Monday, 25 September 2017

Father of the Bride - Sunday 24th September 2017

I write this in the warm but tired afterglow of my eldest daughter’s wedding. As father of the bride it was my ceremonial duty to walk my daughter down the aisle. At the end of the day it was my practical duty to oversee the clear-up of the reception venue. In between times it was my joy to tell her how wonderful she is, and my choice to deal with an unfortunate misunderstanding with the venue management. All in all, it was my delight and my duty to be there, to be there in an active and supportive way, but it was her event and it was wonderful.
God repeatedly promises to ‘be there’ for us. From Genesis to Revelation, the promise is repeated, “I will be with you”. Indeed, God’s name - Yahweh - (which is sadly airbrushed from most English translations) carries an implicit promise of God’s constant presence. It is no surprise to note Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age."
The idea of God's presence, on its own, could be either a promise or a threat. At times God has been presented as one who is watching us constantly, meticulously recording our every mistake. That is not a reassuring presence and is not a helpful image of God.
Jesus spoke of God as being our loving father - like the father of the bride. He is walks silently beside us when we are nervous; he praises us when we do well; he gently directs us when we are worrying about things; he works discretely behind the scenes to help us out; and he willingly clears up our mess at the end of the day.
In a formal way at the wedding I let my daughter go, to live her life with her lovely husband, equipped with the principles of her upbringing, and reassured that I will be there for her whenever wanted or needed. I suspect God has a similar approach. He doesn’t micro-manage us. He shares his principles with us and then lets us go into our lives, reminding us that he will always be there to share our joys and our struggles whenever wanted or needed.

Monday, 18 September 2017

An Undesirable Job - Sunday 18th September 2017

Being a shepherd on the arid hillsides of the middle east is not a romantic occupation. Anyone who has visited that part of the world will be familiar with the sight of young men, standing in the middle of nowhere, with a long stick slung across their shoulders, surrounded by sheep. It is a boring job which involves long hours outside in the heat of the day. And, being a task that requires little skill or agility, it generally falls to teenagers or old men.
This situation was no different in the ancient world. When Jesus spoke of himself being a 'good shepherd’ he was playing on people’s prejudices against those who worked on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. Western art presents the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd as a romantic icon, but that is not at all how the idea resonated when Jesus first said it. John’s gospel tells us that the immediate reaction of Jesus' audience was to exclaim, ‘He's out of his mind!’
By likening himself to a shepherd, Jesus was expressing astounding humility, presenting God's care and provision as an act of lowly service. By casting himself as a good shepherd, Jesus was stressing that he was proud to fulfil such a role, and do it with unprecedented care. The nearest equivalent in our modern world would be a toilet attendant who doesn’t just clean the toilets but who polishes them as well.
This is our God! God gladly takes on the undesirable role of looking after the human race, and does so with a wholehearted dedication and affection which borders on absurdity. God is proud to be a shepherd, and a good one at that.
As you go about your business, be sure to notice the low paid, low status workers - those who do the tasks no-one else wants to do. Pause to appreciate them. These are Jesus’ sort of people.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Forgiveness, Up Front - Sunday 10th September 2017

