‘Be Prepared and Be Thankful’ – 24th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around 1 Corinthians 10.1-13 and Luke 13.1-9.

Are your affairs in order? Have you made your will? Is your spiritual house in order? These are questions many people in every age have put to the back of their mind saying, “There’s plenty of time”; “I’m only young”; “Life is for living”; “I’ve got all on providing for my family in the here and now”; “One day I’ll get round to those things.”

Jesus has, in the chapter of Luke that precedes our reading today, been telling people that having your spiritual house in order is not a thing to delay. No-one ever knows when their life will end. No-one ever knows when the “End Times” will be. Everyone needs to be ready, alert, prepared. We need to be honouring God in the here and now, not putting things off for some more appropriate time in the future (that might never arise).

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asked about the killing of some Galileans by the Romans. The questioners are seeming to hope that Jesus will say that these Galileans were particularly sinful and therefore somehow deserving of death. But Jesus refutes this and comes back with an example of people in Jerusalem accidentally killed in the collapse of a tower. Sudden death happens – we need to be prepared!

We know that in our own day sudden death happens – accidents while travelling; catastrophic weather events; acts of violence; sudden illness… Sudden death happens. As events in Christchurch, New Zealand have shown us, even the quietest, friendliest places are not immune to sudden violence. The cyclone that recently hit Mozambique and surrounding area is highly unusual but it happened, and with devastating impact.  Even in our own times when we like to feel in control of events, we need to be prepared as unexpected things can befall us at any time. That is not to say we need to be paranoid about danger around every corner – but we should not put off spiritual matters and being prepared for our own death.

Jesus goes on to tell a parable, about a fig tree that does not bear fruit. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down but the gardener pleads for an additional year to give it extra care and attention.  If it still bears no fruit, it can be cut down. Jesus tell the parable to give a message of hope as well as one of warning. God continues in forbearance and mercy, waiting for his people to turn to him and bear fruits of righteousness, but his patience will not last forever.  We do not know the time when the end time will come. We do not know the time of our death – so we need to be prepared.

Jesus urges us to put our spiritual lives in order as we never know when we might die.

Paul urges people in the church to put their spiritual lives in order – to avoid temptation and complacency.

We have to think that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was sure that they would understand his references to the Exodus story from the Old Testament as told in Exodus and Numbers. Paul refers to the cloud that led the Israelites when they first fled from Egypt and continued to determine when they would travel and when they would stay in camp as it lifted or rested on the tabernacle. The whole people experienced crossing the Red Sea on dry land when God parted the waters for them. Later, in the wilderness, manna and quails were provided by God to feed the people and Moses brought forth water from the rock when he hit it with his staff, on God’s orders.

Despite all these amazing manifestations of God’s love and care, the people were often quarrelsome and rebellious. Paul’s quotation “the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry” comes from Exodus.  Moses was up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God but he had been there some time and the people grew restive and impatient, wondering what was happening. They made a golden calf to worship and ate and drank in celebration of their idolatry. Grumbling and complaining is an almost constant background to the Exodus story and God gets angry with the people.  There are plagues and an infestation of snakes. When some of the people start worshipping the Baal god of the Moabite people and indulging in sexual immorality God is particularly angry and sends a terrible plague and decrees that this generation will not enter the Promised Land but must wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Paul is using the Old Testament story as a parallel with the Christian experience. He compares the guidance of the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea with baptism and the food and water in the desert with Christian spiritual food and drink at the Eucharist. Paul’s point is that all the people benefited from the miraculous acts of God’s grace. All the people were guided, saved, fed and watered but still they were rebellious; still they grumbled and were ungrateful; still they indulged in idolatry and immorality. All the people benefited from God’s blessings and grace, but many still went astray.

Paul emphasises that we cannot be complacent in our faith.  We cannot think that because we have been baptised and become part of the body of Christ and share in communion we can cut ourselves some slack and yield to temptation.  We know God is gracious and merciful and loving but we must never abuse that grace and love by thinking God will turn a blind eye to us if we wander off the Christian path and give in to temptation and welcome us back when we want. In baptism we say we have died to sin and risen with Christ. Being  in the church is about living a life worthy of Christ.

