Saturday, April 24, 2010

St Mark's Day: Do we worship St Mark??

Mark 13: 5-13 and Ephesians 4: 7-16

Today we celebrate St Mark's Day - which makes this our Patronal Festival.  Some Christians from other traditions are often a little puzzled as to why Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians tend to name their churches after saints.  The Roman Catholic church's most famous building is of course St Peter's in Rome.  The Orthodox have St Basil's in Moscow.  We Anglicans also have famous cathedrals with patron saints, like St Paul's.  The most famous St Mark's is probably the great basilica in Venice - with its magnificent bell tower that stands over the St Mark's Piazza.  But to Methodists, Baptists, Free Church people, Charismatics and many others - this naming of churches after a person is rather puzzling.

So why do we do this?  After all, we are the church of Jesus Christ aren't we?  Are we worshipping St Mark instead of Jesus?  Well, of course not!  Mark is only a patron - and example of a life that was transformed by faith - which we are encouraged to follow.

NOTE:  The following section (in light grey) was not in fact was rather too long for the time I had available!  However, I've included it here as background information about the practice of praying to saints.

Let's start with this word 'patron'.  What is a patron?  In the times when nations were ruled by Kings and Emperors, a patron was someone you knew who had the ear of the King.  Perhaps you wanted a special favour - maybe a reduction in your taxes, or a judgement in some dispute that you were having with a neighbour. But security was high around your King.  Only a few people could actually get close to the King - and you were not one of the lucky few.  So you would ask your patron to raise your case with the King on your behalf.

The idea of patron saints is linked to that idea.  It comes from an earlier time, and an earlier understanding about how heaven was constructed.  Ancient peoples read the biblical descriptions of heaven as a sort of court...and began to take them literally.  Heaven was seen in the popular mind as being a spiritual version of the kind of courts which existed on earth.  

Consider one of the open verses of the book of Job, for example.  Job is believed to be probably the very oldest book of the bible.  In verse 6 of chapter one we read, "One day, the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them".  Presenting yourself before a great ruler was exactly what happened in an earthly court.  Consider the famous opening of Isaiah's vision of God in the Temple, from Isaiah Chapter 6:  "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and his train filled the temple".  

(That doesn't mean that God had a giant train means - for example - the kind of train that brides have trailing behind them, or that monarchs have as they walk through Westminster Abbey to their coronation.)

So in the popular mind, a thought began to arise:  "how can I, a humble farmer or peasant hope to have my prayers heard by God in the heavenly court?  After all, I wouldn't be able to get near my earthly King.  Why on earth should I be able to get anywhere near God Almighty?"  From that thought - that instinctive humility of most of the world - arose the idea of a patron saint.  The logic was inescapable.  If earthly Kings had special advisers and friends at court, who could act as patrons for ordinary people - surely God would do the same?  Now who would these special advisers and friends be?  Well, of course, they would be people who had lived the holiest lives.  They would be the people whom the church had declared to be Saints.  And perhaps Angels too.

And so, people began to pray to particular saints - especially those whose life stories suggested that they would be sympathetic to the cause of the person who was praying. Jesus had taught that his followers were his body - and so the lives of particular saints reflected aspects of Jesus back to those still on earth.  

Fishermen began to pray to St James - because he had been a fisherman.  Mothers prayed to Mary - because she was a mother herself, and the mother of the Lord in his earthly incarnation.  Carpenters and artisans prayed to St Joseph - Jesus' earthly father.  If you were sick, you might pray to St Luke - because he was a physician.  And so on. Essentially the prayers all said the same thing...though dressed up in posh language.  "Oh Saint so-and-so.  You understand better than anyone else the problems I'm having - because you had the same problem when you were alive.  Please would you speak to the Lord for me...and ask him to sort out my problem".

Praying to saints has never been about worshipping those saints themselves - at least not officially.  The Church has always taught that a prayer to a saint is always no more than asking a saint to be your patron in the Court of Heaven - to add their prayers to yours in the hope that God will answer them.  Some people who converted from religions with lots of Gods often preferred to pray to saints...and sometimes confused the saints with God.  But officially - that has never been permitted.  The church does not permit the worship of saints...only prayers to them.

