Sermons

 

Sermon given by Alison Maddocks, Diocesan Stewardship Officer on November 19th 2017

I’d like to tell you about three churches in this diocese.  They all have about 60 or 70 people in them each Sunday, they each stand in the middle of a large village with a few shops, a couple of pubs and a small school. 

They are all asked for about the same in Parish Share each year.  Two of them are facing a deficit budget this year and one will add a healthy sum to their reserves.  Oh and one of the ones with a deficit budget has just received a wonderfully generous legacy and they are just working out what they should do with it!

Who do you think are the best stewards?

I hope your answer would be – ‘I don’t know, because I need to know more!’

If you are really wide awake, you might have realised that my three churches are fictional and this is a re-telling of the parable of the talents that we heard in the Gospel this morning!

I understand that in the past when exploring this reading you have each been given some money to allow you to go away and start something so that you can find a means of making that money grow and bring more funds back to the church? 

Which is a great way of illustrating this parable, and what a great affirmation for the world of commerce, that purposely sets out to do just this, day in and day out. 

It reminds us of that very important truth that it is not ‘money that is the root of all evil’ as is so often misquoted but the love of money that is the root of all evil. 

Making money is not wrong, it is the motivation and purpose of making money that needs to be carefully examined.

But I am wondering off the point!

Let’s go back to our three churches.

I said that two were facing a deficit budget.  Well that’s not quite right because in one case they were until they benefited from a significant legacy; that was their problem solved!  And that is the way it is with God.  The point of the parable of the talents is that everything that God gives us – and that of course is everything – Everything that God gives us is meant to be used according to his purposes.  We are not meant to be custodians of what we are given, we are meant to be Stewards.

A custodian hangs onto things, a steward cares for things according to the will of the owner.  It is very clear that the will of the owner in the parable is that his gifts should be put to work not just guarded. 

And it is to be put to work for the purposes of the owner, not the servant or steward. [I wonder if you were struck as I was by the irony of the record breaking sum of $4m being paid for the Leonardo DiVinci painting which was of an image of Christ?]

The implications of this for our own life and the life of our church are very challenging. 

The teaching of the world is that we need to be careful with what we have, that we have what we have because we have earned it, worked for it and that we should use what we have to insulate ourselves, to buy ourselves security.

The teaching of God is that he is abundantly generous, that there is no limit to his giving, and that the more we let go, of what we are given and use it to build the kingdom the more blessed we will be. 

The servants in the parable were rewarded according to their actions with the one who had guarded that with which he’d been entrusted being thrown out of the kingdom. 

And yet the standards of the world might have judged him to be the most reliable steward!

So what is the message that I am preaching for us today?

I am inviting you to examine the extent to which you truly trust in the generosity of God.  And the extent to which you trust in the role of the church in building God’s kingdom on earth.

Being good stewards in God’s kingdom means remembering that we own nothing, we only have care for what is entrusted to us.  We cannot afford to be – in the words of today’s OT reading “people who rest complacently on their dregs” “who say in their hearts ‘the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’”  We need to good and active stewards of all that God has entrusted to us.

And part of that is the teaching that we should be bring the first fruits, the first of all that we have to God in response to his generosity.

The bible teaching, very clear in the Old Testament, is that this should be the first 10%, the tithe.  And it may surprise you to know that this is the teaching of the Church of England today.  The Church of England today teaches that the first 10% of our net income should be offered to God, 5% to the church and 5% to other good causes.

Now I’m guessing that what you have just heard me say is to do with the 10% and 5% but what I really want you to hear is the word first.

We shouldn’t be giving the leftovers, the dregs, to God.  God ask for the first fruits.  And it isn’t that God needs our giving – God is not ‘fundraising’, he is raising his children. 

God knows that when we learn to be generous, to let go of what we have, we experience the blessing of realising that God really does meet our needs, the more we give away, the greater his provision.