Paul knows the Corinthians, and we, as humans will experience temptations that come to all people, but through our faith we should endeavour to stand firm and ask God to help us to resist temptation. If we can walk with him, we can find a way through, believing we will not be tempted beyond what we can endure.

Neither of our readings today is easy and the messages in them are not the most obvious to understand, but both Jesus and Paul are urging us to be alert and vigilant in our spiritual life. We need to be prepared spiritually for whatever may come whether our life is long or short.  They call on us to look to our own behaviour to make sure we are living as well as we can, being thankful to God for what He has done for us. We cannot be complacent as part of God’s family and must never abuse God’s grace and mercy and love by putting it to the test. We need to keep our eyes on living righteous lives and being prepared for death whenever it may come.  We live as those who know Christ’s call and cherish his presence and example and give thanks for all he has done for us.

As our post-communion prayer says: Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Reader Anne.

‘Temptation’ – 10th March, 1st Sunday of Lent

Temptation of Jesus

Based around Luke 4. 1-13.

I have start by thanking Father Ron for the beginning of this sermon when last week he reminded us that the season of denial, as he put it, also known as Lent was almost upon us. Well as of Wednesday, it’s officially started. I say I have to thank him because I really had no idea where I was going with this sermon; even as I sat down to write it I didn’t have a single note to work with, so I’m grateful that what he said at least gave me a bit of a way in. In my own defence it wasn’t lack of thought or preparation that was the problem; I’ve been going over the readings for weeks thinking and hoping and praying for inspiration. Before I go any further, I’ll just tantalise you with this bit of information. When I first started my preparations, I looked at the reading from Luke and thought, this is great! Some really interesting ideas and questions were flowing and I’d made a page full of notes before I noticed that instead of it being Luke’s Gospel I’d turned to I’d accidentally found the almost identical passage in Matthew. It’s the same story with the same chapter number and almost the same verse numbers but the passage stops at the end of verse eleven, if you continue to verses twelve and thirteen in that gospel it prompts some very different thoughts and questions. I was tempted to go on and preach on these ideas but given that the inclusion of verses twelve and thirteen potentially change the context or focus of the passage rather a lot I thought I’d better not. Sometimes mistakes can have interesting results and perhaps one day I’ll go back to my notes and reconsider them and maybe write that sermon after all, even if it’s just for my own interest. If there’s any merit in it, I might even share it with you. On that cliff hanger I’ll get back to this sermon.

When I returned, somewhat disappointedly, to the correct passage or should I say passages for today, they provided me with a number of interesting and worthwhile thoughts but unfortunately no major theme that I felt I could get my teeth into. But over the weeks I’ve been reading them what has gradually asserted itself to me are the tones of voice of the speakers, especially in the passage from Luke. This might sound a bit of an odd idea given that much of the time when we read a passage from the Bible and then move on, it can be difficult to get a feel for the story or a real sense of the characters in it but if you have to really focus on it, as you do when you’re writing a sermon or studying, this can change and you can hear or imagine their voices and what is happening with them.

Just before our passage from Luke begins, Jesus has been baptised by John and this has been a very profound and powerful event. We are told that he is full of the Holy Spirit and that on his return from the Jordan, it leads him in the wilderness. He stays there for forty days and in that time he does not eat. At the end of that time he is said to be famished. Just stop and think about that for a moment. We’ve heard the story so many times it’s easy to not appreciate that forty days is a very, very long time to go without food. To describe him as famished seems to be a colossal understatement. Try to imagine the physical and mental state he must have been in, even with the Holy Spirit to accompany him. Starving, weak, exhausted! He was a human being after all.

