Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Better World - Sunday 12th November 2017

Is the world becoming a better place or a worse place than it used to be?
There seems to be a feeling around that things are getting worse. This is sad. It is also worrying for Christians, because we have a message to proclaim that Jesus came to show us a better way of being in this world. If the world is getting worse, then those of us who are custodians of Jesus’ message aren’t doing our job very well.
Jesus showed very little interest politics on any level, neither did he get involved in the legal process of his day - even though other rabbis were central to the legal system, and many of them were active politicians. The essence of Jesus’ message (in both word and action) was that politics and law will not make this world any better. What is needed is for ordinary people to take more responsibility for caring for those around them - especially those in particular need.
If we want our world to be better, then we need to start by making it better for the next person we meet, and the person after them, and so on. Every time we encounter someone we have the opportunity to make their day better or worse. If we achieve the former, then the world is a better place.
What we see and read in the news is not an accurate measure of whether the world is a better place or not. Jesus told his disciples, “There will be wars and rumours of wars, but that is not the end of it.” Two thousand years later, there are still wars and rumours of wars (there’s not a lot that you or I can do about that), and the world still hasn’t ended.
What you and I can do is to make the world a better place, at least for a short while, for the people we meet this week. Let’s do it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Fighting Back - Sunday 5th November 2017

I get very irritated by the inconsiderate and impatient drivers who speed around London, pushing to the front of traffic queues. Their rudeness brings rudeness out of me. When they try to push in front of my car, I try to squeeze them out. I get cross and agitated, and express my annoyance. I don’t think I’m the only one.
Jesus advises a different way of responding to the irritations around us. He didn’t have to cope with London drivers, but - having walked around the narrow alleys of ancient Capernaum - I suspect that tempers got stretched there just as much as they do in our over-crowded streets.
Jesus advised the ordinary folk of Capernaum: “Don’t resist tedious people. If someone slaps you on one cheek, let them slap the other. If someone sues you, give them more than they are asking for. If someone forces you to go out of your way for them, go even further. And if anyone asks something of you, give it to them." (See Matthew 5:39-32 for the official version.) In short: go around this world with a generous heart.
We like to feel in control of our lives: our time, our bodies and our money. When we do not feel in control, we get stressed: our heartbeat rises, adrenaline flows, our fight/flight instincts take over. Jesus proposes a different way. We don’t need to be in control. We don’t need to protect our dignity. God loves us, and he loves those challenging people just as much as he loves us. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is not God’s way.
Jesus didn’t just teach this different way, he lived it. When 5000 people gatecrashed a quiet day out with his disciples, he loved them, taught them and fed them. And ultimately, when the Jewish authorities decided that he had to be killed, Jesus let them do even that. That’s how he chose to save the world.
We don’t have to push back. We don’t need to resist. There is a better way. God loves those annoying and demanding people, and he wants us to love them too.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Real-World Belief - Sunday 22nd October 2017

We have a set of new chairs at our church. They look robust and comfortable, and I believe that they will hold my weight, but just believing that doesn’t mean very much. For my belief in the chairs to be of any real value I need to trust my backside to them and sit down. That’s what chairs are for. If I do lower my rear end onto a new chair, I will be taking a risk. If it isn’t robust, I might end up on the floor in an undignified clatter of broken wood. It's a risk. But it's a risk I have to take or my faith in the manufacturer will be nothing more than a pointless waste of money.
In the Christian faith we talk a lot about believing in Jesus. That’s only a start, like ordering a chair on the internet, believing it will be what is needed. The next stage is the critical one: trusting our lives to Jesus’ message and teaching. That’s the risky part. If it doesn’t work, we might end up on the floor in an undignified clatter of broken expectations.
Jesus' message was real-world insight, not a selection of fanciful sacred mysteries. He told people they could trust God’s love and forgiveness, that they didn’t need to be afraid of breaking religious rules or missing religious rituals. He taught that the only thing which ultimately matters is loving and forgiving the people around us. Jesus was liberating people from the fear and oppression of overbearing religion, and drawing them into real-world relationship with his loving heavenly father.
In today’s world we have different fears. We fear that life may be meaningless, that we may just be a cosmic accident. We fear that if we are not happy, we might be wasting our lives. We need to trust Jesus. Life does have meaning; we are loved; and the purpose of life is to love other people, not just ourselves.
If we lean on these principles, we risk failure. Trust always involves risk. But my experience is that Jesus’ teaching, when put to real-world test, won’t let you down.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

On-Call - Sunday 15th October 2017

When and where are you most likely to receive instructions from God about what he would like you to do?
I rather suspect that the most common reply to that question would indicate praying as the activity most inclined to make us aware of God's purpose for us, but the story of the Bible suggests otherwise.
Moses heard God’s call when he was tending his family's sheep, as did David, and probably Amos. Gideon heard it when threshing grain. Elisha while ploughing a field. Peter, Andrew, James & John were called by Jesus while fishing. All these people were called into God’s service while they were at work. Isaiah may seem like an exception; he saw a vision of God while he was in the temple. But Isaiah wasn’t there for his personal devotions. He was a priest. He was at work.
There’s a definite pattern here. In almost all the Bible stories of people being called by God to do a particular task, that calling took place when they were at work. Jacob and Elijah are an exception - they were running away from trouble. Samuel and Jeremiah were only children at the time, and Paul was busy hunting down Christians.
It almost seems that the message from God is, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
Our primary calling in life is to work hard for our families and our communities. By carefully serving those around, we serve God. If there’s something extra that God needs us to do - he will let us know.
Consider yourself to be on-call.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly - Sunday 8th October 2017

