A sermon about the joys (and perils) of being part of the team (or tribe), based on 1Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21.
When we read the Bible there is a danger that we can prettify it. We can think that all God’s people are heroes who never make mistakes, and that we are inferior by comparison. Similarly, we can assume that people in leadership have got it all together, and that they don’t need us – we have nothing to offer. Or the leaders know everything – we can’t offer any useful insight.
It seems from this passage (1Cor 12:12-31a) that the Corinthians had been creating or reinforcing divisions within the congregation, on mundane and/or spiritual grounds. One of these divisions was between the different gifts, and Paul sets out to correct this. While recognising that some gifts are regarded more highly, he points out that all gifts are needed and must all work together in love for the good of all (see 1Cor 13, next week).
Context. I was thinking of these things in two
At Work. Recently I’ve come up against a problem
at work that has forced me to question what we are doing. This did not make me popular with the
rest of the team. I found that:
Team membership depended upon
toeing the party line, being ‘on message’
If you question the team then
you are one of ‘them’ not ‘us.’: team = tribe.
Rather than listen to the
message (the Team is in danger), I was labelled as ‘emotional’ &
‘outspoken’ – a troublemaker.
I was reminded why successful
teams can fail – they believe their own propaganda and lose touch with reality.
In Church. This is true of us as individuals
and as a church. I’ve seen:
A church that was blessed with
resources to share that turned its back on that to become something else.
People with gifts being
overlooked and/or needs being ignored.
Groups with gifts refusing to
put them to use without strings attached.
Locally Methodists are
preoccupied with the reorganisation of the Circuit and preaching – we seem to
be ignoring the reality of shrinking numbers.
Unhappiness results in every case, because
God made us for certain things – we are what we are and the world is what it
is, not what we think we/it is.
In Luke 4:14-21 we see Jesus bucking this trend. The people of Nazareth identify Jesus as one of them, part of the tribe. They expect him to act accordingly, to fit in with their expectations of him as Mary’s son. Instead Jesus tells them that he is God’s chosen one, the Messiah! Jesus was not ‘on message’! He was not one of them – he was a troublemaker! (Next week we’ll see that he went on to reject their expectations of a miracle and upset them to the point where they wanted to kill him, Luke 4:22-30).
We don’t have to wait to be ‘called’ or to become something else before we start contributing – we are ready here and now. Loyalty to the team does not make false things true (or vice versa) and it does not override loyalty to God. We are a Team and not a tribe – we are members of the Team because God made us so, not because we blindly conform to a shared idea of who we are, regardless of reality. Jesus followed His mission regardless of the short-term consequences. God will shatter our false self images if they get in the way of his Truth and His Kingdom. You are needed!
A sermon about Epiphany and Baptism, based on the healing of Naaman by Elisha in 2Kings 5.
Introduction: ‘Whistle Blowing’
Someone in church has asked for a sermon on ‘whistle blowing’. A whistleblower is a person who raises a concern about wrongdoing occurring in an organization or body of people. I am interested in talking about ‘whistle blowing’, because I had occasion to do it about 4 years’ ago, and my career in the Royal Air Force was effectively finished by doing so. However, what happened to me is unlikely to be relevant to many others.
When we were discussing the idea of this sermon the case of a Christian district nurse was in the news. She worked in Weston Super Mare and she was investigated by her employer for offering to pray for a patient. She was suspended without pay, but, thankfully, reinstated without any action being taken against her. She was supported by the Christian Legal Centre, and I wonder whether action would have been taken against her, if not for that fact and all the publicity surrounding the case. Sadly, her case is not unique. What should we do if we feel called to ‘blow the whistle’ because of our Christian principles, or even to share Christ with a potentially hostile world?
(The aim of the original story is to get to the confession in verse 15: “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” But there is much more to be learned from this passage…)
Naaman is a powerful general, well regarded and of high personal qualities – but he has a problem. The point is though that he knows he has a problem – how many have problems but won’t admit them even to themselves? Then again, Naaman’s problem is obvious to others, so he can’t delude himself.
