Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Sons of Thunder: the greatest in the kingdom of heaven...

Today (25th July) we mark the Feast of St James.  James is often called ‘James the Great’, to differentiate him from James the Less, who was the brother of Jesus (and the writer of the Letter of James).  James the Great was a Galilean fisherman who, with his brother John, was one of the first apostles called by Jesus to follow him. The two brothers were with Jesus at his Transfiguration and with him again in the garden of Gethsemane. They annoyed the other followers of Jesus by asking to sit one on his left and the other on his right when he came into his glory.  They were also present for the appearances of Christ after the resurrection.  James was put to death by the sword on the order of Herod Agrippa, who hoped in vain that, by disposing of the Christian leaders, he could stem the flow of those hearing the good news and becoming followers in the Way. James’s martyrdom is believed to have taken place in the year 44.

Here is the short account of his death from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, and verses 1 & 2:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.

In Mark 10 and verses 35 to 45, we hear how James and his brother ask for special seats in the Kingdom of Heaven.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Appoint us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to appoint, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the other ten disciples heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Here is a dramatic re-telling of that event:

Sons of Thunder

The Disciples were arguing among themselves, about the Kingdom of God that Jesus had promised them.  Who would be the prime minister?  Who would command the army?  Everyone agreed that Bartholomew would probably be put in charge of the drains.  But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent.  They didn’t like having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up by the other Disciples like this.  James decided he'd had enough.

"See you later, guys."  he said.  "I'm off to bed.  Come on John."  John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd.  When they were a little way from the others, James stopped John with a hand on his arm.  

“Listen”, he said. “Why don’t we go and see Jesus and ask him for jobs in the new government ourselves?  If he says it, the others won’t be able to stop us getting the best jobs”.  “Do you think he won’t mind?” asked John

James pondered for a moment.  “Maybe”, he concluded.  But if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
John looked thoughtfully at James.  There was a chance here.  Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men.  John nodded at James, and together they looked at over at where Jesus was sitting, on a rock, alone on the edge of the camp.  They walked carefully over to him, picking their way between sleeping bodies.  They approached the Master.

“Um” said James, “Um…Rabbi?  Can we bother you for a minute?” Jesus looked up from his prayers, with a knowing look in his eyes.  “Yes, boys.  What is it?”

“Rabbi,” said James, “We want you to do for us whatever you ask.  Ok?”

Jesus wasn’t going to make any promises.  He was cannier than that – and quite used to people trying to trap him into saying something he might later regret. “What is it?” he said cautiously.

James got ready to make a well-considered plea, backed up with lots and lots of good reasons as to why they should be important officials in the new Government.  But John couldn’t contain himself.  He was so nervous, that it all came tumbling out! 

“We want you to grant for us to sit on your left and on your right when you come into your kingdom!   Um…please….”

Jesus looked disappointed.  He had hoped for better from these two.  He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all.  He shook his head, and said, "You will indeed drink from my cup.  But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."  

James and John were a bit puzzled, but they were wise enough to know when to back down.  What did Jesus mean?  We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God?  That was typical of Jesus.  He always talked in riddles.

Unbeknown to James and John, however, they had been followed.  Judas, who had never quite trusted the Sons of Thunder, had trailed them from a distance, and had heard the whole conversation from behind a tree.  As James and John turned away from Jesus, Judas slipped back through the darkness to the other Disciples.  

“You’ll never guess what James and John are up to!” he hissed, when he got back…and then proceeded to tell the whole story.

"That's not right!"  "Who do they think they are?"  The Disciples were livid! After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just not do, and they all strutted over to where James and John were settling down dejectedly for the night. 

Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first.  "What's this we hear?  Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and on his left?"

James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously.  "Well,  erm…", he mumbled.  "We did just have a chat…".

"That's not good enough" replied Simon.  "Who do you think you are?  Do you think you are better than the rest of us?  Do you think Jesus is going to choose either of you over us?"

Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp.  He wasn't surprised.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  He had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake.  Jesus made a decision.  It's time for me to intervene here, he thought. 

Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two.  As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching.  He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi.  Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.

Jesus walked up to them and stopped.  He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes.  Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.  "You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you?  You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?"  A few of the Disciples grunted.  They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around.  "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you.  Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew.  "Whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else.  This should not surprise you.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  The Son of Man came to give his life away, not to go lording it up over anyone."

And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant.  He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself.  

