Sermon 2nd June 2019
Journey of Transformation
Galatians 5:22f; 2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 5:1; John 4:24
We are all on the Journey of Life and the journey of life is also, or should be, a Journey of Transformation. I read that phrase, ‘a journey of transformation’, in a book by Marcus Borg who was a professor of theology at an American University. He’s written a number of books which some of us have read. It’s all good stuff and we need to be telling others what we’ve learned from him, which I am going to do now.
One of the books is called ‘Meeting Jesus Again – for the first time’. And in the book he tells how what he learned about Jesus, in Sunday School and Junior Church, needed to change as his own journey of life became a journey of transformation. In another of his books called, ‘The God We Never Knew’, he says, “My understanding of Jesus has radically changed over the course of my life.” Our own journey through life also needs to be a similar ‘journey of transformation’. We don’t want to get stuck with what we were taught in Sunday School. The man we call St Paul knew about this, because he himself was on that journey, and he tells us clearly in one of his letters, “When I became a man, I put away childish things”.
On this journey of transformation the key to its success is becoming aware of ourselves at a deeper level than just everyday life as we live it on the surface. ‘Real life’ is not on the surface, it’s deeper than that! If we are wise we will think of ourselves as being Body, Mind and Spirit. These three are all an essential part of who we are, but they have different roles to play. We begin life with our Bodies. Babies and little children soon let you know of their bodily needs. But then, as they grow up, they begin to think for themselves, ask questions, use their brains and develop their Minds. We are then Body and Mind. And then last of all we become aware of being more than just a body and mind. We find that there is another dimension to life which we don’t fully understand with our minds, and we can’t explain in words, but we can experience it. We can become aware of it. We can know at a deeper level than our minds that there’s something else going on within us, and that something we call Spirit. And if you have a good religion, which we do have in this Church, your Spirit will be awakened, it will come alive, and become an active and even decisive part of your life.
If we are to be living as fully as we can, Body, Mind and Spirit, we need to know about Spirit. So what is Spirit? How best can we think of it? Your Spirit is that mysterious ‘something’ in you, in all of us, which takes us beyond, deeper than what we can know with our heads. It’s more to do with the Heart, with our inner being. We can think of Spirit as the very essence of life, or as we heard in the reading, “Spirit is the Source and Sustainer of Life.” It can make us aware of the whole spiritual dimension of Creation of which we are a small part, but to which we belong. I’m talking about Spirit now because next week is Whit Sunday and we shall be celebrating Pentecost. The story is there in the Acts of the Apostles. But I want to look at it, not from the point of view of what might have happened two thousand years ago, but thinking of what can happen now for us today. For me it doesn’t really matter what happened two thousand years ago, but I shouldn’t say that too loudly or somebody might hear me!
I want to focus on a verse that we’ve already heard which says, “God is Spirit and where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom”. And that’s what we want, that’s what we need, to be free. God wants us to be free. Free to be ourselves, to discover and become what we have it in us to become. We have to waken up to the fact that we are more than just Body and Mind. The Spirit within us can be awakened and lead us in a ‘merry dance’ if we’re prepared to follow. “Dance then wherever you may be,” the Lord of the dance is the Spirit which will lead us on our journey of transformation. We can think our way into it, feel our way into it, and even dance our way into it! Freedom, in and through the Spirit, is God’s great and wonderful gift to us all and once again Paul can help us to unpack this gift so that we can use it. And he does that by talking about ‘the Fruit of the Spirit’.
If the Spirit is active within us it will be producing all that we need on our journey of transformation. And in the reading we heard is a list of what it is: “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Humility and Self-control”, the Fruit of the Spirit. And like good gardeners we have to be involved in the cultivation of this fruit. How do we do that? Cultivating this fruit, all these spiritual qualities, is a Work of Art. And we have to practise and learn how to do it. The Spirit is calling each one of us to become an Artist. But we won’t be painting a picture, or writing a poem or a piece of music, or weaving a tapestry. We will be producing a transformed life! And we should be working on it in each passing moment of every day, and learning as we go. Oh yes! We will still be making mistakes for which we need to forgive ourselves, and be forgiven. But here again, any ‘good religion’ will be offering us unconditional forgiveness so that we don’t get stuck with our mistakes.
The dance goes on, the work of art continues to be made. And the artistry needed will involve a blending of all those spiritual qualities. You will be moved and motivated by the Spirit within and people will see and feel the presence of something more than just your body and your mind. They will be in the presence of an artist on the journey of Life’s transformation. In all your relationships there will be kindness and goodness, blended with patience and a hint of humility. And all the time there will be self-control guided by the same Spirit who will take you deeper into yourself, and as you go you will know that, “Peace which passes all understanding”. And underlying it all, ‘Love’ will be the basis on which you stand. You will have felt the embrace of Eternal Love and from there you will be reaching out to others.
Meditation and Sermon 28th April 2019
The River of Life
Life is a great Mystery. We are alive and so we are part of that Mystery. And even within the Mystery we are free to think our thoughts, to have our feelings and ask questions. Free to wonder about the meaning and purpose of our being alive.
I want to think of life as a river, the River of Life. A river begins its life high up in the hills with just drops of water making a pool, then overflowing to become a stream bickering down the hillside, like Tennyson says in his poem:
I come from haunts of coot and hern
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern
To bicker down a valley
growing bigger and stronger, until it finally runs into the sea and becomes one with the ocean.
