Archive for February, 2011

February 27, 2011

Do not worry…

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(Photo: Not ‘Lilies of the field’, Snowdrops from Blarney will have to make do…)

Sermon for the Second Sunday Before Lent, Year A, Matthew 6:25:34

How you can tell when it’s going to be a rotten day:
You wake up face down on the pavement.
You call The Samaritans and they put you on hold.
You see loads of reporters and camera crews waiting outside your office.
Your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles.
Your twin sister forgot your birthday.
Your car horn goes off accidentally and remains stuck as you follow a Scary biker gang on the motorway.
Your boss tells you not to bother to take off your coat.
The bird singing outside your window is a Vulture.
You wake up and your braces on your teeth are locked together.
Your income tax check bounces.
You put both contact lenses in the same eye.
Your wife says, “Good morning, Bill”, and your name is George.
Source Unknown.

These days are for many a time of great worry and testing; things that we took for granted can no longer be viewed that way.  Many of us never worried about the fact that there would be enough money to pay the bills.  The mortgage was high but then so was the income to pay for it.  Food prices were amongst the highest in the world, but then so was our standard of living.  For so many people in this country the difference today from just a short couple of years ago could not be greater.  Then it seemed that the sky was the limit, now our feet our firmly on the ground, in a queue, outside the social welfare office…

Even if we ourselves are not out of work or in a desperate financial situation, we certainly know people who are; they are among our family members and friends.  We have found ourselves helping people who would be really stuck otherwise.  All of us are in this together, especially so in the family of God.

Speaking of God, where is He in all of this?  Does He just sit up in heaven and shake His head as He watches us make a complete mess of things?  No, His response is very clear, so clear in fact that at least until we grasp its truth it can be infuriating!  He says:

“Do not worry.”

It is not difficult to picture the scene:  You have just opened a ‘final notice’ letter from the bank; you simply do not have the money to meet all those who are demanding it from you.  You feel a deep anger at the former government and at the bank which is demanding your money. You feel the sheer weight and pressure of responsibility upon you to provide for your family, to feed them, to clothe then and to provide a roof over their heads and you would like to find any way possible out of this mess.  Then in the midst of all of this, the Lord Jesus says “Do not worry!”  ‘How could He possibly understand my situation?’ you say.  Actually He understands your situation more than you will ever know, and that is the core of it; He wants you to trust Him.  He wants you to hand over to Him every burden, every weight and the pressure of all your responsibility, the worry, anxiety, guilt, anger and pain.  Hand it over to Him, for He is more than able to take it from you and more than able to deal with it and He is more than able to provide for you and your family for all of your needs.  You may lose your home but you will not be homeless, you may not be tasting Pate Fois Gras anytime soon, but you and your family will have more than enough to eat.  You may not be able to drive your dream car, but you will be able to get to the places you need to.  Your clothes may not be the newest and the best anymore, but you will have all that you need.

God will provide.  Our heavenly Father feeds the birds and He provides the lilies of the field with more beautiful apparel than the finest of Kings.  God knows what we need, in fact our Heavenly Father knows what we need better than we do.

Is there a catch?  Well there is and there isn’t.  (Red Herring alert) God will provide for us, He provides enough for the whole world, the only reason so many are without is because countries like ours hoard so much and it is our greed ultimately that leads to the deaths of so many who do not have enough food in other countries.  Yes there are other factors too, whether it be tyrannical regimes in power in those countries, famines and poor distribution because of bribes and corruption and sheer apathy amongst their leaders to do anything to help.  But when we look at our problems in the context of the world in which we live rather than just on how we used to live then it does help to put some kind of sobering perspective on things.

In this life we cannot have everything that we want, there will be good times but there will be bad times too.

There’s a great magazine called Leadership Journal and this is what the editor Marshall Shelley wrote in November of last year:  My wife’s father is a farmer. He’s spent a lifetime raising wheat, corn, beef, and along the way some sheep and chickens. One morning while I followed him around the farm, we talked about the differences between living in the town and in the country.

“Most people who live in towns that I know expect each year to be better than the last,” he said. “They think it’s normal to get an annual raise and to earn more this year than you did last year. As a farmer, I have good years and bad years. It all depends on rain at the right time, dry days for harvest, and no damaging storms. Some years we have more; some years we have less.”

It was one of those indelible moments of stunning clarity. And that “law of the harvest”—some years being fat and others being lean—applies to much more than agriculture. Growing in spiritual maturity requires gratefully accepting the “seasons of more” and the “seasons of less” that God weaves into specific areas of our lives—our friendships, marriage, career, finances, ministry, and spiritual growth.[1]

So our Lord and Saviour does not want us to worry, He wants us to trust Him, but is there anything else that He wants us to do (now we get back to the ‘is there a catch?’ question.)  It is of course not really a catch, He simply wants us to stop being negative, He wants us to replace the worry, the fear, the anxiety the guilt, anger and pain with something that is good and positive.  He wants to change our outlook on life, He wants to replace the worry with faith and He wants us to not strive after the things of this world but to strive instead after the things of God; His Kingdom and His righteousness and if we do that He will take care of the rest.  We keep our eyes focussed on Jesus throughout the ups and downs of life and all (ultimately) will be well.

