Remembrance Sunday Sermon by Richard Magrath

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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 2015

[Readings: Epistle: Philippians 2:4-11 Gospel: Luke 15:1-7]

Anniversaries

You can tell by the colours on the leaves that we have once more come round to ‘Remembrancetide’: last week we celebrated the lives of the saints in heaven; and, later, remembered in our prayers the Church Expectant; now the whole country turns its mind to those fallen in the wars.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War; and, you might remember, this was marked by a big service at Westminster Abbey; and, if I recall correctly, the Ministry of Culture suggested we all switch off the lights in our houses, at the fateful hour, to symbolise the ‘lights going out all over Europe’.

A Poem

But there was another centenary last year, shortly before this; commemorated only with a plaque at a rural bus stop. As the papers described it: “A hundred years ago, a steam train carrying an unknown poet made an unscheduled stop in a Gloucestershire hamlet called Adlestrop. Absolutely nothing else happened.”

Nothing else happened, but the man wrote a poem about it, which has been described as “one of the nation’s favourites”, though I’d never heard it before last year – so here you go:

Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

There is apparently debate over whether or not this is a ‘war poem’: on the one hand, it was written before the War, and I should imagine some enjoy it for that charm of the last, late Edwardian summer; and yet, at the same time, the clouds were gathering (June 24th 1914), and maybe one senses a cetain tension: “someone cleared his throat”; the feeling that, if “No-one left and no-one came”, then what, exactly, are they waiting for? And, at the end, the nigh-on apocalyptic sound of “all the birds”, like in the Book of Revelation we hear “the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands”—

The Countryside

And, indeed, whenever I a walk in the countryside, amid the “willows, willow-herb and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry” I always think of the First World War.

And it’s strange: in the countryside one feels so far from London – and from all that is contingent and trending and passing away – as C.S. Lewis might put it, out of the Shadowlands, into eternal England; “No whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky”.

And yet this eternity – admittedly, one known half through landscapes, half through books– is somehow marked, forever, by the First World War, killing men off by the villageful; the pretty war memorials scars of real wounds that once went so deep.

The Suffering of God

And this makes me wonder: does eternal God suffer?

Now, I understand this is a controversial point in theology – so I must tread carefully; and I will make three points, in ascending order of controversy:

(I) Suffering as pain

First: it is undeniable that the Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in his human nature, suffered; that he who was scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, and had no place to lay his head, felt in his Divine Body many of the same pains as those distant wounded war casualties from black-and-white photos in the glossy centre pages of history books.

And that Our Lord, who was executed so unjustly, must be especially close to those who were cruelly shot for desertion by their own side.

And Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, knows the very same sorrows as those mother who stood and waited for news of their own beloved sons’ deaths.

(II) Suffering as passivity

But there is another sense to suffering: suffering can also mean letting things happen, not having control, being passive; things happening to you that you do not want.

Rowan Williams, in his recent book on St Mark’s gospel, notes that Jesus only accepts the title “Christ” when he is most powerless: arraigned before the High Priest, abandoned by his disciples, bound and handed over to wicked men.

Kierkegaard thought the essence of tragedy was suffering: having bad things happen to you, which are not your fault.

The origins of the First World War are complicated; and scholars disagree over how to best apportion blame. But it is clear, of course, that many millions suffered for what was not their fault: (except that, like us, they were sinners, living in a world ruled by sin).

When we are called upon to suffer, then how do we react?

Edward Thomas, the poet who wrote ‘Adlestrop’, enlisted in the army just over a year later. He was killed on April 9, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras. He never lived to see his poem published.

And some others enlisted; and some were conscientious objectors; and still others fled. And afterwards some were proud of what they did, and I’m sure others were ashamed: how we act – in war, in suffering, at any time – is, of course, immensely important.

But then, I remember the disciples fled Gethsemane when the armed gang arrived to take Jesus. And how our Lord then reacted – freely giving himself over to wicked men – was not intended simply as an example, to strengthen us in our suffering, or indeed even to remind us that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”

No: he did it to save them; and to save the war dead, and the deserters and objectors; and the French and the Germans; and the Tsar and Lloyd George; and the Archduke and his assassin and even the centurion who pierced his own side with a lance; and to save you, and the many, whatever we have done.

(III) Suffering in his Divine Nature

Which brings me to the final and most controversial statement: does God suffer in his eternal Divine Nature?

I submit that he does. Because God is love; and how else does a loving father, loving mother feel, to see their beloved children in pain, and yet so distant?

God suffered to see his people turn away from him both in ancient times and modern, when they turned away from justice because they preferred the gains of war, ignoring the call to turn their swords into ploughshares.

God suffers like the father of the prodigal would have done, to hear a word from a far country of about beloved son’s sad existence.

God suffers like the shepherd who lost one of his sheep, and then climbed out on the mountaintops to find him:

‘Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
That mark out the mountain’s track?’
‘They were shed for one who had gone away
Ere the shepherd could bring him back.’
‘Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?’
‘They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.’
‘They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.’

Suffering: conclusion

Lines from a famous revivalist hymn; and I have spoken about three kinds of suffering – but really they are all of one piece: for why did our Lord suffer the thorns and the cross, but that he handed himself over to wicked men, for us; and what was this, but another step of the Incarnation, when he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself—”

Or, as another famous hymn writer, Charles Wesley puts it:

‘He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace—
Emptied himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.

O divine love, that suffered so much, for it cared so much, that it embraced nearly every form of suffering known to fallen humanity; and all this that, some day, we (all of us: the war dead and the saints) might need suffer no longer.

Amen.

Love is the Answer – but not an easy answer

Jesus

Gospel Reading:  

Mark 10.2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” ButJesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It never ceases to amaze me how people pick and choose which bits of Scripture to get excited about.  Some fundamentalists get very excited about the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and take it as historical and scientific fact, but are happy to ignore the fact there is another account of creation in Genesis 2:4-3:24  In the first creation story, humans are created after the other animals, In the second story, humans were created before the other animals.

The ancient people who compiled the Bible from different local myths and parables knew that they were not literal accounts, sometimes the twenty first century does not seem so advanced in its thinking!

Christians also get excited about Scriptures that could be interpreted as condemnations of gay sex, but ignore Scriptures that condemn sex during menstruation or eating shellfish in exactly the same terms.

Christians get excited about the condemnation of fornication but ignore the hundreds of times that usury (charging interest on a loan) is condemned.

In fact it seems that Christians tend to get excited about the few bits of the Bible that talk about sex and ignore the swathes of Scripture that talk about money and justice and care for the poor.

