Sunday, 28 August 2016

Trinity 14 - There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch?

Luke 14.1.7-14 & Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

In our gospel reading today we heard that Jesus went to lunch with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very particular in observing Jewish law especially those around washing and eating, their preference was to share with other Pharisees who understood and observed their customs so we immediately question why Jesus was allowed to join one of their leading people for a meal. It doesn’t seem likely that they thought Jesus would be good company as a friend, after all they have criticised him and questioned his authority before this event so perhaps they want to get Jesus into their private space, on their turf, where things are done their way and the ‘pecking order’ is well understood by all in attendance. When you think about it we too have all sorts of rituals and expectations about dining in certain settings. Perhaps some business lunches are motivated by similar intentions to the Pharisees, aimed at finding out more about someone or their organisation, whether there are shared commercial interests or opportunities for collaboration, whether we even like the people and their ethics enough to work with them. Then there are wedding receptions, it’s often a nightmare when you are limited on numbers and have to not invite someone you know expects and invitation, I’m sure some people are mischievous with the seating arrangements, sitting someone opposite their 'Ex' or putting all the small children with a grumpy uncle. As host this is in your control, and when it comes to the top table that’s for the bride, groom and their important people only. In the ‘Journey with Jesus’ online article this week we are told how in India, some decades ago, rules of hospitality dictated that ‘men of God’ ate first, much to the frustration of a young boy eager for his lunch. Elders and preachers from his church often showed up for dinner at his home without warning, and after waiting for curry and rice to be cooked over a wood stove the 4 year old boy found it too much to bear as he watched these self-important people eat their fill while he waited. After visiting the kitchen on numerous occasions to see if it was his turn yet he finally lost it shouting ‘Get out, hurry up and leave so that I can eat.’ You can imagine that his parents would have been highly embarrassed but there’s a hint of Jesus teaching in this as the little, apparently unimportant person now cannot be ignored. Luke tells us that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely when he came to eat with them. It seems that they also were being mischievous with the seating arrangements and keen to see where he would chose to sit or at least which couch he would gravitate towards as this would give clues as to how importantly he ranked himself in the order of guests. You can just imagine his host eagerly waiting for him to join the other guests jostling for position. It helps to consider that even to enter the dining area of a socially important man was quite something. Before getting here potential guests would need to pass through other spaces in the building which separated the room from the street, a sort of screening process to avoid unwanted guests. Diners would recline on couches with cushions to support them in a slightly upright position. The formal dining area was called the Triclinium (meaning three couches), the term was used to describe both the separate banquet room and the arrangement therein. The 3 couches were arranged to form a ‘U’ shape around an open area often decorated with elaborate mosaics upon which sat a table to which food was served. The 3 couches had strict designations as to who would sit where, the host and guest of honour always at the adjoining end of two of the couches with other spaces allocated according to the importance of the guest. Slaves or servants would never use the couches, never recline to eat, but usually stand or sit on the floor. With this knowledge we start to see that this is unlikely to be a generous invitation to share a meal and much more a reinforcement of the status of the elite and an opportunity to work out where Jesus saw himself fitting into all this. Over and again in the bible people come to Jesus with questions about importance and hierarchy and he refuses to even answer on their terms. This occasion was no different as Jesus refuses to play to the script that the Pharisees hoped for and turns the situation on its head. Jesus is not interested in their, or our, hierarchies, he’s wants them to think again, put aside their small minded ways and see things afresh. He begins by telling the guests to choose the place ranked lowest in the social order as it’s better to get upgraded than face the humiliation of being asked to move for a more important guest. As one commentator put it… The proud are headed for a fall… whether it’s a momentary embarrassment over seating arrangements… or a lifetime wasted feeding an insatiable ego. Through proud eyes, there are no lies… if I am the arbiter of truth. There is no greed… if I think I deserve something more than you do. There is no lust… if other people exist for my pleasure. In the terminal stages of pride, the only God I ever need smirks right back at me from the mirror. And he is such a handsome devil. Jesus then extends the challenge to those who host such banquets themselves. Don’t invite your friends, relatives or rich neighbours who will reciprocate with invitations to their parties or consider you favourably when opportunities arise but invite the poor and those who cannot repay you. I thought ‘oh no’I’m going for lunch at my sister-in-law’s after this service should I give her a call to make it clear that whilst I’m still coming there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever invite her to our house? What Jesus speaks of seems to be the exact opposite to a business lunch where at least all parties avoid the pretence that the host is doing this out of the kindness of his or her heart. I thought about the saying ‘ There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ which is first traced to 1940’s America where free lunch was often advertised to entice drinkers into bars but became a topic of debate especially among politicians and lawyers and was used as the title of the economist Milton Friedman’s book. In the various contexts of providing goods and services the kindness, generosity or help, be it from individuals, private companies or the state always has to be paid for by somebody however sincere the donors intention. Henry Wallace, a US vice-president said ‘Until man acquires the power of creation, someone will always have to pay for a free lunch.’ He’s my sort of theologian, it follows that only God can offer a free lunch, truly an invitation that has no conditionality, no qualification and regardless of how many people accept there is no opportunity cost. In other words Jesus is telling us when you do something don’t be motivated by what’s in it for me but by what can I do to share God’s love. If we accept God’s generous offer to be part of his kingdom then we also become hosts to others and this has to be reflected in the way we behave. You may be thinking, I don’t know many poor or disadvantaged people and even if I asked them they might not want to come to my house for lunch. Well this is only one tiny aspect of Jesus message, it’s not about dinner parties it’s about what God’s kingdom is like. If we want to be part of it we’ll need to be able to celebrate the fact that there’s none of the nonsense the marketing agencies use, no exclusive invitations, no limited number of places available, no rewards for your previous custom or spending. We should feel like were in God’s kingdom when the invitation is for all, we’ll find ourselves among rich and poor, every ethnicity, and even among some strange people we hadn’t thought God would invite. The thing we should all keep in mind, which unsurprisingly goes against many of our conventions, is that the fact the invitation is not exclusive does not make it any less valuable. In fact the opposite is true, when we understand the true value of what God offers us, how could we not want this to be available to every person possible. Amen Kevin Bright 28 August 2016

