Adam vs Eve

First Reading:  Genesis 3.8-14
8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
14The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Eve & Adam

The early chapters of Genesis are some of the most controversial in the whole of Scripture.  It’s not just the strange anti-science of creationists that bring this text into disrepute.  Although it is worth pausing briefly to point out that a Creationist reading of the early chapters of Genesis is not just unscientific – it is barely literate.  The story of creation is told twice in Genesis first from Genesis 1.1-2.3 and then again 2.4-3.24.  You will recognise both stories, but you may not have recognised that they are different.  In the first are the six days each ending with “and it was good.”  the second has Adam and Eve.

In the first story God created humans (male and female together) after all the other animals; in the second, God made one man (“Adam”) and then created all of the animals in order to find a companion for Adam. God brought all of the animals to Adam, but none were good enough, so God made a woman from one of Adam’s ribs to serve his companion.

Any serious reading of the early chapters of Genesis show that the ancient people who created the text did not take the stories literally – they saw these two contradictory stories, and decided that both were worth preserving.  They saw that these were parables of deep and profound and life-changing wisdom, not science or history.

But its not just confusion over science that has brought Genesis into disrepute.  Valid feminist criticism has said that these texts are dangerous and damaging to women.  In the creation narratives:

  • woman’s subordinate status is reflected in her being created second
  • woman is created to be a ‘helper’ to the man and cure his loneliness
  • woman tempted man to disobey and so is responsible for sin in the world; she is also gullible and simpleminded
  • woman is cursed by pain in childbirth

Our reading is the conclusion of the story, but at the heart of the story of Adam and Eve is a dialogue between the serpent and Eve… There is more to this story than meets the eye.  For example, the serpent addresses the woman in the plural, she is seen as he spokesperson for the human couple and therefore spokesperson for the whole human race!

The serpent and the woman discuss theology.  They talk about God.  The theologian Phyllis Tribble describes the discussion “reveals her as intelligent, informed, and perceptive. [She is a] Theologian, ethicist, hermeneut, rabbi, she speaks with clarity and authority.”

But it is true that the woman is tricked.  But it does not appear that Satan tempts the weakest of the couple – he tempts the one with brains, the one he knows the other will blindly follow.

Eve makes a mistake, but Adam is not the hero of the tale.  Adam is a passive nonentity.  The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve but weakness.  He isn’t a patriarchal figure making decisions for his family, he follows his woman without question or comment.  She gives fruit to him, “and-he-ate.”

Eve is tricked by the serpent, by the Devil incarnate.  The most cunning of the angels leads her to question God’s instructions.  And to be fair the knowledge of good and evil is a step forward for humanity, albeit an uncomfortable one.  Eve is led astray by Lucifer.  What does it take to lead Adam astray?  His wife saying “would you like a bite of my apple?”

When the mistake is revealed the woman takes responsibility for her actions, the man blames the woman and blames God.  Adam is weak and wheedling, “the woman that you gave me” he says to God.

It is interesting to note that story does not even say that Eve ‘tempted’ Adam; Adam isn’t reluctant or hesitating, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t contemplate.  Instead, his one act is eating: Eve offers and he munches without a second thought.

If this story deals in archetypes, the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, dim-witted, and inept.

There is more than one way to read this text.

The story of he Fall is subtle and deep and in the best possible sense of the word it is ‘true.’

There never was an Adam there never was an Eve, and there certainly was no talking serpent.  This is not a story about the past, it is a profound millennias old reflection on what it means to be human.

What is a human being?  Are we good?  Are we evil?  Are we Animals?  Are we angels?

This is what Genesis teaches us:

The deepest and most profound truth about humanity, is that we are good.  We contain the ‘image’ of God.  There is nothing so extraordinary in the world (and probably in the universe) than a human being.  Yet we are not Gods, Genesis tells us that we are made of the same dust as the rest of creation.  In modern terms, we are part of the same evolutionary process as giraffes and dolphins and dogs and cockroaches.

Another truth from the story is that the purpose of humanity is to “tend and care for” the Garden – we are created with a responsibility to care for the planet that we are part of.

But before this sermon becomes a party political broadcast for the Green Party lets get back to humanity.

Humanity is good, in God’s image.  But (and it’s a big but!) Eve represents the brightest and best of humanity, and yet she goes astray.

There was one rule, and she broke it.

We are good, but we have a tendency to cock things up.

The Fall describes human alienation in a way that beggars the greatest talents of psychologists and sociologists.  The human condition is described to a tee, and is as relevant today as it was nearly three millennia ago when it was first written, from an even more ancient oral tradition.

Humanity is good, but Fallen.

