Blessed to be a Blessing 13-10-2019

BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING

A recent scientific study of 150,000 people over 25 years has found that our level of happiness has little to do with our genetic make-up, personality traits or childhood, and that factors such as partner’s temperament, faith, social participation, healthy habits and long-term goals are much more important.   On the other hand, the pursuit of wealth and material goods, as well as a neurotic partner, are key elements of unhappiness. They could have read the Bible and found that out for free!

The story of Jesus and the ten lepers who are healed teaches us that not only does God bless us, but that we need to bless God.  Jesus told the Samaritan who returned that his faith had made him well.  The others were blessed with physical healing, but in the act of thanking God he was made whole.   That is why we come to church – to give thanks to God for all our blessings, and when we come to church in that frame of mind, we go home blessed.   Singing praises to God is more than having a “good sing” – it links us to the source of life and joy.

When we know we are blessed and we thank God, we discover that we are called to be a blessing to others.    It gives us a purpose in life that brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy.   In fact the Bible does not promise us happiness, but something better and deeper – joy.   God does not promise that life will be all smooth sailing – in fact the opposite; but God does promise that He will be always with us and will give us that deep joy even in the midst of adversity.

The study is right when it says that we actually have a choice about how happy we will be.   Choosing whether to be a blesser is an important start, having faith, sharing in a faith community and responding to Jesus’ call to be a blessing to others will bring life and joy.

It is the same with congregations.  If our congregation thanks and praises God and is a blessing to our community, it will be blessed and made whole.   We are blessed to be a blessing!

Robert Johnson 

13 October, 2019 – Pentecost 18 

From Little Things Big Things Grow 06-10-2019

FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS GROW

Increase our faith, said the apostles, and so do most of us.  We all struggle with our faith, and would love to have a deeper and stronger faith.   But Jesus says it is not the amount of the faith that makes a difference; in fact only a tiny amount of faith in the living God is enough.   From that tiny faith in God, great things can happen.   It is actually not the faith that makes the difference so much as who we put our faith or our trust in.

The story Jesus goes on to tell shows that the key thing God is looking for is faithfulness, actually doing what God asks of us or calls us to do.   That is much more important than the depth of our feelings or the words we use to profess the strength of our faith.  Faith is having the trust in God to take that first step without knowing the outcome.  Faithfulness kicks in as we keep following Jesus, even when the going gets tough.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy telling Timothy that his faith first lived in his grandmother, Eunice, then his mother, Lois, and has been handed on to him. Eunice would not have dreamed when she first decided to start following Jesus that her grandson would become a leader of the church, still celebrated 2000 years later. It was the same in Russia.During the long period of Communism when churches were closed, it was the grandmothers who passed on their faith to their grandchildren in secret – now churches are being reopened and are full.

From little things big things grow.

The marvellous song From Little Things, Big Things Grow tells the story of the Gurindji aboriginal people, who in 1966 walked off the cattle station owned by Lord Vestey, who had taken over their land.  

A small protest by people who were not even citizens in their own land, against rich and powerful interests.  But they remained faithful to their vision of running their own cattle station on their own land, and eventually were granted the title to a portion of it in 1975.

What small step in faith are you being challenged to take?

From little things, big things grow.

Robert Johnson 

6 October 2019

October 2019

A Hymn, A Song, A Sermon! 08-09-2019

A Hymn, A Song, A Sermon!

Jeremiah 18: 1 – 12;  Luke 14: 25 – 33

This week’s sermon is not strictly a sermon. It’s about a hymn, a song and a few little sermons. Let’s begin with the definition of a hymn: it is a song of praise. The songs we sing in worship services are very important to us. In the first place they have a physical impact on us releasing endorphins, strengthening our immune system, forming natural anti-depressants, lowering stress levels and providing a work out. Secondly and most importantly our songs build community and our faith.  The songs we sing help us understand the reality of our faith.  When we gather for worship our songs help us reflect and reinforce our faith: in other words our songs express our thoughts and knowledge about God.  So when we are singing we are theologising. Theology doesn’t belong to the halls of learning: theology begins with our words in worship about our faith and experience of God. 

When singing during a worship service I often wonder why I need to preach when the words of the song say it better. Today we are going to sing our sermon. After each verse I will offer a brief reflection and pose a question. The song I have chosen is from Lambeth Praise, a British songbook, and it is called ‘God is here’ (No. 165). This song is what I call a modern Christian hymn composed by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) in the second half of the 20th Century using the concepts and expressions of the time. Let us sing the first verse while we sit or if you prefer to, stand.  

God is here! As we his people

meet  to offer praise and prayer,

may we find in fuller measure

what it is in Christ we share.

Here, as in the world around us,

all our varied skills and arts

wait the coming of His Spirit

into open minds and hearts.

It begins with a faith statement – God is here. That is what Abraham and Sarah discovered as they entered their nomadic life to which God had called them. They lived in a time when they believed their god lived in a particular time and space. However God taught Abraham and Sarah that ‘He’ was with them wherever they went.  The next sentence picks up the essence of worship – praise and prayer.  But the sentence alludes to two profound truths. Firstly, as we meet refers to the understanding that where God’s people meet to praise and worship they form the temple – that space where God is present.  Secondly, there is the truth that when we are together our Christian life finds its fuller measure.  Christianity like Judaism and I imagine Islam, does not promote individualism and independence but community. The second long sentence beginning with ‘here’ reminds us of the variety and diversity of what we bring to this community – the church.  But the experience of God is here crescendos as we wait with open minds and hearts inviting the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. That’s quite a lot of theology in that first verse, isn’t there.

What struck you while singing this verse?

Here are symbols to remind us

of our lifelong need of grace;

here are table, font and pulpit;

here the cross has central place.

Here in honesty of preaching,

here in silence, as in speech,

here, newness and renewal,

God the Spirit comes to each.

The second verse is filled with practical wisdom and reminders. The symbols in our worship centres are reminders of our lifelong need for grace. The table recalls the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples and his directive that we celebrate this meal – the Eucharist or Holy Communion –  as a reminder that our journey together needs nourishment.  The font  speaks of the baptism that marks the beginning of our Christian life and God’s action of including us as God’s children – sisters and brothers in Christ.  We say a little more about the pulpit in a moment, but first the Cross that has central place. Although we worship the risen Lord Jesus it is nevertheless the risen Crucified Lord Jesus.  The Crucifixion is vital to our faith. Not because it means that Jesus paid the price for our sins.  I have said elsewhere that the Cross is not primarily a sacrifice offered to appease an angry God. Personally I am not sure it is about that view at all which is the view expressed in the final two older style hymns in our service today. The Cross tells us that Jesus confronted the ugly face of evil with absolute love. Jesus’ absolute love destroyed the power of evil and sin, because you can’t destroy evil with evil, only by the power of love. Jesus’ self-giving love broke Sin’s power and through acceptance of Jesus we share in His victory.  Secondly, the Cross of Jesus reminds us that self-giving love is the taproot of the Church.  We are called to love with sacrificial love and have compassion for this world. We are not called to like each other but love as Christ Jesus loved us remembering that Christ gave his life for our well-being.

