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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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The spirit of Easter: A sermon for Easter 2


Easter 2 – Freedom Day

SCRIPTURE:    Acts 2:14a, 22–32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3–9; John 20:19–31

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.

Today is the second Sunday of Easter; the day Jesus appeared again to his disciples in the upper room, and in particular, to Thomas.

Today is, of course, also Freedom Day (South Africa’s 20th ‘birthday’). I think that South Africans in 1994 had a lot in common with those who were around Jesus.

Change
The difficulty that the Jews had with Jesus – whether they were part of the establishment, or Zealots working against the status quo or the disciples themselves – the problem they had didn’t lie with Jesus, but with what they expected from their Messiah: what he should look like, how they expected him act, what he would teach.

That the Messiah would change the status quo was pretty much a given, whatever party you belonged to. But to what extent, and how ruthlessly was up for grabs. Much the same as South Africa in the early 90s. Apartheid had to go. That was a given for everyone, except for a few diehard denialists. But how it was to go and what would take its place was very much under discussion (to put it politely). Continue reading

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Elijah and the widow of Zarephath: A sermon


English: Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the W...

English: Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the Widow of Zarephath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week Debs reminded us that God loves us.

Which is really is all we as preachers have to say. God loves you. That’s it. But what does it mean? God’s unconditional love for us means two things. Debs spoke about the one last week, and I want to speak about the other tonight.

God loves our neighbour
Debs said there is nothing you can do to stop God loving you. Nothing. Now, if that is true it means that there is also nothing your neighbour and my neighbour can do to stop God loving them; there is nothing your child can do to stop God loving him or her. There is nothing your irritating brother, your aggressive boss, your worst enemy can do to stop God loving them, nothing. There’s nothing your spouse or even your ex-spouse can do, nothing even the bullies in your child’s class can do, or your son-in-law or daughter-in-law can do.

Not even the stuff we hate about them; not even the really sinful stuff, nothing. God still loves them.

And then he says to you and to me, “Go and do likewise.” “Love your neighbour,” he says. “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Love, rather than belief
The fact that our faith is about love, rather than belief, means that Christianity is primarily about relationships rather than practices. Christianity has failed in the world, more often than not, when we have tried to change people’s beliefs and practices before introducing them to the startling, life-changing truth of a God who loves them.

Relationships are messy
And relationships are messy. God knows that. He has chosen to work with the mess of our relationships rather than wave a magic wand. Most of the time things don’t get sorted out instantly. There are difficult people in our lives and broken relationships where you and I may not be able (for now) to bring God’s love. We may be too hurt, too broken, too badly damaged to help these folk, who are perhaps closest to us, to help them recognise God’s love.

Don’t beat yourself
Please, don’t believe those who tell you that you are the only one who can bring your husband, your child, your parents or your boss to Christ; that it’s your job, and if you don’t do it, God will hold you accountable.

That’s not how God works. As Jesus himself said in Luke 4, there were countless widows in Israel at the time of Elijah, but he wasn’t called to minister to any of them. God sent Elijah way off, down to the coast to Sidon, to a widow in the town of Zarephath.

Don’t beat yourself because of the people you find it difficult to love, impossible to transform. Celebrate and enjoy and let the Spirit of God flow through you to those God has enabled you to love. Because you have a fantastic story to tell, a wonderful journey to share, however difficult it’s been: the story of one who loves you and who has shared your journey through joys and sorrows, through days filled with chocolate and sunshine, as well as those filled with rain and Brussels sprouts.

Elijah and the widow
Our readings explain something of how God works.

Elijah was sent by God, in the middle of a severe three-year famine, to Sidon, on the coast, to a widow in the town of Zarephath. God had something to teach the widow, and something to teach Elijah. It was the widow’s turn first.

“I have commanded a widow”
When God sent Elijah to Zarephath, God told him, “I have commanded a widow who lives there to feed you.” But we hear nothing about that command. The widow doesn’t refer to it. She doesn’t say to Elijah, “About time. God said you were coming. I’ve been waiting.”

What happened? I suspect that she had been praying for a while about her desperate shortage of food, and the only verses that kept popping into her head were ones like, “Feed the hungry,” and, “Love your neighbour.” And she thought to herself. “Yeah, right. I can’t even feed my son and myself. I’m afraid my neighbour and your prophet and all the others, are going to have to look after themselves.”

