Sunday, 26 October 2014

Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest...

So following this morning's Epistle reading from Colossians 3, I was reminded of starting Secondary school, an odd thing to recall on Bible Sunday I know but there you have it.

When I started Secondary school I remember going to buy all the relevant uniform to kit me out. I remember getting my blazer, which seemed enormous, but I was told with a smile, "You will grow into it" as it was expected to last for a god few years. I can remember for the first few weeks going to school with a vest and a jumper in the vain hope that it would fill the blazer out!

It's like that often with our appreciation of Scripture - through it we will grow into an appreciation of it and it's importance and therefore also into a relationship with God Himself.

(In place of a conventional sermon, my colleague and I had a conversation (a dialogue sermon) and I enclose my part of the conversation below.)

Q:  What is the importance of scripture for you?
A:  This may sound like a crazy thing to say but when I first came to faith in my teens, I wanted to be one of those Christians that ate scripture up, that read it insatiably, but I wasn’t. The Bible bored me. It was a historic document, key to my faith, but I was told it was important, so it must be!

Over the years, I have wrestled with, grappled for meaning within, tried to relate to scripture in many ways and places. I used to spend much time, like many of us maybe, focussing on what I believed were the important parts of scripture - the Gospels, and to a lesser extent some of the Epistles and left much of the Old Testament and Wisdom literature well alone. I just didn’t get why they were there in the canon, I couldn’t make sense of them or relate to them. No one taught me how to realistically deal with scripture in devotion. As a result I rarely read it aside from in church.

Once ordained I daily read scripture in personal devotion and wrestled with it regularly - trying to relate it to my every day living. Over time I came to realise that within scripture is contained the whole gamut of human emotion and experience and God’s involvement within that experience of life.

In my university days, many Evangelical friends referred to the Bible as the Word of God and seemed to reverence the pages of this book that I just didn’t ‘get’ over and above the Word of God - namely Jesus, whose story it told. I found this hard to deal with. 

I eventually realised that scripture wasn’t the Word of God nor was it simply words about God. I came to hear the voice of God still speaking to me through those dusty words of former millennia.

Finally, I read a book called “Life With God’ by Richard Foster, and American Baptist, who wrote a very influential book a number years ago wrote a very influential book called ‘Celebration of Discipline’ about a disciplined Christian almost monastic rule of life. In ‘Life With God’, Foster talks about Lectio Divina as a way of engaing with scripture prayerfully, asking God to speak through it and listening. He describes why scripture is important to him with a  phrase you may well have heard me use - he talks of scripture as the big story of God’s involvement and relationship with people where God says to us ‘I Love you; I want to be with people like you; will come and be with me.’ Scripture for me still encapsulates and embodies that story and that invitation.

 Q: How do we use scripture for personal devotion?
A: I read it daily, but in 2 ways - in devotion and in study. As study - scripture contains the building blocks of the life of Christian faith. It shows how God’s revealing of Himself over history has changed right up to it’s ultimate in the Incarnation. In the Epistles and beyond we discover how the early church came into being and grew as God’s ministry to and through her flourished.  As a rule of thumb, I find scripture a challenge and a yardstick as to how we engage with God in our day and age - it asks me some very challenging ethical and moral questions about myself, my beliefs and my culture - some of which leaves me so challenged that I either discard it or discount it. I am not advocating either approach, but some of scripture is very challenging, especially when we realise it was written in one cultural context and language and then placed up against our own.  But it also invites into a living relationship with God.

I read scripture devotionally too in that context as we pray morning and evening prayer, say the paslms, as I visit the sick and as I prepare for and lead worship. Through it I believe God has still got things to say to my often weak and failing humanity about who I am in relation to who He is and His love for me no matter what.

Q: What passage of scripture sums up the Good News of Jesus Christ?

A: John 3:16 - A former Archbishop once said that the Church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of it's non members.  In Jesus' words we are reminded that God loves the world - not the church, not just a club for the holy good and true, but the world - all of us always. His love is for us whether we feel we are worthy of it or not. Being loved and accepted under all circumstances by the one that brought all that is into being... well that surely has to be good news...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Give to Caesar...

There’s nothing more certain in life than death and taxes one time President of the US Benjamin Franklin was reputed to have said. And in many ways he’s right. Death comes to us all and tax has been a reality for citizens of a nation for millennia.

Jews in first century Palestine, you see, paid numerous taxes: Temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes, just to name three. The tax in question was a particular – and particularly onerous – one. It was the Imperial tax paid as tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.

Not that everyone saw it this way, however. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome found the tax offensive as it was a constant reminder of their humiliation. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments.

All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. And herein lies the cunning demonstrated by two normally fractious parties united only by their shared opposition to this young Rabbi Jesus who the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the Temple ever since. With their question about the Imperial tax, Jesus’ foes thought they had him trapped, as he would either disappoint the people by advocating for the tax or put himself in jeopardy with Roman officials by arguing against it.

