Investing in the Kingdom of God – Matthew 25:14-30

It’s not easy talking about money, especially in a church, but the parable of the talents is first and foremost about money. I also wanted to talk specifically about the way the Church of England and the Diocese of Winchester is using it’s money, so all pretty ‘hard’ stuff.

So I also wanted something that brought the ideas alive creatively… so I stole my own Pentecost children’s talk, and got the popcorn maker out! The children loved the first bit (and the fact they got to make more after the service), and even some of the adults left church thoughtfully munching handfuls!

CHILDREN’S ACTIVITY BEFORE FIRST HYMN

Get children to identify popcorn.
What’s is it?
Is it edible as it is?
What do we need to do with it to make it edible?

Run the pop-corn maker.

Get the children to look at, and describe the popcorn (before they eat it!)

How has the popcorn changed?
How much bigger is it than it was?
Is there any that is still hard and horrid because it hasn’t popped?

This is an illustration that I sometimes use at Pentecost, when we remember the work of the Holy Spirit, so you might just see it again at school. What I want you to remember today is that God changes us, makes us spiritually bigger, perhaps a little softer in our character, and definitely grows us through what we learn about Jesus, and through what Jesus teaches us in his life and stories.

So, as the children go to their group in the hall, let us pray that all of us this morning will be changed by what we learn from and experience of Jesus, so that we can play our part in the Kingdom of God. Amen.

20171119_114243c
The popcorn sermon: as Graham sneakily photographs me preaching I’m realising I pull some ghastly faces when I do so… but I can’t use the photos of the kids he took, so you’ll have to make do! The church and flowers look great.

SERMON:

At the beginning of the service I made popcorn with the children and we looked at how most of the kernels get hot and expand to become much softer and delicious, but a few stay hard.

Cast your mind back to my little popcorn illustration with the children, and then think about the Parable of the talents that we heard in our Gospel this morning. What do you think the tenuous connection, or connections, could be?

Take answers.  Don’t offer an answer.

Listen to this, and see if the point I’m making, if not the tenuous connection itself, helps you grow, puff up and be spiritually a bit softer and tastier this morning? Hopefully you’ll be able to play your part in God’s Kingdom more fully as a result.

When Jesus originally told the Parable of the Talents, he was speaking to the people who concerned him most at that particular point in time. It is just before the Feast of the Passover, in what we now know as Holy Week. Jesus is only too well aware of the fact that he is about to be killed by the religious powers of his day. Why? Because they are refusing to accept that the wonderful promises that God had made to the people of Israel – regarding it being a light to the whole world through the gift of a Messiah – are being fulfilled in Jesus. The wealth of wisdom and insight handed down through the faithful patriarchs, prophets and kings and interpreted in the laws, rules, theology and teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, was being wasted because in relation to Jesus, they were burying that wealth in the ground, rather than investing it in understanding and acting on this new thing that God was doing for and through the people of Israel. Hardened as they were to their living God (hard un-popped corn), it was they who Jesus knew would be thrown into the outer darkness of abandonment by God.

As well as considering its purpose when Jesus first told it, this Kingdom parable can be interpreted appropriately with the rest of scripture to talk about the God-given talents that we have and how we use them, and to consider God bringing judgement on us when Jesus returns, among other themes. All perfectly appropriate and useful.

Yet, at its heart, this parable talks about money, and how it is used. It’s all very well knowing that we get our English word talent from this parable, but we mustn’t forget that a ‘talent’ in Jesus’s day was money, and a lot of money at that. One talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages for a labourer! That’s how much the last servant in the parable buried in the ground for a long period of time. No wonder when the master came back he was incredibly cross; even at the rates of interest that we’re used to these days, a deposit account would have netted a few quid profit!

Of course what the more creative servants did with their five and two talent allocations was not to deposit it with the bank, but to trade, or we might say today, invest it. Jesus’ language suggests a trade in goods or services, not a one off action to bury or even deposit the money, but an ongoing process that continually took decisions about what the best use of the money was, spent it on those things, received money back through the sale of those goods or services, and then started that process all over again. If we do that today with units of stocks and shares, or actual goods that we buy or make and sell on, it’s regarded as an investment and involves a certain degree of risk – risk that we’re making the right decisions, or that others are behaving appropriately with our money. Investing money can reap significantly better rewards than a deposit account, even in today’s economy, though we’re unlikely to make the return of 100% that Jesus signifies in his parable!

