Saturday, January 30, 2016

Living your Calling to the Full

Have you ever had a time when someone asked you to do something – maybe something really important – and your first response was “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”

Sometimes when we reflect back on such an event we find a sense of satisfaction in reminding ourselves that we need to always be mindful of our limitations – I know my limitations.

Sometimes this is quite appropriate.  I mean, if someone asked me to take out their appendix, you would hope that I would know that I had not competence or qualification to do such a thing, and I would admit to it straight away.

But I think many times we say NO when we really should say YES.  And I wonder why that would be the case – what makes us do that?

Either or both of two forces are probably at work here.

Sometimes we underrate our own abilities. 

This might be because one time someone ridiculed us for something we did or said we could do – and we weren’t going to offer again – just in case…

It might also be because we have misunderstood the meaning of humility – thinking this is an important Christian virtue, and always thinking of others as better than ourselves.

Or perhaps we are just not risk takers and if we have never done something before we resist every encouragement of others to have a go.

I know that I am sometimes guilty of the second and third of those examples.

Sometimes other people impose expectations and limitations on us.

One of the little stories I lived with for a long time was that I was an “average student”.  I really don’t recall what my dad meant when he said this to me.  I don’t think he meant any harm – but I do know that this limited what I was willing to undertake at school and then on in life.

Sometimes we find people in our lives who work very hard at “keeping us in our place” – for the Sudanese this means making sure we know our role in the community and not letting us do anything outside that role.

In the two selected readings from Scripture that we had today, we have examples of each of these.

The Lord said to Jeremiah: 
"I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I selected you to be a prophet to the nations." 

In response, Jeremiah resorts to two simple reasons why he could not possible become the prophet of God.  He says:
1.     I am no good at public speaking – I can’t do it! And then he says:
2.     And anyway, I’m too young – people won’t listen to me.

I think it is fair to say that in this case, Jeremiah really did not know what he could do if God empowered him to do it; and of course, it is clear that God saw something in Jeremiah that God knew fitted him best for this job.

In the Gospel story we have something a bit different.  Something rather remarkable happens in this story, which follows on from what we read last week.

This story happens right at the beginning of Luke’s record of his ministry and it happens in the village Jesus grew up in.  The people in the synagogue that day were people who knew him.  They had known him as a boy.  They knew his brothers and sisters and his mum and dad.

At first everyone seems very proud of him – even after he utters those incredible words:-
“This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.”

Luke tells us:
They were all well impressed with him and marvelled at the eloquent words that he spoke.

So far Jesus was being a good boy.

But then he went on to explain something he believed God was ready to say to them – the message from God that he had brought was not just for them, but also for the Gentiles.  And this is what made the people mad with him.  He was stepping outside of their expectations for him – and they wanted to put him back in his box – to make him a good boy again.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens to us all, and it always seems sad to someone outside that someone is so limited by themselves and or their family or community.

It becomes particularly sad when it interferes with our ability to respond properly to a call that God may be making in our lives. 

But the question still remains:  How do I really know what my appropriate limits are?

If you are sensing the leading of God to do something or other in your life, I think there are a couple of really good checks and balances you can rely on to avoid jumping in when you should have held back – because it really is a discerning process, discovering God’s will.

Overestimating our abilities is just as bad as underestimating them.  In order to develop a sober estimate of yourself, could I suggest a couple of things to guide you?

Someone suggested as a pre-requisite for this step a reminder that we should take to heart the affirmation that in Christ we are children of God, that we are loved and treasured by an incomparable lover – the Lord our God.

Our Bibles are an incomparable gift to sustain the faith that is growing within us.  And there is much teaching in it to guide us through these circumstances.  Remind yourself of the teaching about gifts of the Spirit – of God’s determination to equip us with all good things to serve him.

And as you continue to read the Bible, trust in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to bring the words of the stories you might be reading to life for you.

These two things could bring some sense of clear direction for you – but you might still be unsure.

Talk to your friends.

Speak to those whom you think of as mentors or who inspire you in your walk of faith.

See if they agree with what you think God is saying.

Maybe in these ways we will minimise the resistance that might limit our ability to serve God.

So let us remember Jeremiah:
A young man who was called by God to be a prophet to the nation.  Despite all his fears and doubts he became a giant among the prophets of Judah and Israel.

And let us remember Jesus:
The son of a village tradesman whose lowly life meant that people did not expect great things of him, yet he defies those expectations daring to go out and fulfil his potential in a most glorious way.

