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Key Questions in Christianity: Second in the Series

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

10th May 2015

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

15

Easter 6 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’: Second in the series, 10th May, 2015

 

Driving home from church last Sunday I caught for the first time a Radio 4 comedy called ‘Dilemma’. Hosted by Sue Perkins, it asks a panel of comedians to consider various outlandish moral questions. It claims to be, ‘The show that puts morality under the magnifying glass and waits for the sun’.  I tried to be enjoy it – at least they were talking about morality on prime time radio. But the familiar mockery and banter of the panel left me cold. What seemed particularly odd was the effort to award points for the ‘moral high ground’ to panellists following each facile consideration of an ethical dilemma. Sue Perkins is skilled at distinguishing between biscuits on  Bake Off, but her attempts to provide reasons for finding one fatuous comment more ethical than another were pretty woeful. So for instance, in the quick fire round, as a panellist chose between either getting mugged every day on one hand, or living in a bottle bank, on the other, Perkins giggled, ‘that’s the right, very cool, answer.’

Which kind of sums up our contemporary attitude towards morality – if it’s cool, flip, hip, and funny – then it’s right.  Or at least OK. Or maybe just the best we can do in this godless day and age. The only reference to any sort of higher power --  such as statistics, science, philosophy or God -- was, rather predictably, an anti-Creationist gag.

I must admit to feeling depressed from time to time about the ways in which our society discusses, or mostly doesn’t discuss, moral and ethical dilemmas. The language of ‘right and wrong’ has almost been erased from our vocabulary. And that’s unprecedented in human history. Even atheists in previous generations have managed to produce rich conversation about virtue and morality, though now we realise they were perhaps more dependent on the prevailing religious air they breathed than they would have acknowledged. Now that that religious story and vocabulary has largely been discarded by opinion formers, we are left without the heroes, and villains, and the patterns and paradigms which these stories once gave to practically all cultures prior to our own. Think of how children learn right and wrong –primarily by learning stories which make a moral point. Bible stories, Aesop’s fables, fairy tale, Greek myths. Last week in CHAOS our children were asked posed various moral dilemmas as they discussed the difference between building their house on the sand, and building their house on the rock. They were being taught how to weigh up difficult decisions, and arrive at a decision that seems rightly related to God above, and the reality of the ground beneath them.  Something the wise man in the parable would do.

This is the second in a little mini series of sermons I’m preaching about the key questions which Christianity asks. Last week we talked about the questions which kind of come before we might arrive at faith in God. Questions like, ‘how can I understand the Bible unless I have someone to explain it to me?’ ‘Is the Bible just about those people way back then or Can I find words for me, today, in its pages? And ‘What is there to prevent me from being baptised’.  (website)

This morning we look at the big question emerging from a decision to be baptised, or to follow Jesus, and that is ‘how shall we then live?’ This is the million dollar question. The one which lies behind all advice columns, self help books, therapy, life-coaching, and religion. It’s the serious libation upon which the froth of programmes like Radio 4’s Dilemma, floats. Competing answers to this question shape our political discourse, and in the aftermath of one of the most turbulent elections in history, we look at the composition of the new House of Commons, and ask afresh, How shall we then live?

There’s a reading from the 55th Chapter of Isaiah assigned for today, which doesn’t make it onto your crowded pew sheet this morning. But it reminds us that the question of how to find a good way of living has been asked from time immemorial and it always sounds contemporary. ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’ asks Isaiah. When we go shopping for the good life, why do we so often come home with our basket empty?

Biblical writers generally use fairly formal language. But Isaiah starts this passage with the little interjection, ‘Ho’. Ho, he says, which is kind of like saying ‘Oi’:  ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the water, and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ You’re buying physical stuff says Isaiah, when what you really want is the spiritual food which money cannot buy. So why do you keep shopping?

The key moral insight in the Bible, in Judeo- Christian scripture, is ‘go deeper’. All this shopping, all  this concern with how we look, how we come across, all this work for stuff which does not satisfy --- it’s all masking a deeper spiritual hunger and the really essential questions of life.

Over and over, Jesus tries to get across the point that the surface is not very important…. It’s what’s in the heart that matters. You obey all the rules about diet, exercise and etiquette, he tells the religious leaders of his day, but your hearts are deeply unclean. You focus on the hundreds of moral rules which Judaism has constructed, but you forget that at the heart of all these commandments is love. You look for ways to be spiritually impressive, he says to his followers, but really you need to be like this. And he places a young child at the centre of the crowd.

In the gospel we’ve heard read this morning, Jesus goes to the heart of that question about how we should live. There are many commandments which good Jews tried to follow. Jesus says, this is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. 

Note the whole sentence, the whole command. He doesn’t say, ‘love one another out of your general store of wonderfulness’. He doesn’t say, ‘love everyone, because you have the stable family support and economic base from which to give to those less fortunate’. Instead Jesus points out that the only way we can fulfil the command to love, is because we first have fulfilled the command to receive the love that God is longing to give us. When Jesus was walking around, listening to his followers, laughing at their bad jokes, cooking them breakfast, sorting them out when they were ill… it was perhaps easier for them to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know’. It’s harder for us now. We have to trust the words of the love which we read in the scripture. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,’ goes the old children’s song. When the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, a man who wrote many many complicated books of theology in dense German, was asked at a lecture what it all boiled down to, he simply sang that song.

Radio 4’s Dilemma, bills itself as the ‘show that holds a magnifying glass to morality, and waits for the sun’. In actual fact, it holds a mirror to moral questions and allows panellists to talk about themselves. Christianity waits for the sun, the Son of God, to shine his love into our lives, so that we can bring that love into every moral situation, viewing it not through our own self obsessions, desires, or spiritual thirst, but with a clarity, and focus born out of deep connection with God.

It’s this ability to go deeper, which enables people, at the end of the day to lay down their lives for others. ‘Greater love hath no man, (says the old King James version I learned)than to lay down his life for his friends.’

How then shall we live? We live in a way that leads to this greater love.  We practice day to day, the small acts of laying down our lives, which make us ever more like Jesus, who laid down his life to death, even the horrible death on a cross, to redeem us all. Today there may well be Christians in Iraq or Syria, the few that are left, who face death, even death on a cross. For many have been crucified because they are ‘people of the cross’. We have celebrated another 70th anniversary from the Second World War this week, remembering those who did literally lay down their lives for others. We need to be people prepared to do the same in extenuating circumstances. But our very shallow and morally bereft culture hardly prepares us for this greater love.

Yet every time we manage to put to one side our desires and preoccupations, our mirrors and our digital forays into self-promotion, our entertainments and our fork -- when we drag ourselves out of bed to comfort a crying child, when we turn down a promotion because our spouse and kids really don’t want to move, when we go and spend time with that friend who has dementia, when we take some of that money we’d laid aside for new furniture, and send it to those who have no roof over their head. When we do these things, we know we are walking on that path which takes us to ‘greater love’.  

Love doesn’t come out of a vacuum – it’s a responsive thing. It is generated by relationship. That too is a central insight of Christianity, which imagines God as a loving relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a sort of mystical generator of love – as opposed to an old man with a beard --  at the heart of the universe. We love, says scripture, because we are caught up into this Trinitarian love of God, and our response to being so well loved, is that we can really love others. We don’t manufacture the feeling , or the action of love, all on our own.

Here’s a true story, which I invite you to hear as a parable, looking for the deeper meaning.  Earlier this week, Rene Marshall, went to her Extend exercise class, in the Kings Cliffe village hall, and stretched out her arms and legs to the soundtrack of ‘I’m in the mood for love, simply because you’re near me, funny but when you’re near me, I’m in the mood for love’. Her mind took her back 70 years, when on VE day, she was in that very same place, Kings Cliffe village hall, dancing in the arms of a soldier, as the American military band played, (you guessed it)  ‘I’m in the mood for love’.

The answer to life’s deepest questions and dilemmas is not a set of rules, or a diversionary set of jokes. It’s the love which we extend to others, as we exercise our powers of compassion, and attention, and discretion. And we are able to love simply because he’s near us.

AMEN.

Key Questions in Christianity: first in three part series

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

3rd May 2015

Book: 

Acts

Chapter: 

8

Easter 5 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’ : First in the series

 

Acts 8.26-end

Psalm, 22. 25-end

I John 4.7-end

John 15. 1-8

This morning I’d like to start a little three part series considering key questions in Christianity. As we sit here in church today, 4 days before a General Election, the journalists, the pollsters, are feverishly working this country, trying to find the questions that will probe into the psyches of the undecided; they frame the questions this way and that way. It’s an art. It’s a science, and it’s big business. Getting the questions right is often the key to breakthrough…  whether we’re sitting in a counsellor’s office being asked to talk about our earliest childhood memory, or sitting in a boardroom asking what reality lies behind the accountant’s figures.

