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.

Outside In!

June 2, 2013

Icon, centurion

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C

1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.

After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships  as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.

Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts.  It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but  a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.

Given to Hospitality

May 5, 2013

(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)

St. Lydia

Paul really didn’t want to go to Philippi.

 

He and Silas had plans to evangelise known territory in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where they knew there were synagogues and Jewish communities where they could preach easily,  but every time they tried to turn North and East, the Holy Spirit blocked their way.

 

They crossed to Macedonia, homeland of the hated Alexander who had imposed Greek culture on their nation 300 years before, only as a result of a compelling vision of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help him.

 

Philippi was possibly the most unattractive place on earth to begin a religious mission. It was a colonial city, established by the Emperor Augustus to control that part of the Roman Empire, and populated by discharged veterans from the legions, who were each given a square of land on which to support themselves. It didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish population: there weren’t even the ten adult Jewish males you needed before you could establish a synagogue, so the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers who worshipped with them, gathered by the side of the river to pray on the Sabbath.

 

The leader among the women who met Paul and Silas there was also a stranger in the place: Lydia came from Thyatira in the region they’d just left. She wasn’t Jewish, it seems, though she was drawn to Jewish beliefs, and worshipped with them. She was probably a widow, and was a successful businesswomen, so was probably quite wealthy. She dealt in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, though since the snails from which the purple dye was extracted were considered unclean to Jews, she was probably not considered someone strict Jews ought to associate with.

 

But it was her heart that was opened to Paul’s preaching, her household that became the first European residents to be converted to the Christian faith, and her home that provided hospitality to Paul and his companions, and the centre of the church that Paul always remembered with joy and thankfulness. The core from which the Christian faith grew on the continent of Europe was composed of women, outcasts and foreigners.

Baptistry Philippi

Paul took a risk in preaching the Gospel and accepting hospitality from these women. Lydia took a risk in opening her home to this group of men. Yet, the strength of her faith showed itself in the hospitality and generosity to these strangers. The Letter to Timothy says such hospitality is the hallmark of a church leader, and Paul commended this in the church communities he founded.

 

‘Hospitality’ is an interesting word. The Greek from which it is translated  – philoxena – is composed of two words meaning ‘love’ and ‘foreigners’ – it it literally love for strangers. The Latin root of our word hospitality, ‘hostes’, also means ‘stranger’.

 

That tells us ‘hospitality’ is not about having a nice time with people like ourselves. It is about offering safety, comfort, nourishment, security, healing and friendship both to those who are different and alien from us, as well as to those who are like us. This was an absolute obligation in the world of the Old Testament; to fail to offer security and sustenance to a stranger was the worst social offence. It is this, not gay sex, that Sodom and Gemorrah were condemned for

 

We Christians offer hospitality because that is what God in Jesus offers to us; we have done it as ‘hosts’ (another related word)  in hostels, hospitals and hotels throughout the Church’s history; and it is what the best Christian communities continue to do today.

 

The readings from John and Revelation also speak, in their different ways, about hospitality. What is on offer in the Gospel passage is healing. The story speaks of Jesus going to a place where the sick gather, all hoping to to be healed by some sort of magic. He picks a stranger at random, and offers him true healing. The person who is healed is not particularly deserving, he doesn’t express faith in Jesus, he doesn’t even seem to be particularly grateful for his healing. It certainly doesn’t appear to provoke faith in him.The miracle demonstrates the generous, indiscriminate character of God’s grace. This story show that it is not true that faith is a precondition for healing; God doesn’t only reward those who have faith. on the contrary, God’s hospitality is offered to all, even the undeserving.

 

Revelation speaks of a God who accepts the hospitality of humankind, coming to live among them in a renewed Jerusalem, and then, in that holy city, offering hospitality to every race and people. The picture it paints is of a renewed creation: the tree of life stands at the centre, and the river of life flows through it, reflecting the situation in the Garden of Eden. In a parallel with the Gospel story, those who find sanctuary there are offered healing through the leaves of the tree of life.  There will be absolute security for everyone within the city, with no darkness to provide cover for wrongdoing. It will be so secure that the gates will never have to be shut to keep out attackers. It is portrayed as the place of perfect hospitality, where everyone is comfortable, befriended, secure, healthy and at home.

