Friday, 31 October 2014

Soaking in the love of God - A sermon by Andrea Leonard

Andrea is an ordinand studying with SEITE, who is with us on a church placement for two months. 

Have you ever tried to flush rice krispies down the toilet? I once had a bowlful to get rid of, and so I tipped them down the toilet. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time! But they just don’t go! Three days later there were still a few floating around.
Which leads us nicely into our Bible readings for today. Both readings set very high standards for us, and might at times make us feel quite inadequate.
Do you remember last week Anne talked about paying taxes to Caesar?  How the Pharisees and Herodians came together to try to trick Jesus by asking him a difficult question, and his answer amazed and silenced them, and so they went away with their tails between their legs and no doubt rather irritated that they hadn’t got the better of him. Well, Later the Pharisees heard that the Sadducees had also tried to trap Jesus with a difficult question, and he had stunned the Sadducees into silence as well. So you can imagine the Pharisees in verse 34 getting together and plotting how to trap Jesus with their questioning and have one-upmanship on the Sadducees.  So one of their top men, an expert in the law, tested him with this question. (He ‘interrogated’ him,  not nice to be interrogated by a lawyer, and would have been intended to intimidate Jesus) So their best man asks him ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ The reason that this could have been a trick question was because it was really a no brainer. It was a bit like asking someone is the Pope a Catholic? And it was such an easy question  because if you were a religious Jew, as Jesus was, then you knew the answer off by heart. Jews were taught a prayer called the Shema, which they had to say twice every day, morning and evening. It was also meant to be the last thing that they said before they die if possible. ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad’ et.c. ‘ Hear, O Israel, the lord your God is one Lord, .. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might’
Twice a day they had to say it, with their right hand covering their eyes so they could concentrate on the words, and they still do, you can see versions of it on Youtube. (It is so much a part of the Jewish tradition, that after the second world war, one way used to find Jewish children that had been hidden away in orphanages and convents, was by saying the shema, and all the Jewish children would instinctively put their right hand over their eyes, so deeply ingrained was the learning from such an early age.) 
And they asked Jesus which was the most important commandment. He might well have answered, ‘well, der! ‘ 
But he goes one better and to this law from Deuteronomy he adds the one from our reading in Leviticus. He then tells that all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments, they depend on them, without them all the other laws don’t make sense. These 2 laws are the baby, and the others are the bathwater.   In a way he gave an A level answer to a GCSE question. Again he left them unable to condemn him for his answer. But then he asks them an even more complex question they can’t answer about Whose son is the Christ? The point of this was not to say that Jesus was not the son of David, But he wanted to establish that one greater than David was here. You see the Pharisees were looking for a messiah that had similar military strength and prowess to that which David had had. Jesus was saying that you have misunderstood, you’ve got it wrong. That is not the sort of Messiah that is coming.
So what does this have to do with us now, in our everyday lives?
We are told to be Holy, and Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.
Fortunately for us we don’t need to worry too much about being holy.  Follow Jesus and you will be made holy - Hebrews 10 vs 14. ‘For by one sacrifice God has made forever perfect those who are being made holy’. It’s the great difference between Christianity and every other faith. In other faiths you have to build up your good deeds or karma and work your way to god, climbing the ladder towards him. Christianity is the only faith in which God himself climbs down the ladder to us (as God incarnate in Christ) and pays the price for our sin and shortcomings.
But what about the commandment to love; God, and our neighbours as ourselves?
 Love is a funny word in English. We only have one word to mean a lot of things.
I love my children, my friends.  And I love the skin on rice pudding.
 But what does love mean to each one of us? What is love? It’s not just a feeling or an emotion, although it certainly evokes feelings. To say it is just an action, something we have to do, is to make it cold and clinical and robs it of its joy and life.
What love is, is our greatest calling from our creator. It is the reason for our being. It is why we are.
But, we might say, I don’t know how to love all the time. I can love some people some of the time, but not everyone all of the time. And sometimes my love tanks run dry and I can’t give any more, and sometimes people really irritate me.
To love can be a tough call, especially if you haven’t had any good examples; or if like me you once said, ‘I don’t know what love is’.
We might struggle to define love, but we know what shape it is, it is the shape of the cross, where Jesus surrendered everything and showed that he was totally committed to us.
He said, as the father has loved me, so I have loved you, now remain in my love (John 15 v 9). He is our example, our pattern.
But you know there is only one way to learn how to love more, and that is by letting yourself be loved.
Joseph Hart knew what love was. The writer of our last hymn. He could really immerse himself in God’s love and was secure in it. As a young man he was very anti-religious, believing that you only had to believe in God and then behave how you wanted to (a libertine antinomian), and wrote a leaflet called ‘The Unreasonableness of Religion’ – particularly aimed against John Wesley.  But then eventually he was convicted of his sin and selfishness and after a personal revelation of God’s love, became a Christian in 1757. He became a popular minister and wrote over 30 hymns.  He was forgiven much, and he loved much. How good is the God we adore.  His love is as great as his power – just think of that!  Yes, his love can melt even the hardest heart. No-one is out of his reach. Not even you.
 How can we receive Gods love? Through each other, thorough the different examples of human love which should be a reflection of God’s love for us. Through his love letter, the Bible. Through the majesty of his creation. By spending time with Him and listening to him. By soaking in his presence. And the drier you are, the longer you need to soak in his love. Just like my rice Krispies. Of course you are not filled to overflowing to be flushed away like they were, but to be made complete and to touch others with his love, like Joseph Hart was.
As humans we also need examples and symbols.   In a few minutes we will be celebrating Holy Communion.  As you take the bread & wine, remember that this is a symbol that Jesus gave everything he had for you because to him you are the most precious and treasured person. Feed on his love and acceptance. Be filled with it, dive into it, splash around in it, breath it in, delight in it, soak in it, and then you will have plenty to give away.
Love is the shape of the cross and love is our greatest calling.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Trinity 17 Dress The Part by Kevin Bright

