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click here to view the readings:
Isaiah 58:1-9a

Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Is it Worth it...?

There`s a story of two very old men, sitting in wheelchairs in one of the more run-down retirement homes. After a long period of silence, one says to the other, `We gave up smoking, for this?`

I have two death-bed stories to tell you. True stories, but neither refer to folks from any of our churches. They involve my work as free-church chaplain one of the towns hospitals, where many of you know that I spend a session per week.

The first story began with a phone-call around mid-day. The hospital said that a man was told he was dying and he wanted to see a `vicar` straight away - tomorrow may be too late. So I arrived, clutching the Anglican prayer-book (just in case).

`Vicar` he said - (I winced!), `They tell me I`m dying, and I want you make sure that my son doesn`t get my savings`.

A bit stunned, I tried to grope for some deeper significance to our conversation, and he continued with a catalogue of other items which he wanted apportioned to spite his son after his death. At last, and as gently as I could, I said, `You don`t need a minister, you need a lawyer`. He nodded and I left.

I spoke briefly with the nurse who called me, who explained with a wining smile that they couldn`t get a solicitor to come out straight away, especially over lunch. It was cheerful mis-use of my time and of religion.

I went back another time and, after I again refused to help him draw up a will, we had a good talk about his life and experiences. He died a few days later in the end. When I spoke with the family after the death it seemed that he had always used his small amount of money as a way of manipulating people. He had died, attached to a bank savings book, leaving behind a taste of bitterness. Another time, I was `walking the ward` and the nurse called me to talk with a lady who was not she said was likely to live very long. I asked if the lady knew, and the nurse replied that she didn`t think she understood how frail she was. As I went to see her on the ward she saw the clerical collar and straight away she asked me if she was going to die.

Then she told me about her need to be released from the bad things she had done in her life. It turned out that she was a Roman Catholic, so I got in touch with a priest from the Cathedral, and he invited me to be with her as she confessed her sins and was given absolution. It was one of the kindest and gentlest acts of the church I have ever witnessed. After the priest had gone, we spoke at length, and I suggested getting in touch with her family to talk about the things which troubled her - this she did, and she survived for about a month afterwards.

It was good to see her each time I was in the hospital as she told me what had happened, and when she finally died it was as a person who was at peace with herself, her God, and her friends. In an odd sort of way she was fully alive when she died - and it reminded me once again that the amazing thing about death is that it clarifies what it is to be alive. It`s rare for a minister to feel really useful, and this was one time when it all seemed to come together - where the theory and the words met the practice.

I know that they are difficult stories, but often the most useful stories are those which are the most difficult. At the heart of both of them is the issue of speaking plainly and being understood - of saying truthfully what is on your mind, sharing it fearlessly, and bearing the consequences.

People say that we live in a very visual age. That pictures speak more easily than words and deeds.

This is probably due to the influence of the television in our lives: We see carefully crafted images which (because we have learned to do so) make us immediately take leaps in our thinking to various ideas, themes or experiences. Advertisements on the TV do this with extraordinary skill - so much so that it becomes a news item when a new advertisement for cat food is about to be broadcast. (The astonishing thing is how many people saw the advert really thinking that it was meant for cats rather than owners of cats.) We make the mental leap into thinking that cats can understand TV adverts simply because we live in an age where images help us to make shortcuts. And (of course) shortcuts are not always what they claim to be, neither in daily life and especially in religion.

We live in an age of images which are shortcuts to.....? Well, that`s the rub. They`re shortcuts to other shortcuts - leading to nowhere of substance.

Very few of us get the chance or the stimulus to reflect more deeply - to take the `long way round`. We take the shortcut because it`s quick, easy and because everyone else does. It`s only when we`re faced with matters like the two hospital patients that we see just how shallow taking the shortcut can be.

I`m not judging either of them - that`s for God to do - but the predicament of both of them was that time was running out, and the shortcuts of life which normally delivered them could no longer be brought into play - so, religion was called in to make the explanations. And, by-and-large it just won`t work that way. Though the woman knew a month of reconciliation, she might have had years. The man not only lost himself, but left what seems like a legacy of more heartache. Our fast age has quick, visual and easily-digestible answers. But when the time comes, it doesn`t work like that.

In times gone by, when the great crises in life presented painful questions, you could scratch a man beneath the surface and discover things like the Lord`s prayer, the Beatitudes and the Creeds. The Catechism of life had ingrained these slogans, and for many they were more than slogans but a way of life. But if you scratch a man beneath the surface these days and he declares that he doesn`t know why these things are happening at all, and reached for the kind of half-baked shortcuts which we heard Graham Hoddle expounding to the newspapers. In the past we all had the words - and we knew they led somewhere. Now, it seems we have very little or nothing.

Chapters 56 to 66 of Isaiah form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of both hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods.

Through the prophet, God issues what almost sounds like a warrant for arrest of `his people` for `their rebellion`, `for their sins`. The charge is that they go to the Temple daily they pretend to `delight` to know God's ways - but their keeping of the Law are purely ritual, external and accessories to life rather than the stuff of life. If you scratched them beneath the surface they might know the words - the shortcuts - but the shortcuts didn`t really mean anything to them in changing their lives.

When things didn`t go splendidly they wanted to know why God was ignoring them, and through Isaiah, God begins to reply... You serve only your own interests; Oppress all your workers; There is a gulf between the rich and the poor; Your lives outside your religion are inconsistent with your worship.

Earlier, we heard about the creeds and how they came into being - and they can so easily become the sentiments to which we give lip-service - they become like sound bites - shortcuts with no real meaning because they don`t affect our lives. If you identify with this view; this was the general attitude of the people who heard Isaiah`s critique - the people failed to match up belief with reality, church and society, faith and action.

