Sermon: 17 th Sunday after Pentecost, 11th September 2016, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 11th September 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“SIN, JUDGEMENT AND THE REST”

(Jeremiah 4:11-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:1-19a; Luke 15:1-10)

There are apparently some people who read whodunnits by finding out what the crime was and then jumping straight to the back of the book to discover exactly who did it! It seems to me a fairly unsatisfactory way of reading a book! The journey through to the solution in a good book is part of the attraction: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings – they are all meant to make the ultimate answer to the puzzle all the more rewarding to discover.

However, when I looked through the readings for today, it was tempting to bypass the first three, and to go straight to the Gospel with its simple and beautiful parables of Jesus about the lost sheep and the lost coin, and their wonderful message of the love and devotion of God.

There seems so much sin and judgement in the other readings, and I’m not all that comfortable preaching about sin and judgement. There are preachers who major on these subjects – peering over the pulpit, thundering forth with lurid images of hellfire and brimstone and worms, shaking their finger at the dreadful sinners in front of them, thinking that they can terrify people into the kingdom of heaven. That’s not really my style!

The problem is that the Bible has a great deal to say about sin and judgement. And Jesus certainly had much to say about these things: his message was certainly not all sweetness and light. So if we are going to do justice to today’s Gospel, we need to set it in the context of these other more difficult readings.

Let’s start with Psalm 14, a Psalm so significant that it is virtually repeated word for word in Psalm 53. The real fool, says the Psalmist, is the one who says that there is no God. Not that he or she was likely to actually be an atheist: that would be very unusual in those days. No: the fool is the one who lives as if there is no God, the one who takes no account of God at all. This is ultimate foolishness, says the Psalmist: not only because God does exist, but because God knows people inside out. He sees what we do and how we live. He sees people’s sins and their rebellion.

But the Psalmist goes further. He says that when the Lord looks for people who really live their lives the way they ought to live, who consistently live their lives in obedience to God, he finds no one: no one at all! There is a sense in which we are all spiritual fools. Remember that the fool lives as if there were no God. We were made to live God’s way: but all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, live our own way instead.

Nevertheless, the Psalmist acknowledges that there are people who make up “the company of the righteous”. They have a hard time from the hardened rebels against God. These people are not perfect, but they actually do take seriously God and his ways. Nevertheless the message from the Psalmist is that really we are all sinners. We are all guilty before God. And God is well and truly aware.

Let’s move then to those heavy words from Jeremiah 4. It is a frightening picture of judgement: a hurricane coming to wreak havoc and bring destruction. God’s own people are so terrible and ungodly that he will bring this desolating fury upon even them. He will certainly do it, and yet the destruction will not be absolute, it will not be a full end of Israel. But if this is how he judges his own people, Israel, how will it be for those who are enemies of his people? If the Psalm tells us that we are all sinners, then Jeremiah tells us that God judges sinners.

It is an uncomfortable message. But as you may have heard me say some weeks ago, the idea of judgement is essential. God cannot allow evil to triumph, and he cannot treat it as if it really is not all that important. God must put things right, and that involves judgement in some form.

And then we read Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1. Paul says that he had been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence”. He was “the foremost of sinners”. Clearly he was worthy of God’s judgement.

But what happened? Paul “received mercy because he acted ignorantly in unbelief”. Perhaps Paul is thinking of those words of Jesus from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Paul says that “The grace of the Lord overflowed for him with the love and mercy which are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus showed immense patience with Paul, making him an example, so that others would find faith and forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ.

God knows our failings, he knows the worst about us, but he also understands us. He understands why we do the things we do. He understands our weaknesses and failures and mistakes. He understands when we head down the wrong path, when we let ourselves down and others down, when we let him down. He understands our uncertainties and confusion.

And he even for instance understands that anger and confusion and weakness and gullibility that can turn some people into terrorists. Of course, understanding these things does not mean that he condones it any more than we would condone it. But it does help us towards a much wiser response to these people. Yes, God understands the best of us and the worst of us. And he reaches out to us even though he knows the worst of us.

So these readings tell us that God knows sinners, God judges sinners, and that God understands sinners. And Paul’s personal experience points us towards our Gospel. For our Gospel reminds us that God rescues sinners.

