Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thoughts after the UK Votes to Leave the European Union

Key Scriptures:  Psalm 60. Galatians 5, 13-25.  Luke 9.51-62

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It is astounding how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.

Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’.   Bring the EU referendum to mind, think about all we have learned about the divided country we live in and the divided Europe our vote has created, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.”  (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it:  heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble:  for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)

It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  The key question on such a weekend as this, is ‘what is God saying to us about the European referendum?’

For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture:  context, context, context!

First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written?  What was going on in history at that time?

Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’  What did the writer understand the original story to mean?  Why did they chose to include it?

And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read.  ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’

So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:

First, the context of the story itself.  It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’.  In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area.  The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of Jews and Genitiles – what we might call ‘foreigners’.  They believed many things differently from the mainstream of Jewish belief – but suffice to say that were seen as outsiders by the people around Jesus.  They were different.  They were outsiders.  They were, no doubt, a perceived threat to the ‘good, hard-working families’ of ‘normal decent society’.

As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples.  When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them!  But Jesus rebukes his disciples.  They are not thinking straight.  They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.

As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34)

Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel.  Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul.  He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their heads.  They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land.  So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.

Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger.  And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith.  He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom.  ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.  (Lk 9.58)

Then, finally, what about our context…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has once again driven a nation into division.  I don’t know about you, but I have been struck by how many of the ‘Brexiters’ interviewed on TV and Radio have cited an influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe.

What we are experiencing, in front of our eyes, is the old phenomenon of xenophobia – that is ‘general fear of the foreigner’.  This is different to ‘racism’ – the unreasonable hatred of someone because of their appearance or racial characteristics.

Xenophobia is of course, the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  Persuade the gullible and uneducated that all the woes of a country can be blamed on a marginal group.  Then the gullible and uneducated won’t bother to challenge the Government itself about its economic decisions, or the disproportionate wealth of the elite.  Roman emperors did it – they blamed ‘the Christians’.    The Ku Klux Clan, and the Apartheid Government used it to blame black people for the problems of American and South African society.  Hitler used it to manipulate the German nation into the Second World War.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to unfold all the ways in which the xenophobia of recent months is unfounded rubbish…but you are all intelligent people.  You can do that for yourselves.

The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth.  The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.  If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population.  And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate have consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.

Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58).  And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjur…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.

We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us.  It will be a kingdom in which Samaritans – foreigners - are our neighbours, loved as much as we love ourselves.  It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed.  It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last few weeks.  Instead, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’:  enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.

“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]:  for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)

So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance.  How are we to respond to recent events?  How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?

Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time:  ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.  You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom.  In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all xenophobia.  In the face of corrupt politics and businesses.

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain, we hold up a cross.  We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all.  We hold up a Lord who had no palace.  And we continue to speak of not what we can gain, but how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sermon Series: “Marks of an Authentic Church” - Sermon One (Introduction)

Sermon Series:  “Marks of an Authentic Church”

Sermon One:  Introduction: “What Kind of Christian Are You?”

There are many kinds of Christ-ians, throughout the world.  There are, of course, the main divisions of the church - Catholic, Reformed, Orthodox, and all the sub-sects of these - Charismatics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Traditionalists, Baptists, House-churches, and all the rest.   Even within each sub-set there are Christ-ians who focus on different aspects of Jesus.  For some, it is his work as 'Redeemer' which is paramount - he is, for them, the one who pays the price for human sin.  For others, it’s the kind of Kingdom that he wants to establish.  For them, Jesus is the one who leads them to build a new kind of world order.  For others, it’s Jesus the 'High Priest' who is the primary focus of attention - the one who leads them personally to a relationship with the living God.

This got me thinking.  What kind of Christian am I?  What kind of Christian are you?  Of all the different emphases that are open to us, which aspect of Jesus is the one which calls most deeply to us?

It shouldn’t worry us too much that there are so many different emphases. God is infinite - and infinitely able to work with us messy humans in the widest possible ways.  He is more than capable of drawing some people to work with him on one project (say, building the Kingdom) while encouraging others to work on another (say, building relationships with God).  But along the way, I would argue, there are some churches which have managed to get the balance between these issues a little out of kilter.  There are some churches, frankly, which I personally struggle to recognise as Christ-ian at all.  Churches, for example, where a single theological idea has become such a driving thought that it blocks out the full range of experience of God that is available to them.  Take for example the ‘Snake’ churches of the Southern USA – where the handling of venomous snakes is a regular part of their worship.  They do that because of a single line in the New Testament, where true believers are promised that they will be able to handle snakes without fear of death.

So, I want to begin a sermon series today, as we enter this new year.  Over the next several weeks, I want to explore with you what I believe to be the 'Marks of an Authentic Church'.  There will be gaps along the way - not least when other colleagues are preaching.  But, over the coming weeks, through ‘Ordinary Time’ I want to explore what it means, or what it would mean, for us to be an authentic Church.

What do I mean by 'authentic'?  Well, I guess I'm saying that if our church, and our parish, shows these marks of authenticity, then I'll be content that we are at least 'Christ-ian'.  All I'm going to do today is give you a list - a list of what I think are reasonable and accurate marks of an Authentic Church.  I've currently got ten headings on that list (though - I warn you - it is possible that the list may grow!).  As each week passes, I'm going to invite you to think about each one in some depth.  My hope, and prayer, is that as we explore these ten 'marks' of an authentic church we will be prompted to think about how we personally, and together, measure up to them.  Are we people who can claim with confidence to truly be Christ-ians?  Are we authentic?  Does our faith - and our practice of faith - measure up?

Here then, are the ten headings I currently have in mind.  For me, an Authentic Church, should:

1) Reflect Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.  Jesus clearly cared for the poor and the sick.  Do we measure up to his example?

2) Have a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understand Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is sin anyway?

4) Encourage Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us are ‘consumers’ of Christianity?

5) Have an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blend the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Be tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embrace tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understand that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Be a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

One final thought.  You would be entirely right to ask me 'What kind of Christian are you?'.  Every preacher brings to the task of preaching something of who he is, and of what he (or she) personally believes.  So, let me lay my cards on the table.  I generally tend to avoid labels, for myself or anyone else, because people often assume they understand what such a label means.  But I acknowledge that labels do help us to get a sense of where someone is coming from.  So, if you forced me to choose a label for myself, I would say that I am a 'liberal'.  Let me break that down!

What it doesn't mean is that you could instantly pigeon-hole me as a supporter of the Liberal party!  Neither, as some people assume, does it mean that I believe that 'anything goes'.  I take the meaning of the word liberal from the Latin 'liberalis' - which means someone who is generous, munificent or gracious.  It also has, for me, a shade of the way the French use the word 'liberte', meaning 'freedom'.  In other words, by using the term 'liberal' I strive to be someone who is generous about the beliefs of others.  I believe that everyone is free to pursue truth as they wish, and I will be as generous as I can in listening to their insights along the way.  I believe there should be freedom to explore ideas for all, and that anyone who tries to close down discussion with a strict set of rules is probably in error.  Worse, they probably end up, ultimately, closing themselves off from all the depth and complexity of Real Truth.  I try to remain open, and generous-of-spirit to new ideas and new insights, from wherever they may come.

So, I invite you, over the coming months, to journey with me into my weird liberal world.  More than that, I invite you to think deeply about what it means for us to be an 'authentic church' - a church which is authentically 'Christ-like', 'Christ-ian' and which honours and proclaims Christ to the world.