What They Did Next

Occasionally I publish sermons I’ve preached. Usually they’re about generosity as that’s what I do for a living (The Generous Giving Project).

Here’s one such sermon I preached at St Gabriel’s, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland back in March 2017

It’s based on these two passages: John 4:5-42 and also Luke 19: 1-10

“The woman at the well” from John’s Gospel is that dodgy story with the serious blurring of social boundaries, misunderstandings and depending on your interpretation, a strong hint of a dubious past. A juicy bit of gossip straight out of (Middle) East Enders. A story of loose morals and forgiveness. Isn’t it?

Personally, I’m not so sure – after all it the passage doesn’t mention sin anywhere. I wonder whether we might get side-tracked when we see this as a story about a sinful woman. So that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I am going to talk about is what happened when this woman met Jesus; what she did next.

The story starts:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

Women and men in this culture didn’t usually mix. They kept a safe social distance from each other. So the woman is probably a bit shocked when Jesus addresses her directly. And what he says is even weirder. He asks her for a drink.

She can’t believe it. She says something like:

“Well this is odd, a Jew asking a Samaritan for a drink!”

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Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate. When the woman at the well asks Jesus what on earth he’s on about, why He, a Jew, is asking her the Samaritan for a drink, Jesus answers,

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Living water” was a local expression for running water. So she thinks he’s on about a stream or river, and wonders how on earth he can provide this water when she knows fine well there’s no running water nearby. If there was, why would her ancestors have built this well? Was this man trying to be funny with her? Thinking he knows better than the locals?

But when Jesus talks of “living water”, he’s talking about himself. Living Water. Jesus Christ. The only one who can satisfy every need and be the source of all life. And over the course of their conversation, this truth dawns on her. She believes. She identifies Him. He is the Messiah.

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Unlike the religious leader Nicodemus who met Jesus in the previous chapter, who just couldn’t get his head around who or what Jesus was, this Samaritan woman clearly gets it. She sees and accepts Him for who He is, just as He’s seen and accepted her. In fact it seems as if He’s always known her. And importantly she understands what he offers.

Armed with this knowledge she dashes off to play a unique role in Jesus’ ministry. She’s one of first characters in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus. She’s the first evangelist to the gentiles.

Her gender, her past (whatever it was) and the fact she’s not Jewish have no bearing whatsoever on her ability to see, receive and then act. In this story Jesus shares this living water, the truth and the life, with people whom Jews considered detested enemies and outsiders.

So I think this story makes it clear that since Jesus, the people of God is to consist of all of us, whoever we are. Jesus died for the sins of the world so that we can all be included in His Father’s generous love. And, no matter how late it is, or who we are, it’s never too late to receive this living water, if we acknowledge Jesus for who He is. It’s our opportunity to have a fresh start and change our lives.

So this is a sermon (I said I’d eventually get to the point) about the transforming nature of discovering who Jesus is and what we do with that knowledge. As soon as the woman at the well realised who Jesus was, she sprang into action. She literally left her water container at the well and dashed off to tell others, so they could share in Him. So here’s the question for us today: if we know what Jesus has freely and generously given us, how do we respond? What do we do next?

To assist us with that question, let’s meet Zacchaeus the tax collector. He’s the wealthy Jew from Luke’s Gospel who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. He’s that traitor who got rich by extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, and exploiting the working poor. Not a nice man. He’s the bloke who, when Jesus saw him, he called him down from the tree that he’d climbed, and said to him “invite me to stay at your house”.

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Painting by Joel Whitehead

And after Jesus spent some time at this shady character’s home, Zacchaeus declared:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

When Zacchaeus recognised Jesus, when he accepted him at the Messiah, he felt absolutely inspired, driven, compelled even, to completely turn his life around. His discovery led him to extraordinary generosity. He gave away his possessions.

We’ll never know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus in that house, but we do know what he said to the woman at the well about being the living water that will sustain forever, that will prevent us from ever thirsting again. And we do know that with this knowledge she ran to tell anyone who would listen. Maybe he said something similar to Zacchaeus. We’ll never know.

