Matthew 25.31-46, Ezekiel 34.11-16 & 20-24
The part of Matthew’s gospel which includes today’s reading also has messages about what happens when we fail to prepare contrasted with those who are ready when the time comes. There are the foolish bridesmaids who had no oil for their lamps which they carried to meet the bridegroom and missed out on their opportunity unlike those who carried flasks of oil with them. Then last week there were the slaves given talents by their master, one of the three failed to put his to work and was cast out as a result. Today we hear of sheep and goats and it’s about being prepared to use our understanding of who God is to his glory as opposed to being unprepared for his judgment.
Jesus’ words could be taken as a provocation to take economics and politics seriously because when their power is in the wrong hands the effects on millions of people can be devastating. There’s a message that it’s simply not acceptable to ignore those in need, poverty, oppression or sickness. To do so makes us unrecognisable as Christians. The way we organise society is at the heart of Jesus’ message and nothing could be further from God’s kingdom than disregard for our most vulnerable members.
Angus Deaton the Nobel-prize winning economist (not to be confused with Angus Deayton the comedian) offers some rare positive facts on global poverty. Because bad news dominates our headlines and critics are often seen as more morally engaged not many people are interested in hearing stories of steady progress, it’s really rather dull isn’t it. However over the past 20 years global poverty has halved but only 1 person in 100 knows this if asked. Even our churches focus so much on the places of extreme poverty and need that it’s something we rarely hear. In 1820 more than 90% of the world’s population lived on the equivalent of extreme poverty in 2015 it was less than 10%.
It’s important that we don’t believe that our world is on a one way trajectory to misery, poverty and oppression as it creates a feeling of hopelessness and apathy which achieves nothing. People are being helped and positive outcomes are happening, it’s just rarely news worthy.
So everything is OK then? We wish. The United Nations back the positive statistics but point out that while this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.90 a day (the official definition of extreme poverty), and there are millions more who have little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty. Impacts of climate change, war and economic crisis still impact the poorest the most.
For such people it’s hardly the abundant life that we know Christ desires for all humanity.
Our reading from Ezekiel tells us that the God we worship is one who longs to rescue lost sheep and bring them to safety and peace, but it also tells of his displeasure with the strong who deliberately deprive those in need, who keep taking more than they need even if they can see the cost to others around them. When all this is considered it’s hard not to reflect on the way we live. We hear from the prophet that God is on the side of the sheep who are pushed away from their share by the fat and strong. That he seeks to bring healing to the victims, the oppressed who have suffered due to the greed of others restoring body, mind and spirit.
Of course if you are living in extreme poverty statistics showing a positive trend are not going to offer much comfort. It’s a bit like being told that life spans are lengthening, it offers no comfort to someone who loses a loved one prematurely.
How we help those in need is both easy but also incredibly complex. On one level we can respond to many good charities giving our time and/or money, we truly would have to walk around with our eyes closed to be unaware that there are many in need of help. Perhaps we are the generation least able to say ‘Lord when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty’ or in need, as pictures are beamed not only into our homes but onto screens of all sizes in so many places.
It must be a common occurrence to feel that our little bit of help won’t change much but we have heard a hard hitting message in today’s gospel that doing nothing is not an option for a Christian. I don’t see this as salvation by works but an overcoming of barriers which obstruct our recognition of Christ in each other. Recognition that Jesus is not a distant deity but the suffering, unjustly treated, victimised and ultimately crucified human being. God has chosen a human suffering figure to illustrate what kingship is truly all about.
Jesus is telling us that in caring for the poor, the sick and the imprisoned we are serving God.
As intelligent people we need to use our God given brains to recognise our opportunities to do so. Lord Bird, founder of the Big Issue recently pointed out how expensive it is to be poor in our own country. For example if you live in social or other rented housing and pay your rent on time for many years this isn’t recognised for a credit rating yet those who pay their mortgage on time build up a positive credit history, a digital identity and access to credit on the best terms rather than using loan sharks or getting terrible deals on basics like white goods.
