The Ten Commandments and the Rich Man

The Ten commandments and the Rich Man.

Oct 11 St Mary’s Whitby.

When we hear today’s gospel story of the rich man’s encounter with Jesus, it starts with a sideways twist doesn’t it? The man called Jesus Good teacher, probably just as a way of addressing him. He could have called him Jesus Bar-Joseph, or Rabbi, or even Galileen. But he said Good teacher, as a throwaway greeting, just like calling someone dear sir. It wasn’t meant to be anything much. But Jesus took it out of left field, as he so often does. Maybe Jesus discerned a sarcasm in the address? or a condescension? I remember the series of Yes Minister, which we still watch sometimes, and Sir Humphrey had an annoying way of addressing all women who had the temerity to question him as ‘dear lady’. It always sounded patronising and dismissive.

But if this is what was happening between the rich man and Jesus, Jesus saw through it immediately, and put the focus back on God. ‘Only God is good’, he said.

After that he addressed the question,’What can I do to have eternal life?’ Rather than telling the man to have faith in him, he reminded him about the ten commandments. Now this might seem rather odd, but remember that this is Mark’s gospel account, and it is full of examples of what is called the messianic secret. “Don’t tell anyone” is a common refrain.

So Jesus reminds the young man about the ten commandments, and the fellow affirms that he had always followed them. But Jesus looks closely, and reminds him not to defraud. I suspect Jesus knew that the man was rich not merely through hard work, good luck and family connections. He knew he was overly attached to his wealth.

I follow a blog called Gifts in Open Hands , and this week there was posted a version of the ten commandments, which goes beyond the words to the intent.

It’s really good so I will read all of it out:

I am God of a World Communion – don’t put any of your little particular religions between you and God.

Don’t make idols of race or money or power or national identity and bow down and worship them.

Don’t make a wrong use of God’s name to justify your own ideas or your politics or even your interpretations of the Bible.

Remember that Sabbath means that you should rest your body, mind, and spirit and that you should create a society in which affordable rest care is a primary agenda for all people.

Honor all the elderly, listen to their wisdom and care for their wellbeing, for this is the only way to receive a heritage.

You shall not kill with your death penalty. You shall not kill by letting guns be unconscionably accessible to those ill of mind and spirit. You shall not kill migrant children for lack of a welcome. You shall not kill by starvation unnecessary in a world of abundance. You shall not kill by war.

You shall not commit abuse in loving relationships, permit human trafficking, forbid love.

You shall not lie about the earth and that which damages it. You shall not lie in negotiations between nations, in the emissions of corporate greed, in the paying of the taxes that sustain a common life. You shall no longer lie about the past for our indigenous, aboriginal, native brothers and sisters are weeping. You shall not swallow lies about the present, neither in congress or in court. You shall not invent lies about the future that steal our children’s world.

And hardest of all in an era so divided between rich and poor that the rich always serve a gold-calf brunch to their friends with someone else’s ewe lamb, you shall not covet what your neighbor has, because wanting what someone else has tears the world’s communion to pieces, and breaking bread is meant to be a blessing to share.

Jesus is calling the man to examine his deepest-held treasure. As we heard in the Hebrews reading, Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are.

This could come as a bit of a scary thought, that Jesus can see through our bluster and our exterior, to the inner workings and idols of our heart, even when we can barely articulate them ourselves. Nothing is hidden from God.

But it’s not scary, it’s open and loving. A parent loves and cares for a baby even at its most revolting – nappy-changes become a loving act. God loves us the same way.

It takes courage on our part to allow God to search our hearts in the way that the epistle writer urges.

‘Whenever we are in need we should come bravely before the throne of God.’ Yes, it won’t be easy. Yes, we need courage. But committing to any loving relationship takes courage doesn’t it?

Job had courage didn’t he? He complained to God that he had been made to suffer. He had the open, loving relationship with his God that meant he didn’t have to hide his most unseemly emotions. He trusted that God would listen to him, because he is innocent!

We can come to God with our anguish even when we aren’t innocent!

My friends, isn’t it marvellous that we don’t have to have all our ducks in a row before coming to God? Isn’t it wonderful that we are loved with an unconditional, sacrificial love, no matter how terrible we feel we are, how unworthy?

Now, if God loves us like this, and urges us to be real with him, surely we need to love each other in the same way. Surely we need not fear ridicule or scorn from our fellow Christians, no matter what a mess we are in?

