Thank God!

Of course, I’m not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 9 – 14), thank God.

Imagine being contemptuous, opinionated, judgemental, competitive, discriminating, excluding and (self-)righteous, and then turning up to church to worship God. It would seem God was far from impressed. No wonder! Who does he think he is, standing there emphasising his goodness and worthiness to God? Imagine! It seems like he is another one of these hypocrites that fill religious places the world over.

Yet, to be fair, is this not the world we inhabit… one where we are taught from earliest days to judge others by their failings and weaknesses; one that makes me a success because I am not like that – poor, weak, uneducated, incompetent…

Success is often viewed in terms of worthiness, material gain and the capacity to separate ourselves from those lesser than us and whom we don’t like; and, because they are less and we don’t like them, we believe God doesn’t value them or like them either. Nevertheless, even while trying to be fair, thank God, I’m not like that there Pharisee! He is really into some serious finger pointing!

If I am honest, however, it is probably true to say, I am like him and he is like me! I might believe I am, and want to be, more like the tax collector, but I know I can be more like the Pharisee.

So, the issue isn’t just one of a misplaced pharisaic confidence before God; it is about how that competitive focus manifested itself in his relationships with others who shared his world but not necessarily his outlook. His way of worshipping allowed the Pharisee an excuse to exclude those who were not ‘pure’ like him and I can’t help but wonder if he would have thought he was doing God a favour by pointing out the failings in everyone else, and especially the tax collector.

The Pharisee was living according to his own culturally set and false standard of purity which served to justify his separation from those who failed in living to his sense of religious rigour. Sadly, while so focused on seeing and naming the failings of those around him, he seems to have lost sight of his own sin, and therefore God as well. The condemnation he thought he was helping to bring on others was the condemnation he brought on himself instead! Thus, in the end, he came to be standing alone; worshipping himself, by himself.

If true worship engages head, heart and hands in a constructive and creative synergy of faithful living; then perhaps the Pharisee could be considered guilty of a false worship. He may have engaged his head and hands but he seems to have misplaced his heart.

In viewing the world around me, and in particular those different to me who stand afar off the church, I need consistently to hear with my heart rather than judge with my head and exclude with my hands. God does not stand afar from them. His view of success involves repentance and compassion. Here the shocking thing is for me that not only does he like them but he loves them as well, equally; even in their difference and lives of other religious rigour.

But, at least as good, his mercy and love can release me from my captivity to any false standard of purity and religion of exclusion.  As God does not stand afar from his world, and all in it, neither does he stand afar from me.  Indeed, God can never stand any further away, and never stand any closer, than the vacant cross which is eternally standing and welcoming home my soul.

For this, I can truly say, Thank God!

Amen, Lord, have mercy…

What Faith will He Find?

There is something disquieting about this parable of the unrighteous judge and/ or forceful widow (Luke 18: 1- 8). Is Jesus really portraying God as an aloof deity who cares about no one or anything except his own peace and quiet? Or, more disturbingly, does God do the right thing only because someone dared to shout loud enough and long enough!

Jesus may have wanted to teach the disciples about the importance of prayer and not losing heart, but if this is an image of the God on the other side of the prayer and justice equation, then I am already losing heart. in fact, I might as well give up now. I am held by the grace of God who is love, nothing more, nothing less; and one of the things about grace is that it is never dependant on me, only ever God.

Once the kingdom of God is dependent on my battering the gates of the Kingdom to disturb a God to action who is only interested in peace and quiet, then the kingdom is in trouble. The world is in trouble. I am in trouble!

If the transformation of the world is singularly influenced by my loud and long efforts alone, then I already feel the weight of guilt at not being able to do enough; the weight of shame for failing through weakness; and the weight of despair for failing through inadequacy.

There again, if the story is trying to indicate a contrast between a tardy judge and the speed of a just God, I have a further difficulty. The points at issue do not appear to be an uncertainty in the correctness of the widow’s complaint or the decision in favour of her. The issue is singularly that the judge has not been bothered about whether justice has been carried out. It is a question of care, effort and following through. The judgement has been made but the judge does not appear to care whether the victim is vindicated and ever receives the just settlement she deserves. Does God really not care if a victim is left without justice? Will there really be no following through?

It could seem that way because, as I perceive the world, there appears to be many people who have been crying out to the Lord forever and an age for deliverance and their rightful justice.

