Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thus spake the prohet

I recently posted on Facebook an extract of a speech given by Neil Kinnock in 1983 on the eve of the General Election. This is a fuller extract of that speech:

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

Speech in Bridgend, Glamorgan, on Tuesday 7 June 1983. Thursday 9 June 1983 was polling day in the general election.

In response to my posting a friend added the comment “Are you sure that is not a quote from 'Revelations?'" And another friend added “Wow sounds like a Biblical prophet.”

And there is indeed something about an Old Testament prophet in Kinnock’s words. Maybe his time at Vale Terrace Methodist Church youth club in Tredegar (where he was a contemporary of my dad as it happens – *sound of name being dropped there*) had an influence even if Kinnock would now claim to be an atheist.

Were those words spoken 31 years ago prophetic? Was Kinnock a prophet?

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973 edition given to me by my grandfather on my 18th birthday in 1981 and a treasured possession) gives several definitions of prophet

“One who speaks for God, or for any deity, as the inspired revealer or interpreter of God’s will … In a non religious sense the accredited spokesman, proclaimer or preacher of some principle, cause or movement. … One who foretells what is going to happen;

Now applying those definitions there is something prophetic about Kinnock’s words. (Prophetic being – again according to my dictionary – “Pertaining or proper to a prophet; having the character or function of a prophet”) Kinnock would not have thought of himself as speaking for God. But he certainly foretold some things that would happen.

Last Sunday was the third Sunday in Advent and the Old Testament reading in the lectionary was from Isaiah 61. The passage contains these words:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

They are words Jesus uses (close on 500 years after Isaiah) in setting out his ministry. The words are clearly important then. They are a mission statement for how followers of Jesus Christ should seek to be and how we should seek to challenge the society we live in if those values are contrary to these words.

If there can be any doubt about the importance of these words, later on in chapter 61 Isaiah proclaims these words:

For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

Years ago, a wise teacher of preachers advised prepare your sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. His point was that sermons had to be relevant to the day-to-day lives of people, and the best way to insure that would be to focus on what is going on in the world. That is good advice.

Our newspapers and televisions and radios and internet regularly contain stories of people being oppressed or poor or broken hearted or prisoners. I freely admit that it is a challenge for us to look at our world and see injustice, oppression and poverty and think “Wasn’t this supposed to change with Jesus?”

Well yes at one level it was supposed to change. God sent his son Jesus into the world to be a light. God sent his son into the world to save the world from sin and transform the world into the Kingdom of God. God sent his son into the world to show how we should live. To show that people should care for one another.

And Jesus did do all those things. But sinful people ignored his teaching and turned away once again – just as they had done in the time before Isaiah incidentally.

At Advent then we are reminded we are now living in an in between time. A time after Jesus came in to the world and a time when we wait for Christ to come again and restore this broken world. Advent is a time of waiting, and hoping and preparation for God to transform the world through Jesus Christ.

Which brings us back to Isaiah’s prophecy. For Isaiah’s words tell us that this transformation is not an empty hope but it is a sure promise. Christ will come again!

So what about the in between time? What about now in other words?

Transformation is happening now. Christ’s transformation is happening today. But where? Where is God’s transformation revealed today? What is God doing today in the lives of the people that offer hope and restoration to our broken world?

At this time of year there are signs of transformation all around us. But these are signs of the secular world being transformed as Christmas lights go up and Christmas music is played. Our schedules are transformed into tireless activities leading to near exhaustion and fatigue. Somehow in the secular world at this time of year many people are transformed into monsters who wish to consume everything. Monsters who want to buy everything.

Even amid the Christmas trees, Advent rings and crib scenes in our churches it is often difficult to see God’s transformation springing up. So Isaiah’s words come as a real challenge to those of us in church, let alone to those outside of church.
We do not need to look far to see the injustice of poverty, abuse, hunger, oppression and war. Yet our Christmas distractions often speak louder to us than Isaiah’s call for God’s transformation. Our eyes tend to stay focused on the pretty nativity scene rather than looking beyond it to what Jesus’ birth really means for this world.

