Friday, September 29, 2023

Walking the Walk - using our money wisely

Texts: Philippians 2.1-13 and Matthew 21.23-32

There’s a saying, among preachers, that all the letters of St Paul can be summarised with three sentences:

 Greetings in the name of Jesus.

Stop messing about.

Blessings on you.

That’s because, when you start to examine them, it’s obvious that Paul was writing, usually, to correct some abhorrent behaviour on the part of new Christians in the churches he had planted.  His letter to the church in Philippi is no exception. 

Imagine, if you will, that I went away on an extended break, but that while I was gone, you receive an open letter, from me to the whole congregation.  Imagine that letter said things like “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.”  You would soon conclude that I had heard that some people were acting up in my absence!  That is exactly what Paul is doing, when he writes these letters. He’s trying to steer his distant congregations along a straight course – along the Way of Christ, we might say.  But he knows that is a tough ask, so he tactfully dresses up his criticisms with greetings and blessings.

This tells us something important about the early church.  It’s easy for us to imagine that the early church was somehow purer, or more holy than us.  But following the Way of Jesus has always been hard work.  10% inspiration, and 90% perspiration, as the old saying goes. Jesus himself called it ‘the Narrow Way’ – a path that is easy to fall from, or to stray from.  Let no-one tell you that the Way of Jesus is a path to glory, or to riches, or to guaranteed good health.  The Way of Jesus requires us to surrender selfish ambition.  It is the path of the servant, the Way of the Lord who washes his own disciples’ feet.

It is also a path that is easy to begin, but not always easy to follow through – which is the point of this morning’s Gospel reading.  It’s part of a clever debate between Jesus and some of the chief priests of his day.  These are wealthy men of great status.  And they like to think they are clever too.  But after neatly shutting them up over a question about John the Baptiser, Jesus tells them one of his fabulous stories.  ‘Imagine’, he says, ‘that a man has two sons – and he asks them to go to work in the fields.  The first son says he won't go, but then does so.  The second says he will go (initially), but then does not.  Which of these two sons did the will of their Father?’. 

In other words, Jesus says, we are judged not by what we say, but by how we live and the choices we make.  We can sing all the hymns, read all the prayers, receive the holy food for our journey – but unless we walk the walk of the Christian, we are like the son who said ‘I’ll go’, but then failed to do so.   For Jesus, the prostitutes and tax collectors (who actively and purposefully followed The Way) were much preferred.  Certainly they were preferred to the chief priests who wore the right clothes, said the right prayers, even taught the right theology, but whose way of actually living fell far short of the Way of Christ.  Which is a cause of some reflection for those of us who wear the fine robes!

Some of us might be confused, at this moment.  I can see a question burning in some of your eyes!  “But I come to church!  I say my prayers!  I give to charity and the church!  I even study the Bible sometimes! Are you saying that I am not walking the walk on the Way of Christ?!”  As uncomfortable as that challenge may be, it is a challenge that Jesus himself lays down.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 7, to be precise)  Jesus says ‘Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven.’  In chapter 25, Jesus describes the separation of sheep from goats – two groups of people who look remarkably similar from the outside (especially considering the similarity of Middle Eastern sheep and goats).  But the life-choices of those two groups, and especially their decisions about how to love their neighbour, mark them out as either true or false followers of The Way.

How shall we know?  How do we know whether we are sheep or goats?  Or the first or second son?  Or whether St Paul would write to us to tell us to ‘stop messing about’?  The most persistent and easily-grasped indicator, according to Scripture, is the way we use our money. 

The Church of England has designated this as ‘Generosity Sunday’ – a none-too-subtle plea for generosity, after the contemplation of God’s generosity to us during last week’s Harvest Festival!  I’m a bit cynical about such national church initiatives, and I hate talking about money – especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis.  But today, I’m going to conclude this sermon by doing precisely that, because my friends, you may not know that, at present, only 27% of the costs of running this parish – this branch of the kingdom - comes from me and you.  The rest comes from the generosity, the grants, and the generous legacies of past generations.

 There are essentially two attitudes we can have to money.  The first – and most common – attitude is to think of it as our money.  We have earned it.  We saved it.  We deserve it.  We have a right to it, and a right to use it as we see fit.  The second, and rather more Christian attitude is to think of it as God’s money, of which we are merely stewards, and for which God gives us the responsibility of how it should be spent wisely, in the business of the kingdom. 

“But I earned my money, Rector!”  Did you?

You see, if you have earned your money through a well paid job, or a family inheritance, it is because you were blessed to be born in a certain class of society, in a certain country, to a certain family.  You were probably given an education which you didn’t pay for, and the opportunity to earn, or receive the money you now possess.  Your wealth is directly related to where, and in what circumstances you were born – it is a gift from God.  Do you honestly believe that if you had been born in a desert, or a jungle, a thousand miles from the nearest city, that you would be as wealthy as you are?  Everything you have has been given to you.  Even if you live on nothing but a state pension and housing benefit.  It is not yours to play with.  It is yours to steward. It is for the sacred, holy task of building God’s kingdom here on earth.  Take what you need, for the essentials of life, and the awful costs of living.  That is God’s gift to you too.  But give what you can, for the work of the kingdom. 

