Sunday 3rd September – Rev Dan Yeazel

“What are We Full of?” (Romans 12:9-21)

There is a well worn adage that says “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than opening a car’s bonnet makes you an auto mechanic”. (I know the hard truth about that mechanic part.  I used to open my bonnet a lot.)  When it comes to Christianity, it is good to ask “what distinguishes a Christian in crowd?” What does our calling to follow Christ lead us to be – and do – that is different than if we never believed in Christ?  What are the consequences, good and bad, in our lives if we really strive to live everyday as people in a community of faith?

Romans has been called Paul’s manifesto, or his last will and testament as it attempts to summarize his teachings and his life’s efforts in ministry.  Paul is one who likes lists, lots of lists, and our reading is no exception.  Today he is speaking to the question of what does a Christian look like?  Paul intends to provide a picture through our scripture.  It sound kind of like he is writing a “field guide” for spotting Christians.  Notice that he doesn’t describe physical or “outer” characteristics as though you could ID a Christian by looking through binoculars.  (There’s one! ) Paul’s words describe “inner” characteristics to draw distinctions.  He offers a series of specific characteristics to look for, defining a Christian life in motion and in relationship.  The list making up Paul’s “marks of the true Christian” is almost exhausting in the effort to be complete

In this short passage he names 24 things a Christian should do or not do. We are to be filled with love, serve others, rejoice, and persevere. We should not lag in zeal, be haughty, or repay anyone evil for evil. Christians are to contribute to the saints, offer hospitality, weep with others, and bless others. That is not the whole list. Perhaps some of these didn’t sound so hard, but did some perhaps make us cringe?

All in all, these characteristics are not the things that come naturally for us.  They are not innate behaviors ingrained in our genes.  They reflect changes in our lives and departures from our usual way of living as we seek act in faith.  The things he names as marks of a Christian are that are not necessarily easy for us.  Remember how he says don’t be conformed to the world.   Faith in God is not a set of ideas tucked away in the attics of our minds.  It is by our actions that we will be known to others as somehow being different. But it is not our actions that will somehow “save us” or make us loved any more by God. It is by our actions that we are known. 

The Christian faith is a way to live life.  It is by our actions that we will be known to others as somehow being different.  What is within us will influence how we act and how we are in the world.  This religion, our Christian faith is different from others.   There has been a lot of effort to try to bring all religions together under one roof and say, gee it really doesn’t matter it’s all the same anyway.  It’s the same God.  We all just need to live a good life and be a good person.  That’s all that really matters.  There is great merit in respect and tolerance of the wide variety of religious expression.  But to same its all the same is to miss the richness and the truth of the significant differences of believers around the world.  There is not just one phylum “Religious”  It is not up to us to judge, or be haughty.  I believe God is worshipped in many different and wonderful ways.  We need to claim our beliefs and live them, because it is who we are.  (Presbyterians certainly don’t say we are the one and only true way that is better than any other way.)   

In Romans, Paul is writing to the wider church encouraging all who follow Jesus.  He is  challenging them to not to worry so much about trying to be good with God by following the law, and he confronts the thinking that suggests that we can be right with God if we just follow all the rules or offer certain sacrifices. Paul urges us instead to focus on how we can be changed from within and then begin to make a difference in the world around us.  While Paul didn’t write it exactly this way, he would agree with the sentiment, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself and see what happens!  Paul assures us that we are right with God right now, and embracing that frees us to live as different people who do not conform to the ways of the world.

As Christians we do want to be known for what we believe who we are on the inside, and known for how we are in this world.  Behinds Paul’s description is an ethic of agape love.  Love that starts with God and flows from God to every living thing, even those who could be seen as enemies of God.   Living our faith is how we comprehend God with us and around us.  Our focus is not so much the after life, it is living life now in such a way that we experience and we reflect glimpses of God’s eternity.    

This passage is part of a longer section of Paul’s that has been likened to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  Just as Jesus encapsulated what Christians ought to do into the dual commandment to “Love the Lord your God,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”, Paul’s long litany of Christian characteristics is perhaps fully contained in verses 9-10. Verse 9 outlines the attitude – displaying genuine love, hating evil, loving good – while verse 10 calls us to action – to “outdo one another in showing honor.”  Competing not in an aggressive way as we are taught in our society, but striving to do our best in giving to others and sharing God’s love.  That is it in a nutshell.  Love and act. 

It is out of the abundance of the heart that a person acts and speaks, whatever fills the heart fuels the life.  A question for us, is what are we full of?  How are we known to others?  Are we living our faith in ways that others see it and recognize it?   Paul’s description is before us, do we see ourselves in it?  What can we do to become more like the description he sets forth? 

