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A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 6th October 2019.
A couple move into a new house. Soon after they have moved in, they are sitting in their conservatory, drinking coffee together. The conservatory offers them a view into next-door’s back garden. They see their neighbour putting out the washing. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘how dirty that washing is that they are putting on the line to dry. Do you think they have not noticed?’
A week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing looks terribly dirty again. Maybe there’s a problem with their washing machine.’
Another week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing is as dirty as ever. Maybe they need some advice on how to do the washing. If it’s not better next week, I’ll go over and say something to them.’
Another week passes. Again the couple are sipping their coffee, and again their neighbour is putting the washing out to dry. ‘Look,’ says wife to husband, ‘their washing looks really clean now. They must have figured out how to do it properly.’ ‘Yes,’ says her husband, ‘and earlier this week I finally got around to cleaning the windows on our conservatory.’
We see things differently according to our viewpoint. And when that is revealed to us it might be the time for us to be humble. As the prophet Habakkuk says, ‘Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right within them, but the righteous live by their faith.’ (2:4) Or alternatively, as the song writer Mac Davis put it:
‘Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cause I get better looking each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.’
I might like to think that the meaning of a bible passage is clear and simple. In fact, though, what that often means in practice is that the its “clear meaning” is only the one that I, and people like me, take from it. Others see it in different ways because seeing it in the light of different experiences. And if you want a good example of that then consider tonight’s Gospel reading.
The apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. They do so because Jesus has just been talking about those who cause scandal for the church and cause pain and suffering to its most vulnerable members. The ‘little ones’ who they cause to stumble may be those who are young in the faith or may literally be vulnerable children. He tells the apostles that, with sufficient faith, they will be able to uproot such trouble makers from their community. The apostles think they are going to need an injection of new faith to make this happen: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’ (17:5)
Then Jesus illustrates his teaching with an explanation that would have been normal in his time and place, but which sounds obscene to many people in a twenty-first century setting: ‘who among you would say to your slave,’ Jesus begins. Would you give your slave a rest and cook their meal when they come in exhausted from the field? No, says Jesus, you would not. Would you dream of thanking your slave for following your orders? No, you would not, Jesus says. And then he goes on to say that the just as you owe nothing to your slave so God owes nothing to you: ‘So, you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’
None of us are slave owners. Jesus obviously expected some of his listeners to be so. Perhaps they were small-scale farmers or workers who could afford only one slave, ones who had to double up as both farm or field worker and as the household cook. There are other slaves and masters dotted about Luke’s Gospel. A centurion asks Jesus to heal his highly valued slave (7:2); there are slaves in a parable who keep working, remembering that their master might return at any minute (12:43); slaves are sent out to bring the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame into a master’s feast (14:15-24); and, of course, ‘no slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth,’ or mammon. (16:13)
All too easily, I can comfortably put Jesus’s slavery language into the background so that I can uncover my “true meaning” of tonight’s biblical text. Slavery doesn’t seem to be the issue here, as far as I am concerned. So I think to myself, “let’s not get distracted by it”. Instead, I concentrate on the underlying message, and that’s pretty simple: we need to be humble, recognising and acknowledging that in terms of our relationship to God, God owes us nothing. God is in charge. Anything that comes to us from God comes as a free gift, something to be enjoyed, and acknowledged as such, and not our right.
Just as none of us are slave owners, however, neither are any of us slaves, nor, I am guessing are m/any of us in this congregation the descendants of slaves. On the other hand, might some of us be the descendants of slave owners or of those involved in the slave trade? Some years ago I greatly enjoyed a contemporary dance show I attended, performed by an American company. I was intrigued to see that the choreographer was called Judith Jamison. Not only that, she actually spells “Jamison” correctly; without any needless “e” in it! This gave me a warm, fuzzy, fellow-family feeling, but only for an instant.
Judith Jamison is an African-American woman. The surnames of many African Americans come to them from enslaved ancestors who were allocated their owners’ surnames. Many Ulster Presbyterians – my ancestors – who emigrated to the American Colonies in the early eighteenth century went to the Southern ones. If Judith Jamison’s surname results from a history of slavery, then it’s quite possible that our connection, if it exists, is that members of my family enslaved members of hers. I wonder how Judith Jamison reads this parable? Is it such an easy matter for her, and for millions of others with a family history or with personal experience of being enslaved, to disregard slavery language in this saying of Jesus?
