Sunday, 22 February 2015

Generous to a fault

Matthew 20:1-16
The Laborers in the Vineyard
​“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I recently listened to a radio programme highlighting the issues that had arisen in some residential areas in the UK that had become gathering places for those seeking casual daily labour. Some of the residents spoke of their resentment and their concerns for their safety as their communities were overtaken by folk seeking work.
Today’s gospel is another parable that is still played out in our communities today. In villages and towns, in market squares and hardware stores, there are gatherings of people, congregating in the hope of finding work. Many who live in those communities or who frequent the places they gather, complain about the inconvenience and the disturbance that they perceive is brought into their lives by the existence of people desperate to earn a living – or at least enough on which to live for another day. And many of the people who are forced to gather in such ways are immigrants, already disadvantaged by their status, some of whom have already had to flee injustice and oppression, only to be met with prejudice and resentment. 
There is something very chilling about the fact that a story told so long ago speaks into life today incisively confronting us with our failure to change and our unwillingness to make things different.
We have an inflated sense of entitlement that excludes others.
We find it difficult to make room for those who are new or who want to be included in our town or village centres and in our congregations.
How dare someone who has only been around a few weeks, months or years, dare to step up and share their skills when we, who have grown up in this place, be it church or community, have struggled for years to get by?
Our sense of entitlement blinds us to the gifts and diversity that others bring and narrows the opportunities for service that we might extend to others.
We'd rather struggle on with bad grace than make way for others whose gifts would make life so much easier.
We'd rather hoard and protect all that is ours than share from our abundance.
We resent the Johnny come latelys, the incomers, the folk who want to belong, seeing their existence as an invasion of what is exclusively ours, and intrusion that somehow diminishes us.
We complain that they are usurping our place, when really, it was a place that we didn't particularly value anyway.
We complain that they are taking our jobs when really, those were tasks that we didn't much relish.
Not only do we struggle to accommodate others, we resent those who do.
We find their generosity uncomfortable.
It assaults our sense of propriety and justice.
Where is the good news in today's gospel passage?
Perhaps it is in the learning that we need to " get over ourselves" and let God be God.
In the discovery that we need to move out of the way and allow God's sense of justice and generosity get to work.
Congregations are sometimes filled with those who grumble at God's outrageous grace even when they are recipients and beneficiaries of those same extravagant gifts.
We are called to mirror God by making space, by sharing all that we have been freely given and by embracing those who seek community.
We are called to bestow dignity and status, finding a place for the gifts of others, honouring the richness of diversity. 
We are called to allow our sense of entitlement to extend to others to whom God is every bit as gracious.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Conflict Resolution

Matthew 18:15-35
Reproving Another Who Sins
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Conflict Resolution is fairly common-place work at large in the church today - or not!
It is generally recognised that many congregations can be places of conflict and more and more denominations are devising ways to handle conflict.
The church, composed of human beings, is no less prone to disagreement and difference of opinion than any other organisation or work place.
There are, of course, places where folk refuse to confront conflict or deny that it exists in their locale.
In such places, resentment forms, people become isolated or choose to move on and underlying issues are never resolved.
But, where a choice is made to handle conflict, there is much to be gained, not least the advent of a healthy community.
Jesus' words in Matthew's gospel provide a perfect framework for conflict resolution where the conflict is between individuals.
As a first step, Jesus insists, conversation should always be between those directly involved.
In these days of instant communication and social networking, this step is often bypassed to our cost.
It is so easy to copy someone else into an email or to make accusations on a public forum and, before we know it, lines have been crossed and damage has been done that cannot be undone.
So the first step that Jesus outlines about confronting the one who has wronged us in private is sound advice. It is always possible for reconciliation to be that simple, arising from one conversation when misunderstandings can be rectified and other perspectives shared.
When that first step does not achieve reconciliation, Jesus suggests inviting others to be a part of the conversation. It is possible that another opinion might shed light on the nature of the conflict and on a possible way forward.
Jesus is at pains to point out that listening is a huge part of dealing with conflict. All steps in the process involve parties listening to each other.
Where conflict resolution is not achieved successfully, the casting out from community that Jesus prescribes seems pretty brutal. 
To be described as a Gentile or a Tax Collector was not only a huge insult but pointed to isolation and ostracisation, not something prescribed lightly.
In church communities and in workplaces all over the world, conflict resolution is based knowingly or unknowingly on this model that Jesus sets out.
Perhaps what is different in the church is that, as a place where hope thrives, we have more zeal for resolving conflict and achieving peace and can model such hope and peace for the communities in which we serve and to which we witness.
Jesus sets out that hope right at the beginning of this passage, when he speaks of the purpose of adopting such a procedure to tackle one who has sinned - it is to repair and regain the relationship.
There is also great hope - and great trust placed in us by God to take the necessary steps to bring about reconciliation. God trusts us to go about this properly. So much so, that, when reconciliation is not possible, we are given the authority to call time on the procedure. That responsibility is ours, to bind or to loose - a measure of God's love and God's trust, beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The scene portrayed in that parable is one played out in Christian communities every day. We, who have been forgiven much are often less generous to our brothers and sisters. And, because we know the love of God, our failing to proffer forgiveness to others is all the more shocking and, rightly, carries a higher penalty. This ancient teaching speaks all too poignantly into our lives today and into the lives of the communities we serve,  
(Written for Spill the Beans, issue 15)Spill the beans

Tuesday, 10 February 2015


Matthew 16:24 - 17:8
The Cross and Self-Denial
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The Transfiguration
Chapter 17
​Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

