Advent I (Why Advent is more grown-up than Lent)

Image   Advent is here again, the season of chocolate filled calendars and trying to work out when is the best time to go shopping and the best time to put up our Christmas trees.  According to the tradition of the Church, it’s also a time to take stock of our lives, a time of self-examination.  It’s a bit like Lent, but with tinsel.

   The story of Advent is actually more grown-up than Lent:  The central metaphor for Lent is Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.   During this time Jesus faces temptations (colourfully described as a symbolic encounter with Satan) but if we read on we find Jesus overcame the temptations and spent most of the 40 days with the wild animals being ‘ministered to’ by angels.  In my imagination this has always been a ‘Disney Princess’ moment with birds chirping sweet tunes to entertain Jesus while meerkats bring some berries and a cup of water and two funny angels sing a song about enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

   That’s Lent.  Advent has a much sharper edge.  The Central metaphor for Advent is the defeated and persecuted people of Israel longing for deliverance from their oppressors.  And in parallel to that, it has traditionally also been a time to think about the so-called Second Coming of Jesus, which for many Christians pretty much means ‘the Apocalypse.’ 

   So we have two times of self-examination in the Church: one when we think about Jesus and the cute desert creatures, and one where we think about political oppression and the End of the World.

   Advent is all a bit difficult if we take it seriously.  I can see why popular culture prefers to put chocolate in Advent Calendars and focus on Santa preparing for his epic journey rather than the oppression of the Israelites.  I can see why we’d rather think of snow covered countryside and the ‘red red robin bob bob bobbing along’ rather than the Apocalypse.

   But the themes of Advent are central to putting the joy of Christmas into context.  Christmas is just one small part of a much larger story.  In the latest Inclusive Church Newsletter Dianna Gwilliams (Dean of Guildford and Chair of Inclusive Church) wrote:

   “It’s interesting to note that if Christmas was removed from the Bible we would lose a few paragraphs but if we were to remove Advent we would lose all the New Testament and most of the Old. Advent invites us into a consideration of an in-between time – both knowing that the light has come, but acknowledging that we also wait in the dark.”

   Some people believe in a literal ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus “Lo he comes with clouds descending” says one of my favourite (if slightly barking mad) Advent Hymns.  But Jesus returning in the clouds is not my vision of the Advent hope.  I think Jesus returns whenever his teaching of love is followed; Jesus returns whenever we feed the hungry; Jesus returns whenever we talk to our lonely neighbour; Jesus returns when we campaign for justice; whenever we are kind to the least of God’s children.

   The Apocalypse as described in Scripture is not actually the End of the World.  If we manage to read through the hallucinogenic nightmare of the book of Revelation (and get past the beasts with seven heads and the cavorting with the whore of Babylon) we find that all the crazy stuff, and all the turmoil, are just the birth-pangs of a better world.  The important message of Revelation is that no matter how bad things get, if stars fall from heaven and the moon turns to blood, if warfare engulfs the world, there is still hope.

   Advent is the season when we look at the darkness, and we chose to respond, not with despair, but by lighting a candle.

   Advent is a time when we renew our hope in a better world, and commit ourselves to try and bring it about.

   When we talk about the Kingdom of God we celebrate a present reality.  The Kingdom is here, but we also long for its fulfilment when the world is filled with justice and we have peace at the last.  We live with the tension of the ‘both now and not yet’ of God’s Kingdom.

   We look for signs of the Kingdom, and I see them in our slow but inevitable process towards women bishops, in the Pilling Report on Human Sexuality (which contains sone of the sanest things the Anglican Church has said about sex for a long time – but there is still a way to go).  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the work of London Citizens, bringing together people of all faiths and none to make our society more fair and just.  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the faith that keeps fighting to keep the Wash House youth group going despite losing funding, in the commitment to our ESOL classes, in the work of LEWCAS.

   This week some of us were at the Greenwich London Citizens Assembly, those who were there please forgive me for repeating the reflection that kicked-off the event; it is very appropriate to this season of Advent.  It is adapted from ‘You Have to Pick Your Team’ by Sonya Vetra Tinsley:

   ‘Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, you have to pick your team’.

