Saturday, 27 September 2008

Struggling with the text

Readings: Philippians 2 v 1-11
Matthew 21 v 23-32

Who do you think you are?
That’s what’s going on in our gospel reading this morning.
The religious worthies are feeling put out by this upstart, Jesus of Nazareth and they are taunting him: Just who do you think you are?
It seems to be a rite of passage.
The minute anyone shows any talent or skill, the minute they start to get good at what they do, there will always be those standing on the sidelines, ready to watch them fall or, failing that, to bring them down themselves.
I thought that that was a peculiarly Scottish thing.
The “I kent his faither” bit that runs through Scottish psyche and seems to say that no one can ever rise above their station in life – or, at least, excellence cannot be celebrated.
I mean if we go around praising folk, won’t they simply get big headed?
I wonder how my American friends will tackle this week’s text.
Because my experience of friends and of the church in America is of communities that celebrate success. People are praised for what they do, celebrated for what they are.
That’s not to say that there aren’t the usual gripes and politics that afflict all communities, not least religious ones, but I have certainly observed a more positive and affirming attitude, something that builds up and doesn’t tear down.
In fact, a couple of years ago, when I took some extended study leave in the states, our American hosts actually commented on how we Scots seemed to always be putting each other down, how we made light of each others achievements.
And you know this morning exactly what I mean by that, don’t you.
You know how often we slag each other off – not seeing it as cruel, but just a way of keeping folks’ feet on the ground.
And even if we don’t make light of others’ achievements, we almost certainly make light of our own.
Someone offers us a compliment and, instead of accepting it graciously, we laugh it off or say it was nothing, anything other than bask in praise or affirmation.
So this gospel today, might fit well with our Scottish theology.
Jesus has performed miracles, he has exhibited his fine knowledge of Scriptures, he has told very poignant stories.
The religious leaders want to know – Just who does he think he is?
Well, I’ve really had my fill of Scottish theology this week.
I spent two days at the beginning of the week at a national church conference – looking at how church structures might be reformed. Exciting stuff.
I always feel a bit out of things at these gatherings. There are so many learned folk with lots to say and lots of irreconcilable opinions.
In my day to day work in the church, I usually manage to get by by putting my head down and getting on with the huge task that is parish ministry – one relationship at a time.
But somehow, at gatherings such as the one I was at last week, I feel like a fish out of water, as if I operate on a different planet from others in the church.
Thankfully, at this conference, there were a few other folk who were able to laugh at themselves and we had some good debate in the late night after conference session.
But I always come away thinking – does it really matter?
Will all our talking and deliberating really make any difference in the building of God’s kingdom?
Does it matter what we call ourselves – or how many committees we gather around us? If we rewrite the rules and redraw the boundaries, will the kingdom really be any better served?
It all seems so much like whistling in the wind, making priorities of things that restrict us rather than free us to serve.
Jesus was surrounded by people who knew all the rules and whose sole task in life was to ensure that those rules were adhered to, even at the expense of helping one another.
And so, they call into question Jesus authority.
There is a story about a group of military leaders who succeeded in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem--large or small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer conducting the demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem into it. The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat? This enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out its one-word answer . . . YES.The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees feared Jesus' popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."The boy immediately said, "No." Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, "O.K." but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: "Which of the two did what his father wanted?""The first," they answered.Then Jesus delivered the punch line, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." That really was some punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched.
I’m sure Jesus heard some gasps and "How dare he!" from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Didn't he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn't he know that only those people with the right "credentials," so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God? What was Jesus talking about and why was he running down the best people in town?Jesus was teaching that day about what types of people are acceptable to stand before God. And he passes over the religious professionals in favour of the worst of sinners.
Would we accept that kind of teaching any differently today?
Can we accept that our self-righteousness doesn't earn us any points with God? That we cannot earn God's love? That God loves us even when we fail?God's arms are open to everyone, from every race and nation and tribe and tongue, from every walk of life, from every circumstance. We're really missing something extraordinary when we try to put boundaries on God's grace.In the Pharisees minds, God only had regard for folk who were perfect, unblemished, without defect. They had reduced God to the level of human beings who honour only the beautiful people. The Pharisees had no concept of God's grace--God's love for all God's children, even those who were tarnished.Jesus knew that the way to bring hurting people into the kingdom of God was only , is only, by loving and accepting them. Jesus did that by living out God's amazing, startling, absurd grace.
And that’s how we have to live.We have to be full of grace too. We have to value all people as worthy of acceptance.
We have to live as Jesus lived.In God’s kingdom, I’m sure there will be a few righteous souls. But these few righteous are out numbered by the thousands, no, millions of people, like you and I, who have not been all they might have been, or should have been, but who have been healed by the love and acceptance of Jesus.
Our passage in Philippians gives us some idea of how to go about that:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And, being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
I have to confess today to falling far short of that high calling – a calling to humility, a calling to service.
As well as the trauma of a church conference this week, I also had the trauma of being harshly judged by a colleague – a colleague who barely knows me but who is angry at something in which I am involved. A colleague who sent me an email telling me just what he thinks of me. An email that, still when I read it makes me feel as though I have been punched in the stomach. I’m sure you all know that feeling. Haven’t we all been there at some point?
Now I know that the Christian response to this, are the very things I have been preaching about not just this week but for the last few weeks – the Christian response is to be gracious and to be forgiving. To be humble and to keep on loving. But, aside from the hurt, I feel angry at being so harshly dealt with. I feel righteous indignation at being so misjudged. I, too want to ask: Just who does he think he is?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Let none of us under estimate how difficult that is.
Nor let us underestimate how important it is.
We cannot stand on our past good deeds or our wonderful displays of Christian living.
Jesus didn’t cry privelege. He was obedient, even to death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
I don’t particularly like this passage this week. I’m failing miserably in living up to it.
But, like it or not – that is the gospel for today.
May God be with us as by the grace of God we learn to live the gospel and practise having the mind of Christ.
It is to that that all of us are called.
For the glory of God

