Sunday, 19 February 2017

Do Not Worry

Matthew 6.25-end
Do Not Worry

 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 

27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

My text this morning is written in Matthew 6:33:

33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

This is one of the most difficult passages for the modern ear. Most people are worried about their lives, about what they eat and drink. Whole television channels are devoted to watching people cook and eat; there are popular competitions, and people are prepared to pay a fortune for a tiny portion of what is sold to them as ‘… exquisitely prepared food made from the finest ingredients …’ Lives are devoted to the cultivation and making of the finest wines. Never before have people been more concerned about their bodies, what they look like and what they wear. Even people like the Prime Minister seems to think that there is nothing wrong with spending £1,000 on a pair of leather jeans.

Trish had an interesting moment. She bought some clothes at the Shepshed factory outlet, and was offered a large tan leather handbag for a tenner, because she had spent over a certain amount of money. Months later she was consulted at work about the purchase of a handbag costing hundreds of pounds for a colleague as a gift, because she obviously knew a lot about these things because of the expensive handbag she was using. They could not believe that hers cost a tenner from Shepshed!

Jesus put it simply in the question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Of course it is. Jesus explains by using examples from nature – the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields - and adds that even those with the greatest wealth cannot come close to the beauty of what God has created.

Firstly, I want to focus on what Jesus is not saying; he is not advocating carelessness, nor doing nothing, what he is condemning is anxiety, because it denies the love and faithfulness of God and chains us to the things of this world. Worry and anxiety springs from a desire for external securities and from our reluctance to commit to God alone for all that we need to make our lives rich and full. Jesus is condemning being ‘… full of care …’ for those things which we are powerless over and which rob us of the joy and fulfilment which ought to characterise our lives.

Secondly, Jesus is exhorting us to live our lives with prudence and serenity. We need to be responsible and take the appropriate steps to make sure that we have done all that we can – and then leave the rest up to God to provide for us. Jesus calls us to live and not merely exist. If our focus is on things like food and clothing and possessions – then we merely exist. Jesus came so that we might have life, and that in all its fullness. Prudent – meaning careful provision for the future is right; ‘… wearing, corroding, self-tormenting anxiety is wrong …’

Prayers for students taking examinations …

Thirdly, how do we experience the reality of this full and wholesome life that Jesus came to give us? Paul picks up this theme in his letter to the Philippians 4 from verse 6:

6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

And again from verse 12:

12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

God has given us life, and will provide all we need to maintain it; he has given us a body and will provide all we need to sustain the body as well; he has called us into being and will look after us.

We need to make a decision: do we choose the fragile and illusory joy of earthly wealth or the true riches of God in Jesus Christ our Lord? Do we choose real wealth – fellowship with God and the service of God – which is incorruptible – or do we fill our lives with the shallowness of worldliness? The two are incompatible because God asks for self-sacrifice, money urges us towards selfishness and self-advancement. The author to the first letter of Timothy chapter 6 issues this warning:

6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that* we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

The author continues to offer practical advice from verse 11:

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made* the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 

We embrace life in its fullness and live it when we have our priorities right, and we have this right when we devote ourselves to seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness above all else. When we do this, all the things we need for our bodies will be provided as well.

But what does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God? Again, Paul comes to our aid in Philippians 4:

8 Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Throughout the ages, Christians have understood that the kingdom of God becomes a reality when one strives for beauty, truth and goodness for all. If we think about it, these elements bring together the teachings and example of our Lord.

It is not for nothing that I believe Jesus used the examples of the birds of the air and the flowers of a field as examples. People can come to know the Lord through observing the beauty of nature – as Paul states in Romans 1:20:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

And the most beautiful and special of all creation are we humans, who, being in the image of God share in the glory of creation and have the ability to bring into existence beauty – be in it music, art, literature, drama, scientific discovery, inventions that transform lives for the better – the list is endless. What I believe Jesus is challenging people to do here is to ask:

What gifts has God given to me? How can I use them to make life on this earth more like life in heaven? Am I living a life of beauty in the actions I perform for others? Remember an earlier reflection a few weeks back where Jesus spoke of salt and light where he concluded: “16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Remember how he spoke of our righteousness – our goodness – needing to surpass that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. In this Sermon on the Mount which we have been reflecting upon, Jesus has provided us with practical advice – all of which – makes the Kingdom of God become more and more real. *In the earlier parts of Chapter 6 there is advice about giving generously the charity, about praying and fasting and the verses immediately prior to our passage today lays the foundation, most notably verse 19-21 where Jesus states:

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There is a sense that the compliers of the lectionary should have included verse 24 which brings all this wisdom together:

24 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Happiness, fulfilment, contentment – what it means to live life in all its richness takes striving – it does not happen automatically; but it takes striving for the right things. Jesus put it this way in verse 33:

… strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


Saturday, 11 February 2017

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NRSV)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NRSV)


1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord* and ours:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

4 I give thanks to my* God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of* Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Late and short because of illness …

Verses 4 ff refers to the experience of the Corinthians of Jesus and His grace: they were enriched in all areas including speech and knowledge of every kind. This was my experience. As you recall when we were at school, I was but of minor intellect, but when I found faith, my mind was set free and I have had the privilege to study at two universities and completing three degrees. I know that many of my teachers would be astounded!

There is another dimension. No one can ever argue a person into Christianity, all we can say is “Try it and see!” When people do, they find that its claims are all true.

One of the most special parts of this experience is the receipt of gifts that we are given, wonderful gifts that are free and undeserved. I have already referred to my gift, that of learning and teaching, which is all of grace. All our special gifts are from God. This is in fact true of all people, but too many do not acknowledge this. The world would be such a different place if it were so. Barclay writes: “If we fully realised that, it would bring new atmosphere and character into life.”

The people of Corinth preferred thought to action: to them religion was about thinking about God, but for Paul it was all about loving your neighbour. O’Conner writes: “For intellectuals, new religion implied a change of mind, for Paul it meant a new world.”

The intellectuals thought of themselves as adults because of their superior knowledge, and they considered those who were not at their level as children if they couldn’t handle the new intellectual discourse. But Paul sees the intellectuals as children because they reveal their lack of true wisdom by the factions that existed in their fellowship. The intellectuals thought that jealousy, strife and party factions were just part of the fabric of human life – all societies have these characteristics so this is just the way of human nature – “It is only human!”

These Corinthian Christians probably condemned Paul for his unsophisticated approach to religion; but they failed to realise that acceptance of Christ should result in social transformation. But this transformation is not automatic. Coming to faith is the beginning of a journey. New Christians need to become critical of what they had previously taken for granted and they need to reject all the behaviour that is incompatible with following Christ. They need to put themselves on a new course and in the process develop an appropriate lifestyle; they need to devise new social institutions and structures that make real the values of the Gospel. In short, we as Christians need constantly to use our intellect to re-think the practical outworking of our faith in present reality, in effect act out, in our daily lives, the selfless love that Christ showed. And when we do, we see that there is no place for jealousy, strife and party factions.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Matthew 5:13-18 (NRSV)
Salt and Light
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This reflection is based heavily on the work of William Barclay ...

There is no greater compliment a person can be given than to be referred to as “... the salt of the earth ...” This is because, in Jesu’s day, salt had many important qualities.

1.      Purity: The Romans thought that salt was the purest of all things and it was the earliest of their offerings to their gods. Salt was also an integral part of Jewish sacrifices because is was seen as being so pure. So, to be ‘... the salt of the earth ...’ one needs to be pure. This seems to be difficult in today’s world where we see standards lowering all the time: honesty, diligence at work, conscientiousness, general moral standards – all seem to be experiencing a lowering of standards. If Christians are to be pure, we need to show this in our speech, conduct, even our thoughts and most especially in our moral standards. Barclay comments: “The Christian cannot withdraw from the world, but must remain unstained from the world.” (cf James 1:27)
2.      Preservative: Salt keeps things from going bad. Meat, by itself will go bad; but when it is treated with salt, it is preserved, and kept fresh. Barclay writes: ‘... it is like a soul inserted into a dead body ... Christians need to have an antiseptic influence on life ...’ There are some people, in whose company, it is easy to do good; while others, it is easy for standards to be relaxed. We should be those where people would never dream of lowering standards.
3.      Adds flavour: Food without salt can be sickening. I am approaching the 10th anniversary of the removal of a pancreatic tumour. For a while I was forced to eat the blandest diet. At one stage, I preferred the chemical feed, because it was preferable to the tasteless diet which was my only other option (I eventually never ate or drank anything for 7 ½ weeks! Barclay suggests: “Christianity is to life what salt is to food. Christianity lends flavour to life.” This provides a balance to the earler point. While we need to be a preservative influence, it needs to be in such a way that we enhance life and not force others into a monochrome existence. Barclay adds: “People need to discover the lost radiance of Christian faith.” The Christian must be the source of joy.