   It seems to me that there are two teams in this world and that you find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you are doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you are going to fail. They seem to get satisfaction out of explaining how we’ll always have injustice. ‘You can’t change human nature,’ they say. ‘It’s foolish to try.’ From their experience, they might be right.

   Then there is another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change. I see Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. I see many of my friends. They’re always telling stories of faith and hope being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed. They’ll give you reasons why you shouldn’t give up, testimonials why we’ve yet to see our full potential as a species. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is possible.

   There are times when both teams seem right, both have evidence. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier and more fulfilled – which side I would rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith and hope. Choosing to organise for social justice rather than disorganising for despair. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway? If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather build a team of people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.

Angels to Some…

A Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels:

ImageOne day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the naughty behaviour that was going on. So he sent one of his angels to go to earth for a time. When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.”

God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down another angel to get a second opinion.”

So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time, too.

When the angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes, it’s true.  The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.”

God was not pleased. So he decided to get his angels to email the 5% who were good, because He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.

Do you know what the email said?

No?

Okay, just wondering. I didn’t get one either.

Today we are thinking about Angels because today the Church is celebrating St Michael and all Angels.  The saints and Martyrs have many days throughout the year, today is the turn of the angels.

But what is an angel?  Is it the same as a fairy?  Do they have wings?  Are the mythical beings?  Do they have any relevance to us?

In the early Church angels of the winged variety were more or less ignored, with the surreal exception of the book of Revelation and also the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us a bit more.  They even name three of them:  Michael (Daniel 10.13), Gabriel (Daniel 8.16) and Raphael (Tobit 7.8).

As the tradition of the Church developed Angels were very popular in the middle ages.  Scholars debated their form (whether they had or could have a physical body as well as a spirit) their mission (the clue being in their Greek name ‘aggelos’ meaning ‘messenger’) and their abilities (one of the most famous questions being how many angels could dance on the head of a needle – this was a question that taxed the philosopher Duns Scotus – answers on a postcard please!)  If you think that kind of theological question is a bit daft you are not alone.  The scholar who led the debate on angels and pin heads was called Duns Scotus, his name became an insult when it was shortened to become ‘Dunce.’  It’s a little unfair as Duns Scotus was a very intelligent theologian, my lecturer in theology always told us that the angels and pinhead debate actually was trying to work out the nature of infinity. 

But it was not only medieval Dunces interested in these matters: Anders Sandberg wrote a paper in 2001 called “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem’” in the “Annals of Improbable Research.”  He presented a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing a maximum number of angels as 8.6766×1049.

Although this modern calculation is a physics-based mathematical game, not a serious inquiry and despite my professor’s protestations  I was not convinced that arguing about angels and pinheads is irrelevant, at best.

So what exactly is an angel?

I have already given you the clue when I told you what the word angel means.  The Latin angelus or the Greek Greek aggelos come from the Hebrew for “one going” or “one sent”; a messenger. The word is used in Hebrew makes no difference between divine or human messenger.

In all but a very few passages of Scripture we are given a choice of how to interpret events: the aggelos at Jesus’ empty tomb could be a heavenly being or a human messenger that Jesus arranged to pass on the message.

It’s up to us how we want to read the story.

However, how we view angels in the ancient texts of the Bible is not nearly as important as how we view angels today.

If aggelos are God’s messengers then the really important question is who are God’s messengers today.

Conservative Christians often criticise liberal Christians for making faith too easy: we don’t ask people to believe in impossible things (like a six day creation or virgins giving birth); we don’t force people to deny their sexuality or shoehorn people into outdated gender roles.  But here is the cost of liberal faith, here is where it is so much tougher of liberals than conservatives…

If we take the theologically conservative view that God’s work is done by heavenly beings, all we really have to do is ask for God to send some angels.

If we take the liberal view that God’s angels are human messengers, that means it’s up to us.

God’s not going to send a bloke in a frock with wings to solve the problems of the world – God is going to send you and me.

If that seems daunting then the good news is that we are not simply called as individuals, but as a Christian community, where we all work together to make a difference.

