the bigger picture, what is God doing in other people’s lives, drawing them back to him.   Perhaps in doing this we will gain deeper understanding into why certain things are happening, that will enable us to see God’s purpose.

Whenever we see God’s generous love in evidence, however much of a surprise, we mustn’t question or quibble, but should rejoice with the angels at the amazing love of God.

Matthew 16: 21-28 – 30th August 2020 – Take Up Your Cross

I first met Graham Turnbull in 1994. In the previous couple of years he’d felt God calling him to work in Rwanda. He’d left his job as a solicitor & trained to teach English as a Foreign Language. He left the UK in 1994 to travel overland to Rwanda – taking a landrover to the place he’d be working there.

As he was travelling, the genocide started in Rwanda and many people were killed. Graham was unable to enter Rwanda and I shared a house with him for two weeks in Kisoro in Uganda.

When the troubles subsided, he taught for 2 years in a place called Cyangugu in Rwanda. But he began to feel that he should be working for the UN as an ‘observer’. Observers travelled round Rwanda ensuring a visible international presence and so keeping violence to a minimum, a risky venture. His friends and family prayed it through with him, and in spite of the dangers agreed that God did seem to be calling him to this role.

Less than two months after he joined the UN there was an item on the BBC evening news – 5 UN observers had been killed in an ambush. Graham was the one Briton in the team. He was 37 years old when he died. …………..

God called Graham to Rwanda and led him to work with the UN. Graham gave his life in God’s service.

I wonder, is this what Jesus means in our Gospel reading when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Is he calling us to his kind of sacrificial lifestyle?

For many Christians around the world, this does indeed seem to be the case. The majority of saints who fill the Anglican calendar were martyred for their faith. There were more Christians tortured and killed in the 20th Century than throughout the whole of the history of the Church before that. But is Jesus calling us to that level of self-sacrifice?

Last week (on Sunday 23rd August 2020) those of us following the Anglican lectionary heard Peter acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Now we hear Jesus talking of his death, placing the Cross right at the centre of what it means to understand him as Messiah. Jesus is saying, very clearly, that his disciples, that we, will not understand him unless we understand the cross, and in some incomprehensible way take it on board for ourselves. In this passage, Jesus isn’t calling us to martyrdom, but rather to making the Cross central in our lives.

Why is the cross so important, so crucial in our understanding of Jesus as King, as Messiah?

Lesslie Newbigin says that the Cross “is the supreme parable: the kingdom of God, both hidden and manifest in the dying of a condemned and excommunicated man.”

Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die it will bear no fruit.”

Paul talks of the cross as demonstrating God’s weakness, a mystery that shows that God’s weakness is stronger than our strength.

The cross was the place where sin was defeated, where redemption was won, where Jesus opened a door for us back into God’s presence. The Bible claims that at the place of seeming weakness, the greatest victory was won.

So what does Jesus mean when he talks of us taking up our cross?

Let me suggest three different things: the Cross is about identification, about self-denial/sacrifice and about weakness.

Firstly, we can identify with those who are suffering.

In Phil. 3:10, Paul says: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Graham, whom I mentioned earlier, and others like him have paid the ultimate price for commitment to Christ. Persecution continues throughout the world and we are called to ‘identify’ with those who are experiencing Christ’s sufferings. To read their stories, to pray for them, to write to them and to their persecutors, to demonstrate Christ’s love in action.

Secondly, self-denial/sacrifice.

Do we really understand as individuals and as congregations, what Jesus means by self-denial? Is there any evidence of the Cross in our life together? Are we prepared to make ourselves vulnerable so that others might know God’s love? Are we willing to let our guard down – let others see our weaknesses, our fears, perhaps let others know about how God has helped us? Perhaps, for us, self-denial means giving time or energy to serving Jesus in different ways in the Church family.

Thirdly, weakness.

Some of us are very conscious of our weakness, conscious of pain, and of suffering. The Cross of Christ, the Cross we are called to take up, makes it clear that Christ identifies with our weakness and pain. It promises that in facing our weakness we will find God. Not when we are strong, not when life is wonderful, but most clearly, most real-ly, when we are at our point of greatest weakness, when the night is dark, when everything seems to be destroying us. Then, when we are weak Christ not only walks alongside us, but in the words of the poem ‘Footprints’ so loved by many, it is then that he carries us.

Finally, another quote, this time from David Runcorn, in a book called “Touch Wood: Meeting the Cross in the World Today.”