A ‘river of water’ can be a symbol of the ‘river of life’. We too begin our lives in a small way, growing bigger and stronger. We can think of ourselves as flowing along in the Great River of Life. There is a lot happening to us as we flow through life. There are both opportunities and obstacles. We have experiences that can lift our spirits or dash our hopes. Sometimes the way is smooth and easy and we enjoy the journey that we are on. Sometimes we can rest on the banks of the river and be delighted at the abundance and variety of life which flourishes around us. But sometimes it feels like we are crashing over rocks and plunging down waterfalls. We may get caught in a whirlpool situation; round and round we go not knowing how to get out of it. But all the time, come what may, the river of life flows on, and here we are now, today, still alive on the River of Life.
The other river made of water will finally come to the estuary and flow into the sea and become one with the ocean. Is that the end of the river? No!! The river itself has not just drained into the sea and disappeared. The river is still flowing and will continue to flow, because in the ocean it evaporates into the clouds which blow over the land. The rain falls, the river is fed, and continues to flow.
What about the River of Life down which we are travelling? Can we not think of ourselves, as we approach our own ‘estuary’, that like the river which is flowing into the sea, our life will be flowing into a Greater Life to which there is no end. This is a mystery indeed. So be it. You can believe in it. You can give the Mystery a name and call it GOD.
Is Religion a Mistake?
Exodus 6: 2-13
It won’t surprise you if I begin my sermon with a question. Do you consider yourself to be a religious person? You will think for a minute, and then, if you are wise (which of course you are), you will say, “It all depends on what you mean by religious”. And saying that, you will have thrown the question back to me, which I will try to answer. And I invite you to listen in and see how far you agree with me, or not!
As you know, I have already nailed my colours to the mast and made my position clear. As far as ‘religion’ is concerned, I regard myself as being spiritual, but not religious. So what is it about religion that puts me off? Well, it’s not something that happened to me overnight. I was born, baptised, and grew up ‘in religion’. I was even ordained as a minister of religion. But since then, over the years, questions have been bubbling up and brought me to where I am today.
I have been reading the autobiography of Richard Holloway, who was the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, and has actually stood here in this church a few years ago, and told us about his own ‘questioning spirit’, which has led him to the conclusion that ‘religion is a mistake’. Well, if so, who made the mistake? When and how was it made? And can it be corrected? I believe that it can be corrected, but first of all we need to understand what religion is, where it came from and how it might be regarded as a mistake, and corrected.
So let’s have a look at where religion comes from. It comes from ‘way back’, back to when people first lived here on Mother Earth, and walked about this planet of ours, this world in which we live. From the beginning of our being here, people were telling stories to each other. Stories about the Gods who, they thought, lived ‘up there’ in the sky. Worship was offered to them in the hope of their blessing and protection. And that is how and why and where religion came from. It came from ‘people’. Religion is our idea. It’s our creation. People everywhere were looking for safety and security. And in those days where else could they look, but up into the sky?
Our own Christian religion emerged from the Jewish religion, and so we have the same stories in the same Bible. All religions have their ‘foundation stories’, created to give us a base on which to stand, and give us a framework for living and building our lives here on earth. We have the same Creation story in the Book of Genesis, followed by the story of an ‘Exodus’ where people are liberated from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who was understood to be personally ‘in touch’ with one of those gods ‘up there’, who was called Jehovah or Yahweh. If you hear any of these foundation stories it’s obvious that that’s what they are, stories or myths. They are not historical records. They are not giving us a factual account of what happened in the beginning, they are symbolic. They are pointing to what is really a mystery, beyond words, beyond explanation, but needed as a ‘foundation’ for us to stand on as we try to make sense of our being alive and being here.
The Exodus story is highly symbolic. We shouldn’t believe it literally, it’s only a story, but it is important to understand the symbolism. We need the story of the Exodus, or one like it, because all human beings, all people everywhere, have a tendency to get themselves trapped, imprisoned, locked into that which robs them of their freedom. We need to be free. Free to think for ourselves, and be ourselves. The word ‘exodus’ means ‘a way out’. It’s a story about that very freedom. It’s telling us of the need and the importance of ‘getting out of’ any kind of slavery you find yourself imprisoned within. Freedom is the most vital sacred possession that we can have. We need to be free, free to think, to question, to explore, discover, and become as fully alive as we can be.
And this is where religion’s big mistake was made. These foundation stories being told were eventually written down and they became the ‘infallible scriptures’ of the different religions. The stories were taken literally. The symbolic meaning was lost and so was the freedom needed to interpret them. Everything was put into the hands of a Religious Hierarchy, which took control and dominated the development of each religion. As the religions developed people had to believe what they were told, and they were told that their eternal salvation depended on it. So where did that leave us? Trapped! Instead of being encouraged to question and explore and move deeper into their freedom, they were trapped, imprisoned in their Scriptures which had now become the literal truth which had to be believed. And that was the big mistake.
