Welcoming the Stranger (a sermon for November 11th on the Book of Ruth)

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of feeling like an outsider or a stranger. I’m a white Anglo-Saxon male and my first language is English, so in western Canada I don’t often have that experience! However, when I was in my early thirties I lived in a small aboriginal community in the central Arctic where my kids were the only non-aboriginal kids in the local school. The community was made up of large extended families and everyone was connected by those networks. Also, for everyone over the age of forty Inuktitut was definitely their first language. So even though many people made us welcome, at times we couldn’t help feeling like outsiders and strangers.

Of course, you can have a similar experience just by walking into the local café in any small town on the prairies. Have you ever tried that? Trust me – you’ll stand out like a sore thumb! Once again, most people in those communities are connected by extended family networks, everyone knows everyone else, and when they look at you as you walk I the door you just know they’re wracking their brains trying to figure out who you are and who you’re related to!

This morning in our Old Testament lesson we read the second half of the story of Ruth – the foreigner, the Moabite – who became the great-grandmother of King David and so was also an ancestor of Jesus. Let’s remember that in those days Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judah, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be unusual for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.

Naomi heard the famine was over in Bethlehem so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them: “There’s no point in you coming along with me,” she said. “Even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?” This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Naomi’s sons had died without producing heirs.

So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. “Where you go, I will go,” she said to Naomi. “I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you.” So Naomi accepted her company and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. He found out who Ruth was – apparently her reputation for caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around. So he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. As a result Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish traditions to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the custom was that a near relative should marry the widow so the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. “He’s going to sleep there tonight,” she said; “When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do.”

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, “Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel.” Boaz was pleased; he was an older man and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered she had gone to him rather than someone younger. “I’ll do what you ask,” he said, “but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true I’m a close relative but there is someone closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will.”

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: “Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line.” The man replied, “I’ll redeem it.” Boaz said, “The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” The other man replied, “Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance.” So Boaz said to the people sitting around, “You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth.”  They all agreed, “We’re witnesses.”

So Boaz married Ruth and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this is a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

If you read the Old Testament you’ll come across a discussion about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that isn’t God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image.’

Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah – that were probably written about the same time as Ruth – take this line. In those books Israelites who’ve married outside of ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve put Israel in danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: “Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!”

This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In other words this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

In New Testament terms we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the New Testament the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently with the message Jesus gave us: that everyonewho is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that allpeople are invited to become his disciples?

And what about the folks who are coming to our country as Ruth came to Bethlehem – to look for a better life, or to get away from disaster at home. I say this, of course, as an immigrant myself. What’s our attitude going to be? Are we going to choose fear, like so many people in Old Testament times? Or are we going to choose to welcome the stranger, as Boaz and the people of Bethlehem did?

This is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should give us an object lesson about where that attitude leads. Sadly, we’re seeing more and more of it in North America today.

The story of Ruth tells us that to God there are no outsiders. There are only people made in the image of God, loved by God, people God wants to draw into the community called by his name. But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi and Boaz to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great.

Who is the stranger God is bringing into your life? The person from somewhere else, the person who looks and sounds different? The person who needs to hear a word of welcome and kindness, and a little extra help to find their way around? Are you going to be a Boaz for them? Are you going to extend a warm welcome?

And of course we can understand this in terms of the witness of the Church as well. Outside the borders of organized Christianity there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who would love to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect you know some of those people; I know for sure that Iknow some of them. Are you going to be a Naomi or a Boaz for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?

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What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day (Annual Post)

There are some pieces I repost every year, because I really can’t improve on them and still want to say what they say. This is one of them.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all Wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young people out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

 

What about the other side?

I once had a church member who had been born in Germany just before the Second World War broke out. Most of her family members had been killed by the Royal Air Force in the fire bombing of Dresden.

I once knew an Arctic bush pilot who had flown for the Luftwaffe in World War Two. He was not a Nazi; he had been caught up in that massive event like millions of other people.

thI’m sometimes asked why I’m not happy about national flags and Remembrance Day activities happening in churches. This is one of my answers.

Remembrance Day was originally about the prayer ‘Never again’. At its best, it’s a remembrance of all who lost their lives in wars – soldiers or civilians, ‘our’ side and ‘theirs’.

Sadly, though, these days it’s often about honouring the sacrifice ‘our’ troops paid for ‘our’ freedom.

My question is, what if you’re not included in that ‘our’?

After all, the Church isn’t meant to be a national institution. Jesus calls his disciples from all nations, tribes, languages and peoples. When I look around St. Margaret’s on Sunday, that’s a reality.

