Sunday, August 26, 2012

What A Week It's Been... But God is still Good

“Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” Proverbs 4:23


‘The treadmill test is just a walk in the park,’ the doctor had said, ‘ a mere formality. There is nothing wrong with your heart’… well that wasn’t that reassuring because I had been referred to the Cardio unit at Greenlane by my GP because I’d gone to him complaining of shortness of breath when I’d been out walking in the park… then six minutes into the treadmill test the technicians had stopped it told me I’d better lie down and called the Doctor to come in urgently… That was the beginning of quite a week in the Carter family’s life.


A phone call on Tuesday then into hospital on Wednesday for an Angiogram, informed that,” yes there is nothing wrong with my heart, it’s just the plumbing round it is blocked up.” Told I was in the grey area between fixing it with Stents and a bypass operation, they’d get back to me on that one. Then Kris went to the doctor on Friday, and ended up in hospital overnight with various tests being run. In the end they could find nothing wrong with her, her heart was 3% bigger than the average. “So they put us through that to tell us our Mum has a big heart, we could have told them that”, say the kids. Still it is good to know Kris is OK.


But in the midst of this we have felt the presence of God:  Shown through the prayers and care of our church family at St Peter’s (thanks). Shown through a great GP, who is a good Christian man and the provision of a public health system, full of excellent doctors and medical staff. People emailing me and when I’ve told them what has been going on they have said, no wonder you’ve been on our heart so much this week. 

In the next while I’ll be going into hospital to have some stents put into my arteries (they are going for the repaving option rather than the bypass as I told my brother in law who is a roading contractor). In one day out the next unable to drive for 48hrs after that and then I should find a whole new lease on life and be full of energy…. Look out soon I’ll be firing on all cylinders. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Journey Behind The Mask To The Heart Of Devotion... (Matthew 6:1-8,16-18, A Jounrey To The Heart Of Prayer Part 1)

This is an introductory sermon to a Series I am preaching on the Lord's Prayer called 'Journey to the Heart of Prayer: exploring the Lord's Prayer'. It's part of an ongoing exploration of Jesus Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7. As an Introduction as well as expounding Matthew 6:1-8,16-18 it also is a summary of where we have come so far in the Sermon on the Mount. For those reading it on line there are lots of hyper links back to the two previous series I have preached on this year long study of the Sermon on the Mount... 'The Jesus Guide to Happiness' ... exploring the Beatitudes and 'It's Life Jim But Not As We Know It' looking at Jesus ethical Teachings in Matthew 5.

Bian Lian is the Chinese mask dance. On stage to the delight of the audience the dancer  changes masks almost as if by magic. In doing so he changes his persona as well; becoming character after character after character. It really is quite captivating. Let me show you what I mean.

Jesus warns his disciples that our religious observance can be like that mask dance as well. It can become nothing more than a public performance, for the benefit of an audience if we are not careful. Rather he says that our religious observances our religious practises are best done in private, in secret, with the attention being on an audience of one. Our heavenly Father, the one who made us, loves us, sent his son Jesus into the world to show us how to live as God’s people and who has made a way for us to come back to a right relationship with through his death and resurrection. 

Today we start a new series ‘ A Journey To The Heart of Prayer’ exploring  the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. My hope is that as we dig into Jesus prayer as a model for our own prayers, that our prayer life might deepen and grow, individually and corporately.

We are going to start that series, that exploration by taking a journey behind the mask to the heart of devotion.  Looking at the wider context that Matthew puts the Lord’s Prayer in.

Of course the wider context is Jesus Sermon on the Mount. We see that the journey to the heart of prayer starts with what Philip Yancy calls God’s revolution of Grace in the beatitudes. Jesus says that it’s not those who have got it all together that are blessed it’s not an elite group in society, the rich, male, religious Jews… rather it’s those who are poor, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, there is the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s when, as was wonderfully portrayed in the video we watched during the offering, when we drop the mask, that we’ve got it all together and we know that we need God, and God’s grace.

That journey to the heart of Prayer is also a journey into a new life, a life where as we encounter and know God’s lavish, over the top generous, undeserved Grace, that we journey through life with a changed heart. Those who are blessed because Jesus meets them in their poverty are too be salt and light. To live in a way that shows the flavour and reflects the light of the one who loves us. Over the past eight weeks we’ve been working through Jesus articulating that in terms of our moral responsibility, our ethics, and the way we relate to others. Jesus said that our righteousness was to be greater than the scribes and teachers of the law, and he had given a series of case studies to show us what he meant.

That it wasn’t just a matter of thou shall not kill, but at a heart level we were to overcome anger with seeking reconciliation just as we had received God’s grace. To be bridge builders not grave diggers.

