Thursday, June 27, 2019

Three year after the Brexit vote...

Luke 9. 51-62 and Galations 5.1 & 13-25

Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place.  It astounds me how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.  Today, we find ourselves three years on from the historic referendum on exiting the European Union.  And just as they did, three years ago, today's Scriptures speak powerfully into our situation and context.

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 current divided state of UK politics to mind, 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 an anniversary as this, is ‘what is God saying to us, through the Scriptures, about the state of our nation?’

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 a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  They were, to the people of Jerusalem, ‘foreigners’.  As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many conventional 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).  There is even a strong argument that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was original told to encourage hospitality to strangers, and that it had nothing at all to do with homosexuality.  But that's a topic for another day!

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 necks.  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, the third context, what about our situation…the context into which this Scripture is read today?  Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has - at least partly - once again driven a nation into division.  There were many intelligent and thoughtful reasons why many people voted for Brexit.  Many were attracted by the idea of bringing back control of our laws from a distant super-state, and from unelected officials.  Others leave-voters understandably thought they could trust the promise on the side of the famous red bus, that £350 million a week would be ploughed into our ailing National Health Service.  

But, alongside those perfectly legitimate aspirations, there was also a substantial strand of those who cited the influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe. We saw them, on our televisions, and heard them on our radios.  Some of the politicians played up to this - not least the infamous poster showing a stream of mainly Arab faces queuing to cross a border. 

Being afraid of the impact of uncontrolled immigration doesn't make you a fact, it may well denote you as an economist, when the problems of housing, schooling and healthcare are factored in.  But pointing the finger at foreigners is the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book.  If we can blame foreigners for our failure to build new homes, hospitals and schools, then we can keep on subsidising big businesses with the lowest corporation tax in the world, while hiding our own wealth in off-shore tax havens, and no-one will notice.

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 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 conjure…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 foreigners are 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 three years.  Instead, as I warned precisely three years ago, 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 dissension and division.  

In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain or protect, 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 speak not of what we can gain, but of how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity. 

And with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we can be a place where those who voted to remain can find common cause, friendship and love with those who voted to leave.  In the face of a divided nation, the church continues to welcome all, from every political viewpoint, to gather in love around the Table of our Lord.


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Jairus' daughter and the haemorrhagic woman

Have you ever noticed that there is a certain breathlessness about the Gospel of Mark?

It is the shortest of all the Gospels, at only 16 chapters long.  Many of the stories that Mark relates are stripped down to their bare takes Luke and Matthew to give us more of the detail of many events.

And the language of Mark is breathless, too.  Take a look at tonight’s second reading, as an example.  First of all, we find Jesus under great pressure from the crowd.  As he gets off the boat, ‘much people gathered unto him’.  Then when he sets off to Jairus’ house, Mark says ‘much people followed him, and thronged him’. 

Look then at the story of the haemorrhagic woman.  As soon as she touches Jesus, Mark says ’straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up’.  Then, a line later, Jesus looks around him ’immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him’.

I could go on...but its well worth meditating on Mark’s gospel in your own time, to see whether what I say is true.  You will find, I believe, that Mark’s narrative is peppered with the words ‘immediately’, ‘straightway’, or the phrase ‘and then’,

‘and then’,

‘and then’. 

Just by his choice of language, Mark paints a vivid picture of the Messiah who is urgently carrying out his task of salvation.  There’s no time for hanging around with this Messiah!

Luke, Matthew, and John are rather more relaxed.  In their narratives, Jesus takes time to sit and eat, or to pray in the wilderness, or to hang out with his friends - Mary, Martha & Lazarus.  John especially gives us pages of lengthy prayers, in which Jesus pours out his heart for his church, to his Father in heaven.

But not Mark.  Mark is in a hurry.  And, I think he wants us to be in a hurry too.

For a start, as I’ve already said, Mark’s gospel is only 16 chapters long.  It’s easy to read in a single sitting - unlike Matthew, with its 28 chapters! Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus - he seems not to consider such tales as important.  And yet, Mark’s action-packed gospel contains the most events of all the Gospel.  Mark is ruthlessly chronological, straightforward and concise.  Just like people tell me sermons should be!

Mark is essentially the first century equivalent of a journalist.  His very opening line tells us that this breathless account is of the Gospel - the good news - of Jesus Christ.  Gospels, of many kinds, were common in that time.  The birth of a Roman emperor’s son was announced as a gospel, for example.  Gospels were the first century equivalent of a headline in a newspaper, or a tweet on Twitter! 

Mark’s good news is that Messiah has come, that he has announced a radical change in God’s dealings with humanity, and that we should put our trust in him.

