Sunday, 19 November 2017

The parable of the talents

So where did the person with the one talent go wrong?

It was not that he only had one talent.
Yes, the first servant was given five, but the second was given only two – and it made no difference to how they went about using them.
And the man with one talent could still have done so much with it. We’re not talking about an insignificant sum. A person could survive on a talent for about 15 years
And we need to slightly careful about how we understand the word ‘talent’.
It has come to mean in English – as a result of this story - an ability, a gift. A talent for singing, for cooking ..
But I think we should really see it as speaking about opportunities. The master gives them some money, but what he is really doing is giving them an opportunity. An opportunity to grow that money, to advance the interests of their master and to win his praise.

And the servant with one talent does not go wrong because he was entrusted with more than he could handle. We are told that they were given talents ‘according to their abilities’. So, no, he wasn’t set up to fail.

We are given amazing opportunities.
For many of us being here was because we were prepared to say yes to an opportunity.
But there are the opportunities given to us in the shape of money, or things, or buildings, or education, or people, or jobs, or roles that we play, or the encounters and openings that we have.
Even some of the most awful things that happen to us can turn out to be opportunities. I remember one family whose baby was born with severe learning disabilities. They said that she was the most precious gift they had been given, and through her that they had been introduced to a community of remarkable people.

And we need to remember that those opportunities are gifts, just as our abilities are.

They have been given to us.
We have done nothing to deserve them.
And if you are tempted to think that you deserve what you have, may I ask what you did to be born when you were, where you were, to the families that you were born into, with the privileges and the pains that that involved, or the people you encountered and the attitudes which you learnt from them? And when it came to those breaks that you got, when doors suddenly opened, what did you do to deserve that?
Whenever I get toothache or a headache, I thank God that I was born after someone invented paracetamol! What did I do to deserve that?
It is a gift of the God who created this universe, who gave us life, who loves us and who therefore longs for us to become like his Son.

So where did this servant go wrong?

1.      He forgot his master. He forgot his master’s charge, his master’s values and his master’s interests

It was out of sight, out of mind

Maybe, and I’m adding to the story here a bit, he got the money, thought I need to do something about this, but in the meantime, I’ll bury it to keep it safe. And then he forgot it.

Jesus tells other stories about what happens when rulers go away
-          he talks of the steward who begins to take advantage of the other servants in the house. He abuses them. It has been going on for a long time.
-          he talks of tenants in the vineyard. The owner, who has gone away, sends his agents to collect the rent. And the tenants beat up the agents.

It is very easy to forget God. Out of sight, out of mind.

And it is very easy to forget that the opportunities that come, are opportunities that are gifts from him – it is very easy to neglect them and do nothing with them; or equally to use those opportunities for our own interests and not for His.

There is a warning here that if we do neglect the opportunities that God gives to us, they will be taken away from us.
And there is also a warning that if we put God ‘out of sight, out of mind’, then he will say to us, “If you do not want anything of me, then I will put you ‘out of sight, out of mind’.”
That is a little bit what the reference to the outer darkness is all about.

2.      He had a wrong understanding of his master

He claims that he thinks that his master is a successful man and a hard man.

This is the version of a ruthless oligarch God. It is the billionaire who goes off to London and leaves his business affairs in Russia in the hands of a servant. He comes back. His servant has done nothing. And the servant says to him, “I was scared. Everything you touch turns to gold. You reap where you have not sown. You have an amazing harvest even though you never put down any seed. You get given property and overnight it becomes the most desirable real estate. You invest in companies just before their shares rocket”.

There is a hint of accusation in the complaint of the servant: ‘I was scared because you’re an absentee landlord who bleeds the land dry’

I do not know where that view of the master came from. Perhaps his own guilt in doing nothing. But he could not be further from the truth.

What we do learn about the master in this story?
He is incredibly trusting: he entrusts us with great opportunities
He is very generous: he wants us to have in abundance
He wants his servants to be with him, to enter into, to share not just his business, but far more than that, in his joy

And actually, if this servant did think that his all his master was interested in was profit, and that he was that hard, he would not have been paralysed by fear. He would have been driven by fear.  He would have done something – even if it was only investing in a bank.

There are some who say that God is cruel and hard and so they won’t believe in him. That is not logical, and it doesn’t make sense. If God exists and he is cruel and hard, then please do not dare not believe in him. Fear him, be terrified of him, try to do what you can to appease him or to ask him have mercy on you. But never never never ignore him.

3.      He was lazy:

The story is told of the young wife whose lazy husband refused to find a job. She said to him, “I’m ashamed of the way we live. My father pays our rent. My mother buys all of our food. My sister buys our clothes. My aunt bought us a car. I’m just so ashamed."
The husband rolled over on the couch. “You should be ashamed," he agreed. “Those two worthless brothers of yours never give us a cent."