To be a Christian is to be one of God’s messengers.  Jesus told all his followers in his last words to them

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo,
I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

We are commanded to spread the good news of God’s love for us and teach the world what Christ has taught us.  We are to be the messengers of God.  Angels.

God has not given his work to heavenly creatures with wings and harps.  (At least not usually – in exceptional cases you never know…)  But the majority of God’s work on this planet is carried out through his earthy messengers, his human angels.

I close with one of my favourite quotations from one of my favourite saints, St Theresa of Avila that illustrates out role as angels, messengers of God and God’s kingdom:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours;
no feet but yours;
yours are the eyes through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.

Oh my Goddess! Holy Wisdom & Female imagery for God…

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Holy Wisdom – A Talk to the ‘Blackheath Wives Group’

 

In our reading we find one of the neglected themes of Scripture that has become important to me in recent years.  Our first lesson told us about ‘Sophia’, or Holy Wisdom.  I will hopefully be building on what Juliet was talking about when she came to your group a few months ago.

 

1 Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

 

Our first reading this morning uses some interesting imagery for God.  God is Wisdom.

 

What of course I find most striking about Wisdom, is that the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures uses explicitly female imagery for God.  As soon as words ‘female’ and ‘God’ start appearing in the same sentence, some people start to prickle.  We think of what we may feel are the excess of ‘political correctness.’  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This is not about being modern, or even post-modern.  This is not about new-fangled feminist thought.  (Though I have nothing against feminism or post-modernism.)  It is about looking at the images of God that we find in the Bible.  It is about taking the Bible seriously.  It is about taking the vastness of God seriously.  Taking seriously God’s ‘un-pin-downability’ – that God is much, much bigger that any one image we can use.

 

The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus reveal divine Wisdom as feminine.  The Hebrew word for Wisdom, ‘hokmah’, is grammatically feminine, and feminine pronouns are used to refer to wisdom.  

 

In Ecclesiastes 24 we read:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory.

 

And 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…”).  Later in chapter 4 of Proverbs we are encouraged to

 

Get Wisdom; get insight.  Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you…  Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her.  She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

 

The Wisdom of Soloman, chapter 10, describes the works of God:

Wisdom freed a holy people and a blameless race
from a nation of oppressors.
She entered the soul of a servant of the Lord
and withstood fearsome rulers with wonders and signs.
To the saints she gave the reward of their labours
and led them by a marvellous road;
She was their shelter by day
and a blaze of stars by night
She brought them across the Red Sea
and led them through mighty waters.
She swallowed their enemies in the waves
and spat them out from the depths of the sea.
Then, Lord, the righteous sang the glories of your name
and praised together your protecting hand;
For Wisdom opened the mouths of the silent
and gave speech to the tongues of her children.

 

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.

 

Also the Sprit 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.

 

One of the Hebrew words for God, ‘Elohim’ is thought to be the combination of the female ‘Eloah’ and the male ‘El’.  Another phrase, ‘El Shaddai’, usually translated ‘God Almighty’, could also be translated ‘the Breasted God’, the God who feeds her people from her breasts.

 

People often feel threatened by female descriptions of God.  We feel that it could take away from our liturgical life.  Disrupt our long-cherished pattern of prayer.  Many of us are still smarting from losing some of our favourite prayers in the new liturgies, must the same now happen to our vision of God?  And, after all, we may object, Jesus did teach us to pray ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

 

To consider, and embrace into our spirituality, Holy Wisdom, and other Hebrew Scripture images for God, will take nothing from our walk with God.  It would, of course, be utter nonsense to try and stop using masculine images for God.  But, if we take Scripture seriously, we must see that God has revealed his and herself, in many many more ways than just Father.  Our vision of God can be enlarged.  The only thing we have to lose is the limits we have set on God.

 

God is our Father, our Lord, our King, our Brother, our Friend, our Lover.  God is a Rock, a Shield, a Fortress, a Strong Tower, a River.  God is Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer.  God is a Consuming Fire, God is Power, Strength.  God is our Mother, the one who labours, and brings her people to Birth.  God is Wisdom.

