The Rich Fool

You Fool!

Up and down the country today, preachers are standing in pulpits declaiming these words to their congregations, making sure not to catch anyone’s eye. It’s cathartic, but, of course, it’s not the preacher speaking. This is scripture.

“You fool!”

In fact, Jesus tells us that if call someone a fool, you should go to hell (Matthew 5.22). If you call someone a fool, you are saying that they are worthless in God’s sight, and, clearly, that’s not our call.

In the Psalms we read that

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
(Psalm 14.1 and 53.1)

You might think that this is a criticism of atheism – that those who don’t believe in the existence of God are fools – but that’s not what the psalmist is saying. The fool is not someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God (the idea would have been unthinkable) but someone who does believe in God but lives as if God did not exist. And that is the man in our parable. He lives his life as if God doesn’t exist and other people don’t matter.

In the Old Testament Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) there is a lot of reflection on what it is that makes someone foolish or wise. Proverbs (9.10) tells us that

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…
Proverbs 9.10

Wisdom (the opposite of folly) is founded on a relationship with God. Jesus makes the same point in his parable of the wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7.24-27). The wise man or woman builds a house on the rock which is like building your life on the words of Jesus. When the storms of life come, the house stands firm. The foolish builder builds on shifting sand and the house collapses. What they have built crumbles to nothing. It’s not that the foolish person didn’t hear the words of Jesus. They did. But they chose not to act on them.

The rich person in today’s parable should have listened to the preacher of Ecclesiastes whom we hear in today’s Old Testament reading (Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2.18-23)

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1.2

Here’s something I learned: the word which is translated in our bibles (NRSV) as ‘vanity’ (NIV: ‘meaningless’; GNT: ‘useless’) is the Hebrew word hebel which means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. Everything, says the Teacher, is vapour or breath. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is fleeting and insubstantial. Which is to say that

“Without God, ‘everything under the sun’ is as significant as vapour.”

That’s what the rich person in our parable hasn’t grasped. He thinks that his grain and his goods, stored in bigger barns, will make him happy. The wealth he has accumulated means that he can “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” It won’t. God says, “You fool!”. ‘When you die – which will be very shortly – they will mean nothing to you.’

Today’s reading from Colossians (Colossians 3.1-11) lists the things that don’t belong to those who “have been raised with Christ” – the things because of which “the wrath of God is coming” (‘anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language’), and among them is greed. Which is idolatry – putting something before God. Unlike the character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street who says

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Conclusion

You will know the expression “money is the root of all evil” and you may think that that is a quote from the bible. Or from Pink Floyd.

Money, so they say
is the root of all evil today

But that isn’t what the bible says. What the bible (1 Timothy 6.6-10) says is

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil
1 Timothy 6.10a

Not money but the love of money. What the letter to Timothy says is that godliness with contentment is our goal – “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” (v8)

9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Jesus warns us about the love of money. If we reject his warning, we are at risk of being fools.

As someone said

The best things in life aren’t things

Thy Kingdom Come

In 2016, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited Anglican Christians throughout the world to pray for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. They encouraged individuals and churches to make this prayer a focus in the time between Ascension and Pentecost, following the example of the disciples in the first two chapters of the New Testament book of Acts. At the start of Acts, we are reminded that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to “wait… for the promise of the Father”. Jesus had said that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”.

The Archbishops’ initiative, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, has gone beyond Anglicans and has been taken up by Christians of other traditions and denominations in 100 different countries around the world, with support from, among others, Pope Francis.

Today (30 May 2019) is Ascension Day when we hear the story of Jesus’ return to heaven. (I was talking to someone recently who remembers that when he was at school, they used to have trips out on Ascension Day – I don’t think that happens any more, although this year it falls in school holiday time.) Having watched Jesus ascend, the disciples return to Jerusalem and were ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, waiting for the coming of the Spirit.

