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Sermon: Exercising Faith

Mark 5:21-43

Nineteen seventy: a terrible year for music. It was the year that songs by football teams took off. Not only did Chelsea FC inflict ‘Blue is the colour’ on the nation when they reached the FA Cup Final, the England team heading to Mexico to defend the World Cup assaulted our ears with ‘Back home’. Does anyone else have painful memories of those songs? (Not that as a Spurs fan I can be too superior, given the Chas and Dave songs my team put out in later years!)

Back home: Jesus is back home in this reading. He has come back from the eastern side of Lake Galilee, where people compromised Jewish faith with other influences. He’s on home territory. The fanboys are out – on this side of the lake he’s surrounded by a crowd, rather than suffering people asking him to leave as soon as possible, as happened when he cast the demons from the Gerasene demoniac into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs. Maybe you could say he is in a more pastoral than missional context here. (Although you’ll often be surprised how missionary you need to be in pastoral situations!)

Back home, people are in need and in desperation are showing the depth of their faith in Jesus. Both the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus, facing the death of his daughter, display extraordinary faith. I’d like us to explore these well-known stories with the goal of increasing our own faith in Christ, too.

Touch
On Thursday morning, we were walking the children into the school playground when Mark ran to follow Rebekah. However, he tripped up over Debbie’s foot and gashed both knees. He ended up in Injuries before he was in his classroom that morning. Although he had a plaster on for a few hours, we’ve tried as much as possible to let the air get to the wound, even though it has wept and left marks on bed blankets.

Rebekah has had her usual big-sister-cum-little-mummy concerns for her younger brother. However, we have had to tell her not to touch Mark’s knees! It’s just the latest example among many where as parents we’ve had to issue the ‘Don’t touch’ command. You can, I’m sure, think of many examples where you have had to say ‘Don’t touch’ to a child, because you are concerned about hygiene. They don’t understand about invisible germs, and you scream ‘Don’t touch’ in order to prevent the risk of infection.

Jewish faith had a strong ‘Don’t touch’ component to it, too. There were certain objects – or people with certain conditions – that you didn’t touch, for fear of spiritual infection as much as anything else. In our story, both the woman with the bleeding and the dying twelve-year-old girl fell into this category. The woman’s blood made her ritually unclean. Anyone touching her would also be unclean. The same was true of a dead body – and remember that by the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, the girl is dead. Neither should be touched. Not unless you wanted to be isolated for a period of days before having a check-up with the priest.

And what does Jesus do? He welcomes the touch of the bleeding woman, and he touches the hand of the dead girl. Jesus disregards any thought that he would become ritually contaminated, because he knows that through the touch, God has healed the woman and he will heal the girl. Jesus sees the power of God to heal as greater than any contaminating power. To Jesus, God’s power and love are not equal opposites to sin and darkness: they are greater. The ‘Don’t touch’ rules put both the woman and the girl outside the orbit of help and healing: Jesus, by embracing the need for touch, brings them within that orbit and they are made whole again.

This is good news! If there is something we feel unclean about, Jesus wants to touch it with healing. If it is something that ostracises us, or we think will ostracise us if others know about it, again Jesus wants to heal it with his touch. Perhaps there is a secret we harbour, one that we don’t feel we even dare share with friends at church, because we think it will lead to us being cut off socially from others or spiritually from God.

Obviously I have a privileged position as a minister, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many such secrets exist in congregations. Well, Jesus says, be ashamed no longer. Fear not. In his presence the risk of contamination is zero. Come to him, even if you tremble like the woman with the haemorrhage, because his touch will heal you. No longer need you struggle with shame or rejection. In the grace of God, wholeness is yours. Fear no more: Jesus’ only desire for you is healing.

This good news also creates a challenge for the church. If Jesus wants to touch untouchables with his love and healing, then we are called to be a community that accepts people. We truly need to be a safe space for folk. It might involve people who don’t know the usual social graces, or those whose background is unacceptable. It might be their appearance or some other socially unacceptable feature or condition.

By way of just one example, I read these words last Saturday in the TEAR Fund prayer diary:

Similar to many countries around the world, stigma is one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV in Ireland. Pray for Tearfund partner ACET Ireland, who provide practical and emotional care for individuals affected by drugs. Pray that Christians in Ireland will demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ to all those affected and that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV.

Wow. What a challenge: ‘that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV’. But if our faith is in the healing touch of Jesus to restore those whose conditions have severed their social and spiritual links, then this is just the sort of aspiration a community centred on faith in Jesus will have.

Tension
I don’t know whether you’ve ever engaged in a practice such as Ignatian Bible Study, where you are invited to imagine yourself as one of the characters in a biblical story. Whether you’ve done that or not, perhaps you recognise that in certain stories you instinctively identify with one person.