Well here, the master says, ‘You wicked and lazy servant’ (v26)

Laziness is a refusal to work hard now, or take risks now, or move ourselves out of our comfort zone in order to reap the benefits then. Laziness is about short termism and wrong priorities.

This servant wanted an easy life. He claims he was putting security and stability first, but the fact was that he couldn’t be bothered with his master’s interests. And he put out of his mind what would happen in the future.

It is a very human thing. We look to the here and now, and forget the there and then.

At a human level it is so sad to see people’s gifts and opportunities wasting away because of laziness; and it is also sad to see Christian lives shrivelling up because we want to play it safe, and not take advantage of the gifts and opportunities given to us. We do become spiritually flabby. We do those things that we find easy, and we don’t allow God to stretch us.

4.      He was not prepared to take risks with the opportunities he was given.

Richard Bauckham wrote about this passage: ‘The reason the master is furious with the third slave is that, for a businessman, the whole point of money is to be used and spent and circulated in order to make more money. Money merely hoarded might just as well be thrown away. In the same way, what God has given us – ourselves, our lives, our faith, our abilities, our gifts, our possessions – is given in order to be spent and put into circulation. Our lives are to be expended in God’s service, becoming thereby the source of further blessings for others and for ourselves’.

He continues, “We can’t really live by playing safe all the time. That is even more true of a life lived for God. All that God gives us is given to be risked in new ventures in God’s service. Every new step in living for God is a risk. If we stand still – paralysed by the fear of failure, clinging for safety to what we already have, or simply because we can’t be bothered, we in fact lose what we have.”

So we need to look at the opportunities and take the risk

I took a risk on Friday: we’ve been given an opportunity to enter into the city restoration project so that work can begin on the restoration of this building next year. For that to happen we need to pay $8000 in fees by the 31 December. We don’t have $8000. But this is something that the church has spoken about and wanted to happen for so many years, the opportunity is here, and it seemed right to sign the contract.

Giles has turned his desire into wanting to go on a diet into an opportunity – so he has made it a sponsored diet. Don has put himself on the line inviting people to sponsor a room so that we can use it for Step Up or AA – because they can’t pay for it themselves.

But it is not just about taking risks with asking people for money!

We can use or take risks with our own money and time and abilities.
Louise was telling me about 3 English teachers who have offered to do free lessons for Vverh.

I had an email from Natalya working in Dubai. She writes, “Found church here, attending leaders group, wanna try how it will go with being part of youth group and work with teens. Trying to understand and practice what is to be a Christian.”

And it was great to go out to Hinkson, to the school there, where people like Corey and Haley have chosen to use their gifts as teachers, getting far less than what they could have done at other schools – because they want to use their gifts for Jesus.

And in preparing for this, I read of a hairdresser and beauty practitioner who wanted to use her gifts for God. She prayed, "Why did you give me a talent that's so much about vanity? How can I serve you?" And she was led to set up HIM – hairdressers in the marketplace – and armed with blow dryers, scissors and nail varnish, once a month they go to the most deprived areas, to nursing homes and homeless shelters and offer free ‘day of beauty’ sessions. Oh, and they also share the message of God’s love, not in any formal way, but just as they do the nails

Many of us are entrepreneurs. We’ve taken risks – usually for the sake of excitement or new experiences or money.
The challenge of this passage is whether we are prepared to take risks for God

Maybe you have been given a new job, or a new opportunity in that job. Or you’ve come into some money. Or you find yourself living in a great big house. Or you have an opening to use a skill that you have or to learn a new skill.
Or it might be that you find you are teaching someone influential here in Russia, and perhaps you have been given the opportunity of speaking to them of Christ. For that matter, they don’t need to be influential. The people who God has used are the people who this world considers nobodies. Invite them to the carol service – I’ll be speaking about the astonishing gift that God gave us at Christmas. Or bring them along tomorrow evening with the Archbishop where, amidst the questions about homosexuality and declining churches, he may be given the opportunity to speak about Jesus Christ, about the forgiveness of sins, about the presence of the Holy Spirit in us and through us, about amazing works of mercy that are being done by believers, about the hope we have of a new, restored heaven and earth.

And perhaps you might say, ‘doesn’t that smack of the e-word: evangelism’.
Yes! But it is part of being a Christian. The Orthodox long that Russians will be baptised, will discover the Orthodox Christian faith, and will grow in that faith in the knowledge of Jesus. I listen occasionally to Radio Vera (Faith). It’s great. First of all because they tend to speak slightly slower so I can understand it (a little). And secondly because they preach Jesus and teach people how to follow him.
And our desire, I hope, is that people will come to faith and be baptised, and that people will grow in their faith, understanding and love; and because we are a foreign church, with an English-speaking congregation, we have a particular task of reaching out to the international community.

And for that, we need to take risks.

