Saturday, October 29, 2011

X-Factor Saintliness

I have a guilty Saturday night pleasure - I love watching X-Factor. Once the show really gets underway a few weeks in, I love the passion, the sheer self belief that lies at the heart of each performers’ song each week.  I think everyone loves the sort of rags to riches stories that that show tells; where ordinary people people come with their raw (sometimes very raw!) talent and see their lives transformed into multi-million pound, blessed beyond belief pop superstardom over a matter of weeks.

What we remember today as we celebrate the saints is rags to riches story after rags to riches story as we hear of God entering into human lives, blessing and transforming them through the grace and holiness of God.

In biblical times, the affluence that X-Factor promises, was a sign of the favour and blessing of God. Abraham is blessed by God in the book of Genesis - evidence of that is all the ‘stuff’ he came to have - cattle, sheep, male and female servants and so on. Similarly in the New Testament in the teaching of Jesus, in the parable of the Rich Fool, his crops have produced so much grain he contemplates building bigger barns to store it all. Now I don’t know if God takes account of recessions or not, but it seems that blessing, affluence and success are to be spoken of in the same sentence - as one follows on from the other. In other words, if you are rich you must have found favour with God.
Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep,blessed are you when people hate you says Jesus. On this All Saints Sunday, the blessing of God, those on whom His favour rests, are not on those affluent few whose lives are measured in tabloid headline inches, but on those who weep, whose lives are poor,empty and broken. The rich, the full, the laughing, those of whom much good is spoken of have already been rewarded of their own doing now and are not seeing or living by the standards of eternity.

To live by the standards of eternity is to live by God’s standards. Living by these standards takes us along the road to what we might call saintliness. Jesus says saintly living is not about a rarified holy way of living, but is simply put - God’s design for life - a better way to live. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

When we consider the lives of those the church traditionally calls saints, what strikes me first is how very ordinary most of them were but how thet tried to live out these words ....from that clutch of Galilean fishermen to a consumptive French nun,from a wounded soldier who spent most of his time dreaming of damsels in distress to a forthright Albanian with a genius for spotting Christ in the slums of Calcutta. None of them looked in the least remarkable – they didn't start out as super-holy beings, nor, I suspect, did any of them spend their days with heads surrounded by a heavenly glow. They didn't even aspire to outstanding holiness but they lived Christlike lives and accepted the gift of grace that God offers to all of us, and in so doing, they found themselves transformed.

The Saints we celebrate today are ordinary people trying to live Christlike lives transformed by the grace of God celebrated in the windows, paintings, statues, icons hymns... and pews around us. Yes you too... We are called to be saints, it is in our spiritual DNA, to strive to faithfully follow Jesus Christ in our day and to proclaim the Gospel in words and works of love.

Part of our saintly calling though is therefore to side with those whom God sides and favour those whom He does.

As we answer His call on our lives to Sainthood, we must also recognise that whilst He is transforming our lives as we worship Him, His favour, His blessing, rests on those in pour community where we might least expect to find it - in the home of the grieving widower, at breakfast with the family struggling on benefits, in the cold flat of the assylum seeker, in the frightened dreams of the child in care... Love them says Jesus. Support them. Do good to them because few are, and why, because as you see your life transformed by grace and new life, so the grace and new life spills out and blesses them through you... God’s blessing is on them because of you.

On this All Saints Sunday, we thank God for His transforming grace at work in people past as well as in us today as we seek to follow Him. We pray that we would not squander that grace He so freely gives us, so that it turns into sour judgement of others in our hands and fills our mouths and lives with bitterness.

Rather let us pray that God would continue to meet us where we are; would take us as we are - with all our rough edges, and by His grace transform the raggedness of our existence by the richness of His grace. As He, as Mother Julian says, transforms our wounds into worships, let us also pray that He would charge us with a contagious holiness to allow even us to be God’s blessing on those in our community, especially on those who need it the most. Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Good Book - God's Unfolding Drama

Imagine for a moment that, in a dream, you are attending a theatre and watching a play. The play is reaching the climax when suddenly an actor is taken ill. The director steps forward and invites not just anyone but you to play the role. What could you do? You would have to improvise in the light of all you knew about the play so far – the plot, the characters and perhaps what you had read in the programme about the end. Today, as we give thanks to God for the scriptures, we are reminded that one way to understand the Bible is that through it, God invites us to play our part in his drama, applying all we know of his plans and words to our own often unexpected situations.

