Meditation and Sermon 3rd November 2019
Living in this World
Join me if you will as I meditate on Living in This World. I begin with a question which I often ask myself while I’m lying awake in bed when I ought to be sleeping.
Where am I; who am I; and what am I doing here?
I know I’m lying in bed but I want to know more than that. I know I’m alive and living in this world but look at what’s happening in this world – the horrors of war, fighting and killing and all the suffering that goes with it. I want to join the chorus of those who cry out – stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t do that. The world we live in will just keep on turning, going wherever it is destined to go and we have to go with it.
The truth of the matter is that this world is our home, this is where we were born, it’s the only place we can live our lives. It is also true that, by and large, the world is like it is because we have made it like it is. And if we have made it then surely we can ‘remake it’ nearer to our heart’s desire so that everyone can ‘feel at home’ in this one world that we live in.
It seems to me that there is a kind of ‘darkness’ in the world preventing us from seeing clearly the truths we need to know. But there is also a light in that darkness which presents us with choices to make. For those who call ourselves Christian, that light is the Life and Teaching of Jesus, and after his death, the Spirit that inspired him was recognised as the Universal Spirit, an Eternal Light illuminating the darkness of the world, enabling us to see and inspiring us to be workers together with God until God’s will is done and God’s kingdom come in this world.
Living under Pressure
2 Corinthians 11:24-28, Philippians 4:10-13
The title of my sermon is Living under Pressure, which is of course what we are all doing. But there are different kinds of ‘pressure’, some good for us and some not so good. The ‘good pressure’ we should welcome. But we should learn how to resist those pressures which are harmful.
People used to have barometers in their homes and maybe you still have one. You give it a gentle tap and take a reading of the air pressure which would tell you something about the weather outside and what the prospects are for the next few days. Low pressure – rain. High pressure – sunshine. They didn’t have barometers in Jesus’ time. But even without them people were very good at predicting the weather. Perhaps they were closer to nature and could feel it in their bones! But even so Jesus told them there were more important things to have feelings for, “let the weather look after itself” he said, “and start feeling after the deeper things of life”. There are other pressures which can be more important that the air pressure outside and one of them is our ‘blood pressure’ inside.
If you are not feeling too well you go to the doctors. And the first thing they do is take your blood pressure. This will tell something about what we might call ‘the weather inside’! Is it all peace and quiet in there? Or are you having some rough and stormy conditions to cope with? Your blood pressure is an indication of your general state of health. And in these days we are susceptible to so many different kinds of pressure pushing and pulling us this way and that. Sometimes we don’t know whether we’re coming or going and it’s not easy to keep a healthy balance. Even the very act of having your blood pressure taken can send it shooting up! And that’s why they usually give you the equipment to take home and ‘do it yourself’. At home you will be more relaxed and very often that will bring the pressure down to something like normal. And there’s a lesson in that for general application. The more you feel ‘at home’ and relaxed, in any situation, the healthier and happier you will be.
From the reading we heard that Paul had a lot of pressures to deal with, to put it mildly! But in spite of them all, he managed to keep his balance and he said, “I have learned how to cope in whatever situation I’m going through because I am in touch with Something Greater than myself which gives me the wisdom and the strength I need.” Of course we are all different, physically, mentally and emotionally, and we should not be comparing ourselves with Paul or anybody else. We should be learning how to be relaxed and ‘at home’ within ourselves. And this will include developing a relationship with ‘Something Greater’ than yourself, some higher power that we call God. And that’s why we come to church – to know about that relationship.
Living under pressure as we do, we also need to know what these pressures are so that we can welcome the good ones and do something else with all the others. There are certain parts of our body that we call ‘pressure points’, in your wrist and other places, where the doctor or nurse can feel your heart beat. But we have other kinds of pressure point and anybody who wants to influence what we do will know about them and go for them. And that’s what advertisers do. They are not concerned about our health, although they may say they are! It’s our money they want! So we also need to know about what the advertisers are doing and keep one jump ahead of them
Within each one of us there are what we can call ‘basic instincts’ or ‘driving forces’ that we have inherited from our ancestors. They are built into the fabric of our lives, in our genes and DNA. But we don’t need to know the science, just know that they are like ‘pressure points’ which can be manipulated by advertisers, or Evangelists, to get what they want and they are very skilful in doing it. But we can also be under the influence of that Something Greater, that Higher Power, which is more concerned about our health and wholeness. So for us living in the world, the pressure is on! All kinds of pressure. Our blood pressure will be keeping us alive physically and we should look after that as wisely as we can, with some discipline in what we eat and drink and do. But we should also be feeling ‘Spiritual pressure’ from the ‘God within’ who wants us to be safe from anybody or anything that would manipulate us.
