Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Welcoming People

Matthew 10:40 offers us a massive theological statement – whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  There are fairly strong echoes of Matthew 25 here – for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  And the puzzle is how this was so – until Jesus explains: just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  The big message from Matthew 10:40 and from Matthew 25 is that we serve Christ by serving others. 

In a sense this is one of those obvious things that we have heard so often and that comes through the Biblical account in so many places.  The law in the Old Testament urges on us the care of those who will otherwise struggle.  Jesus, in one of the most famous of the parables, that which we usually refer to as the good Samaritan, encourages us to love our neighbour.
Yet, if we are honest, it, too often, remains as something that we find challenging.  We don’t mind loving nice neighbours.  We don’t mind loving those who do things the same way that we do.  We don’t mind loving those who are our kind of people.  But Jesus doesn’t allow us to put on those kinds of restriction.  As one commentator[1] says: “Sometimes love is met with crucifixion; yet we are called to love in the midst of hate – even in those times where it appears that hatred has won.”

So one of the main things to draw from this verse, perhaps the main thing is that we are to be a welcoming people.  We are to be people of hospitality.  We could even go further and say that we are called to be people who offer compassionate hospitality.
But then, and I find this a little bit surprising, and so interesting, Matthew goes on to say something about the rewards we will get for doing this – whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward .. etc..  We all like rewards, don’t we?  Gold stars on our school papers as children.  Praise from parents and teachers as we get older.  Perhaps a medal or a plaque or a certificate if we do something special.  We all appreciate recognition.

But why does Jesus offer this prospect of rewards in this context?  That’s an interesting question – but perhaps it is the wrong question?  Perhaps the important question is rather about just what Jesus means?  Is it that the kind of reward to which he is referring is something like getting a special certificate – or even like getting a bonus with our pay?  Or is it just possibly the case that Jesus wants to remind us that living the right way, living a life of compassionate hospitality, being a welcoming person, carries rewards within itself.[2] 
Thomas Merton, the American Catholic and mystic, said this: “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved.  It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves.  Love, therefore, is its own reward.”  And a minister and writer called Hugh Prather similarly said: “To live for results would be to sentence myself to continuous frustration.  My only sure reward is in my actions and not from them.”

If we are in the right place, if we are doing the right thing, then that in itself will provoke a sufficient feeling of wellbeing as to be its own reward.  Let’s look at it another way. 
In Matthew 19:27 Peter says to Jesus: Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?  It is the kind of question that any disciple in any situation might ask.  What am I learning?  What does it mean to me and for me to be a disciple?  Although in terms of Matthew’s written Gospel this question comes in a later chapter, the words that we have quoted from Matthew 10, and indeed much of what is in chapter 10, answers such a question.  In this chapter Jesus says lots of things that help the disciples to understand something of what is involved in their discipleship.  Essentially Jesus is saying that God values us and our contribution – and surely that is reward enough.  Earlier in the chapter, and particularly towards the beginning, Jesus has talked about various possibilities for discipleship, some of which will have seemed quite challenging to some of the people.  But in the final three verses of this chapter is a reminder that discipleship is for all, and that there is a role for each one of us.  Here is a description of something we can all do, welcoming people, even if it is just offering a cup of cold water, more likely a cup of tea in our terms. 

And when we welcome as we should, who knows what will happen, what we will discover?  A widow in Zarephath offered to share her last tiny bit of food and discovered she was sharing it with God’s prophet.  A little boy gave his lunch to Jesus and discovered he was sharing it with a crowd of five thousand.  And two people arriving home at Emmaus invited the stranger they had met on the road to stay only to discover, as bread was broken, that they had walked the road with Jesus himself.  As St. Francis reputedly said: “it is in giving that we receive,”

[1] Emilie Townes in ‘Feasting on the Word’
[2] Some of this thinking was inspired by Alyce McKenzie’s ‘Edgy Exegesis’ which I accessed via  The two quotes in the next paragraph are re-quoted from there.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Renunciation & Detachment