That’s like so
many people today, isn’t it? Most people
around us have a vague belief in God, but don’t know Him personally. Nevertheless, they can apparently get along
quite nicely without God, so they don’t realise that they have a problem. It’s not until they face something that they
can’t solve with own resources, or understand in their own wisdom, that they
realise they lack something they need.
Even then some refuse to see the truth.
Elisha is the “man of God”, and he is not impressed or awed by Naaman’s earthly power, regard or qualities. He also chides the King for his fear and lack of faith. Some would see Elisha’s behaviour as arrogant, but let’s not forget that Elisha has got something that Naaman needs – the General hasn’t come to call out of friendship.
We are in a
similar position to Elisha. Because we
know God personally we have something that is beyond mere worldly power and
prestige – we also have a God-given authority and freedom. In these days of diversity, tolerance and “my
rights”, it’s not fashionable to say that we have The Truth, of The Faith, but
we do. We are very blessed and fortunate
people and we don’t have to apologise for that; we are free to tell others
about our relationship with God. Elisha
wasn’t interested in being popular or fitting in – he had a God-given job to
do. So do we.
The King of Israel
In the story, the King symbolises a lack of faith, but perhaps this is unfair. We know that Israel has suffered at the hands of Aram, so perhaps the King’s suspicion is justified; perhaps we need to be sensitive to others because we don’t know what they have experienced in the past. Also, you can see the King’s horror at the prospect of war and the thought that, even if Israel wins, he will be responsible for leading some of his men to their death. Perhaps we should try to understand over-zealous officials who don’t want religious controversies disturbing the peace.
The Girl Servant of Naaman’s Wife
The girl has been captured and taken away from her people by Aram, a nation who do not know the true God. You would think that the girl would have no love for her master, but she tells his wife that the prophet in Samaria can cure him. What faith and courage in witness! Perhaps also the girl can see good in her master, even though he is author of her misfortune and the enemy of her people.
Naaman’s servants also chose to take a risk to help their master who was in a rage. Let’s not forget that Naaman could have killed any one of them if he so chose. Remember, that there was nothing in it for them – they didn’t know that the cure would work! Once again it is the courage and love of the servants – who are not even significant enough to be named in the story – that enables God’s miracle to happen. Without them there would be no story and no conclusion: “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”
We are surrounded by people who do not really know God and choose to ignore Him. Some of these people have authority over us. Our way of life is not popular or well understood. Nevertheless, our God has the final victory and we will have the last laugh. God’s victory over His enemies gives us the opportunity to pray for them, tell them the good news and serve them. Let’s pray now…
A sermon about the Magi’s visit, based on Matthew 2:1-12 (Year C, Epiphany)
Message: Look for God while you can find Him.
From the Scripture:
Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, far from home, family &
(He was visited by shepherds: troublemakers among
their own people.)
Now some rich, important, foreign people have come
to visit! (Did I say they were foreign?)
Now King Herod and his advisors look a bit
stupid. The Messiah was born only 8 km
and they didn’t notice!
The King also feels threatened (he’s not popular
with the people either).
The Magi are guided by the star (a sign in heaven)
They are overjoyed to see him – they know how
lucky they are.
They are pleased to worship him and bring him
Meaning at the Time
God is available to us in good times and bad.
Jesus can be found by people far away – sinners
The rich and powerful, the satisfied, do not
notice Him, perhaps even feel threatened by His authority (‘will he tell me
what to do?’)
That outcasts and foreigners should find the
Messiah, the Jewish people’s chosen one, when their own King did not notice
him, is a huge joke and meant to be an encouragement to the poor and weak.
The Magi must have been rich, because they had the time and means to observe heaven, to understand what the star meant, to get a meeting with King Herod, to travel a long way to see Jesus and to get him expensive gifts. These were not easy things to do, and their visit was not some casual or spur-of-the moment idea. Today it is much easier to find Jesus, but still many people do not bother – not in the good times at least.
