All Human Life is Here

1 Kings 19.1-4

Galatians 3.23-29

Luke 8.26-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Paul was writhing to a divided church:

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

1st Reading:  1 Kings 19.1-4

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

2nd Reading: Galatians 3.23-29

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

Gospel Reading: Luke 8.26-39

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

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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.

The Mystery of the Holy Trinity fully explained

ImageA sermon for Trinity Sunday

 

The Trinity were planning a holiday. The Spirit, manifesting the creative part of the divine nature, was coming up with the ideas. “Let’s go to Los Angeles,” the Spirit suggested.
“No, no, no,” said the Father, “They’re all so liberated, they’ll spend the whole time calling me ‘Mother’ and they will just do my head in.”
So the Spirit sat back and thought. “I know, what about Jerusalem?  It’s beautiful and then there’s the history and everything.”
“No way!” the Son declared. “After what happened the last time, I’m never going there again!”
At this point, the Spirit got annoyed and went off in a huff. Sometime later he returned and found that the Father and Son had had a idea they both thought was excellent:
“Why don’t we go to Canterbury?” said the Son.
“Perfect!” cried the Holy Spirit. “I’ve never been there before!”

This idea of three persons, able to chat to each other and maybe even argue is just one way that we can interpret or misinterpret the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is one of the most challenging Christian theological concepts.  

The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, a great philosopher and theologian who devoted years of his life to study to understanding the doctrine of the Trinity and to trying to explain it logically.  One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and said, “Little child, what are doing?” and she replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.” “How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?” To which she replied, ” And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.

John Wesley famously said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

If we try to see the Trinity as an explanation of God, then we are going to tie ourselves in knots.  It is much healthier to see the Trinity as the question, not the answer.

The question is how do we experience one God three different-yet-connected ways?  

We experience God as our Creator; we experience God in life of Jesus; and we experience God in other people and in ourselves.

Creator, Jesus, Spirit, one God three experiences.

We believe in God the Father, who created us.  We sometimes miss the importance of our Christian view of creation.  Perhaps we are anxious in case some Darwinian biologist comes and strikes us down with scientific insights.  But, of course, understanding evolution no more disproves the doctrine of creation, than understanding how a telephone works disproves the existence of British Telecom.  As Christians we believe in a God who creates.

The chief rival to creation during the time of the first Christians was the view of the Greek Philosophers.  They thought that matter was eternal, it had existed forever in the past, and would exist forever into the future.  Matter was shaped into its present form by a god (that is definitely a god with a small ‘G’) who Plato called the ‘Demiurge.’  This god, the ‘Demiurge’ was not very bright, and simply operated according to blueprints, called ‘Forms’; and it was these blueprints or Forms that were really sacred.  Matter was seen as something base and unimportant, it was shaped by a the most undivine of deities, into objects that were only interesting because of what they told us about ‘divine blueprints’ for life.

The Jewish and Christian God who created a world, and ‘saw that it was good’ was a radical departure.  Christianity sees creation as ‘good’ and we should rejoice in our createdness.  It is somewhere that we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, and we believe in God the Son.  God does not only create us, God is a part of that creation, and enters into a relationship with it.  God loves creation, and has shares in its joy and in its sorrow.  God walks along side us the path we walk, has knows our temptations, our loneliness, our pain and doubt.  And in the teaching of Jesus we experience comfort, inspiration, challenge.  If we are honest sometimes we can struggle to encounter Jesus when we read the Bible – it was written almost two thousand years ago, and the meaning can sometimes be a little opaque to us.  Although I do recommend sitting down and reading through Luke’s Gospel – it’s a much easier read than most of the Bible and very compelling.  But if you do find scripture opaque I recommend getting a commentary or book to help you through – it’s not just ‘a good read’ it’s a place where we can encounter God.

We believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit does not get as much ‘Press’ as the other two.  She is altogether more ‘Ghostly’ than the Father and the Son.  We all know about Fathers, we all now about Sons, but ‘Spirits’ are outside of most of our experiences.

As I have said before the word for the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘ruach’ a feminine word – the Holy Spirit should be a ‘she’.)

The Holy Spirit is just as important for our Christian view of life as her consubstantial, coequal and coeternal colleagues in the Godhead.

We have been created by God, we have God before us.  God is revealed in the  human life and teaching of Jesus, we have God beside us.  God has come and made her home in us, we have God within us.

To have one human being, Jesus, in whom God dwelt, is profound.  To know that our species, with its many faults and failings, with its capacity for hatred, war, and genocide, to know that our species is capable of being the place where God touched the earth, is an awesome thought.  The species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Rupert Murdoch, has produced Jesus Christ, who we call the Son of God.

This is an awe-inspiring idea, but there is more…  To know that God, the Holy Spirit lives inside us all, must change the way we see ourselves and our neighbours even more.

And so we encounter God in three distinct-yet-united ways.  And The Church over centuries developed the idea of the Trinity to explore this fundamental experience of God.  And as the threeness and yet oneness of God developed theologians started to describe how at the very heart of God there is a relationship – the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Christian God is not only loving, our God is love.

And we are made in God’s image, some say that image is our free will, or our ability to create, or our ability to reason.  But where I believe God’s image can be found more than anywhere; where God’s imprint is most vividly seen, is in between people, in relationships.  In the places where people meet, form bonds, interact.  In community.  In the love Christians should have for each other, and in our love for the world.

Like all theology, the idea of a Threeness to God is not scientific but artistic truth – a human construction, but it is one that speaks of the profoundest and deepest Christian truth.  We find this truth time and again in the teaching of Jesus, but it finds powerful expression in the idea of the Trinity:  God is all about relationships.  If we want to honour God we do that in our relationships.

Trinity is a perfect working model for Christian faith.  A faith that is, more than anything, an invitation to relationship, relationship with God and with all humanity.

What is the Church?

Image

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7;  Psalm 40;  John 1:29-42

 

Today I want to ask question “What is the Church?”

 

Please close your eyes for a moment, and with your eyes closed I want you to visualise the Church of the Ascension.

 

Take a few moments to form a mental image…

 

How many of you imagined the building?

 

I think most people, most of the time, I’d asked to imagine a ‘church’ will imagine the building.  Which is fair enough – this building has “the Church of the Ascension” written on the front of it.  Our logo is an image of the front of the building.

 

Google’s Dictionary defines “Church” as “a building used for public Christian worship.”

 

And offers the synonyms:     “house of God, the Lord’s house, house of prayer; kirk.”

 

It’s only the second definition that gets to the nitty gritty: “a particular Christian organization [sic.] with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.”

 

The building is not what the church is.

 

The Church is you and me.

 

The word “Church” (or in the original Greek, “ecclesia”) is an interesting word, it was deliberately chosen by the first Christians who could have called their places of worship “temples” like the pagans or “synagogues” like their Jewish forbears, but instead chose “ecclesia” translated “church.”  “Ecclesia” is used 115 times in the New Testament, but only two or three times is it usually translated as “Church” because the word simply means a gathering of people or an assembly.

 

The Church is the people, not the place where they gather.

 

We are the church. Without us it’s just a building (an interesting & historic building, but just a building nonetheless).

 

In the same way that your family (if you live with one or more other people) is not the house or flat you live in.  Your home may be very important to you, but your house is not your family….

 

Our building is important, it is a sign to our neighbourhood that we are here, and it is a great resource for our community, but it is not the Church.  The church is us.

 

 

 

What does it mean to be the church?

 

I wonder what we think we are doing when we come together as a church?

 

What secular activity is it most like?  What is a good metaphor for coming together to be the Church.

 

For some services (a Choral Evensong springs to mind) a service can bear a lot of resemblance to a concert.  We listen to a sermon and we pray, but we spend most of the time sitting and listening to music.