(Written for Spill the Beans)
The Feast of the Transfiguration provides a transitional point in the Christian Liturgical seasons. It marks the point between Epiphany and Lent. The point between a season of revelation and a-ha moments and a season of reflection and repentance,
Here is a big moment in terms of revelation, a significant landmark in the disciples' discovery of who Jesus is.
As told in Matthew's gospel, the Transfiguration also marks a transition point in the journey of faith of the disciples. Although not all the disciples are present at the event, they are all changed by the encounter and by the change in direction that follows.
Jesus has been pointing them towards his passion and death and outlining their call to be cross bearers. It is after the mountain top incident that he more obviously turns his face to Jerusalem and his teaching becomes  more persistent and focussed.
After the Transfiguration incident, there is a marked change in the pace of the journey on which Jesus and the disciples are engaged.
So let's pause for a moment on this mountain of Transfiguration to take in the sights and the sounds and to discern the import of this life changing moment.
The mountain top setting is evocative of so many other biblical encounters- the receiving of the Commandments, the sacrifice of Isaac, The temptation in the wilderness, the Ascension of Jesus - all significant points on faith journeys in which the will of God was revealed and the glory of God unveiled.
On this mountain top, Moses and Elijah, leaders who journeyed in faith with God, appear with Jesus. There is a rooting of Jesus in the prophetic tradition but also a setting apart of Jesus as the one whose appearance is dazzling and as the one of whom the voice of God speaks: "This is my beloved Son with whom I am pleased. Listen to him."
It would seem that as Jesus embarks on the final phase of his journey, there are echoes of the beginning of his ministry when he was baptised by John in the Jordan.
There is a moment when, it seems, Peter's tendency to be impetuous threatens to derail the impact of the event and prevent its significance being captured and appreciated. Peter's wish to deal with practical things, to get caught up in the minutiae could have cost him the ability to see the big picture and take on board the wonder of this revelation on the mountain top. But even practical, hands on Peter is overcome with awe. 
As Moses and Elijah fade from sight and the voice of God recedes to a whisper, one might ask the question: Who, in fact, was transfigured on that mountain top? For Peter, James and John who shared that moment with Jesus, there surely could be no turning back. Their journey of faith was emboldened and renewed. As we prepare to leave Epiphany behind, we carry with us all the new and enlightening discoveries of God revealed in Jesus And, changed by those encounters, we embark on the season of Lent, reflecting on all that has been revealed, eager to discover more and emboldened to journey on in faith.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A day in the life...

Matthew 14:13-33
Feeding the Five Thousand
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Jesus Walks on the Water
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

As one story runs into another, as one encounter leads on to others, there is a sense, in this passage of the urgency and fervour of Jesus' ministry - taking time out to grieve, to pray, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, teach the crowds, nurture the disciples, and so the list goes on, a life of ministry and service. There is a lot of praying, learning, teaching and growing to be done.
Jesus took himself off to pray because, among other things, he had just heard the news of the death, in prison, of his cousin, John the Baptist. As the news leaked out, others wanted to mourn John too and soon there gathered a community in mourning. It seems that then, as now, there is solace in the communal sharing of grief.
The crowd, having spent the day listening to Jesus teaching, witnessing his healing and compassion, discover that evening has come and they are hungry. At the urging of his disciples to send the crowd away so that they can find something to eat, Jesus tells them, "You feed them."
He encourages the disciples to confront the needs of the crowd at that point and seek to provide a solution to their predicament by finding creative ways to feed them.
However you might choose or be led to interpret the Feeding of the 5000, there is no doubt that a miracle occurred that day as a hungry crowd reached out to one another and discovered their needs met with abundance. Their homeward journey was coloured by wonder at the community they had experienced gathered around Jesus that day and by the abundance they had experienced in sharing.
As Jesus seeks some time to replenish his energy after a day of giving, the disciples move on to their next drama - a storm at sea. 
Those of Jesus disciples who were fishermen when Jesus called them must have been used to the  unpredictable weather conditions in the Sea of Galilee and would be respectful of the power of the elements. It is hardly surprising that it is Peter, of all the disciples  who, literally throws caution to the wind, and enters the water to walk toward Jesus when he appears walking toward them in the midst of the storm. While Peter walks on water, he discovers that the wind still has the power to take the feet from him. So,although he stepped out in faith, he is buffeted by forces beyond his control that threaten to overwhelm him until Jesus intervenes. 
There is a tendency to admire those who take risks in life, like Peter, while overlooking those who are quietly faithful but who nonetheless bring others into the kingdom by their steady commitment.
The community of faith requires trail blazers from whom others can learn and be inspired. But it also requires those who watch and pray, those whose example of discipleship is less scary and just as encouraging.
There is a common theme in each of these stories of "A day in the life..." of Jesus enabling the people around him to push the boundaries, to discover that they are capable of more than they imagined. We witness Jesus encouraging individual growth while cultivating shared community response to challenge. And, in that shared response, there is the potential to discover the abundance of God.
Perhaps there is an opportunity in taking this passage as a whole, to not become caught up in the mechanics of the individual parts, but to consider instead the overall sweep of the narrative, capturing something of the pace of discipleship in the fast lane.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

It's in the motivation

Matthew 6:7-34
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Concerning Fasting
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Concerning Treasures
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Do Not Worry
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

A question often asked is - what makes an action "Christian" rather than simply being the work of a good citizen? I have come to believe that the difference is in motivation - What compels us to act in a certain way. Be it in thought, word or deed, if we are motivated by the example and command of Christ to love one another and to do for others what we would have others do for us, that is Christian love in action. It does not matter whether others recognise that or not. What is important is that we, who are Christian have put into practice what Christ taught. Just like the treasures spoken of in today's reading, if our motivation comes from Christ, then our actions will reflect the love of God and our hearts will be compelled to love, mirroring Christ who is our inspiration and who gives us motivation.