All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

One day the zoo keeper noticed that the orangutang was reading two books, in one hand he held Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and in the other he held the Bible.

Naturally surprised, the keeper asked the orangutang, “Why are you reading both of those books?”

“Well,” said the orangutang, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Of course it is quite possible to be both, and scientific information about how life evolved does not contradict a religious view of what life is for, and vice versa.

The Bible is an extraordinary book, or rather a collection of books.  It contains everything from ancient myths to erotic poetry, from the first recorded novel to a collection of wise sayings, from an hymn book to some letters.  It contains material written in circumstances varying from triumph to despair.  From a secure land to refugees in exile.  All human life is here, and this morning’s eclectic selection of readings illustrate that perfectly.

You may or may not be aware that I don’t choose the readings, they are chosen by a committee and printed in a lectionary that is shared by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Reformed Churches (with a few local variations).  Most mainstream Christian Churches in the world are looking at these texts today.

So what are the texts that the Church has given us today?

Our first reading, from the 1st book of Kings, continues the story of the prophet Elijah, we focussed on that a few weeks ago when we heard how he was saved from starvation by the hospitality of the poor widow.  In our latest instalment Elijah is in despair, he is being hunted by Jezebel’s followers, hiding in the wilderness, and just longing to give up and die.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, and we will return to Elijah in a few weeks time…

Then our Gospel reading is equally dramatic, and features a dramatic exorcism.  As a fan of horror movies, this is one of the best and most referenced stories in popular horror culture.

We have the great privilege of Ethan’s baptism in todays service, and as I told Ethan’s parents, Robbie and Anna, here at the Ascension we use the New Zealand Baptism service as it leaves out the line on the English Prayer Book about rejecting the Devil.  Most of us no longer believe in a literal being called the Devil who is out to get us, but we use the devil as a metaphor for all that corrupting, life-denying, abusive, selfish and cruel.

Jesus turned people’s lives around, and still does today.  Not by saving us from a being with horns and hoofs, but by finding the goodness and godliness that exists in us all and bringing it to the surface.

I don’t chose the readings, but if I did the one we had from Galatians would be read every few weeks, it is one of the foundational texts for Inclusive Christianity.

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

  • the Church was divided by race and religious background – some of the Jewish Christians who followed the Jewish Law felt that you had to convert to Judaism as part of being a Christian, some Gentile Christians (including St. Paul) thought that all that was needed was to follow Christ.
  • the Church was divided by social status – the Church contained members from the educated, wealthy elite, and also slaves and outcasts, people on the edge of society.
  • the Church was divided by gender – Jesus gave women key roles in his ministry, reading between the lines we can see than the males are trying to reassert truadional roles of authority.

The Church today is divided by theology and politics, and the early church was just the same, and into all these divisions St Paul throws an outrageous, revolutionary and for many an unthinkable text:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The truth at the heart of Christianity is that God loves every one of us – every human being alive.  And that how we judge our differences – of age or gender or race or sexuality or social status do not matter at all to God.

There is an old saying from the Baptist Church I attended at my youth – the pastor used to say “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Meaning that we all stand on the same level – in our encounter with God the poor have the same status as the rich, the uneducated with the educated, the outcast and the respectable…

In our church, in our lives, in our dealings with others let us try and live out this message and show true Christian love…

*  *  *

1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with  Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Elijah & the Widow

1 Kings 17.8-16

This morning we are going to be thinking about Elijah.  If you know your Bible, you will know the most famous story of Elijah was his contest with the prophets of Baal to see who’s God could call down fire on their altar.

I heard of an incident when a Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the Prophet and the servants of Baal.  She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the ox in pieces and laid it upon the altar.

And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.

“Now, said the teacher, “can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the ox on the altar?”

A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. “To make the gravy.”

This morning we looking at the story of Elijah before his famous showdown.