In this week’s Fortnightly News, you will find two articles about how to give money, tax-efficiently and regularly, to the work of the kingdom through this church.  I’d like to encourage you to read them carefully, please.  Read them with the Christian attitude to money in mind.  Read them while hearing St Paul say, ‘stop messing about!’  Read them while inwardly acknowledging that everything you have, whether large or small, comes to you as a gift from God, or at least from the accident of your birth.  For to those to whom much has been given, shall much be required.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Living well but dying inside

 Texts: Haggai 1.1-8, Luke 7.12-17

The Church of England, in its infinite wisdom, has designated this as ‘Generosity Week’.  The less-than-subtle idea is that on our Harvest Festival, we should focus on all the things God has given us, because “it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand”.  Then, this coming Sunday, we Vicars are encouraged to encourage the people to every greater heights of generosity, in response to God’s generosity to us. 

Those who know me well will understand that I’m a bit of a cynic about such initiatives.  I hate asking people for money, especially as I know that for so many, the recent cost of living crisis has left many people poorer than ever.  It seems a little tone deaf of the church to be encouraging even more generosity, when so many can barely pay their energy bills.

But, I’m forced to acknowledge that generosity, from God and to God, is a consistent theme of the Bible.  And so, I try to lay my cynicism aside, and look at what the Scriptures have to say to us.  Let’s start with today’s reading from the opening verses of the prophet Haggai. 

Haggai was a minor prophet (which means he only has a short book).  He was writing and prophesying about 20 years after the return of the Jewish leadership from Exile in Babylon.  The first Temple, built by King Solomon centuries before, had been razed to the ground by the Babylonian conquerors, roughly 600 years before Christ. Just a pile of rubble was left.  Haggai believed that the Temple should be rebuilt – as a tangible sign that God had generously led the people home, and provided food, clothing, and even the luxury of ‘panelled’ walls in their homes.  Walls, lined with wood panels, would have been a real luxury in the period about 500 years before Jesus.

A prophet is not a fortune-teller, or someone with a vision of the future – though that is sometimes what prophets appear to be doing.  Rather, a prophet is someone who tells people ‘how it is’.  A prophet’s job is to be a mirror to the people – encouraging or warning them of the consequences of the way they are living today.  Haggai looked at the way people were living, comfortably, without a care in the world – but spiritually dead.  They were fed, but still hungry.  They drank, but were still thirsty.  They made money, but it dribbled away from their purse, as though the purse had holes in it.  Haggai is describing a people who are living well, but dying inside.  He could be talking to Western society of today, couldn’t he?

Haggai’s solution was that the people should turn their face towards God, through the tangible act of rebuilding the temple.  The Temple would stand, as any great worship-building stands, as a sign and a token that there is more to a community’s life than eating, drinking, and decorating their homes.  By giving generously to the task of maintaining the house of God, the people of God honour their Creator, they give praise for the Creator’s gift of life, and they also awaken their dead, spiritual lives by coming together, working together, being together, in the house of the God who is togetherness personified – in the person of the Trinity.  Living well physically can lead to living well spiritually – if our energies, and our wealth, are directed in the right directions.

Today’s Gospel reading, with its story of the feeding of 5,000 men, reminds us of God’s over-flowing generosity to all humanity.  In fact, the passage only records 5,000 men – it says nothing of the women and children who were doubtless also present. So perhaps 15 to 20,000 people were fed by God, through Jesus, on that day – from two little fishes, and five loaves of bread.  When we turn to God, making him the focus of our day – as those crowds did when they followed him into the desert, we can expect to be ignited, spiritually, by God.  Our response to God’s generosity, in lighting up our dying souls, has to be to offer God all that we have in return.  It’s an ever-turning virtuous circle that the Bible is describing.  The more we dedicate ourselves to God and the ways of God, the more God pours out spiritual gifts, and spiritual life on us.  So the more we give back to God, and so on…

I’m reminded of the Sunday School song about this story – do you remember it?

"Two little fishes, five loaves of bread,

Five thousand people by Jesus were fed,

All this could happen ‘cause one little lad

Gladly gave Jesus all that he had.

All that I have, all that I have.

I will give Jesus, all that I have."

When I was at Sunday School, that song was usually sung just before the collection was taken up – no doubt to persuade me to give up the shilling my parents had put in my pocket for the occasion;  to give ‘all that I had’ rather than spending it on sweets!

And perhaps it would be no bad thing if we did something similar.  I wonder how many of us are a little bit like Haggai’s people.  We eat, we drink we decorate our homes. We earn money that we fritter away on frivolities, as if there was a hole in our moneybag.  We may be living well, but dying inside.  Perhaps, for any of us who feel that way, the remedy of Scripture is not something to flee from, but to embrace.  Whether we give to the church - to maintain this building and its ministry to our community, or whether we give to charity, the remedy of Scripture is that it is in giving we receive.