And the mistake has been carried on until today and is largely responsible for the terrible mess the world is in at the present time. The result was that the different religions became competitive and deadly. Think of the slaughter of the Crusades, the horrors of the Inquisition, and all the terrible things that so-called religious people have done and continue to do to one another. The situation now is such that religion itself is in need of ‘salvation’. It needs saving from itself and from the mistakes it has made. This will involve discarding ‘literalism’ and rediscovering the symbolic meaning of the Bible stories. Symbols are important. They can point to some deep truth beyond themselves. They can point to an ideal which lies ahead of us and always will lie ahead. The ultimate truth will never become our possession, so we will need to keep moving towards it.
The poet Robert Browning has said, “Our reach should exceed our grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Heaven is just a symbol to keep us reaching out for the ultimate. The spirit tells us, “Don’t grasp the Scriptures as if they were the last word or the final revelation. Look for the symbolic meaning and keep moving towards it.” Another poet has said, “There is nothing fixed and final”. That’s Sydney Carter, the hymn writer, who also knew the dangers of religion.
We need saving from any literal understanding of the Bible, from a religion that tells us it’s all true and you’d better believe it if you want to be saved! That’s ‘bad religion’, and it’s a mistake. And this applies to the Easter Story as much as to any of the other stories. The symbolism of Easter is pointing to the Great Mystery of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. GOD is our word-symbol for the ultimate, for the Oneness of All things which is our true home.
So when you read or listen to the Bible, be looking for harmony and inclusiveness. You won’t find it on every page. Some of the stories are divisive and exclusive. Reject those as inadequate, out of date, or just a mistake. Look for the Oneness, and let the Spirit within draw you deeper into it. It’s your true home. It’s where you belong. Loosen your grasp on religious literalism and reach beyond. Treasure your freedom. Believe in yourself and have a foretaste of your own Oneness with God.
Easter Day Conversation
21st April 2019
Exodus 3: 7-8 (stopping after ‘rich and fertile’), 11-12
1 Corinthians 15: 12-17
Luke 24: 1-12
NB You will recall the great characters, Moses and Elijah, iconic figures in the Jewish story. They were given a mystical element surrounding their death. Elijah was taken up into God in a ‘fiery, fiery chariot’, and the grave of Moses was never found. The Gospel writers would have been well aware of these myths and Jews knew that it was the meaning that lay inside these mythical stories that is really important. If the story of Jesus had ended with crucifixion, he most likely would have been forgotten and the Christian faith would at best have remained a sect within Judaism.
RW This means there would have been no living community to tell his story or give meaning to his death. But we know that his disciples, the community he formed around him, were confident enough to get his story together. So, it is fair to ask at Easter, what kind of stories are these?
NB They are for the most part parables. And parables don’t need to be factual, but they do need to be true. What I mean – let’s take an example of one of the parables Jesus used: there may not actually have been a man at exactly that time with exactly 100 sheep and having lost one, he searched day and night until he found it. But, just think if there was a man like that, this is the way you are valued by God. Now the people he was talking with would have been surprised to hear this because that was not their experience. The ‘specialists’ in God – i.e. the authorities who know about God, they don’t treat people like that. That is the truth in the story.
RW This parable is a story about the value of each human being. Were some of Jesus reported sightings parables too?
NB The parables of the sightings of Jesus show a Jesus engaged with people in deep and meaningful ways, in the ordinary, familiar and everyday rhythm of life and he transforms the experience, to make it extraordinary, freeing, liberating and loving. What he was about in life. So the writer uses metaphor to express the experience of what was happening to them in the years they were with him before the crucifixion: the life they had then felt alive in ways they had never experienced in their lives before. He had already changed their lives beyond what they had been.
RW It is important to understand that metaphor is about the time of the writer, not the time of the story he is telling. Some metaphors travel across time, others lose their meaning, sometimes we have to search for the meaning which the writer was seeing.
NB This is particularly seen in the Emmaus Road story which, if you examine it closely looks very much like the liturgy we have at a Communion service. It has the teaching, the remembering and the recognition in the breaking of bread. But the deeper meaning is not in the act itself, but in the relationship that the act of communion represents – Community of people, and if it is true then there is union, togetherness, a one-ness. Once the teacher had shared he could go. So, we have an example of what we/you do once a month at Communion – Jesus, his spirit is within the body of our gathering.
How can you express what happened to those first followers during their extraordinary experience of being with him constantly, and then the utter despair when he was so cruelly murdered by the State? After that, how could they not recall how he had inspired and transformed their lives? And the things he had talked about, that immense vision of the Kingdom of God: in our terms what a different place the world can be when we see and act in it, all of us, as he did and called us to. The coming together, the sorrow, their own failures; but the dreams, such dreams he led them to believe in. Jesus stands as at least among the giants of their Jewish story, Moses, Elijah: the spirit of such people never dies, nor can that spirit be allowed to die.
RW This requires something more than ordinary words, don’t you think to express the complete turn-around; the change in direction; more than hope, it was conviction, confidence that Jesus had given up his life to change the way life is.
NB In that way they can say with complete confidence that he lives and that he is Lord, the first statement of belief, and it is the only one that really says it all. Recall how in the Gospel Jesus is saying that those who have believed in him, though they did not see him, or have direct physical contact with him, are the more blessed – that is the likes of us.
When Paul was writing, the Gospels had not been written. But he knew what Christians were talking about after Jesus had died, and they were not defeatist then. And he at first, you will recall, tried his level best to stamp Christianity out. Paul does not say Jesus is risen but he does say he is raised. For Paul, this does mean that in the end, Jesus is vindicated: he was the true messenger. Therefore he is raised up, lifted high above all those authorities who were explicit in his death. He stands high above them in moral and spiritual authority. Jesus is Lord. His way is true.
