Who or What is God?
After fifty years of ordained ministry I’m still wrestling, and trying to understand, the meaning of the word GOD.
We come to church to pray: we say this is the house of prayer; and for me, prayer is an important part of my whole life. But it’s not ‘prayer’ as is generally understood. Not prayer as we were taught in Sunday School and not even what I continued to be taught in theological college. For me today, prayer is not so much something that I DO; it’s an essential part of WHO I AM, it’s the way I lead my life. I’m not praying to ‘a God’ who is somebody, somewhere, who might or might not hear and answer my prayer. Nor am I approaching God as ‘royalty’, as a King or even a Queen, where I am required to bow down and keep my distance and say what I am told, following the required procedure and etiquette. So where am I? What is going on in my praying and wrestling, trying to understand the meaning of the word GOD?
I have been drawn back to read about someone else who was in a similar situation, and that was Moses in the Book of Exodus. He felt that ‘God’ was calling him to do something about liberating the People of Israel from slavery in Egypt. But who WAS this God who was calling him? Did God have a name? That’s what Moses wanted to know. He wanted as it were, a handle to get hold of God; not in his hand, but in his mind, and in his thinking. And a name was given; but it wasn’t ‘really’ a name. How can God have a name!! Even so, what was given to Moses was made into a name by the Jewish religion, followed by the Christian religion. And the name was JEHOVAH. And then this ‘God with a name’ became something like a person, living somewhere in a place up in the sky. Jehovah became a God who had strict requirements and laws; with demands to be worshipped according to those laws. This ‘religious way’ of thinking about God can be both useful and dangerous. Useful if it gives us something to think about; but dangerous if it becomes, as it did, solidified, set in concrete, and unchangeable.
You will gather that this religious way of thinking about God is not very useful or helpful to me in my present situation. Nevertheless, with my Christian background, and deep personal need for God and all that ‘God’ stands for, I continue to wrestle within myself to find something deeper than what is generally on offer from religion. And I have found that the name of God given to Moses, which is not really a name, can be both helpful and useful, a light indeed to shine upon the road that I am travelling; leading me to what I am looking for, So let’s hear Moses’ story now in Exodus chapter 3, verses 1-14. It’s not a newspaper account of something that actually happened: it’s part of the Biblical story illustrating the human search for an understanding of our relationship with God. We don’t take it literally, we look for its meaning.
The name given to Moses is something of a mystery. It’s just four letters in the Hebrew alphabet and turned into English as YHWH, which nobody knows how to pronounce, even in Hebrew! They are four consonants; but you need vowels to be able to say the word: and nobody is sure what those vowels were. People did know but they never wrote them down. They just remembered them. The name of God was too holy to be put on paper. Scholars who first translated the Bible decided to put some vowels in, E, O, and A, and they pronounced the word JEHOVAH, which became the name of the Great God of Moses: and indeed of Christian hymn writers … Guide me O thou Great Jehovah … and the God of some other people too!
What I’m going to say now you’ll find hard to believe. I can hardly believe it myself, but I know it’s true. While writing this sermon there was a knock at the door; two people standing there; and you can guess who they were! Jehovah’s Witnesses! My mind started racing! Were they God’s messengers sent to put me straight in my thinking about Jehovah? Well, I hope I gave them something to think about instead!
How those letters YHWH became Jehovah when you add the three vowels E, A and O, is very easy to explain – see me afterwards if you’re interested. The study of languages is a continuing process and over the last two hundred years another pronunciation of those four letters, YHWH, has taken over as being more accurate. Just two vowels A and E were inserted and the word became YaHWeH. And if you actually look at the footnote for the reading we heard, you will find an explanation there (Good News Bible). But it’s not the ‘pronunciation’ that we need to know about Jehovah or Yahweh. After all, we’re not Hebrews. We need to know what the word means in English regardless of the pronunciation.
Well, what does it mean? It’s there in the reading we heard; it means I AM … which is not a name at all; and it’s a great relief for me personally to know that Yahweh is not a name! I AM is actually part of the verb TO BE which is the most important word in any language. I AM is the present tense of the verb ‘to be’. And when I think about God in that way, I can feel myself getting excited! Could this be the revelation I need, giving me new insight into the meaning of the word God? Yes I think so! It tells me that God is to be understood as a ‘verb’ and not a noun. Not somebody, somewhere, with a name!
A ‘verb’ … action … movement … energy … power. I AM is the ‘present tense’ of the verb to be. So I can think of God being … present … now … here … everywhere … for all time … moving throughout the whole creation: holding it together … in one, as it evolves: and giving it meaning and purpose. So I don’t have to think of God ‘existing’ like we do, somewhere. For me God is ‘existence’ itself: that wherein I live and move and have my being. (Acts 17:28) I can now think of God as the Ground of All Being, the source from which we come, to which we belong. I AM is not a name. It’s more of a statement. God is ‘being’ itself … a mystery indeed … but a truth that we can live by as we try to become what we have it in us ‘to be’.
I now see, not only that ‘God is’ … but also that ‘I am’ … you are … we are … all one in God who is the fullness of everything that is. Now I can pray more meaningfully for this truth to become a reality in the world we live in.
Donald Horsfield, 27th November 2016
A Prayerful Meditation for this time of the Year
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.
The Season now is Autumn: we’ve put the clocks back.
The nights are getting longer: darkness is more pervasive.
In the darkness secret fears can rise up to haunt us.
But there is always the light, of Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love.
And with them shining in our hearts, illuminating our minds – we have nothing to fear.
The darkness can be our friend. A time to rest and be renewed:
A time for peace and quiet; where we can grow; we can believe and trust
That come what may – all will be well.
At this time of the year, Nature itself is celebrating the change from Summer to Autumn.
There is a colourful display as the trees have their last fling,
Waving goodbye, as the leaves fall to the ground.
They are part of ONE GREAT PLAN – where nothing is wasted.
Soaking into the earth, the dead leaves feed the roots of the parent tree,
Which is recycling itself: ensuring that life will go on.
Seeds and nuts are also buried in the ground and will spring to life when the sun returns.
The Book of Nature has much to teach us; lots of parables for us to consider,
To see their deeper meaning.
For we too, most of us, are in the Autumn of our days.
We can now see the wood for the trees, because over the years
We have gathered a bit of wisdom:
We are wise enough to let go of worldly desires:
We don’t want more and more possessions:
We don’t want to know everything that’s going on –
We can let it pass: for in the end all things pass.
But we do hold on, to being Good:
Wanting Peace in the world:
Wanting families to be happy:
Wanting to see children playing and learning:
Wanting the good things of life to be shared and enjoyed by everybody.
This is our prayer, but not just in words –
It’s what we live for –
We are now practising the presence of God
Until we too return to the Source from which we came. Amen
Donald Horsfield, 6th November 2016
A Sermon about Jesus
Proverbs 8:1-4, 10-11, 22-31 Mark 1:9-11, 14-15
During the long years of my ministry I have preached a lot of sermons. After the service one Sunday 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, surely Jesus was there in the rest of the service; in the hymns, prayers and the reading. If I’d had more time to think about it, I would have said – well, I hope the ‘spirit of Jesus’ was there in all I did say about the God that Jesus believed in; I believe in; and you believe in. But that wasn’t good enough for her; and a short while after, she left that church and joined another one 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 him. For them, Jesus of Nazareth has become a God. He’s been ‘elevated’ from the earth and now gone back to 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. There was another woman who didn’t leave the church – but every morning she would open the curtains, look at the sky, and think maybe this will be the day. 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. It seems that to some people ‘what the Bible says’ is the only thing that matters … which is very confusing because there are so many different opinions … and so for me what people say they believe about the Bible is not really all that important. People should ‘hang loose’ to their beliefs and be open to change their minds from time to time.
Jesus never told people to ‘believe’ in him but he did challenge them to follow him (Mark 2:14). 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 prove what they had ‘decided’ to believe about him.
Jesus challenged people, not just to follow him, but 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 Jesus would be incredulous, and desperately disappointed, at the theology which was made up about him after he died: and which has been set down in creeds and doctrine as being essential for our salvation. If Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, he would certainly weep at what ‘religion’ has done to him. When Jesus was a baby, they wrapped him up in swaddling clothes so that he couldn’t move: then when he died, they wrapped him again in the creeds, where he still can’t move. We need to set Jesus free, before he can set us free.
Jesus’ challenge to ‘follow me’ really meant ‘learn from me’: become disciples and learn how to live in what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The point is, not to say what you ‘believe’ about him, but to develop a ‘relationship with God’ through Jesus’ teaching, so that you can be involved in the coming of that Kingdom here on earth.
In the next part of the service, we will look at some of the teaching of Jesus, to show us the way, inviting us to follow. But first we’ll hear some wise words from the Book of Proverbs …..
So now let’s have a closer look at this man, Jesus of Nazareth. We get to know about him only when he’s thirty years old. The stories of his birth with angels flying down from heaven bringing messages from God; kings from afar coming to worship with precious gifts; and stories of a virgin birth … these were all added later in order to ‘prove’ the baby’s divine status; which of course, Jesus knew nothing about!
Thirty years growing up! What was he doing all that time? Well, he was doing what all the others were doing – growing up … in body, mind and spirit, which is what we all do – body, mind and spirit – the basic ingredients of our humanity as we live our life on earth. We grow up to become our unique, individual selves; and we have to do it in the context in which we are born (it’s no good wishing we’d been born somewhere else!) and it’s the same with Jesus.
Jesus was born a Jew. The Jewish religion had full control of everybody’s life. They all ‘grew up’ within that religion; it shaped all aspects of their lives. But as Jesus grew up he began questioning what effect the religion was having on people’s lives. And by the time he was thirty things had come to a head; he had to do something about it. The spirit within him, as it were, bubbled over; and he decided to leave everything behind and set off to tell other people what he was thinking. More than that, he believed that it was what God wanted him to do. It was a deep spiritual experience, which is common enough, other people also have this kind of experience, but in different ways. For Jesus it seems that being baptised by John was the occasion for this to happen. So, moved by the spirit within him, Jesus set off. He began offering to people what he called Good News; which was a new way of thinking about God, about Life, and Religion.
The whole of Jewish life, in those days (and for some today), was governed and controlled by the Law of Moses, which was unchangeable, because God had given it to him … the Bible says so. Jesus wasn’t too keen on the way this religious idea about God was being worked out in daily life … in what Jesus could see going on all around him; but especially in what was going on in the Temple; and in, let’s say, the religious headquarters. Jesus had actually become a REFORMER. He wanted to change things; he felt a deep need for ‘reformation’. But how do you change the unchangeable? There was going to be trouble ahead, and he knew it!
On the question of Law, Jesus would have agreed with what Douglas Bader said when he was in the Royal Air Force … laws are for the obedience of fools, and for the guidance of the wise. And Jesus was one of the wise. He was offering a deeper kind of wisdom; the kind of wisdom that the Book of Proverbs speaks about (and we heard some of it in the reading). It tells us that something called ‘wisdom’ was there, with God, at the beginning of creation. Indeed, wisdom was the architect of everything being made. But it’s more than that. This wisdom is the very breath and power of God. Wisdom is just another way of talking about ‘God in action’. It’s the Spirit of God in action, everywhere, throughout creation.
What an exciting thought that must have been for Jesus as he felt the same Spirit of wisdom moving within his own heart and mind. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … are his words in Luke’s Gospel (4:18). In the wisdom tradition ‘teaching’ is not about just ‘giving information’, it’s about ‘transformation’, being changed, reformed. It’s not about being clever; not about passing exams and getting university degrees. It’s about ‘becoming wise’. It’s about seeing through the surface to the deeper things of life; and having a healthy relationship with what you see; and in that way, being changed, becoming the person you have it in you to be; the person God wants you to be.
