Meditation and Sermon 1st October 2017
A Prayerful Meditation
Let us hold in our minds the first line of the hymn we have just sung. “Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord.”
Let us pray.
What is ‘my soul’?
Where do I look to find ‘my soul’?
It’s not something like other parts of my body.
A surgeon operating would not find it there.
My soul, and your soul, is not so much a possession that we have. It refers to the very essence of who we are.
My soul is the deepest reality of my ‘self’ and of your ‘self’.
If we need another word to help us understand, it is the word SPIRIT.
Your soul is the spirit that gives you life and keeps you alive.
It is a gift from the Eternal Spirit that we call God.
So we don’t have to look far if we want to know about God.
The Spirit will help us to discover what we need to know about God and about ourselves.
“Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord”.
The language of the soul is the language of the Spirit.
It is your own spirit and so it’s your own language.
Learn to speak it quietly to yourself as you become more aware of who you are in your oneness with God.
You don’t have to become a preacher.
The language of the soul is not spoken in words.
The language of the Spirit is spoken through who we are.
It will be heard and seen in goodness, beauty, truth and love.
In the way we live our lives.
Writing Letters and What You Wear
This morning we’re going to be thinking about two things – writing letters and asking the one question what do you wear. And it will be up to me to show that there is a connection between the two!
First of all, letter writing. How long is it since you wrote or received a hand-written letter, written in ink with a fountain pen? There may not be many of us left but I still write letters with a fountain pen, in ink. It gives me great pleasure just having a pen in my hand and in that way being in touch with a great letter-writing tradition, a tradition which is fast disappearing as the digital age sweeps over the world like a flood carrying everything before it. I can see Postman Pat waving goodbye to us as we tap out our emails on the computer keyboard. I thank God for pen and ink and paper. And I have my pen here now next to my heart! And I’ll show it to anybody who would like to see it! I thank God too for people like William Shakespeare and John Keats and William Wordsworth, and countless others whose letters and writings we can still read.
But when we come to church it’s more than likely that we will be reading the letters of the man we now call St. Paul. I don’t want to go into the academic question of whether or not Paul actually wrote all the letters credited to him. I am more concerned with the content of the letters and what they mean for us today, two thousand years after they were written by whoever wrote them. If something is true, it’s true whoever wrote it and vice-versa! It can be untrue even if Paul did write it! And so there is a question that is both academic and relevant for us today. How did those letters of Paul, often written in the heat of the moment and dealing with problems in the life of the churches in Corinth and Philippi and all the rest, how did those letters become the Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, part of the Christian Holy Bible? And what would Paul have thought about that if he’d known at the time of writing? He would have been horrified because the one thing he had learned from his experiences, and all his letters are full of it, was that, only the Spirit gives life – the written word by itself can be fatal. (2 Corinthians 3:6) What Paul wrote was this, the word of God is not written with ink on paper or on stone tablets like the Ten Commandments but written on the human heart by the Spirit of the Living God. (2 Corinthians 3:3)
The human heart in that context is not pumping blood round our body; it refers to something deeper, to our soul, our inner being, who you really are. The word of God is written there and when you read it correctly you find that it’s a love letter! The purpose of any ‘good religion’ is to help us read that letter correctly and work out the implications of it in our daily lives. So that is what we’re going to do now with the help of Paul’s letter to the Christians in the town of Colosse – Colossians 3:12-17.
If you’re writing a letter you will want to be understood by the person who reads it. Paul was writing about the year 50 to the Christians of Colosse. He was not writing to Christians here in Church Stretton in the year 2017. Actually Paul didn’t believe there was going to be a year 2017 because he was expecting Jesus to return at any minute, riding on the clouds, coming with all the powers of heaven to bring this world to an end and bring God’s purposes in Creation to a fulfilment. You can read all about that in what he wrote in the letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). In another letter to Corinth he told young people there that this “Great Day of the Lord” was about to happen and in the twinkling of an eye they would all be in Paradise. So he said don’t waste your time thinking about getting married! (1 Corinthians 7:38) The only thing that matters is to be ready for this second coming of Jesus. Well, obviously Paul got that wrong unless of course that big event has already happened and we’ve all been left behind! But that’s just nonsense. It’s bad theology and bad religion. Nevertheless, we mustn’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Paul didn’t get everything right. But what he did get right is of great value. It can help us to read and understand that ‘other’ letter which lies written on our hearts. It can help us to feel our way into the spiritual depths of our soul and experience the reality of our oneness with God. And certainly for me that passage from Colossians is full of spiritual depth. I would encourage you to make a note of it and read it regularly as a prayerful meditation. Colossians 3:12-17.
And this brings me to the second part of my sermon. What do you wear? And we’ll find the answer in the first verse which says, You are the people of God. God loved you and chose you for his own. Therefore you must put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Put them on each day and wear them as your spiritual clothing. It’s good to be reminded who we are, or rather, in this case, who we should be. We are or should be the people of God. Not because of what we’ve done, not because we deserve it, but because we believe that God is Love, and love embraces those who are loved which is everybody. And we can respond to being loved by what we wear, by putting on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
We’ll have a quick look at these and I’ll start with the last. That’s a good Christian principle, the last shall be first. So Patience it is. Every day we get out of bed and put our clothes on. Don’t waste that occasion, we can use it as a kind of parable reminding ourselves of these ‘other clothes’ that Paul is urging us to also put on. Getting out of bed and getting dressed, when you’re of a certain age which most of us are, can be a bit problematic! For a start you need to keep your balance lest you fall over. Then find what you’re looking for and try not to put it on upside down or inside out. A little bit of Patience can save you from embarrassment or even worse. So pause and put patience on first and then wear it for the rest of the day. Let patience be there in your attitude to life and in your dealings with other people especially those of your own family and even with yourself.
Next, put on Compassion. That’s a lovely article of spiritual clothing. You will look beautiful in it! It will shine from you so that other people will see it and feel it in your relationship with them, compassion. Compassion involves understanding somebody else’s situation. Knowing what they’re going through and, as far as you can, feeling what they’re feeling and doing something about it. Compassion and Kindness go together. They are two sides of the same coin. Moved by compassion you may be able to stand up for someone, visit them, write letters to them, just be alongside them in friendship. Whatever the need, approaching someone with compassion and kindness will make all the difference.
Now what else should we be putting on and wearing ready for what each day brings? We will need patience with ourselves and with others. We want to be moved by compassion to acts of kindness. And that leaves Humility and Gentleness which we should also be wearing. And once again these are left and right.. They belong together. One produces the other. If you have humility, if you are humble in your attitude and outlook, gentleness will pervade all that you do. These two virtues of humility and gentleness arise from knowing how little you do know and so being willing to listen and learn from experience and from what other people have to say. Sometimes knowing the opposite of a word is the best way into its meaning. And the opposite of humility, of being humble, is being stubborn. And we all know about that, don’t we! And of course it’s always somebody else who’s being stubborn! Or maybe it isn’t! Those who are humble and gentle don’t have all the answers. They don’t arrogate themselves. Arrogant they are not! Jesus once set a child in the midst of his disciples as an example for them to learn from. “Humble yourselves like this child,” he said, “if you want God’s blessing on what you do.” (Matthew 18:4) In those days humility was seen as a weakness, something worn by failures. The world has no time for humility, it always wants power and might to dominate and destroy its enemies. But Jesus specialised in turning the world upside down. For him humility and gentleness were signs of inner strength, of moral courage and spiritual integrity.
Just think what a difference it would make if everybody with clothes on their body were also wearing patience, compassion and kindness, humility and gentleness. But we can’t speak for everybody can we? So we’d better start making the difference ourselves by patiently putting on compassion, kindness, humility and gentleness.
Meditation and Sermon, 17th September 2017
A Prayerful Meditation
Let us meditate on the theme, ‘keeping ones balance’, which for those of us over 80 is a physical challenge we face each day and night!
But there is also a spiritual aspect to ‘keeping ones balance’, and this applies to everybody, young and old.
Meditation involves immersing yourself into something which is greater than yourself but where you can feel at home, feel safe and nicely balanced.
We can immerse ourselves in God; God who knows us better than we know ourselves.
We cannot hide from God, so we can be honest and in doing so help to keep our balance.
In just a few days’ time around the 21st of September, Creation itself will teach us a parable, the Autumn Equinox.
The sun will be exactly over the equator, when just for a moment, there will be a perfect balance between north and south, night and day, between darkness and light.
But after that the days will become shorter and the nights longer.
The light will fade and the darkness increase.
Summer will be going out and winter coming in.
To keep our balance as the seasons come and go, we must accept the rhythm of Nature where leaves must fall to feed the ground for trees to grow.
Where the crushing of the grape leads to the pouring of the wine, where grains of cereal must lie under the ground before another harvest can give us bread to eat.
Light and darkness, life and death, are two sides of the same coin, they belong together in the oneness of God’s evolving Universe.
If we immerse ourselves in God we can keep our balance between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown.
In faith we can hope and trust that all will be well.
Does God have a name?
Does God have a name? The answer is NO! That’s because God is our word for a Great Mystery which is beyond words, the Mystery of creation, the universe, life and death, and everything else. Any name that is given to God will immediately be less than God. So any talk of God must be accompanied by humility and the admission of not knowing. Unfortunately people have wanted God to have a name and they have given God a name, many names, but have usually forgotten the need for humility and making the admission of not knowing.
The Hebrew slaves in Egypt were desperate for freedom. They were looking for God to help, but which God was that? Well, they came up with a name, JEHOVAH or YAHWEH which is just a better pronunciation of the same letters, YHWH. So Jehovah or Yahweh became the sacred and holy name of the warrior God who would lead the people of Israel out of slavery: lead them to conquer all their enemies and put them in a land flowing with milk and honey. Today that’s the Middle East, and look at the state of it now, with rival gods still battling it out.
Giving God a name spells TROUBLE. Giving God a name brings division. God becomes ‘our’ God. It creates ‘them’ and ‘us’, and ‘they’ are the enemy. Violence and war soon follow where God has a name. Why do we want God to have a name? So that God becomes ‘our’ God, our possession, and in God’s name we can convert everybody else to thinking like we do. This is a serious mistake that needs to be corrected. How can we overcome this ‘deadly’ misconception so that we can begin to move closer to being the people God wants us to be? First of all we need to keep reminding ourselves that God is not the name of somebody, somewhere. God is our word for the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. And then any ‘good religion’ should be helping us to look into that Mystery as far as we possibly can.
My own way into that mystery is through understanding God as the Spirit of Love which can embrace and hold everybody and everything in oneness. Perhaps my favourite verse in the New Testament says, there is one God and Father of all who works through all and is in all. (Ephesians 4:6). We can experience the mystery of Oneness through the Spirit of Love. This message is also there in what we call the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, and it lies written in the Book of Ruth.