But Isaiah’s words, as spoken once again by Jesus in Luke 4, remind us that God’s transformation will alter our personal lives and the world in which we live.

An important question for Advent to reflect on is this.

“What are God’s people doing in the world to bring God’s good news of transformation?”

In places where there is growth then it is easy to see how God is at work transforming lives. But what about here? With our churches in decline surely God must have given up on us?

Well he hasn’t. For just as Isaiah spoke his message to the people of Israel exiled in a strange land so he speaks to us for in a sense we are now a remnant, exiles in a strange land. The words are a reassurance to us but they are also a challenge to us too. For whilst God loves us and cares for us he still reminds us that we are to be the transformation around us. We are to be the prophets speaking truth to power. Shining the light into the dark world of greed and corruption and oppression.

So was Kinnock a prophet? Yes his words have proved to be prophetic I believe and the values he esposed in that speech seem very Biblical to me. God can use all manner of people to proclaim his word - including atheists!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Gabriel (Peter) brings an Advent message

Yesterday evening, I went to with friends to see Peter Gabriel play a concert in Cardiff. I’d agreed to go months ago but with no great enthusiasm. Although I have many of his albums clips I’ve seen of him in concert suggested he was a poser and a bit “up himself” (if you’ll excuse the colloquialism!)

I came away thinking how disappointed I’d have been to miss such a terrific concert. He played a 2 hour set which was in three parts, acoustic, electronic and performance. (The performance being the Album “So” played completely.) This was all accompanied by a brilliant light show.

Most of the music he played was well known to me but he did play one or two new pieces (to me anyway) one of which was called “Why don’t you show yourself?”

He has recorded "Why Don't You Show Yourself?" for a forthcoming film, Words With Gods. Words With Gods is an anthology of nine short films centred on religion and spirituality and set for release next year. The films directors include Mira Nair, Guillermo Arriaga and Hideo Nakata.

The song “Why don’t you show yourself?” contains a great deal of theology. It speaks about someone searching for God. Someone who is desperate to find God. Someone who wants God to come into the world now.

As I heard this song performed on the 2nd December, 3 days into Advent, it really struck a chord with me. For me, it is a song that perfectly picks up one of the themes of Advent – the longing for Christ to come again in to the world.

I found the words of the song on a fan’s Facebook page so I can’t guarantee their accuracy.

More about the Words without Gods project can be found here

The web site has an audio track of Peter Gabriel performing the track.

Why don't you show yourself

Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Was that something whispering in the leaves
I can smell your breath within a breeze
Something lying at your feet
Making you alive more complete
And we rely on
All that's forgotten
With the way that destiny
Can pull you down
So we are searching
Searching for you
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And in this empty space
In this hollow place
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Life and death
The strong and the weak
The only thing you think about
Is exactly what you seek
We look for footprints
We look for clear signs
Look for any presence
That we can find
And still we're searching
Searching for you
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And in this flesh and bones
In this man's heart
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Hard to find you
Harder to see
The way you're talking
And the way you ' re set to be
In you I find me
Why don't you show yourself
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And we we're hunting
Hunting round this world
And in this wounded place
Why don't you show your face
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself

Peter Gabriel

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Look busy - Jesus is coming

It is the first Sunday of Advent and the lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 13: 24 – 37. (The Lectionary is a series of Bible readings for each Sunday of the year.) In this passage of scripture Jesus tells of a time when he will return to the world and full establish God’s kingdom.

The so called “second coming” is a difficult concept for Christians – let alone non-Christians – to grasp. And I suppose one of the most difficult of all concepts to accept is when this will happen. And part of this must be “How bad do things have to get before Jesus returns and sorts things out once and for all?”