What we do with our genitalia is significant, but I strongly suspect that God is more interested in what we do with our wallets…

This mornings reading is one that gets some Christians excited – the prohibition of divorce.  But those who get excited about this absolute condemnation of divorce are rarely the same people who get excited for verse 21 where Jesus instructs those who want to follow to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, because, he continues, “it is as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle for some who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I’m not saying divorce is good.  At a wedding vows are taken and a divorce breaks those vows.  Divorce is a falling short of the ideal, but it must never be regarded as an unpardonable sin.

The prohibition of divorce was more than an issue of sexual morality in Jesus time, it was an important matter of justice.  In first century Palestine women were not allowed to engage in many forms of money making, and legally they were pretty much regarded as property.  If a man divorced he was free to build a new life and start again.  A divorced woman would have to hope her parents would take her in again or she would have to become a beggar, or worse…

Strict divorce law was about protecting the vulnerable in a patriarchal society.

The same law that was used to protect the vulnerable has been used in history to trap vulnerable women in abusive marriages.  I suggest that allowing divorce in cases of abusive partners is actually more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching, even if it goes against the letter of what he said.

Jesus condemned those who followed the letter of the Law in such a way that excluded or exploited the vulnerable in society.

That is made clear in what immediately follows this.  Jesus lets the children come to him.  We have a sentimental, protective view of childhood and children.  This was not the culture of Jesus time.  In a poor nation under Roman occupation life was hard, children were often seen as burdens until they were old enough to work; and with a shockingly high child mortality rate you simply could not invest the kind of emotional energy into children as we do today.  Children were on the margins of society.

Jesus was being countercultural by placing a high value of children.

Let’s return to how Jesus viewed the Law.

Usually he seems to disregard its strict rules – a few weeks ago we heard how he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands, and when challenged that his actions were “work” on the Sabbath “day of rest” Jesus shocked the devout by saying “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

And that seems to be how Jesus treats all of the Jewish Laws – “the Law is made for humanity, not humanity for the Law.”

For Jesus all of the Law is summed up in the command to love – it is so central that we hear it ever Sunday “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

So we don’t have to follow the letter of the law anymore…

It’s really all about love…

So as liberals we heave a sigh of relief – we don’t have to be strict…

But there is a catch here that as liberals we often forget…

Laws are quite easy to follow – most people could refrain from eating prawns and sleeping around if they felt God commanded it…

But we have a much tougher spiritual discipline to observe – we are called to love…

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for God…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for your neighbour…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for yourself…?

We love God in prayer in worship, in supporting the work of God’s church with time and money and energy…

We love our neighbour in reaching out to the poor and the outcast, those in need who are near and far – refugees, the homeless, the outcast and marginalised…

We love ourselves by respecting the bodies that God gave us, by trying to develop ourselves and by just resting and enjoying life…

The command to love is so much more challenging.

Take the idea of coming to Church on a Sunday morning.  As Christians do we have to do that?  Well my liberal sensibilities say that visiting family or friends or getting away for some rest after a busy week are also morally and theologically good things to do, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes do that…

But we still have to wrestle with the command to love God.  I don’t think that Christianity (or at least Liberal Christianity) demands that you attend every Sunday – but it does demand that you love God and that means if you can’t make Church you should think how else you could express your faith this week – maybe calling in to a midweek service?  Maybe spend extra time in prayer, or an hour reading the Bible or a spiritual book.

Life has a meaning.  That meaning is found in a God who loves you and your life really matters to God.  All that we own and all that we are is gift from God.

Our response to that amazing truth cannot possible be expressed in one hour on a Sunday morning – but sometimes we don’t even manage that!

Liberal faith is so much more challenging than a conservative one – because there are no easy answers.

I can’t tell you come to Church X amounts of times and pay Y sums of money to church funds.

But I tell you what Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

And if it’s not challenging I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right

But if it’s nor exciting and joyful and life-enhancing I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right either!

Dare we follow the greatest commandment to love?

The Syrophoenician Woman shows Jesus the Way

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Mark 7.24-30

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Sartre said “hell is other people.”  This week we have seen images and read news reports about the hell that is other people.

For a generation the phrase “asylum seeker” has become a dirty word.  We forgot the Jews that we turned away from our boarders as they fled the Holocaust before the Second World War, and David Cameron wanted to turn away all but a handful of those fleeing Syria (a nation that Britain and America have destabilised in an area we deliberately kept in turmoil for decades.)

The moral cowardice is staggering: a government unmoved by people in desperate need, heeding only a public outcry – it’s profoundly depressing.

But what is the Christian response?

Reflecting on how many Syrian refugees should we take, Giles Fraser wrote in the guardian this week: “…why not all of them? Surely that’s the biblical answer to the “how many can we take?” question. Every single last one. Let’s dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles.”

Giles quoted Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to illustrate than an open door can build, not destroy nations:  “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our Bible reading also talks about a foreigner in need, and a foreigner who does not receive a warm welcome.  This story from Mark’s Gospel is a fascinating one.  Jesus is becoming famous in Palestine, people wanting healing, people wanting to hear his teaching, and the Pharisees wanting to trip him up, were all after him.  He escapes into the region of Trye and Sidon, Gentile country (the modern day Lebanon).

If you read this passage as a literary work it is unique in the Gospels.  In every other story like this (scholars call them perecopes) the words or deeds of Jesus are the climax – but in this passage it is the woman’s words that are the climax:

Jesus calls her a dog, but the turning point is when she replies to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

As we look at the harrowing images of the lengths refugees will go to to escape violence and how they are turned away, the words echo down the ages “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The question of Jesus harsh words to the woman have provoked much debate:

We must wonder why Mark decided to records this event – it doesn’t portray Jesus is a very good light – he calls the woman who comes to her in need a ‘dog’ – ‘for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’

Up to now Jesus Ministry has been to the Jews only, so he thought foreigners (Gentiles) would not bother him.  But a woman comes up to him in distress, a Gentile woman, her daughter is ill, and she begs Jesus to act.  And Jesus seems astoundingly and uncharacteristically rude.  He is often rude to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocritical religious authorities of his time.  But this is the only place in the New Testament where he is rude to someone in need.

There must be a good reason for including this bizarre little story, in the middle of lots of rather exciting tales of miraculous healings.

Some scholars have tried to reinterpret the Greek, but if anything ‘dog’ was a bigger insult in first century Palestine than it is today.

Some scholars have suggested it was a test of the woman’s faith.  But that too seems cruel, and beneath the loving Jesus we read of in the rest of Scripture.

He seems to me that Jesus meant what he said.

The idea of the incarnation is a complicated doctrine, but whatever our interpretation of it, Jesus was fully a human being.  Jesus was not God walking around in disguise.  Jesus has to learn, like any of us, and Jesus had to learn his mission.  Being brought up a Jew it is quite probable that up to this point Jesus thought his mission was to the Jews only.  This Gentile woman comes along, and he dismisses her – she is not part of his plan.

