My Last Sermon September 6th 2015
Colossians 3: 12-17
Today I am leading my last service with you, as ‘the minister’ of this Church. At the end of the month I will officially retire. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for nearly nine years. It only seems like yesterday that you were interviewing me and deciding whether or not you wanted me as your minister. Thank you – you did – even though you didn’t know what you were letting yourselves in for! And now, that ministry has come to an end. And I’m asking myself what was it all about? Why did I come and what did I want to achieve? I didn’t ask that question at the time, but I’m asking it now. When I came, I just wanted to fit in as best I could. I just wanted to be here, to be myself, and just let the ministry happen, believing and trusting in God.
And I want to thank you for your patience and tolerance and generosity in allowing me to be myself (some of you perhaps wondering “what kind of a minister is he?”) Well, now you know, you can look back and judge for yourself. I’m going to try and identify aspects of my ministry which ‘emerged’ out of my coming here and just being with you.
One of the themes I have found myself emphasizing is covered by the word FREEDOM. You’ve heard me use it many times. I’m always preaching about it because it’s so important. Hearing that very word itself just lights up my mind and gets the sap quivering in my soul. Above all things, I believe that ‘freedom’ is what God wants for us, so that we can explore life, find ourselves, be ourselves, even love ourselves, and then give ourselves to God.
And that brings me to a second theme of my ministry, which is the word GOD. And I have to say that, while I’ve been here, my own understanding of the word GOD has developed more than at any other time. Things have happened which have been the opening up, and the flowering, of seeds planted long ago. Seeds growing silently and secretly within me, until the time was ripe. Fifty years! Why did it take so long? Because I wasn’t ready! But I’m ready now, and I’ve been looking deeper into what, before, I have just taken for granted. This has led me, as I’m sure you all know by now, to raise questions, and essentially the question – WHO or WHAT is GOD? And I have discovered that this is not a question to be answered. It is a question to be lived with. And in a sense, that IS the answer! Living, realistically, openly and honestly, with the question; because God is not a problem to be solved. Rather, God is an invitation to give yourself to something higher than yourself. And when you do that, you don’t lose yourself, you find yourself in a new way, and that’s the Good News! It can put a smile on your face, a spring in your step, and give you a purpose for living.
And this leads on to another theme I have been emphasizing, which is the Bigger Picture. That’s what I needed to see. A bigger picture than the one presented to us by religion; any religion! A bigger picture, wherein to see and think about, and feel your way into, an understanding of God in the context of the vast, endless, expanding universe into which we have been borne; in which we live and move and have our being. It’s our true home. It’s our only home. It’s where we belong.
What then of religion? Religions have come into being through our own human desire and need to ‘see that bigger picture’. But by and large, religions have given us a smaller picture. They have actually replaced ‘the bigger picture’ with themselves (and become competitive into the bargain.) Religions claim to have ‘answered’ the question of who God is. And they have given us their various answers, which for me over the years, have become less and less satisfactory. And in the end, religions themselves have become the problem!
So where do I now stand as a minister of religion? All religions need the Spirit of Freedom to sweep through them, blowing away the cobwebs that have gathered there, declaring redundant the various answers they have given, pruning and simplifying and reforming, with a view to giving people a glimpse of that bigger picture of God.
These have been the major themes of my ministry … FREEDOM; GOD; AND THE BIGGER PICTURE. And I’m going to expand a little bit more on that in a minute or two.
LOVE LIFE; BELIEVE in YOURSELF; HOPE in GOD
I have been thinking about my ministry which has, essentially, consisted of me being here and being myself. I have shared with you some of my life’s journey. You have come to know me as the person that I am with all the ‘baggage’ that I’m carrying, mental, physical and spiritual.
If anybody asked me what are the tools of your trade? I would have to say, WORDS. And I’ve been pouring out words over you for nearly nine years, and putting even more words on paper in Stretton Focus, in the URC magazine Reform, and on our Church website. Out of all those words I’d like to leave with you a few that, to my mind, encapsulate everything that I want to say, and would be glad to be remembered by them. And they are these – LOVE LIFE; BELIEVE in YOURSELF and HOPE in GOD.
Let’s have a quick look at each one – Love Life. I’m not talking about the sentimental, falling-in-love kind of love which is OK for teenagers, and I was a teenager for a while! I mean the strong, mature kind of love which you don’t fall into and fall out of. This kind of love you couldn’t lose even if you wanted to, because it becomes a deep and intimate a part of who you are when you love life. In loving life, you are loving the very fact of being alive. Without life where would you be, what would you be? Nothing! You wouldn’t exist, and so you love life because it’s there, in life, that you exist. And if you are wise, you remind yourself of this truth every day. You tell yourself each morning, that it’s good to be alive, because by doing that, it helps you to ‘come alive’ and see that you are part of ‘a Greater Life’, the Life of God, within which all living things are alive – (it’s that bigger picture). Love life and stand against all that damages it, all that cheapens it. Loving life carries with it responsibility and concern for all of life, wherever there is life on all its different levels. You want life to flourish in celebration of the Oneness of Creation in which everything is connected. As the Bible says we are all bound up in the bundle of life. So love life, be thankful for it, and try to fulfil it as best you can.
Now if as I say, your life is your very self, it’s who you are, then loving life will mean loving and ‘believing in’ yourself. But for many people, especially Christian people, this has not been made clear. We have been made to feel guilty about being ourselves, and the result has been a diminishment of life. Which is not what our Creator wants! John’s Gospel talks about having life in all its fullness. And it doesn’t help to achieve that end by being told that we’re all miserable sinners on the way to Hell, which is how some religions manipulate and control people. Of course we’re not perfect! But there is forgiveness. Not because somebody paid the price of our sins, but because God is merciful, kind and loving, and forgiving. So be forgiven for anything you need to be forgiven for, and then believe in yourself as a child of God, just as Jesus was and is, a child of God. You too are a unique person with nobody just like you. Only you can be yourself. So believe in yourself for God’s sake and let the spirit within you raise you up to new levels of loving life. You don’t need to compete with others, just be yourself. Believe in yourself, your best self, and trust that God will carry you to wherever God wants you to be.
And that’s where God comes in. God is that big picture which is bigger than our own understanding. It’s a mystery beyond us, but a little bit of that mystery is within us (it’s your spirit, it’s you, it’s who you are.) We can understand ourselves as being held and moved by the Eternal Mystery or Spirit that we call God, in whom we place our hopes that “All shall be well: and all manner of things shall be well.” God is not the ‘solution’ to the mystery of life. We don’t ‘solve’ the mystery, we enter into it, we are part of it. And we don’t have to wait for some future event. God doesn’t have a future, or a past, like we do. God just ‘is’ … now … everywhere … all the time. And even while we are ‘embodied’ here on earth, we can feel our way deeper into that Mystery, by putting our HOPE in God. We can catch a glimpse of the eternal: we can begin to feel something of its reality, deep within us. And there we can rest content; loving life; believing in ourselves; and hoping in God.
Donald Horsfield, 6th September 2015
The Writing is on the Wall
Daniel 5: 1-28 New English Bible
Where shall we go this morning in our time together? The writing is on the wall. Can you see it? No! That’s just the title of what I’m going to say in the first part of this service. The writing is on the wall. I would imagine that people have been ‘writing on walls’ ever since there were walls to write on; and of course, something to write with! We can take the phrase writing on the wall ‘literally’ or ‘metaphorically’. If we take it literally it could be seen as vandalism; disfiguring and spoiling a wall by writing or drawing on it something that … well … just shouldn’t be there. But it may be metaphorical at the same time; making you angry or making you smile, or just making you ‘think’. I once read somewhere … if your sense of humour sinks below a ‘decent’ level; the writing is on the wall! Hmm … that’s worth thinking about!
Writing on the wall is generally known as graffiti and some of it can be quite funny. Some of it is pointing to a truth which doesn’t get said as well in any other way. For example – British Airways was showing off its services and proficiency with an advert which said – Fly British Airways and have Breakfast in London; Lunch in New York. And someone had written underneath – with Luggage in Tokyo.
Some of you will know of the man from Bristol called BANKSY; who became well known as a Graffiti Artist … working with spray paint wherever he could find space on a wall or a wooden hoarding. He got into trouble with the Law at first: but all his creations were very skilfully done; and strongly motivated towards exposing corruption, greed, dishonesty and hypocrisy; especially in the political and higher levels of society … a job that needs to be done – so he got a lot of popular support from people who liked what they saw written on the wall. Not everybody of course! The movement called Keep Britain Tidy, were not too enthusiastic about Graffiti Art! Nevertheless some Local Authorities actually made walls available for that purpose; for budding artists to make what might be called visual public announcements or what Shakespeare called Sermons in stones. Shakespeare had a happy knack of being always up to date. At one time Banksy was in Jerusalem on the Palestinian side of that massive concrete wall which kept the people there separated from their land and their farms. Banksy ‘painted’ a big hole in the wall and filled it with pictures of abundance, happiness, celebration and plenty for everybody: which of course lifted the spirits of the Palestinians with the message, dig through this hole and get what is rightly yours from your own land.
The Chinese have a proverb – one picture is worth a thousand words. Words go to your head and you have to sort out what they mean. A picture goes straight to your heart and you see the truth of it immediately. A most powerful impact was once made on me when I saw the photograph of a big military parade: rocket launchers, tanks, and missiles, with hundreds of soldiers in the foreground, rifles at the ready. And a little girl is seen pushing a flower into the barrel of one of the soldier’s guns. No words needed! A little girl and a flower facing a mighty army … with something more powerful!
Metaphorically, if we say that the writing is on the wall it means that something is going to happen; unless something else is done to prevent it. If we behave in a certain way consequences will follow; the writing will be on the wall: for you to see and do something about it before it is too late. I did ask where shall we be going in our time together this morning? The answer is that we’re going to BELSHAZZAR’S FEAST; where the original ‘writing on the wall’ comes from: and we’ll hear the story read first. (Daniel 5: 1-28)
We are now going to examine a piece of “Ancient and Royal” Graffiti (and it’s got nothing to do with golf, for those who understand the connection!) We go back to about 500 BCE, which used to be just BC, but now it means Before the Common Era. The people of Israel were in Exile in Babylon. It was a hard time for them. But looking back they saw it as a time of punishment and purification for deviating from the ‘straight and narrow’ of God’s requirements. Instead of strictly following the Law of Moses they had allowed corruption to creep in. They had then been conquered by the army of the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar: who had plundered the land and the Temple and carried the people off into captivity to Babylon. And because the writers of the Bible saw this as God’s judgement; they also and surprisingly said that Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan king, was acting as God’s servant! But even God’s servants, whoever they are, need to watch out! If they overstep the mark, they too can be ‘brought to book’.
Nebuchadnezzar died and his son BELSHAZZAR became king. And he was a bad lot: an ancient royal sleaze-maker! The word ‘sleaze’ is derived from slimy and greasy! So that’s what he was like – corrupt and arrogant with it. As king he thought of himself more like God. He had the power and position to do whatever he wanted; answerable to nobody. He thought everybody was answerable to him. But he was answerable to a Higher Power, even though he didn’t know it. But he was going to find out!
He put on a big celebration – Belshazzar’s Feast. This is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. Down the years it has caught people’s imagination. The artist Rembrandt painted a famous picture of Belshazzar’s feast which is now in the National Gallery (some of you may have seen it). William Walton the composer wrote a Cantata, which would be equally famous to music lovers; and of course we can all read the story ourselves in the Bible. There was food and wine and everything you could imagine at this Royal Feast. The wine was being drunk in the sacred vessels pillaged from the Temple in Jerusalem; toasts were drunk to their own pagan gods; making a mockery of the God of the Jewish captives. When, suddenly and mysteriously, Belshazzar saw a hand appear writing on the wall just in front of him. I don’t know how much wine Belshazzar had drunk (but he would certainly have been over the limit for driving a camel!) The hand was writing the words MENE … MENE … TEKEL … UPARSIN. As he watched the words being written, Belshazzar’s knees started shaking; he changed colour from red with embarrassment to white with fear. His mind was racing … what’s going on … there is writing on the wall … but what does it mean? He doesn’t know and nobody can tell him. Could it be the hand of god? Belshazzar is now going frantic and he offers untold wealth to anyone who can tell him what the words mean. The king’s mother to the rescue! She remembers Daniel, the young Israelite who had helped her husband Nebuchadnezzar. Send for Daniel! He comes and tells the king he doesn’t want any reward. “Keep your money and your honours,” he said, “but take note … the writing is on the wall … and this is what it means.”
The true God has been watching you: you have been weighed on God’s scales and found to be ‘wanting’; you have not measured up to God’s requirements as king; and so your kingdom will be taken from you. And we know from historical records that about this time Belshazzar did lose his kingdom to Cyrus the Persian; who allowed the Jews to return home, back to their own land to have a new start, to pick up their lives again and rebuild the Temple. The returning exiles would have been telling tales of their adventures to their descendants: and this tale of Belshazzar’s Feast would have been a favourite one: not to be taken literally but as a parable and a warning to future generations; read the writing on the wall: stay close to God’s requirements – or watch out! The exiles themselves had made that mistake and not seen the writing on the wall. That’s why they were in Exile … prisoners in Babylon. Belshazzar DID see the writing on the wall but it was too late.
Sometimes LITERALLY, but always METAPHORICALLY, wherever we are – there is writing on the wall … God’s warning … there to be seen and heeded before it’s too late. This condition applies in our own individual lives: in the country as a whole: and indeed in the world we live in … the writing is on the wall … but where is Daniel to interpret it for us: to point out the dangers before it’s too late? Pray for Daniel; for as many Daniels as we need … but at the same time … dare to be your own Daniel … see the writing on your wall and do what needs to be done.
Revd Donald Horsfield, 2nd August 2015
50 Year’s Ministry
Ephesians 3: 16-19; 4: 2-6
It’s nearly nine years since I came here. And I’ve been looking back over those years to see what kind of ministry I’ve had: and I’ll be saying more about this at my last service on the 6th September. Today is a kind of introduction or preliminary to that occasion. I could look even further back; fifty five years to 1960 when I was in college training to be a minister. There you got to know the Bible and theology; church history and how to take weddings and funerals … and church meetings (I think I must have been absent when they did church meetings!) But looking back from where I am now, thinking of ministerial training, there was something missing: there is something more important than book-learning: and that is getting to know yourself… which wasn’t on the curriculum. Well I hope it is for trainee ministers today … because, unless you are ‘personally connected’ to what you’re saying and doing in the ministry, the whole thing will be lifeless: just passing on what you’ve learned, as if that was ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.
But it’s not like that. Or if it is, religion becomes ‘dead’. Ichabod will be written over it. Do you know ichabod? It’s a Biblical word which means – the glory has departed; the fire has gone out (Samuel 4: 19-22.) Well, I don’t want the fire to go out in my ministry; even when I retire, because I’m personally connected to it. That would be the fire going out of me, and I don’t want that to happen just yet! So on that basis I’ve wanted my ministry to be personal. I’ve wanted to put people first, because people are more important that book-learning. And people are all different; we have our different personalities, beliefs and outlook; and that needs to be recognised. If ministry is ‘people first’, you have to begin where people are and then you can perhaps lead on to something else. When I went to live in Papua/New Guinea, my basic philosophy was, and still is, go to the people; live with them; love them; start with what they have and build on what they know. And then … things will happen.
This I believe was the basis of Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t put religion first; he put people first. You will remember what he said – the Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the Law of Moses (written in stone, unchangeable!) There was nothing more important than that in the religion of the times (and even today for very orthodox Jews.) But Jesus turned it upside down; and he put people first, before religion; because religion is not an end in itself. It is the means TO an end: and if it’s not achieving that end – it needs changing! And Jesus was brave enough to say so! He said I know ‘Moses’ told you this, but I’m telling you something else – think about it! Wow!! Heresy!! The truth of God is not written in stone … it’s written on the human heart – and that’s personal.
