Sermon: Pentecost 21, 29 October 2017, Rev. Jane Chapman, St Aidan’s

Pentecost 21, Sunday 29 October

Rev. Jane Chapman, St Aidan’s

From the 1st letter of Paul to the Thessalonians:

“We were gentle amoung you, like a nurse

tending to her own children”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son

and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Please be seated.

Today, I would like us to hear from our reading of the 1st letter of Paul to the Thessalonians,  how being a Christian, a Christ-follower calls us into certain ways of being and doing in God’s world.

I opened with a quote from 1 Thessalonians: a gentle and beautiful quote, where Paul uses imagery of caring, of nursing, of gently holding: images crafted to be ours, which focus on how we both give and receive love.

And I would like us, too, to focus on the being and the doing, and ultimately, of the willing engagement of love in our lives, our hearts and our actions, as we move through and within the world which our God – who is all love – has given us.

“We were gentle among you” says Paul to the Thessalonians.  Here Paul is invoking one of the unsung virtues…that of gentleness.  It makes sense, should we think about it, that if we are carrying a message, a very special message, it would be unwise to try to ram that message down our hearers’ throats.

Better, indeed, to carry our message gently, with reverence and deep caring to our audience, to those of life’s fellow-travellers who may welcome the good news, brought to all, by Jesus, the Master and offerer of love.

Gentleness.  What a lovely word!  It evokes images of caring, of being gently held, of learning to lean on the hands and hearts of those who love us…as Pauls says: to you, my listeners, I bring word of love and loving, news of One who is waiting with gentle willingness to gather us both into His arms, and further, into his Kingdom.

We live in a world that has, alas, sparse evidence of gentleness.  It is a world that favours grab, competitiveness, striving for self at the expense of others. We are invited to fight for our “rights”…often when what those rights might be, and how and in what ways we might exercise them are not clear…and not of God or God’s ways.

Paul does not say to his readers: go find someone to look after you and help you fight your way through life’s vicissitudes.  Nor does he say: make sure you fight your way to the front: no way should you let others get in before you. Nor does he say: demand what you know that you deserve.

What he says is this:

Nurse and gently hold both those around you and yourself.  Be open to the Gospel, which tells us that Jesus makes possible for all of us to know ourselves to be loved, to be gently held, to learn to cherish all others and ourselves.

Tread lightly in other people’s minds and hearts.  Cherish the love that others extend to you so that you and they can know what it is like to be held in the arms of kindness.  Seek eagerly to be one who loves to comfort, and so comfort loss, or ignorance, or loneliness, or fear of failure, or any of the many ways we, as human beings, can come to seek and see our own inner beauty.

Teach your hearts to smile:  it will show on the outside.  Teach your hands to give: to help or comfort or cleanse of fear.  Follow the life’s footsteps of those who bring you the good news of God’s Kingdom.  Join them in the ultimately privileged task of touching minds and hearts that are growing to know the beauty of yearning towards a life in Christ.

Enjoy who and what you are!  For you are the blessed, the loved, the well-held.  Take who and what you are in grateful hands and share the beauty with each person you touch and genuinely meet this day.

Look for sadness in those around you.  Go close to them:  touch and smile and share the nearness of each other…and carry those gentle smiles into more barren tracts of life’s lands, so that others may begin to perceive the beauty into which we all are invited.

and bring any of your own sadness to meet that of others.  Together, know yourselves enriched by the sharing of your love…

And go on remembering from whom that love comes.

 

Sermon: Pentecost 21, 29 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

29 October 2017, Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

 Love- Matthew 22:34-46

-Arguably one of the greatest song-writers in Australia died this week.

-George Young with Harry Vanda was the writing genius behind the Easybeats in the Sixties.

-He was the producer behind the first six AC/DC albums.

-On the same day his death was announced,

-One of his songs,

-‘Love is in the Air’,

-Was inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

-Have you ever wondered how many love songs are out there on the airwaves?

-Love would have to be the most popular theme for a song,

-Love lost,

-Love won,

-Love misplaced, unrequited, desired or denied.

-The Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love’,

-While Foreigner opined,

-‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’.

-Which strikes a surprisingly philosophical note for a pop song from the Eighties.

-But I should add that’s as deep as the lyrics get.

“I want to know what love is, I want you to show me,
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me”

 

-Well let’s leave pop culture for a moment,

-And return to a confrontation that was occurring between Jesus and the religious hierarchy of his day,

-Which was less than loving.

-It all began with Jesus teaching in the Temple courts after he’d made his triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.

-The chief priests and the elders come demanding by whose authority Jesus is doing all these things.

-Jesus responds saying he’ll answer their question if they answer his;

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Matthew 21:25

-The leaders see through the trap,

-Realising if they say ‘From heaven’,

-Jesus will ask ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’

-But if they say ‘From humans’ then the crowd,

-Who loved John the Baptist,

-Would go crazy.

-So they plead ignorance,

-And Jesus refuses to answer their question,

-At least at that moment and the way the religious hierarchy demanded it.

 

-Over the next couple of hours Jesus tells three parables,

-That pointedly highlighted the failures of the Jewish hierarchy to direct people to God.

-The religious leadership hit back with some trick questions of their own,

-Which only showed that staying away from a confrontation with Jesus would have been a smarter move.

-But despite the defeats,

-The Pharisees get together and come back for one last go.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36

-There was a tradition within Judaism of trying to come up with simple summaries of the Law,

-So this was another test of Jesus’ authority as a teacher or Rabbi.

-Jesus answers however, with a double barrel response;

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” Matthew 22:37-40

-The first part of Jesus’ answer,

-‘To love God with all your heart, soul and mind’

-Was what was known as the Shema.

-This was the summation of the Jewish faith that Moses gave to the people.

-Because Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience he doesn’t need to quote the introductory line from Deuteronomy 6;

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4

-But that simple verse stresses the monotheistic nature of Jewish belief,

-Something which will become significant when Jesus asks his final questions of the Pharisees.

 

-But let’s just jump back to the Foreigner song and that existential cry from the human heart,

-‘I Wanna Know What Love is’,

-Because Jesus has used the word twice,

-Love the Lord your God,

-And Love your neighbour.

-Now if you’ve listened carefully to the love songs which populate the airwaves, MTV or YouTube,

-What would your answer be to someone asking ‘I wanna know what love is’?

-What is love?

-Maybe it has to do with the emotions.

-‘I want to feel what love is’.

-Maybe it has to do with romance,

“Love is in the air, in the rising of the sun

-Whispering trees, thundering seas.

-Of course sex has to be in there,

-If any second R&B or rapper track is anything to go by.

-In fact within modern western culture love and sex are virtually interchangeable.

 

-Even the way we use the word in English is a complication.

-An enthusiastic golfer may say ‘I love golf.’

-Clearly nothing romantic or sexual about that,

-Unlike a husband declaring ‘I love my wife’,

-With a wink of his eye.

-But if he was to say ‘I love my neighbour’s wife’,

-With or without a wink,

-That’d be a very sinister statement.

-The English professor and author CS Lewis wrote a book titled ‘The Four Loves’.

-Unlike English where we only have one word to describe all the nuances and meanings of love,

-In ancient Greek there were four different words for ‘love’.

-There’s ‘storge’ which is the devotion or affection similar to that of a parent for a child.

-The most recognisable for us is ‘eros’ from which we get the word erotic.

-As you’d imagine it’s the passionate, physical intimacy that desires the other for itself.

-A third word is ‘philia’ which is another recognisable word,

-But with negative connotations now in English.

-That wasn’t the case in Greek where it signified care, compassion and respect.

