Archive for September, 2017

When yes means yes

Saturday, September 30th, 2017
Text: Matthew 21:28-30
There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” “I don’t want to,” he answered, but later changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. “Yes sir,” he answered, but he did not go.

A father tells this story. “When my oldest son was about three years old, I was outside doing some work in the garden one afternoon. I took Kevin outside to play while I trimmed the hedges. Holding his hand, I knelt down beside him so that we could look at each other face to face. Slowly and carefully
I said, “Now, Kevin, you can play here in our front yard. You can go next door and play in your friend’s front yard. You can ride your bike up and down the driveway. You can go in the backyard and play with the dog or play on your swing. You can go back inside and watch television. You can stay here and watch me trim the hedges. You can do all those things but you are not go out into the street. It is very dangerous there. You cannot play in the street. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
And Kevin solemnly nodded his head. “Yes, Daddy,” he said. I let go of his hand and he ran straight to the curb, put one foot on the street, and then turned his head toward me and smiled, as if to say, “Silly daddy!”

Today’s gospel reading has a similar story. Jesus tells about a father who has two sons. The father asked them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons impudently answers, “No! I won’t go!”

A little later, the father looks up from what he is doing and notices that the boy has changed his mind and is now working out in the field.

His other son, when asked to work, politely said, “Yes, of course, father. Nothing would please me more than to work in the field for you.” Two hours later, the polite, seemingly obedient son is still lying on the sofa watching TV.

Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased the father more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes but then did nothing?

Those with children can identify with this scene immediately. It seems children come with the word “no” pre-programmed in them. You know how it goes.
Clean your room. No.
Do your homework. No.
Comb your hair. No.
Where does this come from? It comes from Adam and Eve, the ones who first said “no” to God and “yes” to themselves and the devil who lied to them. That “no” is passed on like a genetic disease from parent to child, from one generation to the next.

As children get older, the “no” turns into “Do I have to?” usually spoken in a whining tone that makes it doubly irritating.
“Help your mother with the dishes.” “Do I have to?”
This can turn into a more defiant “Why should I?”
“Be home at 11:00.” “Why should I?”

We are also familiar with the seemingly obedient child.
“Clean your room”. “Okay, Mum.” And when mum comes back nothing has changed. We also know that this kind of behaviour is not restricted to children. We say “yes”, perhaps with a good deal of enthusiasm but never get around to doing anything about it.

The Bible is full of stories about people who said “yes” but when it came to carrying out what they had said “yes” to that ended with a loud “no”.

A couple of examples. At the foot of Mt Sinai the people of Israel said, “Yes, we will do all the things the Lord has commanded us.” Not long after they said “no” to God in the loudest and most defiant way possible. They made a golden calf, and worshipped it.

The disciple Peter promised “Yes Lord, you can count on me, I will never deny you even if it costs me my life.” Not long after, he said “no” three times as he denied any connection with Jesus.

The church leaders of Jesus’ time said “yes” to God but “no” to the one whom God had sent.

In all honesty we have to confess that we get out yeses and nos all mixed up. We have sinned against God our Father by what we have done and by what we have left undone, by our rebellious “no” and by our religious “yes.”

We say “yes” to following Jesus, but when discipleship involves putting God and others first, being committed to joining in mission and ministry with my fellow disciples, the people of our church, putting aside everything else as less important to doing the work that Jesus has given us to do, we end up saying “No, this is just too hard”.

We have said “yes” to the love of God, we enjoy God’s grace as we see it in Jesus; we like knowing that God’s love for us is so certain and unchangeable but we have said a firm “no” to offering a hand of friendship to the person who really gets us angry; we have said a firm “no” to forgiving a person who seems to delight in saying things that really gets us stirred up.

We have said a firm “yes” to the new life that we received from God’s Spirit at our baptism, but the way we live our lives declares a loud “no” as we say “yes” to jealousy, anger, impatience, unkindness, sexual immorality, being nasty and uncaring.

We have said “yes” to the whole idea of spreading the good news about Jesus and God’s love for people in every kind of situation, but when we look at how little we have done and what little enthusiasm we have for getting involved we realise that our “yes” has been nothing but a pious good intention. We have reserved the right to say “no” if too much is asked from us.

We have shouted, “Yes, God is so good. Look at what he has done for us; how he gave his Son’s life because of his extreme love for us. Look at how he cares for us and our loved ones every day. Yes, I will give God praise and worship.” But after that initial wave of excitement we end up saying “no” to committing time to gather with our fellow Christians in worship; we say “no” to joining with others to thank and praise God.

In Jesus’ parable the second son is an example of religious hypocrisy. Did you know that the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word for “actor”? Actors hid behind masks; they appeared to be something they were not. The second son appeared to be the good, obedient, perfect son. He pretended to be someone he wasn’t. He was an actor, a hypocrite.

Jesus saw the empty, hypocritical “yes” of the religious people of Israel. “They preach but they do not practice what they preach,” Jesus said. They say the right things but they do the opposite.