I’ve come to believe; and I’ve been sharing this with you in my time here, that ‘religion’ itself is too narrow: and that God is greater than any religion. So I’m saying, hang loose to your religion; but hold tight to God. And coming to church (this church in particular!) should be encouraging you and helping you to do just that … holding tight to God. And in my ministry I’ve tried to simplify things: and give ‘you’ all the freedom (and respect) to think your own thoughts and work out your own salvation: but do it in the context of our ‘life together’; with the Spirit moving as we worship: in our meeting and interacting at different times and places.
Now what else? As I see it, my ministry has been not only to the church but to the town where many people don’t go to church; but might have been reading what I’ve written in Focus, in the URC Voice … where they will read about ‘an alternative’ to what is generally available in the other churches. Today there are more and more people (your own children and grandchildren may be among them) who have been disillusioned by church and religion; or have never given it a second thought. But there is a spiritual dimension to their lives; as there is to everybody’s life. It’s there waiting to be touched; waiting to be awakened, and God is there waiting for a chance to get a word in edgeways. I’ve wanted to provide that. But it will have to be a word that makes sense in the wider context of their everyday lives. It will have to be a word that respects their freedom and their intellectual integrity. They don’t want to be told what to believe, just because the Bible says so; or the Koran, or any other book. We are at last beginning to realise that God is not locked up in any Scriptures.
If we want something bigger than religion, is there ANY book that we can read that will help us? Yes, there is! And it’s called the Book of Life. It’s not written with ink on paper, as I’ve already said, it’s written on the human heart; written by the Spirit of the Living God. You don’t have to go to college or to any library to read this book. You have to look into your own heart: that is, into the depths of yourself: and ask the question who am I? What am I doing here? What am I supposed to be doing?
That’s the question written on the first page of the Book of Life. Who am I? And once you start asking yourself that question and looking for an answer – the Spirit is at work – things will happen; there will be a lift off into that spiritual dimension; where you can come alive in a new way; and start living a new life, with God closer than your own breathing … in fact God is your breathing … God is really the life in you: how personal is that! Meditating on the Book of Life, with the Spirit as your friend and guide; life becomes something of an adventure: a time of discovery. And what you find can be very exciting. Your vision, your wonder, and even your understanding begin to expand. The Book of Life, your life, is seen to be part of a bigger book – the Book of Creation, where the whole of Creation is alive and you are just a part of it.
This is something that even scientists are discovering; and themselves beginning to kneel down, in awe and wonder, at something beyond their control: a mystery deeper than their understanding. They may want to call it God: but that’s just a name; and a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But for me personally, ‘God’ is a sweet smelling name! God is a word that I need. It invites me in to think about, and talk about, to explore and feel my way deeper into the mystery of being alive. God is my true home; it’s where I belong. God says, come in and be at home. But even that is not the ‘end of the road’. There is no ‘end’ to life in God; God is without beginning and without end – but while I’m not there yet – and while I am here on earth, living in time, I do so in faith, with hope and love, trusting that all will be well.
Donald Horsfield, 12th July 2015
Work out your own salvation. Philippians 2: 12
Romans 5: 1-5 (insert ‘rejoice in’ instead of ‘boast of’); Ephesians 2: 8-10
Let’s just pause to consider what we’re on about! That is, why are we here? Why do we come to church? I suppose we could all give different reasons. But the one I’m giving this morning is that we come to church to be nourished spiritually and given something to chew on mentally; something to think about and ponder, and in this way to be open to the influence of the Spirit that we call God. We come to church because it’s good for us. It gives meaning and purpose to our lives: something to live for and believe in.
By and large, here in church we get our nourishment, our inspiration and guidance from the Scriptures: but also from other sources. From the music and the hymns: from the warmth and friendship of meeting one another, having a chat and just being together. The Spirit moves and things happen. We do have the Bible as a focal point in our worship, and I’ve got a few words from the Bible for us to chew on and draw out all the nourishment they contain. The words are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians where it says this – work out ‘your own’ salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to do.
So if we’re going to chew on that, we’d better begin with the word ‘salvation’; and find out what it is and why we have to work it out for ourselves: and then we’ll raise the question … is it really necessary to do it ‘in fear and trembling’? While we do have to work it out for ourselves, we’re not alone; because God is at work in you, enabling ‘salvation’ to happen; helping us to see what needs to be done, and giving us the will power and the energy to do it. So we have a lot to chew on.
So if we’re going to ‘work it out’, we’d better know what it is. What is salvation? It’s a word that covers a wide range of meaning; but basically it contains the idea of HEALTH, HEALING and WHOLENESS: which sounds very positive, down to earth and desirable. Who wouldn’t want ‘salvation’ if that’s what it means? And that is what it does mean! Those who study the Bible in great detail, reading the original languages and so on, tell us that the verb in the text is in the ‘continuous tense’; and so it really means, keep on working out your salvation. That’s very important. It’s a process that doesn’t stop: it needs to ‘keep on’ happening.
So it’s not a question of “being saved” once and for all, as it were out of some dangerous situation (although that may be necessary as a first step if you’ve got yourself into one of those dangerous situations). But not everybody has. Even so, for all of us, it is about ‘moving’. Moving from where we are into something new, because you can get stuck and that’s no good; we need to keep moving, mentally, spiritually and emotionally into our salvation. We have to keep wanting to become the person God wants us to be and that’s the same person that you want to be too: is it not? Of course it is! In other words, God wants you to be your best self, and who wouldn’t want that. It’s ‘common sense’, and when religion starts talking ‘common sense’, that’s when folk will begin to listen.
Salvation is about becoming one whole person, with every bit of you working together for a common purpose. It’s an ideal to aim for. It’s the main challenge of being alive. We are free to accept that challenge or turn it down: that’s our responsibility. But, it doesn’t have to be a ‘religious challenge’. People outside religion can accept the challenge of being their best self. They too can find their own way of working out their salvation. But if you have a ‘good religion’, like we have, that can be a great help. So what kind of help is it? It’s not about giving you the right answers; not about telling you what to do and not to do. It’s about enabling you to discover how to work out your own salvation. And it will tell you two things. And the first is this, BE HONEST: and the second is, DON’T DESPAIR. Don’t despair, if on being honest, you find that you’re in such a mess and confusion you don’t know what to do!
Looking at the ideal of salvation, of being that whole person, and seeing how broken and fragmented you are inside, can seem to be a hopeless task. DON’T DESPAIR. We all fall short of the ideal, nobody’s perfect. So what we all need, to get this healing/wholeness programme underway is, FORGIVENESS for not being perfect. And your religion is there to tell you that it’s available, freely available. And we need to be clear about this because some forms of religion use this situation to manipulate people: not to set them free to work out their own salvation, but to tie them up and keep them in “fear and trembling”, (because the Bible tells them so), and we’ll look at that in a minute.
But first, let’s just go back to ‘forgiveness’. It’s a travesty of the Gospel and a distortion of the Good News of Salvation, to think that the death of Jesus on the Cross changed God’s mind. That God was going to send us all to Hell, but now he’s changed his mind and he can forgive us: that’s bad theology. Jesus didn’t change God’s mind, he revealed it: showing us what God is like, always and forever loving and kind, generous, merciful and forgiving; as you would expect any father to be towards his children. How much more, the Heavenly Father? So be forgiven for whatever it is you have need to be forgiven. Be set free and get on your way to salvation or wholeness.
And that brings me to that bit of the text I want to question! I don’t know if it’s a matter of translation or not. I’m not sure what Paul had in mind, but do we really need to be working out our salvation ‘in fear and trembling’? I think not. And I am recommending that we re-translate ‘fear and trembling’ to become ‘thankfulness and rejoicing’. Work out your own salvation with thankfulness and rejoicing. Why? Because God is at work in you, and God is love, and love casts out fear. So God is on our side. Thankfulness and rejoicing is the order of the day.
God is already there, here within each one of us, giving you the desire and the determination to look for your salvation and find the wholeness that belongs to you. It seems that God wants this even more that we do ourselves, and so the resources are provided. They are there. But we have to find them and work it out for ourselves. And that’s what belonging to the church is all about. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. We can help one another and do it together. There is a saying that God has no grandchildren, which is a neat way of emphasizing our personal and individual responsibility. Salvation can’t be passed on to our children. Many of us wish it could, but there we are! We all have to work it out for ourselves because that’s the only way it becomes ‘real’; the only way it comes alive; and gets worked into the very fabric of who you are.
We all have to work out our own salvation: to grow into the person, and then become the people that we can be and God wants us to be. It’s a process which is already underway and we should be moving along in a spirit of thankfulness and rejoicing because God is at work in us, enabling it to happen.
Donald Horsfield, 5th July 2015
The Revd Noel Beattie was specially invited to conduct our service
on Sunday 28th June 2015.
The previous day we had been celebrating 50 years of Revd Donald Horsfield’s ministry
in the company of members from Kenilworth URC and Donald’s family and friends.
Noel has allowed us to reproduce his sermon here.
2 Corinthians 6: 1-13; Mark 3: 20-35
Intro: ‘Here be Dragons’ Down in Hereford Cathedral there is a ‘Mappa Mundi’, one of four in the country and fascinating medieval maps of the world each of them is. They have more in common with Greek and Roman mythology, the Old and New Testaments and traveller’s tales, than modern geography. In those times Jerusalem is often seen as the centre of the world and large swathes of continents as populated with mythical people and legendary beasts. Occasionally there is written the warning: ‘Here be dragons’.
We use such descriptive language today for the problems and pressures and hidden struggles that haunt our lives: e.g. the late, much admired Charles Kennedy acknowledged his withdrawal from public life to fight his demons or dragons; things that bug us again and again, which we just cannot get a grip on. Often, the dragons are of our own making.
Paul’s enthusiasm and urgency (perhaps driven by regret for his earlier hostility to the Christians) tries to infect the Churches of Corinth with the same urgency. The churches are being pulled one way and then another and are plagued with division and rivalry. Corinth is his dragon. This is the second known letter he has written, both fairly substantial works and he is about to embark on his third visit.
Paul reminds them/us that we have been given the grace of God to face our dragons, together, as need be, but face them we need to do, sooner is better.
1: The Pope’s recent Encyclical on Climate Change and poverty. What makes it radical, in the sense of going to the root, is the Pope’s reading of the profound human crisis that he sees underlying our modern world. Yes, climate change is there and so is the damage that our culture of waste does to the poor, as well as the planet. He goes deeper. The Pope is calling on the world to rediscover ‘what it means to be human’, a theme I have heard much of in this place. It was well received in the media, but of course it had its critics in his offer of solutions. It is heart-warming to hear his passion for justice and his voice on behalf of the poor.
The Roman Catholic Church, along with all churches, has its own dragons, and this pope and those he now has around him know well what they are. This pope is saying things – and not saying things. In the same week as the Encyclical there was his visit to the Turin Shroud. The Vatican is peopled with many who know that they are between a rock and a hard place here; that this Shroud is more likely to be medieval and may be a forgery. But, they also know that it has a following of millions of pious believers who see it as the real thing, and their faith in it and many other relics gives hope and meaning in their often tough lives. Religion flourishes in countries where life is very much tougher than in the west. So, he names it ‘an icon of love’. But this gives rise to the challenge that the Church lives in an unreal world, and is anti-modern and this is currently applied to religion in general.
In Ireland, for the first time ever, the people voted against the advice and teaching of their church by voting for same-sex marriages by the State. But, no longer is Ireland a theocracy. People have made their own minds up. I am not anti-RC – this story is in varying degrees where many churches and clergy understand the role of religion i.e.to be the best judge of all things ethical and spiritual and social and sometimes political. The next question that is asked by many Christians is what then is left for the church?
2: Are there answers? I have thoughts, as have you, and more questions. It is a question that you have been addressing with your minister here and in Kenilworth before, I suspect, as Donald moved from missionary to explorer in his ministry. One response is to be a place where you are really open, inclusive and questioning which is your particular service to the town.
If you had a chance to listen in to Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ with Giles Fraser last Tuesday, you may had a treat. You may have had even more, if you had been with Donald: who stood and applauded, I am reliably told. Giles began with the Waterloo peace dividend: the government gave the C of E £1m (£65m today) to build new churches mainly for ‘the working classes’, known as the ‘Waterloo Churches’. The revolutionary spirit that was sparked by Napoleon’s ideas had to be opposed by establishment in England. One of a number of Napoleon’s legacies in Europe was the ideas of ‘Liberty, Equality and the sovereignty of the people. Ideas that were not then to be encouraged in England. The C of E role was to teach ‘the working class’ their place in the established order. Nowadays, clergy are not so prepared for the church to doff its berretta to the State. We believe in a God who supersedes national boundaries and nationalism.
‘Here be dragons’. No-one has the stomach to unpick this ecclesiastical and political minefield. The C of E, like many churches is more internally divided. But, the game is up for churches who will seek to preserve the institution over against freedom of thought and liberation of the spirit.
3: Jesus’ own house is divided: In Mark – he returns home to be met with an expectant crowd again and the hostility of his own family. (Nothing indicated here that Jesus is special as ‘a divine son of God’ or messiah). They are embarrassed by him. Even his mother is uncomfortable with his message. This surely is our boy who is being described as mad – over-reaching himself.
He expresses considerable public anger at the end of the passage that his family is not with him. For Jesus, the big vision is the Kingdom of God, a society that is both divine and human and reaches high in his estimation of the capacity of humanity, for good.
- Kingdom of God – his Vision of a higher society is not supernatural. It is full of surprise and contradictions, living in the here and now, the outer visibility but transcending it by finding deep within ourselves those resources that liberates our minds and spirit. He recalls the lost Prophetic demand for justice and God’s love for humanity. Read the Magnificat. That really is radical. ‘He pulls down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the humble and meek’.
- Jesus did not form a church. He remains a Jew. Nor is he an institution, nor can he be captured in buildings or doctrines or creeds. He crosses all boundaries.
- He did inaugurate a movement, a journey of life, that raises people up. Jesus had a tremendous belief in humanity beyond our deep flaws, our capacity for cruelty. He doesn’t want to destroy but lift up and renew
4: In that movement: there is to be a unity of Divinity and Humanity, not a God who visits, zooming in; a God not outside of us, but is, in our being. Jesus is our inspiration to follow towards our full humanity. Many people in the churches and beyond are more than ready. They are locked out by so much of the teaching, where there is guilt and: if you cannot believe in the curriculum, it must be your fault. You have lost your faith. People need a ministry which has faced its own dragons and can be with people in exploration and in their journey into deeper wonder and love.
I love R S Thomas’s poetry to which Donald has really introduced me to. To conclude, I would like to read a poem that has inspired my thinking and feeling over the past few years.
‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field
for a while,
and gone my way and forgotten it.
But that was the pearl of great price,
the one field that had treasure in it.
I realise now that I must give all that I have to possess it.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush,
to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
Matthew 5: 1-16 (Revised Standard Version)
People who get banished to a desert island after being interviewed by Kirsty Young and playing their choice of eight records, are allowed to take a copy of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare and also one other book. I don’t know what your ‘one other book’ would be, but mine would be a Dictionary of the English Language, and secretly, hidden up my jumper, I would also have a book of the Guardian Cryptic Crosswords.
Being a keen ‘cruciverbalist’ (which is a posh word for “crossword enthusiast”), I always have a dictionary handy which I consult regularly. A word that I looked up recently was the word précis, which is actually French, and from that we get the English words PRECISE and PRECISION. A précis is a SUMMARY; a condensed and shortened version of something much longer. Making a précis, having read something fifty pages long, you summarise in just a few words. So you have to understand what it’s all about then write it down clearly and simply, without all the unnecessary details. It’s a good exercise and if I was a school teacher, I would get my pupils to develop the ‘art’ of writing a précis.