But then the most startling thing of all happens:

Jesus allows himself to be corrected.

He realises that his mission is not only to the Gentiles, but to all people, this poor woman and her daughter included.

Jesus definition of moral responsibility is expanded to include the foreign woman.

Perhaps Mark recorded this story because it was a turning point.  God spoke through this Gentile Woman.

Jesus allows a woman to correct him.  The Rabbis of Jesus’ day would never teach a woman, never talk theology to a woman, some would not even look at a woman.  Yet here and elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus teaches and talks, and even allows himself to learn from women.  Other Rabbis would never allow a woman to win an argument over them in public, it would be instant disgrace, their ability would be discredited.  Yet Jesus knows what is right is more important than what looks right, so he allows himself to learn.

Perhaps even more shocking is that Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile!  Gentiles were those who were of no religious significance, who were seen as unclean, and in error.  But Jesus is open to learning not just from the learned Rabbis in the Temple, where he discussed the Law as a young boy, Jesus is open to hearing from God in all people.  Even in those others hated, even in those who would tarnish his image by even speaking to.

We all need to learn from Christ’s humility, and be ready to lean from those we, or others, disdain.  And live as Christ lived, a life of love.  We need to expand our definition of moral responsibility, it is more important today than ever, as we see those fleeing Syria.

The idea of hospitality is at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethics.  The ethics of our Jewish roots are summarised in the two words “remember Egypt” – the Jewish people are called to remember when they were poor slaves, oppressed, exploited, who fled seeking asylum in the Promised Land.  Remembering the past we must today care for the poor, oppressed, exploited, those who flee seeking asylum

This week Justin Welby quoted from Leviticus, saying we must “break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves.”

This is our challenge, in our personal interactions and in our national life.

Amen.

Jesus and the Bacon Sandwich

Bacon Sandwich

Mmmmmmmmm Bacon!

The following notes are from a discussion-based ‘sermon’:

I’m going to start with a question.  There is no certain right or wrong answer to it (it’s not like the question of the Labour Party leadership – clearly Jeremy Corbyn is the correct answer – just sayin’) so don’t be afraid to say what you think…

It’s not “all age” but there is a visual aid…

A bacon sandwich is presented to the congregation…

My question is:  If it was handed to him, would Jesus eat this bacon sandwich?

We will go deeper in a moment, but let’s just ask for a show of hands on your initial response…

As a good liberal congregation let’s start with the ‘don’t know’s…?
Now the ‘yes’s…?  (the Majority at the Church of the Ascension thought yes)
And finally the ‘no’s…?

Take two minutes to discuss…

What are the issues?

  • Jesus was forbidden to eat pig as a Jew
  • What if someone was being deliberately offensive to Jesus…?
  • What if Jesus was innocently offered it by a Roman child…?
  • What if someone was trying to test Jesus…?
  • What if it was today…?
  • What is cultural and what is God’s Commandment and what is Human Tradition…?
  • If we think Jesus’ wouldn’t eat the sandwich… What does that mean for us…?

For what it’s worth I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have eaten the bacon sandwich.  As a follow of Jesus shouldn’t I then do the same?  Well no actually, because I think that Jesus was a product of his culture and some of his actions were conditioned by that culture, but some of his actions, like the command to love speak to universal truths of the human condition.

Deciding which are which is the biggest challenge of Christian Theology.

Jesus was a progressive thinker in his age.  Do we honour him best by trying to be progressive thinkers today, or by crystallising everything he said into permanent immutable truths and leaving progress in first century Palestine?

The way I asked the question reveals my answer…!

A little bit of background to the reading:

The basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. After the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.”  They attempted to bring the holy into everyday life.  However, at some point, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a means of designating insiders and outsiders and for many it became an empty ritual which no longer led people closer to God.

Then we see Jesus’ disciples, who were a band of itinerant preachers, begging for their upkeep, and unable to follow all the ritual cleansings of the Law demanded.  But Jesus says it’s not what we eat that makes us unclean,  it’s not what enters our bodies – it is what comes out of us.  Jesus has a list:

fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly

We can apply our thinking about the bacon sandwich to this list: Fornication, for example, is condemned in the context of women being the property of men… Any sexual relationship with a woman who was not protected by marriage put the woman in an extremely vulnerable position.  Some people use the command to condemn all sex outside of marriage including equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. But I believe that it’s nearer the spirit of the command to try and prevent sexual exploitation – to work against sex trafficking, child abuse, the excesses of the sex industry…  That’s more in the spirit of Jesus than inquiring about what consenting adults do in private.  Jesus message was to refrain from judging others and that love is the most important religious practice.

I chose fornication from the list because the theme connects us to the first reading, and I don’t want to finish today without mentioning it:

Our first reading is from one of my favourite books of the Bible.  The Song of Solomon is an extended love poem or collection of poems, a dialogue between a lover and the beloved with an occasional chorus that gives a kind of commentary on the love story.   But the Song of Solomon is not universally loved nor universally understood.  As far back as third century the theologian Origen thought that the book was an allegory describing the love of God for Israel and/or the love of Jesus for the church.

Origen is not the most reliable of scholars.  His interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel “if your eye offends you, pluck it out” led him to castrate himself.  But his was not a lone voice and much later Reformers like Calvin accepted Origen’s view.

But the most sensible interpretation of the text is that it is what it appears to be: an erotically charged love poem.  The only reason to attempt an allegorical interpretation is a mistrust of sexuality – something that increased in the Christian Tradition as it became more influenced by Greek Philosophy.  But that is another sermon.

This is one of only two biblical books, Esther and Song of Songs, where there is no mention of God.  Also, unlike the majority of the Bible (with the exception of the books of Esther and Ruth) the woman’s voice is clearly heard.  The voice of the woman is about 75% of the book.  She is feisty, frisky, and sees the lover as an equal: she affirms, “my beloved is mine and I am his.”

So having traveled from bacon sandwiches to erotic poetry via Jesus and contextual theology…  What does this mean for us?

Firstly I hope it made you wonder if you know Jesus as well as you think you do… We need room for doubt and uncertainty and questioning if we want our faith to grow.  The faith that thinks it knows all the answers is not only dangerous, it’s a faith that clearly hasn’t fully understood the questions.

As Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

So firstly I hope it has made you think about your assumptions about Jesus.

Secondly I hope it’s helped shed light on how we can use scripture to reflect on our life today.

