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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“One Size Fits All” Spirituality

ImageThe Tax Collector and the Pharisee

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 

A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Anglican minister were discussing sin, and the Anglican asked, “Tell me, gentlemen, have you ever sinned and broken the laws of your religion?”

“I must admit,” responded the Rabbi, “I was always very very curious about how pork tastes, so once, just once, I stopped at a bar-be-que restaurant when I was on a holiday and ate a pork sandwich. In fact, it was so delicious, I ate four of them, knowing I’d never have the nerve to sin again like that.”

  The Catholic joined in, “Well, I had the same curiosity about sex, and that being forbidden, I didn’t know which sex would appeal to me more, so I once, while in seminary, had an affair with a married couple, husband and wife at the same time. I was so overcome with feelings of guilt that I’ve never done anything like that again. Well, what about you, Reverend?”

  The Anglican said, “My besetting sin is GOSSIP, and I just can’t wait to tell everybody in town what you guys have said!”

  Guilt is a powerful emotion, often used (and abused) by religion.  It’s the starting point for my sermon and one of the themes of our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately, I have a problem with this morning’s Gospel reading.  It doesn’t fit easily into how I want us to see ourselves before God.  I’m not one to encourage bowing and scraping and beating our breast.  I think guilt is often needlessly piled on us by religion.  I believe that God calls us to stand stall, to rejoice that we are a wonderful part of God’s wonderful universe, to celebrate the amazing gift of life.

  I think that spirituality that flows from guilt is not healthy.  To my mind the truest spirituality must flow from love.

  Yet our reading has the poor wretched tax collector bowing his head, beating his breast and repeating ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

  [It reminds me of a traditional prayer that I refuse to say.  It’s a famous one, and many people’s favourite – it’s called the ‘prayer of humble access’ from the 1662 Prayer Book:

“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.  But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

  This prayer misquotes a bible story where the point it that we were more worthy than the dogs that licked the crumbs, and I see this prayer as an exercise in spiritual masochism – to me the message of Christ is that we are worthy – even the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and demon-possessed are worthy of God’s love.  Our service for God springs from love, not from guilt.]

  But in our reading the tax collector comes to God wracked by guilt.  This approach to God means that the snivelling tax collector leaves the synagogue justified before God, whereas the Pharisee who stands tall is condemned.

  I don’t think Jesus is telling us to always be like the tax collector.  Jesus is showing us extremes of behaviour and his listeners would have assumed that the Pharisee was pleasing God by his worship, but Jesus is saying, no, even the tax collector, who is aware of his faults is closer to God than the pompous, self-righteous Pharisee.

  Tax collectors were collaborators with the invading Roman authorities.  They were well-rewarded for exploiting the poor.  He was a sinner – that was his genuine approach to God.  The Pharisee was a respected pillar of the community, he was also arrogant, and snobbish, and felt superior to those around him – his prayer was an opportunity to show off – and was far from genuine.

  When I worked as a prison chaplain approaching God as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness was exactly the right approach.  Here in Blackheath, I’m sure we all get things wrong from time to time, but the central message most of us need to hear most of the time is about God’s love for us, and his invitation to join in the work of the Kingdom.

In truth, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to approach God. 

  I spent the week before last on a course with London Citizens, learning alongside Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers, lay workers, community leaders and trade unionists about community organising.  It was clear that there was no one way to live a good life and do good works.  Here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to make the world a better place.  If I can just be a religious and cultural imperialist and use Christian language to describe their deeds, here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to build the Kingdom of God.

  I’ve seen the work of the Kingdom in other places too, closer to home.  I have spent some time with the people of St. John’s over the last few weeks as they prepare to advertise for a new Team Rector.  Those of us who have been to St. John’s have found it, to be honest, a mixed experience.  Their exuberant style of worship, which sometimes includes clapping, dancing and hands raised to God has both delighted and appalled members of our more reserved congregation.

  I confess I struggle with the theology of some of the words of the hymns and songs, but I have no problem at all with the clapping, dancing and raising of hands.

  The Bible exports us to ‘make a joyful noise to God,’ and clapping our hands is fine by me.