The word ‘investment’ comes from the same root as words like vestment (what I’m wearing, something I put on to share in the meal that Jesus offers us), and investiture, which we associate with giving people an extra layer of honour for some good work they have done. If we think about another Kingdom parable a few weeks ago, people are meant to put on new, fine clothes for the wedding banquet of God’s Son. There is a new layer of bright, clean goodness with which we are called to meet God, just as in this parable we are being asked to act in such a way that there is a new, fresh accrual of wealth with which to greet him.

Rev’d Lerys and I were hearing this week that the Church of England has stopped the old system of holding its long-term wealth, which limited its spending to the basic interest that it could earn in that way. It has decided instead that as well as being more careful where that wealth is held, the best way of resourcing the church to grow future generations of Christians is to invest carefully selected chunks of the original assets for specific projects they consider worth spending them on. Each diocese is effectively now bidding for a share of not simply the profits but the original investment, which it then has to invest wisely, not for financial return necessarily but to grow the number of people who know about and engage faithfully in a journey of discipleship with God.

As churches, as individuals, we are asked to invest similarly. The Common Mission Fund, what used to be known as the Parish Share, is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: fund our common, shared mission as Christians across the diocese. So, the necessarily increasing amounts that each church is asked to pay from our own pockets, is invested in things like paying the wages of stipendiary clergy from Lerys to our Bishops, and funds training for not just clergy but LLMs (like Jane) and others called to a range of authorised ministries. It also goes from this diocese to those whose poverty and population are greater; Winchester offers ongoing support to the Diocese of Newcastle and our many links with the Anglican Church worldwide, not least those in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where we’re all aware God’s love and grace needs to be urgently heard and felt.

In our Life Groups here in St. Mary’s, we’ve spent this term questioning ourselves as to how generous we are with what God has given us, financially and other ways. I’m getting some interesting feedback that will go to PCC this week as to how our answers could change what we might term our investment lifestyle as both individuals and a church, so that we witness more effectively to the generosity of God, and work more efficiently to extend and grow his Kingdom here. Lerys too will have something to say next week about the shortfall that currently exists between what our combined financial offerings are, and the financial commitments they need to fulfil.

This is all serious stuff, a long way from a pile of popcorn (bowl of pre-popped fresh popcorn). So what’s the connection? To make the corn pop, there has to be heat (if not in this instance a flame) and a rushing wind. As the corn is turned this way and that in the heat, so it is changed, at least doubling its size, become soft, almost fluffy, and delicious. Now you know why I use this illustration for Pentecost! The heat, is the investment, the risk, the cost of turning something hard into something useful, like we are changed by God through our discipleship and the power of the Holy Spirit into something that tastes more of God’s Kingdom.

As you take home or eat some popcorn at the end of the service, please consider this week, how it is that God wants to change the way we use the money he has given us. Allow the Holy Spirit to turn our thoughts this way and that in the heat of our commitment to respond to Jesus teaching; have we looked at the amount of money we are trading and investing for God recently, or has become a static deposit we rarely consider changing, or simply been buried in other considerations and concerns?

Let us pray that as individuals, families and a community of Christians, we can wholeheartedly investing our money, as well as our time and skills, in the Kingdom of God and how that Kingdom can be extended in this place.

 

Advertisements

How do you talk about God with pre-school children? Prayers and Bears!

George, a prince among bears - soft focus to protect his identity ;-)
George, a prince among bears – soft focus to protect his identity 😉

There’s something about ministry that means you end up with challenges you never expected to face. Leading a ‘Pram Service’ for pre-school children once a month is high on my current list of challenges. It’s name was the first challenge that I noticed: there are few who have prams these days!

I’ve watched the vicar do it once, with I have to say what appeared to be minimal planning, but he’s clever like that despite feeling a tad out his depth on this himself, I think it’s fair to say.

I was asked to do October’s. At the last minute he was called away to give someone the Last Rites, so wasn’t there to see the result. I used the lectionary for the day for inspiration (Like 11:5-13 The Lord’s Prayer) to focus on prayer, working on the basis that if you can’t teach very young children (some pre-speaking and crawling) anything else, giving them the confidence to talk to God, and making it fun was probably a good idea. I created a hand-prayer sheet. If they had the skills they could draw round an adult hand, otherwise it was simply something to take home to the family to encourage them to pray together (Hand Prayer sheet). We also blew bubbles when we prayed thank you at the end; I talked about God taking up our prayers as the bubble burst. Interestingly, I forgot to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end as I had intended, I probably should have. An unexpected joy was having a mother confident enough to breast feed whilst I told the story.

These were both ideas I half knew about, but I wasn’t sure if I used them appropriately. However, I was greatly encouraged when the following Sunday a Dad I’d not met before stopped me after our little Family Eucharist service, and told me his daughter had come home talking about the hand prayers and blowing bubbles! Perhaps I’d done something useful?!

