Sermon 6th February
A Journey into God
If you were brought up, as some of us were, in a church-going family, you would be taken to church and sent to Sunday School as part of life along with eating meals, going to school, going to bed. It was just what everybody did. You would walk in the steps of your parents, following the family tradition whatever that was. You would be ‘seen and not heard’ until that is you began to ask questions and think for yourself. When you come to that age all sorts of things can be happening to you, what you might call ‘the explosion of puberty’ when young bodies are changing and minds are changing too. Young people are wanting to break out of the restrictions of childhood and move into the more exciting world of being ‘grown up’. At the time, as far as religion is concerned, some teenagers abandon it altogether. They stop going to church, but others become even more religious than the rest of the family. I went down that road of becoming ‘more religious’.
But whichever way you go there comes a time when you begin to ask even bigger questions, bigger than religion, questions about life itself. “Who am I? What’s it all about – being alive in this amazing universe?” This can be an even more exciting time than puberty. You are more mature and you can think more clearly. When does this second stage of questioning begin to happen? Well, it happens when it happens! It will be different for everybody and people will respond in their own way. What I can say is that I’ve been going through this time of questioning for some years now, probably for the second half of my life, and I’m eighty now. So that’s quite a while, it can be a slow business.
As far as my religion is concerned it’s been a bit like ‘peeling an onion’. Not that I’ve shed many tears over it. But I’ve been peeling off the outer layers looking for the heart and centre of what religion is all about. How many layers are there to an onion? I don’t know, but there are even more in religion, so I’m still peeling off the layers. And some of you may have noticed this in the way I lead services.
Let me spell this out for you. First of all I’ve stopped saying prayers to ‘somebody-up-there’. But I still believe in ‘prayer’ even more that I did before, but in a new and different way. Secondly, there are hundreds and thousands of hymns, a few hundred of which are in our hymnbook; but of which I choose only a handful because the theology behind so many of the hymns I have ‘peeled off’ and discarded. I can’t sing them anymore with any integrity, even if it is a good tune! Thirdly, the Bible itself has lots of theology which I no longer accept, telling us what God was supposed to have done in the past and what God will do in the future. These I have ‘peeled off’ in my search to find the heart and centre of who or what God really is.
We’ll sing now one of the few hymns that I have left! ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways’.
The religion of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, is largely based on guilt and forgiveness. We are all guilty sinners. God is offended and will punish us unless a sacrifice is made. We are told that blood has to be shed. You may wonder what kind of a God this is! In the Jewish scriptures a lamb, thousands of lambs were slaughtered in the Temple. God is satisfied and the worshipper is forgiven. In the Christian religion, Jesus himself is ‘the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’. (John 1:29, 1 Corinthians 15:3). Blood still has to be shed. If we say we believe that statement, we too are forgiven. And once again the question arises, what kind of a God is this who needs blood sacrifice to be forgiving? Not, I think, the God that Jesus believed in. The God of Jesus is more like the father of the prodigal son who freely forgives whoever wants to be forgiven. If you want to be forgiven that is enough to open the floodgates of Divine Mercy. Jesus didn’t have to persuade God to be forgiving by sacrificing himself. If we really want forgiveness for our ‘foolish ways’, it is freely available, but we must change our ‘foolish ways’ and find a different way of living, more in tune with the teaching of Jesus.
I can sing our next hymns too. They are ‘Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me’ and ‘Spirit of the living God move among us all’.
Spirit of the living God: we need a lot of help in understanding the word God. There are hundreds, thousands of books, whole libraries have been written to tell us more about that simple three-letter word G O D. I’ve read some of those books and I usually end up being even more confused! But the first line of those hymns we have just sung I find very helpful, ‘Spirit’ of the ‘living’ God. The word GOD itself will always be a mystery, But there is a way for us into that mystery. God is a ‘living God’, and I am a ‘living person’, and so are you. The more you understand about yourself and your ‘being alive’, the closer we will be to God. The very life of the ‘living God’ is somehow, mysteriously, within each one of us. Indeed the whole of creation is alive with the life of God. On different levels of evolution all of it is sustained by the Spirit of the living God.
