Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Would you Adam and Eve It? A short thought for Christmas Eve

Now here's something new I only learnt today; in many parts of the worldwide Christian Church, December 24th, as well as being Christmas Eve, is also a day to ponder Adam and Eve who are, according to the biblical book of Genesis, the first human pair. These days, Adam and Eve are very often either seen as non-historical, embarrassing irrelevances, undermining the very credibility of the Bible, or, on the B-side of this oh-so-modern worldview, as literal, real human beings whose historicity must be defended at all costs. I suspect that both of these approaches to Adam and Eve would have left the earliest Christians baffled; what is most important, surely, say the writers of the New Testament, is not what we can say about Adam and Eve, but what they say about us as human beings. For Paul, Jesus was the 'last Adam', the man in whose real, historically true human body, all that had been wrong, less and lost in all people down the ages since time began, was put right.

So we come to this picture, painted in 2005 by an American nun. You may well have seen it online; it's been all over Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so on over the last few days.  It's called 'The Virgin Mary consoles Eve' and in its beautiful simplicity, it says something very powerful about why so many Christians choose Christmas Eve as a time to ponder Eve (and Adam). In this picture, Eve is downcast, crestfallen; the apple in hand, she knows all that she has forfeited as the serpent winds its way around her leg. Her hair falls around her body like the trunk of a tree, dehumanising her, maybe, making her part of the orchard in which the two figures are surrounded. On the side of her head reaches the hand of Mary, whose gaze also points down, but only to meet Eve's. Mary's other hand rests on her pregnant womb, as bulbous as the pears framing the two.  Gently, but firmly, Mary's foot crushes the head of the serpent.

Although this is a recent picture, it gets to the heart of an ancient truth; that in Christ, all that is wrong in our world, ultimately,  will be put right. As early as the second century, thinkers such as Irenaeus of Lyons were talking about Eve as the representative virgin whose disobedience to God's command brought sin into the world, and about Mary as the virgin whose obedience to God brought about the birth of the one who would save the world from the consequences of sin. The word used is 'recapitulation';  in God's love, the time will come when all that has been done, said or thought that has hurt or ruined any part of the world which God loves, will be met by a new action, word or thought that will heal the ancient wounds. Every wrong will be righted, every pain salved, every loss reimbursed.

This was what Mother Julian of Norwich had in mind when she said, famously, 'all will be well.' Not 'cheer up love, it might never happen', but, rather, that in Jesus, an era has started in which the time of God's salvation - the name Jesus means 'he who saves' -  has begun in a radically new way. This invites and requires the co-operation of real, actual human beings like Mary who have the possibility open before them of saying 'yes' to God, of inviting others to be part of that 'yes', of bringing about real healing to a desperately hurting world.

This Christmas, may we ponder the Eve in us, the part of ourselves that turns away from the face of the Christ-child. May we recognise also the Mary in us, the 'yes' that rises up to meet God's angel. And may we, as we find within ourselves the recapitulation that is the very hallmark of the work of God's Holy Spirit within us, bring that same hope of reconciliation to a world at enmity with itself.

This year we have seen such pain in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, and just this month, in India. What might the good news of Jesus look like for God's hurting children in those places? Well, it might look a little bit like a real, actual woman, with one hand outstretched, the other resting on her bump, her gaze cast low, but only to meet the eye of the one suffering an ancient wrong...  

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Who Lives in a House Like This? Sermon on the Annunciation

‘Who lives in a house like this?’ If you are a telly fan, you might recognise this as the catchphrase from the game show ‘Through the Keyhole’ in which a presenter, most recently Keith Lemon, wanders through someone’s house picking up clues, dropping hints and throwing around puns in the hope that a celebrity panel will be able to make use of their extensive knowledge of cultural trivia to work out who does indeed live in a house like this. The concept behind the show is, simply, that our homes are a reflection of who we are, an expression of our selves. I would imagine that most of us here this morning would agree wholeheartedly that our homes are, or at least should be in theory anyway, places where we can be ourselves, and express ourselves. 

As a priest, I go into lots of people’s homes, to visit, to take home communion, and to visit families preparing for baptisms, weddings and funerals. I look at photographs on mantelpieces and pictures framed on walls, I admire ornaments and colour schemes, and I can’t help but notice people’s CD collections or DVD stacks or bookshelves – I suspect that sheer nosiness about people’s lives is one of the basic requirements for being a priest – and I hear the stories behind all these little things that, as the cliché puts it, make a house a home. I visit people in care homes too, and I notice all the ways in which people create a home for themselves wherever they may be. Sometimes it’s in a care home room, with photographs and crayon drawn pictures by grandchildren and magazines and books piled up on a side tables, that I get the best sense of who someone is. Some people are, with our doubt, excellently stylish home makers and create rooms which are both beautiful and welcoming, but what I like most are rooms which say something to me about the person who lives in them, rooms into which I can walk and see, from looking around, who lives in a house like this.

This morning we’ve heard the moment in the story of King David when, at last, David finds himself at home, and wants to make a house for God to live in, too. King David’s rise to royal power was not, as you might know, an easy one, and home must have seemed a very distant promise for David as the conflict over who would be king, Saul or David, gathered momentum. At times David had been a shepherd, spending much time outdoors; he had been wary guest in the house of King Saul, and later a fugitive, fleeing for his life and hiding in caves. Through it all, David knew that God was with him; no wonder, then, that when David finally took his throne in Jerusalem and found himself living in palatial surroundings, that his prayer was for God to come home, too.

 It wouldn’t be until the reign of David’ son Solomon that the temple in Jerusalem would be built, and even then, the temple would not be a forever family home for the Almighty, overtaken as it was in the Babylonian exile some five centuries later. Even the second temple, the one that still stood in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, was to be ransacked by the Romans in the siege of 70AD. Yet what we hear in the words of the prophet Nathan is the faithfulness of a God who is with his people even in exile, in hiding and in dry dusty desert wanderings. We hear the yearning of a tender God who longs to come home, to dwell among his people. We hear the confidence of a sovereign God who
 does not need humans to create a home for him, but who himself creates a home for us.

And so we come to our Gospel reading, that most angelic of home visits when Gabriel is sent with the news that at last, the throne of David would be established, not in the Jerusalem Temple or in any of the other great cities of the ancient near east, but inside her own, young, possibly teenaged, virgin, body. The home which God promises to create, the home God yearns to share with his people, the home which is to be found even in exile, in hiding and dry dusty desert wanderings, is not made out of cedar wood or gold, but out of female human flesh. How can this be, asks Mary. How can I – a virgin, a girl, not even a mother yet, poised between adolescence and adulthood – how can I host this king of all kings? The thought is preposterous.

Yet when you think about it, the idea that God can create a home in a human body is no less preposterous than the concept that God’s home can be made out of wood and gold. After all, when we read about the Temples of Jerusalem in the stories of David and Ezra, with all their splendour and beauty, we end up understanding that it was never about the beauty and the splendour, the cedar wood and the gold, anyway – it was about the presence of God that filled the sanctuary and sanctified it, made it holy. If you read on a little from our Old Testament reading, the climax of the story of the Jerusalem temple of which David dreams, is the moment when the cloud of the presence of God overshadows the ark of the temple as Solomon dedicates it to God.  It is this overshadowing presence that establishes the temple as the house of God, not the craftsmanship or the music or the royal connections. It is the same overshadowing presence that establishes Mary as the person in whose body the King of all Kings will take up his home.

So what kind of God lives in a house like this? A house made of young, vulnerable, female human flesh? A house which itself will be under threat in the most vulnerable days of Jesus’ life, a house that will move, like the tabernacle, from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to Bethlehem and thence as a refugee to Egypt, a house that cannot possibly match the splendour and beauty of the Jerusalem Temple but, on the contrary, bears within its body not glory but the shame of pregnancy out of wedlock? 

Mary sings out in her Magnificat what kind of God lives in a house like this. A God who does great things for the humble. Who lifts up the lowly. Who calls out his mercy from generation to generation. Who does mighty deeds. Who fills the hungry with good things, but dismisses the haughty and the proud. Who remembers his servant, Israel. Who has not forgotten one of his promises.  When we look at Mary, in her youth, in her vulnerability, in the social shame of her unmarried pregnancy, in her tenacity, in her faith and readiness to say yes to God despite the sword that will pierce her own heart as she bears the Christ child, we see what kind of God lives in a house like this.

And what about where that same God lives today? All around the world people have built houses for the Lord; we are in one here, one which I love very much. But our churches are never meant to be about the stone and the wood, the music or the craftsmanship. All of that – beautiful and splendid as it is – is to help us to see the overshadowing presence of the divine who still comes and dwells among his people today. Because when God takes up his home in the body of Mary, that same God sanctifies all human flesh, makes it possible for all human bodies to know within them just a little of the presence of the divine that Mary carried those nine months. 

