Sunday, June 28, 2020


Hands up if you want to know what the future holds.  Well, I can’t see your hands via my camera, but I’m willing to bet many of you put them up - at least in your heads.  Most of us want to know the future.  It’s pretty much ingrained in our human nature.  Farmers, when they plant their crops, would love to know whether they will succeed.  Armies marching to war want to know if they will win.  Investors in the stock market are obsessed by knowing what’s going to happen - there’s even an entire range of speculative stocks known as ‘futures’.
People living through a pandemic really want  to know.  Especially parents, for whom home schooling has really lost its appeal.  Or homeless people, who have been given a home during the pandemic, but now face real uncertainty.  Or NHS staff who are desperately hoping that the hoards on our beaches in the last week won’t trigger another pandemic wave.
I wish that I could see into the future, right now.  Because then I would know how to advise the PCC about when the right time to open our church to the public would be.  
This deep ‘need to know’ the future was no less real for our ancestors.  And so, prophets and sooth-sayers who claimed they could see the future were given really high status in their communities.  Kings consulted them, and religious leaders listened to them - sometimes.  
Personally, I’m a little bit suspicious of anyone who tells me that they can see into the future, specifically and definitely.  And I notice that even those biblical prophets who claimed they could see the future would describe in either very vague, or very metaphorical terms.  Armies of scholars have argued for centuries about what Daniel meant by the ‘Abomination of Desolation’ standing in the temple.  Or what John the Revelator meant by his lurid descriptions of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the battle of Armageddon, or the Whore of Babylon.  Even his glorious vision of a new Jerusalem, descending from heaven, feels rather more like poetry than factual description.
There are, essentially, two kinds of prophets.  First there are the ‘foretellers’ - the ones who claim to have been given a specific vision or picture of what the future will be like, or of how specific events will unfold.  
The second kind of prophet is the ‘forth-teller’ - that is, someone who tells-forth the teachings and wisdom of God into a given situation.  They are the ones who warn the people of the consequences of their actions.  “Listen up.  If you carry on living the way that you are living, then bad things are going to happen”.
Some of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets went to some extreme lengths to get their forth-telling across to the people.  I love the story of Hosea, for example, who deliberately married a sex worker to create a visual aid to the people.  “Look,”  he said, effectively, “I have married an unfaithful woman to show you that YOU have been unfaithful to God”.
I wondered about trying a similar visual aid, for one of my sermons...but Clare wouldn’t let me!
Sometimes, the people would listen to the warnings of the prophets.  Take Jonah for example.  He did everything he could to avoid telling the people of Nineveh that they were sinful and about to be punished.  But God insisted, and even sent a great fish to take him to Nineveh.  Eventually, Jonah plucked up the courage to warn the people that they were all doomed.  And guess what?  They actually listened to him.  The king put on sackcloth and ashes, the people repented, and the Lord decided not to wipe them from the earth.
Jonah was NOT happy.  Having finally delivered his ‘end of the world’ warning, he wanted God to go through with it! But that’s a story for another day.
St Paul described prophecy as one of the greater gifts, and he advised the Corinthians to earnestly desire the gift of prophecy.  And that’s because I think that be a really effective prophet, a great deal of wisdom is required.  Today’s prophets are those like our climatologists, who predict an awful future for us if we don’t change the ways we live.  Most pertinently right now, epidemiologists are another kind of wise prophet.  Their  years of study and accumulated wisdom enable them to forecast the effects of various social measures.  
The prophets of the Bible times often struggled to make their voices heard by the decision-makers of their day.  And we too have discovered that the dire warnings of scientists about COVID-19 are not always taken fully on-board by the politicians (who have a wider responsibility to the economy and the electorate).
The big task for the church, right now, is to prophecy about the future of our worship and community life.  This is no easy task, for we must listen to the wise prophets of epidemiology, as well as the heart-felt desire of our parshioners to re-enter their church.  What I think we can prophecy, fairly accurately, is that nothing will ever be quite  the same again in our future.  
But that whatever our future holds, we know that God walks into it, with us, hand in hand.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Not peace, but a sword?

