Coins

Sermon 18 Oct

Coins

Exod 13 12-23

1 Thess 1 1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s Gospel has another instance of the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus. They were living in an occupied country, and many prophets had already come, claiming to be the Messiah, saying that they would lead the people to freedom. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus really stood for. Was he just another flash-in-the-pan, another hothead who would call for revolution but fizzle out? If so, was he a danger to the shaky peace they lived in under Rome? The Pharisees knew that if there was any insurrection, the Romans would be quick and ruthless in stamping it out – the countryside was littered with crosses from other wannabe revolutionaries who had been made an example of for disturbing the so-called peace.

So the Pharisees come to Jesus with a trick question. They begin their question by establishing what they know of Jesus – this is a bit like a political debate where the compere sets up the scene, hoping to find a way in which the politician can be made to squirm as they get caught out.

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.’

This would be the statement that would lull Jesus into a sense of security, they probably thought. Then they could come in with the sharp question and catch him unawares!

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’”

This was a very loaded question. First, they raised the idea of Jesus treating everyone with impartiality. He was known for his love of the outcast and the sinner, that he would not treat them as lesser. But here he was being challenged about how he regarded the high-ups, the leaders and rulers. Would he kowtow to them? Would he be subservient to the upper levels of society?

This is an interesting question for us to ponder about – we know that following Jesus means that we treat everyone as if they were Christ himself in our midst – that we are called to love the alcoholic, the mentally ill, the prostitute, the annoying person next door who steals all our lemons. But we are also challenged to treat the upper ranks of society with impartiality too, not to be subservient and greasey towards them, and not to see ourselves as of little worth compared to them. So what if they have the latest boat in their yard? Or the biggest house in the block? Jesus was known for showing no partiality, and treating everyone as if they were beloved by God. Perhaps people who have a lot of stuff and wealth and power are used to be seen as a meal-ticket by those around them, but they may not feel loved for who they are, not what they have. It’s like someone who wins Lotto suddenly finding that they have a whole lot of relatives they’ve never heard of!

Jesus didn’t fall for the Pharisees’ trick question. He took a coin, and asked them about it.

Let’s have a think about the coin that Jesus took. It was the hated coin, the very one used to pay tax. Just imagine if another country marched in to Christchurch and demanded that we paid them our own money, using their horrible currency! It’s just a coin, you might say. But for the Jews it meant something. Remember that there is a commandment about not making graven images? For the Jews, having the likeness of the emperor on the coin was against their religion, and handling the coin was distasteful for them. Unclean, really. And not only the image, but written on the coins were the words: son of God, high priest. These words were referring to the emperor. Yuk! Can you see how the Jews would have hated these coins and all they stood for? Caesar, the Roman ruler, was claiming to be God over them!

Perhaps the Pharisees were trying to goad Jesus into saying something revolutionary, something inflammatory that would cause the Romans to arrest him and get rid of him and the potential nuisance he would cause to the city.

But Jesus sees through their trick, and gives a surprising answer.

‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ he asked. They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

So often Jesus gives answers that are not yes or no, not black and white, and need further thinking about.

What on earth could he mean? Pay back Caesar in the coin he used, and pay back God in God’s own coin.

Or give Caesar what he gave, but give God what belongs to God.

What does this mean for us?

What does God give us, and what do we need to pay back to God?

God gives us everything we need – life, health, existence. We would not be here without God. God most importantly gives us love, and that love is seen in his sacrifice of his first-born son.

In our reading from Exodus, we heard that the first-born son is to be dedicated to God, and maybe that sits a bit odd these days, especially for those of us with no children, or a daughter born first. But God gave his own first born son for us, so that we ned never be separated from God’s love. God gave his most precious for us, so we can be his most precious too.

We need to hold lightly to that which is most precious, offering it up to God, asking God to bless it for God’s service.

Some people hold too tightly to their children, wanting to control them, not only as they are growing up, but when they are adults. Set them free, let them learn. Keep loving them, but hold lightly. Some people try to control their partner – again, love means holding lightly, letting God use what we hold most dear.

Jesus is showing us that we might have to follow the world-structure and pay our taxes, but this needs to be done alongside paying God what is God’s, and keeping the priorities of our life in balance.

This week, let’s ask God to show us how we can set free that which we are holding too tightly, so that God can bless it. Let’s pay back God in God’s own currency, which is love without partiality.

Authority

Sermon 27 sept 2020

Authority

Phillipians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

Our two readings today talk about the authority of Jesus. When Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders were disturbed by him, because he had a new message, and wasn’t following the status quo. They were suspicious, but also hopeful. For many long years they had been waiting for the Messiah, a saviour who would come and make their life better, and fulfil God’s plan for the Jews. For the last four hundred years, they were particularly looking for someone who could lead them out of the captivity the Romans had imposed on them. So they were wondering, could this Jesus guy be the one?

But they were not about to get their hopes up too quickly. There had been many who had proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, and Jesus was the last in a long line that had led to disappointment. Furthermore, they knew that if the Jewish people rocked the boat, even a little bit, the Romans would come down harshly upon them. So they needed to know who Jesus was, and what he represented.

When they came out and asked Jesus straight by whose authority he was preaching and healing, Jesus, in his typical frustrating fashion, didn’t give them a straight answer, but rather addressed the questions going through their heads.

He pointed them at John the Baptist, his own cousin, asking them about John’s baptism. He had them caught between a rock and a hard place, because they didn’t want to admit that John’s baptism came from heaven, and they didn’t want to say that it was human. They were scared of being stoned by the people who did believe John’s message.

They took the wisest course of action which was to keep quiet and say that they didn’t know.
This is a good lesson for us at times too – if we don’ know the answer to something, there is no shame in admitting that. Better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and confirm it, the saying goes.

