All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

One day the zoo keeper noticed that the orangutang was reading two books, in one hand he held Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and in the other he held the Bible.

Naturally surprised, the keeper asked the orangutang, “Why are you reading both of those books?”

“Well,” said the orangutang, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Of course it is quite possible to be both, and scientific information about how life evolved does not contradict a religious view of what life is for, and vice versa.

The Bible is an extraordinary book, or rather a collection of books.  It contains everything from ancient myths to erotic poetry, from the first recorded novel to a collection of wise sayings, from an hymn book to some letters.  It contains material written in circumstances varying from triumph to despair.  From a secure land to refugees in exile.  All human life is here, and this morning’s eclectic selection of readings illustrate that perfectly.

You may or may not be aware that I don’t choose the readings, they are chosen by a committee and printed in a lectionary that is shared by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Reformed Churches (with a few local variations).  Most mainstream Christian Churches in the world are looking at these texts today.

So what are the texts that the Church has given us today?

Our first reading, from the 1st book of Kings, continues the story of the prophet Elijah, we focussed on that a few weeks ago when we heard how he was saved from starvation by the hospitality of the poor widow.  In our latest instalment Elijah is in despair, he is being hunted by Jezebel’s followers, hiding in the wilderness, and just longing to give up and die.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, and we will return to Elijah in a few weeks time…

Then our Gospel reading is equally dramatic, and features a dramatic exorcism.  As a fan of horror movies, this is one of the best and most referenced stories in popular horror culture.

We have the great privilege of Ethan’s baptism in todays service, and as I told Ethan’s parents, Robbie and Anna, here at the Ascension we use the New Zealand Baptism service as it leaves out the line on the English Prayer Book about rejecting the Devil.  Most of us no longer believe in a literal being called the Devil who is out to get us, but we use the devil as a metaphor for all that corrupting, life-denying, abusive, selfish and cruel.

Jesus turned people’s lives around, and still does today.  Not by saving us from a being with horns and hoofs, but by finding the goodness and godliness that exists in us all and bringing it to the surface.

I don’t chose the readings, but if I did the one we had from Galatians would be read every few weeks, it is one of the foundational texts for Inclusive Christianity.

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

  • the Church was divided by race and religious background – some of the Jewish Christians who followed the Jewish Law felt that you had to convert to Judaism as part of being a Christian, some Gentile Christians (including St. Paul) thought that all that was needed was to follow Christ.
  • the Church was divided by social status – the Church contained members from the educated, wealthy elite, and also slaves and outcasts, people on the edge of society.
  • the Church was divided by gender – Jesus gave women key roles in his ministry, reading between the lines we can see than the males are trying to reassert truadional roles of authority.

The Church today is divided by theology and politics, and the early church was just the same, and into all these divisions St Paul throws an outrageous, revolutionary and for many an unthinkable text:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The truth at the heart of Christianity is that God loves every one of us – every human being alive.  And that how we judge our differences – of age or gender or race or sexuality or social status do not matter at all to God.

There is an old saying from the Baptist Church I attended at my youth – the pastor used to say “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Meaning that we all stand on the same level – in our encounter with God the poor have the same status as the rich, the uneducated with the educated, the outcast and the respectable…

In our church, in our lives, in our dealings with others let us try and live out this message and show true Christian love…

*  *  *

1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with  Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

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Elijah & the Widow

1 Kings 17.8-16

This morning we are going to be thinking about Elijah.  If you know your Bible, you will know the most famous story of Elijah was his contest with the prophets of Baal to see who’s God could call down fire on their altar.

I heard of an incident when a Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the Prophet and the servants of Baal.  She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the ox in pieces and laid it upon the altar.

And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.

“Now, said the teacher, “can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the ox on the altar?”

A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. “To make the gravy.”

This morning we looking at the story of Elijah before his famous showdown.

