Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wonderful Promises

Genesis 15.1-6, Luke 12.32-40
Today's reading from Genesis contains a wonderful promise of God's graciousness. Abraham has already been blessed by Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem, in a mysterious ritual including bread and wine, and he has already been promised that he will be the father of a great nation and that his descendants will be more numerous than the dust and will inherit the land of Canaan. Now he is promised that God will be his shield and will give him a great reward.
Despite all of the promises that have already been showered on him, Abraham is sceptical. Like Sarah, he's very conscious that he is getting on in years. According to one of the traditions which Genesis is following, he was 75 years old and Sarah was no longer able to bear children. We may suspect that the story tellers were exaggerating. Sarah was still young enough to have been coveted by the Egyptian pharaoh as one of his wives, but it's clear that the cards were stacked against them.
Abraham had appointed a former slave, now apparently a free man living in Damascus, as his heir - presumably because of his faithful service to Abraham and Sarah in the past. Let's hope the poor guy wasn't already spending his inheritance, because God here reassures Abraham that one of his own children will be his heir. He and Sarah are only two people but their descendants will be more numerous than the stars.
This time we are told that Abraham believed the promise. When we believe the impossible promises of God it is counted to us as righteousness.
Our Gospel reading is a loose collection of sayings which Luke has pulled together. The first saying is another word of comfort for small groups of people who feel that they have been left to face the big wide world all by themselves. Abraham and Sarah were just a couple standing shoulder to shoulder as they wandered through the wilderness. This saying is addressed to a slightly larger group, a little flock. As we look around us we may feel very few in number compared to the society around us, but it is our Father's pleasure to give us the kingdom, just as it was his pleasure to make Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of an entire nation.
The next saying reminds us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Perhaps it is a different version of the same saying. 'Sell your possessions and give alms.'
The third saying  tells us, 'Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure' which neither moths nor thieves can harm or diminish. Saving money, building reserves, taking care of our material needs cannot be our priority. Doing what God wants has to come first because all of these other things are subject to the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.' Savings can be eaten away by inflation or swallowed by a single misfortune. We can protect our material interests and then find that in the process we have neglected important relationships that would have brought us more lasting joy. And what could be more important than our relationship with God? Financial security can so easily become a distraction from the main agenda, and life is too short.
The three little parables are shorter versions of stories told at greater length elsewhere. We should be like  bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, or slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, or like slaves awaiting the return of their master from a long journey or a very busy day. Apparently it was unwise to be caught napping, even if the master or the bridegroom didn't arrive until just before dawn!
Perhaps a modern analogy would be waiting in outpatients or accident and emergency for our name to be called. The wait might be a very long one, it might be the middle of the night, but if we doze off we might not hear when our name is called. If, however, we remain alert the doctors and nurses will attend to our needs.
Jesus makes clear that he's not talking about any ordinary master and slave relationship. Even though it's late when the master comes, he is so impressed by the slaves' devotion to duty that he takes off his best clothes and insists on serving them with a hearty supper instead. Actually this is quite the opposite conclusion from another version of the same story, where Jesus asks incredulously, 'Which master would really do that?' and warns his followers that even when we have done what God expects of us we should still say to ourselves, 'I am no more than a slave. I have only done my duty.' But this version of the story emphasises God's graciousness, like the earlier sayings and the Old Testament story.
Finally Luke introduces us to another parable where the owner of the house says that he, or she, would have installed a burglar alarm or had new windows fitted if they had realised their house was going to be broken into. Luke juxtaposes this story with the other two because he thinks they all make a similar point, that we never know when God is going to spring a surprise on us and demand immediate action. In this case he hints that Jesus was thinking about his return at the end of time, but the point still applies if we are talking about the new challenges that we face in everyday life.
The message for a small church from our readings today is that we need to live by faith, to expect to be asked to do the unexpected, to be ready to do things that might normally seem beyond our capacity, to have something in reserve but to be prepared to spend it as we rise to the challenge of meeting God's agenda, and to keep alert as we wait to see what God has in store for us. That is a tall order for a small company of people but we should not be afraid because, just as God blessed Abraham and Sarah, it is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

