Jesus is God (Potters Bar 9 Mar: Phil 2:511 and John 1:1-18)

Sometimes, when people say they don’t believe in God, the right response is to ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. When they do you may find you don’t believe in that God either. It’s important for those of us who proclaim or rely upon faith in God to remember that God is not the same thing as our idea of God. The being we imagine or project isn’t the same as the being that the word “God” or the name “Jehovah” names.

 

I have sometimes thought that I’d like to start using God’s name more in worship and in preaching, to remind us that the Lord we meet in the Bible and in our life as the Church isn’t an abstract idea, an entity known only by deduction from what he does, but a person, a someONE who chooses to enter into relationship with his people. But then I remember that we do use his name, we use it a lot. God’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one anointed. Jesus, the orthodox and historical Christian faith says, is God.

 

The classic statements are from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which are the first full council of the Church on the one hand and the last one recognised by most Protestants on the other. The Church was being torn apart by arguments about who and what Jesus was, how his followers should understand him. So in 325 AD all 1800 bishops in the Church were invited to Nicaea to decide whether Jesus was of the same kind, the same nature, as God the Father, or had been created by him as he created everything and everybody else, which was the position of a popular teacher called Arius. Arius held that while Jesus was greater than all other creatures, was the Son of God, unique and supreme, he was other and less than God the Father. Arianism denied that Jesus was God and asserted that there was only one true God. At Nicaea this position was decisively rejected and the full divinity of Jesus affirmed.

 

This caused no end of subsequent difficulty, though, since it was also agreed that Jesus was fully and completely human. He wasn’t just God in disguise as a human being he actually was a human being. At the Council of Chalcedon 126 years later in 451 AD the bishops were assembled again, for the fifth time in fact, to decide how we should make sense of Jesus being both human and divine. Various positions that were felt to allow one of these natures to be lost were rejected and a formula agreed that would keep them both.

 

Nicaea said that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and Chalcedon added that he was also human in exactly the same way as you and me. For many people this remains a puzzle and a stumbling block. What can it mean to say that a particular man and nobody else is God? This seems absurd and ridiculous. If we arrive at acceptance of the existence of a God of some kind this God will probably be something quite different from us, all present, all seeing, all powerful, unchanging and perhaps rather distant, at any rate not much like a fragile, limited, mortal, human being.

 

For me the importance of the Nicene-Chalcedonian teaching on Jesus isn’t first of all what it tells us about him, although that is important. It’s what it tells us about God and about our ideas of God. It tells us that our ideas about a distant God who is separate from us are wrong, that God is not a distant and indifferent, super-rational and remote being above and beyond our concerns and our problems.

 

If we want to know about God we shouldn’t start from a set of abstract thoughts inside our own heads, we should accept that God has always cared about human beings, has tried and tried to establish the relationship with them that he wants, that we are made for, that we need if we are to realise ourselves and be happy as we should be happy. The story of human being is the story of a covenant, almost of a marriage. At every stage God is reaching out to us and if we want to know about him we need to pay attention to what’s revealed.

 

This is true from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, through the people of Israel to Jesus, through the apostles to the Church, with its councils and structures, to this place here and now. God is striving to find and to form us, his people, to show us his love and his way and to shape humanity to represent and relate to him in creation.

 

The climax of this effort is God actually coming to meet us, to become one of us, the Word made flesh, Jesus. In Jesus God shows us what God is, fully reveals the divine. It isn’t that we should try to work out how we can make the divinity of Jesus fit with our idea of what the Father is, it is that we should try to work out what God’s telling us about himself and about us and about how we stand in regard of one another by being Jesus. What must God be like if God is like Jesus?

 

Well first of all God must really care about us a lot. If God is willing to suffer our fate, even death on a cross, as the letter to the Philippians says, in order to help us out he must feel that we matter.

