Sunday, 22 October 2017

Christians and the civic authorities

What does Jesus mean when he says that we should ‘give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’?
Has he just answered a difficult question in a way that gets him out of trouble, but doesn’t actually say anything.

It is a very clever answer to a difficult question that is designed to stitch Jesus up.
They asked him, ‘Should we pay taxes to the emperor?’
The tax that they were speaking about was a poll tax, a charge that was levied by the Roman authorities on every individual. When you paid your poll tax, it was usually when there were Roman soldiers around, and you knew that you lived in an occupied land.

So, if Jesus says, ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, then he is spiritually hopelessly compromised.

For a Jew there were so many reasons why they should not pay the tax.
There was national pride. Quite a significant number of people had chosen armed rebellion. They read in their history, from the book of Maccabees, how Judas Maccabaeus had led a revolt against a foreign ruler, who was bringing in ungodly laws, and how he had been blessed by God.
There was the law of Moses which assumes that the people of Israel will be a theocracy ruled not by Gentiles, but by a Davidic king and priests of the line of Aaron.
And there was the actual coin itself, the denarius. It had the image of the emperor on it – and Jews were prohibited from depicting the image of anything – and even worse, the coin claimed that Augustus, the emperor, was the Son of God.

Tiberius' Denarius bearing: "Tiberius Caesar,
Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus
So if Jesus said ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, the Pharisees would be able to say of him, ‘He has no authority. He rejects the law of Moses and he is in league with the Roman occupying force’.

But if Jesus says, ‘no’. Well the Pharisees have been clever. They have brought along the Herodians. The Herodians were the supporters of Herod, the king who represented the emperor to the Jews. So if Jesus says, ‘no’, he could stand accused of treason.

But Jesus’ answer is clever.
First, he asks them for a coin.
Then he asks them to look at the coin and he draws attention to both the image and the head.
That is clever. In other words he is saying, ‘I don’t carry on me a coin which has on it an image and a title that dishonours God. But you do’.
And then he answers by saying, ‘Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s’.

His answer would not satisfy the real zealots who had chosen armed rebellion against the Romans. They would have wanted him to say ‘No’ clearly and unequivocally. Many of his followers, who believed that he was the Messiah – God’s ruler come to deliver his people – would have expected him to say ‘No’
But Jesus had not come to deliver Israel from Roman authority. He had not come to lead a revolution or an armed rebellion. He had come to set people free from a far worse tyranny: from slavery to sin and death.

And his answer would not really satisfy those who wished to be unconditionally loyal to Rome, because Jesus has left himself wriggle room.
What is it that we should give to the emperor? 
What is it that we should give to God.

Obviously it seems we should pay his taxes.
But clearly, we are not to give to the emperor, the ruler, everything.
What is it, then, that we should give to God?

1.      The people who have called Jesus Christ Lord, Christians, have always recognised the legitimacy and authority of the civic authorities.

Paul urges us, in 1 Timothy 2, to pray for rulers, that under them we may be peacefully and godly governed.
·         In our 8.30 service, when we use the 1662 prayer book, every week we pray for our President here and, because we are part of a Diocese which comes under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, we pray for the British head of state, the Queen.
·         In our prayers in this service, often we pray for President Putin and for other world leaders.
·         The litany in the Orthodox church includes prayers for the leaders of the land.
Of course, that is actually a double-edged sword.
It means that we pledge loyalty to them. But it also means that we recognise that there is a higher authority over them. There is one, as we saw from our reading from Isaiah 45, who directs them, and to whom they will one day be accountable themselves.

There is a story told about Queen Victoria.
It is customary, when people attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah, for people to stand when the choir sing the Alleluia chorus, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
She was attending a performance and when it got to that point, she made to stand. But an attendant said to her, ‘Your Majesty, you do not need to stand’.
‘Young man’, she replied, ‘When men come into my presence, I who am Queen of Great Britain and empress of half the world, they stand. When I come into the presence of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, I stand’.

And in Romans 13:1-7, Paul writes that we are to be subject to the governing authorities, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’. He says that we need civic authorities so that there will be stability and law and order.  And please remember that Paul was writing to a people, many of whom were subject to an occupying authority, and the vast majority of whom were never given the chance to vote for or against their rulers.

And Paul continues, and he says what Jesus said, ‘This is also why you are to pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour then honour’.

