Monday, 26 December 2011

The bread of life

Names of people and places in the Bible often have a special resonance, a resonance we lose in translation.
Jesus himself – of course Jesus wasn’t his actual name – this is just a Greek translation of his real name which is Joshua. And Joshua means literally “God is salvation”
Place names too can lose their symbolic impact.  Bethlehem means literally in Hebrew,”the house of bread”. As an adult Jesus had these words put into his mouth, “I am the bread of life”.  So the bread of life was born in the house of bread. Another nuance lost in translation is that “I am” is actually the Hebrew name for God (Yahweh) so it means “God is the bread of life”
So what is significant about bread? Well it was an important and essential  staple food at that time, and is important because bread fills you up and bread sustains and bread satisfies. Bread was essential to life.
My faith or trust if you like in God, is based on what satisfies me at a very deep level.
Those who were at Midnight mass heard me talk about how atheism and materialism just doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t explain to me why all the things I hold dear are important. Quite the opposite in fact. Atheism says to me that everything in my life that I hold dear and is important to me is actually an illusion and there is no real substance to my love and relationships at all.  That doesn’t work for me.
What about your own loves and your relationships. Do you think they are real? I think that anyone who has loved and lost and suffered the pain and grief of loss knows far more about the realities of life than any purely scientific mechanistic understanding of life.
Love is real. And God is love. And love is God. For me, to say you don’t believe in God is the same as saying that you don’t believe in love.
Love, life, bread. That which satisfies, fills, sustains, that which gives life meaning and purpose. That is God.
And where is this God. Right here, right now, in our life. And it is this very fact that is symbolised by the nativity scene. Not a distant God of wrath. An intimate, vulnerable God who is with us and present to all of us – a fact represented by this depiction of a birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. 

The light of the world

The theme of the gospel is light.
The light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. And the light is LIFE.
It is not that the source of light and LIFE were ever absent. The source of all LIFE and light was always here – just hidden from our sight.
The light that enlightens everything and everyone in the world needed revealing by a special person so that the previously hidden presence and nature of God could be seen and experienced and better understood.
The essential message of Christmas is that if you have a mind to go looking for God, you don’t have to go anywhere special to find him. You don’t need to look for God in Rome, or Jerusalem or a Tibetan mountaintop because he was here all the time – in you, in me, in the ups and downs and joys and sorrows of everyday life.  
To look for and find God you do actually need to take a kind of journey, but it is an inner journey. It is a relatively short journey. You have to journey from your head down to your heart, down to the depths of who you really are beneath the masks that we all wear.
It is a short journey but a profound one. What you will find there is the real you and God who was within you all the time.
But what prompts someone to even attempt such a journey? Well everyone has their own belief system. Even atheism is a belief system.
What prompted me to start looking in my mid thirties was this. I examined my life and thought about everything that was important to me. The love I felt for my wife and daughter, my parents and my brother and sister, the beauty of the natural world, my friends, my love of music and art.
I saw that there were two ways of interpreting all the things that were important to me. The atheistic materialist way and a different way that held a place for the divine.
I discovered that everything that I thought was important and meant everything to me, in the atheistic materialist scheme of things – actually meant absolutely nothing. I learnt that love didn’t really exist. That all the people I thought I loved it was really all just chemicals and electrical impulses. I felt these things only because it aided my personal survival.  Beauty is just a human construct, music just waves, nothing has any real intrinsic value – just what we make up ourselves. There is no such thing as right and wrong. They are just names we attach to things to suit our own selfish purposes. My love is truly empty. I found that truly depressing. The atheistic model didn’t satisfy me.
So I then put everything I valued and held dear and held it up to the light of a belief in God and my world and my life was transformed.
My love for my family is then not just chemical reactions built in to ensure my personal survival – it actually has value – eternal value. It has an objective reality.
There were things that were objectively right and things that are wrong. Beauty and music and words and symbols were transformed from meaningless human constructions into things that were real and had true substance. They were transformed from being nothing to having true meaning.
Far from my life being purposeless. With God I had purpose. My and your purpose is to be a co-creator with God. To live, love and flourish and create to our full potential. And that this is good.
A belief in God transforms the universe around you. No longer meaningless and two dimensional, and we humans are not just an amoral collection of animated meat clinging to a purposeless dying planet in a dying universe –  to being a wonderful awe filled creation where love and relationships are real and have eternal importance.
People are free to believe whatever they like of course but my intuition led me to faith in God as being the far more convincing and satisfying explanation of my life. What about yours?
Once you have crossed that bridge and decided that faith or trust in God is the most satisfying option, that is the motor you require to then search him out.
And as I started by saying - You don’t have to travel far to find him.  He is here is your life right now if you would but realise it.
That God is here, a part of us, within the world, not apart from it, is symbolised by the birth of a baby in Palestine 2000 years ago – a symbol of love, relationship, new life, meaning and hope.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Amazing Grace

The annunciation is a beautifully put together story that can evoke strong emotional reactions.
The main theme of the annunciation as it is called – literally the announcement to Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of a baby who would change the world – is Grace.
Where the traditional translation of the words of Gabriel to Mary says “You have found favour with God” the word favour has the same root as the word for Grace – Charis.
“You have found grace with God”. The defining characteristic of Grace is that it is completely unmerited – completely unearned.
What was special about Mary, what had she done to merit being chosen? The answer is, absolutely nothing. Mary does not earn or deserve the honour of bearing Jesus any more than any other woman. That is the whole point.
Mary was an ordinary young girl from a non-descript town in Northern Israel, who was engaged to be married like most young girls of her age. More is said about Joseph than about Mary.
That the point is God’s grace of course reveals doctrines like the so called immaculate conception of Mary (trying to convey specialness) as the ill thought out pious irrelevance that they are.
Why was she chosen? Well God chooses who God chooses.
There is a lovely scene in the film “Fiddler on the roof” when the village is cleaning up after a pogrom in Tsarist Russia where the main character Tevye raise his eyes to heaven and says. “Lord I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while, couldn’t you choose someone else?”
If the main theme of this story is Grace then the second great theme is Mary’s response to God’s Grace – God choosing her and not others.
Mary says “Let it be to me according to your word”.
Without knowing where saying “yes” to God would lead her though probably having a strong hunch that it wasn’t going to be easy Mary says yes.
She is obedient to her calling. Feminist theologians have often complained that Mary is depicted as too passive, especially as she later became a kind of religious model of ideal womanhood, but Mary here is an idealised role model of human response to God’s grace, not specific to men or women. It is a model of how we all should respond to God’s call. To stop continually fighting against God because it is inconvenient or socially uncomfortable, and abandoning ourselves to him. To let God work in us, so that we, all of us, men and women can metaphorically give birth to Christ in our lives, made real in our attitudes and sense of compassion and service.
In the original Greek Mary says “Here I am, the slave of the Lord”. Not an image that sits well with people nowadays. This was modified to “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”. But in more modern times still, this too doesn’t sit well with people.  
I suggest that a better wording for modern times, replacing both slavery and servitude might be something like “Here I am, the willing agent, or the vessel of God’s Grace”.
In my view, Mary is actually not passive at all, she is an active participant with God. She collaborates with God to achieve God’s ends. After all, what would have happened if Mary had said “No”. Well presumably eventually someone else would have been chosen.
God chooses who he chooses. He has chosen us to be active agents of his Love and Grace in this world. Agents as Neil said last week of God’s salvation. The question is, do we “no thank you” and stifle God’s work or like Mary, put ourselves at his complete disposal to use as He sees fit and say “Yes. Here am I. Let it be to me according to your word”

Sunday, 4 December 2011

We all have our father's eyes.