In The Genesee Diary Henri Nouwen writes:
“In the writings of the desert fathers there is much emphasis on renunciation and detachment.  We have to renounce the world, detach ourselves from our possessions, family, friends, own will, and any form of self-content so that all our thoughts and feelings may become free for the Lord.  I find this very hard to realize.  I keep thinking about distracting things and wonder if I ever will be “empty for God.”  Yesterday and today the idea occurred to me that instead of excluding I could include all my thoughts, ideas, plans, projects, worries, and concerns and make them into prayer.  Instead of directing my attention only to God, I might direct my attention to all my attachments and lead them into the all-embracing arms of God.”
We live in a society of acquisition.  Getting things is the name of our game.  This reflection on how we empty ourselves for God is timely, as is the suggestion that, rather than getting rid of everything, we give it over to the service of God.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Francis of Assisi

I have just started reading Andy Freeman’s little book of meditations, Francis: Stories and Reflections (Proost, 2014).  He tells something of the story of Francis, but then uses that to encourage us to reflect on what is involved in effectively being the church today.
For example, he suggests we think about the church buildings of the community where we live and how they are used – but then prayerfully asks the question as to whether we have reduced the church to bricks and mortar.  As has been well said, ‘We don’t go to church – we are the church!’
In his introduction he reflects on how Francis provides us with a model for living and ministry:

̴   Francis is something of a pioneer minister.  “He got something started, from scratch and appropriate to his context.”  Where might God be calling us to do some pioneering?

̴   Francis is an artist – in the widest possible sense.  How do we communicate our faith.  Do we paint good pictures, whether using words or other mediums?

̴   Francis provides us with a model of pilgrimage.  He was ready to be on the move for God.  Are we ready to go where God wants us to go, whether that is across the street or across the world?

̴   Francis provides us with a prophetic model.  He was ready to proclaim God’s message for his day.  Are we ready to do the same for ours?

̴   Francis was a disciple of Jesus.  What does 21st century Christian discipleship look like for you and for me?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Church conflict isn't new!

One of the things that I find most encouraging about Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church is that it provides us with a clear indicator that church conflict is nothing new.  Paul, in these letters, is largely dealing with the problems with which the church was struggling, perhaps most notably the way in which they behaved at Communion services (1 Corinthians 11).  We sometimes think that church must have been wonderful in the past, not that it can’t be good now – but in days gone by we assume it just really worked. 

However, if you don’t want to go back quite as far as Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, listen to what the Congregationalist theologian Daniel Jenkins wrote seventy years ago.  In 1944 Jenkins wrote this: “The Church Meeting in a Congregational Church is an indispensable part of the Church’s life.  A Congregational Church does not make sense without it.  …..  But in many of our churches it has ceased to be a living force and is maintained, often only by a few faithful people, out of respect for a tradition which no one understands very clearly any longer.”  (Quoted in Reports to General Assembly 2014, United Reformed Church.) 

I have to say that I don’t know many churches where the Church Meeting is the vibrant centre of all they do.  I don’t know that I can say that I am encouraged to know that Daniel Jenkins faced the same issues that I do, but at least I know it is not a new phenomenon.  I often wonder what we can do to refresh the Church Meeting and give it the centrality and vibrancy that it ought to have.  Also I can’t help wondering what the church meeting attendance was like in Corinth in the days when Paul was writing to them.  Or did they just do things a different way?  I am inclined to think that business and worship were more linked and more likely to happen on the same occasion – but that is just speculation.  It is certainly clear that they had things to sort out – and I wonder just how they made their decisions?

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Jesus the Zealot

Just finished reading "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" by Reza Aslan, a slightly different and interesting take on the life of Jesus and its impact.  Aslan suggests that we have diminished the impact of Jesus by making him appear gentler than he really was.  I am not sure I entirely agree, but I do agree that we, too often, don't let Jesus have the impact that he ought.  The Zealots were revolutionaries and that bit fits.  I certainly agree with Aslan's conclusion that "the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.  He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

Monday, 9 June 2014

Reflecting on Mary

We sometimes seem to think that God just reached out and did stuff for the Biblical characters and all was well.  But the reality is that many of them struggled with all sorts of things. 