To put it  in context, by the 9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel, was split in two: the northern Kingdom kept the name “Israel” and southern Kingdom was called “Judah.”  The southern Kingdom is probably the one that we think about the most because that’s where Jerusalem was (and it was the centre for government and religion with the site of the great Temple).  The Southern Kingdom was ruled over by the descendants of King David.  And that’s where almost all of Jesus’ ministry is set.

However, our reading takes place in the North.

Omri, the sixth King of the divided Israel, at first sounds like an interesting liberal kind of guy: he allowed diversity in the religious tradition: he encouraged the building of local temple altars for sacrifices (until then sacrifices were only allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem); he allowed priests from outside the traditional priestly tribe of the Levites; he also was tolerant of other religions and and encouraged the building  of temples dedicated to Baal.

Omri made a canny deal to stop the conflict between the followers of JHWH and the followers of Baal by a marriage alliance between his son Ahab and princess Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia.

This marriage was a great success and brought peace, security and economic prosperity to Israel.  However the Israelite prophets objected – they demanded a more strict interpretation of the Mosaic law.

When Omri’s son, Ahab, took the throne the tensions grew.  Ahab built a temple for Baal, and his wife Jezebel brought a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country.

In the passage that immediately precedes this morning’s reading Elijah condemns King Ahab for doing evil in the sight of the Lord and predicts a drought that will last years.

Its tempting to question the whole Biblical narrative and think that Ahab and Jezebel may have been the good guys and that Elijah was a troublemaking fanatic.  However, our sympathy Ahab’s tolerance for Baal worship must be tempered by the knowledge that its practices included human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children.

History is written by the winners, and the same is true of the Bible, the narrative beneath the narrative is sometimes more interesting and nuanced than the surface – that is the whole basis of feminist theology.  But I digress…

In the narrative Elijah delivers God’s message and then literally runs for the hills.  Our reading from the book of Kings is set in the town of Zarephath, a small port city on the Phoenician coast between the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

While the drought withered the crops and huger spread through the land, God provided for the prophet Elijah by sending him ravens.  In case you are wondering he didn’t eat the ravens (or so the story goes) but rather the birds brought him bread and meat every morning and evening.  While the birds were behaving like cartoon creatures in a Disney movie, there was a small stream east of the river Jordan that provided his water.  However as the famine continued, the stream dried up, and Elijah was forced to move on.

God doesn’t send Elijah to a local merchant or wealthy household that would have supplies to see them through the famine, instead he sends Elijah to a poor widow.

There are several interesting things about this woman, that should have put him Elijah off:

The first, and obvious thing that made the poor widow an inappropriate candidate for helping Elijah was that she was a poor widow.  She had barely enough food for her and her son but that is where Elijah was sent.

There may be some logic in sending Elijah to someone poor.  As Jonathan, our outgoing treasurer, has pointed out many times, giving (at least to the church) is regressive – generally the more someone earns the less they give; not simply the less they give as a percentage of their income, but the less they give in total.  There is something about wealth that makes people want to keep it.

Generosity comes more naturally to the poor.

The second reason why the woman may have appeared a strange saviour to Elijah was that she was a Gentile.  Given Elijah’s hard line approach to religion, seeking help from someone outside the faith would have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

Just as I’m pretty sure Jezebel was not the monster the Bible depicts, perhaps Elijah was not such a hard-line fanatic.  His time giving and receiving help from a Gentile shows a different side to him.

Perhaps God leads us not into places where we are comfortable, but into places where we can learn more about ourselves and about the world, and realise that God’s love stretches further than we may have realised.

So God sends Elijah to someone poor with barely enough food to survive, God sends Elijah to someone outside his religious tradition, and finally God sends Elijah to a woman who was a “sinner.”  The text doesn’t specify what her sin could have been, but when her son dies she cries out to the prophet, “have you come to remind me of my sin?”

