sermon

Making the most of our talents

My heart sank when I looked up the lectionary reading today – the Parable of the Talents. The story is so familiar, how on earth could I think up anything novel to say about it. It’s so familiar that an English word has derived its meaning from it. The message is clear,  unmistakeable and above all simple – what can I say. I normally have some ideas of a direction to take a sermon but I was flawed on this one and turned to the Internet for inspiration. Most of the material followed the traditional understanding of this story but a couple of threads stimulated me to read further. Maybe the parable isn’t as simple as it first seems.

One of the first things you are taught as a trainee preacher is that it can be dangerous to preach from short isolated Biblical texts. If you do you run the risk of missing the context in whigh they are set and of delivering a message that fits the text but not the wider gospel message. Here, some people would suggest, is a whole parable that doesn’t fit that wider context.

Let’s start off with the conclusion that

for to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him.

On the one hand this sounds obvious enough, indeed it is an obvious reflection of the economic environment in first century Palestine and 21st century Britain. Those who already have wealth generate more wealth, whilst those who are poor have it taken away. But how does this square with the wider gospel? In four weeks time one of the lectionary readings will be the Magnificat with those wonderful lines,

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.

The early focus of Matthew’s own gospel is the Sermon on the Mount which contains the Beatitudes amongst which we find:

Happy are those who are humble;
    they will receive what God has promised!

and

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires;
    the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

The apparent message of the parable simply doesn’t fit with the core message in the wider gospel. What is going on?

There are also problems with the style of the parable. Jesus is reported as having told a number of parables to explain the Kingdom of Heaven and many of these take pride of place in Matthew’s gospel. In most of these the Kingdom of Heaven is envisaged as being radically different from any Kingdom on Earth. There is generally a twist in the parable. It is thus the Samaritan who is the good neighbour. It is the son who wastes his money and repents who is welcomed home effusively by his father. Workers will get the same pay regardless of the hours they work. As commented above, in the Parable of the Talents, the Kingdom of Heaven appears essentially similar to most Kingdoms on Earth. The expected twist never arrives.

A more general issue is in how we all tell stories. In most stories with three characters it is the final character to be intoduced who is the hero. The Good Samaritan is the third person to pass the beaten man, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins we read how the foolish virgins acted first and then how the wise virgins acted. In wider literature Bassanio is the third person to choose a casket in the Merchant of Venice, Cordelia is the last daughter to be asked her opinion of King Lear. Even in the Three Little Pigs it is the third pig who builds his house of brick. This is simply the way we tell storied. Yet in the Parable of the Talents it is the first and second characters who are the heroes and the third is cast out into the darkness to cry and gnash his teeth.

Another problem is the advocacy of lending money for interest.Jews are expressly forbidden to expect interest when they lend to fellow Jews in several places in the Old Testament.  Just one example is in Exodus (22:25)

If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and require him to pay interest.

The master is thus acting unlawfully in accepting interest from the first two servants. His reaction to the third servant that

Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned.

is demanding that he contravene Jewish law.

A historian called Duncan Derret (Quoted in Herzog, page 160) who has studied various legal codes operating in the Middle East in the first century suggests that the system described by Jesus is very similar to the one outlined in the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi. Long term loans would be given in the expectation of 100% interest accruing but above this the lender could keep any proceeds for himself. Why would Jesus be teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a Bablylonian lending system that was contrary to Jewish law? Perhaps he is doing this intentionally to indicate to his Jewish listeners that the point of the parable is not that the first two servants have successfully served their master.

It’s not only Jews who outlawed lending for interest. Through most of Christian history it has been illegal for Christians to charge interest either. The main reason why Jews, like Shylock, became involved in money-lending in late mediaeval Europe was because Christians, who were barred from charging interest, were reluctant to lend money. Jews, who were permitted to charge interest on loans to non-Jews, were much more willing to do so. Yet this story, as we read it today, seems to be a ringing endoresement of interest bearing loans. If the mediaeval papacy, with its strong, and often corrupt, links to the great financiers of Northern Italy, had read the parable in this way, surely they would have used it to reverse the Jewish teaching and allow the use of interest. Maybe there is a way of telling this parable, which gives it a different meaning, but which we have lost in the church today?

The final problem I want to draw your attention to is the proclamation that the third servant makes in front of his master (vs 24 and 25):

Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed.  I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. 

Why on earth, given the understanding of the parable with which we are all familiar, would the third servant say this? He must be expecting to be punished and we might expet him to be apologetic to ameleiorate that punishment, but no, he is defiant and even accuses his master of wrongdoing. This is despite the point of the story appearing to depend on the master and the first two servants being taken as examples of how we are required to behave. The sentence simply doesn’t fit.