The promise of Jesus to the disciples was that

‘…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Acts 1.8

At Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), we see how that promise began to be fulfilled, with thousands hearing and responding to God’s message. In the rest of the book of Acts we read how the early church – including a reluctant convert named Saul – began to bear witness to Jesus ‘to the ends of the earth’, at least as far as Athens and Rome.

Eventually the gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ – came to us, in Stretton, Appleton, and Appleton Thorn. The book of Acts doesn’t get quite this far: we need to tell our own stories of how the gospel was preached to us and how we responded to its invitation, and of how the Holy Spirit has led us to this point. And we need to pray for others to hear and respond – not simply to become churchgoers, but to experience the transforming power of God’s love.

The challenge is to think of five people you know, and to pray for them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. As you read these words, does anyone come to mind? A member of the family, a friend or neighbour, for whom you could commit to pray? Just a few minutes a day is all it takes! At its heart, we echo the prayer of the earliest church:

Come, Holy Spirit

Let your kingdom come

This year, Pentecost falls on Sunday 9 June. As well as our usual church services that day, there will be a united service for members of Bridgewater Churches Together at Hill Cliffe Baptist Church. The service starts at 6.00pm and all are welcome. (There will also be an evening service at St Matthew’s at 6.30pm that day which will provide an opportunity for us to pray together.)

On Sunday 16 June, the churches of the Great Budworth deanery are meeting for a service in the chapel at Arley Hall. In the past, this has taken the form of Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer, but on this occasion it will have a contemporary feel, using newer worship songs as well as some well-known traditional hymns. I have been asked to put the service together, so those who came to St Matthew’s on the evening of 26 May will have an idea of what we might be doing! Bring your own picnic to enjoy from 5.00pm: the service starts at 6.30pm.

Please set aside some time to pray for those you know to come to faith, and join us in prayer and worship: come Holy Spirit and let your kingdom come!

Alan Jewell

Jesus Walks on the Water

(Mark 6.47-end)

Along with turning water into wine and feeding the 5,000, the idea of walking on water is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. Although, I suspect that football fans who claim that their hero ‘walks on water’ might not know where that idea comes from.

The story takes place in the evening and through the night. Immediately before this, Jesus has fed the five thousand. In Matthew, Mark and John, these two stories also go together. (Luke doesn’t include it.) John’s gospel (6.1-25) tells us that Jesus realised that, after feeding the crowd, they wanted to make him king, and that is why Jesus beats a hasty retreat. In Mark, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes up on the mountain to pray (6.45, 46) The disciples – never mind the crowds – don’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus is, so he needs to get away from their inappropriate expectations, and try to persuade them that his is the way of service and suffering, not of whipping up populist mob mentality.

While Jesus is alone, the disciples are out on the lake (the Sea of Galilee), crossing to the other side and struggling with the conditions, battling with the wind and the waves. It’s early in the morning (between 3 and 6am) and Jesus comes towards them, walking on the lake.

The idea of Jesus walking on water is a striking image. The disciples think they have seen a ghost. They are terrified! Jesus has to speak to reassure them:

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

In v48 we read that ‘He intended to pass them by’. It sounds as if Jesus did not mean to help them. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to them. Or maybe this is to remind us of the story of Moses (Exodus 33.12-23) who saw God’s glory pass by. (Jesus comes alongside them.)

We saw in last week’s gospel (Mark 4.35-end), Jesus calming the storm, that the sea in the Hebrew mind, represents chaos and danger. (The Hebrew word of water – mayim – comes from a root – mem – meaning chaos. So, creation and the flood…) Here, Jesus has sent his disciples into chaos! (“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”) In the account of his stilling the storm, Jesus sleeps and castigates his disciples for their lack of faith. Here, he appears to be passing them by. But he gets into the boat and the wind ceased. Jesus brings order to the chaos.