So I’m afraid I’ve got bad news! Paying your taxes, whether you are poor or whether you are rich and are able to work out legal or non-legal ways of not paying them, is part of your commitment as a Christian.
And Peter in 1 Peter 2.13-17 echoes that teaching. ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’. And later he says, ‘Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honour the emperor’.

2.      But if Christians have always recognised the authority of the civic authorities, Christians have also always recognised that there is a higher authority.

That is why there were martyrs here when this country was the Soviet Union. The authorities demanded everything of people, and priests and pastors and people faithfully stood up and said, ‘No. We will be loyal citizens. But we will always put worship of God and obedience to his laws first’. And the communist state could not cope with that.

You may have heard the story of Daniel and the lions den. Well, the book of Daniel is written to Jews who have been taken prisoners into exile in Babylon. The king makes a decree that people must pray to him, and only to him. It meant that people were to recognise that the king is the highest power that there can possibly be – in both earth and heaven. And if people refuse to pray to him, then they will be thrown into the lions den. It was a very silly decree. Daniel, one of his chief ministers, is a Jew and knows that he cannot obey. He is loyal to the king, but he has a higher loyalty: to his God. He doesn’t begin a rebellion. He doesn’t rubbish the king. He simply continues to pray to his God, openly, knowing that he will face the consequences.

And as Christians who stand under the word of God, then it does seem that Jesus is saying that there may be times when we need to be like Daniel, we need to disobey. We are to pray that that is not the case, but that in everything we do we need to be controlled by love. Love for God and love for people. And if that is the case, we need to be prepared to face the consequences.  Again, we simply look at the faithful martyrs of this land, and of many others more recently – we think of Christians under Daesh - persecuted, because of their love for God and people. They paid the price: persecution, isolation, being sacked from their jobs, imprisonment and execution, because they felt that they had to be faithful to God.

The thing about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is that it means that there are no easy answers to this.

And how are we to make those decisions?

There is nothing easy about this.
Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, right to be involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler?
Or you believe, as a Christian, that the place for sexual intimacy is in the context of the marriage relationship between a man and woman? You believe that not just because it is in the bible, but because you think it is right for society, and for the best welfare of individuals. How do you respond to the increasing and at times vitriolic intolerance to that view in the West?  
Or what should you do if your boss asks you to do something that you know is clearly wrong at work? 

At the very beginning of our passage, the Pharisees try to flatter and butter up Jesus. They say, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.’
I’m not completely sure that it is true that Jesus showed deference to no one, for in fact he showed deference to everyone. He treated each person as someone who had been made in the image of God. This is the man who knelt down and washed his disciples feet, and who stood before Pilate and recognised that God had put Pilate in that position

But it struck me those three qualities: sincerity or integrity, a commitment to the way of God in accordance with the truth and a willingness to see the image of God not on coins, but in other people – and to kneel before anyone, whoever they are, whether rich or poor, is actually the way that we are going to navigate this whole issue. It is the way to wisdom.

One ancient anonymous commentator wrote this:
“So let us always reflect the image of God in these ways:
I do not swell up with the arrogance of pride;
nor do I droop with the blush of anger;
nor do I succumb to the passion of avarice;
nor do I surrender myself to the ravishes of gluttony;
nor do I infect myself with the duplicity of hypocrisy;
nor do I contaminate myself with the filth of rioting;
nor do I grow flippant with the pretension of conceit;
nor do I grow enamored of the burden of heavy drinking;
nor do I alienate by the dissension of mutual admiration;
nor do I infect others with the biting of detraction;
nor do I grow conceited with the vanity of gossip.
Rather, instead, I will reflect the image of God in that I feed on love;
grow certain on faith and hope;
strengthen myself on the virtue of patience;
grow tranquil by humility;
grow beautiful by chastity;
am sober by abstention;
am made happy by tranquility;
and am ready for death by practicing hospitality.
It is with such inscriptions that God imprints his coins with an impression made neither by hammer nor by chisel but has formed them with his primary divine intention. For Caesar required his image on every coin, but God has chosen man, whom he has created, to reflect his glory.”

And of course, we’re not going to get it right. We’ll make many mistakes along the way. There will be times when we are controlled by fear, other times when we are controlled by money, wealth and power, and yet other times when we are controlled by ego. We will forget that as Christians we do not struggle against earthly principalities and powers, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. We’ll be complicit in things that we should never be complicit in, and we’ll take stands on things that we should never take stands on. And all I can say is that I am immensely grateful that I worship a God of mercy who is daily changing me. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

An invitation to the Banquet of God

In a few minutes time, we will be invited to come to communion.

