Sermon: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 28th September 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:    Exodus 17:1-7  Psalm 78:1-4, 11-16  Philippians 2   Matthew 21:23-32

Today’s readings pose questions of how our vision and God’s vision for our lives align. Is our vision of God’s care and salvation large enough or do we need to realign our vision more consciously with God’s inclusive salvation?

The hymn of Christ’s glory from Philippians invites us to reflect on the mysterious or evocative question, “what does it mean to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus?” While the answer to this question will always remain beyond our reach, it joins what is always meant to be integrated: theology, spirituality and ethics. Indeed, all four passages this morning point to the unity of these three disciplines of faith, which ultimately shape our worship and lifestyle as followers of Jesus.

Paul encourages the Philippian community to have the same mind within them that Christ embodied in his ministry. Paul’s counsel is both personal and corporate. As individuals we are called to make Christ’s vision the centre of our experience. In addition, we as the “body of Christ” are also called to awaken to the deepest reality of the Spirit that enlivens our communal life. Similar to the “sighs too deep for words” that Paul describes in Romans 8, the mind of Christ enlivens the individual and the whole, guiding and directing first unconsciously and, then, consciously through worship, service and contemplation.

In line with the understanding of the Triune God, all of divine persons are present everywhere, shaping to greater or lesser degree everything. This means that the mind of Christ is inspiring you and me and all of us together even when we don’t know it.

Like most important theological issues, it is important that we open ourselves to many possibilities in understanding and experiencing the meaning of the mind of Christ. Trying to be absolutely correct in our theological clarity excludes layers of reality when we need to be most open to the many-sided nature of the manner in which God’s self-revelation takes place. Still, Philippians provides a few insights into our question, “what does it mean to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

The mind of Christ is, first, global and inclusive. It is the mind in all things at their deepest and best. Rather than emphasizing the gulf between infinite and finite, the mind of Christ joins God and us at the most intimate level. There is always a “point of contact” in Christ’s presence in all things. Christ does not cling to God in contrast to the world in all its messiness and pain, but lets go of his divine otherness to transform our inwardness and save the world. There is no dualism of God and the world, or Christ and humankind, even though Christ is always more than we can imagine. Further, Christ in becoming one of us, fully taking on human life, embraces the world in all its joy and sorrow. Christ suffers with us and in his sharing of our lives brings forth the possibility of transformation, healing and salvation.

In Paul’s hymn Christ is shown as going beyond the dualism of divine and human and transcends the dualism of saved and damned and found and lost. Every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, that Jesus is Saviour to the glory of God.  The key word is every. Does this imply God’s universal call and our conscious response, which may or not occur, or something deeper, that everyone will eventually say, “yes” to God’s embracing love?

The Christ whose oneness with God reflects God’s oneness with creation seeks to save all creation. God’s joy is in inclusion, not exclusion; in healing not illness; in salvation, not damnation. Philippians 2 invites us to ponder a Christ based universalism in which Christ is in all things as their deepest reality and all things are in Christ as their ultimate destiny. The One, who is always more than we can imagine, guides and leads us to a realm of awareness in which we truly experience the mind of Christ in our unique and creative way as our deepest reality.

A community such as ours when conformed to the mind of Christ is awake to God’s presence in worship, everyday life, prayer and service. Like a healthy body, such a community seeks to be healthy in every part and in the whole. Such a community lives by practices that give rise to experiences of Christ’s inner presence and guidance; practices of perception in order to see Christ in all things; and practices of healing that seek transformation of community and culture, church and world.

Such perceptions inspire Christ-like acts of inclusion and healing within the church community and in the world. “When did you feel attuned with Christ? When did you see Christ? What enabled you to experience Christ within you as the hope of God’s glory in your life and in the world?”

The gospel asks another similar question, “Who belongs in God’s realm?” and suggests that one answer is “everyone”. The surprise is that those furthest away are the first to enter. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you”. The banished belong in God’s realm of radical hospitality. Jesus’ community welcomes all; the righteous who need a conversion of heart and an awakening to God’s inclusiveness and the lost who can’t imagine that God would embrace them as beloved daughters and sons.

We all belong, and the surprising response to this question is found in pondering, “Who will be next to me in God’s everlasting reign?  Will the ones I might banish be in line ahead of me in God’s healing realm?” Some of us may find ourselves in God’s realm of Peace singing next to the most unexpected characters, and they in turn may be surprised to find us next to them.

“Where have we found healing when we were broken? Where did you find direction when we were lost? What gave you a future when you faced a dead end?” As we look at our lives, we are called to have, as Soren Kierkegaard said, a passion for the possible and to trust that the God of possibility has a vision, or many visions, for each moment of our experience. Each moment bears the imprint of God’s loving care and, in the future, that same care will present us with pathways of possibility appropriate to each step of the way. Life is still dangerous and perplexing, and failure is a possibility, but, still our task is one of openness to the vision God presents us one moment at a time.

