Living stones sermon, Petra Shakeshaft

Like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.

On my first Sunday, when I arrived in this church I found an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a card and a stone. It’s a stone from one of my favourite places, Lindisfarne, an Island right up in the very north of Northumberland – almost in Scotland and which was known as ‘the Cradle of Christianity’ because it was from Lindisfarne that Christianity was spread throughout the north of England over a thousand years ago.

This stone was collected by Tim and Kate and Kate has a marked a cross on the stone in metal. When I come here during the week and sit here by myself, early in the morning I hold it in my hand as I make my prayers.

There’s quite a lot about stones in the Bible. Jesus is called the cornerstone. A cornerstone is the stone on which the building depends; completely essential to the building, without which the building would collapse.

 

Nate Norberg from Freely

Jesus calls Peter the stone from the rock (or that same cornerstone), on which he will build the church. Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet, Ezekiel, spoke of God removing the people’s hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh.

In our reading, Peter calls us to be like living stones to be built into a spiritual house. I wonder, what does all this mean?

Stone is solid, ancient and enduring. It lasts and lasts and lasts. The stones you’ll find around the church today, when we come to move about a bit later on, are, each one of them, millions of years old. Inside some of them are the skeletons of creatures that lived on the earth before humans, before the dinosaurs even.

We speak of things, traditions, habits, sayings that are lasting as being carved in stone. Churchyards are full of memorials laid by people to remember their dead loved ones –  Some of them are hundreds of years old and even the people who laid them there have been long forgotten.

God gave Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments, carved into two tablets of stone. The Law, the Commandments that would be enduring, that are enduring the lasting covenant between God and his people.

All up and down the country there are churches and cathedrals, raised up to the glory of God, built in stones laid one upon the other, each one carved by hand, blow by blow of the mason’s chisel, each one raised up on another without the aid of machinery and some of them now a thousand years old. Look up and imagine how many blows of the mason’s hammer and chisel it took to dress just one stone.

These are the buildings which contain the memories of kneeling prayers, of candle-lights, of incense rising, of praise and celebration and voices raised in song, of shared sorrow and hushed petitions; Babies brought for baptism, children in Sunday schools, young lovers listening to their banns Old people listening to familiar hymns and prayers and feeling comforted.

Thousand upon thousand Christian people who have built up and sustained the church across the centuries. Within these walls are the ‘living stones’; the people of God with hearts of flesh.

People with compassion, people with a love for Christ, a hunger and thirst for justice, people who are broken and weary, people who are searching, seeking a way. All of these people are the living stones that form the walls of God’s church, the community building the kingdom of God here on earth with Christ as our cornerstone.

You and me.

Gracious God, be with us as we form our prayers to you.

Give us the thoughts, the words, the imagination, the compassion and love to draw us closer to you.

Give us open minds and hearts to hear you and to know your will for us. Amen

Petra’s sermon on forgiveness – Matthew 18

From the moment Adams teeth crunched into the forbidden fruit humankind has sought out and discovered every conceivable way of turning away from God; of wounding his love and marring his image in us, of causing pain and sorrow,  inflicting harm and death on fellow human beings. The whole of scripture is really the story of our continual straying and struggling and of God’s infinite care and concern, his patience and forgiveness, his constant seeking us out and calling us back into relationship with him.

If this particular parable in Matthew’s gospel and the passage immediately preceding it were paintings in an art gallery they would, or should be hung as a pair; the first as an illustration of forgiveness and reconciliation within a community and the second about personal forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the first, which was set as last week’s gospel reading, Jesus gives the disciples a three-step outline to reconciliation with a brother, or member of the community who has fallen short, let’s say. First, you should have a quiet word, get him or her to acknowledge the fault, one-to one. If this doesn’t work then bring two or three more to reason with them. If this still doesn’t sort things out then tell the church and if the member still refuses to listen, then you treat them as you would a tax collector or a Gentile.

Of course, while the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles or tax collectors, Jesus had everything to do with them, so Jesus, through Matthew, is, as much as anything, issuing his largely Jewish audience with a challenge about how they interpret the law.

And it’s an interpretation of the law that is at the root of Peter’s question to Jesus at the beginning of today’s passage. How many times should I forgive someone if they keep on sinning against me?

As many as seven times?

Peter may be showing off his Jewish roots here and may well think he is being particularly generous. The Jewish Law in Leviticus and Numbers has reams of formulaic instructions about dealing with forgiveness and atonement.

But, as many as seven times?

No, says Jesus. I tell you, seventy times seven.

The intention here is not about setting limits – even at 490. This is about banishing all limits – it’s about limitless forgiveness. And Jesus uses a parable to help the disciples to understand.

It’s important here we remember the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew was writing for a principally Jewish audience and his Gospel is littered with Old Testament references.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants; to pay them what he owes them and to receive payment for what he is owed.

A man is brought before him who owes him ten thousand talents. Now, one of the things that may be entirely lost on us today is the sheer scale of this debt; the ridiculousness of it. One talent was worth between six and ten thousand denarii, and one single denarii was the usual days wages for a man such as this slave who stood before the king.

So the sum owed might well be the equivalent to a billion pounds in today’s terms; a debt the servant couldn’t possibly have built up or hope to repay – certainly not on a denarius a day!

The king orders the debtor’s wife and children and all he owns to be sold to offset the debt. Now remember, this is firstly for a Jewish audience, who would have known that according to Jewish Law, under no circumstances could the wife be taken and sold. So we are to assume that this is a Gentile king. Even so, the price realised would have been a drop in the ocean compared to the debt.

