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.