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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Be Joyful Always

From St Paul's instructions to the Thessalonians, which formed part of our first reading:
“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Hmmm. It rather jumped out and hit me in the face when I was reading the passages set for this Sunday, and I can't help but wonder what on earth St Paul was talking about. How on earth are we supposed to be joyful always? Does he mean we always have to be happy, and it's wrong if we are miserable? Surely not! How can we pray continually? We do have lives, after all – we need to concentrate on other things like cooking the dinner or the work we're being paid to do! And how about giving thanks in all circumstances? Even in the middle of a disaster?

The Bible tells us, over and over again, that we should rejoice and be glad – I believe there are over 800 verses telling us to. So it must be something we are meant to do. But how?

We aren't always happy and rejoicing – and indeed, it would be quite wrong if we were. If someone is hurting very badly, it doesn't help to go and be happy all over them! There are times when we are all very unhappy – personal tragedies, dreadful things that happen to loved ones, national tragedies.... how can we “be joyful always” when people have lost their homes in a hurricane or an earthquake?

Indeed, in the letter to the Romans St Paul tells us to “Weep with those who weep” as well as “Rejoice with those who rejoice”. And even our dear Lord wept when he arrived at Bethany and found his friend Lazarus dead and buried.

So it's obviously not wrong to be unhappy, to be sad. And yet we are told to be joyful.

Well, for one thing, St Paul also reminds us, in the letter to the Galatians, that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. And this means that it isn't something we have to find within ourselves. It is something that grows within us as we go on with God and as we allow God the Holy Spirit to fill us more and more. Joy grows, just as love, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control do. We become more and more the people we were created to be, more and more the people God knows we can be.

That doesn't mean we'll never be unhappy, far from it. But we know, as St Paul also tells us, that God works all things together for good for those that love him. Even the bad things, even the dreadful things that break God's heart even more than they break ours. Even those.

We may be unhappy, we may be grieving, we may be depressed. But we can still be joyful, we can still rejoice, because God is still God, and God still loves us. Okay, sometimes it doesn't feel like that, but that's only what it feels like, not what has really happened. God will never abandon us, God will always love us. God will weep with us when we weep. And underneath there always is that joy, the joy of our salvation.

Okay, maybe that is understandable. We can be joyful always if joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But what about praying continually? We have lives, don't we? We have to do such basic things as eating and sleeping and going to the loo, never mind earning our living. How can we pray continually?

I suppose it depends on what prayer is. If it's all about a conversation with God, or even worse, a monologue from us telling God about our world and our lives, then it probably isn't possible.

But what if, what if it were more about an attitude of mind? A way of living where we are continually conscious of God's presence with us, of God's love for us? There is a plaque some people like to have in their homes that says “Christ is the head of this house; the unseen guest at every table, the silent listener to every conversation.” That can sound as though he's some kind of creepy stalker, but it's also a reality, if you are God's person. And one can practice being aware of this, of God's constant presence with us.

It does take practice, of course; you can't just go from only thinking of God when you're in Church on Sunday or when you're praying or reading your Bible at home, and forgetting about Him when you're watching East Enders or getting the supper. Some people find it helpful to build reminders into their lives, so that every time they put the kettle on, say, or get up from their chair, or whatever, they remember to – I was going to say grin at God, but you know what I mean. After all, you can be sitting very happily in the same room as someone else, both of you utterly absorbed in whatever it is you're doing – even, it has to be said, watching different television programmes over the Internet – but you're still aware that the other person is there. I think it must be a bit like that with God. You can be getting on with your life but aware, in the background, that God is there with you. I wonder if it's that that St Paul meant by “Pray continually.” I think it must be something like.

By the way, don't think I'm some sort of super-spiritual genius – I can't do this, a lot of the time. Sometimes I can, but more often than not it doesn't happen!
I'd like to be able to – but then again, like all of us, there are times when I'd really rather forget.....

And, you know, I bet that, like the underlying joy that the Holy Spirit gives, being able to be aware of God's presence, so that you can take up and put down conversations with Him, must also be a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So, be joyful always, pray continually, and the third one was “Give thanks in all circumstances.”

Give thanks in all circumstances.

Now, I know there are some writers who have interpreted this to mean that we have to give thanks for everything. I don't see how we can do that – I mean, we know that God's heart breaks when a child is killed on the roads, or when an earthquake devastates a country. How are we supposed to give thanks for things that make God Himself weep?

I don't think it means that. I think it's more about having a thankful heart. About acknowledging God's good gifts to us. About – okay, if you like, about counting our blessings. We can't, and I don't think we should, thank God for the dreadful things – but we can be aware that God is there, in the midst of the dreadful things, and we can certainly thank him for that. We can be aware that in all things God does work for good for those who love him.
“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

“For this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” That's important, too. I don't think we can just do all this in a vacuum. It is because God wants this for us, it is His best for us.

Yes, it will take some work on our part – we know that God the Holy Spirit will most certainly do his part by enabling us to develop a sense of joy in Christ that can and will be there even through the most heartbreaking of outward circumstance, but of course we have to do our part by allowing Him to, by practising, with His help, being aware of his presence at all times and developing, again with His help, a thankful heart that sees and acknowledges what God is doing in our world. And no, it won't be easy, and no, we can't do it by ourselves but only with Christ's help.

We are in the season called Advent, and Christmas is rapidly approaching. We've already started singing carols – King's Acre's carol service is this afternoon, if you fancy coming along – four o'clock, I think. And over the Christmas season, we will be singing words like, “Yet what I can, I give him, give my heart” and “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!” The thing is, do we really mean it? Are we just singing lyrics we've known for years and never really taken much notice of? Even the ghastly “Away in a Manger” – “No crying he makes?” I don't think so! Not if he was a real baby, not a wax doll! Anyway, sorry, even when we sing “Away in a Manger” we are asking God to “fit us for heaven, to live with thee there!”

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? St Paul's instructions are things we simply can't do on our own, no matter how hard we try. But if we do ask God to help us fulfil them, if we do learn to “Be joyful always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances”, then when we do get to heaven, we'll fit right in! Amen.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Micah, Matthew and Me

I must admit I rather despaired when I looked at this week’s readings. What on earth am I going to say about them? But then I had a second look, and decided that the Micah and Matthew readings were saying much the same thing, but to different people in different ways. I wonder, though, what they have to say to us today. And then I listened to the news.....

Micah was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly, as in our reading, because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds"

An archaeologist called Roland de Vaux has excavated village sites only a few miles from where Micah is thought to have lived, and he has something very interesting to say: “The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbors. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”

During those 200 years, Israel and Judah had moved from a largely agricultural society to one governed by a monarchy and with a Temple in Jerusalem. The distinction between the “Haves” and the “Have nots” had grown, as it does still today. But Micah tells the powerful ones – the judges, the priests, the rulers – that God will have no interest in propping up any so-called progress that is built on the backs of other people. For God, justice and equality matter far more than progress or growth.

Thus Micah. So what of Matthew?

Here we have Jesus lambasting the religious leaders of the day. Or not. He says to listen to their teachings and follow them, but not to imitate them. They put on a huge display of being holy, when they really aren’t. They lay huge burdens on people. As I’ve said many times before, the trouble with the Pharisees was that they really did want to follow God, but they had misunderstood what was wanted, and thought that in order to be God's person, you simply had to follow the law absolutely exactly. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.

Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why. And, of course, somewhat inevitably, they tended to be rather proud if they managed to live as they thought right, and then they looked down on those who didn't live as they did, believing God would exclude them. Jesus takes this further, and says that not only do they place impossible burdens on people, but they also then don’t follow the law themselves – they are too proud of being holy, too proud of their position. They compete to wear the biggest phylacteries – a phylactery, incidentally, was a small leather box which you put a verse or two of Scripture in – often, I believe, the verse that goes “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” – and then wore bound round your forehead and on your arm during prayers. Only the Pharisees tended to wear theirs all the time, which wasn’t the idea at all. Remember how Jesus, elsewhere, told his followers not to show off when they prayed, or to make a big fuss when giving to charity?

Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees for enjoying their status, revelling in being looked up to, getting the best seats and so on. It’s not about that, he says. It’s not about status or standing – it’s about following God.

I am not sure quite why vast swathes of the Church have disregarded the instruction not to call any man “Father”, and address their ministers or priests as such, but there you go. But the point is, Jesus says, that the greatest among you must be your servant, just as he was to wash his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus has said that elsewhere, too. A great deal of Matthew’s gospel is devoted to this concept – those three great chapters 5, 6 and 7 which contain the distillation of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, and then these later chapters. For Matthew and his congregation, the emphasis was very much on serving others, on putting yourself last, on being there for other people.

So, then, for Micah it’s all about being honest, not taking bribes, not giving dishonest weight, not expecting God to be on your side no matter how you behave. God is more interested in justice than in growth. For Matthew it’s about not putting on side, not being puffed up because of your position. And what, then, is it for me? For us, really, but that doesn’t start with “M”!

Well, one very important thing happened this week – Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser resigned his post at St Paul's Cathedral because he could not countenance the Cathedral's decision to have the protesters forcibly removed from outside it. He believes that the Church should have no part in violence, and has paid for his principles with his job. The Revd Fraser Dyer, a vicar who was a part-time chaplain there, also resigned for similar reasons.

All the comments I've seen on Facebook and elsewhere make it clear how much Canon Fraser and Mr Dyer is being admired for their stands. They are people who know what they believe is right, and not only say so, but Caonon Fraser, at least, has put his money, quite literally, where his mouth is. He is the antithesis of the religious leaders that Micah and Matthew condemn.

And those people who have been protesting outside the Cathedral are also standing up for what they believe in. Canon Fraser apparently commented, back in August at the time of the riots, that people in the City were no better, really, only out for what they could get. And the protesters would like to see that changed. We may or may not agree with their methods, but can we disagree with their viewpoint?

Our passages today condemn greed, they condemn self-seeking and they condemn vanity. We will, I'm sure, say if we're asked that we know all that, that we wouldn't dream of behaving in the way Matthew and Micah describe. No, I don't suppose we would – but would we go as far as Canon Fraser did? I wonder! Still, we aren't, right now, called to do so – although you never know what lies around the bend in the road.

But it really isn't easy not to be complacent! We so often fall into the trap of considering ourselves – not exactly better, but perhaps wiser or something – than our neighbour.  Do you remember the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the Pharisee thanked God that he was so much better than the tax collector, and his whole prayer was thanking God, not for what God had done, but for what he had?  I heard a story of a Sunday-school teacher –  not, I hasten to add, one of ours – who told her class this story and then said, “Now children, let us thank God we are not like that Pharisee!”  

Well yes, we might laugh – but I didn’t laugh when, meditating upon that story, I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-school teacher!  Oops!

See what I mean?

It isn’t easy, but it’s not meant to be an impossible burden, either.  It is, after all, for freedom Christ has set us free, so the Apostle Paul tells us.  We shouldn’t be burdened by guilt, or by anything else that our leaders choose to put on us.  Sometimes we preachers – oh yes, I’m quite sure I do it, too – sometimes we accidentally make it very difficult for people to follow Jesus.  

We assume, often quite without realising it, that our way of following Jesus, of being Christ’s person, is the only valid way, and then when other people have a different experience, we try to tell them there’s something wrong with them!  

One of the things that really impressed me in the interview the BBC had with Canon Fraser was his insistence that the Chapter of St Paul's wasn't split over the issue – they disagreed, yes, and he felt that his principles meant he had to resign, but he respected that other people had different views to his. How refreshing to hear someone say, almost in so many words, that different doesn't necessarily mean wrong!

This, I think, is why Jesus tells us in Matthew not to put our teachers and preachers and ministers on a pedestal.  That only ends up showing up their feet of clay!  Only God is the perfect Teacher, and what filters through us is, at best, flawed and at worst can be pernicious – look at some of the things that Christians do and say in the name of Christ.  Things like “God hates Gays”, or that “Unborn children are so precious that the mother’s life and health don’t matter.”  Or, the hardy perennial: “Give lots of money to God – or rather, to the preacher – and you will be rich and healthy!” Getting back, yet again, to Me First!

Listen, we're not supposed to be discouraged by all this! Jesus makes it quite clear that religious leaders can lay impossible burdens on their followers, and that's not just the Pharisees! We look at people who do great things for God and despair because we're not like them. We would be reluctant to resign our job on a principle. We don't want to let go of our complacency. We would like lots of money and frankly, our own wants do tend to come first with us! And we find preachers who tell us Not To Be Like That very difficult to cope with.

The thing is, as so often, it's about allowing God to work in our hearts, to change us into the people we were designed to be. And then when the time comes that we might be called on to give up something precious for the sake of the Gospel, like Canon Fraser, when we might be called to live with less money for awhile, or to yield to someone else's agenda, and we never do know what's just round the bend in the road – if and when that time ever comes, if we are really serious about God, and about allowing Him to work within us, then we will be able to cope. Without him, no. But with him – well, it might not be easy, it might well be very difficult indeed, but we will cope. Amen.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What belongs to God

Has anybody got penny on them? Or even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?

We’re used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically, given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.

When I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on – the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates of 20th-century monarchs!

Different countries have different things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they have a different design on one side depending on which country issued them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, or a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones have a picture of the Pope! That might be a fun game to play with my grandson in a few years’ time - guess which country this euro-coin comes from, and you may have it. Assuming, that is, that the Euro survives its present crisis, but that’s another story.

This convention, of showing the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was thought to be divine.

You might remember how the earliest Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins carried a double whammy for them.

They got round it by having their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the moneychangers that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.

Now, Jesus is in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the puppet-king, Herod.

The question is a total trick question, of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images; it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.

So Jesus asks for a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled, Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?

And we all know what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God.

It’s kind of difficult, at this distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.

So what is Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them. It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we don’t. We know from Paul’s letters that in the best of all worlds, Christians should pay their taxes and live quietly under the radar, exercising their democratic right to vote and not taking part in violent overthrow of a legitimate government. Doesn’t always work like that, of course, but by and large.

Maybe the clue is in that word image - eikon. For are we not told that we are made in the image of God? If our picture were on a coin, it would say round the side “A child of God” - not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s beloved children.

Sure, sometimes God’s image gets marred and spoilt, when we go astray. I’ve seen coins that have been buried in the earth for years, and they go all tarnished, and sometimes, if they’ve been there for centuries, they build up an accretion of gunk round them to the point that you can’t possibly tell what they are. But even that gunk can be cleaned off, with care – and you’ve all seen those Cillit Bang ads where he dips a penny into the fluid and it comes up bright and shiny again!

Maybe Jesus is saying that this is not an issue to divide people – Caesar gets what belongs to him, which is the coin, and God gets what belongs to him, which is us! No need to choose – you don’t have to be either a quisling or a resistance worker. We don’t separate what belongs to Caesar from what belongs to God – we give ourselves to God, and the rest follows!

Is it, then, about possibly owing a small amount of money in tax, but owing God a far greater amount – our very being? Yes, that is definitely part of it. It was, I think, forty years ago this week that I first consciously said “Yes” to God; and yes, that does make me horrendously old! But the more I go on with God, the more it seems not only possible, but also sensible. You see, God created us in His image and likeness, and not only that, but God redeemed us through Jesus, and empowers us, by the Holy Spirit. So yes, we do owe God our very being – we are created by him, and without him we wouldn't exist. It's not so much that we owe him the duty of giving ourselves back to him – we do, of course, but we know that! It's more about not being able to fulfil our potential on our own. We are made in God's image, but unless we allow God to indwell that image, to empower it, we will never really fulfil our potential as human beings. So we owe it to ourselves, almost as much as we owe it to God, to say “Yes” to him, to open ourselves to Him.

So we are made in God's image, and as such we owe it to both God and to ourselves to give ourselves back to God. But we also owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure that our image reflects God.

