Coming soon: The End of the World

In 2014 it’s all over…

 

From the author of ‘The Wild Strawberry Trilogy’ and ‘Parliament of the Dead’ comes a new horror…

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God & Money

Luke 16.1-13

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(This is a sermon delivered at St. John’s this Sunday.  The good people of the Ascension will have heard the stories before…)

There is a story of a woman who had been used to enjoying every luxury, and all respect.  When she died, the angels bore her up to heaven.  An angel was sent to conduct her to her heavenly house.  As they walked through one of heaven’s more pleasant suburbs they passed many an imposing mansion, and as the woman passed each one she thought it must be hers, only to be ushered on down the road by the angel.  They passed through the main streets, and the houses started to get much smaller… and smaller… and smaller.  Until they came to the very fringe and stopped at a house that was little more than a hut.  “This is your house,” said the conducting angel.  “What?” cried the woman in disbelief, “That?  I can’t live in that!”  “I’m sorry,” said the angel, “but it the best we could do with the materials you sent up.”

It’s a silly joke, but actually it’s based on Scripture: St Paul describes the way of gaining treasure in heaven as:  “doing good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”  He is echoing the words of Jesus who warns us against “storing up treasures” for ourselves on earth, but rather, by giving to the poor, to “provide… a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Our reading this morning ends with the chilling saying of Jesus: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Our story of the rich lady may raise a smile, but I feel that it does not really do justice to the glory of heaven, or the uselessness of earthy wealth:

There is another story, the tale of a rich man, who worked hard for success.  He started off on the shop floor, stacking shelves, and rose to be the director of a large chain of stores.  He was religious too, and nightly he prayed for the stock market to be kind, and his workforce to be blessed and productive.

His time came to die, and he looked pleadingly into the eyes of the angel of death:  “Please, let me pack just one suitcase to take with me to my fate.”  The angel looked puzzled, and replied, “but you are going to heaven…”  The man replied that he had worked all his life, travelled from rags to riches, and he wished to have a reminder of all that he had achieved in his earthly life while enjoying the peace of heaven.

The angel agreed, and watched the man open his safe, and pack his bag with huge, gleaming gold bars.

The angel brought the man to the gates of heaven, where St. Peter greeted them and asked “What’s in the suitcase?”  The man glowed with pride as he opened his heavy case, but his smile faltered when he heard Peter say “Oh good, that’s just what we need! – Paving stones!”

In the end, in the very end, gold is worthless.  Or, at least, it has no more worth than a beautiful pebble.  St Paul again:

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation
and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires
that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

To be seduced by money is to fall for the Emperor’s new clothes.  I’m sure you all know the story of the Emperor’s new clothes – the Emperor is told his new clothes are only visible to the wise, and he parades around naked, afraid that his tailors will think him stupid if he says he can’t see the clothes.  All the adults on the land gaze at the naked king, afraid to admit that they can’t see his clothes either.  Until, eventually a child sees the King and cries out “the King is in the altogether!” and the King realised that his vanity has left him (literally) exposed.

We are told by our culture, by the TV, most of all by all manner of advertising that more money or more possessions will make us happy.  The entire multi-billion pound advertising industry is based on this premise – ‘your life will be better if you buy our product…’

Because often people have to work hard for their money, because all their possessions need careful maintenance and insurance and effort to keep, we assume that are truly valuable, truly important.  Because of all the effort we put into our possessions we assume that any one in their right mind would see how magnificent they are.  Like the emperor’s new clothes it takes child-like simplicity to ask why do we assume this way is best.

People slave away for the sake of money, working so hard they never see their families, thinking that the money they earn is ‘support’ for they family, that it will be the best thing for their family.  Whereas the most precious thing we can give is our time.  Time is the most precious thing we have.  In fact I’d go as far as to say that it is the only thing we have.  Time is the only thing we have.  All we “own” is only around us for a brief time – we bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it with us.  The only thing that is ours is our time.  All we have will eventually belong to someone else, only our short amount of time on this earth can never belong to anyone else, it is the only thing that is truly ours.  What we do with it is the real measure of who we are.

This should not lead us to want to use our time to work harder, but to love harder, and play more.  Jackie Onassis once said “if you bungle bring up your children, it really doesn’t matter what else you do well.”  While not all of us have children the principle holds true, our success as human beings is measured in our relationships, how we help people to grow, and the love and joy we bring.  Our success is not measured by the size of our house or car or paycheck.