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Changing God's mind?

Readings: Jonah 3 v 10-4 v 11
Matthew 20 v 1-16

A little boy was asked what we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale. His answer was, "People make whales sick." Well, that's one thing we can learn from the ancient story of Jonah. People do make whales sick. But there are lots of other things beside.
The part of the story we read this morning is the part that we don’t hear about in Sunday School, the part we don’t tell the children.
We would rather focus on Jonah as some kind of hero, rescued from a deadly encounter to go and do God’s will.
We don’t want to look at the ugliness that made Jonah resent God for taking pity on a city that got a hold of itself and changed its ways.
The last words of the book of Jonah are some of the most beautiful in all the Scriptures. Jonah wants God to destroy the people of Nineveh as was the threat but God says to Jonah, "You have pity on a gourd which you did not plant, which grew up in a night and perished in a night; And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot discern their right hand from their left and also much cattle."
God's universal love. That’s what we see displayed in the book of Jonah.
But there’s something else I’d like us to discover today and that is that our God is a God who is not afraid to change. That is an interesting thing about the God of the Old Testament. This is not a rigid God. You will remember on one occasion, the great man of faith Abraham argued with God about the people of Sodom. God was going to destroy that city because of its great wickedness. Abraham succeeded in getting a pledge from God that the city would not be destroyed if as many as ten righteous people could be located there. Unfortunately, there weren't ten righteous people in Sodom, but at least God was swayed by Abraham's arguments. That is not an isolated event. God chose a man named Saul to be the first king of Israel but soon God realized that Saul was not worthy of such responsibility. So God had a change of mind and had Samuel the prophet anoint David to be the new king of Israel.
The God of the Old Testament was not afraid to mark out a new direction.
And that’s the story in Jonah. God gives Jonah the assignment of preaching to the people of Nineveh. Jonah is to tell the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy the city because of their wickedness. Then an amazing thing happens. All the people of Nineveh repent. From the king in his palace to the ordinary man in the street, they all turn from their sin. When that happens, God changes his mind. He decides not to destroy Nineveh. This embarrasses Jonah beyond belief. He has told the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy them. Now God is not going to do it. Jonah feels utterly humiliated. Besides, he didn't like the people all that much anyway. Angrily he says to God, "I knew it! I knew that you were that kind of God." Jonah is so upset that he goes out and sits on a hillside overlooking Nineveh to mope. He is angry enough to sit there until he dies. What do you do with a God who changes his mind-who says he is going to destroy people and then lets them off the hook? Often it seems our prayers are pleas to change God’s mind. Sometimes our prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes they are supplications for forgiveness. More often than not, however, we pray for God somehow to change plans.
We are like the five-year-old, who told his dad he'd like to have a baby brother. His dad thought for a moment and then replied, "I'll tell you what. If every night for two months you pray for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!" Maybe that dad knew something that his son didn't. That night this young boy went to his bedroom early to start praying for a baby brother. He prayed every night for a whole month, but then he began to get a little weary. He stopped praying for a baby brother. After another month, however, his mother went to the hospital. When she came back, she brought home, not just one baby brother, but two baby brothers - twins! The wee boy’s dad looked down at him and said, "Now, aren't you glad you prayed?" He thought for a moment and then looked up at his dad and answered, "Yes, but aren't you glad I stopped praying when I did?"