 

These are just a few of the Biblical images of God.  The Bible and the tradition of the Church has produced many more.  St. Anselm, Julian of Norwich, and too many contemporary writers to list have used feminine imagery for God.  As we journey deeper into God on our Christian journey, let us not limit God by limiting the metaphors and images we use.  Let us drink deeply at the well of our tradition, and of Scripture.  And let us grow in God, as we explore all of the images we find there.

Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

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

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

Embracing the Apocalypse

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Luke 12:49-56

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

            I give the last words to Desmond Tutu:

 

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

 

 

Deleted Scenes

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

 

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

― Søren Kierkegaard

 

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

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

The Lord’s Prayer – A sermon by Margaret Offerman

A Sermon at the Church of the Ascension by Margaret Offerman

There are several pivotal moments in our sacred story when his people reached a new perception of the nature of their God. An obvious one occurred when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments. From this point, the Israelites worshipped one God (though they sometimes lapsed and took on the belief system of their neighbours). And they obeyed the law their God had delivered to Moses. The law of Moses, the law of God, was extremely detailed and prescriptive. There could be no doubt about what Yahweh demanded of his people in return for his protection from their enemies and their rights to the Promised Land. Exodus 20 vv 5b – 6,
Yahweh………..commandments.

We read a few weeks ago of the encounter between Yahweh and Elijah, when Elijah was so preoccupied with his struggle to divert the Israelites from the worship of Baal that he didn’t realise the significance of God’s still small voice. Yahweh appeared to Elijah, not as a manifestation of his power over the natural world, the God outside, but as an impulse, an awareness from within himself. From then on, the Hebrew scriptures present us with a God we can begin to relate to, not the lawgiver God or the warrior God or the nature God, but a multi-dimensional, companion God. This God is presented in poetic passages of elevated language such as we find in the psalms:
Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee to avoid your presence? If I climb the heavens you are there.
If I were to take wings and reach the sunrise, or travel westward across the ocean, your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.

The book of Job is the story of Job’s anguished confrontation with the God who has ceased to be the benevolent champion, the deliverer of Israel, but has turned his back on his own people and connived at their suffering. God is a detached presence again, as he was in the Garden of Eden, a force which must be obeyed, conciliated, feared.

The ambiguity in the bible between the God within and the God outside is encapsulated in the lord’s prayer, our reading this morning. Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their father. This God will be a provider of their physical needs. He ‘ll be full of mercy, on condition that they in turn show mercy to those who have done them wrong. There’s no reference to the angry, domineering tendencies that he showed when he appeared to Moses or tested Job. We recognise these qualities of the benevolent father figure as they come to life in the parables that Jesus told. Think of the prodigal son and the unconditional love shown by the father to this disobedient but repentant child. When he saw the prodigal son coming home, the father abandoned dignity and forgot the constraints of old age as he ran across the fields to welcome him home. It’s not by chance that when we talk about the fatherhood of God, it’s this story of the prodigal son that we turn to but we mustn’t ignore the problem of the limitations of our language when we quote this story – attributes we claim for God are often human qualities which we’ve extended beyond the normal human limits.

As well as having all the ideal human qualities of a perfect father, the God Jesus worships is holy. And his name must be hallowed. This ‘other worldly’ aspect of God is supremely important. It’s the transcendent attribute of God which Jesus imbibed from the Hebrew scriptures and it lifts God beyond the image of an old man high above his creation which we see in great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The book group spent an evening recently explaining their various reactions to ‘the Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong. This is a difficult book because it deals with a difficult subject – the nature of God.

The members of the book group don’t represent anyone but themselves, but there was an implicit unanimity in most of the comments made about God. Theism is belief in an external being to whom sacrifices and prayers can be made in the expectation that this divine being will change the course of events, interfere with natural law. The theme of ‘the Case for God’ is that theism, this traditional view of a superhuman, supernatural God, has lost its meaning and power for the vast mass of people. It began to lose its meaning with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The process continued with the publications of the work of Charles Darwin. It was caricatured by Yuri Gragarin, the first man in space, whose statue now stands outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He talked after his return to earth about the stupendous experience he had had and in an aside, he observed that he hadn’t seen God up there. His audience laughed.