To put it  in context, by the 9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel, was split in two: the northern Kingdom kept the name “Israel” and southern Kingdom was called “Judah.”  The southern Kingdom is probably the one that we think about the most because that’s where Jerusalem was (and it was the centre for government and religion with the site of the great Temple).  The Southern Kingdom was ruled over by the descendants of King David.  And that’s where almost all of Jesus’ ministry is set.

However, our reading takes place in the North.

Omri, the sixth King of the divided Israel, at first sounds like an interesting liberal kind of guy: he allowed diversity in the religious tradition: he encouraged the building of local temple altars for sacrifices (until then sacrifices were only allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem); he allowed priests from outside the traditional priestly tribe of the Levites; he also was tolerant of other religions and and encouraged the building  of temples dedicated to Baal.

Omri made a canny deal to stop the conflict between the followers of JHWH and the followers of Baal by a marriage alliance between his son Ahab and princess Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia.

This marriage was a great success and brought peace, security and economic prosperity to Israel.  However the Israelite prophets objected – they demanded a more strict interpretation of the Mosaic law.

When Omri’s son, Ahab, took the throne the tensions grew.  Ahab built a temple for Baal, and his wife Jezebel brought a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country.

In the passage that immediately precedes this morning’s reading Elijah condemns King Ahab for doing evil in the sight of the Lord and predicts a drought that will last years.

Its tempting to question the whole Biblical narrative and think that Ahab and Jezebel may have been the good guys and that Elijah was a troublemaking fanatic.  However, our sympathy Ahab’s tolerance for Baal worship must be tempered by the knowledge that its practices included human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children.

History is written by the winners, and the same is true of the Bible, the narrative beneath the narrative is sometimes more interesting and nuanced than the surface – that is the whole basis of feminist theology.  But I digress…

In the narrative Elijah delivers God’s message and then literally runs for the hills.  Our reading from the book of Kings is set in the town of Zarephath, a small port city on the Phoenician coast between the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

While the drought withered the crops and huger spread through the land, God provided for the prophet Elijah by sending him ravens.  In case you are wondering he didn’t eat the ravens (or so the story goes) but rather the birds brought him bread and meat every morning and evening.  While the birds were behaving like cartoon creatures in a Disney movie, there was a small stream east of the river Jordan that provided his water.  However as the famine continued, the stream dried up, and Elijah was forced to move on.

God doesn’t send Elijah to a local merchant or wealthy household that would have supplies to see them through the famine, instead he sends Elijah to a poor widow.

There are several interesting things about this woman, that should have put him Elijah off:

The first, and obvious thing that made the poor widow an inappropriate candidate for helping Elijah was that she was a poor widow.  She had barely enough food for her and her son but that is where Elijah was sent.

There may be some logic in sending Elijah to someone poor.  As Jonathan, our outgoing treasurer, has pointed out many times, giving (at least to the church) is regressive – generally the more someone earns the less they give; not simply the less they give as a percentage of their income, but the less they give in total.  There is something about wealth that makes people want to keep it.

Generosity comes more naturally to the poor.

The second reason why the woman may have appeared a strange saviour to Elijah was that she was a Gentile.  Given Elijah’s hard line approach to religion, seeking help from someone outside the faith would have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

Just as I’m pretty sure Jezebel was not the monster the Bible depicts, perhaps Elijah was not such a hard-line fanatic.  His time giving and receiving help from a Gentile shows a different side to him.

Perhaps God leads us not into places where we are comfortable, but into places where we can learn more about ourselves and about the world, and realise that God’s love stretches further than we may have realised.

So God sends Elijah to someone poor with barely enough food to survive, God sends Elijah to someone outside his religious tradition, and finally God sends Elijah to a woman who was a “sinner.”  The text doesn’t specify what her sin could have been, but when her son dies she cries out to the prophet, “have you come to remind me of my sin?”

It could be that the woman’s sins were not significant – maybe she did whatever was the 7th century BCE equivalent of keeping a library book overdue and just felt bad about it… or maybe she was the worst of sinners and had horribly murdered her husband.  The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but she certainly felt like a sinner.

