Sunday, 27 September 2015
Text of sermon preached by the Revd Phill Ball
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40
I settled down to watch the new film starring Paddington Bear. The film is as warm and welcome as a pair of slippers and you realize as you watch that Paddington Bear is a very important bear.
Michael Bond created Paddington in 1958. He says the inspiration for him came from seeing Jewish evacuee children pass through Reading station from London during the Kinder transport of the late 1930s. These were Jewish Children who had been whisked out of Europe before the Nazis had other plans for them. They were fleeing War and persecution, and as we now know extermination.
They all had a label round their neck, he says, with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. And so Paddington, in his blue duffle coat and red hat, has a sign round his neck from his relatives back in darkest Peru with a simple request: ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you’.
In the film Paddington’s aunty sends him to England because, she says. ‘they won’t have forgotten how to give strangers a warm welcome there’. I wonder how many of you visiting this country still agree? What happens is that Paddington gets into the train station and is pushed and shoved around, ignored and left by himself until, of course, the Browns take him in and he becomes part of that rather chaotic family. Paddington never looks happier, the marmalade sandwich never tastier, than when he realizes that he is at last ‘home’.I have the same initials as Paddington Bear, and my own experiences of marmalade sandwiches is of giving them to the prisoners under my care in various cell blocks, they weren’t all as happy as Paddington to receive them.
Now, for all the gathered extras over the centuries, the heartland of the Christian faith is the story of Jesus Christ. He is the gospel in person. Right from the very beginning of his life until he was publically executed, he was a stranger. He was a– born in an outhouse, visited by weirdos from funny places and rough Shepherds social outcasts, a child refugee in Egypt, and then later a preacher whose first sermon didn’t go down well and who then over three years disturbed the establishment by saying that God is more evident in the untouchables, overlooked and imperfect than in the religiously observant, or rich or powerful: even his closest family and friends constantly misunderstand him. When Peter says that he does not know the man as the cock crows, he is lying but he is also telling the truth. He doesn’t really know this man yet. This stranger was putting the odd back into God.This was not welcome. ‘He was in the world yet the world did not know him. He came to what his own and he was not accepted’.
This was strange as his Jewish People, had gone to Egypt as refugees from hunger in the time of Joseph, eventually been enslaved there and escaped as stateless and landless war refugees under Moses. Then been sent into exile under severe oppression under the Assyrians and Babylonians, and been second class citizens in their own lands under the Greeks and Romans.
It should not surprise us then that for the early followers of this man Christ the Stranger it became very important to welcome the stranger. Jesus had told stories and had encounters where he opened eyes on how we project our fears onto people, often people who can’t speak out or strike back, the vulnerable in some way, and how we become tribal, liking our own types and pointing the fingers at others, and, oh how convenient, God is always on the side of our tribe. And yet, Jesus constantly exposed this religious fantasy for what it is – a blasphemy – and taught and lived to show that all, all, all, misfits, the unsure, the wounded, the unbeliever, the unclean, the totally different from you, all, ,and all of us here today, strange as we all are, are loved and treasured by God equally and forever. If you are Christ-like you will see, like Paddington, that each and everyone of us here, each and everyone of us in this world, has a sign round our necks asking that you please look after me because I’m fragile, I'm bruised, I’m a bit scared, lonely sometimes, and I need a friend to help me through this life which frankly is not for beginners. Please look after this bear. I’m a bit of a stranger here.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in times when the stranger is fast becoming the enemy. The stranger in strange clothes, with different skin, with other sexuality, with opposite gender, with beliefs and thoughts not ours is being isolated so that the majority can look out at someone else and not in at themselves, so that we can have an easy answer to our complex problems. It happens in workplaces, schools, homes, churches and nations.
It happens in you and in me. But if you are here to follow Christ the stranger, if you believe like our earliest Christian sisters and brothers that you will meet Christ in the stranger because that meeting will make your world new and stretch you more open to God’s grace, then renew that commitment, renew it now, today, because the world badly needs a human heart that sees dignity before money, and a person’s need before appearance or place of birth. Because what will injure the stranger amongst us more that the words of their enemies will be the silence of their friends, the silence of those who taught that you will never recognise his followers by their vestments, doctrine or certainty but by their love.
At the end of the film Mr Brown is putting someone right about Paddington: ‘It doesn’t matter that he comes from the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter that he’s a different species or that he has a very worrying marmalade habit’. He saw that the Browns needed Paddington every bit as much as he needed them so Please look after this bear: for what you do to the least you do also to me says the Lord. Amen
As Christian’s we believe in an all-powerful, sovereign God.
