They come back the next week,
And the minister announces at the start of this sermon
This week I would like to speak to you about a subject very dear to my heart
The oil that never ran out in the story of the prophet Elijah
And this time people definitely know this is the same sermon
But out of politeness they don’t say anything
Not wanting to upset this minister who so deeply loves this story.
The next week everybody files in
And the minister stands up after the fourth hymn
And he solemn declares brothers and sisters, the sermon this week is on the topic of the oil that never ran out with the prophet Elijah
Now people have run out of patience
So a delegation is formed, and they prevail upon the session clerk
Who then plucks up the courage to go to the minister (clearly this is not representative of this Church) and says
“Minister, we’ve notice that for the four last weeks you have preached exactly the same sermon
“I know says the minister,
And I’ll keep preaching it until everybody puts it into practice.
And I feel like that minister this week.
I feel that every since I have picked up the book of Galatians
I have been preaching virtually the same sermon every single week.
That Paul has been relentless in his theme
Time and again, with different images, bringing us back to the same fundamental truth about ourselves and God
And like that minister
I sense the battle we have is not for novelty, not for a new sermon, but
To somehow keep pondering this message
Until we leave this Church as different people.
A New Reality
Put another way, our transformation is not instant
But like all the truly important things
And the finest quality malt
Is going to take a little bit of time.
This is about the struggle we have to reground our reality
To fundamentally point our lives in a different direction
To actually get at the root of why life does not work properly for us
And to live in the truth of this great gospel, this great message, this great transformation in human existence which Jesus Christ brought about
This stuff is potent, because it can change you
It is lethal because it will kill your old self
And it is the very breath of life itself, because it will guide you away from feckless, anxiety ridden hatred of self, of others
And into life which is full of the spirit, and of truth, and of newness, a life of the most extraordinary power.
Paul’s letter has been constructed on a number of opposites.
Jerusalem – now
Jerusalem – above
And God has moved you from this place of death,
To this new place of life
We have been moved into this new column, but there is something in us
Something addicted to failure
Something in us wants the same tired narrative, rather than newness
Bizarrely a preference for that which is death to us
And and now you want to go back there.
Paul makes his point this morning, by bringing a new story, once again to do with Abraham.
The Story Of Abraham
Now I am going to tell you this story,
And in the end I am going to ask you who you feel sorry for:
Abraham as you recall is God’s pensioner
The proof that God does not give up on those who sometimes feel that they are past their sell-by date
In a sense he is a reminder that we who measure our life as harking back to youth
Are actually getting closer to eternity.
Abraham is dogged by two big failures, the failure of his family to move to a new land which he had set out to go for
And the failure, in his eyes to have children.
And when Abraham is 75 years old, God gives him a promise
He promises him the land
And he promises him children
The promise of God is bigger than Abraham’s failure.
But God takes more time to bring this about than Abraham would like
God likes to move slower than us
And in Genesis 15 Abraham complains that he still has no heir
And God rather than give him the heir at that point
Gives him the promise again
And Abraham believes – and this is a big moment, Abraham believes and it is credited to him as righteousness
By Genesis 16 it is not Abram but Sarai, his wife, who has lost patience
And she says to Abram, who is now 85
“Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant, it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
And Abram is quite up for this idea
And he goes into Hagar
And she conceives
And this altars the relationship in the house
And Hagar looks with contempt upon her mistress Sarai
And Sarai goes to Abram, saying “What will I do?”
And Abram says “Do as you like”
So Sarai deals harshly with Hagar.
In a very poignant scene Hagar flees into the desert
Where she meets an angel
Who promises that her children will be a great number
And his name will be Ishmael (which means God hears)
Because God has heard her affliction
And Hagar returns to the home
And has a boy when Abram is 86 years old
And Abram calls the boy Ishmael.
Responding To The Story
How do you respond to this story?
My response is always one of sympathy for Hagar
Who is a slave woman caught up in a web of relationships
Which have a great power over her
They can dictate where she lives, how she is treated
And what she can do with her body.
Sure, she mocks Sarai, but this after much that has been done to her.
What happens to Hagar is the result of impatience,
It is the result of abuse of power
And the child who is born to her will be a slave also like her
Forever forced to play second to Isaac who is born later.
There are two things here
The story of Hagar represents a response to the story of God which is one of impatience, of having had enough, of God not being able to make good on his promises.
Notice that the Bible, when faced with the possibility of God’s promises being less, never tones down the promise, sets the expectation lower, but counsels patience, faith, hope, and trust.
Which is what Abraham had to learn to do, to wait, to allow the promise to come to fruit.
Paul Takes This Story In Two Directions
Paul takes this story in two directions.
