Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Prodigal Son

At first I couldn’t see what it had to do with our Journey of Reconciliation to the Holy Land. But as I read it I came to see that it has everything to do with a Journey of Reconciliation.

Henri Nouwen was a great writer and thinker with a very deep spirituality who came to be identified with a remarkable community for people with learning difficulties called L’Arche Community. He died in 1995.

The book we were invited to read was an autobiographical account of a spiritual journey made over many years in the company of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and the Compassionate Father of Jesus’ remarkable parable. Henri Nouwen was prompted to make his journey of faith first by a poster and then by the original painting by Rembrandt called The Return of the Prodigal Son.

The painting shows the returning prodigal kneeling with feet scarred and battered by his journeying, the Father’s compassionate embrace, all captured in a circle of light. Standing outside the circle is the elder brother and two other shadowy figures in the background, one seated beside the elder brother.

Prompted by Henri Nouwen I want to ask three questions of this parable.

Where do you see yourself in this parable?
Who do you see in this parable?
What difference does it make on your own journey of faith and reconciliation?

Do you see yourself in the prodigal himself?

Is there an element of autobiography in the story for you. Was there a moment of rebellion? I want everything for myself, thank you very much. A departure from the faith you had been introduced to … and then maybe an about turn in your own life and a return to a love of God that has made all the difference. Once you were lost, and now you are found again?

Is it the kind of story that invites you to plot where you are at the moment. Are you in the far off country. Are you partying for yourself? Are you on the road back to the waiting father? Are you a little apprehensive of the response God will give? Do you feel the hands of the Father embracing you, surrounding you … the warmth of that welcome back? Are you partying with God?

Or is it not a straightforward time sequence that you can locate yourself on. There are moments when you seem in the far off land, moments when you seem on the road back, moments in the embrace of the compassionate father, moments of celebration … it’s a story to come back to repeatedly.

If you do see yourself in the Prodigal Son himself, then maybe you need to ask the second of our questions.

Who do you see in the Prodigal Son?

Just yourself? Or do you see Another?

Think for a moment of the story of Jesus as it is summarised by Paul in Philippians 2 … Jesus is one with God, humbles himself to the point of being a slave, to death on the cross, and then is exalted through resurrection to be seated at the right hand of God.

Isn’t this exactly the path trodden by the Son in this Parable? Jesus leaves his Father, to become one of us, and he experiences life at its worst, he goes through that lowest point, through death and on to resurrection and the glory of God once more.

What difference does that make?

No matter where we are in the journeying of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is there with us at that point. Present with us, he comes alongside us in our journeying, he comes within us to strengthen us, and he accompanies us into the presence of the love of God.

If ever you feel like the Prodigal the good news of our Christian faith is that you are not alone – Jesus is with you to accompany you on the journey.

Henri Nouwen tells us that he had always seen himself in the Prodigal Son. Until that is a friend asked him a question that released all sorts of feelings within him that he needed to confront and come face to face with. And he hadn’t realised it before.

Aren’t you more like the elder brother? Nouwen’s friend had asked.

It really made Henri Nouwen think.

Why not try it?

Maybe you can see yourself in the Elder Brother?

The elder brother is the one who has been safe, upright done everything he should have done. He has been exemplary. He has not rebelled, not runaway from home, not squandered his inheritance … he has worked hard and is still working hard now as the story unfolds.

In a Christian context it makes you think. Maybe you grew up in a Christian home, maybe you did not rebel. Maybe you have stuck with it. And there is a touch of envy? Why didn’t I take my opportunity when I had it? Why didn’t I have a wild time too? Hasn’t this prodigal son had his cake and eaten it – and now he has a welcome back from his father, my father too.

Here again what the Father says to the elder brother. We can so easily gloss over them … but they are so precious. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

That is a remarkable promise – gentle words for us to hear as well. To be a child of the Father to share all that he has. Look again at the picture and the light is reflected on the face of the elder brother too. The parable finishes in mid-air. It doesn’t tell us how the elder brother responds. That’s for us to supply the answer.

To accept the love of the Father and the width of his mercy encompassing the prodigal too, to join in the party – that’s the journey of faith that the Father invites you to follow.

But how can you make that step of acceptance? Is the second question important too? Who do you see in this parable?

Who do you see in the elder brother?

Is it possible to see Christ in the elder son too? Think again of the words the Father says to the son … Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.

Isn’t that the relationship Christ has with the Father? Do we touch the mystery of the very nature of God here? One God in trinity? Father and Son always together – all that is the Father’s is the Son’s.

