Intercessions on Luke 13:10-17

Jesus said that Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

Let us pray:

For the church, that we may bear witness to a God of love who desires the best for his creation. As we speak of divine law, enable us to point to the blueprint for human flourishing, and not to give the impression that God is interested in arbitrary rules and constraints

That the church may be a place where those who are unwell or disabled are fully welcome, included and able to access worship.

For those making government policy and law, that their decisions may lead to human flourishing. For wisdom in being able to foresee and avert unintended consequences.

For those administering the benefits system, that it may be a genuine blessing to those in need, providing a safety net and encouraging responsibility and virtue. For those living on benefits, that they may not become trapped and discouraged.

For those who are sick, that the power of God may be known in their lives. Especially for any who are mired amidst bureaucracy and legislation on disability.

For the bereaved, that they may gain comfort from the promises of Christ.

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Turning mother-in-law against daughter-in-law

Slipping from shadow to shadow, Philo silently creeps down the dark street. Turning his head to make sure he is not being followed, he hears the sound of running footsteps. He darts for a nearby doorway and presses himself into a corner. A slave dashes by and Philo moves on.

He cannot be too careful. Romans don’t like Jews or their strange religious practices and from time to time there is an outburst of racism. That was bad enough, but at least Judaism is a long established religion – and the Romans respect history. But now Philo is a Christian, in Roman eyes he is a subversive. He has lost the protection of the synagogue too – his former friends now see him as a blasphemer.

Just visible in the moonlight is a fresh graffiti. A roughly scrawled fish on a doorpost. This must be it. Philo knocks according to the secret pattern, and the door opens. Now he is among friends, but the atmosphere of fear is tangible. They are fewer than they were last week – Matthew is languishing in prison. The households of Quintus and Joseph are too frightened to come out. Rumour has it that Clemens has returned to the synagogue.

Worship begins. A letter is read. Remember Jesus, it says. Remember all he went through for your sake. Imitate him. Be strong, persevere. He never said it would be easy – he endured the cross – but it won’t last forever, and now he is in glory. What you endure is hard, but don’t give up, don’t stop meeting together. Persevere and you will receive a crown of glory. That letter is what we now call Hebrews, and its message is as relevant today as it ever was.

The anonymous writer refers back to Jesus, and our gospel reading reflects the same themes. You may wish to turn to it, on page 72 of the NT. In v.49 Jesus longs for justice to come, and we get an insight into his heart. He has a baptism to endure – by which he means the cross – and what stress he is under until he has done it. Imagine that hanging over him!

And he points out that what has been true of the Master will also be true of the disciple. People turned against him, so his followers can expect conflict too. This is what Jesus means in v.51 – ‘do you think that I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division’.

He does not want to bring division but people divide in their response to his message. True peace is found in him, but not everyone wants to accept that, some go their own way. Jesus longs for peace and justice in communities, but that can upset those who have power and wealth. So Jesus does not set out to divide, but that can be the effect of his world changing message.

We may have experienced that in the changed attitudes of friends, or the banter of work colleagues. It takes a personal toll, and we need great generosity, forgiveness and loyalty to persevere, along with the belief that by showing God’s love those people may change.

Yet the hardest rejection is probably the hostility or indifference of those closest to us. When children reject beliefs parents have tried so hard to instil; when parents turn against the enthusiastic new-found faith of their children; when faith leads to tensions within marriage. How do we deal with this?

Firstly, recognise the resources we have in each other. There can scarcely be a family which hasn’t had to deal with differences over faith. In this room there will be a lot of experience and wisdom. So if we can be open about it, share what has worked and what hasn’t, we can learn from and support one another. It may not be easy to talk about, because it’s personal, perhaps painful and we may not feel we manage the situation at all well. But if we can talk about it we’ll realise we’re not alone.

Just a few things I’ve learnt: People are different, so families will disagree. Jesus says in v.53 this will happen, it’s a fact of life – so don’t get in the blame game – what could we have done differently? There’s no point.

If members of our family do not share our faith it does not mean that we are failures as Christians or as parents. It may be the gospel has divided. We have to let people make their own choices and continue to love them as they are. Particularly important for parents that we don’t give the impression that Child A is loved more than Child B because Child A still goes to church.

 

Of course that love will include prayer for the wanderer and practical acts of service. We will want to share our faith, to invite, and there will be a time and a place for that, but don’t nag. (You may have heard the story of the mother who bombarded her wayward son with tracts, invitations to guest events, and got God into every conversation. In desperation she cried out in prayer: ‘Lord, please remove the barrier is that stops my son becoming a Christian’ There was a flash of lightning, and she was no more.)

Should we make compromises? Hebrews tells us not to give up meeting together, in other words we should carry on being part of the church’s life, and this can be a real area of conflict if a husband or wife does not share the faith. Worldly wisdom can help here: the wide secular recognition that spouses do not have to do everything together and that time apart can be healthy. Perhaps it may also be easier to make Sunday morning a priority if on Friday evening your spouse comes first – ‘date night’ as it were.