She was not the kind of morally upright person the prophets usually approved of.

To me the amazing thing about this story is not Elijah, who is a bit too scary and fanatical (in his later showdown with the prophets of Baal he takes the idea of “fire and brimstone” preaching a bit too literally) but the woman – who in her poverty is generous, who in her religion is open-minded, and who in her sinfulness is found worthy to play a part in God’s plan, and finds a place in Scripture.

Read over the story again at home, and pray for generosity, open-mindedness and a willingness to serve God.

Like the ancient widow, it might just change your whole life

 

*  *  *

1 Kings 17:8-16

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Someone else’s mail

Galatians 1.1-12
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading: Luke 7.1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Aunt Maud received a letter one morning, and upon reading it burst into floods of tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked her companion.
“Oh dear,” sobbed Auntie, “It’s my favourite nephew. He’s got three feet.”
“Three feet?” exclaimed her friend. “Surely that’s not possible?”
“Well,” said Auntie, “his mother’s just written to tell me he’s grown another foot!”

Letters can lead to misunderstandings.

My best friend as a teenager was a young man called Evan, while our peers were interested in sports and study we were interested in Doctor Who and writing bizarre folk songs.  When he left school Evan went on to work for the Post Office.  His job was to open the letters that could not be delivered and see if there was a return address inside.

At Christmas there was a glut of undelivered and unreturnable Christmas Cards that led him and his colleagues to setting up an “Ugliest Jesus” competition, trying to find the strangest looking depiction of the Christ Child in the lost cards…

To me this job seemed like the most interesting and exotic thing ever – pouring over someone else’s mail, trying to reconnect people who had lost touch with each other (or at least lost each other’s address), and most fascinating of all – delving into other people’s secrets…

Evan shattered my illusions, he said that it was true that in the first week he read some letters, but he soon realised that most of what people said to each other was really quite dull and there was no time to search through the masses of paper for the interesting stuff…

Reading someone else’s letters is a strange thing and full of traps and potential for embarrassment and misunderstanding.

Letters are not like emails, you can’t scroll back to see what the previous message said (and then the one before that…) so you can fully understand the conversation.  When you read a letter the best you can hope for is half an understanding of what is going on.  If you don’t know the people involved you will understand less than half…

Why am I talking about letters?

A large chunk of the New Testament is made up of someone else’s letters.

Most of the letters (or “Epistles”) of the New Testament were written to deal with an immediate situation – they were a response to a particular crisis or question.  I’m sure they were written prayerfully and thoughtfully, but they were definitely not written to become timeless Scripture that would be read by many generations in many different circumstances.

St. Paul (and the other writers of the Epistles) were not thinking about us as they wrote, they were thinking about the Church in Corinth or Galatia, or Thessalonica or Phillipi or Rome.

That doesn’t decrease the value of the Epistles – it just gives them a context, and helps us understand the spirit in which we must read them.  All the great love songs of the world were written for just one person, but they live on and touch the hearts of millions of people.  James Taylor didn’t write “Fire and Rain” for Juliet and I, but yet for us it is “our song.”

So in our reading today when St. Paul writes “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not addressing us directly, but to the Galatians.  But even so, something in the situation in the Church in Galatia may speak to our situation and the ancient letter could change our way of thinking today.

So what is the context?  St Paul is under attack.  Some of the Christians in Galatia have denied that he is a true Apostle and have denied his view on Jesus message.  (You may think that a first century theological debate has nothing to do with you and I, but if Paul had lost the argument Christianity would have become a Jewish Sect and we wouldn’t be here today!)

St. Paul believed the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  His opponents believed that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

The specific rules that the Galatian Christians thought were important were the Jewish law.  Jesus had lived and died a Jew and the early Church had to work out its relationship with Judaism.  Was Christianity a movement to reform Judaism, or a whole new faith?  If a Gentile wanted to follow Jesus did he or she have to become a Jew first?  For the men the issue was circumcision – something that Gentile Christians did not greet with enthusiasm!

