Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Two Sons - A Sermon for this Sunday (Trinity 16)

Today’s story of the two sons, each of whom did the opposite of what he had said he’d do is a familiar one. Most people know the parable; I’ve used it a lot in school assembly - and most people will know it also I guess from their own personal experience. Probably most of us who are parents, anyway.

It’s great when your child says, “Right, that’s fine, just leave it with me,” when you’ve asked them to do something. Not so good if you come back later and find they’ve not done it after all. In the world of work there’s the sycophant who sucks up to the boss and always presents himself as keen and eager - but in actual fact he’s idle and useless, and as soon as the boss isn’t looking he’s doing his best to offload the work on someone else or to come up with an excuse for why it hasn’t been done.

But then again there’s the sort of experience I had the other week. I’d been trying to find someone to help me out with something, but everyone was too busy, had something better to do. I just had to find the time to do it myself, which was hard. But when I came to it, I found the job had been done after all. A couple of people had found some unexpected time to spare, and they’d thought of me and just got on with it. Brilliant!

Jesus told this story to make clear to the religious folk who were criticising him just where they really stood, and why it was he was speaking to the sort of riff-raff they didn’t have time for. They looked good, and they were making all the right noises, but were they really prepared to do the job? Were they really listening to God? Whereas these people who didn’t count, these people who were only one step up from the gutter - well, it didn’t matter how late in the day it is, if they start to listen and start to work and are prepared to get the job done, God will look on them with favour. You - the priests and elders - says Jesus, are like the younger son - you may look good, but inwardly you’re self-righteous and hypocritical.

Tax gatherers and prostitutes will get into the kingdom before you, he tells them. For they listened to John the Baptist and repented, when you refused to hear. So that’s the context. But how does this story relate to us? Which child in the story am I - the one who said yes but didn’t do it, or the one who said no and changed his mind and did it after all?

Well, I suppose I’m either one at different times, and that’s probably true for all of us. In fact sometimes we say yes and we do do it. And probably at times we say no and keep to that no, without changing our mind. We vary in the way we respond, but maybe that’s the point: one thing this story can do is to encourage in us a spirit of self-awareness.

And maybe also a readiness to follow-through . . . by which I mean that anyone can look good by reciting the creed, singing the hymns, joining in the church fellowship, but what about the rest of our lives? Does what we do here, where we say to God, “Yes, I’ll do it, leave it with me!” - does that promise follow through into our everyday world?

I’ve spoken before about the distinction between religion and faith; you could say it’s something of a bee in my bonnet. But here’s one distinction that occurs to me : religion can (it shouldn’t but it can) be practised with a clear and sharp boundary around it, so that it has to do with this churchy bit of my life but doesn’t really impinge on the rest. But faith has to do with what’s going on all the time in our hearts and our heads, and what forms and guides our attitudes and actions.

If our religion is more about style than substance, we may well find some of those who started off saying no to God, or maybe even saying there is no God, coming past us. People with unsavoury previous lives but who’ve seen the light, heard the call at last. People who started by saying, “I’ve no time for this stuff, but who then changed their minds.

The reality is that one day I’m this son, another I’m the other one. God probably despairs at my fickleness. But that’s the point of the story: it prompts me into asking who I am, it prompts me into self-awareness. 

The good news is that it’s never too late to change our mind, if we started out by saying no to God. Now Jesus says that an awful lot in the Gospels: that God loves us whatever we say to him, yes or no. That God is the father who watched and waited for his prodigal son. 

So God is forgiving and gracious, he wants to include, not exclude, to save, not to condemn. On my bad days, when I’m not very God-minded, well, I may not be thinking of God, but he’s still thinking of me. But this story also makes clear that God’s not going to be fobbed off by displays of piety that don’t lead anywhere. “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,” says Paul, in our first reading this morning. Our faith is proved in where it leads us, how it directs our thinking and our actions.

If we’re truly open to God’s power and will, we’ll be building within ourselves a servant spirit that reflects what we see in Jesus, that’ll be revealed when we make the most of the chances we have each day to show care and kindness to those around us. That’s the vineyard God is calling us to work in, when he calls us to be his people, his church.

