Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday to Easter - Bouncing from happiness to happiness...and missing the point

It seems little strange that only the first few minutes of our service today has been focused on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and so much of it focused instead on the events of the following week.  This is a mandatory requirement – for all of us who are obedient to the Lectionary.  My best guess is that this is because the Lectionary writers knew, instinctively, that the majority of worshippers across the land will not – or perhaps cannot - come to many Holy Week services.  As a result, for many, the history-changing events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane and Good Friday are entirely missed.  Many worshippers will hop from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, straight to the fantastic news of the Resurrection (on Easter Day).

This is, of course, regrettable.  For without the cross, the agony in the garden, the betrayals around the first Lord’s Supper, there is a danger that our faith can appear to be founded on celebration after celebration.  To bounce from ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ straight onto ‘Alleluia, Christ is Risen’ is to live always on the mountain top, never to descend to the reality of the valley below. 

On the front of this week’s Chronicle, I wrote the words, ‘We are Easter people, and alleluia is our cry’.   Which is wonderful stuff – but it’s not the whole story.  Sometimes, with Christ at the tomb of Lazarus, we need to lament as well.  Sometimes, like in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, we may even need to cry with Christ on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’

The Holy Week story, in its entirety, is ultimately about how God transforms our apparent defeats into victories.  Or, if you prefer a less militaristic metaphor, it’s about how God can transform our suffering into healing, or our pain into new growth, and the deaths we all experience into new life.

This is what God does, and what we, the church do in his name. Let’s pick some simple examples:

·             It’s a tragedy that we’ve lost some of our much-loved friends and family, in this last year – to COVID and other natural causes.  But the donations which many of you have made in their name will help us provide new pews that will serve the needs of generations of worshippers in this place.

·             It’s a tragedy that we’ve been forced to worship apart from one another during this last year.  But, on the other hand, our worshipping congregation has actually grown – and we now joyfully welcome, via the Internet, worshippers who were too frail to get to church before, or who live a long way away – like in Wales, Cyprus, Ghana – and other places all around the world.

·             It’s a tragedy that we have been locked inside our homes for so much of the last year.  But, on the other hand, the Corona Chronicle came into being – and many of us feel that we now know other members of our church family - in ways we could never have dreamed before.  And, we’ve published a book containing biographies, memories, histories and humour that will be a lasting testament to this generation of the people of St Faith’s.

These are just three of the more public examples of how God, living among us, has inspired us to turn tragedy into triumph during the pandemic.  There are many more – but I’ve promised a short sermon!

So finally, my encouragement to you this week is not to miss the opportunities of Holy Week.  Join us, online, on Monday evening, as we worship in the gentle, meditative style of Taizé.  Join us, online on Tuesday evening, as we walk the Way of the Cross, going from station to station around the church, contemplating each significant moment on the Way of Tears.   Join us, online on Wednesday, for a special Holy Week presentation by Graham.

Join us, online, on Maundy Thursday evening, when we will re-enact the painful institution of the first Lord’s Supper, and the washing of feet.  I shan’t be washing any actual feet this year, but I will be contemplating the deep, profound meaning of the meal that Jesus inaugurated on that night.

Then join us, either online or actually in person for an hour of worship at the Cross at 2pm on Friday.

Do all of this, or at least some of this with us over the coming days, and I promise you that the joy of Easter morning will be that much greater, and that much more profound.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Jesus the Human Being...

A Sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation

It is an odd fact of the liturgical calendar that just one week before we commemorate the death of Jesus, the church invites us to contemplate his conception in the womb of Mary!  That is, of course, because we are now nine months away from Christmas.

I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons – some even from me – about Mary’s vital role in the birth of the Saviour.  So, I want to offer you something new to think about, this year.  I’d like to focus on the thorny question of the virgin birth, itself.

It may interest you to know that virginal conceptions were nothing new – at least not to the people who wrote and read the Scriptures for the first time.  There were Jewish legends suggesting that great patriarchs of the faith, like Noah and Moses were also conceived in virgin wombs.  In other regional religions, it was a common theme, too. 

The evidence for Jesus’ own virgin conception is pretty scant, no matter how often we’ve heard the passage read at Christmas.  The concept of Mary’s virginity doesn’t appear in any of the earliest Christian writings.  St Paul does not refer to it at all, and neither does Mark (the first of the Gospel writers).  It just wasn’t important to them, nor necessary to their belief in Jesus as Messiah.  Actually, the idea is only found in Luke and Matthew – both of which were written towards the end of the first century (as much as 100 years from the events they are describing). And, I find it fascinating that Matthew substantiates his claim to the idea by entirely mis-quoting a verse from Isaiah chapter 7.  You know – the one about ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and you shall call him Emmanuel’. Closer study of that particular text, which Matthew quotes, quickly demonstrates that Isaiah was addressing another circumstance altogether.  And, Isaiah didn’t actually refer to a virgin at all, but rather to a ‘young woman’. 

So why are Matthew and Luke so keen to build a virgin birth into their Gospel narratives?

Well, you see, virginal conception mattered to the ancient mind, because they didn’t understand (as we now do) the biological mechanism of conception.  Our ancestors didn’t yet understand that the creation of life is a joint endeavour, biologically speaking.  So, if you want to claim that a certain famous man was actually a son of God, you needed to show how God planted his seed into the Mother’s womb.  And she needed to be a virgin – so that there could be no doubt.  The only way to be certain that a baby was a son of God was to emphasise the virginity of the mother.    

The reality is that, despite the tradition of the church, modern scholars agree that the evidence of Jesus’ own virgin conception is flimsy, at best.  But it has nevertheless persisted as a way of understanding that Jesus was both fully human AND fully divine.  Mary offers her own genetic material to the baby.  She provides the humanity.  God provides the divinity. 

(Theological nerds beware, however; the idea of co-mingling humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus strays into the heretical territory of ‘monophysitism’ which was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon.  Orthodox teaching is that Jesus was, mysteriously, both fully God and fully human at the same time, without any mingling of his two natures whatsoever).  Quite how that works, practically speaking, is one of the great ‘mysteries’ of theology.  We believe something to be true, even though we have no idea, with our limited brains, how it could be true!

But what if the virgin birth turns out to be as flimsy an idea as many scholars believe?  Does the possibility that Jesus was ‘just a man’ destroy our faith?  Not at all!  In fact, I would argue that the idea of Jesus’ complete humanity offers us even greater hope, even greater assurance of the most important aspects of our faith.

You might recall that Jesus preferred to describe himself as ‘the Son of Man’.  To our knowledge, he never spelled out why he preferred this description to, for example, ‘son of God’.  Could it be that this Jesus whom we call Lord, was just one of us?  That he didn’t have a divine advantage, conferred on him by a miraculous birth?  After all, how many times have we said to ourselves, ‘it was all very well for Jesus to be holy: he was God’.

Rather, let’s imagine that he managed to achieve all that he did, hold all the wisdom that he had, demonstrate the power that he held within, whilst being purely and only a human being?  Could it be that a man, only a man, was tempted in every way that we are and yet lived without sin?  Could it be that a man, only a man, rose from the dead?   Could it be that Jesus, a human being, managed to attain such a level of awareness of the presence of God that he could say, with his hand on his heart, that he and the Father were one, whilst at the same time chastising anyone who suggested that he was also God?  (cf John 10.30 and Mark 10.18) 

If that were true, what might that say for our potential?  Could it be that we too have the same capacity, the same potential, to become fully developed, fully wise, complete and eternal human beings, who are capable of also living lives that can change the world?  Could it be that Jesus, our brother (as St Paul calls him) is showing us the truly awesome potential of an entirely human life lived completely, utterly, and without reserve in the pursuit of God?  Could Jesus’ life actually be our life too?  Could it be that the image of the Trinity is given to us so that we can know it is possible for a human being – any human being, even me – to attain complete union with God.

I do not want to tell you what to believe.  You are perfectly welcome to go on believing in the virgin conception of Jesus if you wish.  Ultimately, it makes little difference, either way, to the decision that we all have to make about life. Each of us must decide whether we choose to call Jesus our Lord, and our guide to the Way.   If it helps you to believe that Jesus accomplished all he did because he had a direct helping hand in his biology, then so be it. 

But as for me – I’m prefer to focus on the essential humanity of Jesus.  Because recognising Jesus as the Son of Man, (as well, of course as the Son of Woman) gives me hope.  It gives me the hope that if I keep striving, and keep running the race that is before me, I too might one day attain the prize of living a fully realised human life, with all its potential.   It gives me hope that I too, by God’s grace, might be caught up in the presence and reality of the Divine Trinity.  Amen. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Passion about the Passion

(You can watch this sermon being delivered, with explanatory slides, at this link: )

Today (the 5th Sunday of Lent) is traditionally known as Passion Sunday – marking the beginning of Passiontide, which will of course culminate at the Cross.  Passion Sunday brings Jesus’ suffering to the fore.  It invites us to focus on the depth of meaning that suffering contains.  But what does it mean?  What is the significance of Christ’s passion?  Perhaps a story will help…

Picture a scene.  It’s the second world war, and the Japanese army is forcing British prisoners to build a railway, from Burma to China, crossing over the famous River Kwai.  At the end of each day’s labour in the sun, the prisoners are lined up and counted – along with their shovels, to make sure that none can be used for escape attempts.

But one day, it is discovered that one shovel is missing.  The Japanese soldiers scream their anger at the lined-up prisoners.  “Unless you tell us now who has taken the shovel, you will all be shot!”.  For a moment, there is stunned silence, as each man comes to terms with the news that he might be about to die.  Then, one soldier steps forward.  “It was me,” he says. “I took the shovel”.  A Japanese soldier puts his gun to the man’s head, and shoots him dead on the spot.

Later that day, the shovels are counted again – and it is discovered that there has been a mistake.  All the shovels are present and correct.  There are no shovels missing!  The soldier who apparently confessed his crime, was in fact completely innocent.  He took the punishment that had been threatened to all his brothers.  He died so that they might live.

And there, in what I’m told is a true story, we find an eloquently simple parable of what the death of Jesus has meant for many Christians over the centuries. The church has generally taught that Jesus took the punishment which should be ours.  It’s a theory known as the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’.  Jesus takes the punishment due to human beings who ignited the righteous anger of God.  It’s the picture – or at least something like it - that I guess many of us have in our minds, when we think about the death of Christ.  But there are many other ways of grappling with this idea.

Most theologies of the Cross rest on the idea of atonement:  that is 'at one-ment' - the idea that by his death, Jesus managed to bring fallen, sinful humanity to one-ness with God.  Many different images are used in pursuit of this idea.  Drawing from Isaiah's visions of the Suffering Servant, theologians have proclaimed that 'it is by his wounds that we are healed'.  In other words, through his suffering, Jesus atones for us.  It is as if Jesus says ‘sorry’ for us – to a wrathful God - and makes amends by suffering.  His atonement is a substitute for the atonement that we ought to offer.  Which is why this theory is called ‘substitutionary atonement’.   

Another theory is the idea of ransom.   According to that theory, our sins make us the moral property of the devil.  Because we sin, the theory goes, we belong to Satan – whom Jesus described as ‘the ruler of this World’ in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, as the only sinless human being who has ever lived, was the only price which could be paid to 'redeem' us from the devil.  This is what the hymn writer Fanny Crosby was referring to in the second verse of our opening hymn.  ‘O perfect redemption – the purchase of blood’.  She was clearly drawn to the idea that only with his blood could Jesus purchase our souls back from the Devil, and by doing so, defeat the him and (as Jesus is quoted as saying in today’s Gospel, thereby ‘driving him out’).

But we must remember that all these images are just that...images deployed by theologians like St Paul, and many after him, to try to get a handle on precisely what Jesus was doing that day.  And that, crucially – is because Jesus himself never really explained how his death dealt with the problem of human sin, nor precisely how his death obtains the forgiveness of our sin. 

Other theologians have shied away from these images of punishment, substitution and ransom.  Many have struggled with the idea of the Satan having so much power over creation that an omnipotent God – who created all things, even Satan himself - should have to die in order to regain control.  Surely, they have said, if God is all powerful, as the Bible says, he could click his fingers and take care of Satan – assuming he really exists at all. 

Other thinkers have wondered what it says about God to suggest that he insists on a universal, cosmic punishment for all sin, which can only be paid by his own Son.  The Baptist minister, Steve Chalke, gained much notoriety a few years ago when he described this idea as a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’.  Surely, goes the argument, a God who defines himself as merciful Love can choose to give his amazing grace without requiring first some mechanism of torture and punishment. 

Such theologians – amongst which I dare to count myself – have wondered whether something else was really going on upon the cross.  Rather than Jesus paying a price for our sin, to the Devil or to a wrathful God, perhaps Jesus’ death was, instead, God’s message to the world.  Not a purchase of blood, or a price to be paid, but a monumental, unmissable, unforgettable sign, which would be imprinted on all of humanity’s hearts throughout history. 

What did that sign say?  Well, drawing from the thinking of Rowan Williams (the previous Archbishop of Canterbury) I think it looks something like this: “Ignore God at your peril!”  Let me explain…

On the cross, Jesus takes upon himself the very worst that humanity can do to itself.  He takes all the hate, all the power-games, all the might of the greatest army of the world, all the control-freakery of the religious leaders.  He takes it all.  In doing so, he paints an enormous sign of warning across the sky of the Universe…it says “This is what happens when you ignore God, when you refuse to listen to God, when you drive God out of your politics, your education systems, and your society.  You end up putting God, outside your city wall.  You exclude God from your decisions and from your lives.  You cast him out, and you let the very idea of God die, alone and friendless outside the thin walls of your self-built cities.”. 

But what Jesus does with this death is magnificent!  Having let the hatred and indifference of human power overwhelm him, to the very point of death – he bursts out of his tomb, powerfully demonstrating for all time that Love will always win over hate; true life, eternal life, will always overcome death.   There is hope – despite the worst that humanity can do to itself.  Jesus says ‘come to me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden (by the world and its ways) and I will give you rest.  Take my ways – my yoke – upon your shoulders, for my burden is light’.

So, for me, the Cross is a symbol of the worst that humanity can do, but also a sign of the hope we have in Christ.  It stands for hope that better days are coming.  It stands for hope that we can turn our swords into ploughshares.  It stands for hope that we can include God in our decisions, and in our life as a society.  It shouts out that selfishness, consumerism, power, greed, hatred, racism, and all the rest do not have to be the only way to live.  That there is another way. 

The downward thrust of the cross, from heaven into earth, calls us to let all those human patterns die, and having sought forgiveness for our complicity with them, calls us to rise again, with Christ, to life anew.  Amen!


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Joseph – the un-sung hero.

Tomorrow (19 March) is the feast of St Joseph, husband of Mary and earthly-father of Jesus.  And we’re celebrating that feast today…because poor Joseph often gets overlooked in the stories of the Nativity.  Our focus is naturally drawn to the sacrifice of Mary, and the birth of a baby. And yet Joseph plays a crucial role in so many ways. 

In our Friday evening Bible Study on the History of the Bible, we’ve been considering how the present books of the Bible came to be accepted by the church as being authoritative.  But we’ve also learned that in the early centuries of the church, there were a number of other writings about Jesus in circulation.  One of these early, apocryphal writings was the so-called Proto-gospel of James, a book which actually gave us many of the nativity stories we tell today (and which are not actually in the Bible’s accounts).  For example, the Gospel of James gives us the notion of the stable being in a cave (actually on the road to Bethlehem). It offers us the ox and the ass, and the image of Mary riding on a donkey.  The Gospel of James also focuses keenly on Mary’s virginity, and it is from the Gospel of James that the idea of her own immaculate conception first arose. 

Another key idea from the Gospel of James was that Joseph was a man of mature years – a widower, in fact, who already had children of his own.  James tell us that Joseph was selected as a guardian for the twelve-year old Mary, who was then a ward of the Temple.  His marriage to her was, according to James, not for procreation, but for legal and social protection – a kind of adoption or fostering arrangement. 

This is all speculative, of course.  The Gospel of James never gained the authority of the other Gospels which are contained in our Bibles.  The Holy Spirit guided the early church to set the Gospel of James aside.  They believed that it had been written to advance some particular theological ideas which were being hotly debated at the time.  But the Gospel of James does add some colour to our own traditional views of the Nativity, and explains why we still tell parts of the story which don’t appear in the authorised Gospels of our Bibles.

Crucially, James underlines the vital importance of Joseph in the arrival of Jesus into the world.  Taken with Matthew’s account (which also features Joseph, much more keenly than Luke) we gain a heroic picture of Joseph – the man who chooses to become a guardian to a 12-year old temple ward, who chooses to stand by Mary, despite the scandal of her pregnancy.  He is the caring father-figure who finds shelter on the road (and according to James, even runs off to find a midwife for her!).  He is the protector, who obeys God’s instruction to take his new family into exile in Egypt.  Even if we question the factual accuracy of some of these stories, they do nevertheless serve to inspire us (as all such stories should).  They are consistent with the picture of Joseph we have in the standard Gospels.

In the Bible, consistently, the heroes are always the ones who do what God asks or expects them to do.   It’s one of the central, over-riding themes of Scripture, that God always has a plan for his people.  Only by following the plan – doing what we are told – can we ever hope to establish God’s lasting rule on earth.  The trick, of course, is to understand what God is, or isn’t, telling each of us to do.

According to the prophet Micah, God asks three essential things of us.  We are to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”  Say it with me – ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.

These were, in fact, the precise attitudes of Joseph.  Doing justice meant that he could not ‘put away’ a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy was not her fault.  Loving mercy meant that he needed to offer the protection that she and her baby needed, even to the extent of fleeing into Egypt.  Walking humbly with God meant trusting that God’s plan for the baby were far superior to anything that Joseph himself might have tried.

As we begin to inch forward out of lockdown, and into the brave new world of the ‘new normal’ many of us may also be wondering what God wants of each of us – individually and as a society.  As individuals, we have learned a great deal about ourselves in the last year.  We’ve learned something about what gives each of us joy, and what depresses us.  I’ve learned, for example, that having time to write and think is productive time, for me and for my congregation.  I plan to do a little less dashing around the parish in the coming days as we beginning to unlock the lockdown!   

As a society, we’ve seen that we can make different choices about how we live together, and how we care for the most vulnerable in our midst.  We have done justly, and loved mercy.  There have been increases in Universal credit, homes for the homeless, food for the poorest families during holidays and lockdowns, furlough payments for otherwise jobless workers, increased donations to foodbanks and NHS charities.  Carers have lived in caravans to protect their clients.  Medical staff in hospitals across the land have worked their fingers to the bone in service of their communities.  We have pulled together, as a society, and a great deal of justice and mercy have been shown.

Have we been transformed by the pandemic?  Have we learned something of what Joseph knew – that doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God are life-giving things to do.  Only time will tell.  Some in our society will shrug their shoulders, after this pandemic, and carry on living in the old ways – ways that are destructive to themselves, to society, and to the planet.  But I pray that there will enough of us for whom this pandemic has been life-changing, and paradigm shifting.  I pray for an outbreak of people who have learned, with Joseph, the joy of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.    Amen

Thursday, March 11, 2021

What is Truth?

Texts: Jeremiah 7.23–28 & Luke 11.14–23

As someone who has a keen interest in politics, I am sorely tempted to preach on this morning’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Despairingly, he cries out ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God…; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.’  In our era of fake truth and political spin (on all sides), it would be deeply satisfying to rant for a few minutes.  I’d love to list all the ways that truth has become a casualty of the battlefield of politics in recent years.  But, from previous sermons, I think you probably already know what I think on this topic!  I think you already understand how far I think the Christian nations of the West have departed from the teachings of Christ.

So instead, let’s delve a little deeper into the nature of Truth itself.  In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus debating with those tiresome Pharisees.  They demand to know by what power does he cast demons – accusing him of using the Devil’s authority.  Jesus, in response, employs reason.  (He is, after all, the ‘logos’ – the reason, wisdom and Word of God).  He asks the Pharisees whether there is any logic at all in their question.  Why would the Devil cast out demons?  For, as he says in a memorable and wise saying, ‘a Kingdom divided against itself cannot stand’.

I’m sure that phrase has gone through the minds of the Royal family this week.  Whatever our views about Harry and especially Meghan’s public utterances, the Royal household – and by extension, the Royal Kingdom - has once again been divided.  Will it stand?  I suspect it will.  After all, the House of Windsor has many years’ experience of managing such crises – as demonstrated this week by the official Palace statement about Meghan and Harry’s complaints. 

For me, the most interesting 3 words of the 69 in the Palace statement were these: ‘recollections may vary’.  These incisive words invite us to think about our own memories of past hurts, or simply of past events, in our own life.  And they invite us acknowledge that the actual truth of any past event is very difficult indeed to establish.  Our memories are not video cameras – our brains record a mixture of emotion, smell, sight and sound…and we know, from much scientific research, that those memories change over time, depending on what we ponder about the event as we revisit it in our minds. 

Dreams also serve to refashion our memories.  If they are especially traumatic events, dreams can serve to soften the focus and the hurt, helping us to live with the emotional damage of the memory.  For some people, especially those with post-traumatic distress disorder, dreams can sometimes do the opposite. They heighten or amplify the events – even adding details which didn’t actually exist.  Truth, therefore, becomes hard to find in the repository of memory.

Pontius Pilate, another monarchical figure, famously asked Jesus, ‘what is Truth?’.  This implied that the truth of his situation was very different from that of Jesus at the crucial moment of decision.  Pilate’s ‘truth’ was that he had enormous expectations placed upon his shoulders, from Rome, and from the Jewish leaders and people.  Pilate’s truth was that he needed to put down a potential rebellion against Rome, and therefore needed to permit the state murder of a man he considered innocent.  Pilate’s truth was that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one (which all Star Trek fans will appreciate).

Jesus’ truth, at that moment, was fundamentally different to Pilate’s.  His truth included his willing surrender to the hatred of the state, for a much higher purpose – the salvation of all humanity.  His truth included the certainty, by faith, that his death would not be the end of his life.  So Jesus and Pilate, experiencing the very same moment in time together, experienced the truth of that moment very differently.

We do well to remember that Pilate’s maxim, ‘what is Truth?’ applies to all human experiences.  Truth, then, it seems really is ‘in the eye of the beholder’.  Each of us experiences the world differently.  But this does not mean that all truths are either accurate, or that my perception of truth must trump everyone else’s.  Some truths contain facts which can be verifiably proven.  (I might choose to believe, in my truth, that the Earth is flat.  But that does not mean that it really is.) 

Returning to the Gospel reading, we find another example.  For both the Pharisees and the Jesus we encounter through Luke’s eyes, the Devil (or Beelzebub) was an objective truth.  Their argument centred around the Devil’s involvement or otherwise in the casting out of demons.  The existence of the Devil was not in doubt, within either of their truths.  But for us, as modern day readers, our truth will probably include a great deal of scepticism about whether or not the Devil actually exists.   Many of the diseases which Jesus cured, once attributed to demonic possession, we now know to be caused by scientifically-understood processes. 

And so, we find, that the way we read the Bible is very different to how, say, the first Christians would have read it.  Our world, and therefore our truth, is different to theirs.  Which means that we must approach the Bible always in humility, and with wisdom.  We must seek to understand the truth positions of the people in each story, as well as the writer of each story.  And then we must place that story within our own truth – and learn from it what we may. 

If we could truly grasp the importance of this revelation, the world would be a very different place.  Social media, and the newspapers (and this week, Good Morning Britain) are full of people who want to loudly proclaim that their truth is the only one that matters.  But actually, if we were ALL more keen to listen to the truth of others, and less keen on megaphoning our truth, the world would be a much kinder, more compassionate place.  It would be a place in which we offer forgiveness before judgment, love and understanding before hatred and recrimination.  It would be a world in which the Kingdom begins to come on earth as it is in heaven.






Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Ten Commandments...abandoned and forgotten

On Thursday evening of this week, Sandra preached on the same Gospel story that we’ve just heard – the story of Jesus chasing out the money changers from the temple.  So, now I’m going to tell you all the things she got wrong….

Not really!  Actually, it was a very good sermon- and you can watch it for yourself just by clicking here: Facebook 

So, that topic has been covered…which gives me an opportunity to focus, for once, on the Old Testament – and specifically on the Ten Commandments.  In fact, the Lectionary invites us specifically to consider the Commandments during Lent.  In older times, we would have recited the commandments together on Sundays throughout Lent.  And in Tudor times, the law of the land required that the 10 Commandments should be inscribed upon wooden tablets – and placed at the East End of the church for everyone to be constantly reminded of them.  

But, what can I say about them in just a few minutes, here on a Sunday?  I’m sure that none of you would thank me for a 10 point sermon!

Well, let me be concise: the plain fact is that today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments!  If you ask the typical man or woman in the street what the basic rules of society should be, they will often say things like ‘bring back the 10 Commandments’ – and then they will merrily go about their lives in complete ignorance of what the commandments actually teach.

What do I mean?  Well let’s look at them in two groups – for we can split the 10 Commandments into two headings – just as Jesus did.  

First, there’s the group of Commandments which are about God, and our relationship to God.  You know the sort of thing – worship God only, don’t make graven images and idols, don’t take his name in vain, and set aside a Sabbath day to rest and commune with God.

Secondly, there’s the group of Commandments which are about how we live with each other – or, in Jesus words, how we can ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’.  

So let’s look at them – and examine whether my statement, just now, that today’s society couldn’t care less about them actually holds water.

First – the commandments about loving God.  We make our own gods, today.  Perhaps your god is a famous celebrity, a fashion icon, or a film star.  

For many, keeping up with the fashions, lifestyle and fashion choices of someone called Kim Kardashian seems to be all the rage!  If we are lucky enough not to be employed by a seven-day a week organisation, many of us use our day of rest to worship these gods.  But the day of rest has, itself, been sacrificed on the altar of commerce.  We simply must have our garden centres and supermarkets open on a Sunday, staffed by some of the lowest paid workers in our economy.  For how else can we worship our gods of gastronomy and horticulture?!

Ultimately, the thing we choose to make our personal god, is the thing that we invest most of our spare time and energy into.  It might be our lovely new car. Or perhaps it’s an unhealthy over-focus on certain wines, or a given TV soap opera.  Each of us must judge for ourselves.  But I guarantee that each of us has, at some time in our lives, made something or someone else into a kind of god.  Something that commands all our love, energy, devotion and spare time.

To any of us who have developed such a god (with a small ‘g’), the Lord God Almighty, creator of the Universe, says to us, “Oi!  You there!  Look over here!”  The 10 Commandments invite us to put our primary focus back towards the source of all things, towards the energy, creativity, power and beauty which is actually at the root of everything which we choose to make into a god.  The facial perfection of a film-star?  It comes from God, the ground of all beauty.  The wisdom of a great philosopher?  It comes from God, the ground of all wisdom.  The power of that twin-turbo super-charged engine you love to polish?  It comes from God, the ground of all power and the author of physics.  The mischievous laugh of the grandchild or the pet animal you are obsessing over?  It comes from God, the ground of all family and love.  

The 10 Commandments call us back to the source – and to a right focus on God, who is the ground of all being.  And then they encourage us to act in God-like ways towards our neighbours.

The second group of Commandments are all about the way we live together.  Murder, adultery, lying, stealing, and covetousness are all bundled together, along with the command that we should respect and honour our parents – the older generation who have much to teach the young. But murder, adultery, lying, stealing and covetousness are so normal in our society, that we don’t even blink anymore when we see them in our national life.  No-one blinks an eye that some of the most senior leaders in our land have sacked for lying in the past and that court documents attest to their multiple adulteries.  The vast majority of the world rolls over in its sleep at stories of the murder of innocent protestors in Myanmar, or when policemen in the USA choke the life out of a black detainee.  And don’t get me started on stealing – especially the whole-sale, world-wide legalised-theft of property ownership by billionaires, and the institutionalised theft of tax avoidance schemes.   No, no-one cares anymore.  We just accept our leaders’ disregard of the 10 commandments without a second thought.

And covetousness?  Our entire economy is founded on it!  The marketing industry depends on it.  Entire banking systems are built around our endless desire to possess what our neighbour already possesses.  

No, my friends, the hard and irresistible conclusion has to be, as I said 10 minutes ago, today’s society couldn’t care less about the 10 Commandments.

So?  What?   What are we to do about this?  We have a choice.  We have always had a choice.  We have the same choice that inspired Moses to bring these commands down from the mountain.  We have the same choice that Jesus gave to his followers.  We can choose to roll over, let the lies, the murder, theft, adultery and covetousness consume us.   We can carry on shifting our focus away from the source of all gods.   Or we can repent….turn around…and focus our lives, our attention, our time and our devotion back to the centre.  To God, to author and perfecter of all things, and the ground of all being*.

And that, my friends, is what Lent is all about.


*This phrase was eloquently employed by Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians and philosophers of the 20th Century. It is also a phrase commonly used in Buddhist thought, to describe the unknowable, unmanifest, unchanging, infinite ‘Brahman’.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Rich Man and Lazurus (The problem with miracles...)

Text: Luke 16.19-end

If you or I wanted to persuade the world that God is real, what is the most persuasive thing we could do?   Perhaps a great miracle will do it?  Like feeding five thousand families with a couple of small fish and a few loaves of bread?  Perhaps a dramatic healing or two…like giving sight to the blind, or healing a fatal skin disease?  Perhaps we could walk on the water, from Langstone to Hayling.  Or, with a word of command, still the next storm to rage over Havant.

Or how about raising someone from the dead?  Perhaps if we could achieve that, surely the whole world would realise that God is real?

Well, apparently not.  Jesus did all these things, according to the stories we have inherited about him through the lens of the Gospels.  And yet, they were not enough.  In fact, some of the stories in the Gospels go even further than raising only Jesus from the dead.  Matthew’s Gospel, for example, claims that upon the death of Jesus, the ‘tombs of the saints’ were opened, and the dead rose up and entered the City, appearing to many – a story which pre-figures the great Resurrection promised to all believers at the end of time.

But, how is it that despite so many miracles, and the demonstration of so much power, by the time that Jesus was crucified, his followers had shrunk in number down to single digits?  How is it that after great demonstrations of power, whether at Lourdes or during the healing crusades of so many Pentecostals, the world has not yet turned to God?

Scepticism, coupled with scientific rationalism both have a role to play.  Just as when we watch a great magician on stage, we instinctively suppose that even the great miracles of Jesus are a trick of some kind.  We reason to ourselves that perhaps he didn’t walk on water, but on a sand-bank just beneath the waves.  Perhaps the calming of the storm was a lucky co-incidence between Jesus waking up and the storm naturally blowing over.   Perhaps he wasn’t actually dead, after three hours on the cross, but just severely wounded.  And, we reason to ourselves, after three days he had recovered enough to step out of his tomb.  There are of course many ways to refute all these rationalist explanations – and theologians have been ably refuting them for two millennia.  But, still, the world is not convinced.  Miracles alone won’t persuade the people of the reality of God.

This fact is at the heart of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  From his place of torment, the Rich Man begs Abraham to send a miraculous sign to earth, to persuade the Rich Man’s brothers to repent and avoid the same fate.  But Abraham responds that the brothers will not be convinced ‘even if someone rises from the dead’.  This is a perceptive and accurate assessment of the value of miracles in the overall cause of the Kingdom.  Jesus knew that miracles would not persuade the people.  That didn’t stop him from performing miracles – they seemed to flow out of him, sometimes almost in spite of his personal preferences.  Miracles were, for Jesus, what happens when an Almighty God gets incarnated into the world of flesh and blood.  He just can’t help himself. Miraculous powers, defying the laws of physics, just flow from the God who set those laws in place, and who exists beyond and above any such limitations.

But we humans can’t accept them.  We are naturally suspicious – not least because miracles of any kind defy those physical laws which govern the rest of our lives.  Even when miracles happen to us, personally, we have a tendency to rationalise and explain them away.  We put them down to a fortuitous accident of co-incidence, or we wonder about the hidden healing powers of the brain, or we simply don’t trust our eyes, or the reports of others.

Jesus understood this fact at a profound level.  During his 40 days in the wilderness, according to Luke and Matthew, he was tempted by the Devil to base his entire ministry on the performing of miracles.  That’s what the Devil suggested when he took Jesus to the top of the temple, and challenged Jesus to throw himself off, certain that angels would appear and carry him safely to the ground.  But Jesus knew that putting God to the test, and requiring miraculous signs from him, would do nothing to advance the cause of the Kingdom.  

And he had good evidence for knowing this.  Miracles didn’t work for Moses, either.  Despite the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the ocean, manna in the desert, and the pouring of water from solid rock, the people still rebelled, and still refused to truly believe in the reality of God.

Miracles, then, are signs of God’s presence.  They are glimpses of the power of the God who created the Universe to act outside the Universal laws.  But they are not attempts to persuade people to worship and trust in God.  

Instead, the path of Jesus was the path of the teacher.  He took the time to explain, in parables and sayings, what following the Way of God is really about.  It’s not about how many miracles can be performed, but about how many lives can be changed…. beginning with my life and yours.  A miracle may, perhaps, inspire us to love the Lord our God, with all our hearts; but, as we reflected on Sunday, the daily task of taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following our Master is what will lead us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and ultimately will lead to the healing and salvation of our souls.

Most of us, this week, will not be called upon to heal the sick, or raise the dead, or to walk upon the waters of Chichester harbour.  More likely, the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of flour to a neighbour, or make a telephone call to a lonely person, or send money to feed a starving child or help with the mission costs of this parish.   But in those small acts of love, in those outpourings of humanity, in the little, daily sacrifices – true miracles are found.  Amen.