Monthly Archives: September 2020

(W)holy listening.

The importance of listening to a client in the design process — The  Consultation Institute

He was sitting across from me in our small group gathering, head bowed and hands clasped in his lap. It seemed a bit unusual for him to suddenly move from an intense declaration to an attitude of prayer, but he’s a devout fellow so I was sure he’d rejoin the conversation soon. Then I realised he was doing the infamous “Apple Prayer.” He was checking messages  on his phone!

There are multiple offenses that can frustrate conversation partners. Not paying attention is one, long-windedness another. Argumentative antagonism is a show stopper and meandering digression tends to muddy the waters. We  can experience all of these in church meetings! 

I have found Zoom meetings at home very challenging in the respect of not listening. The number of distractions around me in my study is mind boggling, at least in a cold draughty church apart from your phone or a rogue pew sheet that was missed by the stewards there is little to distract you when Mable has missed the point of the discussion and is going on and on and nobody has the courage to tell her to sit down and shut up.

The American psychologist, Carl Rogers taught about the importance of practicing “mutual curiosity.” Where we may not understand each other or necessarily agree with another’s point of view we still listen to what they have to say. That seems a promising if elusive principle for fostering genuine conversation where two or more are gathered and actually listening to each other.

There are reports about how texting and tweeting and similar digital utterances are affecting the quality of language and the character of dialogue. Think of the governments redaction of Covid response to a three phrase slogan. You may have read about theories that widespread use of these cryptic fragments is training the brains of young people with long-term consequences for their thought processes and human interactions.

Have you noticed in restaurants, in small groups, on TV, and in the blogosphere how often it appears that many are talking but far fewer are actually listening? I worry how many people are  ‘listening’  when I write this updates. Is it something to skip through before getting to the important information at the end of the e-mail? 

I saw a play on TV a number of years ago that dealt with themes of cross-cultural relationships where the youthful “outsider” said plaintively to his girlfriend’s father, “What good is it if I work hard to learn your language, if you still won’t listen?” That phrase stuck with me.  When people start coming to church particularly younger people they have to learn the ‘language’ of Church to become part of it, but do we then listen to them when they have learned our language? Do we listen to their hopes and fears, their dreams and visions?

We might do well to count holy listening as a prerequisite for holy conversation. Listening first for “the still small voice of God,” we could pray for alertness of mind and heart so we experience the in-breaking of the Spirit and ask for the combined eagerness and patience that allow us to delight in the wisdom, naïveté, and probing questions of others.

Perhaps what helps make conversations holy is less about the talking and more about the listening. 

God bless and stay safe, Alan.

Something for Sunday

Tis is a revised version of what I offered to Streetly today for their Eco Church Sunday service.

2020 has proved to be the year we were not expecting. It was not supposed to be like this. A glance at my diary for 2020 is a salutary reminder; there they all are: the meetings cancelled, the services I did not take, the holiday that was cancelled and the concerts and theatre visit that simply did not happen. No it was not what I was expecting nor you, I guess. But using lockdown time to read something about virology and the history of epidemics I have come to realise that we should have expected it and that we have come very close to experiencing a pandemic before. When I passed through Hong Kong airport in 2006 and my temperature was taken at a passenger gate I should have reflected on why this was necessary. No we were not expecting this nor were we adequately prepared.

Yet pandemics have always been with us and it may well be that we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to them as our economies become more and more complex and inter-connected. And in addition as humans encroach more and more upon forests and other habitats so the risk of virus transfer from such creatures as bats to us increases. This is what happened with Ebola, another near miss for us, and probably with the covid 19 virus now.

So what should be our first response now in the face of this pandemic and more generally in the face of environmental degradation? There is one word we Christians can use: repentance. Repentance the most unpopular word in the Churches lectionary. “Repent, repent” sang Leonard Cohen, “I wonder what they meant”.

In traditional evangelical preaching a call to repentance always had a place. This call is followed by an invitation to embrace the grace of a loving God. This model has a great deal to commend it.

Consider these words from a classic source:

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.

Good gracious me but I thought following the devices and desires of my own heart was the road to happiness. After all this is what the advertisers tell me. And I need a new device for my twitter feed and my Facebook posts.

We have offended against thy holy laws.

Holy laws!  What’s holy about law? Surely we should love God and do what we like!

We have left undone those things that we ought to have done.

