Fear or Faith? A Sermon for the New Year

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Our Gospel story [see below] contains a stark contrast: the faith of Mary and Joseph and the fear that torments King Herod.

Everything Herod does, he does out of fear.

It’s true that fear has a bad press – it is an important part of being human.  Fear is sometimes an appropriate response.

When you are first born your only fears were of falling and of loud noises. These fears are hard-wired into our DNA and have been passed down from generation to generation as a survival mechanism.  Fear keeps us alive, and creates an emotion that motivates us to avoid danger.

Falling and loud noises are fears we are born with – but we learn lots of useful ones along the way – fear of fire, fear of wild animals, fear of unregistered taxis…

But fear can be very destructive. 

There are not many people in the history of the world who ever sat back thinking “I want to be evil, what evil deeds can I do today?”  Most of what we call evil comes from fear.

Herod had power, but he was only half-Jewish, so he feared an uprising from the Jews; and he feared his Roman overlords would replace him if his people did not tow the Imperial line; he feared his relatives would try to seize his throne and he had many of them murdered …  He was the most powerful man in the nation, but he found the top of the heap to be uncomfortable, insecure and his fear of falling overtook him.

The story of Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ (our Gospel reading makes us come down with a crash after the joy of Christmas) offers an account of the tragic consequences of defensive, self-preserving, paranoid fear. This type of insecurity never leads to anything good, and more-often-than-not backfires, creating greater insecurity and ever more enemies for the one who fears.

Herod proves the truth of the first half of Proverbs 29.25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.”

Fear stops us seeing other people as potential friends and allies and leads us to see rivals and enemies around every corner.

In Stephen Covey’s bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” his describes Habit Four as: “Think Win-Win”

“Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had got his way.”

Fear leads us to want to ‘defeat’ other people, Covey suggests that finding ways for both people in any deal to ‘win’ makes better long-term sense than being victorious.  It’s better to have created an ally as well as made a deal than to have pinched every penny in a deal but made an enemy or damaged your reputation.

Fear makes us only interested in our own winning, and makes us want to douse the light of others so that our light may be seen more clearly

We could make a long and unpleasant list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who through history and in the world today are both powerful and paranoid. However, I don’t think Herod would have recognised his actions as coming from fear – he would have blamed everyone else around him. Herod demonstrates where such fear can lead when it does not come to light but remains in the dark depths of the unconscious.

This is (I hope) interesting, but a First Century tyrant seems far removed from our experience – there are none of us who will let our fear lead us to slaughter children…

But we do need to explore what we fear as a church and as individuals – as a church:

It would be easy for us as a church to be afraid: In the last two years we have lost some our most active members.  As a result our numbers are down and several jobs are hard to fill.

The Wash House has lost council support and has had to stop running its weekly meetings last term.

The pressures on LEWCAS have never been greater.

Our finances are not sustainable.
The Diocese is cutting dozens of clergy jobs over the next few years – the axe will clearly fall on the places that are not growing.  We are under threat!

This is a perfectly correct story about our Church.

But (and it’s a big but): On the other hand our church has gained several new members in the last year, and our Sunday School is growing significantly.

At our Carol Service we had a congregation120 people – twice the figure that attended three years ago, and Christmas Day attendance was up by 30% on 2012.

Our choir goes from strength to strength, recording a short C.D. this year.

The Wash House has worked out a way forward and the club will soon be up and running again.

Holy Trinity has increased its average attendance by around 300%

Our partnership with London Citizens is already bringing us many useful contacts in the community.

We are a thriving church with an impressive, positive impact in our community and a bright future.

Depending on what information we focus on we could see ourselves as a struggling Church, teetering on the edge, or a thriving Church with a secure and prosperous future.

Overconfidence and complacency could be dangerous, but far more dangerous would be to be overwhelmed with fear.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,” said Henry Ford. “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” – It’s a quotation my children are sick of hearing, when they say they cant do this homework, or perform in that school play…

I think it is deeply and profoundly true: our fear or our faith can create our future.

Where do we go from here?  We must avoid Herod’s palace – filled with fear, we must have the faith that inspired the Magi to trek across the whole of their known world to visit a mysterious baby, we must have the faith that sustained Mary and Joseph through their time as refugees in Egypt and brought them safe back to Galilee.

Because in our lives as individuals, as a Church, as a local community and as a national and global community: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Isaiah 63:7-9
7I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:14-15,17-18
14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-16,19-21
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 

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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.

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.

Mary Magdalene – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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