Monday, 21 October 2019

Lottery. Good or bad?

The following is a sermon I gave in response to some concerns raised about our application for a Lottery Grant to renovate our church and church hall. It was preached on 20th October 2019.

Before Chris speaks I want to address a question that is bothering some members of the congregation. They are concerned that we are using lottery funding and wondering if it is right that we, as a Church, should have money from that source. Isn’t  it money from gambling? Isn’t it a lack of faith in God who, in the Bible and in various instances in Church history, has promised (and delivered on his promise), to “supply all our needs according to his riches in Christ
Jesus” to quote St. Paul to Philippians 4:19?

Can I say two things to begin.

First, I am encouraged that people are thinking about this. We should always scrutinise what we do and hold it up to the Light to see whether it is right or wrong, God’s will or not. If the church did this more often it would not be in the mess it is right now and the greater mess it is heading towards.

Secondly, I fully understand peoples scruples. In my first full living as a Vicar in Hirwaun I followed a man who was being praised throughout the Church in Wales for taking a little valleys church, which was in steep decline and turning it into something vibrant with youth, and growing numbers.

Before taking the job he was explaining to me the need to have Pastoral Assistants to help share the burden of visiting, leading groups etc.. We were talking about how these were funded and the church sustained, as the congregation were, on the whole, not well off. He explained it was a combination of grant finding, the weekly giving of supportive members of the congregation, and raffles!

As a young Christian I was mortified. I had been taught that such things were wrong, along with smoking and drinking. And yet here I was with the vicar of a growing Church, a man who prayed 3 hours every day, and who not only enjoyed a whiskey or two but approved of raffles as a legitimate source of funding!  And yet God was suing him so powerfully.

But to him raffles was just another way of God providing for his people. Some bought tickets to win the prize but others did it as a fun way of raising money. He was not the least perturbed by it.  If God didn’t approve then he was
keeping it very quiet.

When you look at the Bible it has very little to say about how money is raised but everything to say about how it is used. Paul writes to Timothy and tells him that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. In other words money itself is neutral. And in fact, like everything else, it belongs to God. And if it is being used for wrong purposes—arms, fraud, pornography, drugs—then that is when it becomes something we must roundly condemn.

Some would argue that such money is tainted. And yet there are examples in the Bible where previously ‘tainted’ objects or money has been used for Kingdom purposes.

The gold that was used to build the Ark of the Covenant—the most sacred of all objects in the Old Testament which caused the death of Uzzah when he touched it inappropriately—was made out of objects and jewellery taken from pagan Egyptian captors when the Israelites fled from Egypt.

Paul himself had no issue with eating meat that had previously been offered to idols. His response to people’s concerns?

….for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came” (1 Corinthians 8:5) 

The source of funding for Jesus’ own ministry from the likes of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna may well have included money from wrong sources. Mary Magdalene’s previous prostitution, Joanna’s from Herod’s treasury, no doubt some of which were from bribery.

And the money in our own pockets and bank accounts. Who knows what tainted hands or funds it has been through on the way.  Investment returns, arms investments and so on. No money is ever completely ‘clean’ in that sense, but it can be ‘made clean’ or redeemed, by using it for the kingdom.

In the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16  Jesus commends the sacked steward not for his actions, but for his shrewdness with using money. Jesus concluded the parable saying:

“I tell you use worldly wealth to gain friends, for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

In other words money is one of those temporal things that we can’t take with us but we can use, while we are here, for good things, kingdom things. For helping our neighbours, the community or those who, coming to church, should be welcomed and warm.

I remember Mother Theresa being criticized for taking donations for her work amongst the poor in Calcutta from dubious sources, some from dictators! She replied something along the lines of taking money back from the devil and using it for God which is, when you think of it, good theology.

I don’t want to say much more except this. Some of us have been praying for St. James for years and asking God to help us make this a better place of warmth, welcome and comfort. Whatever we think about buildings—and there are times when I think they are like an albatross around our necks—we need them as somewhere to worship God. So for the glory of God we want them to be the very best they can be, and to use them for His kingdom purposes. This project—Chris, the project committee, all the people involved—could very well be the answers to those prayers. In which case who are we to turn down the opportunity presented to us.

Let me end with a story:

A man was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, "Jump in, I can save you."
The stranded man shouted back, "No, it's OK, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me."
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. "The fellow in the motorboat shouted, "Jump in, I can save you."
To this the stranded man said, "No thanks, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith."
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, "Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety."
To this the stranded man again replied, "No thanks, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith."
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, "I had faith in you but you didn't save me, you let me drown. I don't understand why!"
To this God replied, "I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?" 