And as far as the teaching of the tithe is concerned, we are New Testament people not old testament people.  We are guided by the Spirit, not ruled by the law. 

The tithe is our guide; we should consider our giving from the perspective of 10%, 5% to the church and then pray about what is right for us.

I often recount a story that I heard of a woman who when she first heard about the 10% tithe was a bit shocked to say the least …..

And if it feels too much, too hard, we need to ask what it is we are putting before God.  It is rarely true that we can’t afford it, but rather we are not choosing to do so.  I wonder what is coming first, a regular meal out or extra bottle of wine?  A weekend break or new outfit?

There is nothing wrong with any of these things but they must not be excuses for saying we can’t afford greater generosity.

Our giving is our response to the generosity of God.  It should be regular and committed and it should be a gift, which means it is not ours to worry about how it is used. 

It is true that the church needs your offering, your regular giving, in order to thrive but it is also true that is we were all giving according to the teaching, the church here, across the diocese and nationally we would not be spending our time and energy worrying about money

It is liberating to give, and by the way did you ever meet an unhappy generous person?

 

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A sermon preached by Richard Newton on Palm Sunday

            Philippians 2.5-11        Matthew 21.1-11          9 April 2017     

1.         Lectio divina

For the last five weeks of Lent, the Gospel reading which we’ve heard on Sunday morning has been the main input for our Lent Groups during the following week.  We’ve had some very long readings, but these have provided much “food for thought” for us during the groups.

When I’ve been leading the group I’ve tried to do the sort of Bible study which is known as “Lectio divina”, which has become popular in the last few years.  We’ve listened to the passage being read, and then, without trying to analyse it theologically, we’ve each picked out a phrase, a sentence, or something that has stood out for us.  It’s a way of letting the Bible speak which always seems surprisingly fruitful – people’s imaginations latch on to all kinds of things, and bring out things that a more conventional way of studying the Bible probably wouldn’t.  That’s certainly been true again this Lent.

As I started having a look at the Gospel reading set for today, I thought to myself that I was going to miss doing that – so I thought I’d do it by myself.  What, I wondered, would be the things that I noticed as I read it.

After I’d read the passage and reflected on it, there were three things that gradually stood out for me             

       firstly, the words from the first paragraph, “you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with it "     

      secondly, these words from the quotation from the prophet Zechariah, “humble, and mounted on a  donkey”

                    and finally, some words from the last section, “the whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’

Having done that exercise, I then wondered why it should be that those three things should stand out for me.  I was a bit puzzled, but after a while I had a thought as to why.  Those three phrases are all unique to Matthew’s telling of the Palm Sunday story – and, despite having been preaching for over 30 years, I’ve never before preached on Matthew’s version.  Those words are fresh to me, in a way – not because I’ve never heard them, because I’ve never interacted with them before to produce a sermon!

2.         Matthew’s telling of the Palm Sunday story

What I thought would be interesting to do (this morning) would be to look into and explore the differences between Matthew’s telling of this story and the other gospels.  There are actually more than three differences.  Let’s briefly work our way through them.

First of all, Matthew is the only Gospel which talks of there being “a donkey tied, and a colt with her”.  The three other Gospels simply talk about a colt, rather than a donkey and a colt. 

You might ask, “how can Jesus possibly ride a donkey and a colt at the same time!?” The answer, of course, is that he couldn’t possibly ride both at the same time.  Matthew has taken these words directly from the prophet Zechariah, whom he goes on to quote later.  Zechariah speaks about a donkey and a colt.  The reason for that is he uses a literary figure of speech called “hendiadys” where the same thing is essentially said twice to give it particular emphasis. You find that technique a lot in the Hebrew scriptures – for example in the psalms.  Here, by speaking about a donkey, and then echoing that in the next phrase about the foal of a donkey, what is being emphasised is the significance of his being on a donkey or a colt, rather than painting a picture of him literally riding the two at once.