Many young people in their teens start to notice that Christians don’t all follow the same agenda. Some are judgemental, some hypocritical, some – gasp – human. And young people, who can be so idealistic, so passionate but at the same time powerless, often decide that all of religion is more trouble than it’s worth. People have killed, tortured, crusaded in the name of religion, so it’s a better bet to just reject all religious expression.

But Jesus has been misrepresented by his followers. The Jesus who could look at the rich man who asked how to inherit eternal life, and love him. He didn’t reject him because he was wealthy or successful, or even because his wealth may have been gained at others’ expense. Jesus loved him, because that’s what Jesus is about. Loving us all, and giving us the model for how to love each other.

Jesus did however have a challenge for him, to give away all his wealth to the poor. Jesus knew where his idol was.

I wonder if that was the end of the story? Maybe the rich man thought about Jesus’ words, and the phrase about not cheating people started to niggle like a prickle in his foot, and his conscience was changed? I hope so.

Let’s come back to Job. Job knew that God was always at work, even though he couldn’t see him. He knew that God could hear him, and would do exactly what he pleased. But Job also knew that when he was tested he would be found pure as gold. He had a clear conscience, so he could approach God and say, this isn’t fair, there is no reason for me to be judged. I am innocent!

He refused to be silent, even though God had ‘covered him in darkness’.

Shall we refuse to be silent too? Shall we stand up on behalf of those who cannot cry out? Shall we oppose human trafficking, slavery, greed, all the ways of the world which make life hard if not impossible for some of God’s beloved children?

I believe that we must. God sees everything in the world, and it breaks his heart. we must allow our hearts to be broken too, because we are made in God’s image.

Last week’s sermon about the Barnabas fund opened our eyes to the plight of Christians fleeing war in Syria, and the injustice that means they don’t have access to refugee services, because of fears for their safety. We have seen it, we can’t un-see it. Have you signed the petition in the foyer? What else can you do to help these people?

Go back to the rich man. He knew the basis for a Godly life – he had followed the commandments since his youth. This week and next encourage you to ponder on one commandment at a time, its wider implications, and what it can mean for you and your life, and your sphere of influence – your work, your family, your facebook friends, and all the ways you can be a blessing to the world.

Sermon: Truth

 

Truth

Our three readings today are on the same theme – the theme of truth. Esther spoke the truth to the king, even though it would mean exposing an influential enemy. The king himself was so powerful that Esther and Mordecai waited till they knew for certain that he meant what he said when he proposed to give her what she asked for. But even the king didn’t know what the evil Haman was plotting behind his back.

These days with the second world war in our recent history, we tend to forget that anti-Semitism went back a long way. A very long way. That may have had something to do with the fact they kept conquering other peoples maybe?

But here in King Xerxes’ court, in the land of Persia, the Jews were a minority who were resented. Esther had an opportunity to help her people, but it must have been with fear and trembling that she exposed Haman for plotting against her people. From our reading today it looks as if the king acted without any time to give Haman a chance to give his point of view, but a few verses were left out. What happened next, after Esther’s accusation, was that the king was so angry he got up and paced around. Haman, terrified for his life, threw himself at the feet of Queen Esther to plead for his life. The King returned and found him there, and accused him of trying to molest Esther! So Haman’s face was covered – meaning he was sentenced to death.

This is when the servant Harbona pipes up with the detail of the tower that Haman has built for the express purpose of hanging Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and leader of the Jewish people. This came as an extra accusation of Haman.

I’m left here wondering why the King didn’t know about the building project. After all, it was 23 meters tall. But maybe no-one dared speak against Haman because of his powerful position in the court.

This goes to show that even the King, the highest status person in the land, didn’t know everything. I hope my kids don’t hear me say this…

These events are still celebrated by orthodox Jews in the feast of Purim, and they make a special biscuit, called Haman’s hats – a three-cornered pastry filled with apricots, poppy-seeds or prunes, and they are very nice too!

But what message is there for us in this vivid story of life a long time ago? I think it’s about speaking out the truth, even as a potential risk to your own safety. Truth is a powerful thing, but so is untruth.

When we look at our reading from James, the message is very clear, to the point of almost naive bluntness. If you have trouble, pray. If you have sinned, tell each other what you have done.

