Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?…

I remember as a child entering into a competition held by Radio Four in which people were invited to enter mini-sagas, 50 word stories. Fifty words doesn’t sound like many does it, anyone can come up with fifty words (to give you a sense of scale, the newsletter front page article is usually 4-500 words). It might be easy enough to come up with fifty words, but coming up with a gripping yarn in only fifty words is a totally different matter – I see that Radio Two has taken pity on current children and asks for five hundred word stories instead!

Here’s a challenge for you – can you encapsulate in some way your experiences of God in fifty words? Answers in an email, a couple of texts or a scrap of paper please! You could write about your story of coming to faith, your ongoing questions about him, or a particular experience. It could be a straight account, or a story or even a poem. I’d love to turn next week’s front page into a collection of them.

Of course, the master of the really-short-story was Jesus with his parables. Can you name anyone else who has come up with such enduring, captivating and surprising tales as his? Many of these are fifty words as well, or even less. It’s amazing that even now, some two thousand years after they were first told, that they still have the power to shock and transform, or to make us face up to who we really are. I’ve spent much of the last few years thinking about them and reading about them partly because of various bits of course work and sermons I’ve had the joy of preaching, but mainly because I find that I can’t get away from them, there’s something about them that teases and keeps calling me back to them. What did Jesus mean by that? If he told them today, how would he change them? What is Jesus saying to me through them now? And how about to us, his church?

There is a downside to their popularity. Sometimes we can become deaf to them, we’ve heard it all before. Or we come up with ways to make them comfortable to listen to or to explain away the awkward bits and make them suitable for church consumption. Symon Hill has come up with a great way to listen to them afresh and cut through the traditions we’ve built up around them in his book The Upside-Down Bible. Rather than turn to scholars and commentaries to get answers to these questions, he took a novel approach. If the parable was about crops or sheep or soil, he’d go and tell the story to a group of farmers and see what their reactions were. A story about workers and their treatment? He asked a group of trade unionists for their views. The Good Samaritan? He asked some Jews for their thoughts. He also made a point of asking non-Christians, those who hadn’t really thought about or heard the stories before. Sometimes their answers were what he expected. Often they were not, and jolted him into seeing them in new ways. Got me wondering who to talk to next time I get stuck in sermon prep, or for that matter, who might be interested in hearing these stories if we got them outside the church and into our communities…

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Telling Tales

A few weeks ago we went as a family to the Globe to watch Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. It was a magical night, my first time there, and I am determined not my last. Before hand, though, I put a lot of work in to make sure I’d read the script and understood the story so that I could navigate my way through the beautiful but sometimes undecipherable language of ‘The Bard’.

In last Sunday’s sermon I alluded to a conversation I had with David L… about the language we use to talk about God. The underlying question was, how can we talk about God in language that is accessible and meaningful to today’s culture? The question was not simply how can we translate old versions of the Bible removing the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s etc. so that the words themselves are modern equivalents of the original word, but how can we talk about God and faith using contemporary concepts and understanding. Often when we talk about God we use Biblical imagery or Biblical stories, and this certainly has its place, but dare I say it, this runs the risk of two related dangers. To begin with, you can take a 50’s love song from the charts of the day and get a modern chart topper to sing it, but the song is still the same song, using the same words and pictures from past era and may seem twee or outdated to modern teens. Similarly, you can dress a story from the Bible up in modern words, but the content it talks about is still the same content, and the danger is that you’re telling a story that doesn’t relate to contemporary hearers.

The other danger is that by doing this we run the risk of being unfaithful to Scripture and Jesus’ method of communicating. How did Jesus communicate his faith and understanding of God? One of the main ways was through stories. Stories are fantastic tools for not only capturing people’s attention, but also helping them grasp concepts that can’t be described in conceptual language – and let’s face it, it’s notoriously difficult to describe God, he’s beyond straight description. But what stories did he tell? He didn’t retell the old stories that often, the stories of the Bible of his time, the Old Testament as we might retell his stories today. I’m trying to think of an example of him telling the story of David or Moses or Elijah, and I can’t. No, he told stories that related to the people of his day, using the language of his time and the concepts that folk of his day thought in. He told stories of farmers and masters and plants. Underneath, it was the same truth he was telling, but in the language and framework of his time. Surely to be faithful to Scripture we should do the same?

