Sunday, 18 August 2013

Why Am I a Christian


The text that follows is an extended version of a sermon I did. I had to edit sections out because it was too long for the time given to me. The edited sections are printed in italics.

Click here for a link to download this sermon to hear a recording of the sermon from one of the services it was delivered to.

For as long as I can remember I have always believed that there is a God. Always, since I was about 10. But more than this I strongly believed that I had to be in a relationship with him. And I came to believe over the years that God loved me and that needed a personal response. But I don’t think my thoughts developed much beyond this when I was younger.

God has been very gentle with me over the years. In my search for him he has nudged, guided and protected me. I have made some strange decisions and reached some very odd conclusions.

Here are some experiences along the way to becoming a Christian.

Christianity was an alien concept for me because I grew up in a North West London Jewish family. Christianity was something strange to us. I was taught that I was different from Christians. Christians let Jews down during the Second World War and Christians hated Jews. We were encouraged to keep ourselves to ourselves and to look after each other. I remember we had Roman Catholic neighbours that would not let their children play with us. One of the children told us she could not be friends because we were Jewish it was the Jews that killed Jesus.

After all, my uncle escaped Germany when he was a boy at the start of the war through a rescue mission known as the Kindertransport in which 10,000 mostly Jewish children were fostered out to English families. But his parents and his younger brother were killed at Auschwitz. And my mother tells the story of how her grandmother hid under a table during a pogrom attack by Cossacks in the small Jewish village in Poland.

All four of my grandparents were born in Poland until they immigrated to England during the 1900’s. They came because their parents wanted a better life for their children and to escape the antisemitism they experienced. Their story is reflected in the film Fiddler on the Roof. This film was a favourite of my family when we were growing up. We knew all the songs and sang them whenever we visited them. 

We weren’t religious Jews really. We went to synagogue once or twice a year at Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. We celebrated the Passover with a traditional meal with a small circle of friends and family.


We used to go to my grandparents for Sunday lunch. We ate Jewish food like chicken soup and broiled Chicken. Sometimes we had borscht and Gefilta fish. My grandparents spoke Yiddish with my father and spoke English with heavy Polish accents.

When I was eleven my parents decided to send me to a Jewish summer camp for two weeks in the heart of the Kent countryside. I think they felt I wasn’t getting my Jewish five a day. I was the oldest son after all. It was my first real experience of living life as a practicing Jew. I loved the sense of tradition, belonging and ritual. It gave me a strong sense of identity and purpose. I loved it so much I went each summer for 4 years. It was a strictly orthodox Jewish camp which meant a big change of life style for me. For example there were three services a day. All the food was strictly kosher. There were lots of rules as well. I remember lying out on a field with friends one Sabbath and I was just plucking up blades of grass around me. Then someone said very gently looking at the grass I had plucked, ‘we don’t do that on a Sabbath.’

But I felt completely accepted by these people they overwhelmed me with friendship and acceptance.

By the time I was 13 I became restless and wanted to know why Jews lived like this. I tried asking questions to the camp leaders. But they weren’t interested. Their focus was about supporting the State of Israel and doing the right thing. There did not seem to be any opportunity for deep personal questioning. Or any talk of God’s love. I suppose Judaism seemed mechanical and automatic to me. It felt inward looking and tribal. It was frustrating. But I needed more from the Jewish leaders I met.

When I was thirteen I had my Bar mitzvah. This is where a boy becomes a man in Judaism and this is marked by the bar mitzvah boy taking part in the Sabbath service by reading a portion of the Torah. Actually I had to sing the passage I’d been given.

I’d spent months learning the passage and practicing it verse by verse. My parents hired a rabbi to teach me the passage and the prayers to be said before and after the reading. It took ages to get it right. On my last lesson before the big day my rabbi said ‘if anyone asks you about the passage you are reading tell them it’s about different kinds of sacrifices made at the temple’.

Thinking what he said sums up for me my experience of Judaism. There was a concern with appearances rather than actual substance or a living relationship with God. He was not expecting anyone to ask me what the passage was about. But just in case I could give a bland answer that ticked a box’.

Fast forwarding briefly - when I was 17 a rabbi used to come and visit me regularly. The last time he came to see me I asked him, ‘what is it to be a Jew? And I remember looking at him slowly stepping back from me tipping his hat in farewell as he left the room. He did not answer my question.

So life just carried on. I made friends with a pretty rough crowd but I was still asking myself the same nagging questions about how to be in a relationship with God.

About a year later when I was 14 my closest friend from that group was an ex Hell’s Angel. He was 3 or 4 years older than me and quite scary. But one day he turned up at our house and proclaimed ‘I’m a Christian.’ And for the next few months he kept on at me about becoming a Christian. And so one night I knelt down on the floor and asked Jesus to come into my life. But nothing happened.

Still searching I think I began to get desperate about being in a relationship with God so I turned to the occult and natural religion for the answers I needed.

In the long school summer holiday of 1974 when I was 15 I was at home with my sisters and a couple of friends. And we were bored. Then someone suggested we hold a séance. At the mention of the word the hairs on my neck stood up, my heart began to beat loudly and I began to shake. I knew something was going to happen that would change my life. It was so scary and so exciting.


And so for a couple of weeks we returned again and again to a conversation with something on the other side of an upside down glass on a table. We asked loads of questions; sometimes it got angry or didn’t make any sense. It told me I was going to die. And sometimes I could feel it touch me on my hand. It was a hot, clammy feeling. I didn’t like it.

Then one day a friend decided to read the Lord’s Prayer backwards during a séance. And I felt strongly that this was wrong and dangerous and I got up to leave the room. I walked out into the conservatory at the back of the house and suddenly I fell through the windows and ended up outside in the back garden. My scream and the smashing of windows stopped my friend reading the prayer and we never had another séance again. My mum was pretty unhappy about the windows.

Two years later I had left school – without any qualifications and was working for a wine merchant in Bond Street. It was an amazing year. Suddenly I had money; I met new people and began to discover London for myself. What an incredible city. At lunchtime I’d go out. I discovered loads of places like The Museum of Mankind, the street where they took the photograph for the cover of David Bowie’s record Ziggy Stardust. And in Regent’s Street I found The Village Bookshop.


