Sunday, 24 October 2010

Bible Sunday: a sermon by Stephen Snelling

Luke 4.16-24, Romans 15.1-6

I wonder what it was like in the synagogue that day? The whole of the village of Nazareth would have known that Jesus, their Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter was coming back to their village, to their synagogue. Just before this morning’s gospel reading starts we hear that Jesus had returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and reports about him and what he had done at Capernaum had spread throughout the surrounding countryside. He had been teaching in synagogues and had been praised by everyone. And now he was going to be teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth a small village with barely five hundred inhabitants – the place would have been packed and all those who were there would have been hoping to hear the Good News – they were full of eager anticipation. Everyone there would know him and he would know everyone. Luke draws us in to the story: “Jesus stood up to read . . . he was handed the scroll . . . he unrolled it . . .” the Jews and we are on the edge of our seats by now. Jesus tells them that the Spirit of the Lord is on him. His years of preparation – the time in the temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve, the life leading up to his baptism, his testing in the wilderness, his early deeds in Capernaum - he preached like a man inspired. But what he said was the opposite of what they were expecting. If this was inspiration then they didn’t want it!

What they wanted was a King with an army ready to throw out their Roman occupiers. What did they get? Well they got a man preaching an entirely different message. Jesus says that he is here to bring “good news to the poor.” This doesn’t just mean those who have no money because in his community status depended on much more than wealth. It depended on education, gender, family, religious purity on so on. So the poor means all those who are excluded from Jewish society and by bringing his good news to such people Jesus shows that he is not prepared to recognise social boundaries. In his eyes even these outsiders are the objects of divine grace and through Jesus God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family. He puts it more succinctly in the sermon on the plain recorded by Luke “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Similarly bringing sight to the blind doesn’t just mean physical healing, although we know that Jesus does restore sight to the blind, but it would also have been understood as meaning receiving revelation, experiencing salvation and being included in God’s family.

Jesus goes on to talk about freedom for captives and the oppressed. Commentators say that this means forgiveness for those who are held captive by Satan or who are under some kind of financial obligation to another person. Such freedom would mean that these people could be restored into the social community and would have important social and spiritual impact.

This would not be good news for those in the synagogue that day, Jews, God’s “chosen people.” Here was this man saying that God’s kingdom was here for everybody not just “people like us.”

The people of Nazareth are weary. They’re tired of being mistreated by cruel soldiers and greedy tax collectors. They certainly have lots of reasons not to trust their neighbours. The world's a scary place.

We know about that. We've all been hurt, stepped on in one way or another. And certainly the news we get from the media feeds our fears as most of what we see, hear and read is about the awful tragedies in our cities and around the world. It's very understandable that parents want nothing more than to protect their children.

It’s so easy for us to only have eyes for ourselves - our family, our community - for what we think is in our best interests. It’s hard for us to let go of our wounds . . . our fears, our distrust . . . our preconceived ideas about others based on their background. In a nutshell, it's hard to trust - to trust God and his claims of sovereignty.

And so too often, instead of hearing and really receiving Jesus’ great news of release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, we look to find our good news, our salvation in successful careers, in our families, in friends who will fill the loneliness. And in doing this don’t we find ourselves forming a community of people around us with whom we are comfortable - and by whom we are not threatened in any way? People like us.

So when Jesus comes along and says that he is going to focus on the needs of the poor, the blind, the oppressed, the people, we say, "Well, that sounds good, but aren't you going to deliver us from the hard stuff we're going through?"

But Jesus says no, I’m not here just for you. I’m not going to take you away from the hard stuff. I’m here to expand your world, to broaden your concept of who will be citizens in my kingdom. My kingdom is about offering healing to the poor, release to the captives. It’s about welcoming those who are oppressed and stigmatized.

But two thousand years on isn’t there a danger that Christians could be those “people like us?” Churches have glass doors so that people in the outside world can see in and we can see out but isn’t there a danger that they are not glass doors but glass ceilings preventing those from outside from joining God’s family. In some churches, even if you can get through the glass door, there are still the ‘gatekeepers,’ as the Bishop of Sheffield describes them, to get past. Those people who ‘vet’ newcomers to ensure that they are really ‘people like us.’

One of the big challenges for the Church today is to search our souls and see if there are ways (even if not intentionally) that we are keeping too much to ourselves. Who are "those people" in our lives? And are we keeping "those people" at a distance - because it takes too much energy to move out of our own comfort zone/community, too much energy to reach out to them. Are we setting the boundaries in our lives (in terms of how far we'll reach out)? And are there boundaries that are too hard to think about crossing?

If we’re really honest, we can come up with a list of people and places we’d rather not be near. Thank God that Jesus reached out to the Gentiles! Thank God that God loved us enough.

But how is it that we know all this, can think about it and be challenged by it? Well that’s a simple question to answer – we have the Bible – still the world’s best selling book.

