Monthly Archives: July 2016

All is Vanity – Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11 & Luke 12:13-21

Sunday 31st July 2016

Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11 & Luke 12:13-21

Two of the readings set in the lectionary for Sunday 31st July 2016 really are pretty depressing!!! The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that ‘all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.’ Jesus tells a story of someone who relaxes back to enjoy his earnings only to die before he can reap the benefit!

Ecclesiastes, book of--search for meaningEcclesiastes is one of series of Old Testament books known as ‘Wisdom’ Literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations. Books which contain reflections on the way the world was at the time they were written. Books which remain surprisingly relevant to our own world.

Ecclesiastes is written by someone who claims to be a Teacher, but someone who clearly has spent much of his life experimenting with all that life has to offer. He seems more like a typical teenager – in rebellion, determined to find out for himself, not prepared to listen to the wisdom of the earlier generation.

If you read through the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes, you’ll find that the ‘Teacher’ pursues pleasure, wealth and possessions, he enjoys power and honour, he studies to become wise beyond all other people, he works hard in ‘honest toil’. And at the end of each of his escapades his reflections remain the same. All is vanity, just like chasing after the wind.

But can we really dismiss the Teacher as no more than a young man sowing his wild oats, another Prodigal Son, and comment in a patronising way, “He’ll settle down one day!” … Or allow ourselves a self-congratulatory, “Told you so! If you live that way you’ll reap your just reward.” … Is Ecclesiastes merely a defence of good steady living, good stewardship?

We might have thought so until we read the Gospel reading.

Jesus tells a story of a rich man. … In Jesus day, much as now, riches were interpreted as a sign of God’s blessing. This rich man is someone who has done really well for himself. Bought wisely, farmed well, and produced good crops. This is someone to look up to. Someone to place on a pedestal. Someone who is an example of industry and sensible provision. Someone who deserves to enjoy the fruit of his labours. Clearly someone that God has blessed! He has every right to celebrate … And isn’t he just the opposite of the ‘Teacher’ in Ecclesiastes?

But, “No!,” says Jesus, “This man is a fool!” ………………

Why? Because he is chasing illusive shadows, chasing the wind. Riches and wealth, Jesus says, are good for a season, but they have no eternal value. There’s more to life than that!

The rich man is to discover, the same thing as the ‘Teacher’ in Ecclesiastes. When we focus solely on things, on material wealth, the most we achieve is momentary pleasure and possibly a large inheritance for others to enjoy, or fight over.

It is not that God is in some way vindictive. It’s not a case of God taking the hump because we don’t give him time. It’s the way life is. The very best we can hope for in life, is that we get what we set our hearts on.

‘And’, says the ‘Teacher’, … ‘pursuing only these immediate things is like chasing the wind!’ … It doesn’t satisfy, it can’t hope to… Why? Because we are made for relationship, relationship with other people, but in the final analysis, relationship with God.

At the end of Ecclesiastes the Teacher says, “Remember your Creator, remember your God.” It is relationship with God that everything else has its place. Shape up, says the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, get your life back on track. Set your hearts on knowing God and you will be set free to enjoy what he provides.

Jesus agrees.  …. The important thing, he says, is being rich toward God.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians needs to be heeded!

‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God’.

This passage from Colossians could easily have been written as a commentary on the passages from Luke and Ecclesiastes. “Choose to be renewed in the image of your creator,” says Paul, “and in that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”  …….All one in Christ – no longer male or female, straight or gay, rich or poor, no longer wise or foolish, … no longer are we to be determined by such temporal things, for we are in Christ and in Christ we are free.

Neither Ecclesiastes nor Luke are really as negative as they seem. They’re not intended to leave us feeling depressed. There’s nothing ‘killjoy’ about them. But they are a realistic reflection on the results of pursuing life without God. Whether we sow our wild oats and experiment with all that life can bring, or we get on with life, doing what others expect, working hard. It is ultimately meaningless – like chasing after the wind.

Only when we pursue relationship with God, and only when we place relationships with others above our material needs, only then say Jesus and the ‘Teacher’ and Paul too,  … only then will life begin to have meaning, for then it is wrapped up in the Christ who sets us free.

What is God Like? …. The Lord’s Prayer.

LUKE 11:1-13 & COLOSSIANS 2:6-15

I have been asked to put up the text of my sermon from Sunday 24th July 2016. If you have read my other blogs recently you will notice some overlap!

Last week we heard of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary. Inevitably that story provoked us to think about ‘being’ and ‘doing’. In the story, Jesus made it clear that at least at that moment Mary had made the best choice. ‘Being’ with Jesus was far more important that cooking a meal! ‘Doing’ isn’t always best. ‘Being’ is often much more important. ….