It specialised in philosophy and religion. And I discovered writers and bought books about Stonehenge, Lay lines and ancient religions. The bookshop was a treasure trove. There were lots of answers here about how to be in a relationship with God, I thought.

I became fascinated by Stonehenge. I wondered why it had been built and believed it was a special place where God and people meet and communicate with each other. Over the months I had a fantasy in which I could wander around the stones alone with no one else around and for some reason I imagined that I didn’t have to pay to visit the stones.

And then suddenly my life changed completely. And I became very ill. I had to leave work and was admitted to hospital for weeks. Eventually I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. Polyarteritis nodosa was incurable but could be controlled and managed with drugs. My consultant told me I’d probably die with different legs than the legs I was born with. And he told me I had to go back to school and get properly educated.

But recovery was long and difficult. A homeless friend was staying with us and I was incredibly depressed for months. I was barely sleeping and my days were spent alone and bored with everyone getting on with their lives around me.

My mum was worried and she wanted to cheer me up. So one day when things felt really bad she decided we were going to Stonehenge. It took us ages to get there but eventually we got to Stonehenge; but we were so late they were closing the place up. Stonehenge was almost completely deserted. But because we were so late they let us in for free. And I had a chance to fulfil my fantasy. I wandered around the stones and shouted my name to the universe. When we got home things began to change immediately. Our homeless friend received an offer of accommodation and I received a letter of acceptance at a local college. My depression began to lift and I felt strongly that God was guiding me.


September came and I became a student at a college for 4 years. I started on a pre O level vocational course and left in 1981 with 2 respectable A Levels. I absolutely loved being a student of English. One of the poets we studied was T.S Eliot and I became fascinated by his poetry.

Around this time A year later when I was 19 I was just well enough to visit Israel with a group of Jewish friends. We spent almost two months travelling in Israel. We worked in a desert Kibbutz for a month and spent a week in Jerusalem and another week in Galilee. We visited Bethlehem, the Wailing Wall and synagogues Jesus probably preached in.

Oddly a Jewish friend from those days has just got in touch with me through facebook this week as I was preparing this talk. We haven’t been in touch with each other for over 20 years.

When I reflect on the Jewish third of my life I think how privileged I am to have had that Jewish upbringing. My life is embedded with a Jewish culture and perspective. Far from being an outsider as a Jew within my adopted Christian religion I have been treated with great respect – even honour by Christians. 
  The summer I received my results, I spent every day walking my dog on Harrow on the Hill near where I lived, and reading books about ancient religions and lay lines. One of Eliot’s poems kept on going through my mind. It was about a holy place where people can meet with God. It occurred to me that the hill was an ancient place of worship like Stonehenge. One day I felt so convinced of this that I marched into a bookshop there and demanded to know what’s so special about it. And amazingly the bookseller confirmed my thoughts. She told me the hill was an ancient and sacred place of worship and Lay lines crossed the hill by the church. She said if I was interested in this stuff I should join the School of Economic Science in London, which runs courses in ancient wisdom and worship. And so I joined. There was sure to be answers there I thought. I felt that God was guiding me again. Now I would discover how to be in a relationship with him.

My A Level results came and I moved to Hatfield to do a degree in English. On the first day of the course I met Katy. She became one of my first college friends. And we began to talk about God. Well Katy actually talked about Jesus and God’s love for people. It was the first time that anyone talked to me about God’s love. It was a conversation that lasted just over three years.

But at the same time I was studying and talking to Katy I went once a week to London to the School of Economic Science. And heard talks about mysticism and stayed around to chat to people. And it was then I met Pam. 

Most weeks we talked about God. We became good friends. And then one day she said, “Let’s not go back to that school again David. That place is bad. Let’s keep meeting but let’s not go there again.” By now our friendship was more important than this school. And so we left. One day Pam started telling me about Jesus and his love and work of salvation. It felt that Jesus was everywhere I looked. Other good friends at Hatfield were becoming Christians. And for the first time I began to listen a little more sympathetically to what they had to say.

At Hatfield Katy got me going to church. We went every week. I don’t know why I went. She was so annoying. We argued all the way to the church about the point of going. And argued all the way home about the services. I just refused to accept that a tortured man’s death 2000 years ago could have anything to do with me. On the last church service of my final year I got chatting to a man at the church. He told me he knew people that worshipped at Harrow on the Hill and he gave me their phone number if I ever needed it.
Later that summer Katy and me decided to go on a camping trip to the isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. I’d heard it was a sacred place. And there was an ancient Abbey. It sounded like it was a place like Stonehenge and Harrow on the Hill. I thought I might meet God there.

When we got to the Abbey I remember storming up to the lectern and opening the huge bible. It opened to Psalm 139 and I read it. It felt that God was speaking to me through the words of the psalm. He said I created you. I know you David. My hand is upon you. There is no where you can go to hide from me. I was amazed by these words. Well incredibly even later that summer a miracle happened. I did become a Christian. Katy invited me to stay with her in Suffolk and while I was there Billy Graham held a rally at the local football stadium as part of Mission England. I didn’t expect much from the rally. I expected a few familiar songs and a long boring sermon. But when Billy Graham called people down to give their lives to Jesus I felt that everything he said was completely right. And I was compelled to go down onto the pitch and accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour. It was very exciting.

 But then I came back to Harrow and my family a Christian. I started reading the gospels. But I felt alone with my faith. So I found the piece of paper with the phone number of the people that worshiped on the hill. I phoned them. They invited me to Sunday lunch then to the service afterwards. He was a lay reader and he lived right at the top of the hill between the bookshop and the old church at the summit. And I realised that my belief that I would meet God on Harrow on the Hill had come true. The church was very welcoming to me. And through their welcome they showed me God’s love in those vulnerable few weeks.

Over the years I feel that God has been present in my life. He has nudged me and guided me through many experiences. He had his hand firmly on me and was gradually drawing me to his son.

Of course loads more things happened. And I’ve talked about the events leading up to that Billy Graham meeting in another sermon you can find on .

So that’s why I became a Christian. But finally there is one very simple answer to the question why am I a Christian now. I am a Christian because of you, I mean Christ Church New Malden. Over the 20 something years we’ve been here this church has been Jesus to us. You have loved us and shown that love in many ways through services, home groups, and prayer, through support and through practical actions; in your amazing gifts of time and money and everyday practical friendship.


