Thursday, 15 January 2015

Changing countries, changing boundaries

I've been reading the excellent book 1913: The World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson. He lays out a compelling portrait of the world in the year before the First World War (through a picture of 20 different cities across the world). He observes that the world of 1913 is often viewed through the lens of the catastrophe and carnage of the Great War, but that the war was not inevitable and there was much else happening other than the run-up to war.

Reading the book made me very aware of countries and their boundaries. The world was carved up into several large empires which no longer exist or are much reduced (notably the British, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires), while many of the countries we now take for granted as universal were part of one of those empires or another entity.

Europe in 1914 (Image: Diercke International Atlas)
If we look specifically at Europe (whose own boundaries are contested, but is often taken to go as far east as the Caucasus Mountains and the Ural River), there were 26 countries in Europe in 1914 (an easy year to get data for), while there are 46 today.

Europe in 1914 consisted of: Albania, Andorra, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Romania, Russian Empire, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Europe today (image: Diercke International Atlas)

Europe in 2015 consists of: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vatican City.
For completeness, it's worth saying that there are four states which geographically are wholly (or almost wholly) in Asia, but which are often associated with European institutions, including the European Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Georgia. And there are six states which are not widely recognised internationally except by a few states: Abkhazia, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, South Ossetia. (And here's the part where I confess that my lists are extracted from Wikipedia, which is generally reliable for uncontested topics, but doesn't always handle controversies so well - so probably each state in this paragraph would be placed elsewhere by some people.)

Of the nineteen states which didn't exist in 1914: 8 were part of the Russian Empire; 5 were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; 2 were part of Britain and its empire (Ireland and Malta); 1 was part of Denmark; 1 was part of Serbia; 1 was part of Italy; and 1 (Poland) was split between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Austria-Hungary, as well as losing its empire, formally split into two successor states, Austria and Hungary. Many of these changes happened in 1918 after the First World War, but others happened at a later time.

Enough already of lists and stats. Here's the moral: boundaries change. Nations in one time are not nations in another time. Sometimes boundaries change as a result of war, sometimes due to economic pressure, sometimes due to democratic will - or all of these together. But boundaries of nations change over time. 

This is important because we are in a time when European boundaries are under question again. Scotland and Catalonia had independence referendums (of different kinds) in 2014, Ukraine's boundaries became threatened by Russia. The Balkans are quieter than they were, but not entirely settled. And there are independence movements, with more or less support, in various regions of current European states. 

Future boundary changes are hard to predict, but one thing is almost certain: the political map of 2115 will not be the same as that of 2015. And it might look just as different from 2015 as the modern map looks from that of 1914. Countries are not static entities.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Waiting for Jesus to arrive

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC on 21st December 2014. Recording available on church website. Main text: Luke 1:26-38.

The Annunciation - Henry Ossawa Tanner
Wait. The time is not yet here. Stop. Take a deep breath. Christmas is coming, but it has not yet arrived. We are still in Advent – however much the shops and the telly and the manic preparations and even the nativity plays tell you otherwise, Christmas has yet to arrive. We wait in anticipation for the coming of Jesus into the world.

And so in today’s gospel passage we go back in time in terms of the Christmas story, to events nine months before the birth of Jesus – back to March as it were. Back to the time of Mary’s waiting, for something genuinely new to happen, for something amazing to come into the world through her.

Now waiting and babies go hand in hand. They never come when you expect them. Doctors and midwives like to give due dates, but they’re estimates at best, even though they shape our expectations. Both our children were born about ten days after their due date, and I vividly remember the time we were waiting for our son Gregory to arrive. Everything was on hold, my parents were staying to be with our daughter when the baby was born so the house was full, Becky was getting increasingly uncomfortable. We were ready. I kept thinking of Jesus’ teaching about being watchful and not knowing the day or the hour of his coming (dads can think about that sort of thing, not actually having a huge baby inside them) – and as an aside it was only after we’d chosen his name that I found out that the word for watchful is where we get the name Gregory. So we watched. We were ready. We waited.

I can well imagine that was how things were for Mary when she was waiting for Jesus to be born. Was that how it was for her before she heard about the news of the birth? Going by Luke’s account, we don’t know anything about her life up to that point, except that she was betrothed to Joseph but not yet married, which took place a year after betrothal. Given the pattern of the times, she was probably a teenager. There are plenty of later thoughts about her. The early church had the tradition that her mother Anne had been barren, prayed to God for a child and became pregnant in her later years, whereupon she dedicated Mary to life in the temple – so that according to this tradition Mary grew up surrounded by the ideas and practices of the temple. This isn’t an idea you’ll find in the Bible, but it’s found in a number of written works from the first few centuries after Christ and subsequently in the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran, which has a lot to say about Mary.

