It’s getting better all the time

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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.”

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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.

Love is the Answer – but not an easy answer

Jesus

Gospel Reading:  

Mark 10.2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” ButJesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It never ceases to amaze me how people pick and choose which bits of Scripture to get excited about.  Some fundamentalists get very excited about the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and take it as historical and scientific fact, but are happy to ignore the fact there is another account of creation in Genesis 2:4-3:24  In the first creation story, humans are created after the other animals, In the second story, humans were created before the other animals.

The ancient people who compiled the Bible from different local myths and parables knew that they were not literal accounts, sometimes the twenty first century does not seem so advanced in its thinking!

Christians also get excited about Scriptures that could be interpreted as condemnations of gay sex, but ignore Scriptures that condemn sex during menstruation or eating shellfish in exactly the same terms.

Christians get excited about the condemnation of fornication but ignore the hundreds of times that usury (charging interest on a loan) is condemned.

In fact it seems that Christians tend to get excited about the few bits of the Bible that talk about sex and ignore the swathes of Scripture that talk about money and justice and care for the poor.

What we do with our genitalia is significant, but I strongly suspect that God is more interested in what we do with our wallets…

This mornings reading is one that gets some Christians excited – the prohibition of divorce.  But those who get excited about this absolute condemnation of divorce are rarely the same people who get excited for verse 21 where Jesus instructs those who want to follow to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, because, he continues, “it is as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle for some who is rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I’m not saying divorce is good.  At a wedding vows are taken and a divorce breaks those vows.  Divorce is a falling short of the ideal, but it must never be regarded as an unpardonable sin.

The prohibition of divorce was more than an issue of sexual morality in Jesus time, it was an important matter of justice.  In first century Palestine women were not allowed to engage in many forms of money making, and legally they were pretty much regarded as property.  If a man divorced he was free to build a new life and start again.  A divorced woman would have to hope her parents would take her in again or she would have to become a beggar, or worse…

Strict divorce law was about protecting the vulnerable in a patriarchal society.

The same law that was used to protect the vulnerable has been used in history to trap vulnerable women in abusive marriages.  I suggest that allowing divorce in cases of abusive partners is actually more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching, even if it goes against the letter of what he said.

Jesus condemned those who followed the letter of the Law in such a way that excluded or exploited the vulnerable in society.

That is made clear in what immediately follows this.  Jesus lets the children come to him.  We have a sentimental, protective view of childhood and children.  This was not the culture of Jesus time.  In a poor nation under Roman occupation life was hard, children were often seen as burdens until they were old enough to work; and with a shockingly high child mortality rate you simply could not invest the kind of emotional energy into children as we do today.  Children were on the margins of society.

Jesus was being countercultural by placing a high value of children.

Let’s return to how Jesus viewed the Law.

Usually he seems to disregard its strict rules – a few weeks ago we heard how he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands, and when challenged that his actions were “work” on the Sabbath “day of rest” Jesus shocked the devout by saying “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”

And that seems to be how Jesus treats all of the Jewish Laws – “the Law is made for humanity, not humanity for the Law.”

For Jesus all of the Law is summed up in the command to love – it is so central that we hear it ever Sunday “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

So we don’t have to follow the letter of the law anymore…

It’s really all about love…

So as liberals we heave a sigh of relief – we don’t have to be strict…

But there is a catch here that as liberals we often forget…

Laws are quite easy to follow – most people could refrain from eating prawns and sleeping around if they felt God commanded it…

But we have a much tougher spiritual discipline to observe – we are called to love…

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for God…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for your neighbour…?

What’s the last thing you did that could be described as an act of love for yourself…?

We love God in prayer in worship, in supporting the work of God’s church with time and money and energy…

We love our neighbour in reaching out to the poor and the outcast, those in need who are near and far – refugees, the homeless, the outcast and marginalised…

We love ourselves by respecting the bodies that God gave us, by trying to develop ourselves and by just resting and enjoying life…

The command to love is so much more challenging.