The Cross shows us a God: “who comes to us from beneath. He enters our world through its weakness, its wounds, its places of rejection. He shares our emptiness. He enters the absence of all we long for and becomes it. He makes it his own. He enters our desolation so completely that he makes our deepest cry his own, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?'”

The cross is central. We are very unlikely to be called, like Graham Turnbull, to sacrificing our lives for the Gospel. But in the Cross, Jesus calls us to service, to self-denial, to sacrifice – and with every fibre of his being, Jesus understands and identifies with our sense of weakness.

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew 16: 13-20 – 23rd August 2020 – Peter the Rock?

Peter is the rock on which the church was built. At least that’s what our Gospel reading suggests. ….. St. Paul says similar things about us as Christians. Listen to his words from Ephesians 2:

You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. [1]

We are God’s temple, God’s dwelling place, rocks, bricks being built into God’s Church. As Paul suggests in the second reading set for today from Romans 12. [2] Each of us exercising our different gifts and strengths, supporting and caring for each other is in Paul’s thinking, strengthened as a building by the interlocking nature of our lives together.

Jesus says to Peter: “You are the rock on which I will build my church.”

But Peter was anything but a rock. Yes, he has just exclaimed that Jesus is Messiah – but two verses later Peter shows just how fickle he is. He cannot accept Jesus’ statement to his disciples that he must die. “God forbid, that this should happen to you, Lord,” he says. And Jesus uses the strongest of words to rebuke him.

Later, as we know so well, Peter promises always to be faithful, yet within 24 hours of that promise he has denied his Lord three times. Peter is no rock. He’s not even stable enough to build a dog kennel on, let alone a house or a church!

So what is Jesus talking about? He knows how unstable Peter is. ………..

Jesus is looking beyond what is self-evident. He sees into Peter’s heart and he also sees his potential. Jesus’ seemingly unfathomable statement about Peter is based not on what we can see of Peter, not even on what Peter thinks of himself. Jesus’ statement, Jesus’ confidence in Peter is built not on Peter but on Jesus’ confidence in the transforming love of God.

And as we watch Peter in the story of the early Church we see someone who gradually becomes a rock, a place of certainty, a person, who in the end, dies a martyr’s death. We see God transforming Peter, dealing with the rough edges of his personality, dealing with the selfishness and sinfulness, the pride which is so much a part of his life. Moulding and making Peter into the rock that Jesus said he always was.

We too are living stones being built into a temple fit for God. Just like Peter, we are being changed and renewed, we mess up, we get things wrong, we hurt ourselves and each other. We definitely are not perfect! However, just like Peter, whatever we currently feel about ourselves, whatever we think others think about us, Jesus sees us as his rocks, his stones, his bricks.

And just like Peter we are called to build God’s church. We are called to be the secure point, the place of hope, the signpost to others around us. We are called to point others to the one who has loved us, who thinks the world of us and who gives life purpose and meaning. We are called to point others to Christ and to be the rock on which they can begin their life of faith.

We are called, as the Church in our community, to be a visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God in that community. If people cannot see the Kingdom of God in the church that serves them, where will they encounter that Kingdom?

We are not perfect, and never will be this side of heaven. But we are called to be a people, like the apostle Peter, who learn over time how to be more like Jesus. This is Jesus’ vision for us, or of us … that we are a community, in our parishes, and in our individual churches, that shines with the light of the Gospel. When God looks at us, that is what God sees. God sees the possibilities, the improbable joys, the unlikely achievements.

And, dare I say it, that is God’s hope for the way we relate to each other.

When we look at those with whom we struggle, we are intended to look through God’s eyes, to see the possibilities, unlikely as they may seem. To see what that person might become if loved and accepted and trusted. To see the possibilities, the improbable joys, the unlikely achievements.  To see that they too could be a Peter – a rough cut stone which could become the most beautiful of diamonds.

You and I are being built, being changed as God deals with us throughout our lives. You and I are each being built into the person God already knows we are, and it is God’s intention that we together become the people we are meant to be. His family, his people, his nation.

References

  1. Ephesians 2: 19-22.
  2. Romans 12: 1-8.

Matthew 15: 10-28 – 16th August 2020

What do you make of the Gospel reading set for 16th August 2020? … 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? ………….