Paul urges us instead to focus on how we can be changed from within and therefore begin to make a difference in the world around us.  We are right with God right now, and that frees us to live as different people who do not conform to the ways of the world.  Today Paul describes what that looks like.     

Paul’s description of lives as living sacrifice is before us, do we see ourselves in it?  What can we do to become more like the description he sets forth?  Changed lives are what living faith is all about.  We have our calling and it has consequences.  If our faith doesn’t make any difference, what difference does it make?  Paul gives us a challenging, disciplined, curious statement about how we ought to live.  It humbles us, it calls us to live with compassion and energy.  But most of it calls to be live as people who are filled with love.   May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

Sunday 20th August 2023 ~ Rev Stephen Dewdney

Good News for all Peoples

When I preached here in June we looked at the promises made by God to Abraham and his descendants, promises that God would make them into a great nation and bless them so that they would be a blessing.  As you read through the Old Testament, you see God fulfilling these promises through the nation of Israel, through the people who have come to be known as Jews.

Today we jump from Abraham’s time some two thousand years into the future, we jump over the Old Testament and into the New, landing in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 11 which at first sight is all about the Jews and what has happened to God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now that, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity has begun to spread through the world.

But I don’t see Romans 11 as being primarily about the Jewish people or what God is doing amongst non-Jews, that is gentiles.  Rather this chapter is about a gracious God whose heart is such that he does not give up on people, it’s about the very character of God.  The previous chapter ended, “But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”  That’s the message that Paul wants these Christians in Rome to hear about God, that God holds out his hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.  That’s Gods sovereign grace, his undeserved loving kindness that never fails, it can’t be stopped.  God keeps his promises to his people.  So primarily this chapter is about what God does in the face of human hard heartedness.  And if we want encouragement as we seek to be a Church and to be Christians in a world that wants to reject God, then we need to understand the message of Romans 11

To set the scene, in Romans chapters 1-8 Paul has explained how God’s word is all about Jesus, all about forgiveness in Christ alone.  But the problem is that God made promises in the Old Testament to his people Israel, promises that all pointed to Jesus, but not all Jews have followed him.  In fact, most of them appear to have rejected Jesus.  So, have God’s promises failed?  In Romans 9 Paul answers, “no”, it was never God’s plan to save the whole nation of Israel.  Rather, God sovereignly chose to bring people into relationship with himself, because you’re saved by His grace, not by your nationality.  In Romans chapter 10, Paul tells us that it is faith in Jesus that makes people right with God.  So, the way that a person comes to be one of God’s people is by trusting in God’s word about Jesus.  And the Jews – they’d heard that word about Jesus, but a lot of them have chosen to reject it.  So, is God going to keep his promises in the face of that rejection.  And what is God going to do when people don’t believe him?  Will he just give up on them? 

Well, Paul answers these questions in chapter 11 “I ask then: Did God reject his people?  By no means!”  And here’s the first thing we need to see this morning.  God’s sovereign grace never loses those he chooses.  Paul gives two bits of evidence for this, look at me he says, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin”.  I’m a kosher Jew, and I’ve become a committed Christian.  What’s more, I’m the apostle to the Gentiles. 

And here’s more evidence from the history of Israel “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.  Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”?  After the victory on Mt Carmel Queen Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah who cried out to God, “I am the only one left, and they’re seeking my life.”  And God’s answered, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Elijah, you think there’s only you left, but I’ve got seven thousand.” God never loses those he chooses.  God’s grace is more than abundant.  Elijah wasn’t the only one left, God had a remnant.  And Paul says that’s the same today, there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  And why, “If by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”  In other words, it’s God’s free, undeserved, loving kindness.  God chooses people, and he does not lose them.  For Gods sovereign grace is bigger than people’s sin.  That’s why God’s people are never defined by being a particular race or group or church.  God’s people are never defined by being more morally upright or being a bit nicer than other people.  These things do not define God’s people.  God’s people are always defined by God’s gracious choice.  He chooses them and brings them to himself, and God never loses those he chooses. 

That should be great news to us because it can be easy to feel helpless like Elijah in our present-day world.  To say, well what’s going on Lord?  You’ve brought us together as a church here in St Martins and have given us the good news about Jesus that’s supposed to change people’s lives and we’re doing all we can, but frankly we aren’t seeing many lives being changed.   But God saves those he saves because he chooses them by grace.  It’s not the intensity of our efforts that causes people to follow Jesus.  It’s by grace alone, and nothing can change that.  And that’s great news because God’s grace is far, far bigger than our efforts.  His plan is far, far bigger than our timescale, and he will keep on working despite our feelings of despair and defeat and struggle for he is the God who holds out his hands all day long to obstinate and disobedient people.  His grace always triumphs in the face of hard hearts. 

