Sunday, March 19, 2023

Father Almighty?

Preached at Cathedral Evensong on Sunday 19th March 2023 (Mothering Sunday evening)

In the opening line of the Nicene Creed, Christians declare, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty”.  On Mothering Sunday, it would be perfectly appropriate to query the adjective ‘Father’ – and I did enjoy this morning’s Radio 4 service, during which the Canon Vicar of Guildford Cathedral referred to God as our ‘parent’, rather than Father.  But my primary focus is on the word Almighty.  What do we mean by this word?  It implies that there is nothing which God cannot do, and nothing he does not know.  The all-seeing God can do whatever God wants.  He is omnipotent and omniscient.  Our magnificent Cathedral Choir will recognise the Latin form of Almighty God, which is Deus Omnipotens.

For those who are interested in the origin of words, it might be useful to know that the word most usually translated in English bibles as ‘almighty’ actually means nothing of the sort.  The Hebrew words most often translated as ‘Almighty God’ are ‘El Shaddai’. which has a range of disputed meanings, from ‘the God of the Mountain’ to the ‘God of Two Breasts’ - which is a lovely image for Mothering Sunday.   

While it is generally agreed (by all theistic religions) that God has this ability to simply do whatever God wants, it is also generally agreed that there are limits on what God will, or won’t, interfere with, not least because of the divine principle of free will.  It’s important to note that this agreement does not apply to Islam. Muslims believe that everything that happens is the will of God.  The word ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’, specifically to God’s active will and activity in the world. 

We have inherited, through church tradition, this core belief in an Almighty God, which, I suggest, is more Islamic than many of us would care to admit.  As a result, I posit, much of our relationship with God can often reduced to a rather desperate pleading for a bending of the self-imposed rules of non-interference.  Our prayers of ‘intercession’ are a prime example of this.  We implore God to act in the world – to make it a better place, to solve the problems of hunger, the climate, corruption, sickness, or any other great evil.  We amend and re-craft our prayers in the hope that they will fall favourably on God’s ears. “If only,” we think, “we can find the right turn of phrase, or the right praying position, or the right amount of diligence to persuade God to act.”  It’s as though we are trying to select the right coin to get a gift from a heavenly vending machine.  But, our own experience is that Almighty God appears to be largely deaf to our pleas.  The great evils persist, Putin still marches on the Ukraine, and God appears to be either (at best) silent and waiting or (at worst) uncaring.  The middle ground between these two positions are those oft-repeated (and awful) phrases, such as ‘God always answers, but sometimes he says no’, or (the even more guilt-inducing) ‘you need to have more faith’.

Of course there is much about the nature of free will involved in this dilemma.  If I pray that God will stay Putin’s hand, for example, I’m actually asking God to ignore the divine principle of free will.  Let us note, then, that the adjective ‘almighty’ is used rather more out of hope than out of experience.   

Rather, and I think more correctly, we more often associate God’s actions with other human beings.  When we give thanks for the healing of a friend, most of us, in truth, are often more grateful for the skill of the medical professionals who tended to them.  I recently had a triple heart bypass, and I must confess, I was rather more relieved to know that my surgeon was a professor of cardiology than I was to know that people were praying for me – as grateful as I was for their love and care.

It is perfectly proper to say that God has acted through the hands of the surgeon, or through the hands of the rescue team in that collapsed building.  In Paul Tillich’s phrase, God is the ground of our being, the inspiring and motivating force behind all good deeds.  In that sense, God’s action in the world is expressed through our hands, and our free-will actions.  God does not act alone, smiting or healing with almighty power.  Rather, God acts in co-operation with humanity, upholding the law of free will, and inspiring us to be agents of God’s will in the world. 

The word ‘almighty’ also carries with it the language of battle.  Mightiness is essential for the winning of wars.   In the eyes of the religious warrior, victory is only achieved by having an almighty God on your side.  Let’s stop talking about God as if he is going into battle for us.  Countless defeated armies (from all sides of the religious wars) know that this cannot be true, as both the Ukrainian and Russian armies could attest today.  So let’s stop describing God as if God is an almighty warrior, fighting for us.

