Palm Sunday 2017 – Luke 19:41

Can Jesus have any more tears left?
He cried over Jerusalem,
Where the prophets were persecuted,
Is he still crying now?
If we get tired of the stories,
And the reports,
And the cold sets in our dry hearts,
Is he still crying?
If we can’t stand to hear any more
About the children and the bombs and the madmen,
And would rather watch the football or a thriller
Or … anything else at all.
Has he got any tears left?
And if, while we’re enjoying the Spring sunshine,
We wish there was someting we could do
To put an end to all this pain,
Apart from crying,
And think that, hell, that must surely be
in God’s power.
Can he have any tears left?

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39544451

(Norwegian Version at https://paulmartinwaters.wordpress.com/2017/04/16/palmesondag-2017-lukas-1941)

Deep and Wide

41Hp2TuD17L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_… healthy local churches can be, and should be, both deep and wide. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Local churches should be characterized by deep roots and wide reaches. Churches should be theologically sound and culturally relevant. We should be bold in our proclamation and winsome in our approach. In the Gospels we find in Jesus the embodiment of both. As his body, we should be as well.
(Andy Stanley, “Deep and Wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend”)

I am not a great fan of American mega-churches. The “corporate church” with slick marketing and a CEO for a pastor leaves me cold. And the idea that we can somehow save the church in Europe from decline by copying the Americans seems hopelessly naive – and indeed seems largely to have gone our of fashion (now we all want to be Hillsong, instead…). Andy Stanley does come from that tradition – but has a rather different and perhaps more humble take on it. He doesn’t think we should all do what he has done, in the way he has done it. He does suggest we should be asking some of the same questions he has asked. Like, for example, “Why are we doing this? Who are we doing it for? Have we got a plan?” His “Measurable ministry wins” have a lot in common with a “Balanced Scorecard” management approach – which may put some people off straight away – but in the end they just boil down to setting some concrete goals and trying to meet them. The goals are mostly simple and obvious – eg the first ministry goal for the pre-school programme: “Kids attend”. But sometimes reminding ourselves of the obvious might be a good thing. If children are not attending our children’s programmes, then they cannot succeed in any other goals (like “To make a first impression of the heavenly father”). And the same goes for adult worship. So even if the corporate strategy might seem off-putting, it does seem to have worked: Stanley claims that roughly 10 percent of his attendees are newcomers, and roughly 40 percent have not been regular attenders at any other church before they came to North Point. In other words, it seems he’s not just picking up the disaffected from other churches, but actually reaching a new audience. So he’s certainly wide. Whether North Point is also deep I cannot say. I’m not even sure how that could be measured.

Years ago, when people talked about church strategy, I used to protest that “the church is not a business”. I didn’t think we had anything to learn from management theory or any other secular strategy. I was wrong. Which is to say: I was right, the church is not a business, but a fellowship. But our fellowship still has aims and goals. And perhaps if we were a little more businesslike in assessing our activites and a little more goal-oriented in the way we plan – then we might be more effective in fulfilling our mission. At the very least – it’s a question worth asking.

 

Peculiar and Imperfect

Seoul Boys Home Percussion Samulnori

Seoul Boys Home Percussion Samulnori

The Salvation Army is a peculiar and imperfect organisation, consisting of many peculiar and imperfect people – like me. The peculiarities sometimes make med cringe with embarrassment, while the imperfections make me angry – until I remember that I too am imperfect and that my opinion isn’t automatically the only reasonable way to think. On occasion my frustrations have led me to wish I was working somewhere else, but when it comes to the crunch, something has always held me back from jumping ship.

This Summer I was privileged to attend the Salvation Army’s 150th Anniversary Congress in London. Certainly a show-case for the Army’s peculiarities (tambourines? in 2015?), the main sessions were a sort of cross between an Olympic opening ceremony and a revival meeting. Lots of flags, drums and razmatazz – I think somebody spent a weekend with a light and sound effects catalogue and decided to buy the lot. And the O2 arena, even if not full to the rafters, is a great place for special effects. So they put on a great show. But lots of people can put on a show. What made the Congress special was all the other stuff. The sight of 16000 people, from every continent (bar Antarctica), almost all in some variety of Salvation Army uniform, all in one place. And realising that this was just a tiny proportion of the actual number of salvationists in over 120 countries around the world. The variety of music and dance from Korea, California, Angola, Argentina, Indonesia, Sweden, Australia, India and so many more. The smile on the face of the boy from the Seoul Boys Home as he played his drum. And the stories from all over the world. Some old – like the German SS officer who became a Christian and joined the Salvation Army after hearing a group of forced labourers from France singing from a Salvation Army song book. Some more recent, like the salvationist who travelled for six days across Papua Guinea to rescue a girl, a former prostitute, who was kept tied up in a pig-pen. It turned out she had Aids, and the villagers were scared of her “demons” until the salvationist shared a cup of tea with her (really!) and persuaded them to give her proper care. Then there was the Angolan refugee who escaped a firing squad and became a Salvation Army Officer. Or the more “mundane” stories of development work (helping villagers build an irrigation system for crops in Kenya) and rehabilitation (encouraging a South-American street kid to stop stealing and finish school). And the simple things – like the fact that all the bags for the delegate packs were made by participants in the Others programme.

