Soul Gym?

Image2 Timothy 2.3-15


            Once there was a man who went to play golf with his priest.

            He was on the third hole and only 3 feet away from the hole. He putted his shot and missed. “Damn it, I missed!” the man yelled. The priest replied that it was a sin to say “Damn it!”. The man thought that his priest was correct and apologised.

Later he was on the 15th hole and only 2 feet away, when he missed the shot and yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest replied that it was a sin to speak lightly of damnation. The man realised his mistake and that his Father was right and apologised.

Later after that he was on the 18th hole and if he made a 6 inch put he would win the entire game. He of course missed and as before yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest was disturbed as times before and angrily shook his head as he was about to speak.

Just as the priest was correcting the man and said, “It is a….” A huge bolt of lightning came down from the skies and struck the priest dead on the spot. Then came a huge rumbling voice that shuck the ground as it said, “Damn it, I missed!”

            I found that joke while searching for “anti religion humour” on the Internet – that was extremely mild compared to a lot of what I found.

            I don’t want to sound like I’m ‘going all Daily Mail’ but it is a difficult time to be a Christian.  Maybe ‘difficult’ is overstating it – we are not likely to be fed to lions or arrested by the Secret Police, but the intellectual climate is certainly hostile to Christianity.  In the 1970s lazy comedians would make jokes about mother-in-laws and foreigners; today religion is the shortcut to laughter.

            It would be a mistake to blame media bias or look for an anti-Christian conspiracy… I think the root cause of this hostility is the Christian Church itself.

            The medievalists who believe in a six-day creation shout loudly and gain attention because what they are saying is so crazy.  But the liberals are too unassuming and quiet to call the crazy people out.

            It’s the same with women bishops and homosexuality.  Those who oppose women bishops say “you could no more make my dog a bishop than a woman” (something that was said to me in all seriousness).  And the progressive Christians wring their hands and say “it’s all terribly difficult.”  It’s not terribly difficult.  In society it used to be impossible for women to be M.P.s or doctors – we realised this was wrong and changed. 

            Wider society sees Christianity as an outdated, superstitious, misogynistic, homophobic institution.  People think they know what Christianity is about, and because we see our faith very differently, we have to explain that they haven’t got it…

We live in a society that sees religion as irrelevant and unnecessary; to most people it doesn’t seem to offer anything useful.

            Why is society so ambivalent or hostile to religion?  Partly because we live in a society that is dominated by consumerism.  Politicians have been introducing the ideals of consumerism into healthcare and education.  And not just politicians of the Right – it was under labour that ‘choice’ in healthcare became a central theme.  I don’t want choice in healthcare, I just want the closest hospital to be able to fix me.

            Consumerism has replaced religion in many ways.  It’s done so quite blatantly:  Supermarkets style themselves as Churches for the twenty-first century, they have aisles and music and surprisingly often the buildings even have spires.  If people are feeling low they are likely to think of ‘retail therapy’ before prayer or meditation.

            Another factor working against faith in world is what some commentators have called ‘a crisis of Character.’  We are no longer sure what “the Good” is.  Some of these commentators (returning to the Daily Mail) will blame our crisis of Character on how pluralistic our society has become.  In our pluralist society there are many different visions of “the Good:”  Liberals value tolerance; Muslims value submission; Buddhists value detachment; some flavours Christians value humility & sacrifice.              But submission, detachment, humility come from those with a clear sense of “the Good” and if we pursued there there maybe some disagreement, but our society would be a better place.  The problem is seen clearly if we consider who our heroes are today.  Fame is seen as an achievement, an end in itself, rather than a side effect of doing something amazing.  We value celebrity and people who are ‘famous for being famous.’  I know I sound like a curmudgeonly kill-joy to some and to others I’ll sound like I’m picking on easy targets, but vacuous nature of our press and television is a real sign of a vacuum of morality.  I have seen Heat magazine run as a story that a picture was taken of a celebrity with sweat under her armpits.

            We live in a society where its OK to be a celebrity because of drunken antics at society parties, but you are vilified for sweating, developing a bald-patch, or worst of all – a V.P.L. (a visible panty line for the uninitiated). 

            So along comes Christianity, like a prudish maiden aunt, and says stop buying Heat magazine, reject consumerism, and you’ve got to start working to build the Kingdom of God.

            It’s a hard thing to sell.  It’s made even more difficult because we basically have the whole of the advertising industry trying to tell the opposite story.  The multi-billion pound advertising industry exists to tell us that we will be happier, fitter, more attractive, have more sex, live longer or be more intelligent if we buy this magazine, eat that ice cream, spray on this deodorant, buy that car, or wear these clothes…

            But we need to reject greed, it’s not fulfilling us as human beings and our planet cannot sustain it…

            Asceticism is out of fashion.  Self-denial is hard to sell.

            But asceticism does exist in out culture and in fact it thrives… …in fitness centres!

            We all recognise the image of a perfect body:  Slim, toned and more-or-less hairless.  The gym exists to bring about this ideal of physical fitness & health.  And like the life of faith there is cost: time, money, and effort.  Gyms are successful because if people can see the value they will pay the price; fitness allows you to do all kinds of things: run, play tennis, attract a partner…

            When we think of Church and how to attract more members we often think of the primary metaphor for our worship as ‘entertainment’ – but on a better ‘show’ with better hymns, better music, better prayers, better sermons (!)…   And while we should find ways to do worship better if we can… a much better metaphor for what we are doing this morning is a trip to the gym:

            We heard this metaphor in our reading from Timothy (it’s also used in 1 Corinthians 9)

            The Church is not a ‘show’ or an ‘entertainment,’ it is a school for character, where you learn what to do to lead a good life.

