Sunday, 26 September 2010

Jazzed up Sunday

West Jesmond Rhythm Kings
 Luke 16 v 19-31

Our gospel readings for the past few weeks have been really tricky passages – all parables that Jesus told – difficult to interpret, difficult to make sense of for contemporary living.
And the parable we read this morning about the rich man and the poor man, comparing notes after death, seems to be proclaiming another very difficult and harsh message.
In some churches, at this time of year, they have a stewardship season – encouraging folks to think about their commitment to the church – their time, their talents and their money.
It’s the time of year when many pledges are renewed – or not!
And so preaching revolves around that theme of giving to God and to the work of the church.
Certainly, the last few weeks, the lectionary passages have fitted well with the theme of giving – we’ve looked at taking risks, we’ve looked at choosing whom to serve, we’ve looked at priorities.
But we’ve probably shied away from preaching too emphatically about commitment and, in particular, about monetary giving.
That’s something we’re just not comfortable about preaching in our denomination.
Indeed, a friend was telling me that last time she preached on this passage, she felt it fell neatly into two halves – a message about money and a message about hell.
So she gave her congregation a choice – you know like in those adventure books you get now – or the online games that kids play – where you choose the direction the story takes.
She gave her congregation the choice – did they want to hear a message about money – or one about hell.
Which would you choose?
Or hell?
That congregation chose hell.
And I’m sure there are many congregations that would rather hear about hell than be challenged about their giving.

A teenager recently said to me that hell was something that had been dreamed up by the religious hierarchy just to keep folk in line.
A bit like the claim that religion itself was a way of keeping folk in line at the time of the industrial revolution.

So is this parable today just a scare mongering way of controlling folk?
Or are we being called, once again, to assess our priorities and decide on the risks that are worth taking.
Today, more than ever, it is a huge risk to put our trust in God.
Churches are no different to any other institution in our current economic climate – risk averse.
Battening down the hatches rather than stepping out in faith.
But even in good times, the church often tends to play it safe.
Even though we preach and supposedly trust in a God of miracles, we rarely practise the faith we proclaim.
We trust more in what we can see than in what we can’t – and so we get caught up in the acquisition of wealth and of riches – we want sureties and easily get distracted.
THAT is what this parable is warning against.
Our being seduced by affluence that we can see instead of realising that there are other ways of being rich.
Living by faith is not for the fainthearted.
The benefits are not immediately apparent.
And the journey can be pretty hairy.
We have to decide whether it’s a risk we’re willing to take or whether we’d rather play safe.
Today’s parable flags up a very human trait – of hedging our bets – often until it’s too late.
But maybe the problem is that when in every other area of our life we are being asked to take risks, to speculate, to move from familiar patterns and embark on new territory, we want some semblance of familiarity in our faith and in the church or congregation in which we choose to share that faith.
It’s a gift that we have the jazz band with us this morning.
Jazz music involves a huge amount of risk taking, of trusting other musicians, of pushing the boundaries.
Lots of analogies that we could bring to bear on our practice as followers of Jesus.
Collaboration, innovation, exploration – all trends that we associate with jazz musicians.
Trends that we could do with more of in the church – though I have to say that, in some places, there is a lot of fluidity in the church just now, lots of opportunity to be creative, to improvise, to take risks if we have the nerve.
There are plenty risk averse folk in the church  to moderate things– we don’t need to worry about things getting out of control.
We need the folk who are slightly behind the beat as well as those who are slightly ahead.
A little instability does no harm in keeping us on top of the game but, most importantly we need good team work.
We need to be able to trust each other enough to take the risks that need to be taken to reach out and serve those outside of our institution and, above all, we need to trust that our God is the one who is right on top of the beat, encouraging us to follow a rhythm that, whatever risks it demands, in the end, leads to each of us fulfilling our potential in this life and in the life to come.

Collaboration, improvisation, innovation – for the glory of God.

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