Honesty

One of my fundamental convictions is that life goes much better for us in the long run if we tell the truth. Don’t try to gild the lily. Don’t make promises (about the spiritual life, for instance) which aren’t going to be fulfilled. Be a real human being with others, not a fake superhero.

What stops us doing that? I would suggest two things: having something to cover up, and having nothing to cover up.

The first is obvious, of course: if I’ve got a skeleton in my closet, I don’t want you to know about it. If I’m in a relationship with you and there’s a big, dirty secret about my life, my fear is going to be that if you find out about it, you’ll end the relationship. So I’m going to do all I can to keep that secret in the dark. In other words, the root of my lie is my fear of being rejected.

But what does the second thing mean: ‘having nothing to cover up’? I mean that we’re trying to cover up ‘nothing’. Or at least, we think it’s ‘nothing’. I don’t see myself as a particularly impressive person – not especially smart, or particularly good looking, or unusually clever in any obvious way. I think I’ve got ‘nothing’ to offer, and I want to cover up that fact (at least, in my own mind it’s a fact). So I’m going to play a role, pretending to ‘have it all together’, in an effort to pull the wool over your eyes and make a good impression on you.

I think the second factor may be far more powerful – and far more common – than the first. And at its root, it’s about fear too – the fear of being tried and found wanting. The fear of being discovered to be the fraud we believe ourselves to be, deep down inside.

I think in some people these factors may lessen with age. I’d like to think they are lessening with me. I don’t have that many people left in my life I need to impress. I think that pretty well all the people I want to love me, already love me, and have proved over and over again that they’re pretty stubborn about loving me. So there’s not a great amount to gain for me in lying. As I get older, it’s harder for me to keep track of my own lies, anyway; it’s far easier just to tell the truth!

But it’s not that way for everyone. The current occupant of the White House, for example, seems to have an enormous need to fake his own impressiveness every hour of every day. Sometimes (often) I think the only reason he’s in politics is to shore up his own desperately fragile self-esteem.

The problem with getting people to love a fake identity, of course, is that you then have to sustain that fake identity. And that takes a lot of psychological energy – especially if, like some people, you have a number of fake identities, depending on the company you keep.

I believe it’s much better – and in the long run it may even be much easier – just to be real. Jesus said “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, New Living Translation). Seeing the world as it is, and accepting that reality and living accordingly – that is a liberating thing. And who is the one who truly knows the world ‘as it is’? Surely the one who made it has the best view!

That includes seeing myself as I am, knowing that God sees that reality and loves me anyway, and being willing to be that person in the sight of others as well. This is me, warts and all, fears and hopes, successes and failures, loves and hates. God loves me despite all that, and God calls me to love the other imperfect human beings in my life, too, and to let them love me. And if we can do that, I believe that in the end life will be a lot better for us.

Tripolar Spirituality (a sermon on Matthew 22:34-40)

Today I want to talk to you about ‘Tripolar Spirituality’. If you don’t have a clue what that means, don’t worry about it – you will when I’m done! 

The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are very slippery; they seem to change their meaning depending on the company they keep. I hang out with a lot of people who would probably describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. When they say they’re ‘not religious’, they mean they don’t identify with any specific religious tradition like Christianity or Islam, or any organized religious institution. But what do they mean by ‘spiritual’? That depends on the person. Some mean they believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with our material universe. Some mean they believe in some sort of God, although they would resist any attempt to define that God. Others simply mean they believe there’s more to life than material success – there’s feelings and relationships, art and music and all these other things that make life worthwhile.

The word ‘spirituality’ doesn’t appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t use it. We need to be careful, though, because it’s such a slippery word. The Bible resists any notion of a spiritual life that’s just about spiritual thrills, or that sees this material world as less important to God than some other, non-material place. In the Bible true spirituality is always earthed in present reality. It’s not just about feelings but loving actions. 

In today’s gospel reading Jesus puts these loving actions right at the centre of God’s will for us. He’s standing in the Temple in Jerusalem; in two or three days he will be hanging on the Cross. The members of the religious establishment have been challenging him and asking him all kinds of trick questions to try to trap him into saying things that will get him into trouble. In today’s reading an expert in religious law is the one asking the question: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus is quick with his reply – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had answered this question several times over the course of his ministry:

Jesus replied, “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments’ (Matthew 22:37-40, New Living Translation).

So the essential centre of the spiritual life, in the teaching of Jesus, is loving relationships.