The second sentence enlarges on the role of preaching. It reminds us that preaching should be done with honesty. If the preacher is to be honest – what a task – s/he may well have to tell the truth and the truth can be confronting as well as being comforting.  It is through such honest preaching  we find newness and renewal. 

How do you feel about honesty of preaching, or for that matter anything else in that verse?

Here our children find a welcome

in the Shepherd’s flock and fold.

Here, as bread and wine are taken,

Christ sustains us as of old.

Here the servants of the Servant

seek in worship to explore

what it means in daily living

to believe and to adore.

This song of Fred Pratt Green encompasses the essence of the Christian Faith.  Firstly, we are welcomed as children and form part of the Shepherd’s flock and fold.  That is what our membership means. We are God’s children, brothers and sisters, and part of Jesus’ group. As the good Shepherd would lead his sheep to still waters and green pastures so the Great Shepherd, Jesus, provides nourishing drink and bread at the table, which sustains us.

Secondly, this verse, reminds us of our role. We are servants of the Servant. How beautifully put.  We’re servants of the Servant Christ. Christ Jesus doesn’t lord it over us, he serves us and so we are to serve.  Furthermore the service we offer one another and the world is explored  and understood through our worship. Worship is important because it is where we gather to be with God and each other and seek the wisdom and nourishment that sends us out into the world. I find in Green’s words the sense that it is not my interpretation of what the world or others need, but it is the discernment of the community of Christ to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore.

What does this teach us about our worship services?

Lord of all, of Church and Kingdom,

In an age of change and doubt,

keep us faithful to the gospel,

help us work Your purpose out.

Here, in this day’s dedication,

all we have to give, receive:

we, who cannot live without You,

we adore You! We believe!

Finally Fred Pratt Green reminds us that our task is to pray to the Lord of all so that we may be kept faithful to the gospel and be able to understand God’s purpose.  The phrase, in an age of change and doubt, reminds of the times we have lived through and are living through in the past fifty years. This phrase more obviously than any other in this song tells us that we are in the 20th Century entering the 21st Century.  We have lived and are now living through one of the most rapid and dramatic periods of change this planet has possibly ever experienced. We older ones hearing/reading this sermon will have memories of the horse drawn cart and certainly know that in our time travelling to another continent meant a long journey by sea. Now the horse is reserved mainly for recreation, sea travel is mainly about holiday cruising, and we fly to far away places. A hundred years ago that would have been absurd. We are now possibly at the dawn of space travel and we hold the world of knowledge and communication in the palm of our hand with our phones. (Show iPhone)  Needless to say that in this day and age all this change begs the question – what are God’s purposes? We can’t simply go back to the old expressions of mission! And with the enormous changes we are witnessing comes uncertainty.

The song concludes with an affirmation of faith and a dedication of ourselves to God and each other. We are reminded that we cannot live without God who is in Christ Jesus, and our living is about giving and receiving grace. So although we may be beset by uncertainty and doubts we go about our daily business giving and receiving love.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  08/09/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Life’s Winters become Summers 01-09-2019

Life’s Winters become Summers.

Jeremiah 1: 1 – 10;  Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

I was annoyed that an injury had interrupted my fitness programme. I could not run. I had injured my right foot’s 1st large metatarsal. In fact the injury had persisted for weeks and I was limited in how far I could walk. Running and walking was not possible in spite of the expensive shoes recommended by the podiatrist. One week my cousin recommended the gymnasium to me. I used to do a lot of gym work so I tried it out. Well, how pleased I am.  My fitness level is way above what it was before. The injury that had set me back eventually pointed me to a different fitness programme and I am much better for it. If I hadn’t had the injury I would still be plodding along with the old programme. By the way my metatarsal is slowly recovering too.

It is interesting how a loss of one thing can lead to finding something better.  It just takes time, some persistence and a little bit of hope and faith. I have found that a sickness that sends one bed for a day or two can become an opportunity for reflection. One hears stories of people who have faced major illness and through their persistence, hope and faith have come to a better place, or at least a new place that also brings wholeness to one’s life.

A gardener understands that all too well.  The winter downtime accompanied by rigorous pruning leads to new and vital growth in the spring. Without the rigorous pruning and the apparently deathless sleep of winter most plants would not be flourish.

There are spiritual lessons for us in these personal and natural events of life. Yes, sometimes the sickness and loss last longer than nature’s winter sleep and are far more painful than an annual pruning.   However these downtimes can become times for reflection and renewal. Our lives can be turned around for the better in spite of the physical and emotional scars we carry. All is never lost. I do not want to make light of our sufferings and deprivations, but I do believe that these hard times can become opportunities for something new and meaningful. I believe this especially so as a Christian. The Holy Spirit not only comforts us but also guides us to a new future. The sermon could end here. That’s it.  But let us look at a big story of disaster and suffering recorded in the Bible and what came out of it. 

We begin with Jeremiah, the prophet, who lived through the reigns of three kings, a catastrophic national disaster and great personal suffering. The book of Jeremiah is filled with personal reflections that reveal the tough nature of his calling. We tend to read Jeremiah’s call and focus on the call and the fact that he tried to escape the calling by pointing out to God that he was not a very good communicator.  Well, he should have known better because Moses, Gideon, this preacher and many others had tried that line with God. It doesn’t work. God just says, ‘I’ll get you over that hurdle, don’t worry’. I’m not going there in this sermon. Instead I felt led to concentrate on the content of his mission.  God called Jeremiah and said to him that his job will be to uproot, pull down, destroy and overthrow nations and kingdoms, and then to build and to plant [Jer 1:10].  Phew!  What a task?  To accomplish this mission Jeremiah would have to confront, challenge and bring a message of disaster. He had to tell the king and people that the nation would lose its independence, its sovereignty and king. Worst of all Jerusalem’s magnificent Temple would be destroyed. 

Jeremiah obeyed God and not surprisingly he was very unpopular. Very few accepted his message. The rest stubbornly held on to the belief that when God blessed King David there would always be a king of David’s line, and the city and temple would always be there. The Covenant God made with Moses at Mt Sinai stated that God would provide for the people and that the people in return would faithfully follow God’s laws, which were the laws of love.  That is, love God and love one another. That was covenantal agreement. Jeremiah pointed out that if the people disobeyed God and trusted in themselves they would stumble and suffer. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others pointed out that what was essential to being a loyal follower of God was to love God and be just, faithful and honest in dealing with each other as well as any strangers in the community. But this wasn’t the case. The people paid lip service to God in worship and carried on with their selfish pursuits.