A sermon based on Mark 1: 1-8

The most important phrase in this piece from Mark is the last line – “I have baptised you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”. If you can unpack that statement I think you have pretty much unpacked Christianity.
Therein lies the fundamental Christian experience.
The word Christ commonly applied to Jesus as in Jesus Christ means – “anointed” which means to be covered in oil. To be anointed with the Holy Spirit is to be covered with God. To be baptised with the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in God. You see how similar they are?
But what does being immersed in God’s Spirit feel like? What that meant for Jesus Mark then goes on to explain.....
Being anointed by God for Jesus was like hearing the words “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased” spoken to him personally. It was relational – it was about feeling an intimate connection. From then on he started referring to God as Father.  So being baptised in the Holy Spirit produces a revelation of interconnectedness.
But being anointed in God’s spirit isn’t restricted to Jesus is it? In this morning’s reading  Mark has John promising that all of us can be baptised in the Holy Spirit. We too are to hear those words “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased” spoken to us and received by us in our hearts. When asked how they should pray Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father”. His Father is our father too. It is why Christians often refer to each other as brothers and sisters.
But do you know and relate to those words? Do you feel them? Do you believe them?
That we are “children of God” is attested throughout the New Testament, in Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, Galatians, Philippians and 1 John.  But the neatest definition is given by Paul in Romans “For all who are led by the spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14)
I suggest that most people understand the word Christian to mean a mere follower of someone who was uniquely anointed with God’s spirit but I say that its true meaning and importance lies in ourselves being anointed bearers of God’s spirit.
What is it to be a child of God? Well it obviously means there is as intimate a connection to God as you have to your human parents.  Your parents are in a funny but very real way a part of you even while you have a separate existence from them.
We are all a product of our mothers and Fathers. There is nothing in our genes that did not come from them. We bear a family likeness that we may sometimes try and disown but to no avail. As a song once said, “We all have our Father’s eyes”
As it is on the level of human generation so it is on the grand stage of our relationship with the divine being. We all have our Father’s eyes.
We share the family likeness but many of us don’t know the intimacy – the kind of intimacy that Jesus discovered when he was anointed with God’s spirit – that is, he felt immersed in God, just as in his baptism he was immersed in water and felt himself for the first time to be a child of God.
Being a Christian is far more than following a man who died two thousand years ago. It is about being anointed with the same living spirit that Jesus was himself anointed with – imbuing us with a kind of spirit that might allow us walk the same way that Jesus walked. In essence that we may know God
It is about restoring the intimate relationship that we have lost – something that in theology is called atonement. Atonement just means being at one with God and each other.
To be a true follower of Jesus I suggest that we have to first know what he knew, feel what he felt, to be anointed – to be Christs ourselves. To feel connected.
Each of us, if we are to flourish, needs to hear those words of intimate affirmation spoken to us and to be received by us. “You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Armageddon out of here!

Advent Sunday

Many millions of people over two millennia have thought they were living in the end times of the world. They are all united by one thing – they were all absolutely wrong! The world has not come to an end.
Looking at it from a slightly different perspective though, you could say that  they were all absolutely right, because their world, their lives did come to an end, as everyone’s will – they died.
When talking of “the end” we all have a very definite personal end time – our own deaths – so I would say that the best and most relevant way to interpret apocalyptic literature nowadays is not to try and discern any end date for the universe because you will certainly be wrong but concentrate your mind on your own personal end time;
Because to live your life as if this were your last day on earth, is no bad thing. When people have been given a definite time before their death, perhaps when diagnosed with a terminal illness, when they know they are going to die, first of all this can frighten and grieve us to distraction obviously, but what it can also do is concentrate the mind wonderfully, and you gain a wider perspective on life.
For example, that row that has kept you from speaking to your sister for twenty years, because of your and her  pride, can look pretty pathetic when pitched against your impending death.
All the things you really worried about, like your image and status, suddenly will seem profoundly unimportant in the greater scheme of things.
The things you used to strive for, like money and possessions suddenly lose their allure. They appear as they are – absolutely useless
Your focus may shift from yourself and be more focussed on others, especially your family, and you may wonder what legacy you leaving behind, in the sense of how loved you are and how much you loved, and whether your family is provided for. You may ask yourself whether  your life made a positive difference to the world?
If you have never really thought about the question of God before you may start asking some serious, searching questions for the very first time about the nature of life and death itself. You may indeed start looking for God.
You may realise that all the things you should have done and said, like telling someone that you love them and appreciate them, that you really must do these things before you just can’t do them any more. 
In such circumstances most people become much more rounded and gentler and better human beings faced with their own demise, with a focus naturally shifting away from material things to the less tangible but, in the final analyses, far more important things.
I think the biblical imperative here is to say “ Don’t wait until you know you are dying to start thinking and acting in these ways.”
 Forgive now. Love now. Be as concerned about others as you are about yourself now. Find God, meaning and purpose now. Be more generous. Be a better person now.
 When faced with a gospel passage like this urging us to keep awake, to be alert, I can think of no better interpretation of that , than to start living your life as though every day were your last, because one day, I assure will be. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

All for one and one for all.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is well known one yet how people decide who is a sheep and who is a goat has usually been decided without any reference to the actual parable itself.
People have decided who is a sheep or a goat based on what religion you follow, or whether you follow particular cultic laws or observe certain prohibitions. Others have decided that the difference between sheep and goats is how much faith you have, and at the more fundamentalist catholic and evangelical ends of the Christian spectrum, you are a sheep or a goat determined by what kind of Christian faith you follow. Human beings as a whole get endless fun from deciding who is in or who is out, and traditionally Christians on the whole haven’t been much different
The problem with all of these is that they are human projections onto a parable that says nothing of the sort about what club you belong to.
The only criteria by which God knows who is a sheep or a goat, and conversely the only way you really know God, is whether you have compassion or not.
In the examples given, which are by no means exhaustive, just representative examples, God knows whether you know him or not on the basis of whether you fed a hungry person, offered a drink to a thirsty man, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, or visited prisoners.
Whether you are a sheep or a goat is determined by how compassionate you are towards your fellow man. That’s what the parable actually says.
But for me, the far more interesting point, is why should we be compassionate at all? What premise is our compassion based on?
The way Jesus describes why we should be compassionate indicates an innate interconnectedness and in a beautifully poetic phrase he says “Just as you did it to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me”. At a very deep and very real level what you do for one, you do for all, including yourself and including God. Separation from God is the illusion, communion is the reality.
The premise Jesus gives, if you understand him properly is that all creation, including all the people in the world are a part of the divine being – that nothing is separate from the divine being, and as such we are all one, we are interconnected. That is the true state of our existence.
This is exactly the point of what Paul, (or at least one of his followers), is saying in this letter to the Ephesians. In a beautiful phrase Paul prays that “God our father, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that our heart may be enlightened”.
So you see, enlightenment is not the sole preserve of the Eastern religions. Paul prays that we may be enlightened. Enlightened about what?
Well Paul then goes on to laud this great and immeasurable power of God, a power which he notes he put to work and revealed in the life of Jesus. This power of immeasurable greatness, which raised Jesus from the dead, is within all of us, which connects all of us.
That is the only basis by which Paul can call the church “the body of Christ”, because the church here represents the extent, humanly speaking, in which this revealed truth is known and realised – that God fills everything and connects everything. Paul puts it like this, “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”
Compassion has its source in connection and empathy. Jesus and Paul both point out that “connected” is what we most truly and deeply are. Realising the fact is a work of God’s power working within you and leading you to this enlightened state. From darkness to light, from spiritual death to life in all its fullness.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday - Lest we forget

Death is the great leveller both in peacetime and in times of war,
In the first world war, when the mustard gas drifted over the trenches, death didn’t ask whether you were an officer or a private, a hero or a coward, whether you had a degree or left school at 14.
When the bombs fell on this country in world war two, the bombs didn’t care if you were a man woman or child, rich or poor.
In Iraq, the snipers in Basra didn’t care if you were black or white, whether you were religious, agnostic or an atheist.
In Helmand province in Afghanistan the IED that blows your legs off doesn’t ask if you are American or British or an Afghan child.
Remembrance of people that died in warfare is especially poignant because without exception all these deaths were premature.
The church of England in its role as the National church, takes its duty seriously, as acting as a spiritual framework in which all people, whatever their religion, class or colour can come together to mourn and remember those who whatever their differences in life are now all united in death.
What is an act of remembrance? Is it just merely remembering or does it go any deeper than that.
Well here I think Christianity has something to offer, some insight that may help.
Every week I stand at the altar and recite the words at the Holy Communion “Do this in remembrance of me”. The original word which translates into English as remembrance is in the original Greek actually much stronger. More than merely remembering the word actually means to make present. The act of remembrance implies bringing to mind something so very powerful that the person and the act itself are almost palpable. It is as if you can touch it, and indeed in the Communion we make that real by sharing bread and wine.
In the act of remembrance of the war dead it is an act that brings their sacrifices, their blood sweat and tears, their bravery and fear so close to the forefront of our minds that we can almost taste it and feel it.     
But why do that at all. What’s the point? The point, both in the Communion service and in this act of remembrance is the hope that this very act should change us or move us in some way, perhaps to make us more aware of the frailty of humanity, make us determined to try and emulate all that was good in their actions and sacrifice, to allow their tragedy to teach us something vital about the sanctity of life, about bravery, about loss, about waste,  about love and hate, about duty and responsibility, about war and the causes of war. Perhaps also to make us consider questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life itself. It could lead us to question our politics and the way we approach geo-political problems.  These are all positive things, but..
On the negative side, our very natural regrets could also trigger bitterness  and recrimination and re-kindle old enmities and rivalries. The Christian insight here though is that in indulging that side of things only ultimately harms ourselves and poisons our own minds and makes future deaths in future wars even more likely. Forgiveness and acceptance is the key to countering these negative thoughts. 
Remembrance is more than a simple act of remembering, it is an action that can potentially move the heart, to move a person from one place to another, better, place.
Finally, let’s address that great largely unspoken question that hangs over all deaths – where are they now? Here we speak of mystery and see only through a glass darkly as St. Paul said. But the spiritual intuition is that nothing that is good is every really lost and in a Christian sense “nothing, neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God”.
But for both believer and non believer, one certain way that they can live on is if some or all of the positive qualities that they lived and died for; a sense of duty, responsibility, sacrifice, bravery, the courage of their convictions were actually to be embodied in the lives of each one of us, if in fact we were moved to change by the act of remembrance, the world would automatically be a much better place than it was before and in a very tangible way they would be living on; their example embedded in our lives. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Give me oil in my lamp