This is partly about an understanding that we who are alive on Earth are part of a much larger body of Christians who are also alive in heaven.  The 'church militant here below' is united through prayer and praise with what is called the 'church triumphant' in heaven.  By remembering, and asking the help of prominent Christians who have died, we are, in fact, acknowledging that Christ has defeated death - and that this existence on earth is just a small part of our eternal destiny as children of God.  Those who have died are anything but fact they are closer to God than we are...more alive, more energised by the Spirit of God then we could imagine.

Our modern understanding of saints, at least in the protestant tradition, has somewhat shifted.  We are perhaps less inclined to think of God as sitting on a literal throne - but rather to embrace him as the 'Father' that Jesus described God to be.  We know, because Jesus taught us this, that we can pray directly to God - to 'Our Father in heaven'.  But there is still much of value in the old tradition of engaging with the saints of the past.

(NOTE: The sermon as preached resumed from here)

I could go on rather more about this topic - because I do find it rather interesting!  We could think about why certain saints are more popular than others. We could talk about the attitude of different branches of the church to the whole practice.  We could discuss the Orthodox practice of prayer to icons...but enough is probably enough!  Perhaps these are ideas we could explore in our forthcoming study-evenings about prayer.

Let's instead ask ourselves about St Mark.  After all, he was chosen for us, by our forebears, to be our patron in this parish.  What was in the mind of our forefathers when they chose St Mark to be the new church in the new town of North End?  Why St Mark?  Why a Lion as an emblem?

St Mark - or St John Marcus as he was known - was the author of St Mark's Gospel.  He is first mentioned in Chapter 12 of the Acts of the Apostles, where he is identified as a travelling companion of St Paul.  Later, according to church tradition, he became a disciple of St Peter when Peter was in Rome.  It has always been believed that Mark was essentially Peter's biographer - and that his Gospel is a writing down of stories about Jesus that were told by Peter.

Mark was a rather controversial figure.  He was the centre of quite a debate between Paul and Barnabus, leading to Paul and Barnabus separating and going in different directions in the work of the Gospel.  Later, according to tradition, Mark made a real pain of himself in the city of Alexandria - where his constant preaching and insistence that the citizens of Alexandria should turn away from their Greek gods led to him being martyred.  According to one of a number of traditions, he was attached to a horse and dragged through the streets until dead - but not before he had founded what is today called the Coptic Orthodox Church.  St Mark's bones - his 'relics' are said to reside in St Mark's Church in Venice.

Mark's traditional emblem, as you will know only too well, is a Lion.  I have to tell you that Emily was particularly excited to learn that when we first came to St Mark's - being somewhat of a Lion King fan!  A winged Lion was chosen for St Mark because his Gospel speaks most eloquently of the royal divinity of Christ...and the lion has always been seen as a royal figure.  It is also said that the Lion was chosen because Mark's Gospel uniquely begins with the story of John the Baptist, who, like a distant lion was described as the voice crying the in the wilderness.

So what are the themes which emerge about our patron from these stories?

First of all, I'd say, Mark was obviously a thinker.  He thought deeply about Jesus, and about what it meant to be his follower.  He clearly thought long and hard about what Peter had taught him about Jesus, before writing it down in his Gospel.  Sometimes that thinking got him into trouble - and he ended up being the cause of one of the first splits in the church - between Paul and Barnabus.  And that is always a danger when people start to use their God given minds to try to understand the ways of God.  The history of the church, and all its splits, is essentially a history of ideas.  People who use their minds will often find themselves at odds with people who prefer to approach God at a more instinctive level - or who are willing to simply accept what they've been taught, without thinking about it.

There is not a lot we can do about that.  We are encouraged, by the First Commandment of Jesus, to worship God with all our mind, as well as our body and our souls.  It is sad that some people are not prepared to do the hard work of thinking about God.  It's especially sad when we look around North End and see that for many people, thinking about who they might vote to be the next Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is about as far as intellectual pursuit goes!  God has given us the wonderful instrument of a brain...Mark, our patron, encourages us by his example to use it.

Secondly, Mark was obviously an evangelist.  The word 'evangelist' stems from a Greek word meaning 'good news'.  Mark passionately told people what God had accomplished through Jesus.  He was passionate enough to write a whole book about it - his Gospel.  He was passionate enough to spend months and years travelling around the known world to tell people about it.  He was so passionate about it, that he ended up being silenced by the people of Alexandria who killed him - but he also succeeded in founding a church which still exists in very much the form that he founded it.

