Your money isn’t yours: Luke 16.1-13

A local charity had never received a donation from the town’s banker, so the director made a phone call.

“Our records show you make half a million pounds a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is in a nursing home, with extremely expensive bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the director.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”

“I … I … I had no idea,” stammers the director embarrassed beyond words.

“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

Money is the great taboo, especially in this country. I borrowed that joke from America – it would never happen in this country. We are so private about our income, that i suspect even our spouses often don’t know what we make.

Our gospel reading today is about money, and specifically about some very dishonest use of money. In fact, the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 16 is such a shocking story that Luke is the only gospel writer to record it. Recall the details with me:

An accountant has been dishonest, and his boss is onto him and about to give him the sack. So he calls up all his boss’s debtors, and slices off about half of their debt, just like that. He does it, not to get them to pay up, not even to get them to think well of his boss. He does it just to buy favour with them, so that when he is unemployed, they will owe him a favour. It’s a story of cheating; it’s a story of buying friends with somebody else’s money; there is nothing in the accountant’s behaviour that seems worthy of praise. Yet at the end, Jesus says: you can learn something from this cheat. But what?

What are you meant to learn?

I think the message is quite clear: you don’t own what you think you own, so use money to win friends and influence people. Your money isn’t your money.

Religious people, good people, tend to be careful people. We have this idea that God has given us money, skills, qualities and time and we should use those things conscientiously for his glory. Most of us, manage our money well. We try to give some to church and some to other charities. We take modest holidays. We buy fairly basic clothes and not flashy cars. Our lives would probably be best described as sober, measured and sensible. And underlying it all is this idea that we have earned our money, we owe some to God and good causes, but most of it we intend to use ourselves or pass onto our kids.

But Jesus has a radically different perspective, and that’s why he tells this shocking story and commends the swindler at the centre. Jesus’ perspective seems to be: you don’t own money; it’s not yours; in fact, if you think you own it, it probably owns you; you didn’t earn it, it is just lent to you to manage for a few years; you may have a lot or a little, but you brought none of it into the world and you’ll take none out, so you should use whatever comes into your hands on to make friends, to advance the Kingdom of God and change lives.

If you doubt that this was Jesus’ perspective then remember these things: he spends the first few years of his life as a refugee; he and his disciples have a common pot – they share all their money; when Peter needs to pay a tax, Jesus sends him to pull a fish out of the sea with a coin in its mouth; when 5000 people need feeding, he just sets out to do it with almost nothing in his hands; when a woman pours her whole life’s savings over his head in costly oil, he simply accepts it as a gift and praises her actions; when he sees rich people putting lots in the collection box, he says that a poor woman’s two pence is worth more than all their bags of money; when he dies, he is naked and penniless, but by his poverty, we have all become rich – loved, forgiven and free. Jesus lives quite independent of money or status. He seems quite content when he is living in the desert on nothing, or when thousands of pounds are being lavished upon him.

He simply cares less about money. He cares instead about God – the money changers get tipped out of the temple – and he cares about people. People always get the best of Jesus: the best of his time, the best of his teaching, the best of his energy. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.

So this parable challenges us pretty deeply: do you think of your money as owned or lent? Do you use every penny for God or just a small amount? Is your heart in heaven or in the bank?

I know that that sounds all very extreme, and you might even be thinking: I don’t like the sound of all this! Is he going to ask for all my money next?

So let’s be clear: I don’t want your money. The church doesn’t want your money. This is not a give us your money sermon. Nowhere does Jesus say “Give your money to the church or temple”. Yes, the bible talks about giving money to the poor, and tithing to God.

The Jewish law in the Old testament required most Jews to give quite a lot to the temple in money or gifts of animals. The 11 tribes were meant to support the whole of the tribe of Levi from their offerings. Observant Jews probably gave between 10 and 30% of their income to synagogue or temple or relief of the poor.

But Jesus and the other New testament writers never tell people to give 5% or 10% or 25% to God or the church. Instead they tell people to give 100% to God, to give all they are, all they possess, their whole life to God. Or to give it Jesus’ perspective: to recognise that all you have and are is on loan from God.

My own perspective is that you should give as little to church as you can and as much to people in need as you can. That’s why I say: I don’t want your money. The church doesn’t want your money. God doesn’t need your money – he owns everything. What he wants is for you to use the money he has loaned you to make the biggest difference for good: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the refugee, to get those who have come out of prison back on their feet. This is what money is for. Your question shouldn’t be: how much money shall I give away, but how much should I keep for myself?

And the church should have the same attitude: how much do we need for ourself? Well that depends.

As a church we decide how much we need to keep, and we should delight to give the rest away. You have decided to have a vicar, like me. You don’t have to have a vicar – you could separate from the Church of England, meet in the Memorial Hall and not have a vicar. That would save you about £43,000 a year.

As I say, you could move out of this church, and hire a hall. That would save you shed loads: building maintenance, insurance, heat and light. If you only use this building for an hour a week, it is a terrible waste of money. God is not bothered about what building you use to meet in: he can be worshipped at home or in the open air. The church is you – the people of God, not a building.

But you have chosen to employ me, and to own this building, and St Luke’s and St Peter’s and the hall next door. Why? Maybe you’ve never thought about it. Maybe you love this building, and you think that it is better to have the devil you know, than the one you don’t. and so before you know it we have overheads that amount to about £80,000 a year. And that is spread between about 90 people who worship here at least once a month. We have an income from letting out the hall of about 9,000, and income from weddings and funerals of about 16, 000, some bank interest, but it still leaves about £50,000 that needs to come from people’s giving.

Of that £50,000 we give away a certain amount. We give £1,000 to support David and Amy, who are our CMS Partners. We give about £2,500 to other charities in one way or another. So our overheads just to do church the way we do are £46,500. Split between about 90 people who worship here or at St Luke’s at least once a month that’s just over £500 per head per year, about £10 a week each.

We cover most of that cost by people’s regular giving. But there are a couple of extra costs coming up that I’d like you to consider giving some money towards next Sunday, when we have our gift day for harvest: we’ve decided to buy some chairs so that we can sit in more comfort and be more flexible – we don’t need those chairs – you could sit on the floor or stick with the pews, but we believe chairs will help those who move the pews for Messy Church and we’d like to do Cafe Church too soon; we’d also like to put some money into employing an administrator across the 3 parishes, which we have no budget for; and if neither of those appeal we’d invite you to give to David and Amy.