In this story, I identify with Jairus. It’s not his position of influence and authority: it’s the fact that he is the father of a little girl. Ever since I became a parent, stories like this one tug at my heart strings much more than they used to. I can’t read about Jairus without thinking, what if it were my Rebekah? It gets me every time.

And I think that if I were Jairus, I’d be emotionally all over the shop when Jesus stopped to identify the woman who had touched him. Jesus, that’s nice but there’s no time to waste, I’d say. Every second counts if you’re to heal my daughter! Can’t you come back later and speak to this lady? Frankly, my desperation would reach warp speed.

But when the bearers of bad news come with the news that the little girl has passed away, Jesus says to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (verse 36). He’s got to be kidding, hasn’t he?

Except Jesus views the girl’s death in the light of what he is going to do (which is why he says she is only sleeping and why he later dismisses the mourners). And he takes Jairus on an extraordinary journey of faith. It’s one where Jairus holds together two things in tension: one is trust in Jesus, the other is that he unflinchingly stares at the darkness. His faith doesn’t lead him to ignore the darkness or pretend it isn’t there. And the darkness doesn’t extinguish his faith.

The other day, I read a piece by Michael Hyatt, the Chief Executive Officer of the American publishers Thomas Nelson. He was reflecting on the euphoria in many quarters when Barack Obama won the Presidential election last November, contrasted with the perilous economic situation the new President would inherit, typified by his election being followed by the biggest post-election decline in the American stock market. He said that the glass was both half empty and half full, and went on to say this:

In times like these, leaders must do two things simultaneously:

  1. Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
  2. Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

You see it again, just like Jairus: prevailing faith and an embrace of the darkness.

Hyatt went on to recount a story that the business guru Jim Collins tells in his famous book ‘Good To Great’. Collins refers to ‘The Stockdale Paradox’, and tells about a man called Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.

After his release, a reporter asked Admiral Stockdale, “How in the world did you survive eight years in a prisoner of war camp?”

He replied,

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that we would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

The reporter then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Admiral Stockdale replied,

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Collins then goes onto state that an attribute of truly great companies and great leaders is that they are able to embrace simultaneously these twin truths of their current reality and their ultimate triumph.

Jairus had that kind of faith in the best form: a Christ-centred form. Jairus had a desperate plight and a deep faith. Neither escapism nor despair.

Is that what we need? Often I think it is. Perhaps it is a circumstance in our own lives – our health, or troubles facing a family member. Jesus calls us both to look into the abyss and also trust him for ultimate victory.

Perhaps it is about the state of the church. Numbers keep going down. We find it harder to cover every essential task in church life. Jesus calls us to admit honestly the difficulties we are in, and at the same time to trust him that we know the final outcome, which is not the obliteration of God’s people but the final victory of Christ. It may be getting darker, but we are heading towards the dawn.

It was the same for Jesus himself. On the one hand he embraced the darkness. The Gospels tell us he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem. He warned his friends he faced betrayal, rejection, suffering and a cruel death. But he did so, knowing by faith in his Father he would prevail in the conquest of death, leaving behind an empty tomb.

Conclusion
Friends, we are the community of faith – faith in our crucified and risen Lord. Let us embrace that faith to receive the touch of Jesus that heals our woundedness and shame, and let us offer that touch to society’s rejects as we make church a safe space for the hurting.

And in crying out for that touch, we acknowledge we shall travel on a journey filled with tension. We shall hold in tension both the darkness and the deepest faith. It is the way Jesus himself walked. Let us have the courage to walk that way, too, knowing it is the road to his triumph.

Sermon: Making Adversity Work

This will be my first sermon back after the sabbatical. I wrote this at the end of January (hence some of the references!). It will appear on the blog Monday 4th May, to be preached on Sunday 10th, the latter being the date I start back.

Text: John 15:1-8

One of my favourite stories is the one about the little girl who asked her mum whether all fairy stories end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ “No,” replies her mother, “Some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my troubles disappeared’.”

Jesus’ teaching in John 15 explicitly refutes the idea that the Christian life may be lived without suffering or difficulty. In the image here from a vineyard, each branch is either cut off or pruned. I am no gardener, but neither procedure sounds painless!

Whatever the joys and pleasures of our ultimate destiny when we are raised from the dead to life in God’s new creation, life now unavoidably includes uncomfortable and painful seasons. Some of those times, says Jesus, are actually brought by God for our good.

As Adrian Plass has put it, “Each day is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do.” The challenge for Christians is to make those hard circumstances count positively for the kingdom of God.

To do that involves grasping two things mentioned in these verses: what God is doing (pruning) and what we need to do (abiding in Christ).

Pruning 
I am no gardener. I can think of few things that bore me more than gardening. So metaphors in the Bible like this one of God pruning the branches of a vine don’t sit easily with me. Give me a pair of secateurs and I’m more likely to injure myself than accomplish anything worthwhile.