Again, this is a message for us.  Our Gospel reading this morning contained those warning words from Jesus, that "all men will hate you because of me" (Mark: 13:13). Telling people what they don't want to hear is never popular.  Did you hear the story in the news of the three people who had imprisoned and repeatedly beaten a man with mental health problems?  Their 'home video' showing them repeatedly hitting their victim, Michael Gilbert was simply horrific.  Theirs was an extreme example of what happens to people who cut themselves off from the love of God.

But many people cut themselves off from God in much less dramatic ways.  Some worship money, and greedily accumulate all they can...forgetting that they can't take it with them to the 'heavenly court'.  Some live in ways that refuse to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with those who have done them wrong...and end up perpetuating feuds and even wars which ruin the lives of millions.  To all such people, and even for the simply lazy, the Gospel is a challenge - often a deeply unwelcome challenge.  The Gospel is good news to those who are being saved.  To others, its a nuisance and even a threat.

The last quality of St Mark which tends to shine through is his tenacity.  Here is a man who, once he had been convinced of the resurrection of Christ, dedicated his entire life to the service of Christ.  He kept on - travelling the length and breadth of his world - writing, teaching, preaching, goading, establishing the good news about Jesus wherever he went.

Mark's example encourages us to do the same.  The Church which names him as our patron in the 'heavenly court' can do no less.  Church, for us, is never about simply spending a couple of hours together on a Sunday - and then forgetting all about God for the rest of the week.  The Church of St Mark is the place where the people of God come together to celebrate what God is doing in our lives, to lift our eyes up from the day to day for a short while, to enjoy the fellowship of other people who have the same love for God.    But the Church of St Mark is more...its the place where we think about our faith, as St Mark did. In Paul's words, from our second reading, our task is to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of Christ".  Then, Paul goes on, "we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ."   (Eph 4: 13-15)

And finally, following Mark's example,  the Church of St Mark is the place from which we go forth with the same tenacity of our patron.  To quote Winston Churchill - whose metaphor can so easily be turned to the task of the Gospel..."we will never surrender".  We will never surrender to the mediocrity of a consumer society.  We will never surrender to the lies of capitalism, or the false promises of communism.  We will never stop declaring that the Kingdom of God is the only way of living which offers any real hope to humanity.  Like roaring lions in the desert wilderness, we will keep on speaking of the value of love, forgiveness, generosity and charity.  We will keep on telling the story of the Lord who died for us, but rose again so that we might know that all eternity waits for us.

For, as Mark would undoubtedly have declared:  Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Doubting Thomas: Never Say Never Again

Back in 1983, the movie world was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. He was by that time decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

A couple of weeks ago you might remember that I introduced a visitor to you.  His name was Jeff Harvey - and Jeff is currently the Deputy Warden of Readers - or Licensed Lay Ministers as we now call them.  Jeff and I go way back...right back to the days when I was a young and somewhat naive evangelical at St Luke's Church in Southsea.  In those days, St Luke's Vicar, at the time, was extremely suspicious of the more catholic wing of the Church.  Communion was only celebrated once a month, during an evening service - and used to be celebrated on an old collapsible card-table, without any silver-ware.  No-one ever wore robes during worship - and the Vicar himself only rarely wore a clerical collar.  Candles were absolutely forbidden - as being rather too 'popish'.   In those days, Jeff was assigned to St Luke's as part of his training to be a Reader - but he came from a rather more catholic background.  I remember him being rather puzzled by the Vicar's choices - and he would often pull the Vicar's leg.

When Jeff visited us a couple of weeks ago, he had a rather wry smile on his face throughout the service - as he watched me dress up in these robes, light candles and embrace all the drama of our liturgy.  After the service, he took the opportunity to pull my leg; "Do you remember," he asked, "how you once said that you would never been seen dead in a cassock?"

He was right of course.  I've changed....or rather, I think, God has led me on a path of change.  I am a very different liturgist than I was even 10 years ago.  I'm a very different theologian too - I now have a much less 'black and white' version of Christianity in my head.  Mind you - I don't claim that the way I lead worship now is the way God has told me to do it.  I'm not claiming that our way of worship is any better than, say, evangelical or pentecostal ways.  In fact, as you know, we are going to worship in a much more relaxed, modern style during this evening's service.  No - I don't claim that 'my way is God's preferred way'.  I simply say that at this time, in this situation, with these people - it feels about right.