And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a little church in the heart of Havant; a little church named out of affection for another follower of Jesus, St Faith.  A congregation of ordinary people were gathered that morning: people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus.  These were ordinary people - but people who had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia.  They’d heard the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other.  These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be even richer, deeper, more meaningful.  And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the congregation of St Faith heard Jesus speaking to them.

"In my service, there is perfect freedom.  By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me.  By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me.  When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."

And all the people, in that little church in Havant, said, "Amen".

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Benedict and the life of service

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Benedict.  Benedict was born in Nursia, central Italy, around the year 480. As a young man he was sent to study in Rome, but was soon appalled by the corruption in society and withdrew to live as a hermit at Subiaco. He quickly attracted disciples and began to establish small monasteries in the neighbourhood. Around the year 525, a disaffected faction tried to poison him so Benedict moved to Monte Cassino with a band of loyal monks. Later in life he wrote his Rule for Monks, based on his own experience of fallible people striving to live out the gospel. He never intended to found an ‘order’ but his Rule was so good that it was disseminated and widely followed, becoming the model for western monasticism. Benedict died at Monte Cassino in about the year 550.

The Rule of St Benedict is still, 1500 years later, a highly respected manual for the governing of monasteries and other church communities.  It contains a wealth of good advice, for everyone involved in any kind of Christian Community – from the leader to the lowliest, newest member.  For example, Benedict offers this advice to the Abbot (which in my case would mean the Rector):

Let him recognize that his goal must be profit for the monks, not pre-eminence for himself. He ought, therefore, to be learned in divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old (Matt 13:52). He must be chaste, temperate and merciful. He should always let mercy triumph over judgment (Jas 2:13) so that he too may win mercy.

Later, Benedict goes on…

Let him strive to be loved rather than feared. Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or over-suspicious he must not be. Such a man is never at rest. Instead, he must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day (Gen 33:13).

So, that’s me told then!  I’m to guard against being excitable, anxious, and obstinate, and I’m not to drive my flock too hard.  So, Sandra, you can relax!

The Rule of Benedict was so important that every day of the year, the brothers in a monastery would gather to listen to a chapter of the rule being read.  This gathering became known simply as ‘the chapter’ – and the meeting hall in which they gathered, was called the chapter house.  If you visit any great church today, and you find a ‘chapter house’ – you can be sure that it was once a monastery.

Monasteries were foundational institutions, throughout Europe and certainly in the UK.  Both Benedictine and Franciscan abbeys were responsible for massive amounts of land, providing work for thousands in agriculture, healing for the sick, and for the spread of knowledge through their gift of copying manuscripts and sending them all over the world.  Entire communities grew up around these abbeys.  If you’ve ever visited Glastonbury, or Battle near Hastings, or indeed Walsingham (beloved by many in this congregation) you can plainly see how an entire local economy both supported, and was supported by, a local abbey.  Around 1,000 years after St Benedict, they were a significant force in our nation, and very wealthy institutions.  Sometimes, doubtless, they had corrupt leaders who lined their own pockets.  Some monasteries were famous for the laziness of their monks.  Which should not be a surprise – given that all institutions run by humans will always have a few bad apples.  

The great sadness is, of course, that Henry VIII eyed the wealth of the monasteries and abbeys with avarice.  He, and his lieutenants, worked out that they could simply take control of these abbeys – with the military might of the state.  They could plunder all the precious jewels and metals, then sell off the stone, timber and roof tiles, and finally sell the land to their wealthy mates.  Which is how we end up with abbeys turned into mansions for the wealthy, like Titchfield and Netley, near us.  There is even a rumour – that I have been unable to verify – that there was a small monastery here in Havant, where the Pallant Centre is today.  That seems likely, since Havant was on the Old Pilgrim Way from Southampton to Canterbury – and another little-known function of monasteries was to provide safe harbours for weary pilgrims.    As I say, I haven’t found any proof of this rumour – but it is nice to think that our community centre still serves the local population in much the same way as that monastery might have done.  (The word Pallant, by the way, means ‘palace’ – and it’s possible that the Pallant Centre itself was the site of an Abbot’s palace.

The effect of the loss of the monasteries in England should not be underestimated.  No doubt, they were too rich.  No doubt, some of them were corrupt.  No doubt, some of them put heavy burdens on their serfs.  No doubt, many failed to live by the high ideals of St Benedict, in his rule. But they also provided hospitality to travellers, food for the poor, healthcare for the sick, a meaningful life for many poor sons and daughters (who became monks and nuns), and literacy for the world.  With their dissolution, the ruling class around the King took control of massive amounts of land.  Too often, the ruling class felt little sympathy for the poor, who frequently starved.  Hospitals were closed, without monks and nuns to run them.  Healthcare became, effectively privatised – until the arrival of the NHS.  Literacy became the preserve of Universities and scholars – not the common people, until the church became strong enough, once more, to provide the first English schools.  The land on which the poor had grazed their animals, because it was abbey land, became enclosed, and sealed off for the exclusive use of the Lords of the new abbey manors. 