So what can we learn from these two people who met Jesus? I’ve learned that when I said yes to Jesus Christ, my life changed. And it doesn’t matter if your story of discovery is nothing like mine or theirs. Because even if we’ve grown up knowing Jesus we can still have light bulb discovery moments and choose to make a greater commitment. This can happen at any time. Maybe we haven’t yet had that discovery moment, and we’re still faithfully waiting for the day we’ll know in our hearts that Jesus Christ is our living water. Wherever we think we are with faith, the offer is always there. God won’t go away.  Every day the choice is ours to invite Jesus into our lives and to see what happens.

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And when this happens, when we start to comprehend and accept that he gave everything for us, and he sustains our every need like pure, cool, life-giving water… when we properly get it that God loves us and gives us more than we could ever ask, and that God will keep on meeting us when we are still far off and will bring us home…. when we accept this level of generosity I firmly believe our hearts and our behaviours are transformed.

I just don’t think we can stay the same, once we discover Jesus for ourselves.

And when we discover (or rediscover) who Jesus really is, like the woman at the well, or like Zacchaeus, what will transformation look like? What will be noticeably different about us? What is God calling us to do? What is the Holy Spirit nudging us to share? How will we give of ourselves once we know Jesus Christ is the living water?

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Will we be like sturdy reservoirs, collecting and storing this living water? Or will we do what these people did, and share this discovery with others? Will we let God’s love and light and generosity pour into and then out of us to other people? Will our faces shine with the light of this discovery? Will we go out and share this news with our neighbours like the Samaritan woman? Do we feel prompted to be like Zacchaeus by doing generous acts? By giving up some of our stuff? By generously giving away our money and possessions to those less fortunate?

How will our personal discovery that Jesus is the Messiah transform our lives? What will we do next?

 

 

 

His Body Broken For Me

A sermon I preached recently on what Holy Communion means, and how we might respond, using this passage from the New Testament: Matthew 26:26-30

I want you to picture someone’s face. And I want it to be the face of the most generous person you know.

Now think, what makes them so generous? Do they give and not expect repayment? Do they look out for opportunities to be generous? Do they give way over and above what they can afford? Do they always have time for people? Is nothing too much trouble for them? Would they go without, so that others can have something? Does their generosity ever make you think about your own generosity?

Now, what if I told you that they’re not the most generous person you know?

Today I’m going to suggest that Jesus is the most generous person any of us will ever know. And I’m going to try and get us to think more about his generosity at a really personal level. Then I’ll be inviting you to consider what any of this means to you as a Christian in the world. A disciple at large.

So what exactly is Jesus-like generosity? How generous is God? Maybe there are some other questions to ask ourselves.

  • Do I understand why Jesus died?
  • Do I know in my heart that he gave up his life for his friends… for me?
  • Do I really believe that this gift, that all of God’s enormous generosity, is completely free and given to each and every one of us here, no matter who we are?

These are big questions and a good start if we’re going to understand Jesus-like generosity.

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Unfortunately this sermon won’t be answering them, because I don’t think that God’s amazing grace and our salvation in Jesus can be taught. Accepting that we’ve been given everything, even though we don’t deserve it, and that we’re loved beyond measure, even if we didn’t ask for it, and that Jesus is our saviour, even if we can’t understand it, and that we’re the recipients of limitless generosity, even if we don’t appreciate it… No I don’t think that can be taught. That can take a lifetime to come to terms with.

Also I think that understanding what we’ve been given is something we’ll need to regularly revisit, be reminded of and accept over and over again. I’m not sure it’s one of those things you can tick off your discipleship list. Jesus-like generosity might be too big for that.

So we won’t do that today, but at the very least I hope these words will encourage us all to ask ourselves afresh, or even for the first time, what we’ve been given and how we respond in thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving.

This word brings me on to today’s reading. Because the ancient Greeks had a word for thanksgiving. It’s eucharistia. The word we use for communion. I want us to use our imaginations again and think about God’s generosity as remembered in the Eucharist. What’s going on in the Eucharist? What are we doing there, and what does it mean to us?

The Last Supper is written about in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s and Mark’s. It’s also mentioned in 1 Corinthians.  In Luke’s account Jesus says:

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Do this in remembrance of me.