So even if you think you are rubbish and are only a one talent person, it doesn’t matter. So long as you are prepared to take God seriously, recognise how deep his love is for you, work hard for him and yes, take risks in his service – I think that you will be astonished with what God can do through you. And more than that, on the final day, as you stand in front of him, you will hear those words, ‘Well done you good and faithful servant. .. Enter into the joy of your master’.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The poppy and the cross. A talk for remembrance Sunday

Romans 8.31-39

The poppy is a great symbol for today.

In a few minutes we are going to read Flanders Field – it is the poem by John McCrae, the Canadian, which more than anything else has linked the poppy with remembrance

McRae wrote the poem after he performed a battlefield burial service for his friend Alexis Helmer. And he saw that it was the poppy which grew on the graves of those who had died at Ypres

It is red – a symbol of blood given, and a symbol of sacrifice.

And as we wear the poppy, we come to remember and honour those who gave their lives serving their country, in the First World War, in the Second World War or what is known here as the Great Patriotic War, and in subsequent conflicts.
And we also remember and honour those who have been willing to make that sacrifice, who have put their lives at risk in the service of their countries. We honour you, и уважаемые дорогие гости, мы очень рады что вы здесь с нами сегодня, и мы почтим вас за вашей службы для вашей страны

Today is about a general remembering, a recognition of the horror of war and all that it causes: the massive casualties, the broken lives and the utter devastation.

On Friday we had an act of remembrance at the British embassy. Friday, 10th November, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the battle of Passchendaele. It was a battle which left about 700000 men, from both sides, dead or injured.

But it is more than that.
It is not just a general remembering. It is about a specific remembering. It is about individuals.
In St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds we had the funerals of two men killed in action – Lance Corporal Adam Drane and senior aircraftsman Luke Southgate, and I saw the devastation that it brought to their families.
And for many of you today is very real. Some of you were telling me of comrades and of friends. People you knew, who you served beside, and who were killed, some even on Remembrance Sunday.
And here in Russia, where the sheer numbers of the dead are unimaginable, those numbers are given faces, quite literally, in the march of the immortal regiment.

The poppy is a good symbol for this day.
It is a symbol of blood given, of sacrifice.
But it is also a symbol of hope.
It was the poppy that first grew on the war-scarred fields of Flandersю
Beauty growing out of devastation. Life coming out of death.

And for those of us who have a Christian faith, there is a substance to that hope.

I guess we can put alongside the symbol of the poppy – the symbol of the cross.

The cross and the image of Jesus hanging on the cross speaks to us of death.
The cross was an instrument of torture, and an instrument of execution. We need to be aware that when we wear chains with small crosses on the end, it is a bit like wearing chains with the hang man’s noose on the end.  
And the cross speaks of hatred and cruelty, of our blindness to God and to each other, and of political cowardice and judicial murder. It exposes our self-centred pride, our lusts and our fear.

But the cross also speaks to us of love, of blood given, of a life laid down for others.
It reminds us that God loved the world so much that he sent his only son to die for us.
It speaks of how precious each human life is to him, of how precious you are to him.
And the cross speaks of the incredible courage of Jesus who was willing to go through the humiliation and agony of crucifixion, even though he didn’t need to, and it speaks of the victory of humility and service and self-sacrifice.

And the cross, as our reading from Romans 8.31-39 makes clear, speaks to us of hope.
We have, on the Lord’s table, an empty cross. It is empty because three days after he died and was buried, we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And that means that life has conquered death, and he is alive: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who [or what] will separate us from the love of Christ?”

Three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Passchendaele memorial when our choir went on tour in Belgium. We saw the fields of Flanders. They were green and beautiful.  So very different from what they would have looked like 100 years ago.

James McConnell, an American pilot, described the scene as he flew over one of the great battlefields of World War 1:
“Immediately east and north of Verdun there lies a broad, brown band ... Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago... Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. it seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together... On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.”

And yet in the midst of this hell on earth, this ecological and human wasteland, the first flower began to grow, the poppy – a sign that God had not given up on us

And our reading speaks of how the believer can be certain that God has not given up on us; that he is with us, that he is for us; and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love - that love which does not simply wish to take us and cherish us, but that wants to work in us and change us, which wants to take the wreckage of our barren and twisted and torn lives and transform us into the likeness of the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

How should we live before the end comes?

They just could not imagine it.

It was the glory of their nation. It was so strong and solid and it was beautiful. There was nothing to compare with it. It was the spiritual and political heart of their life, of who they were. It was the fulfilment of the promises of God, the tangible evidence that God was with them, the guarantor of their sense that they were the special chosen people of God

And yet Jesus speaks that one day the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed; stone torn away from stone.

I was trying to think of an equivalent for us, of what the temple meant to the Jew.
Maybe the Kremlin here, or the Statue of Liberty, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament in London, or the Vatican and St Peter’s, or the Great Mosque, Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.