 

There is no need for a place of religious hospitality in the city, because the presence of God and of the Lamb pervades the whole. Until that consummation comes, each of our churches is called to be a microcosm of that heavenly city in our own towns and communities. How can we be that city and offer that community?

As you wait to move into your new church building, it’s a good question to ask yourselves. How can you offer safety, comfort, nourishment, healing and friendship to both committed members and strangers? How can your church community and your worship be more welcoming to the friendless and the newcomer, in both practical and spiritual ways? Perhaps, like Philippi, this area doesn’t look like a very easy place in which to do mission; but God has a task for you here, just as he had for Paul.

Churches-Banner_03

Like Paul’s mission to Europe, the new chapter in this church’s life you are about to embark upon will be a continuation of the old. There will be things you will continue to do, like Messy Church, and hosting meetings for younger and older folk; but the new premises may also offer opportunities to open your doors to welcome other groups, with different interests and different needs, to feel at home as your guests.

 

But, as citizens of a democratic nation, we all have an obligation to offer hospitality and healing in the name of God, to those far beyond our local communities. John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation sees it as a place of security and refuge for all nations, and our Christian calling is to do that through our votes and making our opinions felt, as well as through our practical activities.

 

John’s vision of a hospitable world is a vision of hope, and also a challenge to the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. In so many ways, our world has developed a culture of suspicion and inhospitality. But, one of the obvious characteristics of Jesus’ first followers as they sought to live out the Gospel was hospitality, reflected in feeding the hungry , inviting strangers into their homes, and serving and praying for the sick, the widow and the orphan . What might be the present day equivalent of those? Perhaps  global debt relief and removal of unjust trade restrictions;humane and just immigration laws and fair treatment of ethnic and other minorities; freely available equitable health care and social services?  For those of us who seek to follow Christ, our vote, and our voice in public debate against those who would deny them, could be a significant influence in creating a more hospitable world.

As we draw to the end of the Easter season, we are reminded again through our readings that the new life unleashed through the resurrection demands that we share God’s love in practical ways. Last week we were shown how the first apostles included those who were once considered unclean in the covenant community. This week we are shown how they offered and accepted hospitality and healing in different and not obviously receptive situations, and so laid the foundations for what would become Christendom, the centre of the world wide missionary activity of the Church. Our calling as Pentecost approaches is to do the same, to welcome in and offer healing and comfort to all, without distinction, and to do our best to create the community and safety of the heavenly city wherever we have influence on this earth.

Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

Christ-In-The-Wilderness-Ivan-Kramskoy-small

When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew  behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.

However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.

Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.

For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?

Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is  a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.

So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?

Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.

The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.

Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language Trad Lord's Prayerservices, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept  “Lead us not into temptation”  in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one.   I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which  has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.

When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.

The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.

The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.

Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access.  Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.

Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from  evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God  through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.

As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can  save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.

Waiting for the End Times.

November 18, 2012

 

( Daniel 12, 1-3; Hebrews 10, 11-25; Mark 13, 1-8)

Do you like watching disaster movies?

One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno”. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! Some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day predict the end of the world coming as a result of something coming from outer space. Then there are films about those smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing.

There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them.

A look into the Bible will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. Both in the Old and the New Testaments we have passages, like those in today’s readings, which speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known. You’ll find passages like chapter 13 of Mark in the three synoptic gospels, and in some of Paul’s epistles and in Revelation.

The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good rewarded.

Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’s death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming, as some Christians have tended to treat them. What they described was not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic was not to allow believers to predict the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happened.

Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. So, the message of apocalyptic passages like Daniel and Mark 13 are not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?

The book of Daniel provides assurance that, at the End Time, ‘those whose names are written in God’s book’ will be saved, those who have died will be brought to new life and all will be judged on the basis of their deeds. It is those who do God’s will whose names are written in God’s book, and Daniel promises justification for them.

Hebrews also assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find in Daniel and Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Then  the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured commander of God’s army, who has scored a decisive victory and is now waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been rounded up. Because of Jesus, we can all look forward with hope, Hebrews says, since he is already where we are destined to be.

Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but now not of the place of encounter with God, but of the system where religion  is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power  must be destroyed.  Violence, war and ridicule are weapons which the secular powers often use against those who seek to follow Christ’s example.  There has been a tendency for religious groups to respond in kind; and  when religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, they tend to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including indoctrination, physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.

