Sowing seeds

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the church where I am now the vicar.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Jesus’ parables often talk about seeds; wheat seeds, mustard seeds, even weeds; and while that made his parables relatable to country folk who knew about growing things, I suspect the reason for it goes far beyond that.

Seeds are beginnings.  Hold a seed in your hand, and you’re not just holding what you can see; you’re holding the potential for everything it might grow into.  Nestled into that tiny package is all the information required for something much larger and more complex, along with a store of energy to give it all a kick-start.

So these parables of seeds that Jesus tells; they’re all to do with beginnings.

And while, at this point in the life of the parish, you and I might be tempted to focus on the beginnings which have most impact on us personally; new vicar, new relationships and so forth, I think this morning’s parable invites us to think about the new beginnings we might provide – or at least offer – to others.

Suppose we read it as if we – this parish – are the sower.  What would it mean for us to go out to sow?

One way of looking at it, is that it would mean creating opportunities for the word of God to reach its destination in the human heart, there taking root and flourishing as a new, or perhaps renewed, relationship with God.

And I think the parable gives us several things to think about, in that regard.

First is that if we’re talking about connecting human hearts and the word of God, really we’re talking about relationships.  The evangelist haranguing passers-by on the street corner is generally ineffective, not because people don’t hear the word; but because he doesn’t forge any meaningful connection with the people.   He’s yelling at them, but – in terms of this parable – the seed isn’t finding any soil.

Part of our job, then, as sower would be the forging of relationships outside the already existing parish community, and with the wider local community; because it’s in the context of real relationships that we’re going to be able to offer the opportunity of new relationship with God in a meaningful way.

It also strikes me that we don’t know ahead of time which people are going to respond well; just as the sower scatters his seed all over the place, and some lands among thorns, and some on the path, and so on; we need to be prepared to form relationships across the breadth of the people we encounter.  We know some of them will never go any further, but that’s okay; relationship isn’t a limited resource.

This is part of what I meant, in the email that went out with the pew sheet on Friday, when I said that we could even be playful and creative in exploring the potential God has created for us to unfold together.  Sometimes trying new things, or different things, leaves people concerned that if it doesn’t work, it will have been a waste; a waste of our time, energy, and resources.  But when we’re talking about exploring potential it’s the only way to do things; because we can’t know ahead of time which seed will give us nothing, and which will reproduce a hundred-fold.  So we give things a go, and then move on from the things that don’t work without regret.  We tested their potential in the only way we could.  And hopefully we learned something, and maybe even had some fun, along the way!

(It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself didn’t have a great success rate, if by success we mean everyone who heard him teach becoming part of his new community of believers.  Most people heard his teaching and walked away.  So we can hear this parable in part as Jesus saying to his disciples, “The numbers aren’t the point.  What matters is that some people respond, and the only way we can get to that point is giving as many people as possible the opportunity to respond.”)

Now, I only moved into this suburb two weeks ago.  I have, at this point, no particular agenda for what this looks like, in practical terms, for us.  I don’t know you, I don’t know the people around us, and I don’t know what points of connection are already available and just waiting for us to make the most of them.  But over the coming months, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to think about the future, the rest of this year, next year, and beyond, those are the sorts of questions I’ll have in mind; and I encourage you to be thinking about them and reflecting on them with me, as well!

But there are also, I think, some clues in this parable as to how we might do this in a way which ends up with better-than-random results.  Look at the three reasons Jesus gives for the seeds which don’t bear fruit; lack of understanding, trouble or persecution, and other priorities in the life of the person.

Each of those things are realities in life, and they’re realities which we can’t entirely remove.  But they are things which we can cushion a bit.

Here’s what I mean.  Take lack of understanding; that’s overcome by good teaching.  So as we think about how we provide relationships in which people can encounter the possibility of relationship with God, we also need to be thinking about how we can teach those people, so that they can develop some understanding; understanding of how to live as a Christian, how to pray, how to get the most out of the Scriptures, and so forth.  One thing I’ve picked up already is that there are many teachers in this parish; the skills and insights of that profession can be brought to bear, as we think about how to make sure that the people who encounter something of God with us, don’t do so with lack of understanding.