The parable isn’t as simple as I’d first assumed is it. It’s almost as if we are missing something – that we are perhaps telling the story in the wrong way. Is there another way of telling this story in a way that does make sense? Well my browsing led me to some references  (Parables of Sunversive Speech, W.R Herzog) to the interpretation placed on this story by a group of poor Latin American farmers when they were first told this story. They recognised, from their own experience, that returns of 100% can only be made if someone has been exploited and they were used to being exploited. They rebellled at the idea that God would give to those already have. They wresteld with the same issues that I’ve been wrestling with and came up with a radically different interpretation.

Then I found a sermon by an Australian Baptist pastor called Alison Sampson which retold this imaginatively in a contemporary context. I’ve chosen to re-tell it differently, using my own words, but acknolwedge my debt to her. I’ve also chosen to add a little extra section at the end which goes beyond a direct interpretation of the parable but which reminds us that Matthew groups this with several other parables and sayings which Jesus shares with his disciples in Jerusalem in Holy Weeek and concludes with predicting that in two days time he will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).

I’ve actually publiushed my version as a separate post so that people can read it without the preamble, you can read it at this link.

 

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Tutus and tiaras

A sermon preached on 16th November 2017.

“Let boys wear tutus says Church of England” was a headline on the front page the  Daily Telegraph on Monday with a similar one in the Daily Mail. Both referred to a report from the Church of England entitled “Valuing all God’s children” (link is actually to a previous version as the most recent seems to have got lost  in cyberspace – last seen at this link) which provides guidance for its 4,700 schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The theme was picked up in the Thought for the Day on the BBC today programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday and was the subject discussed in the Moral Maze last night. Louis Theroux has also explored the issues in a recent TV documentary (although I admit that I haven’t yet seen that).

It’s tempting to think this is an issue for other people but there are now two trans-gender people in my circle of acquaintance. One, a teenager, has derived considerable support from the love and acceptance that she (who was born he) has received from her grand-parents in particular.

The world is much more complicated than the one we grew up in isn’t it? When I was at school there were girls and boys and that was that. Boys and girls did different things. Nothing could have been clearer to me growing up in South Liverpool. The boys played football all the time and the girls, well I don’t know what the girls did because I was playing football.

Things are very different now.  We are now very conscious that just assuming that boys will be boys and girls will be girls may be oversimplifying things. Growing evidence from genetics, endocrinology and psychology has made this very clear. Most people are born with either two XX chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosomes which determines whether they are female or male. We now know however that some people are born with different combinations of chromosomes and don’t fall into this neat categorisation. On top of this there are people who are born chromosomally normal but have different levels of hormones which can cause them to take on characteristics of the opposite gender both physically and psychologically. A final group are those who have no apparent genetic or hormonal issues but simply feel they are a man trapped in a woman’s body or vice versa.

Although things feel different there is no scientific evidence that things actually are different. It is virtually certain that the people I’ve described above has always been born into society but that this has been hidden by the way society has behaved towards them. Further, particularly, with regard to those trapped in the body of someone of the opposite gender, the growing evidence is that this is the way that people have been born and is often apparent from very early childhood. This is not something that has developed from the way children have been brought up or as the result of some illness, it is simply the way they were born.

As with many advances in our scientific understanding of the world, this is something that challenges some Christians. In this morning’s Bible reading (Genesis 1:20-31) we read that “he created them male and female” there is no mention that there might be any alternative or that some of those males may desperately want to be females or some of those females might desperately want to be males. Then again, of course, the Bible only says that God created animals “domestic and wild, large and small”, it doesn’t feel a need to list every single type of animal within this category. Just because the full gender spectrum of humanity is not listed in Genesis does not mean that they are not part of God’s creation.

The verse that the Archbishop of Canterbury draws attention to in his introduction to the report is the previous verse, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us” in the Good News Bible or “so God created man in his own image”, in old money. All humans are created in God’s own image, all humans, not just some. We are called to celebrate the paradox that that whole rainbow of humanity, different races, different talents, different personalities, different expressions of gender, are created in the image of a single God.

What follows from that is the simple understanding that what God has created we are called to love. Our role is not to change those who God has created into our own likeness, it is to allow them to flourish into their own likeness to God. The other text the Archbishop cites is the one that I include in my e-mail signature. John 10:10, “I come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”. If children are born with a psychological gender that is different to their physical gender then they are going to have much less chance of living life abundantly if they are forced to conform to our stereotypes of how they should behave than if their natural inclination is accepted, nurtured and the valued.

