Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Let's hear it for the preacher!

Jonah 3:1-5,10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

It is said that it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. Clearly this privilege belongs also to God – and the Ninevites. Hearing Jonah’s message about their impending doom, they change their ways and turn aside God’s wrath. Jonah must have been some preacher! it intrigues me that we don’t celebrate his preaching prowess or even acknowledge the fact that his rhetoric convinced a whole city to repent and escape annihilation. Instead we make a parody of how he ran from God’s call, stowed away on a ship, was tossed overboard and swallowed by a great fish. Nor do we pause to wonder that God gave Jonah the benefit of being commissioned a second time, after refusing to accept the first challenge.
It sometimes appears that the mission of Biblical interpreters is to cast a spotlight on how flawed many Biblical characters were. Even to point out the many failings of those now considered “giants of faith”
Is that to make today’s disciples look better?
Is it so that our failings don’t seem so terrible?
I’m advocating that, just for a moment, we celebrate Jonah’s effective preaching and maybe even applaud the adventures he experienced in his circuitous journey to Nineveh.  Let’s give him cool points for striding into the middle of a city to proclaim God’s word, a word that wasn’t pleasant to hear if you were a Ninevite.
Jonah did all this even though, from the first time God called him, he was able to predict the outcome. Nevertheless, he put his heart and soul into it and turned around a nation. Isn’t that worth celebrating?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The clue is in the command...

Acts 11:1-18
Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four- footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat. ’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth. ’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane. ’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved. ’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. ’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:34-35
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Earlier this year, when I visited Krakow, we toured Schindler's Factory and had a wonderful guide who explained to us the effects of World War 2 on the population of Poland and Krakow in particular. Her account was illustrated by the various exhibits at the museum that now inhabits the factory building.
The part I found most moving, though, was her account of the years after the war. The time when one might have thought that life would return to some form of normality. But, in fact, life became even more difficult for the residents of Krakow. Continued political oppression saw the university city once populated by academics and artists becoming steadily industrialised.
Relationships that had broken down during war time, were further fractured under a communist regime and oppression of minority groups continued to be a feature of the People's Republic.
In the museum, this was portrayed by inviting visitors to walk across a shifting surface - a spongy, wobbly floor. This instability symbolised the uncertainty and upheaval of the post war years in Poland as everything shifted and was shaken up even more than in the war years, as folk jostled for position, formed and broke relationships in all areas of life, were tossed around and had difficulty knowing which way to turn.
While processing the historical information intellectually it left quite an impact to experience something of that instability physically too.
There had been too much upheaval for folk to simply pick up the pieces and move on.
In Acts, as we explore the early church, we find the early Christian community undergoing a similar seismic shift as folk assume positions of responsibility and as roles are assumed and rules made for their common life together.
It was a whirlwind season of change.
Of discovering life together as a community and forming rules around which that community could exist and grow.
Rules for a community springing up from the example and teaching of Jesus.
And, as if that wasn't radical enough, the community was also being guided and directed by the Holy Spirit.
And so, in our reading this morning we find a huge challenge to some of the rules by which folk lived.
Rules about food and rituals and what can be considered clean and unclean.
As well as who could be considered clean and unclean.
Who was in.
And who should be excluded from this new way of life.
Because the new way of life is based on the teaching of Jesus.
A Teaching that stretched the boundaries.
A Teaching based on love, a love that freed people from rules that sought to contain.
A love that encouraged folk to embrace their new found freedom to make a difference for others.
A teaching based on that passage that we read in John: Love one another.
Although the folk in those early Christian communities were clearly trying to live by that command - they were loving, they looked out for each other, they shared what they had- though they practised that new command that Jesus had given them, they didn't quite go far enough.
Because their community was exclusive.
It was a community of loving and caring and sharing.
But it wasn't open to all.
And that's what we find the new community of believers wrestling with this morning.
Widening the community.
Stretching the limits.
Being open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit that is urging them to contemplate new horizons.
But this is no gentle nudge.
It's full on and urgent.

In The Acts passage we read of a threefold confirmation of the call to extend the gospel to the Gentiles.
This was a huge shift for the early Christian community, pushing back the boundaries to previously inconceivable limits.
A community just getting to grips with being a community - being asked to make room for others - folk with whom they would not ordinarily have associated.
That's a major shift for any community, never mind a community in its infancy as these followers of Jesus were.
But Peter's vision wasn't something they were given the option to think about and pray about, weigh up the pros and cons and then come to a decision.
The challenge, once made, had to be acted on immediately.
And it was a challenge that this early church community embraced, though kicking and screaming.
Guided by Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, this tiny, fledgling community were able to shed years of tradition and culture and embrace a whole new way of living, a radically new way of being.
They were able to look at others whom they'd always considered as too different to belong and to realise that, in Christ, they belonged together.
Because Jesus said: I give you a new commandment - that you love one another.
We cannot underestimate what a shift that was for those early Christians.
To include those they considered unclean because of their practises and customs.
People like you and me in fact.
But it was a shift they were prepared to make in the light of Jesus teaching.