 

But this is not what we are about – for several reasons.  If worship is like a concert, it makes us passive receivers.  It means that Worship is something other people do (the choir and clergy); the congregation’s role is just the audience.  The congregation are an audience to be entertained.

 

If we look for a better metaphor, I have heard church described as a time to “recharge our spiritual batteries.” …This places church as something like a “battery charger,” or perhaps a “spiritual health spa” where our favourite hymns are a pedicure and the prayers an exfoliating body scrub…?

 

This is a better metaphor than a concert because we are changed by the process, we are not simply entertained, we are healthier, feel better and maybe look better (I’ve never actually been in a spa, so it’s possible I’m talking nonsense !)

 

However, the idea of the church as a spa still has the problem that the religion is “done to us” by the professionals.  The experts do their work and the customers lay back and enjoy it.

 

I attended a lecture last year that said the best metaphor for the church was a gym – St. Ignatius described his system of prayer as “Spiritual Exercises” – so perhaps Church is best described as a “Soul Gym.”

 

Unlike a concert or spa, everyone actively participates in the gym; it makes us fitter and better able to do things (like climb stairs and run for the bus).  There are trained experts around to help, but everyone works at their own level and does their own exercise.

 

Perhaps like going to the gym we may not jump up with excitement at the idea of a trip to church, but hopefully, like the gym we feel better for going, and the cumulative effect of regularly attending gym or church is improvement in our physical or spiritual health.  The more often you go and the more seriously you take it the more marked the results.

 

(It is also worth mentioning that if every church member paid like people pay at the gym (by a standing order that comes out of your account wether you attend once a year or seven times a week) all of our financial concerns would be over!)

 

I like the gym metaphor, but it is also flawed.  At the gym everyone is doing their own thing.  Everyone may be in the same room, but they are all pursuing their own aims.

 

The problem of all these metaphors is that they place the congregation in the place of “consumers” of one sort or another.  In the church we are not “consumers” of religion.  We are “citizens” of the Kingdom of God.  We are the Body of Christ.

 

If we were consumers we have religion done to us.  We pay the clergy to do our religion for us, and then buy whatever slice or flavour is to our taste.

 

As citizens of the Kingdom, as the body of Christ, as people who are the church we don’t just consume faith, we live it out in our lives

 

We gather as a church in order to be sent out again to change the world and proclaim the Kingdom.

 

So church may share some superficial similarities with a concert or spa or gym, but none of them do justice to what we are about.  To my mind the best metaphor for the church is a family meal.

 

Like family meals it is wonderful – it’s fantastic to share time with people who matter to us.  But it is also a challenge, some of the children may be noisy at inappropriate times and uncle Jim’s sense of humour is alarmingly unreconstructed.  But we are family, children of the same Heavenly Father.

 

But we have a responsibility for each other in church. 

 

If there is someone new next to us looking lost with the handfuls of service sheets and hymn books, if we are consumers it’s none of our business, but if we are the church we have a responsibility to help them out and guide them through…

 

If we are consumers if we run out run out of service sheets the only thing that matters is that we get our own sheet, as citizens we must share with our neighbours…

 

If we were consumers we would see tea and coffee after the church as an experience similar to a quick visit to Starbucks.  (With cheaper coffee.)  If we are consumers all that matters is our coffee and our conversations with our friends, but if we are citizens we need to look out for folks who are on their own or looking left out.

 

I have heard from people who started coming to church because of the wonderful welcome they had at the door.  I have, also, recently received an email from a potential new member who decided not to come back because they felt someone was rude to them because they weren’t looking at them directly during the Peace!

 

How we behave to each other really matters.

 

We are the church, and the church will thrive or decline according to how we act.

