Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Word of God?

 So.  The Bible.  According to one survey, the Bible has sold more than 6 billion copies in more than 2,000 languages and dialects. Whatever the precise figure, the Bible is by far the bestselling book of all time. 

On the other hand, the Bible is also the least read book in the world!  Very few Bibles ever get opened.  They are often given as gifts.  But, unfortunately, they often remain as pristine as the day they are given.

Why is this? There’s a number of reasons.  Sometimes the translations of the Bible are just too difficult, too archaic for modern minds to grasp.   Other people find that they do try to start reading the Bible.  But they soon get lost in a sea of numbers and laws.  

Others, having skipped the laws, find themselves in the Psalms, or in the Prophets...and there they quickly find their attention wandering.  For such writings come to us from a very different mind-set and culture.  And so, frustrated (and perhaps feeling a little guilty) people lay aside their Bible, and reach for a Catherine Cookson or Jeffrey Archer instead!  We find that we have a whole generation of Christians, in churches all over the world, who have been told time and again to read their bibles...but who find that they just can't do it. 

In my experience, if that’s YOU, you will undoubtedly be a good Christian. You will be someone who tries to follow Jesus every day. You will be someone who worships your Creator, loves their neighbour, and who gives generously to the work of God. And yet, you will be carrying around this weight of guilt that you never actually open your Bible.

So, how am I to respond to this fact? How would you expect me to react? Perhaps I should pull myself up to my full height and call you all 'Sinners!'?  

Hmm...I'm not sure that would help very much, would it? Because, actually, if you are one of those who finds the Bible difficult to read...I agree with you!  The Bible is not a novel. It's not a newspaper. Some people have described the Bible as 'the Maker's Instructions'. But for many, it’s the kind of instructions which come from the Far East, translated by someone who learned their English in primary this bit of helpful instruction from a computer hard-drive I recently purchased:  "More simple under USB interface, it only can do until the 3rd step and deleted is present channel”.  And let’s be honest – that’s how some of us hear the Bible.  I know – I watch those eyes glazing over!

  But the Bible is not an instruction manual. Neither is it a well-planned novel from a single writer, who sets out to tell a story. Instead, it is a collection of writings, 66 letters and books, assembled over a period of about 1,600 years. (The word Bible itself means ‘library’).  It contains legal codes, songs and poetry, prophecy, myths, history, stories and some pretty complex theology. Sometimes these different genres are separate. Sometimes they are all woven into just one of the books! (The gospels are a good example of this.)

So does all this mean that we don't need to bother with the hard work of reading the Bible? No. It doesn't. One of the things that the Protestant Reformation gave us, was access to the precious pages of Scripture for ourselves. With that access comes the chance to grow daily in our understanding of God.  But unlike a Catherine Cookson or a Jeffrey Archer, reading the Bible is the work of a lifetime.  Its beauty, and its huge complexity, takes a lifetime of learning to even begin to master.

But, the church Fathers of old were right about one thing. They knew that, unless properly understood, the Bible can be so easily mis-used and manipulated.  That's why the quote "you shall not suffer a witch to live" was used so mercilessly throughout the Middle Ages.  It's why the letter to Philemon was used for so long as a justification for slavery, and why the letters of St Paul are still used to silence women’s voices in church leadership circles.

The underlying problem is that in some very loud quarters of the church, the Library of books, stories, myths, laws, poems and theology we have inherited has gained a status which it does not claim for itself.  Some of the loudest voices declare that the ‘Library’ is ‘the Word of God’…as if God had personally written down his thoughts for us, as fully- formed instructions for us to slavishly follow.  

Well…I might be about to shock you now.  I am happy to declare my view – that the Bible is NOT the Word of God.   Rather, it is a collection of writings which point us towards the actual Word of God – the Logos of God – which is Jesus Christ.  That’s why, in our services, after a reading from the Bible, we say ‘For the Word of the Lord’ – rather than ‘This is the Word of the Lord’ – as most churches still do.  