Matthew the disciple of Jesus was a skilful writer of précis. He listened to the teaching of Jesus and wrote down a lot of what he said, especially the parables; but from time to time in his Gospel, Matthew would write a summary or précis; just picking out the main points of Jesus’ teaching. And one of these summaries we’re going to listen to in a version which most of us know best. This précis is called THE BEATITUDES; it’s part of THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT. And that’s another word to look up, isn’t it? BEATITUDE, which means BLESSING; and there is a short list of those who, because of what they do, have the blessing of God … blessed are the meek, the merciful and the pure in heart … and others … one of which I’m going to be saying more about.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God. That’s the verse we’re going to look at a little more closely. And first of all we’ll deal with the phrase Sons of God; because if we don’t get that right it can be very confusing. Right … I am the son of my father and mother; the result of a biological relationship; and we know how it happens; a bit from each of them. Between them they produced me and my two brothers. The phrase Son of God does not refer to a physical or biological relationship. It refers to a LIKENESS. Saying that someone is ‘the son of …’ whoever or whatever, is the Biblical way of talking about ‘likeness’. For example – the disciples of Jesus James and John, were described as being the Sons of Thunder, because that’s what they were LIKE. As individuals, they were ‘sudden’ and unexpected and loud, in what they said and did … just like a clap of thunder.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses has to tell Pharoah, on God’s behalf … Israel is my first born son; let my ‘son’ go free. So there, the whole people of Israel were identified as the ‘son of God’ because they were expected to be ‘Godlike’ in their way of life. That was their ‘calling’; which they often forgot; and had to be reminded by the prophets who didn’t get much thanks for having to do so! Jesus was one of those prophets and we know what happened to him when he reminded the people of their calling.
Jesus himself is not ‘biologically’ the son of God. God doesn’t have any biology: God is not flesh and blood like we are. Jesus has been given the title ‘Son of God’ because of his ‘likeness’ to God, whose nature is goodness, truth, beauty and love. So even if you’re female, you can still be a ‘son of God’ in the Biblical sense: but today it’s better to be INCLUSIVE. In God there is no male or female, so we all have the potential to be ‘children of God’: that is, those who reveal something of the likeness of God in our lives. That’s our calling too.
And the Beatitudes tell us something about that likeness: one of which says … blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the Children of God. Because that’s what God is like: that’s what God does – peacemaking. To be a peacemaker, you will first of all need to have peace in yourself; in your own heart. You will need to know in the depth of your being that you are forgiven, accepted and loved by God. Knowing and believing that will give you all the resources you need. Being at peace with yourself, you will be able to change anger into patience, greed into generosity, revenge into forgiveness, pride into humility, fear into love, lust into discipline, and conflict into reconciliation. Within yourself, you will know the way to peace; you yourself will be on that road: you will be moved by the ‘desire’ for peace; the love of peace, and the desire for peace will be an expression of who you are as a child of God.
The world today needs peacemakers above all else; peacemakers at all levels of society; peacemakers in schools, in the playground, at home in family life, among our leaders in the House of Commons and the United Nations.
For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is our example of what it means to be a ‘child of God’. Jesus was doing both the talk and the walk. Embodying in himself the role of peacemaker … he is our peacemaker bringing hostilities to an end, are words from one of Paul’s letters. People asked Jesus, how shall we deal with our enemies? And he told them, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be true children of your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5:44) Don’t love your enemies for what they do: but love them as a way of changing what they do.
I think it’s important for us to grasp this nettle, that Jesus did not come to found a new religion, but to purify an old religion: in fact all religions, so that people can learn to live as children of God; showing the family likeness, which essentially is the love of, and the desire, for peace. Near the end of his life, Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not recognise the things that make for peace. Luke 19:41. How sad!! It was the one thing that Jesus was totally committed to – people living in peace, with themselves, with one another, with the world, and with God. But that was all two thousand years ago, or is it still the same today? Does Jerusalem and the rest of the world today know the things that make for peace? We certainly know how to make war. But where are the peacemakers?
If you want a modern example of blasphemy, and that’s a word I don’t use very lightly, there is a piece of military hardware, a missile, which was given the name PEACEMAKER! Such is the deep-rooted sickness of our world today … when a missile is regarded as a Peacemaker. But, there is a small group of people, those who lost husbands, wives and children on 9/11 2001, when the Twin Towers were reduced to dust and ashes; since then they have been travelling the world as peacemakers with a message of reconciliation. Oh yes, they want justice, but they don’t want revenge. And they don’t want bombs dropped on innocent people (like we do in modern warfare); they want people to love one another as children of God.
A while ago I heard Thought for the Day on Radio 4, given by Rabbi Lionel Blue. He was talking about the Passover; the central act of Jewish remembrance; commemorating their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Passover is a family occasion, shared over a meal where four toasts are drunk, after which Lionel said that he was going to offer another one; and he raised his glass and offered the toast – to the people of Palestine; their land and their future. It was an act of peacemaking by a son of God.
In the Christian Church we may have our differences of opinion; our different vision and outlook; but we also have the Beatitudes: and one of them says … blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Donald Horsfield, 21st June 2015
Do justice: love mercy: walk humbly
Micah 6: 8; Genesis 18: 16-33
My text for today’s sermon is a well-known passage from the prophet Micah, who says that God requires us to do justice; love mercy; and walk humbly.
One of the marks of a civilised society is the availability of justice for everybody. A civilised society is where even those in power, those who make the law, are themselves subject to it. The Law of the Land is what provides stability and security for the people living there … provided of course that they are good laws: and that those who minister them are good people. So, we should be concerned about and praying for our legal profession and judges, and the police force, that the Law will be fairly administered: and where old laws are obsolete, new laws will be made for a fairer society.
In some countries today new laws are desperately needed, because dictators are in control; there is corruption; the leaders considering themselves to be ‘above the law’; and people taken into custody are presumed to be guilty; kept in prison for years without trial; or they just disappear altogether. At one time, even in this country, it was customary to Put the Question, which was a euphemism for torture. Prisoners were tortured until they confessed to the crime for which they had been arrested. But in any country there is no such thing as ‘perfect justice’. Sometimes innocent people are found guilty; and spend years in prison before being declared innocent and released. In the past when capital punishment was on the statute book, innocent people were sometimes found guilty and hanged. It’s too late then if they are found to be innocent. And that’s one reason why capital punishment was abolished.
It’s a well-known saying that the Law is an ass. It was said by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist: and Dickens used to work in the Law Courts in the dark days when even children could be hanged for what today would be a minor offence; so he knew what he was talking about. To say that the Law is an ass does not mean that all laws are foolish. We need laws: but if we ‘overload them’, like asses can be overloaded; if we expect Laws to carry the burden of ‘perfect justice’ – that’s asking too much: and that’s why laws need to be open to change. If any law becomes inflexible and unchangeable, it will be a danger rather than a help in creating a just society.
The figure of Justice over the top of the Old Bailey is blindfolded; with scales in one hand and a sword in the other: ready to execute whatever sentence is passed. Perfect justice is an ‘ideal’ worth striving for, but in aiming to achieve it, we must be vigilant: making changes where needed: and having good laws administered by good people. And when we use the word ‘good’, we are pretty close to the word GOD. Take nothing (0) away from good and what do you get? You get God. And what does the God, who is good, require of us? To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. We have to ‘walk humbly’: so that’s the condition we must be in – so that we can keep learning more and more about Justice and Mercy: and discover how these two are connected.
But what has mercy got to do with justice? Is there any place for mercy in the operation of the Law? Well, no, not really. And that’s another reason why the law is said to be an ass: it’s a bit stubborn and reluctant to change its mind. The law is the Law, and that’s the end of the matter! But the Law must be ready to change its mind when the situation demands. And that’s our responsibility because we make the Law; but we shouldn’t overburden it with unrealistic expectations. William Shakespeare wasn’t a lawyer. He was a poet; and we should listen to what poets are saying as well as listening to the lawyers. Poets are more likely to be saying something about mercy, while lawyers are talking about justice.
In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare tells us that while justice is the responsibility of Kings and those in authority; mercy is closer to the heart of God. Let’s just hear the words of Portia –
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
So, with all that in the background, what’s going on in that passage of Scripture where Abraham is ‘in conversation’ with God about this very subject of justice and mercy. “In conversation with God?” Let’s just look at that for a start. In the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where people are said to be ‘in conversation with God’, we have to use our common sense. Nobody can talk with God on a one-to-one basis, as if God was a human being just like us. ‘Talking to God’ means looking for God’s truth: and that’s what we have to do. And we do that by talking to ourselves; or talking to one another; weighing things up in our minds; listening and coming to some conclusion about what’s right and wrong; wanting the best: wanting to find the best: and do the best – for God’s sake! We have to make the laws: we have to find ways of living with justice and peace, for everybody. We don’t always get it right and we have to be ready to change our minds; and keep talking, listening, learning and reaching out for something better.
“All the world’s a stage,” and this Bible story is a piece of drama, on the world stage, with Abraham as our representative. He’s there on our behalf, and he’s wrestling with our problem – what is justice? How do we administer justice? And where does God fit in? The scenery in the background is the city of Sodom, notorious for its evil ways: and representing all the evil that people have done in the world. What is God going to do about it? That’s the question Abraham is wrestling with. Will God blast Sodom out of existence!! Maybe that’s the answer. Rain down fire and brimstone and consume the lot! A policy that modern warfare still believes in. Think of Coventry and Dresden, and more recently Baghdad and Gaza. But can that be the policy of a good God? Shall not the God of all the earth do right? That’s the question Abraham is asking himself (and in this way, asking God). What if there are fifty good people among all those living in Sodom? Would it be just? Would it be right to destroy them, along with all the rest? And the answer Abraham hears (in his own heart and mind) … the conclusion he comes to … is NO, that would not be right. What about forty-five then? Would forty-five good people in Sodom prevent God from destroying the whole city? Yes it would: it would be enough. Forty? Thirty? Twenty? … and Abraham goes down to ten, and still the whole city would be saved if there were ten good people living in Sodom. And that’s where the story stops!
But this drama between Abraham and God is being played out on the world stage … and still goes on, because it’s a human drama that we’re all involved in. And in the Christian version of this drama, the ten goes down to one; and that one is Jesus of Nazareth; who himself was put to death, legally, according to the law, on the unquestionable authority of the Roman Empire. But justice was not done! There is no law that can provide perfect justice. And so ‘justice’ is not the last word. What is then? MERCY is the last word. It is the word that is understood and spoken by those who are walking humbly, with God, as Jesus was.
Christians are called by God to DO JUSTICE; and we must do it as best we can: but we need MERCY even more: because the LAW is fallible: it is not the last word. What were Jesus’ last words? Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. These are words of mercy; words which can lead to reconciliation rather than to damnation. Mercy lies at the heart of the Gospel message.
Before the final curtain comes down on … my sermon … and on the drama that we’re thinking about … a little bit of background scenery that we haven’t noticed before. I’ve mentioned the figure of Justice, high above the Old Bailey, glinting in the sunlight. But look beyond it and above it, and you will see the Cross on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, and you will hear again the words of Portia … earthly power doth then show likest Gods, when mercy seasons justice.
Donald Horsfield, 7th June 2015
The Spirit of God
Acts 2: 1-4; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-20
I got my first bicycle when I was about ten. And since then I’ve had lots of bikes; and cycled, what must be many thousands of miles. On holidays I would go for a week cycling and Youth Hostelling, doing over 100 miles a day. The roads were much less busy in the 1950s and you were a lot safer than you are today. You could say that I was ‘very attached’ to my bike. And in 1965 I even took it with me to Papua New Guinea when I went out there with the London Missionary Society. But there were no roads where Haro’s people lived: they travelled mainly by canoe. But there was a beach and I could make a bit of progress along there … until I hit a patch of soft sand and fell off, much to the delight of everybody watching me!
The best place to be on a bike is cycling round the English countryside on a lovely summer’s day. Fresh air; exercise; in close touch with Nature; on a bike you can stop and look at things at your leisure … to see when woods we pass, where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? You can sit by a stream eating your sandwiches; and if there’s a village on the way, stop at the inn for something a bit more special. There’s nothing more pleasing than an old English country pub; with its oak beams; leaded windows; and well-worn wooden tables; and a bunch of dried hops hanging over the fireplace. I have happy memories!
But there’s another kind of ‘cycle ride’ that I want to talk about. It’s a ride that we’re all on; not on a bike but on the cycle of the Christian year. And on that cycle ride there are some stopping places for refreshment and renewal; for something to put in your saddle bag for the next stage of your journey. We’re not riding on wheels; we’re riding on the WINGS OF FAITH. It’s a spiritual journey that we’re on; and the main stopping places are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. At each of these places we spend time collecting resources for the continuing journey. And today we have arrived at Pentecost. So what’s on offer here? What’s available? What do we need?
We know the Pentecost story very well. We’ve heard it many times. It’s about the disciples being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’; so that they could ‘move on’ with renewed vigour; move on to the next stage of their journey which is what every ‘spiritual cyclist’ needs to be doing. What we heard from the reading was … THEN… 2000 years ago … a long time in the past. Today is NOW. Times change; and we must not think that God is stuck in the past; always doing the same things, in the same way for everybody, all the time.
In today’s Pentecostal Church they do try to repeat for themselves exactly what happened 2000 years ago in that upper room. I’ve been involved with a Pentecostal Church where they do this. They get together in a closed room; lock the door; and pray; and wait for the wind and the fire to descend upon them … because it’s ‘in the Book’, and they tend to take it literally. So I never became a Pentecostal; but I’m grateful for the ‘connection’. It was a time for me, as it were, to change into a higher gear on my spiritual cycle ride … which I am still travelling on.
What I want to do now is, look a bit deeper into the ‘meaning’ of this Pentecostal phrase – being filled with the Holy Spirit. To begin with, and very important, whenever we talk about God and Spirit, we are using ‘symbolic language’: it has to be: there’s no other way. We don’t have direct access to the divine: we need ‘symbols’ to point the way because God is always ahead of us, never in our possession: always ahead beckoning us on: saying to us, “on yer bike!” “Keep moving!” Jesus knew that. He didn’t have a bike, but he too used symbolic language that we call parables, to point the way. It’s this way: it’s like this, like that, like the other: think about it; work it out and then get moving.
The two symbols of Pentecost that we are thinking about now are WIND and FIRE. What are they telling us? John’s Gospel says … the wind blows where it will. You can hear the sound and see the effect; but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going to. And the presence of the Spirit of God in a person’s life is like that. It’s not something to be explained, but to be experienced. It’s a relationship to enter into: to live with: and to be changed by. The Bible calls it ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit’ – but that’s just religious language and can put people off: and we don’t want to do that! We want to put people on to it! Religious language can be a barrier: it can become hardened and unchangeable: set in concrete. But how can you set the wind in concrete! You can’t! So never mind the language: it’s the experience we want. This encounter with the Spirit of God will be personal and individual; and it will be different for everybody. The Spirit comes bearing gifts, tailor-made, just for you.
But there is a recognisable pattern: and what we can do at this Pentecostal stopping place is to see that pattern more clearly. And there are three words that will help us do that … and they are FREEDOM, COMMUNICATION and ONENESS or UNITY. Paul tells us that … where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17) Freedom is the first gift the Spirit brings because God knows our needs; and our greatest need is for freedom. Freedom ‘from’ … yes: but more important, freedom ‘for’. Freedom from whatever ‘mess’ we’ve got ourselves into (and God knows there is plenty of that!) Addiction to whatever, drugs, gambling, alcohol, or just being stuck in a groove, and not knowing how to get out; stuck in a pointless and unproductive life, giving you no pleasure or satisfaction. You can even be addicted to religion if you’re not careful; and you will certainly need setting free from that. But whoever we are and whatever situation we’re in, God’s Spirit can touch our spirit and set us free; to become the person God wants us to be: the person that deep down we also want to be. In a word, the Spirit will set you free to be YOURSELF: your best self: at peace with yourself and confident enough to be yourself, without fear of other people’s opinions or anything else: and to enjoy being yourself.