I cannot begin to imagine suggesting to them they have not yet received because they have not been as forcefully persistent and vocally demanding as the widow. Of telling them, they do not have because they have been found wanting in effort and persistence.

To shout long enough and loud enough requires a particular focus, energy and motivation. If truth be told, there are days when I look at what is happening in the world around me, and in my own country, and despair, cynicism and scepticism more often seem to invade my heart instead.

This is where prayer can change life. While grace is gift, prayer is action. It is the moment of opening up to receive grace; of rediscovering focus, energy and motivation in Christ; of accepting the call to hear all those who cry out to the Lord; and of accompanying them in their rightful demands as the ears, hands and feet of God, the Body of Christ.

May this be the faith he finds in me when he comes again… the faith through which my heart is transformed, the peace and quiet of the world disturbed and justice delivered for all who suffer.

Amen; Lord, have mercy…

On the Way…

The community of the afflicted held to their requirements of standing at a distance from normal society (Luke 17: 11 – 19). Yet that did not prevent its members from taking the risk of calling out to Jesus when he was passing their way. The group of ten must have been a dreadful sight and the thing to do, the thing I would probably have wanted to do, is to keep going.

How often we are confronted with sadness, isolation, desolation and suffering at home, and in the world at large, yet we want to keep on traveling past the distractions of someone else’s pain and their attempts to draw us into their lives.

Yes, I can be very good at justifying my desire to keep going,

  • It’s not my responsibility!
  • I’ve got others things to do!
  • I’m too tired!
  • I’m frightened!
  • I don’t have the skills or resources!
  • I’ve done my bit, let someone else do theirs!

Jesus had places to go and things to do. He was on a mission and how easy it is to become so focused on getting to the destination that the journey to get there may be considered a nuisance and a waste of time. The reality, of course, is more that the journey itself is an opportunity in its own right to meet, experience, grow and live.

Jesus was traveling along the border. It is not surprising, then, that at the margins he meets, and is met by, those whose everyday experience places them beyond normal society. The separated when faced with their circumstances and an opportunity that presents itself, cry out to Jesus. Pride is long gone. There is only desire; for healing and cleansing, for the miracle of inclusion and belonging.

The suffering in the world may still cry out but are those sounds muffled, dulled and ignored by the collar being pulled up over my ears and my need to carry on. That said, I find I am still able to offer some words of cold blessing on behalf of Jesus while convincing myself that someone else will do something.

Yet the assumption here is that I am the one who is well. But, in truth, is it not me with my leprous sin, and all its proud, selfish and divisive manifestations who stands desperately waiting as He passes my way while hoping beyond hope that He might hear me when I cry out to him?

How much have I for which to give thanks – cleansing, healing and wellness in faith! I cannot be responsible for the other nine who don’t return to give him thanks. Others will need to answer why they don’t go back themselves at that time when we will all have to give account. I can only be responsible for myself and how I respond to such grace.

So how will I respond?

May I continually remember to return regularly and give him praise; and, yes, may I allow that which gets in the way, on the journey, be the destination; and yes, may I live out, and share in, relationships of hope and healing with everyone irrespective as we, his community of life, travel the Destination together.

Amen, Lord have mercy…

Increase our Faith!

The disciples seem to have got Jesus on an off day. It’s hard to imagine them asking for anything more in keeping with what Jesus was about – faith, and its increase. Yet, according to Luke (Luke 17: 5 – 10), when they ask him simply to ‘increase our faith’, the disciples get a sarcastic retort and a story about remembering their place instead of his smile and affirmation . What is it about their request that appears to evoke his begrudging response?

The stories told by Jesus in response to the disciples’ request are salutary. He seems to have heard something from them of a request for reward and appreciation. Maybe this is not an unfair expectation recognizing everything, even up to that moment, the disciples had given up for him and experienced with him. In truth, who of us does not look for some kind of reward as one of his disciples? After all, have we not also proven ourselves sufficient, at least occasionally? Perhaps, the human in them, and in us all, wanted to be noticed and thanked for their response, their commitment and their support of him.

But the responding challenge to uproot and plant the mulberry tree in an alien environment appears something of an ironic joke at their expense. Of course, this won’t happen. However, it suggests to me that Jesus wants to challenge the disciples about the faith they already possess rather than how much faith they don’t have.

