( Is. 49, 8-16a; Matt 6, 24-34 )

“How do I love thee, let me count the ways”. Most of us will know the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem. But how many of us know how it goes on? “ I love thee to the breadth and depth and height my soul can reach”; “ I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need”; “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life –  and if God choose, I shall but  love thee better after death”.

 

The poem describes a deep, committed, human love, the sort of love that is sealed in the covenant of marriage. But the poem contains echoes of another covenant, the covenant described in our Old Testament reading, the covenant between God and his people, which although defined by laws, is also a covenant of love.

 

And how do you show your love in a concrete way? Well, if you are a modern celebrity you may have the name of the people you love tattooed on your body. I understand David Beckham has the names of his children tattooed on his back, and his wife Victoria has David’s initials tattooed on her wrist. But it’s not a modern phenomenon. We can all recall pictures of servicemen with the names of their girlfriends tattooed on their forearms – and our Old Testament reading suggests it was done even in ancient Israel. The prophet Isaiah imagines God saying to his people; “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands”.

 

But as the rest of the passage makes clear, it is not body art which is the real demonstration of your love – it’s how you behave. The passage describes God’s devotion, God’s constancy, God’s faithfulness, God’s commitment to his people. The whole passage is a promise that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, God has not deserted his people, and that, although things are bad at the moment ( the Jews are in exile in Babylon) when the time is right God will bring his people back to their land and they will prosper.

 

A covenant relationship has to be one of trust and faithfulness on both sides. And although it appears on the surface that the passage we heard from Matthew’s Gospel is about how we use our money and possessions, it is really about our covenant relationship with God. We enter into a covenant with God at our baptism – and when we are confirmed. In that covenant God offers us salvation, adopts us as his children, and strengthens us by his Holy Sprit. On our part, we commit ourselves to a life of worship and service and to sharing the Gospel with the world. We affirm that we believe and trust in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that we will remain faithful to God throughout our lives. But how do we demonstrate that trust and faithfulness in practice?

 

In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul tells us that we are called to be faithful servants and stewards of God’s mysteries. We are to protect what God has given us, and to share it with the world.

 

The Sermon on the Mount, from which our Gospel reading comes, tells us how. It is one of the most important guides to living out our covenant relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel lays great emphasis on the importance of the choices we make in this life, because they will have consequences in the life to come. In this passage, the emphasis is on what choices we make in the use of the money and possessions we have been given. Can we trust God enough to use them in ways which serve the Kingdom, rather than building up our own position in this world, and bolstering our own security?

 

We human beings tend to stack up resources against a rainy day. This is something which the Bible approves of – the book of Proverbs, chapter 6, encourages us to be like the ants, busily gathering supplies before the winter. Jesus doesn’t condemn this – what he condemns is accumulating riches for their own sake. In his terms, this is placing your investments in the wrong place – for earthly riches are always insecure. The only secure place for a Christian to invest is in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

His remark that a servant cannot serve two masters tells us something we already know – that people’s emotions tend to follow their material possessions. So we expend a lot of energy – physical and emotional – in protecting what we regard as ‘ours’. Investing our resources to promote the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven is an acknowledgement that the resources are not really ours – they are God’s, given to us to use for a while as his stewards.

 

Jesus uses dramatic language to make his point. Are we really not to make any more effort than the birds do to clothe ourselves or the plants do to  find our food?  I am sure  the language worried those who heard Jesus, as it worries us. We have the example of the rich young man, who asked what more he needed to do to gain the Kingdom – but when he was told to sell all his possessions and follow Jesus, said “No way! That’s much too hard!” and went away.

 

And he didn’t live in a consumer society! He was constantly bombarded with advertisements which told him this or this was essential to his happiness or well-being or that ‘you deserve it”. How much we need to counter these blandishments with Jesus’ instructions to look at the natural world, and see what is really necessary for our survival.

 

Jesus uses the typical exaggeration of Semitic prophet to make his point, to bring us up short, and to make us look again at our actions. Of course, life would be impossible if every Christian gave up work and relied on the charity of others for support while they worked for the Kingdom. That may be a vocation for the few; but as Paul demonstrated in his own life, most of us are called to work to provide sufficient to provide for ourselves and our families, and to support the growth of God’s Kingdom through the work or the Church and other charities. And, of course we are not expected to go through life with no insurance to protect ourselves and our families if problems arise. We are expected to be as wise in such matters as ‘the children of this world’. 

 

The Bible does not condemn or advocate any economic system – it just insists that whatever is produced is shared fairly and is used for the good of all, not accumulated for the benefit of the few.

 

Jesus is not concerned with what we do with our money and possessions for its own sake – he is much more concerned about what it reveals about our attitudes and attachments.  That is why he places so much emphasis on what we worry about. That shows what really comes first in our lives. Living in the relative prosperity of a society like ours, it is easy to let concern about money and possessions dominate our lives. It takes a disaster like 9/11 to remind us that, when the chips are down, what really comes first is those we love.

