Saturday, June 19, 2010

What would you pay for a fridge?

1 Kings 21.1-8, Galatians 2.19b-21a, Luke 7.41-43

How much would you pay for a fridge? If you were a single mum, and you borrowed £150 from a doorstep moneylender to buy a fridge, and agreed to pay it back gradually over five years in small weekly instalments, guess how much you could end up paying for the fridge? Some people have found themselves paying more than £1,500. Now that's a lot of money to pay for a fridge. And what would you do if, half way through paying for the fridge your television broke down?

Imagine that you're reasonably well off, says Jesus. Your Granny suddenly rings you up and says, 'You know that fridge you bought for £150? Well I'm going to send you a cheque for that through the post!' You're very grateful, aren't you? But think how much more grateful you'd be if you were poor and you were paying for your fridge gradually, over five years, out of your benefits at the rate of £5 per week and one day the moneylender said, 'You can't really afford to give me £5 every week, can you? I'll tell you what, keep the fridge! I'm going to cancel the debt. Spend the money on your kids instead.'

That, said Jesus, is how God is prepared to treat us when we find ourselves overwhelmed by all the demands that life makes on us and we want to make a fresh start with him.

Ever since the time of Naboth, powerful people, well-to-do people, have been tempted to take advantage of people without much money, or power, or influence. Actually, Naboth wasn't that ordinary. He owned a vineyard. He was just unlucky enough to own the wrong vineyard. As they say about property, it's all about the location, and Naboth's vineyard was next-door to the palace, just where the king wanted to plant his vegetable garden. So Naboth became an early victim of what we now call 'a compulsory purchase order'. His vineyard was taken from him. Naboth found that he couldn't keep his nose clean, couldn't keep on the right side of the rules, because he wasn't making them up.

It's a bit like working in a call centre. Imagine that you are a call centre telephone adviser and you upset one of the callers or - worse still - they're already feeling upset by the time they get through to you and they make a complaint and claim you were rude or off-hand with them, even though you were only doing your job and didn't say anything to them that wasn't already in the script given to you to read out when people ask you questions. The call centre can just get rid of you, for no particular reason, perhaps just because callers don't seem to like the sound of your voice or because you were unlucky enough to attract a couple of these complaints. And is there anything you can do about it? Can you take your case to an employment tribunal and claim lots of money for unfair dismissal? No you can't! Not unless you have been employed by the same call centre for at least a year. In the employment advice business we call it 'churn' and the number of people who get sacked before a year has gone by is 'the churn rate'.

Poor old Naboth only broke one rule - the rule which says, 'Don't live next-door to the person who makes the rules'! Have you ever played that game - I think it's called Balderdash - where you have to guess whether a law is a real law in Texas, or whether it's just a pretend law made up by another of the players in the game? Well Naboth found himself playing Balderdash for real. When the king couldn't get his own way the queen made up a law to allow her to take away Naboth's vineyard.

The Bible says quite clearly, over and over again, that God is on the side of the downtrodden - those who don't receive justice and who find the rules of the game are stacked against them.

But, of course, sometimes it's at least partly our own fault if we find ourselves breaking the rules. When I was six, I broke the rules at school. My best friend and I shared a desk and we also shared the counters we needed to do our sums. Except that my sums were much more difficult than his sums, so I needed more counters than he did. Unfortunately, he didn't see it like that. He insisted on keeping half of the counters for himself even though he really didn't need most of them. So I took the law into my own hands and punched him on the arm - for which I was first sent to the naughty corner and then, when the headmistress walked into the room, given 'the ruler'.

In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, in modern day Turkey, Paul says that trying to obey the rules is never easy, just as I found when I was at school. The person sitting next to you, or living next-door perhaps, can be within their rights - in this instance keeping their half of the counters - and yet you can still feel wronged by them, let down by the system, can't you? I needed those counters so, not being very expert at dispute resolution, I took matters into my own hands - quite literally - and found myself on the wrong side of the law. I was just six, and I was already a rule breaker.

But, of course, if it were easy to keep the rules then it would have been pointless for Christ to die. He died to show us the way to put our lives back on track. He was accused of breaking the rules too - petty rules which, in his case, were only causing harm to other people and making their lives more difficult to bear. But he wasn't like me - or like the two bandits who were crucified with him. He wasn't violent, or unkind, or aggressive. He hadn't taken the law into his own hands. He died solely for trying to help people reconnect with God and because he valued wisdom, love and compassion above obsessive obedience to rules.

