What is the culture of this church? Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?

Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?

Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?

Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!

Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/

Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?

In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.

The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.

Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.

The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.

So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?

In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.

20170917_112358c
We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.

Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.

 

I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!

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Can we sing like Mary sang? Luke 1:46-55

StME banner
The banner at St. Mary’s Eversley

Today we marked the Patronal Festival of St. Mary’s Eversley, and so the sermon is a reflection on The Magnificat:

Do you sing for joy?

When your emotions have been pent up, whether it be with confusion, fear and concern, or impatience to reach a longed-for goal, and they encounter something or someone which suddenly swings your emotions into a more positive framework, how do they release themselves? Do you sing? Or is singing an emotional release in and of itself? Are there hymns or songs that have a tendency to make you especially joyful, or reduce you to tears? Or is it that sometimes you go to football stadium, or come to church, all wound up with the cares of your life, and find release in singing?

The young girl who sings the song that forms our Gospel today, had had her life turned upside down in the days immediately before she decides to hurriedly trek into the hills, to visit a cousin for a little mutually supportive break. For them, as for many women, pregnancy brings with it a raft of emotions that hormones bring rather closer to the surface than they might otherwise be. But given that both Elizabeth and Mary had conceived through the miraculous power of God’s concern, not just for them, but for the whole of humanity, it was unsurprising that the pleasure they experience of encountering the evidence of each other’s story is released in shouts and songs of joy.

Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat, after the opening phrase “My soul magnifies (or extols) the Lord”. And what strikes me, given the situation in which Mary finds herself, is how little of the song is about herself. Yes, her spirit rejoices because of the favour shown her by God, but it was a blessing that she had received with initial trepidation and some significant angst for her relationship with Joseph, so wanting to proclaim God’s part in proceedings is socially significant in the first place! As a unwed teenager in a religiously-conservative community, how stunning is it that Mary finds the courage to sing, “from now on all generations will call me blessed. For you, Mighty One, have done great things for me, and holy is your name.”[i]

Then, Mary places her pregnancy not within the context of her own short life and the changes being wrought upon it, but in the context of the history of her people and the world at large – a mercy that stretches from one generation to another, the dream of ancient Israel. God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. Mary was soaked in the psalms and prophesies that had carried the hope of God’s mercy, revolution and victory to the era of servitude. That is why there are so many echoes of Hannah’s song over another small boy in 1 Samuel 2.[ii] How awesome is it that amid the shock of her pregnancy, both the fact and the means of it, she recognises that the son she now carries, is the fulfilment of those dreams, and that hope?!

As Mary sings a fresh prophesy over the son growing in her womb, it’s almost like she is the first to tentatively grasp that this child will bring a mercy and a revolution that is quite unlike what her people are expecting. In this “overture to the Gospel of Luke… [the] lyrics set the tone for Jesus’ radical and controversial ministry”[iii]…:

  • He will fill the hungry with good things both spiritually (e.g. The beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-11) and practically through his miracles (Feeding 5000 e.g. John 6:1-14), and send the rich man away empty, until he can set aside his wealth to live generously (Matthew 19:21-22).
  • He will bring down the powerful from the protected thrones of self-satisfaction (Isaiah 40:23 fulfilled in Pilot’s washing of his hands, Matthew 27:23-24), and lift up the lowly who are sat blind (Luke 18:35-43) or disfigured (Mark 2:1-12).
  • He will scatter the pride of the faith leaders whose hearts and actions show the hypocrisy of their words (Matthew 23).
  • He will show his strength, as the Son of God, the Messiah, in humble arms flung wide upon the cross (Luke 23:32-43).

Mary is singing about everyone but herself. She is praising God for the gift of this son, and offering her understanding of both her place, and much more importantly his place, in the context of God’s revelation through the people of Israel, for the whole world. The very fact that this hymn of praise and prophesy has been treasured in Elizabeth’s memory to be repeated and retold down generations until it was captured in the amber of Luke’s Gospel for perpetuity as an offering us, suggests that it should have similar significance for our lives. We who profess ourselves Christians, carry the Christ-child within us. Could we sing a song like Mary’s, focused not on ourselves, but on what God has gifted us with, and its purpose for the world?

