Complaining

I wonder if anyone has ever complained to you? If you work in a service industry, or in education you probably get it all the time. Some people’s jobs are all about dealing with complaints – it’s euphemistically called the Customer Service Department.

 

You may be surprised to hear it happens in church too. I found an interesting bit of informal research on Twitter. Someone had asked church leaders to send in the strangest complaints they’d ever received – here is a selection:

          Our expensive coffee is attracting too many trendy people

          You need to change your voice

          We need to start attracting more normal people at church

          Your wife never compliments me about my hair or dress

 

Fortunately I’ve never had any of those comments made to me. But I’m sure that you can think of things that have been said to you that are equally ridiculous. Dealing with complaining is a part of life, and often it seems to go in phases.

 

You’d imagine that there’s more moaning in a community when life is hard. Oddly though the Exodus reading we’ve just heard happened very soon after the highest point, the pivotal event in the Old Testament – the Exodus itself. God rescued his people from slavery, he judged the Egyptians, he brought the Israelites through the Red Sea. All these incredible things had happened – but then people started to complain.

 

Maybe it’s the feeling of let down after the most amazing events. Whenever there’s a high, you have to come back down to earth, and sometimes that can be with a jolt. You get a new car, and it’s wonderful at first, and then you start finding little flaws. I find with medical crises that Adrenaline can sustain you through difficult times, but oddly it’s when the crisis has passed and life is slowly returning to normal that it can be most difficult. One of our churches is enjoying a wonderfully reordered new building right now – you just have to go and see it, it’s a glorious space, there’s so much to be thankful for. 

 

There will be a point though where that church has to get to grips with the routines and costs of a new building, there will be a realisation that the church’s mission and outreach must carry on – we can’t just rely on a new-build to do the work for us.

 

That jolt of reality is natural, and I think that we also have to remember that as human beings we can be quite extreme in our views and reactions. I suspect that from God’s perspective it’s never as bad as we sometimes think it is, and this side of heaven it’s never as triumphant either! Do you know Kipling’s poem If? I find it rather too Stoic in its emotional detachment, but on this particular point he hits the nail on the head: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same’ – with a healthy scepticism.

 

Moses and Aaron certainly keep their head when all around them are losing theirs. Their response is a model of how we should act when faced with complaint and criticism, in whatever situation:

 

Firstly, they entrust it to God. They don’t try and solve it in their own strength. When we’re criticised we can give as good as we get or bark back with self-justification – and only once the situation has deteriorated turn to God in prayer. But here God tells Moses and Aaron what to do, they do it, and they give him the glory in front of the people.

 

Secondly they pay attention to God, and then if it’s right to do they address the complaint – how easy it is to modify what we do! We need to listen to what’s being said, if someone makes the effort to give feedback they need to know they’ve been heard, but we also need to have courage to stick to our course if it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.

 

Thirdly, Moses and Aaron find their identity in God in verse 7: ‘who are we that you complain against us?’ Moses had learnt the hard way that he alone could not save the Israelites. He had killed an Egyptian slave-master – and spent 40 years in the wilderness. Now he has learnt: his identity is not rooted in being a saviour, in solving all their problems. He does not depend on others for his self-worth. 

Whatever our role, whatever kind of authority we exercise, we need to know who we are in the eyes of God – accepted, loved, forgiven by him. His child first and foremost. When grounded in that identity as a child of God then we won’t be tempted to create our own identity or seek refuge in one made for us by others.

 

So far I’ve been speaking as if you and I identify with Moses and Aaron. But what if we’re the crowd? What if we’re the grumblers? Do we ever make life difficult for those in authority over us? I find it so easy to complain about such and such that ‘the diocese’ has done – but ‘the Diocese’ is always people. Do we complain to God about the task, or the people he has entrusted to our care? Do we need to repent and change? I guess that at various times in our lives each one of us can be Moses. And each one of us can be in the crowd.

 

God is incredibly gracious. Remarkably often he responds to complaint in a loving way. Think of the book of Job: Job has lost his flocks, his wealth, his family and his health. He complains bitterly to God – but God answers. Indeed God even affirms that ‘Job has spoken rightly of me!’ Job’s complaint was born out of faith. He believed God was good, and held on in prayer. There is a long history of Biblical, faithful complaint to God.

 

So when is complaining not faithful but just whinging? An unhelpful grumble. Perhaps it’s when it’s trivial. Like the person who really did say to a minister: ‘The loo roll in the ladies is the wrong way round. It’s rolled under.’ More significantly, it’s the tone that makes it a whinge or a workaround.