Or take trouble or persecution.  We can never make trouble go away; it’s a feature of human life.  But we can provide a certain amount of resilience.  We can be a resource for practical and emotional support, and we can help people to develop their own network of resources, which will help people to navigate their troubles without falling away.

Or take the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”  Here I think the answer is that people need to be presented with a vision of the reign of God which is so compelling, so inspiring, that the cares of the world are exposed as having relatively little worth in comparison.  Here we need to be sure that what we offer people isn’t a watered-down gospel, one with no real power to change their lives; but that what we offer is the fullness of all that God lavishes on us.

So here are the four things that this parable suggests as matters to take into account, in our life together:

  • Authentic relationships with the community around us, in which we can offer the opportunity for relationship with God.
  • Sound teaching which makes sure that what is on offer can be understood and practiced.
  • Personal support which offers resilience in the face of trouble.
  • A compelling vision of the reign of God which inspires and motivates people to commit to the gospel as a way of life.

None of that will mean that every seed will sprout and bear much grain.  But if we want to be effective in sowing, and see as much harvest as is within our scope to bring about, those are the things this parable brings to our attention.

And if we do this, it will be worth it.  We will see a harvest of people who respond to God’s offer of relationship, discovering faith and hope and love as they do.

As I said earlier, seeds are about beginnings.  We don’t need to feel that we have all the answers right now.  It’s enough that we have the attitude of a sower; someone who wants to go out into the world and make a difference; to plant something worthwhile and see it grow to full maturity.  That’s enough of a beginning for God to work with.  And I suspect that for us, it will be enough for us to be thinking and praying about, to start with, too.

The Lord be with you.

Rebekah the Matriarch

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost.  This morning I was the guest preacher in the Church of Christ where my husband is a member.  The Scripture the sermon is based on is Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 (really the whole passage).  The picture referred to is attached at the end of this post, as well as a bonus stained-glass window of the Matriarch Rebekah (or Rivqa, as her name is better transliterated).  The stained-glass window is one of a series of windows of the matriarchs commissioned for Beth Shaom Synagogue, in the Netherlands. 

Good morning.  I should start by thanking the elders for the opportunity to preach here today; I don’t get to be here very often, and it’s a real privilege, when I do have the chance, to also contribute in some way.

And this morning I want to look a little bit at the reading we had from Genesis.  It’s a stunning piece of text; the great romance of the old testament, and the details of the descriptions of jewellery and camels and veils in the wilderness are supposed to make our hearts thump as we’re swept up in the delicious drama of it all.

(I say it’s the great romance of the old testament, because of all the patriarchs and heroes of ancient Israel, Isaac is the only one shown to have married only once, with no concubines or maidservants or flings on the side.  Apparently Rebekah, even when she didn’t produce children for the first twenty years of their marriage, was the only woman he ever wanted or needed.  And I’ll say some more about that later).

But the part of the story that we heard today is kicked off a little earlier when Abraham, who’s getting old and obviously concerned about the future of his family, and the legacy that God has promised him through Isaac, decides that Isaac needs a wife.  And, more to the point, not a wife from among the people of Canaan, where Abraham’s family are living as foreigners, and where the local population are participants in the local pagan fertility cult, but from among Abraham’s own relatives, who are living some distance away but who worship the same God.

So we get the whole story with the faithful servant being sent off to find a suitable wife from among Abraham’s nieces.  And the servant finds Rebekah, as we heard described this morning, and the rest is history.

But it’s also more than history.  In the unfolding story of Genesis, Rebekah is also presented as something of a feminine archetype.  What I mean by that is, she’s held up as an example or model of what the ideal woman – and in particular, what the ideal wife – is to be, in the community which considers itself the heirs to Abraham’s promise.

But it gets even more heady than that.  As the identity of the Hebrew people developed, they often – and you see this in the writings of the prophets, in particular – understood the whole community to be like a wife to God.  As in, the relationship between God and God’s people was as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage.  And so all the ideas about what an ideal wife looked like, then carried over in some ways to be ideas about what Israel should ideally be, in their relationship with God.

And of course Christians picked up that set of ideas too.  In the new testament, we read in various places about the Church as the “bride of Christ,” and about the wedding of the lamb and the Church as the fulfillment of what we’re supposed to be on about.

