Saturday, 28 September 2013

Under the Tree

'Girl Under Tree' by Kirsten Nolte
http://www.artbykiki.com

Some research was done in the US into the nature and location of accidents  20% of all fatal accidents occur in cars. 17% of all fatal accidents occur at home. 14% of all fatal accidents occur to pedestrians. 16% of all fatal accidents happen in planes, trains, or boats. Only .001% of all deaths occur in church and these are related to previous physical disorders. So the safest place to be anytime is in church. So welcome back! It could save your life!

This morning we hear Jesus having a bit of backwards and forwards with a man called Nathanael.  We know very little about Nathanael in real terms. Was he a close follower of Jesus or is it more likely that he was an outsider?  We just don’t know - what we come to discover throughout the story of Jesus’ life contained in the Bible - is that Jesus is ready to speak about to, and reveal to anyone, the love of God, it didn’t matter who you are: rich or poor, faithful or uncertain, male or female, Jewish or not. 

Jesus sees Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. Such trees could be tall and obviously provided fruit. They also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It was a common occurrence for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, to think and to wrestle with the issues of life. John in his writing makes us aware that Jesus makes reference to the fact that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. These may be a clear indication that Nathanael was troubled. Is he seeking guidance? Was he feeling a bit lost?  Was Nathanael wrestling with who this man Jesus really was?  Somehow in the conversation that Jesus has with him, the penny drops and the light of faith comes on for Nathanael.

I’d like to think that Nathanael was pondering the big stuff of life under the fig tree that day and I warm to him because he wrestled with life and faith.  Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel.

As I made way to church on a Sunday in another parish, I would sometimes encounter a neighbour either tending his garden or loading his golf clubs into the boot of his car. ‘Off to church?’ he’d ask.  ‘Yes,’ I’d reply, ‘Cutting the grass/Off to the course?’ I’d ask in reply. ‘Yes, and you can worship God in the garden or on the golf course as much as you can in church’ he said.  ‘Yes, but do you?’ I asked back...

Yes, Jesus does come to meet us where we are, whether in church or on the golf course.  Wherever He meets us our lives are never all sewn up.  As we sit here this morning, we bring with us all sorts of things playing on our minds, things troubling us, causing us grief. We may be here not really sure what we believe about Jesus or what he taught or anything else for that matter. We may be concerned about the health of a loved one, the future of a job, how we’ll put food on the table this week. These worries can bring us down and often we may feel that church is the last place we want to be, coming burdened with all of this.  But far from it.

The Eucharist that we share in this morning is sometimes called the Mass.  That name in turn comes from the Latin word ‘Missa’, which means ‘I send.‘  As Jesus meets us here as we are, with our joys and sorrows and offers forgiveness, healing and hope, speaking to us in the words of the scriptures and offering us himself in bread and wine as food for the journey of life, He sends us out into life - equipped for the week and for whatever is thrown at us.  The more worries and stressed we are about life, the more I am convinced that we need this service.

The thing is, no one is judging you as you come here.  The church is not made up of the good, holy and the true, but broken and failing people, lovely as they are - in fact far from it.

When I was a Curate I remember going to a meeting in a local school whose head teacher was a keen Baptist. In the course of the meeting he was verbally assaulted by someone who accused him and all religious types of going to church because they thought they were better than everyone else. To which he calmly replied, with great dignity, “the reason, sir, that I am a Christian is that I know that I as much a sinner as the next man.”  And this Jesus meets us where we are, sinners, under the metaphorical fig tree and here in this Eucahrist - and from here He sends us out resourced, renewed, forgiven and restored.

Under that tree, Jesus reveals to Nathanael greater insight as to who He is. No longer is a ladder needed between heaven and earth with angelic messengers traveling to and fro. Now the Messiah Himself is the meeting point of our questioning human need and divine blessing. 

Our places of meeting, our church buildings can be places for us to sit and shelter from the pressures of every day living. They can offer that space and safety to consider the questions of life. Jesus is happy to engage with all, those who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or where ever. 

You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubt and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. Are you seeking to connect with the Jesus who is the meeting point of our human need and the divine blessing of God?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Money, money, money...


Here's the text of last Sunday's sermon...

Money – most of us think it’s the key to everything. Success, happiness, a stress free life, but if we’re not careful it can also open the door to ruin, deception, corruption and greed. Jesus has much to say to us about our attitude towards wealth and stewardship – 19 of His 38 recorded parables are on the misuse of money and possessions, its an issue of fundamental importance to the Kingdom. Its not that Jesus is against us owning things - its just that He is against things owning us.

