Archive for July, 2014

Matt 13.1-9, 18-23

I wonder why the compilers of the Lectionary decided to leave out the middle of this reading
The verses they left out are the ones where the disciples ask Jesus, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’
We assume the purpose of parables is to make difficult ideas easier to understand
But Jesus says, I use parables to prevent some people understanding

Jesus is often surrounded by people who think they know what he is going to say before he says it
They hope he is the last piece in the jigsaw they have been building for themselves
Jesus says, you’ve got all the right pieces; but the picture is wrong
But there’s no room for me in the picture you’ve created

Jesus tells them, now I’m here, you have to look again at the Scriptures
You have to stop thinking you know what they mean

If you want to learn from me, you have to enter a new state of uncertainty
You have to be prepared for a struggle
– A struggle with your own assumptions
– A struggle with the judgements of those around you

I went to hear Matt Guest at a conference on the experiences Christian students have at university
Is university good for faith?
Does being a student strengthen you in what you believe?
Or does living surrounded by so many temptations, and learning so many new things, loosen the church’s hold on you?

There’s no simple answer
But there were a couple of findings that surprised me

One was the ‘identity lock box’
Some students lock their faith away during term time
They may or may not go to church; but they don’t entertain any changes or challenges to their faith
When they go home, they go back to their old church, and pick up where they left off

Other students show greater openness
Some of them experience doubts as a result; some fall by the wayside
But a greater number report that they experience a growth in their faith

It’s like hanging from the monkey bars in the playpark
If you want to move forward, you have to let go, with at least one hand
If you don’t, you’ll just hang there, until your muscles are exhausted and you fall

Moving forward in faith is a struggle
Not moving forward is false security

Remember the parable of the sower
What kind of crop would there be, if the sower refused to let go of the seed?
Or remember the parable of the talents, and the servant who left his talent in the ground
The talent was safe; it was the servant who fell under judgement

Rom 8.1-11

For some people the big question about Paul is, did he really meet Christ on the Damascus road?

Luke tells this story three times, in the Book of Acts
Twice he puts the words in Paul’s own mouth 

Surely, this must have been the most significant incident in Paul’s entire life
Yet Paul never alludes to it, in unambiguous terms, in any of his own letters

Some people’s faith is seriously threatened by this kind of question
They feel they have to explain the difficulty away, somehow
But I think we should move on
And think of the impact of that meeting on Paul
Because we can’t resolve the question of where Paul met Jesus
But we can trace the impact of the meeting
In the transformation of Paul’s reading of the Hebrew Scriptures

Some passages show very clearly how complete this transformation is
In Galatians chapter 4, Paul talks about Sarah and Hagar
Abraham’s wife, and her servant; two women who both bear children for him
We talked about them a couple of weeks ago

These stories and the characters in them are absolutely fundamental to the Jewish people’s sense of who they are
It matters deeply, that they can all claim to be descended, ultimately, from Abraham and Sarah

Yet Paul turns round to them and says, this is an allegory
He doesn’t mean it’s fiction
It remains a historical event: something that really happened
But from Paul’s perspective, that’s no longer the most important thing

Genealogies no longer matter
Who is descended from who no longer matters
It’s faith that makes you one of God’s people, not your family tree

So the story of Sarah and Hagar in Paul’s account becomes a parable: a way of understanding the difference between the old and new testaments
Hagar, says Paul, is really Mount Sinai, the place where God gave Moses the stone tablets: she represents our old slavery under the Law
Sarah is really the heavenly Jerusalem: she represents our new freedom in Christ

So the true people of God are the spiritual descendants of Sarah
They are recognised by their faith in Christ, not their reliance on their ancestry, or their obedience to the commandments

Today, in the Book of Genesis, we read about Jacob and Esau
Another story about the origins of the Jewish people
The original story explains one of the historic conflicts between Israel and one of its neighbours

It explains that the Israelites and the Edomites shared a common ancestry
Yet the people of Israel and the people of Edom came to be enemies and rivals, because Jacob took over the blessing from his elder brother

What Paul draws from this whole episode is the motif of struggle
This struggle arises from the imperfection of our faith

Struggle is bred in the heart of the believer
The struggle of Israel with Edom begins in the womb
That struggle continues in a new generation the conflict between Sarah and Hagar

We are the spiritual descendants of Sarah
But genetically, we are still close to Hagar: still instinctively inclined to believe that salvation can be earned, and has to be earned

That, essentially, is the basis of Paul’s quarrel with opponents who think new Christians should still be circumcised, still keep the Jewish feasts, and still abstain from certain foods
They can’t accept their new freedom; they can’t see clearly what God has done in Christ

Within all Christians this struggle goes on
To realise how free Christ has made us

To struggle is always good, for Christians
To wrestle in prayer with God
To struggle with passages of Scripture we find difficult
To work at relationships with people we don’t find it easy to get on with

We don’t want to accept any false certainty
Because that kind of certainty is the enemy of spiritual growth

But all these struggles take place in the context of a faith that realises the work has already been done on our behalf
By Christ’s perfect, loving obedience to the Father
To go on trying to make our own own way to heaven, relying on our own good works and our own efforts to achieve moral perfection, is truly to trade our birthright for a mess of pottage

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Song of Songs 2.8-13; Matt 11.16-19, 25-30

It was great to celebrate a baptism this morning, and meet all the family and friends

There’s always one question people ask about infant baptisms: will we see any of them them again?
Does baptism mean anything to them, as a confession of faith and a statement of their commitment to bring up their child as part of a Christian family; or are they just continuing a family custom?
To them, is the sacrament of baptism more than a prelude to the party?
And if it isn’t, should we offer them baptism at all?

