Sermon: 17th Sunday after Pentecost 20th September 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:  Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:1-12; Mark 9:30-37

“TWO WAYS TO LIVE”

Every Sunday we join together in the reading of a Psalm, and yet it is quite rare for us to have a sermon about the Psalm for today. This morning we have joined together in the very first of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, and I thought it worthwhile to stop and reflect on the Psalms, and in particular on this Psalm.

The Book of Psalms might be the easiest book to find in the Bible. It is the longest book, it is right in the centre of our Bibles, and it also includes both the longest and the shortest chapters in the Bible.

A Psalm is a hymn, a song of praise, a song addressed to God or about God. And Psalm 1 is not just the first Psalm: it introduces a vital theme of the book. For the psalms are not just about God: they are about God and us. And that is the case with this Psalm: it is about how we respond to God in our lives. And in a sense it tells us that there are basically two ways to live: and it challenges us with the question “Which way shall we live?”

As we heard, the Psalm tells us about two people: one is godly, and the other is ungodly. One seeks to please God, while the other seeks to do his own thing, and has no concern for the will of God.

Let’s see firstly what the Psalm tells us about the godly person.

The godly person, we are told, does not do what the wicked say, doesn’t do what the wicked do, and does not share the outlook of the wicked.

That is all rather negative, but there is another side. Where do the godly person’s principles come from? We are told: his delight is in the law of the Lord, the Lord’s teaching or instruction. He meditates on it, he thinks about it, he ponders and considers its message day and night.

This is a person who listens to the reading of scripture, gets to know it, and deliberately holds it in his or her heart. This is someone who has purposefully got to know the scriptures; who really seeks to find in them guidance for life, and really seeks to live in obedience to its teaching. He probably couldn’t read himself, but he took every opportunity to listen, and to get to know the message of God.

The Psalm tells us that this person is like a tree planted by streams of water: it is secure, fruitful, and fulfils its purpose. This is someone who may not be wealthy or powerful or popular, but is truly a success as God’s servant, and thus ultimately as a human being.

Now let’s remember that people in those days didn’t have a Bible on the bookshelf; they didn’t have a selection of translations or commentaries or resources to help them understand the Bible; they didn’t have a computer or an Ipad with all their resources. Compared with this person, it is easy for us to read and get understanding about the Bible.

And the scriptures we have tell us not only the stories of Moses and the details of the Law given at Mount Sinai: the Torah, as Jewish people still know it today. Nor is it just the rest of the Old Testament, those books which tell us the story of Israel and message of the Prophets. But we also have the story of Jesus: his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, his message and his claims. And we have in the New Testament the message and the significance of Jesus: the forgiveness and hope we have through him, and the call to live as his followers. All the more reason to take up the message of the Psalmist: to read and reflect on the scriptures day by day, and to allow them to have their impact on our lives.

When I was growing up as a young Christian, the Quiet Time was regarded as a healthy pattern for the Christian life. The Quiet Time was a time set aside each day for Bible reading and prayer. You don’t hear the term often nowadays, and that in itself isn’t so important.

But for so many Christians the pattern has been lost. Yes, some people turned it into a rigid rule: perhaps for themselves, perhaps for others. No doubt for many people it became something of an empty routine. For many people, the patterns of life changed, and this part of the daily pattern didn’t fit in. And no doubt too often, other less important things got in the way!

But the Psalmist wants us to see the value for us of regular purposeful reading and reflection on God’s written word. Of course, as the Psalm tells us, it is not enough to read the scriptures, to admire or appreciate the scriptures, or even to love them: we must also live them out. What we learn from scripture, we must put into practice.

Now of course, people have many question marks about the Bible. In what sense is it God’s written word? Do we need to take it all literally? Does everything in it apply in the same way nowadays? When people have different understandings, how do we work out the right one?

I don’t have neat answers to all those questions. People do have different understandings of the authority of scripture. Christians have different understandings about the story of creation or the reality of miracles or what is history and what is a story. They differ about the Bible’s teaching about sexuality, and the place of women in the church and in the family. And there are plenty of other controversies.

