Saturday, 17 September 2016

Fixed on the Cross

I wonder if the parable of the Unjust Steward raises issues for you, as it’s tended to for me? Ever since I first read it, I’ve wondered why Jesus should be praising a man who’s cheated his employer - and, in the process, recruited other people into his conspiracy. And how Jesus can possibly want his disciples to go and do the same, as he seems to. Jesus also says we should use our worldly wealth to win friends for ourselves; what does he mean by that? It sounds a bit like bribery, it doesn’t sound like how I’ve always assumed Christians should live.

But maybe that’s the reaction Jesus wanted. Jesus didn’t only say nice easy things, often the things he said shocked people. His teaching was fresh and different, and sometimes that meant puzzling, even alarming. I think that when Jesus told this story, he wanted his disciples to sit up and pay attention. So if they were startled by what he said, if they were wondering “Where’s he going with this?” - well, that was all to the good.

But look a bit closer at what he said. It isn’t Jesus who commends the dishonesty of the unjust steward, it's the steward's master in the story who does that - a man who'd probably made his own wealth by the same sharp practice and cheating. He’d surely have been angry at what his steward did, but even so I reckon he couldn't help but admire the speed of the steward’s reactions, and the sharpness of his wit. In fact, he probably ended up thinking: "Goodness, I didn't know he was that good!  Perhaps I can still use him, after all."

So what does the story say to us? Not that we should be dishonest in the service of our Lord, but that we should be quick off the mark, not letting opportunities pass us by: chances to win friends, to change lives, and to use in creative ways the resources God gives us. You’ll know the saying "so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly use." Well, that shouldn't be us: we’re to be - like the unjust steward - clear-sighted and quick-witted.

I no longer need to go to clergy training sessions; but a year or two before I retired I was part of the planning team for one. Our main speaker was a man called Art Gafke, who if I remember rightly was a Methodist minister in Las Vegas. We were lucky I think to get him - Art was a guy with a wealth of experience, a great sense of humour and some good stories to tell. His theme was about how by understanding ourselves and our situations better, we become better able to set aside our own agendas to co-operate together, to use our personal resources more creatively as people of God, and to become more effective ministers for Christ.

And that, he told us, requires us to think outside the box. Not to do what’s always been done before just because it's always been done that way, not to do things the way other people tell us they should be done, and not to let ourselves be hemmed in and limited by what other people expect. We need to work in a way that’s appropriate to the strengths and abilities we have, appropriate too to the world we’re working in. The message as he delivered it came across as new and fresh, but really it's the same as the message Jesus had for his disciples.

For he told them to use every means at their disposal, and he tells us the same. That might mean doing things differently from how our forebears did them. For the Gospel to be heard in today’s world, e must tell it in ways and language that today’s world understands. That’s led to churches that don't fit the traditional model: churches that look more like cafes, or like one I’ve heard of that meets in a gym, while people are training; or festivals of one kind or another - a friend of mine’s just got back from his first Greenbelt, and he’ll certainly be going again; or virtual churches on the internet. Four young clergy from Lichfield Diocese (and one slightly older one behind the camera) have started something called the TGI Monday Show, a little ten minute slice of discussion filmed in north Shropshire that you can watch on the web. Fresh expressions of ministry, so called, may not be for everyone, but mission within a mixed economy means we can no longer say if we ever could that 'one size fits all'. Having said that, the traditional church remains part of the mix. New ways of doing worship and teaching and outreach don’t replace “traditional church” but fit in alongside and add to it.

For if what we believe matters to us, then we need to be sharing it, using every means at our disposal. But whether we're doing new and different things or sitting in the same pews as our forebears, this is always true: we need a firm focus in our ministry.

Not long ago I was watching a tight-rope walker on the telly; I could hardly bear to look, I’ve never been good with heights. Just now there’s an ad on the telly where someone’s sitting on a rock on the edge of a cliff; obviously they didn’t fall off, but I still worry that they might each time it comes on. I was also very worried about this tight-rope walker. He didn’t look very safe. He stopped and swayed on the rope; he took a step back; his pole was first tipping up on his right, then on his left. I thought he’d lost it, which I’m sure was deliberate, all part of the act. For suddenly he was OK again, stepping confidently across to the other side. And I was able to breathe again.

A few weeks ago the world said farewell to the Christian clown, evangelist and Anglican priest Roly Bain. He used to do tightrope walks as part of his act, on a wire strung across the church, as a way of preaching about faith. There’s a fresh expression of ministry if you like. I’ve watched him do it. On a tight-rope, to get across to the other wide without falling you need to be completely fixed on where you’re going. To be distracted could be - well, maybe not fatal, there is a safety net, but embarrassing, to say the least. So as a good demonstration of a truth that applies to disciples as well as tight-rope walkers, what Roly Bain fixed his eyes on at the far end of his rope was a cross. As well as enthralling and entertaining the people who came out to see him, he had a discipleship message to share from that rope, about being completely fixed on our Saviour and on the sacrifice that saves us, and not letting ourselves be diverted or distracted. As it happens, I did borrow his sermon and do my own tightrope walk once at a family service - but before you get too impressed, I did it at about three inches above the ground. I know my limits.

Anyway, neither tight-rope walkers nor disciples can serve two masters. At the end of our reading this morning, Jesus says that we can’t serve God and money. In the old Authorized Version we read that we can’t serve both God and “mammon,” and I like that word better: it widens our thinking out from just money, to include a whole host of worldly things that could distract us - that could hold us and bind us. Not just money itself, but status, possessions, even traditions, even wanting to keep things how they’ve always been. Jesus tells us that we should use whatever wealth we have in God’s service; and we should value what we have, delight in the good things of the world. But always in ways that honour the giver; what we mustn’t do is to let what we have use us, own us, take us over. Give God the glory, and him alone.

And, says Jesus, be inventive. Be like the unjust steward. Think on your feet. Use whatever you have at hand, make the very most of whatever opportunities present themselves. You don’t have to do what people have always done. But we do need to know where we're headed, we do need to know whose word it is we preach, and honour him in the preaching; we do need to keep eyes, heart, mind focused on Christ and Christ alone.

The words we use may change, the place in which we worship may be re-ordered, changed round, or maybe changed altogether. We may not dress the way we used to, or sing the same songs, or pray the same prayers. But, whether we welcome change or find it hard, what really matters is this: that the Gospel is being preached, taught and proclaimed as widely and persuasively as possible, and people invited, welcomed and affirmed, met where they are. The message itself remains the same. The words we use may change, the way we speak them may change, but the Gospel itself does not. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever: and today he calls from us an urgent witness of focus and faithfulness, and of inventive opportunism, in the service of his love.

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