As a Christian, my first loyalty can never be to my nation. My first loyalty must be to Christ and his multi-national kingdom.

Remember this Sunday: you may well have someone in your church whose parents fought on the other side. That person may be intimately connected to you as a fellow Christian.

How are you going to make Remembrance Day about them and their forebears just as much as it is about you and yours?

What Does Success Look Like? (a sermon for Nov. 4th on Mark 12.28-34)

If you were to make a list of the most successful people alive today, I think Bill Gates would surely be on it. He co-founded Microsoft in 1975, and forty-three years later it’s a mighty force in the world of computer software. And of course Bill Gates has done quite well out of this. As of this year his net worth was calculated at $97.9 billion, so, as the Irish say, he’s not short of two pennies to rub together!

 

It’s interesting, though, that over the past fifteen years or so Bill Gates seems to have taken a different tack altogether, as he and his wife Melinda have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organization is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Maybe he’s begun to redefine what success means to him.

 

So if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is about. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), and the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.

 

Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message?Sometimes in workshops I’ve asked people to define in one or two sentences what they think the essential message of Christianity is. I’ve noticed that many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes, “love your neighbour”. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?

 

Look at the question Jesus was asked. It wasn’t, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and love our neighbour.

 

But let me ask you: which comes first in the Christian life, our love for God or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments aren’t news, so commandments can’t be the Gospel. John tells us that the Good News isn’t that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

 

Mark Twain once said “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” I agree! I understand the commandments very well; my problem is I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? It doesn’t sound like good news to me.

 

No; the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he demonstrated God’s forgiveness for our sins and gave us hope that our broken relationship with God could be healed. Through his resurrection he’s won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Now he invites everyone to come to him, put their trust in him, and receive the free gift of forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then – once our relationship with God is restored by Jesus – we can call on all God’s resources to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for God’s great love for us.

 

At the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. Peter was offended; he thought it would be much more appropriate for himto wash Jesus’feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all the Lord has done for me?”

 

Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? As an Englishman moving to Canada in the mid-1970s I soon discovered that even though we used the same language we didn’t always use the same dictionary. To me, a ‘napkin’ wasn’t a cloth you used at a meal to catch the crumbs on your lap; it was a baby’s diaper! The word we used for ‘napkin’ was ‘serviette’. And I very rarely used the term ‘vacuum cleaner’; we just called them all ‘hoovers’, and there was even a verb, ‘to hoover the rug’!

 

We often get into these kinds of dictionary problems when we read the Bible. It’s a very old collection of books and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But we probably don’t. In our culture we use this word to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, ‘eros’, which meant passion or desire, or ‘phileo’,which meant the personal attachment we feel for family and friends. But the Greek word used in today’s passage is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before. My boss said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

 

I had no answer for him at the time. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this. “You’re right: no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and work up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s telling me to actin a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feelgood toward someone who hurts me, but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. That’s what Jesus is talking about”.

 

So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feelanything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments?What practical difference will they make to our lives?

 

It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds their regrets are usually to do with relationships: their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. As the saying goes, very few people say on their death beds “I really wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us understand that relationships are the central issue in life, and Jesus agrees with this. His two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.

 

The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he’s done for us. These aren’t four separate watertight compartments of our personality – heart, soul, mind and strength. They’re four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.

 

The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; they thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used ‘heart’ they meant the will– the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say, “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – ‘souls’ meaning ‘people’. ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life looks like. A purely emotional response isn’t good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this won’t be easy; it will require effort and discipline and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!

 

In the second command we’re told to love our neighbour and Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus isn’t using a feeling word here. He’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.

 

And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: ‘love your neighbour’. My neighbours are first of all the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live on my street, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.

 

In Luke’s version of this story Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a man from Samaria sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That’s how to be a neighbour: it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of ordinary people in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.

 

So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments aren’t the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has lived and died and risen again to heal our broken relationship with God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and come to God through him, as a free gift. When we’ve done that, then these two great commandments will guide us about how to live in gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to feelings,but loving actionsby which we serve God and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.

 

Let me conclude by saying again that this is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point.’ The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love.” That’s the main issue.

 

Have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God from the hands of Jesus? And am I living out my gratitude for that love by loving God with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. As the saying goes, the important thing is to keep the important thing the important thing! And Jesus is absolutely clear what the important thing is.

Stars or Servants? (a sermon for Oct. 21st on Mark 10.32-45)

I’d like to begin this morning with some words from the bestselling Christian author Philip Yancey:

In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger than life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.

