Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sharing in God's Harvest

Luke 17.5-10

There is little doubt that these two sayings started their life separate from one another. We can infer this because Matthew's Gospel has an almost identical saying, about a mountain rather than a mulberry bush, but it isn't linked to the saying about slavery, which is unique to Luke's Gospel. This means we are entitled to consider each of the sayings in isolation, to see what it might have to say to us today. But we may also wish to consider why Luke has chosen to link them. How did he expect them to work together?

The first saying is about the huge potential of faith. If we only have microscopic faith, the world can still be our oyster. In today's Observer newspaper there is an article about the peaceful revolution which toppled the communist regime in East Germany in 1989. The author, Henry Porter, reminds us that it all began with prayer vigils outside a Lutheran church in Leipzig. By the time that 400,000 people were attending each vigil the game was up for the regime and it collapsed.

Henry Porter goes on, as you can probably imagine, to compare the events in East Germany in 1989 to the resistance of the Buddhist monks to the Burmese junta today. It is a similar example of faithfulness and courage even if - so far - it has not met with the same success. History proves, however, that faith can and does move both mountains and mulberry trees.

Today people often say that there's nothing we can do to avert global warming. I'm sure you've heard the arguments. Anything we do, even as a nation, to reduce carbon emissions will be more than offset by the continued growth of carbon emissions in India and China, so why bother trying to make a difference? But as Graham Kendrick said at a concert I attended in Harrogate a week ago, it's a big lie to say that we, as individuals, can't change the world we live in. If everyone takes the same negative attitude then, of course, nothing will change and the crisis will simply get worse and worse. But the sooner that tens of millions of people start working hand in hand to reduce the impact of global warming and take care of our planet, the sooner China and India will agree to take part in the process.

And if we can change the world, then surely we can change the community in which we live too. We may be few in number, but we can still make a small difference through the community projects we nurture and support and. above all, through our prayers and faithful example. A bad example won't change the world for the better, of course, but think of the harvest which a good example can yield - in our families, and among our colleagues, friends and neighbours. I'm not necessarily talking about adding to the size of our congregation. I'm talking about influencing the sum of human goodwill and spiritual growth simply by who we are and how we choose to live. It's good to give thanks for the harvest of the land and the harvest of industry, but we should never forget to give thanks for the mighty spiritual harvest which can grow from tiny acorns of faithful witness.

This saying is often seen as a critique of the disciples. If only they had faith as big as a mustard seed they could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. But actually it's not a criticism, it's a word of encouragement. The disciples have asked for more faith, and Jesus' response is, 'You don't need more faith! You already have enough!' For it only takes a little bit of faith to make a world of difference.

By linking this saying with the one about slavery, Luke makes a further point. There is nothing extraordinary about changing the world. It is just what disciples do. As slaves would think nothing of plowing and tending the sheep before coming home to prepare their master's dinner and wait at table, so striving to change the world is simply what we ought to be spending our lives doing. It's not a bonus, on top of believing and worshipping, it's a must. It's part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Is this different from what the saying might mean if it stood on its own? Well, not really. Except that, when it stands alone, the focus of the saying becomes not what we do to serve Jesus, but the very fact of serving. The calling of the disciple of Jesus is to devote ourselves to doing the will of God, night and day - and serving is its own reward. We are to expect no kudos for obeying our calling, no medals, no special recognition. It is supposed to be enough for us to know that we have served the cause, for we are basically worthless when compared to our master and so it is an honour to be able to contribute anything at all to God's Kingdom, however small and insignificant the change might seem.

So harvest time is not just a time to thank you to God for all that we have received. It's also a chance to thank God for the tremendous privilege of being allowed to be in partnership with him. Let's praise God that we can share in the work of building a better world and pray for the strength to continue doing our little bit. And let us consider what Jesus is calling us to do in our community, and our world, today.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Our Calling

2 Timothy 1:1-14

This passage is a spirited challenge to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. It could be interpreted just as a message of encouragement for church leaders, an ordination sermon almost, but in the earlier letters of Paul it is made very clear that mission is part of the calling of every Christian. So either this passage is a development of Paul's original ideas, by later theologians who saw a need to set apart leaders for the Church to guide and sustain it, or else - in prison and facing imminent death - Paul has begun thinking about the need to appoint Timothy as his successor and to ensure sound teaching in the Church. In either case, it is legitimate to see the message as applicable to every Christian, even if it has a special resonance for ministers.