Elijah arrived
Then Elijah arrived asking for bread. And it’s Elijah! It’s not a local prophet; not one of the missionaries her church has been praying for. It’s a prophet from Israel, of all places—way inland. And what’s he doing here in the middle of a drought, coming to eat our food and take our jobs—blooming foreigner.

So the widow says to Elijah, “Sorry mate. You came too late. I’ve got no bread left, only enough ingredients to make a last loaf for my son and me, then we die.”

“Oh, no,” says Elijah.  “Let me phone the care team. We can set up a roster and bring you meals.” No?

Perhaps he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Please, let me pray for you.” No?

Well, I don’t think any of us would have dared say what Elijah actually said. I think most of us would have said to ourselves, “Oops, must be the wrong widow,” and gone looking for another one with some food to spare.

Elijah’s outrageous request
What Elijah said was outrageous, unreasonable, absurd even.

“No, problem,” He said. “Go ahead, make your last meal. But just make a small loaf for me first; then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son.”

Hello? Elijah? I don’t think you quite grasp the situation here. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I mean, what part of “our last meal before we starve to death,” don’t you understand?

But Elijah carried on. He said, “The LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil before the day that I, the LORD, send rain.’ ”

The widow could easily have said, “It’s all very well for the God of Israel to say that, but we’re not in Israel. This is Sidon.” But she didn’t. She went and did the preposterous thing Elijah told her to do. And the miracle happened. Neither the flour nor the jar of oil ran out.

A fabulous gift, or a difficult lesson?
Fantastic. Amazing. Flour and oil to see them through to the end of the drought. What a fabulous gift.

Well… I don’t know. Perhaps not so much.

You see, she didn’t get a dozen bags of flour and litres of olive oil. She didn’t get the cell-phone number of the warehouse so she could SMS when supplies got low. Just a promise.

You realise what that meant? It meant that from that day on, until the end of the drought, every meal she prepared was her last. Every day, she would look into the almost empty bowl and the nearly empty jar, and ask whether God would be faithful to her one more day. And every day she would take the little that was left, make some food for her foreign guest (and who knows who else she learned to feed), and then prepare a last meal for her son and herself with what was left.

A daily discovery of God
The widow learned to serve, and she learned to pray. She began a daily discovery of a God who provides; a daily relationship with him. And that’s what God is all about: our relationship with him. No magic; not belief systems, but love; not proper practices, but relationships. Messy, slow, difficult, caring, beautiful relationships. And that’s something to get excited about.

Now it’s Elijah’s turn
But God wasn’t finished with them yet. And now it’s Elijah’s turn.

A little later, we are told, the widow’s son died. She was distraught. “Why did you come here and take my son’s life?” she said to Elijah. “We could have died together when we had no food. Now, I’m alive and he’s gone.”
Or, as The Message puts it, “Why did you ever show up here in the first place — a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?”

Well, that wasn’t part of the script for Elijah. This wasn’t a “Go to a widow in Zarephath. I’ve instructed her to feed you.” What is God doing? He provides food, but takes a life?

Elijah’s prayer
There is nothing Elijah can do except pray. So Elijah prays. And how he prays. You and I are not likely to pray this type of prayer too often.
“O LORD my God, why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow? She has been kind enough to take care of me, and now you kill her son!” Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and prayed, “O LORD my God, restore this child to life!”

Did God kill the widow’s son as Elijah suggests? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t. You see it’s not Elijah’s words that matter, or even his understanding. It’s his passion that God cares about; and his fundamental belief in God’s love and in God’s work of restoring relationships.

Restoring relationships
This is not about bringing people back to life; this is not about extending life here on earth. It’s about restoring relationships.

Elijah said to God, “why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow?” Not “to the son”, but to the widow, to the mother.

When Jesus saw the grieving widow of Nain we read that “his heart was filled with pity for her.” And he restored the son to his mother. He restored the relationship that was broken, that had broken her heart.

Something to get excited about
Friends, God loves your neighbour and mine. Sinful, unhappy, lost, lonely, desperate; trying all sorts of different ways to survive, to find happiness. God loves them all. And of all the desperate and stupid things they are doing, nothing will stop God loving them.