When things go right for us, we like to think that it is because we have done well and are reaping our just rewards. If we include God in this picture, we like to think that God is blessing us because he is pleased with us.
When things go wrong, on the other hand, we quickly assume that someone has fouled up and we are suffering for their mistake. Some of us will be inclined to take the blame on ourselves; some will tend to point the finger of blame at others. If we include God in this picture we conclude that either God has inexplicably failed to look after us, or that we are being punished for our (or someone else’s) failing.
This is normal human behaviour. We learn this process of apportioning blame and credit from an early age.
Jesus sees it differently. He said, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
God is indiscriminate when it comes to blessing people. If we are enjoying God’s blessing, it doesn’t mean we are better than anyone else. If the rain falls on us at just the wrong moment, it doesn’t mean we are worse. God delights to bless all his people - good and bad alike, and that’s how he wants us to treat each other.
Let us not be judgmental about who we help, who we support, and who we devote our energies to. We are children of the God who provided for Adam and Eve both before and after they disregarded the one and only rule he had given them. We need to follow his example.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Right Tool for the Job - Sunday 1st October 2017

It always feels good to have just the right tool for the job. Whether it be a kitchen knife or a chisel, dressmaking scissors or a screwdriver, any task is easier if you have the right tool in your hands. When you stop to think about it, we all have a staggering collection of tools around us, from tin openers to marker pens, vacuum cleaners to smart phones, and we have a fairly good idea of which tools are needed for which jobs. You’re not going to try fixing a hook to your wall using a potato peeler!
There is a sense in which each of us is a tool in God’s tool kit of love and grace. Like all our different tools, we are each different before God. Some of us are good for one thing, some for another. Indeed, looking across the entire human race, God’s tool kit has no duplicates. Each one of us is just what God needs to complete intricate parts of his design for the world.
The Christian church has a long history of homogenising people, causing us to become more and more like each other. You can see this in our worship. We all stand to sing; we all sit to listen; we all kneel to pray. In churches where people raise their hands in worship - everyone raises their hands. In churches where people cross themselves to pray - everyone crosses themselves. This seems to run counter to what we learn of God through the Bible. Moses saw a burning bush, but God didn’t use that method again. Gideon saw an angel sitting under a tree - unique. Isaiah saw angels flying around the temple - unique. What we see is that God calls everyone in a unique way, and in doing so calls them to unique tasks. He never repeats himself.
You are unique. You have skills and opportunities to share God’s love that nobody else will ever have. Just because you don’t have a sense of calling like this person, or don’t do the things being done by that person, doesn’t mean you are not called, or do not have things to do for God. You are called to be you, not to be them. There’s no point trying to be like them, because they will always be better at it. What no-one else can do as well as you, is to be you.
God delights in difference. Every tool in his toolkit has a unique purpose. You - with your own assortment of strengths and weaknesses, fears and insecurities - are just what God needs to do something wonderful. So do it!

Monday, 25 September 2017

Father of the Bride - Sunday 24th September 2017

I write this in the warm but tired afterglow of my eldest daughter’s wedding. As father of the bride it was my ceremonial duty to walk my daughter down the aisle. At the end of the day it was my practical duty to oversee the clear-up of the reception venue. In between times it was my joy to tell her how wonderful she is, and my choice to deal with an unfortunate misunderstanding with the venue management. All in all, it was my delight and my duty to be there, to be there in an active and supportive way, but it was her event and it was wonderful.
God repeatedly promises to ‘be there’ for us. From Genesis to Revelation, the promise is repeated, “I will be with you”. Indeed, God’s name - Yahweh - (which is sadly airbrushed from most English translations) carries an implicit promise of God’s constant presence. It is no surprise to note Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age."
The idea of God's presence, on its own, could be either a promise or a threat. At times God has been presented as one who is watching us constantly, meticulously recording our every mistake. That is not a reassuring presence and is not a helpful image of God.
Jesus spoke of God as being our loving father - like the father of the bride. He is walks silently beside us when we are nervous; he praises us when we do well; he gently directs us when we are worrying about things; he works discretely behind the scenes to help us out; and he willingly clears up our mess at the end of the day.
In a formal way at the wedding I let my daughter go, to live her life with her lovely husband, equipped with the principles of her upbringing, and reassured that I will be there for her whenever wanted or needed. I suspect God has a similar approach. He doesn’t micro-manage us. He shares his principles with us and then lets us go into our lives, reminding us that he will always be there to share our joys and our struggles whenever wanted or needed.