 

There’s a world of difference between ‘Why do we never have hymns we know?’ and ‘For Pentecost, could we have such and such?’ One just creates a problem and dumps it on someone else. The other owns the problem, shares concern and offers to work together in solving it.

 

I suppose the Israelites could have prayed to God rather than complain to Moses. If they weren’t sufficiently familiar with this God to pray, perhaps they could have said to Moses: ‘This God who can bring locusts and part the Sea, do you think he could give us some food?’

 

Firstly God answers in a natural way – the swarm of quails is a recognised desert phenomenon. And for me that’s a source of hope. God is gracious.

He responds to our needs. Indeed, the complaining leads to action. God in his love responds to their needs. Secondly, he answers in a miraculous way, through the manna.

 

But the manna will be a training experience for Israel. There are hints in this chapter of what will come later – elaborate instructions for when the Israelites can gather manna and when not. Why not give them enough for a week? Why have to go out gather each day? To learn that we must do our bit in order to work with God. So pray for healing, and keep taking the tablets. Pray for revival, and spread the word. Why gather twice as much for the day before the Sabbath? To learn obedience and trust in God. To learn that God will provide throughout the day of rest.

 

I wonder if you know anyone who has a tiny baby? Just a few weeks old? Watch that baby next time you meet them. Look at how the baby gazes at its mother, clearly believing that Mummy is all capable, all knowing. But listen to what happens when baby is hungry – the yelling and sobbing, the desperation, the urgency. And that’s just the parents!

 

A very little baby has to learn that its needs will be provided for. When it is really tiny it doesn’t understand that – so when baby feels hungry it is the end of the world. As the baby grows he learns to trust his parents, he realises that food will come, nappy will be changed. He discovers that Mummy and Daddy are reliable and that where they have been faithful in the past, they will be faithful again.

 

The Israelites had to learn that about this God who had rescued them. Maybe we too need to learn what it means to trust God. If he has been faithful to us in the past, we can trust him for the future. If the way has seemed dark but God knew what he was doing, surely the same is true today. If we seek guidance, if we need resources, if we want resilience, turn to God. For he is faithful.

 

 

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Don’t email. Talk.

A handy piece of advice: Three out of four murders are committed by someone who knew the victim. That’s one good reason to maintain a small circle of friends. As we think about conflict in our gospel reading from Matthew 18v15-20, it reminds me of the saying by W C Fields: ‘The world is getting to be such a dangerous place that you’re lucky to get out of it alive.

Whether it’s the nuclear stand-off with North Korea, the turbulent Brexit talks, or the tragic situation in Burma, conflict is everywhere. We can experience it at all sorts of level – work politics, neighbourly disputes, marital disagreements, trolling on social media. It’s a part of human nature – and so we shouldn’t be surprised when we also find conflict in the church.

 

The church is made up of fallible human beings, on a journey of redemption. So it doesn’t make sense if people say ‘It’s the church, we can’t have any conflict’, or even, ‘I used to go to church but there was a disagreement and it put me off.’ I’m afraid it happens, we’re human. And conflict itself isn’t sinful – it’s not wrong to disagree – it’s the way you handle it that matters. You may have heard the joke: In 45 years of marriage my parents only had one argument. It lasted 43 years.

 

When Jesus speaks in this reading from Matthew 18:15-20, he knows that his disciples will fall out, which may lead to sin against each other. He’s assuming it will happen and giving guidance for what to do when it does. Do remember that in v.15 Jesus is talking about another member of the church doing wrong– a lot of the guidance he gives here would apply in any situation – but some of it is specific to the church

And it’s worth noting: not only does Jesus assume there will be times we get it wrong. He also assumes it’s worth sorting it out. When people fall out with one another, it’s good to do something about it. It’s good to lean in, to move towards conflict, to heal and reconcile. Why? Because when we do so, we follow the example of God who reconciles us with himself through Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus forgave those who killed him, he taught us to love our enemies, because we are all God’s children. Reconciliation therefore is at the heart of the gospel.

I wonder if you find that difficult? I do. It’s hard to go and speak to someone. It’s much easier to be right. Happier being annoyed. More comforting to close ranks with your friends and block out the offender. If you unfriend someone maybe you don’t have to worry about them again. But if we do that, we ultimately end in C S Lewis’s vision of hell: a grey barren plain with dimly lit houses spaced far apart – and the longer people spend there the more they fall out with their neighbours and the further apart they move from one another. Not addressing conflict makes people drift apart.