Saturday, September 23, 2023

A sermon for Harvest-time

Readings: Joel 2.21-27 and Matthew 6.25-33

Looking back on it now, I had a very privileged child-hood.  I grew up in the countryside of Devon and Somerset.  In the summer holidays, I worked on a local farm, tossing hay-bales onto trailers, looking forward to the reward of a cheeky glass of cider with the Farmer at the end of the day.  In my home churches, Harvest was a time of great abundance, with goods from fields and gardens displayed in complete profusion all over the place.

It is perhaps only those of us who have sweated in the fields to bring a harvest in, who can really understand the sense of satisfaction at a job completed.  In past times, the celebration of Harvest was as much a sense of relief, as anything else.  Relief that drought had not visited the crops.  Relief that there were no injuries to farm workers, this year. 

All is very different today.  Harvest now takes place every day of the year.  If we can’t grow the food we want in England, we buy it from other parts of the world.  Labourers are still needed, but mechanical systems of picking food are taking over.  No-one tosses hay onto trailers anymore.  The word ‘Harvest’ just doesn’t have the resonance that it once had.

And yet, at the same time, the world of nature has perhaps never been more in our minds.  We are far more aware than we were in the 1970s of the interconnected nature of all living things.  On our TV screens we witness the destruction of the rain-forests, record breaking temperatures every year, and forest fires across the globe.  We watch the melting of the glaciers, and we build our heightened sea-walls against the rising of the seas.  Ironically, there has never been a time when we have been less connected to the land, and yet more affected by it.

The last few decades seen a marked shift in the way we think about God’s relationship to creation and harvest, too.  In a short while, we will sing that ‘we plough the fields and scatter’, and celebrate that our crops are ‘fed and watered by God’s almighty hand’.  But actually, I doubt that many of us really believe that anymore.  In fact, we have far more faith in the science of weather-forecasting than we do in the idea that God sends the rain – despite the number of parishioners who ask me to pray for good weather when their birthday party is taking place!

Now you might think that I’m sorry about that.  After all, isn’t this loss of faith in a God who sends rain a dangerous thing for the church?  Surely, if people stop praying to God for rain – or any other need – the churches will empty?

Well, perhaps they will…or at least they will empty of those people who think of God like some kind of genie, or fairy godmother, who will grant wishes in return for the right words.  My hope and observation, however, is that with the advance of our understanding of creation and the harvest, we are in fact growing up.  We are moving away from the medieval God in the sky, who granted – or refused - the wishes of his farmers.  Instead, we are beginning to glimpse the God who is the energy at the centre of all things: the God who inspires us to use our intellects to shape and control our own environments.

Instead of a Father Christmas God, to whom we cry for solutions to our problems, we are confronted instead by the actual God of Scripture.  This is the God who, according to the great Genesis myth, creates a beautiful garden and then gives it to his children with the command that we should ‘take care of it’.  That was my message to last week’s Green Festival, at the Pallant Centre.  I argued that the stories of religion give us a framework for action in the face of the climate catastrophe.  I asked them to consider taking up a new slogan:  “take care of the garden”.  I suggested that, as a slogan, it has deep religious roots for those who want to excavate them.  It also contains a sense of command, of imperative, that human beings really need to hear.  “Take care of the garden!”

Our abuse of the planet doesn’t only result in heatstroke and loss of agricultural land to drought and fire.  It also has huge effects on the populations of countries who are worst affected by these changes. That in turn leads to wars over resources – including Putin’s present war to capture the grain fields of Ukraine.  Wars, and famine, lead to mass migration – as people desperately search for hope in other places.  Such people become targets for modern-day slave-traders, who will promise migrants a land of milk and honey, if they will “just step into this van, or cargo container” and be transported around the world.  On arrival, these people find that there is no milk and honey, after all.  Rather, they find they have been sold into illegal slavery – as labourers, factory workers or as sex workers.  Can you imagine what it feels like to leave your home and family, promising them money to tackle their poverty, but then finding yourself as a slave without any power over your life?  The Medeille Trust exists to help such people, when they are liberated, to get their lives back on track.  And that’s why we are supporting them today.

 I do not mourn the passing of a belief in the Weather-God, or for any idea of a god who, in response to the right words, said in the right way, will supply all our needs – like a sort of heavenly vending-machine.  I wonder how many modern-day slaves pray to such a god, only to find that no answer comes?  How many people in Bangladesh or the Pacific Islands pray for relief that never comes, as their homes sink beneath the rising seas?   Rather, I pray for a new understanding of God – the insistence of God who is the creative heart of all creation, the love which binds us, inspires us, and teaches us, through prophetic speech and powerful stories, to “take care of the garden” and to share the bounty we possess for the good of all. 