Maybe the two Sons touch the two dimensions of Christ as Son of the Father – at one and the same time he empties himself and becomes as we are, but at the same time he remains one with the Father.

The power of the parable lies not with the uncertainty of its ending, but in the realisation that the elder brother too bears the light of Christ’s presence – and is part of the celebration.

That can be a liberating realisation.

For Henri Nouwen it was immensely liberating.

But for Henri Nouwen there was an unexpected climax to the story.

The ultimate call, and it is an invitation to each one of us, is to become the Father and to love like that.

Can you see yourself in the Father?

That’s a lonely step. There is the loneliness of the Father who is waiting at the gate. The loneliness of the Father, whose one son goes into the distant country, and whose other son fails to understand. It is the loneliness of love, deep and compassionate love.

It is the Fatherhood of compassion to which we are called. “Becoming like the heavenly Father, suggests Nouwen, is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message.”

But who do we see in the Father?

Look at the hands. One hand of the Father is rough and strong, the other is smooth and gentle. Think of God here in this story as Father and Mother together … He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.

Isaiah, Can a woman forget her nursing child, see I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.

As a mother hen looks after her chicks so is the compassion of God.

But there is a cost. It is the cost of grief, forgiveness and generosity.

The grief at the loss of the younger son and the potential loss of the elder son.

The forgiveness that is in the embrace of the welcome of the prodigal.

The generosity as the Father is prepared to say, All that I have is yours.

Whether you see yourself in the younger son or in the elder son, receive the unconditional love of the Father and rejoice in the compassion … and as you rejoice in that love, be transformed into the compassionate father whose love knows no end.

Henri Nouwen went on to live out that compassion in community with people with learning difficulties. At the end of his book he shares a remarkable statement that amounts to a prayer and an invitation …

As I look at my own ageing hands,
I know that they have been given to me
To stretch out toward all who suffer,
To rest upon the shoulders of all who come,
And to offer the blessing that emerges
From the immensity of God’s love.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Choice - Change - Challenge - the Parables of Jesus

Everyone loves a good story … and Jesus could tell a good story. So much of his teaching was in parables.

Which parable has made the biggest impact on you … and why?

Something to share with your neighbour.

Parables present each one of us with a choice

It is the choice of the kingdom.

It’s like two roads … one is broad and leads to destruction, the other narrow and leads to life – choose the narrow way.

It’s like two trees … one bears bad fruit, the other good fruit – choose to be the tree that bears good fruit

It’s like two house builders … one builds on rock and the other builds on sand … the choice is there for all to hear … hear these words of Christ about blessings about love for God, for neighbour, for enemy too, hear these words of Christ about prayer … and act on them and be like the wise man who builds his house on rock.

The choice is one we each have to make.

Parables change the way we see things.

Not least, they change the way we see religion and what it does. So often people feel that religion, Christianity should be a cure-all for all the world’s ills. ‘If God is real,’ they maintain, ‘then he will change the world and it will be a better place. The world is not a better place, therefore you can’t believe in God.’

Jesus sees things quite differently.

His parables help us to change the way we see the world and especially the way we see God in the world.

Make the choice for the narrow way, the good fruit tree, the wise house builder and it’s difficult to see why everyone doesn’t make the same choice. What a better world it would be if everyone did. All the world’s problems would go away.

But the real world isn’t like that. Not everyone is convinced.

Jesus recognises that too …and his parables have the power to reassure, though the reassurance raises questions that are perplexing, troubling even.

The centre point of Matthew’s gospel sees Jesus leaving the house he has made his base in Capernaum and sitting beside the sea. Such is the crowd that he has to get into a boat while the crowd stand on the shore. I’ve always felt you couldn’t have been sure where that happened – did it really happen. But there it was – it must have been somewhere very near there – on the shore line that was so similar, with just that kind of shore! And I was there!

And the world of today has just the same kind of perplexing problems. Why doesn’t everyone just see the light. Why do some hear and not act on what they hear?

So it is that Jesus tells a sequence of stories – Matthew 13 is a remarkable chapter of Parables of the Kingdom.

The Parable of the Sower … or better still, the parable of the sower, the seed and the soils. That word of God sown by Christ and his teaching is received in different ways – three quarters of those in the parable don’t take it to hear. Only one quarter of those who hear are changed by it … and bear the good fruit.

Takes some getting does that point. And the disciples are puzzled. Jesus lines himself up with the prophets – those who hold the authorities to account. And the tragedy of the story of the prophets is that they were as often as not not heeded. The same happens with the prophetic teaching of Jesus.

The parable of the sower explained, Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. The two grow together – again perplexing, again pointing to the realities of the world – good and ill together – what a mixed world we live in.