We owe it to God and to ourselves to make sure our image reflects God. There's a wonderful book by an author called Georgette Heyer, I don't know if people read her much these days, but this book is called “These Old Shades”, and in it, one of the characters – a child – is taken to Versailles and sees the king, and her rather sleepy reaction at the end of the evening is, “He is just like on the coins!” I wonder whether anybody would recognise God after having seen us. Would they say, “He's just like on the coins”?

The thing is, we do mar God's image in us – I mentioned earlier how coins can be so covered in the gunk of ages as to be unrecognisable. But coins can be cleaned – again, remember the Cillit Bang ad. Our prayer of confession today was one of the alternate Anglican ones, which I have always loved for the words “We have wounded your love and marred your image in us.”
This, for me, reflects the fact that we are made in God's image, and that sometimes that image gets distorted.

I am well aware that this sort of thing is apt to make us all feel guilty, apt to make us feel we must be terrible Christians, and so on. But that's so not what I want to do here. After all, there are plenty of other ways of distorting God's image – look at the Pharisees, for instance, who tried to turn God into a set of rules and regulations. Or in our own day, look at some of the more extreme Christian sects in the USA who want to preserve unborn children at all costs, including the mother's right to her own body. Or that church that proclaims that God hates gays.

Yet all of those are following God to the best of their ability. Yes, they have got things tragically wrong. Yes, they are distorting, marring, God's image in them. But they are not, I think, any more evil than you or I are. And God will, I pray, help them find their way back.

Because that, in the end, is what God is all about. God minds far more about our relationship with him than we do! We wander off, we get lost, marring God's image in us, distorting Christianity into something very much less than it is – oh yes, I've been there and done that – and yet, every time, the Good Shepherd pulls on his Barbour and his Wellies and goes looking for us to bring us back into the fold. We don't have to do it ourselves. Indeed, it's when we try that the distortions are apt to happen. We just need to be open to allowing God to keep us clean and polished and ready for action!

The coins that bear Caesar's image on them need to be given to Caesar. But the coins that bear God's image – we ourselves, each and every one of us who names the name of Christ as Saviour and as Lord – those coins need to be given to God, reflecting His glory, and allowing Him to work in our lives to make us more and more like Him, and more and more the people He designed us to be. Amen.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Doing it God's way

You know, I feel very sorry for Moses. There he is, doing his best to lead his people to the Promised Land, and what happens? They do nothing but grumble! They keep telling him they'd rather be back in slavery in Egypt, thank you very much, quite ignoring the fact that when they were in slavery, they hated it! But first of all they didn't have anything to eat, and then, when God provided manna for them – and nobody knows what manna was, exactly, only that it was edible and tasted good – they got bored of it, and wanted meat, so God sent quails for them. And now here they are grumbling because tonight's camping place doesn't have any fresh water for them. Moses is very fed up, and also slightly afraid of a riot and stoning, so God intervenes and tells Moses to hit a certain rock with his staff and water gushes out. And the people of Israel stopped grumbling, until the next time!

They were never contented. And nor, in many ways, were the Pharisees from our Gospel reading. They were not bad people, of course; they really did want to follow God, but they had misunderstood what was wanted, and thought that in order to be God's person, you simply had to follow the law absolutely exactly. To help them do that, they had added some incredibly detailed “what ifs” and “in this case yous” to the Law. The Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, provided for every single detail of life, and if you failed to keep it absolutely perfectly, then, they thought, God wouldn’t want to know you.

Well, that was all very well. The Pharisees meant well, of course, but they were, quite without realising it, imposing impossible burdens on people. It was quite impossible to keep the Law in their way. And the Pharisees themselves made one very big mistake: they rated keeping the Law more highly than human relationships. They were more concerned about the way people obeyed, or did not obey, the Law than they were about who people were, and how they were hurting, and why. And, of course, somewhat inevitably, they tended to be rather proud if they managed to live as they thought right, and then they looked down on those who didn't live as they did, believing God would exclude them.

And they find Jesus' teachings very unsettling, especially when he starts telling them they're being totally hypocritical, fussing about how many mint leaves to tithe but ignoring people who are in need. Unsettling and disturbing. So they ask Jesus by whose authority he is speaking.

Now this was a trick question, of course. If he claimed a human source for his authority, they could discredit it. If he said it was just his own thoughts, or, worse, if he claimed it came from God, they could stone him for a heretic. It could be that some of them genuinely wanted to know, but many would have hoped he'd blunder. But he didn't. He turned it back on them – okay who gave John the authority to baptise? And that, too, was a trick question. If they said John's authority was from God, Jesus could legitimately ask why they hadn't believed him, and if they said it was merely human, well, what would the people think – they believed John was a prophet sent from God, and weren't going to stand for the Pharisees telling them different!

And then Jesus tells them the lovely little story to show how it's not always the obvious people who are first in line for the kingdom of God. The two sons, one seemingly more than willing to help his father in the vineyard, the other with some excuse or other not to. And then the role reversal, the first son failing to go, despite having said he would; the second son finding he was free after all and going to help. And he was the one who found favour with his father that day. “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.”

And if you didn't believe John, Jesus implied, you aren’t going to believe me, either!

So what do these readings have to say to us this morning?

I think it's very much about our expectations. What do we expect from God? The people of Israel expected God, through Moses, to provide for their every want. Not just their every need – which he manifestly did – but their every whim. They wanted leeks and onions and all the delicious food they'd left behind in Egypt. They wanted to be free, but they didn't want to pay the price of that freedom! They wanted to be in the Promised Land already, without having to travel there, if that makes sense. And whenever things got slightly uncomfortable for them, they grumbled and moaned and whined – on one occasion, you may remember, they even went so far as to worship another god in the shape of a golden calf. They wanted God to do things their way.

And the Pharisees also wanted God to do it their way. They wanted God to say they were doing it right, their tithes and their keeping the law in infinite detail would make things all right. God would, they hoped, accept them because they kept the Law. Which was all very well, but not when it turned into that they hoped God would reject those who didn't keep the Law! They definitely wanted God to do it their way!

I have a horrid nasty feeling that we are all too apt to do this, too. I know I do. It would be nice to be able to manipulate God, to make God do things our way. In many ways, it would be nice to be able to take responsibility for our own salvation. We can't, of course, any more than the Pharisees could. They tried to be saved by keeping God's law exactly perfectly, just as we try to assume we are saved because we have committed ourselves to be Jesus' person. But they weren't, and we aren't. We are saved by God's grace alone, and we can do nothing to change that.

That sounds as though I'm preaching about predestination and stuff like that. I'm not. As Methodists, we believe that everybody needs to be saved, and that everybody can be saved, can know they are saved, and can be saved to the uttermost. But the point is, while I know that God has saved me, whatever I might mean by that – and I don't always know, so don't go asking me – I know that God has saved me, but I have no way of knowing about you. You know, yes. You know, and you will doubtless tell me, that God has indeed saved you, but I have no way of knowing unless you tell me. And you have no way of knowing about anybody else, and nor do I.

We can't make God do things our way. We'd like it if people were only saved if they prayed the sinners' prayer, or whatever, and then expressed their faith exactly like we do. Human nature, that is. The Israelites wanted God to do things their way, to provide all sorts of delicious food for them whenever they wanted it, not just camp rations. They wanted to have arrived in the Promised Land without having to go there.

We have to remember that it was the son who worked in the vineyard who did what his father wanted. The father still loved the son who changed his mind and didn't go – that was never the issue. He still loved him, but he wasn't best pleased about it, all the same.

So what is it God wants us to do? Obviously to believe, to have faith. And to stop trying to manipulate him! It really isn't easy. I was upset by something earlier this week, and found myself praying, “Lord, if you do that, I'll never speak to you again!” What I should have been praying, and what God gave me the grace, eventually, to be able to pray, was: “Lord, if you want to do that, you're going to have to change me to enable me to accept it, because I certainly can't right now!” I dare say God could manage very happily if I never spoke to him again – but I'm not sure I could!

Seriously, though, it can get like that, can't it? Another rather silly example – someone on Facebook posted a comment that I considered judgemental, and I was going to post “Judge not, that ye be not judged” on his status, when I realised – or God pointed out to me, whichever – that if I did that, I'd be being just as judgemental as I was planning to accuse him of being! Oops!