Then the devil appears. In contrast to the way he has often been portrayed in art and literature, as a cloven-hoofed, horned, fiery-eyed and terrifying creature who it would be rather easy to spot as not being one of the good guys (the tail is probably a bit of a give-away too), this one seems rather different. As I read, this is where I could picture the scene and hear the tones of voice that make the encounter so powerful. In my mind’s eye, the devil looks like an ordinary man, nothing to make him stand out as different. He’s calmly regarding Jesus in his starving, weak, exhausted state; what better opportunity to tempt him, to see what he’s really made of and if he is who he thinks he is? The voice I hear is quiet, gentle and slightly mocking, perhaps even mildly amused; “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In reply Jesus is calm and quietly strong. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ” The devil tries again and ups the stakes somewhat. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world; “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” He sounds whimsical, perhaps even seductive but Jesus remains calm and unmoved; “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

The devil tries a third time. He takes Jesus to Jerusalem and places him on the pinnacle of the temple; a rather terrifying sensation, even if it was in a vision. Again I hear the slightly mocking, amused tone in the devil’s voice. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Once again Jesus is calm and quietly strong in his reply; “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” The Devil has tried to offer temptations to physical hunger, vanity and fear but Jesus’ faith in his Father has enabled him see them for what they were and to resist them.

Whether you believe this story to be literally true or a vision or even the hallucinations of a starving, weak and exhausted man, it still has a powerful message for us here in our world today. We will encounter temptation. Sometimes it will be easy to spot such as the chocolate biscuits or alcohol or meat or whatever else we are trying to resist this Lent. Other times though it may not be so easy to identify, especially when our circumstances are difficult and life is hard and we’re tired and ground down. The temptation to do or have something we want and perhaps even feel we deserve or to neglect something or someone can be so hard to resist even when in our heart of hearts we know it isn’t right. I don’t think God is going to be too upset or worried if we occasionally fall off the wagon and succumb to the odd chocolate biscuit or glass of wine, but surrenders to some seemingly small temptations can set us on the path to very bad places that can hurt others and ourselves if we are not very wary and they can be very hard if not impossible to come back from. I can’t imagine many people set out to become addicted to nicotine or drugs or alcohol or food or gambling or porn or any of the other things that can eventually blight and destroy lives when they get a grip. Most people don’t set out to be cruel partners or neglectful parents or to behave dishonourably and dishonestly. It’s often hard to see where these processes start until it’s too late and we’re trapped in a situation we never imagined let alone intended.

For me the most telling verse in our passage from Luke is the last verse; “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him (Jesus) until an opportune time.”

We need to be on our guard. Evil is unlikely to present itself as such. It’s unlikely to look wrong or bad or terrifying although there are exceptions and some people are attracted by them; the situation with Daesh being a case in point. Evil is more likely to appear easy and seductive and let us think we’re in control. When temptation comes, as it will, we need to see it for what it is, examine our thoughts and feelings in the light of our faith and ask God to guide and help us along the way, to calmly and strongly stand firm, as Jesus did. Amen.

Reader Kath.

Difference – Luke 8:26-39 (The 4th Sunday after Trinity)

The thing about the modern world is that you have to learn how to live with people who are different from yourself. Different by race, by religion, by sex, by gender, by age, by belief, by culture…. We could go on. We live in a world of difference.

The days are long gone when we and our children and grandchildren would spend our entire lives in the same village or part of town, mixing with people who dressed like us, spoke like us, wanted the same things as us, believed what we believed, thought the same thoughts, wanted the same things, even ate the same food as we ate.

If I think of my own family and that of my wife, we see the modern world in microcosm. We have children who live in France and Australia. We have grandchildren whose first language is not English. We have two grandchildren who are part Jewish and one grandson whose girlfriend is Bangladeshi and Muslim. The firms two of our children work for are international and their next promotion could take them to America or the Far East. They eat curries and pizzas and bamboo shoots and rice… and very rarely fish and chips This is what globalisation means.

So, we have to learn to live with difference. But it doesn’t come easily to us.

The tendency of all human groups is to be suspicious of anyone who looks different, acts different, thinks different, eats different. Our instinct is to avoid, shut out or shun them.

It was like it in the days of Jesus and it has been like it ever since.