Take heart, the parable of the Mustard Seed and of the Leaven – tiny beginnings have large end results – so too with the Kingdom. It may be tiny now … but ultimately, God will have the last word. Hold on to that.

Reassurance about the reality of a world that doesn’t leap to follow Christ’s way. IT builds up with excitement.

This kingdom is a treasure – it’s a pearl of great price. It’s worth the world. You can almost feel, in the way that Matthew builds towards a great climax in this sequence of parables, the crowd and the disciples being carried along with Jesus.

But then comes something that disturbs and unsettles. There’s a story about fishing when good fish and bad fish are caught – and then at the end they are separated out.

Fascinating that the separation is between the evil and the righteous. There is a contrast here.

God’s kingdom is about righteousness, justice. Ultimately, in having the last word, justice prevails. And evil does not.

Wow … have you understood all that, says Jesus. And he finishes with a comment that must leave them all wondering … follow the teaching in these stories and you will be trained for the kingdom. – just like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Enigmatic if ever there was something to be enigmatic about.

Matthew’s gospel starts with the sermon on the mount, has at its heart this chapter of parables of the kingdom. The teaching of Jesus reaches its climax in another address Jesus gives towards the end of his ministry which just like the sermon on the mount ends with three parables that are full of challenge – these are parables that unsettle.
Parables challenge us to live the Kingdom

They spell out the challenge we must all face.

Of ten bridesmaids, five were prepared with oil in their lamps for the unexpected arrival of the bridegroom … but five were not. Beware – don’t be unprepared!

There’s the parable of the talents. Wonderful the one with five talents, gains five talents more. The one with two talents gains two talents more … and both are commended. But the one with one talent sits on it. Beware don’t be like that. Make the most of what you have received from Christ.

And then I reach the parable that along with the Parable of the Good Samaritan I think I would identify as the one that has made the biggest impact on me.

The parable of the sheep and the goats.

You can have all the right words and say, Lord, lord with as much reverence, dedication and as worshipfully as you like.

But …

The key thing to take to heart if we are to accept the challenge and choose for the kingdom, the key thing to take to heart as we are reassured about the realities of the world, the key thing is the ultimate challenge to us all to live out that faith we profess.

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me

That’s what we must take to heart not only in the way we each lead our lives. We must also take that to heart in our concern for the wider world and the call of the Kingdom to justice in that world.

We began our service today, the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush from Jamaica, thinking of connections we have with Jamaica. How vital it is that we welcome all in the name of Christ and seek to build a truly multi-cultural society in these islands.

We lead into our prayers of concern as we recall Felicity’s visit to Zimbabwe with the United Congregational Churches of Southern Africa and the visit we received from one of the ministers from Zimbabwe who presented us with a banner we have in our church.

We stand with our brothers and sisters in the UCCSA churches we are linked with through the Council for World Mission in prayer for the people of Zimbabwe as we do that we are with churches the world over in a day of prayer for Zimbabwe.

The parables of Jesus present us with the choice to follow him and stand by the kingdom and its values.

The parables of Jesus change the way we see the world and enable us to know that even when the evils of the world are not instantly changed we must still hold fast to the kingdom recognising that God is at work.

The parables of Jesus challenge us to recognise Jesus in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty and prisoner and to stand alongside those in need wherever they may be.

As our reflections came to an end the following letter was read from the United Congregational Churches of Southern Africa

UCCSA sends solidarity team to Zimbabwe

The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) is sending a team to Zimbabwe to express its solidarity during the current crisis. The team comprises members from different synods of Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. The Executive Committee Leaders from these synods of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) are to pay a visit to Zimbabwe to stand in solidarity with church members in the run-up to the country’s presidential election on 27th June.

The UCCSA, which has members in five southern African countries, is very much aware of the pressure that is being placed on its members ahead of the run-off election between incumbent president Robert Mugabe of the Zanu-PF party, and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The UCCSA condemns the repeated detention of MDC leaders and the violence that is generally taking place in all areas of the country. This continued violence will only serve to throw the country into further turmoil, uncertainty and hopelessness.

We encourage Churches to join in with the World Council of Churches set aside 22nd June 2008 as a day of prayer for Zimbabwe. We urge you all to build into your services a moment to remember and lift in prayer our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe.


Dr. Prince Dibeela
General Secretary

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seeing things differently: the parable of the Mustard Seed or the parable of the Bird's Nests?

I have a confession to make.

Last Sunday was not the first time I had preached the same sermon three times. I think it may have been the first time when someone other than my wife was in the Congregation on each occasion. So sorry to Richard for putting you through that – and thank you for your company through the day!

