Be (Un)Prepared!

July 7, 2013

Harvest

Isaiah 66, 10-14; Galatians 6, 1-16; Luke 10 1-11.

I recently read a story online about a couple and their daughter who emigrated from Hull to Australia after watching a TV documentary about the luxurious life there – and then returned to the UK two months later because of the high cost of living they encountered, the difficulty of getting their favourite foods, and missing their families. It cost them £10K to move to Australia – and now they are back without their furniture, and without a permanent place to live.

I just can’t imagine making a major decision like moving house, let alone moving continents without a lot of research beforehand. Even when we go on holiday, we look up hotels on TripAdvisor and make sure we have somewhere to stay; we make lists for what we pack, and plan out routes  before we set off.

So, the Gospel passage for today, which has been described as ‘The Owner’s Instruction Manual for Christian Mission’ is really rather daunting for me. I tend to follow the Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’, but this passage seems to be saying “Be UNPrepared”. It seems to go against everything that our society regards as sensible – planing things out, taking out insurance, making sure you’ve got the resources to finish something before you start, relying on yourself and your abilities, and so on. What is God saying to us through this passage?

This passage comes in the second half of Luke’s Gospel, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. It parallels the sending out of the 12 Apostles in Luke 9, and reflects Luke’s special interest in mission to the Gentiles (in the Bible 12 is the number of Israel and 70 or 72 the number of the whole earth). So this passage is telling us about the wider mission of the church.

Jesus doesn’t minimise the challenges of mission activity – then, as now there will be plenty of resistance to the Good News, fuelled by fear, by indifference, by self-interest as the message of the coming Kingdom challenges the prevailing power structure. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be going as “sheep among wolves”. He warns them that the work will be hard: “The harvest is ready but the workers are few”. He doesn’t give them impossible targets; their job is simply to prepare the ground for his arrival. They are to speak words of peace, heal the sick and announce the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. The implication is that he will do the rest, building on their preparatory work, when he comes.

Some of the instructions Jesus give seem familiar to us as we plan church activities. First of all he instructs his disciples to pray – but the prayers are not for success, but for each other, and for more and more people to become involved with the work of mission. That’s a good reminder for us that mission is not the work just of the ordained, or of trained mission workers, but of every Christian.

Second, Jesus instructs them to go out in pairs, a sensible instruction when we go out into hazardous environments; but it’s not just about our personal safety – it reminds us also that we are part of a Christian community, made up of members with many different skills and talents, all of which may be useful in bringing different sorts of people into fellowship. In today’s world, when there is so much cult of personality, we tend to focus on individuals and what they achieve; it is all to easy to forget the people who support and co-operate with the front line workers, and so play their part in the harvest of mission.  The church has tended to do that too: this story is a useful counter to that. We know the names of the 12 apostles who were sent out, and have made them into saints, and named churches after them. We don’t know anything about these 70 or 72 disciples, not even their names. They stand for the thousands, even millions of faithful Christians who have worked to bring in the Kingdom of God throughout history and continue to do so now.

Jesus also gives them a script to follow. He tells them what to say: “Peace be on this house. The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  It’s a very simple slogan – short, to the point, affirming. It would even fit into a Tweet!

Modern evangelism courses often try to equip ordinary Christians with a script; but they are rarely as simple and affirming as that. How often have Christians gone into situations speaking words of peace and affirmation? If you look at the media today, the impression given is that Christians are against things and people, and condemn rather than affirm. Perhaps we would do better at bringing in the Kingdom if we went back to Jesus’s script!

These instructions are easy to follow. It is the rest of the manual that goes against our instincts. Every mission initiative that I’ve heard about has involved lots of preparation, lots of expenditure and lots of equipment. But Jesus says: take nothing with you, not even any money, rely on strangers for food and accommodation, accept whatever you’re offered without complaint – in short, travel light!

That might have seemed less strange in Jesus’s time than it does now. Hospitality to strangers was a social obligation in Biblical society in a way it is not for ours. To mistreat visitors brought condemnation of the harshest kind. Later, in a continuation of the passage that we don’t get in the lectionary, Jesus says that it will be better for the town of Sodom on judgement day than for any town that rejects his disciples, reminding us that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality – it was mistreatment of strangers and abuse of hospitality that brought punishment and destruction upon them, not gay sex.

What was Jesus really saying to the disciples with these instructions? I think he was asking them to rely on God, and not on themselves. In our Old Testament reading, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear God’s promise that he will nurture those who serve him as a mother nurtures her children, and protect them as they would be protected in a walled city like Jerusalem. It is that sort of total trust that Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us. He asks them to make themselves vulnerable when they are engaged in evangelism – and he asks the same of us.  He tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; that would have been a much harder instruction for observant Jews, with their complex food laws, to accept than it is for us, but it reminds us that we are instructed to rely not just on those who are like us, but also, perhaps on those from a very different culture and with very different tastes from those which the Church has traditionally endorsed.

So how do we interpret these instructions for mission in today’s world? I don’t think it is really telling us to be unprepared in the sense of not spending money or using modern equipment with us when we engage in mission. But it is telling us to keep things simple and to concentrate on the essential of the Christian message and not get sidelined onto peripheral things. It reminds us that often it is the small things, not the grand gestures that advance the Kingdom – things like speaking words of peace and comfort, bringing healing into a tense situation, accepting the hospitality of those different from us, and not making a fuss when things are not done as we think they ought to be done. And things like helping at a foodbank, buying Fairtrade goods, twinning your toilet, or demonstrating for peace and justice.

It reminds us that we must be prepared to work with all sorts of different people to build the Kingdom; in our society that might include government agencies, atheists and humanists and even people of other faiths.

