A reflection for Sunday 7th August 2022 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1)

When did  you last put your faith in some one or something?  It may have been getting on an aeroplane trusting that we would land safely. It may have been going to see a hospital consultant and awaiting a longed for diagnosis. It may have been visiting a friend hoping for a particular outcome or response.  Think for a moment. How did we feel? How did we react?  Perhaps slightly uncertain, anxious, troubled and even vulnerable.

Our readings today are all about putting our trust in God without always knowing what the outcome will be.  Of having to trust despite what we are being told or what seems most likely to be a foregone conclusion. Abraham longed for Sarah, his wife, to bear a son and heir. It seemed impossible. Yet God brought him outside and said “Look toward heaven and count the stars.  So shall your descendants be”.

Did you notice the word most repeated in our readings?  “Faith”. It  is repeated at least seven times in Hebrews. The other repeated words are “Do not be afraid”.  Faith and anxiety seem to co-exist. They never quite disappear. There seems to be an ongoing tension and even struggle.

In the book entitled “Glimpses of the Divine” the German artist and catholic priest, Sieger Koder (1925-2015)  captured something of the hidden God in the everydayness of life through his paintings.   His  brushstrokes allow us to see the struggle at the core of every relationship. In separation and reconciliation;  in our wrestling with doubt, guilt, fear; in joyful recognition;  in the choices we make;  in the gifts that we receive; in moments of darkness or quiet fidelity.  Above all  in the face of a loved one, stranger or enemy we discover a glimpse of the God who hides and waits to be found - who understands our longings and our frustrations.

One commentator has written “Like Abraham, Christians are part of an ongoing story. They come in on a conversation that is already taking place; in which something of the character of the main speaker is already evident. And like Abraham, we are aware that our story too will have consequences for those who follow.  Hebrews narrates that the patriarchs do not see the completion of God’s plan, though they see enough to be able to guess and be excited. And they understand enough to be able to live their lives in such a way that they can help generations to come to play their part in their turn. They like Abraham live with this mixture of knowing God through what he has already done and longing to see what is still unknown. Part of what they bequeath to generations to come is that discontent, that restless certainty that what you already know about God and his ways is never enough. Desire and discontent are strange qualities to value but apparently, they are what makes God willing to be identified with us”.

As we struggle at times with being afraid and anxious; of longing for that heavenly city which has still to be fully revealed; and of having faith in those things “hoped  for but not yet seen” may we take confidence in the words of Richard Floyd:-

“In the end it is trust in God’s benevolence towards us that grounds our otherwise ungrounded existence. Grounded in that faith, grounded in the divine benevolence, we can live, not without anxiety, but with faithful courage in the midst of anxiety”.

A reflection by the Rev'd Russell Duncan for Sunday 31st July 2022

Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me (Luke 12:13)

I was struck by the recent headline in one of our national newspapers entitled “Mother left son £300,000 home so he could look after her parrots”.  Some of you may have read it too.  The defender was the sole recipient of his parents’ estate after his mother changed her will in 2019 removing her three stepchildren.  Their father and mother had previously made wills in 2017 splitting all their wealth between their son and their three stepchildren. The defender who has been branded as “pretentious” is being sued by his step-siblings who are trying to force him to split the inheritance he received four ways.

We can, I expect, identify with the unnamed man in the crowd who cries out to Jesus “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. Although we are not told the exact details, his request does seem reasonable.

How many families have been torn apart by disputes over the terms of a will? I used to come across this as lawyer. Some never spoke to their siblings again. Others resorted to court action especially where there was a large inheritance, a fine country house or an impressive art collection. Often there were issues when a re-marriage had occurred  but the deceased had never got round to altering their original will or other children come along.

The theologian, Jane Williams comments that “The rich man has already decided upon what is important. He has lived his life by that decision. The “judgement” then is one that he has already made.  This is what Jesus wants his listeners to understand. We decide now, day by day, what to value, what to give our heart to. These brothers, fighting over their inheritance, have to come to the Judge of all the earth. They have a chance, now, to listen to Jesus and to choose between the kingdom or allowing the squabble about money to distract them”.

The success of the rich man could be applauded as the faithful application of his God-given capabilities. He has benefited from both the provision of God and his own skilful means. Surely he may be permitted to save up a bit for himself and to celebrate with a feast? Jesus though, is not telling this story to criticise prudent resource management or the celebration of the good things  of life. Instead Jesus, I think, presents the rich man as a type of person who chooses inordinate self-concern over and above the kingdom of God.