So what I’m saying is, when we read the story of a matriarch like Rebekah, who is held up as such an ideal example of wifeliness, we can read it for clues to how the ancient Hebrews understood themselves in their relationship with God; and, following in the same line of thought, how early Christian leaders like Paul thought about the Church in our relationship with God.  There’s a clear line of these ideas being picked up and developed and handed on and reflected on some more, right down to us.

So what I really want to do this morning is look at the story of Rebekah, and see what it might have to say to us about the identity of the Church, as the people who are, collectively, in a relationship as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage, with the God we worship.

And I think the first thing to notice is this reality that Rebekah isn’t one of the local pagan women, but that she is culturally different.  Sometimes – although it’s a little out of fashion now – we talk about the need for the church not to be “worldly,” not to be caught up in the obsessions and deceptions that those who don’t know God get caught up in.  We need to understand those worldly things – at least enough to help others reflect on them in the light of the gospel – but we need to not buy into them.  And that’s what Rebekah’s being already a worshipper of the one true God represents for us.

Next, we see that she’s hard working, and generous.  Abraham’s servant meets her when she’s gone to draw water, heavy labour, but necessary for the household.  And when he interrupts her work, not only does she give him a drink, as he’s requested, but she also offers unprompted to water his camels.  That’s a lot of water!  A thirsty camel can drink over 100 litres of water in one go; and earlier in the text is says that Abraham’s servant set out with ten camels, so for each of those camels Rebekah did the heavy work of raising, carrying and pouring water.  Think about what it would feel like to lug a literal tonne or so of water around, one water-jar at a time, and you’ll see that this was significant physical labour.

Costly generosity and hospitality; absolutely fundamental virtues in the world of the ancient wilderness nomads, where this was how people survived.  I’m hospitable to you today, and you’re hospitable to me tomorrow, and between us we both might make it to see our children grow up.

But again, translate that to the Church, and we can see where this applies to us.  To be generous, to be hospitable.  To provide an oasis in our communities for people who are exhausted, starving, wounded or lost.  To foster relationships of mutual support and encouragement.  To be willing to put ourselves out, with back breaking labour if need be, to make that possible.  And when we realise that what’s at stake is not just survival in the wilderness, but people’s eternal fate, how much more should we be willing to put ourselves out?

The bit about Rebekah being “fair to look upon” is interesting.  Beauty is often a kind of story-tellers’ shorthand for this being a good person, because after all, the heroine is always beautiful, isn’t she?  We might want to question that assumption, in general, because people who are, for whatever reason, not seen as beautiful aren’t actually any less capable or valuable because of that!  But for the purposes of Rebekah’s story as it’s being told here, take it as read that she’s beautiful because she’s the heroine, and that that general idea of being good, desirable, and so forth, applies to her… and therefore, in the extended comparison we’re making, also to the Church.  Our beauty lies in reflecting God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s holiness; and so the more closely our character and attitudes reflect God’s, the more “beautiful” we will become in the sense that it matters here.

Also, Rebekah is, at the point where Abraham’s servant meets her, a virgin.  The virginity is important because it shows that her commitment is serious.  She hasn’t left someone else to be with Isaac, and she hasn’t been frivolous in her relationships to this point.  When she gives herself to her husband, there’s some gravity to her decision.  And it’s also worth noting that – remarkably for the time, and despite negotiations amongst her male relatives – it is her decision.  She’s asked whether she will go to be Isaac’s wife, and she says she will.

And again, we can see how this relates to us as the Church.  God has initiated the offer of relationship, but we each choose – consent, even – to take God up on that offer.  We come each to the waters of baptism of our own free will.  We make that commitment to turn to Christ, ideally with some seriousness and gravity to the decision.  And we can’t be compelled to do it, or sold into doing it, or otherwise forced; our relationship with God, to be what it should be, needs to be entered into freely, responsibly, and joyfully, just as Rebekah did with Isaac.

And the Church as a whole – as a body, even – needs to live out that commitment in the same spirit that we each individually make it.  Seeking to know God’s will so that we can say, in response, “We will,” and then live that out, as a matter of serious commitment, with integrity.