 

Secondly God must be involved with the history of the world and struggling to make it come out right. The God who comes in Jesus simply can’t be the almighty sovereign who pre-ordains everything. Jesus doesn’t look like that at all. God must be a healer and peace maker who wants justice and abhors war. God must be passionate and vulnerable, feeling pain and hurt by the suffering of others. God must be prone to outbursts of anger, to periods of doubt, to sorrow that leads to tears. In the Bible we see all of this in Jesus and Jesus is God.

 

Thirdly God must have the power, still, to overcome failure, suffering, even death. In the resurrection we see that God can take a human being past death into new and transformed life, into triumph and glory. It isn’t that at the end of the story Jesus sheds his human form and returns to being God. The resurrected Jesus, to be Jesus, must still be human. In him we see what God can do and will do for us.

 

Fourthly we see that God has now given us a way to be united with him in a real and very complete way. Through the life of the Church, through baptism and the communion meal, we can be united to Christ, can be in him and he in us. The God who is present in history didn’t go away when Jesus ascended to heaven (whatever that might mean to us, a subject for another day). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised still to be with us and so he is.

 

All of this is hard to reconcile with our usual picture of God, but there it is, that’s how he is revealed to us in Christ. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians:

 

Christ Jesus: being in very natureGod,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very natureof a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

 

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Potters Bar 09 Feb 2014 – Christ is image of God (Col 1:15-20)

We have been talking and thinking a lot about the future of the Church recently, about the future of this congregation, about the future of our denomination. Most of our talk has been about declining numbers. When we’ve talked about growth we’ve often talked about the need to find more people so that the life of the Church as we’ve known it can be sustained. We have had in mind the church’s need for members.

 

I have come feel that this is getting things the wrong way round. If Christianity is to continue to be a force for good in our world it must be because people need it, not because it needs people. If we are to grow we have to have, and to believe that we have, something that others need. In order to grow the church has to offer a solution not an additional problem for those who come into it.

 

Today’s reading from Colossians reminds us what it is that we offer, what it is that we seek when we come here. Jesus, it says, is the image of the invisible God. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to God, making peace by the blood of his cross. Through Jesus, the letter says, come reconciliation and peace.

 

Describing Jesus as the image of God reminds us that Genesis tells us we are created as this image. We are made to be the image of God and Jesus shows us what that means. In him comes a renewed relationship with everything that exists through a repaired communion with God. In joining ourselves to Christ, the man who is God, God who is the Son of Man, we put right all the things that make us less than we are meant to be. That’s what the Church offers; the opportunity to become fully, properly human, through unity with the one whom humanity is made to represent.

 

Our faith in God has at its heart the idea that the universe makes sense, has a meaning and a purpose, and that human beings have a central place in that purpose. That’s the core of what the creation story says to us. All this stuff around us, from the dirt under our feet to the stardust at the ends of the cosmos, from the massive nuclear reactor that is our sun to the cold empty spaces between galaxies, from the floors of the ocean to the inside of our skulls, all of it is joined together and celebrated in God’s seeing at the end of the sixth day that it was very good.

 

And, Colossians says of Jesus, “he is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of his body, the church.” So Jesus brings everything to peace, he holds everything together, he is the image of God, he is the head of the church. In all of this he is the image of the invisible God, and as such he is the prototype of the completed human race, he is, to quote again, “the first born of the dead”.

 

What we have to offer is Christ, is union with him through baptism and communion and through participation in his body, the church. What we have to offer is the chance to grow into the destiny human beings are made for, the representation of God, as God’s image.

 

When we think about what we need, what human beings need, we shouldn’t start from what we want but from how we can be, how we can do, how we can feel the best that we could; what can make us what completes creation and transforms it from good to very good. This final stage in the making of all things is the placing in it of an image of its creator, someone to represent God in and to it.

 

At this moment we are not, not yet, that perfect image. But we do have a way both of knowing what that image is and of becoming more like it. That way is Jesus. He is the perfected image, he is humankind as we are meant to be. That’s what the letter means when it says he is the image of the invisible God; Jesus is what we are meant to be. What’s more Jesus is not simply a distant memory. He is still present in the world in his body the church, of which, as the letters says, he is the head. When we come into the church we not only meet our risen and ascended Lord, we are joined to him.