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Trinity 13: Sabbath holiness

I wonder what your feelings are about Sundays, the Christian Sabbath? It might depend on your age. In the sixties, when I was born, most shops were closed on Sundays, and there weren’t the Sunday sports activities there are now, but the rather grim attitudes which had forbidden children from playing or reading anything other than improving books had largely faded away. I remember it as a quieter day than normal, a different day, a day which normally included church and Sunday school, but not a solemn or boring day. Looking back it may have been a high point in Sabbath observance, preserving the sense of rest, but in a way which didn’t seem repressive – at least not in my family.  Some of you may recall a much stricter Sabbath observance, or, if you are younger, may never have known a time when this day was really much different from the rest.    

At the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was a major preoccupation of the religious experts, one of the things which singled out their nation among all the others of the world. Who were these strange people who refused to work, or even to fight in their own defence, on this one day of their week. Those religious experts argued endlessly about what, precisely, constituted work though. You couldn’t carry anything – that was work – but what distance did that apply to? Did carrying a chair across a room count? You couldn’t travel, but how far couldn’t you travel? You needed to get to the synagogue after all. Arguments raged among the lawyers.

In the story we heard in the Gospel, Jesus runs up against one of those religious experts, the leader of the synagogue he had come to on this particular Sabbath. He already had a reputation as a healer, and maybe that’s what drew the woman in this story to the synagogue on this day. She’d been ill for 18 years already, bent double by some disease, excluded from normal life by her disability, unable even to look other people square in the eyes. At this time disease was thought to be a punishment from God, so she may have been treated with suspicion by her neighbours as well. She wasn’t going to push herself forward though. It was Jesus who called her forward, laid his hands on her and lifted her up to standing again. Cue great rejoicing; the crowd seem to have been amazed and delighted. But the synagogue leader couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was the Sabbath. Healing was work. Work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus had broken the law. The fact that a desperate woman’s life had been transformed meant nothing to him. He just “kept saying” to the crowd that they should all have come on another day if they wanted healing…

Jesus wasn’t having any of it. The law permitted people to take their livestock to food and water on the Sabbath, so why should it forbid the healing of this poor woman, he argued. In fact, Jesus went further than that. It wasn’t just that he believed he was allowed to heal on the Sabbath; this was precisely what he ought to be doing. Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from bondage on the Sabbath.”