But I do realise that an image of pruning has something to do with cutting away in order to promote health. And on that simple level, I can understand the notion of God pruning us in a spiritual sense. Much as we might prefer God not to, I believe it’s often God’s way either to cut something out of our lives in order for us to grow in the life of the Spirit, or to allow something to be removed from us, so that we are challenged to focus on those things which are truly important.

We may protest about the difficult seasons of our lives – well, I do – but they may sometimes be seasons of the Spirit. Sometimes a bad experience is something to resist and protest against, but not always. God works for good in all things with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, as Paul says in Romans 8:28.

Whenever an adversity comes into our lives, we have a choice as to whether we will seek the purposes of God in it. Endurance and perseverance are character-building qualities. I do not mean that we should embrace injustice or seek out bad times – that would be perverse – but I do think there is a call not just to look for easy ways out but seek what God is saying and doing in that environment.

So a pruning experience can be a stripping away of things that get in the way of our faith. It can be the removal of hindrances, or of accretions that are weighing us down.

I said in a sermon elsewhere just before my sabbatical that the atheist bus campaign with its slogan, ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick at a time of economic recession. To tell people whose jobs and homes are under threat or even disappearing just to ‘stop worrying and enjoy [their lives]’ is unbearably smug. We Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn, despite what the odd prosperity gospel idiot might say. And without in any wanting to minimise the pain for those who are feeling its effects, the differences for Christians are these: our sense of worth is not in our job, but in being loved by God. Our security is in God, not our ability to generate wealth.

Back in January, Debbie spent a weekend away at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. I juggled preparing and conducting services with childcare that weekend. We fitted in various fun things, including visits the children wanted to their favourite shops – Claire’s Accessories in Rebekah’s case, Waterstone’s bookshop in Mark’s, and Millie’s Cookies for both of them.  But nothing really made up for the absence of Mum, even though she rang each day to speak to them and say goodnight to them. On the Saturday tea-time when Debbie phoned, she told Rebekah that she had bought some presents for them. Rebekah’s reply was devastating and moving:

“Mummy, I love presents, but I’d rather have you.”

When God prunes us, not only is it a time of removing sin from our lives, it’s a time when he pins us back to that question: would we rather have him than all the goodies?  The writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), and sometimes the ‘weights’ are not sin. Good things can weigh us down. When God prunes us to make us more holy, he is sometimes asking us whether we want him more than the goodies.

It isn’t that God is a killjoy. The same passage in 1 Timothy where he tells the wealthy not to put their hope on the uncertainty of riches, he tells them to trust in God ‘who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 5:18). God not only understands we may enjoy certain things, he made them for our enjoyment. But he will not permit these created things to be his love-rivals for our affections. And for that reason he will sometimes prune us of good things.

So when we enter a season of our lives when the good life seems to be disappearing, we need to seek God in prayer about it. Is this something evil that should be opposed, or is God pruning us so that ‘we may perfectly love [him]’?

Abiding 
Just as ‘pruning’ was a difficult image for a non-gardener like me, so ‘abiding’ is an awkward one for somebody who was never good at Biology or Botany at school! For Jesus is using an image here of the branch remaining on the vine. He’s talking botany.

One one level, it’s absurd: how can you tell a branch to remain or abide in the vine? It just happens. Well – it happens, provided the flow of sap to the branch remains. In the physical world, neither the branch nor the vine are conscious beings, and so cannot be given commands or expected to choose certain actions. The idea of a branch choosing not to remain connected to the vine is ridiculous.

And it’s similarly ridiculous for the Christian disciple to contemplate not being vitally connected to Christ. Yet Jesus urges his followers to remain, to abide. Of course, the analogy is limited, but maybe that’s the point: we humans are foolish, and easily detach ourselves from the source of spiritual vitality and health. When the flow of sap stops, the branch falls off, or needs cutting off.

As I said near the beginning, the choice is being cut off or being pruned. Each is painful. But assuming we have chosen pruning and are willing to endure that for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness, then how do we ‘abide’ while God ‘prunes’?

Not surprisingly, this comes down to a disciplined approach to the spiritual life. Regular habits of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are essential parts of this. Yes, it can be difficult to find time, but we make time for food even when we have to eat on the run, and it’s critical that we make time for these habits, without which we shall starve. We don’t all need to do them first thing in the morning, as some books tell us, but we do need a time.

The disciplines are not merely personal and private, though. Even prayer and biblical meditation need not be solo practices. Often they are helpful done in fellowship with others. The ‘sap’ doesn’t always come to us directly; sometimes it arrives through others.

Then, there are those practices which we are used to conceiving of in a corporate form: worship and the sacraments. We don’t sit in private cubicles at worship and Holy Communion; we are deliberately together to encounter God within us and among us, and to build each other up.

