Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

 Readings: Joel 2: 1- 2, 12-17 & John 8: 1 – 11.

Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – because of one very memorable event, which happened soon after we had moved into a new house. My Dad decided to deal with the overflowing rubbish bin via a bonfire in the garden. However, he accidentally consigned an aerosol can to the flames. Sure enough, the can exploded – sending a missile over the fence at the bottom of our garden, to land in the open kitchen door of a new neighbour.

Our neighbour, who turned out to be the headmaster of our local school, came screaming out of the house. "What on earth to you think you are doing?!" My Dad was, of course, very apologetic – but thought that this rather bossy man was over-reacting a bit. It was only an accident after all. He was then rather puzzled by the neighbour's next question: "What would have happened if a net had been there?". "Well," replied my puzzled father, "I suppose a net would have caught it!". What Dad didn't realise, was that 'Annette' was the headmaster's daughter!

Ashes were part of all our lives, not so long ago.  I guess most of us have had the experience of raking ashes out of the grate, in the days before central heating.  Ashes are just rubbish, aren't they? The product of burning something away. Just carbon. Waste, after the heat and light are gone.

So why, tonight, are we going to put this rubbish, this ash, on our heads? I want to suggest three reasons why we maintain this tradition - though I am sure there are more.

First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. Are bodies are about 50% water, and 22% carbon – which is what ash also is.  The beautiful mythological imagery of Genesis tells us that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. God is the source of our life – and the ashes we will use later on remind us of our utter dependence on him. Without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just ashes – dust: lifeless - worthless.

Secondly ashes are also a sign of repentance. As well as being a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent, turn away from our sin – which why, throughout Lent, we do not sing the Gloria, but focus instead on the Kyrie. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy".  Traditional Christians also say that we have to give up using the word ‘Alleluia’ in Lent too – so that it has all the more power and meaning on Easter Sunday.  For many of Lent will involve giving up something which we enjoy, as a personal discipline, and as a sign of our repentance.

Repentance is of course a key biblical theme. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets called people to turn away from their way of doing things, and to turn towards God's way. Sometimes, as Isaiah said, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! In Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow.  Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Is this the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Do you call this a fast - a day acceptable to God?"

Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. True repentance means becoming like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak, and the stranger. It means being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means expressing God’s love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.  It means, as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, going from here and sinning no more.

Thirdly, and finally…people in the Bible put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads?  We make the sign of the cross because it is a reminder of how we are marked for Christ.  It is in one sense a reminder of our baptism, when we were signed with the sign of the cross.  

And the cross of ashes also reminds of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Book of Revelation.  Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected – kept safe from the terrible Day of the Lord that the prophet Joel warned us about – “the day is close at hand.  A day of darkness and gloom.  A day of clouds and blackness.”  A day when the forces of evil that stalk our world will gain the power to ruin lives, full the pockets of the rich, bring war and famine and pestilence.  A day, I think you’ll find, that is not unlike the awful things happening in our world right now! 

These ashes tonight remind us that whatever comes, we are belong to Christ; he has marked us with the ever-lasting sign of Love, the mark of the cross.  We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  We need have no fear.

These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. Let me just summarise:

First, they are a symbol of our need for God, for His breath of life. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from Him.

Secondly, they are also a symbol of our repentance and mourning. We've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the wealth and comfort of the world, while our neighbours are starving. The ashes are a sign of our deliberate repentance, our turning away - from our way of being, to God's.

Finally, in the midst of our repentance, these ashes are a sign that however often we have failed to live God’s way, and whatever evil befalls the world, we are marked as Christ's own, and we belong to him.  We are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross of ash.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Was Jesus a racist?

Text: Mark 7.24–30

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


I like a good insult. I confess it. Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes, Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless, isn't it?

We all know, though, don't we, that even playful insults can easily cross the line into hurt and offence.  Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult.  And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.  The clear implication of his words is that he considers his ministry to be first and foremost for Jewish people.

