Saturday, 15 November 2014

Encourage one another

A dying man had made a great deal of money in his working life, but he was determined to keep it for himself. Before he died he left his wife clear instructions that she was to bury all his money with him when he died so that he would have the use of it in the afterlife.
After he died and had been placed in his coffin, the funeral director was just closing it up when his widow popped a box in beside the body.
A friend, watching the proceedings, turned to her and said: ‘surely you wouldn’t be fool enough to bury all that money with your dead husband?’
‘Well, I promised him,’ said the loyal widow, ‘that he would be buried with his money.’
‘You are really going to bury him with all that money?’
‘I certainly am,’ she replied. ‘I got it all together, put it into my account, and put a cheque in the coffin. If he can cash it, he can spend it!’
(Joke attributed to Mark Bailey by David Pytches)

Of course, the parable of the talents isn’t really about money. But imagining money buried in the ground (not necessarily in a coffin, of course) does remind us how wasteful it is possible to be. Money that has been buried does nothing; is no good to anyone – and paper money would rot away. If we don’t use the gifts and abilities that God gave us in His service, then we are doing the equivalent of burying them in the ground.
Sunday readings at this time of year tend to focus on the future: they are the passages about being ready for when God comes to change things, to bring the new heaven and the new earth into being. Jesus and Paul today are reminding us to be ready. We don’t think about this aspect of following Jesus very much. Perhaps that’s because the warnings of what will happen if we are not ready, or not found to be serving and following God faithfully, are – frankly – alarming. Jesus is not being gentle, meek and mild when he speaks of throwing a servant into the outer darkness. We get so alarmed by that part of the message that we miss the good bits. Because actually it is very good! Jesus is coming back, one day. And when he does, we who follow him will be able to join him and will receive eternal life. Those who have used the gifts that we are given in his service will be commended.
We are all able to use our gifts in God’s service, every one if us, no matter how old or young we are. Some of you have served the Lord faithfully in many ways for a long time, and perhaps a few of you feel that you are too old, or too unwell, or too bound by responsibilities as carers or at work, to do any more now. But I say to you that you are never too old or too infirm to do what St Paul asked the Thessalonians to do as they prepared for the coming of Jesus. Paul said: ‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’
Recently I visited a dying man. As we talked – and talking was very difficult for him- he spoke words of encouragement to me and thanked me for visiting. For him, the return of Jesus is absolutely imminent. He is old, unwell, but still wanting to show love and encouragement to others. I know that he prays for me and many other people, as well as saying words of encouragement. I also receive encouragement and prayer from many other older members. Those members may not be able to do the practical things any more – the cleaning, the coffee making, the visiting, the teaching, or any of the other things that many of us do together to help our church to grow. But those central things, which strengthen and enable every one of us, to pray and to encourage – we can all do them, every single one of us.
Prayer and encouragement are an investment which leads to growth. If you pray for the church and its members, and use every chance you have to encourage and build up the others in the church, then you won’t be burying your gifts, you will be growing not only your own but other peoples gifts too. People who have been encouraged and supported achieve so much more. I know two girls who were encouraged by a 95 year old to believe they could do anything for God. So at the ages of 6 and 4 they decided that they wanted to hold a Bring and Buy Sale to raise money for underprivileged children. The adults around them encouraged them to do it. The 95 year old booked a space in the church building. Other church members made sure that the event got into the church newsletter and photocopied the posters that the girls designed. Others were there with the girls on the day. This was in 1999, and those children raised £60. Today in 2014 those girls, now adults, are still actively following Jesus. Being encouraged and prayed for by other church members, especially the oldest ones, still sustains them as followers of Jesus.