And that is why I am a Christian today.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Hearing God Through Poetry

What do people mean when they say God has spoken to me? Do they hear an actual voice? Is the voice in their heads or can other people hear the voice too?

Once or twice in my life I have felt God has spoken to me directly. But this wasn’t through a voice but through poetry. I love reading poetry and I read a lot of poems. Sometimes ~I read a poem and have felt that God was speaking to me through it. When that happens it’s as if the words I read became bright on the page. And as I read the poem I feel an overwhelming sense of the truth and rightness of the words. I also feel really moved by them. And they seem to spoke directly to me and my situation at the time. I believe that that was God.

Reading poetry can be a really personal thing. Sometimes a poem can mean one thing to one person and something completely different to someone else. But sometimes God muscles in on what we are reading – he takes it over. This is a great mystery and a great blessing.

This evening I’m going to tell you three connected stories about my life in which a poem and a psalm helped me to become a Christian. This is the story of how God spoke to me through poetry.

Story one. It started in 1980 three years before I became a Christian. It was the summer before I took my A levels. During the long summer days I was bored and restless and didn’t do much, so I took our dog for long walks. I took him to a nearby park and then I’d cross the main road and climb up to Harrow on the Hill.

[Slide 2 – view of Harrow on the Hill]

Half way up the hill is a village and right at the top above the village is a church. It is a very old church. I think it dates back to the 5th century.

[Slide 3 – view of St Mary’s church]

I used to sit on the grave stones for ages thinking about stuff and just look out at the views. Sometimes I used to wake up in the dead of night restless and unable to get back to sleep, so I’d get dressed and leave the house and go for long walks up to the church on the hill.

[Slide 4 – view of church – night]

I didn’t mind about walking through the old church yard with its weather beaten graves and tombstones.

I felt quite safe and really I thought it was a bit exciting, roaming around when everyone else was asleep in their beds or dead in their graves. [Close slide 5]

Anyway, soon the summer was over, I stopped taking the dog for long walks at night and I began to study English Literature again. One poem we studied was “Little Gidding” by T S Eliot. It was amazing reading the poem for the first time because it described exactly my walks up to the ancient church at Harrow on the Hill. In one part of the poem there’s a description of a journey to a 16th century church in the village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire.

[Slide 5 – view of graves – night]

[Slide 6 – church at Little Gidding]
Although Eliot was writing about his visits to Little Gidding to me Eliot was describing my visits to St Mary’s church Harrow on the Hill. It was really strange.

He wrote
“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.

The poem describes some of the details of the walk, the hedgerows are white with blossom, - as they still were when I started walking up the hill in late May, there is a rough track that leads up to the church, the church has a dull appearance and is surrounded by graves. There is also a small farm on the slopes of the hill. All these can be found I expect at hundreds of churches around the country but for me Eliot was describing Harrow..

Then Eliot writes about the world’s end. When he writes about “the world’s end” he is describing a place where the world and heaven are closely connected. And for some reason as I walked up on the hill that summer I did begin to feel that this was a special place. Eliot writes,

“There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.”

But what really knocked me for six was not the physical similarities between Harrow and Little Gidding but how similar my thoughts were to the person on the journey to the church in Eliot’s poem. Because in this poem Little Gidding, Eliot describes my thoughts exactly.

“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”

He describes someone walking to the church without any real purpose; someone who walks to the church during the day but also in the middle of the night. Like me the walker is alone and is searching for something – but is not sure what it is. And then Eliot says that whatever it is you are searching for is nothing compared to what you eventually find. And what you find is a holy place in which you meet with God. He writes

" you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind,… "

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Eliot writes here that in this place you experience God by surrendering the rational and common sense way of thinking, and give ourselves to him completely., even if it doesn’t make any sense.

I really felt that God was speaking to me through that poem. I felt that he was calling me to be close to him and to know him. And I felt he was telling me that God was present at this place. That I was going to meet with God in Harrow on the Hill.

You couldn’t really describe Harrow on the Hill as a mountain top like Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments or Mount Tabor – the traditional setting for the Sermon on the Mount but I felt that God was here in this place and he was reaching out to me.

One Saturday during that autumn term I took the dog for a walk up to the hill with my sister and our dog. We were walking through the village passing a few shops, when I suddenly stopped. I handed the dog to my sister and told her I had to go into the next shop. So I went in, walked straight up to the woman behind the counter and I demanded she, “Tell me about Harrow on the Hill.” Well she started telling me about the history and the people. But I interrupted her and said. “No, there is something special here and I want you to tell me what it is.” And amazingly she did. She told me that people had been worshipping on the hill for thousands of years. She said the church was built on sacred ground. She said if I really wanted to know more I should join a school of ancient wisdom. And so I did it wasn't a very helpful place. But I did meet a Christian in the school and she became very helpful in my search for God.

[Slide 12 Iona Abby]

Story 2 In the summer of 1983 - four years after that summer when I walked up onto Harrow on the Hill I went to Scotland to visit the island of Iona. I wasn’t a Christian yet but I was still searching for a way to be in a relationship with God. I was actually quite fed up with Christianity. At college most of my friends turned out to be Christians, including Katy, my wife. But for me there was no way the meaning of life the universe and everything could be summed up by a man living in Israel 2000 years ago and dying on a cross. Going to Iona was a rebellion against Christianity.

[Slide 13 Iona Cloister]

For me the island was a sacred place like Harrow on the Hill. There had been a church on the island since the 5th century. It was also a place of pagan worship for hundreds of years before Christians arrived there. For me it was another place that was the world’s end. A place to meet with God.

I wanted to strike out by myself I thought I was getting away from this Christian God to a pre Christian sacredness. But Katy wanted to go to the Abby. So when we got there I stormed through the doors and stepped straight up to the lectern in the middle of the Abby. It had a huge leather bible on it and I just opened it furiously and read the first thing my eyes fixed on: Psalm 139

6 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea, -

and travel 600 miles from home to an island off the west coast of Scotland

10 even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.”

And I was completely amazed. I spent the next few days in that Abby trying to come to terms with this Christian God that could speak so clearly and directly to me out of the pages of a book.

[Slide 14 Iona Cloister 2]

This was an important step in my becoming a Christian. And it was through a Psalm, an ancient song lyric, another poem that God had used to speak to me.

