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?

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Angel or Devil?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Matthew 16.13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

In our reading this morning Jesus congratulates Peter warmly.  He says:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Jesus praises Peter’s insight and gives him a job.  “And I tell you, you are Peter [the name ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Peter must have glowed with pride.  He has been give praise and authority in the Kingdom of heaven.

However, if we read just a few verses on from this, and Peter receives an astoundingly ferocious telling off:  “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

One minute Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom, the next he is actually called ‘Satan’

When I read passages like this, I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would say to me.  Would he say “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

If we can answer that question of ourselves quickly or easily, I suspect our answer would be wrong.

We need to look at why Peter was praised, and why he was criticised if we are to understand where we lie.

First, why did Jesus give Peter such high praise?  Peter had said to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter had recognised something in Jesus that was beyond outward appearance.  Peter realised that their mission was not just the mission of a penniless wandering preacher, but the mission of God.

Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom.  And I think the reward is part of what causes the problem:  Peter is told he is part of God’s plan, and he has visions of triumph, glory and power as the Kingdom of God rules over all, and he holds the keys.

But what Jesus said after that must have been a shock: (Verse 21)  “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Hang about!” I can imagine Peter saying, “What about the Keys, and the binding things on earth and in heaven…?”  We read that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter wanted the position in the Church – he wanted to be the keeper of keys, but he didn’t want the cross.  He didn’t want to be challenged.  He didn’t want struggle or suffering or uncertainty or conflict.

This is the greatest dilemma the church has faced throughout it history – it wants the position of being the place that we can find God.  But it does not want the mission that goes with it.

We want to be a special place – of serene spirituality.  We want the keys of the Kingdom, but we do not want the cross.  Too often the Church  doesn’t want to make a stir.  The Church does’t want to have to engage in difficult issues like human sexuality, asylum seekers, the Middle East or Global Warming.

Yet these are these are precisely the sort of issues that the Bible is full of teaching about.  We are inward looking, like Peter, interested in what is in it for us.

I have heart it said (and quoted before) that fishermen who don’t fish fight:  if we don’t get about the mission Jesus calls us to do, building God’s Kingdom out there – outside the walls of this comfortable church, we will end up fighting about the flower arrangements and the size of the Altar candles.

The danger we face is much more serious that simply becoming trivial or irrelevant.  The danger is that we become opponents of Christ.  Jesus didn’t just say to Peter “get behind me, you’ve missed the point” or “get behind me you naughty boy!”  He said “get behind me Satan!”  Peter was siding with the forces opposing Jesus when he wanted an easy religion of privilege.

Remember that it was the religious leaders who opposed Jesus, the religious people who called for his crucifixion.  Every time I put on my Chasuble, symbolising the priesthood, I remember that it was the priests of Jesus day who had him killed.  I wonder if my ministry is closer to the ministry of Christ, or closer to the ministries of those who fought him.  I wonder if my work is in the spirit of Jesus, or the spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees and Saducees.

Would Jesus say to me “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

The Spirit of Jesus is not about buildings or money or liturgy or vestments (although all these things can be used as valuable means to an end).  The Spirit of Jesus is about just one thing – Love.  Love for God, love for our fellow human beings (meaning all people) and love for ourselves.

Love is the only thing we do that really matters.  St Peter may have wanted to sit around polishing his key, but Jesus demanded the difficult, sacrificial, painful way of love.

We need to work for Christ, we need to build the Kingdom.  The real work of our Christianity does not take place during this hour each Sunday morning.  Although this time is vital to give us a focus and a vision for the work.  The truest expression of our faith is how we live outside the doors of the Church: how we try to love all those we meet, give words of kindness and support to those who need it, how we share the good news of God’s love and invite our friends and neighbours to Church; how we use our gifts of time and money to help those in need and build God’s Kingdom.

We want the keys of the Kingdom.  But we must also take the cross.

What side we are on will take some more puzzling through, but I close with the words of Jesus, after his rebuke of Peter.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Violence and Hunger

A Sermon by Heston Groenewald

Rev. Heston Groenewald

Rev. Heston Groenewald

There have been horrific headlines from Palestine this week. And tomorrow marks 100 years exactly since Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. It’s easy to feel pretty helpless as we read about all this… So this morning I’d like us to think about VIOLENCE.

