Sunday 28 February 2010

“Stand Firm – Keep Going”

It’s all in the watching. Well, actually there’s more to it than that, but unless you’re watching really carefully then you’re lost. No, unless we are all watching really carefully then we’re all lost.

We’re watching each other, of course, but mainly we’re all watching the one in front. While he waits, we wait. When he moves, we move. When he runs, we run. When he jumps, we jump. Then we all stop. We sit together. And that’s the exciting bit, of course. When we stick together, when we’ve run and jumped and sat together – that’s when we know we can get there, together.

It’s the running that people think about. Accelerating from a standing start, sprinting for all you’re worth. You could get lost in that feeling. But run for all you’re worth and unless you’re watching, really watching, then however fast you are you’re going to get left behind. Because the fastest you can ever hope to run on your own is about twenty miles per hour, and we need to do a hundred.

Have you been watching any of the Winter Olympics? There’s something about the four man bobsleigh race that I find really gripping. Maybe that’s partly because one of our favourite family films is Cool Runnings, about how Jamaica came to field its first bobsleigh team for the Winter Olympics twenty-odd years ago. And it’s definitely also because the moments when it all goes wrong at the start – when one of the team isn’t watching the driver and misses the moment to get into the sled – can be pretty funny!

But when they get it right, it’s impressive stuff. They wait together, watching the driver. They run with him, they watch for the moment he jumps and they follow. And they tuck in for an incredible journey, noses inches from the ice as they hurtle down the run faster than motorway speeds in a metal tube only just big enough for them all to squeeze in.

Now, Biblical scholarship will never be complete this side of eternity, but I’m about as sure as I can be that the apostle Paul wasn’t thinking about bobsleighs when he wrote to the church at Philippi. However, it’s not a bad sport to have in mind when we try and understand what he was saying to them nearly 2,000 years ago, and what this may mean for us today.

This passage could be pretty confusing. If you have a Bible to hand, let’s look at a few verses to see why.

A little before our reading, in chapter 3 verse 8 Paul speaks of how he has been willing to give up everything to gain Christ. In verses 12-14 he presents this as a kind of race – he’s pressing for the finishing line, and not there yet. And in verse 16 – the verse just before our reading – he asks that he and his readers might at least “live up to what [they] have already attained.” And to that end, (I’m summarising the reading very briefly here), he encourages the Philippians to look for Christian role models and follow them, to beware of people he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and that as they wait for this same Lord Jesus Christ to return as saviour and transform them to be like him, they must stand firm.

And I have to say, this seems a crazy kind of race. Hello, Paul, are we meant to be standing firm or racing for the finishing line? Are we meant to fix our eyes on Christ or on you and on each other?

Well, as I said, I doubt that the apostle Paul was thinking about the four-man bobsleigh. That seems geographically and historically unlikely, to say the least. But maybe it will help us.

There are three things about that sport that could give us a way in to this standing race of Paul’s: how we can keep our eyes on the finishing line, how to race without running, and the challenge of standing firm.

So first, how can we keep our eyes on the finishing line, if the goal and end is Christ?

We Christians have a terrible habit of speaking in shorthand. Sometimes we can say things that sound very proper, or very pious, or very profound – not realising that the shorthand we use can confuse people who need to hear us speak clearly, or discourage people whose urgent need is for reassurance.

Here’s an example, “keep your eyes on Jesus.”

I think I know what that’s meant to mean. I don’t think it’s a wrong thing to say. And I’m pretty sure I’ve said it myself. But it is shorthand and it can be confusing.

At the most basic level, it’s impossible! If I want to keep my eyes literally fixed on Jesus, I’m going to have to do without him in person. I’ll need to make do with… what? A picture, perhaps. Jesus, looking slightly ethereal but also powerful, probably with a very western European face, a neat beard and a lovely clean dressing robe. That Jesus always seems so reassuring, but he’s not real. He’s not even realistic. And if I saw someone looking just like that heading straight for me in the Grand Arcade I think I’d duck into John Lewis.

And the Philippians had a similar problem. Culturally, Philippi was worlds away from Jerusalem. It was a Roman colony, fiercely loyal to the emperor. If you want to look at a Lord and Saviour, you look at the nearest statue of the emperor. And you have good reason to do so. Because the emperor is clearly your Lord and master, and as everyone in Philippi knows, he also represents salvation. You see, the city was given to disbanded troops by an emperor who had defeated them in battle in a time of civil war in the Roman Empire. There was every reason for them to expect death – but they found they were given a new life. The victorious Lord they had betrayed chose to trust them, to forgive and restore them.