We come into church to contemplate an unseen thing called God, which begs some of the most important questions we’ll ever ask.  Some of you might question from a scientific perspective, ‘How can I even begin to think about something I can’t measure?’  Some of you may ask from the depths of pain, ‘How can God let this happen to me?’  Sometimes your questions might be very precise:  ‘Should I apply for this job? Is he the one?’ Or perhaps they’re very open ended: ‘what’s it all about?’ ‘why am I here’?

If you’ve got a lot of questions this morning, take heart, because when you look closely at that collection of Jewish and Christian holy writings which we call the Bible, you find it’s shot through with questions, people asking questions of God, of Jesus… Jesus and God asking questions of them in return.  In this series of sermons on key questions, we’ll look at some of these questions and also at how people try to find answers. If you want the whole series, not only do you need to appear at Laxton (9am) or KC (10am) next Sunday, but also have to make a special appearance at the Ascension day service at 7:30pm on Thursday 14th May, here in Kings Cliffe. We’re hosting the whole Deanery group of churches to the service which celebrates one of the most questionable doctrines in the church, the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven after his resurrection. Philip will preside, I’ll preach, and we’ll serve bubbly afterwards to help us all recover.

But today we keep our feet more or less on the ground, with the story of an early Philip who chases after a man riding in a chariot. The story from Acts, takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, through Gaza. Three place names which all raise troubling questions 2000 years later. As does the charioteer’s  sexuality… for this man is a eunuch. That means that like my poor dog Zebedee, he has been de-testicled so that he might devote himself more wholeheartedly to his female boss. Eunuchs were a part of life in the ancient world, and interestingly, whenever eunuchs feature in a bible story, they play a positive role. Jesus mentions eunuchs in the 19th chapter of Matthew, saying, ‘there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’. (19:12)

But not everyone could.  Eunuchs were not accepted in the religious economy of Judaism.  According to a few verses in Deuteronomy, those who were sexually mutilated were not permitted into the temple of God. So although this Ethiopian eunuch, we are told, has been to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, we must assume that he didn’t get very far into the labyrinth of structures which sectioned off Jew from Gentile, male from female and the pure from the impure. In fact, as an Ethiopian, and a eunuch, this man was very much kept at arm’s length from the Holy of Holies.

Nevertheless, this eunuch was engrossed in reading a chapter of the Jewish scriptures  in the book of Isaiah. And  that’s interesting, because in the book of Isaiah God mentions not only that he will ‘recover the remnant that is left of his people, in Ethiopia’ (11:11) but also says that’ eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, will be welcome in the house of god and will receive a name better than sons and daughters (56:4-5).

So what’s it going to be? Deuteronomy or Isaiah? Eunuchs in or eunuchs out? Even within the Jewish scriptures there was conflict. Add in the Christian writers of the New Testament and the waters are muddied further.  So the first question of this story in the book of Acts is very pertinent. Philip hears the Ethiopian reading something from Isaiah, (everyone read aloud in those days) and he runs up to the chariot asking ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Do you understand what you are reading? That’s an enormous question which Christianity asks of us. Do we understand what we are reading when we look at the scriptures, these words supposedly inspired by God? And also, do we understand what we are reading when we look at the world around us, at nature, other people, books, films, etc… Do we take it all in? Can we make any sense of it? Is there any pattern, or is it just a pretty random stream of impressions, like a facebook, twitter or Instagram feed?

How can I make any sense of it? asks the Eunuch, unless I have someone to guide me?

His is a very good question. And it shows a certain amount of humility.  We all, in fact, rely on guides to help us interpret everything about the world, even though many of us like to think we can go it alone. The eunuch I guess, understands that he needs someone to teach him, someone who has felt the embrace of God, who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s spirit. He needs, as all of us do, a Philip to guide him.

So he reads out the passage from Isaiah 53: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him’. And he asks Philip, ‘about whom does the prophet say this?’ who is the shorn one?  ‘Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or could it be about me as well? ‘

As a eunuch, this man undoubtedly knew something about being shorn, about humiliation and about justice denied and he seems to be wondering whether God might be speaking directly to him and to his own experience.  When Philip hops on board, and begins to explain the whole relevance of this piece of scripture it turns out to be even better news than the Ethiopian imagined. Not only does God know and understand the eunuch’s experience of being humiliated and ostracised; Jesus himself took on that lowly and outcast state.

When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of  Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration and hope.

The answer to the question ‘what is this Bible all about?’ is always threefold. It’s a story of God’s interaction with specific people in history long ago. It’s about the person of Jesus Christ who took on that story and transformed it. It’s about you and me and the way our story can connect into those other stories and be completely transformed by these new connections.

Once this threefold way of reading scripture had been explained to the eunuch, he experienced a sense of liberation which the great Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley described like this: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee’.

The Revd Richard Coles quotes those lines in his recently published autobiography, as he describes his moment of conversation to a Jesus who loves him, even though he is gay, even though he has broken every single rule in the book during his years as pop star. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee.

It is the Holy Spirit moving through the world, which moves us towards that liberation. This story of Philip and the eunuch as you may have noticed, actually has a third main character in it, the Holy Spirit, which propelled Philip into Gaza, helped him run alongside the chariot, and encouraged the eunuch to bravely ask for his help. The Holy Spirit is what soaks the dry dusty millennia old words of scripture with water for our souls.

‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ asks the eunuch. Well quite a lot actually. He is the first non-Jew in scripture to ask this question, he has pledged loyalty to a foreign queen, he is the wrong race and the wrong sexuality. Philip consults, we assume, the Holy Spirit and says ‘Absolutely nothing’. Nothing can come between you and God’s desire to give you new life, new freedom. Jesus has been shorn, humiliated, and outcast on our behalf. He has taken all that to the cross, and shown in the resurrection that all of that is now ultimately defeated.

And so the chariot stops. There in the desert, they find oasis. A moment of calm when the horse stops galloping, the chariot stops thundering, the questions cease, and the eunuch is welcomed as a child of the same heavenly father which we worship today.

When they come out of the water, the spirit snatches Philip away and sends him off to Ceasurea, where we learn later in the scripture, he settled and produced  4 daughters who became prophets.

The eunuch, meanwhile, goes back to Ethiopia, ‘on his way rejoicing’ the scriptures tell us. There he must have been instrumental in founding the Ethiopian Coptic church, one of the oldest group of believers in Christendom. A church which is materially poor, but spiritually rich. A church which just declared as saints 19 martyrs killed by ISIS. A church which we will soon be supporting as Christian Aid week this year focuses its fundraising on Ethiopia.

The Eunuch’s questions:

  1. How can I understand, unless someone guides me?

  2. About whom… does the prophet say this?

  3. ‘what is to prevent me from being baptised?’

Are key questions in Christianity. How will you find the guidance you need on your spiritual journey? Is coming to church enough for you? Do you need to join a Bible study group, to try to make more sense of the scriptures? Do you need a spiritual director? Or somebody to talk through your questions with? How can we understand unless somebody guides us?

And about whom… does the prophet say this? Where does my life map on to the stories of the scripture? How do the words of the Bible become alive to me? How does the Holy Spirit use me in the great story of salvation?

And ‘what is to prevent me, even me, from being baptised? The story of Philip and the eunuch tells us that nothing matters except our desire to be part of God’s story. Nothing disqualifies us. Not our race, or gender, or sexuality, or nationality, or past mistakes, or even the mistakes we’re going to make in the future. In fact this eunuch shows us the key role of the outsider in the religious life. It is often the person outside the fold, outside the club, outside the inner circle who can formulate the questions which are needed by us all, to reconsider, recalibrate and find our way to rebirth. What a gift to the church this eunuch was… the first to open it out to those of racial and sexual difference, the first to take the gospel message into Africa. We need not be afraid of honest questions asked by those outside the church. Or by honest questions asked by those of us inside the church. They are gifts. As we open up questions, and look to the scriptures and the holy spirit for answers, we find we stumble across oasis of water, of refreshment, symbols of new life. Once we stop the chariot and get down off our high horse, what is to prevent us from being baptised, again and again in that new life? Absolutely nothing.

AMEN

 

 

 

A slow Epiphany

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

25th January 2015

Book: 

Acts

Chapter: 

9

Conversion of Paul – Acts 9: 1-22

David Teall

 

During January each year we celebrate the season of Epiphany – the manifestation or revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The season begins by celebrating the visit of a group of important Gentiles of unknown origin, the Magi, and ends with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple when Simeon declares Jesus to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles.’