So often when we pray aren't we trying to change something - whether it be the natural processes of nature or the results of some deed or misdeed that we have performed? Or perhaps we may pray for somebody that we wish God would change. From reading the story of Jonah we might get the idea that repentance changes God's mind. Mature faith understands that it is not God's mind that needs changing, but ours. It was never God's purpose that Nineveh be destroyed. It was God's will that Nineveh recognize its need for repentance.
So it is with prayer. Archbishop Trench once said that prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of God’s willingness. We serve a God who knows our needs and whose will is always for our good. We cannot help but pray when things need changing. That is the most human response to danger or to heartache in the world.
But we need to understand that even while we are praying a loving God is already at work in all things. What we need to pray for is not that God’s plans will change but that we will change and be enabled to trust God more. It is understandable to pray that God will change circumstances but it is far better to pray that regardless of our circumstances we will be enabled to cope with life with God by our side. God’s grace is amazing, the way it encompasses everyone, welcomes everyone, forgives everyone, and loves everyone. But grace can also be exasperating. There are times when grace doesn’t feel all that gracious, depending on where you happen to be standing at the time you encounter it. Today’s story from Matthew’s gospel is a case in point.
Of course those guys who had worked all day expected to be better rewarded than the folk who turned up at the last minute.
Isn’t it funny how grace doesn’t feel so gracious when we have to share it with someone else – especially if it’s someone we don’t think is deserving of equality with us? Isn’t it funny how the more amazing God’s grace becomes, the more we grumble about it?
Sometimes we have such a hard time being happy when something good happens to someone else. We don’t think they deserve better treatment than we do. Why should someone who didn’t even go to church for the first 40 years of life get the same benefits as those of us who have been WORKING in the church longer than that? And why should those people who never help out in the church and only show up at the odd communion service or at Easter and Christmas get the same treatment we receive? Is that fair?
I hate to step on anyone’s toes, - but the truth is we are all more like the eleventh hour workers than the ones who worked all day. We can all RECEIVE God’s grace, but not one of us DESERVES it. Sometimes in life that may seem to be unfair. But if grace were fair, it wouldn’t be grace, would it?The grace of God is amazing - born out of an unconditional love for all of us.
God's love for us is unchanging. It is we who need to change. Jonah learned that lesson while brooding in resentment over God's saving such an undeserving city as Nineveh. As Thomas Carlyle put it: "And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking." Then Carlyle adds," And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to His way of loving." It was not God who needed a change of mind, but Jonah. That is our greatest need, too, to bring our lives into such harmony with the love and purpose of God that God’s plan is our plan.
Then we can know God’s grace and experience God’s love without feeling resentment for those, seemingly undeserving folk, on whom God also lavishes extravagant grace.
May we know ourselves loved by the God of love and, as we know God’s grace at work in our lives may we be able to celebrate with others the love and grace that God lavishes on them.
God is in every changing circumstance that we encounter in life, bringing love, bringing grace. May we be enabled to see God at work and to celebrate with others who experience the extravagant grace of God too.
For the glory of God.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