I propose, therefore, that it is time for us to stop throwing around such a fundamentally unhelpful description of God, in our worship and in our prayers.  From our actual experience of God at work, it would be much more accurate to speak of a ‘loving God’ or ‘co-operating God’ or ‘inspiring God’.  Any of those adjectives speak more truthfully of our experience of the God who is, after all, the two breasted God (as one translation of El Shaddai suggests).  I propose, therefore, that it is time to jettison the adjective Almighty, and to re-write the opening line of the Creed.  “We believe in the loving, inspiring, co-operating God” would be a start.  Then, perhaps, our theology would better reflect our experience.

And, on this Mothering Sunday, what about the adjective ’Father’ for El Shaddai, the two-breasted God? Well, you’ll have noticed that I’ve jettisoned ‘Father’ from the first line of my Creed, because I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the God who created both male and female (and all those caught between such poles) being described with such a confined and patriarchal term as ‘Father’.  But that, my friends, is a topic for another sermon altogether.  Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Violence of Christmas

There’s a lot of violence in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11.11–15).  Jesus talks about how the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, since the time of John the Baptiser…and now, he says (with John in prison) the violent take it by force.

I wonder if you’ve ever contemplated how much violence surrounds the Christmas story.  I’d like to take a few moments to ponder that with you.  But first of all, it might be helpful to define what the word ‘violence’ means.  It is essentially the forcing of one person’s will on another, by the threat or actual use of physical coercion.  It can also mean the forcing of the will of a group of people on another group of people, by physical means.  Terrorism is an obvious type of violence.  Blowing people up, to force your view of the world onto them, is about the most violent thing you can do.  As is military conquest of one nation over another.  But there are other forms of violence too – verbal violence, emotional violence, even intellectual violence – which means the forcing of a particular idea onto others.

Ultimately, violence is about the use of power.  Violence is the way that power relationships go wrong.  When one person (or one group of people) use violence to impose their power onto another, we can usually judge – pretty clearly – that the power-relationship has gone sour.

So what did I mean, just now, when I said that violence surrounds the Christmas story?

Well, first, there is the violence of the state of occupation into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was in control – through violent military conquest.  Their powerful control of the land of Israel was so complete, their threat of violence was so great, that Joseph of Nazareth had no choice but to force his heavily pregnant wife onto the back of donkey, to trek for many days across barren lands, and to have her baby in a barn.  I’m sure that there were countless times along that road that Mary cried out “Why couldn’t we just stay in Nazareth?!”  But the political violence of Rome drove them in another direction altogether.  Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Then, there is the awful violence of King Herod.  Fearful of losing his power as vassal King over Judea, he plots and schemes to find out where the new ‘King of the Jews’ will be born.  He attempts to manipulate the visiting wise men into being his spies – and when that scheme fails, he slaughters all the male babies in Bethlehem.  Joseph and Mary are forced to flee for their lives into Eqypt to escape the rampant violence of Herod’s henchmen. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Those are the obvious examples – but there is other, more subtle, violence too.  Take the Shepherds for example.  Now when I say the word ‘shepherds’, I imagine that most of us have a lovely pastoral picture in our heads.  We imagine a bunch of hearty old men with tea-towels on their heads.  We hear the west-country tones of countless Nativity plays.  “Ohh – let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing which ‘as come to paaaass!”.  

But this is to miss one of the central themes of the Nativity story. 

Why Shepherds?  Why are Shepherds the group of people specially selected by God to be told the news of the arrival of Jesus.  God could have sent his Angels out to knock on the doors of the ordinary people of Bethlehem -  “bang bang bang!  Wake up – and go down the street to the barn!”.  The Angels could have sung glory in the highest heaven in the local taverns, or over the palace or temple in Jerusalem.  But they didn’t.  