And so, just imagine how it felt to be one of those people coming to faith in Christ. They already knew a story of salvation and new life. Perhaps that helped them to understand the Gospel. But the good news of Jesus Christ is a topsy-turvy kind of story. He’s a Lord – but he was executed in the Roman way – that is, in the deliberately barbaric way the Romans executed people who weren’t Roman citizens. Though he has already come, in verse 17 we are reminded that we do not see him but we do eagerly await him. And he’s a Saviour, but the daily experience of this salvation may have seemed like its opposite: from fitting in with society to standing out from it; being treated with suspicion; risking hardship by turning away from the cult of the Emperor. 

“Keep your eyes on Jesus” sounds very good, but how? Jesus is the goal, the end of the race. But you can’t actually see him from here.

If you’re in a bobsleigh team you have the same problem. You can’t see the finishing line, but you can see the driver. And you watch him – closely. When he runs, you run. When he jumps, you jump. That’s how you reach the end of the run - together.

And that’s Paul’s practical suggestion of verse 17: “follow my example and keep your eyes on those who live as we do.”

It would be very easy to misunderstand this. In fact, there are many people today – and there were many people at the time – representing Paul as the one who hides or even distorts Jesus, his life and his teaching. Isn’t this a prime example? “Look at me,” says Paul, “Copy me. Don’t worry about Jesus: to follow him you just have to follow me.” But no, you really can’t argue that from this letter. Firstly, Paul is encouraging the church at Philippi to study the whole Christian community, not just himself – and he spells out that he is on his way just as they are, he hasn’t already reached his goal. And secondly, Paul  keeps on stressing that Christ, Christ alone is the centre of the Christian faith, and that if our eyes become clouded we should fill them with the cross of Christ.

Not every Christian leader is reliable. And we don’t always find our brothers and sisters in the church the easiest people to be with, to work with, to worship with. So it’s hardly surprising if our constant temptation is to break away, believing that we will follow Christ better alone, or in a different community, or under different leadership.

Let’s be careful. The strongest runner must be in the bobsleigh to have any chance of finishing the race. It is together, as one team, as a body, that we have been selected. And our joy will be in running and completing the race together for the finishing line.

Now for my second question, how can we race without running?

Stephen gave this talk the theme, “Stand Firm – Keep Going.” And there’s the same puzzle. We can stand firm, or we can keep going. How on earth can we do both? How can we race without running?

Paul is encouraging to the church at Philippi to see their Christian life as moving and active, dynamic, having a direction. It also has an end – but the end is not yet.

At the same time he is warning the church to beware of changing direction. He is warning that there are many who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” And from the context, he’s clearly not warning them about people who don’t believe or present themselves as believers. He’s warning about people who are in – who may even be at the heart of – the church. And he has some very strong words to say: they are ruled by their appetite, they make a virtue of their vices, they want a faith that evades the embarrassment of Jesus crucified and they are headed for destruction.

They probably started well, but they have gone off-course. And by compromising the heart of the Christian faith, they have found their lives have improved. Perhaps they are now seen as intellectually respectable. Perhaps doors to success have started to open. Perhaps they have simply found an easier life: their route-plan to salvation takes the ring-road around Calvary. These people haven’t stopped, they’re speeding up. In fact, they look like life’s big winners. They seem to have found a balance between body, mind and spirit.

But they are running out of control. They’re on the course, hurtling down the ice at breakneck speed, because they’ve taken the brakes off, they’re letting the bobsleigh steer itself. They may well break the course speed record, moments before they career off the track.

In bobsleigh racing, there’s a time to run and a time to sit. Sitting isn’t sleeping. Being part of the team, contributing weight to stabilise the bob, watching in case of problems ahead and being ready to call out – this part of the race isn’t about physical fitness.

It’s so easy to write off those of our brothers and sisters who aren’t visible, who aren’t up front, who aren’t starting new things, who don’t have the time, the energy, the health and strength to do all the things we may want to see happening in our churches.

Let’s be ready to see one another with new eyes, to see as Christ sees. Those who have run more of the course than we have ourselves are no less important. Faithful prayer, a watching eye, an encouraging word, a word of caution – these are indispensable. Those who run and those who are no longer able to run are pressing forward together to the goal.