 

A loving parent cannot ignore it when one child pulls another’s hair. The Kingdom of God is built as we reconcile differences, make peace, and learn to live with one another. We need to make the effort.

 

So in verse 15 Jesus encourages you to make the first move. I saw a cartoon once: a couple sat glumly on a sofa. He’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t she talking to me?’ Do you know what she’s thinking: ‘Why isn’t he talking to me?’ Don’t wait for the other person. Maybe they don’t know they’ve upset you. Maybe the sin that’s obvious to you isn’t so clear cut to them – as someone once said ‘There are two sides to every argument –and they’re usually married to each other’

 

If it’s safe to do so – and do be aware, go and point out the fact when the two of you are alone. Not through others, not gossiping to the world, not pasting it all over Facebook. Preferably not by email or letter – so easily misunderstood, but face to face, one to one. Not in a kind of passive aggressive sort of way ‘I suppose I’ll be doing the washing up again then’. But clearly, directly, with humility and openness.

 

Confronting someone and owning how we feel is hard. Particularly if we have to say how we’ve been hurt. It takes real courage and prayer. But if we do so, it’s surprising how people can respond. I once had someone who sent the most horrendous emails. They were real scorchers and upset everyone. I had to gather courage to go and tell him how hurtful they were. He was genuinely surprised, and although I won’t say he was totally cured, the situation did improve.

A small caveat though – if you’re sitting here thinking ‘Well I don’t find that difficult. What’s the problem? It’s easy telling people when they’ve got it wrong. I do it all the time!’, then do please pause and think about how others might experience it. Many of us are nervous about conflict, a few people find it a bit too easy.

 

If going to see someone face to face doesn’t work, then Jesus escalates it to involving some more people. Not in the sense of ganging up on someone, but it can be useful in a difficult situation to bring in a mediator. Someone’s who’s not so intimately involved, who can try and be fair to both sides, who can create a calm atmosphere in which each person can say what they need to and be heard.

 

That sounds heavy. But it needn’t be. I’ve done a bit of work as a mediator, and the biggest problem is that you always get called in too late. It’s only once the relationships have broken down and people are thinking about resorting to legal avenues that someone says: ‘I know, let’s go for mediation.’ ‘Divorce is on the cards, let go to counselling’ It’s like a chaplain being called to a hospice as the patient takes their last breath – really to do any good you need to be there much earlier. So don’t be afraid to say early: ‘this is getting tricky, let’s get some help.’

 

If that doesn’t work, v.17 says ‘if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.’ Formal procedures have their place. Then, ‘if the offender refuses to listen to the church let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. So exclude them? Ostracise them like the Pharisees did? Or be like Jesus, who welcomed the tax collector and the Gentile, encouraged them to repent and find God? So if there is exclusion here, it is provisional. It is until such a time as the person who has done wrong admits to it, apologies and is ready to change.

 

In New Testament times, Christians were keen to keep disputes in house rather than go before corrupt secular judges. Besides, it did not look good if Christian fell out with one other in public. Nowadays though, for serious matters we cannot just keep things in house.

 

This year Dame Moira Gibbs reviewed historic child protection failures in the Church of England. Her report made it clear that resolving problems internally can all too easily be corrupted in a culture of cover up. Where crime has been committed we all have a duty to protect the vulnerable and involve the law.

 

But going back to the everyday problems, the kind of disputes which affect congregational life, just imagine what it would be like if all the church took this teaching seriously. Conflict would not simmer unaddressed but would be dealt with and healed. There would be fairness, respect, responsibility to one another. It’s a wonderful vision.

 

We would know the presence of God. In forgiving one another, learning to respect differences, we’d follow the example of Jesus. So as it says in v.20, where just two or three people living like this are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.

 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this famous verse ends the passage on conflict. So often we take ‘when two or three’ out of context. We use it as a promise at the beginning of a prayer meeting – Lord we are gathered, we know you are here. Sometimes I have to remind myself of it when I leave the vestry of a country church and find a congregation which comprises the churchwarden, the organist and a sleeping dog. Ah well, when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is there with them.

 

But that’s not what it’s about. Jesus says that when two or three don’t avoid their arguments but heal them, he is there. When two who have fallen out are helped by the church to be reconciled, he is in that process. When I admit I have done wrong and you forgive me, we follow the example of Jesus. When I apologise for over-reacting I reach out to you and you respond in grace. When division is worked through, evil is overcome. When difference is integrated the Kingdom of God is built. God’s blessing comes in reconciliation; let us follow Christ’s way in our shared life together.

