Monday, 26 August 2013

Seeing the wood from the trees.

In the gospels a healing miracle can be inserted to achieve a number of different goals.  Sometimes their function is highlight the presence of faith – sometimes the sovereign power of God regardless of personal faith, and sometimes they act as a way of introducing controversy with the religious authorities. Always they point to a more than just physical healing – the physical healing is an outward sign of a greater healing – which is three fold. The fundamental healing of any perceived rift between yourself and God, and based on that fundamental and most important healing follows the healing of the divisions between yourself and your neighbour and the healing of any internal divisions, so that you are at peace with yourself. All of these different aspects of healing are covered by the Hebrew word “Shalom”.  
In today’s offering from Luke, the primary reason for the miracle is to precipitate the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the Synagogue. The title “leader of the Synogogue” was like the office of our church warden today. The leader of the Synagogue managed and regulated the life of the Synagogue and kept order etc.
What this dispute highlights is the primacy of the current work of the Spirit which overrides even the written law. The leader of the Synagogue was holding so tightly to the written tradition, in particular the fourth commandment to “do no work on the Sabbath day”. Jesus was highlighting how these laws, not just this particular one can be so strictly enforced as to render them ridiculous.
The extent of how ridiculous they could get is brought alive in the healing of the crippled woman where Jesus doing this was deemed to be “work” which was clearly banned on the Sabbath day in the mind of the Synagogue leader. Jesus is saying, which is most important, the following of a written law which points to a greater purpose or that greater purpose itself actually demonstrated in front of your very eyes.
In concentrating on the law the Synagogue leader was in effect worshipping a signpost to God rather that God himself.
The greatest and highest purpose of the monotheistic faiths is that we should be at one with God. The root of the word “salvation” itself is “salve” to heal. And the goal of the cross, however you understand it is “atonement”” which means to be made one with God. When we perceive and realise this salvation or atonement the result is a restoration and it is felt as a holistic peace – shalom.
How this works out in our lives in a lifelong journey of discovery. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you”
So salvation or atonement, is not the end product, it is the beginning of how you work out, how you live your life in accordance with this truth that you now own.  
Another way of putting it is that salvation is not something after which we have to work or grasp after, it is the very ground on which we stand.  As it is the ground on which we stand, all else, good deeds, virtue, the fruits of the Spirit flow out of us as we stand in God’s grace.
The log jam for most Christians is that we find it very hard to recognise our oneness, we find it hard is practice to know that we are infinitely loved. – so we live as strangers to God most of the time.
The aim of all spiritual practices, coming to church, praying, meditating, doing good deeds, is not to try and achieve some higher goal that always lies just out of reach, but to realise what we already have as a divine gift. Salvation is already ours, atonement is ours, shalom is ours, if we could only believe that. Spiritual practices are the art of mining our deepest selves and discovering what was there all along, but hidden – “veiled from our eyes” to use an O.T. phrase.

The invitation this morning is to discover what we already possess  - and allow the Spirit to work through the words, the actions, the hymns, to shine a light inside you to discover and learn to know yourself – your true self in relation to God.  

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keeping it real.