The earliest Christians were all Jewish and they went to the synagogue on Saturday and then met in each other’s houses for a shared meal of bread and wine on a Sunday.  As a pattern for spirituality that’s actually pretty hard to beat – a formal gathering with liturgy and teaching followed by informal discussion.  It’s something many Churches today try to replicate with “House Groups” – people have Church on Sunday and then meet for coffee and informal discussion midweek in someone’s house.  It’s something common in a lot of growing churches, and maybe worth considering for the Ascension… But I’m digressing – that’s not the subject of this Sunday’s sermon…

The early Christians were also practicing Jews and working out their relationship to the Jewish faith was complicated.  There were many of these earliest Christians who thought Christians had to obey the Jewish Law.

So how does this first century theological debate relate to us today?  No one, even in the craziest of today’s churches want us to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians.

The battle for the soul of Christianity started with the Apostles bickering and has rumbled down through the centuries until today.  The argument takes many forms, but the same one turns up over and over again…

Like St. Paul to we believe the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  Or do we (without even realising it) believe that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

“You have to follow all the rules…” “You have to believe these doctrines…” “You must worship only in thus way”

While we do need rules to live by in the Church as in all areas of life, we must never see the rules as divinely instituted or as important in themselves.  The other rules are only there to help us follow Jesus only rule: to love God, love our neighbour’s and love ourselves.

Rules are easier, you know where you are with rules, to place love as our ideal is a lot more challenging.  But this love is not just an excuse to break the rules, this love is a deep soul-changing challenge.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

I finish with another quote, this time from Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Love is the vital essence that pervades and permeates, from the center to the circumference, the graduating circles of all thought and action. Love is the talisman of human weal and woe –the open sesame to every soul.”

The Donkey & Palm Crosses

The Church’s year approaches its climax as we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  He rides a donkey and palm branches are waved and strewn at his feet.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

Why Jesus should ride in on a donkey is a subject for debate.  Some scholars think he was satirising a Roman procession, making a political and anti-Roman gesture.  Jesus was certainly executed as a political agitator, so there may be some truth in this.

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  On his procession to take the throne of his late father, David, Solomon processed into Jerusalem on a donkey – the crowd certainly seem to understand this symbolism, as they hail Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Either way, Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate:  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surely they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

Today you have been given Palm Crosses.  Palm Crosses are a lovely symbol and reminder if this event.  But by folding the palm leaves into this designs we miss why the people would have waved them.  If you shake a palm branch the leaves strike together and make a loud noise – the first century equivalent of a football rattle.  The palms were for a joyful, noisy, exuberant celebration.

For us the symbolism is deeper.  In just under a year people will bring their palm crosses back to church and they will be burned: turned into ash for use at the 2017 Ash Wednesday service, where I will mark your forehead with ash and say the ancient words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ…”

The palm is a symbol of exuberant life and a symbol of death.  And in between it is a cross.  A symbol of Jesus, who walks with us in life and in death.

Your Palm Cross reminds you not only of Palm Sunday, but of Jesus enduring presence and love through life.

But if we return to the first Palm Sunday, Jesus words and actions had set people free, he had broken down barriers that divided people, he accepted the outcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo, and as we walk together along the rest of Holy Week, a tragedy is about to unfold…

All you need is love (no really!)

Jeremiah 1:4-1
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4.21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One Sunday a Vicar told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people to prayerfully consider giving a little extra in the offering plate.

He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.

After the offering plates were passed, the vicar glanced down and noticed that someone had placed a cheque for £1,000 in offering.

He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he’d like to personally thank the person who placed the money in the plate.

A very quiet, elderly, saintly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand.

The pastor asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the pastor.

He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.

Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three particularly dishy young men in the building and said,

“I’ll take him and him and him.”

Not so much “The Old Rugged Cross” as “Bind us Together.”  The woman was offered the ecclesiastical and wanted relationship (relationship with three young men at once – but I shall draw a veil over that).