Finally, then, I would like to conclude with just a thought about the challenge of standing firm.

I wonder if, this winter, you have had any run-ins with the snow and ice? You’re very fortunate if you have made it through the season with no bumps or bruises – and not everyone has been as lucky.

So think for a moment of those runners on the bobsleigh course. They’re running on ice.

Think of the moment before they start – and remember what it feels like when you’re standing, barely holding your balance, on a sheet of ice. Imagine if you started to run. How long before you would land with a bump?

If you want to compete in the bobsleigh, you need very special shoes. They have loads of tiny, sharp spikes – enough to get a good grip, not enough to get caught. And wearing them, you can stand firm, ready to run when you need to, and even to jump when the driver jumps.

In another of his letters [Ephesians 6], Paul talks about the need to have our “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”

We live in a world that moves fast: we stand on icy ground. It’s tempting to anchor ourselves – to dig through the ice and find rock beneath our feet. But that’s not the Christian calling. We can find comfort by protecting our culture, by looking to preserve everything as it was. The world is changing, and we protect ourselves in a kind of Christian bubble.

But that’s not the Christian calling. We have not been called from the world. We have been called in the world, we have been called to the world, and we have been called for the world. We haven’t been given a snow-plough, we have been given Gospel shoes. If we put them on – and only if we put them on – we will be ready to stand. And as we stand firm, we will be ready for our race: watching, ready to move, ready for the race ahead, ready to bring others too into this team, where they and we will be captained by Jesus Christ and received by him with joy at the end of our course.

Preached at St Martin’s Church, Cambridge and then at St Thomas’s Hall, Cambridge, 28 February, 2010

Monday 22 February 2010

Clear Your Desk!