Take the idea of coming to Church on a Sunday morning.  As Christians do we have to do that?  Well my liberal sensibilities say that visiting family or friends or getting away for some rest after a busy week are also morally and theologically good things to do, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sometimes do that…

But we still have to wrestle with the command to love God.  I don’t think that Christianity (or at least Liberal Christianity) demands that you attend every Sunday – but it does demand that you love God and that means if you can’t make Church you should think how else you could express your faith this week – maybe calling in to a midweek service?  Maybe spend extra time in prayer, or an hour reading the Bible or a spiritual book.

Life has a meaning.  That meaning is found in a God who loves you and your life really matters to God.  All that we own and all that we are is gift from God.

Our response to that amazing truth cannot possible be expressed in one hour on a Sunday morning – but sometimes we don’t even manage that!

Liberal faith is so much more challenging than a conservative one – because there are no easy answers.

I can’t tell you come to Church X amounts of times and pay Y sums of money to church funds.

But I tell you what Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.”

And if it’s not challenging I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right

But if it’s nor exciting and joyful and life-enhancing I’m pretty sure you’re not doing it right either!

Dare we follow the greatest commandment to love?

The Syrophoenician Woman shows Jesus the Way

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

Mark 7.24-30

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Sartre said “hell is other people.”  This week we have seen images and read news reports about the hell that is other people.

For a generation the phrase “asylum seeker” has become a dirty word.  We forgot the Jews that we turned away from our boarders as they fled the Holocaust before the Second World War, and David Cameron wanted to turn away all but a handful of those fleeing Syria (a nation that Britain and America have destabilised in an area we deliberately kept in turmoil for decades.)

The moral cowardice is staggering: a government unmoved by people in desperate need, heeding only a public outcry – it’s profoundly depressing.

But what is the Christian response?

Reflecting on how many Syrian refugees should we take, Giles Fraser wrote in the guardian this week: “…why not all of them? Surely that’s the biblical answer to the “how many can we take?” question. Every single last one. Let’s dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles.”

Giles quoted Emma Lazarus’ famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty to illustrate than an open door can build, not destroy nations:  “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Our Bible reading also talks about a foreigner in need, and a foreigner who does not receive a warm welcome.  This story from Mark’s Gospel is a fascinating one.  Jesus is becoming famous in Palestine, people wanting healing, people wanting to hear his teaching, and the Pharisees wanting to trip him up, were all after him.  He escapes into the region of Trye and Sidon, Gentile country (the modern day Lebanon).

If you read this passage as a literary work it is unique in the Gospels.  In every other story like this (scholars call them perecopes) the words or deeds of Jesus are the climax – but in this passage it is the woman’s words that are the climax:

Jesus calls her a dog, but the turning point is when she replies to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

As we look at the harrowing images of the lengths refugees will go to to escape violence and how they are turned away, the words echo down the ages “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The question of Jesus harsh words to the woman have provoked much debate:

We must wonder why Mark decided to records this event – it doesn’t portray Jesus is a very good light – he calls the woman who comes to her in need a ‘dog’ – ‘for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!’

Up to now Jesus Ministry has been to the Jews only, so he thought foreigners (Gentiles) would not bother him.  But a woman comes up to him in distress, a Gentile woman, her daughter is ill, and she begs Jesus to act.  And Jesus seems astoundingly and uncharacteristically rude.  He is often rude to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocritical religious authorities of his time.  But this is the only place in the New Testament where he is rude to someone in need.

There must be a good reason for including this bizarre little story, in the middle of lots of rather exciting tales of miraculous healings.

Some scholars have tried to reinterpret the Greek, but if anything ‘dog’ was a bigger insult in first century Palestine than it is today.

Some scholars have suggested it was a test of the woman’s faith.  But that too seems cruel, and beneath the loving Jesus we read of in the rest of Scripture.

He seems to me that Jesus meant what he said.

The idea of the incarnation is a complicated doctrine, but whatever our interpretation of it, Jesus was fully a human being.  Jesus was not God walking around in disguise.  Jesus has to learn, like any of us, and Jesus had to learn his mission.  Being brought up a Jew it is quite probable that up to this point Jesus thought his mission was to the Jews only.  This Gentile woman comes along, and he dismisses her – she is not part of his plan.

