Monday, September 13, 2010

Taking Risks for God

Deut 30.15-20
Luke 14.25-33

Have you ever been in trouble for taking a risk? Some risks just aren’t worth taking, are they? Things like running across the road when cars are coming or using a pelican crossing when the picture of the red man is lit up.

I heard someone on the radio say that when he lived in Germany he noticed no one - young or old - ever walks onto a pelican crossing when the red man is lit up. If you do, he said, even if you’re a grown up an old lady will tap you on the shoulder with her walking stick or her umbrella and tell you that you’re setting a bad example to children and young people. He said that people in England would think that was daft but, on the other hand, Germany is a much nicer place to live because its citizens behave more responsibly.

And then, as well as irresponsible or silly risks there are the sort of risks that we might think it’s worth taking, like going on a rollercoaster ride. Rollercoaster rides look very dangerous, especially when the ride loops the loop or takes a terrifying plunge, but all the really dangerous risks have been engineered out of the ride and the only genuine risk is that we will feel ill for the rest of the day - which is why I prefer to keep my own feet planted firmly on the ground.

But what about building a housing estate? Is that a risky thing to do? In Darnall, where I work during the week, a building company decided to build a housing development called ‘Imagine’ which was supposed to be a collection of four, five and six bedroom designer homes in what they described as a vibrant suburb of Sheffield.

They did build some of the houses, but most of the development is still - as they say in builders’ sales brochures - ‘awaiting release’. In other words, the ‘Imagine’ housing development is exactly what its name suggests, something which can only be imagined. Most of the site is just rubble waiting to be dug out to make room for new houses, and the houses themselves are still pictures on a drawing board. The builders have taken a risk. They bought an old factory, knocked it down and started to build something new which they couldn’t actually afford to finish.

Finally, what about a risk from a long time ago? King Phillip of Macedon was a famous general. He led a highly trained and ruthless army which steadily conquered the whole of ancient Greece. When he arrived with his army outside the city of Sparta he sent a message to its leaders: ‘If you do not surrender I will burn your city to the ground.’ He expected them to calculate that the odds of being the first people in Greece to defeat him were not very good. But the Spartans were risk takers. They sent back a one word answer, ‘If’!

Jesus once asked his friends, ‘Who would start to build a new development without first sitting down and working out if they can afford to finish it?’ But he didn’t say that they wouldn’t go ahead, just that they would have to think very carefully about the level of risk. Because the answer is that lots of people start building things like tower blocks without ever being certain that they can afford to finish the job. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. Building tower blocks and housing estates is always a risky business.

Jesus also asked his friends, ‘Which general would attack a much larger army if he hadn’t already decided that his army stood a good chance of winning?’ The Spartans did their sums, and made their plans, and decided they might just be able to beat King Phillip of Macedon. Unfortunately the risk didn’t pay off. Phillip did capture their city and he was as good as his word. He burnt it to the ground.

But armies don’t always have to think they can win before they go into battle. A hundred years or so before the time of King Phillip, a Spartan army of three hundred men had stood against an army of thousands of Persian soldiers knowing that they were going to be defeated, because they had worked out that the battle they were fighting - in a narrow valley between two high mountains - would gain vital time for their allies to put together a fleet of ships that could cut off the sea between the Persian Empire and Greece and force the Persian army to retreat.

Jesus seems to have been making the point that whenever we do things we have to consider the risks. We have to work out the chances of success or of achieving our aims. But he doesn’t seem to have been suggesting that we shouldn’t take risks at all. On the contrary, he said that sometimes we have to be prepared to leave behind our families and risk our whole lives in order to be his followers.

In the picture of King Phillip you might have noticed that one of his eyes looks a bit strange. That’s because he was prepared to risk his life in pursuit of his campaign to conquer the cities of Greece. On one occasion he rode his horse too close to the city walls and was hit in the eye by an arrow. But that setback didn’t put him off, it only made him more determined to succeed. Jesus says that we have to be prepared for setbacks and ready to take risks in order to do his will.

In some ways today’s readings seem very apt, don’t they? But in other ways, the choices which they spell out seem a bit overblown by comparison with the choices which we face. Moses told the people of Israel that they had to choose between life and death, and between good and evil. Those are very stark choices, and very clear-cut ones too.