The Book of Ruth is a story of love and reconciliation in a time of widespread violence and war. It was written as a protest against what was going on, and sadly still is going on in that part of the world but now on a bigger scale with other countries involved, including our own. So it’s a story that needs to be told and retold until some light penetrates the darkness. There are two main characters, Naomi and Ruth. Naomi lived in Bethlehem with her husband and two sons. The word Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’, but there was a famine. There was no bread in the house of bread. So they had to move, they became refugees and crossed the river Jordan into the land of Moab in search for food and shelter. The people of Moab, the Moabites, were traditional enemies of Israel. Some of you will recall Psalm 108 where Israel says, Moab is my washtub. Children on both sides were told stories of battles in the past and in this way prejudice was passed on from one generation to the next.
And this is the first lesson of the story. Don’t pass prejudice on to your children and grandchildren. Don’t have traditions that make scapegoats of a whole race of people. Let folk meet each other face to face, let them find a common humanity where other people’s needs are the same as your own. And that’s what Naomi did. She and her family went to Moab and were received with kindness and helpfulness so that they settled in and started a new life. Naomi’s sons married Moabite women. Barriers of prejudice, race and religion were crossed. Give peace a chance and things will change. Reach out for reconciliation; recognise your basic humanity and good things will happen.
But human nature will still have its frailty. There was sickness to cope with, and no NHS! Naomi’s husband was the first to die, and then her two sons both lost their lives leaving Naomi with her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth. And in those days being a widow carried a heavy burden; there were difficult times ahead. But after a while word came that things had improved in and around Bethlehem, so Naomi decided to return to her homeland. She said to Orpah and Ruth, “You stay here with your own people and I’ll go back by myself.” Orpah reluctantly agreed but Ruth said, “No! I’ll go with you”, and that’s the bit of the story we heard in the reading, those beautiful words of love and commitment that are often read in our own marriage services, “Where you go I will go; where you stay I will stay; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
So off they went together, Ruth and Naomi. But when they arrived, Naomi had a ‘breakdown’, and no wonder after what she’d been through. “Don’t call me Naomi anymore, call me Mara.” The name Naomi means ‘joyful and happy’; Mara means ‘bitterness’. She’d lost her husband and both sons and she was blaming God for what had happened. And there’s another lesson for us here. The pressures of life can wear us down, physically, mentally and emotionally. And if some people lose their ‘faith-in-the-goodness-of-God’, it’s not surprising. But it also raised the question of what we would do if or when it happens to us? We need to have resources to call on that will sustain us. And one of them is a ‘mature’ relationship with God, built up over the years. A relationship with God that is deeper than anything that might happen. For Christians, Jesus himself is our example of that mature relationship; it sustained him to the end.
God is not there as our own private insurance policy. God is not our possession, like a talisman, there to protect us from all harm and danger. Yes, we do believe that God is personal and never less that personal. We can have a deep relationship with God and feel balanced and at peace. But our relationship with God is more than just personal. It’s bigger than that! We need another word. And for me that word is ‘transpersonal’, suggesting that there is a bigger picture in which to see ourselves and all that we are carrying. And this is where faith comes in. Trustingly we can put ourselves into the hands of God – for good or ill, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
Let’s have a look now at Ruth. She experienced the same family tragedy as Naomi but she reacted differently. It seems that Ruth had a ‘warm heart’ and a ‘cool head’, and that’s a good combination with which to face what Shakespeare called, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It’s important to remember that Ruth was a Moabite. They were regarded by “Israeli tradition” as ‘outsiders’. Ruth was a gentile, a pagan, worshipping a false god. But this didn’t appear to bother her at all! It seems she had come to realise that this battle between the Gods of different religions was itself false. It was divisive, misleading and harmful. She was able to ‘see through’ all religious controversy and to see the ‘bigger picture’ which God is wanting us all to see.
Ruth’s cool head and warm heart were generating s spirit of love that took her beyond religious differences. This ‘pagan’ woman from enemy territory was being led by the Spirit within her to cross cultural barriers and to disregard racial hostility. So she went all the way with Naomi to live in Israel. And there she found a husband named Boaz who, like Ruth, had a warm heart and a generous spirit. They were made for each other. But the story doesn’t end there. If you plant seeds of Goodness, Truth and Love, you never know what will happen. God will be working his purpose out painting that ‘bigger picture’ for all to see.
Ruth and Boaz had a son called Obed, and his son was called Jesse, who was the father of David, who became king of Israel. And it was in Bethlehem, the city of David, that many years later Mary and Joseph had a son whose message to the world can be understood as ‘fruit’ from the seed sown by Ruth.
The love of God is not based on religion, race or culture. God’s love washes away the boundaries and divisions that people draw. It reaches out to all people whoever they are, wherever they are, urging everybody to see themselves as belonging to the oneness of humanity which, at its best, is able to reflect God’s image and likeness.
Sermon 6th August
The Journey of Life
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13
We’ve all been on journeys of one sort or another. We know about making plans, packing bags, setting off, travelling hopefully and arriving safely. Every day, everywhere, journeys are happening, people are on the move travelling for one purpose or another. Now I say this as one whose travelling days are over. My passport is out of date and I even think twice before setting off for Ludlow! But there are different kinds of traveller and different ways of travelling, and that’s where I am. But in any case we are all and always on the move because we are on board Planet Earth which is circling the sun and hurtling through space. Being on the move is actually ‘built in’ to what we call our DNA. It’s part of our very existence. There is always blood circling round our bodies keeping us alive. Our minds are never still, thoughts and feelings carry us this way and that taking us round the Wrekin and farther still. We like to read of Great Journeys and have the excitement of adventure stories, travellers’ tales to amaze us with what people can achieve. Think of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Gulliver’s Travels, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus. There’s the Spaniard Don Quixote or if you prefer, Keyhote, but I am a Quixote man myself! You can add to them David Livingstone and John Bunyan, and even Michael Palin!
But there is one journey that we’re all on, whether we like it or not, and that’s the journey of Life, which is the theme of what I want to say … The Journey of Life. I’m going to develop it under three headings because I was taught that all good sermons have three points and preachers like to use ‘alliteration’, so that what they say can be remembered. Alliteration? What’s that? Dictionaries to be opened when you get home! My three points will be first of all PURPOSE. Every journey should have a purpose so that you know ‘why’ you’re going somewhere. Secondly you will need a PLAN so that you will know ‘how’ to get there and not just be going round in circles. I struggled to find a third point. I did think of PORT, purpose, plan and port, yes that sounded good. But then I changed my mind on the grounds that it might be a bit misleading. I didn’t want anybody to think there might be a bottle of the best port waiting for them at their journey’s end. And Jesus did say something about drinking wine in the Heavenly Kingdom (Matthew 26:29), but that was probable just the disciples wishful thinking! And so I came up with the word PRIZE which is what I’ve decided to go for, although I’ll still have to be careful even with that word – we’ll see! So there we are, that’s where we’re going, on the journey of life which has a PURPOSE, a PLAN and a PRIZE, PPP, alliteration!
What is the purpose of travelling through our three score years and ten, give or take a few? This is a necessary question because if we don’t stop and ask it from time to time, we might just drift through life with no purpose at all and be tossed about by every wind that happens to be blowing. So how would you describe the purpose of your journey through life? Now I know that’s not an easy question to answer. And coming up with a firm and definite answer may not be the best way to deal with it. So long as somewhere inside you, you are ‘aware’ of the question and ‘feel’ that you do have a purpose even if you can’t explain it, that’s OK, and you won’t be just drifting.
Now this is where a ‘good’ religion, (and these days I’m always stressing the importance of a ‘good’ religion, which some kinds of religion are not!) a good religion can be helpful. It can give us a sense of purpose, and direction, and the energy to get moving and keep going to fulfil that purpose. I once came across some wise words from an old catechism of the Church of Scotland which said, the purpose of life is to get to know God and enjoy God for ever. Wow! How about that! Getting to know ‘anything’ is always a process, including ‘getting to know God’! It’s a case of learning as you go.
The God of the travelling Christian will not be the same in the middle of the journey as at the beginning. God doesn’t change, but our thoughts and feelings and understanding of God do change and certainly should change. Paul, who wrote most of our New Testament, was himself a ‘travelling Christian’ and he said as we heard in the reading, when I was at the beginning of my journey, I thought and acted like a child. But now I’ve moved on and I’m trying to get to know God in a more mature way. I would like to know God like God knows me, which is ‘fully comprehensive’! We have a long way to go, so don’t be afraid to change your mind about God as you travel. That’s what travelling is for, to broaden your outlook. Don’t be afraid to admit that you took a wrong turning or you misread the map, or followed the wrong guide and you’ve had to sort it out. But thank God you are now on the right track. So let’s have that as our purpose in life, to get to know God and enjoy the process.
Now what about a PLAN? To be without a plan is to be like a ship without a rudder, in danger of shipwreck! Planning for the journey is not about having a ‘blueprint’ that you follow. It’s more exciting than that. It’s about ‘coping’ with the ‘nitty-gritty’ of life, with things that just happen which you haven’t planned for. Some of them of course are good, for which you are thankful. But some things you wish hadn’t happened, which have drawn on your inner resources, your patience, your understanding of your faith. And so your plans must include making sure you have those inner resources. They can get exhausted if you’re not careful. They need to be renewed, refreshed, re-energised by your religion. By ‘plugging in’, as it were, to the inexhaustible Spirit of God. Being engaged in the process will give you wisdom and insight, faith, hope and love. All that you need will be flowing into you and through you, to keep you going.
The very word ‘journey’, which the French scholars among you will recognise, consists mainly of the word, jour, which is French for ‘day’. A jour-ney is how far you go and what you do ‘in one day’. Any big problems that you have to face, you should break them down to a manageable size that you can deal with on a ‘daily basis’. That was Jesus’ own philosophy, sufficient unto the day (Matthew 6:34), live a day at a time and don’t be overawed by the future, and that will be enough to keep you going.
So the ‘purpose’ is found, the ‘plan’ is in operation, but where is it all heading for? Is there a port to pull into? Well I’ve decided not to go that way! Instead I will say that there is a PRIZE to be won. But what kind of a prize is that? It’s certainly not a prize that we compete for one against another, like Mo Farah winning a gold medal! We are not competing against one another. Nevertheless, we could say that the journey of life ‘is’ a kind of ‘race’. It’s the race that we are all in and it’s called the HUMAN RACE! Our belief is that the human race has the potential to reflect the likeness of God; that ‘likeness’ will be seen in the quality of our lives, in Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love. And our ‘purpose’ will be to live up to that potential until it is fulfilled. The PRIZE given to the human race will be our oneness with God which is for everybody. But we’re not there yet. So the journey goes on. We travel by Faith, in Hope and with Love; and when the prize is given, it will not be so much a PRIZE, but more of a SURPRISE. NOT an achievement to be proud of, but a gift to be thankful for.