This kind of wisdom can’t be taught in the classroom. You CAN be taught how to keep the law (or how to ‘avoid’ keeping the law, if you are clever enough!) But you can’t be ‘taught’ wisdom. You have to learn it for yourself. And that’s why the teaching of Jesus was ‘wisdom-led’. It was always an invitation for each person to hear, listen and learn … and then to follow. He didn’t teach like the Pharisees who said … this is the word of the Lord, and you’d better believe it and obey … or else! Jesus invited people to do their own thinking and find their own way into that Kingdom of God; which he said was very close, waiting to be found and lived in.
The Gospel is full of examples of Jesus passing through villages, mixing with the people and almost incidentally, dropping ‘pearls of wisdom’ as he went. He didn’t preach long sermons. The Sermon on the Mount, is a collection of many of his sayings which would have been scattered around; remembered and talked about; and then collected by Matthew, Mark and Luke; but not all delivered at one and the same time. If the Kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field, it means people have to find it. If it’s like yeast mixed in with the dough, it’s already within you and can raise you up, like the bread rising.
Jesus also had some sharp and ‘pointed sayings’ to startle people and waken them up to a new way of thinking. How about … let the dead bury their dead (what could that mean?) How about … what you give away, you keep and what you hang onto, you’ll lose? And … the judgement you give will be the judgement you get. Jesus was inviting people to have a rethink about the Law of Moses which in effect was imprisoning people and not liberating them. So Jesus was ready to break the law in order to set people free: especially the Sabbath law which had a hundred other little laws hanging on to it.
Jesus wanted a change in the whole religious outlook … shift the emphasis from the Law itself to the people suffering under the Law. The Law of Moses was designed to preserve the purity and the holiness of God; summed up in words from the Book of Leviticus … you must be holy because the Lord your God is holy (11:45). Jesus changed it radically into … You must be compassionate, because the Lord your God is compassionate (Luke 6:36).
For Jesus it was not a question of keeping the law and maintaining your ‘purity’; but taking the risk of having love, kindness and compassion as the guiding principle of your life. Jesus was not giving ‘information’ about God: he was calling for ‘transformation’ through a new relationship with God. It’s no wonder the Authorities got rid of him. But you can’t get rid of the Truth that Jesus lived and died for. It can still transform people’s lives and still needs to be heard.
Donald Horsfield, 6th November 2016
I’ve been doing a bit of THINKING … And I’d like to share a few of my thoughts with you. On my next birthday I’ll be 80 years old. I’m trying NOT to think about that, and I don’t really believe it anyway! The Registrar probably put the wrong date on my birth certificate! But I’ve some other thoughts. One of my favourite poets is William Wordsworth who is well-known for having … wondered lonely as a cloud … on the banks of Lake Windermere and who also lived till he was 80. But he wrote other poems too and in one of them he talks about … the years that bring the philosophic mind … and I think I’ve reached that stage.
I don’t call myself a philosopher, I just do my own thinking. And I’ve been thinking about the word CHRISTIAN and CHRISTIANITY, and the whole church/religious package. It’s been quite liberating for me to realise that the word ‘Christian’ is just a word. It’s actually a word that people ‘made up’ in Ephesus a long time ago. There’s a verse in our New Testament (Acts 11:26) which says …the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Ephesus. Before that what were they called? Well, it doesn’t matter! What’s in a name! “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. The important thing is – NOT identifying yourself with a name but identifying yourself as the kind of person that you are. You could be hiding under a name, pretending to be other than what you ‘really’ are.
Jesus himself was not a Christian, now there’s a thought, isn’t it, because the word didn’t exist at the time. The twelve disciples weren’t Christians either. They were all Jews. Jesus himself, even though he wasn’t eighty, had also been doing some THINKING. He didn’t want to be tied down and restricted by any name, by what people called him – and they called him all sorts of names! They called him a madman, a glutton and wine-drinker, a friend of all kind of sinners. (Luke 7:34) But even ‘good’ names are only ‘on the surface.’ Jesus wanted to go deeper and just be the person that he was, and he wanted to meet other people on that same human level regardless of whatever ‘name’ they might have.
In his teaching Jesus painted pictures in words and parables of a generous, merciful, loving God who makes the sun to shine on all people alike whatever their name, the good and the bad, saints and sinners: a God not having anybody called ENEMY, but loving everybody as FRIEND and calling all people to do the same. The religious leaders of the time didn’t like to hear that! They had a different way of thinking. They had a name for everybody, especially the people they didn’t like. And they didn’t like Jesus too much. They didn’t want to hear what Jesus had been thinking and was now talking about – God’s goodness shining on everybody, saints and sinners alike.
Well those are a few of my thoughts by way of introduction to having a close look at the thinking of Jesus.
If we have grown up within the Church and Christianity as most of us have, we would say that we regard Jesus as our Teacher and Example. As it says in the New Testament, Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps (1Peter 2:21). We accept that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life for us to follow… but to follow thoughtfully using what we’ve been given to think with – our brains. Jesus told a lot of parables and usually ended by saying to the people, you’ve heard what I said, now what do you think? For example after the parable of the Good Samaritan, who do you think was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves? What do you think? Jesus is encouraging people to ‘think’. To think for themselves, and indeed to believe in ourselves as we do our thinking, but to do it wisely, carefully and humbly taking into account ALL of our knowledge and ALL our experience of life, trying to fit everything into some ‘big picture’. So we have a lot to think about as we work out our own salvation, which is what the Bible tells us we have to do knowing that God is at work in us. (Philippians 2:12)
When Jesus was teaching he didn’t speak English! He spoke in the local language of Palestine called Aramaic; words that were later turned, translated into Greek and then Latin and then for us, into English. We have the Bible in our own language although the Church tried to prevent it. The first Bibles, translated from Latin and Greek into English were destroyed and burned by the Bishops of the Church. They didn’t want us doing our own thinking! But when we read and hear in English what Jesus said in Aramaic, there’s a big gap between the two. Some words can fall into that gap and their meaning gets ‘lost in translation’. Something that Jesus said in Aramaic we may not have a word for it in English, or it may be a figure-of-speech in Aramaic, a local saying, which has now fallen into that gap and is beyond reach in English. We just don’t know what it means. But what it does mean is that when we read the Bible we must do a bit of thinking and look for that ‘bigger picture’ of what God may be saying to us. We don’t want to get stuck on individual words and it’s good to remember something that Paul wrote in one of his letters where he said that, the word of God is not written with ink on paper, which is what we have in all books including the Bible. He said that the word of God is written by the Spirit on the human heart. (2Corinthians 3:3) That’s where to look and listen for a word from God.
One of the hymns written by William Cowper, but no longer in our hymn books, says the same thing. The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight. So now with the help of the Spirit I want to take a quick look at the last few words of our reading this morning where Jesus says, although he wasn’t speaking English, you must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. We need to do a bit of thinking here. That’s a dangerous word, perfection, telling people to be perfect. And it doesn’t fit in very easily with the overall message of Jesus. Is this one of those words that fell into that gap between Aramaic and English? A word that got lost in translation? Yes, I think it is and others think so too.
The Revised English Bible and the New English Bible both leave out the word perfect and translate it like this. There must be no limits to your goodness just as your Heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds. And that does fit in with the rest of the passage. God’s love knows no bounds. God sends the sun and the rain on perfect and imperfect alike and we are told to love our enemies until they become our friends. Luke’s Gospel has the same passage but there Jesus says, you must be merciful, not perfect but merciful, just as your Heavenly Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
The trouble with perfection and expecting people to be perfect, is that it can easily lead to being judgemental, followed by condemnation and punishment for those who don’t reach perfection and leaving pride and arrogance in those who think they do. All of which is quite contrary to what Jesus wants to see in his followers. Another parable of Jesus will illustrate this – Luke 18:10. The Pharisee and the tax collector were in the Temple praying. The Pharisee was going through a list of all his good works claiming to be nothing less than perfect … not like this tax collector … who was humbly asking for mercy and forgiveness. And it was his prayer that went to the heart of God. ‘You must be perfect’ was the religion of the self-righteous, not the religion of Jesus.
We wouldn’t even recognise ‘perfection’ if we saw it! Certainly it’s an ‘ideal’ to aim for as long as that’s where it stays, beyond reach, always ahead of us beckoning us on, but never a possession that we can boast about. Trying to be perfect would inevitably involve measuring yourself against others and comparisons are odious! Seeing the imperfections in others is a way of hiding from your own. It’s like seeing the bit of dirt in somebody else’s eye and missing a whole load of it in your own! Judging others is a dangerous game. Don’t do it said Jesus because the judgement you give will be the judgement you get.
So let’s be wise in the opinions we hold and in the judgements we do have to make. We would do well to take Luke’s version as a more accurate translation of what Jesus said – not ‘be perfect’, but ‘be merciful’ as your Heavenly Father is merciful, for mercy is Godlike.
‘It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthy power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice.’
Donald Horsfield, 2nd October 2016
The Lord’s Prayer (5)
Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Deliver us from evil
Genesis 4: 1-16; Matthew 18: 21-35
Intro: An earthquake in central Italy: 23rd August, five days ago:
Religion had commonly handled untimely death, even of children and natural disasters, in what seems to me crass and so useless by declaring: it is God’s will, or in a vain attempt to soften this: Jesus has called them to be with him. For Muslims, it is Masha Allah – God has willed it, or ‘Inshallah’, God willing, our word DV, which used to accompany notices of e.g. the church fete DV will be held next Saturday DV. Though, Masha Allah particularly, is a call to do our level best, not throw our hands up in helplessness against such events.
However, it is not a view that most people now take, or mean. But in Bible texts there is plenty of evidence of God conducting a vengeful assault. We read of a remote and despotic god who uses violent natural disasters to interrupt the plans of men; to punish when people do not listen and obey his word.
George Currie Martin in his poem, our second hymn, understands this differently: ‘Your words to me are light and truth’. But then he is reading the Bible with discernment, the Bible expresses the human anger and distorted understandings as well as some of the deepest, radical thought. It is both a deeply flawed book as well as one that liberates the soul.
With this in mind today, we try to handle what we mean by: ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: and because the later plea in the Prayer seems to me to be closely related, the seventh and last petition: deliver us from evil.
1 East of Eden: Do you remember the 1955 film ‘East of Eden’ loosely based on the second half of the John Steinbeck novel set in California? Cal played by James Dean lives a tearaway life and Aron, his twin, studies to become a priest (which equates to a shepherd). His father Adam, a stern religious man, played by Raymond Massey, would like him to be more like his brother. Caleb borrows money from his estranged mother and invests in a bean crop as the bean price increases fast with a war coming. He brings his profits to his father. His father disapproves of his profiteering from a war and rejects his money and him. After that, Caleb informs Aron that their mother runs a brothel in a nearby town. Aron, distraught enlists in the war and is killed in combat. Caleb is the only one left to carry on. Caleb is described as having a more dark and sinister appearance than Aron. Adam tells Caleb “timshel” meaning “thou mayest”. Implying Caleb may overcome his evil nature because of ‘the mark’ put upon him by God. Lee, another character in the story tells Adam – ‘your son is marked by guilt’.
2 We have a choice: Clearly there is a re-telling of the story of Cain and Abel and there are parallels with the Prodigal Son. The story of Cain and Abel is set in the evolutionary Neolithic Age, about 5,500 years ago. They invented writing, irrigated farming, urban living in cities. They left records in stone; they left us their poems where they debated issues like ‘grain against sheep’, hoe against plough, winter against summer, copper against silver. In all of them victory is divinely decreed in favour, in this group of grain, hoe, winter, copper and so on. The point being that the evolutionary path corresponds with where the Semitic peoples (from which Jews emerged) were, and they share common stories of origins and understandings of their world. Nearly everything was decided in a world of gods, who could visit earth, inter marry and make treaties and intervene at will. The Sumerian divine brothers Shepherd Dumuzid and Farmer Enkimdu become the Bible’s human brothers.