So she might have been deeply reflecting on God’s calling for her, preparing for something to happen in her life. But that’s speculation. She might just as much have been doing the everyday stuff, or planning for her wedding, or having a bit of a rest. And then, all of a sudden, an angel comes to her. How did she know he was an angel, not just some bloke? She didn't, and we don’t. There’s no mention of miraculous appearance, or wings, or heavenly lights, the kinds of things we associate with angels. In the first place, an angel is a messenger from God, and earlier in Luke we’re told in rather lovely words that he stands in the presence of God. We’re told by Luke that the angel’s name was Gabriel, which partly because of this passage is a name that Christian tradition (and indeed Jewish and Muslim tradition) has run and run with. Quick one for your next pub quiz: how many times does the name Gabriel appear in the Bible? Four times is the answer – here, earlier in Luke where Gabriel appears to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and twice in the book of Daniel. Really, he’s not a major character. And he doesn’t announce himself to Mary by name anyway.

So Mary doesn’t know a lot about this person who greets her. Which makes it not so very surprising that when he calls her favoured one, and says the Lord is with her, and even (according to some translations) says that she is blessed among women, her first reaction is “y’what?”. She is, to put it more politely, perplexed. Flummoxed. Surprised. Incredulous. Because this is turning out to be a far from ordinary day.

But notice this: before she gets any news of her great task, she’s told that she is blessed and favoured by God. And she hears this straight from the source, from a messenger who stands in the presence of God. Now how good is that? It’s news we all need to hear. But of course it’s news that we can find throughout the Bible. We are blessed by God, we are God’s favoured ones. Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, that we have life breathed into us by God. Much of the Old Testament is about God’s blessing upon a people who do or don’t want to know. And it’s absolutely the central message of Jesus. He tells us that he came so that we might have life, and have it to the full. He showed us in his life, through his teaching, through his death, that we are blessed by God. So if you feel sad or worried or are losing hope, remember that the words of the angel to Mary apply to you, apply to me, apply to us all: “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. You are blessed by God.”

And Mary – Mary waits. So the angel goes on. And now he tells her the news that to us, 2000 years on, is incredibly familiar, but to her must have been mind-blowing. She’s going to have a baby. And not just any baby, but one who is going to be truly great, to sit on the throne of David, to reign forever, to be called the son of the Most High, even to be holy and to be called the Son of God. These are royal titles, they’re the kind of titles that the Roman Emperor gave himself. To us, the term Son of God is associated solely with Jesus, but emperors were forever being called son of God. But very clearly these are not the sort of titles you expect for the baby of a young woman from nowhere in particular.

And then finally Mary reacts – from incredulity about the greeting to incredulity about the mechanism. Because of course, she says, she’s a virgin. Now the idea of a virgin birth is something totally outside of normal human experience. For many people throughout church history, it’s a central idea for seeing Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and to question it is heresy of the worst sort; for many people today, it’s too bizarre to be taken seriously. There are also sound biblical reasons to doubt it. I don’t really know what I think about how Mary conceived Jesus. Maybe it’s just a metaphor for an ordinary conception given especial holiness. But if God is going to carry out an extraordinary act, he certainly could have chosen to do it by extraordinary means.

And actually, I don’t think the mechanism is the interesting part about it. In ancient Jewish teaching, the question about any story was not “what actually happened?” but “what does this teach us?” And the angel gives us the clue – that the Holy Spirit is acting especially in the world, is breathing life into this child just as God has always done, but a life that is fully divine as well as fully human. The angel in Matthew’s gospel quotes the book of Isaiah, and gives the child the title of Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. That is the reality of the incarnation – God is taking on human flesh. This baby is to be a human being, but he is also going to be God.

And that brings me to a deeper layer of meaning. By taking on human flesh, God fundamentally changed the nature of the world. And by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he fundamentally changed the nature of those who follow him. Our ridiculous, vulnerable, frail human flesh has been given the greatest possible seal of approval by God: he chose to wear it. But we, the church, the followers of Jesus, are the now the body of Christ, that self-same incarnated body. So we have a responsibility continually to bring about that incarnation in our own lives. I really like the words of the German 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, who in a Christmas sermon once proclaimed:
What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?  We are all meant to be mothers of God.  God is always needing to be born.
I find that an amazing calling – to be part of bringing God into the world, here and now, continuously. To be a mother to God, whether or not you’re a mother (or even capable of being a mother) to human life. In the Eastern Orthodox church, Mary is referred to as the God-bearer. We are all called to be bearers of God. Just as heaven is not something to be experienced after death but in the here and now, so too the incarnation is not something that happened once and never again, but goes on happening again and again.