The Jewish establishment of Jesus’ day was concerned above all with purity – and we saw something of that in the first few verses of our Gospel reading. Our gospel goes on to raise real questions about racial purity. Just who does God see as his people. For many Jews it was clear – only the chosen people, only Jews. God wasn’t concerned for others, for the Gentiles.

Over the past few weeks in the Summer of 2020, we have once again seen images of refugees crossing the Channel in really unseaworthy boats, often small inflatables. I guess that we will also remember stories of people dying in container lorries in recent years. How should we respond to the stories we hear?

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. …

The world-wide statistics are indeed frightening.

According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million people displaced from their homes (about 1% of the world’s population) Many of them, 45.7 million displaced within their own countries but 29.6 million were refugees – people who have been forced out of their country of origin. Of these 5.6 million are Palestinian refugees and 3.6 million are Venezuelan refugees. Most (4 out of 5) stay as close as possible to their country of origin because they want, if at all possible, to return to their own land. ……There were 4.2 million asylum seekers throughout the world. [1]

The Governments statistics on asylum seekers show that, for the past 15 years or so numbers have actually been considerably lower than they were just after the millennium. [5]

What does this mean for the UK/Europe? The latest detailed figures available from the Red Cross [2] are for 2018.

Asylum Seekers: the UK received applications for asylum for 37,500 people (including dependents). This is far less than Germany (162,000), France (110,000), Greece (65,000) and Italy (49,000).

That works out as 5 applications per 10,000 UK population. In Europe the figure is 14 per 10,000 people.

Refugees whose claim for asylum has been accepted by the state in which they now dwell are given ‘leave to remain.’ But are still refugees. [2]

According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2018 there were 126,720 people still classed as refugees in the UK.  The number in Turkey is 3.7 million! [3]

The Syrian Crisis started in 2011. In the four years to 2015, the UK took 216 Syrian Refugees – 216 in 4 years! In 2020 the number has reached close to 20,000, the figure which was promised by the UK government.

At any one time around 5,000 people are waiting on the French side of the Channel to try to cross to the UK. Last year 1,900 crossed the channel, this year it has been 4,000, so far.

The most astounding figure that I have come across is the number of people granted asylum in Germany. This reached its peak in 2015 – wait for it – 440,000. Yes, over 400,000 in one year! Over the past 30 years, Germany has received at least 3.6 million asylum applications, or nearly one-third (32%) of all asylum applications in Europe over the period. [4]

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?

When we read the Old Testament 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 was 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 started to happen? …

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 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 an ongoing struggle to engage with now in our country. 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, relatively welcoming nation, that for much of our history we have been?

The issues are, of course, complicated.  Governments of all persuasions have struggled to work out what to do. There are no easy answers. ………

But I want to live in a country, in a world, where people matter; indeed that is a Gospel imperative. As Christians, we are called to respond to real need with a generous and open heart. We are called to set aside prejudice and to be open and welcoming.

Working that out can at times be complicated. We may need to make difficult choices at times. 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 all be proud of, a community that welcomes the stranger.

References

  1. https://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2019, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  2. https://www.redcross.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/how-we-support-refugees/find-out-about-refugees%20, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  3. https://www.unhcr.org/uk/asylum-in-the-uk.html, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  4. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2016/08/02/number-of-refugees-to-europe-surges-to-record-1-3-million-in-2015/#:~:text=Germany%20received%20an%20unprecedented%20442%2C000,of%20Europe%27s%202015%20asylum%20seekers, accessed on 15th August 2020.
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-october-to-december-2016/asylum, accessed on 16th August 2020.

1 Kings 19: 1-18; Matthew 14: 22-33 – Sunday 9th August 2020 – Holidays and Retreats

We are in holiday season – and our Old Testament Reading tells the story of the first known package holiday. Not arranged by TUI or Jet – this holiday is arranged by God.

Elijah has been working all hours as the head prophet in the Yahweh organisation. Business has not been that good. The competition have been gaining ground. It seems like bankruptcy is on the cards. Yahweh could well go out of business – or succumb to a hostile takeover by the Baal conglomerate. … The tension is brought to a head on Mount Carmel. Elijah challenges the opposition. A credibility test – whoever wins is the real God.I guess that you know the story well – Elijah wins. Baal cannot provide the fire to light the sacrifice on his altar. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, sends fire down from heaven. The whole Baal organisation is in turmoil – Baal’s prophets are killed. Elijah is on cloud nine. But things are not quite that simple – the chief shareholder of the Baal conglomerate is incensed. Queen Jezebel will not go away, she issues threats on Elijah’s life.

