Thursday, March 5, 2020

Ask and you shall receive....really?

One of the great battles of medieval world, was the battle over the correct interpretation of Scripture. For centuries, the established church had kept somewhat of a lock on the Bible. Only selected texts were read, and only authorised ministers were allowed to preach. Quite often even those sermons could only be sermons which had been written by higher authorities within the church. Pre-prepared texts, if you like. Scripture itself was often read in Latin, so that it was largely beyond the comprehension of most of the population.

The problem, as the church authorities saw it, was that if you put the words of Scripture into the hands of ordinary people, they would mis-understand it. They would, for example, pick up the book of Genesis, and believe that it was a factual, historical account of creation – rather than an allegorical story.

But this wasn’t good enough for the Reformers, like Martin Luther, John Calvin and, famously William Tyndale who was the first to mass-produce Bibles in English. They argued that everyone has a right to read Scripture for himself, and, guided by the church, to arrive at a correct interpretation. The advent of the printing press made this move almost inevitable, just as the arrival of the internet in our time means that it would be impossible for the church to keep the Bible under wraps.

But this new found freedom to interpret Scripture for oneself does lead to difficulties. We have before us, this morning, one of the most frequently mis-understood texts of the Bible: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you”.

Sadly, there are churches all over the world where this text (and others like it) are taken at face value, without any scholarly context or interpretation being applied. As a result, the worshippers in such churches find themselves believing that if they want to get rich, all they have to do it pray for it. They are taught by their poorly educated leaders that if they don’t get rich, then that’s because they don’t have enough faith. So the worshippers try desperately to believe, believe, believe! Then, these false church leaders tell their congregations that in order to receive, you first have to give. Congregations are persuaded to give what little wealth they have to the church leaders…in the desperate hope that they will yet become rich.

It is a terrible, terrible con-trick…and it drives millions into abject poverty all across the world. And all because this one line of Scripture is taken, completely out of context, and used as a maxim for prayer and the religious life.

The problem is that in order to understand one portion of Scripture, we have to read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. I can certainly understand why the early church Fathers preferred to keep the Bible under lock and key. It is a dangerous text, if not read with wisdom and understanding.

For this particular verse, the biblical scholar understands that what appears to be a straight promise from Matthew’s gospel – “Ask and you will receive” needs to be read alongside other renderings of the same promise, in other gospels. (That’s why we have more than one Gospel – so that we can form a balanced and healthy view of Jesus’ life and teachings). John’s Gospel, for example, adds a very illuminating phrase to this saying of Jesus. “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you”.

In poorly educated churches, that results in the phrase ‘in the name of Jesus’ being peppered throughout their prayers. “Lord we ask for your blessing, in the name of Jesus”. The phrase is used as a sort of ‘magic word’ – “Lord, produce a bunny rabbit out of this hat…in the name of Jesus. Abracadabra!”

Names, in the Bible, are powerful things. They carry meaning of their own – well beyond the mere syllables we tend to give ourselves. Jesus’ name, in Aramaic, means ‘God Saves’. So, to ask for something in the name of Jesus means to ask for something related to God’s plan for our salvation. God will not hold back from giving us spiritual gifts and blessings that will help us along the road of faith. But if we think that praying for riches is going to miraculously deliver a Rolls Royce to our door, then we are sadly mistaken.

I rather like the saying of St Theresa of Liseaux, who said “God always gives me what I want, because I only want what God wants to give.”

St John expands on his understanding of what Jesus was saying, when he says this: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you”.

Do you see what I’m saying? For those whose wills are aligned to God’s will, prayer becomes a powerful force in the world and in our own lives. Ask for something which is not central to God’s plan for saving the world, then the answer will be “no”. But if your prayers are bent towards the will of God, seeking his face and his will for yourself and for the world, then get ready for showers of positive answers to your prayers!


Friday, February 28, 2020

Bread and Circuses - Jesus is Tempted in the desert

Matthew 4.1-11

Preparation is everything. Olympic athletes prepare for the previous four years for their big chance. Four years of early mornings, strict diets, punishing exercise routines. I guess all that is why I will never be an Olympic athlete!