- "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." (Revelation 1:8)
- "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13)
- Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. (Psalm 139:4)
- Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:8)
The argument goes like this: if God is all powerful, and all knowing, then what is the point in praying? Doesn’t God already know the future? In which case doesn’t that mean the future is fixed, and therefore prayer doesn’t change anything?
In seeking to answer this question I want to explore
- The question of free will
- Example & teaching of Jesus
- Why prayer matters
If God is sovereign why pray?
At the heart of this question is the question of free will. If we think that God has predetermined everything, including who gets sick, who recovers and who dies, then what is the point in praying? Everything has been predetermined, nothing will change the outcome. It’s very much like the ancient Greek idea of the God’s using humans as play things, moving them around like pieces on a chess board.
The trouble with this view is that God becomes a puppet master, arbitrarily controlling our lives, saying to one person “I’m going to bless you,” and to another “I’m going to cause you suffering and pain.”
But what sort of God would this be? Not the God of love that Jesus reveals to us.
Because God loves us, he gives us the freedom to choose, to respond to his love, or to reject it.
- Parable of the prodigal son – the father loves his son, and does not want him to leave, but neither does he try to stop him, because he respects his son’s free will.
- Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. – the decision to open this door, and invite Jesus into our lives, is our choice alone. God will not force himself on us.
God is love, and he wants us to experience his love, but you can’t force someone to love you. That is why we have the freedom to choose.
Is the Future Fixed?
Rabbi Daniel Cohn-Scherbok of Kent University wrote an article where he argued that if God knows the future, then it must be fixed.
Responding to this article, Clifford Longley, the former Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times wrote ‘If God lives in the eternal present, he hears all prayers simultaneously. Therefore he can appropriate a prayer from next week, and attach it to an event a month ago. Prayers said after the event can be heard before they are spoken and taken into account before the event.’
Or to put it another way, God has all eternity to answer the split second prayer for a driver who is about to crash.
If God is sovereign why pray?
Simple answer is Jesus told us to pray. Jesus said ‘When you pray’ (Matthew 6:7) not ‘If you pray.’ And Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer as a model for who we should pray.
Paul says “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17)
We see how important prayer is, because Jesus himself prayed, and that his relationship with his Heavenly Father was centred on prayer.
The goal of prayer is primarily about deepening our relationship with God.
As a parent, I sometimes know what my children need or want before they ask me, but I still want them to come to me with these requests. And God as our Heavenly Father still wants us to speak with Him, even though he knows what we need. That is why Jesus said “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Praying is not about so much about us trying to change God’s mind – but about allowing God to change us.
Abraham pleads for Sodom Genesis 18:16-33. God says I will destroy the city of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. Then starts this interesting bargaining taking place between Abraham and God. What if there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you destroy it? Then 45, 40, 30, 20, 10. In the passage it looks as if God is changing his mind, but actually I think it is about God changing Abraham’s mind. Abraham knew God was just and that he punishes sin, but he also comes to see how merciful God is as well.
Prayer is about allowing God to change us. That is one of the reasons why Jesus said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) – because when we pray for those her persecute us, it changes our attitude towards them.
When we pray about situations, we shouldn’t just say “God what are you going to do about this?” but also say “God change my heart, so that I may see the world as you see it. Show me what you want me to do about this situation, how I can be a channel of your peace, love mercy and grace.”
When we pray, we are asking for God’s will to be done, and that our wills, align with God’s will. That is why we pray for the lost, for those in our church, for those in need, for our family, friends, co-workers, and the many who will perish unless they know Christ.
We pray because prayer works. That is why Jesus prayed, and why we pray.
The more we pray, the more we will see answers to prayer – not always in the way we would expect, but answers non the less.
That is why James says “The prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16) and in the Gospel John we read that God “listens to the godly person who does his will” (John 9:31).
We don’t pray to impress God with fine words, or to inform God of anything. We pray to invite God into our lives, and to share in working with God to bring about transformation and change to the world. God could do this without us, but we cannot do it without Him, and we have the privilege of doing it with Him!
When we pray our relationship with God develops, and so we grow through prayer.
As we pray, we learn to become more dependent on God. Trusting him, even when times are hard.
I want to finish with this little cartoon, which I takes the question of prayer and the sovereignty of God, that we’ve been exploring today, and turns it on its head…