Sunday, 22 November 2015

A different king, a different kingdom

Sermon preached at Castle Hill United Reformed Church, on 22nd November 2015. Texts: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; John 18:33-37.

Who is our king? Who is our Lord? To whom do we owe our allegiance? At a time when violence and war are stalking our world, when madmen with guns destroy innocent lives in so many places, when refugees are fleeing disaster and receiving little welcome, when so many people in our own rich country have little to live on and little hope – at such a time the question becomes even more urgent than ever. To whom do we owe our allegiance? Are we followers of the kingdom of power and war that Pilate represented, or followers of the kingdom of peace and truth that Jesus proclaimed?

It’s important to start at this point, because it’s easy to hear the readings as a bit weird, a bit esoteric. We keep the trial of Jesus before Pilate for Holy Week, and we keep the apocalyptic bits of Daniel and Revelation for – well for as little as possible. But what I want to say today is that they have real implications for how we live, for how we manage our society, here and now. And today is Christ the King Sunday, the Reign of Christ Sunday, and on this day we remember that the words at the start of the service from Revelation – that Christ is King, that Christ was King, and that Christ will be King.

As we discussed already when the children were in, kings are mostly not as powerful today as they once were. But at the times when the Bible were written, they were all-powerful. The book of Daniel was written when Israel had been invaded and was under repression by the Seleucid Empire, of the successor empires of Alexander the Great. Jerusalem was a city under occupation, worship of the Jewish God in the Temple was forbidden, and the Jewish people were persecuted. So they expressed themselves through a book that expressed their powerlessness and despair through wild visionary language. It wasn’t a prediction about the future but a statement about the present, a deeply political book about a different sort of kingdom and kingship. It was a call for God to intervene here and now.

In the same way, although Jesus did not really answer when asked by Pilate whether he was a king, he did set out the nature of his kingdom. And he presented his kingship as being different in two important ways. First, he denied that it would come about through violence. He could have got his followers to protect him with swords when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him. He could have started the sort of armed insurrection that many would-be leaders of the Jewish people had started against their rulers. But that would be just the same old kind of kingdom. It would be based on violence, and who could seize power through the biggest weapons. That kind of kingdom had been seen throughout history, it’s been seen many times since, and it will sadly continue into the future. But it’s a way that always fails. Violence ultimately only has one outcome – more violence, and more violence. The rulers who come to power through violence, or their successors, are destroyed by more violence. And in the mean time, people suffer. The costs of that kind of kingdom are appalling. We saw those costs in the streets of Paris. We saw those costs in Beirut, and Mali, and Syria, and Iraq. We’ve seen them again and again in modern day Palestine and Israel. We saw them a hundred years ago when so many lives were destroyed for metres of muddy ground in Flanders. And Jesus says: enough! Enough of this form of kingship. I’ve come to show you a better way.

Jesus showed us that his alternative kingship consists of service to others. It consists of being a shepherd to his sheep. It consists of being a servant, of being the last rather than the first. It consists of eating, of making friends, with the oppressed and the marginalised. And it consists of being willing to give up everything you have to serve the kingdom – even, in the end, of Jesus being willing to give up his life.

Here’s how that bit appears in The Message translation:
“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
There’s a really important point of language here which The Message captures well. The NIV, and a number of other translations, has Jesus saying that “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s easy to read this as a suggestion that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world, that it is confined to the world to come. It’s a reading that has plagued certain parts of the church, who want the gospel to be solely about individual salvation rather than a call to action in this world. It’s not. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray, as we still do, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. Rather than hearing Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world, hear instead him saying that he’s not the world’s kind of king. He is the king of the world but he’s a different sort of king.

This is also important for another risk with this passage. However much some of us may grumble about secularism and the sidelining of Christian values – and it’s a fair point in many ways – we live in a basically Christian society. So hear Jesus described as king can sound rather triumphalist. It leads to all sorts of dangerous ideas of theocracies, societies where in the name of God people are told what to do and lead a miserable life – the likes of Saudi Arabia or Iran. We’ve had Christian brushes with those sorts of societies too, and there are those in the United States in particular who would love to impose their version of Christian living on everyone, but that’s just another version of the kingdom of violence that Jesus came to deny and to overthrow.

Martin Luther King put it really well, as so often. He wrote:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus also told Pilate that he was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. The beginning of the gospel of John tells us that Jesus was the Word of Life, the Logos, which could be translated Truth as well. Jesus is truth in himself, and he promised his disciples that by following him, they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. So it is for us. We are set free by the truth Jesus brings – by the new relationships he promises us, of loving God and of loving others as much as we love ourselves.

So how do we live in that truth? How do we recognise Jesus as our king? As the theologian Tom Wright puts it, what would it look like "if we really believed that the living God was king of earth as in heaven?”