At one level, it is not much of an invitation:
you’re invited to receive a wafer and a sip of wine.
At another level this is the greatest invitation that you will ever receive:
It is the invitation to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, to live the life of God. It is the invitation to participate in the King’s wedding banquet for his son.

Of course, what happens here is just the hors d’oevre, the zakuski, the taster of the wedding banquet in heaven, but it is still part of that banquet.

And the parable that Jesus tells is

1.      About a great invitation

An invitation to participate in God’s Kingdom. It is amazing invitation.
It is a wedding feast: about new beginnings, love and joy and hope and deep intimacy. It is an invitation to start again; to know the deep love that God has for you; to receive the joy that he would give you - even in the face of the most awful circumstances; and it is an invitation to intimacy: deep spiritual intimacy with God and with his people.

And look at the abundance of this banquet: there are oxen and fatted calves. This is the best.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming Kingdom: a place of abundance and prosperity; where generations will be at ease with each other; where there will be no war, famine, disease, sickness or death; where children will play safely with snakes and wolves and lambs will lie down together.  

And of course, the Kingdom in its fullness is future.
But we have the taster of this future Kingdom here and now: we have the Holy Spirit and the presence of God with us and in us; we have the Bible, God’s word, which speaks of his good and wise law and ways; it declares his sure and certain promises; and we have the church, and the sacraments; we have each other and fellowship; a purpose for living and a hope that reaches beyond death.

Jesus in this parable is of course speaking to the people of his day.
When he tells this story he has in mind God’s invitation to the people of his time.
There had been the prophets.
And then there was John the Baptist, the great messenger: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’.
In other words, John was saying, ‘It is time. The banquet promised 3000 years earlier is ready’. A few had heard and responded. But the majority had either completely ignored the prophets and John and some had had them put to death.

And now, because they refused to come, the invitation comes to us, the people who live on the streets. People who never thought that we would be invited, who could not conceive that the love of God could extend even to me. There is nothing special about us, nothing remarkable. Unless you happen to be Jewish by racial descent, none of us belong to a privileged special race. There is nothing particularly good about us.

But it is the invitation to come to God’s wedding banquet, to become part of the Kingdom of God, to share in the very life of God.

It is a great invitation.

2.      About the foolishness of saying no.

Richard, a former member of our church in Bury, has a son called Steve. Steve has just graduated from university with a good degree in IT, is looking for work, and would love to work creating online games. Richard does some work for a man who owns a major IT gaming company. He was talking with him about his son, when Steve turned up. The owner of the IT company turned to Steve and said, ‘Can you come and see me this evening’. And Steve said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t; I’m going out tonight’.
Well, you can imagine the conversation between father and son a little bit later that evening. May I give you some advice: When you are looking for an IT job and the owner of an IT company offers to meet you, you do not say No!  I don’t think that Steve will make the same mistake again. It was very foolish to say no.

And the people here were foolish to say no.

There are of course different ways of rejecting this invitation.
There is open blatant rejection. The messengers are persecuted, seized, imprisoned and executed. That happened to believers in this country, many of whom are celebrated as the new martyrs. And it is still happening. On Thursday Fr Samaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest, was stabbed to death in Cairo.

But it is a foolish thing to do. To openly reject the King.

Jesus speaks on several occasions declaring that we will be judged on how we have treated those who have come in his name. It works both ways. Those who reject them will be rejected. Those who receive them will be received. If you even give one of my followers a glass of water because they come in my name, says Jesus, you will be rewarded.

But you do not need to abuse the messenger to reject the message.  
You can simply ignore it. To treat it "lightly". To live life as if God does not exist.
Because what the people here are saying. “OK. Thanks for letting us know. God’s throwing a party. But it is not important. What is important is my farm, my business.”

That is us: religion, god stuff is OK so long as it is in its right place. It belongs to the entertainment side of life. It is the smetana that you add into the soup, to make the soup just a little bit better. And if you don’t have it, well it’s a shame, but it’s your choice. But running the farm, keeping the company afloat – that is the important stuff of life.

No wonder the king is furious. He destroys the murderers and wipes out their city.

Now this is a story, but in telling the story Jesus is warning us that God cannot be side-lined and his invitation cannot be ignored.
We’re talking God here! He cannot be put in the drawer marked entertainment and leisure. He cannot be treated as an optional extra to life – something that is there for our spare time. He is the one who created us, who gives us life and skills, who gives us business. He is the one to whom each one of us is accountable.
He offers us an amazing invitation, and it is foolishness to say No.