Some people don’t bother about Jesus, don’t pay him any attention while times are good. Some leave it until it’s too late and are surprised when they can’t find Him, perhaps because they approach Him only because they want a problem fixed. They won’t admit their sin or submit to him; unlike the Magi, who made great sacrifices to find Jesus and came ready to worship him. Jesus is God, after all.
The Epiphany message is clear: look for God in the good times and while you can find Him!
I was looking into something called “Safety II”. Now, as a dyed-in-the-wool system safety engineer, I’m used to the traditional approach to safety. You think about what ought to happen when you obey the rules; everything else is a deviation, a mistake, or an error: deviation is failure.
Safety II doesn’t look at it like that. Instead of imagining work done in a perfect world, it looks at work as people do it, for real. There is often little difference between work that results in a good or not so good. This leads to a much less rigid way of looking at things.
Functional Resonance (just a bit more…)
My epiphany came when I tried a technique called Functional Resonance Analysis Method, or FRAM. This is popular with fans of Safety II. I tried using it to analyse a scenario that I had struggled with for a long time. None of the other techniques that I tried worked, perhaps because it involved creativity, and the old techniques could not cope with that. FRAM did cope with it, and how! From the beginning, I was drawing simple diagrams and learning from them, getting insights into a problem that had eluded me for months, even years. I am still riding this wave.
Now, FRAM isn’t magic, and it’s not the answer to everything. It’s not the one method to rule them all, but it did challenge and enlighten me.
Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM): Precise, or Just Narrow?
As an engineer, I’m used to using science and maths to get my job done. There is a right answer and many wrong answers to every question. 2+2=4, always, without exception, no deviations allowed. I find that reassuring, comforting even. Correctness, precision, accuracy; I like these things. But not everyone is like me: shocking, isn’t it? For a lot of people, precision, rules, one right answer where every other answer is wrong – these things are a big turn off. Many people dislike the rigidity of science and maths and find it excluding – prejudiced even.
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not talking about those who chose to deny scientific fact because of some dogma. I’m talking about ordinary people, who are turned off by the rigidity of science. I guess that’s why we spend so much trying to make STEM attractive to girls, for example.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable with this narrow approach. They spend a lot of time being creative, furthering relationships, enjoying music, art and literature: me too. I can enjoy these activities without analysing them, seeing them as problems to be investigated and solved. In fact, it’s best not to even try.
Maybe I need to loosen up and accept that I can’t have, and don’t want, precision all the time. After all, fuzzy logic and fuzzy decision making have been used to develop Artificial Intelligence, taking mere rule-following machines and changing them to become…well, we’re not quite sure yet. The point is that thinking, intelligence – from a human perspective, anyway – requires more than logic and precision. Edward de Bono, a modern guru of thinking, says that real decision-making needs emotion. Mere facts are not enough to make value judgements.
Nor can reduce everything to an equation, or to physical, ‘scientific’ evidence. I was reminded of this when I did jury duty recently. The judge explained that we had to assess the facts – we should not accept anything presented to us as fact, even if she said it! We had to decide what was fact and then decide what we could infer from those facts. In the law, the ‘intent’ of the accused is a key ingredient to be decided. The jury had to infer what the intent of the accused had been, even though we could not see into their heads, and they either would not speak or plausibly denied their guilt. We had to do infer intent based on circumstantial evidence. We did.
So this epiphany, this new experience, has helped me to pull together a whole bunch of other experiences, old and new, and discover (create? synthesize?) a whole, new way of seeing things. This way is not as reassuring or simple as 2+2=4, but I like it nonetheless.
So that’s my epiphany. I know it’s a bit early – not quite right. Sorry.
Recently, I was lucky enough to go to the Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia. One of the events that I saw was a men’s 1500 metres race, featuring six veterans with a range of disabilities – some had two legs, some had one leg and a blade, and one guy had two blades. Later that day, we saw the TV coverage of the race, and it showed the few seconds when the Australian ran across the finish line to win.
