Something for Sunday

This is a strange story. We are told that unlike most parables this one is an allegory. I wonder do you find the imagery as unattractive as I do. Would you tell a story to illustrate the nature of God in which God is portrayed as an absentee landlord-who demands his rents-and sends agents to get them at grave risk to their own safety?

We read that we should understand these agents to be the prophets sent by God to restore his people to their rightful obedience. They bring his message but the messengers are spurned. No wonder it’s spurned when the messengers bring rent demands with them.

And finally God sends his son –this is Jesus. He is not respected either. He is taken, killed and cast out of the vineyard. Why do the tenants do this? According to the text they kill the son in order to have the vineyard for themselves. There is said to be an echo here of some aspects of Palestinian land law.

It is said by those who know about such things that the story gives us a glimpse of the social world of the Galilean peasant. Harassed by high rents and absentee landlords and perpetually on the verge of revolt the Galilean had the reputation of being a tricky fellow. And does that not make the imagery even more unattractive. Just consider what it would have been like preaching the gospel by this parable to Irish tenants in the last century.

However consider the allegory in another way. What does a tenant wish for above all else. Surely to be free. Free of rent. Free of duty and service to a Lord, a master or even a parent. To be able to say to the boss stuff your pension. I want to be my own man. I want to come of age.

How can we do this? Well we could kill the boss and seize his property. Start a red revolution. Or in Freudian mythology one can kill ones own parent. In religion you bring in a reformation by overturning all the old images-sending the priests packing or perhaps we could proclaim the death of God himself.

Such tenants are familiar characters-rebellious children-revolutionaries-the discontented worker or peasant. In short we see in the tenants the human condition.

But in Christian understanding this boss, this master is different. It’s not as if he’s a benevolent despot not at all. This is a master who wills the freedom of his slaves-who seeks only to serve not to oppress-who seeks the fruit from the tenants not for his benefits but for theirs. A Master who offers his people the lives of his servants and at last that of his own son.

Of course the tenants don’t see it that way. They see only the burdens, the oppressive rules and restrictions, the dead hand of law. And they want to kick over the traces and break away from all that. What’s the point of the  church: dreary ceremonies, a fuddy duddy substitute parent-the crimping restrictions of custom and heritage? Let’s do our own thing. Let’s spend Sunday in bed reading the papers.

Christianity is a message about suffering love. God is love. The world itself is an expression of God’s creative love. This is how we should understand the vineyard-although another image one that we might feel happier with is that of a garden. Gardens are a nuisance but for most people they are symbols of creativity and love. Our creativity and that of God-our love and care but God’s as well.

And when God looks to his people for the fruit of the love he has expended what is he looking for.

Surely for signs that love has born fruit in yet more love. What St Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Love creates love in return. Spend something of yourself and you will be enriched. You will be more of the person you were always meant to be. Love grows if give it away. Costly love bears fruit in renewed lives. This is the message of Easter.

In the Easter and Passion stories all this is laid before us in dramatic form.

The king who comes to his people-humble and riding upon an ass.

The master who kneels at the foot of his disciples to wash their feet.

The prophet, the man of God who is abused and reviled and yet does not open his mouth to reply.

The death of the messiah on the cross.

And everything in Christianity is based on this. The death of Jesus isn’t a tragic postscript to a successful teaching career. It’s central to the entire story that’s why it occupies such a large part of each gospel. What Jesus preached is important of course but what is really central is the life revealed in the death of this man.

The Christian story is one of mysterious love- a love so strong that it leads to complete self offering on the part of God himself. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor. Here was perfection yet he became sin for us. Here is a story of status abandoned of kingship reduced to nothing, flogged, crucified, cast out.

This is the costly love that is offered to us. The love that we can embrace or reject. We can do as the tenants do-live for ourselves-claim our inheritance-demand our rights. Live as women and men come of age.

That’s always a possibility and in a worldly sense it’s quite an attractive possibility.

