Sunday, 26 September 2010

Jazzed up Sunday

West Jesmond Rhythm Kings
 Luke 16 v 19-31

Our gospel readings for the past few weeks have been really tricky passages – all parables that Jesus told – difficult to interpret, difficult to make sense of for contemporary living.
And the parable we read this morning about the rich man and the poor man, comparing notes after death, seems to be proclaiming another very difficult and harsh message.
In some churches, at this time of year, they have a stewardship season – encouraging folks to think about their commitment to the church – their time, their talents and their money.
It’s the time of year when many pledges are renewed – or not!
And so preaching revolves around that theme of giving to God and to the work of the church.
Certainly, the last few weeks, the lectionary passages have fitted well with the theme of giving – we’ve looked at taking risks, we’ve looked at choosing whom to serve, we’ve looked at priorities.
But we’ve probably shied away from preaching too emphatically about commitment and, in particular, about monetary giving.
That’s something we’re just not comfortable about preaching in our denomination.
Indeed, a friend was telling me that last time she preached on this passage, she felt it fell neatly into two halves – a message about money and a message about hell.
So she gave her congregation a choice – you know like in those adventure books you get now – or the online games that kids play – where you choose the direction the story takes.
She gave her congregation the choice – did they want to hear a message about money – or one about hell.
Which would you choose?
Or hell?
That congregation chose hell.
And I’m sure there are many congregations that would rather hear about hell than be challenged about their giving.

A teenager recently said to me that hell was something that had been dreamed up by the religious hierarchy just to keep folk in line.
A bit like the claim that religion itself was a way of keeping folk in line at the time of the industrial revolution.

So is this parable today just a scare mongering way of controlling folk?
Or are we being called, once again, to assess our priorities and decide on the risks that are worth taking.
Today, more than ever, it is a huge risk to put our trust in God.
Churches are no different to any other institution in our current economic climate – risk averse.
Battening down the hatches rather than stepping out in faith.
But even in good times, the church often tends to play it safe.
Even though we preach and supposedly trust in a God of miracles, we rarely practise the faith we proclaim.
We trust more in what we can see than in what we can’t – and so we get caught up in the acquisition of wealth and of riches – we want sureties and easily get distracted.
THAT is what this parable is warning against.
Our being seduced by affluence that we can see instead of realising that there are other ways of being rich.
Living by faith is not for the fainthearted.
The benefits are not immediately apparent.
And the journey can be pretty hairy.
We have to decide whether it’s a risk we’re willing to take or whether we’d rather play safe.
Today’s parable flags up a very human trait – of hedging our bets – often until it’s too late.
But maybe the problem is that when in every other area of our life we are being asked to take risks, to speculate, to move from familiar patterns and embark on new territory, we want some semblance of familiarity in our faith and in the church or congregation in which we choose to share that faith.
It’s a gift that we have the jazz band with us this morning.
Jazz music involves a huge amount of risk taking, of trusting other musicians, of pushing the boundaries.
Lots of analogies that we could bring to bear on our practice as followers of Jesus.
Collaboration, innovation, exploration – all trends that we associate with jazz musicians.
Trends that we could do with more of in the church – though I have to say that, in some places, there is a lot of fluidity in the church just now, lots of opportunity to be creative, to improvise, to take risks if we have the nerve.
There are plenty risk averse folk in the church  to moderate things– we don’t need to worry about things getting out of control.
We need the folk who are slightly behind the beat as well as those who are slightly ahead.
A little instability does no harm in keeping us on top of the game but, most importantly we need good team work.
We need to be able to trust each other enough to take the risks that need to be taken to reach out and serve those outside of our institution and, above all, we need to trust that our God is the one who is right on top of the beat, encouraging us to follow a rhythm that, whatever risks it demands, in the end, leads to each of us fulfilling our potential in this life and in the life to come.

Collaboration, improvisation, innovation – for the glory of God.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Balancing the scales

Sunday 19th September 2010

Readings: 1 Timothy 2 v 1-7
            Luke 16 v 1-13

There was an interesting legal question posed in The Expository times recently, a magazine I don’t often find myself reading. But this article intrigued me:
It seems that one lovely Sunday when the sermon was overlong, the congregation rushed, as usual, from its pews on the first syllable of "Amen!"
Faithful Abigail, the only worshiper held entranced by the sermon, moved more slowly than the others and was trampled underfoot.
She duly sued the church and its officials for damages.

"Those in charge of the church know that most of the congregation stampedes after long sermons," Abigail argued. "They should have recognized the danger in the situation. Not being prepared to cope with it, they were negligent."