 

Today, as the 25th January falls on a Sunday, we celebrate the Conversion of Paul, surely one of the greatest Epiphanies of them all.  Here was a man, a devout Jew, a Pharisee, on a mission to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus and return them to the High Priests in Jerusalem.  ‘Suddenly,’ the bible tells us, ‘a light from heaven flashed around him’ and he heard the voice of Jesus speaking directly to him.  Within less than a week he was preaching in the synagogue proclaiming Jesus as ‘the Son of God.’

There are several interesting points to note about this conversion:  Paul did not see Jesus, he only heard him; he went through three days of torment before the scales finally fell from his eyes and, even then, they only did so with help from a previous convert.  We shall return to some of these points later on but, for the moment, let’s not be picky:  by any standards this was a remarkably rapid and complete transformation in which Paul came to understand that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the son of God.

For most of us the revelation of God is much less dramatic than that of Paul on the road to Damascus and it is rarely complete within three days.  Each of us has our own story to tell, but my own journey to faith has been more like doing a jigsaw puzzle – a slow process rather than a sudden Epiphany.

Is there anyone here who enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles?  I’ve brought one along with me today.  Does anyone fancy having a go at this one?

Show empty jigsaw box with no lid, no picture and no pieces.

Oh yes, I forgot to say.  It has no lid, so there is no picture to help you.  And yes, you’re right, there are no pieces either!  So what sort of jigsaw is that?  Well, that was the jigsaw I started with in my 20s as I sought for God:  no picture, no pieces, just an empty box.  So how and where did I start?  To explain that I would like to tell you three little stories.

The first is about coffee time in the Teall household at Blatherwycke which takes place around 10.30 every morning.  Come rain or shine we take our coffee through to our conservatory where we can sit in comfort and look out across our garden towards the park.  Or, to be more accurate, I can look out across our garden towards the park; Pat’s view is at a slightly different angle so she sees a different part of the garden and the woods beyond.  This difference in viewpoint can lead to the sort of difficulties we had one day earlier this month:  “Look, look” cried Pat, “there’s a woodpecker on the trellis”.  Now, I can’t see the trellis from my seat and, if I moved a muscle, it would fly away so I didn’t get to see the woodpecker that day.  However, I can describe it to you because Pat described it to me in real time as she watched it and I trust her not to have been making it up.  Her vision has given me a firm insight into what a woodpecker is like, even though I did not see it myself.

When I started out on my search for God with my empty jigsaw box my first glimpses of him were seen, not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of previous converts who were able to see him from their different perspectives. By trusting in their vision and judgement I was able to collect the first few tentative pieces of my jigsaw.  Like Paul, I could never have done this on my own but, with help, I now had a few pieces in my box to encourage me on my way.

To help explain the next stage of my journey I would like to tell you about a news item I read recently on the BBC website.  Apparently some of the major plane manufacturers are in the early stages of designing a passenger plane that has no windows.  Windows, it would seem, are expensive to put in, they weaken the structure of the fuselage and they create drag and increase fuel consumption.  From a carrier’s point of view they are lose, lose all the way, but how could they persuade the travelling public to accept them?  Their answer is to install television screens where the windows would have been, all fed a picture from a camera on their side of the plane.  Passengers would be able to see where they were going and, what is more, if something really interesting came up on, say, the port side it could be temporarily switched to the starboard side as well so that no one would miss it!

Are you convinced?  No, nor me.  I can’t help but wonder, if I saw the Houses of Parliament or the Taj Mahal on a screen, would I really feel that I had seen it with my own eyes or would there always be that nagging suspicion that I was seeing an image created by animators from the World of Disney?

Some of the pieces of the jigsaw in my personal box have been a bit like this.  I have seen a glimpse of God, but not been entirely convinced that it was real.  Perhaps what I was seeing was not what it seemed and was not really God at all.

Such doubts must have gone through Paul’s mind during those three days he spent in darkness, unable to see anything.  Doubting is part of the human condition.  It is uncomfortable and we all wish it didn’t happen, but for most of us it does from time to time.  Fortunately, there is a further process that can help to dispel our doubts as I hope my third and last little story will show.

A couple of years ago Pat and I travelled from Fort William to Inverness by boat along the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness.  The first part of the journey passed Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom at 4409 feet or 1344 metres if you prefer.  Or so we were told!  Now you need to know that Pat and I had been to Scotland before on no less than 6 occasions and, being constantly enveloped by low cloud, had never actually seen any land above 500 feet.  We were beginning to wonder whether the mountains were an invention of the Scottish Tourist Board that did not really exist at all.

As we started our journey along the Caledonian Canal we were hopeful that we might see some mountains and, if we were very lucky, we might even see the top of Ben Nevis.  To start with it was heavy cloud but gradually the sky started to lighten.  The lower slopes came into view and it looked as if, just round the corner when we got a better angle, we might finally see the summit.  We rounded the corner, the sky looked promising but then, all of a sudden, there were trees in the way.  Did we see the top or didn’t we?  We weren’t quite sure but, then, just for a moment, there was a stretch with no trees and we saw it: clear and unmistakable, the summit of Ben Nevis, but only for a few seconds before the cloud rolled back once more.

Searching for God can be very much like this.  We see tantalising glimpses for fleeting moments, but we have seen them with our own eyes and they are real.  These glimpses are the pieces in the jigsaw that we need to recognise and to treasure so that, as we go through life, our picture and knowledge of God becomes more and more complete.  Eventually, as we put together the pieces we have gathered on our journey, the picture will become clear, the scales will fall from our eyes and our Epiphany will be complete.  It may not have been as rapid as Paul’s, but it will be no less real for that.  Amen.

Words: 1,410

Grace: the second in a series of three for Epiphany

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

11 January 2015

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

1

The Second of a Series of Sermons on Grace

Kings Cliffe Benefice Epiphany 2015

 

How do you do business with God? Last week we looked at the model of the wise men who looked up, followed a star, saw Jesus and went home by a different way. This week the chap in our sites is John the Baptist, yet again. He crops up a lot in the Church year.

And I think I’ve finally figured out why.

Think about religion at the time of John the Baptist. The way in which every religion at that time did business with God. The formula was pretty universal. You went to the designated holy place with a chicken, or a lamb, maybe even a bull if you were rich, or very naughty. And you killed it there. There were vegetarian alternatives in some faiths: eggs, grain, even wine could be offered instead of meat. And of course in some religions there were human sacrifices. But the point is, you gave God something, and you got something back: it was a business-like way of doing God.  God got your offering, and what you got back was a feeling of righteousness. God would take away the stuff you felt bad about, and pat you on the back for being an essentially good person who came to church, or temple, or Stonehenge or whatever.

This system of doing God created religious institutions and kept them going as places where transaction with God was measured and validated. It helped to build ethical codes of conduct and morality, essential to the running of civilisation. When people obeyed the rules, and brought their sacrificial offerings, they fully expected to be blessed and rewarded by God, or at least to feel that they were officially ‘good people’. The admissions code of Kings School Peterborough still plays God in this manner. But that’s not necessarily to criticise them, because this age old way of ‘doing God’ seems almost hardwired in human beings. And always we get competitive about our levels of commitment. Somewhere today, Native American youths may be fastening eagle claws to their nipples, and straining against a rope attached to a sacred pole, flinging themselves outward until the claws rip through their flesh. Pilgrims in many places will crawl on bloodied knees towards a holy site. Impoverished Buddhists will bring offerings of food and burn them in front of statues of the fat Buddha. To commemorate the festival the Sunnis call ‘The Day of Atonement’, Shia Muslims will cut themselves or in a more modern take, donate blood.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that doing away with belief in God, does away with these kinds of activities. There are secular equivalents if you think about it, to all of these practices. There’s no end of people harming themselves in various ways, in order to gain some sense of relief, or purification. Secular atonement is particularly cruel since there’s nothing on the other end of the bargain. No God, no religious authority even, to say ‘Enough… you’ve done Enough!’ No way to know you’re forgiven.

Into this strong, near universal desire to prove ourselves worthy comes John the Baptist. And here is why he was so radical. And so popular. And so original.

He proclaimed, it says in Mark 1 vs 4, and in Matthew 3.11, and in Luke 3:3, he, John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And that was an entirely new way of doing God.

When people came out to the wilderness where John was, they did not bring chickens, lambs or grain offerings. They brought simply this -- their repentance, or in less fancy terms, their acknowledgement that they’d got things wrong. Their desire to change. They hadn’t changed yet. They weren’t presenting a list of their good deeds, or the way they’d obeyed all the commandments. They simply said ‘I want to change’ and they presented themselves. And John baptised them in water, symbolising that they were clean, and pronounced them forgiven.

That was it. So simple. The free gift of forgiveness to those who recognised they’d got things wrong. No chickens, no blood, no self flagellation. No fancy clothes for John, no church building, no institution. You brought your repentance, you got forgiven, baptism symbolised the exchange. So simple and appealing that amongst those tiny religious groups being hounded to death by ISIS right now, are several thousand Mandaeans who still follow John the Baptist as Messiah.

