Monday, 23 December 2013

Down To Such A World As This: A Short Thought for Christmas Eve Eve

What's your favourite Christmas carol? There are some (pardon the pun) crackers. My two favourites are Of The Father's Heart Begotten  and  See Amid the Winter's snow. The former wins hands down on putting into beautiful words the heart of Christian faith, and the latter wins on capturing something of the joy and the mystery of the Christ-child. My favourite stanza of 'See Amid the Winter's Snow' is this:

Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was thine
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.

Down to such a world as this. Such as what, we might ask? Well, think back over this year. Over the next week or so, there will be all sorts of television programmes looking back over 2013; I predict that Andy Murray, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will feature heavily. Not to take the shine off a Brit winning the Men's Singles at Wimbledon or the birth of a royal heir, but there are countless other stories which won't be told in these retrospectives: happy stories of looking forward to holidays and fun evenings out with friends; everyday stories of getting up in the morning and going to work, looking after children and the elderly; grindingly hard stories of poverty, unemployment, illness and bereavement; heartbreaking stories of the real human experience of living in a war zone, of being a child soldier or a persecuted Christian fleeing one's home village in Syria or holding on to home in the grim knowledge that this decision might well mean death.

Down to such a world as this. This world, with its injustices and inequalities, with its tragedies and atrocities, with its starvation and its obesity, with its poverty and its hyper-consumerism, with its sadnesses and its joys, with its possibilities and its realities; this is where Christ is to be found.

The name spoken by the prophet, 'Emmanuel', the words of the angel to Mary, 'The Lord is with you', and the words of John, 'the word became flesh and dwelt among us,' all tell the story in which all human stories are given meaning and hope: the story that through all and in all, God is with us. With us because so great was his tender love that, risking the pain and hardships of human life and death, he came from highest bliss, down to such a world as this, so that in the midst of such a world as this, we might glimpse something of the highest bliss of heaven, and transform such a world as this by that vision.              

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Driving Home for Christmas: A Reflection on Isaiah 35

I'm not much of a Chris Rea fan, but at this time of year it's not easy to avoid Christmas pop music, and Rea's Driving Home for Christmas, with its easy-listening ambiance and its feelgood sense of anticipation of a warm homecoming, has won its place in the canon of festive greatest hits. As you listen, you can just imagine it; the frustration of the 'top to toe tailbacks' tempered by the hope that 'soon there'll be a freeway' and home will be within reach. If you're interested, here he is talking about how he wrote the song: 'It just felt Christmassy, you know.'  

One little line expresses something of just how deep the need to travel to a place which we know to be our true home is: 'get my feet on holy ground.' The American theologian Frederick Beuchner wrote a book called 'The Longing for Home', in which he simply states that 'joy is home.' It's joy, or the expectation of joy, that keeps Rea going through traffic jam; it's joy that has him singing at a standstill. Homecoming and holiness mingle as one; there is something holy about every homecoming, and holiness itself, the holiness that it is awareness of the presence of God in the midst of human life, is the deepest homecoming anyone could know.     

This week's Old Testament reading speaks of another road home, a highway not unlike Rea's freeway. Like Rea, the 'ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing'. Expressions of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon took on many forms in the fifth century BC and afterwards; here, in Isaiah, it is pictured as a singing homecoming. But it's not just the people who sing; the very landscape itself bursts into song, as Isaiah 35:1-2 has it: 'The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.' In this vision, the hills really are alive with the sound of music. But unlike in this famous song, the ground doesn't sing out because it is so verdantly beautiful that it can't but sing; it sings out because it is so parched and exhausted that its transformation into a route home is miraculous beyond any expectation. 

Much has been written about what it means to be in spiritual exile, to be far from home. It's a potent image, especially for a generation who are so likely to have moved around a bit, like I have. Maybe, though, it's one of those metaphors that only makes sense if you know instantly,instinctively, what it's getting at, if you know somewhere hidden within how far from home you've strayed. I suspect that for such people, home is much closer than we think. 

Christmas is a time for homecoming, and, just like Chris Rea in his car, we might feel as if spiritually, we are stuck in a traffic jam with no sign of it clearing. But this passage from Isaiah tells us that there is a freeway up ahead, and it is to be found in the least promising of places, in the dry and difficult places in our lives. Take that road, the prophet encourages us, and joy and gladness will find you; sorrow and sighing will flee away. Maybe you might catch yourself humming on the way.    

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Christmas Mystery, or the Christmas Gimmicry..?

What a Christmassy weekend I'm having. In between the Christmas Tree Festival at the lovely little church up the hill, all glowing and twinkling and mulled wine and smiley welcomes, the Winter Wonderland at the primary school with its turkey sandwiches, the chance to win back the sweets you donated a month ago and our stratch choir singing carols in more-or-less SATB parts, the putting up of the Christmas tree and the decking of halls at home, the carol service at the church up the windy road, and the quiet little Eucharist I'll be celebrating later on this morning, an oasis of still among all the festive activity, there are Christingles. Lots and lots of Christingles! The children were put to work constructing them in the church hall yesterday morning, and this afternoon two of the churches will be all about Christingles as The Children's Society gets its annual huge, sweet-encrusted orangey publicity and fundraising moment. 
This last week, Christingles have occupied an inordinate and completely disproportionate amount of my brainspace. Last year, I am told, I did quite a good talk, which the children still remember. (It was an idea I filched from someone.) So, this year, the stakes had to be raised. It may or may not surprise you to hear that on Monday evening I was trawling websites for Christingle-related ideas, that on Tuesday I was Googling 'giant inflatable orange', with hilarious but ultimately unhelpful consequences, and that on Wednesday morning I was doing exactly the same thing with a colleague, with exactly the same results (what it is that they say about madness?) We searched high and low for the elusive Christingle costume and / or the styrofoam Christingle of years past. Then we started talking about complicated ideas involving ribbons and, unfathomably to me at least, a huge cross. By Thursday I gave up, went to the craft shop and bought some orange paint and a brand new styrofoam ball and some lollypop sticks. Even then, something seemed not quite right, as though the most important thing about the talk I was to give on Sunday afternoon was still, infuriatingly just beyond my grasp even after all this thinking. 

Then, on Friday morning, at Morning Prayer, we read Isaiah. 'These people come near to me with their mouths', the prophet said, 'and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote' (Isaiah 28:13). That's the thing about prophets, you see; they quite literally say it as they see it. It's easy to palm this prophetic insight off onto someone else, to say that it's those people who say the same liturgy week in, week out who are guilty as charged, or that it's those people who sing the same worship choruses week in, week out who are at fault. Of course, the reason why it's so tempting to dismiss this prophecy about being about someone else is because it's really quite uncomfortable to allow ourselves to accept that yes, this might be about us, and recognising that the trap of allowing worship to become a string of words we say while we're thinking about our lunch, or about Christmas shopping or about anything other than the words we are saying is a very easy one to fall into. If we've been around churches for any length of time, we've been there ourselves, probably on a regular basis. One friend told me yesterday that her children were bemoaning having to hear the Christmas story a-gaaaain; 'We know about this! We know all about the shepherds!' 