Walking on water

Everything seems peaceful as the gospel story begins. It’s been an amazing day – Jesus has fed the 5000. But now everything is calming down. It’s a lovely evening on the Sea of Galilee. After the excitement, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples get into their boats. But Galilee is infamously treacherous. Desert air rises, storms sweep in from the surrounding hills. Wind and waves batter the boat far from land. Jesus walks out to them. Now the disciples panic – is it a ghost? Jesus reassures. Peter goes out to meet him. He doubts. It all goes horribly wrong. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him

It seems to be calling us to faith – to be like Peter, to step out in faith – to keep our eyes on Jesus and not to be distracted by the storms that come our way. Yet if the tempests of life should overwhelm, Christ is alongside, able to rescue us when we call out to him

I remember seeing this story in a French seaside church on the Ile de Re. The painting covered an entire wall, with life sized figures. The theme’s been done a thousand times. But this one was different. I was deeply moved by it. For the disciples were real people

You know the kind of art you get in churches, where Jesus’ followers are identikit middle aged men with plain but well balanced features, and costume out of Victorian central casting. Instantly forgettable. These guys were real, they had lined weather beaten faces, individual hair, craggy features, warts and all. St. Peter particularly could only have been a portrait. I’m prepared to bet that someone in that village had paid for the painting. Perhaps it was a fisherman giving thanks for salvation after a storm. Perhaps we might see him walking down the street. Someone there was saying ‘I was Peter’.

 

I wonder. Have you been Peter? Have you have felt solidity vanishing under your feet? Have you seen everything you trusted in giving way? Have you felt yourself slipping beneath the surface, when the pressures of life overwhelm? Have you reached rock bottom, where all you can do is cry out ’Lord, save me’?

If so, then maybe you will have known also the hand of Christ. Sometimes we only find him when we have nothing left to cling to and there’s no alternative. But when you turn to him, he holds on to you. You may feel his strength keeping you up. You may not feel anything – but he is there. He will not let go of you

I’ve certainly felt like that at times this past year. With so much going on: the media campaign, being Area Dean, it can at times feel overwhelming. I cannot do it in my own strength. But God’s strength supplies all that I need. I just have to learn to be out there in the deep end, trusting in God.

Maybe you’ve known that love of God. That sustaining power. Or maybe you need it now. Don’t forget that Christ is there, that he loves you. Don’t be afraid to receive his help. Don’t leave it to the last minute to call out. Bring your needs to him in prayer

This has become a much loved miracle, speaking to many people.  What we can forget though is that this wasn’t some great misfortune which happened to Peter. He got himself into it. He was the bright spark who thought it might be a good idea to jump out of a wallowing rowing boat in the middle of a storm. He thought he might be able to walk over water. In verse 28 he said to Jesus: ‘Lord if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water

What amazing faith! Peter says ‘Lord, if you want me to do the impossible, I’ll do it. In fact, that’s the way I’ll know it’s you, because only you would ask me to

Do we see amazing things? Do we challenge God to call us further? One of the things I really like about our churches is that people do step out in faith. Someone said: Let’s reorder the North Aisle and start a new service.. Let’s hold a stewardship appeal as we’re coming out of the worst recession in decades

‘Let’s employ a children’s worker.’ It happened. The grants came in. Do you know that during the time the charity that has been supporting our children’s worker donated about £50,000 to the project but investment performance mean their reserves have only gone down by about £10,000. God is good

Bonkers? Or faith? All those things were thought about carefully. All of them were prayed through. The difficulties may have seemed vast, but people stepped out in faith.

If you want to see great things happen, then be like Peter. Throw down the gauntlet to God. Here I am Lord, send me. Let me know what you want and I’ll do it. I believe Lord that when you call a man or woman you give them what they need

In verses 29-30: So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water and came to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink he called out ‘Lord save me’.

Initial enthusiasm is great. Then you must keep going. Once he’s far enough from the boat to be alone, Peter begins to waver. He gets into trouble. It often happens when you set off in faith. I remember well when after five years planning the church reordering quotations came back. Even the lowest was twice what the PCC expected. Suddenly we were in trouble. We had to turn to God again

Living faith can be like that. We set off; full of enthusiasm, strong in the strength Christ gives. But once out of the safety zone, problems arise. There may be opposition, resolve falters. Then we need to turn to Christ anew. We need to learn through experience that he will provide. Perseverance despite opposition grows our faith.

When he saves Peter, in v.31, Jesus says ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Why do we doubt? Because when the waves grow high, when the darkness clouds us in, Christ seems hid from view. Or is he?