His answer hints at a much broader understanding of the significance of the Sabbath than the synagogue leader has, but it wasn’t really anything new; it was firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

According to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day ceased from his work. It wasn’t that he’d run out of ideas, but that when he looked at what he had made he knew that this was enough - good enough, rich enough, diverse enough. He didn’t feel the need to labour on and on, heaping up creation, striving after anything. It was good, just as it was, and it didn’t need a single extra thing to make it perfect. What it needed, was to be enjoyed, treasured and shared.
The story went on to tell how that first perfection was lost, but human beings never quite forgot it, deep down in their spirits, the Bible said, and they longed for a time when they could enjoy it again, longed for God to bring about its healing. The Sabbath was supposed to be a foretaste of that time, a foretaste of heaven. It wasn’t just a break to give tired bodies and minds time to rest – valuable though that is – before re-entering the real world of work. The Sabbath was the day that really mattered, a glimpse of a world made right, the goal of our work on the other six days.  

That’s why God said, through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, that Sabbath joy was inextricably tied up with justice and righteousness. You couldn’t have a good Sabbath if you ignored those who were hungry and afflicted, if you spoke evil of others, if you just pursued your own aims. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, the commandment God gave to the Israelites, wasn’t just about what you didn’t do on this special day; it was about what you did do on it, and on all the other days too.  Only then could the Sabbath be a day of delight and joy, as God had meant it to be. That’s why Jesus could so confidently say that healing this woman on the Sabbath wasn’t just permitted; it was compulsory, the task for which that particular Sabbath had been made.

So how do we feel about this Sabbath which is just ending? What glimpse of heaven have we caught in it? What call have we heard to service in it? Where have we encountered God in it? And how are we going to share in God’s healing work tomorrow, as a result of this holy day?


At our All Age Worship today I read this poem, which I wrote many years ago after working on the story of creation with a group of Sunday School children, who were rather unimpressed with the idea of God “resting” on the seventh day – not what they would have done if they had just made such a wonderful playground!

THE SEVENTH DAY - or what God did on his day off

On the seventh day
God played with his creation.

In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones. 
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.

In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
rosebay willowherb,
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels

But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.

And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.

Oct. 88.    Anne Le Bas

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Trinity 12 2016: Trouble ahead

To listen to this sermon, click here.

Jeremiah 23.23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56

“There may be trouble ahead,” says the old song, but in truth it’s not a question of “may be”. We can bet on it that at some point in our lives there will be trouble. Collectively or individually we are bound to hit hard times and challenges. They might take the form of illness or loss, or they might be national or international crises, like the looming challenge of climate change, which threatens to make large parts of the world uninhabitable. No one is immune from trouble. Most people, though – and I include myself in this – prefer to ignore the problems until they hit us, by which time it is often too late to do anything much about them.

If you’re a fan of the Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, who features in it, a creature described as so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. So all you need to do to protect yourself from it, despite it being very ravenous, is to wrap a towel round your head. You can’t see it, so it can’t see you. Problem solved.

The Bugblatter Beast doesn’t exist outside the world of fiction – I hope - but its way of thinking certainly does. We can all behave like this. Seeing and acknowledging a problem makes it real to us, and we very often think that it is better to turn a blind eye and hope it goes away by itself. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah was complaining about in our first reading. He was called by God to speak to the people of Jerusalem at a time when there was definitely trouble ahead. The Babylonian army was advancing on the city, and it was obvious – if you didn’t have your head wrapped in a towel – that things weren’t going to turn out well.

But the people of Jerusalem preferred not to think about that, and most of their prophets were happy to reinforce their blindness. “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” they said – in the ancient world the gods were often thought to speak through dreams. But their dreams, said Jeremiah, were no more than “the deceit of their own heart”. It would all be fine, they said.  God would stop anything bad happening to them.

God called Jeremiah to break through this wall of denial. His words would be  “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” . They would be just as vulnerable to the looming destruction as the nations round about them, he said, and they’d better wake up and prepare themselves for what was to come. You can imagine how well that went down. They preferred the dreams that comforted to the reality that challenged them, just as most of us would.

Jesus had an equally tough message to deliver to his disciples. They saw his popularity with the crowds. They heard his wisdom. They felt great when they were with him, as if they could do anything. Surely they were on a one way trip to glory. Jesus’ opponents would fall like dominoes as God swept him onto the throne of Israel! Then everything would be perfect. The lion would lie down with the lamb, swords would be beaten into ploughshares and best of all, they would get ringside seats for the whole thing.