-It also encompassed the idea of deep friendship.

 

-All of those meanings could sit comfortably in a pop song about love,

-But would be completely inappropriate in Jesus’ identification of the greatest commandment,

-‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

-The word that Jesus used in that command was agape.

-In ancient Greek,

-The word agape was rarely used because it was seen as colourless.

-It had the very weak sense of ‘to seek after’ or ‘prefer’.

-Even to ‘love’ ice cream has a stronger sense than the word agape held.

-But some commentators think that’s why the New Testament writers grabbed hold of it.

-Because it was so rarely used,

-They could inject a new and more powerful meaning into it.

-The depth and strength of that new meaning can be seen by that command.

-It wasn’t just ‘love the Lord your God’,

-‘To seek after the Lord’

-Or ‘prefer the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Zeus, Artemis or Ra’

-It was to love the God of Israel,

-The Creator Lord of the Universe with the totality of your being,

-With all your heart,

-With all your soul,

-With all your mind.

-Every aspect of your humanity was to be directed towards the love of God.

 

-And although it may not seem it at first reading,

-Even the second command underscores the power of this love;

“the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” Matthew 22:39

-Jesus takes it as given that we human beings don’t have much difficulty loving ourselves,

-But the love the Kingdom of God calls for is far more than affection, preference or even compassion for others,

-The love Jesus is calling for goes far beyond anything the fallen human heart could envisage,

-It’s a love for your neighbour on par with the love of God.

-And if there were any confusion as to the extent of that love,

-Jesus has already enunciated it in the Sermon on the Mount;

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;” Matthew 5:43-45

-Rather than a focus on ourselves and our own self love,

-Jesus wants us to turn our eyes to our heavenly Father.

 

-If, like Foreigner, you want to know what love is,

-You can’t look to earthly conceptions,

-You need to look to God,

-Which is what John does in his first letter.

-He gives us the answer;

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

-God shows us his love.

-God’s love is active,

-It’s no mere proposition or philosophical construct,

-It was a costly step towards us;

“He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” 1John 4:9

-Which benefitted us,

-We gained life through Jesus.

-And so there can be no mistake in thinking this is anything we’ve earned, deserved or warranted in the least,

-John makes it clear;

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1John 4:

-God loves his enemies,

-God loves us so much that he deals with the problem that has separated us from himself.

 

-Can you see how deficient any human understanding of love is compared to this love from God?

-It gives you a bit of an understanding why the Apostles took that weak and rarely used word agape,

-And let it speak for a love that was self-sacrificing, life affirming, other person centred.

-All other words fall short in describing this love from God.

-And that may be why Jesus ends this confrontation with the religious hierarchy with one final question;

“‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ ‘The son of David,” they replied.43 He said to them, ‘How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” Matthew 22:42-45

 

-There was an understanding that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David.

-He would be the saviour of Israel who God would send to rescue his people from their foreign oppressors.

-But the quote from Psalm 110 and Jesus’ question of David calling him Lord,

-Adds a new dimension to the understanding of the Messiah.

-Why would David call the Messiah ‘Lord’ if he’s his descendant,

-When in the Psalm he’s seeing the Messiah being invited by God to sit at his right hand?

-Later in that same Psalm David says of the Messiah;

“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4

-The point Jesus is making through these questions,

-Is that the Messiah is a divine character,

-Not any ordinary human being.

-The Jewish leadership’s expectation of the Messiah is way too small.

-What Jesus has done in these questions is to answer that original question that brought him into this conflict,

-‘By whose authority are you doing these things?’

-Jesus’ answer is ‘by my own!’

-‘By my Father’s!’

-This is a veiled claim of divinity.

 

-Do you wanna know what love is?

-Do you want to experience true love?

-It’s not in the feeble imitations promulgated by pop culture and a self worshipping consumer culture,

-It’s by opening yourself up to the love of God,

-A love that sent his Son from the throne of heaven into our world,

-To deal with our sin and selfishness and bring us life,

-A life of loving God and loving our neighbour.

-What is love?

-It’s what Jesus showed us on the cross,

-A self-sacrificing, life affirming, other person centred act which brought life to us,

-But which cost him his.

-What we’ve received from God is the same love we’re to give to our neighbour.

-As John said;

“We love because he first loved us.” 1John 4

Sermon: Pentecost 20, 22 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Sunday, 22 October 2017, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Matthew 22:15-33

-Do you ever get suspicious when all politicians agree on something?

-Usually it’s to do with a pay rise.

-On Thursday there was a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald that said,

-‘Labor could back Malcolm Turnbull’s Energy Plan.’

-What would,

-‘Liberal Party endorses Greens policy’,

-Get you thinking?

-Or ‘Tanya Plibersek loves Tony Abbott’s Medicare ideas’.

-You wouldn’t believe it,

-Or you’d be wondering what they’re up to.

 

-Well that’s exactly the situation Matthew describes in today’s readings.

-Remember the story so far,

-Jesus has told three parables that basically skewer the religious hierarchy for their failure to lead the people to God.

-They’re described as a sycophantic son who says ‘Yes, yes’ to his old dad,

-But goes off and does his own thing.

-They were like tenants in a vineyard who refuse to give the rightful rent to the owner,

-Even killing his son when he comes to claim what is his Father’s.

-The final put down is Jesus’ description of them as invitees to a wedding banquet,

-Whose rejection of the generosity of the King,

-Demonstrates a dishonouring indifference that gets them a violent retribution.

-Each of these parables is an unambiguous attack upon the failures of a leadership,

-Who are more interested in their own position and power,

-Than the welfare of God’s people.

-And as each of these parables is told,

-The hierarchy is more and more incensed at being the targets of Jesus’ judgements.

-So they go away and plan their counter attack,

-Conspiring to trap Jesus in his own words.

 

-Two traps and three groups are involved in their nefarious plans,

-Three groups who on any other occasion you’d describe as odd bedfellows.

-But they come together with a common cause and a political expediency,

-That would best be described by the aphorism;

-‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend!’

-It would appear that the Pharisees were the brains behind the first attack.

-The Pharisees were an ultra religious party within Judaism.

-They were the sticklers for the Law.

-Their rigour was based on the belief,

-That if everyone in Israel was obedient to the Law for just one day,

-Just one day,

-Then the Messiah would come and rescue his people from their godless foreign oppressors.

-You can see why tax collectors and sinners were not their favourite people,

-They believed it was their immoral behaviour stopping the Messiah from coming.

-They took the Law and traditions of Judaism very, very seriously.

 

-Unlike the Herodians.

-They were another sect or party within Judaism at the time,

-Who got their name from their friendliness towards Herod’s family dynasty.

-Herod the Great was an Edomite whose family converted to Judaism,

-And who’d been installed by Rome as a puppet king over Judea around 40BC.

-It was this pro-Roman bent that infuriated the Pharisees.

-So in what may have been recognition of their antipathy to the Herodians,

-The Pharisee leadership doesn’t go along themselves,

-But send their disciples to execute their dirty deed;

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Matthew 22:16

-Talk about sycophantic sons.

-They begin by ascribing Jesus the title ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’,

-But rather than being polite,

-They’re setting Jesus up to force him into answering the question.

-If he really is a teacher or rabbi then he’ll have to show it by answering.

-If he spots the trap and walks away ignoring them,

-Then clearly he’s not willing to answer and so fails as a teacher.

-But the Pharisees then lay it on with a trowel,

-Praising Jesus for intellectual honesty and rigour,

-Not being afraid to challenge strongly held views,

-Nor bowing to position and power.

-Again all fine sounding words but designed to bind Jesus firmly to whatever answer he gives.