I love this church building, and I hope it stands here for ever. But if the building wasn’t here, the church still would be, so long as God is honoured here in Leighton by people who pray to him and care as he cares. Religion requires buildings, faith doesn’t, however much it may value them and however well it may use them. What faith does is to seek to know the mind of Christ and to do the work of Christ; and where that is happening, even if it’s in the day, we’ll be building his Church.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

A sermon for today, on Matthew 18:21-35

A word or two about the reading we’ve just heard. First question: is it good news or bad news? It’s not that long ago that hiring fairs and the like were still part of the rural scene in this country, as they were at the time of Jesus. In the days before there was any sort of safety net other than perhaps the poor house, a lot depended on whether you were noticed and picked and hired for whatever the daily rate might be. If you weren’t, you and your family went hungry.

Harvest time would be the best time for most people; more hands were needed, so more people were hired. But in the story Jesus told, even at harvest there were still men waiting hopefully in the market place each time the owner of the vineyard called to see. Just an hour before sunset there were still men there, so even that late, he hired them.

Now this story is generally called the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and not surprisingly we tend to view it from the workers’ point of view. Good news, then, or bad news? Good news for those who were hired late in the day. They were probably pretty much resigned to being out of luck, but not only did they get a bit of work, they were paid as though they’d been there all day. Bad news, you might think, for those who’d been sweating all day in the hot sun. When they saw what the others had been paid, they naturally assumed they’d get more, but they didn’t.

Well, that certainly seemed like bad news. But was it really? The rate agreed was a daily rate, and they got what they’d shaken hands on, the fair rate for the day. They’d not been underpaid - but it still feels rather annoying I guess to see the guy next to you get paid more per hour than you got. But look at it another way. The men who did just one hour’s work had wanted to work, it was just that no-one had wanted them. And they had just as much need for the money that would provide for their family needs.

So maybe this parable should have a different title, to encourage us to look at it from a different angle. We could call it the parable of the generous landlord. But, you may say, he wasn’t so generous to those who’d worked all day. And what about the answer he gives: "Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money?" It’s arguable that one of the main problems with society is the gap between rich and poor; we could get offended when a rich person says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”

So we might be upset a bit by this parable, and actually I think it’s OK to be upset. In general it’s surely true that  those who work harder and longer should get more than those who’ve worked for less time and at less cost to themselves. It would certainly be wrong to suggest that this parable excuses the injustices and unfair situations there are in the world of employment. Because that’s not why it was told.

Jesus was using a scene from everyday life. That’s where the best parables always come from. People will have understood what he was describing, it was a fact of their own daily lives, for good or ill. Jesus wasn’t approving or criticising the system of hiring day workers, just using it to get quite a different point across. And no-one in the story was underpaid, remember. Those hired in the morning received what they’d contracted for: a day's work for a day's wage.

So let’s think for a moment about those guys. They’d had to work hard all day, yes - but right from the start they knew they’d got work and they’d got pay. But how about the guys who were hired last. All day they’d been passed over: would no-one hire them? Without work, how would they eat? What about their families? They weren’t slaving away in the hot sun, but I bet they wished they were. They needed the money.

But just as their last hope was about to fade away with the setting sun, they got hired after all. They’ll have expected only a tiny bit of the daily wage, but any little thing would be better than nothing, for day workers like them.

But then of course the owner of the vineyard unexpectedly - and to be honest, quite madly - paid them as though they’d been working for him all day. And that, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like.

So was Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is unfair? Well, yes, I suppose he was: for the kingdom of God may well be unfair if we were to measure it in worldly terms, or with our trade union rule books in hand. For in the kingdom God gives not according to how much we’ve done, or how long we’ve been signed up, or how faithfully we get to church even; he gives according to his love for us, and according to our need. Not surprisingly, the temptation for the long term, hard working Christian may well be to be like the men who’d worked all day in the story: we may take issue, we may take umbrage: we may say, “Hang on a bit, what about me? I've worked harder, I've been here longer, I've done more.”

So this parable is about recognising our blessedness. It’s about the love of the God of love: we can’t earn it, we don’t get it by ticking all the appropriate boxes, or putting the hours in, or passing some test - it’s just here for us anyway. Divine love doesn’t measure what we’ve earned or might think we deserve.

And maybe that’s just as well. Those who worked all day in the story only did so because by chance they’d been hired first. They could just as easily have been overlooked till later. The difference between the guys in the story was in one sense a matter not of merit but of circumstance, it was how it happened.

So in the story the owner of the vineyard looked at those who worked for him, whether they’d spent an hour in the fields or been out there all day, and the question he asked himself wasn’t 'How much does each of these deserve?' but rather, 'How can I help them? What do they need?'

