Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Violence of Christmas

There’s a lot of violence in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11.11–15).  Jesus talks about how the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, since the time of John the Baptiser…and now, he says (with John in prison) the violent take it by force.

I wonder if you’ve ever contemplated how much violence surrounds the Christmas story.  I’d like to take a few moments to ponder that with you.  But first of all, it might be helpful to define what the word ‘violence’ means.  It is essentially the forcing of one person’s will on another, by the threat or actual use of physical coercion.  It can also mean the forcing of the will of a group of people on another group of people, by physical means.  Terrorism is an obvious type of violence.  Blowing people up, to force your view of the world onto them, is about the most violent thing you can do.  As is military conquest of one nation over another.  But there are other forms of violence too – verbal violence, emotional violence, even intellectual violence – which means the forcing of a particular idea onto others.

Ultimately, violence is about the use of power.  Violence is the way that power relationships go wrong.  When one person (or one group of people) use violence to impose their power onto another, we can usually judge – pretty clearly – that the power-relationship has gone sour.

So what did I mean, just now, when I said that violence surrounds the Christmas story?

Well, first, there is the violence of the state of occupation into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was in control – through violent military conquest.  Their powerful control of the land of Israel was so complete, their threat of violence was so great, that Joseph of Nazareth had no choice but to force his heavily pregnant wife onto the back of donkey, to trek for many days across barren lands, and to have her baby in a barn.  I’m sure that there were countless times along that road that Mary cried out “Why couldn’t we just stay in Nazareth?!”  But the political violence of Rome drove them in another direction altogether.  Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Then, there is the awful violence of King Herod.  Fearful of losing his power as vassal King over Judea, he plots and schemes to find out where the new ‘King of the Jews’ will be born.  He attempts to manipulate the visiting wise men into being his spies – and when that scheme fails, he slaughters all the male babies in Bethlehem.  Joseph and Mary are forced to flee for their lives into Eqypt to escape the rampant violence of Herod’s henchmen. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Those are the obvious examples – but there is other, more subtle, violence too.  Take the Shepherds for example.  Now when I say the word ‘shepherds’, I imagine that most of us have a lovely pastoral picture in our heads.  We imagine a bunch of hearty old men with tea-towels on their heads.  We hear the west-country tones of countless Nativity plays.  “Ohh – let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing which ‘as come to paaaass!”.  

But this is to miss one of the central themes of the Nativity story. 

Why Shepherds?  Why are Shepherds the group of people specially selected by God to be told the news of the arrival of Jesus.  God could have sent his Angels out to knock on the doors of the ordinary people of Bethlehem -  “bang bang bang!  Wake up – and go down the street to the barn!”.  The Angels could have sung glory in the highest heaven in the local taverns, or over the palace or temple in Jerusalem.  But they didn’t.  

God chose the Shepherds precisely because they were outcasts of their society.  They lived on the edge of towns – they weren’t citizens like everyone else.  They were rough and ready, and they probably stank from all those sheep, their overnight bonfires, and a lack of running water.  Worse still, they didn’t obey all the religious laws – not least the law about not working on the Sabbath…because sheep still need looking after, even on a Sabbath.  So, in religious terms, they were considered unclean and unholy.  Society in general had done violence to them, by essentially excluding them.  They were shut out.  They were deemed ‘unclean’ – which is a kind of religious violence done to them.

You see? Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

So what is God’s response to this violence?  How does he seek to intervene in the violence that humanity does to itself – or in ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as the old Book of Common Prayer has it? 

If I was God, I think I would have been very tempted to use my almighty power to just sort them out!  But I am not God.  God knows that the answer to violence is not more violence.  No.  God’s answer to the violence of human beings is to send his Son into the world in the most fragile, dependent, UN-powerful form possible…a new born baby.  And not just a baby – completely dependent on his parents for everything – but a baby born in the most humble of circumstances imaginable.  Not a palace.  Not even a house.  A barn.  A stable.  An animal’s food trough.

The answer to violence is not more violence.  To quote the great Mahatma Ghandi – “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.  The answer to violence in the world today is not more violence – it should be bridge-building, understanding, mutual respect and tolerance.  The answer to the violence of terrorism all across the world is not more violence in return – it should be the seeking of understanding, and the addressing of the kinds of basic injustice which drives terrorists to do terrible things.  Education, social justice, the fair and equitable sharing of the wealth of our planet – these are the things that will overcome the violence.  If only we would give them a chance.

The babe of Bethlehem teaches us by his gentle presence in the midst of the violence of his time that there is another way.  And for that simple, profound lesson, we should surely say with all the angels of Heaven, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth!”.   Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Advent 2 - Prepare the Way of the Lord

 Readings: Isaiah 11.1–10 & Matthew 3.1–12

Today – and indeed next week too, the Lectionary invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser.  We call him that, these days, because the word ‘Baptist’ has become linked to a particular theological viewpoint.  At the grave risk of slightly offending our Welsh Baptist viewers on the InterWeb, today’s ‘Baptists’ believe that adult baptism is the only legitimate kind.  Most Anglicans disagree….but there isn’t time to go into that now!

So let’s focus down on John the Baptiser – the man.  Matthew, probably based on Mark is convinced that John is the messenger of the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah.  He starts his account, saying “John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.  

It’s worth pausing for a moment to contemplate that word, ‘repent’.  Most of you have heard me talk about it before, but it’s always worth revisiting, I find.  I know that, for me, the word conjures up images of crazed street preachers – pointing at a crowd of drunks and crying ‘repent ye sinners!’.  That image implies that the preacher thinks he’s superior to the crowd.  It has a note of condemnation about it.  But, it’s worth considering the original Greek word – which is metanoia.  It means ‘turn around’.  A call for repentance, then, is less about condemnation, and more like an invitation.  ‘Metanoia’ invites us to stop heading in one direction, and choose to take a new path.  It invites us to stop following the world’s promises about what will fill us, save us, and give our lives meaning.  It invites us to turn instead to the straight and narrow way of the Lord.

John is the last of the Hebrew prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways.  Picture the scene:  Imagine a rather dirty fellow, with mad scruffy hair, dressed in camel-skins, and covered in bee-stings. He’s probably got blobs of honey stuck to his shirt, and he’s munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d try to get him some serious mental health support!  

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, attracted people out into the desert from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)

According to Matthew’s account, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7).  He warned them against the complacency of their religion: saying “Just because you are Abraham’s children, don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)

There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why, after Jesus appeared, didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah – as we’ll hear next week.

I think that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would be like.  John’s Messiah would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day.  See what he says about Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3:  “...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).  

John’s expectations of the Messiah are rooted in the language and concepts of Hebrew Bible.  In some ways, he was a bit like that street preacher I imagine jabbing his finger at a crowd of drunks.  And, uncomfortably, Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like.  And he was Jesus’ cousin!  