This year, we have seen over and over again in our news pictures of refugees – in Syria, in Iraq, in South Sudan and in other places. We have seen battered and exhausted human flesh wandering through dry desert ways, many people dying before reaching place where they can create new, if temporary, homes. The good news of the incarnation is that it is in this flesh that God sets up home. What kind of God lives in a house like this? A God whose love for his people is so faithful, so tender, so confident, that within the human body itself is the most natural home he could choose. Amen. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Will there be cats in heaven?

If you know me, chances are that you'll know that this Advent Sunday was a sad and subdued one in the household. A phone call from a neighbour told me that a ginger cat had been found dead on her lawn, and my heart wilted as I hastily dressed and crossed the road to discover what I had already accepted as the inevitable.

Fred and Ginger (I know!) came to us a week after the lady from the cats' protection charity had, with her checklist, notebook and gentle demeanour. Among the questions she asked us as she observed bot the main road at the front f our house and the large garden and fields at the back, was whether we might be prepared to have more than one cat. The thought hadn't occurred to us until that moment, but it sounded like a fair proposition. So, a week later, seven-week-old kittens who had been birthed and then abandoned by a feral cat in the nearby town, who had been found mewling under a bush and who were so dehydrated that one of them (Fred) sucked so hard on the teat of his bottle of kitten milk that he swallowed the teat and had to have an operation to remove it from his stomach, came home with us. They hadn't had the easiest start, and we all fell in love with them. They chased balls of wool and moving shadows, and sat and stared out into the garden until finally, the day came when they were allowed to explore. And explore they did! They ran along the fences and climbed trees; Ginger leapt out of a bedroom window into a flower bed two storeys below, they jumped in and out of the bathroom window to and from the flat roof below, startling more than one of us more than once, and they discovered the taste of peanut butter, thanks to a neighbour who left out peanut butter on bread for badgers every dusk. (The badgers got the bread.) They took on foxes and other cats, and took sociopathic delight in catching mice, birds and even rabbits. Then they came, rubbed their furry bodies against our skin, and curled up in a laundry basket on on a child's bed.

It was Ginger on the lawn. It seems most likely that he was run over by a car on the main road outside our house early on Sunday morning, and had managed to walk to our neighbour's house.  Running my fingers along his cold fur, that same love which had welled up with in me when I'd first heard about these bedraggled little semi-feral kittens rose up again. Ginger the brave explorer who had once mysteriously disappeared for fourteen hours; Ginger the cruel, who once brought a half-dead baby bird into my bedroom; Ginger the vulnerable kitten who hid in a cardboard box during his early weeks with us; Ginger the content cat who would curl up and sleep alongside my daughter night after night.

I found myself wondering idly, will there be cats in heaven? And the honest answer that came to me: I don't know. Ginger's mortal remains were taken, with great dignity and love, to a pet crematorium and his ashes scattered. But what of Ginger himself? I can't imagine losing a human member of my family without the hope of eternal life and the resurrection we are able to anticipate because of the resurrection of Jesus.  So what about feline members of our family? Or, come that, God forbid, the canine ones? As I say, the only honest answer has to be 'I don't know.' I find it hard enough to imagine what we will be like in heaven - as St Paul says, the bodies we inhabit here on earth bear as much resemblance to the bodies which we will have in heaven as seeds to trees - without throwing other species into the mix.

But one thing I do know, confidently: what made Ginger special was the love we shared with him, the love that hooked our hearts from the moment we heard the sad story of his delinquent youth, the love that tickled us as we made him leap to reach a dangling feather to alight on a moving laser beam, the love that warmed us as he settled down on our laps, the love that stretched us as we  - I - removed dead bodies of mice and birds from our hallway. We loved Ginger, and I think, in his funny feline way, he loved us too.

And whether or not there will be anything in heaven tat I can vaguely recognise a cat, I do know that the love that we shared with Ginger, and still share with Fred and Ben the excitable spaniel, is just a tiny little foretaste of the love we will know, fully, ultimately, everlastingly, in heaven. We are mortal; our bodies, whether feline, human or other, do not last forever and cannot bounce back from every blow. But within our fragile, mortal bodies we can know a love that is indestructible. We see that love in our pets, in our children, in our families and friends and in the love that is poured into art, science and other labours of love. Most fully we see it in Jesus, but even then, to go back to St Paul, we see a dim reflection. In heaven we will see, face to face, love himself. Will there be cats in heaven? I don't know. But we loved Ginger, and there will be love.



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Family Album: All Saints' Sermon

When I was younger, I used to love leafing through our family photograph albums. You might have some of these yourself – big books with photographs stretching back generations, which bring back to mind family holidays, Christmasses and birthdays. The comedian Penelope Lombard said, and you might recognise this from your family, ‘my mother bores everyone with our photo albums. There’s even one called ‘Pictures we took just to use up the rest of the film.’ A tradition sadly lost in our digital age! 

For me, my family photos were all the more poignant and all the more precious because half of my family, my dad’s side, all lived in New Zealand, where my father came from. My childhood was punctuated by visits from what we called ‘the rellies’ from down under, but these visits were rare enough that my primary connection with my family was through the photographs which they sent regularly in their airmail envelopes, accompanied by handwritten letter on thin blue paper. I studied photographs of my New Zealand grandmother, looking for familiarity in the shape of her face. The need for connection within a family is a deep, and fundamental need.

There’s something very grounding about saying ‘these are my people; this is where I come from.’ Not that any family is perfect, and if you look a bit more closely at some of those photos you might see the worry lines, the strained smiles, the two people who never appear in the same group shot. But as humans, we need to know that we belong within a larger group who give us our own identity, and give us space and grace to find that identity. One of the tragedies of life is when people’s experience of family goes badly wrong, and I’m sure you’re able to think of people whose whole lives are a search for that sense of connection and acceptance; often a search that leads people to unsafe and unhappy places.

Later on this afternoon we will have our memorial service for the departed, and maybe you will come to remember those members of your own families whom you miss and mourn. Each one of us has our own personal family photo album in our minds, memories that we flick through, faces we recall, moments that have stayed with us because they are so precious and poignant in helping us to know who we are.  But as Christians, we also have a shared family history, a shred photo album of those holy men and women who, although most of them lived long before we have, lived in such a way so as to shape our identity as followers of Jesus. The reading we have heard this morning from the first letter of John reminds us that we are God’s children, members of God’s family. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.”

We are so used to this idea that it can almost pass us by. But this morning, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, I’d like us to think afresh about this quite extraordinary, but far from perfect, family of which we are part. We are part of a worldwide family that stretches back through the generations and out across the world. At this time of year we might be thankful for our sister St Barbara, the patron saint of fireworks, or not, as the case may be. On the other hand, I’m sure that we all feel a bit sorry for St Drogo, the patron saint of ugly people. I must confess that while I was finding out about my siblings the saints I may have had the help of St Isodore of Seville, who is the patron saint of the internet.

Through Jesus, we become family with the saints; our sisters and brothers Hildegard and Agnes, Alban and Ambrose, Francis, Benedict and Hilda, and all the others – we could flick through this family album all day – are part of our shared identity as Christians as we join with them worship and prayer. We can look back to the lives of the saints and say ‘these are my people; this is where I come from.’

And it’s important to acknowledge that these are just the stories we do know; and for each story of a saint I could tell you, there must be hundreds more that have not been written down or retold down the ages. For each saint whose name we know, there must be hundreds of godly men and women who were never formally canonised yet are saints in the older, New Testament sense of the word; people who are made holy because of their faith in the holy one, Jesus Christ.    

So what sort of family is this family of faith? Quite often, families have particular characters, and value particular characteristics. To call somebody ‘independent’ might be a compliment in one family, and a criticism in another. Different families place varying values on things like education, hard work, time spent together, travel, business acumen, ability to win at chess or understand the rules of cricket, and so on. In the reading we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, known as the Beatitudes, Jesus lays out what kind of characteristics are most highly valued in the family of faith. 
Poverty in spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking, persecution because of righteousness; these are the qualities and the characteristics of the family of faith. We, gathered here this morning, might not embody all of these characteristics – we are very far from persecuted for righteousness’ sake – but the church across the world and through history does embody all these characteristics.

We pray for our Christian sisters and brothers who are persecuted, and later, we will pray in our All Souls Service, for our brothers and sisters who mourn. We don’t always live up to these characteristics – we are not perfect, and certainly as we think back over our history as Christians there are many times when we have failed to live up to his calling to be pure in heart, peaceable and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. But our failure to live up to these family traits does not negate how important these characteristics are in defining what we aspire to as members of the Christian family. 