The statistics on this are stark. 84% of trans-gender young people have self-harmed. 45% of them have attempted to take their own life (all statistics in this seromon are taken from the Valuing all God’s Children report). This issue is not a trivial one about whether little boys should be allowed to wear tutus and tiaras from the dressing up box – it is a matter of life and death. Part of this is because of the considerable psychological turmoil that being born feeling trapped in the body of the wrong gender causes, but this is augmented by the stigma that these people receive from wider society. Nearly 1 in 10 transgender children are subjected to death threats while still at school. Overt bullying is not the only problem. Transgender people are often made to feel different and unwelcome. Much of this is not intentional, it is simply that the rest of us are insensitive to who they are and how they need to be. We use language loosely without intending offense. We say the wrong thing simply because it may never occur to us that it is wrong.

So, I follow the Archbishop’s example and encourage you all this morning to celebrate the dazzling rainbow which is the full spectrum of humanity with all its many hues. I ask you to recognise that, whatever hue, we are all created in God’s image. I want to encourage you to do your part to ensure that all God’s people, whatever they feel about their own gender, are allowed to flourish on this earth and nurtured to live life as abundantly and fully as they are able.

This may feel like an agenda for a different generation but please acknowledge the importance of your own role as parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts. The wisdom of age is often honoured more within our family circles than we ever appreciate. And who knows? – your love, support and understanding may make the difference between a child who lives in anguish, turmoil and self-hate and one who is at peace with themselves, with you and with their God.

The sermon was followed by the hymn, Let love be real. I’d chosen this before I’d written my sermon and was amazed, when we sung it, just how well the words fitted with the message I’d preached. (In our hymn book it is set to the Londonderry Air).

 

Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.

Windgather

This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.

Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?

The Great Commission

This is the final Sunday of our Holy Habits year and again I’ve been given instruction as to the topic I should be preaching on. John wants me to focus on the Great Commission,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

I’ve been asked more specifically to focus on the word “Go”. The whole point of the Holy Habits programme is to explore what the early church was doing at a time of rapid growth and reflect on what we can learn form this at a time when the church, in Western Europe at least, is declining. The only surviving history of the very early church is that recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and it is very clear from that book that the disciples travelled across the Eastern Mediterranean with the primary intention of fulfilling that Commission. Although there are records that they healed, cast out demons, forgave sins it is clear that the primary purpose of those early journeys was to make disciples.

There can be no doubt that they were successful. The impression is of churches starting off slowly, Paul refers in his letters to individual by name and it is clear that they met primarily in each others’ homes. The groups grew in numbers and influence however. By the mid 60s AD the Christian community in Rome was sufficiently large and influential for Nero to feel a necessity to order a programme of state persecution (during which Paul is thought to have died). That and the wider community continued to grow both in numbers and influence. It was accepted as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 and became the state religion in 380. This is quite amazing growth for a movement that had burst into life only after its leader had been executed as a criminal.

Since then the history of the church, in global terms, has been one of growth. Sometimes this has been driven by the pure evangelistic power of the gospel message at other times by cultural, political and economic factors which had very little to do with that message. There’s no doubt for example that emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity was largely because he thought that having God on his side would give him a major advantage in his extensive military campaigns. For whatever reasons, whether good or bad the history of Christianity has undoubtedly been one of growth and, on an international scale that story of growth is continuing today.

… but not now in Western Europe. Data from the 2011 census shows that the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped by about 12% over ten years. If you’ve picked up the “Conference Business Digest” from the table outside the worship area over the last couple of weeks you will have read that membership of the Methodist Church has dropped by 3.5% a year over the last decade. Since we arrived in this circuit, seven years ago, two churches have closed and none of the remaining 5 are showing any signs of significant growth

So what can we do about this? I haven’t got time in one morning to analyse what makes effective mission so I’m going to stick to the simplest possible recommendation that is that we need to “go” and make disciples. I think the fundamental assumption of most mainline British churches is that we can “stay” and make disciples. We tend to assume that what we need to do is make the church more attractive and then people will come to us. The early church didn’t spend its energies re-arranging the furniture within the worship area, or changing the songs it sang or upgrading the signage outside its buildings (it didn’t have any). It put its energy into travelling across the known world and proclaiming the gospel.

Perhaps more importantly when the early Christian missionaries, particularly Paul, arrived in a new community they adapted their message for that community. “To the Jews, I become a Jew, to win Jews. To those not under the law I become like one not under the law to win those not having the law.” The message from the early church is clear. If we want the early church to grow we must go to new communities and adapt what we say to make it relevant to them. The emphasis is on adapting what we have to what they need, not on assuming that we can change them so that they need what we already have.

So far this is following pretty much in the steps of what John talked about in his sermon at beginning of this theme. After that service, however, I was having a chat with Ray and he commented, “You know what the elephant in the room is, the elephant in the room is that we, as a congregation, are too old”. Mission of the kind I’ve been describing takes energy. The apostles going on all those journeys were young men filled with energy. We are not, as a congregation, young and energetic. Many of us have put a lifetime of service into the church and have now reached a time in our life when we want someone else to take over.

