Friday, 24 June 2011

A talk on the occasion of the wedding of Philip Taylor and Maaike Schoute

A talk on the occasion of the wedding of Philip Taylor and Maaike Schoute

Many congratulations

Today is a day of great joy. We delight in your love for each other and in your delight in each other.

Psalm 84 speaks of a journey

Today marks the beginning of another journey.
I say ‘beginning’, even though you have been together and been committed to each other for some time, and God has blessed you with Noa. But it is a new beginning.

A new beginning with a new identity: Maaike literally has a new name; but it is a shared name. People will see you in a different way; literally as part of each other.
A new beginning with a new role in society: up to now your love has been about a personal commitment that you made to each other. Now you’ve gone public. It is something that is bigger than either of you or both of you – and it will make you bigger people.

Today God crowns your relationship.
People often speak of marriage as being ‘proper’. It is what is meant to be. And that is right. There is a degree of obedience to God in marriage. Marriage is – according to the Bible and Christian tradition – the right place for sexual intimacy; and marriage offers the right place for the bringing up of children.
And as you take this step of obedience, God crowns your relationship.

The first thing that you do as a married couple is to pray.
One of the prayers in this service asks that your love for each other will be a crown on your heads.
In the Orthodox church, a crown is held over the head of bridegroom and bride
The Bishop of  London spoke at the royal wedding of how every wedding is a royal wedding.
In marriage God created man and woman together to rule this creation for him.

It is the beginning of the journey of your married life together.
A journey of growing together: our prayer is that you will grow in your love for each other more and more.
Involves giving: We give precious gifts to those we love. Today you give each other a wedding ring. But you give something far more precious, because as you give that ring you give yourself with it. You belong to each other.
Involves building each other up: honouring them, saying thank you; praising them – time to be romantic.
Involves forgiving: I am always slightly concerned when couples tell me that they do not have arguments. It reminds me of the person who said, “In our house we do not have arguments. Instead we store up resentments and grudges; stockpiling them for the time when we have our domestic nuclear Armageddon”. Forgiving is about choosing to forget. I like story of person who said to wife, ‘Don’t you remember when your husband did that.’ She replies, ‘No’ ‘I can specifically remember forgetting that’.
The Bible gives great advice on this:‘Don’t let the sun go down on your anger’.
Involves communication: sharing your plans, hopes and dreams; but also sharing your hurts, struggles and disappointments. And that needs time. There is no such thing as quality time without quantity time. 

And yes there will be times of great joy: gift of Noa
But there will also be times of dryness, ‘valleys of Baca’ experiences.
And that is where the vows are very profound. Because they speak not only of health but of sickness; they speak not only of riches, but of poverty; they speak not only of the better times, but the worse times. And the call is to continue to trust in God and to be faithful to the covenant you have made.
And the promise is that the valleys of Baca, the dry places, will spring into life again.

But this is a journey with a goal
Not just a journey to grow together in love; to increase in your delight in each other; to have a family and to grow that family – but God has called you together so that, for the next – we pray - 40, 50, 60 years, you will continue to be travelling companions on the same journey that the author of Psalm 84 was on.

He was on a literal journey to the temple, to Jerusalem. But it was a journey to the place where God is king, of security, kindness, honour and abundance – the place of intimacy with God.

My prayer is that you will continue on that journey towards God. And as you travel you will discover more and more of what is in the heart of God, of his love for you, of his glorious destiny for you and of the eternal kingdom where Jesus reigns as King.  

There will be times when the journey will involve tedious plodding, seemingly unendurable pain (like preparing to swim in the Triathlon), and at times in your relationship with God you may have to go through a few dry valleys. But there will also be moments of great rest and peace and that there will be, I pray, a deepening longing for God.

This journey towards God is the journey which will give your lives together their ultimate meaning and destination.

It is the reason I believe, that God, in his love, has called you together.

And our prayer is that as you journey together:
You will not lose sight of the purpose of your journey, of why God has called you together
You will not lose sight of the one who is beside you on the journey. In Prince Caspian, the children are seeking Aslan, but gradually they begin to realise that Aslan is the one who is running beside them.
God will bring you to that ultimate wedding banquet when Jesus is united with his bride, the church
You will know deep joy, peace and blessing – and that many will be blessed through you. 

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Save yourself from this corrupt generation

Peter, in Acts 2:40, urges the people who listen to him: ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’

How could he say that? How can you call any generation corrupt?