 

If the church is going to grow their is no outreach programme or activity that could even come close to “word of mouth” from all of us.  Evangelical churches have run all sorts of studies on what makes churches grow: door-to-door evangelism?  Billy-Graeme-style rallies? singing in market squares? giving out pamphlets…?  and every single study I have read comes to the same conclusion: the congregation telling their friends, neighbours and families about the church, and inviting them along is by miles the most effective means of growth.

 

If we are consumers then church growth has nothing to do with us – we just attend to buy a fresh slice of religious observance.  However, if we are citizens then we all have to play our part in building the church.

 

I think every Church service should end with the famous words of St Teresa of Avila:

 

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

 

no hands but yours,

 

no feet but yours,

 

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion

 

is to look out to the earth,

 

yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good

 

and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

 

Midnight Mass – Advertising Christmas

Image

I’m going to disturb our quiet reflective mood with a very short Quiz.  I spent half an hour on YouTube looking at the most popular Christmas television adverts of 2013, and if I give you the tag-line I wonder if you can give me the product or store that used it in its advertising this year: 

Who suggested we “Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget”

(John Lewis – I’ll come back to this campaign…)

Who said “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!”

(M&S)

“The moments that make Christmas Special
brought to you by _ _ _ _ _ _ _”

(Sainsbury’s offered a selection on home videos of family Christmastimes)

The taste that unites

(KFC – I hadn’t seen this advert on television, but it is very funny!)

There’s nothing better than Christmas

(Tesco – showing someone go from youth to old age
fortified by Tesco-bought Christmas dinners!)

“This Christmas lets make the people that make us feel good, feel good”

(Boots showed a yoof in a hoodie acting as a modern Santa
with Boots-bought goodies)

Whatever you wish for this Christmas, make it fabulous with _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(Debenhams trying to look classy)

Go on… it’s Christmas

(Morrisons – with Ant urging Dec to eat a living Gingerbread Man)

With their “Sorry I spent it on myself” collection which store had the tag line “I little something for them; a bigger something for you.”

(Harvey Nichols)

Some of you may be bracing yourself for an anti-consumerist diatribe now.  “He’s going to rant about the irrelevance and triviality and kitsch that dominates our modern celebration of Christmas.”

It’s right that I passionately believe the truth expressed in that work of genius ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas’ – the Grinch, who hates Christmas decides to destroy it by dressing up as Santa and breaking into every house in Whoville on Christmas Eve to steal all the presents, decorations and food.  Then he stands on the hill overlooking Whoville to look down on his work and hear the howls and cried on Christmas morning.

But then:

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same! 
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”

And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

So I’m just going to take it as read that we all believe Christmas is more than presents (otherwise we wouldn’t be in Church at midnight!)

But I was interested by the theme of the adverts this year:  There were clearly divided into two categories – firstly ‘family’ was explored by several including KFC, Tesco,  and Sainsbury’s.  Christmas is often a time to get together with the people we love, but if that is now we define the season it becomes a very exclusive celebration.

Wendy Cope wrote the following short Christmas Poem, entitled ‘A Christmas Poem’

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single.

I don’t want to criticise families getting together, but I want Christmas to include the single and the lonely and the bereaved and those whose family lives are complicated or unhappy. 

So I turn to the other major theme in this year’s Christmas adverts: fairy tales!  Morrisons enlisted the Gingerbread Man (and Ant and Deck); Baileys went for a sexy Nutcracker theme; M&S Christmas Advert borrowed from Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin and the Wizard of Oz, and was the second most viewed advert on YouTube.  However, the most popular advert online (by quite some way) was John Lewis’ “The Bear and the Hare:”

“There once was an animal who had never seen Christmas” it begins, and ends with the Hare giving the Bear an alarm clock to wake him up in the middle of his hibernation so that he can enjoy his first ever Christmas.  If you watch the advert on YouTube (as I did when I was preparing this sermon) it ends with the message “Click here to continue the story” so I thought I’d see what happen next.  I wondered what adventures they might get up to next – the bear awake for the first time in the midwinter…  Did they meet a funny Robin Redbreast, go ice-skating on a frozen lake, visit Father Christmas…?  I clicked on the link full of expectation: But, as the more cynical (or perhaps realistic) of you may have realised, what actually happens next is John Lewis’ online store.  The adventure ‘continues’ by me buying lots of stuff.