I said last week that Jesus doesn’t promise to calm every storm in your life. But he does promise to calm you in the storms that surround you. We may say, with the disciples, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” We need to see Jesus walking towards us through the chaos, getting into the boat with us and saying:

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

Breakfast on the beach

John 21.1-19

How do you know you’re in the right religion? For me, it’s when Jesus says,

“Come and have breakfast.”
(John 21.12)

That’s my kind of religion! (Grilled sardines on the beach: what could be nicer?)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus had often eaten with his disciples and with others. Often with the wrong sort of others – the tax-collectors and sinners. Unlike John the Baptist, who lived as an ascetic, surviving on locusts and wild honey, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34; cf. Matthew 11:18-19).

We know what Jesus said and taught about God; how he proclaimed God’s love in word and deed; but we also know that what he did – including eating and drinking with sinners – was a demonstration of the hospitality of God. Who is this man that eats and drinks with sinners? Well, if he’s God, that tells us something about who God is. God welcomes sinners. And that’s good news.

All of this comes together in the accounts of the Last Supper. In John, we read that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, acting as their servant; in Matthew, Mark and Luke (and in 1 Corinthians 11.23-34), we have the institution of the eucharist: Jesus takes bread and wine (food and drink) and shares it with his disciples saying, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. “Drink this…”

The risen Jesus is pictured eating with his disciples: on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple (Mrs Cleopas?) recognise him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24.13-34). That’s followed by an appearance to the disciples in which Jesus eats fish. Again, I know I’m in the right religion: in that story, the risen Jesus asks, “Do you have anything to eat?” (Luke 24.41)

And here, in John’s gospel, Jesus, by the sea of Tiberias, arranges a barbecue of fish and bread for his friends. (Tomorrow is a Bank Holiday, if you’re thinking of something similar!)

After breakfast, Jesus speaks with Simon Peter. Some resurrection appearances are to individuals (like Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and in Acts, to Saul), some to groups. This account goes from an encounter with seven disciples to a one-to-one with Simon Peter. Simon, the fisherman, had been called to discipleship after a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11). Jesus tells him “From now on you will be catching people” (v10). In this episode, Peter again recognises his Lord and responds to his call. The haul of fish probably represents the church that Peter and the others will establish. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, is given the opportunity, three times, to declare his love for Jesus. And he is given a job to do. He will feed and tend the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep. But he will also glorify God in his death.

Discipleship is a full-time commitment. It is not a hobby, an interest. It is a life lived as a follower of Jesus Christ. For Simon Peter, it was a literal call to give up his life. For us, we are to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12.1).

In our communion service, we hear the invitation of Jesus to come and eat and drink with him. We take bread and wine and remember him. We also hear again his call to discipleship. As a church we are to demonstrate the radical hospitality of God, to eat and drink with sinners. We are to feed and tend the sheep that the Good Shepherd calls to himself.

  • Do we today hear that call to be disciples of Jesus?
  • As a church, are we prepared to live the radical hospitality of God?
  • How do we best express our calling to tend and feed the Good Shepherd’s lambs and sheep?

Two stories…

In Mark 3.7-12 we read of the crowds following Jesus. There is “a great multitude”; we hear of “great numbers” and Jesus is concerned that he will be crushed by the crowd… And then we look at the church that we belong to. At our church council meetings, we receive a report on attendance. Spoiler alert: attendance is dropping. Year on year, fewer people are coming to church. As a vicar, that’s discouraging. And it’s not just us. In 2011, the Church Growth Research and Development website described the Church of England as being in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. That was six years ago. Things have not improved. Of particular concern is the attendance of children. In the decade to 2016, adult attendance dropped by 13%. With children (under 16s), the fall was 22%. The average Church of England church has three children in it. 25% of churches have no children at all. (Last Sunday, at St Matthew’s, there was one child. I think there were two at St Cross.)

As you know, we are about to employ a children and families worker to try to address this situation. But what of the church we hope that children and families will join?