Matthew 22.1-14, Philippians 4.1-9 & Isaiah 25.1-9

I was at one of those large formal dinners earlier this week, where around 1000 people all sit in a grand hotel to eat, hear talks and see awards dished out.

The person that invited me said ‘let’s meet in the pub beforehand and I can give you your invitation’.

Later as we were going to the dining area I said to a colleague that as usual no one had asked to see my invitation to which he replied ‘if I ever find myself destitute I’ll make my only possession a penguin suit and work my way around the London hotels from one formal dinner to the next enjoying 5 courses with wine each evening and feigning an interest in whatever industry is celebrating that evening.’

As I considered our reading from Matthew’s gospel this week it made me think ‘how important is it to look the part’? In most cases dress codes are now as relaxed as they have ever been but from a practical point of view if your builder turned up in a 3 piece suit and shiny shoes to start digging foundations it might cause some concern before you even start thinking about the health and safety implications. It disturbed me to hear that the only man who turned up to the King’s banquet without a wedding robe was bound hand and foot then thrown out into the darkness.

If I was invited to dinners like the one in in our gospel reading I’d be pretty worried, it all seems rather extreme. Firstly invitations are despatched, sounds like it will be a cracking do, but rather strangely no one invited seems interested. Then a reminder is sent stating that a delicious feast has been prepared even giving some menu samples to get the taste buds going but some are too busy with their daily lives whilst others take offence at being asked twice and it all turns ugly with the messengers being beaten and killed. Like most male cooks I get fed up if the family or guests aren’t readily seated to receive my great creation when it’s ready to serve but things haven’t yet reached the extremes we heard of when the king gets so hacked off with the people’s behaviour that he sends soldiers to kill the murderers and burn their houses down. It all makes the likes of Gordon Ramsay seem quite mild mannered.

Despite all this fighting and bloodshed dinner is still on, though it might be a bit cold by now. The slaves that weren’t killed last time went out again (anxiously we assume) to invite all and sundry. The guests accept this time, perhaps because they saw what happens when you refuse or is it because they are readily grateful for what is being offered and excited to receive an invitation?

It’s one of those parables which, if you think you can neatly explain what Jesus intended you probably haven’t thought about it enough.