The word ‘love’ in the original language is ‘agapé’. For those of you who don’t know, I should explain that the Greek language the New Testament was written in has several different words for love. There’s ‘storge’, which means the affection that members of a family have for each other – parents and children, brothers and sisters and so on. ‘Phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’, is usually about friendship. And of course there’s also ‘eros’, which doesn’t just refer to what we would call today ‘erotic’ love – it means the love that responds to some beauty or goodness in the beloved.

Agapé is different – it’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper. It’s the greater love that causes someone to give their life for their friends.

Now I want you to notice that in Jesus’ teaching this love-centred spirituality is tri-polar. In other words, it’s a relationship between three entities – the self, the neighbour, and God. These three relationships can’t possibly be separated in the teaching of Jesus. If one of them is missing, what we’re talking about is not true biblical spirituality; it’s some aberration of it.

Let’s explore this for a minute; in fact, let’s build it from the ground up.

Let’s start by thinking about monopolar spirituality. Monopolar spirituality has only one focal point: the Self. It’s all about me! 

In monopolar spirituality there isn’t necessarily a god out there anywhere. There might be, and there might not be, but even if there is, he’s secondary to the main character on the stage: me! To the person who takes this approach, spirituality is primarily self-exploration.

This seems strange to us, but there’s a logic to it. What would motivate a person to want to explore this kind of spirituality? Often it’s the failure of the materialistic approach to life. They’ve trodden the well worn path – get a good education, get a good job, work long hours, earn good money, buy the nice things everyone says you deserve – but they’ve found something’s still missing inside. Maybe at first they didn’t want to believe it; maybe they resisted it. But eventually they admitted to themselves “I’m not happy. The conventional way of living isn’t satisfying me. There’s a great big hole inside, and I need to learn how to fill it”. 

So they think about it, and they come to the entirely accurate conclusion that in the end who you are is far more important than what you own. But they’ve spent so long defining themselves in terms of work and success and possessions that they aren’t really sure who they are, so they go on this journey of self-exploration. “I need to get to know myself; I need to find out what’s really important to me. I need to learn to like myself and love myself”.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this; I think it can be very valuable. And I also want to point out that people who take this approach aren’t necessarily ignoring the other people in their lives. In fact, their motivation can be very good. They might say, “There’s no one in the world I can change except myself, so I want to work on myself so that I can be the best possible ‘me’ for the sake of the people I love”. Which of course is true and admirable.

But it does fall short of the spirituality Jesus commends to us in today’s gospel. And if it’s left to itself, monopolar spirituality can be a prison in which the whole focus of my life is me, and everyone else is just a supporting actor in my play. And in the end it will disappoint us, because we weren’t meant to live unto ourselves alone. 

Alright, so let’s go on to bipolar spirituality. Bipolar spirituality has nothing to do with bipolar disorder, which we used to call ‘manic-depression’. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness, a personality disorder in which the person alternates back and forth between two poles – euphoria and depression. Bipolar spirituality is spirituality that takes place between two entities – God and the self, God and me. In bipolar spirituality the focus is on my private relationship with God. God loves me, and I learn to love God and live my life in relationship with God. Other people may be present but they’re not essential; in fact, they might even be a distraction.

So a person who’s into bipolar spirituality will be very interested in disciplines and habits that help them grow their private relationship with God. They’re happy to read the Bible by themselves and they might get very good at it. They learn how to pray alone, and maybe they learn how to use silence and meditation to develop a close sense of God’s presence with them. Maybe they discover that silent retreats can be helpful, and off they go for two or three days to a retreat house where they don’t talk to anyone else – they just explore the silence and listen for the voice of God. Maybe, if they’re not careful, they even start to see their neighbours and their family as a bit of a distraction from God – something they have to get away from if they’re really going to feel God close to them. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret: some of the classic books of the Christian tradition were written by people who were masters of bipolar spirituality. But when it comes to teaching us how to live in families with small children who take up all our possible time for silence – or how to live as a Christian when we’re trying to hold down a demanding job – they don’t have much help to offer. Nor are they really all that interested in making this world a better place for others. They’ll do it – they’ll even do it gladly – but they see it as an optional extra, not an essential part of their spirituality.

I’ve learned a lot from bipolar spirituality through the years; you could say it’s my native country. I was a classic introvert when I was a child – so shy that when we had visitors I was the one who would slip off to my room, close the door and read a book. I’m quite happy in my own company and it’s natural for me to pray alone and read the Bible alone. And I’m sorry to say I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap my friend Harold Percy once described in these words: “I can have a great relationship with God all by myself, as long as people don’t keep getting in my face!” 