But the other possibility is always there to grasp the foot of Christ’s’ cross and take the love God offers us in him.

To live no longer for ourselves but for others and to bring forth fruit. Those gracious fruits that the tenants failed to bring forth.

Words on the Word – Sunday 4th October 2020

Today’s Lectionary Readings:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9 , 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew: 21:33-46

You can read these Lectionary readings here.

Exodus 20

Have you ever joined a club, a society, a union – in fact almost any group of like-minded individuals? Do you remember the first days in a new school or class? Perhaps you have family conferences to discuss shared expectations? All of these come down to the ‘laying down of the law’ and the establishment of exactly what it is that defines the group in question. We love to do it. Even children, getting together to plot membership of their latest “Supergirls HQ” or “Unicorn Club”, will grab a piece of paper and scribble down an agreed list of DOs and DON’Ts. There’s an excitement and thrill of this shared understanding – a special code that unites its members. Sometimes the list of rules is short (like the necessarily punchy rules of Fight Club) and sometimes the list is long (like the 25-page FIDE official rules of Chess). Sometimes it gets silly, although the reported 26,911-word EU regulations on the sale of cabbages turns out to be a myth.

In this passage, God’s people are being re-shaped and re-moulded in their transition between slavery and Egypt and freedom in the Promised Land. What is going to make them special as God’s people? The answer to that, of course, lies in God’s Covenant to them “You will be my people and I will be your God”. The detail of this covenant is hammered out on the two stone tablets as The Ten Commandments. The ‘two-ness’ is important. Unlike the films and the pictures, where we usually see five commandments on each stone, a moment’s thought would reassure you that if God wanted to write down some rules, God would have found a stone tablet big enough to do so, or at least planned ahead enough to write small on the one Moses brought! The two-ness IS the Covenant. It’s the contract – one copy (on one tablet) for God, and the other copy (on the other tablet) for God’s people. The two-ness is even emphasised by the detail that the first set of tablets i broken and their are written out again. Repetition is a biblical theme that always shows us the absolute truth, in the divine sense, of what is happening. Truly, truly I say to you…

These Commandments, then, were all about making God’s people distinct from the neighbouring tribes who had their own belief systems. We see profoundly important details such as strict monotheism (to contrast with the polytheism of their neighbours) , a ban on idolatry (contrasting with the pagan systems which depended on idols), we see a ban on murder (contrasting with the human-sacrificial cultures of others) and a forceful compulsion to honour the marital bed (lineage and ancestry being utterly dependent on secure knowledge of one’s parentage).

Yet let us not get stuck on the Ten Commandments as a restriction of freedoms. They are not all “Thou shalt not” commands – unlike the rather ignorant popular caricatures – but rather a summary of how God and God’s people are going to live together in a distinctive and superior way to all others. God’s motivation is simply LOVE for all of God’s people, and it took all those years for Jesus to point out that actually those ten comandments can be summed up in the formula “Love God and love your neighbour”. As Christians we are not defined by the ten commandments in the same way as those wandering Israelites, again contrary to ignorant popular misceptions. Jesus has given us a new, and arguably much stronger commandment – “That you love one another as I have loved you”. That is surely what makes us, as Christians, distinctive.

Psalm 19

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre! If you have ever sung in a choir or choral society, you are likely to have belted out these fabulous words of Psalm 19 set by Beethoven in his Op. 48 No. 4. You may also know them as “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s Creation. Either way, we are reminded that this Psalm simply can not be read in a whisper!

The Psalmist here is expressing a delight for Creation in general, and particularly a delight for the mystery of the Sun in its apparent movement around the Earth. How Great Thou Art! we might sing something as well. Sing with me, how great is our God! This goes straight on into a song of praise for “The Law of the Lord”. Note the parallelisms we have mentoned in WOTW before, wherethe first part of a verse is repeated in a slightly different but parallel way to reinforce the point – classical Hebrew poetry. In this Psalm, however, the parallelisms are extended even further as a tumbling succession of verses seeks to put into new words the same basic idea.