“But what about tomorrow – my bills are not going to magically disappear, my debtors are not going to just melt away?”  Well they might, but what is the Lord’s response to our worries about tomorrow?  Simply this:

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (v.34)

Tomorrow is the future for us, but for God who exists outside of time and for whom every one of our days is a present reality it is (or should be) of no concern to us.  As the old saying goes “Do not worry about tomorrow because God is already there.”

Of course the Lord Jesus is right; today’s concerns are enough for today.  We take our problems one at a time and present them to Him in the place of prayer.  In each thing, one at a time we place our dependence upon God and as we do so we can literally feel the weight of those things being lifted off from us.

We can all think of times in our lives where we have been in a situation where we could do nothing else than hand everything over to God.  What was it like when you did that?  Did you survive?  I can remember when I was a new and very inexperienced curate (and the rector was away) having to do several funerals in a few days – I don’t know how I did it, but I realised afterwards that God helped me.  I know that many of you have enough worries and concerns and difficulties and problems to last a lifetime (or indeed several lifetimes).  So may you draw enormous comfort from the simple truth that our reading from Matthew’s gospel reminds us of this morning; the Lord Jesus says to you and to me:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry.”

Let us pray:  Heavenly Father, you know each of us so well and you understand every aspect of our lives so completely.  You know about tomorrow and every day after that.  Lord, we choose right now to let go, to release our tight grip upon all those things which cause us to worry; you know what they are.  We let them go and we give each of them to you now.  Lord, come and fill our hearts and lives and our homes with your love, with your peace and with your presence.  Help us to keep our eyes fixed upon you always, in the knowledge that you will never let go of us and no one or nothing can ever snatch us out of your grasp.  We are with you now and we thank you that no matter what we always will be with you and you with us.  With all of our hearts we thank you … Amen.

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February 20, 2011

The right response to hatred

Light and Dark

Photo: Sunrise on the way to Timoleague, early one Sunday morning.

Sermon for Sunday 20th February.  Text: Matthew 5:38-48

Timoleague, Clonakilty HC, Year A 3rd Sunday Before Lent (Proper 2), 20/2/11.  Matthew 5:38-48

Humility is a difficult thing to grasp.  I had to laugh last week when I saw a politician on television puffing out his chest and saying “I am a humble man”!  Poor chap, I think the irony of boasting about his humility was lost upon him!  But of course politicians are easy targets, what about ourselves, are we in danger of being proud of our humility?  Well if we are then the few verses of our reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel will give us a jolt back into reality…

The Lord Jesus starts off by quoting a well-known phrase from the Old Testament law (from Exodus 21:24) and then He expands upon it:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an  eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; (Matthew 5:38, 39)

How do we react when we are wronged?  Think about when you are in the car and somebody pulls out in front of you or cuts you up at a roundabout, or you are trying to turn on to the main road but some eejit is blocking the yellow box junction!  We can get a bit upset – perhaps we even secretly wish that our car was equipped with a mobile rocket-launcher!  When someone does wrong to us we want revenge!

The Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye’ was there to make sure that the punishment fitted the crime, so that a sentence was neither too harsh nor too lenient.  What does the Lord want us to do?  Does He want us to demand our rights?  No.  Does He want us to make sure that those who wrong us are punished?  No.  (This is not so much talking about crimes against the state which are punishable under law, it is talking about our relationships and dealings with people).  Do we have a readiness to resentment?  Are we easily offended?  Do we go into a sulk when we don’t get our way?  Are we keen to assert our rights?

The Lord does not want us to be like this, we are not to be a miserable selfish grouch who everybody avoids because they are afraid of upsetting.  As Mahatma Ghandi (who though a Hindu greatly admired Jesus’ teaching) said ‘an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.’  If we want God’s Kingdom to come, if we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven , then we have to let go of our natural wishes and desires and we have to respond as Jesus did.  If someone slaps us on the cheek, our first thought might be to punch their lights out, but no, we are to not retaliate.  If someone takes from us we are not to resist but offer them more!  If someone compels us to do something to help them we are to go the ‘whole hog’ and help them as fully as we are able to do so.

We are to return good for evil and blessing for cursing.  We are to love not only in word but in deed also.

Next, the Lord says:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Of course, nowhere in the Old Testament law does it say to hate enemies, rather the words had been misinterpreted over time.  It’s one thing to turn the other cheek but when the Lord asks us to love our enemies is that not going a bit far?  What is an enemy?  According to my dictionary, an enemy is someone who is opposed to something, and actively tries to damage it. (Collins English Dictionary sixth ed. 2003).  Is Jesus mad?  No, He definitely is not.  Perhaps we forget that once we were His enemy, and did He not treat us with overwhelming love?  We might say ‘I was never God’s enemy’, well before you gave your life to Christ, you were a sinner, what is a sinner, but someone who lives their life apart from God.  There is no sitting on the fence, either we are for God or we are against Him and to be against Him is to be His enemy. Listen to this, from Romans chapter 5:

8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

So in other words, the Lord Jesus wants us to behave towards others as He has behaved towards us, with unconditional love, grace and acceptance.