Matthew 25: 1-13

I’m glad there is a baptism of an infant today because the very fact we are going to baptise a child who cannot yet make a personal assent to any faith is of vital importance to getting a deeper understanding of God and God’s grace, which is love. I’ll return to that thought later.
First of all, let me explain what the oil in the bridesmaids lamps symbolise. Oil symbolises good deeds. The oil in your lamp is the positive loving response in your life to a very personal knowledge of God. The bridesmaids are all believers in God or (anachronistically) Christian disciples waiting for Jesus’ return.
Oil in your lamp is loving your neighbour, forgiving people, helping when you can – a demonstrable working out of your faith in your life.
The parable says that 5 of them had oil and 5 didn’t. They all professed faith, but for only some of them had that faith been translated into a living response, a life that had actually been changed by their faith.
The brutal truth the parable conveys is that faith alone cannot save you. And when I say “save” I don’t mean life after death, I mean the quality of our lives in the here and now. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves some pretty harsh questions like, do my beliefs actually make much difference to my life.
Do I really have the inner peace, joy and contentment and completeness that my faith promises or do I actually find it quite elusive? Because it is only out of that joy that transformation can start to take place.
The real underlying difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids is this, Do they just believe in God or do they actually know God. Knowing in a way that transcends our minds. All the bridesmaids could assent intellectually to God, but only some felt any real connection where it would then started to dramatically alter their way of life.
That is why in the dramatic last act Jesus says “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you”. I would say that the truth is the flipside to that statement  which is “You don’t know me”.
The reason all the established churches baptise infants before they can ever say yes no or maybe is making a dramatic and important theological point.
It says quite boldly and straightforwardly. “God knows this child already”. God loves this child already  whether or not any response ever comes. The child may grow up and reject God for all any of us know. But what we affirm here today is that whether he does or whether he doesn’t God will never reject him. God loves this child now, he loved him before he was born and he will love him on the other side of life, and it’s the same for every one of us.
The parable of the 10 bridesmaids tells us that true peace and completeness only comes when we discover that simple but elusive fact for ourselves, not just through intellectual knowing, but at a deeper level, a level of knowing that is so hard to describe- an intuition -that we are not actually alone, but we are held. That is why infant baptism is so important. It confirms the constancy and magnitude and closeness of God’s love for us that is not dependent on our response and out of this beautiful love, once known, is where our transformation begins.
It says boldly and proudly that God’s love for us always precedes any response to that love that may come from us. That response from us even when it does come will be imperfect, may come in fits and starts, will be half hearted at times and at other times may be full on, sometimes resulting in a permanent state of inner peace or just giving us brief glimpses. In others it may never happen at all. But whichever category you think you belong to, wherever you are in your relationship with God, infant baptism affirms that God is with you and loves you regardless. 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Kingdom of God is within you

All Saints Sunday ; 1John 3: 1-3

Sometimes there is a wonderful symmetry to life. As you may be aware my spiritual journey has taken me far and wide this past year since the death of Alex and is gathering pace.
Being together with my daughter who is on a similar wavelength this past week saw another step forwards when we watched a film presentation about Quantum physics and what this means for spirituality, and I read one of the most instructive and powerful books I have ever read called “The power of now” by Eckhart Tolle, a man who does not want to be labelled but draws on Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism.
What all this searching far and wide and embracing different spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Sufism has done for me is not kill my Christianity but transformed it.
My Christian faith was like a dying plant. My leaves were going brown and I was drooping. What all this input from outside the faith has done is not lead me to abandon Christianity but infused it with a new vitality. By simply letting go of dogma and being open to truth wherever it may lie has seen my spiritual life fed and watered and the oxygen of the spirit is being drawn up into this withering plant and bringing new life to it. Within every religious tradition there lie jewels common to each other like the “pearl of great price” or the “treasure hidden in a field” that Jesus spoke about
I speak of symmetry because when I sat down to write today’s address and I read 1 John 3: 1-3, I felt goose bumps. I don’t remember ever reading this passage before, and if I did, perhaps it didn’t make much of an impact, but now I’m imbued with a much greater spiritual wisdom and practice than I have ever possessed before the words leap out at me and speak of a timeless wisdom that is present in all religions, but because of human arrogance or ignorance and folly is generally buried deep beneath silly dogmas and irrelevant supernaturalism.
Here lies the truth and as John says elsewhere the truth will set you free.
Buddhism teaches that what we are trying to attain – peace and joy and unity -  is in reality what we already have but we just can’t perceive it. I think it is exactly the same direction that Jesus was pointing.
The peace and feeling of completeness and joy – this fullness of life - is not something that we get from somewhere else, it is our natural state and what practices like meditation are doing is uncovering what is ours already if we did but realise it. It uncovers the truth about ourselves and God and reveals that they are one and the same.
Let us go through this short reading and uncover the truth;
“See what the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
It is what we are! Not what we will be one day, not what we might be if we follow all the rules, believe all the right things, or something we will attain if we try very, very, hard. Being a child of God is a fact of being human. We are an emanation of the divine, a manifestation of God, as Genesis attests we are made in the image and likeness of God who is present in every atom of our bodies. We are children of God; and that is what we are!
“The reason the world does not know us, is that it did not know him. Beloved we are God’s children now”
This speaks not of intellectual knowing but a deep knowing, a feeling from within, a connection with Being. People who are in the world and see only separation and materialism are unable to recognise those who have found God within. It is the difference between being enlightened by the light of truth and living in darkness. As John’s prologue states “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world........yet the world knew him not”
“What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; When he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”
When we find God, this pure being, this mystery, that dwells within us and all things, and live in accordance with this deep knowing, we identify ourselves with God, rather than our fearful and frail egos, and start to become like him. In Christian terms we start to live out of his being and wisdom and spirit rather than our own. It is what St. Paul meant when he wrote. “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”.
“And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure”.
We become a vessel for the sacred, the holy. But much more than this we see all life – people, the trees, rivers, moon and stars, the entire universe as being a vessel, a carrier of the sacred. Anything and everything can speak to us of God because God is in all things. When you recognise the divine being within yourself you recognise the same divine being within all things and can relate to them. As the psalmist discovered and wrote 3000 years ago “Deep speaks to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls” (psalm 42:7).
If the ground of our being is God, who is pure being as the Jewish people knew already by calling God “Yahweh” or “I AM”, pure undifferentiated being – then death does not touch your essential true self. Your physical form surely dies and goes on to become other things – atoms don’t die they just disassemble and reassemble in different forms. Your false self image will die but the essential true you cannot die because it is at one with God. Remember we are children of God – it is what we are - and God is eternal.
Because God is the ground of all being we are all inter-connected. Nothing is ever truly separate. This is true both scientifically and spiritually.  This is All Saints day. And we believe in the communion of saints don’t we?  That means that we are never entirely separate from anything whether alive or dead. If you’ve ever gone into an Orthodox church and wondered why it is the shape it is and is decorated the way it is, the reason is theological not aesthetic. The body of the church is the earth and the dome represents heaven and they are one. The walls are covered with paintings of the saints – conveying the fact that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and the dome is painted with a giant representation of the risen Christ to represent God. An Orthodox church is a representation of Heaven and earth as one, with all the people past and present, alive and dead occupying the same space.
We all knew and loved people who have died. Where did they go? In the deepest truest sense they didn’t go anywhere. Their impermanent form dissolved for sure, but they were and still are part of the whole – pure being, the “I AM”.  Nothing that was good is ever lost.
When a wave on the sea loses its form you can say that it is gone but in reality the wave never truly had a separate existence. The wave was always just the sea in a particular form for a particular period of time. All form is impermanent. When the wave stops being a wave it hasn’t died or ceased to exist, it just reverts to what it truly always was – the sea. 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Subversive speech