“Ought”! These are the oughteries. Down with the oughteries!

And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Ditto the above.

So you see turning to God-repenting and asking for mercy may not find too many takers.

The other week I was walking through the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford-such places are the real sacred places of our time and we are being told quite seriously that it is our civic duty to visit them and spend as much money as possible. Later that day we had lunch in part subsidised by the government as part of a scheme entitled “Eat out to Help Out”. This scheme is financed by debt but how will these debts be repaid or will they simply be renounced. I only ask.

All of this is an aspect of consumerism-the pursuit of stuff-the good life as represented by materialistic pursuits. Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.

The Christian invitation is to reject the pursuit of stuff and embrace grace instead. Before dismissing this as a backward looking religious fantasy consider this quotation from a blog written by Natasha Parker from the Centre for Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey.

“Research confirms that people who prioritise materialistic values and goals for wealth, image and status are likely to consume more and have a substantially higher ecological footprints than those who don’t. Studies have found that people’s values and goals have become increasingly materialistic since the 1970s and it is not hard to see why in our advertising saturated culture that portrays a route to happiness paved by what you earn, what you own and how you look. And yet giving priority to materialistic pursuits is consistently shown to lead to lower wellbeing and higher ecological footprints with the consequences that we can see all around us.”

So you can see that we Green Christians have work to do. And yet I cannot deny that I am hopeful. To embrace the grace of God is to be hopeful. Share the hope; embrace the grace.

In charting a way forward we need to be clear about what had happened to us. That we have lost our roots and descended into a self-love fuelled by consumerism. We have preferred money as a substitute for grace and debt as a substitute for money. As the prophet Jeremiah says; “We have forsaken the fountains of living water and dug out cisterns that can hold no water”.

We need to turn back to the sources of living water: to Jesus we might say.

What might the elements of a grace filled society look like? Of course the key word is gift-that our existence and our planet are not resources to be exploited nor rights to be sued for but gifts.

That’s the key but specifically:

Humility: not a popular idea but central to the Jesus way. Listen to St Augustine on this: “unless humility precedes, accompanies and follows all our good actions, unless humility be set before us for our beholding, besides us or our adherence, over us for our restraint then all the good of our joy in any right action is wrested from us by pride.”

Community: We belong to each other and to the earth. That from which we came and to which we shall return. We are in communion with God and with each other through the earth.

Love: It all comes down to this. Love of the neighbour and of the others all our sisters and brothers within the created order. By love we can fill up the hollow spaces in our souls and know true peace and fulfilment. It’s been said before and it will be said again. Our calling and that of every faithful believer is to live as if this is true. The pandemic will pass but this calling will remain.

What then must we do? Christians are not called to storm the citadels of power and bring in the rule of the Saints. When at the last supper the disciples say to Jesus-we’ve got two swords! Jesus responds by declaring: that’s enough of that!

Very often the truest words about our situation are uttered by pop songs. “I can’t get no satisfaction/cause I try/and try. Best not to try but rather to embrace grace instead. Not only would we be much happier but we can also save the planet as well. The promise is a joy without limit but at the same time joy in enough.

Words on the Word – Sunday 27th September

Words on the Word for Sunday 27th September

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25: 1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Ezekiel 18
What is the thought behind the proverb:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
It is a proverb about consequences. It surprises us.
If you have ever eaten sour grapes then you know full well that you will be dancing about with your mouth all tightened up like you’ve just eaten, well, sour grapes!
You certainly wouldn’t expect your CHILDREN to feel the effects of your action.
Ezekiel is challenging the people about their belief that this proverb applies to sin. The people of Israel were assuming that any punishments coming their way were the result of the sins of their ancestors.
This comes dangerously close to a current incorrect belief in “original sin” – which perpetuates the lie that we are all born sinners because of the sins of previous generations, back to Adam and Eve. Are we, really?
God speaks to us all through Ezekiel: “It is only the person who sins that shall die” – in other words your sins are your own, and belong to no-one else.
That is then where the Gospel of Jesus comes in – it is for OUR sins that Jesus died, and those sins are only those for which we are directly responsible.
We can look at passages like this and ask, “Does God really promise death to those who sin?”
A helpful way to explore this question might be to unpack what we mean by “death” – those who sin are indeed dead, for they do not have the true fulness of life that comes from knowing Christ.
If we sin (“commit iniquity”) then we condemn ourselves to a living death, a going-through-the-motions existence which could never in all honesty be described as life in all its fulness.
When the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.
When the wicked turn away from their wickedness and do what is right they shall save their life.
Is this unfair?
Listen, says God, Repent and turn from your transgressions, and get yourself a new heart and a new spirit!
I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live!
That word “turn” is what we mean when we say “repent” of course.
This is a call to confession and repentance, to turning from sin / wickedness/ iniquity.
This is a call to righteousness.
This is a call to life.