(As an aside, this matter of Rebekah’s consent is relevant for us in another way.  Based on this question put to Rebekah, in Jewish law it is required that a bride freely consent to her marriage.  We have continued this in Christian practice; a marriage is not valid without the free consent of both parties.  And the women of the church might have plenty of reason to be grateful for the custom – built on rabbinic interpretation of this passage – which says we can’t simply be traded as property between our menfolk!)

Anyway.  Let me skip forward a bit in the story, past the passage that we read today, and point out that later on it says that Rebekah was barren, and that it’s only after God intervenes in answer to prayer that she is able to conceive.  Her fertility – her ability to participate in God’s will for the world – only comes about because God enables it.

Our fruitfulness for God is usually less literal and more spiritual than the actual bearing of children, but it’s an important reminder to us that all that we’re able to do, only comes to us because of God’s gracious acts in creating and providing for us (again, what in slightly more old-fashioned terms Christians used to talk about as “divine providence”).  And this ought to be encouraging, because it means it doesn’t depend on us.  The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on our frail strength, our limited intelligence, our wavering steadfastness.  God used a barren woman to be the mother of nations.  What might he bring about in and through us, despite our faults and disadvantages?  We can be open and hopeful and look for the unexpected, because we know that that’s how God works in the world.

Then, it gets even better.  She’s pregnant with twins, and they’re struggling together in the womb.  Wondering what this might mean, she goes to ask God.  And the text says “God said to her…”  She didn’t need an intermediary, her husband, a priest, or whatever.  She went to God and God spoke to her, explaining that the two children in her womb will become two nations, and – more importantly – that God has chosen the one who will be born second.  Again, contrary to all custom of the time, God’s blessing and the dominant role will be given to the younger son.  And later on, after the boys have grown, Rebekah acts to make sure that this is how things turn out.

She sought God, listened to what God had to say, accepted it despite it being shocking, and acted in accordance with it.  This has led to her being seen as the first prophetess, and the first woman since Eve that Scripture says was spoken to directly by God, without an angel or other go-between.

We’re supposed to do that, as a church, too, aren’t we?  Seek God, listen to what God says, accept it – whether it conforms to our expectations or not – and then act in accordance with it.  We are, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic community, receiving God’s despatches to a broken world, living out what we hear so that it becomes real and concrete for those around us.

I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting the point.  This portrait of Rebekah that the author of Genesis offers us is one that the Church ought to be able to look at, seeing a family resemblance to who we are.  But before I finish, I want to show you something which might give you another image for some of the same ideas.

What you’re looking at now is, believe it or not, a wedding ring.  Not one that someone would wear every day, obviously, but a symbolic heirloom, handed down between generations of the same family.  For centuries, Jewish families have made wedding rings like this.  And the whole point is that the ring is given to the bride, and the building – which is a symbol both for the family home, and for the temple in Jerusalem – is built on the foundation of the ring; it stands on the solidness of the marriage.

In much the same way, the future that God is building in our midst stands on the foundation of our relationship with God.  Just as God worked through Rebekah, the ideal Israelite wife, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God had promised, so God works through us, the Church, the bride of Christ, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God has promised.  And – you might remember that earlier I mentioned that Isaac is the one patriarch who never had another woman in his life – in return, God promises God’s presence and love and joy to us, to a unique degree.  The flip side of the Church being for God, is that God is for the Church.

God calls us to be, like Rebekah, a community which is oriented to God rather than the world around us.  God calls us to be hard working, hospitable and generous.  God calls us to reflect God’s beauty to the world, and calls us to be single-minded in our freely chosen commitment to God.  God calls us to be open to God being at work among us, providing a future and hope, letting God bring about fruitfulness in and through our lives.  God calls us to be prophetic; seeking God’s words, listening to them, and living them out.

It’s a high calling.  It’s comforting to me, at least, to know that real men and women have walked in it before us, and have been blessed as they have done so.  But Rebekah the matriarch has long since surrendered her care and gone to her rest.  It’s up to us, now, to be a living portrait – or even, dare I say, an icon – of God’s grace to our world.

And I hope, as you seek to do that, this morning’s exploration of the life of this remarkable woman has given you a helpful resource to draw upon.

Gifts

This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 12:1-13.