 

Now that’s a big claim: “come into the Church and become part of the body of Christ, Lord and Saviour, God the Son”. It is, though, a central part of Christian teaching, as today’s reading shows. It is also both exciting and inspiring, if we take it seriously. Jesus is the one who brings peace and reconciliation, who holds all things together, and through the Church anyone can both receive that peace and the love that motivates it and become part of the wonderful work of redemption and salvation.

What’s more if these claims are true, that all of this is the fulfilment of the deepest and profoundest reality of what it means to be a human being, then those who are not part of the community of God’s people in the Church are missing out on something that they need to be truly and properly themselves, and I think deep down everybody feels that lack.

The offer we make is the chance to become a human being in the most complete sense. How this works itself out in the life of each person will be unique to them, after all nobody can be replaced by anybody else. In coming to know and to live out the limitless and inexhaustible love that comes to us through Jesus every person will be transformed, each will be raised to new and fuller life in communion with him and with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

For most of us most of the time this will be undramatic. It will be expressed through the peace we find in prayer, the uplift we get from singing something that expresses our faith, the comfort we gain from the words of the Bible. It will be experienced in the feeling of fellowship in our gatherings, in the simple acts of kindness we offer and are offered. All of these moments and actions are ways that God touches our lives and guides us towards our true destiny in the body of Christ, as those who make the divine love known. For the Christian, though, these undramatic and everyday works of love are part of the way the holy touches us.

That’s the gospel, the good news, that the Church proclaims. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near, anybody who hears the news can come into it, can become part of the people that God is sending throughout the world to bring peace and reconciliation. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross”.

Human sin and God’s responsibility: Potters Bar 17 Nov 2013 (2 Kings 21)

To be a Christian is a calling, a vocation, from God. Every Christian is called to fulfil the work that God intends the Church to do and only secondarily to receive blessings from God. It is this idea, of Christianity as a task, as something to be done, that provides one of the profound continuities with our Jewish origins and which makes reflection on the character of King Manasseh a good starting point for our attitude to the problem of why such terrible things continue to happen in our world and their connection with human sinfulness.

 

In hearing what the writers of the theological history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah have to say about the greatest villain in their story we need to remember when they were writing, who for and why. These books were written after the great disaster of 586 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the last King from the line of David and destroyed the Temple, taking away the Ark of the Covenant and the other holy items connected to Moses.

 

It seemed that God had either turned his back on the covenant he had made with his people or that he was powerless to save them. Either of these options, that Israel was abandoned by God or that God was not ruler over all creation, would mean the end of the religion that gave meaning and purpose to the national life of the Jewish people. It would leave them without any reason to continue as a separate and distinct nation, it would be the end of the worship of their God, who was, they believed the one and only true God, whose intention was to bring all nations to peace and prosperity through recognition of his law.

 

What they did instead was to find a way, or a number of ways, to hold fast to faith in God through all their troubles. Central to this was the recognition that being chosen by God as his people was not simply a matter of privilege. It was also a burden. To be those elected to represent God to the world and the world to God demanded high standards, they had to be worthy and proper representatives. To fail in this was to remove a key element in God’s plan to put right all that was wrong. Manasseh did not just fail, he did things that were the opposite of what was required. He trampled over central aspects of Israel’s covenantal obligations to be the bridge of God and world.

 

They thought and wrote on the basis that their faith in God, and their determination to fulfil the role that God has assigned to them, would be the way to understand their history. What happened had to fit the ideas that God was both good and powerful and that they had work to do for God. That Jerusalem was conquered because of the sins of its kings, and above all Manasseh, was one very important version of this seeking for a way to hold on to faith, although not the only one.

 

So why should we care about this theological work done on behalf of the faith of Israel 2,500 years ago? How does it help us to see the writers of these Old Testament books pin the blame on a villainous king from 100 years or so before the conquest and at least 150 years before they wrote about him?

