Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Saints and Parables

Most of the stories that Jesus told, parables as they are more often termed, were just that, stories – stories put together to illustrate a point. And yet, though they were apparently not about actual people, they could well have been. They were surely about the sort of people that you might encounter every day. Was there a Samaritan who provided the model for what we now know as the parable of the good one? Probably not, but there could have been. Was there an actual farmer sowing seed who didn’t get it all to land in the right place? Actually there were probably loads of those. Was there a woman who was delighted to find a lost coin? A father whose wayward son finally returned home? A woman who baked bread? A tax-collector who so genuinely prayed? The stories are all about ordinary people – and the stories about ordinary people are used to describe the Kingdom of God. November 1st is All Saints Day. When we talk about saints, I guess our first thought tends to be about people who we regard as specially holy. Possibly some of those who appear in the pages of the Bible – Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Perhaps the Gospel writers – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Or there are others amongst the early church leaders – Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, Saint Francis. Or, if we want to move more up to date, we will probably think about people like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa. And, of course, all these people offer us great examples of being a saint. But we are all called to be saints. Being a saint is nothing special – well, actually it is something very special. But it is not anything that we might do that is the special thing that makes us a saint. The special thing comes from God – and is there for all of us. The particular, and different, word that we sometimes use to describe God is holy. God is holy. And the wonderful thing is that we all have the chance to grab a piece of the action that we might call holiness – because God offers it to us. God is reaching out to us. In the days of Jesus’ earthly life, the Pharisees and others thought it very easy to get contaminated. If you were in contact with something that they would have described as ‘unclean’ then it was inevitable that the uncleanness would spread in to you. But Jesus turned the notion upside down. He could see that it was perfectly possible, indeed far more likely, that God’s goodness and love would transform the things that are wrong with us. And so sainthood is possible – even for us. Indeed, it is more than possible – we are called to it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Doing a New Thing

Let’s just note a few of those points in the Bible where the challenge to do something new is explicitly present. In Isaiah 43:18 and 19, for example, the prophet utters the challenge: Stop dwelling on past events and brooding over days gone by. I am about to do something new; this moment it will unfold. Can you not perceive it? Even through the wilderness I shall make a way, and paths in the barren desert. Often we look back to a golden age that, if we’re honest, is probably not as golden as we remember it. There’s nothing wrong with looking back. There’s nothing wrong with recognising the value of what’s happened. But there is everything wrong with getting stuck there. We need to look for God’s doing “something new”. But, of course, there is another perspective to recognise. We should not ignore and forget the words of the preacher, Ecclesiastes 1:9/10 – What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which there can be said, ‘Look, this is new’? No, it was already in existence, long before our time. Now, even though it goes against my basic thesis, I think this is a very important and valuable insight. Sometimes we think that we have got a monopoly on difficulty and struggling. Not so! For example, we struggle and agonise about how to deploy clergy and look back to that golden age – there it is again – when such things were not a problem. But this really isn’t a new problem. If you look back to accounts of Congregationalism in the 1930s, for instance, you’ll find there were some very similar debates. Things don’t actually change that much, and I am not sure whether that worries me, or reassures me – but I do believe it is so; and yet, within that context, I am still looking for God’s new thing. And I want to reinforce the need to do that by moving into the New Testament and, first of all, quoting something Paul said. It’s in 2 Corinthians 5:17 – For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone, a new order has already begun. As one commentator says, “all who have died with Christ are now in him and have been made new.” Putting it another way, God is about transformation. That’s what God offers us – and that’s what, in his name, we should offer to others. The slate can be wiped clean. We can have a new start. Of course, the preacher is right to say that, in a sense, there is nothing new. But, because of what God does for and with us, we are constantly full of new potential. As in so many things, the point is to have the right thing in the right place. And we might well reinforce that with, for the moment, one final Biblical comment on newness and it needs to be, surely, words of Jesus – and I look to that double parable in Matthew 9:16 and 17 – No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for then the patch tears away from the garment and leaves a bigger hole. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, and the wine runs out and the skins are ruined. No, they put new wine into fresh skins; then both are preserved. Jesus’ main message is about God’s Kingdom – and in proclaiming the Kingdom Jesus is proclaiming a different way of life. Jesus is talking about new possibility, about things being transformed. What Jesus places on offer does not leave people unchanged. New relationships happen. New resources become available. New structures need to be brought into play to make things work. And I guess that the challenge for each of us is to work out what that means for us in our situation. It is relatively easy to identify the good things of the past, though it is, of course, important to do that – but what is the new thing to which God is pointing us at this time? That raises more challenging questions and, most likely, a range of interesting possibilities.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes

I imagine you may well be familiar with that story by Hans Christian Anderson about ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The vain emperor always goes about extremely well dressed. Elegance is his hallmark – until two scoundrels hatch a scheme to get the better of him. They tell him they are fantastic taylors who “have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.” They are commissioned to produce a very special suit of new clothes for the emperor. And the emperor thinks he is getting a real bargain. Not only will he have a wonderful suit – but he’ll be able to discover which of his subjects are stupid and incompetent – because they won’t be able to see it. The prime minister, on being sent to check progress, discovers an empty loom - and breaks into a cold sweat. If he admits he can’t see the clothes, he’ll be regarded as stupid and probably dismissed from office. And so he admires their wonderful work – and that’s what he reports back. The tailors come to measure the emperor. They seem to be holding a large roll of cloth, but the emperor can’t see anything. He panics and admires the fabric he can’t see. The new suit is finished, tried on, and shown off to the people. Nobody wants to be regarded as stupid, and so they all admire it. All except a child – “The emperor is naked.” The boy’s father grabs him and takes him away – but the crowd finally see sense – “The boy is right! The emperor is naked! It’s true!” The emperor also realises it is true, but really can’t admit it – and so carries on with the illusion. The theme of new things is a common Biblical concept. God deals in making things new. But the story helps to remind us how critical it is to look for authentic newness – and not that illusory newness that is akin to those so called emperor’s new clothes. The church has much to value in its traditions, much in what has brought us to this point on which we can build. But the church needs always to be looking for new challenges, always to be looking for those new places to which God is taking us.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Knowing When To Stop

Do you know the story of the magic porridge pot? A poor girl who had nothing and was often hungry was visited by a disguised fairy and given a pot. She was given the instructions that when she wanted to eat she should say, “Cook, little pot, cook.” Then, when she had had enough, she should say, “Stop, little pot, stop.” Fine and good – until, one day, when the girl is out, her mother is hungry and asks the pot to cook. But she has forgotten how to make it stop. And so, the pot just keeps on cooking. Every street in the village gets filled with porridge before the girl comes home and gives the command. I suppose there are echoes there of the Midas story. How wonderful it would be, if everything we touched turned to gold. Well, of course, actually it wouldn’t. What we really want is that everything that we want to turn should turn the gold, but not the rest and, if we make a mistake, can we turn it back please? It’s part of human nature that we find it hard to know when to stop. Often in the Gospels, the crowds keep asking Jesus for more. Paul reminds us of the value of the different contributions that we all can make. All the gifts are gifts for service. All the gifts are gifts for the church. If a church leader, whether it be the minister or one of the elders, or the leader of a particular group, were to stand up and say, “Well, I’m God’s gift to the church,” we’d immediately get a picture of someone puffed up with self-importance and unready to serve. Yet, of course, it depends how you say it – because that actually is what we all should be saying, not arrogantly and self-importantly, but humbly, and with a willingness to serve and be used. The important thing isn’t what gift you happen to have, because that’s God’s choice. The important thing is that you use it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

In the Steps of St. Paul

I have just started reading Roland Allen's "Missionary Methods - St. Paul's or Ours". Allen was an Anglican missionary in China from 1895 to 1903. He then returned to England to take charge of a parish, but also spent the next 40 years writing about missionary principles. He himself recognised that he was ahead of his time - but that didn't stop him from posing some challenging ideas. Allen suggests that we can learn a lot by looking at Paul. The apostle achieved a tremendous amount and Allen suggests that his approach was more planned than we sometimes think. Allen suggests that our tendency to regard Paul as exceptional is misleading and that we rather ought to be looking to his methods for guidance as to what we should be up to. Paul's approach is certainly challenging - but isn't that what we need?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Mission Shaped

That mission is central to what we do and are is something to which we would all subscribe. But sometimes the idea is easier than the practice. I don't know any churches that wouldn't claim to have mission potential. The problem is the gap between the actuality and fulfilling the potential. It is also true that all sorts of things shape us. Culture is important. The things we do, the places where we have roots are very important. Do we really root the church in mission? Do we really allow the church to be mission shaped?