The Bible passages we heard show us that what we should be relying on is Jesus’s path of self-giving, non-retaliation, forgiveness  and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Powerless peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.

These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence.

Bishop Justin Welby

This contrast was illustrated for me by the pictures of the Archbishop of Canterbury designate, BIshop Justin Welby, last week. He wears an ordinary black clerical shirt, not an episcopal purple one, a sign of humility and servanthood, and around his neck he wears a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope in 1940,while World War 2 was still being fought.

Justin Welby has been part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to  become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict. Bishop Welby’s work took him into dangerous situations in the Middle East and in Africa.

The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross and bring reconciliation there too.

This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine construction of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, is being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation from expecting them to come to us, and to be taught about our beliefs through the public education system.

We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, and food banks and debt counselling, and help for refugees, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.

The people for whom Daniel and the author of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.

I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. I certainly don’t. Rather, we know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times – war, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we all live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, – so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fulness which is the life of the Kingdom.

Amen

Eye of a Needle

October 14, 2012

(Amos 5,6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31)  (Proper 23 Yr B)

An ordained colleague was telling me recently about the conversations he had been having with the two churches he was responsible for, about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to support the local Food Bank. One church is situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there gives little in proportion to their income, normally, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.

The other church serves an area of social housing. They have little money but are generous with what they have. They support the food bank because they know it is necessary – some of them have had to use it.

Jesus said: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. The prophet Amos spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and push aside the needy. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are all being judged.

The contemporary church seems to outsiders to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money. Yet, while  there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone, that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.

Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in part of today’s Gospel reading.

But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant – responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.

The prophet Amos pronounced judgement on the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. They were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed some of them to expand their landholdings at the expense of poorer people, and to build themselves houses of stone. It was an unequal society, in which the rich held all the cards and used their wealth to enrich themselves further, cheating the weak by perverting the justice system, taking bribes, and overtaxing the landless poor. Their wealth had blinded them to the needs of their fellow Israelites and hardened their hearts. This was causing the breakdown of society, as it became divided into the haves and the have-nots.  The punishment Amos decreed in God’s name, was that the nation would be defeated by a foreign army, its leading citizens deported, so that they would no longer enjoy their prosperity, and their land would be taken over by strangers; and that is precisely what happened when the Assyrians invaded and occupied Israel and deported its aristocracy in 722BC.

The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about the first shall be last, which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.

The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off or influential. But we live in one of the wealthy nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. I read this morning that around a billion people woke up hungry this morning, not knowing where their next meal would come from. That’s more than the population of the US, Canada and the EU combined.

We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?

His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus.  The same word  (odos) is used for both, and it was as “the way” that  the first disciples described their faith.

The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values. How do we rate ourselves against that standard?

Jesus’s reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.

He goes on to remind his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. And in an echo of the Amos passage, he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth so often leads to criminal activity against the vulnerable.

The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same – but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.

The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.

But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?

Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God. Because this is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!

It’s about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. In particular it asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?

Do we posses our money, or does it posses us?

Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.

In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects; and our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom, and through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.

 

We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.

The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.

A final image to take away with you. Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, about the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Its a lovely image and a striking one. One interpretation of it says the eye was not a literal one, but a narrow gate in a city wall. I understand that such a gate is pointed out to tourists in Jerusalem. But I feel that spoils the humour, and diminishes the impact of the saying.

But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means rope.

At first I thought that too would spoil the joke, but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make.  If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.

So which are we? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get us through the eye of a needle into KIngdom life?

Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?

Going to the Dogs.

August 14, 2011

Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Matt.15, 10-28

A few days ago I was talking to someone from another Christian congregation about how to manage changes in a church. He said he thought there would be deep differences in his congregation about proposed courses of action, and that “Things would get political, and people would split into parties which is never a good thing in a Christian community”.

