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Reflection – Sunday 22nd November

Christ the Good Shepherd 6th century Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY

Sunday, November 22nd 2020

Reflection 22

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 25 vv 31 – 46
A Parable of Jesus – Sheep and Goats; The Final Judgement
Stir-up Sunday!

 In some parts of the Christian Church this, the Sunday before the season of Advent, is still referred to as ‘Stir-up Sunday’.  The Collects are collections of one-liners, short ascriptions of Praise to God coupled with single theme prayers.  One of the shortest of all,  the Collect for this Sunday begins ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,’  and it goes on to mention ‘the fruit of good works.’  Apparently, with just over a month to go, people took it as a reminder to make their Christmas puddings and cake in good time – stirring in good fruits.   If anything is going to stir up God’s faithful people, it is this awesome parable.

In fact, although referred to as such, it is not so much a parable as a simile, used by Jesus as a starting point in his teaching about God’s final Judgement.  In another one- liner ‘just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ Jesus draws on the commonplace picture.  Mixed flocks of sheep and goats were gathered and separated at nightfall, the goats requiring to be kept warm while sheep could be left outside.   Although Jesus again is speaking and teaching privately to his close disciples during that last week in Jerusalem, the gathering he speaks of is a gathering of ‘the people of all the nations.’  There is here an inescapable warning of Judgement!  That Judgement is for everyone – the people of all the nations will be gathered before the throne of the King.

So, as ever in our Reflections, the questions – What does this passage mean?  What does it have to say to us today?

I find in this passage something about the compassion of Jesus.  Sometimes it seems that the picture that Matthew paints of Jesus is that of a straight-talking, uncompromising teacher who, at times, doesn’t mince his words or pussyfoot around.  The Beatitudes of Chapter 5 – ‘How Blessed (or Happy) are you…’  are counterbalanced by the Woes of Chapter 23 – ‘How terrible for you…’  We heard last Sunday of the place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, this week it is ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’   However, in addition to stark warnings and graphic scenes, Matthew makes sure that we see that there is great tenderness and concern in the ministry of our Lord.  In Chapter 9, stories of healing exclusive to this Gospel -two blind men and a dumb man – are followed by the account of Jesus travelling round ‘all the towns and villages, healing people with every kind of disease and sickness’ and are linked to the explanation ‘As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’  Matthew 9 vv 27 – 36.  In today’s passage that compassion is expressed in the list of six groups of people and their very real distress and need.

In today’s world – especially at the moment with all the situations thrown up by the Coronavirus, I hear the clear call of Jesus to his people to be stirred up to compassionate action to those in need.

I find in this passage something about unconscious goodness and charity in lives that are shot through with those qualities.  Again, there is that emphasis on people of all the nations with no distinctions merely down to race, colour, gender, age or even systems of faith.  There is no mention here of allegiance to a particular creed or conformity to one set of religious regulations. Christians do not have a monopoly on high standards, on compassionate living or on sheer goodness.    In the account the King first addresses the people on his right – in Biblical terms the place of honour – and declares them blessed. They are surprised.  They are unaware. They have acted, in purity of motive, to answer the practical needs of people that they have seen around them.  In contrast, the people of the left side group have been oblivious to the plight of others and, in total disbelief and denial, find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement of the King.

In today’s world of the self-centred social media of some people, coupled with fake news and the denial of the harsh reality of the way so many are forced to live is in complete contrast to the self-giving love that is demonstrated in the life of Jesus himself.  This stirs us towards the motivation of love for others that is the bedrock of Christian living.

Perhaps at this point, the Prayer of St Ignatius Loyola speaks to us.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.  Amen

I find in this passage something tremendously important about our understanding of the Incarnation – Emmanuel – God with us.  The phrase that echoes and shocks from the passage is ‘ Whenever you did this for one of the least important brothers of mine, you did it for me’ or the negative to the others –  ‘you refused to help me.’  The emphasis, of course, is on the ‘me’.  Jesus not only identifies himself with the poor, the disadvantaged and the suffering but is at one with them and in them.  This is not new. In taking a child and putting that child in the centre of the group of disciples who had just been squabbling about their importance, Jesus tells them ‘Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children; welcomes me,’ Matthew 18 v 5.  The God we worship in Jesus is not remote, uncaring, unmoved by the suffering of the lives of people, but rather one who is present in all that we all go through.