I wonder how many of us sometimes do that?  How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is?  How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs?  

How many Conservative-voters assume God is a Tory?  How many people on the left blithely assume Jesus was a socialist?   How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them?  It’s painfully ironic to observe Vladimir Putin cosying up to the Russian church for approval of his evil plans.  He must think that God is like him.  But, the truth is, we all have a tendency to make God in our own image.  We often imagine God to be a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves – rather than seeking the truth of God in whose image we are made.

John’s language is the language of criticism and warning.  “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!”   John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing.  “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”.  It’s a promise of life, but tinged with the threat of death.

Jesus’ language, on the other hand, is of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  He speaks of journeys, and the Narrow Way of faith.  John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer.  Jesus offers life, hope and an exciting journey.

Mind you, Jesus is not immune from the apocalyptic tradition.  Certainly, he also gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. (Mt 12.34).  But, on balance, Jesus’ tone is rather different to John’s.  Instead of calling us out to a desert of repentance, he invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal.  John offers locusts and wild honey.  Jesus offers bread, wine, and a banquet in heaven.  He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community.  He includes women – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.  

Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks.  Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, community-life and growth into beings with the capacity to be like gods.  He calls it the Narrow Way, and the Kingdom.   Jesus calls us to turn away from making up our own ideas about how things should be.  He calls us instead to tune-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe.  The baptism of John saves us from wrath.  The baptism of Jesus invites us on journey of growth and faith.

In this season of Advent, we are invited to take stock of our own journey, and the extent to which we have fully ‘turned around’.  Have we utterly forsaken the false promises of the world, and progressed a little further along the straight and narrow Way of the Lord.  If the answer is ‘yes’, we can give thanks to God, and renew our commitment today.  

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘well, perhaps not quite yet’ – then we are invited, today, to make a new commitment.  A commitment to forsake the false promises of politicians, of consumerism, of selfish-ambition.  And a commitment to the straight and narrow way of love, generosity, self-sacrifice and deep, deep meaning. 

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 1 - 2021

When, I wonder, did we forget how to wait for things?  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, and we want it now!  And, if we are one of the 1% of the world who have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want, we tend to get it…now.  

A couple of years ago, Clare came back from visiting a friend’s house, extolling the virtues of the new Amazon 'Echo' device.  'It's fantastic', she said.  You can just ask it to play the radio, or for a summary of the news headlines, or what the weather will be!  I really fancy one for Christmas.'  Three days later, one arrived in our house!

The Season of Advent is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  For the rest of our society, the New Year starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important.  That’s odd, when you think about it.  Why should the simple turn of the Calendar be something to be celebrated with dancing in the street and all night parties?  But the Church, deliberately, counter-culturally, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

Waiting is a central part of the Biblical witness.  The Israelites who fled from Egypt waited 40 years to reach their destination.  King David bought the land on which the Jerusalem temple would be built, but it was his son Solomon who built it.  The Jewish Exiles waited for 70 years to return from Babylon to Jerusalem.  And the followers of Jesus still wait for his complete return.  We wait.  We long for the fully realised Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

It is in those periods of waiting that God does his work.  For the Israelites fleeing Egypt, it was the time when God taught them to trust in him and to obey his laws.  For the Exiles, it was the time of Daniel, and the powerful demonstrations of God’s power in the lion’s den, and in the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Mesach and Abegnego.  For followers of Jesus, these last two centuries have been a time of gradually building up of the household of God, the year by year spreading of God’s good news of Love from nation to nation.  Christianity is the largest religion (by followers on the planet) and this has taken time to achieve.  On a personal level, God works within us, during Advent, to dispel the myth that instant gratification will do anything at all to make us truly happy.

In Advent, we can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.  We yearn for God to put things right.  The writers of the Gospel’s shared in that sense of urgency.  Mark and Luke, for example, repeat a saying attributed to Jesus, which is (for me) one of the most intriguing lines of the New Testament: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”.   Jesus is reported to have promised that his second coming was SO imminent, that the current generation would not pass away before that great event happened.

Well, that didn’t happen!  This is one of those examples of where we need to understand the context of the writers of Scripture.  Mark was writing at a time when Jesus had been gone for perhaps 30 years, and the early church was feeling the iron boot of Rome on its neck. Peter was probably in prison, along with Paul.  Rome was becoming increasingly hostile towards both Jews and the new cult of the Christians.  

It should not surprise us that Mark, in reporting Jesus’ words from three decades before, has perhaps let poetry trump accuracy, as ancient writers often did.  He didn’t want to wait for God’s plan to be unfolded in God’s time.  Despite reporting that Jesus said ‘no-one will know the hour or the time of his coming’, Mark let his inner-optimist get the better of him…I suggest.

Or perhaps - Jesus is, in fact, already come, stealthily, in clouds.  That by his Holy Spirit, he is already among us.  That he is even now, continually, gathering his elect – his followers – from the ends of the earth.  Gathering us into churches, love-factories, for the spreading of his message of Love.

And, while we wait for the completion of the Reign of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here.

Every time an army lays down its weapons, and seeks peace - Jesus comes.

Every time politicians and scientists combine their efforts in unprecedented action to produce a vaccine – Jesus comes.

Every time a family is raised up out of fear or poverty Jesus comes.

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in a church social gathering, Jesus comes.  

Every time one of our church members phones another church member just to chat – to make a connection - Jesus comes.

Every time a hungry family is fed by the Beacon or PO9 Foodbanks, Jesus comes.

Every time homeless people sleeping in our town are treated like the human beings they truly are, Jesus comes.

Every time that an alcoholic, a gambler, a drug user turns up to one of our Pallant Centre support groups, and says ‘NO!’ to their addiction, Jesus comes. 

Every time an item of clothing is recycled through our shop, rather than added to the pile of human refuse, the planet is loved, and Jesus comes.

Every time a young person develops their human potential through Dynamo Youth Theatre, or a person with learning difficulties grows in confidence through Creating Chaos, or a teenager with mental health challenges is helped by MIND - Jesus comes.

Every time that SSAFA helps the poverty-stricken family of an armed services veteran, Jesus comes.

You see - signs of the kingdom are all around us.  

Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  To see the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found. Amen.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The End of the World!

Texts:  Revelation 18.1–2, 21–23, 19.1–3, 9 and Luke 21.20–28

Today, the lectionary invites us to flirt with tales and prophecies of the end of days.  We are drawn by our readings into an imaginary future world in which the great city of Babylon is destroyed, and in which the “son of man will come in a cloud in great power and glory”.  How can we get to the heart and the truth of what all this rich imagery is telling us.

