Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Generous Landowner

In the story of the generous land owner Jesus indicates that the reward at the end of the day's labour that is shared out is distributed equally - everyone gets exactly the same regardless of the time spent working.

This is one of the parables that really upsets the apple cart.  It grates against the sentiment Jesus expresses that we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven.  It grates against our notion of a fair days work for a fair days pay.

For many who listen to this story the question of injustice is raised.  Is it fair that those who work the longest are not rewarded for their extra labour?  Our gut response is no!

Yet, if we think about the process in the story with the landowner returning throughout the day to the marketplace where the labourers waited maybe our sense of justice might shift.

If we consider the first trip to the marketplace there can be little doubt the the landowner would be pick the strongest workers, the fastest, the fittest, possible the most enthusiastic.  They would be the workers that he knew would work hard all day and give the best results.

When the landowner returns for his next trip to choose extra workers once again he would choose the best of those who were left waiting to join his other workers.

And so on through the day until he comes for the final time.

Imagine who might be left at this point: maybe the elderly, the infirm, the inexperienced, those who have an injury or disability.  People who would possibly not have survived the whole day in the field in any case but people who still have the same needs, desires and aspirations of those chosen at the first part of the day: to provide for their family, to have a sense of worth, to build some financial security.

Yet, the randomness of life denies them the opportunity to work the full day to be as successful. For many the burdens they already carry are work in themselves.

The generosity of the landowner in this case shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by the landowner.

The landowner wants to give value and opportunity for life to even the weakest within the community of workers!

Just as in Jesus day the workers who came first grumbled and no doubt many of Jesus listeners wondered at how unfair the parable seemed so too in our context it is a difficult story.

Living in a free market economy ruled by supply and demand and where people are paid for their supposed skill set the parable rubs against the grain; it feels unjust.

Most workers are generally paid by the hour and often proportionally to the demand on their skills within the community.  Overtime and time and a half are expectations for extra effort. I heard today that the average CEO in Australia earns over $4 million dollars per year, about 64 times than the average worker!

Jesus parable calls into question the way our world operates and how it devalues people and, let's be honest, exploits many who work long hours in appalling conditions so those in wealthier countries can have cheap products.

Whilst it might feel unfair for those who already have access to wealth and opportunity because of their skills, that is to say those like the labourers who are chosen first, the reality is that life itself has been unjust in different ways to those who are chosen last.

Maybe, this is what Jesus is trying to help us realise: that good news is not just for the privileged few but for all.  And that as many times as it takes God will return seeking us out to join in the labour.

The kingdom of heaven is like this, God seeks us all out and all are rewarded, all are given the dignity of work, all are rewarded with life and hope; rewarded with a future; rewarded for a great effort or a little labour at the 11th hour.  Who are we to be envious?

Each week we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

Heaven, God’s rule, is a rule that promises generosity in life that for us living in a market driven world which is almost unfathomable – yet this is the kingdom we pray for.  Good news for all!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

A War on our Way of Life. Nothing new here!

As calm and content or as confused and confounded as you and I are within our lives the machinations of the world go on around us and seek to draw us in.

The headline on the front page of yesterday’s Courier Mail is one such example of scare mongering. It was the words: “War on our way of life”. 

At the risk of sounding possibly a little controversial for some of you and a little blasé to other s I would have to say there is nothing new here for us.

“War on our way of life?” 

The war of our way of life has been there since Adam and Eve first took a bite from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Our lives have been out of sync with God’s intentions for us and we as humanity and the whole creation so often suffer the consequences of our selfishness and inability to accept difference.

There is nothing new here.

This is not to denude in anyway the seriousness of the claims being made about those who would seek to do violence within the community, misguided and driven as they are by narrow minded interpretations of their faith.  There can be no doubting that terrorists are criminals who should be opposed.

Yet, the threat of Islamist extremists can simply be added to the litany of Christian, atheist, and other sectarian violence that has plagued our journey as humanity.

Moreover, the threat to our way of life is not simply from out there somewhere but from within as well.

The war on our way of life is not simply from a small group of terrorists it is embedded in every culture, in every corner of the creation where humanity has forgotten the centrality of God and the way we were created to live in harmony with all that God has made as good.