Matthew 22:15-22
The kind of sermon I’m preaching today has  proved a little controversial in the past. In Bucharest we had a fair sprinkling of diplomatic staff and advisors coming to church. One such, a good friend, had been one of Tony Blair’s advisors in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, he’s now in Brussels and my sermon on “Jesus is Lord” led to a “spirited discussion” shall we say.
Because what passes almost unnoticed by so many people is that saying something like “Jesus is Lord” is highly political. Because to say that Jesus is Lord is to say quite pointedly that all the Kings, princes, Presidents, Governments and states on earth are NOT Lord. By saying Jesus is Lord you are nailing your colours to the mast and saying my primary loyalty is to another kingdom, not yours.
So used to we at thinking that politics and faith are separate we don’t even recognise when we are being subversive.
Trying to keep the two spheres of activity entirely separate has been always been helped by a particular interpretation of today’s passage. An interpretation that has allowed church and political leaders to give each other mutually exclusive realms.
Needless to say I believe that this interpretation misrepresents what Jesus says – in fact I think it turns it on its head. Anyone who knows anything about the life of Jesus knows that he was hardly flavour of the month with the authorities, and it was an unholy alliance between Temple and state that conspired to murder Jesus as an enemy of the state.
I would contend that in this fascinating little exchange, when examined closely is revolutionary and subversive. The Pharisees, realising that all these parables that we have been hearing these past weeks were aimed at them they decided to send some of their young acolytes together with some young Herodians (Why some Herodians? to represent the state) First of all they flatter Jesus and then to try and entrap him. In asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they hope to snare Jesus. If he says "yes" then many of the people would be disillusioned with him for many thought it treasonous to pay taxes to Rome and the young supporters of the Pharisees would have been able to bury him in derision. If he had said "no" then technically he is guilty of treason and the Herodians are there to make that accusation would stick and have him arrested. But instead Jesus asks for a coin which has Caesar's image (icon) on it and famously says "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". Impressed and non-plussed by this sleight of hand his questioners withdraw.
As I say many have tried to use this cameo as ammunition to keep church and state entirely separate or even to relegate God to an entirely separate realm and to imply that the Bible sanctions complete obedience to the state, but a deeper and truer meaning is implied by Caesar's icon(Greek) - his image.  For in reality according to the Jewish tradition, and of course Christian tradition as well, all human beings are made in God's image.  We all bear God's image and therefore we all of us ultimately (Caesar included) belong to God. There is no separate realm - political or otherwise - that is not also part of God's realm. Because God is God, the Lord of creation.
So because we all have a prior loyalty to God, it doesn't matter what sphere we are operating in, economic or political, our primary loyalty is to God and his kingdom and his values. 
As I wrote this week this does not deny governments their legitimate and necessary sphere of activity, but it does set our allegiances into a primary and secondary order. God first, the state second. Our ultimate loyalty can never be the state, not from this exchange or from that statement “Jesus is Lord”. If and when states act in a way that denies the divine image in all people by the way it treats people then our duties as citizens of those states, whose first loyalty is to God, become very clear. We must act as the conscience prodding the sides of our Governments. If any Governments anywhere try to discriminate against people, and act unjustly, or deny people their God given freedom we must recognise that they bear the same image of God that we do and stand with them. 

Food for thought

A Harvest festival sermon based on Matthew 22: 15-22
I always remember this passage (about the ten cured lepers and only one returned to say thank you) being read at a special service for all our families at Mirfield. And when the children were asked why they all hadn’t gone back to thank Jesus, my daughter Claire put her hand up and said, “because he hadn’t asked them to”. This flummoxed the young ordinand for a few seconds before he regained his composure and ploughed on trying to get the response he was looking for. We all had a little laugh of course but....
Now looking back I kind of find myself partly agreeing with Claire. Is that the response that God wants, to find us constantly giving thanks and praise to God, for in the church those two words are joined at the hip – thanks and praise – or would he be far more satisfied by us simply enjoying what we had been given and enjoying it to the full, as the other nine cured lepers did?
After all, thanks and praise are not needed by God, he is complete in himself, but do we need them?
At the Harvest festival for Gainford school here on Friday, I noted that as we get older we tend to lose our capacity for wonder and awe at the world we live in. We are so busy, so distracted, so worried about the future in many respects, that the ability to just stop, just stop and notice the intense beauty all around us is lost.
When was the last time you just looked up on a clear cold night at the millions and millions of stars, contemplating the enormity of the universe, and realising that I, the one doing the looking am an integral part of it all. Mind blowing.
Or when did you last stop and notice the beauty of the river right on our doorstep, sometimes nearly dry sometimes a torrent in all weathers, the trees, the heron, the ducks, cows, horses and the donkey.  Do we just give ourselves time to just stop and take it all in?
Gainford is surrounded by productive farmland, animals and crops, the fruitfulness of the earth is staggering. We are surrounded in church today by products produced by this bountiful earth from all around the world.
Jesus once said that to enter the kingdom of God you had to become like a child. Meaning not childish, but childlike. Part of becoming childlike I would say is recapturing a lost sense of awe and wonder – to be able to just rest in it, enjoy it, because in enjoying it you are deepening your experience of life by appreciating the world around you.
And here’s the rub. In communing with nature and beauty and appreciating the fruitfulness of the earth, we are actually also communing with God, for God communicates with us through things, through matter, through the ordinary physical world in which we live.
If it wasn’t that way there is no way we could commune with God through eating bread and drinking wine. We commune with God through the ordinary made extraordinary by realising the sacred presence of God in all things. I often say that in the Eucharist we are drawing back the veil on the reality of all matter and existence – that truly God is present in all things – and what is true for the bread and wine is true for us and for nature and the natural world in all its beauty and diversity.
A celebration of nature and the fruitfulness of the earth should fill us with wonder and awe. I believe that in enjoying and communing with creation we are already honouring the creator perhaps in the very best way possible, which puts us all, both inside and outside the church, with the nine cured lepers. But we, inside the church are like the one who returned to Jesus to say thank you. We go just that one step further, not because God needs it or requires it, but because we need to, because our faith is built on a relationship with the divine, and in a relationship, if it is to grow and deepen we need to communicate, we need to talk, and sometimes we need to say thank you when we have been given something wonderful. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

