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.