What did Jesus mean? It’s a simple request. We’ve been trying to honour it for the last 2000 years. Jesus made a group booking for his friends in a room above a pub that night, so he could share one last big meal with them right before his death, and tell them some big truths. And he said Do this in remembrance of me…

Well I’m not sure if wafers and silver goblets and kneeling at the communion rail was exactly what he had in mind…. but I don’t think that should worry us. However we do it, this act of breaking and sharing bread and wine which represent him dying on the cross for us, and remembering and giving thanks… that’s what it’s about.

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And we’re giving thanks that God gave his only Son to be a sacrifice, to live and to die and to be resurrected, for new creation and eternal community. It’s hard to find the right words to adequately sum up why Jesus died for us. But I’ve settled for: he died so that we could live.

He died for the things we’ve done wrong so that, through Him we could be together with the Father in Heaven for eternity. Jesus’ death stands for Forgiveness and Salvation.

Forgiveness and salvation. Why are these two things so hard to understand? Perhaps we don’t feel we need forgiving. Or we don’t feel we need saving? Or perhaps we know we need both forgiving and saving, but can’t imagine that we’d be given both, freely. Haven’t we heard “nothing in life’s for free”. Yet the Bible tells us the exact opposite. It is for free. God’s gift to us is a no strings attached gift. A guarantee for life. That’s God’s amazing grace.

It’s not something we can earn or work towards. It’s not a test we have to pass or something we have to apply for. It’s free. It’s something we’ll never, ever be good enough for and will never deserve. But it’s ours anyway. It’s free. No matter what we’ve done, or how little we know of God. This gift is ours, for free.

God’s generosity is enormous. It’s as deep as the deepest ocean and more numerous than the stars in the sky. It’s in the creation of the world and everything in it, and everything that we are. It’s in our ability to love and be loved, to enjoy music, to create art, to play sport, to think and feel and hope and dream. But more than all that; God’s ultimate gift to us is in the sacrifice of his only Son Jesus Christ. Jesus-like generosity is us being forgiven and saved by him giving up his life.

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And this is what we are celebrating in the Eucharist.

Celebrating the Eucharist. I sometimes think that’s a strange turn of phrase. Does it feel like a celebration? Is it appropriate to celebrate Jesus’ gift to us, when we know that it was made perfect by his brutal and terrible death? Or are our eyes on the resurrection, and so it feels like a celebration because we know ultimately, He defeated death?

Using our imaginations again, I’d like you to really consider how you feel during the Eucharist? Should sharing communion be joyful? Does it feel a sombre part of the service? Is it solemn? Serious? Sad? Do we feel delighted? Do we feel grateful? Do we feel anything when we walk up the aisle to the altar and kneel down?

Personally, I find it hard to know how to feel when I’m faced with the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s a big mixture of emotions. I feel desperately grateful. And I feel underserving. I feel saddened by his pain. I feel horrified when I think of Bible passages or film scenes depicting his torture and death. There are a lot of emotions going on in my head as I wait for the wafer and sip of wine.

The biggest worry for me is that I might feel nothing. I fear it might become routine. As my faith matures, perhaps one day I’ll just feel simple, deep contentment. But I fear complacent monotony.

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And yes, sometimes I struggle to tap into big emotions, as I kneel. Despite everything I’ve just said about forgiveness and salvation and the fact Jesus died for me…sometimes it’s hard to be in the right frame of mind to accept this level of generosity.

So I try and be disciplined about it. I intentionally settle my thoughts on what it is we’re doing. As I listen to the words the vicar uses, I try and visualise that Last Supper.

  • What was going through Jesus’ head in that guest room?
  • How heavy his heart must have been at the betrayal.
  • What would the atmosphere have been like?
  • Was Jesus sad? Was he scared? Was he stoic and brave? Did he desperately want more time?
  • Did the words catch in his throat as he said “Do this in remembrance of me”?

But more than that night, as I prepare for the Eucharist, I try and imagine the scene at the cross. His body was broken for me, his blood spilled for me, and as long as I live I will never be able to repay Him or to thank Him enough.

I will never be able to thank him enough.