And in light of John the Baptist, perhaps we read the story of the three kings differently. They came with their costly gifts for a King, and found a peasant baby. In order to take up the meaning of that baby, they had to put down everything which made them special, which proved their worth. They had to empty their hands and hold them out to Jesus.

This is grace; that God gives us the gift of himself not because we deserve it, or we’ve given him such great gifts of our own. In fact there’s nothing we can do to deserve God’s grace; we just have to want to change, and keep changing, so that we’re able to take in this grace as fully as possible, into all the nooks and crannies, locked doors, and secret dark areas of our life. We don’t have to light them up, God does. We don’t have to find enlightenment through breathing, mindfulness, self control, an ice age diet, marathon running or any other of the modern ways people try to prove they’re OK. We are offered a gift so vast we will never comprehend even the beginnings of it: forgiveness, transformation, food for the journey, the knowledge that we are, as the spirit says to Jesus in the reading we’ve just heard, we are God’s beloved.

We all long for grace. Unearned favour. But since it comes from outside, as a gift, and not an achievement, it easily vanishes from our dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, look out for number one world.

A reporter once caught the agnostic actor WC Fields in his dressing room reading a Bible. Embarrassed, Fields snapped the book shut and said, ‘Just looking for loopholes’. Probably he was looking for grace.

People do look to Jesus for grace. People far from the church have some sense that Jesus offers something different than any other religion or way of doing life. Sadly, we in the church, have the same trouble accepting grace as everyone else. We want it. But we also want to show off how good we are, how we’ve got it sussed, and the easiest way to do that is to point out how bad and shameful everyone else is. And that is a disgrace. ‘God, please make the bad people good’ prayed the little girl. ‘And please make the good people nice’. Grace is what makes people nice. But ungrace has its claws in every single one us. Every religion has done terrible things in an attempt to purify. But so have aetheists. Mao’s, Hitler’s, Stalin’s and Pol Pot’s efforts to purify their nations hardly suggest that godlessness is a way forward. The dichotomy is not between religion on one hand, and atheism on the other, but between a need to prove oneself, on one hand, and the humble acceptance of grace on the other.

Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God’s grace, where the sun shines on both good and bad, where birds neither toil nor spin but are looked after by God, where wildflowers blossom in the rocky hillside soil. ‘Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere’, points out the writer Philip Yancy in his wonderful book entitled ‘Amazing Grace’. Jesus never analyzed or defined grace; instead he told endless stories about it. He pictured God as a housewife, whooping for joy when she finds a lost coin. Or as an employer paying everyone the same wage whether they’ve been working all day, or just for an hour. He pictured God as a father running out to meet a prodigal child, toga and sandals flapping in the wind, when that lost but much loved child was still far off.

The prodigal son of that story wanted to change, was repentant, started to make the journey home. And before he probably knew what was happening he was clasped to a sweaty man’s bosom, listening to his father shout with joy. That’s the picture of God Jesus gives us. And the best way to think of grace is to try to picture it. And then add on some more.

There is a difference between Jesus’ message and John the Baptist’s. John’s didn’t picture God as the woo-er, the lover. It was a bit more clinical. You presented yourself and your desire to change, you stepped into the water, were pronounced forgiveness, shook off the water like a dog, and carried on. When Jesus was baptised, the whole scenario changes. A dove descends from heaven, like a message, a sign of God’s presence, and then a voice booms out, as if God just couldn’t contain himself: ‘This is my Beloved Boy, in whom I’m well pleased!’ When we are baptised in Jesus’ name, we get the same affirmation. We are God’s beloved boys, beloved girls. We’ve done nothing to deserve it (especially as most of us are about 6 months when we’re baptised). We’ve done nothing to earn it, we’ve brought no pristine poultry or lamb into the bargain, we’ve singularly failed to find world peace, or even peace in our families or own hearts, but nevertheless, God is well pleased with us.

The story of grace begins in the stable, moves out to the River Jordan and carries on from there. ‘Doing God’ in Christianity often gets sabotaged by the old fashioned business model. Don’t let that sabotage you. Don’t miss out on the amazing grace on special offer this January. It’s already been paid for. It’s free. When you think you’ve used it up, there will be more. You don’t deserve it, but relax, that’s kind of the whole point about grace. It’s love which doesn’t depend on what we do, but simply rejoices in who we are.

The spiritual writer Brennan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest who, walking through a rural parish sees an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road praying. Impressed, the priest says to the man, ‘wow, you must be very close to God’. The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment, then smiles saying, ‘Yes he’s very fond of me’*.

Amen.

 

This and some other illustrations in the sermon are taken from Philip Yancey’s classic ‘What’s so amazing about Grace?’ a book which I am very fond of.

 

Midnight Mass 2014

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

24/25 December 2014

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

Christmas Eve 2014

 

So this year John Lewis introduces us to wee Sam and Monty the penguin. They are great friends. They build Lego together and play football. Sam drops fish fingers into Monty’s open mouth. But as the advert rolls on we realise that Monty is getting distracted; he watches couples kissing, couples holding hands. Sam, perhaps nudged by the soundtrack, decides that Monty is looking for ‘real love’. With great selflessness, he buys Monty a penguin friend for Christmas. The final shot is of Sam under the tree, with two stuffed animals in his hands – weather-beaten Monty kissing spanking brand new Mabel. Sam’s expression speaks of the sacrifice involved in moving from imaginary to real friendship.  And the whole of this Christmas ad asks, what is friendship?  What is real love?  And of course it all begs the question of what exactly John Lewis has to teach us about love.

Well someone at John Lewis is no doubt paid a minor fortune to ensure that the annual ad captures not only the moral high ground, but also the zeitgeist of the year. And judging by other retailers’ Christmas ads, friendship across various types of divide is much on our minds.

Sainsbury’s too, dramatizes the moment when a relationship changes: when enemies become friends, at least for a moment, at least on Christmas. It is of course exactly 100 years tonight since that extraordinary Christmas truce of 1914 broke out across the front lines, from the North Sea to Switzerland, especially in places where Catholic German soldiers heeded their Pope’s call for a Christmas ceasefire. Ordinary soldiers defied their superiors to rise up out of the trenches, and to find some common ground. Most of these truces featured the Christian burial of the dead who lay all about in no man’s land, the exchange of chocolate and cigarettes, and then a game of football on the cleared land. No matter which football game is reported in letters home, the Germans always seemed to win 3-2.

The Waitrose advert shows a shy young girl entering into an unlikely alliance with a check out lady, as she attempts to perfect the art of gingerbread biscuits… a friendship crossing barriers of race and age. The people in the Aldi ad transcend distance, and express surprise as they sit down to eat with unusual companions.

The major retailers have now taken over the management of Christmas from the churches, but their adverts still try to emulate that line from the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by expressing the hopes and fears of all the years, or at least of this year in new and inventive ways.

So this year, 2014, what are the adverts telling us? I think they’re telling us that we’re rather anxious about friendship. In our culture where now every relationship is deemed easily sexualised, simple friendship starts to seem impossible. Sam and Monty suggest as much; friendship is somehow childish; growing up involves finding romance; the ad’s momentum moves inexorably towards a John Lewis wedding list for the penguins, and yet the portrayal of friendship between Sam and Monty is so compelling. In a year when UKIP has come to prominence, and the Scots pull away from the rest of the UK, we are understandably anxious about our place in Europe, about friendships forged across national boundaries. The Christmas Truce becomes a memory which inspires not just nostalgia, but also hope a century later – a reminder of all we share with the Germans. At a time when there are growing fears about immigration and terrorism and anxieties about social mobility, relationships crossing ethnic and class division become ever more precious, ever more worthy of celebration. Then there’s the growing experimentation in making friends online. How can technology enable us to cross divisions; what does it mean to have friends we’ve never met, and cannot know for sure are even real?

What is ‘real love’ in 2014? And how is it connected to Christmas?

Last week a 6ft 5 performance artist who looks like Jesus was flown over from California by an advertising agency in need of a publicity stunt. His name was Kevin. He wandered around Oxford St on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. An article in the Sunday Times described the reactions he received. ‘Everyone wanted to touch him’ -- so it took a long time for him to get through the crowds.  Outside Carphone Warehouse a drunk shouted ‘Sweet Jesus’ and fell onto the pavement. The reporter lost Jesus in Selfridge’s Beauty Department (and I’m sure she’s not the first to do so). Fortunately she had the wit to follow a trail of smiling faces and eventually found him in the Louis Vuitton concession where he had been doused with different kinds of perfume, and given eye cream samples. Most people realised this was not the real Jesus, says the reporter, but weirdly many of them reacted to him as people did 2000 years ago to the real historical figure known as Jesus from Nazareth. A woman called Hyacinth, wearing a terrible wig, stands behind him quietly waiting for a hug. ‘It’s not the real Jesus’ she says, ‘but it’s good to have him around’.

