Matthew 24:1-14

As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean in September, one group of people knew exactly what to do. Richard Branson, his family and his staff headed down into the wine cellar of his luxury retreat on Necker Island. Underground, not sure if they would survive, they did the obvious thing and started on the high quality contents of the cellar. I imagine them emerging after many hours, bleary eyed in the bright sunlight and taking in the devastation around.

 

Branson can rebuild, but others have lost everything. Fair play to him though, despite media interest he insisted the story was not about his experience but about the thousands of poor people in the British Virgin Islands who had lost homes and livelihoods.

 

I wonder how we would react in a similar situation? What would you do if you thought it might be your last few hours on earth? Some people eat drink and be merry; some might take the chance to do something they’d always wanted to do; others might tell those most precious to them of their love, or feel the need to make their peace with God.

 

Those range of reactions will be familiar to us from any number of disaster movies. It may be floods and giant waves, alien invasion, asteroids or flesh munching zombies – whatever the peril our culture seems to be fascinated with end of the world scenarios.

 

I wonder why that is? Do those apocalyptic films address some kind of deep fear within us? Of chaos bubbling up? An anxiety that our complex society is actually rather precarious? That despite all our knowledge and technology we are still not in control of our lives? Do we perhaps instinctively know that there will be an end, that we shall eventually stand before God and be accountable to him?

 

It is after all a common theme in the Bible – that God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. From the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation there is this great promise.

Our broken world will not always be this way. God will destroy all that harms his creation. There will be an end to sickness, pain, death and evil. Which is bad news for those who cling to evil – part of this renewal is the judgement when every person is accountable to God for their sin. Those who cling to evil will be swept away with it, but there’s a great hope for those who trust in Christ to be forgiven and start again.

 

People in Jesus’ time were not that different from us. They too thought about earth-shattering events, the end of the world as they knew it.

Look at verse 1 in our reading. The disciples were simple country types from Galilee. They were overawed by the huge buildings of Jerusalem; the vast white stones weighing over a hundred tonnes each. Herod’s temple was so grand that even the little spikes to keep off the pigeons were plated with gold. But Jesus is not so impressed, in v.2:

 

‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another, all will be thrown down’. Barely thirty years later this prediction came true. Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in a lengthy siege. With much suffering the city fell, and the temple was burnt to the ground. All that remains is a layer of stones at the bottom of the Wailing Wall.

 

For the disciples such an appalling event, the destruction of God’s own temple, could mean only one thing. Surely the end of the world must follow? How could the world carry on without Jerusalem? Without the temple? So they want to know, in verse 3: ‘Tell us when will this be, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’

 

But notice how Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. He pointedly doesn’t give them a date – in fact in v.36 he says ‘About that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Only God knows when this will happen. Jesus also refuses to give the disciples clues, precise signs that will allow them to work out that the end is just about to happen. Instead Jesus tells us how to live our lives in the meantime.

It’s all very practical. Keep faithful. Don’t be panicked by events in the world around. Endure persecution. Stay steady to the end. Don’t waste time on speculation but live in readiness for Christ, whenever he comes.

 

After all, if we knew when our time would come, if we knew how long the earth had left, would it change human behaviour? And if so, for better or for worse? I read an interesting novel over half-term. It’s called ‘Numbers’ and it’s all about a teenage girl who has what I suppose you would call a psychic ability. Whenever this girl looks into someone’s eyes she sees the date when they will die. So how does she react? Does she tell them? Do they believe her? Can they change the future? And if she tries to change the future, do those new events just lead to what was going to happen anyway?

 

It’s a fascinating idea. If we knew when Jesus was coming back and it was a long time, would people’s love grow cold? If it’s a short time, would people change their behaviour? But then if it’s right to live a certain way, surely it’s right to do that whether the timescale is long or short? Would knowing make a difference? Should it?

 

It doesn’t stop people trying though. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted it in 1920, and then again for 1975. The predictions keep on coming from all over.

 

So the first thing Jesus says in verses 4 and 5 is: Don’t be taken in. Many false Messiahs will come, many people will be deceived by cults which claim to have found secret codes. I’m amazed it keeps on happening because Jesus says very clearly that if anyone tells you the date, don’t believe them! The new creation will happen one day, in God’s good time. Jesus affirms what the rest of the Bible teaches. He says there will be a judgement, and a new beginning. But it will come at a time we will not expect. Don’t waste your life reading Nostradamus!