Christian Aid has a tax justice campaign aimed at greater fairness for countries rich in minerals who are not benefitting as they should. We can lobby and support such actions and ensure that we pay our own taxes to fund essential services which often help those in greater need. Strong legal systems upholding the rule of law offer the best hope of justice to the poorest and are to be highly valued.
Jesus’ message probably leaves many of us feeling guilty because we know in our hearts that we could do more yet we are unlikely to ever feel we do enough. Whilst some seem to have an incredible caring capacity many people with busy lives struggle to know what they should really do.
Should we be running up to poor looking people and asking whether they live on less than $1.90 a day and then telling them they don’t meet the definition of extreme poverty if they shake their head? A lot of the commentaries I read on today’s gospel make it sound like serving those Jesus describes as an easy, almost cosy thing to do that leaves both sides with a nice warm feeling.
I’ve been inside prison and actually some of the people are actually quite scary and it wouldn’t be easy to spend time with them. I tried to help someone coming out of prison and he shoved it back in my face. I’ve lent money to poor people and they have neither thanked me nor paid me back. I’ve visited the sick in hospital and had to leave them to go and throw up. I know that many of you will have had experiences that have been equally discouraging. Quite frankly I can see why sheep are used in the story because they often seem so much more straightforward than people, perhaps some literalism is in order and a bit of shepherd work would be easier!
Yet many people serving others accept this as normal and expect nothing else going go on with their work day after day, the Salvation Army comes to mind.
It can sometimes be hard to see Christ the King in the face of those we try to help. Yet we must persist, even if it means finding new ways to serve each other which are more sustainable for us personally often using our strengths, skills, influence or wealth.
Compassion and care for the poor and vulnerable needs to become natural to us so that we try to make it part of all we do.
We should care for the poor and vulnerable because in doing so we reflect God’s glory, compassion and unconditional love. We could even sense the nurturing of our own souls.
Care for the poor across the globe is one of the things that the church has done well for a long time from Victorian schools to support for refugees and something we should proudly seek to sustain.
As we celebrate ‘Christ the King’ today if we understand our role as subjects in his kingdom the vision that Jesus wants us to work towards becomes clearer and by playing our part we become more Christ like.
When we care for those in need, we are implicitly caring for God. God feels the pain of the vulnerable but even more the joy of their restoration to wholeness. The sick, weak, young and old can must all be held highly valuable and worthy of protection and service in the life of our churches.
A final thought. Is all this stuff good news? It certainly is for many but as mostly comfortable Christians is it good news for us here today? Where do we see ourselves and God in these situations? I think Jesus’ words we heard are disturbing, challenging and yet hopeful which makes it highly worthy of personal, prayerful reflection.
Sunday, 19 November 2017
This morning at our All Age Worship, I asked people to think of what they wanted to give thanks for today. They came up with all sorts of suggestions ; family, friends, faith, the glories of creation, work and community. But I’m not sure they knew quite where I was going with this line of questioning. After all, what did thanksgiving have to do with the Gospel reading we’d heard, the parable of the Talents? We all know what talents are. The ability to sing or dance or juggle. Surely the message of the parable was simple. We all have special skills. We should use them, not bury them.
That’s a perfectly good message, but I don’t think it’s the message of this parable.
To Jesus’ first hearers, a talent wasn’t something you went on a talent show to display. It was a unit of measurement often used for weighing precious metals. A talent was about 4 stone, or 28 kilogrammes. Gradually it became a unit of currency, and it represented a lot of money. A talent was worth about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man.
So this is a story about a seriously rich man. He gives one slave 5 talents to look after ; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages . The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth. All of them are given a huge amount. The master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.
The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up. What if he loses it all? He believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man - he doesn’t want to risk a penny of what he’s been given. So he digs a hole and buries it.
But when his master comes home he is furious. He could at least have invested it with a banker, where it might have made some interest! he’s told, before being unceremoniously thrown out. It probably seems unfair - and I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything at all with the treasure he’s been given.
