Sermon 16th December 2018
Zeph 3: 14-end; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Intro: A story: Waiting for the bus (but not the last bus): It was dark and wet, you could hear the Christmas jangle from the square, The voice from behind says: “What do you think of this shambles we are in now?” No, what he actually said was “What do think of this bloody mess we’re in now?” He didn’t wait for my reply, and I wasn’t sure who he was talking to anyway.
He said: “You know what I think, I don’t know what is worse, these politicians, all of them or Christmas.” “I tell you a fact, a fact, – I don’t believe in either.” “Yes, and I’ll tell you another thing”, he said: “You can’t trust them, politicians, nor the French and the Germans, they don’t like us, you know. And as for Christmas – all that’s about is to get us to just spend all our money, that’s them and their so called Christmas markets. None of them politicians care about any of us, do they, just themselves”?
He went on: “You know they’re trying to make it difficult for us, but they need us more than we need them, we can go it alone. We’ve done it before”. Then the bus pulled in.
The conversation/monologue I’ve just reported didn’t happen, not to me. I wasn’t at a bus stop and no-one talked at me like that. But, it is really a synopsis of a lot of monologues really, that we have heard all the time, for the last two years.
This is what I mean by ‘a myth’. It didn’t happen, but it is true because the ‘rhetoric’ takes us into the deep and lasting misunderstandings and misinformation and ignorance and hurt around the whole miserable business of our relationship with Europe. Which is really about who I am and how do I matter in a fast changing and uncertain world. Citizens, with whom we would welcome a conversation, in a queue, become a block to reason, common sense and possible debate and friendliness. Not all myths are good for us or show us the way to the better life.
1 I think/hope we (UK) may be at the beginning of the end of a confrontational political system fitted for an Empire Age when we were a big super-power. We have grown up with the idea that this is the mother of all parliaments. Clearly she is no longer comfortable in her own skin in the world we now live in. A place where we need a more consensual way of reaching decisions in some of the greatest areas of life – then clear leadership. Yet we seem bent on abandoning one of the most successful partnership of nations ever – a partnership, that is a triumph in today’s global instability; part of a world consensual order since the 2nd WW, faulty as it is – bad still in development. That relationship though has stabilised Europe and many other countries in the world.
The ignorance of history has been made worse by a lack of political and moral courage and vision for the time. Yet in the world where Britain once punched above its weight in diplomacy and good influence, there are millions of people still subjected to medieval practices, underpinned by bad myths that people believe literally and all too readily. And we indulge in a very bitter internal row. Let me take you through some of the challenges this good earth and its peoples face.
(i) A resurgence of racist ideologies: Globally, racial equality is under attack. The phenomenon of populism and extremist ideologies feed off each other and racism, xenophobia (fear of the stranger) and anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatreds are on the rise, with murderous acts. Tenday Achiume the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights tells us that human rights are insufficient, absent or under grave threat in many countries, not the least in the UK and USA, and Russia just 70 years after one of the greatest human violations of all time: the Holocaust.
(ii) Speaking out against discriminations: – it takes great courage to speak out. A new term is invented for people who do: they are ‘snowflakes’, just too easily offended. There are hundreds of journalists/writers who are imprisoned, tortured, murdered, even in countries that the UK is friendly with. Kamal Ashoggi is one – but it is UK arms that are favoured in the war against the Yemeni people, not solely the rebels.
(iii) The language of privilege: In many countries there appears to be an under-current of fear of difference and of the stranger, whilst opinion, or lies – via social media and from leaders are treated as facts, especially in regard to migration, to economy, climate change, to anything outside the comfort zone. The language of marginalisation from national leadership is unashamedly abundant and tweeted across the globe. Minorities: they don’t mix, assimilate, integrate with us! Whole populations on the move are criminals; poor countries are shitholes. You heard from the Human Rights Articles – that everyone has the right to move in order to better themselves.
(iv) The attempts by governments to seek the so-called simple solutions/answers to complex situations, i.e. UK Universal Benefit for all programme; or a simple Yes/No to the enormous decision about European membership. It left us Brexit itself; and a laying blame at the door of immigrants and of 27 other European countries.
All of this feeds into a bad myth about our neighbours.
Last week you were engaged in a political event – in that it was about humanity, freedom of people wrongly imprisoned, about freedom of thought, to speak out. In some cultures, even our own these things are seen as solely political and nothing to do with faith; in some cultures ‘religion’ can be the driver of oppression.
Political choices always have consequences, human consequences. We can draw lines around what is to do with religious faith and what is to do with the political domain, but that is not what is happening in the Bible, and certainly not what is happening in the Christmas Myth.
2 There is another myth that can lift up our souls. But we need to do some questioning, change our direction and do some burning of old scripts that we carry around in our heads. It is the Christmas myth. I don’t think we have lost the goodwill and generosity it inspires, at least not universally. (Victorian) But I do think we have lost any meaning beyond that.
The Christmas myth can still rescue us. But we have to burn the ‘baby shower’ bit. Do you know what a baby shower is? It is an American thing that on the birth of a baby you invite all your friends and neighbours round for a party and everyone brings a gift for the baby. I am going to say a difficult thing for some, but please hold on.
Let me try to unpack this that may feel disturbing to some of you, and I hope we can talk about this after.
Christmas is not about the birth of Jesus at all. We really don’t know much about that. But it is about an adult Jesus, whose teaching, living and conflict and dying reconciles reason with faith. This is a departure from the orthodox Christian understanding that we can only understand the divine incarnation literally, i.e.as it comes to us mainly in the Carols:
God came down at Christmas, was born in a stable bare. This is poetry and metaphor too, not fact. But we were taught to see it literally from childhood.
All of the nativity stories are Jewish religious inspiration, and more than stories, they are metaphors about the man Jesus who in his teaching, charisma, in life itself, much of which is hidden physically from us, takes us closer into the mystery and meaning of life; to that ultimate reality – what is really true and that search is going on all the time in a myriad of ways and in diverse cultures, for which we have no other single word, but God. Jesus is one among many, whom he inspires too, who further inspire us to see more clearly.
That wonder and awe of this search fills the nativity stories – it is about a birth, the birth of a new ideas, a world that can fulfil the real dreams and hopes of humanity. It is about joy and exultation, about light out of the darkness of our ignorance, about peace on earth and good will to all. It is, none of it, about sin and punishment and heaven and hell; nor about the triumph of Christianity over all other faiths.
It is about transformation where the rich and powerful are overturned and the poor lifted up: the Magnificat, the most potent Christian poem; where the shepherd, the isolated, the refugee are brought into the warmth of love as honoured guests; where the strangers from different cultures are free to come to the temple in search of freedom of thought. Where too, everyone goes home having seen the transformation, themselves having reached higher are stretched wider and deeper than they had ever dreamed. There is a new direction and we have all become more fully human. We have all experienced incarnation.
This is the Christian Christmas Myth, that was and is and is to come.
3 You are the folk (real community) who will bring about this transformation. As St Francis says: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
It is in your thoughts, your choices, sometimes words sometimes and always your actions that are the vehicles of good news. I suspect this will become more important at this intense period of time.
How you respond to the Christmas myth matters more than what I say. And how you understand that myth is as important as what you do about making Christmas – the vision of Christ in the world, real in our own living.
In our age we can be more open to a world of beauty and wonder, of truth from many places. Many, young and old are more alive to our connectedness to all that is. We can really believe that differences and divisions can be transcended, frustrated only by the limitations, often chosen by ourselves. That under those rays of light there is human treasure, where people burn brightly – from which to change the world – that all may live in love and peace and joy.
Sermon 18th November 2018
The Heart of the Bible
At this service I want to look at, and think about, the Bible, which we are told is the word of God. But what does that mean? It’s a big question, but we need to ask it because otherwise we can get ‘tied up’ and swept along to where we may not want to go. We can lose control and find ourselves completely in the hands of something called religion! And we don’t want that because religion doesn’t encourage us to ask questions. Religion just gives us answers and expects us to say that we believe them, whether we like it or not! This attitude has got the Church into deep trouble and we can help to get the Church out of that trouble by asking questions! So, what does it mean to say that the Bible is the Word of God?
I’ll begin by saying what I think it DOESN’T mean. For me it doesn’t mean that somebody called GOD, who lives somewhere ‘up there’, once upon a time sat down at his desk and wrote the Bible from beginning to end. That’s just ridiculous! And so is the idea that this somebody called God dictated it like a boss to his secretary, or even inspired someone else to write it in such a way that it was infallible and therefore still the Word of God. In many churches today, after the Bible reading, the reader says this is the word of the Lord, the Word of God, implying that therefore you’d better believe it, or else! But if we do start asking questions, and it’s never too late, we begin to realise that the Bible is NOT telling us that there is ‘a God’ who lives ‘up there’, and knows how to write! In fact it’s not telling us about God at all! It’s telling us what the people who DID write the Bible thought about God: telling us what they thought and believed three or four thousand years ago, which is not where we live today! So we need to be asking lots of questions!