3.      About grace

There are different ways to understand verses 11-13, and the wedding robe.
Some say that it is the robe of good deeds. I don’t think that is the case because we are told specifically that the people who came in were both good and bad (v10).
Maybe (and this is how I understand this), as the guests came in off the street, they were all offered wedding robes to cover their old clothes. And the man here had refused the gift of the wedding garment.
Or maybe he thought that he was OK in his own clothes. He was wearing the latest designer label jacket, he was wearing his best clothes

Perhaps that is why, when the king asks him why he is not wearing a wedding robe, he is speechless. ‘But I thought’, he stammers, ‘that my best was good enough’.

The invitation that we have to become part of the Kingdom of God, to share in the life of God, to even come to communion is an invitation of grace.
It does not depend on us, on who we are or what we have done.

Perhaps some of us who are here today have heard the invitation but we are still wearing our old clothes. We think that they are good enough.
And so we think that we deserve to be here: we are important enough, or good enough, or repentant or confessed enough, or we’ve given enough to the church or worked hard enough for the church, we’ve mortified ourselves enough or we are religious enough to come forward.

We think that God owes us this.

If that is the case, then please do not come. Because the consequences of coming when we are metaphorically dressed in our own clothes, even our best own clothes, are pretty horrific.

This meal is for sinners. It is for people who know that their old clothes are inadequate.
It is a meal for people who are good, but who know that they are no way good enough.
It is a meal for people who are bad, but who are seeking God’s mercy.
It is a meal for those who know that their best will never be good enough for God.
It is a meal for all who are willing to receive forgiveness, the strength to live a new life, and who are desperate for Jesus to be part of their life.

I love this.
When we come to the banquet, ready to cast off our old clothes, God will throw over us a wedding robe.
Round the corner from where we lived in London there was an African Church, I think they called themselves the Church of Christ. They would all turn up on Sunday afternoon wearing long white robes – not just the minister. It was this passage lived out.
It reminds me of the story of the prodigal son who returns home, and is about to reel off his grovel speech, telling his father why he is so unworthy, when his father stops him, embraces him and places on him a robe – the robe that declares that he is his forgiven son, the robe that told him that he was welcome, that this was where he belonged, not as a servant or a welcome guest but as child and heir.

And when we receive the invitation and come, we too are offered robes. They are invisible. But they are robes of grace. Each one of us. They are offered to many, but few receive them. Nobody can say that their robe is more beautiful or more precious than the next person’s, for the robe that you are offered is priceless and unique to you. It is the robe of the Kingdom of Heaven; it is the robe that covers over our nakedness and filth, our good and our bad, our achievements and our failures; it is the robe which declares that you are accepted, forgiven, that you belong to God, that you are a son or a daughter of God, and that you belong here.

So my brothers and sisters,
We have a remarkable invitation. You are welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven, you are welcome to the Kings wedding banquet, you are welcome to this communion.
Please do not be foolish and say no.
And when you come, know that you come by grace. Come as a sinner, who knows that your best will never be good enough; come as a woman man who knows that you need God.

And if you come that way, allowing Grace to dress you with her robe, you are welcome to this table – it really is the Lord’s table - to this feast, and to that great feast. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Four reasons not to worry

We worry about many things.

About school, friends, our health, business, money, investments, visas; how to support the family, children or parents; what people think of us, whether we’re doing the right thing or not; whether we’re wearing the right thing, being given enough respect, whether I’ll get this talk completed on time – and then, to top it all, Jesus says that we are not to worry so I worry because I am worrying!

But it seems here that Jesus doesn’t simply tell us not to worry.

I think he gives us, in these verses, at least 4 reasons why we do not need to worry

1.      Jesus reminds us how foolish it is to worry!

Worrying can’t really do anything.
We certainly can’t make ourselves live even an hour longer by worrying (v25)
In fact, if anything, worry can make it worse! One doctor wrote, ‘Worry affects the circulation, the heart, the glands, the whole nervous system, and profoundly affects the health”.
And there is a danger that when we worry about things that are outside our control, we are taking onto ourselves the responsibility of God.
Yes, we need to act wisely, and make the best decisions that we can, having spoken with others, but after that – there really is no point in worrying. It is in the hands of God.
And there is no point about worrying about what might happen. Someone said, “Never borrow from the future. If you live in dread of what may happen and it doesn’t happen, you have worried in vain. Even if it does happen, you have to worry twice. Worry is the interest paid to those who borrow trouble”.