Tonight we celebrate what is rather grandly known as ‘the mystery of the incarnation’: this is the central belief and unique message of Christianity. In Jesus, says Christianity, we see God; we see the fullest expression of God possible in human flesh. For centuries BC and AD people have imagined what God or the gods were like. Jesus came along and said, ‘this, This is what God is like’.

And bizarrely he did not take over the government and form something less corrupt. He did not form an army and take over the world, or even liberate Palestine from its Roman occupation. He did not write books.  He did not even start a new religion. That came much later, when his followers were ejected from Judaism. He simply went around making friends. He had an incredible gift for friendship. Everyone, from the rich to the poor, from the crooked to the straight, the distressed and the sorted, men and women, children and elderly folk; they all seemed to like him.( Apart from a few religious people, ironically, who unfortunately had a lot of power.)  Wherever he went Jesus made friends. He had a circle of really close friends, and a wider group of people who travelled with him. He had local groups of friends. According to St John, Jesus said that you might expect God to think of humans as servants or slaves, but I Jesus, I call you friends.  From the moment when Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and pressed him to her bosom, Jesus allowed us to touch him. Later crowds would jostle against him, everyone wanting to reach out and touch him. Women would anoint him with perfume, just as the Magi had, perhaps, many years before.

We have 4 written records of what Jesus was like; the four gospels collected into the Bible. We have centuries of people’s experiences of friendship with Jesus, many of them written down. It’s not easy being friends with someone we can’t see or touch. It’s not scientific. And crazy people can easily imagine all sorts of things about Jesus; that’s why we need to focus on those written accounts of the real Jesus. But it is not impossible to bridge the huge divide between each of us, firmly rooted in a physical body, and someone who is divine, who is spirit. It’s made easier because we know that God took the initiative in bridging that gap – coming out of the trench, so to speak and holding his hands up in surrender as he invites us out into no man’s land to play.

And what experience shows us is that friendship with God facilitates friendship with those other people who are most different to us. People who are really friends with God, who work at closing that gap, tend to take the small differences between human beings in their stride. Research published last week showed that Christian churches are the best place in our culture to find friendships across divisions of social class, ethnicity and age. If you look at any peace initiative anywhere in the world, you will almost always find Christians working to bring people together. Last week President Obama credited Pope Francis for the rapprochement between the US and Cuba: the Pope, he said, ‘Holds out a vision of the world as it could be, urging us not simply to accept the world as it is’.

After the Christmas Truce of 1914, the Generals of every nation ordered their men back into the trenches. They redoubled their efforts to demonise the enemy and apparently in Christmas 1915 British soldiers were replaced at the front line by soldiers from other parts of the Empire who didn’t share a common Christian Christmas culture with the Germans. Today there are very powerful voices, the Generals of our culture, who practically forbid us from reaching out to God. Voices claiming to represent Science or Enlightenment, voices urging us to accept the world as it is, or at best, to shop our way out of it. God is the enemy. Religion is the cause of all wars and evil, they scream. Get back in your trenches. The idea that God could be your friend is ridiculous. Go back into the filth of your trench.

And yet here you are, at midnight on Christmas Eve 2014, flirting with the idea that God has come to earth offering peace and offering friendship. You’ve put down your drinks, stopped eating, stopped watching Christmas tele, you’ve even stopped shopping online, though some of the sales have started. You may tell yourself you’re here because it’s traditional. But actually, these days, what you’re doing is subversive. You’re out of your trenches, encountering something strange and mysterious and different from yourself. You’re singing about the world as it could be. That is what those soldiers did 100 years ago this night. That is what the Christian church is called to do, in every age, in every place. We hold out the vision of what the world could be. We insist that friendship with God is not only possible, it is necessary, if each of us is to know Real Love, and all of us are to live together in peace.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

'The mystery of God's wisdom in all its rich variety'

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

3 January

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

2

Sermon One: the mystery of God’s wisdom in all its rich variety

One of the big sacrifices for me in becoming a priest is the fact that Christmas is no longer a time when I can go to America. So it’s quite possible that I’ll never again experience the gathering of the clans which characterised all the Christmasses of my childhood.

This year I made another sacrifice and sent my daughter instead. Here is your Christmas present I said to all my relatives, and truly they wanted no other. She is our only begotten child, and in many ways is the expression of all that is best in her parents. Now having had news from her of all the family, and hearing from them how much they enjoyed seeing her, I feel the closest I can to having been there myself.

Her visit I like to think, is a faint echo of the drama played out when God sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be with us on this planet. God sent the best possible physical expression of who he is to the earth. That is the fundamental Christian belief.

And inherent in the drama of Jesus’ life amongst us is the message that God wants to have and develop His relationship with humankind, just as my sending LIvvy to America is an expression of my desire to keep the family ties strong.

Distance, as many of you with families abroad will know, distance leaves space for fantasies to grow up. Millennia of fantasies about God have flourished. God as a pantheon of many gods representing various aspects of human life, or an opposite vision of God as a clockwinder, winding the universe up and then leaving us to get on with it. God as a bearded old man or a warrior in the sky. Distant. Controlling. Maybe even malevolent. Lording it over us, demanding ceaseless worship and obedience.

Jesus of course was none of these things. The picture of God he gives is entirely different. The God that Richard Dawkins disses… that’s a God dismissed by Jesus Christ as well. Because the central overwhelming fact of Jesus, is that God wants a relationship with us. God wants some give and take, some banter, some feasting, some dancing, some deep conversation. God wants some healing, some forgiveness, some overcoming of the wrong that is. God wants some connection, some challenge, some storytelling, some riddles.

Alistair Campbell’s main claim to fame was his memorable claim that Tony Blair’s Labour administration didn’t ‘do God’? Probably he was trying to create distance between his government and the politicians of America who often ‘do God’ in ways many find disturbing.

Well here you are in church, suggesting that you in some sense or other ‘do God’; my guess is that though you tolerate an American priest, you don’t want to ‘do God’ in an overly American way. A good question to ask at the beginning of the New Year, as we reflect on what we’ve celebrated in Christmas is what does  it mean for you to ‘do God’.

Two visions of doing God are given to us in today’s reading. The first is the journey of the Magi. They are wise men. Interested in the big questions. Guys who look up. Who read meaning into the stars. When they see a certain star, they interpret this as an invitation to follow. They end up in Palestine, looking for a newborn King. Herod and his advisors point them towards Bethlehem. You know the story. Eventually they find Jesus, present their gifts, and then, having been warned in a dream, they ‘go home by a different way’.  I love that last line of the scriptural story.

This story is a sort of template for the spiritual life. We look up. We notice something. We follow it. We are surprised by what we find. We bring gifts, make a response. We go home by another route. We’ve been changed.

This story is played out in the lives of wise men and women everywhere. It can be interrupted or derailed at any point. Many people never even look up. Interesting to think about where you are in today’s reading. Have you looked up? Been interested in what you see? Have you set off on a journey? Have you ever asked for directions? Have you found something amazing? Have you presented yourself and your gifts? Are you now travelling home by a different way?

The story of the Magi needn’t be literally true. Because it’s not about Caspar, Bathlazar or Melchior: in fact these aren’t names you’ll find in the Bible. Think about why tradition has wanted to name those original Magi. Perhaps it’s important that they, as figures who embody the Christian journey, have names… Names from across a variety of cultures and classes. Names who each bring a different, but precious and meaningful gift. Our names. Each of us, wise men, and wise women. Although as the tea towel or FB post point out, wise women would have asked for directions earlier, done the washing up and brought gifts Jesus could actually use.

The other template for the spiritual life this morning is St Paul. Who also famously looked up, was blinded by the light, and changed the course of his life. Here in Ephesians he speaks in his typically convoluted way about the nuts and bolts of finding a different way home. His encounter with God convinced him that Jesus was not just for the Jewish people, but for everybody. And  Paul’s mission was to make the Gospel relevant to those who didn’t come from a Jewish background. Who ate pork, kept their foreskins, and didn’t entirely shut down for the duration of the Sabbath. And for his pains, he ended in chains, denounced by the Jewish leaders to their Roman occupiers. Here he writes to the church in Ephesus about the mystery of Christ, about the way in which he seeks to understand where it leads. He is thinking about his mission in life, and also about the mission of the church. And he says in verse 10 that it is through the church that the wisdom of God in its rich variety can be made known. I love this idea. We in this church already exhibit a rich variety as we express who we are. But we also make known the rich variety of God’s wisdom by embodying it in our different ways, in our own spheres of influence. By taking the gift of Christ out to our families, our streets, our workplaces, our friends.