Jesus believed in preparation. In fact our best estimates are that he took over 30 years to prepare for his ministry. When he was ready - he set out to be baptised. But even then, there was still preparation to do. Jesus needed to complete his preparation by opening himself to the temptations that he knew might plague him as he began his ministry. So, after being baptised, he went off for 40 days, into the desert, to be, in Luke's words, 'tempted by the devil'.

Now, first of all we need to deal with this devil, character. Personally, I'm not too fond of the idea of God, all-powerful, loving God, allowing a demonic being to run around trying to tempt us away from God's love. For me, the devil is a metaphor, for all the evil human beings are perfectly capable of doing to each other, and even to themselves.

But whether the actual devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, or whether 'the devil' was Jesus' own human instincts playing themselves out...the effect was the same.

So - what happens next?

The devil - real or imagined - begins to make some suggestions for how his ministry might play out.

"Why don’t you turn those stones into bread?"

Remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire. The Emperors were clever politicians. They understood that simple people needed just two basic things to keep them, and entertainment. Or, as the Roman expression went, “Bread and Circuses”. Places like the Coliseum in Rome put on great circuses of entertainment, and fed the crowds with free food. But Jesus had come to proclaim another kind of Kingdom….

When Jesus was challenged to turn stones into bread, we could say he was being tempted to follow the Roman way…"provide food for people, and they will follow you”.

But Jesus said no. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

We too provide 'bread' - here in church. We do it to open the doors of our hearts, to welcome our community into this building. But ultimately, we hope and pray that they will join us on the path to Life.

Jesus knew that food alone is not enough. If you feed someone, you only put off the time when they will ultimately die. But if you can change their heart, then you open up the opportunity of eternal life with God. Jesus wanted his ministry to count FOR EVER, not just until the next meal.

So, the devil tried a new tack. Effectively: "Why don’t you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you?"

Bread...and Circuses. The old Roman trick. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to do amazing miracles that would wow the crowd. I mean - I’m pretty sure that if I threw myself off the top of the tower after this service, and had some angels rescue’d all think I was pretty fantastic. Word would soon spread around the City, and then around the country, of the amazing flying Rector!

But again, Jesus knew that amazing miracles would not turn people towards God. He knew that the changes we need to make take place on the inside, not on the outside. Faith is not about asking God to do amazing feats of supernatural’s about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life...the mountain-top experiences that we thought about last week, for example...but also when the chips are down, and the going gets tough.

So Jesus rebuked his 'devil' - the darker potentials of his human nature: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

So the devil tried for the last time. He took Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world laid out before him.

"Why don’t you worship me...then I will give you all this!"

Bread, circuses...and political power. The devil was tempting Jesus to establish a kingdom of political power. To raise up an army which would conquer the world. Many people expected that this was exactly what the Messiah would do.

I don't know about you, but after a life-time of interest in politics, even working for five years in the corridors of Westminster, I find myself pretty disillusioned with the world of politics right now. It's hard to put your trust in something which can be so easily usurped by powerful people, with deep pockets, who can influence an entire nation through lies and half-truths.

Jesus wasn’t interested either. He knew that all the political power in the world would not create the circumstances that he wanted. God's way is not the way of political and military power. God’s way is the way of turning the other cheek, of forgiveness to your brother, and of carrying your brother's burden. Jesus could have taken political power. He could have raised an army to smite the Romans. But unless the hearts of the people were changed, any political solution would only be temporary.

So what was Jesus’ response? "Away from me Satan! For it is written 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!'”

In other words...what we need to do is put God first. Not bread, not circuses, not earthly power systems...God. God who made us. God who sustains us. God who has saved us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So in this period of Lent, let me invite you to take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. What is it that you trust, and base your life on? What is the most important thing in your life?

A question that Scripture constantly throws at us is...'how are you going to spend your days?'. Are you going to spend them accumulating wealth that you can't take with you, or soaking up the modern day circus of TV?

Or are you going to spend your days building community, creating relationships - caring about others, and worshipping God for whose pleasure you were made. Will it be bread and circuses and the empty promises of political power...or will it be life, to the full, through a total dedication to loving God and loving our neighbour.

The choice is ours to make.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Quinquegesima Sunday

Quinquegesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquegesima.

