(Philippians 3, 17- 4.1; Luke 13, 31-35)

If you go on a TV quiz show these days, it seems you have to provide a lot of trivial information about yourself, which the host of the show will use in conversation with you; things like your favourite music, what is your best point, and where is your favourite place to be. I was amazed when a contestant on Countdown recently said her favourite place was Las Vegas. I’ve never been there, but from what I’ve seen of it on TV it seems like a very artificial city, full of rather grotesque hotels pretending to be something they’re not, and casinos and wedding chapels, sitting in the middle of a desert.

If you’d asked a Jew of the Biblical era where their favourite place was, I’m sure a lot of them would have said ‘Jerusalem’. That city and particularly its temple, became the focus of all Jewish hopes for the future, centred on their vision of an ideal society under the rule of God. They imagined it would be so wonderful that all the nations of the world would be drawn to it, and would worship the one true God there, and from there the people of God would rule the world. Towards the end of the New Testament period, as we see from the Book of Revelation, they imagined that the final triumph of God would be marked by a renewal of Jerusalem, when a heavenly city would come down from heaven to replace it, and God himself, or Christ as his regent, would rule, and the faithful remnant would inhabit it.

That is the reason why the prophets were so hard on Jerusalem, and constantly criticised its people and its leaders when they fell short of the standards expected of a ‘holy’ city. We need to remember that ‘holy’ did not actually mean pious or religious – it meant something set aside for the exclusive service of God. As Jesus remarks in our Gospel reading, not only did Jerusalem fail to see itself as a city set aside to serve God, it often refused even to listen to God, persecuting the prophets who spoke in God’s name when their message was unwelcome and disturbed their comfortable existence.

Inhabitants of the city (and its counterpart in Northern Israel, Samaria) were similarly criticised in the Old Testament, for believing that so long as they maintained worship in the Temple and performed the right rituals, God would always support them. The prophets, and especially those of the 8th century, (whose words were so often reflected in what Jesus said) Amos, Hosea, Micah and First Isaiah, proclaimed in God’s name that faithfulness to the covenant was not demonstrated by ritual (attending church in our terms)  but by social justice. They argued that true faithfulness to God involved care for the widows, the children and the vulnerable alien; justice for the poorest without resort to bribery; and trading without cheating or exploitation. Micah famously proclaimed, “What does the Lord require of you? Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”.  Because they would not change their ways, these prophets proclaimed, the cities would be besieged, occupied and destroyed and their citizens taken into exile – and so they were.

It is interesting to note that the Jews began as a nomadic, pastoral people, who settled and turned to agriculture, and only then became city dwellers; and that there was always a tension between the city elite and the country dwellers, who felt they were somehow closer to God than those who lived in a city and whose lives were ruled by commercial considerations. At the beginning of the Old Testament, the vision of the ideal place where God lived and human beings lived uncorrupt lives was rural – a garden, full of wild animals living at peace with each other, with trees and water. Punishment for evil was to be expelled from this Paradise.

Yet, by the end of the New Testament, the vision of the perfect place where God lived was a city: the heavenly city described in the book of Revelation is a renewed Jerusalem with buildings made of gold and glass and precious stones; and nothing evil will be allowed to exist within it. The values of both the paradise garden and heavenly city were the same.

It is to this vision of perfect urban life that Paul refers in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. Though they may live in an earthly city, and as citizens of the earthly Roman Empire, their true home, he tells them, is the heavenly city, and that is where the values they live by must come from.

Just like the Old Testament prophets, he criticises those who put their own prosperity and their own physical comfort first. The people who follow Christ, he says, must live sacrificial lives, as Christ did, putting the needs of others before their own, and being prepared to sacrifice everything that worldly considerations value highly in order to achieve the reward of life in the heavenly city.

