Category Archives: Sermons

Rebecca: The Other Woman at the Well


This is a story based on John 4:1–30 (the woman at the well) and Genesis 24:34–58 (Rebecca, a wife for Isaac). 

These readings present us with two women (a few thousand years apart). They were very different from each other, but each of them went to fetch water from the well outside her village, and each met a stranger there who transformed her life.

And as I sat with the two of them and contemplated this intersection of their lives, the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met by the well in Samaria, began to tell me her story, and I want to share it with you today. Listen to what she has to say.

My favourite character in the Bible has always been Rebecca. Probably because I was named after her, but I loved her story growing up. We lived in a small village in Samaria. We didn’t have much, and it was always my job to fetch water for the family. We girls from the village would gather round the well and chat for a bit while drawing up the water and filling our jars. It was hard work but we had such fun.

And, of course, I would dream about Rebecca, my namesake.

In my dream, I would come down to the well, and there would be a handsome stranger on a white camel. And he’d ask me for some water. And, of course, I’d say yes and offer to water his camels, too.

Then he’d put a gold ring in my nose and gold bracelets on my arms. He’d ask my father for my hand in marriage and Father would ask me, as Rebecca’s family did, ‘Will you go with this man.’

And I’d say, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’

But, not so he could hear. I wouldn’t want him to think I was desperate. Then he’d whisk me away to his desert kingdom, and I’d become his princess.

But, of course, that never happened. It was just a dream. Instead of a stranger on a white camel, all I got at the well was Sam and his smelly goats and Thomas’s grumpy camels pushing in.

And then, I guess, I grew up. The dreams became a distant memory, and I married Andrew. He didn’t have a white camel or shower me with treasures, but he did have a heart of gold, and I suppose that’s as much as a girl could wish for. And he reminded me of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Rebecca’s husband. Isaac, the gentle.

Like my Andrew, Isaac was quieter and more gentle than the other patriarchs – Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son. Isaac always seemed to let others do things for him. He never seemed to do anything for himself. Even the business of finding a wife was something his father didn’t trust Isaac to do; instead, Abraham sent his servant off to his family up north.

Of course, you can’t blame Isaac. He was bullied and laughed at as a child by his half-brother, Ishmael. And then that terrible, terrible day.

He went on an adventure with his father, Abraham. They were going to make a sacrifice to God together. What child wouldn’t have been excited about that? But, suddenly his father is tying him up and putting him on top of the altar. He is going to be the sacrifice. How do you cope with that? I’m not surprised that he was an emotional wreck and couldn’t make up his own mind about anything. No wonder his father had to send off in search of a wife for him.

And, yes, Rebecca also seems to have manipulated him a bit, and his kids did their own thing. Even his servants weren’t able to stand up for him. Every time they dug a well for him, the servants of the Philistine king, Abimelech, would chase them away. Instead of standing up for themselves, they’d just go and dig another well somewhere else.

That was my Andrew, too. Never standing up for himself; always giving others the right of way. Ah, well. He died far too young. I miss him still.

It was all downhill for me after that. Andrew’s family threw me out of the house, and I had nowhere to go. I drifted back to the village I’d grown up in. I had no family left, and not many options. When Samuel asked me to marry him, I thought of the question they asked Rebecca so long ago: Will you go with this man?

I guess I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed, but he wasn’t like my Andrew. He was coarse and brutal. There was no sorrow when he died a few years later.

And then there was … well, suffice to say, there were five husbands altogether, each about as bad as the other. When the fifth one wanted to move to Sidon, well, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere.

Then I hooked up with Thomas, who was pretty much as lost as I was. Neither of us wanted to get married. Didn’t seem much point.

Of course, that put the uptight noses out of joint. But where were they when I was being brutalised?

So, I didn’t make it to the society weddings and wasn’t welcome around the synagogue. Even the well was a lonely place. I started going in the middle of the day to avoid the constant jibes and sneers of the prim and proper types. It was a lonely few years. But it was all I had.

And then ….
Well, what can I say?
One day, it happened.
My dream came true.

No, it wasn’t a man on a white camel.
But it was a man, and it was at the well.

I’d come to collect water as usual, and there he was, sitting there with a lost look in his eye; sad, perhaps, burdened. He was some sort of Rabbi, but he seemed to be on his own.

He asked me for a drink of water.

Well I got such a shock. Not because of my dream (although I did have a little chuckle to myself). But he was a Jew, and me? Well, I’m a Samaritan and a woman.

Jewish men don’t talk to strange women, even for a drink of water. And for a Jew to talk to a Samaritan woman? Well, that never happens.

And, anyway, he would have known there was something odd about me, fetching water in the heat of the day.

But there he was, against all that was holy, asking me for a drink of water.

I mean, Jews won’t even use our utensils! So, what was he going to drink my water with?

So, I said to him, ‘You’re a Jew. What are you doing asking me for water?’

Then he said the strangest thing. He spoke about God’s gift, and he said if I only knew him, I could ask him for life-giving water.