Above all it reminds us that the only equipment we need for mission is trust in the grace of God revealed through the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the message that Paul gives to the Galatian Christians in the letter from which our Epistle reading came. He is advising them to rely on the Holy Spirit, and to live a life based on mutual love and service, rather than relying on the keeping of the Jewish law to bring them salvation. He acknowledges that this path will not be easy: it led Christ to the cross, and may well lead his followers to the same place, but it is the only way to serve God faithfully. What Christ’s followers must trust in is not their own individual talents, or earthly power-structures or miraculous demonstrations, but in God’s commitment to peace and justice, which will ultimately prevail.

So, however little it may seem we have available to us to fulfil the missionary task that Jesus gave us, we are not really unprepared. As Paul assures us, doing what is right, working for the good of all, trusting in the way of the cross will bring the harvest and bring in the new creation for which we hope.

Giving Up…….

March 3, 2013

Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)

fig tree

How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.

There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into  communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.

The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.

We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.

The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke.  The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.

But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.

And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.

Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.

There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.

Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.

There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.

Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.

So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.

Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.

A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.

Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.

Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can  get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us.  But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.

Brandon Ambrosino, another US Christian, wrote recently about an even more radical form of ‘giving up for Lent.’ He gave up God!

This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.

It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.

He gives this up in order  “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.

I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”

This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is  a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?

So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?

Cornucopia

Different Gifts.

January 20, 2013

Mum&DadPwedd copy

(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11) 

We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.

And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are  learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK.  There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!

I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses  highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership.  There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.

Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.

It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.

The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.

But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.

Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.MumDad, Granma&Dad?Wedd copy

Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.

As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.

If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.

wcc_logoSimilarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.

I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”

McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”

And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – cross the road?Book cover

They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.

Let us pray:

A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.

God with us, Emmanuel;

you cross the chasm of time and space,

you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,

you span the waters of chaos,

you come to us in love.

Sending God;

help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,

help us to break down the barriers that divide,

help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.

Send us in love,

go with us.

Amen

Watch your Tongue!

September 16, 2012

(Isaiah 50, 4-9a; James 3, 1-12; Mark 8 27-38)  (Yr B proper 19)

“Sticks and stones can break my bone, but words will never hurt me”. 

It’s a rhyme we teach our children in an attempt to help them to stand up to verbal bullying and name calling in the playground. But they know it’s rubbish and so do we; words can and do often hurt deeply. Just think of the furore this week over the words published in the newspapers and repeated by politicians about the football fans involved in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The hurt from those words has lasted for 23 years.

Words can cripple. We know now that if you tell someone often enough that they are stupid, they will stop trying to learn. If you are blamed for abuse committed against you, eventually you feel guilty.

And words can sometimes kill. We all know about bullying of children at school, and especially now cyberbullying, which can lead to the suicide of vulnerable young people. And in some parts of the world, like Pakistan, North Africa or Uganda, an accusation of insulting the Koran or the Prophet Muhammed, or of being homosexual, can lead to imprisonment, execution or lynching.

Words are powerful. Words can and do cause enormous hurt.

All three of our readings today have something to tell us about words. Second Isaiah the author of the Old Testament reading has been given the vocation of a teacher. He tries to speak God’s word of comfort and warning to the exiles in Babylon. His words don’t hurt others, but they bring him opposition, persecution and disgrace. We know from history, and especially the history of our church, that is often the fate of prophets and teachers who say what the powerful don’t want people to hear. It was the fate of Jesus, and it is the fate of radical teachers still.

The writer of the Letter of James also comments on the role of the teacher (and the preacher!) He warns them that they will be judged by their words. As you will see if you read the Letter of James in full, he is very sceptical about a faith that is just words. He instructs all servants of God to demonstrate their faith in action; and since teachers of the faith are the most visible followers of the Lord, he is especially insistent that they do. Since Christians are so often accused by their opponents of being hypocrites, it is a warning we should all take to heart!

He realises how very important preaching is, and how much influence it has over those on the fringes of faith, and outside. As a lay preacher, I wish that some churches realised this too. Some make a great deal of fuss about who may preside at communion, but allow untrained and  unauthorised people to preach and teach, which in my view can be much more damaging to the faith of people who hear them.

James uses typical Jewish exaggeration to make his point about the dangers of the tongue. This is a passage which repeats warnings found in the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, in Proverbs and Eccelsiasticus, about the dangers of speaking without proper thought. Although at the end of the passage he says that the same small organ can be used for praise and cursing, in the rest of the passage he paints the tongue as all evil, like a tree that bears a mixture of fruit, a spring that gives both good and tainted water, and an uncontrollable animal.  In verse 6 especially, ( a verse which translators have great difficulty with) he says the tongue is the root of all evil.

He speaks of the tongue as like a spark which starts a forest fire. How true we can see that is, in a week where enormous damage has been done, and lives lost, because of the words broadcast on You Tube in a film about Islam. James reminds us about the difficulty of controlling our tongues. It is a lesson we all would do well to learn, and to revisit frequently.

Although James says here that there is no controlling the tongue, in the following verses he does suggest what can control the tongue and rash speech – and that is Wisdom. Wisdom in the Old Testament was an attribute of God, and the early Christians linked Wisdom with the Word of God, embodied in Jesus. So, following Jesus is the way to gain control over the tongue.