I think perhaps the choices facing us here at Sandal Methodist Church were a bit more finely balanced. However, in a sense, refurbishing the church and removing the pews is a life and death decision, not for any of us personally of course, but for the whole church community. The people who have argued that it is the right thing to do believe that the church will perish if it isn’t prepared to change and adapt. If we attach too much importance to pews or to the way things look, don’t we risk turning them into idols instead of listening to the Lord and conforming to his ways?

But on the other hand the people who argued against the changes thought that it would be foolish to plan to do something which we couldn’t actually afford - and it’s true that, for the time being at any rate, we have had to scale back some of the changes which we wanted to make because - unless the fundraising is very successful - we won’t have the necessary funds to accomplish everything we set out to do. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course, to go ahead. Like a builder considering a new housing development, the church council has had to weight the risks and take a carefully considered decision. And that decision was to proceed in the faith that what we are doing is indeed God’s will.

Being good disciples is about being prepared to leave behind the things we cherish most - family, familiar things, even life itself - in order to move into the new territory that God wants us to occupy. Following Jesus is about being prepared to leave our comfort zone, to take calculated risks, to be enterprising for the sake of God’s mission.

These changes will not by themselves.help us to choose life In order to do that we will have to consider lots of other things besides. But together we have calculated the cost and we have decided that - on balance - it’s worth paying. I ask for your trust and forbearance in the week’s ahead, and for your prayers for the success of this venture. We live now in an enterprising culture and this is our chance to show some enterprise, not for the sake of our own profit, but for Jesus’ sake.

God's Overwhelming Generosity

Isaiah 28.9-22
There’s a very contemporary feel to this passage from Isaiah. The Prophet laments the people’s lack of religious understanding and spiritual maturity. They are like newborn babies who haven’t learnt to speak yet. The language which God uses, the language of ethical standards and justice, the language of compassion and concern for those in need, the language of deep peace and true security, the language of loving kindness, is like a babble of meaningless noise to them, a foreign language which they do not know. In fact, not only do they not know how to communicate with God, they also deride God’s word and dismiss them as something barbarous or meaningless. God has offered true rest to those who were exhausted, but even then they would not listen.

Is there a parallel here with our own secular society, where many people have turned their backs on religion and tuned out from spirituality because they believe that it is primitive and irrational, the stuff of childish fantasy and insecurity which grown-ups and cultured people should leave behind? I once had a long email correspondence with a Guardian journalist who insisted that religion is totally unreasonable and the realm of fanatical and superstitious minds incapable of accepting concepts like logic, or scientific method. When I argued that I was both religious and rational he replied that in his opinion I wasn’t really religious. It was a dialogue with the deaf. He wasn’t listening. His mind was closed.

In the Prophet’s opinion, the people of his time had made a pact with Death instead of honouring their ancestors’ covenant with God. They had persuaded themselves that they could cheat death and be unscathed by natural disasters. ‘When the raging flood sweeps by, it will not touch us,’ they said to one another. But, of course, they were wrong. The Prophet warns them that when the raging flood waters finally do sweep by they will be like land overwhelmed by flood. Sheer terror will replace their complacency as they realise that their pact with death was worthless and has been annulled.

God, however, depends upon truth, not falsehood. He does not offer his people false promises that they can escape from harm and - indeed - he warns them that they are headed for destruction unless they heed his message.

Again, there are interesting parallels with the present time. Some obscurantists clerics in Pakistan have long taught that if people are obedient to God they will be kept safe from harm. What can they say now in the face of the terrible floods there? Some, of course, would blame the disaster on the sinners in their midst - the people who have turned their backs on true Islamic ways and brought down God’s wrath upon the nation. Isn’t the truth, however, that God is not responsible for the flooding at all? Human beings are bringing it on themselves by deforesting the mountains where the rivers rise, by building homes on flood plains and perhaps even by allowing global warming to get out of hand and interfere with the natural course of the Jet Stream, distorting the weather across whole continents. We can’t say for sure that global warming is responsible for what is happening to the Jet Stream, but it probably is creating more extreme weather events and making them happen more frequently.

Like the people of Isaiah’s time we have tried to make a pact with Death - to put if off until we reach advanced old age and to enjoy a long life of prosperity and carefree enjoyment. Is the pact breaking down now as life becomes more complicated and life expectancy - especially in poorer parts of the world - starts to get much shorter again? There’s even some evidence in our own country that, with the current epidemic of obesity in particular, younger generations will live shorter lives in future than their parents.

