Sermon: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 23rd October 2016, St Alban’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, St.Alban’s Epping, 23rd October 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“QUALIFYING FOR THE KINGDOM”

(Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:15-30)

The book of the prophet Joel is not one of the better-known parts of the Old Testament. It is there among the Minor Prophets, only three chapters, and we don’t know much at all about its author. Indeed, we are not even sure when he lived or when the book was written: perhaps 3 or 4 centuries before Jesus, but we’re not really certain.

And yet parts of the book are better known than we might have expected. One part is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday, and the other is actually quoted by Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost.

The setting of the book is a terrible plague of locusts which has devastated the crops, and caused great desperation and confusion amongst God’s people. We of course are familiar with stories of such plagues in our own country. Joel seeks to help the people make sense of what has been happening.

The prophet’s message is that God is punishing his people for their consistent unfaithfulness to him. They must acknowledge their sin and repent if they want to receive God’s blessing again. Otherwise there is the threat of even greater acts of judgement: the coming Day of the Lord is not to be taken lightly.

And in this context we hear those famous words:

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…

Rend your hearts and not just your clothing.

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful,

Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

 

It is a strong and urgent call to repentance: as I said, this passage is often read on Ash Wednesday, as we begin Lent with its themes of reflection, repentance and self-discipline. And in the second half of Joel, from which our first reading came, it seems that the people have repented. The priests and people have turned to God in humble prayer, as a token of genuine repentance.

And the Lord responds: the locusts have gone, the rains have come. Joel has pictured the locusts as a terrible invading army: that army no longer occupies the land – perhaps there are indications that in response to the people’s repentance, the Lord will keep his people safe from the threat from other armies, those armies of surrounding nations.

But now there are further blessings promised by the Lord: not just material and political and military blessings, but spiritual blessings. The Lord will be in the midst of his people, and they shall dwell in security.

But there will be something more. The Spirit of God, poured out by God from time to time on his prophets, and even sometimes of kings and priests, will be poured out in a new way.

The Spirit of the Lord will be poured out on all God’s people – male and female, young and old, even slave and free. The prophet sees this as a sign of the coming of the great Day of the Lord, when all people will come to see that the Lord truly is God; the Day of the Lord when creation itself will be turned upside down, when all evil will be put down, and the Kingdom of God will be established in its fullness. The Day will be awesome, terrifying in many ways, but also wonderful, for “everyone – everyone – who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

It might seem very different, but this dramatic passage from Joel links up quite closely with Jesus’ message in our reading from Luke. For like so much of the Old Testament, the message of Joel finds its fullest meaning through the coming of Jesus.

When Jesus says in our reading from Luke that the kingdom of God is for those who are like children, it is easy to be distracted from what he is getting at. It is not that children are cute or sweet or open or even humble – certainly not that they are innocent: no realistic parent would suggest that!

No, children are dependent people: they need what others – in particular their parents – can provide for them.

Jesus says that the qualification for entering the kingdom of God is not being good, or doing good deeds, or going to church or singing in the choir or a whole lot of very commendable things. He says that to enter the Kingdom, you must receive it, just as children receive what they need from their parents or others who look after them.

Our place in God’s kingdom is not something we must work for, not something we can deserve or earn: it is a gift to be received. That is why faith, dependence on the grace of God, is the central response to the Gospel of Christ.

That was the problem with the rich man. He thought that by keeping the commandments the way he thought he should, he could qualify for the kingdom. He thought that he could achieve a place in God’s kingdom. No doubt he thought that his wealth was an expression of God’s approval, as many people did in that era.

Jesus didn’t argue with him about the details of the commandments. He didn’t refer him to the Sermon on the Mount, where he explored the commandments in an uncomfortably deep and revealing way: a way that allows none of us to persuade ourselves that we really measure up to God’s standards. He simply set the man a test: “Give away that wealth, that comfort and security, and come and follow me.” That seems to have been too much for this man, who thought he had it all worked out.

What really mattered to this young man? I suspect that many of us would go away from a conversation like that one with Jesus, feeling rather troubled and uncomfortable.

The disciples were confused: they too assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s favour. But no: wealth is a test, a challenge, an opportunity for generous service. And it can be a barrier – a barrier to a real relationship with God. Wealth won’t get anyone into the kingdom. Respectability or religiosity won’t get anyone into the kingdom.