There is a long established understanding in western culture that forgiveness needs to be asked for. Just like groceries have to be paid for, forgiveness comes at a price. In order to be forgiven, you have to apologise, and you have to give reasonable assurances that you won’t do it again (whatever it was). This transactional approach to forgiveness runs deeply in our everyday lives. We allow relationships to fall into ruin while we wait for the other person to say 'sorry' - firm in our resolve that we can't forgive until they repent. 
This is not how God understands forgiveness.
In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the young man finally sees the error of his ways and carefully constructs a proposal that he hopes will bring about a partial reconciliation with his father. (It appears that ancient Judaism had a similar idea of forgiveness to ours). However, as soon as the young man came within sight of his home, Jesus departs from the usual script. The young man never gets to express his apology or to propose his compromise. Instead, his father runs down the road to welcome him with a vast embrace and showers him with gifts. No apology is needed, nor any promise of reform. In Jesus’ story, forgiveness is an expression of the father’s love, and not the fruit of the son’s contrition. The young man had been forgiven all along, but only came to know that when he finally went home.
This idea that forgiveness is given, not asked for, is played out in the story of St Paul’s ‘conversion’. While Paul was actively working on the downfall of Christianity, God reached out to him and recruited him as missioner to the Gentile world. Any apologies or promises of reform came later in the process; what came first -for Paul - was God’s overwhelming forgiveness.
When we hold back, waiting for apologies and promises, we allow valuable relationships to shrivel and die. Godly forgiveness is pro-active. It is given before it is asked for. And, if the offender fails to reform, God asks us to keep on forgiving them.
St Peter asked Jesus how many times it was reasonable to forgive a repeat offender - as many as seven times? “No” Jesus replied. (I suspect with a wry smile.) “Seventy times seven times.”
Waiting for people to reform before we forgive them is not God's way. God’s way is to keep forgiving people until they reform.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Sing a New Song - Sunday 3rd September 2017

The psalms of the Old Testament repeatedly urge us to ‘sing a new song’. Of course, from the point of view of ancient Israel’s song writers this was a good way of promoting business, but there is more to their repeated lyric than that. These encouragements to sing a new song (including one in the book of Isaiah) all come from the period after the destruction of Israel and Judah, when the spiritual leaders of the Jews were looking to rebuild their nation and their faith.
That’s why they needed a new song. The old songs had failed. They needed something new.
Singing played a central role in ancient societies. It was a primary means of communication and information storage. Before people had books or wrote letters, they shared and remembered ideas using songs. After the total disaster of the collapse of their nation, their culture and their religion, the ancient Jews were very much in need of a new song.
We live in an age when organised Christianity, once supremely influential in Europe and beyond, is in ongoing and prolonged decline. Organised religion, which once commanded universal respect, is now considered with deep suspicion.
We need a new song.
The rising generation of young people have almost no interest in visiting exclusive religious institutions to sing exclusive religious songs.
We need a new song.
That said, this new song - whatever it may be - may not be a song at all. Communal singing in general has declined in recent decades. What we need is a new communication, a new way of placing the knowledge of God’s love and God’s way into the hearts and minds of ordinary people. For too long, churches have plodded on in the hope that people will come back. They won’t. Time doesn’t go backwards.
Whether of not it actually involves singing, we need a new song.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Stuff of God - Sunday 27th August 2017

To read this, you are using (or have used) a devise that has metal at its heart. Have you ever paused to wonder where metal comes from? Metal can only be formed when a very large star explodes in a supernova. (Our own star, the Sun, wouldn’t be nearly big enough). So, what you are looking at right now is the direct result of an immense explosion in space. Quite literally, you are holding a piece of star dust. Indeed, you yourself are made of star dust.
That is amazing, but it is not the most amazing thing about us human beings. Far more amazing than the atoms that make up our little bodies is our capacity to care for each other, to disadvantage ourselves for the benefit of another person. Metal is relatively common in the universe, but as far as we can currently tell, the only place you will see love in action is right here on this rocky little planet we call Earth.
Where does love come from? Love is not forged in the heart of a dying star (romantic though that notion sounds). We may be made of star dust, but our faltering acts of love and care have an even more astounding place of origin - God.
Jesus’ disciple, John, summed up the essence of his rabbi’s message like this: “God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in them.” Sweeping aside all the ins and outs of religious law and tradition, John reduces human meaning to its most fundamental ingredient - acts of practical love. Love comes from God. Love only comes from God; it has no other source. And only love comes from God. Love is the very essence of God. When we chose to love and care for our fellow human beings, we are doing the work of God. And when we fail to love and care for our fellow humans, whatever our claims to have faith, we are nowhere near God’s page.
Love is the stuff of God. When anyone is doing love, they are doing God stuff, an God is working directly through them - whatever their background or belief system.
I’ll let John have the last word. “ Friends, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."