Oh, oh, I thought. There goes my dream. I’ve got a crazy here.

I should have walked away then. But something kept me. So, I told him that without a bucket he’d have trouble getting any sort of water. Or did he think he was better than our ancestor Jacob who dug the well thousands of years ago?
Sheez, these Jews!

But he wasn’t put off at all. ‘Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again,’ he said. ‘But anyone who drinks my water will never be thirsty again. It will be a spring within you, welling up to eternal life.’

Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, ‘Please, give me that water. Then I’ll never be thirsty, and I’ll never have to come to this hateful well again!’

Then he told me to call my husband.

Ah, here comes the sales pitch, I thought. He’d be in trouble if he tried to negotiate with a woman, so now he needs my husband.

‘I haven’t got one,’ I told him.

What he said next, shook me rigid. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband.’

This was getting personal, so I tried to steer the conversation into a religious debate. These Jews are always so self-righteous about their religion, I knew I’d trip him up.

But, somehow, we weren’t taking about religion. We were talking about God and having a personal relationship with him – being in touch with God instead of doing religious things.

It was exhilarating, but also frightening, as all the old rooms and hidden places of my life seemed to be exposed. But it wasn’t like he was pointing fingers. More like just opening them up and healing them with a gentle touch.

Then we spoke about the Messiah, and I said I longed for him to come, because, surely, the Messiah was the one who would explain all this to us and make it real?

Then he looked at me. And in a calm and gentle voice, he said, ‘I am he.’

Just like that.
And, suddenly, I knew.

If anyone had said to me then, ‘Will you go with this man?’ I would have jumped up and cried, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’ Camel or no camel.

Suddenly, his disciples were with him – they’d been buying bread or something. They didn’t say anything about him talking with a woman.

But I knew what I had to do. I left my jar and ran to the village. I called all the people, who’d ignored me (or worse) most of my life.

‘Come see a man,’ I said. ‘Out by the well. He seems to know everything about us. He told me all I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?’

I must have sounded crazy. I don’t know why they didn’t laugh at me. But they came anyway. And they warmed to him, as I had. They even asked him to stay, which he did for a couple of days – and healing happened.

The village folk began to see in him what I had seen, and they believed as I had done.

I realised, later, that my dream had, indeed, come true.
No, no white camels, and none to ask me, ‘Will you go with this man?’
But it was my own voice calling in the same way: ‘Come see a man ….’

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Whenever I see someone in distress, someone in pain, someone lost or left out as I was, I tell them about Jesus. And I invite them to come to him.

So, I ask you, as they asked the other Rebecca, will you go with this man? Will you walk with Jesus?

Will you open your heart to him, as I did, and let him see the dark places, the scary places, the sad places of your life?

Will you let him bring healing and hope to your broken world? Because that’s what he did for me and my village, just as he did for my name’s sake so long ago, the other woman at the well.

Thank you for listening to my story.

[See also: Rebecca: A Prayer from the Well]

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What’s Your Story: Forgiveness (A Sermon)


[A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent at Prestbury Methodist Church, 2 April 2017]

SCRIPTURE:    Zechariah 7:8–14; Matthew 9:9–13; Colossians 3:8–17

This is the fifth and last in the Heartlines’ series ‘What’s Your Story?’ which we have been following during Lent.

The first week was called ‘The Power of Storytelling’, and Collin introduced us to the Heartlines’ framework for sharing stories: Ask. Listen. Tell. Then he explained the Heartlines’ method for telling our story called ‘The River of Life’. I wonder if you have written your ‘river of life’ story, yet.

On the next three Sundays, we looked at Love and the new commandment of Jesus to love one another, Understanding and how understanding comes from experiencing the world as others experience it and Acceptance and Respect, where Delme reminded us that we were all outside of God’s family, until the love of Christ brought us near.

Today, the subject is Forgiveness.

There are two aspects of forgiveness we are going to look at today. The first is being forgiven and the second is forgiving others.

Being forgiven
I am not talking here about being forgiven by God.

We are forgiven. We know that.

The cross is God’s forgiveness splashed onto the big screen. God, in his loving kindness, taking all the sin in our lives that destroys relationships – our relationships with God, with each other and with ourselves – Jesus taking all of that and dealing with it through his own death. Jesus opening the door into the Kingdom of God for each one of us.

We are forgiven.

That famous verse in John 3:16: ‘For God loved the world (you and me) so much, that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him shall not die but shall have eternal life.’
Paul says in Romans 6:23, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
And in chapter 5:8 ‘But God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! ‘
And in verse 10, ‘We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.’

We are forgiven by God. That forgiveness is the foundation for everything else. We are forgiven, therefore we reach out to others.

So, today it’s not about being forgiven by God. What we are talking about is how we need to be forgiven by others, by those we have hurt and are still hurting. Now that’s much more difficult. It is difficult not just because of the humiliation of having to say you’re sorry and to ask for forgiveness. That is hard. But it is difficult because we don’t always recognise just how we have hurt others and do hurt them.