So the people were going through the motions of faithfulness but were not sincere. They had been warned that God would punish them.  All this was happening in times of political unsettledness.  As you listen to the political situation you may have a déjà vu experience. There were two great superpowers, Babylon and Egypt, which were vying for dominance.  I guess the bottom line was either trade or the control of land or both.  There was Assyria, which morphed into Babylon, competing against Egypt for influence and control in the Middle East. Judaea and Israel were small nations at this time. They tried to manipulate the politics.  They put their trust in political alliances and in the naïve belief that God would never let the Davidic kingly line disappear, or destroy the Temple and city, no matter what happened.  First Israel was conquered and the capital Samaria fell to the Assyrians, then the Babylonians took over from Assyria.  Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, managed to maintain some independence for a while. Unfortunately their king, Hezekiah, tried to cuddle up to Egypt but it didn’t work. Egypt failed to deliver what was promised.   Throughout all these political manoeuvrings Jeremiah ministered. He tried to get the king and the people to focus on God’s laws. But the people and king trusted more their political manoeuvrings and stubbornly resisted the Babylonian empire.  

The people’s unfaithfulness resulted in the devastation of Jerusalem.  First the negatives.

Jeremiah was persecuted and attempts were made on his life. He was not liked at all.

Jerusalem was raised to the ground. The city walls and its defences were destroyed and the army over powered.

The Temple was pillaged and destroyed.

The leaders and the bulk of the people of Jerusalem, who became known as the Jews, were dragged off to Babylon.

Jeremiah opted to stay, but some supporters grabbed him and dragged him off to Egypt where he later died.

The positives were: –

As soon as it was clear that Jerusalem would be sacked he began speaking about the saving work of God and that God would restore Jerusalem.  He actually went and bought property at the time of the sacking to show his faith in God’s compassion for the Jews.  

The other thing Jeremiah and the other prophets did was to give a helpful interpretation of what was happening. They said that the city’s and the temple’s destruction did not mean God was weak and non-existent but that God was punishing them for their sin and faithlessness. This served to help them understand that God hadn’t been destroyed but that God was allowing this to happen in order to help the people become the people of God.  All was not lost.

One of the amazing outcomes of this national disaster was what emerged from the ruins of national disaster and the labour camps in Babylon.  Jeremiah’s mission to pull down and rebuild, to destroy and plant led to the establishment of the ‘synagogue’.  What the Synagogue meant was that God didn’t need a temple where God was present. The people’s perception of God being tied to a place and space called a temple was set aside and was replaced with the understanding that God was present wherever a few of the faithful met in prayer and reflection.  The Synagogue system was God’s way of keeping the people together for both the present and the future.  The synagogue made the faith portable. So wherever Jews moved to they would establish a synagogue, which was a group of faithful men and their families worshipping together.  They no longer needed a special building.

We may find this hard to grasp because we live with the understanding that God is ever with us. But in Jeremiah’s world – really throughout the whole world at that time – religions were centred on temples. The temple was where the god met with the people. That is a sociological fact of the times. What happened to the Jews was revolutionary. Everyone else looking at them would say, no king, no city no temple equals no god. Your god is dead. It’s all over. The prophets like Jeremiah and his compatriots at the time, reminded them of the faith of their fathers expressed in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. They left their home when God called them.  What they discovered was that God was with them wherever they went. Although the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah knew this they had put that experience aside and become like the nations, having a king and a temple. In their case Solomon’s temple was outstanding. Eventually the Jews’ national disaster revolutionised their worship and equipped them to be the faithful people of God at all times and in all places. 

The message for us today I believe is this: we are going through hard times as a local church, more so as a denomination. God is doing something new. God wants us to move in new directions. I am not sure what those new directions will be, but what is important is being prepared for the changes to come. No matter what happens God’s faithfulness to us will not end.

******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  01/09/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Freedom and Service 25-08-2019

Freedom & Service

Luke 13: 10 – 13;  John 8: 31 – 47; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 15

Have you been set free? Do you want freedom? What’s it look like?

Woman, you are free from your illness!” [Lk 13: 12(GN)]  shouted Jesus to a woman who had entered the synagogue. She had been bent over for 18 years.  That would have been an amazing experience for that woman! Just imagine being set free from something that had bound you for 18 years.  One thing we all long for is freedom, whether it is freedom from physical or mental pain, or the pain of rejection or the pain of shame. Last week I spoke about how unforgive-ness imprisons both the victim and the perpetrator, and how forgiveness sets the victim and perpetrator free. The things that enslave us can be physical, mental, psychological, social and political.  The desire for freedom in the human spirit is so imbedded that it begs the question as to why we are not free, but we are not.  

Jesus says in John’s Gospel that the truth will set us free [Jn 8:32]. Jesus teaches that his freedom is grounded in his teaching and practice.  Secondly, Jesus understands that humanity is enslaved or imprisoned by sin [Jn 8:34]. Jesus is talking about the condition of being sinful not sinful acts.  The essence of sinfulness is that our minds are focussed elsewhere. Our chief focus tends to be on ourselves, and that inevitably comes at the cost of others. The Greek word used means ‘missing the mark’.  I find that helpful. What we are focussing on is missing the mark. The true mark is Jesus.  The false marks concern our interests. It is a matter of getting our deep life-shaping-priorities right.  We want to exercise our rights and independence. But when all is said and done we find ourselves slaves to something. In reality we are never entirely independent of anything or anyone.

Freedom is a very big subject.  We commonly think of freedom as liberty, independence, and latitude to do and say what we like. All I can do today is provide a Christian and Biblical picture of what the first Christians understood and secondly how we might become truly free.  I pray that you might discern in this sermon God’s will for you.

Let us start with a word picture of the first Christians way of life and what it looked like. The first followers of Jesus, like Jesus, were Jews with a view on life.  They believed that God would send the Messiah / the Christ to set the Jewish people free, restore the Temple and gather the twelve tribes. [Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah.] There is no doubt that this is how they perceived Jesus. Jesus gave them hope and inspiration. But as the events unfolded their idyllic picture of the Christ began to fracture. Jesus’ crucifixion was not expected. The Christ was not meant to be crucified. Actually Jesus’ crucifixion was the absolute opposite of what was anticipated. Then came the Resurrection, which was followed by an out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The inspiring and empowering experience of Pentecost was followed by persecution, which led to their dispersion. They left Jerusalem and found refuge in other towns and cities. But they took their persecution and rejection as a badge of honour, because they believed they were the followers of God’s Messiah/Christ. When they were told to be silent they found the freedom to say ‘no’ to the Jewish leaders.  They would not and did not remain silent.  Instead the Spirit gave them the boldness to proclaim Christ Jesus more fervently [Acts 4: 20,31]. Secondly, when the Gentiles began to follow Christ Jesus the first Jewish followers found the freedom to loosen their ties to the traditional Jewish expectations of what was to happen.  They no longer held to the view that the Temple would be restored.  Nor did they dwell on the traditional belief that the 12 tribes would be brought together.  They began to see that God was doing something different. God was building a new temple, but the stones of that temple were the hearts and minds of his followers.  They began to see that the Gentiles sharing in the blessing of Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit meant that God was gathering in the Gentiles, not merely the 12 tribes of Israel.  This meant that it was not Judea or ancient Israel that would be reclaimed, but rather the world was to be claimed for God in Christ Jesus. They understood that the mission of God encompassed the Roman Empire. The result of this was a radical freedom to preach the Gospel in face of rejection and at times deliberate and violent persecution. King Jesus set them free to serve the Kingdom of God.

