2nd Before Advent: What Are We Supposed to Do?

The parable of the Talents,
Stained glass executed by Clayton & Bell, London,
For St Edith’s Church, Bishop Wilton,

2nd Before Advent

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

We seem to be in in-between time on the calendar; both the church and in life. The days are shorter and darker. The weather is grey and miserable. Remembrance Sunday has passed.

Have you put up the Christmas decorations yet?
When should you do that without judgement?
Has the Christmas pudding started?

We seem to be waiting around for the next thing. There is a vagueness to everything. You come to church and we are faced with these seemingly dire readings all about the end times and gnashing teeth. Is that what we are waiting for?!

Both Paul writing to the Thessalonians and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable speak to the return of the Lord. The second coming of Jesus. This is what we are preparing for during Advent; God’s return. Yes we spend time preparing and celebrating the birth of Jesus. The bigger picture is God’s return for the second time. Not many people spend much time considering or imagining this event.

After the resurrection everyone (the gospel writers, Paul and the disciples, members of the new church) thought Jesus was coming back imminently. Yet here we are two thousand years later, still watching and waiting. Like the Thessalonians, we do not know the day or the time. Paul and Matthew are concerned with what people do in the meantime. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to put on the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet for the hope of salvation. Paul wants them to encourage and build each other up.

Jesus is coming back, and it matters what was done in his absence. This is true for us too, how are we doing in the meantime? Are we being foolish or wise, investing, hiding or squandering?

Matthew 25, like many of Jesus’ parables, can be read on several different levels and it needs careful attention. As a reminder, Matthew has this parable set in the last days of Jesus’ life. Generally people say some really important things as the end of life nears. This is not an easy parable nor is it made any more comforting by the times we find ourselves living in.

We could read this parable as a call to do more with what God has given us. It does not matter how much (think time, money, gifts, resources) we have been given, just do more with it and be smart about it. Again, if we do not use it, we will be punished.

The tension here is that, given the current situation with post-Covid, cost of living among many factors, many people cannot volunteer or contribute their gifts for the service of others as they may previously have. Should they be made to feel guilty? Punished for what is beyond their control? There is a difference here between inability to help and serve and being unwilling to help and serve.

In Jesus’ parable, the man (master) is going away for an unknown amount of time. He calls his servants and gives them each a talent of silver; but he does not give them any instructions about what to do with the talents. Why not? The man knew his servants, he had worked out what each would do with the talents given.

Through the actions of the first two servants who invested their talents, we can see that they knew their master. Even without explicit instructions, they knew what was expected of them and what would please their master. It is doubtful that these two slaves understood the motivation of their master but possibly suspected that this was some kind of test.

The third slave and the master know each other too. There is dislike and mistrust between them. The master does not trust this slave as much as the others. The slaves’ response is to focus on the negative, what he did not have, did not get and blamed the master for that.

The master replies by pointing out that the slave did not try, did not seek out what he (the master) wanted. Instead of trying to please or get to know his master, the slave gives up and buries the talent. When the master returns to his home, the third slave knows that trouble is coming so tells his master what he thinks of him. This slave had decided a long time ago that nothing would please his master so gave up trying.

Many people can relate to the third slave, that nothing they do is ever good enough, so why try? This is applied to God too. I’ve heard things like, ‘God has never bothered with me, so why should I bother with him?’ or ‘if God is so good, then why did x, y, or z happen?’

Questions like these often come from a place of deep hurt and carry some honesty. However, many people who tend to blame God for their misfortunes, do not seek after him in the first place. Assumptions about who God is and what He is like are often wrong and based on circumstance and feelings rather than knowledge and relationship.

When it comes to talents, by this I mean our gifts and skills; they have come from God. They are given to be used, we are stewards of them, not the owners. The owner is God, and he expects us to use his gifts wisely. Gifts, like the silver talents of the slaves, increase with use. To use them wisely and to the glory of God, we need to know the giver, the true owner of these gifts. God has a genuine and vested interest in what we do in his name.

If we seek to know God and his will for our lives, we do not need to worry about the outer darkness. We are all going to have to account for what we have done with what has been given to us. It does not matter how much; this is not a competition.

If you feel that God was stingy or somehow passed you by when handing out your gifts, seek him, ask him! God knows you, knows your capacity, He also loves and understands you. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to: ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’

The problem is not that Jesus did not know the slave or does not know us. The problem is that the slave, and us, do not fully know who Jesus is. We need to work to correct this imbalance. This is my prayer and hope for this upcoming Advent season; that we will find time and effort to deepen our relationships with God.

For the other slaves and for us, knowing Jesus is a positive, life-giving, life-affirming experience. It is an ongoing and ultimately loving relationship with the Father who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who gives good gifts for the benefit of all. Let us not waste what God has given each of us, we can work together to build each other up. We can seek the Lord while he may be found, we need to build each other up for the day of the Lord in coming.