We all have the potential to be a St Francis or a Mother Theresa or a Gandhi.  We are made of the same stuff as they were.  They were people with the same doubts and fears and insecurities as the rest of us, but their lives shone with the brilliance of God’s image within them.  Even they were fallen, St Francis had masochistic tendencies, Mother Theresa refused to look at the political reasons why people were in need, Gandhi was not a good husband.  But they are heroes of faith and humanity.  Looking at their lives we can hear God’s words echo over creation ‘and it was good.’

But then we are made of the same stuff as Hitler, and Stalin and Myra Hindley.  We look at the devastation we have caused as a species, of the planet and of one another.  Islamic State, the Inquisition, two world wars, the Holocaust.

It is a mistake to put these heroes and villains too far away from us.  They are us.  People just like you and me, yet their deeds for good or evil are extraordinary.

We are full of contradictions.  Edward Young wrote;

“How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
How complicate, how wonderful, is man!”

We human beings contain God’s image, but are Fallen.  None of us live as we could.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a man is a God in ruins.”

The image of God that we bear is tarnished, but it is still there.  Most people never find it within themselves.  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” (Henry David Thoreau)

We are bogged down in our falleness, as we fall every day.  We live in ‘quiet desperation’, the song of our true nature never sung.

The Fall is a skewing of perspective.  God comes down to walk in the Garden with Adam and Eve and they are worried about what they are wearing!

Our perspective on life is distorted – we treasure what is worthless and ignore what is truly precious.

I close with a quote from Robert Fulghum about perspective:

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.”

The ‘Truth’ of the Ascension

I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension.  I am talking about Ascension Day rather than the Church of the Ascension  – perhaps that’s another sermon there…

As our regulars will have heard before, I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist.  Northern Irish Baptists make the sandal-wearing guitar-strumming Baptists of England look very tame.  Belfast Baptists are hardcore!  I brought up to believe the Bible was given by God – that God dictated the text of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.   And so, if the Bible was so God-given then it was true in every way that it is possible to be true: spiritually, historically, scientifically…

So the story of the Ascension was difficult because it is just so hard to believe as a historical event.  It works OK (just about) if you believe in the classical 3-tier universe: earth in the middle, the underworld below, and heaven above…  But we know the earth is round, to quote John Lenon there is “no hell below us, above us only sky.”

As a youth I was not only a fundamentalist Christian, I was also a science geek (I was a glutton for punishment, and not very popular with the girls), and I worried about Jesus body.  I worried because with our current knowledge of science we know that any human body would burn up on trying to leave the atmosphere, and even if God was able to protect Jesus body in a bubble of oxygen, there would be nowhere in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I was very neurotic – its a wonder I’m so well-balanced and ‘normal’ today!)

There were other things I struggled to believe, but this one just seemed so very odd.

Added to this I felt the Ascension was a strange day to celebrate, as it was a miserable occasion – it is a sad goodbye – a ridiculous day for a festival, and a ridiculous event to name a church after…  You will be glad to hear that my opinions have changed.

So we have this strange story of a seemly rocket-propelled saviour.  You may wonder what really happened to make the first Christians tell this extraordinary story?

Well get ready, brace yourselves, for tonight I will reveal the truth.

First lets look at the Bible:

The early manuscripts of the earliest Gospel, Mark, do not have any resurrection sightings of Jesus at all, and so no ascension either.

Matthew has Jesus make a lovely farewell speech “remember I am with you to the end of time…”  But he also has no account of Jesus departure.

The ending of John is my favourite, because it keeps us humble, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  John has no ascension story, just an assertion that there is a lot we do not know.

In the letters of Paul and other New Testament writes Jesus is described as “exalted to Gods right hand,” or “raised up” or even, “ascended on high.”  But all of these could be spiritual rather than historical statements.  It seems in the New Testament only Luke had heard the story of Jesus taken up into the clouds.

Turning to our readings for tonight, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscripts it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later versions add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So if Luke is in doubt, then the book of Acts has the only solid account of the Ascension.

So what do we make of this tale, seemingly known only to Luke?

The key line for me is “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.  Now, I can already hear people bristle.  How can the historical truth not matter?  Isn’t truth important?

Personally, I don’t take this story literally.  I don’t think this story presents itself as literal, historical fact.  If you need proof of the non-literal nature of the story, just look at the two accounts, both written by Luke, one at the end of his Gospel, the other at the start of Acts.  In Luke the Ascension happens in Bethany.  In Acts it happens in Jerusalem.  There are narrative reasons for that – the sort of reasons that makes Game of Thrones nerds sit up and point at the screen when the TV series changes locations and merges characters that are in the books.  (I speak as a Game of Thrones nerd.)

It is fascinating to reflect on what made the early Christians (or Luke, at least) come up with this story of Ascension.  I could regale you with theories.  But that is to miss the point.

I am not being anti-intellectual here, I am not saying just “I don’t believe this, but its best not to think about it too much.”