But what could I do, what could we all do as a way of thanks giving? Eucharistia?

Would following Jesus lead us to sharing with others the gifts we’ve freely been given? Could it be as simple as that? Just living each day and looking out for opportunities to be generous, in thought, word and deed. Giving up ourselves for others, and so being closer to Him? Holding less tightly onto our time and our money and our other resources, and so walking his walk. And wouldn’t that deepen our relationship and help us glimpse what heaven might be like?

Now let’s search our hearts and ask ourselves, are there any obstacles in our lives that stop us from taking generosity to the next level?

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What are they? What are our worries? What’s in our way? Are we afraid to let go? Are we worried about the future? Do we worry what others think about our giving?  Does not being thanked enough make us reluctant to give again? Can we put our finger on the one thing that might be stopping us from taking the next step in being more generous people? Generous with what we have, even if that’s not much.

And can we give all these worries and concerns to God? Can we ball them up in our fist and imagine putting them down at the altar when we go up to give thanks at the Eucharist? And can we walk back down the aisle knowing that it is because we are forgiven and saved, and the recipient of immeasurable grace, that every day is a fresh start. Because every day God gives to us. Every day we begin again. Every day we can attempt Jesus-like generosity.

Shall we finish in prayer?

Lord God,

We may never fully understand what you have generously given us. Please help us to look with fresh eyes at your creation and to give thanks. Please help us to count our blessings and give thanks. Please help us to appreciate what it is we’re remembering in the Eucharist, and give thanks. Please help us to overcome anything that gets in the way of giving freely and generously as a way of giving thanks to you. Help us to see your Kingdom come through our acts of generosity.  Amen

God’s Not Fair (Matthew 20.1-16)

I’m English, so when I was growing up, I learned what was fair and what was not. And being English, I became very cross at any violation of the accepted rules of fair play. But figuring the rules out wasn’t always easy. I remember sobbing when my big brother would get bigger portions of cake or a bigger bike or the bigger bedroom when we moved to our new house.

“But he’s older than you Rachael,” my parents would say. “It’s only fair.” This was a tough lesson to learn, but hey if the reason was for fairness’ sake, then so be it. Fair’s fair.

My life at school was governed by rules. The teachers and dinner ladies would always be watching out for anyone not following them; play fair, take your turn, don’t take what’s not yours, you can’t have more than your fair share, don’t jump the dinner queue.

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Fairness is very important in our culture. Our love of rules and regulations is perhaps why we, the English, invented so many sports: football, baseball, tennis and rugby to name a few. And if we didn’t invent the game itself, we were certainly the first to lay down proper rules for it, to ensure fair play: hockey, horseracing, polo, swimming, rowing, boxing and even skiing.[1]

We’re known throughout the world as being obsessed with queuing: a prime example of fair play. Where our German, French or Hungarian cousins would make their way as close to the front as they could, so they had a better chance of being served first, we English much prefer the order of a neat line. We’ll all be served, when it’s our turn, according to when we arrived. We think this is fair.

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We even self-impose the queuing system in situations where there aren’t any actual queues. In pubs across the country, the customers all have a sense of who got there first, even though drinkers all stand side by side and the bar. Pushing in is frowned upon. The person pushing in jolly well knows they arrived after the lady holding a fiver out. The bar tender relies on their own sense of fairness and the honesty of their customers to ensure everyone’s served in the right and proper order.

The system of fair play only problematic when we find we’re both English and a Christian at the same time.

Here’s an example from a church council meeting I attended. They were discussing Parish Share. Parish Share is the sum of money each parish contributes to the central diocesan pot. This communal pot, funds various things to help our local churches. Like running training events or courses so lay people can develop their skills, or funding children’s and youth ministry advisers, a missioner, a professional safeguarding adviser, having someone to give local churches expert legal advice on the use of church buildings, and of course, funding our clergy, their training, their housing and their pensions so that they can minister. All these things and many more come from money in this communal diocesan pot that each church contribute towards.

But how much each church contributes is where it gets tricky. Because this decision lies with each and every parish. It’s up to them.