I believe God is answering our prayers and we should take the opportunity we have been given in whatever form He sends it to us.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Cross

In addition to my usual reading - the Bible and Christian literature - I find myself more and more drawn to Christian history and esepcially the early centuries after Christ, because the closer we get to the source, the fresher the water. Here is something I came across by Theophilus of Alexandria who was a Coptic Pope from the latter part of the 4th century, beginning of the 5th. It is a wonderful celebration of the Cross:

The cross is the consolation of those who are afflicted by their sins.
The cross is the straight highway.
Those who walk on it do not go astray.
The cross is the lofty tower that that gives shelter to those who seek refuge in it.
The cross is the sacred ladder than raises humanity to the heavens.
The cross is the holy garment that Christians wear.
The cross is the helper of the wretched, assisting all the oppressed.
The cross is that which closed the temples of the idols and opens the churches and crowns them.
The cross is that which has confounded the demons and made them flee in terror.
The cross is the firm constitution of ships admired for their beauty.
The cross is the joy of the priests who dwell in the house of God with decorum.
The cross is the immutable judge of the apostles.
The cross is the golden lampstand whose holy cover gives light.
The cross is the father of orphans, watching over them.
The cross is the judge of widows, drying the tears of their eyes.
The cross is the consolation of pilgrims.
The cross is the companion of those who are in solitude.
The cross is the ornament of the sacred altar.
The cross is the affliction of those who are bitter.
The cross is our help in our hour of bodily need.
The cross is the administration of the demented.
The cross is the steward of those who entrust their cares to the Lord.
The cross is the purity of virgins.
The cross is the solid preparation.
The cross is the physician who heals all maladies.
Theophilus of Alexandria

Easter Sermon

This Easter past I was rushed for time having two sermons to write for two different kinds of service with two different sets of readings. So I decided to do what Orthodox Churches do across the world every Easter, and that is read out an Easter sermon written by St. John Chrysostom - John the Golden-Mouthed - acknowledged by many as the greatest of all Christian preachers. This sermon was first preached circa 400 AD. Here is my introduction and the original sermon:

St. John Chrysostom was a bishop in the early church and lived from 349-407. He was called Chrysostom which means ‘golden-mouth’ because he was considered one of the greatest preachers the church has ever seen.

He wrote his Easter Sermon in AD 400 and it is read every Easter Day in every Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a simple proclamation of the victory Jesus has won through His resurrection from the dead.

One term has to be explained before I read it, and that is the word ‘Hades’.
Hades is synonymous with death and the power of death over humankind. It is a Greek word of the Old Testament word ‘Sheol’ which is the land of the dead where everyone went when they died. It therefore had the last word over everyone’s life. It had a power that no one could break. Until the coming of Christ.

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavour.
The deed He honours and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.

Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hades, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

(Hades) was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

(Hades) took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Turned off and tuned out

Whenever the Bible is read or heard, it is an opportunity for the one seeking God, to encounter or meet with Him. It is an opportunity for Him to speak to them and for them to hear what He has to say. Which is why the Scriptures are read in Church services. And, provided that we are open - that is asking, seeking and knocking (Luke 11:9-10) - then for those who ask it will be given to them; to those who seek and they will find; and to those who knock the door will be opened to them. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened”.

Of course the opposite is true and if you go to Church and not ask, seek or knock, then you are hardly going to hear God or meet with Him. And what applies to the Scriptures, applies to all the service. God is there to be worshipped, and encountered. If we go expecting to give nothing or to receive anything, we will always be disappointed, and worse still, bored! 

When a person is bored they are either not interested in the subject or are not committed to getting to grips with it. Either way if that is applied to worship and someone is bored, one has to wonder why the person is in Church in the first place?

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Rising Persecution of Christians

Everyone was utterly appalled by the killing of Muslims while at prayer in a mosque in Christchurch, and the response by the people of New Zealand was incredible. I have enothing but admiration for the way they, and especially their Prime Minister Jacina Ardern, responded with compassion, love and determination to not let the terrorists/extremists win. We have prayed for them at St. James, that such a tragedy and such hate, will not have the upper hand.

And this outpouring of support and sympathy has resounded around the globe and governements have spoken out of their outrage and their concern about the rise of right-wing extremism. But what worries and concerns me is that we don't hear the same outrage expressed consistently across the board when Christians are at the receiving end of Islamic extremism. In Nigeria, for example, 120 Christians were killed by Fulani militia just two days later and the news barely registered with the media.

Barnabas Fund contacts report that in all nearly 300 people were killed in at least seven predominantly Christian villages across Kaduna State, Nigeria, in February and March 2019; brutal rapes and maiming with machetes were also reported.

In a dawn attack on Karamai on 14 February, 41 died when some 300 gunmen engulfed the village, chanting “Allahu Akbar!” as they fired their guns and ransacked homes. Almost all the dead were women and children, apart from a few elderly and blind men who were unable to flee.

Up to 71 people were killed and 28 injured in a Fulani militia attack on 11 March in Dogon Noma village, Kaduna State. According to eyewitness accounts, the gunmen were “torching houses, shooting and hacking down anything that moved”. Some 100 houses were destroyed in the attack.
This is reported across Christian media but not the secular press, and one can only wonder why that is?

We are living in a time when persecution against Christian believers is the highest in modern history. According to Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List—an in-depth investigative report focusing on global Christian persecution—11 Christians die for their faith every day. That is in excess of 4000 every year. 

Every month:
255 Christians are killed
104 are abducted
180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
66 churches are attacked
160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

Christian churches are attacked nearly every day, multiple times a day, in some cases, around the world, by extremists, by governments that are shutting them down. The ten most dangerous places to live as a Christian are: India, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and North Korea. 

Yet, trends show that countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians, and perhaps the most vulnerable are Christian women, who often face double persecution for faith and gender.

All killing of people of whatever religion or none is despicable and should be condemned by all. But let us not fall into the trap of appearing to claim that the deaths of some are more newsworthy than others, as appears to be the case in recent reportage. 

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...