Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Rohr's alternative orthodoxy - rich and deep words

Richard Rohr is a fascinating man, a Franciscan spiritual teacher. I've often heard him quoted but haven't read his books. However I was fascinated by listening to him talking with Rob Bell in a recent podcast. Rohr emphasises that Christian 'orthodoxy' is not what we think it might be, that there are richer and older perspectives with just as much right to be called orthodox. He sums up this alternative orthodoxy in seven tenets which are found in his book Yes, And...:
  • Methodology: Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview.
  • Foundation: If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then it is a benevolent universe. God is not someone to be afraid of, but is the Ground of Being and on our side.
  • Frame: There is only one Reality. Any distinction between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane is a bogus one.
  • Ecumenism: Everything belongs and no one needs to be scapegoated or excluded. Evil and illusion only need to be named and exposed truthfully, and they die in exposure to the light.
  • Transformation: The separate self is the problem, whereas most religion and most people make the “shadow self” the problem. This leads to denial, pretending, and projecting instead of real transformation into the Divine.
  • Process: The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.
  • Goal: Reality is paradoxical and complementary. Non-dual thinking is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion. 

Each one of these seven statements contains such rich and deep insights that they could form a whole book in themselves. Much food for thought.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Peace in our hearts, peace in our world

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, 13th March 2016. Texts: Micah 4:1-4; James 3:13-18. Recording of sermon available.

Salaam aleikum. Shalom aleikheim. Peace be with you! These phrases all mean the same, and are the common daily greeting for Arabic and Hebrew speakers. And in Jesus’ time, the same was true. Whenever you read the gospels you’ll forever find Jesus saying “peace be with you”. He says it to his disciples, to crowds, to strangers. He says it when he appears to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection. To our eye it’s a distinctive greeting but it was a common way of talking in Aramaic.

Nonetheless, the theme of peace is one that can be found throughout the whole scriptures. We’ve heard two examples, from the Old Testament prophetic tradition and from the epistle of James. I could have selected very many more. God promises peace to the people of Israel in many different places. The prophecies of the coming Messiah in Isaiah call him the prince of peace and tell us how beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the gospel of peace. Jesus tells us that blessed are the peacemakers, he tells many different people he has healed to go in peace. In the long series of teachings to the disciples before his crucifixion, he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you”. Similarly, throughout the New Testament epistles, we find the blessing of “grace and peace”.

Peace is everywhere in the scriptures. If you’ve been following the services here at Abington Avenue since the start of the year, you may recall that we’ve had a series of sermons on the fruit of the Spirit. Jane [Wade, our minister] reminded us back in January that Paul very clearly uses the singular fruit, not the plural fruits, in the Greek original as well as our English translation. Living in the Spirit brings fruit which has many different aspects, but they’re all joined and connected. Paul lists nine aspects of this fruit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And today we are looking at peace.

But what do we mean by peace? It’s a powerful word. In the all-age talk, Becky has shown us several symbols of peace – the candle over here, the dove, holding up two fingers, the nuclear disarmament symbol and the origami cranes. When I was a child in the 70s and 80s, I was taken on many peace marches and demonstrations. Now these events and symbols and causes are vitally important acts of Christian witness, and they all cluster under the name of peace. Sometimes they actively promote peace. But sometimes they’re mostly about the rejection of war and the weapons of war. And as many people have said, peace is not just about the absence of war, it’s about something active. In the words of Martin Luther King, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice”.

Micah shows us what that active peace looks like. It begins with putting away the things of war and turning them into useful objects, with beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Or in modern terms, turning drones into solar panels, Kalashnikov rifles into water pipes. A couple of years I saw an amazing sculpture from Mozambique at the British Museum, a chair made from old rifles. Uncomfortable to sit on, but a much better use for them.

Micah has nations not learning to fight each other, and instead sitting down in their own places, their own homes, without any fear of attack or persecution.

Imagine that. Imagine if the vast sums spent on the military across the world, more than $1.5 tr. last year, could be redirected to ending poverty, to ending inequality, to ending hunger, to ending disease. Imagine if the brilliant minds across the world who waste their lives inventing more clever ways for people to kill each other, put their skills to better use. Imagine if all the lives destroyed by war, whether of soldiers or civilians, were freed up to live happily. Imagine Syria without war. Imagine Iraq without war, Afghanistan, Somalia, all those places which have been devastated and destroyed.