The gift of God is within each one of us, as we are reminded at our baptism and confirmation. It is a spirit of love and self-discipline, empowering us to do God's mission, not relying on our own achievements and ability but upon the strength and energy that God will supply. There is no room, in the Church which Paul envisages here, for shrinking violets - for people who are afraid or ashamed to share their faith and to work for change in the world. This is because God's purpose for the Church is to transform the world around us.

Grace, which Paul talks about a great deal in this passage, means the undeserved gifting of God, bestowed on those who have faith in Jesus Christ and are willing to share in his suffering in order to share also in his transforming and life-giving power. This was unleashed by his death on the Cross. If we put our trust in him, he will take care of us. But that doesn't mean he will protect us from suffering and hardship. The Church is no place for cowardice. Instead we need to be resolute to follow the crucified Christ.

Weeping For The City

Lamentations 1:1-6

The city of Jerusalem, which the people of Judah had always believed was a special, holy place and the centre of the created order, had been ransacked by her enemies. Former allies had turned against her. Many of her citizens had been deported to do hard labour. The Temple was a ruin and no one came to the City on pilgrimage any more. Her leaders were in hiding or had been brought to bay, but the prophet believed that the suffering of Jerusalem was well deserved. People had been complacent and disobedient.

What message does this passage have for us? Sheffield was once a mighty engine of the industrial revolution. Now large tracts of its former industrial heartland are desolate where once they were full of people. But Sheffield has also experienced a revival and many parts of the City never lost their prosperity . It wouldn't be true to say that her gates are in ruins, or that no one comes to visit Sheffield any more. On the contrary, there are ambitious plans to create new and more impressive gateways to the City - striking buildings which will impress the visitors and commuters who stream in each day, and the City has a large region of influence around it. What a pity then that there is still a widening gap between the most prosperous and the most disadvantaged parts of the City. Some of the residents of Sheffield still have cause to mourn, and this should be put right.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Closing The Gap

Luke 16:19-31
Some Christians have taken the teaching of people like Jeremiah and turned it into a 'prosperity doctrine', arguing that if we put our trust in God we will prosper. There is no doubt that Jeremiah did believe something like this, but he wasn't thinking of individual prosperity. His argument was that nations and communities will prosper when they put their trust in God.

In the same vein, the writer of the letters to Timothy explains that, for individual Christians, trusting God means sitting light to our own material possessions and making do with just enough to be content; any surplus should be given away to those in greater need. Thus, in a society made up entirely of believers, no one would strive to be more prosperous than their neighbours and prosperity would, in fact, be shared.

This is not an argument against enterprise, but it is an argument against the idea that the driving force behind enterprise must always be personal gain. The Bible envisages a society in which people will find enterprising solutions to the world's problems not just to make themselves more prosperous but in order to benefit everyone.

There was an example of this on the radio last week. A man has invented a new and cheaper way of purifying water, so that it is safe to drink after a natural disaster or in a war zone. He didn't want to make a huge profit from his invention, he explained. It's already much cheaper than alternative ways of providing pure water to drink in disaster zones but, so long as he could sell enough units to reduce the cost of production and recoup his original investment, he said that he would be happy to reduce the price still further.

He sounded genuine. But, if we're striving after a godly economy, there's an ever better way of doing enterprise. It's called 'social enterprise', where the rewards don't go to the individual entrepreneurs but are reinvested for the benefit of everyone, workers and clients alike. Of course, in a world like ours, where profit is king, it's not a very attractive way of doing business. Entrepreneurs find it hard to understand why they should make the effort of being enterprising unless they are going to benefit themselves.

That's the mindset of the rich man in Luke's story. He doesn't care about closing the gap between himself and the poor man at his gate. He's a devotee of the Prosperity Doctrine, by which I mean that the rich man thinks they have both got what they deserve. Until, that is, their roles are reversed and the gap separating them becomes a great chasm, with burning fire on the side where the rich man now finds himself. Then he wishes that he had listened to the teachings of the prophets about creating a more just society!

How can we close the gap between rich and poor today - in our world and, closer to home, in our city?