You will want to share that experience. And this is where the second gift comes in. It’s the gift of COMMUNICATION. As we heard in the reading, the disciples began to communicate in a new way. It doesn’t mean we all have to become preachers – God forbid! There are different ways of communicating and you will have your own. ‘Your’ communication will flow naturally from who you are; through your personality: and it won’t need too much ‘effort’. All you have to do is relax and be yourself … and if it’s your ‘best self’, that communication will just happen … through what you do and say and think and feel. It will be you and God working together in the One Spirit.
And that’s the third gift … ONENESS, TOGETHERNESS, UNITY, all of us working together with God. The Scripture reading we heard told us to … do your best to preserve the unity that the Spirit gives. You already have a foretaste of that unity in yourself. You are now on the journey of becoming ‘one whole person’ … and you will also have the vision of a greater unity – with God as the Oneness holding all people and all things together, in a Spirit of Love and Joy; of Justice and Peace. And I would like today’s Pentecost to renew that vision for all of us: and recharge our desire to be involved in making it happen.
Donald Horsfield, 24th May 2015
One Body, One Spirit, One Hope
Ephesians 4: 3-6, 12-16
There is one body, and one spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you
In the life of the Church, the third week in January is called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; which if you stop and think about it, is a bit odd. Why do we not already have unity? Is that not the very heart of the Christian message to the world … that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who works through all and is in all? There is one body, and one spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. Why then is the Church itself divided, with Christians arguing and disagreeing with each other over so many things; so that every year we need a week of prayer for Christian Unity? After which nothing happens. Where are we going wrong? Is there something missing? Yes, I think there is! And it may have something to do with the word UNITY.
Any unity worth having will have to include DIVERSITY, because while we are asking for unity, people also need freedom. And there is a balance to be maintained between freedom and unity: between freedom and conformity to the requirements of unity. Indeed, some of the churches are founded on NON-CONFORMITY! So any ‘form’ of Christian unity we have, must never be ‘fixed and final’. It will always need re-adjusting, to maintain that balance: and so it looks like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will continue to be a permanent fixture!
But meanwhile, I think there is a better word than ‘unity’. And it is the word ONENESS. Unity is about structure, which we ourselves create; and that’s OK; it’s our responsibility to do that as best we can. But ‘oneness’ is not about structure and organisation – it’s about SPIRIT – and that’s the KEY WORD in any understanding of God, Church and Religion: and on the basis of that I want to share a few thoughts on the text I announced … there is one body, and one spirit; just as there is one hope to which God has called you.
There is a ONENESS into which God is calling us, and it begins with thinking about one body; that’s where we have to start. We must begin our search for ‘oneness’ with our ‘body’; that is with our HUMANITY. We all live in our bodies … it’s something we all have. We are all part of the Human Race; all made of the same ‘stuff’; coming from the same source; and we must never forget that. There is a ‘oneness’ that is already there … waiting for us to recognise. Knowledge is a wonderful thing; based on knowledge our understanding grows. Over thousands of years human beings have emerged out of, and along with, the rest of an evolving universe. In that process, people with ‘bodies’ have appeared: bodies in which we live and move and have our being. We haven’t come from nowhere; we are connected from the beginning to a ONENESS greater than ourselves. We are part of an on-going programme, which in itself is a mystery beyond our understanding. Nevertheless, we can be aware of it: we can know it in the depth of our hearts: and that knowledge can make all the difference to the way we live our lives. For a start it can fill us with reverence, respect, and wonder, as we see ourselves part of, and belonging to, that greater oneness, for which another word can be ‘God’; God, who works through all and is in all; the Great Oneness to which we all belong.
As people with bodies we have been given responsibility to care for the natural world, which provides for all our basic needs. But we have a specific concern for others with bodies like our own who make up the one human family, our brothers and sisters. Living in bodies we soon become aware that we are more than just ‘flesh and blood’. And the best word for that ‘something more’ is the word spirit: and we are not surprised when Scripture tells us that, as well as there being ‘one body’, there is also ‘one spirit’.
Within our religious tradition this truth is recognised in our Creation Story; where God breathes into a handful of clay that has been shaped, and lo and behold, the clay becomes Man and Woman: Adam and Eve: the ancestors of the human race are walking the earth. The creation story, or myth is a better word, is our way of talking about the mystery of our origins. The breath of God is the Spirit of God in us, giving us life: this holds the truth that we are essentially ‘spiritual’ people, who just happen to have bodies for our time on earth. As human beings we have evolved to a higher degree than other forms of life … animals, birds, trees, and the whole of Nature. But we are still connected in a Mysterious Oneness, which holds everything together: and this carries with it our responsibility to care for all living things at every level of creation.
There is one body and one spirit: and for human beings, who alone are aware of this, there is an invitation to explore and discover more about who we really are; how we should live; and what we can become. This is where religions have been part of the story: they are there to encourage and inspire us in that ‘exploration and discovery’. But sadly, religions have often become competitive; and instead of enhancing our Oneness; they have become divisive. They have lost that essential humility and respect for the one human family to which we all belong.
The ‘underlying idea’ of Oneness is there in all religions, but it has been obscured by the darkness of extremism and fanaticism. At the present time, the so-called ‘Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’ wants to impose its own idea of unity on the whole world: like others have tried to do before, always leading to disaster. Our only hope is to find something deeper than any ideas or programme of unity. And that something deeper is Oneness in God, wherein we can love one another and celebrate our variety and diversity. This is the one hope to which we are being called: in God it’s already there waiting for us to recognise it, appreciate it, and put it into practice. This we do by ‘embodying’ it in all we think and say and do. For … there is one Body and one spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you.
Donald Horsfield, 17th May 2015
Where there is no vision, the people perish Proverbs 29:18
Proverbs 1: 2-6, 20-33; 8: 1-10, 22-31
The focus of our time together this morning will be on the Book of Proverbs. A proverb is a short and easily remembered saying which contains a pearl of wisdom; and offers guidance on how to live wisely; avoiding the dangers; finding peace, happiness and contentment – and who wouldn’t want that! In any collection of proverbs the wisdom of the ages, from different cultures and languages, is as it were, collected, boiled down and concentrated into short, simple statements; providing good advice for successful living.
You probably have a few proverbs tucked away in your own head that you could easily recall if I asked you: and you can tell me your favourites afterwards. I few that come to my mind are … better late than never; the early bird catches the worm; the pen is mightier than the sword; one picture is worth a thousand words; people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones … and so on … The Book of Proverbs is a collection of moral and religious teaching based on INSIGHT and COMMON SENSE: recommending people to pursue the best qualities of life like … humility, patience, self-control, honesty, respect, loyalty, and even ‘good manners’.
There is a regular contrast between WISDOM and FOLLY: urging you to seek wisdom and avoid folly. Giving you the knowledge of how to live life at the best and highest level; pointing out the dangers and the folly of thoughtlessly going along with the crowd; being swept into places and behaviour which get you into a trap that you can’t get out of. Let’s just hear something of what it says. Proverbs 1: 2-6 and 20-33.
The purpose of the Book of Proverbs is to emphasize as often as possible, that ‘wisdom is desirable’ … and folly is to be avoided if you want to live a long, healthy and happy life. And right at the beginning it tells us that respect for God is the beginning of wisdom (1:7) and it is only the fool who says there is no God. Now whatever we understand by the word GOD, it is a way of saying that we believe there is meaning and purpose in life. And Proverbs tells us that, if we want to find that meaning and purpose, we will need something called WISDOM. In Chapter 8 of Proverbs, wisdom (which is always feminine, by the way) says that the Lord created her first of all: that she was made even before the world began (22f); indeed she was the architect who laid the original plans of creation and brought them to fruition. So … we could talk about the ‘wisdom of God’ in the same breath as we talk about the ‘spirit of God’: they are one and the same. We could say that the world is charged with the Wisdom or Spirit or Presence of God. God’s ‘presence’ is here, and we can tap into it and draw from it what we need to make the most of life and get the most out of it.
When Jesus started his teaching programme, people were asking “where did this man get his wisdom” (Matthew 13:54). And the response given is this … “In the old days the Queen of Sheba came to listen to the wisdom of Solomon: so take heed, there’s someone greater than Solomon here now” (Matthew 12:42). And Paul, in his various letters, identifies Jesus as being; the wisdom and power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24) with the promise that this ‘power and wisdom’ can flow to those who are listening and open to his teaching. Jesus himself used ‘proverbs’ as a teaching method. These are some of the things he said – a grain of wheat dies in order to live again: a prophet is without honour in his own country; where your riches are, there your heart will be; the wise man builds his house on solid ground; wise girls have resources ready to keep the oil lamps burning; and we all need to be “wise as serpents” provided we are also harmless as doves. And you could say that Jesus’ parables are really “extended proverbs” with the same intention of imparting Divine wisdom.
Just to finish off and round up this sermon, I want to go back to the Book of Proverbs and examine one of them that says … where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18). That’s from the old Bible, the Authorised Version of 1611. Recent versions, while being more accurate in translation, are not as simple and clear. For example, our own Good News Bible says – a nation without God’s guidance is a nation without order”. Which you could say IS saying the same thing; but it’s not as direct, not as lively and memorable as “where there is no vision the people perish.” And the best proverbs are supposed to be just that, lively and memorable, to activate your thinking. So what could this proverb mean – where there is no vision, the people perish? Well, clearly, it means that without vision that’s the end. Wow! We don’t want that, do we? So what kind of vision do we need to stop things coming to an end, and keep God’s vision alive.
In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, in the Creation Story, it tells us what “God’s” vision is. It’s a vision of order and beauty; of meaning and purpose, emerging out of watery chaos, which as we know, is how all things started in the beginning. The proverb is telling us that there is potential and possibility built into creation; but it has to emerge, and evolve, as people get the vision … see it, feel it, understand it, and enter into it. As Human Beings, we have the ability, to do that: to see what God wants and be involved in the emergence of it … order out of chaos: beauty, meaning and purpose for our life on earth.
This is where poetry can help us. William Wordsworth writes about knowing the “power of harmony” and the “deep power of joy”; and being able to “see into the life of things”… That’s the vision we need. William Blake talks about “seeing a world in a grain of sand; and heaven in a wild flower; holding infinity in the palm of your hand; and eternity in an hour.”
If we don’t want everything to perish, we need ‘vision’ … and it’s there to be seen: God’s vision. The kind of vision that can look at a seed and see a flower; look at a plan and see a finished building; look at a baby and see what she might become; look at any person and see a child of God; look at a world and see a heaven. That’s the vision we need – and without which we perish.
God and Ignorance
Isaiah 55: 6-13; 1 Corinthians 13: 4-12
Astronomy is a fascinating subject. Gazing up into the night sky; seeing the stars and mapping the heavens …which go on to infinity … Well it’s all too much for me. I watch the telly or listen to Brian Cox and other astro-physicists and within five minutes of their explanations, I’m lost; my mind goes blank. So I switch off; come down to earth and make a cup of tea; or do a crossword where there might be a cryptic clue that I CAN solve!
With the human eye we can only see a little bit of what’s up there: but there are telescopes of a kind that can look, not only ‘up’ but ‘back’ in time; almost to the beginning of time. That was when the whole universe was concentrated into something as small as a marble, or even less – and once again I’m reaching for the teapot. Some of you may remember 1997 and the appearance of a new comet in the sky called HALE-BOPP: named after Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp who were the first to see it. I have a photograph of it travelling through the night sky over Kenilworth Castle: it was so far away it didn’t seem to be moving at all: and it took a couple of weeks before it slowly disappeared: although it was moving very fast indeed. Where was it going? Well it was in orbit, travelling round the Sun, just as we are on planet Earth. And I keep that photograph on the wall in my study where I can see it when I’m doing my work and writing my sermons … because … that’s the context in which I need to do my theology: it’s in that setting that I need to do my thinking about God: not in some ‘religious’ or fantasy world: but in the real world that we are part of; to which we are connected. Where was HALE-BOPP going? Well it was just going round, and those who know about these things tell us that it won’t be seen again for 4000 years. I don’t know how they work that out – but I’m not going to be waiting for it.
Sir Bernard Lovell, astro-physicist at Jodrell Bank, has told us that the more we get to know about the universe, the more there is to know. And so we can never get to a place where we know everything. What do we do in such a situation? Well for a start, we can look up at the vastness of it all and be filled with awe and wonder; faced with a mystery that we can never solve. There is no-one, neither scientist, prophet or poet, who can give a complete and satisfying answer to the ultimate question of why we are here on earth, and where we are going. It’s a mystery that we just have to live with in the best way we can; doing what we can and making use of the resources available to us … three of which are our heart, mind and soul.
And in the face of that mystery this is where God comes in. First of all to do for us what we can’t do ourselves. To be for us the answer to what is our greatest human need: which is not the need to know! … because there are some things we can never know. We can never know the answer to ultimate questions. But we can trust that there is meaning and purpose in our existence; in our ‘being alive’ here on Earth. ‘God’ is our word for that which is beyond reach of our understanding: “God knows” we say: God is our word for the mysterious and ultimate reality which is both underlying and holding everything together; and giving it the meaning and purpose which for us, human beings, needs to be there. This is of course an act of faith. We don’t ‘know’ God like we know other things: but we can trust that God is. And another word for that ‘trust’ is faith, which is a better word than ‘belief’: because ‘beliefs’ are things that religions play about with; and they get us into all kinds of trouble. Belief comes from the head: but faith comes from the heart. We’re talking here about something deeper than religion; that even people who say they are not religious can enter into and find resources to live by.
So here we are on earth, alive, and on the move, in a moving universe: where by faith we say that God is, the underlying purpose and meaning of everything, including ourselves. So one aspect of ‘being alive’ should be our ‘exploration into God’; to find out what we mean by that very word: and if we have a good religion (which we do have!) that should help us by lighting up the path and giving us something to think about and live for.
We can now look at what our Scripture readings have said; and do a bit of exploring and learning as we go. First of all from Isaiah where in verse 8 we read … My thoughts, says the Lord, are not like yours; and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours. Well, that puts us in our place straight away! There is a gap between ourselves and God. But it’s not measured in terms of distance; like how many miles is it from here to heaven where God is supposed to live. That’s the wrong picture, which unfortunately, ‘not-so-good’ religion has painted for us. The gap between ourselves and God is a gap in our understanding; and it’s up to us to fill that gap in the best way that we can: and in doing so we will find that we have a “personal relationship” with God.
When I used to attend meetings of AA (not the Automobile Association but Alcoholics Anonymous) they would encourage people to develop a relationship with ‘the God of their own understanding’. And that phrase has stayed with me because that’s the only God we can relate to – the God of our own understanding. But … our understanding of God (the Ultimate Reality) is partial and incomplete: Paul knew that when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians (and that’s why we read it). And if we are in that condition of incompleteness; of ignorance, in the sense of not knowing, we must continue our search: continue to be open and questioning: and ready to learn and grow and change our thinking, so that you don’t get stuck in one place where you think you have all the answers.
Now, this is a very important point I’m going to make. If God is the Creator, Originator and Sustainer of everything – which is what we say we believe – then the world is not divided between two equal and opposite forces called Good and Evil. God is the Creator of all, including the possibility of evil. Existence itself is not divided between Good and Evil; but it is divided between Good and Ignorance-of-the-Good. The source of evil is ignorance: not knowing about, not being influenced by, the Goodness of God.