It’s refreshing in its simplicity, and also challenging. Often-times we are so caught up in maintaining our image the way we want to be perceived, that telling our friends when we have done something that we consider a sin, is the last thing we would want to do. We don’t want our darkest secrets out on public view. Let bygones be bygones, it was just youthful high-jinks, the pig consented, and all manner of other excuses.

But have you ever had something in your past that gets up and niggles at you from time to time? Something you wish you could confess, to take away its power over you? But did you feel that if you did confess it that someone would have a lower opinion of you? I know I have, but I’m not willing to go into details. And this is the problem isn’t it? If we can’t bring our humanness, our brokenness, to our friends in Christ, we are not living with the freedom that James knows is possible. The truth will set you free! Free from guilt, from worry, from trying to make sure the story is straight, and everything looks respectable.

But, actually, being a Christian is not really about being respectable in the eyes of the community. Was Jesus respectable? He lived rough, bludged off -maybe that’s a bit strong- various unattached women, a motley crowd of disciples following him, turned over tables in temples, spoke it as he saw it…

Another good learning from James. If you have sinned tell one another what you have done, then pray for one another and be healed. Not gossip it all over the suburb or facebook. I’m sure none of you gossip. But it can be very tempting to pass on interesting bits of information, like Harmona and Haman’s new-built gallows! Note too that the prayer James urges is mutual, not just praying for the confessor, but for each other. In these ways are truthful relationships forged.

Let’s look again at the peaceful and simple picture James paints – pray for healing, and expect it! Give thanks for the good stuff! If you are sick, ask the church leaders to come and pray for you. In St Mary’s many of us exercise a healing ministry, and while that doesn’t mean we are all church leaders – relax, you don’t all have to go to Synod next year – we are growing in leading the Kingdom of God in our community. As we pray for each other in church, corporately and personally, we are being trained to pray for those we encounter on our Monday to Saturday journeys. We hear stories in Encouraging the Kingdom of when people step out boldly and simply and pray for others. Be encouraged everyone – it’s not hard, but like Esther you have to take your heart in your mouth sometimes.

Notice one thing James doesn’t say in his advice – if you do this life will be easy and go well and everyone will love you!

No no no, we all know that Christianity is not as easy as that. If it was, we would value it less, because it would come at a small cost.

Thins which are costly are valued – that’s why giving away pets in never as good as selling them – if a person values the new pet enough to sacrifice for it, they will care for it better.

In Mark’s Gospel, again we have the theme of truth. The disciples are complaining that someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, someone who isn’t one of the approved, certificated, health and safety stamped members of the disciples. But Jesus knows that the message is what matters. The truth is that in Jesus’ name demons will flee.

That means that anyone who commands them to go in Jesus’ name speaks the truth and the demons will indeed flee. This is a message for all of us – as I mentioned last time I preached here, the enemy is real, but in Jesus’ name we all can command it to go. The truth rests in Jesus, human and divine son of God, and as His followers, slaves of Christ, which is what Christian originally meant, we are endeavouring to live the truth the Jesus way.

Does that mean then that if we discover in our conscience one of those sins mentioned in James, we should cut off the offending limb that committed the sin? Some people who take the Bible literally may think this. But the Bible was not meant to be taken literally in this way. The New Zealand sense of humour is about understatement – though I have not yet heard the Christchurch earthquakes referred to as ‘a spot of bother, ‘ you know what I mean. In the same way Jewish humour is about exaggeration. Jesus talked elsewhere about forgiving a debt of many talents of money, 0r several billion dollars in today’s terms. Cutting off your hand, foot, eye, is the same thing here. But the principle is clear.

Maybe it’s about things in your life. ‘Fred is my right-hand man at work, I couldn’t do without him.’ But if Fred encourages you to sin, maybe it’s time to sever the relationship.

If you need a glass of wine to get through the dinner hour when the kids are feral, maybe this is something to cut off before it leads you to sin.

Behaviours, habits, relationships that are bad for us, are all things we can cut off. Will it hurt? Yes. Maybe, like some amputations, there will be ongoing ghost pain too. But it’s for the better.