 

How right he is that worrying doesn’t achieve anything ( the Greek word that is used indicates something that causes sleepless nights – and we all know how little we achieve if we’re not sleeping properly. ) People who have sufficient for their own and their families’ needs don’t need to be anxious. They will achieve far more for themselves and the Kingdom if they make whatever basic provision is necessary in the society they live in, and live their lives in a contented and trusting partnership with God.

 

In the marriage ceremony, the couple promise to share all that they have. In our covenant relationship with God, God endows us  with all the material and spiritual resources of this world. Our response as faithful servants, stewards and lovers of God must be to put that covenant first in our lives, and to use those resources to seek and build God’s Kingdom.

 

 

Not for Sale!

May 18, 2008

 

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2008  (2 Cor. 13, 11-13; Matt 28, 16-20)

After we had finished watching something on video last Monday, we caught the end of a programme on Channel 4. It was called “Dom Joly’s Complainers”, and was a light-hearted look at some of the irritations of modern life. On this occasion they were moaning about airports, and in particular the problem of lost baggage. After a scene at Heathrow, Dom Joly went off to a sleazy part of South London, to an auction house where unclaimed lost baggage is sold off by the airlines. He came out with a selection of luggage which he had bought for a song, and two young Eastern European women he said he had bought for £15 each. He then proceeded to try to sell them off to a passing man for £10 each.

 

Now, I know this was supposed to be a comedy programme, and the two young women were almost certainly actresses, but I couldn’t laugh at this bit. Earlier in the evening I had been looking at the website of CHASTE – Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe – who have designated this Sunday as ‘Not for Sale Sunday’ to raise awareness of the extent of trafficking of women and children for the sex industry in Europe.  http://www.notforsalesunday.org/nfss/  After reading some of the stories of the experiences of young women and children who have been tricked into leaving home or kidnapped, and then sold on for sexual exploitation, I couldn’t see the sale of two young women as a joke.

 

Chaste began its work in 2004, working with young women who had been brought into this country by sex traffickers, and were on the point of being deported back to their home countries. It has set up advice centres and safe houses for these women. A big impetus to its work came in 2007, when it linked to the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade with a call for the end of trafficking of children and young women for sexual exploitation -for that, it says, is one modern form of slavery.

 

You may think this is not a problem. But Chaste estimates there are over 4000 women brought into the UK to work in the sex trade last year, and they have evidence of over 80 young people brought in over the last 3 years. Some of these are smuggled in; all of them will have had their passports taken away, so they have very little chance of escaping or returning home and they will disappear into an underworld where they are abused and exploited and from where there is very little possibility of escape. If they are brave enough to get away from their abusers, and go to the police, very often they end up being deported back to their home country, where they and their families face further abuse from the traffickers.

 

CHASTE’s website contains many horrific tales of the abuse women children and some young men suffer after they have been ensnared by the sex traffickers. And the violence and cruelty is not confined just to those brought in. Anyone who tries to help them is also at risk, as are their families.

 

In our culture, pink is the colour associated with women, and since the majority of those CHASTE is trying to help are women and girls, they have asked people to wear pink on this ‘Not for Sale’ Sunday as a visual token of their commitment to the principle that women’s, men’s and children’s bodies are not for sale.

So, I am going to change my blue Reader’s scarf for a pink one – just for today, as a symbol of solidarity with the campaign.

 

But why, you may ask, should we be concerned with these people who have been enslaved in this way? After all, the Bible nowhere condemns slavery, and the Old Testament in particular, provides very little guidance for what modern people think is the right way to treat women and children. Jesus treated women and children with courtesy and care, no matter what their age or status, but the only duty the Jews had to slaves was to free their fellow Jews from slavery. But, as the campaign against the trans- Atlantic slave trade showed, the Bible is only one source of guidance for how we should behave in the contemporary world. Through the Spirit, speaking through our studying and our daily experience, we are constantly learning more about what God wants of us, and how we are meant to live as inheritors of God’s Kingdom.

 

This Sunday is a particularly appropriate one to highlight a campaign against the exploitation of one group of human beings by another. On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate the revelation, given to us through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the God we worship is not a single being, but ‘Being in relationship’.

In the past, a lot of energy was expended, and a lot of conflict was generated by trying to define exactly how the persons of the Trinity were related – how exactly Jesus was the Son of God, whether the Holy Spirit came directly from God or came through the Son, whether all three persons of the Trinity were equal in power and had existed since before time began.  Those of you who have studied church history  will have learnt that the way these disputes were settled, and the way orthodox belief came to be decided was not the most edifying process in Christian history.