What I am not going to say is "never"..."never", in other words, "will we do things differently".  And that is because, I think, God has a way of turning round people who make such pronouncements...and of reminding them that this is God's world...not theirs!

That was certainly the experience - the painful, embarrassing experience - that Thomas had.  When Peter and the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment he felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

And Jesus is pretty stern with Thomas as well.  "Have you believed because you have seen me?" (John 20: 29).  You can almost hear an 'harrumph' from Jesus!  "What?  You only believe because I'm here?  Don't you trust your friends and your brothers with whom you've been living all these months?  I'm not very impressed!...Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe".

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers.  He rode into town on a donkey, not a gleaming white war horse.  He allowed himself to be murdered by the state, instead of calling down legions of angels to protect him.  He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns our expectations - just as he overturned Thomas' expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to the notion of empirical evidence - that he could depend only on his eyes and his own sense of touch in order to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many people today...people like the now infamous Richard Dawkins, and other prominent secular atheists.

Atheists make a basic error every time that they say they can 'never' believe in a God.  They make the mistake of assuming that because God cannot be proven to exist by any kind of scientific method, that the whole notion of God must be false.  They fail, utterly, to understand that man's greatest wisdom (including scientific wisdom) is as foolishness to God.  (See 1 Corinthians 1:25).  They fail to understand that God cannot be proven by scientific method, because God is beyond and above and outside of all such 'touching' and 'seeing'.  God is the source of all that has been created - and while we believe that he fills all the Universe with creative energy, God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it. We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube - God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us to connect with him through our souls, through our spirits - through the essential essence of what it means to be God's own creation.  God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust.

Why should that be?  Why should Jesus say to Thomas that it is those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, perhaps it would...initially.  But the problem is that in order to be the dynamic, ever-changing world that we experience, the world needs to be constantly on the move.  To quote that wonderful old hymn; "Change and decay in all around I see...Thou changest not, O Lord, Abide with Me."

If God could somehow be scientifically reduced down to a substance that could be seen in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched.

That's one of the reasons why the Church, and the Hebrew Nation before us, has been so cautious about images, statues and pictures.  It is too easy to confuse the created with the Creator.  Those who worship Mother Earth make the same mistake.  The Earth is not our Mother - it is only a kind of created womb of our actual Mother, who is God.  As soon as God gets reduced down to this object, or that thing, our sense of the incredible power of God becomes compressed.  God cannot and should not be reduced down to that kind of thinking.  God does not want our picture of him to be limited to anything physical.  He is greater than everything he has made.

The Temple Curtain was torn symbolically in two at the death of Jesus.  This was precisely because God wanted his people to understand that God does not live in a box in a room.  God does not confine himself to a Temple, or even to a Nation.  God is the Creative Love behind the whole of the Universe.  He cannot be touched, or seen - except, in a sense, during that brief time when he was most physically present among us in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.  God cannot be touched with fingers, or seen with eyes.  He can only be believed in.  And those who are able to make that leap from the scientific to the spiritual, from the physical to the ethereal, from matter to the source of all life...they are the ones who Jesus calls 'blessed'.  They are the ones whose spiritual antennae have been turned on.  They are the ones who have learned to go deep and wide when looking for God.

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we must 'never say never again'!  In other words, we must learn, in Rowan William's words, that all our language about God must be must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  It means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God.

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees as cry out, "My Lord and My God".


Wait a minute! A Sermon for Advent

Luke 1:39-55 The Magnificat

This sermon was preached during Advent (the period before Christmas).  I've only just noticed that I had not got round to publishing it.  Apologies to all!

Every morning, in my house, there is a small ritual that unfolds. The ritual revolves around whichever one of us gets up first. It's the ritual of feeding the animals.

For some reason which eludes me, our house has become home to one dog, two cats and other assorted small furry creatures. It's got something to do with my daughter, I suspect. Anyhow - assuming I'm the first one up, this is what happens. I stagger out of bed, bleary eyed and desperate for caffeine. In the blessed, halcyon days before animals, I could just about manage to switch on the kettle, and make a coffee. But these days, a river of animals follow me all around the kitchen...scrounging for breakfast.