Story three. A year later in 1984 my student life was coming to an end. I was about to leave college so I thought I was at my last church service with Katy. I remember the sermon was about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. His face was shinning and he had to wear a veil because he didn’t want to scare the Israelites waiting for him at the foot of the mountain.

Anyway at the end of the service I got chatting to someone. I told him I wasn’t a Christian, I told him I was leaving Hatfield and going back home to Harrow. I don’t know why but I told him I’d miss coming to church.

Then he told me of a friend of his who preached at a church in Harrow and he gave me their phone number and told me he’d contact them and let them know I might phone.

Well later on that summer I did become a Christian. In front of thousands of people and Billy Graham at Portland Road football stadium in Ipswich I gave my life to Jesus. But then I had to go home, back to Harrow, to my Jewish family who could not understand what I had done. They felt so betrayed and hurt. I came back to Harrow clutching a thin paperback gospel of Mark and a study book to help me in my first days of my new life. At home I found the slip of paper with a name and a phone number on it that I’d been given at Hatfield. And I phoned him up this stranger and told him my name and who I was.

He invited me to come to Sunday lunch and then go on to church with him and his family. It’s odd because when I went to visit him I realised that he lived at the top of Harrow on the Hill, about 100 yards from the church yard I’d been wandering around in the middle of the night three years before. Odd because this was my first church family who in those first few weeks showed me God’s love in their hospitality, their friendship, their teaching and their worship. Odd because the poem that I’d read and studied four years earlier seemed to me to have described the situation so perfectly.

When I think back to the first time I read the poem. I’m awestruck by God’s amazing generosity to me. He communicated to me in a way in a way that I could understand and respond to. He took my stuburness and my ego, my interest in poetry and my interest in ancient religion to bring me to his son Jesus.

Loads of people had been praying for me for years. They were patient and faithful in their prayers. And God also waited, patiently. He knew “my thoughts from afar,” he had “searched me and knew me”, “he knit me together in my mother’s womb,” and he waited and brought all things together.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Jesus Never Said Religion and Politics Don't Mix

SERMON 16 MARCH 9.30 12 – 14 minutes
Jesus never said Religion and Politics don’t mix

Heavenly Father please take these words of mine and these words of yours and breathe your holy spirit upon them. May they give light to our lives and honour to you. In Jesus name

[Slide 1 Title] Good morning.

This is the third sermon in a series of sermons titled Things Jesus Never Said. One saying that is often quoted is Religion and Politics don’t mix. And that’s the title of this sermon.

And this is the title of this sermon Jesus Never Said Religion and Politics don’t mix

Today is Palm Sunday when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. All the crowds came out, they lined the streets. They shouted praise and welcome. The air was charged with excitement and expectation. Was this the messiah, the man to liberate Israel from Roman rule? “Hosanna to the son of David” they shouted. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It must have felt like a political rally.

Jesus’ reputation had preceded him, “the prophet of Nazareth”, the teacher, the man that healed. The man that could bring the dead to life.

But as Jesus comes to Jerusalem he all too quickly collides with the religious, Jewish and Roman authorities. Suddenly within just a few days of Jesus’ arrival his teaching and healing ministry come to an abrupt and brutal end with his Crucifixion.

[Slide Burma 2 Monk]
In Burma in 2007 a small string of protests began against the sudden price rises of petrol and the decline in living standards of people who are among some of the poorest in the world. Surprisingly the protests were started by Buddhist monks. They usually live at a distance from the ordinary citizens of Burma. Thousands of them left their monasteries to march through the streets.[ Slide 3 Burma Monks on march]

As a result Burma’s military regime attacked the monks. Within days they were scattered. Monasteries were ransacked. And many protestors were killed or arrested as we all saw on our television screens.

Religion can be a dangerous business. Perhaps it would have been better if the monks just kept their heads down. Didn’t make too much fuss. Perhaps that’s what Jesus should have done too. Perhaps religion and politics just don’tmix.

End slide.

So what place does religion have in politics? What place should we as Christians have in the political situations around us? What do we do? It’s with questions like these you just know you’ve got to turn to the Bible.

The passage that thingy read is one of the most well known passages thought to show Jesus’ view on politics. Some people think that Jesus was saying that religion and politics don’t mix.

[Slide Reading 4]So one day The Pharisees and the Herodians try and trap Jesus.

But Jesus knows this is a set up. He is in a tight spot. Herodians stood to on one side of him and Pharisees on the other. These were two Jewish groups strongly against one another. The Herodians were supporters of Herod, Caesar’s puppet king of Israel. Although Herod and his supporters were Jewish, their allegiance was to Caesar, and the Roman Empire.

The Pharisees were the religious rulers of the Jews that adhered closely to the commandments in the law of Moses. They were a deeply nationalistic and religious group. They did not recognize the authority of Rome. They despised paying taxes to the self proclaimed ‘deified’ Caesar. They wanted the Romans out.

And so here are the two groups working together for one purpose to bring Jesus down. Because he was a threat to both their authorities.

First they flatter him and then they ask “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This is a trick question. If he answered pay the taxes he would have undermined the Jewish book of the Law in favour of Roman laws and Gods. And angered the Pharisees. If he answered don’t pay taxes to Caesar then he was liable to be arrested for subverting Roman rule. Jesus answers by calling for a coin. He asks whose head is inscribed on it and then proclaims. [Slide 5 Reading]"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

If he answered yes or no it would have revealed where he thought true sovereignty lay. Either it lay with Caesar or with God. Either answer would have got him arrested by one party or the other.

People think that Jesus was saying here that spiritual matters should be left to God and that earthly matters should be left to kings and emperors.

But I don’t think that is what Jesus was really saying.

Jesus says whatever bears the seal; the likeness of Caesar belongs to Caesar. So what is Caesar’s exactly? And what belongs to God exactly? Well apparently a small circular piece of metal about the size of a two pence coin belongs to Caesar. The Pharisees would have been really amazed at Jesus’ answer. For they knew, as Jesus knew that

[Slide 6 Reading]”God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness”.

Jesus is saying that we bear the stamp and seal of our Creator. Our God’s seal is upon us. Not Caesars.

And the Pharisees also knew as Jesus knew that

[Slide 7 Reading] “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;”

and that includes its money and politics.