This is the God to whom Jesus directs us in our Gospel reading.  After telling his disciples not to worry about clothes and food and drink, he says this:  “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness: and all these things will be given to you as well”.  Jesus is calling the world to hear the cry of the Kingdom:  feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and set the captive free to “take care of the garden”.  If only humanity would embrace the teaching, mythology and commands of the Kingdom!  If only justice would flow like rivers, and the inequities of humanity were washed away.  Then, as the prophet Joel says, “the threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil, and then you will know that I am the LORD your God, and never again will my people be shamed”.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Pursuit of Wisdom

Text: Proverbs 3.13–18

Happy are those who find wisdom,

   and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,

   and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

   and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

   in her left hand are riches and honour.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

   and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

   those who hold her fast are called happy.

The pursuit of Wisdom

A few years ago, during one of our marathon clean-ups of the church, I was making my way round to the outside store cupboard, loaded with good and chattels.  Fumbling for the lock, I managed to drop everything I was carrying with an enormous crash.  Just then, I noticed a man of the road, sitting and watching me with a bemused smile from the bench in the churchyard.  Once I had gathered up the junk I was trying to store, and gathered up some of my dignity, I decided to sit and have a chat with the man.  

His name, it turned out, was ‘Bowler’ – no doubt because he sported a rather fine bowler hat, festooned with badges he had accumulated in his life.  Bowler told me that he enjoyed his life on the road.  Every year, he would walk from Brighton to Penzance, little by little, stopping for as long as he wished at town like Havant along the way.  His life was free of stress.  He begged a little, when he needed money, but mainly he lived out of what he could scavenge from fresh food waste in supermarket bins, or from hedgerows along the way. 

I found myself comparing my rather frantic and busy life with his. And I found myself wondering whether, in fact, Bowler may have been the wisest man I had ever met.  He had found a balance in his life which gave him an aura of real serenity.  Just as I was wondering about this, Bowler held out his hand, with some bird seed in his palm.  And a little robin hopped out of the lavender bush, and landed on Bowler’s fingers.  As they enjoyed breakfast together, the robin and Bowler, I was certain that this was indeed a very wise man.

Wisdom, of course, comes in many varieties.  In our first reading, from the book of proverbs, we heard what we presume to be King Solomon’s hymn to wisdom.  Solomon thought of wisdom as female – and he extolled her many virtues.  She is more precious than jewels, and she is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.  The accumulation of wisdom was the highest ideal for the Jewish mind, as well as for much of the ancient world, exemplified in the great philosophers, like Plato and Socrates.  Wise people were venerated.  Their teachings were soaked up.  Their ideas for living well were followed by millions.  

How very different from our own time.  As a society, we tend to prioritise celebrity, entertainment, novelty and fashion over the pursuit of wisdom.  The word ‘philosophy’ is a Greek word meaning, simply, ‘the love of wisdom’ – and true wisdom takes years to accumulate.  

But we shovel off our wisest and more experienced politicians to the House of Lords, and give the management of our country to the new kids on the block.  We require our priests to retire at the age of 70.  We have little interest in what the elderly have to teach the young – but instead we tease and belittle them for not being able to operate the remote control, or a mobile phone.  

Now I realise, given the average age of today’s congregation, that I am undoubtedly preaching to the choir here!  You are all very wise, aren’t you? Given the amount of grey hair, you certainly should be!  But here’s the thing…

Despite the accumulation of years, and of grey hairs, some of us never do manage to accumulate wisdom along the way.  We can be too easily blinded by the very same things that blind the rest of society.  Celebrity, novelty, entertainment and fashion, the pursuit of short-lived pleasure, the attraction of wine and food and travel, these and many other things society offer us can so easily distract us from the pursuit of real wisdom.

Later in the book of Proverbs, in chapter 9, Solomon says this:  “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.  The word ‘fear’ in that translation means something like ‘reverence’ and ‘respect’.  It’s part of the tradition, that Jesus repeated, of putting our love, reverence and respect for God at the heart of our lives.  In the words of the Hebrew Shema:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might and with all your strength.  This, as Jesus said, is the First Commandment.  This is where our focus should be, if we are ever to aspire to be those called wise.

For it only when we bend our desires towards the things of God, and towards actively loving and seeking God, that all the other distractions of life begin to fade away.  When we put God first, we suddenly find that we become less concerned about missing an episode of Coronation Street.  Time is created, by our willingness to let go of earthly pleasures – time for thinking, for reading the wisdom of others, for studying the scriptures, and for growing in wisdom. And that is a goal worth pursuing for, in Solomon’s words: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue is better than gold.  Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Multi-cultural Sunday

Here are the notes of the sermon I preached at the Redeemed Christian Church of God this morning, during their 'multicultural festival' at St Faith's Pallant Centre. I did depart a fair way from the actual text - because of such an enthusiastic congregation! It was lovely to preach in a very different style to my normally measured tones! Lots of alleluiahs and amens drove me onward to some fun stories and rhetorical heights. It was great fun - though I don't think my normal congregation is quite ready for it! These notes, however, contain the basic message of my talk.