  The Jews are the children.  Other nations are ‘dogs’.  What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white English people can be Christians. But when we read the Bible, we have to be very careful. Only a few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3 and 5, we find that Jesus quite happily and regularly preached his message to non-Jews, all around Tyre and Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs.

So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist.  Then, we've also got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other – Jews against Samaritans, Canaanites against Philistines.  And the Romans against everyone! So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Mark tells us that after some intense theological arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee.  And, according to Mark, he "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from the pressures of his ministry for a while...I know how that feels.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  We can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I  need to get the Jews to understand my message, before we can take it any farther". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus feels the need, strategically, to focus on the Jews first.  But was he right?  Does it mean that if he came to Britain, Jesus would have joined ‘Britain First’?

 The next line is even more troubling, potentially: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus.  And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind.  She persists - she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".  Jesus praises the woman for her faith, and he rewards her persistence by healing her daughter.

So what do we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt cold, hunger and fatigue just like we do.   For those of us who are struggling with what feels like a never-ending cost of living crisis, we can be sure that Jesus feels our tiredness, and our frustration.

And, just like us, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things a little out of balance.  The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But when strong science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a fake truth, perhaps!) we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  We know that Jesus could frequently get exhausted by his ministry.  He took frequent naps in boats just to keep going.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time.  We need to be always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another. 

Thirdly, we need to recognise that it was the woman’s faith and persistence which ultimately gained her what she sought form Jesus.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that if I keep on pleading with Jesus to give me a Rolls Royce that my persistence will pay off.  Persistence and faith need to be aligned with God’s purposes for my life, and the life of my community.

And finally, we learn that we follow a Lord who know what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of getting away from it all.  He stands with us, alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are going through.  He is with us today, just as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Amen.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Being Light in the Darkness

Text: John 1.1-14

According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".

The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".

The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"

The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."


Here, on the second Sunday before Lent, almost at the centre point of Winter, among the darkest days of the year, the Lectionary invites us once again to contemplate Light.  Just as it did last week at Candlemas.

But this time, by pointing us to St John’s Prologue, the Lectionary lays it on with a trowel.  Not content, as St Luke was last week, to merely describe Jesus as Light to the Gentiles, St John adds contrast to the picture.  He places Jesus, the wisdom and voice of God, the Word Incarnate, in direct contrast and opposition to THE DARKNESS. The Light (of Christ) shines in the darkness, he says, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These were words of hope and encouragement to the first people who received John’s Gospel.  They would have been a frightened, anxious community of early believers, hiding from Roman and Jewish authorities in private houses with the windows tightly shut, or digging out the catacombs under the streets of Rome.  They would have been whispering the hope of Jesus to one another, and recognising each other with furtive drawings of a fish in the sand of the market place. (That’s where the Christian fish-sign originated – a secret symbol between early Christians, scratched in the sand).  

The first Christians to have heard John’s Gospel, perhaps 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus, would have known what it meant to live in darkness.  They would know what it meant to be a minority who longed for the light of God’s wisdom to shine into their society.

That was their context – and it echoes with ours, does it not?  The Christian Church of today also stands in opposition to the darkness – the darkness which gathers around us today.  In recent weeks, we’ve become aware that churches all over the world are facing real financial difficulties (and dwindling followers) accelerated by the cost of living crisis.  We’ve had to confront the uncomfortable fact that Christianity is presently dying in the West.  It’s wonderful to gather together, as we do, in what feels like a large number – but never forget we are a TINY minority of the roughly 10,000 people who live in this parish.

And this should not surprise us.  The church in the West stands in complete opposition to so much that the West holds dear.  We stand against greed, and the amassing of wealth by tiny elites.  We stand against hedonism and pleasure-seeking for its own sake.  We stand against the prevailing drug culture and intemperance of excess alcohol.  We stand against consumerism, and the exploitation of workers in slavery conditions, making cheap goods and clothes for us to hoard.