The first part is to recognise where our allegiance lies. We are citizens of a particular country, but more importantly we are citizens of the kingdom of God, the kingdom ruled over by Jesus. Violence has no place in our lives in that kingdom. We follow the prince of peace, not the drumbeat of war from the powerful empires, past or present.

The second part is to live in the power of the kingdom of God that Jesus described in parables – the place that is within us and among us already, that is small as a mustard seed but as precious as a pearl. The kingdom which proclaims good news to the oppressed, that turns up in the most unexpected places. The kingdom which turns away no-one, whether they are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, settled homeowner with a good career or homeless drug user who has lost hope.

And finally we might remember some of the things that Jesus taught us about how to live our lives in the kingdom of God. He talked of the king who came to judge the nations and he will bless those who feed those who are hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, welcome those who are strangers, clothe those who are naked, visit those who are sick or in prison; and that when do this for the least of people, those most disliked by society, we do it for Jesus. So I’ll say directly: I’m proud of the work you do through this church in Spring Boroughs, helping those in such need. I’m proud of the work you do with Streetchurch, supporting those who have lost so much. Jennie Crane’s work is brilliant, but she’s able to do the work she does because you all support her. This is the kingdom of God.

So on the day of Christ the King, know that he offers us membership in a kingdom that leads to peace and to truth, to right relationship with God and with others, to service to others. Jesus Christ is king of the universe, was king of the universe, and will be king of universe for evermore. Amen.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

No other gods: resisting false idols

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, on 27th September 2015. Texts: Exodus 20:1-6 and Luke 12:32-34.
Who is your god? Who do you worship on a daily basis? Here is what the Nicene Creed, recited weekly in many churches, says:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We don’t use many creeds as such in the United Reformed Church, but the closest thing we have is the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC, which I last heard in this building at Jane’s induction service – it’s kept for special occasions. That says:
With the whole Christian Church
the United Reformed Church believes in one God,
Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The living God, the only God, ever to be praised.
So that’s that. We believe in one God. The writers of Exodus would be pleased. Sermon over, amen. Or perhaps not.

Because do we really believe in one God? Do we really put our total faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because here’s the thing about faith – it’s not about words. Saying the right prayers doesn’t make you a Christian. Believing the right things doesn’t make you a Christian. What makes you a Christian is the way you live your live, the relationship you have with God and with Jesus, and the effect that has upon you every single day. Of course this is the case in most other faiths as well – being a good Muslim is about the way you pray, the things you do; likewise for being a good Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh. And it’s been the case in the Jewish faith since the words we’ve heard today were given to Moses, and remains the case to the present day. Faith is not about doctrine. It’s about a lived experience of the divine in everyday life.

So the question becomes, who are our gods? Who are the idols that we put before the one true and living God? Not in our beliefs perhaps, not in the prayers we say, but in our everyday lives?

Let me start with a story of a fairly trivial example of idol worship from my own life. Are there any children present? [Nope, good.] Because I need to tell you about my idolatrous worship of Santa Claus. Now, I don’t believe in the fellow and we've struggled with wanting to be honest with our children while also keeping Christmas fun for them. So of course we do the usual things – get the kids to leave out stockings, we fill them in the night. So last Christmas Eve we filled the stockings, and then I ate half a mince pie and half a carrot. And then went to a midnight service. Now who was I worshipping in that moment? Because whatever I might believe about Santa, I was sure acting as though I believed in him.

Trivial example, you might say. The things we do for our children. Nobody really believes in Santa. But there are older gods. In ancient times they had names like Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex; or Mammon, the god of money; or Mars, the god of war and violence. And nobody uses those names any more, but many many people worship those gods through their everyday actions. Many of us here, at some point in our lives, has had one of those trio completing dominating our lives to the exclusion of everything else. Or if you’ve not been tempted by sex, money or war, how about one of the following gods: consumerism, the worship of possessions, the greedy grasping for more stuff; or work, undoubtedly a gift and also necessary to keep food on the table, but almost an addiction for so many people; or power and status and fame - seeking those completely dominate some people’s lives.

