(I Kings 3, 5-12. Matthew 13, 31-33, 44-52)

Over the last 11 days while the Lambeth Conference has been on, I’ve been keeping in touch with what has been going on there by reading the various bishops’ blogs on the internet ( which are generally far more reliable than news reports in the media). Among the bishops providing an occasional report on proceedings is our own Diocesan.

 

Last Sunday, day 4 of the Conference, and at the end of the retreat which preceded the business meetings, he wrote about the main issues that the conference would consider. First among them, he said, was “the use, abuse, status and authority of Scripture”. This was, he continued, “a perennial question, which takes some unravelling, because it is so closely entwined with culture, and varying concepts of what constitutes authority.”

 

Anglican belief has always been based on a combination of Scripture, tradition and reason.  If we are to deal intelligently with the debate over the use of Scripture, we need to understand the way different parts of scripture came into being, the different forms it takes, and the cultural and religious context in which it was formed. 

 

Our readings today give us the opportunity to look at two different forms of Biblical teaching – wisdom literature and parables.

 

In the Old Testament tradition all wisdom literature, and particularly the Book of Proverbs tends to be ascribed to King Solomon ( just as all Psalms are ascribed to David and all Law to Moses). Hence the significance of  our Old Testament passage, where the young king asks God to grant him wisdom.

 

Wisdom literature is a distinctive strand in the Israelite tradition. In our Old Testament it is found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, most of the Book of Job and Psalms 1,32,34,37,49,112 and 128 and in the Song of Songs. In the Apocrypha, it is found in Ecclesiasticus and in the book entitled ‘Wisdom of Solomon’.

 

However, modern scholarship has shown that it is highly unlikely that all of this writing was the work of King Solomon. Wisdom writings were common across the ancient Near East, and there are numerous parallels in the Book of Proverbs to the Egyptian ‘Instruction of Amen-em-opet’.  The Apocryphal book called the Wisdom of Solomon was almost certainly written after the Exile in Babylon.  The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha , in fact, comes from across the whole time span of the pre-Christian period. 

 

Wisdom literature was able to cross cultural boundaries because it was chiefly interested in the individual and the problems of human existence, and because its teaching drew on observation of the natural world and human life to make its point.

 

One strand of wisdom consists of practical advice, expressed in short memorable phrases about how to get on in life and run your family. Much of the Book of Proverbs is like this. There are lots about bringing up children – and several about living with a nagging wife! There are proverbs about being lazy or stupid or being wise and hardworking, and others about how to deal with powerful and rich people.

 

Another strand however, is more philosophical and ponders on the deeper meaning of life: what is the point of existence, why do good people suffer, where does true wisdom come from? The link between the two forms of wisdom writing, the practical and the philosophical, was the belief that both the moral world and the natural world reflected the mind of God

 

 

In Jewish tradition, wisdom was seen as a gift from God, and later wisdom writing saw Wisdom ( who became almost a separate divine person) as the companion and agent of God in the process of creation.  In the New Testament, Wisdom became identified with ‘The Word’ and therefore with Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

 

In our Gospel reading we have a collection of parables. The Hebrew word for proverb, ‘mashal’ was also the word for parable. Both were memorable ways of teaching. Both drew on observation of the natural world to cast light on the spiritual world. 

 

There is a lot of discussion among biblical scholars about what in the Gospels are  the actual words of Jesus, and which passages have been added by the Gospel editors. One thing on which they are all agreed is that the parables are the original teaching of Jesus, and that parables were the characteristic mode of teaching which he used in his public ministry.

 

There’s a comment in Mark’s Gospel chapter 4, which says that Jesus taught in parables so that some people who heard him wouldn’t understand. That is almost certainly an addition by the writer of Mark, designed to explain to his readers why the Jews who heard Jesus did not accept him as the Messiah.

 

In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus taught in parables precisely because this concrete, pictorial teaching would be accessible to anyone, no matter what their education or intellectual ability. Since the parables, like the wisdom literature, drew on observations of the natural world and human society which anyone could make, the parables have continued to be accessible across cultures and across time. Though we may no longer live in a predominantly agricultural society, we too have sufficient contact with nature, and with largely unchanged human nature,  to understand what the parables are describing.

 

The allegorical explanations for some of the parables were very probably added by the Early Church, to apply  them to current situations in their religious life.  Originally, however, the parables were designed to make one particular point. Some of them were just a couple of lines; others were full blown stories with a cast of characters. In all of them, the hearers are presented with a situation, asked to make a judgement on it, and then ( either explicitly or implicitly) challenged to act on that judgement in their own lives.

