Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sermon on ‘Making a difference’ (Luke 10: 1-12, Psalm 137) St Matthew’s, 14th November 2010

In this sermon I want to talk a bit about remembering. Partly because this is Remembrance Sunday but also because it connects with the main theme for today which is ‘Making a difference’.

Remembering and making a difference might seem to be topics which are poles apart but I hope by the end to convince you that remembering is something we need to do if we are going to make a difference. But first, before I come on to remembering, what does it mean to make a difference?

On the one had it seems somewhat brave, even arrogant, to suggest that we personally can make a difference. How can we as individuals do anything about the way things are? Two weeks ago – during one of our sofa sermons - we looked at how we are living through what appears to be the start of very difficult times economically. The economic difficulties are likely to affect many people living in this country. How can we make a difference to that? Last week Steve talked to us about healing. We see around us many people who seem to be in need of healing: not just from physical sickness but also for other things that seem to be going wrong with their lives. How can we make a difference there?

On the other hand if our faith has any meaning it surely should make a difference to the way we lead our lives. We are told by James in his epistle that, ‘Faith without works is dead’. But we don’t really need James to tell us this. We instinctively distrust people who claim beliefs that seem to be belied by the way they lead their lives. And for ourselves we surely want our faith to make a difference.

But how can we make a difference? Before we look specifically at how our Christian faith should make a difference I want to say that the desire to make a difference is not unique to Christians. Most people seem to have this urge if only in a rudimentary form. It seems to be something young people have and something which seems to fade as you get older. Witness the desire of many young people nowadays to spend their gap year – not just lying on a beach in Thailand – but to do something useful while they are out there.

The urge to make a difference is often associated with leaving home, going to somewhere different to make a difference. It seems somehow harder to make a difference where we live and work, easier to make a difference somewhere else. The Christian church, upholding a religion which urges us to preach the good news to everyone, has regularly sent out missionaries to different countries. We might think of Paul here or the famous missionaries of the 19th century like David Livingstone, or even our own missionary partners for example Sally and Ben Amos.

Today’s Gospel reading illustrates the start of that trend. In today’s story Luke is deliberately vague about where Jesus sent the 72 early missionaries as if to imply that it’s everywhere. And note that 72 was - according to tradition based on Genesis Chapter 10 – the number of nations there were thought to be in the world. Luke’s story of the sending of the 72 is thus full of symbolism: fleshing out what it’s going to be like if we believe Jesus’ promise that his disciples will be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’. This promise is recorded at the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of his account of the Acts of the Apostles.

So what’s it going to be like if we go and preach the good news to the end of the earth? Well three things to note from our Gospel reading– which aren’t perhaps noted as often as they should. I’m also going to assume that what Jesus says to the 72 applies to us as well. Of course things today are exactly the same as they were then but still there are lessons from this passage we can apply to ourselves.

Firstly preaching the gospel is not primarily about talking to people. There is some talking involved. Jesus tells the 72 ‘When you enter a town… say to them “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”’. And I think this is still our primary message to people. But preaching the gospel is not primarily about telling people this. It’s about acting as if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God by bringing peace and healing.

Jesus tells the 72 that before they say anything about the kingdom they are to bring peace. Peace here is a real entity able to be given, received, accepted or rejected. I think we need to work out how we might bring peace to people just as much as how we are to explain about the kingdom. Healing is something else we are to bring as well and Steve talked to us about that last week. All I want to say about healing here is that the healing we are charged with bringing is not just healing of physical illness but lots of other things besides. St Francis is reported to have told his followers, ‘Preach the gospel and if necessary use words’ This might be well known but it is still worth remembering.

Secondly our Gospel reading suggests that making a difference is best done in pairs. Jesus sends the 72 ‘ahead of him, two by two’. Bringing peace, healing and news of the kingdom is difficult, if not impossible, on your own, by yourself. And it is only going to be effective if you do it with other people.

There are lots of reasons for this. Protection is one. If there is going to be opposition to the gospel then preaching it will be safer in pairs. Credibility is another. The witness of one person is not generally sufficient to prove a case. You need at least two. Luke gives accounts of several appearances of Jesus after his resurrection but he spends most time on the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus did, on occasion, appear to people on their own. For example he met Mary in the garden. But Luke expends most words on the Emmaus story. For that appearance there are two witnesses to bring back the good news to the rest of the disciples.

But it’s not just a matter of protection and credibility. I think that Jesus sending out the 72 in pairs warns us against thinking of making a difference as an individual matter. It’s not a lifestyle-choice: something we individually choose to do instead of say having a good time.

We may desire to go bring the good news, make a difference to the lives of orphans in Timbuctu for example. But we need to be clear about the best way of doing so before setting off for Africa. The person who wants to bring peace, healing and good news to people, to make a difference, needs to check out their plans with others and this is, I think the primary reason why Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs.