2.      Jesus reminds us how precious we are to God.

Jesus calls his disciples, ‘you of little faith’, but he goes on to tell them how special they are in the sight of God, and how God longs to bless them.

Look at the ravens: God provides for them even though they do nothing (‘they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn’) – I don’t think that he is telling us to do no work, or to get rid of all our savings accounts or insurances – but he is saying, that if God provides for them, how much more important to him are we?

And he says, and this is even more amazing, ‘Look at the lilies. Even though they are so temporary, even though they’ll end up on some bonfire or compost heap, God gives them such glory.’ And how much more precious are you.

So you don’t need to worry, says Jesus. God loves you. And he knows what we need.

I’m not saying that bad things won’t happen to you. I’m not saying that you won’t be taken at times through the fire and the water.
But know this: that the God who is with you, loves you. He will be with you, and he will give you everything you need.
‘All things work together for good for those who love God’ and later, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Romans 8.28,31)

3.      Jesus gives us a bigger vision of what life is all about.  

He’s just told a story reminding us that life is far more than about the visible (Luke 12.16-21).
It is much much more than what we simply eat, drink or wear.
It is much more than what we can see, touch, hear, feel or taste.
There is a bigger dimension to life.

The man in the story was blind to that.
We’re blind to that. We are people of ‘little faith’.
And we need to ask our heavenly Father (and Jesus here speaks of God as our heavenly Father – and earlier he has spoken about how we can pray to God as ‘our Father’, and how we can trust our Father to give us his Spirit to live in us (Luke 11.2,13)) to open our eyes so that we can begin to see what it means ‘to be rich towards God’ (Luke 12.21)
We ask him to open our eyes to see the Kingdom and to see the things of the Kingdom, so that we become rich in humility, gratitude, trust and obedience.

4.      Jesus urges us to strive for the things of the Kingdom of God

So Jesus says, ‘Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying’ (v29).

What we strive for is what we worry about.

So, says Jesus, stop striving for the things of this world, for the things that everybody else strives for: what you will eat or drink or wear, and all the other things, because that is then what you will worry about!
Start to strive, to drive for with strength, for the things of God.

So what is it that we are aiming for this new week?
The new contract, the essay that has to be written or the project that needs to be completed, to get enough money to send something home to the family: we live in a very target driven world.
But if we would learn a little bit of freedom from worry, perhaps we should strive this week to be more thankful for what we do have, to spend more time with God, to learn a bible verse (, to be more generous, to do an act of mercy, to say sorry to someone, to work hard at the job I really don’t want to do as an act of obedience, to pray for the Kingdom of God, and to look to heaven.

And when we strive for the things of God, it is not that we won’t worry.
We’re people of little faith, even if we trust that God is growing our faith.
But the things that we worry about will change. And we will begin to discover – deep in here – a sense of peace.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4.4-7)

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Changing your mind

The question that the chief priests and elders ask is one of the most important questions that was asked of Jesus: What is your authority?

Is his authority simply ‘earthly’?
Does his authority rest solely on the fact that he was a charismatic attractive individual, who was able to speak well, do remarkable things and draw crowds?
Because if that is the case, we can respect him as a great historical figure, we can admire and learn from his teaching, we can marvel at his works – but he does not have any claim on our life.
We can treat him as we would treat any other great figure from history. We can learn from him, and we can pick and choose which bits we like from him and reject the rest.

But if Jesus’ authority comes from heaven, if he is the eternal Son of God, then we really need to listen to what he says, and do what he says. If he has come from God, does the work of God and speaks the word of God, then we need to treat him as God.  

So the chief priests and elders’ question is really important: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”.

But Jesus doesn’t answer the question.
He seems to avoid it; and he does that by asking the chief priests a question which he knows they cannot answer.
They cannot say that John’s baptism was from heaven, because Jesus will then ask them why they not did receive John’s baptism.
But the they also cannot say what they really thought - that John’s baptism was from earth – in other words it was something that John had made up – because John had martyr status among the people. He had been beheaded by Herod only a few months earlier, and the people treated him as a prophet. So they can’t say it.
It is like asking a Dinamo fan to go into the middle of a crowd of Spartak supporters and to shout ‘Spartak are rubbish’. You are not going to do it, unless you have a death wish.

So is Jesus being a little bit devious or crafty here in order to avoid answering the question? Or is he, as I suspect, doing something more?