But we can’t even stop there. Abiding in Christ involves not only receiving the sap, it means allowing it to work. So prayer, Bible reading, worship and taking the sacraments are not simply passive practices. They are meant to lead to action. Spiritual nourishment is designed by God in such a way that it is health-giving when put into practice. It decays without use. We need to respond to what we are given. This means there are both public and secret disciplines.

The public practices are by nature fairly obvious. They involve every way we demonstrate the love of God in Christ to others. So pastoral care within the church, when done in response to God’s love, is a spiritual discipline. So is care for the poor, praying and campaigning for justice. Evangelism, too.

Then there are the secret responses we make, the ones where Jesus condemned those who did them for show as having already received their reward in public adulation. Giving to someone in need. Or fasting as a sign that something was so important it was worth going without the basics of food in order to underline prayer. And some forms of prayer itself are best done secretly rather than showily.

Abiding in Christ is everything we do to keep in tune with him and sustained by him. Sustenance involves taking something into us, and some of the disciplines I’ve mentioned are blatantly ones where we put ourselves in a position to receive from Christ. 

Others, though, are about the outworking of what we have received. Jesus expects much of those to whom much is given. Some Christians emphasise prayer, others action, but both are priorities. Abiding in Christ is a matter of both receiving from Christ and giving back to him and others.

Both the receiving and the giving are practised in easy times and hard times, when life and faith are going well, and when we are facing opposition and even undergoing pruning. They are, after all, disciplines, not just activities we engage in because we feel like it.

Many are the ordinary routine actions of life that we maintain regardless of whether we feel like doing them, but we continue with them for the sake of our well-being and the flourishing of others. So are the spiritual disciplines of abiding in Christ, too.

I’ve heard some people speak about marriages as if marriage ‘didn’t work’ – implying that marriage was something that happened to them. But relationships take work and effort, and our spiritual relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen, either. It does happen to us in the sense that God makes the first move towards us. Furthermore, his approaches are sometimes of a ‘pruning’ nature.

But it then requires faithful response from us, through good times and bad. And that’s what abiding in Christ is all about.

Sermon For Advent 4: Mary The First Christian?

Luke 1:26-38

Wandering around St Augustine’s last Sunday morning before the service, I noticed the place where the Catholic community leave their votive candles burning after their 9 am Mass. I’m sure there is a special Catholic word for it, but I’m afraid I’m ignorant of these technicalities.

In front of the candles is a kneeler and small rail. On the rail are some cards containing the texts of prayers. Prominent among them was a prayer to Mary written by the current Pope.  Of course as I read it I realised it was not addressing Mary in prayer in the way you would God. It was asking Mary’s help in approaching God, and in the ways of discipleship. 

Nevertheless, my Protestant bones got nervous! And maybe a number of us still do at the mention of Mary, despite warmer relations with Christians of other traditions.

Yet whatever reservations I want to enter about traditional Catholic attitudes to Mary, it’s entirely wrong just to be negative about her, which is the Protestant error regarding her. Mary is a great example of Christian discipleship herself. Remember she was at the Cross and among the disciples praying in the lead-up to Pentecost.

And she is an example of Christian discipleship here, too, in the famous story of the Annunciation. How so? In ways that are fundamental to all followers of Jesus. Her life – even here, at the tender age of about thirteen – is a testimony to Christian basics.

Favour 
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women,’ say our Catholic friends. They are quoting this very passage. To quote it from the reading, Gabriel says:

‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (‘Blessèd are you among women’ is not in the best manuscripts.) (Verse 28)

The difference I have with Catholics is that Mary is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. ‘Full of grace’ means she is the ‘favoured one’. God has favoured her. There is no indication of any reason why she has deserved this. Rather, this is the sovereign choice of God in deciding to favour one of his children. There is no requirement that Mary is sinless, it is about the sovereign grace of God.

But what kind of favour is it? God has chosen her to bring his Son into the world. In one respect, that is the most enormous honour. It is an incredible decision of favour towards Mary. What could be more wonderful than to carry the presence of God in her womb for nine months? What could be more incredible than to be the one who brings God in the flesh into the midst of humanity?

So you could say that we have a similar privilege. God’s favour towards us is that – while we do not carry Jesus physically as Mary did – we carry his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and we have the missionary privilege of bearing his love into a broken world. God honours us, too, then: he makes us what Paul calls ‘ambassadors’, but not only in representing Christ to the world. We take Christ to the world. God chooses every follower of his Son do this. It shows his favour towards us.

But it is a favour in the form of a double-edged sword. For Mary to accept the call was to risk scandal or even worse. In a society that held strongly to its morals, pregnancy outside marriage would bring shame. Adultery, of course, was punishable by stoning. It was potentially costly in the extreme for Mary to embrace the favour of God. She did so, taking a huge risk. Certainly there is ancient evidence of stories being put around that Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier. Receiving and accepting the favour of God meant she could be reviled and despised.