The cost of Mary’s song would be fulfilled throughout her life:

  • we hear it in the trauma of becoming a refugee in an effort to protect her child (Matthew 2:12-14);
  • we listen to it in the frantic searching of a hysterical parent for a lost child whose wisdom and knowledge rapidly grows beyond her apron strings (Luke 2:41-52);
  • in silence we witness it at the cross in her mute acceptance of the protection of a new child, the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27)
  • we even encounter her whispered prayers, with the others gathered after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:14).

Forget whether we can actually sing in tune or not, that’s not the point here. If we think of our lives as a song, are our lives singing with the prophetic passion with which Mary sang? Are we paying the price for carrying Jesus that she paid, and are we still praying, with her?

We are all very good at focusing on ourselves; I know I catch myself doing it, time and time again through each and every day, as my mind slips back from what I’m meant to be doing for others, to what I want to do instead, what I think is right, what my dreams are.

In a world context, collectively humanity is also very good at focusing on the present, and forgetting the prophesies and lessons of the past: otherwise we wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a nuclear war, forgetting washed up refugees on distant shores, wasting millions with interminable arguing over political relationships whilst people wait for hours on hospital trollies.

But

  • If our lives sing a song that feeds the hungry, both physically and spiritually,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our actions lift up the lowly, and puncture the self-satisfaction of the powerful,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our voices challenge pride and hypocrisy among our leaders, including if necessary those of faith,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
  • If our arms are flung wide in sacrifice,
    we’re singing Mary’s song.
StME Patronal flowers
Flowers in front of the Chancel screen for St. Mary’s Eversley, Patronal Festival.

Mary was one, lone, pregnant teenager, and because of her humility, and her understanding of what God wanted of her, for the good of the whole world, she sang a song that changed the world.

Can we sing, like Mary sang?

[i] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

[ii] Tom Wright ‘Luke for Everyone’

[iii] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/12/magnificat-learning-to-sing-mary%E2%80%99s-song-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-luke-146-55/

 

Going the ‘long way round’ – Matthew 16:21-28

Going the long way roundMuch at St. Mary’s Eversley is now focused on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the new Priest-in-Charge of Eversley and Darby Green, and the work that will be done with him in the months and years to come, following Jesus, and proclaiming his love for the world. So yes, sermons have a particular bias in that direction over the last couple of weeks:

If we’re going on a journey, perhaps a walking journey, what do we need to have with us? Boots, wet weather gear, bag, food, water…. But how do we know where we’re going? We need a map, compass, or perhaps satnav or some sort of gps system. We need to know where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, before we start; then we need to have a plan of the route, know what the obstacles are going to be – is there anything we are going to have to go round? And we also need to know the destination we’re aiming at.

I suspect that almost all of us have had cause recently to look at a map, of one form or another. I’m getting used to having a car with built in sat nav, and it amazes me the route variations that it offers, some of which are wildly different to what seems obvious, to me at least. Sometime taking the sat nav’s suggestions seriously can be a good thing, sometimes er… not so good. Trust me, if you can, whatever your sat nav says, avoid the centre of Exeter when heading to the edge of Dartmoor!

Some of us who have been to the West Country over the summer, have had to take a decision: do we drive past Stonehenge very, very slowly, with the queues of other holiday traffic, or get up at crack of dawn in the hope of avoiding the jams, or seek an alternative route, that is much further and apparently a longer way round, but is less stressful, and may get us to our destination much faster?

If we heard or read the Gospel last week, or remember our scriptures well, we know that a few days before our reading this morning, Simon Peter had effectively worked out the destination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’d sussed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the ultimate ruler that the Jews had been looking forward to for generations, the one who would liberate them.