There’s no doubt that some of his stories still work – the parables are still dramatic stories and this says a lot about what a master-storyteller he was – but often they require a lot of work for us to really get it, just as we have to work hard to understand Shakespeare. The question I wonder is – and I’d love you to help me answer it – how would he talk about faith and God today? What language and concepts would he use? What images, occupations and news-stories would he reach for – I can’t see him talking about agriculture so much can you?

Church Newsletter 16th June 2013

The Parable of the Incredible Carrot

I spotted an incredible story on the BBC News website this week about a Swedish woman called Lena Paahlsson who found a surprising carrot growing in her garden. I know a little bit about growing carrots, having attempted to grow some myself over the last few years with rather a mixed success. Many remain really small, probably because I forget to plant them early enough and then never quite get around to thinning them out. This year I found a quite splendid specimen which was the length of my foot and almost as broad! Lena found a carrot that is quite unique, however, something the likes of which I have never grown or discovered before. This carrot was married, or so it seemed. Around its crown sat a thin gold band set with seven small diamonds, quite a find I think you’d agree! What makes this story even more incredible is that this ring was her own wedding ring that she’d lost some sixteen years earlier…

Lena had lost the ring whilst doing some Christmas cooking and had hunted high and low to try and find it, sadly in vain. Disappointed, she had long since given up all hope of finding it. The ring no longer fitted, it was too tight, but she had it widened so she could wear it again. They believe it must have been washed down the sink with potato peelings, which were then used for compost in the garden.

When I was at Bible college, my tutor was a stickler for using words correctly and would frequently tell me off for my use of incredible as a replacement for amazing, telling me that it strictly means unbelievable. I think to call Lena’s story incredible is permissible though, it does seem quite unbelievable if it wasn’t for the proof of the ring now on her finger. Her story reminds me of another unbelievable story, the story of the depths of God’s love for us and the lengths to which he’ll go to woo us. Jesus told many parables about this, stories with a surprising twist, the most famous being the shepherd who abandoned ninety nine sheep to look for a single lost sheep, a woman who turned her house over hunting for a single missing coin and of course the most famous of all, the Prodigal Son (these are all in Luke 15). God’s love for us is such that he sent his only son Jesus into our world to turn it upside down in order to bring us back to him. God loves us that much? Incredible but true.

Article for Church Newsletter, 10.03.13

Review: How (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging Church

How (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging ChurchHow (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging Church by Peter Rollins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought provoking book. I’ve quite taken to Peter Rollins recently. I appreciate his ability to tell a great story, to tell old parables in new ways that reveal the original meaning freshly, or even to construct new parables to go away and mull over. He has made me think deeply about what I believe and how I believe.

This book comes in two parts. The opening section explores the (un)knowability of God (can’t recall if he used that exact phrase). We can know God in that he has revealed himself to us, but at the same we cannot truly comprehend or understand him as our knowledge is bounded and coloured by our finiteness, our prejudices, the restrictions of language and our experiences. Alongside this challenge to our habitual thinking that we’ve got God wrapped up, Rollins also challenges us to rethink belief. He says it is less important to believe the right things (because of the above) but more important to believe in the right way; such a way that is transformational.

The second section of the book explores services that the church community Ikon have explored these concepts. Although I wouldn’t want to simply lift these for my own setting, I found the reading of them to be stimulating, and I suspect will spur me on in the pursuit of creativity in worship.

This was a great read. A bit wordy perhaps at times – but this is inevitable with the subject matter that he is dealing with. Recommended.

View all my reviews

The parable of the talents – a subversive children’s reading

In looking for something for this week’s church newsletter I stumbled across this article by Jonathan Bartley of the Christian Thinktank Ekklesia, which I found quite provocative and got me thinking about a familiar story in a new way. I though it worth sharing.

‘It was a great joy to find myself taking the Sunday school at our local Anglican church this morning, particularly as the story we were looking at was the Parable of the Talents.