I have also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

I was prepared to admire and honour these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somewhere in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world’.[1]

Stars and servants: that’s what today’s gospel reading is all about. As Yancey notes, our world today holds up the stars for admiration. But so did the ancient world. I learned this week that the phrase in the letter to the Philippians where Paul says ‘though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’ (Philippians 2:6) was actually a political phrase in the ancient world. It was used by the Romans to describe people who aspired to political leadership: ‘He thinks he’s equal to a god’. In fact, in the ancient world you were really only a ‘person’ if you were a star. Ordinary people like you and me were non-persons; we didn’t count.

So people in the ancient word were every bit as obsessed with the cult of the star as we are today. But then along comes Jesus. He has a strong sense of his calling as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, the King who will set God’s people free. That’s what the word ‘Christ’ means. But at the same time he sets himself against the cult of the star. To him, the call to serve God was a call to suffer and die. And so he sets his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem, where everyone knows the opposition is gathering its forces against him:

He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32b-34).

Why is he doing this? Because it goes to the core of what he believes he’s called to do. Look at verse 45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.

This was actually the third time Jesus had warned the twelve about what was ahead for him. They had probably assumed he was going to Jerusalem to claim the throne of David. But Jesus had already told them twice before that this was not going to happen. It was rejection and death that awaited him in Jerusalem, not power and glory.

James and John seem deaf to this. They seem completely unaware of how incongruous it is – right after Jesus has been talking about his suffering and death – to come to him and ask him for power-positions in his government. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v.37). How could they be so deaf? How could they ignore the clear implications of what Jesus was saying?

But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really so surprising; in fact, we do it all the time. There are many sayings of Jesus we ignore. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”. (Luke 6:30) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

I don’t know about you, but I find these words of Jesus very challenging – too challenging to allow them much time at the forefront of my mind. More often than not, I try to pretend they’re not there. I’m not saying this to boast about it or recommend it; I’m just trying to be honest about it. My point is simply that this is what most Christians do: when Jesus says something to us that doesn’t fit into our world view, or that hits too close to home, we screen it out.

That’s probably what James and John had done with Jesus’ words about going to Jerusalem to be executed. They believed he was the Messiah. God would not abandon his Messiah to his enemies; he would protect him and give him victory. That was what they believed. And so when they heard Jesus saying he was going to be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed, they screened it out. “You know Jesus – he’s always saying weird things! Whatever he means by this, it can’t be literally true!”

But Jesus rebukes them for their request:

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v.38).

‘The cup’ is a common symbol in the Old Testament. Here it is in Psalm 78:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draft from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 78:8)

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like a very tasty drink to me! More like a poison pill! This cup is a symbol of God’s judgement poured out on the wicked, and Jesus says he’s got to drink from this cup.

And of course in Genesis the flood is God’s judgement against the wickedness of humanity. ‘Baptism’ in Greek is ‘baptizo’, and it sometimes means ‘to be overwhelmed by a flood’. The sixteenth century Anabaptists sometimes talked about having to go through ‘the baptism of blood’; they were thinking about the times when Jesus warns us to expect suffering and rejection because we follow him. Not everyone will be happy that we follow Jesus; some people will be very upset – just as they were upset with Jesus himself.

James and John seem pretty confident; when Jesus asks if they’re ready for this, they say “We are!” But then Jesus goes on to say, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (vv.39-40).

It’s often been pointed out that the only other time in the gospels where being at the right or the left of Jesus is mentioned is when he is hanging on the cross with two bandits crucified on either side of him, one on his right and the other on his left. To share Jesus’ glory isn’t a glorious experience; his glory is the cross, where he allows himself to be killed rather than inflicting death on others. Those who want to be close to Jesus have to be willing to join him in that place where they choose love even if it costs them their lives. If you want to be with Jesus, that’s where you have to be. James and John literally don’t know what they’re asking.

But Jesus is determined to make it clear to his disciples. So he calls them all together and spells it out for them again. Here are his words, this time in the Revised English Bible translation:

“You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Let’s be clear about this: Jesus isn’t saying, “If you want to be great, be a servant of all, and God will reward you by making you great”. If this were true then service would only be a temporary position; once we’d done enough serving to earn our reward, we could cast off our servant role and sit down on our thrones!