So there’s two kinds of action going on as we ‘do God’.  First we, in our wisdom, bring our gifts, in their rich variety, to Christ. Gold, frankincense, myrrh.  We bring our gold, the unique talents we’ve been given, some of our financial wealth too. We bring our frankincense, a resin used in incense and also in ancient medicine. It symbolises our prayer and desire to help. We bring our myrrh, the oil used to anoint the ill and the dead; our suffering too is something we are encouraged to present to God.

In the second action of the spiritual life, we take away some of the rich variety of God’s wisdom, embodied in Jesus Christ. We pass it on into a new context, as we go home by another way.

And notice… we may feel that in both these things, the bringing of gifts, the taking of gifts away, it is we who do the acting. But in actual fact, we are being led, we are being fed, we only give back to God, that which he has given to us. Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God, given to him, so that he can give it away to us.

Next week, I’ll talk more about his amazing concept of grace because it’s grace that is at the heart of our relationship with God.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Those wise Magi, yes they’d worked hard, loading up their camels, going on a long journey, wrapping up those presents… but I suspect in the end they realised it was all grace. The star, the light, the opportunity to travel, the knowledge that God would come as a baby into our world, the sign that we are loved therefore by God, the dream of travelling home by another way. All grace. How do we do God? We put one foot in front of another. And it seems an effort. But when we look back at our footsteps we realise that actually we’ve been carried, as surely as those wise men were carried by camels, and those gifts were carried by kings.

AMEN

 

 

Keep Awake

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

30th November 2014

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

13

After travelling for 10 years, the Rosetta robot landed, as planned, on a comet moving at 84,000 mph.  Weather reports flow from 16 quadrillion computer calculations per second [a quadrillion having 15 noughts].  Despite such achievements, potentially devastating global self-destruction threatens, and the shocking death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes emphasises our individual vulnerabilities.

It is Advent Sunday – so what?  Is there a persuasive Christian message of universal hope and security?  A survey of this year’s 10M Advent calendars shows few have Christian messages; some have content unfit to mention.  Our prevailing culture is indifferent, even hostile, to the Christian message. 

This Advent, a Christian communications network is producing some “confrontational chat shows” on radio “involving the Three Wise Men, the Archangel Gabriel, and the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem”. A stand-up comedian is also involved.  It will take some exceptionally good jokes to present persuasively the original message of those, iconic stories from another age.      

Outside our Black Friday kind of society, people are choosing to become Christians despite intense persecution.  The Chinese governments since 1947 have done their utmost to eradicate religion.  40 years ago, there were about 1M Christians in China; today there are well over 100M.

In 1980, there were about 500 Iranian Christians; today there are 370,000 - the world’s fastest-growing Church.  300,000 newly-translated Iranian Bibles will be printed over the next three years.  At last month’s launch, the first one was handed to the widow of a scholar murdered in Tehran 20 years ago, a month after he had publicly accepted the task of translation.  What is the attractive message amidst such persecution?

The task of the four Gospel writers was, despite the persecution around them, to record what Jesus had done to attract the first Christians.  These Gospels are still our basic tools and, over the next year, St. Mark’s, the earliest of them, will be our main Sunday source of information about Jesus.  Mark wrote his Gospel in stressful times for Christians.  Many scholars think St. Mark was St. Peter’s interpreter in Rome, and that, after Peter’s and Paul’s executions, he skilfully arranged Peter’s first-hand recollections into his pioneering ‘Gospel’.       

The emperor Nero – who had ordered Christians to be thrown to the dogs – was followed by devastating civil wars, and the Romans demolished Jerusalem utterly following a major Jewish revolt.  Those choosing to follow a Jew who had been crucified by the Romans as a rebel were obvious targets.  Mark wrote to encourage his fellow-Christians to despise the worldly vanities exposed by Jesus, and to face the consequential persecution. 

Mark’s direct focus is on the mysterious reality of what Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’.  To help us internalise that kingdom’s reality, Mark begins by urging us to change our focus from ourselves to this kingdom’s wider perspective, and then uses, as practical illustrations, snapshots of Jesus dealing constructively with all kinds of real people, condemning dull religious legalism and self-righteous idealism alike.  

Mark tells of Jesus’ pointed use of everyday stories to provoke people to see the world differently, rocking pre-conceptions with ideas for which there are no precise descriptions – so that we have to think about the stories again and again.

Mark tells how Jesus helped people whom the powerful edged out of society - the sick, the poor, children, women, immigrants; our current affairs show that this is not an out-of-date list.

He tells how Jesus recognised ordinary people’s potential, calling them by their names, training them in teams, patiently coping with some very trying enthusiasts, but also encouraging them after their failures – all lessons for today’s church.

He tells how Jesus promoted thoughtful prayer, so that we are alert to the right course of action when challenged.  Archbishop Welby is actively encouraging us to do just that.

The snapshots explore deeper themes than we at first realise. Mark’s simple-seeming, rapid snapshots of Jesus as healer and teacher expose us to a reality alarming beyond our normal expectations.  Jesus’ challenges to religious and secular traditions were rejected by many powerful people, and constantly misunderstood by his disciples.  

After the snapshots, Mark shows Jesus steadfastly maintaining the same vision despite being stripped of everything people value.  If we face up to Mark’s factual climax, the crucifixion, the snapshots make sense, and our outlook will be profoundly changed.  

Unlike the cosmic revenge longed for in today’s OT lesson and Psalm, and the OT precedents recognisable to Jewish disciples in the apocalyptic language of today’s Gospel reading, God’s power in the crucified Jesus is not an inflated version of human power.  Mark’s factual Good News, as in the other Gospels, is about its hero’s public execution!  How do we make sense of that? 

Why should we trust Jesus, whose insights have led to his crucifixion, unless the mysterious reality he called ‘Father’ justifies him and we experience resurrection?  Canon White, the Vicar of Baghdad who is directly experiencing such awful times, recently said on Radio 4: “When you have lost everything, only God is left for you”.  Mark’s snapshots should have prepared us for this human being, stripped of security, loyalty, and life itself, as the focus of what is eternally and supremely valuable. 

If we apply what we contemplate in the crucified Jesus to what we see in people around us, we have, because it is so demandingly extreme, the true basis of ethics.  Any person is valuable, irrespective of colour, creed or other human status.  Not for nothing did Jesus tell how the Good Samaritan reacted to a similar sight.  Not for nothing did Jesus, in last week’s Gospel reading of Matthew’s version of today’s reading, declare that what we do for the least of people is what is consistent with God’s kingdom.  The crucifixion is consistent with all of Jesus’ teaching. 

Jesus’ Way is thus the true humanist approach to life!  And Jesus’ promise of life beyond death to the thief dying alongside him, and his own acceptance of death, only make sense if Jesus’ crucifixion is transformed by God in the stark way Mark describes at the end of his Gospel.

The Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, when aged 14, was deposited with his three younger brothers at his grandmother’s house in a poor part of Salford.  His father had disappeared and, shortly afterwards, his mother died from a genetic condition that later took the lives of two of his brothers.  His grandmother’s cheerful acceptance sustained him.  Christians visited his school and inspired him to join them.    

His advice is particularly apposite to our use of Mark’s Gospel:  “People need to be given the space to realise theology is full of mystery to explore. What holds people back from that exploration is fear of getting it wrong. We are always going to get it wrong because we are dealing with things none of us fully understand. …

My grandmother was one of the formative influences for the type of theology I do, because I never want theology to be just a set of ideas; it has to relate back to real lives.”   That describes Mark’s genius precisely.

A Northants vicar recently published his determinedly-honest autobiography.  The theologically-illiterate media milked his account of having been a major pop star, with a life of sex, drugs, a suicide attempt and a false claim of having AIDS to attract attention. What gains little publicity is his description of these as “symptoms of hollowness”.   

He had attended church as a youngster, and he experienced Christians giving devoted care to friends suffering from AIDS.  Searching for meaning, he was pointed by a friend to a Church service.  “I was pierced to the soul …  a shutter was flung open, and light flooded in and I could see.”   He now has a research degree on the Greek text of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and he is host of a weekly Chatshow with 2m listeners.  His autobiography’s title is “Fathomless Riches”

Many other individuals in our own society, as well as in places like Iran and China, are responding to the Good News which Mark explains.  Of 67,000 new Church of England members last year, nearly half were new Christians, and over the past 10 years adult baptisms have increased by 32%.     

As we prepare to welcome Jesus’ advent, as a baby and in mysterious judgement and glory, we must “keep awake”, alert to the reality of God’s Kingdom around us as we think deeply about the Gospel snapshots of Jesus and, in the light of his death especially, face up to challenges that could otherwise diminish us.     