Richard Floyd, a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia comments that “As the rich man celebrates the abundance  of his land nowhere does he make mention of others: his family, his friends, his neighbours, his workers, aliens and strangers.  He is supremely isolated. He refuses to participate gratefully and graciously in what God has generously given. It is ironic that, by isolating himself from others in a bid for absolute control, he has in fact lost control and has no one to pass on his abundance”.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel a lawyer stood up and asked Jesus “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”. He said “what is written in the law? How do you read? And he answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself”. And Jesus said to him, “You have answered right, do this and you shall live”.

Short comments on the readings for Sunday 24th July 2022 by Canon Dean Fostekew

Genesis 18:20-32

20Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! 21I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’ 22 So the men turned from there, and went towards Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ 26And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ 27Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ 29Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ 30Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ 31He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ 32Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’

Genesis 18:20-32

“Will you not save the city for the sake of 10 good people?”

Sodom and Gomorrah was a place in uproar. Too many people were having a 'good time’ without a thought for others. Too many were leading lives without thought of God and too many were so hedonistic that they just did what they wanted to do, regardless of how their actions might affect another. It sounds all too familiar to places in the world today and people who think so little of others that they treat them as less than human.

For many centuries it was thought that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality and that was why God destroyed the cities. More recent biblical scholarship has shown this not to be the reason and the reason actually to be the lack of welcome and hospitality shown by the residents of the cities to visitors and strangers.

The residents did not take kindly to the visit of the angels, the young men whom Lot gave hospitality to. They felt threatened by their presence and that their hedonistic lifestyles might be questioned. When they asked Lot to bring the men out so they could ‘know’ them was not to rape them but to murder them! Lot, who knew the value of hospitality - a virtue much expressed in Jewish society - did not want to put his visitors at risk but also wanted to appease the crowd, so he offers the men his daughters instead! Lot wins on one side but falls down spectacularly on another, apparently the rape of his daughters was okay! No wonder God was angry with the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah and no doubt he despaired of Lot as well.

Abraham, who knows much about the weakness of human beings, pleads to God on behalf of the good people in the city and no doubt his relative Lot, that God will no destroy the people if only 10 good people can be found to live there. He bargains well starting with 50 good people and working down! Sadly, not even 10 good people could be found but Lot and his family are warned to leave and not look back.

Society, today needs to heed the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah. We need to continually ask ourselves how welcoming and hospitable we are as a community to those strangers and needy among us? How welcome are refugees? How welcome are those who are different to us? I wonder what our politicians would say?

Colossians 2:6-19

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. 16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Colossians 2:6-19

This is another bit of one of Paul’s letters where he goes on about circumcision and uncircumcision. He does seem to have a lot to say on the subject which is not surprising as it was by circumcision that the Jews, the chosen people (men) stood out from their neighbours, who did not circumcise. It is, however, not the actual physical process that Paul is referring to in this piece of his writing but the changes in heart and mind one has to make in order to follow God or more explicitly Jesus.

When we choose to follow Christ, Paul implies that we circumcise our hearts, we become changed in some way and live our lives differently. He also implies that it is how we live out the message of the Gospel, the good news and not the mere unquestioning following  of rules and regulations. The latter are traditions that Paul says are secondary to actually trying to live up to a life lived in the light of Christ.

Paul tells us that life in Christ brings about in us a re-birth as our old sins are swept away and we are encouraged and challenged to follow what Jesus did and said and in what he commands us to do and that command is summed up as:

Love God and love thy neighbour as thy self.

Paul implies that we have to try and follow this so called ‘Golden Rule’ in our daily lives and not to be overly influenced or distracted by human ideas and philosophy that might take one away from the path of Christ. Paul implies that human centred philosophies are false paths and will not lead you to eternal life. In many ways this is a hark back to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah when hedonism ruled and people get hurt by the selfishness of others. This Paul suggests is not the life for a Christian.

The challenge before us is how are we to love God and our neighbours and how well do we love ourselves? If we don’t care for ourselves enough we will end up hurting others. Loving oneself is not being selfish but accepting who one is warts and all and deciding to try and live one’s life as well and as good as possible. If we can accept who we are we can find is more easy to accept and love others forgiving them their shortcomings and by doing so we automatically love God because God created all of us, just as we are. God did not make a mistake in you or me, we make mistakes but we need to remember that even when we do so we will still and always be loved beyond measure by God. With that knowledge it becomes easier to love others but it might take a life time to get there.