Can you wonder that the crowd was excited by what Jesus did, that the widow was excited by what Elijah did? Isn’t God’s way of restoring relationships something to get excited about?

Instead of trying to fix people, and telling them how to live, couldn’t we just stop for a moment and celebrate the fact that God loves them, right now, messy and messed up as they may be?

A God who brings even the worst of us into relationship with himself; a God who breaks down barriers and restores our relationships with each other. Let’s get excited about that. Who knows what God will do  next.

Something to shout about
In a country like ours, where life is so cheap, where violence is the norm for resolving disputes, where anger is the first resort even for us, whether on the telephone, in our cars or in the bank queue; isn’t God’s way of love and of building relationships something we and our country need to hear about.

So where are you, where am I going to start? Where is God sending us? Is there a widow, and orphan, a broken relationship, a broken life; an unforgiven sin, an unloved sinner? Let’s learn to pray with Elijah’s passion, “Lord, our God, restore this person to life!”

A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday, 9 June 2013, followed by the prayer Elijah and the widow of Zarephath: A Prayer

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Discipleship: A journey into vulnerability


DiscipleshipA sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on Epiphany Sunday, 6 January 2013

Want and ought
Before the year runs away with us, I want you to think for a moment: what would you like to do this year? This isn’t about resolutions; this is about what you want to do. Imagine that your boss and your bank manager had no say in the matter at all, what would you like to do, to see, to achieve? What do you want to do?

OK, we’ve had a chance to dream. Now let’s get real. Bring your boss and your bank manager back into the picture, and all those other people who run your life for you. And we ask perhaps a more realistic question, what do you have to do this year? What’s the big thing you ought to achieve?

Emotions
My guess is that for most of us the answers to the two questions are very different from each other. And if that is so, then how we feel about the two will also be very different.

How do you feel, what are your emotions, when you think about some of the things you want to do? And how do you feel, what are some of your emotions, when you think about the things you have to do; the things you ought to do this year?

I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty heavy when I think about my have-to-do list; but I get warm and fuzzy feelings thinking about things I want to do

Preaching Series
Today is Epiphany Sunday when we celebrate God’s revelation of himself to the world as a human being in Jesus Christ. We usually focus particularly on the coming of the wise men, because, through them, Jesus is revealed to the wider world beyond the borders of Palestine.

But today we also begin a five-week preaching series on discipleship, to prepare us for our Covenant Service on 3 February. And our theme for today is the Call to Discipleship.

Call versus cost
It’s important that we begin a series on discipleship with the call. All too often it’s the cost that comes to mind. When we think about discipleship, it’s very difficult not to think about hard work, discipline, and ultimately, doing things we would rather not do, that we really struggle to do.

Discipleship, therefore, usually gets added to the list of things we have to do. We think of it as one of the things we ought to do, rather than something we want to do. I’m sure that, like me, you have spoken about discipleship for so long, thought about it, discussed it in Bible Studies and prayed about it. And, like me, you just feel that you haven’t actually done it yet—or not as much as you should. Perhaps this year, perhaps this month of preparation before the Covenant Service, is when we will push ourselves to do it properly.

Epiphany
But I want to suggest that we may have got it wrong. Epiphany is a celebration of God revealing himself to us. Discipleship is not us trying to find God; God has come looking for us. God seeks us out; he enters into relationship with his creation: with you and me, with our neighbours and with all that he has made.

An offer they could not refuse
So, when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t tell them what they ought to do, he didn’t add to the burdens of their lives; he made them an offer; a crazy offer, let it be said, but it was an offer they could not refuse. Well, of course, they could have said no; they could have turned him down. But the offer was just too enticing and, in the end, they just couldn’t say no. They discovered they wanted this more than anything else in life.

Even sceptical Nathanael (“What good can come out of Nazareth?”—that Nathanael), even he couldn’t refuse the offer when it came. It’s what Jesus said about the treasure hidden in the field. When the man found it, he knew it was worth more than everything he owned. So, what did he do? He covered it up and planted potatoes. No, of course not; he sold everything he had, and he bought the field. And the man who found the pearl beyond price? He sold everything and bought the pearl. Why? Because he knew he wanted it more than anything else. Nothing else was so important.

