Sunday, March 27, 2022

Mary shows us the feminine God

 A sermon for Mothering Sunday

Texts:  Exodus 2.1-10, Colossians 3.12-17, John 19.25b-27

I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  This no doubt stems from my low-church upbringing.  I was never really taught about the importance of Mary in the story of Jesus.  The veneration of Mary was something which the Roman Catholics, down the road, did.  It was slightly odd, and a little bit ‘suspect’.  It was something which marked them from us. And so, in my early, formational years, Mary was treated as little more than the human incubator for the Son of God.

The extent to which Mary should, or should not, be venerated is a theme of church debates throughout the centuries.  Those who think that such veneration has got out of hand, at times, point to the Qu’ran, (specifically 5.116).  There’s a moment when the prophet Mohammed clearly thought that Christians were not just venerating Mary, but worshipping her, as if she were an equal member of the Trinity.  In fact, in Mohammed’s understanding of what he observed among Christians, the Holy Spirit hardly got a mention!  The Qu’ran was written around the turn of the 7th Century after Jesus – so clearly, Christians of that time were giving Mary a lot of attention.

Questions about the emphasis we should place on Mary have clearly been a feature of our history, here at St Faith’s.  Last week, in preparation for a school assembly, I carried out a bit of a survey of images of Mary in our building.  I walked around the church with a camera, describing for the children all the different ways that Mary is represented in our pictures, statues and windows.

For example, there is the Mother’s Union Banner, the icon in the prayer area, and then the gorgeous statue in the Lady Chapel.  There are stained glass windows of Mary as the queen of heaven (in the South Aisle) and appearing to St Bernadette at Lourdes (in the South-West window).  There are images of Mary at the Nativity (South Transept) and an image of today’s Gospel reading in the great East Window.  Mary, and John are shown standing at the foot of the cross.  I haven’t done an actual tally, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there might be are more images of Mary in our church than there are of Jesus!  Only the Stations of the Cross really redress the balance, in terms of a tally, and they are a relatively recent addition to the church.

After Easter, Bishop John will once again lead our Walsingham Cell of our Lady of Faith on a pilgrimage to ‘England’s Nazareth’.  Our pilgrims will venerate Mary, and ask for her prayers to God, in the greatest English Shrine to her.  After missing the occasion for the last two years, due to Covid, I’m sure it will be a very meaningful encounter for everyone who goes.

As an amateur historian and practicing theologian, all this interest in Mary intrigues me.  Why has there been such an interest in her, over the centuries?  After all, her contribution, through Scripture, to theology is relatively small.  We only have her selfless willingness to bear Jesus, and her glorious hymn of liberation, called the Magnificat.  Both of these are wonderful and inspiring moments, but essentially, they only echo much more developed theologies of service, and of the Kingdom, in the rest of Scripture. 

Her wider story is, of course, inspiring to us.  A peasant woman, willing to give her all to God, succeeds in bringing God himself into our world.  She raises the child, and then stands with him throughout his ministry, his death, and his resurrection.  She is devoted to Jesus, through thick and thin, never straying from his side, either when the crowds are shouting Hosanna, or when they shout ‘Crucify Him’.  Her story is one of devotion, and steadfast faith, and serves to encourage us all to do the same.

But, arguably, other Bible characters had similar levels of devotion. Some devotions were even greater – leading them, for example, to persecution and imprisonment, torture and death. By tradition, Mary (on the other hand) was carried bodily into heaven, never having tasted death herself.  So why does Mary intrigue us so much?

My gut tells me that Mary fascinates us because of her gender.  In a patriarchal world, in which men make all the decisions, Mary makes her decision (to say yes to God).  In a Bible-world of kings, conquests, geo-politics and apocalypses, Mary offers us a vision of faith in the domestic setting.  Through her story, we glimpse the intimate realities of God in the home environment – growing up in the bosom of a loving family.  Through the eyes of God’s ‘hand-maiden’, we glimpse the reality that God isn’t just interested in who wields power in our world, but also how power is exercised in our homes, and in our families.