Is it like Peter in v.30? Is it that we notice the strong wind, we focus on the problem, and we forget the Lord?

I’m not criticizing. I’ve been there. I remember when the time came for me to leave my curacy, you have a year to try and find a job. Sounds plenty! But I was young, inexperienced, in those days no-one wanted to take the risk. It was beginning to get really worrying and I started applying for ever more unsuitable posts. I’d forgotten that God was alongside me, that he had a plan. He often leaves it to the last minute. But when it came it was what he’d been planning all along.

The wind and the waves are so distracting. The problems can be like little goblins gibbering away in your face. You have to put them to one side. You have to make a conscious effort to focus on God. To look to him first, and then to lay down the problems at his feet

Now someone may be thinking: wouldn’t it be a lot easier to stay in the boat? Perhaps it would. But think what you’d be missing! What you wouldn’t achieve. How you wouldn’t grow. How much of knowing Jesus you’d miss out on. To be able to walk on water you have to step out of the boat

Christ calls us to follow him, wherever he goes. But we should be aware that getting out of the boat is only the beginning. We need persistence and the ability to keep fixed on Jesus. Even if we do get into difficulties – and if we try and do anything worthwhile, there will be problems – even if we do get into difficulties, Christ will save. 

He can do this because he is God. And I think that is the main point of the story. Although we tend to identify with Peter and the imaginative use of the story, nevertheless, Matthew’s emphasis is clear. Right at the end, the disciples are overwhelmed. They say: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’. That’s what Matthew wants us to know. And it’s the same for the other Evangelists. Neither Mark nor John relate the incident with Peter – the main point for them is that Jesus walked on water. It is, pure and simple, a proof of divinity. The miracle was yet another piece of evidence that Jesus is divine

That, incidentally, is why you can’t explain away the miracle. Granted, it’s not an easy one to believe. And apologies if you’ve been sat here throughout the sermon thinking, ‘yes but did it really happen?

There have plenty of attempts to rationalize the miracle. For instance:  some say Jesus only appeared to be walking on water – he was actually walking by the lake! Going for an amble on solid ground. Or: Jesus wasn’t walking on the waves, there was a handily submerged mudflat, just so deep beneath the surface! As if it’s possible to walk securely on a submerged mudflat in the middle of a storm! Today, you too can walk on water. You can go to Lake Galilee, and for a few shekels you can wander about on a plastic sheet suspended in the lake. Hey presto, walking on water!

It’s bonkers! The gospel writers were not crazy. Those experienced fishermen would not have been fooled by Magic Circle tricks. When the gospel writers recorded this, they believed there were describing a miracle. They weren’t daft, they knew walking on water doesn’t happen unless it’s God. It’s evidence that Jesus is divine.

We can take it or leave it. We could believe it because if he were God then he could do that. Or some people disbelieve it and I suppose they have to say the evangelists made it up, created a myth with a spiritual meaning. The problem with believing it’s a just symbolic myth is that you end up with a spiritual meaning disconnected from physical fact.

But what you can’t do is water it down and take the meaning out of it. If you do, you end up with something that probably didn’t happen like that anyway, wasn’t what the Evangelists intended and is still pretty incredible.

The point of the miracle is that Jesus saved Peter. He saved Peter and was able to do so because he is the divine Son of God. He can intervene in our lives because he is the Son of God. And so we do all become Peter. Our own lives, our trials and tribulations are reflected in that dark and stormy night. Each one of us is the willing but fallible disciple. We too are full of enthusiasm one moment and doubting and fear stricken the next. And each one of us is also the disciple saved by Christ – the hands of Jesus reaching out and taking hold of us. So we too can know the wonder and love of the disciples. We too can exclaim with renewed faith: ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ways of guidance

A motorist once stopped his car in a Wiltshire village, and asked a passing local: ‘Excuse, could you tell me which way to go to get to Bristol?’ ‘Oooh,’, said the villager, ‘if you’re going to Bristol I wouldn’t start from here.’ And there’s the guy who stopped in Surrey and said ‘Leatherhead?’ to which the reply was ‘Potato face!

Knowing which way to go in life is a question which affects many people. We feel the need for guidance. Of course there are those who seem to find their way in life with a quite untroubled ease – everything they do seems a natural progression without wondering whether it’s the right thing. But many of us seek God’s guidance.