Asking around on-line a bit, someone introduced me to the Teddy Horsley books by Prof Leslie Francis et al. I’d not met them, and nor have my parish, but they looked a good idea, as they try and relate to ideas pre-schoolers experience. They also suggested a useful ministry for a beautiful teddy bear I’d been asked to re-home (another story entirely). @CoventryCanon (aka Good In Parts) whose knowledge of such things I deeply respect, also said how much she’d always wanted to start a ‘Prayers and Bears’ Service in her previous parish. I got rather excited at this point: this might be a way forward!

2014-11-17 12.34.56 cwLast week my teddy, now named George, helped me tell the Teddy Horsley Night Time story as we thought about the nights drawing in, all the noises of Halloween and Fireworks nights (for those who could or would talk to me), and how God cares for us. George proved a great ice-breaker – he seemed to make me more approachable, and he’d been taken off by one of the pre-speaking children before I started! The book links to Psalm 91, but doesn’t suggest craft activities, so I came up with an incredibly simple two minute ‘sticking feathers’ activity! The Lord will cover you with his wings Ps91

Last night, with both George the Teddy and some bubbles present, PCC affirmed what the vicar had approved, that from January the Pram Service will be re-launched as ‘Prayers and Bears’.

Although I can sing a reasonable action song unaccompanied when our pianist can’t make it, I have no training in how to approach children who often are pre-crawling, or very shy. I have just the one child of my own for several reasons, one being we discovered when we had him that I don’t “do” small children. God it seems has other ideas!

So, I’m looking for the collective wisdom of more experienced ministers on this. What have I done wrong so far in how I’ve approached them and the materials I’ve used, and who or where are the best places to get training in how to be better at it? I’ve been told for example that ‘Godly Play’ isn’t necessarily the best idea for pre-school children. Right, or wrong? What gems of wisdom and experience can you offer?

Calling of Matthew (Children’s Talk – Family Eucharist) Matthew 9:9-13

Our collection of 'funny money' great for telling stories like that of the calling of Matthew!
Our collection of ‘funny money’ great for telling stories like that of the calling of Matthew!

Yesterday saw my first talk at our Family Eucharist – a small, late morning, Sunday service in our chapel at St Mary’s during term-time, designed for infant and pre-school children and their families. We were celebrating the Feast of St. Matthew, so here’s my take on explaining his calling:

At the beginning of the talk I made sure each child had at least 3 coins each from my family collection of old and foreign money which we call our ‘funny money’ pot.

Read the bible story from the Lion’s Children’s Bible.

Matthew is a very bad man, collecting money from people to give to the Emperor and keeping some of it for himself.

So if I’m Matthew, you’ve got some money, and you’re going to give me 2 coins each to give to the Emperor, yes? Get the coins off the kids.

So I’ve got… count coins… and here’s me giving ….. count half the coins…. to the Emperor (set aside), and the rest is mine, right?

No? Not right?! What should I have done? …

But what you didn’t know is that the Emperor only asked for one coin from each person, and I made you give me 2 coins each so I could keep the rest for myself!

Which isn’t very nice is it. No. Does that make Matthew a bad person? Yes it does!

But Jesus asks this bad person Matthew to go with him and be his friend. In fact they even have a party together with a load of Matthew’s friends who possibly weren’t very nice either.

People couldn’t understand all this being friends with people who didn’t appear to be very nice, because they took money off the people in their town, and kept some for themselves.

Surely if Jesus was a good person he wanted to surround himself with other nice people, not nasty, bad people like Matthew?!

Wrong. Jesus deliberately wanted to have people around him who needed to be made better inside.
He wanted to make bad people into nice people.
He wanted people who were greedy, to understand they needed to become generous.
And to help them do that, he wanted to be their friends.
Jesus loved the bad people, especially the bad people, even when they had done greedy, nasty things.

We’re celebrating the Feast of St. Matthew today because he became one of Jesus’ special friends, someone who saw Jesus after he was killed on the cross and rose again at Easter, and went on to tell lots and lots of other people how the love of Jesus had changed his life.

So if I’m playing the part of Matthew, what do you think I ought to do with this money, now I know I’m loved by Jesus, and he’s my best friend?

Give it back! Here you are, here’s the money back. Give my share the money back.

Shall we pray? You can repeat what I say after me if you want to:Thank you Jesus,

That you want to be
the friend of everyone,
even when people
have done bad things.
Thank you Jesus,
that you love us so much,
you want to help us
be and do good.
Amen.