Isaiah suggests that God will storm with rage against his disobedient people, as he stormed with rage in the battle which Joshua fought against the Amorite people - a battle that took place in the Vale of Gibeon and that was notorious for being the only occasion when God made the sun stand still to give the Israelite soldiers more time to pursue and slaughter their defeated enemies.

Some people might think - like Isaiah - that God is using nature now to punish human recklessness and disregard for his laws. But I think many Christians would take a softer line, and would imagine that it is Mother Nature, not God, who is storming against us and that God is in fact grieving for those who are suffering. Even Isaiah says that God’s wrath against his people’s arrogance is strange and alien to him and fundamentally at odds with his true intentions. Behind this prophecy of doom, then, there is the promise that ultimately God’s nature is to be merciful and compassionate. It’s really a call to repentance rather than a threat of vengeance.

2 Corinthians 8.1-9
Towards the end of his life Paul spent a great deal of effort organising an emergency relief effort for the struggling church in Jerusalem. It was the mother church, of course, to which all of the new churches founded by Paul looked for inspiration and guidance, but its members had faced intermittent persecution and most of them were very poor. It’s probable that they found it hard to get work in such a hostile society and there may also have been other things going on which were contributing to their poverty, such as an economic downturn.

In any case, Paul saw this as a wonderful opportunity for Christians to show solidarity with one another, and for the new converts from Gentile nations to offer help and support to Jewish Christians. He was delighted, therefore, when the churches in Macedonia - which he had established only a few years before and which apparently had troubles enough of their own - were lavishly open-handed in their giving to this good cause.

Paul being Paul, of course, he couldn’t resist using the Macedonians’ wonderful example as a way of prompting the church at Corinth to respond in equal measure. I guess there are parallels with our own public relations department which put out a message last week to say that Methodists had already contributed £20,000 to the Methodist Relief and Development Fund’s latest emergency appeal for Pakistan. No doubt they are hoping to stimulate further generosity, just as Methodists responded generously to the plight of fellow Christians in Haiti earlier this year.

But the most interesting thing which Paul has to say here is his comparison between the generosity of the Macedonian Christians and the example of Jesus. Here we see a very different picture of the character of God from Isaiah’s depiction of an angry and wrathful God, even though the Prophet had insisted that God was reluctant to show anger and had been driven to it by the wilful disobedience of his people. Jesus, by contrast, is God’s international relief effort. He was rich yet for our sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich. In other words, his response to our dire predicament is not to wag his finger and say, ‘I told you so!’ It’s not to get angry and kick people up the behind and take their names. It’s to lay himself on the line to save us.

Matthew 20.1-16
On the face of it, this parable is about an employer with a labour relations’ problem. He hires casual workers to harvest the grapes in his vineyard but when he goes to the marketplace to take on all the men who have shown up for work there aren’t enough eager applicants waiting there to meet his requirements. So four times more he goes back and hires extra relays of workers, including some who only make their way to the marketplace to look for work an hour before sunset.

In the employment project where I work we sometimes talk about three kinds of jobseekers. There are “the sprinters” - the people who are desperate to find a new job at any costs. They don’t really need any help. They will go on searching for work until they find it. All we can do to assist them is help them hone their search skills, sharpen their CV and refine their interview technique. Then there are “the joggers” - people who do want a job but who lack confidence in their own experience or abilities, perhaps because they have been out of the labour market for a long time, caring for children or following an illness, and so on. They won’t become sprinters unless we give them a bit more help, perhaps by providing them with volunteer work experience or sending them on a refresher course, or signposting them to other retraining opportunities. Finally, there are “the strollers2 - the people who are a little bit feckless. They will work, but they’re not really inclined to go looking for work. In fact they’ve only come to our office at all because Mum tipped them out of bed and told them to get down to see us after hearing that the next-door neighbour’s lad just got a job with our help. I’m not belittling the strollers. To be fair to them, after you’ve been out of work for a short while and taken a few knock-backs form potential employers it’s easy to lose motivation and self-esteem. Our job is to give the strollers the nudge they need to become joggers again.

In the parable, the employer recruits the sprinters at sunrise, the joggers at midday and the strollers in the evening just before sunset. But he gives them all an equal chance of working and, crucially, at the end of the day, he offers them all the same wages.