Under Henry VIII, Benedict’s vision of a group of Christians, living prayerfully together, loving God and serving their neighbour, crumbled into the ruins we now visit on sunny days.  The wealthy elite plundered the wealth, and many of those with inherited wealth today still live off the proceeds of what their ancestors plundered from the church.

Today’s monasteries, at least here in England, are but a pale shadow of their great Benedictine forbears.  Most have practically no land – and make their living through charitable gifts, and through tourism and gift shops – like Buckfast Abbey in Devon.  But the flame of St Benedict still flickers.  From time to time it still calls young men and women to take up the challenge of living prayerfully in community, loving God and serving their neighbour.  Such abbeys, few as they are, still shine a light into our consciousness – reminding us of the fundamental duty of all Christians – to live together in love, and to care for all those we encounter.  Amen

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Shaking the dust from our feet

Readings: Ezekiel 2.1-5 and especially...

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.    Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send 

them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.


The thing about the Good News, is that it is not Good News for everyone.  It is not good news for rich people, for example – because it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.  It’s not good news for racists, because loving your neighbour, of every nationality, is at the core of the good news.  It’s not good news for homophobes, because the good news tells us to remove the plank from our own eye before looking at the speck in someone else’s.  The good news is not good news for the mighty and the powerful, because they will be put down from their seats, while the humble and the meek are exalted.  The good news is not good news to the prosperity gospel preachers, who promise riches, healings and reward, because Jesus said that following him is like carrying a cross of execution – and that all men will hate us because of him.  The good news is not good news for those who make their living by scamming and stealing from vulnerable people – because they are putting their faith in things that will rust and decay, instead of the eternal things which will last.

Which is why Jesus knew, as he sent his disciples out with good news of the coming kingdom, that some of the towns and villages would reject his message.  It’s why Jesus commanded his disciples to shake the dust from their feet as they leave such towns – as a testimony against them.  It is pointless to keep declaring good news to those who refuse to hear.  Doing so is like casting pearls before swine.  Jesus himself had experienced first-hand what it was like when people rejected his message.  In his own home town, he found that his ability to perform miraculous signs was severely restricted, because a prophet is never welcome in his home town.  Hostility to the gospel stifles the gospel, and Jesus knew that he had to tell his disciples to move on, lest hostility overwhelmed them too.

The good news of Jesus is good news for everyone – but not everyone will receive it.  Many will be unable to re-imagine their lives remoulded by the good news.  They will be fearful of losing their status, or their power, or their wealth, or their inalienable right to criticise the life-choices of others or to stigmatise those they do not like.  They will be fearful of giving up the anger they feel towards those who are not like them, and the perceived threat they feel to their way of life.  

But what was this good news that Jesus sent his disciples to tell?  Too often, these days, the good news is reduced to the simple notion that ‘Jesus died for your sins; believe this and you’ll go to heaven’.  But we are wise if we note that when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach good news, his atoning death was way off in the future.  He had not yet taught his disciples that his death was coming, let alone that it was the core of the good news.  So if it wasn’t the good news of an atoning death, what good news was it?  

It was, of course, the good news of an advancing kingdom.  It was the real possibility that God’s way of living could replace humankind’s way of life.  It was good news, and blessing, for the poor, for the meek, for those who mourn, for peacemakers.  

The word ‘Gospel’ – which means good news of course – was well known to the people of Jesus time.  The Romans used it to announce the birth of their next Emperor.  They used it to announce the accession to the throne of that Emperor.  Augustus Caesar was even described as a god who was the saviour of the world! To the Romans, the coming of a new warlord, exercising supreme power over the world they had conquered was good news.    It meant that the wealthy merchants and weapons-makers around the emperor could keep their snouts in the trough – growing richer and richer while the poor grew poorer and poorer.  

So, the people of Jesus time would have known exactly what the word Gospel meant.  It meant more poverty, it meant ever higher taxes, ever-more punishing interest on loans from the rich, it meant more work-slavery.  And it meant more money in the purses of the arms-dealers and merchants.  It was good news only for the elite, in fact.  

