Monthly Archives: November 2020

Something for Sunday

To-day is Advent Sunday. Advent means coming and the season of Advent is about the coming of Christ. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ mark you – not just the coming of Christmas. Our faith in Christ is faith in the Christ who comes – comes to you and me- comes to our Church and community and comes us saviour and judge. So Advent is a season of expectation as we Christians look forward in hope. We know there’s a lot wrong with the world and with ourselves. But Christ comes to put things to rights. That’s what salvation means.

But at the same time as there is hope there is apprehension. If a judge is coming what will his verdict be. Will we be found wanting? Will we finally be found out? So although we long for the coming of the Lord and pray daily and urgently that his coming may be soon there is also a sense in which we hope that the day of the coming of the Lord might take place after next Wednesday or after the next visit by the grandchildren.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel speaks of the signs attending the final days-fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world. The particular circumstances and the numerous fears that may have first inspired these words need not bother us. What I think we can respond to are the feelings that are represented here. We too have fears and foreboding. Our world might be falling apart. Hard times are here for many: loss of a job, family break up, a sickness, a death or a failure. Then we are troubled by what is coming on the world. Wars and rumours of wars, economic disaster and climate chaos. We are worried, distressed and perplexed just like those who heard these words for the first time.  We too are worried about the future and if we are not then we ought to be.

In the midst of all this chaos there are signs of hope. As things seem to get worse the day when the son of man comes with all his angels gets closer. We do have confidence in God’s love and in his plan for the world. Despite all appearances to the contrary we believe that history is going our way and that Christ will lead us to victory over the powers of death and destruction.

In the meantime what is our response to be? The passage from Mark and the passage from 1 Corinthians offers some clear guidelines.

Be watchful, be encouraged and be hopeful.

Being watchful is particularly important. This is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Read the signs of the times. Be alert and aware. Understand what is going on and try to make a response to what is going on. Work for peace and justice, join a Christian environmental group like Arocha or Green Christian. Don’t bury your head in the sand taking comfort from an endless repetition of the old songs.

The watchfulness theme in scripture is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. The watchman guards the city, he warns of approaching danger, he reminds the people of their responsibilities. We then are called to be alert and on the watch for those things that might challenge the Kingly rule of God. This is also a big theme of the Advent season.

The temptation not to be watchful and not to testify to what we see is always strong. I don’t want to get involved. I wouldn’t make any difference. Nobody would listen to me any way. It’s not worth it. We need to resist these voices. Remember all that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good people-people like us-and yes no kidding-we are good people-do nothing.

Christ is coming! He comes every day often in the form of the neighbour who needs our help. There are signs of the kingdom here and there. We must be alert and ready for Him when he comes with his angels. We might even be found amongst the angels.

In the next chapter of Mark as the great crisis draws near Jesus specifically asks his disciples to watch with him in the garden of gethsemane and of course they fail. They fall asleep. Could you not watch one hour? Evidently not! We need to do better. WE must keep watch for the Lord. No more amusing ourselves to death in front of the tele.

Secondly be encouraged. . Encouragement is one of the great themes of Advent. Things may not look too good. The questions you asked in the past may not seem any nearer resolution now than they did then. You may well feel discontented that so many easy cheap, hopes were disappointed. You might feel depressed at the thought that the promise of your youth has not been fulfilled or that the expectations you had then have not come to pass. To speak personally for a moment I certainly do feel that way. Why are the urgent prophetic messages that I heard in 1968 say, still not heeded, still not acted upon? It’s easy to become cynical and depressed. Easy but wrong.

Wrong because that very sense of depression and discontent is God created. God will come for us and redeem our times and us. He’s made us this way because he wants to fill us with himself. God longs for us as much as we long for him and our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.

Take particular encouragement from St Paul’s message to the Corinthian Church. He gives thanks for them. He acknowledges the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus. He takes note of their enrichment in all speech and knowledge. He says to them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. He notes that they are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ who will keep them guiltless to the end.

Powerful stuff and he meant every word of it but don’t draw the wrong conclusions. These Corinthian brothers and sisters weren’t exceptional people and they certainly weren’t above criticism. Paul spends most of the next fourteen chapters criticizing them and trying to put them right on a lot of points. But when it came to the really big picture they were in the right place. We need to hear this message ourselves because it isn’t easy being a Christian these days and we need all the encouragement we can get.

Be encouraged.

Thirdly be hopeful

In the end the great theme of today is hope. What we hope for is that our saviour and judge will come set the world to rights and vindicate our lives and our efforts. That he will say to each one of us: Well done thou good and faithful servant. Of course as good Protestants we know that our lives and our efforts are never sufficient to earn heaven’s rewards-only our faith can do that. But is our faith strong enough and is it in the end misplaced? We feel troubled and somewhat out of our depth. Who is Jesus? Who is God? We go on asking these questions.