Those who were listening to Jesus as he told this parable got it right when he asked them, “Which one of the two sons did what his father wanted?” Not the son who said, “yes, yes, yes” and did nothing, not the son who heard exactly what his father wanted him to do, but instead had his own agenda listing what he would and would not do.
How many times have our good and noble “yes” to Christ in our lives, and our “yes” to doing something because of our faith turned out to be fizzers?
How many times have we heard a stirring sermon, heard an exciting talk and presentation, been to an inspiring seminar and enthusiastically said “yes” and went home and did nothing about it?

Notice that I haven’t excluded myself from any of this and it upsets me to see this kind of thing happening in me – saying “yes” like the second son in the parable and doing nothing. It upsets me when I see this in a congregation – full of good intentions, enthusiastically passing resolutions at meetings and then waiting for someone else to carry them out. “Yes what a good idea, but no, I don’t want to get involved”. Seeing this side of ourselves is not a pleasant experience. We cringe, we deny it, we repent of it.

We are thankful that the “yes” of Jesus’ love for us was more than words or a pious feeling. We are ever so grateful that Jesus’ “yes” for us meant action. We are great sinners, this is true. But Jesus is an even greater Saviour from sin. We have a Saviour whose “yes” for us led to his cruel suffering and death on a cross.

His “yes” for us at our baptism meant that each of us, personally and individually through the water that was splashed on us, was graciously given freedom from all of our sin, and the love of God who has promised to go with us through all the ups and downs of this life. And then finally when our journey here is over to welcome us into eternal glory in heaven.

As we come forward to receive Holy Communion we again hear God’s “yes” for us as we eat and drink the body blood of our Saviour.
Yes, in spite of our sin we are loved.
Yes, in spite of our hypocritical ways when we say “yes” but we really mean “no” there is forgiveness.
Yes, even though we have so many good intentions to carry out God’s will in and through our lives, the perfect life, suffering, death and burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has given us a fresh start and a fresh opportunity to say “yes” and to mean “yes”.

Through the power of God’s Spirit working in our lives may it happen that when we say “yes” to the love God shows us and exclaim “yes” to Jesus’ call to be disciples we will also say
“yes” to God making some big changes in our lives,
“yes” to following the guiding of the Spirit more closely,
“yes” to greater involvement in worship, prayer and the work of God’s church.

By the grace and power of God may our “yes” to Jesus be a “yes” to a new life inspired by the Spirit and enthused to do God’s work.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

God of grace

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

 

Text: Jonah 3:10 – 4:3
God saw that the people of Nineveh had given up their wicked behaviour. So he changed his mind and did not punish them as he had said he would.
Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry. So he prayed, “Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.”

Most of us have a highly developed sense of justice. When someone does something that is outside of what we think is acceptable there are consequences.

A farmer noticed a carload of people who had climbed his orchard fence and were not only eating his apples without asking permission but were putting some in a shopping bag to take with them.

He climbed over the fence and walked up to them. One of them smiled sheepishly and, thinking that a little flattery would win the farmer over, said, “We hope you don’t mind but we have enjoyed eating some of your most excellent apples.”

“No, not at all,” said the farmer, “and I hope you don’t mind that I just let the air out of your most excellent tyres.”

From a very early age we learn that when someone does something to hurt us in any way, the right response is to give back equally what was given. In some cases, maybe we give back just a little more to make sure they don’t do it again.

If a terrorist who had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people is captured and brought to trial I dare say most of us would like to see him get “what he deserves”. Just as he showed no mercy to his victims he doesn’t deserve any mercy now. He’s a monster whose life should be ended or locked up and the key thrown away.

In today’s Old Testament reading we hear about Jonah who is having real difficulty with this whole matter of what is right and fair. In fact, Jonah is seriously cheesed off. You see, he thinks these Ninevites should be wiped off the face of the earth. They are God’s enemies; they are the enemies of God’s chosen people; they are notoriously wicked and deserve the worst that God could dish out to them.

From the moment that God told him to go to Nineveh and warn the people that their wickedness would bring down God’s judgement on them, Jonah thought that this was all wrong.
Why even give them a warning? They are wicked so why doesn’t God just let them have it. Jonah is even suspicious that God will let them off the hook. Later on he says, “I knew from the very beginning that you wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. I knew that you would only show love and not punish your enemies”. And he might have added, “I knew that you would have compassion on them and they don’t deserve it.”

As far as Jonah is concerned, the Ninevites don’t deserve a second chance or any kind of mercy or even a warning that God’s judgement is near so he gets on a boat and sets sail in the opposite direction.

His attempt to get away from God is futile. We know the story well. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish and in the belly of the fish he throws himself on the grace of God and experiences God’s love and mercy as he is given a second chance. The fish spits him up on the beach and once again God tells him to call the people of Nineveh to turn away from their sin, turn to God, receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, and live.

So when we encounter Jonah in today’s first reading he is not a happy. He is not happy about the Ninevites getting another chance, about God allowing them to live, when they are such wicked and evil people. Jonah wants justice not mercy. This makes Jonah so angry.

