Tag Archives: Story

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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A pregnancy, a donkey, and an update


A visitThe Internet is a place full of shadows. People come and go; they visit this blog as I visit others. One or two leave a comment, which is a most welcome and tangible sign of their visit.  But most leave no more than an echo; something the system picks up to say that someone was here, visiting this page.  Who they were and how long they stayed; whether they were challenged, horrified or simply indifferent, the echo doesn’t say; they are simply shadows.

I wrote the story, “A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions” for an Advent service on 28 November 2010, and I posted it here two days later.  There wasn’t much interest that year, and only 210 visitors looked at the story in the whole of 2011.  This year, 2012, must be the year of the donkey, or the journey, or whatever, because 245 people viewed the story in November alone, and another 280 in December so far.

No doubt many of those who came, left with nothing more than a quick glance.  Others perhaps stayed to read the story. What I’m interested in is whether someone out there has tried to use the story themselves somewhere else.

I used it again last Sunday at another church here in Pietermaritzburg.  The response was very good, with the general comment being, “It finished too soon. I want to hear what comes next.”

Telling storiesIt’s not often a preacher gets asked for more!  Which is why I believe that we should tell more stories.  There are risks in telling stories, which we don’t always want to take. With a sermon we lay the foundation, prepare the listeners, and then we draw them to the main point.  The message (we hope) is clear, and it can be summarised in a few words.

A story is its own message.  There is usually (as in the great stories of the Bible) an overall message of God’s grace, of God’s involvement in the world, of our struggle with God’s call, etc., but how people connect with the story is out of our hands.

In this story of Mary and Joseph’s journey, it is not the dialogue or their assumptions that matter.  The key is simply recognising that the conversation took place; that Mary and Joseph were real people like us, who would have asked the same questions we ask, with the same fears.  Yet they found a way to engage with God, and to trust him for the impossible future to which he was calling them.

When we begin to understand the people of the Bible in this way, as their experience and their encounter with God becomes more real to us (and more like ours), we can more readily engage with their story, and their story becomes our story.  We can no longer ignore the challenge that their lives present; we can no longer say “well, it was all very well for them….” It wasn’t all very well at all.  Yet as they listened and responded to God’s challenge, they began to reflect God’s glory, and their light still shines for us today.

Their story is no longer a fairy tale of otherworldly people, whose feet don’t quite touch the ground, and whose eyes are constantly raised heavenward. They are people like us. God took his chance with them, as he does with us. He loved them in their misunderstanding and lack of faith, as he loves us. He reached out to them when they were farthest away from him, as he does to us. They had the same questions we have, and God answered them as he seeks to answer us.

What has been your experience of story?  Do they help or hinder your journey?

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Plenty of Camels, Three Kings and a Baby


The following story was inspired by our minister who preached on the story of the wise men, and asked two questions.  First, which star are we following?  There are many to choose from in our over-stimulated lives.  The second had to do with the transformation of the wise men (they went home on a new road): on what new roads are we travelling?
 This story will, I hope, help you think about those questions.  For one, the wise men themselves were not always sure which star they were following, and unless our encounter with Jesus makes a difference in our lives and in our world (and leads us to new paths) then that encounter means very little. 
A photograph of three camels, taken at the Pyr...

I love camels.  Yeah, I know, I’m crazy.  No one loves camels, or no one tells anyone they love camels.  Most people put up with camels as a necessary evil, and camels certainly don’t love us; they hardly even put up with us.  Most people just use and abuse their camels; but before you start feeling sorry for the beast, rest assured, the abuse is mutual.

My father had me working with camels from childhood, almost before I could walk.  He was Master of the Stables for the late King Belzeor and I used to help him with his work.  It was hard work but I loved it and learned to love the camels too.  When I was growing up my favourites were Grouch, Rat and Sweets.  Those weren’t their real names but that’s what we called them.   Grouch was a real grouch, even for a camel, but he was a hard worker.  Rat wasn’t as bad as she sounds but when she was tiny she was skittish about rodents; rustle in the straw near her and she’d jump.  Sweets loved anything sweet—would steal dates from your pocket if you gave her half a chance; not everyone could handle that, but Dad was a master and I learned everything from him.

When King Belzeor died his son Balthazar took over.  About the same time I took over from my dad as Master of the Stables.  Like his father before him, Balthazar was a Magus, respected far and wide for his wisdom and learning.  He studied the heavens and could read the stars.  I was lucky enough just to be able to read a scroll.