And the favour of God is a challenge for us, too.  Yes, it is a privilege to bear witness to Christ in the world, but we know that sometimes comes at a price. Snide comments, ridicule and on other occasions worse things than that. Yet the early church considered such opposition their badge of honour. Mary’s willingness to take on all that the favour of God would mean for her is an Advent reminder to us that the favour of God in Christ carries a price that is worth paying.

Power 
One of the things I most like about Mary is that she asks questions. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ she asks (verse 34). I’ll say something more about her questions in the final point, but for now let’s notice the angel’s reply:

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Verses 35-37)

Mary, you don’t have to abandon your morals to accomplish this. You don’t have to worry about doing the impossible. The impossible is God’s department, says Gabriel. Mary, you cannot fulfil your calling under God except by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And this too becomes an important reminder for us about the nature of Christian discipleship. There is so much we do and maintain in the church and in the world purely on the basis of our own strength. Our criteria are whether we think we can do something, rather than asking what God has called us to do, and then depending on the Holy Spirit.

It’s the latter which is true discipleship, not the former. We are the agents of God’s impossible ministry, and it is accomplished not on the basis of our abilities (however important it is to dedicate them to God). Nor is it achieved by force of strong personalities. God’s work is achieved by our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.

So when Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’, he doesn’t just tell her the mechanics of what is to happen in the near future: he foreshadows the way in which God will send the Holy Spirit on all the followers of Christ. 

A wag once said that if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, then ninety five per cent of all church activity would continue just the same. That may be a trifle unfair, but the point is probably a sound one. We have got so used to running the institution of the church that somewhere along the line many of us have just assumed the presence of the Holy Spirit, rather than lived in active dependence upon him [her?].

So let’s not confine the Holy Spirit to an annual remembrance on the Day of Pentecost. Advent is a time for remembering that the work of the Holy Spirit is three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day. As we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary today, will we recommit ourselves to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to do the will of God, rather than confining God to the limits of our abilities?

Yes, today is a day to say, ‘God, we give you permission to stretch us. Challenge us to something beyond our capabilities, and we shall rely on your Spirit to accomplish your work.’

Faith 
Now here’s the point where I want to bring back the fact that Mary asks questions. That might not be what you expected me to highlight when talking about her faith. You might have thought I would have gravitated to those wonderful words of hers, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (verse 38). Certainly those are words of faith. Taken on their own, they might depict a serenity of faith to which many of us aspire.

And in contrast to that, some might think that when she questions the angel, saying, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (verse 34), that those words reflect doubt, lack of faith, or even unbelief.

But I submit to you that Mary’s question is not an act of doubt or unbelief. If you had read Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, you would have come across an example of that, where Zechariah hears the angelic announcement that his wife Elizabeth is to bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah’s unbelief leads to his being struck dumb until the child is born.

Gabriel doesn’t react that way here. He gives an explanation in response to Mary’s question. I suggest the difference is because Mary feels secure enough to ask questions from within the framework of faith. Having faith need not mean we don’t have questions. The Old Testament is full of such faith. Read the Psalms, where so many of the Psalmists complain to God from a standpoint of faith. Mary isn’t even complaining, she’s just asking ‘how?’.

What’s the difference between faith with questions and unbelief? That’s in Mary’s willingness to obey. You can question but still obey, and that’s what Mary does.

One hymn I hate and will not choose (not that it’s in any Methodist books any more) is ‘I vow to thee my country‘. I take particular exception to the line, ‘The love that asks no question.’ Not only does the hymn require a devotion to country that outstrips our loyalty to God (whatever the final verse says), I’m not sure I even offer God a ‘love that asks no question’. Certainly Mary didn’t. And there’s no reason why we should, either, just so long as we are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

When I began my career in the Civil Service, I had to spend four weeks away on a training course. I shared accommodation with someone who had a Philosophy degree, and whose dissertation had been written on the subject, ‘Logical disproofs of the existence of God’. Knowing I was a Christian, he asked why I believed in God. But at the end, he made it clear he had no intention of taking it seriously and only did it for a joke. His questions were those of unbelief, not of faith.

Similarly, there are some within the church whose questions can be little more than scorn, rather than honest exploration in the service of Christ. That is hardly a questioning faith.

The key point is that faith has legs. Questions and concerns are fine, just so long as we retain a basic commitment to say ‘yes’ to Christ. Because that’s what a disciple is. Someone who imitates him. That’s going to require a faith that isn’t merely theoretical, but shows itself to be real in obedience. Provided that is at the heart of our faith, we can ask all the questions we need. God is not threatened by them.

Conclusion 
Mary, then, is not some unattainable, semi-divine figure. She is a human, vulnerable follower of her Lord. As such, she can be an inspiration to us as we seek to walk in the way of faith.

Like her, let us accept the gracious favour of God to share Christ with the world, and accept the cost we may have to pay.