For there are no no go areas of human life that are separate from God.

[Slide 8 Tutu Quote]The former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu said

“If we are to say that religion cannot be concerned with politics, then we are really saying that there is a substantial part of human life in which God’s will does not run. If it is not God’s, then whose is it?”

[Slide 9 Hitler, Stalin] According to some estimates these three men were responsible for the slaughter of 132 million people.

It is inconceivable that Jesus would see the two separated like this. Even the history of Israel is a history based on a ruler that combined both religious and political realms starting with Moses.

So what would it mean for us if Jesus had said that politics and religion don’t mix? Imagine for a moment that Christians like William Wilberforce [Slide 10 Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce] had not helped to abolish slavery. Or that The Rev Martin Luther King hadn’t actively campaigned against racial segregation in America.

Instead imagine if Christians looked on at these great injustices and did nothing while it was left to others to do the work of justice and mercy. Surely the best way to be a Christian in the world is to be active in changing the world for good.

As the Irish Political Philosopher and Politician Edmund Burke said

[Slide 11 Edmund Burke Quote] “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So what about today? What about our own society? And the world around us? Imagine a Christian silence as the nation debates [Slide 12 Slogans] [Gay Rights, Abortion, poverty, crime, the environment, terrorism, the middle east, third world debt, the spread of HIV/AIDS.]

At its best a strong and prayerful Christian voice can change the world for good. But often public Christian voices are ridiculed in the press [Slide 13 Headlines] when they speak making them sound awkward and embarrassing. They are told to mind their own business and stop meddling. [Slide 14 Archbishop of Canterbury]

But the truth of what they say can frighten politicians, anger multinational corporations, and challenge governments and the law. A Christian voice can be a voice that no one with power really wants to hear.

Helder Camara used to be an Archbishop in Brazil. He put his finger on this when he said this.

[Slide 15 Quote] “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.”

Helder Camara was criticised by a corrupt Brazilian government because he challenged their policies that reduced most of the population to extreme poverty while a small minority lived like kings.

Like Arch Bishop Helder Camara we should challenge causes of poverty and injustice.

Last year about 40 people in Christ Church did a course here. It was run by members of Tear Fund and they shared with us the Micah Challenge. The challenge is to put into action the famous verse in Micah where it says

[Slide 16 Reading] “And what does the LORD require of you? To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The course leaders helped us think of ways of putting that key verse into practical action. They showed us how we could help the poor here in New Malden. And discussed fair trade and third world debt. We talked about ways we could campaign to bring change about.

When I first got married I saw this in action in a very powerful way. I did a series of part time jobs. One of them was for a Christian charity. Every part of the charity was involved important current social and political issues. I didn’t always agree with their campaigns but what really impressed me was their commitment and determination to social and political change.

When I was working there the law on abortion was being amended. On one level they were lobbying members of parliament on the issue of abortion. But at the same time they were providing real, practical help and support for hundreds of young and vulnerable pregnant women.

[Slide 17 Iona Abbey] I was looking for retreat when I first visited the Iona Christian Community. It’s on the remote island of Iona, which is an hour on the ferry from mainland Scotland. I expected a place of quiet reflection and meditation away from all the stresses and tensions of London.

I remember visiting the Community bookshop in the ancient Abbey expecting books on prayer and Christian meditation.

Instead I found political books from a Christian perspective on subjects such as nuclear disarmament, the environment and the role of women in society.

There I was looking for spiritual retreat right on the edge of our British Isles. But out there I found a clear and confident Christian political voice. That was completely plugged into the contemporary issues of the day.

[Slide 18 Iona Cross] Let us…I must learn that lesson for myself. Politics whether it be party political, campaigning on domestic or international issues is a God given requirement. But it is difficult to think of politics as a valuable and God given pursuit today. Politics has a dirty reputation. The papers are full of political scandals and corruptions. But we must not let that put us off.

On the Micah course we learned that to do justice is to be political because justice arises out of the law. To love mercy is to show compassion for our neighbours. And to walk humbly with God is live lives filled with praise and worship. It shows that politics love and religion are inseparable. And the Lord requires that we do all three. So when Jesus says give to Caesar what is Caesars and give to God what is God’s he is showing that we have political responsibilities as well as spiritual responsibilities. Because everything is stamped with God’s image.[End Slide]

Monday, 8 September 2008



Jesus came to turn things upside down. And our reading ends with Jesus’ saying “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” The beginning of this chapter in Matthew is partly an illustration of this saying.

At the beginning of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre’s parents die and she is adopted by an aunt who mistreats her. The aunt spoils her own privileged children and sends Jane to a school for orphans, eventually she becomes a servant in a great house.

Yet at the end of the novel we find those that had treated her badly, despised her, abused her and rejected her have either died or their lives had been ruined. And Jane herself becomes the wife of the wealthy man she has loved for years.

For Jane Eyre “the first became last and the last became the first.”

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard Jesus gives us a picture of what the kingdom of heaven will be like. He tells us of a vineyard owner going out into the market place and inviting men to work in his vineyard. Throughout the day he goes out to hire more and more people. And to each one he promises to pay them ‘what is right’.

At the end of the working day starting with those that have worked the least he pays them one denarius – a generous day’s wages for this unskilled work.

But those who had worked all day complained that it wasn’t fair. They had worked all day under the blazing sun not just one hour in the cool of the day!! But the vineyard owner protests, if he wants to be generous what is it to you what he does with his money?

It is in this openness, this outpouring of care and full hearted generosity that Jesus offers his disciples and us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

You see behind the scenes the disciples have been arguing among themselves. Two chapters earlier in chapter 18 the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus gives an astounding reply. “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And later James and John’s mother asks Jesus “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

The disciples like the complaining vineyard workers expect honour, status and reward. They are measuring their work according to the values of men. But Jesus calls his disciples to be different. This call to be different is a key theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. And I think this parable is an illustration to the disciples, showing them in what ways they are to behave and think differently in the world.

Because Jesus is not interested in status or hierarchy, he rejects this worldly way of looking at people. In fact he tells his disciples that far from expecting honour, they should seek to serve people. Later on in the chapter Jesus even says to his disciples that the greatest among you should serve you, the first among you should be your slave. He tells them that he has come to serve them, even to give up his life for them.

