Year A, Trinity 12: Winning the person, not the argument.

Romans 12: 9-end, Matthew 16: 21-end

“Get away from me, Satan! You do not have your mind on divine things, but human things.” These are some of the harshest words Jesus ever utters. He says them not to the Pharisees or the High priests, not to Judas, but to Peter. And this moment of public rebuke for Peter comes just after the moment of affirmation we heard last week, when Jesus declared him the rock on which he would build the church.

“Get away from me, Satan!” What had Peter done to prompt such a rebuke? He said something we might have a good deal of sympathy with. Jesus had just started to explain to people what would be the end point of his ministry. He wasn’t going to spend years wandering the Galilean countryside, healing people, teaching, and drawing massive crowds. He wasn’t going to lead an army to Jerusalem and proclaim himself King. He was going to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, be killed, and then rise again.

Perhaps understandably, Peter thought this less-than-optimistic vision of the future of Jesus’ ministry was a mistake. So, taking Jesus off to one side, he began to explain how he’d got it wrong. This was not what God had in mind. The Messiah was not going to suffer and die. He mansplained messianic prophecy to Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t having it.

The last time Jesus told Satan to get away was in his temptations in the desert. He uses the same words here probably because as far as he’s concerned, Peter’s words are a temptation. A temptation to choose a different path to the one God has called him to take. Peter’s problem is that he’s looking at this from a human perspective, not God’s perspective. Peter’s hopes and dreams are still limited by his human horizons. He wants the fairy-tale ending: Jesus wins, is proclaimed king, his enemies are destroyed, Jesus and his disciples all live happily ever after.

It’s a temptation for Jesus, Peter’s vision for the future, because it’s possible. It could happen. It would represent the best possible outcome for the disciples and all faithful Jews. But it’s not God’s vision for the future. It’s not God’s vision for all people, Jew and Gentile. And Jesus refuses to be swayed by it. God is calling him to a different path, one that is going to involve suffering and death. One that means putting the good of his enemies first.

Now if that were all that Jesus says, we could leave the whole thing there: Jesus tries to explain God’s plan for the Messiah. Peter can’t accept it, Jesus has to correct him. It’s yet another example of Peter getting it wrong.

But that’s not all. Because as Jesus goes on to say, this isn’t just about God’s plan for the messiah. This is a way of life that should mark out everyone who follows him. Peter hasn’t just failed to understand what Jesus has come to do. He’s failed to understand the way that Jesus wants all his followers to live. Anyone following him must deny themselves and take up their cross. Anyone who wants to save their life will lose it. Anyone who loses their life will save it.

It’s counterintuitive. It sounds like a paradox. If you live like you’re just trying to save your life then you’ll end up losing it. If you live as if your own life is less important than other people’s, then you’ll end up saving it.

Paul expands on this in the passage from Romans. Telling Christians in Rome how they should live as people facing opposition, he draws on Jesus’ words to remind them to live above all as people who see their own lives as less important than other people’s. In the face of persecution, they are to pray for those who persecute them. At a time when their trust and goodwill are being betrayed they are to continue to show hospitality to strangers. They are to return good for evil.

When we feel under attack, when we feel we are being persecuted, or treated unfairly, when we feel our way of life is threatened, our instinctive response is to become defensive. We enter into survival mode. We stop letting the little things go. We become less generous towards others. We fear the worst of people. When we are gripped by crisis, we feel the need for urgent action, the need to fix the problem, to prioritise this issue above the stuff that we might ordinarily choose to do. We tell ourselves that charity begins at home. That sometimes you need to put yourself first.

The words of Paul and Jesus here are counter-intuitive. They fly in the face of all of this conventional wisdom. They are against going into survival mode. They are against urgently trying to ‘fix things’. The more important an issue is, Paul is saying, the less hard we should fight for it. If we think the forces of evil are going to destroy us, then we should help them. We should try to identify who our enemies are and pray for them, be generous to them, bless them, love them. Instead of treating whatever crisis we are gripped in as an impersonal threat, we need to recognise that generally they are simply about different people with a different perspective. And that we are called to love those people.

This is difficult, and we want to deny it, like Peter.