As a liberal Christian I have to insist on the orthodoxy of non-literal interpretation of the Bible.  As an Anglican Christian living in our wonderfully diverse tradition I also have to insist that people are free to interpret Scripture differently to me.  Bishop Richard Holloway put it very well in his marvellous book Doubts and Loves when he said that while Christians are free to believe whatever they like it is not the church’s job to “preserve antique mental furniture…”

The Flat Earth Society still exists.  They claim that the idea the earth is round is a hoax and a conspiracy (and they sometimes use the Bible to back up their claims).  It is not the job of the Church to try and eradicate the outdated and bizarre views of the Flat Earthers. People are free to believe whatever they like, but it must never, ever be the job of the church to “preserve antique mental furniture.”

Every time I have led an adult confirmation class someone has asked me something like: “I don’t have to believe in this Virgin Birth thing to be confirmed do I…?” or “I believe in evolution, can I still be confirmed…?”  The idea that we have to believe the impossible to be Christians is out there, and it damages the Gospel.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

I believe that the Ascension is not about doctrine, it is about a challenge.

That is true of Christianity.  The greatest enemy of orthodox Christianity, from the earliest days of the Church, was Gnosticism.  Gnosticism taught that salvation was all about having special sacred knowledge.  With knowledge of the secret truths you drew closer to God.  This was in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity which was often called “the Way.”

A Way of life, following Jesus teachings of a radical, inclusive love, versus a set of sacred truths.  We are not to gaze into heaven, but roll up our sleeves here on earth.

This has been the battle the Church has fought and refought over the centuries.  The Creeds were drafted to combat Gnosticism (and other heresies) and then became exactly the kind of thing they were created to defeat – a set of sacred truths that measured your Christian faith.  I believe that modern day Fundamentalism is just a new manafestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy.  Our oldest and most insidious enemy.

We follow a Way, not a set of dogmas.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?.”

And so the Ascension, this strange story of a flying saviour is not to be a statement we have to believe, to tick off on a list of dogmas that make up a true Christian.

The Ascension is not a story of a sad goodbye but a happy festival – it marks a coming of age.  Christ trusts us with his mission, as he disappears from our sight.  We can stare up into heaven no longer, its time to follow on the Way…

Christ has to go, so that we can grow up to spiritual adulthood.

The truth of the Ascension, the truth that I think this Church of the Ascension has at its heart, summed up in the famous words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Ours are the hands with which be blesses now.”

We have to decide how we understand the will of God, and then it is up to us to do it.  The Wash House youth club, offering free ESOL classes, our involvement in Holy Trinity Centre, in LEWCAS, our involvement with Majority World charities, our Visiting team, our commitment to Christian Aid, are just some of the manifestations of our commitment to the only truth of the Ascension that matters:

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

And as we trudge around our neighbourhood with a bundle of Christian Aid leaflets, or we attend a really dull meeting about financing one of our community projects we must remember that we are doing this to follow Christ.  This is the message of Ascension.  Perhaps it is the most challenging of all the celebrations of the Christian Year.  Perhaps the most fitting day for a patronal festival.  The Ascension reminds us that we have a responsibility.  The truth of the Ascension is that the work of Christ is now up to us.

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.
no hands   but ours,
no feet   but ours.

Amen.

Angel or Devil?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Matthew 16.13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom of Heaven

A sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place with no Outsiders or Believing the impossible

The Canaanite Woman

The Canaanite Woman

Isaiah 56:1-8

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

Matthew 15:10-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why am I talking about the impossible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of Hagar Genesis 21.8-21

ImageOur first reading this morning is a challenging one; it reveals one of the skeletons in the cupboard of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; but to fully understand the challenge we need a little background information.

The story concerns Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.  I was tempted to try and make the story more accessible and arouse your interest by describing their relationship as a “love triangle” – but I think to describe the triangle as being about “love” would be to gloss over a tale of power and abuse.

I will briefly tell the story that leads up to this morning’s reading:

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.  A promise that did not seem possible.

Let’s pause to describe the central three characters:

Abraham is a patriarch – a respected nomad with a wife and entourage of slaves.  Sarah, his wife is wealthy and free, but also old and no longer fertile.  Hagar is a slave, she is property, not a free person, she is poor, she is an Egyptian, and, crucially, she is young and fertile.

Because Sarah is infertile (“barren” in the brutally picturesque language of Scripture) she can not see how God’s promise to Abraham could possible come true unless she takes some drastic action.  The drastic action comes in the form of persuading Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her slave.

Sarah’s disdain for her slave is shown in her disregard for Hagar’s wishes, and she doesn’t even refer to Hagar by name, she simply describes her as “my maid.”