It is very simple. Peter is speaking to a generation which has crucified the Son of God.

Some people here may be landlords. I don’t know whether you ever have any problems getting rent. If you do, God knows what it is like!

Jesus tells a story about a vineyard. The owner gave it to some people. He said to them, ‘Look after it for me. Care for it, enjoy it. All I ask is that you remember that it belongs to me, that it is my gift to you, and give me what is mine when I send my messengers to you for the rent. The owner goes away. Some time later he sends a messenger. The tenants beat up the messenger and send him away with nothing. The owner sends another messenger. The tenants do the same thing to him. Finally the owner says, ‘I will send my own son. He will come with my full authority. They will respect him’. But when the tenants see the heir they say, ‘The owner is a long way away, and the owner is powerless. This is the owner’s heir. Let’s kill him. If we kill the heir, then the vineyard will come to us.’ And so they kill the son.

The people kill Jesus because they prefer a God who is distant and powerless; they prefer a God who started the whole show off in the beginning, but who is now so old and frail that he is irrelevant. They think that if they ignore the messengers of God and kill the Son of God, then God will go away.

It is the greatest act of forgetfulness, rebellion, self-centred pride, evil and stupidity that any person could commit: to kill the Son of God.

And Peter says to the people he is speaking to. “What do you think you were playing at? This Jesus, who you crucified, God has raised from the dead - and has made him Lord and Christ: the ruler of this world”. And he urges them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’.

Why? It was corrupt. It was God-hating and God-denying, and it was facing the dreadful judgement of God.

That of course was then.
Peter would never say today, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’. This is billboard, religious nutcase stuff. After all it was not us who crucified the Son of God.

I wonder ..
Yes, many people may say that today’s generation is a corrupt generation. People speak of broken Britain. Look at how money rules everything, at the rates of family breakdown, binge drinking, at the social injustice when we have so much and others have so little, at the rape of the environment, at the neglect of the vulnerable elderly (particularly those who have no money), at child abuse, at the sexual licence which has lost all sense of the dignity of the human body as created by God.

Usually when people talk about this generation being corrupt, the emphasis is on the ‘this’. ‘Of course, when we were brought up it was much better....!’

But Peter’s call for people to save themselves from a corrupt generation is a call to all people at all times. He is telling us to save ourselves from a generation which is in rebellion against God; to save ourselves from a God denying and God killing generation.

We were not there when Jesus was crucified. But if we had been, I suspect we would have been with the people: with the crowd calling for his crucifixion or with the leaders demanding his execution, or with the soldiers carrying out their orders and the sentence of death. Or maybe you think you would have been one of the disciples - but they were betraying him, denying him or tripping over one other in their haste to leg it to safety when he was arrested.

We are as much the tenants in the vineyard who kill the son and heir as that generation or any other generation.

In his 1983 acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recalled the words he heard as a child, when his elders sought to explain the ruinous upheavals in Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” He added, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘men have forgotten God.’”

• we live in a world which has chosen to forget God
• we live in a world in which everything has to begin with me and my experience, and we say that because we cannot see God there is no God.
• we think that without God we are the creators, masters and mistresses of all this. We claim to be able to turn on life or turn off life. That is a bit of a joke. If one medium sized rock hit this planet from outer space and ushered in a new ice age, it would probably be the end for our race.
• we think that without God we can do what we like when we like. We usually add some proviso, ‘providing we do not hurt anyone else’. But actually if hurting someone else means that I get on in life, then so be it. You only need to watch the Apprentice to see that, or to speak with those whose lives have been shattered because someone has chosen to betray that trust, or to listen to people saying that they will go on strike because their pay or pension is threatened.
• we justify our denial of God by saying that belief in God causes conflict. 71% of Britons agreed with a statement that said that religious beliefs ‘promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress’. But it is tribalism which causes conflict and the answer to tribalism is not less God but more of the living God.
But belief in the living God is not an optional extra.
And a people who reject the living God put themselves in exactly the same place as the generation which crucified the Son of God.

What no generation, tribe or family can cope with is someone who claims to be the Son of God, who claims that this world and all the people in it belong to him, that he speaks the very words of God, that his life is what life is all about and that one day he will judge the world and its rulers and its ways.