 

Nowadays, I get the impression that the majority of Christians don’t spend so much time or energy trying to work out how exactly the persons of the Trinity are related. We don’t think in the same way as the Greek and Latin Church Fathers. We accept that all our language about the Trinity is metaphorical, trying to put something that is beyond our understanding into concepts that we can begin to grasp. We prefer to think of the Trinity as a mystery to contemplate, rather than a puzzle to be solved.

 

As we contemplate the Trinity we see three beings or modes of being, which are different but yet share a perfect unity of purpose, are equally divine and co-operate totally. 

 

 

For some of us, it is helpful to have a picture to look at as we meditate, rather than just words to read. I find the Rublev icon, (which though entitled ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’, is really a picture of the Trinity) a help when I contemplate the Trinity.

 

It shows three beings who have wings, indicating they are heavenly beings, sitting around a table on which there is a chalice of wine. Each wears a different coloured robe, and those who know the conventions of icon painting tell us that this indicates which is meant to be the Father, which The Son and which The Holy Spirit. Each holds a staff of authority, showing they are equal in status, and there is no difference in age between them indicating they all exist from the same time.

 

But it is in the gestures of their hands and the gaze of their eyes that the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is most clearly expressed. Each looks or points away from themselves and towards the other persons of the Godhead. No one dominates. The eye of the beholder is taken in a never ending circle from one to another.

 

So the icon reveals to us what the Bible and the tradition proclaim,  that the Trinity contains a relationship of perfect love, co-operation and equality,  a relationship of free and different persons, yet united as one.

 

The book of Genesis tells us that human beings are made in the image of God. So, the Trinity models for us the way human relationships are meant to be. Relationships of inequality, relationships in which one person exploits or mistreats or abuses or violates another, relationships which limit the freedom of another without their consent are not made in the image of God. If the doctrine of the Trinity is to be more than just an abstract idea, it should stir us to try to make all our human relationships mirror that of the Trinity as nearly as possible – and to protest against anything that forces people into relationships that fall short of this ideal.

 

It is for this reason that Trinity Sunday is a good day to remember and to protest against the exploitation of young men, children and women in the sex trade by asserting that human bodies are Not for Sale. “Women and Children and Men are made in the image of God, and we are called to enable that image to grow, develop, and be reflected in all our lives, for everybody, no matter their age, race, creed, sexuality or gender.”

 

 

Ascension

May 4, 2008


Acts 1,6-14; John 17, 1-11

When I studied for my first degree in Sociology, one of the elements in the course was a unit on Social Psychology; and in the course of that unit that I was introduced to the concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’.  Now, you may think that you don’t know what ‘cognitive dissonance’ means; but you have almost certainly experienced it at some time during your life.

 

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort we experience when we find a discrepancy or conflict between what we already know or believe and another piece of information, or interpretation or action. So, you might experience it if, for instance you believe you are an honest person, yet you take an opportunity which is presented you to steal; or if you have always maintained you are a pacifist, but find yourself hitting out at someone who’s just beaten you to the last parking space at the supermarket.

 

Cognitive dissonance also occurs when your prejudices or principles are challenged by some new piece of information, or by someone’s actions. Jesus made use of this in many of his parables: characters in them behave in unexpected ways – the Samaritan treats a Jew as a neighbour, the owner of the vineyard pays the late arrivals as much as those who have worked since dawn. Jesus’ intention in presenting people with these dilemmas is that they should resolve the psychological tension they feel from the dissonance by abandoning their prejudices or changing their beliefs.

 

According to Festinger, who first put forward the theory, people feel most comfortable when there is consistency between their beliefs. Therefore, when they experience cognitive dissonance they will deal with it in one of three ways ( or a combination of these). They can change one or other of the beliefs which are inconsistent; they can try to acquire more knowledge which may reduce the apparent inconsistency, or allow them to accommodate both belief systems; or they can try to isolate themselves from the information that conflicts with their own beliefs, or to denigrate the source of the conflicting information, so that they don’t have to change.

 

Religious belief can be a rich source of cognitive dissonance. The very first research on the concept was a study of a group of believers in the US whose prophet had told them that the earth was to be destroyed by a flood in December 1954, but that the faithful believers would be saved by aliens in a space ship sent by extra terrestrial Guardians. When the flood didn’t happen, some of the less committed believers gave up membership of the cult; but the most committed members remained, convinced by a new prophecy which said that their faith and good works had saved the earth from the planned flood.

 

We twenty-first century Christians, who belong to one of the ancient world faiths, find ourselves constantly experiencing cognitive dissonance, because the scriptures and other foundation documents of our faith were written by people from a pre-scientific culture, whose way of understanding the world was very different from our own. And this season of Ascensiontide is one of the times when that dissonance becomes most acute. We read the biblical accounts where, apparently, a human body is transported up through a cloud, to be with God above the sky. We sing hymns which say things like ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ and ‘Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies’. Yet, we have watched on TV as people walk on the moon, we have seen pictures from spacecraft of the distant planets, and even, recently, images from the Hubble radio telescope of galaxies, far distant from us in space and time, colliding, exploding and re-forming into new stars and galaxies. 