I still think that what I suggested earlier is tonight’s message to take from this saying of Jesus: we need to be humble, recognising and acknowledging that in terms of our relationship to God, God owes us nothing. God is in charge, and anything that comes to us from God comes as a free gift; something to be enjoyed, and acknowledged as such, but not our right. What I’m no longer so comfortable with is describing the relationship between God and us as being like that between a master and a slave. And that’s certainly the case if I try to read the story as though through Judith Jamison’s eyes rather than Trevor Jamison’s eyes.
If Jesus were here today, starting out on his ministry for the first time, and wanting to make a point about the need for humility, would he do so by way of a question and answer session about slavery and slave owning? I don’t think so. Would he tell us, ‘so you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “we are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’ Surely not!
And Jesus, I believe, wouldn’t change his language simply because it has become anachronistic; that none of us are slaves and that slavery is no longer a common, culturally acceptable phenomenon in twenty-first century British society. I believe Jesus would change his language because he would be talking into a society which has freed itself from the public institution of slavery but only at great cost; with a continuing impact, down through the generations, primarily for those who were enslaved, but also for those whose ancestors benefitted from slavery. Jesus would change his language to acknowledge that reality and to avoid causing needless hurt to others.
So, since I believe Jesus would change his language in describing the relationship between God and us, then I believe that we should do so as well. We would do better to consciously, publicly move away from carelessly describing our relationship with God as being, God is “master” and we are God’s “slaves”. And those whose ancestors were slave owners or who benefitted from the trade have all the more reason for us to be careful with our language.
Will this be easy to do? No, it will not be easy to do. To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure how to find an alternative image for expressing the deep truth contained in this Bible reading that in our relationship with God, God has nothing for which to thank us, whilst we are utterly dependant upon God. Figuring that out is the subject for another day and another sermon. Until then, let’s sincerely echo the words of the apostles to Jesus: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’
 It’s Hard to Be Humble lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights ManagementHabakkuk 2: 1-4, Luke 17: 5-10, slavery
St Columba’s Church was decorated with flowers, fruit, bread, plants and tinned produce for our harvest festival. All the non-perishable goods donated by worshippers will go to Nite Bite, a charity caring for homeless and hungry people supported by Churches Together in North Shields.
Our Minister, Revd Trevor Jamison, brought a large globe so that younger members of the congregation could find where the food had come from… South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and many from the UK. The children also helped him to plant daffodil bulbs in a pot for the church garden, which will hopefully flower next Easter.
Using the words of a hymn, Trevor encouraged us to reflect on different sorts of harvest for which we can thank God: crops from the land, fish from the sea, minerals and metals from the earth, skills, ideas, and leaders from the people.harvest
A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, September 22nd, 2019.
Welcome to this week’s sermon in our short series on the theme of “stewardship”. Last week we looked at stewardship of time. We discovered that stewardship of time is not the same thing as time management. Stewardship of time is about how we use our time in relation to God. So, stewardship of time is about taking time to thank God for the gift of time; stewardship of time is about trusting God in relation to chronological time (past, present and future); stewardship of time is about the seeing and taking right moment of God-given time in which to act. Today, though, we’re looking at stewardship of community.
These days, as we all know, fewer people take part in church life than did in previous years. What was once taken as a given is now a matter of conscious choice. Asked to justify their choice, quite a few of those people who take part in church will frame their answers in terms of “community”. The church is a community, one that’s sometimes even described as a family.
As my late uncle put it, concerning the Sunday worship part of church life, “you get together for a singsong, you spend time thinking about and naming other people and situations in the world, you listen to an interesting talk, you sit down with your pals for tea, coffee, biscuits and a chat; all in all, as he said, not bad value for only ten pence in a collection plate. For the avoidance of doubt, and in anticipation of our service about stewardship of church finances, my uncle wasn’t really serious in that “only ten pence in the collection plate” part of his description.
Still the church community is important to all of us. That sense of importance will vary from person to person, but if we thought it wasn’t important at all none of us would be here in church today. All that said, however, I have to tell you that just as stewardship of time is not really about time management, so stewardship of community is not just about the church community. In fact, having all of us spending all our time on cultivating the church community would, in fact, be bad stewardship of community.