Think for a moment where God is in our lives today, individually and corporately. In the interplay of listening and imaginative service, we can envisage God’s faithfulness and train ourselves to follow the wisdom we experience. While we experience God in surprising and unexpected ways, we may also bring God’s presence to our awareness by remembering and claiming special moments that shine a light on our lives. In so doing we will be reminded that in life and in death, God is our companion, guide, comforter and challenger. The One who breathed life and possibility into our lives will embrace us when we feel alone and without resources.[i]
[i] This sermon produced using material prepared by Bruce Epperly found at http://www.processtheology.net/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2008-09-28/proper-21

 

 

Sermon: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 14th September 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Exodus 14:19-31  Psalm 114  Romans 14:1-14  Matthew 18:21-35

Chapters 14-18 in the Gospel of Matthew concern life and relationships in the community of the church, the body of Christ. Last week the Gospel dealt with conflict. Conflict is never far from human experience and an understanding that is an essential framework for approaching the gospels. The gospels originate with Jesus and deal with the conflict between the way things are and the way things need to be.

Of the gospels, Matthew has the most to say about conflict; it is a significant sub-theme of the book. Though written fifty years after Jesus, Matthew’s gospel still reflects a context of struggle and longing. Hopes for a Messiah and fulfilment of prophetic promises run as a formula throughout Matthew’s gospel. Hope is realized in healing and community, but there is more to come. Political conflict frames Matthew’s story: Herod massacres the infants only to miss the King of the Jews, but Pilate makes up for it.

Sometimes people have the impression that since we claim to be Christians, we will live in eternal harmony, even before we reach heaven. People have expectations that all will be sweetness and light and things will just be perfect, peaceful and harmonious. Is that your expectation?

While most of us prefer agreement, probably few of us would believe that life would be lived without conflict. To miss quote Jesus, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there will be a dispute”. It would be a terribly dull and dreary life if we agreed on everything. For one thing there would be no growth. Where there is no conflict there is no life. In the real world we know and expect that we will have disagreements. In fact, many of the arguments that occur between groups in the church are frequently signs of progress and change. Progress and change will cause conflict. The future will be different and it will represent change. Even if these changes are acknowledged, it doesn’t reduce the reality of conflict and disagreement, and the potential for bruised feelings. In addition, of course, there are the inevitable conflicts that occur when we pursue our own selfish interests and needs.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for self protection. Our protective instinct helps us detect danger and warns us about people or situations that cause harm. This ability can over react when trust been betrayed or disappointed, making it terribly hard to trust once again.

This survival instinct is part of what makes it so difficult to forgive. Christians have a habit of tossing the notion of forgiveness around as if it were easy and cheap, undervaluing its costliness. This awareness makes Jesus’ command to forgive “not seven times, but … seventy times seven” overwhelming in its demand. When betrayal, rejection, or violation cut us to the bone, forgiveness often becomes something we desperately hope for and yet cannot find, no matter how ardently we pray for and sincerely desire it. It becomes clear that the pain and anger will run its own course regardless of what we will and while we are waiting for release it is dangerously easy to become consumed by the anger. 
 We need companions who will stand outside of our anger and pain, neither telling us to “give it up to God” (a piece of advice that only makes us feel worse) nor affirming our anger (which only increases it). Rather, they become our memory for a while, mediating for us God’s promise that the gift of forgiveness will come, however slowly.

Today many people are so caught up in their own little worlds. They have their own agendas that do not necessarily involve much concern for other people and even less about other people’s feelings. With all that’s going on in the world, there seems to be an even greater need for finding ways of diffusing tension and animosity between people and nations. The Church has to play a major role in this as it seeks to bring about the healing and peace that are needed in our world.

The message we have to hear, and learn is one of forgiveness. When Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus answered him saying that he should forgive his brother seventy-seven times. It is not an easy thing to do to even forgive once, but Jesus tells us that we should be prepared to forgive as often as is necessary.

If we are to survive any relationship, individual or communal, we must be prepared to forgive those who do us wrong. There can be no limit to our forgiveness, even when it seems most difficult to do.

Saying sorry or asking for forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, as some people might think. What it proves or shows is a willingness to make right what has gone wrong. How much better I feel knowing that when I sin and I ask God’s forgiveness that God will forgive me. It feels as if some great burden has been lifted from my shoulder and I feel whole again.