 

Secondly, Jesus says: don’t be alarmed by what is going on in the world. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock? This is an imaginary clock in which midnight represents global human-made catastrophe – nuclear war and the like. How close the minute hand is to midnight represents how bad the situation is. Anyone like to guess where we are at the moment? Apparently it’s two and a half minutes to midnight, up from 14 minutes to midnight at the end of the Cold War, and the second worse it’s ever been, after the year in which hydrogen bombs were first tested.

 

Whether that’s an objective assessment of risk, I don’t know, but it certainly says a lot about society’s anxiety levels. What does Jesus say? In verse 6: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be alarmed for this must take place, but the end is not yet.’ He’s not at all saying that we shouldn’t care about these events; he’s certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to prevent famine and climate change. Compassionate Christians have to act. We have to bring these things to God in prayer. We will feel the pain of our world!

 

Yet almost every generation has fallen into the trap of thinking that their times are so bad that they are unique, that there is no hope, or that the end is nigh. Jesus teaches us to be hopeful, to trust in God. God’s plan is not derailed. As he says in verse 7: ‘Nation will rise against nation, all this is but the beginning of birth pains.’

 

An important image to hang on to. Birth pains are not much fun – so I’m told. At the time they’re all encompassing. Afterwards, the pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. What comes afterwards should make it all worthwhile. Keep that picture in mind as we look at the last few verses in our reading.

 

In verse 9 to 12 Jesus tells his disciples to stand firm, to keep faithful, even in the midst of persecution. Opposition, violence, even execution were a reality for those disciples. Jesus wanted them to be prepared.

Christians today in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to own a Bible or a crucifix. In Pakistan recently a schoolboy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was the only Christian in school. We must remember our brothers and sisters in the suffering church, pray for them, give to the charities that support them.

 

We too should be prepared – the words of Jesus envisage that faithful Christians could be persecuted anywhere. In our society we need discernment. We need wisdom to see clearly those things on which we cannot compromise, as opposed to fighting battles which make Christians look ridiculous or legalistic.

 

As Jesus says in verse 13, ‘anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.’ Therefore be confident because your time is in God’s hand. Your lifespan, the world’s existence, is held by God. The end, the new beginning will come, in God’s good time. For the good news must be preached to all nations.

 

So do not worry, but be faithful and consistent. Stay in the grace of Christ, keep on using the means of grace he has given us. Pray, meet together, worship, serve. For in so doing we work with God’s plan, and we wait for that day when his plan is gloriously fulfilled. Amen.

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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.

 

Two sons

Learning to help is part of growing up. It teaches children responsibility and new skills. I was thinking this the other day when I was holding a step ladder against the shed while 8 year old hands manipulated a hammer alarming close to my head. It may have taken longer than if I did it, but I’m proud she can now knock in roofing tacks.

 

And as they get older, the help that’s offered becomes really useful. Picking, gathering, tidying takes less time than it once did. Garden jobs particularly are good for children. In Biblical times the whole family was involved in farming, there was always something to do and everyone had to lend a hand particularly during the Harvest.

 

Nowadays farm machinery can do the job of many people – a couple of weeks ago we were spreading gravel over a church car park and it was set to take all day until the farmer turned up. Many hands make light work – especially if one of them is driving a big green bulldozer. Nowadays the village where I live has a population of 850, with maybe a dozen working on the land. In the year 1386 the population was 1500 – almost all of whom would have been peasant farmers.

 

It was like that in Biblical times, which is why so many of Jesus parables are about farming. When we think of vineyards, like the one that’s mentioned in our gospel reading, I guess we think of wine? But they were important for raisins too – vitamins through the winter months and a food that could be carried around. Any surplus above the family’s needs would be a useful source of income. So the father needs his sons to do their bit.

 

What follows is a familiar scenario: the workman who turn up keen to get the job, quotes a sensible price in good time, yet when it comes to it just cannot be found. And then on the other hand there’s the child who sulks when asked to help with the washing up, buries his head in the ipad, only to appear suddenly at your side with tea towel in hand.

 

The moral in the Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 is clear: Actions speak louder than words. We can huff and puff all we like, but we’ll be judged on the basis of what we do.

 

 

That’s why Amazon and eBay are so big on. Those little gold stars allow us to cut through the advertisers’ waffle and see if they really deliver. Jesus said ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ – not by their disclaimers! We confess what we believe with our mouths, but you can tell it’s real by how we live our lives.

 

It’s easy to say that ‘Actions speak louder than Words.’ Hard to put into practice. We have to make choices, be consistent. Recently I’ve been looking at getting a new car. I want to minimise my carbon emissions, I talk about the environment quite a bit. So I have I gone for the smallest car with the least polluting engine? Well not quite. There’s more va va voom then there would be if all I was looking at was green credentials. I can at least take comfort in the fact that newer technology means it’s less damaging than my old Skoda.