The early Christian audience for which Luke wrote his Gospel probably nurtured the same sort of hope of easy triumph. When following Christ caused  them to be rejected by their families or put them at risk of persecution , they thought they must be doing something wrong. Why wasn’t it all working out the way they thought it should?

That’s why Luke reminds them of Jesus’ words. God was in control, love would win in the end, but there wasn’t going to be a shortcut to glory. The immediate future, which was the bit they would have to deal with, would contain sadness, loss and conflict. It was inevitable if they were challenging injustice. They just didn’t want to see that inevitable reality.  

And who can blame them? They were people like us. One day we’ll look back and see with 20/20 vision the threats we are blind to today, like the  threat of climate change, or the warping effects of inequality – things we could do something about, but rarely take as seriously as we need to. Deep down we know they matter, but most of the time we act as if they don’t.  One day we, or the generations that come after us, will ask how we could have missed their importance, why we didn’t act sooner.

Jesus asks his disciples “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” and we might ask ourselves the same question. But beating ourselves up for not having our eyes open won’t do any good. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us keep them closed. Why do we so often put off dealing with things that really need our attention.

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people asking it. It may be that we are just plain lazy. Acknowledging a problem means doing something about it, and that means work. But my experience is that few people are really genuinely idle.  In fact it can take as much, if not more, work to avoid a problem than to fix it. We drink, eat or work to excess, we engage in risky behaviours, we worry about things that don’t matter, all to distract us from what we really need to do. The real problem isn’t laziness, it is fear.  We are afraid we won’t be smart enough or brave enough to do the things we need to do, afraid that we’ll find we have bitten off more than we can chew, afraid that we are in over our heads and drowning, with no one to come to our aid.  

But Jesus had said it would be like this, that life would often feel as if it was a mess. His own life had ended in humiliation on a cross – that is the baptism he talks about at the beginning of the passage. He’s going to drown in the deep waters of death. But that wouldn’t be the end, however final it appeared. And it wouldn’t be a sign that he had been abandoned or that he had done wrong. God would be with him in the squalor of the cross, and the darkness of death, and would bring him through it to new life, and if God could be with him in these terrible places, he could be with anyone, anywhere. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” God had said to Jeremiah. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

What do we need in order to face up to the challenges that confront us, the ones we work so hard to avoid seeing and acknowledging? Just the same as Jesus needed. We need to know that God is with us, that we are not alone, that we are held safely whether things seem to be going well or disastrously, that we can’t fall out of God’s hands, in life or in death. Knowing that gives us the courage to deal with whatever comes our way, to look at what we are most afraid of square in the face, secure in the knowledge that it cannot destroy what God has created and redeemed in us.

Ultimately it’s a matter of trust, which is really what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith”. To many people faith is what you believe, intellectually, in your heads – that list of propositions we find in the creed, but the original Greek word we translate as faith really means trust, which is quite different. Trust is far more active, something you do when you put your life into another’s hand. It’s the commitment couples make here at the chancel steps when they marry each other. It’s what an adult child does when they phone their parents in the middle of the night because they are in trouble, knowing they’ll get the help they need.  It’s what you do when you turn up on a friend’s doorstep, maybe after years, knowing that they will be glad to see you, and won’t mind you dropping in, even if the house is a mess and there’s nothing to eat. That is trust, and it is a vital part of our emotional and spiritual health.

Trust creates a safe space to grow and to change. If we believe that someone loves us deeply and strongly enough, we can make demands on them , try things out , get things wrong, take the risks we need to take. We know that they will stick with us. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Often we need to take the risk in order to discover and develop the trust in the first place.

It is just the same with God. Our trust in him grows when we live our faith, when we practice forgiveness, when we are generous rather than anxiously hoarding what we have, when we answer God’s call to serve, when we love those who will never be able to repay that love, and let ourselves be loved by them too, when we face the things in our lives which need sorting out. All these things push us out into the deep waters with God, but through them we learn that, as the Bible says, “underneath are the everlasting arms” of God’s love.  (Deuteronomy 33.27, NIV translation)

I don’t know what your challenge is today – it may be deeply personal, something that is unique to you, or it may be a common challenge we must face together, but whatever it is, it is safe to open our eyes and look at it, because we do so in the company of God, from whom nothing is hidden, and whom nothing can defeat.