The genius of the Jewish writers was to give those stories a different twist or outcome. Look at just two things:
(a) In the cultural norms of the day which prevailed even into our own 20th century culture, the elder male heir always inherited, in this case Cain. Not so here, he is rejected in favour of the younger Abel. Thus, God chooses to go against the prevailing culture, the same with Isaac over Ishmael.
(b) This is not simply a tale of jealous brother killing the younger. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The implication is that he is, we are responsible. Yes, he will be a fugitive. There are human consequences. This is not a Divine punishment. But the killing stops here. There must be no escalation of violence. Whoever kills Cain suffers seven times as much. And that is the first idea of a deterrent and an argument against the death penalty.
We have a choice. Cain has a choice. That condition is like a wild animal lurking at the tent flap it wants to enter. In my translation the injunction is – ‘you must master it’. In others it reads ‘you can master or control it’. Humanity has the capacity to think and act differently from the cultural norm. The mark of Cain becomes the mark of a development in human civilisation. We know what we are doing and we know what we ought not to do and we can overcome this urge in us to do the wrong thing. It is not inevitable in human nature that violence escalates. We are not inevitably violent beings. Why is that soldiers often suffer from PTSD? What goes on in the Syrian conflict is unnatural and against human nature and those who have a vested interest in, or who do nothing to stop it, is where evil lurks.
3 What then is evil? Revelations is a source for many of our images of the face of evil. ‘Babylon the great is fallen. She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird….detestable beast’…? (Revelations – Rome the Empire; in forms of Protestantism – Rome the Vatican). Some of us may well have been brought up to know how the devil lurked in lipstick, dance halls and doing anything enjoyable on a Sunday. Most people have dismissed these figures today. But I believe there is evil. The persistent question from sceptic, secular society is: How can there be evil in a world that a good god created? The short answer is it does not come from without, but from within and it is human and not religious, but may be cloaked in a religious piety.
There is a concept in Judaism, as in Islam, of the good eye in us and correspondingly of the evil eye. The good eye suggests an attitude of goodwill and kindness to others. S/he will rejoice when your neighbour prospers and you wish everyone well. The evil eye is the opposite. And it is this concept that Jesus, as a Jew, I think, is operating with in his story. Sometimes it is translated as mercy which seems obvious in the story by both its presence and absence.
To treat another human without mercy must be judged an act of evil. The central point again is that the slave owner has the capacity to act counter to the cultural and yes, the business norms, indicating that humanity can rise above its limitations and that is our saving grace. There are evil acts but not necessarily evil persons. I recall the book: ‘The Railwayman’ as a story of redemption.
And Peter’s question at the beginning of the reading: Really is seven times enough to forgive a member? And for Peter read the Church, which has consistently tried to limit its responses to what is reasonable and convenient. Jesus blows this out of the water and puts a figure on it that really means: whatever it takes, you keep the relationship going.
This contradiction in human behaviour is being played out in almost every human conflict in our world today. But see and think of the rescuers digging with their bare hands. This is our humanity and much greater.
4 Thy will be done in Earth as in Heaven: I leave you with three personal drivers:
- There are no separate worlds on this earth. There is the universe(s); there is our planet and likely others inhabited, there is life itself, and this is where we make human civilisation a wonder.
- God’s will is that spirit within us, among us, the good eye, the dedicated heart and mind that is committed to kindness , openness, peace and goodwill;
- Our human development so far has given us the UN, its some 35 agencies and wise and competent people in every walk of life around the world daily emerging; if not fit for purpose then we clamour or campaign, teach and love till we all are.
Noel Beattie, 28th August 2016
Believing, belonging and becoming
Acts 17: 22-28
This morning I want to talk about three things – Believing, Belonging and Becoming – which sounds like a 3-point sermon. There’s something satisfying about the number three. As you know, because during the time I was minister here, I kept telling you – I don’t DO numbers. Mathematics causes the mist to descend and I can’t see where I’m going! But some numbers seem to have, as it were, a light in them; they have ‘character’; they radiate something; they have a ‘feel’ to them. You might have a number that you ‘feel’ closer to than any other.
The Bible is full of numbers which are not mathematical so much, as spiritual. You have to look for their ‘meaning’ and not their numerical value. Numbers like one and three and lots of others: even bigger numbers like 666 or 144,000, both of which are in the Book of Revelation where for me the mist comes down again and I still can’t see where I’m going! So for this morning I’ll just stick with the numbers one and three.
God is one and even though the Trinity tells us that God is also three, that’s where the mist descends again! So I won’t be talking about the Trinity, I’ll have a three-point sermon about the oneness of God. I don’t remember much about my college days except that I was told to preach about God and preach about 20 minutes. Well I do preach about God, but 10-15 minutes is enough for me (and probably you too!) This morning there will be three points that I want to make – Believing – and subsidiary points – Belonging and Becoming.
Lots of things come in threes. It makes it easier to remember. There were the Three Wise Men – we may not remember their names – they are not in the Bible – but we’ve given them names – Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India and Balthasar from Arabia. In contrast there are the Three Silly Men – Stooges (Larry, Mo and Curly). Happy childhood days; Saturday afternoon at the local cinema! Sixpence for the first five rows at the front, with your head back, good for the posture! Every good story has three parts, a Beginning, Middle and End. And the story of your life and mine can be thought of in that way. Most of us are now nearer the end than the beginning: but if it is God who is telling the story, the end must lead to a new beginning, but in the meantime there are three points to consider.
BELIEVING; Believing in God. If anybody asks you, “Do you believe in God?” the best answer to give is to say, “What do you mean? What do you mean – God?” And then you can spend the rest of your lives debating the issue, which is what I’ve been doing! Nobody in particular asked me the question, life itself asked the question. And I’ll share with you some of the debate that’s been going on in me.
Do you believe that Mount Everest is in the Himalayas and is the highest mountain in the world? Yes. It’s just a fact and believing is no problem. There’s also what you might call ‘practical’ belief. Do you believe that two and two make four? You’d be foolish not to believe that! Do you believe that if you eat and drink too much you’ll put on weight or get ill or both? These are useful beliefs with ‘practical’ consequences. Factual belief and practical belief are centred up here in your head and controlled by good thinking. But there is another way of believing which I am calling ‘emotional’ belief, although I am looking for a better word. Emotional belief is based on something deeper than your head and deeper than your thinking. It belongs to your heart and is more closely connected to your feelings.
If I say, and I do, that I ‘believe in my wife’, what am I saying? Am I saying I believe in the ‘fact’ of her existence? Of course not! Believing in my wife is ‘something else’. It’s not about her existence, it’s about who she is in herself. It’s about my relationship and my experiences with her, experiences of love and trust, of care and concern; experiences of laughter, joy, happiness and with a few ‘ups and downs’ as well like everybody else. But underneath it all there is a firm ‘belief’ in our relationship. It’s about who I am and who she is, of just being ourselves and feeling safe with each other. Saying that ‘I believe in my wife’ is about the deeper things of life for which the best word is ‘spiritual’. And from that kind of belief I can begin to explore what it might mean to say that I believe in God.
Believing in God is not the experience of me finding God, but of God finding me, knowing me, loving me. I don’t say that I believe in ‘the existence of God’ as a fact, of God being somebody, somewhere, up in the sky or wherever. It’s more mysterious than that. We may begin life with childish ideas about God but like St. Paul we have to grow out of them just as we grew out of believing in Father Christmas as ‘existing’ somewhere. Unfortunately most of our religious upbringing, Sunday school, Bible teaching and singing hymns, can easily give us the wrong idea about ‘believing in God’. Religious beliefs tend to be factual and need to ‘move-on’ to become more spiritual.
You can’t ‘think’ your way to believing in God by just using your head and what’s written in a book, or if you do, you end up with a poor substitute or with an idol or a very dangerous religion. Do I believe in God? Yes I do. But it’s not a factual belief. It’s a spiritual belief. It’s not the result of clever thinking on my part. It’s me being open so that my spirit, my inner self, can be touched by something greater which is nevertheless deeply personal, and therefore spiritual, which knows me better than I know myself and loves me and wants me to be the best person that I can be. But I can’t do this on my own. I need other people; friendship, fellowship, togetherness, belonging to a community where there is mutual help, care, concern, and encouragement for learning and growing.
And that is what the Church is here for. We need the experience of BELONGING to something greater than ourselves. Something that will make a claim upon us, drawing out the best in us, giving us an opportunity to ‘become’ who we really are, Not so much giving us answers to all the questions in our heads but, deeper than that, giving us a purpose for living and BECOMING the people God wants us to be. So here we have the three points that I want to make, Believing, Belonging, Becoming. They are part of one process which is the spiritual journey that we are all on, discovering our true nature as People of God.
Donald Horsfield, 7th August 2016
The Kingdom of God: The Lord’s Prayer (4)
Luke 11: 1-10; Matthew 5: 1-16
Intro: The elderly lady and celebrated novelist who died earlier this year (Feb.19) Nelle Harper Lee published only one book in her life, read by millions around the world – ‘To kill a mocking bird’. Her second ‘Go set a watchman’, likewise a best seller, has now been confirmed as really the early draft of the first, but cast now as a sequel. Her message to the world is that of the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in 1930s Alabama. At the same time, she tells a story through the ‘watchman’ of the growing up of Scout from the Mockingbird to see her father, whom she had idolised as the hero above all other men, as like other men, capable of prejudice, and racism too. She found him to be human, and the world a great deal more complicated than she had in her youth. In no generation can we rely on maintaining the values we assume are best, everywhere and always. We need to keep a watch – hence, the title: Go set a watchman, (Isaiah 21:6).
I have been taking a wander through the Lord’s Prayer over the past months and today, my fourth session, I wander into the Kingdom of God.
(Through the service we have listened to parts of ‘African Sanctus’ by David Fanshawe 1942-2010. One piece is his ‘Lord’s Prayer. He had spent many years travelling around the world recording the rituals in music and dance of the indigenous people and then composing works that blended these with European styles. It is often quite spectacular music and wisdom of fast disappearing peoples)
1 The Kingdom of God: I want to pose that this is all there is about Jesus. Or, to express it better: Jesus wrote no novels at all, but his essential message is contained in everything he did, and taught and what he died for, and that is The Kingdom of God, or as we might like to say today; the good society. The Kingdom of God is his Good News. Jesus invites people to imagine a world that is far better than the world they now live in; to see beyond what is, to what can be. He paints them the most ridiculous of pictures of what can happen; he tells them stories from their own lives and makes them smile and laugh at themselves; he understands their world of dull and often cruel oppression. Jesus feels both anger and compassion, and in all his walkabout he has listened and observed. He wants them to think differently about themselves and who they are. He confronts those with power over them and some of those people recognise – he is authentic and identify with his cause.
Following John the Baptist Jesus re-ignites the prophetic voice. His inspiration is drawn largely from the prophets of over 500 years before and from what he sees around him. But, he offers no plan and calls for no violent uprising. He is not particularly talking about religious rules or etiquette, save where they just pile on more pressure to dehumanise and abuse. But he does ensure that his followers know that it will be costly with suffering and death as real consequences when you start to think differently. Like everything written in the Bible Jesus is in the context of the world he lives in. He is a man both of his own time and who has vision to believe that God’s intention is entirely different. Jesus has become the Christ of the Church through the device of him being proclaimed by the church as ‘Son of God’ and Messiah. Though, it is the kingdom of God idea that has made the greatest changes in the world, inspiring men and women do the most heroic things to make a better world.