Freedom was one of the marks of the first Christians. They were unfettered by fear of the authorities. They were untrammelled by meaningless tradition. They were unconstrained by small visions.  So it is not surprising to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians – Freedom is what we have – Christ has set us free. Stand, then, as free people … do not become slaves again [Gal 5:1]. Paul goes on to speak of the calling to be free.  This statement begs the following questions.  What are we set free from? What are we set free for? 

In the first place we are set free from the power of sin. In the ancient world sin would have clearly included being controlled by the demonic powers of evil. We westerners don’t think like that.  However we cannot deny that our bad behaviour becomes bigger than us and like demonic power controls us. We find ourselves caught up in genocidal programmes, industrial slavery and prejudicial fears that systematically hurt and destroy people.  Christ Jesus sets us free from such powers. 

Secondly, we are set free from self.  Paul and others make it clear that the freedom we have is not about doing just what we want to do.  It is not about indulging ourselves [Gal 5:13]. We should never confuse licence to do what we like with true freedom. Christian freedom, true freedom, is doing something worthwhile.  In looking to Jesus we lose sight of the self. Jesus steers our lives not our egos.

Thirdly, we are set free from traditions that stifle and control us. In Galatia the Christians were being pressured to follow Jewish laws that were seen to be unnecessary and unhelpful. This problem emerged in a number of places in the Church. It is not surprising that this enslavement to traditions continues to lie in the shadows of our lives. Reading through Scripture we get the picture that some wanted new Christians to comply with the old traditions, in particular circumcision. This would have impeded the growth of the Church.  Today the church struggles with the pull of social conventions and traditional practices.  Such conventions may be as innocuous as the way we sing our praises, or the way we worship, or the best time to worship, or the way we dress, or the way we use our buildings. 

Those first Christians experienced a freedom to be what Christ wanted them to be. As I have already said, they went into the world and spoke boldly about Christ Jesus.  If we are being set free from sin, traditions and ourselves what are we set free for?  Here we come to the heart of the matter. We are set free to serve. Paul speaks about becoming ‘slaves to one another’ [Gal 5:13].  Jesus sets us free to preach the Good News. Jesus says, ‘Follow me’; I am the truth, the way and the life [Jn 14:6].  In following Jesus we will see that Jesus looked to God and then looked to earth and humanity. Then Jesus acted. He served humankind.  His service was the love that wanted the best for all. He stood against untruth and evil to the point of surrendering his life;  in that he demonstrated a power over evil and untruth. Jesus’ Cross was Jesus’ Crown. Jesus crown was made of thorns of pure gold.  When Jesus’ disciples wanted to save Jesus from the Roman and Jewish authorities he told them he had come to give his life as a ransom for many [Mk 10:45].  When Jesus commends the faithful and watchful servants he implies that when he comes and finds his servants faithful and watchful he will take off his coat and serve them [Lk 12: 37]. Yes, Jesus keeps his focus by serving others.

I want to suggest that we will find a freedom in such action. I understand service to free us from our self-interests.  Self-interest is the first devilish master or mistress we have.  The by-products of service are freedom for us and empowerment for others.  Compassionate service opens the door to freedom for all. Service is the best way of preserving our freedom and independence. 

Hans Denk said; God forces no one, for love cannot compel, and God’s service, therefore, is a thing of perfect freedom.

Maybe another way of looking at the Freedom Christ offers us lies in the Revd. Martin Luther King’s words; “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  25/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Power of Forgiveness 18-08-2019

The Power of Forgiveness

(2 Samuel 19) Luke 15: 20 – 32; John 20: 19 – 23

 

Can you imagine a world where every person, every community, nation and tribe work on payback?  Can you imagine a world that harbours every grudge and grievance and demands justice? Justice without mercy is not true justice, it’s just payback. Payback emerges out of the wells of anger and revenge. 

On the other hand mercy – kindness and forbearance – springs from the waters of love and humility. Forgiveness and mercy offer us a way that allows relationships to start again. Solzhenitsyn stated that our capacity for forgiveness distinguishes us from the animal world.  I would say that to forgive or to apologise is the beginning of becoming truly human.

In Shakespeare’s play the Merchant of Venice, Portia disguised as a lawyer, tells Shylock that justice without mercy is not justice. When Shylock asks Portia to explain why he should show mercy to Antonio, Portia responds [Merchant of Venice, Act 4:1, lines 185f]:

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

… Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 

That in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.

Portia reminds us that mercy and forgiveness benefits both the giver and the recipient. She points out that justice alone will not bring reconciliation. Shakespeare has spoken well through Portia.

These truths are at the heart of the Gospel and the Bible. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Upper Room on the evening of the day of the Resurrection are so relevant today. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [Jn 20: 22,23. Cf. Mt 18:18]  Now what does this mean – if you retain the sins of any, they are retained?  

Is it not true that when someone offends us we feel a degree of resentment if not anger?  If we don’t forgive the person these feelings don’t disappear: they merely reside in the inner recesses of our mind.  While we think that we have dealt with our feelings we have not. We have merely pushed them aside for the moment. Those feelings continue to quietly corrode our thinking and being. They can make us physically unwell and they certainly harm our spiritual well-being. In other words the sin is retained. Now if I have been offended by X and I don’t deal with it, a wall is erected between us. Every time I see X we may be quite sociable but we don’t get close and there is always that unspoken thing between us. You see, if I do not forgive X I retain X’s sin against me. That is what Jesus is getting at. I retain the wrong done to me and that forms a barrier. However if I forgive X then we are set free to relate to each other. Jesus’ commission is very relevant to both our private and public lives. So what is the forgiveness process?

Firstly there are three recognitions that need to take place. 

Recognition one is that we hurt each other by our thoughtless remarks, selfish acts, our wilfulness, prejudices and fears. Something small can become something quite large. There are those hurts that are big, but even the little ones can grow. The ugliness of insults, our looking after ourselves at the expense of others and the greed that takes more than we’re entitled to causes deep rifts, hurts, and injustices. Unless we take time to forgive we will merely construct a deep pits of resentment and anger, shame and guilt. The hurt continues to grow.

Recognition two is that we need help to forgive. Forgiveness is never easy, neither is it simple. We need to humbly admit that we need an exemplar: someone who can show us how to forgive. It is in Jesus that we find the compassion and humility that makes forgiveness possible. More importantly Jesus has already forgiven us and begun the process for us. 

Recognition three is knowing that retaining a feeling of  unforgiveness is bad for us.  When we have been hurt by someone’s thoughtless or selfish behaviour the hurt turns to anger and resentment. Such feelings become cancerous. They can ruin our well-being.  Likewise when we have hurt and offended someone we experience guilt and shame.  Shame and guilt affect the way we relate to people. Then we are the ones needing forgiveness.  We need to forgive and to be forgiven for we are sinners. 

The steps of Forgiveness. 

The first step is to acknowledge the offence and its affect on us.  Don’t pretend either to yourself or the person who has hurt you that it “doesn’t matter”.  It does matter. 