Now I’m not saying most of these things are wrong by themselves. Love, money, work, nice objects, recognition for your service to others – these are all important things. In their different ways, they are gifts from our true God. But when they become the centre of our lives by themselves, when we become separated from a relationship with the divine presence that created, redeemed and sustains the universe – then love, money, work and the rest become idols. The theologian Tom Wright has written at length on this subject. Here’s what he says:
Mammon worship, painting
by Evelyn De Morgan (1909)
Worshipping them demands sacrifices, and those sacrifices are often human. How many million children, born or indeed unborn, have been sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite, denied a secure upbringing because the demands of erotic desire keep one or both parents on the move? How many million lives have been blighted by money, whether by not having it or, worse, by having too much of it? And how many are being torn apart, as we speak, by the incessant demands of power, violence, and war?
And he’s right. Take consumerism, that most modern of God's, the urge to buy more. We live in a throwaway society. We are surrounded by plastic packaging, irrelevant bits of tat that amuse us for seconds and then get thrown away, technology which was the latest thing last year but now is so passé that if it’s lucky it gets sent to some forgotten corner of Asia for recycling, otherwise into the landfill. And at each stage, the planet’s resources are consumed, people’s lives are blighted in seeking out the rare minerals and the oil, pollution and waste are increased. And here of course we go into debt to afford the stuff, we worry and some people are destroyed by it. Everywhere, people are being sacrificed on the altar of the false god called consumerism. And we’re told it makes us good citizens, it contributes to the economic recovery, it satisfies the market. Buy more things, it'll make you happy. And yes it can, briefly. But at such cost.

I’m not saying this with any self-righteous. I’m a slave to the worship of consumerism like so many of us. I like shiny pretty things, new technology and the like. I buy my children rubbish plastic tat which lasts for five minutes, or let them spend their money on it. In our society it’s really difficult not to worship that particular god.

And of course you could say the same thing for all the false gods, all the idols we put in front of the one true God. They all promise excitement, satisfaction, but the things they give us are transitory, fleeting, gone in a moment – and they bring suffering in their wake, across the globe. People follow them because they promise happiness, but all they do is stand between us and our God.

Now this is all sounding a wee bit doom and gloom. Is there no hope? Because it’s pretty hard to resist the pull of money, and consumerism, and power and the rest. But I want to go back to the Exodus reading and see the sign of hope in it right at the start. Verse 1 reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. That’s the thing that comes first, before we get into the teaching on worshipping no other gods, and then on the rest of the Ten Commandments that follow the short passage we heard.

But that coming out of slavery, that’s absolutely crucial to why the Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel. They’d spent hundreds of years as slaves in Egypt. They weren’t free to live their own lives as they pleased. They were mistreated, humiliated, treated as sub-human. Slavery is an awful institution. And it’s absolutely central to the way the Jewish people saw themselves in the time of Moses, and in the time of Jesus, and to the present day. They were the people who were enslaved, they are now the people who are free. And they were set free by this God of theirs. So the Ten Commandments aren’t about restriction and rule, they’re a bold statement to a people previously crushed down by slavery that this is what freedom looks like, this is what it means to be a free people.

And it begins with a relationship with God. With their God, the one who freed them. The one who had the power and the love to free them from their slavery. The Israelites of that time believed in the existence of other gods, and saw plenty of them in Egypt and later in Canaan. The Old Testament is chock-full of other gods, other powerful figures, as well as Yahweh. To call these people monotheists is misleading. But they only had a relationship with this one god, with the one who had been the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but now, more importantly, was the one who had freed them from slavery. It’s said that in the Old Testament, God is referred to as the creator 6 times, but as the one who freed them from slavery 36 times.

And by worshipping their god, and setting aside idols, they were able to remain as free people in their hearts as well as in the literal sense. They weren’t going to be drawn into their own slavery. They weren’t very good at it. The Old Testament is the story of how difficult the people of Israel found it to resist worshipping idols. Sometimes they bowed down before graven images, as Moses found when he came down the mountain. Sometimes they became the enslavers themselves, as in the time of Solomon. Often they took power and war as their idols. The prophets came and warned them of this. And progressively, insidiously, the law itself became an idol, the Torah that began as the sign of their freedom.

And of course that was one of the main messages Jesus came to give the people of Israel. Don’t get trapped by your laws. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. He didn’t come to destroy the Torah but he did come to fulfil it and allow the Israelites not to be trapped by it, to free them from their slavery to law.

And Jesus promises us the same freedom. The whole Torah could be summed up by two commandments, he said. The first was the great prayer of the Jewish people, the Shema, with which we began the service – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. And the second, he said, is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. [Matt 22:37-39, NIV]

That’s it. That’s how we can be freed from the idols, the false Gods which dominate our lives. By loving God with everything we have. By loving our neighbour. By living out our lives in accordance with the lines in the first letter of John:
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:19-20, NIV)
The question really is what you put at the centre of your being. Jesus put it so succinctly, in the final verse that we heard: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. By following the way of love, for God and for all people, we cast aside the worship of false gods and idols, and we gain freedom in all our lives. God be thanked. Amen.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

On maintaining relationships and absorbing variety: lessons from systems thinking for change at the Open University

The Open University (OU) is one of the great 20th century British institutions: visionary, democratic, free-thinking, innovative. It was founded in 1969, the year before I was born, and I've been privileged to work there for the past fifteen years. (I write in a personal capacity here, and only draw on publically-available sources.)