The simple truth is that for all its peculiarities and undeniable imperfections, the Salvation Army does do an unbelievable amount of good for and with an enormous number of people all over the world. And although my little part of that may never make a story worth telling – for once, I’m just proud to belong.

Suddenly There

Matthew 28, 1-10

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him.

I don’t know if you’ve have heard of the Christian song­writer Geoff Shattock. One of his songs is about the resurrection, and it’s called “Suddenly There”: –

“It wasn’t what they expected,
it wasn’t that they suspected he was around.
But he was suddenly there.”

That’s what Easter morning is about, isn’t it? We can philosophize about new life and we can theologize about the resurrection at the end of the world, and we can argue with the sceptics as to what actually happened and where Jesus’ body got to. But in the end, the point is that Jesus was there.

Suddenly, Jesus met them…

I don’t think we can grasp what that must have felt like, even though we’ve heard it so many times, and even though we too have lost some of our dear ones and know all about the grief and pain involved in that. In some ways, perhaps, it’s easier for us to relate to the Saturday, the Sabbath when the disciples were alone with their grief – and I suppose went through the same phases that other bereaved people go through: Denial, anger – and perhaps frustration, for the women, because they hadn’t had a chance to look after Jesus’ body properly. Part of the grief process is to think of all the things we could have done or should have done, and we feel guilty about that on top of all the rest. Or perhaps they really hadn’t taken it all in yet, perhaps they didn’t have time to feel anything but numb emptiness. But Jesus was gone.

And then they had this incredible experience at the grave. Now those who know me know that I’ve got loads of questions about this. Angels in bright white clothes and all the rest – it’s a challenge to our more prosaic way of thinking. But the important thing is that the women were told that Jesus was no longer there – he was risen from the dead. What did it mean?, How did they feel?

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy… (28:8)

Did they believe it? Did they dare to believe it? Would anybody else believe them? Whatever they felt, they had to tell the others, so they rush off – but I suspect that quite a lot of things ran through their heads during verse eight, short as it is. And then we come to verse nine. It’s written so simply. No more angels and bright lights, no fanfares. Just: Jesus came to meet them and said “hi”, as if nothing had happened. They thought they had lost him for ever – but suddenly, he was there.

There must have been a hurricane of feelings when they saw him for the first time: Of course they were happy. Of course they were scared, too. But they did the only natural thing – they threw themselves on their knees and worshipped him.

And so it continued. Two of the disciples were on their way to Emmaus, confused about everything that had happened – and now these new rumours that Jesus was alive after all. They didn’t know what to believe until a man comes and explains it all for them, and he breaks bread, and says a blessing. And he was suddenly there. Jesus.

Thomas didn’t know what to believe either. The others said they had seen Jesus, but he wanted proof, he wanted to see and touch. And suddenly Jesus was there, and Thomas too fell on his knees and worshipped him – and in fact, according to John, became the first to call him God.

I suppose this was the experience of many people during Jesus’ ministry. Zacchaeus was just curious – but suddenly Jesus was there for him, and his life was changed. The blind beggar by the road who heard Jesus’ passing by – suddenly Jesus was asking for him, talking to him, healing his eyes.

The thief hanging on the cross, condemned justly according to the laws of that time, as he himself admitted. The cross was a miserable end to what perhaps had been a miserable life. But he realised there was something different about Jesus – and in those terrible moments before they all died of pain and exhaustion, Jesus was somehow suddenly there: Not just another victim like the thousands of others who died on a cross, but God’s Son, who could say to a man:

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Suddenly there. I could go on for ever – and Jesus is still doing this. Still meeting people. Not always where they expect to find him. Often quite the opposite, sometimes when they’re not even looking for him at all. He’s suddenly there.

And when he comes, everything is somehow different. The criminal’s death becomes a gateway to paradise. The women’s confusion turns into joy. Thomas’ doubt turns into faith.

Where are we today? Are we still living in verse eight, perhaps? We’ve heard that Jesus is alive. We want to tell others that he’s alive. But we haven’t really met him yet. Are we still standing outside the empty tomb waiting to see if he’ll turn up there? Perhaps he will if we wait long enough. But the women didn’t meet Jesus outside the tomb. They met him on the way to the others. Perhaps Jesus is waiting to meet us in some unexpected place? Not here, perhaps, but in our daily lives when we’re not so “religious”. Among the people we meet every day. Are we so awake that we would notice if he was there?

Perhaps there is something in our lives that would be different if we met Jesus again. I don’t think Jesus is a kind of “fixer” who solves all our problems. The thief on the cross still died even though Jesus was there. But when we meet him, the world looks different. We realise that there is more to life than what we can see. There are truths still to be discovered. There is hope, and love, and life even in our distress, even in death. When we meet Jesus, life is different.

In conclusion, let’s take a few moments to reflect. When did you really meet Jesus last? When did you notice he was there – no matter where or how? When did you last throw yourself at his feet to worship him? Is he waiting for you somewhere?

Easter morning: Jesus is here.

[This sermon was originally preached at the Salvation Army, Tunstall Corps, on Easter morning 2007]

Why I am not Charlie

An intelligent and timely comment.

a paper bird

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not…

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