What Jesus is saying is that in fact none of us can get ourselves into the kingdom. None of us can work our way into God’s kingdom – not even the best of us. But what is humanly impossible is possible with God. It is God’s grace that opens the kingdom to us. Salvation is God’s gift.

When the people of Joel’s time received God’s blessing, was it because they deserved it? Of course not! The first thing they needed to do was to recognize their need of God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. And so they turned back to God: they repented.

And it wasn’t just superficial: it wasn’t just going through the religious ritual of tearing their clothes. Their hearts had to be in it. And in his love and mercy God forgave them and blessed them. Repentance means a change in direction, a change in outlook: it means turning to God instead of living our lives turned away from him.

Of course, that change of direction will be expressed in the way we live our life. But whatever good things we may do in our new life, they do not achieve us a place in God’s kingdom: rather, they express our response to the love of God which has been poured out to us.

Salvation is a gift, never an achievement. We come in humility, seeking God’s forgiveness. We come as children, needing what God has to offer. We come in genuine repentance, looking to Christ, and serious about living as his followers. To us who all fall short, Jesus says: “Come to me.” And then he says: “Follow me.” Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 9th October 2016, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 9th October 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“FROM ANGER TO SERVICE”

(Jeremiah 29:1-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19)

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept:

when we remembered Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up:

Upon the trees that are in the land.

For there those who led us away captive required of us a song:

And those who had despoiled us demanded mirth,

Saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

If you were here last week, you may remember Psalm 137, that very sad and angry and uncomfortable Psalm which was set for us as part of last week’s readings. It takes us back to the time, nearly 600 years before Jesus, when Babylon, the superpower of its era, invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and took large numbers of people as captives back to Babylon.

The captive people are mocked and abused by their captors, and when it is realized that some of them are musicians, psalmists, the soldiers say: “Come on, give us a bit of entertainment. Sing us one of the songs of that great city of Jerusalem!” But Jerusalem is the city of God, the holy place of the Lord, it is where the holy temple is to be found – or it was there until the Babylonians pulled it down. How can we sing about that? Our tongues would stick to the roof of our mouths.

There is tragedy, disillusionment, a sense of desperate loss. But the psalm gets more forthright than that. There is anger that really burns.

There is an angry reference to the people of Edom, near neighbours of Israel who are fellow descendants of Abraham and therefore related to Israel. But then it is back to the Babylonians.

“O daughter of Babylon, you that lay waste:

Happy shall he be who serves you as you have served us.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones:

And dashes them against the stones.”

As you read or heard those words, how did you feel? Did you feel uncomfortable? I hope so. There would be something wrong if you didn’t. At the 10am service, the choir omitted the last verse. That’s one way people can deal with its shocking words.

Actually I think there’s another way of looking at it. This is a Psalm which expresses loss and hurt and anger. And that feeling of hurt and anger is very understandable. When we hear of the terrible things done by terrorists today, do we not feel angry? Do we not want them to get what is coming to them?

This Psalm acknowledges that anger is a very human thing. But anger is also something that God understands. And it shows us that we can express that anger to God. We can express that anger directly, and with reality.

In fact, it can be a healthy thing to do just that. God can cope with it. He understands. Indeed, he too feels that anger and sorrow at the violence and evil he sees in the world. People do terrible things that make us angry. We can’t always shrug our shoulders and just say, “Oh well, that’s life.” If we feel deep anger we often need to express it rather than ignore it. But we need to express it safely. The Psalmist thinks of the worst thing he could do: destroy the children of the Babylonians – as no doubt many Judean children have been killed by the Babylonians – he would love to do the same to them. He wants to take away the Babylonians’ future, as his own people’s future has been taken away.

The Psalmist pours out his anger to God. And sometimes as I said we need to pour out our anger and hurt and frustration to God. It might not be so polite and respectful, but it is real. And prayer that is not real is an empty thing. This Psalm, along with other Psalms and other parts of scripture, encourages us to tell God how it really is, rather than to pray with an empty collection of pious words. Of course, we may need to find another visible person, a listening person, an understanding person, to whom we can also express all that pain. In many situations, the sense that someone has heard and understood and accepted us as we are really feeling can be an important step on the way towards healing.