I wonder if you ever look around you, at the people at church, and think we’re a bit of an odd bunch?  Thrown together by quirks of history and circumstance, some of us even having come from halfway around the world or with all sorts of interesting backgrounds.  Do you wonder if, when we’re looked at collectively, we manage to be more than the sum of our parts?

Or, on a bad day, we might even be tempted to wonder, “Lord, why did you think it was a good idea to put me in church next to that person I can’t stand?”

But if we sometimes might feel like that, I’d answer that God sees us very differently.  God, who knew about all of us intimately before we were even born, knew that each of us would be here today.  He knew the part we would play in the life of this church.  And knowing all of those things, God gave to each of us exactly what we needed so that together, we would be able to carry out his mission in this time and place.

When I was in college, the Jesuits used to call that loving, gracious planning ahead of time “The Dream of the Trinity,” imagining a conversation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in which they discussed exactly what our needs were going to be, and how best to fill those needs.  So that it’s not random that we have, for example, Patsy’s wisdom, or Jenny’s skill in administration, or Jacquie’s ability to teach; rather each of those things is an expression of God’s loving care for this community, in providing what it needs through the people who are committed to it.

And if you think me singling a few people out as examples mean the rest of you don’t have such a thing, that’s not true.  Here’s what today’s reading from Corinthians said:  All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

To each one.  Not just to the clergy or to the people who are outgoing and willing to put themselves forward.  But to each person, the Spirit allots something which, when used in the life of the church, is essential for the good of all.

That has a number of implications.

First, it means that you’re God’s gift to the church.  We need you, each one of you, and what you bring, to be able to be the church that God wants us to be.  So while that doesn’t mean we can’t argue or disagree, we need to be very very wary of letting that turn into divisions in the church.  We’re all in this together, and no one is dispensable.

As Paul goes on to say: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

We’re all in this together, by the grace of God.

Second, if the gifts each of us have are the work of the Spirit in us, equipping us individually so that together, we might be able to be the community God created us to be, then it follows from that, that knowing and using our gifts is actually important.

One of the most unhelpful things that can happen in a church is when someone is trying to be a round peg in a square hole; doing something they’re not good at or passionate about, because they think they “should,” or someone else has twisted their arm.  It’s draining for that person, and often it leads to less than great outcomes in what they do.

This is, by the way, why I’ve never been on a flower roster in my life.  God did not gift me with the knack of gorgeous arrangements.  I remember, though, one church I was in where at one point the usual list of volunteers to do the flowers was a bit light on, and an appeal was put out for more helpers.  To everyone’s surprise, one of the teenaged boys put his hand up; and he started to put together creative and interesting arrangements which really spoke of the glories of God’s creation.  Now, I don’t know if that young man is still doing anything artistic or creative today, but I really hope he is, because he had a genuine gift for it, and the church honoured that gift – and him – by giving him scope to serve in that way.

But what I observe when I talk to people is that many don’t know what their gifts are.  I don’t know whether it’s that we’ve cultivated a culture of humility, to the point that people don’t feel able to say, “Actually, I think I might be good at this, and I’d like to give it a go,” or whether we’ve created a church where people rely too much on the clergy, or what it is, but people often seem hesitant about this.

But we shouldn’t be!  If the Spirit has given to each of us, it’s not boasting to say so; and it doesn’t make any of us any better than any other, because everyone has something to bring.

So how do we get to recognise our own gifts?  I think there are two things that can be very helpful.  One is to think and pray about the different sorts of gifts that Scripture talks about, and see whether they fit you.  Are you discerning?  Are you encouraging?  Are you hospitable?  And so forth.  If you’re interested in that kind of approach I can give you some resources to stir your thinking.

Another approach is to reflect on your own experience.  What have you done which has most energised you, not necessarily just in the church, but in your life in general?  What has given you the most joy?  How might those things find expression in the life of the church in some way?

Now a caveat.  I realise that I am talking to a group of people, some of whom are more rich in years.  Some of you, to be honest, are tired, and don’t want to be pushed to give more of yourself than you feel you can.

Please don’t hear me talking about spiritual gifts in this way, and feel that this is code for “You must do more.”  That’s not it at all.  If anything, it’s a plea to you to make sure that whatever of your precious time and energy you give to the church, you use it in a way which is most effective.