Reading the Bible literally is a risky path to take.  You may remember the name Harold Camping, for example.  Mr Camping was an American preacher and Christian radio host who predicted that the world would end on the 21st of May 2011 (at 6pm in the afternoon, incidentally).  Many of his followers were so convinced that they sold up their homes and ploughed all their savings into the cost of the advertising campaign, to persuade Americans of Mr Camping’s message.  Sadly, for them, the world didn’t end – and they were left penniless and often in great debt.

You see, the problem with reading the Bible literally is that this is not what its original writers intended, by and large.  The ancients used myths as lenses through which we can see our own paths to transformation and growth.  What do we mean by the word ‘ myth’?  Scholar Marcus Borg offers an interesting definition.  He says, “Myth is stories about the way things never were, but always are”.  Wise people read myths as insights about the human condition, which have the power to transform us.    Consider these words by the New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan, “My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.

So what are we to make of the rich imagery with which the lectionary confronts us today.  I doubt you would be very happy if I did a line by line analysis of both passages!  So, let’s just take the Revelation passage as an example of how wise people should read the Scriptures.  

By the time John was writing the Book of Revelation, the city of Babylon had been dead as a political and economic force for at least 300 years.  Some historians think it was more like 600 years. So when John uses imagery of Babylon being cast into the sea because, I quote, “your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery” there is no way John is talking about the literal city of Babylon (whose dusty ruins you can visit for yourself in modern-day Iraq).  Babylon, for John, is rather a figurative city, a myth which stands for all systems, economic and political, which crush the life out of ordinary people.  

John is painting a picture, not making a specific prediction, of a world in which mighty merchants and those who deceive through, for example, the sorcery of propaganda will be replaced by what John calls, ‘the marriage feast of the Lamb’.  Again, John is not literally saying that humanity will be invited to sit around a table, watching a Lamb getting married!  What he is saying is that God’s purpose is for all humanity to be united with God, through God’s way of life as lived out in Jesus, also known as the Lamb.  The ‘marriage’ of which John speaks is the marriage of humanity with the purposes of God.

Rather than a prophecy of some fictitious ‘end-time’, the Book of Revelation is an invitation for us to take an inward journey, into ourselves.  We are asked to contemplate what kind of person we aspire to be.  Do we want to be numbered with the ‘merchants who were the magnates of the earth’?  Or do we want to be those very being is united, like in a marriage, to God’s purposes?  We have to ask ourselves how much longer we will collude with the world’s false promises (like ‘owning new things will make you happy’).  

There’s an old acrostic which the early Christians used.  It was the word ROMA – the Italian name for Rome.  Early Christians used those four letters, R.O.M.A. to stand for ‘radix omnium malorum avaritia’. It means ‘ avarice is the root of all evil’.  Marcus Borg explains, ‘Roma - empire - is the embodiment of avarice, the incarnation of greed. That’s what empire is about. The embodiment of greed in domination systems is the root of all evil’.  Wise Christians are invited to examine themselves for avarice, and other ‘sins of the flesh’ to seek out and destroy any internal attitudes which steer us away from the goal of living in love with God.

You see, God loves us already and has always loved us, from before the dawn of time.  The Christian life is not about believing certain things about God, or trusting particular words about God.  That would be salvation by syllables.  Rather, it’s about perceiving what is fundamentally true, at the heart of God – that God loves us already, and then seeking to live our lives in that relationship.  The Christian life is about waking up to and intentional choice to live in an ever-deepening relationship with God.

If we really were to take God’s transforming Way seriously, then there would truly be, in the words of today’s Gospel reading, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea…”.  The end of the world of man may well involve momentous events – wars over scarce resources on a dying planet, at the very least.  But the kind of upheaval which Jesus describes is not literal.  The signs in the sky, and the roaring of the sea which he describes are signs of the spiritual transformation of humanity.  The Son of Man will come among us ‘as on a cloud’ – stealthily, silently, into every human heart – and as we saw on Sunday, one person at a time.  The transformation will be no less momentous, as every human heart is gradually, gently, loving, turned towards the purposes of God, so that every knee will bow, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

But don’t expect to witness any avenging angels hurling the archaeological ruins of Babylon into the sea like a millstone!  Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Christ the King - saving us one at a time

This week, the world’s population has reached 8 billion people, despite the increased deaths from Covid.  Global temperatures continue to rise, and are fast reaching the tipping point when the ice-sheets of the poles will melt, and low lying land (like Havant!) is likely to be submerged by rising sea-levels.  Human kind has not yet learned how to solve its differences except by violence and threat. A billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips and refugee camps for something to eat.

Have you ever wondered how many people is a billion people? Let me give you some idea of the scale....Imagine, if you can, a line of 1billion people, standing 1 yard apart. If I were to get in my car, and drive along the line of people at 60 miles per hour for one hour, I would pass 105,600 people. Do you know how long I would have to drive at 60 miles per hour, all day, all night, without stopping, to pass by 1 billion people? 1 YEAR and 29 days.

That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty or in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies just to survive from one day to the next.  It’s sobering, isn’t it…especially for us, whose daily challenges with the cost of living crisis means choosing to turn down our thermonstat, or buying one less macchiato-cappuccino a week.

In a little while, as bread and wine are consecrated, we will remind ourselves that Christ claims dominion over all creation. We will remind ourselves what His Kingdom is like: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. How very different that Kingdom is from the one we experience!  How our hearts cry out, when we pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven!

St Luke was very conscious of the kind of kingdom into which Jesus came. He frames his entire narrative in terms of Kingship, as we shall hear again through Advent and Christmas. Chapter 1: "In the days of King Herod of Judaea...' Chapter 2: " this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree". Chapter 3: "In the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar's reign". Luke framed his story by reference to three rulers...but then, at the end, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, he places Jesus on his cross with the massively ironic legend "King of the Jews" over his head.

But Luke also contrasts the three great rulers with three simple people. In his first three chapters, the references to Herod, Augustus and Tiberius are contrasted with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon: all of whom proclaim a different kind of Kingdom. These are people who, as Rowan Williams says, are 'lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful'. In Jesus, God has 'turned upside down the assumptions of the world'.  He ‘casts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts the humble and meek’, as Mary sings in the Magnificat.  Jesus presents us with a God who is nothing like the God of our power-corrupted imaginations.

It is perhaps during his trial that we get the clearest sense of what Jesus believed about power. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus steadfastly resists any attempt to be named as either God's Son, or the Messiah - let alone the King of Kings. He silences the demoniacs, the healed leper, and even Simon Peter when they identify him. But, there does come a point, a crucial point, where he permits himself to be revealed. During his trial, the High Priest invites the prisoner to incriminate himself: "Are you the Christ", he asks, "the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus answers with the plainest of plain words: "I am". Why then? Why at that point?

Here I turn again to Rowan Williams for help. In his book 'Christ on Trial' Williams comments that "Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, 'I am'…"  (Williams, 2000, Christ on Trial, p.7).