Let us prepare for the Feast of Christmas in the words we sang earlier - “Born thy people to deliver; born a child and yet a king, born to reign in us for ever, now thy gracious kingdom bring”!

Difficult Questions

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

26th October 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

22

Matthew 22: 34-46

David Teall

Much of the news in September and October each year is dominated by the Party Conference Season.  One by one the Party Leaders appear on our screens making promises of what they will do to make this country a better place, and one by one the political commentators and the leaders of the other parties do their best to trip them up with difficult questions. 

Challenging others by asking difficult questions is a recurring theme in chapters 21 to 22 of Matthew’s gospel which we have been listening to over the last four weeks.  Following the description of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Chapter 21, the gospel records several difficult questions, some addressed to Jesus and some by Jesus to others.

In Chapter 21 verse 23 the chief priests and elders asked Jesus: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  Jesus dealt with this by a ploy that any politician today would be proud of:  he asked them a question about an unrelated subject that they simply could not answer.

Following this neat deflection Jesus posed a number of difficult questions through his favoured device of telling stories to which his listeners could relate in the parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet.  He also fended off a question on tax with that memorable line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  When reading these verses I can’t help but wonder how Jeremy Paxman would have coped with Jesus if time had not separated them by 2000 years!

The opening line of today’s Gospel reading refers to the one difficult question in chapter 22 that is not included in the table of Lectionary readings, a complex question about resurrection posed by the Sadducees to Jesus.  The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Judaism who traced their origins back to the family of Zadok, David’s High Priest.  Tom Wright describes them as the ‘let’s keep things as they are party’ who felt threatened by the Pharisees, an unofficial but powerful pressure group of Jewish legal experts who were intent on imposing their very precise interpretation of ‘The Law’ on the whole of Israel.

It is against this background that a group of Pharisees challenged Jesus with the question:  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

So, how difficult a question is that?  How many commandments were there in the Hebrew Bible for Jesus to choose from?  Any offers?

It makes a good Quiz question this as it all depends upon how we define the word ‘commandment.’  If we consider any time that God speaks and says either ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ to be a commandment then there really are quite a lot.  Even with this broad definition there are still plenty of debates to be had about what is a commandment and what is not so there is no absolute answer to the question.  However, many Jews consider the answer to be 613 of which 248 are positive (thou shalt) and 365 are negative (thou shalt not).

What we know as the Ten Commandments actually account for 14 of the 613 commandments.  The total comes to 14 rather than 10 because the statement about not worshipping idols includes 4 separate commandments: not to worship other gods, not to make images of them, not to bow down to them and not to serve them.  Similarly, the statement about the Sabbath includes 2 separate commandments: one to keep the Sabbath holy and the other not to work on it.

So, after that little diversion, back to the Gospel reading:  how did Jesus answer the question “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  This time there was no side-stepping: he gave the perfect Jewish answer that not even the Pharisees could question:

‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We hear these words expressed as a Summary of the Law every week as we prepare to make our confession.  We tend to think of them as the words of Jesus but they are not, for he was quoting from the Hebrew Bible.  The first, or Great Commandment is taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 and the second, sometimes called the Golden Rule, from Leviticus 19: 18.  Taken together they neatly summarise the Ten Commandments each one of which is an example of one of these two commandments put into practice.

The importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity.  We are to worship the one God to the exclusion of all others and we are to worship Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and (in Mark) with all our strength.  When this was first written in Deuteronomy there were regular problems caused by the worship of other Gods, often known as Baal, but we should not think that this is just a problem of the past.  To worship something as a God means to allow that thing to rule our lives.  In our modern 21st century lives there are all too many candidates for this type of worship: money, personal possessions, fashion, drugs and alcohol to name but a few.  Not all of these are necessarily evil in themselves for few if any of us here could exist without money or personal possessions at all.  It is only when our love for these things starts to direct our decisions and so rule our lives that we have broken the Great Commandment.

One of the great benefits that comes from recognising and worshipping God as our Father is that it helps us to know and to understand our place in his universe as one of his children.  Without this knowledge there is a danger that we might start to believe that we are masters of the universe and so become arrogant and self-centred.  Or, by contrast, we might look at the vastness of time and space and feel utterly insignificant and unimportant.  By recognising ourselves as one of God’s children, known by name and loved by him, we can avoid both of these pitfalls.  We are all children of the same God, equal in his sight and all with a rightful place here on earth to do his will: no more and no less.

Whereas the importance of the Great Commandment is in its exclusivity, the importance of the Golden Rule is in its inclusivity.  When we are commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves, that command includes every one of our fellow human beings regardless of race, colour, creed, nationality or place of residence.  We cannot pick or choose those whom we love for everyone is our neighbour.

The word ‘love’ in both the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule is translated from the Greek word agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that God has for us.  It is with this same love that we are commanded to love both God and our neighbours.  Furthermore, as if the command to love our neighbours with this type of love were not demanding enough, the Golden Rule goes much further for it includes the phrase: ‘as yourself.’

This means that whatever we might wish for ourselves we must wish for our neighbours.  Whatever we value for our own use we must be willing to share.  Whatever we might fight to protect ourselves from we must protect our neighbours from too.

So is any of this possible or is it just a theoretical exercise?  Are human beings ever able to show the agape form of love towards God and towards each other?  The answer is an emphatic Yes and is most clearly demonstrated by the Saints whom we rightly revere and celebrate today / next week.  We can also see demonstrations of agape love at times of disaster when people such as Alan Henning, who would describe themselves as very ordinary, often do quite extraordinary things.  From their actions we know that such love is possible, but what can we do to help ourselves show this sort of love in our everyday lives?

One possible answer can be found in the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians from which we heard this morning:

We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.  Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

“To be as gentle to others as a nurse caring for her own children.”  Can we do that for all our neighbours ... ... ...
or is that too difficult a question?

Amen.

Words: 1,532

15th Sunday After Trinity Year A

Given by: 

Philip Davies

Date given: 

28th September 2014

Book: 

Philippians

Chapter: 

2

As we pause to take on board the complexities of the big underlying issues of Parliament`s decision on Friday for our country to join the air strikes on ISIL in Iraq, we should think about the wider impact of this action and beyond the argument that this is taking place to make life safer on our own streets because that consideration starts with concerns mainly about personal interest and the need to just make only our own lives as secure as possible.

By contrast, in a tribute to the film director Richard Attenborough the play write Trevor Griffiths said of Attenborough, whose films included Gandhi and Cry Freedom, “For him it was about doing what was right and what was needed and this was never initially to do with you, it was always first about the other. The creation, another person, another country or an abstract concept like slavery or racism. You have to do what is necessary and the right thing, and part of that for Attenborough as a storyteller is to tell the truth.”

Jesus was a great storyteller and while 5 of his stories, the Good Samaritan, the Sower and the Seed, the Lost trilogy, the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Sheep and the Goats might be the A List, this autumn our Sunday readings remind us of many others of these unique, challenging stories which seek to tell the truth about the world as it is and about how it could be for the better.

In addition to the stories we also have collections of wisdom sayings that help us in this journey towards truth.

One comes in the passage from Ezekiel and this has not stood the test of time. The prophet critiques the phrase “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children`s teeth are set on edge” which has the message that children can only be what their parents aspire to or wish for. The prophet says of this No No No, life is about learning to take personal and individual responsibility and that the learning of the greater good is the key, so people are not left to dwell on life with a sense of malaise and hopelessness, that we can do nothing to make a real difference. Jesus would say this of the teachers of the law in his day, that they hid behind a continual critique of everyone who tried to do the right thing and just left the people with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Next week`s Gospel includes a wisdom verse from Psalm 118 which Jesus knew and helped him to teach his followers about how his death would not be the end of their journey towards finding the truth instead only the beginning. Before that we have these provocative parables that begin with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where on seeing a fig tree with no fruit he compares this to the fear inducing, disempowering teaching of the religious leaders. And in our passage today these leaders start on Jesus seeking to undermine where his vision and hope come from. The exchange has a hint of comedy as he returns their question and they are left to say “We don`t know”.

So he tells some stories, some parables.

In the first one two sons, representing all humanity, are asked to sort out the needs of the world. The first, perhaps overwhelmed by the task, says no but goes away, thinks about it and comes up with some plans. The second, perhaps thinking he should do something or like the world leaders this week at their climate change conference expected to do something, says yes and then does nothing about it all. In Jesus time some members of society took the blame for people`s fears and isolation, today rather than tax collectors and prostitutes it might be migrant workers and displaced people. Understanding and recognising the human need of every person was behind the way Jesus sought to show the inclusivity of God`s love and he targets the religious leaders of his day for their lack of humanity and compassion.