Keir Hardie was a Christian who maintained his friendships with atheists, among them, being Eleanor Marx and Frederic Engels, but the dominant influence on his political ideas were the teachings of Jesus. All our heroes and leaders are flawed humans. Hardie maintained an affair with Sylvia Pankhurst whilst still married with a big family.
Such indiscretions, even immorality were not the things for which Jesus was prepared to die, though his church has been too happy to seek out and condemn such weaknesses before it examined the greater human injustices. I realise, even today, that to ask the question about what we mean by ‘son of God’ or to say that Jesus remains human, a prophet, maybe even himself flawed, is to call down the charge of heresy.
2 The end of systems of belief: We live in a ‘choice’ society now, sometimes there is far too much choice and over the top. We drove through South Carolina once and were assailed by dozens of boards advertising every conceivable kind of church, proclaiming their own truths. There were inevitably white and black churches, and Baptists with music and those without, Gospel churches like you have never heard or seen before……
The church has often seen the idea of choice as a bad thing. But, we can now choose what to believe or what not to believe, more than ever before. And it is a fixed belief system that people are opting out from. It is not the teachings of Jesus as they understand them from remembered passages such as we have today, that people walk away from. There is dismay and loss of trust in institutions (by no means religion alone) that are judged not to practice what they preach. Even for those who remain Sunday by Sunday, the dogma, doctrines, creeds are ritual alone, simply what you do.
For faith is not the same thing as belief. It never has been. Inter-related yes, but belief is no more than an opinion, a theory, an outcome of church council argument or debate. Faith is what, or whom you are prepared to trust your life to. Sometimes it can be prompted by beliefs you were taught, but it is essentially about what is inside of you and moves you and who you are. It is your spirit. It directs your life, though you may fail in your desires. It need not be religious. It is that spiritual nature that can be denied, neglected, even completely destroyed. Or it can be nurtured and developed in your humanity.
3 A Way of life: People may walk away from religion, but there is recognition that churches have been somehow the conveyor, however churches are a good thing in the community because they often bring it together, though few go there on Sundays. This is particularly seen in rural areas like Shropshire. And, there is a community reluctance to lose the church building.
William Cantwell Smith (1916-2000) The Meaning and End of Religion is well worth a read, and it is not a negative book at all for the churches. The modern definition of ‘religion’ is a way off mark from what its root Latin word meant – ‘religio’. It meant faith – living an experience, including love, trust, awe and worship, transcending the limitations of what is; a way of life, an attitude towards the divine and nature – a particular way of seeing the world.
In those terms today, there are many, many people who are living that experience and who do not see themselves as religious. There is hope in this and should be hopeful for every church. The only issue for us is one of re-connection, but not on our terms; rather a returning to the Spirit that is abroad and alive in people, communities and world around us. Some will call themselves atheists, humanists; will be from other faiths and cultures. It will change what churches are, how we are and what we do. The Christian sect from early on was known as ‘the way’, – a particular way of life, with an uncertain destination.
For Paul, at his best, the core value of being a better human being is that we practice love. This is more important than creeds and doctrines and denominations and even what we might understand by the three letter word ‘God’.
Religion need not separate us. Though, we do need as churches to create a greater space to include, to engage with all, to join our spirits in a human endeavour to make a better world. I don’t know what church will then be like. I do believe we cannot engage from where churches are now. We need not expect a revival of religion, but we can hope for an awakening of humanity.
The only questions we need are: the spirit that inhabits or defines a person is it hopeful, can it be trusted, but above all – is it a spirit of genuine love?
Noel Beattie, 24th July 2016
The Tower of Babel
I’m reading a very good book at the moment. It’s “A History of the World”. I’m drawn to books like this because they give me that bigger picture of the world that I want to see. I’m told that there are about 7000 different languages spoken throughout the world. I did know that 600 of them are in Papua New Guinea. It set me thinking about ‘language’, and that’s what I want to talk about because it’s such an important part of who we are; it’s how we communicate with one another. As our world evolved through the ages, so people learned to talk to one another, which we do by moving the tongue in our heads and making different sounds. The very word ‘language’ means ‘tongue’. If we had no tongue there would be no language. Words only come by wagging your tongue. Try keeping your tongue still and see what you can say! The first people, our stone-age ancestors, made up words to identify what they could see around them so that everybody would know what they were talking about. For example, they made the word ‘apple’ (or its equivalent in each of those 7000 languages) to identify that edible fruit hanging on the tree.
It’s the same with the word ‘water’. That’s the stuff in the river which also falls from the sky and you need to drink it to stay alive. It can also be used for washing in, but I don’t think they had a word for ‘soap’ in those days! In this way, by making up words, languages developed. And then at night, snug and warm in their cave by the camp fire, they would develop their language even more by telling stories; stories about the creation of the world and where everything came from. They would also have been asking questions, some of which we are still asking today; questions which boil down to just one big question – what’s it all about.
They could only come up with answers from within their own situation, which is the same for us today; but they didn’t have ‘Google’ to help in their search! Their way was to ‘tell stories’ which they did with some skill and insight, imagination and humour. And these stories would be passed on to children’s, children’s children, down the ages. Even today in some parts of the world, including Papua New Guinea, there are tribes of stone-age people living in mountain valleys who have never been in touch with the outside world. They will still be telling their stories, making sense to them of the world they live in.
The world is full of stories in 7000 different languages. But there will be a common theme running through many of these stories. And that common theme will be answering the question, “What’s it all about”. Life, this world, the universe and our place in it, our relationship with everything else including the Creator of it all for which in our own English language we have the word ‘God’. But that’s only a word, our word, and we need to remember that. Behind every word is another question, what does the word mean?
There is one set of stories which has been collected and put together in a big book called The Bible. And I’m going to read one of those stories now. It’s called The Tower of Babel. At first, the people of the whole world had only one language and used the same words. As they wandered about in the East, they came to a plain in Babylonia and settled there. They said to one another, “Come on! Let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” So they had bricks to build with and tar to hold them together. They said, “Now let’s build a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.” Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which those men had built, and he said, “Now then, these are all one people and they speak one language; this is just the beginning of what they are going to do. Soon they will be able to do anything they want! Let us go down and mix up their language so that they will not understand one another.” So the Lord scattered them all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. The city was called Babylon, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the people, and from there he scattered them all over the earth. Genesis 11:1-9 (Good News Bible)
We’ll have a closer look at that story in a moment or two.
The Tower of Babel (ii)
I Corinthians 13:1-13
So what can we make of this story of the Tower of Babel? What’s the purpose of it? What was in the mind of whomever it was who wrote it?
First of all, it IS a story. It’s not an event that happened somewhere at some time. It’s a story with a meaning, as indeed is most of what’s written in the Book of Genesis. In this case the story is about two things, language, and God. And when I say ‘God’, I mean ‘their understanding’, in those days, of what the word ‘God’ meant, which will be quite different from our understanding today, or should be! In those days there were many gods, so they thought, living up in the sky and watching what was going on down below. And in this story what the gods saw were people building a tower, up and up and up into the sky. People would soon be knocking on the door of heaven itself, and the gods didn’t like that! They didn’t want a mere human being trespassing on their heavenly territory. That’s the background to this story about the gods and about language.
Back to my ‘History book’ for a minute; the people of those early days, stone-age people, began to spread out around the world. And as they did so they met other stone-age people coming the other way but all speaking different languages, 7000 of them at the last count! And they would have thought, “How come? Why don’t ‘they’ all speak the same language as ‘we’ do?” Even many years later when the British Empire was spreading around the world, some of those who went out, missionaries included, had the same mentally. Their attitude was, if we speak our language, English that is, simply and clearly, surely they will all understand what we’re saying! (English common-sense!) Well it doesn’t work, I’ve tried it!
Back to the story, The Tower of Babel. It begins by telling us that the people of the whole world had only one language: and all used the same words, which historically is just not true! This is a made-up story trying to explain why there were so many different languages. And the writer of this story about the Tower of Babel came to the conclusion that the gods must be responsible. Well, in those days, the gods were responsible for everything! The gods, looking down and seeing the tower rising, getting nearer and nearer, said, “These people down below are getting too big for their boots. We must teach them a lesson” … SHAAZAM … they worked some magic that only gods can do and suddenly everybody was talking nonsense to everybody else. They lost that one language, chaos descended and nobody could understand what was being said. Job done! The gods could now settle back in the comfort and security of their heavenly mansions feeling safe from those climbing predators down below who were thrown into meaningless BABBLE … or BABEL.
And still we babble on today … Chinese, Japanese, English, French, Arabic, Russian, and a thousand others. Language keeping us divided instead of bringing us together. Is there not just one language that would help us to become one family, living in one world, and with a common purpose to create health and happiness and well-being for everybody? In the year 1887, this ideal of one human family speaking one language, inspired a group of people to do something about it. They actually created a new language called ESPERANTO. They hoped it would spread to become THE world language spoken by everybody. But how many people do you know who speak Esperanto today? It just didn’t work. As a language it was too artificial. It came from the ‘head’ and not from the heart. But people live more from their hearts than they do from their heads. We need language to express our deepest feelings with words that come from our hearts and not just our heads.
This is where we need to bring God back into ‘our story’. God and language are closely connected. Language is for communication and the deepest form of communication is COMMUNION, which is ONENESS IN SPIRIT… oneness with each other, which is the same as oneness with God. God is no longer one of the sky gods in the story of the Tower of Babel. They have had their day and have disappeared, and we don’t want them back! The sky gods were jealous gods protecting their own territory. The God of the Old Testament is one of them. (Exodus 34:14). They must make way for a new understanding of God as the God of Love, who doesn’t introduce confusion into a unity that already exists, but dispels confusion to create a unity that ‘needs’ to exist.
There’s only one language that can create and hold everybody in ONENESS, and that’s the Language of Love. That new concept of God is also there in the Bible where it says that, God’s love has been poured into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us. (Romans 5:5) And that’s for everybody. The gift is given, the gift of God’s Spirit, which has a language of its own, the language of love. The Spirit within you is also the Teacher who will enable you to learn how to speak fluently. I may be able to speak any number of those 7000 languages, but if I have no love, it’s just a wagging of the tongue, just a Babel of noise. People can be identified by the language they use and by the way they speak. My own vowels betray me as a Lancastrian! It’s the same with the language of love, it shows who we are, people in communion with God. It’s a language the world needs to hear and to see in action.
Donald Horsfield, 17th July 2016
Give us today our daily bread:
The Lord’s Prayer (3)
Mark 8: 1-9
Intro: The evolving finals of the Master Chef competition this year took us to Mexico City. It was such a delight to see these four amazing amateur chefs enter enthusiastically into the so colourful cuisine of the best that Mexican culture produces. The competitors were, are – so amazing themselves and were treated with respect by their Mexican hosts and mentors. But it is the food that is centre stage, a creative dish, a work of art and genius. There is something very civilising in the way the elements of food itself are revered. And in the sorcerer’s kitchen, what seem irreconcilable elements are brought together, delicately, courageously and with risk, to attempt a surprising harmony. I would say it is a spiritual experience, to watch, let alone what it must feel, to participate in.
Give us this day our daily bread – I find this petition, in the most common of all prayers, to be a profound phrase that should at least surprise us today. To whom is the petition addressed? Where does it come from? What does it desire?
1 Give us this day our daily bread comes in the middle of the Prayer. Who is being addressed here? The easy answer is that it is God. However, forgive me for repeating an old story, but it helps make the bridge. The clergyman visiting round his parish, comes upon the most beautiful garden he has seen and he sees someone working in it. So he goes over and says to him: “Your garden shows just what a wonderful creative God we have”. The reply comes back: “that may be, but you should have seen it when he had it to his self”. Prayer is what we are prepared to think about, worry even, and we can be moved by, to respond.