So as we look forward to the return of Jesus, I encourage you not at any time to bury your gifts, and thank you that you use them so well to serve Jesus and build your church. And I join with Paul to say to you: ‘encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’ 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Saints and spirits

Once we pass the autumn equinox and the nights get longer, thoughts seem to turn to darker subjects. Fireside stories spoke of human fears and how we hope to drive them away. In the days before the Enlightenment and the rule of science over all knowledge, people commonly believed in unseen powers and spirits, in witches and ghosts and poltergeists. They believed too in good spirits, Angels and other beings sent by God to guard us and fight off the evil ones. But if you met a spirit, how would you know if it was good or bad? Appearances wouldn't help - the Hallowe'en costumes today's children wear don't represent older ideas of evil spirits at all. Evil is subtler than that, it is the great deceiver, the great liar, getting into your home through guile and persuasion and promises of wonderful things.

Evil, whether we still believe in ghosts and ghouls or not, is no easier to discern today than it was for our medieval forebears. It is still the master of charm and of convincing lies. That is why so many young people have been deceived into following people who have evil intentions. Those teenagers who join Islamic State, or who find themselves trapped in extreme sects of other kinds, have believed the convincing stories of leaders who make them feel needed and valued. They may not have been abducted dramatically by werewolves or whatever other Halloween stories people scare themselves with, but they are just as lost.

St John tells us that there is one sure way of telling an evil spirit from a good one. The test still works: those who are not for God are against God. A spirit that is good, John says, will agree that Jesus Christ was born and became flesh and blood. God became human, as base and vulnerable as every one of us. An evil spirit will deny Jesus, or suggest that Jesus was only ever a spirit being, not a human. Jesus is fully human and fully divine, says John, and we can only tryout for good those who can say so. Others will lead us away from the truth, from God.

This test does still work. We may not see it in terms of spiritual warfare - or at least not in the way that our ancestors did. Their legacy, the chaos of Halloween activities followed by the peace and reassurance of All Saints tide - good triumphing over evil -  remains surprisingly strong given the scientific approach we take most of the time. But on the whole we don't expect spirits to be appearing in human form and trying to tempt us away from faith. What does happen, all the time, is that real ordinary humans do precisely that. Of course, most of them aren't outrightly evil, though we can't deny that every generation does produce a share of properly evil people. Hitler, Bernard Munyagishari (leader of the Hutu militia during the genocide of Tutsis), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic state in Iraq.

Most people aren't like that. But that's the danger. Just as a medieval fireside story involved spirits who convinced you they were human and kind and on your side before leading you into behaviour that separated you from God, so today the people around us with their human priorities will lead us away from God. They tell us it won't hurt to miss church 'just this once' to go out or stay in. How many times does 'just this once' happen before it becomes a habit? They embarrass you, so that you're not comfortable saying grace before meals or praying in front of people- or anywhere really. They tell you that you can be a Christian without going to church. Well. Maybe for a while. But soon the habits of prayer and the things you learned in church slip away, and your Christian friends aren't there to help you. The test of someone who is really on your side, who will help you towards God, and not away from Him, is that they truly believe that Jesus Christ is really human and really divine.

I'm not telling you to drop every friend you have who isn't a Christian. No, not at all. As I see it, we need first to be as wary as a medieval on a dark night, praying and making sure that the people around us do not, however unintentionally, draw us away from faith. Rather, the challenge for the saints- and yes, that's us (not just the rugby team) - is to draw the unbelievers towards God. Since our happiness lies in following Jesus, we should be sharing that happiness and showing people the way to God.

In the fireside stories the evil ones were cut down with the sword or struck by lightning or disappeared by prayer. That makes a reassuring ending - no more evil. But in real life the only one of those weapons available to us is prayer, and we use it to heal and help, not to kill. Pray for the people you know who don't believe in the truth of Jesus, and try to be a strong influence to change them. It takes courage sometimes, but it is the way of grace. Look around you. Who isn't here today? Some aren't here because they are unwell or on holiday. But what about the others? If you know someone is missing because they are persuaded not to put God first, because they are tempted by influential people who don't follow Jesus, what can you do to help them back? How can you encourage and support them to re prioritise?

In real life the battle of good v evil may not be as exciting as Hallowe'en followed by All Saints Day, but it is more real and as vital as it ever was. All Saints- and I mean it, that really is you- are called to fight the battle and proclaim Jesus Christ, the man who is God.