In the end no final answer can be given to these questions as yet. But God has placed within each one of us a seed of hope-that our lives do make sense-that loving is worthwhile and that Jesus by his coming and by his death and his victory on the cross has conquered death and has begun the new age. In faith and hope we live, always hopeful, never discouraged always scanning the horizon for signs of the coming of the lord. The coming of the one who will answer all our questions himself.

Simple lessons

Toasting Fork - Moycullen Heritage

As we move into the cold autumn evenings for some reason my paternal grandmother comes to mind. Perhaps it is the fact that my grandparents  still had a coal fire and together we would toast slices of her home made bread with an old brass toasting-fork. Never flashy or overtly expressive, her love for me was still warm and unwavering. It may seem cold to you, but it never bothered me that she didn’t say, “I love you,” or give me hugs.

Instead, she always kept fairy cakes in the pantry, they were my favourite. When Grandad cut the ham for supper, she would remind him to trim the fat off my piece. For no particular reason, she frequently smiled at me with her eyes and told me I was a good boy.

On reflection I’ve come to see that in her way my grandmother was teaching me a radical life-lesson. A lesson about who we are and what we are doing here. A lesson that has taken me decades to begin to understand and to make my own. It goes like this:

Love is not a reward for what we do with our lives. It’s a gift, the gift that makes this life possible in the first place. Being the beloved is the starting point — and the finish line — for every single human being. And if we lean into that truth, we will change this world. As it turns out, my grandmother seems to have been living out the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:1-12)

More specifically, I have in mind the first of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Alongside the many sound interpretations of what Jesus meant by “poor in spirit,” I offer this.

All of us need a “why” to exist. We can endure and even overcome just about anything if we know who we are and what we’re doing here. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus teaches that giving away the love that we receive freely from God is our why.

For whatever reason, we’ve gotten things turned upside down. We’ve fallen for the idea that life is about earning love. And plenty of us at one point or another assumed that we would get that love by achieving and accomplishing and accumulating.

Some of us spend our lives pursuing possessions or power or status figuring these things would make us lovable. The problem is that we can become so obsessed with ourselves that we actually build walls between ourselves and other people.

And this same, love-pursuing dynamic can take place in our spiritual lives. Plenty of us act as if the depth of our piety, the rigor of our moral conduct, or the orthodoxy of our theology will convince God to reward us. Paradoxically, this kind of religiosity can be a form of self-absorption that isolates us from God and others.

Spiritual poverty starts with giving up the self-defeating idea that any of us can get God to reward us. That’s just not how God operates. God gives gifts.

As my grandmother showed me again and again, this does not mean that I’m no good and God loves me anyway. Neither does it mean that I’m so good that God can’t resist me. It just means that God makes me the beloved at each instant because, well, God is God. We exist at all because God loves us. And that goes for everybody.

When our starting point is accepting that we are loved, we get over ourselves. We’re free to consider the needs of others. To give love instead of pursue love for ourselves. This is where the kingdom of heaven begins to be ours.

God bless and stay safe,
Alan.  

Something for Sunday (delivered at Streetly this morning)

Do you long for the coming of God? You may wonder what the question means or whether such a question could have any meaning at all for you. Perhaps you have searched for a long time or waited for a long time and things don’t seem to make any more sense to you now than they did in the past. On the other hand you may be so busy and so caught up with the struggle of living that you have no time to long for anything except a covid-19 vaccine and a family Christmas. Nevertheless if you feel dissatisfied with this state of affairs, if you have an intuition that your life could be better nobler and more fulfilled then for you I have good news. Christ will come for you. Advent which begins next week is a season just for you. God has created in you a sense of discontent. He’s made you this way because he wants to fill you with himself. God longs for you just as much as you long for him and your heart will be restless till it finds its rest in him.

Well that’s the good news. But what about the downside. What about the nagging suspicion that none of this is for real. That since Christ did not come last year or last week he’s not very likely to come today or tomorrow. All this stuff about Christ coming again which we piously repeat at Communion services is just words-just a manner of speaking-not to be taken seriously.

Well if you do think that way at times and who doesn’t you would not be the first Christians to do so. Among the very first Christians there were many who wondered whether Christ had come once and for all in his earthly ministry. They looked to the future in the light of the Christ who had come and they wondered what more might be expected before the end. Others full of eager anticipation expected the end- if not this year-well then next year without doubt. But then year succeeded year and the final moment of glory seemed to be indefinitely postponed. There were persecutions and some died, there were rows in the church-schisms and splits-disagreements-questions. In these circumstances hope can die –apathy and inertia replaces eager anticipation. Spiritual death can seep in to the souls of the faithful like damp creeping up a wall. Has our hope died?