This prayer, which may be a genuine teaching from Jesus, is set into that whole vision of the prophet, of the kingdom of God, about how humanity can change and make a world fit for all. As a petition, its direction is very ‘this world’ and thereby political, spiritual, human, and has echoes in the cry of the people in every age. It is western culture that has made two separate worlds: one that is supernatural, where gods are, the place of the Spirits, and where our destiny is. For here we have no continuing home: and that here: the other, the human world, which is secular, rude, base, lesser and from where we are to be rescued. One of the reasons we cannot fully understand Muslims and Jews, is that they see one world in which we make our salvation. Religion and politics are woven together. At one end of the spectrum is a fundamentalist view, such as ISIL – a closed world dominated by a dysfunctional, fear-ridden religion. There are other positions and Sharia, responsibly applied, can bring a wholeness, a connecting things up, make for a unifying society.
2 Manna in the desert – There is another story in Mark of the feeding of the 5000 two chapters before. Jesus refers his disciples to this following the 4000 story. That story is of 5 loaves and 2 fish and 12 baskets of leftovers. This story is recorded in all four gospels. The multitude of 4000 occurs only in Mark and Matthew. All are set in the context that the authors chose, mainly to illustrate the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. They are all drawn from the specific Jewish story and often cast the Jews in a bad light. If you want to see the roots of laying blame upon the Jews for Jesus’ death and subsequent anti-Semitism, you can look at what is going on around these six accounts.
Each is also connecting us with the wilderness experience, the first stage of nation-building; the myth of the disaffected tribes journeying to the promised land and when they were hungry, being fed by God with manna in the desert. At Shabbat (the Sabbath) and other festivals today, Jews have a double portion of Challah, the plaited loaves, because the collecting of daily bread in the Wilderness years was forbidden on the Shabbat (Sabbath). Thus, a double portion was delivered the day before (like meals on wheels does at weekends)!
Festivals, events, worship at many points and very frequently in all cultures include food. From a cup of tea around conversation or counsel, to banquets to welcome dignitaries, lunches to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, to Communion every Sunday, or once a month. We re-enact, remember and learn from our traditions and explore the mysteries of their meanings today. It often requires tasty, appetising, wholesome and beautiful food with its alluring or familiar smells and tastes of home and belonging. Meals can make the occasion. They are as much a spiritual experience as a social occasion, expressions of relationships, building of national and international bonds. Give us today our daily bread is at the heart of a vision for the good society. It is not an appeal for charity, but a cry for fairness, justice and decency and a spiritual quest for the fullness of our humanity.
3 Global Food Crises: In our world, as in the past, many different factors have made food security one of the most important global issues. The huge rise in food prices globally in 2008, the staple food like wheat was up by 130%, rice by 74%. The Clinton administration dumped US surplus rice on the Haiti population killing off the indigenous rice industry.
The world population is heading towards 9bn. by 2050. More people die each year from hunger and malnutrition than from AIDs, TB and Malaria combined.
The World Bank estimates that cereal production needs to increase by 50% and meat by 85% by 2030. The green revolution in developing nations in the mid-60s in food growing regions, that transformed practices and raised yields dramatically, is levelling off. Water shortages, deforestation, increase in deserts, resistances to insecticide, poor infrastructure, Climate Change are bringing new microbial diseases to food-growing regions and unpredictable weather patterns. In Science and technology it is known what to do. There is not the political passion and will.
4 Numbers are telling: 4000/5000 is a multitude in the rural area and threatening to the establishment; 12 baskets or 7 baskets of left-overs is extreme waste. These are stories meant to shock and they are prophetic. There is enough, more than enough. It is a question of sharing and of the value of each person’s and each State’s opportunity for equality, for inclusion in the banquet of life.
In our world it is said by global economists that no government has very much sovereignty over itself. We are willingly entrapped in a global system controlled by very few people and conglomerates who have no loyalties to any State beyond themselves; forces who act often covertly. The only way out is by people, nations and States collaboratively working against those forces.
The teaching of Jesus is always about a coming together of people to learn to think differently about themselves and each other. Engaging together is engaging in God.
Noel Beattie, 8th May 2016
Enthusiasm for God
Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4; Romans 8:14-17
What do you get enthusiastic about? We are … most of us, getting on a bit and ‘enthusiasm’ is usually associated with youthfulness; leaping around and charging about. But that’s only the ‘outward form’ of enthusiasm and soon wears off. People become enthusiastic for this, that and the other for a while, and then it evaporates. But ‘real enthusiasm’, which is what I want to talk about, comes from within: it’s a spiritual quality; it doesn’t involve dashing around all the time; and it doesn’t evaporate just because your joints are not as supple as they used to be. When your pension starts coming in, your enthusiasm doesn’t have to fly out of the window. You can have both, your pension and your enthusiasm, which is good news!
And the purpose of this sermon is to encourage you to be enthusiastic about your faith in God and in living a good Christian life. But you have to be enthusiastic in your own way; according to your own ‘personality’: don’t copy anybody else; be yourself, be enthusiastic about being yourself. God wants ‘you’ to be ‘you’, because nobody else can be, but it’s the ‘best you’ that God is after. Each one of us is unique. Only you can be you. And if you’re not being ‘you’, there’s something missing; or rather, there’s ‘somebody’ missing; and God will be looking for you.
Now this is where my second best friend comes in handy. I always have a dictionary close by; and I have one in my pocket. If you are a cruciverbalist your dictionary is essential. What’s a cruciverbalist? It’s somebody who does crosswords. Some of us are ‘enthusiastic’ about crosswords: and we’re all the better for it, although other members of the family may have a different opinion! This little electronic gadget is the Concise Oxford English Dictionary with thousands of words and meanings and synonyms available at the click of a button.
If I put the word ‘enthusiasm’ in, it will take me to the root meaning of the word: and tell me that it comprises two Greek words EN and THUO … which simply mean IN – GOD … en thuo, IN GOD. And that’s where our word ‘enthusiasm’ comes from. ‘God’ is the source of the real thing. There are other forms of enthusiasm: but they are not the real thing, unless the person is also living en thuo, in God. God himself/herself is the purest form of enthusiasm. God is ‘EN THUO’ in a big way!! So we need to be ‘in touch’, to make sure that our own ‘little enthusiasms’ don’t lead us away from the real thing.
What do you think God is enthusiastic about? God’s enthusiasm is for the triumph of Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love: or to put it in religious terms, God is enthusiastic for his Kingdom to come on earth: and we are invited to share in that enthusiasm. In God … en thuo … we are to “live and move and have our being”: and it’s an exciting, wonderful and thrilling place to be … en thuo … in God … enthusiastic. So let’s be enthusiastic about God. Let’s explore “the spiritual dimension” of life; and find in it all the blessings and guidance that are there for us. Enthusiasm is the movement of the Spirit within you. Movement produces ‘energy’, just like the magnet spinning round produces electricity, so the Spirit moving within your heart and mind will produce mental alertness and spiritual vitality, but within the limits of your own personality and your general health: a bit of common sense is not an enemy of the Spirit! There will always be a bit of tension between the body and the spirit, especially as we grow older. But ‘spirit’ is more fundamental to who we are: the spirit can be willing even when the body is weak! So let’s have a closer look at all this in the light of the Pentecostal story.
The story of Pentecost is really just a symbolic way of telling us that those first disciples became ‘enthusiastic’. They had an experience of being en thuo: and it was like a fire burning inside them. You remember those disciples going to Emmaus; they said to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us!” The Spirit was moving. So ‘fire’ is one of the symbols of Pentecost. Fire is a source of light and warmth and energy: just what they needed: the light of new truth dawning on their minds; the warmth of a loving presence; and the energy to get moving. Before that their predominant attitude was ‘fear’. Fear is also a deep emotion, and it’s actually the flip-side of enthusiasm. But did not Jesus turn the world up-side-down: he certainly did; and it happened at Pentecost: fear turned over into enthusiasm: the Spirit gave them a new outlook, instead of just churning them up on the ‘inside’.
The disciples became aware of a deep truth burning inside them: that Jesus was ‘not really’ dead! Oh yes, his body was; but his spirit was alive (one of the last words from the cross – into your hands I commit my spirit (not his body); spiritually he was still alive … in God. Everything he had said and done was still relevant. In effect he was still with them … in Spirit (en thuo) – God is Spirit. The message of Pentecost is that God’s intention for us is to be ‘enthusiastic’ about the things that Jesus was enthusiastic about, and for that purpose the fire can burn in our hearts too.
Another symbol of Pentecost is the wind. Now, in the natural world, we’re only just waking up to this, re-connecting with nature. Wind power is free and clean and abundant. If we took it more seriously and did more research into it, it could be the answer to our energy problems. And it’s the same with the wind of the Spirit; it’s free; it’s clean and it’s abundant; and it’s surely the answer to the moral pollution that’s contaminating the world.
Today the Spirit is on the move, stirring people up to be en thuo, enthusiastic for what God wants … Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Love. There’s a task to be done; there’s a truth to be told; there’s a world to be saved. But it’s ‘our’ world; and that spirit has to be embodied in us, as it was in Jesus. The fire has to be kindled in our hearts and minds; we have to let the wind blow away the cobwebs that have gathered round our fears and misunderstanding, so that we can engage with the world of today. It’s no good looking back; it’s no good wanting to create the conditions in that upper room in Jerusalem. The past is gone; the Spirit is on the move; and we should hoist up the sails of our faith and be a bit more enthusiastic about it!
Donald Horsfield, 1st May 2016
Thomas and Easter (i)
John 20: 24-29; Ephesians 3: 14-19
Today is the first Sunday after Easter which can also be called St Thomas’ Sunday. It’s called that because on Easter Sunday itself, Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know where he was but we know he wasn’t there when the other disciples had the experience of Jesus, in some mysterious way, still being alive. So Thomas is now having his own experience of this a week later.
As far as Easter is concerned ‘experience’ is the key word. The Resurrection stories, make of them what you will, seem to be about a dead body coming alive: but the ‘experience’ for the disciples was SPIRITUAL. There’s a verse in our New Testament in one of Peter’s letter where it says “Jesus was put to death physically but made alive spiritually”. And one of the last words on the cross was, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” – not body. But, unfortunately for us, the Church has focussed more on dead bodies coming alive than on the Spirit coming alive. So with the help of Thomas maybe we can put that right!
Easter is not a detective story. It’s not about finding a missing body. We know what happens to dead bodies, they get recycled. From the earth we came, to the earth we return. But our bodies are not who we really are. We are more than just our bodies. We are essentially spiritual beings. The Creation story in the book of Genesis got it right. Of course it’s only a story, a myth; it can only be that because there was nobody there at the time to see what happened. Nevertheless, there can be truth, important truth, contained in a story.
The Creation myth is that, from our Mother Earth, God shaped a human being and breathed life into it. The very life of God in us: the Spirit of God is what gives us life. That’s the important truth of the story. And the ‘meaning’ of the Easter story is about the disciples realising for themselves, personally, this spiritual truth … their oneness with God. Some of those disciples, on the way to Emmaus, had an experience where they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us”. The spirit was like a fire burning within them as they came alive in a new way.
This ‘experience’ can come in different ways; it’s different for all of us; but it is essentially a waking up to the truth of God’s presence, the Eternal Spirit, within us. And it’s for everybody, even for Thomas who wasn’t there on the day; neither were we. But the day is ‘now’; it’s always now: and anybody at any time can be raised to life by the Spirit within. Call it ‘resurrection’ if you like; but that’s only a word. Easter is not about saying you believe in something that happened two thousand years ago. It’s an experience of now, today, an eternal truth, always available.