Luke 11:1-13

The Lord’s Prayer

11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
3   Give us each day our daily bread.
4   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Luke 11:1-13

One might wonder when Jesus is asked; ‘How can we pray?’  why he not only teaches us the so called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ but also goes on at length about how we are to treat our friends and family. Is giving bread or eggs a prayer to God? Jesus obviously thinks so and so do I, because Jesus never said anything he did not mean. So when we seek an answer from Jesus as how to pray to God we have to take to heart what he actually says. What I interpret his response as is prayer is not only words but actions and the way you treat others.

Words and actions are important to Jesus. He implies that without the right intentions or desire to love thy neighbour ones words no matter how pious will be empty. Jesus suggests that prayer is living the Gospel. Living the Gospel he also implies is hard because you cannot do it by words alone. If someone is hungry feed them, don’t just pray for them; if someone is lonely visit them don’t just pray for them put you prayers into action.

St.Benedict was inspired by what Jesus had to say about prayer and action and incorporated it into his Rule. Prayer is work and work is prayer, he says and what he means is that if one had dedicated oneself to Christ then all one does is prayer and prayer is fed by actions that help others and build up the common good.

Neither work nor prayer on their own help us to live the Gospel we need both. The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah forgot this and we all know how they ended up!

A reflection for Sunday 17th July 2022 Trinity V by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Lord, do you not care? (Luke 10:40)

How many times have we been left to do things on our own without support or assistance from others?  How many times have we felt obliged to visit a family member or close friend in hospital, care home or at their home while others do nothing? How many times have we said those familiar words “Lord, do you not care?” either aloud or silently to ourselves?  The variety of personal situations both at home, at work and even at church where this question arises are endless but very real. Like Martha we can feel worried and distracted. There are times when we feel annoyed, angry, taken advantage of and even embittered. We feel unwanted, unsupported, unloved.

What struck me in today’s gospel is that there are no words spoken by Mary. She said nothing. It is her actions that speak for themselves. She sits at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. There seems to be a clash of temperaments however well-meaning Martha’s actions are too.

Think for a moment where Jesus was going. He was on his way to Jerusalem to die. I wonder what Jesus wanted when he briefly visited his two friends? Did he just want an oasis of calm having turned aside to Bethany? Did he just want a simple meal? Did he just want to be listened to, to be understood, to be loved? We are not told. What we do know is that he took time to be with both Mary and Martha. He listened attentively to Martha and offered her a different way forward. He did not despise Mary for only listening to him.

Richard Harries comments that “Religion is not in the first place about believing certain things to be true or behaving in a particular way. It is about experiencing the beginnings of a change in one’s life. For some people this may happen dramatically, when they find God’s grace to overcome an addiction or pattern of behaviour. Others find a release from crippling anxiety or guilt or a sense of worthlessness. Others experience the operation of God’s grace in more gradual ways, taking them away from self-preoccupation to a greater focus on others and their needs; and to God and what he might want of us.

There are many evils we would like to be delivered from: poverty, cruelty, war, oppression and injustice, for a start. Christians believe that this process must begin within each of us, as we discover the deliverance, liberation and freedom that comes through Christ in the service of God. It begins within but does not stop there. It is manifest in trying to do what we can to alleviate human suffering and promote the well-being of others’.

In all our readings God is showing new ways of doing things that make the whole story different. He is showing that things are not always as predictable or certain as they look or appear.  A small piece of creative thought can change what seems to be a foregone conclusion. Abraham and Sarah’s story and Martha and Mary’s story are about to change forever.

As we conclude, may the familiar prayer by St Augustine ring true:-

O Thou, who art the light of the minds that know thee,

The life of the souls that love thee and the strength of the hearts that serve thee.

Help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee.

So to love thee that we may fully serve thee,

Whom to serve is perfect freedom.

A reflection by the Rev'd David Warnes for Sunday 10th July Trinity IV 2022

Of all the stories that Jesus told, the one in today’s Gospel is surely the most famous. Politicians regularly refer to it, and I was particularly struck to read the account of someone caught up in the mass shooting incident in Highland Park, Illinois last week, who explained that he and his family fled in fear and found refuge “in the apartment of a Good Samaritan.” It’s a story that has become a shorthand for what all that we value in the kindness of strangers.

