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Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Often working people (usually rightly) say that work barely gets a mention in Church but that is actually surprising because, when you look at the stories Jesus told, large numbers of them are to do with work. This is one of those stories and it may well be the one that it is most difficult to understand (Luke 16. 1 - 13). The story and the teaching based on it seem contradictory and it doesn’t seem to fit with other things that Jesus said and taught.

A manager is wasting his employer’s money. He is found out and fired. The beginning of the story makes sense to us. It’s what happens next that causes a problem. The manager then reduces the debts that various people owe to his employer in order to get on good terms with them before he leaves his master’s employment. Although he is again wasting his master’s money, this time the master praises what he has done.

Jesus goes on to say that we should use our money to make friends and that this will help us to be welcomed into eternity. That seems almost the reverse of his saying to store up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth. Then to compound all the complications he commends faithfulness after having told a story in which the dishonest manager is praised for his dishonesty.

How can we find a way in to a set of teaching that seems contradictory and confused? It may be that the key is Jesus’ statement that we should make friends for ourselves. Although the dishonest manager remains dishonest there is a change that occurs in the story. And we can see that change most clearly if we think about the manager’s work-life balance.

At the beginning of the story, friendships and responsibility seem low on his list of priorities. He is managing his employer’s property but wasting his employer’s money. It is likely then that his life is focused around work and money. However, when his job comes under threat, he suddenly realises that relationships – friendships – are actually more important than work and money and figures out a quick way of building friendships. At the end of the story, if we return to his work-life balance, work will have decreased in importance to him while friendship and responsibility for his own future will have increased.

The teaching that follows the story makes it clear that Jesus does not condone dishonesty; if this manager is dishonest in small matters then he will also be dishonest in large ones. The manager’s fundamental dishonesty does not change but the priority he places on relationships does. In other teaching Jesus sometimes uses the formula; if someone who is bad can do X then how much more should you or how much more will God do X. He uses it, for example, when he talks about God giving the Holy Spirit: if father’s who are bad, he says, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

What Jesus does in this story is similar. He is saying that if shrewd, worldly people, like the dishonest manager, can come to see the importance of relationships, then how much more should we do the same. Not following the example of the manager in using dishonesty to build relationships but following his example of learning to prioritise relationships in life and in work.

The Relationships Foundation sounds like it is likely to be a dating agency but is actually an organisation founded and run by Christians that believes that a good society is built on good relationships, from family and community to public service and business. They study the effect that culture, business and government have on relationships, create new ideas for strengthening social connections, campaign on issues where relationships are being undermined and train and equip people to think relationally for themselves. They are one example of an organisation that is seeking to prioritise relationships in life and in work as Jesus encouraged us to do.

Why is this so important? Jesus throws out a hint when he says “make friends for yourself … so that … you will be welcomed in the eternal home.” Jesus seems to be hinting that the relationships we form now in some way continue into eternity. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 13 when he writes that faith, hope and love remain using a word for ‘remain’ which suggests that acts of faith, hope and love continue into eternity. Building relationships Jesus and Paul suggest may not just be good for the here and now but may also have eternal implications. All the more reason then for us to learn from this story and, whether we are at home, at work, or in our community, to prioritise the building of good relationships with those around us.

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Blessid Union of Souls - My Friend.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Start:Stop - Sowing and growing seeds


Bible reading

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13. 3 – 9)

Meditation

Business life and practice is structured to be as efficient as possible. Clear goals based on market research, structures which are fit for purpose, processes which effectively deliver high quality products or services to customers in a timely fashion. We all know the reality doesn’t always live up to the ideal, but this is essentially what businesses strive to achieve.

Our passage today is very different. I wonder whether you have noticed the strange thing about the Parable of the Sower which does not make sense from the point of view of an efficient farmer. What I am thinking of is the indiscriminate nature of the way the sower sows the seed. The sower scatters the seed on the path, on the rocky ground and among the thorn bushes, as well as in the good soil. Any farmer would know that the seed falling on the path, on the rocky ground and among the thorn bushes is going to be wasted because it is not going to grow well and yet the sower goes ahead regardless. What sort of farmer wastes two-thirds of the seed like that?

The actions of the sower tell us something significant about the nature of God. The seed was sown indiscriminately, even recklessly. Those places that were known to be poor places for seed to grow were nevertheless given the opportunity for seeds to take root and this suggests the indiscriminate and reckless nature of God’s love for all. The seed is the Word of the Kingdom and the Word, John’s Gospel tells us, is Jesus himself. So Jesus himself, this parable, seems to suggest is being scattered throughout the world (perhaps in and through the Body of Christ, the Church).