At the PCC meeting I went to, a heated debate broke out between members. One wanted to contribute more to the communal diocesan pot this year, in line with inflation, and also because they had plenty in reserve and could afford to. He felt it was only fair. But another person wanted to contribute less, in line with what other parishes in the deanery gave. She wasn’t happy that their church was giving the lion’s share, whilst, she believed, others weren’t pulling their weight. Why should her church give more this year when other churches were giving less? It’s not like her church benefitted more from the extra they gave, yet those that gave less still seemed to get a vicar. She just didn’t think it was fair.

Hmmm… so what’s actually fair?

Well…brace yourselves…because Jesus is about to weigh into the argument.

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In Matthew 20.1-16 Jesus is explaining to his disciples what the Heavenly Kingdom is like, which, it turns out, is nothing at all like the United Kingdom.

God’s version of fair play goes like this:

“I’ll pay all my labourers the same, no matter what time they show up looking for work. If they do a full shift they’ll get £100 quid. If they turn up at ten to 5 and get stuck in for ten minutes, they’ll get a hundred quid.”

But that’s not fair!

No. It’s not.

God doesn’t play by our cultural understanding of fairness.

Our version of fair, our rules, our orderliness, our queues at the bus stop…it’s all for nothing compared to God’s massive heart and generosity.

God doesn’t care if a criminal nailed to a cross has lived a most sinful and terrible life up until now. It’s the fact he recognises that the man nailed to the cross next to him is Jesus, and the fact he accepts that he’s the Son of God, that matters. And because of this recognition and acceptance, he is forgiven and redeemed, even in his last remaining moments of earth. He had no chance to live a better life or make up for all he’d done wrong, but in his dying moments, he accepted Jesus, and that was enough for God. God’s that generous. (Luke 23.40-43)

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So what might God have to say about the debate at the PCC meeting? What’s fair?

Well, all I know is the kingdom of heaven is unlike anything we could construct or write a rulebook for. So our own sense of fair might have to go out of the window. Instead we might have to base the answer purely on what we know about God’s character through what we read in the Bible, what we come to understand through a lived faith, and what we learn through prayer.

I think it might go like this: God would want each church in Durham Diocese to give as generously as it was able, holding nothing back, giving joyfully, not grumbling, giving more than they have to. Giving, in fact, not just according to the need, but giving generously and faithfully as a response to God’s generosity. Disregarding what they thought a fair proportion, based on what neighbouring churches were up to, and instead giving according to whatever God had been blessed it with.

And if each church did that, there’d be enough in the common fund, the communal pot, to cover lower amounts given by the much poorer communities elsewhere in the diocese. Churches whose congregations are extremely poor, and who can’t come close to covering the cost of their vicar, or much else for that matter. They’d still benefit from all the central pot could provide, including their vicar’s stipend. Mission and ministry can happen in even the poorest corners of the diocese because of the generosity of the whole diocese. Of all churches working together as a team.

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This is giving according to what’s generous, not giving according to whatever someone calculates is fair based on perceptions and a sense of self-determined sense of fair.

Our rules of fair play limit us. We’re are only human and we only see with human eyes, and with our human imagination. It’s limiting. We don’t see the bigger picture when we only rely on our own rules and instincts.

But there’s another way. When we take away our culturally inherited ideas about fair play, and instead we turn our faces towards God, when we study God, seek God, ask questions about God, when we grow in our own faith and when we build others up in theirs… we will come to learn a whole new set of rules.

When we give like God, we’ll see that so much more can be achieved. Prayers are answered. Miracles happen. Generosity flows and flows from the least likely quarters.

But from time to time, when we’re challenged- which does happen because generosity is tough- when we struggle to do what’s generous and instead we want to do what’s fair according to our inherited English customs, let’s remember who our maker is.

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Let’s remember our God is so generous that no matter how much we have sinned, Jesus paid the price for us, that no matter how little we knew we needed help, Jesus saved us anyway, and no matter how far from the path we wander, our Father will always welcome us home with open arms. Not because he’s fair, because he’s God.

So at the next opportunity when we leave this church today, let’s not give fairly. Let’s give generously.

Amen.

[1] From Kate Fox’s “Watching the English”… a brilliant book.