What Really Matters

1 Timothy 6.6-19
Jeremiah is happy to assert that there is a link between trust in God and material well-being. He encourages us to trust that God is working for social justice and for an end to oppression. In the world order that God will one day establish, land will be bought and sold freely, and people will get a fair wage for the work that they do.

The writer of the letters to Timothy is not so convinced. When he talks about trusting God for the future, he's not thinking about the promise of heaven on earth but of a pure spiritual union with God beyond this life. To him, therefore, worldly wealth is at best irrelevant, and at worst a distraction from what really matters. So he argues that we should only worry about having enough material wealth to be content.

In saying this, I think he is being true to the teaching of Jesus, who said that we should imitate the wildflowers and the wild birds, which do not worry about tomorrow or about doing better for themselves, but simply are what they are, as God intended them to be. In contrast, the eagerness to make ourselves better off is the root of all evil.

People have sometimes misunderstood the writer. They have thought that money itself is the root of all evil, forgetting that he says it is the love of money which is wrong. Instead of setting their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, wealthy people are to use their money to do good works, being generous and ready to share. This is how we can really store up treasure for ourselves, in a place where neither moth nor rust can destroy it, and thus ensure that we are laying a good foundation for our future. For it is our spiritual life that is the most real thing about our existence, not our material well-being.

despite the difference in emphasis this is not in conflict with Jeremiah's teaching about social justice. The writer of these letters does say that by sitting light to worldly prosperity, and sharing what we don't need, we are keeping the commandment of Jesus to love one another as much as we love ourselves.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Never Give Up Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-15
The other day I heard people talking on the radio about buying-to-let, the practice of buying a portfolio of two or three bedroom houses and renting them out to tenants, either as a way of making a living or as an alternative to saving for a pension. Buying-to-let has been very popular in recent years and has been blamed for driving up the price of small houses. But the popularity of buy-to-let depended on low interest rates and on mortgages being easy to obtain.

The landlords who were being interviewed on the radio were finding it tough in today's housing market. One person had three properties which they wanted to buy, but no one would lend them the money. Another person had a portfolio of thirty properties. Was he making any money? he was asked. 'No,' he said. He wasn't even covering the cost of his mortgages. And would he do it again if he were starting from scratch? No, he wouldn't.
Jeremiah's action, in buying his cousin's field, is a bit like someone going out now and buying thirty buy-to-lets. It's a gesture of faith in the future.

The field he buys is behind enemy lines. Doubtless his cousin needed to sell in order to feed his family, who had taken refuge with him in the besieged city. It was Jeremiah's duty to redeem the field – that is to keep it in the family, if he could – by purchasing it from his cousin.

A lot of people would have said, however, that the middle of a desperate siege is no time to be squandering money on land, even if you do have a sacred duty to look after it. And Jeremiah was certain that the tiny kingdom of Judah was about to be conquered by the mighty army of Babylon. Nonetheless, God tells Jeremiah that he should not only purchase the land, but keep the title deeds safe and secure because – one day – land will be bought and sold in Israel again.

What are the things which make us anxious about the future? Jeremiah is proverbial for being someone who always assumed the worst, but here his message is exactly the opposite of doom and gloom. He says things can never get so desperate that we should lose our trust in God.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

God's View Point on Disaster

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1
Jeremiah's lament is a reminder that Christians don't have to be relentlessly cheerful. He looks around for good news and can't find any. The harvest is over, but it has not been a good one. The people are hurting, but there is no one to heal them. They have made mistakes, and their errors are coming back to haunt them, a bit like the managers and directors of Northern Rock who gambled on an endless supply of cheap money and were caught out when times suddenly changed.

Unlike the people who have queued up not just to withdraw their deposits, but to point the finger of blame, Jeremiah chooses not to accuse anyone or rub salt in open wounds. He gets alongside the people in their suffering and mourns with them.

But, of course, it's not just Jeremiah who laments with those who have been bereaved, and mourns those who have died. For Jeremiah is reporting God's view point on disaster. Even when we are responsible for our own downfall, God chooses not to blame us but to share our pain. And the final proof of this is Jesus' death for us on the Cross.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Christian Guide to Leadership and Management

Luke 16.1-13

The story of the 'dishonest manager' has always been a puzzle to Jesus' disciples. Its message is so cryptic that no one has ever been able to say for certain what it means.