It isn't easy to do things God's way, rather than to try to make God do things our way. That is always the temptation – I know it's one of my persistent temptations, and I shouldn't wonder if some of you share it. We want our own way; we think we know how the world should be run, and we think God is very silly not to see it the same way as we do. Okay, when I put it like that, it sounds ridiculous – but isn't that exactly what the Israelites were doing? What did God think he was doing, they wondered, making them camp here where there wasn't any fresh water? Isn't it exactly what the Pharisees were doing? What did God think he was doing, they wondered, sending this laughing young man to tell them they'd got totally the wrong idea about God?

The good news is, of course, that we can catch ourselves doing it, and repent. I don't mean having to grovel and tell God how awful we are – often, it is enough just to laugh at ourselves. “Oops, I did it again!” as the song says... And if we can and do commit ourselves to doing things God's way, then next time we try and do it the other way round, we might catch ourselves just that wee bit earlier.

And yes, sometimes it isn't at all easy. If things look as though they might be going in a direction we would hate – illness, a threatened job loss, whatever it might be – it's not at all easy to say to God, “do it your way. Thy will be done!” Often we know God's going to have to change us before we can accept it.

But we do, in the end, have to say “Thy will be done!” to God. If we keep on and on saying “Do it my way!” eventually God might just take us at our word – and leave us to get on with it. And, as I said, I don't know about you, but I don't think I could cope with a universe without God, could you? Amen.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not helping!

Poor old Peter – he never seemed to be able to be right for very long, did he? In the passage from Matthew that was set for last week – did you hear it, I wonder – he was the one who proclaimed that Jesus was the true Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But now we see him getting it wrong. He was only trying to help, but somehow it didn't work.

Jesus was telling them that he was probably going to have to die, and Peter says “No, I won't let that happen!” And Jesus is so tempted – supposing Peter did fight? I wonder, what would have happened – not that we are ever told that. Peter did have a sword, we know – he had it in the Garden of Gethsemane. Unusual for a fisherman to have one, but Peter did, and he may well have known how to use it. But probably he would have been overwhelmed and died, and the result would have been the same. All the same, it must have been so heartwarming for Jesus to know he had a friend who was prepared to put his life on the line. But no – Jesus mustn't listen. This was the voice of the tempter, always so near, so insidious, so tempting.... “Get thee behind me Satan!” he says. “Peter, you're not helping!”

Peter was trying so hard to help, but really, he wasn't helping at all.

That happens sometimes. I asked the children earlier to try to remember a time when they had tried to help and it all went wrong. Or perhaps you can remember such a time? You thought you were being helpful, but you weren't.

I think this happens to us as Christians far more than we really care to think about. We think we are being helpful, showing others about how lovely it is to be a Christian, but really, we are putting people off.

Take one example, for instance – street preachers! Now, you know and I know that it takes a very great deal of courage to go out there and proclaim your faith in the middle of the street, to hordes of shoppers who haven't the time or the energy to listen, or to commuters who just want to get home and put their feet up. But why is it that so often you listen to what they have to say and cringe? All too many seem to think that the Good News is that you are a sinner and God is going to condemn you! Is that helping?

I remember once I'd had to go up to Oxford Circus to buy something – I can't now remember what – and there was a street preacher who had decided, for some reason, that all the people going shopping were there just for their own selfish pleasure and started berating them for consumerism. I was very tempted to point out to him that he really didn't have a clue, but didn't. I expect he went home very pleased with himself, but was he helping? I don't think so!

But there's me being judgemental, and that won't do, either. I am as bad as any – I try to preach love, not judgement, as you know, but is what I preach reflected in my own life? I don't think so! Well, not all the time, anyway. It's so not easy to get it right – often, we want to comfort a friend, for instance, but what do you say? So often, whatever we say is wrong!

I'm sure you've found this as often as I have – a well-meaning friend tries to comfort you when you're upset, but actually makes things worse! I know sometimes being told that God will never fail me or forsake me really hasn't helped when it's felt that this is exactly what has just happened! I know, obviously, that God hadn't failed me or forsaken me, but at the time, it felt like it! But sometimes people simply won't acknowledge the reality of our feelings: “Oh no, you don't feel like that”, or “Oh no, you don't believe that!” It doesn’t help. I remember once being told, by someone who really ought to have known better, that if I didn't find God's promises true – I forget which one I was complaining about – there was something wrong with me!

Well, quite probably there was – but it really didn't help for the person to say so. God doesn't always work in ways that are as straightforward as we would like to believe, does He? The Holy Spirit is a rushing mighty wind, not an electric fan. Or, if you like, he is not a tame lion! God does exactly what God wants, and because He sees round corners in a way that you and I simply can't, we don't always know what's going on. And being told that if we believe thus and so, or pray in these words rather than that, then our pain will wrap itself up into a nice little ball and go away really isn't helping!

We will see our loved ones again in Heaven, no doubt – but that doesn't help when we want to see them fit and well here on earth, does it? The thought that we will, one day, see them again is a great comfort once the worst of the pain is over, but it's no comfort at all when there is a great big black hole in the middle of your life where they once were!

Of course, we have all mouthed pious platitudes at friends in trouble – I know I have. And I don't suppose it helped, any more than it helped when friends mouthed pious platitudes at me! The Bible may say thus and so, but in the real world, people have feelings and emotions and although God simply adores us, he never promised we wouldn't have trouble and pain. Nor did he promise that we would be aware of him while we were having it – only that he would never fail us or forsake us. And he did promise that he would work all things for good to those who love him, but he didn't promise that would exclude the bad things!

I think a lot of the time it's because we don't know what on earth to say! We want to make ourselves feel better by clinging to the truths – and don't get me wrong, of course they are truths – that we have found in the Bible. But sometimes it's just simply the wrong thing to say. Or perhaps it's the right thing to say at the wrong moment! Someone whose marriage is in dire trouble simply doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't divorce – they need to be loved and held and allowed to cry. Someone who finds themselves unexpectedly pregnant doesn't need to hear that Christians shouldn't do sex when they're not married.... bit late for that, I should think! Again, we need to learn how not to be judgemental – and oh, how hard it is to learn that!

And perhaps we need to learn how not to give advice! Often, the best answer to “What should I doooooo?” is “What do you think you ought to do?” or “What choices do you have?” Usually, I think, people make the wisest choices when we help them find out for themselves what to do, rather than tell them!

I seem to have got a long way from Peter, but it's all part of the same thing, really. “Lord, I'll never let this happen to you!” Peter was in denial about what was to happen. How often we deny what our friends are feeling, we tell them they don't feel like that, or worse, that they are wrong to feel like that. Oh, I've been there and done that – obnoxious little prig I was, when I was younger! Probably still am!

Peter wanted to make himself feel better, as much as Jesus: look how supportive I'm being! But that wasn't what was wanted just then. What Jesus needed, arguably, was a shoulder to cry on, or even someone to buy him a pint and let him have an hour or so to relax and forget about what was looming. Denial didn't help. The wrong kind of being supportive didn't help. Tempting Jesus to look for a way out of it didn't help. Peter was trying to be helpful, but in the end, he was not helping!
This is all very depressing, really! I'm sure we've all remembered occasions that we look back on and cringe at what we said to someone that really didn't help, that made matters a great deal worse! But that, of course, is not what I want to leave with you today. Yes, the street preachers I started with need to learn where people are, not where they think they are, so they address themselves to the problems people are actually facing, not what they think they ought to be facing. Yes, we need to learn how not to be judgemental, how not to give unwanted advice, how not to try to make ourselves feel better by regurgitating the “Christian” answer to a problem that really doesn't address how our friend is feeling.

But the point is, we are human, and we're always going to get it wrong some of the time. And the One to whom we go for forgiveness when we do get something wrong is also the One who will help us and enable us to get it wrong less often. God the Holy Spirit can, does and will help us to get it right.