What we are being led to see is that we have to be forgiving of each other in as much the same way that we would want God to forgive us when we sin. We surely cannot expect God to be merciful to us if we ourselves cannot show mercy to those who wrong us, especially those who are members of this church. God will forgive us when we sin even if we commit the same sin every time. God does not place limits on the forgiveness he will give us so we also cannot expect to place limits on each other. In our own forgiving of people we cannot set limits on our willingness to forgive but we must try to be merciful and forgiving as is God. In giving forgiveness we bring about reconciliation not only between individuals but also at a community level. The object is to bring about the kind of relationships that reflect the kingdom of God.

In recent times the world has been faced with great outbursts of hatred, bitterness, and anger and the desire of various groups and individuals to cause great harm to others. Often these actions are done “in the name of God.” However, our God is not a God of hatred. Our God is a God of unquenchable love.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, formerly chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says to forgive goes beyond the unselfish devotion to the cause of others. He adds, “to forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” He continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things. The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” This great man reminds us of our responsibilities. He stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.” Until we find in ourselves the capacity to forgive, we continue to be linked to the cause of our anger and our unforgiving emotions. Only as we forgive are we able to move on and become the more Christ-like person that God has called us to be.

We often think of forgiveness as something that someone who has done us wrong must ask of us! We should forgive the person who has wronged us before the hatred eats away at our ability to forgive. It will not be easy, but God gives strength. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” This we must believe because God is the Divine. When we withhold forgiveness, we remain the victim. When we offer forgiveness, we are doing it only for our own well-being. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the pain, the resentment and the anger. We always have a choice; to forgive or not to forgive. When we forgive we make the choice that heals.

We may never forget the hurt we have experienced, but we can choose to forgive. As life goes on and we remember an incident that was hurtful and caused great anger, we need to remind ourselves that with God’s grace we have already forgiven the one that hurt us. The wound has healed but the scar remains. Time does heal memories. Time can dull the vividness of the hurt and thus the memory will fade. We must never let the person who hurt us own us. Forgiveness finally releases us from the prison of our past to being liberated and at peace with our memories.

Such hellish acts as those of that of the 11th September, the bombings of Bali and London transport, the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria and the activity of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, all these and others may take a lifetime of forgiveness. Every day, visualize your forgiveness as Jesus gives you strength. Visualize that God is real, that amidst this trauma God is still God. Visualize those who caused such destruction as sinful men needing the redeeming grace of God.

The passage from Romans carries a bittersweet message. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” These verses proclaim that we humans have our life and being grounded in God. That is sweet, indeed! Then, comes the uncomfortable edge: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or why do you despise your brother or sister? For we all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Try as we will to divide ourselves into “we” and “they,” the truth remains that we humans all are related-like brothers and sisters of God. Hate and bitterness have no room in God’s family. We cannot deny that we hold others with hatred or bitterness.

Forgiveness involves more than absolution of guilt. It involves reconciliation of our past and the healing of our brokenness. It involves intentional work to heal and reconcile with one another whether it be in the church or society in general.

Such forgiveness remains troublesome until we allow ourselves to bring that brokenness into our struggle where the Spirit will intercede with us. God creates us and we then participate in God’s creating. God heals and reconciles us to God, one another and ourselves. Then we participate in that healing reconciliation. God awakens wholeness that invites us to share in that holiness.

Healing, reconciliation and forgiveness sketch a way of life of an ever-deepening friendship with God and with one another.[1]

 

[1] Sermon composed using the resources of www.sojo.net, www.dfm.org/worship-that-works/ and www.torch.org.

Sermon: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 31st August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:  Exodus 3:1-15  Psalm 105: 1- 6, 23-26  Romans 12: 9-21  Matthew 16: 21-28

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Despite Juliet’s words to Romeo, names are pretty important.

At one level, a name is an identifying label. In the days which the Bible tells us about, names had real significance. Knowing someone’s name could open up a certain relationship. It could give you a certain power and influence over that person. Even today teachers will be aware of the value of knowing the names of their students. “That boy over there, stop talking!” is not likely to be as effective as “Bill Snoggs, shut your mouth!”

But beyond that, in the stories of the Bible, a name had a significance, a message. It was meant to tell you something about that person or to express a message linked to that person. Today we choose names because we like them: sometimes perhaps because of some association with our family or friends, or even our heroes. Generally the meaning of a name is of limited significance nowadays. I don’t think it was of great significance to my parents who gave me the name Paul, which means small – perhaps a bit of accidental prophecy – but called my brother Nigel, which means champion.

In the Bible, names and their meanings were very important. So important in fact that the ultimate response to the third commandment, not to take God’s name in vain, was that eventually people never used God’s name at all. God’s name was taken very seriously indeed. That’s partly why in different translations of the Bible you will find more than one version of God’s name. Perhaps it was the traditional Jehovah, but more likely it sounded something like “Yahweh”. And in our reading from Exodus this morning, we see something of the significance of God’s name.