The second step is to be prepared to forgive.  This is the hardest step. The forgiveness begins with our willingness to forgive. I once prayed for three weeks everyday to forgive someone who had really angered me at work. I finally reached the point of forgiveness. There was never reconciliation as there was no opportunity to meet with the person. However I was set free from the anger and resentment and found I could relate in a meaningful way with that person. The willingness to forgive together with God’s help to forgive set me free. 

Thirdly, if there is the opportunity to do so, approach the other and tell them that their action has hurt you. If that person either denies it or defends their action listen, but avoid an argument.  Just reiterate that you were offended by their action and leave it at that. If you have begun the forgiveness process in your own heart your anger and resentment will not be increased by their rejection of the fact that they have offended you. You go away and take it to God again and pray that you can forgive them. The forgiveness process is only completed when the offender says sorry. If they do we graciously accept their apology.

The fourth step is reconciliation.   Reconciliation only takes place after the offender says sorry and the offended has forgiven them. That is the beginning of reconciliation.

Some notes on the process. Reconciliation is not always possible. So the most important thing to do is to forgive them and ask God to help you take away the sense of injustice you have suffered.  Secondly, the worst thing we can do when someone says sorry is to say, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter’. It does matter. Furthermore to say to someone who has apologised to you that it doesn’t matter is to make out that they are silly to think they have hurt you.

Victor Hugo’s drama Les Misérables provides us with a wonderful insight into what forgiveness is and is not. It is a wonderful insight into the blessing of forgiveness and the damage of unforgiveness. I say forget this sermon and watch Les Misérables, or better still read the book.

In Les Misérables Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French prisoner sentenced to a 19-year term of hard labour for stealing bread. When Valjean earned his release he was a hardened and an angry man.  In those days a convicted criminal had to carry identification and when he arrived back in France no innkeeper would have him stay in their premises. After a few days a kindly bishop took pity on him. Valjean that night settled down in his room waiting for the bishop and his sister to go to sleep. Then he got up and stole some silverware.  The next morning three policemen brought Valjean with the stolen silverware to the bishop’s residence. They wanted the bishop to identify him and confirm the theft. Instead the bishop responded directly to Valjean with,  So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”

To everyone’s surprise, no less to Valjean himself,  the bishop declared Valjean innocent, and no less Valjean himself.  The bishop fetched the candlesticks and gave them to Valjean saying; “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.

This amazing encounter pregnant with grace changes Valjean’s life. He is reformed. But a detective, Javert, who knows only justice, stalks him. He pursues Valjean and when Valjean saves Javert’s life, Javert finds no corresponding forgiveness and jumps off the bridge into the river Seine. Hugo has written a novel about forgiveness and justice.  It stands as a literary monument to the power of mercy and forgiveness and the ruination of unforgiveness.

Remember God has already forgiven us and set us free in Christ Jesus.

Remember God the Spirit is with us helping us deal with the friction and fracturing of life.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  18/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

John 20:19   When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Importance of Our Stories 11-08-2019

The Importance of Our Stories.

2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14;  Mark 1: 4 – 12, 21 – 27

It is our custom after Sunday worship to have lunch watching ‘Songs of Praise’. I find it relaxing and worshipful after preaching. Last Sunday’s ‘Songs of Praise’ told the story of St John’s Ambulance.  I was reminded again of the importance of stories and how they can encourage, inspire, and nurture hope and faith in us. 

The St John’s Ambulance story reminded me of one of the major contributions Christianity has made to Western society and that a good thing is never lost. 

St John’s Ambulance is a modern dynamic charity founded in 1887, but did you know that its heritage goes right back to the 11th Century?  The story runs like this. In about 1020 A.D. St Mary of the Latins’ Abbey in Jerusalem established a hospice for pilgrims. In the second half of the 11th Century a lay Benedictine monk came to the St Mary’s abbey. His name was Gerard and he became known as the Blessed Gerard.  Gerard was put in charge of the small hospital. During a period when the Christians were driven out of Jerusalem Gerard was permitted to remain. The hospital survived and when the 1st Crusaders regained control of Jerusalem the hospital expanded under Gerard’s leadership. He established more hospitals along the pilgrim way. Gerard established the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem, whose task was to care for the sick pilgrims. The order grew and spread throughout Europe and Britain.   During Henry VIII ‘s reign the monastic orders were dissolved.  On 7th May 1540 the day on which the Order of St John was dissolved in England the last prior of the Order, Sir William Weston, died. It was said that he died of a broken heart on hearing the news. However Sir William had failing health at the time. 

It was in 1887 when British society was going through the upheaval of industrialisation that the order was revived in a different form. Concerned about the health of people and the lack of any health scheme for basic health care a group of Christians remembered the order of St John. They resolved to ‘resurrect’ the order of St John using its ancient medieval insignia.  They established a voluntary program training people in basic first aid and offering it freely to all people. They took on a uniform and the insignia of the ancient Order of the Knights of St John.  Their ministry prospered and now it is part and parcel of our society. Today we benefit from the basic first aid training of St John Ambulance. 

I was immediately caught up in this story. The story spanned many centuries. It showed how the Church has always played its part in wider society. It showed how the Church has shown the world how to care. I uncovered how a careless world will destroy some good, but the good will not go away. 

The story encouraged me.  I was buoyed by its success and I delighted in this ministry that continues today.  I was also encouraged by the fact that this ministry filled a needy gap.  It showed the Church at its best. It uncovered the truth that our current day concepts of nursing and hospitals have their roots deep within the Christian Faith.  Certainly Roman society had little time for nursing. It is confessed by Roman doctors that when the plagues came they escaped to the country. The plagues thrived in the cities where sanitation was less than elementary. Densely packed housing had streets with a central gutter in which all was thrown.  We have evidence from the writing of the famous Roman doctor, Claudius Galen, that during the plague doctors left the city and the sick were put out in the street to die. What happened during the plagues was that when a person got sick they were placed outside in the street and left to die. It was a matter of survival as it limited the infection and /or contagion.  

There is plenty of evidence that Christians, motivated by the sacrificial love of Christ for the world, would care for the sick. Christians cared for each other and for their neighbours even at the cost of their own lives. Jesus inspired them. They believed if Jesus had suffered for them they should suffer for others. It is a fact that basic nursing such as keeping someone at an even temperature and hydrated will help a sick person survive.  The Christians became known for their ministry of care for others.

We forget that nearly all of our compassionate structures in society like nursing and care for the aged and dying have their roots in Christianity. Christians emerged in the Roman Empire as people who loved others. Another pagan’s testimony to the love of Christians for others, even those outside their own group, comes from Emperor Julian who hated Christianity. Julian wrote a letter, which we have to this day, to the high priest of Galatia in 362 A.D. stating that ‘pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graces of the dead’. He also wrote that ‘the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us’.  Julian tried to drum up support for pagan charities and pagan compassion for the less fortunate. Julian’s motivation was embarrassment and competition, whereas Christians were motivated by the Christ, crucified and raised.

The St John Ambulance’s tradition stands firmly in this early Christian ministry of nursing.  There is little evidence of such nursing-care taking place in the Greco Roman world.  After the fall of Rome and the growth of Christianity, the monasteries of the Church became places offering the basic social services to all.