It could be that the woman’s sins were not significant – maybe she did whatever was the 7th century BCE equivalent of keeping a library book overdue and just felt bad about it… or maybe she was the worst of sinners and had horribly murdered her husband.  The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but she certainly felt like a sinner.

She was not the kind of morally upright person the prophets usually approved of.

To me the amazing thing about this story is not Elijah, who is a bit too scary and fanatical (in his later showdown with the prophets of Baal he takes the idea of “fire and brimstone” preaching a bit too literally) but the woman – who in her poverty is generous, who in her religion is open-minded, and who in her sinfulness is found worthy to play a part in God’s plan, and finds a place in Scripture.

Read over the story again at home, and pray for generosity, open-mindedness and a willingness to serve God.

Like the ancient widow, it might just change your whole life

 

*  *  *

1 Kings 17:8-16

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

All you need is love (no really!)

Jeremiah 1:4-1
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4.21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

One Sunday a Vicar told his congregation that the church needed some extra money and asked the people to prayerfully consider giving a little extra in the offering plate.

He said that whoever gave the most would be able to pick out three hymns.

After the offering plates were passed, the vicar glanced down and noticed that someone had placed a cheque for £1,000 in offering.

He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he’d like to personally thank the person who placed the money in the plate.

A very quiet, elderly, saintly lady all the way in the back shyly raised her hand.

The pastor asked her to come to the front. Slowly she made her way to the pastor.

He told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much and in thanksgiving asked her to pick out three hymns.

Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation, pointed to the three particularly dishy young men in the building and said,

“I’ll take him and him and him.”

Not so much “The Old Rugged Cross” as “Bind us Together.”  The woman was offered the ecclesiastical and wanted relationship (relationship with three young men at once – but I shall draw a veil over that).

Now I enjoy hymns (H-Y-M-Ns) – they can lift my spirits, as I feel a part of a group united in one song, and my soul is lifted heavenwards (sometimes – I’d be lying if I said every hymn has that effect – but we should always worship open to a sense of wonder…)

I am fascinated by church buildings – in most communities the Church is the most interesting building, and if the church building is suitable, it can also be the most useful building.

I am inspired by liturgy, how ancient words and modern prayers can connect us to God, to our history and to each other.

I even have a great fondness for vestments – these strange frocks that connect us to our past, and remind us of our history and give the signal that this is a special time and place…

But the hymns and buildings and liturgy and posh frocks are only a means to an end.

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

No matter how beautiful our hymns or how Listed our building, if we are not loving, there is no point.

“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

If our liturgy is perfectly crafted and our vestments the finest that can be bought or made, but if we are not loving, we are wasting our time.

But, you may protest, looking after buildings and creating beautiful music and meaningful liturgy is really difficult! Love is easy! As Elvis sang we “can’t help falling in love.”  Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Why do we need so much “stuff” to help us do what comes naturally?

Firstly, there are some ways of loving that we can only do because we have all this “stuff.” Our love for God is focussed by music and liturgy, and a building like this one can be an amazing resource for our local community.

Secondly, if you think loving is easy then you do not fully understand what the word means.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love is not just a warm feeling, it is difficult, challenging.  Love is demanding; true love demands everything.

St. Augustine said:

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men and women. That is what love looks like.

In the New Testament, love is more of a verb than a noun. It is a doing word, it’s not a thing or a feeling. The call to love is not really a call to a certain state of feeling as it is to a very particular type of action.

David Wilkerson put it very well when he said, “Love is not only something you feel, it is something you do.”

When it comes to Christian love, feelings are secondary to action, as C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did.”

If we return to our reading about love, St. Paul introduces a paragraph that seems out of place:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

We were talking about love, why are we suddenly talking about growing up? The love of children is linked to their dependence on others – they love the adults that care for and provide for them.  St Paul is demanding that we mature in our love, and learn to love those who may need us too.

Following the teaching of Jesus, we are to love even our enemies.  God teaches us to love by putting some unlovely people around us. It takes no character to love people who are lovely and loving to us.  We never really love until we love someone who hates us.