In the past they certainly believed in lots of gods. And those gods didn’t live too far away. For them, heaven was just ‘up there’, above the clouds. In fact the very Biblical word ‘heaven’ or ‘the heavens’, simply means ‘the sky’, that’s where the gods lived. And in those days people wrote stories about these gods coming down to Earth and saying things and doing things. The God of the Israelites, who was called Jehovah or Yahweh, was understood to be the Creator God who had made all things, including people. But these people misbehaved, broke God’s laws, and became what the Bible calls ‘sinners’. And after a while the Creator God changed his mind. He said, “I wish I hadn’t made these people”, and he decided to destroy them all by sending a great flood, (Genesis 6:5-8). But at the last minute he changed his mind again and decided to save Noah and his family, but the rest of humanity would be wiped off the face of the earth. And according to the old, old story, that’s what happened. And our word for that today is genocide. And this genocidal God later went on to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan where they carried on destroying people, men, women and children, and took their land, (Deuteronomy 20:16; Joshua 10:8-11).
Now if this story, which is in the Bible, is ‘the word of God’, along with lots of other stories just like it telling us what God says and does, I’ll look somewhere else for God! That’s not the kind of God I want to believe in. And I’m not the only one. Even then, in those days, a few people were ‘asking questions’: who said, “No, no, this is not what God is like, you’ve got it wrong. You’ve got to look deeper into your own hearts and find better ways: better ways of understanding God and understanding yourselves and your relationships with other people: we need to find out how to live peacefully and lovingly in this world with everybody else.” These few people were called ‘Wise Men or Prophets’ They were asking questions and thinking ‘outside the box’, looking for a better understanding of life and what it’s all about. If we want to find ‘the word of God’ in the Bible we too need to be looking deeper than what we read on the surface. And the next part of what I’m going to say is called The Heart of the Bible and we’ll go there to see what we can find.
Ezekiel 36:26-28; Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Thinking about the Bible as I have done for many years, my conclusion is that it’s not the story of Divinity coming down to Humanity: it’s the story of Humanity reaching out to find Divinity – if it’s there! It’s the story of people: all humanity looking for something more than just our physical existence in this body of ours. We want to know, is there ‘something more?’ Well, seek and you will find, is what Jesus said to his disciples. And this will always involve asking questions.
When I talk about ‘the heart of the Bible’ I mean what the Bible is saying about the heart, our heart. But it’s not talking about the heart which is pumping blood round our bodies and keeping us alive, it’s something else. If there was a post mortem, the surgeon would not find this ‘heart’ that I am referring to. In the Bible the word ‘heart’ is pointing to the deepest level of who you are, it’s referring to a ‘spiritual reality’ which is there within each one of us. But we have to find it, become aware of it, it has to be awakened, because apparently the Bible seems to think that we are either dozing or have fallen asleep! There are different ways of waking us up to this Spiritual Reality, but however it happens, we then have to learn to live with it. It becomes a ‘new heart’, a new centre of our being, and doing that will keep us spiritually awake and truly alive. And this is where the Bible as the Word of God can come into its own.
For example the Bible tells us that our hearts can be either open or closed, can be humble or proud, can be made of stone or made of something softer like love. Hearts can be hard or soft, merciful or merciless, forgiving or revengeful. You may remember in the story of Moses the Pharaoh of Egypt is said to have ‘hardened his heart’ and increased the heavy load of the slaves who were building his empire. He had eyes but he couldn’t see, he had ears but he didn’t hear, he had a mind to think but he didn’t understand, which means that he had hardened his heart. One of the writers of the Psalms (95:8) said “do not harden your hearts, but listen to the voice of God within you”.
The people that we call the prophets of Israel, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, they had the courage to say that God was not really interested in Temple worship with all its solemn assemblies and ritual sacrifices. (Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21). They understood that God doesn’t want ‘religion’ as such. God wants to be involved in the whole of life, in making people into the best that they can be. The word of the prophets was not well-received by the religious authorities and the prophets paid for it, often with their lives.
We heard in the reading some words from the prophet Ezekiel and we’ll just hear them again. Speaking as he saw it, on behalf of God, Ezekiel said, “a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove your heart of stone and put my Spirit in you”. That sounds like the offer of a ‘spiritual heart transplant’! And the prophet Jeremiah develops this thought a bit more. He refers the ‘the Old Covenant’, that is the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments, regarded as, thought to be, ‘the Word of God’. But Jeremiah saw that this Old Covenant was not working as intended, that there was a need for a New Covenant, not written in stone or on paper. And this is what the prophet said, once again speaking as he thought on behalf of God, “I will put my word within you. I will write it on your hearts. I will be your God and you will be my people. Nobody will be telling you how to know God, because everybody will be able to find out and know for themselves.”
Jesus himself, who was also in the line of prophets, said the same thing to his disciple, “the Kingdom of God is within you,” (Luke 17:21); that’s where we have to look if we want to know God, to listen if we want to hear the Word of God. The prophets and Jesus liberate us from the domination of any words written in stone or on paper. They tell us about a living word that will help us to become spiritually alive, discovering that in God we live and move and have our being.
Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018
Isaiah 2: 3-4; Matthew 5: 1-12
Intro: Some Big Numbers: The Global costs in 2015 of all war and violence, militarism as against the relatively tiny amounts spent in any peace-related activity:
$13,600,000,000,000 All violence, military, homicide, imprisonment 70%Gov. 30%Losses
$8,300,000,000 Peacekeeping and policing
Militarism cannot address future threats, climate change, migration, water shortage, inequalities.
1 War is not inevitable:
I have been watching the BBC series about the Assad dynasty in Syria which has supported other readings about the Syrian war. There was a time when the people of Syria peacefully demonstrated in the streets to demand modest reforms to ease their lives. At the same time most people adored their President, almost as people in the UK do towards our Royal Family. They had great trust that he would do new and better things, from his father. Bashar had a choice of listening and discussing their demands; or to turn his troops on them. He chose the latter, and a massacre of his own people resulted. You know what has come from that choice. The TV programme explored what had gone on in the family itself, the brutality of the father, brothers and the controlling power of the mother – this family had an inalienable right to rule in any way they chose.
But, I have another story to tell you, now you may recall from Donald last week that there are particular stories that we call myths, and we need myths that take us deeper into how we search for truth now. This story is an actual recorded event that can become a myth.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a US Lt Col. Chris Hughes was leading his men down a street in the town of Najaf, when suddenly people came pouring out of the houses lining the street, surrounding the troops. These local people were furiously angry, screaming, and waving their fists. The heavily armed soldiers, most of them still in their teens and speaking no Arabic, had no idea what was happening.
Chris Hughes strode into the middle of the crowd, raised his rifle above his head, pointed the barrel at the ground, and shouted an order at his men that they had never heard before: “Kneel”. The bewildered troops burdened by their heavy body armour, wobbled to the ground and pointed their rifles into the sand. The crowd became quiet, in disbelief, and there was absolute stillness for some two minutes. And then the crowd dispersed. This gesture of respect averted a bloodbath: no-one was killed, no weapons were needed, no shots were fired, no revenge was required.
This story tells us two things about war: One is that a key driver of violence is humiliation and that respect can move us in a totally opposite direction. After the first World War the Allies’ Treaty of Versailles imposed upon Germany a burden of reparations that the economy could not bear. They were not only defeated, they were impoverished for a generation. Here was a humiliation – that alone gave Hitler and the Nazis the opportunity for power, and rebuilding the militarism that plunged us again into a catastrophic war.
The second thing is one of the quality of leadership that has the presence of mind to know that there is a better way, and in an instant do the right thing.
2 The Beatitudes – the Blessed teachings of Jesus, graces in people: Even if people know very little about biblical texts, somewhere they have heard or have read from this chapter in Matthew. There are eight of them in all (four in Luke and recorded for a different purpose). They are taken to be a summary of his moral teachings. There is always a context in which Jesus teaches, and that is of a violent and oppressive order. This teaching is an affirmation of people, in their struggle to survive and somehow find some joy and when he looks around at his followers, and his disciples and says: “You are the salt of the earth, but….” (let’s not mind the ‘but’ for now).
I don’t want to go into them one-by-one now, but simply want to say that they are about the inner spirit of our being; the qualities that lie within us that we may choose to develop. We come across people who do not know much about theology, or have never thought much about their beliefs, but who just live and share such graceful, loving lives: they are fully the blessed ones. And you will find these ‘graces’ in people who serve us daily in a myriad of professions and yet have no religion at all. Here, in this we are witnessing a spiritual consciousness.
And today, we have more opportunity than ever before to realise our hopes for ourselves and the planet, because we know so much more about ourselves and how the world is, almost instantly. But, is knowing the same as learning? Obviously not, or we would not go on repeating the same old responses to our difficulties and conflicts. How do we grow the kind of moral global, national and political leadership such as Chris Hughes demonstrated, and such as is honoured in the Beatitudes?
3 Learning the ways of peace: ‘Blessed are the peace-makers for they shall be the children of God’. “Someone has to love these children and young people”, to quote a keynote speaker at a Safeguarding conference, about child victims of abuse, who were not listened to, who unsurprisingly behave badly.