Sermon 30th July
Jacob and Esau
Genesis 32:3-8, 22-29a
What is the first book in the Bible? Of course, we all know, it’s the Book of Genesis. The word ‘genesis’ means ‘beginning’, in this case, ‘the beginning of everything’. There are beginnings and endings. But, what was there before the beginning of everything? Where does everything come from and go to? And what will be there after the ending? These are what we call ‘ultimate questions’. We can ask them but we can’t possibly find any answers, although religion does claim to have an answer! Genesis chapter one says, in the beginning – GOD. But that’s not really an answer, it just moves the question back! But we could say that ‘God’ is a mysterious answer to ultimate questions for which there is no other kind of answer. And so in effect the answer becomes the question, ‘Who and what is God?’ And then religion starts giving its own answer by creating myths and telling a story of who God is and what God wants, and what we people on earth must do to have a happy, healthy and wholesome relationship with this mysterious God.
The story of beginnings, the Book of Genesis, is part of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures, each with their own interpretation. And this morning I want to see what Christians can learn from a bit of that story about Jacob and Esau. You may remember that their father was Isaac and their mother Rebecca; their grandfather was Abraham whose wife was Sarah. Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. And there is a word here I want to introduce to you, if you don’t already know it, the word is duality. Now a DUO is TWO, and a DUALITY refers to TWOSOMENESS. It’s a relationship of any TWO. The Bible is full of dualities. There is God and the Devil, Adam and Eve, Good and Evil, Material and Spiritual, Heaven and Hell. Religion thrives on dualities, Jew and Gentile, Us and Them, We’re Right and They’re Wrong … divide and conquer seems to be religion’s philosophy. And so any concept of God worthy of the name has to be greater than any religion. And while some duality has its usefulness it’s only temporary because underlying all things there is UNITY, a MYSTERIOUS ONENESS, in which everything is held together, a unity which we need to be looking for and living with. The man we call St Paul knew this and in his letter to the Christians in Galatia he wrote, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. There is a UNITY and we’ll be looking for that ONENESS as we consider the story of Jacob and Esau.
Esau was the first-born and so he would be head of the family when the father died. But Jacob deceived Isaac the father and got the blessing for himself. As a result he had to leave home quickly to avoid the anger of his brother. He went to visit his uncle Laban whose daughter Rachel he was hoping to marry. Laban lived a few days journey away and Jacob slept on the way, under the stars. He had a dream in which he saw a ladder, well-known today as Jacob’s ladder, rising from the earth up to heaven with angels going up and down. In our dreams we visualise ‘out there’ what’s going on ‘in here’. Jacob must have been pondering those ultimate questions that we all ask. What is the relationship between heaven and earth; between God and people; between Divinity and Humanity? Is there any connection? Well, if there is, climbing a ladder or even going up in a space rocket is not going to solve the problem. We won’t find God in that direction. We’ll have to look somewhere else.
When Jacob woke up he began thinking about the dream and he realised that it was ‘only a dream’. But what did it mean? His conclusion was, surely God is with me now in this place and I didn’t realise it. Genesis 28:16. And Jacob called the place ‘Bethel’ meaning ‘House of God’, and God was going to become even more of a reality for him when he got to Laban’s place. It’s a fascinating story covering fourteen years. He got married twice and had lots of children but he was still troubled by what he’d done to Esau. So he decided to go back home and see if he could be reconciled to his brother. We’ll pick up the story from Genesis 32 verse 3.
While Jacob was away from home for nearly twenty years he prospered and became a wealthy farmer and landowner. By the standards of the time having wives and children and worldly possessions was a mark of God’s approval and blessing. But what people couldn’t see was that Jacob was carrying a heavy burden. He was still feeling guilty about what he’d done to his brother Esau, remorse and regret were eating away and destroying him from the inside … until he just had to do something about it. A meeting with Esau was arranged. Jacob sent gifts ahead to smooth the way hoping for forgiveness and reconciliation. But would Esau be willing to forgive him? Esau too had prospered, even more than Jacob. He had more men to fight for him and Jacob feared for himself and his family. They came to a river, the river Jabbok. Jacob sent his family and all his possessions to the other side, but he stayed where he was, by himself. He began to pray desperately with his mind going back to that dream with the ladder going up to heaven and remembering what he learned from that experience. Surely God is in this place and I didn’t realise it. Well, he was going to realise it now, in a more deeply personal way, for he suddenly found himself in a wrestling match!
Let’s just consider the situation. Jacob was there by himself. All his possessions including his family he’d let go to the other side. He was divested of all his attachments to the things of this world, all that made him think he was successful and in receipt of God’s blessing. There he was with nothing but himself and that’s when this kind of wrestling match begins. There’s just ‘you’ and everything that goes into being you, all your past thoughts and experiences. And for Jacob it felt like there was somebody else there wrestling with him. If you had been there you would have seen Jacob sitting on a rock with his head in his hands, nobody wrestling with him, just a struggle going on inside. He was in fact wrestling with himself, which is something we all do. But who is this ‘self’ that we’re wrestling with? It’s very strange. It’s something of a mystery that we can have such an experience. There’s nobody else there, just you. We could say that Jacob was wrestling with his ‘better self’, or a ‘higher self’ of some sort.
Anyway Jacob realised that this meeting had to happen sooner or later and this was the time. So Jacob was determined to get himself ‘sorted’. He wasn’t going to run away anymore and he said to whomever or whatever it was, I won’t let go of you until you bless me (v.26). His opponent said what’s your name? And Jacob replied, I am Jacob, and saying that was equivalent to making a submission. Jacob was doing more than just giving his name. In those days your name represented who you were, your character and personality, everything about you. In giving his name Jacob was putting himself entirely into the hands of the person he was wrestling with. But who was that? Was it his ‘better self’, a higher self, or should we just call it God who is always ‘here in this place’ wherever you are. Jacob was sick of being a duality, divided against himself. He wanted to be a ‘whole person’. Nobody wants to be a Jekyll and Hyde, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, saying one thing and doing another. The one Jacob was wrestling with then said your name will no longer be Jacob, you have struggled with God and you have won. That’s the paradox of our relationship with God, you win by admitting who you are, by making a submission. Jacob was given a new name, Israel, which simply meant ‘one who had wrestled with God’.
What we are dealing with here is a Jewish folk story. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now called Israel, were the founding fathers of the Jewish Nation. But we don’t belong to that Nation. Nevertheless, the story is now part of our Scriptures so what can we make of it? I refer back to that duality which is the central ‘plank’ of much religious belief and which desperately needs removing; the duality of God and the Devil, heaven and hell, Jew and Gentile, the saved and the lost, so many. It’s the same ‘plank’ that Jesus said you take out of your own eye before you start looking for the bit of dust in somebody else’s. Jacob is showing us what to do. Do some wrestling with God, make your submission, and receive your ‘best self’ as a gift, become a ‘whole’ person and let the Spirit lead you on from there. Any good religion should be telling us about overcoming all divisive dualities and creating ONENESS. The end of the story is that Jacob and Esau were reconciled, and the end of our story will be the realisation of one human family, living in one world where everything and everybody is connected and interdependent in a wonderful diversity, held together in the oneness of God.
A Meditation and Sermon 2nd July
I invite you now into a prayerful meditation. So, let us meditate prayerfully….…..
We have come to church looking for spiritual refreshment: for the renewal of our faith and the enlivening of our hope. For the rekindling of our determination so to live that others may be blessed.
If you can, leave your body here, sitting in the church, and come with me as we walk together ‘in the Spirit’, by the side of a river.
The river is lined with over-hanging willows and surrounded by green fields, in bright sunshine with wild flowers swaying in the breeze. Use your imagination and you will see the sunlight reflected in the river as it flows downstream.
What river can it be? We can think of it as the river of Life: your life and mine. The river will flow on and merge into the sea; the bottomless ocean, a symbol of the boundless love of God.
Continuing to walk along the banks of the river, look carefully. There in the shallows is a heron standing perfectly still, patiently waiting and watching, telling us that you too can ‘be still’ and let the blessings of God come to you just where you are.
A little further on there is a stone bridge crossing the river. Bridges are so important in life. We should cross them to see what it’s like on the other side, and not make hasty judgements until we stand where other people are standing.
The willow is a lovely tree. But why is it weeping? And look, what is hanging on the branches? By the rivers of Babylon we hung our harps. It’s the sad song of the children of Israel, for fifty years, refugees in exile from their homeland.
And today we can weep with the willows for the cruelty and suffering people continue to inflict on one another.
But listen now to another song above the canopy of the trees. It is ‘the Lark Ascending’, invisible but real, crystal clear, peaceful and serene. Listen, can you hear the Spirit of God, calling to you and wanting to lift you to new heights of understanding and commitment; to live and walk in the ways of Goodness, Truth and Love.
…….. We are now back where we started sitting in church.
Sermon: Myth and Mindfulness
Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15-17. 3: 22-24. Philippians 2:1-5
Over the last few months I’ve been working on a lecture that I hope to give at Engaging Issues in the next series (November 28th). I have struggled with what I want to say, but I’ve finally wrestled it into a shape that I consider to be presentable! I’ve given it the title, ‘MYTH and MYSTERY in RELIGION’, and I shall be saying that both myth and mystery are important parts of any GOOD religion.
Obviously I’m not going to give the lecture now, but I am going to be talking about Myth. Myth is a very misunderstood word so we need to be clear what we’re talking about. The word MYTH is just another word for STORY, but it’s not any-old-story. There are stories and ‘stories’. Contained in some stories there is a deep truth which is relevant to all people at all times: and that kind of story deserves the special name MYTH. The purpose of a myth is not to give you information. It’s not telling you about something that actually happened. It’s telling of an important truth that “needs to happen,” in your life, everybody’s life. Where a myth is concerned you don’t take the story literally, you look for the truth which it contains. If you do take it literally, you spoil the myth and miss the whole point of it. Sadly because some myths are in the Bible, religion has tended to take them literally which has led to disaster: religious wars; crusades and terrorism have resulted from this misunderstanding. It’s a problem that needs sorting out, which is what I’m trying to do!
So let’s have a look at this CREATION MYTH that we’ve just heard read. It tells about the beginning of all things. It’s obviously ‘a story’, because there was no-one there observing and writing it down! But it is also a MYTH, because whoever did write it down was looking into the great mystery of life. And that does concern us all. The myth tells us that there were two trees in a garden; the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve (that’s you and me and all humanity) were forbidden to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. They could eat from the Tree of Life because that was keeping them alive and they would live forever. But they must keep away from the Tree of Knowledge. If they ate of that tree there would be very serious consequences. But you know very well, if someone tells you not to do something, you will want to do it even more! And so our ancestors, Adam and Eve, on our behalf ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. And incidentally, I’m very glad they did! Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, and neither would you! Adam and Eve would still be sitting in Paradise, eating fruit from the Tree of Life, living for ever and completely unaware of let’s say ‘the joys of sex’. But worse than that, they were ejected from Paradise, kicked out of the Garden with no access to the Tree of Life and therefore doomed to die.