Think about today’s Bible readings. Our frankly puzzling tale told by Jesus, in which he seems to commend dishonest financial stewardship, contains no mention of religious community, though it does conclude with an observation about the impossibility of serving God and money at the same time. Our OT reading from the prophet Amos, and that segment of a letter sent to Timothy, a young pastor of the early church, do mention or feature religious communities. In the situation described by Amos, religious community is thoroughly marginalised. Its seasonal festivals and weekly demands are an inconvenience to those wanting to get on with the important business of financially exploiting the poor and weak: ‘when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale.’ (8:5)
In 1 Timothy, the life of the church community is much more in view. After all its written in the form of a letter from a senior church pastor (Paul) to a younger one (Timothy), with advice about how to conduct himself in the congregational setting. But the congregation or church community is by no means the whole show. The pastor shouldn’t let concern for the church community result in ignoring the wider community around them, including social and political communities.
So, for example, supplications, prayers intercessions and thanksgivings should not address situations in church life alone. Instead anyone and everything in wider communities, such as nations and kingdoms, are the proper subject of such prayers: ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.’ (2:1-3)
So, what should we say to all of that? First, stewardship of community, which is about building community with God in mind, means building a distinctively Christian church community. Second, good stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. Third, though, good Christian stewardship of community involves each of us in making a distinctive contribution within other communities.
So, first, stewardship of community is about building a distinctively Christian church community. Never take for granted the social benefits of gathering for worship, as laid out by my uncle. Don’t take for granted the impact of social activities and actions offered through church congregations, including this one. But neither let’s forget the challenge of Sunday Assembly.
Sunday Assembly is the movement founded in 2013 by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians, who wanted to continue their positive experiences of church life but without any of that religious content in which they no longer believe. There are about fifty Sunday Assemblies around the world. There is one meeting on a monthly basis in Newcastle. One local Sunday Assembly says on its website, “We tend to have around 60 people attending, and the assemblies last an hour. They typically include some congregational singing of well-known uplifting pop songs accompanied by the house musician, some gorgeous performance poetry, a stimulating talk, cake, and a chance to chat with others. Children are welcome – we don’t currently include anything in the programme specifically geared towards kids, but we are open to suggestions/ideas/volunteers to help! We also have socials in-between assemblies, and occasional community volunteering events which we are trying to do more of. Our book club started meeting earlier this year.”
Does any of this sort of activity sound familiar to you? Given the overlap with many church activities, the question I put to you is this: “Why come to St Columba’s United Reformed Church rather than attend a Sunday Assembly?” What is the essential, significant difference between St Columba’s and a gathering founded by and reflecting the values and beliefs of a couple of pleasant-sounding atheist stand-up comedians? Hopefully, having given it some thought, one or two things might occur to you.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with much of this sort of activity. We do a lot of it ourselves, but if a church, like us, devotes all of its time to such activities, and there is no distinctive Christian element contained within it, then that would be poor stewardship of Christian community.
Then, secondly, as well as being distinctively Christian, good stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. This week, I had two conversations here in North Shields churches about getting others to join in with distinctive Christian community. One person commented to me about a community café offered by a church which has been going for some years. They said that when it began, they made sure to have visible information and indications of how Christian faith was the impetus for their activity. Somehow, though, this part of the café’s identity had been let slip, so that, apart from the location, in a church, there was little clue for diners in off the street about that aspect of this dining community.
I wonder if the idea that we are exploring about having “faith corners” in the parts of our buildings where the public go during the week, offering faith and spiritual images, leaflets and booklets might be one way to address that sort of ongoing challenge
In my second conversation, someone told me that at their church their most effective evangelist is someone who is neither a member of the congregation, nor even yet a signed-up Christian believer. This person had wandered into a service and enjoyed it. They liked the discussion and consideration of faith issues. They have brought another two people along to the services, and only the other Sunday were chatting with an acquaintance they had bumped into on the street outside the church and were inviting them to come inside. This person, still on the edge of faith, and on the edge of the church faith community, has not yet learned to feel self-conscious about the distinctiveness – the oddness – of the church community.
If as a community we take care to remain distinctive – which, for us, is about how we have discovered the love of God made know to us in Jesus Christ – we must also take care to give others the opportunity to discover that for themselves, in any of the activities of our church community. Being distinctive – being odd – their response might be “no thank you”, but unless there is something distinctive about our church community to what could people ever say, “yes”?
So, Christian stewardship of community is about building a distinctively Christian church community. Christian stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. Third, though, and a warning to us all, good Christian stewardship of community involves each of us in making a distinctive contribution within other communities.
Remember what it said in that part of the letter to Timothy? ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone.’ So, if we spend all our time wrapped up in the life of the church community, we’re not being good stewards: God created not only the Church but the world after all. That’s why so many of those climate change protests which took place all around the world on Friday included so many Christians. It’s not that we don’t care for God’s Church but that we’re also called to care for God’s world.