A few years ago there was huge excitement in the household.  The master was setting off on a journey. That wasn’t so unusual but what was strange was that he didn’t know where he was going or how long it would take.  When we discussed the camels he would need I asked him about the roads he would follow.

“Roads?” he said. “Not roads; we’re going to follow a star.”

“Well this is going to be fun,” I thought.  Finally the stars had gone to the master’s head.  But he told me about a new star he had discovered to the west, which had appeared about four months before.  Two other Magi had also recognised this new star as something unique, and they would be joining us.  They believed the star represented a new-born king.  They seemed to think he was a Jew but why the birth of a Jew (even a king) would cause such excitement or warrant his own star, I had no idea.  My master and the other Magi seemed to think that this king would somehow be greater than his people.  Well I didn’t know much about politics but as far as I knew Jews and everyone else to the west were ruled by Rome, so this new king would have quite a mission ahead of him.

Anyway, crazy as it sounds, we followed a star.  Early each morning while it was still dark we would break camp and the master would point to the stars in the west.  “There it is,” he’d say. “Let’s be on our way.”

At first we didn’t know which one was the new one, but it wasn’t long before we could distinguish it and we would look for it in the dark.  We would follow it until a few hours after the sun came up then we would camp during the heat of the day.  Late afternoon we’d break camp and be on our way until just before it got dark.  Initially the star wasn’t around in the afternoons, and as the months progressed it would appear at different times of the day, but the Magi would do some calculations and use those for when the star wasn’t visible.

We had been on the road (not that we travelled much on a road) for about six months.  What a journey it was.  I could tell you a hundred stories—another time perhaps.

About six months after we started, the party nearly broke up.  I thought the Magi were going to come to blows.  They were usually so calm and peaceful we never heard their discussions.  This time their arguing was intense and loud.  We had crossed the Jordan River and had driven through Jericho, on our way, we thought, to Jerusalem.  That’s the Jewish capital where their king, Herod, had his palace.  But Balthazar had other plans.

“The star is not leading to Jerusalem but more to the south,” he said.

“Maybe,” said the others. “But the star is probably leading us to where the child was born; we want to know where he is now.  Surely the Jewish King will know where the next King of the Jews is, if he’s not in Jerusalem with him.”

But my master was not convinced; he wanted to follow the star. “We’re not following an earthly king, but one that’s known to the heavens,” he said. 

 “True,” the others said.  “But after so long in the desert, surely we owe it to our party to have a short rest in the city.”  I wouldn’t want to be disloyal to my master but, I must say, that sounded like a grand idea.  “And the star’s been with us all this time,” they added.  “It will wait for us.  A couple of days won’t hurt anyone, surely?”

Then they said we could hardly enter Herod’s territory, on our way to find his successor, without at least seeking an audience, and my master finally relented.  So we travelled to Jerusalem and spent a week there while the Magi met with King Herod.

I didn’t meet the King, of course, but I heard all about the visit.  It seems Herod didn’t know what his visitors from the east were talking about.  If there was a new heir to the throne he certainly hadn’t been told.  But, for all that, he was a gracious host, almost as eager as the Magi to know more and to join the search.

Herod’s wise men pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of this new king.  They quoted their scriptures:

“Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least of the leading cities of Judah;
for from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel.”

“Clearly a gift from God,” Herod told them.  “Go to Bethlehem and find the child.  Then come back and tell me where he is so that I may also worship him.”

“Murder him, more like it,” was the reaction from the more cynical stable hands.

Jerusalem was great.  The King’s stables were lavish but the camels were restless, so it was good to be back on the road again.  We left early in the morning, well before dawn, and the star was there, just to the south-west where Bethlehem lay about eight kilometres away.  Would the child still be there?

As we reached the base of the last hill before Bethlehem, and looked up to the village, the star seemed to rest on top of the hill.  We stopped and stared.  Could this be the end of our journey?  We waited for the star to set but it didn’t move.  It seemed to be sitting on the hill, waiting for us, until it faded away in the light of the rising sun.

My master and the other Magi were very excited.  “The child is here,” Balthazar said.

I’ll never know how he did it (I’m not sure even he knows) but my master proceeded to lead the way through the village to a small cottage.  What a stir we caused.  I’m told that Bethlehem is where the famous King David was born but you wouldn’t know it.  The villagers don’t seem to have seen anyone royal or famous for the last thousand years.  They stopped and stared and followed along behind. 