This morning’s Gospel contains probably one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand. At first sight it looks as if Jesus is condoning corrupt practices, but when we look a bit closer we realize He’s not, and what is actually being applauded is the steward’s change in attitude.

This parable takes full account of the commercial practices of the day – when many of the estates and businesses were owned by absentee landlords and looked after by stewards whose job it was to provide a reasonable return for the owner. In this case it was a business where merchants received goods on credit, and since Jewish Law prevents the claiming of interest from fellow Jews, the profit from such a transaction were in commodities like wheat and oil.

Although the steward was entrusted with the estate - given latitude to do with the owners resources as he wished and to profit from the way he invested his master’s wealth – he owned nothing of what he managed. But one of the surprising things about this story is that the hero seems to be a crook – a crook who has been found out.
The owner had received complaints that his steward was squandering away his property – so he called him to account and when he was found wanting, promptly told him that he was heading for the high jump.

Here the Hebrew word used for “squandering’ is the same as that used in the story of the Prodigal Son – to describe self indulgence - when the younger son wasted away his inheritance. Jesus’ parable shows us what happens if we fail to use our resources in the right way before God.

Like the steward, we have free access to use and profit from the gifts and resources God provides for this world, but own nothing of what we manage and like the steward we too fall far short of what is required.

The unjust steward was too proud to beg and didn’t relish the thought of doing manual work, so he decided on another course of action, to make friends with the people who were in debt to his master. He used this last opportunity as the legal manager of the owner’s business to meet with some of his masters customers, to give them very significant discounts, so that they will show him favour when he is in need. Here Jesus tells us that we have to be alert to the workings of this world and the opportunities we are given, “...For in dealing with their own kind the children of this world are more astute than the children of light...” 

The story also illustrates the wisdom of spending money with an eternity in view using our wealth to help those around us. “...Use worldly wealth to win friends for yourself so that when money is a thing of the past you may be received into an eternal home...”

The biggest thing about handling God’s resources is the attitude of our hearts. It determines how wisely we use what we have been given. When we borrow something from someone, such as a car, we tend to use it more carefully, work harder to look after it, we know it doesn’t belong to us and that we will be accountable for how we use it. Jesus tells us we need to apply that same attitude to all of God’s treasures that we handle.

The steward saw the urgency of the situation and changed his behaviour. Instead of investing in his present situation he started to invest in his future. Jesus also tells us that stewardship is not just about the big picture. If we are faithful with a little God knows we will be faithful with a lot. If we can be trusted with looking after one lost sheep, maybe eventually we will be trusted with caring for a whole flock. Here we have a man who found himself, came to his senses, and changed his direction and life. He didn’t put his head in the sand, but decided to act for his future well-being, he realized he was a slave to the wrong master, “...No servant can serve two masters – you cannot serve God and Money...”

Jesus reminds us that our commitment to God must be greater than any other commitment in our lives. Jesus is looking for single minded people - people totally dedicated to God - whose main purpose in life is to serve Him.

As Christians, our first priority should be using the resources that God gives us, to and through his church in the first instance, but are we? Just over 60% of our expenditure costs go toward my stipend, pension, housing & contributions to my ongoing training and the training of new clergy and us paying our part of the cost of running the diocese. We are not living extravagantly, yet we are struggling to make ends meet and with 2 large restoration projects at St Peter’s and St Thomas’, the possibility of new lighting at St Peter’s, the costs incurred with the arrival of a new Assistant Curate and potentially in time associated costs with providing parish-wide youth work, we need to look carefully at our expenditure. Our issue is not a need to make efficiency savings. The issue is that the money we spend comes from nowhere else but ultimately from us. But these resources are God’s and we should ask Him for them, but we should continue to act wisely with the resources He shares with us.

Where does our confidence for living come from - our bank balance or from God? Has money got greater control over us than we are prepared to admit?

A well known speaker stood up in front of a group of people and held a £50 note in the air, “who would like to have this £50 note?” he said. Hands started to go up, “I will give this to one of you,” he said, “but before I do, I am going to crumple it up”, which he did. “Who wants it now?” Again, hands went up. Then he dropped it on the floor, stamped on it, and made it dirty, “Now who still wants it”, he said, still hands went up. “Today”, he said, “we have learnt a very valuable lesson. No matter what I do to this money, we still want it, because it has not lost any of its value - its still worth £50.”