The evil deeds of those who support the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria) are based on ignorance – just as the persecution and murder of Jews by Christians, in this country in the past, was based on ignorance: just as the Crusades and the slaughter of Muslims by Christians, was based on ignorance of the true nature and goodness of God. We don’t murder Jews anymore; we don’t do Crusades anymore, because we are now more “enlightened”: we have changed our way of thinking: the light of God’s truth has dawned on our minds and changed our ways. How long will it take for the truth of God’s goodness to dawn on the Islamic State? Generations maybe? We must of course try to stop them: but the only lasting victory will be that of light over darkness; truth over ignorance; moderation and tolerance over extremism; and love over hatred.
Verse 10 from Isaiah says this – My word is like the snow and the rain that comes down from the sky to water the earth. It makes the crops grow and provides seed for sowing and food to eat. So also will be the word I speak; it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do. From that, I gather, that the resources we need for the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, are given: are there, but we have to find them and use them wisely. Just as we have to look after our Mother Earth; and keep the air clean, the waters pure; the soil healthy enough to grow food. We have to reduce carbon emissions and find alternative ways of making electricity so that life on this planet can continue for future generations. All of this is our responsibility.
It is in this way that we are working together with God so that God’s purposes can come to fruition; ignorance can be dispelled and we can all live in the light of God’s Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love.
Donald Horsfield, 19th April 2015
Thomas and Quasimodo
Today, the first Sunday after Easter, has three separate distinct names that we can spend a minute or two thinking about. As a Reformed Church we tend to keep things simple and leave obscure, liturgical language, to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But we’ll indulge for a minute! We are now in what they call the ‘Octave of Easter’, meaning the eight days after but including Easter Sunday: and with special reference to this day, a week later, which can be called St. Thomas Sunday; or Quasimodo Sunday; or Low Sunday. And we’ll look at the first two now and then later do some thinking about Low Sunday.
So first of all St. Thomas Sunday. It’s called that because Thomas wasn’t there on Easter Sunday when the other disciples had the experience of Jesus being not dead but in some mysterious way alive. So Thomas had his experience a week later. I say Jesus being in some mysterious way ‘alive’ because, although the Resurrection stories are told about a ‘body’ coming alive; the experience for the disciples was spiritual: and as you will remember I based my Easter Day sermon on the text “Jesus was put to death physically but made alive spiritually” (1Peter 3: 18).
Easter is not a detective story! It’s not about finding the missing body. We know what happens to dead bodies – they get recycled. From the earth we came and to the earth we return. But our bodies are not who we really are: we are essentially spiritual beings. And the meaning of the Easter story is about ‘coming alive spiritually’: wakening up to the truth about ourselves. And for Thomas, who was always a bit slow on the uptake, this was his moment when he too woke up to that truth. And because, like Thomas, we weren’t there either on Easter Day, we too need to “Wake up sleeper!” The conclusion of the Thomas story lies in the words, “happy are those who have faith and trust in God without seeing and touching”, which Thomas was not prepared to do!
Our relationship with God is not based on saying all the right things about believing in The Resurrection. It’s about waking up and coming alive spiritually. So on this Day of Thomas, the message is, don’t worry if you have doubts. That’s OK. Live with them: but don’t miss the opportunity to waken up spiritually.
Today is also known as Quasimodo Sunday; which is a bit odd if you don’t know who Quasimodo is! Well, he is either Charles Laughton or Anthony Hopkins: but in both cases he is the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book of that name, by Victor Hugo, is a bit heavy going, but the film will have you gripping your seat with excitement. A new born baby boy is found on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He was taken in and reared by one of the priests: but sadly he grew up deformed with a hunchback. He became the Cathedral bell ringer and lived up in the belfry where he went deaf as a result of the clanging bells. He could look down onto the streets below and watch the world go by. But those were hard and cruel days with terrible things happening, and Quasimodo got himself involved with what was going on, and you’ll have to read the book or see the film to know what happened.
But why is today Quasimodo Sunday? Because the opening words of the service in the Cathedral for this day which the priest would have said in Latin were, “quasi modo geneti infanti …” the translation of which is, “like a new born baby … desire the spiritual milk of God’s word.” And it was with those words going round in his head that the priest found the baby on the steps and called him Quasimodo, who was to be his own ‘new born baby’. And Quasimodo is the hero of this story: he was a man with a heart of love and filled with compassion: saving other people’s lives and in the end losing his own. And so he is a Christ-like figure and well deserves to have a day named after him. Today is Quasimodo Sunday. The third title for this day we’ll come back to in a minute.
John 20: 24-29; Ephesians 2: 19-22
Today is also called Low Sunday. And it’s pretty obvious why this has come about. Last Sunday was Easter Sunday which is the highest point on the Christian calendar. A victory celebration of life over death; of goodness over evil, hopes lifted, spirits quickened. The purposes of God revealed to be indestructible; and we can be ‘uplifted’ by the liveliness of it all. But we are still human: living on earth and still subject to the ‘turbulence of life’; with its ebb and flow, its ups and downs. Like Jesus once said to his disciples, we can’t live on the mountain top all the time. There’s work to be done in the valley down below. And so, ‘going…down…low’ is an inevitable part of the rhythm of life. It will happen; it has happened today; we’ve gone down to Low Sunday after the heights of last week.
Living life happily and successfully is a matter of coping with the ups and downs, especially the downs. And today gives a chance to focus on the LOWS. To check if our ‘coping strategies’ are in place: so that we don’t get stuck in what John Bunyan called the Slough of Despond, the valley of depression, where people, if they are not careful, can get trapped in this stressful world of ours. So today, let’s be wise and make good use of this LOW SUNDAY. First of all we’ll look at the word LOW without the W. Just L…O. It’s still pronounced ‘LO’ but it has a different meaning. We hear it in the phrase ‘Lo and Behold’ which is used very often in the Bible. Usually it comes as a surprise to someone who’s got themselves into a bit of a mess, when ‘Lo and Behold’, something unexpected happens; there’s a surprise which gets them out of whatever mess they were in. Lo and behold, problem solved!
Gerard Hughes, Jesuit priest, wise counsellor, writer of books that still need to be read, has helped untold numbers of people to cope with life’s ups and downs; one of his books is called ‘The God of Surprises’. And ‘Lo and Behold’, that’s the God who is there in every situation; providing some way through or over whatever barrier is in the way: or giving new insight into a problem and showing us how to cope. A good prayer at the beginning of any day would be – Dear God, surprise me today with something positive, cheerful and happy: let me hear, see or feel something to lift my spirits.
In the phrase ‘Lo and Behold’, the word LO is an abbreviation of the word LOOK. It means look and see what’s there: maybe it’s always been there but you haven’t seen it: you haven’t stopped to have a good look and see what it really is. What is this life, if full of care; we have no time to stand and stare? No time to see in broad daylight, streams full of stars like skies at night… Wow! They are there waiting to be seen. And so are lots of other things: perhaps something very ordinary, but with a bit of imagination, can be full of surprises, to put a smile on your face and a bounce in your step. William Blake goes even further and finds that he can… See a world in a grain of sand,/ And heaven in a wild flower:/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour. You will need a good imagination for that, but it’s certainly worth looking for! We should all learn how to ‘Lo and Behold’, in whatever situation we are in: and then we would never get stuck in any slough of despond, but rise above it on the wings of faith and hope.
Let’s now put the W back into the word LOW, and see if we can ‘milk it’ for some more meaning. Having mentioned the word ‘milk’, I can’t miss the obvious meaning where LOW becomes a verb. The ‘lowing’ of cows in the field, eating what for them is luscious green grass after spending winter in a shippon eating dry straw. It’s a parable! Look for parables … and lo and behold … they’re around us all the time, just waiting to be seen. Look around, wherever you are, and you will find parables to cheer you up and lift your spirits when you are feeling low. Let your imagination take wings, be adventurous, be different, and don’t be afraid to make your own sounds of contentment, humming, singing, or even dancing a few steps. And if the noise of a busy world like ours get too loud for you: too cacophonous: too many emails, adverts, unwanted telephone calls, junk mail, political slogans, religious fanatics… find some way to turn the volume low. Find a place of refuge; have a quiet place where you can go, even if it’s only in your mind. Listen to the wind in the trees; the birds in the air; the rippling stream… or even the soothing tones of Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald (if that’s what you like!)
And of course, the one place of refuge which embraces the others is called GOD. Scripture tells us that God is a refuge and strength; a very present help in times of trouble. And Jesus’ invitation is to come unto me all who labour and are heavy laden and you will find rest for your souls. But in doing this, don’t become too inward looking. Don’t be over-concerned about yourself. Don’t let your ‘feeling’ dominate. You may be feeling a bit LOW; but you can use even that as a point of lift off: by doing and saying the opposite of how you feel. And if you do, then suddenly, surprisingly, lo and behold, you’ll soon have a smile on your face, hope in your heart, a light in your eye, and a bit more bounce in your step. And LOW SUNDAY will have served its purpose.
Donald Horsfield, 12th April 2015
Dancing for Easter
Mark 16: 1-8, Ephesians 3: 14-19
In all your days of listening to sermons you may never have heard an Easter Day sermon based on the theme of DANCING. Is it appropriate to think of ‘dancing’ as a suitable response to the Easter message? Well, I think it is: and during this service I’ll be telling you why. Of course it does depend on what kind of ‘dancing’ I’m talking about.
If you’re familiar with ‘Romeo and Juliet’, you might agree with Juliet’s father Capulet, arranging a ball for his daughter and saying to one of his old friends, “You and I are past our dancing days.” And maybe you think you are also past your dancing days. But that doesn’t apply to the dancing I have in mind. In fact, that’s where my kind of dancing takes place, in the mind, or in Spirit, and it’s not only me. Do you recognise the name Libby Lane, the Right Revd Libby Lane? She is the first woman bishop in the Church of England; now Bishop of Stockport and a fine woman she is too. She’s interviewed in this week’s Radio Times, and it’s well worth reading. This is what she says, “I’m pushing fifty now, but I still dance on the inside. I don’t do much dancing on the outside any more, but my soul still dances on the inside.” So I’m in good company! And this kind of dancing takes us back long before the time of Jesus: back to the beginning of Creation: to that Great Explosion of Energy which started all things moving.
And things have ‘been moving’ ever since; and Creation is still moving, evolving under the same force of Life and Energy that got it all going in the beginning. And where there is movement there is sound. There is a Hmmm vibrating throughout the universe. You can’t hear it with your ears, but scientists have been able to pick it up on their instruments. And anyway poets, philosophers and mystics have always been able to pick it up and tune in. They have used their imagination to hear and feel those vibrations; they used to call it ‘the music of the spheres’; it’s the ‘music of Creation’; and, since God is regarded as the Creator of all, it can be heard as God’s music; to which the whole of Creation can be understood as moving or dancing in harmony. And since we are part of that Creation, we too can be dancing in response to that music of Creation: within which we live and move and have our being.
Welcome to Easter! Today is an annual reminder of this truth! The music is playing: whether you can hear it or not. There is a universal dance going on; it’s the dance of creation; there is an open invitation for us all to join in, to become, as it were, partners with God; and with one another; and even with Nature as a whole; learning to ‘dance in the Spirit’: responding to the music and discovering our oneness in God’s great scheme of things. Poets are perhaps more prepared for this than the rest of us. William Wordsworth felt his oneness with Nature and he enjoyed dancing with the daffodils and with the rippling waves beside Lake Windermere. Another poet who responded to the invitation to join the dance was Sydney Carter who has told us all about it in that truly inspired hymn, ‘Lord of the Dance’. We’ll sing it, and later I’ll use it as a springboard to give us a ‘lift off’ into that spiritual realm where the dancing takes place. Take careful notice of the words.
“I danced in the morning….”
Some of you will have seen the film Strictly Ballroom, and if you haven’t, do try to see it: it will illustrate ‘visually’ what I am wanting to say ‘verbally’, which is that ‘dancing in the spirit’ is not ‘strictly ballroom’: it’s not even strictly religious; if anything, it’s strictly freedom (which doesn’t mean ‘licence’ to do as you want without concern for others.) It means freedom to dance your own steps as you respond to the Spirit within you. But if Jesus is the Lord of this dance, which is the purpose of what I’m saying, concern for others will be central to it. The dancing itself will be yours; for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3: 17).
Let’s now have a closer look at Jesus the Lord of the Dance as told by Sydney Carter in this hymn, ‘I danced in the morning when the world was begun…’ Now we mustn’t forget that this is poetry: it’s making a connection between the creative energy that started everything off when the world was begun, and the life that was in Jesus. And that connection is best understood by the word ‘Spirit’. The Spirit of God breathing life into Creation at the beginning of time; and the Spirit of God ‘energising’ Jesus as he danced round Galilee telling his parables about the presence of God in the world and in our own lives; with an invitation to join in. Another film that I always watch at Easter time is ‘Godspell’. It’s such a colourful, lively, inspiring, presentation of the Gospel story; but with a 20th century Jesus and his disciples dancing and singing their way round the great city of New York.
‘I danced in the morning when the world was begun’ refers to the Cosmic dance of Creation when all the basic ingredients of matter were ‘flung into space’ and began dancing with each other; looking for partners; joining and connecting; and growing more and more complex until the world as we know it today evolved; and we ourselves came into being (and one day, so did Jesus). The dance of Creation is the dance of the Spirit which is still going on. All things are connected; we are all connected by the Spirit that gave us life; the same Spirit that is still moving Creation on: and if we are spiritually awake and alert, we can join in the dance.
Sydney Carter is saying that Jesus was ‘spiritually awake and alert’. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus began his ministry when the Spirit came upon him and got him moving. He is leading the dance; nay more than that; in a sense he IS the dance and we can become partners with him dancing in the same Spirit. It’s important to stress that this dance is not strictly ballroom: not strictly religious (in fact religion can get in the way because religion wants to make it ‘strictly ballroom’). Anything strictly ballroom ‘quenches the Spirit’, so you have to look deeper into yourself: feel the Spirit; find the freedom you need, and you’ll be away!
The big question of life is not a religious question. It’s not, “do you believe this, that or the other?” The big question is the one put by Lewis Carroll in his famous book about Alice, “will you, won’t you; will you, won’t you; will you, won’t you, join the dance!” Alice is in wonderland engaged in a conversation about a dance called the Lobster Quadrille, but that’s not our dance. There’s a more important dance going on. The Cosmic Dance of Creation; and the ‘set’ that we’re in as human beings is called ‘dancing in the Spirit’. It’s for all people (made in the image and likeness of God); and there’s an open invitation given to us all to join the dance.
Now I know that Jesus didn’t actually talk about ‘dancing’. But he did talk about freedom and movement; he did talk about listening with both your ears and your heart; listening for that music, which he called the Kingdom of God. But even those are just words; and it’s not ‘words’ that matter: it’s the reality that words are pointing to that matters. And the reality is our relationship with the Dancing God; the Eternal Spirit; a relationship that will set your spirit dancing too. Mark’s Gospel says that “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God”. Sydney Carter’s version is, “Jesus, baptised in the Spirit came dancing his way round Galilee and Judaea, inviting people to join the dance”. “He danced for the Scribe and the Pharisee, but they wouldn’t dance…” James and John and some others did join the dance, but rather tentatively, like most of us, when we’re learning to dance. “He danced on the Sabbath, and they said it was a shame…” because he was breaking God’s Law for which people could be put to death. Nevertheless, Jesus carried on doing what he was doing. The dance went on until that last Friday “when the world turned black”: because “it’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back”. But in spite of that the dance went on because Jesus was totally committed to it: by now he WAS himself the dance … and not even the Devil could bring it to an end. They cut him down from the Cross but “he leapt up high” for “he is the life that will never, never die”, and the dance is still going on, and the invitation is still valid and open, “I’ll live in you, if you’ll live in me” and we can all be dancing together.
Now, how does all this fit in with the Traditional way of understanding Easter? Well. To my mind, this is better! There’s a text in one of Peter’s Letters where it says, “Jesus was put to death physically but made alive spiritually” (1Peter 3: 18); in other words, “I am the dance, and the dance goes on”, dancing in the Spirit. And that’s the best way to think about Easter. Arguing for a physical or bodily resurrection is counter-productive: because you’re then left with a body to dispose of: and shooting it off into space is less than satisfactory!