RW I am comfortable with this description of resurrection but I would like to ask you a couple of questions. In the light of what you have just said how do we explain and identify resurrection today?
NB That is the most important question of all. And there could not be a better time to explore what it means. Resurrection Now has to be one of rescuing, freeing and liberating – a message the world needs to hear right now. That there is a way out of our human mess. The cross is undeserved; it is not God’s judgement on us or any one. It does not have to be that way, but it so often is. Jesus did not deserve to die and he did not die in our place. Jesus died to change the way we think about each other. People who are seeking freedom of conscience or simply freedom to be – and to have a decent life, do not deserve to die, but they often do before we make the changes that are needed.
RW I have always felt that dying for the world’s sins was a cynical comment on human life, it puts an even greater distance between Christians and those who are not. It was also a means of exerting control and thus its only value was to churches, not to people.
NB But his way of life is costly and it would be sheer sentimentality to think that his vision of humanity can come about without pain and suffering and death. As Spring follows Winter, so does hope and release and new growth and joy. Though, it is not always so rhythmic.
RW The Jesus of the Gospels is usually studied away from the reality of the social and political time he lived in. How has this affected our understanding of Easter?
NB Jesus cannot be taken out of the Gospels as ‘a holy man’ outside the trauma of the times he lived in. Everything he said, his stories, events he was placed in had a personal and political context, it was an injunction against those who kept people from being whom they were meant to be.
RW You are saying that the story of Easter shows us a better way?
NB There is another way which is to community, communion, sharing, equalities, justice and peace and life. Jesus is on the side of life; Easter is about life because Jesus is life affirming. All can be changed, transformed, completely turned around, where true freedom is to be found. A new way of living this present life together. In the meantime, whilst we are in the human mess, we can transcend it, rise above it, we can choose a moral way and a spiritual way that hopes and works for reconciliation.
RW To see the resurrection with that spiritual light thrown upon it adds a freshness which is exciting because it is grounded in real life, life today not that of two thousand years ago.
NB Every time we reach a place that is quite dark, and darkness is in so many places, here too in the UK right now. Causes are often so far back and so interwoven; and how can we fix a world so near to destruction? Still we have an opportunity – a realisation that by acting differently, life can be changed. The Lyra McKee murder, really dark, also brought people and politicians from all sides together and the uttering a common message mattered; a message echoed by a heartfelt cry from people that they will not go back to those bad days. Now, it is over to politicians and all of us, to follow this through right across the UK. We have to find in all our darkness, a reconciliation that can raise us up; transform what is.
Could that be what we mean by – Resurrection? Raised up, made new, a new world is within our reach – Resurrection is how we make the present and future better for all.
Noel Beattie and Roger Wilson
Prayer and Discussion Group
This is not a sermon. It was a paper prepared by Howard Bridge to
introduce discussion at our Prayer and Discussion Group
on 10th April 2019
We know that John’s gospel is not to be taken literally, that it is full of symbolism. It is a gospel about transformation about turning water into wine not to save the face of the host at a wedding but to illustrate that our lives can be similarly transformed. And the best is saved till last!
So when John writes of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night this is not necessarily a reference to the time of day but could be a reference to Nicodemus’s spiritual state – gloomy, despondent, pessimistic, worried. To help him Jesus told him he must be born again. Now, Nicodemus was a literalist. He wanted to know how a man could enter his mother’s womb and be born again. “No” said Jesus patiently “I am talking about spiritual birth”. Born once physically of the flesh but then born of the spirit a second birth – born again!
This idea of life/death/resurrection is a theme which reflects Jesus’s life. He describes himself as The Way. This is a feature of most of the major religions including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. To quote from the Quaker Advice and Queries ‘Cherish that of God within you so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way’ and the way that Jesus was following, having set his face towards Jerusalem was the way of persecution, execution and resurrection. Life/death/resurrection. Born again.
A couple of weeks ago we heard again the familiar story of the prodigal son. Here was a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He effectively pronounced his father dead by asking for his inheritance early. Then he wasted it on loose women and living the high life. He was reduced to scavenging among pigs. To a Jew, even this one, his situation was a kind of death. It was unbearable. But when he went home his father made a great fuss of him and he was able to start a new life. Is John showing us another example of being born again? There can be little doubt that he was a different person, not so his brother. He continued to be Mr Reliable. Working on the farm and helping in the synagogue at weekends. We could speculate how the soap opera would develop after the dust had settled.
Life death and resurrection (being born again) are clearly relevant for individuals but what about other bodies? Is the Church on such a course? Are we to be ready for its decline and death and must it be born again in a different form? And what about our government? Will political parties die and be born again with new objectives and perceptions?
Being born again – dying to one way of life and being transformed to another can be a sudden and dramatic experience both for individuals and for institutions. Revolution, for example, must be a sudden transformation.
For most of us it is a long process. Dying to one way of life and rising to another is a lifetime experience – and the rest! Letting go of one way and taking on another takes time. And we do not know how this new life will develop. It goes on for ever.
Dying to one life and rising to another has consequences. We will not be the same. For example our priorities are likely to change. Our prime concern will not be ourselves but our neighbours. We are back to John’s gospel of transformation.