I’ve spoken to ministers who don’t like to say ‘no’
But then find their congregations are upset, because families bring too many guests who aren’t used to being in church
They sit in other people’s seats
They talk when they shouldn’t; they don’t sing when they should; they text

So then ministers do something theology says you shouldn’t: they have the baptism outside worship, at another time
But then you have to ask elders or stewards to come along and open and close the church
You have to put the heating on, so then you start thinking you should make a charge
Which of course is something else the rules say you should never do
This expense of time and money makes the minister and congregation feel used

Clergy in some denominations don’t have the luxury of turning away requests for baptisms – if ‘luxury’ is the right word
Of course they can get round it in other ways
We’ve all heard of ministers or priests demanding that parents bring their children along for so many Sundays beforehand
Just as they do with people who want to send their children to a church school

But theologically, again, this is a nonsense
It makes it sound as if God operates on the basis of points or quotas, which we all know he doesn’t
And it encourages people just to go through the motions of faith
It could easily make people cynical: it could make them think that going through the motions is all Christians ever do

Then there are those churches who take pride in setting the bar high
Refusing requests for baptisms almost automatically
Which immediately places the church in the morally dangerous position of passing judgment on the motivations of people who come to them from outside

Baptism for children of non-members is a difficult issue
I think I’ve found a simple answer
If someone would like me to baptise their child, I invite them to come along on Sunday morning and introduce themselves: no more than that
Be open to us, and we’ll be open to you
Some people accept the invitation; some don’t

How does this relate to our readings this morning?
How does it relate to our theme of promises?

I read a book that talked about people in the Bible the author called ‘refusers of festivities’
Or if you prefer more everyday language, killjoys; party-poopers
People who reject invitations motivated by human kindness
People who reject God’s free and generous offer of grace

People like Jonah, who goes off in the huff instead of celebrating with the people of Nineveh, when God hears their prayers and spares them from destruction
Or like David’s wife, who is scandalised when David strips off his robe and dances in front of the ark

This morning, we’ve got the people in the market place who refuse the invitation to join in the wedding dance
The people who refuse either to celebrate with others, or to join with them in mourning
When people ask for a baptism, we have to be very careful our pre-judgments don’t force us into the role of these refusers of festivities

An invitation is always a two-edged thing: there are risks for both parties
You’re never entirely certain what you’re going to get when you accept an invitation
You’re worried that accepting an invitation creates an opening, or an obligation
Which is why people are often slow to accept; why they hunt around for excuses

It cuts both ways; to offer an invitation is just as risky as it is to accept one
When you offer an invitation, you open yourself to rejection

That’s why so many invitations in our system of manners aren’t real invitations
We must have coffee ‘some time’; you must come and visit ‘some time’
I’ll pop round and see you ‘some time’
People offer invitations and accept them, without really meaning what they say

That’s the difference between us and God
God’s invitation is like God’s promise: When he offers us an invitation, he means it
So for us to refuse God’s invitation, is a serious refusal

We all know the image Jesus uses of himself, as the one who stands outside and knocks
Like the lover in our reading from the Song of Solomon today

The knock is an invitation, and it’s a challenge
It’s a challenge to face up to the reality of God, and the fact of our unworthiness
It’s the offer of a love greater than any love we have ever known
If we open the door, our lives will never be the same, and that scares us
But we deny this invitation at our peril

This morning, once again we hear our Lord’s invitation to gather round his table
It’s a real invitation: there’s no question of going through the motions
Either out of politeness, or from force of habit

It’s a challenge to recognise the fact of our unworthiness to be there
It’s an invitation to accept the reality of God’s promise
It’s a challenge to welcome others in his name

Psa 89.1-4 Gen 22.1-4

The story of God’s commandment to Abraham to offer up his son Isaac is told every year in synagogues. In Jewish tradition it is called Akedah, ‘The Binding’

This story of attempted child sacrifice is repugnant to our modern sensibilities
But this story is set in an Ancient Near Eastern culture
In this type of culture, the unusual thing is not that Abraham’s God demanded a human sacrifice: It is that he refused it
And of course, even before we begin the story, we know how it ends

It’s not a piece of journalism; it’s a great piece of story-telling
Abraham is in a sense the father of all of us
This incident is part of the story of his dealings with God
I’ve split it into three parts, so that we can look closely at how the author tells the story