And finally, what kind of house does this family of faith share? Our reading from Daniel makes it clear;  ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’

This is not a family that exists solely for itself and its own purposes. This is a family whose focus is always to be outside of itself, to look to the needs of the world around and to hold those needs to God in prayer. And this is an ever-expanding family, whose calling is to welcome newcomers, whatever they may turn up looking like and however much they may or may not look like ‘one of us.’ This is a family whose resemblance to one another cannot be physical, because it spans two thousand years and thousands of human cultures; this is a family whose resemblance is to the one person, Jesus, who makes us all part of his family.

Now I know that tis all might sound idealistic, but what All Saints’ Day gives us is an ideal, the ideals of Jesus, who calls us all to be conformed to his image and to grow more deeply into his family likeness.

So sometime this coming week, have a flick through your own family photo album, and give thanks to those in your family who have gone before you. But give thanks too for his great family of faith, and pray that, with all the saints, we may live up to the calling of Jesus, and live together in a house of prayer for all nations. 'See, what love the father has given us, that we should be called children of God.' Amen.          


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Distraction: Probably not the worst thing you could do in church

Okay, so I'll admit it. I was distracted in church this morning. Someone was saying something, or reading something, or maybe praying something, and I was somewhere else entirely. I wasn't leading the service, you'll be relieved to hear, and during the things I've done today which have required real attentive concentration, I've been there with every fibre. However, maybe because I wasn't leading this morning, my mind wandered a bit. (Don't tell me you've never been there.)

And what places it wandered to! What to cook for someone who's coming round (in quite some detail); replaying a conversation I had with someone the other day (again, in quite some detail); wondering how someone else is getting on. I was brought to by a particularly odd detail in the Bible reading, which spun off into a whole new distraction; what would that sound like to someone for whom this is the first time they have walked through the doors of a church? Why is the Bible so strange in places? Wouldn't it be more suspicious if it weren't strange? Are we a bit too squeamish these days? Anyway, what to have for dinner...?

I was going to blog about his distraction-experience earlier, but then, you'd never guess what happened? Yes, I got distracted again. First by an unexpected phone call, then by this. As I started to read about Cyril of Alexandria's Christology (which hadn't been on my afternoon's to-do list), I gazed through the crack of an open door into a whole room full of distraction. (Another of today's distractions has involved lions in the Old Testament).

As I look back over a day in which, as well as doing work that has both been planned and has required a great deal of emotional involvement (I wasn't distracted during the funeral), I have meandered a bit, I can't help feeling that distraction is, on the whole, not a bad thing. After all, it's taken me to some pretty interesting places today, places that I would not have written into my diary to visit. And when I think back to this morning's musings, well, I can't help wondering if our distractions can be, in themselves, a kind of inarticulate prayer. After all, it was to people that my mind was wandering. People about whom I care, people whom I want to serve, to understand better, to interpret the Bible for meaningfully, people whose company to enjoy; people who lived centuries ago and wrote words that endure; people who turn to these words to articulate a shared faith; people who reach across time and across cultures to find a deeper unity beneath the things which differentiate us from one another; people to cook something really nice for.  Maybe our distractions take us to places that are more deeply authentically expressions of our concerns and prayers than anything we could put into words ahead of time. Maybe distraction isn't the worst thing you could do in church. (Unless you're leading the service, that is...)

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Listening, love, and Kylie the Absinthe Fairy

One of my favourite films ever is ‘Moulin Rouge’, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor and set  in turn-of-the-century, belle epoque Paris. It’s a spectacular, gaudy, movie. It has Kylie Minogue as an absinthe fairy. One scene takes place inside an elephant-shaped room, in which a young provincial poet tries to win the affections of a Parisian courtesan, and as he woos her, the dialogue runs thus; ‘Love is a many splendored thing, Love lifts us up where we belong, All you need is love!’ and goes on to consist almost entirely of slogans from popular songs from the last thirty or so years. (You can listen to the scene here.)

Of course, the problem is that in our English language we only have the one word ‘love’ which covers a multitude of emotions; depending on who we are, we might say that we love sticky toffee pudding, our car, our friends, our home, a movie like Moulin Rouge, our children, our pets, our spouse, God, an idea perfectly expressed, a song beautifully sung. ‘Love’ is used to convey any strong, positive emotion and any sense of attachment. Greek, though, as you might know, is more precise – possibly more analytical of the concept of love itself, in an Aristotelean way – and offers a range of words for love that all mean love, but distinct experiences and expressions of love. Philos, for example, is the love between siblings, that deep recognition, pool of shared memories and solidarity that is family life at its best. Eros, as you can probably work out, is the romantic love that Ewan McGregor sings about in Moulin Rouge.    

In our reading this morning we have heard that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves; this is the very touchstone of the Christian faith. The love about which Jesus is talking here is not romantic love, not infatuation or fluttering hearts; it’s not even philos, the sibling solidarity. It is ‘agape’, the divine, perfect love from which all other love comes and which gives shape and meaning to all human life. It’s a love that transcends, and transfigures, our lives. ‘Love so amazing, so divine / demands my soul, my love, my all.’

It’s a love that makes hypocrites of us all, because none of us can live up to it. Yet it is the profoundest expression of the very nature of the God in whose image we are created.  

As you will know if you’ve been following the Sunday sermons over recent week, tension has been mounting between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and other Jewish idealists. Last week we heard Jesus’ genius answer to the trick question ‘should we pay taxes to Rome?’, (you can read the sermon here if you like). which his detractors hoped would get him arrested and out of their way. As we know, that plan didn’t work out for them, so now they are back with the ultimate question: what is the greatest commandment in the law? 

Another trick question: whatever Jesus claims as the greatest, or most important, means that other laws lie neglected; whatever is greater means that something else has to be lesser. Maybe the Pharisees were ready with their counter-answer; if Jesus had chosen the honouring of one’s parents as the most important, for example, that would lay him open to claims of neglecting the wider community. If he had said keeping the Sabbath, that would lay him open to claims of neglecting the other six days. And so on.

But, once again, Jesus’ answer silences his opposers, because what he offers as the greatest law is not one that competes against the others, but one that is the lens through which all of the others make sense. Honouring parents makes sense because God creates us for relationship, because the very nature of God is relational love. Keeping the Sabbath make sense because God creates us to love him – to enjoy him forever, as the Westminster Catechism puts it – and it’s hard to do that what you’re working all the time. A Sabbath, a day of rest, gives space for love to be enjoyed.

St Augustine of Hippo famously said ‘love, and do what you will.’ Not because Augustine was a libertine – if you know anything about him, you’ll know how far from the truth that is, after his conversion at least  – but because when we start to understand this perfect love and ourselves as creatures of love, that love itself will define how we live, how we relate to others, what we say, how we spend our time.

As I’ve said, this love makes hypocrites of us all. We do not, and cannot, perfectly live up to this perfect love, this side of heaven. That is why confession is so important, because as we hear God’s words of forgiveness and absolution to us, we are hearing words of love, words that draw us back to the source of love and enable us to re-orientate our lives towards this love.        

Hearing is so important to our understanding of God’s love. The verse from Deuteronomy from which this saying of Jesus originates is known as the Shema, after the Hebrew for the first word, ‘hear’; ‘hear, O Israel.’  In Hebrew, this word also means ‘draw near to listen, pay careful attention.’ Love is partly about listening, drawing near and paying careful attention to others. Maybe we might think of someone we know who is particularly good at listening; we sense something of the love of God in these people. We know that we are loved when we are heard. God, who is love, hears our prayers, even our thoughts. Before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you have known its meaning through and through as the Psalmist says. God is infinitely attentive, infinitely listening, in love, to us.  

We know, too, where love leads Jesus. Love leads Jesus to a brutal death, to humiliation and scorn and pain. Love leads Jesus to derision and desertion and deep, empty darkness. A thousand nails could not have held Jesus to the cross, had love not held him there, as one person put it. It is in the cross of Christ, the self-giving sacrifice, that we see what really is the greatest fulfilment of all the law. 

And we know that love reaches down into the deep, empty darkness and leads Jesus back to life; we know that when hell has been harrowed and the ultimate triumph of love over hate written into the deepest laws of the universe, love bursts forth from the resurrected, cross-wounded Jesus. This love reaches out to the ends of the earth and re-welcomes, re-calls, even those who betrayed and disowned Jesus, and sends them out to reach further still.    

If we want to know what love is, we don’t need cutesy little cartoons of pudgy people in a heart shaped background gazing coyly at each other’s nakedness. We don’t need Ewan McGregor singing in an elephant shaped room. We need to look to the cross. To come close, ourselves, to draw near and listen; to listen to Jesus, to hear his words of invitation and welcome, his infinite attentiveness and utter acceptance of us, his self-giving for us. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we say in the Eucharist, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We proclaim the love that changes the world and challenges the powers of oppression every time we share this holy meal. We hear, one again, words of love, and we see, once again, the body broken and the blood spilled, out of love. Let us come now; let us draw near, and listen. Amen.    