"Meow! Feed me!!" "Whine Whine...come on! I'm hungry." 6 eyes watch my every move as I open the fridge or the cupboard. "What's that? Is that mine? Go on... I could eat a biscuit. Actually I could eat a truck-load of biscuits." In vain I try to do a bit of washing find myself a clean cup for my coffee. "Do you want that bit of baked-bean juice? On that dish cloth? I could lick that off for you if you like. There's a lot of goodness in cold baked bean juice"

It's not just the whining. They get under your feet. Many's the time I've ended up kicking the cat or the dog, just because I'm trying to make my way from one side of the kitchen to the other through a sea of furry bodies. Or they jump up onto the worktop - sticking their heads in your coffee cup. "What's that you've got in there? Milk eh? I like milk. Can I have some milk? Go on!"

If you could hear a recording of the morning ritual in the Kennar household, it would sound something like this: Meow! Whine! Meow! "Wait a minute!" Meow, Whine, "Look, just hang on...get off...get out of the way will you?" Meow! Whine! St Francis would have been very proud of me!

You see, the trouble with animals is that they don't know how to wait. It’s no good trying to persuade them to sit still and wait for a minute. They want feeding...and they want it now! They have no idea about the concept of waiting.

And unfortunately...neither does the human race.

Back in the 1980s or 90s, the rock band Queen recorded a song which summed up the mood of the time. It was released about the same time as the comedian Harry Enfield created his satirical character 'Mr Loads-a-money'. Queen's track was called "I want it all" - and the chorus had these words:

"It ain't much I'm asking, if you want the truth
Here's to the future, hear the cry of youth
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all and I want it now!
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all and I want it now!"

Wait a minute! It seems that the youth of the 80s that Queen were singing about have grown up into the bankers and celebrities of today. "I want it all" is the cry of aspiration for so many people. I want the fast car. I want the holidays in exotic places. I want the plasma screen. I want the Playstation. I want the latest fashion - a new outfit for every occasion, a new pair of shoes for every party. I want food in immense proportions. I want buckets of alcohol to pour down my neck. I want 20,000 music tracks on my mp3 player. I want to party every weekend! Meow! Meow! Whine! I want. I want. I want....

Wait a minute!!

There have been many ways of ordering our society over the centuries. The early Greeks had a form of democracy, in which leading citizens could vote for new laws. Socrates proposed a system of 'philosopher kings' - rulers who would be trained to rule from birth, but not allowed to benefit financially from their rulership. We've had Empires. We've had monarchies. We've had the Holy Roman Empire, and we've had one-person-one-vote Democracy. We've had military dictatorships, and we've had Communism. But, wait a minute. Which type of Government is it that has finally won? It's the Government of 'I want it now'. To give it its proper name - it's the Government of Consumerism.

No longer are we citizens of a nation, or even a planet, with responsibilities to one another. Instead we are now consumers - who vote for whichever Government will give us the best chance to consume the things we want. Just think about that for a moment. We will have a General Election next year in this country. What would the chances be for a political party which stated, in its manifesto, that it was going to give away 10% of the country's wealth to the poorer countries of the world. Just 10%. Doesn't sound like much, does it? And it's a perfectly biblical principle. And yet the foreign aid budget of the United Kingdom for this year is just about 1%. We spend nearly 700 Billion pounds on ourselves. And we send about 6.5billion pounds to the poorest nations of the world.

Wait a minute! That would be like me spending £700 on a new plasma TV, and then giving £6.50 to Christian Aid.

We are teaching our children that the most important thing in life is to work hard, pass exams, and get a good that they can buy stuff. That's about it. That's the basic message of western society today. All the things we could be teaching our children in school are falling by the wayside. There is no longer time in the school curriculum to learn much about art, music, philosophy, poetry, sport or religion...all the things that have given our society their depth and their meaning until now.

Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that they are bound by tick-boxes and testing, all designed to turn out identi-kit kids who can fill the factories and offices of our consumer society. Where are the next generation of thinkers? Where is the next generation of philosophers? Where are the opportunities that many of us had - the opportunities for exchange visits with other countries, or for long days out in the hills with our teachers, or visits to local churches to hear about the spiritual questions of life. There's no time in the curriculum anymore. Just like the shelves of the supermarket, our kids are being wrapped, packed and stacked ready for their role in keeping the consumer-wheel turning.