But society has changed, working patterns have changed, employers expectations have changed. The generation that could be taking over have no energy for mission because they are expected to pour their energy into different things. Anyone with a professional career in the modern world has to work long hours to develop that career and maintain it and, of course, it is those people who have most to offer to in leading the world outside the church who have most to offer in terms of leadership within it.

For a variety of reasons, in most couples of employment age both partners now work. Their surplus energy is ploughed into the tasks of keeping the household running and family relationships healthy. That energy is not available for mission activity of the church.

So it’s all very well to talk about the necessity for mission and for us to go into the world and make disciples but who is going to do this?

Here, as on so many issues that we have addressed this year, it might be useful to look to the experience of the early church. For all that the Book of Acts is dominated by accounts of heroic missionary endeavours, it is clear that only a relatively small number of individuals were involved in this aspect of ministry. It is clear from what we read in the letters that most of the early Christian community stayed at home. Maybe mission should be seen as the responsibility of a small number of people who are particularly suited to it than a broader responsibility shared amongst all of us. If we reflect on the Great Commission literally, it is perhaps useful to recognise that it was given to a very select group of individuals (Jesus’s Disciples). There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to generalise this and take it as an obligation on us all.

I’ve changed career. Friday was my last day working for the University. On Sunday next week I start a new role as a Lay Pastor at Bramhall Methodist Church. As with all life decisions it has been driven by a complex web of interacting factors but one of those has been that I’ve been one of those people in a modern professional role who hasn’t had the energy to engage in mission for the church. It’s partly about time, but it’s much more about having the headspace. If I’m struggling with the demands of a leadership role in a large modern corporation, whether it be a university, school, hospital, or company, I simply haven’t got the emotional energy to do so for the Church as well.

By supporting the Lay Pastor role, the congregation at Bramhall are offering an opportunity for me to step aside from my career (possibly for just a few years, possibly for longer) and focus on how I would like to express my faith. Although the job title is Lay Pastor, the one phrase in the person specification for that post that really really caught my imagination is for someone with a “heart to work with people at the margins of church life”. It is essentially an invitation for someone to engage in mission within their community.

So is this the future? Do ageing congregations, and Bramhall has its fair share of ageing members, need to think less of engaging in mission themselves and more in making opportunities available for others to do so with their blessing?   How many other people are out there like me who would love an opportunity to refocus their lives either for a defined period of permanently? Perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps an employee’s energy can be used to direct the mission and set out a vision. Perhaps once this has been established it might be easier for others to commit to their time and what reserves of energy remain to share in the realisation of that vision.

We also need to think more imaginatively about how we use resources. A time of closing churches is also a time of opportunity? Selling churches frees up capital making it available for other uses. This circuit has sold one church recently and is in the process of selling another. Those funds are being held for future mission activity. Perhaps we need to engage with more urgency in a discussion about what that activity should be. Perhaps we could use that money to create an opportunity for someone to engage in mission within this community. The money is lodged in the circuit rather than this church but let’s start a conversation about how it is going to be used. Doing so now while we still have a church to act as a base for this must be better than waiting for ten years until it is too late.

We are also in the process of looking for a new minister. What should his or her priorities be? I’m sure that there will be an initial assumption that we are looking for someone to minister to us and look after our needs. On reflection though I think we are very good at looking after our own needs. We have very strong formal and informal networks of support within our congregation. Maybe we could look to the future and say that we will take responsibility for our own pastoral needs and free up the time of the new minister to engage in mission within the local community. Maybe we could look for someone who could spend two days a week ministering to a local school, or to people in this commuter suburb who suffer from work-related stress, or to the incoming families to the new housing estate in Woodford. Again this is a circuit rather than congregational decision but if we want to change someone is going to have to initiate that discussion.

This needn’t be only outward looking. There is currently a rather small pool of ministers within the Methodist church and a large number of churches from which to choose. If you are a dynamic forward looking minister are you going to want to focus on the internal needs of an ageing congregation – or would you relish the opportunity to be blessed to engage in mission to the community within which they are situated? How we view our future may well have an important influence on the type of minister who might be attracted to come here, or indeed whether anyone wants to come at all.

This isn’t just a personal vision. It mirrors the path that the Methodist church as a whole is starting to journey along. Conference this year adopted a motion that every church council be encouraged to address and answer the question “do you have a growth plan or an end of life plan”. The starkness of this choice takes the breath away but once we have got over the initial shock we recognise that it is real. If we don’t grow we will die. I don’t know how long that “encouragement” will take to filter through but maybe we could start now and get ahead of the game. Are we, as a congregation and circuit, going to develop a growth plan or an end of life plan?