That’s the ancient Latin name given to this Sunday, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What does it mean?  

It ought to mean something really exotic, didn’t it? You know, something like “the Feast of St Quinque, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.

‘Friad not.

It just means ‘fiftieth’. Today marks the fact that in 50 days from now, we will celebrate the rising of Christ from the tomb at Easter.

But hang on. Some of you are doing the math, and thinking to yourselves ‘that can’t be right! If Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and its 40 days long, how can today be 50 days from Easter?

That’s because many of us forget that the 40 days of Lent do not include the seven Sundays of Lent. Sundays are days of celebration – each one a mini-Easter, during which the triumph of Christ over the grave is remembered and praised. They are also days of relief from the strictures of Lent. So for those of us who face the prospect of 40 days of abstinence with dread, the church kindly provides us with one day in seven when we are permitted to eat chocolate, or drink that glass of beer!

More importantly than any ecclesiastical numbering system, today’s focus is really on the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading of this morning reminded us of how Jesus met on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – The Lawgiver and the ultimate Prophet (before Jesus himself). They strengthened him and encouraged him for the journey ahead…the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

This evening’s readings pick up the same theme. The first reading came from one of the apocryphal books of the Protestant Canon….not part of the Canon of Scripture, but an ancient reading which still has something to teach us.

Ecclesiasticus is another juicy word to get our tongues around. It actually means ‘church book’ – because it is a text which was readily available to early Christians, and so it was often read in services. Its proper name is ‘the Wisdom of Sirach’ – or even more fully, ‘the Wisdom of Joshua, son of Sirach’. It was written around 200 years before the coming of Christ, and, as such, is one of the latest pre-Christian books that we have.

Sirach’s wisdom was a very personal thing. One the one hand, he advocated the use of physicians to heal the sick – demonstrating that 200 years before Jesus, the notion that sickness was a punishment for sin was beginning to lose its force. That, of course, was something that Jesus himself would go on to teach.

On the other hand, Sirach was certainly a man of his time. He advocates the use of harsh punishment to control both slaves and women! Which is one of the reasons why the Protestant church has never recognised his writings as canonical.

Nevertheless, Sirach was well known to the people of Jesus’ time, and the passage that we heard just now was one that had particular relevance. In it, Sirach praises Elijah for being the great prophet that he was, and also, intriguingly, promises that Elijah will return to ‘calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury’.

This one line, from a dubious and idiosyncratic writer, had huge intellectual force in its time…and it still resonates today. It is why the people of Jesus’ time kept asking whether he, or John the Baptist, were Elijah. It was somewhat of an obsession of theirs, because the Book of Sirach was so well known to them. Which just goes to show that if you repeat even a stupid idea enough times, people will begin to believe it – as we have seen in the recent politics of our own time.

The idea that Elijah would return to ‘calm the wrath of God’ is one of the main foundations of the idea that Jesus died to save us from an angry God. Which, again, I want to suggest to you is an idea that needs serious examination.

God might well be angry with humanity. In our second reading, which takes place immediately after Jesus comes down from the mountain, there is certainly a lot of frustration building up in him! “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”

And then, when the disciples report that they couldn’t cast out a troublesome demon, Jesus thoroughly excoriates them for their lack of faith. “If you just had a little faith!” he says, in exasperation. “A tiny little bit of faith…as tiny as a mustard seed, then you could move mountains!”

Yes, God certainly is capable of wrath towards his faithless and perverse generation. But, to then make the leap of saying that Jesus had to die to somehow appease that wrath seems, to me, to load the meaning of the crucifixion with too much weight.

After all, we teach and believe that Jesus is God. There’s a certain weakness of logic in suggesting that God had to die in order to appease God’s own wrath. Isn’t there?

I rather prefer the theology of the 10th century office hymn which we just heard in the setting by Thomas Tallis. ‘O nata lux’ is a hymn of praise to Jesus, the ‘nata lux’ – he who was born of light, recalling the opening of John’s Gospel. ‘God of God. Light of Light.’

But the hymn then goes on to contemplate the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and of course, that must include his death. For the unknown writer of the hymn, Jesus is the God who deigned to be hidden in flesh…the God who gives up his divinity, to become one of us, and to die as we might die. Why? The entire purpose of Jesus’ incarnation is summed up in the final line of the hymn: Jesus came to rescue the lost, and to join us in one body.

