Saturday, 20 May 2017

How to have a different approach to people

The church is never a place where you will find selfish ambition or vain conceit! That’s a joke!
In fact our passage speaks of selfish ambition and vain conceit (v3).

Selfish ambition: the desire to have more, to be more: more money or possessions or status or significance.
Ambition in itself does not need to be wrong. The problem is what we are ambitious for. The problem is when we end up climbing over others to get what we want. We fix our eyes on the object of desire and nothing and nobody will get in our way.

Vain conceit: this is the temptation to think more of ourselves than we should. We have our petty little achievements and successes and as a result we start to think that we are rather important. We become 'puffed up'. I’m bigger than you; I’m stronger than you; I’m cleverer than you; I’m more attractive than you. We look down on others. We think we deserve greater status or honour. We're put out when we feel that we haven't been treated with the respect that we deserve. And resentment eats us away like a cancer.

I remember with utter shame the time that I went to a formal dinner and complained because I had been placed on one of the lower tables. I felt it was below my status as vicar of St Mary's.

And vain conceit leads to my seeking empty glory; it means I pride myself in my petty achievements - which in the grand scheme of things are pretty pathetic - and I end up mercilessly fault finding in others.

The problem with vain conceit and selfish ambition is that it divides.
If you are conceited, if you are ambitious for good things in this life then it is almost a given that your conceit will smash against my conceit; your ambition will crash against mine. And there will be argument, conflict and division.

And sadly that happens as much in church communities as it happens elsewhere.

It certainly was happening here in Philippi.
·         Paul mentions people who were preaching Christ not to build up the Kingdom of God, but in order to build up their own name (1.17: ‘they preach Christ out of selfish ambition');
·         He speaks of Epaphroditus who 'takes a genuine interest in your welfare' unlike all the others who 'look out for their own interests, but not those of Jesus Christ' (2.20-21).
·         He pleads with two ladies by name, Euodia and Syntyche, and he urges them to agree with each other in the Lord (4.2).

And every church community is the same. Because we are human there will be the envy, the pride, the jealousy, the naked ambition that tears people apart.

But, and this is what is radical about this passage, it does not need to be so in the church.
There is the possibility to begin to live in a radically different way.

Paul writes to the Philippian Christians and he urges them to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be of one spirit and one mind.

1.      We have the most amazing example of someone who renounced selfish ambition and vain conceit
2.      And we have the grace of God, the power of God which can come into us and fill us with his compassion and tenderness, and it can transform how we look at and how we treat other people.

1.      So we look at Jesus
He is the one who we call Lord - and we seek to follow his example:
‘In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had’ (2.5)

There was no self-conceit or selfish ambition in him.
He had everything and he gave it all up.
Whereas we are always looking to fill ourselves up with status and stuff, he emptied himself of status and stuff. 'He made himself nothing' (v7).

Kierkegaard tells the story of the fabulously wealthy and powerful prince who loved a peasant girl. She was unaware of his love. His problem was how to declare his love.
If he commanded her to love him, would he ever know if she truly loved him? Perhaps she would always live her life in fear of him.
If he brought her to his palace to woo her, would she fall in love with him or would she fall in love with all the prince and princess stuff?
The only thing he could do was to leave his prince life and become a peasant; to exchange the palace for a hovel; to live the sort of life that she lived; to woo her as one peasant would woo another peasant.
And so Jesus leaves heaven and comes to earth. He becomes a baby, one of us. He woos us. And what is even more astonishing is that he does that in the knowledge that we would reject him.

Vv6-8 speak of the emptying, the self-humbling and the obedience of Jesus.

That is the alternative to selfish ambition and vain conceit.

It is about being like Jesus, putting God first, and doing what God wants us to do.
And if we commit ourselves first to being obedient to God, if we kneel before Jesus, who has been made Lord and who has been given the name above every name, then we will be changed.
If we commit ourselves to him, and if we place our desire for him and for his kingdom above our desire for stuff and status and significance, then it becomes so much easier to empty ourselves.
And if we begin to learn how much he loves us, and the good he desires for us (not necessarily here and now), then it is much easier to humble ourselves before others. So what if they consider me insignificant, a 'dead dog', 'a flea' (as David said to Saul, when Saul was hunting him)? It really does not matter. If Jesus lives in you, you can be treated as a dead dog as far as this world is concerned because you are a prince or princess of heaven.

So we look at Jesus, at his example

2.      We turn to the grace of God
Without the power of God at work in our lives, this will just be wishful thinking. We cannot change.