If you think back to what we have just heard read for the gospel you can see this human mechanism at work. In the days of Jesus, anyone who didn’t fit in, anyone who was very different, was avoided.

The idea was that a community could only hang together if everyone was the same. Difference, they thought, threatened harmony.

So people with skin diseases – they are called lepers in the bible – or people with various difficult personalities or psychological illnesses were pushed out of the village. They had to exist as best they could on the fringes of society. The man in the gospel just now seems to have made his home the local cemetery.

We don’t know what the objection to him is exactly, but he seems to have fits or seizures from time to time, as if many demons have got hold of him – and he’s had to be restrained sometimes. Perhaps its some form of epilepsy. Whatever it is, he is different and this disturbs people. So they force him to live outside the village.

Jesus wont have it. He doesn’t avoid the man, but makes time for him, speaks to him, and cures him.

If you think about it, there are many incidents like this throughout all the gospels. Jesus forms a relationship with all sorts of people who are different and who, because of their difference, are shunned or shut out.

He makes time and space for so-called fallen women, for small children, for a foreign soldier, for different sorts of Jews – called Samaritans – for Jews who collect taxes for the Romans, for sick people, for poor people…. we could go on and on. The gospel is full of stories about people who are different in one respect or another being made to feel welcome when all their experiences up to the time of meeting Jesus were that they were made unwelcome.

This idea that before God we are all welcome and our differences are not a reason for some being excluded was enshrined by Jesus in this sacrament of Holy Communion.

Think of the symbolism we enact every time we come to this service. The highpoint of the service is when we come to the altar to receive the consecrated bread and wine. In this church the point is made even more dramatically, and theologically, because we kneel together round the altar, as equals. Whatever our differences, we set them aside here. They count for nothing here. Because before God they count for nothing.

So we kneel as equals whether we are rich or poor, male or female, homosexual or heterosexual, fit or frail, wacky or sane – whatever our differences, they don’t count here. What counts is what we have in common, not what divides. And what we have in common is that we are all equally sinners, all equally in need of God’s grace.

That’s the important lesson we learn here and take with us out there.

The human tendency is to react badly to difference. We have seen this tragically and starkly demonstrated this week with the murder of Jo Cox MP by a man who, whatever else was going on in his head, clearly disliked the ways in which she was so different from him.

There may be some deep evolutionary reason for this discomfort even detestation we have for  people who are different from us, I don’t know. But if we indulge it, we not only make the lives of some people very miserable, in the end we also make it impossible for any of us to live well – because in some respects we all have our differences and who knows when our difference might make someone else suspicious or angry.

Learning to live with difference is the great challenge of our times. We learn how to do it.

Dr Alan Billings – Priest

Mothering Sunday – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (4th Sunday in Lent)