Our gospel passage from St Matthew has always lifted Christians out of this mood. It reminds them Christ has come, is coming, indeed that he comes every day. What is more it insists that judgment is not something that can be dismissed from our minds because it will take place sometime in the distant future. Judgment is now-it is a present experience because Christ is always present in the one who needs our help. This is good news-although at the same time a fearful thing. Every action is judged-every encounter is an encounter with the divine because God is always present in every encounter. We think our lives so unimportant and our actions and words so trivial, absurd and meaningless. This parable refutes that. No, no it says. If you think that you are dead wrong. Your life can make a difference. Your big moment is now.

Mother Theresa was one Christian who was inspired by this parable. She wrote: “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread. In our work we have him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick, I was naked, I was homeless.” It isn’t always easy to see Christ in people we don’t like even when they are in need as Mother Theresa herself confesses. “Dearest Lord, she prays, though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting and the unreasonable may I still recognize you and say: “Jesus my patient. How sweet it is to serve you.”

In 1527 when Breslau in Germany was hard hit by the plague many Christians wondered whether they ought to stay or to flee. Martin Luther wrote an open letter to the local pastor in which he said: “I know very well that if Christ himself or his mother were now ill everybody would be so devoted as to wish to help and to serve. Everybody would come running. Yet they do not want to hear when He himself says; inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me. If then you would minister and wait upon Christ, behold you have a sick neighbour you. Go to him and minister to him and you will assuredly find Christ in him”.

Unto one of the least of these my brethren? Who then are these least for us today? Who are the ones we consider scarcely worthy of life itself? The ones who are not regarded. Where might we find them? The homeless on the streets-the others we don’t value. Who are these people? The long term mentally ill, the redundant, the unemployed, the unproductive and demented elderly, the sufferers from unfashionable diseases, some of the disabled and perhaps above all the unborn. These things should be thought about.

The gospel says that we will assuredly find Christ in these people. How can we be so sure? Why will an act of sacrificial love assuredly bring us into the presence of Christ?

Because sacrificial love is at the heart of Jesus’ life and message.

You and I are looking for God-succeeding to be found by him-hoping for holiness-wanting to be entirely given. We desire this but we dread it as well-fear the pain –the surrender-the loss of self-the letting go. When Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him it is this that he seeks for us-a self surrender-a death that will lead to a rebirth in the spirit. To do some act of sacrificial love is to walk the Christian way, it is to know Christ. This is a world away from self righteous do gooding. Such acts affirm the self-they speak to our desire to be somebody to make something of ourselves. The Christian way is not about making something of ourselves it is about transcending ourselves. It is about dying to the old in order that we might be born anew. In that God given sense of loss Christ can come for those who truly seek him. Making himself present if we will make him room’ knocking at our door and seeking entry.

Yes Christ will come again. Indeed he comes every day in the form of the sister or brother who needs our help. Can we respond to him when he comes close to us? Could you not see him in the neighbour who stands in need of you? And surely in these daily encounters with Christ come again do we not see a sign of his final coming-when the kingdom of love, justice and peace will be all in all.

And when we pray. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we are not beating the air with vain words.

Not at all. We are living the Christian hope.

Words on the Word – Sunday 22nd November

Today is the final week of Lectionary Year A. The Church year begins with Advent Sunday and takes us through the seasons as far as the Sunday before Advent, which is called Christ The King Sunday. Our readings for Christ The King Sunday this year are as follows:

  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
  • Psalm 95:1-7a or Psalm 100
  • Ephesians 1:15-23
  • Matthew 25:31-46

These readings can all be read online here.

Ezekiel 34

Much of the imagery in the New Testament comes from rich seams in the Old Testament – look particularly at the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Whenever Jesus claims a title for himself he does so not as an idea plucked out of thin air, but as an idea long-embedded in the familiar Scriptures of his hearers. Jesus takes and owns these titles for himself because they belong to God.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture ever, and its popularity at funerals is understandable. Yet it is not the only reference to the idea of God as shepherd. They begin as far back as Cain and Abel (Abel was a ‘keeper of the sheep’); Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all shared this role. Moses too had been tending sheep when confronted by the burning bush, and David – the author of Psalm 23 – was of course a humble shepherd boy when he was appointed and anointed by Samuel to be the future King. The other important Psalm references to Sheep and Shepherds can be found in Psalms 28, 44, 49, 74, 78, 80, 95, 100 and 119.

Music choice for today – a piece which will be sung in churches and cathedrals countrywide during Advent – The Advent Antiphon ‘Matin Responsory’ by Palestrina. Listen out for the quote from Psalm 80.

The passage in Ezekiel is important to us because God announces through the prophets that a new Shepherd will one day come ‘from the line of David’ – and so into that sense of expectation Jesus later announces “I am the good shepherd”.

Yet it doesn’t stop at Jesus. The post-resurrection conversations with the disciples who will build Christ’s church are for us too. “Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep” says Jesus to Peter in John 21. That’s a call for us too.