Straight after Jesus encounter with Martha and Mary, we have this morning’s Gospel reading. We find Jesus spending time in God’s presence, practicing what he preaches. Jesus spends time praying, being with his Father. And as they watch him doing this, his disciples ask him to teach them to pray. … Jesus replies in two different ways.

Firstly, he gives them a model for their prayers – a model that we now call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Then secondly, he tells some parables which have underlying them a very important question. In these parables, Jesus asks his disciples what they think God is like. Do they see God as a grumpy next door neighbour, someone they have to pester, so as to get what they want? Or do they think that God will give then something horrible when they ask for something good? A snake instead of a fish, a scorpion instead of an egg?

Jesus has given them a lesson at Martha and Mary’s house in ‘being’ rather than doing, then they’ve seen him spending time with God. As he gives them a model for their prayers he makes it clear that in coming to God to pray they must have their ideas about God straight.

So, what do you think God is like?

As a teenager my appreciation what God was like was to a great extent influenced by my relationship with my Dad, and to some extent by the Church in which I was brought up. Like many teenagers I found my Dad difficult to relate to. His opinion of me mattered a great deal, and it seemed to me that he didn’t think I was up to much. Looking back I can understand that he was struggling to cope with a difficult teenager, but somewhat inevitably my picture of God as ‘Father’ was influenced by my relationship with Dad.

My Church didn’t help too much either – it was a strict conservative environment where mistakes, getting things wrong, easily brought condemnation. ‘God’, in my imagination, was a demanding personality – he loved me alright, but that also meant he expected a lot of me. Although I believed he loved me (after all, that was his job wasn’t it), I found it difficult to really believe that he liked me!

So, what is God like for you? When we talk about God what do you see? A strict disciplinarian? A gentle giant? A cuddly old grandfather? A policeman? A head teacher?  Ab sugar daddy who lets us have just what we want? It is almost inevitable that we create images in our minds which come from things that are familiar to us, from our own life experiences. It isn’t surprising, then, that our image of God is not the one that Jesus would have us see. Rather it is one which we have created for ourselves. Often a measly image of God which in no way matches the one in the Bible.

That was certainly true for me as a teenager ………….

So, what is God like?

The apostle Paul talks about this in recent readings set in the lectionary from Colossians, including today’s reading.

Listen first again to words from last week’s reading in Colossians:

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And this week:

For in Christ the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily and you have come to fullness in him.

Paul says that when we look at Christ, when we spend time with Christ we see God and ourselves in the right perspective – we see God as he really is!

Sometimes I borrow Jo’s Computer Projector. What makes it very useful to me is that when I call up an image on my laptop it is faithfully reproduced on the screen for everyone to see. The image on the screen is a direct replica of the image on the laptop screen. We can be like a Projector!! We fill our minds with our own concerns or with our own ideas of God or with our busyness. And in doing so we make God in our own image – we project an image of God into our lives based on our experience. Just as I did with my Dad.

Paul in Colossians asks to think differently. ‘Christ’, he says, ‘is the image of the invisible God’. In Jesus, we see God projected in human form, for ‘God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him’.

Paul wants us to make the image that we project, that of Jesus. To spend time with Jesus, reading about him in the Bible, worshipping him, so that rather than our own measly images of God, we see God as he intends us to – because we see Jesus. …..

What is God like? Paul’s answer is, ‘Look at Jesus!’

And when we do this, we will be able to pray the ‘Our Father’, the Lord’s Prayer, without reservation, for we will really believe that God loves us and has our best at heart.

Nudity and nakedness

Interesting thoughts from Bishop Nick Baines. It seems as though our culture is become ‘shame-less’.

Shame, when it is working positively provides an appropriate demarcation between the public and the private. Shame provides appropriate protection against exposure within the cultures in which we live.

There are times when it is right to challenge it, but most of the time ‘positive shame’ is an automatic response that keeps us safe and whole.

Nick Baines's Blog

This is the text of the article I was asked to write for this week’s Radio Times. It was reported as a “lament”. It wasn’t. I just thought it was quite funny.

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Recently 3000 people took their clothes off, painted themselves blue and lay around the not-so-tropical city of Hull in varieties of heaps. All, of course, in the name of art.

Actually, I thought it was quite funny. I saw it on my phone while enjoying two days at the General Synod talking about sex. So, it seemed both timely and amusing.