There are many tensions involved in having a religious perspective on life. We have to hold many different things in a dynamic tension.
The fact that all is one and creation – including us of course - is all of a piece has to be held in tension with the fact that we are individuals with an independent will and ego.
The belief that God is omnipresent – is through all and in all - has to be held in tension with the fact that in our everyday existence God can feelsvery far off.
For a Christian the invitation to know what God is like through following the example of Jesus has to be held in tension with the prior contention that fundamentally, God is unknowable.
Jesus in his teaching this morning notes correctly that his message of peace and goodwill to all men will paradoxically bring not peace but discord and family breakdown.  He is not saying for one second that this is the purpose of his coming but that it will be the natural and realistic result of his teaching, as some will want to follow and some will not.
Contained within the teaching is another great tension that Christians have to deal with.
Our Christian contention that we are all one massive family sharing the one heavenly father and mother has to be held in tension with our social need for loyalty and support for/from our biological human families.
This tension has always been there.
On the first point, it is true that in any Christian congregation there will be people whose partner sits resolutely at home while the other half comes to church. This is a tricky area and has to be carefully negotiated with the other partner. The issue is usually one of time – and the church like any organisation can be quite a draw on our time.
On the issue of our tension between being part of a biological human family and at the same time all being children in the one big human family that Christianity teaches one has to balance priorities.
How I work out that tension is like this. For societies to not just function but to flourish, I am convinced that we need strong families. Strong families provide the framework for us all to be supported and loved especially children of course.  What form that family takes has been under the microscope and has been changing since at least the 1960’s. I am more than aware of all the changes in attitudes that have taken place.
I accept that as you get older you don’t necessarily get any wiser but I have become more sure over the years that the traditional form of marriage has a primary and very important place in society.
Part of the preface to the marriage ceremony that I say at every wedding is that
“Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty which all should uphold and honour. It enriches society and strengthens community”.  Marriage in the Christian view enriches society and strengthens community.
Pragmatically the family also provides a strong bulwark and safe space for children to be nurtured. This allied to the complementary natures and gifts of a man and woman, we have in my view the best formula I know of for a healthy society.
How does that rest though with Jesus’ teaching on the primary calling to be children of the one heavenly father?
Well the Church of England has always had the reputation of being a pragmatic and realistic church. Too pragmatic and too realistic for many of the other more purist expressions and  denominations of Christians of course.
It is about boundaries I think. Often, families can put an iron barricade around the family – people are either very definitely in or definitely out. Love, support and nurture are reserved exclusively for immediate family to the exclusion of others.
I think a pragmatic Christian response is to soften those boundaries – to change it from being a barrier to a semi-permeable membrane that allows a freer flow of love and support.
It is an expanding of family values rather than a shrinking of them. It is extending all those strengths we associate with our family ties like loyalty, mutual love and support and extending them to others beyond our immediate horizons.
Just as we are called to love others as ourselves so we are called to love the extended family as we love our own. Love here is of course not the pink and fluffy western notion of romantic love, but gritty and realistic support and nurture - even when it is inconvenient – the sort of support that we normally reserve for family members. Going the extra mile for others, not just our own.
More generally, the application of any faith tradition to inform our actual lives is always a matter of negotiation and degree.
The extreme violence in Egypt is actually between varying intensities of Islam - Muslims who have a very different interpretation of how far Islam is to be a part of national life.  Different interpretations in that religious family has led to civil war with the poor Christians caught in the crossfire.
I know that often the church of England is derided as being soft and wishy washy on Christian doctrine and morals but actually I would say we are being true to real life – the world as it actually is.
I think we are unique in the Christian world in that we don’t solely take the Bible as our way of doing theology, nor do we take just tradition as our way of doing theology or even both together, we famously add another ingredient – reason or experience. We hold the Bible, tradition and reason together in a dynamic tension when we deliberate on the way forward. This three legged stool  is our gift to the Christian debate. We respect the Bible and its input, we respect church tradition and its input but we also respect common sense and reason our own lived experience and we let each inform the other and hope the Holy Spirit prompts us to apply the faith in a realistic way..

 It is hard to accommodate religious absolutes onto actual life but all religion is inculturated and we are a specifically English form of the Christian faith and long may it continue. We are at our best, a quiet, reasonable, sometimes contradictory (like life) church trying to find a path through the moral maze of life, helping people to negotiate and integrate faith and life.  

Monday, 12 August 2013

How is Christ made present in the world?