Those two trees are not real trees. They are not part of the vegetation growing in a garden. THEY ARE SYMBOLIC. Actually everything is symbolic in a myth, not to be taken literally, but interpreted to find the hidden truth, the meaning of it. The Tree of Life stands for the presence of God, Eternal Life. Adam and Eve were living in the presence of God. There was peace and joy and freedom because God doesn’t want robots, doesn’t want automatons who only do what they’re programmed to do. Freedom implies choice and that’s why the Tree of Knowledge was there. Adam and Eve could choose to do what they were told and live happily ever after, or, they could choose to ask questions like why not? Why can’t we eat from the Tree of Knowledge? To which the answer was, you’ll find out if you do! And they did! Suddenly they found themselves outside the garden with the gates closed and guarded by the flaming swords of the ‘cherubim’, which meant no way back. They must now live with the consequences of the choice they made, which is what the human race has been doing ever since: and living with the question, will we ever find our way back to the Tree of Life and live forever?
I need to remind you and myself, that a MYTH is more than just a story. It’s a story containing an important truth about this Life that we have now on earth. A myth is not to be taken literally. The truth of it is to be discovered symbolically, mindfully and spiritually. The Creation Myth is not telling us how the world was created; it is telling us about the situation we are in now that we have been created. The situation is that we do not have any direct access to anything that might be called the Tree of Life which will enable us to live forever. The only way we can discover what might be called our ‘salvation’ is through what we “know”, by continuing to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which is what we have been doing ever since we were kicked out of the garden.
Amongst other things we have discovered that there are different kinds of knowledge. There is ‘scientific knowledge’ which is OBJECTIVE … analysing what things consist of and measuring how things work. There is another kind of knowledge which can’t be measured in the same way. This is called SUBJECTIVE knowledge. This kind of knowledge you know not with your brain, but with your heart. It’s the kind of knowledge that comes through experience rather than by reading books sitting in a classroom and passing exams. This is a deeper kind of knowledge. You know ‘subjectively’ just because you know, even if you can’t explain it.
Of course you must always keep a balance between the objective and the subjective, between your head knowledge and your heart knowledge, each listening to and learning from the other because you don’t want to become ‘unbalanced’. But, what you know subjectively’ is more personal. It’s about you. It comprises all your thoughts and feeling, your hopes and longings, all that makes you who you are as a person. Subjective knowledge opens the way into the very mystery of your ‘self’, your soul. You’ve all seen the film The King and I. One of the songs in it is about ‘getting to know you’. We should actually sing it here in church as part of our worship because any ‘good’ religion should be helping you in the process of ‘getting to know you’, getting to know about LIFE, getting to know about YOURSELF and getting to know about GOD, all at a deep personal level.
We can’t possibly have any ‘objective’ knowledge of God because God is not an object, not somebody, somewhere. God is a MYSTERY deeper than that. We can only approach God subjectively, with symbol, metaphor, myth and parable pointing the way. Jesus told us about God, but all of his teaching was in parables (Matthew 13:34f). A genuine myth is, in effect, just like a parable. So don’t be afraid of the word MYTH. It’s a valuable word to help us in getting to know God.
The Creation Myth of the Old Testament has a sequel: it’s the Christian Myth of the New Testament. The Christian Myth does not begin with Jesus. Jesus is objective, himself, a solid historical figure who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago. He spoke about God in parables and he was put to death for what he said. The Christian Myth begins not with Jesus, but with The Christ who is not a historical figure. And Christ is not Jesus’ surname. He doesn’t have a surname. He was Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth (John 6:42). Popular usage of the word ‘Christ’ has been very misleading. ‘The Christ’ is a title which was given to Jesus by his followers after his death. But what does it mean?
Don’t forget that a genuine MYTH is not to be taken literally. If you take the Christian Myth literally it gets you into an awful mess. You have to start looking for ‘The historical objective Jesus’ who went up to heaven at the Ascension and will be coming down again in the same way. You have to think of God as an angry God sitting on a throne up there, waiting for the sacrificial death of his son before He will forgive us; and you will be singing the Easter hymn … on the cross when Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied … which as the Baptist minister Steve Chalke pointed out makes God into a kind of cosmic child abuser, even though Jesus himself and the prophets before him had said that God doesn’t want sacrifice (Matthew 9:13), and is not interested in religion and all its trimmings.
Religion has not served us well. We need to do some re-thinking and get in touch with the deeper truth that the Christian Myth contains. What is that truth? Well, the man we call St Paul knew about it, but he did get it mixed up with religion, so we still need to do some ‘sorting out’; we need to think more clearly and breathe more freely. We could begin by asking ‘what happened to “The Christ” after the death of Jesus? The Christian Myth tells us that The Christ is a symbol of oneness with God and so The Christ is back in the Garden of Eden with access to the Tree of Life, eternal life. But more than that, the gates are now open for our returning and our being ’at one’ with God. That’s the Good News.
This is the truth of the Christian Myth; it is of course all SYMBOLIC. “The Christ” is a symbol of Humanity’s oneness with God; symbolic that is until we turn it into REALITY. Not by waiting until we die, but now, today, by faith, ourselves living at one with God. Paul’s letters are full of it and I’ll finish with a quotation from one of them, the letter to the Colossians 1:27. “God’s plan is to make known to all people a rich and glorious secret: the secret is this … Christ in you”. This is not Jesus in you. For Christians, Jesus is the Way. The Christ in you is ‘your’ oneness with God. And we can make it an ‘open secret’ for others to see – by the way we live our lives.
Sermon 18th June
Genesis 1: 26-31; Revelations 21: 1-5
Intro: Well Father’s Day it is, but this one has been deeply overshadowed by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower fire. We shall pray for our fathers and families today. We will remember the people of Grenfell Tower and all the other communities where terror has visited. What may be quite clear over the last weeks is that we cannot predict events, nor can we determine the outcome or end of these things: the unfolding of that story of the General Election goes on beyond all our predictions. Events have taken over. I think this Election will be remembered in very many ways. Until last week I thought it would always be associated with a lady called ‘Brenda’: “you must be joking, not another one”. With due respect, this lady voiced for many of us a frustration with those in power, asking us a question, to which the answer it seems, had already been decided.
The voice of the people is spoken, but it is one of anger, people who feel dismissed, the voice of those who felt left behind. And the anger is even greater now. This was the election to finally endorse the chosen course and silence the dissidents. Yet, we are as divided as before and uncertainty prevails. And there is an even greater gulf between the governed and those who govern. Surely, it suggests time to pause, to think how we can collectively work this through. But, our system cannot cope with reflection; it is only made for pushing on to Brexit, bullied by an illiterate media that promotes controversy and chaos. Literacy at its best is more than words and images, it seeks to understand.
And of course in the drama, we saw the human weakness of power and the idealised passion of those who have a different vision. It is a Shakespearean tragedy, coupled with the brutal unpredictable attacks, intended to cause maximum terror. What should we seek to understand? Perhaps, a start could be with Who are ‘we’ and who is the ‘we’ – NOW, following ALL that has happened? More immediately, why did Grenfell Tower happen?
Genesis 1: 26-31
‘Dominion over’ is an unfortunate phrase and needs constant challenging. It again reveals that these words are human and come out of a time when States and powers organised themselves in a hierarchy with the ‘elite’ at the top and animals and environment at the bottom, but people who worked the land and with animals then did not have that view. Despots don’t care about their people. Even though we can substitute the word ‘stewardship’ our modern societies are organised in a way that we still need to fight the powers for the freedom of the earth. But, it is even more – good to be alive today.
Revelations 21: 1-5
Between these two bookend books lies only some of the collected ‘ideas of God’ in life. It is not the word of God, but the best and worst of what mostly men, thought. There is more beyond these pages, when we are fully inclusive and our journey towards understanding shall never end. Contrary to Revelations, there will still be tears and death, is NOT ‘nothing at all’ (as in the Scott Holland poem). Though – the “I am”, being – life itself, is continuously re-making, renewing, and at its core is the need to love and be loved. That word is experienced as true and that is what wipes away tears and transcends death one day.
Intro: A common core belief: I can say that understanding is itself a major feature of human existence; the source of everything that is worthwhile in life. When we are in conflict and confusion, it is even more necessary to understand where we are, and how we got here, and where might we go now, and always with humility.
The attempt to understand as much as we can, what so many since human thought began, have pursued, as part of the human exploration into the ultimate reality, which we in short – may call the idea of God. I come to it from an inter faith view. But, it is not specifically a religious quest, for ultimate reality is wide open. You and I are doing it most of the time, and only an optional part is reading books, most is in observing and taking part in life. I can give you this, that in most religions there is a common core curriculum, to do with ‘ultimate reality’, with important differences, yes, but remarkable similarities, particularly the three – Judaism, Islam and Christianity, because they have rubbed together for so many centuries. It is culture and often excessive piety that distorts a better view of the other traditions.
1 My Prophets of our time: Four people I have been listening to keenly are Keith Ward, Shiraz Maher, Kenan Malik and Jack Spong. Briefly, I can try to capture what they are saying to us now.
Keith Ward: although from 1998 he asks the questions how do diverse religions relate to each other, and whether we are doomed to endless confrontation, or, do we have some ground for greater mutual understanding and engagement? This was before 9/11. I might add that the dominance of fundamentalism, present in all our religions has made consensual or joined-up conversation more difficult.
Shiraz Maher: is a respected authority on radicalisation and jihad. He has traced the development of terrorism through the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. He sees it change from the big, shocking Twin Towers attack by Qaeda through the oppressive Taliban, denying the benefits of the modern world to people, particularly women, in an area they control and persuading them to take part in barbarous acts. The Islamic State combines the worst aspects of both and is set on murdering as many civilians as a lone wolf can (the army of one) in relatively unsophisticated plots, to sow fear and suspicion in western countries. Shiraz says we have to pass through this critical stage and see I.S. defeated decisively in Syria and Iraq and with nowhere to run.
Kenan Malik: His book: ‘From Fatwa to Jihad; how the world changed from Satanic verses to Charlie Hebdo’. He is an historian who describes how the enlightenment in Europe was preceded by the same among Muslims between 8th and 11th century, in arts, science and religious diversity. Then there followed a long decline until it caught up industrially by the end of 19th century.
Muslims had no dream of a united global, political ‘Islamic World’. The Muslim leaders had no sense of loyalty to other Muslims as trade and strategic interests were more important. The idea of a unified Islamic world emerged later as European expansion reached its peak and nationalism arose but a unified Muslim World just does not exist. I.S. seeks to re-introduce a Caliphate, to wage war with the West. Muslim people are Muslims living across the world with no desire to be an Islamic world – simply to be Muslims where they are.
2 Where we are now? The opening of the Mosque to the public, to people of other faiths and none, in Craven Arms last night, would not have happened 10 years ago. Our local authorities have not yet grasped how significant an invitation and opportunity this is to be invited to ‘the Big Iftar’ linked to the memory of Jo Cox. Indeed, earlier in the year at ‘Open Mosque Day’, but now in the middle of Ramadan it shows a confidence as well as a willingness to engage. That is to do with steady, ongoing friendship between people and getting to know each other as kind, compassionate, interested and enjoyable neighbours and friends. It is hardly surprising that we have some things in common since we have a common root, though grown in different soils, as it were.