How does Elijah respond?

The tension of recent events has got to him. Rather than confident trust in God, built on the foundation of what God has just done at Mount Carmel, Elijah panics – he runs. It’s a classic case of depression and stress – he’s taken on more than he can handle. Elijah can now only see problems where once he saw opportunities. Run down, feeling hopeless, he runs off into the desert.

I don’t know about you but there have been times in my life when I’ve been just like Elijah in our reading. Stressed out, having lost perspective on life, God seems to have disappeared.

It isn’t always something as drastic as Elijah’s experience that affects us. It’s strange isn’t it how often when we review something we have done, that it’s the negative things we remember rather than the good. Or, I wonder, have you ever had the experience in some unguarded moment of tearful emotions overcoming you. Sometimes holidays, perhaps because we begin to relax, or perhaps because of the memories they evoke, are times when life is particularly hard – times when we’re prone to self-pity – even times when God feels distant.

How did God deal with his faithful servant Elijah in this time of darkness? ……….

It’s important to note that God doesn’t tell Elijah to snap out of it – or to buck his ideas up.

No! First God allows Elijah time to rest and sleep; then God makes sure that he is well fed and watered; and then he takes him on a forty day excursion to the mountains.

At times we need to hear this – rest and recuperation are God’s gifts to us – listen to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” ……..

Secondly, God helps Elijah to see that although God can work in power, God is to be heard most clearly in the silence. God’s words of comfort to Elijah are whispered gently to him. Time away from noise and business, times of holiday and retreat, are times when we can hear God. Times when we can be resourced again for faithful service.

Life can drain us, it can pull us down, we can feel defeated. Holidays and retreats are God’s gift to us, they’re times when we can choose to make space for him. Times when we can pick up our Bibles again. Times when we can make space to pray. Times when we can set aside noise and competition and listen to God’s still small voice of hope. ……

Peter’s story in Matthew’s Gospel is a little different!

He is out of the boat walking towards Jesus. …. For a moment things seem to be going really well – until he looks around and sees the storm and suddenly the water underneath his feet really does feel like water. And Peter begins to sink. Life for him, like Elijah, is overwhelming. Peter is desperate.  “Lord, save me,” he cries. And Peter, like Elijah, discovers that God is there for him. …..

Both Peter and Elijah have seen God at work in dramatic ways – Elijah on Mount Carmel, Peter, with the feeding of the 5,000. But both discover that they have to learn to trust God for themselves. It is not what they have seen that counts – not even what they have been involved in. They for themselves have to learn to trust the quiet voice of God in the midst of what life can bring.

Peter cries out, “Lord, save me.” …. Elijah stands still, listening to God’s voice.

Whoever we are, whatever our nature and whatever our experience of life, we need too to learn to place our confidence and trust not in our own abilities, not in the faith of others but in the love that we discover God has for us. And when God reaches out to us in love, we need, like Elijah and Peter, to trust him.

And we can trust God to be there for us at all times – providing the strength that we need for each day, intervening on occasions, but most of all assuring us of his loving presence.

And when we come to Communion, when we release our burdens in confession, when we receive again the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, when we eat the food that God provides for us. We can hear God speaking once again in the silence, God says again – “I love you, rely on me!”

Every day that we come to Holy Communion can be a holiday – a Holy day!

 

 

Matthew 14: 13-21 – 2nd August 2020 – How to Read a Story?

Matthew 14: 13-21

Many of us, when we go on holiday, take with us something to read, usually a novel or two, occasionally a biography. Apart from reading books about railway history, I’m an avid reader of suspense, crime and murder mystery novels. I really like the police procedurals like Rebus from Ian Rankin, Alan Banks by Peter Robinson, Bob Skinner from Quintin Jardine and books by Rachel Lynch, Harlen Coben, James Patterson, … etc.

This isn’t really the time or place to chatter on about what I like to read. But I do want to ask you about the way in which you read a story or a novel. Who do you identify with most readily? Whose eyes are you looking through as the story unfolds? Is it the hero or the heroine, a bystander, or someone else who is involved in the plot?

I guess to some extent it depends on how the book is written, whether it is in the 1st person or the 3rd person, whether you are actually encouraged to identify with one character or another. Some of the most intriguing stories are those where the author encourages you to see things through the eyes of one character, to identify with them, only to find out that they are not the person you thought they were. The experience can be quite shocking!