Jesus death on the cross has many layers of meaning, of course. But one of them that we must not miss is that by his death, Jesus unmasks the Kingdoms of this world. He demonstrates that the myth of redemptive violence – the idea that problems can be solved with weapons - is nothing but a mask for evil.  Jesus shows emperors, religious fundamentalists and dictators in their true light...bully-boys, whose ultimate achievement through violence is the death of a simple, loving man, and the nailing of God himself onto a cross.  It's as though Jesus says, "this is what happens when you live with the lie of redemptive end up squeezing God out, onto the margins, onto a hill outside the City."

But Jesus redeems even such marginalisation. There, outside the City wall, pushed away by the State, he is still at work. He still works to redeem creation. To the thief beside him he turns and promises "Today you will be with me in Paradise". It's as though having failed to persuade the State to embrace a different way, Jesus switches tactics. If the State will not bow to the love and just mercy of God, then Jesus will start from a different point...he will carry out his redemption one thief at a time, one person at a time.

And that finally is where we come in to this story. There is not much that you and I can hope to achieve in changing the State we are in. We can't hope to halt the armies of the world, as they pound each other to dust. We can't hope to shift the priorities of a world economic system which can find £100 billion dollars to bail out the banks, but which can't help those billion people in a line outside our door. But like Jesus, with the thief on the Cross, it turns out that we can do something, after all. One person at a time. One life at a time. We can love our neighbour. We can sponsor a child - just talk to World Vision. We can give the gift of food to a family using the Beacon Foodbank. We can donate to the work of this parish in supporting charities like SSAFA, Mind, and Alcoholics Anonymous.  

We can continue to live with the false myth that the state we are in can be improved through violence and coercion - what we might call the 'myth of redemptive violence', or we can wake up to the call of Christ the King of ALL kings, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether.  Amen

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Duty and Truth

 "England expects that every man will do his duty”.  So signaled Admiral Lord Nelson to the fleet at Trafalgar.  This was during the same war in which the standard of the Havant Volunteers, hanging above our heads, was raised.

But what is ‘duty’?  Duty is that obligation we owe to each other, as fellow citizens, in any community.  It is the action we perform, regardless of our personal desires.  It is an action which puts the needs of our community, or our country, above our personal wants.

As such, ‘duty’ has a rather old fashioned ring about it, to our modern ears.  We live in a society in which personal happiness and personal fulfillment has become the primary goal.  To the modern, western mind, it often doesn’t matter very much who else suffers, or who else is living in poverty, as long as I have everything I need.  As long as I am happy. As an example of this kind of thinking, here’s a quote from Grant Cordone, a self-help guru and business advisor.  He says ‘Success is your duty, obligation and responsibility’.  He is referring of course to personal success. 

But of course, the search for personal happiness, success and wealth is never a pathway to the building of a society.  Building society requires an instinct for self-sacrifice among all its members.

On Friday, incidentally on Armistice Day, we witnessed the re-taking of Kherson by the Ukrainian Army, from the presently terrorist state of Russia.  This would not have happened if Ukrainian citizens had neglected their duty.  If the Ukrainian volunteers had each decided that their personal happiness and safety was more important to them, if they had decided to flee to Europe with their families, then we would never have seen Friday’s victory come to pass.  If the Western nations had not done their duty, and stood by Ukraine by supplying them, Kherson would still be in Russian hands today.

We must remember, however, that the young men and women of the Russian army are also doing their duty, as they see it.  They have been systematically lied to, by their government.  They have been told that Ukrainians are Nazis who, with the support of the Western powers, are about to invade Mother Russia.  So they, too, fight out of duty to their country, albeit misguided.

And this is of course where duty has its limits.  For duty to be holy, righteous and purposeful, it must itself be subject to a higher authority still.  Duty must be subservient to Truth.  Any person who prepares to do their duty must first do the hard work of working out what is true about the situation they face.  We live in a post-truth world, in which propaganda, and so-called ‘fake-truth’ is harnessed for political ends or personal gain.  And it is hard, indeed, to disentangle the half-truths from the lies.  How can a Russian soldier, for example, know whether his duty is misplaced, if he does not have access to the Truth?  How, then, can anyone’s call to duty be assessed, for Truthfulness?

Jesus Christ said that he was the way, the life, and the Truth.  In other words, he taught that by following his way of life, and his teachings, we would be led by his Spirit into all Truth.  Christians, then, have a yardstick by which to judge the various truth-claims with which we are bombarded, by the political maelstrom around us.  So, whenever a truth-claim is uttered by a national leader, the Christian holds that claim up against the teaching of Christ – to discern whether or not there is a duty to be followed.

And so, the Christian asks themselves, ‘how does this truth-claim equate to the wisdom of Christ’.  Let’s say, for example, there are competing claims about immigrants ‘invading’ our shores.  How do those truth-claims stand up against the Bible’s teaching about giving hospitality to the stranger? Let’s say that there are political forces who want to reduce the income of those who rely on the State for essential support.  How does that policy stand up against the Bible’s teaching on caring for the poorest in our community?  Let’s say that there are political and economic forces who want to destroy the Amazon, or keep pumping carbon into our atmosphere.  How does that stand up against the Bible’s teaching that humankind has a duty to take care of the Earth?  Let’s imagine that a call to arms is issued to the members of 16 Regiment here today, to take up their weapons and fight against a foe.  How will that call stand up against the Bible and Christianity’s teaching about what is, or is not, a just war?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers.  But in general, I observe, Western society has lost its touch-stone, its ability to discern right from wrong, because it has lost touch with the teachings of Christ.  For me to do my duty, in every circumstance of life, I need to know with clarity and truth what that duty is.  The teachings of Christ give me a lens, or perhaps a stained glass window, through which to discern what is, and what is not, my duty.

I am a Canon of Cape Coast in Ghana, West Africa.  I have seen with my own eyes the slave-trading fortresses built by the British army of yesteryear.  I’ve seen the putrid dungeons in which slaves were guarded by British soldiers, who all believed they were doing their duty.  I’ve seen the first church in Ghana, built over the entrance to those very dungeons.  I know that not every duty carried out by our own soldiers, and our own clergymen, could be described as springing from the pure Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Today, we remember, and we give thanks, for all those who have done their duty for their country before us.  But as we give thanks for the duty displayed by the fallen of the past, and we pray for the service-men and women of the present, let us also pray for the wisdom to discern among the lies and propaganda of the world where our duty lies – our duty to our community, to our nation, and to our God.  Amen.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

SSGG: The Narrow Way

Texts: 2 Thessalonians 2.1–5,13–17 and Luke 20.27–38

According to many social scientists, we now live in the era of ‘post-truth’.  By that term, they mean that we live in a time when truth is no longer valued by those with power or influence.  What matters, instead, is winning the argument – and it doesn’t matter what lies you have to tell, as long as you win.  This week, for example, the work of one Richard D. Hall has been exposed by the BBC.  This is a man, from Wales, who makes his living by writing books and speaking at conferences of conspiracy theorists.  Among his many outlandish lies, is the disgusting claim that the bombing at the Manchester Arena, a few years ago, was staged.  In his narrative, all the victims were actors.  The trouble with fake news of this kind, is that there are always just enough people who are gullible enough to believe it, and to line the pockets of conmen like Richard D. Hall.

