It’s getting better all the time

shutterstock4mccormack-300_1

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

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

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

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

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

“This country is going to the dogs.”

“Things aren’t what they used to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Christ the King 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchy is one of those jobs.

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

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

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

I’m over-simplifying, but basically –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Jesus and the Bacon Sandwich

Bacon Sandwich

Mmmmmmmmm Bacon!

The following notes are from a discussion-based ‘sermon’:

I’m going to start with a question.  There is no certain right or wrong answer to it (it’s not like the question of the Labour Party leadership – clearly Jeremy Corbyn is the correct answer – just sayin’) so don’t be afraid to say what you think…

It’s not “all age” but there is a visual aid…

A bacon sandwich is presented to the congregation…

My question is:  If it was handed to him, would Jesus eat this bacon sandwich?

We will go deeper in a moment, but let’s just ask for a show of hands on your initial response…

As a good liberal congregation let’s start with the ‘don’t know’s…?
Now the ‘yes’s…?  (the Majority at the Church of the Ascension thought yes)
And finally the ‘no’s…?

Take two minutes to discuss…

What are the issues?

  • Jesus was forbidden to eat pig as a Jew
  • What if someone was being deliberately offensive to Jesus…?
  • What if Jesus was innocently offered it by a Roman child…?
  • What if someone was trying to test Jesus…?
  • What if it was today…?
  • What is cultural and what is God’s Commandment and what is Human Tradition…?
  • If we think Jesus’ wouldn’t eat the sandwich… What does that mean for us…?

For what it’s worth I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have eaten the bacon sandwich.  As a follow of Jesus shouldn’t I then do the same?  Well no actually, because I think that Jesus was a product of his culture and some of his actions were conditioned by that culture, but some of his actions, like the command to love speak to universal truths of the human condition.

Deciding which are which is the biggest challenge of Christian Theology.

Jesus was a progressive thinker in his age.  Do we honour him best by trying to be progressive thinkers today, or by crystallising everything he said into permanent immutable truths and leaving progress in first century Palestine?

The way I asked the question reveals my answer…!

A little bit of background to the reading:

The basis for hand washing in Judaism was originally related to the Temple service and sacrifices as outlined in Exodus 30:17-21. Before going into the tent of meeting, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and their feet. After the destruction of the Temple, however, everything changed. Still, the rabbis did not want to lose the importance of hand washing, so they moved it to the dining room table or home “altar.”  They attempted to bring the holy into everyday life.  However, at some point, what was meant to be a life-giving practice became a means of designating insiders and outsiders and for many it became an empty ritual which no longer led people closer to God.

Then we see Jesus’ disciples, who were a band of itinerant preachers, begging for their upkeep, and unable to follow all the ritual cleansings of the Law demanded.  But Jesus says it’s not what we eat that makes us unclean,  it’s not what enters our bodies – it is what comes out of us.  Jesus has a list:

fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly

We can apply our thinking about the bacon sandwich to this list: Fornication, for example, is condemned in the context of women being the property of men… Any sexual relationship with a woman who was not protected by marriage put the woman in an extremely vulnerable position.  Some people use the command to condemn all sex outside of marriage including equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. But I believe that it’s nearer the spirit of the command to try and prevent sexual exploitation – to work against sex trafficking, child abuse, the excesses of the sex industry…  That’s more in the spirit of Jesus than inquiring about what consenting adults do in private.  Jesus message was to refrain from judging others and that love is the most important religious practice.

I chose fornication from the list because the theme connects us to the first reading, and I don’t want to finish today without mentioning it:

Our first reading is from one of my favourite books of the Bible.  The Song of Solomon is an extended love poem or collection of poems, a dialogue between a lover and the beloved with an occasional chorus that gives a kind of commentary on the love story.   But the Song of Solomon is not universally loved nor universally understood.  As far back as third century the theologian Origen thought that the book was an allegory describing the love of God for Israel and/or the love of Jesus for the church.

Origen is not the most reliable of scholars.  His interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel “if your eye offends you, pluck it out” led him to castrate himself.  But his was not a lone voice and much later Reformers like Calvin accepted Origen’s view.

But the most sensible interpretation of the text is that it is what it appears to be: an erotically charged love poem.  The only reason to attempt an allegorical interpretation is a mistrust of sexuality – something that increased in the Christian Tradition as it became more influenced by Greek Philosophy.  But that is another sermon.

This is one of only two biblical books, Esther and Song of Songs, where there is no mention of God.  Also, unlike the majority of the Bible (with the exception of the books of Esther and Ruth) the woman’s voice is clearly heard.  The voice of the woman is about 75% of the book.  She is feisty, frisky, and sees the lover as an equal: she affirms, “my beloved is mine and I am his.”

So having traveled from bacon sandwiches to erotic poetry via Jesus and contextual theology…  What does this mean for us?

Firstly I hope it made you wonder if you know Jesus as well as you think you do… We need room for doubt and uncertainty and questioning if we want our faith to grow.  The faith that thinks it knows all the answers is not only dangerous, it’s a faith that clearly hasn’t fully understood the questions.

