Sunday, 26 February 2017

Saved to do good: true godliness & living generously

Image: Joey Bonifacio

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, Northampton, on 26 February 2017. Texts: Titus 3:1-15, Matthew 17:1-9.

What’s the point of being a Christian? Why do we show up each week to church? What’s the purpose of us being called into God’s kingdom, into membership of God’s people? Is it just about our individual experience with God, our experience of Jesus’ redemption, our personal experience of the Holy Spirit? Or our need for community, for something to do on a Sunday morning?

All these things are important, but to me the message of the gospels is a deeper one: that Jesus came to call us, and the world, into a radical transformation. He came to show us love and mercy, richer and more generous than we could imagine. And he calls us to a path of showing that generous love and mercy to others. We love, because he first loved us. And to complete that love, we must show it to others, in the way we do good in the world.

We reach the end of the letter to Titus that has been the subject of several sermons over the past few weeks. As others have said in this sermon series, the letter probably wasn’t written by St Paul – the vast majority of biblical scholars agree on this, and say it was written by a later author in his style, a common practice in the ancient world – so we can pass over the greetings at the end of the letter. But this chapter has some real gems in it, and it contains some deep truths about the nature of the Christian life. And even if it wasn’t by Paul, it has the lawyer-like complexity and detail of argument that we often find in his letters. So we need to follow through carefully what the author is saying.

The chapter falls into three parts, as well as those final greetings. There’s a rather beautiful and poetic piece about salvation through the mercy of God, sandwiched between two sections on how to live a good Christian life. The presence of this theological piece about salvation illuminates and gives power to the rest: we live a good life in response to God’s goodness; we act in mercy and love because of God’s love for us.

So in the first few verses we see a contrast between the old life & new life. It’s framed rather like one of those personal testimonies that some people may have heard or indeed given in churches – the author gives a list of negative characteristics with a statement that “at one time we too were…” and then lists foolishness, disobedience, malice, hate. By contrast he begins the chapter with a list of the way we’re told to be as Christians – peaceable, considerate, gentle, slandering nobody, being obedient. This chapter doesn’t contain the word ‘godliness’ as such but that’s a constant theme of the letter to Titus, and this could be considered a list of ways to lead a godly or an ungodly life. Now there are those here who came to Christian faith as adults, and might characterise parts of their former life in that way. Others have been Christians all their lives and so experience it differently. I’ve never myself had a conversion experience, but I can readily see ways in which my own life exhibits those ungodly patterns at time, as well I hope as the more godly ones. Others may feel the same way.

And then we move on to this much more poetic passage. It has a different style to the rest, and there’s reason to think that it may well be a quotation of some sort, perhaps from an early hymn or liturgy. The author writes that “when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. Now there’s an interesting thing about this passage, which is that it mentions Jesus’ birth, it mentions baptism and the Holy Spirit, but it doesn’t mention his death. The letters of Paul, in whose tradition this letter was written, are full of passages about Jesus bringing salvation through his death and resurrection, but that’s not in this chapter. Here we see the important factor being the kindness and love of God of Saviour appearing. It’s for this reason, by the way, that these verses from the letter of Titus are set in the lectionary to be read on Christmas Day. They’re deeply concerned with incarnation, with enfleshment, with God being born among us in human form.

That word ‘appeared’ is important. It’s a translation of the Greek epephane, from which we get the word epiphany. It refers to the breaking-through of God into the human world, the sudden and profound experience by us human beings of the divine presence. Now epiphanies can happen in all sorts of ways, but two of the ways we see them in the Bible and that they’re experienced by Christians today are mentioned in this passage: through the ‘washing of rebirth’, which is to say baptism, and through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s the relevance of the other passage we heard this morning, the disciples’ experience of the transfiguration of Jesus. Today is the day, the last Sunday before Lent, where many churches celebrate the transfiguration. Lent leads up to Jesus being lifted up on a cross on the mountain of Golgotha, and the world being transformed by his death and God’s transformation of his suffering by bringing him back from death. But here we see a different sort of transformation up a different mountain – Jesus appearing in dazzling white, surrounded by the great figures of Moses and Elijah, with his ministry affirmed by the voice of God saying “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased”, the same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism. That baptism was an epiphany, a breaking-through of the divine presence; so is this moment on the mountain.

