Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday 4 September 2016 - Ordinary 23

Possible theme(s): The Cost of Discipleship

Sentence: 'Choose life so that you and your descendants may live' (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Collect:

Servant God, grant us opportunity,
Give us willingness
To serve you day by day;
That what we do
And how we bear each other's burdens,
May be our sacrifice to you - Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Readings (related):

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;
Psalm 1;
Philemon 1-21;
Luke 14:25-33

Comments:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Sometimes we Christians debate the idea of 'covenant', especially in relation to 'old covenant', 'new covenant' and whether there is any difference between these two covenants. Reading Deuteronomy and Luke today, we see at least one clear difference between the 'way of life' envisaged under the old covenant (the story of which is told in the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the story of which is told in the New Testament).

This reading sets out how life is to be lived in terms of the law of God. Obey God's commandments then you will live and be prosperous. Disobey them and you will die.

In our gospel reading Jesus offers a completely different take on prosperous living in the era of the new covenant: life is found by dying to self; eternal prosperity comes through renouncing possessions; following Jesus involves giving up family rather than securing wealth and ease of good living for them.

Why the difference? Has God changed his mind?

Yes and no. Deuteronomy and Luke are jointly focused on God's blessing, how to secure it and how to maintain it. Through Jesus the boundaries of blessing have shifted from the time of Moses: 'the land' is now the whole of the world, if not the whole of life lived under God's rule, i.e. the kingdom of God and 'length of days' (Deuteronomy 30:20) is 'eternal life'. Geography and chronology go out the window!

Further, obedience is still determinative. No one is blessed who does not obey God. But through Jesus God now asks of us an obedience to the way of Jesus rather than to a series of commandments. This way (paradoxically when Deuteronomy's conception of blessing in terms of physical life is considered) includes 'carrying the cross' or being willing to die to the physical experience of life.

Indeed Luke 14:33 makes a very strong point in relation to Deuteronomy. The old measure of prosperity (increase in possessions) is replaced by the new measure of obedience (true obedience comes through decrease in possessions).

Psalm 1

If we take this Psalm as the first of the psalms, i.e. not simply as the one that randomly begins the collection, then this psalms asks us to consider the foundation on which the rest of the psalms proceed. Thus the theme of 'delight in the law of the Lord' is a marker for what is to come. Indeed we see in many psalms, most notably in Psalm 119 (but Psalm 19 is also important), the theme of delight in the law of the Lord explicitly and repeatedly expressed.

But a less obvious point to make is that the psalms that follow, with their mixture of lament and praise, of prayer and confession, as well as aspects of wisdom, history and testimony, work for the reader in relation to the law of the Lord. Standing on the law is the platform for praise, the basis for confidence in prayer, the reason for lament (because obedience should result in blessing, so why curses instead?), explanation of unfolding history of God's people and so forth.

Philemon 1-21

Paul wrote many letters, some similar to others in his collection. This letter is unique because it focuses on a single and personal (rather than collective and ecclesial) issue: the resolution of Philemon's slave Onesimus' future. (Whether that future is unresolved because Onesimus has done wrong by running away, or has simply been sent to serve Paul for a while is not clear. However the latter scenario begs the question why Paul puts so much rhetorical/persuasive effort into the letter).

What the letter does have in common with Paul's other letters is its beginning and ending in which Paul mixes practical concern for and interest in the lives of individual members of the church while setting out his theology of church, a people called into being by God through faith in Christ (vv. 1-7; 22-25 [not part of the reading today]).

How might we approach this letter for a sermon?

One approach is to dig into what Paul says in relation to the themes of slavery and Christian brotherhood. What Paul says seems to be a very subtle way of undermining the whole system of ancient slavery for Christians. Paul does not attack slavery head on but makes the point that in Christ we are all brothers and sisters (masters/slaves; freed and free men/slaves; see also Galatians 3:28). When we understand that, and apply it to how we treat one another, then slavery is abolished in all but name.

Another approach is to dig into what Paul says about how Philemon (and Apphia and Archippus) ought to act: choosing to do good rather than feeling compelled to do so because Paul has laid down the law to them. From this perspective the letter is a model for how Christians might request other Christians to act.

Luke 14:25-33

Last week we saw a very challenging vision of radical discipleship laid down: disciples should open their homes and tables to the people who we least naturally invite to dinner, those not like us and those unable to repay the favour. This week Jesus continues in similar vein.

Remember that the context of the readings through Luke in these chapters is the so-called Travel Narrative, Jesus on his way to the cross, Luke 9:51-19:28. So on this particular journey, with large crowds 'traveling with him' (14:25), Jesus turns and says a few things about intentional following of him in the deepest purpose of the journey.

'Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family, 'even life itself'] ... cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.'

Wow!