After the prayer I told the children that if they kept their ‘funny money’ safe until the end of the service I would swap it for some ‘special money’ before they went home if their parents were happy with this. The special money was of course chocolate money, and it meant I got to talk to every single child/family before they went home, and got our ‘funny money’ back for use another day!

PS: Sorry about the font changes… WordPress being weird; not used it for a while and stuff had changed, typically!

The dreams of the next generation – Genesis 37 v1-11 and Luke 10 v1-11

Priest at Prayer - an image from our 'elemental' outdoor Eucharist during summer school. Other images of this service and local wildlife can be found in my Flickr account, accessed via the right-hand column.
Priest at Prayer – an image from our ‘elemental’ outdoor Eucharist during summer school. Other images of this service and local wildlife can be found in my Flickr account, accessed via the right-hand column.

I preached this sermon a couple of weeks ago when it gave rise to no comment at all from the small congregation it was written for. Yet when I preached it (to video) for peer and tutor feedback at our Oxford Ministry Course Summer School last week, a tutor was surprised by my interpretation of these scriptures, and one particular CMS Pioneer colleague described it as prophetic and one of the top three sermons he’d heard this year! This was greatly encouraging, though I’m still rather uncertain what specifically I said that was so radical, so your thoughts and responses are VERY welcome. It also begs the question:
do you need to know you’re being prophetic?

I wonder how many of us are willing to listen to, and take seriously, the dreams of the next generation?

When our children, grandchildren and the youngsters of our community take the risk of sharing something of their hopes and dreams of the future, what is our reaction? Do we resent their bright ideas and feel they’re getting too big for their boots, or do we think we’ve heard and dreamt it all before and their ideas are doomed to failure, because our weren’t and the world just doesn’t work that way?! Or are we open-minded enough to at least mull over the ideas, pray and discern with them what they are saying so that we support and encourage them on their journey through life? Or, is it a bit of both… just like Jacob?!

With 12 sons, plus Dinah and unknown other numbers of daughters, you can’t tell me that Jacob didn’t have to be patient with plenty of bright ideas, dreams and stories from his children. We know for example that

  • Simeon and Levi could over re-act to the offences of those living in the land around them, so that they endangered the lives of their whole family without realising it, until their Father pointed it out;
  • Judah would prove himself quick thinking as he put Joseph in a dry well, but eager to tell lies to cover his own actions when he knows they’ll be disapproved of, which we become aware of as the story of the family unfolds;
  • Ruben is a man able to speak up for the under-dog, but not quite with enough gravitas for his wisdom to be listened to by his brother’s, either in Canaan at the well side, or in Egypt .

It’s no different today is it. Being married to a teacher, I hear plenty of classroom tales: one child might boast to another, and their companions will over-react; tempers flare and not uncommonly parents get involved; good parenting demands that the manner of the doing is often rebuked before what has been said is reflected upon. Jacob’s reaction to Joseph’s dreams is an example of pretty reasonable parenting – correct the manner of the doing and then wonder what lies behind it.

But sometimes, though perhaps we’d rather not admit it, the situations we face as parents and adults, and our reactions as adults to the dreams and actions of the next generation, are actually dependent on our own previous failures! In Jacob’s case, it was the favouritism that he had shown previously to Joseph with his gift of the luxurious long-robe totally inappropriate to a lifestyle of manual labour, that had set up the atmosphere of tale-telling and jealousy which was dominating his family life.

Of course the reason we know about Joseph’s dreams and their interpretations is because, after there initial consequences lead to his slavery and imprisonment, they come to pass. Joseph’s were words that held truth, a truth that at the time wasn’t accepted or understood; a truth that perhaps wasn’t delivered with either tact or diplomacy; but in fact words of truth that held within them the promise of a future situation and earthly kingdom, into which Jacob and all his sons would enter, in an effort to save their own lives from the a pitiful death by starvation. Those dreams would lead to Jacob’s family becoming the people of promise; God’s people, a holy nation from which the Kingdom of God would be revealed in the person of Jesus.

Our Gospel this morning, announces God’s Kingdom. As he starts his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus was in effect sending the seventy ahead, to announce a new order, a new way of relating to each other and to God. Something not so dissimilar to what Joseph had done through his dreams, and to be honest, just as unpopular! And in both cases, the death of one life was required to bring to fruition a new way living out the life of God’s people. Joseph was stripped, beaten and thrown in a dry well before being sold into a new life of slavery, something that led to God’s purposes for Jacob’s family being worked out. For Jesus, his death on the cross was to bring the new life of resurrection, so that every person might be given the opportunity of a welcome into God’s family.