At the end of the day over coffee and leek and potato soup on the terrace of a new restaurant overlooking one of the wonderful lakes around South Cerney we reflected on the experience.

What was fascinating was the way the same sermon actually came out quite differently in each church. The message depended not just on what was written in the sermon, but also on the setting it was delivered in.
Three Churches ... One Sermon ... Three Meanings

The day started very much as part of our Scouting Centenary Celebration. It was great to have Rosemary and Alec here who had married in the church 63 years ago, Rosemary having been a member of the Good Companions, Highbury’s then Youth Group, under the leadership of Alfonso Tosio from Switzerland. He had shortly afterwards returned to Switzerland where he had set up a scout troop and one of this first members, Andrea together with Giovanni were with us last week. What a wonderful greeting Andrea gave, as he reflected on what it meant to be church in that setting in Porschavo that had played a little known yet signifanct part in the Reformation in the Italian part of Switzerland.

Religion is like a ladder that goes up to God. Faith is like a ladder that comes down from God into the heart. But as our heart is changed, Andrea said, we cannot sit back, arms folded. We must then put our heart changing faith into action as we share the task of being peacemakers and engage in mission.

All came together in our service and the sermon seemed to have a focus in mission.

That afternoon Richard and I found ourselves in the tiny Draycott mission chapel with only two others. Our thoughts turned to Kim and especially to her daughter and many like her who are in the throes of doing A Levels, important examinations. It’s a stressful time. Being church is about sharing vision, and also being supportive of one another. The message of the sermon took on a different kind of shape.

And in the evening another emphasis too. It was Congregational Sunday and we found ourselves in the United Church in South Cerney, an ecumenical partnership between Congregationalists and Methodists. Two years before on Congregational Sunday I had enjoyed some banter with Rita Mae and Paul who pastor the church and have built it up as very much a centre for the village community.

On the wall there was a picture of John Wesley celebrating the church’s Methodist roots … but no picture to identify the church’s Congregational roots. When we had been in Plymouth I had spotted just the picture. Not the picture of an individual but of a ship, the Mayflower. For me it suggests the freedom to worship as the spirit leads, the separation of church and state, that faith is a pilgrimage, a journey, that we will get nowhere in the boat unless the wind fills the sails – and nowhere in the church unless empowered by the Spirit of God. Lots of thoughts. The sermon sought to make sense of our Congregational roots in the context of an ecumenical partnership.

Same sermon. Three settings. And it came across in three quite different ways.

That’s nothing new!

One gets the feeling that the stories Jesus told, he told more than once. In different settings on different occasions. They were often passed on as stories, wonderful to tell. But in different settings those stories took on different meanings.

You can see that happening in the way the Gospel writers include those stories and record them in subtly different ways. Same story, but a different setting brings out quite a different meaning.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Take the parable of the mustard seed.

We all know its meaning. It’s a wonderful tale of small beginnings and massive end products. A tale of hope, especially if you are only too aware of how tiny your input seems.

Mark collects most of the stories of Jesus, the parables, into one chapter and the run from one to the next to the next. They are for the most part stories about seeds and sowing, or ordinary household life. And they are parables of the Kingdom.

Jesus’ teaching ministry is just getting under way. He has come with a powerful message: “The Time is fulfilled; and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.”

Based in Capernaum he has travelled the communities of Galilee with that powerful message, teaching with a remarkable authority, bringing healing into hurting people’s lives. And now he has gathered together a group of 12 to be his disciples.

And so it is we are introduced to this set of parables of the kingdom. They are parables of growth, often in a hazardous world, growth from tiny beginnings to something great in store.

You can just sense how much of an encouragement and a challenge it would be for those 12, conscious how small their movement is up against the powers that be of Rome which is really beginning to assert its powerbase in and around the Sea of Galilee and over against the Jewish powers that be that are in collaboration with Rome.

What difference will this Jesus make? What will this kingdom be like? How can it make its mark when you think how powerful the world’s powers that be really are?

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The key words in the telling of that story leap out at you.

The smallest of all the seeds on earth.

The greatest of all shrubs.

What encouragement for that small band of followers of Jesus.

And it has to be an encouragement for us too. What difference are we going to make in a world where it is so difficult to make a difference?

That’s the whole point … small things do make a difference.

After the service last Sunday morning Andrea and Giovanni caught the 12-45 coach to Heathrow and on to Luton where they stayed overnight. Early Monday they caught their flight back to Italy and across the border home to Porschavio. Both were leading members of the Protestant church in their village. They had a truck already loaded with furniture. The two of them later that day, I think, were going to drive the truck over the border into Croatia and deliver furniture to an orphanage they had been supporting as a church ever since the ending of the Bosnian war.