Sunday, 19 October 2014

'Render Unto Caesar': A sermon that isn't really about taxes at all

For those of you who invest your money into stocks and bonds, I might be inclined to urge you to “Put all your money in taxes. It's the only sure thing to go up.”

The passage we’ve heard from Matthew’s Gospel, which includes those famous words ‘render unto Caesar’, is very often used to affirm that as members of our communities, we must pay our taxes. It’s also often used to argue that the secular and the spiritual need to be kept well apart from each other, the state and the church separated with the grubby world of finance and governance on the one side, and the ethereal other-world of the spirit on the other.

Yes, we must pay our taxes, however galling that experience might be – as one wag put it, there are only two definites, death and taxes, but at least death doesn’t become more expensive every April.
And we might have some interesting things to say about the relationship between the scared and the secular, between the church and the state, especially as members of the established Church of England.  I am fairly sure that not all of us gathered here his evening would be in complete agreement about what that means and what it should mean, both for the life of our country and for the life of our national church.

However, I’m not sure that this clever little moment from the life of Jesus, one that is recorded in the Gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke, is getting at. Rather, it seems to me to be hinting at something more along the lines of this question: how can we, as believers, live in an unbelieving world without compromising our integrity? This is a question which has confronted Christians, and indeed members of all religions, down through history and continues to influence the way we live now. Let’s have a think about this business of rendering unto Caesar, then we’ll return to the question of how we as Christians do what the Psalm describes as keeping our hands clean and our hearts pure in a messy, murky world.  

If paying HRMC does stick in your throat, it may or may not be of comfort to you to know that Jews in the first century paid quite a lot of taxes: tithes to the Temple, averaging about 21% of their annual income, customs taxes, and land taxes. The Pharisees and Herodians were not questioning these taxes. Their question was very specific: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"

They were talking about the annual tax to Rome, the ruling power in first century Palestine. This tax could only be paid with Roman coins which, as well as being legal tender, were also propaganda. In the first century, most citizens of the Roman Empire had never actually seen the Emperor, not even from afar – Imperial tours were very few and far between – so coins were one of the ways to remind peoples under Imperial control whose subjects they were.  

These days we are used to the idea that in any given country, there is one currency that is legal tender, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in first century Palestine – at least three different types of currency are mentioned in the Gospels – Greek drachmas, which are talked about as a different type of tax just a few chapters earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel, shekels, the currency of the Judean people and the thirty pieces of silver which are the currency used to pay off Judas Iscariot, and finally the Roman denarius.

You can see from this that the people of the New Testament moved between three different cultures, Greek, Roman and Judean, each with their own currencies. It’s easy to imagine a first century Palestinian Jew with three different currencies in his purse. And it’s easy to see how to some Jews, even the very Roman coins themselves would be blasphemous; most of the coins contained an image of the Caesar with an inscription proclaiming him to be divine. One coin used during the time of Jesus had inscribed on it: "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." This was called the ‘tribute penny.’

This tribute penny was seen, therefore, by some Jews as a currency with which it could not possibly be lawful to dirty one’s hands; Jewish priests did not touch Roman coins, which is why the offerings at the Jerusalem temple needed to be changed in the outer court – hence the money changers whose table Jesus overturns.  On the other hand, many Jews had become so used to the face of Tiberius on their coins that the shocking blasphemy of being complicit in a currency which calls him God barely even registered.
As trick questions go, this one was a stroke of genius. If Jesus had said yes, you must pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisaic spin doctors would be able to say that Jesus is no true son of David; he endorses a system which calls the Emperor Divine. If Jesus had said no, you Jews must keep your hands clean and your hearts pure from these blasphemies – you can’t use these coins - then he could be arrested for inciting rebellion. Jesus was cornered, condemned either as a blasphemer or a zealot, either one of which charge could quickly dispose of this man who had made himself an enemy of the Pharisees with his very pointed parables and his accusations of their hypocrisy.

And yet, the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ genius was just the foil to Jesus’ masterstroke. Jesus, as we know, bypasses the presenting problem of blasphemy altogether, and instead talks about ownership. Whose face is this? He asks. And yes, if a coin has someone’s face on it, it belongs to them; it is no problem to give it back to its rightful owner. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. There’s a challenge in that answer; money isn’t really yours, you know, Jesus seems to be implying. If anyone’s, surely it belongs to the person whose face is imprinted on it. For those of us steeped in a culture based on private ownership, this really is a challenge.

It gets more challenging, and more liberating still, though. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – and unto God that which is God’s. The impact of this answer would not have been lost on the Pharisees and Herodians; this man, whose face is known throughout the Empire, printed on coin and commemorated in Roman triumphs; this man is not God. God is God, and Caesar is Caesar. In this short, pithy answer, Jesus ducks the perils of being condemned either as a rebel who incites non-compliance with the occupying forces of Rome, or as a blasphemer who denies the one true God.
So it’s not so much that this little vignette is about the separation of the church and state, the spiritual and secular, or about the necessity of paying taxes, but rather, the separation of the one true God and false gods.  

It’s about living in a world in which all sorts of people and things are elevated to the status of God, and moving among them whilst remaining true to the one true God. If that sounds arcane, juts think for a moment:  if a god is that which we worship, and if worship is the giving of the very best of ourselves, giving our time, our energy, our money, our allegiance and loyalty, then we can see that we live in a world which has just as many gods as the ancient Romans.  It’s easy to say that our celebrity-obsessed, materialistic culture makes gods out of football players and pop singers, but if we are honest, a false god is anything which commands a higher place in our lives than the one true God himself.  

So how do we move among the myriad false gods of our world without getting sucked into false worship and a very modern sort of blasphemy? Jesus gives us a clear steer: give to the world that which is of the world. Yes, that includes taxes. But it also includes our wisdom, our insight, our honesty and our prayerful response to the complex needs of the world. It means recognising that none of what passes for divine in our contemporary society is, actually, God. But also, give to God that which is God’s. Find out who the one true God is, the one who alone is worthy of our loyalty, our allegiance, our energy, and our love, and give to him that which is already his – ourselves. We do that now as we meet that one true God in the Eucharist. Amen.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

What does it mean to be a Christian? in 500 words

I was asked to write a short article for our local magazine on 'what it means to be a Christian.' Here's what I said...

‘There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles.’ You may well recognise these as the famous words of Elizabeth I, and if you know a little about her life and times, you will know that she was speaking at a time of religious turmoil as England tussled back and forth between Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity. On insisting on one Jesus and one faith, Elizabeth sought to end this bitter conflict by pointing all Christians back to the heart of their shared faith, Jesus himself.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi in first century Palestine who, like many others under Roman rule, was put to death by crucifixion (like Elizabeth I, Jesus lived in tumultuous times). It was only after the news began to circulate that Jesus had risen from the dead and, after returning to his followers, had ascended into heaven that a relatively insignificant group found the impetus, given, as they said, by the Spirit of God,  to spread the word that this Jesus was not just another victim of the Roman Empire, not just another religious radical, but God himself, ‘God with a face’, ‘Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’’, God made human so that humans could see and touch and hear the divine. The cross on which Jesus died went from being a shameful accusation of criminality to the moment the world saw God’s love to the fullest; a divine love that stops at nothing, not even death, to bridge the gap between God and a lost, broken humanity.  

In Jesus, Christians believe, people can turn away from everything that prevents them recognising and responding to the love of God (the Bible calls this ‘sin’) and can know themselves to be the beloved children of a heavenly Father, created to reflect his goodness, sinful yet forgiven, unworthy yet welcomed, accepted into the family  of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are mandated to take the good news of God’s transformative love into all the world (we Christians have not always lived up to this task).