But more than that, there’s a deeper truth to hold on to.  God knew our needs, long before we got to this point, and carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly provided for them by providing us with each other.  God is not, at this moment, asking us to do anything more than we can do.  He knows our limitations, he knows where there is tiredness and illness, he knows where people need to let go of things.  His heart holds you in that in nothing but absolute love.

Whatever God is asking us to do, today, tomorrow, next week and next year, it is not more than we can do.  If we sometimes feel that the task is too great, perhaps we’ve misunderstood the task; or perhaps God has some surprises in store for us.  He’s surprised me more than once!

But what I think we need to hold onto this Pentecost, this celebration of the work of the Spirit in and through each of us, is that this motley bunch of people that we are, was lovingly planned by God before creation began.  Each of us is God’s gift to the others, and together, we are God’s gift to a world desperately in need of an oasis of love, joy and peace.  Together we are enough to fulfil that loving plan, even when we don’t entirely understand it; and if we can really grasp that, and live it out… well, later in his letter Paul describes how the people who witness that in the church will end up coming to worship, because they will recognise that “God is really among you.”

God is really among us; so let’s hold on to that and let it shape our life here, in faith and hope and love.

Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Core business

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Acts 2:42-47.

Some funny things happen when Christians read the book of Acts.  I’m thinking of two trends in particular; one is that people read descriptions of the very early church – like the one we heard today – and assume that because that’s how it was then, that’s exactly how the church should be, always and everywhere and for everyone.  And the other is that people read descriptions of the very early church and see in them exactly what they most value or want in their own church experience.  (Which is why, for example, you can have groups as far apart in their habits as the Orthodox and the Messianic Jews both saying that their own practice today is not far removed from what’s being described here.  For myself, of course, I’m quite certain that the prayers these early believers devoted themselves to, sounded remarkably like something from a Book of Common Prayer…)

Put like that, of course we can see the silliness of reading this book through the filter of our own assumptions.  The truth is, of course, that we simply don’t have enough specifics here to be very certain of the details of what happened; we’re deliberately given a bigger picture to work with.  And that means that justifying our own preferences, or trying to read this text as if it was an instruction manual for church, are not really valid or fruitful things to try to do with this passage.

So what can we do with it?

Let’s start here.  This little summary of the fledgling church’s life comes at the end of the Pentecost story.  The earlier part of chapter 2 tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter preaching to a crowd in a way that led to about three thousand baptisms.  And then we get this little bit, which tells us how that new group of believers began to live together.  So this description is being put forward to us as “what happens when the Holy Spirit is poured out on a whole bunch of people.”

And what we see is that that bunch of people – who had nothing in common with one another before the Holy Spirit got hold of them – devote themselves to a number of activities; learning from the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread together and praying together.  And while we don’t know exactly what that looked like for them, what we can recognise is that all of these are things which deepen relationships.  In being devoted to learning together, eating together, praying together, and otherwise sharing a common life – even a form of common property – these early believers expressed their devotion to their relationships with one another and with God.

These acts of devotion are all acts of participation in a community; which here has to be read as something deeper than just getting along in life beside one another, and more like “mutual participation in a shared life.”  The level of sharing happening here – in this group of about three thousand people, remember – is, the historians tell us, unlike anything else in the ancient world.  It most closely resembles the level of unity formed when a couple come together in marriage; (which perhaps sheds new light on Paul’s reflections on the church being one body).

I don’t think we understand, today, how deeply shocking this was.  This was a society where various divisions – men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile – kept people in separate spheres of life with very limited, and controlled, interaction.  For slaves and free people to share a meal together as equals was unheard of, a scandal.

To give you some idea of how far we’ve come, let me use a story to illustrate.  Now, I wasn’t witness to this, although it was told to me as a true story, so I’m not going to name names just in case facts have been embellished along the way.  But the story goes that, not so long ago, and not very far from here, a bishop in a denomination which doesn’t yet ordain women came out to visit a parish.  The parish priest hosted the bishop for lunch, and invited another key parishioner – a man – to be present.  And while these gentlemen were sitting down at lunch together, the lay pastoral worker in the parish, a woman, ate on her own in the kitchen, since apparently she wasn’t important enough to eat with the bishop.