And the destruction of the Temple, when Jesus words were fulfilled in AD70, must have felt to Jews a little bit like what believers here would have felt when the first Church of Christ the Saviour was blown up after the revolution, or even a bit like what many of us felt when the twin towers came down.  

But I stress the words, ‘a little bit’. Because the Temple had an even greater significance for the Jew. So when Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed, the disciples realise that it is a pretty seismic event.
And that is why in their question to him, ‘When will this be? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’, they link together the destruction of the temple and the end of history as we know it. Surely, they think, if the temple is destroyed, it must only be because God himself is coming to reign

But Jesus does not answer their question. It is an impossible question to answer. Because the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man did not happen at the same time. We are still waiting for the coming of the Son of Man.

Rather, Jesus answers a much more important question: not, when will the end come (although he does give some hints in Matthew 24 about how they can know when the Temple will be destroyed – look at v15 if you have a Bible with you), but rather how should we live before the end comes.

There are four things that Jesus says
1.      Don’t be alarmed
2.      Don’t be led astray
3.      Don’t be surprised
4.      Don’t give up

1.      Don’t be alarmed when it gets rough
Don’t be alarmed when there are wars and rumours of war, when nation rises against nation and kingdom against kingdom; or when the very ground that you stand on is shaken, when there are earthquakes and eruptions and tsunamis. And don’t be surprised when there are disasters or famines.

We live in a world that has turned from God.
Nations and peoples live for themselves and not for God, so when what I want clashes with what you want, then I go to war.
Yes, of course we long for a world without war, and we do everything that we can to make that a reality, but wars will only cease when human nature has been transformed.
And the bible teaches that in some mysterious way human hearts and the heart of creation are tied together. When humanity chose to walk away from God, a deep chasm ripped through the DNA of creation. So there will be natural catastrophes.

Don’t be alarmed, says Jesus. Wars and earthquakes and famines are not signs that God has forgotten us. They are signs that one day he is coming.

2. Don’t be led astray
v4: Beware that no one leads you astray
v11: False prophets will arise and lead many astray

Be wise, says Jesus. Don’t be led astray by false Messiahs and false Prophets.

There will be people who claim to be the Messiah, who claim that if you follow them, if you trust them and do what they say, then you will find what you are looking for.
There are the exotic ones, people like Sergey Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion. And someone here, a couple of weeks ago, was telling me about another group that she had encountered just outside Moscow.
There are religious leaders who think that they are Messiahs, but there are also the business leaders and the political leaders who think they are Messiahs.
You know them if they think they are Messiahs because they claim that they have special insight – some may claim spiritual insight, others scientific insight - and that they can lead us to the promised land, provided that we completely trust them with everything: our life, our money, our possessions, our words, our time and our thoughts.

Don’t be led astray. There is only one Messiah. He lived 2000 years ago. He came from God, and he is the Son of God. He invites us to give him our lives, to trust him, to listen to his words and to do them, to receive him and let him come deep into us. He offers all those who come to him not a fortune or success or mild glory here, but peace and fulfilment and an eternal future. He loved us and he died for us. And three days later he rose from the dead.

And then there are the false prophets.
They are harder to identify, because they appear to come in the name of the Church.
Often false prophets will do what Jesus refused to do: they will claim to be able to tell us when the end will be.
It is a bit of a give-away! If someone tells you when the end of the world will be, you know that they are a false prophet!

But usually it is not so easy to identify false prophets. They often claim to speak in the name of Jesus, but in reality they speak in their own name, and they tell us stuff that comes from their own hearts and their own thoughts. But if what they say draws us away from putting our trust in Jesus, or depending on his death on the cross totally for our salvation, or draws us away from listening to what he said, or if what they say means that our love for God and for his people grows colder – then we know that they are not speaking his words.

That is why when I speak I will nearly always try to teach what the passage we’ve had read is saying. Someone came up to me a few weeks ago and said, ‘I didn’t agree with that. I don’t think it was saying that’. I love that – because it means that you are looking at the word of God and thinking it through for yourselves and asking, what does it say. And I’d love to see people come to church on Sunday with their bibles – or get out their mobile phones when we’re speaking so that we follow what is being said. When I was ordained I was given a bible and a patten: the patten as a symbol for communion, the bible as the basis of my authority for teaching. I really hope that when we come to church we do not come thinking we are going to have to put up with the priests’ latest thoughts – I really hope that we come expecting to hear what the Word of God says.

So don’t be led astray!

3.      Don’t be surprised when all nations hate you
‘You will be hated by all nations because of my name’ (v9)

Hate is a strong word. It is reasonable to understand why people should ridicule us and call us fools. After all, it is pretty bonkers to say that a homeless Jewish rabbi who lived 2000 years ago and got himself crucified is God’s ruler on earth.