The thing that one mustn’t do is to express those thoughts in action: to actually try to do what you are thinking about. To act out those angry thoughts.

But if you bury your angry thoughts without finding a safe way to express them or to deal with them, the resentment and anger and the felt need to act on them is likely to build up and fester. Express those thoughts in a helpful and real way if that is what you need to do, but don’t act them out. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, “Be angry, but do not sin!”

Now here we are, halfway through the sermon, and all my attention has been on one of last week’s readings! But actually it’s closely connected to today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah had warned the people of Jerusalem that defeat and exile would come, especially if they continued to live in a way which denied the reality of their relationship with the Lord. Not all the people of Jerusalem went into exile: it was mainly the upper classes, the ruling class, the intelligentsia – the people who might be seen as a threat to Babylonian control if they were allowed to stay in their homeland.

And once the people were in exile around Babylon, they would be watched. But it would be up to them to work out how to survive. If they wanted to, they could build homes, and plant crops. Babylon the conqueror was actually one of the more humane civilizations of its era.

Rumours arose from time to time that the people might soon return to their homeland: perhaps there were thoughts of a mass escape and return to Judah, or the belief that Babylon would soon let them return.

Jeremiah back in Jerusalem got wind of these rumours of an early return. His conviction under God was that it would be a couple of generations before they would be released. And so he wrote them a letter, and it is the opening of this letter which formed our first reading. Jeremiah doesn’t talk about trying to get back at the Babylonians: certainly not about dashing their children against the stones. He tells the people to settle down and get on with living in that foreign land. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Get on with family life and produce children. Multiply there and do not decrease.” In other words, they must make Babylon their new home. Later in the letter, he says that it will be seventy years before they will return to the land of Israel. And that means that virtually all who read Jeremiah’s letter will never return to the land of their birth – to the Lord’s land.

But there is one thing which must have been very hard to take for those who nursed their anger against the Babylonians. Jeremiah tells them: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Don’t try to get revenge, even if that is what you feel you want to do. Instead seek the welfare of Babylon. Live your lives, and contribute positively, through your prayers and your actions, to the welfare of this society to which you don’t feel you belong.

They are exiles in the land of their conquerors, but they must contribute positively to the welfare of that foreign society that has brought them into exile. Daniel and his friends did that, as we are told in another book of the Old Testament. Some people actually settled in so well in Babylon that their families didn’t return when the opportunity came up 70 years later.

The New Testament sometimes refers to Christians as exiles in this world, as we live here and now as followers of Christ. It also encourages us to live our lives positively in relation to society round about us. Jesus himself tells us to let our light shine in our lives, so that people will see the good things we do and give glory to our Father in heaven. We live in this world here and now, and bear witness by the lives we live.

As Christians, we are called not to withdraw from society, but to pray for it and to connect positively with it, even if its values and priorities are not God’s priorities. And so we pray in our worship for our leaders and our community, but we also seek to find practical ways in which we can contribute positively to it.

For instance, if this planned plebiscite on gay marriage takes place, it will be important for us to thoughtfully consider the issues. And yes, we can share our views with people, but we must talk with others respectfully and graciously, especially if we are expressing a different viewpoint. There may well be hurtful things said about people on both sides of the debate, but we are to seek the welfare of society, and therefore we must speak and act with love.

Here we are: not in Babylon, but in Australia. In Australian society we still have much to be thankful for. This country is prosperous and democratic. The church has its place, even if fewer people identify with the churches nowadays. Let us then live recognizing that there may well be things happening that we don’t agree with, and let us humbly seek the welfare of our city. The city of God is God’s wonderful promise to us, but right now we serve that city by graciously serving others in this world which is after all God’s world. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd October 2016, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 2nd October 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“ANGER, FORGIVENESS AND GRACE”

(Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10)

How did you enjoy our Psalm this morning? The sadness of those first few verses is touching, but did you feel uncomfortable with those closing verses? Can a Christian feel OK saying: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones?”

Actually, I would be concerned about anyone who could say those words with any sort of meaning, and not feel uncomfortable. They don’t sound very Christian. They don’t sound very healthy. So why did we say them? And what are they doing in the scriptures?