Psalm 95

This Psalm is otherwise known as The Venite – a Psalm traditionally sung at Morning Prayer. The word ‘Venite’, of course, means “O Come” – the opening words of the Psalm. Why do we come together? We come together to praise God!

Take a moment to read through this Psalm and count the number of reasons given by the Psalmist to praise God. But notice then that the crescendo builds to the phrases “the people of his pasture” and “the sheep of his hand”.

My Shepherd is the Lord! Join me in worship!

Two contrasting musical versions for you – a traditional version sung to a chant by a cathedral choir, and a reggae version sung by the incomparable Grace Thrillers gospel band.

Psalm 100

This Psalm is otherwise known as The Jubilate – a Psalm also traditionally sung at Morning Prayer. The word ‘Jubilate’, of course, means “O Be Joyful” – the opening words of the Psalm. The word might also be familiar to folk who sang the popular “Hebrew-style” Jubilate Everybody back in the 1980s. The word is etymologically linked to various English words too.

In terms of content, the Psalmist is on a similar theme to the words of Psalm 95 above. The call is to ‘be joyful’ and ‘worship the Lord’, and the reasons for doing so are again listed. Notably for us today, “we are his people” and we are “the sheep of his pasture”.

Shepherding was a career of notoriously low reputation, as we read in Philo’s writings (c. 50 BC to 50 AD), which makes it all the more remarkable that God’s people use such imagery to sing of God, remarkable that shepherds were chosen to be the first to witness the birth of Jesus, and remarkable that Jesus would ultimately take that title for himself.

I read with joy today of an initiative called a “tuneless choir”. It is widely known that people love to sing together, but we can’t all sing like Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli. The idea of the Tuneless Choir is that it is completely unconditional and inclusive. People with dementia, people with learning difficulties, people who couldn’t hold a note if they grasped it with both hands – all are welcome to sing along as robustly as they please.

Surely that is singing joyfully!

Ephesians 1

How effective is your evangelisation as a church? Paul’s letters tell us that there is nothing more praiseworthy, or no indication more healthy, than a church fellowship that has a reputation for its faith and love. Have you seen that church over there? They are so full of faith, they literally live what they say, and their love – not just for one another but for every stranger that comes by – is so palpable that I just have to tell others about it! When Paul hears of such reputations doing the rounds, he gives thanks to God, and then writes to the Church to tell them what he has heard.

We have a trinitarian prayer in the next section, as Paul writes “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation” and we note that “Father of glory” is an unusual phrase. The sense of ‘glory’ is close to the overshadowing presence of God in the burning bush, or in the pillar of fire and cloud, or on Mt Sinai, or at Jesus’ Tranfiguration, and this helps us to understand the prayer for wisdom and enlightenment that comes from God and not from human effort.

It is then that we understand the reason for Paul’s prayer – a prayer we can pray too – that our hearts might be opened (“enlightened”) to know the hope of our glorious inheritance as people of faith.

Matthew 25

In this, our third reading in consecutive weeks from Matthew 25, we reach the familiar parable of sheep and goats. Not only do we have a shepherding image at the start which connects us to other readings today, but we have another watching and waiting story as we have had on prevous weeks.

The shepherding imagery concerns the shepherd who separates sheep and goats. In Bible lands and times these scraggy animals wouldn’t have been quite as easy to separate as the fluffy white lambs and coarse-haired goats of today’s farms, so it required manual sorting, thus giving the image of the Son of Man separating people from one another a more individualised context.

The parallel imagery continues for a moment longer, however, because in the parable, the people become sheep and goats as they are sorted with the righteous sheep going to the right and the wayward goats going to the left. In passing, the “right hand” always signified the “favoured ones” – see for example the hands used by dying patriarchs as they chose to bless their adult children.

What’s interesting about this particular story about watching and waiting is that the characters in the story don’t know that they are in the story – they don’t know that they are the ones watching and waiting. Suddenly the Son of Man calls them to account for the previous behaviour and they hadn’t realised that their previous behaviour was going to be assessed.

I saw a wonderful story recently of a man who was being interviewed for a high-powered job in the city and was told that he had blown the interview even before he had been asked the first question. Little did he realise that the CEO of the company had disguised herself as the front desk receptionist. The man had swaggered in to the building, not even making eye contact with the receptionist, treating her like dirt as he mansplained his way to the interview waiting area. It was only when the men in suits stood up to greet the CEO, when she finally entered the room to take up the vacant seat behind the interview table, that the man realised what he had done. [Tip to interview candiates: treat every member of the team from cleaner to executive as your boss!]

I find Paul’s opening words to the Ephesians helpful (above) as he prays for God’s Spirit to bring wisdom and enlightenment. When the eyes of your heart are open, then you can see Christ in “the very least of these my children” and respond accordingly.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

This concludes the series “Words on the Word”. To those who have been with me for the past seven months and 50,000 words, I thank you for journeying with me through the Lectionary Readings this year. God bless you.