But what exactly does that mean? The gospel passage is the famous conversation on the way to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks his disciples who they and other people think he is, and Peter replies “The Messiah”. This may be an actual conversation which took place, but is more likely to be a reflection by the gospel writer of the theology that the disciples arrived at following the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We follow Jesus as God’s Messiah or Christ. But that is not as simple as it sounds.‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ can mean different things to different people. As the story illustrates, Peter understood something different  about the mission of God’s Messiah from the vocation that Jesus had. Peter seems to have seen it in terms of a victory over the Romans and the other forces of oppression, perhaps through military might, crowd violence or even divine intervention. Jesus’s life and death taught quite clearly that the way God’s Christ would triumph over evil and oppression was through suffering and death, through the cross; and the message for us is that that is the way we too must oppose evil.

We learn our faith partly through the spoken word, and through our own experience of the church and the world; but one primary source for our faith is the Bible, the written word. That has been a source of increasing problems for faith in our time, because of the different ways in which the words of the Bible can be understood.

During the summer, I have been reading a book called ‘The Bible made Impossible’ by Christian Smith. This is a critique, by an evangelical, of the way which the Bible is read by some Christians, who he calls ‘biblicists’. Among the tenets of biblicists which he criticises are that the best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, literal sense, and that the meaning of the words can be understood by anyone without any knowledge of creeds, or tradition, the culture in which they were written or the literary genre, that all words in the Bible say the same thing about any given subject, and that all you need to do to discover Biblical truths (which cover everything you need to know about anything) is to sit down and read the Bible.

Smith’s book shows how this approach falls down, in particular because there is no agreement about what the Bible says on key beliefs among biblicists, even without taking into account the conclusions of the dreaded theological liberals.

Particularly relevant for the lectionary readings today is Smith’s illustration of the fallacy of treating words and simple and straightforward. He describes first of all the ‘locutionary act’ the action of writing or uttering a word. Behind the locutionary act is the ‘illocutionary act’ what you intend to do when you speak or write. You may intend to command, promise, warn, offer, challenge, speak poetry, tell a story, dream or question. Anyone who hears may decide what you intend from your tone of voice and your body language; anyone who reads had to decide via punctuation, context, and literary genre – but this is difficult, and even more so when the words were originally written in another culture, a foreign language or a different alphabet.

Finally there is the ‘perlocutionary act’ the effect the words have on the hearer or reader. It is obvious this may or may not be what the original speaker or writer intended, and depends as much on the recipient of the words as their author.

Let me give you an example which Smith uses: if someone says ‘Let him have it’ it could mean very different things, according to the tone of voice and the situation. Just consider the difference between a parent saying this to squabbling children, a spouse discussing the allocation of the marital home after a divorce, or an criminal speaking to an armed accomplice when face by the police.

When we read the Bible we don’t have a simple way of deciding what ‘illocutionary act’ the original speaker or writer intended. Even if we believe, as many biblicists do, that the Bible is the direct speech of God, transferred without error into the pen of the writer, we do not have sufficient knowledge of the mind of God to know for

certain what was the divine intention in any particular passage.

In interpreting the Gospel passage today, we need to reflect on the very different understanding that the early church, especially the Jewish part of it, had of the title Messiah. We need to recognise that the Christian faith, and especially its understanding of who Jesus was, developed over time, through the experience of the resurrection and of the Holy Spirit working through the earliest followers of Jesus, and was changed by its contact with the Greek and Roman world. By the time the Gospel of Mark came to be written in 60 or 70 CE, 30 to 40 years after the crucifixion, Messiah/Christ had quite a different meaning to the followers of Jesus from the one it had during his lifetime.

What’s more, by the time that the definitive canon of the New Testament was agreed, at the beginning of the 5th century of the Christian era, the development of the church as an institution, closely allied to the Roman Empire; and the decisions of the Councils which resolved heresies and persecuted those who disagreed, there was a very different understanding again of what those words meant.

We seek to follow Jesus the Christ. We believe that he is the living Word and Wisdom of God, as someone once said ‘the window through which we see God’. We seek to know him better through the written word in the Scriptures, as well as through openness to his inspiration through the Holy Spirit.

But our knowledge can only ever be partial and tentative. Jesus didn’t write anything himself, and there were no video cameras or tape recorders in 1st century Palestine to capture his exact words for us. Therefore we need to exercise humility when we teach or preach about him, and when we describe others as correct  or misguided in their understanding of what it means to speak of him as God’s Messiah.

We must never forget just how much pain and misery, how many crosses, literal and metaphorical, have been placed on innocent people, by disputes over words about him.

May today’s readings remind us, as we live our lives, that our words as well as our actions must be under the authority of the God whom Jesus showed us, and of the need always to watch our tongues, so that they reflect clearly his authority over us.

Refresh and Renew

February 19, 2012

(Isaiah 40, 21-31; Mark 1, 29-39)

If you type the words ‘refresh’ and renew’ into a computer search engine you will get a wide range of results, from instructions how to refresh your various computer sites, to advertisements for health spas, face cream, and exercise sessions, to a conference about developing worship at a Christian University in the USA.

Isaiah 40, from which our first reading came, begins with a hymn of praise to the majesty of God, who created the universe, stretched out the heavens, governs the seasons, and knows everything that goes on in human society. Yet it ends with an assurance that this almighty deity is not detached from human need, but involved and supportive: “He gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.” His strength is available to human beings, if they need it, to renew and refresh them: “They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

That’s a great affirmation to those of us who are getting older, who do often feel weary and faint, and as if our strength gives out too quickly. If we rely on God, we can (metaphorically!) fly! We can run marathons! We can go where we need to and not be worn out when we get there!

There is also encouragement for those of us who feel worn out in the gospel reading. Mark tells us of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in law. At the touch of Jesus, she is renewed and able to get up and carry out the work she wants to do. Many others come to Jesus that evening for healing of whatever restricts their enjoyment of the fullness of life. And, most encouraging of all, we read that even Jesus needed to take time out after a demanding day to renew his strength.