It is a question Christians have wrestled with for 2,000 years. And it is a question non-believers must level at us.
And for those who are impatient I have some bad news. In the Bible passage I mentioned a moment ago Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when he will come again. It could be today tomorrow or another 2,000 years.
The Message translation of the Bible puts it this way

32-37 “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”

After 2,000 years of watching and waiting we could be excused for being a bit bored. However, the watching has to be an expectant, active watchfulness because we never know when he will appear.

Some waiting is passive. For example a girl standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus is passive waiting. All she does is stand at the stop and wait.

But the same girl standing in the same place but knowing that the bus will take her to the railway station in order to catch a train to the airport so she can go on holiday will experience a different kind of waiting. It will be full of expectation, it will be active waiting.

Jesus clearly had active participation in mind when he instructed his followers

33 Be on guard! Be alert[e]! You do not know when that time will come.

Jesus clearly doesn’t want us to know when he will return. If we knew he was going to return on a specific date we’d put off doing anything about his return until just beforehand. To avoid this lethargy he urges us to live as if his return were just around the corner. So there is no time to nod off in the waiting room!

Prudence Phillipson uses this analogy. When her children were young the floor of their playroom often became messy with games and toys strewn everywhere. Prudence got her children to clean up their toys and games by telling them she was going round the corner to the shop. "When I come back," she warned, "everything should be in its place." She would then give each child a task before she left. The oldest child would be given more complicated tasks while the simpler ones would go to the younger children. Then she would leave. The children would either do as she told them or else disregard her instructions.

When she returned, sometimes she would come quietly up the stairs and see through the half-open door that they were quarrelling or fooling around or just absorbed in something. Then there were other times when she would see that her children were not quite finished with their task so she would creep away to give them more time. Sometimes she would shut the front door with a bang and hear sudden noises of bustle as they hurried to get the room straightened. At such times one of the children would call out, "Not just yet, Mummy. Give us a little longer."

In thinking about her children, Prudence writes, "Each Advent I recall this experience with my children and wonder how many times the Lord has been close at hand, seeing the chaos of our world and longing to come, but waiting, sparing us judgment a little longer." Perhaps we are given more time to get our lives in order.
(Source eSermons)

I’ve talked about passive and active waiting. I just want to clarify something about active waiting. The phrase “Active waiting” suggests we have to be busy during the waiting. And that’s true we can be doing things to prepare the way for the Lord and his Kingdom certainly. But active waiting isn’t about doing as such or being busy.

A few years ago I remember seeing a T shirt which had the slogan “Look busy Jesus is coming”. And that can be a tendency among many Christians – including myself. In the time we’re waiting for Jesus we get busy. But Active waiting isn’t about being busy or looking busy. Active waiting is about being prepared and anticipating. Not just clock watching.

It’s the season of waiting in queues, waiting for packages to come in the post, waiting for children to give you their Christmas lists, waiting in traffic, waiting for a parking space, waiting, waiting, waiting.

One thing we don’t do very well in our society is wait. We get impatient. We get nervous and some even get angry. That’s because we see waiting as wasted time. It’s boring to sit and wait. It’s "down" time or "dead" time. We equate waiting time with being non-productive.

Waiting does not have to be seen as a bad thing. Waiting is an opportunity to reflect or meditate. Nor do we have to fill our idle time with things to do. The more time we spend working the less time we have to spend with our families or attending to our souls. Our society has become so production focused that we have lost sight of the fact that we need time to think, relax or just wonder.

The passage from Mark’s gospel we’ve been thinking about today illustrates one of the most important puzzles of the Gospel. And that is the “Already here / Not yet” quality of Jesus.

The Already Here Jesus has established the means by which we are part of God’s family and have a relationship with God. But Not Yet do we live in complete relationship with God.

The Already Here Jesus has started to build the Kingdom of God and there is evidence of that Kingdom in the world if we look. But not yet as his Kingdom been fully established.

As that well known theologian Noddy Holder once said "Look to the future it’s only just begun."

