Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Armour of God

Text: Ephesians 6.10-20

Have you noticed that over that last few weeks, the Lectionary keeps bringing us back steadfastly to the Gospel of John’s discourses, by Jesus, on the meaning of his flesh, his body, his bread?  It’s a quirk of the Lectionary that once in three years, these important passages (each with their own distinctive flavour) are drummed into our heads, week after week. 

We have now heard sermons on the topic of Jesus’ bread and body from a wide range of thinkers, including Bishop John, the Rev'd Judy and of course my pride and joy, Emily Ashworth. I am tempted to add my distinctive vision of these passages to theirs, with yet another sermon on the topic this week – but I fear that some of you might walk out with a cry of ‘Not bread again!’).

There has, however, been another theme bubbling in the background of our lives in this past week, hasn’t there?  With the chaotic exodus of Western forces from Afghanistan, many of us have found our minds drawn to the plight, and the lot, of the common soldier.  How many lives, we wonder, have been spent, or shattered by injury, for such apparently little gain?  And how must the families of such servicemen and women feel?

I cannot help but notice the irony that whilst soldiers have been so much in the news this week, the Lectionary places before us Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – and especially his powerful analogy of the Armour of God.  So that is where I too will focus, this morning.

In this famous passage, Paul encourages the Christians in Ephesus to stand strong in the Lord, against all the wiles of the Devil, by dressing themselves in the metaphorical armour of God.  Let us set aside for a moment any debates about the reality versus the metaphor of the Devil.  Paul’s argument, which we cannot deny from our own observations, is that there are forces of evil abroad in the world.  Such evil, found among many rulers and authorities, results in corruption of the political class, on a worldwide scale.  Such evil breeds terrorism and warfare, from which the wealthy benefit while the poor die in ditches.  Such evil breeds poverty, so that substandard homes collapse in Haiti, or billions go without a vaccine while we bask in our medical triumph. 

Paul teaches his followers that the only defence against such evil is the whole armour of God.  ‘Stand therefore, with the belt of Truth fastened around your waist’.  This is the first of Paul’s arsenal against the wiles of the Devil.  He want us to be open-eyed about the lies that we get told.  He wants us to prioritise Truth over lies.  But what kind of lies would Paul have had in mind, in his context, and in his time.  What, for Paul and for us, is not True about the world in which we live?

Well, for a start, it is simply NOT TRUE that warfare is the only way to solve conflict.  Might is not always right, either, whatever the Roman authorities believed.  ‘Come’, says the Bible, ‘Let us reason together’.  And later in the same book of Isaiah, we are offered the promise of swords being turned into ploughshares.   In Paul’s time it was Rome which dominated the world, using military might and superior numbers to conquer and subdue.  But history tells us that the Roman project was not destined to last.  And neither will any Empire which uses violence as its means of control.  Rome's militarism was also the cause of its downfall. 

It is simply NOT TRUE, either, that the possession of great wealth will bring you happiness.  One only has to observe the shattered marriages of our internet billionaires, or the substance addiction of a thousand Hollywood actors and London stock-market brokers, to know that true happiness is not found in owning stuff.  The Truth to which Paul refers is that we need to store our Treasure in heaven.  It’s the treasure of good deeds, of sacrificial lives, and of living simply.  We can store those treasures in Heaven, the realm of God, where there is neither rust nor moth, and where no thief can break in, to steal.

The lies of Military Might and Accumulating Wealth are but two of the lies we tell ourselves, and against which we must fasten about our waists the belt of truth.  But there are many more.  Our task is to sift the information we receive.  We need to be wise, and not fall for the lies we are told on a daily basis by the powerful, (and I would say evil) forces at work in our lives.  Refugees are NOT coming to steal our jobs – they are fleeing for their lives.  Poor people are NOT just unlucky – the systems of the world keep them poor.  Black lives are NOT less valuable than white lives.  Differently gendered people are NO less precious than straight ones.  And the Vaccine is NOT an attempt to re-write our DNA or inject us with microchips and the mark of the beast!

So that’s the first of the arsenal of weapons in the Armour of God - Truth.  Without it, and a continuous quest for it, we are truly lost.  But there are many other weapons in the arsenal – ranging from the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation.  But there isn’t time to explore them all!  Let me instead encourage you to think about them all, for yourselves.  When you get home (or if you are already at home, online), open your Bible to Ephesians 6 (or take today’s service sheet home with you) and ponder for yourself what each of these weapons mean, for us, today. By all means debate them with me online, via Facebook or email.  I’d love to know what you think each one means.

My brothers and sisters, our world is in a mess.  The seas are rising as the forests burn.  New viruses are rampant, and the population is exploding.  War is still the default method of solving our differences, and the wealthy 1% are growing richer and richer.  Never before, in human history, was the Body of Christ more needed than it is right now.  Never before was there a more urgent need for us to graft ourselves onto the Vine of God.  Never before was the whole armour of God more needed – truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Spirit of God.  These are the only remedy for the burning, dying world in which we live.  Let us then, with Paul, ‘make known the mystery of the gospel’.  Pray that we, with Paul, may ‘declare it boldly, as we must speak’.




Friday, August 20, 2021

A sermon in honour of Ralph Hollins

Text: Luke 12.22-32

I count it an enormous honour to be asked to preach a Sermon at Ralph’s funeral – an honour which I promise I will not abuse by talking for too long!

I’ve been Rector of St Faith’s for about six and a half years, so I haven’t known Ralph for anything like the length of time all of you have known him.  What I have seen of him, in those six and something years was a man to whom Nature, in all its infinite diversity, called and called.  I’ve seen the meticulous recordings he made, in words and pictures, of the wildlife of this area – and especially the wildlife of our churchyard, here at St Faith’s. 

Indeed, Ralph was instrumental in achieving recognition for this patch of earth as a Site of Special Interest for Nature conservation.  It was Ralph who realised that since the soil of this churchyard had been undisturbed for about 150 years (since its closure to new burials). As a consequence, the undisturbed grass of the churchyard had had the chance to absorb myriads of wild seeds, blown by the wind.  It was Ralph’s careful recording of some 88 different species of native British wildlife which led directly to our decision to allow sections of the churchyard to grow wild, and for nature in all its glory to be allowed free reign in this corner of an urban landscape.

Thanks to Ralph, we and all churchyard visitors, have been able (in the words of the Gospel reading we just heard) to ‘consider the lilies’.  And in doing so, we have been reminded of the infinitely precious balance of nature which humankind does its level best to destroy at every turn.

Why do we do this?  Well, for profit, of course.  It is never the lumberjacks who become millionaires, it is the owners of the wood they cut down.  It is never the fishermen who buy themselves fancy yachts; it is the multi-national corporations who supply the factory ships.  It is not the humble sewerage worker at Budds Farm who benefits from the discharge of sewerage into Langstone Harbour – it is the owners, senior managers and shareholders of the water company.

And to each of them, and to anyone who would put profit above the planet, the words of Jesus Christ still ring truthfully today.  According to Jesus, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like the Lilies of the field – and yet Solomon did all he could, like rich men of every generation, to amass the wealth of the world around his bed.  He built an enormous palace, with tons of cedar-wood from Lebanon, and gold from the good soil. He filled it with treasure and camels and soldiers and wives. He built a great temple to what he considered the glory of God – forgetting that God’s glory is already magnificently displayed in the lilies of the field (let alone the mountains, the rivers, the forests and the seas). 

And what has happened to Solomon’s great palace?  What has happened to Solomon’s great temple?  Dust and distant memory: while the lillies of the field, the mountains and the rivers, continue to shout to all who would listen – here is the glory of God.

Solomon, the quintessential rich man, is a lesson to all rich men.  As Jesus says in another place to another rich man, ‘you fool’.  None of us can take the stuff of the planet with us beyond the door of death.  Collecting it, hoarding it and destroying the lilies for it, is simply not worth it.

Ralph, I think, understood this, and I bless him for it.  He was not a regular church-goer, but I believe he saw in the face of Nature something of the face of God.  He knew, without a doubt, that the wild world we have inherited shouts of the glory of God, in all its majesty, and in all its detail.   Ralph cherished these things – and his legacy to us is the challenge that we should cherish them too.



Thursday, August 19, 2021

Rash promises...

Text:  Judges 11.29-end, in which Jephthah, a great warrior, makes a rash promise to God.  He swears that, if God will give him victory over his enemies, he (Jephthah) will sacrifice whatever or whoever comes to greet him on his return to his house.  To fulfill his vow, he ends up sacrificing his own daughter!

See also Matthew 22.1-14 - Jesus parable of a King who throws a wedding banquet, and ends up inviting people off the street into the feast.

The Book of Judges contains the very grizzly story that we have heard just now.  Jephthah was a judge who presided over Israel for a period of six years, prior to the establishment of the Jewish/Israeli Monarchy.  He led the Israelites in battle against the nation of Ammon and, in exchange for defeating the Ammonites, made a vow to sacrifice whatever, or whoever would come out of the door of his house first on his return home. When his daughter was the first to come out of the house, he immediately regretted the vow, which would require him to sacrifice his daughter to God. Jephthah then carried out his vow.

What?!  Yes, really.  For such was Jephthah's primitive understanding of God.  It may seem incomprehensible to us, but he honestly and sincerely believed that God was the kind of God who would require such a sacrifice.  Not only that, but he clearly also thought that God could be persuaded to fulfil a man's desire, in return for a big enough bribe.  

As I have taught, many times, context is everything when we approach the pages of Scripture.  Jephthah's understanding of God was extremely basic, and frankly rather badly formed.  The text itself gives us no clue that God himself approved of Jephthah's bargain.  There is no visiting angel, with whom Jephthah strikes his bargain.  God doesn't speak from the sky or through a dream or a prophet to say that he approves.  The bargain is entirely one-sided.  This is a desperate man, desperate to win a battle, making a rash promise (and then believing that he has to follow through with it, lest an angry God exacts some sort of punishment on him).  In addition, of course, the consequences for Jephthah's poor daughter are beyond horrendous.

The thing about Scripture, though, is that when we read it intelligently, we find that it also 'reads' us.  We find ourselves mirrored on its pages, and in the lives of its characters.  I wonder whether there is anyone here who, at some point in their life, has not looked to Heaven and been tempted to strike a bargain.  "Oh God!" we are tempted to say.  "If you would just get me through this exam, or job interview, or personal financial crisis - I promise I will go to church every Sunday from now on!".  The making of desperate rash promises seems to be hard-wired into our human nature.  

Regretfully, rash promises are rife within the everyday world too.  Marketing Managers are excellent at promising to revolutionise our lives with their latest product.  Politicians, especially around election-times, often make fantastic promises that they later find are impossible to fulfil.  Many who have watched the collapse of Afghanistan this past week have remembered the promises that were made 20 years ago, and wondered whether the politicians of that day were rather rash, or at least over-ambitious, in what they promised.

It is easy to scoff at those whose understanding of God seems rather primitive to us.  But examining a story like that of Jephthah invites each of us to consider whether we, too, are sometimes rather guilty of forming God in our own image.  

We each have our own mental picture of what God is like, don't we?  It's a picture that, in most cases, was formed in the Sunday School, usually taught by a well-meaning but often poorly educated Sunday School teacher - a volunteer, without theological training, who had relieved the rest of our congregation of the annoyance of children clattering around the Sunday morning service.  Such Sunday School teachers will have planted ideas about God in our heads which are hard to shift – especially if we haven’t done any theological thinking since we left Sunday School.  

Our well-meaning (but ultimately flawed) teachers will have painted word-pictures of a God who created the world in six literal days, whatever the hard facts of Science have taught us.  He will be an angry God, who is capable of destroying his Creation in a Worldwide Flood, whatever the lack of evidence in the geological record.  He will be a God who can be persuaded to bend his purposes to accommodate our personal wishes and desires - if we only have faith, and pray even harder.  He will be a terrifying judge, who demands a blood sacrifice as a legal penalty for sin.

This, of course, is a very different picture of God than the one Jesus knew, and taught.  As we saw in today's Gospel reading, Jesus' God is the one who throws a banquet for his Son, to which he invites all those who the rich and powerful have left out in the street.  Jesus' God is not the angry God of the Mountain, rumbling in the distance, but a Father who wants to live alongside his children, sharing his wisdom and love.  

Yes, in the parable, there are also some deadly consequences for those who steadfastly reject God's love - his offer of a banquet - but these are consequences we bring upon ourselves.  The God of Jesus' parable has some darker tones in his character too - especially in the apparent finality of casting out of those who reject his offer of love.  Weeping and knashing of teeth are involved - and this is part of the complex mystery of God.  It's a mystery we do well to never assume we've fully understood.  But we must also be careful of turning to parables for absolute truth.  They are allegorical tales, not detailed theological treatises.   (And that's a whole sermon series, just there!).

May we never make the mistake of Jephthah; the mistake of assuming that we have understood all the great mystery of God.  May we always remain open, receptive, and anxious to understand more of who God truly is, and of how much God truly loves us, despite all our failings, and all our rash promises.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Lord disciplines those whom he loves...

Text: Hebrews 12.11-17

The Lord disciplines those whom he loves...

I was among the last children to have been disciplined by corporal punishment.  In fact, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human rights in 1982, the UK Government chose to hold off from banning Corporal Punishment until just after I had finished my education, in 1986.  I think they may have feared the collapse of the education system if Kennar couldn't be whacked with a stick, now and again.  They were probably right. 

I'm pretty happy that caning has disappeared from our community life.  There really isn't much evidence that it did any good.   Certainly, my mates and I were perfectly capable of getting up to great mischief, even with the threat of the cane hanging over us!  

Real discipline, however, is about much more than the supposed control of naughty children.   Real discipline is about living a life that is framed, moderated and structured according to a 'discipline' - a set of rules of conduct.    To 'discipline' someone, is to encourage them (or try to force them) to accept the discipline - the rules, laws and accepted conduct - of the community.

It is perhaps too obvious, for such an educated congregation, for me to point out that the words 'discipline' and 'disciple' are intimately linked.  A disciple is someone who has accepted the teachings, rules and standards – the discipline - of a rabbi. 

In today's New Testament reading, the writer to the Hebrews is exploring what it means to come under the discipline of God.  Quoting from the book of Proverbs, he says this:  "My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts."

The writer to the Hebrews is encouraging his readers to embrace discipline, along with discipleship, and the life of Faith (which has been his focus in the previous chapter and a half).  He has just listed all the ways in which men and women of Faith have been guided and formed by the discipline of God.  He is telling his readers - including us - 'don't be surprised when God disciplines you too'.

Now at this point in any sermon about discipline, it may be common for some preachers to harangue their listeners about all the ways they fail to live disciplined lives.  It's easy, for the preacher, to pick the low-hanging fruit of Christian discipline, and to go on about the need for disciplined church attendance, disciplined prayer-lives, and disciplined giving.  Or - as I've said before - making every sermon a plea for coming to church more, praying more and giving more!  Even the writer to the Hebrews falls into the same preacher's trap, when he encourages his readers to "lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees".   (He's referring to the drooping hands of worship, and the weak knees of prayer).

But I'm not going to do that.  Worship, prayer and generous giving are fundamental to a life of disciplined faith.  But you know that already.  If carried out with discipline, day after day, week after week, those three disciplines have the power to utterly transform us, to make us true and faithful disciples.  But, you don't need me to tell you that.

Instead, let us ask what the writer to the Hebrews means when he says that "the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts".  He is suggesting that God, in fact, wields a metaphorical heavenly cane, over all his children.  He is suggesting that God actively applies discipline, in the old fashioned sense...that he permits things to happen to us which have the possibility of driving us back to the true path of Faith.

What can the writer to the Hebrews mean?

I think he is saying that God is intimately involved in all human life. - and that God can use the circumstances of life, the tragedies and the trials of life, to call us back to the Way.   I am not, for example, the first preacher to suggest that the Covid Pandemic could be one such act of discipline upon humanity.  I do not suggest, for a moment, that God has sent this pandemic among us.  That was our fault - our excess flying, our cutting down of habitats, our lack of political competence in how to handle it.  But God is present in the consequences of what we have allowed to happen.  Through what has happened, I believe that God is calling us to examine our lives, and to ask how far we have strayed from the paths of common sense, and yes, of faithful adherence to the discipline of faith.

God has told us, through Jesus and all the prophets, 'live simply' and 'do not covet'.  But we have said 'greed is good' and we've sprayed jet fuel and carbon into the skies for our personal pleasure.  

God has told us, through Jesus and all the prophets, 'do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth'.  But we have said, let's build massive ships to move our treasure all around the planet...ships SO massive that they get stuck in the very canals we've built to move them around!

God has told us, through the great story of Adam and Eve, that our task was simply to tend the garden, and take care of it.  But we have said, 'let us plough up the hedges, cut down the trees, wipe out the insects, for the gaining of profit, and the manufacture of frivolous toys and beauty products'.

God has told us, through the prophets and through Jesus, to offer healing to the sick.  But we have privatised our medicine, to make profits for shareholders, and to make medicine unaffordable to the poor of the world.

But through Covid, God has invited us to think again.  He has shown us how quickly we can act to find cures for illness - when we are sufficiently motivated to do so.  He has invited us to think about how differently it is possible to work, without the tyranny and waste of the daily commute.  He has asked us to find new ways of resting and taking holidays without burning up the skies with jet-fumes.  He has asked us to think about different ways of socialising without the pure hedonism of night-clubs and all-night bars.

God, through Covid-19, has been disciplining and chastising those whom he loves - us his children.  I wonder whether we are listening?  Or whether he's going to have to use an even bigger stick to call us back to the disciplined life of Faith.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

On this Rock...

Matthew 16. 13.23

Poor old Peter.  He so often got things wrong didn't he?  He cut off the ear of a guard who was arresting Jesus, and got soundly told off for it.  He failed to keep his eyes on Jesus when walking on the water, and had to be rescued.  He denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, and had to make amends three times for his sin.  And in today's Gospel reading, Jesus compared him to Satan - because he refused to accept what Jesus was saying about the necessity of his forthcoming death.

And yet, this same, failing, apparently incompetent man is the Rock on whom Jesus said he would 'build his church'.  This same, failing, apparently incompetent man is the one to whom Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven - as depicted in the stained glass image of Peter to the right of our High Altar.

Peter gives me hope.  Because whilst I know you all believe I am totally infallible and incapable of error (!), I know different.  I know that inside the charade of competence that I show to the world, I'm actually a complete mess.  Or at least, I know how much I struggle to get right at least some of the jobs that a modern-day Rector is expected to do well.

I think Jesus called Simon Peter 'the Rock' as a bit of a joke.  The evidence of the Gospels is that Peter was anything but the slow, steady, dependable type of person which the title of 'Rock' suggests.  He was flaky, he changed his mind a lot, he got the wrong end of the stick, frequently.  I think that when Jesus called Simon 'Rocky' for the first time, he had a great big grin on his face.  It would like someone describing me as 'skinny'!

This understanding of Peter should serve to give all of us hope.  Let's notice that Jesus said 'on this rock I will build my church'.  The growth of the church does not rely on me, thank God.  It does not rely on you - even though many of you are brilliant at building the Kingdom, in lots of different ways.  The growth of the church, and the work of the Kingdom, is Jesus' sacred task.  It is Jesus who will build his church.  Not me, not you, not even the new Bishop of Portsmouth, whoever he or she may be.  It's Jesus.  He is the author and perfector of our faith.  And he is the architect and master-builder of the church.

What does this mean for us, in practical terms?  It means, perhaps, returning to a modern cliche which has lost some of its currency and power in recent years, through over-use and parody.  But I think this cliche still has value.  I'm talking about the old saying 'What would Jesus do?' - expressed on the wristbands and necklaces of thousands of young Christians in the 1980s.  It's a pretty easy question to ask, in every situation, isn't it?  And its still an important question to ask of any effort new effort to 'build the church'.  If any church, and especially our church, is to be built by Jesus (as he promised), then it needs to be built on the principles Jesus lived and taught.

So when we find ourselves pondering the latest ideas for Diocesan re-organisation, let's ask 'What would Jesus do?'.   That's what our PCC will be doing tonight, when we meet with the PCC of St Albans.  

When we consider the benefits of the latest money-making wheeze, let's ask 'What would Jesus do?'  That's what our PCC did a couple of years ago, when we turned down an offer to join to 'Postcode Lottery' - believing that fundraising via gambling wasn't what Jesus would do.  

When we are thinking about where to focus our small resources of time and money, what do we ask?  'What would Jesus do?'!   

And it's a great maxim to apply in our personal lives, too.  

Someone has upset me.  Should I rage, or forgive? 'What would Jesus do?'.  

I've inherited a lot of money.  Should I hoard it, or use it generously for the Kingdom?  'What would Jesus do?'.  

I know that wearing a mask will protect others from me, if I've got the virus.  But I don't want to.  'What would Jesus do?'

I think you get the point. 

The Rock on which Jesus builds his church is not one man, from 2,000 years ago.  It's every person who serves Jesus as Lord, and follows his ways.  Jesus said he could build his church on pretty messed up guy called Simon Peter.  But Peter stands for you and for me.  Jesus can build his church on anyone who is willing to let him use them and lead them, however much we fail, in the sacred task of building the Church of God.  Amen.