If you talk the talk you'd better walk the walk

A sermon based on Matthew 22: 1-14
Integrity seems to be in short supply nowadays. And yet I think it is what people yearn for.
Public confidence in politics, law enforcement, religion, journalism, banking etc  is at an all time low. In certain sectors like politics we are now conditioned to think that the person speaking must either be lying or have a hidden agenda before they even open their mouths.
Trust that other people we meet and live with are basically honest and at least mean us no harm is no longer the default position. A lack of trust tends to lead to an inward looking, atomised and fearful community that dare not let their children play outside and where no one speaks to their neighbour.
This didn’t just happen overnight. Unfortunately it is based on people’s actual experience and we all know that a few bad apples colours our entire view.
Integrity for me means that our words and actions add up to an integrated whole, that there is no gap between the two or at least we are working hard to close that gap. In religion it can put an awful lot of pressure on us because the ideals we espouse are generally so lofty that you might say that it is impossible to live them. So we need to be realistic and crucially we need to be honest about when we fail. But sometimes I suspect that knowing that we often fail becomes the excuse for never trying in the first place and we become complacent.
In this case I think the only real crime is not to even try, whether we actually attain these lofty ideals or not. Otherwise the claim is that we are just hypocrites – that our words have no real meaning and we are no better than the politicians and journalists etc. We have to be aiming at certain ideals even while we do fail.
Empty religion is the worst crime of all because we say that it is all underpinned by God. So if our religion is empty then it is valid for an observer to conclude that perhaps our God is also empty – perhaps He doesn’t exist at all. It’s a frightening and sobering thought that people may judge Christianity on the quality of our lives but it is a reality. In a very real way our coming to church marks us out as ambassadors and representatives for God’s nature and character to our neighbours.
In fact the only proof we can give that God’s nature and character is what we say it is, is that we respond to God in and through our life – personal and corporate.   At least that proves that we think He exists and that we respond accordingly. If we can indicate that we think God exists and demonstrate the positive impact that belief has on our own character and actions, then a casual observer whilst not perhaps being drawn into faith by us is at least given cause to think and we are at least not a barrier to people coming to faith!
We stop being a barrier to faith when we exhibit integrity – a confluence of word and deed. Honesty is the key here.
One of the greatest Christian thinkers of the 20th century for me was Harry Williams. He was a great orator and apologist for Christianity, who nevertheless ended up having a nervous breakdown and spent years in therapy. What had led to his breakdown was what is known as “Cognitive dissonance”. In layman’s terms that just means that “nothing added up”. His life was in his own eyes, a sham and he became disillusioned with theology and the church.
His breakdown was a watershed in his life. Through it he rose phoenix-like from the flames to enter the most productive Christian phase in his life – one based on integrity – based on a painful honesty that shocked many of his contemporaries. To me he was an inspiration. After his breakdown he resolved never to speak of anything from the pulpit ever again of anything that he didn’t have personal experience of.  I, in my faltering way have tried to keep as close to that ideal ever since, even though I know I sometimes fail and stray from that ideal.
Being honest about our doubts and fears and problems with our religion is cathartic. Honesty, in life and religion, doesn’t win you many friends in high places in the church I have to tell you, but I hope that at least, even if the words can sometimes be painful to hear, that people might be drawn by honesty and integrity.
What has all this got to do with the gospel reading? Well the poor guy who was bound hand and foot and thrown out of the banquet has this done to him because he wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. The best interpretation of “Wedding clothes” that I have found is that they  are a metaphor for exhibiting good deeds. A metaphor for bearing fruit because as Jesus puts it so well, “By their fruits you shall know them”.  Not by their beliefs note, but by their fruits. Our Archbishop wrote this week that people in the church often use faith as an excuse, a reason to be particularly nasty to other Christians they disagree with – using “faith” as a cover so they can be un-Christian to others.
The man when he was grabbed was “speechless” according to the parable. He was speechless because he wasn’t expecting it. He thought he was a part of the crowd, an insider, because he said and believed all the right things, but as James, Jesus’ own brother, puts it even more succinctly, perhaps even brutally in his letter  - “Faith without works is dead”.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Show me the way to go home

A sermon based on Philippians 3: 4-14
In conventional models of mission or evangelism Christianity is often presented as the answer to all of life’s problems, but what Paul writes here in Philippians points to quite the reverse being true.
Having faith in Christ gave no answer to Paul’s problems; On the contrary, faith in Christ disturbed the answers he already had (!), those answers he had worked out and lived by all of his life and sent him looking for new answers.
A pious Jew, he had life sown up or so he thought.  A scrupulous Jew, who followed the law with vigour and relish. There is no hint here in what Paul writes that he had any problem in following the Jewish law in its entirety and complexity. He was accomplished and secure and settled in what he thought and believed.
But without going into any details about his conversion experience, he tells us graphically the result;
It turned his life and belief system upside down. In fact everything he previously believed and lived for and took pride in was revealed to him as rubbish. This translation softens what Paul actually says because in Greek he says that everything he had is now like “dung” to him.
So being “in Christ” did not bring serenity but upset. It’s as if someone had approached his life with a big wooden spoon and just stirred everything up leaving him feeling disorientated.
His religion, which had given his life structure and stability and imbued his life with certain values he now understood as being rubbish in comparison to the new revelation that he calls “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
This knowing he calls being “in Christ”. It’s like his whole life has been grabbed by God and given a huge shake.
This knowing Christ Jesus, being “in Christ” he describes as being of surpassing value – it is overpowering in fact but it doesn’t necessarily give neat answers to anything. These have to be sought after and struggled over.
He acknowledges that although he wants to know Jesus, he doesn’t know him fully and has “not reached this goal but I press on to make it my own because Christ has made me his own”. In other words we might not know God but God already knows us.
So he presses on, straining forward to what lies ahead, not knowing what lies ahead, but sure that in the Christ event he has heard the call of God urging him onwards.
Hearing the voice of God, the call of God urging you to explore is rarely a physical literal thing. The call of God I would try and describe as an urge, a psychic pressure, an inner compulsion to do one thing rather than another thing. The only control on those inner compulsions to go one way rather than another way is to ask the question “do they comply with the law of love or not?” Discernment is needed here both personal and corporate.
The Christian way is a voyage of discovery and it should be a comfort to many of us that the letter we are poring over and trying to decipher is written by someone who freely admits that he has not reached spiritual maturity either. He has not reached his goal but he is on the way. It is a classic case of faith seeking understanding.
What Paul is sure of is however is what all Christians should endeavour to make their own – that they are living in God’s Grace. God’s love surrounds them and they need not feel afraid. In this love and freedom we stand – but not necessarily understanding all the ramifications of living in that love. Freedom can be a bit scary for people who have lived their whole lives in a guilded cage, having religious structures and dogmas and laws which have transpired to construct a mental prison for themselves. Religions can be beautiful constructions, as religions usually are, as Judaism was for Paul,  and yet still be, as Paul discovered, spiritually empty. Jesus said of such people inhabiting these constructions that they were are like “Whitewashed tombs”. Looks lovely from the outside, but dead inside.
Secure in God’s Grace we stumble onwards drawn by the call of God, deeper into life, and seek to understand guided by the light of Christ’s example to follow. So though we strain and stumble forwards – seeing through a glass darkly - we are nevertheless secure in God’s love.
What we are doing by living this way Paul encapsulated neatly in last week’s offering from Philippians, in the sentence that precedes what we heard today.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” says Paul. What your salvation looks like and how it is expressed in your life will look different from how my salvation is worked out in my life. It will look different because it will be filtered through, and moulded by your life and experience and culture.
Crucially, the onus is on you to work it out in your own life. There is no template. No easy ready made answers. No one size fits all. Freedom is scary, but take heart - you are secure in God’s love every faltering step of the way.


Sunday, 25 September 2011

Life in all its fullness

I want to take a brief look at the reading from Philippians (2:1-13) today instead of the gospel reading. It is interesting in two ways. First, it may be the last extant letter that Paul actually ever wrote, and secondly, the received academic wisdom is that the main body of this passage that starts “Though he was in the form of God.....etc” is actually an early Christian Hymn and as such is a beautiful example of poetic theology that is quite far reaching.
It mirrors John’s prologue in proclaiming the pre-existence of Christ, his acceptance of earthly life and death, and his exaltation to the right hand of God.
We should have no problem with pre-existence, at least physically, for Christ or for you or me or anything else. The first law of Physics is that nothing can be created and nothing destroyed. The same amount of matter exists now as it did at the moment of creation – just existing in different form. In terms of the physical stuff our bodies are made of, we have always been here and we always will be!
You and I did not come from nothing, we come from something. When we die, we do not go to nothing we go to something. Physically that is the truth of the matter, and the religious minded person would also say the same about our essence, our spirit, our “soul” if you prefer to use that word. 
If you believe in God, you might want to say that we come from God and go to God – however you want to imagine God. Because you see, the concept of “eternal life” transcends mortal existence.
We talk about eternal life without necessarily understanding it. Eternal life is not a prize waiting for us if we have been good little boys and girls after we die. Eternal life is instead a natural state of being. We have it though we don’t realise it. We have it because we are made in the image and likeness of God, which is what the hymn in Philippians means when it speaks of Jesus “being in the form of God”.
Because Jesus was a human being, not innately different from any of us, he is a template for human existence – a revelation of who we all truly are. Like Jesus, we came from God, will live and die, and then return to God. We are of course bound by language, so we have to use phrases like “sitting on the right hand of God” (as in the creed), even though we know that God is not a person, has no right hand and there is no place for Christ to sit, and yet we kind of get what is meant by it.
“Sitting at the right hand of God” means for me, being with God for ever and knowing that consciously. That is as good a description of heaven as I can muster. Knowing that we come from God, live in God, and go to God as a continuum is “eternal life”. Knowing it and living it from the heart, eternal life becomes a quality of life that comes from realising that you are continually held. That for me is the meaning of the phrase “life in all its fullness”.
The alternative the “life in all its fullness” is a degraded limited understanding of existence that is bound by your physical birth and death, and also life here on earth is truncated and flat – the materialist view – with no spiritual dimension. i.e. no depth. Comprehending the meaning of eternal life means seeing your life against an infinite horizon. The boundaries provided by birth and death and atheistic materialism are broken. The length, breadth and depth of life become infinite.
Again, bound by language and metaphor, a favourite Christian image is of a child held in the palm of God.   Eternal life though means that we know God knew us even before we were born as a child.
Jeremiah 1:5 says it beautifully “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
Jesus as the revelation of what it means to be human, that what is true and possible for Jesus is true and possible for us is the essence of what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. It then follows that the way he lived, his nature and character lived in the knowledge of his intimate walk with God is the way that we should attempt to follow.
Such exalted ideas are exciting and liberating. They produce a kind of inner peace that we also call joy. When concepts like life and death, being born and dying have been transcended by the notion of eternal life we are set free.  As John says  (8:32) “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”
Let me end with some more words of Paul in this same vein taken from his letter to the Romans (8:38) and which are truly inspirational and have helped me  enormously. Eternal life is to know the God who is love. What I am about to say is the best description of eternal life that I know of in the Christian canon; 
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Mary, Mary quite contrary...