One of my favourite quotations was from a back bench MP I can’t remember who or which party, who said “no one ever lay on their deathbed looking back on their life and said I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”  This deathbed perspective that reveals the emperor’s new clothes for what they are, and it is this death bed perspective that we are called as Christians to have.  As we face death we have to ask the big questions of meaning and purpose, and these are the questions Jesus confronts us with every time we read the Gospels.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus’ attitude to money would have shocked and astounded his disciples.  Riches were seen as a reward from God, as was good health.  The healthy and wealthy were obviously favoured by God.  Jesus turns this assumption upside down, and says that the poor and the sick are more likely to be closer to God “the first shall be last and the last first.”  He said it is impossible to serve God and money, and it is as hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  Difficult words, especially when you consider that taking a global perspective, compared the majority of people in the world, everyone is this room is fabulously rich.

St Paul said:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, [or “the root of all evil” in some translations] and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Money and possessions do not bring the smiling happy faces you see on the TV adverts, as St Paul said the people seduced by them have “pierced themselves with many pains.”

Jesus tells us that ‘one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’, If we carried on reading in Luke’s Gospel we come across the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Again, Jesus’ disciples would have been shocked.  If they heard about a rich man they would assume he was enjoying God’s blessing, they would also assume that the poor man must have sinned in order to end up begging on the street. 

I guess some people today believe that the rich deserve their wealth because they work hard and the poor must be poor because they are lazy. 

But Jesus does not allow us to judge people like that, Jesus is clear that wealth is not a sign of godliness – it is a dangerous thing for our souls.

In the story of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man is a fool because he does not know what is important in life.  He ignored the poor man at his gate and valued status, wealth, power, but these are all addictive drugs that after the brief high of achievement leave us unsatisfied and thirsting for more.  The Romans had a saying that money was like sea-water: the more of it you drank the thirstier you became. 

When we are born we bring nothing into the world, when we die we can take nothing with us.  God lends us what we seem to own so that we can use it for our own fulfilment and the fulfilment of others.

Our Christian faith teaches us that all our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the twelfth century, said that ‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire.  While enjoying those riches, you strive for what is missing, longing for what you lack.  Thus the restless mind, running to and fro among the pleasures of life, is tired out but never satisfied; like a starving man who thinks whatever he stuffs down his throat is not enough, for his eyes see [only] what remains to be eaten.’

‘It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire…’

Bernard recognised that possessions and money and position are never enough to satisfy us, no matter how much we gain.  The more we have, the more we want.

We are to build our lives on what does not perish; on the Kingdom of God;  on love;  on that which is eternal and will never fail us.

Our example is Jesus.  A penniless wanderer, who was executed for treason.  A failure by all worldly estimations.  Yet he built a Kingdom that shall never end.

To build our lives around anything less ….  Spiritual riches, that come through prayer, meditating on God’s word, meeting God in the Sacraments, and sharing the love that we receive with the world, these are the only riches that have the power to satisfy, the only riches that last, everything else is like dust and ashes.

As St Paul:

            [You] are to do good,
             to be rich in good works,
             generous, and ready to share,
            thus storing up for [yourselves]
             the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
             so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.

Oh my Goddess! Holy Wisdom & Female imagery for God…

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Holy Wisdom – A Talk to the ‘Blackheath Wives Group’

 

In our reading we find one of the neglected themes of Scripture that has become important to me in recent years.  Our first lesson told us about ‘Sophia’, or Holy Wisdom.  I will hopefully be building on what Juliet was talking about when she came to your group a few months ago.

 

1 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

 

Our first reading this morning uses some interesting imagery for God.  God is Wisdom.

 

What of course I find most striking about Wisdom, is that the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures uses explicitly female imagery for God.  As soon as words ‘female’ and ‘God’ start appearing in the same sentence, some people start to prickle.  We think of what we may feel are the excess of ‘political correctness.’  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This is not about being modern, or even post-modern.  This is not about new-fangled feminist thought.  (Though I have nothing against feminism or post-modernism.)  It is about looking at the images of God that we find in the Bible.  It is about taking the Bible seriously.  It is about taking the vastness of God seriously.  Taking seriously God’s ‘un-pin-downability’ – that God is much, much bigger that any one image we can use.