So this is a church gift day alongside our Harvest offering next Sunday. But please hear me: we don’t want your money. You must decide where God wants you to use the money that he has loaned you. We want to keep our church costs as low as possible, so that you can give as much away as possible.

If you feel that you want to contribute regularly to our church overheads, then sign up for the Parish Giving Scheme. If you want to gift aid your gift, please put it in an envelope. If you want to give to another charity, but make your gift part of your harvest offering next week, why not write that on a piece of paper?

Remember the words of St Paul: Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;     their righteousness endures forever.”[

Whose will be done?

So these two guys are walking through a field one day when they spot a bull, head down charging at them. Instantly they start to sprint towards the nearest fence, the storming bull following in hot pursuit. And it is soon apparent they wouldn’t make it. Terrified, one shouts to the other, “Send up a prayer, John. We’re in for it!”

John answered, “I can’t. I’ve never prayed aloud in my life.”

“But you must!” pleads his companion. “The bull is going to get us.”

“All right,” panted John, “I’ll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’”

I wonder how many prayers you know by heart? I’m not a great fan of other people’s prayers, as you may have guessed by the way I leave quite a few out of our traditional services. I tend to think that prayer should be a conversation between me and God, and frankly I want to use my own words. However, I recognise that there are times when a prayer that we all know helps us to join together.

Sometimes a prayer that somebody else has written just puts it better than we can. Take a prayer like the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That expresses a truth beautifully succinctly.

It is also probably true that a prayer that somebody else has written might help us to reach a higher point of surrender than our own faltering attempts to yield ourselves to God. Take the prayer of self abandonment of Charles de Foucault:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.

Now that prayer is way beyond what i could express myself, and quite often it is way beyond what I feel I want to express, but I aspire to be able to say that prayer and to mean it. Prayer should stretch us out beyond where we have got to. Prayers which are only “Lord, please help so and so” are fine, but they don’t really change us.

Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Now, why do you think he told us to do that? To change them? To make them behave better? Maybe. But I suspect that praying for your enemies is most potent, because it changes us. It’s a little like the counselling technique where you place an empty chair opposite somebody who is in a bad relationship, and get them to talk to their enemy as if they were in the empty chair (the enemy is usually a family member or their boss – enemies usually are). Then after a while, you get them to swap seats, and try to talk back from their enemy’s perspective.

After doing this, many people come to see their enemy differently, and almost miraculously their arguments often dissolve too. So prayer changes us: it changes our perspective; it draws us into greater dependence on God; it actually makes God more real to us. This is a fact of the way that our brains work: the more you speak to somebody you cannot see, the more your brain accepts that they are real. So if you are having doubts about God, just praying can help you. Some of the best prayers begin: Lord, I’m not sure if I believe in you, but…..

There is one prayer that we all know. The prayer that Jesus taught us. And you may feel that we are over familiar with this prayer, and sometimes it has just become a set of words that we mumble our way through, like when I say this prayer at funerals, and I wonder if anybody else there actually has a clue what we are asking God for, and if they did, whether they would agree with it.

So what does this prayer mean? Why is it perhaps the greatest prayer ever written?

To begin with it addresses God as Our Father. Do you realise how radical that form of address is: That we dare to call God, the immortal Creator and Judge, our Father? In the ancient world, people were used to the idea that the gods were the fathers of kings and heroes. But this prayer is not for kings and heroes, it is for ordinary Joes like you and me. Jesus models for us that we are the children of God: loved, cherished, forgiven, disciplined- we are family.

Those 2 words – Our Father –  make possible the prayer of abandonment of Charles de Foucault that i mentioned earlier. We can abandon ourselves to God, because he is The Good Father of us all. And he inhabits heaven, which is not somewhere above the clouds, but everywhere, all around us. It is everywhere except where evil reigns, so heaven can be inside you or outside of you, depending on whether God or evil reigns in you.

Yes, God is an eternal, living, relentless force/ spirit that is pure love and holiness. He yearns to fill us and all creation, but in his love he gives us freedom to choose whether we will allow his life to fill us. And so we pray for his Kingdom to come and his will to be done – where? First of all, in us.

We are saying to God: I want to do your will, my Father. “Not my will, but yours be done”, prayed Jesus in the garden the night before he died, and we pray the same, knowing that the result may be the same: death and new life. But that request for God’s will to be done is the last of 3 requests: Hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done.

Why does it come last? Because frankly, we need some help before we can do the will of God – or at least I do. I think i’d like to do the will of God, but most of the time I’m too wrapped up in my kingdom, my dreams, my family, my career. I can’t break out of my small minded, self obsessed world without the in-breaking of God – his holy character, his life changing kingdom. Yes, in the end it comes down to me expressing the will of God, but it has to start with God. I can’t do it without him first acting.

For a start I need to feel love; my heart is dry much of the time, but if i’m to do the will of God, I need his love. I need wisdom, because God’s will is not always obvious. I need courage, O Lord, I need courage, because the will of God is not a picnic. So I pray: Hallowed be your Name, Your Kingdom come – I need to know and see you, God, so that I can know and do your will.

And then I need resources and help to deliver. I need daily bread; I need forgiveness; I need protection. Daily bread is not just bread, of course; it is all the practical stuff that i need to stay alive and have enough to share. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians: 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9).

I need practical stuff, but I also need a peaceful heart, a heart free of guilt and bitterness. I need to forgive and be forgiven. I need both, and frankly I need to be free of bitterness more than i need to be free of guilt. That is why Jesus makes God’s forgiveness of us dependent on us forgiving others. How can I do the will of God, if I am angry and bitter? I might be able to do it with a little bit of guilt, but not with anger or bitterness. So we forgive; we forgive because we need to forgive; we don’t do it for the sake of the person we are forgiving; we don’t do it because they deserve it; we do it because bitterness is like a cancer that eats you up; we forgive for our sake, so we are free to love God and others again.

And i need protection: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Life is dangerous. Evil is all around, just ask the people of Nice, Baghdad, or Istanbul. But evil is closer than that too. Evil is anything that is opposed to the goodness, love and justice of God. Evil sits in my heart; it sits in our TV sets; it sits on our supermarket shelves; it stalks our schools, parks and businesses.