Can we experience the same sort of transformation? I don’t think it’s an impossibility for any of us. It’s a different thing from the conversion experience – it can happen whether we’ve been a Christian for 80 years or never at all. I’m reminded of the words of the French-American monk Thomas Merton, who wrote of an experience of God in the everyday, walking down a street in Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Merton remained as a monk after this experience. But it led him to realise that holiness, that profound experiences of God, push us into the world rather than taking us away from it. He became an activist as well as a mystic, writing and speaking about peace, racial tolerance and social equality.

And that takes me back to the letter to Titus. In the third section, after the description of how Jesus’ coming has transformed us through the mercy of God, we see the way that we respond to this. Again there are specific instructions, but they come down to one phrase: “that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good”. If you’ll permit me a bit more Greek, the word ‘good’ appears three times in most English translations of this chapter, but it actually translates two different Greek words. The first time we’re told to do good, it’s the Greek word ‘agathos’, which refers to moral and practical goodness – doing good things. But when we’re told to do good in the section after the depiction of the transformation Jesus brings, it’s a different word which appears twice – ‘kalos’, which carries the same sense of moral goodness but also a sense of beauty. This kind of goodness shines out in the world like a beacon. It’s the shining radiance of the transfiguration. It’s the image Thomas Merton had of people walking around shining like the sun.

Because this is the thing which most makes us shine in the world – by doing good. Acting to change the world for the better is the true sign of godliness. Jesus said that by their fruits you will know them. The 17th century Quaker William Penn, founder of the American state of Pennsylvania, put it beautifully, and it relates to the theme of godliness found throughout the letter to Titus. Penn wrote: “True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it”.

Now, doing good will vary for each of us. And the gospels are not short of definitions. Those who were here last Sunday heard the version Jesus told us in Matthew 25 – giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcoming in the strangers, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting prisoners. The same sorts of lists are repeated throughout the teachings of Jesus.

For some of us, this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like support for food banks or to care for the homeless. For others, it is done through acts of generosity like Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings campaign or by following 40 Acts. For still others, it comes more locally, with looking after old people in need, or visiting people in hospital, or welcoming strangers into your home. All these are good works. They are works which will shine in the world like the sun.

Others are called differently. We live in dark times, full of injustice and prejudice. Sometimes we are called to stand up against this injustice. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power. Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from supposedly wrong countries and to say: this is not the love of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not the mercy of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not the transformation of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it does involve politics.

The letter to Titus tells us that we were saved “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy”. We are not called to do good works in the world, to act as agents of God’s shining transformation, because it will gain us salvation. Only the grace and mercy of God can do that. But we are called to do good works in the world because it continues the love and mercy of God. The theologian and former bishop Tom Wright writes that “what we see, in a life transformed by the gospel, is the direct result of God’s lavish, generous love. And that’s why he wants us to be generous, kind and gentle in turn.”

We love because he first loved us. By loving others, we show the depths of God’s love for us; by showing generosity to others, we demonstrate the generosity of God’s mercy for us. And then we will become part of God’s transform love, we will transform others and we ourselves will be transformed, and we will shine out like the sun.

May it be so for us all, in the name of the life-giving Father and the redeeming Son and the ever-transforming Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Light matters: politics as Christian witness

Sermon preached at Long Buckby URC on 5th February 2017. Texts: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20.

Light matters. We live in a world filled with electricity, where we can get light at the flick of a switch. This was not always the case, and was definitely not so in Jesus’ time. A few years ago, I had an experience which brought this home for me strongly. We spent a weekend as a family, along with some friends, at a cottage in Suffolk with no electricity. When darkness fell – about 5.30 at that time of year – the only light in the house came from low-powered gas lamps, the wood fire, or torches. Getting up in the night and hearing the noises of the night takes on a different dimension in that environment. And of course that was the lived experience of everyone in the ancient world. The rich had candles and torches; the poor maybe not even those. So darkness mattered – it was a thing of threat and danger and fear. And of course the scriptures are full of images of light and dark.

Well, we live in dark times. The United States, already riven with division between rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, has elected a president who seems determined to divide things further. We all know the things he has started and is promising, perhaps especially his policy towards immigrants. In this country, we have divisions around nationality and identity caused by the European referendum and the way the government is handling Brexit. In France, Germany and even the Netherlands, extremist politicians have at least a good chance of success in elections this year.