God chose the Shepherds precisely because they were outcasts of their society.  They lived on the edge of towns – they weren’t citizens like everyone else.  They were rough and ready, and they probably stank from all those sheep, their overnight bonfires, and a lack of running water.  Worse still, they didn’t obey all the religious laws – not least the law about not working on the Sabbath…because sheep still need looking after, even on a Sabbath.  So, in religious terms, they were considered unclean and unholy.  Society in general had done violence to them, by essentially excluding them.  They were shut out.  They were deemed ‘unclean’ – which is a kind of religious violence done to them.

You see? Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

So what is God’s response to this violence?  How does he seek to intervene in the violence that humanity does to itself – or in ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as the old Book of Common Prayer has it? 

If I was God, I think I would have been very tempted to use my almighty power to just sort them out!  But I am not God.  God knows that the answer to violence is not more violence.  No.  God’s answer to the violence of human beings is to send his Son into the world in the most fragile, dependent, UN-powerful form possible…a new born baby.  And not just a baby – completely dependent on his parents for everything – but a baby born in the most humble of circumstances imaginable.  Not a palace.  Not even a house.  A barn.  A stable.  An animal’s food trough.

The answer to violence is not more violence.  To quote the great Mahatma Ghandi – “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.  The answer to violence in the world today is not more violence – it should be bridge-building, understanding, mutual respect and tolerance.  The answer to the violence of terrorism all across the world is not more violence in return – it should be the seeking of understanding, and the addressing of the kinds of basic injustice which drives terrorists to do terrible things.  Education, social justice, the fair and equitable sharing of the wealth of our planet – these are the things that will overcome the violence.  If only we would give them a chance.

The babe of Bethlehem teaches us by his gentle presence in the midst of the violence of his time that there is another way.  And for that simple, profound lesson, we should surely say with all the angels of Heaven, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth!”.   Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Advent 2 - Prepare the Way of the Lord

 Readings: Isaiah 11.1–10 & Matthew 3.1–12

Today – and indeed next week too, the Lectionary invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser.  We call him that, these days, because the word ‘Baptist’ has become linked to a particular theological viewpoint.  At the grave risk of slightly offending our Welsh Baptist viewers on the InterWeb, today’s ‘Baptists’ believe that adult baptism is the only legitimate kind.  Most Anglicans disagree….but there isn’t time to go into that now!

So let’s focus down on John the Baptiser – the man.  Matthew, probably based on Mark is convinced that John is the messenger of the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah.  He starts his account, saying “John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.  

It’s worth pausing for a moment to contemplate that word, ‘repent’.  Most of you have heard me talk about it before, but it’s always worth revisiting, I find.  I know that, for me, the word conjures up images of crazed street preachers – pointing at a crowd of drunks and crying ‘repent ye sinners!’.  That image implies that the preacher thinks he’s superior to the crowd.  It has a note of condemnation about it.  But, it’s worth considering the original Greek word – which is metanoia.  It means ‘turn around’.  A call for repentance, then, is less about condemnation, and more like an invitation.  ‘Metanoia’ invites us to stop heading in one direction, and choose to take a new path.  It invites us to stop following the world’s promises about what will fill us, save us, and give our lives meaning.  It invites us to turn instead to the straight and narrow way of the Lord.

John is the last of the Hebrew prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways.  Picture the scene:  Imagine a rather dirty fellow, with mad scruffy hair, dressed in camel-skins, and covered in bee-stings. He’s probably got blobs of honey stuck to his shirt, and he’s munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d try to get him some serious mental health support!  

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, attracted people out into the desert from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)

According to Matthew’s account, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7).  He warned them against the complacency of their religion: saying “Just because you are Abraham’s children, don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)

There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why, after Jesus appeared, didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah – as we’ll hear next week.

I think that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would be like.  John’s Messiah would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day.  See what he says about Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3:  “...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).  