Mostly, for the vast majority of children loving starts at home, but not everywhere, and not all children. I start there to raise answers because too many children are in poverty and too many are unloved and 8 million are at risk in Syria and UNICEF says 123 million are being trafficked into some form of slavery worldwide. Never, in human history have 65 million people been displaced, among them children who have seen things they never should, and made journeys no-one should have to make.
This morning, in Church Stretton the Girl Guides carried the UN Colours willingly, because they wanted to, and because they understand a bit more about what it means and why it is so important that they do. At the same time the Scouts will lay the UN Wreath because they want to after learning how important it is to both honour the dead of all wars and work for the day when it shall not happen again.
They, and millions like them will inherit the earth, and they will ask different questions and seek new answers.
4 Who are the prophets today? Those who speak truth to power? Those like Isaiah, who call for swords to be melted down to make ploughs. Nowadays, they are good journalists, those like Jamal Khassoggi, the poets, the Archbishop of Canterbury, I’m sure other leaders in different ways, and many from different walks of life. We know that it is now a dangerous profession, to speak truth to power.
And in Church Stretton on 24th October young people from the school joined adults at the station to greet the Peace Train, taking thousands of letters, pleading that our government revisit signing the Nuclear Ban Treaty to lead other nations in the process of making all weapons of mass destruction illegal. ‘Give Peace a chance’, their banners read. They too became prophets speaking truth to power that day. They know it will not happen yet, but they know things should not go on as they are.
There are only 400 Colleges in the world where students can take peace studies and one is in Bradford. Why not everywhere? Why not make it a core practical subject in every school? To learn how to resolve disputes in different ways; to practice kindness, tolerance, delight in discussion and debate, time spent learning in another country; regular exchanges.
Many people feel powerless in the face of what we read, see and hear from the media. What is becoming very evident is that we are living through an age of enormous turbulence, that humanity has made, that is us. We cannot undo the past but we can exercise humility, respect, restraint and openness. All good religion has a profound prophetic voice that calls us to transformation, renewal in every part of our human life, personally, nationally and globally. We, Us, (we can only act together), have to make that voice an experience for ourselves and others.
Sunday 4th November 2018
Hide and Seek
What I am going to say to you this morning is, that Life is a game of Hide and Seek. Or perhaps I should say, Life can be a game of Hide and Seek. But what I really think is that Life should be a game of Hide and Seek. If so, who is doing the hiding and who is doing the seeking? And we’ll come to that in a minute. But first of all we must go back to the beginning because that’s where everything starts, isn’t it? In the beginning: once upon a time!
The very opening words of the Bible start with, in the beginning … followed by a story, the story of Creation. And it is just that, a story. But it is a special kind of story that we call a myth. A myth is not telling us about something that happened a long time ago. It’s helping us to understand and come to terms with, the life we are living now, here, today in this evolving Universe in which we live. The Creation Myth is helping us to discover who we are and what we are supposed to be doing while we are here on Earth.
So from the very beginning if seems that there is a game of Hide and Seek going on. We are looking for a Truth that is hidden from us, the truth telling us who we are and how we should fit in to the Great Mystery of all things. That Mystery, which we are aware of, we have decided to call God. For us, living on Earth, God is the Great Mystery of Existence in which, as the Bible says, we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). Our story, or myth of beginnings, tells us that this Great Mystery we call God took a handful of earth, shaped it, breathed into it, and two fully grown people appeared. Adam and Eve came into being, living happily with God, in perfect peace and harmony in the Garden of Eden, eating fruit from the Tree of Life and, like God, living forever.
According to the story, Adam and Eve didn’t do what they were told and as a result they suddenly found themselves ‘outside’. The Garden of Eden disappeared, the Tree of Life disappeared, and God also disappeared. The human race found itself ‘all alone’ in the big wide world, having to fend for themselves, having to discover what they could about themselves and the world, and make the best of it, trying to make sense of everything and find out if there is any meaning and purpose in ‘being alive’ in this vast mysterious evolving Universe.
And that’s the situation we are still in, is it not? We have of course made a few discoveries ourselves but there is still a game of Hide and Seek going on, and we are all invited. Nay challenged, to get involved and ‘play the game’. It is in fact ‘the Game of Life’ and according to our foundation story of beginnings, we know who’s doing the hiding and who’s doing the seeking.
Back to the story: Adam and Eve, and don’t forget who they are, having disobeyed orders, went into hiding so that God had to go looking for them. Adam, where are you? Eve, where have you got to? I’m coming ready or not! God was looking for them. We could say that they were hiding because they were ashamed of what they’d done. And if I asked you, ‘has anybody here lived a perfect life’, there wouldn’t be many hands going up! And the chances are that we too are still in hiding. So where could we be hiding?
Well, there are lots of hiding places. We can hide in our possessions, hoping that they will protect us and keep us safe. But that’s a delusion. It’s like hiding in quicksand, clutching our possessions we’ll just sink with them. We can hide behind excuses, and we’re good at that! We can justify anything we do, but if we’re running away from the truth, that’s the one thing that we need to find.
You may want to ask, where does Jesus fit in to this way of thinking about the Creation Story? I think that Jesus was very much aware that there is a game of Hide and Seek going on, and he wanted to be involved in it. He wanted to help those people who were hiding so well that they had actually got stuck where they were. And funnily enough, one of the best hiding places is ‘religion’, where many people get stuck.
Jesus is known for telling parables, and a parable is just the same as a myth. It’s a story where there is a deep meaning which is universal. It holds a truth that applies to everybody, everywhere, at all times. We’ll have a quick look at three of these parables where the Mystery of God is said to be like a Shepherd looking for his lost sheep, or like a woman looking for a coin that has rolled away and got lost, or like a father whose son has got lost in worldly desire for possessions and the father’s love is going out searching for him.
The Creation myth is telling us that Hide and Seek is indeed going on. God who breathed life into a handful of earth is looking for that which really belongs intimately and personally to Himself, to Godself, wanting to bring it into a relationship which Jesus called ‘the Kingdom of God’. We could say that in this game of Hide and Seek, God is looking for his own, and that’s one aspect of the game we should all be playing. But there is another side to it. Not only are we hiding from God, but at the same time at an even deeper level, we are looking for God, the God who appears to be hidden from us.
Now this of course is a paradox. And anything to do with God is bound to be full of paradoxes! A paradox is where two seeming opposites come together in unity, in Oneness. And in this case the seeming opposites are Humanity and Divinity. People and God are playing Hide and Seek with one another! For whatever reason it might be, the human race, we, have been and maybe still are, hiding from God. And yet at the same time, we are also looking for God, wanting to know God, perhaps even to love God, wanting to know how we fit in to the Great Scheme of things which is hidden from us in the Mystery of God.
The Paradox is that what we are looking for is also looking for us. And there is a meeting place! Religions will have their own different explanations of this, but I am finding that these ‘religious’ explanations are very dissatisfying. For me the only meeting place is not religious at all. It’s the human heart. And we all have one. It is there in the depth of humanity itself. It is there that you will find God and God will find you. If you look deep enough within yourself, you will find the hidden God and, at the very moment of finding, you yourself will be ‘found’ by God, and you will have your own experience of ‘spiritual oneness’, God in you and you in God. You won’t be able to explain it. Don’t even try. You will just know that it is true for you. You will then live with that truth and it will make all the difference.
Sunday 16th September
Discussion Noel Beattie and Roger Wilson:
The Intervening God?
READER: I want to tell you a story about a miracle.
The baby was going to die. Its heart was outside its body, a distortion of the normal which could not be survived for very long, a few days perhaps, maybe a few weeks.
Modern technology identified this situation while the child was still in its mother’s womb. This was a challenge to the doctors, should they abort the child or could they do something, anything, to correct the situation, and if so what and how. Their advice to the mother when scanning revealed the condition nine weeks into the pregnancy, was to abort.
You will remember this story from late last year. The baby girl, Vanellope Hope, is now almost a year old and doing well. She has moved from hospital to her home in Nottingham.
So what happened?
The baby was wanted by her parents. A medical team was assembled to standby to deliver her safely and to operate when she was born. Skills were brought in from other hospitals, the literature was searched for information. The outcomes of similar cases around the world were sought – in most cases abortion on discovery was the normal route.
A team of 50 doctors and nurses went into action. When her mother went into labour the little girl was delivered by C-section – a normal delivery would have ruptured the heart. A short while later she had her first surgery, the first of three she has had so far and the first of many she will have over the years. Her heart was placed into its proper place and her breast bone, which had failed to develop, was replaced by an external lightweight cage printed by a computer from images of her torso. This baby’s life is a little miracle.
NB: So what do we mean by saying it is a miracle?
RW: A living child is the miracle. She lives because of knowledge, skills, and technology that spotted the problem and offered the doctors the means to be most effective. The modern miracle is the innovation, the work of creative people, some of whom may never know how they contributed to this human drama. And in this 70th anniversary year of the NHS another miracle is in the fact that the costs were shared by us all – 60 million of us each contributed a few pennies to make this miracle possible. It shows us the wonderful energy which comes from a population, real people, working together. Does that have echoes with another story – a sort of reverse of the ‘feeding of the 5000’?