Like all public institutions, the OU has been hit recently by a combination of financial cuts and technological advances. Clearly these make change of various sorts both possible and necessary, and very many of these have been happening in recent years.

However, there is a plan to change it really radically, in ways that I fear may stretch it to breaking point. One of the glories of the OU is its regional structure – that we are not just a national institution, but one with a significant local presence. This is under threat with a plan to close seven out of nine regional centres in England, shifting the remaining two to a call centre model (along with a further call centre in Milton Keynes plus three offices in the national capitals of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Academics should use their expertise on their own institution at times (as my colleagues Ray Corrigan and Andrew Smith have done), and that’s what I’ll do in this blog post. Having taught and researched systems thinking for most of my time at the OU – I have authored on five modules using systems ideas, and written a book on the key thinkers in the field – it seems appropriate to ask: what can systems ideas tell us about the planned regional closures?

Image: National
Portrait Gallery
I’ll draw on the work of two classic systems thinkers, both British but from somewhat different areas of systems – Geoffrey Vickers, who applied general systems theory to management and public policy (following a long and distinguished career in law and human resources); and Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of cybernetics (who by profession was a psychiatrist with a deep understanding of the working of the human mind).

Vickers stressed the crucial importance of relationships as the most important part of human systems (which would include any group or organisation of people, formal or informal). He wrote (in a 1983 book, Human Systems are Different):
Of what then do systems consist? They consist of relationships. Surely there must be objects, entities which support these relationships? It seems probable to me that the relationships are more basic than the entities related; that we abstract or infer these entities solely from our experience of relationships. (Vickers 1983, p.15)
Organisations, in this view, are not principally about their strategic plans, or their finances, or their tools, or even their management. They are about the relationships between people – between staff members within the organisation, between staff members and their students (or service users, or clients, or customers depending on the organisation), between different service users gathered in a community, and between staff members and the wider world.

The Atomium, Brussels -
relationships in action
(Image: Mike Cattell)
Vickers did not deny the need for organisations to change – he wrote quite explicitly that an open system (one which is open to its external environment) “seldom preserves its form absolutely unchanged even for a brief period” (ibid., p.13). This is very clear at the OU – it has constantly been in flux throughout its history, in almost every possible way. Yet it remains fundamentally the same institution. This is partly because its mission and core values remain intact, but also because when it has changed its organisational structure previously, it has done so while keeping its basic form intact. And, crucially, it has managed to maintain the networks of relationships that maintained the organisation’s form.

Yet Vickers argues that relationships (both internal ones within the organisation and external ones to the outside world) can be fragile, and if pushed too far, irretrievably damaged:
All these relationships, both internal and external, have limits beyond which they cannot be pushed without escalating instability which may result in irreversible change or even dissolution of the system. Within these limits change can be accommodated sometimes almost unnoticed, sometimes welcomed. Unhappily it is often difficult to predict where these limits lie until they have been passed. (ibid., p.16)
And my fear is that in closing seven regional centres, with the staff either having to relocate or be made redundant, these relationships may be severed irreversibly, with the kind of damage which Vickers suggests. This is not just to do with the relationships within the regional centres – it also affects the relationships of those staff to other staff elsewhere in the university, to students and associate lecturers they support, and to wider stakeholders in the communities where the regional centres are based.

Image: Estate of Ross Ashby
Moving on to the work of Ross Ashby, author of the first textbook in cybernetics (Ashby, 1956) at a time when that field was at the cutting edge of technology and human sciences. The central concept in Ashby's book is that of variety: the number of possible states that a system can have. In a system with many different members with many relationships, the variety will be very large.

Ashby examined the question of how to regulate that variety, and formulated what he referred to as the Law of Requisite Variety. This law, which Ashby demonstrated mathematically, and which has been applied subsequently by many scholars, states that the only way to manage the variety of a system is if the regulator (the management part) has the same level of variety as the part of the system being regulated.

The implications for the OU arise from the reduction in the number of regional centres. The existing structure, with its set of relationships linking the university to the outside world, is able to absorb the variety of the world in which it sits. This variety will not be changed. However, shifting to two regional centres (plus the offices in Milton Keynes and the national offices) reduces the variety of the regulating system, the parts of the OU which are able to absorb that variety. It is only possible to continue the system's effective operation if the same variety in the regulating system can be maintained.

In summary: by reducing the regional centres so severely, the university perturbs the relationships which give it shape, possibly irretrievably, and puts itself at considerable risk of being unable to absorb the variety of the system with which it interacts. I have not written here of the effects upon the staff involved, which is considerable; nor of the people proposing the change, who are honourable and well-intentioned. Nevertheless an analysis from systems thinking suggests that these changes are extremely risky and likely to lead to considerable problems for the future of the university.

Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Vickers, G. (1983), Human Systems are Different, London: Harper & Row.