Of course, if there were any grounds for believing that he is mad, then we will laugh at him, lock him up and feel much more comfortable. ‘He’s only a harmless idiot’.
But if you can’t do that: if people look at the way he lives and say, ‘I can’t fault that’; if he speaks in a way that has such authority and does things that are - to say the least - astonishing, and if people start to listen to him and follow him, then we have a choice. Either he is who claims to be, the Son of God, or he is not and he has to go.

I like to think that if Jesus was living among us today we would not crucify him. I like to think that we would never do that to anyone. We might arrange for him to have his head kicked in. We might put a petrol bomb through the door of the place where he was sleeping. We might arrest him,and just happen to find him hanging from one of the beams in his cell. But we wouldn’t crucify him.

The offence of the corrupt generation was not the actual act of the crucifixion of Jesus.
The offence of the corrupt generation is that it rejects God; it tells God: ‘We do not need you or want you’. It grabs the gifts that God give us, but shuts out the giver. [Peter as a child shutting door in face of person bringing present].
The offence of the corrupt generation is that it looks in the face of the one who is absolute love and beauty and light and completeness and power and truth, and it spits in that face.

This is the generation of which you are a part. You’ve been born into it. You’ve drank from its values all your life; you’ve accepted its assumptions as your assumptions. You are completely and totally part of it. And you need to save yourself from it. Because otherwise you face a dreadful judgement.

I hate being a non-conformist. I hate standing out. But here I have no option. Peter is calling you and me to become different. If we go along with the crowd, we are lost. We have to make a personal decision.

So Peter calls people to repentance: a change of heart and mind; to stop being controlled by the assumptions of this world and to stop living for this world; and to start living for God in obedience to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
He calls people to be baptised: The New Testament teaches us that baptism is an act of obedience, and also an act of identification with Jesus and his people.
Because he was baptised, when we are baptised we are united to him.
And so the old way of life is washed away, and we are united with Jesus. In the Orthodox church, when a person is baptised they are given a new name. It is a picture that we become, in baptism, completely new people. ‘If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17)

And Peter promises that the person who repents and who is baptised will receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the living God, the Spirit that was in Jesus, will come and live in them.

Making that choice to receive Jesus as the Son of God and as your Lord and ruler is one of the bravest decisions that you will ever have to make. You are choosing to opt out of our God denying, me-centred society, and choosing to opt-in to the God-centred society. You are saying that you are not prepared to put your experience at the centre of your life - and you are going to put Jesus Christ there instead. You are saying that you choose not to put the God-denying assumptions of our society or our generation at the centre of your life; you are not prepared to put your own comfort at the centre of your life; but that you will put God at the centre of your life. You are saying that you will still live as a member of this society, under its laws - where they are right and honest - but you are going to be different.

Did you notice how, having urged people to save themselves from a corrupt generation, the new community of the church is described? It is grounded on the apostles teaching, it is a community where people deny themselves for the sake of the other, where they remember Jesus death and practice hospitality, and in which they put worship, praise and prayer at the centre.

So with Peter, I urge you to save yourself from a corrupt generation.

Repent: Change your mind. It is a conscious decision. Change the direction of your life.
If you haven’t been baptised, be baptised - as an act of obedience; and as an act of saying that your old life has been washed away, and that you now intend to live as a new person alive to Jesus. And if you were baptised as a baby or as an adult, but now realise what it is all about - Rejoice. But begin to live your baptism. Live as someone who is dead to the things of this world; and live as someone who is alive to God.

And you will be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit, the life of God to come and live in you. Instead of being a God-denying person, you will become a God-filled person.

How does this happen?
Through prayer. My personal prayer:‘God, make me a Christian’;
I will pray a prayer and invite you to say ‘Amen’. But then please come and speak to me. Tell me, ‘I want to be baptised; I want to be confirmed; or I have already been baptised and confirmed, but I wish to make a public reaffirmation of faith’.

The story of the vineyard which Jesus told does not end with the son being killed. It ends instead with Jesus saying, ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others’.

The judgement on this God forsaking, God denying, God killing generation is coming. It will be dreadful. For the love of God, by the love of God, save yourself from this corrupt generation.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Gospel and social justice

Luke 4:18-19

I long for us to be a community of people who preach the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and who are committed to social justice.

There does not need to be any separation

The logic of the gospel demands social justice

We were lost. We were cut off from God.

We were created by God to live in a relationship of love and trust with him. We were created by God to love others as we love ourselves.

But we do not. We chose and we choose to reject his love. We choose to rebel against him, and to live for ourselves by ourselves.