Our eyes may quickly read these words and our minds conclude 'That's pretty much what Jesus says in each of the gospels about dying to self.' Actually Luke includes here a target of 'hate' unknown to the other gospels: 'wife'. Also 'hate' is stronger than 'loves more than' in the most direct parallel, Matthew 10:37.

In one reading of this language, it is hyperbolic or exaggerated, so the point is (essentially the same as in Matthew 10:37): Jesus must have first place in our lives.

In another reading, however, there is only a trace of hyperbole, in the use of the word 'hate'. Literally, some followers of Jesus through the ages (and still today) experience separation from the most loved family members as a result of choosing Jesus. Some have even found following Jesus costly of 'life itself' when they are martyred for their commitment to Jesus.

Verse 27 offers an interpretation of verse 26: the key decision a disciple makes is not to divorce from one's spouse or to reject parents or children or siblings. The key decision is to 'carry the cross', that is, to live as one who is as good as dead (to self, selfishness, sin, distractions from the way of Jesus). Such resolute commitment to Jesus may have consequences: our families may hate us and reject us; a specific call to (say) overseas mission work may lead to physical and emotional separation from family (Luke may have had in mind, as he wrote, the example of Paul, see 1 Corinthians 9:5-6).

Jesus is a careful and caring master of his disciples and would be disciples. Through 14:28-32 we read his encouragement through easy to understand metaphors to carefully consider the 'cost of discipleship' (the title of a wonderful and important book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Slightly surprising, however, is verse 33. We  might conclude Jesus' speech at this point with 'So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up everything you have' or similar. But Jesus is quite specific: '... if you do not give up all your possessions.'

On the one hand this is consistent with Luke's continuing concern re riches, wealth, possessions: they are a serious rival to God. On the other hand, from a literary perspective, this is not a neat, matching ending to the beginning point of this sermon on discipleship which began with the rivalry of affection for family members (v. 26).

Finally, Luke records for us a saying of Jesus about salt. The everyday salt we use in the kitchen is pure and we do not reckon on it going bad. Ancient salt, less pure, could go bad through the impurities in it. So the coda to the sermon on discipleship is this: become more pure in your discipleship lest you become an unsatisfactory disciple, in which case you will be useless to God.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday 28 August 2016 - Ordinary 22

Theme(s): Radical hospitality // Costly inclusivity

Sentence: It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice (Psalm 112:5)

Collect:

God of nations, help us to reflect and share
the goodness that surrounds us.
Help us to win justice for poor and rich alike,
and to bring trust and friendship
to all our different races. Amen.

Readings (related):

Proverbs 25:6-7 [Sirach 10:12-18 is an alternative];
Psalm 112;
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16;
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Comments:

Proverbs 25:6-7

It is a matter of simple wisdom to wait to be raised up in status than to be put down.

Psalm 112

Sometimes the word 'righteous' invokes an assumption that we are talking about people who live a certain kind of morally upright life, perhaps marked by scruples and tight adherence to minor commands and rules. Here the psalmist expounds the virtues of the righteous in ways that go beyond that kind of assumption.

The righteous are those who fear the Lord (that is, trust in and reverence the Lord) and delight in his commandments (v. 1). Blessed by the Lord, they are 'gracious, merciful, and righteous' (v. 4) They are 'generous' and live justly (v. 5; also v.9). There is a solid stability to these righteous and they are not afraid of evil tidings because 'their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord' (v. 6-8).

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

After twelve chapters expounding his theme of the uniqueness, completeness and superiority of Christ as both High Priest and sacrifice, the writer turns her or his attention to practical matters.

'Let mutual love continue. Do no neglect to show hospitality to strangers ... Remember those who are in prison ... Let marriage be held in honor by all ... (vss. 1-4).

Each of these matters could be a sermon in its own right!

But the writer cannot let go of his main theme. So v. 8 states simply but relevantly, 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.' Every day is lived with Jesus, and Jesus expects us to live every day for him.

(Verses 9-14 are theologically profound and offer a restatement of interests central to the main body of the letter).

But what about the practical matter of Christians responding to God? In the light of the completed work of Christ on the cross, fulfilling and finishing all God's purposes in the Old Covenant, how are Christians to worship God? What sacrifices can now be offered meaningfully?

The Hebrews' answer was begun in our reading last Sunday (12:28). Now it is completed:

'Through [Jesus Christ], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. But that is not all. The vertical focus of this worship is joined with a horizontal focus to others. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God' (13:15-16).

All Christian liturgical work and social service is encapsulated in these two verses!

Luke 14:1, 7-14

(Sometimes the lectionary misses out verses and it is annoying as it raises questions about whether some kind of 'political correctness' or 'ecclesiastical correctness' is driving the omission. But in this case Luke 14:2-6 is omitted because it is essentially a repetition of last Sunday's gospel reading, 13:10-17.)

