Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God

I suppose the only reason this piece of scripture has been allotted for Harvest festival is that it is about the only passage in the New Testament that waxes lyrical about nature but actually it is a very deep and challenging piece about something that affects all of us – anxiety and worry – and because there is a bit of this about in the parish at the moment, for obvious reasons, I’ll take my opportunity this Harvest Festival,  as only the second to last time that I’ll be preaching to you on a Sunday to speak about anxiety and worry . Not as someone who has conquered it, but as someone who suffers from it and could do with following Jesus’ wise words as much as anyone else.
For anyone on the poverty line, or a refugee on the road, or suffering after a flood or drought the sentiments “Do not worry about anything, about what you will wear, eat or drink” is at best unrealistic and at worst a bit sick.
So we must as a priority understand just what Jesus is forbidding and what he is advocating.
It is not ordinary concern and foresight that Jesus condemns, that is essential and intrinsic to human life – It is the overwhelming and all consuming “worry and anxiety”, that can envelop us like a shroud that sucks all the joy out of life that is condemned.
As an antidote to worry Jesus starts by pointing in the direction of the created world around us. The word translated “Consider” actually means “learn from” rather than “contemplate”.
Learn from Nature. What do we see?
What we learn from the birds is that they do not worry. They do not strain to see a future which they cannot see or seek security in storing up goods and wealth as insurance against a future that you cannot see.
In verse 27. Jesus also points out that worry is pointless anyway in that it never ever changed anything. All it does is rob you of your present.
And then when Jesus asks us to learn from the “lilies of the field” he is referring to the poppies and anemones which together with dried grass were used in their clay cooking ovens to raise the temperature quickly in Palestine at that time. Thy were burned up but in their short life have more inate beauty than mankind can ever emulate.
Jesus means if God gives such beauty to such a short lived thing that we burn in the flames, how much more will he care for us? Learn to trust God more, no matter what the immediate circumstances of our life are.
Jesus gives us two antidotes to worry pertinent to followers of “The Way”. First of all he says concentrate first on the Kingdom of God. If we concentrate on how much God loves and cares for us, concentrate on the doing of God’s will and the acceptance of God’s will, worry will be squeezed out of our lives.
We all know I trust how a great love can drive out all other concerns; We clear the decks because this love becomes the all consuming passion in our lives, inspiring us, dominating our entire life. It was Jesus’ conviction that worry is pushed out when God becomes the dominating power of our lives.  This is a view which fins its counterpart in the first letter of John when John writes. “Perfect love casts out fear”.   Anxiety and worry are the consequences of fear.
The second thing Jesus offers is in verse 34, inexplicably omitted from our lectionary reading, and it says “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will worry about itself”. This is the ability to live one day at a time – to live in the present. Handle the demands of each day as it comes without worrying about an unknown future.
In today’s parlance you would call that a form of mindfulness. Concentrating and living fully in the present. Most of the things we worry about never happen.
It is important that we get to grips with this because worry and anxiety are not benign – they are far worse than useless they are actively injurious to the human soul.
Many of the typical diseases of modern life are caused by worry, from ulcers to mental breakdown, to heart attacks.
He who laughs most and longest lives longest.  Worry also refuses to learn the lesson of life, that no matter how dire something has been in our life – well here we are – with our heads still above water (sometimes only just) but here we are nevertheless and if someone had told us at the beginning of whatever traumas we have faced would’ve told us that we would get through it regardless, we might not have believed it.
At the last breakfast club we had a deeply moving talk, one of the most powerful I have ever heard and when you hear what some people have endured it makes you weep inside, but that talk was also a testimony to the healing power of God to patch us up and put us back together again. Our other great weapon against worry is prayer.

Lay it all down at the foot of the cross. Free yourself to live your life which is God’s gift to you and live it fully. Let go and let God. 

The Love of money

Well this week’s gospel offering is even more contentious that last week’s aabout marriage and divorce . It is about money and what we do with it.

As I wrote mid-week - Given that most Anglicans are middle class and by most measures rather affluent, I fancy there is no other area that causes us more embarrassment than our money if we are to read the gospels diligently.

The parable of the rich young man is one such that has the capacity to make us all feel a little uncomfortable and embarrassed. Jesus confronts the obviously pious and otherwise devout young man who kneels before Jesus and as he says “keeps all the commandments” had asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus who sees deeply into his soul, sees his real needs and insecurities and tells him “to give away all his possessions to the poor”. He follows this up with his famous line that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What shall we say about such a wild and radical thing to say? Well if we look around the rest of the New Testament for interpretive tools and clues we find that for one thing Jesus knows that equality in income is here to stay. He says "You will always have the poor with you" (Mark 14:7). Also in the (often misinterpreted) incident when Jesus is presented with a coin with Caesar's head on it and asked if it is lawful to pay taxes his answer "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's" (Mark 12: 17) is in context an extremely clever way of saying that in effect nothing belongs to Caesar - at the end of the day everything belongs to God. 

