Alan Jenkins

3 posts

Past, present and future……?

Preached by Alan Jenkins LLM on the evening of 15 November 2020: Second Sunday before Advent
1 Kings 1:15-40 / Revelation 1:14-18

Evensong scripture readings for this Sunday all resonate with our current global situation, and so, together, highlights some parallels with the particular times we are in just now. 

Our Old Testament reading (1 Kings 1:15-40) is set around the struggle for the succession to King David, with rival camps for Adonijah and Solomon making a play for the throne.  The matter was settled by the word of the old King David, and so Solomon reigned.  In the USA at the moment confrontations for presidential power have been raging, and the future may well be a revelation yet to be seen.

Our New Testament extract (Revelation 1:14-18) is very much concerned with a future, too, as John tries to describe a world beyond the present, in the context of the Jewish understanding that time was divided into two ages – the present which was beyond redemption, and the future, the age to come, God’s golden age of peace, prosperity and righteousness that would vindicate the people’s right to be known as the people of God. Our present times, if not beyond redemption, are certainly experiences that we want to displace by a better age, and we must hope that all that is going on at present to overcome the Covid virus will prevail, so that a vision of a new age can be seen and realised.

And then we have Psalm 98:19-29, which focuses on the past, on God’s covenant with David, a scene-setter as it were for unhappy present times, and an entreaty for better times to come.

So, taking tonight’s scripture as a whole we are compelled to consider time, ages, eras, in terms of past, present and future.  At this time of the year we pause to look back, with All Souls, All Saints, and Remembrance etc.  Important as it is to remember with thanks and gratitude the saints, redeemers and guardians who have gone before, it is also vital that we can have visions of a future that is worth striving for.

Tom Wright, theologian, professor and a former Bishop of Durham, has written a book entitled ‘God and the Pandemic’, and earlier Brenda Holden had kindly offered to lead a reading and discussion group which would have effectively looked at the obvious question ‘Why does God let things like this happen?’  Sadly, the Covid restrictions themselves have prevented the group from forming, but that should not detract any of us from reading the book.

Early on, Wright takes us back to the pagan world of Greece and Rome, when thinkers and observers basically came from one of three categories: Stoics, who believed that everything was pre-destined, and couldn’t be changed; the Epicureans who believed that everything is random, so you couldn’t do anything more than put up with it; and the Platonists, who looked on present life as a shadow of reality, to be replaced by the destiny of a different world.

Any of these classical approaches may produce excuses for doing nothing, an inertia that, however, may be awoken to feed an increasingly common reaction today to find someone to blame.  The consequences of the pandemic produce any number of issues that could potentially be laid at someone’s door, but merely to find a scapegoat now for something that had happened in the past, cannot usefully contribute to providing solutions for the future.

Historians record the past, prophets look at the present, and visionaries see the future, and so, in the context of the pandemic, Tom Wright examines where we go from here.  He acknowledges that there is a place for lament, not just feeling sorry for ourselves, but understanding the nature of grief for what has happened, as part of love.  This is part of living through the present, which as Christians we should do in the context of talking about God in an increasingly secular society, trying to understand how Jesus acknowledges opposing views and attitudes.

And the crunch question for Tom Wright, and all of us, is ‘How do we recover?’  He looks at different imperatives, and considers possible initiatives and outcomes. Some are ‘no-brainers’ some are inevitable, and some will only succeed if everyone has a common sense of determination to make them work. 

We could sum up our response to that question in one word – ‘faith’ or perhaps ‘hope’, but either way faith anchors hope for us in the context of Christian teaching.  So, all that we learn, all that we believe, all that we can share with each other, should be used to uphold the fundamental desire to prevail as equal citizens of this world and God’s Kingdom, in homage to him, and with integrity as stewards of his gifts of creation to us.

A duty, a responsibility, of course, but understand that it is essential that we all make a positive response, however we can, to declare that God is with us, and has faith in us. So he is asking us, as Christ’s disciples, to respond faithfully, hopefully, confident in the future that John’s Revelation puts before us.