Jesus goes to a Pharisee's house to eat a meal (minor point: despite the great debates between Jesus and Pharisees, he was on friendly terms with some).

After healing someone and challenging his host and host's friends to a debate about it without success, Jesus moves on to another challenge (vss. 2-7).

This meal was more than a simple 'come back to my place for a bite to eat' - more a major dinner party, a banquet even. So in the custom of the day, some places 'at table' were more important than others. Jesus notices the scramble for these places and tells a parable directed at the scramblers (vss. 7-11).

Scripturally this parable builds from a passage such as our Old Testament reading and makes at least the same point: it is unwise to seek for a higher place lest embarrassment through demotion takes place. But is that sufficient explanation for why Luke tells us this story. Is there a 'kingdom of God' point to dig into these verses for? A cross-referencing Bible may tell you what mine tells me, that 14:11 is similar to 13:30 (and 18:40, Matthew 18:4; 23:12). Luke 13:30 is at the end of a passage which touches on the wide inclusiveness of the kingdom of God (and a feasting kingdom at that). An implication for Luke 14:7-11 is that in the feast of the kingdom of God those seated at the table will be those who otherwise would not expect to be there and those in the least honourable places (if not excluded) will be those who otherwise expected most to be in the best places (i.e. religious leaders).

Jesus is not finished. He goes on to make a devastating critique of his host and his mates.

This critique is the remainder of today's reading. Nothing is oblique here in vss. 12-14. Jesus does not tell a parable, he just tells the host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner ..." But the host is us, all readers of Luke's Gospel. When we give a lunch or dinner, we should ... (1) Not invite the people we usually invite (friends, family, well-off neighbours, all of whom are able to repay the favour), but (2) Invite the people who cannot repay us (the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind).

Speaking personally, that is a challenge because 100% of guests at my table are able to repay me. (Technical matters, like inviting a person visiting from overseas whom I may never visit in their city does not, I suggest, count as inviting those who cannot repay me!)

It would be easy to displace the challenge in these verses, say, by doing good to those who cannot do good to you. This could be fulfilled by giving money to a charity which works with people who will never give back to me. But Jesus is quite specific. He does not say 'When you give money ...' but 'When you give a luncheon or a dinner ...' Our homes are precious havens. Jesus challenges that. In the kingdom of God, our homes are to be open to those not like us, not equal to us, and not otherwise deemed worthy of an invite into our home.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sunday 21 August 2016 - Ordinary 21

Possible theme(s): Salvation is wholeness // God's holy love // Terrifying God

Sentence: If you offer your food to the hungry then your light shall rise in the darkness (Isaiah 58:10 adapted).

Collect:

Almighty God,
for the joy that was set before him
your Son endured the cross
and by his resurrection turned our sorrow into joy;
help us to rejoice in his power
that we may walk in his way with glad obedience;
in the power of the Spirit,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

     Isaiah 58:9b-14

     Psalm 103:1-8

     Hebrews 12:18-29

     Luke 13:10-17

Comments:

Isaiah 58:9b-14

The key to this passage is to identify who the 'you' is. The instructions to 'you' are pretty clear. And 'you' should do them. So, who is 'you'? For Isaiah it is the people whom God calls 'my people' (58:1). Those people are still around - you and me, for instance - so the reading here is directed to us. What will we do? What is required is straightforwardly just, generous, kind and fair, with great reward following.

There is a twist in the passage, one which connects it as a 'related' reading to the gospel. Verses 13-14 make special mention of the sabbath, of not trampling on it, not pursuing one's own interests, instead honouring it and taking delight in it. Why is observance of the sabbath singled out? Because it is 'the holy day of the Lord' (v.13). To observe this means special care is being taken by God's people to fulfill all aspects of God's will. Seven days a week, God's people do God's will.

In respect of the gospel below, the challenge Jesus brings is to a perception that the observance of the sabbath has been narrowed in such a way that the interests of other people are being ignored.

Psalm 103:1-8

These verses are among the most wonderful words written down in all Scripture. We should sing them rather than preach about them!

Hebrews 12:18-29

Fire begins and ends this passage. Why? The writer is at pains to emphasise who God is, the God to whom he is both encouraging his readers to draw nearer too, in confidence because of what Christ has done, and challenging his readers to not fall away from, lest they fall to a point of no return to God. Who is God? 'Our God is a consuming fire' (v. 29), a terrifying God (vss. 18-24), the judge of all (v. 23), a God who has sent Jesus to mediate a new covenant at the cost of his own blood (v. 24; and, effectively, chapters 1-10). In biblical and theological language, God is holy.

What are we to do with this passage? It is tempting to ignore it, to set it aside in favour of other 'nicer' passages, in which God is not terrifying, in fact he is our best friend forever, and offers comforting love of a touchy, feely kind. That would be a mistake. God is love is as true as God is holy. The trick is to keep them both together in our understanding of God. We could say that God is holy love. God loves us and the God who loves us is not like us (in our sin) but holy.