How many times?

Readings: Genesis 50 v 15-21
Matthew 18 v 21-35

Over these last few weeks, we have wandered in and out of the Old Testament story of Joseph alongside our gospel readings.
And today, we reach the end of the story as recorded in Genesis.
Joseph’s brothers, in spite of all the kindness their brother has shown them have cause to be worried again.
Their father is now dead. And they are worried that Joseph has only been kind to them for the sake of their father. So, now that he’s died, they’re busy trying to work out how to make sure their brother doesn’t decide to exact revenge for the evil they had done to him all those years ago.
The interesting thing is that all through this story, we don’t read of the brothers being sorry for what they’ve done. We only read of them working out ways where they won’t be brought to justice – avoiding payback.
And so, after their father’s death, when they think the game might finally be up – what do they do?
Do they say sorry to their brother?
Do they fall on his mercy?
They blackmail him.
They tell him that it was their father’s dying wish that he forgive them.
And it works.
I like to think that Joseph had already forgiven them anyway.
He certainly had opportunity for payback.
Opportunity that he chose not to take.
I like to think that it wasn’t just the presence of his father that stopped him getting even.
So all the scheming his brothers indulged in was unnecessary effort on their part.
Forgiveness is the theme of our readings today.
Practising forgiveness because we experience forgiveness from a forgiving God.
I’ve been reflecting on forgiveness this week, not from the angle of the person forgiven, but from the perspective of someone who offers forgiveness.
And it seems to me that withholding forgiveness in the long run causes more harm to the person who is withholding than it does to the one who goes unforgiven.
If we go on holding a grudge against someone.
If we go through life avoiding people or harbouring awful thoughts about them – In the long run, we are the ones who suffer.
Because bitterness builds up in us, affects our well being and prevents us from knowing a wholeness.
And, in my perverse way, I thought about some of the advantages of forgiveness.
Aside from protecting us from bitterness or resentment, when we forgive others who have wronged us, don’t we experience just a sense of triumph.
Don’t we, just for a while, hold the upper hand when we are able to forgive.
That last bit in the story of Joseph always makes me think:
How good must it have felt for Joseph to be able to say to his weeping brothers – its OK, I forgive you.
His brothers, coming to him in fear and trepidation.
Not actually admitting they were in the wrong all those years ago but surely knowing it deep in their hearts.
Surely it must have been quite satisfying for Joseph to take the high moral ground and pronounce his forgiveness.
There’s nothing like rubbing salt in the wounds.
Of course that’s NOT why Jesus teaches us to forgive.
But, you have to admit, it could be a spin off.
A woman with fourteen children, ages one to fourteen, sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of desertion. "When did he desert you?" the judge asked. "Thirteen years ago," she replied. "If he left thirteen years ago, where did all these children come from?" asked the judge. "Oh," said the woman, "he kept coming back to say he was sorry."
Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."
A villager said to a wise old monk: "My neighbour slapped me. Should I forgive him?" "Yes," answered the wise old monk. "How many times should I forgive my neighbour?" the villager asked. "How many times did he slap you?" asked the monk. "Once," came the answer. "Then forgive him once," said the monk. "But what if he slaps me fifty times?" the villager asked. "Then you should forgive him forty-nine times," came the answer. "Why only forty-nine times, if I were struck fifty times?" the villager asked.The wise old monk said: "Freely accept the fiftieth slap. You would deserve it for being such a fool to allow yourself to be slapped the first forty-nine times."
Forgiveness is a really hard teaching of Jesus.
Because it goes against all the teachings of nature.
Our nature is not to take things lying down – to get even.
Forgiveness cuts across our natural instincts.