But that doesn’t mean that the rejecting Jesus isn’t serious.  It’s extremely serious.  Hear what Paul says about the Jews who have rejected the Good News about Jesus “What then?  What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.”  Paul takes two Old Testament quotes, and he makes a serious point.  That if you keep on rejecting Jesus, God will give you over to the path you choose.  He’ll let you have what you want.  If you harden your heart to his love, he will harden your heart to his love as well.  He confirms that hardness in you.  The second quote is from King David, the words of God’s chosen King, who speaks of judgement on his own people, offering little hope for Israel.  “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.”  While God never loses those he chooses, don’t think that means that you can go on spiritual cruise control, that you can harden your heart to him.  No, if you reject him, that’s very serious.  Don’t presume there’s a way back. 

This raises another question, “Did Israel stumble so as to fall beyond recovery?  Not at all!”  God’s sovereign grace means he never loses those he chooses, but it also brings beautiful humility.  “Because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.   But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fulness bring.  Do you see the three stages.  The Jewish people reject Jesus.  That drives the message of God’s saving love in Christ all over the world to the Gentiles.  The Jews see the life of the Christians and they become envious of what they have, resulting in their trusting in Jesus, thus fulfilling God’s promises to them.  And that’s seen through this section, indeed throughout the New Testament.  Remember that it’s the Jewish religious leaders who reject Jesus and have him crucified.  But as Jesus is raised up on the cross to die for sin, he draws people from all over the world to experience God’s love and forgiveness through him.  In the book of Acts, Paul goes first to the synagogues to explain the good news of Jesus to the Jews, but when they reject it, he’s goes to the marketplace and the squares taking the good news of Jesus to the gentiles.  You see, God’s grace is so vast that he uses his people’s rejection, and hard heartedness to save the world.  You have to be extraordinary powerful to be able to use those who oppose you for your purposes, but that’s what God is doing.  And if God can save people from all over the world through the rejection of the Jewish people, just think what he’s going to do through Jewish people coming to trust in Jesus.  In fact, Paul says that’s what drives him in explaining the good news.  “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.”  So, Paul goes to the Gentiles, so that they come to know Jesus, so that the Jewish people see how great Jesus is and turn to follow him.  “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” 

In verses 16 to 20 Paul seeks to humble us who don’t have Jewish origins, reminding us that we were born on the wrong side of the track, and yet God in his mercy has given us the promises he gave to his people.  And he does this by using a horticultural illustration.  The quality of an olive tree depends on where its roots are, the quality of the fruit depends on the branches.  For us here today, most, or all of us are not from a Jewish background, but we are trusting the promises of God, promises rooted in the Old Testament and given to the Jewish people.  The fruit in our lives is bursting out from the promises that God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So, says Paul, we shouldn’t be arrogant or think we’re better than them.  “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”  A little bit of technical gardening jargon.  When you graft an olive tree, you cut off a small branch of an olive tree and carefully attach it to another olive tree and if you do it correctly the grafted branch starts to grow and takes the sap from the healthy olive tree its now attached to and eventually the grafted branch produces fruit.  Paul tells us non-Jewish people, that God’s cut off a branch of people who have rejected him, but he has taken us, branches from a wild olive tree, and grafted us into his cultivated olive tree, he’s grafted us into his people, so that we can bear fruit.  But remember where your sap comes from.  Remember where the roots are.  We’ve been grafted in.  They’re not our promises by right.  They weren’t spoken to our nation, so we’re hugely privileged.  Just because we have come to trust in Jesus doesn’t make us better than the Jewish people.  Rather it’s a gift of God’s grace.  And if he can do that for us, he can just as easily take the natural branches he has broken off and also graft them back into his people.  Remember that Jesus was a Jew.  He was the Jewish Messiah.  He fulfilled the Jewish law.  Don’t think that in some way being a Christian makes us better people than Jewish people.  The only difference is that we have faith in Christ.  “The Jews were broken off because of unbelief, and you gentiles stand by faith.  Do not be arrogant but be afraid.”  The fact that God’s Old Testament people, the Jews, can receive His promises and then reject him should make us tremble.  It should make us fearful that we would do the same thing and so cause us to take it as a warning.  “For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”  Don’t forget, everything we have is because of God’s kindness and grace to us.  “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”  If you’re a Christian here this morning, you must remember that your trust in Jesus is not about you, it’s about God’s kindness and grace to you.  The kindness of a stern God who by nature judges people who reject him.  And the only thing that that makes a difference between you and anyone else is that he has lavished his kindness and love upon you.  Which is why we must turn from any sense of self-righteousness, any sense of superiority, any sense that we’re better than anyone else.  No, we simply have a God who’s been kind to us.  Note the repetition, in verse 18, “do not boast”.  Verse 20, “do not be arrogant.”  Verse 25, “do not claim to be wiser than you are”.  We are hugely privileged, and we must not lose sight of that because there is probably no greater danger in the Christian life and following Jesus than presuming on God’s grace.  What does it look like to presume on God’s grace?  It’s when we start to be quicker to spot faults in others than in ourselves.  Faults in their doctrine, faults in their lifestyle.  It’s when we’re quicker to put others down than to build them up.  It’s when we don’t daily feel, I desperately need Jesus, that my relationship with God is only because I trust in Jesus today.  We should tremble before God, amazed that he loves us, outsiders by nature, grafted into promises that are not ours by right.  And that’s the heartbeat of the deeply attractive church that Paul says will draw other people in.  A church that’s so sold out on God’s gracious love in Jesus that it has a tangible humility.   A church that loves others and does not look down on them.  That forgives one another because they see their own faults.  That melts hearts that are hardened to the message of Jesus Christ.  A church of soft-hearted people who know they totally depend on God’s grace. 