The first is to say that those in the Jerusalem Church
Are in a line with Hagar, (v25 – “she stands for”)
She is a way of thinking which is about panic, which is about a desperation in the face of our own failure and the slow response of God
She represents the attempt to fix ourselves
By not waiting but by working harder, doing more
Coming up with ways to get round the slowness of God.
In doing this, power is abused, people are hurt
Slavery is extended, freedom is curtailed.
This approach is somehow in line with a few other things
Our desire for success
Our need to be important
Our running away from our failures.
The Spirit of Hagar has long been in the Church
It is often identified with a man called Pelagius
Who was a Celtic monk who lived from AD 354, to AD 420
It is difficult to get to the real Pelagius,
The historical record is sketchy,
But his name is attached to a view that we as humans ourselves were not crippled by sin,
We are essentially good
And therefore capable of obedience to God with out God’s help
And this view, has crept into our thinking ever since.
It cripples us
It is the view that says I can sort this lack of promise from God problem myself
And so pre-empts God.
His opponent was a man called Augustine, who said that we are born sinful
And that we cannot fix ourselves but are utterly reliant on the grace of God.
Eugene Peterson and Pelagius
Rewrite this section
“We are, most of us, Augustinians in our pulpits. We preach the sovereignty of our Lord, the primacy of grace, the glory of God “By grace are ye saved… Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9, KJV). But the minute we leave our pulpits we are Pelagians. In our committee meetings and our planning sessions, in our obsessive attempts to meet the expectations of people, in our anxiety to please, in our hurry to cover all the bases, we practice a theology that puts our good will at the foundation of life and urges moral effort as the primary element in pleasing God
The dogma produces the behaviour characteristic of the North American pastor: if things aren’t good enough, they will improve if I work a little harder and get others to work harder. Add a committee here, recruit some volunteers there, squeeze a couple of hours more into the workday.
Pelagius was an unlikely heretic; Augustine an unlikely saint. By all accounts Pelagius was urbane, courteous, convincing. Everyone seems to have liked him immensely. Augustine squandered away his youth in immorality, had some kind of Freudian thing with his mother, and made a lot of enemies. But all our theological and pastoral masters agree that Augustine started from God’s grace and therefore had it right, and Pelagius started from human effort and therefore got it wrong. If we were as Augustinian out of the pulpit as we are in it, we would have no difficulty keeping sabbath. How did it happen that Pelagius became our master?
Our closet Pelagianism will not get us excommunicated or burned at the stake, but it cripples our pastoral work severely, and while that is not peronally painful, it is catastrophic to the church’s wholeness and health.” (Working the Angles, pages 73-74)
Last night when we were out we were talking about loss of children,
And the story nearly always was one of the child panicking
Paul almost asks a miracle of us,
It is to be like a child,
Which is calmly waiting and says “I knew you would come”
There is also something curious going on here as well.
In one reading the story of Hagar and Sarah is a story of ethnic superiority.
The children of Isaac become the children of promise, the children of Israel
And the children of Hagar represent everyone else
Actually they represent Islam, who trace their heritage back to Ishmael.
What Paul does is radically detach any reading of this story to your actual birth
And attaches it to how we have responded to the promise of God.
So to some of the congregation, who might be Jewish by birth, Paul is saying
Actually, because you haven’t trusted in Christ, the promise of God, you are actually children of slavery, of Hagar
And those of you are actually descended from Hagar, who are not Jews
Actually because God has brought you into the place of promise
If you respond to that promise – no matter what, I am with you
You are children of Isaac.
The place you were born, the genes you were born with matters less now
Because God is adopting people from all over the world
And if you are adopted by God, if you trust in him, then you are free
And if the promise is to be ignored, if it is stingy in its offer,
If it is unreliable
If it is empty
And if you are dismissive of the generosity of God, then you are a slave.
I find this a real reassurance
Chipping Norton Set
I have worried this past week about the so called Chipping Norton set
A privileged group of folk who have a privileged upbringing
David Cameron, George Osborne, Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Jeremy Clarkson
We could add people like Simon Cowell into the mix
And all the power belongs to them.
And if we don’t have the money, if we don’ get the breaks, if we don’t have the talent
Then we don’t stand a chance.
But it is the other way around,
Those who ignore the promise, they are slaves
And the ones who trust the promise, no matter their circumstances,
They are the children of the free woman
But the desire of God is to break into the lives of those who are spent.
The underdog and the failures and the broken and those who have not succeeded.
This is about the capacity of God to give to those who have nothing
To heal those who are broken
To astound those whose lives have been a story of pain
So he quotes Isaiah 54:1
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear
Break forth and cry aloud – notice the double sense here, because labour is difficult
You who are not in labour
For the children of the desolate one will be more
Than those of the one who has a husband.”