We should tell this story to others.  It might make them think about what they take for granted. It might make them realise that it isn’t the basic goodness in humans that taught us to care. Our hospitals are not a result of humans naturally thinking of nursing others than their own. In the past, the family did nursing. It was the Church that began to organise it motivated by Jesus’ command to love and his life. 

The story enlightened me.  What I found instructive and helpful in the story was that at the closure of the Order of the Knights of St John although all came to an end, the seeds of charitable nursing were not lost.  Those seeds germinated amongst the people and in the hearts of men and women inspired by the Christ. Finally those seeds geminated afresh and blossomed into the movement of St John’s Ambulance. 

We live in times when we are saddened by the diminishing size of our congregations and the closure of our church buildings.  It is sad, but it is necessary to close these buildings. We no longer have the resources to keep them open. There seems little we can do against the current tide of rejection of the Gospel of Christ. We face a very different society today.  However it is not simply that society is against us, it is a question too of the Church losing its cutting edge. We have turned our Faith into something personal.  We don’t easily move to sacrificial giving and we appear confused about what we believe. Sadly in times like these, and the Church has been through similar times, we fall into conservatism and traditionalism.  We naturally want to return to the good old days, but that is not possible. We want the organ played and the old hymns sung – for whom? Tomorrow’s church?

What I found helpful was being reminded of the truth that the Church belongs to God. God will revive us. Most likely in a way that is very different from what we can even imagine.   Equally the revival may not be in our time. But I found great encouragement in being reminded that the Knights of St John had been revived after 300 years, albeit into a different form. 

The story of St John’s Ambulance provides for us in the first place, a story that demonstrates to our society what the Church has given to our western society and indeed to the wider world.  The Church has been a strong source of inspiration and action towards making our society a compassionate and caring society. It could be said that we have taught the world to care and now many think they can do it without the inspiration of the Triune God.

Secondly, the story of St John’s Ambulance provides encouragement for us. It tells us that our faithfulness will be rewarded. It tells us that this is God’s world and God will act for the betterment of it.  We can live with hope that is grounded in the past actions of God that remind us of God’s transformative mission for today.

The story provides us with inspiration, encouragement and hopeful vitality.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  10/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / Www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Heaven’s Food & Heavenly Company 04-08-2019

Heaven’s Food & Heavenly Company 

Mark 14: 22- 25;  Acts 2: 37 – 42; 1 Corinthians 10: 14 – 18

Is 

Napoleon won his victories by concentrating his forces with unexpected speed. But this meant forced marches for his soldiers, living in the country where supplies soon ran out. Lack of food meant much illness and many casualties. ‘An army marches on its stomach’ he said, and offered a prize of 20,000 Francs to anybody who would invent some way of preserving food. A Parisian chef won the prize with a plan for a process of bottling food previously heated. Later in London the method was improved by substituting tins for glass bottles (the beginning of the canning industry). The manufacturers kept the French name boeuf bouilli, so the English soldiers called it bully beef. [Drinkwater, Quotes & Anecdotes p.216]

Jesus gave us food too. He knew we needed it. Its similarity to Bully Beef is that it is containable and transportable. Here the similarity stops. There are stories of Christians celebrating Holy Communion in countries that persecuted Christians. In Stalin’s Siberian labour camps Christians hid Communion wafers in cigarette boxes and celebrated Communion deep in the mines. In China a Chinese priest, who worked as a lowly market labourer selling soap, wrapped the consecrated wafer in linen and then placed it inside the soap wrapping. He had a method of letting his parishioners know when to come. They met him ostensibly to buy soap, but in reality they were collecting the ‘host’. Then they would go home and gather in small groups and celebrate Holy Communion.

It was not the material food value that mattered, it was the powerful spiritual truth that was important. The elements of grape juice and bread spoke of the ‘blood’ of Jesus shed in absolute love for us, and the bread spoke of the nourishment of his being and teaching for our living.  

Holy Communion has always been a special time.  I don’t know how to explain or articulate that truth, I only know for me and others who have told me their stories, that it is holy moment. At Holy Communion God meets us communicating sacrificial love. Secondly, it is the risen Lord Jesus who is the host at the table.  We give thanks to and worship not only a sacrificed Christ, but also a risen Christ. 

The symbolism is simple yet profound.  We come forward and humbly stand or kneel – I prefer to kneel – with head bowed and hands cupped to receive. Our physical posture tells us that we are recipients of God’s Grace – God’s love in action.  We don’t thank those who have served us because they are not the hosts who are providing the food; they are merely the servants who serve in the name of our Lord. They have prepared themselves to serve us by first receiving the heavenly food of the Body and Blood of our Lord.  We receive the bread and wine in thankful silence or with a quiet – ‘Amen’.

The other method of receiving Holy Communion is sitting in the nave. There symbolism shifts. Firstly, for practical reasons, we have to take the elements from the paten and tray of communion glasses, but we now hold them and wait until all have the elements. Then we all eat the bread together and then take the grape juice together. That symbolises our unity as God’s people – one loaf and one cup for one people. 

In some mysterious way these actions coupled with our faith quickened the heart and build up our faith.  Our consciousness of the others about us is heightened. We are no longer looking at our fellow Christians but receiving heaven’s food for us. Ironically it is in that moment when we are most conscious of communion with Christ Jesus that we become more aware that we are a community of believers bound together by Christ Jesus and the Spirit. To my left and right kneel, stand or sit my brothers and sisters in Christ – my eternal family.

This now takes us to the second profound effect of Holy Communion – we are a community. It makes sense doesn’t it? Jesus didn’t give us a cafeteria to go to, he gave us a table with a meal for all. So not only are we receiving our ‘heavenly food’ but also we are celebrating our community. This is the where the fellowship of the Church begins – at the Lord’s Table.

Holy Communion not only feeds us but reinforces that we are one large family – a fellowship of people so the biblical writers could say; So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. [Eph 2: 19 – 22]  The imagery is so powerful.  We are God’s children, a family and members of God’s household.  We form together the bricks of the spiritual temple of God. As we bond together in Christian love we form a temple where God is present.  Here together God meets us and dwells with us. That is why worship is so important. Our fellowship is rooted in these truths:  founded on the work of Christ Jesus, blessed by the Holy Spirit, joined together we become God’s temple. This is a spiritual truth with practical implications. We have not met together because of some common interest. We have met together because we belong together in Christ.

This is why Paul could write to the Corinthian church and say; God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. [1 Cor 1: 9-10]

The story of ‘The Rabbi’s Gift’ speaks about fellowship and how it might be sustained. I offer it to you for encouragement.

There was a famous monastery, which had fallen on hard times. The buildings were tired, numbers down, and the worship space1/4 full. A handful of monks carried out the duties with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the monastery grounds in the woods an old Rabbi had built a rough hut he used for retreats. When the Rabbi walked in the woods the monks would whisper, “The rabbi walks in the woods”. They seemed encouraged by his prayerful presence.  