Look at Peter again. This is the same man to whom God gave the knowledge that Jesus was – is – the Messiah, God's anointed one. This is the same man who denied Jesus three times. This is the same man who leapt over the side of his boat to swim to the shore to greet the risen Lord. And this is the same man who was anointed so powerfully at Pentecost that one sermon converted three thousand people!

If God can use Peter, despite Peter's propensity for putting his foot in it, God can use us. And that's why we shouldn't despair when we find we are not helping – we should, instead, ask God how we can help. And listen to the answer! It isn't always the obvious “Christian” thing – in fact, very often it isn't. Perhaps, if people don't tend to come to us for support and reassurance, they have learnt they won't find it from us. But as we make ourselves more and more open to God; as we learn that we don't have to be perfect, we just have to be Christians; as we learn more and more to listen to God and to expect the unexpected, so people will come to us more and more. Amen.

Children's Talk: Not helping

So, you younger ones.
Do you have to help at home?
What sort of jobs do you do?
Perhaps you make your own beds,
or keep your bedrooms tidy,
or do you help Mum in the kitchen?
Some of you older young ones do the cooking sometimes, I know –
I heard all about that delicious roast chicken.....

When my daughter was little, she had to keep her room tidy,
and she had pet mice,
so she had to keep their cage clean
and make sure they had enough food and water and so on.
And later on she used to cook sometimes –
she's a great cook, and I love going to meals round at hers.
When I was a little girl, we had to make our own beds and help with the washing-up after meals –
my parents didn't have a dishwasher back in those days.

But sometimes, when you try to help, things go wrong, don't they?
I remember several dropped plates when I was trying to dry the dishes –
that wasn't very helpful.
And I vividly remember burning a panful of sausages beyond recall, which was also not helpful –
I didn't know how to cook them, and guessed wrong.

Can you think of some times when you tried to help and it all went wrong?
In our reading, Peter was trying to be helpful, and it didn't quite work.
And I'll be looking at some more ways in which we can be unhelpful in a little while, after the music group has led us in worship!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Waving or drowning?

These are two very familiar stories we've heard read this morning, aren't they? The story of Joseph and his – I was going to say his technicolour dreamcoat, but that's Andrew Lloyd Webber, not the Bible! And the story of Jesus walking on the water, which is the one episode that people who know nothing of Jesus seem to know about.

So anyway, Joseph. Talk about dysfunctional families – his was the very worst. His father had been a liar and a cheat, as had his maternal grandfather. And Joseph himself was the spoilt favourite – his father had two wives, you may remember, Rachel, whom he loved, and Leah, whom he didn't but was tricked into marrying anyway. He also had a couple of kids by Leah's and Rachel's maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, but Rachel, the beloved wife, had had trouble conceiving, so Joseph and his full brother Benjamin were very precious, especially as Rachel had died having Benjamin. He, it seems, was still too young to take much part in the story at this stage, but Joseph was well old enough to help his brothers – and, we are told, to spy on them and sneak on them to his father. And stupid enough to boast of self-important dreams.

It's not too surprising that his brothers hated him, is it? Obviously, he didn't deserve to be killed, but human nature is what it is, and the brothers were a long way from home and saw an opportunity to be rid of him. At least Reuben didn't go along with having him killed, although he did sell him to the Ishmaelites who were coming along.

Joseph has a lot of growing up to do, and we all know the story of what happened and how, in the end, he was able to forgive his brothers and help save them from famine.

Let's leave him for the minute, though, and go on to this story of Jesus walking on the water. This is the thing that everybody knows about Jesus, that he walked on water, and even those who don't realise that the Jesus who walked on water is the same Jesus whose birth is celebrated at Christmas know “walking on water” as some kind of metaphor for the divine.

But there's more to the story than that, just as there is more to Jesus than someone walking on water! Jesus didn't go much for spectacular displays of his divine power – that wasn't what he was about at all. In fact, you may remember that he refused to be tempted in that way when he was being tempted in the wilderness. He mostly kept who he was to himself, until the right time came.

And now it was the right time to join the disciples. He had told them to go on ahead while he stayed behind to pray, and at some time in the wee small hours he was ready to join them. They should have been at the far side of the lake by now, but they were up against a contrary wind. I've never been to the Sea of Galilee, but I'm told by those who have that the storms can blow up very suddenly, and the disciples, although experienced fishermen, were struggling slightly.

And then, here is Jesus, walking towards them on the water. Most of them are terrified, except for Peter, who says, “Lord, if that's really you, order me to come out on the water to you!”

And Jesus tells him to come, and he comes, and then he finds he really is walking on the water, and panics. Peter is a strong swimmer, he didn't really need to panic, but in the dark and the cold and the confusion.... well, Jesus grabs him and they get into the boat – and then suddenly it's calm and quiet.

Now, I don't know any more than you do whether this is a true story or not. It almost sounds as though it was a dream; or perhaps it was a legend that got into the story of Jesus at an early stage. Or perhaps it really did happen. At this distance, it doesn't matter; what does matter is that the story got into our Bibles, and so God means us to learn from it!

But what? What can we learn from either this story or the story of Joseph? In a way, the Joseph story is easier.

I am very blessed; I belong to a wonderful and close family. Last Sunday, I had the privilege of witnessing my grandson's baptism – he has a wonderfully close family on both sides, and, as his other grandmother said, a fairly uncomplicated one – only one branch where people have married more than once and had more than one family.

But I know how lucky and blessed we are. It's very unusual – all too many families these days aren't close, don't enjoy spending time with each other, and are what might be classed as dysfunctional. Sadly, even within our church family. We do like to put on a happy face when we come to church, pretend everything is lovely, even when it isn't.

But God sees behind the happy faces to the heartbreak behind. God knows that not all families are happy ones; not all parents can be kind and loving, no matter how much they might want to be. Not all husbands and wives can get along together. And so it goes on.

But when we look at the story of Joseph and his family, we can see that this doesn't actually matter to God. These people became God's chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel. God used them in spite of how dysfunctional, how disorganised, how downright cruel they were.

The story of Jesus walking on the water is, I think, more about Peter than it is about Jesus. If Jesus is who he says he is, then suspending the laws of nature is reasonable. But for Peter, fallible Peter – the one who, if he could get it wrong, did get it wrong – for Peter to walk on water is not reasonable. And Peter panicked and nearly drowned, and Jesus had to rescue him.

I was going to say that Peter is the most human of the disciples; I think, perhaps, it is that he is the one we read most about. We know when he puts his foot in it and says the wrong thing. We know when his faith fails him. We know when he panics and nearly drowns – or, indeed, when he panics and denies Jesus.

And yet: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

God chose Peter long before Peter chose God! Jesus knew that Peter was the one chosen to carry on the work after he, Jesus, had been raised to glory, even perhaps at at time when Jesus had only the faintest inkling of what lay before him.

God used Peter, even though Peter was so human and fallible. And God used Joseph and his family, even though they were so awful. And God can use you, and God can use me.

But.

And there always is a “But”, isn't there?

God couldn't use either Joseph or Peter as they were. Joseph had to grow up and stop being an immature brat. As you probably remember, we're told that he was accused of rape and left to languish in prison for several years, during which time he did grow up, and became an invaluable administrator and was thus able to help organise famine relief when it became clear that there was to be a massive famine. He matured enough to forgive his family, and to help them all settle in Egypt where, for several generations, they were happy and comfortable.

And God couldn't really use Peter the way he was, either. Peter was transformed, of course by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Not that he would claim to be perfect, even then, but he became someone God could use.

And you and I, we need to be transformed before God can use us. We need to allow God to work in us, to renew us, to make us into the person he intended us to be.

But the good news is, of course, that we don't have to be perfect! It doesn't matter what our family background is. It doesn't matter how chaotic our lives are just now. What does matter is our openness to God, and our willingness to be transformed.

I'm not sure how much, if anything, Joseph knew of God, other than as the sender of dreams. His transformation was a slow and painful process. Ours may be, too – but I'm sure of one thing, and that is that the more we are open to God, the more we commit ourselves to being God's person, the more honest we can be with ourselves and with God about how chaotic our lives are and how badly we get things wrong, then the easier it is for God to transform us.