That it wasn’t simply about thou shall not commit adultery, but rather that because we were objects of God’s love and subjects of his Kingdom, that we should treat each other not as objects of sexual desire, but as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ… to have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated society. That one of the consequences of that was that we should value marriage in the throw away society we live in.

That it wasn’t just about using the right words to make a vow, or to make a vow that we could break with impunity, but rather because we have experienced the steadfast, faithful, trustworthy love of God, that we should live with our heart in our mouths, havea courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity.

That it wasn’t just about loving our neighbours and our friends but loving our enemies. Not retaliating or seeking to revenge, but because we had experienced God’s forgiveness and grace we should go the extra mile in a gotta get even world. More than that we should show kindness and consideration and compassion to all people, just as ourheavenly father does.

Now in the passage that We had read out to us this morning Jesus applies the same idea to peoples religious observances, their religious obligation or as we might call it their spiritual disciplines.

He says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

The focus of our religious observances is not to be that the world is our stage. Rather the focus is that secret heart relationship with God. Again in a very modern teaching style Jesus gives three case studies to show us what he means. He picks three examples of religious observance that are common to most religions round the world giving money to the poor and needy, prayer and fasting, and shows us what he means.

In each case, he gives an over exaggerated, satirical sketch of some people’s behaviour. Maybe today he’s gt rowan Atkinson to do a Mr Bean take off of them.  Maybe we don’t read the bible and realise that Jesus is being humorous and satirical, but we are supposed to laugh at the ridiculous behaviour of those who seek public recognition for the righteous acts. Then in a very matter of fact way Jesus tell us how to journey beyond the mask to the heart of devotion.

2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

The word hypocrite has become quite well known in our society today and it is often used in the same way as in Jesus day. It’s used to talk of people who put on a public veneer of righteousness that does not match up with what’s underneath.  In the ancient near east a hypocrite was an orator or an actor who performed for an audience, to get their accolades and for reward. Jesus says if your giving to the poor is like that, well it’s great that you give to the poor, but you’ve got your reward. 

In Jerusalem when there was an urgent need a trumpet would sound and people would come to the temple to give. Well says Jesus you see people hurrying off check books in hand off to the charity auction or whatever and they want to be seen, that’s Ok they’ve got their reward when they make it to the society pages. But you don’t need the trumpet blast and the flash bulb, in fact be careful you don’t even do it to blow your own horn, rather do it in secret without the fanfare. Do it because of the grace of your father in heaven. He will see it and reward you. If your business transaction is with the world that’s where your read is, if it’s with God that’s where the reward comes from.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Likewise says Jesus when you pray it’s not about who sees you praying. Again in Jerusalem there were public times of prayer, and men would be invited to come to the front and lead prayer in the synagogue. And Jesus says if you pray at those times so that people will be impressed by your religious fervour, well you’ve got your reward. Rather at the heart of your prayer life is a secret place. Is an out of the public eye relationship with God. This is not by the way a condemnation of public prayer, there are times when we gather that it is right to offer up public prayers. But rather that our prayers at that time should come from the wellspring of our private prayer time.

Likewise the words are not the key thing. It’s not about the length of prayer or the flowery nature of the words or saying the right formula, or rather ironically when you think of how we use the Lord’s Prayer repeating the same thing over and over again. Why use all those words, why shout God knows what we need even before we ask him.

I love this summary from Leonard Sweets Book Soulstunami… it kind of puts it in perspective doesn’t it.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Jews used to religiously fast two days a week. Originally fasting was a sign of humbling one’s self before God, of showing repentance, that we were sorry for our sins. It was accompanied often by putting on sackcloth and ashes. By Jesus day, showing people you were fasting by the way you looked and dressed had become part of the ritual. Jesus dosen’t say don’t fast rather he says when you do, don’t make a big thing of it. Again if you simply want people to see you are doing the right thing, you’ve got your reward. Rather it’s between you and God.

Jesus uses the economic metaphor of transactions to say that if God is our audience when it comes to our religious devotion then God is also the one who rewards us. WE may use them like a mask to  seek the fickle adulation of the crowd, but in the end at the heart of our devotion is the faithful love of God. The reward is that we grow deep in our knowing and being known by the one who genuinely loves us.

The journey to the heart of prayer is a journey behind the mask that we show each other, it’s a journey to a secret place, a journey to a heart that hungers and thirsts for righteousness, that is whole hearted about meeting heart to heart with God. At the heart of our religious observances says Jesus is our relationship with the God whom loves us. In these 18 verses Jesus uses the term father nine times when he talking about God. At the heart of our devotion is an audience of one, God Our heavenly father. That is where it starts and finishes, and that is where we will finish now and start again next week with Jesus revolutionary opening line to his prayer “Our Father who is in heaven.’