“God forbid that you should do such a crazy thing! This is some sort of self-destructive martyr-complex. You’ll put yourself into an early grave thinking like that. You need to think of yourself and think of the people who love you. Don’t start worrying about the people who hate you.”

 

But Jesus and Paul are clear that we need to act differently. The thing is, even though most of us are not facing violent persecution or risking arrest we still face opposition. We still have people who act against us. We still feel gripped by crises that put us into survival mode.

We live in an accelerating news cycle, where the threats against us are constantly presented: declining attendance at churches, the rise of fascism and intolerance, the polar ice caps melting. Threats to the environment. Threats to our society. Threats to our church. We live in a permanent state of crisis. The stakes are always so high we cannot risk ignoring the warnings. Everything tells us we must act. We must resist. We must preserve our threatened way of life.

But what if we don’t? What if we decide that winning the person is more important than winning the argument? Instead of fighting our cause, can we figure out who the people are ‘on the other side’, and then love them?

I want to be a bit personal here, and perhaps a bit political.

As an ordained woman I live with this kind of concept and have done ever since I first started exploring a call to ordination.  I have always had, relatively close to me, people who have fundamentally opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

I could tell countless stories of my experiences over the years but I want to tell you one. I want to tell you about having an enemy. And what it might mean if we try to respond with love and generosity.  We’ll call him Frank (though that isn’t his name) and the first time I encountered him was in my final year at theological college.  I was administering the chalice as an ordinand and as I came to Frank along the rail.. he did this (held his arms over his face and head in the shape of an X).  Even my desire and conviction of calling as an ordinand made it offensive to Frank, for him to receive the sacrament from me – despite receiving from a female church warden most weeks.   We met again when I was appointed to a post where he served on the PCC.  Frank helped to paint the vestry (which would become my office).  It was clear that he wanted to help me, as a young woman, but that his views were not going to change. From the time I served in that parish they didn’t and he never received from me in any form, but we worked together where we could and helped one another.  I vowed to myself, many years ago, that I would pray for those people in my life and ministry, who did not agree with my ordination, not that they would change their minds, but that they would be people that I could work with, worship with and help and be helped by.   This has been true of every context I have ministered in – whether clergy colleagues or parishioners, some of the most fruitful relationships I have had have been with those who fundamentally disagree with me.  Even today, winning the person remains more important than winning the argument.

This year is actually a very significant one for the ordination of women, though we haven’t as yet marked it at the Cathedral.  This year it’s 50 years since the first female lay readers were appointed. It’s 30 years since the first women deacons were appointed. It’s 100 years since the congregational minister Constance Coltman became the first woman ordained in the United Kingdom. And this November it will have been 25 years since the vote to ordain women as priests. What we have gained in this generation, is to be celebrated.  It is a great gift to the church that women can serve as deacons, priests and now Bishops.

The consecration of women Bishop’s has been seen by some as a point of ‘arrival’, as though the work has been done.  Far from it. Because this isn’t an ‘issue’ to be ‘solved’. It isn’t a ‘problem’ to be ‘fixed’. It’s about different people who have different perspectives. And we are called to bless them, pray for them, be generous to them, and love them. Whatever our views we have come to be able to work together… not deny that it is a mess, not claim that we’ve ‘solved it’ and demand that people ‘get with the program’. We need to resist the urge to ‘fix it’.

We need to see the person. We need to see Frank. Because this counter-intuitive wisdom of Jesus opens up possibilities that otherwise we prevent ever happening. We instinctively think that acting in this sort of self-denying way, avoiding the temptation to go into survival mode, is self-destructive. We think it’s going to be bad for us. Maybe we ought to do it, maybe it’s what a really ‘good person’ would do, but in the end it’s going to mean you get hurt for being good. And the people hurting you are rewarded for it.

Because we don’t actually believe what Jesus says: “those who try to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their life will save it”. We think that those who try to save their lives probably will in the end, even if they feel bad about the choices they made. And those who are willing to lose their lives probably will. They will be the nice people who lost it all because they were too nice.

But what if he’s actually right? What if following our survival instincts means that we end up losing the very things we fight for? If I had treated Frank like my enemy, if I had made him feel as bad as he made me feel through his actions, then I’d probably have saved myself a lot of hurt. But I’d have lost something. I’d have lost Frank. I’d have lost the opportunity to love him. I’d have lost the opportunity to have him love me.