But Jesus not only evades their trap, he entangles them in their own one too. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Perhaps over-eager to trap Jesus they forget that by producing a coin from their 1st century trouser pocket they betray their own allegiance to the Romans. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes it clear whose side they are really on by asking whose image and title are on the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in the crowd that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.

All this sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in the crowd will recite the Shema regularly - “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” - they confess that everything belongs ultimately to God. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to account before the God they worship.

Might Jesus also be doing the same to us, inviting each of us to declare our allegiance? In that sense, perhaps the key to understanding Jesus isn’t ‘whose image is on the coin’, but rather ‘whose image is on or in us’. It would be hard for Jesus’ audience to listen to his words and not hear echoes of Genesis 1, where God declares His intention to make us in His own image. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money or politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties,  but before we are Conservative, Labour, Liberal or anything else, we are Christian. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business and no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the sum  total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

Friends, a holy god, who is one, demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of our life. So if God demands all of our life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar, the State, seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being. 

One Sunday, a minister put a number of marker pens in the pews and after reminding the congregation that all they had and were is God’s – and that all God has and is is also theirs! – she invited them to mark one of their bank cards with the sign of the cross. The idea was that for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with their own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, each person had to think for themselves about how their faith impacted their decisions about spending. In an empowering way everyone that day and over many weeks was reminded of their identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root faith and life together and invite some active reflection on how to live that out especially in relation to who had first place in their life and first call on their time and money - them and their desires, or God.


God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Absent Landlord

I have never lived in rented accommodation before. The closest I have come is living in Vicarages, where there is effectively a landlord/tenant relationship between us and the Diocese.  As you’d expect, what that means is, if something goes wrong in structure or fixtures and fittings of the house, I can send an email or make a phone call requesting that whatever needs resolving gets fixed, and it does. The relationship is mostly very good indeed.

It is significantly more difficult for those who have poor relationships, or none at all, with their landlords meaning that a complaint about a leaking tap or a faulty boiler could face evection. It is very good news indeed for the UK’s 9 million private tenants, 200,000 of whom faced revenge eviction last year because of making genuine and valid complaints, that a law preventing ‘vengeance evictions’ is coming in.

How much worse would it be to have a landlord who never responded, who never showed up, who never seemed to care about their property and investment? We would be appalled. Tenants would move out. The weight of the law would be brought to bear. The landlord would be out of business and their investment in the property would be lost as it went to wrack and ruin.

If the landowner who planted the vineyard in this parable told by Jesus, who put up the fence to protect it, dug the winepress in the midst of it and built the watch tower to keep this precious investment safe is supposed to be God, and the land and its produce are the world which belong to Him - where is the absent landlord when it mattered? When slaves are sent to receive the wine at harvest they are beaten and abused, and when the son and heir is sent the tenants plan to have him killed - where is the Landlord when it counted? Why did He not prevent such awful tragedies occurring?

Where was the Absent Landlord for Alan Henning? Or for Alice Gross? Where is He in Iraq or in Syria? Where was He in Auschwitz or on the fields of the Somme? Has the Landlord just gone AWOL because as sure as hell it feels like that sometimes…

Quite correctly you might point out that the landlord in the story had no idea that His slaves would be treated the way they were or that his son would be murdered. There would be no way that he could have prevented these atrocities. But as a person of faith, I find that image of God deeply unhelpful - God who sends people to receive and pay blessing upon blessing are stoned and killed as is finally His Son, so He comes in stern vengeance to clear the tenants from the land and lease it to others… No thanks.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop at harvest time. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and the landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.
Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of these farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in this story, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt.

To us the story looks and sounds different: First the landowner sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk everything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And maybe that’s the key to this story - it’s more Jilly Cooper than Alan Sugar. The landowner isn’t absent - he is so besotted with his current tenants, so deeply in love with them that his actions display patience - eternal patience - which makes no business sense then or now, despite what they do to his investment, his workforce or his family.

So after the murder of the son, Jesus goes on to ask the pharisees what the landowner should do: ‘…Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time…’  

And maybe that is what we want - vengeance on those who destroy the vineyard and who kill and maim those who work (however tenuously) for the landowner by doing good or by being innocent bystanders. Maybe we want a God of vengeance for Alan Henning or Alice Gross however rightly so, and Jesus knows that as He finishes this parable and accuses and condemns the Pharisees himself. But at this point, I can’t help noticing Jesus introducing us to a God so blinded by love for us, who is even more merciful and patient (almost naively so) than we could possibly imagine.

This morning Jesus tells a story of heavy business investment - land, plants, fencing, protection - which will have cost the landlord dear. He tells of swindled business deals, violent assault and multiple murder.  But who is the bad guy in this story? The landlord or the tenants? Who actions turn your stomach? Who let’s you down? God, the Absent landlord or us the selfish tenants?


This morning Jesus also tells of the desperate, crazy love of the Absent Landlord - which is offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more, often in surprising ways and through unexpected people, to all who will receive it.