The only Gospel is an Inclusive Gospel

All Are Welcome

Collect (prayer) of the Day:

God of inclusive love, who knows us each by name: we thank you for the woman, who stood out of the crowd and defied her uncleanness to connect with you; we praise you for the leader of the synagogue, who faced the mockery of others to give his daughter hope; may the flowing power of Christ bring healing and acceptance to the rejected and abused. Through Jesus Christ, giver of life.  Amen.

First Reading:  Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.  It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

A man walked into a Private Hospital for a Brain transplant. The doctor showed the patient 3 brains and asked the patient to choose:

A White man’s brain £500
A Black man’s brain £500
A Racists man’s brain £2000

The patient was shocked and asked why the Racist brain costs so much?

Doctor replies “Oh, it’s because that one’s never been used”

We are going to be thinking about prejudice, and about using our brains in this service.

And later in this sermon (to give away the ending) I’m going to talk about how the fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, regardless or race, gender, sexuality education or social status… and that everyone, without the help of a religious elite, can have a direct experience of God.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

I was on the receiving end of a challenge this week, that has really made me think, and I’m not quite there with a conclusion yet, but maybe you’ll be interested in some of my journey.

I was deeply challenged last week when a member of the congregation wondered why we made no mention of the murders in Emmanuel Church in South Carolina.  When Islamic extremists attack white middle class people it dominates the news and our thoughts and prayers.  But not when back people are murdered in a church.

It’s worth asking ourselves why a white supremacist killing black people in church is not seen as terrorism in the same way as white tourists being killed on a beach.

I think if you compare time on the news and column inches in the newspapers you will see that there is something amiss.

Is is simply because white supremacists are so clearly idiots?  Maybe, there is some truth in that, but I don’t think violent religious extremists are necessarily any more intelligent.

More likely it because our press is dominated by white middle class professionals who find it easier to identify with white middle class victims; these reporters and editors don’t feel threatened by American rednecks picking on black people but find radical Muslims (who are potentially threatening people like them) utterly terrifying.

I have to confess that I didn’t even notice the problem until it was pointed out to me.

My instinct was to get all defensive and try to justify myself and the church.  But that is not the way to grow and the life of faith demands that we keep our hearts and minds open even when it is uncomfortable.

Keeping all this in our minds let’s look at our reading from this morning in the hope that we can find some wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus.

Jesus was about to preach.  He was beginning his ministry, so gathering a crowd would have been an achievement.  Just as Jesus was about to begin Jairus, the ruler of the Synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet pleading for healing for his daughter. The Bible simply says, “So he went with him.”

It is interesting to note how Jesus changes his plan instantly.

The late Henri Nouwen, the Catholic scholar and writer, said in the prime of his career that he became frustrated by the many interruptions to his work: he was teaching at Notre Dame and had a heavy workload and didn’t like to be disturbed. Then one day it dawned on him that his interruptions were his work. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!” Often we find that the interruption is what life is all about.

Jesus was open to the interruption, to the voice of the outsider.

Jairus daughter was an outsider.  We have a culture that has a strange relationship to childhood, we elevate childhood in a way that would bewilder most of our forbears and certainly come as a shock to people in time of Jesus.  What we often fail to grasp is that in a culture with such a high infant mortality rate people could not invest the same kind of emotional energy in children as we do today.  Children were obviously important to their parents, but they were not especially valued, and childhood was not seen as an almost sacred time of innocence to be protected.  Childhood was not valued in its own right – it was just a stage on becoming an adult when they become a fully valuable member of society.

When Jesus cares for the children, he is valuing those that society did not think were important.

Jesus was revolutionary in his thinking because he valued everyone.  He welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, zealots, children..

The Gospel, the “good news” is that God loves everyone, God loves you.

It is not the Gospel of Jesus if it isn’t for everyone.

The woman that came to Jesus was ceremonially unclean, she wasn’t able to practice her faith because of her issue of blood.

She touches Jesus clothes, making him ceremonially unclean, her religion a mix of superstition and desperation.

But Jesus does not patronise her, he does not scold her for spreading her uncleanness.  He includes her and welcomes her and heals her.

Here is inclusive Christianity in action.  The child of the synagogue official and the unclean women are both included.

“Being inclusive” as we term our tradition, has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct,’ it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  We should not have to call ourselves an “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

The story of the woman with an issue of blood is not an isolated incident, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast:

  • Zachaeus and Matthew the tax collectors
  • The invitation to the rough fisherman to follow
  • The conversation with the gentile woman at the well
  • The acceptance of prostitutes
  • Ministering to a Roman Centurion
  • Welcoming slaves and servants
  • Embracing lepers
  • Helping the demon possessed

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.

I’ve told you before how 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,” or “as special welcome for white, middle class people with plenty of money…”

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

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & poverty… Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their race, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their age, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their education or intelligence, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their gender, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their sexuality, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

The fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, and everyone, without the help of a religious elite can encounter God.  Jesus savagely criticised the religious leaders of his day, they were ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘broods of vipers’ who declared who was clean and who was unclean, who acted as gatekeepers of God’s love.  But according to Jesus, that love was freely given to all humanity.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

As I said at the beginning, I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

Maybe we do need to address how we think about race, or how we think of people who we work with on the estates, or people from other churches.

We embrace the interruption of someone in need and we accept the challenge to change our way of thinking.

I close with a traditional African prayer that we use every Monday at our service of Morning Prayer:

From the cowardice that does not face new truths,
from the laziness that is content with half truths,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all the truth,
deliver us today, good Lord.

Amen.

The Other Sheep

John 10v11-18

A sheep

Ewe know it makes sense

Our Gospel reading places us as a sheep belonging to Jesus, our Good Shepherd.  Those who have been coming for a while know that I sometimes like to start my sermons with a joke, just to wake everyone up if the readings were dull or no one knew the last hymn.

I try to find a joke that somehow cleverly fits the theme of the sermon.  This week I was trying to find sheep jokes and failed to find anything remotely relevant.  But this is Marathon Sunday, and lots of our regulars are cut off or at least have their transport here disrupted…  I was tempted to treat it as a teacher treats the last day of term and suggest that you all just “bring in games.”  I have no excuse for the following jokes, other than that I am bringing in games!

So:

  • What do you get if you cross an angry sheep and a moody cow?
  • An animal that’s in a baaaaaaaad moooooood.
  • Why was the sheep arrested on the motorway?
  • Because she did a ewe-turn!
  • What Christian denomination is most popular with sheep?
  • Baaaa-ptist.

Finally, my personal favourite:

A man in a cinema notices what looks like a sheep sitting next to him.

“Are you a sheep?” Asked the man, surprised.

“Yes.” Said the sheep.

“What are you doing at the movies?”

The sheep replied, “Well, I liked the book.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are “the sheep of [God’s] pasture.”  We are the “sheep” for whom the “good shepherd” lays down his life.