Jesus is the heart of what it means to be a Christian; Christians are, simply, those who worship Jesus and seek to live out his teachings in their lives. Christians are those who aspire to become more like Jesus through the Spirit of God which Jesus promises to give to those who seek it. ‘All else’ is not so much a ‘dispute over trifles’ as , hopefully, a working-out of what it means to know God’s love and make it known in the world (as I’ve said, we don’t always get it right). Christians are no better than anyone else, and no worse. My own fascination with Jesus started as a child and continues to this day. I have known all sorts of Christians from just about every church background imaginable; the one thing we all have in common is the faith the conviction, along with Elizabeth I, that ‘there is one Christ, Jesus.’  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Under the Mask: A Sermon based on Matthew 22:1-14

Weddings have the strange potential to bring out the very best and very worst in human behaviour. From time to time when I get a quiet half hour, I visit a parenting website which has a section called AIBU?, which stands for ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’ People describe a particular situation, or their view on a situation, then ask, Am I Being Unreasonable? It’s a grand old waste of half an hour so to see what passes for reasonableness these days.  One topic that comes up again and again in this ‘Am I Being Unreasonable’ section is that of family weddings. Am I being unreasonable not to go to this wedding when I haven’t been invited to the sit-down reception dinner? Am I being unreasonable to take my children to this wedding even though they haven’t been named on the invitation? Am I being unreasonable to expect my guests to RSVP in time when we are paying so much for our wedding? More than any other family occasion, as I say, weddings bring out the very best and very worst in people. I love taking weddings, getting to know the couple and sharing in their joy and excitement, and every wedding I’ve taken so far has been truly lovely, but every now and again I have picked up on an air of disgruntlement or discord between members of a wedding party which is normally very well disguised on the big day itself. Very occasionally, there can be a great contrast between the loveliness of the wedding, and the undercurrent of unresolved issues just beneath the surface.      
In our Gospel reading we’ve heard one of Jesus’ sterner parables, a wedding story that doesn’t quite end in happily ever after. If it’s not too flippant, I could just imagine this parable in the Am I Being Unreasonable section: Am I Being Unreasonable to not to turn up this wedding? I’m a bit busy that day on the farm….Am I being unreasonable to burn this city down? After all, not a single one of my guests turned up my wedding? Am I being unreasonable to invite anyone and everyone to this wedding, even though I have no idea who any of them are? Am I being unreasonable go along to this wedding wearing my jeans; I wasn’t even on the original guest list? Am I being unreasonable to throw this person out of the reception? He hadn’t even bothered to get dressed up!

This parable, like weddings themselves, is a minefield of social conventions, and it’s been a theological minefield for centuries too. This parable has been used to prop up Christian anti-semitism, to say that the Jewish people are the ones who failed to respond to God’s invitation and that Christians are those who have been invited to take the place of the Jewish people as God’s honoured guests. It won’t surprise you to hear that I see this as a gross, and dangerous misunderstanding of the parable, one that I refute very strongly.

Instead, I think it’s important that we look a bit more broadly at this parable to try and pick our own way through what’s happening and why. If we read the Gospel of Matthew, we’ll see that this is the final in a series of three parables denouncing the Pharisees, and if we read on a bit more, we’ll see that these three parables are leading up to an explosive exposé of the Pharisees. We’ll see that these Pharisees have been on Jesus’ case for some while, trying to catch him out, setting up elaborate Am I Being Unreasonable scenarios to see how he’ll react, and as Jesus continues in his ministry, the tension between him and the Pharisees mounts to the climax of chapter 23 when, over and over again in vivid metaphors, Jesus denounces the Pharisees as hypocrites who look impressively holy on the outside but whose hearts are hard and cold, who fulfil their religious duties not out of love but out of the desire to impress, to be noticed and admired.

Now these are harsh words, especially when you consider that the Pharisees were the Jewish men who performed their religious duties excellently and conscientiously. They were the one who, although they weren’t priests themselves, believed that all people are called to live as holy a life as the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. They excelled in their religious devotion. They were just the sort of people you would think God would be most proud of.

And yet the tragedy of these religious perfectionists was that in amongst all their impressive worship and service, there was one thing they hadn’t seen to, and it turns out that that one thing is, ultimately, the only thing that God wants from us. That one thing is our hearts. If you read through what Jesus says of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, you’ll see that what gets him so angry is the great contrast between who they are on the outside, and who they are on the inside.  The word ‘hypocrite’ comes from Greek drama; it literally means ‘under the mask’.

It wasn’t that God had had enough of the Jewish people and wanted to replace then with a newer model; it’s that God’s own heart is grieved when people make such an impressive show of being religious that their religion becomes a mask for them to hide behind so that the person they really are, the person under the mask, is hard, cold, and distant from him.  Hypocrites exist in all religions and, dare I say it, we are all hypocrites at times. We all put on masks that shield our true, hurting selves from the Jesus who would come to bring us healing, because, frankly, healing can hurt, as anyone who’s ever recovered from an operation might tell you.

Being un-hypocritical doesn’t mean always telling everything about yourself to everyone you meet all the time; it takes wisdom to know what to share with people, how an when we share things that are personal or difficult. But avoiding hypocrisy dos mean having somewhere in your life where the truth about who you are, and the truth as you see it from where you are standing, is told. I would suggest that Sunday mornings, our shared time of encounter with Jesus, should be a one of those places of truth-telling.  

So, to look at the parable: it’s a wedding story about a host who is both determined and lavish. He doesn’t give up when no-one turns up; he doesn’t lose heart, he keeps on searching out guests, however unsuitable those guests are. But he is also a host who wants his guests to be there body and soul, to enter into the party. In his parable, the clothes represent the attitude of the guest. As I’ve said, if you read on in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll see that Jesus has harsh words for people who look the part on the outside but whose hearts are cold, hard and distant. So the guest who is thrown out for not wearing celebration clothes - this isn’t about clothes at all, it’s about the heart.

So this is a parable with a challenge for us this morning: We might be here in body, but are we here in spirit? Do we respond to God’s gracious invitation with gratitude, or grudgingly, or not at all? Can we be like the Pharisees, be one thing on the outside and quite another on the inside? Do we hide behind a mask? Are we scared that if we let our mask slip, God won’t love us, people won’t accept us? If you read on a little further still in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll hear some beautiful words of Jesus, lamenting over those whose masks were perfect and perfectly in place: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ That same Jesus desires to gather us together as his people here in this place today. May we be willing to let him in, to let him past the masks and beyond the outward face we present to the world, and may we be willing to let him gather up all in us that is lost or hurting or needy, as we bring him our unmasked selves in the Eucharist. Amen. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

A way of praying at night: something that might help

Earlier on this year, my church held a Festival of Prayer, a week-long exploration of God from various vantage-points; we pondered icons, we perambulated the parish, pausing to pray for its peoples as we went, we wove a cross which now sits on the ledge by our pulpit in church, and we invited the Bishop to come along and share his very profound, rich relationship with God with us, which he did generously. The week had quite an impact on quite a few of us; after all, I'm not sure it's possible to encounter God in a meaningful way and not be changed by the experience, any more than it's possible to sit in the summer warmth and not be tanned. From this week, a desire to become deeper, richer people of prayer has arisen, and it's exciting to see new initiatives starting to take shape.

At the heart of it, though, is an awareness that Christian faith is a relationship which, like all relationships, needs regular connection in order become and remain strong. So I thought I'd write something about a way of praying that is central to my relationship with God, and about which I spoke during the Festival of Prayer; the daily Examen. St Ignatius Loyola, who pioneered this prayer and taught his men (and they were all men) that if they didn't manage any other sort of prayer, to make sure they did their Examen every day. He was also a pragmatic sort of person, who I hope wouldn't mind too much that I've made a few adjustments to his centuries-old style of prayer. This may or may not be your cup of spirituali-tea (groan!), but do think about how you connect with God in prayer; if this blog just reminds you that God is there, and that he loves you and loves to hear your prayers, however they are phrased or packaged, that'll make it worthwhile!

So, onto my slightly amended night version of the Examen: think back over your day, starting from the moment you woke up until now. as you think back over your day in the presence of God, firstly, think about the people who have featured in your day. Some people might come to mind instantly, Some might not be people you've seen or talked to, but people about whom you've thought, or worried. Some will have played an important role in your day, in whatever way; others require a little more thought to remember. The person who served you in the shop. The parent you chatted to at the school gate. The colleague you laughed with in the lunch queue. The awkward one who made you feel uncomfortable or angry. However marginal, however difficult, try to remember each person who has made any sort of impact on you today. Know that each on is known and loved by God; know that your life is part of an interconnected web of relationships that make us who we are. Give thanks for the people who have enriched your life today, and offer up to God those who have drained something from you; ask God to replenish what was demanded. Bring before God the pains that people have caused you today, no matter how seemingly silly; they are part of you, part of your response to the people who make you who you are, and these pains matter to God. Ask for his healing.

Then, bring to mind anything - however small or insignificant - in your life that is better now than it was yesterday. Maybe a task completed, an improvement made, some progress shown in some knotty problem, a friendship enjoyed, an unpleasant thing out of the way; each day brings its own good, so hold on to these good things and thank God for them. Know within yourself why these good things matter; they might be small in themselves, but they might represent something much greater. Enjoy them again with God, and feel his enjoyment in the good in your life.

Then, and only then, bring before God anything that is undeniably worse than it was this time yesterday. Entrust those things to him.

Finally, offer to God your unfinished work; there will always be something still to do! Try not to get too anxious about the tasks of tomorrow, but acknowledge them before God and ask for his blessing in the ongoing work which you do. Recognise the difference between unfinished work, and things that are worse today than they were yesterday. It's easy to get these categories muddled up, as they can both cause anxiety, but they are profoundly different!

Finally,  give thanks to God for his care, his presence and peace, and ask that peace to enfold you as the night enfolds the world (well, your bit of it, anyway). Then sleep well!