Psalm 25
There is a stumbling sort of rhythm through this Psalm, with a rather disjointed structure of thought from verse to verse.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that this Psalm is another Acrostic Poem, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (or strictly, the Aleph-Bet!)
Nevertheless, despite the restrictions that such literary devices impose, there is a coherence within this Psalm which makes its study worthwhile.
We begin with the entreaty of the Psalmist’s prayer, arms raised and head bowed as he prays aloud.
The Psalmist asks God for help against the treachery of his enemies, and this is a request borne out of deep trust in God.
Next we have a section in which the Psalmist tells God his heart’s desires – there are three at least:
1) Show me your ways
2) Teach me your paths
3) Lead me in your truth
All of which tell of the Psalmist’s love of God’s Law, a theme which we have seen many times.
The next section is fascinating, as the Psalmist begs God to remember one thing but not another!
Remember your compassionate and loving character, O God, but do not remember my sins and my transgressions! Remember me simply because you are loving and good!
The Psalm rounds off in this excerpt with a meditation on the character of God.
Which of these four sections would fit most naturally into your own prayers?

Philippians 2
One camping holiday I attended an evening prayer meeting on the site (it was a Christian-run campsite), trying to keep a low profile.
In the course of the conversations, the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” came out and I had to admit to being a Methodist Minister!
Immediately I was invited to lead the following morning’s Bible Study, so with no time for preparation, this was the passage I chose.
What Bible passage would you have chosen in similar circumstances?
I had strong memories of course of having studied this letter in great depth at College, and had been in the Advanced Greek class where we studied this passage in the original language too.
Yet perhaps the memory which served me longest was my love, since childhood, of the hymn “At the name of Jesus”, whose tune “CAMBERWELL” by John Michael Brierley quickly became a favourite of mine to play on the piano.
It was a passage I selected for my Local Preachers Admission Service, and a passage I had also previously studied with a Wesley Guild meeting. I was not coming at this passage completely cold, at least.
It is possible to go very deep in one’s study of these few verses – indeed I have seen in the Bible Commentaries section of St John’s Durham Theological Library, where there is a whole shelf dedicated just to commentaries on Philippians, a book which has been written just on Phil 2:6-11, so not even on all the verses in this reading!
For those who love a good bit of theological jargon, we talk about “Kenosis” in this passage – a word that means “emptying” – the emptying by Christ of all his glory and status until he becomes as empty as emptiness itself: a dead servant hanging on a cross.
Verses 6 to 11 in Chapter 2 were not written by Paul. They come from an ancient Christian hymn we call The Song Of Christ. Paul is simply saying, in his usual rather elaborate way, “Be like Christ”.
Let the same mind be in in you that was in Christ Jesus. “Think like Christ”
It is God who is at work in you. “Live like Christ”.

Matthew 21
The question about Jesus’ authority features in all the Synoptic Gospels. Each Gospel writer explores the sense in which Jesus had an authority which was completely new.
It was not an authority that had been conferred upon him by human action. It was not an authority that had been earned through years of education or training. It was an authority which just ‘was’. It was as unfathomable as it was unquestionable.
Not that people didn’t challenge Jesus’ authority. The Chief Priests and Elders find themselves trapped by their own question as Jesus bounces it back in reference to John the Baptist.
What is most extraordinary is that Jesus’ authority comes from his attitude of Servant-leader, the likes of course were unknown before, but which set the pattern for all Christ’s disciples to come.
Jesus does not ask us to claim any authority in earthly terms, but only ‘to do the will of my Father who sent me’. That too is our calling.
The parable of the two sons, which follows, is an interesting read. To use Matthew Henry’s phrasing, we have one son who “proves better than he promises” and the second son who “promises better than he proves”.
We can hear the Chief Priests and Elders of the Law, still smarting from their earlier rebuttal about the question of Jesus’ authority, being forced to admit, through gritted teeth, “the first” – effectively killing themselves with their own words since they realise they have been like the second brother.
Which is better for God – the oafish loudmouth who repents and then does Kingdom work, or the pious pew-filler who is all talk and potential, but never gets round to practicalities?
By his final remark, Jesus then skilfully connects the parable with the original question about the work of John the Baptist.
It’s brilliant.