All Saints: Why We Should Remember the Saints

All Saints’ Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 24:1-14

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It used to feel a bit strange for me to ‘celebrate’ All Saints and All Souls. My very Protestant upbringing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada did not help matters much either. Although we make a big deal out of Halloween! I like how Methodist theology puts it: ’All Saints Day revolves around giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints, including those who are famous or obscure.’ A Saint is a person of great holiness, likeness or closeness to God who remains this way through life and into death. The lives of the Saints are set to be examples to the rest of us on the graciousness of God and what virtuous living can look like.

Not all saints are famous. Most are everyday people who have done remarkable and yet sometimes really odd things! My attempt this morning is to talk about why it is important to mark All Saints Sunday.

Firstly, The dead sit at the dinner table long after they’re gone.

I said last week at All Souls that there is a belief in a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church triumphant) and the living (the Church militant). We don’t tend to forget people once they have died; whether we loved or liked them or not. The impact of our relationship with them, their life, the love, the moments that were shared do not cease to be important once they have bodily departed.

Does God shut his ears to prayers for them? If I am concerned about the soul of a person who has died, will God not hear that prayer? He knows far more than I do about them and their situation. Certainly we can seek his peace and reassurance.

We have biblical evidence that indicates God cares about the dead. 1 Thessalonians tell us that the dead in Christ will rise first and we will all meet together. Time and again we see Jesus cut through the cultural and religious rules to reach out to people; Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, the Widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus to name but a few. Jesus was not afraid to touch a dead body which would have made him unclean.

In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which we will say in a few minutes ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’

Secondly, we have an inheritance with the saints

Many of us here may know what it is to share an inheritance. My very wise Grandpa Lepp said ‘that you never truly know someone until you share an inheritance with them.’ My youngest sister is a Wills & Estates solicitor in Canada. She has a framed photograph of Grandpa on her desk with that quote underneath it. She spends her days and makes a considerable amount of money sorting out legal issues (mainly fraud and deception) for families who have come apart over inheritance.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of the inheritance we have obtained in Christ. It is hope in Christ that brings salvation and the seal of the Holy Spirit. To the Thessalonians, Paul encourages them to live a life worthy of God, who calls them and us into his kingdom and glory. We are to receive the word of God and then live it out. That is largely what the saints have done.

Paul is trying hard to speak of his sense of wonder at the richness of the gospel. For Paul, true riches are found here and they are far, far better than the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, even the property and money we may receive in an earthly inheritance.

Thirdly, we need to be reminded that Jesus overcame death and still does!

We do well to remember that the Christian faith is built on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us not forget that death came first; Good Friday before Easter Sunday. For those who die in Christ their physical death is not the end of the story. This is Good News!

I appreciate that this can be cold comfort to those who live with grief. Christian or not. Grief can overwhelm and when allowed to rob life from the living. What is a Christian response to this?

In our world, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life and victory in battle. Jesus, in our Gospel reading this morning, is offering pretty much the opposite of that! He tells them that the temple, the centre of Jewish worship and ritual is going to be torn down (and it was a few decades later). The world is going to get much worse with famines, wars and earthquakes. The disciples themselves are going to be hated and tortured. Remember, Matthew is recording all of this in the last week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus ends with a glimmer of hope; anyone who endures to the end will be saved. The good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed. This is what the disciples did for the remainder of their lives as well as the saints that came after.

I would encourage you this morning and in the coming days or weeks to remember and give thanks for the Saints in your life; both the living and the dead. They are around. Have a conversation about them. See what comes up, compare memories. They still sit at the dinner table! If it’s hard or brings up any feelings of grief or love or guilt or joy, pray about them. Ask God for his peace and input. He is in this with you. He loves and cares for all his Saints. That means you too.

Trinity 2: The Fruitful Battle

Trinity 2/Proper 8

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

I have repeated myself over the last few weeks that we are now in a season of teaching. We celebrated Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit) along with the Queen’s Jubilee at the beginning of June. This morning, in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians we see what it is to be led and to live in the Spirit.

The first thing to say is that it is really difficult! We are constantly in a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, moving forward and looking back.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians (in modern day Turkey) he is addressing many of the questions of the early church and like many of his other letters, he includes lists of things to be avoided. He is telling the Galatians basically to work against their natural desires, to not gratify themselves with the fleshy things of this world. The list in Galatians 5 is rather extensive: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing.

Without making too much eye contact, it can be assumed that many of us here today have done some/many of the things on this list. Some of these things are against our own physical body and some are against the bodies and wills of other other people. None of these are ideals that we should be striving for. Paul is calling the Galatians and us to a different standard of living.