But Jesus offered a new Gospel.  He offered a topsy-turvy upside-down dream for the world.  A dream in which the poor were lifted up, and peacemakers were called children of God.  Early death, through war or poverty, was a constant reality for the people of Jesus time.  But because of the hope of eternal life Jesus offered, even those who mourned could be comforted with the promise of life that goes on for ever in the house of Jesus’ father.  Jesus would save the world by being, in every conceivable way, the opposite of a Roman emperor.  Instead of war and conquest, Jesus brought peace and reconciliation.  Instead of the binding chains of acquisition and wealth, Jesus brought simplicity and sharing.  Instead of hatred for those who were not of one’s nation, Jesus offered reconciliation and love for every neighbour.

But this vision, this dream, this proclamation of how things could be for every man and woman – this was a threat to the war-makers, the wealthy elites, and for those who lived sumptuous lives on the back of the poor.  It was a threat to those religious leaders who liked to teach their flock who to hate – who loved to spout the narrative of ‘them and us’ – Jew versus Gentile, Jew versus Samaritan, Jew versus Roman, Jew versus Greek.   So Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust from their feet wherever the good news was rejected.  They were to go where the ground was fertile and ready to receive the seed of the Kingdom of God.

It is too soon to say whether the new Government we elected this week will turn out to be on the side of the weak, the stranger, the poor, the sick and the outcast.  It is for you to judge whose side the last Government was on.  What is clear, however, is that we who call ourselves followers of a different Lord, a higher authority, the King of Love – we have the same responsibility as those first disciples, sent out by that same Lord, to declare good news that was worth hearing – a dream worth sharing, a possibility worth prophesying.  

But, when the mighty and the powerful reject the message of our Lord; when homophobes keep obsessing about what loving, faithful people do in the privacy of their home; when racists continue to rant about people who are not like them - we will not continue shouting, fruitlessly from the side-lines.  We will not cast our pearls before swine.  We will shake the dust from our feet, and go where the ground is fertile, and ready to receive the good news of God.  We’ll reach out, by our example, to the lonely, the lost, the poor, the suffering and the outcast – to assure them that God is indeed good, and so is his news.  Amen.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

HOW to vote

 It’s election day.  But before we consider how we should cast our vote, (if its not too late already), we need to do some theology, first.

When the crowds saw that Jesus had the power to heal, and to forgive sins, they were (and I quote) ‘filled with awe and glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings’.  It’s a fascinating observation, for bible nerds.  It’s easy for us to focus on Jesus’ divinity, but his humanity doesn’t appear front and centre to us very often – despite how many times Jesus himself uses the phrase ‘son of man’ to describe himself.  In this case, Matthew points to how God has given his authority to Jesus, a human.  It’s a theme that Matthew pursues later in his Gospel – specifically at the Great Commission, in chapter 28.  There, Jesus declares that ‘all authority, in heaven and on earth, has been given to me’ – before then commanding his followers to go into all the world, baptising and teaching the words of Jesus. 

According to the Psalmist, the law of the Lord is perfect. “The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.”   The Psalmist sets up the presumption that in God, and God’s laws, we may find the purest, most noble, most efficacious expression of how to live.  Of God’s judgements, the Psalmist says “More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold;” They are “sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb”.  God’s kingdom laws are therefore set up for us as an ideal, an icon, an inspiration, for all human law-making.  

And yet, according to Matthew’s gospel, God has given authority to human beings, through Jesus – our Master but also our brother.   We share with him the responsibility of enacting God’s laws in the world.  He has commanded us to go into the world, baptising the nations and teaching them everything that Jesus has taught us – especially, we can wisely deduce, about the laws of God.  This idea, that God’s laws get enacted through faithful human beings goes right back to the Genesis myth – in which God gives Adam dominion over the world, while also commanding him to ‘take care of it’.

What, then, do we mean when we speak of God’s laws?  How shall we know on this election day, which of the political parties on offer to us are enacting God’s laws?  How shall we judge where to put our voter’s cross, so that the cross of Christ may triumph over our nation?