These are dark times indeed.  But they are no less dark than for the church of the first century which stood against the military dictatorship of Rome, and its hedonistic system of market-led consumerism, also under-pinned by slavery.  Sometimes, the darkness feels overwhelming for us too.  It feels too high a mountain to climb.  Too deep a darkness to overcome.

Yet “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.  The message of Jesus Christ is that however desperate things feel, however deep the darkness surrounds us, it will not overwhelm us.  The Light of Christ will continue to shine.

The question then for us, we tiny few, we remnant of humanity who cling to the Light, is not so much what we stand against – for we know how dark the darkness is.  The question is, as people of Light, what we stand FOR.

We stand, in the name of Jesus Christ, for a Kingdom of LOVE.  That love, focused first on God, and then on loving our neighbours, shines out from this building and every church community like a beacon from a lighthouse.  It probes and prods at the darkness, which will never overcome it.  It offers us a completely NEW way of living.

Starting from the day when each of us knows, truly knows, that our past trespasses are forgotten and forgiven by God, we, the people of the Light, learn how to stand up for love.

·       Love which shares its wealth; it does not hoard it.

·       Love which reaches out to those in need, and offers the hand of help.

·       Love which delights in communities coming together – whether in person or online.

·       Love which frees the slaves of Eastern sweat-shops, by refusing to collude with consumerism  and by offering aid and micro-loans instead.

·       Love which offers an alternative to drug addiction and drunkenness – life in all its fullness.

·       Love which brings healing to the sinner, and balm to the sick.

·       Love which picks up the phone and bears the anguish of its neighbour.

·       Love which even has the power to overcome death – though that is a topic for Easter

So, my dear friends, when you hear that the church is in financial and numerical crisis, do not be afraid.  We’ve been in crisis before, many times…and we will be once again.  The darkness always tries to overwhelm the light of the church….but darkness, and the very gates of hell, shall not prevail against it (Mt 16.18).

For the true church is the church of Christ the Light-bringer.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!  Amen. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Reading the Bible Literally?

Text:  Acts 9 & Acts 22 & Acts 26

The Conversion of Saul - Fact or Fiction?

This story - of the conversion of St Paul - is a bit of a puzzler, isn't it? It makes us wonder why Jesus doesn't call everyone with a bright light, and a voice from heaven. I mean - when you first began to accept the notion that Jesus was worth following, were you struck down by a bright light in the middle of Waitrose? No...neither was I.

What you may not realise is that there are in fact three accounts of this story - all within the book of Acts.  And on each occasion, the facts of the story are reported slightly differently.  The first time we hear it, Luke tells the story. Then the next two times, Luke records Paul's own version of events - but each version is slightly different. (If you want to check out the different stories for yourself, then read chapters 9, 22 and 26 of Acts).

Why so many different version of the same story? I suggest that it is because we are not meant to take the story absolutely literally. Who exactly heard it the voice? What exactly did it say? Did the light flash, or shine? It is difficult to get exact answers from the three accounts. This has the feeling of a story which has changed since the original that has been embellished along with the telling, over the years.

You know what it's like. It's like a fisherman's tale of the one that got away. The fisherman isn't telling a lie, as such. There really was a big fish. There really was a struggle. But by embellishing the story, the fisherman makes it becomes a story that a whole community can enter into with their imaginations.

I tend to think that the story of Saul's conversion is a bit like that. I might be entirely wrong.  Though I would love you to tell me how the different versions of the story in Acts can all be true.  I rather prefer a more human-scale version of the story. Saul's conversion happened while he was in the middle of a journey. He had just finished persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. He had just been standing in the crowd, holding the coats of those who were stoning the first martyr, Stephen. Now he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more followers of the Way. Saul was a highly religious man, a teacher who knew his Hebrew Scriptures back to front and inside out.