We also live in a society which has moved away from a predominantly rural economy into an urban one. We have moved one step on from the people whom the prophets and Jesus and Paul criticised so forcefully, into a world economy, where our food and provisions don’t usually come from the rural areas of our own country, but from all around the world. But the warnings of the 8th century prophets still apply. The tea, coffee and sugar producers of the third world are those whom Isaiah warns us we have to care for, if our fine houses and  economic systems are not to collapse. The indigenous inhabitants of the rain forests are those we have to defend against multinationals who seek to take their land by corrupt means and bribery of governments, if our world is not to suffer disastrous climate change and loss of species. The exploited underclass of every nation are the people God will favour over those who rely on material possessions for security.

Amos chapter 8 has words which seem to be addressed directly to the trade rules of our own time: Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country.  You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers.  We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.”  The Lord, the God of Israel, has sworn, “I will never forget their evil deeds. The time is coming when I will make the sun go down at noon and the earth grow dark in daytime. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. 10 I will turn your festivals into funerals and change your glad songs into cries of grief. I will make you shave your heads and wear sackcloth, and you will be like parents mourning for their only child. That day will be bitter to the end.”

But all the Old Testament prophets couple their messages of condemnation with a message of hope. Even as they criticise  the failure of the leaders and traders and consumers of Israel, they affirm God’s love for the same people, his persistent desire for them to change, and the promise of a renewed and happy future if they will return to the standards of the covenant, the ways of the heavenly city. Jesus too, follows his criticism of Jerusalem with an expression of his love for the city and a promise that any destruction will be temporary, and a restoration will come.

For those of us who believe we are citizens of the heavenly city, living in today’s world may feel like we are in exile, and that we our powerless to do anything the change the ways of the world. But we have power and we have choice, however limited.  The Fairtrade fortnight is a reminder to us of the power we have as consumers. The choices we make can be governed by our own comfort and desires and by the wish to maintain our own way of life, regardless of the effects that has on others with less power than us; or we can exercise our choices, when possible, as citizens of the heavenly city, with the interests of the vulnerable placed first.

The Fairtrade directory which has been handed out at the beginning of this service and which is available at the back of church tells you all you need to know about Fairtrade, how little changes in your consumer choices can make a major difference to the lives of people you will never meet, and how you can help to change the world into something that is nearer than it is now to Paradise or the heavenly city.

It tells you about the mechanism of Fair trade, how it affects the most vulnerable producers, how it helps to preserve sometimes fragile environments and how the Fairtrade Premium helps to better the social conditions of the world’s poorest people through paying for sanitation, education and health care.

It tells you stories like that of James Adiyah, so you can put a face and a name to the anonymous poor your actions are helping. James lives in Ghana and grows cocoa that is used in Divine Fairtrade Chocolate. He has a pair of glasses he calls his Fairtrade glasses – because he wouldn’t have been able to afford them if he hadn’t been working in a Fairtrade company. Because of his glasses he can still read, although his sight is failing. Because he gets a fair income for what he produces, he could afford to send his children to school and university.

The directory tells you where you can buy Fairtrade produce (though the easiest option for many of the items you may want is to patronise our Fairtrade stall in the church hall after the service). It’s not just small independent shops or charities that do so: Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, the Co-op. Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco all stock Fairtrade food, juices and some of them also sell clothing and cosmetic items. All you have to do is seek them out, make ‘The Big Swap’ from your usual brand (which is a major theme of this year’s Fairtrade  Fortnight), or if they don’t stock what you want and you know there is a Fairtrade supply available, ask, ask, and ask again until they do stock it.

Easter is approaching. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every Easter egg given by a member of this congregation was made from fairly traded chocolate?

We don’t yet live in the heavenly city. Our world has got a long way to go before it comes any where near the vision which the prophets and Paul and Jesus proclaimed God’s final triumph would bring. Yet in our minds and in our actions we can try to live in that heavenly Jerusalem, and promoting trade justice is one simple way we can do that.

For I believe, without any doubt, the heavenly city is a Fairtrade town!

Why Ashes?