Why is he so upset?

First of all Jonah thought he had God all worked out. The rules were straight forward. He had learnt them as a child. He said it every day, “Israel, remember this! The Lord – and the Lord alone – is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4). In other words, if you worship false gods, do not obey the one true God, live immorally and violently like the Ninevites, you will be punished by God. How simple is that? But now it seems that God is changing the rules and the wicked are going to get away scot free.

Secondly, Jonah was a Jew – one of God’s chosen people. But these Ninevites were nothing – godless, barbaric, wicked heathens involved in all kinds of deviant behaviour. They don’t deserve mercy; they deserve nothing less than God’s worst punishment. Besides what’s the point of being one of God’s chosen people if God was going to be gracious and forgiving to anyone and everyone, especially those whose lives and religion were so perverted and depraved.

And thirdly, (and this annoyed Jonah more than anything and made him really angry), he firmly believed that God was unfair. Jonah thought the people of Nineveh were so wicked that they were beyond mercy and grace. For Jonah things were simple. People should get what they deserve. If they have been faithful and good then they should be blessed. If they have been wicked and perverted then they deserve to be damned.
After Jonah had tried to run away from God Jonah was happy to receive God’s mercy but he resented God dealing with the Ninevites in a similar way. In Jonah’s mind the Ninevites were so wicked that there was only one way God should deal with them. No mercy; only punishment.

It’s clear that Jonah was telling God how he should treat the people of Nineveh and thought he knew better than God what they deserved.

What is more, he missed the point that God was free to do as he liked even if it seemed unfair and didn’t make any sense to anyone else.

The Book of Jonah is well described as a book about mission – God’s mission to a Jonah himself. God is reaching out and teaching Jonah about grace and undeserved mercy.
And so as you read this Old Testament story you begin to see that God’s real mission in the story is not to Nineveh at all! God could have sent anyone to deliver his message to them – probably a person more enthusiastic about mission work would have done a far better job and certainly someone who understood God’s grace a little better would have been a far more effective witness. God’s mission is to help Jonah understand that his grace is not selective (i.e. some people deserve it more that others) or limited (i.e. that God can love only certain people).

Jesus teaches this same lesson in his parable about the labourers in the vineyard. Remember how workers are hired at different times of the day to bring in the harvest. When the end of the day came and each worker was paid the person who worked all day received the same as the person who worked for only one hour. The point being made here is that this doesn’t seem fair at all. In our way thinking, people should only get what they deserve and no more.

Jesus makes it clear that this is not the way God operates. If God operated that way then no one would receive anything from God. God’s love extends to one and all regardless of their situation in life, how good or bad, how faithful or unfaithful they have been, or how long they have been members of the church. The questions the owner of the vineyard asked could well have been questions that God could have asked Jonah. “Don’t I have the right to be generous if I want to? Are you angry because I have been generous?”

What God was trying to get through to Jonah and what Jesus was trying to tell his listeners was that God doesn’t operate by what is fair or unfair. God doesn’t use accounting methods to decide what we deserve. In fact, the word deserve doesn’t apply to the way God thinks of us because if God gave us what we deserve then we would all end up in hell.

If God dealt with Jonah the way Jonah expected God to deal with the Ninevites then neither Jonah nor the Ninevites would have been saved. Jonah would be judged in the same way he expected the people of Nineveh to be judged. The story of Jonah and the parable of the labourers in the vineyard tell us that God is generous, full of grace, and forgiving. He is ready to give second chances and in the case of Jonah third and fourth chances.

We can add that God’s grace is persistent. It doesn’t give up.
God rescues rebellious Jonah from the briny deep.
He is patient with Jonah’s half-hearted effort in delivering his message,
and to top it all off he hangs in there when Jonah smoulders with anger and self righteous pity because all he can see is injustice and unfairness.

The story about Jonah finishes with a question from God. Remember Jonah is seething that God had shown mercy on the people of Nineveh. God had caused a plant to grow and shelter Jonah from the hot sun and then it died. That made Jonah even more upset. God comes to him with this concluding sentence. “You are concerned about a mere bush that grew one day and died the next. Don’t you think that I should be concerned about the 120,000 people in that city?”

We don’t know how Jonah responded.
Was God’s mission to Jonah successful?
Did Jonah finally understand God’s mercy and grace?
Was this a turning point in his life and he repented of his hard-heartedness toward the people of Nineveh and let God’s mercy and grace control his life?

I believe that this ending is deliberate. It’s good storytelling because instead of ending with “and he lived happily ever after” we are left to ponder the question, “How did the grace of God affect Jonah? How has the grace of God affected us and the way we live today?”