That is what this evening’s stories are all  Jairus, the local synagogue leader, puts his trust in Jesus to save his daughter.  And the woman who can’t stop bleeding trusts that even a touch of Jesus’ cloak can heal her.  And by reading these stories, we too are being encouraged to put our trust in Jesus.  Now.  Urgently.

Do these stories teach us that praying to God, as Jairus and the unnamed woman did, will guarantee our own healing?  Well, perhaps.  But to focus on personal healing alone is to miss the context of the whole of Mark’s breathless story.

In his opening chapter, the first words that Mark selects to put in the mouth of Jesus are these:  ‘The time has come.  The kingdom of heaven is near...’.  Mark wants us to realise that Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom, a new politics,  in which charity takes over from oppression, love conquers hate, forgiveness trumps revenge.  Or, in beautiful words of the Magnificat (so gorgeously rendered by Charles Villiers Stanford in tonight’s setting):

                He has put down the mighty from their seats,

                And has exalted the humble and meek.

                He has filled the hungry with good things,

                And the rich he has sent empty away.

The stories of Jairus’ daughter and the haemorrhagic woman are not there to encourage our prayers for personal healing - for we hardly need any encouragement when we are hurting, do we?  They are there to show us what complete trust in Jesus’ Kingdom looks like.

And what a magnificent vision that is!  If only we would trust Jesus when he tells us that it is in giving that we receive, or that we should turn the other cheek, or that we should forgive our brother 70 times 7, that we should welcome the stranger in our midst, raise up the homeless, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, or that we should be good Samaritans. 

How different our geo-politics would be, if the mighty stopped asking what was good for their country and instead started to ask what is good for all humanity!  How much nearer the Kingdom will be when leaders worry less about continuous economic growth, and more about sustaining the one planet we’ve been given to live upon.

And perhaps now, as we face the heaving politics of our fast-warming world;

perhaps now as the weapons of war are being prepared over the skies of Iran;

perhaps now as our politicians conceptually tear themselves apart in the houses of parliament;

perhaps now, we need to hear the urgency of Mark’s message all the more?


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sermon for 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the 175th Anniversary of the YMCA

Today marks two great anniversaries, in the life of our nation.  The first, of course, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day - which anyone who has turned on a TV, or tried to drive into Portsmouth in the last 24 hours could hardly miss!  We commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British services who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.

The second, less well-known anniversary, is that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 175 years ago today in London, by one George Williams and his friends.  I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA Secretary for about 20 years in the last decades of the last century.  The YMCA is now a worldwide youth movement, often quietly going about its Christian mission to be a place where counsel may be sought and friendships formed, among young men and women of all faiths and none.  From after-school care and pre-school centres, through to sports centres and outdoor pursuits centres like the one near us at Botley, through to hostels and homeless projects, the YMCA is a positive, life-giving presence in many towns and villages of this nation, and around the world.

The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too.  They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home.  It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that. 

There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day.  The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict.  The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”.  The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear.  Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.

The Gospel reading we have just heard has been read on this day, the 6th of June, for time immemorial. That’s the beauty of the church’s Lectionary - it allows us to revisit, on certain days texts which have come to have great meaning.  This passage contains a line of Jesus’ great prayer, which, it seems, George Williams and the other founders of the YMCA also appreciated, because they took it as the motto of the YMCA from that day onward.  It is these words:

“...that they may all be one”.

The YMCA has striven over the ensuing years to be a place where true oneness of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found.  And that oneness of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day.  British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined.  Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined.  Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great push to beat back the great evil of fascism.

Jesus’ prayer, is ultimately a prayer about his followers.  He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers.  He longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the love of the Father at work.  I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church.  We human beings, it seems, are not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the world, to be able to truly embrace that one-ness. The result is our constantly competing ideas about how the world, or our faith, should be.

On D-Day, we saw Hitler’s stark and angry vision of the world come into conflict with a greater, higher vision of the world - a world without hatred of others who are not like us.  Thankfully, the greater, higher, vision won - a vision of a world of oneness, in which nations learned to work together for the common good of all humanity.  In the post-war years, thanks to the sacrifice of all on D-Day and throughout the war, the world started to come together in the great institutions:  the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union and, yes, I’m going to say it, the fore-runner of what is now the European Union.

Sadly, we are beginning to witness the fracturing of the oneness that these institutions have stood for.  Nationalism is once again on the rise in the public imagination.  The very thing that the soldiers, sailors and airmen of D-Day fought to defeat - fascism - is rearing its ugly, ugly head on our TV screens and on our streets.

My prayer, like that of the YMCA, is that we will take a moment on this day of commemoration, to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. As the bells of St Faith’s ring out after this service, in honour of the sacrifices of D-Day, may we take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the one-ness of all humanity.