Thomas had his doubts about the resurrection ‘stories’ and you may have yours. I hope you do because you need to be true to yourself. But I also hope you know something about the Spirit within you coming alive.
Thomas and Easter (ii)
The Thomas story at Easter has this conclusion, “Happy are those who have faith and trust in God without seeing and touching.” ‘Seeing and touching’ are what Thomas wanted to do. They are two of the five senses that we all, or most of us, have; hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing and touching. But there’s more to us than that. We don’t just have five senses: what about ‘common sense’. Where would we be without that? And when we’re thinking about life and God and religion, a bit of common sense goes a long way.
Then there’s also something we call INTUITION, which is a kind of sixth sense. But what is intuition? I turn to my best friend, the Dictionary. No, correction, my second best friend: my best friend is sitting there! The Dictionary tells me that …intuition is a way of knowing which lies deeper than reasoning… deeper than what goes on inside our heads. Intuition is a way of knowing, but we have to be careful with it because it’s more related to our ‘feelings’ than our thinking. But it does bring us closer to that Spiritual Dimension of life that we call God.
And for me at my stage of life, where I am today on my life’s journey, that spiritual dimension is more and more important. It’s where I want to be, doing my ‘exploration into God’: where I want to be ‘getting to know’ more about my relationship with God: discovering more about who I am and what life is for. Perhaps I should have found this out before because I’ve already used up my three score years and ten! Still better late than never!
While using my intuition and focussing on my deeper feelings, I also want to keep on questioning and thinking, which I will do. But I am recognising more and more, that God is not to be discovered through finding answers to questions. I have come to realise, not so much that ‘I’ know about God, but that God knows about me. I am known by a Greater Goodness and a Greater Love than myself to which I am drawn in some form of commitment. This discovery has led me to a change in ‘religious outlook’. It’s not about trying to get all the right answers to theological questions, as it were, passing the test and getting your ticket to heaven! That model of religion I’ve … well, I can do without it!
Most Sundays if I’m not up here, I’m down there with my best friend sitting in the congregation, taking part in what’s going on. And thinking of that reminds me of a retirement course for ministers I once attended when I was sixty four, little realising that I wouldn’t retire till I was seventy eight! At that meeting one of the ministers said he didn’t know whether he would continue going to church when he retired because it wouldn’t be easy to find a church where he could feel ‘comfortable’. He wasn’t talking about sitting in a hard pew in a cold church! He was talking about the theology and the teaching that was being given out.
I am in the same position; but I’ve stayed in Church Stretton, and I didn’t have to look far to find a ‘comfortable’ church. I already had one. But even so, sitting down there, I occasionally ‘cringe’ at some of the words of the hymns, some of the Bible readings, and even at some things said by some of the preachers. So what is it I want to find in the church of my choice? What do I want to get from the worship? And what do I want to give if, like today, I continue taking services? Well, I’m certainly not looking for any ‘fixed and final’ answers to ultimate questions. I just want to be accepted as I am, with all my doubts and fears and faults, plus any good qualities that I might have! I want to be able to be honest with myself and with you because this is the only way to a healthy relationship with God, who already knows us. You can’t deceive God!
Who was it who said, “Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” In the church of my choice I want to keep knocking and seeking and finding: moving on in the Spirit; and very happy to be doing it here. So leaving Thomas where he is, I want to move away from the ‘seeing and touching’ way of knowing God to the more intuitive way. Learning to live comfortably with unanswered questions; content with just being known by God … where my own self or spirit is ‘at one’ with the Source of all things.
Donald Horsfield, 10th April 2016
Jesus and Easter
Ephesians 1:3-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Ephesians 5:14
A verse from Luke’s Gospel to set the scene for what I want to say, “Jesus came eating and drinking; and the religious leaders said ‘look at this man’ – he’s a glutton and a wine-drinker; a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34)
Some of you will have been here on the night of January 5th when I gave a talk for Engaging Issues with the title, ‘Spiritual but not religious.’ I posed it as a question then tried to answer it: and those who were listening closely may have come to the conclusion that I was putting myself in the position of being just that – spiritual but not religious. And if that’s what they thought, they would be right! So what am I doing here on Easter Sunday, the very heart and centre of the Christian RELIGION? Well, I’m going to be sharing with you my belief that Jesus would also have ticked that box to describe himself; his outlook and his attitude; as being spiritual but not religious.
From where I am looking at Jesus and religion, he was not the Founder of Christianity (as one famous book was entitled). True enough, the Christian religion was founded on his life and teaching; but then it grew into something else. It became ‘too’ religious and not enough spiritual. And I firmly believe that the “Spirit” of God is today moving to inspire and guide us; to become more spiritual and less religious – in the narrow sense of that word.
If we look at the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and read it with a discerning mind, it soon becomes clear that Jesus himself was not a very religious man: not in the way he was expected to be by the leaders of the religion he was born into and grew up in. There are lots of stories about Jesus breaking the rules; mixing with those the religion condemned; and telling the religious authorities that these ‘ unclean sinners and outcasts’ that he was mixing with, would find their way into the Kingdom of God before themselves, who thought they were the chosen ones.
Jesus re-interpreted what was regarded as sacred religious teaching and he brought it ‘down to earth’. He made it simple and clear in the kind of language ordinary folk could understand. “We’ve never heard the likes of this before”, they said. Basically he told stories (parables) and said to the people, “Think about what I’ve just said, and come to your own conclusions.” In other words, “listen to the Spirit within you. Do your own thinking and you’ll come to the truth.” He said to them, “The Kingdom of God, meaning the presence of God, the power of God, is within you.” So in effect Jesus was putting ‘people first’: believing that any religion that’s going to be any good, is there to minister to the basic needs of people.
Paul also got hold of this truth and he told the people of the church in Corinth (1Corinthians 3:16), “Surely you know that you are God’s temple; and the Spirit of God lives in you”. Anybody saying ‘surely you know’ implies that he thinks they don’t know and needed to be told. The temple of God is not made from stone embellished with decorations of gold and supported by religious pomp and ceremony. People themselves are the temple of God and any religion should be based on that, and if it isn’t, we’re better off without it!
Putting people first is one of the marks of spirituality; putting people before religion. And so religion always needs to be open to change under the influence and guidance of those who are moved by the Spirit, as Jesus was. So where does that leave Christianity with all its doctrines and creeds and religiosity? We’ll have a look at that question in a minute or two.
In view of my wanting to be ‘spiritual but not religious’, where does that leave me on Easter Sunday? I’ll try to answer that question now.
As I’ve already mentioned there are two particular marks of spirituality which need to be there in any and every religion. One is putting people first (as Jesus did). And telling people what they have to believe is not putting people first. People need to be ‘liberated’, to discover for themselves what life and God is all about: and given some help and guidance on how best to ‘be themselves’ and live as fully as they can. Living fully means ‘being alive’ to the presence and the promptings of the Spirit within you: without that nothing happens.
The second mark of spirituality involves coming ‘down to earth’, and not being over-concerned about getting ‘up to heaven’. What I mean by this is, you will be concerned about LIFE here and now as we live it on this planet earth in the 21st century. You will be rooted and grounded in ‘this world’ and not some ‘other world’. ‘This world’ where Jesus said that God’s Kingdom (or presence) is to be found – ‘Thy kingdom come on earth’…
These two marks of spirituality are closely connected; one leads to the other; putting people first will involve ‘coming down to earth’ in order to make this world ‘one world’, where we can all live in peace with one another; and live in harmony with our Mother Earth who provides the food and sustenance to keep us alive. Any ‘good’ religion will help people into that kind of spirituality so that all this can happen.
So what is our religion offering to us at Easter time? Easter Sunday – RESURRECTION! But how do we understand that if we are claiming to be spiritual and not too religious, which is what I am wanting to be, and maybe some of you are too! Well, the answers are all there in the Bible, aren’t they? But we are intelligent people, aren’t we? So we need to be careful and think about our attitude towards the Bible as a whole, to understand what it IS, and what it IS NOT.
It is a book that can put us in touch with spiritual truths. They are there, but we have to find them. They can ‘liberate us’ to become what we have it in us to be; guiding us in the fulfilment of our potential as human beings; but the Bible IS NOT a history book giving us a load of facts which we have to say that we believe. That’s the kind of religion we can do without! The Bible is there to enlighten our minds and transform our lives with deep and lasting truths – which are NOT there on every page! These nuggets of spiritual truth can get lost amid all the religious baggage of a bygone age. Jesus himself, very much ‘spiritually alive’, shone a light on these truths and I want to draw your attention to one of them.
The religion of the day in Jesus’ time was all ‘tied up in knots’. Freedom of the spirit didn’t come into it. And Jesus cut through this Gordian Knot with the simple, sharp, sword of truth. On one occasion he told the religious leaders, and his own followers, to go away and think about the passage of Scripture where it says, “God does not want sacrifice: God wants mercy and loving kindness… (Matthew 12:7). But the whole of their religion with its Temple worship was based on sacrifice as the only way to God. And so deep rooted was this idea of a distant God who needed blood sacrifice to turn away his anger, that even his own followers, can you believe it, actually created another religion with Jesus himself as the very sacrifice … the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). But, God doesn’t want sacrifice!
And that kind of religion with a distant God needing to be pacified with sacrifice is still tying people up in knots: leaving people hungry for a deeper spiritual truth that will set them free to discover themselves anew in a loving relationship with Divinity.
Is there another nugget of this truth that will help to disentangle us from our religious confusion? Yes there is! And we’ve already met it. Paul’s letters are a mixed bag: but the nuggets are there and one of them is ‘spot on’; it tells each one of us that, “You are God’s temple; for the Spirit of God lives in you” (1Corinthians 3:16). That’s what religion should be telling us and not tying us up in theological knots. But we have to help ourselves. We need to wake up and start asking questions about religion; finding a better place to stand as we face the confusion that the world is in today.
We need a spiritual wake up call. And sure enough it’s there in another of Paul’s letters, Wake up sleeper! Rise from the dead! And Christ will shine upon you! (Ephesians 5:14). The word Christ means ‘Jesus-alive-in-the-Spirit’: not in some bodily form floating off into the sky. The word ‘Christ’ is just another word for ‘the light of spiritual truth’ that Jesus was to the world. We need to wake up to that truth – the truth of our spiritual oneness with God. Such a ‘waking up’ of our own spirit will be like rising from the dead … resurrection NOW, today, for us freely available. All we have to do is embrace it … and LIVE. And it seems to me to be very appropriate to be reminded of this on Easter Sunday!
Donald Horsfield, 27th March 2016
Palm Sunday. The Lord’s Prayer (2)
Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Luke 19: 28-40
Intro: In January I began a reflection on the most common of all prayers that is known, or was known, as we can no longer assume everyone knows the words of The Lord’s Prayer. It is a Jewish prayer because it is thought to be from Jesus himself, a Jew. I think it is a prayer of all humanity. This morning I want to look, in Holy Week, at the petition about forgiveness of our sins. In Mathew it reads; ‘and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’; in Luke, ’and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’.
This looks like a plea bargain. Be fair, we have forgiven others so let us off the hook; we’ve earned it; fair’s fair – come on – we done our part Gov!
There is reciprocity in it – a mutual exchange and it starts with us. God’s forgiveness is conditional on us being forgiving people. In the parable of the ‘unforgiving servant’ forgiveness from the king is conditional on the servant’s forgiveness of a small debt owed to him. In Jewish tradition it is considered proper to be forgiving of others.
We ask for terms – that our forgiveness should be done in the same manner as people have forgiven those who have debts against them. In the Aramaic the word ‘hoba’ can mean either debt or sin. And it is generally agreed we are dealing here with sins rather than financial debts, but the principle is the same.
