Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Dishonest Steward – Luke 16:1-13

I find it almost impossible to talk to people when the TV is on. Somehow the television just grabs my attention. Perhaps more amusing is what happens to me at the cinema. I’m one of those people who get completely engrossed in the film, so completely drawn into the story that I’m oblivious to anything else.

I once went with some friends to watch Braveheart (Mel Gibson) – if you’ve seen it you’ll remember that there were lots of graphic battle scenes. I’m told that every time anyone got hit by an axe or a spear my body convulsed in sympathy. After one particularly grusome bit I glanced along the row and was embarrassed to find all my friends watching me rather than the screen. … As we were leaving the cinema a friend grabbed my arm and said that it was almost as entertaining watching me as watching the film itself.

Films are meant to take a hold of us. Good films draw us into the plot. The skill of a film director is measured by how well s/he is able to draw us into the story. Gifted preachers and story tellers are just the same; they draw us into the plot of their sermon or story.

Do you remember the story in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan confronting King David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He told him a story about a poor man with only one lamb whose rich neighbour took the lamb to feed a guest. David was indig nant when he heard the story and shouted, “The man who did this deserves to die”. … And after a long pause, Nathan replied, “You are that man”. … He had trapped David. His skilled storytelling brought David to the point where he couldn’t but admit his guilt.

Jesus was the best story teller of all. His stories interested, gripped and intrigued people. People were drawn to listen and to make judgements on what he said. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells one of these stories. A story which seems to condone dish onesty. Perhaps you can imagine the possible responses of those who h eard the story:

Some might have said, “There you are, I told you there was nothing wrong with the way that I am running the business. If Jesus says its alright that’s good enough for me”.

Others might have sat in the corner shaking their heads and tutting.

Perhaps others wanted to write in and complain about standards. “This Jesus is teaching things that will corrupt our children”.

Some might just have been confused, … “Why is Jesus condoning something that we know is wrong?”

Others, who are well aware of the moral complexities of life might feel something of the strength of the dilemma the steward in the story faced. For decisions that many people face in their working lives are not black and white issues but are made up of many shades of grey. Perhaps Jesus is letting us know that he understands the difficulty of such decisions.

Whatever response it provoked, J esus’ story would have had everyone gripped and intrigued. Wondering what to make of it.

We are told, specifically, of two groups of people listening to the parable:

•     his disciples – who seemed to be the main audience;

•     and in the verse immediately after our reading we are told that the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. The response of the two groups and the message they heard was completely different:

Τhe disciples may have been confused by the story but they listened to the lessons that Jesus had for them.

In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus challenging his first disciples about their attitude to wealth and responsibility. The same challenges apply to us! ……

First, Jesus challenges us to use what God gives us here on earth (wealth, gifts & time) for his eternal purposes, for the work of his kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus says that God gives us smaller responsibilities through which we can learn faithfulness to him, before he places heavier or bigger burdens on us (at church or first in the world).

Thirdly, (in v13 ), he reminds us that if money & material things become too important to us we’ll lose sight of the God that we worship. In fact we’ll become worshippers of money and possessions.

Τhe Pharisees, on the other hand, sneered at Jesus. They heard the same as the disciples but they chose not to listen. We know from the rest of the NT that the disciples continued to struggle to follow Jesus but that the Pharisees saw themselves as superior to him. They rejected him and his teaching.

These questions or lessons about money and responsibilities are important ones. Many people in business struggle with just the same kind of issues as the steward or manager in the parable. It is so hard to decide where the narrow dividing line falls between dishonesty or sharp practice and a healthy competition for work. It is sometimes difficult to know when we have crossed that fine line. Ultimately, Jesus seems to be making it clear that money and wealth, jobs and security are all intended to be our servants and not our masters.

Don’t worry if you struggle to understand what Jesus is saying. Keep struggling, for in many ways that is the point of the parable. Let the parable worry away at you. For honest doubt, tentative faith and belief are all part of growing as a Christian.

14042-12697-man_fog_walking_edited-1200w-tn-1-1200w-tnWhen God speaks we always have a choice – we can respond with faith (struggling faith) like the disciples, honesty admitting our doubts, or we can sneer at what Jesus is saying to us, like the Pharisees did. We can turn away from Jesus. There is always a choice. God draws us into the story and brings us to the point of decision, but the choice is always ours. As disciples, we can trust him, struggling to work out our faith in the midst of a confusing world, or like the Pharisees we can reject him, turn our back on him and walk away.

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Just telling a joke! – Luke 15:1-10

How do you recognize a joke? What are the signals you look out for?