 

 

 

The Newer Testament

Introduction to the theme

We are following a programme called Holy Habits over the course of this year. The programme studies 10 aspects of life in the early church. The early years of the church were characterised spiritual renewal, incredible dynamism and above all growth. These appear to be lacking in contemporary Western Christianity and the the hope is that by recapturing some of the habits of the early church we may also to be able to reinvigorate ourselves with some of that dynamism. We are asked to study how the early church lived and contrast it with how we live today. If what we do differs form what the early church did then we are invited whether there is a better way for us to live now. This month we have been thinking about scripture in this context. Did the early church relate to scripture in a different way to how we do today?

The answer is an answer of two halves – the Old Testament and the New Testament. As far as I can see the attitude of the early church to the Old Testament is very similar to ours today. They saw it as a sacred document that had been written in the past collating a wide range of literature that was regarded as the primary record of how their ancestors had experienced God. The relationship with the New Testament was entirely different to ours. Put most succinctly – while we read the New Testament the early church wrote it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage preaching in the fifth of this series of services as for one reason or another I’ve not been present for any of the previous four. I’m not sure what the other preachers have covered but I assume that there has been some reflection on how the Bible was written. There have been considerable advances in our understanding of this in theological colleges over the last fifty years, and it sometimes surprises me how little of this understanding has been passed on to congregations. At least some of it is finally filtering through. To recap:

No one set out to write the New Testament – in a sense it just happened. It is a collection of letters of early church leaders, accounts of activities of both Jesus (the Gospels) and the leaders of the early church (Acts) and a book of apocalyptic poetry (Revelation).

What we know of how the Bible was written is largely inspired guesswork. While there is general agreement amongst biblical scholars on the general principles,very little of the detail is known for certain and different scholars, at times, hold quite radically different views about those details.

There is general agreement that the letters (particularly those attributed to Paul) were the first documents to be written. We can guess the dates of these by correlating what is written with the stories of Paul’s journey’s in Acts. First Thessalonians may have been the first to be written but was still written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The other letters from Paul were probably written over the ensuing 10 to 15 years. As I’ve said they were not written in order to become part of the Bible they were written in a particular context generally to support the growth of churches Paul had established and then moved on from. they are a mix of thanks and encouragement for the good things that Paul has heard about their acts and chastisement for the bad things.

It looks as if stories about Jesus’ life circulated in the early church by world of mouth and were only collated into what we now know as the gospels much later on. Mark is regarded as the earliest but appears to make references to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple so cannot have been committed to paper (or papyrus) before 70 AD. The others probably followed in later decades. Recent scholarship shows how many of the stories we read as prose today where written as quite exquisite poetry and have obviously been amended and polished as part of this process but nobody knows when or by who.

The other letters in the Bible (Peter, John, James and several others) were written later. 2nd Peter which may have been written as late as 120AD. Somewhere in the middle of this the Book of Revelation, which is quite different to anything else in the New Testament was written. Acts of the Apostles was also added as a history of the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The other thing that modern scholarship has taught us is that what we know as the New Testament is just a small selection of documents that were revered by the early church. We now know of the existence of over 50 Gospels including a gospel of Thomas and of Mary. There were also many other letters including a third letter of the Corinthians, a letter form the Corinthians and letters of later church leaders such as St Clement. There were other records of miracle stories and other apocalyptic visions.

There was quite a long period where different churches in different regions revered different texts. It was probably sometime in the 3rd century that a consensus began to emerge on which of these were most important but it was not until 367 that we have the first record of the 27 books we accept today. It was until after the reformation that an official list was declared.

So there you are the Bible is now closed. It is not particularly clear when it was closed but it was an awful long time ago. What I want to explore this morning is what  Christianity would be like today if the Bible had not been closed, if we had continued to add to it, if we were still adding to it today. If we are to live as the early church lived, as our Holy Habits programme would suggest, then we should be continuing to write scripture. Let’s assume that as well as an Old Testament and a New Testament that there was also a Newer Testament then what would we include within it?

Following the early church it would be made of a variety of documents. None of the books of the Bible were written with the intention of becoming the Bible so we need documents that have been written for other purposes. We need to scavenge around for documents from a range of sources which we believe inspire, encourage of correct us. It’s clear that only a small number of people actually wrote these documents so we should perhaps be looking for pieces that other people have written. The Bible includes history,. poetry, religious songs, letters, visions and prophesy (at least) so we should look for literature of range of different types. At the time the early church was living the only option to record anything was to write it down but now we could include music or video or pictures of works of art. Above all we wouldn’t put it in a book would we we’d put it on the Internet. This opens up a wonderful possibility of the Newer Testament changing over time to reflect the world we live in. New material would continue to be added and older material, if it was felt to be losing relevance could be deleted.