Thank you for inviting me to share a few words with you today, on Multi-cultural Sunday. I count it a real privilege. And I’m delighted to be able to worship with you again, after what has been a rather long time!

You might well wonder what my credentials are for speaking about multi-culturalism. Especially as I stand before you as the epitome of a white, middle class, member of a former colonial nation. I had much the same reaction about 13 years ago when I was made a Canon of a Cape Coast Cathedral in Ghana. (For those who don’t know, ‘Canon’ is a title, given to priests as an act of recognition or thanks because of some service or sacrifice which has been rendered. On that occasion, it was to thank me and Clare for having given accommodation to a priest from Cape Coast for about three years, in our home).

But let me get back to the story. There was I, standing in a Cathedral stuffed to the walls with shining, black Ghanaian faces. I was the only white man – probably for many miles. Furthermore, the Cathedral building was formerly the garrison church of the British Army, from the time when they protected the West African slave trade. When it was built, it would have been stuffed full of British military types, but now, I was the only white man in town. It was quite a reversal – and one that I was delighted to be present, to see.

I thank God that I have had a lot of multi-cultural experiences in my life. In the late 1980s, for example, I ran a 300-bed hostel in South London, very near Brixton. There I got to sample a lot of West Indian culture, especially that which came from Jamaica. The hostel I ran was for refugees, most of whom came from East Africa – victims of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the civil war in Somalia. I came to know many of those people very well, while I helped them to assimilate into British culture. In fact, I’m still in touch with a few of them – one lovely Somalian woman in particular, who ended up marrying my brother!

I remember one important cultural lesson from that time. One day, I was working on the Reception desk, and a man came up to the counter, and said “Room 353”. I remember thinking ‘how rude!...why doesn’t he say ‘please’?. So, as I was the one with power in that relationship (because I looked after the keys) I stared at him – with an especially hard stare – and I said “Room 353 what?”. The poor man looked surprised and confused. But he thought for a moment and then tried “Room 353 sah!”. I shook my head, and decided I would have to teach him how to ask properly in English. “Listen” I said, “Would you be so good as to kindly give me the key to room 353, please?”. The poor man tried very hard…but it really was too much for him. We both laughed at his attempt, and I handed him the key. It was then that a much more experienced member of staff took me to one side and said “You have to remember that not every culture has a word for ‘please’, or even ‘thank you’. In many cultures, you simply state what you want, and accept that you either get it, or you don’t. Whatever happens, once you’ve stated what you would like, is God’s will.”

That was an important lesson for me, in my youthful years. I learned then that the culture in which we are born teaches us ways of interacting with each other. But when we are removed from that culture, a whole new set of rules and practices have to be learned.

I’ve also learned a great deal about the way that some cultures impose themselves on others – especially the British Empire of the past, and the American Empire today. This was brought home to me very starkly during one of my visits to Ghana, when I was touring around the churches with my friend, the Bishop of Ho. First of all, I noticed that the form of the service, the way the priests dressed, the music they sang was all pretty much as they had inherited it, 150 years previously from British Anglican missionaries. We, here in England, have moved on from many of the things they wear, the words they say, and the hymns they sing. But because tradition was so important to the people of that region of Ghana, very little indeed had changed. In some ways, it was like stepping back in time.

I also noticed that all the pictures of Jesus on church walls were of ‘British Jesus’. He had white skin, and often had blond hair. I asked my friend why this was. Didn’t people realise that Jesus wasn’t a white man from Hampshire? My friend agreed, but he then explained that tradition meant it was impossible to change the pictures. He feared that his congregation would strangle him if he got rid of the pictures of Jesus they were used to.

I learned some other lessons too. In that particular part of West Africa – in Eastern Ghana – the Twi nation has very strong traditions about the complementary roles of men and women. In Twi culture, women are honoured as life-givers, because they bring children into the world. Men, who by tradition were the hunters, are the life-takers. So far, so good. But what happens when a woman feels called to become a priest? In Twi culture, only a man can be a priest, because part of his role is to commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It is a man’s role only, because men are the life-takers. But as a life-giver, a woman should never be so dishonoured as to participate in a killing action – even a metaphorical one.

These are just a few examples – and I could tell you many more! But my point is that we do well to remember that the culture in which we are raised is just one of many cultures. And as we move between cultures, we need to adapt, and to live in new ways, some of which can be quite challenging. Learning to listen to each other, and learn from each other, is vital if we are ever to understand each other.

One of the sharpest divides between African and English culture, right now, tends to be over the issue of same-sex attraction. I’m not going to say much about this – don’t worry! (Not least because children are present). But I would just make this observation: British culture has always embraced new ideas and innovations enthusiastically. It is what made the British, for a while, one of the Masters of the World. We embraced new technology, like steam engines, then petrol machines, and then computers. We love novelty and gadgets, and we tend to embrace new ideas – which is why our Christianity tends to be fractured into so many different factions and churches. We tend to turn our back on tradition, in favour of what new and exciting things might happen if we embrace something new. If you want a clear picture of an Englishman, imagine a very pompous old man (like me) standing up and saying “Now please listen while I teach you about the importance of tradition….oh look! A new robot hoover for my carpet”

Other cultures, are more embedded in their traditions. Traditions give them an anchor to hold onto, amid the ever-shifting tides of change in the world. That’s been my experience of Africa, mainly – although I do notice that there is a young generation coming through who are being increasingly tempted towards the novel and the new things of western culture.