On this occasion, Jesus sought renewal and refreshment by getting up before everyone else, going out to a deserted place and being alone with God to pray and reflect for a while. It didn’t last long. His disciples hunted for him, found him, and through them the demands on him were renewed. He took up his tasks again, moving out from the towns where he was already known, to serve and teach the whole of the rest of Galilee.

We have a much smaller area to serve and to reach out to in mission – our parish, our families, our personal networks of friends and workmates. It can still demand much of us, though, and leave us feeling weary and exhausted. The lectionary passages challenge us this morning to consider, how and when do we meet God, feel the touch of Jesus and so ‘renew our strength’?

Like Jesus, the most obvious way of renewing our strength is to wait on God regularly in prayer. As with any relationship, if you don’t maintain communication, the relationship will wither and die. Once a week for an hour in church really is not enough to build up our relationship with God to the point where we can  be renewed and refreshed and strengthened whenever we need to be.

Of course it is difficult! Of course we all have times when we appear to be talking to ourselves, and feel we are getting nothing out of it. But we do need to persevere through those barren times. We will all have different ways of praying. Some people use a prayer book with set prayers, or resources on the internet; others find it easier to be spontaneous, and to share their concerns, weaknesses, doubts and questions as if they are having a conversation with a good friend. Some use Bible passages to prompt prayers; other use music, or visual stimuli like pictures, candles or stones. Others simply sit in silence and try to empty their minds and allow God to enter.

Some are able to set aside a regular time of prayer every day; others find they need to snatch odd moments out of a busy routine to rest in God. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do it! And if you find it difficult to find enough time during the working week to pray as often and as deeply as you would like, then setting leisure time aside to go on quiet days or retreats can give you the chance to experience God’s refreshment and renewal,

to read and to pray.

Even an ordinary holiday can be a source of R & R from God, if you set out with the intention of being renewed in spirit as well as in body and mind.

Lent, which begins in a couple of week’s time, is a period in which Christians are traditionally encouraged to renew the spiritual discipline of prayer. Our diocese is once again providing resources to help us pray more effectively and regularly, and is calling it ‘Live the Challenge’. If you are into social media, then you can sign up to receive a daily text or email or Tweet with a text to meditate on and respond to with comments or pictures or music if you want.  Or if you don’t live that way, then your church can download the texts and print them out for you to follow. If you think you would find that helpful in encouraging you to meet God in prayer, then have a look at the publicity material available online http://www.livethechallenge.co.uk/home/ or in church.

A second place where we should expect to meet God and find refreshment, renewal and strength is in worship. Live the Challenge  also provides material for a weekly act of worship with a short liturgy to pray together, recipes for  a meal to eat together (from our partner diocese in Belize), and a reflection to think through together. Then, having been refreshed there is a challenge to act together.

But we already have an opportunity for that refreshment and renewal as we worship together here week by week, and particularly when we meet together as a community round the Lord’s Table each Sunday.  The physical strengthening we get from eating and drinking reflects the spiritual strengthening we get from worship, word and sacrament.  After worship, we should, as one of the final prayers of the Eucharist reminds us, feel renewed to go out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s power and glory.

And if you don’t feel that on a regular basis, then Lent, and particularly this Lent as we finalise our parish Mission Action Plan, is a good time for you to spend time considering why, and play your part in planning what we as a church can do differently to help more people go deeper into God through worship, and find renewal and refreshment there.

The traditional Protestant way of encountering God and finding refreshment and strength is through reading the Bible. There are Lent schemes and courses to assist you in doing this, including the diocesan Lent Course which takes you through the Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent and relates them to the Living God’s Love theme of Transforming Communities.

If you do choose to find refreshment in the Scriptures, I would encourage you to go beyond reading them devotionally, and take time to study them with the aid of a good modern commentary. Otherwise, the difference between the language and culture in which the Bible was originally written, and our language and culture will mean you will have difficulty in understanding what God is really saying to you through the scriptures.

Some people , like Jesus, find they need to be alone to drink deeply from the well of God’s strengthening and renewal. Others don’t find solitude helpful, and feel closer to God, and experience divine encouragement more, when they meet with other Christians to study and discuss. If that’s your preference, then you may find yourself strengthened and renewed this Lent through taking part in the Ecumenical Lent Course ‘Handing on the Torch’ which will be running in this church, and in other places in Watford at different times during Lent. There is publicity for that at the back of church too.

Whichever path you choose for renewal and refreshment, take courage from the promise of Isaiah and the Gospel, that if you wait on the Lord, you will find strength for the tasks you have been given, and will be ready once again for service and mission to the world.

We finish with the Living God’s Love prayer.

Living God, draw us deeper into your love; 

Jesus our Lord, send us to care and serve; 

Holy Spirit, make us heralds of good news. 

Stir us, strengthen us, teach and inspire us to live your love with generosity and joy, imagination and courage; 

for the sake of your world and in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Politics of Christmas

January 8, 2012

(Isaiah 60, 1-6; Matthew 2, 1-12)

May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!

Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.

But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means  to follow him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.

Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?

Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?

Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?

Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.

But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.

The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!).  Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.

In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.

The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19  and the dreams of Daniel.

But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.

The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God;  and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.

But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.

It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?

It asks, who is king and emperor over our lives? A secular ruler or party leader, or the one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom? When we vote, who is uppermost in our minds.

It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?

It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?

Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts.   It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about  the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.

The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!

Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?

Isaiah 9, 2-7; Luke 2, 1-14.

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

Have you ever sung the song about the 12 Days of Christmas?

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

Everything mentioned in the song stands for something else:  4 calling birds are 4 Gospels, 2 French hens are the Old Testament and New Testament, & partridge in a pear tree is Jesus; & ‘my true love’ who gave all the gifts to me over the 12 days of Christmas is God.