Sin puts us out of touch with God. That is its nature. Remember how Adam and Eve hid from God after that initial act of sin. Remember how that first sin brought a sentence of death: for sin cuts us off from the God who is the source of life. Because of our sin, there is a sense in which we are all lost, lost to the open presence of God. And these two simple stories in the Gospel tell us God’s reaction to our lostness. As the shepherd goes searching for the lost sheep until he finds it, so God goes all the way to rescue us from the destructive power of sin. As the woman sweeps out the dark house, searching carefully until she finds that lost coin, so God in Christ goes all the way, to restore us to himself.

To be a sinner is in a real sense to be lost. But through Christ, we are found, because of God’s love which reaches out to us, even when we pull ourselves away from him. The cross, where God bears in his own being the results of human sin, shows us how much he loves us; it shows us how much he values us, how precious we are to him.

When I acknowledge or confess my sins – as I do in the liturgy Sunday by Sunday, but as I have to do much more regularly as I recognize my failings and weaknesses – I am simply being real. I am not denying the wonder of my humanity.

I can say that I am unworthy of God: but that is a very different thing from seeing myself as worthless. That sheep, that coin was not worthless: when they were found, there was reason for great celebration – almost over the top, I might have thought. But God rejoices when we come back to him, when we are restored to true friendship and fellowship with him. Yes, we all have our failings – but we matter immensely to God.

 

Luke tells us that Jesus told these stories in response to the religious people who saw Jesus letting the side down by mixing with disreputable people. “They are real sinners: we should not mix with them” was the attitude.

 

Yes, they were sinners – like the rest of us – in need of forgiveness. They were lost: needing to be found. But they were precious to God, and therefore precious to Jesus. And the rest of the chapter brings us the parable of the Prodigal Son, and its second half there is that dutiful older brother, who finds it so hard to accept the return of his disreputable and ungrateful younger brother. That is not Jesus’ way.

 

To be an Anglican is to be a sinner – just like other human beings. That ought to make us a very open church: we acknowledge that we’re all in the same boat, all in need of God’s forgiveness, and all rejoicing that forgiveness comes to us through Jesus. Let’s beware of the temptation to put any people into a different class because of their background or their different beliefs, because of their lifestyles or their failings. Let’s try never to think of others as less than us, to think of others as less worthy of God’s love. No one is beyond the scope of God’s love; no one is beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness and acceptance.

 

It’s not for us to sort out whose sins are greater or less than ours. That is God’s job. What he calls us to do is to be realistic about our failures, and acknowledge that we do fall short. And then we are free to be people who welcome all others, just as God in Christ has welcomed us. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: 15 th Sunday after Pentecost, 28th August 2016, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 28th August 2016

“FAITH AND PRIDE”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-59)

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” We’re familiar with the proverb, even if we usually quote its abbreviated version.

  1. S. Lewis described pride as “the great sin”, the basic sin. Of course, comparing sins is a fruitless task! There’s no point in arguing that pride is not as bad as murder, or it is worse than robbery. Sin doesn’t work that way!

What then was Lewis getting at? He takes us back to the opening chapters of the Bible, and the story of Adam and Eve. They weren’t satisfied with the blessings that they had: blessed human beings in the image of God, in a beautiful world and a direct relationship with their Creator. But they were far too easily persuaded that by eating the forbidden fruit they could become like God. They weren’t satisfied with the wonderful privileges that they had. They came to resent the reality that they were not as great as God. Pride was at the heart of their sin, and offended pride was then behind Cain’s murder of Abel in the following chapters.

After all, what is pride all about? It is about being on top. Being ahead of others, looking down on others. In its ultimate form it is about taking God’s place, being independent of God. There is something of pride in all sin: for when we sin, we put our will ahead of God’s will – we say “What I want is more important than what God wants. I will be on top, not God.”

In our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus takes up the subject. At a formal meal, he saw an example of the pride of many Pharisees. The table and couches were probably set up in a U-shape. The host and guest of honour would have been at the centre. There was an implied pecking order, and most guests would have looked around to work out where they ranked, and therefore where they should sit themselves. But when time came to sit down, there was probably a moderately dignified scramble to get the best spot people could get away with.