St Luke sticks onto the end of the story some sayings of Jesus which seem to belong to it, but he also includes one of the 'floating' sayings of Jesus – things which Jesus definitely said at some time in his ministry, but whose original context has long since been lost.

The saying in question is the one about two masters: 'You cannot serve God and money.' That's undoubtedly true, of course, but the saying doesn't belong to the story, which isn't about money, although money figures in it.

The story is really about leadership. We're all leaders – some great, some small. Some of us are destined to lead nations and armies. Some get to lead a company or a team. Some lead a class of schoolchildren. Some lead their family or friends. All of us, from time to time, are called upon to give a lead, though we don't necessarily rise to the challenge!

The story asks us to consider what sort of leaders we are. Are we resourceful? Are we resilient? Are we clever? Are we capable? Have we the makings of a good leader, or do we still have much to learn? Are we Christian leaders? Here are some things to consider as we ponder the answers to those questions.

First, to be a good leader we must be ourselves. The dishonest manager knew himself through and through. 'I can't dig ditches, and I'm ashamed to beg,' he thought, 'But I know what I am good at!'

If we're not honest with ourselves, if we don't know our own strengths and limitations, we can't be trusted to make good leadership decisions. And if we try to cover up our weaknesses by posturing and play-acting we shall either make mistakes or fail to convince those whom we would like to follow our lead. The only solution, then, is to be honest with ourselves, to recognise our weaknesses and to enlist the help of other people so that we can overcome those weaknesses. That's exactly what the dishonest manager did!

Second, to be a good leader we must value all the people we work with. Again, that's exactly what the dishonest manager did. When he knew he was about to be fired he started doing favours for some of his boss's tenants, but he didn't just curry favour with the wealthier or more influential ones. His help was given indiscriminately, in the best way at his disposal.

The wheat farmer owed the landlord a thousand sacks of wheat, which is roughly £5,000 in today's money. The dishonest manager allowed him to write down his debt to £4,000.

The olive grower owed the landlord one hundred barrels of olive oil. It doesn't sound much, does it, but just think what a bottle of olive oil costs today! Extra virgin olive oil must fetch around £400 a barrel, maybe more, so the man owed at least £4,000, which the dishonest manager allowed him to write down the debt to £2,000.

If you or I were the dishonest manager, we might choose to focus our attention on one or two people for whom we could secure the greatest advantage – and who would therefore owe us the biggest favours. It would be only human nature to concentrate our energies in this way. But the dishonest manager doesn't operate like that. He treats all the tenants equally. It doesn't seem to matter to him whether he's doing them a big favour or a small one, because – after all – when he's been fired every favour will be worth calling in. So he makes no distinctions. He calls them in one by one and deals with them systematically, because all the tenants are valuable to him, and he can help each one to a greater or lesser degree.

Three managers were having a conversation in the town hall when a very influential councillor walked by. The first manager had just asked one of his colleagues how things were going but, on seeing the councillor, he immediately peeled away from the group – even though the second manager was only halfway through his answer. Without even a word of apology, the first manager was gone – walking at the councillor's elbow and looking for an opportunity to speak to him. 'Well,' said the second manager to the third, 'That shows me how important I am!' It didn't, of course, but it did show him how much he was valued by the first manager.

One of the points Jesus is making here is that – if a dishonest manager is shrewd enough to value everyone in his organisation equally highly, from the humblest to the most important – shouldn't Christians be aiming to value everyone equally highly too? And yet we don't, do we? If we're not careful, we find ourselves paying more attention to people we like, or to the people we think can do the most to help us. That's not how a good leader behaves. A good leader tries to befriend everyone.

But there's much more to say about this story. For instance, good leaders don't sit around waiting for things to happen. Like the dishonest manager, they try to make an impact on the situation. They act and speak decisively to make sure that everything they do makes a difference and changes the outcome. In other words, they prepare for the future instead of waiting for it to catch up with them. In fact, they almost make their own future, if they can!

And good leaders also work as a team with those around them. They consult their colleagues and formulate a plan of action with them, but they always get the other members of the team to make their own decisions and play an active part in what's going on.

The dishonest manager could have written down the debts for the tenants and just told them what he was doing. But he was too wily for that. He knew they could always deny all knowledge of what he had done, so he implicated them in his plan by getting them to alter their accounts themselves. Again, the point Jesus is making is that, if crooks believe in teamwork, how much more should Christians work together as a team!