So there he is...walking the 120 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. He has got a lot of time for thinking - and for musing on the horror of what he has just witnessed. Watching a man being stoned to death - just for believing something different - it must have been a sobering, thought-provoking thing to have seen. As the miles ticked by, at walking pace, perhaps Paul found himself revisiting all the Hebrew Scriptures that he knew so well in his mind. Perhaps he was searching for proof that this Jesus that the 'followers of the Way' were on about could not possibly be the Messiah, the Christ. But the more he thinks about it - the more he realises what the character of God is described in the Hebrew Scriptures...the more he comes to see that Jesus was exactly that...the Messiah, the Christ.

It is as if a light is switched on in Paul's mind. The light is not on the road - flashing or shining. The light comes on in Paul's head. Now he sees himself very someone who has just participated in the stoning of an innocent man. He begins to ask himself..."why did I persecute that man? What was I doing? The scriptures actually do point to a Messiah who will be humble, riding on a donkey - one who would be 'wounded for our transgressions'. So why am I persecuting Jesus and his followers. I've been such a fool!"

Later, when Paul tells people about his dramatic change of mind...he dresses it up a bit. He's a preacher...a communicator. He knows how to spin a good yarn. You can imagine him saying "It was amazing! It was like this light came on...this blinding light...and it was like Jesus himself was saying to me 'Saul, why are you persecuting me'"

A few more tellings...a few years a few more people...and no longer is this a story about what it was like...but now its a story of actual lights coming on...super-trooper spot-lights from heaven. No longer is it a story of Jesus speaking to Saul through his, it’s a more dramatic story of Jesus actually speaking real words.

Why am I telling you this? Why am I taking the trouble to break down the dramatic story of Saul's conversion that we all love - deconstructing it to something more ordinary...more life-like?

Quite simply because I want you to see that Saul's story can be our story too. I don't know anyone who has experienced the kind of dramatic conversion - the full-blown theophany of lights and sound and action - that the story of Saul suggests. Perhaps such people exist. Perhaps God does act in that way, from time to time, for some people. I don't discount the possibility...God can do whatever God wants.

But for most of us, God works in a much gentler way. Most of us come to a realisation, at some point on life's journey; that the essential underlying truth of God is worth pursuing. For some of us that realisation is gradual...week by week, month by month, we find ourselves caught up in the dance of God. For others it’s a more dramatic moment - like a light being switched on - when all that we've heard about God suddenly, somehow, makes sense.

And it is healthy, I believe, for us to think in these terms - and for us to talk in these terms to our families, friends and neighbours. Too many Followers of the Way go around promising their friends that if they become Christians they will see dramatic, miraculous intervention in their lives by God. I believe that God does indeed intervene...through the miracles of love, compassion, charity, hope, friendship, family, community, healing, wholeness and purpose. But he doesn't very often shine bright lights out of the sky, nor talk with an audible voice.

I suggest that the story of Saul's conversion is just that...a story - rooted in a real event - a life-transforming, paradigm-changing encounter with Truth, and with God. The exciting thing is to realise that this story, and this life-transforming event is available to all of us...every single one of us is invited to embrace the Truth, and to have our lives totally transformed by that knowledge.

May you know the power of Truth in your life.  May you encounter God again and again along the road of your own life's journey.  And may you, like Saul, become transformed by that knowledge - and like Paul, find yourself led into the fullness of life that Jesus offers to all who follow his Way. Amen

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Learning from other faiths and cultures...

Today marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we will commence by meeting with our friends from other churches at the United Reformed Church, at 1200.  So for today’s sermon, I’m going to draw heavily on the texts of the booklet of resources for the week of prayer, which has been prepared by Christians from Burkina Faso. 

Burkina Faso is in the Sahel region of West Africa, which extends into the neighbouring countries of Mali and Niger. It has 21 million inhabitants, of about 60 ethnicities. Approximately 64% of the population is Muslim, 9% adheres to traditional African religions, and 26% is Christian (20% Catholic, 6% Protestant). These three religious groups are represented in every region of the country, and in virtually every family. 