What is it that really keeps us alive? Is it just a case of the heart pumping blood up to the brain and round the body? No! It is that, but it’s more than that, and the word Spirit tells us what that ‘more’ is, Spirit of the living God. It is the Spirit that keeps us alive more than anything else. It doesn’t mean that God has a spirit, it means that God is Spirit. God is the Spirit of Life, real Life, eternal Life. The word ‘spirit’ has many meanings but essentially it means Life, Energy and Movement. Wind and Fire are Biblical symbols for it. The whole of the universe is filled with Life, Energy and Movement and we are part of it. And we should know it, and feel it, and believe it, and enter into it as fully as we can. The ‘Spirit of the Living God’ can activate our spirit and we can ‘come alive in a new way’ even while our physical bodies are, let’s say, in decline!
We can now hear a reading from the Scriptures. 1 John 4: 7f, 12f, 16b.
The message of that reading is very simple, God is Love. We should try not to think of God as ‘somebody somewhere’ because if we do, (and sadly it’s what religion does do!), we have to give God a body. God is then Somebody, and it’s usually a man’s body, and we talk of God as King, Lord, Father: and he lives up in the sky in a place called heaven. That’s the religious model which we have grown up with, but it no longer “cuts the mustard”. It is an obsolete model and we are in desperate need of a new way of thinking about the word GOD.
And there is an alternative which is not hard to find. And we’ve just heard about it in the reading, where we are encouraged to think of GOD as LOVE. The Spirit of the Living God is the Spirit of Love. We could say, it is love that keeps GOD alive and the Spirit of Love will keep us alive with the life of God. The sole purpose of our Communion Service is to remind us of that truth. And for those of us who want to call ourselves Christians, the life and teaching of Jesus points the way for us to go.
Sermon 28th January
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Exodus 13. 1-16 Luke 2. 22-40
Biblical and liturgical context
I hope you will allow me, as a visiting Anglican, to set today’s Bible readings in their context in the traditional Church Year. The meeting of the aged Simeon with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus is observed in the Anglican liturgical Calendar as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas. It falls on February 2nd, but in the latest revision of the Calendar it can also be kept on the previous Sunday – which is today – and it marks the end of the Christmas season. From now on we move towards the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday – this year on 14th February.
The idea that a new mother needed to be “purified” after giving birth comes from the Old Testament notion that the loss of life-giving blood makes a person “unclean”. The law of purification referred to by Luke is contained in chapter 12 of the book Leviticus, which states that the mother is forbidden “to touch any holy thing or come into the sanctuary” for 40 days, and on that day she must sacrifice a lamb – or, if she is too poor, a pair of doves or pigeons. February 2nd is 40 days after Christmas: the first of three significant 40-day periods in the Church Calendar and in Luke’s writings. The second is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – commemorated in the 40 days of Lent – and the third is the interval between Easter and the Ascension, when Luke says that Jesus “presented himself alive to his disciples by many reliable proofs, was seen by them over 40 days, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God”.
Let’s try to get our minds round these ancient patterns of thought. In the Bible 40 is a sacred number, recalling Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land. So this threefold 40-day rhythm at the beginning, middle and end of Jesus’ life portrays him as the Messiah who re-lives Israel’s history and fulfils its promises.
The opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel have this symbolic understanding at their heart. Mary and Joseph come from Nazareth, and Jesus is born in a stable in Bethlehem. But the rest of the story takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem: the vision of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father; the Presentation of the infant in today’s reading; and Jesus’ visit to the Temple when he is 12 years old. The message is that, although Jesus was eventually rejected by the leading priests and Pharisees, theirs was not the authentic response of Israel. His coming was awaited by devout worshippers in the Temple, like Simeon and Anna. They recognised his identity as “a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel”: the One in whom the whole of humanity would fall and rise, and the secrets of the heart would be revealed.
The next piece of what to our minds seems an obscure biblical jigsaw puzzle is the law of the firstborn, which we heard in the first reading. It comes at a really crucial point in the exciting story of the Exodus. After Israel’s Egyptian taskmasters have been afflicted with terrible plagues, culminating in the death of all their firstborn children and animals, they agree to let the Israelites go. The freed slaves hastily eat the Passover Meal with unleavened bread, because there was no time to let the dough rise before they set off. And then the narrative is interrupted, before they escape across the Red Sea, by the legal requirements which were read to us. To commemorate their great deliverance they are to do two things: eat the Passover Meal, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, every year on the 15th day of the first month; and offer their firstborn to God. Their human firstborn must not be sacrificed, but redeemed by an animal offered instead.