You should take note of three things in these first verses:
– When God speaks to Abraham, Abraham answers immediately, ‘Here I am’. We’ll hear those words twice more in this story
– God emphasises again and again the impossible demand he is making:
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him … as a burnt offering
Abraham gets up next morning, collects what he needs, and sets off for the place that God had shown him: he does again exactly what he did when God called him to leave his home and set off for the Land of Promise: in other words, he demonstrates again the faith that made him righteous in God’s eyes

God’s promised reward for Abraham’s faith was a land, and descendants; but where are the descendants going to come from, if Abraham sacrifices Isaac? Abraham doesn’t know, and the tension in the whole account is between Abraham’s faith, and Abraham’s not-knowing

God asks us for instant obedience; faithful obedience; but not blind obedience
What God asks of us is faith that doesn’t count the cost; not faith that pretends there isn’t a cost

Matt 10.40-42 Gen 22.4-8

These are the verses where the dramatic tension of this episode builds towards its climax
‘The two of them walked on together,’ the narrator tells us twice
One of them burdened by the knowledge of what God has asked him to do
The other completely ignorant, but beginning to suspect

This is where we see the moral ambiguity of Abraham’s character
The gospel reading this morning seems to have been chosen to underline the enormity of the crime Abraham believes God wants him to commit:
Children are a sacred trust

God declared Abraham righteous; but we know he is not perfect
Abraham showed his faith in God when he set out for the Promised Land
Yet more than once on the journey he resorted to deceit to protect himself

Twice he pretended that his wife Sarah was really his sister
Because Abraham lied, Pharaoh and King Abimelech took her as a concubine, and were punished by God

Abraham has kept to himself the secret of what God asked
Now, as he sets off with Isaac towards the place of sacrifice, he lies to his servants
He tells them both he and Isaac will both come back shortly
He lies to Isaac: he tells him God will provide a lamb for an offering

We should reflect on that moment when Isaac questions his father
Isaac says, ‘Father!’ And Abraham answers, ‘Here I am’
For the second time, we hear those three important words: Here I am’
At that moment, we see how deeply torn Abraham is between his obedience to God, and his love for his son

Of course, we know something God knows, but Abraham doesn’t
Abraham believes he is lying: but what he says is actually true
God will provide the offering
He and Isaac will both come back

There is one moment of true discernment in this passage
Abraham looks up, and sees the place God has appointed for the sacrifice
You should remember those words: ‘Abraham looked up’, because we will see them again shortly
At the crucial moment, when God intervenes and tells Abraham to spare his son

Psa 13 Gen 22.9-14

Psalm 13 seems designed to capture the agony of this moment: How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?
Abraham seems to act with grim certainty; but we know he is really waiting for God to show his face, and show him the way out

This is a difficult episode for modern readers
We are used to modern novels
We think about the thoughts and feelings of every character
Surely, we think, Isaac must have been utterly traumatised by his father’s actions

That can’t be how we are meant to read it, or we’ll end up condemning Abraham instead of celebrating him
But how can we avoid it?
Jewish readers make sense of the story by bracketing out Isaac’s feelings, and thinking only of Abraham’s faith and God’s providence

Christians read this episode christologically
The story is full of details that help us do this

We can compare Abraham to God, as the father prepared to offer the thing dearest to him
We can think of Isaac as an unblemished lamb
As the innocent victim who carries the wood for the offering to the top of the hill

Jewish readers won’t agree with this interpretation
But the issue we can all agree on is one of discernment

Abraham immediately recognised this mountain as the place God has chosen for the sacrifice
But I wonder how long the ram had been caught in the thicket before he saw it?
Was he simply too wrapped up in what he was doing?

So God has to send an angel to speak to him
Abraham says those three important words for the third time: ‘Here I am’
He looks up; and he sees the ram

Abraham had lost sight of God in the depths of his human agony
But now God himself effectively says, ‘Here I am’
And he shows Abraham the offering (the feelings of the ram are not part of this story)

The conclusion fits the pattern we see so often in the Old Testament
Abraham memorialises the event by giving the mountain a name:
The Lord will provide
Or it might be, ‘The Lord will see’
Hebrew scholars tell us neither of these translations is quite right: no one really knows what the name originally meant

There’s a bit of wishful thinking involved
Like the later Jewish belief that this mountain was Mount Zion: the site of Jerusalem
That the very rock where Abraham laid his son was both the foundation stone of Solomon’s temple, and the site of the altar

That this place was in fact the very centre of the earth, and therefore of the universe
The place from which Creation began

Early Christians begged to differ
They said the site where Abraham sacrificed God’s ram in place of his son was a short distance away, on another hilltop
That in fact, it was the site of the crucifixion

These are not facts: these are myths
They show how aware we should be of the forces at work when people write the stories of their pasts

These stories have been interpreted and re-interpreted, again and again
We have been interpreting yet again for ourselves this morning
The texts go on speaking
And no matter what their history is, we believe when we read them in faith, we hear the voice of God speaking to us

How do we read these stories?
Not as plain fact, but with humble faith; not with blind faith, but with discernment
Offering our prayers to God, saying simply in our hearts, as Abraham did, ‘Here I am’
Listening for his call