Words on the Word – Sunday 15th November 2020

Today is the Second Sunday before Advent Year A (Proper 28) or 33rd in Ordinary Time. We are coming towards the end of Year A. The Lectionary Readings for today are as follows:

  • Judges 4:1-7
  • Psalm 123
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4

The gift of the Lectionary offers a 3-year journey through Scripture, but with a tendency to leave out both the most boring and the most controversial passages. Here we have skipped daintily over Ehud’s eye-watering assassination of the oppressive (and very fat) Moabite King Eglon. To find out more, read Judges 3:21-22 – actually, don’t!

We enter this passage with the report of the death of Ehud, the good guy, but rather than renewing their allegiance to God for this victory over the Moabites, the Israelites simply fall back into their old ways, and are caught napping by the next oppressor – King Jabin of Canaan. We are told that the commander of his army was Sisera – a name which may be familiar to those who have a fondness for the Bible’s gory bits. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself!

We are also introduced to Deborah, who is clearly a woman not to be messed with. Another feisty woman comes later – Jael, the wife of Heber. It’s refreshing to see strong female leads in the Bible every now and again! Under Deborah’s command, Barak completely overpowers Sisera’s forces to the point where Sisera is the lone survivor fleeing on foot. Jael is the one who urges Sisera to take refuge in her tent, and Sisera acquiesces to her charms. Sisera is then the victim of the next eye-watering assassination. To find out more, read Judges 4:21-22 – actually, don’t!

Why are these extraordinary stories part of our Bible? Well the bigger picture is of course the story of people of Israel as they stumble through their history with their fluctuating allegiances to God along the way. We learn that while the faithfulness of God’s people is of varied levels of commitment, God’s faithfulness is everlasting, and God’s mercy is eternal. It is not the actions of God’s people that define the people of God, but the actions of God.

Psalm 123

These short Psalms in this section of the Psalter are called the Psalms of Ascent. They were pilgrim songs, learned off by heart and sung by God’s people as they travelled up to Jerusalem for the various festivals. As the people look up while walking, they see the mighty Jerusalem rising above them and are drawn to praise God.

Incidentally, one of the most mis-quoted Psalms of Ascent begins with an entirely different punctuation from that mis-remembered by so many.

Psalm 121 does NOT begin with the words:

I lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help!

Instead, it begins:

I lift up my eyes unto the hills. Whence cometh my help?

In other words, the hills do not bring me any help at all. When I look to the hills I find no help. Where does my help come from then? My help comes from the Lord!

Similarly in this Psalm 123 – I lift up my eyes, certainly, but it is not to majestic mountains or mighty buildings. I lift up my eyes to you, O Lord, who are enthroned in the heavens!

As the pilgrims continue upwards on their journey, so they dare to pray for God’s mercy. May this festival be a time of renewal, that through the mercy of God, their souls might know God’s peace. What a way to approach any time of worship!

1 Thessalonians 5

The thrust of Paul’s charge in this reading is the instruction to ‘walk in the light’. Perhaps you know the song “The Spirit lives to set us free” which has that phrase as a refrain (although you’ll have sung the phrase no fewer than 36 times by the time you arrive panting and breathless at the end…), but here Paul makes good use of the contrast between light and dark, day and night; the things ‘of the night’ refer to sin – and how many sins are committed at night, today as ever was; the things ‘of the day’ refer to good deeds and acts of righteousness. In the night belong sleep, drunkenness and debauchery. In the day belong sobriety, faith, hope and love.

Much as the night time is attractive in what it hides, and in what opportunities it presents for climbing into bed (literally and metaphorically), let the reader understand that the call to follow Christ is the call to go beyond the darkness of Gethsemane and live in the light of the resurrection morning.

Matthew 25

A ‘talent’ in this context is a unit of weight, as measured on the balance scales. We don’t have the specific context here, but elsewhere a talent has been equivalent to the money need to pay one day’s wages to 6,000 labourers. Whatever the interpretation, this is a life-changing amount of money. What should the servants do with such a vast sum?

Perhaps we can at least chuckle at the irony that at least when it was written, putting the money in the bank would have earned better returns than burying it in the ground! Yet then, as now, the way to grow money was through buying and selling (actual goods or ‘stocks and shares’ – it is the same idea). Another option was to lend the money at high interest. My own Dad always taught us to “make your money work for you” rather than simply wasting it on things we didn’t really need.

This reading parallels the Epistle in the ‘burying’ of the money being allied to the ‘darkness’ of sin. Be out in the open! Live in the light! Furthermore, we have the ‘watchfulness’ theme of Matthew 25 as the servants await the arrival of the master. As with the Bridegroom story earlier, there is a judgment pronouncement in the story when the expected one finally arrives.