The skills we can learn from bipolar spirituality are good ones – how to pray and read the Bible for ourselves, and how to listen for God in silence. But they aren’t enough. Why not? Because the New Testament writers clearly indicate that we’re designed for something more. Do you want to love Jesus? Well, in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats Jesus says we do that by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners and caring for those in need. This is part of our spirituality; it’s one of the ways we love God. ‘If we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?’, says John (1 John 4:20, NLT), and he goes on to say, ‘And he has given us this command: those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters’ (1 John 4:21 NLT). 

And not just Christians, of course. In Luke’s version of this gospel passage the two great commandments are followed immediately by the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable a foreigner – one outside the Jewish faith – reaches across the religious boundary and helps a Jewish traveller who’s been beaten up and left for dead on the roadside. This man, Jesus said, was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits. So the call to love your neighbour crosses boundaries of race or nationality or religious tradition; anyone who needs our help is a neighbour to us.

So Christian spirituality isn’t monopolar or bipolar: it’s tripolar spirituality. It’s about the relationship between God, my neighbour and myself. It starts with God. John says, ‘This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other’ (1 John 4:10-11, NLT).

God is the source of all love. He pours out his love on us, sending us all we need for daily life on this planet, and then he comes among us in Jesus as one of us and offers himself on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins. We’re all in debt to that love. We’re alive because of it. We have eternal life because of it. That’s the solid ground everything else is built on.

So we respond to God’s love by loving him back, and we do this in actions, not just feelings. We ask his guidance for our daily lives. We learn to live by his commandments. We learn to pray and spend time with him, and listen to his voice as it comes to us in the pages of the Bible and in the silence. We love him, says Jesus, with all our heart and soul and mind – thinking and feeling and choosing, all in the service of God.

And that service leads us to others. Just as God loves us, he also loves every single person on this planet. Everyone is made in his image; everyone is special to him. And he has a special care for the poor and needy: that comes loud and clear through Old and New Testaments, through the voices of Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and his Apostles. We can’t be in right relationship with God if we refuse to be in right relationship with others. So we learn to spend time with others and listen to them; we learn to be kind to them and serve them in practical ways. We learn to forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. And as Christians we come together with them to pray and hear God’s word and share the sacraments. 

This is Jesus’ vision of what life is all about. The expert in religious law asked him which commandments were the greatest; today we might ask “What are the most important things in life?” Jesus responds by telling us what he thinks life is really all about. 

So let’s learn to live this tripolar spirituality of love – God, my neighbour, myself in right relationship with each other. This morning perhaps we need to ask ourselves ‘Which pole is the weakest for me?” Am I absorbed in God and my neighbour but so neglectful of myself that I sacrifice my health and ultimately my ability to help others because I don’t pay attention to my own physical and mental and emotional well-being? Am I what’s sometimes called a ‘second-commandment Christian’ – really into caring for others, but nervous and unsure of myself when it comes to relating to God? Or am I a ‘me and God’ sort of person who sometimes unconsciously sees others as a distraction from my true spiritual life?

Where are you in this picture? Where am I? What help do I need to grow in the area I’m weakest in? Who should I ask about that help? Let’s think about these things in silence for a moment, and then take it to God in prayer.

Conversion and Growth (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months.

Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they got busy again right away spreading the gospel. They found a Jewish synagogue and for three successive Sabbaths they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts about the Messiah and said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.

Some people believed them, and a little church was born. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason (who had been hosting them) and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws! They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.

We know Paul was worried about these baby Christians and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned Paul was overjoyed to hear all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote; that’s the letter we read from this morning.

It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the Thessalonian Christians had had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.

Second, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ekklesia; we translate it ‘church’, but it actually meant a gathering, even a town hall meeting. Their ekklesia had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, meeting in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to written scriptures, no prayer books or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. But apparently that was enough! The whole world, Paul said, was telling the story of their conversion.

What can we learn from them today? I suggest we can learn first what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, what Christian growth looks like.

First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience that started when he went through a terrible storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith and commitment to Christ. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’ – that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.

But for many of us in our church today our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.

Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to ask the gods to grant them fertility; not to have done so would have been as foolish to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.

To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked to leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars and computers and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.

So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:

For the people of those regions report about us the kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.

Today we’re surrounded by false gods. They demand our trust and loyalty – and sacrifices. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so we can have all that it offers. Closely related is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives – or the lives of our enemies – to its thirst for blood.

For some of us the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us, we think the ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods can never deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.

We Christians believe there is one true God who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe Jesus is our most accurate picture of what God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.

The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. It’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.