When the Psalter was edited and compiled into its current form, it was decided that there would be 150 Psalms. They were arranged into five ‘Books’ – precisely to echo the five-fold structure of the Torah or ‘Law’ (the Pentateuch = the first five books of our Bible), ending respectively with Psalms 41, 72, 89, 106 and 150. In a sense, then, the whole Psalter is a ‘delight in the Law of the Lord’. This Psalm, Psalm 19, acts as a Prologue, a foretaste, to the greatest of all the Psalms, Psalm 119, which is of course placed to be exactly 100 Psalms away. As you read through this Psalm, you may well comes across particularly well-known verses – this has been a source for many songs, prayers and liturgical responses right through the centuries.

All the time, the Psalmist is rhapsodising on the Law of the Lord, not because it is restrictive, but because it binds – through the Law, through the Covenant, the Psalmist is reminded of that great intimacy with God, the Creator of the universe no less.

Philippians 3

Looking forwards and pressing on, not looking back. This is the famous ‘filthy rags’ speech by Paul, and let the reader understand that most translations use extremely euphemistic versions of what Paul actually says in the Greek…

As you know, a great deal of what I do involves working with the bereaved and doing funeral visits – they used to be in the home but more often now they are over Zoom. The hardest such visits are to those families who have no real links with the church themselves, but “Nan’s sister used to go to the Chapel” and they want to give the deceased the best chance of “going to heaven” by having a Christian funeral. As other ministers have pointed out, there are rarely any deathbed conversions to atheism!

I mention that, because I frequently have to listen to the same attempts at point scoring that Paul is parodying here. When asked to expand on the Christian faith of the deceased, the relatives are often left desperately clutching straws. “He was basically a nice person” “He didn’t drink, apart from a sherry at Christmas, and a glass of wine with the evening meal, and a pint with the lads at the weekend” “She loved animals”. Even church members – living ones! – seek to tell me how involved they have been at the church, how long they have been attending, how many roles they have had, how generous they have been in the collection plate, and even how involved their parents were. IT’S ALL FILTHY RAGS. IT’S ALL JUST RUBBISH. NONE OF IT MATTERS.

Really the only necessary statement of Christian faith is “She knew that Jesus loved her”.

In this passage Paul is telling the Philippians that he could have boasted of any number of “points” (which he lists) but ends it all by saying that the only thing of any value is his desire to know Christ more. Furthermore, this is for Paul the ONLY meaning and goal of his life, so Christian discipleship for him is just about ‘pressing on towards that goal’.

Knowing Christ. Not scoring points.

Matthew 21

Possibly the most gory and shocking of Jesus’ parables, this story of the tenants in the vineyard is still a hard read for us today. The reference to vines and vineyards is important though – it’s a well-established Old Testament theme, and the readings paired with this one in the ‘related’ version of the Lectionary readings for today are Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80, although there would have been many other passages that would have been just as suitable. It is well worth looking them up before re-reading the Gospel passage for today. (They can be found in the Lectionary Link at the top of the page.)

Jesus tells a story to highlight the shocking treatment of the prophets before him, and the appalling treatment he himself would endure, even as far as describing his own death outside the city walls (“threw him out of the vineyard and killed him”). God continually calls the people of God back into Covenant, but the people reject that call via the prophets time after time. Even when God incarnate in Jesus comes to speak to them, he too is killed.

Did you not understand the prophecy of the Cornerstone? asks Jesus. You are bringing the consequences upon yourselves. The kingdom of God is enjoyed by those who respond to Jesus, but for those who reject it, the kingdom of God is not part of them. How comfortable are we with the idea of the choice to reject the kingdom of God? Do we may a choice between “heaven” and “hell” or is it more subtly the distinction between living life to the full in the kingdom of God, and living a dminished life which ultimately leads to annihilation by our own choice?

Do post your thoughts in the Comments.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

(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.