We only have to look at the War in Ukraine to see the effect of living in a post-truth world.  Massive lies – or fake news - have been told to the Russian people by their Government – lies about the intentions of the West to ‘wipe out Russia’.  These lies – this propaganda - has enabled the Russian Government to launch its war against Ukraine.  But why?  What is gained from these lies?  For the answer to that question, I suspect we would have to take a look at the bank accounts of the Russian’s weapon manufacturers, and the bank accounts of the politicians who have supported the war.  The question always to be asked of any ‘fake-truth’ claims is:  ‘who is benefiting from this lie?  Who is lining their pockets?  Or even just scratching a living?’.  There is money to be made by pedalling lies.

Incidentally, there is a lovely internet meme doing the rounds at the moment, in which the Flat Earth Society is said to have accidentally posted a claim that they have members ‘all around the globe!’

By calling this the ‘Post-truth era’, as social scientists do, we may be forgiven for thinking this is a new phenomenon.  But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  There are many examples of lies being used for political or religious gain in the Bible – by all sorts of people - and, we have one before us, this morning.  Look at the opening two verses of today’s reading from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians.  It’s a long sentence – as Paul’s sentences often are – so let’s break it down:

“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him…”  Paul starts this sentence by saying that he wants to address the topic of Jesus’ second coming, and about what is called the ‘Parousia’ - the idea (promoted by Paul himself) that when Jesus comes, we will be gathered up to meet with him in the air. 

This is an odd-enough idea in itself – especially in the light of Jesus’ own teaching about heaven in the Gospel.  However, let’s not dwell on that, for now.  Let’s read on…

“…we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…” Paul wants to comfort his readers in Thessalonica. He wants them not to be alarmed about these stories about the Parousia, which are obviously circulating.  How are they circulating?  Let’s read on…

“…either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.”  I’ve emphasised those words ‘as though from us’ because that is the heart of this sentence.  The clear inference is that someone has been either writing, or speaking, or rumouring to the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord is already here…and they’ve been pretending to be representing Paul!  The Thessalonians have been subject to fake news.  For what purpose, we cannot say…but clearly some false teachers have been spreading fake news…perhaps to gain influence, or perhaps to gain wealth by asking for offerings to support their own false ministry.

Paul is anxious to correct this fake news.  He points them to other signs, or things which must take place before Jesus comes again. He predicts rebellion, and the setting up of an idol in the Temple of Jerusalem.  (Incidentally, some scholars think this refers to an actual attempt by the Emperor Caligula to put a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies).  Paul reminds them, in verse 5, that he has already taught them these things, face to face.  He says, “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was with you?”

Instead, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to remain steadfast and firm in the salvation offered by God, and in the traditions that they were taught by Paul.  Verse 15:  Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…” He concludes by praying that Jesus himself will give comfort and hope, and strength to carry on “in every good work and word”. 

How might we sum up this bit of Bible Study?  And what might it say to us? 

Paul is worried about his flock – who are being lured away from their traditions, and their faith, by lurid promises of the false teachers of fake truth.  He is concerned that they are being distracted from the process of “sanctification by the Spirit, through belief in the truth” (v.13) and are instead running after the exciting promise of being lifted up in the air to meet the Lord.  He knows that such distractions won’t be good for them. 

You see, that’s what happens when spiritual visions and a yearning for spiritual experiences starts to dominate the lives of Christians.  When practicing the Christian faith becomes all about ‘me getting closer to God’ or ‘me experiencing God’ then it loses its essential focus.  The Christian who only wants the religious experience is the one who only comes to church at Christmas, for the chance to feel nice and holy for a while.  Or they are the kind of Christian who treks from festival to festival in search of a religious high.  Instead, the essential focus of Christian faith, described by Paul, is this:

First, salvation by God’s grace.  Secondly, sanctification (that is - being made ever more holy), through belief (or trust) in truth.  That leads ultimately to the obtaining of glory – or heaven as we might call it – with Jesus Christ.  In the meantime, while that process of sanctification goes on, throughout our lives, Paul counsels his readers to hold fast to the traditions they were taught, and praying for the strength required for good works and good words.

It’s a clear path.  Salvation, through grace.  Sanctification, through holiness and truth.  Lives of good works and words, leading to glory with Jesus Christ.  If anyone asks you what is the true path, the narrow way of the Christian – then this should be your answer:  SSGG. Salvation.  Sanctification.  Good works and word.  Glory.  Anything else is just fake news.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Living Stones - a sermon for the Dedication & Patronal Festival

 A sermon on the Patronal Festival, commemorating St Faith of Agen (our 'patron saint)

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

According to the Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), Bethel was one such place.  After his prophetic dream, Jacob called the place ‘House of God’ (which is what Beth-el means.  (El was one of the early names for God).  For many generations, it was one of Israel’s holiest shrines.  The Ark of the Covenant was kept there, until it was transferred to Jerusalem.  Prophets and leaders would go to Bethel, to seek God’s wisdom and instruction. Ironically, though, for such a holy place, no-one can say with certainty today where Bethel actually was. 

Attributions of holiness have been given to many places over the millennia.  For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is one such place.  There are laid the bones of the young martyr – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a few years ago.

Where is your ‘thin place’?  Where is that you find that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is somehow made thinner?  For some, it may be a beautiful natural landscape.  For others, it will often be a building, in which hundreds of years of prayer and worship have somehow soaked into the stones.

Holy places, then, are integral to religious faith.  And yet there is a danger, isn’t there, in investing all our energy into buildings.  Anyone who has toured the ruins of great abbey churches around the UK, or who has seen the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple should know that faith is not kept alive by holy places alone.  They, like all physical things, must pass. 

In fact, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way.  In the temple of Jerusalem, for example, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  Now (as the book of Revelation has it), God’s dwelling place was with people – not locked up in a back corner of a temple. In fact, you and I are now where God dwells…not in buildings of stone, but in living flesh and blood.

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – in terms of the story it tells about God. For example, the way that the whole focus of the church is fixed on the High Altar, could suggest that God is distant from us….that he is far away, and only to be approached on bended knee, in front of a Sanctuary that ordinary people dare not enter.  That is not, I think, the picture of God that Jesus offers us.  A church which has its altar in the centre of the people might well be a much more accurate picture.