I don’t think we should be taking the detail too literally but would be better to think about the context in which those hearing the parable found themselves. Clearly it was a time of some serious tension between those starting to understand (or at least be prepared to listen to ) what God’s kingdom might be like and the other Jews who were not prepared to listen, not prepared to consider change or accept a message that that bestowed credibility upon Jesus.

One commentator describes the time as the low point in an intense family feud and we all know they can be among the most ugly.

The parable is the last of 3 and follows that of the ‘two sons’ and the ‘wicked tenants’ each aimed at illustrating that Jesus and the kingdom of God are inseparable and that to reject Jesus makes it impossible to share in the kingdom. . The same parable can be found in Luke’s gospel but it is simpler, less detailed and less violent.

Many commentators will say that the king in this parable is God, and the invited guests were his chosen people, the Jews. The servants God sent to them again and again included the likes of John the Baptist who had been rejected and beheaded.

The temptation is for us to sit smugly and think how stupid the Jews were to reject Christ but in doing so we can fall into the same trap. As soon as we think we have God all worked out with systems and patterns of worship which are closed to new possibilities we become similar to those who rejected the invitation making God very small. It follows that we can only be open to a fraction of the love he wants us to know.

In describing the invitation to a wedding banquet Jesus was using the analogy of the biggest party that anyone would ever get invited to. This wasn’t just any wedding banquet is was the king's sons wedding banquet the biggest of the big, a once in a lifetime opportunity. The hint is that the kingdom of God is big, there’s no reference to a maximum capacity and if we partake fully the kingdom of God is joyful in a depth that goes way beyond day to day happiness.

Paul’s letter urges the two ladies in Philippi with difficult to pronounce names to reconcile their differences as it seems they have fallen out. The implication is that we should focus on getting on with the things we know to be right and pleasing to God and not waste our time and energy on in house feuds which distract us from meaningful  activity.

Paul urges the Philippians to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. Bearing in mind that he was prison when he wrote the letter it shows that he will has not let worldly matters or personal suffering suppress the inner peace that comes from a true knowledge of God’s love.

You may be thinking that’s all very well but what about this God that kills his enemies and has people bound and thrown out? We all have family and friends that we have invited to share in our faith but they have chosen to reject the invitation. Should we be telling them that this is what will happen to them unless they change their minds? 

That guy who isn’t properly dressed it seems a bit harsh the way he was treated. After all if we were invited to a formal dinner at 5 minutes notice would we have our dinner suit or evening dress immediately available? Matthew seems to be warning that it’s not enough just to turn up and accept the generous invitation, once you come into this new inclusive community God expects some effort on our part and we are provoked into thinking what it would mean to be separated from him.

There are no neat explanations, it’s not an easy parable to hear in many senses, it’s difficult, provocative and uncomfortable. But perhaps we are meant to struggle with it. Maybe if we consider how we would react whether guest or king then the story makes us think about our relationship with God, what we understand him to be and traits which we can’t attribute to him. Maybe Jesus makes the point of the pleasure and displeasure of God in the extreme so it is easily understood without the intention that it is taken literally.

The fantastic thing about these words of Jesus is that they are still causing us headaches, still forcing us to think about how we respond. We will see signs that we are on the right lines to accepting God’s invitation and celebrating the kingdom when those at the bottom of the pile, the poor, the oppressed and excluded also have space to see what good news looks like.

We mean it when we say that all are welcome in God’s kingdom which includes this very church but we shouldn’t always expect to find reassuring words. Being part of the kingdom means we also have to recognize where we have become comfortable in our dysfunctions, relaxed into our habitual wrong doing and be open to learning better ways. Our ultimate goal is to be people who seek redemption but this is not possible if we never consider where we are going wrong.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated that’ that grace is not a refuge from obedience, but an invitation to transformation and redemption. ‘The parable is challenging us by asking what it means to come to the banquet, and reminds us that while God’s grace is free, it is not cheap. (John Anderson).

Having reflected on this today do we think we are people still open to discovering God in new ways? Do we recognise him as the king who punishes those who reject him or find him in a man cast out and beaten?


Kevin Bright

12 October 2014