 

One big difference between wisdom teaching and parables is that, whereas wisdom taught generalities, which could be applied in any situation and any culture, parables were about a specific situation.  So, to understand Jesus’ parables, we need to understand the context in which they were told. Very often, as in several of the parables in today’s Gospel reading, we are given the context. Jesus tells us he is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, which is being ushered in by his ministry. He is challenging his hearers to recognise that, and to act on that recognition. 

 

With  that in mind, we can make an attempt to guess the particular point each parable is making. The Parable of the Mustard Seed refers back to passages in Daniel where a great tree sheltering birds stands for the reign of God,  and so perhaps challenges us to recognise that although Jesus and his disciples are few, the Kingdom of God will come through their ministry. Leaven works from inside the dough, so the Parable of Leaven  is perhaps teaching that the leaven of Jesus’ presence is bringing new life to the Jewish faith.  

 

The parables of Treasure in a Field and the Pearl of Great Price are perhaps emphasising the supreme importance of following Jesus and making enormous sacrifices for the Kingdom. The Parable of the Drag Net, seems, like other parables to be promising that the consummation of the Kingdom is coming soon, but that it is up to God to sort out who will be admitted into heaven and who rejected.  And then there’s the parable at the end of the passage – which some might not recognise as a parable at all – about the householder who brings both old and new things out of his store; is this, perhaps, urging the teachers of Israel to be ready to learn about and incorporate new insights from Jesus into what the Kingdom is all about.

 

But these are only possible explanations. The whole point about parables is that they were vivid and memorable, yet at the same time they left the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to prompt people into continued questioning of the stories, trying to tease out what exactly they meant.  That was Jesus’ chosen way of teaching. He didn’t give rules; he didn’t provide set answers; he said ‘This is what I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is like; what do you think?’

 

This is something we need to remember when certain sections of the Church try to tell us “You have to believe this” or “You have to subscribe to that” if you are to be counted as a Christian or an Anglican. The Word, in his wisdom, chose to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, inviting us to walk with him, in companionship with others who are seeking, and to explore and question and decide each one for ourselves what God wants of us.  If there is any element of compulsion in that decision, it is not Jesus’ way.

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Who gets to Heaven?

July 20, 2008

Readings:  Genesis 28,10-19a; Romans 8, 12-25; Matthew 13, 24-30 & 36-43

 

( This sermon has two parts. One, designed for the children was preached after the Old Testament reading (with congregational participation!). The second preached to the adults after the children had left for their own activities).


 Is or was anyone  a Scout or Guide, Cub or Brownie?

Do you remember this campfire song – ‘You can’t get to heaven.’ Sing any verses you remember. 

 

That tells of ways you can’t get to heaven.

How do you think you can get to heaven? Ideas

 

Our Old Testament  reading imagined a ladder from heaven to earth – for angels going up and down.

Perhaps most of time invisible – but on this occasion revealed to Jacob – as a pledge that he would one day use it.

Sometimes people think it’s what we believe that gets us to heaven.

Many people think it’s how we behave.

The Old Testament doesn’t confirm either of those.

It’s God’s choice it says – and God sometimes chooses very unlikely people.

Jacob – a nasty bit of work at this time – tricked his brother out of elder son’s privileges. Lied to his elderly and blind father. Now running for his life – no money, no prospects, no wife. Yet God says to him “You will be one to fulfil my promise to Abraham,  and found a great nation and possess this land. 

So is what we believe that gets us to heaven – but not facts or creeds – but trust in God’s promise.

The story reminds us that it’s not what we do that gets us to heaven – but what God does. God offers free pardon and grace to all – and help to grow into sort of person he made us to be. Salvation through Jesus Christ.

So hooray – there’s another verse to the song we can sing: “We all get to heaven, through Jesus Christ. Now ain’t that good and ain’t that nice.”

Adults:

Are there any gardeners here? Or even someone with an allotment?

 

I wonder where you get your gardening advice from? Books perhaps? Or the TV – Gardeners World etc. Or radio – Gardeners Question time.

 

I am prepared to bet you don’t take your gardening advice from the Bible! Who on earth would attempt to grow crops of flowers along the lines suggested in the parable of the wheat and tares ( or weeds) we heard from St. Matthew’s Gospel. No one who called themselves a good gardener would fail to prepare the ground to exclude as many weeds as possible; and no good gardener would  let any weeds that appeared afterwards carry on growing, to take nourishment from the crops they wanted, to strangle them and spoil the look of their plot. Any sensible gardener would pull up any weeds as soon as they appeared.

 

But, of course, the parable is not really talking about growing crops. It is another of the parables of the Kingdom, which uses the natural world to illustrate how God works.