 

What Jesus is telling us is that our enemies are like Frank. It doesn’t matter if we win the argument. It matters that we win the person. If we only want to win, then we’ll lose every time. Because only by not caring if we lose can we ever really win.

Year A, Trinity 11: Who do you say that I am?

Matthew 16:13-20

Who do you say that I am?

Who we say that Jesus is, has significant and life changing consequences.

This is one of the most well-known passages in the gospels. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ asks Jesus, and Peter answers ‘You are the Christ, Son of the Living God’. It’s this response of faith that prompts Jesus to declare ‘You are Petros – ‘the rock’ – and on this rock I will build my church’. We often think more about Peter’s response and what it means about him, though, than we do about Jesus’ question and the answer.

To understand the significance of the question, it might help to think about where the question is asked. A lot of Jesus’ teaching we don’t know where he was, so when we are told, it generally has some significance. Jesus is at Caesaria Philipi. The name Caesarea means ‘Caesar’s town’. There were lots of Caeasareas all over the Roman Empire, built to honour the Emperor. So the name of the place is all about somebody saying “this is somebody important and we ought to honour them”. It’s about someone saying who is in charge. It’s also the regional headquarters of the roman empire. So symbolically and literally this is where Ceasars power is shown.

Matthew pointing out where this happens is more than a coincidence. For Jesus to ask ‘who do you say I am’ in this place – when the right answer to that question is ‘You are the Christ – the rightful ruler of this place – you are the most important person here’. This is to raise the stakes.

To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ in Caesarea Philippi is to say ‘Caesar is not Lord’.

So be sure that Jesus knows what he’s doing when he turns around and casually asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”

And they tell him what people have been saying about him…. ‘one of the prophets, maybe’ – something fairly vague, ‘you’re someone from God, who is kind of important’. And then some more specific stuff that’s realy just wish-fulfillment stuff, things you suspect even the people saying it knew wasn’t true ‘ john the bpatist come back to life again’, ‘the prophet Elijah- who has returned once more’.

Do you think maybe they had a bit of a chuckle at how stupid some of these ideas were? I mean, some of the disciples had been followers of John the Baptist. They knew this was nonsense.

But then he puts them on the spot. ‘Who do YOU say that I am?’ Are you still being vague? Is this some kind of wish-fulfillment thing for you too? Are you still sitting on the fence?

Peter’s response is the perfect one. And he says it at Caesarea Philippi, knowing what it means to say Jesus is Lord in this place, on Caeasar’s doorstep.

Peter is saying, I get it. Caesar isn’t Lord, you are. Caesar’s not the Son of God, you are. Caesar is not the authority under whom we should organize our lives; you are. You’re not just inviting us into a religion on the sidelines of Caesar’s kingdom; you’re inviting us into a new kingdom. Jesus is giving him a choice between Lord Caesar and Lord Jesus, and Peter is choosing Jesus.

We misunderstand the significance of this if we think that Jesus is just asking a question about people’s personal spiritual beliefs.

Who Jesus is, is a decisive challenge to the society that they are in. Because if Jesus is Lord, if he is the most important authority, then it means Caesar isn’t. It’s Jesus or Caesar, really. It can’t be both.

Jesus does that in every generation. Because if Jesus is Lord, if he is the most important authority, then it always means that someone else isn’t.

Saying “you are the Christ” in every generation, has also always meant saying to the society and rulers of the time, You are not the king in this area.

Significant changes in the world have always been driven by Christians standing up and renouncing the systems, structures and authorities of their society in the name of Christ.

Today, in the news, one of the biggest issues in the West right now is race. I’m sure you’ve been following the story in the US about Charlottesville and all the events that have followed. White supremacism seeming to become publicly acceptable in a way that hasn’t been seen for years.

This is an area where it is people saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ who have made a difference, who have changed the world, time and time again.