The church's lawyer argued like this in response: "A church is a non profit organization staffed for the most part by volunteers.
No one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business concern.
Abigail, therefore, has no real claim."

If you were the judge, asks the writer, would you award damages to Abigail?

What I found interesting in this hypothetical situation was the characterization of the church. "A church is a non profit organization staffed for the most part by volunteers. . . No one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business. . . ."

Why not?
What if we were as good at what we do as McDonald's is at what they do, or Coca Cola or Microsoft or Apple Mac?
What if we were as committed to spreading the good news of the kingdom of God as commercial business is to winning new customers?
This is the point Jesus is trying to make in our gospel this morning.
Jesus wants people who bear his name to not only be nice people but to be people who make a difference in the world.

The Pharisees are standing off to the side watching Jesus as was their custom.
Jesus’ disciples are listening intently as he tells his story. A large number of followers are gathered around.
Jesus tells them about a steward who handled the business affairs of a wealthy man.
But the steward has squandered his master’s money; he was reckless and wasteful.
Then he does something so shrewd and so conniving.
As he is cleaning out his desk and clearing out his things he calls in his master’s debtors, those who had outstanding accounts, and he cuts those debts in half.
You owe 800 gallons of olive oil? Write me a check for 400 and we will call it even.
You owe a thousand bushels of wheat?
Write me a check for 800 and we’ll consider it cancelled.
He forgives the debts that are not his to forgive, and he gains friends in the process.
And, the strangest thing of all, when his boss finds out, he commends him for his actions.

So what is Jesus’ point in telling this story?
That’s a question that folk have been struggling with for a long. long time.
As you may have gathered by now, I like to preach from the lectionary – the bible passages set out through the year – and that means that sometimes, maybe even often, it’s necessary to wrestle with difficult texts.
I often find myself working with passages that I’d love to avoid.
Today’s gospel is one of those.
Just what IS Jesus trying to teach here?
That it’s OK to rip folk off?
That when the chips are down, we can all play Robin Hood – robbing the rich to feed the poor?
Who knows?
What I’ve also learned from studying some of the more difficult parts of Jesus’ teaching is that sometimes it’s Ok not to understand.
Not everything is clear cut.
Not all of Jesus teaching makes sense.
And that’s OK.

But there are some pointers in the text, layers of meaning that we can glean even if it doesn’t all make total sense to us.

First, Jesus is explaining the wise use of worldly wealth.
It is often said that one of the wisest things you can do with your money is give it away.
It’s not the only thing but it’s one of the wisest things. Jesus tells us that if we are generous in this life, we will be rewarded in the next life.

We often get this wrong in the church.
We come up with lots of reasons why we should give.
We try the business approach.
We give because we need 5% more money this year over last year.
We try flattery. You have the means; only you can give this amount.
We try guilt trips. “You are wealthier than 95% of the worlds population.
We give for every reason except the right reason.
Giving because Christ supremely gave.
Giving, because, we are not truly human until we become a giver.
Giving to keep grace alive within us.
Giving because it reflects the nature of a God who gives.

Those are the reasons we should give but Jesus has a very strange way of making this point.
The dishonest steward gains friends by cooking the books. His master then commends him.
Commends him for his dishonesty?
Jesus doesn’t even call it dishonest.
He calls it shrewd.
Then the story ends and Jesus uses this unethical man to make a religious point:
“People of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light.”

People can be pretty ruthless in their business dealings, taking care of their bottom line.
But why are we to be that way?
After all, we ARE the people of light.
We are not the people of this world, the people of darkness.

So are we really to take as our model a careless man who is dishonest to the core?
The answer would appear to be: Yes!
But not because he’s a scoundrel.
He becomes our model because he used his resources.
It’s not his actions that Jesus commends.
It is simply that he acted.
It is not for his selfishness that Jesus commends him; it is for his assertiveness.

We Christians don’t have that same tenacity toward the things of God.
I tell you, Jesus said, use worldly wealth to gain earthly friends so that in eternal dwellings you’ll find a heavenly home.
The crooked steward acted to ensure his own livelihood. We, on the other hand, are not to increase our standard of living; we are to increase our standard of giving.
Because in the end, when all the money is gone, how we have used our resources here will determine our welcome up there.