So when, very soon after, he hears Jesus talking not of an authoritative assault on Roman rule in Jerusalem, but that Jesus expects their own Jewish leaders to torture and kill him, Simon Peter the ever impulsive, tells Jesus that he’s talking dangerous, defeatist, nonsense.

But of course, Jesus isn’t talking nonsense. Simon Peter and the other disciples may not be able to see it, but Jesus understands the map that his Father God has given him, and he doesn’t get to the destination, to fulfilling the role of Messiah by being on the aggressors’ side of a conflict. He has to take a different route.

The journey that Jesus has to take involves… a sarcastically offered purple cloth, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross – the cross that he won’t just have to carry, but he will be nailed to!

The divinely ordained route to Jesus being fully revealed as the Messiah, involves being on the receiving end of mis-understandings, injustice, and pain; it involves being tortured, and being killed, and only then, at the resurrection, will the destination be reached. Jesus is going the long way round; he has to, he doesn’t have a choice.

If we’re faced with something daunting, scary, something that at least part of us doesn’t really want to do but we know we can’t avoid, we are all prone to getting a little short with people who ‘don’t get it’. Jesus it seems was no different, and in a very real way, what Simon Peter was suggesting was the devil’s way out; if Jesus didn’t go to the cross, there wouldn’t be the light that breaks through darkness, the good that overcomes evil, God’s forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection to eternal life, and two millennia of us being able to witness to our risen Lord.

At the heart of the message in our Gospel this morning is not just what Jesus would have to do as the Son of God on earth, but what we are called to do as a result, and Jesus is quite blunt about what it is. We are also called to carry the cross to follow him… we also have to go the long way round, to get to the place where God is revealed to the whole world in the person of Jesus.

Like Simon Peter, we have a human tendency to want to go the quick way, to bowl into situations where we feel we know the ‘right’ thing that should happen, or even the way we’ve ‘always’ done things. Then we expect people to recognise us as Christians, to listen to the message we share, and to automatically recognise Jesus in us and so come and join in with what we’re doing. But life isn’t like that, and this morning is a very good reminder that we have to work out the divine route to showing God’s love for the world, and to remember that it probably requires a lot more tact, patience, hard work and sacrifice than we feel is either necessary, or ideal.

In the other passage for today, from Romans 9:9-21, St. Paul makes this equally clear. We might get to rejoice in the hope that comes from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but we are also called to be patient, to persevere. When Paul tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us’ and ‘not to be haughty’ it’s pretty obvious that we will need to be humble and forgiving of people who don’t understand that sometimes we need to go the long way round to achieving God’s aims. As Jesus found with Simon Peter, sometimes it will be other followers of Jesus that may be the ones we feel aren’t understanding the route of humility and sacrifice he has prescribed.

As a church, we’re gearing up to start exploring the next bit of the map, and to discern the route, the divinely ordained route, to making Jesus’ Messiahship better known in our local communities. The map and compass, or the sat nav, that must inspire us, are scripture and lots of prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It will require the building of new relationships, changes to some, and perhaps even the hard work of repentance and forgiveness for the healing of others. The one thing I think I can guarantee, is that it will require going the long way round various obstacles in the way, obstacles that we wish weren’t there. It will take longer than we think, or want it to. Like Simon Peter we are more than likely to get some things right, and then make sweeping assumptions and get things wrong.

We will all be required to make sacrifices of some sort or another, perhaps giving up treasured ways of doing things, or picking up burdens of care and commitment to new projects or particular people. These are the sacrifices due to Jesus, tokens or small offerings in gratitude for his greater love and sacrifice for us. The destination we know; it is the return of Jesus in glory.

Let’s load ourselves up, map, compass, gps… patience, forgiveness, prayer and humility…. cloth, crown, nails, cross and all… and follow Jesus route to glory, the long way round.