I’d like to focus on just one way we hurt others without thinking and, sometimes, without even knowing. I want us to think about our language – what we say and how we say it.

You know, the biggest problem with communication (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a formal presentation or a quick word as we pass in the street), the biggest problem is in the ‘decoding’ process. When we have something to say and, whether it’s a presentation to the board or a word to the children, our brains work out what we want to say. We take our thoughts and translate them into words or pictures, which we then convey to the person. And we might do that through a PowerPoint presentation, a WhatsApp message or by talking to them.

Now comes the tricky part. The message has reached the other person or group. And that person has to understand it, has to decode it, interpret it and make sense of what you are saying. And it is tricky, because that person, or that group, uses their entire history to interpret your words. Everything they have ever heard, seen or experienced goes into the interpretation process – including your relationship with that person. Or rheir relationship with people they think are like you.

Let me be controversial for a moment to make it more real. There has been a lot of talk recently about the use of the word ‘monkey’ in talking about people. And I know that a lot of white people have grown up using ‘monkey’ as a term of endearment. ‘Hey, you little monkey.’ But it is a term that, in this country, comes with a whole lot of painful and hurtful baggage.

Now we can say, as I have heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, please. They are so oversensitive.’ But until we have experienced the pain of that word (or any other) being used against us to oppress and to hurt, we dare not call other people oversensitive. We have to hear their pain.

‘But, I didn’t mean anything by it,’ we often say. What we mean by something is not important. We are trying to get a message across that we want others to receive, understand and respond to. If they don’t get the right message, we have a problem. It’s like advertising. If people are getting the wrong message, you have to change your advert. It’s no good wringing your hands and telling everyone, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

Jen grew up with the term ‘silly sausage’ being just about the worst thing her father would say about (for example) a taxi driver who swerved in front of him. I grew up with ‘silly sausage’ being a term of endearment my mother would use. Can you imagine the first time I called my wife a silly sausage!

So, when we talk about being forgiven, it is not enough to confess to God and ask for his forgiveness. We, as Christians, need to be humble enough to recognise that we contribute to the pain that others experience. And while that includes people of different race or gender, of religion or culture, it also includes our children and parents, our spouses and our friends our domestic workers or work colleagues.

We need to find ways to listen more, to listen to the stories of others that will help us understand what our words and actions might mean to others.

Forgiveness is not just about being forgiven by God; it is about recognising that we need to be forgiven by others day by day and about seeking out their forgiveness.

Forgiving others
The second aspect of forgiveness I want us to consider today is forgiving others.

Of course, we know that we have to forgive others. We are reminded every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Jesus said, ‘If you do not forgive the sins of others, neither will you be forgiven.’ We can’t horde forgiveness. If we are not passing it on, we can’t receive it.

So, we know we have to forgive others. But how do we get that right?

One of the ways I have approached it is to remind myself by repeating that word throughout the day: ‘Forgive.’ A kind of mantra for every situation:

  • When something goes wrong – forgive.
  • The neighbour revs his motorbike – forgive!
  • The kids are annoying – forgive!
  • My wife is late – forgive!
  • Yes, even when the taxi swerves in front of you – forgive.’

But as I thought about it this week, I realised that there is a comforting little message that is perhaps getting through to us. Well, to me, anyway. You are probably much more loving than I am. You see, if I’m really angry, and I say ‘Forgive!’ I am not letting go of my negative thoughts; I’m not changing my attitude towards the person.

What I am often saying is, ‘He’s an idiot, but I forgive him.’
‘She’s irresponsible, but I forgive her.’
‘They are disgraceful, but I forgive!’

You see what we are doing here. Well, not you, of course. It’s probably just me.

I am saying, ‘They are terrible, but I am a good Christian.’ The focus is on how bad others are and how good I am.

I mean, why do I have to forgive people? It’s because they are bad; they have done something wrong. So, when I focus on forgiving others, there is a danger that I may be encouraging myself to think how wonderful I am compared with them.

But Jen read an article to me last week (Witness, Sat, 25 March 2017) about three-year-old Prince George of Great Britain going to school. And what struck us is that the school’s website says that its most important rule is ‘be kind’.

Be kind.

Now, think about that for a moment. What if ‘be kind’ became our most important rule. What if, instead of talking about love, we started to act out our love by being kind. So, ‘be kind’ becomes our mantra, something we say to ourselves throughout the day. Think how that would begin to transform our relationships. And isn’t transforming relationships what our faith is all about?

Now don’t try to second guess this being kind. Don’t start saying to yourself, ‘Well, the kind thing to do here would be to discipline him, to make her face the consequences, to….’ Just be kind.

‘Well, if they are going to benefit from this kindness thing, then I need to explain to them….’ Just be kind; be kind.

Picture the scene. There I am behind some scary taxi driver or some idiot driving erratically – probably on their cell phone! – and I grip the wheel and say to myself, ‘Forgive! Forgive!!’

I haven’t learned anything; I haven’t changed anything.

But, what if I relax my grip a little and start saying, ‘Be kind; be kind.’ What if I look for ways to be kind. What if I start saying ‘be kind’ before I respond to my child, my parents, my spouse, the teller, my employees?