There’s: ‘Did you hear the one about…’ or ‘A man goes into a pub …’ or ‘A man goes to see his doctor …’

The introduction tells you that there is a funny story coming and you set yourself up for it, you’re ready to laugh!

Have you noticed as well that often when we tell jokes, even though we’re telling a story about the past we use the present tense.

Someone once told me that much as English comedians tell jokes about Irish people. (Although, of course, we don’t do it so often now because we have recognized that it causes offence.) Much as we tell jokes about the Irish, people in Jesus day used to tell jokes about shepherds. They were considered to be country bumpkins of relatively low intelligence. Now I really don’t know how true that statement was. But there is one story in the Bible that really does seem to me to be a case of Jesus telling a joke, or at least a funny story to make a point. And that is the first half of our Gospel reading this morning.

I can almost imagine Jesus starting his parable with the words. ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep …’ And how does the story run? ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep – he left 99 out in the open field and went searching for the one that had gone missing.’

And I can imagine the sniggers, the knowing looks, perhaps even the ribald laughter. ‘How foolish, how stupid, typical of a shepherd,’ some of Jesus listeners might say.

And can you imagine the increased laughter when Jesus goes on to say that the shepherd goes home when he finds the lost sheep and has a party. Not a thought anymore for the 99!! As far as this shepherd is concerned they can look after themselves.
It is manifestly stupid. It is a silly story. No sensible shepherd would do anything like this. The loss would be too great. Better to leave the one who is lost and look after the 99 that are still fine. That makes economic sense. And Jesus audience fall around laughing, all their prejudices confirmed.

But laughter has softened them up for the punch-line. … Says Jesus, ‘This is what God is like, this is what it is like in heaven. God is more concerned for the lost than those who are OK.’

God is more concerned for the sinner who needs to repent than he is for the Pharisee who believes that he is righteous. God is more concerned for the backslider than for the good upstanding Christian. God seeks out the lost and rejoices when they are found again – even if in the doing of it, he seems foolish and ludicrous – even if everyone else thinks that he=s on a wild goose chase. God chases after the lost, longing to show them his love, longing to draw them back into relationship with him.

This means that if we, in our wisdom, feel sure enough of ourselves to say what is right and what is wrong; if we, in our wisdom, define someone as a sinner. Then, rather than putting them beyond the reach of God’s love, we place them at the centre of God’s love. … Our parable suggests that God is happy to leave us to fend for ourselves as he focusses on them, as he turns his love towards them. The joke is on us!

And if we were to go on to read the story of the Prodigal Son later in this chapter 15 of Luke, it would be little different. In that story the Father is prepared to make a mockery of himself all for the sake of a worthless good for nothing son. A fine upstanding Jewish father is prepared to suffer the shame of his village seeing him running through the streets to greet his wayward Son. And the story tells us that the Father places the lost Son ahead of the faithful but self-righteous Son! … We’ve got to be fools to miss the point of these parables. God cares nothing for what people think of him. God’s eyes are focussed on those who are lost, spiritually and physically. God’s eyes are fixed on those in need.
This is what God is like. God seeks out those who are lost, who feel unloved and abandoned. God doesn’t mind looking foolish, if only God manages to draw one lost human being back from the brink, back into his arms. And God is so taken up with joy when one of us hears of his love and responds to that love, that everything else for that moment fades completely into insignificance.

God’s love centres on the cross where Jesus died. It is consummated as Jesus rises from the dead. Just like the sheep that was lost allowed the shepherd to pick it up and take it in his arms, so God encourages us all to have that kind of trusting faith. To allow God to throw his arms around us in love. ‘Yes, Lord, I want that kind of love, please be my shepherd, now and always.’

And God calls us to have this same self-negating, self-deprecating, foolish, silly love, that goes after the lost with complete abandon. Nothing sensible, nothing thought out. Just a headlong rush to share God’s love with those who need him. To love and not to count the cost. To seek out those in need and commit ourselves to their welfare.

imagesJohn in one of his epistles says, ‘This is love – not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son to die for us.’ This is the measure by which we judge our love for our partners, for our family for our friends, for our neighbours and for others who are in need. Love that reaches out unconditionally, foolishly, ridiculously without thought for the cost. That is love like God’s love. This is no joke, it’s the gist of Jesus parable set for today!

Time to Choose – Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-335

options-260x185How do you make decisions? A friend of mine makes decision-making into a hobby. I remember him buying a camera – over a couple of months, he bought all the relevant magazines, he spent hours reading through all the available information; gradually building his expertise – what he didn’t know about cameras wasn’t worth knowing. And finally he came to a decision. The process of deciding was as important as the final decision.