Jesus took advantage of the occasion to teach them by way of a parable.

This one resonates with all those who have lived with teenagers. The grumpy son who won’t take out the recycling bin on a Sunday night, but then decides to do it anyway, because their conscience is pricking them, or the keen to please kid who says yes of course, but doesn’t follow through. This parable tells us that it’s no good just applying lip service to God’s will for our lives. We don’t want to be like the son who says, Yes, sir, I go, but then gets distracted by the cares of life, and forgets to follow God.

We are urged that by eventually following the will of the Father, we will go into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus points put the example of the tax collectors and prostitutes, showing the religious leaders that these people may not be outwardly living righteous lives, but because they turn away and follow God, they will indeed enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’s harshest criticisms are for the religious establishment, those who are only too quick to follow the outward observances of faith, but don’t follow the heart of it. He never tells them directly where his authority comes from, but I’m sure they know.

Let’s look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians to see what he says about Jesus’ authority.

He explains that it is by humbly imitating Christ that we honour him, so that ‘at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.’

We are worshipping one who came lowly to earth, taking upon himself the form of a servant. He did not come on a white war horse to lead the Jewish people to victory over the Romans. He came with a subversive love for everyone that turned the world upside down, and is still turning it upside down.

Paul has good advice for how to live as a follower of Christ:

‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’

This advice to in humility regard others as better than ourselves goes against much of the popular culture of our world. There is such a striving to be seen to be succeeding, to be winning, that it’s easy to be really judgmental and rank ourselves with everyone we encounter. As we get older we stop worrying about such things, and that it one of the benefits of aged wisdom. It is not the Jesus way to blow our own trumpet, to hold ourselves up as better than someone else. There is a lovely Maori proverb about this – The kumara does not speak of its own sweetness.

No, in the kingdom of heaven there is love for others first.

Paul explains that it is because Jesus put aside his glory and humbled himself that God exalted him, so that at his name every knee should bow.

Some churches take this literally, genuflecting or bowing whenever the name Jesus occurs, such as in the Gloria or the Creed. That’s all very well during a Sunday service but how can we bow at Jesus’ name during the rest of the week?

We can follow his example in everything we do, even when our past life has not been too great. Remember the example of the tax collectors and prostitutes? No matter what we have done, or how many times we have failed to be the people God intends us to be, as we say during the confession, no matter how many times we find ourselves wincing at something we said or at an opportunity we shied away from to tell someone about Jesus, if we keep turning towards God’s will for our lives we will be like the first son, who refused to go and work in the vineyard, but heard the nudging of his conscience to do what was needed. To do this we are practising hearing from God, practising feeling those nudges from the Holy Spirit, so then even if the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing. It is this that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.

Going back to the religious leaders who were asking Jesus by whose authority he healed and preached, I really feel a bit sorry for them. They were so vested in their forms of worship and religion that they were not willing to step out on a limb and try something new, that would bring freedom. I believe that the church in NZ is ready for something new. What that will be is not clear, but I feel hopeful. Here at St Ambrose we are soon to worship and serve in different ways, as we have the renovations done. How can we seize the opportunities this will give us in our neighbourhood?

Let this be our prayer this week.

Pick me!

Sermon 20 sept 2020

Pick me!

St Ambrose

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

Do you remember PE classes at school? I was never any good at PE, and was not interested anyway, but had to suffer it along with everyone else, wearing my green rompers, and my gumboots because mum wouldn’t buy me proper hockey boots.

The worst part of PE was when two of the popular and sporty girls were asked to pick their teams for whatever torture in the form of a game the teacher dreamt up. The first girl would pick one team member, then the other, alternating until there was only one person left to pick, and it was, you guessed it, me.

I always felt rejected, that everyone knew how useless I was at games, that even for the sake of friendship or kindness I would never get picked till there was no other option.

The story of the labourers in the vineyard reminds me of those times. The landowner hires a likely looking bunch of workers, and sets them to their task, promising them the usual daily labourer fee. Then more workers are needed, so he goes back for more. The next group were probably not as muscly, or not as keen-looking as the first, but they’ll do. And so on. Finally, later in the day, the landowner is at the marketplace – we are not told that he was actually looking for more workers, but he sees this group of team rejects hanging around, and asks them why they are there.

Their reply reminds me so much of PE days. Because no one has hired us, they say. We are the rejects, they seem to say. We are the ones no one wanted. The landowner has compassion on them and sends them into the vineyard to work, even though he really doesn’t need them.

This might all seem a bit odd, but what comes next is what’s really perplexing.

When it’s time to pay their wages, he gets the newest group up first, and much to their surprise gives them a full day’s pay, even though they have only been there for a short time! Imagine their delight! They had been standing around all day in the hot sun, getting more and more worried about how they would feed themselves without any work, when they receive a whole day’s pay for a little bit of work! They really didn’t expect to get anything like that – even a few tiny coins was all they expected.

They are delighted, and start to stand up a little bit straighter, feeling worthy and valued.

The next group comes up for their pay, grinning and nudging one another, expecting that if the newbies got a whole day’s pay for a few hours, then surely they will get more, because, after all, they were there longer. But no. The landowner gives them the same amount! They would be a bit grumpy, but then they reckon that they’ve only been there a couple of hours longer than the others, so, oh well, them’s the breaks.

But when the other groups, who have put in more hours, up to a whole long day of work, and are nursing aching backs and cramped hands, realise that they too are only going to get a day’s pay, that’s when the grumbling really starts!

The landowner points out to them that they have been paid the amount agreed, and that there is nothing illegal about this.

People however are always quick to see if they have been supposedly short-changed, have not been accorded the recognition they think they deserve.