Violence is right at the heart of life on planet earth, and so it’s right and good that dealing with violence is something that’s at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Our first reading is this ancient story about Jacob and the mysterious man that he wrestles with through the night. And as a result of the wrestling match, Jacob gets a new name- he is called Isra-El which means ‘wrestles with God’.
And that’s a name that we inherit from him. In the New Testament, St Paul writes about the church as ‘the Israel of God’ – the people who struggle with God. We inherit this name generally – as Christians who inherit much of Jewish life and tradition – but also specifically here at the Church of the Ascension, because we gather precisely to wrestle with God and with life, and to see what God and life might want for us and from us.

And that’s true isn’t it… If you’ve been a Christian- or a human being- for any length of time, you know that there’s always wrestling to be done: wrestling with faith, wrestling with doubt, wrestling with people, wrestling with life, the universe and everything.

And so to our wrestling match. Lining up in the blue corner, is me, and lining up in the red corner, is God and everyone else. That’s how the battle goes, isn’t it- it’s our egos against the world. We say me and God says your neighbour. We say self-interest and God says self-sacrifice. Round one, fight!

Now there are folks who aren’t wrestling at all- for some people, ego – I – has no competition. And that’s really dangerous- as soon as we let our egos or self-interest run riot, without any sense of social justice as a corrective, that’s when our interests marginalise our neighbours. So ACTUALLY in this fight, we want God to win.

But we’re all fighters, aren’t we?! Our egos don’t give in without a fight. Which means that we can talk about violence, knowing that all of us are violent. We all have this selfish instinct- call it sin, call it the human condition, call it whatever, but this is a battle for all of us, individually and collectively.

St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God – and so any person who yearns to lose this fight! – will act with justice. And one of the controlling symbols for justice in the Hebrew Scriptures is a meal. When God imagines justice, he imagines it as a banquet. From Isaiah 25 – YHWH Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet with the best of meats and the finest of wines. He will swallow up death forever… He will wipe away the tears from all faces…

It’s a banquet, but it’s about much more than food. God deals with peoples’ hunger, but the meal is a symbol for something much bigger- God promises to deal with all the things that get people down in life, all the things they wrestle with- even disease and grief and death.

And so it’s interesting that this morning’s gospel reading talks about Jesus putting on a big miraculous meal, AND curing sick people. He dealt with peoples’ hunger, and also dealt with the things that got them down- the things they wrestled with.

St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God will act with justice. And we SYMBOLISE justice every week – we’re about to have a meal that’s a symbol for justice. Everyone gets a piece of bread and a sip of wine, everyone is provided for and no one is turned away. But it’s a pity it’s such a tiny token- what we have is a symbol of a symbol. If we shared an actual meal, then it would be far easier to move from symbol to reality. Because THAT is what God asks of us in the wrestling match.

So we share this symbolic meal, where everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone gets something to eat and drink. We can’t be selfish and egotistical here- we have to welcome others and make sure that there’s enough for them too. Whether they’re from England or Germany or Palestine or Israel or Congo. Everyone gets something to eat, and no one gets turned away. Easy here in the church, but much harder out there in life.

Food is just the symbol of a bigger hope for justice, but even if we think no further than the symbol – food – itself, this wrestling match is going badly. Never mind any of the other things that get people down in life; there are people in our city and our world who are HUNGRY.

As we know, there are people who aren’t wrestling at all. Ego, self-interest has already won the day, and there’s no problem with people being hungry- it’s not MY problem if they can’t look after themselves.

But we’re here to be wrestlers. And here in the blue corner God is challenging us to offer more, to give up more, to sacrifice more, not to keep our food to ourselves. And in the red corner is our selfish instincts, that want to keep our time, our money, our food, for ourselves and say it’s not MY problem that the weak and helpless and hungry can’t look after themselves.