Jack Spong, my fourth prophet has shown Matthew’s gospel as entirely adapted to sit within a synagogue service. Had there not been a split off of Gentile Christians in 88 CE, Middle East history could be different today. The Muslim practice of five prayers a day was matched by the monastic structure of five or seven times of prayers daily.
3 Where might we go next? People have been moved deeply by Jo Cox, a young mother who believed in the togetherness of people; who was genuinely there to serve people and make life better for others. She was not alone, but somehow we have lost sight of this, as a fundamental part of public life. People caught a glimpse of it again in the General Election. Though, it is clear that no one party or person is the whole answer. The system where winner takes all has run its day. It no longer can represent the broad sweep of what a modern society wishes to be.
The prerequisite for any leader is not to play the role of saviour, nor to become besotted with your own rhetoric. Jesus is among a number of rare men and women, who have the capacity to see what is really going on, and who inspire and invite people to follow a way that enables us to rise above what is. This does not make them gods, all powerful, all knowing, but it does make most of us want to go and do likewise. This is what has been happening in Manchester, London and around Grenfell Tower – people of every colour and creed and none, rich and poor.
In the challenges that remain ahead, especially terrorism, we need to rely on the understanding that everyone will watch out for each other. I.S. believes the West is morally weak. In one way they may be right. The pursuit of unequal wealth, trade without values; the neglect, the betrayal felt in communities, alienates people from their local and national governments.
On the other hand, many do believe that together we are stronger in our openness and diversity, and inclusion. This will ultimately be the demise of I.S. It is in the streets and communities that we are strong.
Although the world, including the West, is fragmenting, yet people gather more often in solidarity. The end of this story, I began with Brenda of Bristol, is not inevitable; nor as predictable as it was 10 days ago; the story is not fully told.
Sermon 28th May
The Bible and the Word of God part I
I have now been ‘fully retired’ for nearly two years. And you may be interested to know that my ‘full-retirement and I’ are getting on very well together! We enjoy each other’s company. But I’m not just ‘waiting in the departure lounge’. It’s an exciting time for me because I’ve taken a step or two back from where I was, and from where I am now, I can look at my Life, my God, my Church and Religion from a different angle, in a wider perspective.
Whenever you are involved in anything, it often means a narrowing down to that which you are involved in, and where religion is concerned, that narrowing down can mean losing sight of the bigger picture of ‘life in all its fullness’. In retirement I am now experiencing a new sense of freedom and I am reminded of some words from one of Paul’s letters – where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). So if my freedom is inspired by ‘the Spirit of the Lord’, I’m not disconnecting myself from God and Religion. I still have a sense of ‘call’, a ministry to perform, which is to tell others about that ‘freedom of the Spirit’ where God is greater than any religion, even Christianity. The danger of being involved in our religion is that Christianity becomes ‘Churchianity’ where the Church is in control of everything, even of the Spirit! In which case the Spirit is redundant and you’ve lost ‘the freedom that the Spirit gives’.
This year we are thinking back to 1517 and the Reformation. It’s 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, wanting freedom from a Church that had become too narrow and only concerned with exercising control. The Church had lost sight of its ‘call’ to bring freedom and fullness of life to everybody, where every person is a precious and much loved child of God. Instead of being freed by Christianity, people were being ‘imprisoned’ in ‘Churchianity’ which had developed over the years under the authority of the Pope in the Vatican. Anyone who dared to question that authority would do so at the risk of their own lives. Martin Luther dared to do it, and the taste of ‘freedom’ was sweet and exhilarating and the Reformation swept through the whole of Europe and beyond. Bibles were translated from the Latin which only the educated priests could read, into the spoken languages of everyday life, and everyday people experienced a wonderful sense of freedom from the clutches of the Roman Church. But one situation didn’t change. The Bible was still regarded as the infallible and unquestionable Word of God. So if the Church no longer told them, who would now say what the words of the Bible meant?
The Reformers began to argue and even fight among themselves about the meaning of the words of the Bible. There were religious wars, persecutions, drowning of Baptists, execution of witches and the burning of heretics. Christianity itself was still imprisoned within an infallible Bible, and to a large extent it still is! Is 500 years not long enough to see the error of our ways and start listening to what ‘the Spirit of freedom is saying to the Churches?’ Well, I think so! But I’m not going to nail any theses to the church door. I am going to say as forcefully and persuasively as I can that the Bible is NOT the infallible and unquestionable Word of God. I am going to say that God’s word is not to be found in any book with printed pages. I am going to say that if there is anything that CAN be called God’s book, it’s the Book of Life, that the Word of God is written into the life of everyone who is alive. It’s written on the human heart, imprinted on the very essence of who we are, and any New Reformation will only get ‘a lift off’ when we learn to read what is written there.
Bible and Word part II
When I started my ministry at the United Reformed Church in Kenilworth, it was the custom at the beginning of every service for the Bible to be carried in and placed on the lectern from which during the service it would be read, followed by saying, this is the word of the Lord. Ministers ordained into the Church are required to say, I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, presumably meaning not some of it but all of it. Even in the secular law courts the person giving evidence had to place their hands on the Bible and, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… (so help me God)… on the basis that nobody would dare to tell a lie having put their hand on the Bible, the word of God.
And so within Christianity and society as a whole the Bible was regarded as a sacred object. But if it is, then it soon becomes an idol, a substitute for the God who is somewhere else but who nevertheless speaks to us from the past through the words printed on the pages of a book. At one time if anybody thought differently they’d better keep quiet: torture and death could have been the consequence of opening their mouths. Thankfully times have changed. That church in Kenilworth no longer carries the Bible in as the focal point of their worship. We don’t execute people for having an alternative point of view and the courts, they’ve probably changed their practice too. But still, after the reading in many churches, it is proclaimed that this is the word of the Lord. And there are churches which DO believe that the Bible is literally the word of God. That belief can have serious implications for the health and wholeness of the Church and indeed for the future of us all, and it’s not unconnected with what’s just happened in Manchester and other parts of the world. It’s about time for us all to be more open and honest, to raise a few questions, and do some serious thinking about regarding the Bible and the scriptures of other religions as the Word of God.
There is a person that some of us know called Jack Spong, a retired bishop, who has in fact ‘opened the way’ for us to do that thinking. He has written a book called The Sins of Scripture, with the sub-title, rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and I quote from it, “Claiming that the scriptures are either divinely inspired or are the Word of God in any literal sense, has been so destructive that I no longer want to be part of that kind of Christianity.” If we say that the Bible is the Word of God, what does that mean anyway? Did somebody called God put pen to paper? And who will tell us what the message is? The Roman Catholics play safe on that one. They let the Church and the Pope tell them – but whether they take any notice or not is a different matter!
In the Reformation of 1517 the Protestants were wanting freedom to decide for themselves what the Bible says, but it was still regarded as the Word of God, and on that basis terrible things were done in the name of God and have continued to be done. Apartheid, racism, homophobia, child abuse, slavery, genocide, have all been supported by quotations from an infallible Bible believed to be the Word of God. And Jack Spong makes this perfectly clear with a disturbing openness and honesty. Very slowly we are coming round to realise that the Bible, all of it from beginning to end, is not telling us anything about somebody called God who exists somewhere out there. It is not telling us what this God thinks and wants and does. It is telling us only about the people who wrote the Bible, telling us what they believed about God, what they believed God thinks and says and does. And what they wrote was conditioned by the background, beliefs and customs of the time two thousand or more years ago, which is not where we live today.
Of course they then, just like us today, were looking for the meaning and purpose of life. And it may well be that they had some wisdom and insight into the deep mystery of life, something that we can learn from and benefit by, and that’s why we read the Bible in church. But we will have to be the judge of how relevant and helpful anything we read might be. There’s a hymn which we’ll sing where we are asking for a ‘discerning mind’ along with a thankful heart. With a discerning mind, with good clear thinking, we will see the wheat from the chaff, we will see the truth from that which is less than true.
Some of what was written a long time ago may have been true for the writers at the time, but a lot of it is no longer true for us today. Jack Spong says that the Bible needs to be ‘liberated from itself,’ separating the wheat from the chaff, so that the Spirit can flow and churchianity can be changed into the kind of Christianity that we need and that Jack Spong and others are looking for. With a discerning mind, a thankful heart and spiritual insight, we will begin to see and understand that the word of God is not a ‘written word’ at all. It’s a ‘living word’ because God is a living God, the Giver and Sustainer of life. The word of God is the Word of Life and it’s in every person, and we should listen to it in the depth of our hearts. Listen to the music in your soul and maybe even dance a few steps to the tune of it.
Some of what Paul wrote we would think of today as chaff, as being less than true, what he said about church discipline, women and future events. But some of it is absolutely glowing with the light of truth and full of spiritual insight. For example, he told the Christians in Corinth that the word of God in not written with ink on paper, it’s written by the Spirit on the human heart (2 Corinthians 3:3), it’s a living word. It’s there written on our hearts, we must learn to read it. And this is where the wind of change of any New Reformation must begin to blow. We must all look deeper into ourselves and read what the Spirit of God has written there. The message is the same for everybody. God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.
Sermon 7th May
Acts 2: 42-end; John 10: 1-10
‘Chanson de Matin’ [having just been played on the piano] is a piece by Elgar published 1899 after the companion ‘Chanson de Nuit’. The two were performed together for the first time on 14th September 1901 at Queens Hall Prom, conducted by Henry Wood. It is meant to depict a balmy, just after night, sun rising, fair morning – and a bright time in Elgar’s quite serious and dark catholic religious life. He was house hunting, his star was rising, a dawn had come to point him in a new direction. There is a story I thought you might like.
His friend George Robertson Sinclair, famous organist of Hereford Cathedral, a very interesting man himself (Irish connections). He is depicted affectionately , he and his bulldog, Dan, in the 11th Enigma variation, where the dog fell into the Wye, and started paddling desperately to find an exit point. Like his master – who was a busy, hurrying about man, though a brilliant organist.
Anyway, he and Elgar were going through a new piece, and at the end Elgar asked him what did he think: Sinclair says, “I think I lost you in the fast section, got a few notes wrong”. Elgar says, “Never mind the notes, think of the rhythm”. It reminds me of the Morecombe and Wise classic; “all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order”, a kind of metaphor for this morning’s theme: Reconciling the irreconcilable
John 10: 1-10
Maybe even the disciples did not understand then what Jesus meant. There are always and many voices, many promises and visions appealing to that basic instinct of self-interest, none more-so than at election time. In the ‘post-truth, twittering, sound-bite society, how do you really know what is genuine? By experience, relationship, engagement, question and answer- by discernment? The passage ends, connecting with the memory of Moses – God says I AM – and I Am offers the best of all – life in all its fulfilment.
Acts 2: 42-47
A picture of early Christian life – a model of unity. Very likely idealised, as by then Paul is dealing with groups, who follow different voices, proclaiming theirs the true way. We know this from our own ongoing experience of each part of the church, in varying degrees claiming to be the true church.