Now clearly that’s unfair, and the people who have worked hardest and who have toiled through the heat of the day rightly protest that they deserve some extra recognition in the form of a bonus for all their effort. Of course the owner of the vineyard is within his rights to be generous to the strollers, but this is no way to run a successful business. What will happen tomorrow, or next year, when he needs to hire workers again for the harvest? If he doesn’t offer some incentive to get up early all the labourers for hire will turn up at the marketplace in the cool of the evening and wait tobe taken on for the last hour of the day. And who would blame them? So, in a very real sense, the last will suddenly find they are first in the queue, as the people who used to get up early to be first in the marketplace start to turn up last instead.

However, if we take the story too seriously we are missing the point. It’s not a lesson in good labour relations. We couldn’t really run a successful vineyard this way, could we? It’s a parable - a tall story designed to jolt us into a different way of thinking. And it’s not about how to manage our staff, it’s about God’s great generosity. The vineyard represents the nation of Israel, and the lenient treatment handed out to the latecomers shows just how far God is prepared to be merciful and generous to his people. Not only is anger and wrath strange and alien to God’s nature, it is in fact inimical to his nature. He longs instead to be kind and compassionate, even to the point of being taken for a pushover or a big softy. So isn’t Jesus’ message to us that, faced with such overwhelming generosity, we should respond by trying to be as generous as we dare with our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family?

Time To Be Heroes

Hebrews 11.29 - 12.2
Luke 12.49 - 56

"Heroes" is the name of a cult television series - with a huge following at the moment - about ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary abilities. They have to ask themselves: Who am I? What does having these powers mean for the world around me? How should I live my life - shameful or proud? And should I hide or live out in the open? And if this world of hidden powers is revealed, will the ordinary world ever recover?

But this is only one of a rash of similar films and television programmes. The X-Men, created by Marvel comics and immortalised in a series of films, is another example of the super hero genre, this time featuring people with mutant genes which give them special powers or abilties. Why is Wolverine like me? The likeness may not be immediately obvious but it’s because, like me, he doesn’t need to carry a comb in his pocket! The X-Men stories are a rattling good yarn, but they’re also a metaphor for the everyday struggle that many people face against prejudice, racism and bigotry.

Then there are the countless Star Trek heroes, of course, boldly going where no human being has gone before, their phasers politely set ‘to stun’ as they explore strange new worlds.

And there are the traditional heroes of folklore, like George and the Dragon, as well as the modern feminist subversions of the genre. Now, instead of damsels in distress being rescued by brave princes we have brave princesses too. Here’s one riding on her white charger.

Finally, of course, there are all the real heroes of human history. In the history of our country the gallery of famous heroes ranges from Queen Boudicca bravely fighting the invading Roman armies two thousand years ago to Winston Churchill leading the nation in the struggle against Nazism in the middle of the last century.

But there have also been countless unsung heroes and heroines. A television programme this week featured a waste disposal worker who still goes to work every day, tidying up the depot and encouraging his colleagues with his constant good humour, even though he has a rare form of incurable cancer. And a radio programme featured the British and Pakistani aid workers in Pakistan who are bravely crossing flimsy footbridges over the swollen River Indus to take packs of emergency supplies to stranded villagers, risking their lives every step of the way. The modern road bridges have all been swept away and only these one hundred and fifty year-old footbridges, built during the Raj, still remain.

This picture shows one of the more substantial rope bridges and it looks pretty safe, but remember the picture was taken before the flood. Now imagine the water raging and surging just below the traveller’s feet and remember that all of the other bridges have already been lost so this one might be next.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrew or Jewish Christians in his care reels off a long list of heroes, people who were inspired by their faith in God to do amazing things. They overthrew oppressors, established justice and saw God’s promises fulfilled.

It might seem a bit tame to be a spiritual hero when compared to an X-Man like Wolverine, but not a bit of it. These spiritual heroes shut the mouths of lions, fought fires, put whole armies to flight, went to prison for what they believed in or else hid in caves and holes in the ground. The writer says that they were too good for a world like ours.

And yet, he says, they pale into insignificance alongside the example of Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For our sakes, and for the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him, he endured the cross and we must throw off all the doubts, hesitations and fears that prevent us from being heroic and find the resolution to follow him.

