Saturday, 21 September 2013

Jesus makes a joke!

by Rev Peter Lockhart
Luke 16:1-13

I find myself again and again saying that it’s all about the context and today is no different.  Reading the first 13 verses of Luke 16 in isolation I believe leads to confusion; so we need to look a bit more broadly to wrap our heads around what appears to be quite an obscure parable that is followed by a set of quite terse sayings about the place of money.

I am not going to drag us back too far in Luke’s gospel just a little way to the beginning of Luke 15 which determines the context in which the words of Luke 16 are spoken.

At the beginning of Luke 15 we hear that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling and saying: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus initial response to this grumbling is to tell 3 stories to the Pharisees and scribes: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son.

Each of these stories infers the way in which God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into community, which is a cause for celebration.  The parables are about mercy and love and forgiveness and grace and the extent and effort to which God would go to restore people in their relationships.

These parables are meant to serve as a corrective to the negativity of the Pharisees and scribes which would exclude the tax collectors and sinners.

After telling these stories Jesus then turns to his disciples and tells them a parable.  Now we know the Pharisees scribes are still and listening so I have a sense that Jesus is in a way sharing a bit of an in joke with his disciples whilst allowing his detractors to eavesdrop on the conversation.

And Jesus tells this parable, and I’ll just briefly recount it.

There is a rich man who had a manager who he thought was not doing a good job so he decided to sack him.

The manager said oh no what will I do I am too weak to dig and I am certainly not going to beg.

So he went off and called together everyone who was indebted to his master.

He said to one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil, make it 50.

And to another who owed 100 containers of wheat, make it 80.

Now when the rich man found out he commended the manager for his cleverness.

I just want to explain a little about why the master might have commended the manager and it is tied up with the honour and shame aspects of the culture.

By forgiving the debt of the 2 tenants the manager would have brought honour to the master whilst at the same time providing an opportunity for the tenants to restore their honour within the community.

Now I suggested a moment a go that I think that what Jesus is doing by telling this story is having an in-joke with his disciples about the behaviour of the Pharisees.

So firstly what if we think for a moment that Jesus is placing the Pharisees and Scribes in the place of the master in the parable, which is quite logical as the Pharisees and scribes were at the top of the religious heap in the society.

If this is the case then Jesus is saying to the disciples hey these guys who think they are my master want to give me the flick because they think I am managing God’s affairs and message badly.

And this is where I think is using a real sense of humour.  Oh no what will we I do I can’t dig or beg says the manager, says Jesus...  no Jesus has a better plan and Jesus plan is God’s plan for dealing with the tax collectors and sinners that the Pharisees and scribes had been grumbling about.

“I am going to forgive; I am going to forgive the debts; I am going to forgive the sins; I am going to restore relationships which have eternal implications; and, he says to the disciples, I want you to do the same.”

“These Pharisees and scribes might want to give me the flick but they can’t because I am doing God’s business and you are part of that too.”

Now just as in the story the masters commends the manager I think Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and scribes who see themselves as his master, “what i am doing brings honour to all of us, to you as well and rather than grumbling you should be commending me who is doing God’s will.”

Paired with the 3 stories told to the Pharisees and scribes about what had been lost and found this parable is a continuation on the same theme of the way in which Jesus was behaving in relationship to the tax collectors and sinners.

But we haven't finished yet because hanging off the end of the parable is a group of sayings about faithfulness, dishonesty, true riches and money which all culminate in Jesus declaring, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Now if you look for a moment at this $50 bill you may or may realise that physical this piece of plastic is only a symbol.  It does not actually contain $50 worth of material.  In fact it is far less.

But we all know it does symbolise $50 but I would argue based on what Jesus is saying here it is symbolise far more than $50.  It symbolise choices I can make; it symbolises how much I value a person; it symbolise a level of power and authority that I have.  Let me share a few examples:

First, I recently saw a list of contributors to political parties – money has authority because I believe there is a reflection of the policies developed by the parties which is responsive to who gave them money.

