Saturday, February 28, 2015

Deny Yourself, Take up your Cross and Follow Me. A Sermon for Lent 2

“If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8.34)

We stand – or in your case, sit – in a very ancient place.  According to the histories I’ve been reading in recent days, Christians have worshipped here for at least a thousand years – and possibly a lot longer.  And throughout those years, I’ve no doubt that one of Jesus’ most famous sayings has rung around these walls time and time again:  “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me”.

As I say, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of sermons on this text – so I hope you won’t object if I now offer you my own take on this saying.

Let’s first breakdown this saying into its constituent parts.   Jesus says, boldly, that if anyone wants to be worthy of the term disciple, they must do three things:  deny self, take up a cross, and follow him.  Let’s examine each of these in turn – meaning of course that I have a nice three point sermon for you!

1.  Deny Thyself.   One advantage that we modern worshippers have over our forebears is that psychology has taught us a great deal about ‘The Self’.  In fact, the notion of ‘self’ is a very ancient idea.  Eastern religions have known for centuries that what we call our ‘self’ can be a tricky thing indeed. Our sense of self – our desires, our personal feelings about things, our perceived needs, wants, fears and angers – these can separate us from God and from the world around us.  We can become too wrapped up in our self to notice and appreciate what is around us.  

Psychologists have taught us the Greek word ‘ego’ – but that has become a problematic word.  Tell someone that their ego is too big, and they will think you are calling them arrogant.  Whereas what is really meant is that a person’s sense of their own importance in the great scheme of things is blinding them to reality.

The Catholic Theologian Richard Rohr might be able to help us to discover what is truly meant by the term ‘self’.  He separates our sense of self into two constituent parts – what we might call the ‘small self’ and the ‘true self’.  Another short-hand for this is the notion of our Spirit and our Soul.

What do we mean when we talk about a person’s spirit?  We might talk about them as having a spirit of kindness, or a spirit of anger.  Our spirit is our ‘small self’.  It is our ego.  It is what life has made us.  It is influenced by all the things that have happened to us…our challenges, our joys, our fears, our wants.  It is also the identities that we have built around ourselves…the titles we have given ourselves.  Our spirit can dictate the kind of people we are – it can drive us to do wonderful things.  It can drive us to do terrible things.

When someone insults me, or fails to give me the respect I think I’m due, it is my small self, my spirit, that is wounded.  The spirit is the place where pride resides.  It’s the place where hurt pride resides as well.

But our soul…that’s another thing altogether.  Our soul is our ‘True Self’.  It is the self we were given when we first entered the world.  Our soul is the part of us that is unsullied by life, the part that is connected to God from our birth. Our true self is the pure essence of who we are…a son or daughter of God.   The danger of course, is that our soul can be polluted, corrupted and changed by our spirit.  When we talk about saving our souls, we mean that we need our souls to be washed, purified of the effects of our spirit, our small self, our ego.  We need to return to our ‘True Selves’ – the beautiful, divine spark that is within us, unencumbered by the effects that the world has had on our ‘small self’ – our spirit.

So when Jesus says that to be his disciple we need to ‘deny ourselves’ – this is what he is pointing to.  We need to be ‘born again’ – that is reborn spiritually.  We need to allow our world-affected spirit to recede, and let our True Self as a pure son or daughter of God emerge, washed and purified.  In the language of last week’s call to repentance, we need to wake up to who we are – and how we have become who we are.  We need to develop our understanding about who we are and why we do the things we do, think the things we think, act the ways we act.  These are usually dictated by the small self.  Rarely do we find the grace to act out of the beauty of our true self.

But how shall we do this?  How can we begin to find our true selves among the noise and chaos created by our ego, our small self, our spirit?  This brings us to the second part of Jesus’ three point plan!  He calls us to ‘take up our cross’.

The cross has many meanings – many of which we will explore together during Holy Week and especially Good Friday.  It may surprise you to know that the Cross is a much older symbol than Christianity.  For many ancient religions, including for the Eqyptians and the Hindus, the Cross was a simple symbol that points us to an eternal truth…the truth that we live in the middle of a great battle between the spiritual and physical worlds.  The arms of the cross signify the physical plane on which we live.  East – West…we live on an apparently flat plane of existence.  But the vertical slash of the cross intersects that plane.  The world is infused by God, and by the spiritual realms that are unseen, and yet present with us.  Our task is to live in the mid-point of the intersection.  We need to learn how to live at the very centre of the cross, to find the balance point between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical.

But crucially, as Jesus showed us, this is where we also have to die.  On the cross, in the intersection between heaven and earth, we learn how to die to self, and live for God.  There, where Jesus died for us, we need to let our small selves die too…so that we can be reborn with him.