Like her, let us depend on the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of all that God wants to do in and through us, rather than continuing to go through the motions.

And like her, let us bring our questions to God and yet press on in the obedience of faith.

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Verse 38)

Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

What do you do when no-one’s looking? That is a test of our character, isn’t it?

One American minister whose blog I read wrote about it this last week. He gave a few examples of what this might mean for Christians. How do we react when someone cuts us up on the road? How do I choose between two options when I am sure I know my spouse would prefer one of them? How do I behave around members of the opposite sex when my spouse isn’t around? Do I speak the same way about others in their presence as I would when they are absent? Do I pay my bills on time? Do I exaggerate my achievements on a CV, or generally boast unduly about my abilities?

Similarly, a few days before the Presidential election in the USA, the well-known church leader Rick Warren wrote a piece about the kind of leadership he believed America needed. He talked about the need for leaders to demonstrate integrity, humility and generosity. With regard to integrity, he said this:

Some people say that it doesn’t really matter what a leader does in his private life. It matters if you want God’s blessing. What you do in your private life always affects your public life. In fact, that’s the definition of integrity – your public and private life is the same.

Again, it’s a question of what you do when no-one’s looking.

What have these examples to do with the Parable of the Talents? Simply this: the parable is couched in terms of an absent master. He gives the talents to his slaves and then goes away for a long time.

You could say we live in the absence of Jesus. That sounds shocking. Quickly we object that he promised to be with us always, and that he promised to send his Spirit. Absolutely. Christ is present by his Spirit. But that presence is not always tangible, and certainly we often live as if he were absent. How we conduct ourselves when he is not physically present is a Gospel issue for his disciples, and the various servants in the parable show different responses to that situation.

Faithful Servants 
It is the dream of many Christians to hear Christ address us on Judgment Day with the words the master uses to the trustworthy slaves here: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, followed by the invitation to enter into the Master’s joy. But what draws a delighted verdict of ‘Well done’ from Christ to his servants? How exactly have they been so faithful in small things that Jesus will now put them in charge of many things?

Well, clearly it’s an act of faith. But we need to be careful how we define faithfulness. For faithfulness is much more than simply doing things regularly. We say someone is faithful if they show up every week. There is a certain truth to that, which we ought to observe. Faithfulness involves endurance. It means sticking at things through thick and thin.

But I believe Jesus means much more than that in commending the faithfulness of the trustworthy servants in this parable. They take the money they have been given (remember, a talent here is currency, not a gift or ability) and speculate with it. Faithfulness here is much more than regular habits of spiritual commitment, important as they are.

I think it was best put by the late John Wimber, in one of my favourite sayings of his. He observed that the word ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. If faith is about radical trust and obedience to Christ, then it is going to involve risk.

Perhaps the classic story in the Gospels is where Jesus walks on the water and Simon Peter says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, call me.’ So Jesus does call him and Peter gets out of the boat. For a while, he walks on the water, too. But then when he gets more concerned with the waves at his feet, he sinks. 

What does Jesus do? He lifts him up. Contrary to some of our assumptions, Jesus does not condemn Peter for the moment when he takes his eyes off him and onto the circumstances. I believe that the balance of the situation is that Jesus commends Peter for his risky act of faith.

You will notice if you read the story that Jesus has no word at all for the disciples who remain in the boat. All his words and actions are directed towards risk-taking, faithful Peter. Don’t put this one down to the impetuous, blustering Peter. Here he takes risks of faith. In doing so, he shines much brighter than the other disciples.

So, the question is for us: are we the types who practise risk-taking faith? We need to cultivate an approach which is willing to try one thing after another, and not be discouraged if something doesn’t work out. If like Peter we begin to sink, then Christ will stretch his hands out to lift us up and encourage us to keep going.

I may have told you before that one of the most liberating things I ever read about ministry was the comment of an American pastor who said he didn’t mind if he tried ten different things in church, only for nine of them to fail, if it meant he found the one thing it was right for him to do. I believe that minister had an insight into risk-taking faith, the sort of faith that Jesus commends and rewards.

For Hatfield Peverel, this challenge comes as we approach the final session of the first Alpha Course we have specifically conducted as an outreach. Will people be converted? Will anyone join this church, or another one? If so, will it happen now or later? None of us knows. Suppose we see no obvious fruit: should we give up? No. Way. We should either continue to run Alpha Courses or something else. That is what risk-taking faithful servants do.

There is a ‘secular’ proverb that makes for good spiritual application here: failure is not falling down. The only failure is when we do not get up again after a fall. Those who practise risky faith are bruised from many falls. But they keep going. As a result, they bear fruit. And one day, they will be rewarded.