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel Jesus is sending a message about living in the challenging between time. That is the time between the Already Here time and the Not Yet time. We are in that Between Time. Therefore, we are called to be alert and awake and called to live our lives in accordance with Jesus who has come, died, been raised from the dead. And by being alert, being prepared, being watchful, we may find that not only will be ready to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we may experience even now what life in the new realm will be like.

What should we be doing while we’re waiting? We should be worshiping him, praising him, serving him, loving him, and loving one another as he commanded us to do. When we do those things, we will be ready, no matter when he comes.

Let us look to the future – it’s only just begun.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Give peace in our time

There are many phrases in the English language that come from The Bible – “money is the root of all evil” for example, (By the way the exact quote is "The love of money is the root of all evil")

Or Shakespeare – “Cruel to be kind” “Murder most foul”

Or The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer has given us a phrase that has gone down in history. It is a phrase used by Neville Chamberlain in 1938 “peace in our time.”

Chamberlain – consciously or unconsciously – was quoting a prayer of intercession from the Book of Common Prayer “Give peace in our time O Lord.”

Chamberlain, returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler, thought he had negotiated a peace agreement to prevent war. And Chamberlain no doubt sincerely believed that by obtaining Hitler’s signature on a peace agreement, he had prevented another generation of British men and women from being engulfed in war. Let’s not forget, the First World War had ended just 20 years before. Just under a year later Chamberlain’s dream of “peace in our time” was in tatters.

As we all know, this year marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. It also marked the 70th anniversary of D Day in the Second World War.

100 years seems so long ago in some respects. But in others it does not. In my life time I’ve met and known of men who served in the First World War. There was a real sense of touching history. Now they are all dead. So maybe for people today WW1 is now very much history.

And yet WW1 seems to cast a long shadow that even touches the lives of children today. Several years ago I visited the Belgian town of Ypres. For me it was a kind of pilgrimage as I had a grandfather who had fought in WW1 in Ypres. In fact he was severely wounded there whilst trying to rescue two comrades. For this he was mentioned in dispatches. My grandfather Ira Thomas was one of the fortunate men to survive the war, though he was left with physical and mental scars for the rest of his life.

When I visited Ypres I was surprised to see so many youngsters in the town visiting the large military cemetery at Tyne Cot and also attending the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a memorial similar to Marble Arch in London. And inscribed on the gate are the names of over 54,000 British and Commonwealth men who were killed in fighting around the town and who have no known grave. 54,000!

Yet many of those 54,000, and many of the hundreds of thousands others of all nationalities including of course Germans who also died in WW1, believed they were fighting the war to end all wars. They died hoping that the world would never see war again.
And no doubt men like my grandfather came home from the battlefields of France and Belgium almost 100 years ago with the same hope. With the ending of war they may have thought that the prayer from the Book of Common Prayer - “Give peace in our time O Lord” - had been answered. That is why Neville Chamberlain – almost an object of ridicule now – was hailed by many as a great statesman when he came back from Munich.

Chamberlain firmly believed that his famous piece of paper ensured there would be peace. He firmly believed there would be no more war and the next generation would not spill their blood.

But the hopes of my grandfather’s generation were dashed in 1939. And their hopes and the hopes of us all have been dashed ever since in wars fought in places such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars between countries such as Israel and Egypt. Civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. War in Syria today. The list goes on and on and on.

All in all, over the last 100 years there has been a distinct lack of peace. There appears to be no likelihood of peace in our time. Though it must be said that apart from in the Balkans, Europe has been at peace. For the last 70 years there hasn’t been war in Europe. Europe has known a peace like never before.

“Give peace in our time O Lord”

The longing for peace is very Biblical.

Scripture makes peace a consistent theme throughout Jesus' life. When He was born in Bethlehem, the angels called Him the Prince of Peace. During his lifetime he preached peace and love constantly.

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

Jesus wanted nothing more for people to love one another and live in peace. But as we know only too well, no matter how much we may long for peace, it never seems to come about.