Thirdly our Gospel reading suggests that preaching the gospel is not all trial and tribulation. OK there may be some problems along the way. Jesus says, ‘Behold I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves’. This doesn’t sound as if preaching the gospel is going to be a doddle. Of course we know that some lambs do get eaten by wolves. Jesus the Lamb of God certainly does. There is a sometimes a cost to preaching the gospel. Jesus laid down his life for his friends – and this being Remembrance Sunday – we remember today those who lost their lives in the wars that have been fought over the last 100years.

But alongside these allusions to a hostile environment into which the 72 are sent there is much that is positive. Jesus seems to be assuming that some – at least of the – communities and families to which he is sending them will be open rather than closed to the news of the kingdom. The instructions he gives the 72 first deals with those who ‘receive you’ before moving on to those who do not. There is then an expectation that there will be acceptance as well as rejection. And indeed later in this chapter we learn that the ‘The seventy two returned with joy’ at their success.

So there is lots to be learnt in this passage about making a difference. But we might say well that when Jesus sent out the 72 things were very different from what they are now. Nowadays people in the towns and villages surrounding Oxford have mostly been exposed to the gospel in at least some form or another. And clearly we are not supposed, nowadays, to do precisely what the 72 were instructed to do. For a start, setting off without any money is just not going to work.

Some of us are still called I think to go and preach the peach the gospel in far away places – in Africa for example – or even Reading - but nowadays most of us are, I think, sent to where we already And staying where we are to make a difference is I contend, not a cop-out. Preaching the gospel where we are turns out to be much harder than going somewhere else to preach it. As Jesus found when he tried preaching the gospel in his home town of Nazareth.

So perhaps rather than thinking of making a difference as something done by special people in faraway place we should think more about what we might do where we find ourselves, and explore how we can make a difference in the communities in which we live and work. This is of course easier said than done.

Now many of you may know that I managed to persuade the Church of England to train and ordain me as a minister on the basis that my ministry would be mostly at my workplace. I am sometimes called a Minister in Secular Employment but I prefer the term ‘Worker Priest’. Most people seem to have some inkling of what a worker priest might do. But I am also regularly asked about what being a worker priest means to me. They often ask me what difference being a priest makes to what I do at work. I must confess that this is still a hard question.

But perhaps one thing I have learnt over the years is that it means being a bit of a prophet. Now when we think of prophets I think we think of rather odd people: people who look and behave rather differently. We might imagine that they shout rather a lot without seemingly much effect. They are rather obviously outsiders rather than insiders. But I would maintain that prophets are really just people called to preach the gospel, make a difference where they live and work. If you like you can think of them as missionaries who are called to stay put rather than go to another place. And as such many of us are called to be prophets.

Now prophets do two things: they remind us of things and they show us a vision of how things might be. Reminding us of things bring us back to remembrance.

I think we live in a world where history has become less and less important: in particular the history of God acting though his special people – the people of Israel – but also the history of our own nation. But let us not forget that we are where we are today because of what has gone before. Remembering history is, of course, not just about remembering the bad times but the good. We need to remember what God has done for us in the past - particularly, in the life and death of Jesus. But we do also we need to remember the bad times, without which the good times don’t make much sense.

Remembering past wars and the people who died in them is not to glorify war. It is not even to suggest that they had to be fought or that the consequences were in any way desirable. It is to suggest that there is some meaning to what happened – that although we may wish to forget we must remember.

Looking back to what has gone before is to lament. The prophets of old were big on lament as were many of the writers of psalms. Our Old Testament reading today - Psalm 137 – was written in Babylon after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians with the help of the Edomites in around 587 BC and the Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon. So the writer is looking back to that war which the Jewish people had, in effect lost everything or almost everything, and he is committing himself to remembering that war, the people that had been killed and the city and the temple that had been destroyed.

I think that in preaching the gospel, making a difference, we need to be honest about the way things have been and are. It is to aim to see the world and speak of it in the way that God sees it. It is to lament the wars, the violence, the injustice, the collective greed.

But after lament comes hope. It may seem impossible – as it seems to our psalmist -to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land but we are enjoined to do so. We are not to wallow in our grief. We know that things could be different to the way things are. And we are to tell people that despite the past we are to announce that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. This new kingdom is a kingdom of peace and of healing.

Finally I would like to finish with the Collect that we said earlier.

Heavenly Lord,
you long for the world’s salvation:
stir us from apathy,
restrain us from excess
and revive in us new hope
that all creation will one day be healed
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Sermon on Matthew 22: 15-22, 7th November 2010, St Matthew’s

Today’s gospel contains the Jesus’ famous saying: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Jesus says things in many different contexts: for instance he gives sermons, he tells stories – parables - and he answers questions. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ is an answer to a question – and needs to be understood in that context.

It’s a difficult saying for various reasons and seems to have more than one meaning – a bit like a parable. You rather wish Jesus had gone on to explain precisely what he meant: particularly because the saying seems to deal with the issue of the relationship between religious and political beliefs: which of course is still a huge question today.