Then one day the Abbot said he was going to visit the Rabbi. As he came to the door of the hut the Rabbi was standing there. They embraced like long-lost brothers. In silence they stood smiling to each other. Then the Rabbi motioned to the Abbot to come in a sit at the rude table. On it was the opened Scriptures. They sat there in the presence of the Book. Then the Rabbi began to cry. The Abbot could not contain himself. The two men sat crying their hearts out. Then after a while the Rabbi lifted his head and said;

“You and your brothers are serving God with heavy heart. You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that no one must ever say it aloud again.” The Rabbi looked straight at the Abbot and said;  “ The Messiah is among you.”

The Abbot left without a word. On his return he gathered his monks and told them what had happened and said; “One of us is the Messiah.  The monks wondered what it meant, but never spoke of it again.

As time went by the monks began to treat each other with a very special reverence. There was a new wholehearted human quality about their lives, which was hard to describe. They lived as people who had finally discovered something. They prayed the Scriptures together as people looking for something. Occasionally visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.

In time people started returning, the community grew in significance, and young people offered for the ministry.

By then the Rabbi no longer walked in the woods. 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  04/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Hope, Prayer & Promise 28-07-2019

Hope, Prayer & Promise.  

Psalm 85;  Luke 11: 1 – 13

Is 

“What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life,”

stated Emil Brunner a significant 20th Century German theologian and pastor.  We cannot live without oxygen and life without hope is meaningless. Hope is as important to us as oxygen.  That’s quite a claim, but the secularist and the religious agree that without hope there is despair. 

Of course we all understand what hope is – that is, until we have to define it. There is hope and there is hope. I want to talk a little about hope but not at the level that ‘Bill’ and ‘Sam’ were speaking of hope.  Bill asked Sam, “Have you ever realized any of your childhood hopes?”  Sam responded, “Yes, when my mother used to comb my hair, I often wished I didn’t have any.”

How full of hope those first disciples were. There they were travelling around with this exciting preacher who carried the presence and wisdom of God with him. They sat at his feet and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” [Lk 11: 1; Mt 6:7]  No doubt Jesus’ praying inspired them.  Jesus did teach them to pray. He gave them a simple prayer that captures all for which we ever need to pray. I once read that the Lord’s Prayer, as we call it, is the prayer we should first pray or the prayer we should finally pray. It is appropriate to use it either as a blue print for our prayers or the prayer that we use at the end to ensure that we have covered all things. We could say so much about the Lord’s Prayer but this sermon is not about it.  It is about the relationship of hope to prayer and the relationship of prayer and hope to God’s promises.

Now it is not clear what comes first – hope, promises or prayer. It doesn’t really matter. But we can be clear about the fact that hope, prayer and God’s promises are inter-connected in our life’s journey.

Firstly, let us talk about ‘Hope’.  Hope is a very important ingredient in being human. Nothing can be achieved without hope. Though not all psychologists agree that hope is an emotion it is very much like an emotion [James Averill 1990].  Hope affects the way we perceive things, the way we behave, and it motivates our responses to events, especially in the case of adversity. It seems that all humans have a degree of hope and the level of hope has much to do with our early nurture and experiences. Andrew Fuller wrote; ‘Hope is one of the principal springs that keep humankind in motion’.  

 

Christianity has seen hope as one of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. However we want to understand the nature of hope and what its source may be, but we cannot deny its presence for all of us.  Emil Brunner spoke of hope as one of the ways in which what is merely future and potential is made vividly present and actual to us. Hope is the positive, as anxiety is the negative, mode of awaiting the future.

 

Secondly, what is the relationship of hope to prayer? Is there a connection between hope and prayer? Hope is the belief, that there is a better way, a more positive outcome and that God wants the best for us.  Prayer is practicing our hope. Prayer springs out of a hope that there is more to life. Simply put, prayer is asking God for something; and, hope is the faith that God will answer. Hope is the confidence we have in God’s promises.  Prayer is the conversation between God and us. When we are in sync with God’s principals and commandments, our prayers become aligned with God’s purposes. It is important to align our desires with God’s will. Thus prayer is more than voicing our wishes and requests – it’s about developing our relationship with God. 

Thirdly, our hope and prayers rest upon the foundation of God’s promises. The prophet Jeremiah expresses this truth in chapter 29 verse 11 where he writes; For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.   In Hebrews 10:23 we read; Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.   We can now say that the ground of our hope is what God has done through Christ Jesus and the evidence for our hope is the Spirit confirming in our hearts that we are God’s children.

If we turn to our reading we will see how hope, prayer and promise work together.  The disciples in hope request a lesson on prayer. Jesus teaches them what prayer is. The Lord’s Prayer is the classic model for prayer. It covers all that is needed. It begins  – “Our Father, your will be done, forgive us our sins as we forgive others and give us our daily bread”.

Luke tells that Jesus after teaching the prayer encourages his disciples to pray persistently.  The importance of persevering in prayer is that we develop an understanding of what we are asking and of God’s will.  The point is that we often ask for things that are not necessarily the best for us.  Through persistence in prayer we develop our relationship with and understanding of God. We learn what God’s will is and pray accordingly.

Luke makes the point that God intends us to have the best as Jeremiah suggested when he said God has plans for our welfare and future.  But Luke adds something very significant.  God, Luke says, will give us good things just as a parent wishes to give their children good things. But Luke makes it clear what is best for us. God will give us the Holy Spirit.  That’s a ‘wow’ thing.  God wants us to have far more than what we ask. God wants us to have the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and thereby we will be empowered and strengthened.  Remember that we’re in a relationship with God and God’s Spirit is essential to building up that relationship. It is not so much about God giving us what we want, but God giving us God’s–self.  You know it is more important about having someone who loves you through thick and thin, than someone who likes you and gives you things. No wonder Paul could say that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And again says; it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts [Rom 8; 2 Cor 3]. 

Finally a story of how hope sets us free from the things of this world. 

In 79 AD, the city of Pompeii in southern Italy was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Less well known is another town, Herculaneum, which was also destroyed. This town was a popular first century resort until that day Mount Vesuvius exploded and buried it under sixty-five feet of solidified mud and lava.

Excavations of Herculaneum have revealed a wealthy town and like all towns had smaller blocks of tenement houses for the workers. In one of the smaller houses in a back room was found a cross that appears to have been hidden.  There are three nail prints that suggest the cross was covered.  We also know that there were persecutions in Italy. It is probable that the people of this home held a house church here in this ordinary house. 

It tells us a story. The archeologist sees this cross and knows that Christians lived in this home. They were poor and possibly isolated from the pagan community. So the cross is of some general interest as it is part of the first archaeological evidence of Christianity in Rome before AD 79. The Christian sees this cross and begins to understand a great deal about this room and its occupants. There was hope in this tiny room; hope in the midst of what must have been a very meagre existence. There was hope that raised the hope of the few who lived or gathered there. There was freedom from the gods that filled the lives of so many people with superstition and fear.  The cross symbolised the knowledge that one is loved. These were people who believed that the ultimate meaning of the universe is life-nourishing love. They believed they were not alone. They believed that there was a future with God. They lived in hope that gave them an inner strength to rise above the superstition, fear and drudgery of the common life. 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  28/07/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Which ‘spirit’ leads you? 21-07-2019

Which ‘spirit’ leads you?