That – for me – is a far more compelling notion than the notion of a wrathful God whose anger can only be appeased by his own death. Instead, Jesus comes to us, perhaps out of frustration that we have failed to listen to Moses and Elijah, perhaps frustrated that we have not even the faith of a mustard seed, and he reaches out to us. He reaches out, and draws us in. He rescues us from our own blindness and stupidity, and draws us into union with himself. By sharing in our humanity, he dies our death. By sharing with us his divinity, he transcends death and draws us into his own body.

‘Listen,’ says St Paul, ecstatically absorbing the glorious truth, ‘I will tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ Like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, we too will be changed and given glorious new existence in the kingdom of our father.

And all because of the event we will celebrate together, just a quinquegesima from now!


Transfiguration - From the mountain-top

From the Mountain Top

Matthew 17.1-9 - The Mount of Transfiguration

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?  You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember?  I've had a few.  I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me.  I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember.  And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks.

Weddings are mountain-top experiences.  For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day.  Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the's all vitally important.  And then, at the wedding I well find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences.  Your senses are in over-drive - sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are at peak efficiency.  You become determined to drink in every moment.

But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made.  New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet!  And new husbands discover that their beautiful new wife now wants to change them, stop them drinking and introduce them to couscous!  Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.

Our Gospel story today is of just one such mountain-top experience.  It’s called ‘the story of the Transfiguration’.  The disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus.  There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them.  And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"

The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses.  They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever.  But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again.  Discipleship involves following, and going on.

Today, we have heard Matthews’s account of the ‘Transfiguration’.  Scholars believe that it is based on Mark’s account - because they are remarkably similar, and Mark is believed to be the earliest gospel.  Mark places this story in a pivotal is dead centre at the middle of his 16 chapters.  Before the Transfiguration, Mark deals with Jesus’ ministry around Galilee - his teachings and his miracles.  Then comes the mount-top experience of the Transfiguration - Elijah, Moses and even the voice of God meeting with Jesus - strengthening him for what is to come.  Then, in Mark’s narrative, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem...towards challenge, torture, death and ultimately, resurrection.

Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith.  Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences.  Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.

But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following-on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced.  You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.

My hope is that our Sunday services are mini-mountain-top experiences.  They are a moment in the week when we experience God together, and through each other.  They are a moment in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.

But we have to come down the mountain.  We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us.  We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them.  Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.

One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian" – usually from someone who is asking for baptism for their child, or to arrange a wedding - or sometimes from church members who haven’t been for weeks.

Of course you don't have to go to church to be a Christian...but it helps!  It’s a bit like learning to play in an orchestra.  You might be the most talented musician, who can play every scale and arpeggio at break-neck speed.  But, each musician only has one line of music to play.  It’s only when you play in the orchestra that you see how your one line of music fits with all the others - to create the symphony.  Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we receive, together, the same spiritual food for the journey.

But it’s never about the’s always about the journey.  It should never be about the Sunday should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours.  Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.  Just as Jesus left the mountain and then set his face towards Jerusalem, healing and teaching along the way, so we too are called from this mountain top out into the world.

As we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

A Sermon on the Eve of Brexit

1 Peter 1 & 'Blessed be the God and Father' by S S Wesley

I’m going to let you into a little secret.  Our Musical Director, Graham, confessed on Friday evening, that he doesn’t like this evening’s anthem, very much!  (Graham’s only been with us for a few months, so he hasn’t yet learned the cardinal rule that anything said within the earshot of the Rector might get repeated in a sermon!)

But, despite his personal antipathy towards the anthem, Graham chose it for tonight because it is a setting of some of the words of our second reading.  I think I know why Graham doesn’t like it much – it is after all a rather strange mishmash of tempos and tunes.  There are strange passages of recitative, which don’t sit well on the ear – and which are tricky to conduct. 