This is the story which down the centuries has been interpreted by churches as being about taking what God has given you, and making it grow – quite often money. Indeed, when certain figures in the Church of England spoke out against the actions of some city traders recently, the letters columns of national newspapers were filled with people quoting the parable back at them.

We acted out the story according to the Biblical text. But if you are true to the text it makes for quite uncomfortable reading if you hold the traditional interpretation. The story is of a very rich man (usually seen as representing Jesus) who was considered pretty exploitative in his financial practices, and ruthless, by one of his servants/slaves. 

His servants/slaves are give some money to look after while he goes away, but not in equal amounts. He selects the ones who he thinks are the most gifted, and gives them the most. 

When he comes back he demands to know how much more money they have made him. The first two have doubled their money, making a 100% profit (probably by using the same exploitative financial practices as he uses as he calls them “faithful”). He rewards them both, and gets them to make him more money. But the third servant/slave was so scared, he buried his money in the ground and didn’t make any money for the rich man. 

Rather than be compassionate the rich man, takes the money back, takes all the other (personal) money that the poor servant has away too, and sends him away destitute. 

“Who is most like Jesus in the story?” I asked the Sunday School. The chidren all felt that the frightened servant probably was. Jesus certainly wasn’t like the rich landowner who kept slaves, treated then unequally on the basis of their ability, had a reputation for exploitation and ruthlessness, had no compassion, and was only interested in increasing his wealth. 

The children’s interpretations fit in with those of some more radical theologians, who point out that Jesus’ hearers, themselves exploited and oppressed, would have also identified far more with the poor servant/slave than anyone else. 

It is probably the Church’s historical identification with power and wealth that has led it to change the meaning of the parable into something different, and in fact entirely opposite. The kids however, who do not carry the same baggage, probably have a more faithful reading of the text. But then of course, it was Jesus who pointed to the children and said that “The Kingdom of God belonged to such as these.”‘ 

I’ve always loved the parables. Jesus is a master of telling stories that capture our imagination, niggling with their provocative possibilities which call us to work out their meaning when none is given. Bartley is, I am sure, right to try and shed the traditional understanding and hear the story again, open to the possibility that it could mean something else. There is certainly something in what he has to say, or rather the answer of the children – Jesus would no doubt associate himself with the oppressed and frightened servant, and it is good for us in our materialistic culture to hear this. But is this to misunderstand how a parable works?

Parables aren’t allegories where each person or object represents something or someone – should we come to them asking who is Jesus in this story, or who is God? Instead, we should hear the story through the ears of those who first heard it – as Bartley tries to. By doing that, like Bartley, we hear a story of a ruthless businessman  rewarding those who take risks for his benefit and punishing mercilessly those who do not. The temptation is to then ask the question who is God in the story, but we must resist this! God is clearly not this businessman with his dodgy motivation and punitive methods! But, if this businessman, with all his faults, rewards those who take risks for him, how much more will God reward those who work for him, taking risks to share his love and compassion with those around them, sharing the good news of the Kingdom.

A Modern Parable

I’ve always loved Jesus’ parables. Their shock value and the many twists and turns within them that have a habit of upturning everything we take for granted appeal to me – I’ve always liked stories where the world turns out to not be quite as it seems to be at first glance. The recent exploits of the miners in Chile in their rescue after an impossibly long time got me wondering if here was a tale which could be retold to encourage a looking at this world from another angle. Is this world really as we think it is, is what we call normal really normal? Of course, like all parables, you shouldn’t push it too hard. I don’t believe that this world is one to be escaped from – ultimately I believe God intends to renew it, to make it new – a return to Eden (Rev. 21:1-5)

The Kingdom of God is like this… 

There was a copper mine that was built in San Jose, Chile. The owner had visions of a great industrial venture that would create wealth and prosperity for both him and those that worked there.

Things did not go to plan, however. After a good start, part of the complex collapsed, crashing down and blocking the exit. Desperately, this left thirty three men trapped inside its tunnels, two miles beneath the surface. Were they alive? Nobody knew. Even if they were, there was clearly no hope of their escaping – how could they possibly clear the way from so far down! A further collapse two days later seemed to seal their fate.

Outside there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth as the families and friends of the miners fear that they are dead.