What is it with nakedness at the moment. You can hardly turn the telly on without finding someone wanting to take their clothes off. I thought Big Brother was embarrassing, but clearly that was just the appetiser for Love Island, Naked Attraction, and Life Stripped Bare. At least the new…

View original post 551 more words

Martha and Mary – Luke 10:38-42 and Colossians 1:15-28

Perhaps you’ve experienced, along with me, some embarrassment when you’ve been talking to someone for the first time. What kind of questions do you ask to get the conversation going? After, “How are you?” has elicited the standard, “Fine, thanks.” and an obligatory statement about the weather, or a question about holidays; we often ask, “And what do you do?” Embarrassment increases when we realise that our new acquaintance is struggling with unemployment!

We find it difficult to avoid the issue. We usually categorise people by what they do. She’s an Engineer. He’s a nurse. She runs an investment bank. …. You know the way it is. We live in a society that places great value on what we do. Even if not related to employment, the need to be ‘doing’ hangs in the air, it feeds our guilty consciences, it disturbs our rest-time. It is important to be ‘doing’, to be achieving – if we want to feel valuable, to feel at peace with ourselves, we need to be active.

Is it like this? … I suspect – if your answer is, “No!” – then you’re the exception that proves the rule! It’s so much a part of our make up – we need to be ‘doing’, & we expect others to be ‘doing’, or we begin to question their commitment/motives.

So, how do you feel as you read the story about Martha and Mary? Is it the first time you’ve heard it? Have you heard it before? Often, if we’ve read a story before – we know what is coming up – we know what the right answer to the question is. So, in this case, we know that Martha is going to get a mild rebuke, and Mary, praise. But try setting that aside just for a moment – who do you sympathise with in the story? … Why? …

I sympathise with Martha – the hospitable one – wanting to do her best for her guest. Not enough time to get everything done, getting frustrated with everyone around her. Gradually losing sight of the real reason that she is busy. Until, in the end, she even has a go at her guest! Entertaining can be hard work. The more so, because we want to put on a good show, to do our best.

When Jo and I went to Uganda in 2001, we stayed for a few days with Cranmer and Hope in Kisoro. At that time Cranmer was the Pastor in the Cathedral in Kisoro. Hope, his wife, a teacher in a primary school (with a class of over a hundred children) and, like most women in Uganda, bearing far the greater responsibility for running the home. Cultural pressures meant that while we were staying with them Hope had to prepare big meals – the family’s best had always to be available for guests. Hope was a gracious and wonderful hostess who spent all day working at school, and all her spare time cooking over charcoal and wood fires, or marking homework. We would have been much happier with less food, much less. Hope was rushed off her feet – and we missed out on her company. We were unable to do justice to the meals she prepared – they were too big. She was left feeling exhausted, and, unsurprisingly, a little disgruntled at our lack of appetite. In the years that have followed, this has changed. Hope now, as Bishop’s wife, has a much better understanding of the size of our western stomachs.

being-v-doing

‘Doing’ isn’t always best. ‘Being’ is often much more important. … Hope’s company would have meant so much more to us than the wonderful large meals she prepared.

If we’re honest with ourselves we can retreat into ‘doing’, so as to avoid having to ‘be’. Martha did just this! Jesus wanted her company rather than her food! But she busied herself with making dinner. Mary seems to have got it right. ‘Being’ with Jesus was more important, at least at that moment, than ‘doing’ for Jesus.

‘Being with Jesus’ ensures that we keep a right perspective on life. It helps us to realise that God loves us, not for what we ‘do’, but for who we are. ‘Being with Jesus’ is ‘worship’ – giving both to God, & to ourselves, ‘worth’ and ‘honour’ – it’s God’s priority for our lives.

God intends this to be the context in which everything else in our lives happens – not the thing we make room for if we have time, nor something we do when everything else has been completed. There is a serious challenge for all of us here, me and you. Jesus says to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

So, how come this is true? Why is ‘being’ with Jesus, time spent in worship, so important? The  answer is provided, at least in part, by a few of the verses in Colossians which the Anglican lectionary sets to be read with the story of Martha and Mary.

Colossians 1:15ff

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The apostle Paul is saying that when we look at Christ, when we spend time with Christ we see God and ourselves in the right perspective – we see God as he really is! … If time with God is something that we fit round everything else that’s going on, we inevitably come to God preoccupied with our own concerns. And God’s response to those concerns becomes critical for us. Our worship, our understanding of God, becomes dependent on our needs being met. We allow our agendas to determine our picture of God, what God is like for us.

Sometimes I borrow Jo’s Computer Projector. What makes it very useful to me is that when I call up an image on my laptop it is faithfully reproduced on the screen for everyone to see. The image on the screen is a direct replica of the image on the laptop.