So, what do we do, as church ministers, about this condition? We do exactly what I've spent much of the last week doing, and we come up with gimmicks.  Giant inflatable oranges, costumes, stryofoam and sweets - surely that'll catch their attention, stop them drifting away, eh? The bigger, the more outlandish, the sillier, the better! Admittedly, the prophets weren't averse to a gimmick or two of their own, if Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea are anything to go by. But the difference is that the prophets spoke into the heart of what they saw, their actions being the servant of the words, whereas the temptation for me, and other ministers, is to suppose that all we need is the gimmick, and then we'll be home and dry. And of course, on any level, this strategy is doomed to failure. This is so partly because the children of 2013 have grown up with Nintento Wii and LazyTown and let's face it, there's no way I can compete with Sportacus (although that would be a sight to behold, admittedly for all the wrong reasons). 

More cuttingly, this strategy is doomed because contrary to my own knee-jerk reactions, it doesn't get close to solving the problem. Isaiah got it in one; 'their hearts are far from me.' Much as I am not keen on slogans (a bit too gimmicky for my liking), one evangelist put it like this: 'the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.' The problem isn't that children get bored easily and need to be kept entertained, or that numbers of people coming to church have dropped off a bit and we need to do something spectacular to bring them back; the problem is, and always has been, that our hearts are far from God, 'prone to wander' as the hymn puts it. 

If we put it like that, things start to look a bit different. I start to see that my job as a minister is not to come up with an even better gimmick than last year's, it's to help people to enter into the mystery of Christmas, the wondrous worship of Jesus as 'God-with-us'. It's to enter more deeply into the faith that, as Irenaeus of Lyons and other early Christians wrote, 'that which He [i.e. Jesus] has not put on He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved'; in other words, by becoming human flesh and blood, Jesus lifts all human flesh and blood to the heights of heaven and redeems all human flesh and blood that is hurt and hurting in sin. By taking on the human heart, Jesus is able to save the heart of the human problem.   That is the real antidote to the ongoing problem of a humanity whose hearts are far from God. 

So this afternoon, at our Christingle service, I hope that people come and that the children will enjoy it and not get bored. I hope that no-one whispers 'it was better last year.' I hope that the sytrofoam Christingle I've constructed (with a little help from my children)  will be big enough to be seen my everyone, that the music will be lovely (as I'm sure it will) and that the service will go well. But most of all I hope that among all the dolly mixtures and fire hazards, that we will be drawn to the Jesus, the God-with-us who is, and who can only be the answer to the heart of the human problem, the problem of the human heart, who alone can walk with us the path of human life and lead us to God. Then I'll have done my job. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Why Tom Wright is Wrong (about one thing in particular, but there may be more...): A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King

I can still remember when I first heard the most wonderful, the most beautiful, intricate and impressive musical Amen of my life. I was in the Sheldonian Theatre and had sitting on endured the nastily uncomfortable wooden bench for the last few hours so that I could hear Handel’s Messiah performed.

If you’re a fan of Handel, you’ll know that The Messiah goes out with a musical bang, a grand choral ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ followed by the boldest and longest Amen, which crashes and soars over the audience like a blessing (you can listen here)

You might also know that Handel structured the Messiah to reflect the church’s liturgical year, starting with the call to ‘comfort ye my people’ with the Advent promise of the coming King, and telling the story of Jesus from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb and return to the havens from which he came.

And then, at the end, the great Amen, the bold assertion that the same Jesus who lived and died and was raised from death is worthy of all the glory of heaven, worthy of the very best praise that humans can offer. It is a stirring piece of music, and maybe if you are observing Stir Up Sunday in your household, you might like to listen to a bit of this great Amen as you make your Christmas pud.

So we come today to celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the great Amen at the end of the church year. The feast of Christ the King wasn’t around while Handel was writing The Messiah –it wasn’t instituted until much later, in fact until 184 years later, in 1925.
But just like grand oratorios should end on a note of joyful triumph, so it is right that church years should go out on a high.  As we affirm in our worship this morning, Jesus is King – the full wording of the name of this festival is ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe.’ We hear something of the universal kingship of Jesus in our reading from the letter to the Colossians.

Jesus, we hear in this reading which is most likely to be a hymn sung in the early church, is the firstborn of all creation, the one to whom all kings and rulers owe their existence and in whom the very universe itself is held together.  It’s a big, bold vision of Christ we get in this reading from Colossians, as big as the universe itself and bigger still.

However grand we think the universe is – however vast the span of the infinity of space is – Jesus is grander, because Jesus is the creator and sustainer of this complex and vast and wonderful cosmos.  Jesus is not just King of the Jews, or King of Israel, or King of the church – he is king of the entire cosmos. I can’t think of any greater liturgical bang to go out with at the end of our church year.       
It’d be so tempting to stop there, to revel in the wonder and awe of that vision of Christ as the universal king.

And yet, there is another side to the story of Christ the king which Colossians also tells, a story which we know well because we tell it every Good Friday and every Sunday as we share bread and wine together, and that is the story which our Gospel reading for today focuses on, the story of the blood of his cross. Tom Wright, the former bishop of Durham who is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, isn’t a big fan of ending the church year with the Feast of Christ the King.

He believes that the true place for the Feast of Christ the King in the church’s year is on Ascension Day when Jesus goes to be with the Father in heaven to take up his heavenly reign. I see the good bishop’s point. But, the problem is that this isn’t how the Bible tells it. In the New Testament narratives it is not at the point that Jesus ascends into heaven that he is revealed as the king of all – it is on the cross. The criminal hanging next to Jesus gets it – Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom, in other words when you are anointed King. And Jesus’ answer: I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. Today. One small point, but an interesting one: the word paradise is hardly used in the Bible. It’s only used twice in the whole New Testament, here in Luke and in Revelation when it talks about the paradise of God. The word paradise comes from a Persian word, pardes, meaning ‘royal park’.  

Jesus says to the criminal, today you and I will walk in the grounds of my royal palace. Today I am made king, today I am crowned, today I am anointed. My disciples can’t see this yet. They see me having a ring of thorns thrust on my head and being given vinegar to drink. They are bowed down with sorrow and confusion and loss. They will see it soon, in just such a little time when life bursts forth and conquers death. But it’s no less true because it’s not yet seen. Today I am made king, just as the sign above my head says.

So with all due respect to Tom Wright, I’d like to suggest that the true feast of Christ the King is Good Friday, and is every time we gather together to remember that gruesomest of all coronations, the blood of his cross. And celebrating Jesus as our King is, I think, the best way of bringing together the mystery at the heart of our faith and ending our year on the highest note possible. Because the mystery  at the very heart of our faith is that Jesus is most glorious just at the very point that he is humblest, at the most painful, tortured, God-forsaken moment of Jesus’ life. That is when he is made king; the long-awaited king promised by the prophet as we heard this morning.
And in some universe-altering way, by the laying down of his life for the redemption of all out of love for all, the glory and the pain cohere as one as Jesus breathes out his final words ‘It is finished.’  

The justice and righteousness which Jeremiah foresaw in the great coming king were not made known in a grand ceremony but on a criminal’s cross.