As I said, this may or not be your sort of thing. That doesn't really matter; what does matter is that God loves you and longs to hear from you.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Fragments: A Weekend of Eating and Remembering

A few days ago, I was sitting with a friend in a city centre park, talking deeply, and deeply enjoyably, about God, faith, and life. Not entirely surprising, except that this was not just any old city centre but the first, and in fact, only city I've ever lived in, and not just any old friend but one I met twenty-two years ago when I first arrived as an eighteen year old English Literature undergraduate, with whom I've remained firm friends since those dim and distant days, our lives spanning marriage and childbirth, career and calling, parenthood and heartbreak, and at least three continents. And not just that, but this wasn't just any old day, but the end of a very special weekend which had drawn together thirty or so members of the Christian Union which had been so formative and defining of and to me in my early adulthood.

We'd spent the weekend doing what we'd done most of our undergraduate time doing: eating, drinking (although, as my friend pointed out gleefully, we could now afford decent wine) and partying. We'd talked over nachos and pints, over college breakfasts and a generously provided barbecue, over Communion bread and wine, over a pub lunch that would have been beyond our financial grasp as we fondly reminisced about living off baked beans and TVP, over ill-assorted picnic snacks and coffee, over tea and Pimm's and Diet Coke and a kebab that never quite materialised.

As we talked, and ate and drank, memories inevitably surfaced. What was that person's surname? When did we go to that club? What was that pub called before it was renamed? Who went to that church? Who had a no-mance (a newly minted reunion neologism describing those intense, flirtatious, exclusive, Christian Union male-female relationships that stopped just short of actual boyfriend-girlfriend relationships) with whom? Oh yes, that was true, wasn't it? Oh YES! I hadn't thought of that in years! Blimey, yeah! Really? No, it wasn't quite like that...But that was great, wasn't it? Wasn't that person good in the way he handled that situation? Wasn't that some tough stuff that we dealt with back then?

People came to the weekend with memories ready to share; other memories emerged out of shared remembering; many of these memories were funny; some were insightful; some were profound; some seemed tangential; some were utterly surprising; some were discordantly disturbing; all were precious.

We went to the Cathedral for Sunday morning worship and heard a sermon on the feeding of the five thousand. Fragments, we heard, were gathered up by Jesus; were blessed, and offered up to God; each was of infinite value; none was wasted, for nothing that is offered up to God is wasted by Him. As I sat in the cathedral, another fragment of an eighteen-year-old-self memory returned to me, and was blessed anew.

Later on that day, as I stood in another friend's kitchen and reflected on the weekend, it struck me how apposite the story of the feeding of the five thousand had been to our weekend of remembering and eating and drinking together. We started off with not much, certainly not enough to feed a crowd; just a vague idea about checking back into our old colleges, and what was left over at the end was so much more than what we had at the beginning.

That, surely, is one of the many ways in which the ever-living Spirit of God works in us: we offer up ourselves, insufficient though we are, and we are gathered up, blessed by God, and nothing that we are, or have ever been, is wasted by God; such is the power of the blessing that there is more than enough to nourish all, and even more than that, to have more left over at the end than is offered at the beginning, before the fragmentation and the breaking and the risk of self-giving. The weekend, we agreed, had been all about gathering up fragments of faith, hope and love, of memory and gratitude and pondering. Each one blessed, each one precious. Each prayer, all worship, each act of faith, each movement of love, each expression of hope. None wasted, none squandered, even the disturbingly discordant. Each one multiplied beyond all mathematical expectations, even what looks like loss to the casual observer. That's how powerful the blessing is. And that's how blessed we are.                


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Never Google Symptoms: A Sermon

One of the Ten Commandments of living happily in this digital age, along with ‘take everything on social media with a pinch of salt’ and ‘live with the fact that there will always, at any given time, be someone on the internet who is just plain wrong’, is surely, ‘never Google symptoms.’ In fact this new golden rule has become so embedded as part of our collective wisdom that if you google ‘never google’, the next word to pop up in your search engine box is, almost certainly, ‘symptoms.’ The neologism ‘cyberchondria’ made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1990s as a perfect summary of this very modern malaise of using the internet to confirm the worst fears that lurk in anxious minds. 

It’s easy to see why people Google symptoms, though – The Information Standard, which produces evidence-based health and care information for the British public, released figures last year suggesting that around four in ten of us put off seeing a doctor. But of course there are at least two good reasons why Dr Google is never going to be an adequate substitute for a real GP: firstly, because it has no way of sifting wisely through the morass of possibilities to lead to a reasoned conclusion as to whether that headache is merely the result of sitting too long at a computer screen googling symptoms, or does indicate something more sinister, and secondly, because we, the reader of all this information on a screen, are not suitably qualified to judge which of it is likely or unlikely to have been written by a mischievous fifteen year old after their bedtime. We and the screen are equally handicapped by our limitations. Sorting the wheat from the weeds is well-nigh impossible.  

This evening we’ve heard the parable of the wheat and weeds, or tares, which may seem at first glance to offer some terrible agricultural advice: let the weeds grow up among the wheat, and sort it out when it comes to the harvest. I walk my dog alongside fields which are heavy with wheat at the moment, and can’t imagine the farmer possibly thinking that a few weeds here and there wouldn’t do much harm. It’s useful to know, though, that the type of weed referred to in this parable was well-known across the ancient world, and had slightly different names in different languages; in Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, it was called ‘zuna’, and what made zuna even peskier was that it looked very similar to wheat in its early stages of growth. It was genuinely difficult to tell what was wheat and what was zuna, which is why what seems to be appalling agricultural advice may well have been the only way of protecting the crop.  

In any case, it’s a mistake to read the agricultural parables as the biblical equivalent of ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…’ These are not homely scraps of rural folklore handed down in an agrarian community. They are exasperatingly provocative, subversively profound truths about the nature of the kingdom of God.         
So what does this parable of the wheat and the weeds say about the kingdom of God? Well, if we think for a moment about the metaphor of wheat growing in a field, we see that the kingdom of God is about life, and growth, and health. Wheat nourishes; wheat satisfies; wheat sustains. The kingdom of God is not just for decoration. It’s not a pretty flower to be admired. It’s whet for feeding people. We, as part of God’s church, are to show this in the way in which we live. Our church is not here for decoration; it’s here to feed the deep hunger inside human souls. Mother Theresa, a woman who gave her life to feeding both bodies and souls, said ‘the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ 

We live in a spiritually starving world, and we are called, as Jesus called his disciples when he fed the five thousand, to ‘give them something to eat.’ And that has to start with ourselves and our own spiritual hunger, which is why we come this evening to be fed with the bread of life in the Eucharist. We become partakers of Christ, and we take into our week ahead, into our lives that same Christ so that we might be more ready to notice, and respond to, the deep spiritual hunger of those who have not yet tasted and seen that the Lord is good.    
But this parable isn’t just about wheat, it’s also about weeds, weeds that are all the more dangerous and insidious because they so closely resemble the wheat that is life-giving and good, and which therefore must be left in situ because who knows, they might turn out to be wheat, after all. That medical advice read off a computer screen might just turn out to be life-saving.

So this parable is about living with ambiguity in a complex world – Jesus’ time was no less bewilderingly complex than our own. It’s about living with the uncomfortable reality that our own hunger for spiritual bread lays us open to the possibility of weeds, too; our own hunger and thirst for righteousness could so easily tip over into something altogether less life-giving and less Christian – into judgementalism or the championing of causes that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven. The Norweigan writer Jostein Gaarder put it succinctly: ‘many things have been done in the name of Jesus that heaven is not happy about.’
Yet the resounding conclusion of this parable is that we cannot possibly be the ones to make that final distinction; the harvest has not yet come, and as yet all we have is a field before us, which we are woefully under-qualified to separate out into wheat and weeds.

 St Augustine famously took this parable as the basis for his book ‘City of God’, which if had been written by anyone else would be his magnum opus – in Augustine’s case, City Of God was just one several works which changed the way the world thought; in this case, a way of thinking about the world as two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, which co-exist in this bewilderingly complex world. It wasn’t that Augustine saw the church as the heavenly city, the bread, and the Roman Empire as the earthly city, the weeds – he saw both the church, and the world beyond the church, as being populated by those whose love is for God, and those whose love is for themselves. Only at the final judgement, Augustine believed, will the two cities be separated. For the moment, we just have to live, loving God, witnessing to his presence in the world as Isaiah puts it in the passage we heard, and trusting in him for that ultimate judgement.     