What will happen is that we will begin to let go of the failures of others and focus on what we can do to make a difference in the world, to listen to stories, to create relationships, to encourage rather than tear down.

Just for today, let go of the negative, and speak words of encouragement.

Be kind.

Prayer: click here

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Holy Week Service – Matthew 24


Our theme at Prestbury Methodist Church this year is the teaching of Jesus during Holy Week as recorded by Matthew. I was privileged to preach on Tuesday evening on Matthew 24.

SCRIPTURE:    Matthew 24:1-14; 42-44

We sang Stuart Townend’s song just now, ‘I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom’.

Well, the disciples wanted to boast. They boasted in the glorious architecture of the Temple: ‘Isn’t it magnificent!’ they cried. The Romans might be in charge, but this is the real centre of power. This is what really matters.

And it was important. Whatever the world might throw at them, however difficult it might be to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay the rent, if the Temple was there, if Jerusalem was secure, there would always be hope.

And we are no different. We worry about the Guptas, we worry about Nkandla, we worry about inflation and interest rates, we worry about unemployment and how it will affect our children and grandchildren. But while we are complaining that this is bad, that’s bad and the whole world is corrupt, we are constantly looking for something to hold on to, something that will give us a sense of security, just as the disciples found in the Temple building. If we could just fix this; if we could just settle that; if there was less corruption, more tolerance, there would be hope.

Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, ‘You may think that these stones, this wish list, this fix will keep you safe, but none of these things will last; not a single stone will be left in its place.’

None of the things we put our faith in, none of the things that give us hope, none of them really matter, none of them is permanent. And what happens to our faith and to our hope when they are gone?

If our relationship with God depends on the Temple, what happens when it is pulled down? If our confidence and trust in God depends on our health or our security or our comfort, what happens when our health deteriorates, our security is threatened, our comfort is taken away?

The disciples were horrified at the idea that the Temple might not be as permanent or as important as they thought. So they cried out, ‘When, Lord? When?’

We need to know, so that we can plan, we can prepare, we can get ready. If we know when it will happen, we will live our lives differently; we will plan differently, we will be ready.

Every now and again, of course, someone comes along bragging that they have worked it out. They know when it’s going to happen, and they give us the date. The end is not simply near, it is set for the 17th of April, just after tea.

Now we know. We can stop working, stop shopping, stop planning. We can go up onto a mountain, down by a stream, into the wilderness or into the Temple. We can worship without distraction, meditate without worry, pray without fear.

So, tell us, Lord; when will it be?

But Jesus is emphatic: no one knows, and no one is going to know.

He does warn us, however, that the end will not come easily. The process will be like the pains of childbirth: the reward is magnificent, but you are not going to enjoy the journey. There will be war and famine and earthquakes. Our own comfort and wellbeing will be threatened. We will be arrested, punished and put to death because of our faith. People will hate us, simply because we trust in Jesus.

Jesus warns us about these things not so that we can work out which war, which famine, which earthquake is the final one. He even tells us that these things ‘do not mean that the end has come.’ No, he warns us so that we know what to expect and are not taken by surprise.

No matter what happens, Jesus is saying, hold on to your trust and faith in God, not in fine buildings, good health, security systems or healthy pensions. Many will give up their faith. But if we hold onto our faith, we will continue to live in the security of God’s presence, no matter how bad it gets. Don’t give up.

But ever since Jesus said these words we have been trying to work out which earthquake he was talking about, which famine, which war would announce the end. (I can just see the angels rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Which part of “no one knows, and no one is going to know” don’t you understand?)

But Jesus does tell one thing that will happen just before the end. We tend to ignore it. It has nothing to do with earthquakes and war and stars falling from the sky. Jesus says: ‘(The) Good News about the Kingdom will be preached through all the world for a witness to all people; and then the end will come.’

The end is not heralded by wars or famine or pain and suffering. Those things are going to happen. They will always be around us. Whether they will be any worse towards the end, Jesus doesn’t say. But instead of counting wars and famine and earthquakes, we should be looking for ways to share the Good News with people around us.

So when Jesus says, ‘You must always be ready because the Son of Man will come … when you are not expecting him’, he isn’t saying have your bags packed ready for heaven. He’s telling us always to be ready to share our faith, always to live as if the Kingdom of God is already among us. It’s not crime and corruption that matter or even our health and security. Persecution and death may be our lot. What really matters is that the Gospel is proclaimed, God’s way is demonstrated.

What has eternal significance is when our lives, what we say and what we do, begin to proclaim God’s love and faithfulness to a hurting world; when our choices and our reactions demonstrate that ‘normal’ responses, our ‘normal’ way of life, are not the only way to live – there is a better way.

In the chaos and the struggle of our lives, we are challenged to rise above the normal, to find ways to be better than normal; to stop taking offence at what we see around us, at what others are doing or saying.

