Monthly Archives: September 2007
Two of my churches have been talking to one degree or another about setting up websites. There are always two obstacles: one is cost, and the other is time. We have now found a solution, and it’s from those kind philanthropists at Microsoft. As part of their Office Live offering for small businesses, you can sign up for Office Live Basics, which gives you a free website and domain name. The site is designed online, and anyone with word processor skills can contribute. No coding knowledge is needed. Up to 25 email addresses can be assigned to the domain – more than enough for the relevant departments of my churches.
There are disadvantages, but none of them is critical for my churches. There aren’t all the bells and whistles of similar paid-for offerings in the church community, such as the excellent Church Edit. So we’ll have to shrink our JPG photos before uploading, rather than having it done automatically for us. And we won’t be able to podcast the services or sermons, due to bandwidth restrictions. But then, it’s free, and Church Edit, Church 123 and 2Day understandably have to charge fees.
Likewise, there is a limited number of templates. But Church Edit and Church 123 also have a finite selection of templates. The Microsoft ones are as reasonable as any.
So watch this space – hopefully before long Broomfield Methodist and Hatfield Peverel Methodist will have decent-looking online presences, to join St Augustine’s, who have had a simple site for a little while.
Text-wise, this is a shorter sermon than usual this week (don’t cheer too loudly). You’ll see this is built around a TEAR Fund film, and you’ll need to watch the film at the point where I provide the link, before coming to the summary.
Our text for Harvest Festival this year is 2 Chronicles 7:14:
‘If my people who are called by my name humble themselves,
pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from
heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’
It’s an odd text for Harvest. It comes from a night-time
divine visitation that Solomon received after the dedication of the Jerusalem
Temple. But I was attracted to it, because of the reference to healing the
land. Healing the land seemed a good theme for harvest, and especially because I
wanted to tie in our theme with the sermon series I began on healing three
In that respect, the context of God’s promise to heal the
land if his people come to him in penitence is a relevant one, I think. For God
anticipates a time of drought, a locust invasion or pestilence (verse 13). And
these plagues are very similar to what we witness in our world today. At a
harvest time when we are so grateful for the plenty we have, we are conscious
that millions in our world do not enjoy that.
So firstly, let’s consider some of the ways in which the
land needs healing in our world today. I’m hoping we can now see a ten-minute
film from TEAR Fund from their ‘Be Part Of A Miracle’ campaign. (Link
Healing the land is God’s promise to those who turn to him. But he calls us to
be partners with him. As Sophia said in the film,
‘You can’t just say, ‘God, help me,’ when you are not taking
care of yourself. You need to take care of yourself, but you also need his
And as Cuthbert quoted Augustine at the end,
‘Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though
everything depended on you.’
Yet is the church in Fombe doing anything different from other
relief agencies? Secular charities would instigate similar relief work. More
widely, we will share in the concern to change our lifestyles to mitigate the
effects of climate change. We, too, shall campaign for fairer rules on
international trade. We shall work to see medical drugs made as available for
the poor as for the rich of the world.
But our text calls for people to pray, to seek God’s face
and turn from our wicked ways. There is a Christian distinctive here. We partner
God in healing the land, because the Creator made us to be his stewards of it,
not people who do what they like with it. Treating creation rightly is part of
the bigger picture of repentance, the call to turn our entire lives back to
God. So it’s good to see TEAR Fund link their service of the poor in the way
Cuthbert said near the end about the church:
‘We are always close to the community, enabling people to
step out of poverty, and bringing them to faith.’
A true healing of the land is linked with the healing of the
person – healing their alienation from God by bringing them to faith in Christ.
And so healing the land is for the Christian a spiritual activity. We may well
do many of the things that secular agencies do, but it will be based on prayer
and connected with sharing our faith. In healing the land, the Creator calls
his stewards, the human race, back to himself.
‘Would you start by committing to pray?’
I want to commend TEAR Fund’s ‘Be Part Of A Miracle’
programme to you. I receive their prayer diary. Every day there is material for
intercession or thanksgiving regarding their work among the poor and oppressed
of the world. If you are willing to take up Cuthbert’s challenge to start by
committing to pray, then speak to me afterwards. Let’s make a start in healing
Gary Marshall blogs about Kurt Vonnegut and the human need for community in an online age.
You may recall that when we moved into the manse here, we had neighbour
problems, as did Ken before us. The worst episode was when they falsely accused
us of making a stain on their drive with an oil spill. In the course of his
rant, our then-neighbour Des accused us of making the locality look like a
council estate. From a man whose choice of newspaper was the Daily Mirror, that was rich! We thought we
might live up to the insult. We hung out washing to dry by the front door, and
we considered putting up a sign at the bottom of the drive, saying, ‘Homeless
and vagrants, this way.’
The Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus of lowering the tone
of the religious neighbourhood by welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating
with them (verses 1-2).
To eat with anyone was to honour anyone: how could Jesus honour such
disreputable people? To be sure, if they were needy, a good man might provide
food – but to eat with them, well they didn’t deserve that honour. Worse, Jesus
welcomed them: he might even have
been the host of the meal! Not only was he honouring the riff-raff, they
honoured him! How could a man of God accept compliments from the dregs of
society? His honour should come from the religious leaders and the spiritually
advanced. It would be as if Debbie and I had carried out our threat to post an
invitation sign to the manse for the homeless, then go into the middle of
Chelmsford and round up all the Big Issue
sellers for a banquet. Imagine how our erstwhile neighbour would have
So how does Jesus respond? Guilty as charged? Not guilty?
More like ‘guilty as charged, and proud of it.’ He goes on the offensive. He
tells parables to show that the way the defenders of the true faith have
conceived their religion is far from consistent with the kingdom of God. In
fact, it’s the opposite of God’s kingdom.
Hence, Jesus insults his critics. In one parable, he
contrasts them with shepherds. The image of shepherds had an honourable
tradition in the Hebrew Bible. Moses was a shepherd. Kings were compared to
shepherds. God was likened to a shepherd. But by Jesus’ time, shepherds were
regarded as ‘unclean’ or as ‘sinners’, because they engaged in a forbidden
trade. Exactly how this reversal took place, nobody knows. But it did. That’s
why the story of shepherds being the first visitors to the infant Jesus would
have shocked respectable society.
In the second parable, he contrasts his critics with a
woman. I am sure you know that women were regarded as inferior in Jesus’ time –
inferior even to Gentiles and slaves.
What, then, does Jesus want to say to those who accuse him
of not keeping good company? And what does his response say about the kingdom
1. Joy In Community
A hundred sheep was a large flock. Typically, a family might own five to
fifteen sheep. A small herd might constitute forty animals. If there were a
hundred, then that suggests a number of families have got together. The
shepherd looking after a hundred sheep is probably not a hireling, but one of
these families who is looking after not only his own sheep, but also
everybody’s. Any loss is not only of concern to him, but to the community.
Not only that, the parable reads as if the shepherd has been
negligent. He loses the sheep, rather than the sheep itself getting lost. In
this respect, Jesus is surely making a strong point against his critics: the
fact that certain socially unacceptable people are missing from the community
of faith is an indictment upon those who have lost them – the leaders and
agenda-setters. The shepherd of the parable is in disgrace, and to Jesus the
shepherds of God’s community are in disgrace, too, for carelessly losing the social
misfits. They lost them by ostracising them, and Jesus says this is a scandal!
These are not the people to shun, but to embrace.
But that would make us unclean, the religious leaders would
retort. Hardly, says Jesus: in God’s eyes, it would be a celebration, just as a
shepherd finding one of the community’s sheep would be. ‘Rejoice with me,’ says
the shepherd to his friends and neighbours (verse 6 – presumably the friends
and neighbours whose herds he is looking after).
There is a challenge for us here. We need to think about the
people who are not socially welcome in our village. As Christians, we fail
Jesus and the kingdom of God when we adopt the attitudes of the prevailing
culture to such people. The calling of Christ is to search out such people with
the Gospel of God’s love.
My sister is a Boys’
Brigade captain in her church. Last month she was on a camp with her BB Company
and another. One day, she took morning and evening devotions on the theme of
‘compassion.’ She took the boys through the parable of the Good Samaritan and
asked them to imagine people whom they might fear as ‘robbers’ today. They
said, ‘chavs.’ And so they constructed
a modern version of the story where chavs
mug someone for his money, his mobile phone and – worst of all, apparently –
his Nintendo DS. They then
imagined a teacher and a Boys’ Brigade officer failing to help them, and
another chav coming to rescue them.
The social misfits for us might be chavs, or teenagers
loitering in the village of an evening with nothing to do. They might be asylum
seekers or Muslims. To shun them is to misrepresent the Gospel, according to
Jesus. He calls us to have open hearts to them. Because when they find God’s
love in Christ, there is joy in the community of faith, and joy in heaven. If
we are to share the joy of the angels, we need to get beyond merely welcoming
and accepting ‘people just like us’.
2. Joy In Restoration
Restoration is tough for the shepherd. He leaves the other sheep in the
wilderness (verse 4) before returning home with the lost sheep (verse 6), that
is, to the courtyard of the family home where peasant shepherds kept their
herds overnight. Those left in the wilderness while he searched for the missing
animal are almost certainly under the care of a second shepherd: it was unknown
to leave sheep unguarded.