John’s expectations of the Messiah are rooted in the language and concepts of Hebrew Bible.  In some ways, he was a bit like that street preacher I imagine jabbing his finger at a crowd of drunks.  And, uncomfortably, Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like.  And he was Jesus’ cousin!  

I wonder how many of us sometimes do that?  How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is?  How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs?  

How many Conservative-voters assume God is a Tory?  How many people on the left blithely assume Jesus was a socialist?   How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them?  It’s painfully ironic to observe Vladimir Putin cosying up to the Russian church for approval of his evil plans.  He must think that God is like him.  But, the truth is, we all have a tendency to make God in our own image.  We often imagine God to be a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves – rather than seeking the truth of God in whose image we are made.

John’s language is the language of criticism and warning.  “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!”   John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing.  “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”.  It’s a promise of life, but tinged with the threat of death.

Jesus’ language, on the other hand, is of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  He speaks of journeys, and the Narrow Way of faith.  John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer.  Jesus offers life, hope and an exciting journey.

Mind you, Jesus is not immune from the apocalyptic tradition.  Certainly, he also gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. (Mt 12.34).  But, on balance, Jesus’ tone is rather different to John’s.  Instead of calling us out to a desert of repentance, he invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal.  John offers locusts and wild honey.  Jesus offers bread, wine, and a banquet in heaven.  He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community.  He includes women – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.  

Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks.  Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, community-life and growth into beings with the capacity to be like gods.  He calls it the Narrow Way, and the Kingdom.   Jesus calls us to turn away from making up our own ideas about how things should be.  He calls us instead to tune-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe.  The baptism of John saves us from wrath.  The baptism of Jesus invites us on journey of growth and faith.

In this season of Advent, we are invited to take stock of our own journey, and the extent to which we have fully ‘turned around’.  Have we utterly forsaken the false promises of the world, and progressed a little further along the straight and narrow Way of the Lord.  If the answer is ‘yes’, we can give thanks to God, and renew our commitment today.  

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘well, perhaps not quite yet’ – then we are invited, today, to make a new commitment.  A commitment to forsake the false promises of politicians, of consumerism, of selfish-ambition.  And a commitment to the straight and narrow way of love, generosity, self-sacrifice and deep, deep meaning. 

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 1 - 2021

When, I wonder, did we forget how to wait for things?  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And, if we are one of the 1% of the world who have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want, we tend to get it…now.  

A couple of years ago, Clare came back from visiting a friend’s house, extolling the virtues of the new Amazon 'Echo' device.  'It's fantastic', she said.  You can just ask it to play the radio, or for a summary of the news headlines, or what the weather will be!  I really fancy one for Christmas.'  Three days later, one arrived in our house!

The Season of Advent is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

Waiting is a central part of the Biblical witness.  The Israelites who fled from Egypt waited 40 years to reach their destination.  King David bought the land on which the Jerusalem temple would be built, but it was his son Solomon who built it.  The Jewish Exiles waited for 70 years to return from Babylon to Jerusalem.  And the followers of Jesus still wait for his complete return.  We wait.  We long for the fully realised Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

It is in those periods of waiting that God does his work.  For the Israelites fleeing Egypt, it was the time when God taught them to trust in him and to obey his laws.  For the Exiles, it was the time of Daniel, and the powerful demonstrations of God’s power in the lion’s den, and in the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Mesach and Abegnego.  For followers of Jesus, these last two centuries have been a time of gradually building up of the household of God, the year by year spreading of God’s good news of Love from nation to nation.  Christianity is the largest religion (by followers on the planet) and this has taken time to achieve.  On a personal level, God works within us, during Advent, to dispel the myth that instant gratification will do anything at all to make us truly happy.

In Advent, we can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.  We yearn for God to put things right.  The writers of the Gospel’s shared in that sense of urgency.  Mark and Luke, for example, repeat a saying attributed to Jesus, which is (for me) one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”.   Jesus is reported to have promised that his second coming was SO imminent, that the current generation would not pass away before that great event happened.