Let’s look back a few more thousand years to the Hebrews wandering about the wilderness after they leave Egypt. They said:

‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

They too were worried about how to feed themselves. They looked back and thought, well at least in Egypt, it might not have been good, but there was food. I’m not sure what they expected in the wilderness – maybe they had been worried for some time about how they would get by, like the last group to get hired by the landowner.

God comes through for them! The camp is covered with quails in the evening! Great tasty protein, that will keep them full. And then in the morning, there’s this flaky white bred stuff all over the ground, which tastes like honey, and satisfies them! Their needs were provided for, in a way that they could not have imagined. God heard their cries for sustenance and fed them.

Does God hear our cries for sustenance too? Yes God does.

Whatever we need, we can ask God for. We can ask in general terms for God’s provision for us. When we do, we need to be prepared for the fact that with God, what we expect is not usually what we get. There will be something, but it might surprise us what exactly God has in store to nourish us.

We can also ask God for specific things. Maybe it’s best to be more modest in our requests – if you need a car, don’t specify a late-model Jaguar, because you might be disappointed. But trust God to provide for the need. I have often been shopping with God. What do I mean by that?

When I have needed a certain thing, for example green curtains for my son’s bedroom, and have only a few dollars, I have asked God to provide, and often I have been nudged in the direction of the right Op shop to find what I want. God is delighted to help us!

Let’s go back to the workers in the vineyard.

What is Jesus telling us with this parable? He finishes with the words

 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Those of us who feel neglected and rejected by the world are precious in God’s sight! And if you accept that you are precious to God, you will also need to accept that that other person is precious to God too, you know, the really annoying one at work, or the whiny child in front of you at the checkout, or the violent offender standing in the dock of the court. Yes, even the horrible, not just the merely annoying, people are precious in God’s sight. Even the most violent offender is precious. This is not in any way to condone what they may have done, but to remind us of God’s incredible love and compassion for everyone. And it’s also to remind us of God’s evenhandedness. There is a proverb that ‘the rains falls on the just and the unjust too.’ Jesus is telling is disciples that whoever is called to work in the vineyard is worthy of full wages, even if they are only there for a short time.

This is a challenge for us in the church too – some churches regard those who have been there longest as more saintly, more holy, more worthy. Some denominations feel that the newer expressions of Christianity are not really the real deal, and not so beloved of God.

But Jesus is telling the disciples and us that anyone who works in the vineyard – who proclaims the kingdom of heaven – will receive their reward. So it doesn’t matter if you were a martyred bishop of Melanesia, like one of the saints in the lectionary this week, or a really new Christian. If you are proclaiming the Gospel in word and deeds you will receive your reward – the kingdom of heaven.

Conflicts

Sermon 6 September 2020

St Chad’s

Conflicts

In my living room I have three shelves full of Christian books. And above my desk where I write sermons there are two more shelves. Why on earth would I need so many books?

In our readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have just heard the whole of the Jesus’ message summed up in one or two pithy sentences.

 ‘The commandments… are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’

Why then are there so many details added by the church throughout the ages?

Anything we as Christians are doing or proposing to do needs to be set along this standard of love – Is this action truly loving? Or am I more concerned about details of the law, which might have originally been meant out of love, but come with a hefty side-serving of judgment or smugness?

It’s for these occasions that Jesus urged his followers to take the log out of their own eye before attending to the speck in someone else’s.

Unfortunately conflict in society goes back to the beginning of time, and was certainly a theme in many of the Old Testament teachings.

This is why Jesus’ words are so radical for his time! Jews had been struggling to follow the law, the ten commandments, since Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain. Some had added more and more details and nuances and interpretations to the point where compliance was for its own sake, not for the sake of love. In Jesus’ day this group was represented by the Pharisees. Jesus

reserved his most sarcastic criticism for them – he accused them of being so legalistic about tithing that they even gave a tenth of the mint and cumin herbs in their garden, but didn’t follow the big picture – love everyone.

Our reading from Matthew’s gospel addresses situations where there is conflict between members of the church. The word used in the Greek is adelphos, which is brothers, or fellow disciples, so here Jesus is talking about a situation that arises within the worship community, between people who are committed to the Way. Some versions have the word ‘church’, but it’s really closer, more intimate than that.

It’s not really referring to conflicts between different denominations, though as members of a wide Christian community we should all strive to live peacefully with one another.

Jesus is talking abut the times when someone close to you offends you. Maybe you’ve been put on a roster on a day when you have specifically asked not to. Or maybe there has been a misunderstanding about whether an Alpha meeting you have invited your boarder to was offering a full dinner, or just a light tea. This really happened to me.

You know what I mean – wherever where are people there can be conflict.

Jesus tells us how to deal with it – go and talk to the person privately. Don’t tell everyone else, don’t go behind their back, just have a loving conversation. Who knows – this might just resolve the issue. Maybe both of you had got hold of the wrong end of the stick, and it can all be sorted out easily.

Our current society seems to thrive on drama – just see how popular Reality TV is, especially where people are arguing. One of my least favourites is Below Decks, where the crew of swanky yachts do more stirring and conflict-growing than ever they do sailing.

But the private conversation is the Jesus way.

How about when this gets you nowhere? Take a couple of others with you, and try again. This is a throw-back to the Old Testament way of justice, where witnesses help to establish the truth. Maybe your witnesses will have some hard words for you – they might be able to point out where the problem really lies, and a humble hearer will listen and make amends.

But, oh dear, there is still a problem. Step three. Take it to the whole assembly. This is inviting a whole group of people, whose peace is marred by undercurrents, to help sort out the problem.

Have you ever been in a church congregation where there is something going on, people are whispering in corners, and the atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a communion wafer, but no one is talking out loud and it feels really tense? I was in a church once where two members of the worship team were having an affair, and it caused a lot of problems. Maybe a solution won’t be found to a problem by having everyone give their opinion, but at least it’s out in the open, and the problem can be ring-fenced – only the difficulty at hand is to be addressed, and it’s not a free-for-all for every grumble you have had going back the last twenty years!