We can think about these different pressures as being emotional, intellectual and moral. If we look after them, they will look after us. We are emotional people. We have our feelings. We know what we like, we know what makes us feel good, we want to enjoy life as much as we can and have experiences that lift our spirits. So don’t be afraid of your emotions, feel the pressure. Let them lift your spirit and make you feel good. But at the same time we don’t want to be swept away by our feelings. We need to keep a balance, and that’s where the intellect comes in. We do want to love life and love God and others, emotionally that is, with all our heart and soul. But we also need to do it with all our mind and strength. So we also need to feel intellectual pressure. To feel intellectual pressure you simply have to ‘use your head’! A bit of common-sense goes a long way. As far as your emotions are concerned, try to see the end from the beginning, and if it doesn’t look good don’t go that way! Don’t be afraid of your own thoughts, learn to trust them.
And to help us keep a balance between our emotions and our intellect, we can also feel moral pressure. Moral pressure comes from knowing that you have a responsibility to do your best and be your best for goodness sake, because goodness is the same as Godness. And moral pressure is God within persuading us and moving us. And as we respond to that pressure emotionally, intellectually and morally, we will be fulfilling our responsibility to make the world a better place to live in for everybody.
Meditation and Sermon, 1st September 2019
Meditation on Oneness with God
I have found that some of the most helpful and exciting words in the Bible are these … In God we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28). These words are actually a quotation from another religion, quite different from the Judaism and Christianity of the Bible. And that’s what makes them exciting, because it tells us that the truth of God is greater than any religion. And that truth can set us free by giving us room and space to discover more about both God and ourselves and how we are related.
I begin to realise that we are all much closer to God than we have been taught to believe … In God we live and move and have our being. How close is that! So, if we want to know more about God we should look deeper into LIFE: the life that we are living and learn more about God by learning about ourselves.
The Bible story of Creation can be very helpful at this point. It tells us that we are alive because God has breathed life into us. The very breath or Spirit of God has given us life. So not only do we live in God, God also lives in us. The very essence of our life is the Spirit of God within. And the purpose of our religion, and of our being here in church today, is to develop and foster our friendship with God so that we can live together happily and creatively as we continue to live and move and have our being in this world.
The prayer that I used at the beginning of the service was written by a man called Augustine, who later became St Augustine because of what he said and did and wrote. He was born in North Africa in what today we call Algeria, but then it was a province of the Roman Empire. That’s when the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful. It was also a time of great controversy. The Roman Church was spreading its influence and, like the Roman Empire, was crushing all opposition. Augustine’s mother was Monica and she was a Christian. But Augustine himself was what you might call a ‘worldly person’ indulging in the ‘bright lights’ of the city, especially when he moved to live in Rome. Nevertheless under his mother’s influence, he began to feel that God was ‘after him’. So the chase was on and Augustine had to run faster and faster to get away. But all the time knowing that he ought to turn round and surrender. Which one day he did! And years after that he wrote his Life Story in a book called CONFESSIONS, which you can still read. It’s a challenging book and you can probably buy it for a penny on Amazon!
I read it in my early days when I wasn’t exactly running away from God but I was searching for the Truth about God, which I am still doing. In the book he confesses that even before he was caught he did believe in God. But in those days his prayer to God was – grant me chastity and self-control, but not yet! – which is definitely the prayer of a young man living in the bright lights of a big city! What then happened is what can happen to people who are running away from God and then get caught, there is a dramatic conversion experience and a swing from one extreme to another. The Faith that Augustine had previously denied became the only Faith to be believed. And Augustine became a militant leader of the Roman Church. He also became a bishop and anybody who disagreed with him was in for a rough time. And if he was here today, I’m sure he would be giving me a rough time!
But he does have some good things to share with us. Some of his words are well-known and deserve to be. For example he said, God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in You. Augustine’s prayer that I opened the service with is full of good things. It is full of spiritual insight and wisdom; there is nourishment for hungry souls like our own. So let’s hear it again.