Small things that make a difference.

What a powerful story this parable is!

But that’s not the only way this story plays.
The Parable of the Bird's Nest

In Luke’s gospel it is not just part of a collection of parables of the kingdom … it seems to come at quite a specific moment, as Jesus’s actions and his teaching address the question … who is this kingdom for?

He’s teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he is confronted with a woman who has had a sprit that has crippled her for eighteen yeas. Jesus doesn’t hesitate. God’s rule is precisely for the likes of this woman. He reaches out and touches her, frees her from that spirit of infirmity, and empowers her to stand tall once again.

The powers that be in the synagogue, the synagogue ruler is perturbed. It’s not the kind of thing you should do on the Sabbath.

Yes, says Jesus it is precisely what you do on the Sabbath – the kingdom is for those weighed down with afflictions impossible to bear.

When he said this all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Then comes the story.

And it is quite explicitly linked with what has gone before …

Let’s here it again in Luke 13.19-20

He said, therefore, ‘

What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

Same story? Yes, but it works differently. We need a different picture.

The mustard seed is no longer the tiniest of seeds. The tree is no longer the greatest of shrubs.

The story seems to drive on to its conclusion as if that’s the punchline of the story.

it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

It is as if the point of the story is now in the space there is in the kingdom for people to make a home there. The kingdom of God is not for the ones you might expect.

As he moves non through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem someone asks a question that seems to follow on in the way Luke tells the story from that parable about the birds nesting in the branches.

Lord, will only a few be saved?

What Jesus goes on to say is uncomfortable.

Strive to enter through the narrow door, he says, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

The point he goes on to make is a pointed one. And it is directed at those who think they are safe and sound, those who say, Lord … .those who feel they are well k known and part of the in-crowd, those who are used to eating and drinking at table together.

Jesus’ words are directed at those for whom religion is a ladder to God. As they find themselves at the top of the ladder – they feel secure and they have power. And they wield power.

And they are in for a surprise, they will weep and gnash their teeth for with Abraham and Jacob they will see the prophets, the ones who speak for justice and for righteousness.

And those who are in power – who have got to the ladder will be brought low.

And then what will happen.
Seeing things differently

Remember the story of the mustard seed- think of it as the story of the birds nesting in the branches. The kingdom of God is for those who have been considered outsider. It is for those who are vulnerable. It is for those the powers that be reject …

Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’

This is powerful stuff – it’s a striking, disturbing message – and it’s the message of the parable here in Luke.

Andrea was quite remarkable – a saddler by trade. For a number of years he has opened his home to someone for two years, first from Kenya, then from Uganda, most recently from Burkina Faso. He has taught them the trade of leather making, and then equipped them with tools, set them up in a workshop back home.

We mustn’t sit back, arms folded. We must be peace makers. We must work with and for those most vulnerable – for that’s who this wonderful kingdom of God is for!
With such a familiar story, how important it is that we take time to see the same thing differently!
We need then to ask ourselves two questions:
What one little thing will I do this week that will make all the difference in the fullness of God's Kingdom?
Who will I make space for this week?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Unity in Diversity

Matthew belongs to a Charismatic church – there are lots of them in Cheltenham. Trinity, Glenfall Fellowship, three c’s church – New Life, Elim – It’s their firm conviction that their worship, their way of being church has its roots in the Bible. Look at the way the church of Corinth used the gifts in their very free worship.

Fr Ian is an Orthodox priest – the Orthodox church meets in Cheltenham over in Bentham, there are Roman Catholic churches in the town – great to be in conversation with Fr Alan of Sacred Hearts this week and to be going to Prinknash later in the month. It’s their firm conviction that their worship, their way of being church has its roots in the Bible – look at the way Jesus valued the Temple and its worship and so did the first Christian community in Jerusalem.

And I am a Congregationalist, preaching on Congregational Sunday in a Congregational church. Not so many of them around. But we share a similar kind of tradition of worship and of being church with the Presbyterians who meet at Holy Apostles’ School with the Baptists, with the URC, and this evening I will be preaching in a united Congregational and Methodist Church in South Cerney. It is our conviction that our worship, our way of being church has its roots in the Bible. Where do we look to our roots.

Is it inevitable that we each go our separate ways, maintaining we are right and everyone else is wrong?

Is it necessary that we should long for the day when we can all have the same way of worshipping, the same way of ordering the church?