Our battle to believe
Our battle instead is to discern that every moment is actually gifted to us by God
And that our sins are taken away
And somehow to silence the voice of Pelagius that haunts us
There is a phrase here
“Cast out the slave woman and her son”
Which is nothing to do with casting out actual slaves
But getting rid of this voice that says
“You have to earn this”
“You have to be worth it”
“You’re failures will always haunt you”
This takes effort to drive out this slavewoman,
And to remember our identity as those who are free.
Stand firm says 5:1 and do submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Isidore The Farmer
The faith of the Church
The witness of the Church
The gospel of Jesus Christ depends not on preachers or on paid workers of the Church
It depends on all the saints,
Being able to learn this lesson,
Reliving it week in week out
The promise of God is to be trusted
That Christ died to take away the curse that is ours on the cross
So that we might live.
And our task is daily to drive a away the slavewoman
And instead to remember that Christ has brought us for freedom.
I liked the story of ordinary discipleship:
In March 1622, Rome surprised many people by recognising Isidore as a saint. He founded no order, nor did he write a single book. He was a simple farmworker who spent his life tilling the land, mostly for the same wealthy landowner. With his wife, Maria, he bore a son who died in childhood. Isidore knew the hardship, toil and sorrow that are very familiar to many. He went to worship daily and prayed continuously in the fields, displaying the simple and profound faith shared by campesinos around the globe. It was said that angels could be seen assisting Isidore in the fields as he ploughed. Though he had very little wealth, he became known for generosity and hospitality, especially to the stranger or the lonely. He died on May 15, 1130.
And they made him a saint,
Because he trusted the promise of God.
For Lilly, the beginning of the story that August night comes straight from the nightmares of miners’ families the world over. She was preparing dinner as usual for Mario, one of their four daughters, Romina, and their one-year-old granddaughter Camila when there was the proverbial “knock on the door”. A manager from the mine was standing there. Lilly remembers the man saying there had been an accident at the pit but that they were bringing in the required machinery and the men should be free by morning. “I told him that he could not fool me. I told him that I knew the terrible state of that mine and that if there had been a collapse there was no way the men would be out by morning.”
She dropped everything and forced the manager to drive her for an hour to the pithead – little more than a big hole in the rocky hillside and a couple of cabins. She was to stay there in the middle of the Atacama desert, among the driest places on earth, for the next 69 days, only returning home when Mario had been rescued. By then he had been through a traumatic near-death experience but had also become among the most famous people on the planet. Today, Lilly and Mario are still struggling to understand what happened to him and to them.
When Lilly arrived at the mine that first evening, she found the first rescue teams emerging, having found no way through to the trapped men. “It was chaos. No one knew what was going on.” The mine administrators on the surface were not even sure quite how many people had been trapped. Lilly knew from Mario’s stories of the day-to-day inefficiencies of the mine that it was badly run: “I trusted no one.” As soon as she arrived, she sensed that rescue teams might pull out, insisting that no more could be done.
She felt that if the managers were constantly cutting corners on safety, they would hardly commit easily to the possible costs of a full-scale rescue and all that might involve. Apocryphal stories of how miners are simply left to die after an accident are commonplace across Latin America. So Lilly and the other relatives who had made it to the mine “picked up sticks and bars”, confronted the police and blocked the road. “We knew that if they [the rescuers] left, then it would all be over. So we begged the rescue teams not to abandon us, but to help us put pressure on the managers who were there.”
The regional police chief, who was at the mine that first night, confirms this was the critical moment. Without the families’ intervention he believes the miners might well have been left entombed after the failure of the first attempt to find a way through the main tunnel.
In all the backslapping triumph of the final rescue, the story of those first uncertain days tends to be forgotten. Few remember how Lilly and the other women managed to transform a local tragedy into a national event and so save their men. There was little good news in those first days. The next day rescue teams emerged saying a boulder the size of the Empire State Building had collapsed inside the mountain, taking down eight levels of the mine. And the mountain was still moving. They also said there was no way down the main tunnel and that the specially designed escape shafts, supposed to work in such an eventuality, were either blocked or had collapsed.
Lilly was having none of such defeatism. She remembers: “The authorities up there tried to kick us out. They told us that the children would get sick, that they should be at school… That we had no business up at the mine… That we were getting in the way.” By now, most of the Gómez family had turned up – as had many of the other relatives, camped out beside the mine, setting up what would later be known all over the world as Camp Hope.
This is our challenge, in day to day living, to trust and believe the goodness of God,
Like Isidore the farmer
And in our panic and in our crisis, even though fraught with worry
To move in the direction of Hope.