As Richard Feynman said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

So firstly I hope it has made you think about your assumptions about Jesus.

Secondly I hope it’s helped shed light on how we can use scripture to reflect on our life today.

St Margaret and the Dragon

St Margaret takes on the dragon

This morning I want to talk about St Margaret of Antioch, as it is her day.

We don’t usually celebrate minor saints, but I thought we could remember Margaret today because our Sister Church, St Margaret’s Lee is dedicated to her, and it makes a connection with our neighbours…

Also my inner feminist sees that women are under-represented in our calendar of saints, and it’s good to celebrate the women that are included.

But mostly I want to celebrate Margaret because I only just discovered her story and it has a dragon in it!

The Legend of St Margaret is recorded in the Mediaeval book of saints called “The Golden Legend.” Her story was written by a scholar called Theotimus, who was (despite his belief in dragons) described as a “learned man.”

Nothing certain is known about Margaret, but according to the legends recorded by Theotimus, she was the daughter of a pagan priest.  When she converted to Christianity she was driven from home by her pagan father.  She became a shepherdess and while out on the fields her beauty caught the attention of Olybrius, the prefect.  She was not so taken with Olybrius, and he charged her with being a Christian because she spurned his advances.

Some people over-react when they fail to pull, but Olybrius was in another league: He had poor Margaret thrown in prison and tortured.

It was while she was in prison that she had an encounter with the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon.

According to the legend, the dragon swallowed her, but the cross she carried grew miraculously large and tore open the monsters belly allowing Margaret to escape. (It is thought to be because of this that she became the patroness of childbirth – (more on that later…)).

The next day, attempts were made to execute her by fire and then by drowning, but she was miraculously saved every time.  As a result of her faith and these miracles thousands of spectators witnessing her ordeal were converted to Christianity (the story is not as happy as it sounds – all of the converts were promptly executed!).  Finally, after fire, water, an encounter with the devil and a lot of bloodshed, she was beheaded, and finally died.

(As a little postscript – hers was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc.)

I’m sure there could be an interesting Freudian analysis of Margaret causing the crucifix to grow and grow…  The image reminds me of one of my favourite movies, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (which was also subject to a lot of Freudian analysis in its day) where the monster erupts from John Hurt’s chest…

In another version of the story the crucifix doesn’t grow, but the resourceful Margaret discovers that it’s edge is sharp and uses it to slice open the Dragon from the inside and cut her way free.

Margaret is not content to run away, glad to escape with her life; she grabs the dragon by the hair (who knew dragons had hair?!) throws it to the ground and stamps on its neck until it tells him the truth about its pursuit of Christian souls!

Margaret kicks ass!

It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history.

How should we deal with this story of a fight with a dragon.

In our enlightened days we can be embarrassed by tales of monsters and the supernatural.  Miracles make us uneasy and dragons are clearly ridiculous.

So should we brush aside the saints who’s stories are clearly fictions – the St Christophers, St Georges, St Cecelias and St Margarets?

The Christian tradition has another way to judge myths and legends, stories of faith and traditions.  What did Jesus describe as ‘all the law and the prophets’? It was love.  We are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and it is the same for stories of faith and traditions.

Margaret’s story has born much fruit.  In the Middle Ages when childbirth was extremely dangerous she was the Saint that women prayed to disputing their pregnancies and the one they screamed to for help at the height of their labour.

Margaret is popular because of women’s experiences.  Women who tie images of her around their middle with a ribbon during the later stages of pregnancy.

I’m not saying that Margaret stepped in from heaven to help them, but I am saying that the role model of a strong and fearless woman who faced down Satan himself was inspiring.

Noticing the marginalised is an essential element to any good inclusive church and St Margaret of Antioch is a saint who indirectly points us to the lived experiences of women and their faith – voices written out of or controlled by our church story.

It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history, but pious legends and fiction have helped Christians through the ages and can inspire us and uplift us.

I saw a poster recently that said:

“Blessed are the
weird people
the poets & misfits
the artists and writers
music makers
the dreamers
and outsiders
they force us
to see the world
differently”

The story of Margaret, the teenage girl who beat up the devil helps us to see the world differently.

Margaret, a teenage girl, thrown out by her parents, was able to resist the devil.  Not just resist the devil, but slice him open and give him a kicking.  I think she must be the Saint most similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I should know – I measure most saints by their similarity to Buffy)

Who knows the historical truth of her life.

But is Macbeth any less insightful if we learn there was a real Scottish King called Macbeth, and Shakespeare wrote with total disregard for historical accuracy about his life?

Or if Shakespeare is not your thing, is Breaking Bad any less profound if we learn that Walter White is entirely fictional?  And it came as a bitter blow to discover as a child that Doctor Who wasn’t real, but the way that the Doctor used intelligence and courage to defeat evil and violence still inspired me.

Margaret gives us a vision of how a teenage girl can defeat a violent manifestation of evil.  It may not be historical, but it can still be true.