What we have to do, says Paul, is allow ourselves to be nailed to the cross with Christ. Not literally, of course. But we have to let go of the side of ourselves which tries all of the time to justify what we have done and who we have become. We have to let Jesus live in us and reconnect us to God, and to the wisdom, love and compassion which he embodies. The rules won't be any easier to keep, but at least we'll know that Jesus is on our side. We'll know that there's more to life than rules. We'll know that sometimes the rules are wrong and need to be changed, and that we need to work to change them. And we'll know that even when the rules are right it's sometimes impossible to keep all of them, all of the time if we're relying on our own strength alone. By being nailed to the cross and letting Christ live in us we can centre our lives, and find peace and fulfilment, and begin to make a real difference for good to the world around us and to the people we meet.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Trinity and Our Life Together in Community

Proverbs 8.1-14, 22-31, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15

Wisdom, in Hebrew, is feminine and so wisdom personified - that is the Wisdom of God standing in the street or the market place and speaking directly to human beings - is naturally described as female too. This isn't to say that God, or even God's Wisdom, is female. God is, of course, apart from human gender, except in the person of Jesus.

It isn't to suggest either that women are wiser than men, although that may very often be the case. The word 'table' is feminine in French but tables are no more intrinsically connected to womankind than wisdom. In many different places, however, the Bible tell us is that God is in touch with both the feminine and the masculine sides of humanity. It talks about God loving and nurturing us just like a mother loves and nurtures the baby that she is feeding at her breast, or like the parent who gently leads a toddler along on reins to stop them wandering into the road.

We looked out of the window at teatime one day last week and saw some unusual brown lumps in the middle of the lawn. Mole hills? No, baby birds almost fully fledged but quite dead. Whether they had flown the nest, hidden - but not very well hidden perhaps - in one of our bushes, and then been attacked by a predator while they were sitting on the lawn, or whether they had been frightened out of the nest, we couldn't tell. But their parents sat on the fence making alarm calls, and stayed close by for the rest of the day and also next morning - hoping they might suddenly recover - until I eventually collected up their remains and took them away. And that's how God cares for his people, like a hen seeking to gather and protect her brood under her wings, or like an eagle catching a falling chick gently in her talons and returning it safely to the nest.

And yet the Wisdom of God - as depicted in Proverbs - is not wholly identical with God. She is God's first creation who then shares in and becomes part of all his other work. There have been Christians who have thought of Jesus, the Word of God, in exactly the same way - as Wisdom's twin brother. And yet, as we shall see, most Christians have come to feel that it is necessary to say rather more than this about Jesus and about God.

But a few more thoughts about Wisdom before we move on. Wisdom, shrewdness, is not the same as cleverness. In a town not far from here there's a local politician who mistakes cleverness for wisdom. When members of the public ask a question at a council meeting or a cabinet meeting he specialises in picking apart any tiny inconsistencies in what they have to say. If he can discover the slightest lack of clarity or any room for wilful misinterpretation of what they mean he's absolutely delighted and he points it out triumphantly. But, of course, he still doesn't answer their questions and the members of the public go away totally dissatisfied and feeling cheated. His tactic may be clever, but I ask you, 'Is it wise?'

Or what about government spin-doctors, endlessly on the look out for the right day to release some bad news to an unsuspecting public, or repeatedly announcing the same spending initiative to make it sound much grander than it really is. Have we seen the last of them now, I wonder? Are politicians listening, at last, to Wisdom's appeal for plain speaking?

And wisdom isn't the same as technical ability. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that it's wise, or shrewd, to attempt it. One would think that the managers and directors of BP would have thought more carefully about drilling for oil in deep water. They had one fail-safe device, but perhaps they needed two. Did they think in advance about the environmental damage that an accident would do, or the cost of trying repeatedly to dream up and execute ingenious new ways of capping an oil leak on the deep sea bed? Did they give any thought to the impact on their profits and shares if things went suddenly and irretrievably wrong? Wisdom is more valuable than pure gold. No jewel can match her.