  The Bible also describes the posture of prayer as raising our hands to God.  That’s why I follow the old tradition of raising my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer.  But if, as they do in many more evangelical churches, someone wants to raise their hands to say that they are making the words of the hymn their prayer, a way of saying “I really mean this” – that’s ok with me too.

  But I don’t want to just stand up for evangelical worship – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer us too.

  Those who cross themselves do so for a variety of reasons, to me it is about saying ‘this ancient story of Jesus and his cross is part of my story too, I place the cross on myself because I have a personal connection to it…’

  Genuflecting or kneeling is another traditional poise for worship – although one I would handle with more care.

  I believe God calls us to stand up tall, so kneeling isn’t a posture for prayer that comes easily to me.

  We have been talking at the worship committee and decided that we need to make it clear that kneeling is not compulsory when it comes to taking communion.  You can come up to the altar rail and stand if you prefer.

  (The only thing I would say is that you must help guide the chalice if you are standing – because the person giving you the wine can’t see the level when she or he is giving it!)

  But there is no ‘one size fits all’ if you want to stand or kneel, cross yourself of raise your hands, clap or sit quietly, that is fine (although it may not work if you clap disputing the prayers and stand up and cross yourselves during the sermon – but hopefully you get my meaning).

  In our Gospel reading we see two approaches to God.  Standing bold and proud, and kneeling in humility.  What matters is not the stance, what matters is that we find an approach to God that is genuine. 

  Wether you sit or stand or kneel or cross yourself or raise your hand is up to you – but do it because you have chosen it, not because it’s what you have always done it…

  I end my sermon with the words from John’s Gospel, often used to introduce Book of Common Prayer Evensong:

  God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.

  Amen.

Coming soon: The End of the World

In 2014 it’s all over…

 

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

God & Money

Luke 16.1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As St Paul:

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

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.

The Science & Theology of Creation

This year we have been observing the Season of Creation. We have talked about the world, we have considered humanity, made in God’s image, and today I want to give a thought to science.

Too often when someone talks about the ‘theology of creation’ the conversation instantly moves to the supposed debate between sciene and religion.

I want to look at the scientific view of the origin of the world, but rather than see theology as opposed to science, I want to draw some theological reflections from scientific theory:

Einstein, Albert said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” So this sermon is an attempt to bring Science and religion together…

In the beginning was nothing.

Then 13.7 billion years ago, in a singularity, an infinitely small pinprick of existence, the big bang was sparked into existence and there was light.

As the infant universe expanded faster than the speed of light, and within the first fraction of the first second of existence the laws of physics crystalised out of the chaos. At first the universe was only a hot soup of quarks, gluons and leptons, but while the universe was one ten-thousandth of a second old protons, neutrons and electrons (the famalier building blocks of atoms) had appeared.

The whole universe remained hot enough to be nothing more than constant nuclear reactions until beyond the first three minutes.

There were still no atoms yet – just the raw materials – the universe was not cool enough for atoms for half a million years.

At this point the gross nuclear structure of the universe was left at the ratio of today with a quarter helium to three quarters hydrogen. (Although the ratios of protons to neutons and electrons had made this inevitable three minutes after the initial big bang.)

The greatest miracle, ever had already occurred. Water into wine? Feeding 5,000? These are nothing to the laws of physics created in the first second of existence and the protons, neutons and electrons that formed in the first minutes. If any of these forces or measurements were even slightly different, no life would exist. For example if gravity were slightly stronger, or any of these nuclear particles just a little bigger (giving them a stronger pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe pulling itself together within a few billion years in a big crunch with no opportunity for suns and planets to from. If gravity were slightly weaker, or any nuclear particles just a little smaller (giving them a weaker pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe expanding so fast that stars would never form, and the universe would be an ever-expanding and ever-thinning cloud of hydrogen and helium.

But in our perfectly ballanced universe, once atoms formed, the forces of gravity started to draw them together, forming larger and larger clumps of matter, until some clumps became so vast that their internal forces of gravity became so strong that they broke apart the atoms in nuclear reactions and the first stars were born, about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

In these first stars the atoms of hydrogen and helium were broken apart, and they reformed as new elements, including the carbon that is the elemental building block of life were formed – every atom of carbon in your body was created in the nuclear reactions in the heart of a sun.