Now I have given you a little picture to look at in your service sheets – this is picture of a wood carving by the controversial early twentieth century sculptor Eric Gill (here) and it’s called ‘Christ Crowned.’ It’s from a series of illustrations of the Gospels, one of which has a much more realistic, pained and dehydrated Christ on a cross. But the reason I like this picture of Christ crowned is because it gives a different view of what was happening on the cross, a view steeped in biblical imagery and theology. In this picture, the cross is not bare wood but is springing with life and growth – the cross becomes the tree of life – and Jesus looks at it, a smile playing on his lips. There are no anguished women at the feet of this cross but rather, the people gathered around wearing pre-Raphaelite robes are as relaxed and congenial as if they were at a party. Over the archway at the side of the cross is the word ‘pax’: peace. This Jesus on the cross is a Jesus at peace, in a place of peace. This is the king at home in his kingdom.

So on this Feast of Christ the King, I’d like to say to you that Christ the King sets a pattern for our lives as people of the King. It’s easy to think of glorious things and terrible things as opposites; it’s understandable that we feel that the most wonderful times in our lives are the easiest, and the most meaningless times are the most difficult.
But that’s not what the blood of his cross teaches us. Jesus’ death, his coronation as king of the universe, whispers to us that it is just at the very hardest times and the most painful times – the times when we feel that God has utterly forsaken us – that are the times when the most glorious work of God is being done in our lives. We may not see it yet, just like Jesus’ disciples didn't see it while Jesus was hanging on the cross – but it is no less true.  On this Feast of Christ the King, may the crosses we bear be ones that, like Eric Gill’s image of Christ Crowned, burst with life and become for us true places of peace, peace that the world cannot give, peace beyond all understanding. Amen.        


Friday, 15 November 2013

Prayer promises nothing...

...but the remaining with God.

Someone shared this quotation with me a while ago. Quotations are all around us, more now than ever, it seems. On mugs, teatowels, printed and arranged on artistic faux-wooden plaques to hang on the wall, and, of course, on the walls of Facebook. Even today I have probably scrolled past half a dozen or so quotations. Quotations are everywhere; some witty, some profound, some thought-provoking, many, well, let's be honest, instantly forgettable.

So why has this one stayed with me?

Well, firstly, because it intrigued me. So often prayer is talked about in terms of what it promises; we might believe that prayer promises peace, joy, healing, and meaning. Some people, although I am not among them, believe that prayer promises more material rewards too. As someone who is privileged to live with the luxuries of a full fridge, a heated home and good, free schooling for my children, it seems obscene to me to see prayer primarily as a means of acquisition of yet more stuff when millions around the world live in squalour and poverty with no realistic way out.

I know this, and yet it is so easy to slip into the shopping list mentality when we pray. Maybe this is partly because as well as being surrounded by quotations, we are also surrounded by advertising which shows us, over and over again, what we haven't got. I bought a well-known women's fashion magazine this week (there was a free lip gloss on the cover) and, having not seen one of these magazines for a while, I had forgotten that the are, essentially, a brochure of consumer adverts with the occasional editorial (which was mostly about more stuff that you can buy). We live in a shopping list world. I was reading a friend's blog about Christmas and consumerism last night, and as I was reading, my daughter, who was sitting across the living room from me, texted me her new updated Christmas list; talk about timing! No wonder the temptation to approach prayer in terms in terms of what it can get us is so strong; it's how we live today.

Yet the heart of Christianity is relationship, a profound relationship between God and humans, made possible only by the God-human, Jesus. And I think I'd go so far as to say that the heart of life itself is relationship, relationships with ourselves, others, and ultimately, God. I was listening to the wonderful, much-covered Nat King Cole song Nature Boy the other day which puts it better than I could:

'This he said to me:
"The greatest thing
you'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return."'

You can't go into Sainsbury's and buy that; how pitifully empty the lives of those who substitute stuff for love can be.

So, back to prayer, which, as the quotation has it, promises nothing but the remaining with God. What does that even mean? Well, I take it to mean that prayer is all about entering into the mystery of relationship with the unseen but ever-present God who is himself love. Whatever else it might be, prayer is, at heart, relationship. It is the deepest expression of who we are, crying out to the Spirit who indwells us to fill us more, draw us deeper, show us more of this incredible reality that is the love for which we exist, asking for this love to overspill into our wounded, fractured world and to pour into that world the only thing that could ever bring true peace and healing; the presence of the Spirit of God himself. Or, to put it more concisely, an ancient prayer of the church: 'Come, Holy Spirit.'

What the coming of the Holy Spirit may mean is not ours to preempt. If we pray this truly, what we are doing is, effectively, ripping up the shopping list and standing with open hands to beckon God himself to come and fill our emptiness. It means knowing that stuff, even what we perceive to be spiritual stuff, is a poor substitute for the presence of God himself. It means recognising that the only ultimate answer to our deepest prayer is a richer, deeper revelation of the remaining with God. Which is exactly what prayer promises.

I'll probably blog more about Christmas as it draws near. But for now, suffice it to say Christmas can either be approached as a consumer-fest, a wishlist blowout, or as an invitation to enter more deeply into the incredible, unpriceable gift of God with us. Prayer is much the same.        

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lex Vivendi, Lex Credendi..?

Sorry for the Latin. There's really no excuse, other than it's a punchy way of saying in four words what I'm now going to take about four hundred to explain. (And it rhymes.) For those of you who are into this kind of thing, you might well recognise my title as a variation of the ancient formulation 'Lex orandi, lex credendi', which translates into English as something like 'the law of praying is the law of believing.' In other words, what we pray and how we pray shape our belief in and about God, not the other way round. This in itself is a pretty counter-cultural way of looking at things; I've met so many non-believers who have said 'Convince me, then I'll believe.' 'Lex orandi, lex credendi' suggests that belief comes not prior to prayer, but as a result of it. At heart, this saying affirms that faith is first and foremost about prayer, worship; about relationship with God. And out of that relationship emerge beliefs about the God whom we worship.  A third clause was later added to this formulation; 'lex vivendi' ('the law of living'). As we pray, so we believe, so we live. It is a beautiful vision of how Christians' lives, shaped by worship, are expressions of the faith that come from worship. 

All of this came to mind as I had a free afternoon yesterday, and decided to soak up some Choral Evensong at my local cathedral. I think that the Holy Spirit must have led me there, because so much spoke to me, and of me, to my churches and of my churches. (See how my 'credendi' there comes from my 'orandi'; I encountered God in a place of worship, and so believe that it was the mysterious work of the Spirit to plant the idea in my mind to go in the first place.) One of the readings was from Luke 14, the healing of the man with either dropsy or swollen legs, depending on which translation of the Bible you're reading. What struck me when I heard about it yesterday was what happened immediately before and after the healing. Here's the passage:

 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.
Often in the Gospels, the Pharisees try to catch Jesus out with legal test-cases. But here the shoe's on the other foot; Jesus is testing them. That in itself is interesting. So Jesus heals the man who quickly leaves the scene. Other healees (so to speak) hang around much longer, speak and are listened to, and are fleshed out as real characters within the narrative. This scene isn't so much about the man who is healed, as about Jesus taking on the Pharisees in a legal precedent-setting test-case. This scene isn't so much about  healing as it is about the sabbath. What interested me yesterday as I heard it read in the cathedral was that Jesus doesn't win the argument by knowing the law better than the Pharisees. He doesn't win the argument by applying the law more wisely tan the Pharisees. He wins the argument by saying, in effect, 'Yes, you know the laws to do with the sabbath - but that's not what you really do, is it?' The precedent is set not by either knowing or applying the law, but by how the Pharisees actually live. How the Pharisees lived was a more accurate barometer of what they believed than what they knew or prayed. Jesus knew this, and used it to his advantage in this set-to.    