In Luke the “treasure” he speaks of is the Kingdom of God and is reminiscent of a parable in Matthew when he writes “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44).
Note: Matthew, being more “Jewish” than the other gospel writers always substitutes the word “heaven” for” God” because traditionally “God” is too holy to us, but the meaning is the samee.
Kingdoms of this that or the other really tell us where final authority rests. So if you are a conscious subject of the Kingdom of God – this is a way of saying that you acknowledge the authority of God in your life so it is incumbent upon you, as a willing part of that kingdom that you will follow and act in accordance with God’s will and character.
What is God’s will and character and how should we act? Well of course in Christianity we say that God’s way of doing things and character has been revealed and modelled by Jesus, in what he did and the way he did it. Following the way of life modelled by Jesus is therefore the same thing as being a part of the Kingdom of God.
That way of life of self sacrifice, forgiveness and compassion has been modelled by other religious figures I’m sure but we are culturally Christian so Jesus is our model of how to live in the light of a close relationship with God. That is my definition of what it is to be a Christian.
We follow as best we can with varying levels of success, and when we see our failures we ask for forgiveness and carry on.
Being ready, alert, watchful etc which comes up a fair deal in the gospels is expressed again in our parable today.  Keeping the light of God burning in our lives through prayer and good deeds despite all that assails us is the task at hand, because if we relax – thieves can break in and steal our treasure away. In real terms this means we will backtrack and become again more self serving because we will replace God at the centre of our lives with something else – usually our own ego, or power or possessions.
Passages like this one have also traditionally been associated by the church as exhortations to keep the faith while we waited for the second coming of Jesus – a second coming, the final judgement and the end of the world usually understood in starkly literal terms.  Historically when the “second coming” did not happen the idea of the presence* of Jesus with his people was sublimated into the Eucharist – he was with us – truly present - that way.
*Note: The phrase “second coming” is not Biblical and is simply an English extrapolation. The Greek word is “Parousia” and means “Presence”. The theology of presence is very close to my heart
Later on, that view has developed and conflated so whenever the Spirit of God is present and acted on in our lives we can say that Jesus is present. When we emulate the Jesus way it is as if Jesus himself were doing it. Jesus becomes present – he returns – when we act like Jesus. We become Christ for the other person.
So it is circular. When we acknowledge God as our Father and act in his Spirit, as Jesus did, we become Christ, and God’s presence and character are revealed and made known. The Kingdom of God has come near. Christian acts or deeds are the oil in our lamps, keeping the light of God shining in the world. With no good deeds, with no oil, the lamp goes out.
And just to be clear – doing good does not buy anything from God. Doing good doesn’t make anyone more loved or move anyone further up any sort of pecking order. Instead, doing good is a natural outflowing from within, flowing out of a knowledge of God’s love and presence within us.
When we talk of building the kingdom of God, or as in that famous hymn, building Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land we want people to acknowledge the fruits of the Kingdom but also to acknowledge the source of the fruitfulness.  The two must go hand in hand I’m sure.
My training vicar in Margate always used to say. We are only called to the faithful not successful. But what does faithful really mean? When I read the New Testament what I see is a call to bear fruit. It’s a call to change and transform. That for me is what being faithful really means.  

Following the way of Jesus – doing what he might have done – we make Christ present in the world.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Wake up and smell the coffee!