Jesus also tells us to get a sense of perspective, to see what God is doing. This is what he means in v. 54 to 56 talking about the weather. Nowadays of course we have little apps on our phones to tell us what the weather will do. Bizarrely, mine even tells me what the weather is doing at the moment. I may not be a meteorologist, but even I can look out of the window!

We can tell what the weather is going to do by looking at the clouds. Jesus asks, can we not tell the signs of the times? Can we see where God’s kingdom is growing? Can we see where we have to persevere? Can we get a sense that it may not always be like it is now?

My spiritual director told me of how, when things were tough, when he couldn’t see the wood for the trees, he used to climb a hill and look down on where he lived. He’d get a God’s eye view, see it in its bigger context.

And that’s what the reading from Hebrews tries to do. It may be tough, but it will not last forever and in the end it will be worthwhile. Perhaps God will transform a situation, as at the Red Sea or Jericho, doing something amazing and unexpected. V32 to v35 describe amazing things done by the Old Testament heroes of faith, and how God got them out of all kinds of scrapes.

Viewed on its own that might lead us to a rather triumphalist faith. However, v. 36-38 describe those who triumphed through endurance. In the Book of Acts, the apostle James is killed by the sword, while Peter is rescued from prison. Why one and not the other? We do not know. Both were faithful. Yet their calling to faithfulness was different.

Having described all these people, the writer of Hebrews then invites us to imagine a glorious scene: the heroes of faith gathered round as a vast crowd in a stadium. An Olympic spectacle, as an important track event takes place. The crowd is giving it everything they’ve got in support. Of whom? They are cheering and urging us on as we run the race. Heavenly onlookers, the saints in glory, the ones we have loved and inspired us, a great cloud of witnesses, shouting encouragement as they watch us run the race.

What an amazing picture, that the baton is passed on to us! And those who have gone before stand and cheer as we run the race set before us. Lord, thank you for their encouragement, Lord makes us worthy of them as we cast aside the sin that entangles and run with perseverance. What are those things that hold us back, that keep us from meeting together? Cast them off!

It’s said that runners in a marathon hit a brick wall at twenty miles. To keep going, they use a technique called ‘visualisation’. They picture themselves crossing the finishing line. They imagine what it will feel like – the reward of success. Rising above the current situation and looking to the future, they gain strength to carry on.

Hebrews writes: ‘Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.’ Remember Jesus and what he did. How he endured a temporary hardship for you, and now is in glory. Look to your own trials, to our own divisions, even within families. Yes, it is hard, Jesus never said it wouldn’t be. But it will not last forever. God can bring change. And it will be worthwhile. Remembering that, let us rejoice and persevere.

The Rich Fool

A solicitor unexpectedly found himself at the Pearly Gates. Surprised he said to St Peter: ‘What am I doing here? I wasn’t ill and I’m only 39!’ ‘Hmm,’ said St Peter, ‘Are you sure? Do you remember how you charged your clients for every ten minutes or part thereof?’ ‘Standard practice’ said the solicitor. ‘Indeed,’ replied St Peter, ‘but we added up all those parts thereof and according to your bills you’re 102!’

Jesus knew well the power of greed. In v.13 a man approaches Jesus to pronounce on an inheritance dispute. He knows exactly what he wants Jesus to decree: ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’

It reminds me of a story about an English woman who died in 2009, leaving £120,000 pounds. A useful sum, even when divided amongst her three children. But those children quarrelled. None would back down, and the case went all the way to the High Court. In the end they didn’t get a penny, as the inheritance had all been spent on legal fees. (incidentally I haven’t got anything against lawyers – I’ve dealt with a lot recently to do with Jonathan and most of them are deeply compassionate people)

The man wants Jesus to pronounce, but Jesus will not be drawn. Curiously he says ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?’ That may strike us as a bit odd. Surely Jesus is the judge? Isn’t it to him we turn for the right answers?

But Jesus’ judgement is different. He refuses to pronounce on the dispute. Instead Jesus homes in on the spiritual assumptions underlying the question. Why is money important to this man? How attached is he to wealth? If we bring something to Jesus seeking his guidance, let us be aware that we may receive an answer which is more profound and searching than we bargained for!

To make the point, Jesus tells this story which has become known as the parable of the Rich Fool.

The man in the gospel reading is a farmer. His land has produced well. This could be luck – a good year for the right crop. Or perhaps the farmer’s hard work and intelligence have played a part – in which case we might think he has earned a right to enjoy the profits of his labour.

But the parable doesn’t say. Perhaps Jesus sees everything as ultimately coming from God – rain or personal abilities alike. The problem with the character in the parable is that he doesn’t see it this way. For him, the implications of wealth stop with himself. He does not consider the God from whom it came. He does not consider how his wealth might be used for others. He only looks to himself, seeing the windfall as an opportunity for a party. Tragically though, he dies that night, and his wealth brought no benefit at all. The moral seems clear.

But to whom is it spoken? Who were the original hearers? Not the rich. They are Galilean peasants, scraping a living from tiny smallholdings, herding goats or day to day labourers. They live a hand to mouth existence. The aim in life for the typical listener is to get by. He expects to keep on, say, fishing, until he can no longer get into the boat, and then he hopes he will have enough grown-up children to look after him.