Seventeen days later it is discovered that the thirty-three have survived after a note is found on a listening probe that had been lowered down saying ‘Estamos bien en el refugio los 33’ – ‘All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.’ Despite this good news, the wailing and gnashing of teeth continues outside. Their loved ones may be alive, but what hope is there for them, who can reach them now?

Down below, life goes on, but what kind of life is it trapped in a dark black and white life, restricted in almost everyway. What is there to live for in a mine shaft two miles from the surface? After many days, the miners began to forget what life used to be like in colour when they knew freedom. Perhaps after a while they settled into a routine, this strange life became normal.

But an audacious rescue attempt is launched. Word is sent to those trapped so many miles from the surface, ‘don’t worry, we’re sending you a way out. Be patient. Trust in us. Keep exercising; keep slim so that you’re ready.’ There were celebrations amongst those who believed, but some doubted; ‘this life is all that there is’ they declared, ‘what more could there be?’ Time for the miners and for the desperate families seemed to pass very slowly. Would the promised rescue ever happen, or would these words of hope only prove to be false like so many other promised had done?

Then, one day, a drill broke through into the distant mineshaft from above. A capsule appeared not long after, just as the message had promised. All they had to do now was climb in and let themselves be winched to the life of freedom and colour that awaited them. Above onlookers waited with bated breath, ready for the celebrations to begin!

Church Newsletter article for Sunday 17th October 2010

The Unrighteous Manager – Luke 16:1-9

“Morning, Slippery Sam’s the name, surviving’s my game! I’m the master of duckin’ and divin’

My Boss, he owns all the land around here. Rich as they come he is! You should see how much money he’s got stashed away… I have, I collected most of it for him. That’s my job you see, I’m his manager, or steward. He’s too rich to do a proper day’s work like what you and me do, so ‘e pays me to do it.

My job is to go around all the folks that live on his land and collect the rent money from them, or those that sell the produce what they grow on his fields. Not always a pleasant job – now I’m not a tax collector, I’m not like them no, but some folk see me like one of them. It probably doesn’t help that sometimes I add a bit to the bill when no one’s looking and keep it for myself!
Of course I have to be careful playing that game. If my Boss sussed, well there’s no doubt that I’d be out of here, and if anyone else sussed, well that would be getting the Boss’s name a bad reputation… Catch is you see, there’s a queue of others waiting to take my place.

Why? Why do they want my job? It’s the money of course. I may not be rolling in it, but I’m a darn sight better than all these pheasants around here you know. A bit of ‘agro’ from the commoners is endurable if you’ve got some cash to spend.

Anyway, the other day I got in trouble, big trouble. Don’t know what it was, but that Mrs Jones, she must have realised that I’d been pulling a fast one on her, asking for too much money. I thought I’d been careful too. Anyways, whatever gave it away, she worked it out. Next thing I know the Boss has called me into his office and demanded to see the books – no not the latest Harry Potter, but the accounts where I record all that is owed to the Boss and all I’ve collected. Of course I take it to him straight away.

Did I know I was in trouble? Immediately. He’s never asked me to hand over the accounts before. Blindingly obvious that he was going to check them, and if he checked them, he would soon know that I’d been tricking him and his tenants, and taking a small share for myself. That was it. I was about to lose my job.

What’s the problem with that? This job is all I know. I couldn’t be a gardener, or a teacher. I can’t fix things. I’m no good with my hands – if you are by the way, don’t forget to sign up for the workday or the set-up teams. No, this is the only job I know, its all I can do. If the Boss sacks me for fiddling the books, then no one else is going to take me on are they? Who’d trust a cheat like me! All that would be left would be to beg. I don’t want to beg money from others…

You know sometimes when you have a problem, you can think about for hours and hours and come up with nothing? Then there are those days when something comes to you in a flash of lightening. This was one of them days.