Nevertheless this is what God has given us to find the truth about God and about Jesus and about the way God wants us to live. Without it we make up our own account of faith and our own version of God. We need to take the scriptures very seriously, even if we do have our questions and uncertainties. We are not to blithely dismiss the Bible when it doesn’t say what we would like it to say, or when it doesn’t provide the answers we would like from it. Yes, we may have to work at it, sometimes wrestle with it, but we need to see it as God’s unique provision for our spiritual enlightenment, and to take seriously its very real authority. This is the way to blessing, as the Psalm tells us. And of course if we want some guidance and help in reading the Bible day by day, there are a range of resources available: from devotional books to the Bible Reading Fellowship daily notes.

But the Psalmist points out that there is a second way to live: the way of the wicked, the ungodly – the one who scoffs at God’s laws, the one who just ignores them. How common this attitude is nowadays in this society in which we are regularly told that we are free to have what we want, to do whatever we want; a society which says that a God who puts restrictions on our behavior is unreasonable or out-of-date.

God’s principles are not out-of-date, of course, but people always want to justify their unjustifiable behaviour.

The Psalmist tells us that the ungodly are not like those fruitful trees planted by water: they are like chaff. When the grain was harvested in those days, it was tossed in the air in an open place. The real grain was heavy enough to come straight back down, but the chaff was so light and insubstantial that it was blown away by the wind. There was no substance, no value. So we are told that the wicked person who ignores and disobeys God’s word has lost the plot: this person has no value for God’s service. In fact people like this have failed – even if people around them think they are doing really well.

The Psalmist insists that there will be a judgement, a sorting out, and the wicked will not stand on that day; they will not have a place amongst God’s people.

So we come back to these two ways to live: the godly, watched over and valued and cared for by the Lord, and the ungodly, whose way is empty and valueless, and ultimately hopeless.

We all have to decide which way we are going to live. In Christian terms, the question is: will we trust and follow Jesus, will we seek to live in the light of the message of the scriptures, or will we say no to him? That may seem different from the black or white, good or bad behaviour described by the Psalmist, but it is not. Ultimately all scripture points us to Jesus Christ, and invites us to live as his followers.

Do we seek God’s ultimate blessing? Let us be people who keep reading the scriptures, reflecting on the scriptures’ message, and putting into practice the teaching of the scriptures. Amen.

The Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost 13th September 2015

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

Readings:  Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 2:18-26; Mark 8:27-38

“FAITH, WORKS, OR BOTH?”

“The Letter of James is an epistle of straw”. This was the view of Martin Luther, who would have been quite happy for the Letter of James to be removed from the New Testament.

Why was Luther so unimpressed by this letter from which we are reading over five Sundays? Firstly, he did not regard it as apostolic: he believed that it wasn’t written by either of the two apostles named James, whose authority was unique. Luther was almost certainly right. Far more likely is that it was written by James, the brother of the Lord, who became a greatly respected church leader in Jerusalem. James was conservative in his approach to the Christian faith, and did not want to see it move too far from its Jewish roots. Nevertheless, Acts tells us that he came to see the importance of Paul’s more radical approach, even if he perhaps thought it less relevant for the Jewish Christians around Judea.

But Luther’s big criticism of James’ letter was that it did not clearly teach the Gospel of grace, particularly as taught in Paul’s Letters. The message that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus, was at the heart of Luther’s teaching, and he felt that James did not make this clear.

His study of the Letters of Paul, and his observations of the workings of the Roman Catholic Church had led him to the conclusion that the church itself was not only corrupt, but that it had departed from the message of the scriptures. The message which seemed to come from the church was that you might be saved if you are a good Catholic who obeys the church’s commandments and fits in with its teaching. It emphasized the idea of purgatory as a means by which we are cleansed from our sins, and that generosity to the church could reduce our time in purgatory.

As Luther studied the writings of Paul he saw how different this was from the scriptural emphasis: he started asking questions, and found himself condemned for asking those questions. And out of this came the Reformation, with not only its theological dimensions, but also political and nationalistic dimensions as princes saw a way to release themselves from the power of the church.

The question is: was Luther right in his criticism of the Letter of James? Is it an epistle of straw? I don’t believe so. James is addressing different issues from many of those that Paul is addressing in his letters, and if we get the point that James is making, it will actually help us to better appreciate what Paul is saying, and what the Gospel is all about.