Do we reflect the grace God has shown toward us in the way that we show love to the people in our lives?
Do we reflect the grace of God when others have offended us? Do we reach out and seek forgiveness and reconciliation or do we pass off the rift that has happened with “It’s not my fault; he/she needs to apologise to me”.
Do we reflect the grace of God in the way we treat those who are in some kind of need? Are we hard-headed and ignore their need, make excuses for our lack of empathy and action or do we strive to understand, be compassionate, and help in what ever way we can?
Do we reflect the grace of God as we deal with difficult people – those who are hard to like, argumentative, opinionated, self-focussed or do we find it easier to brush them aside and declare that they require too much effort and emotional energy?
Do we reflect the grace of God as members of the church when others lose their faith, adopt a way of life that is clearly wrong in God’s eyes, drop out of the fellowship of the church? Do we offer them our love, our help and support?
Are we like Jonah – ready to accept God’s grace and to be cared for, comforted and helped by a loving God but refuse to pass this on the same care, comfort and love to others?

We all struggle to reflect the grace of God in our lives and we often fail. The great thing about God’s grace is that it never gives up, it is always ready to forgive, restore and make new. May God’s grace truly make a real difference in our lives every day.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

But God …

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

 

 

Text: Genesis 50:20
Joseph said to his brothers, “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good”.

We throw around the word “luck” quite a bit. We say things like,
“Good luck for the game tomorrow”.
“With a bit of luck I’ll get through this surgery OK”.
“That was a lucky escape”.
“I’ve finally got a lucky break.”
“I haven’t worked all that hard studying for these exams but with a bit of luck I can pull off a pass”,
or when we hear of some freak accident and say, “That was just bad luck.  He was at the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Often we use the word “luck” without too much thought about what we are saying but the word implies a lot more than we realise.  When we say “Good luck” to a sports person are we saying that he/she will need luck to win because their skills aren’t up to scratch?  Do we really believe that luck will change that?

Sometimes we use “luck” to explain why something happens that can’t be explained in any other way than to say it was a matter of luck, or chance or fortune either good or bad.

Science says that on first impressions you might think that things happen randomly, but even in the randomness there is a pattern.  This has nothing to do with luck.  Let’s take an example.  When flipping a coin it seems that it’s just luck that it comes down “heads” or “tails”.  But when you flip a coin a hundred times, it is not simply by luck that half of the times it will come up “heads” and the other half “tails”.

Did you know that the word “luck” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible?  That’s strange in a way, since fate and luck were such popular concepts in the ancient world, especially among the Greeks and Romans.

In the Bible nothing is left to luck or chance.  The Bible gives us a picture of a God who cares, listens and acts behind the scenes of human history and of our lives.  His divine providence, wisdom, and foresight oversee everything that happens.  Nothing happens that is outside his control.  He even uses evil events and people to bring about some good end.

It would be an interesting exercise to go through the Bible to see how many times the words “but God” are used in the same way they are used in today’s text from Genesis.  Joseph said to his brothers, “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good”. The words “but God” involve some kind of human foolishness or disaster that God uses to bring rescue and blessing and goodness.

Even if the words “but God” aren’t actually in the text they could be implied anyway.  For example, God commanded Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to turn away from their sinful lives.  Jonah didn’t like this assignment, ran away, was swallowed by a big fish but God rescued him and saved the people of Nineveh.  Or Daniel was thrown into a cage of lions but God sent an angel to shut their mouths and Daniel was unharmed.  The king and all the people worshipped God. When David killed Goliath it wasn’t just a lucky shot that brought down the giant.  David made this clear to Goliath, “You might be big and mean but God will put you in my power and I will defeat you”.

Today’s reading from a story in the Book of Genesis could be read just as a good luck/bad luck kind of story.  It’s about Joseph, the bratty spoilt kid in the Old Testament who was given a fancy brightly coloured coat by his father, Jacob. Bad luck for his big brothers that this little kid was their father’s favourite.  His jealous brothers wanted to do away with the lad but it was just good luck that one of the brothers felt bad about murdering him and so Joseph was sold as a slave.  Joseph ended up in Egypt and he got a lucky break and ended up in the house of a rich man.  Through a stroke of bad luck he ended up in jail on a trumped up charge of rape.  Then through a series of events that could be interpreted as just plain good luck ended up as prime minister to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

In the meantime bad luck struck the brothers because famine wiped out all their crops and so had to go to Egypt to find food.  To cut a long story short when the brothers found out that the Egyptian ruler with whom they had been dealing was the brother they had tried to kill, they really believed their luck had run out.  This ruler had total control over them and this would be their end.

But as I said, luck or fate or chance are foreign concepts in the Bible and Joseph makes this quite clear when he explains to his brothers that he has no intention of getting back at them for what they had done to him.  The brothers were expecting the worst but Joseph saw things differently.  Joseph saw the hand of God behind everything that had happened. He explained it like this to his brothers,God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way and to make sure that you and your descendants survive. So it was not really you who sent me here, but God. He has made me the king’s highest official” (Genesis 45:7-8).