And he continues with a second story, even more provocative towards these religious leaders. In it he directly challenges their motives and challenges their negligence and hypocrisy. (“Good as New” translation). And the wisdom verse from the Psalm 118 which resonated so much with the early followers, quoted in Acts and the letter of Peter.

The speaking up and acting for the forgotten, those stigmatised by attitudes of a particular time and those marginalised through poverty, this became the cornerstone for a way of compassion at the heart of Christian discipleship. In recent times Mother Teresa advocating and acting on behalf of the poor, Desmond Tutu on behalf of those prejudiced against through racism and apartheid and now in his 80s he is speaking up for those most affected by climate change. And that cornerstone concept we find visible in the leadership of Gandhi, thinking of his inspirational life and his challenge to each individual to themselves be the change they would want to see in the world.

A website worth a visit is “The Charter for Compassion” built around these words of Gandhi and around the common golden rule of all major faiths to do unto others as you would want them to do to you and so treat others with the concern and kindness you would like them to show towards you.

In the great poem, the hymn of Philippians, it is said of Jesus; “...he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus understood fully what his own journey was about and where it would lead and this is shown in the way his radical message of hope found in his stories provoked those who had the power to take his life.

His followers later understood this too and in their lives were able to show God being at work in them. From the stories Jesus told they understood that it was a radically different way of life that would be needed and Paul gives a voice to this that was true for them and remains at the heart of how as followers today we should be. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, be of the same mind, have the same love, in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interest of others. Letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Great Faith

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

17th August 2014

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

15

     Abominable violence and desperate misery dominate the world news, and personal disasters attack our self-confidence.  In these circumstances, can the Church’s faith in God’s eternal care revive us from helplessness? 

     A little girl wrote to God, asking “How did you get invented?”  Archbishop Rowan Williams replied: “… I think God might reply a bit like this:- 

‘Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised.  They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was very beautiful, or really mysterious, and wondered where it came from.  They discovered me when they were very, very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.  Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible…’   

And, [he continued], [God] invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions.  …  I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf.”  Quiet thoughtfulness, asking awkward questions, and reading what people wrote when doing their best to communicate experiences of God’s goodness, are a sound way of grounding our lives in reality.

     When political and economic forces were tearing Jewish society apart, Jesus, an intelligent, questioning nobody, but rooted in the OT’s writings, questioned and then explained in simple terms the Law and the Prophets’ descriptions of how God’s community should live.  Jesus’ teaching challenged individuals to question the stupidity of evil, and therefore change from perverse self-centredness to generous support for others.  In so doing, he declared, they would find strength in the eternal realities underlying Jewish faith, and encourage others.   

   Why then did Jesus at first refuse to help the foreign woman in today’s Gospel story [Matth. 15: 21-28]?  A recent BBC programme about Indian railways showed an imitation British town created by the Raj in the beautiful, cool Nilgiri Hills as one of their holiday retreats.  There was even a “Please Keep Off the Grass” sign!  Prioritising our homeland can provide a limited means of escape from the world’s reality, but that was not why Jesus was reluctant to help the foreigner.  Matthew has already described Jesus rejecting such prejudice when Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant [8: 5-13].   

   Matthew copied today’s Gospel story from St. Mark’s Gospel, so he regarded it as important in his account of how Jesus - an individual completely devoid of social status or organisational power – became recognised as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets for Jews and Gentiles alike.  Let’s look at the story’s context.  

   Like a competent insurgent general, Jesus had to create a strategy for training trusted helpers, and for persuading people against their selfish instincts and habits.  Jesus had to be realistic about what was possible; concentrating on his fellow-Jews was not only common-sense, but followed OT teaching that Jews were to be an example for others.  

   God’s concern for all people was clearly asserted in the Genesis declaration [1: 27] that “God created humankind in his image”.  Today’s readings from Isaiah [56: 1. 6-8] and Psalm 67, together with other psalms [eg 46, 48, 76, 87] and prophetic teachings [eg Isaiah 2:2-5 and Micah 4:1- 2], also emphasise the importance of Jewish example.  Jesus was, at this stage in his task, still concentrating on persuading, as today’s reading puts it, “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”.   

   Matthew organised his Gospel to show how Jesus had to think through and develop his strategy in stages, each stage followed by a collection of Jesus’ relevant teachings.  The Gospel is not an incoherent lucky-dip!  Our Easter and Pentecost have interrupted Matthew’s time sequence, but we have already covered in this year’s Sunday readings how Jesus began in his home territory, Galilee, and then Matthew collects basic teachings like ‘the Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus, in the next stage, authoritatively deals with individuals’ needs, and teaches his helpers how to do the same.

   We are now in the middle of Matthew’s next stage - the growth of powerful opposition, and Matthew often emphases that Jesus strategically withdrew whenever his activities might attract the authorities’ attention [eg 4:12; 12:15; 14:13].  In this stage, Jesus’ parables will follow about how, despite rejection, God’s kingdom grows.  Jesus is developing helpers strong enough to stand the heat.  

   Last week’s parabolic story of Peter trying and failing to walk on water in a storm [[14: 22-33] illustrates this.  Jesus told Peter “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”.  Shortly after today’s story Peter, at ‘The Transfiguration’, will recognise Jesus as fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.  Then Jesus will feel able to end the ‘cat and mouse’ game with the authorities, and openly challenge them in their Jerusalem strongholds.  In Matthew’s triumphant Gospel ending, a community of faithful followers, available to make disciples of all nations, has been created.   

   Now, back to today’s reading in the context of Jesus’ strategy.  The paranoid Galilean king has just executed John the Baptist.  Jesus, still avoiding confrontation, has retreated to a non-Jewish region outside Galilee, where he hopes to be unrecognised.  A local woman noisily addresses Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”, recognising what his disciples still haven’t accepted about him, and they are embarrassed. 

   Jesus welcomes the woman’s “great faith”.  According to Matthew, Jesus had said of the Roman centurion: “I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this”.  Contrast Peter’s “little faith” in last week’s episode.  These are early examples of the strategy’s potential.  The strategy has worked, but in today’s challenging world, individual Christians still need great faith to question what is happening, thinking out a strategy for applying the radical Gospel taught by Jesus, and rejecting the odds-and-ends of institutional clutter that clog the Church’s effectiveness. 

   A couple of weeks ago, Pope Francis visited a Pentecostalist church, and asked forgiveness for previous Roman denunciations of Pentecostalists.  He told them the same Holy Spirit creating unity in the Church was also the source of a “very rich and beautiful diversity within it.  Some”, he said, “will be surprised: ‘The Pope went to visit the Evangelicals?’  But,” said the Pope, “he went to see his brothers.”   

   Every year about 10M adults in England are using services provided by church people.  This is more than half of those using voluntary food banks, lunch clubs, night shelters, relationship courses, financial advice, credit unions, access to the internet, etc.  For example, St. Albans Churches’ social action committee has a telephone help-line open every day and over 200 volunteers helping those who have no one else. 

   The author who researched this said “… it’s not just what churches do, but how churches think and operate, that helps them give something distinctive to their communities.  They do offer material and practical support, but they also offer relationships and social connection, in a word, neighbourliness”.  Such special emphasis on the whole person flows directly from Jesus’ teaching and example.

   Like the woman in today’s story, there are many not denominationally Christian, whose “great faith” stands comparison with Jesus’ approval of hers.  In Galilee today, despite current fighting in Gaza, two Palestinian brothers [Nabeel and Saleem Aboud-Ashkar], well-respected international musicians, coach talented Palestinian and Israeli youngsters at the Nazareth Conservatory, which they founded in 2006.  They, in turn, owe much to an Orchestra previously established by another Palestinian and another Israeli [Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim].

   One brother asserts “how little Arab and Jewish people know about each other,  … The first time I stood in front of Jewish kids, coaching a quartet, it was one of the most unusual moments of my life.  There’s so much separation between the communities here, so little interaction, and so many stereotypes and misconceptions …  Yet after an hour or two, it felt like any other rehearsal.” 

   An Israeli musician [Dan Sagiv] trains 70 Hebrew and Arabic school-teachers to use the same music curriculum.  “I believe,” he says, “with my skills I can change how society looks.  There’s a lot of people doing political discussion, and not enough doing structural work from the bottom.”  These pioneers have questioned apparently overwhelming evil, and then built on their own individual skills to overcome it.

   As we celebrate ‘Communion’ we are not taking part in some arcane cultural rite, but committing ourselves in great faith that God can, by our living in the Jesus way, change ourselves and society.  Quiet thoughtfulness, studying those who did their best to communicate their experiences of God’s goodness, and asking the awkward questions that result, remain the best ways of grounding our lives in eternal realities.  

   Remember the old African proverb: “If you think you’re too small to be significant, you’ve never spent a night in a tent with a mosquito”!

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