Eternal God, you are the light of the minds that know you. You are the joy of the hearts that love you. You are the strength of the wills that serve you. Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom.
It begins with the words, Eternal God. So whatever God is, and we don’t really know, this prayer assumes what I think we might all agree with, that God is eternal. God is not trapped in time like we are. Time is itself God’s servant. It’s just one of God’s creations like everything else. I find that thought very acceptable. God is not like us; somebody, somewhere, with a beginning and an end in time. We ourselves are ‘prisoners of time’, but God is not a prisoner of one of his own servants. For me that’s Good News. We ourselves are trapped in Time. But God is not. So, maybe, if we can connect with God, we too can be liberated from the grip of time. And Augustine believes that we can make that connection with God. Or rather, we can discover that the connection is already there. We just have to get to know about it. And the prayer goes on to tell us how we can ‘get to know about it’. The best part of this prayer for me is that it’s telling us that our connection with God is made through our HUMANITY, that we already have what we need if only we knew it!
The secret of knowing God is already within us. And so we don’t need to be thinking of God as some Distant Being sitting on a throne like a King, up there in heaven watching us from the ‘outside’. There is no ‘outside’ anyway! There just ‘is’, what ‘is’, and God IS. And in and through our humanity we are part of ‘what IS’. I am and you are part of what is, and God IS. And you can’t get any closer than that!
We really need a new word for God and I like to think of God as the ‘isness’ of all things, and especially of the things that make us human. According to this prayer, God is the light in our minds, the joy in our hearts and the strength in our wills. What more could we want! We’ve all got a mind. It’s a fairly mysterious part of us. It’s where we do our thinking, weighing things up and making our decisions. It’s more than just our brain. Your brain is a physical object in your head. Your mind is a more spiritual part of you. Your mind is all about who you are as a person and that’s what God is interested in. God wants us to be the best person that we can possibly be. Not only wants us to be, but has made provision for us to use our minds and work out how to be our best self. God is the light of our minds. Your mind is for knowing and there are different levels of knowing. There’s knowing the facts and figures but there is also knowing people, and that’s about relationships and it’s different from just knowing what you learned in school. You can even get to know yourself! You can have a relationship with yourself and God is especially interested in this deeper kind of knowing. The light of our minds will enable us to get to know ourselves better and in doing so, get to know God. Because God is the very light in our minds by which we get to know on that deeper level.
We have a mind and we also have a heart. The mind does the thinking and the heart does the feeling. We should think as clearly and rationally as we can. But we should also listen to our feelings. Be in touch with your feelings and keep your balance between the two, your thinking and your feeling. It’s not always easy to do that and we have to practise. And this prayer can help us because it says that God is not only the light of our minds but also the joy in our hearts. And once again reminding us that God is deeply embedded in our humanity, in minds that think and hearts that can be loving and joyful. Joy is not the same as ‘happiness’. Happiness comes and goes. It’s there on the surface of life. Here today and gone tomorrow. Joy is deeper than that. It comes from a loving heart which doesn’t change with the weather because a loving heart puts you in touch with God who IS love.
We have a mind, we have a heart, and we have a will which must also be exercised so that it becomes stronger. And God is the strength of the wills that serve him. You will remember that Jesus, who leads the way for us in all this, said I am among you as one who serves. We too are God’s servants and there’s a job to be done. There’s a purpose in life which is not saving people from their humanity but bringing us more fully into our humanity. We serve God by serving one another, caring and being concerned, wanting to create the conditions where life can flourish for all people and for the planet on which we live. In God we live and move and have our being. So God is with us enlightening our minds, lifting our hearts and strengthening our wills to love and to serve. And those who serve discover that in service there is perfect freedom.
Sermon 7th July 2019
As I meditate this morning I invite you to listen in and take from it what you will, what you can. It will be followed by a minute or two of music.
I’m returning to my childhood in the town of Westhoughton which is halfway between Bolton and Wigan. I’m ten years old and it’s 1947. I am walking down Market Street which is fully cobbled with tramlines running down the middle of the road. I turn into a side-street where I can hear the clash of hammer on metal. I can smell the burning of horse’s hooves as the blacksmith gives a beautiful big shire horse a new set of footwear. The horse will be proudly wearing them the next day delivering our milk in the farmers float. The blacksmith works with iron, heating it, hammering it, and forging it into the shape he requires. On Sundays he likes to be called a farrier – a skilled workman whose job is shoeing horses. There are other ‘smiths’ who work with other material. There is a goldsmith and a locksmith, an arrow-smith and a coppersmith, doing the work they have learned to do.