Al of this, of course, points us towards our Advent theme which we shall be marking for the four weeks from 29th November, when we look forward not just to the recounting of the first coming of Christ as God in human form, but also to the second coming of Christ in all his fearful majesty. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘Come towards’. We are being urged to ‘walk in the light’ as we wait for Christ to come, and to be prudent in the manner of our living.

In the meantime, it may be helpful to contemplate the ‘gifts’ or ‘talents’ you have been given. How will you use them for God’s glory?

Grace and peace,

Stephen

Words on the Word will conclude next week with the 22nd November edition.

Something for Sunday

They say confession is good for the soul so I want to own up to an occasion when I got myself into trouble in the pulpit. There have probably been others and perhaps there should have been others. As I get older I’m getting more cautious and perhaps people are kinder than they should be.

It concerned our parable for today-the parable of the three servants or the talents. I read the passage and thought about it. I also thought about the circumstances in which I might have heard it before –the school assembly for instance. The stern faced Headmaster addresses the school:

“We are each given some talents. They might not necessarily be in school classroom subjects; they might be in sports or in the pursuit of a hobby to a very high standard, it might be in the ability to help other people or in something else like picking up litter, but whatever it is we have at least one talent. We must use our talent well. Hiding it is no us because with talents what you don’t use you lose. So even if you’ve only got one talent use it wisely. And if you don’t watch out.”

I expect you’ve been there. You may even have given a morally uplifting talk along these lines. I have tried it but I’m not very good at it-being earnest is not my natural game. I tend to get the giggles half way through. More seriously I simply cannot identify the master in the parable with God or with Christ. The God I believe in is a gracious God, eternally happy and joyful always there to welcome home his wayward children. That’s the God I read about in the New Testament. I just can’t read the parable in a way that portrays God as hard hearted, demanding and always ready to hand out punishment. To be honest I still think I’m right about this.

However I now have a problem. How am I going to explain the harsh judgement handed down and the condemnation visited upon the third servant? My solution was to present the parable as a kind of commentary on the economics of 1st century Palestine- a time of oppression and exploitation. The parables of Jesus very often form a kind of commentary on the world of landlords and labourers, tenants, taxpayers and share croppers. The third servant is a kind of whistle blower- a conscientious non-participant in a rotten system – a hero of the fair trade movement. He suffers in a good cause. Those who follow the way of the way Kingdom should be prepared to suffer.

Nobody bought this. Some were quite offended. It shows the perils of being carried away by one exciting chapter in a book on the parables (reference supplied). What I had done was turn the liberating word of God into a topic of academic interest. That’s a mistake.  More thought needed and some more study too.

I think the key to this parable lies in the relationship of each of the servants to his master. How much faith did each servant actually have in the master? The first two servants were prepared to take a chance, to be risk takers-real venture capitalists. None of them lost any money but the one servant who exercised total and absolute prudence and acted so as to achieve complete security for the property entrusted to him stands condemned. He was fearful and faithless and paralysed by that fear and faithlessness. “I knew you to be a hard man. I was afraid. I hid your money in the ground.” The condemnation he incurred he brought on himself. The first two servants by contrast were emboldened to risk everything for one they trusted and knew to be gracious. So this is a call to be faithful, fearless and to enter into the joy of the master.

Christianity is a call to have faith in a gracious and loving God. It’s not an invitation to exercise prudence within the world as we know it but instead to step outside that world and into the Kingdom of God. It’s an entirely new way of being human-accessed by faith and marked by hope and love.

Another key to the parable could lie in the absence of the master. He’s going away and for a long time. How bold will the servants be when the master is not looking over their shoulders? Do they still have sufficient trust and faith to live boldly when the master is absent and may not return for many years, if ever?

You and I are living in a time when the Christian religion has lost its social power? Once it was different and some of us can remember when it was different. The master seems to have gone away on a long journey and we are not sure when he will return if ever. How bold are we able to be? How uncompromising are we prepared to be or do we think that the body of Christ ought to enter into an accommodation with its enemies. Don’t be misled; we do have enemies!

The author of a book I was reading about this described how he teaches short courses at the Lutheran seminary in Riga-once part of the Soviet Union. He observed the interviews for new students seeking admission. For the interviewing panel the most important question is “When were you baptized?” He wondered why. They told him. If they were baptized during the Soviet period they risked heir lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after the period of Soviet rule we have many more questions to ask as to why they want to become pastors. As Christians we must learn to live boldly using the resources he gives us confident that the future will be his future. Confident that the master will return.

And the master will return and in judgement! He will call his servants to account. We received gifts-faith, hope and love. What did we make of those gifts? Did we hide them away or use them as occasions to offer ourselves a spiritual comfort blanket. Some received a little others received a lot-we all know that from experience. But were we prepared to take a risk make a venture in the life of faith. I know from experience that the best things in my life arose from occasions when I took a risk-I became a preacher, I married this woman. I befriended this stranger and allowed myself to befriended in turn. We must learn to embrace risk for that is at the heart of the life of faith. Prudence may well be a virtue in ordinary circumstances but an encounter with the gospel of Jesus represents for us an extraordinary circumstance. You will not be surprised to learn from the above that having such an approach I am not often put on Methodist Committees or any other committee.