-And the question is designed to hang Jesus whichever way he jumps;

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Matthew 22:17

-Heresy or treason,

-Two unacceptable answers.

-A devilishly clever trap.

 

-The communications guru Marshall McLuhan coined the now familiar phrase,

-‘The medium is the message’.

-He argued that whatever medium carries a message has an influence over how that message is perceived.

-So often we miss this subtlety of communication.

-But Jesus doesn’t and he’s instantly aware of the medium,

-Who it is that’s delivering the message.

-It’s two groups of people who hold an antipathy to each other,

-Two groups of people who have opposing views about their Roman overlords,

-Two antagonistic understandings of church and state.

-So he’s immediately aware of their malice,

-Which he brutally confronts;

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” Matthew 22:17

-He got that in one, hypocrites

-But now he’s about to turn the table with his call for a coin;

“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Matthew 22:20

-The Romans liked to get their tax paid with Roman coins,

-Which Jesus draws their attention to.

-The Roman denarius had the image of the emperor Tiberius on one side,

-With the inscription,

-‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus’.

-In essence ‘son of God’.

-On the flip side was the inscription,

-‘Pontifex maximus’ or high priest.

-Can you see how offensive that would be to a strict Jew?

-This would have been seen as idolatry and blasphemy of the worst kind,

 

-But that’s not the point of Jesus’ question or impending two point answer;

-Rather it’s a pragmatic and theological response;

“Give (therefore) to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21

-Jesus neatly slips through the reductionist trap of the Pharisees and Herodians.

-Neither one can pin heresy or treason on Jesus.

-In amazement they leave Jesus and slink away.

 

-Whether they were disappointed by the failure of the Pharisees and Herodians,

-Or smugly thought they could do better,

-The Sadducees don’t let the sun set before they trot out another snare,

-Embroiling Jesus in a theological debate in which he must choose sides.

-If the Pharisees’ partnership was hypocritical,

-The Sadducees conundrum is breathe takingly duplicitous.

-Although they were a religious party,

-The Sadducees held two distinctives from the Pharisees,

-That they didn’t believe in the resurrection,

-Nor in angels or other spiritual beings.

-They were the ancient equivalent of those modern day liberals who claim to be Christian,

-But deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus,

-Decry miracles as scientifically impossible,

-And distort the word of God for their own ends.

-Now with all that in mind listen to the scenario they pose and ask yourself,

-‘What is wrong with this picture?’

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. 26 The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. 27 Last of all, the woman herself died. 28 In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

 

-Did you see it?

-They don’t believe in the resurrection,

-But they’re positing a scenario they don’t even believe in?

-They don’t believe in angels or a spiritual existence,

-Why are they even asking about life after death?

-Again the medium is the message,

-And Jesus sees straight through their words to the people carrying them.

“‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Matthew 22:29

-Notice where Jesus appeals to challenge their false understanding of God and his purposes for creation,

-The scriptures,

-God’s revelation to human beings.

 

-Immediately after Jesus was baptised,

-He was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he was tempted by the devil.

-Each time Satan posed a temptation to prove himself as the Son of God,

-Jesus counted it with an appeal to the scriptures;

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:4

“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:8

“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Luke 4:12

-And he alludes to the exact same practise here.

-‘You don’t know the scriptures.’

 

-But of course they did know where to find the biblical evidence of the resurrection.

-How much clearer evidence would you need for the resurrection than this from Isaiah 26:19;

“Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Isaiah 26:19

-Or Daniel 12:2;

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

-Or Job 19:27;

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,” Job 19:27

-Clear references to a bodily resurrection.

-But for their own reasons,

-They chose to ignore the scriptures.

-Nothing has changed in two thousand years.

 

-But it’s not just a refusal to take God’s word seriously that’s their problem,

-It’s that they don’t take seriously God’s power.

-They underestimate him.

-Just think through what lies behind their denial of the resurrection and angels.

-It’s a materialistic rationalism that says if I can’t see it and scientifically verify it,

-It can’t be true.

-Well for a start that proposition can’t be scientifically verified.

-But that aside,

-The Sadducees presupposition must be that if God does exist,

-He either chooses not to intervene in his creation or he’s unable to,

-He’s powerless,

-Because how hard would it be for the creator of the Universe to give a new body to the dead,

-Just like Isaiah, Daniel and Job stated?

 

-But the most damning of Jesus’ arguments is not the physical attributes of a resurrected body,

-But the relational;

“As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Matthew 22:31

-Jesus is describing a present reality,

-‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’

-Not ‘I was the God’,

-Implied in that is the ongoing relationship between God and those men who have died to this life,

-But if God is still their God,

-Then Jesus is describing a living relationship that is continuing even to this day.

-‘He’s not God of the dead, but the living.’

 

“And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.” Matthew 22:33

-I want to ask,

-Are you astounded by the words of Jesus?

-Are you astounded by the authority of Jesus?

-Are you amazed by Jesus like those crowds as they saw him confound the Pharisees?

-Or do other things grab your attention and avert your eyes from our Lord and Saviour?

-You see that command of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians,

-Those religious zealots and spiritual compromisers,

-Was not just a clever repose to slip a devious trap,

-It’s a command that asks where does your loyalty and affection lie,

-To whom does your heart belong?

-You see it’s easy to give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar,

-When your heart is firmly committed to God.

-But if your heart belongs to the world,

-You will never be able to give to God what belongs to him,

-Your whole self.

-The Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees all had an affection to something other than God.

-For the Pharisees it was their religious practises,

-For the Herodians their political allegiances,

-For the Sadducees their intellectual pride,

-When what it should have been was the God who chose them to be his people.

-A similar choice faces us.

 

Sermon: Pentecost 19, 15 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Sunday 15 October 2017, 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Matthew 22:1-14

-There was a man who had two sons.

-In a scenario that I’m sure every parent has faced at some time or another,

-The man asks the first child to go off and do some work in the garden.

-With that surly attitude beloved of parents with teenagers,

-He says ‘I won’t!’,

-But then he has a change of heart and gets stuck into the work.

-Being a fair parent,

-The man also went to his second son with the same request.

-Son number two gives an entirely different response,

-He does what every parent dreams might one day happen,

-Without attitude, argument or angst he says, ‘I go, sir!’

-An hour or two passes and the old Dad hobbles out the back to a surprising scene.

-Surly son number one is hard at work sweating away at the requested task.

-However his sycophantic sibling is nowhere to be seen.

 

-That was the parable Jesus told in the temple court,

-When the chief priests and elders began questioning his authority.

-And he followed it up with a question;

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” Matthew 21:31

-It poses an interesting dilemma doesn’t it?

-Does obedience depend upon attitude or action?

-Promise or performance?

-Jesus asks a simple question with only one correct answer,

-Which the Jewish leaders give,

-‘The first.’

-And now comes the sting;

“Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Matthew 21:31-32

-Surly son number one represents everyone who the chief priests and elders would consider the dregs of religious society,

-Tax-collectors and prostitutes.

-They’re the ones thumbing their noses at the religious mores of their society.

-They’re the ones saying ‘no, no, no’.

-But when confronted by John the Baptist’s call to repent because the kingdom of God is coming,

-They’re the ones who reached and grasped hold of it,

-Unlike the religious hierarchy who have the show of righteousness,

-But are actually rejecting the Father’s call.

 

-Jesus followed that parable with two further parables that escalated the tensions between himself and the Jewish leaders.

-Last week we heard the parable of the vineyard,

-And the condemnation of the Jewish hierarchy as unworthy tenants.