Well today is our Patronal festival. Now I always try to be aware that we often use words and phrases in the church and just assume that everybody knows what they mean so just to be clear – that just means that the person the church is named after – so we are St. Mary’s, named after the mother of Jesus – when one of her feast days comes around we push the boat out a bit and really do want to celebrate the person our church is dedicated to. So instead of coffee after the service we have wine for example, and this really should be an occasion to celebrate.
But we do have a tiny problem here in the west for churches that are named after Mary!  Because unfortunately Mary is no longer a person that inspires unity but division. We have some Roman Catholic friends with us this morning, and a warm welcome to you, and in the Roman Catholic church the faithful are officially required to believe some specific things about Mary such as she too was born without sin, and when she died her body was assumed whole into heaven, and Mary is venerated in that Catholic tradition. In the reformed traditions in an extreme reaction to the Catholics, the default position is that we routinely ignore Mary as far as possible. The only time she really gets a mention is at Christmas time, when we really can’t avoid it, because if Jesus was born, then he had to have a mother.
But I truly want to celebrate Mary, so how can we do that? To our rescue comes the Orthodox church. As a point of reference if you ever are caught on the horns of a dilemma in any church matters always try and find out what the Orthodox say. Even if you don’t agree with them, you’ll find what they have to say always profound and always interesting. 
The first thing to say is that in the East, Mary is routinely referred to, not as the “virgin Mary” but as “God bearer” – a subtle change of emphasis. And in their iconic representation of Mary, another subtle change of emphasis is that she is almost never represented alone but always holding the infant Jesus. Mary and Jesus are inseparable. In icons the way to read the relationship between Mother and child is as a symbolic representation of the relationship between God and humanity.
The default understanding of God in many people’s mind is still that of a bit of an ogre. An old man with a white beard, imperious, detatched and stern with a fierce temper. He might mean well, but you wouldn’t like to cross him.
But when you contemplate Mary and Jesus in an icon that default position is severely tested.
God is not an ogre but a child. Dependent, grasping, frail, needing the nurture and cooperation of Mary (representing humanity) to bring Him to maturity. It is a picture of mutual love and dependence.
Human beings are the Mother, God is the child. The child is often depicted nuzzling up to Mary, grasping her cloak with one hand while the other is raised in a gesture of blessing. Mary supports the child and her eyes invariably stare out at us , the viewer, imploring us to understand, her hand often held in a gesture towards her child. She is saying “Behold, look, understand”.
If anything can add to our understanding of the nature of God and his relationship to mankind, it is in the iconic relationship between Mary and Jesus. If your view of God is one who is distant and fierce, I would invite you to spend a few minutes in front of an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus and see where it leads you.
Just quickly, another of the sources of division between Catholic and reformed views of Mary is that Catholic veneration often looks like worship. While I don’t support that I do understand it. Because what I believe this is doing is fulfilling a very real need in people for completion. Intellectually we know that God is beyond such categories and is neither male nor female, but people crave a female aspect of God to balance the very male understanding that we mostly all have. This could have been fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, which is a feminine word in both Hebrew and Greek, but we have lost that emphasis in English anyway because we don’t use masculine and feminine words. That role in evening up a very lop-sided view of God has been largely filled by the very concrete figure of Mary.
But there is another equally important aspect of Mary that we truly must celebrate - that Mary is the very symbol of the Christian life, so in a way does represent the church. And when I say the “church” I mean the people of God. I mean what it is to be a Christian.
Mary said “yes” to the Holy Spirit. She said “yes” to God and in the fullness of time she gave birth to God in the world. Mary “God bearer”.
When you think about it, this is the very template of the Christian life, for our Christian walk with God – this is “the way”.
We, each of us, say “yes” to the Holy Spirit and let that Spirit work and grow within us until we too grow to maturity in the faith and give birth to God in the world in the way we act, talk and think and see. We are to become “God bearers” too.    
So let us celebrate what Mary has given us today. With Jesus, a symbolic profound insight to the relationship between humanity and God, and also the very template of the Christian life.  

Father, forgive them........

A sermon based on Matthew 18: 21_35

Let me start by saying this. Forgiveness is very hard.  As Christians it has been drummed into us that we should always forgive people. Forgiveness is one of the few things still rightly associated with Christians in our secularised society. Everything, from passages like this one and including the Lord’s Prayer, urges us to forgive people who wrong us.
I know and you know that we should forgive. Intellectually I also know – I expect we all know -  that forgiving people will also usually offer us some psychological release. I know that being unable to forgive will leave me feeling bitter and twisted and I would be much better off just forgiving and letting things go. Being unable to forgive I actually end up just punishing myself.
But I still find it hard, don’t you?
We all of us, I am absolutely sure, have suffered terrible wrongs and hurt at the hands of other people. We may have been cheated on by a spouse, swindled by a friend or family member, ripped off by a faceless corporation. Someone we love or ourselves may have been seriously injured by a drunk driver or attacked by a kid high on drugs who shows no signs of remorse at all. In extreme cases a loved one may have been killed. In a thousand different ways we will have been belittled and stripped of our dignity, hurt, and left feeling wronged and vulnerable.
All of us here who have been wronged and harbour unforgiveness in our hearts – well...being told by some pious prig in a pulpit that you really ought to forgive you know – just adds insult to injury.  We know we ought to, but just knowing that we ought to, doesn’t make us forgive.
Does this passage today help at all? Well let’s take a closer look. The first part is an exchange between Jesus and Peter about the extent of forgiveness. When Jesus says “seventy seven” or seventy times seven” in some translations He is making the point that forgiveness is not a commodity that can be quantified. By giving such a huge number He is saying that forgiveness is limitless when it comes from the heart – and it is not a numbers game.
Yet the parable that follows could cause us great consternation. If you read the end literally it says that if you don’t forgive someone, God will not forgive you and will torture you! Is that what it really means then or can it mean something else? Does that mean then that God’s forgiveness is conditional?
If we look at this parable with a little more insight and with truly acknowledging the difficulty of genuine forgiveness I believe we can glean a more positive aspect that is much more helpful.
The first thing to say is that Christian forgiveness is grounded in divine forgiveness which is absolutely limitless. In our English translation we lose the full force of what Jesus says. The servant owed the king Ten thousand talents. That means little to us, except that we probably know it is quite a lot. In Jesus’ day that sum represented the wages of a labourer for 150,000 years! With full force Jesus wants to convey the supreme generosity and mercy of God. It is limitless.
The message of the parable lies in the reaction of that first servant. The fact is, there is no response, no gratitude, no rejoicing, no celebrating that he and his wife and children are not going to be imprisoned after all. In fact the first thing he does is refuse the pleas of an indebted colleague and refuses to forgive him a trifling amount.
You see, he had been dealing with the king on the basis of Justice – quid pro quo. Even though he could never in reality have repaid the debt he still says to the king “I will repay you everything”.
But in forgiving the debt the King was not dealing in Justice, He was dealing in Mercy. This is the cornerstone of this parable. Mercy, not Justice. Very different things.
Forgiveness is very different from Justice.  The first servant still thinks of Forgiveness as some kind of power game and to do with “just desserts”. Because he cannot see himself as a beneficiary of the gift of mercy he is unable to show mercy to his fellow servant.
The final verse of this parable wants it made clear that forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a transformation of the inner disposition that the first servant has not yet discovered. A transformation I only discover intermittently and then forget again soon afterwards as well . How about you?
How does this parable help us who are struggling with forgiveness, battling with shame and rage and wanting revenge?
It demonstrates the incredible kindness of God, who surprises us constantly, not by dealing with us on the measure of justice, but by showing mercy.
It invites us to see ourselves as forgiven debtors, being given not what we deserve but what God wants to give us. We are forgiven debtors and it invites us to see everyone else, including the people who have wronged us as no more than  forgiven debtors as well.  And that the difference between ourselves and the other debtors, even the ones who have wronged us terribly is only slight. It is about giving up the power game of “innocent and guilty” and to come together as a community of forgiven debtors.
In the final analysis it means that God’s grace forgives you everything – which is not justice, but it is mercy.
And the person you can’t forgive. They are also forgiven by God.  Again, it is not justice. It is mercy.
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy”.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Monday, 29 August 2011