James Runcie, son of Robert Runcie former Archbishop of Canterbury, is now a writer of murder mysteries, which I believe can be seen on ITV (if that’s the kind of thing you like to watch). He gave one of the recent Lent Talks on Radio 4; and he said, “I’m suspicious of certainty. What is certain one day can be uncertain the next. Easter is not about looking for answers. If everything was all explained and laid down, it would be just boring. Living with mystery is better.” And that’s what Easter is about. Not solving a ‘who-dun-it’, but living with a mystery. And there’s something mystical about the music of Creation; and dancing in the Spirit. Something mystical about Jesus still being Lord of the Dance; who invites us to, “Dance then, wherever you may be: I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me.” This is a mystery for us not to solve, but to enter into: an invitation to come alive in the Spirit; and join the Dance with God as your partner. This is not boring, like having all the answers! It’s much more exciting… so… “Will you, won’t you; will you, won’t you; will you, won’t you; join the dance?”
Donald Horsfield, Easter Day 2015
Jesus and Jerusalem
Mark 12: 1-12
This is the 5th Sunday in Lent, and during these weeks, at least when I’ve been taking the service, we’ve been following Jesus round the villages, listening and observing; with a view to understanding what was going on THEN; and trying to make connections with what’s going on TODAY. Because if we don’t do that, our religion would be just a history lesson and that’s not what we’re here for, I don’t give just history lessons!
Jesus was on a mission with a clear objective from which nothing would distract him. It had all started with John the Baptist who had been doing some radical thinking about what it meant to be called ‘the people of God’, for which title the Jewish religion was making exclusive claims; they were the people of God based on their understanding of the Law of Moses as received according to their Tradition. Jesus himself was also doing some ‘radical thinking’, and so they got together, these two cousins Jesus and John. Jesus was baptised by John and he joined John’s movement for Reform. Both of them had come to the same conclusion that being ‘the people of God’ was not just a matter of being Jewish; not just about physical descent from a common ancestor: who in this case was Abraham.
John was a bit of a fiery character; he didn’t mince his words; and he upset the Religious Leaders by telling them that, “God can raise up descendants of Abraham from these very stones by the roadside.” Implying that being a descendant of Abraham, in itself, was no big deal: other things were more important and he, John, was going to tell them what these were. John was talking about a ‘bigger picture’: and Jesus could see that picture even more clearly. And that’s why John wanted to pass over the leadership to him. But Jesus was waiting for the ‘right time’. And that came when John went too far in criticising not only the religious leaders; but the King himself, Herod! And that was the end of John the Baptist; and I’m sure you know the story of how that happened.
That’s when Jesus began his full time ministry; calling the disciples and travelling round talking about that ‘bigger picture’, which Jesus called The Kingdom of God. In that Kingdom people themselves, were more important than religious observance: and God was not some Distant Observer of the world; but very much involved in what was going on in the world: and wanting the whole “human” family to discover their oneness as “God’s” Family.
Following the life of Jesus, we have already seen him as a ‘freedom fighter’. Not with any political agenda but with a religious agenda. Jesus saw what other people either couldn’t see or wouldn’t see: that the National Religion of Israel, designed for freedom-under-God; was actually doing the opposite: binding people with so many rules and regulations that they could hardly move! But if you are ‘the people of God’, you need to be on the move continually. You need to be free to move as the Spirit fills your sails and moves you into the fulfilment of God’s purposes. Jesus had, as it were, hoisted his own sails and the wind of the Spirit was blowing him round the villages with the message of freedom. Freedom from the too many laws of religion: because as far as God is concerned there is only ONE law, the law of LOVE; which is not really a law at all. You can’t ‘love’ just because some law tells you to do so: a relationship with God is quite different from that. John’s Gospel tells us that, “the Law was given to Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 17). There is a difference. The ‘grace’ of God is generosity and love, freely given, and you just have to open your heart and say “thank you” and learn to live with it.
Not that Jesus was ‘against’ the Law of Moses: he wanted people to understand what the Law ‘pointed to’ but was, itself, unable to provide. He told the people, “Don’t think I’ve come to do away with the Law and the Prophets: I’ve come to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). That is, to see them as a kind of half-way house; and then take people on to the full house, where the whole purpose of the Law is summed up in that one word LOVE (Romans 13: 8, Galatians 5: 14)
What do we learn from thinking about Jesus and his teaching in this way? Well, it seems to me that it’s highly unlikely that Jesus ever wanted to start another religion! Having seen what had happened to his own religion, he would have known that the same thing would happen to any religion. It always happens when religions are dominant; they solidify; lose their flexibility; and end up doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. They tie people up instead of setting them free. There’s a verse in John’s Gospel where it says, “Jesus wept” (John 11: 35), and maybe he wept when he thought about what his religion was doing to the people. And he would weep even more if he could see some of the things that “the religion created in his name”, has done, and is doing in the world … Crusades; Inquisition; burning heretics; blessing weapons of war; and at the same time claiming to be the people of God.
When someone once addressed him as, “Good Teacher” (Mark 10: 17), Jesus stopped him in mid-sentence, “Why do you call me good: no-one is good except God alone”. Jesus was not concerned to elevate himself as God. He wanted to help people discover the reality of God in their own lives. “The Kingdom of God,” he said; meaning the presence of God, “is within you: find it there, and then live in the light it shines on your path”, and that’ll do: good things will happen.
On another occasion, Jesus was going round, when his family came to look for him. They were getting concerned about some of the radical things he was saying; and they wanted to take him back home. But it gave Jesus a chance to be even more radical! Just listen to this. “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside the house and sent in a message, asking for him. A crowd was sitting round Jesus, and they said to him, “Look your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.” Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He looked at the people sitting round him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what God wants him to do is my brother, my sister, my mother.” (Mark 3: 31-35). What this means is, there is a relationship we need to know about which is bigger, wider, deeper than just our own nuclear family. There is another family to which we all belong; the human family, which is really God’s family where all people are invited to live in, and under the conditions of, “The Kingdom of God”.
And this is why Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem; to the very heart and centre of the religion with which he had become so disillusioned. And when he arrived he went straight to the Temple: the gloves were off! Enough talking! Time for action! He’d done the talking, in parables, round the villages; now was the time for an ‘acted parable’, after the manner of the prophets of old. This kind of action would emphasize even more powerfully, the one message he was committed to delivering. He pointed out to those listening that the Temple was supposed to be, “a house of prayer for all Nations” (Mark 11: 17) in keeping with the promise made to Abraham. But the religion had become ‘exclusive’ keeping the ‘nations’ (that is the Gentiles) out. And had even made the Temple into a ‘den of thieves’; a source of income for the powerful priestly faction. So Jesus overturned the money tables; and the Temple was “symbolically” cleansed, not FROM the Gentiles but FOR the Gentiles, to discover that they too belong to the ‘people of God’.
This of course was too much for the Temple hierarchy who began scheming to arrest him. “By whose authority are you doing this?” they asked him. For them the supreme authority was the Law of Moses; and anybody contradicting that could be accused of blasphemy and deserve capital punishment. Jesus saw that this question was a trap and refused to answer. As far as Jesus was concerned, the authority he had was self-authenticating: either you saw it, or you didn’t: and they didn’t. And so the die was cast; leading to the impeachment, condemnation, and execution of this radical preacher from Nazareth. With the connivance of Pilate, Jesus was put to death by the Romans as a “political” freedom fighter. But even death could not extinguish the light he had lit. A light that should still be shining today wherever religious, or any other form of oppression, is denying people their freedom; freedom to be known and treated as, the people of God.
Donald Horsfield, 22nd March 2015
Introduction to Jesus the Freedom Fighter
Today is the third Sunday in Lent. And during these forty days we are travelling round with Jesus and his band of followers, listening and watching, and learning why it is that when he finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was arrested, tried and executed. We have already learned that it was because both the Religious and Secular Authorities felt threatened by what he was saying. Not that Jesus was attacking them head-on. Rather he was suggesting, in a fairly quiet and controlled way, that it was time for a re-think. That the status quo (the way things were) had somehow solidified; and instead of feeding the people, was giving them indigestion. Instead of being FOR the people, the Authorities were ‘using’ people for their own ends: in effect treating them almost as slaves; controlling their whole lives; restricting freedom of thought and movement. On the Sabbath Day the people could hardly move at all without breaking the Law.
Paul, who was a Pharisee and later became a follower of Jesus, used to tell the people in the churches that he founded, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. And people want to be free: and God wants us to be free: and that’s why Jesus was a freedom fighter. He was baptised into God’s Spirit of Freedom. And so he would obviously be concerned where that freedom was being denied to those for whom it was designed. And it wasn’t designed for just the religious and the powerful. It was for everybody and especially for those who didn’t know it was for them! Let’s hear an example of Jesus setting someone free …..
Read Mark 1: 21-28
We can truthfully say that Jesus was indeed a Freedom Fighter; born to set people free from whatever was holding them in bondage. In what I’ve just read, free from what they called ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demon possession’, but what we would call mental illness, which comes in many forms where people are possessed, obsessed, addicted and need to be set free. To a paralysed man, on one occasion, Jesus said, “your sins are forgiven”, and that was enough to clean up the mess that he was in and to set him free both physically and spiritually. During his ministry lots of people were set free from all kinds of debilitating fears; and given courage to face life. Religion itself can become a burden rather than what it should be, and Jesus saw that it was a burden to many people as he travelled around. The ‘new teaching’ of Jesus was ‘liberation’ to those who responded. “Come unto me”, he said, “all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … and freedom.”
In a minute or two, we’ll have a look at some of his freedom fighting tactics.
Jesus the Freedom Fighter
Matthew 6: 1-6, Mark 7: 14-23
Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus other people have also become freedom fighters. We could think of William Wilberforce and the slave trade; Mahatma Ghandi and colonialism; Martin Luther King and racialism; Desmond Tutu and Apartheid. Like Jesus they fought with the word of truth, the sword of the Spirit which is sharper that any ‘two-edged’ sword; and more powerful than guns and bullets. When guns and bullets have run out, and that can’t happen soon enough, truth and compassion will still be there. But will there be any people left to speak the truth and live with compassion? We can only live in hope and keep the ‘Jesus option’ alive. This we do by keeping it fresh in our hearts and minds; and that’s what the Church is here for, to remember and follow in his footsteps.
In the fight for freedom, Jesus was standing AGAINST what we can call ‘the powers of domination’: what Paul later called ‘the principalities and powers of this dark age’; in other words, the world we live in. Domination comes from the top – down, be it religious or secular. In Jesus’ day the religious elite, those who had all the answers, were at the top and ‘sinners’ were at the bottom. In the wider world, wealth was at the top, and poverty at the bottom; and this is a system that is still prevalent in the world today. God is not against power or greatness in itself, but only when it results in the few possessing what belongs to everybody; and holding on to it through corruption and oppression. And that’s why Jesus, in the cause of Truth and Justice and moved by compassion, associated with those at the bottom; the so-called sinners and outcasts; and that was the title he proudly carried, ‘friend of outcasts and sinners’.
For example, one day he was defending a woman against the self-righteous condemnation of the Pharisees who wanted to put her to death for breaking God’s Law, and he skilfully managed to set her free. On another occasion he told Pilate to his face that there was a power higher than the Roman Empire; and to which Rome would be answerable. And the Empire later crumbled as all worldly empires do.
Whatever Jesus did was done in the name of freedom: in the cause of justice; moved by compassion. He crossed religious boundaries to people who had been put on the other side and couldn’t get across themselves because of traditions, laws and practices that were holding them back. He gave women and children a priority that traditionally they didn’t have. He was often seen talking, eating and drinking with those who, according to the customs of the day were considered not good enough and kept at arm’s length or worse: they were called dogs and treated as such.
As they travelled round, Jesus and the disciples didn’t take a lot of baggage and equipment with them: they were travelling light; relying on the hospitality of those who welcomed them. What they did carry, or rather what Jesus himself carried, was in his head and in his heart: and he called it ‘the Kingdom of God’. That was what he was fighting for and fighting with. That was the focus of his teaching. He said to the folk, “the Time has come: It’s here now among you; something’s happening; the Spirit is moving – wake up! See it, feel it, enter into it and let it change your lives.” That was the Gospel message that Jesus proclaimed as Good News; freedom to respond to the Spirit of God within you. The ‘dominating powers’ were also hearing it and hating it; and they began to look for counter measures. The religious and the secular authorities, often at loggerheads, began to connive together and make plans to get rid of this trouble making, radical teaching, freedom fighting man from Nazareth.
But Jesus had a God-given task and nothing would stop him from pursuing it to the end. As a radical reformer, Jesus went down to the roots: deeper than the religious observance going on at the surface. He went to the heart of the matter, which is our relationship with God: this is not about dressing up with pomp and ceremony: not about offering sacrifices: and saying all the right things to keep God happy! It’s about an inward disposition of the heart and mind, leading to the practicalities of how you live your daily life.
Jesus was really good at expressing all this in ‘picture language’: vivid little parables that lit up the truth for people to see. He told people, “Clean the inside of the cup before you drink: if you just keep the outside clean, like they’re telling you, goodness knows what you’ll be taking in!” And related to this was the whole business of what you could and couldn’t ‘take in’ if you wanted to keep God’s Law. This was central to the Jewish religion, where some even thought it was better to die of hunger than break the Law by eating forbidden food. As we heard in the reading, Jesus cut through all that with a very sharp knife. “Look”, he said, “use your brains; it’s not what goes into you that makes you unclean; it’s what comes out of you. God is not concerned with what goes into your stomach; but he is concerned about what comes out of your heart and mind in the way you behave – make sure that’s clean and you’ll be OK”. And with this, Jesus declared all foods to be clean – in defiance of that central belief and practice of what the religion said was God’s word.
That religion had created hundreds of laws covering in detail every aspect of daily life, what people could and couldn’t do. Everything was measured by the yardstick of the Law so that the very righteous could say, as did the young man asking Jesus about eternal life, “All these laws I have observed from my youth”. (Mark 10: 17-23) “Well, maybe you have”, said Jesus, “but you’re missing the point; our relationship with God is not ‘quantitative’ (you can’t measure it); it’s qualitative – you have to live it!” And nobody gets 100% anyway! Only God is good. So don’t be proud of your achievements; but also don’t despair when you fail; just keep working with God to improve the ‘quality’ of who you are and what you do. (Luke 18: 9-14) And that should be good news to everybody whether they are religious or not!
The freedom that Jesus wanted for people, he saw as their birth-right, which nobody could take away from them; free to respond to God through the spirit within you. If the Dominating Powers of state or religion denied people that freedom, they must be confronted, at whatever the cost! Jesus was totally committed to that task and ready to pay the price. From a worldly point of view it seemed like foolishness but in God’s economy it will eventually lead to what is called, “the glorious liberty of the children of God”, which is for everybody and everything. (Romans 8: 21)
Donald Horsfield, 8th March 2015
Introduction to Jesus the Radical
Mark 2: 23-28
Today is the second Sunday in Lent: and during these weeks leading up to Easter (at least when I’m taking the service) we shall be thinking about the life and teaching of Jesus in order to understand why there was a CROSS at the end of it. So today it is Jesus the Radical; next week Jesus the Freedom Fighter; and then Jesus in Jerusalem; and the climax on Easter Sunday, Jesus the Lord of the Dance. But for now, what did he say and do, that caused the Temple Authorities together with the Roman Empire, to want to put him to death?