But then the most startling thing of all happens:

Jesus allows himself to be corrected.

He realises that his mission is not only to the Gentiles, but to all people, this poor woman and her daughter included.

Jesus definition of moral responsibility is expanded to include the foreign woman.

Perhaps Mark recorded this story because it was a turning point.  God spoke through this Gentile Woman.

Jesus allows a woman to correct him.  The Rabbis of Jesus’ day would never teach a woman, never talk theology to a woman, some would not even look at a woman.  Yet here and elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus teaches and talks, and even allows himself to learn from women.  Other Rabbis would never allow a woman to win an argument over them in public, it would be instant disgrace, their ability would be discredited.  Yet Jesus knows what is right is more important than what looks right, so he allows himself to learn.

Perhaps even more shocking is that Jesus allows himself to be corrected by a Gentile!  Gentiles were those who were of no religious significance, who were seen as unclean, and in error.  But Jesus is open to learning not just from the learned Rabbis in the Temple, where he discussed the Law as a young boy, Jesus is open to hearing from God in all people.  Even in those others hated, even in those who would tarnish his image by even speaking to.

We all need to learn from Christ’s humility, and be ready to lean from those we, or others, disdain.  And live as Christ lived, a life of love.  We need to expand our definition of moral responsibility, it is more important today than ever, as we see those fleeing Syria.

The idea of hospitality is at the heart of Jewish and Christian ethics.  The ethics of our Jewish roots are summarised in the two words “remember Egypt” – the Jewish people are called to remember when they were poor slaves, oppressed, exploited, who fled seeking asylum in the Promised Land.  Remembering the past we must today care for the poor, oppressed, exploited, those who flee seeking asylum

This week Justin Welby quoted from Leviticus, saying we must “break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves.”

This is our challenge, in our personal interactions and in our national life.

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.

The only Gospel is an Inclusive Gospel

All Are Welcome

Collect (prayer) of the Day:

God of inclusive love, who knows us each by name: we thank you for the woman, who stood out of the crowd and defied her uncleanness to connect with you; we praise you for the leader of the synagogue, who faced the mockery of others to give his daughter hope; may the flowing power of Christ bring healing and acceptance to the rejected and abused. Through Jesus Christ, giver of life.  Amen.

First Reading:  Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.  It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet  and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

A man walked into a Private Hospital for a Brain transplant. The doctor showed the patient 3 brains and asked the patient to choose:

A White man’s brain £500
A Black man’s brain £500
A Racists man’s brain £2000

The patient was shocked and asked why the Racist brain costs so much?

Doctor replies “Oh, it’s because that one’s never been used”

We are going to be thinking about prejudice, and about using our brains in this service.

And later in this sermon (to give away the ending) I’m going to talk about how the fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, regardless or race, gender, sexuality education or social status… and that everyone, without the help of a religious elite, can have a direct experience of God.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

I was on the receiving end of a challenge this week, that has really made me think, and I’m not quite there with a conclusion yet, but maybe you’ll be interested in some of my journey.

I was deeply challenged last week when a member of the congregation wondered why we made no mention of the murders in Emmanuel Church in South Carolina.  When Islamic extremists attack white middle class people it dominates the news and our thoughts and prayers.  But not when back people are murdered in a church.

It’s worth asking ourselves why a white supremacist killing black people in church is not seen as terrorism in the same way as white tourists being killed on a beach.

I think if you compare time on the news and column inches in the newspapers you will see that there is something amiss.

Is is simply because white supremacists are so clearly idiots?  Maybe, there is some truth in that, but I don’t think violent religious extremists are necessarily any more intelligent.

More likely it because our press is dominated by white middle class professionals who find it easier to identify with white middle class victims; these reporters and editors don’t feel threatened by American rednecks picking on black people but find radical Muslims (who are potentially threatening people like them) utterly terrifying.