It’s frightening. I’d quite like to hide my head under the duvet for the next few years, in the hope it all goes away. I understand entirely those who want to say it won’t be as bad as it seems, that the good sense and well-designed constitutions of these solid democracies will kick in and rescue us all. Or who want to find a way to accommodate the bullies, to tame the dragons. Or to retreat to safe churches and sing about the glory of God and the sacrifice of Jesus, all the while ignoring the world God created and for which Jesus sacrificed himself.
Source: Teepublic
But Jesus doesn’t give us a choice. We are to be salty, we are to be bringers of light. We are not permitted to hide our light. The passage we’ve heard from Matthew falls immediately after the Beatitudes, the list of people who Jesus calls blessed – the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those hungering for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Those are the people that Jesus is speaking to, that he is calling to himself.

It is by acting in these ways, in hungering for righteousness, in seeking peace, in being merciful, that we are part of the kingdom of heaven. At the end of Matthew’s text, Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We might not think well of those kinds of people, because Jesus had some pretty earthy things to say against them, but they were holy people, clearly keeping the commands of God, and Jesus was setting a high bar in saying his followers needed to exceed their righteousness. But he showed the way in talking of being salt and light, of the blessedness of those who acting in the way of the Beatitudes. Righteousness comes not through the keeping of multiple laws, or the following of ritual actions, but in the way you turn your heart towards God, and in the ways you treat God’s people.

Isaiah knew this. He was inspired clearly by God to show the people of Israel that their rituals and fasting were not enough. Elsewhere in the book of Isaiah, the prophet has God say that “my soul hates your new moons and your appointed festivals, they have become a burden to me”. Here God’s people are called to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their own houses.

Jesus said he had come to fulfil rather than abolish the law and the prophets. We easily hear the bit about law, but it’s the two together that matter to me. The Torah, the five books of the law which form the first five books of our Old Testament, are full of commandments about ritual worship; but they’re just as full of statements about how to treat others. There are many occasions when the people of Israel are reminded that they were slaves and exiles in Egypt, and were badly mistreated, and that they must not treat foreigners in their own land in the same way. Just one can be found in the book of Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, there are multiple occasions when they are told to care for widows, for orphans, for the poor.

The people of Israel departed from these laws plenty of times and so God sent them the prophets such as Isaiah, who spoke in the way we’ve seen, or Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who mourned the faithlessness of God’s people, or Micah, who said that what God required was to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. All these prophets sought to restore the basic truth of the law: God’s justice demands that God’s people treat everyone with care and compassion. God is a champion of the poor, the oppressed, the exiles everywhere.

And that is the message that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil. He came to instruct his disciples in how to do this, how to find their way to the kingdom of heaven – not by chanting empty slogans about his greatness and sacrifice, but by acting for God’s people, and by standing up as God’s people.

Because there are two important words in the salt & light verses, and they’re the same each time – the first two. YOU ARE the salt of the earth, YOU ARE the light of the world. I’ve been reflecting on those words ‘YOU ARE’, hymeis este in the Greek. In English we have mostly lost a distinction between the singular and plural ‘you’, except in a few dialects which have plural versions such as ‘youse’ that’s found in parts of Ireland, Scotland and north-east England, or ‘y’all’ in the southern part of the US. But ancient Greek mostly definitely did distinguish between singular and plural, and hymeis is clearly plural. Jesus is not speaking to us as individuals here, but to all of his followers – we are all salt and light to the earth.

Plurals matter. We live in a very individualistic society, and very often the words of the Bible are taken to refer to us as individuals. But most of the Old Testament and much of the New are addressed in the plural, to the people of God as a whole. We need each other for support and guidance, to lift each other up when we fall. There’s a great church in New York called Riverside, whose founding pastor was the preacher and hymn writer Harry Emerson Fosdick. Their current lead pastor is called Amy Butler, and she wrote recently about being part of the women’s march on Washington:
Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope. I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore. I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up. And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices. Together.
The other important word in that YOU ARE is the second one, ARE. Jesus does not say: ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘under certain conditions, you have the capacity to become the light of the earth’. He says that, right here and now, his followers exist to bring light to the world, to bring flavour and taste to the earth. I find this is a great act of trust, a great promise, on Jesus’ part, given the motley band he had around him, and it’s no less an act of trust today. Each of us in this room, working together, are light and salt to the world. 

But to me this is a challenge as much as it is a promise. His imagery of hiding lamps under baskets and of salt losing its flavour is vivid and it challenges us not to hide our light away. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the light of the world, and our hymnbooks are full of songs about Jesus as light. But he puts it on to his followers here. He calls us to be the light for him. The Biblical scholar Matthew Skinner puts it like this: “the church isn't holding space for Jesus until he comes back - the church is making Christ present”. Isaiah put it that if God’s people feed the hungry, welcome in the homeless, clothe the naked and the rest, then “your light shall break forth like the dawn”.