Half the time I don’t even spot it: that the clothes I am buying have been made by a child in appalling conditions; that my pension comes from the rape of the whole countries or the fracking of the earth’s fragile crust; that my TV programmes are paid for by the over priced products that they want me to buy; that my football team is just one big money making machine….

I need God to protect me from getting sucked into evil: supporting things that shouldn’t be supported; buying things that shouldn’t be bought; watching things that shouldn’t be watched; profiting from things that should never have been started, let alone turned into a business.

I am weaker and more vulnerable than I think. I need God’s protection if I am to do something better than simply fit in with this world system. If I am going to stand up for justice for migrants, feed homeless people, or do some good work with youth, then I need help. Everybody who wants to do good in this world will have to cope with a lot of stuff.

But don’t despair, because God has the kingdom, the power and the Glory for ever and ever. Good will win. Love will triumph. Love wins. Love wins because God is God, and He is love, and he outlives, outlasts and out-gives the opposition. He has the resources that they lack. He has the wisdom that they lack. His is the Kingdom, the power and the Glory.

And you and I, we are His children. We have His spirit inside us. We are ready to do his will, or at least to try to do His will, or at least to want to try to do his will and so we pray: Our Father in heaven….

Are you an addict?

A drunk wanders into a Baptism service on a Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to stumble into the water and stands next to the Minister. 

The Minister turns, notices the old drunk and says, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk looks back and says, “Yes sir, I am.”

The Minister then dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. “Have you found Jesus?” the Minister asked.” No, I didn’t!” said the drunk. The Minister then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, “Now brother, have you found Jesus?” “No, I did not!” said the drunk again. 

Disgruntled, the Minister holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him up and demands, “For the grace of God, have you found Jesus yet?!” The old drunk wipes his eyes and pleads, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

I want to talk to you about addiction today. And you may think that is an odd subject given the readings, so let me explain how I got there: we read the story of Mary and Martha and Jesus, and I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of sympathy with Martha. She is my kind of woman, if that is a decent thing to say when your wife is away.

She is hard working. She has prioritised her guests. She is doing what her culture expected of her. She is being hospitable, helpful and wise. I like her already. But she gets told off by Jesus, who commends her sister, Mary, for sitting at his feet and listening to what he has to say.

“Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her,” he says. And a big part of me wants to say: “That’s not fair! Why shouldn’t Mary share the chores? Why can’t they both muck in and then sit down later? And what’s so wrong with being the practical one?”

So who is your sympathy with in this story? Martha or Mary? Why do you think that Jesus sides with Mary?

Let me put forward an idea, and you can weigh it up: what if Jesus is defending Mary’s ability to choose what she does, not a habitual attitude of opting out of the housework? What if Martha’s problem is not that she has chosen to get the house ready for the guests who always turn up with Jesus, but that she cannot choose to do anything other than be busy? What if Martha is addicted to busyness?

You may know somebody who is addicted to busyness: they can’t sit still even when there is nothing to do; they create work that doesn’t need doing; they never listen very well because their mind is always onto the next thing they have to do; they are usually tired, harassed and a little angry. Do you know anybody like that?

I must confess that I easily slip into that mode. I like being busy. I like nothing more than doing something until I sweat. One of my highest values is hard work, which all sounds well and good. But the downside is that I can value achievements over relationships. I can find it hard to stop. There is a slightly addictive nature to my working. It meets a need in me to be seen as a hard worker and to achieve the kind of successes that hard work brings.

But there are things that hard work cannot achieve: peace of mind; depth of relationships; awareness; joy; happiness and contentment – to name but a few. Mary has chosen to invest her time in these things – the pursuit of God, our greatest good; the attention to Jesus that leads to peace and deep change; the gift of her full attention to the One who is the source of life. No wonder Jesus says that it won’t be taken away from her.

Martha has chosen badly. She is unable to see that her deepest needs will be met better by stopping than by hard work, on this occasion. Not that hard work is never called for. Mary is quite capable of that, as we see in later stories in the Gospels. It is Mary, not Martha who takes centre stage then.

Kayla and I have been facilitating a book group over the last few months. We’ve been studying “The Reason for God” together and meeting every 2 weeks to discuss. Last week we discussed a chapter entitled: The Problem of sin. And quite a few of the group were surprised when the author described sin as simply: making something other than God into the most important thing in your life.

Somebody pointed out that that is not how sin has been defined in most churches, where sin is described as doing something wrong, usually something you know to be wrong. But the author was right. In the bible the Greek word for sin means “missing the mark”, like when an archer fires an arrow and misses the target. He has sinned – missed the mark, fallen short.

I think people’s first reaction to this new understanding was one of dismay, as if they had realised that they are a sinner, no matter how hard they try to be good. Which, of course, is what the bible says: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23). But then comes this realisation that everybody else is a sinner too, and we are all struggling to put God first, even those who love God are. So i’m a sinner too, which I guess made them feel better.

So why is sin a problem, if everybody is doing it? Well, because we end up addicted to whatever we make our number one priority. If alcohol is your number one priority, you are addicted. If being loved is your number one, you are addicted. If success or busyness or your work or your family or your happiness are number one, then you are addicted. And the trouble with addiction is that it produces some nasty fruits: for starter you can never get enough – just ask any celebrity, most were happier before they became famous, yet fame was what they wanted; just ask somebody who is addicted to work – are they satisfied? They never are.

Secondly addiction produces anger and self justification. Stop an addict getting their daily fix and you will see their anger. In our story today, Martha is angry. She is angry that her sister doesn’t share her addiction. Addicts are miserable people. And we are all addicted to something, we have told ourselves that we need something to be happy – that is our fix.

So what is yours? What have you told yourself you can’t live without? What do you simply have to have to have any chance of happiness? This, my friends, is your number one sin, even if it is a sin that everybody else thinks is a virtue – like hard work, or your family.

Sins that are disguised as virtues are particularly hard to break. Breaking an addiction to alcohol or gambling is tough enough, but most people will applaud you. Breaking an addiction to work or pleasing everybody is well nigh impossible, and nobody will applaud you, apart from Jesus and maybe your spouse, if you are lucky.