In Mark 3:8 we read that the crowds had heard all that Jesus was doing. That’s why they turn up to see and hear for themselves What is our community hearing about us and about Jesus? What they hear is a church that often inward looking, fighting its own battles – many of which are irrelevant to the wider world – and on its way out. Those of us who are part of the church know that there is good news too: in church, people find love, welcome, acceptance and purpose.

There is healing too – maybe not as spectacular as the miracles we read about in the New Testament – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. People find support which helps them to live their lives.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand. You may know him as a comedian, actor, writer and political activist. Many churchgoers would find his comedy and his persona crude, coarse, and vulgar. He is a brash, shocking character who has struggled with addiction. He was in a self-destructive cycle and was rescued from addiction by a 12-step programme. But this interview quotes him as saying something which may be most shocking of all:

“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”

As an addict, he believes that the world of today is addicted to instant gratification. How do we break out of that cycle? By inviting God into our lives. That’s what he learned from his 12-step programme and he’s become an evangelist for it.

I’m not holding up Russell Brand as a perfect example of orthodox Christianity – far from it! Who knows whether his transformation will last and what long-term impact it will have? But the story he tells about Christian faith and spirituality is far more positive than many we hear.

Brand believes that investing in Christian spirituality has saved him. That’s old-fashioned language, ‘saved’! Most Christians don’t talk like that any more. But Brand believes that what he has discovered personally has the power to transform the world. He says the Lord’s Prayer every day and found himself asking, what does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven”? It’s not enough to be transformed oneself. We need to seek the transformation of the world in which we live. The world is addicted to instant gratification and needs to be saved.

So there are two stories about Jesus. The one the church tells which is often negative and unappealing. And there’s the one told by those whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ.

Salvator Mundi

Sermon preached at St Cross, Appleton Thorn at 11:30 PM Holy Communion on Sunday 24 December 2017 / Christmas Night

Introduction

On 15th November this year, a painting came up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The successful bidder paid $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. In 1958, it had gone for £45, which, with inflation, is a little under £1000 in today’s money. So, what happened? In 2011, the painting was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Before that, it had been believed to be by one of his pupils or some unknown artist, possibly a copy of the original. (Some art experts are still not convinced that it is a genuine Leonardo, so, you pays your money…)

The picture is called Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – and was painted around 1500. It’s a picture of Jesus Christ, holding the cosmos in his left hand and raising his right hand in blessing. Jesus is the Saviour of the World and he could be yours for $450m.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser, writing about Salvator Mundi makes a connection between what was happening in Italy in the early 1500s, when Leonardo was active, and what was happening in Germany not long after. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in the university town of Wittenberg had been struggling with how to get right with God. If God is righteous, what chance do we stand?

The monk’s name was Martin Luther and he had concluded that

despite his rigorous standard of living, nothing he was capable of as a human being would ever be good enough for God. And that, if God was entirely just – that is, if God judged us according to our merits – then all of us are in deep trouble.

Luther was reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and trying to understand the expression, “the righteousness of God”. He took this to mean that God is just and punishes the unjust. How could God do otherwise? Luther knew that, as a monk, his life was impeccable. And yet he also knew himself to be a sinner. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy God. Luther the monk didn’t love God. In fact, he hated God because he believed that God was and ought to be angry with him.

And then Luther looked again at St Paul’s phrase, “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and the idea that “the just shall live by faith”.

Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther)

In other words, Luther the impeccable monk knew that he wasn’t good enough for God. Imagine trying to save up to buy the Salvator Mundi. It doesn’t matter how much I save or how hard I work, even if I save and work to the day I die, I’m never going to achieve the $450m. I don’t stand a chance! Luther knew that he could never earn God’s salvation. What he discovered in scripture was that God is not just ‘righteous’ but also merciful. You’ll never be able to afford the Saviour of the World – no matter how good you are or how religious – but what if the Saviour of the World offered himself to you as a gift, a free gift? This insight, that God offers us salvation not as a reward for being good, but as a gift to be received by faith, transformed not just Luther but the world in which we live. It was the rediscovery of this idea that began the protestant reformation 500 years ago.