The truth of the parable in Luke – that life hangs by a thread and death is only ever a heart beat away is brought home to us massively by tragedies like the train crash in Santiago and the coach crash in Italy.
Yes, we do know that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria and that scores of people will die of malnutrition and disease today, but the truth is they don’t have the same effect on us as those first two tragedies.
In this country we are not in a civil war and we generally all have enough to eat, and so it is the very ordinariness and familiarity of the two situations that makes it more real to us. We all take trains, we all ride on coaches. The lives that the Spanish and Italian passengers led were far more recognisably like our own.
That could have been us.  It could have been our mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife or friend who said good bye that morning, closed the door behind them, never to return ever again.
When we are brought face to face with our own mortality in such an abrupt way, it can cause us to take stock of our life, determine what is and is not important, and try to amend our lives accordingly. At least for a while, until the shock wears off and we drift back to how we were living our life before.
In the parable Jesus told, the rich man is still planning his business expansion right up until the day he dies suddenly – leaving all his wealth and money behind.
Now what this parable is not, is any dig at wealth creation itself, a good and necessary thing for societies to grow and flourish. It is a parable that seeks to alert us to what is important in our life. Money in itself is neither good nor evil – it is neutral – simply a means of exchange.
But when money, and the amassing of more and more of it becomes your overriding passion, Jesus says your life and soul suffers. Your life of your family and friends and your own internal peace and well being can be eclipsed by the single minded pursuit of wealth.
My whole understanding of Christianity is that it is primarily concerned with this life. Our lives are written against an infinite horizon, but that is the backdrop to this life, in this form, in this time. The good news of Christianity is primarily one based in a close personal relationship with the divine – a divine entity that is nurturing and wills our flowering and flourishing in this life – to enable us to live this life more fully.  So when death does come like a thief in the night we leave with no regrets and knowing we have lived this life as it was given to us – as a gift.
No-one asks to be born. We are given our lives and the best way to live it, is gratefully, as a gift that has been given freely to us.  Life is the gift that keeps on giving. There is so much in life to discover and explore – people places, experiences but also our own selves. Each human being is absolutely unique. There has been no one like us before and there will be no one like us ever. This is an extravagantly life filled universe of which we are an integral, irreplaceable part. Whatever hand life has dealt us, we can only live it as best and fully as we can.
This entails in part something I have mentioned before - Living life in the present moment. Most of us most of the time live distracted restless lives always wishing they were somewhere else, with someone else, in a different situation. We don’t appreciate what we have. We don’t savour it enough – we take it all for granted and ignore it.
The antidote to this way of living that deadens us you can find in all of the world’s great religions. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. In the New Testament Jesus calls it watchfulness.
St Paul wrote “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2)
Jesus is the example presented to us of someone who had a renewed mind and sucked every ounce of life out of every minute. To imitate Christ  - in Biblical language to “put on Christ”  which might lead us to bear fruit in accordance with the renewing of our mind – is our spiritual task.
That, as far as I can see is the whole mission of the church, the only reason for its existence is to renew our lives and through us, as salt and light to renew or transform the world. In its truest sense Christianity should be life enhancing and life giving or it is of no use at all.
The invitation to be watchful – or aware – appears across the New Testament. The practices involve fostering a deeper awareness of the world around us and the world within us.
This is what new life is all about. It is about waking up from our sleep and becoming more conscious to more fully appreciate the life we already have. To build this appreciation into our lives takes  self discipline and spiritual practice.
And rather than just talk about it we will now observe a simple three minute exercise in stillness and awareness. Everything here is completely natural; no effort is required. If you feel yourself straining at any time just try and relax and let go.
Sit up straight, feet on the ground and your hands resting on your knees. Be comfortable, relaxed yet alert.
Connect to your senses and be open to anything and everything without judgement.  Truly be present in this place. Let your eyes roam. Look around. See things, notice them, people,  things, colours and contours. See the beauty and complexity of this place around you in which you are a part. Connect with any sounds – the sound of my voice, the person shuffling near you, someone shouting at their dog outside.  Notice how your body feels, notice how your back and bottom are touching the pew, notice the pressure points. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they pass through your mind – whether good or bad – let them just pass through. The sum of yourself is much greater than your thoughts and feelings.
Now in this state of awareness notice your breathing. Don’t try to alter it, just be very aware of it. Breathing in and out as you have done from the moment of your birth as yourwill do till the moment of your death. Breath in Hebrew is the same word as Spirit. Ruach. As you breath in and out imagine you are breathing in God’s Spirit and it is enlivening you and feeding you.  It is actually thought that the Hebrew words for God – I AM – Yahweh - pure consciousness or pure being is taken from the sound of the breath that sustains our life. Yah Weh Yah weh. See, feel, notice, breathe, rest in God be aware and hold this for another minute.....................................