Amos 8:  1-12;  Luke 10: 38 – 42; Galatians 4: 1 – 9

Is 

I hadn’t been at Tyndale House for more than three weeks when my brother came up from London to see me. It was my first time in the UK. I will not forget his initial remarks as he entered Tyndale House. He said, ‘this place has a peaceful – a holy feel about it’. He had recognised something about Tyndale House while standing in the entrance hall. The spirit of the place hit him. Tyndale House is a Biblical Research Centre in Cambridge UK and independent of the University. It is a place of studious quietness and where conversations were mostly about one’s area of research. It did have atmosphere. The place had its own spirit.

Now I imagine you can identify with the notion that places have a spirit or atmosphere. Entering a place of worship will have a different ‘feel’ to a university campus, railway station, airport, or food hall. But having said that it is very difficult to articulate exactly what we mean when we say this place has a spirit. To speak of the spirit of something or someone is to speak of the prevailing tendency, animating principle, dominating characteristic, and soul of that place. So to speak of the spirit of Tyndale House in Cambridge one would be speaking about its animating principle as study; its dominating characteristic as the search for truth and understanding; and, its essence as quietness and respect. The combination of all those things amount to its spirit.

We can legitimately talk about the spirit of other things.  The spirit of an international airport terminal is unique. It would be characterised by busyness, anxiety, boredom and relief, if you were at the end of the journey.  You couldn’t describe the airport as a peaceful or inspiring place. 

The other important thing to recognise is that the spirit of a place or the environment affects us for better or worse. Entering a place of worship as opposed to a busy transport terminal will have a different effect upon us.  

I want us to reflect on these matters today as the Bible often speaks both indirectly and directly about the spirit of the people, culture and environment.  The warnings in the Bible about worshipping other gods and following the ways of other cultures are about the effect of the spirit of such places. We don’t ponder this truth very much, but the Scriptures remind us of it.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, encourages the Galatian Christians not to turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits [Gal 4:9]. The elemental spirits refer to two aspects of life.  At one level the ‘elemental spirits’ are the ‘ABCs’ of life: the basic conventions of society, of socialising and of cultural practices. They refer to the forces that shape our lives socially, psychologically and politically. At a deeper level they refer to the spiritual forces of cultures and religions. We might say that today in our Australian culture the elemental spirits might refer to our culture’s values and beliefs. Such values and beliefs help us up to a point, but they also confine and restrict us. We have social conventions about being nice to each other, which at best help us socialise and at worst prevent us from speaking or acting the truth about things.  The simple greeting, “How are you?” followed by ‘I’m fine” can be problematic. When I greet someone who is very sick I am careful how I greet them. You see “How are you?” can be construed as a request for a health report. ‘How are you?’,  generally just means ‘good to see you’.  Our response, ‘Good, thank you’ is really saying … something like, ‘Good to see you too!’ Our little conventions are not without their difficulties.

However there are bigger issues.  We find streams of cynicism in our culture preventimg us from seeing the positiveness of life or the good in certain people. The force of these things is such that we get caught up in the cynical conversations and hide behind the polite conventions of our society. The material idolatry drives us to making money even at the expense of others’ well-being.  In recent times we have seen examples of this in our financial institutions. Cynicism spawns doubt and distrust.  For all the good things about our country – and there are many – we struggle to achieve ethical financial behaviour and our personal well-being is undermined by a strong negativity which spawns depression. This spirit of our culture is not Christian, yet we can be enmeshed in it. The point I want to make is that our culture is not Christian – it may be influenced by Christianity or a religion, but that is not the whole box and dice.

Paul responds to the clash between the elemental spirits of the Greco-Roman culture and the Spirit of God in Galatians. Paul presents his readers with a choice: the choice of following the ways of the world or the ways of God. That choice is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. We Christians confuse many of our culture’s conventions as Christian. For example, God calls us to responsible selfless love for others, whereas our culture calls us to insist on our rights. Christians are called to love and our culture calls us to be tolerant. Tolerance is a good thing but love for our neighbour is a far finer thing. Our conventions of social niceties can prevent us from speaking the truth about our faith and belief in God. Think of how many times you have avoided talking about your faith because of the social expectation of friends.  Maybe we follow the spirit of our culture so closely that we don’t even realise that we are doing it!

Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to be led by the Spirit and not to be self-indulgent. Christians are to live by the Spirit and produce the fruit of gentleness, kindness, joy, peace, patience and self-control [Gal 5: 16, 18, 22].  The prophet Amos warns the people that selfish behaviour and exploitation of the weak will lead to their destruction. Amos warns against following the spirit of materialism in his society. Materialism and the love of wealth always clash with the Spirit of God. [Amos 8:1-2].

The story of The Two Brothers provides a simple account of what life might look like if we are led by and live by the Holy Spirit. 

“Two brothers worked together on a family farm. One was unmarried and the other married with children. They shared what they grew equally as they always did – produce and profit. But one day the single brother said to himself, You know, it’s not right that we should share the produce equally, and the profit too.  After all, I’m all alone, just by myself and my needs are simple. But there is my brother with a wife and children. He has much more responsibility than I do.

So in the middle of the night he took a sack of grain from his bin, crept over the field between their houses and dumped it into his brother’s bin.

Meanwhile, unknown to him, his brother had the same thought. He said to himself, It is not right that we should share produce and profit equally.  After all, I am married and I have my wife to look after me and my children for years to come. But my brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future.

So he too, in the middle of the night, began taking a sack of grain from his bin and sneaking across the field to deposit it in his brother’s bin.

And both were puzzled for years as to why their supply did not dwindle. Well, one night it just so happened that they both set out for each other’s barn at the same time. In the dark they bumped into each other carrying their sacks. Each was startled, but then it slowly dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced one another.

Suddenly the dark sky lit up and a voice from heaven spoke, “Here at last is the place where I will build my Temple. For where people meet in love, there my Presence shall dwell.”

Think of that – every time you selflessly love another, God is present building the Temple of God.

Living by the Spirit ultimately means that we will put aside pretences, set aside appearances and hear the silent cry for help. Being led by the Spirit means that we will go where we are needed and care about the truth.  Living by the truth we will see the new possibility, embrace God’s promise and listen with a gracious ear to all that is about us. 

Sadly the tale about Martha and Mary provides us with a picture of the difference between being led by the Spirit of God as opposed to the spirit of convention. Martha set about caring for Jesus’ needs.  Mary set about listening to Jesus. We are not sure what Jesus needed most – a cup of tea or a listening ear? Both were attending to Jesus. Martha spoilt it by complaining. In her complaint she showed her dependence upon conventions and some jealousy of Mary. Jesus’ response suggests he found more strength in being listened to. Maybe Jesus needed to be listened to more than Mary needed to hear Jesus? We will never know completely, but the tale does remind us that there are two ways: the way of the world and the way of God.  

What ‘spirit’ is leading you? By what ‘spirit’ do you mostly live? 

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  21/07/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org