Today, to us, that’s deeply shocking; not least because we have inherited these stories of the believers sharing meals together since the dawn of Christianity.  But in the ancient world, the opposite was shocking, and everyone sharing in common was felt to be subversive and socially dangerous.  And yet these early Christians did it, and apparently did so with joy and generosity and no social self-consciousness at all (that did creep back in later, as we see reflected in some of the epistles).

So what is it that not only allows, but drives, this level of radical community?  I think there are two key things.  One is trust in God.  These people have had a personal experience of God’s love and joy which is so deep, and so personally significant, that it gives them the courage and resilience to form new ways of life.  And there is hope; these people have seen the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promises, and together they look for those promises to continue to be fulfilled in this new community.  Everything this passage tells us about the depth of relationship these people shared, is only possible because of God’s active and transforming presence in these people, and God’s purpose stimulating them to a shared vision of what their life should be.

The gladness and generosity of this group of people is a reflection of God as they had encountered Him; a generous God, a God who poured Himself out abundantly in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  We become like what we worship; and a generous God shapes a generous community.  And their gladness in it shows us that this was not a burden or an onerous thing for them, but something they experienced as good and life-giving.

So it seems to me that when we read passages like this, the question for us is not how we might most closely mimic exactly what this community did, but, like them, how we might most closely relate to one another in the presence of God, so that we might have the same kind of devotion to our relationships with one another.

I’m not going to suggest that I have definitive answers to that.  I might make some tentative suggestions for you to consider; one is that, when the Bible study “for beginners” finishes in a few weeks, that the group who’ve been meeting for that might continue to meet and learn together, and perhaps invite more people to join them in that.  Another is that we might give thought to how to enrich our shared prayer life beyond our regular services; I’m always happy to make suggestions and provide resources.   And while I’m fascinated to see how Hungry Souls is taking off as a group, I wonder also about other ways to share the fabric of daily life, its ups and downs, its cares and joys, in ways that really build a sense of sharing our lives together.

This passage from Acts doesn’t give us a neat list or a blueprint for exactly how we should be church.  But it does give us a vision of a community of deep relationships, and suggests that whatever else God is up to, our relationships are always part of the Holy Spirit’s core business.

Love and happiness?

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

“Love one another.”  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  It sounds as if it should be pretty easy to work out what it means.  We don’t always feel very loving towards one another, but I think most of the time, we think we know what it would look like if we were loving.

But tonight, as we gather here almost as family, having shared a meal, with me about to wash your feet – those of you who want it – I want to challenge some of our assumptions about what it means to love one another, just a little bit.

One of the things that tends to happen in small churches like this one, is that we base a lot of our decision making, not on being in line with a particular vision of who we are called to be in God, but on keeping everyone happy.  Because we are a small community, and we know one another well, and the cost of someone being unhappy is usually very high – impaired relationships, broken friendships, open conflict and so forth – we tend to value keeping people happy above almost everything else.  And we often tell ourselves that this is what it means to love one another.

But imagine if this was how Jesus and his group of disciples had functioned.  Jesus would have given up on the journey to the cross, and instead pursued political glory, to keep Peter happy.  I don’t know what they’d have spent money on, but some of the memorable stories of the gospel wouldn’t have happened, as the money would have been managed in such a way as to keep the pinch-purse Judas happy.  And no doubt endless time and energy would have gone into managing travel arrangements and meal planning and what not in such a way that nobody would get into a snit about anything; but I’m not sure how much would have got done in the way of miracles and teaching.

They’d have been totally ineffective as a group of people serving the reign of God… but they might have been happier with each other.

The temptation for us – and for lots of churches like us, it’s certainly not unique to here – is to buy into that sort of approach, though.  To spend so much time and energy, to make so many decisions based on not upsetting this person or that one, that we end up becoming a little group completely inward focussed, paying attention to our relationships with one another, but totally ineffective at relating to the world beyond that little web of relationships.  Sweeping conflict under the carpet rather than dealing with it, and even getting to the point of seeing people outside that group almost as irrelevant or a threat to what’s really important to us here, which is how well we can get on together.