Yesterday I was reading the words of the playwright, poet and philosopher Vaclav Havel the first democratically elected President of the Czech Republic. I want to share what he said, it is a rather long quote from his speech to the US Congress in February of 1990.

Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are in fact far from definite victory.

We are still a long way from that "family of man;" in fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than drawing closer to it. Interests of all kinds: personal, selfish, state, national, group and, if you like, company interests still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests.

We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation, and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted. There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all.

We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us, and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time we say that the anonymous megamachinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.

No, there is nothing new here.

Ironically, the war on our way of life is wage by the way life we think we are protecting!

Jesus very presence in the world is a clear and resounding declaration about this war that is constantly being raged around us and even more importantly is being raged within us.

Each week as I preach and lead worship I declare to you in a myriad of ways that we are all implicated in this war against our creator whether we perceive it or not.

Paul as he wrote so long ago to the Christians in Rome was acutely aware of this – people don’t know how to agree.  People find it hard to follow God.

This is why Jesus taught Peter to forgive seventy seven times, which essentially means forgive again and again and again and when you are sick of forgiving and it seems to be costing too much don’t stop forgiving.

Today you have come here maybe hoping that there will be a word of inspiration or an encounter with the divine that will help you to do what Jesus teaches – to learnt to forgive, to learn to live with differences, to be touched by love and transformed by grace.

In the small burgeoning group of followers in Rome they could not agree on things.  Some of those things seemed big and some of them seemed small yet all were a source of consternation:

Welcome the weak in faith and the strong?
Eat this food or don’t eat it?
Meet on this day or honour all days?

But whatever you do put God at the centre.

Yesterday a group of us came to do the simple yet quite large task of clearing objects out of the hall in preparation for the refurbishment. Even this process can lead us into disagreement:

Put the shelves here or over there.
We should keep this object, no we should discard it.
Small matters yet reflective of our differences.

Yet here in the working out of the small issues we learn to be human as God intended.  We learn to accept others are different, that others have different views, different priorities and different values. 

Not easy stuff but a reminder the war on our way of life has been interrupted and redirected.

Paul writes these confounding yet hopeful words:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

These words are often used at funeral as a source of hope.  This week there were 3 significant funeral s which I would have liked to attend – I only made it to one and yes these words were read out.   In death we are the Lord’s because Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead.

Yet on this day as we consider the war that we have wage since the beginning of creation on the way of life that God invites us I would remind you all that not only is Jesus Lord of the dead he is the Lord of the living.

How we live matters?  Not because Jesus is going to judge us but precisely because Jesus has taught us that God’s primary approach to us is love which is expressed in the act of forgiveness.

This is why Paul goes on to ask:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

It is so, so hard not to judge one another, not to highlight the differences, not to point out the perceived weaknesses in the faith of others.  This is why that every congregation experiences struggles, this why Christianity has shattered into the shards of so many churches and denominations.

For me we can never be overly optimistic about our ability to do God’s will and we must always maintain the humility which brings us to our knees in sorrow for what we have done to each other and to God.  We must always seek after that elusive ability to truly forgive the other.

What the Courier Mail did on the front page trying to be sensationalist and alarmist was simply state the obvious there is a war on our way of life. 

Yes, there is one that rage somewhat outside our influence and experience but there is also the internal one.  There is a wonderful cartoon by Michael Leunig which depicts a husband and wife talking, which pretty much sums it up:

How do we inject hope into this ironic situation?  Not by any human means!  Havel argued that we must look to a higher meaning and higher source of authority.  In hope and faith Paul declares, “Every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”  Yes, there may be judgement and correction to occur, although i would argue that this has already taken place in the cross of Christ but the promise of God is that this war we rage against ourselves is coming to an end.

 That we will know God and we will all be God’s people.  In the meantime we carry this hope as we learn to live with difference, as we forgive and as we remain open to our need to be forgiven.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, 12 September 2014

"If we live we live to the Lord"

“If we live, we live to the Lord.  If we die, we die to the Lord.  So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

As some of you may have noted I do have a tendency to reflect fairly deeply on things, especially in matters of what we claim to know.

It will come as little surprise to those of you who know this that I started reading a book this week called Longing to Know by Esther Meeks.  The book explores the question “Can we know God?”

