Sunday, 29 September 2013

Steps to Heaven

GospelLuke 16:19-31 

Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
  ‘In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom. So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” “My son,” Abraham replied “remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.”
  ‘The rich man replied, “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.” “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham “let them listen to them..” “Ah no, father Abraham,” said the rich man “but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham said to him, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”

My students love discussion about God and forgiveness - ’But really – if you were the horriblest person who ever lived and never believed in God and then you said sorry the minute you died – you would go to Heaven!!!!’

Well, the truth is – our faith tells us that is exactly what we have to believe – but then again – why wait so long?

But there are some people who like to live life on the edge.

Luke has been telling us that there is a certain discipline involved in living a faithful life; that there are expectations of what we do; how we do it and even why we do it. We are meant to be following in the footsteps of Jesus; we are meant to be trying to be ‘Christ-like’.

The rules involved in this are very few, but undeniable. To love God; to love others; to treat others even better than you treat yourself; to make the most of who you are and what God have given you as your gift. These rules open you up to other people; to their needs; make you attentive of the lives they live and how you – you – can help them.

Being Christ-like isn’t going to be easy – in fact …….. we manage it in only moments of time. Most of the time our life is a struggle between how we are and how we know we should be.

We are assured of the Father’s forgiveness even when we have turned away and made an absolute mess of things He will be there with open arms to welcome us back. God asks a lot but He gives more; but there comes a time when the choice you have made – is made. 

The Rich Man, and he is a very rich man, may claim to believe in God – but there is little evidence. He uses whatever faith he has to bend the rules; to allow him to ignore the pile of rags sitting outside his very front door; he may even use him to assert his status - this unclean man is obviously the one God has turned His back on – after all where are his rewards?

We should know now that that is not the way God thinks; God is generous; God is concerned with saving the soul of the Rich Man. God has actually made it very easy for him; giving him just one thing to do - placing just one man in need of help in a place where to help would be so simple – a few scraps of food; a length of cloth; someone to chase away the dogs and not a break required in his living; in his lifestyle. But; no – so, no remorse; no need for forgiveness; no understanding of the need for forgiveness.

Even in death, the Rich Man retains his misguided belief in his status. He cannot even bring himself to address Lazarus directly and talks to his father Abraham, as an equal. Tell Lazarus to look after me; tell Lazarus to go and warn my brothers as if he cannot believe or accept how Lazarus has come to be sitting in the lap of Abraham. His worldview is unaltered; his continued lack of humility means he cannot ask for forgiveness; he cannot see the need for forgiveness even now. He blames the system; He simply believes that he has misread the rules.

The gulf that the Rich Man cannot cross is the belief that he continues to be in charge; even to the point of changing the rules of life and death to allow Lazarus to go to his brothers. Just do this one more thing and I will believe you; I will be saved. How much more do we want God to do?

It isn’t just about being rich; Jesus has rich friends but, it seems, he worries about them. Being rich in this world puts you in charge of your life and of others. The privilege of wealth should bring an awareness of the responsibility of having it; sometimes it does but often it doesn’t. We get used to the idea that we can buy our way out of things and we can’t.

And then, at the end, if we expect someone else to save us – why should they?

After all, what will we have done to deserve it?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Expect more

GospelLuke 16:1-13 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There was a rich man and he had a steward denounced to him for being wasteful with his property. He called for the man and said, “What is this I hear about you? Draw me up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any longer.” Then the steward said to himself, “Now that my master is taking the stewardship from me, what am I to do? Dig? I am not strong enough. Go begging? I should be too ashamed. Ah, I know what I will do to make sure that when I am dismissed from office there will be some to welcome me into their homes.”
  Then he called his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?” “One hundred measures of oil” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond; sit down straight away and write fifty.” To another he said, “And you, sir, how much do you owe?” “One hundred measures of wheat” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond and write eighty.”
  ‘The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.

  ‘And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity. The man who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great; the man who is dishonest in little things will be dishonest in great. If then you cannot be trusted with money, that tainted thing, who will trust you with genuine riches? And if you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, who will give you what is your very own?

  ‘No servant can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

I’m sure that many of us will share with the disciples in scratching our heads at the images that Jesus has confronted us with. A steward; who is already wasteful cheats his master out of more money to make his own life easier and gets praised for it.

How does that make sense?

We all believe that an important part of our character is how honest we are; how good we are at what we do and how well we can be trusted to do it. And rightly so, but at what cost?

If your expertise as a tax collector allows you to wind through loopholes to help the wealthy protect their assets, that is one thing. If you use that same expertise to help a charity find funding and tax exemptions; is that another?

We all have gifts that we have developed during our lives; because of these gifts we can achieve our ambitions; make something of ourselves. But is that the only reason these gifts were give to us? How much of the talents that we have do we use for the better life now; rather than the eternal life to come?

These gifts and talents are simply tools given to us by God. In Luke, Jesus shows us the plan, how these tools are to be used; in discipleship and love. And the Spirit speaks to us in conscience and inspiration as we travel through our lives.

But it’s always about free will; our talents can feed our ambitions to take us to where we want to go; to build our own castles in the sky.

God’s desire is that we use these tools to build his Kingdom; loving our neighbour; generosity of spirit; caring for those who need our help.

Knowing that we live in a world of status and achievement it is natural for us to use what we have to make a good life for ourselves but we have to learn that it is not  about what we want. As they say ‘you can’t take it with you' - even tent-making equipment!

We do live in this world but we don’t have to be dictated to by it; we don’t have to be part of the exploitation. We don't have to accept that that's just the way it is.

 In our everyday life we can use what we have, what we know, what we do and we can make change. We can choose where our time is spent, where our money is spent.

We can use the system to question the system. We can be the light against the darkness. There are so many things you can only change from the inside. Use your gifts and be the change.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

Other Brothers

Sunday GospelLuke 15:1-32 

Other Brothers

There were once two brothers. The younger brother woke one morning from a dream with a sense of destiny calling out to him. He went to his father and asked for his share of his father's fortune. When his father divided what he had between them, the younger son gathered all that he could carry and left for a country far, far away.

As soon as he crossed the border into the new land he felt a change in the air. Delighted,he found a town and visited the local market so as to dress himself in the fashion of the people. Though everyone could tell he wasn't one of them. It didn't matter though. He had so much to offer and they crowded around him enjoying his generosity and good nature. He was a one-man band of entertainment and merriment. It seemed that, whenever he was around, everything was brighter. Everyone was invited to be part of his good fortune; even those who would barely speak to each other any other time would find themselves eating and drinking together into the early hours. He was the toast of the town, spending as if there was no tomorrow.

In time, though, the novelty began to wear off; life had its problems that dragged people away with better things to do. Gossip and jealousy ruined the friendships and the little community that had grown around him. In not much more time, doors and faces were closed and the generosity, that had only ever flowed one way, was dammed and stagnant.  Abandoned by those who had called him 'friend', he now lived in despair and rejection.

'So much for my fine plans; the dream that should have died with the dawn', he thought. 'I'm emptied out; scrabbling in the mud for a kind word and more  a stranger than I ever was. The only way left is back to my father. Maybe my failures will make him feel sorry for me. Maybe there's a place, out of his sight, where he would let me serve.'

His father's house was on the brow of a hill and, in the passing of time, the Father had built a strong, high tower. He would spend all his waking hours watching the caravans cross the horizon; prayer beads slipping through his fingers. So, of course, he was the first to see the tiny speck of movement on the trade road and to recognise the step of his son. He tore down the stairs and out through the courtyard; snatching up his young son as if he were a little child; rocking him against his chest and feeling his hot tears sink thirstily into the dusty film of dessicated skin.

"Father...' All the excuses fell away; the last of his strength fell away. He would have collapsed to the ground had the servants not run to catch him. The younger son heard his father calling them to go to his room- his room- and get the fine clothes he had left behind. Heard his father calling for a feast; a celebration. Heard his father calling, in joy, for all to come and celebrate his return; his resurrection from abandonment. And what joy there was, throughout the household.

But in the fields, the sun glowered down without joy. In the fields, the elder son flexed his back and rolled his head from side to side, feeling the 'click' of stressed vertebrae. He caught the sound of laughter and music. In the middle of the day? 

He stopped the gatherers and the workers with their scythes; sent the carts of harvested wheat to the barn and headed home; cloak halo-ing his head as he squinted towards the sounds of festival, breathing in the appetising scents of rosemary, garlic and  roasted meats.  