Of course what Mary did was to give birth to God in a very particular and unique way. She was the pioneer, the one who went before us all to make it possible for us to come to know God. Mary was not a passive vehicle. She was an active agent in all this. Her response might sound quite passive in some ways, quite submissive. And many of the classic images we have of Mary do show her as quite submissive. But I think her response is more like a shout of acclamation. Let it be so! Yes I will! This thing is going to happen!

And there’s something important going on here in how she is addressed and responds. Many scholars observe that the structure of what the angel says to Mary exactly parallels the way in which the prophets in the Old Testament were called. There is a greeting, a startled reaction, an exhortation not to be afraid, a divine commission, an objection, a reassurance, and the offer of a confirming sign. This is the way Moses was called by God, it’s the way Isaiah was called, it’s the way Samuel was called. Mary’s response to the angel of “Here I am” even echoes the response of Samuel. There’s really compelling evidence here that Mary’s encounter with the angel is a prophetic calling, that Mary herself is a prophet.

And the next words we hear from Mary are undoubtedly prophetic words – the extraordinary song that we call the Magnificat, where Mary speaks of God’s power and his justice, of the world turned upside down, of the powerful brought low and the hungry fed. These are a vision of an alternative kingdom. It is a vision which Jesus brought into being fully, with the coming of the kingdom of God through him, but it is a vision which was first given to Mary.

Now Protestants rather under-rate Mary – she’s such a major figure in Catholic spirituality that many Protestants have put her to one side, just to be brought out at Christmas time, and maybe Easter, as a rather peripheral figure to the story. But this passage shows us Mary can be our model, our teacher – the one who heard the angel’s assurance that she was blessed by God, the one who was perplexed at first and asked searching questions, but then understood her calling and responded to it with a great YES! The one who participated with all her body and her heart and her soul in bringing God to earth. And the one who was willing to see God’s coming kingdom in all its fullness of life.

And Mary waited, ready for the time to come.

And so this is my hope and my prayer: that we all, this Christmas time, might be willing also to act as bearers of God, as agents for bringing God into the world through our lives and our actions, and that we might be willing to listen to the angel, and to see the upside-down kingdom of God in all its glory. That we might wait as Mary did, and might participate in the incarnation of our Lord, here and now, in this place and in everything we do. Let us all be willing to say with Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

The coming of the kingdom: judgement and justice

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 23 November 2014. Text: Matthew 25:31-46.

Imagine a preacher, a man who has inspired great crowds with the power of his words, with the depth of his spirituality, with the strength of his actions. But he’s angered the powerful, and he knows his time is short before they come for him. So he gives one last set of instructions to his followers. He’s often been a bit obscure, asking questions and telling stories, but now he speaks clearly and directly.

And that was the situation Jesus found himself in, when he spoke about the sheep and the goats. According to the gospel of Matthew, it’s the last thing Jesus says to his disciples. Thereafter the gospel is all about betrayal and trial and death. So in some ways it’s not that surprising that what he teaches them is about judgement, the coming of the King in glory. Endings must have been much on his mind.

But what he talks about isn’t so much about what happens THEN. It’s about what happens NOW. It’s about how we, Jesus’ disciples past, present and future, are called to live our lives. It’s about the nature of the kingdom of God, and it’s about how we live out the values of the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Because so much of the time when Jesus talks about the nature of kingdom of God, he’s talking about the present reality, about a place and a way of being that we can access now, rather than what we will encounter after death or the last judgement. We heard this in the call to worship, where Jesus talked about the kingdom being among us now. And this passage seems to me anyway to fall into the category of apocalyptic writing, like the books of Daniel and Revelation, where the last things are presented with striking and often quite odd imagery, but the message is really about the here and now.

Part of Jesus’ apocalyptic language is to talk about judgement. Now judgement, in some circles, is Not Cool. Modern liberal society doesn’t quite like taking sides, of saying this is right and this is wrong. And for laudable reasons. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount not to judge others so that we are not judged ourselves.  But here he powerfully presents a king that judges. The king judges not according to some arbitrary law, not according to his whims, but also not according to what the sheep and the goats believed. He judges them by their actions. He judges them by how well they have feed the poor, welcomed the stranger, visited the prisoner and so on.