This got me thinking about how I live. If Jesus were to challenge me, to throw down the gauntlet of a question to which, as a good Christian I know the right answer, it's an unsettling thought that His response might well be 'Yes, but that's not what you really do, is it?' Knowing the right answers is one thing. Living as though you knew them is quite another. 

And that got me wondering. If someone were to analyse my life for one day, any day, and pore over what I'd done, where I'd gone, whom I'd spent time with, how I'd spent any money, and so on, and attempted, from their findings, to reconstruct my beliefs, what would they come up with? I'm using 'belief' here in a very generic, non-specific way; there would be beliefs about my children, about education, work, food (oh yes) and knowledge and environmental impact and all sorts of things that aren't specifically Christian. In amongst all of that, there would be beliefs about prayer and the church and God himself. Would the beliefs that emerge out of a single day of my life be a more accurate barometer of what I believe than anything I could say?  

There's much I could say, and doubtless will in later posts, about how all of this relates to grace; 'it is by grace you are saved', and also about the church and the place of the church as affirming the 'orandi' which regularly re-calibrates our 'vivendi' for us. Thank God for that. But for now I'm just going to leave the question for you to ponder; if your day, say yesterday for example, were to be forensically analysed and your beliefs reconstructed from it, what would it say about what you really believe?    


Friday, 18 October 2013

Why I am Not Qualified to Answer the Question of Suffering

This morning, I stumbled across (yet another) internet discussion about God and suffering. The familiar arguments were re-iterated: how can a god who is believed to be good either inflict suffering on people, or allow people to suffer without intervening? Surely that is abuse of the gravest cosmic order. It's easier simply not to believe, then this pesky question will go away and leave us all in peace. Various theists posted responses, some of which I personally find to be more compelling, and more true, than others. But as I read, the sense crept up on me that really, I am not qualified to even contribute to this discussion, that I have nothing to say at all on the matter.

So why's that? Well, it's not because I'm 'unqualified' in the common parlance. With two theology degrees and a part-finished PhD to my name, one might think that I of all people would be among the more qualified to speak about God and suffering. Neither is it to say that my religious credentials debar me from speaking to this question; I am a church minister after all, and have spent more time in church during my lifetime than might be deemed altogether healthy. I have no idea how many sermons I have sat through which have grappled, in various ways, with this enormous question. Neither is it that I know nothing of suffering; as you may know, I have suffered from auto-immune disease for almost twenty years, and certainly know what the Psalmist is talking about when he (or she, she says optimistically) says 'We have had more than enough' of suffering. So, one might think, I'm the ideal person to tackle this thorniest of questions. I know suffering, I know Christian life and I know my theological onions.

But I'm not. And weirdly, the reason I am so ill-qualified to speak on behalf of God regarding human suffering is precisely because I know suffering, I know Christian life and I know my theological onions. Firstly, I know that one human being cannot definitively weigh the sufferings of another. We can empathise, we can feel, we can walk beside another in his pain, but the one thing we cannot do is to define or to weigh it. As a long-term sufferer of various illnesses, one of the things that annoy me the most is when people try to tel me how I feel. The reality is that no-one can possibly know what it's like to be me, as I am the only person who is me, in all the complexity involved therein, including the sufferings which are only a part, not the whole, of who I am. At certain moments I might articulate with great force how I feel; however, after nearly twenty years of illness, I see all of those many moments as fragments of a greater whole, beads on a necklace. No single fragment should be mistaken for the whole.  

Come to that, we cannot even weigh or define our own sufferings definitively; what might feel at one moment like the worst grief possible might turn out to be sweetened by factors as yet far out of sight. One of the tantalising things about taking funerals is that often it seems that it is only at the end of a person's life that her sufferings can be defined, or weighed, definitively. And yet even then, the true weight of suffering almost always remains unknown, guessed at, estimated. A very clever and astute retired gentleman whom I know surprised me once by responding to my 'how are you?' with 'Oh, I have no idea. Couldn't you ask me a simpler question?' He had hit on something incredibly true; not only do we have no idea what it's like to be someone else, most of the time we have no idea what it's like to be ourselves, so elusive and complex are we in the deepest reality of who we are.

So the first reason why I am so hopelessly ill-equipped to answer the problem of suffering is to do with being human. Suffering cannot be weighed, and therefore, it cannot be subjected to any scientific, or pseudo-scientific studies. Ultimately, suffering can only be experienced, and described; it cannot be defined. It remains elusive. Given this elusive nature of suffering, it is a fool who thinks that she can explain why God allows 'it' when we cannot be objectively sure what 'it' is.  

The second is to do with God, as God is understood in the Christian faith, and it's at this point that discussions about God and suffering can go ito stalemate, with atheists saying on the one hand that they are not interested in defining a deity in whom they do not believe, and Christians saying that they can only talk about God insofar as God has made himself known in the person of Jesus.

It's no great shock that I hold the latter view; in fact, I'm almost convinced that, were it not Jesus, I'd have next to no interest in God at all, certainly not enough to lead me to spend my life as a church minister and theology student. It was Jesus who drew me to belief, and it's Jesus who keeps me believing. Appeals to an abstract 'God' are as meaningless as statements about 'animal'. What is possible or likely for any animal depend entirely on what sort of creature we mean; what a cat can do is vastly different from what a bird can do,and yet they are both creatures. Moreover, what is the nature of a cat is very different to what is in the nature of a bird, yet they are both creatures. Expecting a cat to fly through the sky because the cat is a creature is absurd, as is thinking that the bird ought to catch mice; in order to talk sensibly about animals, we need to treat them as they are.

So the only way to take the question of God even slightly seriously is to be clear about which God we mean. And I mean the God in whom Christians believe, whom Christians try to love and worship.
 I believe that it is in Jesus that God answers human need, including needs associated with suffering. And the way in which God answers human need in Jesus is that Jesus is, himself, God incarnate, literally, God made meat; God meets human need by taking on flesh and becoming part of the wondrous mess himself.

And, it turns out, although it is only in Jesus that God is made fully known, this is not out of keeping with God's nature. 'In you all peoples will be blessed' God says to Abraham. In you. Not a bolt from the blue, not a voice from on high. In you. This is the heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible; God is made known in, and through, God's people. Of course, this is an enormously risky strategy on God's part, and lo and behold, time and time again, God's people fail to live up to that high and holy calling; in fact most of they time they fall short. But every now and then, a shaft of light breaks through and God is made known in and through God's people again.