Jesus saw it all, but this was not the time for an impassioned tirade. I think there might have been an amused smile on his face as he advised his listeners not to try to sit down in the best places. Just think how embarrassing it would be if your host had to ask you to sit at one of the lowest places because you had chosen a more important place than you were entitled to, and only the lowest places were now available!

Jesus suggests that it would be wiser to choose the lowest place. Then perhaps your host will see you down there and invite you up to a more esteemed position. I can imagine some of his listeners thinking: “What a good idea. If I make myself more obvious in a lower position, the host will notice me and he will move me up to an honoured position and everyone will think what a humble person I am.”

Of course, Jesus wasn’t concerned with social position: he was really pointing out the foolishness of pride. And when you think about it, pride is foolish, pride is unrealistic, pride is blind.

After all, what is it that makes us feel so proud? Our appearance, our abilities, our personality, our achievements, our work, our wealth, our position, our family, our connections. Or even in the church is it our position, the responsibilities we have been asked to take, our knowledge or our godliness, our knowledge of the liturgy and knowing what to do when, our orthodoxy or our liberal approach, our open-mindedness or our strong stand against error. No doubt there is good reason for us all to give thanks to God. No doubt there are reasons to take pleasure in various things we do or have done. But of these things would be a reality without God’s blessing. But pride is another thing. Pride puts us in competition with our neighbour, rather than in loving relationship with our neighbour.

Now you will notice that once more it seems to be the Pharisees who are in trouble with Jesus. A Jewish Rabbi I know thinks that the Gospels are quite unfair in their presentation of Pharisees. To him they are the “good guys”, and I think he actually has a point.

They are people who really took their faith seriously. They were devoted to obeying the teaching of Moses and the prophets. They saw that God was not only interested in what you did when you went to worship, or even whether you went to worship. They aimed to please God in every part of their lives. They believed that God had plans for his people not only for this life: they believed that there would be a resurrection, and sought to be prepared for it. As far as doctrine is concerned, I would judge that Jesus’ position was very close to that of the Pharisees. In devotion to God they were probably second to none. They sought to consistently obey God’s commandments. Why then was Jesus so hard on them?

I think part of the answer is that they had so much in common. They had so much of the knowledge, but distorted it. And they fell into the trap of using it as a weapon against those who didn’t share that knowledge. They were devoted, but that devotion became an end in itself and a means of testing others, rather than an expression of their love for God and for others.

As most of you know, I grew up in this diocese and trained at Moore College, and in a sense hold a good Sydney evangelical pedigree. I sometimes find myself having to explain the actions and attitudes of the diocese to those who do not understand, and I sometimes find myself defending the diocese to its critics. But I also feel especially critical of what I see as the failures of the diocese, because I think that it does not always act consistently with the things it knows. In particularly, for a diocese that majors on the grace of God, it too often acts ungraciously. Its leaders and people ought to know better, but they don’t always show it. I sometimes think of the diocese as a bit like the Pharisees. The Pharisees knew better, but they so often didn’t live it out. They fell into traps they should have known how to avoid. And those traps were the ones that devoted people so often fall into: the traps of pride, of judgementalism, of the closed mind, of hypocrisy.

Pride. Devoted people say: we have the truth. But how is that expressed? Surely the truth should be shared humbly and graciously as the opportunity arises. But it is so easy to say instead: if you don’t seem to hold the truth as I understand it, you are wrong, you are excluded. We can often use our understanding of the truth not to spread light, but as a weapon against those who may not hold our understanding of the truth. Pride.

If we believe we have a basic hold on God’s truth in a world where there is so much confusion, we must be thankful. We have easy access to the scriptures, and every opportunity to explore their message, and to think through what they teach and how their message speaks to us in the 21st century. But we must never assume that we have taken in every bit of God’s truth: there will always be more to discover, and even some misunderstandings that we may need to correct!

Pride that we’ve got it right so easily flows into judgementalism against those whom we think have got it wrong. That attitude is described many times in the Gospels, particularly in relation to the Pharisees. And we see it so often today. It is expressed in an extreme way by militant Islamists, but also in so many forms of religion. Over the centuries it has been Catholic and Orthodox, then Catholic and Protestant. We have seen it in the violence of Ireland, and at least some of the violence in America arises from this kind of attitude. And we see it so often in arguments between Christians of different traditions and different theological approaches.

