Monday, 25 September 2017

Trinity 15 Striving side by side A sermon by Kevin Bright

Matthew 20.1-16, Philippians 1.21-30
As an employer, someone who regularly hires people for their knowledge, skill and ability to apply it effectively through sheer hard work the parable of the vineyard and the landowner really resonates with personal experience.

Unfortunately it’s the bit about a few people never being happy about their remuneration, package, compensation, wages, pay, however we wish to phrase it, not current employees of course, but some that have crossed my path in earlier years. Calculating fair wages is always going to be an imperfect art but one thing is for sure, envy and whingeing isn’t going to make it right.

If that seems a bit harsh there’s no doubt that Jesus also knew that comparing how generous the land owner has been would raise peoples blood pressure and if it doesn’t get us a bit cross initially then we probably weren’t really paying attention. After all why did the landowner have to ‘rub it in’ for the early workers by paying the last first so that they would see exactly what was going on? Was he deliberately trying to provoke them?

In first century Palestine the fee of one denarius (as referred to in the NIV version) was considered fair daily pay for a family to meet their basic needs, the original Living Wage.

Clearly people should be paid a fair wage for their work without discrimination of any kind but if we feel we are treated fairly should we be bitter if the employer shows generosity to some people? I’m sure that all of us here have bills to pay, financial commitments to meet. So what if the landowner Jesus talks of was thinking all these labourers have families to feed regardless of the hours they have put in and I’m in a position to meet their needs, so I will.
Of course if a trade union had existed it’s likely this practice would have had to stop as it’s not fair to the members. Everyone out, then the landowner would have no labour. That would teach him to be generous.
As usual Jesus leaves us plenty to speculate about in the parable, who knows, maybe the people hired last were often left unemployed because they were weaker than others, had children or sick family to care for or were discriminated against in some way and the landowner wanted to show them that their contribution would also be valued.

Is it a ridiculous thing for me to ask but were they not grateful for the work, were they not proud of their contribution and achievements or did they only care about what they got out of the deal and how it compared with others? After all the bargain struck with the first people employed was honoured exactly as agreed so why did they care about the later workers?
There’s no question that poverty can make life hard, but it’s also true that happiness doesn’t increase on a curve commensurate with increased wealth. An unhealthy relationship with money makes for miserable people but for all fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do with money that doesn’t get spent on subsistence they have the choice whether to be generous or not.

Too much money in wrong hands can also have disastrous results. There’s the famous quote from the wonderfully talented footballer George Best when asked where all his money had gone he replied “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

Beyond a commercially acceptable return many of the richest people will tell us it’s not about the money. The billionaire investor Warren Buffet said that for him it was just a counter to measure progress and his lifestyle combined with the fact that he has given more away than any other billionaire tends to back this up.

Last week I was at the funeral of a friend and client of mine, it was a long funeral, about 2 hours, mostly because of the range of people who wanted to pay tribute to him. I don’t know whether it’s the same for you when you attend the funeral of someone you think you’ve known someone pretty well over many years there’s often family or friends who have known them differently and you find out new things. It’s quite frustrating as I really want to say to them ‘I never knew that about you’ and explore it further but of course it’s too late.
No one giving a tribute pretended that he lived the life of an angel but a man who worked with him cleaning toilets when they started out told of how they would buy one meal and share it to keep down costs, but how even then he was generous in the way he shared this. As he built up his property empire others told again and again how he surprised them with his generosity and kindness. There was no great gain to him through his generosity but like the landowner he was in a position to do so and simply chose to make people happy or give them a pleasant surprise.

Whilst we and those hearing Jesus talk might immediately relate to what seems fair around wages his Jewish listeners would have been particularly challenged to consider how this principle applied to other aspects of their lives and their relationship with God. If they considered themselves God’s chosen people might they feel they were of greater worth then the gentiles, the latecomers? But if they think like this they fall into the class of the embittered whingers who think they have the right to tell God not to be too generous. Does this mean they didn’t believe in a God of love, compassion and great generosity or maybe it means some came to know him anew?
Maybe the disciples heard the parable as a warning that just because they were close to Jesus they shouldn’t think that they would be given priority over others when it comes to God’s love.

Surely us as mature Christians couldn’t fall into this trap? Could we think that God loves people of other faiths or none less than us? Could we think that people who come to this country willing to work hard shouldn’t be given the same opportunities as those who have lived here for generations?

Then we heard of St Paul writing to the church in Philippi whilst imprisoned in Rome. In some ways it links with the parable we heard in that it also has a lot to do with work. Paul’s not sure how things will pan out for him, he knew that there was a reasonable chance the authorities could decide to have him executed at any time and he is trying to reassure the Philippians that if this happens it doesn’t mean they should feel defeated, the important thing is that Christ is revered and held high.