The Christian message is not about how good we can be, but about how good God has been to us. We all fall short of what we should be. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We can’t earn a place in God’s perfect kingdom. But God in his love has opened the way to us through the death of Jesus on the cross for our sakes. We are saved on the basis of God’s kindness and mercy which we don’t deserve: that’s grace. We receive that blessing through faith: trusting in Jesus, placing ourselves in his hands, depending on his love.

But faith means different things to different people. How does it work? What does it really involve? And if our salvation is based on faith rather than good deeds, is there any point is trying to live a good life, or doing kind deeds? This was a very serious question in the life of the early church.

In fact, Paul himself got very uptight when people claimed that because we were saved by faith in God’s grace, we could sin as much as we like: after all it would give God all the more opportunity to exercise his love and forgiveness! Paul insisted that faith must be expressed in godly living, and it must express itself in love. And in fact, that is what James says in his letter.

When James considers the question of whether we are saved by faith, his question is: what sort of faith? What makes faith real faith? And in fact he clears up three mistakes, three distortions of what faith is all about.

Firstly, faith is not a matter of pious words. In that sense it is very much like love. We might see someone in desperate need, and if we wanted to we could give the person some real help. However we’re looking forward to a lovely expensive meal that will be waiting for us, and so we say: “I’m sorry I can’t do anything to help. I’m in a hurry. But try one of the charities: I’m sure they can do something.” Or we say very nicely, “I’m so sorry for your situation. I do hope things work out for you.” Or perhaps even, “You’ve come to the right person. I will put you on our church’s prayer list, and we will pray for you.”

Which is the way God would have us respond, if we are in a position to give real help? Is it the good advice or the kindly wish or the promise to pray? James’ response is that none of them is a truly loving response. He would also say that none of them is a response which expresses Christian faith. Genuine love means acts of love. Genuine faith means acts of faith.

To James, faith is not just a matter of words. You can say as much as you like, you can sound very pious, you can use the right jargon, you can speak words which sound nice and religious and warm. But if it is no more than words, it’s not real faith at all.

For if our faith is Jesus is real, we will seek to live as his followers. If we truly trust in him, we will seek to put into practice what he says, we will seek to obey his message. Faith is not just a matter of saying the right words.

The second thing James wants to make clear is that faith is not an alternative to good works. He imagines someone saying, “Look, we’re all different. I’m good at faith, and you’re good at being kind. It doesn’t really matter. We’re on the same path. You keep doing your good deeds, and I’ll hang onto my simple faith.”

But James sees right through that nonsense. “What evidence can I see that your faith is real? Why should I believe that you have real faith if it doesn’t show?” he challenges his questioner. “But if you want to see whether I have real faith, check out the sort of person I am, and the way I live and act. There is the demonstration of my faith.”

In a sense James is echoing the words of Jesus that we are the light of the world. If that is true of us, our light ought to be shining. Our lives ought to express the reality of our faith. Faith and love, faith and obedience are inextricably linked. If love is missing, if obedience to God’s will is missing, the implication is that there is no faith either. Faith is not an alternative to good works. Our godly loving lives ought to express the reality of our faith.

The other thing that James brings out is that faith is not just a matter of sound doctrine. Most Australians still say they believe in God. But do they live as if they believed in God? People sometimes tell me that they believe in God almost as if they were doing him a favour by believing that he exists. But God won’t go out of existence if no one believes in him!

We can go through every item of the creed and tick all the boxes, and still not have true Christian faith. We can be experts on Christian doctrine, and be thoroughly orthodox in our teaching, and still not have true Christian faith. James comments that even demons believe in God: they’re so conservative in their doctrine that they even believe in the devil! But their belief in the existence of God is certainly not true Christian faith. It simply makes them terrified of God’s judgement, and rightly so! But at least, they react in some way to their belief.

It is important to believe the truth about God, to listen to the right message. But we must actively respond to the truth about God, and the truth of the Gospel. Sound doctrine is not the same as genuine faith.

 Well, you can see where James is taking us. He wants us to see the difference between true faith and fake faith, between real faith and faith that is merely theoretical. And his message is that all the nice words and sound doctrine in the world mean nothing if our faith does not affect our lives. Real faith is faith that is lived out.