And that’s how God looks at us. The Bible word for this is grace: which is about a love that gives more than we deserve, that pays over the odds. Jesus said that in the kingdom, ‘Many who are last will be first, and the first last.’ Why is it that those who are first end up being last? I think because they (we, perhaps; me, sometimes, for sure) forget how it is we got to be first, that that was God’s gracious act and not our own right or merit. The danger if we forget that is that we’re led to question God's love for those who happen to come along later.

One final thing, then: our churches need to be like that vineyard. In the kingdom it doesn’t matter how late you come in, or what you were doing before, the same gracious love is available to you; all you have to do is to turn to God and answer yes to his call. And so for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear there is good news in this parable, good news of a love that makes space for all.

But there’s also a challenge for us: does the ministry offered where we are match up to that love? Do we make space for all, do we resist the temptation to resent God’s love for others who maybe come later? Do we do all we can to reflect God’s open and impartial love in the welcome we offer and the invitation we give? For all are called, however late in the day, to work in God's vineyard, and all who say yes to that call will by grace receive the same generous reward.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

White Bryony

I saw it well before I came to cross the stile:
that flash of orange-red skeining the hedge
the opposite side of the lane. On this September day
all the hedges are laden: tight berries of hawthorn,
dark and waxy, and the lighter tones of rose hips,
which we used to break open to make itching powder;
then, here and there, close clusters of honeysuckle fruits
that cling to the end of their naked stems. But here
the berries of white bryony tumble across the hedge
like an untidy string of pearls - but what pearls!
The young green berries fade almost to white,
glistening softly, before the orange tint forms,
and strengthens, and deepens, to become like flame.
The ripe berries are attractive, they grab the eye,
but they are deceivers, and will poison the unwary.
The plant straggles up the hedge, its leaves (to me)
the shape of baby dinosaur footprints, then, near the crown,
it releases its fruiting stems to tumble back down.
Well, I am glad I’ve seen them today, these fiery pearls,
and I’ll not try one for taste. The bark of a passing raven
riding the cool and choppy autumn breeze
calls me back to my walk, and to its other claims and colours.

Monday, 11 September 2017

An Autumn Walk

It was a mid-September morning, still summer according to the calendar, but the weather said Autumn - cool, with a blustery wind and splashes of showery rain. I walked out towards Berriew on the canal towpath, accompanied by soaring and diving swallows and house martins, chasing the insects over the dark water and the damp grass beyond. A swan and five or six well-grown cygnets relaxed on the bank.

At the Belan locks I left the canal and trekked uphill towards Powis Castle, through fields well stocked with sheep. A buzzard was mewing somewhere overhead, rejoicing in the brisk wind. Crossing the stile onto Red Lane, my eyes were caught by a flash of red across the hedge opposite - berries, firstly rose hips, then honeysuckle, with a few late flowers also hanging on, and lastly and most vividly, white bryony, the only wild British member of the cucumber family, the skeins of berries turning from green through white to a vivid orange-red. A blue tit spotted me and fled.

I passed through the kissing gate and onto the exit road from the Castle. A rough bark from overhead made me look up, to see a raven enjoying the wind. He led me towards the castle, where a band of jackdaws tried unsuccessfully to see him off. I decided to do a circuit of the gardens, having remembered my National Trust card, and was delighted as always by the well-planted beds. Having said that, I’m as pleased by the unplanned flowers that are set free just to spread as I am by the carefully placed and planted ones: in this case the Mexican daisies that spill over many of the walls (as they do over my paved area at home), the distinctive soft mauve-purple of autumn crocus naturalised in the grass below the formal gardens, and the sharper purple of clematis among the trees.

A vivid red admiral butterfly swept past me as I neared the orangery, and settled on a sweet-scented citrus flower before moving on to some nearby sedums. There was still enough warmth in the sun to please the butterflies, and I was buzzed by a speckled wood, deep brown with buff freckles and one of our more territorial species. Bees, wasps and hover flies browsed among the flowers.

I walked back through the park woods, and was pleased to spot a tree creeper moving mouse-like around the gnarled trunk of an oak. It’s said that tree creepers can only creep upwards (then fly back down), and that’s more or less true, but this one didn’t mind backing down a little way when something caught its fancy. Further on there was a redwood: not a native tree, but much loved by our native tree creeper - they hollow out roosts in the soft bark, and I think I spotted one.