But – maybe we need step 4. Maybe the issue has not been solved, maybe those found to be at fault by the assembly have not repented and tuned back to the right path. What then?

This is where Jesus starts to sound very strict. ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector’, he says. 2000 years ago the very word Gentile meant Outsider, not people who were to inherit God’s kingdom, which was for the Jews. Tax- collectors were even worse – agents for the hated Romans, taking not only the tax Rome sucked out of the people, but skimming off more for their personal use.

Remember though that Matthew himself was a tax collector before he answered Jesus’ call.

Ooh, maybe Jesus is not telling his people, and us, to reject those ones completely, who refuse to toe the line. How did Jesus actually treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He loved them. He came when the Roman centurion asked him to heal his servant. He ate a meal with tax collectors.

This is a bit challenging isn’t it? What was looking like an escalating scale of more and more strict treatment of the bad guy, is turned upside down by Jesus’ loving example!

How then should we react when situations like this arise? We can come back to the other reading – ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’

Love triumphs over everything. We may need to distance ourselves from hurtful and dangerous behaviour, but we must never stop loving. If every Christian in the world concentrated on truly loving every other person, what a wonderful world it would be! People who are not yet Christians would be drawn to that amazing power of love, and we would all live in freedom and in God’s truth.

This week, in your prayer time, ask God to show you someone you may not have succeeded at showering God’s love upon, and let God lift away the hurts, and set you free.

Burning Bushes

Sermon Aug 30

Burning bushes

Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-12

The trouble with being a Christian is that we have no excuse to sit back waiting for someone else to do everything. Just when we think, oh, I’m too old, or too scared, we see great examples from scripture of how ordinary people are called into the wonderful but let’s face it not easy life of being a disciple.

First, let’s look at Moses. The story of the Burning Bush is a Sunday school classic, and it certainly makes a great image. What do we know about Moses? First, he was not a perfect person. He left Egypt in a hurry after killing someone! This is quite extreme, but God used him anyway. Second, he was not a young man. When he left Egypt he was already 40, and spent another forty years working with his father-in-law and keeping his head down. This makes him 80! That’s great for us, because quite a few of us are around that age. That’s two potential difficulties shot down.

What else do we know about Moses? He was observant and curious. His noticing of things is why he killed the Egyptian in the first place. He saw an injustice and blundered in to try and right it. Now, out in the wilderness where he had been looking for the sheep for years, he saw something new! Imagine if you are one of the farmers on Country Calendar, and you are mustering your sheep from a block which you know like the back of your hand, and which you could probably ride blindfold, when suddenly you notice smoke! Fire – wonder how that started? You would think, and go closer to see if it needs putting out. But this bush is doing something weird – it’s not being burnt up! Time for a puzzled, closer look.

Well, God really knew how to get Moses’ attention.

Have you had burning bush moments in your life? Times when something so odd happened that it really caught your attention? When you had to stop everything, put aside all your pre-conceived ideas and just open yourself to wonder?

Perhaps in our busy lives we have not had time to stop and notice. That’s one of the, albeit few, blessings of the time of lockdown- it gave us a chance to stop what we were doing and just open ourselves up to what God was doing around us.

Maybe this is another blessing of getting older too, of retiring from the hustle and bustle of going out to work, the days of getting children fed and off to school are long in the past, and you have time to contemplate.

Now, let’s see what happened next with Moses and the bush.

Suddenly a voice came out of it, as if it wasn’t odd enough already! God talks to Moses! Moses hid his face. I bet he did, he was probably shaking in his bare feet.

God tells Moses what he has to do, and what I love about the dialogues that we hear between Moses and God is that they talk together, back and forth, like friends, not like a mighty God booming from the sky, and a quivering wreck stammering back in fear. Some fire and brimstone preachers of the past, and of our local street corner, would paint a picture of God that is scary and unapproachable, but right from the early books of the Bible, we see a God we can talk to, who will answer our questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to God about anything at all!

God has a task for Moses, but Moses wants to know how he will be able to manage it. I’ll be with you, God says. Then again we have the phrase, ‘but Moses said to God.’

I think this phrase comes quite a few times!

Ok then says Moses, but he again needs clarification. Who shall I say is calling? Or, what shall I tell them your name is?

The name that God gives Moses is I AM, in English. It’s based on the verb ‘to be’ in Hebrew. It’s really a sort of way of God saying, I am existence, I am the beginning of everything, – just as it is spelled out in the beginning of John’s Gospel.

God is telling Moses that the sheer power of existence will go with him into Egypt to liberate the people!

Moses had no further objections – how could he, knowing that God would go with him?

When God calls us forward to do something, we too can walk out in confidence, knowing that God who made the universe and beyond is with us.

Come forward a few centuries, and let’s see what happens when Jesus tells the

disciples what’s in store for their future too.

Instead of coming with a mighty army to defeat the rulers, Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem to suffer, and even to die! Peter doesn’t seem to hear the next bit, to be raised again, and he objects greatly to the picture Jesus paints! Jesus rebukes him strongly, Get thee behind me Satan! ouch!

Remember, Jesus has recently told Peter that he is the rock on which God will build the church. The rock is looking a bit crumbly now!

Jesus talks of a world tuned upside down – deny yourselves, follow me.

We live in a society where the wealthy own more and more of the resources, and there seems to be a drive to get richer, to get more stuff, get more well-known.

Jesus is showing us that his way is different, it is upside down from that. To follow Christ we are all called to put aside those worldly ambitions, and humble ourselves.

I look around here and I see a group of people who do just that. I want to encourage you that you are following Christ when you care for others, when you help the foodbank, when you have a kind word for someone you meet.