Where the people of God believe they do not have enough faith, it can give an excuse for not living in faith. So we say, ‘If only Jesus would give me more faith just think what I could do!’ Here the blame for not taking the faith into the world, and not bringing the kingdom in, lies with Jesus. It becomes his responsibility, not ours… because if he wanted me to do that then he would give me more faith that would enable me to respond better to his calling.

Yet what is it we are prevented from doing? What would we do differently for the kingdom if we had more faith? What can we not do, even with the mustard seed of faith we already possess?

This is the paradox. It is not that someone can give, or be given, more faith. However, as the faith which we do possess is tested and proven while we live out God’s calling in the day to day, the more faith is found; faith is indeed increased!

Mustard seed faith is about doing… it is about uprooting and planting in extreme and/ or unfamiliar environments; taking risk; practicing the miraculous; remaining open to the disbelief and laughter with the incredulity of the ‘You’re doing what?!’.

With such practices of discipleship, faith is increased.

Thus, the more we live in faith the more faith we find in which to live; even until the end when irrespective of our need for reward, we are simply welcomed as those who have done our duty and lived fully by the faith we have.

Amen, Lord have mercy…

His name is known…

Lazarus may well have lain outside the gate of the rich man but he was comforted inside the gate of God.

Among the many differences between rich and poor, one might be that the names of the rich are known individually, at least according to the Richest 100 list. In this story (Luke 16: 19 – 31), it is not the rich who are known by name. The only one known by name here is Lazarus; and, he is hardly the celebrity with whom people would want to be identified or the one whose name would be found in people’s desirable contact list. While the rich man was covered in the finest clothing, Lazarus was covered in boils and sores. While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus was desperate even for the crumbs from the table.

However, despite his situation of degradation and despair, Lazarus is the one known, called and welcomed within God’s gate. Yet, on reading the story, we have to recognise that the rich man is not accused, nor condemned, as a result of any named sin. Likewise, Lazarus is not accredited as righteous because of anything he has done or not done.

On reflection, perhaps, the rich man has been found wanting due to being blind to the suffering reality lived by those outside his gate. He has done well. He might even convince himself that he has his riches due to his own hard work. Or the hard work of others whose riches have been inherited by him. He might even believe his riches are a sign of God’s blessing on his life. Yet, he is the one whose name is not known and who finds himself outside the gate of Heaven and within the gate of Hades.

Equally, the story does not say what Lazarus may have done, or not done, to be comforted with such heavenly blessing. There is no mention of faith or works, simply position in the world, as one who is destitute and suffering. How those tables were turned. Here, the rich man has become the beggar and Lazarus has his name called out to join the Kingdom feast. Yet even in the judgement and condemnation, there appears no malice against the rich man. The chasm has been set and it is just not possible to cross it.

It is also interesting to note how Lazarus does not speak for himself. He does not have to. The angels, Abraham, God, and the whole company of heaven, have become his spokespersons, advocates and comforters. Meanwhile, as the rich man speaks, he does so isolated by himself, without an advocate or comforter or community of hope.

So, as we move towards this coming week, I wonder how aware are we are of our riches of possession and possibility? How blind do they make us to the Lazarus’ of the world, those who remain outside our churches’ gates and on the other side of any fixed chasm of privilege and position? Does God even know our name? What more than the chasm crossing risen Christ is needed to convince us, and our world, of the need to be known by him?

Convinced, at the end of the day, may we each be known to God individually by name, carried by the angels and welcomed within the gates of the heaven to his table of life.

Lord, have mercy…

What is this I hear about you?

There was no argument about it, no attempt at self-justification; simply a recognition that he had been caught (Luke 16: 1- 13). But rather than throw himself on the mercy of the rich employer, the manager started trying to figure out how to make the best out of a bad situation.

Jesus does not elaborate on what the manager had used the resources at his disposal for. We are simply told he squandered his employer’s assets. If this was a substantial charge to be levelled against someone then, squandering assets is almost considered unforgiveable today. Careers and reputations are lost in these days of austerity if it is perceived that a manager, whether in the private, public or third-sector, has been guilty of squandering hard earned resources, especially financial ones.

Yet, there are times when we must all be wary. ‘What is this I hear about you?’ calls us all to account and lets us know we have been accused of squandering. Perhaps not financial but what of our squandering the resources of the earth; our squandering the resources of young, middle aged and elderly people alike while we participate in a socio-economic system that seems content to allow their gifts and talents go to waste; our squandering the resources of power and privilege exercised for personal and group gain rather than the common and global good? There may not be many who can stand without remembering how we have been guilty of squandering that with which we have been entrusted as stewards of the things of heaven.