A professor of New Testament Studies, Gary M. Burge, writes the following true story

A few years ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his reckless lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.

The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living there hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.

One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work—a Palestinian Janitor, a Christian—who knew this soldiers story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. The Janitor’s own village had even been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines. …

When you understand what it means for an enemy to love an enemy—and for the righteous to show neglect—then you will have a picture of the power of God’s grace at work in a person’s heart.

Gary M. Burge, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 24-25 (From preachingtoday.com)

It is of course easy for us to love those who love us, but the ability to love those who are actively hostile to us is another thing altogether.  One of the things that makes the Christian and indeed the Church of God different from the world is the ability to love unconditionally.

To live like this might seem like the bar is set just too high, but are we not children of God, and as children of God should we not be like our Heavenly Father?  If we only love those who love us, then where is the evidence of our conversion?  As Bishop J.C. Ryle puts it:

Do we flinch from the test? Do we find it impossible to do good to our enemies?  If that be the case we may be sure we have yet to be converted.  As yet we have not received the “Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 12.)

(J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Matthew, 1856).

So who are our enemies?  The answer will be different for each of us.  They may be persons we do not even know, but who would wish us ill because of our association with Christ.  Sadly, our enemy may even be a family member or former friend or work colleague.  They  may make no secret in delighting in our failures and resenting our successes.

Here is the challenge:  You can be sure that if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus that you will have the opportunity to minister to those who hate you.  What will we do when that time comes; will we turn away and pretend not to notice, or will we reach out in love?

How happy would the world be if we were all able to live as Jesus taught.  But we are weak and we are proud and so stubborn.  Yet if there is a small spark of hope in us that is able to say “Thy will be done”, we can be assured that the very second we say “yes” to God, He is there and He will help us and He will give us every strength, resource and encouragement in Christ that we need to love, yes to unconditionally love even those who hate us.

Amen.

 

February 7, 2011

Why the long face?

Horse #1

I came across these two characters at an ‘Equine Centre’ not too far from here – they were more than happy to pose for a portrait! The first horse insisted that I take his ‘best side’ and the second, well he just thought that he would put his ears back and see if he could eat my camera!

Why the long face?

Looking at these pictures reminded me of that awful ‘joke’, you know the one:

A horse walks into a bar and the barman says, ‘Hey, why the long face?’

I know, I know, lets move on. Here’s a really big tangent. Ready?

Okay, well the whole ‘long face’ thing got me thinking about sadness, and why so many many people are sad and why so many suffer from depression. This came into my head yesterday during church as we were reading the Psalm, (number 112). Here’s a couple of verses from it (1 & 7):

Blessed are those who fear the LORD,
who find great delight in his commands.

They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.

When I read those words yesterday, they took me back a while, nearly twenty years, to a church my better half and I used to attend before moving to Ireland. The church treasurer was a remarkable man, from Germany. During the second world war he had been a pilot in the Luftwaffe and he had been on a mission and was shot down. He survived the crash and made his way to the nearest barn to hide and to sleep out the rest of the night. He was of course afraid of being captured but he hadn’t reckoned on the Farmer’s daughter. They fell in love and fifty years later they were still inseparable. He still had quite a strong accent and whenever he was around I could always hear John Cleese in the back of my head saying “don’t mention the war.

Anyway, one day he said he had a verse of the Bible for me to remember. My initial excitement evaporated when he read out those two verses that are quoted above, all I could think about was ‘bad news’.

I can’t tell you the number of times those verses have been a source of encouragement and strength to me over the years since then. Whenever there is bad news those words are the first thing that comes into my mind, and what peace they bring.

For me those words have a strength that is beyond myself, indeed of God. I hope they will be a great help for you also, but may your bad news be a very long way off yet…

February 3, 2011

Strange Tree

Strange Tree!

There’s that strange and surreal place between dreaming and waking where the two merge into each other.  The other night (or rather early morning) I awoke with a rather odd poem going around my head, about a tree…

It had all started the previous week when my better half and I were enjoying a pleasant walk along the beach at Long Strand.  We came across the tree in the photo above and well I thought it interesting enough to take a picture of.  Clearly my subconscious thought it interesting too, interesting enough to come up with a strange poem about a strange dream about a strange tree!  How did I remember the words?  Well, I happened to have my mobile phone nearby and just typed it in, all in one go…

Please take this poem about as seriously as you would read My lovely horse ;-)

Strange tree where have you come from,
What story do you have to tell?
Were you borne here on stormy seas, a refugee from fire or spell?
Oh what would you tell me if only you could say,
perhaps the hopes and dreams caught in your branches reflect the light from whence you came?

Strange tree what do you carry
What a load you have to bear?
Bottles, Tin cans, shoes and netting, things now beyond all care.
Oh what would you tell me if only you could say,
the hopes and dreams caught in your branches are so much more than things that were thrown away?

Strange tree where will you go to
When it comes your time again?
Will you roll upon the open seas to distant shores or mountain glen?
Oh the only thing I can tell you, all that I can say,
is that the hopes and dreams caught in your branches will live on in memories beyond this sunlit day.

(Hope I made you laugh!)