The significance of him riding such a beast is that he is coming in peace.  The theme of peace comes across really strongly in the quotation from Zechariah – the quotation which struck me because of the words “humble, and mounted on a donkey”.   John is the only other gospel which mentions Zechariah’s prophecy – and John quotes much less of it, and seems to be working of a rather different translation.

Matthew quotes the whole of Zechariah 9.9 – but let me read Zechariah 9, verses 9 and 10, because it all comes as one unit in the Old Testament scripture.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Matthew writes for a Jewish community, so the Old Testament background is always very important.  He introduces this prophecy of Zechariah into this story to emphasise the importance of “peace” in what Jesus is doing.  The whole action of this king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is to do with bringing about peace.

After that big theme, we then have a couple of small details which are different in Matthew from the other gospels.

First of all, Matthew has the crowd spreading their tree branches on the ground as well as their cloaks.  Mark and John also both have the crowd cutting branches, but neither say what the people do with them, and Luke doesn’t have any branches at all, just garments.  I’m not sure there’s any significance at all in those descriptions, but it’s interesting to see how the details vary a little from one account to the other.

Another detail that varies from one gospel to another is exactly what the crowd cries out.  Matthew is the only one in which the crowd shout “Hosanna to the son of David”  Mark throws in “the kingdom of our father David” rather as an afterthought at the end, and Luke and John make no mention of David at all

If Matthew was wiring for a Jewish community, the “son of David” would be a very important figure – taking them right back into their ancient history and to the kingship of their nation.  The thought that a king of Davidic descent is riding into Jerusalem for the Passover, during a time of Roman occupation, is potentially explosive.  Whatever Jesus’ intentions may be, people are likely to read all sorts of things into it.

The final difference between Matthew and the other gospels is the last two verses, or the last two sentences, in today’s reading.  These are only in Matthew’s gospel.

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’

The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

In Mark’s gospel Jesus simply goes back to Bethany for the night: in Luke’s gospel he gets into a discussion with the Pharisees; and in John’s gospel some Greeks turn up wishing to speak to him.  It’s only in Matthew that we’re told that the city is in turmoil and people are asking “Who is this?”.

It strikes me that there’s quite a contrast here with what Matthew has described just a few verses earlier.  He goes out of his way to emphasise that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem as a bringer of peace, and then he writes about Jesus’ entry into the city causing turmoil. 

Is this an act of peace?

Is this an act of provocation?

           Or can an act of peace itself be provocative?

3.         Two paintings

Let’s look at those questions in a slightly different way – by means of two paintings.

The two painting below are, of Jesus entering Jerusalem, were published on the Roots magazine website this week.  The first is by Giotto.  It’s a peaceful scene – you might even say “a hopeful scene”.  Jesus approaches Jerusalem very sedately, giving a blessing to the people who have come out to greet him.  He seems very calm and collected, and they are happily laying out their garments for him to travel over, full of praise and admiration for him.  One of them is almost laid out prostrate before him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second painting is by Van Dyck.  This has a rather different feel about it.  Everyone looks rather frantic and hassled.  Jesus looks purposeful, rather than peaceful.  There seems to be an element of turmoil about the crowd, with hands flying in the air, and people ducking and diving.  Van Dyck captures tension, and the hustle and bustle.



Those two elements capture the two elements that characterise Matthew’s telling of the story.  Giotto captures the peace, and Van Dyck captures the turmoil.    

4.         Conclusion

These two pictures serve to reinforce the questions that came out of Matthew’s account of the story.  Is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a peaceful, or a provocative one, or both?  What sort of peace does this Jesus, this son of David, bring?

Let me read you a comment on the links between the New Testament and Gospel readings for today:

Jesus carefully plans his entrance.  But as Paul reminds us so powerfully in Philippians 2, Jesus doesn’t come as a conquering hero, but as a servant; he doesn’t arrive in pomp and splendour, as most kings do, but in humility on an ass; he doesn’t come to divide and rule, but to bring his people together in peace.  We know, however, that Palm Sunday is a precursor to Good Friday, that the offer of peace and reconciliation is met with rejection and death.  But we also know that Jesus’ death is the means by which God brings peace and salvation.