And this kind of love is powerful, it can change the world.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.

The whole point of Christianity is to teach us to love: to love God, love our neighbours, love ourselves.

I end with a quotation from Rick Warren:

“The best use of life is love. 
The best expression of love is time. 
The best time to love is now.”

Holiday Sermon – New Year in New York

There are two words that strike terror into the hearts of congregations throughout the developed world.  Usually they only occur in the summer months, but you, poor unfortunates are going to hear them this morning.

You must brace yourselves, for this is a HOLIDAY SERMON!

Holiday sermons are usually written on the beach, often on the slightly stained napkin that once cradled an ice cream cone, and the text usually develops some torturous analogy and asks such searching questions as “is there a sandy beach towel in your life?” or “don’t you think receiving the Eucharist is like suntan lotion for the soul?”

This sermon was written in New York – it was started as I waited to see in the New Year for the second time (we celebrated at 7.00 p.m. New York time which was midnight in the UK and then struggled to stay awake for another midnight!)

So what sermon illustration do I bring back from the New World?

We were staying at the North end of Central Park, on the edge of Harlem.  I don’t know if any of you went to New York in the 1960s or 70s, but if you did, you were probably warned to avoid Harlem.  It was an area of burnt-out tower blocks and riots, a neighbourhood of crime and poverty.

But it was regenerated, and although it still has poverty the streets are safe and it’s a very pleasant place to visit.

It changed because local people worked to rebuild and take pride in their neighbourhood.  The improvement is obvious:

London had 7.4 robberies per 1,000 residents last year. In Harlem it was 5.9.

Less than 15 years ago, Harlem did not have a single cashpoint machine. No one would have dared to use one. Now Harlem has all the usual banks, shops and cashpoints. A bit of online research showed that the biggest crime problem in Harlem at the moment is double-parking.

But this did not happen by chance.  Partly it was police policy and also it came about through citizens campaigning, giving their time and energy and money.

The words I saw engraved by a statue of anti-slavery campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass, by the entrance to Harlem:

“Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

People can and do change the world.  People like you and me.

One of the very few books I have read more than once is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.  My favourite line in the book comes after Gandalf falls to his apparent death after facing the demonic Balrog deep in the Mines of Moria.  The surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring gather outside the mines and Aragorn admits that there is no hope without Gandalf, and says “then we must do without hope.”

One of the themes of the books is about facing hopeless situations and soldiering on.  Without a doubt Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches of World War One influenced his writing.

It’s tempting to see the struggle of building community and indeed the struggle of religion in the modern world as a hopeless fight.

Secularism and a selfish materialism seem to be winning the day and religion, like the tide on Dover Beach in Matthew Arnold’s poem, is slipping away….

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

We are left confused “on a darkling plain.”  But we are not without hope.

Our Church here at the Ascension is growing – we just had a largest Christmas Morning service that I’ve seen looking back at our records.

Our projects are making a difference in our local community and although many of us are despairing at government and church cut backs, we must not lose our hope or our faith.

Our reading from Jeremiah comes out of a seemingly hopeless situation: the nation of Israel has been shattered, the Monarchy brutally slaughtered, the leaders among the many forced into slavery and exile in Babylon.

The response of some was to give up hope: “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

But Jeremiah (not known for his cheerful disposition) has a different story to tell:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

There is always hope.  Tides do turn, the world does change.  As a world, as a nation, as a local community and as individuals there is hope. I will close with the famous poem, “The Gate of the Year”. You are probably familiar with the first verse, but there is more.  The first verse is probably the best, but the rest of the poem deals with the idea that God has the future in her hands although it is impossible for us to understand God’s plan. The poem, published in 1908, caught the public’s imagination when the then Princess Elizabeth handed a copy to her father, King George the 6th, and he quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast.  It spoke to the uncertainty of our country in the days leading up to the Second World War.