Paul is also clear that it is an ongoing battle for which we need help. There is a better way and that is the way of the Spirit. This is not about following more rules or just behaving ourselves. Jesus came to bring freedom and not slavery.

To have freedom in Christ, means that we are not bound to old ways, however comfortable they might be. Paul’s list is negative and depressing; none of those things bring life and love. The fix is always temporary. A life lived in the Spirit is enriching, nourishing. It does not have time for the petty and temporary gratification that the world offers. Part of our problem is that we try to balance the Spirit and the flesh; we try to make them work together. It is impossible because they are opposites.

To live by the flesh it to satisfy the self first, be inward looking. Living by Spirit means that we look outward first, to the needs of those around us. It is a continual battle to put the needs of another first, especially if they are not in our family or tribe.

It is slow work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the supernatural outcome of being filled with the Holy Spirit and the living proof that the Spirit of God dwells in us. It is one fruit with nine different qualities. Think for a moment about your favourite kinds of fruit.

Imagine one, incredibly perfect fruit that combines all the best characteristics of your favourite kinds of fruit. Maybe a seedless fruit like a banana, nice and crisp like an apple, bursting with the flavours of strawberry and nectarine, the tang of pineapple and raspberry. You get the idea. God is developing a fruit in all his children. The fruit that has characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Who does not need any more of these in their lives right now?! Could you be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, faithful. These are lifelong work friends. The more we grow and develop, the freer we become. Freedom always comes with a cost though. It means we cannot go backwards.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel is harsh and uncomfortable; it sets out the call to look ahead. This is not a friendly version of Jesus. He is hard, unyielding, his face is set to go to Jerusalem, to his death. He is impatient, inconvenient, intense, confusing.

First, Jesus is offering rejection and forbearance. The Samaritan villagers did not receive Jesus, he was ready to heal, teach, spend time with them but they refused. This rejection angered John and James and their reaction was to burn the place to the ground! Jesus took his would-be fire-starters to task over their offer. The lesson here is: how in danger are we of leading with anger rather than love the people we disagree with?

A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook that said: Survival Tip: If you get lost in the woods, start talking about politics and someone will show up to argue with you. Arguing our opinions is a way of life. Everyone is sharing opinions. Why do we get worked up over perfect strangers and their opinions?! Does it matter? Really??

People get so worked up over the opinions of others over things that don’t really matter! Let’s get worked up over things that matter. Humans that are dying in the world! Injustice and hate and racism! Famine in Africa. War in Ukraine. Cost of living. Strikes. It happened then and it happens now.
Are we letting resentment over-take kindness when our feelings get hurt or egos bruised? The call here is to bring life and not death even to those who reject and insult us.

Second, Jesus is selling inconvenience and hardship. I don’t think that person who offered to follow Jesus wherever he was going really had any idea what was meant! Jesus’ reply about foxes having holes and birds having nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. What is he saying?

One reading is that Jesus was homeless. Inconvenient. He travelled around, no mention of a home address. This is more an advertisement for inconvenience, there is no promise of the fat bank account, easy life, nice things. Jesus instead offered a reprioritization of possessions, finance and geography, a dependence on the kindness and generosity of others.

In the final encounter, Jesus again seems rather harsh towards a chap who wants to say goodbye to his family. As someone who has to say goodbye to her family frequently – I don’t like this! This, I think, is about hesitation. We can always find an excuse not to do something.

There is an urgency to the Gospel message that we sometimes forget. I think that we like to think we have more time and control than we actually do! The time is now, not later.

Where does this leave us this morning?! This is a hard Gospel reading that doesn’t leave us much room for compromise. Jesus is asking us to give up everything for him, even those things that we hold most dear. To follow him despite the inconvenience that it brings and those things we will have to miss out on.

Jesus is hard on us because he knows that our hearts cry out for transformation. For renewal. For resurrection. Nothing else we buy will suffice. Nothing else the world sells can compare. So Jesus bids us to come and die so that his fruit of love, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control can take root and then and only then will we truly live in freedom.

Epiphany 4: Now is the Time

14th Century fresco from the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo

Epiphany 4

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

O God, we give you thanks because, in the carnation of the Word, a new light has dawned upon the world, that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness to see the radiance of your glory.

We are still making our way through this season of Epiphany. The readings over these Sundays have shown us the Epiphany experiences of various people: the Wise Men, Eli & Samuel, Mary, Joseph and young Jesus, grown-up Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and the disciples at the wedding at Cana and now Jesus speaking publicly in the synagogue of Nazareth.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ Those moments when something new blows through your mind; you see the world, people, a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life. The Epiphany stories of the people we meet in our Bible readings are the stories of their revelations and realisations of God the Father and Jesus the Son.