Unfaithful Servant 
So onto the shocking part of the parable. I refer to the unfaithful servant, but the language of the master is much stronger. He calls him ‘wicked and lazy’. That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Worse, this slave says he knows the master is ‘harsh’, and he seems to act in exactly that way in his anger. He has the one talent taken from this man and given to the servant with ten talents. Then he has him thrown into outer darkness. What are we to make of this horrifying and violent conclusion?

I want to begin by saying that while the parables of Jesus have allegorical features, not every detail is meant to have its allegory. So we should be careful about applying every last detail of a parable by looking for an exact parallel.

But in saying that, I do not want to dilute the challenge here. Often, Jesus includes a shock element in a parable: think about the scandal of the father welcoming home the prodigal son, for example. The shock is meant to guide us into the core of what Jesus is teaching us. So we should listen carefully to the condemnation of the one-talent servant. What might Jesus be saying to us here?

Let me approach that by way of an illustration. On Tuesday evening, the circuit ministers, circuit stewards and a few other circuit officers gathered to discuss the findings of our recent Circuit Review. Inevitably, we got onto the subject of change. Someone observed that one reason for resistance to change in our churches is this: the world is changing rapidly, and some of our folk find this bewildering and even frightening. They look for a place where they can find security in the familiar things they have known for years not changing. That place is the church. 

I do not believe in advocating change for the sake of change. However, at the risk of sounding callous, can I suggest that such reasons for resisting change in the church and keeping things ‘as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be’ betray the mentality of the one-talent servant? Our security is not meant to be with familiar practices, buildings and hymns. Christian security is found in Jesus Christ and God’s enduring love. Anything less is idolatry.

I have told the story how in my teens I took a poll of people’s favourite hymns in my home church. The top choice was a surprise. It wasn’t ‘And can it be’. Nor was it ‘O for a thousand tongues’ or ‘Love divine’. It was ‘In heavenly love abiding’. I was always convinced the reason that hymn got the most votes was for the line, ‘For nothing changes here’!

The one-talent servant would not engage in risk-taking faith. He wanted to keep everything the same. Change was a threat to him. He had an inkling the master would be angry, and he was right. Christ, too, will be displeased with us if we take the safe option. He called his disciples to leave everything and follow him. Might it be that he calls us to leave much that is familiar to us in order to go on a journey of risky faithfulness as his disciples? I believe he might well. Remember, he had no words of encouragement for those disciples who stayed in the boat while Peter attempted to walk on the water.

Maybe the problem for those of us who like to play it safe is the one with which I opened the sermon. We act as if Jesus were not present. He is not very real to us. If we had a sense of his close presence, how could we not take great risks of faith? Yes, we wonder whether we know his will at times. But wouldn’t he rather we took a chance on seeing whether something was his will and have a stab at it, rather than sit around with it buried out of doubt or fear?

On my daily exercise walks, I have taken to listening to podcasts, which are like radio programmes you can download from the Internet. I listen to them on earphones in the same way others listen to music. On Friday, I listened to a talk given at a conference in Southampton by the Australian missionary thinker Mike Frost. One thing he said that struck me was this. You can name all the signs you like that you think prove the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. But if you are not getting on with the risky subject of Christian mission, then how much can you say you are like the God who is always sending and who in his Son is not only sending but sent?

Playing safe just doesn’t fit with God. That’s why the master is angry.

Conclusion 
The challenge of this parable is very personal for me. As some of you know, I resisted a call to the ministry for a long time, because I thought my personality didn’t fit what most congregations wanted from a minister. Sixteen years into circuit ministry, I still think that!

Not only that, although the great majority of people I have met through ministry have been lovely Christians, I have seen enough of Christianity’s dark underbelly to have had more than the occasional thought of quitting.

In my darker moments, I don’t always have the most worthy of reasons for staying in the ministry. I wonder what else I would do. I think about financially providing for my family. These are hardly heroic reasons.

Yet remaining as a minister is nevertheless a risk-taking act of faith for me. I still can’t fathom why God called me this way. All I know is that – to my sometimes incredulous surprise – he does something beautiful, because I’ve hung around in what is often an uncomfortable environment for me. This calling is where I exercise risky faith, just by following it. Were I to follow my natural inclinations as they tempt me when ministry is dry or discouraging, I would be playing it safe. I would be a one-talent servant.

Has God called you to an uncomfortable place, too? Do you think that like Peter you might sink? Hang around there. Don’t quit. Let Jesus pick you up when things go wrong. In due course you will bear fruit for the kingdom of God.

And let’s take risks as a church, too.

Tributes To Rosa Parks

Some beautiful quotes from the Rosa Parks memorial service on the BBC website today:

Condoleeza Rice, US Secretary of State:

“I can honestly say that without Mrs Parks, I would not be standing here today as secretary of state.”

Bob Riley, Governor of Alabama:

“I firmly believe God puts different people in different parts of history so great things can happen. I think Rosa Parks is one of those people.”