February 17, 2010

The use of ash has a long history in the Bible and in church tradition.

It symbolises human frailty and the shortness of human life. Abraham describes himself as ‘but dust and ashes’. It is a sign of mourning – by the time of Esther sackcloth and ashes were used to for a dramatic show of sadness. The writer of Lamentations uses it as a sign of judgement: the guilty person cowers in ashes. And in the book of Jonah it is a sign of repentance: the king of Ninevah covers himself with ashes to try to avoid God’s judgement on his city.

In church use, as well as signifying repentance, ash came to symbolise purification. It was used, together with light and water and oil, in exorcisms and the blessing of churches.

All of this symbolism is contained in our use of ash at the beginning of Lent. The ash is made from last year’s palm crosses. So it speaks of human frailty and weakness. The Jerusalem crowd waved palm branches one moment and shouted for crucifixion the next: we who re-affirmed our faith in Christ last Easter are reminded by the ashes of those palms we waved on Palm Sunday how fickle and weak our commitment to Christ can be.

In Lent we prepare to mark Christ’s passion and death in Holy Week; the cross of ash reminds us that his  passion was God’s judgement on evil; but it also marks our sorrow and repentance for the part we play in the evil of the world.

But receiving the cross of ash must not be just an empty gesture. The prophets Joel and Isaiah voice God’s rejection of ritual and ceremonies, unless it is accompanied by a true change of heart. In the reading we heard from Matthew, Jesus condemns penitence that is just  outward show.

Ash speaks to us of death and decay and reminds us how barren our lives would be if we were just dust and ashes – without God’s Spirit to give us life. But ash also speaks to us of the possibility of new life. In John’s Gospel, the metaphor of the vine is used for life rooted in God – unfruitful branches are pruned, thrown into the fire and burnt. But the gardeners among you know that ash can be used as a fertiliser. From the ashes of the old, new life can come.

Ritual is no good on its own. Nothing magical will happen after the application of ash. But it is a reminder of the need to turn away from our previous life, express penitence for our former failures  and start a new on a life centred on God and centred on other people, struggling for peace and justice. The ritual provides an opportunity for confession, absolution and rededication. The ash speaks of purification, and a new beginning.

The ash is applied in the form of a cross. It is a reminder of the cross of baptism, the sign of new and eternal life. No-one ever sees the cross of baptism; and you may rub the ash cross off your forehead, or your hands at the end of the service, so no-one else sees it.

That’s fine! Jesus warned us against making a show of our faith.

But as Christians we always carry the cross with us. In the church’s year, we are never allowed to forget it. But neither are we allowed to forget the forgiveness and hope it brings. In Lent, the cross is in front of our eyes, but each Sunday reminds us of the empty tomb. At Easter, we celebrate the empty tomb – but our risen Lord carries the marks  of the cross on him, as do all of us who follow him this Lent as his disciples.

Listen to Him

February 14, 2010

(Exodus 34.29-35; Luke 9, 28-36)

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, the chosen one; listen to him!”

In our readings today we have two accounts of people listening to God’s voice. Moses went up onto Mount Sinai, and came back with the commandments of God written on two tablets. He told the leaders of the Hebrews, and then all the people, what God had said to him on the mountain. When he had listened to God, his face shone, though he was unaware of it at first.

In the Gospel reading we have Luke’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. As he speaks to Moses and Elijah, his face shines, and his clothing becomes dazzling white. Then out of a cloud comes the voice of God, telling the awed disciples to listen to Jesus.

In the Old Testament, the voice of God is heard through the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah are a sort of shorthand for these two collections of writings.

In the New Testament, the word of God is heard through Jesus, both in what he does and in what he says. But, as the three Synoptic Gospel writers all emphasise, the disciples find it much easier to listen to the message of God through what they see of Jesus than through what they hear him say. They rejoice to see the power of God at work in the healing miracles; they want to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus shines with the glory of the spiritual world; but they argue with him when he says that the way to that glory goes through suffering, persecution and death on the cross. They heard the words – but they could not accept their true meaning.