God sovereign grace never loses those he chooses, God’s sovereign grace brings beautiful humility, thirdly God’s sovereign grace will save all his people.  “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” God has hardened the Jews so that the message will go out to the gentiles till they have accepted Jesus and become Christians for “In this way all Israel will be saved.”  Now Romans 11:26 is one of those verses that lots of Christians have disagreed about.  What does it mean that all Israel will be saved?  Most probably it’s that before Jesus comes back to judge, all the Jews that God wants to bring to trust in Jesus will trust in him.  This could be in an intense event just before Jesus returns to judge the world, or it could be happening all the time now, as people seek to share Jesus with the Jewish nation.  But God’s not going to lose any of his people either from the Gentiles, or from the Jews.  And that’s the nature of his persistent grace.  As Paul says, “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs.”  So, the good news about Jesus goes to the world.  God used the Jews.  But in terms of his chosen people, they still have God’s promises given to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and he does keep his promises, he will bring them in.  “For God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.”  So, when God calls you, he calls you, and he doesn’t give up on you.  He doesn’t give up on his word of promise. 

In 55 days, in case you hadn’t realised, there is a general election.  Political parties across the spectrum are making promises of what they’ll do if we vote them into power.  But can those promises be kept?  There are probably two reasons why politicians can’t keep their promises.  One, their character isn’t up to it, they just don’t care.  Or two, they’re not powerful enough, they’re just not able to do it.  But God’s promises are utterly trustworthy.  His character is one of persistent love.  He is gracious, and he never loses those he chooses.  As to his ability he even uses the rejection of people to take his good news to the world so that he will save everyone he wants.  Therefore, Paul can say “For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

At the heart of God’s plan is his merciful heart.  It’s his nature to order the world so that people are saved by His mercy.  No one can possibly think they’ve done anything to deserve a relationship with their loving heavenly Father.  All we are, is disobedient, whether we’re gentiles who never knew his promises, or Jews who knew his promises and have rejected him.  All people that come to a relationship with God, do so only because of His mercy.  You need mercy.  I need mercy.  Without mercy everyone is lost, disobedient and deserving punishment.  Mercy is the only door back into a relationship with God.  It flows out of his character, and it’s a door only he can open.  And that should move us to worship, whatever our background, whoever we are.  And so.  Paul bursts out into praise because he realises that there is nothing that happens in our world that is good, that is not the result of God’s mercy and love towards us. 

So, Paul finishes with praise based on Isaiah 40 and Job 41, two chapters that are about how enormous God is compared to us.  Who knows everything that God’s planned.  No-one.  Who’s ever given God advice.  No-one.  Who’s ever helped God out when he’s been caught short?  No-one.  God gives us everything we have.  We are not Gods councillor, he is ours.  We’re not Gods creditor, he is ours.  And that’s because we are not Gods creator, he is ours.  Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  The purpose of the world is not that you and I feel good about ourselves, but that we see how good, how gracious, and how glorious God is.  The purpose of the world is not that we get our own way, but that we enjoy seeing God work out his ways amongst us and through us.  The purpose of the world is not that we can love ourselves, but that we know that we are loved by God through Christ despite ourselves, that we see that all that there is, is for His glory and we burst out in praise, as the Apostle Paul does.  You see, Romans 11 is good news for us and all people.  Yes, it’s complicated, yes, it has gardening and Jewish and gentile people in it.  But primarily it’s good news because it puts on the throne of the universe a loving heavenly Father who gives His own Son for us and brings that to bear on our hearts by the power of his Spirit, a God who will not give up on working out his plan for his people.  A God who never loses those he chooses. That is why Romans 11 is such good news.   

