Archive for July, 2016

10 July 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Deuteronomy 30.9-14 Luke 10.25-37

The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.

We heard two passages – one from the Old Testament, one from the New
Both in their own way are commentaries – they tell us how to interpret the Law

Let’s first think about the reading from Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy is a book about the giving of the Law
But it’s addressed to a people who have already departed from it

This passage offers to a sinful people a promise of restoration
– Conditional on a renewed willingness to obey God’s commandments

The promise is given in language of rich blessing:
– The hearers are promised an abundance of descendants, flocks and herds, fields and olive groves and vineyards
– In other words, every form of blessing familiar to the people of ancient Israel, who were farmers and shepherds
– More than this, they are offered the assurance of God’s blessing: the sense that God still acknowledges Israel as his people, that he delights in blessing them

This promise is meant for us, too
The precondition for this blessing is, that our wholehearted love of God must reflect God’s wholehearted love for us

This sounds like an impossible demand
The reassurance is, that we do not have to love as God does; only God can do that
We only have to love as God’s creatures were created to do – relying on grace to make up the difference and render our love acceptable

Our love of God is not a declaration of our own perfection – anything but
It is a confession of our need of God’s grace, of our dependence on God’s grace

Of course, to love God in that way is quite difficult enough
But in some ways we create more difficulty for ourselves, by trying to sidestep the real challenge
That is the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan

First of all, consider why Jesus tells this story
He is asked a question about Scripture by an expert in the Law
So to begin with, it’s not a question of conduct – it’s a question of interpretation
It’s not about how you act – it’s about how you read

Jesus and the lawyer work in opposite directions
The lawyer says, we begin with God and work down
Once we understand the law we will know how to behave

Jesus says, we begin with our neighbour and work up
Once we recognise who our neighbour really is, we will find we already know how to recognise God – who is present in every one of his creatures – and therefore how to understand the Law

The lawyer’s view is not completely wrong
The problem is, it makes the law something difficult and remote
It ends itself to self-deception; studying the Scriptures becomes an end in itself
The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the problem, and the solution

We are probably tempted to read the story of the Good Samaritan as a simple tale of goodie and baddies
And put ourselves in the shoes of the goody, who of course is the Samaritan

But this is a parable – not just a story
Which means it can’t be just a simple story of goodies and baddies

In some ways, we know the Bible too well – or at least we think we do
The judgements we pass on characters and situations are not necessarily the ones passed by the original readers, or the observers of the scenes we read about
We are 21st century Christians, not 1st century Jews or Gentiles

The Samaritan is not someone we should automatically see as the goody
Samaritans in the Bible are not kind-hearted people who talk to distressed strangers on the phone
For the Jews, Samaritans are the ultimate outsiders

Samaritans are descendants of the alien peoples who were settled in the conquered territory of the northern kingdom, after the ten tribes of Israel who lived there had been deported by the Assyrians

They had adopted the God of Israel – but they were not Jews
They were aliens, interlopers, squatters, mongrels, imposters, heretics
To add insult to injury, they claimed to be the true believers in God
And they hated the Jews, as much as the Jews hated the Samaritans
All of this is in the Bible

So we should not expect the Samaritan to be a goodie
Likewise, we should not expect the priest and the Levite to be the baddies
– they are normally figures of reverence

They are the ones set apart to serve in the temple
They stand before God on behalf of the people
They perform the rituals and offer the sacrifices that atone for sin and restore the people’s relationship with God
Which of course are necessary, because no one is capable of living without sin

So what is really at stake in this passage?
Firstly I would point to one obvious fact: only the Samaritan emerges as an individual
None of the characters have names – only labels: a man, robbers, a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, an innkeeper

The Samaritan is the only character we get inside of
– we are told he was moved with compassion for the wounded man – just as Jesus in the wilderness was moved with compassion for the hungry crowds who were following him

The Samaritan is the only character in the story who speaks
But much more importantly, he is only character who acts

We see and hear who and what the Samaritan really is
He was not the neighbour of the wounded Jew – but he became a neighbour; he acted as a neighbour – which shows we can change what we are, by what we do

What is the lesson of this passage?
There are really two lessons; because, if you think about it, there are really two stories in this passage, one inside the other
One is the story of the Good Samaritan
The other is, the story of how Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, to the expert in the law

The lesson of the first story, the story of the Good Samaritan is simple
It is, go and do likewise – be a good neighbour, to all of your neighbours

The lesson of the second story, the lesson directed to the expert in the law, is less simple
The lesson is contained in our reading from Deuteronomy

The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven. … Neither is it beyond the sea. … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.