Jesus was not the only teacher doing the rounds in that first century of the common era.  At the time of Jesus, there was another respected teacher, called Rabbi Hillel.  According to certain Jewish sources, Hillel was once challenged to stand on one leg, and recite the laws of God.  (It’s not entirely clear why he was so challenged – but presumably, his challenger wanted Hillel to come up with a brief summary, before he fell over.)  Hillel is said to have carried out the challenge – standing on one leg and saying “Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself – the rest is commentary”.  In doing so, he obviously quoted the same ‘golden rule’ that Jesus also taught…a golden rule that is known throughout the world, and throughout all religions.  If we ever wanted to look for evidence that God has planted his law in our hearts, then the golden rule is the best evidence we could offer.  ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’.  Sometimes, the Golden Rule is expressed in negative terms – ‘don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you’.  But the essential core is the same.  ‘Do as you would be done by’.  ‘Love others as you love yourself’.

This then is the core of the Law of God.  Love.  Love for God, and love for others.  Any human law which does not, in some respect, reflect the Golden Rule, is something of which we should be deeply suspicious.  Which is easy to say, but not so simple to apply to the plethora of political manifestos we have before us as we vote today.

But I think that it is as least possible to hold up the parties’ manifestos to the Golden Rule.  It’s possible to take each area of our national life, and to ask to what extent they reflect God’s law of love.  Take, for example, the issue of justice.  We might ask, does justice policy reflect the desire to punish and take retribution against evil doers, or is it slanted towards forgiveness, restoration, and hope – for both criminals and their victims.  Take the troublesome issue of immigration.  Is our immigration policy designed to show love to our foreign neighbours, or does it stigmatise and place unfair blame upon them for the problems of our own country?  Take our education and health systems.  Do we pay our teachers and our medical staff as we would like to be paid for the amazing work they do?  In other words, do we treat them as we would like to be treated?  Or do we seek to protect our own purses first, by voting for the party which promises the lowest possible tax rate?  Take our energy policies.  Is there justice and equity between energy producer and energy user?  Or is it the case that our energy producers are ignoring the law of Love – the law of doing as they would be done by?

Do you get me?  I think that the law of Love can and should be applied to all political thinking.  So, I’m going to take the unusual step of recommending how you should vote today.  Not, you’ll note, who you should vote for, but how you should think about who to vote for.  If you have not already cast your ballot, I urge you to vote for the party whose manifesto promises, when held up to the Golden Rule, most closely align to the principle of ‘do as you would be done by’.  Any party whose promises prioritise the needs of one group of people over another, should be rejected.  If taxpayers are given greater love than people on benefits, question it.  If foreigners are shown less love than natural-born countrymen, question it.  If certain groups in society, like the bankers and financiers are given more advantage than everyman, question it.  If the love we offer our neighbours through healthcare and education is to be done on a shoestring, so that tax payers can afford an extra Costa coffee per week, question it.  If energy policy veers towards destroying the planet, instead of caring for it – as God commanded Adam, for the love of all humanity, reject it.  Apply the Golden Rule to every political promise, every political policy, every political claim – and do unto others as you would have them do for you.  Love your neighbour as you love yourself.  Everything else is commentary.


Friday, June 7, 2024

Sing to the Lord a new song: the place of music in worship

Texts:  Psalm 150, Colossians 3.12-17, and Mark 14.22-26

Music is such an integral part of our culture, isn’t it?  Perhaps the easiest way to get a handle on that is to imagine a world without music.  Imagine, for example, watching a movie without background music, setting the emotional tone of each moment.  Can you conceive of a TV advert without music blaring in the background, trying to grab your attention?  “Go compare!”. Music is everywhere.  We sing on the football terraces.  Many of us wake up to music on the radio.  Long journeys are accompanied by the ‘choons’ we choose.  This week’s D-Day celebrations in Southsea were led by a huge cast of musicians, including some from our own Cathedral choir. 

But what exactly is music?  When you break it down to its bare bones – it’s a surprisingly simple thing.  In Western music, it is a collection of 12 tones – 12 resonating sound frequencies.  These are arranged in such a way as to be interesting, or inspiring to the human mind.  Some cultures have less than 12 tones.  Some, especially in the East, have more – quarter-tones that sit between the 12 that we have come to think of as normal.  

But why music?  What is it about these tones, these vibrating frequencies that stir our emotions, and which connect with us on such a deep level?  Why do we generally prefer the sound of musical notes to, say, the squawking noise of, say, a parrot?  Or the sound of wind in the trees, or water in a fountain.  Speaking as a musician, I’d say the answer to that question is complex.  It certainly has something to do with the way music resonates with our bodies.  Our ears, and other parts of our body, find the experience of being immersed in music genuinely pleasurable.  There is a physiological link between the sounds we prefer, and the way our bodies absorb and process them.   Nature has made us to appreciate music at a physical level.  