The disciples who first heard this story – Jews like Jesus - had grown up knowing that God had given them great treasures as a people, things they gave thanks for. They gave thanks for their law, the law God had given them to help them live together well. They gave thanks for the covenant relationship he’d called them into – they would be his people and he would be their God. They gave thanks for the Temple in which they encountered him. All this, and more, had been entrusted to them. They knew it was precious beyond measure. But what should they do with these treasures? There are tensions throughout the Hebrew Scriptures about this. Should they make their treasured inheritance available to others, take it out into the world and share it? Or should they guard it carefully, make sure no one got their hands on it, in case it was polluted or damaged? Should they keep gentiles out of the Temple, exclude them from the covenant, nit-pick over the law, even it became a burden rather than a blessing in the process? Some Jewish people, like the Pharisees and the Essenes, urged separation as the way to holiness. Others said that God wanted the knowledge of him to spread out in to the world “as the waters covered the sea,” and never mind the risk of their faith changing in the process.
Christians have often fallen into the same dilemma. Often they have thought – “better safe than sorry, stick to the old ways, just in case we provoke God into anger.” When we think like that all we are doing is digging a hole for our faith. Should we be surprised if the church shrinks as a result and the stingy message we preach is rejected.
Jesus’ parable isn’t about those special skills we now call “talents”. It’s about treasure and what we do with it, about what it means really to “treasure” something. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves. Are we over-cautious, over-anxious, so afraid we’ll get it wrong that we daren’t do anything? I don’t think it’s just about religion, either. It’s about the whole of life, all those things we value and give thanks for. It’s about our families, friends and communities. How do we “treasure” them and let them be places where God’s kingdom grows? How can we “treasure” creation, so it is a blessing for everyone? How can we “treasure” our work, so it doesn’t just keep the wolf from the door, but become a place where God is at work too? Are we prepared to be open-handed and whole-hearted in what we do, or are we too afraid of falling flat on our faces to have a go at anything new?
Jesus calls us to trust the generosity of God. He’s not the harsh master the slave in the story fears. He’s the God who gives of himself again and again, from an immeasurable source of love. He is the God who even gives his own son, even though we kill him, and who who longs to enrich us day by day with his treasures, and through us to enrich the world. Amen
Sunday, 12 November 2017
Isaiah 11.6-9, Mark 9.33-37
In early September 1939 the largest mass movement of children that has ever taken place in the UK got underway. It’s estimated that at the start of WW2 something like 1.5 million children were evacuated from their homes to areas thought to be safer. I know that there are people here this morning who have personal or family experience of being evacuated or receiving evacuees. Some children were even sent overseas. My grandmother thought very seriously about sending my mother, aged 7, and her 5 year old sister from Plymouth to family members in South Africa, to escape the bombing in Plymouth, only changing her mind when several ships carrying evacuees were torpedoed. There were agonising choices to be made.
For some who were evacuated, their time away from home was wonderful; new experiences, perhaps better homes and lives than they had known, fresh air and space. For others it was misery, put more or less at random in the homes of complete strangers who might or might not treat them well. Many evacuees were brought home within weeks; their families missed them too much. But others never really came home at all. Family bonds were broken during the war, parents were killed, homes were destroyed. There was no one and nowhere to return to.
At home or evacuated, war left its mark on the children who lived through it. Food was rationed. Nights were interrupted by air raid alerts, and you never knew what the next day would bring. A clergyman I worked with, who’d been a child in London during the war, once told me how it became routine for him to go into school in the morning and find a desk empty, a friend no longer there, killed in the previous night’s raids. He recognised the impact it had had on his ability to form friendships for ever after.
Mercifully, children growing up in the UK don’t have to endure things like this now, but that’s not the case for children in other parts of the world. UNICEF estimates that there are currently something like 28 million children around the world who have been driven from their homes by war. 28 million children. I’ll repeat that number because you may wonder whether you heard it right. Some have become refugees in other countries. Others have been internally displaced, seeking shelter in other parts of their own countries, often in overcrowded camps, without access to health care and education. And of course many more children are still in warzones, some of them even forced to fight themselves. That 28 million is just the ones who’ve got away.