Now I enjoy hymns (H-Y-M-Ns) – they can lift my spirits, as I feel a part of a group united in one song, and my soul is lifted heavenwards (sometimes – I’d be lying if I said every hymn has that effect – but we should always worship open to a sense of wonder…)

I am fascinated by church buildings – in most communities the Church is the most interesting building, and if the church building is suitable, it can also be the most useful building.

I am inspired by liturgy, how ancient words and modern prayers can connect us to God, to our history and to each other.

I even have a great fondness for vestments – these strange frocks that connect us to our past, and remind us of our history and give the signal that this is a special time and place…

But the hymns and buildings and liturgy and posh frocks are only a means to an end.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

No matter how beautiful our hymns or how Listed our building, if we are not loving, there is no point.

“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

If our liturgy is perfectly crafted and our vestments the finest that can be bought or made, but if we are not loving, we are wasting our time.

But, you may protest, looking after buildings and creating beautiful music and meaningful liturgy is really difficult! Love is easy! As Elvis sang we “can’t help falling in love.”  Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Firstly, there are some ways of loving that we can only do because we have all this “stuff.” Our love for God is focussed by music and liturgy, and a building like this one can be an amazing resource for our local community.

Secondly, if you think loving is easy then you do not fully understand what the word means.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love is not just a warm feeling, it is difficult, challenging.  Love is demanding; true love demands everything.

St. Augustine said:

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men and women. That is what love looks like.

In the New Testament, love is more of a verb than a noun. It is a doing word, it’s not a thing or a feeling. The call to love is not really a call to a certain state of feeling as it is to a very particular type of action.

David Wilkerson put it very well when he said, “Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.”

When it comes to Christian love, feelings are secondary to action, as C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did.”

If we return to our reading about love, St. Paul introduces a paragraph that seems out of place:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

We were talking about love, why are we suddenly talking about growing up? The love of children is linked to their dependence on others – they love the adults that care for and provide for them.  St Paul is demanding that we mature in our love, and learn to love those who may need us too.

Following the teaching of Jesus, we are to love even our enemies.  God teaches us to love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to us.  We never really love until we love someone who hates us.

And this kind of love is powerful, it can change the world.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

The whole point of Christianity is to teach us to love: to love God, love our neighbours, love ourselves.

I end with a quotation from Rick Warren:

“The best use of life is love. 
The best expression of love is time. 
The best time to love is now.”

Holiday Sermon – New Year in New York

There are two words that strike terror into the hearts of congregations throughout the developed world.  Usually they only occur in the summer months, but you, poor unfortunates are going to hear them this morning.

You must brace yourselves, for this is a HOLIDAY SERMON!

Holiday sermons are usually written on the beach, often on the slightly stained napkin that once cradled an ice cream cone, and the text usually develops some torturous analogy and asks such searching questions as “is there a sandy beach towel in your life?” or “don’t you think receiving the Eucharist is like suntan lotion for the soul?”

This sermon was written in New York – it was started as I waited to see in the New Year for the second time (we celebrated at 7.00 p.m. New York time which was midnight in the UK and then struggled to stay awake for another midnight!)

So what sermon illustration do I bring back from the New World?

We were staying at the North end of Central Park, on the edge of Harlem.  I don’t know if any of you went to New York in the 1960s or 70s, but if you did, you were probably warned to avoid Harlem.  It was an area of burnt-out tower blocks and riots, a neighbourhood of crime and poverty.

But it was regenerated, and although it still has poverty the streets are safe and it’s a very pleasant place to visit.

It changed because local people worked to rebuild and take pride in their neighbourhood.  The improvement is obvious:

London had 7.4 robberies per 1,000 residents last year. In Harlem it was 5.9.

Less than 15 years ago, Harlem did not have a single cashpoint machine. No one would have dared to use one. Now Harlem has all the usual banks, shops and cashpoints. A bit of online research showed that the biggest crime problem in Harlem at the moment is double-parking.

