The Other Sheep

A sermon on John 10v11-18

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.

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows  everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Nicodemus must be Born Again after dark

ImageJohn 3:1-17
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The story of Jesus is the story of the poor and the oppressed, it is the story of the marginalised and the outcast, the story of the lepers and misfits.
This morning’s reading introduces Nicodemus. And Nicodemus just doesn’t fit in.
Nicodemus must have been wealthy: after Jesus died he brought expensive balms to anoint Jesus body, so he was financially secure. The name Nicodemus appears in secular histories of the age. In the year 63, when there was open war between the Jews and Romans, the Jews sent a man called Nicodemus as their ambassador to plead before the Roman Emperor. In the last days of the war history records that a man called Gorion, the son of Nicodemus negotiated the Jewish surrender. It’s just about possible that all these Nicodemuses were the same; it’s very possible that they all belonged to the same influential and wealthy family.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisee has come to be synonymous with hypocrite – but the Pharisees were the clergy of Jesus’ day and like the clergy of today they were a mixed bunch – the holy and the hypocritical, the gentle and the unforgiving, and most a mixture of qualities good and bad.
But Nicodemus was not just described as the equivalent of a first century Jewish Vicar – he was described as ‘a ruler of he Jews’ – he was a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of seventy people that were the supreme court of the Jews.
Nicodemus does not fit in with the profile of Jesus first followers: he is wealthy, influential, respected…
He doesn’t summon Jesus to his house – Some Pharisees did this – Luke records Simon the Pharisee inviting Jesus into his house – that dinner didn’t go too well – a woman (who was a notorious sinner) burst in and anointed Jesus’ feet.
Nicodemus has a very different approach – he comes to Jesus by night.
It’s possible that he came to Jesus by night because he wanted peace and quiet to talk to Jesus without the crowds that constantly surrounded Jesus by Day. However, I think the obvious reason, is the most likely: Nicodemus, this distinguished V.I.P., didn’t want anyone to see that he was interested in the disreputable teaching of the scruffy upstart, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus presents Nicodemus with a puzzle that, if we are honest, is still puzzling today. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above – or, in some translations, he just be “born again.” This passage has been so influential that it has inspired a whole tradition of “born again Christianity.”
In this tradition the moment of conversion is important – there is a moment at which you are “saved” before which you are “lost.”
Just as there is a fixed moment of birth, so in the life of faith there is a fixed moment of “second birth.”
For born again Christians this moment is typified with the word “Repentance.”
The Christian idea of repentance has a bad press. Christianity is often seen as ‘peddling guilt’ and preachers stereotyped as rabid bible-bashers, foaming at the mouth and screaming “repent or burn!”
Repentance has come to mean “being sorry for your sins.” But the word literally means to “turn around.” Repentance is not about listing our sins to God (or a priest) and saying “I’m really, really sorry.” Repentance is about turning our lives towards God.
Interestingly the Jesus doesn’t talk about the “saved” and the “lost” he does talk about those who are “being saved” and those who are “being lost.” That’s isn’t a quibble about Greek grammar tenses – it is an important distinction. “Salvation” is not a “club” that you are either in or out of. “Salvation” is the journey that we care called to join in. It is not a fixed event, it is a direction of travel. It is not about arriving anywhere, it is about embarking on a journey.
Returning to Nicodemus, Jesus does not tell everyone who wants to follow him to be “born again” nor does he call everyone to “repent.” Some people, especially the poor and the outcast and simply welcomed with open arms. Jesus approach to Nicodemus is similar to his approach to a rich young ruler who was told to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Strangely that instruction never caught on in quite the same way as Nicodemus’ more esoteric command to be ‘born again.’
Nicodemus had a full and interesting life, he was respected and admired, he had reached the top of the ladder. But Jesus tells him that in matters of faith he needs to become like a new-born and start all over again. His fine clothes and finer position are the things of the flesh that Jesus compares to the things of the Spirit – which are love and joy and peace.
Nicodemus had it all – he even had a little element of danger coming to hear Jesus by night – but Jesus said that was not enough – he had to start over again.
It is not enough to ‘be interested’ in Jesus, it is not enough to read a few books and say a few prayers and do it all behind closed doors. It is not enough to ‘come to Jesus by night’ only risking being seen coming to church by the early morning joggers
Just like it’s not enough to be interested in poverty, and watch “Comic Relief” on telly when it comes round again. We have to dip our hands into our pockets to raise money and raise awareness.
Its not enough to be interested in human rights, read the Guardian and the Amnesty International website – we have to act, to write letters and campaign.
If we keep our religion in our heads it will be an interesting academic exercise, but that’s not the religion of Jesus. Jesus calls us to new life, he calls us to action, to change the world, beginning with ourselves.
Some are called to totally change their selfish lives, to be born again, some are called to accept themselves and recognise that they are already “close to the Kingdom.” One of the great challenges of being a Christian is to work out where our lives are and what is the Good News that we need to hear…?
The tragedy of Nicodemus is that he does overcome his need for secrecy, but too late! Only after Jesus has been arrested, tried (tried in front of the Sanhedrin, in front of Nicodemus’ eyes), only after he has seen Jesus tortured and executed does Nicodemus stand up and make himself visible. Only when it is too late, does he act.
Nicodemus works out Jesus’ message to him; let us pray for the grace to work it out in our lives, today.
Amen.

Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

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

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

Embracing the Apocalypse

Image

Luke 12:49-56

And Jesus said to them, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time

 

As some of you know my hobby is to write novels.  Before you start to think, oh wow, our Vicar is so literary and talented as well as such a great priest (which I’m sure you’re all thinking right now!) I have to confess they are grisly horror.  My latest project is entitled “The Apocalypse will be Televised” – and its about the world ending in a wave of unstoppable violence.  They are not the kind of thing most churchgoers would enjoy!

            I am (and have been from childhood) fascinated by the apocalypse.  I am fascinated by ‘the Biblical Apocalypse,’ especially when interpreted by slightly insane fundamentalists or the makers of the 1976 horror film, The Omen.  I love the Apocalypses of John Wyndam’s Day of the Triffids and Cormac McCarthy’s heart-rending The Road.  I love the nuclear Apocalypses of Threads, Doctor Strangelove and Mad Max.  I especially love the Apocalypse of George Romero’s zombie films (to which my books owe a significant debt).

            Apocalyptic stories are enduringly popular, and extremely varied.  However, whether the apocalypse is called by the horsemen of the apocalypse, or the antichrist, or a mysterious diseases, or nuclear disaster, or robots, or carnivorous plants, or flesh-eating zombies… all these apocalypses have something in common.  It’s something so obvious that you might not thing it is worth mentioning:  They all see the Apocalypse as a bad thing!

            We may think, ‘of course it’s a bad thing’ – no one wants zombies to eat 95% of the human race!

            But the Jews of Jesus time had a very different view of the End of Days.  Our books and films are totally different from the Apocalypse as Jesus understood it.

            In our reading Jesus says ‘ I came to cast a fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’  To us that sounds horrible and disturbing (I hope!) but to Jesus hearers it would have been one of his few uncontroversial sayings.

            The ancient Jews had been slaves in Egypt, had less than half a century of peace in Israel before being invaded by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and in Jesus’ time – the Roman Empire.

            The Jews longed for the Last Judgement when God would lift up their lowly nation and strike down their mighty oppressors.  The Apocalypse was good news.  Jesus talks about fire; in Jewish thought fire was a symbol of judgement; Jesus is longing for Judgement Day.

            This was the kind of talk that Jesus’ followers would have expected of the Messiah: Judgement for the Roman oppressors & vindication for God’s chosen people.

            But then Jesus goes on to say ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with.’  The Greek ‘baptizein’ is not a religious work like our ‘Baptism;’ it just means ‘to dip’ or ‘to submerge.’  It could refer to a ship sinking beneath the waves; it was used to describe someone who was drunk – they were ‘submerged in wine.’

            Jesus knew what would happen to him if he fell into the hands of the religious and political leaders who were envious of his wisdom and fearful of his influence.  He was about to be submerged beneath the horror of humanity’s fear, insecurity, envy, jealousy, hatred and violence.