The collection of strange and colourful sayings from Luke’s Gospel seem to be making a similar point. Jesus warns his followers that being a disciple isn’t about finding peace and quiet or having an easy life. It calls for spiritual heroics. Sometimes we will be called upon to stir up trouble. And sometimes following Jesus will cause division, even among our own families and friends. Above all, in order to be a spiritual hero we have to be able to read the signs of the times, and to recognise when decisive action is going to be required.

I am sure that, like the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is talking about the need to rescue suffering people from disaster, oppose injustice and speak out against oppression or wrongdoing. So I don’t want to try to score cheap points or read into these passages things which really aren’t there. While there is such a catalogue of disasters going on across the world - especially in Pakistan - that would be absurd. Praying for the heroes caught up in those situations, and supporting them as best we can, should be our first concern.

However, I will draw just a few parallels with our own situation, here at Sandal, as we stand on the brink of an exciting and challenging time. I know that some people aren’t very happy about the changes we are making, and that there is some apprehension still about how we will cope while the church is out of action. Services will be a little different sometimes in the weeks ahead. Coffee may be served at an earlier time. The toilets may be outside for a while, and so on. But I am sure we shall be able to cope if we can show a little resolution. Fortunately, it will only be lengths of wood which will be sawn in half, so there really isn’t too much to worry about.

You will find that the stewards and the other leaders of the church stand ready to provide any extra help and support that’s needed. So please don’t hesitate to ask if you’re at all uncertain about anything that’s happening, or about where to go and what to do, and what time it’s all taking place. Because we do appreciate that, at least to begin with, different service times and different arrangements will be confusing and if I don’t get myself confused at least once then I’ll be very surprised.

An advert for The Times once said ‘Times change but values don’t’ and I guess some people may feel that all of this upheaval is unnecessary because what we have around us - our pews, the layout of our church and so on - is already valuable and has plenty of life left in it. But, of course, while some things never change, and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, he does challenge us to read the signs of the times because one of the tasks which he calls us to do is to connect with the people around us and persuade them that we have something relevant to say to them.

The changes we are making may be purely cosmetic in themselves, but we hope they’re going to give us the tools and the flexibility that we need to address ourselves more clearly to contemporary ways of learning and living. And if that sounds a bit like ‘management speak’, which it probably is, then another way of putting it is that a flexible space, with comfier chairs, a more welcoming environment, plenty of IT and so on, could be a real asset in the Church’s mission. But, of course, lots of expensive kit is no substitute for the content of our mission. If we’ve nothing to say, and if we’re not reaching out to people and meeting them where they are, all the changes in the world won’t make any real difference.

That’s why the questions which I started with, from the ‘Heroes’ television series are relevant to our church as well, and to our life together as would be spiritual heroes. Like the heroes in the series we have to ask ourselves: What is Sandal Methodist Church? What are we trying to do, and how are we sharing God’s power and love with our community? What does having access to this love and power mean for the world around us? How should we live when we’re outside the church - shameful or proud? Should we hide our faith or live out in the open? And if this hidden world of God’s power and glory is revealed to the people around us, will Sandal ever recover?
Psalm 49.1-10, Colossians 3.1-5, Luke 12.13-21

Suppose you had a wealthy Aunt and one day she rang you up, or wrote you a letter, or even sent you a text, and said she was going to give you a thousand pounds? What would you do with the money?

Let’s make the choice a bit more difficult. You’ve been thinking for a long time of redecorating your living room, but – on the other hand – the church needs help to fund an important new community project. Do you keep all of your Aunt’s gift for yourself, or do you give some to the church?

Or how about this? For the first time ever, you have been chosen to play in the school’s netball team, or football team, but the match happens to be on the same day as your best friend’s birthday party. Do you go to the party or do you play in the match?

Or you need to practise the piano before a music exam, but your friends want you to go out with them, to play outdoors or to go into town. What do you choose to do? We have to make these decisions like these every day, don’t we?

Consider this choice – which perhaps none of us will ever have to make? Your family is short of money and you all agree to sell some of your possessions on ebay. What would you choose to manage without – your MP3 player, perhaps, or your games’ console, or a piece of jewellery without too much sentimental value?

One of my jobs is to get ready to run a post office and I’ve been learning about the Post Office’s award winning life insurance products. If you’re over fifty, you can buy insurance to cover the cost of your funeral and to leave your family a small legacy. And whether you’re young or old, you can open a savings account – there are all sorts to choose from.

