Arts Festival at Harvest Time. John 15:1-11

When I think of an artist, my grandfather always comes to mind. Les Swann had always enjoyed drawing – I still have a pen and ink sketch that he drew of Hyderabad Cathedral during his wartime service. He used his demob grant to train as an art teacher. Being head of art in all-boys secondary school meant that he was both competent in all sorts of media, and a lethal shot whether with a cricket ball or board rubber.

He seemed to be able to turn his hand to anything, from oil paintings of abandoned tin mines, to orders of service for funerals. These leaflets, in the days before photocopying would be pressed out individually in the garden shed using an ancient raised type printer. It took me some time to realise that the pictures and floral patterns round the edge were not mere embellishment to the words within – they were just as much part of the message, the medium conveying an overall impression.

The Christian doctrine of Creation is similar. It appears at first sight to be focussed on words. ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ ‘In the beginning was the Word and the word was God and the word was with God’. The beginning of John’s gospel gives us the belief that God the Father creates the world through God the Son. Not yet incarnate as Jesus, God the Son in creation is called, in the original Greek, the logos which is often translated Word. It would misleading though to think that Word exhausts the meaning of what God is doing in creation. As if God speaks the universe into being and that is it. Logos means so much more.

For the creative work continues, God is intimately involved in his creation. The glories of the world that we see around us: its beauty, diversity, exuberance, are all part of the gift of God and bear witness to his creativity. So art is not just a useful way of making a point which could be more concisely put in words – rather art is part of God’s self-revelation to us. Art is not mere illustration – it can reveal part of God. Christianity without art would be deeply impoverished. As we are creative, as we allow our artistic gifts to develop, we can draw close to God.

When I remember my grandparents’ house, for some reason I always picture the stairs. They had one of those carpets that you never see nowadays, you know the ones that don’t quite cover the tread of each stair. Half-way up was a large window, which flooded the hallway with light, and on the window sill were several pots. One in particular deeply impressed me: large secretary birds stomped round it in an eternal quest for prey. I wonder how many tries it took my grandfather to get that pot right?

Watching a potter work is an engrossing experience. I find it fascinating how a pot emerges like a living organism from a featureless lump of clay. Yet forming a pot is much more than an idea in the potter’s mind becoming embodied. As if he thinks and does. Instead there’s almost a conversation between the clay and the potter – the texture and density of the clay will affect the type of pot that can be made. Small imperfections will be smoothed out, variations in the spinning speed may alter the final design.

 

It is the same with our relationship to God in creation. As the prophet Jeremiah observed, if God is like the potter then we are like the clay. Trusting ourselves into his hands, we are moulded into the image he wants us to be, fully expressing the potential that lies within. God’s work in us does not involve extinguishing our personality – quite the opposite, as God works with the clay of which our character is formed. We can trust his perfect design.

In the act of Creation, God makes something that is not himself. The God who is everywhere, in a sense has to limit himself so that there is the space for other beings to exist. That self-restricting act gives us freedom. God makes the space which gives us the ability to fulfil God’s destiny for us, or to turn away, as the case may be.

Sometimes the potter gives a little sigh, and before you realise what is happening, has collapsed the pot into a ball and started again. So it is with us: our mistakes may mar the design, but there is always the chance to turn back to God, repent and begin again.

Something similar is happening in our reading from John’s Gospel Chapter 10. The gardener goes along the vine, pruning, sometimes so alarmingly hard that we wonder: can the plant ever survive? He knows what he is doing, and the next year the harvest is abundant.

As Jesus says in verse 2: ‘He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch in me that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ There is a cost in fulfilling our greatest potential: distractions must be pruned away, unworthy vices rubbed off, selfishness cut out. This is not done against our will, we must give our permission, desire to be what we cannot in our own strength.

For the ability to be transformed comes from the grace of God, and this power, this energy, arises from within the vine itself. From Christ who is our root and stem. As he says in verse 5: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ As the creative logos, he is the source of the life within us. His divine power gives us all we need.