And, of course, we don't have to wait for that transformation to have fully happened before God can use us! We can still be used, ready or not. And God does use us, sometimes, often even, without our knowledge. But never, I think, without our consent. Amen.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

God gets involved

One of the joys of preaching at two different churches on consecutive weeks on consecutive readings is that you can use the same introduction as you used last week! Which is my fairly standard Abraham introduction, but still...

I wasn't here last week because I was at Mostyn Road, and so I don't know what A focussed on. But I had a look a the story of what's called “The Binding of Isaac”, when Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac but doesn't at the last moment. Our Old Testament reading for today, follows more or less straight on from there, and tells how God provided a bride for Isaac to help fulfil the promise that Isaac would be the father of many nations.

Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham,
which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition,
were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC –
this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile,
the Temple had been destroyed,
and they had no king of their own.
Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem,
and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice.
So the various stories were collected and written down,
possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.

Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC. Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the latest he could have died was 1637 BC.
This was in the Bronze age –
he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.

When Robert and I were in Italy at Easter-time,
on Easter Monday we went to the town of Bolzano,
where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored.
You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago,
having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years.
The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham –
he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet.
But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on,
you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me!
That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.

Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised.
They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized!
However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the sort of food I like!
There was wine available, to make a change from beer,
but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich.
They played board-games,
enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum,
and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.

The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world,
they had to do without much furniture,
and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds.
But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live.
When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it?
They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.

But Abraham had felt called to leave there,
and to take his family and household and to live in the desert.
And there, eventually, long after Sarah had given up all hope of having a child, Isaac was born.

And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.

The servant explains, rather earnestly, how he asked God to show him which the right woman was – would she offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task – camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!

Rebecca's family would have liked a few days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!

We sometimes get alarmed about arranged marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another; we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!

I think Rebecca was very brave going off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?

But one thing stands out about this story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And God led them all to a happy ending.

I wonder how much we actually believe that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe! After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they don't?
Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?

Well, the Bible definitely tells us that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does God really care?

Many of us have lived through enough bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that, when we look back, we will see God's had upon it all. God may not have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has worked all things together for good for us.

It's not a matter of God waving a magic wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is happening.

It's more as if God is working with us, moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of decision and what God would like for us to do.

But, of course, as St Paul points out in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and regulations perfectly – how could we?

But Jesus points out that his burden is light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

I am sure Abraham's servant must have felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca. But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

Abraham's servant trusted God. I wonder how much we trust God? It isn't always easy, is it. Last week's story, how God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar. And God did do the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.

And now God did show the servant his choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Abraham and Isaac

Our Old Testament story is a very strange one, isn't it? The editors of Genesis explain it away as “God testing Abraham”, but although they might think God is Like That, I'm not at all sure I do!

Still, it is very much a part of the story of Abraham, so we must look at it. Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC – this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.

Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC, somewhere between 1976 BC and 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age – he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.

Robert and I went to Italy over Easter this year, and on Easter Monday we went to the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.

Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized!

However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Foods that you and I enjoy to this day! There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.

The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.

But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And there, eventually, long after Sarah had given up all hope of having a child, Isaac was born.

And now this. Now the demand to give up Isaac, to sacrifice him to God. What should Abraham do? What could Abraham do, being the kind of person he was? He wasn't perfect – he had been known to tell lies when things got awkward; he had tried to bring God's plan for him into being himself by conceiving a child on his servant Hagar. No, he wasn't perfect, but what he was, was someone who really wanted to follow God, and to do what God wanted. And now, it seemed, God wanted him to sacrifice his only child. What of the promise to make his descendants a great nation? But if God said to do it, Abraham did it, to the best of his ability.

Child sacrifice was, of course, not unknown in that era and that region, and some scholars even think that it was not unknown among worshippers of God, although it's explicitly and emphatically forbidden in the various books of the Law. The Israelites were not to copy their neighbours' bad example! Deuteronomy 12, verses 30-31 says: “After the Lord destroys those nations, make sure that you don't follow their religious practices, because that would be fatal. Don't try to find out how they worship their gods, so that you can worship in the same way. Do not worship the Lord your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the Lord hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars.”

Anyway, Abraham and Isaac – who, by the way, wasn't a small boy by then, but probably a young man – go off with the servants up to the mountain to sacrifice. Traditionally, they went to where the Temple would later be built in Jerusalem, where the Dome of the Rock is now. At least, that's what Jewish scholars say – Christian commentators have thought it was more probably Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. The Bible isn't exactly clear, but it's in that sort of area, anyway. And Abraham causes the servants and the animals to wait behind, while he and his son go and worship, “and then we will come back to you.” Note that “We”; we'll come back to that!

And Isaac asks where is the animal for the sacrifice, and Abraham says that God will send one – but he binds Isaac and puts him on the altar. You notice, Isaac doesn't struggle – or we are not told if he does – but accepts his fate as from God. And then, just in time, the angel intervenes and the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac.

Well, it's a very extraordinary story! What was Abraham thinking? What was Abraham thinking God was thinking? God had promised him that he would be the father of many nations – but Isaac had not yet married or had a child, so if he was killed, that would be the end of the line!

Of course, the traditional Christian interpretation of this story is stated in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 17-19: “It was faith that made Abraham offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God put Abraham to the test. Abraham was the one to whom God had made the promise, yet he was ready to offer his only son as a sacrifice. God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I promised.' Abraham reckoned that God was able to raise Isaac from death – and, so to speak, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham may well have thought that God might provide a last-minute substitute for Isaac, or, failing that, would return Isaac from the dead. Remember that he said to his servants that “We will come back”, not “I will come back.” He trusted God.

The story is, of course, considered to be a picture of the Atonement, too – God sacrificing his own son, Jesus, in place of humanity. And Isaac, like Jesus, went more-or-less willingly to his death. And where Jesus was raised, Isaac was given the ram as a substitute.

Of course, there are many other ways of looking at the Atonement, and frankly, this one is one that I don't find says anything to me at this stage in my Christian journey. It is part of the truth, of course, but not all of it. I prefer those parts of the truth that focus on God's love, rather than on God's judgement. But it's there, nevertheless, and it is part of it.

I said at the beginning that the stories had probably been written down during the Exile, and it's also interesting to read what some of the Jewish fathers have made of it. One writer reckons that actually, Abraham was testing God, not vice versa! This, after all, is the Abraham who had pleaded with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah – it's like he went off and did what God was asking without arguing in order to put pressure on God to do the right thing, as it were, and send the ram! After all, he doesn't even say “You what? But you told me Isaac was to be the father of many nations!” He just went off and obeyed what he believed God was asking him to do.

And that, of course, is the important thing that I wish to leave with you this morning. We have just begun the very long haul of Ordinary Time that goes on until the end of November. And while, during the first half of the Church's year, we look at the life of Jesus, his birth, his teachings, his death, resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, during this second half of the year, what we are basically looking at is our faith, and what happens when what we believe comes up against what we think we believe!

And that's what happened to Abraham. He was asked to trust God even for the life of his only Son, the Son that God had promised would father many nations.

Of course, that test, if that's what it was, didn't come out of the blue. Abraham had had long practice in believing God, in trusting him, from moving out of Ur of the Chaldees, through the promise of a son – and the failure to trust that led him to conceive Ishmael – and the birth of Isaac, and so on. He was used to trusting God, and so when the crunch came, he was able to.

Are you used to trusting God? If and when the crunch comes in your own life, will you still be able to trust him? Job, you may remember, said he would go on trusting God even if it killed him. And trusting God has killed many, many people down the centuries, the martyrs who preferred to die than to renounce their faith. Could you trust God when the crunch comes? Can I?

I tell you one thing; we may or may not be able to, but we certainly won't be able to if we don't practice trusting Him in our everyday life! Amen.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Sheep

Here in London, we probably don't think much about sheep, do we?
Okay, we might wear wool clothes, or eat curry mutton or roast lamb,
and we might use a lanolin hand-cream when our hands are dry and chapped, but by and large, we don't think much about where these things come from.
About sheep.