            Jesus longs for God to put right all the wrongs of the present age, but he has a word of warning that it’s not enough to observe the Jewish law, God will judge by our love and care for those in need.  Matthew 25 describes Judgement Day as a time when people are judged as if every act of kindness to those in need was an act of kindness to God, Godself.  God says to those found to be righteous:

 

       ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

 

            For Jesus power was not what the Zealots believed it was – not mighty armies gathering to defeat the Roman Empire.  True power is the power of love.

 

A bandit came into the camp of a Buddhist monk who was sitting by the fire – ‘I am the most powerful bandit in the country, give me all your money or I will kill you.’  The monk serenely replied, ‘you are welcome to the money, it belongs to you as much as to me, but I would like to see your power – can you chop down that thick branch with your sword?’  The bandit chopped off the branch with one mighty swing of his sword.  The monk did not flinch and added, ‘so now show me your power, can you put the branch back and heal the tree?’

The Bandit at one enrolled as a disciple of the monk.

 

            Power is not what the Zealots believed it was – power to kill & destroy…

            Jesus saw true power, the power to suffer and not give way to hate, the power to heal, to forgive, to make whole…  This is power, the power of God’s Kingdom

            This is not a wishy-washy vague ‘niceness’ this is a powerful challenge to the accepted order of things.

            Jesus is calling down the fire of God’s judgement to transform society but his pathway is not to inflict violence, but to sink under it.

            I give the last words to Desmond Tutu:

 

“There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.”

 

 

Deleted Scenes

Some quotes about the Apocalypse that I liked but didn’t use because the sermon went off in a different direction:

 

“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

 

“If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other things who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.”

― James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

Mary, Martha and the Good Samaritan

Luke 10.38-42

38 Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way,  he entered a certain village,  where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary,  who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;  so she came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care  that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part,  which will not be taken away from her.’

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The story of Mary and Martha is a story for our time.  Martha is highly motivated.  Jesus is coming – the house must be tidy and clean, the silver service has to be buffed up, the butter-roasted guinea fowl needs preparing, a suitable desert wine must be chosen to go with the Chocolate and chilli pudding with coconut sorbet.

Maybe not quite how it was – but you get the idea of a lot of effort going into hosting by Martha, in contrast to Mary sitting down to relax with Jesus.

Our culture values effort hard work above almost all else.  I think we perhaps value that false God of success most of all, but I believe that the harder people work the more valuable they are seen to be.  Martha has a lot to do, she wants to please Jesus by getting all the important jobs done.  Her efforts seem highly commendable.  Most, if not all, of us gathered here this morning would do the same.

Jesus attitude to Mary and Martha must always come as a shock to us busy Christians.  Mary gains her Lord’s approval by just siting and listening.

Although we must not be too hard on poor Martha, we need to see this story in context.  Last week we heard the passage immediately before this one: the story of the Good Samaritan.  In that story the Priest and the Levite are holy and spiritual, but they walk on by on the other side of the road; the Samaritan, who was religiously in error, a heretic in the eyes of Jesus and his disciples, the Samaritan does the right thing before God by caring for the wounded man by the road side.

We need to see the Good Samaritan and this passage as part of the same story, as creating a bigger picture.  Jesus does not say it is all about work, nor does he say it is all about ‘spending time with Jesus’ – its both/and not either/or.

If our spirituality is all about sitting at Jesus feet like Mary, we can become self-indulgent, a faith that is no more than our own therapy.

If our spirituality is all about work like Martha, we end up acting out of a sense of duty – and, like Martha, we end up begrudging our labours.  We have all been helped by people who end up making us feel much worse – often this is because our helper is suffering from Martha-syndrome.

What we do for the church and for God should not come from a sense of duty, but from a sense of love.  If we are working from duty we may need to take a step back and spend some time, like Mary, sitting with Jesus (metaphorically) to try and remember why we are here…

Trying to get the balance as a church and as individuals is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires life-long commitment, self-examination and effort.

As a church we have been doing some self-examination, starting at our Annual Meeting and carrying on through Margaret’s list of priorities that many of you circled.

In order to carry forward these priorities we all need to play a part.  Studies show that between 80 and 90 % of people who come to a service for the first time do so because someone personally invited them.