In the beginning it was not our human nature which made us turn against God and to live for ourselves. It was our own wilful decision. Genesis tells us of Eve, as she looked at the fruit which God had expressly commanded her not to eat: ‘When she saw that it was good for food, and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom .. she took and ate it’. And that event is repeated moment by moment in each of our own lives, by our own decision: we live for what satisfies the body and what delights the lust of the eyes. And we seek a wisdom which does not begin with fear of and obedience to God.

When the rubber hits the road, we live for ourselves and not for God. We live to ensure that our life – and, I suspect, the lives of those who most affect us – are as comfortable as possible. We live by the Self Interest Now (the SIN) principal.

We are sinners. We are in rebellion against God. We have messed up this world, we have messed up human society, we have messed up other people, we have messed up ourselves. And please do not point the finger. Do not blame others: God, your genes, Eve or Adam, your parents, politicians, the church, ‘wicked’ people out there. There is only one person who you can blame. If you truly loved God and if you truly loved your neighour as yourself, it would have made an astonishing difference to this world, and to the people around us. But you do not, and I do not. And because of that, because we have taken the love of God and trampled on it, and spat on it, we face the prospect of dreadful judgement and eternal shame.

And in our spiritual blindness and our spiritual deafness we have become either judgemental and proud, looking down on others, thinking why can’t they be as capable or as moral or as responsible as me - or we become paralysed by a dreadful sense of fear-full inadequacy and powerlessness. And we have become deaf to the cries of others, either through our fear or through our pride.

BUT GOD – and the gospel, the good news, begins with this: BUT GOD. But God showed his love for us in this: It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. God gave his Son, and Jesus gave up everything, including his life, in order that we might be reconciled to God.

It is because of God that we can be here today.
It is because of God that we can stand before him forgiven;
It is because of God that we can know him and grow in a relationship with him;
It is because of God that we can share in the Holy Spirit;
It is because of God that we have not a destiny of shame, but a destiny of glory.

We did nothing to deserve or merit this. God does it all. All we need to do is respond and receive. That is what faith is: it is trusting God that what he has said and what he has done is sufficient.

Here is £5

Take it. It is a gift. You did not deserve it; it is not yours by right; you have not earned it. All you can do is receive it or reject it.

You might want to blank me – pretend that I am not here and that this is no gift
You might say, ‘I don’t trust you. There is a twist here. Take it back’
You might say, ‘I’m wealthy enough. I don’t need it. Take it back’
You might say, ‘Why me? I’m not sufficiently worthy. Take it back’

Or you might simply say, ‘Thank you’ and receive it.

God offers us far far more in Jesus. And his gift is available to each of us. And there are no twists or ties with his gift. He offers us the Holy Spirit, his life to come and live in us. We did not earn the Holy Spirit; we did not deserve the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is a totally free gift.

So what has the gospel got to do with social justice?

In some ways are we not saying that the gospel has very little to do about justice? If it was all about justice, then we are lost.
I love telling the story of the woman who was having her portrait painted. She said to the artist: ‘Young man, I demand justice’. He replied, ‘Madam, it is not justice you need, but mercy’.

And for us, it is not justice that we need but God’s mercy.

And yet there is another kind of justice that we are called to show. It is a social justice - based on the second command, ‘To love our neighbour as ourself’. It is about seeing each person as made in the image of God, as having an eternal significance, as having a divine dignity, as mattering as much as we do.

You see I think that we do not, because of our sinful nature, think like that.

Aristotle once said that some people are born to be slaves.
And I suspect that even if we would never say it, we might agree with him.

I think that most of us make the assumption that if we are wealthy and privileged and in a position of power, we have worked for it, we have earned it, we deserve it, and it is our right.
Equally there is the assumption that most of the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.

We look at a person and we think: that person or that family are poor because they are undisciplined, sexually irresponsible, lazy and they spend what money they have on non-essential things. If they were sensible, like me, they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They would get on their bike and go out and work. They wouldn’t waste their money on drink or smoking or the lottery or unnecessary gifts. I do it, why can’t they?

I thank God with everything that I have that he did not look at me and say that.

Instead, when Jesus came he declares that the Spirit has anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and release for the oppressed.

He came for the people we might call the ‘worthy’ deserving poor –the handicapped or oppressed;
He also came for the ‘unworthy’ undeserving poor – the prisoner.

And God, we are told, identifies himself with the poor.

Proverbs 14:31 states, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God”
Proverbs 19:17, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord”

And in with Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick and the stranger. And he says that if we are blind or deaf to such people, then we are blind or deaf to him.