Sunday 6th August 2023 – Rev Dan Yeazel


About 20 years ago, I led a group of college students on a mission trip to Kenya.  My sense of “mission trips” is that the people going receive the greatest benefit.  We went to ngong hills outside Nairobi, after seeing the city, we got back to the church and there were about 150 school children sitting in the rough wooden pews.  They had been waiting for us to arrive and they sand songs for us, we sang for them.  (No I wasn’t allowed to do a solo)  We had been told that many of the children there had not eaten for a day, sometimes there is food for the school lunch program and sometime not, some of the children could afford to go to school and many could not.  We were given boxes of cookies, shortbread to share with the children, so we began to hand them out to the children who were eager to accept.  Then came a very awkward moment, the elders of the church brought out about fifteen sandwiches for the guests to share and continue in conversation with the group.  It was clear that the sandwiches were for us and that the children were not included in the headcount.  They had been invited to remain and meet us and ask questions about America.  That’s when one member of the group said, I can’t do this, we can’t just eat these and not share.  We ate this morning, they didn’t.  Let’s give them what is here.   It was the closest thing to the feeding of the five thousand I have ever seen.  Those few sandwiches were divided up and divided up such that everyone got at least two pieces.  That wasn’t the part that got to me.  It was at this point that one person in our group, Lisa, had the courage to show unchecked honest emotion and began to openly cry.  Some in the group offered a hug or a kind word, as she said there is so much hunger, so much poverty, is this all we can do hand out a few bites?  The sight I will not forget is an elder from the church drying her tears saying “we have Jesus, that is enough.”

The feeding of the 5000 is the only “miracle” of Jesus that is recorded in all four of the gospels.  This incredible event takes place after Jesus has taught many of the parables and word about him has begun to spread.  People are flocking to see him and hear him.   So in our story, five thousand have gathered, and here, sadly only “males” would be in that count, so there were probably women and children as well, who knows how many in total.   Maybe 15,000 people. 

While Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t mention where the bread and fish comes from.  In John’s retelling of this story, we hear that the loaves and fish came from a young boy.  Like many others who play such important in scripture, we don’t know who is the little boy was, but we do know what a difference he made. It is easy to imagine that there were some in the crowd, who stayed at a distance,  and were too far removed to really understand what happened.  The question,  “Who was that little boy?”  is a good one – for without him – this miracle may not have happened. When Jesus was responding to the needs that were around him, the little boy was the only one who brought forth something to share. He was the only one willing to come forward and say “here’s what I have I know it’s not much but you could have it.”

There’s great deal to be learned from considering how Jesus interacted with the crowds and the disciples. We can only guess why such a large crowd was following Jesus.   Perhaps, some had heard of the tragic death of John the Baptist and sought Jesus out for comfort and reassurance. Perhaps some have been following Jesus for quite a while and were awaiting another series of parables.  Perhaps, some just saw the crowds and wanted to be part of the action, without any desire to be changed themselves in anyway.  We don’t know what motivated people to come out and join in. But now, in this moment, they were there – and they were hungry.  (Imagine having to feed all those people!)   Many of us today may be seeking Jesus for different reasons.  And we should take comfort and assurance, knowing that Jesus can and does take care of the needs of all of us of all who were there no one leaves hungry.  Whatever brings you near is fine.

This is a familiar story one that we’ve all learned in Sunday school, it puts to us a simple and clear call – to share what we have – and it will be enough to do wonders!  It is a living example of the parables that preceded in the scriptures; we’ve heard them in the past, the parables of the sower, and of the wheat, and of the mustard seeds, parables and points to reality of abundance in what appears to be scarce.  Each one of us knows scarcity, in one way or another, in our lives,  a scarcity of time, or money, or energy, to do the things we would like. We look at the demands on us and what the world seems to be asking and we think to ourselves “I just can’t do it I have nothing to offer it is better for me to retreat.”

As the gospels would tell it, just before this moment.  Jesus himself had had two experiences of apparent scarcity.  He is rejected by his home town when he tried to preach and heal, and he has just learned of John’s execution.  So there must be a great emptiness within him.   Now he is surrounded by thousands of people, his disciples presenting him with more scarcity and rather than turn them away saying I can do nothing for you, leave me alone. Instead of doing the understandable and the perfectly acceptable he embodies what he is been saying all along. He lives out that the kingdom of God is like a few loaves and fishes that can feed thousands.  He shows us that there are things that we can give away and give away and still never run out.

One of the most interesting and powerful prayer sessions I remember being part of was one where we first held stones in our hands and reflected on the hard places in our lives in the areas of scarcity where we felt we were hitting rock bottom, and then we held pieces of bread and reflected on the gifts in our lives that we had an that we could offer to others and never run out. What in your “lunchbox” that will you always have leftovers of?  For each of us,  there is something different.  (A love of people, a hopeful attitude, something within you as part of your very soul, that is a gift from God, that you share with others and yet never lose?  That search is part of our faith journey, to find what we have as gift, and then give it away to others.  (Could be a sense of laughter, an appreciation of music, a desire to serve the poor. We each have at least one thing.