But there are times when we drift into a way of living that is not good. We don’t notice the first step, or brush aside the niggles, justifying ourselves until we no longer hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit that there is a better way. This is when our friends have a role in our life. James tells us that if any followers have strayed from the truth, try to lead them back. He doesn’t say, pray for them and everything will be fine, like in the earlier verse. He is acknowledging that it may be a difficult and painful journey for all parties involved. But this is love isn’t it? Speaking into the lives of our fellow Christians, with love, and with prayer, not just wringing our hands and worrying. In our culture people are reluctant to say anything, but, just like the servant Harbona, we have certainly become aware of the giant scaffold our friends are building, and as followers of the Truth personified in the person of Jesus Christ, we are emboldened to speak out.

This applies to structures in our communities too. If we see injustice, lack of truth, as Christians it is our duty to do something about it. Yes we may be ridiculed, so what? We only live here on this earth for a short while, but forever in heaven.

Sermon: Idols and the enemy

Sermon 23 August 2015

Is it easy being a Christian?

These days, there are so many other things going on in our lives that our attention can be drawn away from putting God first in every part of our lives.

Joshua told the tribes at Shechem:

‘Get rid of the idols your ancestors worshipped when they lived on the other side of the Euphrates river and in Egypt.’

I think this is a text for us. God is telling us to get rid of those things that distracted our ancestors, our parents, people of our culture in the past. And that may not just mean the past in archaeological terms, as it did for the tribes of Israel. It could mean things that were important to you in your past. Maybe even yesterday. Anything that distracts us from putting God first can be considered an idol.

But, I hear you say, I don’t worship other gods, Buddhas, flying spaghetti monsters, or new age stuff.

No, maybe not, but idols can be many things. They can be the idol of money. The love of money is the root of all evil, it has been said. Money in and of itself is neutral, and it’s quite useful really. Certainly when we don’t have enough we notice it!

If our pursuit of income is the first priority in our lives, other things get out of balance. Living a God-centred life doesn’t mean we need to become hermits and live in a cave, eating huhu grubs – unless we’re Bear Grylls – it means getting a balance. Not a bank-balance.

Money is often a great cause of pressure for us – whether we have enough to do what we need to do, or what we want to do. It also causes resentments when one half of a couple spends it without discussing it with the other partner. It’s easy to feel resentful and entitled when we feel hard-done-by in terms of spending money.

When you get the junk mail in from the letter box, how do you feel? Do you look at the lovely leather couches and wish you had one? Or wish you had another one? Again, in itself this is neutral, but craving, coveting and desiring Stuff can distract us from what really matters.

The culture we live in is all about who has what, and our success is often measured in terms of our Stuff. But we know that we matter to God no matter who we are, what we have, how successful or not we are in the eyes of the world.

Stuff is an idol that can hold us back.

There are many other idols – sports can be one, even family can be an idol. Some people put their children on a pedestal and indulge them, doing everything for them, at the expense of their characters. Have you seen people who are run ragged taking their kids to every extracurricular activity on the planet, only to find themselves too exhausted to live their own life?

There are many idols.

Joshua has his priorities right. ‘My family and I are going to worship and obey the Lord!’ or, the old version, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’

As members of Christ’s body, that’s what we are trying to do. And it’s not always easy is it? Obeying the Lord is all very well when we know what is required, such as not murdering, not lying. But there are always grey areas. Lying is one actually. Have you ever lied to your child – ‘no, there are no chocolate biscuits left ‘- when you know that there is one actually but you are saving it for later, when they are in bed? Guilty.

Saying what we want people to hear is an instinctive human reaction, – we want others to think well of us. Our reputation can be an idol. But Godly character says we own up to the truth, even when it hurts.

When I was a child I heard a story about George Washington, who, as a boy, cut down the family cherry tree. I don’t know why he did it, but the lesson of the story was that he owned up to it, he admitted that he was the wielder of the axe.

As a kid, I thought, so what? He cut it down, he admitted it.

But as I get older I realise how hard it can be to admit to deeds that do not show us in a good light.

If we truly follow God’s voice this all gets easier.

This is where the Holy Spirit helps us. It gives us boldness, to speak the truth and the Gospel. To own up, to be brave, even when we know we will be thought less well-of. The same Holy Spirit that empowers us to tell others about the Gospel also empowers us to live the gospel. And this is often the more impactful testimony.

Others will see our Godly character, not just when we are doing nice, kind, Christiany things, but when we stuff up, how we react. Our character as Christians is under scrutiny from the world – anyone who publicly claims to be a Christian better be squeaky clean because the press gleefully finds any inconsistencies.

My friends, we all have inconsistencies. None of us is perfect. We are all on a journey, and it’s not a straightforward one.