God Knows
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.
God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

It’s getting better all the time

shutterstock4mccormack-300_1

It’s getting better all the time
Or the Lord will fulfil his promise to Israel
a sermon for Advent I

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

1 Thessalonians 3:9,11-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

“We are all going to hell in a hand cart.”

“This country is going to the dogs.”

“Things aren’t what they used to be.”

In a survey run by YouGov, 71% of respondents said they thought the world was getting worse, and only 5% said that is was getting better. But what’s the reality of the situation?

Jesus instructs us to pay attention to the signs of the times “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” So what does the metaphorical fig tree look like today?

Is the world getting worse?  How should we measure it?  Examining the rise (or fall) of Violence and Poverty could help us see the truth of the matter.

1.4 billion people on the planet today are living in extreme poverty.  (The World Bank defines extreme poverty as life on less than $1.25/day.)

Extreme poverty and its related causes kill nearly 10 million people every year, mostly women and children.  Or to put it another way 1000 people die from extreme poverty every hour.  The horrendous attacks by terrorists are shocking and grab the headlines, but in actual fact extreme poverty is the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

To give us some perspective: the Second World War was the deadliest war in human history. If we take a sample nine year period around and including the war, approximately 70 million people were killed.  Yet over the last nine years, extreme poverty has killed more than 90 million people, and it continues to kill 10 million more each year.

Extreme poverty means a deprivation of most of life’s most basic necessities and opportunities: no clean water, no sanitation, no housing or very limited shelter, high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, chronic malnutrition, and poor or no health care.  Schooling is an unaffordable luxury.

What can we do?  I wonder if that makes you feel helpless?

Nothing can be done, our work for Christian Aid and with our monthly appeals are just us sitting like the deluded King Canute defying the inevitable tide.

It’s tempting to believe that.  But it’s a lie.  And a dangerous lie.  Not only can something be done, it has been being done and at an accelerating rate over the past several decades.

100 years ago, most people in the world lived in extreme poverty. If there was a bad harvest,   someone in your family would die.

In 1990 only 34% of the world lived in extreme poverty. 66% of humanity had left extreme poverty.

By 2005 only 22% of humanity lived in extreme poverty. 81% of humanity had left extreme poverty.

Today less than 20% of the human race lives in extreme poverty.

But this did not happen by chance, this was not inevitable.  This happened because people like you knock on doors for Christian Aid once a year.  This happened because people like you give to our monthly Majority World Appeal.  This happened because people like you write to your M.P. and ask that we don’t cut our International Aid budget in this age of austerity.

This happened because people like you work to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

But Jesus tells us to be alert, to read the signs of the times and keep on working.  We must keep working, because there is still a lot to be done.

24,000 people continue to die every day because of extreme poverty. Our optimism alone will not help those whose lives are threatened by extreme poverty – we need to continue our work.

That is Poverty – we have work to do, but also every reason for optimism.  What about violence.  We live with an increased terror threat.  Is the world more violent than ever before?

At the start of this year I read the book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Decline” by Stephen Pinker.  It’s the most inspiring book I’ve read in a decade.  Pinker argues that a smarter, more educated world is becoming more peaceful in several statistically significant ways. His findings are academically rigorous using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records.

Here are some of his statistics: The number of people killed in battle – calculated per 100,000 population – has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilisations have evolved.

Before there were organised countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60.  Today battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.

The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.

There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now.

Pinker says one of the main reasons for the drop in violence is that we are smarter. IQ tests show that the average teenager is smarter with each generation. The tests are constantly adjusted to keep average at 100, and a teenager who now would score a 100 would have scored a 118 in 1950 and a 130 in 1910. So this year’s average kid would have been a near-genius a century ago. And that increase in intelligence translates into a kinder, gentler world, Pinker says.

“As we get smarter, we try to think up better ways of getting everyone to turn their swords into plowshares at the same time,” Pinker said in an interview. “Human life has become more precious than it used to be.”