That’s a phrase that challenged Jen and me in our quiet time recently: ‘Don’t take offence.’ Because we do. We take offence at what others do or fail to do; we take offence at what others say; we take offence at other drivers. It’s a normal reaction. But Christ calls us to be better than normal, to offer an alternative response, to demonstrate what the Good News looks like and what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

How about we start this Holy Week.
They are planning to put Jesus to death. There are signs it’s going to happen this week. But Jesus doesn’t want us to take offence – to scream and shout and draw our swords. He wants the love that drives him to the cross to drive our every interaction, our every relationship, our every decision; that his love should drive us this Holy week and every week, come earthquakes, war, famine or persecution, until he comes again.

‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’

Or as Graham Kendrick writes:

‘So let us learn how to serve, And in our lives enthrone Him;
Each other’s needs to prefer, For it is Christ we’re serving.’

[We closed with Christine Jerrett’s beautiful prayer found here: Faithful, promise-keeping God]

 

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How do we live in such a world? A sermon


[A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany at Prestbury Methodist Church, 25 January 2015]

SCRIPTURE:    1 Samuel 3:1–20; 1 Corinthians 6:12–20; John 1:43–51

How do we, as Christians, respond to the Paris massacre at Charlie Hebdo or the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria?

We may be protected somewhat from violent extremism, but even here we have xenophobia, racism, intolerance, poverty, corruption, you name it. We live in an angry, desperate and violent society. Look at our roads….

How do we live in such a world? Are we, in fact, any different from society around us?

Paul tells us we are the body of Christ. What does that mean? What difference does it make to our responses, to the way we live? If the community who follows Jesus provides an alternative to the ways of the world, how alternative are we? What do we do differently? Do we project something that is better and more desirable than the way people are living now?

I want to suggest three things that stood out for me in the three readings. Three ways in which we can be different.

1. LISTEN
First, from the book of Samuel, we learn to listen.

How often do you get into a conversation with someone where you sense that the person is really listening to you? Listening doesn’t come naturally to us. We are so busy, for one thing. But we also feel vulnerable, so we listen with half an ear while the rest of us is trying to think of a response that will keep us safe.

And we live in a society and in a world that is so divided along crisscrossing lines of race and gender, of religion and politics, of poverty and power. So we don’t listen to what people say anymore. We ask who is speaking, then we know if we need to listen or not.

Samuel had to learn to listen to a different voice, to the voice of God. And God had a tough message for Eli.

Eli’s sons
Eli’s sons had been abusing their position as sons of the trusted priest for years. God had been talking to Eli about it for years, too. But Eli wasn’t listening. Perhaps he thought it was just the exuberance of youth; they’d soon grow up and become responsible. Perhaps he thought it wasn’t really so bad – just a little bit here and there. After all, no one is perfect.

And perhaps it wasn’t God who had spoken to him, anyway. After all, God hadn’t done much speaking to people lately, and he hadn’t appeared in visions. Perhaps Eli had imagined it. But perhaps the visions were rare, not because God didn’t have something to say, but because people weren’t listening.

Sometimes we treat God like the politicians on the front page. We know what he wants to say, and it’s all bad news and condemnation. So we’d rather turn to the sports or the comics.

But God’s message to Eli wasn’t his message to Israel as a whole. Eli and his family were a blockage to the message of God for Israel. God couldn’t get through. So he said, either let me through or get out of my way and I will work with Samuel.

Samuel began to listen
What happened when Samuel began to listen?

‘As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and made come true everything that Samuel said.’ (verse 19)

Samuel’s life, his words and actions, began to reflect God’s activity in the life of Israel.

‘So all the people of Israel, from one end of the country to the other, knew that Samuel was indeed a prophet of the LORD.’ (verse 20)

God was speaking to them again.

The gift we can give to our broken and divided world, to our broken and struggling families, to our fear filled and divided communities: we can offer an ear that is tuned to the heart of God. An ear that can hear God saying, I love this world so much; I love this community so much; I love this family so much; I love you so much.

Like Samuel, we can learn to listen to God, who has so much to say to us that we so desperately need to hear.

2. REFLECTION
The second gift we can give the world is reflection. We can reflect before we act.

Not everything is good for you
In 1 Cor 6 we read about those who say, ‘I can do anything I like.’
‘Yes,’ Paul says. ‘Of course you can. In Christ we are free. There are no rules, no laws. You can do anything you like. BUT … not everything is good for you.’

‘You can eat anything you like, too. But some things will make you very uncomfortable; some things will even kill you.’
You can do anything you like, but not everything is good for you; not everything is good for your family, not everything is good for your neighbour.

‘Yes,’ we can say to the cartoonists. ‘You can draw what you like.’ And to the journalist, ‘Yes, you can write what you like.’ BUT, not everything is good for you. Not everything is good for your neighbour. Not everything is good for the world.

Do we want to live in a world where everyone does whatever they like and says what they like, just because they can? And if everyone else is speeding on the road, then I will, too; and if everyone else is cutting in front of everyone else, then I will, too – why should I be left behind; I also have an important meeting.