You may not be able to march in the streets for social justice, or to lead groups of people out of slavery, but you can still further the kingdom of God in everything you do, knowing that the power of God, of the very foundation of our being is with you. That is why prayer never has a use by date, or a best before, or a retirement age. Keep on being the warriors in prayer that you are, and you find your life.

The woman from outside

The woman from outside.

Rom 11: 1-2a, 29-32

Mat 15:21-28

This story we have just heard sounds a bit shocking, doesn’t it? In our times we have seen other races persecuted just because they are a different colour, and the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping the world. This story makes Jesus look like a bit of a racist really. It seems odd to say that. But hang on, we know the character of Jesus. We know about His great love for everyone. What is going on here?

We need to look at the first purpose of Jesus coming to the earth. It was to fulfil the promise that God had made to the Jews. They were called the chosen people for a reason. They had been awaiting the anointed one, the Messiah, for many hundreds, even thousands of years. Jesus’ first mission on earth was to fulfil that promise, to come and be the anointed one for the Jews. The title of the one the Jews were waiting for so longingly was ‘Son of David’. And, surprisingly, this is what the Canaanite woman calls him! She’s not a Jew, she’s not even living in Jewish territory. This story takes place on the coast some way north of Israel, and woman was from even further north. Some versions call her the Syro-Phoenician woman. Phoenicians lived on the coast, but the Syro bit refers to Syria, which is still further north.

So here was a woman from outside, claiming Jesus’s ministry to the world outside the Jewish world, for herself and her daughter. This is an example of the future ministry of Jesus breaking in on the first ministry. Her faith tells her that Jesus is on earth not just for the Jews but for everyone, so she confidently calls him Son of David, and asks for healing for her daughter. She acknowledges the Jewish call as the first one, by calling him Son of David, but it is her confidence in his wider mission that seems to take Jesus by surprise.

He challenges her again, and seems to be not only a bit racist but even rude. It isn’t right, says Jesus, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Ouch! Gentle Jesus meek and mild has disappeared again. It was only a myth anyway.

But the Canaanite woman isn’t offended at being compared to a dog. Jewish people referred to Gentiles as dogs commonly. It wasn’t polite, but it was normal. She comes back with one of the best rejoinders in the gospels – even the dogs get to eat the scraps from under the table!

Sometimes at cafe church we have some doggy visitors. We are not supposed to feed them from the table – the food is not for them. But if bits fall on the floor they don’t last long! This is probably why dogs love small children – there are always bits for them to gather up.

This lady was content with the crumbs. She didn’t expect more. But she confidently claimed that much, knowing that even a crumb of healing, of love, of teaching from Jesus would be enough for her need, to see her daughter healed.

Jesus is amazed at her faith. We have seen this reaction elsewhere – in a previous chapter there is a Roman centurion who also shows this faith – another Gentile. We can see, in the midst of Matthew’s gospel, which was written for a Jewish audience, the future ministry of Jesus, and the life of the church being foreshadowed. Both these Gentiles were commended for their faith – the challenge is to the Jewish people – Will you also show this faith? Will you acknowledge that the one you have been awaiting for so long is here now?

Well, some Jewish people did trust Jesus, but others are still waiting, and it seems sad to me that they didn’t recognise him when he stood among them.

What can this mean for us?

Where do we see faith breaking out where we least expect it?

I remember going to a service in Wellington cathedral to install Bishop Justin. During the cup of tea afterward, I noticed a man who didn’t look like most of the others there– instead of being clergy, or nicely turned out cathedral people in their best clothes, instead of being let’s face it white, he was Maori, dreadlocks, scruffy, with prison tattoos on his hands. Interesting character, I thought, and went over to talk to him. He knew Bishop Justin quite well from a ministry Justin had had to the prison, and he was wearing a wooden cross with a red bead on it. Those of you who have been to Cursillo will recognise this, as I did. He had done the in-prison Cursillo programme, which is called Te Ara Pono.

This man didn’t look like everyone else there at first glance, but he had the identifying mark of a Christian – I don’t mean the cross around his neck, but the transformed, faith- affirming life that showed that he too was a follower of Christ.

The church has become an institution in many parts of the world, connected with colonialism and the British way. It can look very different from the city that has evolved around it. Just this week, a church choir in the UK has been disbanded because it doesn’t represent the make-up of the community it is based in. Someone has decided that because of the racial grouping it is elitist.

The story we have just heard tells us that any sort of discrimination is not relevant to the kingdom of heaven. Yes, Jesus’s mission was first to the Jews, but then to the rest of the world. The followers of Jesus in the first century took the church far and wide, with the message heard by people in all their own languages at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

We cannot look at a group of people and say, they’re too brown, too white, too green for that matter, to fit into a picture of what the kingdom of heaven can look like. The Canaanite woman knew that it was for her and her daughter. Here at St Ambrose we know that God’s love is for everyone, no matter what walk of life.

I hope the people who want to worship God by singing in the choir in the UK can continue to do so, regardless of their colour or background. I hope those who don’t feel they can belong to that choir because it’s too something can start their own choir, and instead of being one or the other, they can have many different ways of worshipping God.

Dear friends, our challenge this week is carry on doing what we already do well here – reaching out to everyone with God’s love, and the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven!

What can God bless?

Sermon Aug 2

What can God bless?

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

The story of the feeding of the five thousand is a familiar one. So let’s see what we can find out about it that might not be so obvious. When did it happen? Our passage starts with ‘after this.’ After what? Just before this, Jesus has heard that his cousin John the Baptist has been killed by the evil King Herod. John had preached in the wilderness that Jesus was coming soon, and John had baptised him in the river Jordan. It would have been a hard time for Jesus, so he went away into a quiet place, to have some time to himself, maybe to think about and mourn his cousin.