The man gets down on his knees and pleads with the king. Have patience with me and I’ll pay back all I owe. Have patience with me. Something in the king gives. He is moved to pity. He not only lets the man off his debt, but he releases him. It’s easy to be so focussed on the money that we miss the fact that the slave is released. He is unbound in every sense. He no longer owes anything. He is no longer owned. What unexpected grace to find yourself entirely freed from all bondage. He no longer has any obligations to the king. He is free.

And this is the nature of forgiveness.

It releases us; gives us a clean slate, an opportunity to start afresh. But, of course, the parable doesn’t end there. Fresh from his release, the newly free man comes across a fellow slave who happens to owe him a hundred denarii. Not inconsiderable, but compared with his own debt, a pittance. You’d think, under the circumstances, he’d say, No problem mate, just forget it. And yet when the fellow slave appeals to him using almost exactly the same words as he had used to the king, he has him thrown in prison.

Word gets back to the king, who condemns him to torture until the debt  – the impossible debt is repaid. There can’t be a single one of us here who, despite our best efforts, has held onto some deep set unforgiveness for past hurts. We think it’s gone and then some brief reminder touches a scar, a sensitive spot and the pain comes flooding back and we realise there is still work to do.

Jesus recognises this when he answers Peter’s original question, do we let someone hurt us even seven times before we call a halt. No says Jesus, seventy times seven. Jesus is not suggesting we keep a count – even 490 times sets a limit. But what he’s saying is that we should go on and on forgiving – endlessly. He understands that in our human frailty, we don’t often have the capacity to forgive all in one go.

Jesus knows that forgiveness is a process and it can take a lifetime. The important thing is that we keep trying; that we do the head stuff; that we want to forgive, or at least we go on wanting to want to forgive; that we never give up making reconciliation our goal; that even as we come face-to-face with those who have hurt us we should long for reconciliation rather than revenge. Unforgiveness binds us, shackles us, prevents us moving on and wounds us as much as the person who has offended us. Perhaps this is the kind of torture Jesus meant.

When we forgive another, we unbind them, set them free and set ourselves free; released and relieved from anger and resentment. Like the slave who was both freed of the debt and freed from slavery, we are free to be ourselves again. The image of God is restored in us and we are remade as the people God intended us to be.

And as we come together as Christians, Sunday by Sunday, we come as frail imperfect, sometimes broken human beings in need of forgiveness and healing. This is the place into which we are called; a place where we are not condemned, but a place where we are healed, restored, forgiven, reunited, reconciled with one another and with God.

Amen

Sermon by Judith Sutcliff on Luke 14

I found drawing up the wedding guest list quite a challenge. It was very difficult to know how and where to cut off. Limited by numbers but not wanting to upset anybody and leave them out. We are both blessed with many wonderful friends. I had a reserve list and filled in places made vacant. Simon rumbled me and I got told off for not sticking to the list. It worked though!! The seating plan was even more fun to deal with as who was going to sit with who, where did we place our families and friends who are of equal value to us, to try and fathom out who wasn’t talking to who. In fact we nearly weren’t talking to each other afterwards!

Our readings today are about humility, especially for those in high places. There’s a key phrase which ties in with the gospel reading ‘everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Jesus criticises who push themselves forward and try to engineer their way to the top table as that’s not the way to gain honour in God’s kingdom as God confers honour on the humble. It is also about the most amazing invitation from God.

Those first invited referred to the Jewish leaders. They deemed themselves to be privileged, superior to other Jews. They knew the scriptures and the words of the prophets predicting the coming of the messiah. But, when he came, they did not see him; they were too busy caught up in their own laws. God then sent his messenger, John the Baptist to call them to the banquet, but they were too busy to answer the invitation. They didn’t hear or see. Luke lists the excuses issued, bought new oxen, just married. They were too tied up in their own worlds and in them selves

The invitation was widened; there was more room at the masters table. The servant was told to invite all, outcast prostitute’s tax collectors the blind lame the poor and marginalised. They all came and accepted the invitation, though many could have offered feeble excuses too.

The imagery of the parable is amazing. Jesus has been going around Galilee summoning people to God’s great supper. The messiah had come but they knew him not and would not taste the banquet with Christ, but the disadvantage the humble and meek would celebrate the banquet with Christ. The expected guests are Jews, waiting and waiting for the Kingdom, only to find that when it arrived, more pressing matters occupy them. And instead, the Master sent for all kinds of unexpected people to join the party – not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, different in culture, social status, race and ethics.  Jesus’ invitation is to all and sundry. It transcends the social, economic, ethnic and ethical barriers that the world considers acceptable and comfortable. As Gentiles who have been invited to the Great Banquet, we are expected to become party hosts in return.

How ready are we to accept this invitation from Christ? We are called in humble service to Christ and to each other. God wants his house filled; there is food for everyone who will accept. Jesus told this story to show God’s desire to have a right relationship with all people. The supper means a place in God’s kingdom. He sent the prophets to invite his people to come in. But very many of them would not accept that invitation. Now in Jesus, there is the invitation for all to come in. He sends Christians to bring in people from all nations. They must bring all types of people. No person is beyond the reach of God. The good news of Jesus is for all people. God will receive all who come to him. But when people refuse God’s invitation, that invitation may not remain open to them.

May we be part of the Christian feast, and may we continually invite others to join in this feast with us. Amen