So what does it mean to abide in him? How can that be a reality for us? Abiding in Christ means a conscious turning to him. Wishing to be what we can be through the gift of God, hoping to fulfil the destiny he has for us. As we do so, his spirit enters in and we become aware of the signs of his love within us.

Abiding in Christ involves an action. It will mean making the space through stillness, silence and prayer, in which we can respond to his Holy Spirit. Letting him prune away all that does not bring life, and allowing the fruit to grow as we look beyond ourselves to others. Abiding in Christ our creativity reaches its fullest expression. But above all, his creativity, his life, his wondrous power finds its expression within us. Amen.

 

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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.

 

 

Debts – Matthew 18:21-35

This man owes a king’s ransom, and yet his debt has been cancelled. Incredible! What tremendous mercy his master showed! And what awful hypocrisy, what terrible anger the servant then displayed to his fellow, a man who owed him a mere hundred pounds.

 

Almost a decade ago the world economy went through a very difficult time. Banks failed, stock markets collapsed, growth went into reverse. All because huge amounts had been foolishly lent, and suddenly investors realised the money would never be repaid. Nine years on, we still deal with the consequences and there are fears it may happen again.

 

Jesus reminds us that people throughout the ages have faced similar hazards. Both borrowers and investors are at risk of losing out, and the potential human suffering is immense.

 

For many years the church had a prohibition against usury – or lending money at interest. When the doctrine changed, and the church decided that interest rates were not in themselves sinful, it laid the foundations of modern capitalism. That adaptation enabled society as we currently know it to develop. Perhaps though now we can see the wisdom that there was in the past. We might well feel that society has gone too far in the other direction, that an economy built on debt is a bubble. Would we go back to society without interest? Is that even possible? Or is it wiser to follow Justin Welby and call not for revolution but reform?

 

Either way, the parable Jesus tells involves men who have borrowed and lent. Despite the Biblical prohibitions it went on even then. Which suggests to me that a realistic ethic has to take account of it.

 

Imagine a bank which was bailed out by the government. Lucky them. But what if that bank uses its new found freedom to send out repossession notices to householders who’ve fallen behind on the mortgage. What an outcry there would be!

 

So what does this parable teach us today about money, debt and remission?

If any of us have benefitted from debt relief – if our bank was bailed out all those years ago, then what are we doing about anyone who owes us money? How do we drive our bargains and negotiate deals? Do we understand the concept of a living wage?

 

The gospel also invites us to reflect on the cost of forgiveness. In bailing out banks and savers, the government, and hence the tax payer took on risk and potential losses. It did so at a cost – depending on who you listen to, the government might never break even. In the parable the king cancels the man’s debt – at great cost to himself, for it represents a massive financial loss.

 

When we forgive, it is a cost to us. In effect we’re saying that what someone did to us hurt us, but we will not hold it against them. We will seek reconciliation, not revenge. It costs to do that, and in some way when you forgive you bear the pain of whatever that person has done to you. Forgiveness has a cost.

 

God knows that. When he asks us to forgive, he does so in full knowledge of what is involved. For he too has borne the pain of forgiving. God did so in the cross. When we look at the death of Jesus, we see what it cost God to forgive. We see the price he paid for coming to save us. We too should forgive.

 

But there are also some questions. When Peter says: ‘Lord how many times should I forgive? Up to seven times?’, he thinks he’s being incredibly generous. Three would have been the custom, so Peter doubles it and adds one. Jesus has a surprise: ‘Seventy times seven’. So many times you can’t keep track.

 

Are there really no limits to forgiveness? What about those who were in concentration camps? What about people whose children have been murdered? How can Jesus expect them to forgive? Those are situations where forgiveness seems humanly impossible.

 

But unless we’re in that situation, it’s not our business to worry about that. If God wishes those who have been horribly offended against to forgive, then it is up to him to supply the grace, love and strength for them to do it.