Yet he knows that there is a lot of work he still can do and believes that God wants him to be released to do it and that both he and the Philippians should remain positive and bold in sharing the love of Christ. Paul is often drawing upon his own experience when he encourages others and isn’t asking them to face possible consequences that he hasn’t faced himself.

Some who have suffered real dark times are able to remain strong in their faith and outwardly composed yet the suffering is real. This was the case for Paul and if we read his second letter to the Corinthians he tells of ‘…pressure far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.’ Forced to put all in the hands of God he emerged with his belief strengthened.

We hear that the Philippians are urged to remain focussed on Christ and that there is sense of people working together as they ‘strive side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.’ Wonderful words and imagery that feel so different from those who worry about what others are getting but focus on the clear goal of spreading Christ’s love by combining resources, overcoming obstacles and refusing to be intimidated.
It helps me make a little sense of our readings today if we remind ourselves that it is the forgiveness, the grace of God is the real currency we are considering. It’s not something that we can earn and it doesn’t correlate with hours or outputs we can offer, it’s just given freely and generously to all willing to accept it. If we stop to consider how much we have been and want to be forgiven by God how could it ever make sense to ask that this is restricted for others regardless of how late they came to ask for it?

‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ Jesus said of those who crucified him.
‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ he said to the criminal crucified next to him.

This is what Jesus spoke of when he started the parable with the words ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner’, thankfully a landowner who is not focused on who deserves what, his only focus is on providing love and hope for all.

Kevin Bright 24th September 2017

Monday, 11 September 2017

Trinity 13: The armour of light

Trinity 13 17

“Put on the armour of light,” says St Paul. We don’t often see people in armour these days, but the people St Paul was writing to – Christians who lived in Rome about twenty years after the time of Jesus – would have seen armed men walking the streets every day. Roman soldiers in their armour would have been a familiar sight.

Paul’s first readers would have known far better than us what armour was for and about, but we probably need to do a bit more thinking to really get it. It seems to me that there are really two reasons why armour matters so much to soldiers. The first is obvious. It equips you for a fight. The Greek word Paul uses doesn’t actually just refer to the defensive stuff, the helmet and breastplate and so on, but to all the equipment a soldier would need, weapons as well. Soldiers need the best equipment they can get if they are going to win a battle, or at least survive to fight another day.  

But there’s another reason why soldiers wear armour, and that is to identify which side they are on. Armour is a bit like a uniform – every army wears something at least slightly different, otherwise you don’t know whether you are shooting at someone from your own side. The Roman soldier’s very recognisable uniform would have told everyone who looked at him that he had sworn to fight for the Emperor, to enforce his will, good or bad, right or wrong.  They would have known instantly what he stood for because of the armour he wore.  

So when Paul tells people that they need to put on this armour, he is saying two things to them. The first is that they are in a battle, and that they need to be equipped for it. We don’t have to be militaristic to appreciate that life is a struggle, full of challenges that have to be faced. The second thing Paul was telling his hearers was that in declaring themselves to be Christians, they have come down off the fence and taken a side. They have committed themselves to God, and that will have consequences for them that they can’t escape.  If we are going to call ourselves Christians, says Paul, we can’t just shrug our shoulders when we see someone in trouble, for example, and say “it’s nothing to do with me – it’s someone else’s job to help”. We can’t just shrug our shoulders at the things within ourselves that need to be straightened out either, and pretend they don’t matter. We’ve signed up to serve a God who created everyone in his own image, and loves them with his whole being, and if we say we are his, then we’ve signed up to do that too.  We are called out of apathy into commitment, into action, called to make a difference,  however insignificant we feel, however young or old we are, whatever our abilities or our disabilities.

Put on the armour, enlist for the battle, take yourself seriously, says this reading.

Of course, there’s a problem with all this imagery of armour. It’s very vivid. It grabs our imagination. But that can lead us astray.  Over the centuries, again and again, Christians have fought wars and persecuted those they think are in the wrong, fired up with crusading zeal. They’ve heard the first part of Paul’s phrase, “put on the armour” and got all gung-ho about it,  thinking it licenses them to throw their weight around. They’ve entirely missed the end of the phrase “put on the armour of light”.

So we have to be really careful with this image. The armour Paul is talking about isn’t made of steel; it’s made of light. That was meant to sound odd, to sound nothing like the arms and armour of a Roman soldier. You put on this armour by loving your neighbour, respecting others, not impaling them on a sharp sword. There’s nothing violent about it, nothing that insists on its own way – quite the reverse. I doubt whether this armour  would have impressed a Roman soldier. And yet , ultimately, the kind of self-giving love Paul is talking about is far more powerful than hatred, far more likely to make a difference that will last.