Crossing Boundaries, Challenging Conventions

Genesis 18.1-15, Colossians 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42

In our Old Testament reading God reveals to Abraham and Sarah that he is able to sit light to the normal rules of nature. Sarah is 'advanced in years', which is the Bible's way of saying that she had passed the menopause. She laughs at the suggestion that - in nine months' time - she will have a baby. But God is able to do things which to us seem impossible.
Now, of course, neither Abraham nor Sarah realise that they have been entertaining God's messengers unawares. They have simply been following the rules of hospitality and offering food to travellers in the desert. Sarah is embarrassed when the stranger tells her that he has heard her laughing. Again it is discourteous to laugh at a stranger, however ludicrous their comments might seem.
Our Gospel reading is also about offering hospitality, but this time not to strangers. One of Jesus’ disciples, Martha, invites him to her home. Like any good host she then gets busy preparing the food but her younger sister, Mary, instead of lending a helping hand, sits engrossed at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.
There are all sorts of rules being broken here. Mary is breaking the rule about offering hospitality to visitors. When people come to your home it’s customary to put their needs first. Which of us would organise a party and then get so involved in the conversation, or the games, or the dancing, or whatever, that we forgot to help prepare the food? Well, you might say, men do that all the time! But Mary doesn’t even have that excuse. She has been born and brought up to be a good and dutiful host. She has broken the rules of good hospitality.
But then this is no ordinary party. Jesus isn’t holding the company spellbound with witty repartee. He’s probably teaching his disciples about matters of supreme importance, matters of life and death even. It’s natural for Mary to want to be engaged in this conversation, and Jesus commends her for it. Martha breaks the rules that govern rabbis and their disciples by interrupting the flow of conversation and bringing everyone back down to earth. ‘Hey folks, there’s food needs cooking here! Do you want to eat or not?’ It’s bad manners to interrupt a teacher, especially one as important as Jesus.
Finally, the hymn about Jesus from Colossians tells us that Jesus crosses much more significant boundaries and conventions than simply challenging the rules of etiquette. Paul presents him as far above and beyond a charismatic teacher. He is at once both a normal human being and the image of the invisible God. He is the first-born before creation. Later, Christian theologians would go on to say that he was never created at all but was always one with God, completely indivisible from him. This is not just an infringement of the rules. This tears up the rulebook as other religious faiths have conceived it.
A famous icon of the Orthodox Church goes so far as to depict the three strangers who visited Abraham as the three persons of the Trinity, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but this idea surfaced long before the icon was painted. Even if this is a fanciful interpretation of what the Genesis story means, identifying Jesus with God from the beginning of time clearly means that he has been involved in everything that God has ever said and done. He cannot be confined by anything in the cosmos - not even by death.
According to Paul - and to the hymn he is quoting - it is Jesus’ radical departure from all the natural laws and norms that we have always taken for granted, which gives him the power to reconcile us to God. It is not good enough to think of him simply as a wise teacher who went about doing good. We have to put all our hope in his groundbreaking and transforming power and then go on to share this mystery with the whole world in order to complete the work that he began.
When he chides Martha, Jesus seems to be saying that compared to many of the things we get so excited about, observing the right dress code when we go out to a party or to a posh restaurant, following the right etiquette when we’re entertaining guests, or more serious issues like deciding whether we’re for or against gay marriage, or even where we stand on human rights’ issues, the decision whether we are wiling to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus is far and above the most important that we will ever make, because obedience to him is an apodictic rule. Jesus expects us to decide - in every age and every place - whether we are going to follow his agenda and be reconciled in him to God so that we may be presented holy, blameless and irreproachable before him, whether we are to be like Martha or like Mary, like Abraham or like Sarah - who dared to laugh at God’s impossible promises.
On a practical level it means being prepared to take risks, sit light to convention and go out on a limb both in our own pilgrimage as individual believers and as a faith community. As Abraham and Sarah discovered, not much is predictable about being pilgrims, very little can be taken for granted. Some rules are there to be broken or transcended. But the apodictic rules, about loving God and neighbour and yielding to the reconciling love of Jesus are continuously sure, established and steadfast.