It is usual for us, when we read a story or a novel, to identify with someone … to live the story through them.

So, I wonder, when we read stories in our bibles do we do the same? Or do we sort of stand detached, alongside events almost like spectators?

I think the bible authors had just the same kind of intentions as modern story-tellers do. They want to draw us into the story, to get us involved.

We are given an account of the feeding of the 5,000 in all of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All the accounts are different in their own way, all reflect the perspective or agenda of the particular Gospel writer. All help us to have different perspectives on the story! So Matthew and Mark place this story just after the death of John the Baptist – and in the context of the story that is clearly meant to be important. Luke suggests that the 12 have just arrived back from their mission as healers and preachers and that they are desperate to talk to Jesus about the things they have done and seen happen. John adds personal detail mentioning both Andrew and Philip, two of the disciples, by name – and mentioning that the five loaves and two fish came from the picnic box of a young boy. The same story told in four different ways.

Not only is the story told slightly differently by our four Gospel writers – highlighting different things in the story. We also have the opportunity to see the story through different people’s eyes. If we allow ourselves to imagine it, we can look out on the story through the eyes of the disciples, perhaps particularly Andrew or Philip, we can watch as members of the crowd, we could take the young boy’s perspective (although he does not appear in Matthew 14) or we could see things through Jesus’ eyes.

One thing I could ask you to try would be to choose a character from the story in Matthew 14 and listen again to the story trying to see things from their perspective and then perhaps share with others who have read the story but who have chosen other characters, what you saw. It would be a good way to broaden your understanding of a passage that you have read.

I’d like to highlight a couple of things that might come from doing just that as we read this story:

Jesus: The context of this story of the feeding of the 5,000 is set for us in each of our Gospels. Jesus has just heard of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, he is in mourning. … The disciples have returned from the mission he has set them and they are full of excitement; clamouring and eager to talk to him about their impact on other people’s lives. … Our reading tells us that Jesus hearing about John’s death, withdrew by boat, privately to a solitary place. I guess he needed space to mourn. The other Gospels tell us that he withdrew with his disciples. In Mark we hear Jesus say these words to his disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”.

Jesus is exhausted, emotionally, spiritually and physically – he is done in and he needs space. His disciples similarly need space to rest and recuperate from their mission. I can imagine Jesus climbing up the slopes on the far side of Galilee – so grateful for the opportunity to rest, only minutes later to look up and see a large crowd gathering. Jesus was exasperated, grief-stricken, exhausted, ready for a break. … I guess, some of those feelings will be shared by parents and others here who have still to take their holiday, maybe even by those who have just had their holiday with children in tow.

In this instance, Jesus sets aside his own needs for the needs of the crowd. Even in the midst of his tiredness and grief he is willing to give himself to their demands for his attention. A while back, on our day off at 8.30 in the morning the doorbell rang. Still in my night clothes, I answered the door and there was a man of the road – can I have some breakfast. Come back later I said, we are still in bed. At 9.00 he was back, this time shouting through the letterbox, a few expletives about our laziness and unwillingness to serve him. He eventually got a piece of my mind and some days later came back to apologise. What does Jesus’ attitude in our Gospel reading say to me about my attitude to this man? Could I not have served him rather than place my own needs for rest first?

As Christians, all of us are here to be God’s hands and feet in society. Jesus challenges us, not just by his words, but by his actions, to be willing to go the extra mile in serving others! And only after having done so, here in this story, do the following verses tell us that he makes time again for solitude and rest!

The disciples: John and Mark have the disciples chuntering away before they come up with a very small amount of food. John has them ‘borrowing’ the food from a young lad. Both the disciples and the young lad had no idea what their paltry, tiny offering would make. They perhaps only made the offering to reinforce the fact that trying to provide for this host of people was a lost cause. ‘Lord, we just have to send them away – can’t you see that now?’

But Jesus takes their reluctant, tiny offering and turns it into the most sumptuous of banquets. … Like the disciples we so easily see what we have to offer as not enough. We are not gifted enough, our congregations are too small, we can’t possibly afford to meet Parish Share, we cannot meet the maintenance demands of our buildings – it is hopeless. … And it is so easy to think like that.

We are small and seemingly overwhelmed by the world around us, yet God is still working in our midst. We reminded ourselves last week that it is when we feel small  and helpless, then we are most like the Kingdom of God, for it is then that God can work through us. Things are fragile, they are certainly very dependent on the life of God’s Spirit. God is quietly at work in our midst and we have had a part to play in his work in our world.