And don’t forget that it is not only conservative Christians who can be judgemental: there are plenty of arrogant comments and even books from perhaps a supposedly liberal viewpoint which are judgemental of the diocese! And athiests are arrogant towards believers too. The traffic is not one-way!

It is good and right to explain and defend our understanding of the faith, and even to point out where and why we believe a particular viewpoint is wrong. But we are not to be judges of other people, particularly of those who profess the faith in a different way. Only the Lord has the knowledge to be the perfect judge.

And then there is the pride of the closed mind: the sense that I have nothing to learn from someone else, and especially from a person who has a different outlook. Conservatives do have much to learn from liberals and liberals have much to learn from conservatives. A few years ago I was involved in helping to put a book together. It was called “The Gift of Each Other”, and its theme was the idea that Christians from different denominations and traditions need to stop approaching each other on the basis of “What is wrong with them? They are different from us.” Instead we must seek to understand and appreciate each other, and to look for how we can benefit and what we can learn from each other. Let us remember that God can teach us in many ways, and he can use many sources to teach us, and to enrich what we have already learned.

Pride takes many forms. It may be the almost childish desire to be seen as better than others, as we saw in today’s reading. It may be the personal decisions in which we knowingly put our will ahead of what we know to be God’s will. It may be the arrogance which judges others or closes its mind to what may well be God’s truth, or insists that everyone who is not like us is out.

No, it is not pride to hold our convictions: but we need to hold them with humility, still being ready to learn what else God may have to teach us, ready to accept correction and new insights where they may be appropriate, ready to relate to all people in humility and love. We are not called to compete with our neighbour, but to love our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 4th September 2016, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 4th September 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“COUNTING THE COST”

(Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Philemon; Luke 14:25-35)

Once upon a time there was a Premier who wanted to win an election. “I know what will excite the people and get them on side. We’ll build a spectacular Opera House on the shores of the harbour.”  So they held a competition to find the best design. One design was outstanding and spectacular, but it had one problem. Outside it looked wonderful, but inside it was not at all clear how it would work or whether it would work, especially when influential people had different priorities for the building.

Well, the contest was duly won and the contract awarded. You know the story, of course. £3.5 million or $7 million was the daunting original figure. The final cost blew out to around $100 million. There were all sorts of complications. Successive governments found themselves in all sorts of trouble. The architect eventually resigned. There were arguments about parking, about how to use the halls, how to fit the opera orchestra in the pit, what colour the tiles would be, and many more. And of course there is still much disagreement, much dissatisfaction, and much expense as improvements continue to be needed. I suspect that the Opera House lost more elections for governments than it won!

Would the Cahill government have made the decision had they known what the real cost and the fallout would be? I don’t know, but it is clear that they didn’t realize what would be involved. One thing is clear: when you make a major decision, you need to think clearly, you need your eyes open, you need to work out the implications. You need to “count the cost”.

As we heard in our Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus raised this idea when he saw how popular he was becoming with the crowds. Jesus was concerned with something deeper than approval ratings and popularity polls: he wasn’t seeking to become a superstar or a cult personality. He certainly wanted people to come and follow him. But he also wanted them to realize what they were doing, so that they made that decision to become his disciple on a sound basis. As we heard, he said things that were likely to put people off, rather than attracting them.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” That’s not nice: it’s very threatening. And it’s confusing when the commandments tell us to honour our father and mother, and to love our neighbour, which certainly includes our family.

Why was Jesus talking about hating anyone at all? He was certainly using dramatic language to make a point. And he was using words that might well describe the way a family could feel about a member who became a follower of Jesus. This tension was not something that could be sidestepped. For when it comes to the crunch, for the Christian, loyalty to Jesus comes ahead of any other loyalty – loyalty to family, to employer, to country. Jesus insists that he comes first in our loyalties.

Now of course, in Australia, this warning seems much more dramatic than actual reality. Most people who become committed followers of Jesus will only get moderate reactions from their families: a bit of knocking, a comment here or there, perhaps a bit of pressure to fit in, sometimes an angry or offended comment. But nothing extreme, unless the way you practise your faith is very upfront, or insensitive to the point of being objectionable.