The first disciples were able to listen to Jesus directly. But how do we 21st century disciples listen to him? Our main channel is through the written word – especially in the Bible. But the written word has severe limitations. In particular, we cannot hear the tone of voice in which something was spoken, or see the body language that accompanies it. This means that we may get quite the wrong idea about what the speaker really means.

I can illustrate this by telling you about an essay I wrote when I was a teenager at school. We had been asked to write about ‘The Youth of Today’, which I obviously thought was a very boring title, so I amused myself by writing it in the style of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, saying how undisciplined  young people were and how a spell in the army would do them all a lot of good, etc. When the essay was commented on, and bits of it read out in class, I was horrified to realise that my teacher had taken it all seriously, and thought this was what I really thought. The written word had not conveyed the irony I had intended.

So, when we read the words of Jesus in the Bible we need to ask ourselves how Jesus intended us to hear it. Was he telling a joke when he said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Was he really being as rude as he sounds when he told the Syro-Phonecian woman that the children had to be fed first before the dogs? How serious was he when he said ‘if your eye offends you, pluck it out’? We need to be aware of the possibilities of these different ways of speaking when we read the Bible, and not treat everything Jesus says as if it is a direct command.

The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we don’t have any words of Jesus written by him. What we have are accounts of his words and actions, mediated through writers  and editors, who all have their own agendas, with different understandings of who Jesus is and what his coming means for the Jews and for the world. They also have a different understanding from us of what it means to record the teaching of a person. In New Testament times it was considered perfectly proper to put words into the mouth of a person, if it fitted with the general drift of their teaching. It’s like the sort of thing we get nowadays in ‘faction’ television programmes.

So, we need to listen to those Biblical scholars who try to tease out what are likely to be the authentic words of Jesus, from those which are teachings of the later Christian Church. It is fairly obvious from the differences between the Gospels that their writers added interpretations and explanations to the  teaching they recorded, in order to make it understood by their readers.

Scholars also use various ‘tests’ to make their judgements, such as distinctiveness, teaching that goes against the current religious and social practice, and the use of humour and paradox to try to sift what Jesus said from the common wisdom of the time which was included in the gospels. Using such tests, people like the Jesus Seminar – a group of over 70 New Testament Scholars in America – come out with a much slimmer body of words of Jesus than we get in our four Gospels.

But even if you were to accept all the teaching attributed to Jesus in the four Gospels as genuine, we still have the problem of the editorial bias of the four Gospel writers. Each of them had a subtly different picture of Jesus to convey when they selected and arranged their material, so each only gives a partial picture of his teaching. Mark presents a Jesus who is a suffering saviour and a miracle worker, with very little teaching material apart from a few parables. Mark is also, according to Michael Goulder, a follower of Paul, so he presents a Jesus who sits light to the Jewish Law.

Matthew on the other hand, presents a Jesus who is a teacher, and a faithful son of the Law. He, according to Goulder, was a follower of the Jewish Christian Church led by Peter and James, so he places much more emphasis on Jesus’ teaching, and on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and on the times that Jesus kept the Jewish Law. Luke’s Jesus is a man of prayer, a friend of women, and an advocate of the poor. So, he chooses to record those parables and those parts of Jesus’ teaching that emphasise these aspects.

The Jesus that the Gospel of John presents is radically different from the other three Gospels. His Jesus is the risen, glorified second person of the Trinity.He tells no parables and does not teach about the Kingdom of Heaven at all. He speaks mainly about himself, in long discourses which use symbols such as light, water and shepherd to convey his message. Almost all of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel is likely to be the words of the writer, not of the historical Jesus.