Second, the amount of money that we are paid is in our market economy in direct proportion to how we as a community value the contribution being made and the person doing it. 

Money is a symbol of power and authority and as Jesus implies we can easily be enslaved by the power and authority inherent in currency.

Now whilst I have given this part of Jesus a contemporary spin the reality is that when Jesus said this he was having a pretty sharp final jab at the Pharisees.

Basically saying, you guys might want to have a go at me about who I hang around with but let’s have a look what you think is important and it isn’t God’s people it’s your own power and authority.

Why do we know that this is what Jesus was doing?  The context which we don’t hear read this morning but is the very next line of Luke’s gospel.

“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this, and they ridiculed him.”

Luke is reminding us that whilst Jesus had been speaking to his disciples that the Pharisees were still there and Jesus words were pointed just as much at them as they were at the disciples.

The drama that had unfolded through the Pharisees attack on Jesus was Jesus declaration that God’s purpose in him was seeking the lost, was identifying with the lost, was showing them mercy, bringing them home and celebrating God’s grace with them. 

And Jesus had gone on to say you guys think you are my master well you can’t get rid of me that easily because I am bringing God’s forgiveness into to the lives of many and this will bring you honour to even though I can see you are not serving God as you ought but rather are pursuing your own wealth as lovers of money.

Jesus is all about the love and mercy and forgiveness of God and this is indeed good news and the early community later described by Luke in the book of Acts tried to free themselves of the hold money over them by selling everything that they had and sharing it in common.

As we know this way of being Christians whilst tried many times and in many ways through the centuries has never really taken hold but regardless of our ability to free ourselves from the hold of money over our lives, Jesus continues to stand declaring I forgive your 50 jugs of oil and I forgive your 20 bushels of wheat, I forgive your sin and let us be friends eternally.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Jesus, the shepherd and the lost sheep

by Peter Lockhart

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

In these few words, that we hear nearly every week after the prayer of confession as part of the affirmation of forgiveness, is the heart of the gospel message.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Christ Jesus did not come to give us a pat on the back about how we are good people.  Christ Jesus did not come simply to be an example of how to live our lives.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and that means you and me and everybody else.

Most of us do not want to hear this message. Most of us do want to be told that we sinners, that we are not righteous and holy people.  Most of us like to meditate on the first few verses on the Bible that asserts that when God created “it was good” and ignore the rest of the story about the corruption of that goodness.  Moreover I would say that speaking about sin is not that popular in many places and in many churches these days.

But to ignore sin is to ignore the reason for Jesus presence in the world.  Paul writes to Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.  Paul was under no illusion that he was a sinner, even after he had encountered Jesus Christ and become an apostle.  In his letter to the Romans he reflects his own predicament “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”  This is Paul the Christian who asserts his own inability to respond to God appropriately.

As Christians we cannot avoid the confrontation with God’s declaration concerning our estrangement and failure to be God’s people as God would have us be.  A failure that is captured in the words of Psalm 14:

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
They have all gone astray,
they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

When God looks upon human beings he does not see righteousness and goodness he sees that we have become corrupt, that we have gone astray, that none of us do good.

Regardless of how good we think we might be, regardless of how moral we think we might be God sees us as sinners.  Our relationship with God is broken.  On its own this Psalm does not comfort us it confronts us.  You are all sinners.

Once again in Romans Paul asserted that the law was given so that sin might be revealed.  The law is not given so that we can follow it and earn our way into heaven by what we do.  The law is given so that we would be confronted with the truth of our sin.  So for example, if we learn the Ten Commandments it is not affirm our righteousness in our following of them but to expose our inability to be God’s people because we cannot follow them.  Paul reminds us even if we can follow the law by our action in our hearts we resist the law and this is no different to breaking the law itself.

But are we left in this predicament of estrangement and sin?  Are we left to be abandoned to death and destruction and the hot winds that will lay waste?  We have all gone astray we are lost like sheep without a shepherd.