Out of the park, through the town, and back home via the stately beeches of Bronybuckley Wood. In the deep shade not much grows besides ferns and brambles and the last of our woodland plants to flower, enchanter’s nightshade. Robins were singing to claim their winter territories, as I climbed the steep woodland path.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Falling Out

Sermon for this coming Sunday, on the Gospel (Matthew 18.15-20)

Looking again at the Gospel reading we’ve just heard, clearly there were problems and difficulties and fallings out in the church even in its very earliest days, even when the Gospels were first being written. We know that anyway, because there are a number of examples in the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul wrote several of his letters to address issues and quarrels in the churches he had founded. And we shouldn’t be surprised that even prayerful holy people fall out. We’re still human, after all.

I have the fortune or the misfortune (I’ve used both words at different times) to be part of quite a large family. I am in fact the eldest of six, five boys, one girl. We don’t live in each others’ pockets, but we know where we belong, and we’re all ready to be there for each other when help is needed. I can think of a couple of times in my life when I’d have been sunk without my brothers and sister, and I guess each one of us could say the same.

So that’s the fortune side of things, but what about the misfortune? Well, as they say, you can choose your friends but for family you get what you’re given. We’re all different people: we don’t vote the same way, we don’t go out to the same places, there are lots of things we don’t agree on. So just now and then, that might mean a couple of us have a proper falling-out.

I really don’t remember many of those, not since we were very young anyway. But when they do happen, the vital thing is what happens next, what we do about it. I know someone quite well who hasn’t spoken to her sister in twenty years; and while I can’t comment on that, as I’ve no idea what caused it, I really can’t imagine that ever happening in my own family. If we even tried not to speak, I doubt we’d manage to keep it up for very long.

But let’s turn to this morning’s Gospel reading. It’s fairly tough, focusing on what to do when relationships go wrong, if, as Jesus says, “your brother sins against you”. This isn’t just actual brothers or sisters within a family. As Christians we call God “Our Father”, and that immediately turns everyone else who prays the same prayer into my brother or my sister. So in church every argument or disagreement is a family matter - and nice though we are, they will happen, so what do we do?

The proof of our faith is found not in how we behave when it’s all going terribly well, but in how we behave when things go wrong. Jesus knew that as well as anyone, and he had to cope with a few disagreements among his own disciples.

So what about us as present-day disciples? How do we deal with the problems and issues and slights that happen among us? The first thing to say is that I do need to do something if things are going wrong: just to let it lie is not an option. Things are likely to fester, after all. I know that when I get hurt by someone or by something said I can end up brooding about it in such a way that something that probably ought to be quickly sorted and pout to one side instead threatens to take me over. That’s obviously no good. Unresolved issues lead to a toxic environment in which everyone suffers.

Secondly I find it’s always good to put any complaint I have into words; one thing that often happens then is that this big bad things becomes a lot smaller, and more easily resolved. It helps me not to get things out of balance: what may have felt like a personal attack might just be someone’s clumsiness or thoughtlessness, and not malicious or targeted at all.

But if in the end I do feel wronged, talking things over face to face would be good if it can be done. It’s not always easy. It might need someone else to prepare the way beforehand. A friend once did that for me. Neither I not the other person would have taken the first step - so he set us up.
In fact on that occasion it didn’t work too well. But at least we tried, and I think it did begin a process that sort of began to work eventually. So another thing there, about not giving up when it doesn’t work straight away.

But what if nothing is working, and the problem won’t go away? In this morning’s Gospel Jesus says that we should then take two or three witnesses along with us. That could sound like escalating things, but I think Jesus was carefully reminding his disciples of the Jewish Law in Deuteronomy 19, verse 15.

For we read there that a charge of misdemeanour can’t be sustained on the evidence of one person; you have to have two or three further witnesses. Those witnesses aren’t there though as a sort of legal heavy mob to make sure the charges stick, so much as to help clarify things, maybe defuse tension and help reconciliation to happen. To have a band of barrack-room lawyers (or even real ones) probably wouldn’t help. But two or three wise and clear sighted folk might help a lot, if what we want is to help two people at odds to start listening to each other and finding common ground. The Biblical equivalent to the arbitration service ACAS in a union dispute - or perhaps just the honest friend who says, “Have you really had a look at yourself?”

An issue between two people can end up poisoning the whole well if it’s not sorted out. I remember one church I used to know that became utterly toxic by an argument that had  happened over thirty years before, and that could and should have been sorted out then. Any stranger coming into that church would have felt uneasy straightaway; there was always something in the air.  So Jesus goes on to say that if a matter can’t be sorted out face to face or with the help of others, then it becomes a matter for the whole fellowship.

The last resort is perhaps the court of law, and that’s when some fallings-out end up, but when they do my heart always sinks. A legal pronouncement might settle the issue, but it’s unlikely to restore unity. But a caring and prayerful Church, with patient and loving prayer and fellowship just might be able to bring people back together.