Ridicule us as fools. But why hate?

One of the reasons that the Jews hated Jesus was because he spoke against the temple. He loved the temple. He prayed and taught in the temple. But he also told them that one day, the temple, the symbol that they trusted in, would be destroyed.

In Bury St Edmunds I was vicar of one of the largest and, I may be biased, but I would say one of the loveliest parish churches in England. I loved the building. And I tried to be faithful to the legacy of the past so that it might be enjoyed for the future. But one day that building will be nothing. It will be dust. And for people who lived for the building and not for the God to whom the building pointed, that is not a message that came easy.

As Christians we challenge the idols of this world. The Temple, which was far larger and far more beautiful than St Mary’s, was a gift from God. But it had become an idol. People lived for it and not for Him. People put their trust in the existence of the temple and not in Him. And if we are to be faithful to him, we have to recognise that the idols of this world - whether amazing skyscrapers, or financial systems, or political systems or leaders, or currencies, or works of art, or even the idea of nations – may be gifts from God but they can never be god.

And if, by the very way we live, we challenge the idols of the nations, then perhaps we can begin to understand why we might be hated by all nations.

4.      Don’t give up
‘But the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (v13)

‘All this stuff will happen’, says Jesus, ‘wars, famines, false messiahs and prophets, persecution, even hatred from those who once called themselves your Christian brothers and sisters. But I’ve told you it’s going to happen. So don’t give up’.

How should we live before the end comes?

Keep on going. This is a marathon, and yes there are people cheering us on – the heavenly host for a start – but there are also people on the sides jeering at us, and throwing stuff at us, and some of the other runners are trying to trip us up or lead us along the wrong road – and there are times when it just kills us. But the runner keeps on going.

So keep on believing and trusting. Keep on praying, even if you can only manage to pray the Lord’s prayer, keep on praising and thanking God, keep on getting to know God’s word, keep on worshipping and receiving communion, and keep on loving your brothers and sisters - even when you find them very unlovable!

It’s worth it. Jesus speaks of the stones of the temple being cast down. But in ch21 he has already spoken of how he is the stone, rejected by the builders, who is the cornerstone of the new building that God is creating.

And it is Jesus, crucified and risen, who is our glory. He is the one who is strong and solid and beautiful, in whom we can put our trust. There is nothing and nobody who can compare with him. He is the heart of everything that we are and do. He is the fulfilment of the promises of God, the evidence that God is with us and the guarantor that we are sons and daughters of the living God.

And one day, when it seems completely hopeless, and we’ve gone beyond what we think is our breaking point, he will return, and we will see him.  

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Christians and the civic authorities

What does Jesus mean when he says that we should ‘give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’?
Has he just answered a difficult question in a way that gets him out of trouble, but doesn’t actually say anything.

It is a very clever answer to a difficult question that is designed to stitch Jesus up.
They asked him, ‘Should we pay taxes to the emperor?’
The tax that they were speaking about was a poll tax, a charge that was levied by the Roman authorities on every individual. When you paid your poll tax, it was usually when there were Roman soldiers around, and you knew that you lived in an occupied land.

So, if Jesus says, ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, then he is spiritually hopelessly compromised.

For a Jew there were so many reasons why they should not pay the tax.
There was national pride. Quite a significant number of people had chosen armed rebellion. They read in their history, from the book of Maccabees, how Judas Maccabaeus had led a revolt against a foreign ruler, who was bringing in ungodly laws, and how he had been blessed by God.
There was the law of Moses which assumes that the people of Israel will be a theocracy ruled not by Gentiles, but by a Davidic king and priests of the line of Aaron.
And there was the actual coin itself, the denarius. It had the image of the emperor on it – and Jews were prohibited from depicting the image of anything – and even worse, the coin claimed that Augustus, the emperor, was the Son of God.

Tiberius' Denarius bearing: "Tiberius Caesar,
Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus
So if Jesus said ‘yes, we should pay taxes’, the Pharisees would be able to say of him, ‘He has no authority. He rejects the law of Moses and he is in league with the Roman occupying force’.

But if Jesus says, ‘no’. Well the Pharisees have been clever. They have brought along the Herodians. The Herodians were the supporters of Herod, the king who represented the emperor to the Jews. So if Jesus says, ‘no’, he could stand accused of treason.

But Jesus’ answer is clever.
First, he asks them for a coin.
Then he asks them to look at the coin and he draws attention to both the image and the head.
That is clever. In other words he is saying, ‘I don’t carry on me a coin which has on it an image and a title that dishonours God. But you do’.
And then he answers by saying, ‘Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s’.