Let me tell you that I am addicted to work. I love my work. I give it the best of me. I look to it to satisfy me. Kayla tells me that i am an addict and she is right, but it is such a difficult addiction to break. You lot don’t help! You say to me something like, “Richard, you are doing a great job; you’ve really moved us on.” And I love your praise, but it doesn’t satisfy. To be fair, some of you say to me, “Richard, we worry about you working too hard”, so I’m not asking for your pity. I’m just saying that it is really hard to break your addictions; and nobody else can do it for you.

So what is the answer? Well, it has to be to choose the place of Mary – sitting at Jesus’ feet, spending time with him, listening to him, just being with him. He alone satisfies. He is the head of all creation, as our other reading reminded us; he has all the fullness of God in him. He is the answer to all our cravings.

So what does that mean? How do we take the place of Mary? Well, to begin with we make a choice that Jesus is going to be our main aim in life: the pursuit of God, obedience to the teaching of Jesus is going to be our number one passion. Usually we make that choice quite unconsciously, we just fall in love with Jesus – he excites us, he enthrals us, he captivates us. But we have to go with the process and stay with it.

Secondly, we need to feed our addiction to Jesus. If you were addicted to Jesus, would you just come to church once a week? You wouldn’t, would you? You’d read about Jesus. You’d try to copy him. You’d become his number one fan. And if you think that is all a bit immature, then you are still addicted to something else.

In the next few months we are going to read through the new Testament together. We will start in September or October and we’ll read through the whole of the story of Jesus. We are doing that for 2 reasons: partly so you get to understand the whole bible better, but mostly so that we invite you to feed your addiction to Jesus. It is the only addiction that satisfies, as you will discover, if you don’t already know it.

Is God good?

So this country gent buys a gun dog and spends rather more on it than he planned. He takes it duck shooting for the first time, and after hitting his first duck, which falls into the water, he sends the dog to retrieve it. The dog runs across the top of the water, and doesn’t even get its feet wet. It picks up the duck and brings it back.

The man is quietly astounded. He shoots another duck and the same thing happens. In fact it happens throughout the morning, until the hunter has a bag full of duck. So he heads for home. On his way, he passes a lone fisherman, doing whatever fishermen do by the river. Just at that moment, a lone duck flies overhead, the hunter reloads and shoots it.

The dog runs across the water and brings it back, just like he has done all morning. The hunter puts the duck in his bag, and neither man says a word. Finally the hunter says: “I just bought him. Paid rather more than I intended, actually.”

“you were robbed” says the fisherman. “the dog can’t even swim.”

Did you know that God is dog spelt backwards? And today I want to talk about God. It’s Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when we traditionally reflect on the nature of God, who is revealed to us as Trinity- one God in 3 persons.

Now, frankly, that is a pretty strange idea. How can God be both one and 3 at the same time? I don’t really want to focus on that, however. I want to start somewhere else, and ask a much tougher question: how can God be good?

Let’s begin by asking: if you were god for a day, what would you do?

End the wars in Syria and Iraq? Turn back global warming? Eradicate malaria?

But what would you have to do to achieve those things?

To end the war in Syria, firstly you’d need to decide which side you want to win. So which side would you choose? President Assad’s forces have killed 10 times as many civilians as ISIS. So who would you give victory to?

So maybe you don’t want either side to win, you are just going to make them live at peace. How would you do that? You’d have to wipe their memories and magically rebuild their cities…you’d have to make sure they forgave – force them to forgive, or just kill anybody who tried to kill somebody else. In other words, you could only impose peace by fear or mind control; there is no other way of making peace quickly. Would God do that?

Let’s take another situation, one that is not human made: malaria. Why doesn’t God just get rid of malaria, or measles, or the menopause? These diseases and problems cause untold suffering. Malaria kills more people and ruins more lives every year than all the wars and terrorist attacks so far this century. Why doesn’t God just end it?

I don’t know, but let’s remind ourselves: we have a cure for malaria and we have a vaccination for measles. But people still suffer and die of both. Why? Because we humans are not willing to share our resources. It is the same with hunger: the world grows enough food to feed everybody well, but we just don’t share it.

And what this suggests to me is that if God stopped malaria and measles, people would still die of some avoidable illness or starvation, simply because we are not willing to accept a lower standard of living in the West, so that people elsewhere might simply live.

So maybe this world is the best world that we could possibly have without  changing human nature. And that is why God does just that. He becomes human, in Jesus. He calls first 12, then through them all the world, to become like Jesus, to change their nature. He gives us a small part of himself, his spirit to enable us to change. But it is always by invitation, and never by coercion or magic.

So what does this say about God?

You see, many people have a weird idea of what God is like. If you had to draw a picture of god, what would you draw?

Now you may think that drawing God is a very childish thing: God is invisible so you can’t draw him. Instead we use words to describe God: love, light, Father, creator, friend, redeemer. But actually words are just complicated pictures. If I say the word light – what do you see? You see a light.

If I say the word invisible – what do you see? You see something, don’t you? Even though the word means ‘not see-able’, you see something in your imagination, or you feel something. The word evokes an image or feeling. Like love, it evokes a picture or a feeling, doesn’t it?

So God evokes either a picture or a feeling inside you, and that picture or feeling could be expressed as art: as a drawing, or as music, or as dance.

So what picture, music or dance does the idea of God evoke in you? It’s going to be different for each one of us. Your images of God are going to be beautiful, multi layered and strange. You may have several images of god, because God is such a big idea that one image probably won’t do.

So we have this amazing set of images of God, but we want the answer to a simple question: why is there so much suffering in the world? So for a moment, hold the image or feeling or dance that you have of God in your mind, and then ask God that question – why is there so much suffering?

What happens? How does your image of God change? Now try to put that into words. Why does god allow suffering? How can your god be good, when there is so much suffering in the world?

Interestingly the second of the 10 commandments is what? Do not make for yourself any graven image or idol (Exod 20.4). You are to have no images of God. Why would that be important? Why is it there alongside: Do not murder, do not steal etc.?

Have I just made you break the second commandment? No, not really. The commandment is firstly about not having statues as foci of worship. And the reason for that is that any statue makes God too small. It’s like the ark of the covenant, where the Israelites put the tablets of stone on which the commandments were written. What did they do with them? They sent them out to battle. Even though they were doing wrong, they thought that the tablets of stone would save them. And what happened? They lost. And the ark was captured by the Philistines, but not for long. God will not allow us to reduce him to a statue or a box that we can use for our own ends.