Call before cost
So, we begin not with the cost of discipleship, but with the call; with the discovery of the pearl, if you like. Because if you are not convinced that this thing called discipleship, this walk with Jesus, is the only way you want to live, is the only way you can possibly live, is more important to you than anything else, you will never afford the cost, you will never stick to the discipline.

What is it that you want to do more than anything else? Pearls might not do it for you.  When Jesus called the fishermen (Matthew 4:18–22), he said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you.” He didn’t ask them to become lawyers or theologians. He asked them to let him translate their passion for fish into a passion for people.

Right direction
Fishing might not do it for you either, but we are not looking tonight at the specifics of each person’s call; we are just at the beginning of our journey. More important is to make sure we are looking in the right direction, that we understand what the call looks like, so that we can recognise it when it comes.

Success or fruitful­ness
Henri Nouwen asks the question that I think shows us where to look. He asks, “What’s more important, success or fruitful­ness?”

It’s an important question, because from every side we are coerced into believing that success is way the most important thing in life. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with images of success, and success is constantly demanded of us. If you are not successful already, you should be striving for success. And the Christian faith is not immune from the success dream. Discipleship itself is more often than not packaged as a quest for “success” 

Success is not real
The problem with success is that it’s not real. It’s a goal we can never reach. It’s like money: you never quite have enough. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is not a goal; it’s not something we can strive for; it’s not something we can claim. Fruitfulness is a journey. And depending on how you journey, fruit will come—or it won’t. 

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with success; with setting goals and committing to them. Successful people are essential for the economy, for food security, for the supply of water. And I do not believe that God wants any of us to be mediocre in the way we approach life, or to throw away our talents and waste them. But we must never imagine that achieving our goals, making a success of our lives, is all that God wants for us; or that, through success, we will become great in the kingdom of God.

Weakness and vulnerability
Love
Nouwen says that success comes from power, control and respectability. (Again, nothing wrong with those things used well.) But fruitfulness is founded on weakness and vulnerability. He says, “Community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows from touching one another’s wounds.” [Bread for the Journey, January 4]

If success is all we are willing to share with each other, we will remain individuals, separated from each other. It’s my success, or your success. We might look on with awe and be very pleased for one another, but we are looking on. And there is always the fear, “What if I fail next time?”

But when we share our brokenness, there is no pretence, no hierarchy; we are drawn towards one another, and community is born. And as we draw close enough to touch each other’s wounds, as we trust each other’s touch, nothing remains hidden, there are no masks and we grow towards intimacy. Fruitfulness is founded on weakness and vulnerability. 

Silver Linings Playback
We watched the movie, Silver Linings Playback last week. Pat Solitano, the main character who has bipolar disorder, spends most of the movie refusing to be vulnerable. “It’s not my fault. Let me just explain.” Only when he begins to allow himself to be vulnerable, only as he begins to allow the vulnerability of others to touch him, does he begin to discover how precious life can be: how much beauty and wonder there is.

Relationships
Again and again, we discover that it’s in relationships that life really happens. We are most fruitful (you could say we are most alive) in relationships, rather than in our determined drive towards success. And it is into relationships that Jesus calls his disciples in every age.

The most important commandment is “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour.”

We are not called into a schedule of dos and don’ts, a checklist of achievements:

  • We’ve increased our Quiet Time to 35 minutes a day; we’re on our way.
  • We’ve got our tithe up to 9 percent; we’re nearly there.

That’s not the pearl beyond price, a treasure you want more than all you have. We are called, my friends, into relationships; a journey towards fruitfulness.

Jesus spelled it out again. He said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Importance of love
I’m not sure that we Christians really understand how important love is. I’m not sure that we really grasp that love, loving our neighbour and loving each other, is the only thing that really matters to God. Even when we do think about love, we focus on our love for God and we tend to miss the point that love for God and love for neighbour cannot be separated. Love for God can only truly be expressed in our love for neighbour.

Hell, not heaven
Part of our difficulty is that we are looking in the wrong direction. We often think of discipleship as our journey to heaven. But Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we will be following him not to heaven but to a cross. Jesus didn’t go to heaven for us; he went to hell—literally, with our sins. Now he says, effectively, go and do likewise: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Paul tells us in Philippians 2, that although Jesus had the very nature of God, although all of heaven was laid out before him, he did not try to become more like God or hold onto his godness. “Instead (verse 7), he gave up all he had. . . . He became like a human being. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to his death on the cross.”