I think we are not very good at this and we are missing out because as well-meaning liberals we don’t like to ‘evangelise’ we don’t believe that our faith makes us better than anyone else, so we don’t like to be holier-than-thou.

But the simple truth is that unless liberal Christians are prepared to tell people that our faith gives us life / inspiration / strength / joy (whatever it is that our faith gives us) then all the outreach will be left to the crazy fundamentalists.

As a church we are small, and that’s OK – it’s easy to get to know everybody and we don’t get lost in the crowd.  Except… we do a huge amount in our local community with ESOL and the Wash House and Lewcas (and if you don’t know what these are, come along tomorrow night at 7.30 and you can find out!) but we could do so, so much more with a few more people.

What we have here is good.  It’s a good community, doing good things, it is simply selfish not to share it with our neighbours and friends.

In September we will be setting up a group to put our priorities for outreach into action.  We are looking for volunteers…  It’s not simply yet another committee it will not be a ‘talking shop’ but a group of people prepared to roll up their metaphorical sleeves.  For example be on a rota to look after newcomers (and oldcomers) if they are on their own at coffee time after church or help them with the vast piles of hymn books and sheets of paper that are sometimes given out…  Or to look out for people who have stopped attending – not to chase after them, but to make sure they are alright.  Or to produce and deliver a regular newsletter to help our communication… We have had lots more suggestions involving everything from sharing meals to knocking on doors in the Blackheath Hill development, giving our Children birthday cards and baptism anniversary cards…

But for all this to happen we need you.

All this is exciting, and it’s things that we should be doing, its our responsibility as Christians to reach outside our walls…

But we actually have no choice in the matter.  All charities are suffering in the current financial crisis, and the church is no different.  The diocese has to cut clergy jobs, and it is the smallest churches that will have their clergy cut first!

I don’t want to be alarmist, but our future is not guaranteed.

I believe we can double the number attending this church.  We could do that in less than a year if everyone here pulls their weight to the full.

A handful of mostly illiterate disciples turned the world upside down, we could transform ourselves from a small, slightly struggling church into a thriving, bustling church helping our community and providing a place for reflection and faith for everyone.

But there is more to this passage than just this powerful message.

Looking at the Gospels from our early 21st century perspective we loose much of the power of the events and teachings recorded.  Mary sits at Jesus feet – ‘so what?’ we may ask.  For the story to regain its full impact we must imagine the culture in which Jesus lived and moved.  A culture in which Jesus attitude to Mary was revolutionary.

In Jewish culture, the picture of someone sitting at the feet of another and listening would conjure up the image of a student sitting at the feet of a Rabbi to learn the faith.  (In much the same way that people sat in rows of desks listening to someone talk at a chalk-board would conjure to us a image of school or college.)  But the important thing for us to remember is that in Jesus time a woman could never, ever become the pupil of a Rabbi.  The legal status of women in Jesus time was that of property.  Either the property of their parents or relatives, or the property of their husband.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of Laws to protect women, especially when widowed (when women had no one to look after, or own, them they were in real trouble).  The Scriptures have many Laws to protect orphans, strangers, and widows.

The Law may have offered protection, but the bottom line was that women were property.   And it was seen as a waste of time to educate women.  A Rabbi would never take a woman pupil.  So it would have been a strange sight indeed, to have a woman sitting at the feet of a renowned teacher.

We can imagine Martha’s rage.  There is work to be done, and Mary is not only failing to pull her weight, she is behaving extremely foolishly, and by daring to sit like a disciple, she is behaving scandalously.

Martha is rushing around trying to make this visit as great an occasion as possible, and Mary is being outrageous.  She has ideas above her station.

Do we dare to confound expectation and be daring for our faith?

That is our challenge, to transform our lives and our church and our community by being prepared to learn from Jesus and then to act.

Amen.

Mary Magdalene – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Mary Magdalene, was one of Jesus’s most celebrated disciples, and the most important female disciple in the Jesus movement. Luke’s gospel in chapter 8 tells us: He made his way through towns and villages , preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve as well as certain women – Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Suzanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene became Jesus’s close friend and most prominent during his last days, at the cross and at his burial. She was the first person to see the post-Easter Jesus according to both John and Mark .