But what can the church offer, to both traditional and more experimental cultures? I think it is this. Culture informs and dictates many of the ways we act towards each other. As Christians, we have a higher allegiance than to our own culture. It’s an allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a counter-cultural phenomenon. The Kingdom of Heaven stands against all human cultures. It analyses and comments on all cultures. It turns many cultural ideas on their head. What do I mean?

I like to remind my congregation, from time to time, that the Kingdom of Heaven is a topsy-tury Kingdom. It was founded by the Lord of the Universe, who was born in a stable. The King of Creation, who lived in poverty. The commander of armies of angels, who required peace and non-violence. The Word incarnate of God, who allowed himself to be executed.

The radical teaching of Jesus. and the Kingdom of Heaven he announced, stands in complete contrast to so much of what we take for granted. To those who shrug their shoulders at the poor, God says ‘there shall be no poor among you’. To the rich man who accumulates treasure, Jesus says ‘you fool, tonight you die’. To the one who is struck on the right cheek, Jesus says ‘offer your left’. To the man forced to carry a load one mile, Jesus says ‘take it two miles’. To the war mongers who conquered his land, Jesus gave himself up to die – to show them that the ultimate result of violence is that you place the Lord of the Universe on a tree, outside your city, outside your culture, outside your life.

Ultimately, then, our identity as Christians doesn’t rest in our personal cultures, however rich and wonderful they may be. Rather, we are given a new identity, and a new culture, by the Lord who inspires ALL culture. He gives us the identity of Son or Daughter of Heaven. He gives us brothers and sisters from every corner of the World. He brings us together as one family, with one heavenly father. He makes us citizens of heaven – the greatest culture there will ever be.

So on multi-cultural Sunday, let us be glad and grateful for the cultures in which we were born and raised, celebrate the other cultures we have experienced along life’s road, but never lose sight of the culture God gives us, through Jesus Christ, the culture of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Faith and the Green Movement

 A talk to the first Havant Green Festival - 16th Sept 2023

Thank you for this opportunity to address your Festival.  It’s real privilege.  I’m especially aware that not everyone here would call themselves a person of faith.  But in the next few minutes, I’d like to make the case for a stronger connection between the Green movement, and the world of faith in general.

You will know, I’m sure, that there are hundreds of creation myths, from religions all around the world.  All the ancient civilizations had them.  The idea that Creation was an event of some description seems to be hard-wired into human beings.  Perhaps that’s because we each have our own beginning, and we can’t cope with the idea of anything else not having some kind of beginning.  We also, instinctively, want to know where we came from, and why we are here.  It is part of our endless search for meaning.

The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as the children’s toy, Lego – it’s the Latin word ‘legio’, which means, ‘to choose, to collect, to connect’.  It was from that word that the Romans created their legions – collections of individuals, chosen to be connected together by a common cause (to fight for Rome).  Religion, then, means to ‘re-connect’, in spiritual terms it means any activity which re-connects us to the sense of the Divine within all humans.  Religion is about that endless search of all humanity for meaningful origin stories for creation, and discovering meaning for our own short lives within creation.

The world of science has been a challenge to religious thinking, since the Renaissance.  That’s a great pity, as far as I am concerned, since theology was once considered ‘the queen of the sciences’ – precisely because good theology has always used the scientific method of hypothesis, test, repeat, to deepen human understanding of that which is beyond our limited gaze.  For those with an open mind, science still has many unanswered questions, to which religion can sometimes provide helpful answers.

The obvious big unanswered questions remain the ones about origin and meaning.  Science teaches us, for example, about the Big Bang.  But it can’t tell us anything meaningful about what happened before the Big Bang.  Science can only hypothesise.  Was it, for example,  just a latest big bang in an eternity of an ever expanding and contracting Universe?  We’ll never know for sure. Did the trillions of stars and incalculable matter of the Universe really emerge from a tiny point in space, no bigger than a pencil dot?  Again, science can only hypothesize.  What about meaning?  We are hard-wired to search for it, but science has no answer to the question, except to hypothesize that we are the Universe observing itself, through our reasoning brains.  There are many other areas we could explore.  What is dark matter?  Are there multiple dimensions?  Could one of them be ‘heaven’? 

My point, though, is to say that it is tempting to assume that science has replaced religion, over the essential human questions of origin and meaning.  But, in reality, science really knows very little about those vital questions.  And so, I would argue, it is unwise to jettison the wisdom of the millennia of religious truth-seeking, in favour of the new kid on the block, of science. 