So the commandment not to make idols, is partly about us not making God too small, so we think we can use god to bless what we want to do. God is not our poodle, or gundog. It is not his job to clean up our mess – even when our mess might destroy human life on this planet, as with global warming. We have to rid our minds of some idea that God is here to serve our needs, or even to make sure our species survives. Why should he? He loves us, but doesn’t he also love all the species we have made extinct?

But there is another aspect to the commandment about not making idols. Not only is an idol too small to depict God. An idol is also too static, too fixed to depict God. The Jews and we Christians were forbidden from making statues, but given a book of words, the Bible. And the reason for that is that the bible describes God by his actions. Very rarely does the bible say: God is like this and that. It does, occasionally. But mostly the bible says: God said, God did, God sent …and so on. And when God is asked his name, by Moses in the desert, God says his name is “I am” a verb, and verbs are doing words.

And the point here is that God is only knowable by us through his actions. God is as God does. We know God as creator, because we live in his creation. We know God as redeemer, because God sent Moses to redeem the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt and he came to us in Jesus to redeem us from the slavery of sin. We know God as Holy Spirit, because God works in us to love, forgive, heal and pray.

We only know God as God works. God doesn’t go around saying: “Look, here I am. Look at me. I’m here to answer all your questions and allay all your doubts”. Instead he says, “Trust me, and we will do this thing together.” “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” God is not an object to be studied, but an energy to be lived and loved and known but not with your rational mind alone.

So what does this mean for us?

1. It means that you will learn more about God by doing stuff than by reading, thinking or praying. I’m not against reading, thinking and praying, we need to do those things. But they are not an alternative to doing stuff in humble dependence on God. You will get to know more of God by helping the poor or listening to an old drunk in the name of Jesus, than you will by singing songs or reading books, even reading the bible.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There is great value in reading the bible. It tells you what God has done in the past. It tells you what God is like. But you only get to know God as you put your hand into the hand of god, and go and do something together.

So it’s no good praying, “God please help the poor or the refugees”, if you don’t do something about it. Words are cheap. God is not your servant. Your prayer should be, not “God please help them”, but “God please show me the best way to help them”. Everything else is just words.

2. it means that every event in your life, everything that happens to you, could be God trying to communicate with you. God is ceaselessly active, constantly loving, pure holy love and energy. God is ceaselessly trying to redeem, renew and save you. He is working in every event, every conversation, every sound to bring you and him into closer alignment.

So when you get to the end of the day, and maybe a few times during the day, stop and say, “God what are you trying to tell me now”. “God what was going on there?” “God show me where you were at work then”. I know I said that you will get to know God more by doing than thinking, but the truth is that there has to be a balance. If you rarely stop to think, you may head off down all sorts of wrong paths. Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the Catholic church, said, “I’ve got so much to do today, that i need to pray for 2 hours before I start.” Plato, who of course was not a Jew or Christian, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

All action, without reflection, is likely to go nowhere useful. All thinking, without doing, is learning nothing.

So what is God like? What does God look like? God looks more like a dance than a statue. God looks more like a person than a thing. Jesus said that you are his body – you are the body of Christ. God looks like you. You are the best representation of God that our generation is going to see.

You are God’s angels. You are God’s apostles. You are the body of Jesus. “Now you know this, go and do likewise” said Jesus to the lawyer, after he had told him the story of the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise” if you would know God.

The men don’t get it.

A husband was trying to prove to his wife that women talk more than men. He showed her a study which indicated that men use about 10,000 words per day, whereas women use 20,000 words per day. His wife thought about this for a while. She then told her husband that women use twice as many words as men because they have to repeat everything they say. Her husband looked stunned. He said “What?”

The difference between men and women: A man is driving up a steep, narrow mountain road. A woman is driving down the same road. As they pass each other, the woman leans out the window and yells, “PIG!” The man immediately leans out his window and replies, “Stupid!” They each continue on their way, and as the man rounds the next corner he slams into a pig in the middle of the road.

I know it’s not fair to have a go at men on Easter day; it’s probably never ok to have a go at men – we are a fragile species! The point I want to make is that men don’t emerge too well from the Easter story. The bible is usually criticised for being a bit anti-women, but today it is the women who appear to come off best; and the men not so well.

To be fair, this idea that men get a better deal in the bible has been overstated, certainly by the time of Jesus. Peter gets a roasting. His 3 fold denial of Jesus is painted warts and all. His blushes are not spared. The other disciples fare little better: their weakness, cowardice and jockeying for position may help us to identify with them, but it hardly makes them seem like heroes.

By contrast, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James look like the first people ever to get Jesus. They seem able to make that mental jump from Jesus as dead teacher to risen Lord of all in a few seconds. They arrive at the tomb expecting to find a smelly corpse, instead they find angels.

Here there is the echo of another Mary who met another angel 30 years earlier, and immediately accepted her role as mother of the Christ, Jesus. What is it about these women that they accept the complete overturn of their lives with such speed and grace?

Of course, it is tempting to think that most of us would change if we saw an angel. But the disciples have had Jesus, who is higher than the angels for 3 years, and they have seen him raise the dead and shine like lightning, and still they can’t believe.

So the angels tell the women that Jesus is alive. And the women immediately go and tell the disciples. These troubled women have become the first evangelists. …. and the disciples don’t believe them. They have to go and see for themselves, but of course all they see is an empty tomb. The angels haven’t hung around for the slow to believe. So the men are left puzzled for the rest of the day. In the end, Jesus puts them out of their misery by showing up after nightfall. Even then they can’t believe, they think he is a ghost. Even then he has to eat fish to persuade them.

Why is the resurrection so hard to believe? Why do the women in the story seem to adjust so much quicker than the men?

You’ve probably got your own theories. Maybe men’s brains are different. I read somewhere that men see a much smaller range of colours than women. It explains our dress sense. Kayla says she knows when I have dressed myself, because either everything matches, or everything is wrong. I can’t do that thing where you wear blue and brown and it works. Apparently it is my brain that simply can’t tell the difference between brown and ochre. Maybe women just see a bit more clearly.

And the resurrection is a matter of sight for those first disciples. It isn’t about belief, but sight. The man Jesus actually comes together in a new body. He isn’t a ghost, or an idea. He is physically reconstituted, given a new body. It is a totally unprecedented event, but it is one that sets a precedent. From now on, everybody who belongs to Jesus will experience the same thing. This is the good news: if you live the life of Jesus, even if your body is mangled in death, or you get it wrong half the time, your soul will be given a new body – a spiritual body, something like the angels, but better.