But why is it so hard?

There is opposition. There is a very real enemy to God, and – unfashionable though it may be to name it, that enemy is the devil. We are in a battle – Jesus has won the war but the final skirmish is not yet over.

That’s why we are encouraged to Put on the armour of life. This passage we heard read today from Ephesians is often familiar from Sunday school posters, and it’s a good one to keep coming back to.

We are urged to put on all the armour that God gives, so we can defend ourselves against the devil’s tricks. We need to take this seriously. The spiritual forces of evil are present in the world, and will exploit any chink in our armour, any gateway. Physical illness can become a gateway for spiritual harm too, and the other way around. When we pray for the sick, it is good to pray for protection from any attack of the enemy, which can come in the form of worse symptoms, depression, anxiety, bad dreams and many other ways of feeling worse than we do already.

If we put on God’s justice like armour, we don’t allow ourselves to act in a way that could be remotely unjust or unmerciful. If we let our guard down, the enemy can whisper in our ear – ‘wouldn’t it be easier to ignore the just way? After all, who will notice?’

Have you had that internal dialogue when you are tempted? How about when the person in the dairy gives you too much change. Do you give it back? Do you gleefully put it in your purse and feel you have had a bonus? These little things train us in the big things. I’m sure you know not to steal, after all, it is a clear commandment. But how about stealing time? I have belonged to several choirs over the years, and served on various committees. Many people on the committees use their work email, and are obviously sending choir emails during work time. No one will notice, but, actually, it can be stealing from their employer’s time.

Again, the enemy whispers on our shoulder.

How else does the armour of God protect us? ‘Use our faith like a shield, to stop the flaming arrows of the evil one.’ Those thoughts and ideas that are not Godly are the flaming arrows, but arrows can also come from people around us, people we love, people we work with. Comments people make are often very good at going in deep, wounding us to the quick.

The most incorrect nursery rhyme ever is ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ They do hurt, and hurt bad. We mull over comments, we let them fester, and often we develop a desire for comeback, for a chance to explain, or to get even.

If we use our faith like a shield, reminding us of who God is and who we are in God, those arrows can be deflected, and even if we hear them they can become less important in the bigger picture. Someone criticises you? Okay, it happens. Be reminded that God loves you, be humble and don’t try and get even. Godly character will result. Your faith will help you grow.

It’s not so much that the comments people make are from the evil one – we don’t need to tell people that the devil is speaking through them, though some versions of Christianity can be that direct. It’s more that a gateway is formed where the darker spiritual forces can gain a toehold. How we respond will determine whether our portcullis is up or down.

Again, if we are often praying that the Holy Spirit will give us the words, these challenges can be easier to handle.

I’m not going to assert that life as a Christian is easy. You know it’s not. But it can be easier than doing it alone.

John’s Gospel tells us about the life-giving Spirit. When we feel that the life has been sucked out of us, by circumstance, by illness, by busyness, by sour relationships, we can come back to the life-giving Spirit. God breathed the Spirit into the void, and the world was made. No matter what theories there are about cosmic origins, it still needs an impetus, an influx of energy to get started. The Spirit of God breathing life has always been part of the universe, and I would remind you that it still breathes life into us. Slow down from your distractions, breathe it in. Simon Peter had it right – ‘Lord, there is no one else we can go to! Your words give eternal life.’

May you feel an ever-increasing revelation of the eternal life you have in God, and trust God to energise you by the Holy Spirit’s power this week.

Sermon: Contains gluten

Do you like bread? Please note, this sermon contains gluten.

I love it, especially slathered with butter – note, not margarine, and Marmite, or jam, or both actually. I like baking bread too, feeling the flour and yeast turn into a silky dough as I use my hands and my arms to work it.

What does Jesus mean when he says that he is the Bread of life?

What is bread? in this context, it is the most basic element of any meal, the one go-to food when there is nothing else. Bread is cheaper than proteins like milk and eggs, and for many cultures it forms the basis of most meals. Pizza started out life as a food invented by peasants, who had bread, and some tomato for flavour, and a bit of meat and cheese for the top if they were lucky. It could just as easily be the rice or pasta or taro of life, and when the Bible is used in countries where other foods are the staple, bread is translated into that food. Continue reading

Sermon: Generous Hospitality

Generous hospitality.