The traditional view of Advent is that as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem we also prepare for the Second Coming of Christ – “in the clouds in glory.”

We may no longer believe in a supernatural vision of Jesus coming back to rescue us from Armageddon, but the belief that the Kingdom will come, the belief. that there is hope for humanity, the belief that good will ultimate triumph over evil, the belief that poverty can end, that we can make wars cease – this is what we need to take into our heart this Advent

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Christ the King 2015

Daniel 7.9-10;13-14
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Revelation 1.4-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18.33-42
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 

Today is the feast of Christ the King.  By a fluke of the rota Margaret has preached on this Sunday for three years in a row!  While Margaret Is now quite an expert on the subject, she did ask to have Christ the King off this year.

I promise you (and Margaret) that it is coincidental that it’s pure chance that placed her on this Sunday three times in a row, but I have to confess that I do struggle with the celebration of “Christ the King.” I’ve never been happy with the idea of monarchy.  I was lucky enough to be brought up by a mother who would regularly tell me that I could ‘be whatever I wanted to be’ in life.  I was the first person in my family to go to university, and although my mother may have preferred I took Business Studies rather than Theology, she was very proud.

But some jobs are closed to all of us here regardless of our skills and expertise and qualifications and talent…

Monarchy is one of those jobs.

The hereditary principle seems unfair to my Lefty principles, but I can understand how someone who works hard wants to pass on the benefits of their labours to their children…

However, today’s monarchs tend to be descended from the most brutal and scheming bullies from ages past.  Study history if you doubt it.

If you look at the Bible you can see how, through the thousand years it took to write the text, the vision of God develops:

I’m over-simplifying, but basically –

  • when the nation were made up of nomads God was one among many local gods, their provider and guide.
  • When they were ruled over by Kings God was the Great King.
  • When the nation was in moral and political turmoil God was the great Judge and righter-of-wrongs,
  • and then Jesus adds the idea of God as a loving Father.

Surely too much emphasis on Christ as “King” is a backward step in our understanding of God and one that alienates republicans…?

Can we make sense of this celebration for today?  Let’s start with this morning’s reading, where we find our King on the cross.  Our King seems to have been executed, as a King, but without ever having ruled a Kingdom.  He had a handful of men and women who followed him closely – though these were made up of illiterate fishermen, political agitators, collaborators with Rome and prostitutes – not a Title or public school education between them; and scarcely a penny to rub together.  Jesus also moved in larger circles than these: crowds turned up to hear him speak.  Again, here the crowds were not the scrubbed and polished folk that come for Royal visits today:  the sick, the leperous, the mentally ill, the poor and the outcast came to hear.  I think it was Billy Connolly who said that the Queen must think that the whole world smells of fresh paint, because wherever she goes, the day before the decorators were in, making the place spick and span for her Highness.  Jesus did not visit newly opened business centres and shopping malls, he preached on hillsides and on the shores of lake Galilee.  The crowds were not sycophantic social-climbers, they came to be impressed by the new teacher in town, they felt no need to impress him.  They were fickle, and would call for his crucifixion in time.  Definitely no trappings of a Monarch as we would understand them.

For these, and some of the reasons I opened with, many modern Christians shy away from the language of ‘Kings’ of ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Majesty’.  A popular prayer book (which we used to use for Morning Prayer here each day) includes the line ‘Oh Lord, our Governor’.  To call God ‘Governor’ is a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but it sounds unfamiliar, and strange.  Some modern prayer books go further.  The idea of ‘Kingdoms’ is too undemocratic for this age of ‘constitutional reform’.  In some prayer books the ‘Kingdom of God’ becomes the ‘Realm of God’, or even the ‘Commonwealth of God’.

This squeamishness about the language of ‘Kingship’ is not without foundation in the Gospels.  Jesus does not claim the title ‘King’, the nearest equivalent to ‘Christ the King’ in the Gospels is ‘Jesus the Messiah’.