Can you believe that? It doesn’t matter if you die at 18 or 80. It doesn’t matter if you follow Jesus for a day or a lifetime, your reward will be to become like him. I don’t have to explain how this happens. I can’t explain how this happens. But it does happen. How do I know?

Because the resurrected Son of God says that it will happen, and so far nobody has disproved him. I know it is a puzzle. I know that the stakes are high. I know that lots of people think it is pie in the sky when you die, and therefore a way of manipulating gullible people. But as Blaise Pascal used to say: which is more foolish? To live the life of love and sacrifice that Jesus calls us to, and to die, and maybe find you were wrong and all you had was this life; or to live a self centred existence and die and find that you were wrong, and now you have an eternity of separation from God?

Even if there is no resurrection, isn’t the life of Jesus a better life? If there is a resurrection, you win twice over. So why wouldn’t you choose Jesus?

Which brings me back to men – why don’t many men choose Jesus these days? Is it because men are wiser? What would be a good test of wisdom?

Think of something really stupid and ask who does it more: driving whilst uninsured – that’s stupid. Men do it 3 times more than women.

Reckless driving, that’s even more foolish: men do it 3.5 times more than women. Driving in such a way that you cause a death: men do it twice as much, especially if they are under 30.

Now maybe you think I’m being unfair to men, so here’s a statistic to balance it out. What is the male to female ratio of Mensa members? 2:1. 66% of Mensa members are men. On the other hand, what do you think is the ratio of men to women who are members of street gangs? 11:1. Just 8% of gang members are women.

So what does this all prove? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In the end it boils down to our personal responsibility: do you believe or not? Is the evidence for the resurrection compelling enough to persuade you, or not? Whether you are male or female, you alone can answer that question.

And the second question follows: if you have decided that you will believe that Jesus rose from the dead, what are you going to do about it?

You see, this is not one of those questions which doesn’t matter: like do you prefer beer or lager? Or do you want to go to church or not? Those are trivial questions. They are not life changing. Yes, your beer drinking habits might alter the orders at the Calleva Arms, and we would miss you here, if you chose not to come to church. But these are not ultimate destiny questions.

Whereas what you do about the resurrection of Jesus is. If you believe it is true, then you have an obligation to tell others, like the women did. Keeping silent would be like finding a cure for cancer, and keeping it to yourself.

If you believe it is true, you also have an obligation to pray. It is stupid to believe that Jesus is alive, and yet ignore him. You also have an obligation to live differently. You see, if Jesus is alive, then you know that his way of life is the way to eternal life; doing things like forgiving enemies, feeding the poor, and living a life of radical generosity and trust – these are the only safe way to live. Everything else is like playing Russian roulette: selfishness, storing up treasures on earth, holding grudges, ignoring the poor – each of these are like bullets in the chamber. Why would you risk them?

It staggers me when I find in church people who behave as if Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. You know: people who won’t be even civil to their neighbours, let alone kind to them; people who care more about buildings than the people in them; people who say charity begins at home, whilst the world is in ruins. These people either don’t believe the resurrection occurred, or they haven’t thought it through.

Ladies and gentlemen, you look like an intelligent lot to me. I think you’re here because you believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead. I think you’ve seen enough evidence to make you believe. So together let’s work out what that means here in Silchester, or wherever you live.

Let’s do that here on Sundays, or in your home groups. Let’s do that round your lunch table, and let’s live as if we believe it.

Transfiguration – or do we have a spirit?

A dinner speaker was in such a hurry to get to his engagement that when he arrived and sat down at the head table, he suddenly realized that he had forgotten his false teeth. Turning to the man next to him he said, “I forgot my teeth.” The man said, “No problem.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of false teeth. “Try these,” he said. The speaker tried them. “Too loose,” he said. The man then said, “I have another pair – try these.” The speaker tried them and responded, “Too tight.” The man was not taken back at all. He then said, “I have one more pair. Try them.” The speaker said, “They fit perfectly”. With that he ate his meal and gave his speech. After the dinner meeting was over, the speaker went over to thank the man who had helped him. “I want to thank you for coming to my aid. Where is your office? I’ve been looking for a good dentist.” The man replied, “I’m not a dentist. I’m an undertaker.”

Why not? The person won’t be needing them again. Of course, the idea is offensive to us, isn’t it? But why? Why do we have this feeling about the dead? Nowadays we get used to being told that people are just flesh and blood – that is the belief of atheists and many secular people – that when we are dead we are gone – there is nothing left of us, except the memories that other people have of us, and the concrete things that we have left behind.

If that is true, then being squeamish about false teeth is just sentiment. In fact, everything we do for those who have died is just sentiment. But what if that is not true? What if there is a part of us that does not die? What if we have a soul and a spirit?

Let’s begin by trying to define what a soul is: a soul is the essence of a person – something like their personality. It is not limited to our physical person, and it continues to exist after death. Our spirit is not the same: our spirit is the essence of God in us. It is the unique driver inside us that points us to God and towards all that is best in creation.

Belief in the existence of both a soul and a spirit is something common to most religions, and certainly something that we share with our Jewish cousins. The Bible speaks about everybody having a soul and a spirit: The soul, or nephesh, as it is called in Hebrew, is something like the life of the person. In Hebrew thought, the soul goes to Hades after death, where it waits to be judged by God. The spirit, or ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, is something like the heart. It is less clear what happens to the pneuma, when we die, perhaps it is taken back into God, who is Himself pneuma – Spirit.

Now, of course, just because something is mentioned in the bible, that doesn’t mean that it exists. It could be poetry or metaphor, like when the Bible talks about the sun riding in a chariot across the sky. Or when we say: my heart is bursting with love for you. Poetry. Metaphor.

So is the soul something real, or just a way of speaking about something that is purely chemical? Is our soul just a function of our brain?

Let’s think about our bible reading today: Jesus takes his 3 closest friends up a mountain, presumably Mt Hermon, and there he is transfigured in front of them. His body shines like the sun, and they hear a heavenly voice and see Moses and Elijah speaking with him. If this story is factual…. and if it isn’t it is a strange story to make up, since Jesus tells them to be quiet about it as they come down the mountain….if this story is factual, then it demonstrates the existence of both a soul and a spirit.