I could say more, but I’ll restrict myself to just two more points. The first is a comment on the scripture itself this morning. The context of this passage of scripture is that it comes immediately after the story of the lost sheep. That story tells of the ninety-nine that are left, while the Good Shepherd goes to find the one that’s lost. In context, today’s reading isn’t about how to deal with trouble-makers, it’s about how to find and restore the lost, it’s about how to keep the flock together. It’s about staying together as family through difficult times. This is so important point, I think: Jesus isn’t intending to teach us how to manage a situation, he’s talking about how to save a soul. Unless that’s our aim too when were faced with a situation of hurt or breakdown in the church, we’re probably going to fail. We need to address the issue according to the mind of Christ.

And lastly, and very much from my own experience: we’re none of us perfect, so if I have an issue with someone else I need to look hard at myself as well. I’ll get it wrong if I insist that all the fault’s on the other side and none of it’s on mine. I can recall times when a word or action that hurt me had really been sparked by something I’d done or said without realising or intending the hurt I’d caused. Thinking about it, that’s probably why in my own family our arguments don’t become feuds. We’re pretty self-aware, and we tend to keep on talking. We need to as Christians too: and to be both self-aware and Christ-aware, and seriously in the business of wanting souls to be saved. Then God will be able to use us graciously, and we’ll be good at being his family. Amen.

Friday, 1 September 2017


A short reflection on Revelation 3.14-end, for a service on "Building Bridges" at Welshpool Methodist Church on Sunday next.

The other night I arrived home a little after everyone else had eaten, which was fine, as I had a curry that just needed heating through. But Ann said, “There’s a bit of mashed potato left in that pan, which you can have if you like.” I’m fond of my spuds, so I got myself a spoon and ate the bit of mash straight from the pan. Well, it was all right, but it was no better than that.

It wasn’t that the potatoes weren’t up to scratch, or that they hadn’t been cooked properly. They’d been mashed with a decent amount of butter, couldn’t fault them there either. No, it was just that they’d sat there too long, and they were no longer hot. They weren’t cold exactly. Maybe they’d have been better if they had been. They were neither one thing nor t’other.

Of all the churches, seven altogether, addressed one by one in the first three chapters of Revelation, it’s the church in Laodicea of whom Christ has nothing good to say. There is no redeeming feature. They are lukewarm; they aren’t really doing anything.

Laodicea was a great commercial centre, a place also where clothes were made, and a centre for medical study, famous for the ointment produced there to treat diseases of the eye. But in Revelation we read that the church there is spiritually poor, not rich; naked, not well-clothed; blind, not clear-sighted.

And it wasn’t that they were doing anything bad. There were no scandals, and if you were to measure the strength of a church by the balance sheet and the numbers there on a Sunday, they were doing all right - so much so that they could say, and believe, and mean, “We have everything we want! We have it all!”

What they were not doing, I suggest, is building bridges. They were happy and secure in themselves, and that made them firstly blind to their own deficiencies, and secondly blind to the opportunities and needs there were in the world around them. They had constructed their own little kingdom, but they had forgotten how to live in the Kingdom of God.

One title used by the pope is “pontifex”. What that means is “bridge-builder”. To be builders of bridges is absolutely basic to Christian identity and witness. Many bridges remain unbuilt in our world because those who could afford to build are saying “Why should we? We don’t need to go there!” while those who need the bridge can’t afford to build it.

What bridges do I mean? Real bridges are things of great beauty and wonder: so many people turned out to see the new Queensferry Bridge across the Forth on its first day of opening that it began its life hosting traffic jams. The other day I was looking (on TV) at the bridge that will cross miles of sea to connect Hong Kong and Macau. We’re good at building that sort of bridge. But what about bridging the poverty gap? What about bridging the divisions we make our race or gender or nationality or creed?

The Laodiceans were saying, “We’re all right. We don’t need anything else.” But as Paul says elsewhere, it doesn’t matter what we have or what we do, if we don’t have love, it’s worth nothing. We’re sounding gongs or clanging cymbals. Love is what builds bridges. Love is what breaks barriers. Love is what makes connections. And it’s our failure to love that, if we don’t take care, cuts us off from the love of Christ, without which we have no life.

As the Laodiceans were told, he is standing at the door, knocking. All that’s needed is one small action to open the door, and he will be the enabler of our bridge-building programmes, and the opener of our minds and eyes and hearts. Amen.