Or is it possible that each of us has some measure of the Truth and that we can hold on to our convictions while at the same time respecting, affirming and working with those others? It will come as no surprise to find that I am drawn to that third alternative.

Teaching and Learning in the Synagogue

That picture is one of the very special pictures I took in the Holy Land.

We were in Capernaum, the town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus used as the base for his ministry and mission in Galilee.

We were sitting in a Synagogue built maybe on the site of the Synagogue that Jesus would have been so well acquainted with.

And we had just had a wonderfully stimulating hour and a half discussing, debating and sharing in a marvellous experience of ‘teaching and learning’ with Henry Carse, a teacher based in St George’s College in Jerusalem.

A bench runs round the synagogue. In the centre would have been the place where the Law, the prophets and the writings would have been read. A smaller room off would have been a teaching and learning centre.

The synagogue was not simply for ‘worship’ – it was a place to read and study and enquire of the Scriptures. The rabbinic way of teaching and learning was to enter into question and answer, to explore, to dig away at the meaning of the Scripture.

It was not enough simply to read the Scripture. It was necessary to explore its meaning, to uncover its message. The one teaching would engage in asking questions, seeking out the truth.

Some of the fruits of that kind of teaching and enquiry was written down in comments on the Hebrew Scriptures – collections of rabbinic teaching on the text formed the Midrash on the Scriptures, collected again into the Mishnah and then into the Talmud.

In those writings you catch a glimpse of the teaching and learning process that goes on in a Synagogue.

It is all based around asking questions.

Jesus was steeped in that whole process. And so often we fail to see it!

Take the passage we have just read. I’ve always read it with impatience – the whole point of the passage is in the story, the most wonderful story of the Good Samaritan.

Teaching and Learning around the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I am impatient with the lawyer who wants to test Jesus and to justify himself. I speed over the first bit holding the lawyer a little in derision. What an idiot to be trying to catch Jesus out in this way with such catch questions.

Teaching and learning in the Synagogue is based around asking questions, it expects people to dig away at the Scriptures to seek out their meaning, and it involves enquiry into the Scripture. What caught my eye this week was the five questions that are asked in this passage. Maybe they are part of a genuine process of Synagogue style teaching and learning.

Let’s read the passage in the light of that. And lets have some respect for the lawyer. Let’s see him not with derision, but with respect. He is steeped in the Law, the Torah, his task is to apply it to daily life. He has given his life to the study of the law – he is one of those very much involved in the Synagogue process of teaching and learning. He would not simply take the words of the Torah, he would ask questions of it, he would identify the heart of the Torah.

Is he out to catch Jesus out?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

Is he simply trying to catch Jesus out. That’s one meaning of that word ‘test’. Or is it possible that another meaning could be found here …

to try to learn the nature or character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing - 'to test, to examine, to put to the test, examination, testing.'

Question 1

"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

To my eye that’s not a catch question. It is a very genuine question. In fact it is one of the big questions of every age and every generation. Do you think it’s a question about life after death?

Look carefully at the question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

An inheritance is not something you get after you die. It is something you receive while you are still alive from someone else who has gone before you.

What must I do to receive the inheritance that is due to me from all those who have gone before in the Law, the Prophets and the writings, that fullness of life that comes from God’s eternity, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

What an interesting question. And Jesus finds it so. If the question is about an inheritance to receive from those who have gone before, in the Synagogue you know that the focus will be on the Torah, on the law.

So Jesus asks two questions – and they are not exactly the same.

Question 2

What is written in the law?

That question focuses the mind on the law, the Torah, the first five books of our Bible. That’s a massive body of literature that includes stories, history, laws to do with ritual, laws to do with individual behaviour, laws to do with community life.

As soon as the question is asked you are focused in on the five books of The Law.

But then Jesus asks the next question. Not what is written there – that includes the whole lot, but a sharper, more focused question,

Question 3
What do you read there?

What counts in Scripture is not just what is written there but what you read in it. What do you read there? You haven’t got time in your answer to recite the whole of the Torah – you have to sum it up. What do you read as the nub of the matter – all that the Torah stands for.

The Lawyer has an answer. It is not a foolish answer. Indeed it is a wonderful answer. It is an answer that Jesus gives on another occasion to someone else’s question.

It is a reminder that this coupling of love for God and love for neighbour is not new to Jesus. It is a way of reading the Torah that people like this Lawyer could see for themselves.

We need to respect him … he knows what he is talking about.

27 He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself." 28 And he said to him,

Look carefully at Jesus’ response. Jesus commends him.

"You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

You will live – or in other words you will receive your inheritance and your ordinary everyday life will be injected with that something extra that is real living, real life – bubbling over and full of God.