There’s much to reflect on.  You might also wish to reflect on what sort of Jesus it is who enters your life.  Is it a Jesus who brings peace, or a Jesus who provokes you to ask yourself all sorts of questions?   

 

 

 


 

 Sermon preached at St John’s, Hagley:  September 4th, 2016 by Revd. David Blackburn

THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

One of the great joys of the summer for June and me has been to see as much as we could of the Olympic Games.   And because our youngest daughter works as a manager for an organization called ENGLAND HOCKEY, you won’t be surprised to learn that we followed the exploits of the British men’s and women’s teams with great interest.  

Sadly the men were eliminated at a fairly early stage, but as the history books will tell, the women went on to win the Gold Medal.  

As I was reflecting on this the other day, I realized that as we watched the matches on TV we were doing so merely as spectators, whereas those on the pitch fighting for the medals were actually participants.   We were making no commitment other than to switch on the TV set and be exhilarated and entertained for an hour, to bask at the end, perhaps, in reflected national glory.   But it was the team members who made the real commitment over a great many years.   It was hard effort and steadfast endurance that saw them through to victory, and they reached their goal at great physical and mental cost.

When we look at today’s scripture readings  (Philemon & Luke 14. 25-33) , we are faced with a hard question.   In terms of our walk with God, and indeed as members of his church, the question is this: are we spectators or participants?  Mere observers, or willing recruits?   If we are to be participants in the work of the kingdom of God, we are immediately faced with a great challenge.  A challenge put into words by Jesus in that reading from Luke’s gospel, and a challenge at the heart of the letter to Philemon.  

That letter, written by Paul, reminds us that as far as God is concerned, WE HAVE NO RIGHTS OF OUR OWN.   God must become the undisputed master of our lives.   Paul implies in his letter that we can never ask, ‘What do I wish to do?’   We can only ask, ‘What does GOD wish me to do?’   In a very special sense we have no time which is our own.   We can’t say at one time, ‘I’ll do what God wants me to do,’ and at other times, ‘I’ll do what I like’.  The Christian has no time off from being a Christian.   There is no time when we are off duty.  A partial service of God is not enough, according to Paul’s way of thinking.   And scripture reminds us in several places that being a Christian is a full-time job.

Jesus makes this point very clear in that reading we heard from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is probably in a place called Perea, and great crowds turned up to hear him, perhaps out of curiosity in terms of what this man from Nazareth was really on about.   Many thought his journey through their village to Jerusalem was the victory march of the Messiah himself, and they wanted to be around when he claimed his throne, no doubt to cheer, but also to enjoy a reflected glory.   With relentless honesty, Jesus disillusioned them.   His business in Jerusalem was to be exacting and dangerous, calling for followers who were by no means spectators.  Followers who would give him their undivided loyalty and would never give up on him.

In order to force his point home, Jesus says some apparently hard things about loyalty to him compared with loyalty to close family members.   However, when Jesus said that people must hate their father and their mother, he didn’t mean what those words convey to the western reader.   Some cultures and languages have different ways to others to express things.   If a French person wishes to say how well someone has done in an exam, he or she will say, Ça n’est pas mal.   To the French the art of understatement makes the point very clearly!  Similarly, the semitic mind is comfortable with extremes:  light and darkness;  truth and falsehood; love and hate – primary colours with no half shades of compromise in between.   The semitic way of saying, ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I LIKE this and I HATE that.’  And so…  for the followers of Jesus, to hate their families really meant giving the family second place in their affections.  Of course, there is no place in Jesus’ teaching for literal HATRED.  We remember that he commanded his followers to love even their enemies, so it’s impossible to think that here he is telling his listeners literally to hate their nearest and dearest.  Jesus’ meaning is surely that the love a disciple has for him must be so great that the best of earthly love is HATRED by comparison.   In any event, ties of kinship must not be allowed to interfere with a disciple’s absolute commitment to the kingdom of God.