The situation Jesus describes here in the parable is beyond the average listener’s wildest dreams. The ability to retire in good health is inconceivable, let alone instantly. It’s not like winning the lottery, it’s like the Euromillions jackpot rolled over. More money than he could know what to do with.

So Jesus is saying: ‘Imagine you are as rich as you could possibly be. Pause and see yourself there. Then what? What happens next? If you were to die that very night – for die we all must – you cannot take it with you. If even this fabulous wealth, beyond your wildest dreams, cannot give you life, then what about your striving for the next thing? If this is what it is like for those who are incredibly rich, how much more foolish for those of limited means to devote themselves to money?

Jesus nails one of the biggest lies society tells us. That happiness lies just around the corner if only we had a bit more stuff. That if you strove a little harder and earned a little more, you would be satisfied. That if I bust a gut now, I can retire early and then it will be worthwhile.

That well known philosopher, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once said:  “Money doesn’t make you happy. I have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.’ Jean Paul Getty, who as the richest American of his time, certainly ought to have known what he was talking about said: ‘Money isn’t everything but it sure keeps you in touch with your children.’

There is a sense in which a certain amount of money does help. But it’s a surprisingly small amount. Money can buy us what we need and if we cannot afford the essentials of life we may well be unhappy. Yet research shows that once people have enough to get by, more money does not make them happier. As Phil said coming back from Uganda: ‘One thing I was struck by is a bit of a cliché but it’s true: the people have so little yet they are full of joy.’

What then does this parable mean for us? Jesus says do not store up treasure for yourself, but be rich towards God. What does that mean?

Firstly, let’s be grateful for our comparative wealth. Merely by living in this country we are rich by the world’s standards. If you ever doubt that, visit a developing nation. I found it a real eye-opener, for instance how much we take something like a glass of water for granted – that it comes out of a tap rather than being hauled up a hillside for three hours. Being aware of our blessings roots us in gratitude and opens us to God from whom ultimately it all comes.

The mere fact that retirement is a possibility is a blessing for us. Yes, we hear a lot about pension deficits and my generation will have to work harder and longer to receive less. But simply being able to retire sometime is a better position than most.

Secondly, the parable tells that life is not our own. One day, we know not when, we must give it back. That’s not a reason to be morbid, but it is a reason to look at what we do and how we live. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing now. Live life to the full under God – do not put it off until retirement. I’ve known people put their dreams, their good works, on hold until they retire – and then tragedy has struck.

So live life in the present, be attentive, be aware of God’s call to you now, be thankful and generous. We will have to let go of our money one day, so why not do what you can now and make a difference?

Finally, being rich towards God means we recognise that our responsibilities to God and to others exist at all stages of life. For many, retirement is a God-given opportunity to get stuck in and serve the community. Maybe we feel we can give financially once we have made our pile. But why leave it till then? If it’s not a habit now, why will it become one later? Children and work keep younger people busy, but are we in danger of living unbalanced lives or failing to play our part?

The story of the Rich Fool is a warning, a stark warning of the dangers of a materialistic approach to life. Putting ourselves at the centre will not in the end fulfil. Only a life that is rich towards God is grounded in that which will last.

Pint, Pie and Peas

I remember well the day that cricket first began to make some sort of sense to me. It was a very wet Thursday afternoon and games had been cancelled at my primary school. Instead, somebody had the bright idea of teaching the boys the rules of cricket. Up till that point my understanding had been as confused as the humorous tea towel: ‘Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in, and the next man goes in until he’s out…’

However, that day it began to make sense and I got some vague idea of what I was supposed to be doing. This is not to say that I actually became any good, so don’t ask me even to become a tailender! I was particularly struck by the balance between the individual player and the role of the team, and I find it a useful analogy beyond the cricketing field. For instance, it’s helpful when I think of how our ministry team of clergy and lay readers works.

Each cricketer needs essential skills: to field and to bat. Similarly on a ministry team, each player needs to be able to preach, be pastoral, lead services and so on. The cricketers have differing strengths which affects the batting order and where they field. Likewise, ministry team members may major on one or other of those essential skills. Although we all have the ability to visit the sick or take big services, some may focus on one area and others on another.

Within the cricket team there are also specialisms: spin or fast bowlers, wicket keepers and the like. Due their skills, interests and previous experience ministry team members may specialise in adult education, schools work or chaplaincy. We tend to encourage this specialism as the diversity makes the team stronger and widens what we can do.

When it comes to fielding, a key principle is ensuring that all of the field is covered. It would be doubly unwise to have two men at silly mid on! If we imagine our eight parishes as being like a cricket field, it’s clearly wise to ensure that ministry team members do not double up. So, for instance, we would ask one person to liaise with a particular group or club, someone else might become the regular visitor for a housebound person, and if there were two fetes on at the same time we’d decide who would go to each! It seems sensible, and more personal, for us to do this rather than each of us copy one another’s ministry.

I’d be interested to know if anyone can find other team principles from cricket. Personally, I’m off for a post-match pint, pie and peas!