-Rather than being fruitful in the vineyard God had given them to steward,

-They failed to lead the people into a deeper relationship with God.

-And worst still they rejected the Son who’d been sent by God.

 

-In ch22 a second confronting parable is told,

-This time it’s about another common situation that the people would know,

-A wedding banquet;

“‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Matthew 22:1

-That phrase kingdom of heaven,

-Or kingdom of God,

-Was used by Jesus to describe the goal of his mission,

-He’s come to inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth.

-One definition of kingdom is a place where a king rules and the people obey.

-The first part of the definition is obvious.

-A kingdom has to have a ruler,

-Someone who’s in authority.

-But the second part is a not so obvious but essential element.

-Down through history there’s been no shortage of examples of kings who were rulers in name only,

-Their kingdoms were in revolt,

-The citizens didn’t recognise their authority.

-God is the king, the ruler of this world,

-Yet human beings are and have been in revolt against his divine authority.

 

-At the beginning of Mark’s gospel Jesus says,

-‘The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.’

-With Jesus’ arrival in our world,

-The kingdom has come near,

-Jesus began the process of restoring his rule in this world that he created,

-And drawing people to faithful obedience.

-I mentioned last week that Israel was created to be God’s people,

-In God’s place,

-Under God’s rule.

-Israel was meant to be the kingdom of God on earth.

-But they continually failed.

-That should give you a bit of an idea why Jesus speaks in these parables the way he does,

-Because he’s speaking into a situation of what should be but isn’t,

-Which becomes clear as the story develops;

“(The King) sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” Matthew 22:3-4

 

-The process for a banquet in those days was that you sent out an initial invitation that was a bit like a Facebook date saver,

-Or one of those emails that says ‘keep this date free.’

-You don’t want people getting double booked.

-Following that first notification there came the second invitation which said,

-‘Everything’s been prepared, come join the party.’

-But the response to this is somewhat unexpected,

-They don’t come.

-So a third invitation is sent that explains that the food’s now on the table,

-And what a feast it is,

-Oxen, fatted calf, chocolate self-saucing pudding!!!

-The message behind that third invitation is,

-‘Hey this is going to be a great party, you’d be mad to miss it.

-‘This is an honour you don’t want to pass up.’

-Who in their right mind would pass up an invitation to be a guest of the king at the wedding feast of a prince?

-This lot;

“But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.” Matthew 22:5-6

 

-Two different responses but equally foolish.

-The first is of indifference,

-Other things take a higher priority,

-Their house, career, business.

-All good things in their own right,

-But fall short of sharing and celebrating in the joy and happiness of your king.

The second response however is more sinister and dangerous,

-It’s open revolt against the king,

-They assault his servants,

-Abusing and even killing those who represent the ruler of the land.

 

-In the previous parable of the vineyard,

-The tenants did the exact same thing to the messengers of the owner,

-Even to the point of killing his son.

-After hearing that,

-Jesus asked his listeners another revealing question;

-‘When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?’

-They rightly answered,

-‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end!’

-They acknowledge the requirement of justice.

-The landowner had the right to punish that wicked behaviour.

-Jesus doesn’t bother asking the chief priests this time,

-He goes straight to the king’s response;

“The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Matthew 22:7-9

-A wretched end to wretched behaviour.

 

-Some commentators have argued that that wouldn’t happen in real life,

-Who would invade a city,

-Kill it’s leaders,

-And burn it to the ground over a personal slight and the death of a few servants?

-But that misses the point of a parable.

-A parable is a story that makes a specific point.

-And the particular point here is that the seriousness of the punishment,

-Indicates the seriousness of the offence.

-Remember why Jesus is telling this story,

-It’s to confront a leadership that has failed to honour God’s purposes for them as a nation,

-Even to the point of plotting the death of his Son.

-Think back to the parable of the vineyard,

-The landowner sends his servants and they’re ignored, abused and even murdered.

-This king sends servants with an invitation not once but three times.

-The patience and forbearance of the landowner/king is extraordinary.

 

-Did that first line of the psalm grab you as we heard it read out?

“Praise the Lord, O give thanks to the Lord for he is good: and his mercy endures forever.” Psalm106:1

-Sadly we often read a passage of scripture that speaks of the holy, righteous judgement of God,

-Through the lens of our own fallen sense of justice,

-We get indignant at the thought that God would punish anyone.

-Isn’t God loving?

-Isn’t God merciful?

-And the answer is yes,

-That’s why his invitations to the wedding banquet could almost be read as desperation.

-One invitation to save the date,

-Another to say everything’s ready to go.

-A third invitation to say the food’s on the table,

-How much more does God have to do?

 

-Well the parable shows us.

-After bringing judgement upon those who rejected three invitations,

-The king commands his servants;

“The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Matthew 22:8-9

-Another invitation is sent out,

-And this time the banqueting hall is filled;

“Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Matthew 22:10

-Notice now how Jesus has looped round back to that first parable of the two sons,

-And that question,

-‘Who did the will of his father?’

-It was the surly son,

-The outcast and outsiders,

-The tax collectors and prostitutes,

-The good and the bad.

-These were the people who responded to the King’s invitation.

-These were the ones who responded to God’s mercy.

-And so we see that God is indeed good and his mercy endures forever.

-Even when it appears his mercy has been exhausted,

-The king sends out for unlikely guests to come to the party.

 

-And if God is indeed good,

-And his mercy does endure forever,

-How serious is the offence,

-To hear his invitation to life and treated it lightly,

-To treat it with contempt?

-Jesus adds another warning in this parable,

-And that it is to not treat the grace of God you’ve been given lightly.

-The king comes into the banqueting hall;

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:11-14

-There actually was a dress code for a banquet.

-There were expectations placed upon a guest,

-And as he gazes around the room the king spots one guest who has made no effort at all.

-When he’s confronted he’s speechless,

-His silence announces his guilt.

-And in another harsh judgement the king has him cast out of the celebrations.

-Rather than enjoying blessing and joy,

-Those who fail to respond appropriately to the honour that has been extended to them,

-Will experience grief and remorse.

 

-Notice how Jesus has confronted two responses to the coming of his kingdom,

-The first is that some will refuse to come in,

-They reject Jesus’ right as king and Lord of this world.

-They’re easy to spot,

-They’re the mockers, the haters, the violent rejecters who stand outside,

-And abuse God and his people.

-The second is those who refuse to submit to the norms of the kingdom,

-Who take what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’.

-Like the guest without a wedding robe.

-They have the appearance of piety,

-They say the right words,

-They do the right things,

-But their hearts are far from obeying Jesus and his words.

-They say ‘yes, yes, yes’ but they have no intention of serving the king.

-They’re happy to be saved,

-But not to serve.

-To be justified not sanctified.

 

-But as followers of Jesus we’re to acknowledge him as Lord as well as Saviour.

-With the call to come into the kingdom,

-Is the demand to be changed by that kingdom.

-Someone once said;

“God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.”

-Because we’ve been saved we are to be fruitful for Christ.

-We’re to bear the fruit of good works,

-To grow in the fruits of the Spirit,

-To grow in the good soil and bear fruit thirty, sixty, a hundredfold,

-To take off the old and put on the new

-As we grow into the people of God.

Sermon: Pentecost 18, 22 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd October 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

CURLY QUESTIONS AND BIG ANSWERS

 (Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1; Matthew 22:15-33)

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” It’s the classic question asked to public figures designed to get them into trouble. To answer “yes”, you are admitting that you have beaten your wife. To answer “no”, you are getting yourself into even deeper trouble.