Feeling a bit sheepish this morning?

I know that some members of this congregation struggle with the metaphor of God’s people as sheep.  None of us want to be sheep – we want to be powerful and important, not bleating animals that follow the crowd.

One of my standard Christmas talks is about the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem, and how shepherds were outcasts of the day – poor wild men who slept rough on the hillsides – hired for a pittance, barely above beggars in the social hierarchy.

I’ve heard kids use “MacDonalds Worker” as an insult;  in first century Palestine the kids may well have taunted unpromising peers with “Shepherd!”

Shepherds were hired to look after the sheep.

Sheep were not a particularly highly regarded commodity at the time.  They did have some religious significance, but only because they were slaughtered in their thousands at Passover, so that the floor of the Temple ran red with their blood.

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of being called a “sheep” it’s worth considering that sheep had no better image in Jesus’ day than they do now (and shepherds had a considerably worse image!)

The metaphor of Jesus as a Shepherd and his followers as sheep is not a cutesy image.  It’s about outcasts caring for the insignificant.  But it’s about finding beauty in the everyday.  It’s about saying God is interested in things that society ignores or undervalues or despises.

Having set the scene, I want to spend a bit of time reflecting on one verse and what it might mean to us:  Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus calls the disciples, the Christian Church in embryo, “a sheepfold.”  The place where God purpose is worked out on Earth…

But Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Early Christians were struggling with the Jewish authorities as the two religions began to go separate ways… They were distrusted by the Roman government who were soon to attempt to exterminate them.

They were harassed on every side, it would have been easy to fall into exclusive extremism, but instead they record and pass on the words of Jesus:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus is clear that although his ragtag band of scruffy, mostly illiterate followers are infinitely precious to God, they are not the only people of infinite value to God:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

We, in the Church of the Ascension, sometimes feel embattled as a liberal church – the hierarchy seems obsessed with money, it seems like the churches that are succeeding are conservative, interested only in evangelism and not in helping their communities, society is indifferent at best, and at worst tars us with the same homophobic brush as it does our fundamentalist brothers and sisters.

But we are doing well and doing important work in our community, but this is not the only place where God’s work is being done:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

But it’s worth considering that there wasn’t another group exactly like the disciples out there that Jesus was referring to when he talked about his “other fold” – Jesus was talking about other religious expressions, outside of Christianity, outside of Judaism:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

What was true in the first century is true today:

In Churches of all traditions, Catholic, Protestant, liberal, radical, conservative, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

In temples and synagogues and mosques and gurdwaras, in humanists, and campaigners and protestors:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Gospel of Jesus is life-changing and life-giving, but Jesus recognised that there were more truths, more ways of giving life, than just one.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

I close with an Interfaith Prayer prepared by Christians, Jews and Muslims:

Eternal God
Save us from weak resignation to violence
Teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power
That thoughtfulness and tenderness are marks of the strong.
Help us to love our enemies
Not by countenancing their sins,
But by remembering our own
And may we never for a moment forget
That they are fed by the same food,
Hurt by the same weapons,
Have children for whom they have the same high hopes as we do.
Grant us the ability
To find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In the striving for justice and truth.
Amen.

St Margaret and the Dragon

St Margaret takes on the dragon

This morning I want to talk about St Margaret of Antioch, as it is her day.

We don’t usually celebrate minor saints, but I thought we could remember Margaret today because our Sister Church, St Margaret’s Lee is dedicated to her, and it makes a connection with our neighbours…

Also my inner feminist sees that women are under-represented in our calendar of saints, and it’s good to celebrate the women that are included.

But mostly I want to celebrate Margaret because I only just discovered her story and it has a dragon in it!

The Legend of St Margaret is recorded in the Mediaeval book of saints called “The Golden Legend.” Her story was written by a scholar called Theotimus, who was (despite his belief in dragons) described as a “learned man.”

Nothing certain is known about Margaret, but according to the legends recorded by Theotimus, she was the daughter of a pagan priest.  When she converted to Christianity she was driven from home by her pagan father.  She became a shepherdess and while out on the fields her beauty caught the attention of Olybrius, the prefect.  She was not so taken with Olybrius, and he charged her with being a Christian because she spurned his advances.

Some people over-react when they fail to pull, but Olybrius was in another league: He had poor Margaret thrown in prison and tortured.

It was while she was in prison that she had an encounter with the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon.

According to the legend, the dragon swallowed her, but the cross she carried grew miraculously large and tore open the monsters belly allowing Margaret to escape. (It is thought to be because of this that she became the patroness of childbirth – (more on that later…)).

The next day, attempts were made to execute her by fire and then by drowning, but she was miraculously saved every time.  As a result of her faith and these miracles thousands of spectators witnessing her ordeal were converted to Christianity (the story is not as happy as it sounds – all of the converts were promptly executed!).  Finally, after fire, water, an encounter with the devil and a lot of bloodshed, she was beheaded, and finally died.

(As a little postscript – hers was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc.)

I’m sure there could be an interesting Freudian analysis of Margaret causing the crucifix to grow and grow…  The image reminds me of one of my favourite movies, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (which was also subject to a lot of Freudian analysis in its day) where the monster erupts from John Hurt’s chest…

In another version of the story the crucifix doesn’t grow, but the resourceful Margaret discovers that it’s edge is sharp and uses it to slice open the Dragon from the inside and cut her way free.

Margaret is not content to run away, glad to escape with her life; she grabs the dragon by the hair (who knew dragons had hair?!) throws it to the ground and stamps on its neck until it tells him the truth about its pursuit of Christian souls!

Margaret kicks ass!

It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history.

How should we deal with this story of a fight with a dragon.

In our enlightened days we can be embarrassed by tales of monsters and the supernatural.  Miracles make us uneasy and dragons are clearly ridiculous.

So should we brush aside the saints who’s stories are clearly fictions – the St Christophers, St Georges, St Cecelias and St Margarets?

The Christian tradition has another way to judge myths and legends, stories of faith and traditions.  What did Jesus describe as ‘all the law and the prophets’? It was love.  We are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and it is the same for stories of faith and traditions.

Margaret’s story has born much fruit.  In the Middle Ages when childbirth was extremely dangerous she was the Saint that women prayed to disputing their pregnancies and the one they screamed to for help at the height of their labour.

Margaret is popular because of women’s experiences.  Women who tie images of her around their middle with a ribbon during the later stages of pregnancy.

I’m not saying that Margaret stepped in from heaven to help them, but I am saying that the role model of a strong and fearless woman who faced down Satan himself was inspiring.

Noticing the marginalised is an essential element to any good inclusive church and St Margaret of Antioch is a saint who indirectly points us to the lived experiences of women and their faith – voices written out of or controlled by our church story.