Jesus had come to turn the world upside down. This was a hard message for his disciples to grasp. And it is a message that we struggle with still, today.

He has no concern for earthly judgments or an earthly perspective. The complaints of the vineyard workers reveal their bitterness, their self importance and their jealousy and small mindedness. Jesus instead elevates those in society that are forgotten, the ignored, the unimportant and the unemployed. He is concerned with the ones left out, those hanging around the market place – a Judean job centre - with nothing to do and nowhere to go. In this parable he echoes The Beatitudes, encouraging his disciples to look with God’s eyes at our world and not with the eyes of the Romans or the Pharisees.

And this is still a challenge for all of us today, for me today. For who do you think you are in this parable? I know who I am. I am one of the vineyard workers whose been working all day. And sometimes I look at the world around me, and I am filled with jealousy and bitterness.

In this parable Jesus offers me a way of tackling those human feelings. Firstly this parable helps me to recognize when I get angry or bitter or jealous. Naming how I feel helps me to distance myself from my emotions and realize that I have a choice. I can chose to continue feeling these negative thoughts, or I can chose to see things in a more positive and loving way and respond with generosity as the vineyard owner does.
It was a radical teaching for his disciples, what did they make of it? Peter asks Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us. Jesus was in the process of tearing down the very foundations on which the disciples had built their lives. And that work still needs to be done today. Especially as we come to this table and take this food this morning. Jesus throughout this gospel again and again with love and a great deal of patience tries to show his disciples and us what he means.
One thing I think he means is that all human merit shrivels before God’s burning self giving love. It is the vineyard owner’s open generosity of spirit and his concern for those that were in most need that were important to him.

Another episode that illustrates God’s priorities comes when Jesus is being crucified. A criminal being crucified beside him recognizes Jesus’ innocence and his divinity. That recognition alone draws Jesus’ immediate assurance of salvation. “I tell you the truth, he says to the man, today you will be with me in paradise.”

If anyone was less deserving of God’s love it was that criminal. He had committed a capital crime; a court of law had condemned him. This was Justice.

And yet Jesus accepts him with open arms.

Therefore it is God’s gift of love alone that enables us to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I remember once when I was a teenager being asked to help out at a Christmas lunch in an old people’s home run by nuns. I thought I’d arrived in good time to do work. But when I arrived most of it had already been done. There was not much more that needed doing. So I just sat and chatted with the people in the home for awhile until their Christmas dinner was ready.

I remember going into the kitchen to help serve the food. But instead one of the nuns ushered me out of the kitchen and told me to sit down at one of the tables. So I found an empty seat and began chatting again to the people around me. And then a huge plate food was put in front of me. That was a great Christmas lunch. I didn’t deserve that lunch. Looking back I probably arrived too late to be of any help. But that did not seem to matter to the nuns. I just remember their wide open smiles of acceptance.

And may we turn again today from our worldly view of the world and open up our hearts and minds with a renewed, open, self giving love full of acceptance, as we have been accepted.

Considering Prayer

SERMON 11 NOVEMBER 2007 6.30
MATTHEW 7:7 – 12

I don’t know very much about prayer. And it feels quite strange standing up here this evening in front of so many prayerful people. But what I do know I’ll share with you. I’ll share with you what I’ve learnt from the bible and from my own experiences.

A friend of mine told me the other day that Prayer is like a balloon. We fill it up with all our worries and concerns. And then we must let it go. Release it, trusting that it will reach its destination. Believe that it will come to rest in the hands of our heavenly father. We may not like the answers he gives us. They may seem hard to understand. I have made many prayers and I have often been left feeling lost and confused.

The passage we are going to look at this evening comes from The Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps the most important message for us in that sermon is that we must live lives that are different from the people around us. Jesus tells his disciples and listeners to be different from the Jews, the Romans and the Pagans around them. Every part of our lives should be different. The way we treat people and the way we talk to God should also be different.

In this passage Jesus returns to the subject of prayer. His first mention of prayer in the sermon can be found in chapter 6. In that chapter Jesus teaches his disciples to be different from the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. He calls them to be different from the empty and meaningless utterances of the Gentile’s. Jesus also gives a model or a template to his disciples for prayer in the words of The Lords’ Prayer.

In Matthew 7which Katy read to us. Jesus makes us a pretty bold promise.
He says that everyone who asks God will receive what they have asked for. [Pause / Repeat]

Jesus is concerning himself here with general prayers such as requests and prayers for help for ourselves and for others. But he urges us to keep on persisting in prayer. He illustrates his promise by comparing earthly parents to a perfect God.

He ends this part of his sermon on prayer with what has become known as The Golden Rule. This is to treat people the way we would like to be treated ourselves. In doing this Jesus says we are summing up the law and the teaching of the Prophets.

Verse 7 is the key verse in this passage on prayer.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

This simple, direct and bold promise contains some important assumptions. And it is some of these that we are going consider this evening.

The principle assumption in the passage is Faith. The confident hope that our prayers and our requests will be heard. Faith is the key that unlocks this promise. Matthew says later in his gospel “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." When we pray we must pray with confidence and trust that God will hear our prayers.

This summer we went on holiday to France to visit friends. The children’s passports were out of date and I needed them renewed pretty quickly. I was full of agitation. There I was at the Post Office with three weeks to go. I paid for the check and send service and watched the cashier carefully checking each part of the application, measuring the photographs, checking signatures and declarations. Basically I did not trust the process despite his reassuring smile and beaurocratic thoroughness. Eventually the passports arrived and I could breathe easily again and sleep without waking with fear at the bottom of my stomach.

This is not how God wants us to pray. He wants us, urges us, and invites us to pray simply without fuss for what we want. And then to leave it to him. Once we have prayed we should be confident that we will be heard. We must let go of the burden of our needs. Let the balloon go.

And the reason we can have this faith is that the God we pray to is good. The God we pray to loves us perfectly. He wants to give us good gifts. It says in Psalm 103 “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” But God is not like a father. He is a father. He is our spiritual Father, our heavenly Father. Jesus says earlier on in the sermon “…your Father in heaven is perfect.” Think of your own father or your own children. A perfect Father doesn’t knowingly hurt his children or aim to destroy them. A perfect Father loves his children. He knows what they need most. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He wants to feed and nurture us. He wants to see us grow and mature into full people. .