Grace and peace,
Stephen

Keep on keeping on.

Whilst doing the washing up one evening I mused on the fact that although our frying pan was getting quite old the non-stick surface was still in very good condition, (pity I can’t say the same about the person doing the washing up!).

The story behind the coating on our everyday saucepans is quite remarkable as it was a pure accident that it was discovered.

In 1938 Roy J. Plunkett was working in New Jersey for the DuPont chemical company. As Plunkett attempted to make a new refrigerant, the gas he was using stopped flowing before the bottle’s weight had dropped to the point signalling “empty.” Rather than becoming angry or frustrated he became curious as to the source of the weight, and finally resorted to sawing the bottle apart. He found the bottle’s interior coated with a waxy white material that was oddly slippery, He could have simply thrown the bottle away and dismissed the incident as a freak incident and obtained a new gas bottle but he was intrigued. Analysis showed that the waxy substance was polymerised perfluoroethylene, with the iron from the inside of the container having acted as a catalyst at high pressure. DuPont patented the new fluorinated plastic, PTFE (Polytetrafluroethene), in 1941 and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945. Since then the product of this happy accident has got on to be used in everything from the humble saucepan to the NASA space shuttle.

When faced with a problem or a challenge Plunkett did not become angry or frustrated and give up he persevered in his investigations and so a whole new area of polymer chemistry and engineering was born.

The Bible tells us that we have a God who never gives up and always perseveres. In the Old Testament Moses tells the people not to give up.

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

Later the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews challenged the early church who were drifting back into old ways of thinking and living

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
   I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

How do you cope when beset with problems? Is it “If at first you don’t succeed – give up!”? Or do you persevere to find a solution, a way through your difficulties?

I admit at times it is not easy. During the lockdown having to use a computer for delivering worship still leaves me feeling frustrated and worn-out but also determined to try and find a way of doing things better next time.

So take a deep breath, keep trying and remember God has not given up you and is with you in all your struggles and problems.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Circuit Evening Worship 20th September

Thank you for your patience this evening. We hit a number of inexplicable technical difficulties this evening while uploading the service, for example with YouTube’s copyright algorithm refusing to let us include our own music in the service! Revd Malcolm has now successfully streamed the worship service, so do go to the Circuit YouTube Channel to follow along this evening or during the coming week.

Words on the Word – Sunday 20th September

The Lectionary Readings for today:
Exodus 16:2-15
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalms 105 and 145
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

These readings can be found together online.

The Outrageous Gospel of Grace

In 1997 Philip Yancey published the now classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
If you’ve never read it, buy a copy now. It is filled with story after story exploring examples of grace that catch people completely off their guard. One of the most powerfully moving books on grace ever written. You’re goin’ to need a bigger box of tissues…

Grace is the story that can never be told too often. Grace is the treasure that needs to be seen in churches far more than it is. Grace is the character that demonstrates the transformation we receive when we become Christians, and shows others what God is like. Grace is amazing, radical, outrageous. It flies in the face of the way the rest of the world works. Grace does not use language like “deserves”, “earns”, “worth”, “merit” or even “expected”. Grace is wasteful, prodigal, unconditional, unquestioning.

I want to start today by looking at the Parable of Jonah. What was the truth being conveyed by this story? The truth is, simply, that God is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. The parable provides a helpful and fun way to understand this deeper truth. Jonah is absolutely furious that God desires to forgive Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want them to repent and be forgiven, he wants them to get the punishment he feels they deserve. The Jews hated the people of Nineveh (see Nahum 2). But God shows that ‘the punishment they deserve’ is precisely what is going to be erased by grace. Jonah’s fierce objection is represented by his going in the opposite direction and by his constant complaining. His sermon is probably the worst ever preached: “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” – that’s the whole sermon, yet God uses it mightily to convict the people of Nineveh to repent, and they are forgiven after all.