We might remember

Martin Luther king and the movement for integration of race in the USA. In the 60s in America, there was still legal segregation of black and white. Starting with a boycott of segregated buses, a movement of non-violent resistance emerged, with the Baptist minister Matin Luther King as its spokesperson. Again and again, he spoke out against segregation, and proclaimed that Jesus was Lord, not the prejudices and the unjust laws of society. And because of that he was imprisoned and beaten and eventually killed. But change came.

We might remember

William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in this country. At a time when the slave trade was the cornerstone of the economic wealth of the British Empire, when slave owners and traders were the most powerful and influential voices in the country, the politician William Wilberforce fought a tireless campaign to show that Jesus was Lord, not the needs of the economy, not the best interests of the British Empire. And eventually change came.

And you might remember Charlottesville itself

It may not have made the news in the same way, but right in the middle of the Charlottesville protests there were a group of clergy, standing in front of the marchers, declaring to them that Jesus is Lord. That in that place, at that time, Jesus is Lord, not white supremacism.

I could name examples in many other areas beyond that of race – but I wanted us to reflect together on how we can see through the generations that the kingdom is coming.  In the face of misused power, Jesus is the Christ.  The world is being transformed. Are you encouraged?  I am.  Whilst there is much in the world that needs Christ’s presence, power, healing and transformation, there is much to demonstrate that the work has, is and will continue, as disciples stand together, pray, work, proclaim and reveal the ultimate Kingdom, power and authority.   As they and WE reveal Christ.

Where might we, as Wakefield Cathedral or even as individuals need to claim that Jesus is the Christ?  Where might change be needed? What do we want to transform here?  On a national stage: is it asylum reform, benefit reform? Locally could it be poverty? Homelessness ? hunger?

(Things we have made an impact on: WRDS: poverty and homelessness.  Food bank: poverty and hunger  VAT Ditty: heritage and community  Messy Activities: Community and Education Asylum: injustice, hospitality to the stranger, widow and orphan)

Where might you, I or we support existing campaigns and projects, where might we need to develop new ones? Where are you and I called to stand up, serve and speak truth to power.

 

“Who do you say that I am?”  “You are the Christ, son of the living God”

Candlemas 2017: Looking for the Hope

Looking for the Hope

 

Simeon and Anna. The ones who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem, who recognised that hope in the baby brought to the Temple. Anna was an old woman by then. She had been a widow living in the Temple for a long time, recognised as a prophet. Yet she was still looking for a hope to come. Which is inspiring. Though perhaps still a little too far removed from us for us to really make a connection to it. What might Anna’s story be like if we heard it today?

I remember the war. I grew up during it, really. We were scared, sometimes. There was a lot to worry about. Not knowing if Dad was coming home. Or my brother. Not knowing what was going to happen. Would it end? When? How? It did, of course, but then before long it was all the Commies and the bomb. Were we all going to blow each other up? And it was hard to know what to think. Hard to really believe things would be ok. There’s always been something to worry about, something people think could wreck everything. That’s the easy thing to see. What’s wrong. What should we worry about? I’ve never needed much help with that. They jump out at you, the problems, the worries. It’s the other things that are harder to see, harder to hold on to. The things that say “It doesn’t have to be like that”, the chance that your worst fears might not ever come true. The idea that there’s something out there, something you can’t quite get a good look at, something good. Something better than you could imagine. You never see it full on, just catch a glimpse of it. It’s in the little things. A baby giggling. A coupe in love. That’s what I try to look out for. The hope. It’s there. Only you have to want to see it.

I lost my husband a long time ago. He was a lovely man. I expect I’ve taught myself to say that now, I’ve said it that many times. It was so long ago it seems almost like it was someone else’s life now. Seven years we had. There’s never been anyone else. We were happy, even without children. So long ago I’m the only one who remembers him, I think. It’s a long time on your own. When your friends’ children have children around you, and you feel like someone who’s stepped out of time somewhere and just watched it march on past you. You find your own family in the end, I suppose. Find your own way. It’s what brought me here, to the Cathedral. To be someone looking for that hope. To keep reminding people it’s there. Even when it seems like there’s nothing.