‘Messiah’ was the term used for Israel’s deliverer.  The nation of Israel had suffered a series of occupations:  Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman.  They awaited a deliverer – a Messiah.  It is clear that Jesus saw himself as a ‘Messiah’, but his attitude to the title is interesting.

If we read carefully through the Gospels, and in particular Mark’s Gospel – the first to be written – we find that Jesus seems to shy away even from the title Messiah.  When the demons possessing a demoniac recognise Jesus as a Messiah, Jesus commands them to be silent.  When Jesus heals, he often also enjoins the healed, and witnesses, to secrecy.  The leper is commanded to go to the Temple to be declared clean, but to ‘tell no one’.

It seems strange that a Messiah should want to spend his life incognito.  But Jesus’ reasoning becomes clear when we remember what was expected from a Messiah.  The Messiah was to bring political freedom and independence to Israel.  The Messiah would vanquish the occupying armies, and establish a Kingdom that would sit in judgment over all the other nations of the world.

A Messiah would be the most powerful person who ever lived.  A mighty warrior, an inspired leader, a Monarch beyond compare.

Jesus was certainly a Messiah, but his idea of what Messiahship was all about was so different from the understanding of Messiahship of those around him, that he avoided the very word.  If Jesus had stood on the hillside and shouted ‘I am your Messiah’, he would have been instantly surrounded by zealots and agitators, ready to riot and cause mayhem to overthrow the Roman overlords.  Not long after the revolutionaries had thronged to his side, the Roman authorities would step in, and a premature crucifixion would have followed.

If we look at the titles that Jesus himself preferred to be called rather than ‘Messiah’, we find that he refers to himself as ‘the son of man’ – an elaborate phrase for ‘I’ – or ‘this mother’s son’ is the nearest equivalent that I can think of.

The way of Jesus was not the way of merely political power – he did not impose his Kingdom on anyone.  He talked to whoever would listen.  The citizens of his Kingdom were volunteers, inspired by his teaching.  The power of his Kingdom was not the ability to force obedience, to control vast numbers of citizens; the power of the Kingdom of God was, and is, the power of love.

The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love.  When that is said ‘the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love’ it seems very nice and cosy.  It would seem like it is unalloyed joy to enter this Kingdom.  But remember our reading – The King of this Kingdom is executed on a cross.  There is tragedy in the very nature of love.  We are called to love God, love ourselves, and to love others.  If we truly try to love others we will be hurt.  We will be hurt by those we try to love, and we will be hurt by those who don’t want certain people to be loved.  If we love the exploited and the despised and the abused, those who do the exploiting, despising and abusing will not be pleased.  To love is to be unpopular.  To love truly is to know death.  Not just the death that signals rest at the end of a long life, but the untimely, cruel death of crucifixion.

I believe that we are right to be cautious about the language of Christ the King, but not because Christ is not a King, rather because Christ is a different kind of King to all earthly Monarchs.

The Kingdom of God, is not a Realm that throws its weight around imposing its rule on other nations.  It does not vie for power and wealth and influence.  The Kingdom of God is what gives value to the cup of water given to the thirsty, it gives value to the words of kindness to the homeless wanderer, it gives value to our work for the Church.  These are the things that build God’s Kingdom.

The paradox of true faith is that it brings peace and crucifixion, comfort and challenge, it is the paradox of a Kingdom with a crucified King, a God who is a human being.

The rule of our King is not political or military, this Kingdom is of love, and those who love are its citizens.  The benefits of being a citizen of this Kingdom are pain and crucifixion, but also life, meaning, wholeness and hope.

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, let us commit ourselves to the Kingdom, and to serving Christ our King in living, and loving, after his example.

Amen.

Pentecost – a sermon not THAT good

Acts 2.14-21

ImageThe Vicar was saying goodbye to folks at the door after the service.  A woman said, “Vicar, that was a marvellous sermon.” The Vicar said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she replied.