As I’m sure Graham already know, the whole anthem actually has a rather interesting history.  It was composed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, father of John, when he was organist at Hereford Cathedral.  On Easter Day 1853, the Cathedral Choir could only field a rank of trebles, and a single Bass – who was the Dean of the Cathedral’s butler.  Which goes to show that the myth of packed Cathedral Choirs and pews is exactly that…a grand myth.  Churches have always struggled to fill all the available pews.  We, who spend our time singing praise to God have always been a faithful remnant of our communities.

So, in 1853, confronted with just the sort of challenges we face, Wesley had to come up with something dramatic, which would make the best of the resources he had available.  And so Blessed be the God and Father was born.

We don’t know why he was attracted to this particular, rather obscure and theological passage of the first letter of Peter.  Perhaps it was a set reading for the day on Easter Day 1853 – I haven’t researched the ancient lectionaries.  But the words he chose from Peter’s letter are only partly co-terminus with the reading we’ve just had.  Wesley actually chose sections of text from tonight’s reading and from later verses in the same chapter.  He welded them together, to focus on a number of primary messages – some of which just happen to work rather well for the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!

There is not the time to focus on the totality of theology contained in these verses.  Frankly, a sermon could be preached on every phrase.  Peter no doubt had a meta-narrative in his mind – which flavours what is an almost incomprehensibly dense theological statement.  Here’s what I think he was mainly trying to say…

First, he gives praise to God – literally, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  He praises him because, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has offered us a ‘real and lively hope’ of our own salvation.  This is the good news that Peter is anxious to communicate to his readers – the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. 

That is, of course, a message which is common to all Christians.  We will disagree on the exact mechanism by which Jesus offers us salvation.  For orthodox and evangelical Christians, it is faith Jesus’ death on the cross, and his taking the penalty of sin, which will be uppermost.  For more liberally-minded Christians, the focus is likely to be more on following the life of Jesus, and making it real today.  But from whichever side of the theological divide we come, we can all agree that Jesus is the focus and centre of our hope of salvation.  It is because of Jesus, that we have “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for” us “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”.

But, Peter goes on, this hope should have consequences for the way we live.  Jumping to verse 15 of Peter’s text, Wesley reminds us that “he who has called you is holy.  So be YE also holy, in all mannner of conversation”.    For Peter, words have power, and holy words even more so.  He encourages all followers of Jesus to be holy in the way we speak.  Such advice might have been well heeded during the centuries of hatred and division between Christians.  Perhaps if phrases like ‘Popish Scum’ or ‘Protestant Heretics’ had not been so liberally banded about during those years, the Church might have been far better able to draw in the communities it was called to serve.  Perhaps the choir of Hereford Cathedral, in 1853, might not have been reduced to a few trebles and a lone bass.

Peter then expands on his theme.  Not only should our conversation be holy, but we are called to ‘Love another with a pure heart, fervently’.   It is perhaps Love, more than anything, which has been missing in the cut and thrust of theological debate over the centuries.  This morning, I preached on the human obsession with ‘being correct’ – it’s a sermon you can read on our parish website if you are minded to do so.  We have fought with each other over the correct way to worship, the correct time of life to baptise, the correct organisational structure of the church, the correct attitudes to marriage and human sexuality.  And in all these debates, time and time again, we have forgotten the primary imperative – ‘to love one another with a pure heart, fervently’. 

For if I truly love you, I will not insult you, beat you, or even burn you at the stake just because you have a different understanding of what correct theology looks like.  If I truly love you, I will listen to what you say, and thoughtfully consider whether there is merit in your words and in your understanding.  If I still profoundly disagree with you, but still love you, I will seek to maintain the bond of love.  I will continue to be your brother, and to walk with you along the road of faith.

Because I will understand that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away”.  We are, each of us, fragile, failing, growing, withering, temporary, provisional, creatures.  In all humility, none of us can claim to know the true mind of God.  All our theological learning and arguing has only scratched the very outer surface of the reality which is God.  God is infinite.  I am very finite.  God is the author of all being.  I am but one being.  What else can we do, but love one another, fervently, and give blessing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Living “Word of the Lord who endureth for ever”?