Many of our hymns and prayers still use language that suggests that theism is alive and well. We pray to almighty God and we sing of [one] whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight. But outside the church these images and this language are empty. And even within the church, as those of us who choose the hymns will testify, it’s hard to find appropriate words to express our perception of God and our relationship with him in a way that makes sense.
‘In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes’
Without intending to be flippant, I want to know what he was doing a week past Wednesday when 24 Indian children were poisoned by their school dinner. Where is he when thousands of people lose their lives or their livelihoods in tsunamis or earthquakes? The suffering of the innocent is one of the great questions that confront us, as it confronted Job in the 6thc BC or God’s chosen people during the holocaust.

However, in our scepticism about belief in a God as a supernatural being who invades the universe sporadically and arbitrarily, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a depth dimension to human experience, a core to our life, both individually and in the life of the world, which is never apart from what we are and yet it’s beyond us, it transcends us. So we ask: WHAT is God? Rather than WHO is God?

Paul Tillich, a refugee from the holocaust, said that God is the presence in which all personhood can flourish. God is the ground of our being.

This is a long way from clear definitions about God – God the creator, God the lawgiver, God the champion of his people. Tillich talks of an internal reality that opens us up to the meaning of life itself. But this sounds nebulous, ungraspable. (David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, wrote of Tillich that his writing was obscure and that the obscurity concealed not profundity but muddle.) Thinking about the nature of God is not an easy ride. We have to recognise once again the limitations of language and use words like energy, vitality, creativity, the sublime. We have to think of examples of sacrificial self-giving, compassion, a thirst for justice, and see that they transcend self-interest. They are not the product of the selfish gene. They represent the highest ideals in life. They are the sum of all values. They exist and we can call them God, without having to believe in an independent, supernatural being. And the greatest of these qualities and attributes is love. David Jenkins said that God is as he is in Jesus. Jesus was and is divine love incarnate. As we heard in our epistle this morning: in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

We are one body made up of different parts. We must use the language of a search, an exploration, a journey, a pilgrimage to describe our need to know God, know his nature and worship his holiness.

This is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: 3 vv 14 – 21.

Mary, Martha and the Good Samaritan

Luke 10.38-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for all this to happen we need you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Good Samaritan

Luke 10v25-37 

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

The Story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best-known stories in the world.  It has entered our language: the organisation to help strangers called The Samaritans and we all know what it means to ‘walk on by on the other side of the road.  It’s impact is not just felt in English phrases, in France they have what is called the ‘Good Samaritan Law,’ where you have a legal obligation to help someone if you are able to.

The story of the Good Samaritan is famous, it is so famous, that we are all tempted to relax when hear it, sit back in our pews and say ‘oh yes, I know this one!’  When the story should unsettle and disturb us, strike a note in our heart that makes us want to change the way we live, and the way we think, and the way we relate to others.

This story is given by Jesus to explain the very core of Christianity.  Jesus is asked what does he stand for, what is his teaching all about.  The answer is to love.  Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself.  That is Christianity in a nutshell, everything else is a means to these ends.  To further explain the second of these loves, ‘love of our neighbour’ Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

The question I want us to consider is, who do we identify with in this story?

I’m sorry to say that the most obvious comparison for us is with the Priest and the Levite.  Most trips into central London turn us into the people who pass on by.  Many of us walk on by the homeless beggar asking for change without even recognising their humanity with a simple ‘hello.’  Some of us may want to say that giving to beggars is not a good idea, we can argue the case that we should give to a homeless charity, not to the beggars.  I’m not sure that argument carries much weight, but it is sincerely held by many good people.  What is clear, that if someone asks us for some money, the least we can do is recognise someone is talking to us and say ‘hello.’  I spent a year working with homeless people in central London, and it became clear from talking to people who had spent time on the street that a conversation, a few words of kindness and a smile, was often more welcome than money.   It’s all very well for me to be self-righteous about my principle of always talking to homeless people, but I’ve walked by people slumped unconscious with no better excuse for my inaction than not wanting to be late for the theatre.