The parable in our Gospel Reading (“The Prodigal Son”, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) is probably one of the best known of Jesus’s parables – possibly because the family situation, and the characters seem so believable even in our own times. The Saturday advice column in our paper seems to deal with some variation on the themes of this parable quite often. Just last week there was a follow up piece referring to a lady who had been offered advice several years ago. She had written again to say that her wayward son has now got his life back on track and has started his own family. Bel Mooney summed up “It gives me the chance to repeat something I often say – You never know what will happen, so hang in there, with hope.”
But to go back to the parable – I would like to say a few words about each of the three main players using my imagination to sketch in a slightly fuller picture of each. I’ll start with the elder son who is probably usually the least considered of the characters.
I can imagine he had always had a bit of a problem with his younger brother. Family situations like the departure of the younger brother rarely come out of the blue – there has usually been some history of family friction. Possibly the younger son had always seemed a “bit of a lad”, maybe a bit workshy, always looking for a bit of adventure, never really settled at home on the family farm. There had probably always been a bit of sibling rivalry and disagreement. When the father yielded to the younger son’s request and let him have his inheritance the older brother doubtless felt that his kid brother had “got away with it” again – and had then disappeared, leaving him to shoulder the whole workload at the farm. The older, more dutiful, son’s sense of resentment towards his younger, more carefree brother had now become more fixed.
When the younger brother eventually came home, the elder was working in the fields and, it would appear, no-one went to tell him the news and that there was to be a celebration. He found out only when he came in from work and heard the noise of the party. It’s the last straw – his resentment boiled over and he refused to join in welcoming his brother back. He said to his father “My brother’s wasted his inheritance on prostitutes – and you give him a party! I’ve never had a party, you’ve never done anything for me!” He said, “ For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command”. And the father tried to explain , saying his son could have had a party any time. All the father had was his to use! And that was true. The younger son had made off with his portion but the father had divided the property between the sons so the elder could have enjoyed his own portion.
Instead the older son had in effect continued to work for his father and had not grown into a mature relationship of working with his father and enjoying the wealth of the farm. It’s as if he had for all this time been working to try and gain his father’s good will and had not enjoyed being his father’s son. He had bottled up resentment against his brother and not enjoyed his own position as oldest son. The younger son came home saying “treat me as a hired hand” and in some ways his older brother had always behaved as if he was a hired hand, not a son. He had his own growing up still to do to learn to appreciate his father’s love and gift, to be reconciled with his brother and to be a mature member of the family.
The younger son we feel we are familiar with – the cheeky one who asked for his inheritance, left home and spent all his money on dissolute living in a faraway place (I can see him in Las Vegas!) But when hard times came he did not immediately head home. He tried to work but gradually came to realise that his position was worse than that of his father’s hired hands. So he admitted his mistakes, swallowed his pride, and went home – chastened and seeking forgiveness for his behaviour and saying “I am not worthy to be called you son. Treat me as a hired hand.” This young man had made quite a journey from arrogance, pride and self indulgence to repentance and humility.
And lastly we consider the father. He took a big risk in giving in to his younger son’s request and dividing the property even though he must have known the young man’s wayward tendencies. As his younger son disappeared off to a distant land and frittered away his inheritance, did the father wonder where he’d gone wrong in bringing him up? Did he think he’d made a mistake in giving him money and freedom? He grieved for his son while he was away – but when he came home he welcomed him with love. Even before he knew how changed his son was he was filled with compassion and went out to meet him welcoming him with compassion and rejoicing and feted him as a son restored. He still had to face the older son’s resentment which had probably been barely concealed under the surface for years. The father had to try to met the older son’s hardened heart to enable all the family to be reunited and restored.
The father in Jesus’s story is God who gives all his children free will and autonomy and longs for each to find their own way to mature loving relationship with himself and with each other. The family themes of the parable continue to play out in all walks of life in every generation. Reflecting on Jesus’s story can give us much to think about regarding our own families and can help us understand more of God and our relationship with him.
Jesus’s story is of a father and his sons. Today we celebrate Mother’s Day and the maternal side of parenting. Mother’s Day is one of those days when we seem to be bombarded with images of happy families with mums being showered with love, flowers, presents and treats by grateful children – and that is great, fantastic and wonderful. It is good to celebrate all that mothers do and mean to us.
But as we reflect on our Gospel story we are reminded that not everything in families is always easy and happy and I’d like us to spare a thought for all the mums who are grieving today for broken relationships with the children or grandchildren, for all those whose hearts ache today and whose sorrow seems magnified by all the images of “happy families”.
And let us spare a thought for all those who for whatever reason have been unable to be mothers even though they may have longed to be.
And also for those mothers who have endured the agony of losing a child or children to death and who grieve today for their lost sons or daughters.
Mother’s Day gives us a chance to reflect on the joys and sorrows of family life. We can be thankful for love, compassion, generosity, sacrifice and joy in families. We also need to acknowledge the heartaches and feelings of emptiness that can also be part of family life.
But most of all let us remember that God’s love enfolds us all. God’s understanding encompasses all people and all complex circumstances. God’s maternal side reaches out to all and draws all who are willing into her arms. And when times are hard – “hang in there with hope” for you never know what can happen next and how good things can, in the long term, come from difficult situations.
Happy Mother’s Day.

Anne Grant – Reader