Those shafts of light light the way of the people of God down the ages, until an elderly man stands up in the temple upon seeing the infant Jesus and quotes the prophet; 'A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.' Light lives on earth, glows and spreads, dies, lives and rises to the city of  everlasting light. And before his final farewell, he breathes on his people the Spirit who will indwell and empower them so that they might live the heartbeat of God; 'in you all peoples will be blessed.' And the light spreads and glows. Of course, this is an enormously risky strategy on God's part, and lo and behold, once again, time and time again, God's people (of whom, through Jesus, I am a part) fail to live up to that high and holy calling; in fact. most of they time we fall short. I certainly do.

But every now and then, a shaft of light breaks through and God is made known in and through God's people again. One of those shafts of light came to Theresa of Avila who wrote this:

 "Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

 These words are not just religious rhetoric, poetic but meaningless; this is a powerful statement of belief that it is in us and by us that all people will be blessed. The nature of God is such that God takes on flesh and, through the Spirit of God living in people, God becomes part of the wondrous mess himself.

Which brings me to the real crux of the matter, the real reason I am so woefully inadequately qualified to speak about God and suffering. It's this: if one wants to look for a supposedly benevolent, genuinely powerful personal being who purports to care about all human beings and could, theoretically, intervene and relieve suffering, one doesn't have to look to God. One has to look in the mirror.

I, as a comparatively wealthy (by global standards), educated, relatively articulate woman in western Europe at the start of the 21st century, have the capacity to do enormous good. If I did all the good I could to relieve the sufferings of others, I could do a lot. I could follow the teachings of James in the New Testament and give away most of my clothes, most of my possessions and most of my money. I could emulate Job in the Old Testament (another person who knows all about suffering) and speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak; there are certainly enough of them to keep me gong for a lifetime. I could do what Jesus commanded and invite the outcast and the lonely and the disgusting round for dinner. I could take to heart the words of Deuteronomy, that it is because the poor will always be among us that we must be generous to the poor. If every person in the world did all this, the capacity for, in the Bible's language, 'blessing' would be awe-inspiring. And if I, and all people did all that we could - really, all that we could, right up to the limit of who we are - maybe we might be able to stand before God and ask him why he hasn't done the same. As it is, we haven't got a leg to stand on.

I know that it is in God's nature to reach out to people through people, and to bless and to relieve suffering in and by people.
I know that I am a person.
I know that I could do far more good than I am doing. By the Bible's standards, I'm doing woefully. I know that this is true of just about every other person I know.
I believe, therefore, that blaming God for human suffering is as illogical as it is hypocritical, at least until we humans get our act together and do our absolute best for this suffering planet.
Moreover, trying to blame God for other people's sufferings is illogical as we cannot have the final word on what those sufferings are.
And trying to blame God for our own sufferings is just as pointless, as most of the time, we see only the tiniest crack in the door of who we are.

So, if you don't mind, I'll sit this one out. I've nothing to say on the matter.


Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Michael, Michael': A Michaelmas Sermon

This was the sermon I preached today, the feast of St Michael and All Angels. 

If you pop round to my house, you’ll see a chubby little stone cherub welcoming you at the door in a posture of serene repose. Today is, of course, a celebration of Michael, the ‘Captain of the Lord’s hosts’, the mighty archangel. This last week in their school assembly, the children of the local school re-enacted the battle we’ve just heard about between St Michael and the angels of God, and the devil and his angels. Swords and wings everywhere!   

Of course, if you know anything about St Michael, you’ll know that Michael is nothing like the cute sleepy little cherub at my door. St Michael is described Revelation as a fierce, sword-wielding, dragon slaying warrior.  Michael also plays a crucial role in the prophetic visions of Daniel; it is in Daniel that we hear that Michael is ‘the great prince who protects your people.’  The rabbis around the time of Christ believed that Michael had been protecting God’s people all the way through their history; the rabbis taught that it was Michael with whom Jacob had wrestled through the night before being re-named Israel, it was Michael who had prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac by drawing his attention to the ram caught in the thicket, it was Michael who had watched over the people of Israel in the great Exodus by acting as advocate for them in the heavenly places.

Now, we can’t say for sure whether the rabbis are right or wrong in this – we read in the Old Testament that Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man who turned out to be an angel, and that angels surrounded God’s people as they journeyed to the promised land. We aren’t told what the angels’ names are, most of the time. But the rabbis’ teachings about Michael give us a glimpse into just how important Michael was, in the early decades of faith in Jesus, a faith which started out very much as a Jewish faith. 

The rather strange letter of Jude describes Michael as an archangel who even dares to take on the devil, and, as we’ve read, Revelation describes a ‘war in heaven’ in which Michael and his angels eventually overcome the dragon, ‘the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world.’

As protectors of the people go, Michael is quite formidable. Not so much a chubby cherub but more of a cross between a heavenly prizefighter and a heavenly bodyguard. Maybe not quite what we think of when we picture angels. Gregory the Great, the medieval pope, said this about Michael; ‘whenever some act of wondrous power is to be performed, Michael is sent.’  

In other words, sending Michael is bringing out the big guns.

Now all of this might sound rather arcane, like beliefs that belong either to a bygone era or to the more esoteric spirituality of those who might be more likely to search for spiritual meaning in new age shops than in church. But angels, and their equally heavenly but unholy counterparts, demons, are very much affirmed by the Christian faith. Just look around you in this beautiful church. There are artistic impressions of angels everywhere; if you haven’t done so in a while, have a good look at the stained glass window of St Michael before you go home.

And if we think about it a bit more, we realise that the story which the children have been re-enacting, the battle between the forces of good and evil, is real, and is something that is very deeply felt and intuited by people in all cultures and times. If this battle between the force of good and evil were not so compelling because of its truthfulness, then the plotlines of stories from Harry Potter to Star Wars would be devoid of meaning.

Revelation is a mysterious book, but one thing is does make clear among the complex and half-hidden messages it holds, is that Michael wins. The forces of good will overcome the forces of evil. A popular Christian writer, Rob Bell, wrote a book recently called ‘Love Wins.’ And that, I believe, is the true message of the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Love wins. Yes, we live in a murky world in which the push and pull of good and evil are evident – but love will win, eventually. And in the meantime, although angels are never ours to command, they are among us, slipping in and out quietly. George Eliot, the great novelist, said that we only realise who angels are once they’ve left us.   

The people who first heard Revelation read to them lived in a murky world, too, in which the push and pull of good and evil were evident. They had escaped the terrible persecution of the earlier generation of Christians, or had not been born yet, they were protected to a degree by the Pax Romana, the peace that the Roman Empire afforded them, as long as they toed the imperial line.  What they needed, John the Revelator was convinced, was to hear what this peace looked like from the vantage point of heaven. They needed to see, as he had, that although peace of a sort prevailed on earth, there was war in heaven as the angels fought for justice and peace over everything that would stop true justice and peace on earth.

Maybe we don’t live in such different times. I’m going to finish by reading a wonderful poem by G. K. Chesterton which touches on just this; it’s called St Michael in Time of Peace.’ There’s a lot in it. If you’d like a copy, do ask me.     

St. Michael in Time of Peace, by G.K. Chesterton
Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning,
Michael of the Army of the Lord,
Stiffen thou the hand upon the still sword, Michael,
Folded and shut upon the sheathed sword, Michael,
Under the fullness of the white robes falling,
Gird us with the secret of the sword.