Today is the Sunday which, in the calendar of the Anglican Church, has been designated "Bible Sunday". It is the Sunday when we give thanks for the Bible; a day on which we should remember how much blood was spilt and how many lives lost during the Reformation period when the Bible was first translated into English – we’ve had the Bible in English in our churches since 1611. On Bible Sunday the Church also asks us to remember the work of Bible translators today, and all those who are involved in spreading the gospel in remote parts of the world as well as those who are involved in preaching and teaching in our own land.

And why do we rely on the bible as Christians? Well Saint Paul sums it up in that part of the Letter to the Romans that we heard this morning – whatever was written was written for our instruction so that if we remain faithful to Christ and are encouraged by the scriptures then we can have hope of everlasting life.

Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Bible "our letters from home" - and one of its strengths is that it is a means whereby our heavenly Father communicates with us, shows his love for us, gives us hope in times of difficulty, and helps us to see how to live our lives. All of which should be seen in the context of our journey towards our eternal destination, and the place in heaven he offers to all those who believe and trust in him and in his Son Jesus Christ.

But when did you last stop to think what you'd do if you didn't have the Bible in a language you could read? Well, for a start, I could preach anything and you'd have nothing to check it against.

Millions of people still wait for translated scriptures. And while these people wait, they are cut off from fully understanding God's love and God's ways. Think about it: evangelism, training, worship – all these things that as Christians we take for granted – how can you do this without a Bible people can really understand?

The complete Bible is available in 414 languages, with the New Testament available in another 1472.
873 other languages have at least one book of the Bible.
But work still needs to begin in 2,700 languages around the world.
Over 300 million people have nothing – not as much as a "In the beginning was the word" in their own language.

So, make the most of the gift that you’ve been given - read the Bible. Don’t be daunted by its length. You can get bibles now which break it down into daily readings so that you can read it over the period of a year. We can get bible reading notes to help us and there are commentaries which can help us if we want to look deeper. Remember too that there are many homes in this country with no Bible in them – those people are waiting to hear the good news – it might be your friend or neighbour.

Think about the words of today’s collect. It tells us that we should realise that God inspired all those who wrote the scriptures for us to learn from. It asks God to help us to listen to them, to read them, to learn from them and think about them. It tells us that if we have patience and take comfort from the words of the Bible then we have the promise of everlasting salvation which Jesus has given us by his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. But if that is good news for us then let’s share the Bible and its good news with all those who are willing to hear!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Trinity 19: The healing we really need

Trinity 19 10 Proper 23
2 Kings 5.1-15, Luke 17.11-19

I don’t know whether you are a fan of TV hospital dramas – Casualty, Holby City, House, ER and so on – I’m always quite happy to sit down at the end of a long day and watch them, and I know I’m not alone. They might not be Shakespeare, but they are very absorbing. It’s a popular genre with a long history. But why? Are we all just sadists, with an unhealthy taste for watching other people’s suffering - albeit fictional?
I hope that’s not so, but what is it then? Is it the medical detail we are looking for? I doubt that as well. Unless you are a doctor or a nurse, you probably aren’t sitting there thinking to yourself “Hmm, that’s an interesting surgical procedure…”

The truth is that it’s not the diseases or of the cures that we are really interested in, but the human dramas that are provoked by them. It doesn’t really matter to us what kind of fracture someone got when they fell off that ladder or what sort of plaster their leg is put in. What we really want to know is how this accident is going to change things for them and those around them. Perhaps there will be a reconciliation with a long lost child or they’ll make a new friend out of the stranger next door who helps them out. Perhaps a secret will come to light or a discovery be made. Perhaps families will be drawn together, or split apart. Sometimes there are happy endings, sometimes not, but the crisis interrupts their normal lives, and things change. That’s what fascinates us – those moments of change – because so often that is what we are hungry for, or fearful of, in our own lives too.

Our love for a good medical story, as I said, goes back a long way – perhaps some here remember Dr Finlay’s casebook or Emergency Ward 10 – but if we look at today’s Bible readings we can trace the line much further back than that, thousands of years back in fact. Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings contain stories that are squarely in this tradition. The people in them aren’t healed by pills or surgery, of course, but by the miraculous action of God. That may seem to make them very different from modern medical dramas, and perhaps very puzzling to us, but to the people who first told and heard these stories the whole world was miraculous. Life was God’s gift. Healing was in his hands. They wouldn’t have thought twice about the way these people were healed, any more than we ask technical questions about an episode of Casualty. These were stories – just like our modern ones – which were really about the people involved in them, about their hidden agendas and mixed motives, revelations and reconciliations.

The Old Testament story comes from the book of Kings. Naaman was the commander of the armies of Aram, which is at war with Israel. He was “a great man, in high favour with his master..” But he had contracted leprosy. It was a terrible blow, not just physically, but professionally. Lepers were often excluded from society in the ancient world, regarded with suspicion, kept at a distance. How can he lead an army now? And it must have seemed like a personal affront too. Naaman’s whole life revolved around being strong, and being seen to be strong, but now he’s weak, helpless and disfigured.