Let’s cast our minds back to that opening reading from the Book of Lamentations. It is a reflection on the destruction of Jerusalem by the conquering armies of Babylon, nearly 600 years before Christ. The great city of Jerusalem, the city of God, sits in ruins, her people in exile – a widow. Those who are left are in shock, confused, bereaved. All her majesty has departed.

The writer of Lamentations asks “Why?” And he sees that it was inevitable.

God had warned the people that if they did not turn back to him, if they were determined not to live as his people, he would treat them appropriately. He would remove his protection from the city, and they would be conquered. “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions”, says the writer. Sorrow and nostalgia are there, but so is the acknowledgement of sin.

The Psalmist meanwhile sits in exile – stranded in a foreign land, far from his beloved Jerusalem: his Jerusalem which has been torn down by the invading Babylonians, those invaders egged on by the people of Edom, neighbours of Judah, fellow descendants of Abraham.

Like hyenas tearing at a carcass, the Edomites were ready to take advantage of the Babylonians’ destructive acts, and they joined in looting the city. The psalmist felt a particular disgust towards them. And now in exile, the Psalmist has been taunted by his captors: “Come on, you’re a singer! Sing us a song about Jerusalem. Come on!” But they could only hang up their harps. What can they sing about here? It would be an insult to Jerusalem. They would choke on their words. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

The Middle East has been a place of violence for millennia. We think now of those images posted by ISIS of their captives, mocked and taunted, forced to speak words they do not believe for fear of further pain or even death. Here, the Psalmist responds to the taunts of the Babylonians with these words that speak of grief and tragedy, but also of determination and frustration and anger.

And we think today of so many people in different parts of the world who are victims of terrorism and violence. We might feel uncomfortable with the Psalmist’s words – but there are thousands, millions I suspect, who might well voice similar ideas with passion and conviction.

And of course, tragically, there are people who not only think such things, and not only speak such things, but actually seek to do such things. And surely that is an even greater tragedy, as these people get involved in a never-ending cycle of revenge and violence.

Why are such difficult things in the Bible? Because the scriptures deal not only with God, but with humanity. Because the Bible speaks not only of God’s great deeds and his wonderful purposes, but about the reality of who we are and what we’re like.

However, these are not the only difficult words we heard in today’s readings. For Jesus’ words in the Gospel also seem strange and uncomfortable. He seems to say that it is OK for a master to be tough and unyielding to his slaves. Here is a slave who has been labouring hard all day in the fields. And now the master expects him to prepare dinner and serve the meal before he even thinks of having a rest or perhaps of getting something to eat. “Why should the master thank him?” asks Jesus. “Why shouldn’t the slave just admit that he is an unprofitable servant who has done no more than he ought?”

What is Jesus getting at? Firstly we need to get rid of an unfortunate translation in the New RSV, which we use for our readings. It is theoretically possible to use the word “worthless” as a translation: “We are only worthless slaves”. But this misses the point. Of course the slaves are not worthless: and they haven’t been worthless to their owner. No human being is worthless, and the scriptures do not suggest it.

What the slave is saying is that he is “unprofitable”: in other words, he is doing no more than he should. He is doing no more than his master expects of him. He is only doing his duty. In this sense the master is not in his debt. He can’t say to his master: “You owe me!”

And that is Jesus’ point to his listeners – and to us today. We can never work so hard, we can never act so virtuously, that we can say to God: “You owe me. I’ve done more than you can expect of me.”

We will never be so good that we can say “I’ve arrived” spiritually. We can never work so hard that we can earn a place in God’s kingdom. We fall short. In other words, we need God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness. Hence Paul’s words to Timothy that God “saved us”. We needed God to save us.

And hence Paul’s words that God called us “not according to our works”: our works, our actions, our lives all fall short. In fact, if we’re honest, we haven’t always “done our duty” as far as God is concerned. God called us “according to his own purpose and grace”: that is the basis of our relationship with God. We are accepted by God not because we are such wonderful people, such faithful churchgoers, such moral paragons: we are accepted because of God’s love and kindness and mercy towards us in Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness is what we need from God. Forgiveness is at the heart of our relationship with him, and of our hope for eternity. And because forgiveness is the basis of our acceptance by God, it must be expressed in our relationship with others.