Stir-up Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical calendar.  For a whole year we have worked through Matthew’s Gospel.  Next Sunday is Advent Sunday – a faith filled Sunday of the Christian year. Not only do we begin again and look forward to lessons from Mark’s Gospel for the next twelve months, but we begin to anticipate the coming of Jesus.   Perhaps it is entirely appropriate that in this final passage from Matthew we consider the presence of the Incarnate Christ with and in those most in need in our world.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people,
that they, bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Bryan Coates

November 2020

Reflection – Sunday November 15th

Reflection 21

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 25 vv 14 – 30

A Parable of Jesus – the Talents or the Three Servants

Willem de Poorter (born 1608) The Parable of The Talents or Minas National Gallery Prague
A Passion for God

In an earlier Reflection I made mention of the way in which Matthew, the former Tax Collector, retained a faithfulness to that skill and collected and arranged both the sayings and the stories of Jesus.  Matthew Chapter 25 is a prime example.  Here we find three parables that are linked together – and continue themes from the previous chapter.  There is the note of the need for watchfulness and preparedness and the warning of God’s judgement.  It seems to me that these stories are primarily for us, as Christians and as members of Christ’s Church, to consider very carefully and very seriously.

Because of the Greek word talanta in the original, this parable has traditionally been called the Parable of the Talents.  The title in the NIV is still that whereas in the GNB it is called the Parable of the Three Servants – which in my book, helpfully and meaningfully, shifts the emphasis from money to people.   Originally a talent was a unit of weight – the equivalent of 30kg.  It’s meaning changed and became that of a large amount of money.  Of course, now when we use the word talent, we are meaning a skill, an ability, a gift.  We’ll come back to that.

The setting and the timing in which Matthew places this collection is important.  Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is in his last days.   He has entered the city in triumph – Matthew 21 vv 1 – 11; he has caused mayhem in the Temple – Matthew 21vv 12 – 17; he has lamented over the city, its people and its future – Matthew 23 vv 37 – 39; he is at odds with those in authority in matters of faith – he is seen as a thorn in their side and they want rid of him – Matthew 21 vv 23 – 27.  The crisis is coming!

In the parable the man shows considerable trust in his servants – he puts them in charge.  Each of the three servants, even the third one, is trusted with a small fortune according to the master’s perception of their ability.  The master leaves on his travels.  The first two servants are astute and proactive and their work, wisdom and investment literally pays dividends.  With no banks it was commonplace for valuables to be hidden in the ground, which is exactly what the third servant does. When the master returns after a long time away, the servants are called to give account of their stewardship.   The first two, upon producing 100% profit, are given the accolade ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant.’ and the invitation ‘Come on in and share my happiness.’  It’s a different story for the third one.  With not even a small amount of interest he hears the condemnation ‘You bad and lazy servant.’ and the ultimate discarding ‘throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and grind his teeth.’  What a terrible prospect is that place of wailing and gnashing of teeth!

That’s not all.  There is one of those enigmatic statements of Jesus that can be abbreviated to  ‘Them that has, gets.’  The third servant forfeits the money he had hidden, and it is given to the most successful of the servants.  The faithfulness of the first two servants is in stark contrast to the fear of the third.  He calls his master ‘a hard man’ and indeed he is, as he affirms that his expectations are sky high – ‘I reap harvests where I did not sow, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed.’

It’s a parable.  As with almost all of the parables of Jesus, he leaves the interpretation to the hearer. The Parable starts with the phrase ‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.’ That leaves little room for doubt that in this story it is God who is meant to be understood as the master of the servants.  Some have seen in the description of the journey that lasts a long time before he returns, a reference to Jesus and the Second Coming.  The fact that it is the master who, with trust and generosity gives out the talents, seems to me to point to our heavenly Father.