 

There are two ways that this matters to us. First of all we have to remember that calling Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, refers to his standing in the line of the kings of Judah descended from David. Jesus is the one who revives the special role that the house of David played in God’s plan for the redemption of the world, but in a new way and on a new level. What Manasseh destroyed is renewed by Jesus. To understand our Saviour properly we have to understand this part of his sending.

 

Secondly, and more importantly here and now, this response to the fall of Jerusalem reminds us what it is to be faithful to the calling we have had from God. In representing God to the world we are responsible, more than anything else, for proclaiming hope. Our world is not yet the world that God wants it to be. God does not want suffering, death, disease, despair and war. God wants peace and God wants justice, God wants life and God wants love. God wants these things for all of us and God wants these things for us now. That is the message we are given to proclaim. That is the good news, the gospel, that Jesus brings. When he says that the Kingdom of God is at hand he means that nearby, close to us, in time and in space, is the fully realised rule of God, in which justice will at last be done, when we will all receive what we God wants to give, completely and absolutely.

 

It’s hard to keep believing this and to keep proclaiming it when through the years, the centuries and the millennia the good continue to suffer and the wicked continue to prosper. But that is what we have been given to do. We are given the task of remaining joyful and hopeful throughout all that happens. It is up to us to deny that the universe is indifferent or even hostile to human well being, to assert that creation will ultimately be transformed by God’s love so that all is well.

 

The great problem posed for us by evil and suffering is not so much explaining it, or even justifying God, although these are things we should attempt to do. The great problem is remaining faithful to the vision of a world made new, of God’s rule of love. We have, if we are to be the Church we are called to be, to remain steadfast in our proclamation that a good and powerful God loves his creatures and will bring them, at last, safely home.

 

Potters Bar 20 Oct 2013 (Psalm 104:14-18, Romans 8:18-23, Matt 6:26-29): God in creation

When we lived in Palmers Green and I commuted every day into the City of London I came to believe what is sometimes claimed, that if you go due East from there, across Essex and the North Sea, the Lowlands and the German plain you do not come to anywhere else as high above sea level until you reach the Ural mountains. Whether that is actually true I don’t know but what is true is that in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, there is a very spectacular view from outside the station across London, which from there lies before one in a great bowl. At those times of the year when I got home just as the sun was setting it was breathtaking. A huge sky, in the amazing hues of a winter sunset, and the great city spread out with its lights on.

 

When people say, as they often enough do, that they experience God in “nature” that view is what comes into my mind, more than the mountains or the sea. The only thing that has ever come close to me was standing at the top of Schiehallion in Scotland looking over a steep drop as a strong wind blew clouds over us so that it seemed we might be the only people in the world but that had less impact than the sight of that great mass of human endeavour, made material in buildings and roads, machines and light, dwarfed by the immensity of a sky that drew one outward into space, as the first stars began to show through. How minuscule our greatest achievements seem, when set against the background of the universe as a whole, with its countless stars and unimaginable distances.

 

What my personal version of this experience shows is that, for me, “nature” does not exclude humanity. When I see the city and the sky together they both seem, to me, part of nature. Nature includes the vast reaches of interstellar space and the bustling activity of London. Both are part of creation and together they tell us something about what God intends in it. Our experience of “nature” is only an experience of God if it includes the human. It is us, after all, who are created in the image of God, we who represent God in creation by being after his likeness.

 

As our reading from Romans reminds us though, it is also us who have brought about the division of creation from God such that it has been groaning in travail until now. With human sin came about a fall from that communion not just for us but for all God’s creatures and with our redemption in Christ come about a renewal of all things that, as Paul says, are “set free from slavery to decay”.

 

We who are joined to Jesus in the Spirit but who are also waiting in expectation for the completion of our salvation in eternal life are left with three kinds of connection to nature that are all somehow to be kept in mind and in our hearts at the same time: a memory of our place in God’s original creation; the reality of our experience of a fallen world not yet fully redeemed; and the promise of the new creation in the coming of the Kingdom for which we pray.