Jesus refuses to stop helping just because he and the disciples are exhausted from work and with grief and from the crowd. In their weariness, the disciples can only see their meagerness and  shortness of their resources.   “We have nothing” they say.  Jesus does not let them stop at that and say “it’s okay, you don’t have much – I can’t expect much of you.”   Instead of focusing on their lack, Jesus commands that they bring what they have. Using the words of the Eucharist he accepts what they bring and gives it back and orders that the disciples give it away. The scriptures say he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave.

This is the model of discipleship. God calls us to bring ourselves, our lives, our failings, and our hope all before God. Are we willing to come, and say,  here is what I am, here’s what I have, you can have it. As we do – do we trust that God will take can get back to us and call us out to take an going to world and do wonders. We will give them we will give, and  still there will be more that something leftover! Amen.

Sermon July 30th 2023 Rev Dan Yeazel

Of all the things that Jesus spoke about in his years of ministry, what topic do you think he talked about most? (Here’s a hint, it comes up a lot in today’s reading.  The Kingdom of Heaven.  And anyone want to guess what the second most talked about topic?  Money!  – that’s for another day)

While people don’t often speak about these things in everyday conversation, can you imagine what you might say if you were asked, “What do you think the Kingdom of Heaven is like?”  Say a young person came up to you quite earnestly, or a person new to faith, came to you and asked, “tell me about this Kingdom of Heaven”,  what would you do?  What might you say? 

I think one of the most difficult things about believing in God and trusting that the kingdom of heaven exists, is trying to talk about it. If someone asks you why you believe, or how your life is different because you do believe, isn’t it the case there are no particular words are true enough, right enough, or big enough to explain.  If we are asked, we may rummage around for something to say, but I find everything I come up with sounds either too vague or too churchy.

When talking about God, we can talk about how our heart feels full to bursting sometimes or about the mysterious sense of connection we feel with other human beings. We could talk about how even the worst things that happen to us seem to have a blessing hidden in them somewhere, but the truth is that it often feels impossible to speak directly about holy things. How can the language of earth capture the reality of heaven? How can words describe that which is beyond all words? How can we as human beings speak of God and the Kingdom of Heaven?

We don’t do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can, that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things, and trusting that somehow we’ll make  connections. Believing in God is like coming home, we say, like being born again. It is like jumping off the high dive, like getting struck by lightning, like falling in love. We cannot say what it is, exactly, but we can say what it is like, and we hope that is enough to get the message across.

Using analogies, saying that something is like something else can be a great tool and a way to make connections that deepen understanding.  When the comparisons catch us by surprise they make us stop, make us think. How can these two things be alike? What do they have in common? How deep does this connection go? When the comparisons catch us by surprise, our everyday understanding of things is broken open, and we are invited to explore them all over again, to go inside of them and see what is new.

Jesus did it all the time. Throughout the gospels, he was always making comparisons. Sinners are like lost sheep, the word of God is like seed sown on different kinds of ground, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast, and God is like the owner of a vineyard. “The kingdom of heaven is like this…” he said over and over again, telling his followers stories about brides and grooms, sheep and shepherds, wheat and tares.

Have you ever wondered why he taught that way? Why didn’t he just come right out and say what he meant? If anyone in the world were qualified to speak directly about God, surely it was Jesus, and yet he too spoke indirectly, making surprising comparisons between holy things and ordinary things, breaking open our everyday understanding of things and inviting us to explore them all over again.

In today’s passage when asked what heaven is like, Jesus launches a volley of such comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he says, then he’ll say it is like yeast, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea. When Jesus teaches these images come quickly, one right after another, with no preparation, no explanation, no time for questions and answers. It is not like him to be in such a rush.  It is like he turns on a firehose of ideas.  He is usually a better storyteller than that, gathering his listeners around him and sliding into his tale with one of those time-honored introductions like, “There once was a landowner…” or “There once was a king…” When he does, his followers settle down to listen, knowing that the story will be full of meaning for them, knowing that they had better listen well.

This morning the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, nothing much to look at, not very impressive at all, at least not at first; but give the seed some soil-sow the seed, and it can become astounding: a tree big enough for birds to nest in.   If the kingdom of heaven is like that, then it is surprising, and potent, and more than first meets the eye.

There is an essential hiddenness-the mustard seed hidden in the ground.  If the kingdom is like that, then it is not something readily apparent to the eye but something that must be searched for, something just below the surface to be discovered and claimed.