It is the souls of Moses and Elijah that come to Jesus. Peter and the others recognise the 2 former prophets. Their personality is somehow present, so that Peter knows who they are. It is a bit like a ghost, but also different. Ghosts are another matter, but they too seem to express the character of a person who has died, long after their body has disappeared.

I don’t really want to get diverted to talking about ghosts, because I suspect that most modern ghost stories are just our minds playing tricks with us. As a mental health chaplain I used to get called to talk to people who felt they were seeing ghosts, and on the whole it was my opinion that what they were seeing was in their head, not something that others could see. I’m not saying categorically that ghosts don’t exist. The bible says that they do. I’m just saying that in my experience the cases where I was called were better explained by mental health problems.

Nonetheless, this story shows that God can and does give the soul of a dead person a body from time to time, perhaps that body behaves a bit like a ghost.

The spirit is here too: Jesus shines in this story. He is transfigured. I want to suggest to you that this shining is the spirit of Jesus being displayed more fully for a few moments. Now you might say “well, Jesus is unique, and so it hardly matters what was going on here”. But I don’t think Jesus was unique. There are plenty of stories throughout church history of Christians being similarly transfigured.

Here is this story from the life of Mother Teresa, that Malcolm Muggeridge tells. He was filming her in a location too dark for proper film exposure, but when the film was developed there was a gentle glow around her that he could only explain as the aura of holiness.

Now, of course, Mother Teresa is a saint. As much as we admire her, we probably think that she is totally out of our league. But what if we are all meant to shine? What if we have all been given a spirit, which by nature is light, and God’s desire for us is that we shine? As we get closer to God we become more luminous. What if that was so?

Some years ago I went to a conference run by John Wimber, one of the founders of the Charismatic revival in this country and the USA. He spoke about recognising when the Holy Spirit was resting on a person, because their face shone – there was something about their skin which was different. And these weren’t special saints, just ordinary Christians, who were abandoning themselves to the love of God in worship.

So here’s a theory: that as we abandon ourselves to God in praise and worship, our spirit is enriched, and we might even begin to shine. That isn’t why we worship, of course…..or is it?

You see, I think we worship because God made us to reflect his glory, and worship is how we draw near to God. All of the things we do here on a Sunday are meant to help us draw near to God, so that our spirit might be refreshed and our bodies might shine.

I wonder if you think about Sunday worship in those ways? You maybe think that it is our duty to thank God. That is true, but duty is a hard driver. You maybe think that church is a good thing, which it is, but sooner or later it will hurt you. You maybe think the vicar is cool, and intelligent and faintly sexy, which of course he is…..from a distance. But those are not very good reasons to come to church. In the end, the only good reason to come here is to meet God here, and be transformed – so that you shine.

One of the things that the church has been rediscovering has been the ways that the early Church worshipped. You may have noticed that services have changed in the last 50 years. That is because the church was in danger of forgetting how to worship.

If you pick up an old prayer book, like the book of common prayer, you will find that was full of words, endless words. But worship is not about words. In fact, words can get in the way of worship. Because what matters about worship is that it is about abandonment to God. It is about surrendering ourselves to God, yielding our will to Him, confessing our sin to Him, and sucking up his words to us. The dynamic of worship is all about surrender.

Words can get in the way of that, as can music, or even the sacraments. If the point in worship is that our spirit begins to commune with God, then that is what matters. Saying the right words is hardly the point. Singing in tune is hardly the point. Preaching good sermons is hardly the point. The sole point is to find and stay in that place of abandonment to God.

Jesus does that up a mountain. He goes up to seek the presence of God. And God transfigures him whilst the disciples watch in disbelief. You might find that place of transfiguration in your summer house, or favourite armchair, or wherever else you go to pray. You might find it here in church, but only if we take our time.

So often in Anglican worship we are in a hurry! We’ve got 4 hymns, 2 bible readings, 500 prayers and a sermon to squeeze into an hour. So when do you get to that place of abandonment to God? Especially if you have come here with a heavy heart. You know, you’ve just argued with the kids, or lost your car keys, and your spirit seems lost and scattered, and it takes time to gather yourself together and present yourself to God. And just when you think you are managing to do it, the preacher says something stupid, or hunger pangs start to distract you. Surrender is tough. But that is the point of worship.

So you have my permission to switch off from what everybody else is doing. You don’t have to listen to me. You don’t have to sing the hymns. You don’t have to share the peace. All you have to do is gather your spirit together, and present it to God.

And if you are a bit unclear how to do that, then look for somebody who is shining, and copy them. If they are shining, they’ll be too lost in God to care that you are looking at them. It is what we are made for, so don’t be embarrassed.

Timing is everything

So this man has been driving all night and by morning he’s still far from his destination. He decides to stop at the next city he comes to, and park somewhere quiet so he can get an hour or two of sleep. As luck would have it, the quiet place he chooses happens to be on one of the city’s major jogging routes. They have those in cities!

No sooner has he settled back to snooze when there comes a knock on his window. He looks out and sees a jogger running on the spot. “Yes?” “Excuse me, sir,” the jogger says, “do you have the time?” The man looked at the car clock and answered, “7:15”. The jogger thanks him and runs off. The man settles back again, and is just dozing off when there is another knock on the window and another jogger. “Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?” “7:25!” The jogger says thanks and leaves.

Now the man can see other joggers passing by and he knows it is only a matter of time before another one disturbs him. To avoid the problem, he gets out a pen and paper and puts a sign in his window saying, “I do not know the time!” Once again he settles back to sleep. He is just dozing off when there is another knock on the window. “Sir, sir? It’s 7:45!.”

Ok, so it’s a poor joke, but I wanted to talk to you about time, or more precisely about timing this morning. And the reason I want to talk about timing is because Advent is all about timing. In fact most of our lives are about timing. Think about it: buying your wife a bunch of flowers the day after your wedding anniversary is going to have a very different effect than buying them on some random day – yes? Or phoning somebody at 7am is rather different to phoning at 7pm. Even having a baby is about timing – my wife’s birthday is on 18 Dec – that’s just bad timing.

So here’s my question: why was Jesus born about 2015 years ago? Why then? Why not 1000 years earlier like King David? Or 1500 years earlier like Moses? Why then? This birth that is so significant that we set our calendars by it, and call the child the Son of God, why did it come so late in human history?