But listen to the good news of Jesus Christ as he speaks his parable to the tax collectors and sinners who had come near and to the Pharisees and Scribes who grumbled.

Creative Commons: Charles Roffey source Flickr
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Until he finds it!  Jesus is that shepherd who has come into the wilderness of human existence to find all of us who have gone astray.  He is looking for the lost sheep of all humanity and having found us in the midst of our sin and God-forsakenness he lifts us onto his shoulders and bears us in himself back into the presence of the Father.  He takes us home into relationship with God - into the fold of the Father’s love.

Notice the paradox of the telling of the parable that Jesus says that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than the 99 who do not need to repent.  The sheep did not seek the shepherd it had gone astray, like we who in our sin have gone astray from God.  The sheep was lost and it was found, it did not find itself through repenting.  The shepherd saves the sheep, the sheep does not save itself.

Here the parable echoes that wonderful Psalm, Psalm 23.  The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want he makes me to lie down in green pastures.  I do not choose to lie down but my Lord my Shepherd makes me to lie down.  It is the shepherd who acts in my and your best interest.

In this parable there is a sense that Jesus is not only the shepherd but the one sinner who repents, he is one with us, the lost sheep, and we are found in him as he seeks us in our lostness.

Grace is all the action of God, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  And this is what baptism is all about. 

Baptism is not a naming ceremony.  Baptism is not simply the celebration of the birth of a child.  Baptism is the celebration of God’s unconditional loving grace.  As Christians we do not think of the innocent child rather we remember the words of Psalm 51:

Indeed, I was born guilty,
          a sinner when my mother conceived me.

The baptismal candidate does not repent but is drawn through the Holy Spirit into Christ’s own baptism by John the Baptist.  This is a baptism for the repentance of sin which he undertook for our sake.  The baptismal candidate is not required to know or understand but becomes a sign for us all of reconciling love and mercy of God.  This truth is summed up in the words of the prayer which I quote often:

Little child,
          for you Jesus Christ has come,
          has lived, has suffered;
          for you,
          he has endured the agony of Gethsemane
          and the darkness of Calvary;
          for you,
          he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!”
          For you, he has triumphed over death;
          for you, he prays at God’s right hand;
          all for you little child,
          even though you do not know it.

Even though you do not know it!  Here in these readings today is the heart of the gospel.  Joy to the world the Lord is come, and he has come to bear us lost sheep, even if we don’t know we are lost, on his shoulders back into the presence of the heavenly kingdom.

So where does all of this leave us.  What are the implications for how we are to live?  To return for a moment to Paul’s words to Timothy, Paul says, “For that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might displays the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

We are called to live with patience and humility not thinking that we are no longer sinners but always remembering that we are forgiven sinners.  People who though we go on sinning God patiently goes on forgiving and loving. 

This humility means that we celebrate the repentance of Christ for us and our repentance in him with praise and thanksgiving.  We worship God, not only on Sunday but everyday, we meditate on his word to us, we pray, we celebrate baptism and communion. 

This humility means that we do judge one another or anyone else and that the doors of the church are open to any who would wish to be with us in God’s presence, for we forgiven sinners are not the ones who say who Christ can bear on his shoulders into the Father’s presence and whom he cannot.

This humility means remembering the truth of the gospel, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This is the good news of Jesus Christ to we who are the foremost among sinners.  Through God’s mercy we are set free to live our lives no longer burden by sin but in celebrating the steadfastness and the patience and the mercy and the great love of God.

Take a few moments to meditate on God’s love for you this day.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

From hate to hope.

By Peter Lockhart

I wonder what you think it means to be a Christian. 
What does it mean to be a church goer? 
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus: a disciple even?

I know that early in my life I believed very much that to be a Christian meant being a good member of society, upholding Christian values, which included family values.

It is interesting to note that one of the political parties with a religious leaning personify this commitment to family values in their name: Family First.

But is this really what the faith is about having family values and being good citizens.

