The sermon of the surmounter*

I have just come back from a 24 hour retreat. We spent time reflecting on and listening to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It is a sermon that is full of wisdom, insight, challenge, encouragement and even a little humour.

The way my brain works, I wondered what a modern-day version of the Sermon on the Mount might be and ended up with the Sermon of the surmounter*. This is a sermon for modern-day church life. It started off being a challenge to myself, and then I wondered about sharing it here… if you are offended by anything here please forgive me, I don’t intend to upset anyone.

DESCRIPTION: Pastor looking over pulpit at sign that reads "don't like my preaching? dial 1-800-forgive" CAPTION: HEY!

Blessed are the handraisers, for they shall obscure the words on the screen for the people behind them.

Blessed are the tutters, for they shall make other people feel uncomfortable.

Blessed are the briefest of preachers for they shall not result in numb posteriors.

If you pray in public make sure that you use the right words otherwise God won’t understand you – and more to the point those listening won’t be able to score your prayer on the ‘Sanctification Scale’ and see how holy you are. The more you repeat yourself the more likely it is that God will listen and do what you want – he has to be beaten into submission you know. Whatever you do don’t just speak normally to God – who do you think you are?

Only ever reinforce your opinions. Don’t read books or listen to speakers who interpret the Bible differently to you because your understanding will be contaminated by their unholy words. Doctrine and Dogma are never to be questioned: your understanding is correct. Doctrine and dogma shape our understanding of who God is and provide the sides of the box into which we squeeze him.

Make sure to leave your problems, your concerns, your anxieties and your doubts outside the door on your way in so that they do not distract you from the serious business of ‘having a time of worship’. Do not allow anything you sing or pray or read or see or hear to bear any relevance to your life outside of church. Make sure that you never admit to having any problems in case some well-meaning but misguided person offers to pray for you or offer to support you. Feel free to keep people at arm’s length. And don’t forget to collect your problems, concerns, anxieties and doubts on your way out – they will be just as you left them.

Remember that ‘He who complains loudest and most often is the one God listens to most’. And if you are going to send an email, make sure you do it while you are angry and hit ‘send’ before you have a chance to reflect calmly on what you have written. A second (related) approach is to let it be known among your friends that you are upset but ‘don’t want to make a fuss’. The more you can confirm that you don’t want to make a scene the better that scene will be.

When someone shares something with you about someone else ‘for prayer’ make sure you pass it on to at least three other people – ‘for prayer’. That way the whole church can end up knowing about the original person’s problems really quickly and ‘pray’ about it together. Don’t worry about asking permission to share – it’s ‘for prayer’ so that makes it okay for everyone to know. It’s not gossip if it’s ‘for prayer’, is it?

If you listen to a sermon make sure you identify people in the church who ‘really need to hear that’. Either metaphorically (or literally if you feel brave) look meaningfully in their direction. In the unlikely event that something that is said could be applied to you make sure you deflect it in someone else’s direction and pray that nobody noticed. If you still feel uncomfortable then don’t worry, you have found something else to complain about.

Work hard behind the scenes but make sure that everyone knows that you are working hard behind the scenes. That way they will admire you for your hard work and your humility.

Be awkward: after a while you will find that people stop disagreeing with you because they are afraid to upset you and don’t want an argument. And make sure that you point out difficulties and problems with every new idea. Eventually people will come to expect that of you and will see how insightful and wise you are. For maximum effect wait until the Church Meeting to do this.

If all else fails, start writing a blog.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*To surmount means ‘overcome (a difficulty or obstacle)’ and ‘to be on top of’

yes we’re better together

In a matter of days the people of Scotland will be voting in a referendum to decide whether or not they want to remain part of the United Kingdom. I have my own view on this but I don’t get a vote (as a sasanach) so this bloggage is not about my opinion.