And although Matthew 25 is talking specifically about how we relate to other believers, the parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that this attention to the poor, this love is to be shown to all – even those who we would despise.

Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice tells the story of a single mum with four children who began to attend their services. She had severe financial problems. The deacons in the church visited her and gave her some money to pay off her bills. She accepted. I quote, ‘Three months later it came out that, instead of paying her bills with the money we had been giving her, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone out to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had bought each child a new bike, Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money. One of the deacons was furious, “No way do we give her any more,” he said to me, “This is the reason that she’s poor – she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses” (p42)

Here is someone who clearly did not deserve to receive any more gifts. And yet...

The logic of the gospel is this:
We deserved judgement.
We deserved condemnation.
We had chosen death.
We deserved shame.

And yet Christ came for us – and as an act of astonishing grace, he gave us – at immense cost to himself – forgiveness, acceptance, the Holy Spirit, new life and the hope of glory.

Jonathan Edwards spoke of ‘the rules of the gospel’. By that he meant the logic of the gospel. He reasoned, “If you are a sinner saved by grace, how should that influence your civic life? Your attitude toward the poor?”

We are called to be like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son reaching out in love to the undeserving son. But so often we are like the older brother in that story, outraged by the behaviour of our younger brother, comfortable in our moral superiority, and even more outraged at the astonishing grace of our Father.

Keller continues the story of the mum. The church was all for wiping their hands of her and her kids. “Look at what she does with our generosity”. But he insisted that one of the senior leaders went with him to meet her. They talked about the money, and she said, ‘I’m sorry. I feel so bad about the way that the children are being brought up. I never have any money to buy them anything nice. When I received your money, I wanted to do nice things with them, and buy them new things’. And as people began to listen to her, they began to understand, they realised that they were dealing with far more than a simply irresponsible mum being driven by her undisciplined impulses. They were dealing with someone who was messed up and at her wits end, who was a victim of a system which favoured the rich and that meant she had to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest, and with someone who didn’t know how to handle money. So they sat down with her and they starting working with her on how to handle money and how to pay off her debts. They started to love her – even though she had done nothing to deserve it.

I long to see people living out of the logic of the gospel, in the power of that same Spirit which anointed Jesus.

Preaching good news: the good news of a God who loves us and who offers us forgiveness and the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God, even though we have done nothing to deserve this.

This is what comes first in Luke 4:18-19: the preaching, the proclaiming. That is why the priority of the church has to be to speak and to declare this good news.

Living as the community of good news:
Jesus in the Spirit, not only proclaimed it. He lived it.

And as people on whom the Spirit has been poured out, we are called to live it. To support each other as we work together to live the logic of the gospel. We together are the church. So the church is there when you join in an existing work or set up a new project: whether it is working for the advancement of the gospel in Tanzania, or to rescue women from sexual exploitation in the Philippines, or with carers for the severely disabled, or with the vulnerable elderly, or those in debt, working with the schools – not just the schools that our children go to, but the schools in the needier areas of our town and county, or with those who are trapped in cycles of debt, or those in prison or in hospital (appeal for wheelchair pushers), or in providing a home for a teenager who has lost the plot.

Let’s use the Hyndman Centre. It is a tremendous resource. I long to see it not simply as a resource for outside groups to hire, but as a resource that church members can use to develop ministries of social justice here for Bury.

Living in the power of the same Spirit that anointed Jesus:
Our society has lost its way in giving.
In days gone by, we could say to people that they should give to the poor because it was their duty to do so.
Today that argument carries little weight.

And so, in order to persuade self-centred people to give to people with whom they will never come into contact, our society tells “a sort of long, sad, sentimental story”. We see them in the videos for comic relief. There are several versions of this story: ‘Imagine what it would be like to be in her situation – to be far from home, among strangers’; or it might be ‘Because she might become your daughter in law” or “because her mother would grieve for her”. [Rorty quoted Keller p81].

But if we are depending on such stories in order to get us to give of our money and time, then what happens is that each story has to move us or shock us more than the previous story, if it is to have any impact.

But the Christian who has said ‘yes’ to the astonishing free gift of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit really does have a new motivation. That same Spirit which impelled Jesus in love to come from heaven for the poor, the prisoner, the disabled and oppressed, is working in us.

As the Scottish preacher, McCheyne, put it: ‘Oh my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving’.