Our Epistle this morning reminds us that Christ has not been properly understood, if we forget his life before birth and his life after the resurrection! The whole creation and the whole development of the universe revolves around Jesus Christ. Nothing falls outside the scope of God’s project. Here we have God’s Mission Statement – you cannot be more comprehensive than this. The whole Bible backs up this view. It’s a play - THE BIBLE – A DRAMA IN FIVE ACTS
1. The Creation – God creates the scene (Genesis 1-2)
2. The Fall – The tragic consequences of human sin distort the world (Genesis 3-11)
3. Israel – God begins the process of redemption (Old Testament)
4. Jesus – God brings redemption to a focus in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus (The Gospels)
5. The time of the Church – God’s redemption is brought to the whole world (Acts – Revelation).
Scene 1 – the birth of the church
Scenes 2 & 3 - Church history so far
Scene 4 – in which we are called to live faithfully and creatively
Scene 5 – Redemption completed.

We are invited to play our part in this developing drama. The our Gospel reading from Matthew reflects the vision of God beginning to wrap the whole play up – it’s part of the final scene.

Looked at in this way, the Bible provides us with a “big story” in which to live out our lives – a dynamic framework which helps us to make sense of the meaning of life, to explore its difficulties and to discover a sense of purpose for our selves.

David Wilkinson a respected astrophysicist and theologian tells us that physicists have calculated that the probability of the universe ever getting started is 1/1x fifty seven zeros – in other words so improbable as to be impossible as a chance event. Scientists also calculate (from observations of the galaxy’s oldest stars) that the universe has been around for 13–14 billion years – in other words, an unimaginably long time. Both of these estimates give us just a glimpse of the scale of the “big story” God is directing and that we have a part in. More than this, it offers us • A new beginning – resources for living and an invitation to friendship with God agreeing to live in this story • It does not impose a fatalistic future – we are invited to make choices, enjoy relationships and contribute to the developments.

So, this grand narrative of God’s eternal purposes has local implications – that too is part of its richness. Christ’s death turns enemies into God’s friends and overcomes all the divisions that people create. It leads to transformed people who then transform the locality in which they live. There are all kinds of hints to this effect in the letter. Old divisions are being overcome – whether they are religious/ethnic ones or social ones. Old attitudes and destructive patterns of behaviour are being transformed so that anger is replaced with compassion, hate with forgiveness, insults with kindness and so forth.  Old-style relations in home and workplace are being replaced with ones that more fully reflect the model of Jesus – loving respect for all. We can see in these how the yeast of the Kingdom is beginning to change the whole loaf!

So, another aspect of the richness is that through Christ God is redeeming his people for holiness. God’s Word has always worked like this. Our context is very different, so completing the drama does not mean copying but being stimulated by this story. We too need to seek “to set ourselves” apart for God and demonstrate how
the message of Jesus transforms communities.

Some of us face the challenge to work out how we can demonstrate God’s kingdom in the workplace or in a difficult family situation. As Christians we need each other to work these things through and to support one another – it is easy to forget we are in God’s play when we are “out there “on our own!

But this richness affects individual people – the details about various believers in chapter 4 remind us of this. Within this list, there are many dramatic personal stories. Fortunately, we know a little about a couple of them. We can tell the stories of Mark – Barnabas’ cousin, who opts out of missionary journeys with Paul and gets barred by Paul on a subsequent journey. But in Colossians 4, Mark is restored as a companion of Paul; he is one of three people who have “been a great help to me”(4.11). Mark goes on to provide us with one of our Gospels. Clearly, he had allowed Christ’s word to live richly in him. Onesimus – a runaway slave, whose master Philemon probably lived in Colossae! Here are individuals profoundly influenced by the richness of Christ’s message, who have become part of its unfolding drama. And there are the others, known to us only by name, but whose own parts in the drama would have been well-known to Paul and the churches in that region. And that’s where we all come in – [refer back to Bishop Tom Wright’s five acts] – we are invited to construct scene 4 in the final act of the Bible’s continuing drama!

“Let this rich message about Christ live in your hearts …”  Now we need to beware! “Live in your hearts”, doesn’t mean keep it hidden, locked away, inside us! It means to take it so much to heart that it reshapes who we are and what we do from the inside out!