Mary offers us a narrative of Motherhood, which stands in contrast to the traditional notions of Fatherhood – which all too often is about issues of power and control.  Although we know that God made both men and women in God’s image, Mary reminds us of the feminine aspects of God.  She gives us permission to apply the adverb ‘she’ to God, as much as ‘he’.  What do I mean?

Well, this: if we only conceive of God in male terms, then we will expect God to act as males tend to act.  We will expect God to control the situation we are praying about.  We will expect God to intervene, and to ‘sort it out’.  When we pray about conflicts in the world (like the one in Ukraine at the moment), we will expect God to step into the battlefield, like a Head teacher into a playground scrap – to separate the warring parties, and give them detention!  But Mary, in reminding us of God’s feminine characteristics, will show us a God who sometimes stands back from her squabbling children, so that they might learn and grow through the squabble, always ready to both comfort and to teach.  The feminine God isn’t focussed on control, or domination, but rather in the growth of her children.  She wants her children to become all that they are capable of becoming – like the stereotypical mother of some cultures who pushes her child to become a Doctor.  And she knows that a lesson lived is more likely to be learned than a lesson taught.

It is this feminine aspect of God, reflected in humanity, which emerges in the other readings that are set for today.  In the first reading, from the Book of Exodus, the Mother of Moses uses her cunning and guile to protect her new-born son.  She doesn’t gain custody of him through violence or coercion, but out of love, and compassion, and sheer motherly determination.  In the second reading, from the letter to the Colossians, St Paul teaches that Christians must treat one another with the kinds of qualities we associate with the feminine:  compassion, love, humility, peace, forgiveness.  What a remarkable transformation this is, from the Saul who originally sought to control people through violence, persecution and murder!

So on this Mothering Sunday, let us give thanks for all those, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, who ignite in us the feminine aspects of God.  Let us pray for those who are rightly repelling the violent Russian invaders in Ukraine, but also for those who are mothering the refugees who are fleeing the fighting.  Their efforts, to bring food, medicine, clothing and shelter are no less heroic, no less important.  And they, like Mary, remind us all of the feminine aspects of God, who creates, supplies and cares for all God’s children.  Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2022

A sermon for St Patrick's Day

(St Patrick's Day is 17 March.  He is believed to have died on that day in the year 461 C.E.)

As with so many ancient saints, it is difficult to get to the actual truth about Patrick.  One thing we can say, with some certainty, is that he was not born an Irishman.  All the ancient writings about him agree that he was a Roman-Briton born in about the year 390 of Christian parents in the latter years of the Roman Empire in Britain. The exact place of his birth has never been identified. Claims from places in West Britain as far apart as Dumbarton and Cornwall have been made; but present day opinion favours the neighbourhood of Carlisle.

It is said that he was captured by Irish raiders when he was sixteen years old and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years of caring for animals, he escaped and seems to have gone to continental Europe. He eventually found his way back to his own family, where his nominal Christian faith grew and matured. He returned to Gaul and was there trained as a priest and much influenced by the form of monasticism evolving under Martin of Tours. When he was in his early forties, he returned to Ireland as a bishop, ministering first at Saul near Downpatrick, and later making his base at Armagh, which became the centre of his See. He evangelized the people of the land by walking all over the island, gently bringing men and women to a knowledge of Christ.  Although he faced fierce opposition and possible persecution, he continued his missionary journeys.

Patrick left two pieces of writing which are accepted as genuine, his Confession and a Letter to Coroticus. These are of immense value as they reveal Patrick the man, humble and aware that all he achieved was by the grace of Christ. Irish Christians today, of all traditions, equally identify with this holy man and draw inspiration from his life and writings.

There are many legends of Patrick – but the most famous are probably the two about the snakes and the shamrock.  For the legend of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, a degree of scepticism is probably in order.  According to natural historians and fossil hunters, Ireland had been devoid of snakes ever since the last ice-age, 10,000 years ago.  Certainly, no fossils of snakes since the ice retreated have ever been found.  Like many such legends, the power of the story is encompassed in its myth.  The snake has always been seen as a symbol of evil, ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Patrick certainly succeeded in pushing pagan worship from Ireland in his time, and many would have regarded paganism as evil, in those days.  Perhaps the chasing of snakes from Ireland was always intended as a metaphor for Patrick chasing the dark forces of paganism.