It’s about the difficulty of making a campaign out of a negative. The campaign in favour of independence has a very simple slogan – ‘yes’. The campaign for keeping the Union has had to use ‘better together’. The ‘yes’ campaign can speak of new, exciting things – of freedom and possibilities whereas the ‘better together’ campaign can only say that it’s better now than it will be. You can’t spin ‘now’ as easily as you can spin a possible future because people know what it is like now, we don’t know what it will be like in the future.

Thinking about this was complicated further by an email conversation yesterday about whether or not to join an organisation. One of the participants was already a member and had considered leaving whereas others were not members and were wondering about the message that would be given by joining. It seems to me that publicly leaving or joining an organisation (or a country) will make a statement that others will interpret whether or not we intenThumbs Up - With clipping Pathd it: voting in favour of Scottish independence is also a vote against the UK. Voting against Scottish independence is also a vote in favour of the UK. You might only intend one of those messages, but the other can be inferred along with it.

Christians are often portrayed as having a negative message. 7/10 of the Ten Commandments are expressed as negatives: ‘Thou shalt not’ (to use archaic language). The puritanical / Victorian approach to life based on Christian foundations was ‘no’ to most things that looked like enjoyment. The inferred message from a lot of Christian pronouncements on moral and ethical issues seems to be ‘no’ – we are against a lot of things that are an accepted part of our wider culture.

But when you look at Jesus he was not a negative person. His most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) starts with a series of blessings. He continues by affirming people before reframing the Ten Commandments as a way of reflecting on our attitudes to others rather than a legal framework. He said that God is not interested in religious robots who follow their programming as in radical relationships with us (I paraphrase a bit). He was rather down on religious hypocrisy, admittedly, (a warning for religious people) but he suggested we replace it with a prayerful relationship with our Father in heaven. When he had a negative comment it was usually about how people had thought God wanted them to be and he replaced it with a freedom about how they could be with God.

Perhaps Christians could take a lesson from the Scottish referendum. Perhaps we could summarise Jesus’ message as both ‘yes’ and ‘better together’ and emphasise the positives. When God looks at us, the ones he created and loves, he looks at us positively, optimistically, hopefully not negatively and condemnatorily (is that a word? It is now – another new word from my bloggages). He wants us to know the joy and freedom of being in the relationship with him for which he designed us – what Jesus described elsewhere as ‘life in all its fullness’. In case you think I am saying that is a life that is a bed of roses, well I am because it contains thorns as well as fragrance and beauty. But it’s not all thorns!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Forgiveness

The forgiveness meal can be part of the process as we are reminded of the cost of our forgiveness and the extent of God's love for us
The forgiveness meal can be part of the process as we are reminded of the cost of our forgiveness and the extent of God’s love for us

Following yesterday’s bloggage about ‘sorry’ I want to offer some reflections this morning about forgiveness: the other side of the coin. Yesterday I suggested that Elton John was wrong when he sang that “Sorry is the hardest word” because I think it can be harder to forgive than to ask for forgiveness.

Often I am asked about forgiveness by people who are finding it difficult to forgive. They hear the Lord’s prayer where we are told to pray: ‘forgive us as we forgive…’. They read Jesus’ commentary on that from the Sermon on the Mount:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

And they worry. Because the hurt they have experienced is so strong that forgiveness eludes them. And that causes them guilt, or they worry that God won’t forgive them. Which makes them feel worse.

I want to suggest that forgiveness is a process. It goes something like this:

I have been hurt.

I don’t want to forgive and it doesn’t bother me.

I don’t like not being able to forgive, but I can’t forgive.

I want to forgive but I can’t forgive.

I want to forgive and I will forgive.

I do forgive.

I have forgiven and we will work at a fresh start as we are reconciled.

I did forgive and it is in the past.