When the world cracked because of a sneer in heaven,
Leaving out for all time a scar upon the sky,
Thou didst rise up against the Horror in the highest,
Dragging down the highest that looked down on the Most High:
Rending from the seventh heaven the hell of exaltation
Down the seven heavens till the dark seas burn:
Thou that in thunder threwest down the Dragon
Knowest in what silence the Serpent can return.

Down through the universe the vast night falling
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning!)
Far down the universe the deep calms calling
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Sword!)
Bid us not forget in the baths of all forgetfulness,
In the sigh long drawn from the frenzy and the fretfulness
In the huge holy sempiternal silence
In the beginning was the Word.

When from the deeps of dying God astounded
Angels and devils who do all but die
Seeing Him fallen where thou couldst not follow,
Seeing Him mounted where thou couldst not fly,
Hand on the hilt, thou hast halted all thy legions
Waiting the Tetelestai and the acclaim,
Swords that salute Him dead and everlasting
God beyond God and greater than His Name.

Round us and over us the cold thoughts creeping
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the battle-cry!)
Round us and under us the thronged world sleeping
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Charge!)
Guard us the Word; the trysting and the trusting
Edge upon the honour and the blade unrusting
Fine as the hair and tauter than the harpstring
Ready as when it rang upon the targe.

He that giveth peace unto us; not as the world giveth:
He that giveth law unto us; not as the scribes:
Shall he be softened for the softening of the cities
Patient in usury; delicate in bribes?
They that come to quiet us, saying the sword is broken,
Break man with famine, fetter them with gold,
Sell them as sheep; and He shall know the selling
For He was more than murdered. He was sold.

Michael, Michael: Michael of the Mustering,
Michael of the marching on the mountains of the Lord,
Marshal the world and purge of rot and riot
Rule through the world till all the world be quiet:
Only establish when the world is broken
What is unbroken is the word.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

'She has done what she could'

'She has done what she could.' 

 I'd never noticed this little phrase before, in all my years of Bible reading, snuck in to a very familiar episode from the Gospels, the story of the brazen hussy who wasted an entire bottle of expensive ointment by wantonly pouring it all over Jesus' feet. Interesting to note that she's not actually a brazen hussy in Mark's telling of the story in which this little phrase apppears, or Matthew's, either; she is, quite simply, a woman. The Lukan version, which portrays the woman as a 'sinner,' has become much more embedded within the Christian tradition than the less detailed versions in Mathew and Mark. (I remember listening to The Song of the Harlot on an audio cassette as a teenager after being introduced to American Christian pop band 'The Violet Burning' and thinking it was wonderful. I still do.) 

'She has done what she could.' It's a detail that neither Luke nor Matthew pick up in their re-tellings of this narrative, which is possibly why I'd never paid it much attention, either. But the other week, when this reading came up in Morning Prayer (Mark 14:1-11), it was about the only thing I did notice, because it struck me with such force. This woman, whoever she was, anointed Jesus' feet because she could. She was there, just at that moment in history as God's heartbreaking but salvific plan for the world was about to take a deathly turn, just at that place at which Jesus and his friends were sitting down to eat. She had the alabaster oil. She could anoint Jesus' feet, so she did. It was a unique opportunity, and she took it. 

Obviously, I'm not that woman. I'm not in first century Palestine with an expensive jar of ointment. Here I am, 2000 years later, tapping away at a computer. There are things I can't so, and anoint Jesus' feet is one of them. 

But there are so many things I could do, I, with my particular matrix of time and place, experiences and gifts to bring to the feet of Jesus. If, at the end of each day, I could look back and say 'I did what I could', that'd be a life well lived. It might sound like an excuse to do little, but of course that just shows a fundamental personal dishonesty. If we could truly say, with integrity, that we have done what we could to love and serve others, then we have lived fully. 

And if everyone could say, with integrity, that they have done what they could to love and serve others, the world would be transformed. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Parable of the Dishonest Businessman (A story for our times)

This is based on the sermon I preached on Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest steward, which can be read here. Before I launched into my sermon, I got the congregation to read the passage again silently, having just heard it read aloud. At this point one person said 'I really don't get verse 9', and another made a comment about loving God and wealth. 

As you know, this year we've been reading our way through Luke's Gospel, and one of the things I've noticed as we've read it through is that some parts of Luke's Gospel are so familiar to us, like the parables we heard last week, the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, the woman turning her house upside down to find her coin and the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep on the field to search out the one who is lost - these are stories that often, children in churches and church schools hear as preschoolers - and now we come this week's reading, which is much less familiar. I don't know if you've noticed, but we've skipped a bit in between the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the parable we've just heard today - does anyone know what we've skipped? (One person knew that it was the parable of the lost son.) And preachers up and down the county have been bewailing all week, why couldn't the lectionary just give us the prodigal son? 

Because, as I've said, some bits of Luke's Gospel are easier and more familiar than others. With the parables we heard last week, it's easy to see ourselves in those parables; it's easy, if we've been Christians for any length of time, to recognise that we get lost, we are lost without God, and God is that good shepherd who comes to look for us when we are lost in the temptations of the world and the despair of our own sin. 

And it's easy to suppose that all Jesus' parables are to be read like that, to suppose that all parables are allegories about God and the Christian. But I'm not so sure that is the case. Some parables might be instructive or illustrative stories to help us understand particular types of behaviour, without necessarily condoning the behaviour. Think of the prophet Nathan's parable when he confronts the adulterous, murderous King David. You might have been brought up on Aesop's fables; some of those fables are illustrative little stories that help us to understand different experiences. In the Bible, some parables use a particular type of logic that goes like this: it says, 'if this little thing is true, then follow the lines of logic and you'll see that this other, much bigger and more important thing, is even truer.'         

And so to this parable, the parable of the crooked businessman. Now, I wonder if anyone here has watched the BBC series Hustle? It's a fun, clever programme, about a group of savvy chancers pulling off ingenious heists in glamorous locations, usually with something of a Robin Hood twist - they seem only ever to fleece wealthy people whose morals are just as questionable as their own. The basic idea of the show is that we're left wondering through much of the programme how on earth they are going to pull this one off, and applauding their chutzpah and sheer genius at the end. These chancers know how the big financial players think, and they play them so brilliantly that it's only too late that they realise they've been had. 

So in this parable: there's a crooked businessman, and he's messed up, big time. He's about to get the sack, and in that moment, panic seizes him. What's he going to do? How's he going to survive? When I read this, I can't help but think of the financial crash of 2008 and wonder how many financiers might have felt that same bolt of sheer panic through their entire bodies when they realised that the ship was sinking fast. Here though, it's only one person who has messed up, and he knows it. 

And in that moment of sheer panic, a brilliant idea comes to him. I know, he thinks, and before anyone can stop him, he's ringing around, using his final days as an employee to slash prices here and there, and with each re-configured debt, another name gets added to his contacts list. Genius! He knows the game he's in, and he plays a blinder. He's going to be sacked anyway - what's he got to lose? 

Now, we'd expect that when the boss catches up with his employee's dubious business activities, he'd be livid. 'You've done what? You've squandered even more of my money?' 