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

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

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

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).  The church is the holy house of spiritual people, with heaven in their hearts, and the needs of the world on their mind. People with so much faith, that they too, if ever called upon, might also demonstrate the certainty of purpose and belief of our own patron, St Faith of Agen.


Thursday, September 29, 2022

St Michael and All Angels

Collect of the Day

Everlasting God,

you have ordained and constituted

   the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:

grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,

so, at your command,

they may help and defend us on earth;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Revelation 12.7–12

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

‘Now have come the salvation and the power

   and the kingdom of our God

   and the authority of his Messiah,

for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,

   who accuses them day and night before our God.

11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb

   and by the word of their testimony,  for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!

But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you

with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’

John 1.47–51

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’


There’s something wonderful about preaching here at St Faith’s which most people in the pews rarely notice.  While I speak to you, my eyes are often drawn to the great windows at the West End – in which we find images of the angels Michael and Gabriel.  Look behind you – and you’ll see what I mean.

They have a bit of a salutary effect on me.  Angels, after all, are messengers of God.  That’s what the word ‘angel’ means – ‘messenger’.  According to the stories of the Bible, their function is to act as an intermediary between God and humanity.  They are sent with instructions or warnings from God.  And their whole being is bent towards communicating faithfully God’s will to humanity.  So, as I preach, and I gaze upon the stern faces of Michael and Gabriel – it reminds me to be faithful to that task as well.  I am warned and encouraged to be a faithful messenger of God as well!

The other function of angels, according to Scripture, is to act as God’s warriors in the heavenly realms – battling against the forces of evil.  Michael, is pictured as the General of the heavenly armies – and as we just heard from the book of Revelation, it was Michael and his army of angels who cast the Devil down to earth.

Angels are a rather mysterious thing.  They entered fairly late into Christian theology.  I recently enjoyed the theological debate of the movie ‘The Two Popes’, which explores the different theologies of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, by putting them into dialogue with each other.  In one rather amusing scene, Francis reminds Benedict (the great traditionalist) that angels didn’t really feature at all in the early church.  They only came to the fore in the fifth century after Christ.  “And now,” says Francis, “they are suddenly all around us, like pigeons”!  According to history, a basilica near Rome was dedicated in the fifth century in honour of Michael on 30 September, beginning with celebrations on the eve of that day, and so the 29 September is now kept in honour of Michael throughout the western Church.

The notion of a guardian angel has gained some traction in recent years.  It’s not altogether clear where the idea comes from.  It may be linked to the Gospel story of God sending an angel to comfort Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  According to the book of Revelation, churches are assigned a guardian angel too.  When, in Revelation, Jesus writes to seven churches with words of encouragement and warning, he addresses the letters to the angel of each church.  The idea of a guardian angel also be attributed to Islam.  Many Muslims believe that they have two guardian angels – one in front, and one behind them.  Then they have two further angels on their right and on their left whose task is to record a person’s good deeds, and bad deeds, ready for the final judgment.  

Personally, I’m not so sure about the idea of guardian angels.  I don’t think it has any warrant in Scripture.  God sends an angel to comfort Jesus in the garden, but only for a specific and pivotal moment.  And if there really are guardian angels, protecting us from accidents and misfortune in life, then (judging by the number of accidents which happen to us all) they don’t seem to be very good at it!

One rather fanciful idea which has also gained traction in recent year is the notion that our loved ones become angels when they die.  This idea, I have to say, has no basis in Scripture.  Angels, according to the Bible’s accounts, are an entirely separate creation to human beings.  They have a specific function – either as messengers or warriors for God in the heavenly realm.  But angels are separate to human beings, in the divine order.  They live directly in the presence of God.  The story of Lucifer’s rebellion indicates that, like us, they also have free will.  But angels are not human beings, and human beings don’t become angels.  

You see, God values and loves us for who we are.  God wants us to grow to become all that we can be as human beings, with all our humanity intact, the same humanity he inhabited as Jesus Christ.  But there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that God wants to convert us into angels.  A cow does not become a horse.  A dog does not become a cat.  And humans do not become angels.  To do so would rob us of our humanity – something so precious that Christ died to save it.  It would be to suggest that the glorious future we are offered, of being saved, loved, and drawn ever upwards into Christ is not, somehow, sufficient for humanity.  So, my friends, be cautious of believing that your loved one, who has gone before, has somehow been changed into an angel.  They have not.  They are still the human being you knew and loved…except that they now, together with the angels, dwell in the eternal light of God.

So, in summary, there’s a lot of myth and story-telling around the whole idea of angels.  The Bible doesn’t really offer us much in the way of concrete theology about them – the Bible writers simply accept angels as a reality which sometimes breaks into our reality.  Take, for example, the writer to the Hebrews, who warns us all to be hospitable, because we may find ourselves entertaining angels. 

But whatever angels might be, and however they relate to human beings, the stories about them can serve to inspire us.  They dwell in the presence of God, eternally praising and worshipping our Creator and Redeemer.  Let us also never cease to offer God the praise and worship he deserves.  Angels are faithful messengers of God – and we are called to be faithful witnesses and carriers of Good News too.  They are warriors for God, and we too are called to ‘fight the good fight with all our might’.  So, whatever our suspicions about the myths of angels might be (and I have many such suspicions!) let us at least leave here today emboldened by their example.  Let us commit ourselves anew to being people whose lives are poured out in worship, faithfulness and the courage to fight for the Kingdom of God.


Sunday, September 11, 2022

Sermon on the Sunday after the Death of Her Late Majesty the Queen

 What can I say about Her Late Majesty the Queen that has not already been said in 24 hour news-coverage and the saturated internet?  What superlatives can I employ which have not already been ascribed to her (more eloquently than I ever could) especially by those who knew her well?  

Whatever we think, for example, about our late Prime Minister, he can certainly craft a phrase!  In his tribute to the Queen, reflecting on the national sense of loss, he said that she was “a changeless human reference point in British life…so unvarying in her Pole Star radiance that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way, eternal.”

In a similarly eloquent phrase, our new Prime Minister described the Queen as “the rock on which modern Britain was built” and “the very spirit of Great Britain”.  The Leader of the Opposition described Her Late Majesty as “the heart of this nation’s life”.  He praised “her deep devotion to the country, the Commonwealth and the people she loved.  In return for that,” he said, “we loved her”.

From His Majesty the King, we have glimpsed a more personal perspective.  He spoke of her as “my beloved Mother” who, he said, was an inspiration and example to me and to all my family….Queen Elizabeth”, he went on, “was a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept, and she is mourned most deeply in her passing.”

But this speech of mine is billed as a Sermon, not so much a tribute.  So permit me to focus on another important aspect of the Late Queen’s character and life – specifically, her faith.  Allow me to do so, in her own words.