It seems to me that the best interviewers on radio or TV are not those who browbeat the public figure; who don’t get over-emotional; who don’t cosy up to the person; but who politely lead up to the vital question, the one which will get them into trouble – if they deserve to be in trouble! In a sense they give a person enough rope to hang themselves, rather than try to conduct a lynching! That quality is sadly rather rare in the media nowadays.

In the week leading up to the Passover Festival, Jesus’ opponents were desperately looking for a way to trap Jesus: something which would finally get him out of the way, with his controversial teaching, with his obvious popularity, with his accusations against them, and with his stirring up of trouble.

In our Gospel reading we see two attempts by different groups of people to ask that leading question which would get him into trouble, or perhaps make him look bad, or at least make him look weak or third-rate.

The first question was asked by a very odd group of people: people who generally had nothing to do with each other, and who would have had a low opinion of each other. The Pharisees were the pious religious people, who made great efforts to keep God’s laws and to live as God’s faithful servants. They made it their business to try to be good people, but fell into the common trap of “good people”: being judgemental of those who weren’t as “good” as them, and arrogantly assuming that they had all the answers. It’s a trap for devout Christians today!

But on this occasion they were joined by the Herodians, supporters of king Herod, the local kingly figure, whose power depended on his co-operation with the Romans who occupied the land. The Herodians would have come to terms with the Roman occupation, and tried to make it work for them; but the Pharisees would have been appalled by the Romans and disgusted by Herod, who was a nasty piece of work. They would have been praying for God to set them free, so that they could again live as God’s free people.

I’m sure that when Jesus saw a group of Pharisees and Herodians coming to him, he knew that something was up. And after an embarrassing attempt at flattery, they asked their question – that question which they thought would get Jesus into big trouble for sure. “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar?”

If Jesus answered that it was lawful, then he would lose credibility with the ordinary people, who resented the Roman taxes: it was bad enough that they occupied their land, but even worse that they then found various ways to levy taxes from the people. The Pharisees found the system especially offensive, because the particular coin that had to be used showed an image of the Emperor, and an inscription describing him as a “son of god”. The Pharisees objected to the image because of the second commandment, and they found the description of Caesar to be blasphemous.

But if Jesus said that the tax should not be paid, that would be a seditious statement, and would certainly be reported to the authorities. So one answer would destroy his reputation, while the other would be an invitation to the Romans to arrest him. No wonder the Pharisees and the Herodians were willing to co-operate in this approach to Jesus.

How will Jesus respond? How will he get out of this one?

He asks for a coin used to pay the tax. Perhaps one of the Herodians had one: I hope it wasn’t a Pharisee, for they should have had as little as possible to do with these coins. There were plenty of other coins available for other purposes which were not offensive.

Jesus looks at the coin, I suspect with a bit of distaste. He won’t approve of its image and its wording either. “Who does this image and this title belong to?” he asks. And the answer is of course, “It belongs to Caesar”.

Then Jesus says: “Well, if it belongs to Caesar, give back to Caesar what belongs to him!” But then he goes on, “And give to God the things that belong to God.”

He answers their question in a way which they really can’t object to. But then he takes it to another level. There are things which they may owe to the Romans: why would people want to keep these offensive coins any longer than necessary? Who could argue with this conclusion?

But what about God, the Lord? What do they owe to God? Do they give God the devotion and the trust and the obedience that is rightfully his? Do their agendas matter more to them than God’s purposes and God’s call? This is the much bigger question that Jesus pointed to.

And what about us? Jesus implies that we do have responsibilities to those who have the role of government. God is a God of order, whose plan is that people should have good honest leadership as they live in their communities. And his plan is that we should make our contribution, financial and otherwise, to the common good. Taxes will be part of that contribution.

And if we are called to make that contribution, we do it not simply as part of our legal requirements as earthy citizens, but as part of our obedience to the God who provides for our needs in many ways and through many means.

Of course, that was not the only question Jesus was asked, according to our Gospel reading. Jesus had won the first bout, but perhaps the Sadducees could outwit him. They gave their attention to the five books of Moses, and regarded the rest of the Old Testament as lacking the same authority. And since they could find nothing in the Torah clearly teaching that there is a resurrection, they refused to believe in life after death. Your life might continue on in the lives of your children, but when you died, that was it. Nothing more.

The stakes weren’t quite as great this time. But if they could make Jesus or his teaching on the resurrection look foolish, that would be a worthwhile victory over this fellow who was stirring things up. And it would also be a little victory over the Pharisees, who found their ideas about the resurrection in the prophetic books, not the books of Moses, so beloved by the Sadducees.

So the Sadducees come to Jesus with this ridiculous story about a woman whose husband dies, only to be followed by the man’s six brothers who had all in turn married her in obedience to the Law of Moses. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they innocently ask. The whole idea to them is laughable, and I suspect that quite a few listeners have smiles on their faces.

But Jesus is not distracted by the over-the-top story. “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus knows the reality of resurrection, and indeed he knows that it will shortly become a reality in his own experience. He himself will shortly die, and three days later be resurrected. To Jesus then the resurrection is not just a topic for debate: it is the God of all life wonderfully at work.

Jesus explains that resurrection is not just resuscitation. There are new dimensions to resurrection life, which is also eternal life. Marriage, so significant on earth, is not part of resurrection life, which has a particularly spiritual as well as bodily dimension. Jesus compares resurrected people with the angels: they have a particular spiritual reality which is not part of our current experience. We don’t become angels in the resurrection, but there is certainly a new dimension to our life. The Sadducees’ cynical question assumes that resurrection means repetition of the life we know. Jesus insists that there is something to it that is much more wonderful than that. All the details we do not know: we get indications in the scriptures, but not the full picture. Perhaps we would not take it all in anyway!

What Jesus wants to emphasize is that even in the books of Moses there are pointers to God’s gift of eternal life. When God introduces himself to Moses at the burning bush, he doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus points out that he said “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” As far as the Lord is concerned, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who had all died centuries before, are all alive to him.

How can that be? The resurrection is a reality. The Sadducees had not been open to the scriptural message: and in the process they had closed their minds to the power of God.

Two questions designed to catch Jesus out. Two questions he answered brilliantly. It’s not simply that he outsmarted his questioners. It is that he got to the heart of the matter.

Paying tax to Caesar reminds us that while we may have debts to the government and community, our fundamental debt is to our Creator God, who has given his Son to be our Saviour. The question of the Sadducees points to the reality of our resurrection hope. We trust in the power and the promise of God, and follow the resurrected Saviour who gives us true and eternal hope. Amen.                                                                  Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 17, 15 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 15th October 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

RESPONDING TO GOD’S INVITATION

 (Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106; Philippians 4; Matthew 22:1-14)

Holy Week is for us a time for meditation and reflection. The first Holy Week was a very different time for Jesus and his disciples. It was a time of increasing tension and conflict.

After his entry to Jerusalem followed by the crowds, Jesus had turned the traders and moneychangers out of the temple, and cursed that fig tree which had no fruit. He had refused to answer a question about his authority which had been asked by the local leaders, because they would not answer his question about what they thought of John the Baptist. And he was telling stories with a particularly uncomfortable bite to them.

In one story there were two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would not, but then changed his mind and did the work requested. The other said that he would do what his father wanted, but never actually did anything. Out of that story Jesus warned the Jewish leaders that tax-collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God ahead of them, because those outsiders had believed John’s message and actually repented. The leaders had made no response.

And then we heard last week that story of the tenants in the vineyard who refused to give due payment to the owner, and indeed treated violently those who came seeking the payment. Again Jesus gave a very severe warning to the Jewish leaders, that they would be tossed out of God’s vineyard and that others would take their place.