But the fairy tale is sweet.  There is something in this season that makes us want to believe in magic.

As a species we are hungry for the mysterious – earlier this month my son and I were queuing up to see “The Hobbit, Part 2: The Desolation of Smaug” – with elves and Dragons and Wizards.  Harry Potter was a phenomenal success in book and movie format. We also explore the fantastical in modern myths, like Spiderman, Superman and the Avengers, and myths are mixed with science in Star Wars, Star Trek, and my personal favourite – Doctor Who!

But at the same time as we enjoy ever more extraordinary tales religion is viewed with increasing cynicism:

The same people who thrilled to the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring object to the story of a Virgin giving birth or Wise Men telling the future by star gazing.  It’s strange that we are perfectly happy to be entertained by stories of Hobbits or Wizarding Schools, Jedi or Daleks but something about Jesus makes us uneasy.

The story of Jesus Birth was written almost two thousand years ago, describing events that happened just over two thousand years ago, in a world where demonic possession and miraculous healings were commonplace, a world where the Roman Emperor was seen as a god-in-human-form.

These stories of angels, Magi and stars that stop over stables and are profound stories which contain a truth more profound than history. 

There are some stories so profound that they can only be expressed in a story – ‘second chances are always possible’ is true, but those words do reach the deepest aspects of this truth in the way the Parable of Prodigal Son manages; ‘we are all one human family’ is true, but the Parable of the Good Samaritan goes deeper and can challenge and inspire us in more profound ways.

The stories of Jesus’ birth are puzzles to us, if we try to work out the history behind the piously written myth and legend we will find a fascinating academic study.  However, trying to discover the history behind the story is in danger of missing the point.

The point is that God cares about what happens here on earth.  That a young couple living in poverty, surrounded by scandal, giving birth in squalor are of infinite value to God.

The message of this story is that God or the deepest Reality is not about some supernatural Heaven, removed from human experience; God, the deepest and profoundest Reality is found in human experience.

And that baby grew up to teach that every human being – the poor and the outcast, rich and poor alike, and you and I, are of infinite value to God.

And that we live by these teachings our lives can be transformed.

Christmas is only the starting place, it’s the advert for Christianity the rest of the year.

Perhaps “There is nothing better than Christmas,” a time to “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!” we should let the story take root in our lives “Go on… it’s Christmas!”

“One Size Fits All” Spirituality

ImageThe Tax Collector and the Pharisee

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 

A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Anglican minister were discussing sin, and the Anglican asked, “Tell me, gentlemen, have you ever sinned and broken the laws of your religion?”

“I must admit,” responded the Rabbi, “I was always very very curious about how pork tastes, so once, just once, I stopped at a bar-be-que restaurant when I was on a holiday and ate a pork sandwich. In fact, it was so delicious, I ate four of them, knowing I’d never have the nerve to sin again like that.”

  The Catholic joined in, “Well, I had the same curiosity about sex, and that being forbidden, I didn’t know which sex would appeal to me more, so I once, while in seminary, had an affair with a married couple, husband and wife at the same time. I was so overcome with feelings of guilt that I’ve never done anything like that again. Well, what about you, Reverend?”

  The Anglican said, “My besetting sin is GOSSIP, and I just can’t wait to tell everybody in town what you guys have said!”

  Guilt is a powerful emotion, often used (and abused) by religion.  It’s the starting point for my sermon and one of the themes of our Gospel reading.  Unfortunately, I have a problem with this morning’s Gospel reading.  It doesn’t fit easily into how I want us to see ourselves before God.  I’m not one to encourage bowing and scraping and beating our breast.  I think guilt is often needlessly piled on us by religion.  I believe that God calls us to stand stall, to rejoice that we are a wonderful part of God’s wonderful universe, to celebrate the amazing gift of life.