How?  How can we die and yet live?  This is where the third part of Jesus’ three point plan comes into effect.  We die to self by following him.  Jesus is our leader, our Lord, and our King.  It is his rules that we are called to follow.  It is his way of loving self-sacrifice that will save our souls from the effects of our spirit.  We need to give up the false claims of the world, dying to any idea that having a nice house, or a new car, or money in the bank will have any impact whatsoever on eternity.  A wise man once said that no matter how big your house is, your grave will be the same size as everyone else’s.

We who claim the title of disciple are called to a completely new way of being.  It’s a way that has been preached for a thousand years in this building…but it is a way that I suggest we are only just beginning to truly grasp.  We need to come to Jesus, and follow him and his ways, in order to find rest for our very souls.  

That is what disciples of Jesus do.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Against the Motion that ‘God is Dead’

Today (27th Feb 2015) I have been given 2/3 minutes to speak against the Motion that 'God is Dead' at the Havant College Debating Society.  Here's what I plan to do with my three minutes.  Does my (very brief!) argument persuade you?  Do comment below.

I’ve been invited to speak against the motion that ‘God is dead’.

My response is this:  it all depends on what kind of God we are talking about.  Or perhaps I should phrase that as a question to you: ‘what do you think God is like?’

Many people, sadly, think of God as some sort of white bearded Heavenly Headmaster, who sits on a cloud, dispensing rules and handing out favours to his favourite students.  I hope that kind of God is dead.  That is the Santa Claus God – the Hollywood God - the kind of God that some footballers thank when they score a goal.  That is the sort of God who one might equate to a vending machine.  Put in the right prayers, and get the answer you seek.  I’m glad that he – and it always seems to be a ‘he’ – is dead.  HE deserves to be.

But that is not the kind of God that religions (and thoughtful religious teachers) have been speaking about for thousands of years. The Alive God is neither male nor female.  The Alive God is what many Anglicans and Catholics refer to as ‘the Ground of our Being’ – the creative energy that connects and sustains the whole Universe.  The Alive God is the one of whom the Bible says ‘God is Love’, and who Hindus revere as the Supreme Spirit, the Brahman.  Unknowable.  Perceivable only by experiencing that God’s action in the human soul.

Can I prove that such God exists?  Not in the way that a scientist can prove that this chair is solid.  But science itself is constantly discovering that there is more to reality than meets the eye.  This chair is not actually solid.  Energy waves and certain molecules can pass right through it.  The fundamental particles of which it is made might well be in two places at once, depending on whether one is looking at them.  And it might be only one copy of the same chair that exists in billions of parallel universes.

To those who would easily dismiss the whole idea of God that I advocate, let me conclude with this thought:  there are 7 billion people in the world.  And around 6.5 billion of them believe in something that is deeper, greater, higher, lower and beyond than the everyday reality we experience.  Some call that something ‘God’ – and 6.5 billion people think of that something as very much alive.   My life mission is to uncover all I can about that kind of God…and I invite anyone who is interested to join me.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Repent! A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

One of the real delights about moving house is that you tend to discover just how dirty your home is.  You have much loved items of furniture, which you’ve lived happily alongside for years – and then you move them.  Suddenly, you see all the dust and grease that has accreted around them.  No longer the loved items of furniture you’ve happily lived with…they are festering piles of goo…and you have to overcome the urge to take them all to the tip and start again!

Take my freezer, for example.  I have been cheerfully loading and unloading bags of food from my freezer for years.  But it was only this week that I noticed that all around the edge of the door, a dirty film of filth has accumulated.  How did it get there?  It’s not as though I’ve been wiping lumps of ice-cream up and down the edge of the door every time I use it!  But there it was, a great sticky mass of slime,  that had to be scraped off with a knife, and one of those green washing-up pads. 

You see, I couldn’t just leave it there.  I had been alerted to a new reality.  No longer was my freezer the bright shiny receptacle for lovely things that I had always believed it to be.  Suddenly, I had been given a very different view of it…I had to wake up and smell the coffee. I had to get real. I had to turn around the way I looked at my freezer, and embrace the reality of the situation.

When Jesus came along, and cried out ‘repent’ – he meant something similar.  He wasn’t thinking about freezers, of course!  The word he used was ‘metanoia’ – which has many complex layers of meaning.  But those meanings coalesce around the notion of turning around, facing in a new direction, changing one’s mind about things.  Our English word ‘repent’ doesn’t really do justice to metanoia.  Repentance is about feeling sorry for past actions.  It’s a Middle English word with a Latin and Old French root – paenitere (pen –i-tere) – which was all about feeling remorseful. 