So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Most of Paul’s first hearers were probably illiterate, and Paul knew he’d be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. So he got pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith. One of those summaries was this triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.

First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis. He was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendants; Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.

In the New Testament we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.

True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few years ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. I guess that for the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.

What’s the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of yours? If we were on trial for our faith would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge for you and me?

Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word Paul uses for love is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet or when he gives his life on the cross for us.

It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.

In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What’s our labour of love? What’s mine? What’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?

Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan; even though we know and follow Jesus, there’s still a lot of evil in the world and in us. Those Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang on to hope have a better chance of survival. Christians believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him – and because of that, we can be people of stubborn hope. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark we can still have joy in him. And we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.

Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?

Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us; they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth would we want to be like them? So our Christian life is a constant process of turning once again from these false gods to the one true God Jesus has revealed to us. What’s your favourite idol? What’s mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another do this?

Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives – the love that shows itself in hard work to help others – the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.

My week

Every now and again people ask me what an Anglican priest does all week long. So I thought I’d let you know what this week looked like.

I start each day with a time of personal prayer and journalling. Then Marci and I have tea and pray Morning Prayer together.

Monday is my day off, so I stayed home.

A good part of my week is spent at my desk doing ‘preparation’. Prep work this week has included:

  • Preparing a sermon for Sunday (from start to finish this takes about 6 hours)
  • Other Sunday prep (intercessions for our early service, annotating my bulletins, church setup, posting sermons on various websites etc.)
  • Reading and preparation for our vestry meeting Wednesday night
  • Reading and preparation for our Bible Study group Thursday morning
  • Preparation for our Lay Evangelist training day Saturday (this took about 6 hours to complete)
  • Preparing and sending out a questionnaire about small groups in our church
  • Preparation for a seniors’ home service next week (it’s Tuesday morning so I won’t have time to prepare for it next week).
  • Planning for next week, and some advance planning too.
  • A little bit of reading and study (I’ve been working my way through Turnaround and Beyond, by Ron Crandall).

Meetings and appointments:

  • Tuesday I met with my office administrator at 9.00 to plan our week.
  • From 11.00 to noon Tuesday I had a computer link meeting with the search committee for a new national director for Threshold Ministries (I’m on that search committee).
  • Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to have coffee with a clergy colleague – we meet from time to time to encourage each other.
  • Tuesday evening I spent a couple of hours with a family from our church – visited with the kids and read to them, then after their bedtime I had a good long conversation with the couple.
  • Wednesday I had a meeting of our vestry (church board) in the evening
  • Thursday morning I had a morning Men’s Bible Study at a local coffee shop 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Also Thursday morning I had a meeting of the search committee for wardens and vestry members for next year 10:30 – 11:30.
  • Our lunch bunch (AKA ‘seniors’ lunch’) met at the church from 11.30 – 1.30. Good time of fellowship was had by all.
  • Later in the afternoon I went back downtown for a meeting with my bishop.
  • Tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be leading a formation day for our diocesan Lay Evangelists in Training. It takes place at St. Margaret’s and will keep me busy from about 8.45 a.m. – 3.30 p.m.
  • Sunday I’ll be at the church by 8.30 a.m.; services are 9.00 and 10.30 a.m., with coffee hour after the second service. I’ll get home about 1 p.m.

Sometimes I have pastoral appointments Sunday afternoon; this week I don’t have any, so I’ll be taking my sabbath from 1.00 p.m. Sunday afternoon to 8.30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

And there you have it: a week in the life of a parish priest!

Giving Up Our Feeble Excuses (a sermon on Matthew 22.1-14)

I suspect that a moment ago, when our gospel reading ended with the words ‘This is the gospel of Christ’, a few of you had difficulty replying ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. You might even be thinking “I was told the word gospel meant ‘good news’. How is it good news that God loses his temper, destroys people and burns their city? How is it good news that people get bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How can that possibly be the gospel of Jesus Christ? It sounds more like Donald Trump on a Tweet storm!”

Usually when we react viscerally to a scripture reading like this, it means we need to find a different way into it. Sometimes when we look at something from a different direction, the view can suddenly be transformed. So instead of taking the role of God’s judge and jury in this reading, maybe we should take a different point of view. Maybe we should put ourselves into the story as the ones who refused the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. Maybe the question we should be asking is “Why do we do that? Why refuse God’s invitation to the greatest joy imaginable to human beings? And what sort of feeble substitutes do we prefer instead?”

Let’s set the scene for a minute. This Gospel reading follows on closely from the second half of Matthew chapter 21. The scene is the temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. The chief priests and elders have come to Jesus where he’s teaching in the temple courts. “Who gave you authority to do this?” they ask.