As for the shamrock – that is rather a more believable story.  It is said that Patrick was trying to explain the dogma of the Trinity, during his evangelistic tour of Ireland.  He seized upon the shamrock, with its single leaf with three ‘bumps’ as a useful way of illustrating how one God could exist simultaneously in three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There’s no reason to be sceptical of such a story.  It’s what good evangelists do: they use what is around them to draw their listeners into the life of faith.  Jesus talked about boats, and fishing for men, and Samaritans, and sowing seeds – because those images meant something to the people of his day.  Patrick used the shamrock, because it was a familiar plant to all the Irish.

Traditionally, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland.  But, recent scholarship has uncovered documents which refute that claim.  At the time of Patrick’s arrival, there were already a small number of Churches in the land.  But Patrick’s extraordinary mission certainly fanned the flames of that early faith – and he is responsible, without doubt, for the spread of Christianity all over Ireland.

By the way, the obligatory drinking of Guinness on St Patrick’s day has no historical, legendary, or even metaphorical link!  That’s just a clever marketing ploy!

So what might St Patrick have to teach us?  He’s undoubtedly one of the great Saints of the so-called British Isles.  Well, I think there a few strands worth pulling out from his story…

First, Patrick appears to be someone who didn’t let nationality get in the way of his ministry.  Born a Roman-Britain, travelling extensively in Europe, and then adopting Ireland as his home, Patrick didn’t let national borders stop him telling the good news.

He was fearless in his proclamation of God’s love, even to the warlike, pagan, Irish tribes.  When you or I feel fearful of letting our friends know that we go to church, let alone that God loves them, perhaps we could all do with a little of Patrick’s courage?

His use of the shamrock was inspired.  It was a great example of using something culturally relevant to engage people with the reality of God.  Whilst I love our ancient traditions here at St Faith’s, and I especially love the ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer, we must never forget that our communication of God’s love needs to be culturally relevant too, especially if modern people are to hear the good news. 

And finally, there’s this.  According to our best scholars, Patrick arrived in Ireland at a time when Christianity was weak, and small.  Only a tiny proportion of the population were Christians.  It sounds rather like our own times, when you think about it.  Only around 2% of the population can be found in English churches on a Sunday – which is quite startling, especially to those of us for whom our entire lives are centred around the church.  Patrick saw that the need for God was very real, and very present, in the society he went to serve.  We too need to grasp the importance, and the urgency of that task.  Amen.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

The God of Covenants weeps

Texts: Genesis 15.1-12,17-18

Luke 13.31-35

Our faith is a world-changing faith. But we didn’t start it.  It arises out of Covenants that the Lord of the Universe has established with his people.  The Lord established them.  It’s important to understand this.  The Covenants that God established, with Adam, Noah, Abram, Moses, and then through Jesus were not negotiated with God.  Rather, God took the initiative.  God established those Covenants – and gave us a clear choice: blessing (if we obeyed the Covenant) or a curse we bring on ourselves, if we don’t. Misery, in other words, lies at the end of the path of disobedience.

Our Hebrew Bible reading of today is one such example of a Covenant initiated by God.  The story has the rather startling description of how the Covenant was sealed – by the severing of a number of animals, and the passing of a smoking fire-pot and flaming torch between the pieces. 

This sounds all rather odd to us, doesn’t it?  Our modern-day Covenants are written on pieces of paper, and both parties get a copy.  But this is an ancient story.  It comes from a time when writing was in its infancy.  So, it was necessary to create something significant, something memorable, which would bind all parties to the Covenant being made.  One method was just as the Book of Genesis records — two people, desirous of making a Covenant, would agree to cut an animal in half, and then would walk together between the pieces.  The essential message was, “this is what will happen to us if either of us breaks the Covenant”.  There were other methods for sealing Covenants at the time – like breaking a piece of wood, with both parties retaining a half for themselves.  It could be rejoined, later, as proof of a Covenant existing. But cutting an animal in two was a rather more dramatic way to make a Covenant legal.