Whether this sermon has engendered any new appreciation for this evening’s anthem in our Director of Music, I shall wait eagerly to find out.  In the meantime, let me leave you with this passing thought.  This week, the United Kingdom will exit the European Union – or at least cross over the starting line of the process.  That will be a subject of great rejoicing for some, and of profound sorrow for others.  We have all tried to grapple, with different levels of interest and attention, with the Brexit debate.  We have perhaps all made the mistake of assuming that our position was the correct position to hold.  The reality is that Brexit is a finely balanced political judgment, involving questions of economics, immigration, national resources and political alliances which few of us are truly able to grasp.  The Brexit question, like God, is very big.  And, for myself, I can only say that my brain is very small.

Into this situation, I believe that Peter can speak even more powerfully.  As we move forward into a pre-post-Brexit era, let us continue to love one another, with a pure heart, fervently. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

Arguments Factions and Fighting - Sermon for Christian Unity

Texts:  1 Cor 1.10-18 & Matt 4.12-23.  Epiphany 3.

Arguments, factions and fighting.  Sadly, these have been features of the life of the church, even from the earliest days.  In this morning’s reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear Paul addressing such arguments, factions and fighting head on.

He certainly wastes no time getting to the point.  His entire letter contains some of the most beautiful, poetic Scripture ever written, especially his famous hymn to Love in chapter 13.  But most of this beauty is a response to the reality on the ground…the reality that the Christians in Corinth were at each other’s throats.

What is it that drives such factionalism?  What is about a people who know that they have seen a great light, and who have heard Jesus’ call of ‘Follow me’, who nevertheless feel the need to argue with each other, so passionately, about matters of faith? 

It was certainly the case for the early church.  The first great debate centred around circumcision, and whether or not non-Jewish Christians should be subject to the same rules as Jewish ones.  Intriguingly, St Paul and St Peter found themselves on opposite sides of that debate, until Peter received his famous dream.

Other debates throughout the centuries have centred on the correct ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or on the correct time of life to administer baptism, or the correct way to govern the church.  More recently, the church has been grappling with correct approaches to the question of marriage and same-sex relationships.  In the Roman church, the question of the correctness of a celibate priesthood has once more raised its head.

The key word in all these debates, past and present, is the word ‘correct’.   Human beings seem to have an inbuilt desire to be told what to believe, or how to behave.  We want to know where the dividing line is, between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’.  It is inherent in us. 

Much of this is rooted in our childhood.  As St Paul ruminates in the letter to the Corinthians, ‘when I was a child, I behaved like a child, I thought like a child’.  One of the characteristics of childhood is that we have not yet learned right from wrong.  We need to be taught the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ behaviour.   And so we adopt a mind-set which is dependent on external authority – we become dependent on others to tell us how to behave; on our parents, or our church, or our Government, or our teachers.

But the world into which we are born is so confusing.  Just when we think we’ve got a handle on what kind of behaviour or attitudes are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, the world will throw us an example of exactly the opposite view.  So, for example, we are taught that ‘stealing is wrong’…but it’s ok for a starving man to steal an apple, or for an international company to steal the resources of a poor country.  For, certainly, no-one does anything to stop them.

Or we are taught that coveting is wrong…but its ok for us to desire all the wonderful clothes, gadgets, kitchen cabinets and cars which are paraded before us on the television.

Or we are taught that murder is wrong…but its ok for airplanes and drones to drop bombs from the sky, regardless of collateral damage to innocent women and children.

You see, all morality is contextual.  It’s easy to create a moral rule in one’s own context.  But whether that rule turns out to be universal depends entirely on the context of everyone else.  Help me!  What am I supposed to do?

Confronted with this hard reality of life, many religious people turn to the Bible in the hope that it can provide some certainty…some direct-from-God instructions about what is correct and incorrect.  But, sadly, we find that the Bible itself is full of contradictory positions on a whole range of moral topics.  The 10 Commandments condemn murder, theft and covetousness, but this does not seem to have been a problem for Joshua as he led the people of Israel on a murderous rampage through the land of Canaan, stealing the very land from under the feet of the Canaanites. 

The 10 commandments teach that adultery is wrong, but when King David effectively murders a man so that he can possess his gorgeous wife, he receives little more than a divine slap on the wrist.

And so, the child within us, who longs for simple rules and guidance, feels itself confused and at sea.  We reach out for religious leaders who sound authoritative.  We hold onto those leaders who can quote reams of Scripture to support their own hypothesis about what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.  We end up following those leaders, like children after the pied piper, because they seem to know the way - often because we ourselves have not bothered to read the Bible for ourselves. 

Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Pope, the Prophet Mohammed, John Wesley, Joseph Smith of the Mormons, George Fox of the Quakers, Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s witnesses, Billy Graham, or any number of world-wide evangelists and teachers who claim that they have received a unique insight from God.  They know what is correct or incorrect.  And so we will follow them.  Like children.  Even though they lead us into direct opposition with brothers and sisters from other parts of the church.  Exactly as St Paul found was happening with the followers of Apollos, Cephas and himself.

Into this confusion, Jesus speaks to the child inside of all of us and says ‘Follow me’. 

To follow Jesus means to follow his Way.  It means living as he lived, and taking our cues about what is correct or incorrect behaviour from him.  Here is the leader who would not condemn the woman caught in adultery, the one who promised paradise to a thief on a cross.  Here is the leader who welcomed the stranger, and ate with the outcasts.  Here is the leader who offered healing and forgiveness to all.  Here is the leader who steadfastly refused to argue the finer points of theology, but who instead spoke in ambiguous parable.  Here is a leader who poured himself out for the benefit of others, living simply with only the basics of life.

St Paul said that when he became a man, he put away childish things.  For him, that included the assumption that he could be an arbiter of correctness, with the right of stoning to death all those who opposed him.  Instead, he became an evangelist of grace, truly grasping that rules, rights and wrongs were childish and contentious matters.  All that mattered for him, as a grown up follower of Christ, was God’s grace – which was sufficient for him.  As he said in this morning’s reading, he stopped using eloquent wisdom, and spoke only of the Cross, the ultimate symbol of God’s grace.

Here, then, is our example.  Here is our path to take.  In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, we who follow Jesus are not invited to proclaim and pronounce on rights and wrongs.  We are simply called to proclaim the good news of a graceful God…who loves us, and saves us, even when we are in the wrong.


Sunday, January 12, 2020

Pilgrimages, Baptisms and Becket

A Sermon for the Launch of 'Becket 2020' - a year of focus on Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1170).  Preached at the Cathedral Church of Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, Portmsouth, U.K. on 12th January 2020

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The calendar has turned over, once again.  Another year gone, and another comes into view. 

I hope you notice that I refer to a year, not a decade. Because I am among those pedants who insist that the new decade does not begin until 2021!  (I was expecting an appreciative round of applause at that statement….oh well!)

The earth has travelled around the sun 849 times since the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, our patron saint at this Cathedral.  At the end of this year, we will mark the 850th anniversary.  It sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?  That is until you break it down into average lifetimes.  Assuming 50 years for an average of medieval and modern lifetimes, only 17 generations have come and gone since those days…days when a conflict over power and authority between state and church could lead to the brutal murder of an Archbishop of Canterbury. 

It feels like a long time, because of our short lives.  But in the measure of eternity, it’s a blink in the eye of God.  As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us in tonight’s reading, the heavens themselves are the work of God’s hands, but they will perish while God remains.  He will roll them up like a cloak.

To those with an eye for history, the conflict of Becket’s time has many resonances with our own.  The people of that time are not so different to us, and their politics feel familiar.  The King of those days, Henry II, sought to take power back to England from the European super-state which was the Catholic Church.  The King’s vision was largely unfulfilled until Henry VIII wrestled those powers away from Europe in his own version of Brexit. 

It is fascinating, and tragic, to see history replaying itself in our times.  The tragic murder of Jo Cox by a fanatical supporter of disengagement from Europe has particular resonances with the murder of Thomas Becket.  No-one officially asked Jo Cox’s murderer to slay her, and historians agree King Henry did not officially sanction Becket’s murder.  The oft-quoted phrase ‘who will rid me of this troublesome priest’ is believed to be a later re-framing of the tale.  But fanatics, on all sides, will often be prompted into extreme action by careless words like ‘traitor’ and ‘troublemaker’. 

For us, in this Cathedral and Diocese, another ancient parallel with Becket’s time will emerge in the coming months – and that parallel is the theme of pilgrimage.  As we journey towards the 850th anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom on the 29th of December, we will be encouraged to ponder our own journeys and pilgrimages. 