Now trusting in final divine judgement might sound rather perverse – we think of judgement a as scary thing, used as method of control and instilling fear. Yet Augustine, who writes at such great length about final divine judgement, writes at even greater length about grace – God’s utter, unbounded love for all people, God’s ever-present invitation to us all to come and be enfolded in the divine embrace that will satisfy our spiritual hunger for need forever. The God who will judge us is the God who loved us so much that he laid down his life out of love for his friends, who , as the hymn puts it, emptied himself of all but love. No greater love exists; no greater love is possible. It is this ultimate love that will judge us all, which will look upon us all with eyes of love.

In the meantime, living with the ambiguity of the world’s good and bad does not mean not caring. It does not mean not listening, not engaging, not thinking, not praying. It does not mean not speaking out against injustice; it does mean being open to the possibility that we ourselves might get it wrong. Not judging does not mean ‘do nothing’.

It does mean recognising that we are not the farmer; we are the field. Going back to the googling of symptoms, this parable recognises that the only way of getting a proper diagnosis is to do that hard thing that forty percent of put off for as long as we can, and going to the doctor. What this means is facing up bravely to all within us that would rather please itself than please God, and seeking to love God more truly, as we trustingly await his final, loving, verdict on who we are. Am

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Women Bishops: This Time It's Personal

So, as you probably know, The General Synod of the Church of England voted this week on the legislation to enable women to be bishops. So very, very much has been thought, prayed, debated, blogged, published and now voted upon on this subject that it seems  to me almost to be a crime against Anglicanism to add to the welter of words.

I'm going to, anyway!

And what I'm going to offer is not yet more theological background, not yet more feminist critique or sociological perspective; all of these have been offered admirably by many sensitive and thoughtful people.

What I'm going to offer is my own, personal, reflection. Last time General Synod voted on this issue, the vote was not carried (hence it's coming back to the agenda this week), and it felt personal then in a way that I hadn't anticipated before the vote. I can still remember a wet Wednesday morning in November, sitting in my parked car, watching the rain trickle down my windscreen, feeling a deep sense of disappointment. Not for myself; after all, I had only recently begun my ministry as a curate and had no pretensions or aspirations to the purple; not even for the women who had long served as priests and who would feel personally slighted and sidelined by this vote. My sadness was for the church, for all that it would lose, both within and without (not that it's particularly easy to define 'within' and 'without' in an established church to which all have equal access at whatever level they want). I remember the weary sadness of having to explain why the vote hadn't carried, how the numbers had fallen, of feeling morally obliged to defend the church - my family - against all-too-understandable accusations of misogyny and male privilege; I felt the longing sadness of the spiritual impoverishment of a church which could not agree to see  the giftedness of some among its number, the lack that it would bear in its shared self because of this decision. I remember sighing heavily, turning the key in the car and getting on with my work as a deacon and curate.

So you might well be thinking at this point that my sighing has turned to singing, my sadness to joy at this week's events. Well, yes. I was pleased that General Synod voted as it did. Relieved. Consoled. Warmed. Judging by the political mood, things could have become intractably messy if the vote hadn't carried this time. But, in all honesty, there's been a bittersweetness to this week to me; second time around the vote has felt, to me, to carry all the emotional weight of that wet Wednesday. That's not just me being perverse, I've realised; it's to do with having heard the arguments, and borne the burden of the stories of so many of my Christian siblings in this big, chaotic, bellicose family of the Church of England.  My love for each one is genuine and my gratitude for them profound. I have heard stories of women priests who had dog poo posted through their letterboxes; I have heard stories of others, both male and female, whose fine conscience dictates that they cannot  truly accept that priesthood can be expressed by people of either gender. I have heard arguments which  I've found to be persuasive and insightful, and others, much less so. My love for those on either side of the debate has not been affected by the persusasiveness of their viewpoints. My love for them is, quite simply, the love of a sister or brother.    

And that's what makes it complicated. This time, as last time, it's personal. It's not about 'women bishops.' It's about particular women, with names and stories, histories and viewpoints, who may or may not be given the opportunity to serve and inspire as bishops. It's about people in pews, who relate to the pointy hats in ways that are so gutsy and so real, or so shallow and fleeting. It's about people who never come to church yet who nonetheless, look to it to provide some sort of sense of God and stability in a worryingly unstable world.

Personally I have been so utterly impressed and blessed by female bishops in other parts of the Anglican Communion, I cannot begin to tell you. Yet as a feminist, I can't help but feel that the possibility of becoming a female bishop in England is important symbolically, but barely scratches the surface of complex issues of gender identity and power within the church (I could say so much more about this!)

But what makes it complicated is that it's not just about me; it's about all God's children: particular people, who think and pray, who care and love, who react and notice from afar, whose responses to this vote, and all that will follow it, are as complex and as fascinating as they are themselves. And, much as it weakens my cause, if cause I even have, I love each one of them.

Personally, I don't want to lose a single person from my family over this issue. Personally, my love and  respect for my Christian sisters and brothers is not pre-determined by the extent to which their worldview mirrors mine. Personally, my genuine relief at Monday's vote is tempered by the clear-sighted awareness of all the very human complexities which will follow in its wake.

So my prayer is one of gratitude, but also one of deep longing still; a deep longing for the unity of all God's children despite our differences.  Crass though it may be to pray through the lyrics of a pop song, let us all ask our Heavenly Father that 'what we have's enough.'  


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Why I don't de-friend (or is it un-friend?) people on Facebook

I remember watching a TV documentary in about 2006 in which a series of intelligent, successful people were interviewed about a new internet phenomenon of which they were part. The interviews mentioned poking, and updating statuses, and it all sounded somewhat time-consuming and potentially dangerously addictive, as indeed the interviews bore out. Best steer clear, I thought to myself.

A couple of years later, someone from my old school cohort decided to use this new-fangled social media to gather together a reunion, so,despite my earlier reservations, I became a member of Facebook. I never actually made it to the reunion, and not long after the event, the person who had looked us all up de-friended the lot of us. The Facebook habit stuck though, and, in a way that I couldn't have foreseen in May 2008, has evolved into a poignant diary of the last six years for me. From the start (first status update ever: 'is enjoying a nice glass of Syrah'), I made a rule for myself that I've never regretted; I wouldn't write anything on Facebook that I wouldn't mind either my mother, or my bishop reading. Just as well, as my mum became a Facebook member a few years later. As the documentary had warned me, social media can be addictive, , and as time went on, another rule came into play; I'd only post once a day at the most; no getting obsessed or boring everyone with the minutae of my life.

As I started to play with this new mode of communication, I was genuinely puzzled to notice a less agreeable feature of the way in which it was being used; that of 'un-friending' (or is it 'de-friending?) In certain cases, yes, I could see that an ex-boyfriend might not be the best sort of person to have hanging around your Timeline, but besides those sorts of cases, why would anyone do that? In 2009, after a whole year of posting, I was slightly uncomfortable to hear someone talking about their regular 'culls'. It all sounded rather sinister; I found myself wondering if the perceived anonymity of the internet (which, of course, Facebook and other social media sites de-bunk conclusively) gives people the sense of freedom to do and say things to other people that would be completely socially unacceptable in what what fast becoming known as 'real life.' At best, I reasoned, the motivation behind de-friending is illogical; it's not as if Facebook is a child's party and you're only allowed to invite a certain number of friends. De-friending involves deliberate exclusion. For the first time, I realised, it was possible for one healthy adult to say to another 'I don't want to be your friend any more' and not look utterly ridiculous. Unsurprisingly, one major critique of Facebook is that it was started by kids, and reduces us all to the level of the playground spat. So a third rule was instituted: no de-friending of people unless I accept a friend request and then find that I have no idea who the person is, after all. (It's happened once.)  

So why are Facebook, and the ever-growing plethora of social media sites, particularly complex when it comes to enhancing or eroding human relationships? This was the question I was pondering as I saw online nastiness repeatedly. Is social media worth the hassle of having my faith in humanity dashed on a regular basis?  Does the good it might potentially do outweigh the bad it definitely does? I stuck with it, and am glad that I have.

One answer to the 'why is social media particularly prone to be used to hurt people?' question (and we've all read the horrific newspaper stories about cyberbullying), is that our categories have been scrambled. If that sounds a bit obscure, let me put it like this: we assess what we hear or read in the light of the person who is writing or speaking. If it's a tantruminng toddler demanding a snack, we might respond by gently calming her down and using that time-honoured trick of distraction. If it were a starving refugee asking for a snack, although the words spoken might be identical, our response would, and should be, very different. Likewise, if we read a professor of philosophy's latest treatise, we might analyse it as objectively as we can; if we read the same treatise copied and pasted and palmed off as a fifteen year old's homework, our response would be very different. We weigh what is said according to who is saying it, and in that quaint old-fashioned place called 'real life' we know this, and live it out all the time.