But Jesus was calling for something rather more radical than just feeling sorry.  In fact Jesus didn’t seem to be all that interested in remorse.  To the woman caught in adultery he simply said ‘Your sins are forgiven.  Go and sin no more’.  Rather, Jesus was calling for a complete change of mind.  He wanted his followers to wake up and see the world for what it really is.

You see, most of us go around with quite a complex set of delusions, about the world, about other people, and about ourselves.  Jesus’ radical notion was that we should begin to see those things as God sees them; not as we limited human beings perceive them through our limited eyes, ears and brains.

Jesus had a short-hand for the way God sees the world…he called it ‘God’s Kingdom’.  When we begin to glimpse the world, ourselves and other people as God sees them; then we begin to live as people of the Kingdom.

Let’s do a little thought-experiment together.  What do you think the world is like?  The answer you give to yourself will depend a great deal on your experiences of the world.  If you have only every lived on a tropical island, with food hanging ripe from every tree, then the world will seem a pretty wonderful place.  If, on the other hand, you have lived in a dry desert, or had your house torn apart by a tornado, your view of the world will be something quite different.

The reality, of course is that the world is something else altogether.  We need to look realistically at the world.  God didn’t create the world to give you and me a luxury dwelling, and a guaranteed safe future:  he made it to offer us challenges, to help us grow spiritually and emotionally, as we learn how to care for each other, for other species, for the very environment of the Earth as much as God cares for them.

Let’s try another thought experiment.  Picture in your mind someone who really annoys you.  They might be a family member.  They might be a church member!  Hopefully, on my first Sunday, none of you are thinking about me yet!  Let yourself, just for a moment, feel some of the anger that you have about that person.  Aren’t they just so annoying?!  They are so smug!  They always think they are right!  They never say sorry!  They have no concept of how much they hurt me that time!  And now…Stop.

Stop and wonder how God sees them.  Could it be that God sees them as a Father sees a child?  Could it be that God sees them as still needing to grow into all that they can be?  Could it be that God sees all the things they’ve been through in their life that has made them like they are?  God was watching when they were taught how to behave by a dysfunctional parent.  God was there when they were abused, or bullied, or deprived, or used.  God saw how the character they have today is a result of all that they have been through and the environment in which they first grew. 
And how does God react to them?

God loves them.  Those ‘other people’ – especially the ones who really rile you – they are not saints.  But that doesn’t stop God loving them, nor caring for them, nor wanting them to grow as human beings to become all they can become.

And that’s also how much God loves you!  With all your faults and human weakness.  God loves you.  Get rid of that delusion that you are somehow perfect…that weird delusion that you’ve never done anything to upset anyone (which is where your anger about other people comes from).  In the eyes of God, you and I are no better than anyone else…and possibly a little bit worse than some.  

Yet he still loves us.  By offering us the free gift of forgiveness, he restores our self-respect.  He removes the need to justify ourselves.

In Lent, Jesus encourages us to ‘Get real’ about ourselves.  Only when we’ve learned to see ourselves as God sees us, and learned to see the world as God sees it, will we ever truly understand what it means to ‘Love our neighbours as we love ourselves’. 

Get real, in Lent.  Turn around, and see the world as it really is.  Wake up and smell the coffee.  Then, you will be eager to love your neighbours.  Then you will be eager to pass on some of the love you have experienced in Christ. 

The kingdom of God has come near.  Turn around, repent, and believe the Good News.  Get real about yourself, the world and others.  Forget the dream world of self-created fantasies, and join in with God’s activity in the real world he created – which is the only place where true joy can be found.    Amen  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015

Homily for Ash Wednesday 2015 - My first sermon to St Faith's Havant as Rector

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.

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, Bishop Christopher is inviting us to contribute to two causes: one at home, and one abroad.  At home, we will be called on to support work among those suffering from mental health issues; abroad, we will be supporting the work of the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, which provides surgery and rehabilitation for victims of violence.  Pat, our curate, recently spent time in the Holy Land with other curates, where she visited BASR.  We’ll be hearing more about her experiences later in Lent.

This is a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter. Having just taken over the enormous grounds of Meadowlands, I’m especially conscious of the need to clear away dead leaves, trim the bushes, plant new seeds.  I’ve especially had fun mowing down the two-foot high grass that was left by the last tenants!
This is a time for tidying our spiritual lives as well.  In a moment, I 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 invite you to participate in a Lent Course.  The Christians of Havant are combining their resources to provide a course on almost every day of the week during Lent.  Let me encourage you to sign up for one of those course…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 forgiveness 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 the child of God you were destined to be.