If our Gospel reading had commenced a couple of verses earlier, we would have heard Jesus’ challenging words that we must always be ready to forgive people, time after time if necessary. Just keep forgiving, Jesus said.

It’s interesting that the disciples in response don’t ask Jesus to increase their love, which is what I would have expected. They ask him to increase their faith. Why? I think they realize that they will need God’s help to keep on forgiving like that! And we too need to keep asking God to help us become more truly forgiving people, just as he is a God who forgives our sins.

Which brings us back to Psalm 137. For forgiveness is hard work. Oh, it’s easy to forgive the little things: the mistakes, the misunderstandings, some of those things said in the heat of the moment. But if you were members of Curtis Cheng’s family, could you forgive – as they have encouraged people to let go of the hatred for his murderer? If your loved one was a victim of a terrorist, could you forgive? Would it be hard to forgive? Perhaps we don’t really know, but we do know that it would be very hard to deal with the hurt. It would surely be natural to cry out: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a stone.”

When people commit horrific acts of violence, we want justice. And often we see the anger of family members who feel that the person who has acted violently towards them has been let off lightly. We can’t undo what has been done. And it might well be natural to want to get back at the person who has attacked our loved one or ruined our lives.

Forgiveness is not a matter of saying that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Forgiveness never trivializes evil. If evil was trivial, the cross would never have been necessary. And God never trivializes the evil done by the human race.

God weeps at the evil done on planet earth. He feels it far more deeply than we can begin to imagine. He could remove the freedom we have to make our own decisions, including the decision to do evil. But that would be to take away our humanity. Instead he gives us the promise of a perfect new creation in his good time. And he still forgives – forgives at infinite cost. And that gracious forgiveness includes us!

Psalm 137 cries out for justice, and one day perfect justice will prevail. The Psalm expresses the reality of pain and anger and frustration. And when we feel such pain and anger and frustration this Psalm is for us. For it says it all, doesn’t it? Because there are times when we need to express our pain and anger and frustration.

The Psalm gives us permission to express these feelings: not to pretend, not to trivialize, not to hold them in where they will eat away at us.

We do have to deal with evil when we experience it. Angry Psalms assure  us that we can express our anger to God: we can tell him how it really is, we can express our desire to get back at the one who has hurt us. It is not such a terrible thing: expressing our anger to God can be a healthy thing to do. And it can be a stage on the way to forgiving.

God can cope with such words. He will not be shocked or offended. And when forgiveness is hard, we can tell him how hard it is. Share the burden with him. He understands. And of course, talk these things through with an understanding person, who can give you space to do it safely.

Forgiveness. We need it, and we receive it through Christ. We need to show it, and Christ has shown us the way. But it will not always be easy, for that is the way things are in this world of tears. We will need to keep asking God to increase our faith, as we walk with our pains and hurts. He understands us, and he will walk with us in love, even in the midst of those pains and hurts. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 25th September 2016, St Alban’s

SERMON – 19TH AFTER PENTECOST – 25.9.16                                Catherine Eaton

Readings:     Jer 32.1-3a,6-15, Ps 91.1-6,14-16, 1 Tim 6.6-19, Lk 16.19-31.

There’s an old story about 2 brothers. When their father died, the brothers were entrusted with the farm. They worked well together, sharing the produce. One of the brothers was a single man and said to himself – “My brother is married and has a family to support, so it’s not fair that I should have an equal share of the produce.” So one night he took a sack of his grain, and left it in his brother’s store. This soon became a regular night-time activity.

Meanwhile the married brother also reflected on the situation. “I have a wife to support me and strong children who help me, and will look after me when I’m older. My brother has no-one.” So he would get up in the night to take a bag of grain to place in his brother’s store.

This went on for several years. Neither brother could understand why his produce never seemed to diminish. Until one night they both set out to visit the other’s store at the same time. Realising what had been happening, they embraced, and their commitment to each other grew deeper.

It’s a story which stands in direct contrast to today’s gospel. In the gospel, we find a rich man in fine purple, feasting, not just on special occasions, but daily. There’s an opulence, an unhealthy extravagance here. He has no regard for the man at his gate. Not only is the man poor and destitute, he’s offensive, unable to physically attend to himself. He is outcast on every count.