And so many of our kids will end up on that consumer wheel. They will learn, from an early age that it is their right to possess anything they desire. They will demand the latest toys - and be given them. They will demand the latest gadget, the latest fashion, the latest music...and will go out and get them.

Last year I had the privilege of marrying a very young couple. They were a lovely pair - just starting out in life. One of the questions I always ask young couples is whether they have discussed the topic of children. (It's always a good idea to make sure that they have the same view about whether or not they want kids!). This particular couple said that yes, they had talked about it. And yes, they would like kids. But not yet. "Why not yet?", I asked. "Because we have to save up for a bigger house first. This house has only got two bedrooms...we couldn't bring a child into this house could we?"

As I say - they were a lovely couple. But like so many - they had completely bought into the consumer dream. They simply couldn't conceive of having children in a house with only two bedrooms - because that would mean that there would be no spare room for when family came to stay. They were already both working full-time - for as much as 6 days a week - to afford the mortgage on their modest little home. But, rather than scale-back their expectations in order to bring a new life into their family, they were going to work even harder, even more over-time, even more hours...just to have a bigger house.

Wait a minute! That's the problem with consumerism. Its fine for those who have the cash...but it creates a way of thinking which drives everyone into thinking that they have got to live by the same standards. Anyone who doesn't have a plasma TV is thought of as old fashioned. Anyone who doesn't have a new dress for every party is thought of as 'frumpy'. Anyone who doesn't buy the latest pop album to come out is 'out of date'. Anyone who doesn't work every hour God sends in order to buy more stuff is thought of as lazy and work-shy. As a result, everyone know has credit card debts which shackle them to multi-national corporations. They couldn’t choose to live differently if they wanted to…because the credit card bill has got to be paid!

The very idea that someone might use some of their life to read books, or look after children at home, or grow their own vegetables, or attend a church. That's all just a waste of time for so many people...time which could be spent on e-bay, or at work, making money...buying and selling stuff.

And yet...wait a minute…we've been shown a different way. Mary's song - the Magnificat - which we just heard in our Gospel reading, sets out an entirely different agenda for our planet.

"(God) has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away."

This is Mary's summary of the whole of the Bible until that point - and her assumption of what Jesus', her baby's message to the world will be.

This baby won't be born in a two bedroomed house, or a three bedroomed one...or even in a royal palace. This baby will be born in a animal shelter. And laid in a food trough.

This baby won't be taught to gain stuff. As part of Jewish tradition, this baby will be taught to give stuff away - 10% of everything he earns, and generosity to everyone he meets.

This baby won't be given hundreds of pounds of plastic toys for Christmas – made of precious oil, dragged out of the ground and sent to China, to be made into toys, to be shipped to England, to be wrapped in more plastic, put under a plastic Christmas tree, to be played with for a day or two, then forgotten in a cupboard until it is thrown away in another plastic bag, and shipped off to China again to be buried in a land-fill.

Instead, this baby will receive three very special and significant gifts. A little gold - to acknowledge his royalty. A little frankincense to acknowledge that he is God. A little myrhh - to foreshadow his death.

This baby won't be a king. He'll be a pauper. He won't sit on a throne...he'll stand in the fields and the streets and declare a new way of living.

This baby won't be a friend to prime ministers and emperors, celebrities and bankers. He'll be a friend to the poor and the sick and to those who are searching for Truth.

And over time, throughout the generations, he will slowly but surely begin to turn the world upside down. In due course, he will put down the mighty, and exalt the humble and lowly. He will fill the hungry with good things...and the rich he will send empty away.

But wait a minute…when will he do this? When will this new order take place? When will consumerism and greed give way to wisdom and generosity? When will the rich be brought down? Many of us thought the time might be coming this year, as bankers were temporarily halted in their tracks. But the bonuses are back. The City has bounced back. Consumerism wins again.

I don't know the answer to that question. When will Jesus' just, merciful, generous, giving rule be established? Perhaps he will physically return - "riding on the clouds" as the Bible so poetically puts it.