In this Covenant with Abram, notice that it is God alone who moves between the animal pieces, with something like a flame as a token.  Abram doesn’t walk with him.  God makes his Covenant, and then shows how serious he is about it by following the tradition of the day.  Abram will have descendants, and they will possess the Land of the Holy One – as long a Abram follows the path of faith.

God initiates his Covenants with humanity – but this is not the same as saying God ‘controls history’.  The first Covenant God established was the Covenant of free will. He gave Adam the choice to obey him over the Tree in the Garden of Eden.  God wants us to choose God, and to love God, of our own free will.  Everything which happens in the world is not, necessarily, the will of God.  War, hunger, poverty, sickness and injustice are not will of God.  We must not make the mistake of thinking God causes such things to happen.  They happen because human beings fail to live by the rules of Covenants which God has established. 

God calls us to join with him, to co-operate with him, to live out God’s mission in the world.  ‘God is working his purpose out’ through his relationship with us.  But time and time again, we do not listen.  And we make God weep.

God’s sorrow is intense.  He weeps over our wars, injustice, sickness and poverty.  In Jesus (as our Gospel reading tells us) he wept over Jerusalem – because time and again, the people of Jerusalem turned aside from the Covenants that God established.  God told them to love one another, and to welcome strangers.  But instead, they fought one another, and demonised strangers.  God told them to worship him alone, but they worshipped other Gods – the Babylonian gods, and a Golden Calf to quote but two examples.  God told them not to bear false witness, but they dragged God incarnate before the Roman Authority with false claims.  God told them not to murder, but they nailed God-incarnate to a Cross.

In one recent sermon, published in this week’s Chronicle, I said that I yearn for a politician who is prepared to take the teachings of Jesus seriously.  Let’s just think about that for a moment, shall we?  What might society look like, if leaders of nations took the Covenant of God in Jesus Christ seriously?

Let’s think about wars, for example.  The whole trajectory of the Bible is towards the unification of humanity, as one people under God.  As we sing, sometimes, ‘every knee will bow, every tongue confess him King…’.  But, actually, we human beings usually resist all attempts to mould humanity into one people.  We like our divisions, we cling on to them with nationalistic pride.  Every human project which tries to unite people, ultimately fails.  Empires fall. The United Nations?  Toothless.  The European Union?  Crumbling.  The Soviet Union?  Dead, but still twitching viciously in the hands of Vladimir Putin.  Nationalism, and the self-preservation of individual nation states always over-rides God’s nobler plan – to join humanity into one glorious Kingdom of Heaven.  Because we like our autonomy.  We prefer local control.  We will not cede our right to do what we feel like doing to anyone else.  We don’t want to share what we have accumulated with anyone else. 

I could go on (of course!).  Sickness is a symbol and consequence of our preference for developing canons, instead of cures, right in the face of God’s covenant commands to heal.  Financial injustice, worldwide, is a symptom and consequence of human greed, right in the face of God’s Covenant commands to share.  The refugees pouring over the borders of the Ukraine are a symbol and a consequence of humanity’s desire to control and conquer, right in the face of God’s Covenant commands to serve and love.

Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem.  He longed to gather them, as a hen gathers her chick under her wings.  And I believe God weeps over the state of the world today.  He still longs to gather us all in a Kingdom of Love – but we resist his call, and we ignore his Covenant. 

So, this Lent, I invite you to think about the part that you play in co-operating with the Covenants of God.  Whether that’s by your vote, or by your use of money, or by the way you treat your neighbour, or by your commitment to sharing, giving and loving, I invite you to moments of self-reflection in these Lenten days.  Please ponder how you, and I, can join in with the mission of God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. 

And if that task feels overwhelming; if you wonder what on earth you can achieve towards the mission of God, let me offer a quote of Gretta Thunberg, commended by the new Bishop of Portsmouth, Jonathan Frost at yesterday’s Installation.  Tiny little Thunberg says – “No-one is too small to make a difference.”  You and I may not lead an army.  We may not sit on a throne.  But, like the boy who offered fish and bread to feed the 5000, we can make a difference.  Because God is working his purpose out.  It’s God’s covenant under which we live.  It’s God’s mission in which we are engaged, and he promises to bless and multiply our meagre gifts.  So we step forward in faith, to give, to love, to share.  In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses


The Temptation of Jesus - A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

 

Luke 4.1-13:  The Temptation of Jesus

 

Preparation is everything.  This year's Olympic athletes prepared 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 completely prepared - 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'.