 

Our challenge is to forgive those who have offended against us. We’re not called to worry about how other people might forgive, or imagine what it feels like for them – we’re called to forgive our own enemies.

 

What about repentance? Do people need to say sorry before they can be forgiven? Jesus tells the parable because Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the number of times he can forgive a penitent brother. Repentance is there. On the other hand, though, Jesus forgives his enemies from the cross while they are still crucifying him. No sense of repentance there.

 

I think it’s helpful here to think of sin building walls around us. When someone sins against me, it builds up a wall of resentment and anger, hostility and hurt. That’s natural. But left alone, that wall cuts me off from the other person. And, because it’s a wall that surrounds me, it cuts me off from God too. If we’re not forgiving, if we nurse a grudge, we become isolated, turned in our ourselves, bitter and hurting, longing to break out but not wanting to demolish those high walls, because they have become part of who we are.

 

Forgiveness breaks down the wall, and restores fellowship with the one who has offended, and also with God. That’s why forgiveness is so essential in family relationships and in friendships, it breaks down those walls before they become a problem.

 

If someone doesn’t apologise to us then we cannot restore fellowship with them in the same way. They are surrounded by their own wall, their own inability to repent. But Jesus teaches that we should still forgive – turn the other cheek – because it will break down the walls that threaten to enclose us. In short, forgiveness is good for us.

 

That doesn’t make it easy. It is tremendously difficult. We have to let go of what was done to us, we have to let go of our feelings of anger and our longing for revenge. We do not have to pretend that nothing happened. We do not have to deny that wrong was done, or that we would rather it never had occurred. We do not have to abandon the wish for justice and reform for the other person. We should not be naïve in thinking the same can’t happen again.

 

But we do have to forgive. We do have to stop nursing a grudge. We do have to give up on revenge and hatred. We do have to let go and try to move on, living in peace as far as it depends on us.

 

And that’s so difficult. I find it helpful to pray that God will give me the strength to forgive and understand what that means. And then I have to take a cold blooded decision ‘I forgive’. Not I will forgive, or I want to forgive, but ‘I forgive’. I may not feel particularly forgiving, but still that decision has to be made. And then, God’s Spirit gets to work. I begin to forgive in practice. He helps me let go, to forget, to meet that person again.

 

Of course, that’s not the end of it. As time goes on we uncover deeper levels of hurt, a chance remark betrays continues resentment, a repeat offence brings the whole business flaring up again. And so we must keep on forgiving, every time the monster rears its ugly head we bash it down again. It is not easy, but Jesus commanded it, and he never commanded something that he himself would not do.

 

So as we come to communion, let us reflect on the price of forgiveness. Let us receive the pledge of God’s goodness, and let us commit ourselves to forgive. Amen.

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.

Burning Bush

Barely two months ago I was sat in Bristol Cathedral ready for Elveen’s ordination. The cathedral authorities have obviously realised that people are a captive audience while they’re waiting, so on the first few pages of the order of service are potted biographies of those about to be made deacon

One in particular caught my eye. He wrote‘God is never in a hurry! Forty-five years ago, when I was lodging in a Leicestershire farmhouse, the farmer’s wife said to me: ‘You’ll be ordained one day.’ Her vision was greater than mine, but I prayed about it and saw myself as an old man wearing a dog collar. Spurred on by that I’ve tried the ordination door more than once over the years but it was always closed. God had more shaping to do on me…but he gave me a promise to hang on to: ‘My word will accomplish what I desire’. So in God’s timing the old man with the dog collar is here at last. Thank you Lord. He is the God who fulfils his purposes for us all.