I ran around those who hadn’t paid up yet and cut their bills…

You see, I wasn’t the only one cheating. Of course my Boss was at it too. Everyone’s doing it! The Bible says that when someone owes us something, we should get them to pay interest, to pay extra because we’ve done them a favour. No, we’re to charge them just what they’ve borrowed. Now of course, everyone ignores that don’t they. This was my plan. I’d run around everyone who hadn’t paid yet, and cancel the extra that my Boss had been demanding. That would make them happy. If they were happy and told everybody how good my Boss was to them – of course they would think my Boss had told me to do this – then my Boss would suddenly become very popular. He’d like that. And because he liked that, he would be pleased with me. If he was pleased with me, then he wouldn’t sack me. To be honest, even if he wasn’t pleased with me, he wouldn’t dare sack me, because everyone now liked me!”

*****

Reading Luke 16:1-9

This is one weird story isn’t it? Everyone in this story is being selfish and devious. What on earth are we to make of it.

Made even more confusing by Jesus’ comments that we should be like this manager. He’s called unrighteous. That’s not normally a good thing to be called, it means that you’re involved in wrong doing, and that spoils your relationship with God.

So why does Jesus say that we should be like him?
One suggestion – he is unrighteous because he is relying on ‘dirty money’ to make a living. He’s caught up in a way of life, a system that is corrupt. Jews weren’t meant to charge interest, or cheat and take money for themselves like he was. But by the end of the story, he’s stared living a different way. He’s cancelled the interest, stopped taking that little extra for himself too. And because of that, the world has become a better place. It’s changed, and those who were poor and being hard done by are being treated better.

Now of course, we know that the manager is still acting if we’re honest, selfishly, he’s only doing it for himself, but it’s a start at least. He’s beginning to leave behind wrong ways of dealing with others, and being to treat others with respect. Because of that, they are beginning to like him, and he keeps his job.

Is this Jesus’ point?

Like the manager, our lives are so intertwinned with the way the world works that no doubt there’s no end of ways in which we’re living a little bit like the manager, doing this wrong, because that’s the way its done around here, and hurting others as a result. It’s so easy just to copy everybody else and not actually stop and think about whether or not God would be pleased with what we’re doing.

The challenge of this story is to stop and think about our lives, how we live. Are there things that we’re involved in maybe deliberately or without realising it, that we need to stop and put right. Ways in which we’re not living out God’s instruction to love him and those around us.
Perhaps its in the way we shop – is what we buy harming others because they aren’t paid enough for what they grow or make for us. Is our trade fair?

What about the banks we use – do they use our money for good things, or bad things – do we even know? Is our banking ethical?

How about the amount of power we use – the more we use our cars, the more we use electricity and so on, the quicker climate change comes about. Who’s that going to affect first and hardest – it’s going to be the poor everytime. They can’t afford to protect themselves like us.

What about the way we join in gossip about celebrities, politicians or even those closer to home?

The message of this parable is that if we step away from these things, and start living fairly and with love and compassion, then the world will begin to change. Not only that, but like the manager we shall receive approval. It might not be from those around us, but God will be pleased with what we do, and what is better than that!

Revisiting ‘A Family in Trouble – the Prodigal Son’

After the recent sermon on ‘A Family in Trouble – The Prodigal Son’ this intriguing comment was posted…

I would really like to know what happened next in the story…
How did the two brothers get on after this? Were they able to get on OK ? Did the older brother “wake up” to what he’d been missing in the sense that he too had his inheritance? (I dont mean that he ran off and wasted it…)
Were they both able to forgive , forget and move on? Did the farm go from strength to strength with their joint hard work?
Or was life intolerable for all ? What do you think?

I thought this deserved a post in it’s own right. So what do you think? Answers on a comment please!

A Family in Trouble: the Prodigal Son Revisited (Luke 15:11-23)

What’s the point! Am I bovvered? Do I care? In so many ways the younger son sounds very much like Catherine Tate’s famous adolescent. He certainly doesn’t come across as a pleasant specimen, but let’s try and get into his head and see what’s going on there.

For all Jews, life under the Romans was depressing – theirs was a highly restrictive regime. There were all sorts of rules and regulations to follow and taxes to be paid. There wasn’t too much joy in everyday life. For the Younger Son, this was compounded by his position in the family. As the younger son (you might remember an earlier sermon in this series dealing with children arguing over their inheritance) he would expect to get the smaller share of his Father’s wealth. This particular Father wasn’t as poor as many others – he had property and hired men – and so their would be something for this young man to inherit, but chances were that it wouldn’t be enough to bring him security and financial freedom. Chances were, it may not really be even enough to earn his keep from.