Burkina Faso is currently experiencing a serious security crisis, which affects all faith communities. After a major jihadist attack was mounted from outside the country in 2016, the security situation in Burkina Faso, and consequently its social cohesion, deteriorated dramatically. The country has endured a proliferation of terrorist attacks, lawlessness and human trafficking. This has left over 3,000 people dead and almost two million internally displaced. Thousands of schools, health centres and town halls have been closed, and much of the socio-economic and transport infrastructure has been destroyed.  Social cohesion, peace and national unity are being dramatically undermined.  Christian churches have been specifically targeted by armed attacks. Priests, pastors and catechists have been killed during worship and the fate of others who were kidnapped remains unknown. Christians can no longer openly practise their faith in many areas of the country.

The materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared by an ecumenical team from Burkina Faso. The chosen theme is “You shall love the Lord your God ... and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10:27) – which, coincidentally is mirrored by our parish strapline:  “Loving God, Serving Neighbour”.

The fact is that many of us will not have heard about the challenges being faced in Burkina Faso before encountering the material from the Week of Prayer.  That is a powerful reminder of the many neglected conflicts that continue to destroy lives and devastate communities around the world.  Sadly, many fail to capture, and fewer still manage to hold, the attention of the world’s media.  The Church is called to be an advocate for those caught in these forgotten conflicts, and to amplify the voices of those who feel, and often are, entirely forsaken.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity the Church is being challenged to stop and tend to the wounded and, in so doing, to recognise our own wounds as churches and as communities. As the General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Dr Nicola Brady, has written: ‘Facing the reality of our own brokenness helps to connect us to the suffering of others from a place of humility and deep empathy, creating a sacred space of encounter inspired by Christ’s healing love.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was chosen as the centre piece of this year’s Week of Prayer.  It is one of the best known passages of Scripture, yet one that never seems to lose its power to challenge indifference to suffering and to inspire solidarity.   It is a story about crossing boundaries that calls our attention to the bonds that unite the whole human family.   As I’m sure you know, the core of the story is that of a foreigner (to Jewish eyes) turning out to be the one person who can help the Jewish man beaten up in the road.  His own people, even his own priest, was unable to help him.  But the foreigner, the Samaritan, was able to set aside his own prejudice, and to be a good neighbour.

In choosing this passage of Scripture for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the churches of Burkina Faso have invited us to join with them in a process of self-reflection as they consider what it means to love our neighbour in the midst of a world-wide security crisis. Communities in the British-Irish context may be less vulnerable to acts of mass violence than in Burkina Faso, but there are still many living with the memory and/or the threat of serious violence, centered on issues of identity and belonging.  There are also groups within communities, including people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people seeking asylum, who feel particularly vulnerable to violence or to being displaced by the threat of violence.

Our neighbours in Burkina Faso call us to reconnect to God’s dream for us – a dream of a unity formed of ties of love and compassion. This challenges us not only to reflect on the learning from our ecumenical journey so far, but to widen our vision. What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?

In recent weeks, as you know, we’ve had the joy of getting to know a family of Christians from Pakistan.  They have been learning a lot from us – especially about how to worship in the rather traditional way we do things here at St Faith’s!  But we’ve been learning from them too.  They have helped me to see St Faith’s as others see us – especially newcomers.  We’ve also had some terrific discussions about the differences in our cultures. 

One example worth relating is a chat we had about how families function in Pakistan.  There, unlike here in England, different generations tend to live together.  Grandparents, parents, grandchildren – all living together in the same house.  Children are brought up to respect their elders.  They routinely attend church and learn to worship as their elders do.  The faith, and its traditions are thus handed down from generation to generation. All this is very different to the English practice of creating ever more novel ways of worshipping, to meet the consumerist choices of the next generation.  We also tend to separate and stratify our different age groups.  In schools, for example, we stratify children by the year of their birth.  In churches, young people routinely leave the worship of the adults, and are sent out to Sunday School.  There are, therefore, only rare opportunities, in England, for young people to grow up in the company of their elders.  Unlike Pakistan.