Intro: Reconciling the Irreconcilable Last week I talked about the overarching vision that was driving Jesus, known as ‘the kingdom of God’, heaven in Matthew, the Way (of the Cross), new society, world, The point is that Jesus was driven by a vision that required both personal and political transformation. The personal does include the word I was searching for last week, ‘born again’, which I trust was dealt with in respect, as one way.
To be political, is to be interested and concerned, and active in the human world and the way it is ordered – because we need somehow, to live together. Inevitably Jesus had to address the ‘what is’ of his time. I know that people don’t always warm to the idea that Jesus was political. I don’t mean at all that you can attach Jesus to a political party, i.e. that he would fit into any of our political parties.
Essentially, the Vision, is a way of living together in a journey that goes on and on; not a place to get to, i.e. ‘heaven’; or, a target to reach, e.g. why can’t other nations be like us? Help
I have sought (not myself alone!) to take this Vision out of the possession of religion; I want people of faith engaged – but the message is essentially to all humanity. And, it seems difficult for most religions, as it means other religions, other than mine, or yours are on that journey too – and also, those who don’t go by way of religion. In truth, it is not a religious vision at all – it is a long-held human, deep desire for justice and peace, to live as one, diverse people. It is the spiritual dream of humanity.
1 Reformation 500 years ago: We shall recall, maybe not celebrate sometime this year. Diarimaid MacCulloch – professor of Church History at Oxford, also known through his TV series on the European Reformation. He doesn’t spare us the Christians’ barbarity in it all that included the 30 years’ war and over two centuries. The Elizabethan settlement in 1662 with the BCP and the 1611 common Bible left the church, as he writes: ‘ the cathedral ethos and the reformed Protestant direction left the C of E theology a lasting question: catholic OR protestant. This question has never been resolved. Neither did it address the dissenting churches that could not accept the 1662 settlement. They remained in dissent, or non-conformity, later known as the ‘Free Churches’. Five centuries on, how to live non-violently with difference remains our very real question?
2 “Now is the time to come together” said Theresa May at the dispatch box on 29th March. It is a worthy objective. I am sure that she means it and really wants to help make it happen. And who could really object to such a call. But how? I have never known Britain so divided, nor indeed a world so conflicted.
In Church Stretton we are fairly civil to one another, I think, but I have been told that this is far from what it is like in Westminster and in many constituencies up and down the country. You would think that the good old C of E with its historic commitment to the via media – the middle way, could influence the country. Somehow a church that has held together for almost 500 years may have something to offer to a divided world.
Philip North, nominated as bishop of Sheffield, who doesn’t ordain women. I am sure a very nice man and good at his job. These things happen in all our churches over the liberation of women and gay people. In the C of E to get the legislation through for women to be bishops a compromise was reached ‘allowing women to be bishops’, but maintaining the right of bishops to refuse and then conserving that injunction for how long -forever? It came with the preamble “so that there is a mutual flourishing of both sides of the argument”. After a huge protest he has graciously stood down. I should think the promise of the ‘mutual flourishing’ was premature, at the least.
The reconciling of the irreconcilable is often difficult, and much more painful than the compromises allow. This vision, this way that liberates the spirit that Jesus calls us to follow is never a straight, upward line.
3 Who would have thought? Who would have thought that Martin Mc Guinness and Ian Paisley would be the leaders of peace and reconciliation? One, by way of his family experience, killing of his father, the discrimination against Catholics, he had become an active member of a terrorist group, responsible for a number of murders. The other, an independent minister of an extreme Protestant sect, who incited others to do the most terrible things. Sometimes, bad men do good things. This is the extraordinary leap that Jesus made.
One of the gifts of the catholic tradition is one of liturgical drama which Richard Coles described beautifully and I have fond memories of. “Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, we meet outside the church where new fire is burning. From it, we light the great Easter candle, which is carried into the church, bare and empty and dark, symbolising death and burial. We sing: ‘The Light of Christ’ and respond: ‘thanks be to God’”.
What happens then is one by one we light our own candles, anticipating the dawn breaking outside, like being at the edge of night in an undiscovered country where divisions are not glossed over, or dodged, or reconciled, but left behind.
Sermon 30th April
Acts 2: 14a and 36-41 Luke 24: 13-35
1 The Jews and story-telling: I have sat with Jews both in synagogue and in their home when they were attending a service or celebrating a festival and have come to a conclusion that we Christians have treated the Old Testament as if it were quite irrelevant, now that we have the whole truth in the New. I try as often as possible to choose a reading from the Old on a Sunday, as well. Not today, because the readings are really as if they were from the Old. They are written in the style of Jewish religious writing. You know Lionel Blue, how he would, with his dry humour tell a story. He was typical of a liberal Jewish rabbi. I suspect that the unedited Jesus would have sounded somewhat like him. Jewish stories and humour, as in some other cultures, like Irish, come out of a history of marginalisation and oppression.
My second conclusion is that we shall never fully understand whom Jesus is until we see him as a Jew in 1st century Palestine, an occupied state by the most powerful and cruel super-power of the day. The only safe way to convey unpalatable truths in those situations is through story, metaphor and humour.
Jesus spoke in parables, often hilariously funny, to peasants, (ordinary people) who bore the burden of this occupation more than any other. No-one believed then that there really was an actual woman who went to extraordinary lengths to recover her treasure. They might think of someone in their street, but they knew what he was saying was about the way (in modern terms) the ‘elites’ had taken away almost everything they had, even hope. To recover that treasure, we must dig deep within ourselves and with each other to find it. The story told today might have something to do with a piano. (Recently a hoard of gold coins was actually found in an old piano)
Jesus’s theme was about the Kingdom of God – different from any other kingdom they knew; about how his vision had been developing through the age of the prophets. He had made this accessible again and in a new way, to people in his generation in a particularly hard time. He taught how it can liberate the mind and lift the spirit and can set people free to be whom God creates them to be. Such stories spoke of deeper realities that can be found now, and one day there will be justice and peace for them. In the meantime, they can find strength and resource within themselves and together.
2 Personal Transformation: I think that in my own story I have not given enough attention to the power that personal salvation, or being born again, can have in people’s lives. Whilst this is not the route by which everyone chooses or is chosen, for the following of the way. It is for some a powerful force for personal change, a turning around of lives. Within the meaning of Easter there clearly is a personal transformation.
The frightened, scattered disciples had to go through the business of recalling all the experience they had had with Jesus and re-assess what it meant for them then. Their whole way of life and attitudes were radically altered. It is not a magical process and it must have been a gut-wrenching experience. That they made it through and came out the other end is why we are here today. It is a process we may all in some way encounter at different stages or events in our lives. It comes to us, not necessarily as a religious experience, but as a human cross-roads and life is utterly changed. These times are both human and spiritual and everyone has their own route through. Coming through can be the Easter transforming experience as we find within, both the resources and spiritual liberation. Think of Slavery on the plantations – of the stories and songs inspired by the experience of Jesus.
Personal salvation, transformation, resurrection is the main focus for the evangelical Christians. We need not fall out over this. If we are to be his followers then we have to return to the way of the Cross, the journey by whatever route that is meaningful to each person. But there is more – the journey has begun, not ended.
3 And Political Transformation: To assume that the churches having brought people to that point, the job is done, is a dangerous distortion of the truth of the Kingdom of God. When this is the only meaning of Easter then I have to protest and draw attention to the vision as Jesus taught us. Jesus’ passion, often referred to as suffering, but its other meaning is passion to pursue his vision until it is fully realised; an ongoing journey of human life on this planet. Christianity is not only about personal salvation; nor is it only about political reformation or transformation. It is also about political transformation – personal and political go together. They are inseparable. Jesus is Lord of the personal and the political. It was his confrontation where he is identified as Lord at the same time as Caesar was laying claim to be both God and Lord of all. For that he died, was crucified by the Empire, aided by its collaborators, not by the Jews.
In France there is a decision being made that has far reaching implications for Europe and the UK. There are two very different visions being judged. One carries a probability to change our nearest neighbour into a nationalist enemy of closed borders; the other carries the possibility of moving towards a different more open, inclusive France. In today’s world it might appear to many that we are losing the ground that some of our greatest visionaries could see…in South Africa, Europe, Ireland. Those who follow on, do not have that vision nor the leadership skills to move it on.
Some Christians will say this has nothing to do with religion, but then they may not have thought about what Jesus was really saying and doing. Desmond Tutu would ask: “what kind of Bible are they reading?” There is nothing magical about bringing in the kingdom- it is through the structures of this world, not some supernatural world, through good men and women, sometimes bad women and men, but mostly by the best we can make happen. But, never by good men or women doing nothing. God is to do with the whole of life or God remains in a private, safe space in life and increasingly remote.
Easter Day Sermon, 16th April 2017
Re-thinking the Resurrection – how do we do that?
Perhaps we should begin by looking at the Creeds because they tell us what we’re supposed to believe! The Creeds were written so that the Church could be organised and exercise control over its members – which may be a good thing or maybe not!
In our Reformed Tradition we are not strong believers in the Creeds, because we value our FREEDOM. We want to listen to what the Spirit is saying TODAY, in the world that we live in and not just ‘conform’ to what they said nearly 2000 years ago when the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed were written. Those Creeds are still there ‘in the background’. But they do come to the foreground whenever new ministers are ordained or inducted into one or more of our churches. Both of those Creeds are there at the back of our hymnbook along with a Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church, which you can read at any time. But, to my mind, the Creeds are best ‘left in the background’. I don’t want them hovering over us, watching our every move, so that we could be accused of HERESY if we step out of line. We must never forget that Jesus himself stepped out of line: he was condemned and executed as a heretic. So if it ever happens to any of us, we shall be in good company!
If we accept the Apostle’s Creed, we have to say … I believe in the resurrection of the body … which would make me a heretic straightaway, because I don’t believe in the resurrection of the body! What is it about the Church and the Human Body? They have never been what we might call ‘happy bedfellows’. The story goes back a long way to the Garden of Eden. The Creation Story tells us that sin came into the world through Adam and Eve getting to know each other in a very personal way, and contaminating everybody who came afterwards with something called ‘Original Sin’, from which we need to be cleansed.
A Saviour was needed. But we are told that Original Sin and Sexuality are inseparable, so any Saviour couldn’t be involved in anything sexual. So, a virgin birth was arranged for the Saviour to arrive free from sin. But they forget that Mary herself had been born into sin like the rest of us. Something had to be done about that. But it wasn’t until 1854 that the Pope proclaimed as infallible teaching, the Immaculate Conception of Mary in order to keep the Saviour pure and God-like. And in the process to make anybody with a bit of common sense realise that the Church was just playing games, theological games, for its own benefit!
If we are to love God with all our minds, we have to be critical of some of the things the Church has said and done. And that applies to the Gospels as well as the Book of Genesis. We have the story of Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection, where we are told that the dead body of Jesus came back to life. The stories are there in the four Gospels, but what can we make of them? The Church and the Creeds are telling us that the resurrection stories have to be believed as being literally true, that it all happened just as it says ‘in the Book’.