 

Our reading from the Psalms reminds us of the first, God’s good creation as he intended it:

“Thou dost cause the grass to grow for cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” We are set in a creation that will nourish and sustain us, where joy is to be had. Creation is not indifferent to us, as it can sometimes seem, we are made to be a key part of it and to flourish in it. We are no more alien to nature than it is to us. We are to be its fulfilment and completion, the very image and likeness of God in and for it.

 

Romans reminds us of the second aspect of our relationship to creation. Part of the consequence of our being separated from God in sin is a disruption of our role in the created order. Where we should be in harmony with all that is, sustained by it and representing God to it, instead we try to make ourselves the centre of our own existence, displacing God, and to put the rest of creation to use in serving us. All things become “subject to decay” and we are put at odds with all nature, including our own. Insofar as we are still under the rule of sinful selfishness we have to deal with this.

 

Finally, however, the beautiful words we have heard from Matthew’s gospel remind us of what Jesus has done for us in returning us to our proper place in God’s world.

 

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

 

In our lives as they are meant to be there would be no anxiety, no need to plan, to worry, or to strive. In harmony with our God and with the rest of creation we would be fed.

 

“Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”

 

In God’s redeemed order our lives will be full of order and beauty as we work out our nature as the lily does when it flowers.

 

When we have moments of insight and inspiration where God’s work in making all things comes into focus for us we should never forget that we are part of that work. We should neither fall into the arrogance that separates us from nature nor the false humility that denies the goodness of God’s work in us. We should never ignore the reality of what divides us from God and from nature but we should recall that in us Christ is overcoming that division and embrace the glimpses of the redeemed order we are given.

 

Our experience of God is always OUR experience, that is, I think, part of what it means to be in God’s image, that we are that part of creation that is able to enter fully into a relationship with God, to communicate with him, to see and to sense some of what he is and what he does.

Potters Bar 13 Oct 2013 (Jeremiah 31:33-34 & Romans 2:12-16): Law written on our hearts

“[T]hey are a law unto themselves … the work of the law is written on their hearts”, writes the apostle Paul, “their conscience bears witness, and their thoughts alternately condemning or even defending them”.

I’m quite sure we’re all familiar with our thoughts condemning and defending us. We’ve all had the experience of having done, said or thought something our consciences tell us we ought not to have. In what we have heard from the apostle Paul this morning we are invited to see this as evidence of the presence within us of God’s law, of the words written on our hearts.

Those times when we are full of conflict, divided, as it were against our selves, are evidence for the presence in us of the marks left by this writing, this inscription of the Lord’s instructions deep within us.

Equally, he says, those times when we do what is required of us, or see others doing what they should, show that we can be a “law unto ourselves” for this same reason. We can fulfil God’s commands because they come to us from inside, not from outside. We have been enabled to know and to do the good by the divine Spirit working on our being.

Most of us, I think, most of the time, feel we know what is right and especially feel we can sense what is wrong. What Paul wants to argue here is that this points towards our being made and remade by God. Our morality is a sign of God’s work.

It is, moreover, he says, a sign that a new age has dawned with the coming of Jesus, a new age in which God’s rule will need no enforcement, when kings, courts and judges will no longer be required. In this new age each can be sovereign and independent, accountable only in that final court where there will be no secrets.

This is a message of liberation first of all. Knowledge of the old Law, known through God’s revelation to Moses and recorded in the books of the law, is no longer required for one to be found to be righteous. Some parts of that law can even be ignored, like the dietary laws Paul argued did not bind his new gentile converts. Conscience, not the letter of the law, was now to be at the centre.

At the same time, though, this new teaching might make life harder. Listen carefully to the voice of your conscience. Does it tell you that everything in your life is exactly as it should be? There is no external court of appeal, other than God, for you. If you are not entirely at peace with yourself, with no accusation or condemnation from your conscience, it makes no difference if you are obeying the law of the land, if you are behaving no worse than anybody else. Your conscience is rendering God’s judgement on you.