However, even here in Sydney, and certainly in other parts of the world, there are many people who have had extreme reactions when they have become committed Christians. They have been cast out from their families; disowned and disinherited; symbolically buried; sometimes threatened, injured, even killed. I remember a young man from a former parish who became a Christian, and was threatened with violence by relations, unless he left the church.

Becoming Christ’s follower may indeed cut us off from our loved ones – not because we deliberately seek it – but because they will not accept our ultimate commitment to Christ. “Count the cost”, says Jesus.

He insists that the true disciple is one who “carries the cross and follows him”. Now in Jesus’ day, there was only one place you were going if you were carrying your cross. The cross was not a decoration you wore around your neck, or a symbol in a church.

Nor was it a problem you had to put up with, as I was once told by a lady who sang in a choir, who felt her rather wobbly voice was of soloist’s quality. “The choirmaster doesn’t appreciate my singing. He won’t give me enough solos”, she said. “But that’s the cross I have to bear.”

No, a cross was what you carried on the way to your execution. A cross was an instrument of death, a dreadful means of execution. What Jesus is saying is: “You cannot be my disciple unless you are prepared to die for me.” And countless people have done just that. Christians living in an alien environment or serving in dangerous situations or standing up for the truth when it is unpopular. Christians just being Christians, and unbelievers turning to Christ, in places where violent non-Christians think they should attack them. The Papua New Guinea Martyrs whom we remember today, who lost their lives being faithful to people whom they served in Christ’s name.

The Greek New Testament word for a witness is our word “martyr”. And it is probably true that there have been more Christian martyrs over the past century than over most of the whole Christian era.

Jesus is not calling us to hate our lives in the sense of being miserable all the time. But he is saying that we must be prepared to kiss life itself goodbye if he calls us to. Would we be prepared to do that? I sometimes suspect that my commitment to Jesus is pretty superficial, living in a situation of relative comfort and ease for Christians. Certainly it has not been tested in the way that the faith of so many Christians in different parts of the world has been tested.

Jesus doesn’t make it any easier. He goes on to say: “None of you can become my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.” Once again he insists that nothing that we possess or would like to possess must get in the way of our commitment to him. Our faith is more important than our home, our wealth, whatever it is that gives us pleasure and security in life. Our possessions must be always available for Christ’s purposes.

Now the scriptures never forbid us having possessions, but they do insist that we have a healthy attitude to them. How important are they to us? And how generous are we? How available are our possessions for Christ’s purposes? If it should come to the crunch, would we let go of them?

After all, earthly riches are temporary, but God’s riches in Christ are eternal. Count the cost, says Jesus.

I wonder how I would have felt had I been among those crowds attracted to Jesus, this great teacher and healer, and heard him say that his followers must hate their families and hate their lives and renounce their possessions. I suspect I would have wondered whether Jesus wanted any followers at all! And I might well have wondered what right he had to make such outrageous claims and demands.

Of course, Jesus did want followers. Indeed he knew that it would be through him alone that people would find the forgiveness we all need, and the salvation God offers to all. But he didn’t want people to make that decision lightly: it was far too important for that. Imagine that you are building a tower, he said. It’s a big deal, an expensive business – even if it is not in the Opera House class! Make sure you can afford the cost. You’ll look like a real fool if you start a major job and then run out of money to complete it. Work out whether you are ready to make the commitment. Count the cost.

For us, being Christians may not seem all that demanding. But it still makes demands. It is not just a matter of an hour a week at church. We are called to take our commitment as Christians seriously: it is a seven-day-a-week commitment. Jesus calls us to live our whole lives in his service – serving him day by day, making time to spend consciously in his presence in prayer and reflection, and actively and generously loving our neighbour as ourselves. And as we do that, we can make a difference in God’s world, just as salt makes a difference when it is added to what you are cooking. Our faith must make a difference in our lives: otherwise it is empty and useless.

Following Jesus has its costs. Of course it also has its rewards and blessings – here and now, and of course for eternity. Let’s thankfully seek to live the committed lives that Jesus calls us to live – taking up our cross, with whatever that may mean for us, and following him now and always. Amen.

Paul Weaver