In her Christmas broadcast of 2017, she said this:

“Jesus Christ lived obscurely most of his life and never travelled far.  He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong.  And yet billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives.  I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love”.

I find that notion of ‘doing small things with great love’ utterly inspirational.  It is estimated that during her long reign, the Queen met directly some 3 million people (to say nothing of the billions who have glimpsed her over the years).  That is 3 million people who have had the privilege of shaking her hand, and exchanging a small (and always-interested word).  3 million small acts of great love from someone whose faith inspired her to a lifetime of duty and service.  This is of course to say nothing as well of the immeasurable number of letters, telegrams and condolences and sound advice which have flowed unceasing from the Queen’s desk, throughout her reign.  Paul Keating, the former Australian Prime Minister, put it so well when he said:

“The Queen understood and attached herself to the public good against what she recognised as a tidal wave of private interest and private reward - and she did it for a lifetime.”

The phrase “Jesus Christ: the man for others” is one ascribed to Jesus by theologians like Dietrich Bonhoffer and Paul Tillich.  It condenses, rather beautifully, the idea that Jesus lived only to serve humanity.  His entire life was poured out in the service of others – and this is the example which inspired the Queen.  And it inspired our new King to say that her “promise of lifetime service I renew to you all today”. 

I pray that, whatever our personal views about the institution of monarchy may be, we can all draw from the example of our Late Queen, and from the promise, made on Friday, by her heir the King.  We are ALL capable of performing ‘small acts with great love’ – to one another, to our neighbours, by our gifts of charity, and by living (as Christ modelled) for others. 

Let us imagine, for moment, a society in which ‘living for others’ was our primary driver, and primary goal.  Let us contemplate what our world would be like if private interest and private reward could be turned towards the benefit of others.  Can we imagine a world in which Dictators and grubby warlords no longer seek to possess the lands of others?  Can we imagine a world in which billionaires use their resources to benefit all humankind?  Can we imagine a world in which the swords of the nations are beaten into ploughshares to feed and heal the world?  On a more parochial level, can we imagine a world in which foodbanks were made unnecessary, and in which every homeless person had a warm bed.  Can we imagine a world in which every human being, of every nation, of every economic background, is valued and enabled to become all they can become as a loved child of God.  These concepts are at the heart of the Christian faith, the Hebrew Bible, and the faith of Her Late Majesty the Queen.  Let them be our guiding concepts too.

It is also worth reflecting for a moment on the great burden that our new King, Prime Minister and Government are forced to bear.  Just at the point in which a major economic intervention was required in our Nation’s life, the Queen’s death has inevitably placed much on hold.    This will undoubtedly cause worry and concern among the millions who find themselves in fuel poverty, and who are battling for higher wages to meet the challenges of rampant inflation.  We do well to hold our King, Prime Minister, Government and Parliament in our prayers as they navigate the difficulties of the economic challenges, while at the same time performing their duties to the Late Queen’s memory.

But, finally, as we mourn the passing of Her Late Majesty, and welcome the accession of the King, let us hold fast to the faith they both have professed, in Jesus Christ: the man for others.  And let us pray, in the opening line of the National Anthem we will sing at the end of the service, those prayerful and heartfelt words, “God save the King”.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Mary's birthday!

This was my first sermon after a period of 5 months off work with stress.

It’s Mary’s birthday!  This festival of the birth of the mother of our Lord is celebrated on this day in both the eastern and the western Churches. It’s a traditional feast, without any specific biblical reference to consider – but we can certainly infer that Mary must have been born!  So marking her traditional birthday as a significant moment in human history is certainly worth doing.  What, however, is its true significance?

Falling nine months after the feast of the Conception of Mary on December the 8th, this feast stands, as Andrew of Crete says, ‘on the boundary between the old and the new covenants and ushers in the new dispensation of grace. Today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe.’  Which is a rather theological statement!  So let me unpack it a little bit.

As you know, I’m sure, the bible is separated into two sections – commonly referred to as the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments.  Another word for ‘testament’ is ‘covenant’ – and this refers to the Covenants established by God with his people.  The ‘Old’ covenant can be thought of as the Covenant of Law.  Essentially, prior to the arrival of Jesus, God was believed to have set his Laws for humanity in motion.  To gain God’s favour, humanity was required to keep God’s laws.  The problem, however, is that time and again, humanity failed.  We are not capable of keeping all the Laws of God.  We are just too distracted by our own needs, dreams, and aspirations.  Time and again, we sin.  Our behaviour and choices cause separation between us the perfection of God, and prevent us from becoming all that we could become by ever closer union with God.

So, in response, God established a New Covenant, a New Testament, which we can think of as the Covenant of Grace.  Through Jesus, God frees us from the strict requirements of the Law, and offers us his graceful forgiveness and new life.  Now, we are able to find peace with God, and connection to God, not by our own efforts at keeping the Law, but because of God’s loving grace.

According to tradition, the moment when this New Covenant of Grace begins is the moment of Mary’s birth.  Her conception, nine months earlier, is another significant moment – but it is more of a moment of potential.  During her gestation, inside her own mother, Anne’s womb, Mary is not yet independent.  The day of Mary’s birth is the moment when she who will bear the Christ-child takes her first breath. Her independent life from her mother begins.  This is when, in the words of Andrew of Crete, ‘today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe’.

Mary’s birthday reminds us of something we sometimes overlook – the simple fact of her humanity.  She was one of us.  Conceived like one of us.  Born like one of us. She would make mistakes, just like us – such as time she accidentally left the boy Jesus in the Temple, without realising it for about a day!   Or the time when she, with her other sons and daughters, tried to interrupt Jesus’ ministry – no doubt out of fear of what would happen to him.  Mary is one of us.  Fragile, like us.  Not perfect, like us.  But she is also ‘full of Grace’ (as the Archangel describes her).  The Lord is with her.  Mary is a human being who has opened herself fully to God’s Covenant of Grace.  And in doing so, she obtains the privilege of bearing the creator of the universe into the human world.

What does this mean for us? 

As you all know, I’ve been off work for the past several months, due to stress.  Over the time I’ve had to study, and to pray, I’ve learned much about myself and about my own humanity.  I’ve had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy that I had 20 (or even 5) years ago.  I’ve had to come to terms with my humanity – and to the fact that like all of us, there are limits to what I can cope with.  It’s not been an easy lesson to learn.  When we are young, we believe that we can take on the world, don’t we?  We have the mental and physical energy to burn the candle at both ends, working from before dawn to after dusk to make a difference in our chosen profession.  We take pride in our accomplishments – for the campaigns we’ve led, and the difference we’ve made.  But pride comes before a fall. 