I thought I might do a version of the song with you today – with presents in this Christmas stocking which stand for 12 of the gifts we are given at Christmas with the coming of Jesus.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a baby boy – a son; as Isaiah prophesied in Jesus we are given the Son of God. (baby doll)

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a royal child. Isaiah said, & the angels said baby would be Prince of Peace, King of Jews, reign on throne of his ancestor David. (crown)

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a Saviour. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and angels told shepherds baby born would be their saviour. (St Bernard dog with brandy. This might not look like a saviour to you, but if you were buried in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, it would!)

“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Messiah, the Christ. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be born. Messiah or Christ means anointed one. Priests and kings anointed with oil (jar of oil)

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a light. Isaiah said people who walked in darkness would see light when the special child was born, and John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as that light. (torch)

“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Word. John’s Gospel says Jesus was the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh. Gospels and NT are words about the Word of God. (New Testament)

“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” A shepherd. The prophets foretold  a shepherd King like David, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep. ( model sheep & crook)

“On the  eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” A vine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the True Vine, of which we are all branches. If we remain in him we bear fruit. And in this Holy Communion we drink the fruit of the vine to remember him (grapes)

“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” some bread. Bethlehem where the Gospels tell us Jesus was born means ‘House of Bread’  & in John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the true Bread, the Bread of life. In this Holy Communion we share bread to remind us we are the Body of Christ. (roll)

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”: A Lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, and we remember that in this Communion service, when we give thanks for the Lamb of God who died to save us from the wickedness of this world. (lamb)

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” a Redeemer. In the olden days, money was paid over to redeem people from slavery. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose life and death redeems us from slavery to evil (money)

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:”

Emmanuel, God with us. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus was both human and divine, the Son of Man and the Son of God. (Rubik’s cube puzzle)

That’s a mystery, that Christians have spent 2000 years thinking about, trying to puzzle out what exactly it means for us. And we will go on trying to puzzle it out throughout this coming year.

I hope you will enjoy your material presents this Christmas, and the spiritual presents that God gives us in the birth of Jesus. I hope you will go on trying to puzzle out what exactly the birth of Jesus means for you and the world, and that you will be here with us during the year to help us unwrap all the gifts that God gives us.

( Isaiah 45, 1-7; Matthew 22, 15-22) 

Jesus was in a very tricky situation. He was under attack from an unlikely combination of allies. On the one hand there were the Pharisees, the religious purists, who insisted that every last letter of the religious law had to be obeyed. On the other hand there were the Herodians, the political party who supported Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler installed by Rome.

To the Pharisees the coinage used to pay taxes was a blasphemy; it bore an image of Caesar, and therefore contravened the prohibition in the Ten Commandments on making a graven image, which they interpreted literally – no pictures of any living thing; and since the Roman Emperors claimed to be gods themselves, to use the coinage was tantamount to worshipping another god, in their view.

The Herodians knew that King Herod’s position was very insecure. The Romans had already deposed his brother Archeleus for mismanagement of Judea; any hint of rebellion in Galilee, and Herod might be deposed too.

So, if Jesus said you should pay the taxes, he could be accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy; if he said you shouldn’t, he could be accused by the Herodians of stirring up rebellion.

Jesus however, replied in typically enigmatic fashion. He didn’t answer the question directly, he did not give a binding ruling, but challenged his listeners to make up their own minds: “give ( in Greek it says ‘give back’) to the Roman Emperor what belongs to the Emperor and give to God what belongs to God”.

We’re in a very sticky situation too. We live in a society and a world whose financial systems are in crisis. The cost of housing and the cost of food are constantly increasing. We seem to be paying over more and more of our income in taxes. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements which seek to convince us that we cannot be happy unless we buy this or eat this, or travel to this place or the other. Yet every post brings us desperate appeals from charities for more money to support their work – and even in church we cannot escape appeals for more funds. We are obliged to pay taxes, we need to support ourselves and our families, we want to support our favourite charities and the church.   How are we supposed to decide how to allocate our limited funds between these competing demands?

Does Jesus’ reply to his questioners help us in our dilemma? Well, no, not a lot! He’s saying to us too, as he so often does: “I’ve taught you about God’s kingdom; you have the Bible to give you guidance; listen to the Spirit, use your God-given intelligence, and make up your own minds.”

 

Nobody likes paying taxes. We all moan about how much we have to pay. Although we may not, like the Galileans and Judeans of Jesus’ time, be paying taxes to an occupying power, we still tend to see it in terms of ‘them’ taking from ‘us’. Perhaps it’s the element of compulsion we don’t like; there’s no way we can choose not to pay, unless we don’t work, or don’t buy food or goods, and that’s pretty impossible in the modern world.

Or perhaps we feel we don’t have much control over how our taxes are spent; (though we have a lot more say than people in many parts of the world, and if we choose not to use our vote in national or council elections, we can’t really complain.) We tend to concentrate on the government and council projects we don’t approve of, and this will be different for every one of us: foreign wars, armaments, the Olympic Games, another airport or motorway, more generous social security payments or pensions. Whatever it is, we feed our resentment of  ‘our taxes’ being used for something we dislike.

We feel we have much more control over our charitable giving, because we give to charities whose aims and methods we approve of, and not to those we disapprove of. There is a tendency to treat the church as just another charity, to which we can choose to give or not; and perhaps we sometimes have similar attitudes towards giving to the church as we do to taxation.  Again, we can see it as ‘them’ ( the Archbishop’s Council or the Diocese or the PCC) taking money from ‘us’, the ordinary people in the pew, and using it for things we don’t wholly approve of; or perhaps we don’t actually know what it’s used for, so can’t see the point of giving.