 

With that kind of example, legislation helps. Recycling is a faff if you’re the only one doing it, but if there are good facilities and provision for everyone it becomes second nature. You may have noticed that Wiltshire council have a recycling questionnaire online – do fill it in! Virtue is much easier if everyone’s doing it, if there are incentives to do the right thing.

 

Or is that just an excuse? The human heart is devious – we can fail to notice our own hypocrisy – when we say one thing but do another. We can become hypocritical when we justify ourselves, or when we give reasons why in our particular case there’s a good exemption. Or sometimes it’s just a lack of self-awareness. I knew someone who was always offering to host a church social, or do some paperwork. But it never happened. I don’t think she did it on purpose, she wasn’t deceiving or trying to look good. I just think she didn’t recognise the gap between what she wanted to do and was actually able to undertake.

 

Strangely though, the people Jesus takes aim at are the religious leaders. Some of them were Pharisees, who made it their life’s work to create a society where doing the right thing was easier. They laid down clear boundaries between right and wrong, they looked at the grey areas and decided what you could and couldn’t do. The Pharisees really tried to support one another in living out their approach to Jewish faith.

 

But in the first part of our reading, verses 23-27 they are challenging Jesus. ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ they ask about his teaching in the temple. Not a bad question, although one might ask them the same thing –who gave you authority to judge? Instead Jesus asks them ‘What about John the Baptist? Where did his authority come from?’

 

Instantly, their hypocrisy is revealed. For, as they say in v.25, ‘if we say from heaven, he will ask ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ But if we say ‘From Earth’, then all the crowd will stone us, because they believe that John was a prophet’

 

You see what has happened? Nobody thought to answer with their actual opinion. Maybe they think John the Baptist was a prophet – but if so why didn’t they listen to him? More likely they think John was a liar. If so, say so. But they can’t, because they fear the consequences. Either they will look foolish and concede a debating point to Jesus, or they will lose the support of the crowd. So, lamely, they respond ‘We don’t know’.

 

How did the chief priests and elders end up like that? What went wrong? The great flaw in their approach is that if you lay down clear boundaries between right and wrong, it’s easy to think that you’ve done your duty. Anyone can legislate for ritual but it’s much harder to legislate for kindness. The Pharisees even gave a tenth of your herbs. That’s an easily measurable outcome – but forgiving someone who sins against you is fuzzier. Compassion isn’t a legal thing.

 

So outward observance became the principle. Rather like the cornerstone issues in American politics today: many conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump because he held a traditional position on abortion – regardless of anything else he said or did.

 

Hypocrisy can easily happen when we focus on easily measured outcomes. Or when believing the right thing is more important than living with love and kindness. That is a particular challenge for the church today: our society is extremely sensitive to anything which is perceived as judgemental. No amount of right belief will count for anything in the eyes of the world if the church is experienced as unloving. We have to work very hard to demonstrate the love of God.

 

But let’s also be clear what hypocrisy is and what it isn’t. Hypocrisy is not falling short, making mistakes. It is not hypocrisy when we say: ‘This is what I believe I am meant to do. I try to do it. I don’t always get it right. But I repent, God forgives me and I try again.’ That’s not hypocrisy. That’s admitting that we fail to live up to our standards. If we recognise our imperfection, if we are open about how we struggle to get it right in a broken world, if we show that we depend on God’s grace then that gets over a truly Christian message about forgiveness.

 

That’s why Jesus praises the tax collectors and the prostitutes in verse 31. They know their need of God and are returning to him. They are aware of their sin, they’re not trying to cover it up, but they repent and God forgives them. Jesus isn’t saying that God is comfortable with sin, he’s not arguing that these people don’t need to change. After all in the parable of the two sons Jesus did say that the second son had disobeyed his father at first. What Jesus is doing is praising the humility of the tax collector who prayed ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’. God can work with their self-knowledge, their obedience in the end – ultimately that they turn to God because they know their need.

 

Nonetheless it seems to me that there is a still better way. How often have you had to cancel an event because not enough people have signed up – only to get a flurry of enquiries about tickets? Or have you ever decided that you can’t go out after all, cancelled your table – and the very next minute the babysitter finally sends the text you’d been waiting for? Surely it is best of all to say ‘Yes’ to God – and obey.

 

Ideally, let’s aim for the outward ‘yes’ and the following action. The willingness to serve God and the ability to do it. Jesus is realistic, he knows that much of the time we can’t manage that, but he tells this parable as an invitation: to repentance, to come back to God and to start again. Amen.

 

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.

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.