In my daily prayers I go circling round the Celtic Wheel where I picked up the idea that God can be thought of as a ‘love-smith’; a love-smith. What would that involve? If we believe that God is Love then love will be the material that God works with and uses to achieve his purposes. God will want to work on the love that is in our own lives. The Love-smith will want to purify it and forge it into the right shape for us to use in whatever situation we find ourselves. The fire of God’s love will burn off the dross which settles so easily upon us. It will be purifying what we do so that we might do it with more compassion. Purifying our thoughts so that we might see more clearly what we ought to do; purifying our words that we might speak with more gentleness, insight and wisdom; purifying our souls to recognise the great oneness of all things, to which we belong.
God is love. That is all we need to know. And the Divine Love-smith still has work to do.
Jesus the Teacher
Luke 4: 16-20; 12: 54-56; 17:20-21
During my long years of ministry I’ve preached a lot of sermons. After the service one Sunday, not here, a woman came up to me and said, “In your sermon you never mentioned Jesus”. I was a bit surprised and didn’t know how to respond immediately. I think I said something like, “Well, Jesus was there in the rest of the service, in the hymns and the reading and the prayers”. If I’d had more time to think about it, I would have said that, “even so, I hope the ‘spirit of Jesus’ was there in all I did say”. But that wasn’t good enough for her, and after a short while she left the church and joined another, where they are all engaged in what you might call a big love-affair with Jesus, and they spend most of their services singing endless choruses about their love for Jesus. For them Jesus of Nazareth who was born and bred, grew up, here on earth just like us, has become a ‘God’. He’s been elevated from the earth and gone back into heaven from where he will one day return in the same way that he went on the day of his ascension, and they are all waiting for that day more eagerly than anything else. And they believe all this because the Bible says so. Or at least they think it does, and of course they are entitled to their opinion.
But the Bible says different things to different people, and it’s not the way I understand the Bible, and not the way I think about Jesus. And in my sermon today I want to talk about Jesus in a different way. The underlying issue about ‘believing in the Bible’, is that there are so many different opinions. And so any sensible religion is more than just what you believe. What people say they believe or don’t believe is very much over-rated! People should ‘hang loose’ to their beliefs and be open to change their minds from time to time.
Jesus didn’t tell people to ‘believe’ in him. He challenged them to follow him (Mark 2: 14), but not in any literal sense of that word. We can’t go back to Palestine and follow him! The kind of ‘following’ he wanted was not ‘parrot-like’, not doing exactly what he did, walking on water, changing water into wine, raising the dead, which of course he didn’t do anyway. Those were just stories told later to make him into the kind of Jesus that made him into a god. Jesus challenged people not just to follow him but also to think about what he was saying and let the spirit within them be their guide, just as it was for Jesus himself.
I think that Jesus would be astonished and very disappointed at the theology which was made up about him after he died and which has been set down in creeds and doctrines as being essential for our salvation. I think Jesus would be very disappointed at what religion has done to him! When Jesus was a baby they wrapped him in swaddling clothes so that he couldn’t move. Then when he died they wrapped him in the creeds where he still can’t move. Today we need to set Jesus free before he can set us free.
Jesus himself knew nothing about Christian Creeds and Doctrines because they didn’t exist at the time. So we’ll put them away in a cupboard, I’ll lock the door and, with your approval, I’ll throw away the key!
The reading from Luke
So having put the doctrines in the cupboard and thrown away the key, Jesus can now become the teacher who will set us free. I’m not thinking of Jesus as the Son of God or the Saviour of the World which is what it says in the Creeds and where you can get ‘lost in theology’. I am thinking of Jesus as a Teacher who can help us to become the kind of person and the kind of people God wants us to be.