For institutions such a process could be transformation from dictatorship to democracy for example. For the individual s/he could show the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self – control.
What of the Church? Will it move from its present property-centred position where we built great temples to the glory of God to a transformed organisation which has no need of such edifices?
Sermon Sunday 3rd March 2019
All about God
1 Kings 19: 9-12 John 4: 19-24
If I say that our service this morning is going to be ‘All about God’ you may not be surprised, because that’s what we are here for, to worship God. But do we ever stop and think about what that means? Probably not! We just get on with it like we’ve always done. Well, this morning we will stop and think about what we’re doing and we’ll think about it while we are doing it, which as any teacher will tell us is the best way to learn.
Let’s hear some familiar words from the Bible. In the beginning God created the Universe and when his job was done, he looked at everything he had made and he was very pleased. Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and made people. He breathed the breath of life into their nostrils and they began to live. We can imagine that when the first people appeared on earth they also began to ask questions. Where did we come from? And how did we get here? And as they wondered about this they wandered all over the earth to see what they could find. Wondering and wandering they told stories, created myths, to provide some sort of answer to their questions. And the Bible ‘Creation Story’ is one of them. That’s where the word ‘God’ came from. It’s part of the story of beginnings.
Every different group of people, every culture on earth, and every language that is spoken, will have its own Creation Story and its own word for God. But in every language ‘God’ is just that, it’s a word. And whatever the word is, the people who are speaking it will need to have their own understanding of what the word means. ‘God’ is our word in the English language and, if we use the word God, we have a responsibility to say what it means. And here you can see that we are opening a door for religion to come in with all the answers. And some terrible things have come in through that door in the name of God. And of course, good things as well, but the dilemma is there. There are many gods and many religions. Which is the true God? Who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong? Religions have been fighting it out between themselves and making a terrible mess of things for ordinary people like ourselves. What we really need to do is take the word ‘God’ out of religion altogether and look at it in a different way. We’ve put it there! And maybe we’ve put it in the wrong place by wrapping it up in religion. But in any case, we have to say what it means and then live in the light of what we say and what we believe.
So what does it mean? For us who speak English, the word ‘God’ points to the Great Mystery of the universe, to the very mystery of existence itself. This is not a mystery that we are ever going to solve because we are part of it! The mystery is in us and we are it! So we do have something to get hold of, somewhere to start. The best way for us to approach this mystery is to begin by saying what God is not. We can never know what God is, but we can clear away a lot of rubbish and nonsense by saying what God is not. This will give us a bit of light to see where we’re going. So I’ll begin by saying that the word God is not telling us about ‘somebody’ somewhere up there hiding behind the clouds. Not ‘somebody’ who once said the magic words and the whole of Creation came into being. If ‘God’ is our word, which it is, if we put it there, which we did, it will therefore be telling us something about ourselves, telling us why we put it there. It will be telling us something about our deepest needs and perhaps holding the secret of how we can become what we have it in us to be. That’s where we have to start looking for the meaning of ‘God’, not up in the sky, but deep down in our own hearts.
Now this is where religion, a good religion, can be helpful. But we have to be careful with religion. Religions can solidify and begin to crush people instead of liberating us. Our religion should be lifting us, inspiring us, and guiding us as we explore this Great Mystery of being alive as we try to become the best that we can be while we are alive.
I want to look closer now at our own religion which we call Christianity. I want to find the ‘good bits’ that will help us to move where we need to go and become what we need to be. First of all we will look in what we call the Old Testament which is a record from the early days, primitive times, full of stories telling us what they thought about the word ‘God’ in those days. So we need to be careful. We mustn’t take the stories literally where people are supposed to talking to God as if he, and in those days God is always he, as if he was in fact somebody there with them. These are just ‘stories’ made up and written down to show that they were on speaking terms with the almighty, but it ain’t necessarily so, these things that you’re liable to read in the Bible. We must try to ‘see through’ the story to some underlying truth which may be relevant for us today. Let’s hear one of those stories now in a reading from the first Book of Kings 19: 9-12.
So what is the underlying truth of that story? What this passage says to me is, don’t be looking for somebody called God out there speaking though hurricanes, earthquakes or other dramatic events. If you want to find the true meaning of the word ‘God’, look inwards, and listen not with your ears, but deeper than that. Get down to the depths of your soul where if you listen carefully, you might hear the ‘soft whisper’ of a ‘still small voice’ affirming you in your personal and spiritual relationship with the Mystery of Life and therefore with ‘God’. There is a spiritual depth to all of us. The Eternal Spirit of Life is what God has breathed into us. Let’s hear another reading, this time from our New Testament, John 4: 19-24.
But even in the New Testament we don’t want to get trapped into taking the stories literally. We continue to look for a ‘living word’ that will make the truth come alive in us today. In the story we just heard Jesus is in Samaria in conversation with a woman by the well. The discussion is all about ‘who’s right?’ Is it the Jews or the Samaritans? Which God is the true God? Whose worship is acceptable? This discussion is based on the model of somebody out there who desires to be worshipped in a certain way. For us today that model is obsolete, and even then it was passing away. In verse 22 it says, “The time is coming and is already here when God will be understood, not as somebody somewhere, but as the Eternal Spirit everywhere.” And especially in the hearts, mind, and soul, of every person, if only they knew it.
