Category Archives: Matthew’s Gospel

A bishop’s message: Don’t worry

On Sunday, October 7, the Bishop of Dorking, the Rt Rev’d Dr Jo Bailey Wells, joined the congregation at St Mark’s for Apple Day and Harvest Festival.

The reading was Matthew 6: 25-33 and Bishop Jo then preached on what Harvest means now and the need to rely on and trust God.

Matthew 6: 25-33
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

The sermon:

Thank you for Apple Day. Thank you for planting a community garden at St Mark’s. In a 21st century suburban congregation it’s really quite hard to work out what Harvest is all about, what’s relevant in the agricultural sense to this festival and this gospel. There’s the real danger of Harvest Festival becoming something rather quaint and folks-y, something we don’t quite connect with on the daily scale of what we expect for our style of living, let alone survival. Most of us are very distant from the harsh realities of growing our own food and needing a good harvest to literally eat throughout the coming months. Even we who have gardens or allotments aren’t dependent on them for our daily bread: if the apples harvest is really pitifully tiny –as mine was last year – we can go to Aldi or Sainsburys and buy some. We don’t have to go without. And we see formerly seasonal foods all year round; we’re rather spoiled with fruits and vegetables, bread, cheese and fresh meat more or less on demand.

So today we connect to Harvest as best we can: we put things at the foot of the altar today and in the Foodbank box regularly to give to people who have no money for enough food, even their daily bread. We share what we can according to what we have, which reflects what Christian communities have done from the beginning: pooling our resources and sharing with those who are less fortunate. It’s a valuable practical response to the difficulties of facing real hunger and it’s a major witness to our living God. (How many food banks or debt charities or homeless shelters do you know run by the Humanists or the Secular society?)

Who remembers what happened in 1984 when Bob Geldof was so appalled by the scale of the famine in Africa that he got his friends together and transformed one song into a vast flood of instant support? Amazing impact, both the money raised but equally the coming together. But since? The world is in an even worse mess now than it was in 1984. Climate change (however caused), unrestricted population growth, human greed, war, religious fanaticism and economic injustice all contribute to massive insecurities about the very basics of life. And now in America there is the fear especially among women in Trump’s America that might is right, that abuse prevails, that it’s ok for teenage boys in a drunken stupor to grope women and have their way. It will take a generation to replace the current bloodymindedness with a spirit of gentleness again

The readings today reflect on a variety of things but I think one main theme connects all of them: acknowledgement of the need to rely on and trust God. The Lord hath done great things. If we have food and clothing we will be content with these. And perhaps most of all: Don’t WORRY.

The Gospel reading focusses on not worrying about what might happen. Look at the lilies, says Jesus. They don’t spin or weave; they don’t think about tomorrow; they’re clothed and watered, God provides everything they need. But the point of this story is not really about abandoning responsibility in the hopes that someone else will take care of you; or about “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die”. It’s more about trusting God because God looks after all creation on a daily basis. This is God’s miracle.

Now….I’m not someone who uses the word “miracle” very often…but when I plant a tiny little tomato seed, I‘m having faith that it will produce a 5 foot plant with edible fruits so long as I do my bit. This is all really up to God; and is, to me, a miracle of creation. Nothing I can do, apart from trying my best to take care of it, will make it germinate and grow and give me … tomatoes.

God feeds the birds of the air; we are of more value than they are, says Jesus. We’re told to stop being anxious about tomorrow: Do not WORRY. We’re not told to ignore the fact that tomorrow inevitably arrives with its own problems whether we like it or not. We pray with confidence that God will give us each day our daily bread; not that we will be provided with all the loaves of bread we need to store up for the indefinite future so that we don’t have to exercise our normal responsibilities and duties of this life. To the Old Testament people of God during times of tremendous worry they are told with absolute confidence that the Lord will do great things and that they shall eat and be satisfied because God is wonderful and deals wondrously for his people.

Matthew’s Gospel says that Gentiles, meaning “those not of our faith” or “foreigners”, will be the ones who worry, probably because they don’t have the assurance that God is in charge and knows what we need. By contrast, our work is to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

All these things; what we eat, what we drink, what we wear. It may not be the highest quality of expensive clothing, nor much more than daily bread and water. But it will be enough. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing. Building the Kingdom is the work we have to do, putting into practice the two essential commandments to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. We will have a rich harvest indeed if we can really do both these things.

And to return to the question of how can we feel really attached to Harvest, to make it more than a rather pale echo of when we needed to pray for rain, and then pray for fair weather, and offer prayers in times of dearth and famine – yes, you’ll find all of these in the Book of Common Prayer; written in an era when supermarkets didn’t exist, and real, grinding poverty and hunger raised their ugly heads when the harvest failed. Perhaps we can focus on not only the practical help of feeding our less fortunate neighbours, but also what we would like to harvest in ourselves and gather in, then share out. We can hopefully learn that being content with having enough is better than loving money and being dedicated to the pursuit of money to the exclusion of caring for our neighbours. We can hopefully learn to plan and have faith but not to worry about things which might or might not happen. And we can hopefully put into practice the reality that harvest includes not only a lovely show of fruit and veg and tins of soup but also the ripe fruits of our Christian faith: love of God and neighbour, peace with ourselves, generosity of spirit, and a trusting relationship with God; who may not shower us with designer clothes and champagne but who will indeed care for us all our lives.