NB: Yes together, we can enable things to happen that had not been possible even five or ten years ago. Can I suggest that we confess here that in everyday life and especially to the parents, the word ‘miracle’ expresses the inexpressible wonder of what has happened, undoubtedly with enormous relief. But, the word ‘miracle’ comes out of a religious history where people make the assumption of some kind of divine intervention rather than, or in spite of, humans. But, this can never be true? For me, I have no difficulty with using the word as a metaphor for the way in which in the modern world things for good can happen that were not even dreamed of before, but for which people long hoped. And that hope gave rise to stories and legends, perhaps only now realisable in a different, though still very real, unequal world.
RW: For me human hands play a crucial part. Perhaps this is what we learn from Jesus touching the sick and needy with his hands. In his day people were advised not to touch others who were sick, especially lepers. It is interesting that one thing people remember about Princess Diana, was her touching, especially taking the hands of AIDS patients. To heal, doctors and nurses have to use their hands, they have to touch people, with love and care. It is a very human act, which can be aided by the advance of science and technology but not replaced by it. We will always need people who can bring care and compassion, used with skill. But the spirit within the person that drives them is critical. Without that it would be a cold, clinical act. Where does that spirit come from?
NB: That is the central question. Whatever you think of a god in all this, in the end it is humans who are the real intervenors. There are situations where we have to do something, practical things. Love is more than sentimentality, is it not? It has to be informed, skilled intervention. Sometimes, it goes wrong and sometimes there are those who make it go wrong. But, these things are not the larger picture. The spirit that drives us comes from a long learning process of human experience of inter-dependence and that is an element in the story we have listened to from Mark. What happens when there is not an inter-dependence and where there is a top-down solution imposed? Jesus challenges that in his time. Through most of history there has been this questing, challenging spirit, often religiously inspired, and also philosophically inspired independent of religion. It is a spirit that refuses to see borders in how people should intervene. It has to do with greater understanding, compassion, but also having the right knowledge, motivation and skills to practice love, truth, justice, and peace.
RW: You say no borders in how people can intervene? We see this from our perspective within a Christian faith. All other faiths have their own insights. We are talking about all people, not talking about people with the right kind of beliefs. This whole business of humans intervening in a host of ways, for good or bad, is much more complex and full of even more questions? Maybe, we should try to widen our horizons, be more inclusive of other thought. Let’s look at another story from our own time.
READER: Stephen Hawking 1942 – 8th January 2018
A (Lucasian) professor of mathematics at Cambridge – one of the most prestigious of academic posts in the world. It takes its name from its foundation by Henry Lucas in 1663 with authority from Charles II. Lucas said that: “the universe is governed by the laws of science; those laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws”. Stephen Hawking was a declared atheist. But he had said: “that we are free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is, there is no god. We have the one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that I am grateful”. His most popular book ‘A Brief History of Time’ read by millions, is not easy to understand; but our imaginations were enlarged by its inspiration and breadth of thought. Darwin talked about the ‘grandeur’ of all things and forms of life, yet he professed no ‘religious’ faith.
Stephen Hawking needed immense support from others to be himself. We can imagine the frustrations he and those who lived with him experienced. The cost was high in human terms. His first wife told her story and how she had been exhausted by the demands, which in those early days, alone, she found humanly impossible to meet. But, with his mind and his generosity of time and resources, especially to communicate and discuss his ideas, he was a very decent human being. Hawking, a declared atheist, his remains now lie under the floor of Westminster Abbey, the principal temple to Christianity in the kingdom. What is going on here?
NB: What is going on here, is what I hope is an illustration of the affirming of our humanity, whatever explanations we choose to live with, provided we can allow for others to have their own explanations. In this respect a national church can step above religion, reaching into a spiritual domain so to speak, to provide a space for questions and wonder.
RW: Hawking’s life and triumph over the most severe disability at a young age is an inspiration to so many with disabilities. That alone is a valuable legacy to give to others. The inspiration he gave to the whole project of scientific research, the nature of the universe(s), time, black holes – that stirred millions to believe there is so much to wonder about. He was also a moral and social being who cared about justice. In that way he aligned himself with the thoughts and teachings of the great ethical teachers of truth, all of whom have helped shaped the culture in which most of us have developed. Among these teachers would be Jesus.
NB: I don’t think you can be a teacher unless you are exploring, wondering, questioning, even doubting. If we can start to acknowledge that Hawking puts the emphasis on what we do here and now, is where life is at. In the moment. There is one life to appreciate this grand design of the universe: that there is a natural earth world in a complex universe with mystery enough without any supernatural second chance. Can we be responsible humanity together for both one another and the care of our environment? I think the majority of people in Christianity today can come together on at least this. If we can come to this state, then we can have an open and interesting conversation about what we can mean by the word ‘god’; what are the possibilities, not certainties, open and unashamedly wondering. If we can, with one another as human beings, no barriers or dogma. Just us, lost in wonder, love and awe.
RW: I believe that there is a spirit, a kindred spirit if you like, that joins people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, hungry to learn, discover and understand and to apply this to the living of our lives. We are all moving in roughly the same direction, but we come from different starting points and are at different points along the road. We can admit to ‘god intervening’ in our lives because it is the same as saying that we are discovering new ways to achieve, change, heal etc. through working together, using our hands, learning, trusting in the spirit.
Sermon 9th September
Free to Believe
Within the United Reformed Church there is a ‘movement’ taking place. It is a movement of the Spirit: which is only to be expected because it’s the Spirit that created the church in the first place. The Movement that I’m talking about is called Free to Believe: and it’s attracting people who want just that … freedom to believe. In other words they don’t want to be told what to believe: they want to find out for themselves as they move on through life, where beliefs can change with our experiences along the road.
The Free to Believe movement is not an official part of the Church: it’s a movement of the Spirit within the Church. And actually, it puts the Church itself in a bit of an awkward situation because the Church does tell people what to believe! According to the official teaching, what we are to believe is all written down in a document called The Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church … with particular reference to the Nicene Creed. But that Nicene Creed was written 2000 years ago and is only telling us what they believed in a world that would be quite different from our world today. Those in the Free to Believe movement would be more interested in taking note of a question raised at the end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation where it asks … what is the Spirit saying to the Churches? (Revelation 2:11)
The words of all creeds are written with ink on paper. What the Spirit is saying is a ‘living word’ (2 Corinthians 3:3) which comes alive in people’s hearts and minds in the world that we live in today. And so we need to be ‘free to believe’; free to hear, listen and respond, individually and together as the Church. And our official Document does in fact allow for the possibility of new thinking. Free to Believe is there just to remind the Church of that possibility! Now, I’m not a ‘recruiting agent’ for the Movement and in this church I don’t need to be because, if we are Open, Inclusive and Questioning, we are already attached to the Movement, we want to be free to believe. If being free to believe is important to you, as it is to me, you are already part of the Movement and we should be keeping it going as the Spirit leads us deeper into the Truth about ourselves, about life and about God.
Words, words, words, words are an essential means of communication but they are limited in what they can do. Some things are too big and too deep for words to say. For example, we can’t say what God is. So what does it mean if we say that ‘we believe in God’? My piece in the Stretton Focus for June was entitled ‘God is …’ and then I write, “My title is an unfinished sentence. It must always be so because the word God stands for a mystery beyond the reach of words, beyond reach of our finite minds.” Anything we do say about God must come from our own thoughts and feeling, our hopes and fears generated by our experiences of life. The value of the word ‘God’ is that it puts us in touch with the spiritual and mystical side of life. It helps us to understand more about ourselves, and how to live at the highest level we are capable of. We can never say what God IS … but we can think of God AS. God AS, the source of Peace, Love, Joy, Beauty and Goodness. All these are ‘ideals’ to aim for and be inspired by; they are ‘invisible as music, but positive as sound’ as the poet Emily Dickinson puts it.
I now want to look at four of these ideals through which we can think about the meaning of the word GOD. They are to be found in Percy Dearmer’s hymn, God is love, his the care tending each, everywhere. God is love – all is there! Jesus came to show him, that we all might know him: … with its chorus, Sing aloud loud, loud, Sing aloud, loud, loud, God is good, God is truth, God is beauty: praise him! The hymn does say ‘God is’ but what it really means is that we think about God AS being Love, Goodness, Truth and Beauty. God is love – all is there! Enough said! We don’t need any more; but the hymn writer goes on to find within that Love … Goodness, Truth and Beauty. So we’ll look at all four.
The Bible says, “Those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them”. (1 John 4:16) There’s nothing really to add to that. Just live in love, let that love be your inspiration and guide and you’re well on your way into the Mystery of God, which is beyond words. But we could ask, what kind of love is this? And Paul tells us in Chapter 13 of First Corinthians, where he says, “Love is patient and kind, never selfish or irritable, never gives up, is always faithful and hopeful, and in fact love is eternal”; a very practical and down to earth way of thinking about God.