But if you have a dead body coming back to life, eating breakfast on the shore of Lake Galilee, and having another meal in the village of Emmaus, the story tellers, the Gospel writers, have a problem on their hands, (apart from what somebody once pointed out that there would have to be toilets in heaven, which God forbid!) The more pressing problem was what to do with the physical body of Jesus come back to life. If he was the Saviour of the world, ‘sent’ by God, well, he would have to go back to God whence he came. But where is God? According to the beliefs of that time, God was up there in the sky! And so both the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds tell us that, he ascended into Heaven. And that some of the disciples saw it happen, Jesus disappearing into the clouds. But the world hadn’t been saved! It was just the same as before. So the Messiah would have to come back to finish the job. And once again the Creeds tell us that, he will come again in the same way that he went. (Revelation 1:7) And there are people today (some of them here in Church Stretton) who are keeping watch all the time expecting Jesus to return any day riding on the clouds (perhaps it will be a Silver Cloud!)
But for most of us today this whole Biblical scenario, this way of understanding the Resurrection, is just incredible! We don’t live in that kind of world anymore. We need to be Re-thinking the Resurrection: we need an alternative to the old Creeds and doctrines of the Church. What might such an alternative be? I go back to the life and teaching of Jesus. He told lots of parables about the Kingdom of God which really means the Presence of God in the world and in people’s hearts and minds. There’s a verse in Matthew’s Gospel (13:34) which tells us that Jesus said nothing to the people without a parable. That to me is a very significant statement. All Jesus teaching was in parables, which is no surprise, because that’s how it has to be when anybody is talking about the great mystery of God. We have to use parables, symbols, and analogies. It’s all we have, it’s the only way, signposts pointing to an ‘ideal’ which can inspire and motivate us. It’s the ideal of living in love, in peaceful harmony, in fulfilment of all that’s best in human nature. It’s the ideal of living ‘at one’ with God. It’s an ideal that can never be fully attained in this life. All we can do is follow the signposts and keep moving towards it, following the way, the truth and the life of Jesus.
Resurrection should not be about saying you believe in a dead body coming back to life and floating off up to heaven. It’s about you and me waking up and coming alive spiritually, now, today, in the world we live in. The resurrection stories can then be understood not as literal, historical events, but symbolically as parables, pointing to the coming alive in us of the Spirit that was in Jesus and in every child of God. The secret is this, Christ in you, the hope of a glory yet to come. (Colossians 1:27). That kind of Resurrection I can believe in because it’s not about ‘believing’ at all. It’s about something happening as we wake up and realise the truth of our Oneness with God.
Sermon 12th March 2017
Genesis 12: 1-4a; John 3: 1-15
1 Do you know Jesus? “Do you know Jesus?” the man asked as he held his tract which read: ‘I am the way the truth and the life’. I knew there was little point in answering other than to mumble something like “thank you” and walk on. Likely, in his world view I was one of the many whom, in that hymn: ‘when Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by’. The mention of the name Jesus in that context is an embarrassment and a frustration.
Like the time when I was visiting a tool-makers shop where one man whose machine was at the entrance and exit was festooned with texts about Jesus. This was a burden to me, because as chaplain, when I spoke with others in the workshop I was immediately told: “you don’t want to talk with us, you need to talk with him over there, he’s one of your lot”. I could do nothing there. He was divisive and a God-botherer in the workplace. It should have been dealt with by the manager, at least on health and safety grounds. In this instance I did play the Judas and was able to quietly persuade his line-manager – and the texts came down and the god-bothering ceased. Here was a loner, an unhappy man with an obsession to win souls for Jesus, when what he needed was to be liked. Outside of there, we were able to have a sensible conversation about what I was trying to do there. It is seldom that there can be a creative outcome.
My answer would still be I am discovering who Jesus was and is. I cannot love a god/man figure of 2000 years ago, who is almost airbrushed out by layers of tradition, dogma, outcomes of religious and political power. But, what can still be seen is a man who is not in any of that. I can love that man. As we only have one word in English for love – there I find a spirit that I would want to emulate and a pathway I can try to follow.
2 An educated man: We know nothing much about him, his origins or growing up. There is good reason through some reliable text about his knowledge of scriptures, that he was educated and had travelled enough to have met and engaged with many of the dissident groups as well as other rabbis and teachers of the day. He was acknowledged as a Rabbi- teacher himself; as son of man which is to say, a holy man, prophet, mystical, wise, humorous, charismatic, inspirational.
Miracle stories – are really ‘kingdom’ stories’ as they are about transcending what is, and proclaiming that God’s future is open. His preference is for life and that it should be flourishing. He would have needed to be fluent in more than Aramaic.
He was also learning as we can see in his dealings with women, unusual for his time.
3 Do you love Jesus as your saviour? This reminds me of the Monty Python, ‘Life of Brian’, the scene where Brian is faced with a crowd calling him their saviour. Brian cries: “It’s not me, you’ve got it wrong. Go away”. In Jewish literature there was no difficulty with putting words into the mouth of Jesus. This had happened in the OT when words were put into the mouth of God. Prophets spoke out: the “Lord says” is really a shorter way of saying: in the light of the Covenant and first five books of the OT, i.e. the Law (more than rules) in the spirit of our relationship with God…you have done wrong…..and this is what you now must do….
Jesus himself would say: don’t tell people about me – could that have been that he did not want things said that just was not there; fake news in today’s language? You can have your opinion of me – but don’t put words into my mouth, which is what later Christians did. Sometimes they caught the spirit of what Jesus was meaning here; but sometimes there it was making Jesus fit into their image. It still happens. I could be understood to be doing it now.
Jesus uses parables, sometimes painting laughable scenes, larger than life (comedians use this to effect). It is called parabolic preaching – it enlarges, expands the story to quite ludicrous proportions; like the story of the man who just went on building bigger barns. It draws people in to see how stupid it all is, and to arouse in them a different way of thinking. We can read the gospels in the same way when they take us into a supernatural world of gods descending and ascending and interfering in the natural world. A parable that wants to lead us to stay with the real world, the only world we have, to quote Donald recently and see enough mystery and transcendence in this world than to be bothered with a supernatural one,
I know a little about psychology and sociology to know that our sins, the dark side, is dealt with not by someone taking them away, but by us understanding more about who we are and consequences of our actions. We have to do it ourselves, and we may need help. As a priest in the Anglican tradition, I never knowingly forgave anyone their sins on behalf of God or anyone else. I hope I was able to prompt some to do something about those things that troubled them; and as for the sins of the world; humanity as a whole has contributed to those ills and as people, we may be able to do something about it.
4 The church itself by being the container of all things necessary for our salvation has become part of another world, divorced from a way of life that no longer needs that kind of religion, which more and more has become a private sphere of interests, leisure activity. Meanwhile, people in a public world find their own solutions and our connection to them is broken.
Here is a parable of our time: It is claimed that the north of England, more than any other region of any country had invented the modern world. This region gave us, among other things, steel, canals, railways, light bulbs, nuclear power, the Pill, football, pop music, IVF, the jet engine and the computer.
But, while the North exemplifies the values of intelligence, individuality and ingenuity, it also exemplifies the talent we have for leaving it to others to turn these things into the prosperity that might have helped all to flourish.
Globalisation began to change the world at the same time as those great industries were being swept away. The deregulation of the city elevated London to a pre-eminent centre of global finance, and the balance of the British economy tipped dramatically towards the south. And we made our pact with mammon – the making of money alone.
New things are happening in Manchester, new materials being created and the big questions concerning food supply, ageing and the development of more human cities are being collaboratively researched. The future can be open.
Jesus, as I see him, was murdered because he wanted to connect things together – to connect people; to break the barriers of division, to open our minds to a new future. His spirit has been caught by so many down the ages and around the world.
Those who do are the light of this world and his spirit is alive and well in them. Transcendence is happening all around us, within and without religion. You and I can choose to recognise it, discern it, yes in what is centre of all, l assist even in the search for that pearl of great value, what it means to be really human. For there is the centre of all our searching – there is where we church in humility and questioning, can make connections with the modern world – that is where the spirit of Jesus is.
2nd before Lent 2017
We are grateful to Bishop Michael Bourke for allowing us to put this sermon on the website.
Genesis 1.1-2.3 Romans 8.18-25 Matthew 6.25-end
Humans in the cosmos
During the English Civil War and Commonwealth in the mid-17th century the Frenchman Blaise Pascal was formulating his famous “Pensées”, his “Thoughts”. He was excited by the picture of the world that was emerging from astronomical discoveries and the philosophy of Décartes. But he also underwent a profound religious conversion. The two came together in his meditations. The new sciences were revealing a much larger and more mysterious universe than we had imagined. Human beings are nothing but a tiny speck, an atom “in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing, and which know nothing of me…Why do I live here rather than somewhere else, why now instead of some other time?…What is man in nature, adrift between the immeasurably large and the microscopically small? We are as nothing in the perspective of infinity, yet everything compared with nothingness…The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” At the same time his religious experiences were teaching him to put his faith in God, and to find in God his anchor, his centre and his Redeemer in the turbulent upheavals of his time.
The first chapter of Genesis speaks to us in a similar way. Scholars believe that it was composed during or after the Jewish Exile in Babylon the 6th century BC. In it we hear the voices both of the latest scientific wisdom of Babylon, and of the exiles in their precarious situation. What is tiny, defeated Israel in a world of super-powers, and the chaotic waters of the Great Deep? The chapter places human affairs in the vast context of nature – light and darkness; sun, moon and stars; earth, sea and sky. By the time human beings appear in the narrative, the world is already full of what the hymn calls “wonders untold”. The earth is teeming with life: sea monsters, birds, wild animals and creeping things. What are we in such a strange universe? Psalm 8 takes up the question: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers…what is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
Good and ordered
Yet the world, says our chapter, is fundamentally good. “God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good.” Part of its goodness is that it is ordered. Life emerges in hierarchically arranged stages: first plants, then fish and birds, then land animals and finally humans. It’s not exactly evolution, but it’s pretty good for the early Iron Age. Despite all of life’s uncertainties and tragedies, human beings find themselves to be living in an ordered world.
The order is also expressed through a series of separations: God separated the light from its opposite, darkness…the waters above the sky from those below…the sea from the land…and the seventh day from all the other days. The Jews also knew the separation between life and death, clean and unclean, and most basic of all, between good and evil. We don’t invent these structures: they are there, they are given to us. We bump into them, and they can create problems for us, but they belong to the providential ordering of the world for our good.
Ordered in time
A further aspect of the world’s ordering is time. “In the beginning…” says Genesis. The beginning of what? The beginning of a story. Creation unfolds day by day, with a mounting sense of excitement as the contours of the world we know gradually take shape. And if this is the beginning, how does the story go on? What stage of this drama are we at now, what will happen next, and where will it end? The week of creation is ordered, with the Sabbath, the day of rest, at the end of it. That, of course, is not the real end, because another week will start on the following morning. But it’s a regular reminder that there will be an end. It interrupts our unceasing restlessness and invites us to take stock, and make ready for the Last Day, the destiny, the destination, to which we are called by our Creator who is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.