When we were in the Synagogue in Caperaum, one of our number was very argumentative. He put Henry on the spot – and the discussion went on … some were getting restless. Some were simply enjoying the experience of the question and answer technique of Synagogue teaching and learning.

We are quite disparaging of the lawyer for wanting to justify himself. But this is precisely what you would expect in the discussion. It’s precisely what Jesus would expect. It is the give and take of question and answer.

And of course the Lawyer’s question is the key question.

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,

Question 4

"And who is my neighbour?"

This time Jesus does something that again is typical of the Torah – the books of the Law don’t simply contain rules and regulations, they contain wonderful stories too.

The greatest truths often come as you enter into a story.

That’s what the lawyer found as he listened. That’s what countless generations of Christians have found as they have listened through the ages.

What a remarkable story – about thieves and robbers, a Samaritan, a Priest and a Levite. And listening to it you are drawn into it and you have to make a response.

Gathered in the Presence ... around the Word

Henry showed us the lintel of the synagogue – a picture of the synagogue itself – complete with its roof. But intriguingly, it is on wheels.

Why? The Ark of the Covenant was transported on a cart with wheels while the people travelled through the wilderness years, and first settled in the Holy Land. Only once the Temple had been built was it fixed in the Holy of Holies. And that was where God’s presence touched earth and could be felt in a special way.

But this is a massive claim for the Synagogue – it is here that God’s presence is felt. This is where God’s presence is to be found. How? As we gather together around God’s word and explore its meaning God’s presence is felt.

Remember that text we use as Congregationalists so often. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

The word ‘gathered’ is the Greek word ‘synago’. Where two or three synagogue together in my name, I am there among them.

God’s presence made real as we ‘synagogue’ together, as we gather together around God’s word and explore its meaning.

The gathered church that departed Plymouth in the Mayflower for what was to become the USA – had started in Lincolnshire and moved over to Leiden in Holland under the leadership of Pastor John Robinson, someone who had himself studied the scripture and wanted to model church and worship on the spirit led church of the new testament.

Each Sunday morning they would meet for worship centred around the reading and then preaching from Scripture. But then in the afternoon they would gather again – and this time, each of the people of the church would share their insights into Scripture under the moderation of John Robinson.

Teaching and Learning Around Scripture

- the heart of our Congregational way of being Church

Teaching and learning centred around Scripture – is the heart of our tradition. It is how this church at Highbury was born. Another picture – Richard found in the Car Boot Sale – of Highbury Congregational College in the 1820’s – the recognition that at the heart of church life is the need to study and teach and learn out of the Scriptures.

Charismatic friends do find their roots in the Bible in the church of Corinth with its speaking in tongues and other gifts, let’s respect their insights into church and learn from them. Orthodox and Catholic friends find their roots in the bible in the Temple worship Jesus valued and his followers did at the first. Let’s respect that.

But our roots are in the question and answer of exploration of God’s word.

But that question and answer is not enough.

There is one more question and answer in this passage.

The story over, Jesus asks the lawyer one more question.

Question 5

Which of these three, do you think was a neighbour

to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?

Was there a pause before the answer came. Was it a life-changing exchange for that lawyer?

“the one who showed him mercy.”

Teaching and learning is no good unless we put what we learn into action.

Jesus says to us as the time for our synagogueing together draws to its close precisely what

Jesus said to him,

Go and do likewise.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Faith that Moves Mountains - Mark 11:22-26

It’s the time of year for our church directory to be published.

What’s your favourite page? With the celebration of our Scout Group’s Centenary at Cranham on Saturday you might turn the page for Scouts and Guides.

I quite like the page that comes next, identifying some of the groups that regularly use our church premises. Among those are a couple of new groups who have started using the rooms recently.

Narcotics Anonymous and
Alcoholics Anonymous

Two groups that belong to two quite independent organisations, that have related goals and methods in responding to two of the most critical problems our society faces.

The value of a self-help group where anonymity is respected and where the support of developing friendships can be so important.

AA is marked out by their Twelve Step programme. It is fascinating to see the part a ‘Power greater than ourselves’, ‘God as we understand him’ has to play in the programme that has made such a difference to so many people. You can pick out some of the most prominent of those references:

• We admitted we were powerless
• Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us …
• Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
• Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

In one of his most powerful quotations Jesus said, “Have faith in God.”

Have Faith in God

In the Twelve Steps of AA and in those few words of Jesus is the recognition of a need we share for a strength, a power, a presence beyond ourselves. That strength, that power, that presence is the God Jesus invites us to have faith in.