So -  what happens next?

The devil – who we might prefer to see as metaphor for Jesus’ more human instincts - 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 happy...food, 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.  Entertain and feed the people, and they won't overthrow the Government.  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."

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. Again, 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 St Faith's after this service, and some angels rescued me and carried me safely to the ground...you’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 wonder...it’s about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life.  That means the mountain-top experiences like on the Mount of Transfiguration...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."  In other words, God is not in the business of wowing the crowd with tricks.  God is in the business of building a kingdom, soul by soul, person by person.  His call is to a life of sacrifice and self-lessness, not to stage shows of powerful miracles.

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.

But again, Jesus wasn’t interested. 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 those who wrong us, and of carrying each other's burdens.  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.

It's important that we get this.  The Prime Minister will not save us.  No political leader can.  The President of America can't do it.  Only God can save humanity.  Or, to put it another way, only by following the teachings of God, by the grace and power of God, can the world ever be saved.  The Kingdom of God is the only political system - if that's the right description for it - that has the power to save the world.  It won’t happen overnight.  It may not happen in our own lifetime. But it’s the only hope for humanity.  And I yearn for a politician with the courage and the vision to take the teachings of Jesus seriously.

The Kingdom of God requires radical change across all human politics.  In the Kingdom of God, the meek and humble get lifted up - their priorities dictate the agenda.  In the Kingdom of God, the rich (and those lucky to be born in rich places) understand and live out their responsibility. 

In the Kingdom of God, wealth is shared for the lifting up of the poor, who become blessed.  In the Kingdom of God, wars cease - swords become ploughshares - because no-one is trying to control others anymore.  Every-one works together for the good of all.  In the Kingdom of God, the planet which God gave us to tend and care for…it gets saved too.  As we humans learn what it means to live lightly upon the earth, as Jesus himself did, the planet has a chance. 

So what was Jesus’ response to the Devil’s tempting of Jesus to grab that political power? "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 saves us. God who sustains us.

So in this period of Lent, take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. Who is it that you trust, to lead us forward?  A politician, or the King of Kings? 

What do you look for from God?  Miracles, signs and wonders, or wise and fruitful teaching to lead a more blessed life. 

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 circuses 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 vain promises of political power...or will it be life, to the full, through a dedication to loving God and serving our neighbour - the motto of this very church!

God gives us free will to make those choices.  The choices are ours to make.  I wonder which we'll choose...

Amen.


Saturday, March 5, 2022

Shock horror....Priest doesn't believe...in the Devil!

Reading: Luke 4.1-13 - Jesus is tempted in the wilderness

Note: This sermon was prepared for Lent 1, but on reflection, I decided not to preach it.  It opens up many controversial lines of thought, which are best explored in a more leisurely way than a sermon permits.  It needs to be read, and discussed, rather than simply spoken from a position of 'six feet above contradiction'.  See the sermon I actually gave at this link: https://tomkennarsermons.blogspot.com/2022/03/bread-and-circuses.html  

Today, as we enter the season of Lent, our Gospel reading confronts us with a great battle between good and evil – personified as Jesus and the Devil.  I have preached many times on the meaning of the tests which the Devil threw at Jesus – so if you want to get under the skin of those challenges, I suggest you buy one of my books(!) because today I want to look at another aspect of the story, which I’ve only touched upon in the past.

There are not many Bible passages which give prominence to the Devil – but this is undoubtedly one of them!  So I want to focus on the person of the Devil himself.  You may like not like what I’m about to say.  In fact, you may chose to stone me to death as a heretic.  But I’m going to say it anyway.  Here it is… I don’t believe in the Devil.  There, I’ve said it.  You don’t have to agree with me.  I’m not God, and like all of us, I see only through a glass darkly.  I might be wrong.  But I don’t believe in the Devil.  (I can feel the brains of my clergy colleagues doing somersaults now.  They are saying to themselves “there he goes again, being all controversial!”)