 And to drive home the point he presents us with two examples of real faith. He reminds us of Abraham the father of the Jewish people and his preparedness to sacrifice his only son Isaac: it made no sense to him, but God had asked him to do it. This was faith taken to the extreme, but Abraham acted in faith. And then there is Rahab, the pagan prostitute of Jericho. She probably knew very little about the God of Israel, but she saw that she needed to be on his side, and so she took the risk of helping the Israelite spies. Once again she acted in faith.

And so I must ask myself the same questions James asks us all. Is my faith the real thing? What is the evidence? My clerical collar? My ordination, or even my baptism certificate? My doctrine?

No: the evidence must be seen in my life: my devotion to Christ, my service to his people, my active love for my neighbour, my godly way of living. Faith without the life of faith is not real Christian faith at all.

Of course we will continue to fall short, we will not always be as godly or as loving as we should be. That is why we continue to need God’s grace and forgiveness, and why we need to keep trusting in Christ.

We are saved by God’s amazing grace. We open up to that grace by trusting in Christ. But our faith must be the real thing. Let’s keep living the life of faith. Let’s keep putting our faith into practice day by day. Amen.

The Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: 15th Sunday after Pentecost 6th September 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Proverbs 22; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

“ARE SOME PEOPLE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS?”

Many of you will remember George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm”, a satire of Communism with animals taking over a farm from its drunken human owner. The belief that all animals are equal is fundamental to the way the farm now works, but quickly the pigs assume leadership. Before long, their motto has changed. Now the fundamental message is: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And the farm becomes more and more a dictatorship, just as communism, supposedly the people’s revolution, became under Stalin a brutal dictatorship.

Could it be that in the world today, and even in the church, some people are more equal than others?

Scripture tells us that every human being is made in the image of God: we are all precious and significant. Even though we are guilty of sin, God’s image is still in us, and we still matter: we matter to him, and we should matter to each other. And though we all share our humanity, we are all different in so many ways.

We have our different racial backgrounds, our cultural and religious differences, our different personalities and interests, our different strengths and weaknesses, our different stories and experiences, our different achievements and failures.

And just as we see the colour and variety within the world around us, so we see the variety of people within the human race. I believe God rejoices in that variety: mass production where we are all identical is not his way! We are not all the same, but we are all neighbours. That is the ultimately Jesus’ point in the parable of Good Samaritan: there is no one of whom we can say “that person is not my neighbour”. There is no one whom we can exclude from God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The problem is that we are finite human beings. Physically we only have contact with a limited number of people. And even in today’s world of sophisticated communication, we still can only in any real way touch the lives of a limited number of people. Furthermore, we only have a limited range of energy and resources and time to act in love to people.

In the end we all will have priorities in the ways we show love and the people to whom we show that love. And that is right.

I have responsibilities to Sarah as my wife that I have to no one else: if I failed to fulfil those responsibilities because I was so busy doing good to everyone else, I would be in the wrong. I have various responsibilities to people: my family, the patients and staff and volunteers at hospital, my church family, various other people to whom I am linked in different ways. That might not be a complete list, but it indicates that I need to have priorities.

And that is one of the challenges of the Christian life, indeed of any truly human life. How do we handle the needs of others and the responsibilities I have, and still reach out to people with the love of God, without overloading myself so much that I do a poor job in all these areas? We are all aware of business people and professionals who are so involved with their work that they neglect their spouse and their family. We are aware of multi-millionaires who seem to have lots of money to splash out on indulgences, but nothing to give to those in need or to put toward good causes.

And we ourselves might feel guilty because we spend money on holidays or take time off or buy ourselves something we don’t really need. We do things for ourselves. Isn’t that selfish rather than loving? Or do we need to see that a balanced human life involves relaxation and pleasure, as well as work and service?

I don’t have answers to all these questions. They are genuine issues for me as they are for many Christians. There are no neat and tidy answers because we are all different, and our circumstances and responsibilities and resources and our opportunities are all different. What is clear is that we must appreciate the good things we are given by God – and living here in Australia, we are truly blessed – but that we also must seek to be people who love our neighbour and do what we can for those who need our help.