Are we the salt of the earth?

In verse 14, Jesus commands us to be what he was; ‘... the light of the world ...’ We need to shine like Jesus.

Jesus did not believe that a person kindled their own light – for the Jews – God lit Israel’s lamp. We too are not required to produce out own light, “... we must shine with the reflection of his light ... which comes from the presence of Christ within the Christian’s heart.”

Barclay continues by pointing out a number of interesting ideas:

Firstly, a light is meant to be seen. Christianity is meant to be seen adding that “there can be no such thing as secret discipleship.” Our Christianity should be perfectly visible to all in the way that we do ordinary everyday things:

·         Speak to shop assistants;
·         Order a meal;
·         Treat those we work with;
·         Play sport;
·         Behave as a motorist.

Barclay adds: “We are not meant to be the light of the Church, and in our life in the world our Christianity should be evident to all.”

Secondly, a light is a guide. A light is something that makes clear the way; in the same way our lives should make the way clear to others. We need to focus on goodness, and we need to have the moral strength and courage to make a stand when necessary, to provide the lead for others to follow. We need to be strong enough for others to lean on, because this might be what they need to be enabled to do the right thing.

Thirdly, a light is often a warning. Light tells us to stop when there is danger ahead. As Chaplain’s, I believe one of the greatest tragedies to befall us could be if a young person were to come to us and say:

“I would never be in this situation in which I find myself, if only you had spoken in time.”

But there is another dimension: our warnings ought never to be given in anger, in irritation, nor in criticism; not in condemnation, not in the desire to hurt, but in love. If we do it this way, then they will be most effective.

A light to be seen, acts as a guide and a warning – a massive challenge for us.

16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Barclay suggests that there are two very important things to take note of here.

Firstly, people are to see our good deeds. The good deeds of the Christian must be both good and attractive. Barclay writes: “There is a charm in true Christian goodness which makes it a lovely thing.

Secondly, good deeds ought also to draw attention, not to ourselves, but to God. Barclay tells the story of Dwight Moody who met a group at one of his meetings who were conspicuous in their ‘holiness’ advertising that they had spent long hours in prayer and when asked what they had been doing draw his attention to the way their faces shone like that of Moses. To which Moody replied that Moses did not want  his face to shine. “That goodness which is conscious, which draws attention to itself, is not the Christian goodness.”

We as Christians should never think of what we have done, but rather what God has enabled us to do; we should never seek to draw attention to ourselves, but always to God. Barclay concludes: “So long as men are thinking of the praise, the thanks, the prestige which they will get for what they have done, they have not really even begun on the Christian way.”

And on to verses 17-18, where Jesus lays down the eternal character of the Law.

Over and over again Jesus broke what the Jews thought was the Law: he did not observe the hand washings, he healed the sick on the Sabbath and ultimately he was executed as a Law breaker – and yet here he seems to speak of the Law ‘... with a veneration and a reverence ...’

The ancient Jews used the word ‘Law’ in a number of different ways: (i) they used it for the 10 Commandments; (ii) they used it to refer to the first five books of the Bible – which was for them the Law par excellence (iii) they used the term Law and Prophets to refer to their whole Scriptures and (iv) they used it to refer to the oral or Scribal Law. In the time of Jesus, this last one was most frequently used and it was this Scribal Law that Jesus (and Paul later) both condemned so utterly.

Jesus (in our Gospel reading) claimed here to be redeeming the original Torah from the legalistic obsession to other added laws, most notably the 10 Commandments – and its focus on respect and reverence for God and others – this can never pass away – Barclay concludes: “... they are the permanent stuff man’s relationship to God and to his fellow men.”

Paul Tillich put it this way: “The law of love is the only law, because it is the negation of law.”