His answer would not satisfy the real zealots who had chosen armed rebellion against the Romans. They would have wanted him to say ‘No’ clearly and unequivocally. Many of his followers, who believed that he was the Messiah – God’s ruler come to deliver his people – would have expected him to say ‘No’
But Jesus had not come to deliver Israel from Roman authority. He had not come to lead a revolution or an armed rebellion. He had come to set people free from a far worse tyranny: from slavery to sin and death.

And his answer would not really satisfy those who wished to be unconditionally loyal to Rome, because Jesus has left himself wriggle room.
What is it that we should give to the emperor? 
What is it that we should give to God.

Obviously it seems we should pay his taxes.
But clearly, we are not to give to the emperor, the ruler, everything.
What is it, then, that we should give to God?

1.      The people who have called Jesus Christ Lord, Christians, have always recognised the legitimacy and authority of the civic authorities.

Paul urges us, in 1 Timothy 2, to pray for rulers, that under them we may be peacefully and godly governed.
·         In our 8.30 service, when we use the 1662 prayer book, every week we pray for our President here and, because we are part of a Diocese which comes under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, we pray for the British head of state, the Queen.
·         In our prayers in this service, often we pray for President Putin and for other world leaders.
·         The litany in the Orthodox church includes prayers for the leaders of the land.
Of course, that is actually a double-edged sword.
It means that we pledge loyalty to them. But it also means that we recognise that there is a higher authority over them. There is one, as we saw from our reading from Isaiah 45, who directs them, and to whom they will one day be accountable themselves.

There is a story told about Queen Victoria.
It is customary, when people attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah, for people to stand when the choir sing the Alleluia chorus, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
She was attending a performance and when it got to that point, she made to stand. But an attendant said to her, ‘Your Majesty, you do not need to stand’.
‘Young man’, she replied, ‘When men come into my presence, I who am Queen of Great Britain and empress of half the world, they stand. When I come into the presence of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, I stand’.

And in Romans 13:1-7, Paul writes that we are to be subject to the governing authorities, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’. He says that we need civic authorities so that there will be stability and law and order.  And please remember that Paul was writing to a people, many of whom were subject to an occupying authority, and the vast majority of whom were never given the chance to vote for or against their rulers.

And Paul continues, and he says what Jesus said, ‘This is also why you are to pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour then honour’.

So I’m afraid I’ve got bad news! Paying your taxes, whether you are poor or whether you are rich and are able to work out legal or non-legal ways of not paying them, is part of your commitment as a Christian.
And Peter in 1 Peter 2.13-17 echoes that teaching. ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority’. And later he says, ‘Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honour the emperor’.

2.      But if Christians have always recognised the authority of the civic authorities, Christians have also always recognised that there is a higher authority.

That is why there were martyrs here when this country was the Soviet Union. The authorities demanded everything of people, and priests and pastors and people faithfully stood up and said, ‘No. We will be loyal citizens. But we will always put worship of God and obedience to his laws first’. And the communist state could not cope with that.

You may have heard the story of Daniel and the lions den. Well, the book of Daniel is written to Jews who have been taken prisoners into exile in Babylon. The king makes a decree that people must pray to him, and only to him. It meant that people were to recognise that the king is the highest power that there can possibly be – in both earth and heaven. And if people refuse to pray to him, then they will be thrown into the lions den. It was a very silly decree. Daniel, one of his chief ministers, is a Jew and knows that he cannot obey. He is loyal to the king, but he has a higher loyalty: to his God. He doesn’t begin a rebellion. He doesn’t rubbish the king. He simply continues to pray to his God, openly, knowing that he will face the consequences.

And as Christians who stand under the word of God, then it does seem that Jesus is saying that there may be times when we need to be like Daniel, we need to disobey. We are to pray that that is not the case, but that in everything we do we need to be controlled by love. Love for God and love for people. And if that is the case, we need to be prepared to face the consequences.  Again, we simply look at the faithful martyrs of this land, and of many others more recently – we think of Christians under Daesh - persecuted, because of their love for God and people. They paid the price: persecution, isolation, being sacked from their jobs, imprisonment and execution, because they felt that they had to be faithful to God.

The thing about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is that it means that there are no easy answers to this.

And how are we to make those decisions?

There is nothing easy about this.
Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, right to be involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler?
Or you believe, as a Christian, that the place for sexual intimacy is in the context of the marriage relationship between a man and woman? You believe that not just because it is in the bible, but because you think it is right for society, and for the best welfare of individuals. How do you respond to the increasing and at times vitriolic intolerance to that view in the West?  
Or what should you do if your boss asks you to do something that you know is clearly wrong at work? 

At the very beginning of our passage, the Pharisees try to flatter and butter up Jesus. They say, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.’
I’m not completely sure that it is true that Jesus showed deference to no one, for in fact he showed deference to everyone. He treated each person as someone who had been made in the image of God. This is the man who knelt down and washed his disciples feet, and who stood before Pilate and recognised that God had put Pilate in that position

But it struck me those three qualities: sincerity or integrity, a commitment to the way of God in accordance with the truth and a willingness to see the image of God not on coins, but in other people – and to kneel before anyone, whoever they are, whether rich or poor, is actually the way that we are going to navigate this whole issue. It is the way to wisdom.