Well, it was a number of little things that added up to one big one. The little things were usually hidden in simple parables about everyday life: but bit by bit they built up into ‘a big picture’ and the Authorities, religious and secular, didn’t like what they saw. Pilate and the Romans saw a challenge to the supremacy of Caesar and anybody who did that was in big trouble: the Religious Leaders saw a threat to the whole of what Israel was built on … there was a shaking of the foundation of their beliefs. Jesus was challenging their fundamental belief which was that if you ‘do the religion’ you will find God, because God is all wrapped up in religion.
Jesus didn’t think so! He was saying that the purpose of religion is to help people find God, the God who is not wrapped up in any religion. In other words, Jesus was saying that people are more important. He put it in a nutshell when he said that the Sabbath, and by implication all the other laws, was made for people, not the other way round, not people for the Sabbath. And there was ‘all hell to pay’ when they realised where this teaching would lead to. And Jesus would have to pay it, unless he changed his tune, which he didn’t do!!
Jesus the Radical
Matthew 13: 24-30, Mark 4: 21-34
Because of his life and teaching, Jesus came to be regarded as radical and a troublemaker. The Romans who ruled in Palestine had their own cruel way of dealing with anybody who stepped out of line. On the religious side, the Temple Authorities saw Jesus as heretic and they too had their way of getting rid of such people.
If we look at the word ‘radical’, it means ‘roots’. A radical is someone who goes down to the root: and says, “now what should be growing up from these roots?” Then he would look around and if he didn’t see above the ground what should be growing up, he would think, “there’s something wrong here and I need to do something about it.”
Jesus was a Jew, and we must never forget that. He was bought up in a deep-rooted tradition going back a thousand years; back to Abraham and Moses and Elijah; and as he grew up he went through all the steps of the Tradition, circumcision, bar mitzvah, synagogue and Temple; learning all about the rules and regulations that had to kept. But he also had to earn a living; and it seems likely that he followed the family trade and became a carpenter like his father. Anyway, he must have done something in those years between being a boy and being a man; he was aged thirty when he moved out of Nazareth and began travelling around, gathering together a few followers. During those ‘hidden years’ that we know nothing about, he must surely have done a lot of ‘deep thinking’: going down to the roots of the Tradition and asking questions….
…and coming to conclusions that what he could see happening around him was not the appearance of ‘good fruit’ and wholesome nourishment that were supposed to be growing from those roots. What he saw was, to him, more like weeds. Something it seems had gone wrong. And to get this message across he told a few stories, or parables, about fig trees that didn’t bear fruit: about good seed having been planted but weeds growing up instead. Let’s look at a few examples.
When Jesus realised what was going on in the Temple, the heart and centre of the religion, he saw that those in authority were ‘feathering their own nest’ at the expense of the poor, who couldn’t do anything about it because they were trapped in the system controlled by the hierarchy, He saw corruption in high places! It was the Sadducees and the Chief Priests who were milking the system; and Jesus got quite angry about it. One day, as we know, he did something radical to illustrate what he was on about. Actions speak louder than words and they certainly did the day Jesus tipped over the tables of the money-changers.
Meanwhile, another group, the Pharisees, were diligently and fanatically obeying the letter of the Law; in the most-minute detail, because they thought that would get them a place in heaven. And they tended to look down on people they called ‘sinners’. who didn’t keep the Law as strictly as they did. Jesus had another word for this, he called it hypocrisy. And he didn’t mince his words in pointing it out. He called them ‘blind fools’ (Matthew 23:17) and said they were locking the door of God’s Kingdom and keeping people out instead of letting them in (Matthew 23:13).
So obviously, as far as Jesus was concerned, something had gone wrong somewhere. And as a result, people were missing out on the whole point of their religion. And what Jesus was saying was well received by the ordinary village folk. We’re told that ‘the common people heard him gladly’. But only up to a point! Being set free is fine, but it carries with it ‘responsibility’. Jesus was saying things that needed to be said and they liked that. But he was also asking for a commitment to what really amounted to a new way of thinking about the whole business of God and religion. This was radical stuff which even his specially selected followers, the twelve disciples, were slow to learn. They still had a lot of ‘old ideas’ that needed changing.
Think of the time when they were all walking along the road; and the disciples were arguing about who would sit at the top table in the coming Kingdom! They’d certainly got the wrong idea. In the Kingdom that Jesus was talking about the place of honour was not ‘sitting at’ the table, but ‘waiting on’ the table: serving rather than being served.
Think of James and John calling down fiery judgement on the people of one village that hadn’t welcomed them: forgetting what Jesus said about turning the other cheek; going the extra mile; taking the plank out of your own eye before you start judging others. It was this kind of teaching about ‘The Kingdom’ that really threw them. They still thought that ‘Kingdom’ meant power and authority, which ‘they’ would exercise over other people: ruling over others, with themselves at the top. No wonder Jesus was accused of ‘turning the world upside down’, which in a sense is what he did do!
But he also knew that change doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re going to turn the world upside down you’ll have to do it slowly, waiting, hoping, trusting. And so part of the teaching was that it will happen like a seed which having been planted, grows slowly at first, (and you don’t dig it up to see if it is growing!) You wait expectantly, hopefully, prayerfully, until there is fruit and flowers to see. Or it’s like yeast in the flour, slowly rising, until it is ready for the warmth of the oven to turn it into the bread which feeds our bodies, but is a symbol of another kind of bread that feeds our souls.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was not a place; it was a happening. Not a geographical location that you could find on a map: but a spiritual experience: a growing awareness of something beautiful; filled with Goodness, Truth and Love, calling you deeper into it: to become part of it; to live in it. The Kingdom of God comes as a challenge to the kingdoms of this world, both secular and religious. No wonder the Roman Governor began to feel the ground shaking under him. No wonder the Temple Authorities felt a cold shudder running through them. This was radical stuff; and all the more powerful for coming unobtrusively, without the fanfare of a marching army; a mere story-telling carpenter from Nazareth, riding on a donkey!
Donald Horsfield, 1st March 2015
Some of you will remember, a few weeks ago when a visiting preacher was taking the service, he mentioned Balaam. Balaam is a character in the Old Testament whose claim to fame is that he had a conversation with a donkey. Some of our congregation had never heard of Balaam and after the service they went looking for him. Where do you look for Balaam? In this day of electronic gadgets GOOGLE is the place to go and some went there and found whatever they did find. But as you would expect, your minister had heard of Balaam, although he had forgotten where to find him. So he went to his Bible dictionary and found him in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-24: and a very strange and puzzling story it is. Reading the story it raised for me the whole question of how to understand what’s written in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. How should we respond to it? We tend to think of the Bible as one book because that is how it is presented to us. But really it’s a lot of different books written over hundreds of years. And so it’s a very mixed bag of different kinds of literature. And full of stories that we might have some difficulty understanding.
Balaam’s story is this. The Israelites were ‘taking over’ (which a euphemism for a very violent time). They were taking over the land of Canaan which they regarded as God’s promised land to them. Balaam is a Canaanite. He is a soothsayer or crystal gazer, believed to be able to tell the future: and the king of the Canaanites wanted him to cast a spell on the Israelites so that they, the Israelites, would lose any battles and be driven back to wherever they came from. Balaam goes through his soothsayer’s rigmarole and decided that he can’t do what the king wanted. And to his own surprise and the king’s disappointment, Balaam comes to the conclusion that he must “bless” the Israelites in their desire and efforts to conquer the land of Israel. Very reluctantly Balaam is going to the king to tell him just that: and travelling along the road on his donkey, something very unusual happened, which was that the donkey saw an angel of God blocking the road ahead, which Balaam couldn’t see. The donkey turned off the road, much to the annoyance of Balaam, who began to beat the donkey to get it back on the road. But even more amazing, the donkey began talking to Balaam, “What are you beating me for? Can’t you see what’s in front. How can I get round that?” But Balaam couldn’t see the angel, presumably with a fiery sword, and he beats the donkey even harder. But then suddenly he does see and he falls down next to the donkey who’s already on its knees, both of them in an attitude of submission. The story ends with Balaam prophesying the total victory of the Israelites over the whole of Canaan, and that’s not a very nice story, and I’ll say more about it in the next part of the service.
But what I want to say now is that this story of Balaam and the talking donkey, along with other stories in the Old Testament and some in the New Testament, should make us stop and think about what we mean by saying as we have been taught to do, that the Bible is the Word of God. This way of understanding the Bible or any other Scripture can be very misleading and even dangerous. And terrible things have been done by some of those who say that their Scriptures are The Word of God. The Word of God is not written in ink on the printed page of any book – the Bible, the Koran, the Bagavad Gita, or any other. Paul knew that, and this is what he told the Church in Corinth, “God’s word is not written with ink; but with the Spirit of the Living God; not written on paper, but written on the human heart.”
2 Corinthians 3:3. The Word of God is the living word of the living God, heard by living people, not with their ears but with the understanding of their hearts.
So what do we do about Balaam and his donkey, and some of the other stories, and indeed all the words on the printed page of the Bible? And the answer is, we must read them with care and wisdom and critical insight, weighing them up in the light of what we know from other sources. And we must learn to listen for the living word of the living God whose real name we now know is LOVE. The living word of God will be pointing towards the unity and well-being of all people: leading us in the paths of righteousness and peace: towards the fulfilment of all that is highest and best in our human nature. And as for Balaam and his donkey, well, I’ll just leave them where they are and let them carry on with their conversation.
Gideon and the Bible
2 Corinthians 3: 1-18
There was an item of news that caught my attention. It was about a big hotel where the management had decided not to have a Gideon Bible in any of the rooms: but they would be available in the foyer if anybody wanted one. The Gideon Society was up in arms in protest. They are an association of Evangelical Businessmen who have been putting Bibles in hotel rooms for over a hundred years. And you will probably have seen them yourself.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t read the story of Gideon for a long time, never mind Balaam, so I did and this sermon is the result. The story of Gideon is in the Book of Judges in our Old Testament chapters 6, 7 and 8. It is too long to be read in a service so I’ll weave it in to what I’m going to say. The Jewish Scriptures are what Christians call the Old Testament because we have a New Testament based on the life and teaching of Jesus. So when we read the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Gideon and others, we do so in the light of the New Testament, which we could say wasn’t shining in those days.
When Gideon appears, the story so far, is that Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt: Joshua had taken them across the river Jordan into the land of Canaan with the blessing of Balaam, and Gideon was appointed to lead the ‘take-over’ of that land which was already occupied by different tribes of people, the Canaanites. And so began the battle for land, which is still going on today as the Palestinians try to get back what they say belongs to them. One of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament tells us that, “there’s nothing new under the sun”, sadly! But is it not time that there was! The fighting goes on. Today the situation in the Middle East is such a confusion of politics and religion that there seems to be no end to death and destruction. But from the Christian point of view, there is something new: it’s just never been applied because politics have their own agenda, and religions are too stubborn to change. The same old story over and over again. So what is new?
That is what Christians call a New Covenant: that is a new understanding of our relationship with God; where ‘knowing God’ means loving your neighbour; even the ones who live on the other side of the river Jordan, or any other river. The consequences of this New Covenant are clearly put into these words, “If you don’t love your neighbour whom you have seen; you can’t love God whom you haven’t seen”. (I John 4: 12) Our Bible, in both the Old and the New Testament (or Covenant) has this teaching in one form or another – teachings that are believed to be ‘inspired by God’. But the only meaning for ‘inspired’ that is worth its salt, is not that the ‘words’ are inspired, but that the reader is inspired to see the Truth and be moved to action; to live in line with the purpose and intention of what has been read. But what tends to happen in religion is that the inspiration becomes focused on the written Word: which becomes infallible and unchangeable; and in doing so destroys the freedom that we have, and need, to discover the ‘meaning’ of the words and be inspired to action on that basis. The alternative to this is what we call fundamentalism which destroys any relationship with the “Living” God. Fundamentalism replaces God with the idol of the printed word: then with blind certainty as your guide, there is no end to the damage that can be done, and is being done in our world today.
So in the light of that, let’s look at the story of Gideon. What we have to do in reading the Old Testament, is look for the word of God for our own lives today in the 21st century. The people of Israel were ‘on the move’ from slavery in Egypt to a new life of freedom in what they dreamed of as a Promised Land. By all means have your dreams of the future, but where God is concerned, the secret is to “keep moving”, and never think you have arrived. When the people stopped moving they started worshipping a golden calf; and later when they finally thought they’d arrived, they built a temple. But you can’t worship God and money; and God doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. They created a religion focussed on the Temple which didn’t enlarge their freedom, rather the opposite, it boxed them in and quenched the spirit.
What can we learn from this? We need to learn that God is greater than any religion; and that we need to keep alert; on the move mentally and spiritually; and open to God’s guidance all the time. Gideon felt called to leadership: and being a man of his times, built up an army to lead the way into the promised land (nothing new under the sun!) Military tactics having been decided, the attack took place, and the result was genocide, a wiping out of the Canaanites, men, women and children. It’s all there in the Bible, the Word of God! But it’s not the Living Word of the Living God, which has to be heard by people who are living today. We could ask, “why didn’t Gideon and the other leaders think more carefully and listen better to the Spirit of God within them?” rather than just following the majority opinion? Good question! And that’s what we should be asking ourselves today, because, the teaching of the New Covenant has not been tried out and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and not tried. So our prayer must be, may the Living Word of the Living God come alive in the leaders and people of today: and change our ways of thinking and acting, before there is no future to dream of.
Donald Horsfield, 15th February 2015
Philippians 2: 1-11
Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi is like a gold mine; a treasure house, where the gold is not metal but spiritual … full of wisdom, inspiration and blessings for the disciples and followers of Jesus. It has many memorable phrases that you can store in your mind; and then you can open the store whenever you need them. Let me give you some examples:-
I have learnt in whatever state I am, therewith to be content. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Work out your own salvation, but don’t forget that God is at work in you. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep you safe.
And lots more, just like that. But there are also questions and we’re going to look at some of them.
Questions have two directions, going out and coming in: asking them and answering them. And where God is concerned we have to do both. We have our own questions to ask: and as you know, I encourage people to ask questions, and look for answers. Don’t just accept what others might want you to say. Nevertheless, we also have to answer questions. God does the asking and we have to do the answering.
You probably noticed that the Bible reading began with four questions. Does your life in Christ make you strong? Does his love comfort you? Do you have fellowship in the Spirit? Do you feel kindness and compassion for one another? We’ll have a quick look at each one of them: but really they are all the same question, just asked in a different way. There is only one question, but it’s such a big question that it needs breaking down into smaller ones. And that one big question is this – is it working? Just that! Is your faith producing the goods, making you strong, giving you comfort, finding fellowship, and feeling kindness and compassion for one another? Notice the big question is not, ‘is it true?’ But, ‘is it true for you?’
Truth itself is too much for us to handle: even Pontius Pilate knew that when he said to Jesus, “What is truth?” The Truth of God is not something you can prove, like a theorem, and put QED at the end, job done! The job is never done! It’s a continuous process as we respond to the presence of God in our own lives, and let it make a difference. And it’s that difference which those questions are looking for. So what difference does it make? Does your life in Christ make you strong? “Life in Christ” is just Paul’s way of talking about ‘the Christian life’. Sometimes he says, ‘Christ in you and sometimes he says ‘life in Christ’. It’s the same, and what it means is – life lived under the influence of the teaching and example of Jesus. What difference does that make: and in this particular case, does it make you strong? Actually this is what we call a rhetorical question. It’s not asking for an answer; it’s giving one! It’s telling us something – surely you know that God wants you to be strong in your faith and has provided the way for it to happen!
So what kind of strong are we talking about? Well, it must be referring to the kind of strength Jesus had. Not strength of body, but strength of mind and spirit. Strength to stand for goodness, truth and generosity: for kindness, love and compassion: and for all the values that bring out the best in human nature: or to put it into religious language, strength to bring out the likeness of God which is there within each one of us. And as the Bible says, “having done all, to stand.” And this will include standing against all that is contrary to the best: standing against all that brings out the worst in human nature – and there’s no shortage of that in the world at the moment. Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on: strong in the strength that Christ supplies.