The church today finds itself with the same kind of opportunity to shock the world around.
To continue to demonstrate how radically different it is to be Christian.
To be open and welcome and affirming of those who are different from us.
Those whom God does not exclude.
Can we catch that vision today?
And can we respond as radically as the early church did?
Of course there were those who disputed.
There were those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new notion of community.
But, at the end of the day, they picked up and ran with Jesus' command - to love one another.
They showed that they were followers of Jesus by the way they lived with love for each other.
It all seems very simple, doesn't it?
And yet, right now, we have churches tearing themselves apart over wanting to decide who is in and who is out, who belongs and who should not.
We make the simple extraordinarily complicated.

The love of God comes to each of us unconditionally - and is not exclusive.
How then can we place conditions upon that love and exclude those whom we consider different?
Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May it be so today.

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Sunday, 21 April 2013

New life at the margins

Acts 9:36-43
Peter in Lydda and Joppa
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

We continue, today to take a look at the early church - the book of Acts is full of stories of how the little frightened band of disciples of whom we read in the gospels, emerged from behind their locked door and scattered to spread the good news - with incredible results. Communities formed and grew.
The message spread like wildfire.
And wherever followers of Jesus emerged, a familiar theme runs through all of their life together: The marginalised were included in their circle.
There was always a place for, and more, a search for, those who were consigned to the edges of society - those perhaps not even present on anyone else's radar.
The early church was about the business of inclusion.
And in these few verses from Acts today, we see that reaching out, that embracing the outcast very clearly.
Lets start at the end instead of the beginning.
Int the last verse we read: Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Peter, the apostle stayed with Simon the tanner.
Simon was one of the outcasts of his day.
Because of his work, work that involved him handling smelly animal hides.
In those days, those who had a choice would not choose to work in a tannery.
It was a dirty, smelly job.
Tanneries had to be located well outside towns, because of the stench that came from them.
Even today, tanneries are smelly places to be around.
Drive through Bridge of Weir on certain days - and you can still smell the effects of the tannery there.
At least now, workers are protected by machinery and have facilities to clean up at the end of the day.
Simon, the Tanner, contaminated by the stench of his daily business was regarded with contempt in society because of the effects of his work.
Yet, not only did he find acceptance in the early church community - he was allowed to host one of the apostles.
Following on from the example of Jesus, this community embraced those on the margins, those whom others despised.

As well as considering the company that Peter kept, lets look too at the location of this story. We're told the setting for this story was in Joppa.
Does that ring any bells with you?
Joppa is the place to which Jonah the Old Testament prophet fled when God called him to go and preach to Nineveh.
Peter, too, is confronted by God in that place - but his response is more compliant than Jonah's was.
While he was staying near Joppa, Peter was called to a house where a woman had died, a woman much loved.
Peter went to Joppa responding to God's call and, once he'd done what God asked of him, he stayed in Joppa with Simon the tanner.