Following the early church we would collate a wide range of articles that appealed to a wide range of people. Having done this, however, we would sift through this as a group to select the items that spoke most powerfully to the Christian community as a whole.

Have a think. Reflect on what you have read over the last couple of years, or heard on the television or he radio, or seen in an art gallery or stumbled across on the Internet. Of all that rich experience, which items would you propose for the Newer Testament. Do more than think, e-mail me your ideas and I’ll collate the suggestions for the Church web-site. If you are savvy with a computer then cut and paste links and send them to me. If you are not then leave a message on my answering machine and I’ll pop around and make a copy of what you have to offer. Try and keep things recent and I suggest limiting passages to something that can be read in three or four minutes at most. Other than that break free -there are no rules – there don’t appear to have been any particular rules in the early church.

To get you started here is a piece I would include. It is a video from Meg Cannon a young Christian woman telling the story of an even younger African girl. To me it merges the telling of a story as in one of the gospels or Old Testament history with the sense of inspiration and urgency that we find in many of Paul’s letters.

Hymn

Enemy of Apathy is one of the range of modern hymns that I would add to the Newer Testament. You can here a clip of it at this link (though I’m not sure how legit this is).

Readings

Rather than select two Bible readings I’ve chosen an excerpt from the Pope’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (full text here) which is another document I might submit for the Newer Testament.

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology”, is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”.

and the second reading is an example of something that is written in the Bible but I believe requires very cautious interpretation in the modern world:

2: 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Sermon

I think everything I talked about earlier in the service, the history of how the Bible was written by the early church, is pretty much accepted by most theologians. There may still be debate about details but generally speaking we now have a reasonable picture of how the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was written. It was written by a variety of people writing for a variety of different purposes, but none of them, as far as we know, was intending to write a book of the Bible.

If the Church, or at least its theologians, has come to accept this view, however, I’m not convinced that it has yet faced up to the implications. For most of the life of the Church there has been an assumption that the Bible is the infallible word of God – a belief that every word that has been written in the Bible must take equal weight and that the messages its conveys are valid for all time. Our current understanding of how the Bible was written must challenge that view. The Bible may be inspired by God (as the Bible itself claims in the 2nd letter to Timothy) but it was written by men (and we should note is was written by men, there is no evidence of any female involvement in the writing of any of the books of the Bible). It was written by men who were struggling to come to terms with how God was manifested in their lives. It had its origins in the memories of disciples who had lived through the pain of the Jesus’ execution, who had experienced something completely beyond their understanding in the resurrection, and were now inspired and emboldened by a new power in their lives. They were struggling to understand what all this meant and the writings that now form the New Testament are the record of that struggle. When we read what they wrote we have to read it with this understanding of how it was written.

We also need to remember that these men were products of their time. They had a very different worldview to the one we have today. Paul was brought up a strict Jew and trained as a Rabbi. He had only ever experienced worship in which the men stood at the front and worshipped and the women stood at the back and watched. Paul had clearly never met a woman like Meg Cannon, a women with uncovered hair and a message as powerful as that of any man. Similarly, the early church just assumed that slavery was a part of the natural order. When Paul instructed a runaway slave to return to his master in Philemon it was because he could not conceive of the world being any other way. Going further it is virtually certain that Paul had never met a gay or lesbian person in a committed, faithful and loving relationship. The only homosexual practices he had any knowledge of where those of the e prostitutes in a variety of pagan temples in the ports around the Eastern Mediterranean.

We also need to read the Gospels with an understanding of who wrote them and when. They were written by men who didn’t distinguish between religious poetry and fact-based journalism in the way we do today. If we are concerned that we are moving in the current world into a post-factual era we should remember that the New Testament was written in a pre-factual era. The Gospels were also written by men who had no understanding whatsoever that the way the world behaves is governed by the immutable laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They lived in a society in which people were far more willing to believe in a miraculous happenings and supernatural explanations than we are today. Their purpose wasn’t to write historically and scientifically verifiable journalism, it was to embed the truth of their lived religious experiences in the words that would best convey this to their contemporaries.

I don’t see that any of this would be a problem if the Bible had remained open (as far as writing is concerned) but it didn’t, it was closed in  practical sense about 150 years after Jesus’ death. It means that the only scripture we acknowledge today was written by people with very different world-views to ours.

The way the church has got around this over the years is to invent theology. This means that we read one thing in the Bible and then we interpret in the light both of our understanding of how the Bible was written and of our knowledge from other spheres. Thus although the Bible remains constant and unchanging how we interpret it has developed considerably over time.