Daniel Coughlin, Chaplain to the House of Representatives:

“Tonight, inspired by her life and leadership, as your free children, we say to Mrs Rosa Parks: Ride on, ride on, ride on in the direction of endless hope to the table of equal justice and eternal peace.”

Put these quotes together and we have a beautiful and challenging picture of holistic Christian faith lived out in the crucible of the world. May we all aspire to that.

Banning the Make Poverty History TV Ad

OFCOM, the regulatory quango, has banned the Make Poverty History TV ad, with celebrities clicking their fingers every three seconds to mark the death of another child. You can read their decision here.

Various sponsoring bodies of MPH are furious. (And you’ll have noticed from the banner on this blog that I support the campaign.) Ekklesia has condemned the decision as effectively partisan: why is it OK to ban MPH from TV commercials on political grounds but not those companies whose products cause the very problems MPH is campaigning against? Anthea Cox of the Methodist Church points out that decisions on poverty are necessarily political and involvement in the campaign by Christians has been a direct consequence of their faith.

All of which means the MPH ads are banned on the old grounds of religion and politics. You’re not supposed to talk about them in public if you’re British. Or so the theory goes.

OFCOM argues that MPH’s goals are ‘wholly or mainly political’ and maybe they are, but as Anthea Cox replies above, how can you avoid that? Furthermore, they say the commercial was directed towards influencing government policy and that’s against the relevant codes. Right. So it’s OK for a multinational to shell out money to send people to talk directly to Downing Street but you mustn’t do it on air.

OFCOM may or may not be applying the rules accurately but doesn’t the whole sorry affair stink of hypocrisy? In particular it’s the hypocrisy that keeps the rich wealthy and the poor destitute – the very things MPH opposes. Who wrote those rules, then? I wonder.

A Ministry Scrapbook

Regular blogging is quite difficult at present, as we get ready for our move next month. Last night I had my big circuit farewell service. Some had questioned my choice of venue, one of the ecumenical churches I have served. Why not the main church I had served, a small ordinary Methodist church? I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I thought that after eight years here and building up all sorts of networks there might be a lot of people who wanted to say goodbye. I thought we needed a larger venue.

I was right: I arrived twenty minutes before the service was due to start and I couldn’t get in the large car park. The whole service went brilliantly well. My sermon, which could have caused a few ruffled feathers, had an amazing response. I would estimate that about a quarter of the congregation came forward at the end to be anointed with oil.

There was a bunfight afterwards, except I never made it to the church hall even to get a cup of tea, due to the number of people wanting to speak to me. By the time I arrived home, around 9:15 pm, I was emotionally shattered. I felt the same when I woke up this morning: legs like jelly, plus a headache. (And no, it was the usual non-alcoholic Methodist communion wine.)

Some of these emotions made a bit more sense when I read the following wonderful words this morning from Nancy Beach’s beautiful book An Hour On Sunday:

‘Take a moment to mentally scroll through names and faces of people in your church. Think of someone who came to faith through your community. Now call to mind a few more people – someone who discovered spiritual gifts, someone else who found healing for family relationships, another who learned how to manage money, care for her body, or worship his Creator in new ways. Can you think of specific names? Those people, those eternal souls, are the fruit of your labor. And people are what matter most to God …

‘Every ministry is a scrapbook of faces, with new pages added every year. As we turn the pages of the scrapbook and look at each person’s eyes, we’re reminded of his or her story, of the impact of our church on that individual’s one and only life. Life change. There’s nothing more rewarding.’ (pp 254, 255)

So after eight years when I had really wondered whether what I had done here had been worth anything, when I had become painfully aware of my own failings (either true failings or those imposed by the unrealistic expectations of others) I think I’ve finally come to see that the jelly in my legs and the headache are about a realisation that I actually do have a ministry scrapbook I can take away from this place.

Thoughts From P G Vardis

What do you make of this quote? Is it faith or just the power of positive thinking?

India missions leader P G Vargis wrote recently:

“Put yourself in a growth environment. Certain fish grow according to the size of the environment. Put them in a small aquarium and they remain small. It is said that if you put a baby shark in a small aquarium of 6 inches the shark will grow to that size only. Release it into the ocean and it will grow to their intended size. And you are the same! If you spend your time with the wrong crowd in the wrong place doing the wrong things, you will never experience growth.

“I do not criticize other servants of God. So I do not associate with those who criticize others. I believe in success and so I do not sit with those who always talk about failure, attacks and persecution. I associate with people who talk about opportunity, success, result, victory, peace, growth and mega churches. And I let these qualities rub off onto me as I also try to do this to them.”

From the Web Evangelism Bulletin.

Bono And Faith

Can anyone seriously doubt the reality of Bono’s faith when they read this quote? Ends up rather like C S Lewis’ old point that you can’t say Jesus was a good guy or a prophet: your only serious options are liar, lunatic or Lord.

Thanks to Andrew Careaga for the link.