How then can we even think of approaching God? The long answer to that question is in Hebrews 1-10 (and Romans, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 John) but the short answer, in terms of this passage, is 'the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel' (v. 24). That is, the holy love of God has found a way to 'make' (see v. 23) imperfect humanity perfectly righteous and righteously perfect: the blood of Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

There is more to be said (about the importance of 'not refusing the one who is speaking', v. 25) but I will close with two short observations. First, to take up God's invitation is to receive a 'kingdom that cannot be shaken'. That is worth having. Secondly, a proper response is that we 'give thanks'. Jesus dying on the cross is the one, perfect, final sacrifice. Only required now is to give thanks for what has been done for us. This is now the acceptable sacrifice we offer to God (v. 28).

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus had quite a few things to say on that sabbath day in that synagogue.

First, he was teaching (v. 10). Then, he spoke to the crippled woman (v.11-12). Thirdly, he rebuked the leader of the synagogue, telling him off for criticising this action on the sabbath. Along the way he made some explicit and implicit points about theological matters: what kind of deeds can and should be done on the sabbath; what is the ultimate nature of illness and disability (it is a bondage of Satan when compared with the salvation (wholeness) intended and now available by God); that teaching (words) can be illustrated and evidence by deeds.

But what is Jesus saying to the church today, when we do not have the difficulty about healing on the sabbath that the synagogue leader had?

We could note (and should not rush past) the possibility that there is 'hypocrisy' which Jesus would challenge us about. Just because we would be pleased to see a healing take place at church this Sunday does not get us out of jail on possible hypocrisy! Is there some other way in which we apply rules of church life to restrict Jesus from freeing people from things which 'cripple' them?

There is also a 'deep' lesson to consider about the nature of illness and disability. When Jesus speaks about the woman's condition in terms of '... whom Satan bound for eighteen long years ... this bondage ...' (v. 16) was he saying something we can receive in our day (when we generally use other explanations for why illness and disability occurs)? I suggest we can, especially if we pause to reflect on the great message of Luke's gospel, that Jesus came to save people in the sense of making people whole, in body, soul, mind and spirit. If the great purpose of God in Christ is to take a fallen, broken, frail creation and restore it (the kingdom of God), then the 'big picture' explanation of the situation is that the chief ringleader of opposition to God's plan for the world, Satan has bound people into fallen, broken, frail states. But Jesus doesn't make grand, general claims about the situation of the world: this woman is a victim of Satan's opposition: she has been bound these eighteen long years. Jesus can do no other than check the advance of Satan into God's realm. She has been set free from Satan's bondage which is the same thing as being straightened from her crippled state. Luke's description that the woman 'began praising God' tells his readers that the woman's transformation was not solely physical.

Then, we could move from 'depth' to 'width'. What is the nature of salvation of the saving work which Jesus comes to the world to do? Here Jesus begins with 'teaching' and moves to 'action.' A bound person is freed and a disabled person is made able. Salvation comes to the woman as a whole of life transformation. When we work for God in the continuation of that work, we are invited to work for transformation of the whole person, to work on change on many and varied aspects of the life of the world. Some people are 'bound' into poverty, for example, and we could work to free them through socio-economic transformation. Others are 'trapped' in oppression of some kind, perhaps in harsh working conditions. We could work to lift the oppression and set them free from the trap.

One clue to the direction of our participation in the work of salvation is whether it leads to the outcome described in this reading: God is praised!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sunday 14 August 2016 - Ordinary 20

Possible theme(s): Crisis over Jesus // Jesus the judge // Looking to Jesus

Sentence: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).

Collect: Pentecost 10:2 (revised by me)

Come Holy Spirit, to all baptised in your name,
that we may turn to good
whatever lies ahead.
Give us faith, give us fire, give us perseverance;
Empower us to transform the world from what it is,
to what you created it to be
through the love of the Father and the transforming power of the Son. Amen.

Readings (related):

   Jeremiah 23:23-29

   Psalm 82

   Hebrews 11:29-12:2

   Luke 12:49-56

Comments:

Notes on readings - mostly my own thoughts, sometimes utilizing a commentary, and gratefully assisted by one 'study Bible' in particular, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (Fully Revised Fourth Edition).

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Jeremiah spent much of his prophetic ministry in fierce debate with fellow prophets. He would be proven right because with a terrifying Babylonian threat pressing against Jerusalem, they said everything would be OK and he begged to differ! In these verses we have a representative passage concerning this debate in which God's voice supports Jeremiah.

A universal theme which sweeps through these verses is the question of truth and falsehood. Many claims about truth are made, including claims to know truth from God, but some claims are false. In these verses, God speaking through Jeremiah reminds false claimants of the fix they are in: God sees and hears everything, including liars and the lies they tell in God's name. By contrast the truth, 'my word' (23:29), is like a (destroying) fire and a rock-breaking hammer. Truth always prevails over falsehood. Lies cannot withstand the power of truth.