Actually, the Revised English Bible makes a common mistake here. It equates knowledge with wisdom. In the translation we heard this morning Wisdom seems to be saying that we should choose knowledge and that knowledge is the same as Wisdom's instruction. But the New Revised Standard Version says something that is subtly different. We should choose the knowledge that wisdom
brings - a knowledge mixed with equal parts of discretion and prudence. This, not technical know-how, is what is worth more than gold and jewels.

Finally, Wisdom says that she hates 'subversive talk' - the New Revised Standard Version says 'perverted talk' and the Good News Bible has 'false words'. Introducing the idea of 'perversion' here seems to me to strike the wrong note. It conjures up the image of the postman who was pretending to be a teenager in order to groom young people in Internet chat rooms. Instead, 'subversive talk' or 'false words' are here being contrasted with straight talking and plain speech.

Someone said to me the other day that Methodists don't like to speak out at meetings. They prefer, this person said, to chunter. Well, of course, we all chunter from time to time - don't we? - and if we do it in the privacy of our own homes, or with a few close friends or family, it probably does no harm. But if we really think that something needs to be said, and - more to the point - if we want something to be done about it, chuntering is not the answer. Plain speaking, being prepared to tell it how we think it is, to the person or the group of people whom we hold responsible, is the only Biblical approach and the way that Wisdom demands.

If everyone can be brave enough to say what they really think, in front of everyone else, then we can have an honest debate and the chunterers can find out whether they are part of the overwhelming majority, or whether they belong to a tiny minority who must graciously bow to the wishes of everyone else, or indeed whether opinions are evenly divided and there needs to be some give and take. That's why the Methodist Church tells each congregation to arrange an annual general meeting. It's our opportunity to come together and express our views in public and elect the people whom we want to represent us as church stewards or on the church council. And if we don't go to meetings, and don't say our piece there, then I'm afraid I think it becomes subversive and harmful to chunter.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Roman Christians that - thanks to our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ and our willingness to own what he has done for us through his death on the Cross - we are all supposed to be living in a state of grace, filled with hope, at peace with God, and overwhelmed by the inescapable feeling that our hearts have been flooded with God's love. What an incredible thought - that God's love should flood our whole being and then radiate out from us to other people because of the power of God's Spirit at work within us!

Of course, this could sound too syrupy and sugar-coated to be real. Ordinary life isn't filled all of the time with grace, hope, peace and love even within the most Christ-centred church community let alone in the world beyond the Church. Paul acknowledges that there will be hard times. He talks about suffering. The Revised English Bible says that suffering is a source of endurance, endurance is a source of approval, and approval is a source of hope. The New Revised Standard Version says suffering leads to endurance, which builds character and produces hope. Another version talks about afflictions, steadfastness, character and hope.

Affliction or tribulation is really the right translation here. We all face times of affliction, difficult or testing times, as individuals and as members of a community like Wakefield or like the church here. Are we going to let the hard times break us apart, or are we going to let the Holy Spirit use them to build us up?

Jesus said that the Spirit of truth has been sent by God to guide us into all the truth. As I observed last week, John's little community of new Christians was soon bitterly divided with people claiming that the Spirit of truth was telling them vastly different and contradictory things. He had to write three letters in order to clarify what he had meant when he went on to say that the way we can be sure the Spirit is speaking to us, and through us, is when it takes the words, the wisdom and the love of Jesus and declares these things to us.

In other words, the true Spirit points us to the teaching of God's wisdom and reminds us that we should detest wicked talk, stick to plain speech, and temper knowledge and ingenuity with discretion and prudence, but much more than that the true Spirit points us to a God who is love and whose love is meant to flood into and overflow our lives and our life together.

Finally, what do these readings have to do with the Trinity? We saw that the passage about Wisdom says she is not the same as God but rather the first thing that he created - that God existed before Wisdom. When it's put like that, such an idea is clearly nonsensical. It's impossible to imagine God without wisdom, wisdom must be part and parcel of what it means to be God. So the writer is probably thinking not about wisdom per se, but about wisdom in action - the way wisdom works out when the universe starts to be created. It's a way of saying that we live in a universe fashioned by wisdom rather than ingenuity, by compassion rather than cold logic.

The New Testament doesn't tell us anything formal about what God's nature is like and it certainly doesn't talk about or attempt to describe The Trinity. What it does, however, is to link God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit inseparably together - so much so that it becomes impossible for New Testament writers to speak about one without thinking of the others. They are bound together in just the same way that wisdom is inseparable from God and God's wisdom belongs to all three.