And in today’s reading we have another parable with a dark edge, a reminder that Jesus’ parables are not always nice simple stories with a lovely moral.

As we heard, this parable is about a king who plans a wedding feast for his son. According to custom, the initial invitations have gone out and people will have a reasonable sense of when they should be prepared to come.

When everything is ready, the king sends out his servants to let people know that it’s time to come to the feast. But the servants get fobbed off with excuses and arrogance words. Indeed, when he sends out a second group of servants, they are treated with violence and even murdered.

The feast is ready, and those invited are not willing to come, so the invitation now goes out to all and sundry in the streets – the good and the bad. These people are very willing to come, and so the banquet hall is filled with guests.

It’s actually a parallel story to the parable of the vineyard. In that story we could say that the rightful claims of God are rejected by those who owe him. This time it is the wonderful generous invitation of God that is refused by those who should know better. And no doubt many of Jesus’ listeners got the sense of what he was saying: the leaders and teachers were ignoring God’s call, but others less reputable, the outsiders, were hearing and taking up the call. They would receive God’s blessing, which Jesus saw being refused by the religious and the respectable.

Were any of Jesus’ listeners able to see that he was also pointing towards the message of the Gospel going not only to the actual people of Israel, the Jews, but to people of all races and backgrounds? That is ultimately where Jesus was heading with this story.

But that is not the end of the story. There is yet another part, a sting in the tail. For the king finds a man at the wedding feast who is not appropriately clothed, not wearing a wedding robe. He has nothing to say by way of reason or excuse. And he finds himself tossed out.

Now the experts have had a great time debating about this second part. The big question is this: if people have been invited in straight from the streets and lanes, they won’t have a chance to find or buy some wedding robes, even if they can afford to do so. Isn’t the king being completely unreasonable in expecting people to be wearing them?

Some people have suggested that the king had suitable clothes available to give everyone as they arrived, and this person had arrogantly refused to put them on. Others have all sorts of other theories.

I’m inclined to suggest that we lighten up on the details: after all, it’s just a story making a point. I don’t think that many people who receive a wedding invitation are likely to murder the messenger either! Jesus is just adding to the drama of the story!

What we need to see is the point Jesus is making! He is pointing out that people can miss out on God’s blessings by rejecting them or refusing them. That’s the first part. But people can assume they’ve qualified for the blessings, and still miss out. That is the point of the second part. You might think you’re in, and then discover that you are actually out. It’s a very serious warning.

Now Jesus doesn’t give a direct explanation here of what exactly he is getting at. He is clearly saying that people can take for granted that they have God’s salvation, and in fact miss out on it. They might even be religious people, respectable people, perhaps churchgoers. But why would they miss out? Why would they be tossed out, as the story depicts it? We have to look elsewhere in the scriptures to find some hints.

Perhaps a good start is to go back to that parable from last week. Jesus warns that the original tenants will be removed from the vineyard, and others will take their place. These other tenants are people who will give the owner the fruits that are due to him. And I suggested last week that we might see the fruits in terms of faithful service and obedient living. We could pick up that image of fruit and remind ourselves of what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We could describe it as “Christian character”, as we allow God the Holy Spirit to do his work in us. Indeed, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul actually tells his readers to “clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”.

Perhaps we can put it like this. The invitation of the Gospel is to “come as you are”. We don’t have to work or be really really good or really religious to earn an invitation to God’s kingdom. The invitation is to all and sundry: to all of us. But though we can come as we are: we must not stay as we are. If we want to become God’s people and receive the blessings of God’s people, we need to be willing to seek to live as God’s people.

We are saved as we respond to the Gospel in faith, but as James reminds us, “faith without works is dead”. If our faith is the real thing, it will make a difference to our lives.

If we have become God’s friends, God’s children, we need to live as God’s friends, God’s children. If pleasing God does not matter to us, how can we claim to be his people? Of course, as Christians we will trip ourselves up and make mistakes and do the wrong thing far too often. But if we are God’s people, we will seek to live as God’s people.

So there it is: this lovely and worrying story of Jesus. The invitation to God’s kingdom is freely offered to us all. In faith we have accepted his generous invitation. But we need to wear that robe. We need to allow the fruit of the Spirit to develop in us. We need to live the life of God’s children. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 17, 8 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 8th October 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

WHAT DOES GOD WANT FROM US?

 (Exodus 20:1-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3; Matthew 21:33-46)

What does God want from us? The question arises for us as we reflect on the parable we just heard as our Gospel reading. Tenants in a vineyard who are expected to provide an appropriate return to the owner of the vineyard.

But they refuse to do so. In fact, they attack and even kill those who come to collect the fruits. And then finally they kill the owner’s son.

No doubt many of Jesus’ listeners worked out what he was talking about. After all, the vine or the vineyard was used a number of times in the Old Testament to depict Israel: the passages where this picture was used usually indicated that the crop was a failure. Jesus here was giving a picture of the Lord sending his servants the prophets to call his people to return to him the fruits that were due to him. And he was reminding his listeners not only how God’s people resisted the prophetic message, but how they violently attacked the prophets.

If someone got this far in understanding Jesus, I wonder what they thought Jesus was talking about when he referred to the beloved son, who himself would be attacked and killed?

So here is this story which indicates that God’s people owe him! God’s people are in debt to him! Doesn’t that mean us? If so, what is the fruit that we owe him?

Our first reading from Exodus 20 gives us some clues. Of course we are familiar with the Ten Commandments. Some of us can probably remember them being read Sunday by Sunday in the Holy Communion service from the old Book of Common Prayer. As someone has pointed out, the Ten Commandments are not the Ten Suggestions! They spell out the sort of life that God calls us to lead, the way God expects us to act and to live. And we know that they are rightly summed up in what we call the Two Great Commandments: to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we faithfully seek to obey the Ten Commandments, we are certainly well down the path of making a true and right response to God.

But it is important to see the purpose of the Commandments, and we understand this better if we remember when they were given.

God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, and brought them safely across the sea when they were pursued by the Egyptian army. He had brought them to Mount Sinai, providing them with food and water, protecting them from their enemies, and assuring them that they were indeed his covenant people, to whom he would be faithful and for whom he would continue to provide.

We need to remember that the Commandments were not given in Egypt, but at Sinai. They were not an exam to be passed before God would accept them or help them. They were not a set of demands to be fulfilled before they could become God’s people. The Commandments in fact spelt out how to live as God’s people. God was in effect saying: “You are my saved and beloved people. This is the sort of life I want you to live because you are my people.” God had shown his saving grace to the people of Israel: the commandments spelt out how he wanted them to live in response to his grace. The commandments made clear what God was seeking from his people: faithful obedience. This is a sense was the fruit that he was seeking.

But too often the people of Israel were not faithful to their Lord: they turned to pagan gods and idols, and they ignored his commands, treating people with injustice rather than godly love. And as we have seen, when God sent his prophets to call his people to repentance, they too often violently resisted their message.

However, they couldn’t claim ignorance of who God was or what he wanted. As Psalm 19 reminds us, everyone has access to some knowledge of God the creator. He is the maker of the universe, and the starry night and the fiery sun declare the glory of their mighty Creator. But wonderful as creation is, it doesn’t tell us all we need to know about the true God.

And so the Psalmist takes another step, for God is revealed not only through his creation. He is revealed more clearly in the scriptures. The Psalm speaks of the law of the Lord, the command of the Lord, the precepts of the Lord, the commandment of the Lord, the judgements of the Lord.

It seems to be all about how God wants us to act, God’s “rules”, but we need to remember that the word “torah”, the Law, is a bigger word. It refers to the five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, but more literally it means “instruction or teaching”. The commandments are linked to all that the scriptures tell us of God.