Approach

Preached by Alan Jenkins on Sunday 16 August 2020: Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand a short stand-alone scripture reading without getting some idea of the background, the context, and we could do with a bit of help to ‘get it’ and appreciate the message.  So, in this morning’s Gospel, for instance, what was Jesus on about when he spoke about the dogs?  In the context of the woman’s request for help for her sick daughter it seems insulting, especially when we realise that ‘dog’ could mean a shameless and audacious woman, or a Jewish term of contempt to describe Gentiles, and in nearly every example of the use of the word it would come across as an insult.

But Greek scholars will tell us tell us that the word that Jesus originally used for dog was the diminutive that really described a lap-dog or pet, rather than some wild street dog, and so the way in which Jesus spoke takes the sting out of a narrative that might be otherwise difficult to comprehend.  Jesus’s use of everyday expressions with colloquial meanings or definitions, acknowledged the language of the time, by comparing ‘children’ as the Jews, with ‘dogs’ as Gentiles, and this of course in a Gentile territory.

The whole conversation between Jesus and the woman raises a number of implications, with the woman actually daring to stand her ground, an action which earned her the mantle of faith so that her daughter could be healed.  And Jesus acknowledged that the children must be fed first, but conceded that there would be food for the pets, for others still to come.

And so it is with the Gospel:  Israel, or God’s chosen ones, might have had the first offer of its good news and teaching but Jesus always acknowledged the needs of others.  He went out of his way to deal with minorities, to meet with others who did not have acceptance within the contemporary society, he ate with sinners, he touched the unclean, both ritually and medically.  In all his ministry, teaching and healing, Jesus made himself available to all, encouraging debate and argument from different traditions and viewpoints.

So this encounter, with its face-value repartee and unexpected language, upholds emotions of gratitude, equality, inclusiveness and opportunism, and teaches us that all can approach Jesus.

That is the underlying theme we can take from this account, – being able to approach Jesus, and the woman in the Gospel story was certainly able to do that, and ready to stand her ground in her conversation with Jesus.  Today, approaching Jesus, having a dialogue or conversation with him, is always available through prayer, and this week’s Collect encourages us to have confidence that our prayers will be heard.  One version of the Collect reminds us that Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer, and that is a lesson that we, too, should learn, as we turn to him amid the troubles of our present times.

So the Gospels tell us that prayer provides us with foundation for our ministry of outreach today, – to share that Gospel message with all who would ask for it, all who would even ask for the crumbs.

We have this as our duty as a witnessing community of faith in our neighbourhood, and in the world. We are members of the body of Christ, who are welcoming to others and prepared to share what we have.  And our prayer life, our ability to speak to Jesus, is an important preparation for our ongoing mission as heralds for Christ.  Amen

Oh do come in for a cup of tea

Preached by Alan Jenkins on 28 June 2020: Third Sunday after Trinity

Oh do come in for a cup of tea……………

It sounds such a natural way to offer hospitality, but over the last few months how long has it been since we could say that without breaking the government rules or guidelines? OK, there’s been some easing now, but one of the real down-sides to the lockdown is that we haven’t been able to welcome people into our homes, or to into our church, to the hospitality we would like to offer, to be immediately sociable with others. Yet hospitality is an important part of our Christian lives, and Jesus was referring to it as an integral element of mission, of creating disciples, the ‘little ones’ that he talks about in this morning’s reading.

The Gospel readings from Matthew at the moment are recording the ways in which the first disciples were being prepared to go on a mission, to share the gospel message, just as Jesus had been doing, and they would have expected to have been stocking up on provisions and equipment for the journey,- hopefully without panic-buying! But Jesus reined them back, telling them only to take the clothes on their backs, no extra clothes, no money, no food. Their only provision was to be hospitality, and a trust in the kindness of strangers.