I have been particularly struck by the first verse of this passage:

It speaks of the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ.
In schools they used to say, "Put your hands together to pray". It is quite a simple way of explaining what it means to live in a relationship with Jesus. This is me. This is Jesus. We were enemies of God, but because Jesus let them drive nails through his hands when he hung on the cross, we are forgiven, and can become friends of God. And not just friends of God, but intimate with God. It is about being in Jesus - united with Jesus.
And so we are united with the one who has been made Lord of all.
I'm part of him. You are part of him. In him you are welcomed, accepted, forgiven. God has given him everything and in him, as part of him, you have received everything.
There will be many times when life is rough, you are hurting, you feel abandoned and lost. But you are in him. And you are not on your own in this. Each one of us who has received Jesus is part of him. And in being part of him we are part of each other.

So when the grace of God grabs us and we know that we are united to Christ, we begin to realise that we have an interest in building up each other and in not tearing each other down. When you are built up, I am built up. When you are torn down, I am torn down. When the Methodists or Baptists are built up, we are built up. When the 9.30 or the 11am are built up, we are built up. We are united with Christ. We are part of him and we are part of each other.

That is why separation is painful, because we are literally losing part of ourselves. But it is only temporary. Because on the other side of heaven, as believers we will be reunited and there, there is no separation and no death.

And Paul writes of the comfort that we receive from the love of God.
I make no apologies for speaking about Michael who I visit and who has motor neurons disease. It has spread right through his body and is now beginning to affect his swallowing. If there is anyone who I know who you would expect to spit in the face of God it is Michael. But we were speaking on Tuesday about this passage, and Michael spoke of the comfort of the love of God. He spoke of the gift of the still small voice of calm that brings peace. And he was saying, through his oxygen mask, how he longs to be able to take that peace, wrap it up and give it to others.
If we know the love of God, then Michael has taught me that we can face any situation. 'Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me ..'
And when we know that love of God then we will begin to see other people as they really are: people created in the image of God, of equal value as you and me, and beloved by God. We see ourselves and each other as people whose identity, dignity and destiny can only be truly found in Christ.

And Paul writes of the fellowship of the Spirit:
This is speaking about the fact that as believers we both have the Holy Spirit living in us and we are brought together by the Spirit.
He gives us different gifts so that we need each other.
And I hope you also know something of that almost indescribable connection that can come between fellow believers in Jesus.
Someone I knew went many years ago to a Taize week. She shared a tent with a Polish girl. She didn’t speak Polish and the Polish girl didn’t speak English. But, she said, as they prayed in different languages, but together, there was something that united them at a heart to heart level.

So of course we are not perfect; and of course you will find selfish ambition and vain conceit in the Church. You’ll find it here ..

But what Paul is saying is that it does not need to be like that. We can be different. We can change. We can begin to put away vain conceit and selfish ambition. We can begin to value others above myself. We can begin to look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others.

·         Look to Jesus, who humbled himself and who was exalted. We kneel before him. We put him first

·         Pray for the grace of God: ask him to fill us with his Spirit, so that we know the encouragement from being united to Jesus, the comfort of his love and the fellowship of having his Spirit living in you.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

What do you do when someone hates you?

So, somebody hates you.

Perhaps they have grounds for that dislike.

Maybe it is a Jacob and Esau situation.
Esau had every reason to hate Jacob. Jacob had taken advantage of his weakness, deceived him, and stolen what was his.
And maybe somebody hates you because you have hurt them. You've walked out on them in a relationship; you've said things or done things that have deeply hurt them; you've stolen from them; you’ve treated them as dirt

And when others have reason to hate us, then we need to do something about it.
We need to acknowledge the other person’s reason for being angry with us.
We need to say sorry, and - in so far as it is possible - we need to begin to put things right, with saying sorry
Of course, we are good at deceiving ourselves.
I remember one man, who was a member of one of the churches where I have served. He walked out on his wife for someone else. And rather than face up to the reality of what he had done, of how he had hurt her and his children, he demonised her. She had made his life hell for so many years, he said.
We knew them. It was not just true. Oh and a few years later the younger model that he had left his wife for, walked out on him. As an aside – although maybe for one person here, this is why God brought you today - please men, and I am particularly speaking to us, we need to think with our head and not with our groin.

If someone hates us for a reason, we need to be real and honest.
We need to acknowledge that we have hurt them and that they have a reason to hate us.
And we need to realise that trust may never be built up to what it was before, but we have to take steps so that they know we realise what we have done and that we are really sorry.

This is hard, but it really is at the centre of what being a Christian is all about. We’re human. We’re fallen. We will hurt people – intentionally and unintentionally. What matters is what we then do.
In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that if we are about to make an offering to God and we remember not if we have got something against our brother and sister, but ‘if your brother or sister has something against you’. And, he says, in that situation, you are to leave your gift there – and go and be reconciled to that person. As Paul writes, ‘As far as it is up to you, live at peace with all people’.