But nurture is also involved.  We love the music that we’ve come to know, from our earliest age.  Some of us find it hard to learn new music – because we are deeply attached, emotionally to the pattern of sounds we grew up with.  That’s why introducing new hymns in worship is always a fraught process.  And its why some of us maintain that any music produced since Mozart should be considered ‘dangerously modern’!

So far as we can tell, from archaeology and ancient literature, music has always been important to humans, practically from the moment we became humans.  In ancient caves, archaeologists have discovered animal bones with holes along the side – clearly intended to be used as a kind of flute.  We know that drums have a very long history too, in many early cultures.  We know that music played an important part in worship, throughout the Bible.  Key ideas about God were turned into music – which made those ideas easier to remember and to process. 

So, for example, we read about the Song of Miriam, the wife of Moses, who sang a song of celebration and praise when the Eqyptians were thrown into the sea.  Our gospel reading, just now, told of how Jesus and his friends sang a hymn before going out into the night.   The Bible includes an entire book of 150 song lyrics, called the Psalms.  We know from the last of those songs, number 150, what kind of instruments were being played to accompany the singing.  That last psalm – which the choir sang for us as a first reading - contains a list of all the instruments which were used to praise God – the trumpet, the psaltry (a kind of zither), the harp, stringed instruments (presumably something like violins or cellos), pipes (presumably like flutes or maybe bagpipes) and cymbals – well-tuned but loud cymbals!

Vitally, for churches (and this touches on the work of the RSCM) music is a way of helping us to absorb our theology and doctrine.  Our hymnody reflects and reinforces our theology.  Theology is, generally speaking, an intellectual exercise.  It forces us to think about the mystery of God, and our place in God’s world.  But music acts upon us at a deeper, emotional, instinctive level.  It can help us to bridge the gap between what we believe, intellectually, and what we live out in our daily lives.  That’s why the choice of what we sing is so important – and why care is needed in the choice.  Music has the power to carry truth – or lies - beyond the intellect and into the heart.  It can, in fact, be dangerous.  Here’s an example….

In a week in which we’ve all thought about D-Day, it’s worth remembering that Hitler used music to promote his pernicious nationalism.  The words of the German national anthem during his time were ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles’ – which translates as ‘Germany, Germany – over all’.  In other words – Germany is the best, the most superior nation, with a divine right to rule the world.  Sung at every Nazi rally, this message of an innate superiority of the German people went straight from Hitler’s warped brain into his people’s hearts.  Once convinced of this lie, some of them became willing to do almost any heinous crime in the name of German superiority.

That’s why it matters what music we sing.  That’s why Graham takes such care in the choice of the hymns we sing here, week by week.  If we choose hymns that push one particular theological idea, it’s important that that is balanced by an alternative view as well.  So, for example, take the modern hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.  Perhaps you’ve heard it:  “In Christ alone, my hope is found /He is my light, my strength, my song”.  It’s a smashing hymn, with a brilliant tune.  But, troublingly, it does contain this line:  “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied”.  That is a very specific and deliberate statement of one particular theological idea – called ‘penal substitution’ – which is the view that Jesus had to die to appease God’s anger about human sin.  Another way of saying that is ‘that Jesus took the punishment which should have been ours’.  But that, as I have taught many times, is only one way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus.  If we only choose hymns that contain references to penal substitution, we’re in danger of ending up with a very myopic understanding of God.

The best and the greatest church music, in my view, is that which doesn’t get bogged down in pushing disputed theological ideas.  Such hymns are no better than football chants, which attempt to ‘big up’ the home team, while putting down the opposition.  The best church music is that which lifts our eyes and our hearts beyond the minutiae of theological debate – and which opens our inner being to the reality of God.  That’s why the psalmist says that praise should be the purpose of our song.  Praise for God, for all that God is, whether on the trumpet, or the psaltry, the harp, or even the loud cymbal!”  Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

We need some D-Day spirit today!

2 Timothy 2.8–15

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.  The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Mark 12.2834

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’  Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’  

Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”;  and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.


How much do you think you could endure, for the sake of the Gospel?  How much of your happiness and comfort would you sacrifice to love your neighbour as yourself?  Are you prepared to die with Christ, so that you might live with him?  Could you ensure hardship and suffering, for the promise of reigning with Christ – whatever that metaphor means?