Some of us are spontaneous when we make decisions – a bit like me and clothes – I=ll decide one day that I need a new pair of trousers and within half-an-hour they=re bought. Others like to be careful. Jo seems to go round countless clothes shops, possibly over a number of days, before she’ll decide on what she wants – and it could quite easily be the first thing that she saw right at the start of the process.

Others find making choices just too hard – they waver over the point of decision, feeling confused, getting depressed. Some wait for circumstances to dictate their options, or try to make others make the decision. If I’m honest I can do that – I’ll often say to Jo, ‘What would you like to do?’ – telling myself that I’m being magnanimous, when actually I’m placing the responsibility on her shoulders.

However we do it – we all have to make choices. And in the end a refusal to choose is in itself a decision. … All choices have consequences – if we chose not to have an operation we must live with the problem it might have solved. If we chose not to have children we have to cope with the consequences of the decision later in life. And conversely, if we chose to have children, we have to face the risk of rebellion. All our choices have consequences.

Moses put a choice and its consequences to the people of Israel. ‘Serve God and live,’ he says, ‘turn away and die.’ He makes it seem quite clear cut.

But was it ever like that? Life is never as clear cut as Moses made it sound. Making the choice to live God’s way, making the right choice, doesn’t bring automatic blessing, wealth and freedom from illness. Jesus highlights this dilemma in our Gospel reading. Holding true to what is good, making right choices will bring us into situations of conflict, people will oppose us. As Jesus says here, being his disciple is about taking up our cross and following him.

At the beginning of our reading, we heard that Jesus was travelling somewhere – he was, in fact, on the way to Jerusalem. He had made a choice, in the relative safety of Galilee, to travel to Jerusalem – a place where, he knew he would face persecution and death. Jesus choices led to his death, a death which through seeming defeat won victory; a death which however we struggle to understand it, brought healing, wholeness and reconciliation with God; a death which was finally defeated by resurrection and new life.

I cannot help thinking that many people have had choices to make that have had the same kind of consequences, choices which have put their lives on the line or choices borne from the fact that their lives are already at risk. Others have had choices made for them, they have been forced to move and to go to new places without their consent. We have a history as a nation of failing to properly support those who face such choices and we have at times forced others to fit in with our choices.

We built our wealth on the back of the transatlantic slave trade – forcing people out of their homes, dehumanising them, devaluing them, making them work, not for a good wage, but as animals at our beck and control. … When, in the period after the war, we found we did not have enough people to work in menial and manual jobs we invited people from the West Indies to move to Britain – yes we gave them jobs, but we treated them too as less than human – you may well remember the signs that were placed in boarding house windows, the anger people expressed when someone different from them moved onto their street.

We, in the West, have a history of supporting and encouraging dictators, particularly in Africa, without thought to the consequences and so, as a nation, along with many others in the West, we bear on our hands the results of those choices – the genocide in Rwanda, the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. And we have shown ourselves less than welcoming to people who have been affected by our actions.

In these times, we face one of the biggest movements of people brought about by that same need to choose. The need to choose between life in a war zone like Syria and the possible safety of our family. The need to choose between our homeland and our lives, martyrdom or an ongoing life of faith in a new country. The need to choose is at the root of almost every refugee or asylum seeker’s story. … Our choices, their choices – all impinge on us all.

mte1oda0otcxnzq5mzc3ntq5Choices like these were made by people like Rosa Parks who refused, on 1st December 1955, to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, spurring the Montgomery, Alabama boycott and other efforts to end segregation. She was arrested, imprisoned, lost her job, but spawned, galvanised, a civil rights movement which spread across the USA.

Jesus asks each of us to choose … to choose to follow him to the cross. To choose to do what we know to be right, but to do so fully aware of the consequences. Following Jesus is about making a choice, a choice to live, to the best of our ability, in the way he lived. The choice is costly, it will mean changes in our lives. It will mean welcoming the stranger, reaching out to those who are different from us. It may mean sacrifices. It may mean acknowledging the shame of our corporate responsibility for the mistreatment of those different from us.

Jesus calls us to follow him to the cross. But not just through the pain of the cross and self sacrifice, but on into resurrection, to new life. Living in the light of God’s love. He calls us to be part of a new world order, to be part of his Kingdom. A kingdom or peace and of justice where we choose to live for the good of all, where all are welcomed and loved.

In the end we all have to choose, just like those listening to Moses did. Our way? Or God’s Way? Moses advice is ‘Choose life, choose life lived with God?’ Life with the risk of conflict with those who will think us odd, who may at times persecute us. Life, lived for God and for others. A topsy-turvy life of death and resurrection. But abundant life, secure in the knowledge of God’s love.