Are you the one? A prayer for Advent 3


Lord we do feel as if life has been held hostage.
Around every corner, there seems to be another obstacle —
Barriers that stand in our way, trip us up and challenge our faith.

Lord we confess that our hope is not fully in you,
Our faith is not in your loving power at work in the world.

We so often put our faith elsewhere.
We put our hope in a new president,
In the activities of politicians,
In the work of scientists overcoming Covid-19,
In the improvement of the economy and our finances.

But while we pray for all these things,
Only you can save us, give us hope and bring us safely through.
Remind us, Lord, that your gift and our goal
is not health and happiness in this world,
It is not wealth and peace and security.

Your gift is eternal life, a place in the family of God;
You give us the gift of love and caring relationships,
The gift of discovering Christ at work in the world,
Finding the presence of God in the lives of people around us,
And bringing hope to desert places.

Though battered and bruised by the challenges we face,
Though afraid of what the next day might bring,
Though weary and desperate for rest,
Give us eyes to see you, a heart to receive you and courage to share our joy.

Help us to challenge our own and our neighbour’s fears
With the sure and certain hope that God is at work,
That those who hold life hostage are being defeated,
And that flowers are blooming even in our wilderness.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

A prayer for Sunday 13 December 2020
To listen to the sermon and the prayer, click here

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Are we nearly there yet? A sermon for Advent 3


Are you the one? John’s disciples asked it of Jesus, and we ask it of our day-to-day ‘heroes’ we hope will set us free — will this President fix the economy (and Covid-19)? Will this Lotto ticket win? But there is only One, and he promises that ‘whatever it is that holds life hostage is about to be defeated.’

Prepared for the Scottsville Methodist Fellowship, Pietermaritzburg, 13 December 2020 (Third Sunday in Advent)

For the prayer from the end of the message, see here

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The Greatest Commandment: A prayer for Pentecost 23 (25 October 2020)


See also: The Greatest Commandment: A sermon for Pentecost 23

Let us pray

Lord, your love for us is revealed in so many practical ways.
You touched the leper, welcomed the outcast,
blessed the children and responded to a mother’s cry.
You loved even those who rejected you,
and you gave your life for every one of our sins.
And you call us to love.
You declare that our love for others is your love in action.

Lord, we confess that we limit your love.
We love those we like
And we turn away from those we fear,
those who challenge us, those who oppose us.
We limit our loving to what we think we can cope with,
have time for and can afford and that will not overwhelm us.

Yet we have the grace of God in our hearts
and the resources of heaven at our disposal.
Teach us, Lord, to love bravely, to love more widely
and to love more passionately.

We pray for our Covid-19 world:
For those finding a way forward
and for those caring for the sick and quarantined,
for vaccines and treatment programmes,
for those who have lost loved ones
and those who have lost jobs and homes and their sense of security.

We pray for America as it goes into one of the most challenging of elections on 3 November.
And we pray for South Africa as we look for a way forward from the corruption, anger and conflicts that dominate our lives.

Help us to love so that the world will discover a better way to live.

In Jesus’s name,
Amen

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The Greatest Commandment: A sermon for Pentecost 23 (25 October 2020)


Readings: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

Being remembered

What are you going to leave behind?
And I don’t mean houses and bank balances. But how will you be remembered?

Of course, we don’t like to answer that question, because we know all too well what some people in our lives are going to remember. So, we prefer to answer a slightly different question: ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ No doubt we’ve all got ideas about that.

But that suggests another question, doesn’t it?
What are we doing about it? How are we living and engaging with people so that they will remember us as we want to be remembered?
What really matters? What should we be focussing on?

Moses

Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years. He brought them to the banks of the Jordon river and the edge of the promised land. Over ‘there’ was home.
But not for Moses. His job was to get them there. The task of conquering and settling the land was for the next generation led by Joshua.

How would Moses be remembered? He was certainly remembered as the one who brought them out of slavery and into a covenant relationship with God. But what would they do with that legacy? Would they remain faithful to the covenant, or would they abandon all that Moses had taught them?

Perhaps Moses wondered about that as he gazed across at the promised land.

How will you and I be remembered?

The greatest commandment

Jesus tells us that the best thing to be remembered for is loving God and loving others.