But when we arrived at the cottage there was something about it, and about the couple who welcomed us, that made us catch our breath.  I can’t explain it but I’ve seen a lot of rich and powerful people, and people who like to think they are rich and powerful—aggression and contempt is what they do best.  But not this couple; they weren’t overawed by our pomp or frightened by our numbers.  There was a quiet confidence; a conviction that they were in the right place, doing the right thing.  But there was humility about them too, suggesting that they might not be too sure just what the “right thing” was.

And then there was the baby.

He was just a baby; just like any other baby.  But then, somehow, he was so different.  Perhaps it was his parents; perhaps it was the sight of these three powerful sages kneeling down in front of him, offering gifts.  Whatever it was, we all felt it—even the camels were still.

We wanted to know more, to do more.  I know it sounds strange (the whole thing was crazy from the start) but I wanted to follow this baby, this child, this…King.

I could see that Balthazar also felt it.  Tears had poured down his cheeks as he offered his gifts.  As he gave the child’s mother a gift of myrrh I heard him say to her, “I brought this gift for your son’s anointing, but myrrh is also a sign of suffering, and I fear the swords that will put him on his throne will pierce your heart.” 

I had no idea what my master meant (perhaps he didn’t either) but it was clear that the encounter with this family, this child, had transformed him.  “We are not going back to Jerusalem,” he told us that evening.  “We’re going to find a different path; a new road.”  And I felt sure that he was talking about something more than just the route we would take home.

I still don’t understand it all, but I knew at that moment that it was time to leave the star behind and follow this child, whatever it might mean.

Balthazar summed it up for me as we gathered around him.  “I don’t understand all that has happened,” he said.  “I sense that we have been in the presence of greatness, but a greatness unlike anything I have come across before.   I can’t speak for you,” he went on, “But I want to learn more about this child and tell people about him.  Where we met him, no one needs to know that, but how he has affected us, and what it means to you and to me, that’s something to think deeply about and to share with the world.  I doubt that anyone will remember a bunch of Magi coming to this place,” he said.  “But, if we follow our hearts and share what we have experienced, the world will be talking about this child long after we are all gone.”

Last week was Epiphany Sunday.  It’s the day we celebrate the coming of the wise men to Jesus, a symbol of his being presented to the world, the gentile world, our world.  This story is not meant in any way to improve on the Bible story, let alone replace it.  We have become so familiar with the Bible stories that we often fail to hear them anymore.  I hope that this (and other stories I write) will help us hear the story of the wise men differently and receive new challenges.

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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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Is Christianity Fuelled by Guilt?


The Mail & Guardian newspaper has a “Religion issue” over Easter where various columnists share their religious or agnostic approach.  This year Deputy Editor, Verashni Pillay, wrote “What’s a nice Christian girl to do?” about her choice not to date non-Christians.  It was a light-hearted article, but it did get the anti-religion crowd quite excited and there were various comments left on the site.

Lola wrote:

…I now understand that Christianity is founded on the tenet that we are all guilty. This injected an extremely unhealthy sense of shame and guilt into my life. This meant that I would stay awake miserably asking for forgiveness for things like lusting over guys in my teenage years. This has scarred me beyond belief and though I now have no connection whatsoever to Christianity, the intrinsic sense of guilt that fuels and justifies Christianity still haunts me and I am dealing with it every day….
My main problem is that it is a religion based on the fact that we are intrinsically bad and guilty, that we have deep shame that, by accepting a ‘father’ and ‘saviour’, we can purge. That just sounds extremely dismal and very very wrong.

And of course it is very wrong.  Christianity is not “based on the fact that we are intrinsically bad and guilty” and “that we have a deep shame and guilt”.  There is no “intrinsic sense of guilt that fuels and justifies Christianity”.

Or is there?  The problem is that “Guilt fuels Christianity” is the message that is out there about our faith.  It’s the message that we hear preached most loudly.  The fear of hell drives extreme anti-abortionists to violence and murder in the name of Christ.  The desire to punish sin in the name of Christ drives the extreme anti-gays to violence and hatred also. But this is religious bigotry and intolerance; let’s not pretend it is faith. 

Jesus didn’t send his disciples out to preach guilt, or shame, or hell.