Much in Luke’s gospel places uncomfortable emphasis on the issues of wealth, justice, and concern for the poor. And today’s gospel is no exception. The rich man inside his castle, the poor man outside. Extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity to each other, but separated by a wall, not just of stone, but of blindness, and hardness of heart.

This story points its finger directly at us, but it’s too easy for us to remove ourselves from its impact. We can say – I’m not rich, like that man…. The poor are not at my gate, because if they were I would certainly offer help to them…. I give to charities which look after these people anyway.

But this story is not primarily about wealth. The underlying issue for the rich man is his self-interest, his self-absorption within his own small world.

All of us at times are guilty of this – we become preoccupied with our own needs and wants, our plans, comforts, and fears, and the daily trivia which dominates our personal and family lives.

The rich man was inside, locked into his small, if extravagantly furnished, world, if not oblivious to the man at his gate, certainly closed off from him by the wall he’d built around his life.

Lazarus, however, was totally exposed to the wider world. There were no walls to protect him, no private world to hide within, not even his own physicality to shield him from the tongues of dogs.

The story becomes more offensive when the rich man dies. Even in death, he’s still only concerned about himself, and worse, still sees Lazarus as some kind of lackey, who he tells Abraham to send to relieve his agony, or to warn his brothers.

He remains oblivious to the distorted reality which he and Lazarus shared before death and the truer reality for them now. Even when his own torment cannot be eased, he’s still focused on the small world of his family.

Our worlds are always in danger of becoming small and enclosed.  We can send a cheque to a charity because we can post it through a small chink in the walls of our private world and then close it up again.

The real issue for us is not our wealth, but our tendency to self-interest, to becoming trapped within our own preoccupations, so we can no longer hear or see the human being before us. Our lives become immune to that greater reality in which our own life is held, and revealed to us through the lives of others.

Lazarus comes to us in all sorts of ways, and is always waiting for our attention.

The issue is not the money – the 2 brothers in the first story were concerned with the needs of the other, and expressed that concern through the sharing of their wealth.

In the first reading, God tells Jeremiah to invest in property as a sign of hope that the land of Judah would be restored. There’s no self-interest in this for Jeremiah – it’s not an investment he will see a return on any time soon, if at all.

Jeremiah has a wider view of things. He sees into the future promise of God, and into the needs of his people. This is not about him and his private concerns.

Then in the other 2 readings we find a bit of an antidote to our tendency to self-interest and self-enclosure.

In the psalm we heard phrases like – ‘Those who dwell in the shelter of the most High……You are my refuge and my stronghold….He will cover you with his wings, you will be safe under his feathers….’ Here is our real protection. Our worlds are to be defined by the enfolding embraces of God. Our shelter, our refuge, our safe place is in God.

This is why we can live in a way that remains open to the world and its needs. Unlike the rich man in his gated house, we don’t need to keep our hearts walled up, our eyes turned inward, and our ears deaf to the cries of the world. This is not about being stupid or unwise about healthy boundaries and self-care, but in God we have a freedom to step beyond our safe and familiar worlds.

Then in the letter to Timothy, everything is put in perspective. We hear those well-known words – ‘we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it’, and that much misquoted statement – ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’. What matters in our relationship with money is how we get it, what we do with it, and most of all what it represents for us.

Paul speaks of contentment. So much of our grasping for wealth, for prestige and so on is because we’re not content within ourselves. We become absorbed in ourselves because we’re not secure within ourselves. We seek after riches, because we’re not aware of the riches within ourselves. We enclose ourselves in our private worlds because we’re not at home within ourselves.

Overtly in today’s gospel the issue is one of wealth and injustice. But underlying that is the more ubiquitous issue of self-interest, our preoccupations with our own little lives, and the barriers we put in place to protect ourselves from others who might disturb us or demand of us, who might awaken our hearts, and who might remind us we’re not the most important people on earth.

The other night, I heard about the White Helmet brigade in Syria – people who risk their lives to rescue others after the bombings. They could remain, fearful, in their ruined houses trying to stay safe, but instead they leave what protection they have, in order to rescue others.

Whether we like it or not we’re all connected. Our small worlds are not big enough for the purposes of God. So acknowledge the stranger in the street, open your heart to the world, and let God be the refuge of your life.