Many times in our lives we will be dropped, crumpled, ground into the dirt, by the decisions we make, and the situations that come our way. But no matter what happens to us, we will never lose our value in God’s eyes. To Him we are still priceless.

Do we value God as much as He values us? Does God take first place in our hearts? Do we serve God or money? We are all guilty of squandering the wealth we’ve been entrusted with. The question is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to wait till the last minute, like the unjust steward, or change now?
Jesus calls us to use our gifts and resources wisely – and in a way that will honour God and ourselves. To invest in the ways that will lead us to Him and eternal life. Its God who puts the money and resources in our hands – so lets make sure we use them for His glory.

~~~

As a footnote, as a die hard prog fan, all this talk of cash made me think of this...


Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Job, Lost House...


It doesn’t happen very often thankfully, but once in a while some of our neighbours go away. It’s a nice house, big garden, swimming pool. Perhaps I should clarify... When the neighbours go away they leave their teenage children. Now a bit of basic maths for you - teenagers + empty house + swimming pool X alcohol, music and summer nights = PAAAARTY! Now this doesn’t happen very often but there have been a handful of times when I have grumbled like the old man I am becoming... There will be this sort of partying in heaven says Jesus when one who was lost to God returns...

I hate losing things. I live by a very special filing system which is far from infalible! When things are lost, it induces a sense of blind panic in me and utter relief on recovering the item in question. Jesus tells stories this morning that I think I can identify with - losing things. Important things...

These stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin are preludes to perhaps Jesus’ greatest story of loss and recovery. You know the one. It tells of a lad who loses himself; of an older brother who loses his temper and sense of values and of a good father that never loses hope... a Heavenly Father that trusts that things that once were lost, people who once were lost can still be found... Recognise it yet?


In the story of the lost sheep, it is clear that all 100 sheep are owned by the shepherd. As the flock makes it’s way across the barren wilderness the shepherd notices that one sheep is missing. He leaves the 99, taking an enormous risk in trusting they will be safe, and makes his way in search of the one.

But we all too easily miss the scandal. Jesus has been openly criticised for spending time with sinners by the scribes and pharisees. They loved God and lived in hope of the coming Messiah. Their job was to interpret the Law of Moses for keeping it would prepare the way for His coming. They criticised Jesus because in him they saw one of their own and yet here he is fraternising with sinners like leather tanners, tax collectors women and shepherds. But the scandal deepens... ‘Which one of you,’ says Jesus referring to the Pharisees, has one hundred sheep...’ Jesus is inviting them to identify with a shepherd, a sinner!

Jesus carries on speaking to the scribes and pharisees, ‘... Or what woman...’ Jesus now calls them to identify themselves with a woman, any woman, about whom they prayed each day, ‘Thank you Lord of the Universe, that you did not make me a woman...’ But this woman knows the value of what she is searching for - a silver coin. She lights a lamp and sweeps in the darkness and dirt to find her life and livelihood.

I am often asked things like - I have lost my job, please pray for me. My wife has cancer and I am frightened of losing her, please pray. I have lost my faith - if there is a God pray for me. I feel so lost and afraid please pray for me. I have lost my house please pray... In the stories that we hear Jesus tell today, we have an assurance that he is never indifferent to these contemporary pleas in their lostness.

Jesus doesn’t so much as teach about the scope of God’s love reaching out to those traditionally outside it’s orbit, namely to tax collector and shepherd, rather he gets the pharisees to empathise with the lost, and to ram the point home - Jesus models it by eating and speaking with them at table.

Friends, God is a God who doesn’t sit distant from us and condemn us, but when we are a long way from him, he comes to us. He sits and shares food and conversation with us. When we are lost he hunts us out. He searches high and low in the darkest and most unlikely corners of the universe til he finds us. How does that sort of seaching love make us feel? If someone goes out of their way to see me, to speak to me, I want to make sure that I stop what I am doing, face them and give them my full attention. So it with Jesus. God loves the world, love me so much that he sends me Jesus... God loves me so much that he went out of his way to search me out... I should give him my full attention.

One of the most wonderful experiences we had in New Zealand was stopping by the side of the road, and as we stopped watching a shepherd and his dog herd the sheep. The dog did not run barking after the sheep, but rather as the sheep wandered off, the dogs watched intellegently and intently, then they ran like hell to get in front of the sheep and they lay down across the path the sheep were wandering so when the sheep did wander that way they were gently turned back onto the right path. We are called to a double repentance, a double determinedness to live God’s way - by listening to Jesus, for that sends heaven partying, and the experience of being found by God’s never ending love for us in and through him.