These are the challenges of today’s readings, and of the commemorations of D-Day that are taking place in Portsmouth and in France over these two days.  The soldiers, sailors and aviators of D-Day gave themselves utterly to the task of loving their neighbours in France – to release them from the grip of Hitler’s Nazi regime.  And they did it for love….for the love of their French neighbour, inspired by the love of God, who rightly insists on our heart, soul, mind and strength.   Each one of them deserves our undying respect, admiration and thanks.

Other groups of people have been brought to the forefront too.  Yesterday, the King reminded us that Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus were among those who died and fought for freedom that day.  We must never make the mistake of thinking that only western, Christian, people understand the value of sacrificing oneself for one’s neighbour.  There are many in other religions to whom Jesus would say, as he said to the Jewish scribe, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’.

Another group of unsung heroes are those who worked, diligently, sacrificially and often in secret, behind the lines.  Often women, these were factory workers, the farmers, the Land Girls, and the military support units, like the WRENS, who helped with the logistics, planning and delivery of the greatest amphibious fleet ever assembled in history.  Women flew airplanes from factories to the front, they drove lorries and logistics waggons, they provided food and nourishment for the troops, and nursing for the wounded.  

All of these ‘folks behind the lines’ made sacrifices to love their neighbour too.  Often they gave up their homes and normal lives to add their skills and expertise to the war effort.  They lived for long periods away from the families, and even their own children (who were billeted in the countryside as evacuees).  It may perhaps be said that no nation in history was ever so completely mobilised in the task of sacrifice and love of neighbour.  That is, of course, something of what we mean when we talk about the wartime spirit of Britain.  Churchill’s greatest achievement was to encourage and foster the spirit of sacrifice among an inherently selfish nation.

Yes, this was about defence – defence of the United Kingdom from the Nazi threat.  But it was more than that.  This nation, bolstered by our Allies, decided to sacrifice a generation of young people in the defence of Europe, and for the love of our European neighbours.  We led the charge against the blind and stupid nationalism and despotism of Hitler and his henchmen.

Which is why it is so worrying, 80 years later, to see some of the same patterns emerging in our politics today.  Extreme right wing ideologies are once again on the march.  Politicians and leaders routinely lay the blame for our economic challenges at the feet of those least able to defend themselves – just as Hitler did with the Jews. We are encouraged to look for people to blame – homeless people, benefit ‘scroungers’, foreigners, travellers, fat people, woke people, trans-people.  The millionaires who run our country don’t want us to look too closely at their wealth.  ‘Look over there’, they cry.  Be distracted. Blame the others.  

In short, we are forgetting the lesson of D-Day – that the path to glory is not paved with blame, but with sacrifice.  The more divided our nation becomes, the more we blame ‘the other’ for our own unwillingness to bend to their needs, the further from the Kingdom of God we fall.

What are the practical implications of this message?  D-Day was an example of national sacrifice, and logistical prowess combined in an epic battle for the common good.  One of the modern battles we are waging is one against the large total of net migrants to this country.  With net migration of three quarters of a million people a year, our hospitals, schools, housing and health-care facilities are under immense strain, without a doubt. 

What if we were to apply the D-Day Spirit to this very real challenge?  It would take a ‘wartime spirit’ that was, for example, willing to forego some of the high standards of building and safety standards we’ve come to expect.  It would mean a few less hospitals and homes designed to win prestigious awards, and rather more prefabs and Nissan huts.  But with sacrifice and love for neighbour at the heart of such a programme, if would be possible to mobilise the nation to quickly build new homes, hospitals and schools, and to relieve the pressure on public services by bringing-in immigrant builders, doctors and teachers – who would pay tax and build the nation. 

But what do we do?  We blame the migrants – instead of our lack of D-Day vision. So, we choose not to requisition the land of multi-millionaires as we did at D-Day, to meet a national emergency.  We choose not to build the prefab homes we once did to house people in urgent housing need.  We choose not to build hospitals in simple huts, or set up schools in porta-cabins.  No – because we are too good for these things.  Oh, they are good enough for poor people in far off lands.  We’ll set up field hospitals in tents for them.  But we have our own high standards here at home, and we’re not going to bend them for anyone! 

Has it never struck you as perverse that we can build glamping pods for wealthy British holiday makers, but we won’t provide housing pods for the homeless?  We can build acres of mobile home parks for wealthy vacationers, but we can’t provide safe parking spaces for travelling communities.  Doesn’t it seem odd that we want the right to travel anywhere in the world on our blue British passports, but we won’t give the same freedom of movement to ‘the others’. You see, the homeless, travellers, and immigrants are ‘the other’ – and we’re not going to sacrifice for them!