That’s a subtle distinction – and some of you may not have picked it up.  But by saying ‘For the Word of the Lord’, we give thanks for those parts of the Scriptures which DO point us to the reality and the truth of God. But we also give ourselves permission to understand that some of the Scriptures we have inherited simply do not contain such truth.  Rather, they are an echo and a reflection of a time when our spiritual ancestors were reaching out of their stone-age ignorance - towards the very idea of a Divine Being at the heart of all things.  

Along the way, they made some terrible mistakes – which we can read about in the Scriptures.  They murdered, raped and pillaged in the name of their God, led on by leaders who told them that such was God’s will and instruction.  They conquered the land of other tribes.  They kept slaves and subjugated women.  They allowed religious ideas to be SO sacrosanct that even children could be stoned at the city gates for blasphemy.  They were contemptuous of foreigners, and miserly towards the poor.  None of these things are the Word of the Lord – they are only a record of humanity’s faltering quest for him – the actual Word of God.

For it is in Jesus Christ that the Scriptures find their target, and their fulfilment.  In the life and teaching of that one perfect human-being, we find the inspiration and the focus of the whole Library we call The Bible.  He is both the author and the perfector of our faith – the first and the last.  He inspired the writers of the Bible to seek for him through its pages, like a mountainside inspires a painter.  And through his teachings, his life, his death and his ongoing inspiration – he leads us ever onwards to the sun-lit uplands of our Faith.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

Not peace, but division!

Luke 12. 49-53

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son

   and son against father,

mother against daughter

   and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law

   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

I’m sorry – but this morning’s Gospel always makes me giggle.  As does the corresponding passage in Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s the reference to mothers-in-law.  It always takes me back to my childhood, and to the humour of its time from such comedians as Les Dawson.  He used to say things like “We always know when my mother-in-law is coming up the path.  The mice start throwing themselves at the traps!”.

We still find such humour amusing, don’t we?  Because we’ve all experienced – or at least observed – the sometimes-strained relationships of family-life.  As the old saying goes, ‘you can choose your friends…but you’re stuck with your family!’.  It’s natural for parents and grandparents to have different ideas about how to bring up the grand-children, for example.  Or different ideas about what job that a son-in-law or daughter-in-law ought to be doing.  And sometimes, within families, we struggle to ‘zip-it’!

But Jesus adds another layer to this natural tension.  He warns his followers that just by choosing to follow him, division will almost inevitably flow.  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.

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.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that families are a bad thing. God loves families! God invented families. 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 (through the lens of Matthew’s account) 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.

That higher claim on our loyalties can have some difficult consequences.  It can cause real tension between family members when some are trying to follow the Way of Christ, and others are following the way of the world.  Big family decisions can be fraught with tension.  

Perhaps, for example, there’s a debate over where to go on holiday?  One side of the family fancies maxing-out the credit card with an expensive trip to the other side of the world.  But, perhaps the Christian in that decision wants to question whether a cheaper holiday, closer to home, would be a better use of the resources God has given.

Perhaps, for example, one-side of the family has had an argument with a neighbour, and a kind of warfare has opened up over a fence boundary or something.  They feel obliged to stand their ground and carry on the fight.  But the follower of Jesus’ Way wants to turn the other cheek, and pursue the path of peace.

Perhaps, for example, there’s division about how the whole family should spend Sunday together.  The follower of Jesus feels drawn to church, to express their love and worship of God with other believers.  But the other family members want to head to the beach, nice and early, to get a good spot.

Perhaps, for example, there’s an argument about how much money to give to charity, or to the work of God’s church.  The follower of Jesus Way knows that extravagant generosity and charity are fundamental to the Christian life and the nature of God.  But other family members want to hold on to as much money as possible, if only to hand it on to the next generation.

Perhaps the tension is over what TV programmes to watch – violent, sexist, racist fare?  Or something life-giving and spiritually awakening.

And so on.  Time and again, families which are not working together towards a common spiritual goal find that these kinds of tensions arise.  They are nothing new.  Even Jesus’ own mother, brother and sisters tried to pull him aside from the path he knew he was called to follow.

There is little comfort to offer about these situations.  Jesus was utterly truthful, and utterly honest when he warned that following his Way comes with a heavy price.  For Jesus himself, that price included persecution, torture and death.  He asks us to follow his Way – offering only that peace which passes all understanding that comes from a life lived with God, rather than against God.

May God give you the strength to stand up for Jesus, and for his radical call to a Way 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. Pray for your families.  Be strong in the Lord.  Carry your cross.  And hold out for the reward of heaven.      Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Render to Caesar

Reading: Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter: 22, Verses: 15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 

So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Politics, politics, politics.  It’s a slippery business, isn’t it?  It’s a business that I know something about.  Before I was ordained, I spent five years of my life working in Westminster.  I worked in a building in Great Smith Street, just across the road from Church House – the offices of the Church of England.  Often, I would look out from my ivory tower across the road at the administrative home of the Church I was about to serve…and I would wonder. 

I would wonder at the link between the church and the state.  The formal link between state and church that we have in the United Kingdom is, in fact, a pretty rare thing – compared to the rest of the world.  The link between us – the church - and our nation is cemented in Law, and presided over, on both sides, by our Monarch. 

So how are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching to ‘give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God’.  Many have argued for centuries that Jesus wanted the link to be ‘disestablished’ – and that Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that’s time for the link to be dissolved.  Those who oppose this view rejoice in owning the longest word in the English language:  antidisestablishmentarianism!

So is Jesus’s statement a great cry for the disestablishment of the church from the state? Is this a cry that religion and politics don’t mix?  I don’t think so! 

Jesus stood in the tradition of all the ancient prophets and teachers, who legislated for the way that the whole State was to act, in all matters of human endeavour. 

Everything, from…

the ways wars should be conducted, 

the way prisoners should be treated, 

the way aliens should be welcomed, 

the way that the poor should be supported, 

the way that disputes should be settled

the way that the ownership of property should be regulated, 

even the way that banking and the charging of interest should be conducted…

...there are laws in the Hebrew Bible for all of these things…and many more. 

And Jesus went even further.  He came to fulfil these laws, by proclaiming a new kind of Kingdom.  Kingdom is an inherently ‘political’ word.  Repent!  Turn around!  Do things differently!  Live according to God’s rules and God’s ways.  Live in God’s Kingdom.

The real problem, I want to suggest, is that our state, here in the UK, has already become effectively disconnected from its religion.  Our society looks less and less like the religion we claim to respect. 

The poor are neglected and discarded.  For example, the new universal credit system requires people with nothing – no money – to live for around six weeks without any support from the rest of society.  For those with no savings, because any work they did have was very low paid, this is enough to bring about utter destitution.  

Whereas the Scriptures teach, boldly and courageously “there shall be NO poor among you”.  (Deuteronomy 15:4).  We ignore that teaching, and then we wonder why desperate people break into churches to steal what they can to live on.

Here’s another example.  Our economic models are driven by the charging of interest, which the Scriptures call usury, and illegal.  (Exodus 22:24 –commands, “you shall not charge interest on loans to your brother”). 

And another.  We take for granted the accumulation and passing on of capital through our families.  Yet the Scriptures, on the other hand, advocate ‘Jubilee’ – the principle that fairly-shared land shall be returned to the original owners every 50th year.  (Leviticus 25). 

I could go on – at some length.  But you’ll get cross with me if I do and start waving your watches at me.  Let me finish with this suggestion. 

Far from being a call to separate politics from religion, Jesus’ call to render to Caesar and God that which is theirs should constantly remind us that both the state, and God, have a call on our lives.  These two calls must be held in a state of constant dialogue.  A state without a religion is a state out of control – prey to the whims of the mob who would drive it ever towards the human kind’s baser instincts...blame of the other, the fracturing of community, individualism and consumerism, and the total disregard of the poor and the suffering. 

A religion without a state is just as much in danger.  A religion practiced without the tempering reality of human life can also become a deeply damaging thing. Personal religion can so easily become an individualistic search only for personal peace and holy experiences.  The songs of stateless religions are always the songs of the individual search for God…cries for God to ‘touch me, heal me, fill me’.  They are just as much a danger – and just as much worthy of correction.

The state needs religion.  And religion needs the state.  Each keeps the other in balance.  Each invites the other to think outside of the narrow confines of the self. 

Yes, we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  We are the State – and we owe a debt to the community which sustains us, feeds us, houses us, and cares for us.  But we must also render to God what is his…and never forget his cries for justice, for loving one another, for caring for the poor and the plain unlucky, and for placing God’s priorities above all else.


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Kill the Prophets!

 Luke 11.47-end

NRSV Translation:

47Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, 50so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 52Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’

53 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, 54lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

In our Gospel reading of today, Jesus, we might say, is clearly not a happy bunny, or a happy camper.  He is effectively declaring open hostilities with the traditional teachers of the faith, the scribes and the Pharisees.  The question is:  why would he pick such a fight?  Wouldn’t it be easier to have kept his head down, and lived a peaceful life?

The answer of course is that Jesus, the living Word of Wisdom and Truth, could not stay silent.  From the history of the Hebrews, set out in what we call the Old Testament, Jesus knew that time after time, the Leaders of the nations had killed the prophets, sent from God.  They silenced them through murder.  Jesus reminds the Leaders that from Abel (the first prophet) to Zechariah (the last prophet), their reaction had been to ‘rid themselves of these troublesome priests’ (to mis-quote King Henry II before the death of Thomas Becket).

This is a theme that Jesus picks up later in Luke’s account, in the form of the parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20. 9-19).  Jesus tells the story of a wealthy landowner (meaning God), who rents out a vineyard (the Land of Israel) to some tenants (meaning the Hebrew nation).  Then at harvest time, the Landowner sends out some servants to collect the rent – the servants, of course, standing for God’s prophets.  But the servants get murdered by the tenants. So the Landowner sends his own son.  Surely the tenants won’t harm him, for surely they love him?  But no…the tenants murder the son, and thrown him out of the vineyard.   In this simple parable, Jesus underlines again the way that people in power automatically resist anyone who challenges their power, or their status.

But this is precisely the role of prophets.  Prophets are those who, despite being disregarded, ignored, or even murdered, are prepared to stand up for truth against the powerful people of the world.  They are those who seek to transform the cultural norms of the society they serve – calling people to a transformed vision of the world.

There are prophets in every generation.  God continually calls out people of Wisdom whose unlucky task is to try to shift the culture of the day to something more life-giving, more Godly.  From our own time, there are many.  For Christian prophets, we might look to the example of Martin Luther King, who dreamed a dream of racial equality.  Or William Wilberforce, who led the campaign against state-sanctioned slavery.  We might think of Mother Theresa, who by her life and example reminded us that every human being is special.  We might hold up Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who brought Truth and Reconciliation to South Africa. 

But Christians don’t have a monopoly on the truth.  There are secular prophets too – or at least people who don’t use the language of religion to try to shift prevailing cultures.  We might think of Ghandi, who shifted the colonial culture of India.  We might think of David Attenborough and Gretta Thunberg, who are calling a largely deaf humanity to halt the destruction of Creation.  We might hold up the example of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Afghanistan who passionately argues for the education of girls throughout the world.  

(Note – not for preaching – too controversial without space to explore reactions: We might suggest that Karl Marx was a non-religious prophet, who called out the capitalist system for the uniquely unfair and exploitative system that it is.  Whether Lenin and Mao then applied his principles wisely is another matter altogether!).  

Few of these prophets ever really succeed – at least in their lifetimes.  Martin Luther King and Ghandi were murdered.  Mother Theresa, David Attenborough and Gretta Thunberg are treated as figures of fun – to be joked about and lampooned.  Malala Yousafzai faces the prospect of the Taliban regaining political authority in Afghanistan.  And so the cycle of the way the prophets are treated – called out by Jesus – repeats and repeats.

It’s a tragedy.  As much as it was for Jesus, it is for today’s prophets too.  The fact is that the powerful people of our world lack the motivation to change their ways.  They are comfortable and wealthy.  They hold the levers of power – whether it’s the media (which lampoons the prophets), or whether its henchmen who can carry out murders.  

But our task – is to carry on being prophetic.  We, who are followers of the Word of Truth and Wisdom Incarnate, we have a mighty task thrust upon our shoulders.  Wherever we live, work, study or play, we are called to speak truth to power.  We are called to stand up for what it right, and fair, and just in every situation.  In the words of the prophet Joel, we are called to “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.“


Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Wedding Robe - Part 2

 Matthew 22. 1-14

(Preached on the Sunday of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting)

The Wedding Robe – Part II

By a strange serendipity, the Lectionary has offered us a Gospel reading on which I preached only about two months ago, at a Thursday morning service.  ‘Oh good’, said I to myself as I sat down to write today’s sermon.  ‘I’ll just preach that one again – no-one will notice, and the Thursday congregation is a largely different bunch of people’.

But then, I realised that our newly discovered skills at using the internet would probably shoot me in the foot.  After all, the sermon I preached on the 20th of August has been widely shared.  At the latest count, 293 people have watched the service of that day, and an additional 154 have been reached by the separate posting of the sermon, and another 14 have read it online.  In addition, it was published in the Corona Chronicle, which currently goes out to around 250 people in the parish.  

Preaching a sermon again is something we preachers often do, if we can get away with it.  ‘After all,’ we reason, ‘if it was true then, it’s still true now.  And all the hours of preparation can be put to other good uses’.

I’m reminded of the apocryphal story of the Vicar who preached the same sermon two weeks running, and then again on the third week.  Thinking that his Vicar had finally gone mad, a churchwarden approached after the third occasion and said ‘Father, did you know that you’ve preached the same sermon three times now?’. ‘Yes,’ replied the Vicar. ‘And when I see evidence that the congregation has heard what I’ve said and acted on it, I’ll preach another!’

Another aphorism of preaching is that most sermons, if we’re not careful, can be boiled down to three basic messages:  Please pray more, attend more, and give more!   That’s a temptation I try to avoid – but I’m not always successful!

Jesus had a similar problem.  His message was essentially a very simple one – “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and you are invited to be a part of it”.  But his task was to communicate that simple message to as wide an audience as possible.  

He wanted people to know what the Kingdom of Heaven was like – so he gave them multiple images and stories to conjure with. The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or a wheat field, or a light shining on a hill.  Its citizens are like salt, or light, or – in the case of today’s Gospel reading, like guests at a wedding.

But Jesus doesn’t only describe what the Kingdom of Heaven and its citizens are like.  He also helps non-citizens – immigrants from the Kingdom of Men - to learn how they can become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  ‘Repent’, he tells them.  ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’ – which he then illustrates with a variety of new images.  Be a ‘good Samaritan’, sow ‘good seed’, don’t hoard your wealth in barns, be constantly ready, like wedding guests waiting for the bridegroom.  Be persistent like a woman knocking on a judge’s door, or like a man seeking bread from his neighbour in the middle of the night.  

Out of Jesus’ stories came many a memorable phrase.  ‘Don’t cast your pearls before swine’.  ‘Ask and it will be given to you’.  ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

We’re going to be proposing a memorable phrase this morning – at our APCM.  It also comes out of the story that we’ve been telling ourselves – the story of a congregation, here at St Faith’s, who want to live out the mission that God calls us to live.  It’s a story of five years of real progress, under the leadership of your brilliant PCC.  And it’s a vision of the next five years.   The phrase we’ve given this story – the title, if you like – is this:  Live, Pray, Serve.

As you’ll hear, when our Churchwardens unfold the plan, we want to:

Live, as followers of Jesus Christ – whose example we cherish

We want to Pray, alone and together by building on the historic practices of faith we have inherited

And we want to Serve – young and old, rich and poor, black and white – loving our neighbours at least as much as we love ourselves.

The only question – for each one of us here today – is whether we will choose to put on the wedding robe that is being offered to us by the Master of the Feast.  Will we choose to roll up our sleeves and get stuck into the task of advancing the Kingdom in Havant.  Or will be like the wedding guests who are just too busy or too occupied, to accept the Master’s invitation?


Thursday, October 8, 2020

Asking and Getting

 Asking and getting 

Luke 11.5-13

One of the great battles of medieval world, was over the correct interpretation of Scripture. For centuries, the established church had kept somewhat of a lock on the Bible. Only selected texts were read, and only authorised ministers were allowed to preach. Quite often even those sermons could only be sermons which had been written by higher authorities within the church. Pre-prepared texts, if you like. Scripture itself was often read in Latin, so that it was largely beyond the comprehension of most of the population.

The problem, as the church authorities saw it, was that if you put the words of Scripture into the hands of ordinary people, they would mis-understand it. They might, for example, pick up the book of Genesis, and actually believe that it was a factual, historical account of creation – rather than the allegorical story that it is.

But this wasn’t good enough for the Reformers, like Martin Luther, John Calvin and, famously William Tyndale who was the first to mass-produce Bibles in English. They argued that everyone has a right to read Scripture for himself, and, guided by the church, to arrive at a correct interpretation. The advent of the printing press made this move almost inevitable, just as the arrival of the internet in our time means that it would be impossible for the church to keep the Bible under wraps now.

But this new found freedom to interpret Scripture for oneself does lead to difficulties. We have before us, this morning, one of the most frequently mis-understood texts of the Bible: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you”. 

Sadly, there are churches all over the world where this text (and others like it) are taken at face value, without any scholarly context or interpretation being applied.  As a result, the worshippers in such churches find themselves believing that if they want to get rich, all they have to do it pray for it.  They are taught by their poorly educated leaders that if they don’t get rich, then that’s because they don’t have enough faith.  So the worshippers try desperately to believe, believe, believe!  Then, these false church leaders tell their congregations that in order to receive, you first have to give. Congregations are persuaded to give what little wealth they have to the church leaders…in the desperate hope that they will yet become rich.

It is a terrible, terrible con-trick…and it drives millions into abject poverty all across the world.  And all because this one line of Scripture is taken, completely out of context, and used as a maxim for prayer and the religious life. 

For this particular verse, what appears to be a straight promise from Jesus’ lips – “Ask and you will receive” - turns out to be not so straight forward, after all.  It needs to be read alongside other renderings of the same promise, in other gospels. (That’s why we have more than one Gospel – so that we can form a balanced and healthy view of Jesus’ life and teachings, from the variety of voices who told his story). Matthew’s gospel has an account of this very same teaching of Jesus – in Matthew 7.  John’s Gospel adds a very illuminating phrase to this saying of Jesus. “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you”.

But actually, we don’t even need to look at the other renderings of Jesus’ promises on prayers.  Luke provides all we need to know for a sound understanding of what Jesus was teaching.  At the end of today’s passage, we read these words:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

So, it turns out, prayer is not an open invitation to present God with a shopping list of things we’d like.   Jesus is teaching us to ask for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit!   He encourages us to be persistent – like a man knocking up his sleeping neighbour and asking for bread.  But the object of our desire is not for bread, or even gold.  The object of our desire is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Why?  Because the Spirit is the comforter, and the teacher.  He is the one who helps us in Augustine’s words of today’s Collect, ‘to find our rest’ in God.  He is the one who Jesus promises will ‘lead us into all truth’, and who will empower us to live, move and have our being in God.  How could we desire anything else?

I rather like the saying of St Theresa of Liseaux, who said “God always gives me what I want, because I only want what God wants to give.”

St John expands on his understanding of what Jesus was saying, when he says this: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you”.

Do you see what I’m saying? For those whose wills are aligned to God’s will, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, prayer can indeed become a powerful force in the world and in our own lives.   If we ask for something which is not central to God’s plan for saving the world, then the answer will be “no”.  But if our prayers are bent towards the will of God, seeking his face and his will for ourselves and for the world, then we should get ready for showers of positive answers to our prayers!


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Dedication Festival

A sermon on our Dedication Festival, commemorating St Faith of Aquittaine and Agen (our 'patron saint)

Readings:  1 Kings 8.22–30 & Matthew 21.12–16

There are many so called holy places in the world.  They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile.  Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.

Attributions of holiness have been given to many places over the millennia.  Stonehenge was once considered holy by its builders – as far as we know.  Great cathedrals and churches were considered holy, thin places, because they often contained the bones of great saints.  For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is one such place.  There are laid the bones of the young martyr – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a couple of years ago.

And yet there is a danger, isn’t there, in investing all our energy into buildings.  Anyone who has toured the ruins of great churches around the UK should know that faith is not kept alive by holy places alone.  They, like all physical things, must pass. For as King Solomon prayed at the building of his great temple, ‘…will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’  Where is that great Temple of Solomon now?  Gone.  Just a few stones which comprise the so-called ‘Wailing Wall’ remain.

In fact, if we are honest, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way.  In the Jerusalem temple, for example, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – in terms of the story it tells about God. For example, the way that the whole focus of the church is fixed on the High Altar, could suggest that God is distant from us….that he is far away, and only to be approached on bended knee, in front of a Sanctuary that ordinary people dare not enter.  That is not, I think, the picture of God that Jesus offers us.  He wanted us to understand God as our heavenly parent – the father who cares for his children and who walks alongside us.  Jesus taught us to expect to find God’s spirit along us, leading us into all truth, dwelling within us.  These are not images of a distant God.  A church which has its altar in the centre of the people might well be a much more accurate picture.

Some of our images of Jesus – in this beautiful building – are rather problematic. The blond, bearded man on the cross in our East Window looks nothing like the probably clean-shaven, dark-haired Jewish man who died for us.  What picture of God does this building convey?  It’s a picture of God as an Englishman – a blond one at that!  That kind of image undermines all that Jesus and his followers taught us about being one family of humankind, in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, black nor white.

And yet, as those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God.  That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile.    Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.

But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’.  It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather.  Fundamentally it is no different from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015.  A few palm branches, spread over a frame.  Just a shelter from the elements.

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down – leaving a pile of rubble in the middle of Havant.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).  

We have perhaps learned the truth of this even more during the COVID pandemic.  We have discovered that we are still the church, even when the building is locked and bolted against infection.  Through the internet, through phone calls, through loving and caring for each other and our community, the church has continued, without its building at all.

Next week we will focus on our plans for the future, during our Annual Meeting – plans which will certainly include the ongoing care and development of this beautiful building.  But also plans which will aim to build up the living stones of our congregation, as we seek, after the example of St Faith, to Live, Pray and Serve as followers of Jesus Christ.


Thursday, October 1, 2020

The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few…

Luke 10.1-12 (Jesus sends out the 72).

In these days of the Covid Pandemic, a remarkable thing has happened.  There are no firm statistics to support it yet, but all the anecdotal evidence is that the church is growing.  The mass movement of churches into online services has meant that people all across the country, and across the world, are accessing opportunities for worship and study in new and exciting ways.  In some cases, these are people who might otherwise have been stuck at home, through frailty or illness.  But in many other cases, I’ve found, the ‘new worshippers’ have been people who only had a very loose affiliation with church.

            Perhaps, for some, the very thought of entering a church has been scary, even though they have been interested in faith.  That might seem strange to those of us who feel at home in a church.  But perhaps we might reflect how we would feel entering, say, a mosque or a Hindu temple.  Where should we sit?  Are we allowed to sit?  What words do we say?  When is the right time to stand or sit?  If I sit here, will I be sitting in someone’s favourite place? 

            Offering our services online has enabled some people to engage with worship without any of those apprehensions.  They can sit in their own chair, and watch when they want to watch.  If something intrigues them, they can pause.  If they want to visit the bathroom, they can pause!  For many, therefore, worship online has enabled them to gain a window into the previously nerve-wracking world of ‘coming to church’.  And that’s a good thing.  It’s why we plan to continue live-streaming our worship for as long as anyone is watching it from home!

            Another group of people we’ve seen attending online church is the group of folks who walked away from church at some time in their lives…but who are now, slowly, gently, finding a way back through internet worship.  If you are one of those – then you are welcome too!

            The happy upshot of all these online engagements is that the number of workers for the harvest of human souls is somewhat larger than it was.  The harvest is indeed plentiful…there are literally millions of people who have not yet heard – or perhaps understood yet - the good news that they are children of God, that God loves them, and wants them to find new, purposeful life and healing for their souls.  Salvation…if you prefer. 

            But how are we to encourage online worshippers to engage in that task of being workers in the harvest field?  Well, here’s a few suggestions, from today’s Gospel reading…which really apply to us all, whether we worship in church, or at home.

            First: Jesus calls us to engage with the world.  He sent out the seventy-two disciples as his ambassadors.  He wanted them to prepare the ground on which he was planning to walk – telling the people that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  We too are called to this work.  Wherever we are – at home or at work, at school or out shopping – we are all the bearers of wonderful news.  God loves us, and calls us to live fulfilling lives, and to find healing for our souls.  We can invite our friends, our co-workers, our family to access the online resources which are now available – whether it’s to watch a service like this, and to think about the sermon – or whether it’s to join in with the Church’s daily prayer initiatives, or an internet discussion group.  Or whether its by passing on the Corona Chronicle to a neighbour or family-member.  By just chatting with others, about how helpful WE have found these resources, we can draw others into the light of faith.

            Secondly:  Jesus tells us we are not alone.  He sent out the seventy-two disciples in pairs.  He understood that we all need companions along the journey of faith – to correct us, to uplift us, to encourage us.  Who is your companion on the journey of faith?  Perhaps it’s your life partner?  Or perhaps it’s a close friend with whom you share your thoughts and feelings?  Perhaps just the very act of tuning-in regularly to online worship, or by actually coming into church, you feel that you have companionship along the journey of faith?  Whatever works for you – whatever lifts you, comforts you, encourages you, challenges you – keep on doing that.

            Thirdly:  Jesus tells us to wipe the dust from our feet.  Jesus knew that his good news of abundant life would not be welcomed by all.  Sometimes, people are just too attached to their own ways of doing things.  They are no longer teachable.  They think they have nothing to learn.  Jesus encourages us to not waste our time with such folks.  Leave them to God’s loving mercy.

            That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn – especially on the internet.  It’s very easy to get riled up about someone’s frustrating, or ignorant comment.  Part of me wants to turn into a ‘keyboard warrior’ – and to smash down the walls of their ignorance (or plain stupidity) with facts.  But I’ve had to learn that doing so is just a waste of time.  Someone who has allowed false news to dominate their thinking is only going to view me as deluded.  Their ability to reason has already been taken from them.  Wiping, sadly, the dust from my shoes, turning off the internet or leaving the conversation in the street are my only options.

            So…engage with the world, do it with others, and don’t waste your time on those who will not, or cannot hear the life-saving words of God.  That’s the nub of today’s Gospel…and whether we labour in the streets and workplace, or from our screen and keyboard, the harvest is plentiful.  Thankfully…the workers are not quite so few!