Getting nearer, he called the stable boy to see if there was some rich merchant or temple official visiting. Only to be informed; 'young Master, it is your brother. He has come back home. Back from the dead, your father called it.'

'Has he brought an army of workers? Or a caravan filled with silks and spices? Has he made his inheritance into a fortune?' The elder son asked. 'No,' replied the stable boy. 'All he had was what he stood in.'

The elder son's appetite curdled and his face turned to stone. He turned and sat against the shadowed side of the tall tower; staring at his clenched fists. The stable boy ran to tell the father who came out immediately. 

'After all that I have done..' Tears of frustration came with the accusation. 'After all that I have done, trying to please you. And you celebrate with him.Him who wasted everything you gave him. Who came back with nothing!'

'Adam,' the father said. 'You have worked hard, I am proud of you and I love you. Why do you think you had to please me? I would have shared in the work, I would have welcomed your friends; I would have sat with you in the shade at the end of the day. But you would not let me near. You have driven yourself to this; it has been all about you. Do you see that all you do for me, you have done for yourself - for your inheritance?

Your brother knew that this was not all there is.  He had the dream of a new life; he took a chance.  His share of my fortune is spread among people you and I won't ever know. He has changed lives we will never meet.Who knows what that money, that mouldered in the treasury, has accomplished in that land. 

My son, he has given even himself away - and dragged himself home - just skin and bone. He is my everything - just as you are. And now, if you could see him, you would see how happy he is to be home - how happy I am to hold him again. 

How happy you should be that your brother is truly alive.'



Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Hard Line

 Sunday Gospel - Luke 14:25-33
Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way and he turned and spoke to them. If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
‘And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, “ Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.” Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’

The continuing hard line according to Luke’s Jesus.

Great crowds,thousands, follow Jesus on his travels. The disciples at the end fill no more than an upper room. Was it something he said? Perhaps it was. 

Perhaps it was this.

The people who come to listen to Jesus are, more or less, split into two – 
those who listen and those who pay attention; 
those who think his vision is a good idea and those who believe it is the way to live; 
those who believe ‘someone’ should do something and those who believe that 'someone' is them. 

There are those who will wave Jesus off with maybe some new thoughts in their hearts and those whose hearts are called to follow; the disciples.

If these disciples have been paying attention, then they will be realising what it is Jesus expects from them; and what he expects is a total turnaround on worldly priorities.

But surely not family; not love? And not ‘hate’?

 Jesus teaches a certain type of love; agape love is a love that seeks to bring healing no matter who or what the situation. It is an unconditional and driving love; where there may be a cost and you will be the one who pays. 

We love as if love is something to be rationed, gifted, given to the chosen few. That we love those who love us – that there is a rationale that tells us when people fit or don’t fit.

When Jesus says ‘Love your neighbour’ this is the love he means – this love is not defined by family loyalty; affection; romance or desire; except the desire that the ‘neighbour’ receives the love, care and respect that we would want for ourselves.

 So when Jesus says ‘hate’ this is not about acting against your family in a cruel or malicious way. Jesus wants us to remove the limits about who we love. He wants us to accept that a wider, more important,more godly love exists outside these limits.

This love has it's own paradox - that if it were possible for us to love as Jesus wishes us to love then our friends, our families would be just as loved as they are now; and equally so would everyone else. It would be the sense of possession or exclusion that would be removed.  Jesus asks us to remove these limitations –there is only love.

Love that is ’ wide open’ to all, for all.

We are listening to Jesus' dream for us here - his vision of the Kingdom. And that he is eager enough to teach us is testimony to his faith in our humanity. His belief that there are some of us who are ready  to make the journey.

But Jesus also knows how hard it will be to live this life. He has been the model; it's nothing he hasn't lived through himself. Discipleship is putting your head above the parapet. 

Unlike whatever we think now, Jesus knows that being a Christian will not be nice, not comfortable and not easy. So he warns us – and the whole of this part of Luke has been warning us – ‘know what you are letting yourself in for’.

We all belong to God, each and every one of us, but we live with the belief that our free will allows us to follow or ignore the paths that God suggests for us.And we should believe this - God is no puppet-master.

But if you are called and you answer; if you consciously make the decision to turn your 'self' over to God then this is no longer true – your life is ‘lost’. You have taken the King’s shilling and the path before you offers no buy-out clause.

Because now you’re on Kingdom business and God’s in charge.