Most of us are likely to be more attracted to one of these presentations of Jesus than the others, and we will tend to ‘listen’ to the Jesus in our favourite Gospels more readily than to the Jesus of the other three. This is fine, so long as we realise that we are getting only a partial picture of what Jesus is saying to us through the Bible. We need to be aware of all four to get a more rounded picture. We also need to remember that, through his Spirit, Jesus also speaks to us through the rest of the New Testament, through the book of  Acts, and the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John, and through the writings called Hebrews and Revelation. All of those present to us the  message of  God which came through the Incarnation, filtered through the minds of other people, but Jesus speaking to us just the same.

Some people, of course, will not hear the voice of Jesus chiefly through the written word. They encounter God as the Spirit speaks to them through art, or music, through their encounters with other people, through solitude and contemplation, or through the glories of nature. For them, the Bible will simply provide a canon – a measure against which to judge the authenticity of their experience of Jesus speaking to them.

We can none of us escape the human bias of the writers who conveyed Jesus’ words to us – nor our own characters and inclinations which provide the filter through which we ‘hear’ God. But if we are truly open to the Spirit, truthful about our own prejudices, humble about our own capabilities and tolerant of the views of others who hear different things – then we are more likely to be able to respond to God’s command to ‘listen to him’.

And how will we know if we are succeeding. Well, surely, the mark of the authentic listener to the Son, is that, like Moses, our faces, indeed our whole lives, will shine with the reflected glory of God.

February 14, 2010

Address for Family Communion + Baptism .Sunday before Lent Reading: The Transfiguration (Luke 9 28-36)

I have here a Russian soldier’s hat that my son brought back from a trip to Moscow many years ago.

Would anyone like to wear it?

Does this transform you  into a Russian soldier. No, you need to be born or live in Russia and to undergo years of training to be a Russian soldier.

Here is a small cassock and surplice, chorister’s robes. Anyone put them on? Are you now a chorister? No. Need to train and practice – wearing cassock & surplice doesn’t transform you into a chorister.

My blue scarf is sign of being a Reader. If I put it on someone else, will that transform them into a Reader? No; you need to have a call to be a Reader and train and be authorised by a Bishop to become one.

It is what is on the inside that makes a person what they are, not what they are wearing on the outside.

In our story today the disciples saw Jesus being changed on the outside. His clothes became shining white. We call it The Transfiguration. The disciples saw Jesus in his glory as the beloved Son of God.

What they saw wasn’t just on the outside. It wasn’t just a change of clothes. It reflected what Jesus was like on the inside. He was filled with the Holy Spirt and glowed with the love and the glory of God. The Transfiguration also showed what Jesus would become like after the Resurrection, when he was raised from death to be with God for ever.

On Wednesday Lent begins. The traditional name for this day is Ash Wednesday, because the ancient tradition of the church is that Christians are marked with ash in some way. In the Bible ash signifies  frailty, mourning, sorrow and repentence.  Ash Wednesday marks  a new start on the road of faith that leads to Passiontide and Easter. Here we will have a quiet service of prayer and reflection, and, if people wish, they can be marked with ash on their forehead or their hands. It is a good way to begin our Lenten devotions – but only if what is done on the outside is mirrored by a change of heart, a renewal of faith, and a determination to live better lives – a change on the inside.

In a few moments we are going to baptise Emma Louise. Some things will happen on the outside.

A cross will be made on her forehead with oil that has been blessed by the bishop; a small amount of water which has been blessed will be poured over her head. She will be handed a candle. And we will say prayers and ask God to send his Holy Spirit on her.

This will make her a Christian, a member of God’s Church and a child of our heavenly Father.

But Emma’s baptism, with its outward and visible signs, is only the beginning of the process. Over the years it will be the responsibility of her parents, her godparents, her family, and all of us as members of God’s Church, to help her to live as a  child of God; to learn to imitate and follow Christ; to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

We will pray that all these things are done to help Emma to be transformed ( on the inside) by God’s inward and spiritual grace into one of those people who are so full of faith and of the love of God that their whole being is transformed and transfigured by the light of our Saviour Jesus Christ.