The modern Holocaust Memorial recalls the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the original holocaust of the infant Hebrew boys. It goes on to speak of “a tyrant more wicked than Pharoah, who said to his minions, ‘Come, let us kill their men and women and little ones, that the name of Israel may no longer be remembered on the earth’”.
So as well as the law of Purification, this law of the Firstborn also lies behind the visit of Mary and Joseph to present their child to the Lord in the Temple. I must explain that the 2nd February is a significant day in our family, as our own firstborn came into the world on that day, and his middle name is Simeon – hence my fascination with the story.
The grisly practice of sacrificing the firstborn, and the idea that God, or the gods, demand such a thing, go back into the mists of prehistory. The Old Testament regards making one’s children pass through the fire to the god Moloch as one of the abominations of the Canaanites. But some interpreters believe it also lies behind the famous story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his own son Isaac, in Genesis chapter 22. Abraham seems to have imagined that this was what God wanted – indeed, the text says that God told him to do it, and he obeyed. But at the last minute God said, “No! That’s not what I really want. It was only a test.” Isaac is spared, and a ram is offered in his place. Was this the moment when a more humane conception of God dawned on Israel’s ancestors? In these narratives and laws lies the origin of children’s rights.
Two minds about children
If we shrink with horror mixed no doubt with a sense of superiority from such ancient superstitions, let us ask ourselves, to what do we sacrifice our own children? Maybe we need to be shocked by these primitive texts in order to confront our own illusions about how enlightened and civilised we are.
Wilfred Owen, Shropshire’s soldier-poet, saw the worship of the glory of Empire by his own and his parents’ generation, and their willingness to send their sons into the trenches, as worse than Abraham. Where the biblical story says that the angel cries out, “Lay not your hand upon the lad!” Owen’s poem concludes, “But the old man would not listen, but he slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
We seem to be in two minds about children. The industrialised slaughter of the First World War does indeed shock us as we look back. Where pre-war generations ignored young people and exploited them, we now recognise the special quality of childhood by child-protection laws and child-centred learning.
But these advances have not been reconciled with the driving forces of the economy. Our society may no longer send little boys up chimneys, but it still thinks nothing of brainwashing them into the gods of consumerism, rotting their teeth with sugary snacks and rotting their minds with wall-to-wall television and commercial adverts targeted at them like bullets. Most parents say they would sacrifice anything for their children. But we tend to express our devotion to them by giving them things instead of time. We put our careers first, and stuff our little ones with possessions like turkeys, especially at Christmas. So we collude with the power of money, and risk a holocaust of future generations through our addiction to materialism with all its waste and the pollution of the natural environment. You will be pleased to hear that that is the end of my rant!
Childlike and childish
Our scriptures share our inconsistency and bewilderment. Jesus set a child in the midst of his disciples, and told them, “Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. He seems to be saying that we adults need to re-learn the childlike faith and innocence which we have lost. This understanding is explored by Wordsworth in his poem ”Intimations of Immortality”. When we are born, he says:
“Trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy…
At length the Man perceives the vision die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
On this view, childhood is a time of privileged spiritual awareness. But other scriptures emphasise the immaturity of children, and the need to grow up. “When I was a child,” writes St Paul, “I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child. But when I became an adult, I put an end to the ways of childhood.” In this passage Paul is talking, like Jesus, about our relationship with God. There are aspects of that relationship which he says are not childlike but childish and we need to grow out of them. He mentions specifically prophecies, speaking in tongues and knowledge – what we would call theology. These all have a part to play, no doubt; but they are educational toys belonging to our spiritual childhood. If we over-identify ourselves with them, they become twisted – we boast about them, and feel superior to others, and they cause divisions. They are childish things to be left behind as we grow in the central and eternal reality of love.
Our culture and its educational systems oscillate between these attitudes. They have often distorted them, and sacrificed the wellbeing of children in the process. Some Victorian educators saw their mission as delivering children from natural ignorance and original sin. They deliberately sought to break the child’s spirit to make it obedient and receptive. Taken to extremes, this resulted in the following advert circulated among upper-class households: “Pauper girls make, as a rule, very good servants. Their spirits are broken by long and severe discipline before they leave the workhouse.”