Some parts of the Body of Christ find themselves in areas like the path where the seed seems to be snatched away almost as soon as it is sown. That may seem a little like our experience in a culture where people seem resistant towards Christian faith and the media revel in sensationalising the debates that go on within the Church. Other parts of the Body of Christ are in areas like the rocky ground where it is hard for the seed to take root and grow. We might think about situations around the world where Christians experience persecution or where the sharing of Christian faith is illegal. Other parts of the Body of Christ are amongst the thorn bushes where the worries of this life and the love of riches choke the seed. Again, we might think about our situation and the way in which our relatively wealthy, consumerist society makes people apathetic towards Christian faith.

Finally, there is the good soil where the seed grows well and the yield can be as much as a hundred fold. Again, there are parts of the Body of Christ who find themselves in good soil. At present, there is “explosive growth in the global south. Only in Europe and North America is Christianity growing at a less than one percent rate. In Africa and Asia, the rate is currently more than double and will continue to climb.”

We can rejoice in that growth, although it is not an experience we currently share in the UK, and can support its continued growth through our mission giving and partnerships. We should not be discouraged because that kind of growth is not our current experience in the UK. Growth does still occur even when we are on the path or the rocky ground or among the thorn bushes. This happens because God’s love is indiscriminate wanting all to have the opportunity to receive the seed of his Word. In this country we need to pray that our culture, which currently feels like the path or the thorn bushes will in time also become good soil once again, and, in the meantime, celebrate that growth that does occur on the path and among the thorn bushes.

Prayer

God of mission, who alone brings growth to your Church, send your Holy Spirit to bring vision to our planning, wisdom to our actions, faith to our lives, hope to our communities, and love to our hearts.

Make me a part of the indiscriminate sharing of your love to all people everywhere.

God of mission, renew your Church and begin with me. Heal our land, tend our wounds, make us one and use us in your service; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Lord of the Church, make us the Church of the Lord.

Make me a part of the indiscriminate sharing of your love to all people everywhere.

God of mission, come by your Spirit and change us, let your church reflect the beauty, diversity and
hospitality that we see in you, lead us to a place of graceful concord: a self-forgetful love, a turning back to Christ: for with your grace to help we can be one, and in your strength can strive to serve and bless, and by your will can see your kingdom come. Use us to the full; and when we are empty, fill us afresh. We know you love your church, help us to love each other. Unite us in the effervescent joy of your declaring, but not just us – we ask it so that, in these days of uncertainty, the world may believe.

Make me a part of the indiscriminate sharing of your love to all people everywhere.

Blessing

Vision to our planning, wisdom to our actions, faith to our lives, hope to our communities, and love to our hearts. May all those blessings of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

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African Children's Choir - Seed To Sow.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Tasos Leivaditis: The Blind Man with the Lamp

'Tasos Leivaditis (1922–1988) is one of the unacknowledged greats of Modern Greek literature. Not only is he unacknowledged in the English-speaking world, largely because nearly all of his writing remains untranslated, but he also has limited recognition within modern Greek literary circles, where he is often overshadowed by twentieth-century giants such as Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos and Kazantzakis, who have become established names in the literary world at large.'

'His literary output is usually divided into three periods. In his first period (1946–56), Leivaditis develops a ‘poetry of the battlefield’ informed by his commitment to the Leftist struggle during WWII and after. In the tradition of social realism, he evokes the horrors of war but also retains an optimism regarding the future. He paid a high price for these ideals: along with many other leftist writers and intellectuals (including Yannis Ritsos), he was exiled to various camps in Greece, though he continued to write poetry ...

In his second period (1957–66), after the defeat of the Left in the civil war, existentialist concerns begin to surface and his work takes on a bleaker, more introspective and even more religious tone. This religious element becomes most intense during his third period (1972–87), where much of his work is concerned with the question of God and has an almost prayerful and hymn-like quality. Perhaps the best example is his masterly collection, The Blind Man with the Lamp (1983), which includes a ‘Credo’ that has a similar form to the traditional Christian Credo, but is now suffused with highly expressive and surrealistic imagery. The same collection also includes twelve ‘Conversations’, which are actually heartfelt pleadings from the poet addressed to Christ, such as the following:

Lord, we both live in the dark, the one cannot see the other. But stretch out your hand, and I will find it. Let me talk to you, and you will hear me. Only give to my words something of that great ineffability which reduces you to silence.