It was not by chance that Joseph had risen to a position of power and was able to help his brothers and their families.  God had used all the hatred his brothers had for him to save them in the end. Joseph explains, “You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people today because of what happened” (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph must have wondered, as any of us would, “Why is this happening to me?” or even asked, “God, what are you doing to me. Why are you allowing these things to happen?” It is later as he looked into the rear vision mirror on where he had been that he could say “but God”.  All these bad things happened to me and God permitted them to happen but God used them to save my family and their children and the generations to come.  God was behind the scenes working good into their evil purposes.

I can’t go on without referring to one other “but God” story in the Bible. Peter tells it like this on Pentecost Day, “Jesus was handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him. But God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner (Acts 2:22-24).  Evil was at work that first Good Friday.  An innocent man captured, put on trial, whipped, mocked, cruelly treated and nailed through hands and feet to a cross.  What could be more atrocious than that?  What seemed to be one of the biggest stuff ups in history becomes the very epitome of love; the beginning of the new possibilities and new hope that would come into human lives.

God used the evil on that day to bring forgiveness and eternal life into the lives of all people.  We could even use Joseph’s words here, “God turned the evil into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people”.

Whenever we hear the words “but God” or they are implied as God uses the circumstances in our lives to bring about good things and blessings, we know that God is always in control.  There are times when he permits bad things to happen but they don’t happen outside of his control.  God allows them to happen for a reason and that reason is always bound up with his love for us. Sometimes and perhaps more often than not we can’t see the reason why God permits bad things to happen because his ways and thoughts are far beyond ours.  We can’t think like God and we don’t have the wisdom of God but we can trust his love.

To be sure, the story of Jesus, the cross and the tomb, the story about Joseph and his brothers say very loudly that not everything that happens is good.  Horrible things happen – babies die, mothers get cancer, parents abuse children; we have Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli, Chechnya, Auschwitz, we have famine and war in Africa where people are suffering in a way we can hardly begin to imagine. Everyday’s news has a story. There is no way in the world we can begin to understand why these things happen on such a massive scale.  We know that God doesn’t cause evil to happen; the people on this planet do a pretty good job at creating evil without any outside help.

To be sure terrible things happen in our lives – some are our own making and others seem to come out of the blue.  It’s not a matter of good luck or bad luck.  In faith we believe that God is always close by as we travel through dark times and along unfamiliar roads.  Joseph didn’t know why things happened the way they did as they unfolded and he didn’t have the advantage of a crystal ball to see that all the events in his life would end up bringing blessings to his family.  But one thing he was certain about – God was travelling along with him.

Like Abraham who obeyed God and packed up everything and travelled to an unknown destination,
like David who defied the giant Goliath;
like Daniel whose obedience to God meant persecution;
like Peter and the other disciples whose loyalty to Jesus made life hard and in the end cost them their lives;
like Joseph who must have often wondered where life was taking him,
we too are on a journey and we don’t know what lies around the corner, but we do know who is travelling with us.  We don’t rely on luck to get us through but on the sure and certain love of God that we know through Jesus.  It’s the kind of love that is persistent, committed and never gives up; the kind of love that gives us peace and contentment even when we are totally confused about the events of our lives.

As you leave here this morning, my parting words to you will not be, “Good luck”. Rather, I will remind you that as you go out into the world, you do not go alone; you go with each other and God goes with you. No matter what this week may bring, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will remain with you and bless and protect you and give you the peace that comes from knowing that it’s not luck that controls your life but the loving hand of almighty God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Part of the Community

Friday, September 8th, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

 

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may recognise the seriousness of sin, but also the riches of your forgiveness through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Once upon a time, there were a number of people who lived on the sea. They had no houses as we are used to, but they each lived in a small canoe.

Now over a period of time, they discovered it would be beneficial if they bound their canoes together to form a floating community. This community of canoes then provided safety when the seas became rough, provided opportunities to teach children together, and gave opportunities to seek and provide comfort for each other in tough times.

To help them in their travels, they set up a mast in the middle of their community. It had a strong and tall upper beam and a sturdy cross beam which they attached a sail onto. This sail helped them so they didn’t weary themselves with all their rowing, and also guided them toward their eventual destination.

Then one day, Timothy started paddling backwards, just for fun. He didn’t think it would hurt anyone to paddle backwards and thought it was a break from the routine. But Jenny noticed he was doing this and saw how his paddling was slowing down their progress and how it put extra strain on the ropes that bound the canoes together. She thought that perhaps she would just yell at Timothy really loud so that everyone would hear and look at him, but then thought this might embarrass him, so instead she quietly went over to him and discussed this with him in private.

Timothy didn’t even realize that what he did was affecting anyone else, and when he heard about this, he quickly stopped paddling backwards and thanked Jenny for letting him know.

Soon afterwards Sharon yelled some abuse at Fred, using some very colourful language. Donald, a friend of Fred’s, overheard and didn’t think Sharon’s words and attitudes were very helpful. After she seemed to calm down a little, he went over to her and said that even if what she said was right, he didn’t think her attitude was helpful and definitely didn’t agree with her using all those swear words.

 

Sharon didn’t like someone else telling her this, so she told Donald so in no uncertain terms, after all, it was just his opinion. If he didn’t like her using those words, then maybe he shouldn’t listen in on her conversations.