You see the chief priests and elders had made up their mind. They had decided that Jesus was an imposter. That his authority came only from earth and not from heaven. They didn’t know how he did the stuff that he did, but they were convinced it was not of God.

And Jesus knew that if he told them that his authority came from heaven, it would not make the slightest difference.

But I think that Jesus, by pointing the chief priests and elders to John the Baptist in Matt 21, is trying to persuade them that, however unlikely it is, they can still change their mind.

In Matt 21.29, Jesus tells of two sons. The first son said No, but then we are told ‘he changed his mind’.

And in v32 he says to the chief priests and elders:
“You saw how sinners believed John when he declared to them that the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, is so near.
You saw how they heard him when he called them to repent: to stop living for yourself or for other people or for the things of this world; and to start to live for God, and for the things of that world. Stop doing the things that God hates: lying, stealing, using your power to exploit people, keeping what you have got for yourself – and start to live the things that God loves: generousity and kindness and mercy and honesty.
And you saw how sinners repented when John preached. You saw them go to him, confess their sins, and seek God’s strength to change. You saw them go into the water with John as they symbolically asked God to wash away their sin and give them a new life.
You saw all of this, he says, and yet (v32), ‘You did not change your minds and believe him’.

Jesus did not publicly declare that his authority came from God until the very end.
There is a strong emphasis on this in the gospels.
The demons recognise him as Messiah and want to proclaim it, and Jesus orders them to be silent
Those who are healed dramatically recognise him as Messiah and they want to proclaim it, but he tells them to be silent
His followers finally get it, and they say to Jesus, shall we go and tell people now, and Jesus says No!
The reason he doesn’t want to self-declare his authority is because as soon as he self-declares it, people have to make a decision.
Do I believe him or not?
Do I accept him or do I reject him as nuts?

And it seems to me that Jesus, in his mercy, even now, is giving the chief priests and elders one more reason for believing that he is the Son of God, that his authority does come from God. He is urging them to look at the sinners, at the tax collectors and prostitutes, who had begun by saying no to God, but who had changed their mind. And he is warning them and us that it is possible to be like the second son, to say yes to God with our lips, but no to God with our lives.

Perhaps you are somebody who still has to make your decision about Jesus.
The fact that you are here probably means that you have not rejected the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah, the Son of God, but you are not convinced. You are open to have your mind changed.

Well it seems to me that what Jesus is saying to us is, ‘Look at the people who have changed their mind’.

I think of Michael. He was a dear friend to me and he died earlier this week. Michael was a gardener. He wasn’t a bad guy, far from it. Like most people in most places he lived life for himself and his wife and family, he worked hard at a job he was good at and enjoyed, and and he tried not to hurt other people. He didn’t believe. Then, one day, about 30 years ago, he walked into a village church in England and encountered God. He tells me that peace was given to him, almost physically, and it didn’t leave him. He started to come to church and was one of our most faithful worshippers at the early 8am service. Then, about 4 years ago Michael was diagnosed with Motor Neurons disease. It is pretty horrific. It began by affecting his feet and then slowly worked its way up his whole body so that he was finally completely paralysed. Michael decided to read through the bible. I would go and he would ask me to explain certain texts. But as he lost his ability to do literally everything, Michael was given a profound insight into the things of God. He never complained, thanked God for all the blessings God had given him, and especially his wife and daughter. And he said to me that he understood now why God had given him that gift of peace – and he did have this most astonishing sense of peace. We often prayed together that he would have a good death, and in the end, I am told that it was relatively peaceful and painless.

Or I think of Suraj in Bury. He came from a Hindu background, and he married Shani, a committed Catholic Christian. He came to me, about a year later, and asked to be baptised. I asked him why? He said he had looked at Shani’s life, at her patience and goodness and kindness, and at her faith, and he wanted to become a Christian.

And I’ve had the privilege this week of meeting with some of you and hearing how God has touched your life, how he helped you to ‘change your mind’, how you have come to believe, whether that was a sudden experience, or opening you up to a new way of thinking.

And it is good to tell our stories, and to encourage one another, and to see God at work in changing people’s lives.
Because when we see God changing someone’s life, it means that we will be open to change our mind.

Michael and Suraj were neither prostitutes or tax collectors. But I guess prostitutes and tax collectors stand for all who have first said no to God. They are the two extremes. Tax collectors were rich and they had power. There are many ‘tax collectors’ in cities like this. Prostitutes were usually abused and at the very bottom of the heap. There are many ‘prostitutes’ in cities like this.