This parable, then, doesn’t support evangelism at the
expense of pastoral care, but it does put both on an equally important footing
– something we constitutionally don’t do in the church, where we only ordain
people to ministries of pastoral care. Evangelists cannot be ordained. Those
called to the pastoral ministry have their training paid for by the church;
evangelists fund their own training.
Jesus shows a
shepherd who is prepared to endure the pain of restoration for the sake of the
joy it will bring. He ventures beyond the normal regions in which the sheep
graze, and when he does find the sheep, he carries it ‘on his shoulders’ (verse
5). But he considers this worth it, in order to restore the sheep to the flock
and for the community to celebrate with joy. For Jesus himself, this meant the humility of
the Incarnation and the suffering of the Cross. He was willing to endure all
this, so that all might know the love of God, and especially those whom the
religious gatekeepers have deemed worthless. He welcomes sinners, and enjoys
their homecoming to him. He has paid the price that this might happen.
If Jesus takes such delight in restoring people, even though
it may be painful, he calls us to make mission central to the life of his
church. It is not optional; it is basic to the nature of the church, because it
is basic to Jesus. When our discussions centre on us and maintaining ‘our’
church, then we have missed the heart and joy of Jesus. There is something
curious about the Methodist Church, whose structures make a Pastoral Committee
mandatory, but mission structures optional. It shows how far we are from the
ways of Jesus. Suppose we move closer again?
3. Gracious Love
If the shepherd will expend all his energy on finding the missing sheep, and if
the woman will not rest until she finds her coin, and if these are the
characters Jesus commends to his audience in these parables, then what is he
saying? To the disgust of the Pharisees and scribes he is saying, ‘The shepherd
and the woman sought the lost. That’s what I do. So should you!’
It may be self-interest that wants to recover a missing sheep
or coin. But if we are speaking in terms of people who have been excluded from
experiencing the love of God, or who simply have never had the opportunity,
then what we see in action here from Jesus is God’s gracious love.
That whole matter of God’s gracious love has already been a
thread in the first two points. But there is some specific application to make
for us. As the hymn, ‘Come let us sing of a wonderful love’ says, ‘Jesus is
seeking the wanderers yet’. However, it is not enough for us to sing of a wonderful love (to each other
here). If we follow the example of Jesus and he fills us with his love, then we
will be with him, seeking the wanderers.
What will that mean? It will mean developing our non-church
friends as much as our church friends. It will mean not taking on too many
church jobs, if they get in the way of being with non-church people. We shall
want to develop our confidence in talking about our faith, first with our
brother and sister Christians, and then with others. We shall pray for our
friends who have not experienced the love of God in Christ. We shall pray that
we may see opportunities to demonstrate God’s love for them, and for the chance
to explain our motivation. We shall pray
that we share the heart of Christ for people, and that his love will overflow
from us, rather than our witness being the imposition of a dreaded duty or
obligation upon us.
The sheep does nothing to prompt the shepherd’s search. (Neither, obviously,
does the inanimate coin.) God’s grace in searching out the lost precedes our
response. It is not that God loves the righteous more than he does sinners (as
if there were a distinction – all have sinned). Nor is it even that repentance
brings in the kingdom of God. These are what the rabbis would have believed.
So when we hear someone make a distinction between the good
and the bad, we hear someone who doesn’t understand Jesus’ radical assumption
that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Or when we hear a preacher say
that we need to bring in the kingdom of God by repentance, or that ‘revival’
will only come with repentance, we miss Jesus’ point. Repentance is not the
first step. It is the response to the kingdom of God. Jesus does not wait for
the wanderers to repent before he seeks them: he seeks them, and urges them to
repent as he shows them God’s gracious love.
Therefore, our witness is to show people God’s love – not in
the sense that that our message is ‘God loves you and you don’t need to do
anything.’ Rather it is that we share the love of God with the prayer that it
will melt their hearts towards Christ and repent. We pray that divine love will
lead people to a u-turn in their lives. We do not need to condemn people and
list their sins; it is the rôle of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin. We
are not the Holy Spirit.
However, repentance is not just for those who – to date –
are outside the experience of God’s redeeming love in Christ. Repentance is
also for those of us who have set ourselves up as righteous and categorised
others as sinners, but not us. Repentance is for those of us who would wish to
exclude certain sections of society from the transforming and liberating power
of the Holy Spirit. Repentance is for
those who run the church as if it were for us, and not God’s preferred agent of
his mission in the world. Repentance is for us – because God is passionate
about us, too. Passionate that the love he has given us overflows and is shared
with the world, rather than hoarded in the church. Because when we do that, it
is like preparing a nourishing meal and then not eating it. And when we leave
it, eventually it goes mouldy. Whereas, if we repent of our cold hearts, we
become agents of God’s gracious love and share in the joy of people finding
Love and joy, or a mouldy meal. It’s a no-brainer. Isn’t it?