Some years back I offered to drive a friend to Paris to pick up his belongings and drive him back to London over a weekend. We hired the van, checked our passports and booked our place on the ferry. I wasn’t really looking forward to this non stop, overnight trip. In passing I mentioned the trip to my father in law, who without any hesitation offered to come with me and be my co driver. Actually he didn’t have a valid passport. So when he got to London he spent a frustrating, expensive and tedious couple of days applying and waiting for his passport. Eventually he got it but in the rush he somehow lost his precious Malaya Birth Certificate. But he just let that go.

My father in law saw what I needed. I did not even need to ask. And his giving involved some personal loss and sacrifice. I think God our Father’s love is something like this. And because God is like this we can trust him.

Some translations of verse 7 and eight show that another key assumption in this verse is that we should be persistent in prayer. They use the words “Keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking.

This principle of persistent prayer is echoed and expanded in Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians. It says "pray without ceasing" . Paul’s instruction to us is to pray not only persistently but also continuously.

Some years ago I came across The Jesus Prayer.

It goes like this

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

For hundreds of years it has become fundamental part of the personal devotion of millions of Christians across the world. It is a prayer that is repeated constantly, sometimes as a meditation, and sometimes it is used by people as a pattern of thought that underpins every moment of their waking life. It is sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart because the prayer becomes as natural and as instinctive as our heart beating.

The first year I started teaching I don’t remember sleeping. I was so busy marking, preparing lessons but mostly worrying. There was one class that were a nightmare for me. I dreaded teaching them. I almost became sick thinking about them and went into each class terrified and shaking with fear. For weeks this went on. It got worse and worse. Until I thought I just could not carry on any more.

Then two things happened at the same time. Firstly I came across The Jesus Prayer and I started to repeat it to myself every morning for the whole journey to college that took about half an hour. I repeated it to myself breathing in with “Lord Jesus Christ”, then breathed out, “son of God”, followed by breathing in, “have mercy upon me”, and finally breathing out, “a sinner”.

Another kind of prayer that I used at that time that usually happened in the middle of the night when words seem so hard to dredge up out of the darkness. I began to imagine Jesus walking with me along the corridor to the classroom. I imagined him opening the door to that crowded room full of bored and insolent faces all staring at me. I imagined Jesus taking me by the hand leading me into the room. I imagined their complaints and moaning. And I imagined Jesus walking invisibly into that room and standing beside me. His eyes never leaving me, And he smiled, calmly as I began to teach.

It was the simplicity of the Jesus prayer that helped me to pray it constantly. And because I used it with my breathing I felt calmer and more relaxed. It was the picture prayer that helped give me strength confidence and authority to handle the class and to carry on every week.

This was my four O’clock in the morning prayer. And each time I prayed it I was able to sleep. Each time I prayed it the dread of that classroom shrunk.

Another key feature in handling prayer is humility. Humility is knowing our true relationship to God. And in verse 11 Jesus establishes the nature of that relationship. He says “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

To address God the creator, The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as father, would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. But with that one word - Father - Jesus introduces his disciples to a new way of perceiving God. And in doing this Jesus establishes a new relationship with God. It is no longer the remote, elaborate and public displays and rituals of prayer that are emphasised but rather the personal, private and intimate relationship between a parent and a child.

We are not insignificant to God. We are his children and we should approach him as a child calls to a father, full of hope and expectations that something good will happen.

Sometimes we feel our prayers have not been answered. Sometimes we feel we have been punished not blessed. So how can this be when Jesus has already said that whoever asks receives? To answer that I think it is helpful to consider that God knows us better than we know ourselves. Psalm 139 begins “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.” and later in the psalm it says “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” Sometimes we ask for things we think we need. Search for things that are harmful to us, knock at a door that can lead us to destruction. And so we are left empty, alone, with unfulfilled hopes and desires because we cannot see what God sees in us and for us. Our wills are different from his perfect will. But I do believe that our persistent and continuous prayer can connect our will to God’s will for our lives. Drawing closer to him; align our own desires with his.

This is a hard lesson and in preparing this sermon I have had to confront this difficult truth for my life.

Jesus didn’t need a big screen to get his message across on that mountain side. What he did have were words. But it is as if he had made a fire work display of his message. He must have dazzled his hearers. Shocked and disturbed them with awe and wonder. He used words so powerfully that they were imprinted on his listeners and have been passed down to us.

It was so important for Jesus to get these truths across to people. So to make a lasting impact he uses oratory techniques that are still used today by speech makers.

Firstly he uses the vivid metaphor of knocking at a door. Secondly he gives a list of three imperative verbs – ask seek knock. This repetition is emphasised by the strong rhythm of the verse. All of these techniques are an aid to memory. He uses a combination of story telling with powerful contrasts. He compares sinful people to the perfect God.

Jesus speaks in such a way because his message is so important. He wants to be as direct and simple and clear as possible.

Keep on asking and you will receive.

Finally in preparing this sermon I came across one of my favourite poems. George Herbert a poet and priest in the seventeenth century wrote that prayer is “the soul’s blood.”

So let our prayers and our lives be filled with faithful, continual and humble prayer because it is as George Herbert says the life blood of our soul.


Handling Anger

SERMON 26 AUGUST 2007 6.30
Handling Anger

I have a problem handling anger. We were driving back from France last week. We had been on the road for ten hours; it was eleven thirty at night and we were desperate to get home. We finally made it to the M25 but when we were approaching our exit the motorway was closed and to my horror we were diverted on to the M23 towards Gatwick Airport. I was furious. I was really angry. We got home two hours later than we expected.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the Sermon on the Mount, and the main reading that Trevor read to us is part of that. Throughout the Sermon Jesus wanted his disciples and us to live righteous lives. He wants people to be salt and light in the world. For that first audience it meant don’t be like the Scribes and Pharisees - who reduced the law to a series of prohibitions and observances. And we shouldn’t be like the materialistic world around us. Yes Jesus wants his audiences to do what the law commands but he wants our hearts and minds tuned into the law as well.

In verse 20 Jesus says “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus sets out to show how we can live righteous lives. Jesus takes the ten commandments as his starting point. And offers practical ways of living by them. From verse 21 – 48 he comments on the commandments, he breathes new life into them, revitalising them making them come alive.