In "Gracias" Henri Nouwen reflects on the impact that the news of her impending pregnancy must have had on Mary.  He refers to a helpful address given by a Roman Catholic nun at a service he attended while learning Spanish in Bolivia – “She helped me see Mary through the eyes of the poor people of the third world.  Mary experienced uncertainty and insecurity when she said yes to the angel.  She knew what oppression was when she didn’t find a hospitable place to give birth to Jesus.  …. She lived as a refugee in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs; she knew what it means to have a child who does not follow the regular ways of life but creates turmoil wherever he goes.  …. Mary is the woman who stands next to all the poor, oppressed and lonely women of our time.  ….. Every word in Scripture about Mary points to her intimate connection with all who are forgotten, rejected, despised, and pushed aside.  She joyfully proclaims: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”  …..  She gives hope, inspires the fight for freedom, and challenges us to live with an unconditional trust in God’s love.” 
Mary surely raises for us the question as to just what we are doing to stand alongside those who are at the margins.  Mary helps us to see that it is OK to have a doubt or two – and to struggle with our faith.  But Mary also helps us see what an ordinary person can do when that person is ready to commit to God’s will. 

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pentecost in Bukori

In the early nineties my wife and I spent three years in the Republic of Panama where I served as a minister within the Methodist Church there.  During that time we lived in Panama City, certainly a city in what might be described as the developing world, and a range of challenges that brought, the biggest one perhaps being that for most of our time there the water was switched for around nine hours a day, in our case, fortunately, usually overnight.  However, shortly before returning to the UK in 1994 we spent five weeks in a remote area towards the Costa Rican border supporting the work and ministry amongst the indigenous Guaymi people.  With the constant company of the mobile phone, it is hard to believe that, just twenty years ago, we spent five weeks with no phone at all, five weeks when our water supply depended on the immediate rain, five weeks when the only local means of transport was foot or boat.  I ran a week’s training course for the lay evangelists who led the twelve Methodist churches that were dotted around that peninsula and then we spent some time going out to some of the communities leading what we might now call awaydays at home.
Arriving by boat, we would clamber up the hillside to the little local church and the people would gather.  I still remember the day we went to Bukori.  Their evangelist was so excited.  Apart from their own minister visiting something like once a quarter, who happened to be another missionary, nobody from the church leadership ever went to their village.  They would all always have to go to the central village.  He rushed round telling people: Pentecost has come here today!  Well, on the one hand, I am not sure about that – but, on the other, isn’t it precisely the case that we are to take the love of God to those whom we encounter?  Isn’t it true that we can only do that in the power of the Spirit?  And when the Spirit comes, isn’t that Pentecost?
Let me explore another Latin American connection.  Henri Nouwen is one of my favourite writers.  He was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who left an academic career to go and live with a L’Arche community of people with serious disabilities.  Earlier in ministry he explored a call to Latin America and spent some time in Bolivia and Peru.  His book, ‘Gracias’ – thank you, in Spanish – offers a record of and reflection on some of those times. 
I was reading a reflection in the book about the beginning of Isaiah 11 – but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David’s descendants.  The spirit of the Lord will give him wisdom ….  It is a reading that we are more likely to associate with Advent or Christmas – but then I would want to suggest that Advent and Christmas and Lent and Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost are all bound up with each other.  And this particular image fits with Pentecost because it is an image of hope.  This is a picture of promise.  One of the things to be aware of is that we are sometimes looking for big things to happen, when God is actually calling us to do little things.  In a brief comment in his journal on this sentiment from Isaiah, and very much rooted in the Bolivian context in which he was then living, Nouwen says this: “When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence – the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair.  …..  The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises.  But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.” 
Our problem can be that we are so busy looking for the Spirit to come like a mighty wind that we miss the gentle breeze that is the slow, gradual, but tremendously important work of the Spirit.  I love it when I see God doing big things, and I do see that sometimes, often unexpectedly.  But I love also all those little things that actually pile up and make a great deal of difference, but they also are so much more manageable because it is little by little, sometimes almost imperceptively, but still heading towards the big result.  I don’t for one moment think that my visit to a very remote village in Panama called Bukori in the early months of 1994 was a matter of major importance.  But it was good to see the Spirit at work in that community that day.  Indeed, Pentecost had come.  How great when we can see God working those little bits of gradual transformation.