Good leaders also don't waste time and energy reacting to criticism, unless there's some way they can benefit from it. Too many of us spend a lot of our time complaining about unfair criticism, or responding in detail to what others have said about us, or trying to get even, when we ought to put the criticism behind us and get on with the job.

At the start of the story, the dishonest manager is accused by the landlord of wasting money. He's asked to justify himself, but he knows that's not going to be easy. One person's prudent expenditure can easily seem like wasteful extravagance to another. So, instead of putting his energies into constructing an elaborate defence of his actions, ('I did x because I knew that the longterm benefits would be y'), the dishonest manager simply makes the best of it. He's going to get fired, so he concentrates on doing some featherbedding to cushion his fall.

Jesus is warning us not to waste time justifying ourselves and trying to deflect criticism. We should do our best, and if we're not appreciated we should shake the dust off our feet and move on.

Finally, what about the landlord? Does he have anything to teach us? Yes, he does! For good leaders know how to recognise achievement. The landlord may have thought his manager had failed to deliver Best Value by squandering money, but he was generous enough to recognise that the man was a shrewd and skilful leader. 'He praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well.'

That doesn't mean the manager got his job back. Nor does it mean the landlord was happy to have lost his unpaid debts. What Jesus means is that the landlord could see he had been outsmarted and was ready to concede as much.

If ruthless and level-headed businessmen and women can give credit where it's due, shouldn't Christians be ready always to acknowledge the gifts and achievements of those around us? That's the final message from our story. In fact, some of Jesus' other sayings – about the first being last, and the last being first – make it clear that we should never take credit for anything if the credit can possibly be shared with, or given to, someone else.

Is this, then, what the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is all about? Is it an illustration of how the Church could benefit from the way the world operates, and the way business leaders choose to work – not by borrowing some of their more dubious techniques, such as appraisal schemes, ever-reducing budgets and endless target setting and monitoring – but by recognising the qualities that go to make a good leader: knowing our own strengths and limitations, valuing our colleagues, making an impact, sharing decision-making, getting on with the job in spite of criticism, working as a team and recognising the achievements of others.

Whatever we might be called upon to do in life, it's a recipe for successful leadership; but it's also a recipe for Christian leadership.

Jesus Surf Classic

Luke 15.1-10
It's easy to lose track of what this parable is really all about, and get bogged down in descriptions of shepherds and how they herd their flocks in Palestine by leading the way for them across the wilderness. But it's really not about sheep and shepherding. That's just an illustration of the underlying point which Jesus wants to make. He is aware of all of the people, then and now, who are disconnected from God. We can forget about them, and decide that they're simply not meant to get it together with God. Alternatively, we can hope that somehow they will find their way to God, stumbling upon the truth either by accident or by divine providence. Or we can actively go in search of them, which is what mission is all about.

Jesus is an activist. he would surely approve of this week's "Jesus Surf Classic" events in Devon and Cornwall, where some of the world's best Christian surfers are gathering to compete. Pippa Renyard, a member of one of the five Cornish branches of Christian Surfers UK, is reported in The Guardian as saying: "Surfers tend to be a group who don't necessarily connect with a dusty old building like a church. But God is not about a building. He is about a community. We don't try to ram it down people's throats but if they are interested they can talk about God with us and hopefully join the group."

Apparently, some traditional churches remain uninterested or suspicious, though not the Methodist Church in Polzeath, which has turned itself into a centre for Christian surfers and replaced some of the pews with a skateboarding ramp. What are we being called to do to rescue people disconnected from God in our community?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Reflecting on the Readings for 9 September

Jonathan Swift said, “Nothing is so great an instance of ill manners as flattery.” I don't think he can have got out much, actually because I can think of much worse examples of bad manners, and I'm sure you can, too. But he had a point. Flattery is not a good thing. If we flatter people all the time, they will never believe anything good that we say about them, even when it's true. And if we flatter them occasionally, they will think we must be after something and get suspicious of us. It's better to be sincere.

So what are we to make of the way Paul begins his short letter to Philemon? Is it sincere to say that he has received much joy and encouragement through Philemon's love and support? One would like to think so, and yet immediately Paul appeals to this friendship in order to ask a favour from Philemon on behalf of a man called Onesimus.