But Jesus is clear, to walk on by is a sin.  It is wrong.  It goes against the very heart of Christianity, which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

We can do wrong, or ‘sin’ in the (often misunderstood) language of the church, not just by the things we do, but by the things we don’t do.

To further complicate our interpretation of this story, and make it even more painful to apply to our lives we need to consider those in need throughout the world.  The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us nothing if it does not teach us that our neighbours are not just people from our own country.  We only have to look at the news to see we have over a billion neighbours who need our help.  We have a billion hungry neighbours.  Every time we squander the gifts we have been given, we are walking on by on the other side of the road.  We need to support charities like Christian Aid, Oxfam, Embrace the Middle East, our own monthly appeal, and we can write to our M.P.s and to the prime minister to keep international aid high on the political agenda… 

And so we move on to the next character in the story.  If we do something to help those in need we may identify with the Samaritan.  He is the one Jesus calls us to be like, he ends the parable saying ‘go thou and do likewise.’

Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans despised the Jews.  My first draught of this sermon involved retelling the story in modern terms.  The Priest was a Vicar, the Levite, either a lawyer or a policeman.  I struggled with both because in our cynical age we don’t have the respect or awe for any of these professions that there would have been for the priest and Levite in Jesus’ time.  But the hardest thing to find was the equivalent for the Samaritan. 

The Jews and Samaritans really hated each other.  The Jews had been invaded and conquered and invaded and conquered by nation after nation, they had to fight to keep their national and religious identity alive.  The Hebrew Kingdom split into two, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, is the Holy Land as we know it, the land of Jesus.  The Jews of Judah kept their identity and did not intermarry with any of their invaders.  The Samaritans were the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, who had intermarried and taken on many of the customs of their invaders.   The Samaritans were not able to get to the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to worship, so they set up their own Temple on Mount Gerizim.  Although they worshiped the same God, they frequently fought, and in Jesus day ‘the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.’  The only people they would have hated more than their Pagan Roman oppressors were their neighbours the Samaritans.

I could think of no modern day equivalent for us to the Samaritan.  I thought maybe a Muslim, Muslims get a unfairly bad press in this country, but I don’t think we hate them in the same way that Samaritans were hated.  Asylum Seekers was another idea, but while the press and politicians use asylum seekers as a whipping post, we Christians would, I hope, never fall in line with that nonsense.  Even religious, good people hated the Samaritans, it’s the kind of hatred that comes with fear in times of war and unrest.  We are at peace with no hated enemy.

In the end I think we have to look into ourselves, and think about the people we find difficult, for whatever reason.  Reflect on the people who irritate, or anger or upset us.  And think, these are our neighbour, and these are the people Christ calls us to love.

If we are to be Good Samaritans, as Jesus calls us to be, we mustn’t just help our literal neighbour when they lock themselves out of their car, we are to help the people we find the hardest to bear, and do it with love.

We have looked at how we can identify ourselves with the people who walked by, we can identify ourselves with at least trying to be the Good Samaritan, finally, we should take some time to identify with the wounded man.  Our calling is not only to give, we are not called to simple charity.  We are also called to accept help and love.  We see ourselves as donors, the fortunates who can bestow charity, or bestow the Gospel on others.  But Jesus told this story to poor, common Jewish folk who would be much more ready to identify with the wounded man than anyone else.  We can be spiritually destitute, lying beside life’s road with no sense of meaning, or self-worth.  We could be emotionally beaten-up, robbed of comfort and security.  Until we realise that we need God, and need each other, we can never reach our full potential as Christians and as human beings.  Unless we realise that we need even the hated Samaritan, who will come to our aid if we let him, we will not live the life that God created us to live.

The message of this story is that we al all connected, all dependent on one another.  That’s also the same message as baptism.  When little Tom is baptised later in this service we will all promise that we have a responsibility to him.  And Barry and Nicola, his parents, and Nicholas, James and Fleur, his Godparents, will promise to bring Tom up to know his responsibility to his neighbour.

So let us take our consideration of the story of the Good Samaritan deeper, and reflect on ourselves, as the people who walk by, as the Samaritan, and as the wounded man, and the story, as with all Jesus’ teaching can bring us to life, and life more abundant.

Amen. 

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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.