The Rector’s Homily
For the Second Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 10.24-29

Let's get down to this morning's gospel reading shall we? Tough stuff this, isn't it? Verse 34-36: Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother in law; and one’s foes will be members of one's own household!  Jesus says that his followers may have to make some pretty tough decisions about where their allegiance lies. "Whosever does not take up his cross, and follow me is not worthy of me..." and so on.

To us Western Christians, this speech seems rather odd, even a bit fanatical doesn't it?  We have the freedom to worship wherever and whenever we like – except during a virus lockdown, of course.  To us, Jesus’ talk of persecution, poverty and martyrdom seems to represent another world altogether.  But ask the Christians of Syria, or Iran, or Turkey, or Northern Nigeria, or Palestine whether persecution, poverty and martyrdom  is a reality today.

Their often horrific stories force me to ask some pretty tough questions of myself. Could it be, for example, that we Western Christians have somehow tamed our faith?  Have we re-fashioned it in our own image so that it no longer challenges our society at all? With our beautiful buildings, sublime music and art, our robes and our meticulous traditions, perhaps we have left behind us some of the more radical aspects of Jesus message.

Now, this is not something I've been hearing from my lovely parishioners here at St Faith's, but frankly, when church members start to worry more about when their church building can open than whether their church is doing enough to help the poor, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions.

Have we become so contaminated by the world around us, that the world no longer sees us as a threat to its selfish, violent, materialistic way of life?  Could it be that we have become silent, when we should be upsetting the money-changers' tables?

The Christian faith, openly declared, is dangerous to the world. It is a way of life which stands in opposition to the way that many people chose to live. It is a way of peace, not war. It is a way of self-control, not pleasure-seeking. It is a way of poverty, simplicity and charity, not materialism and consumerism.

But what about these battles which Jesus  predicts between family members? There is an old saying, that blood is thicker than water...which is sometimes used to justify all sorts of feuds between families. In some feuds, it doesn't matter who is right or matters only that someone's family has been insulted. It's what the Mafia does. And, frankly, it’s what some families do too.

I don't know about you...but I think that that way lies madness. If we all jump to the defence of someone who is clearly in the wrong, just because they were a member of our family - or our club - then pretty soon the whole of society would crumble into an endless battle.

The church has suffered from this temptation too.  As we all know, only too painfully, the church is suffering from such bad publicity about its handling of sexual abuse, racism and homophobia.  That’s because churches, sometimes, have tended to put the church family above the need for justice and truth for victims of abuse, racism and homophobia.  Sometimes, we’ve even hidden – or at least tolerated - abusers, or racists, or homophobes within our church family structures.  We have failed to call them to a higher loyalty – the loyalty we all owe to God.  The loyalty to truth and justice.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families – or indeed churches - are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. Families, and church families, are one of the most important structures in our whole society. The best families give us companionship and love, a place to feel secure, a place to make mistakes, and still be accepted.

But Jesus says to us, through this reading, that we have an even higher loyalty...a loyalty that only a God could claim...a loyalty to Him. And that, Jesus warns, will bring division even between members of the same family, and even a kind of metaphorical sword. Because God has an even higher claim on our loyalty than our families.... even if our families don't acknowledge him.

So when those around us choose not to follow the path of the Spirit, how do we respond?  Perhaps they are our neighbours?  Perhaps its our Government, influenced by massive political donations to enact certain policies?   Perhaps its companies founded on greed and materialism, and who use modern day slaves to produce their wonderfully cheap goods for Western consumers?  Perhaps even members of our own family choose not to follow the path of the Spirit.  How do we respond?  Who is it who commands our loyalty?

May God give you the strength to stand up for Jesus, and for his radical call to a life of truth, justice, simplicity and charity. May you carry your cross, even when your family or neighbours tempt you to another path - an easier path, a path of least resistance. Be strong in the Lord.  Carry your cross.  And hold out for the reward of heaven.      Amen.