By the way, reformed churches are more likely to say: forgive us our debts; whilst Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics may say: forgive us our trespasses. Debts occur in the first English translation of the Bible by John Wycliffe in 1395. ‘Trespasses’ appear in the 1526 version by William Tyndale. In the 1549 Book of Common Prayer ‘trespasses’ became the ‘official’ version used in Anglican congregations.
This morning, I want to ask two questions:
1 What do we mean by sin? and
2 How far should we go in forgiving others?
The story of John Newton (1725-1807)
He grew up without any religious conviction, but his path of life was formed by a variety of twists and turns. Newton was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and after service he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of Donegal. He called out to God, for mercy, a moment he has said marked his spiritual conversion. Newton saw no inconsistency with his new found faith and continuing his career in slave trading for another 6 years. He admitted that he was a ruthless businessman and an unfeeling observer of the Africans he traded. Slave revolts on board were frequent. Newton mounted guns and muskets on the desk aimed at the slaves quarters. Slaves were lashed and put in thumbscrews to keep them quiet. He gave up seafaring in 1754.
John Newton applied for the Anglican priesthood. It was 7 years before he was accepted and finally appointed priest of Olney, Bucks. He became well known for his pastoral care and respected by both Anglicans and nonconformists. It was whilst in Olney that he collaborated with William Cowper to produce a volume of hymns, including Amazing Grace. So popular was his preaching that the church could not accommodate all those who flocked to hear him. At some point Newton began to deeply regret his involvement in the slave trade.
As Rector of Woolnoth, in London in 1779, his advice was sought by many influential figures in Georgian society, among who was the young MP William Wilberforce. He is credited with preventing Wilberforce from leaving politics for the church and to encourage him to “serve God where he was”. The abolition of slavery bill was passed in the year Newton died.
A man of contradictions but “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. Author Gilbert Chase writes that it is “without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns,” and Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, estimates that it is performed about 10 million times annually
1 What is sin? It is hard for us to get our heads around the idea that slave trafficking was a legitimate trade and the wealth of the UK and other nations has been built upon that trade. And as you know, in many and various ways slavery and people trafficking is practised today and there is a UN mandate to completely eradicate all forms of slavery. But it wasn’t a crime, or a sin, in the churches view, until well into 19th century – as black people were seen as sub-human creatures.
You will also know that churches have spent a great deal of time and energy inducing guilt especially in our sexual lives and seldom celebrating its joy and life–giving properties. Churches even constructed lucrative ways of absolving people and preventing them from going to hell too soon, through the selling of penances and indulgences.
Rather than dwell on the symbolic story of Adam and Eve, the apple and the serpent, we would do better to go to the root of that small 3 lettered word – sin – a favourite word of the Bible bashers, who saw people only as ‘sinners’ and rescuing their souls from hell, as their prime mission in life.
That root is ‘hamartia’ which is best understood as missing the mark, missing the point of what life is to be; getting it totally wrong: being disconnected from what is genuine and true and good. It is a condition, rather than symptom, part of our human nature. If we go to psychology and sociology we explore it as the dark and the light sides of our nature, nature and nurture. We inherit it from our human origins in which we developed skills and strategies – how to survive in a tough world. We cannot eradicate this, even by conversion. But, we can get better at managing and eventually transcending that darker side of our human nature. Most of us are not wicked; but oscillating in a wheel from concentrated self-centredness to self-denial. We are in ourselves a contradiction and live with questions and dilemmas.
There is within each and all and within any grouping of us from Womens Institutes to national states a struggle going on to harness our darker side and strengthen the lighter side of our natures. There are consequences. Things get broken, people – we get broken. It does not help us to speculate that Jesus was sinless. To do so is a contradiction of being human. It is in the best interests of all, that we get better at managing ourselves and develop as better human beings.
Jesus, the Substitute: can we really go further and ask people to believe that we are weighed in the balance by an angry God. And the only way we can be released from our debt of wrong, is for God’s own son to die in our place. This god needs to have vengeance. ‘Only he (Jesus) is good enough to pay the price of sin’. This is within the permitted teaching of the church to this day; it’s in our hymns and can be heard from many pulpits. It has destroyed many people’s opportunity to grow in faith, living in the fear of such a God. Jesus, in the glimpses we are allowed access to, is not one about punishment or vindictiveness, but about compassion and affirmation of people.
2 How far can we should we forgive? After the Enniskillen Massacre in an interview with the BBC, Gordon Wilson described with anguish his last conversation with his daughter and his feelings toward her killers: “She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much. “To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.”
Eva Kor and her twin sister Miriam were victims of Josef Mangele in Auschwitz, survived and Eva declared she forgave all Nazis. There was and is much controversy to this by other survivors especially when she embraced in court a former Nazi guard. She too became an ambassador for forgiveness and reconciliation. We cannot forgive the act. Thereby it is important to go on recalling, learning from, re-committing –‘never again’.
Forgiveness is hotly contested territory – contentious, risky, messy, misunderstood and potentially divisive. While it can be a transformative and powerful route to healing, capable of restoring broken relationships. What happened on Palm Sunday and thereafter is not about Jesus dying for me, or for us, at least for our sins. Something much more destructive was going on – the clash of power. There were two processions into Jerusalem. One was Caesar’s victory parade of dominance, control and oppression and Jesus’s, one of love, humility and peace. Jesus died because that is what humanity is, broken, unenlightened, power crazy, unloved and rejected and it hurts and we hurt others. We are miserable sinners or “miserable wee buggers”. And it is also the reverse. It can change, be lifted up, transformed, and reach above the skies. Sometimes and always, people die and we see, for the first time what we must be, must do, how we must go on and learn to live.
Jesus himself learned not to condemn, and point to life; how it can be through his inspiration, the Spirit within us that moves, breathes and inspires within us.
Forgiveness and reconciliation come through the co-operative endeavour to learn to be better humans. All parties to the damage need to be involved in healing the harm. The victim or victims, their voices need to be heard. The families and the one who does the harm. In legal terms it is called ‘restorative Justice’. Its popular expression is ‘truth and reconciliation’. It is a priestly task but this time, not the one on behalf of all. This time we all engage and seek that reconciliation – the oneness together.
Noel Beattie, 20th March 2016
A Questioning Church
Psalm 139; Ephesians 4:1-6
We advertise ourselves as being a QUESTIONING CHURCH; along with being open and inclusive; it’s there on our notice board for all to see. You might say, “Well, why do we want to be a questioning church?” And in asking that question you’ve provided your own answer; that’s what we do as a questioning church!
“WHY” … is the number one questioning word; along with others like how, when, where, which, and so on. What I want to do in this service is provide a fuller answer to that question – why do we want to be a questioning church?
I will begin by saying that ‘asking questions’ is fundamental to our life on earth: it’s part of who we are. It’s the way we learn and grow and develop. In asking questions about the nature of the world, we have made important and life-changing discoveries; with amazing advances in science, technology and medicine. Where we are today would have been thought miraculous just a hundred years ago: and it’s all happened through people asking questions.
Science is asking questions like – how did the universe begin; how did ‘we’ arrive on the scene; how does the body work with all its bits and pieces fitting together to keep us alive; how come the stars, the sun and the moon don’t fall down from the sky; why do big, heavy metal ships not sink in the ocean; and big heavy metal aeroplanes fly in the sky?
May science continue ‘asking questions’, and finding new ways of promoting health, wholeness and happiness, for all people who live in this world. But there are questions we can ask which even science can’t answer. Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than just nothing? Why are we here? Is there any purpose in our being here? And what was there before the beginning of everything? These kind of questions are sometimes called ULTIMATE QUESTIONS. We can ask them but there is no answer. We can’t get past these questions; we just have to learn to live with them. Like the earth we live on, we human beings are not the ‘finished product’. As a human race we are still developing as part of an evolving universe. There’s a ‘process’ going on and our condition is that we have to live with the questions while we wrestle and struggle to find answers.
Scientists are exploring and analysing the ‘objective material world out there’. Religions are, or should be, looking “into” who we are: and what it means to be human, and find ways of living together peacefully on this one planet of ours before we destroy it. That’s what religions are there for – to explore the non-material side of life; the mental, the emotional, the spiritual; to understand the way we behave and think and feel; looking into values that we believe are important – goodness, beauty, truth and love.
It’s religions that have given us one word to cover this whole dimension of the non-material or spiritual … and that word is GOD. And the time has come to ask a few questions about God.
But let me go back to that first question … why do we want to be a questioning church? And the best answer is – that we are a questioning church because there are lots of questions that need asking; questions that the church, and religions as a whole, have been reluctant to ask: and have even discouraged people from asking.
And these are deep rooted questions which are there in the hearts and minds of everybody whether they are religious or not. Somewhere deep within each one of us these questions are there. They may not have surfaced into the mind and never been put into words, but they are there. And deep-rooted questions, if they are not dealt with, can cause distress and anxiety, and they will always hold people back from moving into a fuller, deeper, more satisfying and meaningful life. And sadly our own Christian religion has deterred people from asking these questions; or worse than that, the church in the past has threatened to punish and excommunicate anyone questioning what the religion takes to be ‘unquestionable’.
Don’t ask! We’ve got the truth all wrapped up in our doctrine and liturgies; just accept them without question! That’s been the church’s attitude. ENOUGH!! We need to move on. We need some alternative where questions can be asked; and people are invited to explore the spiritual dimension of their own lives; with freedom and encouragement to be honest with themselves.
We are a questioning church. This “liberating option” is on offer, here. So why are people not flocking in to take advantage of it? Well … maybe they haven’t heard the ‘good news’ yet; or seen our notice board! But the biggest barrier is ‘religion’ itself. Religion tends to make people doubt themselves – and afraid to ask questions. But nevertheless, the Spirit is moving. And the Spirit itself is not ‘religious’, not in any narrow sense of that word – so we shall just have to wait and see how things work out as the Spirit leads us into the future.
But meanwhile, we must continue to be ‘here’; open, inclusive and questioning; continuing to explore the spiritual dimension of life; which is the whole of life wherever people are, and whatever they are doing.
The deepest question of all is about God – who or what is God? What does the word ‘God’ mean? It’s a question we are all living with whether we verbalise it or not. There’s no escape from it. It’s not an academic question, it’s much more than that. It’s the question of who we are, and how we should be spending the gift of life given to us. And that’s a question we can all answer. We are answering it every day in what we think and say and do. Every breath we take can be the presence, the Spirit of God, inspiring us to work and live in the ways of goodness, truth, beauty and love.
We are living with the question of God – and God is also the answer. So keep asking the questions and let the Spirit lead you.
Donald Horsfield, 7th February 2016
The Lord’s Prayer (1)
Isaiah 62: 1-5; John 2: 1-11; Canticle Magnificat
Intro: Something happened just before New Year that helps to dispel the hopelessness and despair about things. At the end of last month, in Kenya, a group of Somal-al-Shebab sprayed a public bus by machine gun, before they stormed it, demanding everyone got off, Muslims on one side and everyone else on the other. All the passengers refused to obey to avoid revealing the Christians travelling among them. Thus – frustrating the militants attempt to murder non-Muslims. The terrorists then left. Shebab put about that some Christian enemies had died and many were injured. Regrettably there was one person killed in his attempt to run away. Christians had been given Muslim attire to protect them. One Muslim said afterwards: “We stuck together tightly”. The Governor of the county said, “We are not separated by religion; everyone can profess their own religion, but we are still one people and one country”.
We have come to the Sunday of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which was generally, anaemic, uncostly, and almost invisible. It seems that the larger goal of one world, one people, might be more attainable than for local churches, in a rural market town to have anything to talk and pray about, together. In this we all are losers.