Micah says: go ahead, imagine it. Because these days will come. Because the Lord has spoken it. And blessed is his name, hallelujah.

Brian Wren, the hymn writer, has a lovely poem about peace and war which sums up these things well. It reads:
Say ‘no’ to peace; if what they mean by peace
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Is the quiet misery of hunger,
the frozen stillness of fear,
The silence of broken spirits,
the unborn hopes of the oppressed.

Tell them that peace is the shouting of children at play
The babble of tongues set free, the thunder of dancing feet,
And a father’s voice singing.

Say ‘no’ to peace if what they mean by peace
Is a rampart of gleaming missiles, the arming of distant wars,
Money at ease in its castle and grateful poor at the gate.

Tell them that peace is the hauling down of flags,
The forging of guns into ploughs; the giving of fields to the landless
And hunger a fading dream.
Because we all know about the other kind of peace. It’s the peace that happened in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, in Nicaragua, in Ukraine, in Palestine. It’s the kind that may well take shape in Syria, because nobody can think of a better kind. The guns fall silent, the killing stops. But the communities remain unreconciled, the conflict goes on, the hatred and bitterness and recriminations are not healed. And acts of injustice continue, small or large. Hopes wither, lives become set in despair. It’s like a dry grassland in the summer, that kind of peace. Eventually – whoosh! – along comes a match and sets it alight again.

That’s not the peace that Micah promised. And it’s not the peace that Jesus promised. Because Jesus told us that the peacemakers are blessed. And he means those who actively seek out the creation of peace. Those who find conflict and anger and hurt and hatred around them and attempt to bring something new into being.

And we have to start small. Jesus tells us that we can’t love God if we don’t love those who are our enemies. And as I’ve said here before, if you think you don’t have enemies because you’re a decent righteous person without hate in your heart, look around the world and you’ll find plenty of people who hate you because you’re a Christian, or because you live in a rich country, or because you’re a liberal or an evangelical, or because you’re a woman, or because you’re gay, or because you’re not white. And if you look inside your heart and ask yourself honestly, do I hate some of these people back, you might just find it’s so. I know that if I’m honest with myself, there are groups that I have hate in my heart towards. You will have your own examples. But we are taught to love these people too.

But in some ways this is still easy. It’s not so hard to imagine learning not to hate Donald Trump. Implausible, but at least conceivable. But peace, true peace, is also about day-to-day living. Last week, Jane talked to us about gentleness, and peace is closely related to gentleness. To love our enemies, we must love our neighbour, and to love our neighbour, we must love those we see every day. Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, put it like this: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. We have to learn how to be peaceful within ourselves, within our souls, on a daily basis.

That’s not an easy call. We’re human beings. We fall short of love. I love my children more than words can express. Yet I get cross with them on a regular basis, I shout at them, I get grumpy with them. I’m hardly alone in that – I imagine all the parents here could tell a similar story. We need God’s grace to find that love, to show that love.

And the letter of James gives us some thoughts on how to show that love. The key word throughout the passage we heard from James is wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible, the idea of wisdom is a crucial one. It has little to do with book-learning and a lot to do with inner learning. It’s the feminine aspect of God, the first creation who sat beside the Creator since the start of time. The book of Proverbs says of wisdom: “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in the human race.” So it’s a deeply Jewish idea, and when it came into Christian thought, it became connected with the Holy Spirit, who came down from heaven in the form of a dove, that symbol of peace.

In the letter of James, we’re presented with two forms of wisdom. There is a false wisdom which is based on envy and ambition, and which James calls earthy, unspiritual, even demonic. This false wisdom leads to disorder and to evil practices. Envy and ambition fester in the soul, they lead us to hate those who we think might have more than us or to be doing better than us. But then there is another wisdom, which leads to peace, and which has something of the same flavour as the fruit of the Spirit described by Paul. This wisdom, this fruit, is about thinking of others. It’s about being merciful. It’s about putting others’ needs before your own. It’s about consistency and integrity.