Why is that?

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."

Real peace can only come about when underlying conditions of injustice and exploitation which fan the flames of resentment and which finally lead to War, are removed.

Monday, 20 October 2014

I'm fed up with politics

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in politics. Politics was always talked about at home by my parents. The news was always on. And the “A” level I excelled in (the others were ok but that was all) was “British Constitution” or Politics as it would be called today.

But now I’m fed up with politics. I’m fed up with the broken promises. I’m fed up with the lies. I’m fed up with the spin. But most of all I’m fed up with the way I’m not represented.

During the 2010 General Election I was living in the Swindon North parliamentary constituency. It had been a Labour seat for a number of years but in 2010 a Conservative – Justin Tomlinson - was elected. I wasn’t surprised. Having attended a hustings meeting organised by local churches, the Labour candidate came across as a robot parachuted in by Labour head office whereas Mr Tomlinson was a local man and spoke with passion.

Although our politics are different, I’ve thought of Justin Tomlinson as a good MP. And this blog isn’t about him. It is about the system.

The Electoral Commission web site shows the results from Swindon North as follows:

• Majority: 7,060
• Electorate: 78,384
• Total number of votes cast: 51,008
• Adjusted turnout: 64.16
• Number of postal votes cast: 9,065
• Number of proxy votes cast: 357
• Number of rejected votes: 170

In other words Justin Tomlinson had 7,060 votes more than the next candidate Labour’s V. Agarwal. So far so good. And if it had been a straight choice between them fair enough. But it wasn’t just between them. There were 4 other candidates. This meant that in terms of all the votes cast Justin Tomlinson was elected with 44.6% of the votes cast. Or in other words 55.4% of people who voted did not vote for him.

We’ve now moved to Chippenham and the story is similar here. The Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames was elected with a majority over the Conservative candidate of 2,470. Mr Hames attracted 45.8% of the vote. Or 54.2% of people didn’t vote for him.
I could go on with other examples. But there are many constituencies in this country where people did not vote for their particular MP and where more to the point most people voted for someone else.

I should add that there will be places where a Labour MP has been elected and most people voted for someone else. And there are some places where MPs do have a true majority of the votes cast (For example Geoffrey Clifton – Brown in the Cotswolds has 53% of the votes cast.) But overall it seems to me most people who vote don’t get a voice as their MP is for another party.

Our system is designed for a two party choice. You vote for one or the other. And in a straight choice there is nothing wrong with First Past the Post. In the Scottish Referendum there was a choice between “Yes” and “No” - simples. But when confronted with a ballot paper containing Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP, Monster Raving Loony Party etc. etc. etc. First Past the Post doesn’t work.

Most other countries now have some form of proportional representation. Why can’t we?

Going back to Swindon North for a moment. Only 64% of those entitled to vote did so. Mind you in Birmingham Ladywood only 48.66% of voters voted.

Perhaps low turnout is down to dissatisfaction with the process and maybe PR would help? Though equally the "can’t be bothereds” may come into play. I’d like to see voting as compulsory as it is in Australia.

Personally, I will always vote – though I am coming close nowadays to not bothering. (The closest I came to not voting was for the Police & Crime Commissioner election in 2012. I did vote but spoiled my ballot paper as I was so annoyed at the waste of money and the politicisation of policing.)

In the light of the Scottish Referendum it has been a long time since democracy has been talked about so openly. I hope politicians (of all parties) now take the opportunity to try and fix a broken system. As it stands if our Parliament is the “Mother of Parliaments” the kids must be pleased to have left home by now.

Data from the Electoral Commission web site

Monday, 22 September 2014

In God's eyes, equality is not always justice

This is an abridged version of a sermon preached on 22nd September 2014 at Central Methodist Church on Matthew 20: 1 – 16 – the parable of the Labourers in the vineyard

You may be familiar with the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. But in case you were away that day, here’s a summary. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt. They have been released from their slavery and are now being led to the Promised Land – Israel – by Moses. The Bible tells us that they spent 40 years wandering around the wilderness before arriving at the Promised Land which suggests they needed a new Sat Nav or at the very least a better map! Given their endless meanderings, it’s very understandable that

2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Exodis 16: 2 - 3

Thankfully the Lord heard their grumbling and

4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.