Or we can learn to reflect before we act and before we speak. We can ask the question, ‘What would love look like here, in this relationship, in this conversation, in this activity, in this community?

Slavery
We can do anything, but Paul said: ‘I’m not going to do anything that will make me its slave.’

And believe me, we don’t just become slaves to alcohol and drugs and gambling. Perhaps more insidious is that we become slaves to irritation; we become slaves to negativity. We become slaves to fear, so that we never reflect and speak the truth to our partners, our families, our communities. We fail to take action because we are afraid of what might happen.

But we don’t escape such slavery without reflection. Without learning to create a gap between actions and our reactions:
Someone does something – we get irritated.
Someone says something – we get angry.
Something happens – we are afraid.

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl says we need to get into that gap. When something happens, we need to stop and reflect before we respond. And as we learn to do that, the gap gets wider and we empower ourselves to make new decisions, to take new actions that can transform our lives and the lives of those we interact with.

I can do anything I like. Yes. But what would love look like right now?

I have a sign in my office: ‘How can I make it easy for you to do great work?’
And what if, before we react to people around us, we were to ask ourselves: ‘How can I make you feel good about yourself?’
Imagine how different our interactions with spouse, children, employees might be.

It’s so easy to criticise, to be negative, to be irritable, to put people down. And we become slaves to those reactions. But what if I were to stop and ask how can I make you feel good about yourself?

Wouldn’t that transform our relationships?
Wouldn’t that transform our families?
Wouldn’t that transform our communities and places of work?

What can we do that is different?
We can listen to the heart of God who loves this world he has created so much.
We can learn to reflect; to consider how love would act, what love would say in each situation and every conversation.

3. BRING PEOPLE TO JESUS
The third thing we can do is found in Phillip’s action in John 1. We can bring people to Jesus.

Phillip said to Nathanael, ‘We have found the one whom Moses wrote about…. He is Jesus … from Nazareth.’

When people ask, ‘What’s happened to you? You used to be so irritable; you used to be so angry; you used to be so fearful,’ we can tell them, ‘We have found the one who makes all the difference. It is Jesus.’

If there is anything good in me – and there is a whole lot of bad stuff that still needs to be fixed; the work has only just begun. But if there is anything good in here, you are looking at Jesus. It isn’t me. It’s what Jesus is doing. If you like it, he can do the same for you

How do we make a difference in this world? How do we live differently?

We can listen. We listen to the one who has a message of love and of healing and of hope.
We can reflect. We can ask how would love respond? How can I make it easy for you to do great work? How can I make you feel good about yourself?
And we can point people to Jesus.

 

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Grace in the wilderness


[A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 22 June 2014]

SCRIPTURE:    Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

The Christian calendar
Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost; it is also the beginning of a new season in the Christian calendar.

Is that particularly important? Does it really matter? And more to the point, why should we or the world care. We have much more pressing issues: desperate unemployment, HIV/AIDS and the evils of poverty and crime. The Christian message of love and hope, and of salvation itself, is lost in the noise and turmoil, what do the seasons of the church matter?

When Jesus spoke about proclaiming the message from the rooftops, he wasn’t talking about the Christian calendar. But the themes and the readings set down for each Sunday do help us understand who we are and what we have to say to the world.

During the past six months, the Bible readings in the lectionary have led us through the great events of the New Testament: the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit.

Those are the dramatic events we know and love and sing about.

Ordinary time
But now we enter a long season lasting five months, where we simply number the Sundays after Pentecost all the way to Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Catholics call this ‘ordinary (or numbered) time’.

During these weeks, instead of looking at the great events of Jesus life, we look at the way Jesus lived his life as we follow his work and teaching through one of the Gospels.

John van der Laar says this a time for ‘a change in our focus from God’s Story to our story – how we will now live our story differently because of who God is and what God has done; how our lives will become one with God’s story as we seek to follow Jesus.’ (Changing Seasons – So What?’ Sacredise)

But it’s not the first-century Jesus we are trying to follow. It is Jesus living here and now in this poverty-stricken, AIDS-smitten, educationally-challenged, wounded and weeping country of ours.

Because this is where we are called to live – not within these four walls, but out there, in the world, today.

Matthew 10
And today’s readings? Well, in Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his disciples for the mission field, and he tells them (and us) what following him will involve. And it doesn’t make easy reading.

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!’ we might say. ‘I wasn’t planning on getting killed.’
‘But if you want to follow me,’ Jesus will tell us, ‘you must lay down your life and take up your cross.’
Because the cross is not just a heavy burden, it’s an instrument of torturous death. If you take up your cross, you’re going to die.

So, living a Jesus life here in 21st century Africa means we are going to be sworn at, by people who really mean it, and it means giving up our lives. The end is not 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.

‘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? What about Jesus dying in our place?
What about the power of the Holy Spirit, of the fruit of love and joy and peace?
Where is the Good News in all of this?

No wonder John van der Laar said when he read this passage, ‘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.’

In other words, Jesus is saying that, no matter what happens here, good or bad, we are claimed by God. We are his.