Or maybe it is a David and Saul situation.
David had done nothing to make Saul hate him.
The only thing that he had done was serve Saul with distinction.

But because of that, Saul was jealous of David.
He knew that God had left him and that God was with David.
He knew that the future lay with David.
And so he saw David as a threat.

This is harder. Someone has something against you, and there is nothing you have done!
For me, at least, this is quite unusual! If someone has something against me, then it usually is about something that I have not done or something that I have done which has hurt them.

But, as in this case, there are times when people are jealous because it seems that you have succeeded and they have not; you have got what they wanted; or they are jealous because things seem to be easy for you and not for them; or that people have favoured you and not them; or you have got the breaks and they haven’t.

Or they may hate you or discriminate against you because you are different to them and that makes you an easy target. They can build themselves up by belittling you. Or they hate you because your difference threatens them.

Jesus warns his followers that the world will hate us because we are believers.
At St Mary’s this year, our theme is being different. It is about the challenge that if we do take Jesus seriously, we will be different. We will owe allegiance to a different authority; we will see people in a different way; we will have different priorities and we will pursue a different goal.

And that difference will threaten people, especially if God is starting to speak to them and they are feeling challenged, and it will make us an easy target.
And so there will be ridicule and mockery and discrimination, and there will be persecution.

Anyway, somebody hates you. They have demonised you. They want to destroy you.

How as a Christian do you respond to that hate?

1 Samuel 24 is one of many great stories in the Old Testament

And David’s response to Saul offers us a model of how a Christian believer can respond to that kind of hatred.

It is quite remarkable.

This is serious, life and death, business. David has been pursued by Saul. He can’t settle anywhere. Those who support him have been murdered by Saul. And now, David is hiding in a cave, and Saul is out there looking for him with 3000 of his crack troops.
But suddenly the whole situation is reversed. Saul walks into the very cave that David is hiding in. He comes in, as one American version put it, ‘to go to the bathroom’. He doesn’t realise that David is back there. And now Saul is completely in David’s hands. His men are saying, ‘This is a miracle. This must be of God. If you let him live, you know he will never change, but you can end it now once and for all’. And they press him, ‘Let us kill him’.

But David doesn’t. Instead he lets Saul walk.

Three very simple guidelines. If someone hates you,

1.      You pray for some opportunity to do good to the person who hates you

That is radical. It is being different.

But it is what Jesus says:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you’. (Luke 6.27-28)
And Paul in Romans writes, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse .. Do not repay anyone evil for evil .. if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12.20)

And 1 Samuel 24 is an illustration of what that means in practice.

David lets Saul walk. He could have killed him. He saves Saul’s life.
He does it, not because he is against taking revenge – elsewhere he does take revenge on his enemies – but because he is convinced that Saul is God’s anointed ruler.

This is one of those passages that shakes the foundations of our self-centred individualism to its very core. We think nothing of cutting the corner of the robes of those in authority. We mock or deride them. And yes, I know that the United Kingdom is not Israel, and that we have moved a bit of a way from the Tudor and Stuart doctrine of the divine right of rulers. But we must not forget that Paul writes in Romans 13 that all authorities are established by God, and that we are to ‘honour the emperor’. And Paul writes that when, like David, he was facing persecution from the very authority that he was affirming.

We thank God that we live in a democracy and that we have the right of free speech. But that does not mean that we can mock our rulers, or simply carry on doing our own thing.
As Christian believers, we should be the first to show a deep respect to those in authority. It does not matter what their personal life is like, or whether we agree with them or not. We honour the position and not necessarily the person who fills the position.
And that respect should not change even if they choose to persecute us. We are the people who should be the first in showing respect to councillors, mayors, judges, headteachers, referees, police officers.
And we do not always have to obey – think of Daniel who refused to obey Darius’ order when he declared that for a period everybody was to pray to him – but when we disobey, we do it with respect and we expect to face the consequences for our actions. 

And although David is mortified that he has cut off the corner of Saul’s robe, and that he has even thought of taking Saul’s life, by letting Saul walk, David has done good to his enemy. He has blessed the one who is persecuting him.

So if someone hates you, what about starting by praying to God that he would give you an opportunity to do them good?
I have no idea what that could be: Giving them some money; standing up for them publicly when others are cursing them; taking the very awkward neighbour a cake – no, not with arsenic in it - and with no strings attached.

2.      You pray for an opportunity to speak the truth to them

David, having spared Saul’s life, has an opportunity to speak with Saul.

He is very honest. He tells Saul about the good that he has done, and then he challenges Saul, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ He declares his innocence. He tells Saul that he would do nothing to harm him because he believes that he is God’s anointed ruler. And he also uses God language. He appeals to God – to God’s justice and to God’s vindication.