Paul’s letters are full of this new model where it says, and I quote from the letter to the Romans, “The Eternal Spirit joins with our spirit declaring that we are one with God.” (8:16). True worship is simply the way we live our lives, as best we can, in oneness with God. Jesus himself taught that, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), so that’s where we have to look. A medical examination would not reveal it, this is spiritual territory, where God’s Spirit is one with your Spirit and you are becoming the person God wants you to be. One last verse from the First Letter of John (4:16) which puts it beautifully and simply so that anyone can understand, “God is love, and those who love, live in God and God lives in them.”
20th January EPIPHANY 2, 2019
Isaiah 62.1-5 John 2.1-11
Out of the depths
Whatever our views of Brexit, as we bring before God the state of our country in the aftermath of last week’s debates in the House of Commons, Psalm 130, which we read a few moments ago, is a good place to start. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication” – or, better, “my complaint”.
“The depths” is a word we find in the Creation story at the beginning of Genesis: “The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep”. It means chaos, an endless abyss into which we can fall if we lose our foothold. In the Christian liturgy “out of the depths”, de profundis, is a prayer in the face of death and judgment. In this psalm it’s used to describe a catastrophe. It could be personal, like being struck down with a sudden illness or disability. It is more likely to be a social or national collapse, a military defeat or deportation like the great Exile in Babylon. Where, in such situations, are God’s promises that he will protect his chosen people, and honour the Covenant he has made with them?
The Bible does not offer simple answers to these searching questions. Instead, it encourages us to bring them to God directly, and that is what we do today for our elected representatives and our country as we try to find the way forward with Brexit, and the deadlines (an interesting word!) draw rapidly nearer. Some of the Psalms surprise us by the boldness with which such prayers can be expressed: for example Psalm 44: “Wake up! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Why do you hide your face and forget our affliction?” In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are prayed by Jesus on the cross. “O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint”, prays the Psalmist – the ‘complaint’ here means not just an outpouring of feelings: it is a legal term, a formal complaint made to God as the highest authority, a plea to remedy the situation in which we find ourselves with the seriousness it requires.
Our two other readings are about marriage. John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana – “the first of the signs which he performed, which revealed his glory”. And Isaiah talks about the marriage of the land: “You shall no longer be called Azubah – forsaken – but Hephzibah – my delight is in her; not Shemamah – desolate – but Beulah – married.” What has this to do with Brexit? Quite a lot, actually.
When King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England as James I in 1603, one of the first things he did was introduce a new coinage called “The Unite”, of which this silver shilling is an example. (Pass round.) The coin marks union of Crowns describing James no longer as King of England and Scotland, but as “REX MAGNAE BRITANNIAE”: King of Great Britain. The inscription on the obverse quotes Mark 10.9: “QUAE DEUS CONJUNXIT NEMO SEPARET” – “Those whom God has joined let no-one separate”.
The new coin thus borrows the words of the Gospel to describe the birth of the new Kingdom of Great Britain as a marriage. Practical politics and propaganda were of course at work, not least in securing the Protestant succession and a united front against invasion. There were many within the parliaments of both kingdoms who opposed the union. One wonders what might have happened if they had held a referendum. Nevertheless the aspiration to create a marriage between two previously hostile nations was clearly stated, and what Theresa May has described as “our precious union” has survived, despite the tensions which still persist.
The analogy between marriage and a political union is, of course, limited. But there are things to be said in its favour:
- Consider the way in which such unions come about, through a process of courtship. Each side puts on its best behaviour, and shows itself to advantage. Then, when we have successfully wooed our partner by our charm or our material desirability, we settle down and reveal the real self which was temporarily suspended under the anaesthetic of romance. “Everyone serves the best wine first, and then, when they have drunk well, that which is worse.” Disillusionment sets in: our partner has irritating habits, or can’t be trusted, or spends too much or tries to control us. Eventually we decide the only solution is to break up the relationship with its tiresome costs and responsibilities, and enjoy the glorious freedom of being single again. The more adolescent among us thrill at the prospect of free love deals with glamorous new partners in exotic places far from our tiresome neighbours. Is not this exactly what people mean when they compare Brexit with a divorce?
- The language of marriage and divorce has the further merit of focussing on relationships. What is so disappointing about the whole Brexit process is the way in which the issue of trade has been isolated from its relational context. The Scottish archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver writes of “the ancient grammar of gift exchange” which the modern consumerist mind-set overlooks: “Objects moved between groups, not as commodities, but as symbols of relationships. The items themselves were almost meaningless without the relationship…They had a vague similarity to wedding gifts.” Far from being an archaeological irrelevance, this understanding of free trade has been fundamental to the EU. The aim of free trade has been, not only to raise living standards, but to make Europe’s economies so interdependent that we cannot go to war again. It began with the Iron and Steel Community which created a free market in those strategic commodities in order to remove them from the control of independent national war machines.
Our EU membership has been a marriage with the nations with whom we fought the terrible wars of the 20th century. It has been especially important to those of us whose families span the European divides. It has made possible the beginning of more inclusive identities and loyalties, and so created a new context for the Irish Peace Process; that is why the Irish border issue is so sensitive and so important.