Well, that didn’t happen!  This is one of those examples of where we need to understand the context of the writers of Scripture.  Mark was writing at a time when Jesus had been gone for perhaps 30 years, and the early church was feeling the iron boot of Rome on its neck. Peter was probably in prison, along with Paul.  Rome was becoming increasingly hostile towards both Jews and the new cult of the Christians.  

It should not surprise us that Mark, in reporting Jesus’ words from three decades before, has perhaps let poetry trump accuracy, as ancient writers often did.  He didn’t want to wait for God’s plan to be unfolded in God’s time.  Despite reporting that Jesus said ‘no-one will know the hour or the time of his coming’, Mark let his inner-optimist get the better of him…I suggest.

Or perhaps - Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

And, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.

Every time an army lays down its weapons, and seeks peace - Jesus comes.

Every time politicians and scientists combine their efforts in unprecedented action to produce a vaccine – Jesus comes.

Every time a family is raised up out of fear or poverty Jesus comes.

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in a church social gathering, Jesus comes.  

Every time one of our church members phones another church member just to chat – to make a connection - Jesus comes.

Every time a hungry family is fed by the Beacon or PO9 Foodbanks, Jesus comes.

Every time homeless people sleeping in our town are treated like the human beings they truly are, Jesus comes.

Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant Centre support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes. 

Every time an item of clothing is recycled through our shop, rather than added to the pile of human refuse, the planet is loved, and Jesus comes.

Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo Youth Theatre, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, or a teenager with mental health challenges is helped by MIND - Jesus comes.

Every time that SSAFA helps the poverty-stricken family of an armed services veteran, Jesus comes.

You see - signs of the kingdom are all around us.  

Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The End of the World!

Texts:  Revelation 18.1–2, 21–23, 19.1–3, 9 and Luke 21.20–28

Today, the lectionary invites us to flirt with tales and prophecies of the end of days.  We are drawn by our readings into an imaginary future world in which the great city of Babylon is destroyed, and in which the “son of man will come in a cloud in great power and glory”.  How can we get to the heart and the truth of what all this rich imagery is telling us.

Reading the Bible literally is a risky path to take.  You may remember the name Harold Camping, for example.  Mr Camping was an American preacher and Christian radio host who predicted that the world would end on the 21st of May 2011 (at 6pm in the afternoon, incidentally).  Many of his followers were so convinced that they sold up their homes and ploughed all their savings into the cost of the advertising campaign, to persuade Americans of Mr Camping’s message.  Sadly, for them, the world didn’t end – and they were left penniless and often in great debt.

You see, the problem with reading the Bible literally is that this is not what its original writers intended, by and large.  The ancients used myths as lenses through which we can see our own paths to transformation and growth.  What do we mean by the word ‘ myth’?  Scholar Marcus Borg offers an interesting definition.  He says, “Myth is stories about the way things never were, but always are”.  Wise people read myths as insights about the human condition, which have the power to transform us.    Consider these words by the New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan, “My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.

So what are we to make of the rich imagery with which the lectionary confronts us today.  I doubt you would be very happy if I did a line by line analysis of both passages!  So, let’s just take the Revelation passage as an example of how wise people should read the Scriptures.  

By the time John was writing the Book of Revelation, the city of Babylon had been dead as a political and economic force for at least 300 years.  Some historians think it was more like 600 years. So when John uses imagery of Babylon being cast into the sea because, I quote, “your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery” there is no way John is talking about the literal city of Babylon (whose dusty ruins you can visit for yourself in modern-day Iraq).  Babylon, for John, is rather a figurative city, a myth which stands for all systems, economic and political, which crush the life out of ordinary people.  