Onesimus is one of Philemon's slaves, who seems to have done something that has left Philemon seriously out of pocket. Whether he was clumsy and broke something valuable, or forgetful and lost something, or gullible and allowed someone to trick him, or whether he was downright dishonest we simply don't know. But whatever he did, it was bad enough for Onesimus to go absent without leave, which was an offence punishable by death. Perhaps Onesimus went to Rome knowing that Paul was there, and hoping to seek him out and get his help in placating Philemon, or perhaps he went there to get lost in the big city and came across Paul by chance. We don't know for sure. However, because Paul was under house arrest at the time, there is a strong likelihood that Onesimus sought him out.

If so, it was a shrewd move. Paul writes to Philemon on his behalf offering to pay back all of Onesimus' debts, which must have been a great relief to Onesimus. But the offer isn't quite as generous as it seems. There's a sting in the tail, for the letter hints that Philemon already owes such a great debt to Paul himself that he really ought not to take up the offer. Paul also hints that, as well as writing off the debt, Philemon ought to release Onesimus from slavery. And if that seems like a step too far, he must - from now on - treat Onesimus as his brother in Christ.

It's not clear whether Onesimus was already a Christian, or whether he has become a Christian since joining Paul in Rome. But they have become very close, and Paul now regards himself as Onesimus' spiritual father, which only underlines for Paul how inappropriate it is that Onesimus should be treated like Philemon's property – as if he were no more important than a piece of furniture or a domestic animal.

In the middle of the letter there is a play on words. Onesimus sounds like the Greek word for someone "useful", and that's why Onesimus was a common name for people who had been born into slavery. But Onesimus clearly has a reputation for being useless – either because he's clumsy, or forgetful, or easily duped, or not very bright. Now though, Paul says he is no longer useless and in fact has been extremely useful during his stay in Rome.

Part of Onesimus' usefulness comes about, of course, in delivering Paul's greetings to Philemon, and that means he has become useful to both of them. There is even a suggestion that he could be more useful to Philemon as a friend and brother in Christ than he ever was as a slave. And that shouldn't surprise us. No doubt many slaves were less careful and conscientious in the way they did their work than they might have been if they had been paid proper wages and allowed their freedom.

The letter reveals how difficult it was for the early Church to deal with the issue of slavery. Paul says openly that - as the founder of Philemon's church and his spiritual counsellor - he could have ordered him to forgive Onesimus and set him free. But that would have been a very dangerous and subversive thing to do, so instead he asks for a favour. However, he doesn't hesitate to make clear - as he also does elsewhere - that in the Church all people should be treated as equals, regardless of their status, their age, their race, their gender, or the way that the rest of the world treats them.

Although we have long ago got rid of institutional slavery, this letter still challenges us. It reminds us that this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, a trade which helped to make Britain a wealthy nation at the expense of huge human misery and suffering.

And it reminds us, also, that exploitation is not a thing of the past. It still goes on today. A new film is about to be released, about a gang-master who employs Polish immigrants to work in the UK. It shows how people are still being exploited and that money still gets in the way of the kind of relationships which God wants us to have with one another.

Finally, the story of Onesimus reminds us of the need to treat one another as equals in our own congregation, and also as we mix with our neighbours and other members of the local community. It doesn't matter whether people are old or young, black or white, long established in the area or relative newcomers, living in posh houses or poor ones, and doing good jobs or humble ones. All of us are equal before God and whenever people come together in the Church we are all called to live as one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jeremiah 18.1-11
Last week I heard about plans to launch a spaceship to probe a far distant asteroid. If it was launched in 2012, the spaceship would not reach its destination until 2019. But although the asteroid is far away now there is a very real chance that it will hit the earth in 2036, causing such a devastating explosion that all life will immediately be wiped out. Should we be worrying about this? The chances that we really are on a collision course with the asteroid are not very great - it may pass close by, but without actually hitting us. However, the impact of a collision would be so terrible that even a tiny risk is worth taking seriously. And it's not too late to change the cause of history, even if a collision seems inevitable . The scientists behind the plan have explained that if we take action soon enough, just bumping a one tonne spaceship into the asteroid would be enough to change its course and save our planet. The mission being planned at the moment isn't designed to do that, however. It would just be a fact-finding visit to take measurements and calculate how close to us the asteroid is really going to come.