How does this passage relate to the gospel reading today? In part of the passage Jesus challenges his hearers to discern accurately what is going on around them, the signs of the times. That is, Jesus challenges them and us to seek and commit to the truth, rather than settle for and be comforted by lies.

Psalm 82

This psalm is a 'petition for divine justice.' The 'divine council' (v. 1) reflects the presumption of the time of composition that there was a host of heavenly beings commissioned to rule the world under God's oversight (see Deuteronomy 32:8-9). The accusation in this psalm is that these beings have judged unjustly and thus God has had to intervene, take over their role, and demonstrate true justice.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

This great chapter on faith comes to an end. In a sweeping survey, the writer gathers up the last of the ones he will name and adds to their number a vast company of unnamed heroes and heroines, offering one of the great accolades from all literature, 'of whom the world was not worthy' (11:38).

They all had one thing in common as people of faith:

'Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised' (11:39).

But this is not a sad historical assessment of the life of faith (so much hoped for, so little delivered). God's kindness to those who trust in him now includes those who trust in Jesus Christ (represented by Hebrews' readers) and his promises in which they and we trust are bona fide:

'since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect' (11:40).

So what? The writer draws us on with one of the great 'therefores' of Scripture (12:1-2). As the last generation of the people of God, with 'so great a cloud of witnesses (i.e. the previous generations of people with faith in God)' surrounding us, we must live accordingly (lay aside every weight and clinging sin, run with perseverance, look to Jesus).

Note the christological emphasis struck in these verses. The surrounding cloud of witnesses is inspiring enough to run the race etc but there is more than that available to the Christian runner. We have Jesus to look to, the one who has pioneered out faith and promised to perfect it, who himself was a runner in the race, enduring even the cross, looking beyond it to the joy set before him and who now, consequentially, is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Will we run? Will we persevere? Will we look at ourselves (tired, weary, struggling) or to Jesus (who succeeded in the same race)?

Luke 12:49-56

If we wanted a candidate passage for "Most awkward thing Jesus said" or "Please explain, Jesus, what you meant" Award, then this is as good a passage as any.

The Prince of Peace speaks here of division. The One in Whom God was reconciling the world to himself proposes that 'from now on' households will be divided against themselves.

What did this mean and what does it mean for us today?

Several clues help us. The opening words about fire mean a theme here is 'judgment'. The divisions in 12:53 take us to Micah 7:6 and thus also to the theme of judgment. The point about interpreting the 'present time' in 12:54-56 is that his contemporaries who can interpret when the weather is going to change (a meteorological crisis) should be able to understand the crisis of their time which is the crisis of Jesus coming into the world, dividing the world into those who are alert and ready for him and those who are not (see last week's gospel reading, Luke 12:32-40).

Part of our difficulty with today's passage may be that the language used is not our language. We likely would follow 12:32-40 with 'So, as you can see from these parables I have just told you, judgment is coming and you need to be alert and ready for it. Judgment will be terrifying for those not expecting it and not ready to welcome me.' Jesus, by contrast, talks about fire, baptism, family divisions and weather signs!

A further clue is to consider 'baptism' here as a reference to the death of Jesus (towards which this section of Luke, 9:51-19:28, the Travel Narrative, takes us).

With those preliminary thoughts in mind here goes, then, at making sense of the passage:

Jesus' mission ultimately is about making peace on earth, his gospel being a call to people to enter God's kingdom by coming under the rule of God, a situation in which people are reconciled to one another (think parable of Prodigal Son) and all sorts are included in the one family of God (think of the welcome accorded Zacchaeus).

Yet the gospel is controversial. People oppose it. Indeed opposition to Jesus will lead to his death by public execution. The opposition stems from what the gospel challenges, the sin of humanity (of which, to give just one recent example as we read Luke's gospel, material greed is a presenting example, as illustrated in the parable of the Rich Fool, 12:16-20). The call to enter God's kingdom is simultaneously a judgment against those who refuse to enter.

So this passage works on at least two levels. The present time of Jesus is one in which judgment comes as he moves towards Jerusalem and people either welcome or refuse him. His baptism/death lies ahead as a 'crucial' action for the kingdom of God to be established. In this journey, although the mission is ultimately about peace, division is occurring, not least because (as Micah 7 illustrates) Israel is embroiled in sin. All this, like familiar signs that the weather is about to change, should be discernible to those watching Jesus.

A second level is our present time, as readers of Luke's gospel and as people closer to the return of Christ than to the time of the cross.