What would Jesus’ attitude have been to all of these choices? He seemed to think that saving too much money, or planning too far ahead, or putting too much reliance on possessions or personal achievements, was a mistake – that it meant getting our priorities wrong.

And yet all of us think that possessions and achievements matter, don’t we? Have times changed since Jesus told the story of the foolish farmer? Is life no longer as simple as it was then? Do we all deserve nicer homes, the chance to excel at games, or to learn to play a musical instrument, the opportunity to own a few small luxuries and to plan for our future? Or are there more important things? What about friendship, loyalty, love and compassion?

When I was a child the Beetles sang,

Say you don't need no diamond ring and I'll be satisfied
Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can't buy I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.

Is that what we believe?

The Psalmist asks what use money is in troubled times. It’s a question we might also want to ask Tony Hayward, the man who used to be the chief executive of BP. For three years he was considered a safe pair of hands, someone who was putting right BP’s accident prone record. And then BP hit troubled times again. What use was all of its wealth and abundance of riches then? We can’t trust in these things, can we? Even if you’re the head of a huge multinational company! They have a tendency to slip through your fingers.

Suddenly BP’s fortunes have plummeted and Mr Hayward has gone just as quickly from being a highly respected business leader to being a liability surrounded by persecutors. And now he’s being packed off to Siberia to look for oil there.

In any case, says the Psalmist, even when we make a great success of our life here and now there is no price that we can pay to escape from death. However wealthy or wise we might be, however much we may have learned or earned, there is no escape from the inevitable and we can’t take our wealth or our experience with us. It’s a sombre note which continues throughout the rest of the psalm, although he writer does say that God has the power to rescue us and save us from oblivion.

Paul speaks in the passage from Colossians about the need to let go of many of the things which people normally think add value and spice to life – sex, passion, desire, even the pursuit of wealth. There’s an advert for BMW cars which says, ‘They say you always want what you can’t have until you’ve got it.’ That’s pretty much the attitude which Paul appears to be condemning and he likens it to feeling angry, malicious or wrathful, or being slanderous and abusive.

These are all ultimately ways of living and being which are negative and life denying, and owning a BMW car won’t put us back on track. Even apparently solid distinctions such as our race, or religion, or nationality, even freedom itself, is transitory and of no lasting account. What matters, says Paul, is to let go of all these things – to put them to death, in fact – and to be reborn into a new life in Jesus Christ.

And so we come to the words of Jesus himself, ‘One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ All the rich farmer wanted to do was to plan for his retirement. Isn’t that what any of us aspire to do? And having had a lucky run of good harvests the farmer’s dream came true. At last he had enough product stored in his barns to retire and spend the rest of his life eating, drinking and being merry. But his predicament was exactly the opposite of the modern pensioner’s. Instead of living so long that he emptied his pension fund, his retirement was very short indeed. It’s better therefore, suggests Jesus, ‘to be rich towards God.’

Where does that leave us? Do we need to reorder our priorities? In this age of longevity do we put too much store by financial security? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by property and possessions? Should we live more by faith and less by plans and calculation? Are we too risk averse? And should we see Paul’s attitude to sex and personal relationships as the standard which we should all aspire too, as a higher aim for an elite cadre of spiritual leaders only, or as a complete aberration?

The Church has had mixed feelings about Paul’s rather negative attitude towards passion. The New International Version avoids the issue completely by translating the original Greek word as ‘lust’, making it much easier to compare to the other things which Paul condemns in this passage. But even if we stick with the more neutral word ‘passion’, preferred by other modern translations, we need to remind ourselves that Paul himself admitted - elsewhere in his letters - that his fairly puritanical attitude to personal relationships was just his own opinion and not a word from the Lord.

Not only is it sometimes difficult to translate the Bible into English, it’s also sometimes very difficult to translate the Bible into practical action or even into everyday aspiration. What we can say for certain, however, is that – when it comes to the values we live by – we do need to get our priorities right: compassion must come before profit, love before self-centeredness, generosity before greed, sharing before acquisition.

The Fate of the Innocent and God's Compassion

Genesis 18.20-32
Luke 11.1-13

Ever since I was little, I have been in love with rules and regulations. Right from the start I could never stand the sort of game where other children - my brother or my friends - simply moved toys about haphazardly, just as the fancy took them. All my toys - whether they were farm animals or toy soldiers - had to move four paces at a time. And all of the toys in the game had to have the same ‘go’ before the next turn. The sort of game where one of the players just picks up a toy horse and gallops it all round the room, and so on - just didn’t seem real enough for me.