People are worried. You can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. The way they pause when they’re talking. The tiredness in their eyes. The world seems knocked off balance. Spinning round, with no-one sure where it’s going to stop. Just worried it’ll be in the wrong place. A President talking about torture, and building walls, stoking up fears and lashing out at anyone who challenges him. A Brexit that seems more vague and threatening the longer our leaders avoid saying exactly what it means. The church tearing itself apart over sexuality. People scared about things out of their control that could destroy their lives, their country, their world. Children asking their parents if world war three is going to happen. We never need any help to see the things that scare us. We breathe those in without even noticing. It’s the other things we sometimes need help to see. The hope that can pass us by if we don’t look for it. The hope that’s in the little things. A couple in love. A baby giggling. That’s all it was, that morning. A young couple, bringing their baby to church. Didn’t seem like much. But somehow I knew. That that’s all it takes to change the world. In that baby’s laugh, there was a hope bigger than all the fears I carry.

As we celebrate Candlemas, we recall that the story of God is the story of the world, a story of suffering.   Suffering that God chose to inhabit.

Candlemas in 2017 is not disconnected from that first visit to the temple, it is a continuation of that story of God inhabiting this suffering world.  The challenge this year is how we help one another to see and experience hope.  For this story, this narrative is one that we are all caught up in, it is our world and our lives.  Some of us will be more passive in our search for and expression of hope, others more active and for many of us it will be a combination of the two.  I wonder if being here, being part of this Cathedral, once, occasionally, regularly – is part of your looking for hope?  Maybe it is part of your being reminded that hope is there. Perhaps there are other places and events in which you find hope.   The actor David Tenant, recently ended a TV program being asked to reassure people in his lovely voice that everything would be okay.  Amongst other things he said “we must be positively rebellious and rebelliously positive”.     Part of the vocation of the people of God is to hold out the hope of redemption from within a world of suffering, as Anna and Simeon did in their time. To be rebelliously positive that light overcomes darkness.

Today we begin to turn towards Easter and Lent, and so we also begin to enact the story of a suffering saviour, who took the sin and brokenness of the world with him to the cross, that it might be redeemed.  That we would be shown, that light conquers darkness, hope defeats fear and love overcomes hate. We remember that in the candles that we light today and week in, week out throughout the whole church year. We also commit week by week, in worship, to being sent out into the world, into its suffering, as disciples of Christ, people of hope.

Today we are called again to seek, find and proclaim the hope that Simeon and Anna found in the midst of the suffering world, to sing afresh the songs that declare hope.  The hope the defeats fear and the light that overcomes the darkness.  Amen.

Remembrance Day 2016

In this year, as we remember the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdu, Battle of Jutland, the Brusilov Offensive, the introduction of conscription, and the Somme during which the first tanks were used in Battle. We of course, continue to remember the lives laid down in all wars, particularly World Wars One and Two. Those fallen who names are known and those who remain unknown. We remember those who are on active duty today and the freedoms, people and communities they are seeking to protect. We remember those who have suffered life-changing injuries or mental health problems. We are also remembering the family and friends who live with bereavement and with servicemen and women who have been forever changed by the effects of war. We remember that almost everyday, somewhere in our news, people are fighting for causes they believe in.

This year we also find ourselves, in what feels like, new territory. Within our own nation the political landscape is changing as we look towards Brexit and the various constitutional issues that has raised.  Further afield in the United States, we have seen the election of a candidate who seemed most unlikely to the majority of the world. We might say that we now live in uncertain times, with a level of anxiety about the future. Some are even comparing our situation to the context of Europe in the 1930’s, when it seemed that darkness was on the move and it was unclear how to deal with it. In fact, eventually all that could be done was a second World War.

In the gospel of Luke we hear Jesus speaking to those who live in anxious times. We often forget the degree of uncertainty and fear that was part of the daily life of the disciples. They lived under occupation by a foreign power and client kings known for their paranoia and their ruthless cruelty. They lived amidst religious enthusiasm of a kind most of us would find disturbingly un-British. Prophets declaring God’s judgement upon everyone drew huge crowds. Groups of ascetics in the wilderness prayed for the violent overthrow of society around them. Religious terrorists carried out atrocities that were countered by savage reprisals by the Romans. These were people used to living in anxious and uncertain times. And the times were to become even more uncertain.