The odd thing is that everyone refers to “the Good Samaritan”, though at no point in the Gospel is he actually described as good, even though his actions clearly are. We naturally assume that the Samaritan is the hero of the story, the good guy who is a good neighbour, and that the Priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side are the villains. The danger in that is that it has, in the past, led to an anti-semitic reading of the parable – and that cannot be what Jesus, himself a Jew, meant. And the very phrase “Good Samaritan” is, of course, offensive because it implies a prejudice (widespread among Jewish contemporaries of Jesus) that the majority of Samaritans were not good. For that reason, I’m going to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho.

So what did Jesus mean when he told this parable? There are clues to that to be found if we focus not on the Samaritan, but on the lawyer whose questioning prompts Jesus to tell the story. The Gospel writer clearly does not approve of the lawyer. We are told that the point of the lawyer’s question is to test Jesus – in other words the lawyer (not a solicitor or an advocate, but an expert in the Law of Moses) is trying to catch Jesus out. Even his way of addressing Jesus – “Teacher” – isn’t respectful. The people who address Jesus as “Teacher” in Luke’s Gospel are critics and opponents, rather than supporters of Jesus. And when we look at the question itself, we find that the lawyer’s thinking is deeply flawed. That isn’t clear in our translation. A more accurate translation would be “Tell me the one thing I need to do to inherit eternal life.”

So the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho is Jesus’ response to a fellow Jew who just didn’t get what Judaism was about – for the lawyer was selfishly focusing on the question “how can I inherit eternal life?” and the Law of Moses focuses not on individuals, but on the things which build strong and stable communities – loving God and your neighbour, honouring your father and mother, and not indulging in the habits of mind and the actions which undermine community. So the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho is Jesus response to a trick question by someone who simply didn’t understand the values of the religion which he claimed to profess.

Jesus handles the lawyer’s trick question very skillfully. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  And the word read is important – Jesus is reminding everyone that the lawyer is educated, literate – he’s supposed to be an expert. And the lawyer doesn’t offer a reading – an interpretation – in response, he just quotes the summary of the Law of Moses that all his hearers would have learned by heart as children:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

And here’s the irony – in testing Jesus, in focusing on his own personal salvation, the lawyer had shown that he was very far from understanding the meaning of the law from which he could quote so fluently.

Jesus’ response is very important. Jesus does not say “You’re right – and that’s how you achieve eternal life”. Instead he says:

“You have given the right answer, do this and you will live.”

Meaning “If you do this, then you will live well in the here and now, and living well in the here and now is what really matters.”  Jesus is implying that being over-concerned with whether you will get to heaven is selfish.

The sensible thing for the lawyer to have done at this point would have been to walk away. Instead, having dug himself into a hole, he chooses to go on digging and asks a question even less sensible than his first one.

“But who is my neighbour?”

In asking the question he is seeking to draw a boundary – he is saying “OK, tell me whom I need to love and whom I don’t have to bother loving?”   

The Hebrew word for neighbour has many meanings – ranging from “the other person” to “friend” and even “lover”. And in the book of Leviticus we find the teaching that the foreigner who lives among Jews should be treated as a neighbour. Those verses are worth quoting because they have an obvious contemporary resonance.

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizens among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”

And Jesus tells the story of the mugging on the road to Jericho to make one big, simple point – that the answer to the lawyer’s question is that love knows no limits, and your neighbour is “everyone”.

The story itself is interesting. We aren’t told anything about the victim other than what happened to him – we don’t know his race, his religion or his socio-economic status. And that’s part of Jesus’ point – the victim is our neighbour whatever his or her race, religion or socio-economic status. And we certainly shouldn’t take the fact that the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side as a pretext for any kind of criticism of the Jewish faith.

When he specified a Priest and a Levite, Jesus was setting up an expectation in the minds of his hearers. If I began a joke with the words “An Englishmen, an Irishman and a……” you would all expect the third person in the story to be…a Scotsman. In Jesus’ time, if you began a story with a Priest and a Levite, then everyone expected the third person to be an Israelite – an ordinary Jewish person. Instead, Jesus makes the good neighbour in the story a Samaritan – a member of a group whom the lawyer and the other people listening to the story would have regarded as beyond the pale. So we need to see this story as part of Jesus’ teaching that practical love reaches across the boundaries of prejudice. And that’s a teaching as fresh and as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago when the story was first told.

I’m going to finish with an acknowledgement and a quotation. Much of the material for this sermon came from a book the American-Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The book is called Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill Levine concludes her chapter on the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho with these words:

“Will we be able to care for our enemies who are also our neighbours? Will we be able to bind up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine that they might do the same for us?...the Biblical text and concern for humanity’s future tell us that we must.”