The question that the Pharisees had asked was: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Taxes were a big political issue in those days – as of course they still are today – the particular tax that is probably being discussed here is the ‘Census’ tax introduced in AD 6 or 7 when Judea came under direct Roman control. The Census tax was hugely resented by the Jews – and resentment over taxes contributed to the revolt in AD 70 which led to the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple. Of course if you were a Roman you’d argue that taxes were a good thing – necessary if you were going to build roads, aqua-ducts, etc. – and bring the benefits of ‘empire’ to small, unruly countries like Judea.

The Pharisees’ question is a trick question. If Jesus says yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar then this puts him on the side of the Romans if he says no it’s not then this puts him on the side of the Jews who were opposed to Roman rule. He puts himself at risk of alienating – even enraging – his Jewish listeners if he says yes. And he perhaps even risks arrest by the Romans if he says no. We know – because we know what is going to happen later - that answering such questions and telling the truth as he sees it will eventually lead to Jesus being arrested and killed.

So does Jesus answer the Pharisees’ question? Well yes I think he does and his answer is really a disguised ‘on the one hand yes and on the other no’. But putting it as baldly as this would have satisfied no-one and would have also looked evasive – even cowardly. Instead Matthew records that those who heard Jesus answer went away marvelling. And I don’t think this is merely because he has for the moment outwitted the Pharisees with a clever response – his answer is not just clever it also gives them an answer – an answer to a question they hadn’t actually asked – or at least an answer to ponder.

The Pharisees frequently try to trick Jesus with questions – mostly religious questions – but note that this time the Pharisees’ question is a political rather than a religious question. It’s really asking: which side are you on in this political debate about taxes. One answer Jesus could have given is ‘I don’t know: I’m not interested in politics: I’m a religious leader not a politician’. But interestingly he doesn’t do that. Jesus responds to the question by talking about God in his answer. He brings God into politics if you like. He is saying that paying taxes only makes sense in a wider context – that of God’s overall control.

Of course the idea that God is concerned with political questions is controversial. And I am not saying that God is necessarily on the side of one party in political debates but I am saying that, following Jesus’ example, what God wants and requires from political structures and policies needs to be taken into account.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question about taxes illustrates this point. What he means by ‘render’ – in the translation of the passage we heard today – actually means ‘give-back’. Jesus though the visual aid of the Denarius borrowed from the Pharisees is in effect saying that since Caesar’s head appears on the coin then give back to him what is his, or even give back to him what he deserves.

He seems to be accepting here that taxes are a good thing in general, without necessarily supporting the controversial Census tax in particular. And this is of course quite a radical perspective on taxes. Even today many politicians seem to suggest that taxes are a bad thing in general seemingly forgetting that they would be out of a job without taxes to pay their salaries.

So Jesus acknowledges that we have political obligations – particularly though paying taxes but also surely through engaging with the political process in other ways. This nowadays means voting but also taking our part in local and national political decision making in other ways: writing to your MP about things, etc. etc. To what extent each of us should get involved in politics must be a matter for individual prayer, just as any other decision about how we lead our lives must be.

However Jesus’ injunction to give to God’s what is God’s in his answer to the Pharisees’ question also relativises the political obligation. It means that our decision about our political obligations cannot be made in isolation from our decision about our religious obligations – what we must do for the state is set in the context of, and is subordinate to, what we must do for God.

In this context note that there is in Jesus’ answer no firm principle of loyal submission to the state. On the contrary some have argued that when Jesus says ‘render under Caesar what is Caesar’s there he is a subversive implication. What does Caesar actually deserve? Death on a cross?

At the very least the implication is that one’s obligation to the state – to pay taxes for example – is much less important than one’s obligation to God. God surely trumps Caesar when it comes to giving back what is due.

Nevertheless Jesus does seem to be saying that obligations to God can co-exist with obligations to political authorities even though obligations to God are much more important than obligations to political authorities.

Now all this could be, and has been, taken to mean that Jesus is suggesting that there are two worlds – God’s world and Caesar’s world – the spiritual world and the secular world and that the two are quite separate In God’s world – the spiritual – God is in control – in Caesar’s world – the secular – Caesar is in control. Of course nowadays various other powerful individuals and bodies have replaced Caesar. But are there really two separate spiritual and secular worlds? This idea has been a continuing idea in western thought. And theologians from Luther onwards have bought into the idea.

But I do not think that Jesus is suggesting this here. In the context of what he says elsewhere I think he is saying that there is another way of looking at power and control. On the face of it Caesar – or his replacement may seem to be in control – he may seem to dictate important aspects of our lives – the amount of tax we pay, to whom and for what for example. But Jesus is also saying – as he has said many times before – that there is another way of looking at things. That he has come to announce a new kingdom – where God is in control of everything and where power relations are essentially and fundamentally transformed.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus announces is not just a spiritual kingdom: it’s a kingdom where the financially poor are blessed, not just the poor in spirit; where the physically blind are cured of their blindness, not just the spiritually blind. The Kingdom of God is both earthly and spiritual, both here present and yet to come. If we accept our membership of this new kingdom then things are completely and utterly different: including even the way we view taxes.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not then an invitation to eschew earthly things and to devote ourselves to heavenly things. Earth and heaven are now inextricably mixed. God became a human being in the person of Jesus and things have never been the same since.