In her first Chapter Meek says, ‘So much is at stake in this question because, if people can know God, the next obvious question is what in fact we know about him.  If God is, what he [God] is has far-reaching consequences for our lives – who we are, how we live, and what happens after death.  Perhaps the simplest what to say it is this:  If God is, and he [God] is master of all, then he [God] is master of you and your world.  If he [God] isn’t, then you are.  You might see one or the other alternative as preferable one.  But it’s impossible to be indifferent about the choice; it hits just too close to home for comfort.” [end quote]

At the heart of what Meek is saying is this – with your decision about God you simply can’t sit on the fence.  Now, given that you are church today, I would want to make the assumption that you have at least nominally decided that there is a God.

And more specifically that you believe in the God revealed in and through the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Whilst we may not all exactly agree on who Jesus was and what he is currently calling us to do as people, and whilst we may have different gifts and different levels of faith, what is implied in what Meek says is that if you decide for God it should then shape your whole existence.

This brings me back to the quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans at the beginning.

“If we live, we live to the Lord.  If we die, we die to the Lord.  So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

If God is, then all that we do, everything we are ,should be impacted by this, even when we disagree on things.

You see Paul wrote these words in the midst of clarifying some issues of conflict for the Christians in Rome.  There were differences in opinion about the eating of meat, which probably meant the meat offered to idols.  There were also differences in opinion about observing Holy Days.  It must be remember that the first Christians were Jews who observed the Sabbath, which is Saturday, whereas later Christians came to celebrate together on Sunday, which is the day of resurrection and the first day of the new creation.

Paul acknowledges that the reasons for the disputes arose out of people being weak in the faith or maybe being overconfident in their faith.  But weak or strong what was vital to remember in the midst of the difference was that people lived to the Lord and died to the Lord. 

Paul’s statement comes to us as a source of comfort that in the midst of the human struggle to know God and respond we remain God’s, even whether we live or die.

Our ability as a congregation to live together in the midst of our own differences is conditioned not so much by the nature of our own weakness or strength, nor about the validity of any particular issues, but of our life held together in Christ: we are the Lord’s!

Our ability to know, remember and live in response to what Paul says, means not only that we should not engage each other in debate for the purpose of spiritual point scoring, but that we should also remember that at the heart of our faith is the reconciliation of all things in and through Jesus Christ: a reconciliation which is born out of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

So in the midst of the community of faith in Rome having differences, as any church does, I believe the ability to show forgiveness and accept that forgiveness is paramount.

Today’s gospel reading brooches this very topic as Peter asks Jesus how many times should I forgive another member of the church who sins against me – as many as seven times?  Jesus answer seventy-seven times is more or less a euphemism for infinitely.  You are to forgive as many times as you need to forgive.

Jesus explains the premise of our forgiveness to one another through a parable.  As you know parables reveal something of God and who we are and we are to live.  In the parable God is represented by the King who forgives the debt of 10 000 talents.  The magnitude of the debt cannot be overstated – maybe we speak of it as 10 million dollars.  What Jesus is trying to help Peter understand is how much God loves us in the midst of how wrong we get it!

It doesn't matter how good a person we think we are we still need God’s forgiveness – it doesn't matter how many prayers we say a day, or how righteous we think our worship is; it doesn't matter what issues of justice we fight for - poverty, abortion, inequality, peace.  All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but here is the good news God forgives our debt.  Paul writes to the Romans in Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

It is this forgiveness of God for us that determines how we live with one another.  Yet as the story indicates the slave whose debt was forgiven found it difficult to forgive others and so in seeking what seems a trivial amount from another slave is unable to forgive.  As the story indicates there are consequences.

Now I am not entirely content to take the fire and brim stone approach at this point and say turn or burn but I think there is a serious warning for us here about the consequences of our inability to forgive. 

As an interesting aside in the movie starring Robin Williams “What dreams may come?” people are trapped in hell because of their inability to accept the forgiveness offered to them.  They cannot forgive themselves and this is what tortures them.

Forgiveness is no easy matter for us who often find it hard to truly forgive the smallest of indiscretions even once.  Often rather than seeking reconciliation we harbour those things which like some cancerous sore eat away at us festering often unknowingly to re-emerge at the most inappropriate of moments.

More often than not these things occur in arguments and sometimes these arguments reveal how elephantine our memories can be.