But He couldn’t even find that little bit of peace. The crowds found him, followed him, and filled his quiet place.

Jesus reacted in a way that many of us would not – instead of saying, like the old film star, ‘I want to be alone’, He did what he was sent here to do- he cured the sick, and ministered to the people. He had compassion for them.

He had taken a little time for himself, but when life came hurtling back at him, he was ready to step up to the plate.

It’s like that in Christian ministry too isn’t it? We can be having a really bad day, need some time to ourself after a particularly harrowing morning, and someone turns up for the food bank, or calls, and really needs our attention and our love. This is where arrow prayers are a God-send, literally. They are a quick prayer sent straight up, God, help me now! That’s all they need to be. An acknowledgement that we need God’s help, that whatever we are being asked for, we cannot do it out of our own strength, because we haven’t got any left. It’s not a bad thing to admit our lack, our weakness I these situations. This is a God-space. Where we are not enough God is always enough.

As the day with Jesus and the crowd drew towards evening, some of the disciples began to worry about the crowd. ‘They’ve got no food with them, they all came out in a hurry, desperate to see Jesus, and now they’ll be getting hungry.’

When people hang out around Jesus, they see the needs of other people. The disciples reacted with compassion, with practical care. Send them away, they said, so they can get food. They were not wanting the people to go away because they were sick of them or because they thought Jesus needed a break. It was out of care for people who needed a feed.

Jesus had another idea. He asked the disciples to feed them.

Can you imagine being a disciple and being told to feed 5000 plus people? Maybe for a minute you would think that Jesus was crazy to suggest it, or away with the fairies. Bring what you have, he said.

This is an echo of the story of Elijah and the widow. She was facing having to sell her only son into slavery to pay off her debts, when Elijah asked her, what do you have? She opened the cupboard and found a little bit of oil. When Elijah told her to pour it, it kept going, filling up all the jars she had, and she had to borrow some from neighbours. Then she could sell it and pay off her debt.

What do you have in your cupboard? When you feel a lack of something in your life, what do you already have that God is ready and waiting to miraculously grow for you? Do you have a little bit of energy? A good idea? A sense of humour? Some spare time? Too much silver beet? A particular skill?

Just like the loaves and fishes, we all have something. It might only be a little thing, but God can magnify it, and make it bless others.

Can you imagine the scene in the previously deserted wilderness? The people would have been getting hungry, and Jesus lifts up five loaves, and two small fish to God, and blesses them, and breaks them. This sounds like communion doesn’t it? Maybe the folk would have thought, oh, he’s having his tea now, but what are we going to do? But as Jesus broke the bread and fish, it seems to double, and double again, and again, so that there was not only enough for everyone there, but also 12 baskets of leftovers! Can you imagine how much food you would need for five thousand men, and more women and children? How many loaves of bread? How many fish? I have a hard enough time working out how many people I’m feeding at my place, especially in the weekends when extra teenagers seem to turn up, but here is Jesus breaking the bread and distributing it, knowing that it would be more than enough.

When we bring our small stores of whatever we have to Jesus, he will bless them too, and they will expand to fill the need. If we all bring our talents and time and resources to Jesus for the sake of the kingdom, just like we heard in last week’s Gospel about the mustard seed, they too will grow and grow, to fill the needs of those around us.

But hang on, you may say. I don’t have anything I can give to the kingdom of God. That’s when you need to ask God what is it that you do have. What’s in your cupboard? It may be something that you haven’t thought about.

I can imagine that the crowd around Jesus might have fancied something different for tea than dried fish and bread. This was a pretty basic meal, but that’s what was there. There are times when we want a certain thing, and God fills our need by providing something else. Wants and needs are different, and being flexible to God’s leading is important here. That’s why it is so important to offer them up to God in prayer. If we have an idea for a new outreach in our parish, before we go in boots and all and try to get it up and running, we need to bring it to prayer. Next weekend we are having a planning day for the vestry and clergy, and that’s exactly what we will be doing.

God will bless what needs to be blessed, and give the increase where God wants to. If we sense that our offering is not going anywhere, perhaps it’s time to come back to God and ask again. ‘Lord, what do I have in my cupboard that I have overlooked? What resource have I already rejected? Can you do something with that Lord?’

God uses things and people that the rest of the world rejects. The stone the builder rejected has become the cornerstone, the scripture goes.

Let’s take this story of the feeding of the five thousand as an encouragement to us, that whenever we are in need, we can bring whatever we have to God, ask for God’s blessing on it, and in confidence and trust expect a miracle!

Little Treasures

Sermon July 26 2020

Little treasures.

Genesis 29:15-28

Rom 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-52

We have just heard several short pictures of what the kingdom of heaven is like. A seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, a net.

These ideas are small but rich in content.

The first two have something in common. A seed is a tiny thing, but it grows large and gives a lot of return. Yeast too doesn’t take up much space, but it expands to make something more. If you make bread and leave out the yeast, or use some that has expired, you get a very heavy, stodgy, inedible dough. There is no lightness, no ease of eating it.

What can Jesus be telling us here about the kingdom of heaven? Well, it starts from small beginnings. It starts small with a smile, a kind word, a gesture of friendship, a prayer. Every time someone treats another person with the love that God has for all of us, the kingdom starts to grow, to bubble up a bit.

A seed and yeast need the right conditions to grow – warmth, moisture and food. If we want to see the kingdom of heaven grow around us, we too need to provide warmth – the warmth of God’s love. And moisture – the watering with the Word. That is, the reason behind what we do. Christians derive that reason from our belief in the words of God that we find in the Bible. Lastly, food – the food of fellowship, both with one another, and by sharing in Holy Communion, which is a powerful symbol of taking Jesus’ substance within us.