Jesus continues to be controversial, to inspire opposition as much as welcome and acceptance. His message simultaneously invites people into the kingdom, into a new way of living (thus previous verses in Luke 12 illustrate a new way of living in respect of money and material possessions) and opposes the kingdom of this world, the 'old way of living' in which greed, acquisition and selfishness prevail. To this way, Jesus is the fire of judgment and his baptism/death (now a completed historical action) stands out as a point of division (because people gratefully accept that action as means of salvation or reject it as failure and embarrassment). That people are divided over Jesus is a 'sign of the time', a sign that the world is in crisis over Jesus and thus people with the slightest inkling that Jesus might be God at work in the world would want to be alert and ready for his return.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Sunday 7 August 2016 - Ordinary 19

Possible theme(s): Faith. True treasure. Trusting in God for everything.

Sentence: Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. Psalm 33:18-19

Collect:

God, the strength of all who believe in you,
Increase our faith and trust
In your Son Jesus Christ
That in him and through your Holy Spirit, we may live victoriously. Amen

Readings (related):

     Genesis 15:1-6

     Psalm 33:12-22

    Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

    Luke 12:32-40

Comments:

Genesis 15:1-6

This reading relates both to the epistle reading (the life of faith) and to the gospel (trusting God that his promises will come true). Abram is offered an extraordinary vision of the future, despite being childless he will father a great, uncountable nation. A lesser man might have dismissed God but Abram believes. He accepts that what God says will come into being. Such belief means 'the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness' (v. 6): in other words, Abram does not work to earn God's favour (e.g. through a long obedience to commands great and small, or through great sacrifices, or through intense effort at being holy) but God responds to Abram's act of trust and counts him as righteous: a right living man in a right relationship with God.

Psalm 33:12-22

Are there any happy nations on earth today? If not, there is a reason and the psalmist gives it!

'Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord' (33:12)

What follows is a delightful poem setting out the greatness of God, the one who sits enthroned above the world and sees all that goes on within it. In that light, the fate of nations is not determined by how powerful a king and his military are. No, victory comes to those who fear God - in Old Testament language this is pretty much the same as New Testament language about trusting God.

It is said that Stalin once asked how many (army) divisions the Pope had. Obviously he knew that the answer was none. Many decades later Stalinism is no more but the faithful followers of the Pope (that is, believers in Jesus Christ within the Roman Catholic church) are perhaps more than 2 billion. If only Stalin (who was once upon a time a trainee in a church seminary) knew this psalm!

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Better than a dictionary definition of faith, the first few verses here tell us what faith is:

'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.'

Faith is not mere wishful thinking, nor is it imagining things which do not exist. It is the confident conviction that what is not seen (God) and what is not yet experienced (the fulfilment of God's promises) is true and real. God exists (see also 11:6) and the future is the reality that the shadow of the present points to.

In verses 8-16, an example of this definition is given. Abraham (i.e. Abram of Genesis 15) set out in life to receive things which he did not see: 'By faith Abraham obeyed' (v. 8). When he received one such thing (the land promised to him, v. 9) he still needed faith, for he knew there was a great future to come, a city so to speak relative to the tents in which he and his family dwelt (v. 10). So through verses 11 and 12 we find the retroactive reflection on what has been just read from Genesis 15: childless Abraham and Sarah became fruitful, their descendants beyond count.

Luke 12:32-40

Chapter 12:13-30 is Jesus teaching assertively that God will provide for his disciples' needs so they neither need to strive to meet these needs, nor be anxious about God's provision and certainly not store up an abundance of wealth. Verse 32 following continues this theme but quickly flows into the theme of readiness for the coming of the Son of Man (i.e. for the return of Jesus Christ to earth).

Verses 32-34: How do we see God as our provider? As a begrudging giver, perhaps in need of a twist of his arm (e.g. through some form of strong prayer on our part, or impressive display of faith)? Jesus assures us that it is our Father's 'good pleasure' to give us the kingdom. So confident can we be in this generous Father that we should 'Sell your possessions and give alms.' The best way to break the power of money over our lives, to destroy any allegiance to Mammon is to give away what we have. A positive effect of giving is that we will receive 'an unfailing treasure in heaven'. Verse 34 makes a point already made in a different form earlier in the chapter in the parable of the rich fool (vss. 16-20): for our hearts to be in the right place we need to have our 'treasure' in the right place. Money in the bank, multiple properties, gold bars stashed under our beds are spiritually dangerous: our hearts are likely not in heaven but bound here on earth!