The Colossians are encouraged to encounter Christ’s message in many ways and so are we so that we can fully receive it’s message and play our part in God’s continuing drama.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday podcast


What belongs to God?

You know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you: Kind words and Very Unkind Intentions. “Now, tell us, Jesus,” they continued, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

By “lawful,” of course they meant “according to Torah.” Any of Our Lord’s responses could have got him into trouble with one faction or another.  If Jesus said that a good Jew should support the Roman state, then he would have allied himself with a power that was occupying Israel and killing Jews. That would have alienated the Jews and given implicit approval to a state that regarded its ruler as a god. It would have been idolatry. But to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome would have been treason. The question was a perfect trap for Jesus.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It was a good question then, and it is as difficult to answer today as it was two thousand years ago.

There is much to say in favour of Jewish or Christian support of the state. The state maintains order; it keeps the roads paved; and it operates schools. Even the Romans, for all their brutality, created a system of roads that ran the length of Europe. It took less time to send a letter from Athens to Rome in the first century when Rome was at the pinnacle of its power than it did in the 11th century when Europe was divided into hundreds of small kingdoms. Under Roman rule, we and the whole of Europe enjoyed a standard of living that fell drastically after the Roman state disintegrated and was not recovered until the late 19th century.

Yet, the Roman state was brutal. Persons found guilty of treason were hung or nailed to a cross and left to bleed to death and asphyxiate; it was the cruellest form of capital punishment ever devised. Men and women flocked to the circuses or amphitheatres to watch convicted criminals fight wild beasts.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” The question seems easier to answer today. Compared to Rome, we live under a humane and beneficent power. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  Is it?

One of the interesting things about this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians is that he never answers their question.

“Show me the money for the tax,” Jesus demanded. And they produced a Roman coin. As Jesus held it up, it glinted in the sunlight, and Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The coin would have borne the image of Caesar, much as our coins display the profile of our Queen. Finally, Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as…? Well, what? There’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

Jesus was a faithful Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” 
Friends, a whole God demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of our life. So if God demands all of our life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

The question Jesus threw back at the Pharisees and Herodians echoes Genesis. Holding up the coin, he asked, “Whose likeness or image is this?” The image of Caesar was imprinted only upon coins; but the image of God is upon every human life. The fingerprints of God are on us all.

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being.

Many parishes today will hear sermons on stewardship today, many parish priests will ask people to consider how much they should pledge to the church. But the real question is not how much we should give to God or the church or how much belongs to Caesar, but how much belongs to God? And if we ask that question, then the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should we pledge?” but “How much should we keep for ourselves?”.

All that we are and all that we have belongs to God. But we belong to God not as slaves but as children and if children then heirs. Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation. We cannot divide our lives between God and Caesar. Realizing that life is whole and not fragmented is an insight that brings us freedom. It teaches us that our first and foremost priority is the service of God.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it is freeing to realize that in reality is that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom.

Yes, my dear friends, there are Standing Order forms that you get and fill in and return, and yes, there are Gift Aid Envelopes and as you all know, there is a whole host of mission and outreach which needs to be underwritten both here in this parish, in the diocese and internationally, but we gather here to give ourselves, and through that we bear fruit for the Mission of God in this place. Your prayer, your activism, your community engagement with the young, the disaffected, the old and the isolated, and yes, quite importantly, your money is a response to Him who gave it to us in the first place.

“Render to God the things that are God’s.”

That’s you.

Every bit of you.

Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Word as a Wordle!

Here is the text of Sunday's Gospel reading from Matthew 22:15-22 as a wordle...

I am interested to note the importance of the words: emperor, went, God and things.

The passage makes me dwell on how Jesus seemed to be caught by this question between offending the spiritual legalities and committing blasphemy and offending the temporal laws and committing treason - but that was the point.

Jesus sees beyond the questions to the heart of the matter - where does true authority lie? With the emperor? Where does he get his authority from???? From the State?????? And where do they get theirs from?????? From the people??????? And where do they get theirs from???????? The inbuilt sense of justice in most people????????? And where does that come from???????????

Pay due attention to the the laws of the land says Jesus. Give to the state and their authority the things that are due them - tax, law keeping and so on. But as a follower of the way, God asks not for our taxes or our deference, but our whole selves.

Which matters more?