So we might think, that if we are searching for the kingdom, we ought to start some place really holy, some place really extraordinary, like a medieval monastery, maybe, translating ancient texts with biblical scholars.  Maybe we should begin in the Holy Land, or at the Vatican, or Dunedin. Then again it may not matter where we are, exactly, as long as we keep our eyes open for extraordinary clues wherever we are-looking out for heavenly visions, listening out for heavenly voices. Because if the kingdom of heaven is hidden in this world, it is hidden really well, and only the most dedicated detectives among us stand a chance of finding it at all.

Unless, of course, God has hidden it in plain view. There is always that possibility, you know-that God decided to hide the kingdom of heaven not in any of the extraordinary places that treasure hunters would be sure to check but in the last place that any of us would think to look-namely, in the ordinary circumstances of our everyday lives-like a silver spoon in the drawer with the stainless, like a diamond necklace on the dresser with the rhinestones-the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary, the kingdom of heaven all mixed in with the humdrum and ho-hum of our days, as easy to find as a child’s smile when she awakes from sleep, or the first thunderstorm after a long drought- signs of the kingdom of heaven, clues to all the holiness hidden in the dullest of our days.

Jesus knew it all along. Why else would he talk about heaven in terms of farmers and fields and women baking bread and merchants buying and selling things and fishermen sorting fish, unless he meant somehow to be telling us that the kingdom of heaven has to do with these things, that our treasure is buried not in some exotic far off place that requires a special map but that “X” marks the spot right here, right now, in all the ordinary people and places and activities of our lives?

If we want to speak of heavenly things, he seems to say, we may begin by speaking about earthly things, and if we want to describe that which is beyond all words, we may begin with words we know, words such as: man, woman, field, seed, bird, air, yeast, bread; words such as: pearl, net, sea, fish, joy. The kingdom is like these things; the kingdom is found in these things. These are the places to dig for the kingdom of heaven; these are the places to look for the will and rule and presence of God. If we cannot find them here we will never find them anywhere else, for earth is where the seeds of heaven are sown, and their treasure is the only one worth having. Amen.

Sunday 23rd July – Rev Hugh Perry

I grew up in a time of polio, measles, whooping cough epidemics and suffered from chronic hay fever.  I lost a whole year of schooling becase of sickness which included some home quarantine.  As time went by vaccines were created and I noticed that there were no longer kids at school with irons on their legs becase of limbs damaged by polio.  I also read about Sonja Davies surviving tuberculosis because of the discovery of antibiotics and I read Dr Murray Laugesen’s book about the widespread vaccines he carried out in India.  Furthermore, as a Christian Thought and History major, I am aware of the devastating pandemics that have killed people in the past.

Therefore, when I saw a news clip of a man racing to get out of the heat from multiple funeral fires of covid victims in India I certainly believed we had a worldwide pandemic. 

Our government announcing quarantine measures were certainly restrictive but seemed reasonable in the face of a new pandemic and I was inclined to believe that Covid was real. 

I also expected science to produce a vaccine and in this world of rapid communications and sharing of information I expected that to happen a lot quicker than such discoveries had been made in the past.   

What I didn’t expect was that people would claim that the pandemic was a hoax and vaccination was a plot to insert microchips into the population so they could be monitored and controlled. 

It seemed like the news media, the world health organisation and governments had sown good information and strategy into our world.  Then when nobody was looking, an enemy, or several enemies had sneaked into the internet and sown weeds. 

I am reminded of a Larsen cartoon where a heavenly master-chef, obviously with a perverted sense of humour, is shown seasoning a newly created world.   ‘This will make it interesting’ he thinks as he shakes the seasoning from a container labelled ‘jerks’.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable with a very similar theme that begins:  

‘He put before them another parable: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.’  (Matthew 13:24,25)     

Those tending the crops are instructed not to try and pull out the weeds becase the risk damaging the intended crop, and my amateur efforts at gardening have proved that risk on numerous occasions.  As has the unfortunate instances when I have been drawn into an argument with someone convinced of their point of view no matter how silly it seems.  

In fact the book of Proverbs tells us ‘It is better to meet a mother bear robbed of her cubs than to meet some fool busy with a stupid project.  (Proverbs 17:12)

The important point of the parable however is that Jesus is explaining, for his unique time, which we can see has many similarities with our own time, that God has liberally seeded the human population with good people. 

Through greed, self-centred carelessness or whatever some of those seeds have grown into weeds.  Matthew blames ‘the evil one.’

But the real message of the parable is that the divine realm comes into being in a world of chaos, a world like ours, where good people and jerks exist alongside each other.  We must also remember that no matter how universal the parable’s message is, it is set in Jesus’ time and place.