Moses’ experience was like that, waiting a long time, being shaped by God before he was finally ready to fulfil his call. Forty long years ago, the young man Moses had left the palace of the Egyptian princess who had adopted him, and gone to discover his roots. Finding his own people, the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses was furious. He attacked and killed a slave driver. But Pharaoh heard about it and Moses fled into the wilderness

He survived by working as a shepherd. Humbled, and probably believing this was now his life, he married the daughter of a local priest. We can only imagine what the journey he travelled: of frustration, wasted talent, regret, humility and finally acceptance. Only then, forty years later, was God able to use him

It was only once he’d learnt to listen, to trust, once he’d learnt to do things God’s way, that God could use him. The Israelites would never listen to a spoilt Egyptian princeling. But a man who had suffered, who like them had endured hardship – they could respect him. Sometimes we too need work done on us, character honed, before we can fulfil the call God has given us. Sometimes, like Moses, we have to be set aside for a while, become insignificant, in order to be used

If so, God may need to reassure us that his plans for us are faithful. As he guides us, we learn more about him. In this passage about the burning bush from Exodus chapter 3v1-15, the story of Moses call is interwoven with the revelation of God

Why did God appear in a burning bush? It’s really odd. To Abraham and Jacob, God appeared as a person, or they heard his voice. To Samson’s mother and to David, God came as the Angel of the Lord, a heavenly messenger. The only other time I can think of that God appears not as a personal form but through an object is when Abraham sees a burning brazier making a covenant. There again fire speaks of the presence of God.

 

The thorn bush, most useless and lowliest of plants may encourage Moses. There is nowhere God is absent, nothing God cannot use. Moses feels his life has been wasted, he has lost all confidence. He is like the thornbush – but the fire of God can blaze in him. Thorns also may speak of suffering, the slavery of the Israelites and the hard road Moses must travel. God is not absent when we suffer – we may even feel his presence most strongly. After all, it is on the cross when Jesus wears the crown of thorns, that we see the love of God revealed most clearly. Perhaps the burning bush even anticipates the incarnation: God’s presence united with frail human flesh yet not consuming it.

There is a mystery here, and I think that’s deliberate. The burning bush speaks to us of a God who is both with us, and yet greater than we can imagine. Who appears in a blaze of fire, but we cannot get too close. Who speaks rational words so that he can be heard, yet you must take off your shoes because you stand on holy ground. Who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they are alive with him and in heaven behold his face – yet sinful man covers his face because he is afraid to look on God

This is the God we worship, who makes himself known but cannot be fully comprehended. Who reveals himself as a mystery, and calls us on, deeper and deeper into that mystery. A God who when he is asked says name says ‘I will be what I will be’ – in other words he has the complete freedom to be himself, not to be tied down by our classifications., no-one can have power over him by knowing his name

In our prayers and worship we must hold both of these insights together: that God reveals himself to us and makes himself known, but that he is always greater than we can imagine. In our prayers we might imagine pictures of God, but be ready to lay them aside as inadequate. In our hymns and preaching we use words to describe Him, but we must always remember that words cannot encompass his majesty. Our creeds speak of how God has made himself known, but they cannot exhaust the mystery. When we come to worship, let’s not expect it to be as it always is, but be ready to let God be God

In speaking of a God who is transcendent, we should not imagine that he is distant or uncaring. The God who spoke to Moses did so because he had a task for Moses to do: to set God’s people free.  Just look at the verbs in v.7: ‘I have observed the misery, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.’ God has heard the cry of the Israelites, he has seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them, and he has come to rescue them.

God does see. He observes the misery of human trafficking, he hears the cry of the bonded labourer, he knows the suffering of the refugee, he sees the racial divisions – and he still sends his people to rescue and heal. This is part of our vocation as followers of Christ

Of course, there are people who say that the gospel message must come first, and that therefore the church ought to leave social action to the state or to non-Christians. To say that is to ignore the nature of God. It forgets that wherever Christ went he both preached the message and healed the sick. The proclamation of the Kingdom cannot be separated out from the acts of the Kingdom, for it is about life in all its fullness.