For me, there is a logical inconsistency about the whole idea of a Devil.  My argument goes something like this:  “if God is, as we believe, all powerful and all loving, why would he give an evil angel free reign to wander the earth, tempting people away from God’s love?”.  An all-powerful God could snap his fingers and lock up such a Devil in a second.  God is either all-powerful, or he is not God.

And if God should choose to let the Devil roam free (sowing discord, hatred and conflict all around him) what does that say about the nature of God?  It paints a picture of God which I don’t recognise – a God who is prepared to let evil walk among us, is not a God of love, but something else entirely, something actually not Godlike at all.

To the logical inconsistency I propose, some might offer a counter, in the idea of Free Will, first expressed coherently by St Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine taught that we have free will, so that our love for God will be real, genuine and chosen.  If we didn’t have free will (as Islam teaches, for example); if everything which happens, or every choice we made was God’s will, not ours, then we would be no more than puppets.  We would be characters in a great soap opera in the mind of God, with God as writer, director and producer. 

So, some theologians will argue that if free will is the law for humans, why not also for the angels?  But there is a logical inconsistency in this argument too.    It’s incomprehensible to me that any angel, who had spent even a moment in the presence of God, should ever imagine that he could ever conquer God.  Such an idea would be pure fantasy, and entirely unattainable. 

So, for me, the Devil is not real.  He cannot be, if God is anything like the God we believe the Bible reveals to us.  The Devil, then, is a metaphor.  He is a literary personification of the evil that human beings do. 

And, following on from that belief, I’ll go further and say that there is no such thing as evil.  Evil is not an actual thing.  It is not a spiritual force, lurking in dark corners, reaching out its tentacles into our minds, tempting us to do horrible things, or luring us away from God.  There are no ‘evil places’ in the world.  When people say they ‘feel the force of evil’, what they are feeling is the power of their imagination.  For, again, if God is the creator of everything as we believe and sing, then (logically) if evil exists as an actual thing God has created it, or at the very least permitted it.  Again, that’s logically nonsense.   The most sensible thing we can say of the ‘force of evil’ is that it is somewhere where the omni-present Spirit of God has not yet been revealed or recognised. 

According to the writer of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them.  He examined his work, when it was complete, and he pronounced it Good.  What he didn’t say is ‘most of it is good – apart from those little bubbles of evil floating around over there.  What a shame I’m not powerful enough to wipe them out’.  Again, either God is the God we sing about and praise, who created all things and pronounced them good.  Or he is something else – a less powerful God, who is powerless to intervene, to stop the Devil prowling around like a roaring lion.  A tin-pot God.  Or the dualistic God of songs like Chris de Burgh’s ‘Spanish Train’ – an equal of Satan, who can be tricked into giving up souls. 

There is one argument which gives me pause, however.  It’s the argument that Jesus himself appears to have believed in the Devil.  If Jesus believed in the Devil, why shouldn’t we?  It’s a powerful question, isn’t it? 

But I say we need to understand that Jesus spoke constantly in parables and metaphors.  When, for example, he said that we would one day see the ‘Son of Man coming on the clouds’ and that ‘every eye would see him’ – did he really think that he was going to ride on a fluffy white cloud across a flat earth?  So, when he ‘cast out demons’ from people in conditions we recognise today as medically diagnosable, did he simply use the language about demons, prevalent at the time, because he needed the sick people around him to trust that their healing was real?

And what of his temptation in the desert – the topic of today’s Gospel?  There were no witnesses to this event.  The only way that the Gospel writers could know what happened is from Jesus’ own lips – there were no disciples present. 

So, when Jesus (undoubtedly) related how he wrestled with the kind of ministry he would exercise, I suggest that he used the image and metaphor of the Devil to tell the story.  How can any of us describe the internal mental processes we all go through – except by using metaphor and simile?  When John Wesley, for example, described feeling ‘strangely warmed’ by the Holy Spirit, do we think his core body temperature went up?  Or do we understand such descriptions to be pictures, metaphors, devices to connect our intellect with our emotions?