Life is not easy
Life is not easy, for anyone. That’s not the promise. And for those of us who want to follow Jesus, there will be additional burdens. As we reach out to the poor, as we sit next those in pain, as we take up the struggles of those who have no voice, as we challenge those in power, we will risk the dangers Jesus warned us about.

Yes, we pray for peace. Yes, we pray for healing. Yes, we pray for mercy. Yes, we pray for justice. But these things are in God’s hands, not ours. They don’t belong to us as our right. And they don’t arrive in the form of a world cruise or a tropical island trip. We don’t win the lotto and give up the daily grind. That’s where the world finds its peace and joy and comfort – for a while, anyway.

In the middle of the darkness
For you and me, much more meaningful peace and joy and love are to be found not by running away but in the middle of the darkness and pain and suffering.

I’m pretty sure I could randomly point to people here, and they would tell us how they have found God to be most real and closest to them, when the darkness was the greatest, the pain the hardest to bear, the mountain impossible to climb.

Genesis 21
Let’s look at the Genesis reading for a moment. Genesis 21 is not Sarah and Abraham’s finest hour. It is a very dark moment.

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. God promised them so much, but like us, they would take 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’s already nearly 90. So they agree that he should sleep with Sarah’s maid Hagar and get his heir that way. We can’t point fingers. In thousands of years, we still don’t understand sex, and still we haven’t learned that there is no such thing as a one-night stand. The repercussions (baby or not) are long lasting.

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 Sarah’s life had been hell. 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.

How many of you have been there, or are there now? Who do you know in the same boat?

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

God opened her eyes
And God provides. Not that God brought banquet, or a tea trolley. He didn’t even bring a well. In verse 19: ‘God opened her eyes.’ She 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 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 successful. Not the ‘happy ever after’ that Hollywood pretends money can buy. But peace and the presence of God and a promise still being fulfilled 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 this church community; 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
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. We are here to help people find a well. To be a well to the people around us. To support, to sustain, to share the hope we have in Jesus.

The message for us and for the world around us is not that all will be bright and sunny.  But that God hears. God hears.

God hears
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. I can’t prove that to you, but there are people here who have discovered its truth for themselves and are living it out today.

As Chrystal Rodli, put it:

‘If we define success as having engaged in an honest pursuit of God’s heart, and having endeavoured to sacrificially give of ourselves and our resources (to further) the kingdom of God, then there is nothing that can stop us from being successful. The world may insult us, mock us, fight us, and hate us, but it cannot stop us.’
[‘Babylon the Great: in or out’, Treasure Contained]

Which is just what Paul said in Romans 8:38, ‘Nothing can separate us from God’s love.’ Nothing.

Amen

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A sermon for Pentecost Sunday – 8 June 2014


SCRIPTURE:    Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19–23

In I Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the various gifts of the Spirit. And out of this chapter and similar passages in Romans and elsewhere, a large industry has developed to help us discover our gifts. Fill out this form; take this quiz; answer these questions, and you will discover the gifts the Spirit has given you.

Assessment industry
Of course it is all part of the massive assessment industry. We have interest tests to determine what career we should pursue, aptitude tests to determine cognitive abilities, psychometric tests to check all sorts of things from IQ and EQ to management potential and job fit.

Now these are very useful tools in the business world. But the problem is that they all work on the basis of averages. The majority of sales people fit into this pattern. The majority of great managers fit this profile. Your profile suggests that you will have trouble in this area.

Such assessments are very helpful. But if you want your business, your NGO, your school, to be better than ordinary, then you want your employees to be better than ‘normal’. You don’t want ordinary employees that fit the ordinary profile; you want to find some extraordinary ones.

An apprentice
Let me give you a couple of examples from different ends of the employment spectrum. We were employing apprentices, and we settled on one particular person who simply didn’t fit the normal boxes for selection as an apprentice. She was a woman (a first in that position), ‘old’ for an apprentice and married. However she flew through every interview we had and impressed all the males who were interviewing her.

Trial period
We took her on for a trial period of three months to assess her before spending money sending her to college. During that time I sent her for formal assessments including numeracy and technical ability tests. The main test used by the industry has five areas of assessment, and she failed. I said to the managers that the test strongly suggested that she would fail her college exams. If we took her on and sent her to college, we would be wasting a huge amount of money, and a lot of our time, as well as about a year of her life.

The overwhelming response from the factory floor, from supervisors to senior management was, ‘We want her.’ She had made such an impression in the couple of months she had been with us, that they were all rooting for her. We decided to take the chance.

College
She went to college, struggled a bit, did a bit better and then sat her first exams. Her mother died the day before she wrote her first paper. And I thought, well that’s that. She might have pulled through by some miracle, but that chance has gone. However, the family held back the funeral; she continued to write that week, and passed comfortably. When I left the organisation, she was still flying and she was an asset to the company.  She didn’t fit the norm, but if you want your business to fly, employ someone better than normal.