We can now move on to Goodness. And you may be wondering where Jesus fits into this way of thinking about God. I have to say at this point that I feel sorry for what religion has done to Jesus! Jesus himself pointed the way. He told people how to find God. He said, “The kingdom of God (which means ‘the presence of God’) is within you. Find it there before you look anywhere else. (Matthew 6:33) But the Church comes along and makes Jesus into something else, into the final destination, rather than the one who points the way. On one occasion some people were flattering Jesus and calling him a ‘good teacher’. And he said to them, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good” (Mark 10:17f). Jesus didn’t want to be flattered, like much present-day worship seems to flatter him. He just wanted to be a signpost pointing the way to God. To say that “God is good” means that God is the Source of Goodness, and our wanting to be good and trying to be good in all our relationships will keep us on the right road to where we want to be going.
Truth is another sign along the way. There are different kinds of truth. There is the legal form where in court you say you will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … which of course is the right thing to do. But there is another way of thinking about truth where truth is influenced by Goodness and Love. Where what we call ‘a little white lie’ can be closer to God’s truth than any legal declaration. Jesus himself didn’t get on very well with the lawyers who ran the legal system. He warned people to beware of them, to watch out he said, for those who weigh you down and wear you out with all their legal definitions and regulations (Luke 11:45f). Perhaps a better word for the Truth we are looking for is Integrity, being true to yourself, true to your best self where Goodness and Love also have a part to play. William Shakespeare can always put things ‘in a nutshell’ for us. In the play Hamlet, Polonius says to his son Laertes, “This above all / to thine own self be true / and it must follow as night the day / thou canst not then be false to anyone.
Now what about Beauty, how does that fit in with our understanding of the word God? It’s a little bit different from Love, Goodness and Truth. It’s not easy to say what Beauty is. It will be somewhat different for each one of us. We say that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. And that’s not just the eye in your head. It’s also your ‘inner eye’ which enables you to see deeper than just the surface. We should certainly enjoy and be uplifted by the beauty of the natural world all around us, a sunset, a cloud formation, a hovering kestrel, a copper beach tree, a field of barley blowing in the wind, or just a few dandelions in the hedgerow, whatever it is. William Wordsworth, to me the meanest flower that blows can give/ thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. We must train ourselves and learn to look deeper than what’s just there on the surface. There is a hidden beauty in everything and everybody. The more beauty you see the more beautiful you will become!
So, in this life, where is God? God is to be found in the meaning of the word. And if that word means Love and Goodness, Truth and Beauty, that’s more than enough to keep us occupied while we are here. In Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love we can find God. We can be at Peace and live in Hope.
Sermon 10th June, Trinity 2
2Corinthians 4: 13 – 5:1
This letter was written by Paul about 55 CE about 15-20 years before any Gospel was published, which was Mark. There would have been stories told around, remembered from the Apostles, themselves getting elderly and some had died; they had known Jesus first-hand, and some collected written material which was used to construct some of the Gospels, but not much.
This letter is the last of three, where one has been lost to us, perhaps though it may be part of the 1st or 2nd letter. It was a painful experience for Paul. There were issues of discipline and punishment by the majority of the members on one or two members, maybe even resulting in the death of one. But also some personal anguish that he, Paul was not respected there. Here, Ministers (himself too) to the local church are frail, weak human beings, and sometimes fail. He invites all to see beyond that visible reality to a deeper and larger reality.
Mark 3: 20-35
Jesus has a strong appeal judging by the response of people to what he was talking about, so much, that his family was embarrassed, frightened, hostile, perhaps to what it was doing to them. He was stirring up resentment within the conservative camp.
Introduction: It used to be thought that the Ministry of the church was the last place of unquestioned authority left in our society. I don’t think this is so today, though there are still some swamps in the church experience, not yet drained, where absolute control in church or religious matters rests with the Minister/Priest/Vicar. In modern society there has been an increase in demagogues both individuals and corporates, in the spheres of business or politics, who exercise power and control, far beyond what is healthy and for too long. You have examples in Presidents Trump and Putin; in Carillion and Group 4.
But, something new is happening. Let us look at what that might be in the light of the readings today.
1 Setting out the vision: In Jesus you have a charismatic who had both a clear view of what was going on, and a vision of how humanity can transcend its limitations. And you have a vulnerability – quite a different kind of humanity from the narcissistic power brokers. The Church has weakened Jesus by making of him an idol, an object to be worshipped, and sometimes in confusion, there is a confusion in the church about who he is; he is a buddy, a pal, someone who occupies the empty chair beside us; a saviour who does it all for us; a moral arbiter. Though absent, is his interest in religious order, ritualism, dogma, beliefs, being the moral police, neither judge nor jury. These are just absent and of little interest. Sinfulness only features with Jesus because the culture is soaked in seeking out sin and frailty and inducing guilt, often relating illness and poverty: in a society that condoned stoning the woman in adultery; divorcing on a whim.
In Mark in this spat, allegedly with the Scribes, about Satan’s house – very likely he is playing with them, making fun and exposing their pomposity and lack of humour, above all the failure to connect with the priorities of ordinary people. And his family may be very scared, for he is really pushing it, in a very volatile society, and these people are very influential.
His charismatic character was hugely appealing to many people. Imagine him talking in their language, about their life: he told stories often with humour as one who knew and understood the struggle of daily life and the deep injustices and inequality people bore. He invites people to dream, to imagine a different world, one day. For now they are understood, loved and affirmed and called to love each other some more. It was not about synagogue attendance, offerings in the temple, whether they fulfilled all the religious ritual cleansing required. It was about life and living and hugely liberating. Why else would people go all the way out of their villages – to see ‘a reed blowing in in the wind’? No, to be released, to hear good news. It was not new, it was Judaism as it was meant to be – a joy to be alive, such as Michael Currie recalled in that sermon – “ there is a balm in Gilead…a healing balm, something that can make things right”
2 The essential message always needs recovery in every age: Essentially the Christian movement springs from this rich seam of calling the community to a right way of living, with justice and freedom – how it liberates people to be their true selves? We, heirs of that movement have to admit that the story of the church has been a mixed one and frequently with periods of oppression and keeping people in ignorance. Whereas, at its core, Christianity is about rediscovering liberation in every part of our being – enabling people to free themselves. Oddly enough, this is what Karl Marx (200 years since his birth) once believed what Communism was about, but it didn’t. Two great shifts occurred.
The Reformation shift took the scriptures out of the grip of the Priests and the printing press made accessible to the literate, and exposing the unethical practices. But, it did not give the tools to question and analyse what they were reading, not then.
The Renaissance – rebirth after the Middle Ages – primarily a time of the revival of classical learning and wisdom after a long period of cultural decline and stagnation. It gave the means to explore texts and question the myths for the first time, apply reason to our faith and connect us with other revelations of scientific discoveries, and method. Both, movements of human angst, questioning and searching.
3 A new reformation, re-awakening, liberation, or Paradigm shift is happening: A Paradigm shift is coined by an American physicist/philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) described as a fundamental change in the basic concepts of the scientific thought and practice, but also a radical change in the way people see things. It has been happening for a long time. And you can see it in its modern form almost everywhere. The promise of religion to liberate the mind, body and spirit is now the profession of a host of highly trained professionals, in body, mind and spirit health and social care, education, science and technology. Every day another ‘miracle’ in old terms happens almost routinely.
I believe there are two stories that illustrate the pathway we are on.
a) The Ireland Story shows how far it has come. Finally millions of people are free to make their own minds in areas of life that were owned and controlled by the conservative Christian establishment. Ireland is no longer in fact or in spirit a theocracy. It is a young, thriving, and free-thinking, confident country, open to new possibilities. This follows a long story of young pregnant women condemned to a cruel regime run by Nuns, babies sold off for church funds; banning ofcontraception to deny planning families; then the child abuse and crass handling of safeguarding young and vulnerable people; and gay relationships denied and punished. There is in the heart of Dublin a celebrated statue of Oscar Wilde, in a provocative pose.Ireland has cast off its shackles and people have grown beyond their religion and sought to do their own thinking in these personal areas of life. And now the moderation of abortion laws. In so much of this you see the liberating force of love, rather than condemnation.
b) The Grenfell Tower – Similarly, in the community around and at the same time it exposes the injustices still at the heart of our culture – the emptiness that separates people into categories of worthy and unworthy on the basis of privilege and wealth. How private wealth has been raised above public wealth.
4 That Michael Curry: Imagine – Archbishop Justin Welby, having sat through the hearings about the C of E abuse cases, must have known the public persona of the C of E was in a poor state. Also, I think he genuinely felt the shame about the church. He also knows his church’s position with gay relations is untenable. I do not see him as comfortable with power and privilege; his own story is not from that stable. He needed a prophetic voice, but it had to come from outside, and it had to be credible, in that the person was already known for his speaking to power about injustice. What Michael Curry did was not exceptional, the delivery was and whom he is.