Surely this is one of the scandals of Christianity. We claim that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, a man like no other man, a man who claims the allegiance of men and women still today, and yet he waits thousands of years before he breaks on the scene. It makes no sense. If you were making this stuff up, you would want to put Jesus back there with Adam, at the dawn of the world. Or maybe with Abraham at the dawn of writing, of recorded history. So why only 2000 years ago?

I don’t have the answer, but let me speculate with you. The earliest written law code dates from when and is called what? The code of Hammurabi, and it dates from about 1750 BC. Hammurabi was King of Babylon, modern day Iraq. He is roughly 200 years before Moses, and some of the laws of Moses are quite similar to the laws of Hammurabi. There are other law codes in museums from around this period, which suggests that what we see is that about 2000 years before the birth of Jesus, humanity has entered the era of law, of written and therefore universal laws, even what we might call a written constitution.

All empires have laws. Kings rule empires, and empires need rules if they are to last. And the most effective law makers and enforcers were the Romans. The Roman empire lasted for 600 years largely because it worked well. It was ruthless and effective, sometimes by simple brute force, but more often because it worked according to law – Roman law. Pax Romana depended on lex Romana.

So over the 1700 years from Hammurabi to Jesus, what has been going on with God? With God there is always the big picture and the subversive stream. The big picture is that tribes have become nations and nations have become empires, and so laws are beginning to become international. There is this idea emerging that laws are bigger than kings, bigger than local ways of solving local problems. Laws simple are. Thou shalt not murder, not because: if you do, the murdered person’s family will hunt you down and kill not just you, but your children and animals. But ‘thou shalt not murder’, simply because it is wrong.

This was always the claim of Moses and the Jewish faith, which made it explicit that God gave these rules, but even those who did not have the knowledge of the God of Abraham and Moses could begin to appreciate that there are absolutes, laws that exist regardless of whether anybody is there to police them. This is God’s big picture – the slow evolution of universal laws.

Of course, universal laws have never been universally accepted, but that is another story. The subversive stream is always there with God, though. You see universal laws are never good enough. God is the great judge and law giver, but God is also the great giver and forgiver. Laws deal with justice, which we all want, but God also deals in mercy, which we all need. But there is a time and place, or rather a timing for mercy. Justice has to come first, before mercy. Mercy alone, without justice, is indulgence.

Children who are raised without laws are horrible. We’ve all met children and adults who had mercy visited upon them before they were ready for it. And they are obnoxious. They know the value of nothing. Mercy only make sense when justice is understood. So this is my thesis as to why Jesus was born when he was born: Moses had to come first. Law had to be experienced before mercy could ever be understood. Before Moses lawlessness, after Moses universal law, with Jesus comes mercy or grace.

But Jesus is not just the mercy giver. He is that, of course – the death of Jesus is our assurance of the mercy of God. We are forgiven because of Jesus. Don’t ask me how that works, but the death of Jesus means that we don’t have to come with animal sacrifices or burnt offerings any more. We are atoned for. We are forgiven. We are adopted as children into the family of God. We are not God’s subjects, or even God’s small children, who have no status. We are God’s heirs, adult sons and daughters, on a totally different footing from the freed slaves that Moses led, or the subjects of Rome’s empire.

Jesus is not just a mercy giver, he is also a new law giver. And his law is something beyond justice. It is both more demanding and more forgiving. And we can illustrate this from the man who immediately precedes Jesus – John the Baptist. John begins to open up this entirely new type of law, this law that is unjust. Yes, laws and precepts that are unjust and come from God.

Think about our reading today (Luke 3.7-18). It records the teaching of John the Baptist. Think about the guidance that he gives to people who ask him what they should do: to soldiers he says “don’t extort money”. That seems like a universal law, but it isn’t and wasn’t. The Roman empire did not pay soldiers well. Empires never pay their foot soldiers well. Ask any squaddy. There was a quiet assumption that they would take what they needed from the locals. It wasn’t illegal to do so.

The same with tax collectors. The Romans farmed out the collection of taxes to local thugs. As long as they gave Rome enough tax, they were allowed to collect more from the local people. The law said: tax collectors can take what they can get away with. So John’s laws are way tougher than Rome’s laws. And this is summed up in John’s words to the crowd: share your food and clothing, he says.

What? What about the law of private property? What about the law that those who earned it get to enjoy it? Not in John’s world they don’t. Those who made it get to enjoy sharing it. It’s not fair, ask any 5 year old, or banker. It isn’t the way laws work. We are dealing with something else. We have moved beyond law to grace, mercy and kindness.

This is God’s subversive stream. It is always God’s subversive stream. I was listening to a victim of the recent floods in Cumbria. He was complaining that the government has been giving our taxes to the developing world, instead of building higher flood defences. It’s not fair. His 4×4 is buried up to the roof in mud, and our government gives 0.7% of GDP to countries with poor Human Rights records. He’s angry. It’s unjust. The teaching of Jesus and John the Baptist will never get universal consent. The world still is not ready for it.

It is simply too radical. What would John or Jesus tell us to do with nearly a million refugees flooding into Europe? Ask Angela Merkel what happens when you say: “we will make sure that every Syrian refugee has a place to live”. We are not ready for that kind of morality. It’s unfair.

You see, there is something subversive about grace. Empires cannot work on grace. Companies cannot work on grace. Even churches find it hard to work on grace: to give away what is ours, to welcome all with no questions, to share what we have with all in need. You ask any priest, churchwarden or treasurer: these ideas give us the willies.

But they are what Jesus calls the church to be and to do. We do not have to be sensible all the time, because justice is sensible all the time. We have to model something else: grace, forgiveness, generosity and hospitality. As St Paul says in another context: there is no law against these. But then, there is no workable human law that says you must be generous, forgiving and hospitable. We are beyond the realm of law, in God’s subversive economy. It takes a certain maturity to see that. It’s all about timing.

And it’s all about the Holy Spirit, as John says. This kind of generous grace is the work of God’s Spirit in us. It doesn’t make sense, on one level. But we are called not to live on one level. We are called to see as God sees, and he sees the child in need, and the refugee and the poor, because he became all of those himself.

So church we need to rise above law, above justice, but not always. We can’t use grace as an excuse to avoid laws and taxes, only to surpass them. It is all about timing, until Jesus comes again. And the timing of that, nobody knows.