This is a million miles from the teaching of Jesus about childhood, and of Paul about the central importance of love. It was not the children’s spirits that needed breaking, but those of their self-satisfied exploiters. But the opposite extreme of idolising childhood also has its problems. The innocence of children has two sides to it. It can manifest itself in heart-stopping affection and genuine goodness. Or it can lead young people to claim innocence for things like bullying, cruel words, and the amoral power-games of Lord of the Flies. This was brought home to me by a scrap of paper on the prayer board in a Black Country church. A child’s hand had written: “Thank you, God, for making the world so beautiful”. What a sweet child, I thought. Then I noticed PTO written in a corner. I turned it over and read: “I am sorry I slammed my friend in the face with a brick”. I reckon that child had grasped the essence of the Christian message. It’s all there: the whole biblical narrative, the teaching and the Gospel promise. Two sides of human nature on two sides of paper: innocent wonder at the beauty of life; and a hidden grief at the reality of evil, betrayal of a friend, sorrow for sin, and the hope of redemption. Yes, indeed: until we recover that childlike simplicity, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
Wordsworth’s poem sees the child’s spiritual intuition as a memory of our origin in God – a trusting relationship which can at any time be renewed, despite our adult loss of vision – if we stop and look and listen. Maybe our ancient biblical texts can help us as parents and grandparents as we wrestle with these mysteries:
- The insight that our children are not our property, but they and we together are the children of God.
- The ever-present danger of sacrificing our children to our own needs and ambitions, and the will of God that they should not be sacrificed.
- The central challenge of growing out of our childish obsessions into the reality of love.
- And the gift of Jesus Christ to the world as the One who embodies that way of costly love, discloses the secrets of our hearts, and puts us in touch with God and with our true selves and our deepest hopes as we follow him.
Bishop Michael Bourke
Service 21st January 2018
John 2: 1-11
CD Bach Magnificat
CALL TO THE CELEBRATION:
HYMN: 520 FOR OURSELVES NO LONGER LIVING
We can argue about statistics of the churches’ declining numbers. Evangelicals can and do argue to the contrary. Though, neither can disguise an observation at a pastoral level that a great number of people struggle between belief and unbelief. Some have readily turned their back on organised religion; others are hanging on by the fingertips and in loyalty to the community of people where they belong. Few are given a genuine opportunity to explore the faith openly. To explore the faith in the face of their churches which speak confidently and unquestionably that their church’s understanding of God – is a given. This only confirms what people already feel, that they, the hanger on, have failed.
I experienced this myself before Ordination during the 1960s, (and many times since) finding through my reading of people such as Hans Kung, Harvey Cox, John Robinson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann and others (the new thinking of the time) and they still resonate. But they were not on the officially required College reading list: but spiritually they became my friends. I felt both liberated and afraid. I must have spent hours in empty churches waiting for that still small voice to speak, to reassure me to proceed along the path I was on, towards Ordination, for I was already in grave doubt about the orthodox given. There was no answering voice, no light, just silence.
Among my fellow students there were many not troubled by such doubts, even finding our lecturers too liberal by introducing us to biblical criticism, i.e. finding out what the Bible really is. Others, like myself, tentatively thought when they ‘got out’ they would “open the eyes of the blind” and tell the people ‘the truth’ about the Bible and God. John Robinson in his time did it for people outside of churches and for a number within. But, by and large the Church recovered its composure and kept people in the traditional way. (I will not say: in their darkness because many have their own ways to cope). Perhaps, my answer in that absence of God and silence was, what are you going to do about it? At that time, we were in a virtual civil war.
I want this morning to talk about what ‘it’ is: i.e. religion liberated, religion with freedom; freedom of thought, freedom to be released; illuminated – and it starts with a dance.
CD Reith Brass No8 Spanish Gypsy Dance
HYMN: 195 I DANCED IN THE MORNING
READING: John 2: 1-11
1 The Wedding Feast: I have to say that John’s Gospel has problems for the searching Christian. It is now in 2nd Century CE and John is reflecting the movement of a church forming dogma, reaching out to appeal to the powers of the Greek and Roman world and establishing the Divinity of Christ. Jesus has almost but disappeared and the triumphalist Christ and his Church emerges.