Today we are going to baptise little Quintin. His family, friends and all of us will come together to declare our faith in the God who made us. That is how we can re-imagine the kingdom of heaven – a seed growing in the right conditions, and it is our prayer that as Quintin grows up he will be nurtured in this environment so that the kingdom of heaven will grow in his life.

What else do our parables compare the kingdom of heaven with? A pearl, and a treasure. Notice again how they are paired, just like the seed and the yeast.

The kingdom is something precious but not obvious. It is hidden away, and gives great joy when it is found. Where do we find pearls? Inside an oyster, or a mussel, or a paua. In the middle of a sea creature, which by the way was seen as unclean in the Jewish religion. And this animal too is hidden away under water. It takes a lot to find a precious gem like a pearl, lots of hard work and looking. That says a lot about the kingdom of heaven in our day and age too – it is not obvious, breaking out all around us. There is so much distress and suffering in the world that at times we can wonder if the kingdom of heaven is just a story made up to keep us happy.

But we can trust scripture here – as Paul says in the reading that we heard earlier,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.’

Isn’t that powerful? Anything we can think of, that might get in the way of God’s love shining upon us, Paul has already shot down. Whatever the conditions of our world, of our life, of our circumstances, God’s love is right there in the midst of it. There is absolutely nothing that can keep God from loving us.

But, you may say, you don’t know how bad I’ve been. How could God love a person like me? We are all attacked by feelings of guilt from time to time, and we can bring them to the crucified Christ to ask for forgiveness. Be reassured that if we ask, we receive, and Jesus’ death and resurrection has taken all, let me say it again, all our guilt away. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Now, this isn’t a free pass to do whatever we want. As the kingdom of heaven grows in us, as the seed takes root, as the pearl starts to glimmer from the darkness, we start to see other people with the same love that we know God has for us. And how can we treat folk badly if we know that God loves them too?

This is where it starts to get difficult, because for most of us I suspect, there will be people who have mistreated us in our past, and maybe still are, or are just plain annoying. Luckily, we are not asked to sort out the bad from the good, just to love them. We are like a tap – there might be water in the pipe, but you don’t know until you turn it on. When you have been doing plumbing work, there is always that slight trepidation when you start to remove the tap handle to replace the washer – did I really turn off the toby properly? If you didn’t you know that there will be a mess! But God’s supply of love for us is never turned off. It’s not like the dripping tap that you needed to fix. When we turn it on, by letting love flow out from us, we start to notice that the flow just increases more and more. There is no limit to how much love there is.

Well, do our parables about the kingdom of heaven have anything to help us about the ones who are hard to love? The people who have wronged us, hurt us, abused us? Yes!

Remember the picture of the net:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This tells us that everyone will be caught up in the net of the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t mean that evil people will get away with it though – they are sorted out. It’s up to God and the angels to judge who is good and who is bad. It’s not up to us. We don’t need to worry about evil doers getting away scot-free. God will judge them and sort them out in the fullness of time. That’s tremendously free-ing, not having to hold that burden of hurt, unforgivingness and resentment against others.

Let God take that burden from you, and deal with it. And let the yeast of the kingdom of heaven bubble up within you, spilling out as love.

Seeds

Sermon July 12 2020

Seeds

Romans 8:1-11 Matthew 13:1-23

Has anyone tried sprouting seeds? It used to be all the rage to have your own bean sprouts, mung beans usually, on the kitchen windowsill. It’s not hard to get a seed to germinate. You just have to give it water. Maybe a bit of light. But what is in the seed reacts as soon as it detects water, and sends out a little root tip, looking for water. The word of God is like that too. As soon as it detects even the slightest encouragement, it starts to grow. But if the seed is sown on rocky ground, all dry and hard, there is no water. No reason for the seed to start into action.

If the word of God is sown on rocky ground, that means it is somewhere very unreceptive. Do you know people who have stony hearts? Gravelly faces? Flint expressions? People who don’t listen to anything of God, or religion. Maybe they say, I don’t need all that stuff, I’m doing all right on my own. We used to have a boarder who was from Russia. He thought Christians were weak because we relied on God, and that his people were strong because they didn’t need God. He was like a rocky ground, impervious to the word of God.

In the real world, seed that lands on rocks is soon eaten up by birds and mice and anything that can use it, but it doesn’t take root.

Let’s look at what St Paul has to say to the Romans about people who have no time for God –

‘Those who think they can do it on their own, end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end.

Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God.’

We have seen what happens when people measure their own moral muscle, and don’t end up using it. They become judgmental and hateful, criticising everyone and loving no one except maybe their own family. These people end up rejecting those of other race, other religion, other anything really. They try to make themselves feel better by belittling everyone else.

But Paul has the remedy for this too:

‘Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.’

If the seed is thrown onto weedy ground, full of thistles and convolvulus, it might germinate. But there is so much competition. The stronger, older plants prevent the light from reaching the newly sprouted shoot, and their roots suck up all the moisture, so the poor little shoot gets paler and weaker till it finally gives up. That is like when people hear the word of God but there are so many other things going on that it can’t be nurtured.

Do you know people like that? They are happy to hear about God, and they know you go to church and live by faith, but they just don’t have time to consider how this could be something in their lives. They don’t have the energy to weed their garden.

I used to work as a gardener to elderly people until fairly recently. Many gardens need help to flourish, or the bully weed plants take over. If you want a particular plant to thrive it needs to be tended. Maybe you can be the gardeners for your friends. People whose lives are so busy with cares can be encouraged to take some time out, some ‘me’ time, to stop doing everything else and just think

about what they are doing here on earth. About how they got here, who made them. Maybe you can help your friend find that time by minding their kids for a few hours, or sharing their busy load in some other way. Even just by taking the time to talk to them, you are giving them a little window in their busyness.