But perhaps it is important to establish what forgiveness is not:
• Forgiveness is not forgetting: deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of folks’ awareness.

• Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation: reconciliation takes two people, but an injured party can still forgive an offender even when reconciliation isn’t possible.

• Forgiveness is not condoning: forgiveness does not necessarily excuse bad or hurtful behaviour.
• Forgiveness is not dismissing: forgiveness involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant.

So what IS forgiveness?
This whole chapter of Matthew has loads to say about forgiveness.
Great word.
Great concept.
We all believe in it, don’t we?
There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbour observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He trowelled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbour rushed over, "Why did you do that?" he inquired, "I thought you loved dogs." The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. "I do, I do like dogs, in the abstract, not in the concrete.

Maybe that’s just where we are with our forgiveness.
We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete.

So how do we respond this morning to this hard teaching of Jesus?
Well, lets look at the reasons we have to forgive?
It's hard to keep hating someone, resenting someone, despising someone without it taking a toll on us.For the healing process to begin we must be able to forgive. Resentment and hatred are "useless, black feelings." Usually they do more harm to us than the person we resent.
That's the first reason we forgive: it's good for our mind, body and spirit.
We are followers of Jesus. Sometimes it is difficult to tell Christians from everybody else in society, but this is where we should be different. We should be forgivers. This is part of our witness to Christ's presence in our lives. That's what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We forgive not only because it is to our benefit to forgive. We forgive because we have been ordered by our Lord to forgive.
But there is one more reason why we forgive.
Jesus followed his admonition to Peter with one of his stories. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owed about a million pounds in today's money. Since this servant was not able to pay his debt, the master ordered that the servant and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. Confronted with the threat of such severe punishment the servant fell down, prostrated himself before his master and said, "Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything." The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.But then something amazing happened. The servant who had been forgiven this enormous debt went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred pounds or so and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, "Pay back what you owe." His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back." But the servant who had been forgiven a debt of one million pounds was unwilling to forgive the fellow servant who owed him a hundred pounds. He had him thrown into prison.When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Summoning this wicked servant, his master said to him, "I forgave you all that debt. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" And his master, moved with anger, handed the wicked servant over to the jailors to torture him until he should repay all that was owed him. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you," said Jesus, "unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Jesus continually linked forgiveness for our fellow human beings with our forgiveness by God. Seventy times seven. Jesus purposely used wild exaggeration in this story to make a point: You and I have been forgiven by God for every sin, every indiscretion, for every stupid thing we have ever done. Can we not find it in our hearts to forgive others?
So today, we, who call ourselves Christians -How many times shall we forgive? That depends. Let’s ask ourselves this question: Do you need to forgive for our own peace of mind? Usually the answer will be yes.
Secondly, let’s remind ourselves of Christ's teaching and ask if we need to forgive in order to witness to Christ's presence in our life.
Finally, ask how often we have sinned against others or against God. Has God forgiven us? If the answer is a resounding yes, then isn’t it time we forgave someone else?
If we find ourselves in the club of those who find it so hard to forgive other people, chances are that we have not come to appreciate and celebrate enough the immeasurable forgiveness that we ourselves have received from God.
So, let us pray today for a deeper appreciation of the amazing love that God has shown us in Christ. It is this awareness that will make it easier for us to let others off the hook for their relatively minor offences against us.
Lets hear again the words of Jesus – YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN.
And lets go and forgive others – for the glory of God.