Burton Mack writes that ‘the attractiveness of early Christianity is best explained as one of the more creative and practical social experiments in response to the loss of cultural moorings that all peoples experienced during this time’.[1] 

Mack goes on to explain that the temple-state as a model of civilisation had been honed to perfection by three thousand years of fine tuning clashed with the collapsing Hellenistic or Greek age.  That confrontation of cultures was stabilised by the brutal efficiency of Imperial Rome which was also evolving.  We can therefore see why the idea of the ‘Kingdom of God’ was so attractive to the people buffeted and disillusioned by change.  Mack writes of Jesus in his prologue: 

His followers did not congregate in order to enhance their chances of gaining eternal life for themselves as solitary persons.  They had been captivated by a heady, experimental drive to rethink power and purity and alter the way the authorities of their time had put the world together.[2]   

Reading of the clash of cultures, decay and disruption of long-established civilisations and the chaos of different ethnicities and languages it is understandable that there would be experimentation with alternative ways of ordering society.  What is both encouraging and challenging however is that that first century clash of cultures also sounds very like our own time. 

Jesus dream for such a world, the dream that lead him to speak to his disciples is spelled out in in the first chapter of Marks Gospel. ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14)  

Dreams are important, dreams for a better world or the dreams for a vaccine for a deadly pandemic.  Dreams are the beginning of change.

The prophet Joel wrote about dreams:

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  (Joel 2:28) 

That statement is also quoted in Peter’s speech in Acts (Acts 2: 17) after the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at the festival of Pentecost.

In a more contemporary setting in the musical South Pacific Rodgers and Hammerstein have Bloody Mary sing ‘If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?

Our reading from Genesis tells us of Jacobs dream and, like our own weird dreams, it comes at a time for Jacob of fear, chaos and apprehension.

Jacob’s deceit of his brother turns dangerous as Esau threatens to kill him and he is forced to flee.  But isolated from his family and fearful of his brother he has a dream that assures him of God’s presence.  The dream also reinforces his father’s dream that they will be fathers of a great nation. 

Jacob later wrestles with God in another dream and is the father of Joseph of amazing Technicolor Dream Coat fame.

Dreams are what pulls this family out of intergenerational domestic violence and abusive family relationships and opens the future to successive generations.  Dreams are the first step in new beginnings and dreams are the first step in making dreams come true.

Jacob marks the place of his dream as a ‘thin place’ a place where heaven and earth meet.  However, the main point of Jacob’s dream is that we can be forced to move away from where we are comfortable but that does not move us away from God.  That is a hard lesson to grab hold of and when the descendants of Abraham and Isaac are taken into exile in Babylon they sang ‘How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:4)

Throughout history people have seen God as their god belonging to their territory. 

People who, like Jacob, have had an experience of God in a dream or vision have, like Jacob, marked the spot where that happened and then people have made pilgrimages to those places in the hope of having a similar experience. 

In similar hope people have built spectacular buildings in the hope that God will come and live in them.  Another descendant of Jacob, King David wanted to do that.  But Nathan had a dream in which God told him to ‘Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle’. (2 Samuel 7:5,6): 

Of course, David’s son built the temple because he was politically astute and had a vision of stable government held in tension between sacred moral values symbolised by the temple and his absolute monarchy symbolised by the Palace. 

Special places are also good for religious tourism and if you Google ‘thin places’ you will quickly get several lists of places where people have felt the presence of ‘the other world’ even without a ladder.  Places where the barrier between this world and the spirit world is so thin that visions and theophanies can pass through.

The whole point of Jacob’s dream was that leaving home did not separate him from God.  Even cheating his brother did not separate him from God.  

We need to also remember the divine realm does not come into being through a violent revolution or even a landslide victory in an election.  The divine realm comes into being by the dreams of people and the thoughts provoked by the parables and teaching of people.  In seeking the divine realm we must recognise that good and bad lives alongside each other.

The divine realm comes into being in a world of chaos, a world like ours, where good people and jerks exist alongside each other. 

Different personalities like Jacob and Esau struggle for their place in the world and their understanding of power, authority and inheritance.  But even Jacob and Esau can be reconciled through dreams and wrestling with God. 

God’s realm continues to move towards reality, God’s realm is always at hand as the good seed of the human condition dream dreams and wrestle with their own vision of God.  That is how people become the truly human citizens of God’s Realm.

Our dream must always remain to be the good seed called to struggle and grow amongst the weeds of our world. 

We must dream because if we don’t have a dream, how we gonna have a dream come true?  Above all, our dreams must open our minds to possibilities beyond our wildest expectations.   

[1] Burton L. Mack Who Wrote The New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (New York: HarperOne 1989) p.19.

[2] ibid. p.12