I hope that these thoughts have helped you to ponder one of the most unhelpful bits of theology that Christians tend to carry around with them.  You see, if as I propose, the Devil is not real, but only a metaphor, what does that say about the evil acts that human beings do?  It is not the Devil which has caused Vladimir Putin to invade his neighbour, but rather it is Putin, acting out of his own free will, who has done it.  Praying against the Devil ‘in the power of the mighty name of Jeeesus’ might make us feel good (like we’ve done something) – but it does nothing to address the reality that people do evil things.  Neither do such prayers feed and clothe the refugees pouring over the borders of the Ukraine.

Jesus calls us to action.  Our battle is with real principalities and powers, like Putin and so many other tyrannical warlords, oligarchs and monopolists around the world.  The principalities and powers against which we labour are the force of the choices made by greedy, power-crazed people.  The darkness, the evil, which surrounds them is metaphorical. 

But the Love of God is real.  The power of the Holy Spirit is omnipotent and omnipresent.  Creation is Good, and God loves all his children.  That is the message of the Gospel, which we proclaim.  That is a message which will transform the world.  But only once we stop blaming the Devil, certainly stop fearing him, and start plugging into the real power, the transforming power, of the Love and the Teachings of God.  Amen.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Ash Thursday(!)

It is still horribly cold…but the days are beginning to lengthen at last!  And that’s where we get the word ‘Lent’ from.  The old English word ‘lenten’ means the time of lengthening and growing days. For centuries, that time of growth has been a pointer to the idea of spiritual growth and renewal.  There may be an etymological link to a similar French word 'lentement', which means to 'go slow'.  Just as we are all getting busy, hacking away at our gardens and going out in the lighter evenings, the wisdom of the church is to be careful...take it slow.  

Traditionally, spiritual growth and renewal has always been assisted by penitence, fasting, giving to the poor, and prayer.  None of these ideas are only about self-denial.  Like anointing with oil, fasting was believed to be a purifying and strengthening challenge…a preparation for some challenge yet to come. And the idea of giving things up for Lent was always balanced by the requirement to give something out to the poor:  for we surely cannot claim to love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the poor at our door that we do see.

That is why each year our Bishop invites us to participate in his Lent Appeal.  This is an extra call on our purses – at a time when we are encouraged to think most deeply about what it means to be a follower of a Lord who gave up everything for us.  This year, our new Bishop Jonathan, is inviting us to the mission charity, USPG.  I know from personal experience in Ghana how important their work is in supporting churches in some of the poorest places in the world...churches which then bless their own local communities.

However 'slow' Lent is meant to be, this is undeniably a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter. At Meadowlands, I’m especially conscious of the need to clear away dead leaves, trim the bushes, plant new seeds.  This year, thanks to advice from Martin Hampton, our 'wild gardener', Clare and I have been inspired to leave some of our garden to grow wild - providing a wide range of habitats for different species.  I look forward to holding a garden party, later in the year, so that everyone can see the results!

This is a time for tidying our spiritual lives as well.  In a moment, we will invite you all to receive the sign of the cross, drawn in ashes and olive oil on your foreheads.  This is a sign of repentance…a sign that we recognise ourselves to be human beings who fail – and who seek the forgiveness of our heavenly father.

This then is the heart of Lent…growth and spiritual renewal stem from an appreciation of who we are…failing human beings.  We are like a plant that needs the sun.  We cannot grow without the love, wisdom and power of our heavenly father.  That’s why, alongside the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, we also encourage you to participate in our Lent Programme - printed in the Chronicle.  It is packed with lots of different ways to go deeper, and to grow roots of spirituality to last throughout the year.  Let me encourage you to get involved with one, or more, of those opportunities…take the chance to deepen your understanding of the wisdom and power of God to transform and change you.