Jesus also says – simply – clearly – and without equivocation -  that for anyone who wants to follow him there is likely to be a great cost, and that each of his followers will be required to carry his or her own cross.  This cross is not literal, as Jesus’ was, and the sufferings it brings with it certainly don’t lead to the atonement of the world as his did.   But it was and is real.   We reflect that the disciples had probably seen a man take up his cross quite literally, and they knew what it meant.  When a man from one of their villages took up a cross and went off with a little band of Roman soldiers, he was on a one-way journey.  He’d not be back.   So: Jesus is saying that taking up the cross means the utmost… the utmost  in self denial… participant, and not spectator.

In this gospel passage we can be sure that Jesus doesn’t want disciples who do not realize what they have let themselves in for.  Counting the cost is important, and he uses twin parables to drive this point home.  The first is about a man who decides to build a tower.   Before he starts building, says Jesus, the man must first sit down and count the cost.  Only then can he expect success.  In other words, Jesus is saying, sit down and really reckon whether you can afford to follow me.

In the second parable, Jesus is saying that a King faced with tremendous opposition before a battle, thinks really hard.  If he can’t see his way through the problem he doesn’t wait tamely for defeat.  Instead, he arranges a peace while the enemy is still a long way off.   In other words, sit down and reckon whether you can refuse the demands that Jesus makes.

The message is plain.  Jesus doesn’t want followers who rush into discipleship without thinking of what is involved.  And he is very clear about the price.   The person who comes to him must  be prepared to renounce all that he has.   In doing this Jesus is not discouraging people from becoming disciples.  But he is warning against an ill-considered faint hearted attachment.  He is pointing out very clearly that there is a difference between a spectator and a participant, and he wants everyone to count the cost and reckon everything to be lost for Jesus’ sake.

A former Bishop of London was once visiting a well-known resort on the south coast.  On the Sunday he made his way to one of the more fashionable churches in the town.   He was greeted by the vicar and they both stood together for a few minutes and watched the people flocking into church.  The vicar turned to the bishop and said, ‘You know, you couldn’t stop these people coming if you tried.’   Whereupon the bishop asked, ‘Have you ever tried preaching the gospel?’   Not only a smart put down to puncture a self-congratulatory attitude but a reminder that the gospel, when it is truly proclaimed, has never been popular.  The gospel of Jesus is a radical, challenging thing, and will inevitably bring hardship to those who try to preach it and live by it, as participants, not spectators.  But it can also be life changing.   I heard the other day that Mary Wassell had a very hard life at the beginning.  But I was told that when she became a Christian and started to go to church when she was thirteen or so, her life changed completely for the better.

This brings me to my final point.  A notice outside a church read as follows:  WANTED – WORKERS FOR GOD.  PLENTY OF OVERTIME.   In the words of the old hymn, ‘Millions yet have never heard’.  How will they hear?   There can only be one answer to that question.   It is through us: for God works by his Holy Spirit through his people as they participate, rather than spectate.   There’s no mechanical device for making men and women respond to him.  It is a person to person process with all the risks of disappointment, failure and let down.

But we in the churches in Hagley can actually make a start as far as our own community is concerned.   Between September 23rd and 25th there is going to be something called NATIONAL PRAYER WEEKEND.   We are asked to join the whole nation in prayer, as churches and individuals, and pray for our own neighbourhood, one life, one street, one community at a time.  This is something we can all do.  Prayer does change things, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It does make a difference.

Last year 600 churches took part, and our Archbishop writes these words to encourage us to do OUR part.  To be participants, not spectators, in a very real way.  Justin Welby says:   “When we have a church that prays and is reconciled and reconciling, and that tells people confidently about Jesus, then the dawn will break, hope will rise,  and our countries will be transformed….

David Blackburn