Have you ever been faced with a crowd of people turning up and expecting to be fed?Just imagine the scene on the grassy slopes by lake Galilee. A huge crowd of people were gathering, they had seen Jesus work miracles and heal the sick, and they knew that this was the best gig in town.The first thing Jesus asks his disciple Philip is, where will we get enough food to fill all these people?This was an interesting question for several reasons. First, Jesus was thinking about the practical, about the physical needs of the crowd, and he was also taking on himself the obligation as host to provide hospitality.He didn’t need to do this did he? After all, he hadn’t sent out invitations to a banquet, asking them to come and be fed. No, they had all come by themselves, knowing that they would indeed be fed, but probably thinking about spiritual feeding, or at least seeing some amazing miracles and healings that they could tell others about. Continue reading

Sermon: Hope

14 June St Anne’s Porirua

Hope

2 Cor 5:6-17, Psalm 20, Mark 4:26-34

When I set out to write this sermon on Thursday, I was feeling tired, a bit despondent, worrying about my children. But then I started to read Paul’s inspiring words that we have just heard. Always be cheerful! That’s how it starts in the CEV translation.

Always be cheerful! It sounds easy to say, but do you know, it gave me a real jolt. It said, stop having a pity party. The real story is bigger than my problems and your problems. Paul helpfully goes on to tell us why we should always be cheerful – because of Hope.

Hope is a difficult virtue to practise by ourselves, because it takes courage. Courage to look beyond the present, beyond our circumstances, to a brighter future. We know, because we have been told many times in scripture, that we have not yet reached our ultimate destination.

Are we there yet? call out the kids from the back of the car on a long journey. No, we’re not. We have not yet reached heaven, where we can be at home with the Lord. My friends, let your imaginations go on a journey – think about a time when you will no longer be hindered by circumstances, or physical or emotional pain. That’s what it will be like when we reach our final destination. We don’t know whether heaven will be like a great big praise and worship service, or Club Med on a beach somewhere, or praying for everyone still on earth. But we do know who it will be like. Heaven, our final destination, will be like God. Living, all-seeing, all-powerful. And we have hope, through our salvation, what we will be part of it.

That doesn’t solve the problem about life now though does it?

When life has hit you in the face with yet another worry, yet another phone call you dreaded, or another bill you can’t pay, how can we carry on?

Paul tells us that too.

But whether we are at home with the Lord or away from him, we still try our best to please him.10 After all, Christ will judge each of us for the good or the bad that we do while living in these bodies.

Trying our best to please God with everything we do, think, say. Does that sound a bit like hard work? A bit like too exhausting to even contemplate? It might be, if we were only doing it in our own strength, to please people. But remember a few weeks ago, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? We have the Holy Spirit to help us please God. If we are open to those little nudges of conscience, those quiet voices, those hints, we can be guided in the right path. Our own habits develop as we follow God’s will, and it becomes instinctual.

Remember too, that we strive to please God, not people. People are capricious and changeable. I know I am harder to please when I have a headache, – it takes a lot of wonderful child behaviour to get through the Grumpy mum syndrome. Or so I speculate – I’m not sure it has ever happened…

Think of God as someone who is completely head over heels about you. Like a grandparent with their first grandchild. We are completely loved, adored, cherished. And, even better than a besotted human, God doesn’t seek to change us. God accepts us as we are, warts, exhaustion, grumpiness and all.

Our society seems to be fixated on what others think of us. It causes a lot of difficulty for our children as they grow up, trying to negotiate the popular versus unpopular dynamic, trying to be accepted. It gets too hard, and people are hurt. Don’t worry about trying to please people. You can never please everyone, so just focus on pleasing God. It’s a lot easier! If someone is grumpy with you, let it be between them and God. As we trust God to guide us, we can leave other people to God too, and just focus on loving them.

Verse 7 of today’s psalm reinforces our trust in God, rather than in things of this world:

Some people trust the power
of chariots or horses,
but we trust you, Lord God.

 

Let’s think about hope some more. It can start out very tiny, just like a seed. I love the parables about seeds, because I am a keen gardener.

I bought some seeds recently for my favourite annuals, lobelias. I really like the dark blue ones with the white splash, and I thought that seeds would get me more plants for my money. The lobelia seed packet said ‘contains approximately 1000 seeds’. Wow! 1000 of my favourite plants! As you can imagine, the seeds are so incredibly tiny that they’re hard to see. Way smaller than mustard seeds. So I sowed them too thickly. After a week or so, tiny hints of green, almost invisible, started to mist the seed tray. Now I have many many tiny plants. Too many.