Jesus’s instructions to his disciples contained a deeper message, which is equally addressed to us all. Hospitality and welcome are hopefully natural instincts that underpin an appreciation of forgiveness and healing, justice and mercy, righteousness and hope. In last week’s Church Times the leader expanded this, by saying that we need courage to welcome the stranger, humanity to have compassion, bravery to fight injustice. Not options, but commands from an incarnate God born into a refugee family.

And those commands were being given to the disciples by the one who was of that family, but Christ’s immediate message to them was a bit curt at first hearing: – no hospitality = no gospel. The good news will not flourish unless it is welcomed, nurtured, and fed.

If we look through our Bibles, and not just the New Testament, we will find innumerable references to eating together, for this whole idea of hospitality is a constant throughout the history that the Bible records. If you heard or read our Thought for the Week ten days or so ago you may remember that I mentioned a series called Holy Habits, when we thought about generosity. And Eating Together is another of those Holy Habits, so if you ever worry about whether you are ‘holy enough’, take some comfort from the fact that just by eating together, with friends, family, strangers or fellow worshippers, you are adopting a holy habit – and feel good about it!

But what about that remark by Jesus about a cup of water. What did he say? If anyone gives even a cup of cold water, they would receive a righteous man’s reward. More importantly, Jesus was saying that those who speak and work in his name represent him, and their deeds would be his deeds. In this one statement he gives his newly- appointed disciples authority, but also duty and responsibility. They were being sent out to carry on the work that Jesus had started, work that he knew he couldn’t continue for ever, and so these ambassadors for Christ were being commissioned, in his name.

The cup of cold water, itself a minute gesture, is a symbol of Christ’s welcome to all; a minor act of kindness that can mean so much. And we have been seeing many acts of kindness during the last few months, neighbours helping neighbours, sharing of food through food banks, seamstresses making scrubs and masks for carers to use; generous acts, which might be small in themselves, but which have made such a difference to other people’s lives.

But, if hospitality, eating together, welcoming others, is such an important part of our witness, can something as apparently insignificant as a cup of water do the trick? Jesus is telling us, today’s disciples, that this small gesture takes on board the concept that what is given to one of his people (the little ones), is given to him. To welcome someone with even a cup of cold water is also to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God.

If we only read this morning’s passage from Matthew in isolation, there’s a danger that we might get the idea that Jesus is saying that the disciples should only share hospitality with other Christians, somehow fuelling the idea that the church is only a cosy club for the committed. Nothing can be further from the truth, and in much of Matthew’s Gospel we learn that Jesus talks about the duty to help everyone. In Chapter 25, for example, he explains that when we welcome a stranger, we welcome him; when we give food to the hungry, we are feeding him; when we give clothing, companionship, concern to the needy, whoever they may be, we are helping Christ himself. We need to take on board that sharing kindness with anyone, especially those who are among our society’s most vulnerable outcasts, is to welcome Jesus and thereby to welcome the Divine.

So, back to the Holy Habit: hospitality is an opportunity through which we can offer food or drink to anyone, to someone who might be in a situation completely remote from our experience; not just those we know and are comfortable with, but someone in a world that is beyond our limited understanding. That’s where the courage that the Church Times headlined comes in, the boldness to obey Christ’s commands to welcome strangers. Whenever hospitality reaches across into that unique relationship there is no more host and guest, them and us, insider or outsider; there is just this unique place where we listen to, and learn from, one another, valuing and honouring one another on the equal terms that Jesus offer each of us.

Now, as we try to get back to some sort of normality, even this so-called ‘new normal’, one of the things we must be looking forward to again is meeting up with others, – and meeting over a meal, or a drink, or just a sandwich is an easy way of getting to know each other better. Being able to offer hospitality again, even if it does mean that guests may have to bring their own cutlery(!), is just one way that we can share good news about being Christians in community, about following Jesus together, about being and growing disciples in obedience to him, through our Holy Habits.

Eat, drink, welcome, – and be holy!! Amen