Calcutta
Roland McGregor, an American Methodist minister who writes a weekly email on the lectionary readings, put it this way.

“How children grow up,” he writes. “It seems only yesterday he was a baby in the manger. He takes after his father. But, he is trying his best to be a human being. Strange, God trying to become a human being while human beings try to become God. We are like ships passing in the night.

‘Hey! Wasn’t that God we just passed going the other way?’

Wouldn’t it be a shock to get to heaven, and God wasn’t there; look back, and he’s in Calcutta (or Khayelitsha or Phayiphini). ‘Wait! We could have been in Calcutta.’”

“Indeed,” McGregor says. And he quotes Revelation 21:3, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is (not in heaven) the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…’”

Call to be neighbour
Discipleship is not a march to heaven, nor is it a list of things to achieve. Discipleship is a call to fruitfulness, not successfulness, to vulnerability, not power. Discipleship is a call to be neighbour, whoever and wherever your neighbour might be. And the question the disciple asks of God is not, what can I do for you today, or even, how can I be a better disciple? The question the disciple asks every day, in every situation is what would love look like, how do I express love, in this relationship, in this moment, in this place?

Sandy Hook: We Choose Love
Let me leave you with this from Newtown, Connecticut, where the survivors of last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, went back to school this week.

The memorials (to the dead) are gone, replaced by signs reading, “We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.” The banner at Town Hall reads, “Together We Birth a Culture of Peace.”

John Woodall, a psychiatrist who lives in Newtown and has worked on various trauma response programs, praised the school’s and the community’s response to the tragedy.

“It’s almost as if this horrible event stripped people of the (pretence) that usually keeps people separate from each other,” he said. “The respect and kindness among people has been remarkable. You might think the words ‘Newtown student,’ like ‘Columbine student,’ would bring to mind kids who are traumatized, psychological casualties. But we’re determined to have ‘Newtown student’ mean something different — to become a role model for the best of humanity — for showing that light can come out of darkness.”

“We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.”

And you and me? We are Christ’s disciples. We choose love.

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Preaching and Storytelling


I have often tried to put my passion for preaching into words without much success.  I want to say something about preaching Gospel in contrast to preaching Law—something I feel very strongly about.  I want to say something about the work of the Preacher being different from the work of the Teacher—something else I feel very strongly about.  Richard Jensen (American Lutheran theologian, teacher, preacher) has put the missing something into words and I recommend his book, Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-literate Age (1995)

Two things were significant for me in this book.  The first was his understanding of preaching; there is a chapter on the theology of preaching which helped clarify my own thinking on the subject.  The second was his call for us to rediscover the art of storytelling—to fill the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

Theology of Preaching

I am wary of preaching law.  Most people (those who are listening to our preaching at least) know they have failed.  They just don’t know what to do about it or where to turn.  Law preaching tends to be either another round of condemnation leaving the listeners without hope, or some sort of motivational talk: Seven Steps to Spiritual Perfection.

Jensen says, “The law always kills.”  But most of our preaching on law “doesn’t kill; it just wounds people.” “Cheap law” he calls it; the counterpart of what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”.  And if we are only wounded, all we need is little of that cheap grace.  With just a little bit of help from God, in other words, I will be able to improve my life and all will be well.

“Costly law, in contrast, really kills.  It leaves me without hope in the world.  I respond to cheap law with the vow that I will be a better person.  I respond to costly law with a deep cry for help.”  Sinners slain by the law long for “a word that sets them free; that forgives their sins; that gives them resurrection life.  That’s what good preaching does!  It gives people life.  It announces, proclaims, life.”

Preaching is a saving event.  What we have to say—our ideas—are not nearly as important as what God wants to say and do.  The goal is not to transfer my words and ideas into the listener’s mind but to allow the Spirit of God to act in the life of the preacher and the hearer during the preaching event.

A Post-Literate World

Jensen’s main focus is on thinking and preaching in story.  He writes about the earlier shift from oral communication to the written word, and the shift today from print to electronic communication.

In an oral culture the communication is with the ear.  In a written culture the eye is used for reading; sounds are not important.  The transition from oral to written culture affected our preaching.  The words on a page can all be seen at once and can be revisited, dissected, and rearranged.  We can organise the words into a hierarchical structure of ideas.  So we turn the ideas into three points and try to help our congregation understand what we have so carefully formulated.