If we believe in a physical universe like this, then where is there for the body of Jesus to go to? Perhaps that is why so many in the modern church tend not to celebrate Ascension Day. The fact that it always falls on a weekday makes it easier to ignore it. Yet, our faith ought not to be something we just pick up on Sundays, and ignore the rest of the week; and the Ascension is a major festival of the Church, which means it should have something important to teach us about the Christian faith. So how can we deal with this particular instance of cognitive dissonance.

 

You will remember the three strategies Festinger suggested people used to deal with cognitive dissonance. Employing the first we could abandon one or other belief system. Many of our contemporaries have abandoned their faith because they find it incompatible with a scientific understanding of the world – it is what those who argue so loudly in books and the media against religious belief, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believe is the only possible course for a rational modern person to take.

 

At the other extreme are people who won’t accept any of the scientific understanding of the world, or who reject the bits of that understanding that conflict with what they believe the  Bible says – the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, religious fundamentalists. Many of these will also try to denigrate the sources of scientific knowledge as a further protection against dissonance.

 

Or, you could compartmentalise your beliefs – and a lot of people do this unconsciously. So you operate with one set of knowledge about how the world works during your normal daily life – and you slip back into a pre-scientific understanding when you pray or come to church or discuss religious faith. But splitting your life up into sealed compartments is not a very satisfactory way of living – and if our faith is worth anything, it should be something that informs the whole of our lives.

 

So I believe that the only satisfactory way of dealing with dissonance  between the thought systems with which we operate in everyday life, and those in which our faith is expressed is to seek more knowledge and greater understanding, so as to reduce the conflict we feel between them. The question we need to ask is one posed by Leonard Hodgson and quoted by John Robinson in his book, ‘The Human Face of God’: “What must the truth have been if men who thought and spoke as they did put it like that?” And following on from that, John Robinson says we should ask, “What must we say for it to mean what they meant when they said things like that of Christ?”

When we read the Biblical accounts of the Ascension, we need to understand the hidden meanings, the ‘code’ as it were behind the language of the stories. 

 

The Jews of the time used ‘body’ to stand for the totality of a person – their mind, spirit, soul, personality and history. So, for the Gospel writers, the body of Jesus encompassed his personal history, his teaching, his actions, and the sense which his followers had that in him they had met God in a new and complete way. The passion stories tell us that Jesus was killed and buried; the Easter narratives tell us that the ‘body’ of Jesus was raised by God from the realm of death, and that this raised body ( recognizably Jesus, but different) was seen by many of his followers. This was a resurrection body, part of a new creation, and, Paul says, not flesh and blood.

 

For the writers of the Bible, mountain tops were places of interaction with God, and the cloud signified the presence of God. So, when Luke tells us that the ‘body’ was taken from their sight into the cloud, he is sharing the disciples’ belief that the human being whom they knew as Jesus of Nazareth, was now being taken into God, and in future would be part of their understanding of what God was. 

Included in that understanding was the belief that God reigns over the people of the earth from a place that is hidden from our sight and understanding – for the people of that time, this was the sky – so ‘the heavens’ became ‘Heaven’, the spiritual realm.

 

The Ascension story also looks forward to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. From now on, the story ( through the angelic messenger) tells us, the disciples will no longer encounter Jesus through his physical body, confined to a particular time and place, but through the Holy Spirit; and that Spirit will empower all who follow Christ to continue his ministry through the whole world and through all time. Through it, Christ will always be available to everyone, in a way that the human Jesus was not.

 

What then is the Ascension story telling us? It is telling us that there is a dimension to life beyond that which can be seen and touched and measured by scientific means, a spiritual dimension which believers know is as real as the physical world. The Ascension story describes a moment when that spiritual world,  is for a moment, more open than usual to our human understanding. 

 

It completes the story of the Incarnation, by telling us that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who was so completely open to God that those who met him believed he had in some way come from the spiritual world, was, after his death, absorbed into God, so that our knowledge of him becomes part of our understanding of God.

 

It is a story that tells us that the physical body of Jesus is no longer of any importance. From this moment on we will know him, relate to him, and be empowered by him through the Holy Spirit – unseen, but nonetheless, real- which is the Spirit both of Jesus, and of God the Father and Creator.

 

Because we struggle to understand and express all of these deep truths about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  and our relation with God known through the Persons of the Trinity, we are probably always going to have to fall back on the picture or code language in which the Bible and the Creeds are written. But so long as we remember that they are just pictures, to help us express the inexpressible reality which is God, we shouldn’t be too much troubled by ‘cognitive dissonance’.