It may be for the big things in life: what career to follow, where to live, which school to send the children to. It may be for smaller day-to-day decisions – which route to follow on the journey, a choice of holiday cottage. It may be decisions which involve others such as which project to develop at work or in church. In all of these things we can seek God’s guidance, we can ask him to show us what is best, the right decision to make, what his will for us is and how it fits in his plan.

There’s a pretty key assumption lying behind that and I want to make it clear. Christians believe in a God who loves us, who cares about us as individuals and who therefore guides us. That’s an amazing thing – I was in sporting event the other day and struck by the crowds. Thousands and tens of thousands of people – you can tell I live in a small village and don’t get out much – and I was thinking to myself ‘How on earth does God know each person and care about them?’ But he does: remember how Jesus said that sparrows are two a penny but God knows every one?

It’s wonderful. It didn’t have to be like that. Imagine an indifferent God who creates a world and looks on with detached interest to see what it will do in the way that you or I might observe a nest of ants going about their business.

Or he could have given us general rules to obey like a herd of cows, a time to come and a time to go. Or at the other extreme, we could imagine a God who was a dictator, moving chess pieces around.

Instead God gives us individuality, free will and moral responsibility. He grants us liberty to fulfil our desires and the chance to grow in discernment. Sometimes Christians think of guidance as being a bit like a treasure hunt: you follow the clues, you go from Bible reading to prayer to wisdom of friends to common sense to signs to a feeling of peace and when you’ve found all the clues you get the answer. As if God knows what’s best but hides it and we then have to find his will.

Perhaps we could think of guidance being more like orienteering with a guide. As you go out walking together, finding new places, you also get to know one another. You learn from his experience and if he is a good guide he will teach you to read the map yourself. As we journey through life with God, our relationship with him deepens, we learn to trust him, we discover more about ourselves and become more practised in discernment. That image also helps us understand times when God has allowed us to learn from our mistakes and dead ends.

So what sorts of guidance are there? I heard of a chap who had a message from God. God wanted him to build an ark. It had to be a bit like Noah’s, but this one needed many decks on which to hold many fish tanks. These fish tanks had be filled with all the different types of carp. It was to be God’s new multi storey carp ark.

That’s very particular guidance. Often though guidance is general – and we find a great deal of it in the Bible. Do no murder! It is good to work to earn a living and to support your family. Anyone may marry but no-one must, and singleness should be honoured as a vocation. God’s word gives us all that we need to know for salvation and ethical living.

But the details of it we will need to work out for ourselves. The Bible won’t tell you which job to apply for. It won’t tell you who to marry, although there are indications that it’s good to share your life with someone who shares your faith.

That’s a lot of the background behind today’s reading from Genesis. It’s a couple of thousand years BC, and Abraham wants to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. God has called Abraham to live in Canaan, where the people worship idols. But Abraham wants Isaac to be a partner with someone who worships the Lord, so he sends his servant off to find a bride for Isaac from the area that Abraham originally came from. In this part of the reading the servant recaps his story.

In v. 42: ‘I came today to the spring and said ‘O Lord if now you will make successful the way I am going’. All guidance starts with faith and prayer. The servant shares Abraham’s faith. He believes that God is there and that God answers prayer, so he prays to God for guidance. Faith, prayer and crucially obedience are at the heart of guidance. It’s no good having a doctor but not going to the doctor when you feel ill. And when you’re there, you don’t just tell the doctor your problems and go away again, you listen to her answer and take the medicines.

As Jesus says in v.25 of the gospel, ‘these things are hidden from the wise and intelligent but revealed to infants’. It is possible to overthink guidance, to worry too much about the right thing to do. But if we are humble then the path can be more easily revealed to us.

Prayerful obedience means we get used to hearing the voice of God. In my last parish I was doing some visiting. As I walked past one house, I felt the nudge of God – go and knock on that door. But it was getting late, there wasn’t really time so I carried on home. Next time I was that way I felt God prod me again. Harder this time. I knew the people there had moved in recently but it wasn’t that long ago, surely they could wait and I was in a hurry.

A week or so later, same place, but this time more like a command ‘Go and knock on that door’. The guy opened it, looked surprised but also relieved. ‘Ah, you must have heard about my wife. The cancer is quite bad now. Come on in.’ I didn’t know their situation, but God did, and eventually managed to get through to me! ….

Perhaps sometimes we also need to repent of our willfulness, entrust our future to God and actually trust him. There’s no point praying for guidance if we’re not prepared for the answer, if we’ll only accept it if it fits our existing dreams.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the Gospel reading, 18 and 19. ‘John came eating and drinking and they said ‘He has a demon’, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The people’s hearts were in the wrong place, so they couldn’t respond to the message of John and Jesus. The crowd were judging, condemning, contrary, not open to God’s voice. When we seek guidance it’s good to ask God to purify our hearts too, make us ready.