  I think that spirituality that flows from guilt is not healthy.  To my mind the truest spirituality must flow from love.

  Yet our reading has the poor wretched tax collector bowing his head, beating his breast and repeating ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

  [It reminds me of a traditional prayer that I refuse to say.  It’s a famous one, and many people’s favourite – it’s called the ‘prayer of humble access’ from the 1662 Prayer Book:

“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.  But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

  This prayer misquotes a bible story where the point it that we were more worthy than the dogs that licked the crumbs, and I see this prayer as an exercise in spiritual masochism – to me the message of Christ is that we are worthy – even the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and demon-possessed are worthy of God’s love.  Our service for God springs from love, not from guilt.]

  But in our reading the tax collector comes to God wracked by guilt.  This approach to God means that the snivelling tax collector leaves the synagogue justified before God, whereas the Pharisee who stands tall is condemned.

  I don’t think Jesus is telling us to always be like the tax collector.  Jesus is showing us extremes of behaviour and his listeners would have assumed that the Pharisee was pleasing God by his worship, but Jesus is saying, no, even the tax collector, who is aware of his faults is closer to God than the pompous, self-righteous Pharisee.

  Tax collectors were collaborators with the invading Roman authorities.  They were well-rewarded for exploiting the poor.  He was a sinner – that was his genuine approach to God.  The Pharisee was a respected pillar of the community, he was also arrogant, and snobbish, and felt superior to those around him – his prayer was an opportunity to show off – and was far from genuine.

  When I worked as a prison chaplain approaching God as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness was exactly the right approach.  Here in Blackheath, I’m sure we all get things wrong from time to time, but the central message most of us need to hear most of the time is about God’s love for us, and his invitation to join in the work of the Kingdom.

In truth, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to approach God. 

  I spent the week before last on a course with London Citizens, learning alongside Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers, lay workers, community leaders and trade unionists about community organising.  It was clear that there was no one way to live a good life and do good works.  Here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to make the world a better place.  If I can just be a religious and cultural imperialist and use Christian language to describe their deeds, here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to build the Kingdom of God.

  I’ve seen the work of the Kingdom in other places too, closer to home.  I have spent some time with the people of St. John’s over the last few weeks as they prepare to advertise for a new Team Rector.  Those of us who have been to St. John’s have found it, to be honest, a mixed experience.  Their exuberant style of worship, which sometimes includes clapping, dancing and hands raised to God has both delighted and appalled members of our more reserved congregation.

  I confess I struggle with the theology of some of the words of the hymns and songs, but I have no problem at all with the clapping, dancing and raising of hands.

  The Bible exports us to ‘make a joyful noise to God,’ and clapping our hands is fine by me.

  The Bible also describes the posture of prayer as raising our hands to God.  That’s why I follow the old tradition of raising my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer.  But if, as they do in many more evangelical churches, someone wants to raise their hands to say that they are making the words of the hymn their prayer, a way of saying “I really mean this” – that’s ok with me too.

  But I don’t want to just stand up for evangelical worship – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer us too.

  Those who cross themselves do so for a variety of reasons, to me it is about saying ‘this ancient story of Jesus and his cross is part of my story too, I place the cross on myself because I have a personal connection to it…’

  Genuflecting or kneeling is another traditional poise for worship – although one I would handle with more care.

  I believe God calls us to stand up tall, so kneeling isn’t a posture for prayer that comes easily to me.

  We have been talking at the worship committee and decided that we need to make it clear that kneeling is not compulsory when it comes to taking communion.  You can come up to the altar rail and stand if you prefer.

  (The only thing I would say is that you must help guide the chalice if you are standing – because the person giving you the wine can’t see the level when she or he is giving it!)