Our spiritual journeys usually begin with our baptisms.  On this day of the Baptism of Christ, we are encouraged to reflect on the beginnings of our own journeys. Thomas Becket’s baptism was significant, because it took place, according to tradition, on the same day that he was born – either because he was sickly, or because his parents weren’t taking any chances over medieval infant mortality rates.  Thomas is, of course, my namesake, and its rather a nice co-incidence to find that, like him, I was also baptised immediately after my birth – because I too was a sickly child.  So it is rather fun for me to share with Becket the notion that the commencement of our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages coincided rather nicely at our births. 

His parents could not have guessed on that December day in Cheapside, London, that Becket’s journey would see him become first a friend, and then an enemy of the King of England – and then a focus for the devotion of millions.  In our first reading of tonight, the people of Israel could not have known what awaited them on the other side of the river Jordon as they went through the metaphorical baptism of crossing its waters. None of us can know where our pilgrimages will lead…that’s in the nature of what it means to be human.  Like Becket and his parents, all we can do is pray for God’s grace to lead us onwards.

We know, of course, that pilgrimage to holy shrines was a massive part of medieval life.  After Becket’s martyrdom, his grave elevated Canterbury to enormous prestige as a focus for pilgrimage – second only to Rome, for a time. But travelling from London to Canterbury – as Chaucer did – was not the only way. 

But many do not realise that there was another route too….from Southampton to Canterbury.  It was only recently re-discovered, on a medieval map of England, from 1360, called the Gough Map.  Happily for me, as Rector of Havant, we discover that ‘The Old Way’ as it is now called, followed a line from Southampton right through Southwick, Havant, Emsworth and Chichester. 

It is said that when Henry II felt the political-need to do public penance for the death of Thomas Becket, he rode on pilgrimage from Southampton to Canterbury - right past the door of St Faith’s Church in Havant – possibly even stopping to pray within our hallowed walls!

Sadly, I have to tell you, according to the Gough Map, Portsmouth was bypassed by pilgrims in those days.  Instead, they either stayed in Havant (where there is some local evidence of a monastery once existing) or in Southwick.  But, like many who have gone that way since, I’m sure they enjoyed the view of Portsmouth from the top of the hill!  Unfortunately, I don’t think they had our modern day access to the refreshment provided by Mick’s Monster Burger stand.

Happily, The Old Way is now in the process of being revived as a Pilgrimage Route by The British Pilgrimages Trust.  As a Diocese, we are currently giving thought to how we can add value to this route, and to the experience of pilgrims who will walk it, passing through our Diocese.  If you want to know more, then Canon Jo and Dr Ruth Tuschling are taking the lead on this project.

Journeys and pilgrimages are, of course, integral to Christian and Jewish stories.  Such journeys include the culmination of 40 years in the wilderness, as we heard from the book of Joshua just now. Such journeys certainly include the East to West perambulations of the Magi, and the flight into Eqypt of Jesus. 

Each of these journeys, and many more, invite us to consider our own unique journeys too.   Any journey worth its salt includes obstacles along the way.  For the Israelites, it was the Jordan river – waters which God held back for them for a second time.  For the Magi, the obstacle was a politician – Herod.  For Henry II and the Old Way pilgrims, it was Portsdown Hill!  And our spiritual journeys are always strewn with obstacles too.

What are the obstacles which stand in the way of our own forward momentum?  Perhaps they are bad habits we need to shed.  Perhaps there are broken relationships which cry out for healing.  Perhaps there are attitudes or ignorances we need to confront.  Each of us has such obstacles before us, and each of us, this year, will be invited to step up to them, confront them, and move beyond them.

Thomas Becket’s own pilgrimage came to an abrupt and untidy end in the midst of a conflict over power.  But even his death was transformed by God into the penitential pilgrimage of a King, along the Old Way.  Becket’s death sparked a religious revival in Medieval England, the likes of which we have rarely seen.

You see, that’s what God does.  God takes the worst that humanity can do, like enslaving a nation, murdering an Archbishop, or nailing his Son to a cross.  God then transforms it, and reshapes it, into something life-giving, and something which pushes us onward, ever forward, on our own life’s journey.