On the dawn after our Australian election the lectionary give us the challenging gift of this reading from Luke 14:25-33:

25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Jesus said: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Now I am not sure how well you know the Ten Commandments but honour thy father and mother is
To love or hate?
Creative commons: Kudaker
certainly one of them.  Is Jesus contradicting the law?  What does it mean for him to say that we should hate our families?  How do his words challenge the whole family values idea?

I know personally I hold to an idea that the message of Jesus is meant to be good news.  The first words of Mark’s gospel read “The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Hating family does not sound like good news!

A week ago the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discussing marriage equality of Q&A said himself that at the heart of the New Testament is a message of universal love.  In 1 John we read “God is love”, if God is love from whence is this hate of family?

Where is the hope?  Where is the grace?  Where is the mercy?  Where is the good news?

How can we move from this message of hate into a message of hope?

The answer for me is that we must always take step back from a reading like this and look at it in the broader context.  We need to consider where it fits in the flow of the narrative of that particular book of the Bible and we also need to weigh it against the prevailing themes in scripture.  We also need to use our reason and intellect to consider it in light of revelation around the passage and in the world that has occurred through two millennia.

Looking at Luke’s gospel the preceding story is the story which we read last week.  To recap for those who were not here or may have forgotten Jesus was at a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees.  During the meal Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, questioned the jockeying for hierarchical status at the table, and challenged the religious leaders to include those who were ostracised from the community.

In other words Jesus was challenging religious, social, economic and even political norms and standards of behaviour.  He was being counter cultural and in so doing was emphasising the tension that exist between God’s will and the society in which the Pharisees were operating and the underpinning assumptions within that society.

Jesus words about hating family and even life itself are a continuation of this confrontation between God’s will and the way people lived.

In the first century the life of any Jewish person was very much defined by their household.  The individualism of our society would be completely foreign to them culturally.

In Jesus time a man would be the head of a household and the household would usually be understood in a broader sense than the notion of the nuclear family of mum, dad and kids.

In this household of Jesus time the members of the household were intricately connected and the behaviour of one member could bring shame or honour to the whole group. 

Looking back to the passage for a moment at the end of the passage Jesus says “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” 

It may seem unusual for you that Jesus parallels hating family with possessions but in Jesus time viewing members of the family as possessions was more the norm.  Women in particular were viewed in this way.  Wives were in a sense owned as possessions by their husbands.  Daughters were married through arrangement as a point of trade that came with a dowry and could be used as a way of establishing or advancing social status and possible economic, political or religious power.

I must admit in terms of conversations around Christian marriage that are current I find it strange that much of this context is either lost or ignored as people redefine Christian marriage to reflect the relatively modern ideal of the nuclear family.

With such a strong tie between the individuals in the society and their families I have little doubt that Jesus confronting words to the crowd are about the costs of engaging with the transforming work of God.

It will cost in terms of social relationships, but it also had economic, political and religious implications.

Living as followers of Jesus, being proponents of God’s will in the world, would bring individuals in conflict with the society in which they lived.

This is more like the beginning of John’s gospel where John says of Jesus “He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.”

The good news of Jesus does not sit comfortably in the cultures of this world, Jesus was counter cultural and dare I say Jesus still is counter cultural.

Each week as a congregation we say pray the Lord’s Prayer which includes the words:

Your kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as is in heaven

I wonder whether we really consider how radical and subversive these words are as we pray them.

Jesus words suggest that being his follower is not about family values and being good citizens.  Rather it is about understanding that following Jesus is counter cultural.

In Paul’s letters he refers to us being like strangers in a strange land and citizens of a heavenly kingdom not yet arrived.  These words were a reminder then and I believe now also that the culture we find ourselves embedded in and are possessed by is not consistent with God’s vision for the creation and to seek to follow Jesus comes with tensions and costs for us as well.