 

Jesus came from an agricultural society where almost everyone grew at least part of their own food. And the harvest was a well known metaphor in his society for the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgement and the End of Time. So it was natural for him to use this picture from the world of nature to illustrate the coming of the God’s Kingdom through his ministry.

 

In Matthew’s Gospel this parable comes immediately after the parable of the Sower, which you probably heard last week.  Both emphasise the need for patience and trust in anticipating the coming of God’s Kingdom. Although progress seems slow, things are happening ( just as things are happening underground with the growing seed). The harvest will come, without any help or action by human beings, because that is the way God has designed it. 

 

However, compared with the parable of the Sower, this parable is much stronger. The ‘opposition’ is not just random – it comes from a deliberate act of sabotage. And there is a more definite ‘end time’ in view, when the good crops will be gathered in and the weeds destroyed by fire. This is very typical of Matthew – and his is the only gospel in which this parable appears.

 

When Jesus told this parable, it is probable that he had only one point in mind – to emphasise that God’s kingdom had arrived with him, no matter what it looked at from outside. Some of the traditional Jewish descriptions of the Day of the Lord said it would come when there were no sinners left in Israel. In Jesus’ time, there obviously were still sinners around. Jesus is saying that, in spite of this, God’s  harvest time is now.

 

But, like the parable of the Sower, this parable has an explanation tacked on to it. This treats the parable as an allegory, and gives an explanation for every element in it. It was written in a time after the death of Jesus when there was persecution of Jewish Christians from within the Jewish faith, and when there were beginning to be divisions within Christianity, with some interpretations being labelled heretical. The writer of Matthew believed that every believer had to make a choice, now,  about which side they were on, since the judgement would come very soon.

 

But what does this parable say to us today?

 

No-one has to tell us that we live in a world where good and evil coexist. Nor that both good and evil can come out of the same religious faith. We live all the time in that situation which Paul describes in our reading from the letter to the Romans. We long for a time when evil will be defeated and pain and suffering will be no more. We can hardly wait for the time when the promised new life begins, and we can be, as we believe we were created to be, the sons and daughters of God.

 

And being human, we want to do something to hurry that longed-for  end time along.

 

Paul, however, like Jesus, counsels patience and endurance. Nothing can come between us and the hope we are given in Christ, he says.  But we must wait for God’s good time before we can fully enjoy it.

 

In particular, I think, the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds warns us against too hasty a judgement in the religious field.

 

Too many religious people are only prepared to live in a field of pure wheat. They want to root out and destroy those whom they see as ‘weeds’ – those who are different, those who don’t behave or believe in exactly the same way as they do.

 

But our human judgement is inevitably limited, and frequently faulty. And even if we are correct in our judgement of what is against God’s will, as the parable warns us, any attempt to remove the ‘evil’ does more harm than good.

 

We have only to look at our religious history to see the truth of that – at the persecution of heretics in the early church and the Middle Ages; at attempts to expel Jews and Muslims from Christendom; at the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of Christ during the Reformation; at the sort of society you get when it is run by religious zealots of any faith.

 

Through this parable I believe we should hear Jesus telling us that we must live alongside those we consider wrong-headed. Any attempt to expel them from the church will inevitably bring disaster.

 

We must continue to feed on Christ and grow quietly in faith – and allow others to do the same – and trust in God. When the harvest comes, he will carry out his judgement, and do any separating that is necessary without human help; and his harvest will be great and good – though we humans may well be surprised at what gets gathered in to his heavenly barn when that end-time comes.

Choosing a Leader

July 6, 2008


Zechariah 9, 9-12; Matt.11, 16-19 & 25-30

“Rejoice, daughter of Zion. Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”( Zech 9.9 )

 

“For John came neither eating and drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; and the Son of Man comes eating and drinking and they say, ’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.

 

Human beings find it very difficult to choose their leaders. At one time, of course, most people had little say in the matter. The most powerful person got the job. But now, in our more democratic age, people can influence the choice, and are free to say what they do and don’t what. But this hasn’t made life any easier, because different people want different things from those who lead.

 

The tendency is to ask for too much, for qualities that can’t possibly be met by once person. I once heard an Archdeacon say that every parish who prepared a profile of the new vicar they wanted, asked for the Angel Gabriel, but with a wife and 2.4 children. 

 

Our two readings today are both concerned with the characteristics of leaders.