We tend to have a rather idealised view of the beginnings of the Christian church, seeing it as a community united in belief and practice.  In reality, it was far from united. One group of Christians, led by the remaining eleven disciples and the family of Jesus, evangelised only Jews, and saw their mission as largely confined to Palestine. For them, the Gospel was essentially a call to reform for Judaism, and Jesus came (as our Gospel reading says) for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. It was only after the events of Holy Week had shown that most of the Jews rejected Jesus that the message could be taken to Gentiles; and if they wanted to be part of the Christian movement, they had to convert to Judaism, with all that involved in the way of keeping food laws, purity rituals, and circumcision for men. Paul, on the other hand, believed that the message Jesus brought was for all people, and saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. At the core of his message was the belief that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave of free, male or female”. (Gal. 3.28).

Our Gospel reading this morning reflects those tensions in the early Church community. In the first part you have Jesus stating that the food and purity laws don’t matter – supporting the Pauline view of his mission. But in the second part, you have him rebuffing the approach of a foreign woman, and stating the Jerusalem church’s line that his mission was primarily to the Jews.

We don’t actually know how much of this story goes back to Jesus. It appears only in Mark and Matthew, and Mark does not have the statement about Jesus’s mission to the lost sheep of Israel only. In Mark the foreign woman is a Greek Syro-Phoenecian; Matthew makes her a Canaanite woman, a member of a race with which the Jews fought for the possession of Palestine. Biblical scholars are divided over whether Jesus did speak and minister to the many foreigners living in Palestine at that time, or whether he preached and ministered only his fellow Jews. Some commentators believe Jesus would not have had any problem speaking and ministering to Gentiles, since he sat very light to the purity rules which demanded separation from non-Jews. Others think his mission was to recall his fellow Jews to their covenant with God, and he would not have involved himself with Gentiles.

Whichever of these was the case, the emerging Christian community struggled with the problems of how to cope with the many Gentiles who were attracted by the Gospel message, as the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts bear witness. Eventually, the problem was solved, as the Jewish Christian Church disappeared following the Jewish revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of the original Jewish apostles. Pauline Christianity became the orthodox view, and the idea that to be a Christian you had to convert to Judaism became so strange that the later editors of John’s Gospel could refer to Jesus’s opponents as ‘the Jews’ without any sense that Jesus himself, and all his early followers were, in fact, Jewish.

Perhaps it’s because we read this story from that perspective that this story is so profoundly shocking. Do we really follow a Saviour who was prepared to reject a woman who came to him asking for help just because she was a foreigner? Can we love a Saviour who called another human being a bitch?

Canaan dog

(Any minister of religion nowadays who used that sort of language to a female parishioner would find himself on the front page of the newspapers the next day!). And what do we make of a Son of God, whose mind about God’s purpose for his life is apparently changed by the witty repartee of an insignificant stranger who he has insulted? The story shows us a more human Jesus, one who is having to learn on the job about the mission his Heavenly Father has for him to do. It is very problematic.

Nowadays it would simply not be acceptable for an educated, civilised person to speak to anyone as Jesus is shown as speaking to this foreigner. Yet the gospel writers seem to have no problems about including this. How can we explain it? The Palestine of Jesus’s day was deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines, as it is still. There was virtually no interaction between different racial and religious groups, and especially not between men and women from different communities. For many Jews, the survival of their faith and their way of life depended on maintaining this separation from the foreigners who had invaded their land and oppressed them. So they felt justified in using this sort of language about them.

But the effect of using this sort of language about  other people is always to diminish our sense of their humanity. If they are ‘dogs’ they cannot be our brothers and sisters, they are not children of God, and we can leave them outside our concern.

This has been brought home to me forcibly this week as I read and watched the coverage of the riots in London and elsewhere. A woman in Ealing, who had watched her shop being trashed and the stock looted, called the perpetrators “feral rats”. A commentator on the Watford Observer website called them “feral scum” and “dog excrement” who should be shot on sight if they are found looting. Max Hastings called them “wild beasts”. While their anger at what happened is understandable to all of us who witnessed what went on, the effect of such name calling is to separate society into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and to deny to ‘them’ the human rights and consideration that underpin both our society and our faith.