This is just one example of an answer to the questions posed by the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Those questions bear repeating, as I conclude:  What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?  Amen.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

It's all meaningless!

A sermon at the turn of the year - 2023/2024.  Based on the Book of Ecclesiastes.

We mark the turning of the calendar year together – here in prayer and, in a short while, in covenant to the future….to God’s future, for ourselves, and for our churches.  Others will ignore the turn of the calendar, entirely, preferring to sleep their way into the next orbit round the sun.  Still others will be partying hard, drinking their regrets away, and drunkenly singing ‘auld lang syne’.  Few will, of course, understand what that phrase, auld lang syne, actually means.  Directly translated from old Scots, it can be rendered as ‘old times since’, meaning ‘times long ago’ or times past.  It is, I suppose, a way of honouring the past as we move forward into the future.  It is a call to remember, and cherish, the good things of the past – like ‘old acquaintances’ – friendships which have sustained us on our journey; or perhaps those we have lost through the cycle of the years.

But as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes grimly reminds us, nothing actually changes in reality.  There is a time for everything under the sun, and just as the earth orbits the Sun for another year, so the time for all things will come again.  Time to sow, time to reap, time to live and time to die.  

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzling inclusion in the canon of Scripture.  But it is well worth considering at the turn of a year.  It starts with those strident lines, ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’ and the startling statement, by a biblical text, that ‘there is nothing new under the Sun’.  The translation of the Hebrew word hevel as vanity is somewhat disputed.  It literally translates as “breath” or "vapour".  Figuratively, it can be translated to mean “vain”, but also "insubstantial", "futile", or "meaningless". 

So much of Scripture has a trajectory through time.  Its grand narrative is of a Universe created from nothing, then the coming of life, the arrival of sin, then its redemption and ultimately the completion of all things in a new heaven and a new earth.  There is a direction of travel, through the pages of Scripture.  We are encouraged to hold on to the coat-tails of history as we traverse a part of that great road to the future.  But the writer of Ecclesiastes, who may have been King Solomon, has an entirely different view of history.  For him, history repeats itself.  It goes round and round.  And none of it really matters.  It’s all meaningless, futile; vanity.  He underlines his view with some really dark comments.  Like these, (from chapter 1):

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9).

“Is there a thing of which it is said ‘See, this is new’?  It has already been, in the ages before us” (verse 10)

And then, even more bleakly, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (verse 11).

Even more bleakly, the writer of Ecclesiastes notices the reality of oppression in our world.  In chapter 4, he says this:

“I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no-one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no-one to comfort them.  And I thought of the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun”!

As we look back over the awful events of the last year, especially in Ukraine, in Israel and Palestine, in the Yemen, and in many other places – we can see exactly what The Teacher means, can’t we?  He is right that power often leads to oppression.  He is right that the most fortunate person is perhaps the one not yet born – the one who has not had to witness the evil deeds that are done under the sun.  He is also right about the circularity of these things – the present wars and conflicts are but the latest examples of such battles in, quite often, the self-same lands.  The quest for power – to have it, to exercise it, to use it for one’s own benefit is at the heart of all such conflict.  It is all futile.  All vanity.  For every tyrant will die.  Every state will crumble.  Every political movement will founder on the rocks of time and reality.

So what is there for us to cling to, amid such a bleak assessment of the passing of time.  Only God.  At the very end of his book, the Teacher offers us this thought:

“[This is] the end of the matter, all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.  For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or ill”.