Or perhaps the real exaltation of the humble and meek takes place at the moment of death. Perhaps it is then that we discover the real value of lives built on stuff. Perhaps it is when we meet our God, face to face, that we discover which parts of our life had the most meaning. Was it the hours we slaved in order to buy things? Or was it the time we gave to other people, and the hand we offered to the needy? Was it the hours we spent in front of the X-Factor or Strictly - or the hours we spent raising money for the refugees of Bangladesh? Was it the huge bill we just paid to Tescos for our Christmas shopping, or the £5 voucher we gave to the Churches Homeless Action appeal for the homeless in Portsmouth? Which of these will be the decisions by which we will want to be judged when we meet the baby born in the stable?

Unlike my cats and dogs, we will have to wait to learn the answer to those questions. But I know which path I am called to follow...however much I stumble and fail with the pressure of consumerism upon me. What about you?


Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday - It's All about the Story

This sermon was preached at the Good Friday Vigil at St Mark's on Good Friday 2010.  It was preceeded by the following readings from Scripture:

1 Cor 1: 18-25
1 John 3: 13-18
1 Peter 2: 19-25
2 Cor 5: 17-20


There is nothing new about terrorism.

It’s almost as old as the human race. The country we now call Iraq, was once the home of some of the nastiest bully-boys in history - known as the Assyrians.  When the Assyrians set out to conquer their neighbours, they needed to use a terror-tactic that would frighten those who had conquered...frighten them SO much they they would accept slavery.  For many conquered people, death was a preferred option to the Assyrians found a way of executing people that was so horrible, so painful, that conquered people would accept their new status as slaves, rather than have to die in such a horrible way.

It was called crucifixion - and it proved to be a very effective terror tactic indeed!

Then, centuries later, along comes the Roman Empire.  It was the policy of the Romans to examine all aspects of a society which they conquered, and then adopt the most useful aspects into their own society.  The Romans found that crucifixion was an excellent tool of intimidation - so they adopted it...and used it to threaten and maintain control over the nations they had conquered.

Crucifixion involved being stripped naked, and then being hung up to die a long, slow, painful death in a public place.  For the Jews, the pain wasn't so much the issue.  Pain is bad enough...but the humiliation of being naked in public for days on end was perhaps even worse.  Jews were the people who gave us the story of Adam and Eve, whose first act on starting to think for themselves was to sew fig leaves together, to cover their nakedness.  Jews hated nakedness.  And perhaps we can sympathise with them.  What would you feel like if you were stripped naked, and then forced to stand in the middle of North End?

Incidentally, crucifixion was deemed so horrible that Romans wouldn't use it on themselves.  Roman law forbade Crucifixion to be carried out on a Roman citizen, even a traitor. It was reserved only for slaves and conquered peoples.  Crucifixion was such a degrading, humiliating punishment that for centuries, Christians didn't use the cross as a symbol at all.  It was so awful to contemplate, so humiliating.  Early Christian pictures of Jesus showed him in the guise of a Shepherd, or as the King of Kings.  Never on a cross.

Slowly, however, crucifixion fell out of fashion, and with the rise of the Christian Church as a power in the Roman  Empire, it was eventually made illegal.  Then, as the awful reality of crucifixion began to fade from the public consciousness, the image of a cross became somewhat less awful to contemplate.

Alongside that, the image of a cross itself was, in fact, a very old religious symbol.  The Egyptians had used it, and so had many other societies.  It was a simple symbol which demonstrated an intersection between heaven and earth - a simple way of demonstrating the notion that God is connected to us, and we to God.  St Paul used a similar idea in our last reading, just know (2 Cor 5: 17-20) when he talked about us being 'reconciled' to God by the Cross.  Sometimes crosses were used to illustrate the four 'elements' - earth, air, fire and water - a reminder of the way that all of life is interconnected.

So, Christians began to use that ancient symbol of God and of nature, and use it to speak of Jesus.  In fact, throughout the centuries, the Christian Church,  has been very clever at taking ancient festivals, ideas and symbols - and relating them to the life of Jesus.

Now, we see crosses everywhere.  They are used as earings and jewellery, we see them on T-shirts and handbags, key-rings and tatoos...small signs of some kind of belief in God.  They have lost that primal power as a sign of searing pain and torture.  Which is perhaps a good thing.  Instead of pain, the cross now represents hope to the modern mind.  It is no longer a sign of humiliation and death, something to feel frightened and ashamed of.  Instead it is sign of God, and a sign of hope.  Perhaps we can even learn from some of those ancient societies - and begin to see the cross again as a sign of the way God reaches into human life and transforms it.