Our sun and our home planet were formed in the second generation of stars.

Around 4.5 billion years ago life on earth began. (Just 3 million years ago the human race appeared.) The evolution of life is every bit as wonderful as the physical origen, but I will not go into it, as we will run out of time, and I was always much better at physics than biology.

But I would like to echo the words of Carl Segen who said of human civilisation: “These are the things hydrogen atoms do given 13.7 billion years.”

Science has its own miracles that can inspire awe, and wonder, and spirituality.

Atoms are mostly empty space, if you were able to remove all the space from and atom and compress it, then the entire human race could fit into a space the size of a sugar cube.

Some of you may know that I edit the Newsletter for the campaigning charity, Inclusive Church. The editorial that recieved more comment & feedback than all my others put together was based the sermon I delivered here on Ash Wednesday. I hope those who were here on Ash Wednesday will forgive me repeating what I said back then.

As I have already said, after the Big Bang, scientists believe that the only elements that existed were hydrogen and helium (the lightest and simplest elements). No carbon or metal or any complex elements. Then these atoms of hydrogen and helium slowly clustered over unimaginable aeons of time the clusters became enormous balls of matter that had so much gravity that the atoms were pulled apart in a nuclear reaction, and the universe’s first generation of stars sprung to light.

All of the heavy elements that exist in the universe – metals, and the carbon of our bodies was created in the heart of the first generation of stars.

On Ash Wednesday we say “remember that you are dust…” we are not just made of dust, as Genesis tells us, we are made of stardust! “Remember you are stardust…”

Our human bodies that we so often feel ashamed of (or are made to feel ashamed of) are the stuff of stars, made by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.

We are stardust! We need to learn to stand tall and not be ashamed: regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, social status, education: you are stardust. You are a child of God. You matter.

We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

Our lives are strange and sometimes difficult, but life is also wonderful and beautiful.

Paralympics in the season of Creation

There was story going round about three men who wanted to get into the Olympics but they hadn’t been able to get tickets. They came up with a plan to pose as athletes: the first man picked up a manhole-cover, tucked it under his arm and walks to the gate. “Corsini, Poland” he said, “Discus”, and in he walked. The next man picked up a length of scaffolding and slings it over his shoulder. “Piaf, France,” he said, “Pole vault,” and in he walked. The last man looked around, picked up a roll of barbed wire and tucked it under his arm. “O’Malley, Ireland,” he said, “Fencing.”

Every Sunday throughout the Summer Juliet has asked me what my sermon was going to be about; I have told her ‘Creation…’ or ‘Inclusion…’ or ‘Whatever…’ and Juliet has said ‘You really should talks about the Olympics or Paralympics…’ Well, today, as the Paralympians have their bags packed, ready to head for home after tonight’s closing ceremony, I have finally given in.

Today we continue the season of Creation. Last Sunday was Earth Sunday, when we gave thanks for the gift of our home, planet earth. Today is humanity Sunday – when we give thanks for our creation.

Over the Summer at the Olympics we have seen the pinnacle of human createdness, with athletes whose bodies are examples of physical perfection, pushed to the limits of possibility. When we see Mo Farah running or Bradley Wiggins cycling we see the heights of what human bodies can achieve.

At the Paralympics we have seen human physical perfection redefined. Ellie Simmonds swimming or Oscar Pistorius running we see something every bit as awe-inspiring as anything at the Olympics.

The Paralympics motto is ‘Spirit in Motion,’ which is not an immediately obvious. But as a motto, the Church could struggle to find better: ‘Spirit in Motion.’

The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in humanity, is at work in the world through the lives of Christian people who make up the church.

Reflecting on the Spirit, Jesus repeated the words of Isaiah when he began his ministry as a sort of manifesto:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18,19)

Jesus brings the ‘Spirit in Motion’ to bring good news to people who are poor, captive, blind or oppressed.