John is painting a picture, not making a specific prediction, of a world in which mighty merchants and those who deceive through, for example, the sorcery of propaganda will be replaced by what John calls, ‘the marriage feast of the Lamb’.  Again, John is not literally saying that humanity will be invited to sit around a table, watching a Lamb getting married!  What he is saying is that God’s purpose is for all humanity to be united with God, through God’s way of life as lived out in Jesus, also known as the Lamb.  The ‘marriage’ of which John speaks is the marriage of humanity with the purposes of God.

Rather than a prophecy of some fictitious ‘end-time’, the Book of Revelation is an invitation for us to take an inward journey, into ourselves.  We are asked to contemplate what kind of person we aspire to be.  Do we want to be numbered with the ‘merchants who were the magnates of the earth’?  Or do we want to be those very being is united, like in a marriage, to God’s purposes?  We have to ask ourselves how much longer we will collude with the world’s false promises (like ‘owning new things will make you happy’).  

There’s an old acrostic which the early Christians used.  It was the word ROMA – the Italian name for Rome.  Early Christians used those four letters, R.O.M.A. to stand for ‘radix omnium malorum avaritia’. It means ‘ avarice is the root of all evil’.  Marcus Borg explains, ‘Roma - empire - is the embodiment of avarice, the incarnation of greed. That’s what empire is about. The embodiment of greed in domination systems is the root of all evil’.  Wise Christians are invited to examine themselves for avarice, and other ‘sins of the flesh’ to seek out and destroy any internal attitudes which steer us away from the goal of living in love with God.

You see, God loves us already and has always loved us, from before the dawn of time.  The Christian life is not about believing certain things about God, or trusting particular words about God.  That would be salvation by syllables.  Rather, it’s about perceiving what is fundamentally true, at the heart of God – that God loves us already, and then seeking to live our lives in that relationship.  The Christian life is about waking up to and intentional choice to live in an ever-deepening relationship with God.

If we really were to take God’s transforming Way seriously, then there would truly be, in the words of today’s Gospel reading, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea…”.  The end of the world of man may well involve momentous events – wars over scarce resources on a dying planet, at the very least.  But the kind of upheaval which Jesus describes is not literal.  The signs in the sky, and the roaring of the sea which he describes are signs of the spiritual transformation of humanity.  The Son of Man will come among us ‘as on a cloud’ – stealthily, silently, into every human heart – and as we saw on Sunday, one person at a time.  The transformation will be no less momentous, as every human heart is gradually, gently, loving, turned towards the purposes of God, so that every knee will bow, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

But don’t expect to witness any avenging angels hurling the archaeological ruins of Babylon into the sea like a millstone!  Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Christ the King - saving us one at a time

This week, the world’s population has reached 8 billion people, despite the increased deaths from Covid.  Global temperatures continue to rise, and are fast reaching the tipping point when the ice-sheets of the poles will melt, and low lying land (like Havant!) is likely to be submerged by rising sea-levels.  Human kind has not yet learned how to solve its differences except by violence and threat. A billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips and refugee camps for something to eat.

Have you ever wondered how many people is a billion people? Let me give you some idea of the scale....Imagine, if you can, a line of 1billion people, standing 1 yard apart. If I were to get in my car, and drive along the line of people at 60 miles per hour for one hour, I would pass 105,600 people. Do you know how long I would have to drive at 60 miles per hour, all day, all night, without stopping, to pass by 1 billion people? 1 YEAR and 29 days.

That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty or in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies just to survive from one day to the next.  It’s sobering, isn’t it…especially for us, whose daily challenges with the cost of living crisis means choosing to turn down our thermonstat, or buying one less macchiato-cappuccino a week.

In a little while, as bread and wine are consecrated, we will remind ourselves that Christ claims dominion over all creation. We will remind ourselves what His Kingdom is like: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. How very different that Kingdom is from the one we experience!  How our hearts cry out, when we pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!

St Luke was very conscious of the kind of kingdom into which Jesus came. He frames his entire narrative in terms of Kingship, as we shall hear again through Advent and Christmas. Chapter 1: "In the days of King Herod of Judaea...' Chapter 2: " this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree". Chapter 3: "In the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar's reign". Luke framed his story by reference to three rulers...but then, at the end, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, he places Jesus on his cross with the massively ironic legend "King of the Jews" over his head.