Let me end with a story:

There is the story about old lady who was very poor. She had nothing. No shelter, no food, no proper clothes. She prayed to God and God gave her 10 apples. This was wonderful. ‘Now I can get the things I need,’ she said. She was so hungry of course that she ate the first three apples and so was full. The next three apples she traded to rent some modest shelter so that she could be safe from the rain and the sun. She exchanged the next three apples for some new clothes, so she was no longer cold at night and would look smart during the day. But there was then one apple left over. ‘Why did you give me one apple more than I needed?’ she asked God. ‘So you can have something with which to say thank-you to me,’ replied God. God gives us enough to say thank-you.

The Synoptic Problem Revisited

Today at our weekly ecumenical Bible study on the following Sunday’s Gospel we were looking at the following passage:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,
    and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.”’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This led me to reflect on the Synoptic Problem.  When I was training the predominant theory (simply put) was that Mark was written first, then Matthew, based on Mark and then Luke based on both.  However, one of my lecturers discussed the theory that Luke preceded Matthew.  This appealed to me as someone who likes things categorised; that Luke told stories and then Matthew rearranged them into more organised blocks.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.”’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and

“On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

There were two things that I noticed:

  • Matthew had an extra “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” to the first response.
  • The order of the temptations is different.

Why might this be?

If Matthew wrote first then why would Luke remove the second half of the quote?  If Luke wrote first, then Matthew (as a Jew writing for Jews) might have included the second half of the Old Testament quote as he already knew it, and knew that it would point his readers to a known reference.

Why would Luke change the order of the temptations if Matthew wrote first?  I am sure you may come up with your own answers, but if Luke wrote first Matthew might change them so that they reflect a movement from the personal, to personal aggrandisement to power.

I am far from an expert in these matters, but from time to time I like to think about these things!

The Extra Mile

Matthew 5.40-1 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

We are programmed by society, our parents, our culture, our past experiences, our religion to want certain things. If we don’t get them we are unhappy… our programming tells us to be anxious, tense or worried. We expend energy coping with these emotions and even more energy rearranging the world so that the negative emotions aren’t triggered. Our existence is pathetic – we are at the mercy of so much we can’t control.

The way out is to be in the situation that causes us pain or difficulty and to observe ourselves, recognising that what is actually causing the pain is not the situation but the programming. Stay in the situation until there is a choice – we choose to act in a certain way, we don’t have to react

We see how powerful it is then to have the freedom to give to the person who demands our coat our cloak also, or to walk the extra mile. Only when we have freed ourselves from our inner programming can we come to a place of peace and love that permits us to do such a thing.

It reminds me of that Buddhist story of the Zen master:

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master.

Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.
“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!”

But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved.
“And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

(from here).

 

Sermon – Matthew 11:2-11(Lesley)

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. The artist Ad...
John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. The artist Adi Holzer created this handcolored etching The baptism in 1997. Today is his seventy-fifth birthday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way before you.’[b]

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A Vicar was fed up, waiting for the plumber to come. Eventually he sent him a note that simply said Matthew 11:3. When the plumber  looked it up he found the verse “Are you the one who is to come or look we for another”? So the plumber sent a note back, simply saying Isaiah 50:2a  “why did no one answer when I called”?

Sorry – couldn’t resist the dreadful joke.

John the Baptist was undoubtedly a great man of God – one of the greatest prophets that the Jews had seen.  In fact the New Testaments work hard to say that although John the Baptist was great, Jesus was greater, because there were many groups who followed John the Baptist as their leader even after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

John the Baptist had huge numbers of disciples, his teaching was transformative, he challenged materialism, challenged injustice, challenged the dreadful leaders of his time and was well respected by everyone for it. He ended up in jail, of course.

And jail is not an easy place to be. Not that I have personal experience of it, but in my rebellious teens I dated someone who had been in and out of jail, as had his friends. They spoke of it with horror. To do six weeks was unbearable, to do a long stretch such as a year was unthinkable. In jail they lost their freedom, their choices, their family, their girlfriends, their sense of self, their self-esteem, their ability to distance themselves from those who hurt them. They became completely disorientated and fearful.

So this passage does not show John the Baptist in his best light – Jesus is different than what he expected – are you the one or are we to look for another?

Perhaps it is the difference between his rather sober, austere outlook and rather angry God, who condemns things like adultery, compared with Jesus and his disciples having fun at parties and Jesus whose God forgives things like adultery. Jesus wasn’t doing religion in the same way as John.

And this is of course a huge challenge in the church today – people failing to understand others and the way they worship God – the various factions all too quickly throwing stones.

But the other thing to learn from this is how difficult it is not to lose our way when we are in situations that feel like prison. Of course they may not be actual prisons, we can get imprisoned in thought patterns, imprisoned in negative relationships, imprisoned by pain.

Being alone can impact on this too – have you heard the story of the man who went to his priest and asked why he was feeling so cold, so far from God. The priest simply got the fire tongs and took one of the coals out of the fire and put it on the hearth. The coal went from burning white hot to red hot to black. The priest then put it back in the fire. And within minutes it was on fire again. We need each other. The spiritual journey is not undertaken alone.

Jesus is very gentle with John – pointing out the evidence and then commending him. He does say that John is lacking something though, those who are least in the Kingdom of God are greater than John – perhaps he is the sense of the Holy Spirit at that time. If you compare John’s experience in prison with Peter’s experience when he was imprisoned then perhaps it is different – they sing hymns and an earthquake releases them, or Paul’s experience of ministering to his jailers. I don’t know.

But perhaps today is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we have any prisons in our lives and whether we need to ask the Holy Spirit into them to transform them. I’m going to finish with that beautiful poem by Bonhoeffer, articulating his experience of imprisonment:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!