And that means making the effort to be a distinctive Christian presence in the other communities where you live your life. Some of us, however, spend too much time being Christian in church and not enough being Christian elsewhere. Church ministers, including myself, are some of the worst offenders here. Think of the other communities of which you are a part. Even in this congregation, without too much effort, I can think of people involved in schools, hospitals, golf clubs, bowls, PROBUS, Rotary, Inner Wheel, and workplaces. As I rush from church activity to church activity, I note that there are walking groups and (gentle) cycling groups traversing this town and I’m not part of them, though I like both walking and cycling.
In an era when fewer and fewer people come through church doors to take part in church community there’s a call to faithful Christians stewards of community to develop community life in other places, in ways which involve Christian influence. I’m aware that that’s no easy task, and we could do with some support in thinking about ways in which to do that well. To ignore the communities of our world, however, within the world that God has made, sustains and loves, would be an example bad stewardship.
So, stewardship of community is about creating a distinctively Christian community, which is worth a lot more than ten pence in a collection plate each week. It is also about inviting others into taking part in all of the aspects of its distinctive life. But let’s not get obsessed with church community, for there’s a host of other communities out there where God calls us to be Christian.
May God give us the faith, the courage, the discernment, to be good stewards of community today. Amen.Amos 8: 4-7, community, I Timothy 2: 1-7, Luke 16: 1-13, stewardship
A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 15th September 2019
“I’d love to do that, but I just can’t seem to find the time.”
Welcome to the first sermon in a short series on “stewardship”. Today, on this third Sunday of Creation Time, we are looking at stewardship of time. Next week we shall consider stewardship of community. In week three, at our harvest service on September 29th, it will be stewardship of creation. Then, on October 6th, we’ll round off the series with stewardship of finance, including church finances!
Today, it’s stewardship of time: “I’d love to do that, but I just can’t seem to find the time.” Back in the day, when I was working as a librarian, before I got into being a church minister, one of the most useful training courses I ever did was on time management. As a result, my disorganised diary was put in order, and my desk, which had been piled high, with higgledy-piggledy piles of paper, was now clear and pristine.
Some lessons from that time management course have stayed with me, continuing to be helpful in my present work, though there seems to be something about the ministerial life that mysteriously attracts chaos and disorganisation. Still, I’m not too worried because Christian stewardship of time is a rather different thing from time management.
For us, for Christians, stewardship of time is about our use of time in relationship to God. Being well organised – time management – might form part of that, but it’s far from the whole story. So, what is stewardship of time about? It’s about taking the time to thank God for the gift of time. It’s about trusting God with regard to chronological time. It’s about taking God-given opportunities at the right time.
Taking time to thank God for the gift of time. In Genesis 1 we hear that God, who was before anything in creation ever was, commanded light and dark into being: ‘Then God said, “let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness. God called the light Day, and darkness … night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ (Gen. 1:3-5)
Genesis 1 is neither an eye witness account (even in the story itself humankind does not come along until some time after night and day are created), nor is it a modern scientific description of events. Genesis 1 is less about telling us about creation in itself – the universe and planet earth’s place within it – than it is about telling us about God. It declares something about God; that God is the author of time itself. Without God there is no light or dark, night or day. Without night and day, and their subdivisions of hours, minutes and seconds, there is no time. To put it another way: no God, no time.
One hymn says, “think of a world without any flowers”. That’s hard enough, though you can envision it if we, humankind, keep on misusing the planet in the way that we do. If a hymn asked, “think of a world without any time”, it would make no sense at all. Time gives structure and meaning to life; life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At least, it has an end in this form of existence, though we hope, in God’s grace to go on to something more; some new form of relationship with God, when life comes to an end.
Time enables us to have a sense of progress through life: All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare put it, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and each one in their time plays many parts … [their] acts being seven ages. But how would we ever know when to make out entrance or our exit; how would we ever be able to interact with each other, if there was no sense of time?
Without time our existence has no meaning for us. So, first of all, stewardship of our time is about recognising that it is a divine gift and thanking God for it. Our time is not our own. It comes from God as a free gift. Good stewardship of time begins (and how can you begin to do anything if there is no time) by thanking God.