Within the lifetimes of many of Jesus’ followers a huge revolt would be utterly crushed by the Romans, who would level the Temple, which in Jesus’ day was still being built. It would never be rebuilt. Jesus speaks to these people then: anxious people, people accustomed to seeing things in apocalyptic terms – to see tragedies and suffering as God’s judgement, to read a meaning into the chaos around them that often led them down dark and ever more extreme paths. It was as if the whole population was comprised of tabloid headline writers. Maybe we are not as far away from them as we might think.

Jesus speaks to these anxious people, and what he is trying to say to them is this: don’t read into things. Don’t see the apocalypse behind every fresh tragedy. Don’t give in to despair or hate. God is at work. But not in the way the doom-mongers imagine. There is a bigger picture behind all of this. There is a deeper story behind the stories in your newspapers, and the events that worry you. It’s a story where God leads us from suffering, and war and tragedy to a future of hope, healing and peace for us and for the whole world. Our part in that story is to remember who we are, that we are children of God. And to live lives of perseverance, hope, and trust.

It’s always struck me as appropriate that Remembrance falls when it does – in November, as we start to move towards the beginning of Advent, the season where we remember the entwining of the human story with God’s story. The season where we stand with prophets and others who, in the midst of their own struggles, looked forward to a better future. The promised future of God.

So, in the midst of so much that may make us anxious, we remember the many who have gone before us and stood in the face of suffering and fear and responded with perseverance, and hope, and trust. And we remember that we, like them, are children of God, called to live according to his will, as citizens of a better tomorrow. We must develop the resilience to both remember our painful history and to remain committed to that promised future of healing and peace, not just for us, but for the whole world. We must remember who we are, what we have been through, whose we are and the promised future we journey into and we must not forget.

A sermon for Trinity 17

Luke 6: 1-13

The gospel reading is one of the most confusing yet gripping stories Jesus tells. Confusing, because it’s hard to understand what he’s telling his disciples to do, gripping because it’s an entertaining story that we recognise: There’s a rich man who has a manager run all his finances. Only the manager gets greedy. He fiddles the books, steals the money, lives the high life. Until he gets found out. Until the moment he gets called in to see the boss, and told he’s fired. As he walks back to his office, his life in ruins, wondering what he can do to avoid ending up on the street, he realises that until the boss puts out an official announcement he’s the only one who knows he’s fired. So he picks up the phone and makes a few quick calls. Within half an hour, all the people who owe his boss money have had their debts slashed in half and know they’ve got him to thank for it. When the boss heard what he’d done, how he’d turned personal disaster into a chance for a new future in half an hour, he laughed his head off and offered him his job back. Anyone who could do that was the sort of person he wanted working for him.

We can understand what’s going on in this story very easily. The corrupt manager in his desperation, the ruthless way he turns even the worst situation to his advantage. The way that being under pressure pushes him to switch from extorting extra money from people for himself to giving away his master’s money to help the very people he’d been cheating. Even the way that the master, hearing about how his far-too-crafty manager managed to wiggle his way out of any punishment he’d tried to give him, changes his mind and congratulates him instead. It’s a funny story. I expect it got a bit of a laugh from the people who heard it.

But what are we supposed to make of Jesus saying now you all go and do the same thing as the dishonest manager: make friends for yourself with corrupt money, so that when it runs out you’ll be welcomed by them into heavenly homes?

I think the thing we need to bear in mind with this parable is that Jesus isn’t saying the manager is a good man. He’s very clear this is a bad man who finds himself in a tight spot, and the only way out is to do something he’d never normally consider doing. And that’s the point. This is a story about someone changing the way they do things. This is someone who has never tried to help people in their life. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to help himself at the expense of everyone else. But when that stops working, he’s got no choice but to help as many people as he can, as quickly as he can. The bad man has to act like a good man, because in the end it’s the only thing that will save his skin. When the chips are down, the dishonest manager realises something: all the scheming and cheating and swindling he’s done all these years have ended up getting him nowhere. He’s going to end up with nothing: with a choice between trying to get work as an unskilled labourer after years of sitting behind a desk or begging on the street. He has to change. When Jesus tells us to imitate him, this is what he’s asking us to imitate: someone who is changing the way they live completely.