The first thing to note that it is essentially a Jewish story that becomes a vehicle for a proclamation of the priority of the Christian Church. Just the use of the term ‘the third day’ is enough. That his mother (presumably no longer a virgin, as Jesus has brothers!) and he and his disciples are there, suggests this story is now part of a liturgy of Holy Communion. Jesus is present at the feast as are the disciples, now Apostles – that great cloud of witnesses.
They have no wine’ says his mother. How can they? They are Jews, of the old order. That has dried up. They need the presence of Jesus to bring wine and of course it is the best wine. The best wine and it comes now, the new order of God’s presence on earth has begun.
The Jewish ritual of purification is meant to cleanse people during menstruation, after childbirth, after sexual relations and many other things, especially before the worship of God. But they only use the jars here, not the ritual because Jesus, now God has cleansed us by his death on the Cross and overcome sin and death.
These few verses of John express the antisemitism that was already there from the beginning of Christianity.
2 We are all in it together? Among the serious flaws of the 4th Gospel is that which has afflicted the Church down the centuries: that triumphalist sense that Christianity is the final revelation of truth, above all other religions and thought. From then it becomes a story of Christianity splintering and then only some parts are regarded as holding the truth. Thus we are keeping a week of prayer to call us back together. But, at least John has acknowledged that there are events of life that we celebrate. These are common events such as weddings that just have to be celebrated, and should be in the best way we can. And that at these times, there is the spirit of God or Jesus. They don’t have to be religious occasions for there to be enjoyment and to be filled with human happiness. They are valid in themselves as a human way of celebrating life, even though amid the encircling gloom and the night is dark. Brenda Pogson used to say: never turn down an invitation to a party: soon enough the invites may stop coming.
HYMN: 544 LEAD KINDLY LIGHT
1833 It speaks of Newman’s ambiguity and doubt. As a young priest he was sick. He writes himself: Before starting from my inn, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, “I have a work to do in England.” I was aching to get home, At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles We were becalmed for whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, Kindly Light.
CD ‘Lead kindly Light’ from Howard Goodall ETERNAL LIGHT A requiem. Turn your hymnbooks to 544 We don’t ask you to sing as it is a very new tune. But stay SEATED, follow the words as the choir sing.
3 Life itself
The Engaging Issues lecture of a couple of weeks ago with a RC Jesuit priest with connections in Church Stretton was interesting on at least one ground. His theme was around ‘are we all in it together?’ And it leant on the best collected social teaching, well thought out, coherent Catholic/Christian social teaching on society, life and work. It can be said to be re-imagining the ‘good society’, in New Testament terms – Kingdom of God; working together for ‘the common good’.
Flaky yes; as a number were quick to remind us. What do I mean by that – flaky? You could say that about the Kingdom of God as Jesus gave us no planned process. That it is provisional? That it hangs on people getting it together; on working together; on being open to explore so many pathways; taking things to the edge. No – even dancing on the edge. (the name of a book 20 years ago by Richard Holloway ‘Dancing on the Edge’). The edge is where things happen – at the borders of our mind and spirit – pushing beyond into what cannot be known now, until we have tried to dance. Life itself is about living on the edge. It is often risky, with rough edges, uncertain outcomes. But you have to try living it and keep adjusting your assumptions and expectations. And there is one more thing.
CD: JAZZ Bix Beiderbecke jazz me Blues
Jesus is the one who for us makes the ultimate transcendent reality, that we call God – real and a question to pursue for all time. An overbearing, dogmatic religion encourages fear and guilt – the enemy of real faith – real life. Real life is like jazz – it is improvising much of the time, a dance to freedom, to newness rather than an onward march to glory. It exudes an exhilaration of joy; a performance at points to try out our originality – for we all are original beings.
In Jazz each instrumentalist has a chance to show their creative ability and virtuosity in turn. It is full of fizz, fun and variety. We are called to life like that, not to death. We have from before birth an urgency to live, to be free to be, to think, to believe; to flourish.
Religion has the commission to assist people to be free and liberated, flourishing – fully, wonderful human beings – which is its only job.
HYMN: 557 WHO WOULD TRUE VALOUR SEE John Bunyan
PLEASE STAY SEATED TILL AT LEAST THE END OF THE SONG AFTER THE BLESSING.
CD Louis Armstrong: What a wonderful world