It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history, but pious legends and fiction have helped Christians through the ages and can inspire us and uplift us.

I saw a poster recently that said:

“Blessed are the
weird people
the poets & misfits
the artists and writers
music makers
the dreamers
and outsiders
they force us
to see the world
differently”

The story of Margaret, the teenage girl who beat up the devil helps us to see the world differently.

Margaret, a teenage girl, thrown out by her parents, was able to resist the devil.  Not just resist the devil, but slice him open and give him a kicking.  I think she must be the Saint most similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I should know – I measure most saints by their similarity to Buffy)

Who knows the historical truth of her life.

But is Macbeth any less insightful if we learn there was a real Scottish King called Macbeth, and Shakespeare wrote with total disregard for historical accuracy about his life?

Or if Shakespeare is not your thing, is Breaking Bad any less profound if we learn that Walter White is entirely fictional?  And it came as a bitter blow to discover as a child that Doctor Who wasn’t real, but the way that the Doctor used intelligence and courage to defeat evil and violence still inspired me.

Margaret gives us a vision of how a teenage girl can defeat a violent manifestation of evil.  It may not be historical, but it can still be true.

I don’t often quote the American Evangelist, Billy Graham (in fact this is the first time) but he said “Courage is contagious. When a brave man [or woman]  takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”

Margaret gave courage to untold women facing perilous childbirths, and maybe her story can remind us of our many foremothers in the faith whose lives have become legend or been forgotten completely.

Her story of contagious courage can still change the world today.

Adam vs Eve

First Reading:  Genesis 3.8-14
8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
14The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Eve & Adam

The early chapters of Genesis are some of the most controversial in the whole of Scripture.  It’s not just the strange anti-science of creationists that bring this text into disrepute.  Although it is worth pausing briefly to point out that a Creationist reading of the early chapters of Genesis is not just unscientific – it is barely literate.  The story of creation is told twice in Genesis first from Genesis 1.1-2.3 and then again 2.4-3.24.  You will recognise both stories, but you may not have recognised that they are different.  In the first are the six days each ending with “and it was good.”  the second has Adam and Eve.

In the first story God created humans (male and female together) after all the other animals; in the second, God made one man (“Adam”) and then created all of the animals in order to find a companion for Adam. God brought all of the animals to Adam, but none were good enough, so God made a woman from one of Adam’s ribs to serve his companion.

Any serious reading of the early chapters of Genesis show that the ancient people who created the text did not take the stories literally – they saw these two contradictory stories, and decided that both were worth preserving.  They saw that these were parables of deep and profound and life-changing wisdom, not science or history.

But its not just confusion over science that has brought Genesis into disrepute.  Valid feminist criticism has said that these texts are dangerous and damaging to women.  In the creation narratives:

  • woman’s subordinate status is reflected in her being created second
  • woman is created to be a ‘helper’ to the man and cure his loneliness
  • woman tempted man to disobey and so is responsible for sin in the world; she is also gullible and simpleminded
  • woman is cursed by pain in childbirth

Our reading is the conclusion of the story, but at the heart of the story of Adam and Eve is a dialogue between the serpent and Eve… There is more to this story than meets the eye.  For example, the serpent addresses the woman in the plural, she is seen as he spokesperson for the human couple and therefore spokesperson for the whole human race!

The serpent and the woman discuss theology.  They talk about God.  The theologian Phyllis Tribble describes the discussion “reveals her as intelligent, informed, and perceptive. [She is a] Theologian, ethicist, hermeneut, rabbi, she speaks with clarity and authority.”

But it is true that the woman is tricked.  But it does not appear that Satan tempts the weakest of the couple – he tempts the one with brains, the one he knows the other will blindly follow.

Eve makes a mistake, but Adam is not the hero of the tale.  Adam is a passive nonentity.  The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve but weakness.  He isn’t a patriarchal figure making decisions for his family, he follows his woman without question or comment.  She gives fruit to him, “and-he-ate.”

Eve is tricked by the serpent, by the Devil incarnate.  The most cunning of the angels leads her to question God’s instructions.  And to be fair the knowledge of good and evil is a step forward for humanity, albeit an uncomfortable one.  Eve is led astray by Lucifer.  What does it take to lead Adam astray?  His wife saying “would you like a bite of my apple?”

When the mistake is revealed the woman takes responsibility for her actions, the man blames the woman and blames God.  Adam is weak and wheedling, “the woman that you gave me” he says to God.

It is interesting to note that story does not even say that Eve ‘tempted’ Adam; Adam isn’t reluctant or hesitating, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t contemplate.  Instead, his one act is eating: Eve offers and he munches without a second thought.

If this story deals in archetypes, the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, dim-witted, and inept.

There is more than one way to read this text.

The story of he Fall is subtle and deep and in the best possible sense of the word it is ‘true.’

There never was an Adam there never was an Eve, and there certainly was no talking serpent.  This is not a story about the past, it is a profound millennias old reflection on what it means to be human.

What is a human being?  Are we good?  Are we evil?  Are we Animals?  Are we angels?

This is what Genesis teaches us:

The deepest and most profound truth about humanity, is that we are good.  We contain the ‘image’ of God.  There is nothing so extraordinary in the world (and probably in the universe) than a human being.  Yet we are not Gods, Genesis tells us that we are made of the same dust as the rest of creation.  In modern terms, we are part of the same evolutionary process as giraffes and dolphins and dogs and cockroaches.

Another truth from the story is that the purpose of humanity is to “tend and care for” the Garden – we are created with a responsibility to care for the planet that we are part of.

But before this sermon becomes a party political broadcast for the Green Party lets get back to humanity.

Humanity is good, in God’s image.  But (and it’s a big but!) Eve represents the brightest and best of humanity, and yet she goes astray.

There was one rule, and she broke it.

We are good, but we have a tendency to cock things up.

The Fall describes human alienation in a way that beggars the greatest talents of psychologists and sociologists.  The human condition is described to a tee, and is as relevant today as it was nearly three millennia ago when it was first written, from an even more ancient oral tradition.

Humanity is good, but Fallen.

We all have the potential to be a St Francis or a Mother Theresa or a Gandhi.  We are made of the same stuff as they were.  They were people with the same doubts and fears and insecurities as the rest of us, but their lives shone with the brilliance of God’s image within them.  Even they were fallen, St Francis had masochistic tendencies, Mother Theresa refused to look at the political reasons why people were in need, Gandhi was not a good husband.  But they are heroes of faith and humanity.  Looking at their lives we can hear God’s words echo over creation ‘and it was good.’

But then we are made of the same stuff as Hitler, and Stalin and Myra Hindley.  We look at the devastation we have caused as a species, of the planet and of one another.  Islamic State, the Inquisition, two world wars, the Holocaust.