Is there grace in the story of the Exodus? Of course! In this week’s passage we hear more complaining, whining and moaning. The whole congregation of Israelites tries to make the case that they were better off as slaves in Egypt, where at least they had food; indeed, they claim that they would have been better off dying in Egypt than wasting away here in the wilderness. Yet God does not punish them for their petulance. God does not send them back to Egypt in anger. God showers upon them blessings of food in the form of quail and “what-is-it?” (= “manna”), and God commands Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that they have clean fresh water to drink. Everything in abundance. It’s all grace.

The two psalms set for today recount the story of God’s grace as a call to worship. The God who led our ancestors through the desert is the God we worship today. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Give thanks to the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Paul urges the Philippians to show grace, even to their opponents. After all, he explains, this is what Christ Jesus showed to his opponents. Father, forgive them. So live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, then, we open our gospel reading to find an example of grace so shocking that it continues to anger Christians today. Even church folk say, “It’s not fair!” but this parable, like those in Luke 15, opens up our eyes to the possibilities of God’s grace far exceeding our assumptions of rewards in proportion to effort. Everyone receives what they were promised when they were hired – is that not fair? No-one receives less than the salary agreed. So think instead of the workers in the story. Think of it, if you will, like those dreadful team-picking ordeals at school, where being picked last was only out of grudging duty. Who are the labourers picked first? Why, the healthy, the young and the strong. These people represent the righteous and the ‘religious’ – yes, they get their reward. So who is picked last? Well now it is the weak, the elderly, the infirm. These people represent the ‘outcasts and sinners’. Does the owner of the vineyard treat them the same – oh yes!

What is Jesus saying in this parable? Clearly, that it matters not what ‘points’ you have accrued in your lifetime by the long list of your good works, your church service and your religious behaviour (whatever that means!) – is this becoming a laboured point? I hope so! Whether you have been a Christian all your life, or whether you turn to Christ with your dying breath like the thief on the cross, the reward is the same.

That’s grace. And it really is amazing.

Go with the flow.

Shimshalabim ~ ocean magic.......i've never seen anything like this. | Sea  and ocean, Ocean, Ocean waves

As a child I remember being in the sea off the Cornish coast with my father when I was caught by an undertow. For a few moments it was very frightening fortunately dad was a good swimmer and we got back to land unscathed.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

I believe that in our lives we can be caught out by an ‘undertow’. Suddenly life takes a different and unexpected turn and we are swept along to a place we don’t want to be. Our reaction is fight against it, to try and get back to the comfortable life we had. We can spend loads of energy fighting the undertow, when what we need to do is to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to work our way out of the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to admit candidly that these are real forces pulling us from the shore. At times like these we need to recognise the undertow will keep us in its grip as long as we fight against it. Our release, and our ability to land on a peaceful shore, can only come after we learn to swimming with it.

This may sound like popular psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The ‘undertow’ would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it. 

Had his spiritual ‘undertow’ merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the undertow.

Our present circumstances mean that the undertow of Covid19 has swept us off our feet. Do we swim against it, fighting to get back to the way things were? Or do we swim with it for a season and allow it to bring us safely to a different shore?

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

WOTW – Sunday 13th September

Words On The Word this week are based on these lectionary passages:

  • Genesis 50:15-21
  • Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A

Genesis 50:15-21 – Does Joseph Bear A Grudge?
The story of Joseph is the longest narrative in Genesis. If you have ever taken part in the glorious production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” then you will probably know the story well. It bears repeating.
Joseph, the Dreamer, upsets his brothers in Canaan who sell him off to some passing Slave Traders heading for Egypt, pretending to their Father that he has been killed. They never expected to see him again – indeed, they all lived as though Joseph was no longer alive.
Meanwhile, Joseph has worked his way up, by a succession of ‘God-incidences’ to become the right-hand man of Pharaoh himself, from which position he oversees to storage of surplus grain for the approaching period of famine.
When the famine hits Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come with their begging bowls to Egypt, where they do not recognise Joseph until he makes himself known to them privately. He forgives them, and says that God has brought him through it all.
Joseph is reunited with his father – itself a ‘return from the dead’ story not unlike the story of the Prodigal Son – who is finally able to die a happy man, in Egypt where his family are treated like royalty.
Nevertheless, Joseph remembers his father’s wish for his bones to be buried back home in Canaan, so he makes the trip with his brothers back to Canaan before returning to Egypt again.
It is on the way back that the brothers realise that now Jacob (Israel) is dead and buried, Joseph could well assume the Patriarch role and turn on his brothers for their earlier betrayal of him.
That is how, here in Chapter 50, we find the brothers needing to hear from Joseph whether his forgiveness offered way back in Chapter 45 was truly meant.
And of course, we hear that the forgiveness was indeed real. No grudges. All in the past.
Joseph weeps. The brothers weep. It is a beautiful, sacred moment.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – Bless The Lord O My Soul
Matt Redman’s anthemic song “10,000 Reasons” rightly continues to top the Christian music charts, not just for its use in church worship contexts, but also in personal devotions. It is a powerful song, loved by young and old alike. And it came out just too late to be included in Singing The Faith!
Its refrain “Bless The Lord, O My Soul” is taken directly from Psalm 103 (and also Psalm 104), where it is a phrase of almost ecstatic joy and worship.
Contrast, then, the exuberance of Matt Redman’s music, with the far more reflective Taizé chant of the same words.
But why the praise? What has God done that the Psalmist is so thankful to God?
The answers tumble out in the Psalmist’s words, phrase cascading upon phrase – the “10,000 Reasons” of the song’s title. Even the Taizé version sums them all up in its simple phrase “He leads me into life”.
The “life” of course is nothing less than God’s loving mercy. One commentator describes this Psalm as having through it all “A heartbeat of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love”. A heartbeat that keeps calling us back to who God is. A heartbeat that desires to beat the same way in our lives, so that others might see the Divine is us too.

Romans 14:1-12 – It’s Not All About You
Let us not use this passage to have a go at meat-eaters, vegetarians or vegans in our congregations, please! This is no proof-text for any dietary preference, of course, but rather a lesson in judging others generally.
The passage could equally be applied to those who believe their view of Scripture is better than another’s, or that their grasp of politics is more ‘right’, or those who agree with them on the chairs/pews battlefield are ‘correct’ and the others are wrong. For all such categorisations, the passage here is applicable.
Who are you to pass judgment? asks Paul. Who are you to think that the you are numbered amongst the ‘godly’ and others are not? Indeed, it is not about us at all.
“We do not live to ourselves… – we live to the Lord!”
How does this fit in with our theme this week of forgiveness?
Can you see yourself amongst those whose ears are burning at Paul’s words? Is there someone – not like you – from whom you need to seek forgiveness?

Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgive, Forgive And Forgive Again
Picture it – a new app on the iPhone App Store (other smartphones are available) called “Matthew18”. It’s great. Every time someone sins against you, you simply tap on their name and their count goes up by one. As soon as they get to 77, you don’t have to forgive them any more!
Is that really what Jesus had in mind here? Of course not! This is not a literal number, so pedantic discussions about whether the true text is “Seventy-seven times” or “Seventy times seven” become immaterial. Jesus was simply saying “over and over again”. For those who care about such things, “Seven” was in those days a number which had a sense of ‘completeness’, so “70+7” and “70×7” both meant “a completeness of completenesses” or simply “never ending”.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be church. For if a church is to offer anything different from the world, it must reveal Christ. Where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ Name, there is bound to be a disagreement! Therefore forgiveness is essential, and where there is forgiveness, so there is the presence of Jesus in their midst.
What do you understand by forgiveness? What, indeed, do you understand by sin?
Perhaps one understanding of forgiveness is the sense of letting go, especially of a sin against you. If someone has sinned against you, what is needed for you to let go of it? This is not saying that forgiving is the same as ignoring or forgetting – far from it; for the sake of good order, some sins (most sins?) will have consequences which must be addressed, but once dealt with, moving onwards is important in order to repair the relationship.
Why do we love to keep tabs on how people have wronged us? Why do we take pride in warming to our theme of judgment of a person by saying “And here’s another thing”? Why do we, even as Christians, continue to hold grudges, even years after an event?
Forgiveness is not about seeking power, or gaining the upper hand, it is about restoring right relationships. Indeed, forgiveness is less an act but more a process. A process that requires serious commitment. Perhaps we could translate “Seventy-seven times” as “Seven days a week”.
Forgiveness is therefore a sign of church, a sacred sign – in some churches the rite of confession and absolution is even called a sacrament.
That is why, in every church service, gathered together or dispersed online, we need to include confession, forgiveness and sharing in the peace. As God’s forgiven people, we can better worship God as the united Body of Christ.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

WOTW Sunday 6th September 2020

Lectionary Readings this week:

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

These can all be read online using today’s Lectionary Page.