God is the loving shatterer of the limitations we and others place upon our lives.  By God’s grace we can be the ever-growing children of God for whom surprising things are possible.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Founded on God's Word - PROPER 3 after Epiphany

I am always reading something.

When I left a previous parish in 2004 I joined a book club.  Before that I would rarely read a book cover to cover.  I would read relevant bits of a theology book or a commentary for a sermon.  But this book club experience changed my life.

And I love nothing better than a good complicated story.

Back in September I began reading the “Harry Potter” stories by J K Rowling.  If you read them as they were published you had a year or so between volumes.  Reading all seven in a row gives a sense of an epic tale that is well developed, complex and has you eventually racing to get to the end.  Now I am reading the Narnia Chronicles of CS Lewis – another great collection of stories that create an epic tale.  And after that I think I will get into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkein.

I tell you this to set the scene for dipping into the Old Testament Story we read today.  We really have there something like a “screenshot” within a two-hour movie.  It is a small part of a much bigger tale, yet it captures a vital moment in the life of Israel.

The Book of Ezra is both a Sequel and a Prequel.  It is a sequel to the stories recorded in The Chronicles and a prequel to the stories that are told in the Book of Nehemiah.  They don’t exactly fit together and historians have difficulty with some of the details, but these accounts of the restoration of the Jewish Exiles to their homeland are shaped in such a way that they have much to say to us even today in this faraway place.

In a nutshell, what happened was, many of the peoples of Judah and Israel were taken from their homeland into Exile by the conquering Babylonian and Assyrian empires.  You may remember some of the sayings of the prophets reporting God’s instruction that they settle there, marry the locals, have children, and wait.

After many years, Ezra and Nehemiah were the heralds who told the people it was time to go home.  Nehemiah got the government to give him what he needed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Then he was ready for the rebuilding of the houses for the exiles to live in.

So he organised all the work to be done, despite political opposition, and then got all the people to pack up and come home.  Seven months later this happened.

I wonder if you were able to imagine the scene.  Over 50,000 people were involved in this repatriation.  Our story-teller would have us see all of these people – men, women and children – gathered just inside one of the great Gates of the City.  There, from dawn until noon, Ezra the priest and scholar of the law read to the people from the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy).

But much more than that happened.  Ezra was reading out in Hebrew, but the people spoke Aramaic now, so the words needed to be translated.  But because they had been away from the temple so long the words also needed to be interpreted.  I think we at Holy Cross understand the subtle difference between “translated” and “interpreted” – when I preach to the Nuba I need an “interpreter” to take my words and explain what I mean.

Some people think this story is in fact a story of the beginning of the tradition of sermons, of preaching, of taking the words of our sacred texts and explaining them so that they mean something particularly for us today.  I like that idea.

This story also marks the beginning of something that we take for granted – the idea of a divinely inspired anthology of literature that we believe expresses the will of God for his people.  The sense of this did not exist for the Jews before this or in any other religious culture.

I want to draw your attention to two important things that this story points us towards.

This story describes an event which marks the beginning of the life of this newly reunited community of Israel – and this act of “beginning” takes the form of them listening together to the words of the Law, which they heard as the very voice of God, calling them back to living in relationship with God. 

This same sense of “beginning” with the words of Scripture is found in our Gospel story where Jesus reads those famous words from Isaiah and says to the people “Today all this has come true in this place.”

I think we here, as a Community of the Holy Cross, were similarly started up with the words of Scripture calling us into being together as a community of God’s people in this place.

But there is something else in this story that we need to take notice of.  Here the word of God is read, heard but also interpreted.  This process of explanation is the bit that enables the changeless words of Scripture to speak meaningfully into our ever-changing lives and experience as the people of God.  Generally it is not helpful to just read the words and leave them at that – in fact we really can’t do that because in hearing them our minds and hearts will be “interpreting them” – looking for meaning.

This, I think, sums up the work of our life in God – that we make time to spend with these texts, listening for the voice of God for you each day.  Over the years we have developed all sorts of spiritual practices to help us do this, but it is appropriate that we be reminded time and again that we live by this divine word, ancient and fixed, yet ever new.  In hearing and obeying these things our life in God will grow every day.

As we approach Lent and Easter, I want to encourage you to see this time as an opportunity to join together, as we are planning to do, in our study of The Heart of Christianity.  In these sessions we will be exploring together what the words of the Bible mean when we take them altogether as pointing us towards the heart of our faith.  And doing this together is a vital expression of what it means for us to be God’s people in this place.  We will be listening for the voice of God.  We will be taking a few more important steps on the Way that Jesus has called us to follow him on.