Luke 16:1-12

“Clear your desk!”
Those are words to knot your stomach. We all want to feel irreplaceable, but in business it can’t be so. Do you think the manager in Jesus’ story saw it coming? Was he lazy or greedy, dishonest or incompetent? The boss isn’t happy and this time it’s the chop – he just has time for a handover of the paperwork.
And there, that time for a handover, there’s just that little bit of wriggle room. “I’m losing my job, my income, my home. There’s no chance of a reference; there’s no safety net. I don’t have the muscles to be a builder, I don’t have the talent to be a busker and I don’t have the humility to be a beggar. But I need a pension plan, like, now.”
He thinks fast, he plans fast and he moves fast. Grabbing the file of invoices, he calls in all the debtors – everyone who owes something to the boss. In they come, one by one. Here’s the man who works the olive grove. He owes a share of the output – thousands of litres of extra virgin olive oil. At £4.99 a litre in Tesco’s that’s a tidy sum. “Tell you what,” says the manager (because he still is the manager, even if not for much longer), “Tell you what: I like you; you like me; we understand each other. You work hard, and maybe we’re asking too much. So here’s the deal: you can pay half, how does that sound? OK, we’re agreed. Yes, I’d love to come round some time for a meal. You can thank me later, I have a really busy morning.”
And so on through the queue: worried faces coming in, happy ones going out. He’s spent these last few hours when he’s meant to be putting the books in order buying favours by spending his boss’s capital. It’s not exactly stealing: he can’t be accused of having his hand in the till. He’ll be out on his ear, but he won’t be out in the cold, not with all those smiling friends who’ll be glad to see him, all those people who now owe him a big favour.
The boss gets wind of what he’s been up to and hauls him in. He’s been taken for a ride, but for whatever reason he decides to grin and bear it. “Well done,” he says to Mr Dishonest. “If only you’d been half as sharp on the job…”
And do you know? – because here’s the Sunday School teacher in me kicking in – God’s a bit like that.
Thank you, Maggi, for inviting me here tonight. You asked me to speak as the ‘ordained entrepreneur’ I call myself, and gave me the chance to look at what you and I agree is an outrageous story. It’s definitely one I need to make sense of, because I really want to know if I’m going God’s way.
If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to start by telling you some of my own story.
I’m a reluctant Christian. I was a happy atheist before I ran out of reasons to disbelieve that Jesus Christ is God’s Son. That was in my first year at Oxford, and it took me to nearly the end of my third to actually do something about it, to add a consenting heart to an assenting head.
I’m a reluctant vicar. I spent very nearly 20 years running away from a clear sense of calling to ordained Christian ministry before I became raw material for one of the vicar factories in Cambridge. And even then, I jumped off the production line leading to house and income and went ‘self-supporting,’ becoming unpaid curate of St Martin’s and keeping my family fed and housed by throwing myself into the business startup scene here at a time when our finances were rock bottom and the economy was subterranean.
But I am a happy entrepreneur. I love knocking down doors and opening up opportunities; spotting gaps and jumping into them; putting people together and seeing what happens; taking risks I think I can manage better than other people; celebrating the successes and bouncing back from the flops. And I fit my own definition of entrepreneur which is: someone who finds what they need to do what they want.
So if I am an ordained entrepreneur, most of my ministry is well off the beaten track of churches and the churchy. I’ve chosen to live with everything – faith included – at risk. And, getting back to the story, I’m bound to identify at least a bit with the opportunistic manager, if not in his ethics, certainly in his weighing up of a situation leading to rapid action to seize the main chance.
If that dishonest manager gets a thumbs-up from the boss, maybe I do too. Although I need to remember he got the sack, so I have to be a bit careful of getting smug.
Is God a bit like this boss? Well, there is something of grace about him – cheated by his outgoing staff member, he chooses to appreciate rather than incarcerate. When Jesus explains the story – OK, that’s an exaggeration, he leaves enough of a puzzle for generations of scholars and wearers of odd collars to sweat over – he says that “the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
So this is a story for a mixed economy. There are “children of this age” who are thoroughly worldly and at home in the here and now, and there are “children of light” who are in a way visitors to or voyagers in the world as it is, who look to the world as it could be, to the world as God willing it will be. Thinking back to the Christmas season, we recall how in the birth of Jesus Matthew tells us that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light.” Those who respond to this light become children of light. They now shine in that same darkness with the reflected glory of the one true light – that’s not their job, it’s a kind of spiritual physics.
So is Jesus really telling us that shrewdness is a no-no for his people? Here comes the great reckoning, how’s your eternal balance sheet? Shrewds to the left – no credit, all crunch; prudes to the right and amply justified bonuses all round? No, I don’t think so. This parable comes in a block of teaching that begins a chapter before: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus is offering a new perspective on living, and it’s the pious who don’t like it one bit. Those who take their religion so very seriously think Jesus is like the cross-eyed teacher who has no control over his pupils. He has absolutely no respect for them, and no apparent scruples. There he sits, surrounded by the faithless rich and the faceless poor. If a person is known by the company they keep, this Jesus is just another crowd-pleaser, careless of the rules. At best he’s misguided, wasting his time, talents and teaching.
And so Jesus tells this story. And it is meant to provoke that response of, “What??????” It’s a challenge as direct as you could want to the complacency which so easily sets in to all of us who start to think that when we become Christians we hand over responsibility to God and cover ourselves in an insulating layer of respectability. It’s not that we don’t want to see others find what we’ve found, of course. I’m sure they’ll see us, pillars of respectability, and some will be inspired by our radiance to become just like us.
Just think what’s been put into our trust: the riches of heaven, to know and be known as friends of God, and perhaps material prosperity as well. And what have we done, what are we doing with all this that has been entrusted to us? How are we using all we’ve been given? Secretly, as a private hoard, stockpiled until we need it? Perhaps we’re pooling our resources, sharing with others who are like us. Perhaps we even take the risk of putting this wealth on display. 
But the call to follow Jesus is different. It’s a call to risk being misunderstood – especially by Christians. It’s a call to meet people as they live in the misery of the world’s broken promises, and to greet them not with words of condemnation but with words of hope and friendship. It’s a call to trust God that if he should be calling us to give up all we have, whether riches or reputation, then we will be welcomed into eternal dwellings – welcomed into a new life that is not merely endless but boundless.
This story is outrageous because the Gospel is outrageous. It’s a reminder that faith is a risk. Gospel lives aren’t safe, but they are secure. They aren’t stable, but they are anchored. And Gospel goods aren’t for keeping – we need to act to share what’s been lavished on us or else either it or we will be spoiled. Gospel clothes are worn with humility: they are always worn at the knees. Gospel people are always ready to move – and always ready to be moved.
This Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, is a chancer, seizing the moment. He’s a risk-taker, putting everything at stake when that’s what it takes.
I wonder if one day you may hear his call as I have? It’s a call that thrills my soul just as it knots my stomach.
“Clear your desk!”

Given at Robinson College, Cambridge, Sunday evening 21 February, 2010