Now, again, I don`t criticise the people in the two hospital visits I made - I use them simply as illustrations - what religion was being asked to do their predicament was to bridge that gap between the soundbite and the reality.

Isaiah lays it out for all to see.... Because of the way you are doing things, God will not hear your plea. You kid yourselves if you think an insincere show of piety is acceptable. God demands people to have a proper relationship with one another - free from injustice and servitude - forming one community. When you do this God will hear you; heal you; and protect you.

What Isaiah is about here is the `credibility gap` between intentions, and life as it is lived. Yet amidst failure there is hope....

I have to admit that I often ask myself if it is all worth-while? Do the righteous flourish - as Isaiah would have us believe? Had my man in the hospital ward been reconciled with his son, would it have made any difference? Do faith, belief, and hope affect outcomes? Did we really give up smoking for this......(!)

Does the modern man not have the Apostles Creed just beneath the surface of his skin simply because that short-cut doesn`t deliver any more? And with the Apostle`s Creed goes the whole infrastructure of the Kingdom of God?

We heard last week, in the first letter to the Corinthian church to whom Paul wrote, decrying divisions in the church: people had attached themselves to particular leaders because of their eloquence (and other personal qualities). Paul goes on to write that when he first met them, he purposely avoided lofty words and tried to instil almost a sense of ordinariness - in order to give the Spirit full reign in bringing people to Christ. To avoid a Pauline personality cult, he came neither promoting his own qualities nor using erudite rational arguments.

What has happened at Corinth, he thinks. typifies immaturity in faith. In other words the Corinthians were thinking, speaking and acting in `soundbite` and `headline` terms. They had the shortcuts, the signs-and-wonders, and were in that most dangerous position of half-knowing about something, and acting as if they knew all of it.

To the immature Christians at Corinth Paul spoke the basics of the good news - God's plan of salvation - so they can reflect God's power in their lives in the world. But they became detached through distance from Paul, and began to make up the rest as they went along - and they took too many shortcuts - too many apparent certainties: They failed to trust the Spirit who would reveal things about God's love that are ordinarily hidden. Paul - we must remember - didn`t leave them with a set of instructions or rules and regulations, but the opportunity to be open to the Spirit, the apparatus to know the `mind of Christ` rather than to refer back to a list of `do and do-not`.

So when we ask if following the leading of the Spirit really makes a difference, we have to respond that yes it does. The results of the Spirits influence may not be the delivery of what we think we may need in terms of success or wealth, fame and popularity - but the Spirit is the enabler, allowing reflection on and discovery of the `mind of Christ` in any given moment and place. Therefore, you in a much stronger position.

Isaiah holds out the hope of a future where such intimate `knowing` of God will even mean ultimate salvation: Paul is saying much the same thing to a bunch of argumentative Christians in Corinth about the mind of Christ.

I can`t say for certain, but my instinct is that when I visited my hospital beds in response to a request for `shortcut religion`, the reason things didn`t work in the first example (with the man and his bank-book), and the reason why I think that it did make some difference the second time, (with the Roman-catholic woman) is to do with trusting of God and allowing the Spirit to do its thing.

In most of the major questions of life and death, suffering and toil, the short-cut Christian Faith limps to give authoritative answers. But in the long-term trusting and knowing of Christ`s mind, offering the kind of confidence which Isaiah prophesied and Paul prescribed, there are answers in lorry-loads. In practical terms what this means is that, whereas we may all have difficulty with some of the religious ideas contained the creeds and so on (some of us cross our fingers on some of the assertions), they remain pointers which can release the Spirit. Then, they are useful. It`s worth learning the creeds, because they can be shortcuts to a deeper knowing rather than a shortcut to no-where.

On a mountain in Galilee, Jesus has described the qualities and rewards of the `blessed`. Now he uses homely metaphors to teach essential lessons about being disciples. The parable of the salt is a wonderful example of the theme: Salt does not really lose its taste, but in Judaism it can become ritually unclean and need to be thrown out. (It was used to season incense and offerings to God.) Jesus may have been thinking of the salt deposits around the Dead Sea - When it rains they still look like salt but the salt leaves the grit behind as it dissolves in solution and runs away with the water.

A follower who loses his faith is useless, and what will be discarded is the nutshell. A hard saying, it is illustrative of those for whom words and thoughts which sound and feel like Christianity - the shortcut faith - but lacking any probing or challenge. Such faith proves to be no use. The only kind of salt which is any use is salt which is salt - the only kind of Christianity which is of any use is that which seeks to know God through Christ in an attitude of openness to the Spirits call - (as good an understanding of the Trinity that we need!)

Jesus calls on disciples (and that`s us!) to be examples to others of God's ability to change lives. The life of discipleship must be visible and attractive: The scribes and the Pharisees were righteous because they kept the Law scrupulously; but Jesus says that meritorious conduct is inadequate for admission to the Kingdom. He preaches a religion that goes beyond the Law: one of the heart, of love and compassion and life itself - the whole of life. The gospel fulfils the Law, exceeding it by adding grace.

So, the message from the old folks home, is that it is worth while giving up smoking, even though the benefits of it may be difficult to apprehend when you`re gasping for a fag. The life of faith is similarly something which when entered into fully and comprehensively as a long term project delivers benefits above and beyond the kind of religion which offers easy soundbites.

The message from the hospital ward is that if your life has been bound up with things you`d rather put to back of your mind, then religion is not going to be of much assistance for your final remaining hours if you have ignored its demands for the major part of your life - death-bed conversions are highly unconvincing.

Scratch beneath the surface and if you find the Apostles Creed, then scratch some more - because the words are simply the headlines - and unlike much of modern life, there is something beyond the headlines: If you don`t wrestle with the words then you are not letting them go to work. Isaiah and Paul say that there is so much beyond the headlines just waiting to be discovered.