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit, and as we do, “Happy Birthday to us!”  Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birthday of the Church.

If we conflate the stories in the Gospels and Acts we read how the disciples, who were the Church ‘in embryo’ had been traumatised by Jesus death, become ecstatic at Jesus resurrection, and were astounded by Jesus ascension.  They have been on an emotional roller-coaster for months, and now they gather, and are literally aflame with inspiration and passion for the Gospel.

Something remarkable happened after Jesus death – the disciples moved from despair to hope, their faith in Jesus, once shattered, changed into a courage and a faith for which they were prepared to die.  Jesus is transformed from a historical human being, to spiritual being, to God, Godself.

The early Church found it hard to put this experience of Jesus-after-the-crucifixion into words, so they started to put the experience into the language of resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.  

Death was not the end of Jesus: so they talked of Resurrection

But we still have to say goodbye to Jesus: so there was an Ascension

We are changed by the experience of Jesus – the Spirit of Jesus now lives in us: so the story of Pentecost. 

Whatever we believe, it is certainly true that after the crucifixion of Christ the disciples had been cowering in secret, but now the doors are flung open and they enter the streets, they are so full of Joy and excitement, that bystanders accuse them of being drunk.

Though we can not know for sure, tradition has it that all of the disciples went forward from this day to face martyrdom.  The flames of Pentecost were not quenched by death and persecution.

All this, the book of Acts tells us, because of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’ describes the ‘Holy Spirit’ as ‘…the Third Person of the Trinity, distinct from, but consubstantial, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.’

This description of the Holy Spirit won the argument that had raged for the early centuries of the Christian Church.  It was formally accepted in terms similar to these at the Council  of Constantinople in 381.

The Bible does talk about the ‘Spirit of God,’ and the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And as Christians pondered the mystery of God as revealed in Christ, and in the workings of the Spirit, a theology developed that placed the Holy Spirit in the context of a Trinity.  

That is the theme of next Sunday, Trinity Sunday.  (When I will explain the Trinity and clear up any questions you may have about it!!)

Today, as we think about the Spirit I want us to consider that the Spirit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.  God is beyond human gender and beyond human language, but in the same way that “God our Father” is a male metaphor for God, so “Holy Spirit” is a female metaphor – the Spirit’s gender is literally lost in translation.

Spirit is not the only female image for God in the Bible.  One of my favourites is Holy Wisdom:  For example in Proverbs chapter 1, we read:

“Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.”

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”). 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

And it is tho idea of God-in-us that leads us back to the Spirit.  The Spirit is the spark of the divine that lives in each one of us.

This is a magnificent Church.  But of infinitely more value and worth, is the Church that St. Paul calls ‘the Temple of the Holy Spirit’, and that is you, and me.

God the infinite Creator of the universe, the Saviour who came down to earth as the most inspiring figure in human history, this is the God who has chosen to make her home in us.

How else could a small group of mostly uneducated, poor, ragged disciples of a Lord executed in the most horrific manner, turn the world upside down?  

If you continue to read the book of Acts you will find them persecuted, on trial, in prison, flogged, stoned, despised by the authorities of the day, but always coming back for more.  They were unstoppable.  It is not long since Jesus was executed, their lives were still in danger, but they could not contain themselves.  The Holy Spirit was amongst them – they ran out into the street deliriously telling the world the Good News.

They devoted their lives totally to God.  They shared a common purse, giving to each according to their needs from a pooled fund.  They were inspirational characters, apostles, saints and martyrs.  We hold feasts in their honour, depict them in stained glass.

But I  strongly believe that the Holy Spirit was not in them more than she is in us, nor was the Holy Spirit stronger in them than She is in us.

On the day of Pentecost they became aware of truth, that is just as true today as it was back then.  The Holy Spirit is in you.  God is to be found in the human heart and mind.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit

Let us live like the people who know it.