We think, I’m not so very greedy or selfish. And we say, at least I’m not like the people who are killing each other in Palestine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in the DRC. But hear what one wise monk had to say: To make people live in a sub-human way against their will, in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force. Those who in some way or other concur in the oppression- and perhaps profit by it- are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacifism.

We are the people who benefit from the way our society is structured. We are the haves, and allowing the have-nots to remain hungry, is exercising violence on them. We can’t do much about Palestine or Syria, but here is a battle we CAN do something about. This is a violence that is happening right in our own streets, and we have it in our power to end it…  Are we ready to get the gloves off and do something about it?

LEWCAS shopping list handout- will you bring some of these items to church next week and every week??

If you can and will, we can pull off a miracle like Jesus did in feeding 5000 on a Galilean hillside. But we first have to wrestle with God, and we have to let God win against our greed and selfishness.

If you’re up for a fight, pray with me:

“O God, to those who have hunger, give bread;
and to us who have bread, give hunger for justice… Amen.”

The kingdom of Heaven

A sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Nearly always when Christians gather to worship they say the lord’s prayer, with its  pledge to hallow the name of God and to will that his kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus had a poetic imagination.  When he wanted to convey the wonder of the kingdom of heaven, he didn’t say:  the kingdom of heaven is a state of perfection which lifts us all out of ourselves and at the same time makes us relish being alive.   He said the kingdom is like a mustard seed or yeast or treasure hidden in a field or a fine pearl.  In fact, the last comparison is with the merchant who’s searching for the fine pearl – Jesus is not too particular about being exact.  His excitement is about the features of the kingdom.  It’s as natural as a growing plant or a measure of yeast – there’s nothing forced about it; you create the right environment for it and it starts to grow.  And at the same time, the kingdom is as spectacularly beautiful as a rich pearl.  Or it’s as exciting as finding hidden treasure – you think you’re digging a furrow to plant a row of potatoes and suddenly your spade hits something that’ll transform your life.

The first comparison is particularly significant I think because it emphasises the communal aspect of the kingdom.  When the seed germinates, it creates a shelter for all the birds of the air.  The yeast, the treasure, the pearl bring personal satisfaction.  The  benefits of the plant are there for all to enjoy.

The reality of our news at the moment makes it hard to imagine how the kingdom can ever come on earth.  One day while we were on holiday I read the paper from cover to cover, something I rarely do.  The grimness of both national and international news was almost relentless.   There were Palestinian children being killed by machine gun fire from Israeli soldiers.  A meeting of senior police officers admitted that they might be overwhelmed by the scale of child abuse.  The new minister for employment and disabilities was hailed by the Daily Mail as the Queen of the Catwalk.  1 in 6 families in some cities struggles to pay basic bills without resorting to payday loans.   Deaths from the Ebola virus are being reported in Sierra Leone.  And this was the day before the Malaysian air liner crashed.  Even a letter celebrating the Synod vote to allow women to be bishops ended with the hope that now that the C/E has moved into the 20thc., it’ll begin to address itself to the problems of the 21st.

Jesus lived at a bleak time in human history.  His country was occupied by an oppressive  imperial force.  The religious leaders were time-serving, hierarchical and power-hungry.  Poor people begged for food.  The slightly more fortunate made do with subsistence wages.  But Jesus preached a message of hope.  The followers of John the Baptist who were bewildered by Jesus sent to ask him: Are you the one who is to come, or do we have to wait for someone else?  Jesus sent the disciples back, saying:  tell John what you hear and observe.  The blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and good news is proclaimed to the poor.    Jesus was announcing  that the kingdom of heaven had arrived. The miracles were symbolic of new, universal values which are transforming and transcendent.  The signs of the kingdom are wholeness, inclusiveness, new insights and perceptions, justice, equality,  peace.  And the kingdom parables show his disciples that their role is to be sowers of the seed.

In the early 1900s, William Beveridge, a lawyer, was asked by Winston Churchill to become  a cabinet member and join him at what was then called the Board of Trade.  Beveridge introduced a pilot system of national insurance to combat the  poverty which was the consequence of unemployment.  In 1919 he became Director of the LSE, but in 1940 he again became a temporary civil servant and began work with Arthur Greenwood, an MP, on the document which became  the Report to Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services, published in 1942. It proposed that all people of working age should pay a weekly national insurance contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed.  Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”. It recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Beveridge included as one of three fundamental assumptions the fact that there would be a National Health Service of some sort, a policy already being worked on in the Ministry of Health   In 1948, these proposals became law in what we know as the NHS.