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Love Your Enemies in A Friend/unfriend World... Matthew 5:42-48 'It's life Jim but not as we Know it Part 8

Earnest Gordon’s book ‘The Miracle on the River Kwai’ is the amazing story of the power and victory of the gospel in the face of oppression, cruelty, brutality, violence hatred and death. It is Gordon, a Scotsman’s war time memoirs; Gordon was a soldier and became a Prisoner Of War during the Second World War. He was forced by the Japanese to work on the infamous Burma railway. Allied soldiers were forced to work long hours mistreated, starved, beaten to death, seen as less than human. Through the care of two fellow prisoners as he was near deaths door Gordon’s Christian faith came alive and as he recovered he became the unofficial Chaplin for the camp. One of his carers Dusty was tortured and killed on a tree only months before the end of the war, because his guards could not break him or make him angry, it made them loose face so they crucified him. He imitated Christ in life so they made him imitate Christ in death. Faith however spread through the camp and people began living out Jesus teaching.

Gordon tells of coming across Japanese soldiers who had been wounded and were not being cared for by their own people because they couldn’t fight so they were of no use, they hadn’t died in the defence of the emperor so they written off as cowardly. He says that his men would stop and bind up their wounds, give them what food and water they had, share their meagre medical supplies and give them a kind word. The Japanese guards tried to dissuade them they would dodge round them and kneel down to help. One of their own officers tried to stop them and Gordon says in response he told him Jesus parable of the good Samaritan, and as he turned his back Jesus words came to Gordon’s mind ‘Love your enemies’.

Over 8,000 allied pow’s died on that infamous stretch of railroad. When the starving prisoners in Gordon’s camp were liberated, their liberators wanted to exact revenge and kill the guards, they were only saved when their victims stepped into intercede on their behalf.

After the war Gordon  became a Presbyterian Minister and moved to the Us where he became the dean of the chapel at Princeton university. The book was made into a movie called ‘to end all wars” just before Gordon’s death in 2002. While I can’t watch I without tears in my eyes, many critics sadly wrote it off as mere Christian propaganda. The film ends showing Gordon himself, meeting with one of his former guards who had become  a Buddhist monk, as he did every year to pray for peace.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had proclaimed a revolution of grace, inviting not the spiritually elite but the spiritually poor to be part of his new Kingdom, to live together as God’s people. He had told this unlikely group that they and we who come after them were to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To live in a different and new way that reflected God’s revolution of grace, a way that is summed up by Dietrich Bonheoffer, who learned to live out Jesus words in a Nazi prison, as being about the word that now appears in the reading we had this morning…”love”. A new way of living that is most profoundly captured in Jesus saying to love your enemies, the lavish extravagant grace of Jesus calls us to share that same lavish extravagant over the top love with everyone, especially those who oppose, oppress or persecute us.  In a world where you can friend and unfriend people with the click of a button we are called to be committed to loving our enemies.

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Love your neighbours comes from the passage in Leviticus we had read out to us today. The people of Israel were called to show care and kindness to their fellow Israelites, and while you won’t find and hate your enemies in the Old Testament, there are passages in scripture advising the Israelites not to form treaties or even seek the welfare of some of the countries that surrounded them. BY Jesus day it had become ensconced in their thinking that as they were God’s chosen people they could choose simply to care for and be kind to one another: That it was for friends only. But this is not what the scriptures of the Old Testament pointed towards, they had been chosen so that the other nations might know what God was like, and experience God’s goodness through their goodness and love,. The book of Jonah in the Old Testament is a book full of amazing stories and great events and it is a book that highlights the difference between Israel’s fierce nationalism expounded by Jonah not wanting to go to Ninivah and God’s great love for all people, as Jonah warned the people of Ninivah, Israel’s enemies of impending judgment they repented and changed their ways so god Spared them. Jesus tells his followers that we too are to reflect that love of God for all people.

In Occupied first century Judea, Jesus teaching to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you would have been very revolutionary. The Jews would automatically though ‘Jesus is saying we should love the Romans, and pray for them.”  In the early church Jesus teaching would have equally been relevant and easily applied as they had found themselves accused and ostracized for breaking the faith and teaching a different faith in Jewish circles and we forget how revolutionary and politically challenging it was in the roman empire to proclaim Jesus is Lord, when all were called to swear allegiance to “Caesar as Lord”. Round the world today in countries and places where the church is persecuted, Jesus teaching is poignant. Many of us however may not readily relate to it, we don’t experience persecution and we may not experience enmity or hatred. But Jesus is calling us not simply to love our friends or those with our church community or culture but those outside as well, the ‘other’, the unloving and the unlovable, people that rub us up the wrong way and treat us the wrong way.