  But there is no ‘one size fits all’ if you want to stand or kneel, cross yourself of raise your hands, clap or sit quietly, that is fine (although it may not work if you clap disputing the prayers and stand up and cross yourselves during the sermon – but hopefully you get my meaning).

  In our Gospel reading we see two approaches to God.  Standing bold and proud, and kneeling in humility.  What matters is not the stance, what matters is that we find an approach to God that is genuine. 

  Wether you sit or stand or kneel or cross yourself or raise your hand is up to you – but do it because you have chosen it, not because it’s what you have always done it…

  I end my sermon with the words from John’s Gospel, often used to introduce Book of Common Prayer Evensong:

  God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.

  Amen.

Soul Gym?

Image2 Timothy 2.3-15

 

            Once there was a man who went to play golf with his priest.

            He was on the third hole and only 3 feet away from the hole. He putted his shot and missed. “Damn it, I missed!” the man yelled. The priest replied that it was a sin to say “Damn it!”. The man thought that his priest was correct and apologised.

Later he was on the 15th hole and only 2 feet away, when he missed the shot and yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest replied that it was a sin to speak lightly of damnation. The man realised his mistake and that his Father was right and apologised.

Later after that he was on the 18th hole and if he made a 6 inch put he would win the entire game. He of course missed and as before yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest was disturbed as times before and angrily shook his head as he was about to speak.

Just as the priest was correcting the man and said, “It is a….” A huge bolt of lightning came down from the skies and struck the priest dead on the spot. Then came a huge rumbling voice that shuck the ground as it said, “Damn it, I missed!”

            I found that joke while searching for “anti religion humour” on the Internet – that was extremely mild compared to a lot of what I found.

            I don’t want to sound like I’m ‘going all Daily Mail’ but it is a difficult time to be a Christian.  Maybe ‘difficult’ is overstating it – we are not likely to be fed to lions or arrested by the Secret Police, but the intellectual climate is certainly hostile to Christianity.  In the 1970s lazy comedians would make jokes about mother-in-laws and foreigners; today religion is the shortcut to laughter.

            It would be a mistake to blame media bias or look for an anti-Christian conspiracy… I think the root cause of this hostility is the Christian Church itself.

            The medievalists who believe in a six-day creation shout loudly and gain attention because what they are saying is so crazy.  But the liberals are too unassuming and quiet to call the crazy people out.

            It’s the same with women bishops and homosexuality.  Those who oppose women bishops say “you could no more make my dog a bishop than a woman” (something that was said to me in all seriousness).  And the progressive Christians wring their hands and say “it’s all terribly difficult.”  It’s not terribly difficult.  In society it used to be impossible for women to be M.P.s or doctors – we realised this was wrong and changed. 

            Wider society sees Christianity as an outdated, superstitious, misogynistic, homophobic institution.  People think they know what Christianity is about, and because we see our faith very differently, we have to explain that they haven’t got it…

We live in a society that sees religion as irrelevant and unnecessary; to most people it doesn’t seem to offer anything useful.

            Why is society so ambivalent or hostile to religion?  Partly because we live in a society that is dominated by consumerism.  Politicians have been introducing the ideals of consumerism into healthcare and education.  And not just politicians of the Right – it was under labour that ‘choice’ in healthcare became a central theme.  I don’t want choice in healthcare, I just want the closest hospital to be able to fix me.

            Consumerism has replaced religion in many ways.  It’s done so quite blatantly:  Supermarkets style themselves as Churches for the twenty-first century, they have aisles and music and surprisingly often the buildings even have spires.  If people are feeling low they are likely to think of ‘retail therapy’ before prayer or meditation.