Last year, at this Good Friday service, we used a series of readings which helped us to get some idea of what the reality of Roman crucifixion was like.  I'm sure that those of you who were here will remember the reading of a doctor's account of the pain - of how fluid would fill the lungs of the crucified victim, and the excruciating pain of the sagging weight of the body on the wrists, nailed into wood.  That was fine.  It was, I hope, both interesting and moving. I hope it helped us to realise what Jesus went through, unwillingly but obediently, for us and for all humanity.

But this year, I'm inviting us to move away from focusing on the horror of the actual event, and to focus instead on the meaning of that event.  We've heard four readings, from different New Testament writers - each of whom was attempting to grapple with the meaning of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Every story has meaning, and every good story can have multiple layers of meaning.  Our task as 'theologians' - people who talk about God - is to grapple with those layers of meaning.

We started with Paul, writing to the Corinthians, who commented that the Cross is what he called 'foolishness' to those who are perishing.  Paul is saying, effectively, "Look, I know that it doesn't make any sense.  How can putting the Son of God to death have any effect on us?  To any normal person, the Cross looks like a defeat for God - not a victory.  And yet,"  Paul is saying, "what appears to be foolishness to ordinary people, is in fact wisdom."

Throughout his letters, like other New Testament writers, Paul uses many different images and phrases to try to get a handle on the meaning of this particular story.  He talks about 'redemption' - the idea that somehow Jesus' death has purchased us - like redeeming a sort of promise, a kind of voucher that has been held in trust through the centuries.  Elsewhere he talks about Jesus death as being like a ransom paid to a terrorist - buying us out of the hands of danger (or in Paul's mind, the power of Satan).  Other writers, especially, John, talks about Jesus' death being punishment that we deserved, which because of his love for his earthly children, God decided to inflict on his own Son, even his own self.

But, all of these ideas - and the many others that the Christian Church has grappled with over the years - all of them are just trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.  As Paul himself says in the passage we heard, "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1:25).  Anyone who tells you that they understand exactly what the significance of the Cross is...they are a fool.  Don't listen to anyone who pretends to themselves that they are wise enough to know the mind of God.  Don't listen to anyone who says they are wise enough to have understood all the intricate details of what took place on that Good Friday.

Instead...let the story speak to your soul.  Grab hold of some of the ideas...ransom, redemption, paying the price, signing a new covenant in blood, Christ the sacrificial lamb, Christ the supreme moral example...take them all, and let them sink into your soul.  Let them speak to you of a God who will go to the very end of life for you.  Let them speak of a God who is prepared to be tortured for you.  Let the stories shriek about the  inhumanity that human beings are capable of...human beings who are prepared to murder someone whose only crime was to call us to love God and love one another.  Let the story inspire you, let it sadden you, let it outrage you...let it stimulate you to lead a life that is like that life...a life of total self-emptying.  A life that looks for the good in others, and draws it out.  A life that is given, continually, daily, in service of others.

In a moment, the Choir are going to sing the Lenten Prose - an ancient song of mourning for the way that our lives are so often less glorious than Jesus' life.  Its a song of lamentation - of sorrow for the way that we have lived, and which asks God to forgive us, and give us what the Prose calls 'loving absolution'.  After that, I'm going to invite you to come forward and tie the red ribbon you've been given to this ugly, wired covered cross.  As you do so, let me encourage you to pause - take a moment to re-commit yourselves to the central message of the Story of the Cross - re-committing yourself, your energies, your resources, your money, your time, your talents, your skills to living the life of Christ.

In the last of our readings, Paul taught us that somehow, mysteriously, we are 'in' Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, God's foolishness on the Cross, foolishness that is higher than the greatest heights of human wisdom - that foolishness reconciles us to God.  Christ is in us.  We are in Christ.  By his death, Jesus somehow absorbs us into himself, he 'reconciles' us, he heals us.  The Orthodox Church teaches that he somehow deifies us - helping us to live as we were created to people who were created in the likeness of God.

Let that be the picture that you take away with you today - the picture of your life being joined inextricably to God's life.  Let God be the first breath you take in the morning, and the last breath as you lay down to sleep. Begin to live as people whose whole existence is infused by God, and with the things of God.

Then, together, we might really begin to know and comprehend the power of the Story of the Cross.