It’s natural and right, on Remembrance Sunday, to think of and give thanks for members of the armed forces who gave their lives in war. Their names are the ones recorded on our War Memorials. In modern wars, though, far more civilians are killed than military personnel. While wars were once predominantly fought between armies on battlefields, or warships on the ocean, now they are often fought through aerial bombardment and drone strikes carried out from a distance, or by guerrilla forces fighting street to street in towns and cities. It’s estimated that something like 80 – 90% of the casualties of modern warfare are civilians – and many of them are children. Adults declare war, but children suffer the effects. And as they grow up, the things they’ve seen don’t leave them. The trauma of war can leave them anxious and insecure or bitter and angry, fuelling another cycle of violence in the next generation.
Children are often overlooked in times of war, but the Bible readings we heard today both put children right at the centre of the story. In the reading from Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes a little child and literally stands it in the middle of his fractious, squabbling disciples. They’ve been arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest, and Jesus was obviously very aware of this.
His disciples had imagined that the Messiah, God’s chosen leader, would be a great military or political leader. They’d come to the conclusion that Jesus was this Messiah, and they were longing for him to show his hand. They were sure that through him God would throw out the occupying Roman forces, and usher in God’s new kingdom, a kingdom like the one their great King David had ruled over. They imagined crowns and thrones, and power for those who were closest to the new king. But who would be greatest among them when that day came, the right hand man?
They’re obviously embarrassed when Jesus calls them out on this. They didn’t realise he’d been listening. Deep down they know it is a silly thing to argue about – as most of our arguments are. “What were you arguing about ?” he asks them. But he doesn’t press them for an answer. Asking the question is enough. Instead he simply takes a child, a small child, and puts it in the middle of them. Look at this child, says Jesus. The kingdom of God isn’t about sitting on thrones and wearing crowns. It’s not about throwing your weight around and having people bow down to you. If you want to know what the kingdom of God is about, what really matters in it, then this child is it.
What did Jesus mean?
The key thing we need to know is that, at the time of Jesus, children were even more vulnerable than they are today. There were no child protection laws. There was no United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Childhood wasn’t sentimentalised, or regarded as a special, more innocent time of life. Children were entirely at the mercy of their fathers, who had power of life and death over them. They weren’t really counted as of much worth until they got to an age when they could work. I am sure that many were loved, but they were essentially powerless, and whenever they are mentioned in the Bible that’s what we’re meant to keep in mind. The Gospels sometimes call them “little ones”, but that phrase doesn’t just include children. It is anyone who is disempowered in some way – by old age as well as youth, by disability, gender or social status. “Little ones” are the ones at the bottom of the heap, left to fend for themselves.
It’s sometimes said that you can tell how civilised a nation really is by the way it treats people like these. In the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, they come first - not out of kindness, or worse still, pity, but because they are the place where God’s work starts. The Kingdom of God isn’t built by mighty armies that conquer and subdue by force and terror. Its greatness isn’t shown by splendid robes and golden crowns. It is seen when the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable “little ones” are centre stage, rather than being shoved to the periphery.
Jesus tells stories in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God being like a tiny seed or a grain of yeast, something almost too small to see, but which can grow into a great tree or raise an entire loaf, given time. Littleness matters to him. He pays the ultimate price for standing up for the “little ones” in his society when he’s crucified like a worthless criminal on the waste ground outside Jerusalem. But he never turns back from his commitment to them. Miss these people out, says Jesus, and you miss out on God, because they are where he is at work, they are where his kingdom begins.
|Detail from “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks 1780-1849|
“A little child shall lead them,” said Isaiah, in the passage our Cubs and Beavers read to us. That passage is often called the vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”. It was written at a time of great conflict and turmoil for the Jewish people, who’d been crushed by the Babylonians. It looked like it was all over for them, but God hadn’t forgotten them, says Isaiah. There could be a better future. But it wouldn’t be a future in which the powerful lorded it over everyone else. It would be a time when rivalries and divisions were put to an end, even in the animal kingdom. Wolves and lambs would live in peace. The picture on the service sheet is a detail from a painting of this scene by Edward Hicks , a Quaker living in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. He despaired, as we all do sometimes, when he looked at the world around him. Even among his Quaker brothers and sisters, bitter squabbles and rivalries often took hold, as they do in any close community. He painted many versions of this scene – he’s famous for it. But each one is slightly different, and experts reckon that the differences between them probably represent the ups and downs of the relationships in the community around him.