That is not a well-researched psychological analysis but it hopefully gives you an idea of the process and is based on my own experience and the experience of others I have pastored. It can take time to work through that process, especially if the hurt is deep. We need to be honest with ourselves and with God (no point in lying to either is there?). If we feel unable to forgive someone there is no point in pretending that we can. God knows where we are in that process and he looks at our intention – do we want to forgive, even though we are unable to? I believe Jesus’ commentary is about those who don’t want to forgive, not those who want to but can’t.

When people come to me and express that they are bothered because they can’t forgive someone I suggest to them that they are already on the journey towards forgiveness. If they were not bothered, they would not be able to make progress. But the fact that they are bother suggests that God is already moving them gently in the right direction. My suggestion is that they consider the next phase of the process and pray that God will help them to be able to get to that point. Ask for his grace, his healing, and his love. Tell him that this is what you want to be able to say.

And he will help you. In some circumstances he may also need to give you help through a professional who can guide you, but he will help you to move to a place where you can forgive. And, if my experience expressed in the process above is right, he takes us beyond forgiveness towards reconciliation and a fresh start.

And in case you have any doubts, let me remind you that God’s forgiveness to us is instant and absolute because of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is always available because he has a limitless supply of grace and love for us. That’s not to say that we can take it for granted, it cost him everything. But it is freely available to all who ask for it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

persecution?

I am working on a sermon on the Beatitudes (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5). As I am preparing I have noticed the breaking news that the European Court of human rights has ruled on the cases of 4 Christians who claimed that their human right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” had been infringed in different ways and that they had experienced religious discrimination. You can read about it on the BBC website here

With that breaking news in mind I re-read these words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

First of all, and without wishing to trivialise the experience of those who have lost their jobs and felt so strongly that they wanted to take these issues to the European Court of Human Rights, I don’t think that these people have experienced the sort of persecution that Jesus had in mind when he spoke the beatitudes. Yes they must have felt terrible, yes they have probably experienced stress, yes they have probably experienced economic hardship but Jesus spoke in an era in which people would pay with their life for standing up against the authorities (and he did). He spoke in an era that not long afterwards would be throwing Christians to the lions.

iStock_000008457626MediumThere are some who tell us that there is an anti-Christian conspiracy in this country, or that Christians are always being discriminated against, and I have heard the word ‘persecution’ used about this. I’m sorry, but no. The court decided that one of these four people had suffered discrimination but that is not the same as persecution. Persecution is what believers experience in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, or illegal to become a Christian and where you may lose your livelihood, your reputation, your family and even your life. It is where you are in physical danger because you’re a follower of Jesus not where you are told you cannot wear a cross as a piece of jewellery.

In fact it is exactly the sort of thing I think we should be expecting to happen if we are living as countercultural followers of Jesus. Jesus did not promise his followers an easy life or that they would not encounter difficulties in trying to live out their life in a world that does not acknowledge him as Lord. Exactly the opposite is true. Picking up your cross daily and following him is not intended to be comfortable or easy.

The other thing that I struggle with is that Jesus’ countercultural response to persecution, even if what has happened to these 4 people could be regarded as persecution, is to rejoice and be glad not to go to court over it. It is to recognise that our inheritance is not in this world but it is “the kingdom of heaven”, the God dimension that invaded this world in the person of Jesus to reclaim it and us for the rightful owner.

I have mentioned before on this blog the wonderful old Christian lady I met in mainland China who had been a nurse in a mission hospital at the time of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Each week soldiers would come to the hospital and beat the nurses, demanding that they renounce their faith in Jesus. One week it got too much for her and she said that she no longer believed. Once the soldiers had left she bitterly regretted what she had done and when they returned the following week for her colleagues she went up to them and told them that she had lied. She still believed in Jesus and loved him and no matter what they did to her they would never be able to beat that out of her. After that they left them all alone, realising that there was nothing they could do that would change their allegiance to Jesus.

As she told us the story her eyes glistened, tears streamed down her cheeks (and ours) and yet she smiled because she said she had been counted worthy of persecution on behalf of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.