Monday, 7 November 2011

Seeing the kingdom: a sermon by Kevin Bright

3rd Sunday before Advent

How do you feel when the door slams shut at the wrong time? Many of us will have heard the front door click shut only to turn around and remember that our keys are still indoors. This is usually followed by a period of self denial as we search every pocket for the keys we know are hanging safely on the key hook.

Then there’s the frustration of all those tube train doors which seem programmed to close just as you step on the platform giving you longest possible waiting time for the next one. Not to mention the annoying store managers who seem to delight in closing a minute early as they smile and cross their arms from the safety of the other side of a glass door.

There’s also all the metaphorical door slamming which goes on. The marchers from Jarrow who reached Trafalgar Square yesterday feel that the door has been slammed shut on them as far as job and training opportunities are concerned, particularly for young people. Many find that the door to opportunity is firmly closed to them because of other people’s prejudices.

Of course our perspective on all these situations will vary depending which side of the door we find ourselves on. Inside our homes we feel safest with locked doors, seated on the tube we are anxious to move on and not be delayed, and the shop manager does have a home to go to.

On the gates to many car parks there are warnings along the lines of ‘these gates are locked at 6.00 pm and will not be opened again until 6.00 am the following day’, so if you don’t get your car out in time it’s your problem. The people hearing Jesus talk of lamps and oil would have understood him as clearly as if he told us today ‘the wise man bought only what he could afford and left the store in plenty of time to move his car, whilst the foolish man lived only for today and ‘maxed’ out his credit card beyond his means with some late night shopping forgetting that the car park shut at 6.00 pm, he not only had to come back for his car the next day but also got soaked waiting for the bus’.

I checked with Anne and she confirmed that English weddings must take place between 8 am and 6pm, the timing intended to deter clandestine marriage, eloping or abduction under cover of darkness. But the people hearing Jesus would have been familiar with a torchlight procession which was part of a typical Palestinian wedding festival. Jesus is the bridegroom and he still encourages us to consider whether we are one of the 5 wise or foolish bridesmaids. If the concept of being a bridesmaid makes it hard for the macho to find themselves in the story substitute it with Usher.

It probably feels early to be mentioning Christmas stories but we will all be familiar with wise men from the East which came to Jerusalem seeking the king of the Jews. Now as Matthew’s gospel nears its climax we are reminded again of the affinity between Jesus and the wise and how Christ himself is our source of wisdom and light.

When you think about it if we knew when the wind would blow the door closed we wouldn’t let it slam shut on us and part of Jesus message is to remind us that we do not know the time when he will come again. It’s a big challenge for us to keep faithful, keep going, stay loyal for the long haul. We need our flasks of oil for our lamps, or spare batteries for our torches or reserves of energy, strength and faith more than we knew when we first set out on this journey.

So why would 50% of those who went to meet the bridegroom have not followed Baden Powell’s excellent advice to ‘Be Prepared’. The answer could lay in our attitude to God’s invitation to partake in his kingdom.

Have you ever been invited to a wedding of your wife’s cousin’s daughter who you’ve never met, and to top it all there’s a major sports fixture that you’ve waited half a lifetime to see on the same day? It might be understandable if you’re lacking enthusiasm, don’t prepare well and end up arriving late having taken the wrong route. Well this is what the invitation to the kingdom of God is not like!

We need to remind ourselves that the invitation we have received is the sort that requires us to get our clothes dry cleaned, our hair cut, shoes polished and route rehearsed to make sure we are ready to join the bridegroom in celebration.

The preparation for this is our very lives, the journey to God which we all share. If we want to avoid arriving at a door which is shut to us we need to reciprocate and keep the door open to God through open hearts and minds as to the possibilities of what he wishes us to do.

As we leave this building today let’s ensure that we don’t close the door on God leaving him boxed in here with the builders for another week. I hope the builders will be aware of his presence but also that we are aware of God everywhere we go in the week ahead.

It can seem hard to know how we should be prepared and frightening to think that the door to Christ could one day be closed to us.

Over recent weeks things I’ve read, heard and seen in the news encourage me to think that God smiles when we make a ‘pig’s ear’ of situations as long as we have done it with what we thought were Christ like principles.

There is potential for each one of us to live lives which give a hint of what the kingdom of God is like but we have to be ready for it to turn up when and where we least expect it. If we need an example see how those who run St Pauls cathedral have suddenly been thrust into the ‘Occupy London’ protest, challenged to find a meaningful response to a deeply complex world problem under the glare of a critical media.

The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, who resigned from his post at the cathedral last month over its handling of the Occupy protest, said he was not sure the Church should get too involved in "proposing specific answers to complex economic problems". I have to say that I strongly agree with him.
He described "the calling of the Church to draw attention to the human cost of financial injustice" and emphasised that it has nothing to do with bringing down capitalism. In his words ‘Markets create wealth and jobs, and indeed those who want to dispense with capitalism are often better at saying what they're against than they are at proposing convincing alternatives.’ "Nonetheless, part of the reason why Christianity is so suspicious of money is that the power and glamour of money can easily corral us into a narrower and narrower sense of what it is to be human," he said.
Part of what it means to be fully human is the ability to see God at work in others. When I preached on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy you may recall the priest who saw that not only is God like the father welcoming back his son or the woman sweeping her house but he also saw that God loves us so much that he is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone.

This week I saw a youtube video by a man who thought God is like a truck driver as he saw small communities with their problems and support for each other gathered at the food and fuel stops. It chimes with our reading from Amos as he reminds his fellow countrymen not to get caught up in thinking that God is only to be found in the language and rituals of religion. We need to care about what God cares about and guard against containing him at our convenience or shaping him to fit our lifestyle.

Paul reminds us of the good news in his letter to the church in Thessalonica. He wants to reassure those who attempt to live in response to God’s love that they will not find the door slammed in their face, but will ‘be with the Lord forever’.

The kingdom of God is like a school choirmaster, that’s the most recent one I’ve come across, and though the journey ends with beautiful music sung in perfect harmony it isn’t an easy one.

Looking around this church you might feel inspired to say that ‘the kingdom of God is like the people who were aware of those around them and set up a group called ‘know your neighbours’ or the kingdom of God is like people who cared about their local school so much they played their part in achieving significant improvements.

The point is that in giving us parables and metaphors for the kingdom of God Jesus encourages us to find our own, to see the kingdom in our everyday lives until it becomes the truth that the kingdom of God is like a bunch of people from Seal and Sevenoaks, the Police officer, the school teacher, the banker, the school pupil, the government officer, the university student,the surveyor, the secretary, the cleaner, the retired man or woman, the housewife and many, many more.

Our acceptance of God’s love for us and our efforts to build some small part of his kingdom on earth have the potential to make our journey to him a joyful one as we build our ability to see it.

My truck driving youtube theologian reckons that ‘God spends most of his time with those outside religious institutions, just as his Son did. I guess it runs in the family.’

So this week I challenge all of us to find at least one example in our everyday lives where we see God at work and that inspires us to say the kingdom of God is like…


Kevin Bright
6th November 2011

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