I don’t often quote the American Evangelist, Billy Graham (in fact this is the first time) but he said “Courage is contagious. When a brave man [or woman]  takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”

Margaret gave courage to untold women facing perilous childbirths, and maybe her story can remind us of our many foremothers in the faith whose lives have become legend or been forgotten completely.

Her story of contagious courage can still change the world today.

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.

The Other Sheep

A sermon on John 10v11-18

Our Gospel reading places us as a sheep belonging to Jesus, our Good Shepherd.  Those who have been coming for a while know that I sometimes like to start my sermons with a joke, just to wake everyone up if the readings were dull or no one knew the last hymn.

I try to find a joke that somehow cleverly fits the theme of the sermon.  This week I was trying to find sheep jokes and failed to find anything remotely relevant.  But this is Marathon Sunday, and lots of our regulars are cut off or at least have their transport here disrupted…  I was tempted to treat it as a teacher treats the last day of term and suggest that you all just “bring in games.”  I have no excuse for the following jokes, other than that I am bringing in games!

So:

  • What do you get if you cross an angry sheep and a moody cow?
  • An animal that’s in a baaaaaaaad moooooood.
  • Why was the sheep arrested on the motorway?
  • Because she did a ewe-turn!
  • What Christian denomination is most popular with sheep?
  • Baaaa-ptist.

Finally, my personal favourite:

A man in a cinema notices what looks like a sheep sitting next to him.
“Are you a sheep?” Asked the man, surprised.
“Yes.” Said the sheep.
“What are you doing at the movies?”
The sheep replied, “Well, I liked the book.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are “the sheep of [God’s] pasture.”  We are the “sheep” for whom the “good shepherd” lays down his life.

Feeling a bit sheepish this morning?

I know that some members of this congregation struggle with the metaphor of God’s people as sheep.  None of us want to be sheep – we want to be powerful and important, not bleating animals that follow the crowd.

One of my standard Christmas talks is about the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem, and how shepherds were outcasts of the day – poor wild men who slept rough on the hillsides – hired for a pittance, barely above beggars in the social hierarchy.

I’ve heard kids use “MacDonalds Worker” as an insult;  in first century Palestine the kids may well have taunted unpromising peers with “Shepherd!”

Shepherds were hired to look after the sheep.

Sheep were not a particularly highly regarded commodity at the time.  They did have some religious significance, but only because they were slaughtered in their thousands at Passover, so that the floor of the Temple ran red with their blood.

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of being called a “sheep” it’s worth considering that sheep had no better image in Jesus’ day than they do now (and shepherds had a considerably worse image!)

The metaphor of Jesus as a Shepherd and his followers as sheep is not a cutesy image.  It’s about outcasts caring for the insignificant.  But it’s about finding beauty in the everyday.  It’s about saying God is interested in things that society ignores or undervalues or despises.

Having set the scene, I want to spend a bit of time reflecting on one verse and what it might mean to us:  Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus calls the disciples, the Christian Church in embryo, “a sheepfold.”  The place where God purpose is worked out on Earth…

But Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Early Christians were struggling with the Jewish authorities as the two religions began to go separate ways… They were distrusted by the Roman government who were soon to attempt to exterminate them.

They were harassed on every side, it would have been easy to fall into exclusive extremism, but instead they record and pass on the words of Jesus:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus is clear that although his ragtag band of scruffy, mostly illiterate followers are infinitely precious to God, they are not the only people of infinite value to God:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

We, in the Church of the Ascension, sometimes feel embattled as a liberal church – the hierarchy seems obsessed with money, it seems like the churches that are succeeding are conservative, interested only in evangelism and not in helping their communities, society is indifferent at best, and at worst tars us with the same homophobic brush as it does our fundamentalist brothers and sisters.

But we are doing well and doing important work in our community, but this is not the only place where God’s work is being done:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

But it’s worth considering that there wasn’t another group exactly like the disciples out there that Jesus was referring to when he talked about his “other fold” – Jesus was talking about other religious expressions, outside of Christianity, outside of Judaism:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

What was true in the first century is true today:

In Churches of all traditions, Catholic, Protestant, liberal, radical, conservative, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

In temples and synagogues and mosques and gurdwaras, in humanists, and campaigners and protestors:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Gospel of Jesus is life-changing and life-giving, but Jesus recognised that there were more truths, more ways of giving life, than just one.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

I close with an Interfaith Prayer prepared by Christians, Jews and Muslims:

Eternal God
Save us from weak resignation to violence
Teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power
That thoughtfulness and tenderness are marks of the strong.
Help us to love our enemies
Not by countenancing their sins,
But by remembering our own
And may we never for a moment forget
That they are fed by the same food,
Hurt by the same weapons,
Have children for whom they have the same high hopes as we do.
Grant us the ability
To find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In the striving for justice and truth.

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows  everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

  • Calendar

    • December 2018
      M T W T F S S
      « Jun    
       12
      3456789
      10111213141516
      17181920212223
      24252627282930
      31  
  • Search