“I remember in 1953 when my brother did this to me?”  or “When I was growing up my mum forgot to pick me up from school one day?” or “You didn't send me a birthday card in 1972?” or “Don’t you remember last week when I said hello and you ignored me.”

As funny as these little imaginary comments are, it is amazing how many little, barbed memories most of us carry.  I have heard them come out in pastoral visits, in confrontations, in family arguments and out of my own my mouth.  I remember a true story told of two elderly sisters who attended the same church one sat at the front and one at the back and they never spoke to one another.  They had done so done decades. There had been a dispute between them in the past and they had never reconciled to one another.  This was not only sad for their lives but a contradiction of their very presence in church.  Yet before we get too critical we need to recall our own behaviours on a personal level and at a denominational level- is not our separation as denominations a contradiction of the reconciliation we are called to live.

In the context of our human relationships our ability to be a community, to be God’s people, is constantly compromised by the grudges we carry.  Our witness to God’s love and forgiveness of us as individuals and as a community is tarnished by our inability to live as forgiving and reconciled people.

The scriptures teach us clearly that is our responsibility to act and seek this reconciliation.  As I have already said forgiveness precedes repentance but reconciliation does not occur until that repentance takes place.

So important was this in Jesus’ mind that in Matthew 5 he instructs people “When you are offering a gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar; first go and be reconciled to your brother or sister.”

There is urgency in this – seek the reconciliation, forgive and be forgiven.  This is captured in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray; forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  In saying this we condition God’s forgiveness of us on our ability to forgive others.

The reality of our imperfect human lives is that in this matter we are imperfect and an integral part of our weekly worship and no doubt our daily prayers is not simply the request that God forgives us but that we might be empowered to accept that forgiveness and live out the mercy and grace we have experienced by forgiving others.

This can be represented for us most poignantly when we share in communion.  The institution of the sacrament by Paul includes the words “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”.  Many ministers enact this as they receive the bread and wine before the congregation and then share it with others.  But this is what should shape our whole life as Christians we receive God’s forgiveness and so should pass it on to others.

Ultimately if we believe in God, if we believe that God is the God revealed by Jesus Christ then living in the midst of our difference and difficulties as a forgiving community is important.  It reflects our witness to the truth that we believe “If we live, we live to the Lord.  If we die, we die to the Lord.  So whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s.”

As you consider God’s grace and mercy to you in the silence this day may God reveal to you those in your hearts that you are still to be reconciled with and ask for the strength to seek that reconciliation whether that means accepting your own faults or forgiving another for theirs?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The love of Dog?

A sermon on Romans 13:8

At the risk of appearing like a dad on Father’s day I feel the need to do something I usually would not recommend as a preaching tool – beginning with a joke, and more specifically a dad joke.  It is in fact one of my repertoire of favourite jokes because it has a religious edge as well.  And possibly for you it is only short so you won’t have to bear the pain long.

Have you heard about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac?

He used to lie awake at night and wonder whether there really was a dog!

Well on this day we gather because we too wonder about God and what it means to be in relationship with God.  Maybe there are nights that you have lain awake, like me, and wondered whether there is a God - reaching out in the silence listening for some hint of a divine voice. 

In that search for God’s presence and God’s teaching we come and on this day we read a letter written nearly 2000 years ago to a group of the first generation of Christians.  This group of Christians lived at the heart of the Roman Empire, in the shadow of Caesar, in Rome itself.

Paul wrote to them trying to help them understand who Jesus was and what it meant to be his followers.  As he was coming towards the end of his letter he wrote these words:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

The word ‘except’ seems somehow to imply that to love one another is a small thing but the notion of loving one another is actually a really quite difficult.  Our experience of feeling loved by others is often not what we would desire.

So what does it mean to feel loved?  Well I’d like to tell a short parable about love.

Each day when I arrive home and this might actually happen 5 or 6 times during the day as I come and go I experience an amazing sense of being loved.

Usually by the time my keys hit the door I can hear footsteps rushing to greet me.  Pounding the stairs in excitement! I open the door and a black dart shoots out and rushes around my legs sniffing at me.  Nutmeg almost without fail greets me with an avalanche of joy.  Her tail wags vigorously and she looks up at me expectantly.  Knowing that I don’t like her to jump at me she sits and waits until I reach down and offer her a response of love back, a scratch and a pat.