Conclusion

The Good News of Christmas is that the Saviour of the World comes to us as a gift. God isn’t waiting for you to be good enough or religious enough. The New Testament says that it was while we were still sinners, that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

That’s how we know God loves us. The Christian life is not about being good or being holy or righteous or religious. It’s about being loved. And loving in return. And love cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given and received as a gift.

And, unlike Santa, there is no naughty list, no nice list, there is just a ‘loved’ list. And your name is on it. Whether you are naughty or nice, your name is on God’s list. The point of the Christmas gospel message is that it is a free gift. Jesus, laid in a manger, the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross, risen, ascended, glorified, is yours.

Additional Collect

Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Good Old Saint Nick!

On Saturday, I was given a Christmas quiz to complete. (Yes, Saturday. The day before Advent had even begun, but let that pass.) One of the questions was

Where did the original Saint Nicholas come from?

As the former vicar of a church dedicated to St Nicholas, I was fairly confident that the answer was, as is often the case in early church history, “In what is now Turkey”. Nicholas turns up on Christmas quizzes because his name is where we get ‘Santa Claus’ from, of course. (In my previous parish, we had to get ‘Santa’ to fill in a child protection registration in order to appear at our Christmas fair. Not the real, Santa, you understand, he was too busy, but a stand-in. Employer: St Nicholas’. Job applied for: Saint Nicholas.)

The real Saint Nicholas was the bishop of a place called Myra (in what is now Turkey). He was born to wealthy parents but orphaned as a teenager. In the year 303 CE, the Roman emperor Diocletian passed laws making it compulsory to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were imprisoned and could be executed. Nicholas was imprisoned but released when Constantine became emperor in 306.

It is said that Nicholas attend the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine in 325. He was a fierce defender of orthodox trinitarian Christian faith. So much so, that there is a story that he slapped the heretic Arius. Well done, Santa! Despite that:

“He is reported to have been a kind and generous man, with a great love of justice, and to have intervened on a number of occasions to save people who had been unjustly condemned.”

The Saints of the Anglican Calendar, Kathleen Jones, Canterbury Press, 2000

He died in Myra and was buried in the cathedral but his remains were whisked away in the eleventh century CE to Bari in Italy. Some say his relics were stolen but it’s alright because Saint Nicholas himself appeared in a vision to tell them that he needed to be taken away before the Muslim Turks invaded.

The first biography of Nicholas was written 200 years after his death and many of the stories associated with him come from an account written in the thirteenth century.
The best known of them involved the saint saving three girls, whose poor father could provide no dowry in order for them to marry, from a fate worse than death by lobbing bags of gold into their home. This is supposed to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s sign – three gold balls – and is associated with the idea of giving gifts. He is also supposed to have rescued three boys who had been butchered in order to be sold as ham by a wicked butcher. Restoring boys to life who have been butchered and salted for ham is an interesting idea: first they were cured then they were healed.

In St Nicholas’ Church, Halewood, there is a set of three windows behind the altar with Saint Nicholas flanked by couple of angels. (The windows are by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.) Nicholas is depicted holding a baby and visitors assume that the child is Jesus but I don’t think it is. I think it is just a child being held to show the saint’s love of children. If I were talking to a group of children visiting the church, as they did from our own and other primary schools, I would point out that, in our church, there was a child in the centre. In the same way Jesus put a child at the centre when he said

‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Luke 18:16)

As churches we are struggling to get children and young people to be a part of our family. (To be honest, we are struggling to get the parents of children, even grandparents.) But we have the legend of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, and the example of Jesus who welcomed the little children, to help set our agenda.

Without children in the church, we are missing out. Jesus says

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:17)