But just like hope, they need nurturing, and a certain amount of luck. They also need protecting from the cats. I really cannot expect to have 1000 lobelia plants! If I do, I will be donating them to anyone that wants some, so watch this space!

Did you notice in Jesus’ story about the farmer, that the farmer does not know how the seeds keep sprouting and growing? Did you also notice that God does? Hope is like that. Often we don’t know what it will take to make our hope grow, but God does. So we can trust God, and leave it in the hands of the Creator.

Hope can grow beyond our wildest dreams too. If you walk along the road near my house, there is a wild bit that the council mows every so often, and mustard is one of the plants that grows there. The plants get about 1 metre tall at the most, before they have their pods of tasty seeds. In Jesus’ parable, he may have been indulging in a bit of Jewish story-telling exaggeration I suspect. His mustard seed grows into the greatest of all garden plants! And it doesn’t stop there! It provides branches big enough for birds to nest in its shade! Our hope can grow like that too, larger than anything possible by natural means. larger than the normal, everyday surroundings would expect. And our hope can provide for others too, shade, shelter, support. As we let our hope grow in God, we can be part of providing that shade, shelter and support to those around us, as we trust God, cheerful in our hope of eternal life with God.

Our friend Ray had that hope in eternal life with God, and we know that he is with God now. Hope can be what keeps us looking forward, rather than back, knowing that after all this struggle, we will be with God.

But hope is also for now, for our earthly lives. It’s what keeps us going, what keeps us optimistic, what keeps us thankful. We have a life to live here – we don\t want to be so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good!

I’ve had to be careful telling children about heaven. When my father died three years ago, I was telling the kids that Grandad was with God now, and he would be playing the organ, and eating pavlova in heaven. The children found this such an appealing picture that they wanted to join him in heaven, so I had to dissuade them from that idea!

We need to develop our hope muscles here, by noticing the resurrection moments, the joys, the answered prayers, the beauty around us.

By abandoning our self-indulgent pity-parties and looking up, beyond the everyday miseries and difficulties, to find the Creator at work around us.

 

 

Sermon: Dry Bones and the Holy Spirit

Have you ever felt really dry in your faith life?

Have you ever felt that you were just going through the motions, turning up at church but not really getting into it, trying to read the Bible but your mind kept wandering? Forgetting to pray?

I think most of us have been through those dry times, those wilderness times. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit with us, we are like dry bones.

We would be like the skeleton of King Richard the Third, which was found a few years ago by archaeologists. They could tell who he was from the particular shape of his twisted spine, and how he died from the nicks on the bones, but the scholars couldn’t tell what he thought, what he did, what was important to him, from looking at the bones left behind after his death. Our dry bones can be a bit like that too, without the Holy Spirit. We need this extra dimension to be truly alive!

For some of us, being born again, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is a sudden and wonderful thing, a bit like what happened to the disciples in the acts reading. It was really obvious that something wonderful, something supernatural was happening. Not only were there tongues of fire on their heads,- a bit like Kevin’s hat – but they could speak in languages so that everyone there could understand! It was a really spectacular thing!

I didn’t have tongues of fire appear on my head when I prayed to be filled with the holy spirit. I was at an Alpha Holy Spirit weekend, and I had heard all about this Holy Spirit thing. I had met people who seemed to have an extra dimension to their faith, and mine seemed a bit dry, a bit lacking. I had been quite comfortable as an Anglican, going to church, but to be honest I probably got as much out of the morning tea afterwards as from the services. But I knew other Christians who seemed to be alive in another dimension, as if my life was on a black and white TV, and theirs was in a 3d movie! I started to want what they had.

When I was asked what I wanted to pray for at the Alpha weekend, I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Hoping, wondering if something would happen, if it was at all possible.

Then I felt a prickling feeling that took over and I fell to the floor, a huge feeling of warmth sweeping through me, and I couldn’t stop crying. The Holy Spirit was filling me up!

I’ve never forgotten that day. Many of you may have had a similar experience, a feeling of knowing the real supernatural power of the spirit flowing through you.

But there are many other ways the Holy Spirit can inhabit us. It doesn’t need to be sudden and spectacular. It permeates gently, coming in where we invite it.