Little wonder, then, that when my brother and I graduated to playing table football I was the one who read the rule book from cover to cover while my brother just got by on his wits. He would score a goal, and I would solemnly pronounce it ‘off side’! ‘That’s not fair!’ he would, and I would reply, ‘But it’s rule number 48 on page six.’ And then he would storm off and refuse to play with me any more. ‘Can’t you just let him make up some rules?’ my parents would ask. But I couldn’t.

So last week I was in paradise - or Wolverhampton to be more precise - but playing in my very own toy post office, with my own computer, and my own stock of stamps, postal orders and giro cheques, and real credit cards and account cards that you could swipe or stick in pin machines, and lots and lots of toy money. However, I wasn’t there just to have fun. I was there to learn the rules.

Did you know that when you send a parcel through the post it can’t be longer than 1.5m and, if it is that long, it can’t be more than 1.5m all the way round? Did you know that parcels and packets sent to the Channel Islands need to have a CN22 customs’ declaration? Well, of course you don’t. And I bet you don’t know either that it’s not permitted to send a valuable pen as a gift to someone in Pakistan, or a jar of honey to Russia, or a packer of salt to Japan.

Anyone who loves rules is in their element, and it shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that when we were tested on how many of the rules we could remember at the end of the week I got the second highest score - despite slowing the whole class down by asking what the tutor deemed to be ‘too many awkward questions’.

In our Old Testament reading Abraham repeatedly seems to be reminding God about the rules and asking him to play fair. But the reading from the Gospel of Luke shows us that God always plays fair and, in fact, bends over backwards to make the world a better place. He always sticks by the rules, and those rules have been designed to show us his love.

Three men visit Abraham and Sarah. Who exactly are they? A Famous icon from the Orthodox Church compares them with the Trinity. But the three men seem bent on destruction. They are on their way to the infamously wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where they intend to kick people up the behind, as the Americans might say, and take the names of those who’ve been naughty. This doesn’t seem terribly in-keeping with the Christian Godhead so perhaps it is better to see this little trio as God accompanied by two awesome minders, avenging angels tasked with handing out rough justice on God’s behalf.

But just a minute! This isn’t the Wild West and God isn’t into rough justice, is he? Abraham challenges him. ‘Should not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’ What if innocent people are caught up in the situation and suffer unfairly? Shamed by Abraham’s logic, God concedes that if ten decent people can be found then the two cities shall not be destroyed.

The story can easily be dismissed as a rather gruesome fairy story about the dim and distant past. And yet, although it doesn’t fit comfortably with our picture of what God is like, it does raise an enduring question: Why do innocent people suffer in a world that we believe has been created for us to enjoy by a just and compassionate God?’

There isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer, and for some people the question deals a fatal blow to the very idea of a Christian God. However, it’s possible to counter their disbelief by saying that we live in the best possible world which a just and compassionate God could possibly create. It’s a world of beauty, a world where we have considerable freedom and choice, but also a world where – inevitably – innocent people – and other creatures too - do suffer. Our calling is to help God to minimise that suffering and to work for a time when injustice and innocent suffering can at last be eliminated.

Which brings us to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus says that God’s big project is to bring about perfection on earth, to give everyone the basics of life, to encourage forgiveness rather than vengeance and to put an end to the things – like innocent suffering – which test our endurance and our faith. He does indeed need our help, and our prayers, as we unite ourselves with him in a moral quest to rid the world of evil.

It’s not quite clear what the parable means. Is Jesus saying that God is just as willing to help us in the task of saving the world as any good and caring neighbour might be if we needed a bit of assistance and support from them? Or, more startlingly perhaps, is Jesus saying that we should be ready to help God if he knocks on our door? And is he reminding us, also, that God doesn’t necessarily wait for a convenient moment to call us to swing into action.

The two sayings about asking, seeking and knocking, and being given fish and eggs rather than scorpions and snakes, suggest that it is in fact we who are expected to ask God for help, rather than the other way round. But that assumes they belong with the parable and have not been grouped together with it simply because they all seem to be sayings about similar things.

These last two sayings certainly underline the compassion and justice of God. He doesn’t want innocent people to suffer at all. He would rather give the us all good things from his bounty. And he wants to be generous, like any good father or mother trying to give their children the best possible start in life.