Here in the characters of our story – seeing events through their eyes – we can be:

  • challenged and encouraged;
  • spurred on to service; and
  • reminded of God’s love and provision for us.

Prayers

Why not try what I have suggested for your prayers this week? Sit with this or another passage of Scripture for a little while. Try picking one of the characters in the story and see things from their perspective. Ask yourself: What do they notice? What do they do? Why, what motivates their actions? If you chose the passage from Matthew 14, you might find that you gain a different insight to the ones that I have suggested. …………..

Take time as well to pray for the work of the church, for those in authority in our world, for peace, for the needy, for those who are unwell and for those who are at rest with the Lord.

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 – The Kingdom

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Jesus gives us a number of pictures of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.

First, the mustard seed – something so small that you can hardly see it, yet when it is fully grown it is almost as big as a tree – seemingly insignificant and of no apparent value yet having an impact far beyond what could be imagined.

Second, the Kingdom is like yeast which when mixed into the dough leavens the whole loaf and makes it rise – perhaps just 7g or 10g of yeast will leaven 500g of flour. so, the kingdom is alive and growing. It’s an agent which turns something flat and dry into something light and airy.

Thirdly, two pictures about the value of the Kingdom, treasure hidden in the field, and a pearl of great price. The kingdom has hidden value, easily missed for years, like treasure trove in a field, trampled under foot as the farmer ploughs the field, or a pearl hidden inside an ugly clam.

The overall impression is of something easily missed, seemingly of little value or importance – but yet, ultimately of immense worth. Something hidden, seemingly small and of little value – yet far more important than we can imagine.

So when Jesus uses the words “the Kingdom of God”, what is he talking about?

In the Gospels we hear Jesus saying these words on many occasions: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come close to you.” And in the context it sounds a little as though he is talking about himself.

So, is that what the Kingdom is? Anywhere where Jesus is present? …

Elsewhere Jesus talks of the Kingdom as being within us. … So, is that what the kingdom is about – not something physical but something that governs our hearts? …

Sometimes Jesus seems to talk of the Kingdom as being something for the future, something beyond this life – somewhere that we call Heaven. … So is that what the Kingdom is about – something that Christ will bring in when he returns, whenever that may be – something not for now but for then, for the future?

What are you praying when we pray those words in the Lord’s Prayer … ‘Your Kingdom Come’?

The Kingdom of God is the Rule of God – wherever it may be. Yes, it does refer to heaven, and we look forward to a time when all that is evil is gone, when peace and justice, mercy and goodness have sway.

But it also encompasses life here on earth – God’s rule in our hearts, changing us, calling us on to love others, to work for a just, peaceful world, experiencing his presence with us. But a lot more than that too.

The church has fallen into the trap down the years of identifying itself with the Kingdom and of seeing God’s kingdom being about the rule of earthly Christian Kings. …………… So we have been responsible in the past for the Crusades; the temporal power and authority of the Bishop of Rome has been called the Holy Roman Empire; we have assumed that because we have a Christian heritage, all our culture must also be Christian, that the values we live by must be the values that the world should live by; and at times we have been arrogant and aggressive.

But says Jesus – that is not the kingdom. The kingdom is often insignificant, often overlooked. It is not about physical wealth, or might or power. In fact, the church is most like the Kingdom when it is weak and small, unsuccessful and overlooked by society. And the Kingdom exists where hope is born out of nothing, where God’s servants live like yeast in the dough of society, where truth and light and goodness is a treasure to be discovered hidden in the lives of ordinary people.

And as we look at ourselves and the world around us. As we feel insignificant and small, as our churches seem to have little hope for the future, … then we are most like the Kingdom of God, for then we can begin to feel the weakness and hopelessness of so many around us. And we can be part of our community like the yeast in the dough – not going out arrogantly with the answers, but rather joining our community in seeking God=s presence, looking for signs of the Kingdom, carrying with us the love of God and looking out for that love evident in the lives of those around us.

Then God’s kingdom is coming here on earth and small seeds of hope will germinate in our lives and the lives of those around us – and perhaps new shoots of life will develop and in time trees of righteousness and justice and peace may well have grown in the places where we live and work.