And the servants? – surely the disciples.  There is a continuity in Matthew’s arrangement between chapters 24 and 25.  At the beginning of 24 -it is verse 3, we are told ‘the disciples came to him in private.’  Follow it through and without a change of personnel or scene we come to 25 v14.  Jesus is talking with those closest to him.  But not only disciples there and then in Jerusalem. Disciples here and now, wherever; You and Me.

With trust and with great generosity, God has showered talents on us – the people of his Church.  We have gifts and skills and abilities. No one is excluded or exempt from the gifts of God.   Paul picks this up as an emphasis in several of his letters eg Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.  The worrying thing about the parable is that it tells us that God trusts us to make a return on his investment in us.  The third servant in the story didn’t get that at all.  Consumed by fear, he buried all that was trusted to him.

The Coved pandemic means that we are living in uncertain times. The future looks different.  This week we have heard the very welcome news of the development of a vaccine that just might give us the prospect of a return to some sort of normality next year.  But it will be a new normality and that will apply to the Church as well.   While the people God, let loose from slavery and passing through the wilderness, looked back with longing and remembered ‘the cucumbers, the water-melons, the leeks, the onions  and the garlic’ of Egypt – Numbers 11 v 5, there was no going back.  God always leads his people into a new future.

The questions the parable raise for me are:

  • How will each one of us use our God-given talent in the life of the Church and in the service of others?
  • On the other side of this wilderness experience, how will we work together to shape the future of the Church?
  • Will we be so consumed by fear that we become unwilling to invest in the future, bury our gifts and only look back with misplaced longing on a past that we shall never be able to reconstruct?

And the big question.  You may have noticed that at the top of this reflection I gave a title ‘A Passion for God.’  How can we rediscover and reignite our passion for God, so much so that we are willing to take risks in the investment of our gifts and explore new ways, in the new normality for the Church, of sharing the good news of his love?

God longs to welcome us with his greeting ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant’!

Bryan Coates

November 2020

Pastoral Letter from Revd. Bryan Coates.

To:  The Members of the Churches of the Salisbury Circuit

Dear Colleagues ‘In Christ’ and His Church,

Following on from the letters that I have written over the past few months, at our meeting earlier this month the members of our Circuit Leadership Team suggested that I should write a further letter.  As I understand it, their idea was that it should be an upbeat, positive, constructive and encouraging letter. I found that I couldn’t write that sort of letter.   In the couple of weeks since that meeting I have pondered and puzzled over what I should write and having been reluctant I have now put pen to paper.

In honesty I am troubled and not a little daunted.  With some hesitancy, I believe it right to share with you some of my concerns.

It is true that following several months of the enforced closure of our churches because of the lockdown associated with the Covid 19 crisis, we have re-opened our churches and begun Services of Worship.

It is true that an enormous amount of time, energy, commitment and sheer hard work has gone into the process of preparing the premises to reopen with all the regulations that demand deep cleaning, Risk Assessment and a whole lot more.  As a Circuit we are hugely grateful to all those who have given and done so much.  I am glad to pay tribute to this and say Thank You.

It is true that during lockdown, although the premises were closed, church remained open for some of our ‘core business’.  Streamed Services and a variety of written material were produced to help people engage in Worship.  Pastoral care was offered and shared, and in some ways extended– we looked out for one another.  Again, a sincere Thank You to all those who continue to take part in that aspect of the ministry of the church.

Having said all that, there are some real negatives that prompt me to ask some questions – questions for me in my role, but also questions for you and for every member of our congregations.

Many of us must have thought that as lockdown was eased, we had come through the crisis and normality would soon be resumed.  However, we are now in a renewed period of uncertainty and the immediate prospect is quite dark.  Large swathes of our country have seen an alarming increase in the infection rate of the Coronavirus, a significant number of hospital admissions and of Covid related deaths.  Lockdown, with all its consequences, has returned for large parts of the whole the United Kingdom.  While we, in our part of the country, seem to have got off lightly, the danger and its threat have not gone away.  To me, it seems probable that we shall continue to be subject to all sorts of restrictions well into next year.

  • What effect is that going to have on the life of the Church?
  • How do we maintain our Worship, our Fellowship and, not least, our Finances?
  • How do we encompass and maintain our ministry to all the groups and organisations that find a home on our premises and who, at this time, share the experience of being locked out?