In Britain today disabled people can find themselves falling into all four of the categories that Jesus declared to be the target of his message: living in relative poverty, captive in their own homes, with debilitating conditions and oppressed by discrimination in community or workplace.

In the Gospels Jesus goes on to fulfil this ministry in many different ways, including miraculous healings.

But how do we relate to stories of the lame walking, the blind being restored to sight while we are watching the amazing skill and commitment of Paralympians performing without sight or the full use of their limbs?

The whole idea of ‘healing’ in a religious context has to be handled with care. We have to recognise the part that the Christian religion has done in making the lives of people with disabilities more difficult. The promise of healing to those with faith is bad enough, but the Bible repeatedly links healthy bodies with God’s approval, and sickness as a sign of sin.

The Levitical law describes those who may not be Priests:

Leviticus 21.17-21

…Whosoever of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.
For whatsoever man that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;
No man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.

Very often sickness is the outward and visible sign of sin; perfection is a sign of God’s pleasure. According to the creation myth of Genesis the world was perfect without sickness or death until Adam and Eve sinned.

But it is not just mythic legend, the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures comes with a threat:

“If thou wilt NOT observe to do all the words of this law…then the Lord will make thy plagues…great plagues and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of…Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee (Deuteronomy 28.58-61).

The reason why the book of Job is such a resonant story is that it shows the suffering of a good and holy man.

This linking of disease and deformity with sin is an ancient prejudice. It almost seems to be human instinct to equate abnormality with evil. From pre-Christian times so-called ‘monstrous births’ were considered an ill omen (or result of unnatural unions). If a baby was born without the usual number of limbs it was seen as a sign of something gone wrong with the heavens. The origin of the word ‘monster’ is from the Latin ‘monstrum:’ ‘to warn.’

Today, even minor blemishes are despised. Celebrity magazines like ‘Heat’ make their money by publishing photographs of famous people showing cellulite, varicose veins or a roll of fat, as if they are revealing character flaws.

We strive to dress like everyone else, hide of differences, the whole cosmetic industry is built on the idea that we should hide what we truly look like.

When people with differences that cannot be concealed by makup appear, more often than not they evoke fear & pity.

The idea of healing just adds to the pain and can create feelings on inferiority and sinfulness.

Jesus resolutely refuses to equate sin with and sickness and poverty. He also refuses to equate goodness with health and wealth. In fact one of the great philosophical and religious truths that Jesus brings to the world is that God makes “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mathew 5.45)

Which is great, but we are left with the problem that Jesus is reported to have physically healed people. I think we will only do justice to the spirit of Jesus message if we reinterpret the reported physical healing as spiritual healing.

If God heals one, then why not heal all? If God heals one then why allow the conflict in Syria to rage on? If God intervenes to heal one why not intervene to reach down to Zimbabwe, pick up Mugabe and drop him on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific?

There are philosophical and moral problems with the idea of religious healing. It makes us doubt the morality of God and damages the lives of those whose lives and health and abilities do not measure up to a bogus ideal of perfection.

The Paralympics may give us a better vision of true healing than miracle stories.

The actor and writer Nabil Shaban created an ‘Everyman’ programme in 1990 entitled ‘The Fifth Gospel.’ He concluded with this fictional Gospel of Jesus:

And on the third day in Cana in Galilee there gathered before him a great multitude of sick and impotent folk that were taken up with diverse diseases and torments: the blind, the halt, lame, the withered, waiting for him.

And Jesus asketh onto the multitude what is it that they desire?

And they cried out as one, “Make us whole! Cast out our torments and diseases! Make us see and walk! Cure us!”

And he rebuketh them, saying, “You have no need of miracles! You are complete as you are! God gave the fish of the sea fins, and the birds of the air wings. Yet man, who has not these things, thinks no less of himself. Verily I say unto you, you are not impotent because you are different, you are impotent because you have believed the lies that the world has told you. Your differences are God’s gifts, for the everlasting enrichment of the world. I will cure no one, for I wish not to sow the seeds of discontent. I wish not to sow the seeds of self-hate. Love the light in thyself, and that is cure enough.