- A third point is the reminder that divorces come at a cost. Despite people’s intention to part amicably, divorce proceedings generate mistrust and bad feeling. Negotiations get stuck, and then – surprise, surprise – we dig in, and blame the other side. The reality is that we cannot become young, innocent and single again. The countries of the EU will remain for ever the neighbours whom God has given us. With the breakup of the marriage and the repudiation of European Courts, what structures will be put in place to ensure the continuation of peace on our continent? These sobering considerations are part of the lament, the complaint of the Psalm: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord”. I do not deny that God can redeem our failures, but let us hear no more of “making a success of Brexit”. Whoever called a divorce a “success”?
The Kingdom of God
The second half of Psalm 130 contains a message of hope: “O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy. With him is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” And there is the promise contained in the story of the wedding at Cana, that “You have kept the best wine until now”: even in our seriously muddled world and broken relationships, the best is yet to come. It’s the defiant, Laurel and Hardy aspect of the Jewish character, the irrepressible humour in the midst of the complaint. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord” translates as: “Here’s another fine mess you’ve got me in!”
This was the message which the 20th century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, brought to the German people in 1918, after the defeat and national catastrophe of the First World War. “The problem”, he said, “is that you have abandoned the core message of the Bible – the judgment of God on all human pride. You have worshipped the gods of progress, wealth, Nation and Empire, and you have failed to criticise the damage done to the poor. Now that those gods have turned out to be false, and led you into this disaster, you are free. You have a new opportunity to rediscover the Gospel – and in your humiliation to put your trust, not in your country’s greatness or superiority, but in the goodness and righteousness that are God’s gift to all people alike.” It was not a message which people wanted to hear – until after the even greater disaster of 1945.
Maybe we too have a similar opportunity, to rediscover the Gospel. If the divorce goes through and we leave the European Union, so be it. The EU is not the Kingdom of God – but an independent Britain is not the Kingdom of God either. There is no way back to our lost youth or to reviving the imagined glories of the past – any more than there was for God’s chosen people, the Jews. The future will be different. We have made our bed, and we must lie on it.
But the Kingdom of God is still there, as God’s promise for all peoples. It becomes a reality when we reject false promises and arrogant attitudes, and learn to wait patiently, and put relationships first. Reach out across barriers to create trust, and greater justice between rich and poor, and build bridges where relationships have broken down. There need to be such bridge builders more than ever, not least with our European neighbours and between our own bitterly divided communities and politicians. So there’s plenty to be getting on with. May the Lord have mercy upon us, and help us to wait for the true transformation of his Kingdom: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him. In his word is my hope”.
Sermon Sunday 6th January 2019
Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Intro: “Arise, shine, for your light has come…” says Elijah
But the 12 days of Christmas have ended today: turn off the tree lights, take down the decorations, recycle the cards, file the letters and put all away till later this year. But no, says Epiphany. No, Christmas is not just for Christmas, at least in what it means, it is for all seasons – it is for life.
Today, the 12th Day is Epiphany and epiphany has two meanings:
1 The manifestation, the showing forth, the display of Christ to the Gentiles (not Jews) as represented by the Magi story; and
2 It is a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization. You know, we all have those epiphany moments when something suddenly dawns, we have got it!
Elijah comes to us with that latter understanding. What has been our long, long hope is now happening; the exiles, the dispersed people are coming home, our kinsfolk and family are re-uniting.
I have to say this about Prophecy: Isaiah is not saying “Arise, shine, thy light has come” to get an aria in Handel’s Messiah. Prophecy is not crystal ball gazing, it is like good journalism, it is reading and interpreting events, what is happening and what these events mean for the short-term future, in the here and now, not predicting the Messiah or even Jesus. BUT, we can quote, we can borrow their poetry to illustrate or illuminate what is happening at any time, even in our own time. Hence, Gospel writers drew upon this rich vein of poetry, of metaphor to explain what life was like after Jesus.
This Epiphany is accompanied by the remarkable New Horizon Explorer – to the edge of the Solar System, to Ultima Thule (bare cold rock like two lumps joined together) four billion miles and beyond, where no human or machine has ever gone before; transcending the limitations of earlier generations; making what was imagined in science-fiction become real; in the humanly restless quest for understanding the origins of our system and life itself and who we are. And we should be also aware of the Chinese quest on the back side of the moon.
Is this our human way today of following a star? Allow me to discuss this further with you as we go even unto Bethlehem and beyond.
1 The search for truth: As we humans travel into the universe and colonise the planets, what God will be found? How can we know? But I think it was one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, a scholar and statesman, (1881-1944) who said something like: Every idea is ultimately theological, i.e. about God. It was he who also said: “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.
A legacy of this is the William Temple Foundation that connects Christian social concerns to the secular world.
For a long time I have really questioned the traditional view that Jesus comes from humble beginnings and served his time as a carpenter, only leaving that bench in his 30s for a public ministry, only speaking an Aramaic dialect. There is even enough in the New Testament to suggest otherwise, e.g. those early years snapshot as a 12 year old boy discussing with the teachers, which implies an education and an education means there was financial provision. Besides, there was a breaking away at some point from family, who seemed to mix with people who could run an expensive wedding. What was he doing up till about 30 years then? Throughout history great changes and movements, revolutions, generally, have been led by members of the educated and middle classes, writers, preachers, public speakers, politicians.