On this Remembrance Sunday, may we keep in mind God’s children, his little ones, and the littleness that is in each of us if we are honest, the part of us that’s afraid, insecure, not sure which way to turn for help. And may that little child, outside us and within, lead us in the paths of peace, for all our sakes.
Sunday, 5 November 2017
Audio version here
Over the last week or so you may have seen events and articles commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In a way, it’s a bit of an arbitrary date. What this anniversary has actually marked is the moment when, on Oct 31st 1517, Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, nailed 95 theses – 95 statements – to the door of a church in Wittenberg. They were statements expressing his disagreement with the Catholic belief in indulgences. An indulgence was a formal declaration granting “time off” for people in purgatory, an intermediate state between heaven and hell where the soul was thought to be cleansed. Prayers, pilgrimages and good works could all reduce the time you’d have to spend there after death, according to Catholic doctrine. It was always a bit of a dodgy proposition – there’s no Biblical basis for it – but it was when indulgences started to be sold on an industrial scale for cold, hard cash that opposition to the whole system started to build. Luther wasn’t the first to challenge the sale of indulgences – that’s why I said that this is a rather arbitrary date to fix the start of what we call the Reformation. Over a century earlier, the English priest, JohnWycliffe, had criticised them, and his followers, radical Christians who were scathingly called Lollards – babblers – had kept up the criticism since then, and been persecuted savagely for doing so. Luther’s 95 theses, nailed to the Wittenberg church door, were just another step in a long, slow process of reform, which would eventually lead to the foundation of Protestant Churches across Europe.
The thing that fuelled this reforming urge, both for Luther and the earlier Reformers, was the Bible. It was Paul’s letter the Romans which did it for Luther. As a conscientious monk – perhaps too conscientious – he’d tried so hard to live the perfect spiritual life that it had nearly broken him. “How can I be saved?” was his anxious question. As he read Romans, he was reminded powerfully that salvation was a gift from God. We’re saved by grace, by God’s loving decision and God’s loving action, not because of what we've done or ever could do. That wasn't a new idea, but things like the sale of indulgences had obscured it, because they gave the impression that God’s love could be bought or earned.
Reading the letter to the Romans opened Luther’s eyes afresh to this central message of the Gospel. And if it had opened his eyes, he knew that it could open the eyes of others too. But how would ordinary people ever discover this liberating message for themselves? Luther could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew. But most ordinary people never heard the Bible in a language they could understand. If you’d come here to Seal church at any time before the Reformation, the service would have been in Latin, including all the Bible readings. I don’t know how good your Latin is, but my guess is that most people here would have found it pretty hard to follow. It might seem crazy to us now to make it so hard for ordinary people to understand the Bible, but in a sense, that was the whole point.
You see, the Bible is a dangerous book. It’s full of dangerous ideas. It tells us that we are all equal in the sight of God, that God “casts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” That’s good news for the humble and meek, but you can see why the mighty might not be so keen on it. As well as that, people were genuinely afraid that if untrained people read the Bible they might get it wrong, and imperil their immortal souls as a result. Better to leave the Bible in the hands of those who knew what they were doing with it, or thought they did!
No wonder the powers that be were worried when people like Wycliffe and Luther translated the Bible to make it accessible to all. Luther reputedly went down into the marketplaces of the town where he was staying and spent time listening to the way people actually spoke to each other, catching their idioms and rhythms of speech so that his translation would communicate with them, and it soon caught on. Back here in England Wycliffe had made a translation into English a century earlier. It had been banned – the penalty for owning one was death – but it had circulated widely and now William Tyndale began to make a new translation which, like Luther’s, captured the speech patterns of ordinary people. Tyndale paid for his presumption with his life, since Henry VIII was still staunchly Catholic at this stage. But ironically, less than two years later, after Henry’s break with Rome, he ordered that every church in the land should have its own English Bible, in a translation which was mostly Tyndale’s. Tyndale is said to have prayed as he died, “Open the King of England’s eyes”, and it seemed as if God had done just that.
