Practical spirituality ~ how to really use the Bible….a sermon for Trinity 11

The following is my husband’s sermon for today the 11th Sunday in the season of Trinity.

 

The Bible is a practical book!

How?

A big old fashioned one could help short people like me reach things on high shelves.

Butthat’s not what I mean.

I have a book somewhere with a title like, “Bible answers for life”.
I couldn’t find it when I looked.  It may have been lost in the last
move.  But what it has is lots of life situations and simple
questions  –  With a Bible ‘answer’ attached.  

It was our reading from Romans that reminded me of the book.  For
example, you could look up “alcohol” and you would get one or two
verses from the Bible like, “let us live honourably as in the day,
not in revelling and drunkenness.”  Then there would be a brief
commentary on the evils of drink, you would be told that the Bible
forbade you to drink and so no real Christian drinks alcohol.

It was a very Calvinist book given to me by a well meaning acquaintance. But, I have seen similar books produced by Roman Catholics.

In some ways the point is not whether or not the advice is true.  There is a fundamental problem with most such books –  the problem is that they take the rich and diverse word of God and make it into a rule book.  

The Bible has poetry, it has history, it has myth, it has good stories
and it has advice but these books try and reduce all of that library
of experience, collected over millennia into cold hard rules. 

They try to make the faith simple but in doing so they squeeze out God.  And the easy faith that they present is so often their
easy faith and I suspect says more about them than it does about God.

But the Bible is practical. 

The Bible has practical advice.  Like the advice given by Jesus about dealing with conflicts in a Church.  But don’t make them a rule. 

Our Gospel reading has harsh words about treating an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector, an outcast like a tramp or a drug addict.  But if you turn that into a rule you end up missing the fact that Jesus spent much of his ministry with tax collectors and sinners, and even seemed to prefer their company to that of most ‘respectable’ people.

If you made a rule about expelling the unrepentant Church member; you would also be forgetting the very next verse.  You see the next two verses after our Gospel reading say this:

21 ¶  Then Peter
came and said to {Jesus}, “Lord, if another member of the church
sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
22  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you,
seventy-seven times”.

Also, it is strange but those who make the Bible their rule book avoid
mentioning King David’s example of having many wives; they also tend not to recommend bashing your enemies babies against rocks!  At least they don’t put such advice into print!

So love the Bible, make it your friend and companion through life.  But that means letting the Holy Spirit speak through it all.  Let the
Bible come alive and inspire.  Don’t make a rule of even the most
obvious passage, otherwise you close the door to God’s Spirit and may miss what he wants to teach you. 

For years people justified slavery and the inferiority of women as being Biblical.  But thankfully, all people didn’t hold onto these Biblical ‘rules’ and we now appreciate that enslaving another human being is wrong and that women are not weak minded inferior beings that should be spared from important decisions like voting.

But it is so tempting to want to make the Bible into a rule book.  It
really is.  

Life is complicated so we want certainty.  But that is the temptation to make the Bible into the book we want it to be, to try make God in our own image.  

Rather, the only way is to let the Spirit use the Bible to guide us in our decision making.  So that we may see the unique person and situation in front of us.  

So that we may, just may have some hope of our decision being the right decision, of being God’s decision.

If God had wanted to give us a rule book, Jesus would have sat down and writenn one before he returned to heaven.  But Jesus did not write a word for us. 

So we must work with the Bible that God has chosen to give us, with its ambiguity, but also with all of its richness and wonder.

After all he is God, not me, not you.  And, I may be foolish I know, but I believe that God knows what he’s doing.

 

 

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

Amen.

(ps. he’s not that short actually.) 

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent ~ asking the whys and finding a way

Another of my husband’s sermons. If you wish, skip the Bible readings and go straight to the sermon itself. 

 

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7: 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 ¶ And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

1 ¶ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 ¶ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:.12-19: 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4.1-11: 1 ¶ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sermon

I looked at this morning’s readings and everything seems so simple and straightforward.

I read that Eve gave in to the tempter, the serpent, Adam sinned and ever since all people have suffered and all people die.

Then I read that Jesus the second Adam came, took our punishment, died and everything is now OK.

This is how the Gospel is sometimes explained. Nice, simple and neat.

Choose Jesus and live – stick with Adam and die.

But I have chosen Jesus. I have stuck with Jesus and everything is not OK! I am not OK. You see this sort of simple explanation can be useful, but the reality is always far more complicated. St. Paul knew this, the Old Testament writers knew this, as did the Gospel writers.

This week I have seen pictures and heard stories of the horror, of the fighting in Libya. I have seen the pictures of the devastation in Japan. You must have seen the same.

If I take this simple idea of salvation; if I take it literally; I should say that all those people killed in Libya, in Japan have gone straight to hell, at least all those that weren’t Christians.

If I stick to this simple idea; I should say that it was just and right that they should all die, they had clung to Satan’s lies and they had paid the price for their choice. A simple, straightforward and brutal truth.

But I can’t.

I can’t do that. I see those people and I weep for their suffering – I can’t help myself. I pray to loving God I know to be with the survivors, and helpers – that God may give them some comfort and the strength that they need.

I cannot accept that the God who cared so much about the world to send his Son into it and to die here, would abandon those people.

I cannot accept that the God who loves all of us, would just kill over a thousand people, on a whim, grab their frightened and confused souls, … and just throw them away, like rubbish, into hell.

It must be nice to be a fundamentalist, or at least life must be pretty simple. But I refuse to be taken in by neat, simple answers that don’t fit the facts.