And it is that most common of all prayer that is known, or was known, by many no longer in the churches, that I want to spend some time with this year: The Lord’s Prayer. To my mind, this is not a prayer that belongs to the churches alone but to all humanity. I am not sure if it is a prayer, maybe more of a deeply spiritual meditation, perhaps more? In our times, what can it mean, and how does it resonate with a deeply divided humanity? Today, I want to set out a context, from which Jesus and his prayer emerged.
Birth stories: Today, it is common practice in churches to leave behind the Christmas event virtually when ‘the Sales’ start on Boxing Day. Carols are sung before Christmas, seldom afterwards. Within the wider world Church, Christmas, in theory, goes on until Epiphany on 6th January and even until 2nd February called Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ in the temple. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on 7th January, singing Carols until then. It is to do with different calendars and there I will leave it. This period from Christmas to Candlemas contains all that is written down about Jesus’s origins and early life, captured in what we may call ‘the birth stories’. For many churches this forms the beginning of the Church Year or the Curriculum that we are supposed to be teaching to.
What if, that which is written down is not biography, but has more to do with setting out the case for the Christian Faith. I want to say right away that the stories around Christmas are not fairy tales. They are however mystical tales, coded and relevant to people then. They are not only for Christmas nor really for children. I think, they are a prologue to the drama that is about to unfold in the Gospel, and you are never going to forget that prologue. Like the three witches prologue to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, it compels you to stay for the main drama. They have also been likened to an Overture before the Opera or Musical, as they too contain all the main theme tunes.
The stories are told only in Matthew and Luke and it is different in each for their own purpose. And they are obviously written after the drama is completed. In this case quite late in 1st century CE (AD), some 20-25 years after the destruction of the temple and much of Jerusalem. They were gathered and eventually published into a world where religion, virtually alone, gave the meaning of life. Caesar Augustus (Gaius Octavius), just before Jesus’s birth had taken on the titles of: son of the Divine and tributes of Lord of all, Saviour of the world. Precisely what the birth stories claimed for Jesus. Add to that the ‘Magnificat’ and these two elements, alone, make it a most subversive piece of literature in the context of Imperial Rome. You can read the two different stories for yourselves. I just draw some pointers to the astonishing radical nature of the accounts.
Elements of Matthew and Luke: Matthew is a Jew, writing to the Jews dispersed around the world. It is focused on Joseph, who has the dreams and sees angels and asserts Jesus has all the right credentials through his constructed genealogy of 42 generations, in Chapter 1; we would not read this today. In Judaism the Shepherds of the people were the Kings, who were elected to lead and protect the people. However, they were a mixed bunch, often frightening, autocratic and cruel. Thus, the very poorest, such as the shepherds in the fields are the more worthy visitors.
Luke writes to a wider Greek world. The educated in the Empire spoke Greek. Mary has the dreams and sees the angels. Women in Luke are treated as important witnesses and are generally more visible. He draws in wise men from the east that could be Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The message in Luke has to be won in minds as well as hearts. In the ancient world, Virgin Birth was a common tool used to describe the rulers and great men as beyond question, deserving of our praise and admiration, men truly from God.
‘All this a long time ago, I remember, and I would do it again, but set down
this set down, This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.’
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here……
From: ‘The Journey of the Magi’ TS Eliot
The Wise men from the East: Their east would be Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But during that long period before Jesus, there is a silence in Israel of the Prophets. But there were the Philosophers of Greece, Socrates, Pythagoras, Philo and there was Confucius in China 561 BC. So much was going on. Ideas would have followed the trade routes. Jesus may or may not have been a carpenter, but in the gospels are signs that he was not cut off from this flow of thought that moved around the East.
The old regime of the murderous, insane Herod, like all despots, reacts in his all too predictable way. Wise men see through to what was really going on and returned by a different route. In biblical terms that always means more than geography. I take the T S Eliot view that this is an encounter with the meaning of the man called Christ and its transforming experience. And that all cultures and good and seeking religions are on that journey too. We too have to re-think who we are in the light of this. The encounter with meaning can lead us to be no longer at ease with the way things are. Many of us here experience that we too cannot go back to where we were.
We live and work and journey in a wider world: We may not read much of other ideas and thought from different cultures and traditions. But, the medium of television and radio has brought us into contact with a wider world, in a process of osmosis: that is, ideas influencing us gradually and subtly.
The C of E and I guess other churches have a kind of evangelical who just does not get it. That so many ideas within societies are liberating and expanding of our human horizons, and these are coming from other cultures and thought. They cannot be dismissed. They too can be on the road that the Wise Men travelled. There are those who too readily reject anything outside their own often very new tradition. But this kind of evangelical cannot themselves cope with rejection. The Lord’s Prayer cinema Ad was a classic example of an ‘own goal’, revealing the church “as bewildered”. For this read, ‘hurt and cross’, says Angela Tilby in the Church Times, as the cinemas turned down the Lord’s Prayer Ad.
The latest Anglican Consultative Council does the church more harm, where it again resists the liberating move to embrace and welcome gay people through allowing their marriages. Frequently, the sons of the oppressed in Africa become the oppressors of other groups and the C of E is compliant.
Here is a parable in our times. I have to say that Justin Welby has an enormous capacity for picking himself up and being relevant in the world. At Davos, knowing a lot about oil and economics, he is a welcome participant. There cannot be many laughs at Davos. In an interview he was asked did he think God was in cyberspace. His reply was: “that he must be, because when he was on a train or underground, he often heard people on their phones or iPad, saying: “Oh God, how do I get this thing to work?”
Noel Beattie, 24th January 2016
From the Old to the New
Proverbs 4:1-9, 20-27
Here we are on the 17th January 2016. The New Year already underway; and time slipping by, faster than it used to; or so it seems when you’ve reached a certain age, which most of us have.
January gets its name from JANUS, who was a Roman god. He was the god of openings and beginnings; the god of movement and change; the god of transition from the old to the new. Essentially he was the god of TIME because all movement and change happens in time. And even the other gods, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune and all the others, had to show respect for Janus because of what he might do with time in his control. We can see what Janus looked like from old Roman coins and paintings on vases. He was depicted having two faces; one looking back to the past; and the other looking forward to the future; the god in control of passing time.
Well, we don’t believe in Janus: but we can’t escape from believing in time passing! We can’t avoid that; it’s where we are; it’s happening all around us; and, unfortunately it’s happening TO us … as we have our hip replacements, cataracts removed and whatever else needs doing. We have to come to terms as best we can with the passing of time; and we do it in our own ways. For example, I don’t look in the mirror as often as I used to because when I do (like Terry Wogan says) I see my father looking back at me!
Talking of ‘looking back; – the older we get, the more we do that; which of course is understandable. There is more ‘time’ behind us than there is in front of us. And “reminiscing” is a valid and beneficial thing to do … looking back … remembering … pondering your past life with all its ups and downs, some of which you enjoyed and some you didn’t. But at least you’ve survived because you’re still here today.
Looking the other way, what does the “future” look like from where you are today? Well, that’s a big question to which there can be no definite or permanent answer. Time will tell … but it’s not telling us now. We don’t know what lies ahead. But in some respects we can be prepared. And any religion worth its salt should give us some help and guidance in this respect. And it should tell us that the best way to be prepared for the future is by focussing on the PRESENT. Not tied to the past and not worrying about the future, but living as well as you can in the NOW of today, wanting to be, as Christians are supposed to be, ‘the salt of the earth’ and showing a bit of that ‘saltiness’ in the way you live; living today as fully as you can.
So we’ll do a bit of ‘pondering’ on our present situation which is somewhere between the past and the future. We are emerging from the old and the new is beckoning us on, and we have to go! The new just doesn’t lie ahead, it’s already here at work in us and around us: so we do have some say in creating the future; we have some responsibility for it which we show by how we live today.
Janus and the old gods have disappeared. We’ve been up Mount Olympus and they’re not there … in fact they’ve never been there. If we want to know about God we’ll have to look somewhere else. Nevertheless, we can learn from the story of Janus; we can do what he did by looking both ways; back to the past and forward to the future; for the purpose of enriching the “NOW” of the PRESENT MOMENT. So let’s look back for a minute.
There’s a little parable, only in Matthew’s Gospel (13:52) where Jesus says that those who are with him (his disciples “then” and ourselves today); those learning from him and involved in his ‘programme’; should be like a householder who has a special storeroom containing both that which is old and that which is new.
Well, we don’t want to keep re-inventing the wheel do we? Some things from the past are still part of our lives today. The whole of our modern world moves on wheels, invented a long time ago in the past … so … in that storeroom that we all have within us there should be nuggets of wisdom from the past; lessons that we have learned; not in school so much but in the school of life; from experience, which is the best teacher. We are to carry with us treasures from the past which can enrich our lives; which can enlighten our minds and guide our feet on today’s journey through life.
Our Hymn Book, from the past, is full of good things to lift our spirits. Just a few lines can light up ‘lasting truths’ on which we can feed and keep spiritually fit. Give to me Lord a thankful heart and a discerning mind … that’s one of those lines from a great hymn that I would happily sing every week … Give to me Lord a thankful heart and a discerning mind … We have many things to be thankful for. Carrying a thankful heart around with you will help you to keep your balance and give you the energy to keep going. And one of the things to be thankful for is the wisdom and insight that have come down to us from the past: and within our own tradition much of that wisdom is contained in our Scriptures. We’ve heard some of it this morning. All religions have their Scriptures. But this is where we also need ‘a discerning mind’.
The word scripture, simply means writing … words on paper. Actually the first writing was done on clay tablets and papyrus and then with ink on paper. Today it’s done on computer screens … and you can even have hundreds of books, in your pocket, on a little gadget called a KINDLE. But it’s the books written and printed in ink on paper that have become, not just the Scriptures … but “Sacred” Scriptures, the “Holy” Books of the different religions. And there has grown up the belief that in some way, these are all ‘the infallible Word of God’; which is nonsense if you stop and think about it with a discerning mind. It’s more than nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense! And this is where religions need to be moving from the old to the new; from the past to the future. These ancient writings, the Scriptures, are not telling us what somebody called God said and did a long time ago. They are telling us how people, a long time ago, thought about and understood God; a long time ago!
But we don’t live ‘a long time ago’: we live NOW, TODAY. And so we need to read the Scriptures with a discerning mind: treasure what is of value, but discard what is no longer relevant. You might want to say that Christians today have moved on a bit from the ‘Old’ Testament to the ‘New’ Testament; but the mentality is the same. We still have Sacred Scriptures which we have been taught is the Word of God. Christians today need to keep on the move as the Spirit leads us. Not moving from an old book to a new book; but from old ways of thinking to new ways of thinking; from old ways of thinking about and understanding God to new ways.
Is there any help and guidance for us? Yes! Within our Scriptures themselves, there is TREASURE. The man we call St. Paul wrote a lot of letters which have become part of our New Testament, and in one of them (2 Corinthians 3:3) he says that the word of God is not written with ink on paper; but written by the Spirit of God on the human heart. And that’s one of those nuggets of lasting truth that we need to get hold of and live with, and let it bring about the change that is needed as we move from the old to the new … as we move from the gods on Mount Olympus or Mount Sinai to the God within each one of us. That’s where we have to look, into the depth of our being … which is as vast and mysterious as the universe itself. The kingdom of God is within you is what Jesus told his followers: look there and you’ll find it.
While scientists explore the mystery of the universe out there; religions, all religions, should be exploring the mystery of God within the human heart; helping us to discover who we really are, as we live our life here on earth (scientists included); how we are all related to the Great Mystery and Oneness in which we live and move and have our being.
Donald Horsfield, 17th January 2016