            Another factor working against faith in world is what some commentators have called ‘a crisis of Character.’  We are no longer sure what “the Good” is.  Some of these commentators (returning to the Daily Mail) will blame our crisis of Character on how pluralistic our society has become.  In our pluralist society there are many different visions of “the Good:”  Liberals value tolerance; Muslims value submission; Buddhists value detachment; some flavours Christians value humility & sacrifice.              But submission, detachment, humility come from those with a clear sense of “the Good” and if we pursued there there maybe some disagreement, but our society would be a better place.  The problem is seen clearly if we consider who our heroes are today.  Fame is seen as an achievement, an end in itself, rather than a side effect of doing something amazing.  We value celebrity and people who are ‘famous for being famous.’  I know I sound like a curmudgeonly kill-joy to some and to others I’ll sound like I’m picking on easy targets, but vacuous nature of our press and television is a real sign of a vacuum of morality.  I have seen Heat magazine run as a story that a picture was taken of a celebrity with sweat under her armpits.

            We live in a society where its OK to be a celebrity because of drunken antics at society parties, but you are vilified for sweating, developing a bald-patch, or worst of all – a V.P.L. (a visible panty line for the uninitiated). 

            So along comes Christianity, like a prudish maiden aunt, and says stop buying Heat magazine, reject consumerism, and you’ve got to start working to build the Kingdom of God.

            It’s a hard thing to sell.  It’s made even more difficult because we basically have the whole of the advertising industry trying to tell the opposite story.  The multi-billion pound advertising industry exists to tell us that we will be happier, fitter, more attractive, have more sex, live longer or be more intelligent if we buy this magazine, eat that ice cream, spray on this deodorant, buy that car, or wear these clothes…

            But we need to reject greed, it’s not fulfilling us as human beings and our planet cannot sustain it…

            Asceticism is out of fashion.  Self-denial is hard to sell.

            But asceticism does exist in out culture and in fact it thrives… …in fitness centres!

            We all recognise the image of a perfect body:  Slim, toned and more-or-less hairless.  The gym exists to bring about this ideal of physical fitness & health.  And like the life of faith there is cost: time, money, and effort.  Gyms are successful because if people can see the value they will pay the price; fitness allows you to do all kinds of things: run, play tennis, attract a partner…

            When we think of Church and how to attract more members we often think of the primary metaphor for our worship as ‘entertainment’ – but on a better ‘show’ with better hymns, better music, better prayers, better sermons (!)…   And while we should find ways to do worship better if we can… a much better metaphor for what we are doing this morning is a trip to the gym:

            We heard this metaphor in our reading from Timothy (it’s also used in 1 Corinthians 9)

            The Church is not a ‘show’ or an ‘entertainment,’ it is a school for character, where you learn what to do to lead a good life.

            There is an old monastic story:

            Two monks who had been brothers and friends for many years were talking.

            “Brother” said the first, “let’s have a fight”

            “Why?” asked the second.

            “Other people do,” explained the first, “and we cannot understand them unless we experience what they do.”

            “Ok, what shall we fight over?”

            The first walked off and found a brick.  He put the brink in the between them and said,  “Let us fight over who owns this brick.”

            “OK,” his friend said, “This brick is mine.”

            “No” he replied, “it is mine.”

            “OK then, you have it.”

            The commentary on the story ends: “And so they were unable to fight as other men do.”

            Our aim is to become people to whom violence is alien, and love and peace are natural.  Our aim to to grow as people – using the story of Jesus life and his teaching as the example and inspiration for how to live.

            Returning to the idea of a current crisis of character, Allan Bloom wrote: “Students have powerful images of what the perfect body is and pursue it incessantly.  But… They no longer have an image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one.”

            Church is our soul-gym, teaching us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

            And just like none of us would do the training programme of Mo Farah, we work to find our own level, then work to get better.

            To live this life brings fulfilment and joy and will change the world around us.

And here is where the gym metaphor breaks down.  Church is not solitary like the gym – we need each other. We only grow and change together, we need the local community of faith.

            We work at our soul-gym to grow as individuals, to grow together, and to change the world around us.  Amen.