The Sadducees had failed to trip Jesus up, so the Pharisees wanted to have a go. One of their number asked Jesus:
‘Which is the greatest commandment in the law?’

We often ask about the best thing to do.
‘What’s the best decision I can make in this situation?’
‘What should I study first for my exams?’
‘What’s the best car to buy?’

And in Pharisee school, the students and their tutors were always arguing about which commandment was the most important. Hence the question to Jesus:
‘Which is the greatest commandment?’

Now we might have different opinions about that.

If you were to ask a parent which is the greatest, most important command they might say, ‘Honour your father and mother, that you may live a long life.’

A judge would say, ‘Do not give false testimony.’ And your boss: ‘Do not steal.’

Your neighbour might point to the tenth commandment: ‘Do not covet your neighbour’s wife, house or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

And, with churches closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, perhaps church treasurers might say that the most important command is, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into the House of the Lord.’

Love God and love your neighbour

When Jesus was asked, he did not choose one of the Ten Command­ments. It is as if he were telling the Pharisees, and us:
‘These ten commandments cannot be split up. You can’t pick and choose. One is not more important than the other.’

‘The greatest command is found in Deuteronomy 6:5, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Then he said, ‘The second is like it (Leviticus 19:18): “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
‘The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on (can be understood in the light of) these two commandments.’

If you want to know what is right and wrong, what you should or shouldn’t do in a particular situation, you could check against the Ten Commandments, or you could check through the list of 613 commandments the rabbinic tradition held to. But Jesus said that we should rather ask, ‘Will this action or attitude be an expression of my love for God or for my neighbour?’

Whose son is he?

Then Jesus asked the Pharisees a question of his own:
‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

Of course, ‘whose son is he?’ was a question that had been asked before about Jesus:
In Mark 6 and Luke 4, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and he preached in the synagogue. The people said: ‘But, isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph …? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’‘Whose son is this?’ And they rejected him.

And the way Jesus answers his own question suggests that where we come from, our family background or where we live, or even what we have done or failed to do, is not particularly important. What matters is how we live: how we relate to God and how we relate to others.

Rules

None of us is any good at sticking to the rules.

The Psalmist says, ‘There is no one who does good, not even one.’ (Psalm 53:3)
And Paul writes: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)

It doesn’t matter whether we take the Ten Commandments or the 613 from the rabbis, or any other list of dos and don’ts. We are going to fail. And if that is how we are remembered, our friends will say, ‘He kept 527 of the commandments.’
While our enemies will say, ‘He failed 86 of them.’

But is that what really matters?
Jesus says, ‘No.’

How much better to say of someone, ‘She didn’t always get it right, but you could see her love for God, shining in her face.’
Or ‘He wasn’t a saint, but you knew that everything he did, he did because he really loved people.’

Jesus makes it clear that the rule that holds everything together, that demands our absolute attention is ‘Love God’, and tied up so closely with it that they become one thing: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

‘Love your neighbour, not as somebody who is different from you, not as someone who is separate from you; love your neighbour as if they were you.’

Rules are about what I can do and what I can’t do.
Love isn’t about me at all. Love is about what God wants and what my neighbour wants.

Love matters

Loving God means we put aside our lives and become involved with what God is doing. And Jesus makes it clear that our love for God and our involvement in his work can only be expressed in our love for others.

He said it again in the upper room in John 13: he gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another. He said, ‘By your love for one another, the world will know that you are my disciples.’
And later he prayed, ‘that they might be one, so that the world will believe.’
In his first letter, John made it even more clear: ‘How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brothers and sisters whom you have seen?’

Friends, there are many things we as Christians can do in the world to make the world a better place. But if we do not love each other, if we do not find a way to work together, we will not be doing the work of God.

We will be doing good things, certainly, but we will not be living as Christ followers. What we do will not turn the world upside down. What we do, however great, however important, will not bring people into the Kingdom. It is how we do it, how we live and how we love, that will transform our neighbourhoods, our communities and our world.

When we make Christianity more about rules, what we are allowed and not allowed to do, we burden ourselves with guilt because of our many failures. And we dare not let anyone know, because everyone else seems so perfect.