For centuries references to slavery within the Old Testament and Paul’s letter to Philemon reinforced the general view that slavery was an inevitable consequence of how society was structured. It wasn’t really until the Enlightenment and the emergence of the concept of the human rights of all individuals that this began to be questioned. As with many societal changes, the church was quite slow to respond but eventually Christians came to realise that slavery is an abomination in the eyes of God and to campaign for its abolition. No one in today’s church would follow Paul in advising an escaped slave to return to his master.

Attitudes to women within society have changed and the churches theology has followed. We now recognise that Paul wrote at a particular time, in a particular context and from a particular background. Very few people within our denomination are now prepared to take what he wrote in Corinthians at face value and it continues to be a source of considerable pain that our Carholic brothers and sisters (and to a lesser extent the Anglicans as well) continue to struggle with these passages.

So how do we deal with these issues? At one level the sensible approach is to continue what the church has always done and develop a theological framework through which we can interpret the Bible in the light of our current worldview. I’m not however, convinced that this is enough. It satisfies us within the church, but it is extremely confusing to those outside the Church. They see us revering the Bible as the word of God and then choosing to reinterpret those sections that we don’t like. although some people do,  I would be extremely unwilling to give a non-Christian a Bible and just leave them to read it. Whilst we do hear some stories of people doing this and individuals coming to faith I’m sure that a much more common response, in the modern world, is for people to be put-off by what they find written in its pages. Imagine giving a Bible to a non-Christian woman and her opening at random to read the words of Paul we have heard read out this morning.

So is there an alternative. I think there is, or rather that there are things we can do as well. What we can do, as well as revering the Bible, is to revere contemporary writings and video and music and art that speaks to us of our ongoing relationship with God. I think we should revere videos like those produced by Meg Cannon, I think we should revere the rich variety of modern Christian songs whether they be from the Iona Community or the Rend Collective, I think we should revere the speeches that made by our leaders to make take the Christian message to the contemporary world.

So this morning I encourage you all to think about what you think we should revere in the contemporary world. Which writings and songs and art works speak most powerfully to you of your relationship with God? The idea of collating this material on a web-site is of course a bit of a gimmick, but I hope that it is the sort of gimmick that will get you thinking and change the way you look at the world.

John saw Christ as the Word. Let’s see the Word of God not as something that was entombed within the Bible 2,000 years ago but as the living Word unleashed through the Resurrection to speak to all people for all time.

Eating Together

Our Church has adopted the Holy Habits programme  for this year and will be looking at one of the ten themes each month. This month the theme is Eating Together and all preachers have been asked to follow the theme.

holy-habits

This sermon is based around the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) and also draws on the story of Abraham’s hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). It was preceded by the worship song Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you and followed by another Walls, mark out boundaries, both of which I learned whilst living in Australia.

Out theme for this month has been “Eating together” and so far the focus has been on eating and on food. This morning I’d like us to focus on the “together” bit. Who, as Christians, should we be eating together with?

Earlier on a retold the parable of the Great Banquet. At face value that parable is about food, about who to invite to a feast. Except of course it isn’t really is it? It’s allegorical – an extended metaphor. The story isn’t really about a banquet, it is about the Kingdom of God. It’s not really about the rich man’s friends, it’s about a religious establishment that pays lip service to God love but then ignores him  when he challenges them to take action.  It’s not really about the poor and starving town’s people, it’s about those who are seen as outside the religious establishment but truly understand what it would be like to be loved by God, people who have never been invited to share that love in terms that are meaningful to them.

The older I get the more and more important I consider this parable to be. I have no memory of it being given any particular emphasis in my earlier experiences of faith. I can remember being taught about the parables of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Sheep, or the Good Samaritan. I remember being taught about the miracles and healing acts of Jesus, but I don’t remember this particular parable making any particular impact on me until my time in Australia. There it was foundational to the ministry of the Uniting Church minister who happened to be at the church that we joined. I don’t remember him preaching about it specifically, but I do remember the two songs that we sang on many occasions – the one we sung earlier and the other that we will sing after this sermon. Since that experience this parable has shot up the league table of important passages within the Bible in my mind and now maintains a place pretty near the top.

Its power, as in so many of the parables, comes from its allegorical nature. As I’ve said it is not really a story about food. It is about how we view religion. In Jesus’ day religion was defined by the observance of a number of religious practices – only eating certain foods, washing yourself in a particular way before eating, saying prayers at a particular time in a particular way. Those who observed these rules saw themselves as righteous and assumed they would inherit the Kingdom of God. When a group starts to identify itself as righteous, of course, it will automatically start to identify everyone else as unrighteous and this is what had happened by the time Jesus came along.

But of course we are often guilty of this ourselves both superficially and at a much deeper level. We tend to assume that the church is composed of that group of people that want to come to church for an hour on Sunday mornings and sing hymns and say prayers and drink cups of tea or coffee afterwards don’t we? If people don’t want to do that then we’re at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them aren’t we? What would you do with someone who said I want to learn how to love Jesus but I’m not particularly keen on singing hymns or sitting still?