Mary, born like us, human like us, failed too.  But she also opened herself to God’s grace – to God’s healing and saving activity in the world.  She learned, and to an extent was taught, to ‘F.R.O.G.’ – that is, to ‘Fully Rely On God’.  She understood that God was intimately and personally engaged in the salvation of the world.  She learned to trust, to rely, on God’s plan for the future – not hers, not her husband’s, not her religious leader’s plans.  God’s plan. 

So, that’s the journey on which I am now embarking.  As I ease back into parish ministry, I intend to let go of some of many plates I’ve tried to spin in my own strength.  I plan to ‘let go, and to let God’ – as the old saying goes.  I want to be more watchful, more open, to the paths that God lays out before us, and to rely on Christ’s promise that he, not I, will build his church.  I want to embrace the Covenant of Grace first inaugurated at the birth of Mary.  And I hope you’ll accompany me on such an exciting journey.  Amen.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Mary shows us the feminine God

 A sermon for Mothering Sunday

Texts:  Exodus 2.1-10, Colossians 3.12-17, John 19.25b-27

I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  This no doubt stems from my low-church upbringing.  I was never really taught about the importance of Mary in the story of Jesus.  The veneration of Mary was something which the Roman Catholics, down the road, did.  It was slightly odd, and a little bit ‘suspect’.  It was something which marked them from us. And so, in my early, formational years, Mary was treated as little more than the human incubator for the Son of God.

The extent to which Mary should, or should not, be venerated is a theme of church debates throughout the centuries.  Those who think that such veneration has got out of hand, at times, point to the Qu’ran, (specifically 5.116).  There’s a moment when the prophet Mohammed clearly thought that Christians were not just venerating Mary, but worshipping her, as if she were an equal member of the Trinity.  In fact, in Mohammed’s understanding of what he observed among Christians, the Holy Spirit hardly got a mention!  The Qu’ran was written around the turn of the 7th Century after Jesus – so clearly, Christians of that time were giving Mary a lot of attention.

Questions about the emphasis we should place on Mary have clearly been a feature of our history, here at St Faith’s.  Last week, in preparation for a school assembly, I carried out a bit of a survey of images of Mary in our building.  I walked around the church with a camera, describing for the children all the different ways that Mary is represented in our pictures, statues and windows.

For example, there is the Mother’s Union Banner, the icon in the prayer area, and then the gorgeous statue in the Lady Chapel.  There are stained glass windows of Mary as the queen of heaven (in the South Aisle) and appearing to St Bernadette at Lourdes (in the South-West window).  There are images of Mary at the Nativity (South Transept) and an image of today’s Gospel reading in the great East Window.  Mary, and John are shown standing at the foot of the cross.  I haven’t done an actual tally, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there might be are more images of Mary in our church than there are of Jesus!  Only the Stations of the Cross really redress the balance, in terms of a tally, and they are a relatively recent addition to the church.

After Easter, Bishop John will once again lead our Walsingham Cell of our Lady of Faith on a pilgrimage to ‘England’s Nazareth’.  Our pilgrims will venerate Mary, and ask for her prayers to God, in the greatest English Shrine to her.  After missing the occasion for the last two years, due to Covid, I’m sure it will be a very meaningful encounter for everyone who goes.

As an amateur historian and practicing theologian, all this interest in Mary intrigues me.  Why has there been such an interest in her, over the centuries?  After all, her contribution, through Scripture, to theology is relatively small.  We only have her selfless willingness to bear Jesus, and her glorious hymn of liberation, called the Magnificat.  Both of these are wonderful and inspiring moments, but essentially, they only echo much more developed theologies of service, and of the Kingdom, in the rest of Scripture. 

Her wider story is, of course, inspiring to us.  A peasant woman, willing to give her all to God, succeeds in bringing God himself into our world.  She raises the child, and then stands with him throughout his ministry, his death, and his resurrection.  She is devoted to Jesus, through thick and thin, never straying from his side, either when the crowds are shouting Hosanna, or when they shout ‘Crucify Him’.  Her story is one of devotion, and steadfast faith, and serves to encourage us all to do the same.

But, arguably, other Bible characters had similar levels of devotion. Some devotions were even greater – leading them, for example, to persecution and imprisonment, torture and death. By tradition, Mary (on the other hand) was carried bodily into heaven, never having tasted death herself.  So why does Mary intrigue us so much?

My gut tells me that Mary fascinates us because of her gender.  In a patriarchal world, in which men make all the decisions, Mary makes her decision (to say yes to God).  In a Bible-world of kings, conquests, geo-politics and apocalypses, Mary offers us a vision of faith in the domestic setting.  Through her story, we glimpse the intimate realities of God in the home environment – growing up in the bosom of a loving family.  Through the eyes of God’s ‘hand-maiden’, we glimpse the reality that God isn’t just interested in who wields power in our world, but also how power is exercised in our homes, and in our families.

Mary offers us a narrative of Motherhood, which stands in contrast to the traditional notions of Fatherhood – which all too often is about issues of power and control.  Although we know that God made both men and women in God’s image, Mary reminds us of the feminine aspects of God.  She gives us permission to apply the adverb ‘she’ to God, as much as ‘he’.  What do I mean?

Well, this: if we only conceive of God in male terms, then we will expect God to act as males tend to act.  We will expect God to control the situation we are praying about.  We will expect God to intervene, and to ‘sort it out’.  When we pray about conflicts in the world (like the one in Ukraine at the moment), we will expect God to step into the battlefield, like a Head teacher into a playground scrap – to separate the warring parties, and give them detention!  But Mary, in reminding us of God’s feminine characteristics, will show us a God who sometimes stands back from her squabbling children, so that they might learn and grow through the squabble, always ready to both comfort and to teach.  The feminine God isn’t focussed on control, or domination, but rather in the growth of her children.  She wants her children to become all that they are capable of becoming – like the stereotypical mother of some cultures who pushes her child to become a Doctor.  And she knows that a lesson lived is more likely to be learned than a lesson taught.

It is this feminine aspect of God, reflected in humanity, which emerges in the other readings that are set for today.  In the first reading, from the Book of Exodus, the Mother of Moses uses her cunning and guile to protect her new-born son.  She doesn’t gain custody of him through violence or coercion, but out of love, and compassion, and sheer motherly determination.  In the second reading, from the letter to the Colossians, St Paul teaches that Christians must treat one another with the kinds of qualities we associate with the feminine:  compassion, love, humility, peace, forgiveness.  What a remarkable transformation this is, from the Saul who originally sought to control people through violence, persecution and murder!

So on this Mothering Sunday, let us give thanks for all those, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, who ignite in us the feminine aspects of God.  Let us pray for those who are rightly repelling the violent Russian invaders in Ukraine, but also for those who are mothering the refugees who are fleeing the fighting.  Their efforts, to bring food, medicine, clothing and shelter are no less heroic, no less important.  And they, like Mary, remind us all of the feminine aspects of God, who creates, supplies and cares for all God’s children.  Amen.