The last two verses in the passage from James are translated in a really helpful way in The Message bible:
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.
I love the idea of doing the hard work of getting along with each other. It’s hard work. Let’s name it plainly. Human communities are full of divisions. This church community is full of divisions. There are arguments in this church, disagreements and hurts that have existed for years. That’s normal enough for human communities, but it’s not the way that God intends for us. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement. Conflict is a natural part of human life. The problem is how you respond to conflict – anger and even violence create future problems, but so does leaving conflict to fester unresolved. The way of peace, the way of wisdom, involves seeing conflict and treating each other with dignity and honour.

And if we can find this way of wisdom, if we can recognise that within every other human being there is a spark of divine goodness, much richer and deeper and more important than anything that divides us from them and anything we think they’ve done wrong. If we can see these things, can see that we are all children of God, then truly we can become peacemakers.

And then we will be able to love our neighbour, to love our enemy. We will become peacemakers. And then everyone will sit beneath their vine and their fig-tree, and nobody will make them afraid. Because this is the promise of God, and this is the fruit of the Spirit, this is the path of wisdom. May it be so for each one of us, in our everyday lives and with those around us. And may it be so for our tattered and battered world, full of children of God who cry out for peace. May God grant peace to us all, and may we respond with love and with joy and with peace to all those we meet. Amen.
Image: Tripadvisor

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Resisting temptation: taking the hard road in the wilderness

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 14 February 2016. Text: Luke 4:1-13.

So here we are in Lent. And the temptations begin. So we’re going to talk today about resisting temptation, about how Jesus did it and how we do it.

Many of you will know the phrase from one of Oscar Wilde’s plays that “I can resist everything exception temptation”. And yes it’s tough to resist. Each of us have our own temptations. For some people it’s chocolate. For others it’s cream cakes. Or television. Or not going to the gym. Me, I get constantly tempted by surfing on to random websites when I should be working. Or indeed when I should be writing sermons. But really I’m not talking about that sort of temptation here.

Nor am I talking about the really judgemental sort of temptation. I grew up in the Church of Scotland, and those old Presbyterian preachers had a bit of a fearsome reputation for standing up in the pulpit looking all stern and telling their congregations what to do. When I was a teenager I was in a sketch where every time someone would say something slightly liberal, or slightly about enjoyment, or dare to mention human bodies, a black-clad figure would stand up and loudly sing the old hymn “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin”. And again, and again. Totally, completely, counter-productive.

This is not that kind of sermon. And I’m not talking about that kind of temptation. But I do want to talk about what we do when we are put to the test. When we hear that little voice in our head that says “go on, you could do that thing. Don’t think it’s wrong, it’s just what they want you to believe. It’ll taste, or feel, or look, so good”. Or the other voice that says “are you really sure? They don’t really like you, you know. You’re not really as good as them. Come on, no need to worry. Don’t do the hard thing.” Or still another voice that says “He deserves it, you know. She deserves it. Slap her back. Tell him he’s a fool. You show them.”

Because that’s the kind of voice I’m talking about here. The quiet voice that sounds so friendly, so much on your side, which promises you everything if you let go. Except that you know what’s right really. And you know that it’s not what the voice is saying. And the gospel that we heard gives that voice a very clear name. It refers to it as the devil.

Image: Blake's Satan, via Wikipedia
Now the word ‘devil’, or the name Satan, is not a helpful name to the modern ear. Because we think about silly Halloween figures with horns and spiky tails in red costumes. Or creatures from some horror movie. Or the beautiful but dangerous fallen angels in Paradise Lost. The word ‘devil’ is both too powerful, too frightening, but curiously not powerful enough. Because in most of the Bible, he’s not a red demon. He’s a fallen angel of sorts, but not the sort that does battles. He has the name of ha Satan, the accuser or the adversary, if you like the counsel for the prosecution. He’s a subtle sort of accuser. He’s the voice that tempts Eve with the apple. He’s the one who persuades God to let him test out Job’s faith, and launches terrible suffering on him. He’s the one who has a quiet word with Judas, the misunderstood disciple, and persuades him to betray his master.