The manager was concerned (rightly!) with his future. Yet, instead of throwing himself on the mercy and compassion of his employer, he decides the way to ensure future welcome and friendship was through fraud; so he rewrote the debtors’ bills. It is a hard challenge to hear how this approach seems to have been appreciated by the owner (and Jesus?) who, rather than castigating his manager, commends him for shrewdness. Behind this shrewdness is the wisdom word of the wise man who built his house upon the rock (Matthew 7:24) and the virgins in contrast with the foolish who had sufficient oil in their lamps for the whole of the wedding feast (Matthew 25: 1 – 13).

Can Jesus really be sharing this as an example for his disciples to copy? This is complicated. For me, I am trying to hear here a challenge to consider how I wish to be welcomed by God and remain friends with him, even with the noise of the accusatory ‘what is this I hear about you?’ filling the air, and fill the air it does.

The squandering manager acted in character to save his future, and acted in fraud. So, how are the disciples, the people of God, to act in character when they/ we wish to know the welcome and friendship of God, into the forever eternal future beginning today? If the manager acted as he did to save his major asset, his life, what will the children of light do to save their major asset, the salvation of their life and soul?

Given this, what assets do we have before a creator God? It would seem that we have lost sight of the fact that any assets we have before God are ones that have first been entrusted to us by him. Our accusation may be we have taken as gospel that we are the creators rather than the created and as such can do what we like with those things we believe are ours and ours alone. We live without remembering that anything we own has been granted unto us for the purposes of the kingdom rather than personal reward. In this, we have become servants of mammon, rather than servants of God.

Thus, as God asks of us in this coming week, ‘what is this I hear about you?’, may we respond in a spirit of repentance and hope; may we strive to live out the grace granted unto us in salvation through God’s greatest asset, and our richest blessing, even his Son Jesus Christ; and, may God hear of lives of service given on behalf of the Kingdom rather than of assets squandered.

Lord, have mercy…

Found and Lost? Lost and Found!

While heaven rejoiced, the religious muttered (Luke 15: 1 – 10).

What a sad and telling indictment on those who had at one time been lost themselves and now considered themselves to be found. How easy it is to forget the bewilderment, uncertainty and anxiety caused by finding ourselves in the place of dark, aloneness and disorientation. If any should have been welcoming the sinners and tax collectors, it should have been those who themselves have been lost but now rejoice in being found, held and loved with mercy and compassion.

So comfortable had they become, it seems, in their traditional righteousness, Jesus left them alone to fend for themselves, while he searched for those who had become detached and lost. This is an important theme. This was not Jesus telling stories about going out after those who had never belonged but rather seeking out those who had at one time been part of the community and now had been detached, for whatever reason (traditions, structures and attitudes of the religious?), from the faith and supposedly beyond grace.

Jesus offers two remarkably poignant stories of himself and his mission. There is the image of the shepherd going out after the sheep which has been lost, with which we are all familiar. Then, in addition, there is the image of Jesus as a diligent woman (a tax collector’s wife or mother?) lighting lamps and sweeping floors; perhaps an image with which we are less familiar. In both instances, the issue is that, while what was left was valuable in itself, so also were the ones that had been lost. Perhaps a further challenge was being highlighted which indicated that the whole was not complete without the lost being counted, found and celebrated as well.

Could it be, then the real indictment was that those who had been found had lost their awareness of the value, before God, of those who had become detached and lost. The lost were not so lost that they were beyond grace. The religious had placed a higher value on their religious tradition and practice and were in danger of becoming lost again themselves because they failed to value those whom God valued so much that He sent his Son to find them… us… me!

In the stories, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of shepherd and housewife alike are dependent on finding what has been lost. Could it be said, the credibility, integrity and trustworthiness of Jesus is also dependant on His search for the world which is never beyond his grace and, therein, finding the lost? Yet what of the church, wherein lies our credibility, integrity and trustworthiness? In muttering or seeking?

Upon finding that which was lost, the woman and the shepherd each invites friends and neighbours to rejoice with them. Maybe we should note, the religious are not included here. Yet, if we want an example of a real church plant, a new fresh expression of missionary joyfulness, then do we need to look much further?

Lord, have mercy…