It’s a bit like making candied orange peel.

First you have to rescue the peel from lunchboxes and plates – it’s bitter, leftover, but it’s got potential. Then you boil it in water to get rid of the bitterness, and scrape off the pith, then boil it in a sugar syrup. You let it steep in the syrup. Then you make a stronger syrup and repeat the process several times, until the peel is translucent, every cell filled with the sweet syrup, but still also tasting of itself. That’s why candied peel is so delicious!

Our lives can be like that too. We can be rescues from the scrap heap, bitter but full of potential, boiled and scraped, then immersed in the sweet syrup of the Holy Spirit. Heated then steeped many times until we are translucent too, with God’s love shining out of us.

With the real peel of course, you can then dip it in chocolate. I don’t think we can extend our metaphor that far…

One hazard of becoming born again in a sudden and spectacular way is that we can disregard the experience of those who have been steeped slowly in the Spirit for a long time, until they are completely transformed. In some Pentecostal circles, people refer to those who have been ‘born again’ as ‘becoming a Christian’, and see those whose journey is slower and less direct as somehow not Christians. Please be careful not to judge people that way – judge yourself, fine, but other people’s souls are God’s business.

Let’s go back to the reading from Ezekiel. The dry bones came together, were covered again with flesh and skin, but it was only when the Spirit blew life into them that they could come back to life and make a large army! What does an army do? Sit around and polish its guns? Well, sometimes. But an army is for action, for freeing others from injustice! If we have the Holy Spirit enlivening our dry bones, what are we for? Polishing our equipment so we look the part, or doing something useful for the kingdom of God!

The Lord said to Ezekiel, my Spirit will give you breath!

What is breath for? Living, singing, speaking!

Speaking God’s truth to all those who will listen.

That brings us to the Acts reading – the disciples were speaking in whatever languages the Holy Spirit gave them. And all the assembled crowd, from all those hard to pronounce places – well done Helen – could understand!

This is a message for us. We are to speak God’s truth, God’s message in a language that others can understand. Not churchy speak. Not jargon. Words like charismatic, salvation, justification, Alpha, these are technical terms. If we want to be understood we need to use the language God gives us, even if it might not be how we normally speak.

My husband and oldest son have been known to talk computer-speak. The words are all English words, they all have a clear meaning, but the way they put them together makes no sense to a non-computer speaker like me.

Do you know what I mean? I am seeing people nodding…

What Peter had to say to the crowd was interesting, in that it was not a recounting of the Gospel message. Rather it was about prophecy. Remember, the crowd were Jewish, some born Jews, some choosing to follow the Jewish religion. They were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. So Peter spoke in terms they understood. He went back to familiar prophecy from the book of Joel.

The Jews valued prophecy, they were aware of when it might be fulfilled, and to hear Joel’s words spoken in their context would have been very exciting! They were part of history, something was being fulfilled with them in the story!

Do you notice how God says ‘I will give my Spirit to everyone? Sons, daughters, young men, old men, men and women. Everyone. Not just Jewish people. Not just popular people, not just slim or attractive people. Not just intelligent people. Everyone. The unpopular, the plain, the dull-witted, the refugee, the outcasts, the successful, the failure. Everyone.

As a church we must be aware that the Holy Spirit is for everyone. This is a challenge to us when we talk of our faith to those who don’t know God yet. But we don’t need to go in dry, the Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak.

When we welcome newcomers and visitors to our service, again, may we be aware of the language we use, that the message is for everyone, and we mustn’t let the delivery of it put people off.

My friends, we can trust the Holy Spirit. As we heard in John’s gospel, it only speaks truth, and it will guide us into full truth. Isn’t it amazing that God does this? That God speaks to us and through us in this way? I feel so excited to realise that I am part of this wonderful kingdom, where God flows through all of us, and the Holy Spirit is part of our lives.

Often images of the Holy Spirit are gentle and peaceful, but I want to leave you with the image of the flames above the disciples’ heads. What do flames do? They need fuel, oxygen and heat to start, or so Nigel Latta told us in last week’s episode of his programme where he blows stuff up and sets it on fire. I have boys, of course we watch it!

What is our fuel? Our lives. What is our oxygen? The power of the Holy Spirit. And what is our heat source? The love of God.

May you burn brightly for the kingdom this Pentecost, and keep burning.

Let’s finish by singing along with this great song, Send the Fire!