So what sort of a teacher was Jesus? He was someone with insight who could see through what’s on the surface to that which lies at the heart of things. He could see through ‘all the changing scenes of life’ to some underlying reality, see through all our differences and arguments and opinions and confusions, to what really matters in life. William Wordsworth, the poet talks about ‘seeing into the life of things’, and that’s exactly what Jesus could do, he could see that underlying reality. And there is in fact a very simple truth underlying everything. A truth we can learn, and get to know and live with, which can make all the difference to our lives. This was the aim of Jesus’ teaching, to tell us about that truth and introduce us to ‘Life’s Underlying Reality’. His method was not that of the classroom where the teacher provides information, facts and figures which are stored in the student’s head and then reproduced to pass exams. Jesus was not concerned with passing exams, not concerned with what you know and what you believe, but concerned with who you are. Not so much with what’s in your head but with what’s in your heart. He wanted to see through all the different things we know, to that underlying reality which is already in everybody’s heart waiting to be found. “Seek and you will find”, is what he told people, and that means they had to do it themselves using whatever help was available, but he was there to help!
Jesus didn’t believe in ‘second-hand religion’ handed down from one generation to the next. That kind of religion always loses its vitality. The kind of religion we need is not about believing what you’re told, it’s about finding out for yourself and, with God’s help and guidance, discovering ‘who you are’. So Jesus method of teaching was not passing on information which had to be believed in order to be saved. He wasn’t playing that ‘religious’ game at all. And he certainly didn’t intend starting a new religion, which is of course what happened when the Doctrines and Creeds were written.
Jesus was very critical of his own religion which had solidified and people couldn’t see through it to find that underlying spiritual reality which, for Jesus, was central to everybody’s life if only they could get in touch with it. Jesus called that reality ‘the Kingdom of God’, but it doesn’t matter what you call it, that was just his Jewish way of referring to it. We all have to get in touch with this Kingdom of God (or whatever you want to call it) for ourselves and nobody can do it for us. This was a new approach to the understanding of God. It was something they hadn’t heard before. (Mark1: 27) It was much more personal and exciting than what the religious teachers, the lawyers and the Pharisees, were saying. But the ‘religious establishment’ wasn’t excited about it! In fact they were threatened by it. For them it was dangerous teaching and they were soon making plans to silence the teacher.
Jesus had a vision of this ‘Kingdom of God’ and he went around scattering the seeds of his inspiration wanting it to fall on good ground and bear fruit. He didn’t have a classroom, he just went out to the people, walking among them, responding to each present situation and using it as a vehicle for communication. He wasn’t making long sermons. He went around dropping ‘pearls of wisdom’ for people to pick up and think about and see the value of. He was very much what we call ‘living in the present moment’. Everything he needed was there waiting for someone with insight and imagination to make use of it, and Jesus was just the man!
Let’s follow him for a minute and see what kind of things he said and did. He would begin by talking about the weather, just like we do! He pointed out that the sun shines on both the good and the bad alike. What does that say to us? With all our differences we are all ‘in the same boat’. We need to look a bit deeper than our differences and find what we have in common. Is there something that can hold us together in oneness? “Yes there is”, says Jesus, “but you’ve got to find it”. Over there he sees some children playing happily in the street with grown-ups frowning at them in disapproval of their behaviour. Jesus is pointing out that the freedom and imagination of children is what brings people closer to God than the legal religiosity of the grown-ups. We still need more freedom and imagination. There’s a farmer ploughing his field and another one sowing his seed. Each one of them carrying the message about keeping your eyes and your mind fixed on some ‘ideal’, something to work for, something to find. What could that be? Over there someone else is building a house and making sure of the foundation so that it doesn’t fall down. And over there there’s a half-finished house where sadly someone seems to have given up on the job. And what about that merchant building more and bigger all the time, does he not know that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.
Jesus often put his teaching in short, memorable phrases giving folk something to think about. “What you give away you keep and what you hang on to you lose; be careful, the judgement you give will be the judgement you get; take the plank out of your own eye before you start looking for the speck in somebody else’s eye.” There’s a story, only in John’s Gospel, about a woman accused of committing adultery. The Law of Religion said that the penalty was to be stoned to death. Jesus looked at those who were prepared to do that and said, “Let any of you who is without sin throw the first stone”, and they all walked away and the woman was freed. Jesus saw through the rigidity of the religion that was demanding her death and he exposed the hypocrisy of those making that demand. Jesus was saying that where God’s Kingdom is concerned, people are more important that any religion.
To end with, I want us to hear again the last words of that reading from Luke’s Gospel. “Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, the Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No-one will say, “look, here it is” or “there it is”, because the Kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus the teacher didn’t speculate about future events. He was concerned with the present moment, which was then, and is now, and it’s the same, the Kingdom of God is within you. Look for it, find it and live in it.
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.