He trailed through texts like any Evangelical preacher that were not only about love, but of the journey towards justice, from the Old and New Testaments. He strings them together – to deliver a powerful critique of modern society and a challenge to those sitting there and all of us really. The power of love that he frequently returned to – sacrificial, redeeming love, that liberating force, like fire it is both destructive and creative. He calls in Martin Luther King, he talks of inclusion – it was a challenge to the powers, some of whom were there – that they are nothing without the power of human love.
Some appeared somewhat bemused for it was not CofE Prayer Book. Giles Frazer maybe, but not your ordinary parish church or even cathedral. It was like a Baptist Chapel. Some were entertained because they don’t usually get as good a performance in many places. The couple at the centre of it all have already committed to work for the betterment of people and have had a good public rapport, and to be fair are an inspiration in their generation.
Most of all: he too signalled in that royal chapel, it is not enough to do things so superbly well as the CofE does and especially for television:
“When love is the way, we will see justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an overflowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way there’s plenty good room for all God’s children. And when we do that we shall make this old world new”.
Love has to issue in outcomes. It has to be seen, experienced, felt. ‘Don’t just tell me, show me’ a line from a song in ‘My Fair Lady’.
In all sorts of ways love is being demonstrated in daily life. In the NHS, 70 years old, where at its best it is a lesson in compassion and where amazing healing goes on; in international relations, for all the awful consequences of wars, work goes on tirelessly to bring peace and release to millions.
In a myriad of ways ‘miracles’ in old terms are being made to happen.
Where does this come from? Human nature, development, education, democracy, institutions that have values, and religion has made its mark in all this. Somehow the essential message seeps through into the bloodstream of humanity.
Decline in church numbers may be a necessary part and should not be resisted. Our response has to be an act of faith that we are being moved irrevocably towards something new, some new awakening, a resurrection. A new spirit is being born within us towards a new way of being gathered as ’the whole community’, a whole, inclusive, loving way of being community.
Pentecost 20th May
Changing with the Changes
Genesis 1:1-5, John 1:1-5, Ephesians 5:8-17
The theme of our time together this morning is ‘Changing with the Changes’. The winds of change were blowing long before Harold Macmillan noticed it in 1960. The wind of change has been blowing ever since the Big Bang created the Universe, and that’s a long time ago! And everything has been changing ever since.
Change can be gentle and gradual or violent and sudden. In terms of the wind it can be a warm and friendly breeze or it can be a destructive hurricane that brings devastation. We can’t get away from Change. It is happening and will always happen. The big question is how do we respond to the changes that are happening? There’s not much we can do in the face of a hurricane except protect ourselves as best we can. But for the other winds of change, do we hoist our sail and let the wind blow us where it will? Or do we stand firm and refuse to change because whatever the reason, and it may be a good reason, we don’t want to change and we decide to fight against “changing with the changes”.
Many of the changes that happened in our lifetime, happened without us thinking about it. But looking back over the years we can see what they were. Think of the houses some of us used to live in, perhaps with an outside toilet, no central heating and no double glazing. That’s the house I grew up in. Think of the clothes we used to wear and how as fashion changed so we changed with it. Men started wearing bell-bottomed trousers, big boots and crew cuts. How many of you ladies on a Monday morning still get out the dolly and the posser and do the week’s washing? Not many I think. I remember I used to do the possing! Then putting it through the mangle and hanging it up on the outside line, then bringing it in to dry on a rail over the kitchen fire.
You can make your own list of all the changes that have happened in your lifetime. Change is going on all the time. Even our bodies are not the same as they were yesterday. Invisible to us the atoms and molecules which are the basic blocks of our body are changing even as we sit here in church. Unfortunately not all this bodily change is invisible! These days I avoid looking in a mirror because I don’t want to know about the changes that I would see if I caught a glimpse of myself and think, “Good heavens, that’s not me is it?” Nevertheless I need to face up to the winds of change that are blowing. And today Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, is an appropriate time to be doing it, when the wind of the Spirit blew through the lives of the first disciples, changing them.
There was a time in history, and not too long ago, when the winds of change were blowing strong. That period of change we now call the Enlightenment. I didn’t even come across that word until long after I left school and even at tertiary level I didn’t grasp the importance of what the Enlightenment was. Now in a funny sort of way, my own education is still continuing. I’m seeing things in a new way. I’m entering into what you might call my own little bit of enlightenment.
But back to history for a minute: the original Enlightenment covered a whole century, with extensions on either side, one hundred years from 1700 to 1800. And it all started quite simply and innocently by people asking questions. And because they dared to ask questions, it was as if a great light began to shine and people could see what they hadn’t seen before. The reason they hadn’t seen before was that those in authority, in the Church and the State, didn’t want them to see! So ‘asking questions’ suddenly became a dangerous occupation. Those questioning the State, the King and Country, could be accused of treason and lose their heads, literally, as many of them did. Those questioning the Church could be accused of heresy and get burned at the stake after suitable torture to make them change their minds which many of them didn’t do, and they paid for it with their lives.
One of the highlights of the Enlightenment was Astronomy where the changes were very far reaching; asking questions about what was going on up there in the sky and they were ‘turning the world upside down’. In those bygone days everybody believed, because they could see it with their own eyes, the Sun went round the Earth every day. And the Bible said so anyway, just in case there was any doubt. (Joshua 12:10) But there was some doubt. And with the aid of newly invented telescopes there was scientific proof that the Earth actually went round the Sun, and not the Sun going round the Earth. But the Church didn’t believe it. How could they when they thought the Bible said something else? So it became heresy to say so. And those who said so, like Copernicus and Galileo and others, were persecuted. Gordiano Bruno was one of them. He was a Dominican Friar and a mathematician and he was publicly burned to death in the city of Rome for speaking the truth to those who thought they already had the Truth wrapped up in the Bible.
We pray for the coming of the Spirit to bring enlightenment so that we will see the Truth that we need to know. But the light of the Spirit is already within us. It is a delicate flame which can easily go out if we are not careful. And in the past they were not careful enough. People were asking questions because they wanted their freedom. They wanted to be free to live their lives without being dominated by the ’divine right of Kings’ or even the divine right of the Church. And people got their freedom. But what happened was this. The formerly oppressed people, having gained their freedom, themselves became the oppressors. The French Revolution was a people’s celebration of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, but it ended up with Napoleon terrorising the whole of Europe. In the Reformation led by Martin Luther the unquestioning authority of the Pope was replaced by the infallible authority of the Bible. But who will interpret the Bible? Out came the swords and guns to decide the matter. And what followed was a hundred years of religious warfare, which in one way or another is still going on. The Enlightenment can become dis-enlightenment if we don’t look deep enough into the Spirit within us.
Now let’s hear our Bible readings, verses from Genesis, John’s Gospel and the letter to the Ephesians.
The Creation story in the book of Genesis is not an account of what actually happened. It is more of a spiritual meditation looking for a truth that is deeper than scientific facts. And one of those truths is this: light comes from the sun (which doesn’t go round the earth). But there is also an inner light in the hearts and minds of people. The opening of John’s Gospel tells us that the same Spirit of God blowing like a wind over the waters of Creation, is also within us like a light by which we can see the truths we need to live by. The choice is ours, but we have to be free to choose. And if the Church or any other institution doesn’t give us that freedom by keeping the Truth locked up within itself, then we’ll just have to take it like they did in the Enlightenment we’ve been hearing about. But we must be careful to keep the light illuminating our lives. The reading from Ephesians tells us, “You must live like people who belong to the Light for it is the Light which brings a rich harvest of Goodness, Truth and Love”. (Ephesians 5:8f) Another Bible verse tells us that, “It does not yet appear what we shall be”, (1John 3:2) “but the Spirit is moving and we are all being changed”. (2Corinthians 3:17f) Changed by the Light of the Spirit within us, don’t let that light go out. Be careful how you live. Wake up if you’re asleep. And let the light continue to shine within you and show us all the way ahead.
Sermon 8th April (Easter2)
Matthew 28: 9-20
Intro: Easter parables: This is what the stories after the experience of resurrection are. To be a Christian I do not, nor need to, think that there was a bodily resurrection, that is … Jesus actually got up and walked again. That actually is a block to exploring what Resurrection really means.
Just for a moment let me refer to funerals today, which have changed a lot over the years. We now even have laughter in church as amusing sides or events in a person’s life are recalled. It is called: Tributes, Appreciation, (Obituary), or the Story/celebration of her/his life.
Recently, I attended a funeral where the deceased had left a message to be read – she did not want her whole life-story recalled: “I have lived here for 35 years, you who are here have known me – that is who I am”. I AM – that eternal quality, outside of time and space – that is more than memory, but presence in a different way – inbreathed into our own being. We are dealing with the Spirit of the person – who s/he is rather than what s/he has done. In the four Gospels, something similar is going on, all different stories, coloured by time, place and the collective thought of the local church community where the writer is and memories and developing understanding of what it means.
I am not too hung up on the time factor in which this all happened – in three days? Well, we know that numbers had special meanings in religious writing and that three was significant in that it spells out inner holiness, wholeness (3 in 1) the Trinity etc. And Sunday had been already adopted as an alternative day to gather for worship.