But from those who perpetrated the rioting and the looting, there is a parallel dehumanisation of ‘the other side’. Two young women talked about the ‘fun’ they got from ‘getting stuff for free’ and how the riots showed ‘them’ – the rich, the police, the government, the Conservatives – that ‘we can do what we like’. A teacher from Tottenham writes about how a whole generation of youngsters has been inculcated with a distrust and hatred of the police, calling them names like ‘pigs’ ‘bacon’ ‘feds’ and ‘po-po’ that come from American city gang culture. Yet the same teacher said many of them are totally ignorant about the history behind such community attitudes, and have not actually had negative interaction with the police. But generations of mistrust have meant that “large groups of young adults in some cities have created a parallel antisocial community within the community, which operates by different rules.” In this subculture “acquisition of goods through violence is justified, the notion of dog eats dog pervades, and the top dog survives the best”. (Camila Batmanghelidjh http://tinyurl.com/3pjgj3w)

The causes of last week’s riots and looting are complex, and this is not the place to try to analyse them. But those who see the riots as a product of the unique conditions of 21st century British cities ignore a lot of history, and some of the evidence that is already emerging from the courts as the cases of those arrested are heard.

On the historical side, wise commentators have reminded us of the situation in the London of the 1820’s, when a feral underclass terrorised parts of London with street robberies. Or of the fact that looting was rife during the Blitz, the time when the conventional view is that Britain pulled together against a common enemy. An article in The Times yesterday gives an account of mob attacks on shops and businesses in South Wales in 1911, which only ended when the military were sent in. The shops were owned by Jews, and those who were convicted of the attack were respectable working miners and their wives. Others have reminded us that this sort of riots most often happens in the school summer holidays, when it’s hot, and that the end of the rioting might have had something to do with the heavy rain in some cities on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the increased police presence on our streets.

Analysis has shown that the riots took place in some of the most deprived areas of our country, with the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty. But similar areas did not have riots and looting. The court appearances so far have shown that the majority of the rioters were aged under 25, and male; but although many had no occupation, the proportion who were unemployed was no more than the average for these areas. Another interesting statistic is that 70% of those appearing in court came from outside the area which they were destroying or looting.

All ethnic groups appear to have been involved among the rioters and looters – and those who robbed or received looted goods come from across the social spectrum – like the young woman who came from a million pound home accused of driving a getaway car for a gang of looters, or the graduate who wanted to work with children who took a TV from a burnt out store – then handed herself in to the police because her conscience kept her awake. Some of the court cases have shown how easy it is to get caught up in lawlessness when everyone else is doing it.

Family breakdown has been blamed; but while some in court came from broken homes, others were there because their parents marched them down to the police station when they saw them on film of the riots, or found stolen goods in their possession. And while it has been widely asserted that the riots were a symptom of community breakdown, the clean up campaigns that immediately followed, and the moves to collect clothes, money and furniture for those who lost homes or businesses or were robbed, and the way people came together to defend their communities shows that community spirit is still strong in these same areas, even crossing racial and religious boundaries.

There are no easy answers; but there are things to do.

The Archbishop of Canterbury when he spoke in The House of Lords debate on the riots talked about the importance of rebuilding communities through education  based on the values of civic virtue, values which are as much needed among the rich and privileged as among the poor and deprived. This echoes what the Bishop of St Albans said in his address to Diocesan Synod in June about the rebuilding of the sense of community, known in the jargon as ‘social capital’. Bishop Alan emphasised particularly the need to increase not just  ‘bonding social capital’, the sort of community spirit that is so strong in our churches, which prompts people to look after other members of the community in difficulty; but also ‘bridging social capital’ the community spirit that prompts people to reach out to the wider community, to those who are different from themselves, and in particular to the newcomers, the aliens and those who are most vulnerable, and to build a community which includes them all. If we do this it will involve committing ourselves to caring for those who seem unworthy of our care. Caring costs as Jesus showed us, and caring also costs money – but so does rebuilding after riots and looting.

This sort of social capital, this reaching out across the social divides, to create a society which is one integrated community is what we call in religious jargon ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’. That perfect community has never existed on earth, and perhaps it never will this side of Judgement Day, but it is our calling as Christians to work to build it, no matter how difficult it seems, and how any setbacks we encounter as we do so.

The story of Christ’s meeting with the foreign woman shows how the early Church came to realise that it was God’s will that they should (in Jewish terms) ‘go to the dogs’ and bring them – the Gentiles – fully into their community, the community that Isaiah foresaw, when the Gentiles would worship in the Holy City as part of one dedicated people.

This is what we must be committed to also – in our own time, and with our own ‘them’ – because otherwise our society will ‘go to the dogs’ in the worse sense.

(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!