But that wasn’t the real story
On the first lap, the competitors were bunched together, with an American guy at the back. He had lost both legs above the knee, and he had to move his blades with a side-to-side gait that looked like really hard work. But this guy was big and strong, and he never looked like someone struggling to keep up, he looked like someone who was biding his time, waiting to make his move. On the second lap he did so, and on the straight, right in front of the crowd, we went wide and overtook the pack to take the lead.
He didn’t just get in front but got 10 metres clear of the rest of them and stayed there for most of the race. He looked unstoppable and it was thrilling to see him go. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite keep it up. As he tired, the Australian veteran, who had been in second or third place for the whole race, made his move on the final lap. He crossed the line well in front of everyone else, and sadly the brave American guy, who made such a bold, gutsy run, didn’t finish in the medals. I admired the Aussie for running such a clever race, and the American for his strength, guts and big heart.
That wasn’t the end of it. After the guys who won medals crossed the line they went back to encourage and support the others across, including the guy in last place who been lapped by everybody else earlier on. That story, that drama, never made it onto the TV screen.
Missing the Point
The next morning, we watched the news summary on ‘Sunrise’ an Australian TV program, which reported the results from the athletics event of the day before. Some Australian athletes were named, for example, one guy who “won gold in the 100m, gold in the 200m, gold in the 400m, and gold in the 1500 metres”. The only reporting was of those who were winners, who were champions.
This completely missed the point of Invictus.
The joy of the games was watching people compete. Watching the teams go nuts as they cheered on their comrades (I never knew that Danes could get so excited). Watching people come first or in the middle or last and being wildly cheered and celebrated no matter how well they did.
The point of the games was it that it took men and women who were broken, who lacked meaning in their post-military lives and gave them purpose. It turned them into contenders, even though their bodies may never be whole again. Invictus gave them something to focus on and a goal to aim for. It restored a discipline, which had ordered their lives and given them direction in the past. (These are their words, not mine.) Hopefully, these men and women, whether they win a medal or not, will go on to apply this new sense of purpose in other aspects of their lives, after Invictus. Many already have.
The exception to this reporting was the ABC evening coverage of the games, which did a great job of getting the ethos of Invictus across. Thank goodness for public service broadcasting.
There are probably two lessons here. The obvious one is that there is no substitute for being there; watching something vicariously, through a screen, or hearing someone else talk about it just isn’t the same.
The less obvious lesson is about the Australian tendency to celebrate winning and winners to the exclusion of all else. This puts pressure on our sportsmen and women to win at all costs.
I suspect that it was this pressure that caused the Australian cricket team to indulge in ball tampering last season. I can’t help feeling that the huge wave of anger directed at them had more to do with the fact that they were caught, not because they had done something wrong. They had failed at what they were required to do, which was to make us all feel like winners. They were supposed to maintain the illusion that one can win all the time, without cost, without compromising one’s principles.
Winning at All Costs
When the ball tampering scandal hit, Malcolm Turnbull, the then Prime Minister, said he was more concerned about sledging. (For the uninitiated, “sledging” is where players verbally abuse the batsmen, to put them off.) I think Malcolm had it right. If sledging is a legitimate part of the sport, then what age do we teach kids to say “I shagged your wife” to another sportsman?
When we first came to Australia, we were shocked at how the media tore into the cricket team if they didn’t win. The TV news would talk about any old billy-bollocks first, and then mention in passing that Australia was losing, or “looking to come from behind for a win”, as they would say!
It’s not just in cricket. When the Olympic team flew home from London 2012 the medal winners were separated from their teammates. The winners flew home in business class, and the rest in economy. It’s all part of our “winning at all costs” mentality.
Invictus – a Better Way
Well, I can say with confidence that, in Invictus, I saw a better way – a better definition of winning, and of what it means to be a winner. I shall look forward to seeing the next Invictus games, which will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2020. I might have to watch it on the TV in the middle of an Australian night, but it will be worth the wait.