He’s desperate for a cure, and so is his king. So when his wife’s Israelite slave girl starts talking about a prophet in her country who could help, there is no hesitation. Naaman is sent off to the king of Israel to find a cure, with lots of gifts to smooth the way, and a letter of introduction.

Of course it was never going to be that easy, any more than it is in Casualty – there would be no story if it was. There is politics involved. The king of Israel’s heart sinks when he opens the letter. This is a no-win situation for him. If Naaman is cured, he’ll have strengthened an already powerful rival for power in the region. If Naaman isn’t cured, though, the king of Aram will see it as a deliberate snub, and all hell will break loose.

Fortunately for Naaman, Elisha hears of this in the nick of time, and sends a message – let Naaman come, he says. He takes the responsibility on himself.

But this turns out to be a mere hiccup in the story. The big problem is yet to come, and it is far more difficult for Naaman to deal with, because it lies within his own heart. Naaman is a great man, used to the red-carpet treatment, so he expects that his healing will be spectacular too, noble, befitting his status. When he gets to Elisha’s house, though, the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet him. He just sends a messenger, and the message he brings sounds like an insult to Naaman. Go down and wash in the river. That’s it?! Where are the prayers and incantations, the grand rituals? It isn’t even much of a river – just a muddy trickle. He might as well have stayed at home and bathed in a decent Aramean river. It feels to him like a deliberate insult. His illness has probably damaged his self-esteem anyway, but now it seems Elisha is determined to tear the last scraps of it away.

They say that pride goes before a fall, but in truth pride often comes after it too, preventing us from accepting the help we need. Sometimes people would rather die – quite literally – than feel the humiliation of losing face before others. Naaman has been so desperate for a cure, but just when it is within his grasp it looks as if he will turn away from it, simply because he feels it is beneath his dignity to take it. It is a very cheap cure, but that makes it too costly for Naaman. It is a very easy cure, but that makes it too difficult for him to face. A man of his status who has come all this way ought surely to get something far more sophisticated than this.

At the beginning of the story, it was a slave girl who said what needed to be said. Now again it is the servants who speak sense to Naaman. Perhaps if you are at the bottom of the pile, you are less inclined to worry about saving face. “It can’t hurt to give it a go…” they say, and Naaman, fortunately, is persuaded. When he comes up out of the water of the Jordan, he is healed, not just in body, but in spirit too. He comes back to Elisha to declare a new allegiance to Elisha’s God., a God whose love you can’t buy, which you don’t get because you deserve it, but because you need it, no matter who you are or where you’ve come from. He’s released from the anxious striving that has marked his life, that obsessive need to impress others, even when he was ill, and it changes him completly.

In the Gospel Jesus meets ten people with the same disease as Naaman - leprosy. “Have mercy on us!” they cry. So he does. Again, it is all very simple. “Go and show yourselves to the priests”, he says – it was the priests who certified that you were cured and said it was safe for you to rejoin your community. They head off, and as they go, they see that they are clean – the marks of the disease are gone.
At this point one of them - just one - turns back to thank Jesus and praise God. The others have hurried off, back to their old lives, so that everything can be as it was before this wretched disease struck them. But this tenth one realises that nothing can ever be as it was before. It’s not about getting the old life back, but about getting a whole new life with new values, new priorities and new relationships.

All ten are “made clean” according to the story – in the Greek it is the ordinary word for washing or purifying. It is important, but it is superficial and temporary. But it is only this one who is told that he has been “made well”. The Greek word is one that is often translated as “saved”, and it signifies something that is far more than skin deep. A lot of Christians talk about salvation as if it is simply about what happens to your soul after death, a ticket to heaven, to put it crudely. But that’s not what the Bible says about salvation at all. In the Bible salvation is usually far more to do with the here and now. It is about the healing of this world, the transforming of our inner attitudes and motivations, our relationships and our societies. It is about justice and love; things which bring heaven to earth for all of us, rather than something which lifts a chosen few to another realm when they die. It is about the kind of changes which enrich our lives now and change our vision. That’s what this tenth leper has found. That is what Naaman found. They were glad to be rid of their leprosy, but that wasn’t the most important thing that happened to them on the day they were healed. Just like the stories in Casualty, these aren’t stories about medical conditions being cured, whether by pills or by prayer, but about human lives and relationships being redeemed, restored, remade.

Both these men will die one day, as we all do. There comes a point where neither medicine nor miracles will be able to stop that natural process. True healing isn’t and can never be just about preventing or removing disease, staving off death. These stories remind us that the really important healing we all need is the healing which draws us closer to God and to one another, which enables us to love more deeply and live more fully.

Naaman’s pride almost prevented him finding that healing, even though it was right there in front of him. That tenth leper almost missed it too – settling for what he had before as his friends did. These stories, like our modern medical dramas, give us a chance to ask ourselves what healing we might really need, and what might stop us finding it. Perhaps they remind us too, that we don’t have to wait for a crisis to reach out to God and to one another to ask for that help.