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.