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Showing posts from September, 2007

Sharing in God's Harvest

Luke 17.5-10There 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…

Our Calling

2 Timothy 1:1-14This 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 …

Weeping For The City

Lamentations 1:1-6The 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 c…

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 socie…

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 wh…

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 bi…

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…

The Christian Guide to Leadership and Management

Luke 16.1-13The 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…

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…

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 po…

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 o…