Jesus communicated the reality of the Kingdom of God in the form of stories:

  • The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seed on the ground.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field.

But, in the world of print, we tend to organise Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom of God into a series of ideas: “The Kingdom of God has six characteristics.”

Thinking in Story

In today’s electronic world it is not the ear or the eye alone but a variety of senses that are massaged simultaneously, along with our emotions.

Educationalists and psychologists today would agree with Jensen when he urges preachers to engage more of the senses.  They would also agree that storytelling is more effective than the sharing of ideas neatly packaged.

It’s a bit scary, I must admit.  When I preach ideas, I’m trying to change your mind; I’m trying to get you to understand our relationship with God the way I have come to understand it.  And ideally, at the end of my sermon, you will say: “I understand what you are saying; I understand something new about God and what he wants to do in my life and in the world.”  It’s all very measurable.  But when we hear a story we may end up interpreting it very differently from each other; as we are drawn in, God’s Spirit begins his transforming work and the storyteller has little or no control.

Scary or not, it can have exciting consequences.  Jensen tells of having preached a story-sermon at a seminary.  It was just the story and when the story ended he said, “Amen” and sat down.

“Two days later a very bright student came to my office to tell me that this form of preaching didn’t work.  He and another student had discussed the text for two hours the day before and could not agree on what my open-ended story meant.

“‘Let me get this straight,’ I said.  ‘I preach a sermon on this text which led you and your friend to have a two-hour discussion of the text, and you reckon it doesn’t work?’”

If you are struggling with the organising of ideas into “three points and a poem” then this book is well worth reading.  I particularly like the idea of filling the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

What about you?  Have you had any experience of storytelling from the pulpit?

See also:

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2nd Sunday of Advent: Our God is Coming


A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 4 December 2011, 2nd Sunday of Advent

The Bible passages for the second Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 40:1–11; Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13; 2 Peter 3:8–15a; Mark 1:1–8) contain a number of rich themes that focus on the coming King.  All we are going to do here is to follow those themes through to where they might lead us.

But first, a delightful story told, I think, by the late Erma Bombeck.

A Jewish mother phoned her daughter.

“How are you, child?”

“Oh, Mamma. I’m so sick.  I have a headache second to none; my sinuses are so blocked, I think my head is going to burst.  The children are bored and won’t stop moaning.  There’s no food in the house because I can’t drag myself to the shop; I haven’t washed the dishes since Thursday, and we’ve got no clean clothes.  Oh Mamma, I don’t know what to do. 

“Don’t worry child.  Mamma’s here.  I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  I’m going to walk down the hill and catch the cross-town bus.  I’ll get off at the shop and by something for lunch; then I’ll call in at the drugstore and get you something for your head.  Then I’ll walk up the hill to your house.  I’ll make you some lunch and you can go to bed while I take the children to the park to get rid of some of their energy.  When we get back they can watch TV while I wash the dishes and do the laundry.
“By the way, how’s Sam?”
“Who’s Sam?”
“Your husband, Sam.”
“But my husband is Joseph.”

“Is this 0234567891”
“No, it’s 0234567892”

“Does that mean you’re not coming?”

Isaiah says, “Comfort my people. Announce the good news!  Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!”  Had Isaiah heard of Erma Bombeck he would have added: “This is no missed call.  This isn’t the wrong group of children.  This is the real deal; your God, your King, the Sovereign Lord is coming.”

PSALM 85
In Psalm 85 we hear that our sin has cut us off from God but that God’s forgiveness is greater than our sin; it reaches further than the farthest places our sin takes us.  God forgives the sins of his people.  He promises peace and he is ready to save us.  Then he says, “Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will embrace.”  Two magnificent promises.  The first seems obvious: “Love and faithfulness will meet.”  Surely you can’t have love without faithfulness?  But I guess it is a reminder of what love really is.  There is so much that passes for love today, which contains no faithfulness; a love that lasts only as long I’m getting what I want.  There seems to be plenty of love without faithfulness.

Faithfulness and Love
There is also a whole lot of faithfulness that has no love.  There are plenty of people who are faithful to their political leaders (or their lovers) and will do anything for them, obey their every command; but they won’t love them enough to point out their weaknesses; love them enough to say no, that’s not acceptable.