This sense that creation is ordered in time, like a story unfolding chapter by chapter, is intensified in our second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “The longing of the creation eagerly expects the revelation of the children of God”. Earlier in his letter Paul has described a world gone wrong. By ignoring our limitations, those separations between light and darkness, good and evil, when it suits us, we become separated from God, the natural world, our deepest selves and one another.
Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust.
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple fall to dust.
Like ancient Israel, we all have to discover just how fragile the peace and order of the world are, and learn humility the hard way. Yet Paul says that, even though God has subjected us to futility and frustration, he has done so “in hope”. The faith of Abraham and Moses, and the faith of the exiles in Babylon, is that human folly does not have the last word. God can bring good out of evil. Israel’s history is a drama of promise and fulfilment, and the setbacks make the longing for redemption even more urgent: “The whole creation is groaning in travail and in hope that it will be liberated from the slavery of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
The teaching of Christ
This process of redemption has been set in motion by the coming of Christ. We begin to learn humility through what he has taught us. The gentle humour of his words in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount relate directly to our theme. He is addressing a farming community that sows and reaps and gathers the harvest into barns. The agricultural revolution, chronicled in the Old Testament in the transition from the nomadic existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the settlement of their offspring in the Promised Land, was fuelled by the desire for greater security and prosperity. It was a legitimate expression of the dominion over nature given to human beings in Creation. And it worked. But it also generated new insecurities and frustrations about the weather, pests and diseases, envious neighbours and enemies – just as today’s computers perform new wonders but give us new headaches. Our dominion over nature can so easily become a new form of slavery. Never satisfied, we always want more. Jesus teases us about the underlying anxiety which haunts our economic life: “Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” Don’t you see that fashions change so rapidly in order to perpetuate your anxiety about what you wear, even though there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve got?
The remedy, says Jesus, is to learn from the natural world and its creatures. They are not just there for us to exploit. We can learn a thing or two from birds and lilies. “Consider” them, contemplate them – the Greek means, “learn carefully from them”. People like David Attenborough help us to look at nature in this way. Birds, animals and fish don’t have it easy. They know the frustrations of cold and hunger. They haven’t managed to organise the world so that they always win. They survive by a kind of trustful dependence, and we need something of that to counteract our restless dissatisfaction. And the lilies reveal a beauty which rekindles our longing for the beauty of God. Creation heals our wounded spirits when we learn to see it in a new way. It was not only the Frenchman Pascal who saw creation in a new way in the emerging sciences of the 17th century. His German contemporary, the poet Paul Gerhard, based a famous evening hymn on the contemplation of the night sky. Listen to a verse in Robert Bridges’ brilliant translation:
Now all the heavenly splendour
Breaks forth in starlight tender
From myriad worlds unknown.
And man, the marvel seeing,
Forgets his selfish being
For joy of beauty not his own.
The humility of Christ
We learn humility not only from Christ’s teaching, but also from his person, his life and his death. “Born in our human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient to the death of the cross”. He crossed the great divide between the Creator and his creatures, and united himself with us in all our brokenness. By entering into darkness and taking on evil, he overcame the separation, and promises to bring us with the whole groaning creation to a new birth. The resurrection of Christ is the goal, the climax towards which creation is moving; and you and I are invited, called to journey with him, and to make the overcoming of separation between one another, and between ourselves and the natural world, our aim too.. So the story of creation, which began with separation, ends in the vision of reconciliation just a few verses later in Romans chapter 8: “What can separate us from the love of Christ. I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
Sermon 15th January
Mark 1: 14-20; Isaiah 49: 1-7
Introducing the Readings: We learn in the Mark gospel reading about the recruiting of a team, and an example of the young church forming its beliefs of who Jesus is. That eventually leads to a doctrinal led church acting as a powerful institution in the world. And in the second reading, under the name of 2nd Isaiah, the anonymous writer is dealing with how the nation handles the return of its exiles, and seeks to find a new way of being the people of God, which later gets side-tracked in expectation of a powerful Messiah/Saviour figure.
God’s cunning plan: The Christian church has relied in its liturgical life on the idea of a plan laid down by God, since the concept of the Fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. This plan is traced through Jewish religious life and culture leading to Christ, the new Adam or Messiah. A story that forms the structure of beloved services such as the ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ and of course in the Handel’s Messiah, all part of the attraction of our English culture especially at the Christmas season.
It is entirely a Jewish idea and is adopted by the first Jewish Christians declaring Jesus as Messiah and that he would come again to end the world in their lifetime. Messianic Jews and many Christians still wait for this to happen.
1 The hiddenness of Jesus: We know so little about Jesus, as his person has been overlaid in the gospels by ideas developed after his death. Ideas and claims that are often in contradiction with what we can reasonably discover as his genuine teaching. Though somehow, his light shines through in the human stories and wisdom as he is found among people. Sometimes the editors with original material give us insights of his impact. I think one of those moments is in the story of the Wise men – a story, yes, but illustrative of the openness of the man and his message to other cultures, religions and races, not bound to a Jewish context alone. It is a story that is much less to do with a baby and more to do with this season of Epiphany, in which the church present Jesus reaching out to the world. The writers recognise in this, a point of change in the story of Judaism, a moving away from orthodoxy. A move away of Jewish Christians from synagogue worship and connection really happened around 88CE and Matthew was published at that time. However, the visiting strangers go home by a different route; seeing through the emptiness of the despot Herod, and the Jewish religious ritualism that enslaves. Nor are they content with the sherbet terraces of home as TS Eliot reflects in Journey of the Magi:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
That is what Jesus does. He challenges, coaxes, leads us to keep open to other options and possibilities in our lives and how they might be lived. And to what religion can be about: often on the edge; uncomfortable with what is; refusing to accept that there are limitations, places and ideas we cannot explore. He seeks to refrain from jumping to conclusions and judgements, establishes no power structure, to the contrary the mission is to primarily be one of service.
The tradition of Jesus at the carpenter’s bench in a small country town, for some 25 years and then going public is less credible to me now. Questions immediately arise of how he engaged with the educated; how he knew the scriptures like a rabbi; how he understood everyman and the context of the political and religious currents of the time; how he inspired and maintained a team of working people for the cause, which must have had some real content as well as passion in it. Because God is God and he is God and knows all – will not do.
Here he is selecting his team. The gospels as usual give us a variety of views on this. John, the latest to be published is really far removed from the life and times of Jesus. John is at pains to demonstrate, that order and authority is a mark of the followers of Jesus. Therefore, he from the start the church identifies Peter as a leader and this eventually arrives at the Primacy of Rome and ultimately the centre of religious power on earth for centuries.
There is always within religion and Christianity in particular, the ongoing debate about whether the church is for sinners – failed saints or those who are victorious and have already arrived: Adam the old man has failed, replaced now by the one who has victory over sin.
In the ‘religious’ world we sometimes have to remind ourselves that our thinking and activity goes on in a world where people are engaged in primary things such as making a living and bringing up a family. To many then and even moreso now our esoteric talk and ways are not among the priorities of life. How can the church lighten the load, inspire the spirit or simply understand what their lives are about, is our challenge now? These are both moral and spiritual questions to handle.
2 Open or Closed: Whether we would see Jesus at ease with a liberal, socialist or conservative current of thought is completely the wrong question. The only thing we can say is that he remains open to human capacity to grow the good society. The supporting pillars of the liberally open mind are tolerance and the belief that people should be free to choose their idea of the good life. And more, there is recognition that freedom and tolerance must be extended to those who pursue socially conservative or idealist views.
We have become accustomed in recent decades of a dominance of a liberalising tendency in social affairs and that includes a relaxing of financial restrictions, e.g. increase of credit. Long gone are the days of waiting till you had the money ready to buy; some would say too much so. This is part of the globalisation or new capitalism under which many have gained. Globalisation which is the freeing up of the movement of money, money markets and labour across the world and has contributed to prosperity in many countries. It is recognised that largely due to ‘globalisation’ until the 2008 crash half the world’s population in dire poverty had been lifted up. This had been a good thing. I say had been! Because, although many prospered; many got left behind. Not only that, the inequality gap has risen to obscene levels.
The World Economic Forum currently in Davos, Switzerland, has a membership price of £500,000 and astronomical prices for being anywhere near the venue. Those who staff it sleep 5 to a room whilst their masters are in luxury suites. These were the proportions in Jesus days and mostly in the western world throughout history since. Maybe, we liberal-minded, have seen those who took us out of Europe and elected Trump as racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded, stuck people.
If today, that liberal voice is being muted, even diminished. This may mean that progress made in myriad ways over the last half century or so, e.g. on gay and women’s rights may stall. Also, international development aid may be reduced to only aid for trade: crudely “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours “
David Marquand , historian, one of the prophets of today wrote about 25 years ago unless we could provide some shelter from the (globalising) or new capitalism blast, social democracy would collapse. Quote: “If the shelter is an illusion, (i.e. the availability of jobs is part-time low paid, people live on sink estates, children go to bad schools) then religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, xenophobic nationalism, moral authoritarianism, scapegoating of minorities, would offer a seductive escape route from insecurity, injustices and tensions that untamed capitalism can bring.”
3 Do we have to choose Religion or Life? I am very conscious that this week begins the week of prayer for Christian Unity, which I choose to admit, fills me with very little excitement and even less expectancy. I don’t know or have forgotten what we are supposed to be praying for. I don’t think that the church has really ever been One. If it has, it is really only because of pressure from powers within or without, to get a majority decision somehow. Much of its history has been a series of skirmishes and outright persecution and massacre. Nowadays, we have settled into a ritual of holding a kind of annual memorial service, recalling the early church experience of communion in community, which leaves us feeling guilt.
For the most part human unity of celebrating the world’s diversity, integrating into different cultures more successfully, learning from different experiences and enjoying what we have in common, offers a more productive opportunity than Christians genuinely meeting each other as brothers and sisters. Besides, I am not sure, if being involved religiously doesn’t simply take us away from the job of getting on with life, to which Christ calls us to live abundantly and generously.
It is coincidence that I have been reading an article by Tristram Hunt this week about the many divisions across the UK and probably much of the world. He suggests that patriotism might best be served by learning to walk in the shoes of those who do not naturally share our ‘liberal’ or other values: thus, trying to reconcile competing cultural ideals in pursuit of the broader national and global interest.
We live in a post-truth world (Alan Shires). News gathering has reached a time when defining what truth is has become such a laborious task. Is it not strange in a world of vast technological achievements in communications we cannot rely that what we have is fake or is good truth? The climate is less about listening to each other, really listening, so we might hear ‘the angels sing’ – echoes in each tradition of something that sets our souls alive. Being open, inclusive and always exploring has to be part of what all Christians and humans have to be: an entirely new creation.
To be about engaging and like the Sages returning home changed by, and charged with, the experience, and no longer at ease with the old dispensation.