We can transform our perception of paying taxes if we look at things from the other end, from what we get out of it. I am very grateful for the education in school and university  I, and my children have received, at virtually no cost to ourselves. I am thankful that I live in a county with one of the lowest crime rates in the country. I have had reason again and again to be thankful for the NHS, when my children were small, when my parents were old, and for myself in recent years. And now, as a pensioner, I can even benefit a little from my National Insurance contributions and my taxes and Council tax with a small personal pension and a free bus pass!  When I’m not thinking straight, I may still moan as much as anyone else about the taxes I pay – but when I’m thinking about all the benefits I’ve received from the taxes paid by me and others, I am happy to give to Caesar ( or in our case, Mr Darling) what Caesar asks for.

In the same way as we can transform our perception of paying taxes, we can transform our view of giving to the church, by seeing it not as about what ‘they’ demand, but what ‘we’ have been given. If we think about it, we are all so richly blessed. We live in a part of the world which is beautiful, which is prosperous, which is secure.  We have enough money to have a choice about what we do with it. We have inherited a church tradition with a wealth of beautiful buildings and music of all kinds, and inspiring literature from every age. We have been taught by Christ that God loves us, however inadequate and sinful we are,  and by Paul that nothing can separate us from that love. We have freedom to practice our faith, and to preach it to others. The example of the church in caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, and in providing education for the young has inspired the state to do likewise.

We know the generosity of God; it is in thankfulness for all we have been given, that we are asked to share that generosity with others through the work of God in the church and the world. Jesus told his hearers to ‘give to God what is God’s’. One of our offertory prayers reminds us that everything comes from God; both what we give back to God and what we do with our lives are signs of our awareness of that.

Some people think that, like politics, what we do with our money is nothing to do with our faith. But it is everything to do with faith. Money is not good, or evil; it is morally neutral. But what we do with our money can be good or evil; and how we allocate our money is a very clear sign of our spiritual health – whether we consider it to be ‘ours’ or whether we really acknowledge that it belongs to God.

Of course, we can ‘give back to God’ in many ways.

Our Old Testament reading tells us that legitimate governments may sometimes be put in place by God, to carry our God’s purposes (whether they acknowledge it or not). When we pay taxes to a legitimate government, to be used for the benefit and security of everyone with whom we share our country, we can see it as ‘giving back to God’. When we give money to, or work for  charities that preserve the planet, that help the unfortunate in this country and abroad, that pursue medical research for the greater happiness of people everywhere, we are giving to support the work of God.

When we buy fairly traded goods even when they are more expensive than standard brands, we are giving back to God what is God’s. When we support mission agencies overseas, we are obviously giving back to God what is God’s, for God’s work.

But we also have an obligation to witness to the Gospel in our local community. Bishop David Jenkins said the task of the church is to ‘hold the ramparts’ –  to provide a visible statement of God’s presence in society, to remind people of the reality of God, and God’s demands on humanity. What sort of statement of God’s presence are we providing if the church is shabby, church activities are limited to Sunday and the diocese cannot afford to pay for a full time priest in each parish?  Of course we need to provide for our families and pay our taxes and support charities – but our appreciation of God’s generosity to us  should also demand that we support the local church, too.

When Jesus was asked the question about paying taxes, he asked for a coin, and asked people to look at what was written on it.  If you take out a coin from your purse or your pocket, you will find it has the head of the monarch on it. But in the inscription around that head it has the letters DG.  That stands for ‘Dei gratia’ which means  “by the Grace of God”; but it could equally well stand for ‘Deo gratias’ which means “Thanks be to God”.

Which means that every time we look at a coin, we can be reminded that when we choose give away some of our money it is not in response to a demand, or an obligation, or a membership fee, but is an expression of our heartfelt thankfulness for all God’s generosity to us.

Deo gratias.

Genesis 1.1-2.3; Matthew 6, 25-34

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

From time to time, I’ve watched TV programmes about the origin of the universe. I can keep up, just about,  with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the idea that the universe originated with  a singularity and a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago (though I keep having to remind myself what a singularity is!). But then I gradually get lost! When people start talking about how higher mathematics has cast doubt on the validity of  these theories, and put forward alternative theories such as Steady State (which says the universe has no origin but new matter is continuously being created); or The Big Bounce (which says that something existed before this universe, went through a big crunch and ‘bounced back’ as this universe); or the theory of cyclic universes (constantly dissolving and re-appearing – though that does fit with some Hindu creation myths which speak of the universe dissolving into the being of the gods and then being recreated); or parallel universes existing at the same time (that one is at least familiar from science fiction films!), I’m way out of my depth!

What I do get from these programmes, though  is a sense of just how complex the universe is, how ideas about it and theories to explain its origins are constantly being revised, and how anyone who claims that we know everything about it simply doesn’t know what they are talking about!

The other thing I learn is that differences between scientists about theories of the origin of the universe are just as deep and can be just as bitterly argued as differences between science and faith.

 

Even if I don’t fully understand everything I see and hear, I am left with a sense of wonder at the beauty, majesty and complexity of the universe we live in; and that sense of wonder that is reinforced by photos of galaxies and stars and a series of micro-photographs published this week of some of the smallest things in creation (prize winners of the Wellcome Image Awards ).