But Luke also contrasts the three great rulers with three simple people. In his first three chapters, the references to Herod, Augustus and Tiberius are contrasted with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon: all of whom proclaim a different kind of Kingdom. These are people who, as Rowan Williams says, are 'lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful'. In Jesus, God has 'turned upside down the assumptions of the world'.  He ‘casts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek’, as Mary sings in the Magnificat.  Jesus presents us with a God who is nothing like the God of our power-corrupted imaginations.

It is perhaps during his trial that we get the clearest sense of what Jesus believed about power. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus steadfastly resists any attempt to be named as either God's Son, or the Messiah - let alone the King of Kings. He silences the demoniacs, the healed leper, and even Simon Peter when they identify him. But, there does come a point, a crucial point, where he permits himself to be revealed. During his trial, the High Priest invites the prisoner to incriminate himself: "Are you the Christ", he asks, "the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus answers with the plainest of plain words: "I am". Why then? Why at that point?

Here I turn again to Rowan Williams for help. In his book 'Christ on Trial' Williams comments that "Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, 'I am'…"  (Williams, 2000, Christ on Trial, p.7).

Jesus death on the cross has many layers of meaning, of course. But one of them that we must not miss is that by his death, Jesus unmasks the Kingdoms of this world. He demonstrates that the myth of redemptive violence – the idea that problems can be solved with weapons - is nothing but a mask for evil.  Jesus shows emperors, religious fundamentalists and dictators in their true light...bully-boys, whose ultimate achievement through violence is the death of a simple, loving man, and the nailing of God himself onto a cross.  It's as though Jesus says, "this is what happens when you live with the lie of redemptive end up squeezing God out, onto the margins, onto a hill outside the City."

But Jesus redeems even such marginalisation. There, outside the City wall, pushed away by the State, he is still at work. He still works to redeem creation. To the thief beside him he turns and promises "Today you will be with me in Paradise". It's as though having failed to persuade the State to embrace a different way, Jesus switches tactics. If the State will not bow to the love and just mercy of God, then Jesus will start from a different point...he will carry out his redemption one thief at a time, one person at a time.

And that finally is where we come in to this story. There is not much that you and I can hope to achieve in changing the State we are in. We can't hope to halt the armies of the world, as they pound each other to dust. We can't hope to shift the priorities of a world economic system which can find £100 billion dollars to bail out the banks, but which can't help those billion people in a line outside our door. But like Jesus, with the thief on the Cross, it turns out that we can do something, after all. One person at a time. One life at a time. We can love our neighbour. We can sponsor a child - just talk to World Vision. We can give the gift of food to a family using the Beacon Foodbank. We can donate to the work of this parish in supporting charities like SSAFA, Mind, and Alcoholics Anonymous.  

We can continue to live with the false myth that the state we are in can be improved through violence and coercion - what we might call the 'myth of redemptive violence', or we can wake up to the call of Christ the King of ALL kings, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether.  Amen

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Duty and Truth

 "England expects that every man will do his duty”.  So signaled Admiral Lord Nelson to the fleet at Trafalgar.  This was during the same war in which the standard of the Havant Volunteers, hanging above our heads, was raised.

But what is ‘duty’?  Duty is that obligation we owe to each other, as fellow citizens, in any community.  It is the action we perform, regardless of our personal desires.  It is an action which puts the needs of our community, or our country, above our personal wants.

As such, ‘duty’ has a rather old fashioned ring about it, to our modern ears.  We live in a society in which personal happiness and personal fulfillment has become the primary goal.  To the modern, western mind, it often doesn’t matter very much who else suffers, or who else is living in poverty, as long as I have everything I need.  As long as I am happy. As an example of this kind of thinking, here’s a quote from Grant Cordone, a self-help guru and business advisor.  He says ‘Success is your duty, obligation and responsibility’.  He is referring of course to personal success. 