He sent them out to preach Good News (Gospel), and to heal the sick.  He sent them to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, not to tell people that hell is near.  He didn’t deny the reality of separation from God, of consequences of sin, of God’s anger against those who do evil.  But the evil that he (and the prophets) spoke about most was not the sins on which we focus so much, nor was it failure to obey religious ritual or to follow the rules, but exactly the opposite.  What enraged Jesus (and the prophets) most was the use of religious beliefs and practices to exclude people; making religious ritual the only way to God.  If you don’t do this, if you don’t believe that, you’re going to hell.

Whatever its cause, the world is in a mess.  You can blame religion, science or anything else, but the world’s in a mess.  And in spite of what the different sides in the arguments like to shout at each other, neither science, nor religion, nor humanism, nor anything else on this earth is guilt-free. 

One man responded to Verashni:

“I tell you, young lady, the world is in the state it’s in precisely because of what you believe.”

I’ve got news for him: we’re all in this together; we all share the blame.

Christianity doesn’t create the guilt and shame.  Nor does guilt and shame bring us closer to God; it separates us from him, just as it separates us from each other!  Peter’s guilt and shame after denying Jesus didn’t draw him back into faith, it cut him off; it separated him from God.  Jesus reached out to break the barrier that sin had created.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that our moral behaviour should be based on things like sympathy, education, and social ties.  We shouldn’t need religion. We are very poor indeed if the only reason why we do good is because we’re afraid of punishment and hopeful of reward after death.

And he’s right.  If fear of punishment is the only reason for our faith, how poor is our faith.  Let’s look at traffic control, for example.  The fear of being caught is what keeps most of us to the speed limit and obeying the rules (in South Africa at least).  The only time we reduce our speed to the speed limit is when we are approaching a speed camera or a traffic officer.  Slogans that appeal to our intellect or morality, don’t usually work.  The only thing that will reduce the death-rate on our roads is more active policing that actually ends in more fines and (ultimately) the real risk of licence suspension.  Fear of getting caught, in other words, keeps us honest; not, I’m afraid, an intrinsic desire to do the right thing.  But that fear doesn’t create in us a love for traffic officers and a respect for the law.  It keeps us in fear.

The same is true of our faith.  Guilt, and the fear of punishment, might keep us honest for a bit or keep us doing the right thing in parts of our lives, and some people do come to Christ out of fear of hell and death.  But such fear won’t sustain faith; it won’t grow our relationship with God, which is what Christianity is about.  The truth is that we all come to Christ for a variety of reasons—some better than others.  But few of them will sustain the relationship. 

You might, for example, have fallen in love with your spouse’s beautiful eyes, but you need more than that for the marriage to work.  The same is true of our relationship with God.  Whatever our reason for originally turning to Christ, it needs to grow and develop into love and delight at the one who loves us and freely welcomes us into his family.

Christianity is based on the fact of a loving caring God.  A God who, against all human logic, enters into a relationship with us and creates family out of us.  But how do we get this across to a cynical and angry world?  How do we convince those who only know Christianity as a guilt trip, as no more than God rescuing us from hell?

One of the problems, when you read most of the negative comments on Verashni’s piece, is that people out there don’t know the difference between religion (especially religion practiced in the most bigoted, racist, and negative way) and faith, this relationship with God.

For example, Grant Ledger responded,

“Religion is all about the control of humans over other humans. It is evil and should be resisted by all rational, critical thinking people….  People who feel they have a right to mouth off to disinterested parties concerning their imaginary friends need to be ridiculed and mocked for their irrationality. Religion is evil.”

Compare that with what Peter had to say on the day of Pentecost:

“Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you.” 

Peter wasn’t talking about his “imaginary friend”.  He was talking about someone his hearers knew, and events they had seen.  So how do we talk about our faith?

Well, Peter had a story to tell, and he told it on the day of Pentecost.  He said, “God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact.” (Acts 2:32)

The woman at the well had a story to tell.  And she told the entire village: “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” (John 4:29)

Each of us, in different ways, has a story to tell.

Our faith might be strong and bold, like Peter on the day of Pentecost; it might be weak and guilt-ridden like the woman at the well.  We may be full of doubts like Thomas was, or have loads of questions like Nicodemus.  But, in spite of all those doubts and questions, all that guilt, Jesus has touched our lives.  And, in the middle of our doubts or our certainties, our questions and our guilt, we each have a story tell.