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Exodus 12: The Passover Lamb

In terms of its significance, this passage is HUGE. The story of the Passover is the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. It is the story of God’s faithfulness, it is the story of new beginnings, and it sets the scene for the whole New Testament. It’s huge.

In this passage we read about the death of the first born son, and the freedom from bondage which follows. Jesus claims this story for himself, especially in John’s Gospel. For John, Jesus is clearly the first born of God (the ‘only-begotten’ son of 3:16). The death of Jesus (“the first born of God”) brings escape from slavery (to sin) for God’s people. John makes a further Passover connection by making Jesus the ‘Lamb of God‘ and setting the Crucifixion on the day of the Passover, thus making Jesus the Lamb slain with the other Passover lambs.

What must die in order to bring life? In this Post-COVID Era, might even the Church be required to die that it might be born again?

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Psalm 149: A Victor’s Praise Song

What was it like to hear that the war had been won? Many in our Sutton Park Circuit can recall the end of WW2, and many more the news of Victory in the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

Was the victory in each case ascribed to God? There certainly were many joyful church services in England, with church bells ringing out their victory peals. I wonder if German or Argentine Christians ascribed their defeat to God too?

God’s people emerged from their oppression under the Egyptians (see the Exodus reading) with much thanksgiving of the kind recorded in this Psalm. “God is on our side!” was their rallying cry. They felt invincible. But then, slowly, they ascribed their fortunes less to God and more to their own strength – God became sidelined and then they suffered defeat. “God has deserted us!” they cried.

Those of a more mature faith will praise God not only when victory is being celebrated but also in the very depths of despair. Indeed, in despair, faith is the only thing which can be grasped. It is the only possible expression of hope.

Extremism is dangerous – not just for its acts of terror but also for its warped sense of doctrine. I am talking not just about Islamic extremists, but also Christian extremists. Crying “God is great!” in either English or Arabic before marching out with weapons aloft is essentially suggesting that God requires murder in order to bring about peace. Really?

Walter Brueggemann, always a worthy read, offers this thought in his reflections on this Psalm:

This ready juxtaposition of praise to YHWH and exaltation of military power is a recurring liturgical-ideological practice when a nation is at war. The purpose of such a ready juxtaposition is to legitimate military action and to identify such action with the purposes of God. This temptation is a palpable one, of course, in the Old Testament, where “church and state,” “temple and monarchy,” were so closely intertwined. In a directly derivative way, the same practice reappears in the contemporary United States, where chauvinism regularly and readily identifies national purpose with divine intention. Thus, in World War II, it was “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” In more recent U.S. military adventurism in the Mideast, it is recurringly “God Bless America,” a compelling echo of Israel’s ancient and theo-military claim.

Brueggemann, Walter. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (p. 617). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Do we also tend to confuse national purpose with divine intervention? If not on a national scale, do we not tend to muddy the waters between our choices and “God’s plan for my life”? How can we explore the interface between the two with integrity?

Yet perhaps we began all this discussion on completely the wrong foot. Reading this Psalm through Christian eyes, rather than through the eyes of God’s post-Exodus people, maybe we misunderstood the very basic word ‘victory’. For surely fighting against ‘flesh and blood’ is not what we are about any more. Just read Ephesians 6. Maybe the only context for which we should be reflecting on ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ is in the context of Holy Communion, where our meal together represents the flesh (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ, the living body, the Church.

Maybe instead, the real meaning of ‘victory’ is actually ‘salvation’. Maybe, after all, the victory is indeed ours in Jesus Christ. When we re-read this Psalm with a praise song in our mouth because we are victorious over sin and death through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – then we take this Psalm to a whole new level. Even the double-edged sword of Psalm 149:6 is actually a reference to the Word of God.

To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
Who yielded his life in atonement for sin,
Who opened the life-gate that all may go in:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son;
And give him the glory—great things he has done!

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God!
And every offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives:
Chorus

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our rapture, when Jesus we see:
Chorus

Frances Jane van Alstyne (Fanny Crosby) (1820–1915) Public domain text

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Ezekiel 33: The Prophet Must Call For Repentance

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you” my mother used to call after us as we rushed off on yet another ill-advised scheme. Another favourite was the paradoxical “If you break a leg don’t come running to me!”