Worship is different.  As has been said many times ‘Methodism was born in song.’  We express something of both our faith and our spirituality through the singing of hymns.  That can’t happen now and we are impoverished.  Methodism is a movement of Fellowship.  In our greatly reduced congregations people now sit two metres apart.  I am hearing that being in Church under these conditions can be an isolating experience.  The very antithesis of all that we value in being together as the people of God.  As one charged with the leading of Worship, it is a whole different experience for me too at the front facing a masked scattered congregation.

  • How can we enhance and enrich the experience of Worship for those who are able to come on a Sunday morning?
  • What about those who cannot come or those apprehensive about coming?
  • How do we maintain the ‘rightness’ of God’s people gathering to offer to Him our worship and our devotion?
  • How do we maintain our fellowship? How can I encourage our people to gather in ‘permitted’ groups of six to share their faith and experience?
  • Would people welcome the opportunity of some written material – perhaps based on the Lectionary passages and/or on the last Sunday’s sermon(s) for serious discussion on at least some of the pertinent questions that our Biblical readings raise?

Then, for me, there is a personal question.  On January 8th I had a conversation with David, our Superintendent Minister, who had just been signed onto sick leave.  He anticipated and hoped that a two-week break would make all the difference.  After that first fortnight the sick leave was extended, and I offered – as before – to help out.  I was then, and remain, glad to do so.  In what has become a long-extended period, we remain very concerned for David – and for Helen – as they face the illness that has robbed him of his vitality and also an uncertain future.

As a Circuit, I believe that the current crisis will force change, perhaps unwelcome change, upon us.  We cannot stand still!

  • How can I, in this interim period, offer appropriate leadership and direction to the Salisbury Circuit?

And the big questions.

  • How do we maintain our conviction that ‘best of all, God is with us’ in these unique circumstances?
  • John Wesley said, ‘I look upon the world as my parish.’  Understandably, inevitably, we have focussed much of the last seven months on how the Coronavirus crisis has affected us – individually and as the Church.  How do we exercise our God-given responsibility and passion for those outside our immediate situation and those most in need on the local and on the world scene?

I shall be grateful to receive your reflections and suggestions: sandyandbryan@tiscali.co.uk

Sincerely,

Bryan

Bryan Coates

October 2020

 

A Reflection for Sunday 9th August from Revd. Bryan Coates

Lectionary Passage – Matthew 14 vv 22 – 33

It is also helpful to read John’s account of this event – John 6 vv 16 – 21

Codex Egberti c. 980 Manuscript (Cod. 24), 270 x 210 mm Stadtbibliothek, Trier
Jesus walking on water

Reflection 20

 

When the phrase ‘walking on water’ is used we think either of some incredible, almost impossible action or – with tongue slightly in cheek, of a person of great charisma and enormous and unusual gifts and abilities.  Our Biblical passage, set for this Sunday, fits both ideas and is just that with Jesus and his appearance to the disciples.  In honesty, it is an unusual if not strange story and, at first reading, seems a million miles from our experience.

Matthew, Mark and John all have the account of Jesus walking on water (I wonder why Luke chose to leave it out of his Gospel?)  and in all three Gospels it is placed immediately after the feeding of the great crowd.  What is in it for us?

It is a focus on Jesus.  While to our twenty-first century minds it is a miraculous event that raises all sorts of questions, that would not have been the case to the disciples themselves, or to those in the early church who heard about it.  They expected and accepted accounts of God in action in all sorts of ways and would not have raised the sorts of issues that we do.  There is a hint of at least a question in John’s mind as he records the event.  Matthew tells us that the disciple’s boat was far out on the lake, whereas in John “immediately the boat reached land” – as if he is seeking some explanation.

We see Jesus taking decisive action.  There are strong verbs – “He made the disciples get into the boat” and “after sending the people away”.  At the very end of John’s account of the feeding he tells us that Jesus knew that the crowd wanted “to make him king by force”.  John 6 v15.  Jesus wanted none of it.  The feeding had been deeply impressive, but Jesus was protective of himself and the disciples and removed the disciples from the scene and its temptations, and banished the crowd before it got out of hand.   He himself went off into the hills to pray.  Then, responding to the crisis, he came to the storm-tossed disciples in the boat.  The wind died down.

Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords in close relationship with his heavenly Father and this is part of the divine revelation of God himself.  He is in control.  He commands the disciples and the crowd.  His Lordship extends to the material world – bread and fish – and even to the wind and the waves.  He can and does walk on water!  He invites us to allow ourselves to be subject to his command.

It is about fear.  Some of the disciples were strong armed and experienced fishermen, entirely accustomed to the sudden squalls of wind and rain that are characteristic of Lake Galilee.  Some were not.  There must have been some fear as the boat was “tossed about by the waves” v24.                But then the figure – completely unexpected and startling, and at first sight ghostly.  “they were terrified…and screamed with fear” v26.  Then Peter, bold as brass, stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus.  That is until “he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid” v30.

Fear is real.  There is much to make us afraid.  The obvious and immediate example is Covid 19.  We fear for members of our own family, for friends, for ourselves.  Like you, I have read of the Black Death that devastated European populations in the second half of the fourteenth century, and of the Plague of the seventeenth century, and of Spanish Flue a hundred years ago.  Interesting, if chilling reading, but remote.  Now this pandemic, on a world scale, is ravaging populations, wreaking havoc on livelihoods and economies and bringing unimaginable suffering and death.  And it is close, very close to each one of us.  In that wonderful hymn ‘I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship,’ we sing the line “and calms our lurking fear.”   As to those disciples in the wave-tossed boat, Jesus says to us with our real, lurking fears “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” V27.

It is about failure. Of the three Gospel versions, it is only Matthew who tells us about Peter’s attempt to walk on water.  Unsurprisingly, it is Peter who attempts to walk to Jesus.  Throughout the Gospel story, it is Peter who is the prominent one.  Peter is the one who seems to speak first on a number of occasions.  Peter is the one who seems to have a modicum of understanding and of faith.  However, we know of the early hours of that fateful Friday morning when Peter, in spite of vehement protestation at the supper table, is equally vehement in his denial of even knowing Jesus. The same Peter who, at the glance of Jesus, slinks away and weeps bitterly.   Here in this account, Peter started to sink and there are words of regret from Jesus to Peter “How little faith you have!  Why did you doubt?”  Again and again, the gospels are brutally honest and give us the picture of Peter the failure.

In honesty, isn’t the reality of discipleship – our discipleship, about failure?  Failure to believe, failure to trust, failure to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus – even in the most fearful of situations?

It is about the saving power and presence of Jesus.  Noticing the strong wind, Peter started to sink. He cried out “Save me, Lord” v30. “At once, Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him” v31.  As we have already noted, Jesus called to the fearful disciple “Courage. It is I.” v27.  Then “The wind died down.” v32.  The response of the disciples is their worship and their faith “Truly you are the Son of God”! v32.

When we are overwhelmed by the storms of life, when the waves bring us to the point of being most fearful, when we are acutely aware of our fallibility and our failure, and when, in our need, we have nowhere to turn, nowhere else to go and we cry out ‘Save me, Lord’, it is then that Jesus reaches out and grabs us and holds us in divine security.  In Jesus, come hell or high water, God is powerfully at work.

Bryan Coates
August 2020

Postscript:

Charles Wesley based a hymn on this passage.  It is StF 461 or HP 434 – ‘Come, O thou Traveller unknown’.  He, of course, makes the transition to Jesus – “thy nature and thy name is Love”.

 

A Prayer for our time

A Prayer from the Connexion – slightly amended.

God of all hope we call on you today.
We pray for those who are living in fear,
Fear of illness, fear for loved ones, fear of other’s reaction to them.
May your Spirit give us a sense of calmness and peace.

We pray for your Church in this time of uncertainty.
For those needing to make decisions in order to care for others,
For those who feel more isolated by not being able to attend worship or fellowship.
Grant us your wisdom.

Holy God, we remember that you have promised that nothing will separate us from your love, demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.
Help us to turn our eyes, hearts and minds to you.

Amen