That leads us to the second point that Jesus might be making.
Trustworthiness is measured by character.
Let me ask you. Who would you trust with your money?
I think Jesus speaks for all us when he says that the person who can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.
Watch how someone handles the little things and you’ll know how they handle the big things of life.
Faithful in little. Faithful in much.
That’s the principle.
That’s the acid test for character.
Events where honesty is needed in the little things.
If you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
That’s Jesus’ question for you and me.
All the resources that have been placed in our care here on earth are but small tests.
How we use earthly things tells our Lord how we will use spiritual things, what he calls True Riches.

And what are “True Riches”?
What spiritual things or eternal things is Jesus talking about?
Jesus doesn’t actually name them but how about the partners we love, the children we nurture, the home we keep, the work we do, the money we make, the friends we enjoy, the neighbours we know, the strangers we meet.
We have been entrusted with these.
Do we have character?
Have we been found trustworthy?
Are we responsible with these earthly riches?
If so then we will have true riches in heaven, what ever they may be.
Our worldly wealth.
Use it graciously, responsibly, with fidelity.
Our futures depend on it.

And that is why, thirdly, Jesus said : We cannot serve both God and money.
The family and friends and resources we have been entrusted with are only temporary.
God is eternal.
We can’t make the mistake of putting our trust in worldly wealth.
We live in a temporary world that has eternal consequences.
Lets use wealth wisely, be faithful with the little things, and devoted to our God.
All of us have been entrusted with much.
Lets use it generously – for the glory of God.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Museum or mission, lost or seeking?

Readings: 1 Timothy 1 v 12-17
            Luke 15 v 1-10

A couple of years ago, when I was on study leave, I went to work in a huge Presbyterian church in Indianapolis.
A church with 5,000 members and 12 pastors.
On a Sunday, there are 5 services in an attempt to accommodate all those members both in terms of numbers and in terms of taste in worship style.
While I was there they were half way through a 10 million dollar building extension programme, building facilities to accommodate their choir and their young people.
We have been back to see the fruits of their labour – very impressive.
While their sanctuaries (they have two) are very traditional, the rest of their facilities – and in particular, their new extension resembles a shopping mall – with rooms for every conceivable purpose, numerous open coffee areas and a lift that is glass so that as you travel between floors you get a glimpse of what is going on in other areas.
And there is still pressure of space.
From a pre-school nursery programme, to a clothing bank, from an area dedicated to music ministry to a counselling centre and plenty of spaces for coffee and donuts!
And, of course, a huge admin and staff area, to keep all of this functioning.
Second Presbyterian church in Indianapolis had been an inner city church, located in an area of the city centre where there were few residents. But their location was in the prestigious circle, the heart of downtown Indianapolis, state capital and centre of business affairs.
About 80 years ago, the city council approached them offering them a great deal of money for their site, on which the council wanted to build a war memorial and museum.
The money would enable the church to move to another part of the city where they would find many more people to serve.
Even though this was exciting to some of the congregation, other members were resistant to the idea.
They pointed out that the church was the guardian of a building whose history and architecture reached back into the early part of the nineteenth century. (And that’s old in America!)
Denominational history had been made in that building, and some of the grand figures of the church had passed through its portals.
Well the congregation decided to sell the site and make the move to a new building in a busy city neighbourhood.
In the suburbs.
The folk of that congregation had to decide whether they wanted to be in a museum or in mission.
They couldn’t have it both ways.
It meant either staying on their site, glorying in their past history and serving a few people, or giving up their past and gearing themselves to a significant ministry among the city’s people.
They opted for mission status over museum status.

Something of this same struggle is indicated in the gospel passage we read today.
There are complaints about the kind of people Jesus was associating with.
Sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes.
Folk outside the temple precints.
The Pharisees and scribes came down on the side of museum religion.
They wanted attention given to those who were a part of the establishment – the pious folk.
They wanted to maintain their places of worship for those who “knew how to behave”.
Just like many of our congregations today.

Jesus disappointed the Scribes and Pharisees by insisting that the issue was one of mission: that what was needed was to reach out to those who were not part of the worshipping community.
Those who needed to be shown love, even those who might need lessons in etiquette, social graces, maybe even the odd bath.
But paying attention to these "lost" persons would change the comfortable fellowship the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed at the synagogue - to say nothing of putting a dent in the budget.
They would much rather have museum rather than mission.

But we don’t need to go back as far as the Scribes and the Pharisees:
When the foundation stone was laid at the Divinity Hall, New College, Edinburgh, where church of Scotland ministers were to be taught and formed: Thomas Chalmers said: "Nothing will ever be taught, I trust, in any of our Halls, which will have the remotest tendency to disturb the existing order of things ..."
Museum over mission.
An exciting new facility for the training of ministers being born amid words of status quo.
I sincerely hope that Thomas Chalmers is birling in his grave at what IS being taught at New College these days.
(Or maybe you still have to go the Glasgow for radical teaching.)