In this second section, the Psalmist acknowledges that God the Creator is in fact the Lord, who is in covenant with his people, who is faithful to his promises, and who provides and cares for his people. And he recognizes that the way to respond to the Lord is in obedience to his commandments, especially as they are spelt out in the books of Moses.

Whereas it is so human to resist rules and commandments, our Psalmist tells us that the way to joy and satisfaction is really the way of obedience, God’s commandments are for our good. They are more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey from the comb.

Yet we know that we as human beings do break God’s good commands. As Christians we need to remember that God is pleased and honoured when we consistently obey God’s laws: but we also need to recognize that it is actually good for us to seek to obey them.

Sometimes we might sin because of ignorance or because of our weakness. We might also commit presumptuous sins, doing what we know God doesn’t want us to do. And the Psalmist prays to be kept safe from these things. Not that God magically answers that prayer so that we don’t have to make any effort if we are to obey him: he still calls us to in a sense work with his Spirit in resisting temptation and sin in our lives.

The Psalm reminds us that God’s commands are for our good. And it reinforces God’s call to obedience. If you like, it calls us to bear that fruit of obedience that is due to God.

Now some people might ask: isn’t the Old Testament law out-of-date? It’s all very well to love God and love our neighbour! But what about circumcision? What about all those laws about food and special days and the like?

Our reading from Philippians brings a very uptight Paul reacting to people who are insisting that for a Gentile to become a Christian, he must be circumcised. Paul goes through a whole list of things that would make him an outstanding example of someone who could claim to be a “good Jew”: the right background, all the ceremonies, learning, moral behaviour, devotion. But then he says that he regards these things as rubbish. What really matters, he says, is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”, he says. It is not our background that matters. It is not even our good behaviour in itself. It is our relationship with Christ that really matters.

Remember how I pointed out that the Commandments were not a series of rules that we had to obey in order to become God’s people. The Commandments spell out the sort of life God wants us to live because we are his people. It was true under the Old Covenant, and it is certainly true under the New Covenant.

Those tenants in the parable of Jesus were like people who claim to be God’s people, but then act in complete denial of their claim. They reject God’s claims on them. They refuse God’s calls to them. They demonstrate that they are not God’s people. And sadly so often, the Israelites – and in particular their leaders – acted like this.

Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we are God’s people. We haven’t earned that privilege: it is God’s generous gift to us. Through Christ we have God’s blessings right now, and we have the promise of his eternal blessings ready for us. But we still have a life on earth to live here and now. And God is right now calling us to live as his people.

We haven’t got there yet, any more than Paul had made it as he wrote to the Philippians. He knew he had the assurance of God’s eternal blessings. But right now he needed to press on in the Christian life. He needed to strain forward to what lies ahead. He needed to press on towards the goal.

Paul knew that his citizenship was in heaven. And through Christ we have the same assurance. But right now, we have a life to live as God’s beloved and forgiven people. There is the fruit of obedient loving service for us to offer as we live the life to which we have been called. We haven’t got there yet. We still fall short. But the call and the promise and the challenge are all there. Let’s keep following Christ. Let’s keep seeking to live as God’s people, as faithful followers of Jesus. Amen.                Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 16, 1 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 1st October 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

HUMILITY, GLORY AND UNITY

 (Exodus 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4,11-16; Philippians 2; Matthew 21:23-32)

There was once a football competition with four teams. One team played as if they hardly knew each other, each member doing their own thing regardless of what the others were doing. Another team spent most of their time arguing with each other and refusing to co-operate. Another team was so impressed with their captain-coach that they left him to go out on the field by himself, and play as a one-man team. And then there was a team whose members worked together on their tactics, and worked as a team on the field. Guess which team won the competition!

Churches can be a bit like that too. Some can be full of individuals who have their own agenda, and don’t really care about the other members of the congregation. Others can be dominated by arguments and squabbles. Some churches seem to leave it to the minister to do everything. But there are others whose members see a better way to function as Christ’s church: the way to which Paul points in our reading from Philippians.

It seems that the church at Philippi had the problem of disunity. And when Paul seeks to address the problem, he doesn’t just tell them what they should be doing: he points them to Jesus.

Many experts think that Paul is quoting a popular hymn of the time in this chapter: you can see the words laid out as if it is poetry. It certainly presents some powerful teaching about Jesus, but the words are indeed poetic and the message is inspiring.

Paul tells us that Jesus “was in the form of God”: he was by nature God, with the greatness, the power, the glory of divinity. Jesus is indeed the second person of the Trinity. He is the very author of creation.

And yet he was willing to let go of that glory. He did not clutch his divine prerogatives to himself. In fact he let go of them, and “emptied himself”. He became a mere human being: one made to be dependent on God, one made to serve God. He did not pretend to be human, or simply disguise

himself as a human, as we hear in stories of some of the ancient gods. He became “truly human”, as we say in the Creed. The one who made us became one of us. The Lord of the universe became a servant.

Now when Paul wrote his letters, he wrote as a Christian who came from a Jewish background. The Old Testament scriptures were never far from his mind, especially as he considered how they pointed to the coming of Jesus. And I’m sure that as he wrote these words – or probably dictated them – he thought in particular of two passages from the Old Testament.

He would have gone back to the opening chapters of the scriptures, and the story of Adam, the first man. Adam was made in the image of God, reflecting something of the being of God. But he was not satisfied with the wonderful privileges of being human: tempted by the serpent, he grasped at the possibility of being “like God”, knowing good and evil in the way God knows them. He grasped at divinity, and as we all know, he was undone as a result.

And of course since his day, human beings have in our different ways sought to live independently of God: doing our will rather than his. We play at being God, trying to run our lives as if we were actually in charge. Jesus let go of privileges to which he was by nature entitled. Adam tried to grab hold of privileges to which he could never be entitled. Where Adam got it all wrong, Jesus got it all right.

But there is a second part of the Old Testament which Paul seems also to have had in mind. He was thinking of the section of Isaiah, from chapters 40 to 55, which we sometimes call the “Songs of the Suffering Servant”: about one who was called to serve God and his people by showing God’s light to the nations, and by suffering on behalf of God’s people.

Jesus was that servant: obedient, faithful, dying for the sins of the disobedient. God himself, in the person of Jesus, did it for us! His obedience took him all the way to the cross. For the rest of us, death is not an option: it comes to us all. For Jesus it was an act of obedience to his divine Father’s will, and it was an act of sacrificial love for the human race.

Jesus humbled himself to take on human existence. He humbled himself to serve others. He humbled himself to suffer for us. He humbled himself to die for us.

But it was not a grand death, an obviously heroic death, a death which had that hint of triumph about it. It was the death of a common unimportant criminal. It was a death of agony, a death of shame. A death in which he saw and heard people mocking him and making sarcastic comments and challenging him to save himself. The ironic and terrible thing is that he could indeed have saved himself, but he didn’t! Death was at the heart of his purpose. Jesus was obedient to death, even the death of the cross, for our sakes.

But of course, that is not the end of the story. Good Friday is followed by Easter Day. Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection. The apparent tragedy of Jesus’ crucifixion is followed by his triumph over the powers of death.

And Paul begins the second half of this hymn to Christ with a great big “therefore”. Our Rector the other day commented to me that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, it’s always important to ask what it is “there for”. “Therefore”, says Paul. The point is that the triumph he is about to describe is based on Christ’s humble service and obedience and sacrifice. Because Christ fulfilled his Father’s loving and wonderful purposes, “Therefore God also highly exalted him”.