I would love it if St Andrews were a place where tax collectors and prostitutes, and all of us in between who had consciously or unconsciously said No to God, could hear the word of God.
I would love it if it was a place where people who had said no to God, would be able to look around and see God changing lives: giving people a hunger to worship, to read his word, to put away their old little gods, and to step out in service.
And I would love it if they looked at that, and decided that having said no to Jesus, they might – after all – decide to do what he said.

This passage is about authority.

True authority never needs to be self-proclaimed.

Jesus knew that. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he never proclaims his own authority.
Actually, that is not true.
He does proclaim his authority, but at the very end, as he stands on trial for his life.
The die has been cast; there is now no more time for people to change their mind.
They ask Jesus, ‘Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God’, and Jesus will reply – Mark makes this absolutely clear – “I am”. There is no ambiguity.

But real authority is revealed when we look at the lives of those who receive that authority. And if we want people to change their minds and submit to the authority of Jesus, they need to see how we have changed our minds and how we have submitted to Jesus.

That is why it is not just about what happens at this end of the church, about what we say or do.  It is equally important about what happens at that end. It is about who we welcome and how we welcome them. It is about the quality of community that we offer. It is about the measure of lives that are being changed, as we kneel before Jesus.

Because when we get it right it really is a witness to the world of the authority of Jesus. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Learning to forgive. On the occasion of a wedding blessing for Lev and Vasilisa Buinov

This is a great passage for building a relationship.

It was important for Alison and myself, though probably for the wrong reason!
I was single, and had started work as a curate, an assistant pastor, in Ipswich. I visited, on my rounds, one of the local schools where I saw this rather attractive teacher. Her class were due to take an assembly and she asked me if I would help – she must have been desperate. The assembly was about this story and so we worked together on it. And the rest, as they say, was very good news for Peter, John and Andrew!

And for you Lev and Vasilisa, I hope that this story that Jesus tells will be special for you. Both because it is the set reading for our communion service today, but also because it is about grace and forgiveness – and that is what a marriage, or for that matter, any relationship, is built on.

I’d like to suggest three key words for marriage and relationships

1.      Communication:
It is absolutely key. There will always be issues and problems, things we expect and things we don’t expect. But if we are talking together, if we are being real with each other, we can usually overcome most problems.
But for that to happen we need to learn to share: the everyday stuff, the daily gossip, our thoughts and feelings, and deeper still. That is why it is good to have one or two people with whom we can learn to share our soul.
So we do need to speak, especially when we are hurting. That is the time we can go into ourselves and cut out the other person. Many of us – and this can be particularly a man thing - are like vacuum cleaners which are never emptied. We take the rubbish in, but because we do not speak, or at least we do not speak about real stuff, we fill up and we clog up. And we stop working.
And it is not just about speaking. We also need to learn to listen to each other. To listen to what is said and to listen to what is not said. There are some people who are so good at speaking that they find it very difficult to listen.

2.      Compromise:
This is important for every relationship.
Forgive me for saying this, but it is not all about you.
Former head of our childrens school in BSE. His PA, Deborah, would constantly remind him, “Geoff it is not all about you”. He said, at his leaving do, “Today Deborah it gives me great pleasure to say that today this is all about me!”
But life is not all about me. And we need to be willing to yield, to do what the other person wants. That is as true for work, for a church council, for a bible study group or for a marriage.
Several years ago, in the UK they interviewed on TV a couple who had reached their 80th wedding anniversary. It was a record. They asked the husband what the secret of their marriage was. He replied: “The secret of our marriage can be summed up in two words, ‘Yes Dear’.” But he is right. Not just him to her, but also her to him.

3.      Forgiveness:
That is what our passage is about.

It is a story about a huge debt. A servant owes 1000 times the annual revenue of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Idumea put together. We don’t know how he came to be so seriously in debt (maybe he had been gambling on the money markets or stock exchange and it had gone disastrously wrong) but it was there and it was unpayable.
It is a story about an astonishing act of compassion.
The servant cries out for mercy and the king cancels the debt. It may have meant that he had to sell off some of his personal assets or that he almost bankrupted himself. But in forgiving the servant, the king himself took the hit.
It is a story about the difference between the king and the unforgiving servant
The king saw the servant before he saw the debt. He saw the servant’s distress. He realised what it would mean for him, for his wife and children. And he had compassion.
But that servant, when he had been forgiven, did not see his fellow servant, but only the debt.
Perhaps he had dwelt on what was owed to him. He had allowed resentment to grow. It had got to him. It had eaten him up. Money can do that.