In reply Jesus reminds them of his baptism by John at the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit filled him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son”. He then begins a series of parables. The first concerns two sons. The father came to each of them and asked them to go work in his vineyard. One of them said he would, but then did nothing about it. The other refused, but later changed his mind and went out to work after all. “Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John”, Jesus said; “They turned away from their sins and accepted his message, but you people did nothing about it, despite all your fine words” (see Matthew 21:23-32).

Then comes a second parable, a well-known one in ancient Israel. A landowner has a vineyard and he lets it out to tenants, hoping for a share of the crop as his rent. “Ah”, the hearers would have thought, “We know this story – it’s in Isaiah! The landowner is God, and the tenants are the leaders and people of Israel”. But then Jesus gives the story a twist: when harvest comes the tenants refuse to pay the rent. When the landowner sends servants, they beat them up, and when he finally sends his son, they kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. Remember, this story is told in the Temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. Let the reader understand!

Jesus ends the story by asking the question, “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Good thinking, priests and elders! Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (see Matthew 21:33-46).

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is the Son of God, sent by God to the tenants of his vineyard, asking for the fruit of holiness and faithfulness. But what does he get instead? Leaders who are in love with their own power. People who assume they’re on the inside track with God, but there’s very little real love of God in their hearts, and very little practice of love in their lives. They have the name of God’s people, but actually they love something else more than God. And because of that, the vineyard will be taken from them and given to someone else. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the message of Jesus had gone out to the Gentile world, and Gentiles were pouring into the church, full of the joy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the majority of the original invitees – Israel – continued to reject Jesus and his message.

And that brings us to today’s parable. A wedding banquet was a common symbol for the kingdom of God in the time of Jesus. This is the marriage of earth and heaven! For so many people God seems far away; his presence is just a dream they long for, not a daily reality! But Jesus has come to change that; he’s come among us to reconcile us with God and one another. Already the work of reconciliation has begun; Jesus has gone to the Cross out of love for all people, forgiving us rather than taking revenge on us. Now the invitations are going out to all the world: Come to the feast! Any day now, it’s going to take place!

In the time of Jesus there were no clocks, so you couldn’t say “Come to the wedding banquet next Saturday at 3.00 p.m.” Preliminary invitations would go out, but when the actual day came people just had to make sure they were ready. When the food was cooked and everything was prepared, the servants would go out again: “The feast is ready – come and enjoy it!”

That’s what happens in Jesus’ story. The original invitees are the people of Israel, and especially their leaders. They know there’s a seat at the banquet for them, ready to be claimed. But when the time actually comes, suddenly they aren’t interested. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (vv.5-6). Luke’s version of the story goes into more detail:

‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come”’ (Luke 14:18-20).

So these are folks who have accepted the original invitation, but when the day arrives, they suddenly find that they have something better to do. Their love for the King and his Son takes second place: there’s business to take care of, land to buy, people to please. God will understand, won’t he?

Let me ask you: who is really being hurt here?

Consider this: Long before anything existed – long before there was even a ‘long before’ – there was God. God has always existed. God is three in one and one in three, a perfect community, full of love and totally satisfied. It’s impossible to imagine God being dependant on us for happiness. God had no needs that God could not take care of. All joy, all love, all life, was in God, to a degree that would fry our brains if we tried to imagine it.

But then God decided to create. And what God created was vast. We can’t even take in the sort of numbers involved. Millions of light years. Billions of stars. Fourteen billion years between the big bang and us. Stars spinning. Planets orbiting. We feeble little humans have only begun to explore it all, even with all our modern scientific knowledge.

This is the God who in joy decides that earth needs five hundred thousand species of beetles! The God who puts the most beautiful creatures on the planet down in the depths of the ocean where it’s totally dark, where no one can see them except him. The God who designed the incredible mystery of DNA. The God who created Mount Robson, who thought dinosaurs were a cool idea, who defies artistic rules and paints the skyline in orange and gold in incredible sunsets.

Wouldn’t you love to know a God like that? I mean, it’s a scary thought, given how much power he must have, but the thought of actually having a relationship with that God – learning from him – living your life in his company – doesn’t it get your heart beating just a little bit faster?