Verses 35-40 With no money in the bank, or properties to worry about the next instruction for a disciple is easy to follow! 'Be dressed for action and have your lamp lit.' These verses (which receive further expansion in 12:41-48 and 12:49-59) teach disciples that discipleship is a 24/7 task. We serve our master in the tasks of the kingdom with diligence, patience and persistence, never being found by sudden inspection to have grown slack, complacent or sloppy. Generally in Luke's Gospel the idea of the 'sudden inspection' inherent in the notion of 'Christ's Second Coming' is downplayed compared to Matthew and Mark. But here Luke discloses Christ's clear instructions in the light of the future coming of himself as 'Son of Man' (12:40) - a theme redolent with ideas of judgement, return, restoration and general putting the world to rights (see, e.g. Daniel 7). Disciples are to be 'alert', v. 37, and 'ready', v. 40 for the return of their master.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sunday 31 July 2016 - Ordinary 18

Possible theme(s): Trust in God not in wealth // Be what you are

Sentence: Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:7)

Collect:

God of all the earth
You have given us the heritage
of this good and fertile land;
grant that we may so respect and use it
that others may thank us
for what we leave to them. Amen [Pent 24:2: NZPB p. 636]

Readings ("related"):

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-12
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Comments:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Within wisdom literature in the Bible (Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job) two perspectives on daily life stand in tension. Work hard, play fair, save for a rainy day, reap the rewards of sensible living is a perspective in Proverbs whereas in Ecclesiastes, represented in today's verses, life sucks. Working hard is hard work and tiring, according to Ecclesiastes. Playing fair is all very well but the end of the game is pain and death. Saving for a rainy day could mean one's children get to enjoy spending it, and, as for the rewards of sensible living, what about all the nights lying awake wondering if one can get through the next day?

Our calling as preachers is not necessarily to resolve each tension in Scripture. Ecclesiastes is gloomy in outlook but that might speak to the pessimists in the congregation. The point of Ecclesiastes (and thus a challenge to pessimists) is not revealed in these verses (one needs to jump ahead to the last chapters of the book). Ultimately gloominess is not the prevailing word but seriousness is. The wise person is serious about the importance of living well because God judges all our deeds (12:14).

The serious lesson in today's readings is that material gain may be in vain and thus the ultimate goal of life should not be defined by material success. That lesson ties in with the gospel reading.

Psalm 49:1-12

This psalm emphasises "wisdom" in its contents. Less a song than a sermon ("Hear this, all you peoples ..." v. 1, see also v.4), its message ties in beautifully with the gospel: 'tis foolish to trust in wealth since death denies its advantage to us (vss. 5-9). There is also a tie to the gloominess of Ecclesiastes: death comes to both the wise and to the foolish (v. 10).

Colossians 3:1-11

This passage is "thick", rich in content. It begins with strong encouragement about focus or priority for Christian life (and thus ties in well with the other readings for today): "seek the things which are above" (v. 1, repeated v. 2). But, typical of Paul, a call to action is undergirded by theological reasons for the action. Christians are those who have "died" (to self, to sin, through identification with Christ on the cross, v.3) and been "raised with Christ" (to new life, to holy living, through identification with Christ in his resurrection, v.1). So we are to "seek the things that are above" (i.e. in keeping with being a "raised with Christ" person, v.1), doing so in the understanding that our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (v. 3). To be a Christian is, in a Pauline phrase, to be "in Christ." We are participants in the very life of Christ himself, through mystical union in the Spirit of God: thus Paul calls us to live outwardly what is now the inward status of our lives.

The instructions through verses 5-9 make sense in this way: put to death the things that steer you away from the focus to which you are called. Verse 10 is the positive construction of new life in Christ: this new life is the life in which Christ remakes us to be what we are meant to be, people made in the image of God our creator (see Genesis 1:26-28) - it is elaborated further in verse 12 and following. The point here is not, "here are the rule of a morally upright life, obey them," rather it is, "You are called to live as Christ himself lives, thus these things can no longer be the way you live."

The final verse in today's passage reminds the Colossians that "in Christ" there are no divisions of people in the usual way (see also Galatians 3:28) and thus no excuses for how we are to live. Perhaps, particularly, Paul is urging that no one can claim an excuse for living badly on the basis of ignorance due to cultural background.

Luke 12:13-21

Any rich person should be uncomfortable reading Luke's Gospel! Whether we read Luke as aggressively attacking the rich or mildly challenging reliance on possessions, many passages in this gospel unashamedly talk about money, wealth and materiality with the edge that being rich is not a blessing.

Here Jesus takes an innocent request re a family inheritance and turns it into a warning to take care about greed and a statement about life itself. The abundance of possessions is not life. Kiwis keen on having a house to live in, a house at the beach, a boat to enjoy the sea and a large 4WD to take the boat to the beach, take note!

Then Jesus tells a memorable and pointed parable which speaks to all generations and all cultures about greed. A man, wise in the ways of the world, both accrues wealth and enlarges his storage of it, only to discover he has foolishly forgotten God who visits him in death and at a stroke takes the wealth away, leaving him standing before God in judgement with nothing.

If we read the parable itself as about the mega-rich and thus not about ourselves we should pay particular attention to 12:21: we each in our own way, even with the little we can set aside each pay day, "store up treasures" and thus should ask ourselves on what ways we are "rich towards God."