After trying to explain his position in the kindest way, Donald eventually gave up, but then spoke to his wife about what had happened. She suggested bringing along another friend and the community leader so that Sharon could see it wasn’t just one person’s concern, but the community’s. He did this and they all approached her and tried to explain how her language and attitudes had affected the community and how some of the children had now started using the same language against their parents.

Although Sharon didn’t like people ‘ganging up’ on her, she agreed her words and her attitudes were not helpful. She agreed to apologise to Fred for using such swear words and promised to try and stop using such language.

A few weeks later, George decided he didn’t want to wear clothes anymore, so he got undressed and went about his daily tasks without any clothes on.

Now everyone noticed, but they were almost too embarrassed to say anything. What would others think if they saw them talking to a naked George?

Eventually Paul got up the courage to speak to George about it. He explained his embarrassment and asked if he could please put some clothes on. But George said he couldn’t see anything wrong with not wearing any clothes, after all it seemed to be more Paul’s problem than George’s, so he just better get used to it.

But Paul was still very concerned and watched the children point at George and laugh at him. He also saw how many women would blush if they saw him, or would even catch some of them secretly staring at him with that spark of speculation in their eyes. So he gathered the community leader and another person to more formally approach George.

They told him they had nothing against nakedness as such, but shared their concern for the community, noting people’s embarrassment and the jokes that were told about him. They also mentioned the secret looks that could harm marriage relationships.

 

At this he called them all prudes and said he was going to continue to keep his clothes off. Anyway, if they didn’t like it, what would they do about it?

After many different but ultimately unsuccessful approaches, they went away and started discussing this matter among themselves. They had quite a debate because they knew they were only a small community and needed everyone and their canoes. They didn’t want to cut George off, but also agreed that his behaviour showed he didn’t respect others and his nakedness would be harmful to the community. Each individual is accountable to the community, but he was already acting as if he was outside of the community. After a long and passionate discussion, they decided that unless he would put some clothes on, they had to cut him loose from the canoe community.

As one they approached him and shared their concerns, giving him one last opportunity, but he remained defiant. Therefore they cut his canoe loose. They had tears in their eyes as they saw him float away, while he yelled abuses at them and made many lewd actions.

Eventually he disappeared beyond their sight, but every day and every night they had someone posted to keep watch for him in the hope he would one day return to them. They even tried sending out people in canoes in order to find him and bring him back to safety.

Now we’re not a community of canoes. We also didn’t come together just because we decided to. We came together because God gathered us together as a community of believers joined in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet we also come together as a community of sinners. Every one of us sin every day. Anyone who thinks he or she doesn’t sin does not need the church, and therefore also has no need for Christ.

Now as sinners, sometimes we like to point out each other’s sinfulness. We like to do this especially if we’re hurt by their actions, but also because it may direct attention away from our own sins.

Yet there are other times when we might ignore someone’s sin. We don’t want to meddle in someone else’s affairs. We don’t want to force our opinion or our moral compass on another. We don’t want to offend them. We don’t want to affect our relationship with them by pointing out their sins. So we remain silent, but secretly annoyed, hurt, disgusted or embarrassed.

The other problem is that, even though we acknowledge we are all sinners, we don’t like to admit our own sin, and definitely don’t want anyone else to point out our sin.

We don’t like this because it shames us and threatens our pride. Because of society’s push for the rights of the individual over the right of a community, we seem to think our faith is a private matter and even the way we live is a private matter. We don’t think it’s anyone else’s business to tell us we’re wrong.

Yet the wrongs or sins of an individual are very serious and affect the whole body of believers, especially if that sin is done in public and without any signs of repentance or sorrow. Because sin affects the whole community, especially the public sins, the Christian is accountable to the whole assembly.

So what do we do when we become aware of someone’s sins that are repeatedly done in public? Well, this text gives clear advice. It gives us a gentle, but serious approach to our own sinfulness and each other’s sinfulness.

However, this text has also been abused. This text isn’t given to us so that we can delight in pointing out each other’s faults and shortcomings, or things we don’t like about them, like their looks or their smell. It isn’t to be used in order for us to get back at someone who hurt us, or even to get rid of a community’s ‘deadwood’. It doesn’t justify our expectations that everyone around us should live up to our standards, or even live a perfect life, because no one can.

Rather, this text is used when we show our genuine care and concern for those who may already be spiritually lost to us. It’s used when we care enough about someone that we will reach out and speak to them in love because they’re no longer publicly living as a believer and are unrepentant of their actions.

If you approach someone and point out their sins, it may not seem very loving to them, and may be seen as an invasion of privacy, or a way of forcing your opinion on them, or that you’re being too legalistic or critical, but as Christians you realise the seriousness of sin and cannot in a good conscience allow them to continue in their sinful actions while they profess to be Christian.

 

We courageously approach people in love and concern, not just because of the harm the sin is doing to other people, but also because of the harm it does to the person doing it. They may not realise they already live as if they are outside of the faith community and are therefore also living outside of Christ.