 

The Old Testament reading we heard today, from Genesis chapter 1, and the beginning of chapter 2, is one of the the creation stories from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is believed to come from around the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, and may have been influenced by Babylonian creation myths, reshaped by the priestly editors to fit in with their beliefs about God’s relationship with Israel and the created world. There is another creation story, from a much earlier period in Jewish history, in the rest of chapter 2. In this second story, God interacts much more directly with human beings, and there is a different order of creation. This too has links with a Sumerian/Baylonian myth. Other contributions to a Judaeo-Christian creation theology are found in passages in Psalms, 2nd Isaiah, the Wisdom literature and Job, some of which show the influence of yet another Babylonian creation myth which saw creation coming out of a fight between the High God Marduk and a sea monster.

 

Passages in the New Testament from the first chapter of John’s gospel and from the Pauline epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians contributed to a Christian theology of creation. This theology continued to develop and change, particularly in the early centuries after Christ, when conflict with Gnostic versions of Christianity led to the doctrine that God created ex nihilo – out of nothing. This was because some Gnostics believed that matter was evil, and therefore could not have been created by a good God; they therefore said creation was the work of a demiurge; this was unacceptable to orthodox Christian theology, which believed God created everything.

blastocyst mouse embryo

 

Christian creation theology remained largely uncontroversial until modern times. It was the rise of fundamentalist creation theologies in reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution that really brought creation theology into the forefront of Christian thought again. Some more recent thinking about God as Creator can be found in the publications of the Doctrine Commission “We believe in God’ (1987) and “We believe in the Holy Spirit” (1991). These reject the idea that God just initiated creation and then left it, intervening only on occasions to make special things happen . Rather, creation is understood as God’s continuous sustaining of an evolving process. The Commission makes use of quantum theory and chaos theory to challenge the idea that everything is pre-determined and says that the universe is shot through with the possibility of flexibility.

 

So you can see that biblical interpretation and theologies of creation are not static, but are changing, in conversation with philosophy and with scientific discoveries.

 

Nowadays, belief about creation is often presented as a straight choice between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, with ‘science’ understood as the Big Bang and Evolution and ‘religion’ as a literal understanding of Genesis 1.  It is not as simple as that. St Augustine didn’t take Genesis 1 literally; he recognised you couldn’t have day and night before the sun was created. And since there are two different accounts of creation one after the other in the early chapters of Genesis, it is obvious its compilers didn’t intend them to be literal descriptions of what happened.

 

Some of the greatest minds of the scientific world were also religious both in the past and the present and find that the study of science reinforces rather than challenges their faith. The Doctrine Commission acknowledges that the Genesis creation stories were expressed in the cosmology of the day, and says our creation theology must make use of the vastly better informed cosmology of our day.

So should we just abandon Genesis 1, and other Old and New Testament passages  as sources of our creation theology?

No.

The Bible, along with tradition and our reason and current experience all feed in to our theology.

silkworn caterpillar proleg

What then does Genesis 1 tell us about God the Creator?

 

It says that God created out of pre-existing matter, which was formless, dark and barren. The action of God, in the persons of the Word and the Spirit, brought life and light out of this.  It says that the creation was not a single event, but a process, a process which we know is continuing to this day. It says that God cares for creation, in one translation of verse 2, like a hovering watchful mother bird. It says that human being were created to continue that  care as stewards or shepherds (a better way of translating verses 26 & 28 than ‘have dominion over them).

It says that God delighted equally in every aspect of the creation for its own sake, so it was not just created for human beings to enjoy. That has implications for our stewardship of the world, and our care for the environment.

 

More problematically, it repeatedly says that God saw each thing that was made, and pronounced it good. In a week when we have heard about a devastating earthquake in New Zealand, that is difficult to accept. Like generations of Christians, we have to struggle with this. Earth scientists remind us that earthquakes are an inevitable consequence of the structure of our planet, and if the conditions that cause earthquakes were not present, the conditions that allowed life to evolve would not exist either. Theologians say each of God’s creations, both animate and inanimate, is called to be faithful to its nature, and that suffering, sacrifice and death are part of God’s creation.

 

foreleg of diving beetle

This reminds us again that creation theology is not just about what happened ‘in the beginning’. It has a bearing on what we believe about God, how we explain sin, suffering and evil, how we understand the work of the Spirit and the person of Jesus, miracles, ethics and how we think the world will come to an end.

Genesis 1 tells us that there is a rhythm to life, both natural and human, times of work and creativity and times of rest and consolidation. The crowning moment of its account is not the creation of human beings, but the day of rest.

 

It tells us that human beings, male and female were created together, and given equal responsibility towards the earth, not one after the other or one subordinate to the other. It also tells us that all human beings were created in the image of God – but doesn’t spell out for us what that means. Does it mean we are like God because we are creative; because we have reason and imagination; because we have a moral sense and consciences; because we can love; or simply that we are here as God’s agents?

 

Genesis 1 is not a scientific account, and should not be taken as such. It is a myth, and it is poetry, which together with other myths and poetry in the Bible, points us to a greater understanding of creation and our responsibility towards it under God. It reminds us, as our passage from Matthew also reminds us, that the world made by God is to be trusted to provide for us.

 

Above all, it is a hymn of praise to the unfathomable glories of God, whose handiwork is revealed through the vast expanse of the cosmos, and the tiniest cell of a creature, a universe which (in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins) is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. It is a passage which prompts us to worship and serve God.

Spiral galaxy

 

What are we here for?

February 6, 2011

(Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5, 13-20)

Over the past year, the Deanery has been doing a Deanery Review and drawing up a Deanery Plan which has just been sent off to be considered by a meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Committee in 10 days time. It contains a vision statement, and a list of action points, grouped around the three priorities of ‘Vision for Action’ the latest diocesan initiative, launched at the cathedral in January.