So the Bible guides us generally, prayer helps us listen to the voice of God. Sometimes God guides us using signs. In v.43 and 44 the servant suggests to God a sign to point him to the right young woman. And God graciously grants it. We might also remember Gideon’s fleece. Both of these signs are given to people who humbly seek reassurance, who really don’t know what to do. And it can be legitimate for us to ask for a sign – as long as we are humble and not putting God to the test.

In his ‘Sacred Diary’ the Christian writer Adrian Plass feels he ought to go carol singing with the church. But he’d like to stay at home and watch the Bond film. So he asks for a sign: ‘Lord, if the doorbell rings at 9.04 pm and it’s someone dressed in the uniform of a Japanese Admiral, I’ll know you want me to go carol singing.’

The sign the servant asks for works because it’s about character. In v.44 the right woman is the one who gives the servant a drink and offers to water his camels too. Given that a mature camel can drink 30 gallons, and the servant had ten of them, that’s a lot of water! Rebekah is a woman who is practical, strong, thoughtful and kind.

In other words, Abraham’s servant uses common sense. God gave us human wisdom, let us use it! Do a job that plays to your strengths. Work out the budget for a property renovation. It’s ok to be restricted to living where you can support your ageing in-laws. Sure, there are times when it is a sign of faith to go against prevailing opinion, but God doesn’t call us to pigheadedness. Remember that what’s right for someone else is not necessarily right for you: John was called to fasting, Jesus was called to party with tax collectors and sinners. Both were right, both fulfilled their vocation, and as Jesus points out in v. 19, wisdom is vindicated by actions: you can tell it’s right by the results.

Another source of wisdom can be found in the wider community. Friends, family, church, colleagues – all can give wisdom.

In this reading we see it in v.50, where Rebekah’s family are involved in the decision. At last, there is her own consent in v. 58. Anything which involves other people will include them in the guidance process – for instance those seeking to be ordained or become Lay Ministers have to seek the goodwill of the wider church.

Finally, abiding in the will of God brings us a sense of peace. In v.30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Often when we have prayed about something, thought about it deeply, agonised before finally making the decision, a sense of peace will come. That is not to say that the right course of action does not involve challenge or uncertainty. It may, but alongside that there is often a sense of ‘rightness’, of trusting God for the unknowns.

All of these things together make up guidance. We bring them all together in prayer: Biblical commands, circumstances, common sense, wisdom of friends, consent of others. God could have just told the servant the girl’s name. But what then would he have learned?

As it is, God guides free people; Isaac and Rebekah are brought together, and through their marriage God’s plans are advanced. May we walk with him through our lives, know his guidance, and play our part in Growing his Kingdom.

 

 

Road to Emmaus

Towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the king of the animals has been killed. As a Christ-figure, he gave his life in exchange for the boy Edmund. And now Edmund’s sisters gently tend the great lion’s body. They turn away to weep, and when they look back, he has gone. For a moment the grief becomes unbearable until they hear a familiar voice behind them. Aslan continues to speak p148.

C.S. Lewis captures well the joy of the Resurrection – that brightest of  mornings as a new life, a new world begins. There is life, humour and fun as the Risen Jesus pops up all over the place astounding his disciples, leaving a trail of joy and wonder behind him.

As Jonathan put it in his Easter poem ‘Erupting anguish obscuring, Gardener’s playful delight, Agony’s deep yearning, aching, Recognition ignites. Exploding joyful elation, Spirit’s music exclaims, Touching, soaring – soul suspended, Jesus beckons my name!’

That playful delight is in this passage too, the Road to Emmaus. I’d never thought of it until we read it with the children a little while ago. Susannah found it absolutely hilarious. Literally laugh out loud funny. Here are the two disciples, plodding glumly towards Emmaus – but we know don’t we that Jesus has risen. And here he comes, sneaking up on them – but they don’t recognise him!

And when he asks what they’re sad about, they start telling him all about himself – that was the funniest bit. He explains the Bible, how it foretold what would happen, but they still don’t see. It’s only at last, when he breaks the bread, that they perceive him.

Lay aside all the arguments about why the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus. Whether it was being dazzled by walking into the setting sun, eyes bleared by tears, only seeing what they expected, or as Luke seems to say in v.16 a spiritual blindness. Put aside all that – as far as my daughter is concerned, Jesus was playing ‘Boo’!