We are all sinful and for this reason we must avoid the temptation to be too judgemental and go around pointing out each others sinfulness. Calling someone a sinner won’t necessarily help. But the Lord does encourage us to love and care for each other enough, that if we see someone openly sinning and they’re not sorry about their actions, we will reach out to each other in concern for the sake of their eternal welfare.

When you do this, do it in love and not in a way that shows your superiority over them. Approach them as a fellow sinner. If they’re sorry for their actions, then point them to Jesus Christ and his undeserving forgiveness. In this way you’ll restore a brother or sister to the community of believers.

Our Lord Jesus Christ died so that all our sins are covered and dealt with, but if someone is no longer repentent and therefore don’t think they need the blood of Christ, then we should love them enough to reach out to gain them as our brother or sister in Christ.

We may not be a community of canoes, but we are a community bound to each other through faith in Jesus Christ. Love one another enough to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Love one another enough to speak gently and lovingly about sin. Love one another enough to admit your own sinfulness and your own need for Jesus. Love one another enough to listen patiently to someone’s concern, even if you don’t want to hear it. Love one another enough to speak the forgiveness of Christ. Love one another enough that you still want to gather with each other in the name of Christ and have Jesus within your midst. Love one another so that …

The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

When losers are winners

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
Text: Matthew 16:24-26
Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to come with me he must forget himself, carry his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Will a person gain anything if he wins the whole world but loses his life? Of course not!”

Over the past weeks we have certainly had a good dose of hero worship. The high profile and the status that goes with winning a medal at the Beijing Olympic Games highlights how important winning is not only for the individual medal winners but also for the whole country. We know how much the Brits have delighted in getting more medals at the games than the Aussies. Winning is everything. Whether talking about the Olympics, football, cricket, a game of Monopoly or cards. The aim is to win and those who do win can brag about their skill, their abilities and expertise. Winners get all the glory.

Even for the spectators winning is everything. When a team is not winning, or even close to winning, no matter how hard the players are trying, the spectators are disappointed in their performance. That becomes so obvious when spectators start to leave before the game is even finished because they believe their team is not going to win. But when the team is winning the spectators are right there with the winners. Winners receive all the glory.

I don’t think the disciples were into football or cricket but they know from life experience that being a winner is what really mattered. No-one wanted to be regarded as a loser. That’s why the Jews were in constant revolt against their Roman rulers and even if it meant losing one’s life it was well worth the effort to make their enemies the losers and themselves the winners.

Jesus and the disciples were in the Roman holiday town of Caesarea Philippi. There, with the cool breeze blowing in their faces off the sea, Jesus drops a bombshell. He tells them that, not long from now, he must go to Jerusalem, he must fall into the hands of his enemies, he will suffer, and there he will die.

The shock is almost greater than his disciples can bear. And Peter, in typical style, speaks up for the rest of the disciples and rebukes Jesus. “God forbid it, Lord! That must never happen to you!” (By the way, the word “rebuke” is a strong word. We hear of Jesus rebuking unclean spirits, demons, and casts them out with authority. He rebuked storms to stop and be still. And so this is by no means a soft, gentle telling off. “Rebuke” implies authority. So you have the scenario of Peter, the disciple, rebuking Jesus as if he had greater authority and insight into how Jesus’ future should unfold).

According to Peter, if Jesus was ever going to be a winner he was going about it the wrong way. It’s clear that the disciple didn’t realise that God’s idea of who is a winner and how one becomes a winner is quite different to that of the rest of the world. God’s way of winning over sin and death involved suffering. Those who think they are winners in Jerusalem will be exposed as those who have lost all idea that right throughout history God has shown himself to be a reconciling God and whose love for humanity never gives up. Jesus will be publicly humiliated in the worst form of torture known to humanity. There will be blood and then death.

Peter had just answered Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. This kind of talk about evil being stronger than good, enemies being more powerful than the Son of the living God, meant that Jesus would end up being recorded in history as the biggest loser of all time.

I think we can understand where Peter is coming from. Heroes are winners. Winners are not defeated by their enemies. Winners do not die on crosses.

Jesus in turn rebukes Peter saying, “Get away from me! You are thinking like everyone else and not like God!” In fact more accurately, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” This says something about what Jesus thought of Peter’s ideas. Maybe Peter’s words reminded Jesus of his temptation by Satan in the wilderness when Satan tried to get Jesus to take the easier and more glorious path to being a hero. People would flock to him after seeing him float down from the heights of the Temple roof and, accompanied by an angel or two, land safely in the courtyard below.

The fact that Jesus speaks so strongly to Peter indicates that what he is about to say is very important. “If anyone wants to come with me he must forget himself, carry his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Will a person gain anything if he wins the whole world but loses his life? Of course not!”

Have you noticed what Jesus has done here? He has moved the focus of the conversation away from himself and what lay ahead of him to the disciple and what lay ahead of those who follow Jesus. The path of forgetting oneself is not only for Jesus, but also for those who follow him. You must forget yourself, and you must take up your cross and follow.