We need a place where faithfulness is infused with love, where love is enriched with faithfulness—a place where love and faithfulness meet.

Righteousness and Peace
The second promise is that “righteousness and peace will embrace”.  The COP17 conference seems to mirror our society: it seems to be a place where a whole lot of righteousness is expressed.  Each group, each organisation, each country represented, expresses the right­eousness of its own position, but there is very little peace.

That sort of righteousness, righteousness without peace, leads to war.  It happens within families, it happens within communities it happens between countries; righteousness without peace, leads to war.  Equally, peace without righteousness leads to pain and suffering.  There is a great deal of suffering going on in homes and schools and workplaces, all “for the sake of peace”.  “I don’t want to rock the boat.”  “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”

Raped in Afghanistan
A woman named Gulnaz was raped in Afghanistan and had a baby as a result.  She was thrown into jail for adultery.  As a result of a great outcry, she was pardoned on Thursday.  But her pardon carried an expectation that she would agree to marry the man who raped her—even though there is a good possibility that he might feel so humiliated by it all that he will kill her or abuse her again.

The only way she can avoid bringing shame on herself, her baby daughter, and her family, is to marry the father of her child, even though he raped her.  “My rapist has destroyed my future,” she is quoted as saying. “No one will marry me after what he has done to me. So I must marry my rapist for my child’s sake. I don’t want people to call her a bastard.”

The outcry against her situation was as a result of a documentary about Afghan women in jail.  The problem, however, is that exposing abuse is so humiliating to the family that a woman who speaks out is often rejected by her relatives, which adds isolation to the abuse.  Peace without righteousness.  We may not have those extremes, where the justice system encourages the abuse, but in homes and communities across the nation, black and white, rich and poor, love and faithfulness are kept apart, and peace, without righteousness, is maintained at any cost.

The Psalmist promises us a place where love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will embrace.

“Comfort my people.” Isaiah picks up the theme of forgiveness that we found in the psalm.  “They have suffered long enough and their sins are forgiven.”  God’s forgiveness reaches out into the wilderness of our sin and failure—even that rapist’s sin and failure, if he would dare to receive it.  God’s comfort and renewal bring new life to the desert of our despair and helplessness.

ISAIAH 40
Isaiah is also called to proclaim “that all human beings are like grass; they last no longer than wild flowers….  Grass withers and flowers fade,” he says, “when the LORD sends the wind blowing over them.”

Now in the desert a message like that has impact.  If you tell people in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands that we are like grass, after all the rain we’ve had, and we’ll think you are paying us a compliment; we’ll think you’re telling us that we are strong, and sturdy, and full of life.

But, in the desert, grass withers and flowers fade.  In the desert, we know just how frail we are; we begin to feel like grass; we begin to sense that if the hot wind were to blow we, too, would wither and fade away.

And it is precisely there, at that moment, that God can reach us. 

Let me read you a poem I wrote last year, based on a similar passage from Isaiah 38:

Only in the desert;
Not in our self-sufficiency and self-reliance;
Not in our comfort zones,
or our frenzied worship of the latest trends.

Only in the desert,
In the empty, uncluttered spaces;
Only in the desert,
A place of dying to the false self,
a letting go of all that I cling to,
all that defines me,
that gives me a sense of worth.

Only in the desert,
when I recognise my blindness,
my inability to see, to understand, to be wise,
when I recognise my inability to speak,
to bring words of wisdom, hope, and love,
when I recognise my lameness, my weakness,
my need to be carried.

Only in the desert,
When all that is false has died,
There in the depths of the desert,
The earth will rejoice,
Water will gush out of the rocks,
and sight and strength and speech will be given.

And what delight and celebration there will be
as we walk the path of life together;

In today’s passage, Isaiah says, “Comfort my people.  Announce the good news!  Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!”

2 PETER 3
But let me tell you, if I were a town of Judah, I’d be pretty nervous.  We are like grass, remember; we are the desert flowers that fade with a breath of warm wind.  And Peter tells us that on the Day of the Lord, it won’t just be grass and flowers; the entire earth, even the planets and stars will be gone, burned up in an instant, melted by the heat.  Would someone like to tell those folk meeting down in Durban? They tell us that if the climate changes by just four degrees we’re in trouble.  Well you can tell them, we’re going to be in much bigger trouble than they think.