But the twist in the tale is that his boss is just as crooked as he is - in fact, it turns out that the whole industry he's in is corrupt from top to bottom.  So where we might have expected him to get told off, he gets praised. He doesn't get his job back, but he does win the admiration of a fellow-crook who recognises a genius move when he sees one, just like the gang in Hustle. Within this businessman's little world, his actions make perfect sense; in fact he shows himself to be a pastmaster at the game he's in. 

Then comes the real twist in the tale – if that business manager knows how to play the game, which is sordid and worldly and corrupt, what about us, who play for much bigger stakes – the kingdom of God? If we recognise that God's kingdom of justice, love and peace is so much bigger and so much more important than the grubby business dealings in this parable, how can we 'play' everything we are, everything we have, for the sake of that kingdom? 

Jesus says something about that at the end of this parable. He says that if we're going to play everything for the kingdom, that means knowing that we can’t be mastered by materialism, by the capitalism that surrounds us all the time, on our TV and computer screens, when we leave our homes to go shopping, when we notice a new thing our friend has and want ourselves. We can't allow ourselves to be sucked into this materialism, because it will tear us away from following Jesus. Luke's Gospel has often been called a 'Gospel for the poor', and at the start of Acts, the second volume of Luke's story, Luke describes how the first followers of Jesus shared their possessions, and lived in simplicity for the sake of the kingdom. This is not frugality for the sake of it, it's simplicity so that we can focus our time, our energy, on what really matters, and that's working for the coming of God's kingdom of justice, love and peace. 

So the challenge hidden in this parable is this:  how can we play brilliantly for God in our generation? That will mean lots of different things to different people. One missionary said this: he's no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose. 

I'd like to encourage you, also, to wrestle with these less familiar bits of the Bible. There are treasures within. Amen.  

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why Alan Davies is a Brave Man To Invite Jesus Round For Dinner

This is a sermon based on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (you can look it up on Oremus). 

I’m not much of a magazine reader, but I do enjoy reading food and cookery magazines. In most cookery mags, there will be an interview with a celebrity, with much the same sort of question: first food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, food loves and hates, and finally, which famous people from any point in history would you invite round for dinner. Marilyn Munroe and Martin Luther King Jr feature quite often on these lists of dinner party dream guests. I read one such interview recently with the comedian Alan Davies who suggested someone whom I’d never come across in these questions in all my years of food-magazine reading; Alan Davies said that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner, along with Debbie Harry and Woody Allen.

As I read this interview, my first thought was ‘that’s interesting, and good.’ My second thought, I’m afraid to say, was ‘Really? You’d invite Jesus over? Do you realise what you’re saying there? Do you know what he’s like at dinner parties? Are you really sure you want to invite someone so subversive to your dinner party?’

What we see in this story from Luke’s Gospel is, perhaps, exactly the reason that Jesus isn’t mentioned in too many lists of fantasy dinner party guests from history. Jesus is invited to a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. This is quite an honour, as normally, Pharisee dinners are family gatherings and to be invited into one is to be told, effectively, that the Pharisees want to claim you as one of their own.

You may have noticed that there is no seating plan for this dinner; it is up to the guests to arrange themselves, in order of status and importance, the most important at one end, and the least important at the other. So as well as defining who is in and who is out, who is invited and who is not, the Pharisee dinner party was a way of organising those who are in, those who are invited, and making sure that everyone knows where they stand, or sit, in the pecking order. As I was thinking about his scene from Jesus’ life, I got thinking about diplomatic dinner parties and the sheer headache that must come from trying to place people appropriately, this Ambassador next to that minor Royal.

The difference is, of course, that whereas diplomatic dinner seating plans are pored over, here in the home of the Pharisees, it is left up to the guests to arrange themselves as they see fit. And the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely, we are told, to see where he puts himself. Is Jesus going to take the place of honour, and claim for himself the role of Pharisee of Pharisees, which is how St Paul describes himself some years later? Or is Jesus going to put himself between two rabbis whom he sees as his equals? Where does Jesus fit in to this very clearly defined hierarchy of the invited and the uninvited, the greater or lesser? 

Maybe Luke’s first readers would have found it maddening that we never find out, because Luke doesn’t tell us where Jesus sat.

What Luke does tell us is what Jesus said, and what he says is a parable about a dinner party. That’s the first sign of just how subversive, how rude, even, Jesus is – he goes to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be. I would imagine that if any of your guests did that in your home, you wouldn’t be too impressed. Luke says that Jesus tells a parable, and we might expect a story to follow, like the story of the sower or the story of the unjust judge. What we get, though, is a different type of parable. The Greek word ‘parabolos’ is the equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘mashal’ which can mean anything from a one-line nugget of wisdom to a full-blown story with a moral. The Old Testament book of Proverbs is full of mashalim – little tiny condensed one-line parables which capture a single idea, a single experience, and impart a little wisdom to its hearers about how to live well and wisely in all life’s little moments.

And what Jesus says to his Pharisee fellow diners is very much in the vein of the Old Testament Proverbs, which itself contains wise advice as to how to deport oneself at dinner parties, where to sit, how much to eat and so on.  Proverbs advises its readers not to claim the place of honour, so that someone else can claim it for you; a canny strategy for those wanting the seat of honour. Luke repeats this ancient wisdom, and then takes it to its logical conclusion:  ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Again, this is not exactly new material. The Pharisees would have known all about the humble being exalted from stories such as those of Joseph and Job, and about those exalting themselves being humbled from characters like King Saul and King Solomon. Those stories can be used to either affirm the hierarchy of human society, in which the righteous are eventually rewarded and right order is eventually restored, or, much more subversively, they can be used to question the whole hierarchy altogether, to say that a new way of being in community is emerging, a way in which it is the poor who will be blessed.

Jesus is taking familiar ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures, and using them to illustrate the message that comes across loud and clear from Luke’s Gospel – the kingdom of God is about the good news for the poor, about the rich being sent empty away and the hungry filed with good things, about the world being turned upside down, about those on the outside being welcomed in and those who thought they were on the inside realising how very far away they really are.  And the place that we see what this means in practice, in real life, is how we behave when we east together.

As if that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus takes it one step further and criticises his guests for inviting whom they did. It’s not just that Jesus turns up to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be, it’s that he also tells his hosts whom they ought to have invited. Don’t invite your friends, he says, don’t invite those whom you like, who like you, who will invite you back to their house; invite those who are nothing like you, who don’t even know who you are, who may not even have a house to invite you back to. Invite those who can’t pay you back.

Because ultimately, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s recognising that we cannot pay God back for inviting us to the greatest dinner party of all, to the great heavenly feast to which all are invited and at which are all exalted, all are honoured guests.   The kingdom of heaven isn’t about reciprocity. It’s not about give and take. It’s about receiving what is graciously offered to us, if we are humble enough to accept it. This is what we have gathered here this morning to do, in our worship: to anticipate that great heavenly banquet by eating and drinking together at the altar, humbly receiving the gift of Jesus who comes to us as we come to Him. The Psalmist asks ‘How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?’ The answer is, we can’t. All we can do is to come and gratefully receive his goodness to us, to offer ourselves in love and service to the one who welcomes us.        