This coming to terms with the Crucifixion, the regrouping and re-imagining how all the lived experience with Jesus is to be expressed in their Now, their experience then, may well have taken much longer than three days. Jesus was certainly present in the experience of all those who re-grouped – too much had happened with his followers, lives had changed already, for it all to be snuffed out like a candle.
(1) That for those who knew him, Jesus lives, he is present, not past. They feel his spirit – the content of who he is had become part of their own lives.
(2) Jesus had been (Vindicated or Justified). God says ‘Yes’ to Jesus and ‘No’ to the powers who oppress and brought his death about. Jesus and what he stands for makes sense as the only way to live life in this world, whereas the powers ranged against him stood for destruction, death and despair.
There are important themes we can take from these Easter parables, Stories that can help us both as individuals and as a church to re-orientate ourselves for a world, very different in some ways from his, but just as violent and oppressive too. After this piece of music:
This is from ‘Eternal light’ Howard Goodall – Lacrymosa: lament – Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004).
1 Going back to Galilee: This remembering of things said about what to do if the worst should happen. These are memories – the instruction to go back to Galilee is to go back to the beginning, when we first met, think how it all started, what attracted you then? This charismatic figure who was so utterly plausible, compelling and irritatingly obsessed with his dream of a better way of living in the face of the oppressive powers and a sanctimonious, and so conservative religious establishment. Understanding then what made us fall in love and keep following. Get back in touch with our early experience, and in the light of what happened since, what does it now mean? That can be a way of going forward. Affirming the things we found then, loved and trusted and what set us alight, even alive again. TS Eliot has a verse in his Little Gidding Quartet around the middle of the WW2 and the period of his own failing health:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
2 Arnaud Beltrame – Authority: You may recall when Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame swapped places with one of the female hostages in the supermarket siege on 23rd March. He had married his partner some hours before and was planning their church wedding in June. He was respected and in authority in the Police. Acting in this way he became a catalyst in the ending of the siege, using his open mobile to let the police know what was happening, minute by minute.
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” says Jesus in the parable. There is a time in life for both individual and church, to choose which course to take, the moment of decision. This can only be respected when it is taken in the interest of others. This is what both the Christian and the Church life is about. Authority exists not for itself alone, but is ultimately held in the service of others. “You say, I am your Master and Lord, for so I am, but I come among you as a servant.”
3 It is not about Belief, but about Obedience: It is in the lonely hours that things start to get real and an awareness grows that our strength is not in numbers, or in great organised events and missions, but in the careful work with people and with other loving agencies for the healing, freedom, peace and justice in the world where you are. These are the things of value.
The disciples, followers, those who are learning the mysteries of faith, for them and for us it is about obedience to the commandments, i.e. the teachings and values of what makes for the new way of life for all; the good society: not necessarily obedience to the church prescriptions and for some, in some circumstance not the state either. During the war people had to choose. (UK and Germany) Obedience to the values from their Christian faith or the values being promulgated by the State at that time? The Commandments of Jesus: to love and serve one another and replicate this everywhere – to this we are called to give our obedience. By that token we are trusting ourselves to live by this – as the right way for us – That is faith. It is a different order from Beliefs. We can say all the creeds and there are three on one leg three times every day – but that does not come near to faith. Beliefs are the results of tribal conflicts and compromises and often have to be revised, repealed and abandoned.
Beliefs do not define a Christian but behaviour does and certainly conflicts between Christians on the basis of beliefs can only be bad. Resolve your disputes quickly and then come and make your offering at the Altar”.
To be open, inclusive and questioning – is that a statement of belief – in what we are? Or, is it an act of obedience and then faith?
4 Discipleship takes us to the top of the mountain: Matthew was keen on mountains. He cites the Beatitudes collection of teachings, development groups perhaps, over a period of months, years even, on a mountain. The temptations and transfiguration take him up a high mountain. I have always found with mountains that when you get to the top of a long climb, there appears another steep climb just ahead or round the next bend. Eventually there is the coming down again with needs to be met, yes, a sharing the exhilaration of having done it, but life gets busy with living.
Yet, a resurrection there was and there is, and is to be. The tomb cannot contain him, just as the temple of Solomon could not contain God. The tomb can sometimes be the very church that claims his name and says he is here. The tomb can be where young people caught in the spiral of violence pursue vengeance and more violence. One young man, when his own brother was murdered by the gang, turned his face against seeking revenge and worked instead to stop youngsters from getting into the gangs. This is the beginning of a new and different way.
Resurrection has nothing to do with dead bodies coming back to life. Though, it can be a metaphor for the liberation of the mind, the body and the spirit. When we understand things in an entirely new and uplifting way, from what we once learned. It has to do with Realisation of who we are and can be: Transformation or a radically altered way of thinking and living. As Christians the way Jesus thought, lived and died is the way we want to follow: as persons or as churches and is still so radically new in this modern world.
It is happening daily in every act of human kindness and compassion that heals and mends. By technological innovation that makes the quality of life better for millions. Seeing the face of a baby absolutely bursting with pleasure and joy and emulating that in our own relations: Connecting with the ordinary and extraordinary things of life. Committing to support and share that with those who cannot yet experience life as a good. By being on the side of wanting a new world order that seeks to serve, respect and create peace.
Sermon Easter Day 1st April
A New Look at Easter
Philippians 3: 5-11
During this service we will be having a new look at Easter. Why so? Because the picture that’s usually given to us at Easter raises a lot of questions that need to be asked. I want to try and understand what was really going on when the Jesus of Nazareth that we read about in the Gospel story, having died on the cross, comes alive again and is proclaimed to be ‘the Christ’, ‘the Messiah’ and the ‘Saviour of the world’. That’s our agenda. But first we’ll have a more traditional opening by listening to the great Easter greeting, hallelujah, from Handel’s Messiah ……
The word ‘alleluia’, with or without an ‘h’, is Hebrew and it means ‘praise God’ or ‘bless the Lord (oh my soul)’. The Psalms are full of alleluias and we can read one of these Psalms now where we’ve got the translation ‘bless the Lord’ instead of the original ‘alleluia’. Psalm 103 …..
‘Allelu’ means ‘praise’ or ‘blessing on’ ‘Jah’ … ‘Allelu-jah’. ‘Jah’ is a shortened version of ‘Yahweh’, the God of the Hebrews, the God of Israel. Allelujah, ‘bless the Lord’, ‘praise be to God’, is what the word means.
Christianity has evolved out of Judaism. Alleluia is now part of our Christian vocabulary. But we have an extra dimension to it and we need to look a bit more closely at that evolution. Evolution is a process that never stops, it’s going on all the time. The whole of Creation is evolving at every level from the smallest to the greatest. We ourselves are evolving and this includes our knowledge of the world, our understanding of life, of God and religion, everything is evolving. But religions generally have all been reluctant to believe in evolution, especially the evolution of our knowledge of God, because evolution always means ‘change’. There’s no escape from the truth of evolution. You can put your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening, but it won’t go away. It is happening all the time. Charles Darwin got into trouble with the Church for showing that everything has evolved, and is continuing to evolve, and it must include what we understand about the world we live in, about life, and God, and religion. How many bishops does it take to change a light bulb? Change!! “Good heavens” said the bishops, “we can’t do that.” And the Church, by and large, still has its head in the sand.
Now let’s have a look at the word ‘God’. Is there any room for evolution in theology, in our knowledge of God if the Bible says, God is the same, yesterday, today and forever? Well, even if God doesn’t change our understanding of God does change and should change! There’s plenty of room for change and plenty of need for change in theology, in our understanding of the word God. Think of Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 where he says, “here on earth our knowledge of God is partial, it’s imperfect. We don’t see clearly, it’s like looking into a misty mirror.” The glass needs polishing and evolution is the polishing process. It is happening. Alleluia! And it is taking place under the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit, the Creator Spirit that fills the universe, whose very purpose is to lead us deeper into the truth about God (John 16:13) and everything else. So we shouldn’t put our heads in the sand or hide away from the evolution of theology. We should welcome it with alleluias and give thanks to God.
The evolution of Christian theology began soon after that first Easter when Jesus died. Paul himself was the first to recognise what was happening. And this is what was happening. The Jesus of history was being transformed into the Christ of faith. This is so important in our understanding of Christianity. I repeat, the Jesus of history was being transformed into the Christ of faith. Let’s now hear the impact this realisation made on Paul as we listen to words from his letter to the Philippians chapter 3: 5-10a ……
This reading is telling us about Paul’s religious evolution from Judaism to Christianity, from an understanding of God who writes his commandments in stone on Mount Sinai, to an understanding of God who writes a love letter on the human heart, everybody’s heart, not just a chosen few (Galatians 3:28, 1 John 4:16). The God that Paul writes about, works through all, is in all, and holds everything in oneness (Ephesians 4:6). In verse 10 of our reading Paul writes this, all I want to know is Christ and experience the power of the resurrection. And this brings us to the very heart and centre of what Easter is all about. It’s about two things. It’s about Christ, and the Resurrection. And according to Paul to ‘know Christ’ is to experience resurrection. The two go together. But what does that mean for us today? How can we get to know Christ and in doing so experience resurrection? Resurrection is not something to say you believe in. It doesn’t belong in your head. It’s an experience you have in your heart, in your soul, in the very depth of your being.