These issues are raised for us by two of our readings today: the words from the Letter of James, and our reading from the Gospel of Mark. We can’t physically show love to everyone: how do we decide? How do we set priorities?

James tells us about a stranger who arrives at church in dirty clothes, no doubt smelly and unkempt. What do we do? What’s he doing here?

He’s going to make it unpleasant for all the nice people who are members of our lovely church! And so he is pushed into a back corner, as far away as possible.

However when a well-dressed wealthy nice-looking person arrives, it is tempting to fuss over him and give him special attention, which by comparison with the other man is hardly needed.

Of course, this is snobbery. What James is saying it that we mustn’t show favouritism. We are to show respect and courtesy and love to all people, whoever they are. And if we, or some amongst us, are able to assist this person in some practical way, that is what James also calls us to do.

Yes, of course if we have invited guests, we give them due consideration. There may be places set aside for them: that is a reasonable thing to do. But all people matter to God, and they are to matter to us. And love is not only about what we do for people, but the way we relate to them. These two people may be treated lovingly in different ways, but one is not more equal than the other, nor more important, nor more worthy of our love.

If we have faith in Jesus who uniquely brings us the love of God, we are to act in love towards anyone in need, as we have the opportunity, just as he has acted in love for us in our spiritual need. James reminds us that Christian faith, if it is not expressed in loving treatment of people, especially people in need, is a dead thing.

But then we heard that unexpected story of Jesus and the woman from Tyre, north-west of Israel. Jesus had gone there to get away from the crowds: he needed spiritual and personal refreshment – appropriate priorities – and no doubt he also wanted time to focus on teaching and instructing his disciples.

Somehow this woman – a Gentile, not a Jew – hears that Jesus is in town and starts to hassle him. Her daughter is ill, perhaps with an extreme psychological disturbance, perhaps with some spiritual possession as was understood in those days.

She begs Jesus to cast the evil spirit out of her daughter, and Matthew’s account of this story makes clear that the disciples wanted Jesus to send her away, and that Jesus himself was not quickly forthcoming. Then he makes the sort of statement that seems extraordinary coming from the lips of Jesus. “I have been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” There’s Jesus’ priority as a human being in God’s service.

But then comes what seems quite an offensive statement from Jesus. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” Jesus is saying that the people of Israel are like the children of God’s household, but this Gentile woman is like a dog under the table: trying to grab anything which falls, even if it has accidentally been dropped there.

And we need to keep in mind that people in those days didn’t keep dogs as loved family pets: they were scavengers, which had no home in people’s houses. Jesus is clearly telling this woman that she has no claim on him and his divine power.

She might well be familiar with the negative opinion of Jews towards Gentiles, and her opinion of Jews was possibly not much different. Perhaps Jesus had a friendly or encouraging smile on his face as he said this: maybe he was simply testing out how strong her faith was. But she comes straight back with a reminder that the dogs under the table do at least get some of the crumbs dropped by the children. She is saying: “Yes I’m not claiming that I have any right to your help, but perhaps you will help me anyway.” And that answer is the key: Jesus acknowledges the woman’s desperation and determination and faith, and he heals the girl.

But Jesus did have priorities. Not everyone in Galilee and Judah was healed when he was around. He had the power to heal and perform miracles, but his priority was to point people to the Kingdom of God, and to teach people what it meant to be a member of that kingdom. Priorities were real for Jesus.

As human beings in our different circumstances we have different priorities, different responsibilities and different opportunities. We are not able to do all that we might want to do: perhaps not even all that we believe that we ought to do. But we can always seek to live as people of love and generosity, people who welcome and care, recognizing that our neighbours will sometimes be our kind of people, and sometimes people who are much more difficult to love.

Let us take our priorities seriously, our ongoing responsibilities of love and care and service to those to whom we are closely connected. But let us also be ready to take the opportunities to show love to the unexpected person who crosses our path.

Jesus remains our example, and we will need to seek his wisdom as we make our decisions. We can’t do everything – and that’s OK. But Jesus is also our Saviour, and he forgives us when we get it wrong.

All people matter. Anyone can be our neighbour. As we have opportunity, let us then be ready to show love to our neighbour, whoever he or she might be. Amen.

The Reverend Paul Weaver