I remember many years ago when I lent a colleague £50. He said he would repay, but he never did. I think he genuinely forgot, and I resolved to just let it go. But I found it so hard. It kept coming back. And in our story the unforgiving servant, even though he has been forgiven so much, cannot get beyond the debt. He cannot see the person.

Jesus tells that story because he wants us to know that

1.      You are known
God knows us. He knows our deepest desires, our loves, the frustrated ambitions, the greatest regrets, the missed opportunities, the achievements of which we are so proud. He knows our fears; he knows the times when we have been badly hurt; he knows our longings and our joys.
It is a bit scary because he also knows our dark desires, our ungratitude, our selfishness and self-centredness. He sees the people who we have hurt – unintentionally or intentionally. He knows our greed, our lies, our lack of mercy, generousity and graciousness, our  resentment and unforgiveness. He looks and he sees our cold hard hearts.
And he sees the debt that we owe. The debt that we owe to him, and the debt that we owe to each other. And it is overwhelming.
And he looks at our rather sad attempts to deny the debt, and at our pathetic attempts to pay it off: “I’ll give money to the church; I’ll mortify myself; I’ll follow the strictest teachings of the church; I’ll be really good”.
Do you think you can pay off the debt by doing that? What a joke!
We might be able to deceive ourselves. We might be able to deceive other people – even those most close to us. But we cannot deceive God. He knows us.

2.      You are beloved
God knows us and yet – and this is amazing – he still loves us. He sees through the muck, through the debt, through our attempts to justify ourselves and he sees us. He sees the person desperate for love, for significance, for fulfilment and meaning. He sees the lost soul inside us.
And when we cry out to him, when we ask him to have mercy on us, he forgives.
And his love is overwhelming, and it is costly. He took our debt onto, into himself. That is why we have the symbol of Christ on the cross here. It is THE symbol of the love of God.
This is how much he loves you

3.      You are forgiven
Of course, we need to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and we need to be prepared to receive this forgiveness.
That is hard. It is often harder to receive forgiveness than to give forgiveness.
If we give forgiveness we are in control.
If we receive forgiveness we have recognised that we need forgiveness, we lose power and we put ourselves in the other persons debt.

That is why the good news of the Christian faith is both so humbling and so liberating.
It is humbling because Jesus gave everything for me, and there is nothing that I can do to repay him. I am completely in his debt.
But it is liberating because I have been forgiven. I have been forgiven an astonishing overwhelming debt. It has gone. It has been paid.

The gates of heaven, that were so firmly closed, have been blown open

And because we are forgiven we can forgive.

Someone hurts us.
Often, we are most hurt by the people who we are most close to.
I guess we could hold onto the offence, and allow the resentment to grow.
One person said, “In our relationship we don’t have rows. Instead we collect niggles and grudges. We stockpile them, like nuclear warheads, in preparation for the domestic Armageddon”.
Or there was Dennis who told me about his father. His father never spoke to his brother. They had fallen out many years earlier. Dennis asked his father why they had fallen out. His father replied that it was so long ago that he could not remember what the issue was, but he was still not going to speak to his brother.

Yes, we will be hurt. Sometimes very badly hurt.
But as believers we do not need to hold onto resentment. We can be different.

I can look at the other person and see somebody who is just like me. They may have hurt me, but I also have hurt many people.
And I have been forgiven so much, so who am I not to forgive someone else.

So can I suggest, if you are struggling with forgiveness, that we ask God to help us to really see the person who has sinned against us, to see them as someone created and beloved by God, to see them as people who are mucked up by sin, and to see them as someone who is just like me. Because when we do see them as God sees them, as the king saw his servant, then we will have compassion on them.

Lev and Vasilisa, forgive me for speaking about forgiveness today. I guess I have been married long enough to know that there are times when we need to forgive each other. It is how we grow together and how we grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

But we do congratulate you on your wedding, and Lev, we forgive you for stealing our administrator!
But we pray that your love for each other will grow and deepen.
We pray that you will take time to be with each other, to speak with each other, to listen to each other.
We pray that you will learn to say ‘Yes dear’ – especially when you would prefer to say ‘No’.

And as people who are known by God, who are beloved of God and forgiven by God, we pray that you, and each one of us will grow in the knowledge of how much we have been forgiven, and as forgiven sinners, learn to forgive.