 

I want to say three things about the sort of change we see in the parable. Three things that I think will help us understand what Jesus is asking us to do.

 

First, the parable is about change that happens in a place of vulnerability and opportunity. The parable is all about what happens when the manager is in a particular sort of place: a place where extreme vulnerability and extreme opportunity meet. This is a man with nothing, who has lost everything he has worked for, who is seriously seeing begging as one of the options he is weighing up. He is incredibly vulnerable, probably more vulnerable than he has even been before. But this is also a man presented with a moment of opportunity: the window he has between being told he’s fired and an announcement being made. To be clear: he has always been able to do the things he now does, but until he was in this place of vulnerability it never occurred to him what an opportunity he had. In this place, he has all the power he once wielded as the rich man’s manager, but he now has nothing to lose.

Jesus wants to talk about what happens to people in that place of vulnerability and opportunity because it’s the place we’re all called to be. It’s the place where we realise our need of God. The place where we realise we’re not coping. We haven’t got all our ducks in a row. We’re at the limit of our resources and we need to do more.

Realising how much we need God is something that I think most of us struggle with. It’s not very comfortable. It means being vulnerable: admitting that we are not sufficient in ourselves. But I’ve always found that that vulnerability brings with it an opportunity: the opportunity for God to work in and through us to bring change. My own experience of vulnerability [give example] is that I can be more fully who I am and do what I am called to do when I feel I am utterly dependent on God. This has come round many times in my ministry. I’m sure many clergy would say the same.

Second, the parable is about change expressed in repentance. Repentance is about change not just for change’s sake, but change that aims to actively reject the way we did things in the past. To repent means to turn away from past mistakes. Clearly, this is not a story about traditional repentance: the dishonest manager doesn’t have a change of hear, he doesn’t stop being dishonest. But he has to act in a way that is opposed to all he has previously done. The dishonest manager is put in a position where he realises what his mistakes have cost him. He is made vulnerable, but with the opportunity not simply to lament his vulnerability, but to take action: to do things differently.

Repentance is something we do every Sunday. Every day that we say ‘forgive us our trespasses’. It’s second nature almost. But there’s a world of difference between saying the words and actually changing. The dishonest manager never gets to saying he’s sorry. But what he does demonstrates the repentance he doesn’t speak: he transforms the way he acts. I wonder if we sometimes do it the other way around? Do we say we’re sorry but never actually change? Do we just go through the motions? I wonder what it would mean if we were less concerned with looking sorry than we were about actually making the changes we need to reverse the harm we’ve caused? Would we be a better church if we acted more like Christians even if we seemed to speak less like them?

Thirdly, the parable is about change expressed in showing mercy to the needy. The parable goes into some detail about the state of the debtors. They owe a lot. Some owe more than they might be expected to pay back. Perhaps it was the dishonest manager himself who had piled their debts ever higher and higher, extorting more money out of the already vulnerable to line his own pockets. Perhaps not, but whether it was through his greed or his master’s harsh terms, these people were in great need, carrying debts that would take years to repay, or might lead to them and their families being sold into slavery in payment. And in this place of vulnerability and opportunity, the dishonest manager does the thing he’s been avoiding doing all this time: he shows mercy. He writes off debts instead of piling them on. He uses the skills and influence he’s got to make friends rather than enemies. I wonder how you’ve been treating the needy people around you? Are there people who over the years you have treated as a means to an end? People you’ve valued more for what they can do for you than for themselves? Who are the people you have sought to better yourself through? And what would it mean to try to make them better instead?

That’s the sort of change Jesus is trying to get us to imitate: change that comes from a place of vulnerability and opportunity, change that expresses itself in repentance and mercy to the needy. We might think it’s too late to try and change now. The dishonest manager has left it to the last minute to even try and change. But that’s all that’s needed. A few moments of showing mercy more than make up for a lifetime spent cheating people. The dishonest manager becomes a symbol of grace in action: the forgiveness of debts that turns enemies into friends. One moment of that grace outweighs a lifetime of sin.

So don’t think it’s too late. Not for you, or for others. And don’t think it’s too hard. Because in the end, what Jesus wants more than anything is for us to recognise our need of God. If we don’t do that we won’t be able recognise the needs of others.