Once I come into the house she will often follow me around seeking for the relationship to deepen through further interaction.  She expects some time, maybe a game, maybe another pat.

She pursues me in love and in hope and I have no doubt she thinks of herself as one of us. Somewhat ironically, given my dad joke at the beginning, I think in Nutmeg’s greeting I experience something of the divine love.

It is love which pursues us and wants us to be part God’s very own life for God is love.  It makes me think of the story of the prodigal son who on his return home is greeted by a father who throws honour, pride and dignity aside to run and greet the home coming – now is a time for celebration and for games!  It reminds me of God’s commitment to pursue us and come after us wherever we go, even becoming one of us.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another!

Think about how you know that you are loved?

What it is it that helps you understand the kind of value you have as a person?

During the week I was sitting in Briki reading in preparation for today when one of the girls who works there came over with my coffee.  It wasn’t too busy so she asked what I was reading.  I explained that I was reading books to help me understand more about love.

“That’s something that everyone can relate to.” she replied. 

So I asked her, “How do you know when somebody loves you?”

She mused about the question for a moment and then said, “You know someone loves by the way they act towards you!”

The saying is of course that actions speak louder than words and when we consider the vast and complex idea that God is love and connect it with the idea that we experience love as an action then if we want to understand love and how to owe one another love maybe the place to begin to look is God.

Of course, the primary source of our faith is not a document, not the Bible, but a person: Jesus.  As people of the Christian faith we have come to believe that Jesus is God in our midst.  Jesus is God pursuing us in love – it is an action.  God comes into the world and in Jesus own life of serving others even in his death and in Jesus rising again you and I and all creation encounter the depth of that love which God.

God is completely and utterly self giving, focussed on us.

This kind of love is all but impossible for us to emulate and model but the invitation from Paul to the early Christian community to enter into that love and participate in as best we can.

“Owe no one anything except love...”

Of course we know we know we fail to do this, we fail to love one another as we ought.  we say unkind words, we put ourselves first, we judge others and somewhat hopefully we can know that God understands that this is exactly what we are like.

From Matthew’s gospel we heard a story which kind of sounds a bit odd as Jesus talks about forgiveness and the church.  Given that the church did not exist when Jesus was alive we can only understand this passage by either saying Jesus was using the Greek word for church ekklesia in a different way or that Matthew in writing his gospel altered the story to help his community make sense of it.

In either case what we hear is something of a formula for dealing with the breakdown of relationships in a community.  It could be easy to misinterpret this in to some sort of regulations for reconciliation but what I would want you to think about this morning is that in this teaching Jesus acknowledges a couple of things.

One is that as human beings he was expecting that we would continue to struggle to love one another as we ought even after he had invited us in to God’s love.  Christians are not perfect.

And that even if reconciliation was not found we are to treat those who find it difficult to make up or admit that they have done something wrong as people not to be shunned but to be sought out in love.

Jesus says treat them like the tax collector and sinner.   A traditional Jewish audience may have heard this to mean that we should exclude and reject them from the community but Jesus behaviour flies in the face of this.  His behaviour which reflects God’s love is to eat with tax collector and sinner – to continue to seek them out.  He includes a tax collector among his disciples!

An inability to find reconciliation is not an excuse for rejection but a challenge to learn more deeply that God is love and that grace abounds.

Certainly these are not easy things to do but the invitation to owe no one anything but love is the invitation to follow Jesus into a life of self giving love.

Let me share one other story from my week.  During a conversation with a student in one of the colleges he made the comment that he is open to the idea of God and Jesus but has been told by his Christian friends that if he does not accept everything 100% then he is not really a Christian. 

Jesus words indicate we are limited in our ability to follow and love one another as Jesus invites us to – it is why we always say a prayer of confession.

More than that our sharing at the table is a reminder of the brokenness of our lives and God’s desire and promise that a better future is in store for us! Just as Jesus was raised from the dead so the entire creation will be made new.  This is the depth of God’s love for you and I and the whole of humanity.

In this I would say that Paul’s invitation to owe others love is not us repaying God but is rather our way of participating in showing other something of that amazing love which we have encountered for ourselves.

So, to return to my father’s day joke may you know the fullness of the love of Dog! And may you share that love with others!