Paul emphasizes that message at the end of the passage we heard today when he uses this imagery of “putting on” in a different way. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. First we were told to put on armour, now we are told to put on Christ. Be like Jesus, he means. Act as he would have acted. And how is that? Well, Jesus died on a cross, helpless, powerless. He was crucified because of his commitment to the people at the bottom of the heap, because of his rabble-rousing, trouble-making insistence that those on the margins of his society were as worthwhile and precious as those who held the reins of power, and had as much to give. As Jesus hung on the cross he looked like a complete and total failure, far from a conquering hero, and yet, out of his act of self-giving love came life and hope that has changed the world.

Today, as we baptise Ewan, Harry and Kristian they are going to be putting something on. It may not look like armour, but it reflects the same idea. After they are baptised, I am going to put these shawls around their shoulders. Clothing the newly baptised in a white garment goes right back to the earliest days of the Church, and in fact, some commentators think Paul’s words about “putting on armour” and “putting on Christ” were meant to remind people of what happened to them when they came up out of the waters of their baptism. They would have been baptised by total immersion – dunked completely . They would have needed something dry to put on when they came up out of the water. But the white clothes they were given weren’t just a practicality. They were symbols of the fact that they were now clothed in the love of God, that they had put on Christ, that they had taken up this armour of light which would equip them for the new lives they were called to live, loving and helping those around them, making their world a better place.

When we clothe Ewan, Harry and Kristian in these shawls, we remind them that, yes, they go out into a world that is full of challenges and danger. It might sometimes feel like a battle. But they too are clothed in the love of God. And that love, if they can learn to trust it, will help them to face whatever life throws at them, stand up against hatred and prejudice, make the difference to the world that each of them is called to make.  These may only look like flimsy bits of material, but the love they remind us of is stronger than Kevlar. It’s indestructible and eternal and we pray that they will know that they will put it on not just today, but every day.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Trinity 12: Bitesized wisdom

There are times when I look at the readings we are going to hear in church and think to myself, “Why bother to preach? The readings just speak for themselves”. Today’s second reading – that list of bits of good advice from St Paul to the Christians in Rome is one of them. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…” I mean, what is there to say, other than “Amen”? Perhaps I should just sit down and have done with it.

But on second thoughts, maybe not!

You see, it is one thing to hear a passage like this, and even to understand it in our heads. But it is quite another thing to live it out. Human beings love a simple slogan or motto that encapsulates what they think is the right way to live. “Keep calm and carry on” “ Coughs and sneezes spread diseases”, “Be the change you want to see.”  Whether we post them on Instagram or embroider them on a sampler, or inscribe them on stone, we like these bitesize sayings, but being able to quote them isn’t the same as being able to live them. How many of Paul’s little sayings in this passage do we agree with? Probably all of them. How many of them do we put into practice? Ah, that’s a different matter.

The really important question isn’t “how should I live? We usually know the answer to that. It is, “why don’t I live like that.

We know we should “hold fast to what is good”, so why do we so often find we have let go of it. We know we should “Live in harmony with one another”, but we still get caught up in petty jealousies and malicious sniping.  

The Christians Paul was writing to in Rome were, I am sure, no different to us in this, and I’m also sure that St Paul knew that. He knew that a simple list of do’s and don’ts wasn’t going to change them  on its own. That’s why, to understand this passage, we need to know what has led up to it. We heard the section immediately before it last week. It said, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.... Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  . We won’t get to be people who love genuinely, suffer patiently, bless those who persecute us, live peaceably, just by saying the words, however good we think they are. It is only when we put ourselves into God’s hands as “living sacrifices” , when we let him get to work on us, changing our attitudes, our world view, our priorities, our intentions, that our lives can be transformed in the ways we need them to be.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us what that might look like in practice, and why it tends to take so long!

Again, we need to know a bit of context. In the passage before this Peter had just recognised that Jesus was “ the anointed one, the Son of the Living God,” and Jesus had acclaimed him. “You are Peter – the rock – and on this Rock I will build my kingdom. “
But then Jesus started talking about his death. He would be arrested and killed by the authorities, he said. Peter couldn’t take it in.. Of course he didn’t want to think about his friend suffering, and that bit about resurrection – well that was just incredible anyway. But it was more than that. Peter assumed, like most people of his time, and many people in ours too, that if bad things happened to you it meant you had somehow deserved them, that you had offended God.