But the best interpretive tool we have in the New Testament is "For the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

Money in and of itself is not the problem. In fact, even in the first century the church relied on rich people to support the young church and even Jesus and his disciples relied on provisions supplied by comfortable women (Luke 8: 1-3). Wealth creation is not derided. As Margaret Thatcher once said, wealth has to be created first for it then to be used for any purpose, including the welfare state, with important caveats of course that to the Christian, people are always more important than money. 

The concerns Jesus raises in the heart of this young man (who actually represents all of us) is his singleness of mind and true loyalties and priorities. So it is not money per se but what you do with your money that counts, and ultimately what do you love most - God or money - because you cannot serve two masters (Luke 16:13). As Saint Paul says you are bound to be a slave to something, so whose slave are you - God or mammon?
Possessions are nice but how firmly are you attached to them?

How do we use our money. Do we store it up in barns or put it to good use. How much money do we give away? The Biblical standard is the tithe - 10%. 

The real question is not "Do I give everything to the poor"  but the actual question cuts cuts just as deeply and is just as uncomfortable if we take a good hard look at ourselves. Do we care more for God or for things? What are our priorities in life?

Monday, 5 October 2015

Therefore, what God has joined together let no one separate.

In the letter to the Hebrews the writer says “In former days God spoke through the prophets but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son.” So let’s listen. He who has ears.............
Here we have in Mark’s gospel the supreme Christian underpinning of the sanctity of marriage from the very lips of Jesus himself.
In case anyone missed it;
“Jesus said to them “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another  commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery””
In Mark’s original rendition there are no mitigating circumstances at all, unlike Matthew’s version which adds “except for unchastity”.
Here in the bold and radical original we have Jesus’ view that Marriage is an unbreakable sacred bond and this view circumvents “the law” which famously in Deuteronomy, and quoted at Jesus in this passage, allows divorce.
Jesus circumvents the law and goes back further to the original intention of God revealed in the book of Genesis. Jesus said the law that permits divorce was only given as a concession because of the sinfulness of human beings but that it was never meant to be that way.
Jesus says plainly that the commandment that permitted divorce was given because of our hardness of heart and then quotes from the book of Genesis;
From the beginning “God made them male and female”. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Then Jesus says those wonderful words now enshrined in our marriage service;
 “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”
Jesus says that strong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is the original and good and healthy intention that God ordained for all humanity. It is the place for the nurture and upbringing of children. Significantly the text then moves without a break to the famous piece which in the King James version says “Suffer the little children to come unto me”
In our society’s misguided “anything goes” environment, self indulgence, self interest, and an insistence of individual rights takes increasing precedence now over any responsibility  to wider society, your husband or wife, or even your children
Marriage has been devalued and reduced to “just a piece of paper” in the eyes of the metropolitan liberal elite, a view that has now become the norm, destabilising and destroying the bedrock of stable civilised society especially in working class areas. Divorce is now normalised and easy.
Christians though have a higher aspiration, a higher calling and our ways are not their ways. Our way is the way of God, the way of Christ, revealed as in today’s passage, in scripture.
There is a deeper theological insight here of course. That in circumventing the law and going right back to Genesis, to the original good creative intention Jesus is saying that in Him and through Him we are re-creating Eden.
He is inaugurating the transformative power of God to redeem and judge and put right all that is wrong in the world – to return the world to its original pristine state.
The new creation that Jesus ushers in, revealed and validated by the resurrection of his body is the answer to all our longings for things to be put right – for justice to be done – for God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven (as Jesus told us to pray).
And this beautiful understanding of marriage is a part of that new beginning. This, Jesus is saying, is how it always should have been.
I am confident that my role, whatever church I happen to be the vicar of is not to cave in to the ways of the world but to present a different, wholesome, self denying, honest, truthful and Christ-like account of this new creation and the expectations and the responsibilities laid on Christian’s shoulders to faithfully reflect and preach the way of Christ, not the way of the world.
The promotion of marriage as the sacred union between one man and one woman for life is an important constituent part of that.

Our responsibility is not to follow worldly wisdom but to “Repent and believe the good news. The Kingdom of God has come near” and his way has been revealed to us. We don’t have any excuse.