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.