We are like Projectors!!

We fill our minds with our own concerns or with our own ideas of God or with our busyness. And in doing so we make God in our own image – we project onto the screen of our lives a God that isn’t really recognisable in the Bible. We so easily see God as the overbearing father, the demanding or authoritarian boss, the over- zealous judge, or the policeman; or alternatively we see him as the gentle giant, the cuddly old grandfather, or the sugar-daddy who lets us do just what we like. We project an image of God based on our experience.

Paul, in Colossians, asks to think differently. ‘Christ’, he says, ‘is the image of the invisible God.’ In Jesus, we see God projected in human form, for ‘God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’. Paul wants us to make the image that we project, that of Jesus. To spend time with Jesus, reading about him in the Bible, worshipping him, so that rather than our own measly images of God we see God as he intends us to – because we see Jesus. ….. What is God like? … Paul’s answer is, ‘Look at Jesus!’

Mary chose ‘being’ with Jesus rather than busying herself with important tasks and duties. Jesus wants us to make being with him our first priority. He doesn’t want us to stop serving, to stop caring, but he does want us to stop flapping, to stop worrying and to centre ourselves on him. Both Paul and Jesus himself want worship to be the key central act of our lives. For in worship we begin to see God as he really is, through the lens or image of Jesus. We see God at work in creation, in covenant, in judgement and in salvation. As we worship we begin to see life and the world from God’s perspective.

Don’t let me stop you ‘doing’. Working for God in the world is vitally important. But please make worship, ‘being’ with Jesus, your highest priority.

The challenge of the Samaritan! (Luke 10: 25-37)

Samaria was the area of Palestine which sat between Galilee and Judea. The central area north of Jerusalem. By the time of Jesus, it had become a Jewish ‘no-go’ area. The shortest route from Jerusalem to Galilee was North through Samaria. However, most Jews wanting to do this journey would set off in an Easterly direction – they would travel to Jericho, cross the River Jordan and then turn north, only crossing back close to Lake Galilee. Jews would avoid going through Samaria.

The Jews were strongly prejudiced against the Samaritans. The Samaritans were a mixed race – their ancestors were Jews who had remained in Palestine at the time of the exile to Babylon, and who had intermarried with other people groups who had been settled in the area as part of the Babylonian policy of ethnic cleansing. There had been a number of disputes between Jews and Samaritans down the years. We have a record of one in the book of Nehemiah were Sanballat opposes the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

However, by the time of Jesus, there were no current grounds for this prejudice. Jews and Samaritans were just two different people groups, sharing similar religious practices, living alongside each other. But Jews hated Samaritans, saw them as unclean, and would have nothing to do with them. And it is important to understand this if we are to begin to understand what people would have heard as Jesus told the story in our Gospel reading.

A Jewish man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, probably doing so because he wanted to avoid the region of Samaria, is robbed and left for dead. The upright Jewish maxresdefaultreligious establishment gave the man no help, but a Samaritan – an unclean, hated Samaritan. Someone, who according to the Jews, had no goodness in him. The scum of the earth. He is the one to help.

As I read this famous story, I hear Jesus is doing two different things – he is setting a standard for neighbourly conduct and he is challenging people’s perceptions of reality.

I wonder how this parable might have gone if Jesus had been telling it in Manchester – perhaps in Oldham or Ashton. In the early years of this century we heard quite a lot about perceived ‘no-go’ areas in Glodwick and elsewhere. We’ve even heard of white people walking round the outskirts of an area, so as to avoid crossing Asian territory. Election results have shown a startling support for the more extreme right wing parties, even here in Tameside.

If Jesus has told this story in the white communities of central Oldham or to members of the EDL, who might his Good Samaritan have been? Perhaps a knife carrying Asian youth. Or if Jesus spoke in the midst of the Asian edl-supportercommunity, the Good Samaritan may well have been an over-weight skinhead with union-jack tattoos who belongs to the EDL. In Jewish culture the words ‘Good’ and ‘Samaritan’ just did not belong together. And in some of our communities it is nigh impossible for people in one area to think well of those in another.

Jesus challenges prejudice and hatred by making the perceived enemy, the saviour in the story.

How would the story translate in the area immediately around the church of St. James in Ashton? If Jesus were to tell a story about one of the people living on Cow Hill Lane being mugged, who would the other main characters be? The priest …? Me or one of my colleagues? … The Levite …? Perhaps the closest would be a churchwarden or treasurer or church council secretary.