Masks

So, we put on masks, then no one will know what we are really like. Not the Covid-19 masks that just mask our face, but those that mask our nature, that cover our failure.

Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, tends to be one big rollercoaster of health, happiness and all-round success. Very much like the way we present ourselves in church, where we keep smiling and pretending all is well.

One writer put it: ‘Sometimes, church is the last place where people feel free to be themselves. They cover up with Sunday clothes and Sunday smiles.’ [Sarah Young (2004), Jesus Calling, October 19]

How can we love each other if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know whether the person we are engaging with is a real person or just a façade?

Barriers

We create so many barriers between us: Race, gender, age, culture, wealth, where we live, even how we worship. We use these things to divide us, to help us decide who we like and who we will mix with and listen to.

Our differences are not the problem. God has given us our differences as a gift to enrich our lives and the world in which we live.

The problem is that we have chiselled our differences into the concrete walls we build between us. We might not know quite what we believe, but we know what we don’t believe and who we don’t believe and what we don’t like and what we won’t put up with.

When we hear about the confrontation at Senekal or protests around the country, it is easy to take sides. Based on our experiences, our preferences, and which side of the wall we are on, we assume that we know who is right and who was wrong.

Your neighbour needs you

But Jesus says, ‘Your neighbour needs you.’
Our neighbour on the other side of that concrete wall needs us. And it doesn’t matter whether it is our wall or their wall, our neighbour needs our love. Not our wisdom, not our clever remarks, not our solutions, and not our opinions. Our neighbour needs our love.

But we are afraid of what is on the other side of that wall. So, we start asking the questions that the opponents of Jesus asked him, like:

‘Who is my neighbour?’
‘Which is the greatest commandment? What should I be doing first? What’s the most important thing?’

And the answer Jesus gives us reminds me of a question Phillip Yancy refers to in one of his books: ‘What would grace look like now.’

As we peer over the concrete wall between us and our neighbour, between us and our children, our spouse, our colleague, what would love look like. How can I offer grace?

And if we are not sure what the loving thing to do might be, perhaps we will find inspiration in a basket of fruit, which is always well received: ‘The fruit of the Spirit,’ Paul tells us, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22-23)

Pick one and offer it to your neighbour today.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.’

Amen

For the prayer, see: The Greatest Commandment: A prayer for Pentecost 23

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God hears in the wilderness


SCRIPTURE: Psalm 86:1-10; Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39

Happy Fathers’ Day.

I’m sorry, fathers, but you know how it is. Mothers get all the love in Mothers’ Day sermons; fathers usually get the lectures.

Mothers are told how wonderful they are, and the sermons are addressed to everyone else, telling them how to love their mothers and be like their mothers. Fathers, however, get told how they could be, and how they should be, better fathers. I’m not saying we don’t need it, I’m just sayin’.

Part of the problem is that so much is expected of fathers. I’m not suggesting for a moment that mothers have it easy — I wouldn’t dare! But fathers are expected to stand tall, win their battles, and provide food for their families. Of course, it’s our own fault. It’s a man’s world, and we have made it that way. We actually like being in charge and telling others what to do. But it comes with a price, and the price, I would suggest, is loneliness and even fear — especially fear of failure.

Emotions
I envy Jen and her friends. They share from the heart the most trivial and the most intense. It doesn’t matter if it makes them laugh or cry, that’s ok.

We men get emotional, too, of course. Just watch us at a sporting event when our team is about to win or is beaten by a foul.  We’ll laugh and even cry on each other’s shoulders. But, apart from that, we’re very careful about which emotions we stir up. Sadly, it’s most often the destructive emotions like frustration and anger we feel more comfortable with.

But if the world tells you as you are growing up that men don’t cry, then the positive, caring emotions become a bit suspect. And our heroes don’t help either.

Heroes
Heroes like Louis L’Amour’s cowboys I grew up with and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne are big, strong and confident men, able to look after themselves and fix things.

And then there are others like The Famous Five and Harry Potter who are very different types of hero. They are the nerds, if you like, who make good in spite of the physical odds against them. Clever, courageous and very brave.

But the message is the same: you have to win. Whether you outbox him or outfox him, you have to win your battles or, somehow, you’re not quite the man you ought to be.