Well, the Bible says, that’s exactly what God wants! That’s exactly why God created you! God wants you to live for all eternity in his presence. He created you for the pleasure of knowing you, and he wants you to have the pleasure of knowing him. And as you begin to know him, you will gradually discover that it’s the most absorbing and thrilling and fulfilling experience you can have in your life. Getting rich can’t compare to it. Being successful can’t compare to it. Sex can’t compare to it. They’re all fleeting and temporary pleasures. What he’s offering is something that starts much more quietly and unobtrusively, but gradually grows into a joy we can’t begin to imagine right now. When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, he’s saying “This is what life is all about. Find this, and you’ll find the very reason you were born. Nothing less than this will satisfy”.

But to be honest, I don’t always believe him.

In a sermon preached during World War Two, C.S. Lewis said these words:

‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

We’re offered the wedding banquet, and we choose the five yoke of oxen instead. I mean, oxen can be cool, but do you really want to choose plodding through a muddy field behind oxen, rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet? Really?

Well, this is me. Maybe it’s you, too, I don’t know, but I know for sure that it’s me.

Let’s get real here. Let me tell you about a conversation that plays itself out in my head from time to time. “I’m late this morning, Lord, and I’ve got work commitments. I’m going to have to take a rain check on prayer this morning”. “Why are you late, Tim?” “Well, I accidentally stayed up too late last night, Lord, and I overslept this morning”. “Why did you stay up late, Tim?” “Um, I’d rather not say, Lord”. “Come on, Tim – are you seriously trying to fool me. You do remember who I am, right?” “Oh – all right, I was on the computer, Lord!” “Doing what, Tim? Reading about the suffering of refugees, or feasting your mind on thrilling theology?” “Er – not exactly…” “Well, then…?” “Oh, if you must know, I was on Facebook! Someone on Facebook was wrong, and I had to correct them!” “And what time did you finish correcting them?” “2 a.m.!”

So who’s suffering in this scenario? Me, of course. I’m the one building the mud pie in the slum. I’m the one choosing the muddy field and the five yoke of oxen rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet.

I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t think God has to cast me into the outer darkness. Usually, I’m the one who casts myself there. I choose the oxen in the muddy field, and then I experience the consequences of it. God doesn’t take away my joy; I can do that all by myself.

So in this parable Jesus is giving us a loving warning: choices have consequences. I’m sorry, Great Big Sea, but there is no such thing as living ‘consequence-free’! If I choose to live my life without taking time each day for prayer, the consequence is going to be that God is a distant rumour to me, not a living Father. If I only go to church on Sunday when I don’t have a better offer, then I’m going to miss out on the consistent experience of listening to the scriptures, praying with God’s people and being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. If I choose the couch and the TV rather than caring for the lonely and cultivating better relationships with my family members, then I’m going to experience more and more loneliness and depression myself.

This is not about fear of punishment. It’s about being offered everlasting joy, and choosing something less than that. I wonder what your favourite joy substitute is? And I wonder how it stacks up against the King’s wedding banquet?

So here’s the challenge. The invitation has been sent out. It’s in your hands and mine. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) or “in all its fullness” as the NIV says. The banquet table is set. Your seat is reserved. Now’s the time to come.

Don’t put it off. Don’t leave it to tomorrow – or when the kids get a bit older – or when you retire and have more time. You have all the time in the world to do the things God is asking you to do.

He does not ask you to do the impossible.  We all have the same number of hours each day; we all make choices about how we use them. The question is not about how I’m going to use next week, or next year, or ten years from now. It’s about what I’m going to do today. Mud pies in a slum, or the joy of the beach and the ocean? Five yoke of oxen in a muddy field, or the wedding banquet of the king? The joy of gradually growing closer to the God whose love keeps all of creation in existence, or the quiet desperation of realizing that my favourite excuse isn’t nearly as attractive as I thought it was?

Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Who knows whether or not they have a tomorrow? I don’t, and neither do you. The only day we have is today. So today, let’s accept the invitation from the king and come to his wedding banquet.

Selfish Generosity (a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

When Marci and I started our married life, I was working in the parish of Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan. Arborfield was a farming community and Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations reserves. There was a lot of driving involved. On Sundays we had a 10 a.m. service in Arborfield, I went home for a quick lunch, then left at noon for the 1.30 service at Red Earth – that was a 60 mile drive, about 40% of it on gravel roads. After the Red Earth service I then drove another 25 miles on gravel to Shoal Lake for the 3.30 service, after which I drove home just in time for a 6.00 supper. During the week I spent one day in Red Earth and one day in Shoal Lake, so you can imagine that I got to know the inside of my car fairly well!

To get to the two reserves from Arborfield I had to drive through a larger community, Carrot River. A couple of years after we moved to Arborfield a man called Marvin started a Christian bookstore in Carrot River. This was years before Chapters thought of putting a coffee shop in a bookstore, but Marvin always had a pot of coffee on, and I got into the habit of stopping in there from time to time when I was going back and forth to the reserves.