As the youngest Son, I suspect he probably also was desperate to be seen as a person in his own right – not his Father’s Son. Can identify with this being the son of the local headmaster in a village school. Everybody knew me, I didn’t know them. Thought I would escape when I went to Uni. – but surprised when one of my lecturers knew of me because of some connection with Mum. No doubt he was sick of always being compared to his Older Brother too.

So how could he find the freedom he so desired? The freedom to find his own identity and life the life he wanted?

His desire was to escape – up sticks and leave. Leave behind those who knew him, those who held him back or oppressed him. We know the story – he had no money and so went to his dad and asked for his inheritance.

I remember my younger cousin Alan taking a fancy to my Grandparent’s reclining garden chair, and in complete innocence asking if he could have it when Grandad died!

This Son is not so innocent. He knows I’m, sure, that what he was saying to his Dad is I wish you were dead…

I wonder if he was caught by surprise when his dad said okay and divided his property between them!

Anyway, he took the land that his dad gave him, sold it, and left, heading off to a distant land where know one knew him, and where the regime was much more relaxed. In many ways, this part of the story reminds me of what often happens when students first get to University. For the first time have some money of their own, and freedom to do what they want with it and their lives. Party time! The Younger Brother, like many students, squanders his money on wild living. I suspect though, that his living is wilder than your average student. We’re not told exactly what he got up to, but the comment by the Older Son, ‘this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes’ suggests that it was truly wild living, and not the odd party.

Not having really dealt with money before, it is no surprise that before too long he runs out of money. To make it worse, the land he has gone to is hit by severe famine. In desperate straits he ends up ‘hiring himself out’ to a Gentile – totally degrading to the Jews who prided themselves on keeping separate, pure. To make it worse, he is put to work feeding the pigs – unclean animals – and eating their food when the boss isn’t looking. There isn’t much further he could sink. He was alone, away from the safety of family and faith.

In the midst of this darkness, it says he ‘came to his senses’. If I go back to Dad and say I have sinned against Heaven and him, then maybe he’ll take me in as a worker and feed men…

Some read this to be like a conversion experience – here in the darkest pit, the Son realises the error of his ways and determines to repent and come back to his Father. I fear it is nothing of the sort! Does the phrase ‘I have sinned again heaven and you’ sound at all like a heartfelt apology? It may be true, but there is no sense of love or regret in this – except that he regrets having got himself into this mess. It really does feel as if he is working out the right set of words to get exactly what he wants

This son is really quite contemptible isn’t he! We might be able to see contributing factors behind the way he behaves, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he is a self-centred, calculating, scum-bag.

Listening to Jesus tell his story are a range of people, Pharisees, disciples, tax-collectors and various ‘sinners’. Many of them would share the Younger Son’s desire to escape from oppression. For some the dream of getting away from this life would be a real one. Reminds me of the sentiments expressed by many of my friends in Sierra Leone in West Africa. If they could they’d leave, leave behind the poverty and corruption and seek a better life elsewhere. But at the same time, they would also despair of this young man. He’d broken every rule in the book. He’d abandoned his faith, he’d dishonoured his Dad, he’d deserted his family. Worse than that in fact. By selling up his share of the property, he was forcing them to live on a smaller patch, lowering their status in the community and their security and income.

The Younger Son was taking a real risk here. There was every chance that his Dad would reject him completely here – quite right too everyone in the audience would have felt. Maybe the more generous amongst them might have some sympathy and let him come back as some servant, but he forfeited his rights… When he rehearses his line ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your Son’ he was telling the truth.

But then there’s this magical scene. The Dad sees him coming and is filled with compassion. Dignity would require the Son to come grovelling to him, but it is the other way around. The Father abandons all dignity and runs to him. He doesn’t care what everybody else thinks. He just wants his child back. He throws his arms around him and hugs him. This is the embrace of Father and Son. He calls for his best robe to be put on him, and places his ring on his finger. Kill the fattened calf, let’s celebrate the return of my lost son. He was dead, but now is alive again, lost now found.