We may find this fanciful. But this story is a valuable insight into the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, which in itself is a valuable insight in to what God’s Kingdom is like.

Out in the wilderness, God is creating a new people. His new people will be different from the people who had been enslaved in Egypt and who had witnessed what it was like to live in Egypt. God’s people in Egypt had been used to the ways of domination and submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. In the wilderness God is showing and creating a new way. God is showing them that his way is different. And he wants his people to live by this new way in the Promised Land.

The manna they all receive is nothing fancy or luxurious. Manna provided basic sustenance. Manna was good old “daily bread”. But all had it and all had enough of it. With manna everyone had plenty but no one had too much.

17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Exodus 16: 17 - 18

The manna, this gift from God, cannot be hoarded. In fact when the people try to do what people always try to do – gather more than they need either to hoard for later or, who knows to sell on to someone - they found it had gone bad and was full of maggots.

God was showing his people that in his world, everyone has plenty but not too much. The leaders and the servants receive the same. The people who work all day and the people who have nothing to do, receive the same amount. The able and the disabled receive the same. The old and the young receive the same. The black and the white receive the same. The Scots and the English receive the same.

In God’s kingdom all receive plenty, but not too much. In God’s world there is equality and justice. And what God provides is a gift.

The story of the manna in the wilderness is the embodiment of what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Just as God was creating a new people in the wilderness, Jesus in his parable is showing that Jesus’ people are new people too, and Jesus’ kingdom has values that aren’t the values of the world but are the values of God.

Jesus relates the parable to the disciples as they struggle to understand the meaning of God’s Kingdom. As they struggle to relate how God’s reign will work within the framework of the world. In other words the disciples try to understand how God’s reign will apply in a world that sees rich and poor, superior and inferior.

The parable of the workers in the Vineyard builds on the passage in Matthew 19 where a man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do in order to gain eternal life. Jesus reminds the young man he needs to keep the commandments but that also

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21


22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:22

Later in the same passage the disciples’ reaction is recorded. They are clearly shocked by what Jesus has said and no doubt feel uncomfortable that any wealth they might accumulate will be a stumbling block. The disciples were mostly poor people. Like many poor people then and now no doubt they felt that a way out of their situation was to become rich. But Jesus challenges that assumption.

So coming back to the parable of the Labourers in the vineyard. Jesus is challenging the old assumptions about wealth and power and privilege in order to create the possibility of something new. Jesus is even challenging what we might think of fairness. And through this strange story, Jesus gives a glimpse of what the new order of God will be like and reminds us what the old order, the values of the world, are like.

In the parable Jesus presents us with a vision of the newness of God’s Kingdom. As Warren Carter in his book “Matthew and the margins” puts it, Jesus offers a vision of the “alternative household of God’s empire”. In God’s household, as in the wilderness, everyone receives the necessary daily bread as much as they need. And that I think is key point - each person receives what they need. This isn’t always going to be the same as everyone else. Some may have more some may have less but it is according to their needs.

A very helpful book to help interpret the Gospels is one by Kenneth E. Bailey called “Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes”. In the book Mr Bailey gives us information about the culture in the Middle East at the time of Jesus and, in some instances now, and this is a big held in understanding some of the stories.

For example, for this parable, Bailey explains how this practice of workers gathering in the market place was common at the time of Jesus and happens today too. An employer comes wanting a certain number of people for the day and he picks how many he needs. Often those left might not be the fittest, they might be too old or too young. It is not a fair system. And the wages no doubt aren’t fair either. The basic rule of economics – supply and demand – dictates that if there are more workers than work, their wages will be lower.