Today after 2000 years of theological evolution we can’t be expected to say that we believe in dead bodies coming alive and shooting off into the sky, going up to some paradise called heaven where God lives. We need a different picture. We need a new way of looking at and understanding the Easter story. And we do have that ‘different picture’. It’s already there in Paul’s letters. Paul didn’t know Jesus personally. He has heard about Jesus’ teaching and he didn’t like what he heard! Paul was a Pharisee after all. He was there urging people on when they were stoning to death Stephen, one of Jesus’ followers, and he went about persecuting the other followers wherever he could find them. But then, one day, what he was doing caught up with him. He took his head out of the sand and he had an experience that he called ‘coming to know Christ’. Paul didn’t know Jesus, just as we don’t know Jesus, but he came to know Christ and so can we.
As a result of that experience Paul’s message was this; When anybody comes to know Christ they become new people, the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Something’s happening; you can call it, evolution! Sometimes he spoke about ‘being in Christ’ or ‘Christ being in you’ (Colossians 1:27), but whatever the phrase, it points to a deep, spiritual experience of ‘coming alive’ in a new way and having a new relationship with yourself, with God, and with everybody and everything else.
“All I want”, says Paul “is to know Christ and experience the power of the resurrection.” The word Christ is itself something of a mystery and Paul tells us how to find our way into this mystery. The Bible translates the word ‘mystery’ as ‘secret’. “The secret is this,” says Paul “the mystery is this, Christ in you. That’s the secret, that’s the mystery” (Colossians 1:27), and that’s where you have to look to get to know Christ. If it’s a ‘secret’ then it’s an ‘open secret’. It’s for everybody to enter into the mystery of their own oneness with God, Christ in you. This is the very heart and centre of the Easter message, that Jesus as the Christ, is himself one with God and has opened the way for us to follow. Easter should not be concerned about finding the missing body of Jesus or asking what happened to him and where has he gone. The best way to think about Easter is to say that the historical Jesus was alive in the body, but now as the Christ, he is alive in the Spirit, one with God the eternal Spirit. That’s the Easter message in which we put our hope and our trust. Having faith, hoping and trusting in God is a ‘real experience’. Alleluia. The Spirit within us can begin to rise up in Resurrection assuring us of oneness with God. Our oneness with God is part of a bigger picture of the oneness of all things where God is all, in all and works through all (Ephesians 4:6).
Knowing the Christ within and experiencing the power of the resurrection is not once and for all, over and done with, it’s a process that needs to keep going, keeping us on the move, keeping us evolving into the fullness of what it means to be one with God.
Sermon 11th March
John 3: 16-21; John 19: 25-27
Intro: We are halfway through Lent and at Mothering Sunday, which for those on a serious season of fasting, is where you can relax the fast and enjoy a piece of Simnel Cake. From medieval times this is a tradition of making a special cake of possibly wheaten flour with fruits – a cake to please, before we go the remainder of the Lenten journey.
Lent in this part of the world bridges that period of the year between winter and spring. Its message is closely aligned with what is happening in nature. The darkness and cold days and long nights of winter; and when the snow has gone again the crocii that were there, reappear in all their vibrant colour; birdsong is more, and the sun begins to warm and soon spring, new life is on the way. Thus, the Christian story is one of the wilderness experience of doubt, anxiety, fear even, on to chaos, sorrow and pain of Holy Week but one day light begins to emerge, hope is renewed, life restored, even made new. Perhaps it can be like the journey through illness. Lent can be much more than a religious ritual.
1 Tension of Lent: I want to hold up two large canvases in our minds:
One is – the terrifying war in Syria (the Yemen) – War till no-one is left alive. Frequently the UN has worked for a truce, peace talks, a cessation of fighting for a humanitarian mission. The powers in this world have broken every UN Convention signed up to by all 193 nations and thereby threaten the reason for the UN system at all. Eastern Ghouta is the latest area of attempted genocide by any means, chlorine gas or indiscriminate bombing. People, women, children, the old, the innocents are simply collateral damage. Nor, can we take the high moral stance, for in war, this is what happened when we bombed German cities. This is humanity at both its most depraved and desperate.
The second large canvas is – In spite of the persistent bombing the UN agencies like UNICEF and charities that are partners such as OXFAM, SCF etc. do go into Eastern Ghouta, people risking their own lives daily in convoys and in the rubble; doctors and nurses there have remained in the cellars working with hardly anything but their skills to save lives. There are the White Helmets who during the worst bombardments are seen carrying the wounded or dead through streets to those makeshift hospitals. And there are the cameramen and reporters who bring us these stories.
On a smaller scale but significant are those during the snow who with a sheer stubborn sense of duty, good will, community and compassion somehow got staff into hospitals up and down this country. We see it in rescue work at all sorts of catastrophes. In all of this [they] are the real heroes of today wherever they are. They are the opposite to the evil powers of this world. They are the Easter hope.
Together, the two canvases represent both the human tragedy and glory, with which the Christian story is aligned. And this is the tension in which we here try to explore the meaning and depth of our faith.
READING: John 3: 16-21
2 To satisfy God: I wanted you to hear John 3 in the context of what I have just said. These verses of John are chosen (I believe, quite wrongly, as does the greater part of global biblical scholarship), chosen to support the view that Jesus’ whole purpose in life was to satisfy a God who was angry with the sins of mankind, that only his own Son could pay the price to get us off his punishment. That is stating it at its baldest though there are other versions that sound more benign. The gospels do not support any of them, collectively called the ‘substitutionary theory’, God sacrificing Jesus instead of us. Paul did not teach this. For a thousand years there were many understandings of why Jesus died. But this theory became the dominant teaching of churches, and is present today. We owe this to St Anselm (12th Century Abp. of Cantuar) and later adaptations of Calvin et al and joyless Christianity.
‘There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin’ and our liturgy, hymns, prayers and culture is filled up with it: the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. Jesus was the human sacrifice required to reconcile us to God: to make us one with God (At-one-ment). We were all brought up with this.
However, Jesus did not invite us to relate to an angry God, set on judgement and punishment. Sure, he rages against the domination system of state and religion, made by the powerful that crushes people. And he discloses their moral bankruptcy and reveals that Love is the real attribute (of God) that ultimately defeats those powers of evil. This is the real Christian argument that is liberating. In the end love triumphs over all.
There is more.
READING: John 19: 25-27
3 Women at the Cross: Crucifixions were exceptionally cruel methods of Roman punishment, and used as deterrents. If Jesus’ crucifixion was the routine execution, like any of the thousands carried out before and after – it is more likely that he died alone – the whole stark emptiness of it all, even more marked than the gospel accounts suggest. People up on a cross would be considered criminals, terrorists and a danger to the Empire. Anyone who appeared close to them would be thought of as subversives.
Why would women be there at all? Maybe women were less threatening than men. Or, maybe something else is going on for the writers in the local churches of their day? First century Jewish women and Gentile women, i.e. non-Jews – were thought of as less important, had little identity in their own right. We can also include children in this too, of little consequence until the male particularly grew up.
Yet, women in the Gospels play a major role, both on Good Friday and Easter day, as witnesses. It seems clear that those who followed Jesus had an identity and status which carried on into early Christianity. Jesus’ own relations with women had changed from the prevailing culture. Whether they were actually there or not is not the point. The Gospel writers were illustrating that the Christian movement subverted the conventional wisdom of the time, it was inclusive and everyone was of importance to God. Women were in leadership and gave patronage to local churches.
However, this new thing of early Christianity,’ gender equality’, has been almost completely disregarded for most of Christian history. And that disregard has stained the cultures where Christianity was planted, almost everywhere. Or, Christians adopted the prevailing culture around women, too readily, despite how Jesus had behaved. Besides, and maybe making it permanent for centuries – the sacrifice of the Mass – that recalling of the sacrifice of Jesus for us, the one true, perfect sacrifice – guess what – can only ever be celebrated by a man.
4 Conclusion: If we really want to understand why in both secular and religious institutions, (not Christian religion alone) men and sometimes women are engaged in sexual offences on women and children, there is a fertile ground in the history of religious ideas and practice around how women and children have been regarded for thousands of years. During most of that time real power lay with the male of the species.
Without the Easter experience Good Friday leads to cynicism and cynical politics that tells us this is the way the world is. How the powers are and always will be, and those who think otherwise are utopian dreamers. Christianity is about the next world, not this one.
Easter without Good Friday risks sentimentality and self-obsession. It is at the happy-clappy end of politics and life that tells us to think of our own personal state and salvation.
If we really follow our Lord and Master churches are more of a subversive element in society. They are not really conservative at all. Of course there are different ways of being subversive – it doesn’t always have to be noisy. But, what is – can be turned upside down.
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