Such faith can make all the difference.

A prayer that has meant a great deal to members of AA and to many others is the prayer of Pastor Niemoller …

God, grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.

How often have people found the footprints poem a source of comfort and strengthening …

Two sets of footprints in the sand … and then at the most troubled of times only one set of footprints. Where, O where, is God’s presence in those most troubled times. Then comes the voice of God,

“During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Have faith in God … He only is my rock and my salvation!

Have faith in God … how important that invitation of Jesus is!

It is not insignificant that those words are shared by Jesus with his friends as his final hour approaches. It’s the last week of his life – his time of trial and suffering. It is the Tuesday of Holy Week. On the Sunday he made his triumphal entry on a colt, the foal of an ass and wept over Jerusalem, Would that you had known the things that make for peace, he lamented, but you did not.

On the Monday he passed a fig tree with no fruit and cursed it … a curious thing to do, though one has the feeling his actions were symbolic of all that was going on that week, passing on from that fig tree he went down the steep road from Bethany, across the Kedron Valley and up on to the magnificent Temple Mount. An architectural tour de force symbolic of the fearful might of Herod the Great and the Herodian family in their power play with Rome, in many ways a denial of the very heart of all that the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus knew so well stood for … he berated those who had corrupted the Temple so much … My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.

It was on the Tuesday, as they were making their way along the same route that the disciples noticed the fig tree had withered and died. Remarkable, disturbing … was this symbolic of something that was going on?

“Have faith in God, says Jesus.

“Truly, I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

Facing a personal time of suffering and trial that would lead to the God-forsakenness of the cross, facing a city that did not know the things that make for peace, facing a house of prayer that had become a den of thieves,
Jesus knew the importance of faith.

What kind of faith moves mountains?

The kind of faith that would move mountains.

But what kind of faith is that? What kind of faith moves mountains?

There are two words of significance in what Jesus goes on to say.

So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

In prayer visualize things as they might be, see the vision. For it is as you dream the things that might be and see the vision of what seems impossible that your prayer begins to find its answer.

What’s in your heart as you pray is important too.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.

Two words to underpin our prayer.

Believe and


This is one of those sayings of Jesus that made all the difference to Paul. It is in his wonderful poem, celebrating the power of love in I Corinthians 13 that he takes up this word picture of Jesus … and fills out what needs to be in our heart as we have this kind of faith …

If I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love I am nothing.

What kind of faith moves mountains?

A believing faith

A forgiving faith

A loving faith

A Twist in the Tale

The Parable of the Mountain that Moves packs an unexpected punch. For that’s not the only question posed by this parable.

One question I asked of a guide I met on my recent visit to the Holy Land was … are there any passages of the Bible that you would read quite differently in the light of your understanding of the local geography?

Without a moment’s hesitation came the reply pointing me to the mountain that faith could move.

What mountain do you think that might be?

What kind of mountains does faith move?

After all, Jerusalem is built on the top of a whole range of mountains that goes from North to South of Palestine / Israel.

The temple is built on a mount. How Herod the Great had transformed that Temple – to create his remarkable Temple Mount he had literally had to re-build the top of the Mountain – an incredible feat of engineering that amounted to virtually moving a mountain – a massive statement of power, power in collaboration with Rome. Over against that mount is the Mount of Olives.

And beyond Betlehem, well within sight of the Theological Institute where we were staying, was another mountain full of menace in the days of Jesus.

It was the site of the magnificent palace Herod the Great had built. Another statement of sheer, unadulterated power in collaboration with Rome.

To build his palace he had literally had to move another mountain. It would be the place of his burial. And the tomb was discovered only six months ago!!

In the light of those mountains and the power-statements they make, Jesus’ comments about the faith that moves mountains prompts a question – what kind of mountains does faith move?

In our stay in the Holy Land it was disturbing to see and witness at first hand the power play that is wreaking such havoc among ordinary people. The sewing rooms we visted in an orphanage in Hebron which have since been completely ransacked and destroyed by Israeli soldiers.

The political situation with its massive power statements was indeed a mountain. The lack of hope in the eyes of so many suggests it is a massive mountain.

Is there hope?

And yet, in amongst the devastation we witnessed people of remarkable faith, remarkable courage and remarkable hope.

Not least, that Christian Peacemaker Team, simply being ‘a presence’ in the midst of the hostilities of Hebron, seeking to be peace-makers.

This is the kind of believing faith, forgiving faith, loving faith that can move mountains.

It is the kind of faith that has a resounding answer to give another question:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
3637No, in all these things
we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
38For I am convinced that
neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light