I have to confess that I didn’t even notice the problem until it was pointed out to me.

My instinct was to get all defensive and try to justify myself and the church.  But that is not the way to grow and the life of faith demands that we keep our hearts and minds open even when it is uncomfortable.

Keeping all this in our minds let’s look at our reading from this morning in the hope that we can find some wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus.

Jesus was about to preach.  He was beginning his ministry, so gathering a crowd would have been an achievement.  Just as Jesus was about to begin Jairus, the ruler of the Synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet pleading for healing for his daughter. The Bible simply says, “So he went with him.”

It is interesting to note how Jesus changes his plan instantly.

The late Henri Nouwen, the Catholic scholar and writer, said in the prime of his career that he became frustrated by the many interruptions to his work: he was teaching at Notre Dame and had a heavy workload and didn’t like to be disturbed. Then one day it dawned on him that his interruptions were his work. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!” Often we find that the interruption is what life is all about.

Jesus was open to the interruption, to the voice of the outsider.

Jairus daughter was an outsider.  We have a culture that has a strange relationship to childhood, we elevate childhood in a way that would bewilder most of our forbears and certainly come as a shock to people in time of Jesus.  What we often fail to grasp is that in a culture with such a high infant mortality rate people could not invest the same kind of emotional energy in children as we do today.  Children were obviously important to their parents, but they were not especially valued, and childhood was not seen as an almost sacred time of innocence to be protected.  Childhood was not valued in its own right – it was just a stage on becoming an adult when they become a fully valuable member of society.

When Jesus cares for the children, he is valuing those that society did not think were important.

Jesus was revolutionary in his thinking because he valued everyone.  He welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, zealots, children..

The Gospel, the “good news” is that God loves everyone, God loves you.

It is not the Gospel of Jesus if it isn’t for everyone.

The woman that came to Jesus was ceremonially unclean, she wasn’t able to practice her faith because of her issue of blood.

She touches Jesus clothes, making him ceremonially unclean, her religion a mix of superstition and desperation.

But Jesus does not patronise her, he does not scold her for spreading her uncleanness.  He includes her and welcomes her and heals her.

Here is inclusive Christianity in action.  The child of the synagogue official and the unclean women are both included.

“Being inclusive” as we term our tradition, has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct,’ it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  We should not have to call ourselves an “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

The story of the woman with an issue of blood is not an isolated incident, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast:

  • Zachaeus and Matthew the tax collectors
  • The invitation to the rough fisherman to follow
  • The conversation with the gentile woman at the well
  • The acceptance of prostitutes
  • Ministering to a Roman Centurion
  • Welcoming slaves and servants
  • Embracing lepers
  • Helping the demon possessed

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

I’ve told you before how when I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan.  (Don’t think about that too much!). But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim.  This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…

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

Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people,” or “as special welcome for white, middle class people with plenty of money…”

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

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & poverty… Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their race, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their age, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their education or intelligence, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their gender, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If people are excluded or undervalued because of their sexuality, it is not the Gospel of Jesus.

The fundamental teaching of Jesus was that God loves everyone, and everyone, without the help of a religious elite can encounter God.  Jesus savagely criticised the religious leaders of his day, they were ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘broods of vipers’ who declared who was clean and who was unclean, who acted as gatekeepers of God’s love.  But according to Jesus, that love was freely given to all humanity.

But if we don’t need a religious elite what is the point of Church?

As I said at the beginning, I believe that the point of the Church is not just that we gather with like-minded people to explore faith together; the point is not that we encounter people like us, the point is that we encounter people who are different, with different experiences and different insights who can challenge our comfortable ways of thinking and help us to grow.

Maybe we do need to address how we think about race, or how we think of people who we work with on the estates, or people from other churches.

We embrace the interruption of someone in need and we accept the challenge to change our way of thinking.

I close with a traditional African prayer that we use every Monday at our service of Morning Prayer:

From the cowardice that does not face new truths,
from the laziness that is content with half truths,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all the truth,
deliver us today, good Lord.

Amen.

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.