People know this – a church which preaches without acting will be accused of hypocrisy, but those like HtB which have a prison and homeless ministry gain the right to be heard. The mission of the Bible Society is to give people Scriptures in their own language, but they also give tents and food to Syrian refugees – you can’t read the Good News if you’ve got nowhere to sit and a hungry stomach. Christians must follow the heart of God and act in love, as well as explaining what we believe. Neither is complete without the other

Making a difference in the world is a long journey. It’s over a year since Jonathan’s campaign began – to give children with special educational needs a genuine opportunity to be taught to read and write. It’s been a long haul. The Government has been enthusiastic, there have been great photo opportunities, videos blogs and articles which have impacted thousands, but no policy has yet changed. Whenever there is the prospect of change, vested interests oppose you. Some you hoped would be allies just don’t get it, or disagree on the right approach. As Moses found, even the ones you hoped to help turn out to be discouraged, tired, too busy just coping, maybe even unable to dream that things could be different.

Perhaps sensing this, Moses objects in v.11: ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ Who indeed is up to this task

But the point is not who Moses is, but the key thing is who is with Moses. ‘I will be with you’ says God. We may say ‘Who am I? The task is too great. I have no experience, ability.’ But God says ‘I will be with you’. With God all things are possible. When his Holy Spirit moves we just need to get on board

He longs to bless his people. He promises Moses that he will set them free, he will bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey. One day soon they will worship God on that very mountain, and receive the law which outlines their relationship with God. God wishes to bless his people, to set them free from captivity and bring them into a right relationship with him. This is about the message of the gospel, and the liberation the gospel brings. He calls us all to work and pray in that great task. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21

Would you be flattered if you were described as a small cog in a very big machine? I’m not sure I would! I suppose whoever came up with that phrase may have been trying to get to the idea that each of us has a place, and a role to do. That our part may seem minor, but we are contributing to something much greater than ourselves. Economics and society may well feel like that, but what about God’s plan? Where do you and I fit into God’s great big picture? Are we dots of colour on the painting? Cogs in the machine? Grain that is ground to make bread

I think a better image is one that will resonate with anyone who’s been to an Open Gardens recently. Think of a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. The overall effect is of great beauty, natural and at the same time ordered. Yet all this is possible because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering. It’s that fulfilment which is key – God’s plan does not involve treating us as impersonal cogs. God’s plan for creation is fulfilled as we find our true place, destiny and calling

God weaves a tapestry out of history and when he does so he makes it up from the individual threads of our lives. He includes our triumphs and disasters, our obedience and even our failures. As we hear in our Old Testament reading, God is able to work with even the most unpromising situations. He can turn around injustice, he can bring about his purposes while also bringing healing and fulfilment to individual persons

You might like to have the reading from Genesis 21 verses 8-21 in front of you. To understand what’s going on, we need to recap from earlier on in the story, where God had called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised that he would be the father of many nations. Yet Abraham and his wife Sarah were old. So after several years, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child with her slave-girl Hagar. Sarah gave Hagar into Abraham’s arms, Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael

As Christians in the 21st century, what on earth do we do with this? It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, it may have been the custom back then, yes it may have been an accepted way of producing an heir; but how do we understand it now, make sense of it? To us it’s outrageous. Slavery is an abuse of power, let alone making the slave girl have your child.

It’s really important to understand that when the Bible stories describe something, they often do so as a warning, not as an example to follow. The people in the Bible are not plaster-cast saints; perfect individuals whom we must admire from a distance. They are all too human, flawed, dangerously so. They wrestle with God and their own frailties. Sin catches them out, but somehow God works through this gritty reality. The stories tell us about real people, real passions, real redemption

Old Testament narrative in particular tends to tell us what happened and invite us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes there will be a clear moral, more often we have to work out for ourselves: was this action wise? Did it obey God and lead to human flourishing

And the obvious answer is no. Hagar was unhappy. Sarah was jealous. Abraham was caught in the middle. God had not been obeyed. Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, used a flawed and unjust human solution to try and fulfil God’s promise. The story is about to get worse, and yet amazingly, God can redeem it

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God repeats his promise to Abraham. This time Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. By the time our reading starts in v.8 Isaac is about three years old – they weaned late back then, and the feast celebrates the fact Isaac has passed through the period of greatest infant mortality. Yet in verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing – or the word might mean making fun – of Isaac.