A sermon for Trinity 15 2016.

Have you heard the phrase ‘loving someone or something to death’? Or ‘I can’t live without you or it’? The idea that something (a partner, a child, a house, a car, a job) is so important to us that we’d die without it. It’s extreme language. Because our families, our possessions, our roles in life, however important they are to us, are not really so vital that we’d die without them. They’re not like food, or drink, or oxygen. Or are they? Someone who suffers a great loss may still be here, but you might say ‘something in them died’. ‘It’d kill him if he lost that job’ we might say, not because he’d have a heart attack if he got fired, but because having the job makes him who he is. Loving things to death. The language is extreme, but that’s because it’s describing something extreme. You can love something to death – love it so much that you’d die without it.

Jesus uses some similarly extreme language in our reading today:

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

We’ve talked about loving to death. This is the opposite: hating something to life. This is the Jesus who talks about following him as the way to life, who now seems to be saying that the only way to that life is by hating things. Hating things so much that you’ll live without them. Jesus has a track record for saying things like this – he talks about cutting your hand off so you don’t sin – things that he obviously doesn’t mean literally, extreme language to make us wake up and pay attention. Just like with ‘loving things to death’ on one level it’s clearly not true. We can’t find the way to life by hating our families, hating our spouses and children, hating ourselves. But is there a truth hidden in there like there is in loving things to death? Maybe we can understand what he’s getting at by thinking more about these two ideas: loving things to death and hating them to life.

I think sometimes I’m in danger of loving my family to death. And there’s a huge problem with that. When we love something or someone so much that we couldn’t exist without it – we stop actually loving it. We need to possess it for our survival. That’s not love. That’s ownership. And where it leads is death. Loving to death is actually a form of hate.

 

Now let’s think about what the opposite of that looks like – hating to life, in Jesus’ words. The radical challenge in this passage is that Jesus is clear that there can be no compromise in how we love and follow him.  Perhaps we could think of this hate slightly differently – Rowan Williams in his book ‘Being Disciples’ says “Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

So perhaps this challenge from Jesus is less about hate and more about love.  Maybe this hating that Jesus is teaching his disciples about is about trusting God for everything, allowing the wonderful gifts we have in our friends and family to be completely free, so that we love God enough to learn about love and life in all it’s fullness – in eternity, through death, resurrection and redemption.  Letting go of our own lives and of those we love most deeply, this hating that Jesus speaks of, paradoxically, brings life for us and for them.

Following Jesus, being a disciple is about making a choice, a choice with real costs and consequences. Perhaps, we could say, a choice between loving things to death and hating them to life.  Or if we were to take the language Rowan Williams uses- it’s a choice regarding how we love God and in turn therefore, how we love full stop.

We find Jesus’ words here difficult ‘hate your family, hate your life’ not just because ‘hate’ seems too harsh, too negative, but also because we all like to think that making the choice to follow Jesus shouldn’t have a real cost on our families or our lives. We don’t really want to think about the alternative: that those who follow Jesus are not always going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/ family/ children.” It may mean living more simply because our resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of our family. Jesus asks us to count those costs carefully.   We need to, because otherwise we will domesticate the gospel. We will let the message of God’s love and care for all humanity become the story of how much Jesus loves us and our families.  We will love ourselves and our nearest and dearest – to death.

Jesus is talking in extremes to get us to pay attention. The danger is that we feel like it’s an exaggeration so we ignore it. But we can’t afford to do that. No, Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone, and certainly doesn’t want us to hate our families or our own lives. But he wants us to wake up to the fact that the way we love people isn’t the way he loves.  The love of God is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on ownership, but one that gives, even in the face of death. Hence the gift of life in the face of death – resurrection.

To know and have this kind of love is a choice, a choice to be more like the only person who can offer us it.  A choice to be a disciple.  A choice to be made with our eyes open. A choice we need to make and remake every day, aware of the cost.

“Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”

 

20th June 20/365

Today I am simply thankful for my husband for being a great father and role model.  Also for doing so much whilst we work through this transition to a new place.

18th June 18/365

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This was less than 10 miles from the Cathedral.  I said it at the time but I’ll say it again- The only response I could really articulate was prayer.