The well-known Catholic scholar and critic Terry Eagleton once wrote if you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. That’s a great line and a rebuke to those who think that a soft liberal humanism with a few rousing hymns will keep the church afloat. We must not hide our gifts away we must not be afraid of taking risks in the life of faith. Jesus said follow me. That’s very risky! Look what happened to him but surely much better than allowing ourselves to be cast into the outer darkness.

Words on the Word – Sunday 8th November 2020

Year A Proper 27 (Ordinary 32) is the Third Sunday before Advent Sunday (29th November). Year B begins on Advent Sunday, so this series of ‘Words on the Word’ is shortly coming to an end. The Lectionary readings for this week are as follows:

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24

This is a fine example of a Farewell Discourse – a “Goodbye Speech”. Jesus uses a similar structure for his Farewell Discourse at the end of John’s Gospel. Many other Old Testament characters have a form of Farewell Discourse too. Notice the various components that build up from Chapter 23 (22?) onwards.

  • Joshua knows he is old and is going to die soon
  • He gathers together his people around him
  • He tells them he is going to die
  • He commends them for their work to date
  • He assures them of their share of the inheritance
  • He urges them to be strong
  • He reminds them that God is with them, and will still be with them
  • He urges them to remain loyal to God and the Law
  • He reminds them of God’s blessings to come

This pattern outlines as well much of what Jesus says in his Final Discourse speech, especially in John Chapters 13-16. It would have been a familiar structure to the Disciples.

The verses omitted in the Lectionary are largely historical details, which can of course be looked up if desired. We conclude with the death and burial of Joshua – repeated in Judges 2 for continuity – and life for God’s people in the Promised Land begins its new chapter.

Psalm 78

Did you enjoy History at school? I can’t say I was a big fan. There’s only so many times you can learn about the Romans AGAIN before the fog descends. In my day it really was names, dates and battles with no mention (that I can recall) of any global consequences or metanarrative giving us the overarching themes or the big picture. These days my history teacher friends have at their disposal such exciting resources that far more pupils get swept up in the thrill of the storylines as they weave in and out of time – and frequently repeat themselves.

I am left, therefore with only a rudimentary knowledge of British history, let alone World history and politics from the past 2000 years, and so I am still frantically trying to fill in the gaps with the help of the likes of Simon Schama or Andrew Marr.

Nothing would have been further from the truth for the people of Israel, who would have known their history going back centuries, right down to individual names, and they would have known their place in the continuum through their rigorous ancestral record-keeping. Their history was not taught through dry texts filled with black and white images of indistinct Roman coins – their history was SUNG. And as every teacher knows, if you sing it, you memorise it.

In this passage we read only the introductory verses of Psalm 78, but the whole Psalm is a History lesson set to music. Children would have delighted in showing off their memorisation skills by singing this Psalm in full, word perfect. In this way, the story of God’s involvement in the history of God’s people is recounted afresh for each new generation.

1 Thessalonians 4

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (verse 14) – this passage today provides an early Christian Creed in its full, succinct and memorable form. The Lection is one of the several recommended passages to be read at Christian funerals, with good reason, and it is particularly useful as a reading for Remembrance or Memorial services, especially on All Saints’ Day which has just passed. If we do not begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face a hopeless end. If, however, we do begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face an endless hope.

The words ‘rise’ and ‘caught up in the clouds’ suggest a supernatural post-mortem vertical motion (head first? feet first?) which strikes me as more comical than helpful. It may work for Hollywood movies or whimsical Christian art, but I find it all rather twee to be honest. The Greek ‘rise’ could just as well be translated as ‘wake up’ or ‘get up from sleep’, or even simply ‘stand up’ (after sitting or lying down). There’s a sense here for me of opening the eyes properly, of truly being alive, of seeing things so brilliantly now that it is as if we had been blind all along before. As for ‘caught up in the clouds’, we get a better picture of this by reading the Transfiguration narrative, where Jesus ‘caught up in the clouds’ mirrors Moses ‘caught up in the clouds’ and actually means being in the presence of God. When we dig deeper into Celtic or mystical spirituality we become more willing to accept the always-on presence of God in all things, the liminality of the heaven-earth boundary. We see an interdimensionality of God’s presence which goes far beyond our working models of up-down-left-right. You no more have to go upwards in order to be in God’s presence than you need to go upstairs in order to think.

These words must be taken for the joyous symbolism that they represent. No-one can tell us what it will be like when we die, but we do know it will far exceed our imagination.