Cross purposes

A sermon based on Matthew 16: 21-28
A number of themes present themselves in this piece. An important one is that just because you have faith doesn’t mean you always completely understand or are right about everything.  Peter went from being called the “rock” to being called “satan” within four verses.
And what did Jesus really mean when he said “some of you standing here will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom”. Best left for another time I think.....
But rather importantly we also have Jesus talking about “taking up your cross” if you really want to follow him and about “losing your life in order to gain it”.
These two phrases are linked and need a little explanation. As I wrote mid week “taking up your cross” had nothing to do with generalised suffering for which it is now taken for granted to mean. As in for example. “I have kidney stones. That is a cross I have to bear”
The cross was a specific punishment for those the Romans thought were challenging or undermining the state. The phrase could conceivably be an anachronism inserted into the mouth of Jesus years after his death or equally it could be that Jesus knowingly and pointedly understood his mission as being so controversial, being tantamount to sedition in the eyes of the Romans and their Temple collaborators that would almost certainly, as sure as eggs are eggs, lead to his execution by crucifixion.
It is worth asking why “the crowd” agitated by the Temple authorities in Pilates’ palace cried for his “crucifixion” – rather than in a more general sense, his death or execution. I also hear people ask why the crowd turned so much in one week – from welcoming him into the city on the back of a donkey shouting “Hosanna”  just a week before baying for his execution, but of course it wasn’t the same crowd.
The people shouting Hosanna were not the same people who then were calling for his execution a week later. The meeting with Pilate took place in the palace or “the courtyard of the palace”. Someone had to let them in. This crowd is best understood as supporters of the Temple authorities and their cosy arrangement with the Romans.  Anyone upsetting their arrangements and their power and status was an enemy to be disposed of in the harshest manner. An attack on them was an attack on the whole system.
The difference would be like addressing a crowd in rebel held Tripoli, or within the complex of Col. Gaddafi when it was still intact – completely different scenarios and very different people would be present.
The symbolism of the cross in first century Palestine is best understood as a punishment for those who displayed opposition to tyranny, opposition to oppression and injustice, opposition to systems that brutalise and crush the spirit, opposition to any system that uses violence to achieve its ends.
The Kingdom of God was in direct opposition to any of these worldly systems but particularly in Jesus’ context the Roman/Temple system that oppressed his people. In understanding this, we understand the political content of the message of Jesus. He was a threat to everything that Rome and the Temple stood for. He was the enemy and the leaders of the Jews knew he had to be treated like one. It is for this reason that Jesus was crucified.
Taking up our cross means being prepared to sacrifice ourselves for a principle, to oppose tyranny and injustice wherever it is, even if it leads to our persecution or even death. That is what “taking up our cross means.
With Jesus as our template, understood properly, the Jesus way is transformed from a quietist other worldly apolitical crutch neatly separate from real life issues of the day to being a radical voice fearlessly standing up for the poor, marginalised and oppressed, even though it might be to our own detriment. Exactly the sort of people Jesus mixed with. Not a retreat from the world but a radical transforming engagement with the world and its structures, its regimes and its inequalities.
These two different views of Jesus – one political the other apolitical – is modelled starkly in South American Roman Catholicism. The RC hierarchy has consistently either been very cosy or has actively supported every fascist regime the continent has ever produced. In contrast a huge segment of the RC laity and quite a few priests have discovered a different Jesus to the official version – the radical Jesus with a bias towards the poor and powerless and thus was born “liberation theology” much to the disgust of the Vatican who routinely denounce it as being Marxist. 
To say that Jesus and therefore Christianity is not political is I believe to completely misunderstand Jesus. He was executed by a political elite who saw his popular opposition, even while it was entirely peaceful, as a huge threat to themselves.  To follow Jesus is not a cosy religious duty done in the safety of a church but a rather frightening and bruising engagement with the social moral and political problems and structures of the day.  

Sunday, 21 August 2011

What exactly is faith?

A sermon based on Matthew 16: 13-20

This seminal event at Caesarea Phillipi marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, because from there marks the long road to Jerusalem and to crucifixion.
What is being commended in Simon, and why he is given the nickname Cephas or “Petros”in Greek from which we get the name Peter is faith – and it is faith on which the church will be built. And this church, this community of faith will have the authority to decide what is in step with the way of God as modelled by Jesus and what is not – the authority to “bind or loose” as it says in the gospel.  The obvious problem is, there are about a thousand or more denominations in the world all binding and loosing different things!
The natural question for me is what is faith? What is meant by the question “Do you have faith?”
There was a time when I would have said as a new Christian that the answer to that question was quite straightforward. Faith was simply a question of believing certain things and being able to say yes to them. It might be any number of things and alarm bells start ringing when every denomination has its own list of things that must be believed to qualify as having a true faith. It might include things like the virgin birth, miracles, or belief that the Bible is the inerrant literal word of God  in some protestant churches.
You are required to believe things like the immaculate conception of Mary if you are a Roman Catholic, or be required to believe that speaking in tongues is a true sign of real faith in a Pentecostal church.  On the further shores of Christianity you have the Jehovah’s witnesses where you would have to believe that only 144,000 people go to heaven and the Mormons where an article of faith is that Joseph Smith found a missing book of the Bible on gold tablets – which conveniently went missing again!  Another benchmark used is whether you believe whether anything “happens” to the bread and wine in the Eucharist or not. All come under the general Christian umbrella but all have a different list for us to believe in, to have faith in.
All of these tests of faith are about holding specific beliefs about specific things and draw very thick dividing lines between people. You either do, in which case you are “in” because you have faith or you can’t believe some or all of them in which case you are “out”.
But as a more mature Christian and standing on the other side of traumatic events I now know as clearly as I can know anything that faith is not about that. It is not really about believing this or that about anything in particular – not that most of them are in themselves wrong (though some are clearly ridiculous to my mind).  I would be prepared to bet that if a secret list of things that each of us here today actually do believe in was compiled - that would produce a pretty wild and far reaching list that none of us could actually agree on.
So what is faith if not believing in things on a prescribed list prepared for you by your respective religion? I would say that faith is more akin to trust. Simple trust. Trust that no matter how bad things are, good things can emerge from them. Trust that the world, despite signs to the contrary, is basically good. Trust that God really is love......not a cliché but actually true. A trust which leads to a kind of trust that was put so eloquently by the Medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich that because of that trust that God really is Love, in the end, “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”.
A trust that God is indeed mystery and can never be captured and neatly packaged by any religion but that His very nature and character is that which was revealed in the life of Jesus that is loving, inclusive, forgiving, healing and constant.
It is a trust that while the world might appear at first sight to be opaque, it is in reality shot through with this divine mystery, that there is a depth to life and in this depth is the source of all life and that He actually cares about what happens to us.
A trust that feeds into our daily life and informs the way we are and how we relate to God, to people, and to nature. A Christian is as a Christian does – not whether you can pass a test as to whether you can subscribe to a set of prescribed beliefs. How do we know a Christian? By their fruits said Jesus, not by their stated beliefs.
Christianity as the way of love is a reflection of the way of Christ, which was in itself a revelation of the way of God, and trusting that this is so.
The church for me is a community travelling together in trust that God is love and is present to us and can be related to personally in prayer. A community journeying through life together trusting that God has been and is revealed in life, in people, in things, in nature, to such an extent that we can commune with God, this divine mystery, by sharing bread and wine together and trust that in so doing we are communing with God. For me, this is the church and this is our faith and on this rock we are built.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

If you prick me do I not bleed?