            There is an old monastic story:

            Two monks who had been brothers and friends for many years were talking.

            “Brother” said the first, “let’s have a fight”

            “Why?” asked the second.

            “Other people do,” explained the first, “and we cannot understand them unless we experience what they do.”

            “Ok, what shall we fight over?”

            The first walked off and found a brick.  He put the brink in the between them and said,  “Let us fight over who owns this brick.”

            “OK,” his friend said, “This brick is mine.”

            “No” he replied, “it is mine.”

            “OK then, you have it.”

            The commentary on the story ends: “And so they were unable to fight as other men do.”

            Our aim is to become people to whom violence is alien, and love and peace are natural.  Our aim to to grow as people – using the story of Jesus life and his teaching as the example and inspiration for how to live.

            Returning to the idea of a current crisis of character, Allan Bloom wrote: “Students have powerful images of what the perfect body is and pursue it incessantly.  But… They no longer have an image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one.”

            Church is our soul-gym, teaching us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

            And just like none of us would do the training programme of Mo Farah, we work to find our own level, then work to get better.

            To live this life brings fulfilment and joy and will change the world around us.

And here is where the gym metaphor breaks down.  Church is not solitary like the gym – we need each other. We only grow and change together, we need the local community of faith.

            We work at our soul-gym to grow as individuals, to grow together, and to change the world around us.  Amen.

Angels to Some…

A Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels:

ImageOne day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the naughty behaviour that was going on. So he sent one of his angels to go to earth for a time. When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.”

God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down another angel to get a second opinion.”

So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time, too.

When the angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes, it’s true.  The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.”

God was not pleased. So he decided to get his angels to email the 5% who were good, because He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.

Do you know what the email said?


Okay, just wondering. I didn’t get one either.

Today we are thinking about Angels because today the Church is celebrating St Michael and all Angels.  The saints and Martyrs have many days throughout the year, today is the turn of the angels.

But what is an angel?  Is it the same as a fairy?  Do they have wings?  Are the mythical beings?  Do they have any relevance to us?

In the early Church angels of the winged variety were more or less ignored, with the surreal exception of the book of Revelation and also the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us a bit more.  They even name three of them:  Michael (Daniel 10.13), Gabriel (Daniel 8.16) and Raphael (Tobit 7.8).

As the tradition of the Church developed Angels were very popular in the middle ages.  Scholars debated their form (whether they had or could have a physical body as well as a spirit) their mission (the clue being in their Greek name ‘aggelos’ meaning ‘messenger’) and their abilities (one of the most famous questions being how many angels could dance on the head of a needle – this was a question that taxed the philosopher Duns Scotus – answers on a postcard please!)  If you think that kind of theological question is a bit daft you are not alone.  The scholar who led the debate on angels and pin heads was called Duns Scotus, his name became an insult when it was shortened to become ‘Dunce.’  It’s a little unfair as Duns Scotus was a very intelligent theologian, my lecturer in theology always told us that the angels and pinhead debate actually was trying to work out the nature of infinity. 

But it was not only medieval Dunces interested in these matters: Anders Sandberg wrote a paper in 2001 called “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem’” in the “Annals of Improbable Research.”  He presented a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing a maximum number of angels as 8.6766×1049.

Although this modern calculation is a physics-based mathematical game, not a serious inquiry and despite my professor’s protestations  I was not convinced that arguing about angels and pinheads is irrelevant, at best.

So what exactly is an angel?

I have already given you the clue when I told you what the word angel means.  The Latin angelus or the Greek Greek aggelos come from the Hebrew for “one going” or “one sent”; a messenger. The word is used in Hebrew makes no difference between divine or human messenger.

In all but a very few passages of Scripture we are given a choice of how to interpret events: the aggelos at Jesus’ empty tomb could be a heavenly being or a human messenger that Jesus arranged to pass on the message.

It’s up to us how we want to read the story.

However, how we view angels in the ancient texts of the Bible is not nearly as important as how we view angels today.

If aggelos are God’s messengers then the really important question is who are God’s messengers today.

Conservative Christians often criticise liberal Christians for making faith too easy: we don’t ask people to believe in impossible things (like a six day creation or virgins giving birth); we don’t force people to deny their sexuality or shoehorn people into outdated gender roles.  But here is the cost of liberal faith, here is where it is so much tougher of liberals than conservatives…

If we take the theologically conservative view that God’s work is done by heavenly beings, all we really have to do is ask for God to send some angels.

If we take the liberal view that God’s angels are human messengers, that means it’s up to us.

God’s not going to send a bloke in a frock with wings to solve the problems of the world – God is going to send you and me.

If that seems daunting then the good news is that we are not simply called as individuals, but as a Christian community, where we all work together to make a difference.

To be a Christian is to be one of God’s messengers.  Jesus told all his followers in his last words to them

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo,
I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

We are commanded to spread the good news of God’s love for us and teach the world what Christ has taught us.  We are to be the messengers of God.  Angels.

God has not given his work to heavenly creatures with wings and harps.  (At least not usually – in exceptional cases you never know…)  But the majority of God’s work on this planet is carried out through his earthy messengers, his human angels.

I close with one of my favourite quotations from one of my favourite saints, St Theresa of Avila that illustrates out role as angels, messengers of God and God’s kingdom:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours;
no feet but yours;
yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.