But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different from this wealthy woman disciple. In art, she’s often semi-naked, or wearing low-cut, voluptuous clothes. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. Traditon casts her as a prostitute.

The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is a sinner and forgiven, is a very powerful image of redemption, a signal that no matter how low a woman has fallen, she can be redeemed.

Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels, but not once do the writers mention that she was a prostitute. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel both of whom dry Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made the prostitute story official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner and saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation was entrenched, particularly in art.

Mary the mother of Jesus is cast as demure, self-effacing, virginal, distraught witness of the death of her son, never the robust champion of justice for the poor and oppressed, the Mary of the Magnificat. In the same way Mary Magdalene has become a symbol of wanton sexuality finally brought to see the error of her ways, rather than the first person to recognise that death had not vanquished her friend and her leader. I’m not aware of any painting that shows Mary Magdalene throwing her dignity to the winds and sprinting back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that she had seen the lord.

Why has church tradition treated these women as stereotypes? Why did the church disregard the biblical record of the lives of these women? And why today in the governing hierarchy of the church are women seen as a problem? How can opponents of the consecration of women bishops talk of women as a source of taint?

We see the word ‘taint’ used quite frequently eg in reports of business dealings which have been tainted by corruption. G4S was described last week as being tainted by arrogance and incompetence. It’s a word associated with evil or immorality. To suggest that a Christian congregation should be protected from the taint of a woman is deeply shocking.

It was fortunate for the church that the news headlines two weeks ago were all about the chance that Andy Murray could win the Winbledon singles title. Otherwise, some journalist at a loose end might have unpicked the amendment clause that caused such a furore at the General Synod. The original proposal was to legislate for full female bishops, but on the understanding that they would agree to stand aside and allow a man to step in and perform duties where particular congregations objected, and thereby avoid a split or an unpleasant scene. This appeasement proposal was agreed by 42 out of 44 dioceses through their diocesan synods. But the amendment includes the right of any male bishop to declare he will not ordain women as bishops and priests, thereby keeping himself unsullied by women.

It’s this provision that introduces the idea of ‘taint’: that anyone who ordains women as priests or bishops is ‘tainted’ by those actions and therefore unacceptable to those opposed. It endorses in law the principle that for many of those opposed it’s not sufficient to have the ministry of a male rather than a female bishop, but that the only acceptable bishops are those who have kept themselves apart from their episcopal colleagues in not ordaining women as priests or bishops. This is a powerful declaration of separation.

What are we saying to the world at large about our church? And how can we proclaim the gospel to all nations, as Jesus did in the towns and villages with the Twelve and the women if we have misogny and inequality at our core?

The same specious reasons are paraded by the opponents of women bishops as have been used for decades. Jesus’s chosen Twelve were male apostles. So they were. They were also Jews. They would all have been circumsized. Several were fishermen. How many of these criteria must we apply when selecting our minsters? There was an MP once who stood up in the House of Commons and said that he was aware that everything that could conceivably be said on the subject of the debate had already been said many times, but not by him. How long are we going to hear opinions that ceased to be valid centuries ago endlessly repeated as if they were revelations of the divine will?

The debate in the Synod was adjourned a fortnight ago but there is no guarantee that the amendment, if it’s reintroduced, won’t succeed in the autumn. So we must carry on presenting our view of what is right for our church and our world, in the name of integrity and justice for women and men.

When Mary Magdalen encountered the gardener on the resurrection morning, he addressed her as ‘woman’, though he clearly knew her name. When his mother asked him for help at the wedding at Cana, Jesus called her ‘woman’. He must surely have known her name and her relationship to him. We heard the story of Jairus’s daughter a few weeks ago. When Jesus went into the bedroom of this unconscious child he addressed her as ‘little girl’. I think the gospel writers want us to realise that Jesus, a product of his own time, was nevertheless keen to assert that he saw the human dignity in women and girl children as naturally as he saw it in men. Women and little girls stood very low in the social hierarchy of Jesus’s day, below men and boys but above slaves. But Jesus defied the social conventions and when he talked to Mary Magdalen and Mary his mother and Jairus’s daughter, he did so as if they represented and affirmed the female sex.

If Jesus could do it, surely the church can do the same.