Starkly, in this version of the story, we are seen to take one look and because of our own fears to walk by, to get into our cars and drive quickly out of the area. Perhaps a quick call to the police on our mobile phones! Who would the ‘Good’ Samaritan be? …

You might not know, but 8 to 10 years ago St. James’ Church was very close to being burnt down. Someone set a bin fire against the wall of the vestry. Who was it that dealt with the problem? I know that at times we have made comments about our neighbours, but it was  a local Asian Muslim lad who with his bare hands dragged the bin away from the vestry wall. And you know what he said to me. ‘Someone is trying to burn down my church!’

Even if we think there is little of overt racism as we look around us in our neighbourhood, or as we look at each other. Actually we all need to acknowledge our own personal prejudices. It is so easy, isn’t it, to think in terms of them and us, so easy to harbour negative thoughts about those we perceive as different from us. And we do make comparisons, don’t we, and so often when we make those comparisons, we compare our best with the other’s worst.

We have been encountering these issues for real in recent weeks. Since the Brexit vote, hate crime and religiously motivated crime has risen five-fold (So the Sun tells us : https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1372072/hate-crime-reports-of-abuse-up-500-per-cent-since-brexit-official-figures-show). It is as though a vote to leave the EU has been seen by many as an excuse to let rip with unacceptable views. All we have actually done, whatever our motivations, is voted to leave the EU. We remain a part of a global community, we continue to need those who have moved to live in this country over many years and if most of us could trace our ancestry back we would find that we originate from outside this island – all of us do. 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice-age there was no one living here. We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants, all of us.

Four days ago, in the house of Lords, our Archbishop, Justin Welby, urged political leaders on both sides of the Brexit debate to take on the “xenophobia and racism” that has been prevalent seen since the decision to leave the EU. (https://www.politicshome.com/news/europe/eu-policy-agenda/brexit/news/76966/archbishop-canterbury-eu-referendum-has-created. He reminded us that it is unacceptable to refuse to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in Britain, speaking of the “unacceptability of treating people like bargaining chips”.

Justin Welby said that “The referendum campaign was both robust – as it properly should be on such great issues – but at time veered over the line on both sides into not merely being robust but being unacceptable.”

“Through those comments were created cracks in the thin crust of the politeness and tolerance of our society, through which since the referendum we have seen an outwelling of poison and hatred that I cannot remember in this country for very many years.”

He said there was an urgent need to “tackle the issues of inequality”, which he said “raises the levels of anger, resentment and bitterness”. He called for a renewed focus on investment in education, housing, and public and mental health services to deal with the problems. But he was very clear that we all must challenge the attacks, the xenophobia and the racism that seem to have become more acceptable.

In the Gospel, Jesus is calling us to neighbourly conduct, to crossing perceived boundaries to help others in need, to be Good Samaritans. He is calling us to be good neighbours to all, not just those like us. And he is challenging us to question our own prejudices and assumptions. Just as the actions of the Samaritan would have shocked conscientious Jews, so Jesus wants to shock us, to help us to see the good in those we so easily despise.

Where is my sense of outrage?

The darkest and most difficult things faced in our world are not faced by us in the West. Yes, the events which happen in the West may be the most shocking to us because we believe that we are in someway protected from the realities of the world in which others live day by day. But the deepest and darkest things are experienced by others.
It is disturbing that these things are reported with much less frequency and, it seems to me, with considerably less sense of outrage, and I wonder why that is?
Is it because these things happen far way? Is it because these people matter less to God than we do? Is it because these events do not fit with what is the accepted narrative in our press, that somehow we are under attack by a world which is either jealous of our values or fundamentally opposed to them.
I don’t know. …. I suspect that it is all three of these, … perhaps other reasons too.
What I do know for sure is that every single one of those killed in Istanbul, in Syria, in Bangladesh and in Iraq is a child of God, each one as valued in God’s sight as I am, … as my family are.
And it is to my shame that I am able so easily to miss the depth of pain and grief which their relatives face. It is to my shame that respond with a greater sense of grief and loss when these events happen closer to home. It is to my shame when I accept the analysis of our press in general that we are under siege by outside forces over which we have no control and which we need to fear.
The truth is that, even when we face deeply outrageous acts of terror, we are still, as nations in the West, so very well protected from what the rest of the world has to live with, that they have the power to shock us to our core. But we are happy to only notice  in passing the horrors faced by others.
Yes, there are those who seek to help us engage with the gravity of what is faced day to day in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in other places of conflict.
But many of us manage, somehow, to allow these events to pass us by.
It is to my shame when I participate, even if unknowingly, in perpetuating such a distorted perspective on our world.