My friends, we’ve forgotten how to apply our heart, soul, mind and strength to the task of loving God, and loving our neighbour.  And until we regain the D-Day spirit of sacrifice, coupled with ingenuity, I believe that as a nation we will remain far from the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Is it time to sell the church?

Texts: James 5.1–6 and Mark 9.41end

I caught sight of a sobering internet meme this week.  It said something along these lines… Imagine that it is the year 2124 – one hundred years from now.  You, regretfully, are dead.  No living person has any memory of you. To your great, great, great grandchildren, you are just a name on a family tree. Someone else will be living in your house – and they will have ripped out all the refurbishments you spent a fortune on, and replaced them with their own.  Someone else will be caring for your garden, and they will have replaced all your expensive shrubs with the ones they like.  Everything you owned in 2024 is now either in a rubbish dump, or it belongs to someone else.

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  And it is deeply reminiscent of the parable of the man who built many barns in which to store his wealth.  “You fool” says God to him.  What is the point of gathering all this stuff?  You really can’t take it with you.  This theme is taken up and expanded by the letter of James (who may, or may not have been the brother of Jesus).  He also recognises that wealth is often acquired on the backs of poorer people – of the labourers in the fields (and perhaps in our case, the sweaty factories of Asia).  To the rich, James writes, “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”!

This isn’t always true, however.  It is perfectly possible to make money without exploiting the masses.  I was interested to read this week that Sir Paul McCartney is one of the first musical billionaires, along with a young woman called Taylor Swift, who I think I’ve heard of!  Sir Paul’s wealth comes thanks to sales of re-released Beatles albums, and a new Beatles song.  Good for him – I say.  He is a man of amazing talent, who has simply persuaded others to buy his records.  His session-musicians and publishers have been paid.  No-one was exploited. 

But Sir Paul – and Taylor Swift - faces the same dilemma as all wealthy people.  The same dilemma that we face: “how much of the wealth I have accumulated should I keep to guard against the trials and indignities of my old age, and to pass on to my descendents?  And how much should I release into the world, to carry out my Christian, religious or moral duty to care for others?”  

The church also has the same dilemma.  In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus warned us against putting a stumbling block in the way of anyone’s faith.  One of the more persistent rants that I get on the internet comes from those who wonder why the church is constantly asking for money when it has so much wealth, already stored up. It’s a real stumbling block for many.

People say to us “why should I contribute to your appeal for a disabled toilet, or to help the homeless, when you have a safe full of silver chalices, and land all over the parish which you could sell?”.  It’s a perfectly reasonable question, to ask. 

The standard answer to such questions is that the church is the custodian of such wealth.  By various canon laws, and deeds of trust from previous generations, cashing in our wealth for money to pay for mission is remarkably difficult, even impossible.  We hold this wealth, in our massive barns called churches, to pass on to our descendants.  But, ironically, they won’t be able to use it either – for exactly the same legal reasons!

I remember a story told to me by the Acting Archdeacon of Portsdown, Canon Bob White, a few years ago.  He was meeting the pastor of an independent church, who held their services in a rented school hall.  The pastor looked jealously at Fr Bob’s enormous barn of a church, with its remarkable organ, stained glass windows, and glorious ceiling.  The pastor said, “I wish we had such a building as this!  What a great mission tool it would be”.  Fr Bob immediately got his church keys out of his pocket, and offered them to the pastor.  “Here,”  said Fr Bob. “Take it!  You’d be welcome to it!”.  Of course that was a joke.  And legally impossible.  But Bob’s point was that if he could spend even a fraction of the time in mission that he currently spends caring for his enormous barn, the kingdom might be far more advanced in his parish.

It’s a great balancing act, in which we are engaged.  On the one hand, our building is a repository of the life and memories of this community.  It’s a sign and a signal to the world that there is a different Kingdom, a different economic and political system, on offer.  It’s a place soaked in the prayers of this community, for nearly a thousand years (that we know about).  It’s a place which lifts our eyes, our minds and spirits beyond the humdrum round of daily life, and helps us to fix out eyes on the promise of heaven. But on the other hand it’s a vacuum cleaner for the cash that we pour into keeping it standing, and for the time we spend administering it.  It is both a glorious gift, and time-sucking, money pit around our necks.

There are no easy answers to these dilemmas – neither to the question of our personal wealth, nor to the question of the inherited wealth of the church.  But it’s important that we – both personally and corporately – keep on asking these questions, and praying for wisdom from the Spirit of God.  Amen.