In our Gospel reading for today the whole synagogue in Nazareth has something of an epiphany when Jesus stands up to read the scroll from what we know as Isaiah 61. It could have been a normal sabbath day, worship as usual in the Nazareth synagogue. What is the big deal?

For the sake of an example, let’s say that the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to every church in the land saying we had to feast and celebrate right now because today is a day holy to the Lord. If he then insisted that 2022 is the ‘year of the Lord’s favour,’ what would you say?

‘Are you kidding me Justin!? Today? Right now?’ Looking around at the state of the world, we would not be alone in our scepticism. Covid remains, the NHS is exhausted, national and local economies are in difficulty, the price of heating is rising, threats of wars, natural disasters, violence, climate change, rising epidemics in mental health. Not many would call our current moment holy or favoured by God.

Yet this morning we hear a call to now in both 1 Corinthians and Luke. The first letter of Corinthians is Paul responding to the letters that have been sent to him from members of the Corinthian community. Paul responds to things like: a church divided over its leaders, what it is to be an apostle, how to deal with incest, lawsuits among believers, sexual immorality, married life, food sacrificed to idols, how to conduct communion, spiritual gifts, love, worship, resurrection of the dead.

Paul is making an impassioned plea for them to attempt to think in a completely new way. Instead of always thinking about themselves and their individual needs and rights, instead of always battling to be the most important and gifted person in any gathering, the Corinthians have to learn to think of themselves as one entity, one body, whose health and life depends on cooperation and connection.

Paul is reminding us that we are the body of Christ and we have been called to take up our roles. We may have different gifts and calling but all are as important as the other. All are needed just as all parts of the body are needed. We are part of the one Spirit, one baptism and we all have gifts to share; things to strive for.

Luke has Jesus returning to Nazareth after being away; we don’t know how long he was away for, maybe months or even years. Jesus is, however, returning differently to when He left. He comes back after being baptised, tempted in the wilderness and filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus has returned home with power that is about to be displayed in the synagogue as he is handed the scroll that not coincidentally was Isaiah, the book containing more prophecy about him than any other.

If you replace me in verses 18-19 with Jesus, it is difficult to see how anyone else in all of history fills this position. It has finally been filled by the one written about centuries before when he returns home!

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Jesus),
Because he has anointed me (Jesus)
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me (Jesus) to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

This is Jesus’ chosen description of his mission. It isn’t about teaching us a better spirituality but about doing God’s justice and creating God’s community. When Jesus said, ‘today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ the meaning of ‘fulfilled’ here is ‘to fill a vessel or hollow place’. How many of us know what it is to have that hollow place? He wants to fill it now – not tomorrow or next year or when we feel better or life is back to normal. Jesus means now.

What else has He come to do?

Preach the good news to the poor: Jesus didn’t mean the financially poor. The poor being referred to here those in ‘utter helplessness, complete destitution, afflicted, distressed.’ This has wider implications than finances alone. God created us to need something or someone else and sooner or later any healthy individual will realise that autonomy doesn’t cut it. However, if we subsist only on what others can give us, we won’t be fulfilled. Jesus does not want us to subsist – we were meant to thrive. Until we let Him fill our cups daily, we will only subsist.

To heal the broken-hearted: Broken-hearted here means ‘to break, strike against something, to break the strength or power of someone’. The Hebrew translation of heal ‘to mend by stitching, repair thoroughly, make whole’. Total breakage needs total healing. One stitch follows another, it takes time and can be painful! Healing can be painful.

To proclaim freedom for the captives: Notice that Jesus proclaims freedom, he didn’t impose it. It remains an offer.

Recovery of sight for the blind: We know that Jesus physically healed the sight of many blind people, but this is a different kind of blindness, a more serious kind of blindness. The word here means ‘to envelop with smoke, be unable to see clearly.’ This is about clouded vision, not being able to see the light of gospel or the glory of God. Jesus came to clear our vision so we can see him clearly.

To release the oppressed: to be oppressed is to be treated harshly or unfairly by someone in authority. This release is about breaking the chains of unhealthy attachment.

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour: That year, those gathering in that Nazareth synagogue were staring in the face of the Lord’s favour – His blessed gift of grace, Jesus. Year here means ‘any definite time’ – not a calendar year.

There is an urgency in both of these passages, not so much pressure, but the invitation that what God is offering is available now. We can wait until things get better, struggle on under our own steam or we can go to him now.

Maybe this is our epiphany moment this morning: We don’t have to wait until things get better, Covid goes away, the sun shines. Jesus laid out that day in the Nazareth synagogue of his childhood what He came to do in fulfilling scripture. He came with the Spirit of the Lord upon him to bring the good news to the poor in spirit, proclaim release to the prisoners who want it, recovery of sight to those who had lost vision of God, freedom for the oppressed and to usher in the time of the Lord’s favour – available to all until He comes again. This day is holy to the Lord. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. May it be so.