It's very different when I go and visit my family in Sussex,
because my brother is a shepherd,
and so sheep loom pretty large in our lives down there.
They are silly creatures, really –
very few brains!
Usually they follow a leader, and the trick is to become their leader.
An Australian sheep-farming friend of mine likes to enter her sheepdogs in trials, and she comments that
“Sheepdog trialling is a tricky sport.
Sheep have this amazing ability to bring Humans and Dogs completely undone.
Experienced triallers know that no matter how good the dog and how good the handler it only takes ONE sheep to bring the whole show down.”
Yes, that makes enormous sense to me.
One sheep finds a hole in the fence, and they are all through it,
and have all wandered off where they ought not to be....

These days, shepherds don't stay with their flocks 24/7 the way they used to;
time was, they would often live in caravans on the Downs with their sheep, who could wander almost at will during the day, and then be fenced in, or “folded” into a corral with hazel hurdles, at night.
The shepherd lived there with them, and knew the sheep intimately.

That's less easy to do these days, with bigger flocks;
and the development of electric fences means that there is no need for the shepherd to be there 24/7,
although during the lambing season, my brother will get up several times in the night to check the ewes,
and has been known to sleep on a camp-bed in the shed with them!

In Bible times, it was more traditional;
the sheep would be folded at night, gathered into fenced-off areas,
and the shepherd would lie down at the entrance to guard the sheep.
And in our reading, Jesus likens himself to that shepherd:
“I am the gate for the sheep!”
He contrasts himself with those who climb over the hurdles,
or who get into the fold some other way –
the thieves, those who would steal the sheep.
Or perhaps in our day we might think of people's dogs left to run loose –
you wouldn't believe, or perhaps you would, the amount of damage a couple of dogs can do.
Not good.

Sheep do tend to know their shepherd.
My brother's sheep are fairly brainless, as sheep go,
but they do eventually learn to recognise his car,
and that of the other shepherds, and their response to those cars is quite different from their response to, say, my father’s car.
They know when they see those particular cars, they’ll get fed, or looked at, or
moved to a new pasture, or something nice.

And Jesus tells us, in our reading, that the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

So I wonder, how is it that we know the Shepherd's voice,
and what does it mean in practice?

How is it, then, that we know the Shepherd's voice.
I think there are two reasons.
The first is that He speaks to us;
the second is that we listen to Him.

He speaks to us.
Well, in one sense that's somewhat of a no-brainer, as the Americans so graphically put it.
We are told, from our earliest days as Christians,
that God speaks to us through the Bible,
and through other people,
and even, although we must be careful, through our own imaginations.
But being told it and knowing it seem to be two different things!
Of course, there are times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, times when we know we are His, held in His arms –

or round his neck, the way shepherd today will still carry a young sheep.

We have all known times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly,
but, of course, we have all known those other times, too;
times when God seems far away, when our prayers go no further than the ceiling, when, so far from hearing God's voice, we wonder whether, in fact, our whole faith has been based on a delusion!
I'm sure we've all been there and done that, too!

Now, it's traditional to be told that when those times happen, it is our fault.
We have stopped listening, we are told, we have gone our own way,
we have sinned.
And, of course, some of the time that is exactly what has happened,
even if some preachers do make it sound like God isn't talking to us any more because we've offended him!
I think, rather, it is we who cannot hear the voice of God when we are uncomfortable in God's presence.
But usually when that has happened we know that is what the matter is,
and sooner or later we admit this to ourselves, and to God,
and things come all right again.

But some of the time, with the best will in the world,
we know we have not sinned,
and it really doesn't seem to be our fault.
Times when everything goes pear-shaped,
and you wonder where on earth God is in the middle of it all?
And part of you knows that this is exactly where God is –
in the middle of it all –
but that part is operating on sheer faith.
You can't sense God's presence, or hear the Shepherd's voice at all,
no matter how hard you listen.
It happens to all of us, probably more often than we care to admit.
Again, preachers have various explanations for it,
and you've probably heard them as often as I have.
That God is testing our faith, as though God didn't know how strong our faith actually is.
Actually, of course, God does know, but we don't necessarily,
and it can be a salutary shock to us!

The thing is, of course, that we don't understand, can't understand, why these things happen.
God is God, not just another person like us, and it's not possible to understand.
We don't know why we suddenly seem to lose the ability to hear God's voice, and why, even worse, we suddenly seem to lose all sense of God, and seem to simply be going through the motions.

The fact that it's almost universal, that almost every Christian goes through it from time to time must mean that it is normal.
But I don't know why it happens,
and I don't altogether accept the explanations as to why.
I think it's just "part of the human condition", or, if you prefer, "part of the mystery of faith", and we must accept it as such.

There are times when we just don't understand what God is doing, and that's okay, too.
Some years ago now, there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease,
and as part of the effort to control this,
you were only allowed to move your livestock to another field with government permission.
My brother's sheep became stuck in their field,
long after they had exhausted all the grass,
long after they should have been moved.
And they wanted out, and couldn't understand why they were not moved, to the point that they would run up to any and every car going past, asking to be moved, even cars they would normally ignore like my father's.
My brother had a very good reason that year for not moving his sheep to a new field, no matter how much he wanted to move them, and no matter how much they wanted to be moved.
He wasn't allowed to by the Government, because of foot-and-mouth precautions.
And you try explaining that to sheep!
And since God is even further beyond us than we are from real sheep, how could we be expected to understand what constraints He has?

Sometimes, of course, the matter seems urgent, when we want to know what God wants us to do, and yet God simply doesn't seem to answer.
The more we pray, the less we know what to do, and the quieter God seems to get.
It's so frustrating!
And we rage and rampage and know no peace.

In our reading from Acts, the believers were going through one of those times when God was so close to them, when new believers were coming in all the time, when life was simply ideal.
They lived together, they shared everything in common.
It was idyllic, and, of course, it couldn't last.
Ethnic tensions crept in between the Jews and the Greeks;
there was that dreadful time when Ananias and his wife pretended they'd given their all to the church, when they hadn't at all.
It wouldn't have mattered –
nobody was making them give anything at all, never mind all they had –
but to lie about it?
They paid a fearful penalty.
The community was wonderful while it lasted, but it didn't, couldn't, last.
I wonder whether they felt they were failures when it all broke up, when they started to be persecuted, when things basically went wrong –
or did they accept that things happen, and that God still loved them?

Jesus says "My sheep know My voice".
It is a given.
There are no ifs, buts and ands.
He says "My sheep know My voice".
We do hear His voice, and know it.
Even when we think we don't.
Often, when seeking guidance, we know in our hearts that a given path might probably be wrong.
Or wrong for us, if not intrinsically wrong.

We, of course, behave like sheep from time to time.
We think we do not hear the voice of the Shepherd, so we rush after any and every passing thing that looks as though it might be the Shepherd.
Just as my brother's sheep ran after my father’s car,
hoping that we were coming to move them to a better field.
Is this the right Shepherd, we ask ourselves, rushing to find out.
And sometimes, in the process, we get ourselves badly lost.
We find that the better field was no such thing.

But remember our Lord's story about the lost sheep?
When we do get lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to pull on Barbour and Wellies forthwith, and head out to find us.
"No one will snatch them out of my hand," Jesus said.
So even if we, or someone we care about, has gone off down the wrong track and got lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to come and find us again.

Because the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us, is come "that they may have life and have it abundantly".
Abundantly.

So when we get to a time where we seem not to hear His voice,
a time when we look round and He seems to have vanished, let's not panic.
Let's not assume it was all our fault –
it might have been, but not necessarily.
Let's not abandon all idea of Christianity, of churchgoing, of being God's person.
Instead, let's sit and wait, calling out to God in prayer, but accepting the silence, trusting that one day the Good Shepherd will come and find us, and say
"There you are!
Come on, I'll take you back to the rest!" Amen.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mothering Sunday (Second sermon for 4 April)

What day is it today? Mothers’ Day – is the wrong answer! At least, it might be Mothers’ Day out in the world, but here in Church it’s Mothering Sunday, and that, in fact, is only tangentially about human mothers!