In the end, God. God is the author of all, the perfector of all, the judge of all.  God is the yardstick against which every human action is measured – however often that action is repeated in the cycle of history.  God may be a real, living entity, the source of all things, the ground of all being.  Or God may be an idea, an insistence upon the human condition, a constant story against which all human action can be weighed, measured and judged.  But what history demands of you and I, what the ceaseless round of orbits round the Sun teaches us, is that only that there is only one constant presence, one constant idea, one constant Word worth our attention, our commitment, our effort and our life.  It is God.  In the end, it is God.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Murdering Children - The Holy Innocents

Texts:  Deuteronomy 11: 26-28, 31-32 & Matthew 2: 13-16

In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Lectionary Scripture can feel rather perverse.  While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew describes a horrific irony of the story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem.  The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.

That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great, who wanted to defend his throne from the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings.  Tragically, Herod did not realise that Jesus had no interest in earthly thrones.  As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world.  But Herod did not know this.  Like so many men of power, he saw a potential threat, and reached out to crush it.  He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.

Suffering is one of the greatest obstacles to people who search for faith.  Stephen Fry, a committed atheist, once said that if he was wrong, and if one day he found himself in front of God, his first question would be ‘what about childhood leukaemia?’ How could a ‘good God’ permit such awful suffering? 

That question is especially sharp, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive.  Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, holy child.  I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.   

And I wonder what the parents of Palestinian and Jewish children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by conflicts of recent weeks.  I wonder what the parents of Holy Innocents of the war in Ukraine think of God.  Suffering from disease.  Suffering from wars.  Suffering from natural disasters.  Where is God in all this suffering?  If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?  

The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question some years ago, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4.  The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident.  He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering.  His response was fascinating.  He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God.  But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross.  

There’s a parallel story, about a Jew in a Nazi death camp.  The Nazi soldiers taunted him, saying ‘where is your God now?’  The old Jew pointed to a line of dead bodies, hung on gibbets, and then said:  ‘there he is’.  For the Archbishop, and for the old Jew it seems, God enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness.  He shares in our suffering.  He identifies with it.  He takes it on.  In the Christian story, he ultimately defeats it.

Is that then the purpose of suffering?  Does God allow suffering in order to use it? Is it a way of demonstrating his power over even death?  Perhaps that is part of the picture.  But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day.  We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.

But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering.  It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’.  Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents?  No.  That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that Hamas would attack Israel, and that Israel would retaliate with such overwhelming force?  No.  That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.   

It is our will, not God’s, that causes so much of the suffering in the world.  God gave humanity a simple choice at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse.  We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure.  Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves.  Why does he give us this choice?  Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him.  Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless – we’d be no more than puppets or pets if we didn’t have free will.  But the gift of free will is risky – as any parent knows.  It always carries the risk of things going horribly in the wrong direction.

The doctrine of free will is perfectly adequate to explain evils like the murder of the Holy Innocents.  Evil King Herod murdered them because he had the free will to do it.  But does the doctrine of free will it explain the suffering of disease, or of natural disasters like the Boxing Day Tsunami of 20 years ago?  I think it can – or at least it can begin to.  You see, it is not natural disasters themselves which cause suffering…it is the human response to them.  The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 killed so many people because the affected nations lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat, or the wisdom to build settlements away from the ocean’s edge.  People die in earthquakes for much the same reason.,  We now know how to build earth-quake-proof buildings.  But most nations lack the wealth and the wisdom required to do so.

Holy Innocents across the world are dying today, of disease and malnutrition, caused by their immense poverty.  That poverty is not the fault of those children or of their parents…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share the world’s resources.  What about Stephen Fry’s child with leukaemia?  The doctrine of free will says they are dying because human beings have spent their entire history fighting each other, instead of working together to find cures for common diseases.  

Natural disasters, disease and malnutrition continue to make Holy Innocents today because of the failure of human-kind to follow the call of God.  We have brought a curse upon ourselves, instead of the blessing which God offers.  If only we would learn how to love, how to share and how to act wisely!

 The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today.  It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish.  It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day.  Will we live God’s way?  Or will we choose our own?  And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do there need to be before we make up our minds?  Amen.