So what lessons can we learn from Jacob’s, let say erratic, parenting skills, and God’s eagerness to constantly move people into an awareness of his Kingdom being revealed here on earth?

I think we need to be prepared to listen and take the next generation seriously, and not make assumptions based on our own past failures or the negative over-reactions of others, even from within their own peer group. It might only be that young people come to us with ideas of their own future careers, or how they can best be enabled to care for us later in life. Both can cause us to be made uncomfortable and grumpy, because to be honest none of us like change, especially when it affects us intimately.

Equally, there are situations when despite their need to learn some tact or a sense of timing, actually God is speaking through the next generation about how to reach a mission field that needs to know that his Kingdom is coming. It might mean that our normal view of what attracts young people to God needs re-adjusting, that it might not be all about the loud music we’re not so keen on anyway, or that we need to support them as they go out to work inclusively with sections of the community that we find difficult to live with, or it might be something else entirely – but if we don’t listen, we won’t know.

Jacob kept Joseph’s dreams in mind, just as after Jesus’ seemingly uncaring behaviour in the Temple, Mary treasured the meaning of his behaviour in her heart. If we are to really live out God’s commission to go ahead of him and proclaim his Kingdom in the years to come, we need to stop, listen and treasure carefully those things that the next generation are dreaming about because just as much as Jesus offer’s it to us, theirs too is the Kingdom of God.

 

Helping Children Deal with Grief

'Thingy' still living in my son's bedroom, nine years on.

When my son was about six, one of those people with ‘grandmother’ status in our family died.

My husband and I had discussed previously that we would explain clearly but simply to him what had happened. Our son was already aquainted with the concept of death, since from the age of three he’d had tropical fish, and sadly through the poor advice we were initially given, and the short life span of some fish, by six years old he had discovered that fish don’t live for ever.

When I came home from supporting my Father at the end of the day that J died, my husband had broken the news of her death to our boy. We knew he would be devastated as she was full of fun and he delighted in the pony rides and mud in her fields he enjoyed when we visited regularly.

I came home with ‘Thingy’, a small toy that had been in J’s lounge and frequently been played with by our boy on our visits there. I explained that because J had died, and could no longer look after it, ‘Thingy’ was now his. It made J’s death a bit more real for him, which was obviously painful, but it meant that he understood why there was a need for us as a family to do more travelling and sorting than normal, and why everyone (especially Grandpa) was rather miserable and upset.

Although we decided it wasn’t appropriate for him to attend the short crematorium service (partly because of sensitivity to J’s relatives), he did attend the far more personal Thanksgiving Service that was held at a week or so later, with the familiar things he knew (her saddle, riding boots and garden flowers) clearly visible along side the wicker urn which held her ashes. We were able to share together our collective grief, and the strain of my role in the service (a reading), as being perfectly normal, rather than something hidden or secret.

I was reminded of all this by a recent conversation with a grieving family who needed to encourage their grandson to explain to the four year old great-grandson, the death of a much loved, and talented, grandparent. It also sent me back to find various resources I’ve been made aware of over the years that can help children, and adults, to cope with their grief at the death of a loved one. I’m really collecting them here as an aide memoire for my own future reference, but thought it might help others too.

I found some good advice at Dragonflypin.co.uk. Here there are also other resources for helping children and adults of different ages as well. In particular I have come across the following two story books which are good:

There is also a good leaflet to support adults helping children when someone has died. It’s produced by Mothers’ Union called ‘Children and Bereavement’ and is available direct or through local members in the community in which you live. It includes other ideas for remembering a loved one, and some contact details for different support groups.

What are your top tips for avoiding the impact of ads on your family?

A 'Fairy Liquid' advert in a Bob the Builder Mag - this formed part of my Ethics module project on the Commercialisation of Childhood

Mothers’ Union are working on their commericalisation of childhood campaign and will soon be producing a resource to help families understand and navigate the commercialisation of childhood. But they want the practical experiences of the impact advertising has on the children in your family, and how you handle them, so that they’re not just spouting theory, but offering practical, lived out ideas that work and will help stop others feeling overwhelmed by the impact of the commercial world!

So what are your

  • top tips for dealing (in a practical way) with the influence of marketing and advertising on the children in your family; and/or
  • Scenarios when you or the children in your family are particularly influenced by marketing or advertising?

Mothers’ Union are looking for ideas to be submitted by the end of July, and I am personally hoping this material will appear well before the pre-Christmas spending spree to beat the new VAT rate in the New Year. If you use the ‘comment’ facility on this blog, I will pass all ideas to our Social Policy Unit at Mothers’ Union.