A more troubling aspect of science, is that it is frequently highjacked by greedy men, for their own purposes.  That is true of religion, of course, too.  But whilst the greedy men who highjack religion have done so mainly to feather their own nests, the high-jacking of science and technology is that it has global consequences.  Science has given us mass transportation, and the food to feed billions who are multiplying as a result of scientific advances in medicine.  But it is science that has also given us the ability to fill the air with pollutants, to carve up the earth for minerals, to lay waste to the forests, and to pollute our rivers, and to fill the world with plastic gadgets and gizmos.  All these things have happened because some human beings have had the will and the wit to use the advances of science to sell ‘meaning’ to the rest of us.

But the ‘queen of sciences’, theology, offers us a different lens of meaning, which might yet hold some of the answers to the global problems we are facing.  The religious myths of the world provide us with a moral framework in which to operate the tools of science.  At their heart, all religions have some common moral commands – which offer meaning, and teach restraint.  For example, you’ll have heard of the ‘Golden Rule’ – that great teaching common to all the major religions of the world, and most of the minor ones as well.  It goes like this:  ‘Do unto others as you would be done unto’.  Jesus, the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed and many more have taught this rule. 

If (if only!) that rule were commonly taught, and commonly held, we might begin to imagine and entirely different world.  Shareholders of water companies might not permit sewerage to be pumped into our seas, because that’s not what they would want for themselves in their own seas – on whatever tropical island they reside.  Forests might no longer be cut down by shareholders who live happily in beautiful countryside, because they would think about how they would feel if someone cut down their local forests.   Native lands might no longer be excavated for minerals, because the owners of the mines would think about how they would feel if the land beneath their luxury villa was dug out from under them.

Another common theme among religions is the call to live lightly upon the earth.  These are captured in teachings of the great religious thinkers, like:

Christianity:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal”

Buddhism:  “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Hinduism:  “The earth, the air, the fire, the water, they are all made of the same elements as our body.  So why do we continue to harm them?  We must learn to live in harmony with nature”

Judaism:  “Who is rich?  Those who are satisfied with what they have”  and “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil”

Islam:  “The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God has made you his stewards in it, and he see how you acquit yourselves”

Taoism:  Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

I hope you are grasping my central point here.  Science has given us amazing tools to improve the nasty, short and brutish life that most of us spend on earth.  But scientific progress devoid of meaning has led us to the brink of extinction as a species.  I would argue that only religion, in its broadest sense, can offer us a framework for stepping back from that brink, by reminding us of what our ancestors knew instinctively.  They knew that the earth, of which they were stewards, had rhythms and limits – and they learned to live in harmony with them.  Religion gave them a meaningful framework, and adequate myths, for living equitably with other humans, and with the planet, their home.  Whether their creation myth was of Mother Earth, or of a Creation by a god, religion offered them a way of seeing themselves in relationship to creation…not masters and exploiters of it, but stewards of it.

As a ‘religionist’ with a Judeo-Christian background, I can think of no more powerful myth than the story of Creation, as told in the Book of Genesis.  In one of the great Creation myths of the Bible (and there are at least three!) God builds a garden. It’s a delightful place full of all manner of animal and plant life.  Into the garden he places human beings, and he commands them to ‘take care of the garden’. 

Perhaps, I suggest, that one phrase, ‘take care of the garden’ could become a new rallying cry for the Green movement.  It has religious roots, which are deep enough for anyone with the time and inclination to explore.  It contains a sense of command, and of urgency, that our world needs to hear.  It implies the wise use of technology, and it implies purpose.  It presumes that the garden, if taken care of, will abide for ever.  Yes, my friends, let’s ‘take care of the garden’ – and teach the world to do the same.


I remember two of the questions that were asked after this talk.

Q. Do you think God will solve the climate catastrophe?

A:  It depends on what kind of god you have in mind in your question.  If you picture God as some kind of Santa Claus in the sky, rewarding his children or punishing them depending on whether they are naughty or nice, then No.  But if you see God as the creative and loving source of every positive human action, inspiring and leading us to become all that we can be…then yes, I could see God helping us to save ourselves, if we listen to the still small voice within.

Q.  Why should we trust religion when all they do is fight each other and exploit others?

A.  I always say ‘judge a religion by the teaching of its founder, not by the idiots who pretend to follow the teachings, but pervert them to their own ends.  Every organization, political party, even football clubs attract people who are on their own power-trip.  But that doesn’t negate the essential core of what each organization, including religions, are teaching.


Saturday, September 2, 2023

A Christian nation?

Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21

During this last week, the Times published the results of a poll of Church of England clergy.  It’s caused quite a stir in many places.  Given that many of you will have read the survey for yourselves, or at least heard about it, I think it might be helpful if I were to tackle some of its results head on.