There is freedom for those who trust in God. These are the people whose gardens are tended, where the weeds are removed and the soil fed, where the water is the right amount and the plants get enough sun, and are protected from frost.

Those of us here today would want to count ourselves in this category – but the parable doesn’t just talk about the plant growing up to the light. It produces something! If you grow one kernel of corn, it might produce 3 ears of corn, each with a hundred kernels. That’s a 300 fold increase! Many seeds do this, producing so much from just one, that we can use most of the seeds for food, and sell them, and give them away, and still have enough to sow for the next year. The word of God is like this too –

As Matthew says, ‘this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Have you seen God’s fruit in your lives? I know many of you have. Do you want your friends, relations, the lady in the supermarket, the man at the petrol station, to have that fruit and joy in their life too? I hope you do, because if we truly have a wonderful thing in Jesus, we really want to share it. Let’s all be gardeners in this cold month of winter – not for real plants which let’s face it aren’t doing much, but with people. Let’s sow the Good seed, let’s water it, let’s weed it, and help it flourish. Just as plants that are tended do much better than those left alone, so does the word of God in people’s hearts.

Gulp, I hear you thinking. That sounds like hard work, trying in every encounter with someone to be helping the word of God grow. Good news! Paul says:

‘If the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus,- bring you alive to himself. When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!’

Trust God to give you the Holy Spirit to empower you, and it won’t be an uphill battle.

I Obviously Need Help!

Sermon July 5 2020

Genesis 24:34-67 Romans 7:15-25 The Message Matthew 11:16-30

I Obviously Need Help!

Paul spells it out like it is, doesn’t he? It can be a bit hard to understand, so today we are using the version from The Message.

“For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!”

Have you had times like that? I’m sure we all have. Maybe it’s driving things – you know you should indicate that left-hand turn, but there’s no-one for miles about to see, so you don’t bother. Or maybe, like me, you find yourself taking a pen home from work, and don’t consider that it really should have been left at work. What’s the harm? There’s no-one to see or criticise, and anyway, doesn’t everyone do things like this?

Maybe you don’t see little infractions like this as sin. How about other things? As long as there have been people, there have been temptations to cheat in our relationships. No one will know, it’s ok, people have tried to convince themselves.

But Paul is talking about an innate law, one that we know is inside us. It’s not because we are scared of begin caught out that we are encouraged to follow the law, both the law of the land and God’s law. If even the saintly Paul struggled with the flesh, with temptation, with inner sin, we can be reassured that we are not the only ones who go through times like this.

But Paul leads us to what is really going on – ‘the power of sin within me keeps challenging my best intentions.’ We are born into a world of sin. When Adam took the first bite of that apple, metaphorical though it may have been, human beings were opened up to a world where we can make our own choices, even if

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they are bad ones. We do have free will. If we didn’t, God would just have made a race of robots, Barbie and Ken dolls to play with, instead of people with free will who can choose to love God and love each other.

We can choose to turn away from sin, but even Paul admits that we need help. We can’t do it under our own strength. We have a real adversary who is trying to pull us from the path, and we have the adversary of the flesh, which is also nudging us from that path.

Paul goes on:

‘I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.’

This sounds like New Years’ resolutions doesn’t it? How many of us have made these, bright and shining with the New Year, and by January 2 we’ve completely forgotten about them. I can already be promising myself to stop buying chocolate, while I reach for the Whittakers at the checkout.

Or how about when we see those desperate pleas from Save the Children on tv, and we decide, yes, I will support them, but by the time the add has finished we’ve forgotten what or why we even thought we might? Our decisions don’t result in actions at times, because, as Paul has said, something has gone wrong deep within me. That’s sin.

But don’t despair! Paul says:

‘I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.’

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You can feel such a sigh of relief, can’t you? After spelling out all the failings of our frail humanity, Paul takes us to the point where there is hope. That Jesus Christ can help us, and importantly does help us.

How does Jesus help us? By answering our prayers, by inspiring us with the Holy Spirit, by setting us his example, by challenging us to radically love our neighbour, even the annoying one, by being with us in other people – the list goes on. There are so many ways Jesus helps us to do what is the right thing.

We need to have the right thing set as a default in our heart in order to recognise when we are tempted to do the wrong thing.

How can we do that? By asking ourselves, what would Jesus do? This takes us back to really examining Jesus’ example – ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild ‘was a fiction designed to make little children behave themselves. How about Jesus braiding a cord and cleansing the temple ,or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers?

Following Jesus doesn’t mean being nice and sweet all the time. Some of the time sure, but when there is injustice or hypocrisy, we have an excellent example in Jesus to try and right the injustice, to call out the hypocrisy.

Being a Christian is not always a comfortable place to be. In fact, if we are too comfortable, we are not really engaging in the world we live in.

Now, I’m aware today that many of you have been God-following Christians for many years, and have this idea of doing the right thing pretty sorted in your life. It may not be for you that these words are. But you may have other people that come to you for advice, for support, for friendship. Maybe your cleaner has a problem to discuss with you. Maybe your grandson wants to run something by you. Maybe the hairdresser opens up an interesting topic of conversation.

Dear friends, you have a job to do. There is no such thing as a retired Christian.

Whenever someone engages with you, you can guide them into Jesus’ way to

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live. People will see the wisdom and the love shining off you, and will come and ask, knowing that there’s something about you that is different from the world.

Our mission is to let the world know about God’s love for each and every one of them, and this can inform every contact we have with anyone.

Think about contact tracing, like we’ve had to consider in the Covid crisis. Many of you weren’t going out in lockdown, so didn’t come in contact with people who might infect you. But now that we’re out of lockdown, how many people can you infect? In a good way, of course, with the Good News. With the love of God.

This week, do a bit of a tally of how many people you encounter, and you might be surprised about how many opportunities there are for you to spread the Good News!

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