And how we behave here, as we gather at God’s table this morning, is to set the pattern for our lives. All are welcome; all are invited, not even those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another, but especially those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another. Those are the very people we ought to be welcoming with open hearts, because they are a sign of the kingdom of heaven among us.

So next time you throw a dinner party, whom will you invite? It’s easy to invite friends, and it’s nice. Inviting friends round re-enforces our sense of well-being,  our sense of how the world is and how the world should be. Inviting those whom we find difficult is, well, difficult. It challenges our hospitality, our ideas about our own beneficence, our ideas about how the world is and how it should be. And maybe that is a very good reason to invite those whom we find difficult.  We will be paid back, Jesus says, but not in the way people normally are repaid for hospitality, and not in this lifetime. And who knows, if we are brave enough to take Jesus up on his challenge and offer hospitality to the poor, the difficult, the unemployed and unemployable, we might just end up entertaining angels.

So Alan Davies is a brave man to say that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner. I want to end by imagining, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, Jesus being interviewed in a cookery magazine. First food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, and finally, fantasy dinner party guests. Whom, in September 2013, in the UK, do you think Jesus would say?   

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

By Faith...

This is a sermon I preached recently on the fabulous paean to faith, Hebrews 11. To listen, click here:

Or you can read on...

In 2007, the writer and comedian Ben Elton wrote a novel called ‘Blind Faith.’ In this dystopian UK of the near future, it is illegal not to have faith, and in this novel, having faith means accepting anything and everything, streamed through internet social media, with nothing more controversial or critical than an ‘Awww, lovely, babe!’
The novel’s title, Blind Faith, hints at the fear that faith means deliberately shutting our eyes to the world around us; like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Ben Elton’s novel captured something of the Zeitgeist; at the 1992 Edinburgh International Science Festival, Richard Dawkins claimed this: Faith is…blind trust…the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
Ironically, Dawkins’ own blind faith in the concept of evidence leaves many questions unanswered: what kind of evidence? How do we know what counts as evidence? Who gets to decide what is evidence and what is not?

The God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in is very different indeed from the God I do believe in, the God whom the Christian church worships, so really, it’s not very surprising that Dawkins doesn’t find any evidence for him.

Not only that, but Dawkins’ definition of faith bears no resemblance to any Christian understanding of faith, including that which we’ve heard in our reading of the epistle to the Hebrews. Faith, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Now I try not to delve too deeply into the original Greek in my sermons, but this morning, I really can’t avoid it, because that statement contains some tricky words.

As it stands in the English translation we’ve heard, it is in danger of sounding as if faith is really all about personal religious feeling – assurance and conviction are words which we might us to describe how we feel when our spirits are soothed or stirred and our consciences pricked. Please hear me when I say that there’s nothing wrong with assurance and conviction –in fact we need more assurance and conviction in our lives and churches – but Hebrews is talking about something else.

The words used in that first statement about faith in our reading today would be much better translated: faith is the substance of that which is hoped for, the proof of things that are unseen. That needs a little word of explanation: the Greek word for substance, hypostasis, is about the reality which underpins everything. In the first centuries of Christianity, theologians debated the hypostasis of God – that is, the very nature, the substance, of God.

This word isn’t to do with religious feeling, it’s to do with claiming a religious reality which is true regardless of how we feel. The word ‘proof’ – ‘the proof of things unseen’ is also about claiming a reality; it’s the same word that was used in Greek courts of law; funnily enough, not a million miles away from the evidence which Richard Dawkins talks about. To Dawkins, faith and evidence are opposites; to Hebrews, faith and evidence are the same thing, because faith is itself the evidence of the underlying reality of God that underpins all that we see.
To borrow a metaphor from C. S. Lewis, having a stomach doesn’t necessarily mean that food is readily available, but it does presuppose that such thing as food exists; so in Hebrews, faith itself presupposes the underlying reality, the substance, of God.

This all sounds pretty abstract, any maybe the writer of Hebrews thinks so too, because he – or she – goes straight from defining what faith is, to describing how it affects peoples’ real lives, in a wonderful passage which I’d so recommend you to read, recounting the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who surround us and stand for us as exemplars of faith.

We often think about faith as having certain Christian beliefs – belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all the other beliefs which we affirm when we say the Nicene creed – and of course it’s good and important that we can say as Christians what our beliefs are. But the writer of Hebrews isn’t just interested in what this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ believed; this inspirational passage focuses on what these great heroes of faith did – what faith inspired them to do.

That refrain that we hear through the passage, ‘by faith’, is always followed by a verb. Faith is about doing as much as it is about believing. Maybe faith that stays in the heart and mind, and never does anything, is no faith at all. The letter of James in the New Testament sets it out it succinctly: faith without deeds is dead.

A living faith will lead people to do things, and, judging by this passage from Hebrews, it will lead all sorts of people to do all sorts of things. Faith is about doing, but it is not about us all doing the same thing; rather, it’s about us discovering the person whom God has created us to be, and the things which he is inviting us to do.

One of these great heroes of faith in Hebrews is, of course, Abraham, the great Father of Faith about whom we heard in our Old Testament reading. In our reading from Genesis, we hear God not commanding Abraham to have blind faith, but quite the opposite, to look – to look up to the countless stars in the night sky, and to see in them a promise of the children God would give this elderly, childless man.

So Abraham’s faith is quite the opposite of blind. It is a faith that looks – it looks up, it looks forward, and it looks out to the way that God is leading, even when that way is new and unknown. Rather than having blind faith, Abraham has faith that sees far more than most people ever do, sees past the immediate to the lasting, past the temporary to the eternal, past the wilderness and its tents, to the lasting home which God had promised on that starry night.

When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor – the one who finally got me through my test – taught me that the most important part of the human body for steering a car is not the hands but the eyes – we tend to veer in the direction in which we are looking.
What we do starts with what we see, what we notice. We might notice that someone hasn’t been to church for a few weeks, and decide to give them a phone call and tell them we’re thinking of them. We might see that there’ a need for people in the church to help with one of the groups we have, and decide to speak to the person who runs the group. Our doing starts with seeing, and it’s all done in faith, as an expression of how God calls us to live by faith.
Living by faith also means looking inside ourselves, and seeing ourselves as God sees us – being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for us and invites us to come and see them, too.    

And living by faith means seeing the world as God sees it, through the eyes of justice and love. It means being brave enough to consider that God has wonderful plans for his world, and that we can play our part in bringing about that vision of justice and love which we celebrate every Sunday. In his last recorded speech, given the evening before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Junior, said this: 

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Mine eyes have seen. In all of Dr King’s doings, this was the central truth. Mine eyes have seen what the world could be like, should be like, must become like if it is in any way to reflect the nature of the God who created it in love. That vision was the inspiration for so much action.

So, catchy though Ben Elton’s book title is, faith is anything but blind. Faith means looking, seeing, noticing – seeing those around us, seeing ourselves, seeing the world – as God sees them. And from that seeing comes doing – acts of service, small things maybe, but that doesn’t matter. Mother Theresa said that not all of us can do great things. But all of us can do small things with great love. And maybe if we could allow ourselves to catch sight of this vision – of God’s vision – we ourselves would stand as the proof, the evidence of the reality of God that underlies everything, for a world so desperately searching for evidence. Amen.