 

‘Vision for Action’ also encourages parishes to take a good look at what they are doing, and to plan for the future through a process called ‘Mission Action Planning’. This involves looking at the local community, both through observation and statistics, to discover its needs; and looking at the church community, to discover its strengths, weaknesses and values. Then it involves developing a plan about what the church thinks it is being called to be and to do at the present time, and prioritising that vision into an action plan which states how, when and by whom the plan will be implemented.

 

Both the Deanery Plan and Mission Action Planning are trying to answer the question,”What are we here for?”

 

Over the last couple of weeks the Gospel readings have been telling us about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, and the calling of his first disciples. And now, as we approach Lent, we turn to readings which set out the programme of action for his disciples, passages which answer that same question: “What are we here for?”

 

The programme of action is based on the covenant with Israel’s God set out in the Old Testament. Matthew says Jesus has not come to do away with the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it. His programme, he says, asks his followers to go beyond what was previously demanded, to meet a higher standard of righteousness (which, as we learnt previously, encompasses not just acting in accordance with the law, but also justice, integrity, charity and a particular concern for the weak and vulnerable members of society). Unless they do even more than the teachers of the Law and the ultra-religious Pharisees, he tells, them, they won’t really be under the rule of God (which is what entering the Kingdom of Heaven means).

 

The reading from Isaiah expands on what sort of religious action  Jesus is asking his followers to undertake. It is from the prophecy of Third Isaiah, writing to the Jews who have returned to Judea after the exile in Babylon. Isaiah observes that they are trying to earn God’s approval by being ultra scrupulous about ritual and fasting and making a great fuss about being seen to follow all the ritual rules. But, Isaiah tells them, this is not what God actually wants. The sort of ‘discipline’ God actually wants them to follow is not about worship, but about their everyday lives. It’s about what we now call ‘social justice’ – feeding the hungry and poor, providing shelter for the homeless, freeing those who are oppressed by the structures of society, ensuring justice for all.

 

When we hear this passage, it raises echoes of the agenda for his ministry which Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue, recorded in Luke 4; and with the story of the Last Judgement, the Sheep and Goats, in Matthew 25. This confirms that the gospel of social justice is not a trendy modern invention. It is what Third Isaiah said discipleship was all about in the 8th century BC; it is what Jesus said discipleship was all about in the 1st century AD. It is still what Christian discipleship is all about. It is the answer to the question “What are we here for?”

 

We are often told there is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world. These passages tell us Christian spirituality is not to be discovered in withdrawal from the world, but in daily engagement with its realities. Christian discipleship is about politics, economics, healing and housing human bodies, removing the ‘yoke’ from the shoulders of the oppressed, whether that yoke be poverty, sickness or prejudice. It means working to oppose anything which prevents human flourishing.

 

So, our discipleship is to be lived out in service to the community. But how are we to carry out that service?

 

Jesus answers using two metaphors – light and salt. Both are ordinary common substances, both are God-given, not of human manufacture, both can be used to transform what surrounds them.

 

We have heard a lot about light in the readings over the last couple of months. It is a major theme of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. Light stands for vision, direction and reflecting the values of God. As a metaphor it says that the Christian disciple must be at work in the public dimension. This seems obvious to us, but we need to remember that in the  verses that come before this Gospel passage, The Beatitudes, Jesus has concluded by saying you are blessed when others persecute, revile and slander you. That, he indicates, is the normal state of affairs for the Christian disciple. In those circumstances, it might be tempting for the disciples to retreat into private religious observance, rather than continuing to ensure that the light of God shines on those who need it.

 

Our attitude towards light hasn’t changed much towards light in the years since these words were spoken by Jesus, but our attitude to salt may have done. In a world before refrigerators and antibiotics, salt was important for flavouring food, and preserving it, and for purification and healing. Salt was a common substance, but so valuable that Roman soldiers were paid with it. Nowadays it is still a common substance, but with little value, and we are very much aware that too much of it can not only spoil the taste of food, but also damage our health.

 

Nevertheless, the metaphor of salt warns Christian disciples to keep their faith sharp and alive, and to follow a faith whose values contrast with those of the world around, so they continue to make a difference in their communities. For us today, that might mean that Christians value the small rather than the big, the spiritual as well as the  material, but also value community cohesion above individual satisfaction, and watch out for the vulnerable rather than having increasing personal wealth as their highest ambition. Two illustrations of this. First, a comment made on the last day of the football transfer window : “I live in a world where £35 million is paid for a footballer, yet 60 disabled people lose their day centre because it costs £200K to run”. That is not a picture of a world where Christian salt is being effective. But another picture shows Christians being salt and light in their communities. Yesterday in Luton there were marches by the EDL and the AFL. Police were drafted in from all over the country, at a cost of £800,000. But on duty also were many Christian ministers, there to counter misleading rumours and to act as community mediators; and St Mary’s the parish church in the centre of Luton, was open all day as a refuge for anyone who needed it.

The salt metaphor also warns Christian disciples that their values should permeate society, rather than dominating it. Too much salt makes food inedible. Christian dominance of society has not always proved beneficial either for society or for Christian discipleship. Particularly in today’s world, to insist that so called Christian values should be the only guide to law making and enforcement, to the exclusion of other values which people think are important, actually damages the Kingdom of Heaven rather than helping it to grow. Just as in cooking the balance between adding to little salt and adding too much is a difficult judgement, so in social life, we need much prayer and wisdom to decide how far our Christian beliefs and practices need to be defended by law, or whether their best defence is the difference they make to society.

 

Diocesan and Deanery Plans may give us some guidance about how we can co-operate to be salt and light in our world. But ultimately it is up to each of us as individuals to decide how we can best be disciples of Jesus who bring the salt and light of God’s rule to our communities.

 

Because that, today’s readings tell us, is what we are here for.