The lawyer thinks through his years of study he has gone beyond what others know of the law
Scripture says, all you need to know is right there beside you

The lawyer seeks to justify himself before Jesus
But self-justification is not justification
Self-righteousness is not righteousness

The law is not a matter of specialist knowledge; real goodness is not professional expertise
Goodness is love; it comes out in the words your mouth speaks, and the actions your heart prompts you to perform
Loving actions you are commanded by God to perform, for anyone created, as we are, in the image and likeness of God


3 July 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Galatians 6.1-10

Do not be deceived! God is not mocked

This has been a week marked by conflict and division
Perhaps there were some people who thought that after the referendum result was announced, the healing would begin
Of course, the reality has been just the opposite

Funny word, ‘reality’
The outcome of the referendum has undermined certainties about what reality is
After all the half-truths or the campaign, the unstated expectation was that after the long night when the results were announced, we would wake to a new dawn when we could face the future with some kind of certainty

Of course what actually happened was that we went straight from the announcement of the outcome, to disputes about the outcome
And straight into, not one leadership contest, but two

Where can we look for reality?
Some people think the ultimate reality in our world is money
The outcome of the referendum has undermined that reality
The share indexes and the value of sterling shot up when the polls closed, because traders thought we were going to remain in Europe
Then they crashed, because they found out we were going to leave, and they thought we were facing chaos

Now the markets have bounced back again. Why?
Not because the underlying reality has changed – but because the ‘reality’ markets are based on isn’t reality at all
It’s sentiment – market sentiment
Not even feelings, but feelings about feelings – what you sense other traders are feeling

Some people think the ultimate reality in our world is power
The outcome of the referendum has undermined that reality
One minute David Cameron has outwitted his opponents, and a night of the long knives is about to begin
The next minute David Cameron has gone, and the age of Boris is dawning

Five minutes after that, Boris is forced to stand up and make a speech, announcing that he does not have enough support in the Tory party to be its leader, and so he will not run
Meanwhile the man who was masterminding Boris’s leadership campaign, Michael Gove, who said he himself could positively never be Prime Minister, has changed his mind
Except that the moment he announces his intentions, his support begins melting away

Just as in the financial markets, we discover that the underlying reality politics is based on isn’t a real thing
Money, in financial markets, isn’t a real thing – the value of transactions in the market dwarfs the value of physical assets behind them
Power, in a democracy, is not a real thing – because it isn’t based on anything real people might immediately do
It’s based on sentiment – feeling – the sense of what you think other politicians are thinking, about what people in the country are thinking

Why do we mistake the nature of reality? Why do we fall into such destructive mistakes?
Perhaps because we allow others to deceive us
But the only reason others can deceive us is because we have already deceived ourselves
That is essentially what Paul is saying to the Galatians in today’s reading

I found this a very difficult reading to deal with
Eventually I remembered, this is the end of the letter
So Paul isn’t systematically developing a single point
It’s quite the opposite – he’s bringing together points he’s made in the rest of the letter

He presents these conclusions in the form of a series of pithy sayings – a little like the Book of Proverbs
Apparently contrary statements can both be true – if you are alert to the context
That helps explain, for example, why in verse 2 he says bear one another’s burdens – then three verses later on, in verse 5, he says all must carry their own loads

What holds it all together?
The Book of Proverbs is held together by faith in the God-given reality of wisdom
The letter to the Galatians is held together by faith in the new spiritual reality created by the resurrection, while the old certainty people found in the Law is melting away

Let me remind you of the situation scholars think lay behind the composition of this letter
Paul had started a church in Galatia. People joined in enthusiastically
But then they encountered problems – specifically, it is thought, the problem of sin
Surely, they thought, now we are living this new life in the Spirit, these temptations should be behind us?

At that point, and while Paul was not around, some new teachers arrived
They said, the solution was to go back to the Torah – the Jewish Law
Specifically, food restrictions and circumcision – the matters we see raised in the Book of Acts and other letters of Paul

Paul heard what was going on, and blew his top
He could see the temptation – the temptation to turn away from his own doctrines, back to a faith rooted in concrete things you can see and do
But for Paul this was a denial, not just of his own teachings, but of the reality of the cross and the resurrection – the reality on which everything in his entire world view was based

So what he gave the Galatians in his letter was a reality check
He concludes that lesson here

Paul advises the Galatians not to bury their heads in the practice of religious ritual or good works as an end in themselves
Instead, he advises them to cultivate a proper sense of reality
A sense of reality I would characterise as watchfulness

I want to focus on verses 7 – 8:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

I suppose we would all think of farming as representing a particular kind of reality
If you want a good crop, you have to sow into the right kind of soil
To be a good farmer you have to be wise; you have to be watchful
Jesus himself used these images in his parables

In Jesus’ parable of the sower, the seed falls on different kinds of soil by chance
When Paul talks to the Galatians about sowing, it’s clear they make a deliberate choice about where they sow their seed

The Law belongs to the old life in the flesh; in Christ, we lead a new life in the spirit
The seed we have is our faith – where are we going to sow it?
Are we going to invest our faith in the new life of the spirit, or the old life of the flesh?
Do we want to share in the corruption of something dead, or the flourishing growth of something newly alive?

There’s nothing esoteric about the new life of the spirit
The new life of the spirit is the life of the church community
It’s a life of mutual encouragement, accountability and spiritual growth

The aim of everyone in the community is to enable one another to share in reality of the new life given in Christ
It’s a life like the life of a farming community, where everyone shares in the work, because they all expect to share in the harvest
Let us not grow weary, says Paul – because if one slackens, everyone suffers
He says, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith

This is reality – seeing the world and our own lives in the world through eyes of faith
Living with a sense of purpose, not blown around by every passing breeze
Seeing and celebrating the new growth in the life of the spirit

Not breaking faith with our Lord and our God, by allowing ourselves to believe that other things are more real than he is
Things which take as their standard of reality, our wandering thoughts about what people think, about what other people think