It all happened in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had fled there after killing an Egyptian who mistreated one of his fellow-Israelites. Pharaoh had found out about his violent crime, and so he left Egypt in a hurry to live in this desert land, cut off from his family and people.

Then something very strange happens to Moses. While he is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he sees a bush that seems to be on fire. He goes closer and sees that it is on fire, and yet it is not burning up. The flames are not consuming the bush, and the leaves are not turning to ash. Very odd indeed! What is happening? Moses goes closer to investigate.

A voice comes from the bush, a voice of authority. “Moses! Moses!” I suspect that Moses was more than a little surprised. “Here I am”, he replies.

The speaker identifies himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses is terrified and turns away from this unexpected divine presence.

God goes on. “I know all about the suffering of my people in Egypt, and I am about to rescue them, and take them to their own land, a bountiful land, a land of milk and honey.” I’m sure Moses is pleased to hear this, and he’s probably thinking it’s about time too, after all those years of slavery!

But now comes the crunch. “So now, Moses, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

Now that is not exactly what Moses had in mind. Sure, it is forty years since he left Egypt, and he is probably not in danger from Pharaoh any more. Indeed, it may well not be the same Pharaoh.

But what a task! To persuade Pharaoh to release all these slaves, and then to get them organized so that they can leave, and then to lead them on a march that will take weeks if not months, to a land that he and they know virtually nothing about. Quite a challenge! And even more of a challenge when you are eighty years old, as we are told Moses was!

So Moses says to God: “Who am I, that I should be the person to go to Pharaoh and bring these people out of Egypt?” Moses is quite willing for the honour to go to some other person, and if he knew more of what the job would involve, he would have been even more ready to pass up this opportunity of a lifetime. “Who am I?” he asks. “You need someone better known or more experienced or younger or better qualified to carry out this task. Who am I to take it on?”

But Moses is asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of how qualified Moses is – although God had actually prepared him in remarkable ways for the challenges he would face. So God says to Moses: “I will be with you. I will be with you.” And if the almighty God is with him, nothing that he wants him to do is impossible. As an old Youth Fellowship leader of mine used to say: “One plus God is a majority.”

But God then offers some encouragement to Moses. “I am going to give you a sign that I have indeed sent you to carry out this commission.” And what is this sign? “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Now that’s actually not much of a sign. Because he won’t see this sign until he has successfully got the people out of Egypt.

“You’ll come back here with all the people, and then you will know for sure that I have sent you. In fact, you won’t see this sign unless you do what I’m telling you… Trust me, Moses”, says the Lord. “Put me to the test. Trust me enough to do what I command you. Then you’ll find out that I can be trusted.”

But Moses has another question. “When I tell them that the God of their fathers has sent me, they might ask me what your name is. What shall I tell them? What is your name?” As I said at the beginning, quite a significant question!

God answers by saying: “I am who I am.” Moses was to tell the people, “I Am has sent me to you.”

What then does Yahweh mean? It has something of the idea of being. God is saying something like “I am”, or “I will be”, or even “I cause things to be, to exist”. God’s name then indicates that he is the God who is, the God who is there, the one who is self-existent. It may also suggest that he is the one who brings things into existence: in other words, the Creator.

But God gives Moses at first a slightly more complex form of the name: “I am who I am, I will be what I will be.” It was a mysterious answer, almost not an answer at all. “I can’t be tied down to a simple description, a mere word”. God seems to be saying: “Try me out and you’ll find out who I am. Don’t try to put me into a box, into a neat little package.”

To really know who God was, Moses would have to trust God, trust him enough to do what he said. He already knew that the Lord, Yahweh, was the true, living, powerful Creator. He was discovering that he was the speaking, calling and commanding God. And he would learn that the Lord was a faithful, loving, forgiving and saving God.

Of course, our finite minds can never do complete justice to the truth about God. There is much mystery about God, but we are not by any means in the dark. The scriptures show us important truths about him. And God can reveal himself in unexpected ways, as Father John loves to remind us. But above all, he reveals himself in the person of Jesus.

Jesus revealed the surprising God: certainly in our reading, Peter found him very surprising. In Jesus we meet the God who came among us to share our life, the God who suffers with us and for us, the God who humbles himself to serve us, the God who calls us to love our enemies – not to seek to destroy them, as Paul reminds us in our reading from the Letter to the Romans.

In our baptism service at 10am, we will enrol baby Javier in the family of those who trust and follow Jesus, whose name tells us so much about him. Jesus, whose name means: “The Lord is Saviour”. Jesus who was indeed the Lord, coming to save his people. As we look forward to welcoming Javier to the family, let us ask God to help us to renew our commitment to the God who is, the God who is there, and to deepen our trust in the Lord Jesus, and to strengthen our commitment to live and to love as followers of Jesus, the Lord who saves. Amen.

Paul Weaver