 

The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus reveal divine Wisdom as feminine.  The Hebrew word for Wisdom, ‘hokmah’, is grammatically feminine, and feminine pronouns are used to refer to wisdom.  

 

In Ecclesiastes 24 we read:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory.

 

And in Proverbs chapter 1, we read

 

Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.

 

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”).  Later in chapter 4 of Proverbs we are encouraged to

 

Get Wisdom; get insight.  Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you…  Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her.  She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

 

The Wisdom of Soloman, chapter 10, describes the works of God:

Wisdom freed a holy people and a blameless race
from a nation of oppressors.
She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord
and withstood fearsome rulers with wonders and signs.
To the saints she gave the reward of their labours
and led them by a marvellous road;
She was their shelter by day
and a blaze of stars by night
She brought them across the Red Sea
and led them through mighty waters.
She swallowed their enemies in the waves
and spat them out from the depths of the sea.
Then, Lord, the righteous sang the glories of your name
and praised together your protecting hand;
For Wisdom opened the mouths of the silent
and gave speech to the tongues of her children.

 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

 

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

 

Also the Sprit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.

 

One of the Hebrew words for God, ‘Elohim’ is thought to be the combination of the female ‘Eloah’ and the male ‘El’.  Another phrase, ‘El Shaddai’, usually translated ‘God Almighty’, could also be translated ‘the Breasted God’, the God who feeds her people from her breasts.

 

People often feel threatened by female descriptions of God.  We feel that it could take away from our liturgical life.  Disrupt our long-cherished pattern of prayer.  Many of us are still smarting from losing some of our favourite prayers in the new liturgies, must the same now happen to our vision of God?  And, after all, we may object, Jesus did teach us to pray ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

 

To consider, and embrace into our spirituality, Holy Wisdom, and other Hebrew Scripture images for God, will take nothing from our walk with God.  It would, of course, be utter nonsense to try and stop using masculine images for God.  But, if we take Scripture seriously, we must see that God has revealed his and herself, in many many more ways than just Father.  Our vision of God can be enlarged.  The only thing we have to lose is the limits we have set on God.

 

God is our Father, our Lord, our King, our Brother, our Friend, our Lover.  God is a Rock, a Shield, a Fortress, a Strong Tower, a River.  God is Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer.  God is a Consuming Fire, God is Power, Strength.  God is our Mother, the one who labours, and brings her people to Birth.  God is Wisdom.

 

These are just a few of the Biblical images of God.  The Bible and the tradition of the Church has produced many more.  St. Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and too many contemporary writers to list have used feminine imagery for God.  As we journey deeper into God on our Christian journey, let us not limit God by limiting the metaphors and images we use.  Let us drink deeply at the well of our tradition, and of Scripture.  And let us grow in God, as we explore all of the images we find there.

Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

Today is the first Inclusive Church Sunday.  As a Church we are very involved in Inclusive Church and are very committed to its cause.  However, as as a white married man I have been asked by several people (including more than one Bishop!) why this maters to me.  So I hope you will forgive my self indulgence of explaining why it matters.

My story in brief: 
I was brought up as a Baptist in Northern Ireland.  I was a Protestant, lived in a Protestant area, I went to a Protestant school.  In the Protestant world the most obvious form of exclusion was of Roman Catholics.  (In Northern Ireland both communities feel like the persecuted minority: Catholics are the minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants the minority in Ireland as a whole.  Seeing a first had the result of fear and suspicion was how I grew up…)  
So I started my spiritual journey as a Baptist, then I left the church for a while, before getting involved in a Pentecostal Church.  The forms of exclusion at work here were obvious: people who smoked, drank, used bad language or slept around were excluded…  (I must also add that women were excluded from from leadership, as were the divorced, gay men and lesbians… but remember I was a teenager… so it was the drinking and sleeping around that attracted my attention…)
I never understood Christian teetotalism – after all Jesus turned water into wine, and the one act of worship Jesus gave us involves sharing wine… I also never understood swearing – why one word for sex or genitalia is allowed and one is not… I also read the Bible a lot at this time and I found that the bible was concerned with justice, with usury and gluttony, and none of these seemed to get a mention…
Then while I dithered about what I wanted to do with my life I spent  year working for Scripture Union in Zimbabwe.  Here I encountered issues of race – I was the minority (but also the uber-privileged).  I lived in a huge township called Mkobo, just outside Gweru, where I was the only white person – people were amazingly friendly, but I was always a novelty…  I couldn’t have a single conversation for more than two minutes without the subject of how different I was coming in to it…
Then I studied theology at Kings College London.  I hadn’t thought much about issues of sexuality up to this point, but I ended up sharing a house with several people, including three gay men, two of whom were called to the ordained ministry, and I saw their difficulties as they approached a homophobic institution.
Yet at this time I became an Anglican.  I became an Anglican because of the diversity of the Anglican Church.  It contains both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, it contains both liberal and conservative theology, it contains different races, different social classes, and many other forms of difference…