Leivaditis had an extraordinary ability to capture the depth of things, small and great. In ‘Lighted Window’, for example, he talks of ‘silent moments in which all words weep’, and writes that ‘alone a lighted window at night renders the world more profound’. And in ‘Aesthetics’, he writes: ‘As to that story there are numerous versions. / The best one though is always the one where you cry.’'

'The Blind Man with the Lamp, originally published in Greek in 1983, is the first English translation of a complete collection of poetry by Leivaditis. A pioneering book of prose-poems, Leivaditis here gives powerful voice to a post-war generation divested of ideologies and illusions, imbued with the pain of loss and mourning, while endlessly questing for something wholly other, indeed for the holy Other.'

Conversations: 5

LORD, what would I do without you? I am the vacant room and you are the great guest who has deigned to visit it. Lord, what would you do without me? You are the great silent harp and I am the ephemeral hand which awakens your melodies.

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Nikos Kazantzakis - Askitiki.

ArtWay meditation & Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage photographs - Audincourt

The latest ArtWay meditation provides an introduction to the Sacré-Coeur in Audincourt, in the north east of France, that was built in 1949-1951. In the 1930’s the French Dominican friar and Catholic priest Marie-Alain Couturier was enabled by his order to devote himself to new art in the Catholic church. His approach was to summon well-known artists and architects to participate in the building of new churches and to also involve the local community. At Audincourt he attracted artists like Fernand Léger and Jean Bazaine to ecclesiastical art.

I visited Audincourt as part of my sabbatical art pilgrimage but have not yet had the opportunity to write up my visit. However, I can post some of the photographs I took on that visit to add to those which illustrate Albert Hengelaar's ArtWay meditation.















The baptistry at Audincourt is an early example of the move from storytelling in stained glass by means of narrative figuration (e.g. Marc Chagall's stained glass) to the creation of spiritual space using abstract colour (as pioneered by Jean Bazaine and Alfred Manessier) has occurred, primarily in France. The concept of stained glass architecture - of a light-filled architectural unit – that we find here or, for example, at the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face in Hem is an attempt to create spiritual space - a sense of prayer and a glimpse of heaven – through the play of light and colour within the building. In the past churches were centres for the drama of the visual - the drama and spectacle of the liturgy combined with the visual narrative of scripture in stained glass. Now people find their visual stimulation elsewhere - through the media primarily – and, as a result, churches have become centres for the opposite of visual stimulation e.g. centres of visual contemplation, where narrative is less essential than ambience and atmosphere.

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Van Morrison - Into The Mystic.

St Stephen Walbrook - family-friendly visits

At St Stephen Walbrook today we held the first of an occasional series of family-friendly visits to the church designed to enable church members with young families to have an opportunity to come to the church together, which, as our ministry is primarily weekday, is generally impossible for them to do.

We began with a Treasure Hunt ... various clues led each family to different parts of the church ...


... before the treasure was found.


The treasure included the wonderful Step Outside Guide - London's Splendid Square Mile.


Then we made sheep at the craft table just using cups, cotton wool and pipe cleaners. This was followed with a game herding sheep balloons into the sheep pen.


We enjoyed a welcome break for snacks ...


... and then finished the session with the story of the Lost Sheep, the Butterfly song ...


... and prayers thanking God for his love.


A good time was had by all and our next such visit will be organised prior to Christmas.

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The Butterfly Song.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Windows on the world (402)


London, 2016

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Ben Harper - Gold To Me.

Light in Clay Jars

Here is my reflection for this week's Parish newsletter at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The marvellous Parish Away Day, that many of us enjoyed recently, provided an opportunity to make porcelain lanterns as a meditative art activity. Our hope is that, at a later stage, these lanterns will be lit as part of an art installation providing an image of church as God intends it to be.

Porcelain, like all clay, is malleable when wet and able to be moulded and shaped but, once formed and fired, is firm but fragile at one and the same time. Porcelain, however, unlike most other clays, is also translucent meaning that light can be seen through it. All these aspects of porcelain are factors in verses found in 2 Corinthians 4 which says that ‘God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ and that ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’

These verses picture us as fragile clay or porcelain containers. We all, as individuals, have the light of Christ within which can be seen by others as a result of our fragile nature; either the lines of stress in our lives or the thinness of our skin. When we come together as fragile individuals glowing with the light of Christ in and through our fallibilities, we are the Church as it is intended to be.

It is our hope that we can at some time sign this to others by exhibiting our porcelain lanterns on a linked basis, with the links being a network of lights inside the lanterns. Thank you for helping begin to make that vision a reality and for reflecting on this church as a mixture of fragile clay and divine light.

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Michael Kiwanuka - One More Night.