Thursday, 2 October 2008

The German Sermon.

This I hope speaks for itself.


Mark 2:2: “While he was proclaiming the message to them...”

He was Jesus. What message was Jesus proclaiming to them? And who were they? They were a crowd from Capernaum – a mixed group of the deeply devout, the churchy but curious, the faintly religious, the positively pious, the holy, the half hearted and those who filled a pew in body, but not in spirit. Plus those who had turned out to see the show of the famous radical rabbi irritating the local gang of the godly – our predecessors in these pews, if you like.

The message was painfully simple and blunt – “The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mk. 1:19). That gospel was being preached in the 1st instance in Galilee – “Galilee of the Gentiles” – a mixed and multi-cultural, multi-faith and mixed language society. That is a society that is not unlike our own society today. The gospel – the Good News – was a message that all who chose to align themselves with God were welcomed into the kingdom of God. This, of course, is the classic message of the revivalist preacher, simple, passionate and easy to understand. The message is easy enough to accept, if it is simply a call for the individual to amend their life in accordance with an accepted pattern and lifestyle: a “Christian” lifestyle. But when it challenges and calls us as individuals, as a group, as congregations, as Church and as a society to radically change and transform our lives and lifestyles, then it is anything but easy to accept and then it is usually met with anger, apathy, lip service or anguish.

Whilst preaching this simple religious message to this very mixed group of hearers, Jesus was faced with a challenge from the crowd. A group of 4 men brought a friend with a practical problem to him. It was a practical problem that totally overshadowed his life and pushed the religious dimension of the Gospel message to one side. He was paralysed. His physical disability and practical needs dominated his existence. His friends believed that somehow Jesus could help him, so they made tremendous efforts to bring him in contact with the one who declared that he was God’s messenger – Jesus the Christ. His response was not what anyone might have expected. He didn’t say a prayer or preach a sermon telling the paralysed man it was all his own fault or the fault of his parents, grandparents or great great grandparents. Nor did he give him money or a wheelchair. Instead he told him “My son, your sins are forgiven”.

This wasn’t what anyone expected. The man and his friends probably were hoping for a healing miracle, for this radical rabbi Jesus from Nazareth was also famous for his gift of healing: in Mark chapter 1 he had healed a man with convulsions, Simon’s fever ridden mother in law and a leper. And the learned theologians who were listening to Jesus were scandalised. Only God could forgive sins. This Jesus was a blasphemer, a heretic. They were all surprised. And they all missed the point. Because what Jesus was doing was simple and significant – he was empowering the paralysed man and giving him the freedom to take charge of his own life and destiny. That man had been told for years that his misfortune and disability were the result either of his own lifestyle and choices or of the choices made by his ancestors. The theology of that period very strongly believed that God was good and generous to the righteous and that misfortune was the fate of the sinful. This rather ignores the wisdom and insight of many of the Psalms and the book of Job. The other side of that coin was to believe that if you were unfortunate then you logically were or had been sinful. It was a theology that Job’s friends and so-called comforters would have recognised instantly. When he declared that the paralysed man’s sins were forgiven, Jesus was freeing him from the burdens and chains of his own history and experience and from the attitudes and expectations of the society around about him.

That liberation and freedom which Christ brought was, at one level, not a new thing. It was exactly the freedom and liberation promised by God to his people in the Sinai covenant declared by Moses in Exodus chapters 19-40. The people of God were invited to enter into a relationship with God that brought both blessing and responsibility. The Covenant also impacted on the whole of Israelite society, defining both the prosperity they could expect if they maintained their side of the bargain and their responsibility to structure their personal and their corporate life in ways that ensured justice and holiness, not only for the Chosen people, but also for the stranger who dwelt in the land, for the widow and for the orphan. In the person of Jesus Christ, this Old Covenant was being renewed, but in a radically different way that extended its membership far beyond the descendents of a small Semitic tribe who had settled in the land of Canaan and offered its benefits to the whole human race if they wished to accept it as a way of life.

Offering that freedom and liberation to the wounded people of God is, of course, the evangelical task that we as Christians today are still charged with and committed to. It may lead us to proclaim freedom and liberation to individuals from the results and consequences of personal behaviour that is contrary to the will of God; it may require us to challenge the structures both of the Churches and of society in a prophetic role, to enable the freedom and justice which is God’s desire for all his children to prevail. But it always requires us to enable women and men to take responsibility for their own destiny and future, so that they may know and enjoy the fully free and restored humanity and life that we inherit through baptism into membership of the Body of the risen, ascended and glorified Christ. Enabling others to take charge of their destiny is a profoundly Christian and evangelical action. It expresses itself in many ways: in spiritual counselling, in proclaiming the Gospel of salvation and in acting practically and politically to empower men and women who are marginalised and disadvantaged.

I have personally been lucky enough to observe the Church doing this in many different ways and places over the years. A friend of mine worked for several years as a priest in the East End of Glasgow in Scotland. It is one of the most socially disadvantaged and deprived areas in the European Union - worse even that parts of the former Communist Bloc. He established a Credit Union in the parish in which he served to provide low cost financial loans to help people to improve their quality of life and avoid debt. It made a great difference to the lives of many families. My congregation in Falkirk has a link with a congregation in Nyakinoni in south western Uganda and 2 1/2 years ago we visited Uganda. There we saw the real difference our financial support of a medical clinic made (we supply the salaries for a nurse and a midwife), saving lives from malaria to an entire community. We also saw the difference that Fair-trade can make in helping communities to help themselves. Money from fairly traded tea was used locally to start brick factories which have transformed the local economy and improved the situation of hundreds of local people. From being dependant on one crop, with all the dangers that come when a local economy is built on a narrow base, the local economy has expanded and diversified, ensuring greater prosperity and economic stability and a higher standard of life for the future. We also saw the huge difference a local micro credit bank made in providing low cost loans for local development in the neighbouring town of Kihihi. These actions, organised by local Christians who realised that the Gospel calls them to enable freedom for all God’s people, have led to real and concrete metanoia – transformation – in the lives both of individuals and of societies.

You recall that Jesus forgave the paralysed man: he enabled him to accept and experience freedom. That in turn, through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, empowered him to take up his bed and go home. He returned to his family healed and transformed, no longer marginalised and despised but restored and able to take a full and active part in the life of his society as a worker and as a worshipper. No longer was his disability – the sign of God’s disfavour – able to separate him from the vital life of the congregation of Israel. He was fully able to participate in and contribute to the life of God’s kingdom. May the Christ who gave each one of us freedom through his saving life, death and resurrection inspire and enable us to proclaim and work for that freedom and to share it with others, that his kingdom may come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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