 

The Zechariah passage comes from the time when the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, and were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The royal line of David had disappeared – but there were still some people who hoped for a king who would lead them to military glory. Zechariah promises them a different kind of king – one who would triumph through negotiation and peacemaking; one who would end the need for arms and armies; one who would build community, and be the servant king, symbolized by the fact he would enter his capital on a donkey, not a war horse.

 

To some extent, the expectations of a king Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation to conventional victory persisted into New Testament Times. But other expectations, fed by meditation on the Scriptures, were also held. As the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us, there were hopes for a prophet Messiah and a priest Messiah, as well as a King Messiah.

 

Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is  redefining all those expectations. He claims to know the mind of God, not as God’s  servant, but as closely as a child would know the mind of its parent. What his Father wants of us, he says, is that we should rely on God and rest on God; then we will find that the yoke of religion is light, not repressive, and will bring peace to our souls. Obeying God is not a matter of following a host of rules, but of being close to God and being true to what God made us to be.

 

At the moment, in this Diocese, we are in the process of choosing a leader, a new diocesan bishop. There are a host of opinions abount about what sort of a leader we need. Many of them are contradictory, for being diocesan bishop is a complicated job. At the same time, he is expected to be a national leader, perhaps eventually a member of the House of Lords, a legislator and one who comments on national and international issues – and a bishop for the diocese and a pastor for the people.  He is expected to be active in political matters, but also an educator and a  spiritual leader. He embodies the values of the Church of England, but must maintain friendly relations with the leaders of other Christian denominations, and now even other world faiths. He must be able to associate easily with everyone from the Queen to an ordinary parishioner in an inner city parish. He has to hold together a diocese of a Church of England which has deep differences over theology and church order. He is the ‘chief executive’ of an organisation with assets worth millions of pounds but one that has financial problems, and difficult decisions to make about fund raising, stewardship and the use of resources.

 

Although in theory the Queen appoints the bishop, she takes the advice of the Crown Appointments Commission, and this time they will submit only one name to her via the Prime MInister, since Gordon Brown has said he will not exercise the  right which previous Prime Ministers have had, to submit two names and so influence the decision.  The Crown Appointments Commission takes soundings from the Diocese,  and the Vacancy in See Committee has already held consultations and prepared a statement summarising the needs of the diocese, and the qualities they are hoping to find in the new bishop.

 

They ask for someone who can be a pastor, who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths, and who can hold together groups with differing views; someone who can inspire more realistic giving, reach out to people who don’t find their spiritual needs met in conventional churches, and encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’. Above all, they ask for a person of prayer.

 

Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said “No-one is good but God alone”.  Some people are looking for  a leader who will give us all the answers; but Jesus rarely set down rules and regulations, about beliefs or morality; more often he told a story and asked his listeners to draw their own conclusions.  Some people are looking for someone who will condemn those whose behaviour they disapprove of; but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers.

 

I want to suggest to you that the sort of leader that the church needs at the beginning of the 21st century is one who is, like the Messiah promised in Zechariah, humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, as Jesus describes himself as doing in the Gospel, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the Church of England.

 

Our modern religious leaders no longer need to be people who do everything themselves. Rather, they need to be enablers and encouragers of others. As priests and bishops, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which the clergy don’t have; in particular, the experience of living as a Christian in the world of work, and  training in current management and personnel practices.  A wise leader will value and make use of these, as well as other talents and skills which lay Christians offer.

 

At present, the bishop is chosen by a process that is very much part of the Establishment of this country, by a committee of the great and good, making recommendations to the Prime Minister and then to the Queen. The most difficult thing for a person appointed by this process is not to become part of the Establishment himself.

 

The new bishop will act as a focus for the Anglican Church in this diocese, but he will be a focus in a church which is increasingly diverse. If he attempts to impose his own views on the church, whatever they may be, he will fail. I believe, like the Vacancy in See Committee that the primary task of the new bishop will be to hold the diocese together, and to teach its many factions how to live with disagreement, and how to talk through their differences without splitting the body.

 

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus compares those who hear his word with two different groups of children. One group he compares unfavourably with children who complain when they can’t get their own way, and refuse to play. There are groups in the church who all too frequently act like that.  In recent times we have heard threats to leave from those who don’t want women bishops in the Church of England, and those who won’t accept  people in committed gay relationships in leadership positions.

 

 Jesus compares others to children who accept whatever is offered to them with enthusiasm, their minds untrammelled by prejudice or convention. This group gains his approval. It is in this frame of mind that I believe we should await the announcement of the identity of the new bishop.

 

Whoever is appointed, he will need our prayers, as he faces the enormous responsibility and the enormous opportunities of leading our part of the church into the future. Let us pray that he will find, as our Lord promised, that God’s yoke is easy and his burden light.