And how do we do it? How do we act as salt and light for the world? In the same way that Isaiah says, in the way that Jesus said in the Beatitudes – we look for injustice in our society and we challenge it. Sometimes this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like the work Christians and others do at food banks or to care for the homeless. But sometimes it means challenging the ways that injustice arises. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power.

Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from the wrong countries and to say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not found in the word of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it most certainly does involve politics.

And to return to American politics once more, this passage is really important. The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, talked of Boston as a shining city on a hill; and many American politicians have followed his example. Public life, the work of politics, can be give glory to God, in the way it is conducted and in its positive effects on the world. It is not something to be afraid of, but to be embraced as an act of Christian witness.

We have a huge privilege as Christians, of following the one who can transform lives, but he needs us to act as agents of that transformation. And we are given strength towards that transformation. A 19th century Quaker author by the name of Caroline Fox puts it beautifully. Suffering from great self-doubt and questioning one morning in a service of worship, she was given the words “live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee”. If we are willing to act in the world, to take up the challenge of being the light of Christ, working together as a people of God, then he will give us the strength we need. And with that strength, we can let our light shine and all will see our works and give glory to our father in heaven.

Amen.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Myth, class & morality: narratives and power

This week, three things have made me think hard about the ways in which groups and societies develop narratives to guide their collective thinking. That's a subject much on my mind anyway, as we prepare for DTMD 2017, our conference on information & narrative in Gothenberg this year (and also my colleague David Chapman and I have been finishing revisions on a paper about information). However, two podcasts (both based on books) and a blog post have concentrated my mind on the relationship between power and narrative.

First, the blog post. In an online Harvard Business Review piece, Joan Williams argues for a more nuanced understanding of the American class system, and especially the relationship between the (white) working class and what she calls the poor. The former are the ones who have been left behind by globalization and the shift of manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere; however it is the latter towards whom leftish politicians have focused their policies, often for excellent reasons. This causes resentment among those white working class people, and it's precisely those people who have so disastrously voted for Trump. She also makes the interesting point that those white working class people frequently resent the professional classes, labelled by populists as 'elites', as they perceive professionals as bossing them around; but don't have the same resentment towards the super-rich.

I find this really helpful in making sense of the Trump victory. A very similar story could be told in the UK of the Brexit vote - of working-class voters, left behind by globalisation and a shift away from manufacturing, who became convinced by populist demagogues and the rightwing press that the problem was immigration and the EU.

But the reaction of the left has been unhelpful in both the US and UK. Faced with emotive campaigns full of falsehoods, their reaction too often has been fact-driven and lacking in an equivalent sense of emotion. I've written in a previous post about the selective information involved in the interpretation of the Brexit and US election campaign falsehoods.

A stronger alternative was presented in a talk at the Royal Society of Arts by Alex Evans who talked about a myth gap, based on his recent book. His argument was that progressives have a chronic problem in establishing good myths - large-scale stories based as much on feeling as fact - and that over a number of issues, they have instead tried to present facts without these myths. By contrast, he argues, the right is good at myth-making - creating and reinforcing a persuasive story which explains a deep concern, even if it is in the face of the facts. He says that "it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future".

These myths sound a lot like narratives. And like narratives, a key question is: how are they created? Who has the power to create them? Whose power do they reinforce?

And that takes me to one more idea from a podcast: a BBC In Our Time discussion of Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche distinguished two forms of morality: one based on power and control, which he called 'master morality', and one based on subversion and service, which he called the 'slave morality'. The latter forms (if I understand it right) when certain groups in a society become powerless, and instead of seeking to overthrow the powerful, instead set up a worldview that says that power itself is a corrupting and wicked force, and service to others is preferable and morally right. This was the journey of the Jewish people in their exiles in Egypt and Babylon, and of the formation of Christian morality under Roman oppression. Nietzsche didn't think much of 'slave morality', being a bit keen on power himself, but to me it's admirable (whatever its name) and at the root of all positive value systems.

These two forms of morality are their own sort of myth, but it brings me to a thought: that it's really not possible for good people to change a bad system by taking it over and trying to make it better. That has been the attempt of the left for 20+ years, and it's not working well. I think instead that progressives have to subvert the value system, to build a wider grouping that encompasses working class people again, and to look towards service rather than power. Only then can will we have a narrative, a myth, that's big enough the counter the negative myths that have led us to the disasters of Brexit and the Trump presidency.