The point Jesus is making then is that in God’s Kingdom, justice demands that each are treated and valued according to their needs and who they are. This may seem unfair and unequal to us, but God’s justice demands this is how it should be. In the parable, those who are left over in the market place are likely to be the ones who are sick, disabled or elderly for example. Their needs are greater than those who are healthy.

I think these pictures serve to illustrate what Jesus is saying.
The difference between Equality and Justice. In other words, what we may consider to be fair is not necessarily the values of the Kingdom. We may think fairness says that the workers in the Kingdom are paid an hourly rate for how long they work. But Jesus says those values don’t apply in the Kingdom. There justice applies.

The parable serves as a reminder that the values of this world – winner and loser, superior and inferior, insider and outsider, honoured and shamed – these values do not apply to the kingdom of God. Moreover, the parable reminds us that in the Kingdom of God the “Me” culture doesn’t exist. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray to “Our father” and to say “Give us this day our daily bread”

This parable is a real challenge to the world we live in and it’s a challenge to each of us, because it goes contrary to everything the world holds to be true and good – power, wealth and status. But God’s Kingdom built on his grace goes contrary to the world.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Knowing your ABC

I recently attended a prayer breakfast organised by Churches together in Swindon at which the Archbishop of Canterbury was the guest speaker. (The Archbishop was on a visit to the Diocese of Bristol for the weekend and this was part of his very full schedule.)

Firstly, what impressed me was Mr Welby’s ability to relate to people. There were over 50 clergy from all denominations present and he managed to talk to everyone beforehand I think. He certainly came and chatted to a Methodist colleague and me – about Street Pastors and the African Praise shirt I was wearing! ABC had gone out the night before with a Street Pastors patrol in Kingswood Bristol and had enjoyed the experience.

Our collective act of worship started with a reading from 1 Corinthians 3 and the Chair of Swindon Churches Together – Methodist Superintendent Rev Mark Barrett – referred to John Wesley’s sermon “The Catholic Spirit”. A sermon in which Wesley spoke of recognising that Christians have differences over worship, over how Baptism is conducted, over how communion is celebrated etc etc. But the key is if we all love God if we all believe that Jesus is our saviour then we are one. “Give me your hand my friend”

ABC Welby then spoke. And the thrust of his talk was how over the last few years we have seen the idols people have relied on and worshipped for so long – money and wealth – collapsing due to the banking crisis of 2007 / 2008. Many people have realised that what they worshipped for so long has collapsed and they have been hurt. However, there are still those who put their faith in this idol. He mentioned how in a conversation with a city banker he was told “We have changed Archbishop. We have greatly reduced our salaries. There are few now earning salaries of more than £4m a year”!!!

Churches have responded to the crisis in this country through the growth of Foodbanks. And what impressed him was the way Foodbanks for example have grown without the need for great committees or formal agreements between denominations. Christians in one place have recognised the need and got on and done the work of the Kingdom.

He used an image I found powerful. He reminded us how in the Book of Exodus the Israelites had fled Egypt having seen the gods and idols of Egypt destroyed. But as the Israelites fled they were pursued by Pharaoh’s armies. The Israelites reached the Red Sea. They were trapped. Moses raised his arm and the sea parted and the Israelites crossed over in safety.

The point ABC made was that this was an act of faith. There was no great discussion about the rights and wrongs of going forward in faith. These believers just went forward. We too in this age need to have that courage and faith. To show the true way to live.

When I was growing up, my grandmother had a friend called Hilda Adams. Mrs Adams was quite a character and I always liked when she came to visit. One on occasion she gave me a print of Kipling’s poem “If”. She said to me (I was maybe 7 at the time) “You won’t understand this poem now. But one day you will realise its importance.”

She was right. And yesterday having (briefly) met ABC Welby and heard him speak, Hilda Adams came back to mind as did “If” especially these words:

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,”

They sum ABC Welby neatly.

God bless you ABC Welby. Thank you for your leadership and for your inspirati