What Jesus is saying here is so radical and different to our usual way of thinking and acting. We are so used to ‘looking out for number one’ and the attitude that ‘my needs are more important than anyone else’s’ that Jesus’ words fly in the face of the self-seeking and self-importance that is so common in our world.

“Forget yourself” – that’s even radical for Christians because we know just how difficult this is. These are difficult words – “forget yourself, your needs, your ideas, your plans, your need to impress, your fears, your need to be highly regarded in the sight of others, your whatever, and be my disciple”.
Now we could do what we usually do with anything that is too hard – ignore it, or water it down, somehow make it a bit easier to swallow.
Or we could do just as it says, that is, to follow his example of letting go of being so “me” focussed, and put God and his kingdom first.

Nothing, no matter how sacred, is permitted to come between ourselves and God. We place ourselves at his disposal.
His plans are our plans,
his will is our will,
his ways are our ways.
In our lives we are committed to only one thing – focused on being Christ-like in our relationships with others, dedicated to being truly his disciples, committed to following God’s way and not those of the world, faithful to God’s will that love would be our guide in every circumstance. Make no mistake about it, Jesus is saying to his followers, ‘Becoming a disciple is a radical step and being a disciple demands your commitment to forget yourself as crazy as this might seem to everyone else’.

And Jesus goes on to give the formula for the ultimate loser. ‘Take up your cross’, not the cross of Jesus, but your own cross.

The words, “Take up your cross” can rightly be understood in the narrower fashion. This includes the sense of accepting the “cross” of poor health, grief, loneliness, job loss and so on in the same way that Jesus was able to endure the suffering and pain of the cross with the knowledge that he had a loving heavenly Father who could be counted on.

However, this phrase “take up your cross” seems to have the broader and even more positive meaning of sharing with Christ in the work of showing love and compassion. Jesus has placed the burden on all of our shoulders
to care as he cared,
forgive as he forgave,
heal as he healed,
comfort as he comforted,
encourage as he encouraged,
accept others as he accepted others,
follow God’s ways as he did,
suffer as he suffered,
and give sacrificially as Jesus gave sacrificially.
Each of us must take up our cross and follow him.

Note the way Jesus uses the word “must” when talking about his journey to Jerusalem. Just as the Son of Man must be rejected, must suffer and must die and rise again so must his disciples take up their cross and follow. This little word “must” indicates that it is God’s will that Jesus take up the cross of suffering and humiliation and likewise it is God’s will that we must take up our cross.

In November 1992 five nuns were killed in the country of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. The nuns had been missing for about a week near Monrovia. That area was controlled by the National Patriotic Front – rebels who were trying to seize control. “These nuns, who were all experienced missionaries in Liberia either in education or health-care ministries, had been brutally shot to death. Their bodies were apparently left where they had fallen – three at their compound in a suburb of Monrovia and two on the road several miles away.”

Is this what discipleship is all about?
Is this the cross Jesus is talking about – being so focussed and committed to God’s Kingdom that the consequences don’t matter?
Is he saying that it is possible that we will experience rejection and humiliation when following Jesus is more important that anything else?
Does this mean that success in God’s eyes is not what we earn,
what we have,
what position we have in the community or the church,
or what “pious” lives we have but that the cross of love, service, sharing with the needy, welcoming the stranger, blessing those who persecute you, never taking revenge and answering evil with good? 
(See today’s reading from Romans 12:9-21 for Paul’s description of a life focussed on discipleship Jesus’ way).

I don’t know how you feel, maybe it’s the same as I feel, but every time I read or preach on this text, I wonder whether I really deserve the title ‘disciple’, ‘member of God’s family’, ‘follower of Jesus’. Jesus’ description of discipleship is tough, demanding, radical. How can I ever match that kind of expectation?

The plain and simple answer is that none of us can. That’s not minimising Jesus’ call to forget oneself, take up our cross and follow him but it is acknowledging that our human nature will always get in the way of this kind of discipleship. I take heart from the disciple Peter who really messed up big time when his commitment to Jesus as a disciple was challenged in the courtyard of the High Priest. When Jesus was being led through the courtyard, he knew what Peter had done. His eyes were filled with nothing but love and compassion for the Peter’s wounded spirit.

That’s why Jesus said he must be rejected, must suffer and must die and rise again – to bring forgiveness and grace into the lives of his disciples who find themselves failing again and again. It is the cross that makes us losers to be winners. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Jesus died so that we might have forgiveness, hope and courage as we go out and take up our cross and follow Jesus.

We may stumble in carrying the cross of discipleship, we may not carry out God’s plans for our community as we should, we may not be as committed and as focussed as we ought to be, nevertheless God is calling each of us to forget ourselves, forget our failures because Jesus died to give us forgiveness and new starts, take up our cross, follow him and serve in whatever way God has gifted us.

It is said winners are grinners, in Jesus, losers are the winners and so they are the grinners.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy