Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Raising of Lazurus - a sermon for All Saints Sunday

Text: John 11.32-44.

Here’s a little conundrum…what is John’s story of the raising of Lazurus doing as our Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday?  All Saints is an opportunity to think about, and celebrate, the promise of eternal life for all those who trust in God, and who receive his freely-offered gift of life.  It’s a Sunday when we are reminded of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ in the heavenly places with the risen and ascended Lord.  Orthodox believers would remind us that it’s an opportunity to remember that while we celebrate this Eucharist on earth, Jesus eternally celebrates it in heaven with ‘all the Saints who from their labours rest’.

So with all that heavenly imagery, why does the Lectionary invite us to consider the story of the raising of Lazurus?  There are, after all, many other passages which might have been chosen, with a much more heavenly-focus.  What, for example, about that passage which is read at so many funerals, from John 14, when Jesus says that he is going to make a place for us in his ‘Father’s house of many mansions’.  Or what about Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross that ‘Today you will be with me in paradise?

The raising of Lazurus, by comparison to these eternal mysteries, seems somewhat of a let-down, doesn’t it?  After all, Lazurus was not carried off into heaven to be with all the saints.  Neither was he resurrected with a new body, as was to happen to Jesus (the first born from the dead).  The story of Lazurus is a story of resuscitation.  Not resurrection.  Lazurus was restored to his previous life.  He would still go on to die, just like all of us.

But this is no ordinary resuscitation.  And it is on that fact that we are invited to dwell, for a few moments.  First of all, Lazurus had been dead for many days, by the time Jesus got there.  In fact, Jesus took his own sweet time to get there…not exactly hurrying…precisely to allow enough time to pass.  We know this because when he commands the stone to be rolled away, Martha protests: ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days’.  (Incidentally, I rather like the Authorised translation of that line:  ‘Lord, he stinketh!’).

All this detail is given to us, by John, to make sure that there can be no doubt of the impossibility of what Jesus is about to do.  Human beings can be resuscitated after death, as we know only too well in our modern world of defibrillators and first aid training.  Quite possibly, even at the time of Jesus, a few people had been revived (after drowning, perhaps).  But not after four days! What Jesus is about to accomplish is beyond any human understanding.  He has the power to revive a body which ‘stinketh’ – in which the break-down of matter has already begun in earnest.  John wants us to see that Jesus can interrupt this process, and even reverse it.  He can bring back a man who was terminally sick, and whose body is corrupting, completely back to life!

Jesus himself gives us another clue as to what he is doing.  Praying publically to his Father in heaven, he says “have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me”.  Jesus wants everyone to see, witness and record his complete mastery of even the normal process of death.  More than that, he wants this moment to be a moment that builds faith.  He wants everyone to believe that God has sent him.

So that’s why we are asked to contemplate this story on the Festival of All Saints!   All the stuff about heaven, and the glorious but incomprehensible pictures of angels and saints in eternal Eucharist is all very nice – but it’s not something we can really relate too.  We know, instinctively, that all the metaphors of houses with many mansions, and heavenly Jerusalems coming out of the sky, streets paved with gold and days in paradise are just that: metaphors.  They are images which help us to see, poetically, beyond the veil of our physical existence into a dimension that we are not yet equipped to understand at all.

But Jesus raising a stinking corpse from the grave.  That we can see, through John’s eyes as our reliable witness.  That we can understand.  That gives us something solid and tangible to hold onto.  As Jesus says in chapter 14 of the same gospel, he is the way, the truth and the life.  Our hope of heaven is given real and tangible form through observing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is on Jesus that we pin our own hopes to join the heavenly feast. It is through Jesus that God offers us the ‘sanctification’ by which we also can become ‘sancti-ficavit’ – which means, ‘made holy’:  that is ‘made saints’.  And his raising of Lazurus, surrounded by witnesses, recorded for our benefit by John, gives us hope – real and tangible hope – that in Jesus we can trust.

Liberal thinkers among us might well have a question at this point:  Is John’s gospel claiming that Jesus is the only way to heaven.  What about the teachings of the other great religions?  Will heaven only be stocked with Christians?  Or will there also be a place for the Sufi mystics and the Buddhist or Hindu devotees of peace and harmony.  Who here would consign Ghandi to eternal damnation?   What about the Dalai Lama?

The fact is, we cannot know.  We cannot penetrate the veil of heaven ourselves.  Personally, I find it hard to believe that the God of grace and mercy would consign his children to hell for having been born in the ‘wrong’ place and for faithfully following the religion of their parents.  

What we can say, with the witness of John’s gospel, is that Jesus provides a sure and certain path to heaven.  He has demonstrated, by the raising of Lazurus, that he has power over life, death, corruption and the grave.  To trust in Jesus is to put our faith in someone who has demonstrated his credentials.  He is The Reliable Way for us to join with all the Saints in life everlasting.  That’s good enough for me.  

I rejoice in the fellowship I enjoy with people of other faiths and beliefs.  I’ll partner with anyone of good will and a heart which longs for heaven.  But it is Jesus that I place my trust: for he has proved himself worthy of our faith and our hope of life which goes on for ever in the presence of God and All the Saints.  Amen.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Love One Another - even when you disagree

 John 15.17:  “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another”.

I wonder if you’ve ever attempted to do something which you thought we be SO easy – but which then turned out to be a lot harder than you expected?  I once watched a TV painter create a landscape with a few strokes of his brush, and thought to myself “I could do that”.  I bought some canvass and some paints and brushes, and set to it.  I was going to be the next great artist!  After many hours of daubing paint upon canvass…I knew that it was not to be so!  It’s a lot harder than you think!

Which goes for Jesus’ bold statement today.  ‘I am giving you these commands so that you may love another’.  It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  We just have to love one another.  Easy.  Well, perhaps not.  It’s easy to love those who are like us, and who think like us.  It’s easy to love the people who look like us, or come from the same background as us.  But the radical challenge of the Christian message is that we are called to love all humanity – wherever they come from, whatever their background, whatever their crime, however much they differ from us in the opinions, their prejudices, their upbringing and their culture.

This radical challenge has been played out on an international stage of the church, this week.  The House of Bishops in Ghana issued a statement of support for a bill currently progressing through the Parliament of Ghana.  This bill, if it passes, would criminalise homosexual acts, with a penalty of up to 5 years in prison.  Still further, the bill would impose prison terms of up to 10 years on those who support, or lobby for, homosexual people.

Now, of course, the idea of criminalising homosexual people is utterly unacceptable to those of us who live in a Western culture.  The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a strong rebuke to the Ghanaian House of Bishops, as have the senior leaders of the Diocese of Portsmouth, and many other senior church leaders.  The internet, therefore, has been ablaze in the last few days with people from Africa and people from the West angrily denouncing each other.  Many Africans tend (it seems) to appeal to specific and individual scriptures to justify their scorn for homosexual people.  Western people appeal to the great sweep of Scripture, and the command to love our neighbours as ourselves. 

Both sides in the arguments are coming from the context in which they have been shaped.  In the West, we’ve been taught to look beyond the ‘letter of the law’ into the moral and ethical framework behind the law.  Ours is a culture in which it is generally believed that ‘I can do what I want, so long as it hurts no-one else’.  Africans, on the other hand, bring a strongly patriarchal culture to their thinking, with a heavy emphasis on the traditional (and very different) roles of men and women.  As people who still tend to live in tight family or tribal groups, there is also a much greater sense of the community deciding what is right, or healthy, for an individual to do with themselves or their lives.

As a result of these marked cultural differences (and there are many more I could list) it is hard to see how these two very different groups of Christians will ever be able to agree with each other on this topic.  It will take much time, and many debates, for opinions on either side to be shaped and shifted by the other.  But can they both love each other, in the meantime?

Love, as St Paul so poetically states in 1 Corinthians 13, is patient and kind.  It does not keep any record of wrongs.  It perseveres.  Crucially, for the present international argument of the church, it ‘believes all things, and hopes all things’.  In other words, true love is open and accepting of the position of the other.  True love allows space for the Holy Spirit to speak, and for minds and hearts to be shaped to His divine will.  This takes time.  It certainly takes patience.  It certainly takes a constant, heart-felt desire to seek the Truth.

But it is not easy.  It takes courage to choose to love those whose ideas, culture and beliefs are fundamentally different to our own, even when we both call ourselves Christians.  But this is the hard command that our Lord, Saviour and Master gives us.  “I give you these commands, so that you may love another”.



Sunday, October 24, 2021

Is the Bible the Word of God? A sermon for Bible Sunday

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 novel 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.  It’s why the letters of St Paul are still used to silence women’s voices in some church leadership circles, and to denigrate people of minority gender identities or sexual orientations.  It is too easy for unthinking people to take a line or phrase from one of the Bible’s many competing voices to justify their personal biases and prejudices.

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 follow slavishly.  

Well…I might be about to shock you now.  My view (with which you are free to disagree and argue) is that we should be very careful about treating the Bible as the Word of God.   Rather, it is a collection of writings – Scriptures - 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.  

It’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 bronze and iron-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 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 who was God among us, 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.  Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Buy local - it's a Christian duty

Text: Matthew 6.25-33 and Joel 2.21-27

Some of you will remember that soon after I came to this parish, I launched a fundraising campaign to ‘see less of the Rector’.  It was an attempt, on my part, to shed some excess pounds – which many of you generously supported.  I was quite successful at the time – shedding around 2 stone, as I recall (which cost some of you a lot of sponsorship money!).  The trouble is that, to quote Miss Lane of the Candleford Post Office, ‘food is my one weakness’.  Actually, I have many other weaknesses too – but let’s not worry about them right now.  A love of food is certainly up there at the top of my list!

Actually, as some of you have kindly noticed, I’ve recently been attempting to shift some of the ‘lockdown lard’ which I accumulated last year.  Since August, I’ve managed to lose a couple of stones – but there is still more to go.  But I make no promises about being able to maintain the new Adonis-like body you see emerging before you!  I simply love food…too much!

So, for me and for all of us who love our food too much, today’s Gospel reading can be a salutary encounter, can it not?  And it also comes as a slap in the face to any of us who worry about which of the many choices of fashion we should employ, day by day.  “Do not worry…” about such things, says Jesus.  “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

The problem (as other foodies and fashionistas will agree), is that even with supply-chain challenges in our shops at the present time, there is simply SO much choice.  And this is because we, as a society, have indeed worried about what we shall eat and what we shall wear, throughout human history.  

This is nothing new.  It was just as big a problem for the people of Jesus’ day.  They may not have had fleets of lorries and container ships like ours, but they did import and export food and clothing from all over the Roman Empire.  It was a trade which, like ours, resulted in massive wealth for the owners of import companies, and misery for most of the people actually involved in making the system work.  For the Romans, it was the farmers, the sailors, the camel-train-drivers and the galley slaves who suffered.  For us, it is still the farmers, and the merchant seafarers, and the lorry drivers who live on subsistence wages, living months at a time away from their families, to bring us our pleasures.  So, I suggest, Jesus was not just pointing at individual ‘foodies and fashionistas’ like me (and perhaps you).  He was pointing towards the entire economic system – which we have refined, developed and expanded since his day.  

This is the behaviour of ‘gentiles’, according to Jesus – by which he means ‘unbelievers’ or those outside of a covenant relationship with God.  The Climate Change Crisis we are all facing today arises as a direct result of the choices we all make about the amount and choice of food we eat, and the origin of the clothes we wear.  We are acting like ‘Gentiles’ – like those who do not live in relationship with the Living God. When Jesus tells us to cease worrying about such things, he invites us to shift our focus.  Taken together with the rest of his teaching, and especially his priority for the poor, Jesus invites us to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven would like on Earth.

It would be a kingdom in which we stop striving and worrying about the food we will eat, and the clothes we will wear – demanding our avocados in the middle of winter, or our £1 T-shirt from the sweatshops of the under-developed world.  It would be, instead, a world in which we use the abundance already around us – the abundance that the prophet Joel speaks about in our Old Testament reading. 

Take, for example, the plant known as flax.  In the middle ages, the vast majority of English clothing was made from flax, grown in English fields.  In fact, in the 1600s, it was a mandate of law that every English farmer should grow at least some flax in his fields, to supply the clothing needs of his neighbours.  Flax grew well in English soil and in an English climate.  It could be made into English linen of the highest quality, by skilled cloth-makers and weavers.  Flax was at the heart of our nation’s life, because it was a natural crop, naturally provided.  A healthy, local economy was built and sustained for centuries.

But then, cotton arrived.  Cotton won’t grow in an English climate.  But the fashionistas of the 1700s liked it.  Cotton was lighter, cooler to wear in the summer, easier to weave and sew.  And so, vast quantities of cotton had to be imported from warmer climates all over the world.  The old import and export practices of the Romans were re-ignited.  Fleets of ships, run by sailors ripped from their families.  Vast factories of under-paid workers toiled night and day.  Owners of import companies made money.  The rest of the population starved.  All because the wise words of Jesus were once again ignored.  We started to worry about what we would wear. 

The result was catastrophic, for our climate, for the slaves of the cotton plantations, for the poor workers in the dark-satanic cotton mills.  All because we started to worry about what we would wear.

When we worry about what we should eat much the same thing happens.  Food is imported from all around the world, at enormous cost to the climate, but at great profit to a few wealthy import-company owners.  

So, my friends…what are we to do?  If we who count ourselves followers of Jesus are to have a personal impact on the crisis humanity is facing, what shall we do.  Well, I suggest, the simplest thing we can all do is to buy ‘local’.  This is not because we are ‘Britain-first’ people.  Buying local and buying British has nothing to do with Brexit or ‘Little-Islander’ mentality.  Rather, it is a fundamental understanding that as the Bible teaches us, God has provided all we need in our own backyard.  Buying local, and supporting local economies turns out to be not just good for our planet, but a Christian duty we can all take up – wherever we live in the world.

There is no need to import goods from abroad, with all the attendant damage to our climate and to the lives of the workers who bring us such goods.  There is enough land in our nation, to feed and clothe our nation.  God has provided all we need.  Maybe not all we want, and all we like to worry about but certainly all we need.

“Your heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air.  Are you not more valuable than they? If God clothes the grass of the field, how much more will he clothe you?”


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Kill the prophets!

Luke 11. 47-end and Romans 3.21–30

“I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.”

Being a prophet is a dangerous game.  Jesus himself recognised that ‘a prophet is never welcome in his own town’ (Luke 4.24).  In today’s passage (from Luke 11) he expands on that theme.  He appears to quote from Scripture, when he says that the Wisdom of God has said ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute’ – but actually, there is no single verse of the Hebrew Bible which puts the case in quite that way.  Nevertheless, it is a consistent general theme of Scripture – and Jesus is effectively summarising it for his listeners.

He does so as part of a blistering attack on the religious leaders of his day – who he has just accused (in earlier verses) of complete hypocrisy.  He describes how they tithe their wealth, but fail to lift a hand to help or bless the poor.  He rails at them for their greed and their injustice, and for how they love to take the places of honour in gatherings.  He roundly criticises them for loading people with rules and regulations, rather than showing them love and generosity.

But now, in today’s passage, he takes special aim at the way these religious leaders love to build tombs and memorials for the prophets of old, without paying any attention to what those self-same prophets taught and preached in their lifetimes.  This is of course a tendency that we all share, to a greater or lesser extent.  We are all very capable of putting notable dead people onto pedestals, without necessarily living, ourselves, by the principles they espoused.  Or we are very capable of choosing only those parts of a prophet’s wisdom that are most convenient for us to follow.

What do I mean? 

Well let’s consider a prophet like Moses.  He was, in so many ways, the single most influential prophet (other than Jesus himself) in the history of Judaism and Christianity.  He codified, in clearly written laws, how we should behave towards God and one another.  These were, of course, summarised in the 10 Commandments, which at the Reformation were legally mandated to be nailed to the wall of every church in our land.  You can still see examples of them in churches all over this area.  But those ’10 Commandment Boards’ were like the tombs and memorials erected by the religious leaders against whom Jesus railed.  They were nailed onto the walls of our churches by the command of a monarchy and church hierarchy who, themselves, often had no interest in living by the self-same commandments.  How could a King who wanted to conquer France ever claim that he was not coveting his neighbour’s possessions?

And we, too, treat Moses in a similarly selective manner, don’t we?  We all agree  - I hope – with his command not to murder each other – unless a criminal has done something really horrific, and then the cries of ‘bring back hanging’ quickly surface.  And what about his command to give a tenth of all we earn to the work of God?  The church’s bank balance tells me what we answer.  Or his prohibition against graven images of things in or above the world?  I’m looking at stained glass pictures of angels, right now.  Or his command to keep the Sabbath holy?  How many of us cause our neighbours to have to work on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) – in Waitrose or the Coffee Shop - for our convenience? 

We do the same to modern prophets too.  Who here would deny that Mother Theresa was a living Saint?  And yet how often do we rouse ourselves to give aid to the poor, as she did?  Who could deny that Martin Luther King was not a modern prophet?  And yet, how often do we tut contemptuously at footballers taking the knee.

No, just like the religious leaders of old, we are fully capable of raising up great prophets as examples to follow – and then steadfastly refusing to actually follow their examples ourselves.  This is our human curse.  We are completely capable of holding two completely opposite views in our head at the same time.  We can agree with all our heart that such and such a course of action is the right one to take, and then at the same time utterly fail to do that very thing.

St Paul recognised this essential weakness in our human nature.  As we heard in our reading from his letter to the Romans, he knew that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.  Perhaps this ability to hold two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads is exactly what falling short of the Glory of God means.  God cannot be anything but consistent with who God is, and what God knows to be right.  He would not, and cannot, act contrary to his (or her) own nature, and contrary to what he knows to be right.  But we can.  That is our sin, our hypocrisy, and our curse.

But thanks be to God, that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated at this and every Eucharist, we have been given a way to be restored to a God-like state of harmony.  Through living and active faith in Jesus, we have a way to resolve the conflict with which we all live.  How?  By simply asking ourselves in every situation that our hypocrisy inspires the simple question, ‘what would Jesus do?’.