Marvin was always glad to see me and before long he started giving me books for free. It got a little embarrassing after a while. I remember saying to him one day, “Marvin, the Christian bookstore business in Carrot River can’t be very lucrative. You’re never going to make much of a profit if you keep giving me books for free”. And he smiled and said, “I know, but I’m having a lot of fun doing it!”

Marvin, you see, had discovered the secret of selfish generosity.

That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? What do I mean by ‘selfish generosity’? Let’s explore it together for a few minutes.

Our epistle for today is the last part of a unit in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – a church Paul had founded himself a few years before. In these chapters Paul is writing to his friends in Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. If there is one phrase that sums up the theme of these two chapters, it would be ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (9:7). We’re sinful human beings and so our natural tendency is to be grudging givers; Jesus, on the other hand, is working on renovating our hearts, and so he wants us to learn that one of the great secrets to a joyful and happy life is generosity.

When you go home today I would encourage you to read through the whole of 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 to get the context. In these chapters Paul points to Jesus as the great example of gospel generosity: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). He talks about generosity in the context of our total Christian commitment, talking about his friends in the churches in Macedonia and using them as an example for the Corinthians: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (8:5). He talks about the principle of kingdom equality: ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’ (8:15). And he also talks about generosity in poverty: the Macedonian Christians were poor but they gave anyway because they loved to give. In other words, if we wait until we think we can afford it, we’ll probably never start!

Today’s passage comes at the end of the section and our theme is ‘Selfish Generosity’. The question Paul is considering is this: Yes, there’s an obvious payoff for the Jerusalem Christians in the Corinthians’ generosity, but is there a payoff for the Corinthians, too? Is their giving for their benefit as well as Jerusalem’s? Paul thinks it is, and he spells out that payoff in our passage. Listen to verses 6-9:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor, his righteousness endures forever’.

Now I would suggest that this is not the normal way we think of ‘giving to charity’. Suppose I get one of those phone calls from STARS ambulance or cancer research or whatever, asking me for a donation of $100. Now, I’m a selfish human being like anyone else, so my first thought is going to be ‘What had I planned to spend that $100 on?’ I’m in competition with the charity, you see? If I keep the money, it can be of benefit to me. If I give it to them, it will be a benefit to them, which will probably be a good thing, but I won’t get anything out of it.

Paul challenges this way of thinking. The farmer who plants seed in the ground isn’t making a donation, he’s making an investment. The food he’s able to grow will be a benefit to others because they’ll be able to eat and not starve, but it will also be a benefit to the farmer, because it will bring him an income. Paul is challenging me to rethink my perspective on generosity. My gifts to the poor are not a donation; they’re an investment in the work of God’s kingdom. That work will benefit others, but it will also benefit me. I’m not just giving gifts, I’m sowing seeds, and in good time I’ll be able to reap a harvest.

So what exactly are those benefits? Paul points out three things. First, he promises that if we are generous to others, God will provide for our needs as well. In verse 8 he says,

‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And in verses 10-11 he goes on to say,

‘He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’.

Note carefully what Paul says here. He doesn’t make an unconditional promise that God will give us everything we want. In fact, in other places in the New Testament Paul works hard to reduce the list of things we want; in 1 Timothy he says that godliness with contentment is great gain, and he defines contentment as being happy with food and clothing (I think if he’d lived in Alberta he would have added ‘a warm house’ as well!).

So he isn’t saying, ‘If you give generously God will reward you by pandering to your materialistic lifestyle’. Rather, as the New Living Translation puts it in verse 8, ‘God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others’. Do you see God’s priority here? It’s not that I’ll be able to buy an even nicer and more expensive guitar! It’s that I’ll always have enough to provide for my basic needs, and then to continue to be generous to the poor. So it’s not an extravagant payoff, but it is a payoff!

So the first benefit is a promise that God will provide for our needs too. The second benefit is the enduring benefit of a righteous character. In verse 9 he quotes from Psalm 112, which talks about the righteous person:

‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever’.

The Bible has a lot to say about the difference between a benefit that is only temporary and one that lasts forever. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out with us – nothing material, that is. You’ve heard the story of the two millionaires who were discussing a friend of theirs, also a millionaire, who had died recently. One of them said, “I wonder how much he left?” The other replied, “Everything!” When we stand face to face before our maker, the size of the bank account that our relatives are fighting over won’t make a bit of difference. What will make a difference is our righteous character.