When we engage with those who tell us that religion is evil, that it’s just a guilt trip, it’s all a myth, which rational people should ignore, we won’t win any arguments; all we have is our story.

We don’t have to understand all about God; we don’t have to have answers to the pseudo-scientific questions people will throw at us; we don’t have to know the Bible better that they do.  In fact having all these things is sometimes a disadvantage because we think we’re supposed to use them somehow, like ammunition in our ‘encounters with the enemy’.

Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Each human being is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived.  Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well….  We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told.  We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will live them.”

“April 29”, Bread for the Journey, (1997)

What do you think?

(Adapted from a sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church, 1 May 2011)

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Ten Bridesmaids: A Soccer Story


 

This story was first told at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday 18 July 2010

   SCRIPTURE: Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there were ten young women who took their oil lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. (2) Five of them were foolish, and the other five were wise. (3) The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any extra oil with them, (4) while the wise ones took containers full of oil for their lamps. (5) The bridegroom was late in coming, so they began to nod and fall asleep. (6) “It was already midnight when the cry rang out, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come and meet him!’ (7) The ten young women woke up and trimmed their lamps. (8) Then the foolish ones said to the wise ones, ‘Let us have some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ (9) ‘No, indeed,’ the wise ones answered, ‘there is not enough for you and for us. Go to the store and buy some for yourselves.’ (10) So the foolish ones went off to buy some oil; and while they were gone, the bridegroom arrived. The five who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. (11) “Later the others arrived. ‘Sir, sir! Let us in!’ they cried out. (12) ‘Certainly not! I don’t know you,’ the bridegroom answered.” (13) And Jesus concluded, “Watch out, then, because you do not know the day or the hour.

WHAT’S THIS ABOUT?

What were ten bridesmaids doing waiting around in the middle of the night for the bridegroom?  Why was the bridegroom so harsh?  Ok, they weren’t ready; they didn’t have enough oil; they messed up.  But you and me, we’d know these foolish bridesmaids. We’d probably say, “You bunch of skelms.  What you doing out in the dark?  Get inside!”  And later, no doubt, we’d tell our bride about her dilly friends.

 The other stories and illustrations Jesus used were all taken from everyday life and were very easy to understand.  So we assume this one would also have made sense to his hearers at the time.  But what is clear to us is that these bridesmaids had a responsibility.  We might not know what that was, but it was important enough to impact on a number of people, including themselves, and to have serious consequences.  It is also clear that relationship with God is not about who we are, but about what we do.

 Given those truths, how would Jesus have told the story if he was speaking to us, in South Africa today, after a most successful soccer world cup?

And what if, instead of talking about the people involved, Jesus told it from the point of view of one of the characters?

 Let’s listen….

 

SOCCER KIDS

I was always mad about soccer, ever since my folks gave me a soccer ball when I was two years old. I’d make my Dad play with me. Where I grew up soccer was everything, and being able to play like Lucas Radebe was every kid’s dream.

By the time I hit high school there were ten of us in the neighbourhood. We used to kick a ball around together in someone’s yard, or on the street, or down in the park. We were at different schools but we had all grown up together. Well, except Midget—he was the shortest of the group, obviously—he came later, but in spite of his height, he fitted in pretty quickly.

PHILLIP AND ME

Phillip and I would compete for best placekicker. We could hit anything at 20 paces. We also did trick shots like scissor kicks. I know we were just showing off but, hey, if you’ve got a talent there’s no point hiding it under a bowl. Phillip would practice like mad but I was lucky, more of a natural. I could usually beat him and tackle the ball away from him. It made him really mad. I think that’s why he worked so hard; he was determined to get the better of me but I could still hold my own. Whenever I went to his place I’d find him kicking the ball or bouncing it on his feet like the soccer stars do. And when I left him after we’d been playing in the park, or wherever, I knew he’d go straight back to practicing—sometimes spending an hour or more at it. I’m so glad I didn’t need to do that. It would have taken all the fun out of it.

We were going to play professional soccer one day. We dreamed of the day a talent scout would come to our neck of the woods and spot us. We’d be the talk of the town. What a life we’d have!

Phillip also worked pretty hard at his books. Me? I just did enough school work to get by and keep my folks off my back. “Could do better,” was a regular comment on my reports but I didn’t care. Once I became a soccer star no one would care about my grades. 

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