One ancient anonymous commentator wrote this:
“So let us always reflect the image of God in these ways:
I do not swell up with the arrogance of pride;
nor do I droop with the blush of anger;
nor do I succumb to the passion of avarice;
nor do I surrender myself to the ravishes of gluttony;
nor do I infect myself with the duplicity of hypocrisy;
nor do I contaminate myself with the filth of rioting;
nor do I grow flippant with the pretension of conceit;
nor do I grow enamored of the burden of heavy drinking;
nor do I alienate by the dissension of mutual admiration;
nor do I infect others with the biting of detraction;
nor do I grow conceited with the vanity of gossip.
Rather, instead, I will reflect the image of God in that I feed on love;
grow certain on faith and hope;
strengthen myself on the virtue of patience;
grow tranquil by humility;
grow beautiful by chastity;
am sober by abstention;
am made happy by tranquility;
and am ready for death by practicing hospitality.
It is with such inscriptions that God imprints his coins with an impression made neither by hammer nor by chisel but has formed them with his primary divine intention. For Caesar required his image on every coin, but God has chosen man, whom he has created, to reflect his glory.”

And of course, we’re not going to get it right. We’ll make many mistakes along the way. There will be times when we are controlled by fear, other times when we are controlled by money, wealth and power, and yet other times when we are controlled by ego. We will forget that as Christians we do not struggle against earthly principalities and powers, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. We’ll be complicit in things that we should never be complicit in, and we’ll take stands on things that we should never take stands on. And all I can say is that I am immensely grateful that I worship a God of mercy who is daily changing me. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

An invitation to the Banquet of God

In a few minutes time, we will be invited to come to communion.

At one level, it is not much of an invitation:
you’re invited to receive a wafer and a sip of wine.
At another level this is the greatest invitation that you will ever receive:
It is the invitation to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, to live the life of God. It is the invitation to participate in the King’s wedding banquet for his son.

Of course, what happens here is just the hors d’oevre, the zakuski, the taster of the wedding banquet in heaven, but it is still part of that banquet.

And the parable that Jesus tells is

1.      About a great invitation

An invitation to participate in God’s Kingdom. It is amazing invitation.
It is a wedding feast: about new beginnings, love and joy and hope and deep intimacy. It is an invitation to start again; to know the deep love that God has for you; to receive the joy that he would give you - even in the face of the most awful circumstances; and it is an invitation to intimacy: deep spiritual intimacy with God and with his people.

And look at the abundance of this banquet: there are oxen and fatted calves. This is the best.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the coming Kingdom: a place of abundance and prosperity; where generations will be at ease with each other; where there will be no war, famine, disease, sickness or death; where children will play safely with snakes and wolves and lambs will lie down together.  

And of course, the Kingdom in its fullness is future.
But we have the taster of this future Kingdom here and now: we have the Holy Spirit and the presence of God with us and in us; we have the Bible, God’s word, which speaks of his good and wise law and ways; it declares his sure and certain promises; and we have the church, and the sacraments; we have each other and fellowship; a purpose for living and a hope that reaches beyond death.

Jesus in this parable is of course speaking to the people of his day.
When he tells this story he has in mind God’s invitation to the people of his time.
There had been the prophets.
And then there was John the Baptist, the great messenger: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’.
In other words, John was saying, ‘It is time. The banquet promised 3000 years earlier is ready’. A few had heard and responded. But the majority had either completely ignored the prophets and John and some had had them put to death.

And now, because they refused to come, the invitation comes to us, the people who live on the streets. People who never thought that we would be invited, who could not conceive that the love of God could extend even to me. There is nothing special about us, nothing remarkable. Unless you happen to be Jewish by racial descent, none of us belong to a privileged special race. There is nothing particularly good about us.

But it is the invitation to come to God’s wedding banquet, to become part of the Kingdom of God, to share in the very life of God.

It is a great invitation.

2.      About the foolishness of saying no.

Richard, a former member of our church in Bury, has a son called Steve. Steve has just graduated from university with a good degree in IT, is looking for work, and would love to work creating online games. Richard does some work for a man who owns a major IT gaming company. He was talking with him about his son, when Steve turned up. The owner of the IT company turned to Steve and said, ‘Can you come and see me this evening’. And Steve said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t; I’m going out tonight’.
Well, you can imagine the conversation between father and son a little bit later that evening. May I give you some advice: When you are looking for an IT job and the owner of an IT company offers to meet you, you do not say No!  I don’t think that Steve will make the same mistake again. It was very foolish to say no.