Biblical heroes
Biblical heroes are very different. For a book full of heroes of the faith, the Bible is remarkably frank about their weaknesses and failures. And their failure is often tragic. When they try to take charge, they mess up badly. But when they admit their utter dependence on God, winning happens. Although, ‘winning’ might not always be quite what was expected.

Perhaps God is telling us that life is not about winning, about being successful, it’s about relationships. Fatherhood is not about providing for a family or leading a family; it’s about being a family.

When we focus on winning, on achieving our goals, then relationships suffer, and people are left behind. It’s been there from the very beginning, in Abraham and Sarah, this first family in the faith. Our story of Hagar and Ishmael was one of the lowest moments in Abraham and Sarah’s life together.

But let’s start with our Matthew passage.

Matthew 10
In Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his disciples for the mission field, and he tells them (and us) what following him will involve. And it’s not for the fainthearted.

Jesus says that people will swear at us — and they’ll mean it. Then, as if to comfort us, Jesus says, ‘But don’t worry about them. What can they do to you? They can only kill you.’
‘Oh! I wasn’t planning on getting killed.’
‘But if you want to follow me,’ Jesus goes on, ‘you must lay down your life and take up your cross.’
And the cross is not just a heavy burden or a shiny pendant, it’s an instrument of torturous death. Taking up our cross means preparing to die.

So, living a Jesus life doesn’t mean a nice comfortable seat in church and a friendly Bible study. Far from it. Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword. Families and friendships will be torn apart. Your enemy isn’t the devil, he tells us; your enemy will be among your family and friends. And we know that we find the enemy all too often inside ourselves.

‘This isn’t what I signed up for’
What happened?

What about all the ‘peace and goodwill’ the angels sang about at Christmas?
What about the warm fuzzy feelings the Magi experienced when they gathered around the baby?
What about the love poured out on the cross and Jesus dying in our place?
What about the power of the Holy Spirit, of the fruit of love, joy and peace?
Where is the Good News in all of this?

John van der Laar wrote about this passage, and he said, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’. [‘I Didn’t Sign Up For This’, Sacredise]

A two-a-penny sparrow

But that’s not all Jesus says in Matthew 10. He also tells us that not even a two-a-penny sparrow is out of God’s sight and care. And he even knows how many hairs are left on your head. And, what’s more, ‘if you tell the world you belong to me,’ Jesus says. ‘I will do the same for you before my Father in heaven.’

‘This one belongs to me,’ he’ll say. ‘That one is mine.’

No matter what happens, all hell might be breaking loose around us, but we are claimed by God. Our relationship with God is secure.

In the middle of the darkness
Life is not easy, for anyone. That’s not the promise.

The world thinks that peace and joy are found in easy living, a world cruise or winning the lotto. And, while those would be nice, much more meaningful peace and joy are to be found not by running away but in the middle of the darkness and pain and suffering.

There are very many of you listening to this message who could tell us how you have found God to be most real and closest to you, when the darkness was the greatest, the pain the hardest to bear, the mountain impossible to climb.

It’s not that God wants these things for us, but they are part of life, and it is in the middle of our messy lives that God connects with us and we find our peace, and true success. And it is in the middle of our messy lives that God’s heroes are made. Not by escaping the pain, but by consistently choosing, in every situation, to be better than normal.

Genesis 21
And that brings us back to our Abraham story.

Sarah and Abraham were never perfect examples of faith and saintliness. But God chose this broken, struggling couple and enabled them to become better than normal in critical moments of their lives because their greatest desire was to walk with God.

But they sure got it wrong at times. And Genesis 21 is perhaps the darkest chapter in Sarah and Abraham’s life. God promised them so much, but like us, they took matters into their own hands and hurt themselves and others in the process.

Abraham and Hagar
Among other things, they decided to help God with his plan to give Abraham an heir. After all, time’s marching on. Abe is already nearly 90. So, they agree that he should sleep with Sarah’s maid Hagar and get his heir that way. And so, Ishmael was born.