Jesus invited the Pharisee and scribes to identify with his search for those who are lost and his joy and finding those who are currently unaware of God’s love for them. What would church be like if we did the same - going out of our way to meet with and share God’s love with those who are currently unaware of His it where they are? For that’s what Jesus does. He doesn’t ask us to go to him. He comes to us. This is what he calls us His church to do - to emulate his example and the example of his Father. If we are to be a church at all - this must lie at the heart of what flows out of our meeting with Jesus as sinners around this table sharing bread and wine. To go out of our way to meet people where they are to talk with them, to help them to listen to Jesus and to encounter his love for them, returning rejoicing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to be like the pharisees - already aware of how they think God wants them to look - with the clothes of righteousness and an air of supercilious faith. Rather Jesus asks go with others just as you are, to be with him and to be found by him, to spend time with him, to listen to each other and especially to Him, and to rejoice with the whole of heaven as we seek to discover anew what it means to be loved by Him.

The challenge for our mission to care for the lost, all those we encounter in our daily lives and all those we seek to bring back to the sheepfold on Back to Church Sunday, but not just then. For seeking out the lost does not in the least need any book to be burnt, It does not ask us to rebuke, to admonish or even look down upon anyone, for that was not the way of Christ. It calls us to this: First, think and pray; Second, run like hell; and third, be found lying about.For the lost, it is a precious and costly gift to be found at the right time in the right place. “Rejoice with me,” says Jesus, “for I have found . . . that which was lost.” Amen.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Foundations Course

The Foundations Course begins on Wednesday this week. We hope that you will be coming to join us! It will be a good evening and hopefully we will make and deepen some friendships and renew and deepen our shared faith.

The course will follow a structure similar to this but timings will of course vary:

7.30pm Tea/Coffee/Cake will be available

7.45pm  The evening begins with an introduction to the course and the evening and then a chance to get to know one another in small groups and share each other's experience. These groups will remain largely the same over the weeks of the course to encourage trust and sharing.

8.15pm - Feedback/Questions from the groups

8.20pm - Discover and Explore - a chance to explore the theme for the evening in some depth

9.05pm - Reflect on the topic, discuss in small group and field any questions.

9.20pm - Looking forward - introduce next week's topic and pray

9.30pm Depart


In preparation for the course please can you think about the following:

1. When you think about God, what do you think? WHat words/images/pictures would you use? Ask a friend or family member too.

2.  How have you learnt what you know about God? Think about childhood experiences as well as more recent years.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Assistant Curate - Guess Who?

As many of you know, our parish has been a training parish for a number of years and you have had the privilege of training many deacons and priests over the years.

Parishes were asked some time ago whether they would like to 'apply' (wrong word but best way to describe it) to have an Assistant Curate as of Petertide (early July) 2014. We applied and the Diocese agreed that we would be a good training parish and that I (and this startles me) would make a great Training Incumbent.

The diocese has 17 ordinands that it hopes to place back within the diocese as of Petertide 2014 and I was emailed in July by the DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands - sort of the HR officer of the diocese) with details of one of those 17.

I met this person a few weeks ago for the best part of a day. We talked and listened to each other. I asked them what they might hope to receive from the parish if they came here and what they might bring in terms of experience and expertise. At the end of the day we prayed that God would clearly guide us in making this important decision.

In short, we got on well and it became clear that there were many common priorities in terms of ministry and mission. Refreshingly there were also many places where we differ too and this person will bring much to challenge and shape the ministry and direction of our parish.

Our candidate joined us for worship on Sunday 8th September with their family to give them a chance to experience the central expression of our life together, our sharing of the Eucharist.  The candidate and their family remain convinced that they would be trained well with us, that they would grow in faith with us and that they could be formed into Christlikeness with us as we journey on with our Lord - and I feel I could work with the candidate as a colleague and they would be great to work with.

We now wait for advice from the Diocese on how we formalise this relationship. Watch this space for more information.

In the meantime I encourage you all to pray for the candidate and their family and for each other as we continue to seek God's wisdom and guidance in this matter.