Too often the church chooses museum over mission.
We commit money, leadership and prayer toward keeping things as they are - at the local level and in our denominational traditions.
The minute anything even slightly radical is hinted at or offered, all sorts of denominational heritage and history seems threatened and we lose our nerve.
Mission rarely triumphs over museum when it really matters.

Just off the Circle in Indianapolis can be found another church that made a different choice.
It didn’t have a long history, as did Second Presbyterian; but it was a prestigious church with a fine building and a loyal, resident mixed membership.
It was strong and prosperous - until the neighbourhood began to change.
Instead of reaching out to the new residents and welcoming them into the church, the congregation and pastor deliberately chose to keep things as they were.
But, of course, that couldn’t last and, as members died or moved away, the strength and life of that congregation dwindled to almost nothing.
Today that building has trees growing out of its gutters.
It’s still in a prime site, so they could sell up and move on to mission elsewhere, but there is no longer any heart left in the congregation,
Choosing what seemed to be safe led to them becoming a museum.

How we read this gospel passage today also speaks of choices.
Choosing to hear safe words, or words of challenge:

In safe hearing mode, we might hear a text that is all about lost things like the Pharisees and scribes listening to Jesus’ parables might have heard.
Jesus begins, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one…” —inviting them to identify with the hard-working shepherd who labours over his irresponsible and sometimes unreliable sheep.
In church we’re good at identifying ourselves with the hard workers, the folk who are meticulous.
For church folk through the ages, from the Scribes and Pharisees to the present day, we can find here a comfortable fit.
Hearing them as we traditionally hear them, these parables acknowledge our hard work and urge us on to be even more patient and particular in seeking out the lost; on the one hand, never giving up and on the other hand, treasuring even the most difficult folk.
And, in this day and age we would take little offence at being compared to a shepherd who went to great lengths for his sheep or to the woman who sought out her lost coin.

But what about the challenge?
What if, in this passage, Jesus isn’t just calling the Pharisees to be a bit more generous, a bit more open.
What if Jesus is calling them to repentance—a complete reversal of their way of seeing and being in the world.
The point of these two parables perhaps then is not for us to identify with the shepherd and the woman.
But with the things that are lost.
We are not the shepherd: we are the lost sheep.
We are not the woman: we are the lost coin.
God is the shepherd; God is the searching woman.
God is the one who takes the astonishing risk of leaving the 99 sheep and coming to look for us, because that is how much we matter to God.
God is the one who carefully, thoughtfully, seeks us out like a woman meticulously and methodically tracking down a lost coin.
This story is an invitation for us to become a part of God’s story— a call for us to stop running away and hiding from the one who yearns and searches for us.
While we are always called to mission – to embrace those outside our fellowship, so too we are being urged to respond ourselves to God’s mission – to bring us into the fold.
But it takes some doing for us to hear these parables in a different way – as a call for us to respond to God in faith.

Faith that has some life about it.
Another discovery I made on study leave that year, was a book called: Christianity Rediscovered, by Vincent Donovan.
Its not a new book by any means – indeed the copy I have is a 25th anniversary edition.
Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest-missionary in Tanzania in the 1960s.
Exasperated with conventional forms of Catholic education  he persuaded his bishop to let him simply wander among the Masai tribes, sharing their life and talking about God.
Initially he wrestled with his own doubts about how the particular story of Jesus’ cross and resurrection translated into the Masai culture all around him.
But a Masai elder converted Donovan by contrasting the faith of a Western hunter with the faith of an African lion.
The Masai elder showed Donovan that the notion of faith that Donovan held was a profoundly Western notion: it was merely an intellectual assent.
“To ‘believe’ as Donovan – and we - often see belief, pointed out the elder could be compared to the act of a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance.
Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act.” The Masai elder said, However,
“‘For a [person] really to believe is like a male lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up on the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms. . .pulls it to itself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a [person] believes. This is what faith is.”
The Masai elder went on. “You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

God, like a lion, comes after us, seeking us out, not giving up until we submit to God’s embrace.

And so we wrestle with our choices:
Hearing the word of God in these parables as a message of safety or of challenge?
Considering ourselves lost or found?
Seeking or being pursued?
Opting for museum or for mission?
Which will it be?

May God help us to know him as he comes to rescue us, the missing ones and may we know the rejoicing waiting for us when we are found.
For the glory of God.