Hagar is not seen as a person, she is simply an instrument to be used by Abraham and Sarah so they can achieve their goal of producing heirs…

There are a few phrases in this story that cause debate among scholars, and we see the first once Hagar is pregnant with Abraham’s child.  Sarah, who had come up with the idea, complains  to Abraham:

“I gave my maid to your embrace   but when she saw that she had conceived, then I was slight in her eyes.”

The debated phrase is what it means to be “sleight in the eyes” of someone.  It would seem that Hagar’s pregnancy threatened Sarah’s feeling of superiority.

Abraham does not intervene, but tells Sarah to do what seems “good in her eyes” to her maid.  And then we have the next debated phrase – Sarah “afflicted” her!  We don’t know what form of bullying or victimisation or abuse that Sarah visited on Hagar, but it was so severe that Hagar decided to run away.

Hagar runs out into the wilderness, and ends up near her home country of Egypt.  She almost makes the reverse journey of the Exodus that Moses will later accomplish when he frees the Israelite slaves from Egypt.

In the wilderness Hagar encounters God.

“Hagar, maid of Sarah,” says God, “where have you come from and where are you going?”

There are lots of things that are interesting about Hagar’s encounter with God:

Hagar doesn’t cry out to God – She doesn’t approach God, God approaches her.  We can understand why she might not want to appeal to the God of her oppressors, but God takes an interest and makes the first step.

God is the first person in this story to address Hagar by name – elsewhere she is just described as the maid or the slave.

And it is only in the presence of God that Hagar speaks.  Here she speaks for the first time in the whole story.

She calls God by name.  She is, in fact, the only person in the whole of the Bible who calls God by name.

You may remember that the name of God is a big deal.  In Jewish thought, a name is not just a label to tell one person from another; the name reveals the nature and essence of the thing named; it represents the history and reputation of the being named.

This isn’t as strange as it may seem at first – in English, we often refer to a person’s reputation as their “good name” or a company’s reputation may be their “good name.”  The Hebrew concept of a name is very similar to this.

The most famous example of this is read in Exodus 3.13-22: Moses asks God what His “name” is. Moses is not asking “what should I call you;” rather, he is asking “who are you; what are you like; what have you done.” God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of Moses’ ancestors, that He has seen the Hebrews’ affliction and will redeem them from bondage.  And then he says he is “I am”

The name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is designated as “Y-H-W-H” – written Biblical Hebrew has no vowels so the name used to be translated as Jehovah (not only are there no vowels but Y and J are interchangeable as are V and W!).  Today we more often translate this us Yahweh; but often in writing it is left as YHWH; or many Bibles translate this as “THE LORD” but but it in capital letters to show something special is going on here.

In the whole of the Bible only Hagar addresses God by name.

But this is not an Exodus – God does not set her free.  In fact God sends her back to her owners. 

But she goes back with a promise:

And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

Fortified with God’s promise Hagar returns, and we seem to have a semi-happy ending:

Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

But then Abraham has three mysterious visitors, and Sarah is promised a child.  And when that promised child arrives Sarah’s hatred of Hagar bubbles to the surface again.  This time she persuades Abraham to banish Hagar and her child and he drives them both out into the desert.

Hagar has been enslaved, raped, forced to be a pawn in Sarah and Abraham’s schemes, and now they try to kill her by driving her out into the inhospitable wilderness.

Hagar walks on and on, her water runs out, and so she leaves her son under a bush and walks a short distance away – she cannot bear to watch her child die.

When all hope was gone and Hagar thought there was nothing for her son and her to do but die, God appears again.

God speaks again and reveals a well – Hagar and her son are saved!

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

If the story of Hagar was written by a modern author the Daily Mail would criticise it as “political correctness gone mad” – Hagar is persecuted for her race, her nationality, her social status and her gender.  She is the faithful maid exploited, the surrogate mother rejected, the resident alien, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the single mother, the expelled wife, the homeless person…

Hagar is not the person that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures is about.  She sits outside the main plot – we follow Abraham and Sarah’s children, Isaac, Joseph, to Moses and Joshua all the way to Jesus.  The point of this story is that God does not only care for one group of people.

God cares for the Israelites; but God cares for Hagar and Ishmael and their descendants too.

The heritage of Ishmael is claimed by the Bedouin people, by Egyptians, by Arab nations and the prophet Mohammed is said to have descended from Ishmael.

The other message of this story is that what we do in life, and how we treat people echoes through all time.

By doubting God’s promise and abusing her slave Sarah creates a nation that will rival the nation of her descendants.  More instantly the way the Hebrew couple abuse their Egyptian slave will echo in how the Egyptians will end up abusing their Hebrew slaves.

But perhaps the most powerful message in this text is that no one is too poor or too low on the social ladder to be of interest to God, God cares for the least of humanity, so we should too:

As Jesus would put it many years later:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 

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