At a deeper level protestant theology is rooted in the division of people into those who have been saved and those who haven’t. More aggressive Protestants tend to assume that it is obvious which is which, more generous ones may admit that this may not be so clear. But most of us here, deep within our religious psyche, hold to an assumption that God’s salvation is restricted to a certain number of people. Many of us can be rather lazy and put these two concepts together and assume that the saved are those that want to come to church and sing hymns and share a cup of tea afterwards. If we are even lazier we extend this to the assumption that those who do not want to live like this are the unsaved.

When we read the story of the Great Banquet and remember the context in which it was told then we often appreciate the absurdity of how those within Judaism in Jesus day viewed the world. What’s really important though, and what makes this story so relevant to the modern world, is that it should also alert us to what is absurd in how we view the world. It tells us that we need a broader view than we have at present of where value lies in this world. We need to move away from the assumption that all that God values in the world is tied up in the church and those who choose to attend. We need to open ourselves to the truth that there is much of value within this world that lies outside these doors, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the issues that came up in our house group the other day was that of how we relate to the spouses and families of many of our church members who choose not to come to church themselves. Maybe a theology that seeks out the good in anyone, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, provides a basis for such a ministry. How this works out practically isn’t clear in my mind but maybe just thinking in this way might open doors.

Going back to our Bible story though we may get clues. Jesus clearly spent considerable time eating with this disciples, he also spent considerable time eating with other people as well. The context of this story is a meal at a prominent pharisee’s house. Jesus has chosen to dine with someone with whom he disagrees quite fundamentally. Not only this, but we are told explicitly that Jesus was being “carefully watched”. He has chosen to dine with someone who is suspicious of him, who is spying on him, who may be plotting against him. The first lesson we can learn from this story is that when we talk about eating together we need to think about eating together with others as well as eating together amongst ourselves. The heavenly banquet is laid out for all people, not just for us; however we choose to define “us”.

But Jesus goes further than this he chooses not only to dine with others but to talk seriously with them about things that matter. He goes into a potentially hostile situation and presents his vision of the world. We’ve got a convention in Britain haven’t we that at a dinner party the conversation should steer clear of sex, politics or religion. Even if we regard such formal guidance as a little old-fashioned, a lot of our conversations, when dining out, particularly with people we may not know so well, do tend to the superficial and ignore the issues that really matter. Jesus is demonstrating the opposite, he is choosing not only to dine with people who have different views to him but to engage in a meaningful conversation with them. He is choosing topics that might bring about a difference of opinion, that might challenge. Indeed we can go further, he is choosing topics that will bring about a difference of opinion, that will challenge. He is doing his hosts the honour of taking them seriously, of talking about things that matter rather than the merely superficial.

For want of a concrete example of this I want to turn the tables on their heads and tell of a time when I was invited to a meal by people of another faith. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001. We had been living in Melbourne for just over a year. As in so much of the world there had been a wave of anti-muslim feeling. In response the Islamic community in Melbourne chose to invite people from the local churches to share with them in their Iftar feast. Most of us think of Ramadan as a time of fasting but the fast is only for daylight hours and on the evening after the sun has set the tradition is for Muslim families to share a celebratory meal called Iftar.

So I drove across Melbourne to large house in the northwest suburbs. There I met a muslim family and small group of Christians drawn from from across the city. A young woman welcomed us in and made us welcome. She told us about the feast and how it is a Muslim characteristic to be hospitable. She traced this back to the example in the Quran of Abraham who invited three strangers into his house, the story we have read earlier from our scriptures this morning. We started the meal with a date – apparently it is not good to break the fast to quickly, and then moved on to more substantial fare. Having shared some of her tradition with us and something of the fear that her community had for the future, she invited us to tell stories of our traditions and to share our hopes and fears for our communities. Over the meal we talked of things that mattered. We learned to understand, we made friends with people we had never met.

I left that meal in a state of grace. I remember driving back through the dark with a feeling of elation and filled with the spirit. We had some special experiences in the nine years we were in Melbourne but I don’t think there was a night when my heart was moved as much as it was that night. I felt truly blessed.

So let’s not just think this month about what we can and should eat. Let’s not just use it as an excuse to dine with old friends. Let’s look around us and see if there is anyone we can invite to our table as an act of outreach and mission. Let’s look out for people in  our community who are different to us and who might disagree with what we think. Let’s look for opportunities to invite them to a table to talk about things that matter, to seek what is of value in their lives as well as expressing what is of value in ours. Who knows? God’s grace may settle on our table in the same way it did on the table I dined at on that evening fifteen years ago on the other side of the planet.