It is reading your heart, both to see what you are intending and to check the law that governs your behaviour. Your conscience knows you and it knows God’s will. When it judges you, in the quiet of the night or the heat of the moment, at the instant of decision or in the time of reflection, its judgement is just.

There may well be some here who are absolutely at peace with that thought. There may be some whose consciences are clear and untroubled, who are defended and not condemned by that inner voice. I will confess to you that I am not numbered amongst them. When I turn my attention inward in that way I find myself troubled. There are things that I do that I know I shouldn’t and a great many things I leave undone that I sense that I should do.

What our text says is that when I hear that voice I should think of it as the voice of God. If we want to know, as Christians, what is required of us we should, more than anything else, listen to ourselves, to our consciences. We are law unto ourselves.

This does not mean we have nothing to learn from the moral teaching of the Bible, far from it. Nor does it mean we should not study the wisdom of our tradition, or of moral thinkers from outside it. It does mean that none of these sources can take the place of our own judgement, which is given to us by God. These other ways of developing moral insight form and strengthen our own discernment but thy can’t replace it.

We need, above all, the assistance of the Spirit, of our God with and within us, shaping us and building us up and we need the help of Jesus, who assures us that we can begin again, that it is never too late, that we can be the people we want to be and that we will find acceptance and love.

The great message of forgiveness and new beginnings that is so central to the gospel is that whenever and wherever we can bring ourselves to peace with our consciences, with the law written on our hearts, then we can be certain that we are right with God and that when we stand before his seat of judgement we will be declared to be righteous.

Potters Bar 29 Sept 2013 (1 Tim 6:6-10 & Luke 16:19-31 – on the occasion of Harvest)

It is absolutely right, of course, to be grateful for God’s bounty. We especially have much to be thankful for. We live in one of the richest countries in the world at a time of extraordinary prosperity. Despite all the recent difficulties in the financial and economic systems of the West we are, in historic terms, wealthy beyond imagination. We have access to more food than we could possibly eat at all times of the year and regardless of the weather. We can choose clothes of any colour in a bewildering variety of styles and fabric. Our houses are weatherproof and well heated. We can travel and we can be entertained. We can communicate with people far and near using methods that would have seemed magical even 100 years ago.

 

Modern production and transport methods have largely freed us from the cycle of the year to the point where I suspect that for many in this country the idea of foods being “in season” is an exotic and almost incomprehensible one. One can buy strawberries in the dead of winter almost as easily as at the height of the summer, picking them up from the shelves in the supermarket given over to fruits that come from all corners of the globe.

 

This transformation in our relationship to food and to those who produce it is not welcome to all. Concern about the environmental and other effects of this new pattern is one of the things that have encouraged the growth of farmers’ markets and other ways of getting access to locally produced food. Many feel uneasy at the disconnection between those that eat and those that grow and rear, they yearn for an older pattern in which we knew where our food came from and how.

 

The tradition of harvest festival in Britain reaches back at least into the Middle Ages, with the word “harvest” being derived from the Old English word for Autumn. In the days when most of the inhabitants of the land were directly engaged with farming there were a wide range of folk customs associated with the time when the crops were gathered, a time of hope, anxiety, and hard work.

 

Its modern form, however dates from a particular time and place, and a particular Church of England vicar. The Reverend Robert Hawker of the Church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist, Morwenstow in Cornwall, invited his parishioners to a harvest festival in 1843 which is generally accepted as the beginning of the modern celebration. By the 1840s the massive shift in population from the country to the cities was already making Britain the first modern country, where agriculture was displaced from the centre of national life. The celebration of the harvest by the Church, which spread through the Church of England through the decades following Hawker’s innovation, came as more and more people were separated from that harvest.