But this did not happen by chance.  Partly it was police policy and also it came about through citizens campaigning, giving their time and energy and money.

The words I saw engraved by a statue of anti-slavery campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass, by the entrance to Harlem:

“Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

People can and do change the world.  People like you and me.

One of the very few books I have read more than once is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.  My favourite line in the book comes after Gandalf falls to his apparent death after facing the demonic Balrog deep in the Mines of Moria.  The surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring gather outside the mines and Aragorn admits that there is no hope without Gandalf, and says “then we must do without hope.”

One of the themes of the books is about facing hopeless situations and soldiering on.  Without a doubt Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War One influenced his writing.

It’s tempting to see the struggle of building community and indeed the struggle of religion in the modern world as a hopeless fight.

Secularism and a selfish materialism seem to be winning the day and religion, like the tide on Dover Beach in Matthew Arnold’s poem, is slipping away….

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

We are left confused “on a darkling plain.”  But we are not without hope.

Our Church here at the Ascension is growing – we just had a largest Christmas Morning service that I’ve seen looking back at our records.

Our projects are making a difference in our local community and although many of us are despairing at government and church cut backs, we must not lose our hope or our faith.

Our reading from Jeremiah comes out of a seemingly hopeless situation: the nation of Israel has been shattered, the Monarchy brutally slaughtered, the leaders among the many forced into slavery and exile in Babylon.

The response of some was to give up hope: “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

But Jeremiah (not known for his cheerful disposition) has a different story to tell:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

There is always hope.  Tides do turn, the world does change.  As a world, as a nation, as a local community and as individuals there is hope. I will close with the famous poem, “The Gate of the Year”. You are probably familiar with the first verse, but there is more.  The first verse is probably the best, but the rest of the poem deals with the idea that God has the future in her hands although it is impossible for us to understand God’s plan. The poem, published in 1908, caught the public’s imagination when the then Princess Elizabeth handed a copy to her father, King George the 6th, and he quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast.  It spoke to the uncertainty of our country in the days leading up to the Second World War.

God Knows
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

Just War

bombing_syria

Just War and the bombing of Syria

First Reading: Malachi 3.1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Second Reading: Philippians 1.9-11
This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Gospel Reading:   Luke 3.1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

We are a nation at War.  The fighting is far away, the people being killed are Muslims; and while the terrorists have cunning and fanaticism on their side, they are in one of the world’s poorest and most unstable nations.

It is easy to write this off as something expected and normal.  The media are doing it.  After the horrific murders in Paris the television spoke of nothing else.  When we started bombing sites in Syria there wasn’t even a specially extended edition of the news.

Since the second Iraq war politicians have talked about a ‘new kind’ of war, or a ‘war we have not seen before.’  They imply that war is a bit like a car, something you can redesign and make safer.  War is nothing like that; you can’t design a war and then unveil it.  War is a relationship, a way of thinking about other people, a way of dealing with them.  And like any relationship (like a marriage) you must begin it knowing it could turn out for better or for worse.

We must not see this war as normal, war can never be that.  Because it is far away, and involving people different from ourselves we must not forget what we know of war.  In March 1919 Siegfried Sasson wrote his poem, Aftermath:

Do you remember the nights you watched
and wired and dug and piled sandbags on the parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop to ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads.
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

If this war continues we must be prepared to contemplate more war memorials, more deaths, more injuries, more orphans, and much more besides.

There are two possible positions for Christians to hold on the morality of Warfare.  (Well, other positions are possible, these two have a strong basis in the Bible and in the tradition of the Church.)

The first position is pacifism.  Pacifists will look to the example of Jesus, how he was attacked and did not fight back.  How when St Peter attacked the people coming to arrest Jesus and cut of the ear of one of them, Jesus stopped the violence and healed the man.  Jesus commanded his followers to ‘turn the other cheek,’ and not to return evil for evil.  To “love your enemies” is the Christian command.

I have a lot of respect for pacifism, but it is not the only position Christians have held through the ages.