The folk to whom Peter was called to minister were also folk on the margins:
Widows who had very little social standing, some of whom were very poor and often overlooked by a society whose laws were supposed to ensure their protection.
It's really touching to read that, when Peter got to the house, the other widows were all there, mourning their loss.
And they were keen to show Peter some of the beautiful things that Dorcas had made .
There is something very special about being admitted to a community in mourning - be that the community of the immediate family or a wider circle of friends.
To hear folks stories, to share folks memories is to tread sacred ground.
To be honoured with the task of somehow bringing those stories and memories together to allow a community to say goodbye is just one of the privileges of ministry.
It involves careful listening.
Sometimes families are very good at sharing their stories.
At other times, those stories have to be gently coaxed out of loved ones.
Where the stories are not remembered or shared, it always proves more difficult to enable loved ones to say their goodbyes.
I'm sure you've all experienced how, even in the sadness, when families get together, there can also be much laughter as they recall good times.
Photographs are brought out.
Families share the things that their loved one accomplished - knitting, crochet, sewing, painting, stories of good works.
Sometimes it can be really hard to keep up - as families move from one story to the next, or as memories come flooding back.
Sometimes everyone speaks at once and it's hard to keep track.
Dorcas was described as "devoted to good works and charity".
A widow, whom the rest of the community wanted to celebrate.
It seems that Peter was faced with everyone talking at once, showing him just some of her works, telling their stories, remembering and celebrating her life.No wonder he felt the need for some quiet to do what God had called him to do.
Peter put all the widows outside for a moment and went in to Tabitha himself.
When he raised Tabitha,Peter called the other widows back into the room to be witnesses to resurrection.
Just like Easter - it was the women who went to the tomb, who first learned the good news.
God makes a habit of revealing wonders to the least likely people.
And this became a theme of the early church - the inclusion of those considered outsiders, sometimes beyond the pale.
In these early manifestations of the church, not only are those on the margins welcomed, they are brought into the centre.
Much is revealed to them and, through them we too learn about the God who brings things to life.
It would seem that, today, we've become so caught up in small things, in internal wranglings that we've lost sight of the God who works at the margins of life and performs miracles with those whom we have written off.
As the church today feels itself under threat, instead of flinging wide the gates, instead of welcoming all, we tighten the rules for inclusion and exclude those in whom we just might glimpse God at work today.
I was involved in discussions this week about how the church might respond to the predicament in which we find ourselves today.
Perceived by many as irrelevant, outdated, exclusive.
The church itself is often consigned to the margins today, considered as having little to say to the world, wielding little influence in our communities.
But that is no bad thing.
For it is at the edges of our communities that we experience the realities of life.
It is there that we experience first hand the stories that are being lived out today: the challenges with which folk grapple every day.
It is no bad thing for the church today to have to live on the edge and to know what that feels like.
And from that place, experience anew the miracles that God is achieving in everyday lives and witness the presence of God in those written off by today's society, those on the margins, those whom the church fails to engage.
A church on the margins is a church interacting with the world and the people that God embraces in love.

Resurrection stories such as the one we read in Acts today, crop up from time to time, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
However we choose to interpret these stories, the notion of the ability to discover new life in all sorts of moments brings a useful focus for our life together in this community.
The hope of resurrection characterises what we are about, characterises our faith in a God who brings new life.
New life is always an option as we journey on in faith, followers of Jesus today.
New life, breathed into our old, familiar patterns.
New life breathed into potential.
New life breathed into possibility.
Resurrection belongs, not to the past but to the present too.
Resurrection occurs all around us, whether we recognise it or not.
We are witnesses to and harbingers of that resurrection.
The main difference between us and those early Christian communities is that we rarely recognise the resurrection that happens in our every day.
And, even when we see it, we fail to speak of it.
Resurrection is not exclusive to the church.
We don't have the monopoly on new life.
The challenge to the church today, is to bear witness to the possibility of resurrection.
To be a people of hope.
To shine a light on those places where resurrection is happening in our communities.
Especially at the fringes, on the margins.

We are challenged as resurrection people to fling wide the gates.
To examine deep within ourselves the people that we consider are beyond the pale.
To think about the many ways we exclude others.
To ask ourselves how and why.

We are challenged, especially from our place on the fringes of society today, to widen our horizons, to embrace those on the margins, to accept that we do not have the monopoly on good news, even on resurrection.
We are challenged to open our eyes and see that God continues to bring resurrection into life today, despite the efforts of the church to contain the miracle of new life and to claim resurrection as an exclusive preserve of the church.

We are challenged to emerge from behind locked doors and live as resurrection people - changed by hope, challenged by joy, suspected of being inclusive.
Practising the life of resurrection that involves human beings in all their brokenness discovering new potential and realising new ambition for the sake of all those on the margins of life today from whom we learn new ways of being God's people this day and every day.
To God be the glory.

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Saturday, 6 April 2013

Changed in community

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

John 20:19-31
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus and Thomas
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
The Purpose of This Book
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