Well, when Sarah finally had her own son, Isaac, the true heir, all the bitterness and jealousy of the past ten years or so began to emerge and be dumped on Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Hagar and Ishmael thrown out
Finally, Sarah succeeds in having Hagar and Ishmael thrown out. But don’t blame Sarah. Abraham was no saint in this matter, and if we read their story, Sarah’s life had been miserable. Be that as it may, Hagar is out in the wilderness with just enough food and water to take them out of sight but not enough to survive.

And when it was all gone, Hagar left Ishmael under a bush because she couldn’t bear to watch him die.

But God…
And then it happened. One of those, ‘But God,’ moments we come across so often in the Bible. They were dying; this was the end; they couldn’t take any more. Friends, how many of you have been there, or are there now? Who do you know in the same boat?

Hagar and Ishmael were finished, BUT… God heard the boy crying.

Of course he did! Ismael was named for this moment. Ishmael means God hears. And God heard.

As one writer put it:

  • God hears, even when we are alone in the wilderness
  • God hears, even when we don’t know what to say to God
  • God hears, even when the tension of living remains unresolved
  • God hears

(Dawn Chesser, ‘Preaching Notes’, General Board of Discipleship)

God opened her eyes
And God provides. Not that God brought a banquet, or even a tea trolley. ‘God (simply) opened her eyes.’ (v 19) Hagar was able to see what was hidden by her pain and her tears. She could see the well, and as she drank, she began to see the way forward.

But here’s the thing, they never left the wilderness. Terrible though it may seem, God didn’t rescue them from the wilderness. He helped them find a way to live in the wilderness, to live through the rejection and hate, to survive and prosper. Not what the world calls prospering. Not the ‘happy ever after’ that Hollywood pretends is our right. But peace and the presence of God and a promise still being fulfilled in Ishmael’s descendants today.

There are people around us, like Hagar, desperate to find a well that will see them through, that will sustain them, that will give them hope. There are people in our church communities; people in our neighbourhood; people at work and in our families. They are within touching distance of us, a phone call away.

Called to be a well
Our job isn’t to tell people where they are going wrong:
‘Well, you know, Hagar, if you hadn’t been so rude to Sarah, you wouldn’t be here today.’

No, our job isn’t to tell people where they are going wrong or even to tell them what to do. We are here to help them find a well. To be a well for people around us. To support, to sustain, to share the hope we have in Jesus.

Jesus warns us that the journey will be tough and thankless. It’s not that we are trying to die, though that might happen. We are not looking for abuse, though that might come our way. Because our hope is not that all will be bright and sunny.  But that God hears.

God hears
And so, our task begins when, like Hagar, we cry out to God. Because God hears you and me and the people around us as we cry to him in our own pain and for the pain of others. And we discover that his presence is worth far more than worldly wealth and peace.

Friends, cry out to God in your pain, in your fear, through your tears, and discover that God hears.

Cry out to God for those whose lives and livelihood have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, so that they might discover that God hears.

Cry out to God for those who have been crushed by racism and neglect, who have been humiliated or ignored for too long. Cry to God for the women and children, victims of violence. Cry out to God, so that they, too, might discover the God who hears.

But friends, cry out to God, also, so that our ears might be unblocked, and we might become the well that people around us need, reminding us all that he who loves the sparrow loves us even more, and he invites us into relationship with him and with each other.

Amen

Let us pray…
(Link to the prayer here)

 

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God hears and hearing God: A prayer for 21 June 2020


 

Prestbury Methodist Church

Let us pray

Lord our creator God,
You allow us to call you Father, our parent.
We also claim the title ourselves,
Yet we fall far short of the ideal and practice of parenthood.

Forgive us for our failures,
Forgive us fathers, especially, for the ways in which we have given fatherhood a bad name;
For our abuse of power and our fear of love;
For our criticism, our negativity, our controlling ways.
Forgive us when we have destroyed or contributed to the destruction of a family.

You are the God who hears,
and we live in a world desperate to be heard.
There are cries for lives and for livelihoods lost,
for the violence that has erupted in our homes and across the globe.
There are cries of pain and anguish and fear.

Our loving Father,
As you hear us, your people,
So, help us hear the cries of those around us.
Help us to be wells filled with your compassion, bringing grace and mercy and hope.

In the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray together:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory
For ever and ever.

Amen

This prayer follows the sermon for this Sunday, which can be found here

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