Surely, if he really was God’s Messiah, that couldn’t happen.

But Jesus answer was swift and he doesn’t pull his punches. “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  “You haven’t understood how God works at all,” Jesus was saying. “You’re so used to living in a world where might is right, where people get respect because they are wealthy or strong, that you can’t grasp that God might see things differently.”  

Peter had had a flash of insight when he realised that God was at work in Jesus as he preached and healed. He really was the Messiah. But his insight would have to go a lot deeper if he was going to understand what that meant – that God could also be at work in the pain, humiliation and apparent failure of the cross. His whole world view would need to be overturned before his mind could be renewed, and it didn’t seem like he was ready for that yet. It can take a lifetime, and lots of ups and downs for God to do his work in us.

I read a news story this week about a young woman from Florida, Angela King, who had grown up in a racist, anti-semitic and homophobic environment. As a teenager she had fallen in with a neo-Nazi gang and had become a far-right extremist, plastered with white supremacist tattoos. Eventually she was jailed for a vicious attack on a Jewish shop assistant, and was sent to prison. And there in the prison she found herself confronted with the very people she had always hated and feared most – many of her fellow prisoners were African-Americans. She couldn’t avoid them.

The article I read said this…
"People knew why I was in there and I got dirty looks and comments. I assumed I would spend my time with my back to the wall, fighting,"
What [she] did not expect was the hand of friendship - especially from a black woman.
"I was in the recreation area smoking when a Jamaican woman said to me, 'Hey, do you know how to play cribbage?'" King had no idea what it was and was taught to play.
It was the start of an unlikely friendship and King found her racist belief system crumbling as a result. Her friendship circle widened as she was taken under the wing of a wider group of Jamaican women, some of whom had been convicted for carrying drugs into the US.
"I hadn't really known any people of colour before, but here were these women who asked me difficult questions but treated me with compassion".
During her first year in the detention centre she was tipped off that a newspaper article was coming out about her case. She told one of her new friends how worried she was about the publicity.
"My friend had a job that meant she got out early to help prepare breakfast. The day it came out she stole the paper and hid it so no-one could read it. She, a black woman, did that for me, an ignorant white woman who was inside for a hate crime."
As it happened, King also realised while she was in prison, that she herself was gay – we often hate in others what we really fear in ourselves.
She’s now out of prison, has gained a degree in sociology and psychology and works with an organisation called Life After Hate ( which supports people like her who have left far-right extremist groups.

Her story spoke powerfully to me as I considered these readings we’ve heard today. I don’t know if she is of any particular faith, or whether those Jamaican women were either, but it seems to me that something very holy happened in the mess of that prison.  Hers is a mind that has been renewed. God has been at work. Her whole life has changed – even the hateful tattoos have gradually been renewed or transformed into loving messages instead. And it all started because a small group of people had the courage to bless someone who persecuted them, to love with a love that was genuine.

Because of that, Angela King has learned to see the good in those she had hated. She has learned that she doesn’t need to use force to be valued or respected, that she can drop the defences the world had told her she needed.  She has learned to love and to be loved. But it took a prison cell to teach her that.

To go back to the question I started with, “why do we find it so hard to live in the way that Paul tells us? Why do we endlessly repeat his words, and yet find they have so little impact on us?” I think the answer is that, as much as we want to be different, we don’t want anything actually to change, because change often hurts and disturbs us. It feels far easier and safer to cling to the patterns of thought and behaviour we’ve grown up with, and maybe grown old with, than it is to see that God could be at work in new ways, in people we have overlooked or avoided. It is especially difficult to see that God could be at work in suffering, mess and failure, in the things we just want to brush under the carpet and forget about, but unless we learn to see God there, we’re unlikely to find him anywhere else.

Both Peter and Paul learned the hard way to look again, to let themselves be reshaped, transformed, as they encountered God at work in a broken, suffering, humiliated man on a cross.  Because of that they were able to see God at work in all the other broken, suffering, humiliated people they came across, and in the brokenness, suffering and humiliation of their own lives. That turned their lives upside down. The wisdom Paul preached came from his own experience. He had seen evil overcome by love. Like Angela King, he had been blessed by his enemies, and encountered genuine love.  

It is easy to say Amen to Paul’s long list of do’s and don’ts, to turn them into slogans on a t-shirt or memes on social media, but if the way of life they reflect is to take root in us – and in a world where hatred and fear so often have the upper hand, it surely needs to - something usually needs to give, to break, to die in us. That’s the bit we find so difficult.

May God give us the courage to find him in the mess as well as the glory, and the grace to let him transform us by the renewing of our minds.