And the people here were foolish to say no.

There are of course different ways of rejecting this invitation.
There is open blatant rejection. The messengers are persecuted, seized, imprisoned and executed. That happened to believers in this country, many of whom are celebrated as the new martyrs. And it is still happening. On Thursday Fr Samaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest, was stabbed to death in Cairo.

But it is a foolish thing to do. To openly reject the King.

Jesus speaks on several occasions declaring that we will be judged on how we have treated those who have come in his name. It works both ways. Those who reject them will be rejected. Those who receive them will be received. If you even give one of my followers a glass of water because they come in my name, says Jesus, you will be rewarded.

But you do not need to abuse the messenger to reject the message.  
You can simply ignore it. To treat it "lightly". To live life as if God does not exist.
Because what the people here are saying. “OK. Thanks for letting us know. God’s throwing a party. But it is not important. What is important is my farm, my business.”

That is us: religion, god stuff is OK so long as it is in its right place. It belongs to the entertainment side of life. It is the smetana that you add into the soup, to make the soup just a little bit better. And if you don’t have it, well it’s a shame, but it’s your choice. But running the farm, keeping the company afloat – that is the important stuff of life.

No wonder the king is furious. He destroys the murderers and wipes out their city.

Now this is a story, but in telling the story Jesus is warning us that God cannot be side-lined and his invitation cannot be ignored.
We’re talking God here! He cannot be put in the drawer marked entertainment and leisure. He cannot be treated as an optional extra to life – something that is there for our spare time. He is the one who created us, who gives us life and skills, who gives us business. He is the one to whom each one of us is accountable.
He offers us an amazing invitation, and it is foolishness to say No.

3.      About grace

There are different ways to understand verses 11-13, and the wedding robe.
Some say that it is the robe of good deeds. I don’t think that is the case because we are told specifically that the people who came in were both good and bad (v10).
Maybe (and this is how I understand this), as the guests came in off the street, they were all offered wedding robes to cover their old clothes. And the man here had refused the gift of the wedding garment.
Or maybe he thought that he was OK in his own clothes. He was wearing the latest designer label jacket, he was wearing his best clothes

Perhaps that is why, when the king asks him why he is not wearing a wedding robe, he is speechless. ‘But I thought’, he stammers, ‘that my best was good enough’.

The invitation that we have to become part of the Kingdom of God, to share in the life of God, to even come to communion is an invitation of grace.
It does not depend on us, on who we are or what we have done.

Perhaps some of us who are here today have heard the invitation but we are still wearing our old clothes. We think that they are good enough.
And so we think that we deserve to be here: we are important enough, or good enough, or repentant or confessed enough, or we’ve given enough to the church or worked hard enough for the church, we’ve mortified ourselves enough or we are religious enough to come forward.

We think that God owes us this.

If that is the case, then please do not come. Because the consequences of coming when we are metaphorically dressed in our own clothes, even our best own clothes, are pretty horrific.

This meal is for sinners. It is for people who know that their old clothes are inadequate.
It is a meal for people who are good, but who know that they are no way good enough.
It is a meal for people who are bad, but who are seeking God’s mercy.
It is a meal for those who know that their best will never be good enough for God.
It is a meal for all who are willing to receive forgiveness, the strength to live a new life, and who are desperate for Jesus to be part of their life.

I love this.
When we come to the banquet, ready to cast off our old clothes, God will throw over us a wedding robe.
Round the corner from where we lived in London there was an African Church, I think they called themselves the Church of Christ. They would all turn up on Sunday afternoon wearing long white robes – not just the minister. It was this passage lived out.
It reminds me of the story of the prodigal son who returns home, and is about to reel off his grovel speech, telling his father why he is so unworthy, when his father stops him, embraces him and places on him a robe – the robe that declares that he is his forgiven son, the robe that told him that he was welcome, that this was where he belonged, not as a servant or a welcome guest but as child and heir.

And when we receive the invitation and come, we too are offered robes. They are invisible. But they are robes of grace. Each one of us. They are offered to many, but few receive them. Nobody can say that their robe is more beautiful or more precious than the next person’s, for the robe that you are offered is priceless and unique to you. It is the robe of the Kingdom of Heaven; it is the robe that covers over our nakedness and filth, our good and our bad, our achievements and our failures; it is the robe which declares that you are accepted, forgiven, that you belong to God, that you are a son or a daughter of God, and that you belong here.

So my brothers and sisters,
We have a remarkable invitation. You are welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven, you are welcome to the Kings wedding banquet, you are welcome to this communion.
Please do not be foolish and say no.
And when you come, know that you come by grace. Come as a sinner, who knows that your best will never be good enough; come as a woman man who knows that you need God.

And if you come that way, allowing Grace to dress you with her robe, you are welcome to this table – it really is the Lord’s table - to this feast, and to that great feast.