Let’s look at the second question: does God’s love comfort you? Probably the three most important words in the Bible are – ‘God is love’. And our religion should take us into an exploration of those words. We should be delving into them, wrestling with them, and discovering what they can mean for ourselves, and for the world we live in: what they can mean for our relationships with one another: discovering what we can build on the basis that ‘God is love’. We’ve all heard of nuclear power, and we have released it into the world. We need to learn how to use it wisely for the future, and for the benefit of life on earth; not in the building of Trident submarines. There is another power that needs to be released in the world for the benefit of all. It’s a greater power than atomic, nuclear or any other kind of worldly power, and that’s the power of love.
When all the other powers have been used up, the power of love, which is eternal, will still be there, creating all things according to whatever God has in mind. And in that thought, certainly for me, there is comfort: trusting in the God of love that all will be well. But it can be more immediate than that, a daily experience, knowing that you are loved by God, not for what you have done or said or achieved, but for what you are: precious in God’s sight: for who you are, a unique person made for a relationship in God. A Transforming Friendship – plug into that power, switch it on every morning when you get up, it will light up your path for the day.
Question three: do you have fellowship with the Spirit? Coming a close second in importance to those three words, ‘God is Love’, are three other words, ‘God is Spirit’. Actually they don’t even come second, they are ‘equal first’, because God is the Spirit of Love. And fellowship with each other is our involvement in it. We need one another for the Spirit of Love to flow among us. Religion is not something you do on your own. Of course there is a personal element as you open yourself to the love of God, as your own spirit wakes up and comes alive, but then the Eternal Spirit that has awakened you, will give you strength and guidance to make connections with other people who are on the same journey. And within that fellowship the Spirit will flow, challenging us, encouraging us, comforting us, and guiding us. Do you have fellowship in the Spirit? Yes! And we must nurture it. Make as many contacts as we can. Let the Spirit flow through you in your personal life, and then out to one another to enrich our life together.
Last question, which is just making sure that we’ve ‘got the message’. Do you feel kindness and compassion for one another? The Spirit is now giving us a gentle push in the right direction. We all have a tendency to close in on ourselves and build defences around our opinions. Compassion means stepping out of yourself and into somebody else’s, not just shoes, but into their ‘self’, wanting and willing to understand what life is like from where they are, and then reacting with the kindness you would like to receive if you were in their position. Costly it may be, but then your life in Christ has made you strong enough to do it, in fellowship with the Spirit and with the assurance and comfort of knowing that God is LOVE.
Donald Horsfield, 1st February 2015
The Big Picture
When you are over a certain age, I won’t say what it is, but at that time of life, given half a chance to be nostalgic and think back to the ‘good old days’, you’ll take it and enjoy it. The least little thing can be a ‘trigger’ to start you off on that nostalgic reminiscing. Just a few weeks ago we got a Christmas card showing the main street of the town where I grew up. But it was even before I was born although I recognised some of the shops especially the one where I used to buy bread every Saturday morning. And I could also see that there was one building missing because it hadn’t been built. That was the Empire Cinema where I also used to go on Saturday afternoon and sometimes at night when I got a bit older. I can see it now. Queuing up, paying at the kiosk, and into the total darkness of the cinema where somebody with a flashlight would show us to our seats. Then first of all the cartoons or maybe the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, followed by the Movietone News and then THE BIG PICTURE which everyone was waiting for with high expectation. Errol Flynn perhaps, Danny Kaye, Audie Murphy, and all good films worth seeing, not like some of the rubbish they call films today! But I don’t want to be controversial because I know there are some keen film goers among you!
What I do want to talk about is that phrase I’ve just used, THE BIG PICTURE. And leaving nostalgia behind I want to look in the other direction, not backwards but forwards and outwards. Not the ‘big picture’ on the silver screen but the big picture of the world, the Cosmos, the Universe, that we are living in and are part of. There’s another saying on the same theme. We talk about ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’. By all means get to know your trees intimately, I love trees, but don’t forget, the trees are usually part of the wood. And that’s the BIG PICTURE we mustn’t forget. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.
This principle also applies to any followers of religion, which is what we are, that’s why we’re here in church. We call our religion Christianity. I have a book here. It’s called ‘Your God is too Small’. It’s a book I read many years ago and then lost it. But the title stayed with me and I recently got a new copy because for many of us it’s still true, your God is too small. Our understanding of the world we live in has changed radically over the last fifty or sixty years, during our own lifetime. But for many people thoughts about God have not changed, have stayed the same, so this book is relevant. Our ideas of God are too small for the vastness and complexity of the world and the universe we live in.
Jesus himself wanted to expand people’s understanding of God. He was very critical of the religious leaders for being too small minded, trying to please God by measuring a tenth of everything, even the herbs they used in making a stew, so that God got his bit. But they were neglecting the big things like justice, mercy and truth (Matthew 23:23f), missing the big picture. With a lovely touch of humour Jesus says to them, “You carefully strain a fly out of your drink and then you swallow a camel without noticing it.”
Seeing the Big Picture gives more room for diversity and variety. We don’t have God wrapped up in our religion, God is bigger than any religion. “The love of God is broad like beach and meadow” is a hymn we should sing more often. The bigger the picture we have, the closer we will be to the truth of God. There’s another hymn and we’ll sing it in a minute. “In Christ there is no East or West …. but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” Sadly we’re not there yet, but that is the Big Picture and we should keep our eyes on it.
Open … book, secret, church
Colossians 1:25 – 2:3
If the door is ‘open’ you can go through. If there is an ‘open’ invitation you can go right in. If something is not open you can perhaps find a way of opening it: sometimes easier said than done! How many tins of sardines have I struggled with and failed to open properly! Some of you may remember reading Three Men in a Boat. They got frustrated as they wrestled with a tin of pineapples and failing to get it open they flung it into the river in exasperation. But, one way or another, I usually manage to get my sardines onto the plate and enjoy a good, healthy lunch – omega 3, just what you need!
But I’m not here to talk about sardines or pineapples, it’s the word OPEN that I want to focus on. It’s a splendid word; and we can make it even better by joining it to some other words. How about having an open mind: with open hands; and being open hearted? But I’ve got three others that I want to bring to your attention … an open book; an open secret; and an open church. And we’ll look at the open book first.
It is of course the Bible that I’m referring to. We always have an open Bible there on the lectern. It’s symbolic. It says something just by being there and being open. And it takes us back in history to the REFORMATION when the Protestant and the Non-Conformist churches came into being. Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist … our own roots of the United Reformed Church are planted there. Before that Reformation, the Bible was a ‘closed book’. No-one was allowed to read it except the priest. Most people couldn’t read anyway: and even if they could it was in Latin which was another barrier. But that was how the Church liked it. They didn’t want people reading the Bible on their own and thinking about it for themselves. Dangerous! They wanted people to believe what they were told, without question. And so the Bible remained a closed book for hundreds of years.
But the Spirit of God was not ‘closed’. She was there doing her work in people’s hearts and minds; and wanting to get that book open so that people could read it for themselves. In the Bible the Spirit is always feminine but we don’t hear about that and it’s one of the reasons why our God is too small.
To get the Bible ‘open’, meant translating it into English, the everyday language of the people: and John Wycliffe (1330-84) and William Tyndale (d 1536) were the two men who did this work and paid for it with their lives. They were denounced by the church as heretics, enemies of God, and burned at the stake. But the translation was eventually done, although it had to be done in Holland, it was too dangerous over here. When the Bibles were printed they were shipped over from Holland; but the bishops and the priests were waiting to destroy them; which they did. They burned them just as they burned the translators. They didn’t want an open book. They wanted it to stay closed to maintain their own position of authority and control.
After much bloodshed during that Reformation, an open Book was placed in every church, where those who could were able to read it; a victory for the open book. But unfortunately, there was then a ‘swing’: as there often is in times of desperation: a swing from one extreme to another. The open book itself became an idol: regarded as the word of God in a literal sense, every word, dot and comma, inspired and infallible. And the very reformers themselves raised the cry of ‘heretic’ and began killing one another. God help us!!
It’s a mess that we’re still in 500 years later. It’s an attitude to Scripture that we call Extremism or Fundamentalism. How do we get out of it? There is a way, although it’s a secret: but it’s an open secret. And that’s what we’ll have a look at now. It’s a secret in the sense that it’s hidden. But it’s only hidden because we can’t see it! It’s there just waiting to be seen; it’s an open secret. What we have to do is take our specs off and clean them, because they’ve got misted over and we’re not seeing what’s there to be seen.
Jesus told his disciples, you have been given the secret of the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11). Where is it, they asked. It’s within you, Jesus said, that’s where you’ll find it. Paul found it and he tells us (we heard it in the reading) “the secret is this, Christ in you, the hope of a glory yet to come”. Christ in you. We just need to be clear about this. We talk about Jesus Christ: but these two words are not the same. It’s not ‘Jesus’ in you. Jesus was an historical person. Christ is a word meaning what Jesus stood for, and still stands for today. Jesus stands for ‘a relationship with God’: his own relationship with God which is a model and an example of what our relationship with God can be. Christ in you is a description of your relationship with God: it’s an ideal to reach after and aim for. You are a child of God just as Jesus was. That’s the secret … Christ in you. It’s an open secret. Anybody can discover it: and go in through the open door: Jesus, as it were, gives you the key – Christ in you.
And it’s on that basis of an open book and an open secret that we now have an open church. Open for people to come in, just as they are, and find a welcome; and be encouraged in their own search for God: given room and space to discover the secret for themselves, without being given all the right answers and told what to believe. So we have an open book, to be read with an open mind in an open church: enabling us all to rejoice in the open secret of knowing the Christ in each one of us, which indicates our oneness with God, in whose love we are trusting to lead us into whatever lies ahead.
Donald Horsfield, 18th January 2015
All Things New
Today is the first Sunday in the New Year 2015 and in preparation for this service I’ve been thinking around the word NEW. It’s a ‘new’ year and the theme of ‘newness’ and ‘renewal’ flows through the Bible from beginning to end. And the one phrase that ‘got hold of me’ was the words from the last book of the Bible, Behold I make all things new. (Revelations 21:5)
So I began to trace this idea of ‘newness’ and where better to start from than what we call the NEW Testament. The biblical word for it is COVENANT, which is a better word really because it more clearly means RELATIONSHIP. It’s all about a ‘new’ relationship with God: and Jesus of Nazareth, whose birthday we’ve just celebrated, was the one who saw the need for a new covenant, for people to have a new relationship with God. And it was Jesus who, as it were, gave it a kick start, got the programme underway, got the spirit moving.
When the religious leaders heard what Jesus was saying, they said, What’s this? A new teaching? We don’t want to know. And they closed their minds and their hearts. But Jesus would not be silenced and he carried on urging people to be open to God who is always at work making all things new. And Jesus had some colourful little illustrations of what he was on about. We call them parables. Look, he said, you don’t put new wine into old containers and you don’t stitch new cloth onto old garments, and what’s more, he said, there’s a NEW COMMANDMENT for you to think about. You’ve already got ten; but really you only need one, because if you keep this ‘one’, all the rest will look after themselves. And it’s very simple, LOVE ONE ANOTHER. If you really do that, everything else will fall into place and you’ll see everything in a new light. Follow this one commandment as a way of life, he told them, and grow into a new relationship with God. Actually it wasn’t all that new! It was already there in the Old Covenant, but it had got lost under a lot of unnecessary religious baggage, and Jesus, as it were, brought it back into the light.
Paul, later, picked up the same theme; that is after he’d picked himself up having fallen under the weight of the burden of that excessive baggage. And he was excited about ‘new life in the Spirit’ (Romans 6:4, 7:6); leading to a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); with a new self (Colossians 3:10) singing a new song, on the way to a new Jerusalem, with a new heaven and a new earth. Wow! Well, he got carried away in his excitement; and we can make allowances for that, but we should feel something of the same excitement and get caught up in it ourselves …. all things being made new in the hands of God as we move into this New Year.
Endings and Beginnings
The beginning of a New Year is a time to be a bit more, let’s say, philosophical. And you don’t have to take a degree in philosophy to be philosophical! You can just be yourself and do a bit of thinking in your own way and at your own speed. In my case I need something to start me off, a spark of ignition, something that will strike a light and show me the path to take. It could be anything, a thought, a feeling, a word, a verse from the Bible, a piece of poetry, anything at all that just happens, and away you go! You won’t be surprised to know that for me it’s often a line of poetry: and that’s what got me thinking along the lines of this sermon: from TS Eliot, who did a lot of thinking himself and shared it with us in his poetry. And he said this: To make an end is to make a beginning; the end is where we start from.
So let’s think about endings and beginnings. December 31st is the end of the year; January 1st is the beginning of a new year; endings and beginnings. We could ask, what is there in between the ending and the beginning? And the answer is, nothing, it’s continuous: one flows into the other: the end is the beginning; it’s where we start from. We could think about our own life coming to an end. But if the end is the beginning, it’s not something to worry about: and under certain circumstances it could be something to look forward to. So if we look at things in that light, there is no end in the sense of ‘finish’: and there is no beginning in the sense of ‘start’, it’s all one. And so we shouldn’t ask, what was there before the beginning? Or what will there be after the ending? These are just words, but they are not valid questions, not if there is a continuous whole without beginning and without ending. There is just what IS, and we are part of it. And this is where God comes in because the Bible tells us that God IS, and that we ARE … in God. Didn’t we hear that in the reading, “This I know: you are. In you, I am.” (from Psalm 27 in Psalms Redux by Carla A. Grosch-Miller).
We are all part of what IS: and God IS, without beginning and without ending. That’s a little bit of philosophy that I personally find very satisfying and even exciting! But it’s more than just philosophy: it’s deeper than that; it’s a mystery deeper than my understanding; deeper than my mind can grasp. But there is part of me that knows I belong to what IS … and God IS … ‘this I know: you are. In you I am’. I myself am deeper than my understanding; so are you deeper than your own understanding. Your ‘self’, your soul, that very essence of who you are, is part of that mystery from which we come and to which we belong, without beginning and without ending.
But our experience of being alive on earth happens ‘in time’. That’s where we live, in hours, days, weeks, months and years. And for us there is time past; there is time present, and there is time future. But if you think about it, we don’t live in the past; and we don’t live in the future, we only have the present in which we live. We only live NOW in the present moment. It was past, and it will be future, but it’s always the present moment. And therein lies the challenge of ‘being alive’. To make the most of it! The present moment is all we have. Carpe diem is what I tell myself every morning! Seize the day! And that’s what any good religion is there for, to help us do that and live life to the full as much as is possible, within the limits of our body, mind and spirit.
So let’s see what ‘our’ religion has to offer: have ‘we’ got a good religion? John’s Gospel is different from the other Gospels. It’s not a record of the life of Jesus. It’s a commentary on the ‘meaning’ of the life of Jesus. One of the verses in chapter 10 says that Jesus is concerned for us to live ‘life in all its fullness’. And what I think about that passage is this; that the way to fullness of life is along the path of Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love. And we are challenged by God to walk along that path with all the help that is available: and it is available because the God in whom we live and move and have our being is the source of all Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love; and if we are alive in God, those spiritual and moral qualities will be evident in the way we live our lives. God provides what God requires.
You can remind yourself of this each morning as you set out on the day’s adventure: and seize the opportunity to put them into practice, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love. Mother Teresa’s life story is called Something Beautiful for God. Goodness itself is beautiful; the Good, the Beautiful are inseparable twins. Truth is having the courage to stand for what you know is right. And Love is the compassion wherein you identify with the needs of others. Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love are signposts on the way to life in all its fullness: life in God. During our life on earth, endings and beginnings come and go; but in God endings ‘are’ beginnings; and with that in mind we can face the New Year with some confidence and in hope look to the future, because to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. Thanks be to God.
Donald Horsfield, 4th January 2015