The survey contained a number of statistics about the clergy’s shifting attitudes towards same-sex weddings and blessings, as well as other aspects of public morality and the still vexed question of women priests and bishops.  Most of these statistics give hope to people like me, who pray, daily for a less condemnatory tone from the church.  But, of course, such statistics are grist to the mill of those who want to condemn the Church of England for being ‘woke’.  Personally, I don’t mind being called ‘woke’, if the definition of woke is to be someone who is awake to the issues of discrimination and prejudice in our society.  I DO object, however, to being labelled as one of the ‘tofu-eating wokerati’ which our Home Secretary so memorably called out recently.  I’ve never eaten tofu in my life!

The Times itself, as the publisher of the clergy survey, fixed its headline on a rather more national issue.  Two-thirds of the clergy surveyed declared, apparently, that Britain could no longer be called a Christian country.  This, my friends, came as no surprise to me.  Had I been invited to participate in the survey, and had I found the time to answer it, I would have said exactly the same.  In fact, it seems to me that Britain has not been a Christian country for a very long time indeed.

You may wonder why I say this – so let me invite you to think about the issue with me.  For a country to describe itself as ‘Christian’, logic dictates that such a country would deliberately follow the teachings of Christ and his apostles, in the way that it orders its life and institutions.   A definably Christian country would be to do the hard work of making Christ’s teachings a reality in our common life.  Our two readings of today offer us some rather good examples of what that teaching encompasses.

Take St Paul, writing to the Romans.  Let me just pick a few nuggets out of what Paul advises.  First, he says, “hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good”.  There is so much in our society and nation that could be described clearly as evil – and which we yet tolerate.  I mean evils like gambling, excess drinking, pornography, and – perhaps most pernicious of all - the excess accumulation of wealth by a tiny minority.

What else does St Paul advise?  He instructs the Roman Christians to ‘extend hospitality to strangers’.  Now, of course, I realise that the migration crisis of today has no real parallel to biblical times.  But a truly Christian nation would be asking itself hard questions about the language and rhetoric being employed on the subject of strangers in our midst today.  We would, in Paul’s words, ‘take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’.  

If that’s Paul’s perspective on how a Christian community operates, what about Jesus?  He, naturally, goes for the jugular.  ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’.  A Christian community, or nation, is defined – at least partly - by the extent to which it sacrifices itself for the good of others.  There is some sacrifice by our nation.  We do give aid to other countries, and as a population, we are notoriously generous to mass fundraising events, like Comic Relief and Live Aid.  But when we drill into some hard statistics, the news is not good…

The World Giving Index is an annual report which ranks over 140 countries in the world according to how charitable they are.  It may surprise you to learn that the United Kingdom ranks only 17th on the list.  Ahead of us, in terms of charitable giving, Indonesia (a Muslim country) is number 1.  Then, also ahead of us, are the likes of Kenya, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Zambia and, believe it or not, Ukraine.  It is remarkable, isn’t it, that some of the poorest countries in the world are also the most charitable?

Another key metric is the amount of tax paid for the common good by country – taxes which are meant for the benefit of all, especially those least able to care for themselves.  The top 10 countries for tax rates include the likes of Denmark, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Israel and Belgium – all well known for having strong health and education services, generous pensions for the elderly, and high indices of general happiness – but all with tax burdens of around 50%.  The UK is nowhere near the top 10 of such countries, with a tax burden of only 33%.

No my friends, in a comparison with Jesus’ teaching about taking up our cross, our nation can only barely claim to be called Christian, in terms of charity or the amount we agree to give for the benefit of the whole community through tax.

Jesus goes on in terms which are not difficult to relate to the rise and fall of the British Empire:  “for what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”.  There are some who look back with pride to the days when Britannia ruled the waves, and vast swathes of the World were coloured pink. But what did it profit us to have gained, practically, the whole world?  What aspect of our life did we forfeit?  Startlingly, if we rank countries by gross domestic product per head of population, the United Kingdom now doesn’t even make it into the top 20 nations of the world.  

Our once proud Christian nation is undoubtedly no longer so. We live in post-Christian Britain.  

In terms of our public morality around gambling, drinking and pornography we’re in decline.  

In terms of the high standards we should expect of our leaders, we’re in decline.  

In terms of the way we care for our ‘widows and the poor’ through our miserly benefit system, we’re in decline.  

In terms of the the way we dispense justice through our collapsing court system, the extent to which we give charity, our ability to heal one another through a crumbling health service, the way we unapologetically celebrate wealth and idolise fame, we are in obvsious steep decline.

There are SO many ways in which our national life barely resembles anything that a truly Christian country should look like.

But, my friends, there is hope.  Jesus died to save the World – and our little post-Christian nation is included in his sacrifice.  It is not too late, in Jesus words, for us to take up our collective, national cross of sacrifice.  It is not too late for us to declare the year of the Lord’s favour, to raise up the poor and broken-hearted, to set free the captives.  It is not too late, in Paul’s words, for us to hold on to what is good, to hate what is evil, to live in harmony with one other, to associate with the lowly, to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all, and to live peaceably with all.  Let us never cease from praying the prayer of Jesus himself – Thy Kingdom Come!  Amen!