In terms of stewardship of time and thanking God for the gift of time perhaps a little spiritual time management might be in order. Take a moment to picture your diary or timetable for the week – time you give to work, leisure, family, exercise, shopping and so on. How much of your time is taken up with what might be called spiritual activity? Since good stewardship of time is about our use of time in relationship to God, how much of that time do you spend thanking God for all you have been given?
How about taking a little bit more time each week for thanking God for the good stuff in your life, including the time in which to do things. Maybe a moment of “thank you” to God at the beginning or end of each day, for all that day might bring, or for all that it has brought.
Then, from thanking God for time we turn to trusting God with regard to chronological time. I would be a rich man if I had a pound for every time someone in church told me “You know, Trevor, we’re not getting any younger.” (I’ll be collecting money from several of you at the end of this service!) Add in another pound for, “You know, Trevor, we’re all getting older,” and I would be a multi-millionaire.
When people say this, they are making a serious point about the age profile of this congregation and many other. We are weighted towards the mature end. Of course, although we are getting older every day, we are not doing so more quickly than anyone else. Everyone is getting older … one day at a time, and no quicker.
All the same, this touches upon an important point about chronological time and trusting God. We don’t know how much time we have left. It’s hard to steward your time well when you don’t know how much of it you possess. Maybe we look at our age, and the law of averages, and make a rough guess. Yet exceptions to the rule show us not to take too much for granted or that we might receive more than we ever expected. We just don’t know.
Some people do know, up to a point. We get given news, perhaps news that’s unwelcome, about how much more of this life we can expect. Recently, I’ve been reading a book by the palliative care doctor, Katherine Mannix: With the End in Mind: How to Live Well and Die Well. In it she shares her observations and convictions from working with literally thousands of people who are nearing the end of life. That might sound quite depressing. Actually, I found it a comforting and, at times, uplifting book.
One of Katherine Mannix’s observations is how on many occasions an indication of how long is left is the impetus for people to live well, not just in terms of actually getting around to the things on their “bucket list” but in living their relationships with others at a profoundly deeper level. To me, in that context, it’s almost as though they have been born again into a new way of living in relationship with others. We get a glimpse of what Jesus is getting at in terms of our human relationship with God when he tells Nicodemus (who came to him in God-created night time (3:2)), that you must be re-born from ‘above’ or ‘anew’ (3:3, 7).
For most of us, though, for most of our time, we don’t know how long we have. That’s where good stewardship of time involves trusting God about chronological time. Will we have time, individually or as a church, to finish this or that project? We don’t know. That should not prevent us from going ahead in the belief that all that we do has value within the context of God love, God’s concern, and God’s infiniteness. I don’t suppose the biblical book, Lamentations, is your first choice of reading. The title is not encouraging, but it does give us the verse, ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ (3:23)
So, we are thankful to God for the gift of time and trust God concerning chronological time. Then, thirdly and finally, we strive to take God-given opportunities at the right time, when they come along.
“History”, the saying goes, “is just one damned thing after another”, yet nothing could be further from the truth. In his night time conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus is wedded to chronological time, and in chronological time you’re born once and that’s it: ‘How can anyone be born after growing old?’ he asks, ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ (3:4) Nicodemus misses the point. Jesus is not talking here about chronological time – length of time – one thing after another – but about a quality of time; a significant moment in time.
Neither life nor history is just one thing after another. There are special moments, times of opportunity, that we choose to take or let go by. That’s true of individuals and its true of churches. In the Greek there is ‘chronos’ and there is ‘kairos’. ‘Chronos’, from which we get ‘chronological’, refers to the sequence of time. ‘Kairos’ refers to the important moment; the opportune time for action. And every so often moments come along that are seized and things change. In the history of this church, Harold Lishman, hearing someone speak about housing conditions in North Shields in the early twentieth century, seized the moment, raised funds and built homes. Chronologically, his work continues in and through the Square Building Trust, but only because he recognised a kairos moment when it came along.
I wonder what moment we in our time might recognise and seize when God sends it our way? Doing so will be good stewardship of time; stewardship which thanks God for the gift of time; stewardship which trusts in God for living well in chronological time; stewardship which responds with action when the time is right.
O God, giver of time, make us thankful, trusting, active stewards of your time. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
 Think of a World Without Any Flowers by Bunty Newport (1927-2004) and children from Emmanuel Junior Church, 1966. (Rejoice and Sing, no. 123)
 From As You Like It.
 Katherine Mannix With the End in Mind: How to Live Well and Die Well. London: William Collins, 2017.Genesis 1: 1-5, John 3: 1-8