This evening we’re going to look at verses 21 – 26 Jesus’ where Jesus comments on the sixth commandment “You shall not murder.”

In these verses

· Jesus says that anger and insults towards a sister or brother is equal to murder.
· Jesus says to be angry with a brother or sister puts you in danger of the fire of hell
· Anger is an obstacle to worship.
· Therefore be reconciled to our brother’s and sisters.
· Do this quickly
· So that you can return to true worship and living a righteous life.

In verses 21 – 23 Jesus says anger and insults are just as bad as murder.

He says “anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgement”. Here Jesus talks about the anger that comes from a desire to get rid of somebody; somebody who stands in our way. And that for Jesus is murder. It’s an anger the spills into insults and abuse. It’s an unrighteous anger motivated by hatred, malice and revenge.

Hamlet is a play dominated by revenge. In it we are given a portrait of a revenge hero from ancient Greece. Pyrrrhus – a man seeking revenge for the murder of his father at any cost physical or spiritual.

'The rugged Pyrrhus,,Black as his purpose, did the night resembleSmeared with blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,roasted in wrath and fire,And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish PyrrhusOld grandsire Priam seeks.'

Recently I’ve had some difficulties with a neighbour over parking. I didn’t know what I’d done to upset him. He became quite rude. Every time he saw me he’d swear at me. I tried to talk to him about it but he wouldn’t listen. As a result it was me that became angry. Every time I drove home I thought about him. I was like the person in

1 John 2:1 1 where he says “ whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him”. More about my neighbour later.

Hatred changes the way we live. It changes the way we behave towards people. It can turn our work places and homes into battlegrounds. Jesus says the issue of anger towards people is so important that it excludes us from the Kingdom of God. 1 John 3:15 says Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

Have you ever been so angry that you have almost lost control? Which is one reason why Jesus wanted any angry disputes solved as quickly as possible. Jesus wanted a nation united so that all their energies could be devoted to living righteous lives, worshipping in truth and purity of spirit. Jesus wanted his listeners to be a light to the world.

But conflicts were common is Jesus’ day. He lived at a time when the Jewish nation was under great pressure. Any country that is occupied by a military force is under stress. People feel fragile, insecure and vulnerable. Under these conditions it is no wonder that conflicts develop.

Also Israel in Jesus’ time was a highly structured and segregated society. And this too can be a cause of arguments. A Roman soldier insults a Jew, a Samaritan attacks a Jewish neighbour, and a Jew fights back. And within the Jewish community there were many different factions.

Is our society so different?

Okay we are not under military dictatorship but many of us live under huge amounts of pressure. Often we are stretched to the limits of our resources. Our neighbourhoods and our homes can become a breeding ground of anger, resentment and hatred. The newspaper headlines this weekend are full of gang culture and gun violence. To Jesus, when we are angry at someone its just as bad as if we were using a gun. For the LORD looks at the heart.

And this makes our worship meaningless. So we need to acknowledge our anger and tackle it. Jesus says a breach in the relations between people makes their worship fit for the rubbish dump.

In verse 24 those who use insulting language “will be in danger of the fire of hell”. The word “hell” is a translation of the word “gehenna”. To Jesus’ first audience it is a word that they understood. It is mentioned throughout the gospels. In the Old Testament it is a deep and narrow ravine just beyond the southwestern walls of Jerusalem. It was a cursed place. It was a place where the rubbish of the city was burned, where the bodies of executed criminals were dumped and where the Canaanites sacrificed children to their God by burning.

Our worship must be without blemish or fault.

It says in Leviticus 22:21 “When anyone brings from the herd or flock - traditionally a peace offering to the LORD - it must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable”.

But Jesus wants more than just the physical details of our worship to be right. He wants every aspect of our worship to be perfect. Our whole lives are to be a living sacrifice. When we have hurt someone Jesus says we should even interrupt our worship and be reconciled to the one we have hurt.

Imagine for a moment what that would have entailed to one of Jesus’ listeners. The penitent and the priest both have their hands on the sacrifice at the alter of the temple in Jerusalem. And the penitent is just about to say these words “I entreat, O Lord; I have rebelled… but I return in penitence and let this animal be for my covering” ……………. when he suddenly remembers somebody he has hurt. He lets go of the animal walks back along the long queue of penitents, to the three-day journey back to his village in Galilee. Where he finally knocks on a neighbour’s door and humbly asks for forgiveness for the wrong he has caused him. Then he turns round and looks down the road and the three-day journey back to the temple and wonders if the priest is still holding the goat he had brought.

Jesus’ solution to the breach in relationships is much simpler. And that is reconciliation, now.

Making peace involves being sensitive to the people in our lives.
It involves letting go of our self-centredness. It’s about being aware of how we affect others. Making peace involves a genuine and humble attitude to God, the people we come into contact with and our worship. It is an on going process; we must attend to it daily. We need to adopt an attitude where we are prepared to change, to admit the pain we cause others and move on.

This happened to me once years ago here at Christ Church just before a Communion service. A friend came up to me. He took me aside and asked for my forgiveness. Actually I didn’t know what wrong he had committed against me but his face was so pained and awkward so I said I forgive you. Then he hugged me and we returned to our seats. He did not want anything to come between himself and God or between God and me. He wanted our worship to be perfect.

Reconciliation is hard. It involves a denial of our pride and our ego. It’s a sacrifice of the heart. It says in Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” That could not have been an easy thing for my friend to come up to me. He had made himself vulnerable and weak. But he did it anyway.

In Mathew 5:21-26 Jesus’ examples of anger and insults between people show us that God sees our anger as if we were killing someone. Whenever we are aware of the hurt we have caused others we should make peace with them as soon as possible. Without reconciliation our worship is meaningless.

And so now, back to my neighbour and our parking problems. Late one night I met him walking his dog. A few hours earlier he was swearing at me as usual. And then he came over to me and said, “I’ve had enough of all this,” and offered me his hand. And since then we’ve been fine. It seemed as if his anger was a burden to him as well as it had been for me.

Jesus is telling his listeners not to let anger take hold of our lives. Anger locks and shackles us to the world. It keeps us prisoner. In it we can barely see heaven. We should stop it before it affects our worship and our relationships with other people.

We should
Be perfect, therefore just as our heavenly Father is perfect.