So let’s wipe the slate clean. Lets start again.

I start by admitting my ignorance.

I admit that I don’t know why that earthquake happened. I know a little about the earth shifting, a little about the physics behind earthquakes and tsunami but I can’t give you, or anyone else, a reason why it happened now, to those people.

I suspect that there isn’t an answer to that question, even that that is the entirely the wrong question to ask.

Then admitting my ignorance, I move on to what I do know. I read the our Old Testament reading and I know that God created me, everyone and everything. I know that what might have been idyllic is so no longer. That this world is no longer perfect. I also know that some of our problems are of our own making.

So I know that God cared enough to create us and our world and he still cares enough to keep it running, even though it seems far from perfect. God still cares enough to stick with us, even though we fail to do what is right, again and again.

Then I look to our New Testament reading, and I see that God is not only putting up with us. I realise that God loves me, you and everyone. That he loves us so much that he sent Jesus to pull us out of the pit we have fallen in to. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and all that is wrong with this world, and at great cost.

So now I can look up from the individual trees, the narrow arguments and see something of the forest, the overall picture of God’s saving action in history.

The Bible tells us that God loves those people in Japan. God wants the best for them and for their families and for their land. God’s love is universal. We are called to see everyone as our neighbour, and to love them as ourselves. Why, because that is what God is like.

We become Godlike when we love. So our love and concern should reach out to those people in Japan.

Through the God who is everywhere, in everyone, we are linked to those people. Over all those miles between us we can join our tears with there tears; we can know God’s power to give us strength and hope in times of trouble, and we can pray for the same for those people in Japan.

Prayer is a mysterious thing, but it is powerful. In prayer we enter the presence of God, we share our fears and distress, as well as our joys and happiness. In God, through prayer we are in some way linked to the object of our prayer, the people we see in Japan. We can join with God in sharing their pain. We can join with God in bringing hope.

So we should pray, and pray hard.

We should also act, if that is possible. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do more than pray. Sometimes, we can step in and help those that suffer. Sometimes we can sent money.

Sometimes , when the trouble is nearer to home, we can join with God in practical caring for the sick and the distressed. We can sit with the bereaved. We can hold the hand of the sick or the dying.

We can cry with those that cry and laugh with those that laugh – any one who has spent time with the bereaved will know that the pain can make people cry and even scream out, but the next minute they can be laughing at some silly thing their loved one used to do; then the laughing may turn without warning to tears once again.

In being a part of this world; in not hiding ourselves from its joys and its sorrows, we are like our God who sees and feels all.

In our prayers for the people in Japan we come closer to the God who already cares for them. We stand with our Jesus who weeps over the loss of life, as he wept over Jerusalem.

So, finally, I want to turn to our Gospel reading: The temptation or testing of Jesus.

First, Jesus was tempted and so we will be tempted too.

Second, Jesus overcame his temptation and so we can overcome too.

Third, to save himself Jesus turned to his Bible and his Jewish tradition, as well as to his personal knowledge of God, his Father.

So just as I have tried to do this morning, we can overcome our temptations by looking to Scripture, to our Christian tradition and to our own experience of the God of love.

Weeping with the people of Japan is a reminder of our weakness and need of God, and of the power of God to save. So perhaps weeping for Japan, for Libya, the pain around us and our own failure, is a good way to begin our lent.

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

Amen.

Sin and the art of archery

I’ve been thinking Really Deep Thoughts lately, in between getting annoyed about life and things I can’t do anything about. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the things that make me annoyed and why they annoy me.

I wrote a few days ago in the comments at retired eagle’s photo blog that I was guilty of the sin of accidie, one of the medieval Seven Deadly sins. It’s basically despair and depression, and it’s something I’ve been guilty of intermittantly since I was about six years old. I know how awful that sounds and I can tell you how often people have told me I should count my blessings etc, but it doesn’t make any diference.

The English word SIN is actually a term taken from archery, that oh-so-English art. Think Agincourt, think Robin Hood: the bow is so entrenched in English lore that even today it’s technically illegal to play football on  Sunday if your parish priest has not excused you from longbow practise. Sin simply means failing to hit the target. It means being less than perfect. It doesn’t mean you’re  a criminal, or an evil person; it just means you need more practise to get it right.

This I find comforting. It also means I need more help to get it right. It doesn’t mean I need to be beaten for getting it wrong and missing the target. Imagine God as a loving archery instructor, standing close as you draw the bow, his hand steadying yours, whispering in your ear, “Bit higher, bit further up, hold it steady. Now!”

You see, it upsets me when people assume that their success in life is as a result of God blessing them, because it then implies the opposite: lack of success is God witholding his blessing. It upsets me when people take their health as a sign God is favouring them because that then says that ill health is God punishing them.

Being alive is our blessing. Life is our gift. I’m not saying that God isn’t blessing you when things go well. He might be. But God has no favourites. Blessing or cursing, it may be the same thing when you step out of time and out of being human. Go read the Book of Job if you have never done so. It might be a bit of a puzzle. It opens up ineffable mysteries(because we don’t effin’ well understand them) about God and his relationship with humans. I have no answers to this.

But for me, today, being a sinner is a good thing. It means I have room for improvement. It means I need to keep practising and spending time with my trainer, and learning more and more how to hit the target. When I get good at that, I guess he’ll just move the target further away to test my skill further, or give me a different bow, or change the parameters in some way. There is always room for improvement, when we realise that sin is not the thing we were taught it was by people who didn’t understand it themselves.