The Father by putting on the robe and ring is treating the Younger Son as an equal – he is letting everybody know that this Son is his Son, part of His Family. There’s as always a scandal here. The mercy of this Father is beyond the scope of usual mercy. He doesn’t need to hear sorry before forgiving. He doesn’t need to see signs of repentance or to say I told you so. He pours mercy on him unconditionally, unsought for, undeserved. The only thing that matters is the restoration of his relationship with his Son.

But of course this isn’t the end of the story.

Out on the field the Older Son is working. He is the responsible one, the one who stayed behind to care for his Dad to work hard. He was a good Jewish Boy that any parent would be proud of.

Imagine what he has gone through these last months. Before his brother left, life was hard, but his leaving had made it so much worse. First of all there was the emotion strain of supporting his grieving Dad. Then there was the simple fact that they had had to make ends meet with less manpower and less land on which to do so. He had done the right thing, and all that he had to show for it was stress and sweat. His brother had swanned off having wrecked the family home, lived it up, and had now come back at was accepted without so much as a sorry and was being given a party at their expense. It wasn’t fair!!! There is certainly a lot to be said for the Older Sons complaint.

Maybe you can relate to him? I remember working alongside a bunch of guys doing community service and thinking how come you all have nice cars and gear, whilst I who have done nothing wrong have so little to show for it.

Certainly many in Jesus’ audience could relate to this. Whilst the younger Son had sought freedom in escapism, many thought that freedom would only return to the Jews if they worked harder at keeping the Law and maintaining the Jewish way of life – the Pharisees were prime examples of this. How many of us seek approval from our peers and the powers that be by working hard and striving to do the right thing?

The older son’s response to the return of the younger son would have been mirrored by many listening to Jesus.

So what does the Father do? No sooner has he got one son back, the other one threatens to leave him! He heads straight away to track him down, to try and sort things out. ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

The Father’s reply is again stunning, ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

The truth is that his Father hadn’t given him a young goat, he’d given him everything! Right at the beginning of the story he divided up his property between them. It had been the Older Son’s choice not to use it, not to celebrate and make the most of what his Father had given him.

Is there actually a sense of regret as he lambastes his brother’s wild living – a touch of jealousy, I would have liked to have lived a little…

I love you Son, says the Dad, and I love your brother too. I have and will give up everything for you both.

Are either of the Sons on the right track, trying to discover freedom? Do escapism or grasping to rules and the traditional ways help? Or is the Father’s approach of putting relationships first a better way? Is freedom actually found in caring and accepting beyond the call of duty?

And how about the Father’s love? Is he misplaced? Naïve? A soft touch? Or does such love cut across barriers and offer the chance of transformation and hope?

It is fascinating that Jesus doesn’t comment on this story. He doesn’t say which is right and which is wrong. He just tells us the story and leaves us to let it do its work upon us. Let’s take a moment now to reflect on the story and to ask God what he wants to say to us through it…

The fruitless Fig Tree – Luke 13 v 1 – 9

Notes from Tim’s sermon on the 11.02.07

Here is a fairly straight forward story about gardening – if a tree doesn’t perform it has to go! We have a Paulownia tree which is very beautiful but has got too big and if we prune it then it fails to flower – so, sadly, it is going to have to get the chop! But sometimes stories, and perhaps particularly foods conjures up images in our minds: cucumber sandwiches? (more tea vicar?) beef steak, beer and sandwiches (remember the TUC at no. 10?) so it was with figs for the Jews

Context of the Parable

Some horrible massacre had taken place and maybe in the act of worship, people had been slaughtered and desecrated. This was a shocking incident and maybe there was a bit of a self righteous attitude “they must have deserved it” Jesus challenges that complacency by preaching the need for repentance for all – starting with his hearers!
The same goes for 18 people who had perished in a building site accident – they didn’t die because they were worse than anyone else (and so those who didn’t die were better than those who did) but rather everyone is in the same boat and in need of repentance – no-one is good enough!
Here is the message of the Gospel – it is not about how good or bad you are but will you change direction and accept Gods forgiveness and make a new start! It may seem like bad news – we are all sinners – but the fact that repentance is open to all is good news!