Writer’s block. It’s a cliche, it’s not real – is it?
This Writer’s Block
In 2010 I started writing my first novel. (We’ll forget about the train wreck of a novel I wrote in the 1990s). It was planned as part of a trilogy called When I Was, Other Than, What I Now Am, which is a quote from a short story by Greg Bear.
By late 2012 I thought I had finished writing When I Was (HO-HO-HO, I’m still working on the latest draft in 2018) and I moved onto Other Than.
With the benefit of hindsight, this book was probably suffering from Second-system syndrome. I deliberately kept the first one simple, with one main protagonist and everything written from his point of view. Not so with number two! There were three main protagonists and multiple points of view. Did this contribute to the problem? I’m still not sure.
Anyway, all seemed to be going well. I was using a detailed chapter plan, a first for me as I recognised the complexity of what I was taking on. The words came easily and the characters, who I knew well from book one, were doing most of the work for me. By March 2013 I was 30,000 words in and then … nothing. I just ran out of steam and could go no further.
Looking through the files from then it was a very creative time. I sketched out ideas for several novels, including one that evolved into Jubilee (a current work in progress, see this page) and another book in my planned alternative-crime series, The Oxygen Thieves, which is still on my to-do list. Perhaps I just burned myself out. After all, we’d just moved to Australia with a stroppy teenager (don’t try this at home) and I was just setting out on a five-and-a-half-year roller-coaster ride on a massive project at work. (Incidentally, this ride comes to an end at the end of this month: synchronicity, anyone?)
In the end, I wrote my way out of the block, by starting a new project, writing the first 12,000 words of The Daedalus Soul; since then I’ve built this story to 50,000 words. Eventually, I was able to go back and take the first draft of Other Than to 80,000 words and a conclusion.
Sometime later I discovered that another name for writers’ block is the thirty-thousand [word] doldrums. My grateful thanks to Emma Darwin and her excellent blog site This Itch of Writing. As always, Emma provides wise advice and a useful perspective, from which the aspiring writer can see a way ahead. Thanks, Emma!
I am now returning to Other Than in order to complete it (note to self: must learn to FINISH a novel).
A sermon on culture versus God, from 1Corinthians 8:1-6.
Aim: To show the limitations of ‘culture’ as a substitute for loving God.
Paul talks about Jewish food rules getting in the way of the Christians worshipping God. These rules, which were helpful for living in the desert a thousand years before, have no power to help anyone.
Paul names this: mere superstition.
Meaning for Today: culture
Today we call this superstition ‘Culture’. This word used to mean making people better, educating them, but now we use it to describe all the things we do for no logical reason.
For example on Australia Day speeches all started by acknowledging Aboriginal Culture. This is a well-meaning but empty gesture, as it does nothing to improve anyone or to correct real inequality (e.g. an indigenous woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the lowest in Australia, whereas a western woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the highest).
Using the culture label for other’s religious beliefs avoids difficult questions like: are they true? are they real? By focusing on Culture we can paper over the cracks: safe but superficial; however, it’s patronising, even cowardly.
I was talking to a friend having a tough time, he’d had some time off work with stress. We talked about how we have to wear a grown-up mask to show other people, versus the real person underneath, which was formed when we were children. We have to maintain this pretence because our western culture won’t accept or value our real child-like selves (is this something we could learn from the Aboriginal peoples?) Maintaining this false mask causes real mental health problems.
It made me think how helpful our relationship with God is. We can be ourselves – weak, childlike, silly – but even so, we are accepted and understood. We can understand our place in a family, in society, in this false culture (Jesus calls it ‘the World’) and the universe. It is real, not culture. It causes people to admit their mistakes, to be true and real, to right wrongs and do amazing things to educate themselves and improve the lives of others.
Let us enjoy and value culture, but keep it in its place. Let’s not accept the superstition of culture – giving it power over people, or the idolatry of culture – allowing it to be a substitute for God. We are created in God’s image, to have a relationship with God.