How incredibly destructive jealousy is! Jealousy is one of the most powerful and irrational emotions. Jealousy fritters away inheritance on legal fees, it wastes court time on disputes over the names on gravestones, it leads one man to oppose his neighbour’s planning permission because the neighbour’s house is nicer. Jealousy fuels social media trolling, it causes anxiety and leads people to cut off their nose to spite their face. Jealousy reorients our lives to priorities which do not bring peace and can never satisfy. It is a form of madness.

If we do find jealousy in our hearts – perhaps at the career success of colleagues or the wealth of friends – then we need to repent of it. But we also need to sow a better plant to replace the weed. The Christian antidotes to jealousy are contentedness and generosity. If we are content with our lot, then the good things others enjoy will not trouble us. If we give thanks regularly for our blessings, then we will not feel that we are missing out. And if we are generous in our attitudes and actions, we will not feel diminished when others do well.

Abraham and Sarah were wealthy. Isaac’s needs would have been amply met if they had shared with Ishmael. But Sarah insists that Ishmael will not inherit. Conveniently forgetting her own role in creating this situation, she demands in v.10: ‘The son of the slave girl shall not inherit with my son Isaac.

Now some experts say this is not as harsh as it appears. Apparently there were laws at the time which allow the child born to a slave and her master to inherit. But the slave and the child can be liberated in exchange for relinquishing the inheritance. So in effect, Hagar is freed

But it still seems harsh to me. What sort of freedom is this? Freedom to wander unsupported? Freedom to be friendless and alone in the wilderness? Who wants that freedom? Abraham did not want it for Ishmael – he is greatly distressed. We can only imagine the marital situation that resulted.

The unstoppable force of Sarah meets the immoveable object of Abraham in such a way that only God can resolve it with a direct command to Abraham. Do what your wife says, but it will work out because God has a plan. It is indeed Isaac who is the son of the promise, his descendants will give rise to the Jewish nation. But choosing Isaac does not mean that Ishmael is rejected. He too will become a great nation

This is really important. There’s a lot in the Bible about how God chose Israel, how he has a chosen people. Sometimes this was interpreted as God choosing a particular people to the exclusion of others. But St Paul reminds us that God’s plan was always that Israel would be a light to the nations, a special blessing to the Gentiles, showing them how to live and know God.

God’s call is always like this – to be a means of blessing. God doesn’t call anyone to be special or to feel great – he calls us to serve. We who come to church on Sunday – we shouldn’t think of ourselves as the chosen few, but as a means of blessing to our communities

Sometimes that may seem optimistic. In the final few verses Ishmael’s very survival seems in doubt, let alone any idea of becoming a great nation. Hagar is lost, dehydrated, it’s a pathetic scene as mother and son both weep and prepare to die.

But just at the point when all is lost, God saves. The loving and rescuing heart of God cares just as much for the cast-out slave as for the patriarch. In verses 17 and 18 God affirms that he has heard Ishmael’s prayer. He knows every person’s situation and he hears us when we pray to him. God reiterates his promise that Ishmael will be a great nation – which should remind us that God’s promises can be trusted. God commands action ‘Get up’ – and we should remember that God’s blessings often need a response from us. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well – which may remind us that sometimes the answer to pray lies in what is already close at hand.

The story ends with God continuing to be with Ishmael. The young man carves out a life for himself as a desert ranger, and his mother finds him a wife from her home in Egypt. Finally, as a postscript in Genesis 25:9, we find that when Abraham dies, he is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. At the death of the parent the divided family come together

To sum up then, in these events we have a warning. A warning about the terrible consequences of jealousy and exploitation. Abraham and Sarah are not here as examples to be emulated, but avoided. Yet as well as a warning, we also have a promise and an encouragement. We see that God can redeem even the most desperate situation. That God has an incredible ability to turn things around and use even the most flawed people in his plan. Here we see grace, compassion for the needy, redemption and hope. Amen.