And yes, the Resurrection accounts are full of joy, playfulness and exhilaration. Grief is over. Sin is forgiven. Death is defeated and the horror of Calvary past. A new creation is begun, let us rejoice in its birth! Jesus is alive and will die no more, let us be joyful in his presence!

Surely that is the key message of the Road to Emmaus – that Jesus is with us. He is alive, alive today and we can know him. For that is the heart of Christianity. It is the presence of the living Christ which transformed those two disciples from tearful wanderers to running evangelists, and which transforms us today. All our witness, all our service, all the religious paraphernalia of Christianity is geared up to this: knowing, loving and serving the risen Christ.

I’m doing a leadership course at the moment which the Diocese are organising. It involves a day a month of input and group work. You might think that a course on leadership in the church would focus on techniques – how to be a better preacher; strategies – how to grow a church; and vision – how to discern God’s plan for your parish. There is certainly a lot of that.

Yet at least half of the course is about something much more important: how you live as a disciple of Christ. The inner life, knowing God. For no-one can presume to lead unless they first know how to follow. Last week’s session was called ‘Sustaining your first love’ – and it was all about how to keep your own relationship with God alive and flourishing. After all one of the biggest risks for anyone who tries to do good things for Christ’s church is that the busyness crowds out the love for Christ which brought us there in the first place. The danger of doing a lot for Jesus is that we forget to be with Jesus.

So how do we nourish that love? The Road to Emmaus gives us several pointers. Firstly, let’s support one another. It’s as the disciples were talking with each other that Jesus first came alongside them.

God gives us fellow Christians so we can support one another. Let’s make the most of that opportunity. Often when members of a church meet up there’s so much to talk about: fetes to plan, rotas to organise, gutters to clear, social chit-chat. How often do we actually talk about the faith that’s brought us together? Share the signs of God’s love in our lives? The things we’ve learnt recently? Our needs and support?

In v.18 the disciples begin talking with Jesus, and the equivalent for us is prayer. I find it interesting how honest these two are – they share their hopes and disappointments, their puzzles and doubts. Jesus doesn’t probe, but it’s as they are honest with him that he is able to carry their questions and answer them.

In my own prayers recently I’ve found it very liberating to say to God exactly what’s on my mind. Not to cover up the questions, or thoughts and temptations which seem unacceptable, but to let them all out. To tell God precisely how I feel, even if some of those feelings aren’t healthy or good. You know, you can’t surprise God. He knows it all already. So there’s no point having secrets from him. He’s totally unshockable. I’ve found that when I pray openly to God about the stuff that shouldn’t be there – anger, jealousy, whatever; God doesn’t close himself off and withdraw in horror. Instead he moves towards me and shows me how to deal with it. Keep trying to be more honest in prayer.

One of the ways God helps us is by reminding us of the promises in the Bible. Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Like those disciples, sometimes we can get stuck with the Bible. Stuck reading the same bits, in the same way, hearing the same morals. So if you’ve got stuck, ring the changes. Try reading a different part of the Bible, use a different translation, get help from some reading notes. Read it in a new style – a whole passage out loud, or imagining it as a play, or taking just one phrase and turning it over and over in your mind.

For instance, a verse that came to mind when I was reading this passage was ‘Practice hospitality’. Paul says it in Romans 12:13, and the disciples did it when they invited Jesus to stay with them. The thing that interests me is that Paul writes Practice hospitality. And we all know that practice makes perfect! In other words, like squash or running, hospitality gets better the more you do it. If you don’t think you’re good at hospitality, try getting some practice in!

Finally, in v. 30, it’s in Communion that they recognise Jesus. And for us today, he offers himself to us in the sacrament so that we can be nourished by his presence. Communion is a very direct way that we can experience the risen Christ. In these churches we offer several communion services on Sundays, in different places at various times, so there are plenty of opportunities to receive. To keep on offering Communion, we need priests – priests who come in from elsewhere like Elveen, our new deacon who will be ordained in July, and priests who are raised up locally like Susan. Please pray that more people will respond to God’s call to be ordained and help us all experience Jesus.

There are many ways that we can know Christ today. For the reading we had this morning is not just a story about something that happened almost two-thousand years ago. It’s not just another piece of evidence in the Resurrection casefile, or an interesting discovery two particular people made. Far better: it’s the proclamation that Christ is risen indeed, that the joy of the new creation is begun, that we can know him today. That the presence of the Risen Christ is with us, ready to be known if we reach out for him

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

 

Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!

Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.