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little. And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area.

Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many servants had to leave home when they were very young – only about 11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. We’re having the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent today, but if we’d had the traditional Mothering Sunday readings, we would have heard Jesus weeping over Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn't let me.”

The image of Jesus as a mother hen! What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother.

We do give thanks for our mothers - this year it's all a bit special because it's my first as a grandmother, and Emily's first as a mother - and I texted my own mother this morning, remembering that it was her first as a great-grandmother. But we have to remember, too, people whose Mums are no longer with us, and to remember that some people didn't have satisfactory relationships with their own Mums, and some people have never known the joy of motherhood.

But we can all celebrate God's wonderful love for each and every one of us.

Can you see?

This is a very splendid story in John's Gospel, although it's rather long, which is why I divided the reading into two bits. It's not just about a healing, it's about what happened afterwards.

We start with the man born blind, and first of all the disciples want to know why this had happened. We all want to know why, don't we, when dreadful things happen. Why was this child born disabled? Why did that earthquake and tsunami devastate part of Japan? Or part of New Zealand, for that matter? Why did so and so get cancer? Why did so and so get cancer and then get better, when someone else couldn't get better, and died? And so on and so forth. It's human nature. Even though we sometimes know the answers, or at least part of them – that city was built on a fault line, which is why the earthquake happened just there; that person shortened their lifespan by smoking. And so on. But other times there seems to be no reason for it.

And so the disciples ask Jesus whether the man's blindness was some kind of punishment for him, or for his parents. I wonder if the parents were asking, too: “Why us? What did we do wrong?”

But Jesus said no, it wasn't anything like that, but to show how he, Jesus, is the Light of the World. And he proceeds to heal the man.

Now, all the Gospels tell of Jesus healing a blind man, sometimes called Bartimaeus, but this is the only one that takes it further, and looks at the consequences. You see, after all, if your life is touched by Christ there are, or should be, consequences. If nothing changes, was it a real touch?

For the blind man – and let's call him Bartimaeus for now, as it makes life easier with pronouns and such – life changed immediately. My sister-in-law, who is blind, says that not only would he have been given his sight, but he would have been given the gift of being able to see, otherwise how would he have known what he was looking at? He wouldn't have known whether what he was looking at was a person or a camel or a tree, would he? But he was given the gift, so he knew.

And he could stop begging for his living, he realised, and he went and did whatever the local equivalent of signing-on was. And, of course there were lots of mutterings and whisperings – Is it him? Can't be! Must be someone new in town, who just looks like him!

“Yes, it's me,” explains Bartimaeus, anxious to tell his story. “Yes, I was blind, and yes, I can see now!”

“So what happens?” asks the neighbours.

“Well, this bloke put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash, and when I did, then I could see. No, I don't know where he is – I never saw him; Yes, I'd probably know his voice, but I didn't actually see him!”

And the neighbours, thinking all this a bit odd, drag him before the Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day. And they don't believe him. Not possible. Nobody born blind gets to see, it just doesn't happen. And if it did, it couldn't happen on the Sabbath. Not unless the person who did it was a sinner, because only a sinner would do that on the Sabbath – it's work, isn't it? And if the person who did it was a sinner, it can't have happened!

They got themselves in a right old muddle. Now we, of course, know what Jesus' thoughts about healing on the Sabbath day were – he is on record elsewhere as pointing out that you'd rescue a distressed donkey, or, indeed, lead it to the horse-trough to get a drink, whatever day of the week it was, so surely healing a human being was a right and proper activity for the Sabbath. But the Pharisees didn't believe this. They thought healing was work, and thus not a proper activity for the Sabbath at all.

So they decided it couldn't possibly have happened, and sent for Bartimaeus's parents to say “Now come on, your son wasn't really blind, was he? What has happened?” And his parents, equally bewildered, say “Well yes, he is our son; yes, he was born blind; yes, it does appear that he can now see; no, we don't know what happened; why don't you ask him?” And the Bible tells us they were also scared of being expelled from the synagogue, which is why they didn't say anything more.

Actually, they must have had a fearful mixture of emotions, don't you think – thrilled that their son could suddenly see, scared of the authorities, wondering what exactly Jesus had done, and was it something they ought to have done themselves, and so on. And, of course, wondering how life was going to be from now on. Very soon now, their son probably wouldn't need them any more; now he was like other people, he could, perhaps, earn a proper living and even marry and have a family.

So the authorities go back to Bartimaeus, and he says, “Well, how would I know if the person who healed me is a sinner or not? All I know is that I was blind, and now I can see!” And then they asked him again, well, how did it happen, and he gets fed up with them going on and says “But I told you! Didn't you listen? Or maybe you want to be his disciples, too?” which was, of course, rather cheeky and he deserved being told off for it, but then again, I expect he was still rather hyper about having been healed. And he does go on rather and tells them that the man who opened his eyes must be from God, can't possibly not be, and they get even more fed up with him, and sling him out.

And then Jesus meets him again – of course Bartimaeus, not having seen him before, doesn't actually recognise him – and reveals himself to him. And Bartimaeus worships him.

Then Jesus, the Light of the World, says that he has come so that the blind may see, and those who see will become blind – looking hard at the Pharisees as he said it. The Pharisees are horrified: “What, are we blind, then?”

And Jesus says, “If you acknowledged that you were blind, you, too, could be healed. But but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains!”

That's the thing, isn't it – the Pharisees wouldn't admit they needed Jesus. They wouldn't admit there was anything wrong. Jesus has picked up on this before – you remember the story he told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and the Pharisee was too pleased with himself to be able to receive God's grace. The tax-collector knew he was a rat-bag, and thus God could do something.

We know that bit. We know that we need to acknowledge our need of God before God can act – we must make room for God in our lives. But when we have done that, and God has touched us, in whatever way, things change. For Bartimaeus, it was about learning to live with his sight, and about dealing with the issues that it raised.

I wonder what it is for us. For make no mistake, my friends, when God touches our lives, things change. Sometimes it is our behaviour which changes – perhaps we used to get drunk, but now we find ourselves switching to soft drinks after a couple of glasses. Perhaps we used to gamble, but suddenly realise we haven't so much as bought a Lottery ticket for weeks, never mind visiting a bookie! Perhaps we used to be less than scrupulous about what belongs to us, and what belongs to our employer, but now we find ourselves asking permission to use an office envelope.

Very often these sorts of changes happen without our even noticing them. Others take more struggle – sometimes it is many years before we can finally let go of an addiction, or a bad habit. But as I've said before, the more open we are to God, the more we can allow God to change us. Sometimes, of course, we cling on to the familiar bad habits, as we don't know how to replace them with healthier ways of acting and thinking, and that's scary.

But the point is, when God touches our lives, things change. They changed for Bartimaeus, I know they changed for me, and they will have changed for many of you, if not all of you, too.

But it's easy to fall out of the habit of allowing God to touch you and change you. I know I have, many times. The joy of it is, though, that we can always come back. We aren't left alone to fend for ourselves – we would always fail if we were. We just need to acknowledge to ourselves – and to God, of course, but God knew, anyway – that we've wandered away again.

That's a bit simplistic, of course – there are times when we are quite sure we haven't wandered away, and yet God seems far off. But I'm not going into that one right now; nobody really knows why that happens, except God! But for most of us, most of the time, if we fall out of the habit of allowing God to touch us and heal us and change us, we simply have to acknowledge that this is what has happened, and we are back with him again.

It can be scary. Bartimaeus was scared, and with some reason as his healing ended up with his being chucked out of the synagogue. That was relatively mild compared with what has happened to some of Jesus' followers down the years, though. But then, we are always given the strength and the ability to cope with whatever comes. We don't have to cope alone. God is there, not only changing us, but enabling us to cope with that change. And we are changed and grown, and God gets the glory! Because it's not just about what happens to us – although, human as we are, that's the bit we think about most. It's also about showing God's glory to the world, showing people that Jesus is the Light of the World. As happened when Bartimaeus was healed; as may well happen if and when God touches our lives. Amen.