Online it's a different kettle of fish. Online forums were - and still are - places of ferociously cut-throat debate, simply because the restraints of social norms don't work there; after all, we have no way of telling whether that person posting about the philosophy of religion is a professor or a twelve-year-old. The de-personalisation of human interactions fast became a feature of online discourse, and I suspect the most of the time, that was okay, because everyone knew that, and played to the new rules. Of course, for many the anonymity promised by a computer screen brought out the worst in human nature, but cyber-bullying by an avatar with a made-up screen name is very different from being bad-mouthed by a neighbour. Back in the real world, we know our neighbours' names (hopefully); we say 'good morning' to them and take in their parcels (hopefully). That is, until they have a Facebook cull.

They might not do it maliciously; one of the complexities of this new mode of communication is that it's so new still that we haven't really yet agreed on a set of rules to play by, or maybe it's more that it encourages no particular rules at all and therefore everyone approaches it differently so that for one person, de-friending might be a pragmatic spur-of-the-moment click of a mouse with no great thought, whereas for another, it might be the sure signal of the end of any association at all. We have no way of telling what our Facebook actions mean to another person, as they have not yet developed a reliable semiotic value; we know not what we do when we de-friend. More generally and ore profoundly, neither can we ever know for sure what we represent to each other; we might call it 'cleaning up our list'; for one of these 'cleaned up', it might be the loss of the only remaining schoolfriend or that of the only person who shares similar political convictions. Because we can never know what we represent to one another, we can never know what we are damaging or destroying by de-friending.

Why Facebook is particularly complex is that it scrambles two worlds, the world of online cut-and-thrust de-personalised debate and the world of the neighbour whose parcel we take in. Because it scrambles the two, it has real potential to undermine and fracture real-life community in a way that anonymous online discourse doesn't, and which it'd be unusual to find in real life (after all, no grown-up has ever said out loud to me, 'I don't want to be your friend any more.' They might have thought it, granted...)

So that's why I don't de-friend people on Facebook. This new technology has run ahead of our ability to work out how it might strengthen and bond real-life community, or maybe it has offered an alternative to that community altogether. In either case, how we use it will shape and define it, for good or ill, and there's much good it can be used to do. And, as I find on an almost daily basis, it's fun. Let's try not to do harm with it, eh?                


Friday, 20 June 2014

The Problem with Teaching Christian 'Values' in Schools: An Ancient Heresy

About a year ago, the deputy head of a local primary school contacted me and asked for my help. She explained that the school was preparing to embark on a 'value of the month' project in the new school year; would I come in and lead a monthly assembly to introduce the value of the month, and link it to Christian faith by telling a Bible story to illustrate it? Of course, I replied, I'd love to, and a few weeks later,  looked at a plan for the year's values. The first was 'courage.' Great, I thought, David and Goliath. Classic Bible story; all children should know it; lots of drama and plenty of potential to get children involved. The next month's 'value' was friendship. Good, I decided: Ruth and Naomi. Beautiful little story; mild peril leading to ultimate resolution; women; again, opportunity for dressing up. It was all going so well. 

So well, that is, until it started to dawn on me, in the uncomfortable, spreading sensation of pins and needles, that if I were wanting to look for a body of literature from which to extrapolate how to be good by reference to heroes and heroines who embody the kind of good values which this school wanted to inculcate in its community, the Bible might not be the best choice. After all, being brutally honest, there are far more cowards in the Bible than there are bravehearts; far more enemies and false friends than true ones. If we really took the dramatis personae of the Bible as moral exemplars, we might find ourselves advocating some somewhat dubious values. (Just take David, the hero of my first month's 'value,' who as well as bravely slaying antagonistic giant Philistines also slew the innocent husband of the woman with whom he committed adultery. Or take Jesus' own friends, who failed him and fled as cowards at the moment of his greatest need of them.) 

Most Christians know this, and actually, don't see it as a problem (not, that is, until they are asked to put together a series of school assemblies on values). We know that one of the big, loud and proud messages of the Bible is that people, on the whole, are a bit of a let down. We mess things up. We mess each other up. We mess the planet up. We mess ourselves up. And we bring the mess that is ourselves into church week by week to do the only thing we can with the mess, which is to bring it to the only place where we can become free of  it, the foot of the cross of Jesus. Yes, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Yes, Peter was a traitor and a spineless turncoat. But in the tradition of the Psalms, David went on to pour out his fickle and self-centred heart to God in prayer, asking that God would create in him a new heart, begging that God would not withdraw his presence from David; and Peter...well, depending on your churchmanship, you might say that to him were given the keys of the kingdom, or that he was one of the greatest preachers of the apostolic era and one of the most remarkable 'converts from within' that the world has ever seen. So what is the 'value' that they, and other such Biblical characters, exemplify? 

The real, and only satisfactory answer to that question has to be 'encounter with God.' It was David's encounters with God that defined and ultimately saved him from his sinful self, and Peter's Pentecost encounter that transformed him. This is the only answer, because just as loudly as it proclaims the parlous mess that humans make wherever they congregate in groups of more than one (and sometime not even that many), the Bible shouts forth the utter, complete goodness of God. Jesus lays it out: no-one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18). That we have a sacred history at all, a Bible, is testimony not to the moral values of a particular group of people, but to the goodness of God.  One tender moment in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy makes this point; God didn't choose this group of people because they were superior to the rest of everybody in any way, or more impressive, or more numerous, or more anything: it was simply and solely because God chose to  'set his heart on [them]' (Deuteronomy 7:7). God chose the them that in Christ became the us (I speak as a Gentile), and it had nothing to do with them / us but everything to do with the God whose heart so overflows with love that it longs to scoop up the whole world, starting with  small, unlikely bunch of nomads and working out from there. 

Of course, as a Christian I say that in the face of Jesus this God of love looked out upon the first-century world, spoke real words that were passed down and written down, lived a real life and suffered real pain that brought about the salvation of the world. It's only when we see ourselves reflected in His eyes we see what 'value' really means. And this reflection is transformative, a transformative encounter with the living God  that is the only possible means of becoming good. No-one is good but God alone, but, as Paul goes on to say, we are in Christ; Christ lives and breathes in us, and in what we call this 'newness of life' we can know goodness. 

The problem was, it wouldn't have been okay for me to have made 'transformative encounter with God' the value for every month in the local primary school. My brief was to talk about courage, friendship and so on. This wasn't a church school, so the local curate banging on about transformative encounters with God in assembly all the time would not exactly go down well. And yes, the Bible does have things to say about courage, friendship and so on. But...

...but my niggling problem with teaching 'Christian values' in schools is that it bypasses the transformative encounter with God which the Christian faith has always fought to defend as the defining characteristic of the Christian, and goes straight to the outworking of that encounter. The problem is that this sort of 'values' project runs the risk of presenting Christianity as a 'how to be good' manual without any reference to the Jesus who alone shows us what goodness looks like. To use St Paul's language, it's trying to pick the fruit of the spirit without sowing any seeds of faith first, a maddening logical impossibility. 

Four hundred-odd years after St Paul wrote about the human struggle to be good only being resolved in the God-human Jesus Christ, St Augustine vehemently opposed the persuasive Pelagius, who contended that human goodness was possible without any transformative encounter with God. Pelagius would have done some excellent 'values' assemblies; listen to him: 'Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues.' No, replied St Augustine, human nature is incapable of achieving any idea of God's goodness, unless God himself graces humanity with the gift of (you guessed) transformative encounter with God. Then God himself takes up residence within that graced person, and starts to be good, and weirdly enough, it looks just like the person is the one being good. But it's the hidden spirit within that radiates goodness. 

Christian history has sided with St Augustine on this one, just as it had with St Paul, but the temptation to believe that we can be good without God is insidious.  Over a millennium later, Martin Luther was to lambast the church for relying on what he called, in very Pauline terms, 'works righteousness', the illusion that salvation comes from being good.  (Luther would have done some terrible 'values' assemblies.) Salvation, thundered the passionate young monk, is all about faith, and without faith we are nothing. Whether Luther got his understanding of Paul's portrayal of 'faith' entirely spot-on is another question, but he was certainly right to put faith centre stage of salvation history. 

So, back to that creeping pins and needles sensation that I was somehow misrepresenting the Bible by offering it as a 'hall of fame' of virtuous value-rich men and women of old (it's worth noting that the only time that the Bible offers any sort of 'hall of fame' it ascribes the same 'value' to each person; faith, in Hebrews 11); yes, as St Ignatius says, pay attention to your feelings, as God may be trying to tell you something through them. The best-case scenario is that 'Christian values' might introduce children to some classic Bible stories and inspire them to be more courageous, more faithful in friendship and so on. The worst case is that we, I, perpetuate an ancient heresy that Christianity is all about being good, without offering any sort of indication as to the only means to find this goodness in the God who alone is good, through transformative encounter with him. The words of Jesus of the Pharisees ring onimously in my ears; 'they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves re unwilling to lift a finger to move them' (Matthew 23:4).  Hmm.