Jesus, having done all that was required by his heavenly Father, has returned in triumph to his Father’s side. To him belongs the name that is above every other name. In Isaiah 45, every knee shall bow to the Lord. But now, Paul can say that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow”. For he is indeed “Lord”: Lord of humanity, Lord of the world, Lord over all Creation. And this is in fact to the glory of God the Father. It is not only humans who will acknowledge him as truly Lord: all of creation will acknowledge him.

In a sense, he is doubly Lord. He is Lord because of who he is by nature. But he is also Lord because of divine appointment: he has earned the title because of his extraordinary and uniquely humble service, not only of his Father, but indeed his service for all of us. He who is our Lord became our servant, suffering and dying for us.

Paul presents this extraordinary picture of Jesus not just to provide a important piece of doctrine. As so often in his letters, doctrine and life go together. Paul wants the Philippians – and us – not only to learn about Jesus, but to learn from Jesus.

As I said before, the Philippians apparently had a problem with disunity in their church life. They had their own agendas. They argued and competed with each other. They were unwilling to be servants of one another.

But Christians are called not only to be believers in Christ: we are called to be servants of Christ, and servants of one another – part of what it means to love one another. And this was something of a problem for the Philippians.

So Paul points them to a better way. At the beginning of the chapter, he pleads with them to give him the joy of knowing that they are united in genuine godly love. He says: “Be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord.” And he goes on to urge them to avoid acting on the  basis of ambition or conceit, and instead to live and act humbly.

They are to treat other people as if they matter more than themselves, and to put the interests of others ahead of their own. It’s a real challenge! And so he sets before us all the supreme example of Jesus, our humble Lord and Saviour. If Jesus was willing to sacrifice his rightful glory to become our servant and our Saviour, surely we must treat others with humility.

When churches have problems, you can be pretty sure that it is not an organizational matter. It always comes back to people. And so Paul calls his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Following Jesus has many challenges, including this challenging call to humble service. We have been forgiven, saved, through Jesus: but following Jesus still involves effort, commitment, sometimes going against our natural desires.

But with that challenge comes words of great encouragement: God is at work in us, enabling us to will, and to work for his good pleasure. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us. Humble service is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Jesus: and it is not easy for us. But Jesus has shown us perfectly how it works, and through the Holy Spirit God is at work in us.

Christ became our humble servant. In our personal life, our family life, in our church life, may his mind be our mind, his attitude be our attitude. May we put away those attitudes of self-importance and pride. May we be more concerned for the rights of others than our own rights. May we share in the triumph of Christ: the triumph of humble service.

Unity is based on love. To love is to serve. Christ has shown us the way. May we humbly and faithfully follow him along that path of humble service. Amen.                                                                           Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 15, 24 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 24th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GRACE, NOT JUSTICE

 (Exodus 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1; Matthew 20:1-16)

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Words of Jesus that remind us that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways, God’s priorities are not always what we would expect. They sum up this strange story that Jesus told in our Gospel reading from Matthew 20.

At the end of the previous chapter, Peter had heard Jesus point out that rich people will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wealth so often gets in the way of our response to God. In response to this, Peter reminded Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow the master. What would they get in return? Surely they would get a big reward!

And here we have this parable which I suspect a union leader wouldn’t know what to do with. A landowner hires workers for the harvest: as the day goes on, he realizes he needs more workers, and he keeps going back to the local marketplace, which is the local employment office. Even at 5pm, with only an hour to go before sunset, he goes back and finds some more workers. If they have been there all day, they can’t look very impressive to those who are looking for workers. And if they have been there all day, they are now expecting to go short for the next 24 hours.

But they are hired. And like the other workers hired later in the day, they will have to take whatever the boss gives them: at least it will be better than nothing!

The landowner and the first workers have agreed on a denarius for the day’s work: it is the standard amount for a labourer. Not regarded as a great wage, but seen as a fair wage: enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table, but not much more. If you earned a denarius a day you were OK: if you didn’t get a denarius, you would go short.

The end of the day comes, and it is time to distribute the pay. To everyone’s surprise, those who started at 5pm get paid first, and they get a full denarius for their one hour’s work. So do those who started at 3 and at 12 noon, and those who started mid-morning. They all go home delighted, not to mention relieved: they’re not going short, even though they weren’t able to get a full day’s work.

Finally the landowner gets to those who spent the whole day in the vineyard. It’s been a hot day and the work has been hard. If the others got a full denarius, what will they get for doing so much more? What they get is a denarius, the same as everyone else.

Surely they deserve more than those slackers! And so they complain about this injustice. The landowner reminds them that in fact he has done them no wrong: he has paid them exactly what they agreed. And it was a fair wage. The reason they are complaining is not that they went short: it is that the landowner chose to show generosity to others. He had the right to do that, as long as he did the right thing by them. The issue wasn’t injustice: it was actually envy. And you can’t really argue with that observation. But somehow, it doesn’t quite feel right, does it?

I am reminded of how Sarah and I sometimes handled things with our children. We had a nice piece of cake which we were happy to give to a couple of our children who happened to be around. It was a bonus which they weren’t expecting. But we all know what happens when there are two pieces of cake, but they are not the same size. “It’s not fair. She got the bigger piece!” Why complain? Both children were getting something good and unexpected. But that is what people are like. It’s not just that we don’t want to go short: we don’t want to be behind! When the girls were old enough, we would ask one to cut the cake, and the other could choose the piece she wanted. It ensured that great care was taken in cutting the cake as evenly as possible.

The great news in Jesus’ parable is that everyone got what they needed: no one went short. And that is the real point Jesus is making.

Jesus was trying to help Peter and the disciples – and us – understand that we don’t relate to God on the basis of strict justice as we see it. We can never put God in our debt.

Let’s face it: which of us can say that we are like those who worked hard for the Lord from dawn to the end of the day? Which of us could say that before God we had a 100% rating? Of course we don’t. We all fall short.

Some may have served God for a longer period of our life than others. Some may have worked harder. Some may have broken fewer commandments. But none of us can say that we have been perfect servants of God throughout our lives. If we’re honest, none of us get close.

So what’s the point of trying to work out which of us is more deserving of God’s rewards? It would be like using NAPLAN to put schools in some sort of competition with each other, instead of getting teachers to use it to find out how individual children are going, and where they need extra help! It misses the point! And there is no point in making comparisons with each other to decide who is more worthy of God’s love.

We all need God’s forgiveness. We all need God’s grace, just like those workers needed the landowner to be generous if they were to have adequate food on the table that night. And through Jesus and his death on the cross, that grace, that forgiveness comes to us.

There is a temptation to think that if God treats us justly, everything will be OK. But what we need from God is not justice, but grace. And grace is what he gives us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And faith is the way we respond to God’s grace. We don’t deserve God’s grace. We don’t have to earn a place in God’s kingdom. It is his gift, to be received with a thankful heart. In faith, we open up to God’s love. In faith, we become his children.

And it is in in faith that we seek to live as God’s children, God’s friends. In my relationship with Sarah, I seek in love to live as a good husband to her. In faith, I seek to live as a follower of Jesus. I don’t have to earn some sort of points to keep that relationship: I’m not on trial. As a Christian, I simply seek to live the life of a follower of Jesus: imperfectly for sure, sometimes very imperfectly, but thankful that when I fall short, he still loves me. It’s still about grace.

God’s ways are not our ways. Often our perspective is very inadequate. God will never treat us less than justly. The great news is that he offers us not just justice, but grace: forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, and the gift of eternal life. Let us then live lives of thankfulness, knowing that God’s grace reaches out to us all through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Paul Weaver