At the Bible Study on Tuesday, that I was lucky enough to be here for, we were sharing the fact that, no matter how many times, we cover different Bible readings, each time, there is something fresh for us to discover, something we have overlooked in the past - or chosen not to see! Each time we open Gods words, God reveals something new.
I love that Ignatian practice of Lectio Divina - where one simply reads or listens to a passage of scripture read through a few times and then meditates on words or phrases that stand out in that moment.
Gods word is a word of surprises.
Let me tell you,that is a very timely reminder for preachers at this time of year. Tired out from our pilgrimage through Lent and our marathon of Holy Week and Easter, its tempting, even in the startling light of Easter Resurrection, to get to this Sunday weary and jaded, with. " Been there,done that, got the T shirt" feel!
Thanks be to God for the ability to be surprised.
So - In these resurrection readings, today, I've been drawn, this time around, to the fact that Thomas is a twin, one of those details I've overlooked before. And, certainly, not much is made of that fact in the gospels - we are simply told, when he is called, that he is Thomas, the twin.
I've always had the feeling that Thomas gets a bad press.
"Doubting Thomas" isn't usually meant as a compliment.
But, I think, what brought it particularly to my attention this time around is that Thomas being a twin, as I am, for me, goes some way to explaining his obtuseness, his reluctance to believe without a personal up close encounter of the risen Jesus.
Now that speaks to me.
While my twin brother was usually content to accept what others told him - while, in our younger days anyway, he always took my word as gospel, I was the more difficult twin.
I was the one who always had to try things for herself, the one who liked to be first, the one who wouldn't simply take the word of another.
There was something about being a twin that made me want to establish my own unique identity. And, in those days, when we were simply known as "the twins", when we were always lumped together, when we were even dressed the same - even though my twin is a brother! I so wanted to be different.
But I was thinking of the whole "twin thing" - the independent, see for myself bit - even before I got to this passage:
As I read the gospel on Easter Sunday morning - of how the women, in Luke's gospel get to the tomb first, but Peter - its Peter the disciple in that story rather than Thomas - Peter doesn't believe until he goes and checks out the empty tomb for himself.
As I read that, I didn't think, as I have often done - typical - they wouldn't take the word of a woman! I didn't think that this year. I thought, instead, mmm - me too - I'd want to go and see for myself!
I was that child that always maintained " I can do it myself"
I was that child who demanded a time and identity for herself - who did not want to be simply "one of the twins".
I was the dominant twin. :)
So, being reminded that Thomas was a twin has set me off on a slightly different track with the gospel story this morning.
Thomas, out doing his own thing when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room. Wonder why he wasn't there?
Did he have to strike out on his own for a while?
Was he out getting some supplies?
Out finding out what was happening, when it would be safe to get on with the work?
Whatever the reason, wherever he was when Jesus appeared, when he got back to be told that he'd missed Jesus, Thomas was not content to simply take the word of the others.
Thomas demands a personal appearance before he will believe.
And so, to a great extent, I identify and empathise with Thomas and his demand: "Unless I see."
Why should he simply take the word of others?
But, as I read the gospel this way today, although I can understand it, it also brings me not a little alarm.
For, how often, do we demand our own experience?
Our own up close and personal encounter?
No second hand accounts for us.
No vicarious living.
No shared community.
We want our own, exclusive appearance of the Risen Christ.
We isolate ourselves from the community through which we are called to serve.
And it seems to me those words that Jesus speaks to Thomas, after he allows Thomas to experience first hand his resurrection, after he has allowed Thomas to touch his wounded flesh.
Those words Jesus speaks:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Perhaps those words are not so much an admonition for Thomas - but an encouragement for us.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We, who have not seen yet who believe, are blessed.
Our journeys to belief are made up of so many different encounters and experiences.
Some of you may well have been privy to a Damascus Road encounter, you may well have met the Risen Christ or been stopped in your tracks by the voice of God.
But for many others, the journey to faith is often, and may well still be, a series of stops and starts, of gradual discovery and gentle confirmations.
The good news is - that however we get there, and however we continue to journey, the Risen Christ calls us blessed!
And, to me, that feels good.
To me, who likes to make things as difficult for myself as I possibly can - still Christ calls me blessed.
However circuitous we make the journey, whatever blind alleys we follow or dirt trials we continue to take, the Risen Christ journeys with us, whether we know it or not, and calls us blessed!
So what difference does that make to us today?
The ones whom the Risen Christ calls blessed, what difference does believing make?
For Peter and the other apostles, of whom we read in Acts, their journey to belief made a completely life changing difference.
They were no longer able to conform to those around them. They simply could not keep silent about their faith.
When asked to keep quiet.
And when questioned why they refused to conform:
.” Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.
...we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
They just couldn't stop witnessing to the Resurrection.
They could not keep quiet.
Peter and the apostles, to whom the risen Christ had appeared, saw themselves as part of the continuing story of resurrection.
They were commissioned by the Risen Christ.
They took that commissioning seriously.
They did not keep it to themselves.
But got out there and continued the story.
And they set the scene for us.
Jesus who blesses us who have not seen also commissions us to be witnesses and invites us to be part of the continuing story.
That means that our witness cannot stop here - but must spill over into our life apart from this place.
Resurrection does not only affect our life together in this place.
Learning from those who have gone before, from those early witnesses to the saints of today, learning from their trials and triumphs, their victories and mistakes, we are called to not only tell but to live out the story in our own words and in our own lives - and, more than that, to write the next chapter.
As you proclaimed last Sunday - He is risen, did you accept, in that proclamation of faith, the commission of the Risen Christ to continue the story - not just telling it, but living it.
Has the Resurrection changed you?
Has it changed me?
That's the challenge for all of us.
To live our lives, in community, changed forever by believing that Christ is risen indeed.
For the glory of God.

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