Beveridge was a member of the liberal party and became a liberal MP.  But his vision of a more equal society where everyone was entitled to a basic welfare programme, whatever their means, was recognised and affirmed by Conservative, Liberal and Labour governments.  His arguments were always economic – welfare institutions would increase the competitiveness of British industry in the post-war period, by producing healthier, wealthier and thus more motivated and productive workers who would also serve as a great source of demand for British goods.  As Jesus once famously said: the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.

There’s an exhibition at Tate Britain at the moment called: Kenneth Clarke – Looking for Civilisation.  The Kenneth Clarke in question isn’t the recently removed  Europhile cabinet member,  but a man who at one time was director of the National Gallery and who presented a series of tv programmes in the late 60s called Civilisation.  He was extremely cultured and  immensely wealthy and had a large collection of beautiful works of art, many of which are in the exhibition.  The video introducing the exhibition consists of extracts from the programmes.  At the very end, he sums up his reasons for making the series:  I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction.  I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.  On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.  …………I also hold one or two beliefs that are difficult to put shortly.  For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our egos.  And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature.  All living things are our brothers and sisters.  Above all I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

I don’t know if either Beveridge or Kenneth Clark was a religious man.  One of them had a vision of a world  where a safety net protected vulnerable people in our society from the cradle to the grave.  The other offered a mass audience a glimpse of great beauty in a variety of forms and helped them to understand the relationship between beauty and civilisation.  I’m sure Jesus would have added them to his list of seed sowers, bread makers, men and women who show us the possiblities of life lived to the full.

People who have lived fulfilled, useful lives have had an experience of heaven.  They have been able to see above the inevitable drudgery which is a part of most work experience to the value of what they have done for themselves and for others.  We all relish and cherish the moments in our lives when we are with those we love, when we enjoy a superb natural landscape, when we look with satisfaction on a task well done, when we read something that shifts the kaleidoscope.  These transfiguring moments expand our lives.

But the kingdom Jesus talks about is not just a matter of a personal experience, of seeking out circumstances which will make us happy.   It’s felt and known and shared in community, day after day.  We must live in the kingdom in communion with one another in a passionate commitment to each other and to the wider world.  Many people in our world will never know the satisfaction of a lifetime of productive work, social interactions among friends and colleagues, of culture or of the support of a family.  The kingdom must be for them as well, whether they live in Blackheath or in  Gaza. What we must offer here is a model of service and generous sacrifice to our immediate, privileged group and to the disadvantaged and dispossessed in our society and beyond.  When our hearts yearn in sympathy with the wretched of the earth and we are moved to do something to help them, we are living in the kingdom.  Because the core kingdom value is love.  Paul reminds us that nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus.  When we know that love and share that love we’re helping to build the kingdom..

A Place with no Outsiders or Believing the impossible

The Canaanite Woman

The Canaanite Woman

Isaiah 56:1-8

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:10-28

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Nearly two and a half thousand years ago Isaiah spoke to a broken nation about an age of joy to come, an age when eunuchs will find their lives fruitful and rich, that the immigrant would be fully accepted and adopted into the community.  He wrote as the Children of Israel’s long exile in Babylon was coming to an end.  The Exile is traditionally described as seventy years, historians and Biblical scholars now paint a more complex picture of the Exile, but the the fact that many Israelites were enslaved in Babylon for a generation is not contested.

For that generation captivity was all they knew, a generation born in captivity would not know or understand any other reality.  The accepted wisdom would be that they were a people who were born in slavery and would die in slavery.

When I was growing up in Belfast the accepted wisdom was that there would never be peace in Northern Ireland, that there could never be peace.