A general manager
In an NGO I’m involved with we were looking for a General Manager to run the show. It’s an educational NGO so educational boxes had to be ticked; but it’s an NGO, so fundraising is critical. The person we liked didn’t have fundraising experience. We decided to take the risk. And you know what we have discovered over the past ten years? If your organisation is flying, if your organisation is doing extraordinary things, people want to be part of it. Through her passion for the children and her passion for education she has been able to draw an extraordinary team around her creating extraordinary results that (so far) donors have not been able to resist.

Better than normal
Our very normal concern for the very normal area of fundraising could not foresee that her extraordinary mix of passion and abilities, which wouldn’t fit onto a nice normal graph, would enable her to be better than normal and to achieve extraordinary results.

Paul says something similar in his message to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit. And he says the same thing to the Romans and the Ephesians and anyone else he writes to about the gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Focus on the Spirit
The confusion over the gifts and the work of the Spirit that has led to so much anger and bitterness in the Church doesn’t come from Paul. Paul is very clear when he writes about the Spirit. We are the ones who have confused matters. Paul, you see, doesn’t focus on the gifts. Paul focusses on the Spirit who gives the gifts; the Spirit who equips the people of God.

We focus on the gifts
We, on the other hand, focus on the gifts. We think it’s the gifts that are important. (It’s certainly the more spectacular thing; and we love the spectacular.) So we look at what everyone else has got and what everyone else is doing, and we assess ourselves against we think is the ‘norm’; what we think we ought to look like if we have the Spirit. Do we fit the pattern? Do we fit the graph? Are we ‘normal’?

But the work of the Spirit is not normal; it doesn’t fit into a pattern that can be measured and sorted and bottled and charted on a graph.

God is doing extraordinary things through his extraordinary Spirit working through ordinary people. In Acts 2, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:

‘(17) I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your young men will see visions, and your old men will have dreams. (18) Yes, even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will proclaim my message. (19) I will perform miracles in the sky above and wonders on the earth below. There will be blood, fire, and thick smoke; (20) the sun will be darkened, and the moon will turn red as blood, before the great and glorious Day of the Lord comes.  (21) And then, whoever calls out to the Lord for help will be saved.’

John van de Laar writes about a new understanding of the book of Acts. He says: ‘(Re-reading Acts) has convinced me that the essence of Pentecost is not the outpouring of the Spirit – as if the Spirit was somehow absent before this day – but the simple, profound changes in the lives of ordinary people whose ordinary lives changed their cities and their world.’

Make us better than normal
You see, it’s not about how many prophets there are or preachers or tongues or this gift or that. But will we welcome the Spirit of God to do whatever he wants to do in us and through us? Not give us this gift or that, but to make us better than normal in our everyday lives, and to do his extraordinary work in us and through us, day after day after day.

Measure
And we can actually measure this extraordinary work of God in our lives. Oh no, not on a graph based on the gifts we have or the power of our preaching or how often we speak in tongues. Not even by the number of people we have converted or how long we spend on our knees.

Paul made it clear in Galatians 5: the measure of the Spirit’s work in our lives and in the life of our community is how much the fruit of the Spirit can be seen in us and experienced in our life together. Is love what we experience here? Is there joy and peace? Are we more patient with each other (and with taxi drivers)? Is there kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness? Is there less anger and more self-control?

1 Corinthians 14:12, ‘Since you are eager to have the gifts of the Spirit, you must try above everything else to make greater use of those which help to build up the church.’

And again, in Ephesians 4:12, Paul says the Lord gives these gifts ‘to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ.’

Love one another
You see, Jesus told us how the world would be saved, but we tend to ignore him, or not to take him too seriously. Jesus said that the way Christians relate to each other will determine the way the world reacts to our Saviour. (‘By your love for one another ….’  ‘Father, make them one ….’)

It is when the people of God hate each other and fight each other and deride each other, that the world turns its back on the church and on the God we supposedly serve. And it is when the people of God love one another, care for one another and do extraordinary things together that the world looks on in wonder and says, ‘See how they love one another.’

‘What does it mean?’
And then they will go on to ask the question they asked the disciples on the first Christian Pentecost: ‘What does it mean?’

Of course, they might go on to ask, ‘Are they drunk?’ But that’s okay. They are just trying to fit us into the patterns they know and recognise.

In fact, I would rather they asked us if we were drunk. Because I’m very much afraid that the communities around the church today are more likely to ask, ‘Are they alive?’

What do you do?
My friends, let me ask you. What is it that you do that supports the people of God, that encourages individuals, that helps someone who is struggling to take one more step? I encourage you to pray tonight for God to give you an opportunity this week to do just that – whatever it is that you do so well for him already.

What gets in the way?
And then a second prayer: what is it that you do that gets in the way of God’s love in your life and in your community? Are you prone to criticise people? Is there irritation and anger in you? Do you put people down, gossip or fail to notice people. Normal human reactions, I know. But I encourage you to pray with me tonight for God to give us strength this week to say no to whatever it is that divides or hurts or destroys. Just this week, for God to help you and me to be better than normal in the service of the Kingdom.

[Prayer to follow]

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