It is a mistake to put these heroes and villains too far away from us.  They are us.  People just like you and me, yet their deeds for good or evil are extraordinary.

We are full of contradictions.  Edward Young wrote;

“How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
How complicate, how wonderful, is man!”

We human beings contain God’s image, but are Fallen.  None of us live as we could.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a man is a God in ruins.”

The image of God that we bear is tarnished, but it is still there.  Most people never find it within themselves.  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” (Henry David Thoreau)

We are bogged down in our falleness, as we fall every day.  We live in ‘quiet desperation’, the song of our true nature never sung.

The Fall is a skewing of perspective.  God comes down to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve and they are worried about what they are wearing!

Our perspective on life is distorted – we treasure what is worthless and ignore what is truly precious.

I close with a quote from Robert Fulghum about perspective:

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.”

Pentecost – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

The Feast of Pentecost

Th e fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self control.   Paul’s letter to the Galatians, ch. 6 v. 22.

Today we celebrate the symbolic moment when the disciples received the gift of God’s spirit.  It  came in the form of a mighty wind followed by dancing flames of fire.   Peter addressed the huge crowd who had witnessed the event.  He referred to the prophecy of  Joel.  God said: I will pour out my spirit on all humanity.   Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.  Your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams……………The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood , in that great resplendent day.

The coming of the spirit is accompanied by disturbances in nature and prophetic utterance  replaces normal speech.

The power of the spirit of God is a recurring theme in the bible.  The second verse of the bible describes God’s spirit moving over the darkness of the newly created earth;  the primal darkness became light.

When Moses was close to despair after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, striving to reach the Promised Land,  he had to listen to the constant complaints of the Israelites who looked back on the days in Egypt where even as slaves  they ate meat and fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic.  Moses cried out to Yahweh whose response was to pour out his spirit on seventy men, elders who could  bear part of Moses’s burden of leadership.   As the spirit alighted on them, they were seized by a prophetic ecstasy and normal communication was suspended.  Moses expressed his relief:  I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that he would bestow his spirit on them all.  

The writer of psalm 139 describes the pervasiveness  of God’s spirit:  Where can I escape from your spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will be guiding me.

The spirit is creator, provider, guide, protector, encouragement,  conscience, liberator, source of hope and fountain of wisdom.   In poetic language or in homely prose the  authors  of our sacred story  have shed light on aspects of the workings of the spirit.

Once the spirit had descended on the apostles at the feast of Pentecost, and after they had been through the almost mandatory period of  ecstasy which in their case led to speaking in tongues, they began to establish the  way of life that we recognise as the life of a religious community.

They met for synagogue  worship regularly on the Sabbath day.  They spent time in prayer and study of the scriptures.  They broke the bread – commemorated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in  their reenactment of the last supper.   They supported each other financially: there was never a needy person among them, because those who had property in land or houses would sell it, bring the proceeds of the sale and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to anyone in need.   They listened to the stories which were becoming part of their sacred story, relating events in the life of Jesus to episodes from the Hebrew scriptures.  They reached out to friend and stranger, enlarging their number with a missionary zeal which impressed Jew and Gentile.

There were setbacks – the ideals of community living were not always achievable.  Some individuals,  like Ananias and Sapphira, couldn’t accept the notion of sharing their wealth.  There were personal quarrels at all levels of leadership, notably the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas.  There were serious disagreements about the criteria for membership of the Christian body, eg over circumcision as an entry ritual.  Some groups became disorderly and disreputable – in the passage from the letter to the Galatians which immediately precedes Paul’s list of the fruits of the spirit, he warns against the kind of behaviour which will exclude them from the kingdom of God – fornication, debauchery, idolatry, envy, fits of rage, selfish amibitions – all human failings but these can’t be the characteristic or the life style of a Christian community.  Paul takes a similar line in the letter to the Corinthians, reprimanding them for sexual impropriety,  infidelity, factionalism,  personality cults.

The early followers of the way were living out their faith in turbulent times.  There were bound to be lapses from the standards of behaviour  they had chosen to live by.   But they lived with hope and mutual love.  Paul wrote:  though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am like a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  The insistence on the primacy of Jesus’s commandment that his followers love one another suggests that this was the salient characteristic of the early church.  I am convinced, wrote Paul to the Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  And in the first epistle of John, we are told that perfect love casts out fear.  This is an extraordinary statement, given the threats of violence and death that were recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles.  We feel that they must have lived in constant fear, of illness, of the tyrannical  power of the occupying Roman government, of natural disaster, of crop failure, of war, of  many of the sources of fear that are familiar to the people of Syria for example, or Libya or Palestine in the present day.  But they were  persuaded that surrounded by the love of God, they need not fear.

In our own society and in our own times, we are prey to fear.  It would be facile to tell the people of Nepal that they had nothing  to fear in the face of their recent experience of the power of an indifferent, possibly hostile natural universe.  Many people in SE13, given the uncertainty of their employment prospects or  living conditions are fearful for their future and that of their  children.  Talk to some members of the congregation at the HTC and they will tell you of their fear of being sanctionned because of an infringement of their benefit regulations.  Our children are warned at school to fear  ‘stranger danger’.  Nick Clegg made an emotional, almost elegiac speech when he announced his resignation after the election.  He said:  It is clear that in constituency after constituency north of the border the beguiling appeal of Scottish nationalism has swept all before it and south of the border a fear of what that means for the UK has strengthened English conservatism too.  This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.

Last Sunday saw the end of CAW.  CAW is the week when we can show that we really understand what being part of the Christian community is about.  We give our time and risk our dignity begging for money from strangers.  We produce plants and cakes and we dig into our pockets for the sake of people we’ll never see.  We commit ourselves to the cause of social and economic justice,  hoping, praying that it’ll eventually be achieved.  We know from some of the responses we get that a significant number of people think we are  nuisances or deluded idealists.  But as we heave sighs of relief that it’s over for another year, we recognise that although what we do is making a tiny difference, it’s going some way to stem the tide of cynicism and self absorption   that threatens our society.

Peter, Paul, Philip, Barnabas, Dorcas, Lydia, Stephen, Julia, the countless members of the church, some of whom are mentioned by name, others  as someone’s  brother or sister or mother in law,  were nothing  if they weren’t risk takers,  showing in their lives the fruits of the spirit.    They gave their houses, their money, their food and clothing, in some cases their future to be followers of Jesus.  They worked tirelessly and sacrifically for the gospel.  They knew that nothing could separate them from the love of God.  They were spirit filled.