Prayers for the coming of God’s Kingdom

Almighty God,
your ascended Son has sent us into the world
to preach the good news of your kingdom:
inspire us with your Spirit
and fill our hearts with the fire of your love,
that all who hear your Word
may be drawn to you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.     Amen

God of our salvation, hope of all the ends of the earth,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That the world may know Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That all who are estranged and without hope
may be brought near in the blood of Christ,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That the Church may be one in serving
and proclaiming the gospel,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That we may be bold to speak the word of God
while you stretch out your hand to save,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That the Church may be generous in giving,
faithful in serving, bold in proclaiming,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That the Church may welcome and support
all whom God calls to faith,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That all who serve the gospel may be kept in safety
while your word accomplishes its purpose,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That all who suffer for the gospel
may know the comfort and glory of Christ,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

 That all who are unwell may know your consolation, strength and healing …….. particularly ……………we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That your constant care will be the experience of all who rest in you …….. particularly …………… we pray:
Your kingdom come.

That the day may come when every knee shall bow
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
we pray:
Your kingdom come.

Almighty God,
by your Holy Spirit you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth:
grant that in our earthly pilgrimage
we may ever be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer,
and know ourselves surrounded by their witness
to your power and mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

 

19th July 2020 – Don’t Judge a Book By its Cover – Matthew 13: 24-30

Some people are just doomed to be failures. That’s something we sometimes say. It is just the judgement being made in the story in our gospel reading. As out talk for this morning, I want to tell you a story about a teenager called T. J. Ware:

Some people are just doomed to be failures. … T. J. Ware was made to feel this way almost every day in school.

By high school, T. J. was the neighbourhood troublemaker. Teachers cringed when they saw he was in their class. He wasn’t very talkative, didn’t answer questions and got into lots of fights. He had failed every test throughout his school career.

Everyone at the school as invited to sign up for training, about becoming more involved in their communities. T. J. was one of 405 young people who signed up.

The community leaders briefed the course leader: We have a real spectrum represented today, from the brightest student to T. J. Ware, the boy with the longest arrest record in our part of the city.” This wasn’t the first time T.J had been described this way.

At the start of the weekend course, T. J. was literally standing outside the circle of students, against the back wall, with that “go ahead, impress me” look on his face. He didn’t readily join the discussion groups, didn’t seem to have much to say. But slowly, he got drawn in.

The ice really melted when the groups started to build a list of positive and negative things that had occurred at school that year. T. J. had some definite thoughts on those situations. The other students in T. J.’s group welcomed his comments. All of a sudden T. J. felt like a part of the group, and before long he was being treated like a leader. He was saying things that made a lot of sense, and everyone was listening. T. J. was actually quite smart, and he had some great ideas.

The next day, T. J. was very active. By the end of the course, he had joined the Homeless Project team. He knew something about poverty, hunger and hopelessness. The other students on the team were impressed with his passionate concern and ideas. They elected T. J. co-chairman of the team.

When T. J. showed up at school on Monday morning, he arrived to a firestorm. A group of teachers were protesting to the headteacher about T. J. being elected co-chairman. The very first community-wide service project was to be a giant food drive, organized by the Homeless Project team. These teachers couldn’t believe that the headteacher would allow this crucial beginning to stay in the incapable hands of T. J. Ware.

They reminded the headteacher, “He has an arrest record as long as your arm. He’ll probably steal half the food.” The headteacher reminded them that the purpose of the course was to uncover any real passion that a student had and reinforce its practice until true change can take place. The teachers left the meeting shaking their heads in disgust, firmly convinced that failure was imminent.

Two weeks later, T. J. and his friends led a group of 70 students in a drive to collect food. They collected a school record: 2,854 cans of food in just two hours. It was enough to fill the empty shelves in two community centres, and the food took care of needy families in the area for 75 days.

 The local newspaper covered the event with a full-page article the next day. That newspaper story was posted on the main bulletin board at school, where everyone could see it. T. J.’s picture was up there for doing something great, for leading a record-setting food drive. Every day he was reminded about what he did. He was being acknowledged as leadership material.

T.J. started showing up at school every day and answered questions from teachers for the first time. He led a second project, collecting 300 blankets and 1,000 pairs of shoes for the homeless shelter. The event he started now yields 9,000 cans of food in one day, taking care of 70 percent of the need for food for one year.

T. J. reminds us that we cannot judge people by their appearance and that we need to leave all final judgements about people to God. What appear to be weeds may well turn out to be something very different!

References

1.  https://theoutsiderslizm.weebly.com/tj-ware.html, accessed on 13th July 2020.