Dominic Crossan in an article in National Geographical about archaeological discoveries in Palestine gives this theory some substance. Through those finds it is now understood that Galilee was not a backwater of the Empire. The research shows that at the time it was an urbanised and sophisticated province. About three miles from Nazareth was the Roman administrative centre and provincial capital, Sephoris. Caesarea Philippi, built by the brutal Herod the great builder was the largest port in the world, then, so named to please the Emperor. The trade routes passed through Galilee and as with the Silk Road, along those routes always moved ideas from around the known world.
2 Gold of obedience and incense of lowliness (O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness): Thus, the story of the Wise Men, coming as it does from beyond the end of Jesus’ life, would have made great sense to early Jewish followers. We do not have numbers of how many there are in the story. There were three gifts, though they may turn out to be attributes of the person of Jesus, the man. I suppose in tradition the number 3 gives rise to three Wise men. It may well be a metaphor for the flow of people and ideas that passed through Galilee frequently.
Herod the Great dies around the time of Jesus birth, so he had long gone when these stories were written. The critical verses are the last two. In verse 11 they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts. This fits well with other learned people coming together to learn, explore, to study even, when you see what the gifts are:
- There is certainly ‘Gold’, but gold has other meanings than wealth; ‘e.g. obedience’ as reflected in the hymn by JSB Monsell, an Irish Anglican born in Londonderry (1811-1875). Or, it could mean knowledge and wisdom and grace.
- Then there was the ‘frankincense’ burned in the Temple; or it may be prayer or holiness of a holy man, sage or prophet
- Then ‘myrrh’ to embalm the body indicating his death, but also used in healing and human comfort and hospitality as Mary Magdalene used, we are told, with her tears, at the last Supper.
I will come back to pick up verse twelve in a few moments.
3 What did Jesus know?
The wonder-working, miracle healer of the Gospels, and there were many in his day who went about like him, as the gospels report (and Monty Python does a marvellously funny scene depicting many Messiah claimants in ‘The life of Brian’). The gospel stories hide the man and the ideas that inspired the myths. Though there is just enough to realise a real person. All the literary analysis of the last two centuries combined with archaeology have done more to reveal that person to us in the 21st century. It was that partially hidden man who has given us such a diversity and devotion among his followers alongside the fractious debates and blind alleys.
If Jesus was the educated man who travelled about learning, engaging in different groups, financed or not, by his reasonably well-off parents or family, or maybe he chose to live a simple life, so is there any evidence at all for this? Again Dominic Crossan writes that the theory that the real Jesus was a travelling sage, whose counter-cultural lifestyle and subversive sayings had a similarity to the Cynics (Cynic did not mean what we mean by it today). They were peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece, who were socially unconventional, often dismissive of the status quo and of pursuit of ritual cleanliness and wealth.
As an educated man, and living in a cosmopolitan Galilee, less Jewish than other areas, was he both Jew and worldly wise? There was a cross-cultural element to the most eminent of Rabbis at the time. Was he part of this, along with the Essenes and many other groups, some isolated, others in the thick of debate? Had he known about Pythagoras, 6/5 centuries before who taught respect for all life, human and animals; the first to suggest that illness was from bodily imbalances, not from the gods?
Did he know about Hippocrates four centuries before? He taught that epilepsy was a disease, not from evil spirits.
Did he know about Aristotle in 4th century BCE? At the time when infanticide was the chosen means of population control in hard times he proposed that an abortion was less cruel. Did he know about Buddhism about 400 years earlier and teachings about compassion? Does any of this matter? Yes, it does because for two reasons at least. One is: understanding who we are has many dimensions. If faith/good religion is of value to us our approach to learning and growing should emulate the same spirit in which NASA sends off a rocket into the unknown. Research is happening that is gradually revealing facts and ideas about Jesus and his context, who he really is and what his vision was. Our traditional Jesus may be too small. This is beginning to reveal a larger, more human and credible visionary reaching into our time too. The epiphany moment is here; and it is in his living years that we really come to know him.
All knowledge, coming from whichever discipline, or source – science, math, astrophysics, philosophy, music and art, archaeology and literary analysis is a revealing of what we mean by the word, God, in whom we live and move and have our being; the ultimate reality of all existence – all being.
4 Going home by another road: The other reason is that we do need to keep changing, adapting and developing in every part of our being. Only if religion keeps intellectually on par with other learning today, can it be taken seriously in a world whose dreams and imaginings are happening. Only then can religion collaborate with the ‘movers and shakers’ who wish to colonise other planets, in creating human togetherness, peaceful environments and a flourishing humanity.
In verse 12 of our gospel reading: ‘And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country, home, by another road.’ In the culture of the times dreams were taken seriously, and part of the growing body of knowledge of the world around them; dreams and astrological signs, even weather patterns all carried meanings. This was not unspiritual, these were ways of explaining the natural world and the thoughts and emotions inside themselves.
When people gather to exchange ideas and push out the boundaries, take time to develop a subject/theme, improvise, invent, do something new there will be something different and fresh emerging, that takes us farther and excites the spirit. Then the way home will be different; we will be different. The difficulty is always in translating that into some practical outcome back home. We cannot nor should we stop the restless, questing spirit, but we can insist on its seeking consent, its sharing, its compassion and its pausing in awe and wonder and respect.