 

This reflects one of the roles the Church plays in national and in human life. It is a repository of memory, the preserver of tradition, a link to our past. This role can be seen, too, in the attitudes the Church adopts to marriage and family. We all know that patterns of relationships, of child rearing, of family, have changed profoundly over the last 50 years. The acceptance of divorce and of cohabitation, of single parenthood and reconstituted families have made the social landscape profoundly different. At every step of the way the Church has, in general, resisted that change and defended the traditional pattern of marriage for life as the only proper way.

 

Our 170 year old tradition of the harvest festival is similarly an attempt to preserve and protect an aspect of life that is being lost and replaced by something else. It says that it is important to remember that food isn’t made in a factory like everything else, that it is the outcome of natural processes and subject to the discipline of time and of waiting. It says this even though this is less and less true, as the kind of farming exemplified by the massive indoor herds of cows that are never taken outside encroaches on more and more areas of farm production.

 

The Church can often find itself speaking for forms of life that are being swept away by change and development; forms of social and economic life, of family life, of personal relationship. The harvest festival is one example of this.

 

So what do today’s Bible readings have to say to us, as we give thanks for God’s bounty and reflect on our lives in a world changing so fast that it’s hard to know what to make of it or to understand what’s going on beyond our doorstep?

The first thing they say, looking at the letter to Timothy, is that our gratitude should be centred on the very simplest things. “We brought nothing into the world … we can take nothing out of it … if we have food and clothing we should be content with that.” As we offer out thanksgiving to God let’s remember that for many, even today, food and clothing are things hoped and wished for rather than things possessed. That we have these things is reason enough for gratitude and should be what we thank God for.

The second thing they say, as we listen to the difficult and challenging parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that some of the things we offer thanks for may not, in the end, be things we remain grateful for. I’m sure that as he enjoyed his luxurious food and drink, which were probably no finer than what many of us will eat today, this rich man felt himself blessed by them. Later though, as he saw Lazarus and Abraham and compared their condition to his own, as he was told by Abraham that his current torment balanced his earlier enjoyment he would surely have felt differently. From that perspective his earlier blessing must feel like a curse.

It surely seems unjust to us that he was subjected to the horrors described simply because he had had good things in life, although that is what Abraham seems to say in this story. It is particularly uncomfortable as we give thanks for blessings in our own lives. This is not the only time Jesus says something like this; we all remember I’m sure his warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Perhaps we should be comforted that he goes on immediately to say, on that occasion, that all things are possible with God.

We should, then, give thanks for our blessings, but in doing so we should also remember that they are gifts, not rewards, that we are the recipients of unmerited riches, that those less fortunate are no less deserving and that we have a responsibility to respond as generously as we can to those in need. We should also seek to preserve and honour the past, our own traditions and the deep history that the modern harvest festival commemorates while remaining open to the present and the future and looking for God’s hand in the new as much as in the old.

Potters Bar 8 Sept 2013 (Gen 18:22-33 and Luke 18:1-9 – keep praying and don’t give up)

People in churches do a lot of good things and this church is no exception. In this congregation I know about the care you take of one another, the visits and the ‘phone calls, the lifts and the shopping, all the ways you look out for each other. I know about the voluntary work done, for the church and the community. People take care of this building, they raise money, they organise events and groups within the church. People take part in all sorts of things in the wider community. Church people, our people, are at the heart of all kinds of thing in the town, from providing recreation to medical care, from looking after our heritage to providing education and support to children. From residential care homes to provision of walking routes.

The food bank we’re supporting, run by our friends in Life Church, is one of many where church groups reach out to those whose lives are most chaotic and dysfunctional, whose needs are greatest, and try to help. Some of those using food banks will be there just because they’ve unfortunate but many will be there because they have lost control of themselves, their money and their lives. Maybe they have problems with substance abuse. Maybe they’ve borrowed more than they can afford. Maybe their relationships are a mess. Working with them, putting them on a path to a more stable situation is not easy and it won’t always happen, but church people up and down the country will be trying.