Jeremiah has something similar in mind when he prophecies about the consequences of evil. Just as surely as an asteroid plunging towards earth, or a snowballing rolling down a mountainside and gathering yet more snow as it goes, the growing impact of evil can have devastating consequences for the life of a nation - and even for the life of an entire planet. But all is not lost. Jeremiah advises that if the nation turns from its evil ways, disaster can still be averted. And the sooner the nation amends its ways, the easier it will be to put things right with God.

The way Jeremiah talks about God, as if he were constantly planning to pluck up, break down and destroy nations, could make him sound vindictive and cruel. But this is not Jeremiah's meaning at all. Jeremiah means us to understand that, because God is holy, he simply cannot work with the wrong kind of material. If nations persist in doing evil God has no alternative but to abandon the project to help them, and start all over again with new material instead.

These thoughts come to Jeremiah after watching a potter at work. The potter skillfully works the clay but sometimes, despite the potter's skill and persistence, some small imperfection in the clay, or a slight change in the way the pot is shaping up on the wheel, mean that it becomes impossible to go on working on that particular piece and the potter has to give up, roll the clay back into a ball or lump, and start over again. And he wonders, could it be that God will have to do the same with wicked and disobedient nations?

Are we on a collision course with God's judgement in our country today and, if we are, what steps could we take to begin to avert disaster?

Luke 14.25-33
This is a very challenging and difficult passage. Jesus urges his listeners to think carefully about the demands of being one of his followers. There is no point in embarking on the journey if we are not prepared for a radical rethink of our values and the way we live.

Jesus doesn't usually explain his stories, preferring to leave it to the listeners to draw their own conclusions, so it may be Luke who has added the concluding words of explanation, 'Therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.' If anything, Jesus has suggested an even stronger level of commitment. His followers must be prepared to give up not only their possessions but also their lives for his sake.

It's the sort of sentiment which is normally considered to be extremist rather than mainstream, and by the time that Paul was writing to Philemon it was already being ignored or reinterpreted. Philemon seems happy to be a Christian who owns slaves, let alone other possessions, and Paul scarcely dares to rebuke him - though he does hint that owning slaves and caring about possessions both fall short of the ideal way for Christians to live.

Reflecting on the Readings for 2 September

Jeremiah 2.4-13
This passage has two abiding issues at its core. The first is faithlessness - the refusal to believe in God or in permanent values. Residual belief in God remains high in our culture, with many people retaining a soft spot for God although they never get involved in any organised religion, but there are a lot of faithless people who have deliberately turned their backs on religion and spirituality. They have created alternative belief systems for themselves. Can we hope to convince them that these do not hold water? Probably not.

The second abiding issue is people who change their value systems or their goals for something that does not profit. For much of the last two centuries, many people in the West believed in the idea of progress - that human society, and individual life was steadily getting better. There has indeed been much material progress in the West during that time. Life expectancy is much greater than ever before and most of us live surrounded by an array of gadgets and labour-saving devices that would have amazed our ancestors. But are we happier than people used to be?

Two world wars helped to undermine confidence in the idea of progress. Today's news headlines can only further dampen any remaining optimism. We live in a society which is more hectic, more selfish and self-centered, and more unsure of itself.

When Harold Macmillan told the British people that they 'had never had it so good' people were actually a lot less well off, on average,than they are now. But statistics show that they felt more happy and satisfied with their lot. Have we exchanged the things which made us happy for things that do not really profit us? If so, what have we lost or left behind?

Hebrews 13.1-8. 15-16
The writer of Hebrews develops the theme explored by Jeremiah. But where Jeremiah is negative, bemoaning what we have lost by becoming faithless, the writer of Hebrews is positive. He celebrates the benefits and responsibilities of mutual love. He advises us to be content with our lot and not to strive for greater prosperity or a better lifestyle because what really matters is that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and he will never leave us nor forsake us. But warm feelings are not enough. Love has to be expressed through real concern for other people, including prayer and action on their behalf. This - not empty praises - is what really pleases God.

What are the things we need to do to share God's love in our community, our City and our world?

Luke 14.1-14
The Gospel passage for this Sunday reinforces the same message about what really matters. We must beware of status-seeking. It is a trap, because the people who really matter to God are the humble, the poor and the disabled. To these we could add anyone who is left on the margins of society and overlooked in the scramble to get on. Who might be added to the list in our society today?