But that’s not what Jesus means. What he’s telling us is that service is greatness. Among all the roles the Kingdom of God has to offer, there’s no higher position than to serve others. Serving is what God does when he comes among us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; he’s God’s anointed king. But his whole purpose is to be a servant; this is why he came. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB)

I’m not talking about allowing others to enslave us. Forced slavery is a very evil thing. What I’m talking about is our offering of ourselves in loving service to others, of our own free will. One of the prayers in our Book of Alternative Services begins like this: ‘O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom’. This is what we’re talking about. We were created to serve; when we freely offer ourselves in loving service to God and to others, we find a freedom we’ve never known before.

All this is bringing us back to the central truth Jesus taught us: that the meaning of life is love for God and our neighbour, in response to God’s love for us. James and John weren’t focusing on God and their neighbour: they were focusing on themselves, their own advancement, their own glory. I don’t need to tell you we’re getting some pretty high-profile examples of this behaviour in international politics right now!

But this isn’t the way Jesus is leading us. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB) Jesus surely had the right to be a star if he wanted, but he chose to be a servant instead.  And in the end, he was not the loser for it.

So what would it mean for us to follow him? What if today, instead of asking Jesus for the best seats in the house, we asked him to show us the person he wants us to serve? Not for any gain we could get out of it, but just because this is the way of love?

In fact, we might not even need to do that. The truth is, I probably don’t need Jesus to tell me who I’m being called to love. Those people are already right in front of me. I already know who they are. I simply need to make the decision to love them as Jesus loves them, and to do it not just in words, but in actions. I’m guessing that when Jesus says, “Follow me”, this is pretty much at the heart of what he’s talking about.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]Philip Yancey: Where is God When it Hurts?(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977, 1990), p.45.

Why Have You Forsaken Me? (a sermon on Psalm 22)

The great writer C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer when he was sixty years old, after only three years of marriage. It was natural for him to turn to writing to help him through the grieving process, and the journal he kept after Joy’s death was eventually published; he called it A Grief Observed. At one point in the book he talks about how he had been taught as a Christian that if he needed God’s help all he had to do was ask and God would be right there. But now, when he desperately needed it, no help seemed to be coming. Rather, it was as if the door had been locked and bolted in his face. At the time of his greatest need he felt completely alone.

I think every honest Christian can identify with Lewis here. It’s true that some of us have stories of going through difficult times and how God gave us a special sense of his presence to help us. Perhaps he even delivered us in some miraculous and unexpected way. Those are wonderful stories and a great strength to our faith as we look back and remember them. But sooner or later most of us experience what Lewis went through: we’re in a time of great need and it seems as if God’s nowhere to be found. Our prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back down at us. The skies are empty and barren. God, if there is a God, seems to be a million miles away.

That’s where our psalm for today starts. If anyone tells you Christians never have those kinds of experiences, ask yourself why God inspired Psalm 22 and gave it to his Church as a prayer for us to pray. The opening words are:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).

This is a psalm in which the experience of godforsakenness is explored thoroughly – and as you may remember, this was the psalm Jesus used when he hung on the Cross. So let’s look a little more closely at it together. It might help you to have it open in front of you as I speak; it’s on page 728 of the B.A.S.

Many of you know I hang around with songwriters a lot, and I hear quite a few hard luck songs. Some of them are carefully constructed but some are not: they sound like they’ve been scribbled down exactly as the words tumbled out of the songwriter’s brain, with no attempt to arrange them in an artful way.

Psalm 22 falls into the first category; It’s carefully arranged, with a real order to it. Let me point it out to you.

The psalm falls easily into two parts; verses 1-20 are the complaint, and verses 21-30 are the thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. The first section also falls into two parts; the first half, verses 1-10, is a sort of ‘A-B-A-B’ structure, in which complaints about God’s absence are followed by remembrances of how it wasn’t like that in years gone by. Look at the structure: verses 1-2 are the complaint, verses 3-5 the remembrance, verses 6-8 the second complaint, and verses 9-10 the second remembrance. Then in 11-20 the psalmist uses animal symbolism to talk about how his enemies are gathering around to gloat over him and destroy him.

Let’s think about this a little more closely. In the passage I read a moment ago, verses 1-2, the psalmist complains that God has forsaken him, and no matter how much he prays and groans and cries out for help there seems to be no answer. But then in verses 3-5 he goes on to say:

Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.

Do you understand what the writer’s doing here? At first glance it seems as if he’s turning from the black mood of verses 1-2 and putting his trust in the God of Israel. But when you look more closely you can see that’s not the point. What he’s actually saying is, ‘There are all those stories of how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’

The same thing happens a few verses later. After the psalmist complains about the fact that God’s treating him like an insignificant worm, he goes on to recount how people mock him and throw his faith in his face:

All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him”.(vv.7-8)

The implication is, ‘He hasn’t rescued you, so obviously he doesn’t delight in you after all, does he? You thought you were some sort of special Christian, did you? Well, think again!’

‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-10 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since before he was born; ‘You were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and he asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned like this?

Note that this isn’t a private grief; it’s public. His enemies taunt him; they gather around and threaten him, like a herd of wild bulls or a pack of rabid dogs. Whatever this trouble is – and it isn’t spelled out anywhere in the psalm – whatever it is, he’s in mortal danger and it seems as if there’s no one to rescue him.

Well, which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? Think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who just don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong after all – perhaps I’m really nothing to God. Or maybe God’s just some sort of cosmic monster doing experiments on us, not the loving Father we thought he was’. You see, for some people the worst thing this sort of suffering does isn’t to stop them believing in God but to stop them believing in God’s love for them.

Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that. It doesn’t try to give rational answers; it simply enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. This is the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. This is the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to even show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. This is the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of God’s companionship in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.

And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. We read that as he hung there, ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’(Mark 15:34). As Jesus was growing up he would have learned the psalms by heart. Now in his hour of greatest need the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the God he felt had abandoned him.

You see, the early Christians developed a new way of reading what we call the Old Testament. They came to believe Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the story had been leading up to all along. And because of that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the highest revelation of God’s love and God’s will, and that the whole story up ‘til then had been pointing to him.

So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him”’ (vv.7-8), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of Jesus hanging on the cross and the chief priests mocking him, ‘saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’”’ (Matthew 27:42-43). They read verse 16, ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’, and thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing’ (v.17).

Maybe you think this is a little fanciful; yes, we can see there are some similarities, but the writer of the psalm wasn’t really writing about Jesus, was he, hundreds of years before? Surely he was writing about some suffering he was going through himself. All these connections are co-incidences, aren’t they?

You can think that way until you get to the last part of the psalm. In this part, the psalmist thanks God for the deliverance he has experienced, and then he promises to tell all his brothers and sisters in the congregation about it. He says he’s going to encourage everyone who fears the Lord to praise him and all the Israelites to stand in awe of God. Furthermore, he’d obviously made a vow that if God delivered him, he would show his gratitude by caring for the poor, and he’s determined to do that.

So far so good, but now look on. He says in verses 26-27, ‘All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations’.And then, even more extravagantly, he says in verse 28, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him’ – that’s the dead, of course! So he’s saying, ‘Because of what God has done for me all the Gentiles from far away will start worshipping Israel’s God, and even those who have died will bow down to him’. This is some spectacular sort of deliverance, don’t you think, if it’s going to have this sort of dramatic effect? It’s certainly more than ‘Thank you, God, for helping me get over my feelings of low self-esteem!’

Jesus cried out to God on the Cross, and God delivered him – not from the suffering, but through the suffering and death to the bright new morning of the resurrection. And because of his death and resurrection the Gospel message went out beyond the borders of Israel to the ends of the earth, and people from every nation have come to believe Jesus is God’s anointed King. Those who would have been lost in death have found their hope in him because of his promise of resurrection and eternal life. And ‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him’ (v.25). ‘My descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done’ (vv.29-30).

So this psalm speaks to us of Jesus, who went through the terrible experience of Godforsakenness on the cross. He cried out to his Father for help and it seemed there was no answer. So when it seems to you as if there’s no answer for your prayer – when it seems as if the skies are barren and there’s no God there to help – this psalm assures you that you’re not alone. God himself has experienced Godforsakenness. God the Son looked for help from God the Father, and, from that time in the Garden of Gethsemane Thursday night until the resurrection morning on Sunday, it seemed as if there was no answer. He carried the burden of human sin and evil on his own shoulders, alone, with no one to help him. So we can pray the words of this psalm with him, confident that he knows the worst of what we’re experiencing, and more besides. As Hebrews 2:16 says, ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested’.

One more thing. The suffering on the cross made no sense when Jesus was going through it, but looking back on it now we know it was taken up into God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world. And I believe one day we too will see that not one second of our suffering has been wasted. That may be an incomprehensible thought to us right now – I have no idea how it can possibly be true – but God is infinitely bigger than my ideas, and one thing we know about the God of the Bible is that he specializes in bringing good out of evil. Evil won’t have the last word. Love will have the last word, and when we finally see God face to face all our pain and all our questions will be swallowed up forever in love.

Note: quotations from Psalm 22 are from the version found in the Book of Alternative Services and are versified according to this translation. All other biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.