Yesterday we voted and now we have a newly formed government with new representatives.  Regardless of whom you voted for, or whether you simply observed with interest as a visitor in our country, the reality is that the kind of core issues which drive our culture and society have not changed.

Our faith, if we are committed and honest about it, leaves us in tension with the culture in which we live.  The social, political, economic and religious tensions remain.  And whilst we might believe that the party we voted for may have best represented our values the reality is to vote for any party necessarily involves a level of compromise.

I have heard it said that liberal democracy is the best system of government from a list of inadequate choices and it may just be that it is the best we as humanity can do but Jesus words of hating the things we possess and which possess s are timely.

In Jesus time the question of hating family was as much about elevating God to a central place over and above the controls of the ancient household as it was literally about hating your parents, or wife or children.

I do not think Jesus is saying hating your parents is a good thing but that if we live in response to God’s love first we will love and honour parents appropriately ass the scripture suggests.  Not seeing other family members as possessions to be controlled.

If anything our problem is the opposite so highly have we elevated the rights and identity of the individual that communal relationships and commitment are being lost.  We would be very wary to rip Jesus words out of context suggest Jesus is any way encouraging and affirming the breakdown of families, divorce rates and the like within our community.

But Jesus words do challenge us on what it means to be his followers in the context of our culture.

In the midst of the election politicians played on our sense of individual entitlement, placing “me and my needs at the centre” of the decisions I make.  We were made to think about economic outcomes, and growth and wealth as priorities by both major parties as if these are the end goals.

We basically live in society which is grounded in teaching you to covet and consume.

Jesus challenge echoes down to us “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  I am yet to meet a person who has taken this seriously and in all my study of Christian history only find very rare examples of such commitment to poverty of living.

Despite your generosity as individuals I suspect not one of us can claim we have done this and in our consumerist world obsessed with growth it is hard to fathom.

The character of Voldemorte in J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series is a parable for us of the dire consequences of locating our souls in objects as he does but we do not have to dwell too long in fantasy to be confronted by the consequences of our consumerist culture.

In the documentary “Surviving Progress” the consequences of our obsession with growth and consumerism are explored and message is we are on a course towards disaster if we do not change.

Returning to Jesus context by the time Jesus said these words he had already indicated his understanding that he was heading towards his betrayal, suffering and death.  Something even his closest disciples did not want to hear.

When he confronts the crowd he is telling it like it is.  Following Jesus was not about being in a fan club, it is not about pressing “like” on a Facebook page, it is about being prepared to go all the way.

Now before we get too despondent about where we are in relationship to this journey we know that whilst some followers left Jesus at this point by the time he falls into the hands of the Romans his own disciples have runaway or denied him.

Which brings me back to that question how do we move from hate to hope?

It is only in encountering the broader context of God’s story of pursuing us in love that we can find that hope.

We heard it in our readings today:

In the vision from Jeremiah that God’s will is like the potter at the will, continually reshaping the spoiled form into a new pot.  God’s love promises to reshape and remake not destroy.

In the words of intimacy in Psalm 139 which remind us God knits us in our mother’s womb, is with us through all of life, and when we breather our last is there.  What words of hope “I come to the end—I am still with you.”

In the words of encouragement from Paul to Philemon and the longing for God’s presence: “Refresh my heart!”

We are people who pray

Your kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as is in heaven

And as followers of Jesus we should be aware that there is a tension between the way we live now on earth and the coming of God’s kingdom and that there may and will be times that this tension is borne out in the relationships which we have with those around us and even amongst ourselves.

The good news of Jesus Christ and of God is the vision of a God who has pursued humanity and the whole creation in love from one generation to the next.  Governments, cultures and ways of life come and go but the promises of God and our hope in God flow from generation to generation.  Our experience of being good citizens or holding to family values may sit in tension with God’s will but God is always reaching to us.

As we pray for our newly elected government and for our Prime Minister and all of the elected representatives let us also hold on to our hope that spans decades and generations, and centuries and millennia unto the end of time and beginning of the new creation not simply the next 3 years.