But the good news is that God isn’t just coming with fire; he is bringing a new heaven and a new earth.  God is not out to destroy what we have.  He simply comes in his glory and majesty, and in his holy presence evil has no place.  So if we turn away from God and hold onto those things that have no eternal significance, we will be blown away with them.  If we hold on to power, to money (or the things that money can buy), we’ll discover that our possessions and status have no significance in the furnace.

Katie Melua
Katie Melua (yes, I confess, I love her to bits), sings a song called The Flood.  She sings about someone caught in a flood and clinging on to a rock, hoping to avoid destruction.  The problem is that, holding on to the rock you are going to be battered by the floodwater itself and battered by anything the water is carrying with it.

Katie says, “What we own becomes our prison” and that, when anything threatens our possessions, we look for someone to blame.

“Blame no one is to blame
As natural as the rain that falls
Here comes the flood again” 

When there is so much crime and corruption, there are plenty of people we can blame. When the markets crash and our savings are gone, it’s easy to point fingers. Sometimes the blame is deserved but it doesn’t restore our fortunes or make things better. We can blame others; we can blame ourselves; we can blame our past and our circumstances but it doesn’t do anything for us. When the flood comes and we are clinging to a rock in the swirling waters, it makes no difference where the flood came from, or whose fault it is. ‘What now,’ is all that matters.  Katie suggests something radical in those circumstances: let go of the rock. We can become prisoners of our possessions and of our fears:

See the rock that you hold onto
Is it gonna save you?
When the earth begins to crumble
Why do you feel you have to
Hold on, imagine if you let go….
Wash away the weight that pulls you down
Ride the waves that free you from your doubts.

The imagery is stunning and far more eloquent than most of us manage for a Sunday service.  Let go; let go of guilt and of blame, let go of plans and certainties, let go of possessions and power.  Because God says, if you don’t, that rock you cling to is going to melt and you’ll go down with it.

Our God is coming
The flood you and I experience does not have the last word; the destruction that threatens you and your family (wherever it comes from) is not the all-powerful thing that it seems.  Our God is coming.

He is coming to a place in your heart and mine. He is coming to renew our world by transforming our lives. His healing and transformation doesn’t necessarily begin with the outward needs of our bruised and broken bodies or our painful circumstances. He begins his work within.

But God doesn’t just want to save you and me, to bring us into this glorious new kingdom; he wants us to bring our neighbours, and for them to bring their neighbours and, yes, to bring the whole planet.

MARK 1
But, as we think about our neighbours, notice the difference between Isaiah and John the Baptist in the Mark reading.  There are similarities: Isaiah said, “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord.”  And when John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah, he appeared in the desert—the very place where grass withers and flowers fade; he came, as Isaiah said he would, to the place of our weakness and our vulnerability, the place of our brokenness. 

But Isaiah went on to say, “Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!”  And what happened?  When John the Baptist preached the good news, people came from those very towns of Judah, and from Jerusalem itself, to hear him.  They came from the city of God’s temple, from the very place that God should have been found.  If there was to be any good news, if there was news of God’s coming, surely it would be heard in Jerusalem?  But no, it was proclaimed in the desert.  God was starting something new; it was good news, Mark tells us, about Jesus the Christ, Son of God, and it began in the desert.  Perhaps Jerusalem was no longer a place of good news. 

My friends, where will the people of Prestbury, of Phayiphini, of Pietermaritzburg, hear the good news today?  Is this a place of good news?  Are we broken enough?  Are we vulnerable enough, dependent on God alone, or has the rain given us a sense of self-sufficiency?  Are we caught up in petty squabbling and point-scoring while the earth burns up around us?  Are we clinging to our own plans and dreams; hoping that someone else will save us, something else will come up?  Are we so busy clinging onto any rock we can find that we have no spare a hand to offer anyone else?  Is this a place where good news is found?  Is this a place where the rough places are made smooth and where, as one writer put it, “mountainous problems can turn into motorways of possibility”?

My friends, there’s work to be done.  Get out there onto the highest mountain you can find and proclaim the good news.   Tell the people around you, “Your God is coming.  The Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power, bringing with him the people he has rescued.”

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