“You proceed at your own risk” warn the stark signs by the weather-worn coastal footpaths. In other words, don’t sue us. OK. We get it.

Stay safe! has become the new sign-off in emails. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is real and we have had to rely on experts to help us reduce the risk of contagion as much as practically possible. We are all better off because of the advice heeded.

In other areas I wonder if we are increasingly risk-averse. Of course we want to be safe and to keep our loved ones from unnecessary danger, but to my mind a few grazed knees and the occasional bloodied nose are better teachers of risk for children than the cushioned asphalt and soft bark in today’s playgrounds. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that men, in particular, need a certain level of risk to be stimulated – if one risk is minimised (for example the forced use of seatbelts in a car) then they will look for ways of increasing risk elsewhere (for example by driving faster). And who doesn’t love the thrill of the chase in the latest James Bond movie?

We are hopeless about calculating relative probabilities of risk anyway – we may be up in arms about the perceived risk of a new mobile phone mast near our home, while blissfully carrying on smoking or sunbathing – each carrying far higher risks than the most powerful mobile phone mast.

Can this be taken too far? Warnings are still important of course. In this passage we find Ezekiel being summoned to warn the people of God or face God’s wrath himself. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ezekiel warns the people, but it does no good. God’s people chose to ignore the warnings and so ended up taking full responsibility for what followed.

And that, my friends, is how the story of the Exile begins.

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Romans 13: Love Is The Fulfilling Of The Law

Let’s get this straight. Again. Being a Christian does not mean “Keeping the 10 Commandments”. Paul had plenty to say against that sort of teaching (known as “legalism”). Being a Christian is following Jesus into fullness of life, a life he named as “The Kingdom of God” – a life of justice, joy, peace and love. This is the passage in Romans which explains why Love has effectively abolished the 10 Commandments.

Love, says Paul, is what you are supposed to be doing. It’s not some wishy-washy gooey feeling, it’s meant to be hard work. Love is patient, kind – all of that – yet it remains a conscious choice and one which we must cultivate. When we love, says Paul, that’s when we are fulfilling the Law. In fact, “Love God, Love your neighbour” is absolutely the same as your prohibitions and exhortations of the Commandments of Moses. For if you loved God, you wouldn’t set up false images or profane God’s name. If you truly loved your neighbour, you wouldn’t murder them, steal from them or sleep with them outside marriage. Love does no wrong, so love is the Law of God.

It’s as clear as day is from night, urges Paul. Live in the day, live in the light.

Wake up, live, and love.

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Matthew 18: Unity Within The Church

Every sermon I’ve heard on this passage, and probably every sermon I have preached too, has started with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you”. It struck me this week that perhaps we have been getting it wrong all the time.

You see, it’s so easy to define the church from our position. To start with the premise that we are “in” and then to go on to justify our in-ness and then define what “others” have to do in order to be counted as “in” as well. To put it bluntly, we often say, “I’m saved/redeemed/doctrinally-sound and this is what you have to do, poor you, in order that you can be too”.

The stark picture from Scripture, however, is that wherever we draw the circle around ourself and our friends, and call the circle “church”, we find Jesus not inside the circle but outside it with the “outcasts and sinners“. Let’s just get rid of the circle altogether, and remind ourselves of John Wesley’s “Four Alls”. No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. And that, only by God’s amazing grace and mercy, even includes us.

So look at this passage again. Perhaps you’ve been attending your church for years. Now read the opening words of Jesus in this reading as though they are addressed, not to you, but to someone else. Maybe even to one of those ‘outsiders’ who has only joined the church recently. Jesus is saying to them, “Has somebody grieved your Spirit? Then speak to them and point out their fault.”

And maybe that person at fault is actually you, and it is you who are being summoned. Then, maybe, because you find it all so preposterous, they are obliged to bring others along, and eventually the whole church. If you still can’t be reconciled with them, then perhaps it is you who has to leave, not them.

Yet this passage is not about creating division but about working for unity. It is absolutely not a proof text for forcing others to change to be like us, nor even for others to force us to be like them. It is, however, a call to love. A call to forgive. A call to reconciliation.

The church that reconciles itself amongst its own members is a better beacon for God’s love than a church with any number of grand words or costly outreach programs. And there, then, gently within its midst, where the church is gathered not in the name of bruised egos but in the name of the risen Jesus, there Christ is among them.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

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Grace and peace,
Stephen