Other pieces of accepted wisdom in our time include that the Cold War could never end (or if it did end it would be in nuclear war); that Berlin wall would never fall; that the white population would never give up power in apartheid South Africa.  And that’s only the impossible that has happened in our lifetime, before that we ended slavery, an institution as old as civilisation itself…

As Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

There are hundreds of not thousands of things that accepted wisdom has said were impossible, but which still happened.

I have a very amateur interest in science, and science is littered with things that one generation of academics said was impossible that was confounded by the next:

For example – ‘heavier-than-air flight:’

Just 130 years ago he universally accepted wisdom of scientists and engineers was that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.  Just eight years before the Wright brothers’ flight Lord Kelvin (In 1895) stated that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

But that is just one example of doing the impossible:  Even after the breakthrough with flight, the idea that we might one day send any object into space was seen as preposterous.  To be fair this scepticism was well-founded – the necessary technologies were simply not available. To travel in space, you must reach the escape velocity of 11.2 kilometres per second. (To put that figure into perspective, the sound barrier is a mere 1,238 kilometres per hour was only broken in 1947.)  The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was eventually launched in 1957, and the first manned spaceflight followed four years later.

In 1934 Albert Einstein said, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” so said the actor Christopher Reeve.

Thomas Carlyle  said that “Every noble work is at first impossible.”

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”  So said Alexander the Great.  We may have to admit that there are some things that are literally impossible, but the spirit that led Alexander to say “nothing is impossible” certainly got him a long way.

So why am I talking about the impossible?

The Church is often accused of believing the impossible – that Virgin’s can give birth, that the universe was created in six days…  It’s OK to believe those things if you want to, but it is not the Church’s ministry or duty to promote belief in supernatural events in the distant past.

Our duty is to, in the words of Isaiah “Maintain justice, and do what is right…”

We are called to live a life of love here and now.  But we do so looking to the future:  “To the eunuchs …who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house… a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; …an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, …to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants …these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer”

Not a belief in the supernatural, but a belief that despite the impossible situations we read about in the newspapers, despite the harrowing images we see of Gaza, Iraq, Syria, despite the problems of the Ukraine there is hope for change, hope for peace, hope for an end to poverty.

Time and again throughout history humanity has done the impossible.  All our small efforts – raising money through our monthly appeal, twinning toilets, our collecting for LEWCAS, our involvement in our local community through ESOL and the Wash House, all this is part of a tide that will change the world.  The Kingdom will come and we can be a part of it.

This sermon has a post script.  I can’t resist talking a little bit about our Gospel Reading:

Our Gospel reading is a unique story in the Gospels.  In the story a Gentile woman came to Jesus – so far so unremarkable, but the unique thing about this story is that the words of Jesus are not the climax – the climax is the woman’s speech.

This story of the Gentile woman throwing herself at Jesus feet begging for mercy on her daughter, and receiving a, frankly rude, rebuff from Jesus is striking.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Words very uncharacteristic of the Jesus we read throughout the rest of the Gospels:

Jesus was often very rude about people, but generally it was the Pharisees – “You brood of Vipers…” he called them.  But they were in power, they had authority and prestige, they were public figures, and fair game for a satirist.  This woman was in desperate need, and vulnerable.

Jesus response was totally within the culture of his day.  Having suffered greatly under Greek and Roman occupation, the anti-Gentile feelings were at an all-time high.  In his frail humanity Jesus was acting how we all would in the culture of the time.

The disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus adds “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”

Perhaps Jesus thought his mission was only to the Jews, and this woman showed him that his message was for all people!

The most remarkable and unique thing of all is seen in the humility of Jesus.  In front of all his followers, his disciples and friends, he allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman.  Women were not allowed to study the faith – their opinion was invalid; Gentiles were outside of the faith – their opinions were dangerous.  Yet Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile woman.

Surely this is a profound lesson for us all – Jesus did not care about looking silly in front of his disciples – he realised the right thing to do and he did it.

And perhaps here is where the Gospel connects to our earlier reading – a world where the outcasts are accepted and even the brightest and best accept that the poor and outcasts are not just recipients of charity, but people who can teach us profound truths.

When all are included and listened to the Kingdom is not just faintly glimpsed, it is unstoppable.