Another tradition was developed by St Ambrose of Milan and St Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Augustine thought that in some extreme circumstances a limited use of force could be one of the ways in which a Christian might be required in charity to serve the needs of an innocent neighbour under attack by an assailant.

Through the centuries Christian scholars and leaders developed terms in which a war could be declared ‘just.’ They are as follows:

  1. A proper authority must declare war
  2. There must be a just cause
  3. There must be the right intention
  4. War must be the last resort
  5. There must be a reasonable chance of success
  6. The means of fighting must be legitimate.

I will just quickly run through the questions we need to ask of this war, to decide weather or not it is just.  You may come to different conclusions, in a Church of this many people it would be a surprise if we all agree, but it is important that we bring our faith in Christ to these matters, and consider them from our Christian perspective, and struggle to make sense of them:

A proper authority must declare war.  When the theory of the Just War was first put forward that meant that one Noble could not just wage war on their neighbour, even if they were wronged.  The courts, or the King of the country had to approve.  There had to be an appeal to a higher authority.  In today’s world, this means any action has to be approved by a body like the United Nations.

There must be a just cause.  You can only ethically attack someone who has done something wrong.  The Paris attack and the threat of further atrocities is certainly a just cause.

But it is the next 3 factors that cause the serious ethical dilemmas

There must be the right intention.  Revenge can never be condoned by the Christian Church.  In Christian teaching only God is in a position to exact revenge, as only God knows the true good and evil of the human heart.  “Vengeance is mine says the Lord.”  Revenge can never be an acceptable motive.  The motive that Just War theory does allow is one in which you are aiming for a just and lasting peace.  An end to terrorism, is, a right intention.  But the tendency to see it as ‘hitting back’ or revenge for the attacks in Paris must be held in check.

War must be the last resort.  Here we really meet a sticking point.  What really needs to be done to beat ISIS is to choke its supply line of funding, oil and sympathy. To do that involves following the money and the oil, investigating the activities of Western allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

I don’t think any observer could describe this war as a last resort.

Finally, there must be a reasonable chance of success.  So even if we have a right and just cause for war, if we cant win we should not take lives of others for the sake of our principles.

With the bombing of ISIS there  is no ‘end’ in sight, no plan for reconstruction or stabilisation once the bombing has stopped.  I am no expert, but surely it can only deepen the chaos.   Have we learned nothing from Iraq, from Libya?

Most military experts don’t think bombing will work – and certainly not without ground troops.

David Cameron’s claim that there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ opposition fighters in Syria, ready to take the ground fight to IS, has been derided by experts. The opposition consists of at least 100 different groups, each with their own aims, not all of which can be trusted to oppose IS.

The only way to defeat terrorism is to tackle the conditions in which fanaticism can thrive – injustice, perceived and real, poverty, hatred.  Having lived in Northern Ireland for the first 18 years of my life I know that massive acts of violence on the part of the army or security forces only creates more terrorists.  The IRA could not have organised a more efficient recruitment drive than the British Army’s massacre of civilian protestors on Bloody Sunday.  Every person who is killed by British bombs leaves behind a family, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, and all of these are suddenly 10 times as likely to take up arms.  Here again, I fear that this war cannot be described as ‘just.’

Finally: The fighting must be legitimate, that is without disproportionate violence.  It is often said that ‘truth is the first victim in a war.’  We simply do not know enough of the details of this action to judge.  The only thing we know for sure is that civilians almost always suffer most.  ISIS isn’t stupid. When Raqqa is bombed, ISIS fighters scurry into their tunnels or into areas of high civilian density. The idea of surgical strikes in this context is fanciful.

The Christian theory of a Just War does not allow us to settle for three or four out of the six conditions being good enough.  As someone who has lived through terrorism in Northern Ireland, as a Christian, and as a priest, I can come to no other conclusion than that this act of violence, put forwarded by David Cameron and supported by our own M.P., Heidi Alexander, is wrong.  This is not a Just War.

I close with a line by Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”

Amen.