Symbolism of the fig:

· Symbol of security – during the reign of Solomon “…lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree (1 kings 4 v 25)
· Symbol of healing – 2 kings 20 v 7 – prepare a poultice of figs and apply it to the boil…and he recovered
· Symbol of Love – Song of Songs 2 v 13 – the fig tree forms its early fruit, the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.
· Picture of judgement – Good and bad figs (Jeremiah 24) – two basket of figs – one those who feared God even though they were carried off to Babylon and remembered him, the other the rest under King Zedekiah –

Zedekiah King of Judah
11 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. 12 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD his God and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke the word of the LORD. 13 He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him take an oath in God’s name. He became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the LORD, the God of Israel. 14 Furthermore, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the LORD, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem

· Symbol of the Lords blessing and blessing withdrawn –
· Jeremiah 8 v 13 – ” ‘I will take away their harvest,
declares the LORD.
There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
will be taken from them
· Amos 4 v 9 – Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards,
I struck them with blight and mildew.
Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the LORD.
· Haggai 2 v 19 – ‘From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid. Give careful thought: 19 Is there yet any seed left in the barn? Until now, the vine and the fig tree, the pomegranate and the olive tree have not borne fruit.
”‘from this day on I will bless you.’ “

For the Jews the Fig was not just a source of food – it was a symbol of much more and a reminder of their history and position.
God had chosen them to be a place for:
Love
healing
Security
Provision
They were to be a people who showed what God was like so that others could come into a relationship with God – that through them all the nations of the world would be blessed – God has tremendous expectations and plans for his people!
So when Jesus tells this story about a fig tree it resonates with his hearers in lots of ways and maybe it makes them think about what has gone wrong (cf. Elders meeting when we had divided up some of the responsibilities and I had missed the meeting (or the point) and realized I was supposed to have prepared a report…..)
Here was a Fig tree – a beautiful source of Gods great provision – planted in a vineyard – a fertile and protected place – and nothing had been produced! This fig was a waste of space! If you wanted food then you had to go elsewhere
Suddenly the stories of Gods judgement and his threats of infertility seem very dire! – Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees,
yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the LORD.
Fig leaves are beautiful – good for covering things up (ask Adam & Eve) – but unless they produce fruit, fig trees fail to serve their purpose!
God looks to his people to fulfil his purposes – to bear fruit that will last not to simply be a beautiful tree that makes us look respectable!
This parable may challenge us about fruitfulness in our own lives and our life together as a church. Jesus told it to people who had missed their vocation – they were unfruitful because they had forgotten what they were about. And so he calls them to repent!

Gods Grace

This is not the end of the story but it is a cross roads – here is a God who does not give up – leave it alone for one more year – put some more work in – forgive – have mercy. God knows the situation and we must see in ourselves our need of the work of the Holy Spirit to “dig around and fertilize” in order that we may bear fruit
The word for repentance that Jesus uses is “a present imperative and an aorist” – it is a one off event and an ongoing action. We need to be shaken out of our complacency, to have our eyes opened, to see what God ahs for us and to allow him to produce fruit in our lives.
It is a wake up call, a challenge, an encouragement, a reminder of what we are and what we should be. It is to bring us to the great love and wisdom of the one who knows how to get the best out of us and to make us depend on him.
Often, fruit trees that are growing beautifully will not produce much fruit – a fruitful tree may look a bit manky and some of the leaves will be damaged but the fruit will be wonderful –

Love healing security provision
A Twist?

This “man who took care of the vineyard” – lovely picture of the Holy Spirit – but has God planted in us his life to bear fruit there – and could we have a responsibility for cultivating that life? (At house group over the past few week we have been looking at a course which has practical exercises – fasting, silence, specific prayer and meditation etc)
To dig around – to remove the weds and allow the air in to the soil – bring our lives into line with God – removing the rubbish that competes and distracts – to bring our faith and life into the open
To fertilize – to feed on Gods word and to allow it to make a difference – to exercise in prayer and bible reading, to stand for God in his battles.
Sometimes God comes to us and shows us things that have gone wrong and we need to repent and throw ourselves on his mercy – and do something about it!

Luke 4 v 18
18″The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[e]
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”