And what does righteousness mean? This quote from Psalm 112 makes it clear that it includes generosity to the poor. ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. It’s not just about doing our best never to harm anyone; as someone once said, ‘a fence post can be a good Christian by that standard’! It’s about practical love for those who really need it. If we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the kind of people whose greatest joy is to be generous toward those who are in need, that is a benefit that will be with us forever.

Think about it for a minute; everyone thinks that when they die, they want to go to heaven. But what sort of a place is heaven? In heaven there’s no selfishness, no greed, no ownership of any kind. What kind of person can enjoy that sort of place? Can a selfish and greedy person enjoy it? Isn’t it more true to say that a selfish and greedy person who went to heaven would find it to be hell? So shouldn’t we consider it an urgent priority to ask God to change our hearts so that we can be the kind of people who will find heaven to be heaven and not hell?

Are you beginning to see how generosity can be a real benefit to us? I hope you are.

Paul has pointed out two benefits to us: God will provide for our needs, and we will have the lasting benefit of a righteous character, which will make us the kind of people who can arrive in God’s eternal kingdom and actually enjoy it! But there’s a third thing: the benefit of the prayers of those we have helped. Look at verse 14:

‘…while they (that is, the Christians in Jerusalem) long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

Actually, there are two sides to this. In verse 12 Paul refers to prayers of thanksgiving, and in verse 14 to prayers of intercession. It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind. This wonderful gift arrives in Jerusalem, and the poor Christians there are filled with joy, because they realize that they aren’t going to starve after all. “Thank you, God, for those wonderful Christians over in Corinth!” they say; “Thank you for their love and generosity. Please bless them and give them all they need, and help them grow as followers of Jesus too”.

The most wonderful gift anyone can give us is to pray for us. As I sit at the front of the church week by week, I listen to our intercessors leading the prayers of the people, and they all do such a great job. I’m especially grateful to those who pray for me and for my family as part of their prayers. And I’m grateful for my Mum, who prays for me every night; I send her my calendar every week and I know she uses it in her prayers and asks God to bless the specific things I’m doing in this parish. And she always asks me if there’s anyone else in this parish she can pray for. You can’t put a dollar value on that; it’s priceless.

So, here are three benefits Paul points out to us: this is the payoff for our growth as joyful givers. First, God will provide for our needs too, so that we can continue to be generous. Second, we’ll be growing in righteous character, so that when we finally arrive in God’s Kingdom we’ll be the kind of people who can enjoy it, rather than finding it to be hell on earth. Thirdly, when the poor receive our gifts their hearts will overflow with thanksgiving to God and with prayers for us, and those prayers are worth more than a million dollars in the bank.

So what is our response? Let me close by pointing out to you the three things that Paul recommends to us.

First, he recommends that we give generously. Verse 6 says, ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. This is obvious: if the farmer wants a big crop he has to scatter a lot of seeds; if he only plants a little, he’s only going to have a small crop.

A word of caution here, though. A rich person may give more dollars than a poor person, but the gift is no sacrifice to them, because they’re still giving from their spare change. The point is not how much we give, but how much we have left over. Generous giving is sacrificial giving, giving that means there are things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of it. That’s what Paul is recommending.

The first guideline is to give generously. The second is to give freely. Verse 7 says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’. It’s possible to give generously with the hand but to continue to grasp the gift with your heart, and to wish you’d never given it. That sort of generosity may be a benefit to the recipient, but it won’t be a benefit to the giver. Note what Paul is saying here: no one can judge another Christian for how much they give. It’s true that in the Old Testament 10% is the standard, but what’s important is not a legalistic attachment to percentages – what’s important is that my heart is transformed so that I become the sort of person whose greatest joy is generosity. When that happens, percentages will be unimportant; I’ll be giving all the time because it brings me joy.

And that leads to the third guideline: give generously, give freely, and give cheerfully. Verse seven says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. God isn’t trying to make us all into miserable people who can’t even buy an ice cream cone for ourselves without feeling guilty about all the poor people who could have been helped by that $3.50! No – God is longing to increase our joy! He wants to make us happier, more cheerful people, and he knows that generosity is an infallible way to do that!

Do you want to have more joy in your life? Do you want a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to be able to go to sleep at night with a sense of joy in having made a real difference in the lives of people? Well, sisters and brothers, God wants that for you as well! Here’s an infallible rule: misers are miserable (funny how the two words are related!), but generous people are full of joy. So not just for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit too, let’s pray that God the Holy Spirit will change our selfish hearts into generous hearts. Will you pray that for me? I’ll pray it for you, too, and then we can continue to work on it together.