Matthew 25

So we come to the first of the three readings from Matthew 25 as we conclude Year A. This is the story of the Bridesmaids and the Bridegroom – and the bridesmaids are presented in this parable as being either ‘wise’ or ‘foolish’. In fact this is the theme of the whole chapter – in each of the three parables the characters are divided into those who made the right choice and those who didn’t.

What is Wisdom? We are told that ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’. We have a portrait of Wisdom personified as a female in the famous Proverbs 31. Jesus calls us to be ‘wise as serpents’. Wisdom, in New Testament terms, means being constantly open to the movement of God’s Spirit as we live in this strange period we call both the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ in an eschatological sense. Ever vigilant. Ever ready.

Jesus the Bridegroom is preparing to meet his Bride the Church – a vision celebrated too in Revelation 21. Is the Church ready? Is the Church prepared for the denouement of 1 Thessalonians 4?

In this short journey leading up to Advent we are awaiting the coming of the New-Born King. It won’t be long before we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.

But will we be ready?

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

Words On The Word will finish on 22nd November.

Hell Fire and Damnation*

Three Keys to Understand the Old Testament | CBN.com

At theological college one of the tutors who was most engaging for me was our tutor in Old Testament. He made these 39 books (46 if you are Roman Catholic) come alive.

As a teenager in church I was taught that the Old Testament was OK but was sub- Christian. Reading the Old Testament was like reading a cheap novel whilst the New Testament was like reading great poetry.

Sadly I feel, that the this is a common misconception about the Old Testament that pervades the church today: that it’s too violent, not relevant to our contemporary lives, and we’re better off focusing on the New Testament. The Old Testament is often left to right-wing fundamentalist churches that cherrypick which passages to use to bolster their arguments.

Abandoning the Old Testament to these misconceptions leaves us without its robust texts and insights with which we can approach some of the most serious problems we face in the world today

Whenever we face crises or issues, they are occasions for us to re-read the Bible with fresh sets of eyes, looking for words of hope, guidance and comfort, and in these days, several key texts are important. For economic and racial justice issues, it’s hard to do better than the Book of Amos, and the articulate statement of God’s judgment that’s found there that’s specifically oriented around social injustice and economic disparity. That could have been written last week. God’s wrath and judgment does not portray an angry or vengeful God but portrays a God who is not indifferent to the injustices of the world. So when you watch the news bulletins with Amos, you too can’t be indifferent. You have to care.

The Psalms have always been important to the life of the church for worship and liturgy, but more than that they are a resource for articulating grief, sorrow, anxiety, and deep anger.

The cursing Psalms may cause us problems but they are a poignant resource when we think about the enemies that we face. Those enemies don’t have to be just human beings, they can be institutions, they can systems like racism, sexism or homophobia. What the cursing Psalms do is take all that wrath and anger that has to be uttered but allows it to be uttered within the confines of prayer. It’s very different than uttering it in the public square which can often lead to confrontation and even violence. It’s a way to let it go and hold it back at the same time, and to bring it in the context of worship with fellow believers who can hear it and then wonder perhaps how they might help.

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for contemporary Christians, encouraging them to savour the small gifts they can experience. The Book of Genesis gives Christians a framework for understanding the image of God as a call to emulate God. Genesis calls us to be creative, to make room, to bless, to be generous, particularly toward animals and the land and other created things and to take better care of the world than we’re doing right now.

The Old Testament was the symbolic world within which the New Testament authors lived. If you want to understand anything about the New Testament, you have to understand that symbolic world. But the same is true for us now: if we want to understand God’s ways in the world, we need to understand the symbolic world of the entirety of Scripture, Old and New Testaments.

Not only must we read Scripture we must pay attention to Scripture in the Christian tradition and expect to hear from it a word of God to the reader and to the community of faith. That attention to God’s Word is so crucial. Although it is something that can be taught, it also has to be cultivated; it’s a practice, it’s a discipline, to come to Scripture with a trusting attention and listen for address.

Even when we encounter various problems within Scripture, such as outdated gender roles or the problem of priestly law, this attention and trust toward the text means we may yet still hear a word of address to us that can change us for the better.

The best interpretation of Scripture always results in better love of God and love of neighbour. The early church thought the more difficult a text was, like say, some violent text, some disturbing text, it must mean more than what it seems to mean—something deeper that helps us love God and our neighbors.”

The survival of the Old Testament is critical for Christians to stay honest, in touch with reality to ensure we have a community of Christians who are not interested in denial about their wrongdoing or anybody else’s wrongdoing, and are not tight-lipped about what deserves praise and glory to God, but are candid about both things; who realise that their best speech about God will have to be bound in beautiful imagery and high metaphor because how else are they going to begin to describe the infinite in finite language? A people who are in firm touch with their belongingness to a larger community of faith that is truly vast, highly diverse, global— not just across the globe, but also across time, spanning many generations and millennia.”

God bless and take care,

Alan.

*Often muttered under the breath during a church council!