But of course, the search for personal happiness, success and wealth is never a pathway to the building of a society.  Building society requires an instinct for self-sacrifice among all its members.

On Friday, incidentally on Armistice Day, we witnessed the re-taking of Kherson by the Ukrainian Army, from the presently terrorist state of Russia.  This would not have happened if Ukrainian citizens had neglected their duty.  If the Ukrainian volunteers had each decided that their personal happiness and safety was more important to them, if they had decided to flee to Europe with their families, then we would never have seen Friday’s victory come to pass.  If the Western nations had not done their duty, and stood by Ukraine by supplying them, Kherson would still be in Russian hands today.

We must remember, however, that the young men and women of the Russian army are also doing their duty, as they see it.  They have been systematically lied to, by their government.  They have been told that Ukrainians are Nazis who, with the support of the Western powers, are about to invade Mother Russia.  So they, too, fight out of duty to their country, albeit misguided.

And this is of course where duty has its limits.  For duty to be holy, righteous and purposeful, it must itself be subject to a higher authority still.  Duty must be subservient to Truth.  Any person who prepares to do their duty must first do the hard work of working out what is true about the situation they face.  We live in a post-truth world, in which propaganda, and so-called ‘fake-truth’ is harnessed for political ends or personal gain.  And it is hard, indeed, to disentangle the half-truths from the lies.  How can a Russian soldier, for example, know whether his duty is misplaced, if he does not have access to the Truth?  How, then, can anyone’s call to duty be assessed, for Truthfulness?

Jesus Christ said that he was the way, the life, and the Truth.  In other words, he taught that by following his way of life, and his teachings, we would be led by his Spirit into all Truth.  Christians, then, have a yardstick by which to judge the various truth-claims with which we are bombarded, by the political maelstrom around us.  So, whenever a truth-claim is uttered by a national leader, the Christian holds that claim up against the teaching of Christ – to discern whether or not there is a duty to be followed.

And so, the Christian asks themselves, ‘how does this truth-claim equate to the wisdom of Christ’.  Let’s say, for example, there are competing claims about immigrants ‘invading’ our shores.  How do those truth-claims stand up against the Bible’s teaching about giving hospitality to the stranger? Let’s say that there are political forces who want to reduce the income of those who rely on the State for essential support.  How does that policy stand up against the Bible’s teaching on caring for the poorest in our community?  Let’s say that there are political and economic forces who want to destroy the Amazon, or keep pumping carbon into our atmosphere.  How does that stand up against the Bible’s teaching that humankind has a duty to take care of the Earth?  Let’s imagine that a call to arms is issued to the members of 16 Regiment here today, to take up their weapons and fight against a foe.  How will that call stand up against the Bible and Christianity’s teaching about what is, or is not, a just war?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.  But in general, I observe, Western society has lost its touch-stone, its ability to discern right from wrong, because it has lost touch with the teachings of Christ.  For me to do my duty, in every circumstance of life, I need to know with clarity and truth what that duty is.  The teachings of Christ give me a lens, or perhaps a stained glass window, through which to discern what is, and what is not, my duty.

I am a Canon of Cape Coast in Ghana, West Africa.  I have seen with my own eyes the slave-trading fortresses built by the British army of yesteryear.  I’ve seen the putrid dungeons in which slaves were guarded by British soldiers, who all believed they were doing their duty.  I’ve seen the first church in Ghana, built over the entrance to those very dungeons.  I know that not every duty carried out by our own soldiers, and our own clergymen, could be described as springing from the pure Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Today, we remember, and we give thanks, for all those who have done their duty for their country before us.  But as we give thanks for the duty displayed by the fallen of the past, and we pray for the service-men and women of the present, let us also pray for the wisdom to discern among the lies and propaganda of the world where our duty lies – our duty to our community, to our nation, and to our God.  Amen.