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sunday 24 July 2016 - Ordinary 17 - also Social Services Sunday

For Social Services Sunday resources, go here (for 2016 resources) or here (for 2015 resources)

Ordinary Readings - Possible Theme: Prayer or The God to Whom We Pray is Kind or Stick with Christ

Sentence: How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13).

Collect:

Father, we hallow your name
For you are worthy of our praise;
Your kindness and mercy give us confidence to pray
“Your kingdom come”;
So we ask and keep on asking that you will provide
Everything we need for life in your kingdom
In the power of the Holy Spirit
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings “Related”

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

Comments:


Genesis 18:20-32

Don’t get stuck on “Sodom and Gomorrah” as a theme for this reading. It “relates” to the gospel reading because the latter is about prayer and in Genesis 18:20-32, Abraham is an intercessor. Lot his nephew lives in Sodom and Abraham is concerned that the three visiting men will destroy Sodom and Lot with it. So Abraham addresses the Lord (seemingly, putting 18:16, 22, 33 and 19:1 together, one of the three) and done so in a, being blunt, manipulative manner. He asks the Lord if he will really sweep away the city if fifty righteous people are found within it. The Lord says that he will not, rather he will forgive the city. But Abraham’s “fifty” is a bargaining ploy. He beats the Lord down to ten (though no reader will be fooled as to whether the Lord is being manipulated or not). Ten (presumably) is the size of Lot’s household. In the end, Genesis 19 tells us that only four actually survived the devastation of Sodom, and then Lot’s wife disobeyed instructions and paid for that with her life.

What then does the passage say to us about prayer? Surely we are not meant to learn from it that prayer might be a manipulative tool in our hands to get God to do what we want!

No, what we learn from the passage is that God is open to requests which draw from him his characteristic work, which is showing mercy. The downward count, from fifty to ten, does not show us how to manipulate God but how kind God is: on the smallest pretext God will be merciful.

There is something else to mention. Abraham’s concern is that the righteous in Sodom might be destroyed as the wicked are punished. He appeals to God’s character in order to avert unfair disaster for those righteous: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (18:25).

That is a good question to bring to a number of issues. Nothing to do with the other readings today, but the key to understanding hell lies in this question. You may need to think about why for a few moments.

Psalm 138

What kind of God do we serve, in daily life and in liturgy? What do we have to give thanks for? This psalm answers these questions: a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who has ‘exalted [his] name and [his] word above everything’ (v. 2); a God who answers the prayer of the psalmist and increases the strength of his soul (v. 3); a God whose glory is great and words impressive (v. 4-5); a God who looks for the “lowly” and cares little for the “haughty” (v. 6); when the psalmist walks in the midst of trouble, God preserves him from the wrath of his enemies and delivers him from trouble (v. 7); and, finally, “the Lord will fulfil his purpose for me” and the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever (v. 8).

We serve and worship a great and wonderful God!

Colossians 2:6-15

Why has Paul written Colossians? If all were well and going to remain well with the church in Colossae, it is scarcely conceivable that he would have made the effort. In fact, Paul is concerned that either something is wrong or about to go wrong for this church.

His most urgent concern is that the Colossians would move from Christ as the centre of their faith and life. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,” (2:6). They have started well. They must not now stumble. What they especially need to avoid is being captured by some other claim to truth which is actually an “empty deceit” (2:8).

So Paul warns them and then pretty much goes over similar ground (2:8-15) as in chapter 1 (especially verses 15-23 – indeed 1:23 is a precursor to 2:6-7). Paul must have been very concerned for the Colossians.

What Paul is saying, in summary terms, is that Christ is all the Colossians need, Christ is supreme and in need of no supplementary or complementary figure, and on the cross Christ has achieved all things necessary for forgiveness from the past and making people alive for a new future.

Luke 11:1-13

There is a lot here and there is no need to comment on many matters which will be well-known to the preacher and congregation. A challenge with this passage is to expound what it says with freshness. But one way to do that could be to draw people to the importance of prayer about any and every situation in life: that is a fresh truth for most of us because … we forget to pray, we avoid praying, we allow busyness to clutter up our days and distract out nights.

The passage is suggestive of several sermons. Just preach one of them!

One sermon could be on the Lord’s Prayer. Luke offers a shorter and slightly simpler form of the Matthean version. It appeals to God as Father to bring his kingdom into being, a kingdom in which its citizens have food to eat, forgiveness of sins (and who forgive sins) and protection from trial.

Another sermon could be on perseverance and persistence in prayer.

A third possible sermon could be on the Father to whom we pray. The last verse of the passage challenges and inspires us to believe that the Father to whom we pray is kind and generous, like a good human father only much more so.


There is then a Postscript: for whatever reason some situations require persistence in prayer, it is not because God is mean and tight-fisted.