As we receive the Ashes, today, we will be reminded that we are ‘but dust…from dust you came and to dust you shall return;’.  To the modern ear this sounds a rather morbid thought…but actually it’s intended to remind us, very simply of what we are…We are made of dust.  Stardust, in fact…our atoms once burned in the heart of the Universe before they became grouped together with the ball of rock we call Planet Earth.  From the nutrients, atoms and molecules of that planet, each of us came forth.  Our mothers ate what the planet provided, and we came forth.  We are the product of a physical and biological process.  But what else are we?

Christians proclaim that yes, we are made of Stardust…but we are also given life by the Spirit and Power of the living God.  It is his power that sustains us, his wisdom that guides us, and his love which frees us to become all that we can become as Children of God.  From dust we came, and to dust we shall return…but thanks be to God:  our Spirits will sing, and our souls will be set free.

So let me invite you to receive the Ash cross this year, as a sign of your commitment to carry on growing in God…to reach beyond the dust from which you were made, to become fully the child of God you were destined to be.

Amen

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Turning towards the Cross. Quinquagesima Sunday.

Readings:

Exodus 3.1-6

John 12.27-36a

Quinquagesima. It’s a lovely word to get your tonsils round, isn’t it? Say it with me … Quinquagesima. 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 Quinqua, holder of the golden orb of Gesima, slayer of dragons, and defender of the poor”.

I’m afraid 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!  Then add the three days from today until Ashe Wednesday - and there is your 50 days until Easter.

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.  From Exodus, we hear the story of Moses’ first encounter with the Divine, at the burning bush.  His face doesn’t glow, as it did later when he met God on Mount Sinai, but there is awe and wonder in this first encounter.

In the New Testament reading, which was a Gospel reading, we observe Jesus at prayer.  He is puzzling and worrying over the mission to which God has called him, and seeking God’s affirmation that he is on the right path.  All he seeks is to glorify God, and, in typical Hebrew fashion, to glorify the Name of God.  And God replies from heaven that, ‘Yes, I have glorified it – and I will do it again’!

Quite what God means, when he says he has already glorified his name, is somewhat opaque.  It could include any number of times in the past when God has been true to his word and his promises, rescued his people, or sent them aid from heaven (in the form of prophets, leaders and Jesus himself).  These are all actions with glorify God’s Name, by making the very name of God something which can be trusted, and relied upon.  But Jesus has a clear understand of what glorifying God’s Name in the future means…

The Transfiguration is a turning point.  It’s a pivot-moment between Jesus’ ministry of preaching and teaching, and his ministry of salvation which is about to unfold in Jerusalem.  It is such a pivotal point that in Mark’s gospel, the Transfiguration story appears right in the centre of his narrative.  It’s as though we are asked to note everything that Jesus has said and taught up to that point, but we are invited to really focus on what is about to happen.

 In John’s gospel (our reading of today) Jesus, himself, gives us the focal-point for our attention on the future.  He says “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”.  In doing so, he refers back to a statement made in chapter 3, referencing a story about Moses.  You might remember it…   

The Israelites had been struck down by a plague, because of their disobedience (again!  They never seemed to learn, did they?).  To re-build their trust, God commanded Moses to fashion a serpent, out of bronze, and to lift it up on a stick for everyone to see.  Anyone who gazed upon the serpent, lifted up, would be healed – and their trust in God renewed.  (That, by the way, is why the medical profession still uses the image of a serpent on a stick as a sign of healing – look out for it, around pharmacies and the like).

Jesus describes his own ‘lifting up’ as being like the lifting of the serpent on a stick.  In John chapter 3, he says this:
            “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

This, is the focus that all the Gospel writers want us to see.  In Jesus’s story, everything moves towards the Cross.  When Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, his sacrifice, his love for humanity, his willingness to give his all for us – this has the effect of drawing us to him.  And, by believing in him, which means by following him, by living as he calls us to live, by trusting in his teachings, and his way, we too can find the path to eternal life.

Eternal life, the life of heaven, is reflected in the face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  And eternal life is promised to all of us who gaze, lovingly, willingly, faithfully, upon the face of Christ lifted up.

So, as we move towards Easter, a quinquagesima from now, through the 40 days (and seven Sundays!) of Lent, let us prepare our hearts to meditate once more on the deep, profound mystery and the glory of the Cross. 

Amen.