The Challenge to Be Different

2 Kings 5.1-16, Luke 10.1-20
Our two Bible readings today are about people who were prepared to break the rules of their society in order to do what they felt was necessary. Naaman was persuaded by his wife’s slave girl to go on a madcap mission to see the famous Israelite prophet, Elisha.  Fortunately, he enjoyed the high favour of his master, the king of Syria, who was only too happy to write him letters of safe conduct. To him this seemed like an example of positive rule breaking. Normally he wouldn’t expect his generals to fraternise with the enemy but, on this occasion, only positive change could come of it.
To the king of Israel, however, the mission seemed to be a devious attempt to pick a quarrel and reopen the festering conflict between the two countries. But then Elisha heard about Naaman and recognised that God sometimes uses rule breakers, or unconventional methods, to achieve his own greater good. So for example, the editor of the story - following Elisha’s example - notes that God has previously used Naaman to give victory to Syria over Israel, and now he was using him to demonstrate that, nevertheless, there was a mighty prophet in Israel.
But Elisha also had the last laugh in the story. He didn’t come out to meet the great man. Instead he sent a messenger to tell Naaman that, in order to be healed, he must strip naked and go and swim around in a dirty stream. It was beneath Naaman’s dignity to do this and he was already heading for home before his servants managed to persuade him to change his mind and break one more teeny tiny rule. Just because generals don’t usually splash about in muddy water, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes good reasons to flout the rule.  
The Bible goes on to tell the related contrasting story of Elisha’s own servant, Gehazi, whose rule breaking was destructive and deceitful and who ended up by reaping the just reward for that kind of negative rule breaking.
Jesus’ disciples were challenged to engage in a different kind of rule breaking. They were to give up their ordinary ways of making a living for a while in order to go throughout the land preparing people for Jesus’ imminent arrival. But, in a striking departure from the normal rules for running an effective mission, they were to take no resources with them - no spare clothes, no spare sandals, not even any money. Instead they were to rely entirely on receiving hospitality from the strangers they visited. And they were to travel with such urgency that there wouldn’t even be time for the normal civilised greetings to be exchanged when they met a fellow traveller on the road. This is fairly trivial rule breaking at one level, but it also seems a rather unnecessary challenge to convention.
In contrast, the towns they visited were confronted with a different kind of challenge, of a totally different order of magnitude. The visit of these missionaries might have seemed unimportant, and their offer to help people prepare for Jesus’ coming might have seemed like a ‘take it or leave it’ sort of deal, but in fact it was a matter of life or death. To reject these disciples  was to become the ultimate rule breakers and to cross a line from which there would be no way back because the disciples would then shake the dust from their feet and, by implication, these towns would miss out when Jesus passed through that part of the country.
Jesus seems to be saying that compared to some of the things we get so excited about, observing the right dress code when we go out to a party or to a posh restaurant, deciding whether we’re for or against gay marriage, and even where we stand on human rights’ issues, the decision whether we are for or against Jesus is far more important, because it’s an apodictic rule. Jesus expects us to decide - in every age and every place - whether we are going to follow his agenda and be exalted in heaven, or  to reject his agenda and - ultimately - be brought low. Even when we run with the wolf pack, if we follow the rule of life laid down by the Lamb of God we need fear no evil, for the story ends with one final and memorable illustration of what it means to obey Jesus’ eternal command to be his disciples.  If we live by his rules within our family, at work, in our community and in our church, then even demons, snakes and scorpions will be unable to separate us from his love.