And here’s where I’m going to get challenging.  That’s not loving one another; not really.  That’s loving our comfort in one another’s company, for sure.  It’s loving that we have a place where we can feel assured that people aren’t going to challenge us too much, because we have an unspoken agreement that we don’t do that here.

But it’s not the kind of love Jesus taught his disciples, or the kind of love he encourages us to take up in tonight’s reading.

Jesus tells his disciples this, the night before he goes to the cross.  The example of love that he sets isn’t about being comfortable or mutually nice; it’s about uncompromising commitment to a big vision of what God is doing, and doing all that we can, both to play our part in that, and to encourage others to find and play their part in it.  And we know that as he presented this example of love to his disciples they struggled with it!  He had to call Peter Satan; he had to intervene in arguments about who was the greatest; he had to disillusion disciples who thought they were going to reign at his right hand, and remind them that his way led first to the cross, and only after that to any glory.

Why do I remind you of all of this tonight?  Over the next little while this parish will have big decisions to make.  The planning process undertaken by the parish council continues to unfold.  Discussions are being had about the relationship with the neighbouring parish, and how things might best function for both parishes.  The reality is that by the end of the year, I will not be here, and I don’t know who will follow me.

And I am reminding you tonight that as you work through all of that, loving one another doesn’t mean keeping everybody happy.  If you prioritise keeping everybody happy, what you will end up with is a series of insipid decisions, likely held hostage to the emotional state of whomever is most fragile on the day the conversation is had.

I am encouraging you each to participate in that process seeking to do what Jesus did; loving the members of your parish family by seeking the big vision of God for this place, and seeking to encourage one another to find your place within it.  Dream big, seek inspiration, be radical, call everything into question, if that’s what God stirs within you.  Don’t be afraid to put what’s on your heart on the table; if there’s disagreement and conflict, don’t shy away from it but work through it; and if you need help to reconcile after an argument, don’t be ashamed to seek that help.  Even the disciples, after the resurrection, needed a series of encounters with Jesus to work through the issues raised by their behaviour and attitudes.

This parish will need the best of all of you, if it is to be an effective expression of the reign of God.

Tomorrow we will come to the cross, and consider what his commitment to the reign of God cost Jesus, and what our commitment asks of us.  Tonight we have time, a pause, to consider that that cost only has meaning when it is offered in love which truly seeks God’s best for each of us.

Darts in the dark

I don’t do much children’s ministry at the moment, but when I did, I often struggled with what I might describe as the gap between the ideal and the reality.  That is, I might have a clear vision in my head of what I wanted the children’s programme to be, and what I wanted it to offer to the people participating in it… but often, due as much to circumstances out of my control as anything else, what we actually settled for looked quite different.

Today I was reading a report on perceptions of parenting (the report can be found here and is interesting in its own right).  And one paragraph caught my attention.  It said that

“[Effective parenting] is responsive to a child’s individuality and to changing needs, temperament and maturity. This involves tuning in to a child’s interests, perspective and experiences, and interacting with him or her both to address challenges (discomfort, anxiety, confusion, etc.) and to build on strengths (insights, talents, ambitions, etc.).”

It struck me that of course the same is true of effective discipling of children.  And yet I can tell you exactly why this often does not happen, and that is that we don’t know the children well enough.

Not because we don’t want to, but because for many families, being in church once a month or so is as much as they can or want to manage.  The days when children who came to church, came every week and built genuine relationships with their leaders are gone for all but a very few families, at least in my tradition.

So your typical Sunday school teacher or children’s ministry leader tries to plan and prepare activities or teaching materials which will do all the good things described in the paragraph I quoted, but we do so a) without an adequate relationship with the children concerned, to do it well, and b) often unsure as to which of our various children will be present on any given day.  It’s like playing darts in the dark, and then we wonder why we so often miss the mark.

So here’s my plea; if you want the leaders and teachers in your church to be partners with and resources to you as parents, as you seek to nurture your children in faith, then please actually work with us.  Take church seriously.  Make it a priority.  Support us in building relationships with your family.  Communicate with us about all the things it would be helpful for us to know about your child, (or at least, about when you will and won’t be in church).

We care about your children and want to do the best we possibly can for them, but we can’t do that if we simply don’t know them well enough.