Tag Archives: Sermon

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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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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Filed under Books & Movies, Stories, Worship & Preaching