A sermon based on Matthew 15: 21-28
There might not be, on the face of it much common ground between the gospel passage and the violence that we have witnessed in our country this week but the reality is of course that one of the central issues here for the gospel passage and for Paul writing to the Romans was whether the relationship between God and the Jews was exclusive or not and what was to be the relationship between the Jews and their neighbours.
In the disorder this week in Britain, though the causes are up for grabs and I’m sure each of us has strong views on the subject, surely central to the national debate is the various relationships between different ethnic, religious and social groups, living cheek by Jowl in our big cities.
Touching briefly on Paul, a Jew himself of course as were nearly all the early church, writes “I ask then, has God rejected his people, by no means”, because It could be said, and was said, that the Jews were now surplus to God’s requirements in the sense that their pre-eminent role in modelling the way of God to be an example to the world was now over.  That role had been usurped in the mind of Christian followers by Jesus himself and the trans-national church. In Paul’s interpretation of Christianity which became the norm, God had broken the banks of the Jewish nation and gone global.
Paul has to somehow hold together in his mind the historic role of the Jews, the idea that they were the people of the covenant , a chosen people, and honour that role whilst propagating his own view that in Jesus this role had been superseded by the church.
Now these are just the first passing shots in the relationship between the Jews and the Christian church has been anything but rosy. It is a history of violent persecution and bigotry. It is a history of prejudice and pogroms. At one time Edward I expelled all Jews from Britain. The Jews in Spain were far better off under the benign rule of the Muslims than the Christians. When the Catholics re-conquered Spain from the Moors the Jews were in the direct firing line of the inquisition and persecution, forced conversion and expulsions were the order of the day. This unhappy history reached its horrific climax in the “Final solution” just seventy years ago in Europe when the extermination of the Jews was one of the main goals of the Nazis. The Catholic Church has only in the past decades officially absolved the Jews of their role in the execution of Jesus.
We often think that the cross is a positive, non-threatening symbol. But in a personal aside, when I took people to the Orthodox Jewish area of Jerusalem called Mea Sharim we were asked by our guide to cover up any crosses that any of us might be wearing. These Jews, refugees from Eastern Europe for the most part, saw the cross not as benign but as a symbol of bloody oppression by Christians and saw it as an inflammatory symbol that could cause trouble.
Inter-faith relations and inter-racial relations are extremely hard to negotiate. They are in 21st century Britain and they were in 1st century Palestine as well. Nothing much changes, just the time and the characters involved. If we can learn anything from Jesus’ encounter with this Canaanite woman it is that ultimately through honest and sometimes bruising encounters we can actually learn from each other and grow.
From what was a very sticky tense encounter between two people divided by ethnicity and religion, it was the common humanity that won out. There was in the end mutual recognition. The woman recognised the depth, the goodness and truth of God in Jesus but equally Jesus recognised her trust in God and her deep human need in her love and concern for her sick daughter.
They were divided by race and religion but united in their common humanity and in Spirit.
One of the hardest lessons to learn from this parable which is directly applicable to 21st century Britain is that we must learn to look beyond and behind all the things that divide us as an act of the will, to see the person behind the religious and ethnic mask until it becomes second nature.
I believe God’s way is not to see someone and only see a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim Hindu or anything else. God’s way is to look at another person without the religious label around their neck and see a human being trying their best within their culture and religion to make some sense of this world.
The greatest example of this came this week when a Muslim man, Tariq Jahan, spoke to quell the anger of the mob just after his own son had been killed in Winsom Green in the Midlands. In the midst of his grief, he courageously asked all the people to just go home. That “Blacks Asians and Whites all lived in the same community “. As a Muslim he just asked that Allah would forgive his son and bless him, and that there must be no more violence.
A voice from the other side – a different race, a different culture and religion but it was the most Christian thing I had heard this week and it came from a Muslim.
I have learned that there is a difference between religion and spirituality and genuine people of the Spirit, people of genuine humanity will always recognise each other across the religious barricades. I will end by quoting you something I printed a few months ago about the difference between religion and spirituality by Brian Woodcock from the Iona community. I think it is directly relevant to our gospel story today and our current difficulties in the UK today.
“Being Spiritual is not the same as being religious. Religion is what you believe and do. Spirituality is to do with quality. It is a thing of the heart. Religion draws lines, Spirituality reads between them. It tends to avoid definitions, boundaries and battles. It is inclusive and holistic. It crosses frontiers and makes connections. It is characterised by sensitivity, gentleness, depth, openness, flow, feeling, quietness, wonder, paradox, being, waiting, acceptance, awareness, healing and inner journey.”
In the end, in Jesus’ encounter with this woman, religion lost. Humanity and Spirituality won.  

Monday, 8 August 2011

Happy Families

Claire leaves for Stirling tomorrow. The animals will miss her at least!

Take my hand

A sermon based on Matthew 14: 22-33

Cutting to the quick – the very deepest meaning of this gospel parable is that in the many storms of life that batter us – be they death, betrayal, pain, loneliness, suffering of many different kinds, God, who can appear to be absent in all these things is actually there and can be called upon as Peter called upon Jesus when he started to sink.
Jesus here, who is symbolising the presence of God, who has ultimate dominion over the forces of darkness and chaos, is there to be called upon and the hand of God is stretched out to catch you and stop you from being drowned by the fierce waters we all find ourselves in from time to time that threaten to engulf us.
As you may or may not know water symbolises darkness and chaos and death in the Hebrew mind.  In Genesis at the dawn of creation there were – the waters.  And before creating the world, God’s Spirit hovered over the waters and in order to create God parted the waters to create the world. So the world existed between two great bodies of water – the upper waters held at bay by the dome of the sky – through which God occasionally let some water through to give rain and the lower waters which people could see like the sea and rivers and lakes. So you see, in the Hebrew mind the world existed between two threatening bodies of water kept at bay by God.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is most often depicted as delivering through water. One has only to think of the great flood and Noah, or the Israelites being saved by God by the parting of the waters of the red sea, or entering the land of Israel by the parting of the river Jordan, John the Baptist delivering people from darkness through immersing people in water and raising them up again, from which we Christians derive our own symbolic use of water in baptism.
Parting the water or walking above the water, symbolises the presence and power of God to save, to heal, to love through and beyond the trials and torments that life throws at us – to bring us through those storms.
It is in those storms that the rubber hits the road. In those storms your faith can desert you completely and you start to sink like Peter did.
I have nearly sunk many times over the past years and you all will have as well. None of us can insulate ourselves from pain and loss. I have nearly sunk many times over the past nine months. Death throws a huge spanner in the works, and when you reach out and grab somebody and that person also dies you can very easily submerge, but something or someone keeps me and you going.
What would you call it? A life force, the human spirit, true grit, God’s helping hand? For me the big picture is that all those things have a source and that is God. And I suppose that is a kind of trust, which is my understanding of faith.
A trust that can wear pretty thin at times I admit, but a trust nonetheless, that in the midst of heartache, fear or pain or whatever else ails us there is a deeper reality that is within the pain itself but which also transcends it and has the innate capacity to take it and transform it and create something different, something good out of it.
I don’t believe in miracles, but you knew that anyway. But what I do believe in, what I trust in, is a much greater miracle than magic tricks like walking on water, whether it is Jesus or Peter – the greater miracles of life itself, of human consciousness and self awareness, of love and forgiveness, the miracle of compassion and reconciliation, the greater miracles of spiritual and emotional healing and the greatest miracle of good growing out of bad, of life growing out of death – true resurrection.
Another miracle is that God doesn’t often appear or intervene as a disembodied Ghost or a phantom voice (not ever in my experience) but almost always comes to us embodied in another human being or creature.  Just as God reached out to Peter in the body of Jesus so God uses real people to reach out to others. Putting ourselves at his disposal in prayer and communion means basically that we are saying that he can use us, but actually who reaches out to whom, and who we choose to grab hold of is a deep mystery . The people God chooses to use is a constant surprise.
But because as Christians we choose to immerse ourself more deeply in the mystery of life and God then perhaps in doing so, we come to appreciate all the more that we will at certain times be the one calling out to another to save us but that we can also be the one holding out that steadying, saving hand. We put ourselves in God’s way. God using our hand to reach out and heal and save.  Enfleshed love is all important.  Love made real in another human being. That is what I mean when I talk about incarnation.
As Bishop John Pritchard asks in his most recent book. “How long can someone go on believing in a love that they don’t feel?”
At various times during our life we will be both the drowning person and the one holding out a steadying hand.
Acting as the helping hand – being used by God to reach out to another – we can bring God’s healing love into another person’s life, should that other person choose to reach out and grab hold.