Praying for those who persecute you is also a great place to start when it comes to that often asked question how do I start loving people who are unloving or down right unlovable. Jesus says bring them to me, if you need help to love them start on your knees, If we are praying God’s blessings and praying for their good, it will move into how we think about them and how we act. Then we can begin to show love in practical terms In Luke’s version of Jesus teaching he gets more practical saying “ bless those who curse you”.  What can you say that encourages and builds some one up when they have tried to rip you down. Paul in Romans 12:20-22 gets real practical… if you enemy is hungry feed them, if they are thirsty feed them.

I love the little golden book called the tawny scrawny lion. It is so old that I remember having it read to me when I was a child and I got a copy for my kids which was re released as part of the 50th anniversary of ‘little golden books’. It tells the story of a lion chasing animals to eat them and the animals finally getting feed up with it. A rabbit goes and talks to the lion and offers to have the lion over for dinner with his five fat brothers and five fat sisters. He catches some fish and gathers some vegetables for dinner. You can imagine the lion is thinking rabbit stew, but is made to feel at home by the rabbits and feed well. The story ends with the lion not needing to chase the other animals as he is now well feed and satisfied and befriended by the rabbits.

In real life, and I think I may have told you this before. I remember seeing a world vision video on reconciliation in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, where a woman had lost nearly 50 members of her immediate family to the violence in that country. Her next door neighbour had lead a mod that had beaten to death many of her family. The women decided the only way she was going to overcome her grief was through forgiveness. Her neighbour was in prison, leaving his elderly father with no one to care for him and so she wrote a letter to the neighbour in prison forgiving him and prepared a banquet for his father.  I was also talking to a women this week who had been sexually abused by her step farther and after years of this had been rescued. She talked of learning about love and forgiving in being a caretaker for her stepfather in his old age.

 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

To greet people in Jewish society was just a quick saying hello, but rather it was to wish them well, to bless them. Jesus call to love even our enemies is a call to extraordinary love, not just settling for the way it is in society around us. I know that the examples I’ve used so far are from extraordinary circumstances, and they are the ones that inspire us, but we are called to this extraordinary love in our ordinary life. If we just love the people we like, or who are like us, what good is it says Jesus even the tax collectors, that loathed group of traitors who work for the Romans can do that. If we simply greet those who are our mates we are just like the pagans. Can I tell you in the showing love stakes we are often shown up by people of other faiths or no faith. What good does it do. No we are to be extraordinary. Patsy was a housewife in Tauranga she got involved with organising the o hour famine and decided she would go down to the local gang headquarters and ask them to get involved.  She knocked on the door and was greeted by one of the gang leaders. She had bought along some baking for them and handed it over before asking them to sponsor her and get involved in the 40 hr famine. She was instantly known as mum by them after this. I can’t report that it bought transformational change to those guys life, but here is an example of that love your enemies. Maybe the Light of Christ just shone for a moment through the crack of the barbwire topped corrugated defensive wall of that place.

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This passage has been misused down through history to talk of the need for moral perfectionism as the demand of the gospel. I don’t know about you but I find myself responding by says… hey ‘no ones perfect’… and it is easy to let what is seen as Jesus conclusion to this section of the Sermon of the Mount demotivate us when it comes to seeing Jesus teaching as obtainable. Right… it seems to be simple pie in the sky idealism that I for one cannot live up to. But that is if we mis-understand what Jesus is saying here.

 Yes only God is perfect, he is just and righteous in all he does, he is faithful to his word and can be trusted, he is slow to anger and quick to bless, and these are attributes that Jesus showed in his life. Here the call is that just as God is unbiased in how he shows his love to people, so should we be .Just as God is with the rain and the sunshine. In doing this says Jesus we show the family likeness of being sons and daughter of the most high.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up by saying we should imitate God’s wholehearted love, that we should not be divided in our heart we should not show partiality to anyone. But love equally.

Dean Smith says that this part of the sermon of the Mount is what slits us into two groups those who want to imitate Jesus and those who simply admire him”. As we will hear later Jesus finishes his whole Sermon by calling people not to be just hearers of his words but doers as well. The thing that really takes this out of the realm of idealism and makes it something for you and I to implement in our lives is the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is not all about us, it’s about Jesus as well, as we look at it is the blue print of Jesus life, he lived it out, He asks nothing of his followers he does not face himself. Jesus loves his enemies, while we yet God’s enemies, Christ died for us, to reconcile us to him, to restore that friendship.  I want to finish with a quote from NT Wright which sums up this whole section of the sermon on the mount. He says

“it’s not all about how we behave. It’s about discovering the living God in the Loving and dying of Jesus and learning to reflect that love ourselves into the world that needs it badly”.

 And who needs it more badly than those who do not love