And please note, and this is important, that David does not use holier than thou language. He doesn’t take the moral high ground.
He sees himself starkly. ‘Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, a flea?’ In effect he is saying, ‘I am nothing. Certainly, as far as the world is concerned, I am nobody’.
It is a really good line to take with those who hate us: ‘Why bother. I’m nothing. I’m nobody’.
I do sometimes think that when the media go on a Christian-bashing campaign.
What is it about us that is so offensive. Yes, maybe in the past when we exercised power, when bishops shaped government policy, when you had to be a solid member of the Church of England to get on the world. But now?
Oh, for the good old days!

And of course people will take offence if they think we are being holier than thou. But that is not what I see in David here. It is not what I see when I read Paul. He does not boast of his achievements but of his weaknesses. He describes himself as ‘the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world’ (v13)
And when David appeals to God, he doesn’t say, ‘May God judge you’, but ‘May the Lord be our judge and decide between us’ (v15).

So, if someone hates you, pray that you will have an opportunity to speak the truth.
That doesn’t mean that we pray for an opportunity to justify ourselves.
But pray that you may have the opportunity, if it is true, to tell them how their charge against you is not true. ‘I didn’t say that about you; I wouldn’t say that about you – or if it seems that that is what I said, it really is not what I meant, and I am sorry’.
And pray that you may have the opportunity to tell them that you know that you are utterly insignificant as far as this world is concerned.

Forgive me for saying this, but you are! When you consider the size of this universe, and when you consider that there are currently 7 billion plus people alive on this earth, who are you?
But speak also, as a Christian, of the Father in heaven who knows you and who loves you, and before whose judgement seat you will stand and they will stand. Remember that you will only be saved by mercy. And pray for them, that they might come to know that love of God, so that your enemy might become your friend for eternity in Jesus.

3.      Trust God to do his work, but be wise!

David does not need to take matters into his own hands, because he stakes his life on the truth that God is judge, and there will be judgement.

For those of us who have not judged ourselves correctly in this world, there is going to be a pretty dreadful shock.
For those of us who have judged ourselves correctly, who know that we have fallen short, and who have called on Jesus for mercy, there is abundant forgiveness and vindication.

There will be justice. And so we can commit ourselves and the situation into God’s hands.

There will be justice then, but there is also justice now.
We see that in this passage.
Saul sees himself very clearly. He weeps. He confesses to David, ‘You are more righteous than I. You have treated me well and I have treated you badly’ (v17)

Perhaps you know one of the story lines in Les Miserables. Javert, the law, is pursuing Jean Val Jean, who many years earlier jumped parole. It is an echo of this story. Javert believes bad about Val Jean, that a man cannot change, and he will not give up. And then comes the cave moment. Jean Val Jean saves Javert’s life. He does good to his enemy. But Javert cannot take it. That act of kindness shakes everything that he has staked his life on. And he commits suicide.

Perhaps that is what Paul means when he writes, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12.20)

It is not that we do good to those who hate us in order to heap burning coals on their head. We do good to them so that they might come to know Christ, and become our friend in Christ. But often in the judgement of God, our acts of kindness do heap burning coals on their head.

And even if we do not see that judgement here, my brothers and sisters, if people hate you for no good reason, there will be judgement then.

We can do good to our enemy,
We can speak the truth to them
We can even see signs of God’s judgement on them ..
but we still need to be wise!
I note that at the end of this passage Saul returns home, ‘but David and his men went up to the stronghold’. David knew that it wasn’t over. He had done good to Saul; he had proclaimed good to Saul, but he didn’t trust Saul. He could not trust him. He knew that the demons of fear and jealousy would once again overwhelm Saul and that he would come David-hunting.
And he was right. The whole thing happens again in 1 Samuel 26

Blessing your enemy, doing good to your enemy, forgiving your enemy does not mean that you can trust them. It means, I guess, that you are open to learning to trust them again.
But you need to be wise; there are times when you need your stronghold, your strong tower.
For David, that was a physical space. But for David his strong tower was also his God.

What do you do when someone hates you?
If they hate you for a reason, you say sorry and you look to try to sort it out and to start to rebuild trust, in so far as the other person wants. They have to set the agenda

If they hate you for no reason:
Pray for an opportunity to do them good
Pray for an opportunity to speak the truth – the truth about who you are (nothing, nobody), and the truth about who God is – the God of justice who vindicates
Pray that you may have the grace and the strength to leave the situation in the hands of God.

Someone once said
To do evil to someone when they have done you good is demonic.
To do good to someone when they have done you good is human.

But to do good to someone when they have done evil to you, is divine.