This prayer comes from the service book we use on weekday mornings:

God our father, you have called us
In order to make us like your son, our lord Jesus Christ;
Change us day by day,
By the work of your spirit
So that we may grow more like him,
In all that we think and say and do,
Amen

The ‘Truth’ of the Ascension

I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension.  I am talking about Ascension Day rather than the Church of the Ascension  – perhaps that’s another sermon there…

As our regulars will have heard before, I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist.  Northern Irish Baptists make the sandal-wearing guitar-strumming Baptists of England look very tame.  Belfast Baptists are hardcore!  I brought up to believe the Bible was given by God – that God dictated the text of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.   And so, if the Bible was so God-given then it was true in every way that it is possible to be true: spiritually, historically, scientifically…

So the story of the Ascension was difficult because it is just so hard to believe as a historical event.  It works OK (just about) if you believe in the classical 3-tier universe: earth in the middle, the underworld below, and heaven above…  But we know the earth is round, to quote John Lenon there is “no hell below us, above us only sky.”

As a youth I was not only a fundamentalist Christian, I was also a science geek (I was a glutton for punishment, and not very popular with the girls), and I worried about Jesus body.  I worried because with our current knowledge of science we know that any human body would burn up on trying to leave the atmosphere, and even if God was able to protect Jesus body in a bubble of oxygen, there would be nowhere in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I was very neurotic – its a wonder I’m so well-balanced and ‘normal’ today!)

There were other things I struggled to believe, but this one just seemed so very odd.

Added to this I felt the Ascension was a strange day to celebrate, as it was a miserable occasion – it is a sad goodbye – a ridiculous day for a festival, and a ridiculous event to name a church after…  You will be glad to hear that my opinions have changed.

So we have this strange story of a seemly rocket-propelled saviour.  You may wonder what really happened to make the first Christians tell this extraordinary story?

Well get ready, brace yourselves, for tonight I will reveal the truth.

First lets look at the Bible:

The early manuscripts of the earliest Gospel, Mark, do not have any resurrection sightings of Jesus at all, and so no ascension either.

Matthew has Jesus make a lovely farewell speech “remember I am with you to the end of time…”  But he also has no account of Jesus departure.

The ending of John is my favourite, because it keeps us humble, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  John has no ascension story, just an assertion that there is a lot we do not know.

In the letters of Paul and other New Testament writes Jesus is described as “exalted to Gods right hand,” or “raised up” or even, “ascended on high.”  But all of these could be spiritual rather than historical statements.  It seems in the New Testament only Luke had heard the story of Jesus taken up into the clouds.

Turning to our readings for tonight, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscripts it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later versions add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So if Luke is in doubt, then the book of Acts has the only solid account of the Ascension.

So what do we make of this tale, seemingly known only to Luke?

The key line for me is “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.  Now, I can already hear people bristle.  How can the historical truth not matter?  Isn’t truth important?

Personally, I don’t take this story literally.  I don’t think this story presents itself as literal, historical fact.  If you need proof of the non-literal nature of the story, just look at the two accounts, both written by Luke, one at the end of his Gospel, the other at the start of Acts.  In Luke the Ascension happens in Bethany.  In Acts it happens in Jerusalem.  There are narrative reasons for that – the sort of reasons that makes Game of Thrones nerds sit up and point at the screen when the TV series changes locations and merges characters that are in the books.  (I speak as a Game of Thrones nerd.)

It is fascinating to reflect on what made the early Christians (or Luke, at least) come up with this story of Ascension.  I could regale you with theories.  But that is to miss the point.

I am not being anti-intellectual here, I am not saying just “I don’t believe this, but its best not to think about it too much.”

As a liberal Christian I have to insist on the orthodoxy of non-literal interpretation of the Bible.  As an Anglican Christian living in our wonderfully diverse tradition I also have to insist that people are free to interpret Scripture differently to me.  Bishop Richard Holloway put it very well in his marvellous book Doubts and Loves when he said that while Christians are free to believe whatever they like it is not the church’s job to “preserve antique mental furniture…”

The Flat Earth Society still exists.  They claim that the idea the earth is round is a hoax and a conspiracy (and they sometimes use the Bible to back up their claims).  It is not the job of the Church to try and eradicate the outdated and bizarre views of the Flat Earthers. People are free to believe whatever they like, but it must never, ever be the job of the church to “preserve antique mental furniture.”

Every time I have led an adult confirmation class someone has asked me something like: “I don’t have to believe in this Virgin Birth thing to be confirmed do I…?” or “I believe in evolution, can I still be confirmed…?”  The idea that we have to believe the impossible to be Christians is out there, and it damages the Gospel.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

I believe that the Ascension is not about doctrine, it is about a challenge.

That is true of Christianity.  The greatest enemy of orthodox Christianity, from the earliest days of the Church, was Gnosticism.  Gnosticism taught that salvation was all about having special sacred knowledge.  With knowledge of the secret truths you drew closer to God.  This was in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity which was often called “the Way.”

A Way of life, following Jesus teachings of a radical, inclusive love, versus a set of sacred truths.  We are not to gaze into heaven, but roll up our sleeves here on earth.

This has been the battle the Church has fought and refought over the centuries.  The Creeds were drafted to combat Gnosticism (and other heresies) and then became exactly the kind of thing they were created to defeat – a set of sacred truths that measured your Christian faith.  I believe that modern day Fundamentalism is just a new manafestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy.  Our oldest and most insidious enemy.

We follow a Way, not a set of dogmas.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?.”

And so the Ascension, this strange story of a flying saviour is not to be a statement we have to believe, to tick off on a list of dogmas that make up a true Christian.

The Ascension is not a story of a sad goodbye but a happy festival – it marks a coming of age.  Christ trusts us with his mission, as he disappears from our sight.  We can stare up into heaven no longer, its time to follow on the Way…

Christ has to go, so that we can grow up to spiritual adulthood.

The truth of the Ascension, the truth that I think this Church of the Ascension has at its heart, summed up in the famous words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which be blesses now.”

We have to decide how we understand the will of God, and then it is up to us to do it.  The Wash House youth club, offering free ESOL classes, our involvement in Holy Trinity Centre, in LEWCAS, our involvement with Majority World charities, our Visiting team, our commitment to Christian Aid, are just some of the manifestations of our commitment to the only truth of the Ascension that matters:

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

And as we trudge around our neighbourhood with a bundle of Christian Aid leaflets, or we attend a really dull meeting about financing one of our community projects we must remember that we are doing this to follow Christ.  This is the message of Ascension.  Perhaps it is the most challenging of all the celebrations of the Christian Year.  Perhaps the most fitting day for a patronal festival.  The Ascension reminds us that we have a responsibility.  The truth of the Ascension is that the work of Christ is now up to us.

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

Amen.

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