And so he follows the route of so many Jewish prophets and shouts out for justice. Because if there is no judgement, ultimately we can’t have justice. At some point, you need to come off the fence and say, these people are being treated shamefully. I will treat them differently. That’s what Jesus calls his followers – what he calls us – to do. Those who follow this will have eternal life.

It’s worth saying that the phrase translated as ‘eternal life’ at the end of the passage is argued by many scholars to refer not to living for ever after death, or not only that, but rather to living fully within this world. It’s the same idea as the kingdom of God being among us. It’s the same idea as Jesus saying in the gospel of John that he had come to bring us abundant life (that was about sheep as well). Jesus is saying that if we want to live a rich and abundant life, full of joy and satisfaction and spiritual uplift – that we can only do this if we also look after those who are in need.

And so the King separates the sheep and the goats. A famous image. You can buy a pair of socks in all good cathedral bookshops where the left one has goats on it, and the right one has sheep on it. I’ve been puzzling about the difference here between the two species though. Images of sheep and shepherds are everywhere in the scriptures, but what’s so wrong with goats? Did the people of Jesus time hate goats so much? The strange answer is that they didn’t really. Both animals were kept for milk, meat and their hides. Both were ritually slaughtered in the temple. The most curious thing about them is that the varieties of sheep and goat in Israel of Jesus’ day were very hard to tell apart. They behaved rather differently, but looked the same.

And that seems to be the basis of the distinction Jesus is making between the two species here. They look so similar, but act so differently. The sheep are those who don’t think about it very hard, who care for God’s people without really being told to do so. The goats – they might be leading moral lives in some sense, but they’re basically those who when faced with human need, give the answer of Cain: “am I my brother’s keeper?” Probably most of us are a little bit of sheep and a little bit of goat, but Jesus is very clear about which one he prefers.

Both sheep and goats, though, are really surprised to be told that their actions or inactions towards the poor and needy have to do with their response to Jesus. But that idea, that doing good deeds towards strangers, has a long history. Abraham met and welcomed strangers and later found that they were angels. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it”. And many traditional cultures, from the Celts to the Russians, have stories of people meeting strangers. The Celtic blessing known as the Rune of Hospitality ends with the lovely words: “often, often, often,  goes the Christ in the stranger's guise”.

This idea of surprise, of seeing Christ in the most unlikely people, was spoken about beautifully by Oscar Romero (archbishop of El Salvador), in a sermon he preached just ten days before he was killed by government agents because he was a champion of the poor and the oppressed in his country. Romero said:
What terror has been sown among our people that friends betray friends whom they see in trouble. If we could see that Christ is in the needy one, the torture victim, the prisoner, the murder victim, and in each human figure so shamefully thrown by our roadsides would see Christ himself cast aside, we would pick him up like a medal of gold to be kissed lovingly. We would never be ashamed of him.
How far people are today, especially those who torture and kill and value their investments more than human beings, from realizing that all the earths millions are good for nothing, are worthless compared to a human being. 
The person is Christ, and in the person viewed and treated with faith we look on Christ the Lord.

And with that I would like to say Amen and sit down. Except that there’s one more thing that to me is crucial about this passage. It’s a passage about justice. And it calls us clearly to act. But I believe it calls us not just to feed the hungry, but to ask why they are hungry and to fight for justice that means they are no longer hungry. It calls us not just to welcome strangers, but to stand up to racists and those who would persecute immigrants. It calls us not just to visit people in prison but to ask whether prison is the right place for them, and whether they’re being treated properly there. As we enter Advent next week, we’re once again reminded of Mary’s song about the God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. I believe Jesus is calling us to seeking that kind of justice as much as he’s calling us to individual action.

Consider foodbanks. They’re an act of Christian compassion. They’re feeding the hungry, they’re recognising the person of Christ in one individual at a time. It’s important that churches up and down the land are organising them, staffing them, giving food to them. But they’re also, in the memorable words of Liz Dowler, a professor of food policy, "an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound". That food banks exist in a hugely affluent society is a scandal and a disgrace. They shouldn’t have to exist.

Or, to take a different story, I was shocked to read yesterday that Walmart, the largest supermarket chain in the US, puts out boxes so that their poorly paid staff can feed each other. Which I find horrible. Colleagues giving to each other, friends recognising those who are poor and feeding them –those are acts of Christian compassion. But the question first is why Walmart are paying their staff so badly that they have to do such things.

Jesus calls us to be sheep, caring for the needy, and calls us to do it in the here and now. And by doing that we will know the kingdom of God in the here and now. Thanks be to God.