Those who’d feared that giving people access to the Bible in their own language would spark revolution were right to be afraid, because it did. It changed the world.
I’m glad that today we have a Bible we can all read, but for all that, though, I’m not sure that Protestants have really been any better at truly “hearing the word of the Lord” than their Medieval Catholic brothers and sisters were. Anyone who knows me will know that I am pretty passionate about the Bible, and pretty passionate about finding ways of helping people read it. There’s the “Story of the Week” each week on the pew leaflet, the Good Book Club each month which discusses those stories. There are Home Groups, Lent and Advent material for reflection, and all sorts of other things. I care about this book immensely, but I’m also clear that the squiggles on these pages are not, in and of themselves, the word of God. God may speak to us through them, through the stories of those who have struggled with faith before us and left us this record, but he can’t be confined by this book, any more than he could be boxed up in the rituals of the Catholic Church, and when we forget that we soon get into trouble.
At the Reformation, Protestants knocked the statues of the saints off their pedestals, but often they then put the Bible on those pedestals instead. They insisted that every stroke of it had come straight from the mouth of God and should be obeyed as unquestioningly as Catholics had been expected to obey the Pope. Read it correctly – that is, the way those in charge told you to read it – and all would be well. They accused Catholics of idolatry, but then set about making an idol of the Bible instead. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. You can construct a justification for almost anything from the Bible if you pick the right verses; slavery, the oppression of women and LGBT people, imperialism and racism, even child abuse. The Bible gives very clear instruction that rebellious sons should be put to death (Deuteronomy 21.18-21), but I think you’d rightly get into quite a lot of trouble now if you obeyed that particular injunction. That’s why I think it is really important that we grasp that that this book, this physical object, these squiggles on these pages are not in themselves the Word of God. We can be enlivened, enlightened, challenged, comforted, blessed and transformed through them. We can feel God’s breath coming from the pages, but we mustn't mistake the creation for the Creator. The Bible is a precious treasury of wisdom, story, worship, warning and inspiration, but if we truly want to hear the word of God through it, we’ll need to work a bit harder than just lifting proof texts from here and there and assuming we've found simple answers to life’s complicated problems.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”, said Paul to the Colossians in the reading we heard today. I love that verse, because it’s a reminder that God wants his word to dwell in us, to make its home in us, to intermingle with all that makes us who we are and enrich us in the process. The “word of Christ” that Paul refers to here wasn't a book. It can’t have been, because this book didn't exist when he wrote to the Colossians. The Gospels hadn't been written yet. Paul’s letters were just scraps of paper circulating around the churches he’d founded. It would be centuries before the list of books we now find in our Bibles were finally agreed on, let alone bound in one volume like they are today.
So, when Paul talks about the word of Christ, he isn't talking about words on a page, but something far more diverse than that. The people he was writing to expected God to speak to them in all sorts of ways; through the Hebrew Scriptures, but also through each other as they gathered together and shared in the fellowship of their churches, through prayer and prophetic utterance as well as through the stories they were told of the life of Jesus. It may all sound frustratingly vague. They, like we, would probably have like to have a neat list of rules, all bound up in one slim volume, to which they could effortlessly refer – that’s how the Bible ended up on that pedestal at the Reformation. But the truth is that if we try to treat the Bible that way we have to ignore its complexities, read only those verses that suit us, and when we do that, we lose its richness too. The only measuring stick the early church had to determine whether they were hearing God’s word, God’s guidance for their lives, was the measuring stick of love. Did what they were hearing build love and draw them together, or did it bring hatred and stir up division?
I’m glad that here at Seal there are so many ways in which we can encounter this precious book, brought to us at so great a cost by those Reformation translators. But I hope that we’ll always have the courage to bring our own brains and hearts to it as we read it and hear it. It’s only when we do that the Word incarnate can speak through the words on these pages. It’s only when we do that that God can come to dwell richly in us and in our community bringing us his life, his love and his peace.