I felt that the Church of England had been conservative on issues of gender politics and sexuality, but so had society as a whole, and like society as a whole the Church was changing.

But then came the scandal of a good and holy man called Jeffrey John being forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.

As a result Inclusive Church was born on 11th August 2003 at St Mary’s Putney, at a Eucharist attended by over 400 people. 

An on-line Petition was set up requesting assent to the following Declaration of Belief:

 “We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.
We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.
We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”

I believe that “being inclusive” has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘left wing’ – it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  There shouldn’t have to be an organisation called “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

As this morning’s Gospel Reading made clear, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast, and it’s a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry: 

  • Jesus speaks to woman as equals
  • He accepts Zachaeus and Matthew the collaberating tax collectors
  • He accepts Simon the revolutionary zealot
  • He invites the rough, uneducated fisherman to follow 
  • He accepts and befriends prostitutes
  • He ministers to a Roman Centurian
  • He ministers to slaves and servants
  • He embraces lepers
  • He helps the ‘demon possessed’

So why do we need inclusive church?  Why do we have to argue for what many of us see as the bleedin‘ obvious? Because the Church, the institution that hands these stories down, has so often got it wrong.

The church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. But all too often we see ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘guardians’ who keep certain individuals out, rather than the prophets and priests that bring Christ out to everyone.

When I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan.  (Don’t think about that too much!). 

But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim.  This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…

Inclusion is the Gospel.  The Good news is that every one of us is invited to live in God’s kingdom.

Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people (and men only if you are interested in the episcopate…)”

“Come onto me all who are heavy laden…”  “all

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & social class…

Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

This does involve a change in our thinking, because the Church, for most of its history, has condemned homosexuality, and denied women leadership roles.  We can argue that the church tradition has not been quite as uniformly sexist and homophobic as most people imagine, but we could not say the church has ‘led the way’ in these issues.

The Church has a long tradition of homophobia, just like it has a long tradition of anti-semitism.  I think if we want to see how the church can turn around, a good example is how we have changed is the Christian approach to slavery.

For most of the Church’s history it accepted slavery.  The Bible allows slavery – we must be fair to our slaves, says Scripture, but slavery is explicitly allowed.

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
So said Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

But the Church was able to see beyond the letter of Scripture to the spirit

The spirit that showed that all people are created in God’s image, that human life is of infinite value, and taking that to its logical conclusion, slavery, buying and selling God’s children, is an affront too their creator.  And now no sane Christian would see slavery as anything other than an evil, a grave sin…

Equality on the basis of gender and sexuality is legally enshrined – the Church’s position on this looks like we are still accepting slavery.  At best we look laughably out of date, at worst we  are seen as a force for evil…

Homophobia is still out there in society- but so is racism, and just like racism, it is seen as a moral evil.  Except in the Church!

This argument is long won.  What Inclusive Church is campaigning for is not simply inclusion, it is the future of the church.  Holding homophobic views is is not just toxic to our common life, it is toxic to the survival of the institution (it is toxic publicity).  To the general public not have women or gay bishops is no different to refusing to have black bishops.  And if I am honest I think the comparison is a good one…

A Bible story to help us see how to deal with this:  The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13):

 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
   27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
   28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
   “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
   29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

At first I used this passage to argue that we should not try and remove gay and lesbian clergy from ministry or hinder their progression to high office in the Church.  But no, this parable is the one I tell myself to check my rage against the homophobia and prejudice I see in the Church, from the House of Bishops and many others…  I can’t understand how some prejudiced attitudes could be described as ‘Christian’ or how exclusive practices could have anything to do with following Christ.  But we let God be the judge.

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

    stretch your tent curtains wide, 
   do not hold back; 
   lengthen your cords, 
   strengthen your stakes.

God’s Kingdom already stretches out beyond the boundaries of the Church, we must now run to catch up.