On the biggest scale I think about Barak Obama, probably the single most powerful human being on earth. His Christianity is important to him and was formed more than anywhere else in a church in Chicago belonging to our sister denomination in the United States, the United Churches of Christ. I have no doubt at all that Obama is a sincere believer and a good man. I’m sure that in his heart he listens for God’s word to him about what he should do. So how must he feel when he wrestles with the problems of Syria. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know whether he should or should not bomb the resources of the Assad regime and if so how much, what and when. I’m glad that I’m not the President of the USA, looking at children suffocating in the open air due to the effects of sarin nerve gas and wondering what I can do about it, if anything, while the whole world watches me and my every move.

If Barak Obama is helpless in face of that horror, then what about us. I don’t know how many of you have experience of dealing with people with mental health problems or with addictions to drink or drugs, I should imagine quite a few of you do, I certainly have. It’s every bit as bad, in my view, as trying to fix the middle east. It doesn’t matter how much you want to help, it doesn’t matter how willing you are to expend your time and your energy on the person suffering, in the end there’s very little you can do. Being in that situation hurts. It hurts badly and it makes you feel guilty. It makes you feel that way, and I think it makes you feel guilty because, in a real sense, we are guilty. We are guilty when we enjoy our comforts and our happiness and we turn away from those who are locked out and are suffering.

Now, we don’t give up. When somebody we feel responsible for needs us we try our best even when we’re sure it won’t make a real difference. When we’re called on we answer. We try to love our neighbour, the person whose need is in front of us as best we can. We do that and yet we know that there are needs out there we can’t do anything about. And that hurts us, or it should hurt us.

So what do we do, what does our faith lead us to do?

The story about Abraham and God that we heard this morning is a strange and difficult part of a strange and difficult section of the Book of Genesis. God has been visiting Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they are, at the end of all their waiting, going to have a child and he hears that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are full of sin so bad that it can’t be ignored. He sends his companions, men or angels, down to Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot is living, to find out just how bad things are down there. As he turns to follow he decides to tell Abraham what’s happening, where he’s going.

Things are bad in Sodom. God knows it and so does Abraham. Abraham fears for what is going to happen there. He knows there’s nothing he can do about it so he asks God what he’s going to do. He asks God to spare the city for the sake of any righteous people there might be there and God agrees that he will. Abraham believes that God will act justly. He probes what that justice means. Different people think different things about what this conversation means but almost all agree that it’s the first example in the Bible of what we call intercessory prayer. A human being asking God for something on behalf of others.

The story doesn’t end well. The people of Sodom disgrace themselves when God’s messengers arrive, the ten righteous are not to be found. Lot and his family flee the city and it is reduced to a lifeless ruin as God rains fire and brimstone on it. Lot’s wife perishes during their flight. It’s a disaster for everybody. Abraham, the father of faith, the root of Israel, has interceded for Sodom and Sodom has been totally destroyed.

And yet Abraham’s absolute faith in God and in God’s promises to him is unbroken. He walks the way God shows him. He does what God wants him to do. He offers prayer and sacrifice as instructed and trusts that salvation, victory, vindication and all good things will come as he has been told they will. From Abraham comes Israel, from Israel comes Christ and from him we accept our gift of eternal life.

In the face of all the horror and failure life offers to us, whether in our own experience or in what we see in others lives; in the face of the inadequacy of whatever efforts we make to mend what is broken; in the face of the despair we all must sometimes feel; in the face of all of this we are called to be faithful, as Abraham was faithful. We are called to trust that all will be well, all is well, despite appearances to the contrary.

This faithfulness is expressed, above all, it seems to me, in our prayer. When we pray, when we ask God to put right all that is wrong we are saying what Abraham said: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When we pray to God we have to believe that God will always do what is right. When we see what seems wrong we have to take it to him and say “will you not do what is right?”

That putting the question to God doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. We can’t challenge God in prayer as Abraham did if we don’t show that we try to do what is right. But if we do, and if we believe in a good God who can make a difference we have to do what Jesus told us to do, in our passage from Luke’s gospel. We should always pray and not give up.