And here, in the wilderness, he’s the quiet voice that comes to Jesus and offers him all sorts of things if Jesus will only give up what he knows to be right. He’s sowing the seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind. In Luke’s gospel, the scene immediately follows Jesus’ baptism. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit. He’s heard from heaven the voice that said “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. So he has a relationship with God. He has a mission in the world. And then the devil comes to him to undermine that relationship and that mission.

The whole story is a drip-drip-drip of doubt. Twice the devil says “if you are the son of God”, in case Jesus was questioning that. He gives Jesus the chance to worship him, rather than God. He gives Jesus the opportunity to put God to the test. It’s the sort of doubt we’ve all felt ourselves – are we really worthy to do this work in the world? Are we worthy to call ourselves Christians? Are we good enough people to consider ourselves as sons or daughters of God? You could say this is about projection, about the underside of our own personalities getting to us. You could also say the same about Jesus’ experience, after forty days alone and in danger and hungry. And perhaps it is. I don’t think it matters. I certainly think when we experience that sort of thing, we don’t need to call it the work of the devil all the time. But it certainly is an experience of temptation, of testing. And the gospel calls it the devil so we’ll stick with that.

Jesus knows who he is, he knows what he’s come to do. When he leaves the wilderness, he preaches the famous sermon where he quotes from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. But all of that rests on his relationship with God. On his trust in God.

But here Jesus is, alone. Without anyone to help him. It had to be the wilderness, the lonely and risky place, because real change comes through real testing. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it like this: “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Image: Deeply Plaid
Jesus went into the wilderness to change. Few of us here are likely to go into the wilderness during Lent. It’s not how most Christians do things now. But it’s a common enough experience to enter the wilderness. To enter a world of unemployment, not knowing how and whether you’ll get out. To stare into the abyss of a loved one with dementia or cancer, seeing their suffering and not knowing where the light will come from. To be homeless or a refugee, hungry and travelling and without a place to stop and with only hostile people around. To experience the pain of mental illness, and not be able to see a way out. Suffering is all around. Wilderness experiences are all too common. And you would do anything to get out of them, or to get those you love out of them. And the self-help thinkers will tell you that out of great suffering comes great wisdom, and the wisest people are those who suffer most. And although they sound stupid and glib, they’re probably right. But it hurts. And you want it to stop. And at that point you would bow down to anyone at all to make it end.

And that is when the quiet and reassuring voice in your head speaks, offering the honeyed words of temptation. That’s why this isn’t about chocolate. That’s why this stuff matters.

Let’s look at Jesus’ temptations a bit more. We might call it bread, power and safety. Or, slightly more grandly, the economic, the political and the spiritual temptations. Both of these are described by different commentators [David Lose and Leith Fisher].

The three temptations all cover things that matter to Jesus and still matter in our world (feeding the hungry, acting in the political realm, healing people where they are). They’re not bad things to be tempted about. Jesus was a good person, so of course his temptations were about good things. But Jesus each time goes for the hard option rather than the easy one.

The bread first. Now you could say this is about Jesus’ own hunger, or you could say it’s about his awareness of other people’s hunger. We know that food really mattered to Jesus. Who ate, how they ate, who they ate with. We constantly see him at tables, eating with the most surprising of people, outcasts and lowly folk. Our most important Christian ritual is remembering a meal he had before his death. And perhaps the most tender moment in the gospel of Luke is when he meets the disciples once more after his resurrection and doesn’t give them a message or a sign but simply shows them he’s alive and asks if they have any food. And yes at times the gospels tell us of Jesus as feeding the hungry through miracles (such as the feeding of the 5000, or the changing of water into wine in the wedding at Cana). But food is not really about miracles for Jesus. Mostly he acted through his followers, through their sharing and their generosity. It’s been said about the feeding of the 5000 that the real miracle was that Jesus persuaded all those people to share their food with each other. Food goes with generosity, and sharing, with the gifts of God. But Satan tries to separate Jesus from those gifts of God by persuading him to feed the hungry through power. How great it would be to do so, to fill a food bank with the click of your fingers. But it comes through generosity, through small acts of kindness. It comes through living out the kingdom. And so Jesus passed the first test.

And so the devil gave him another temptation. He could have power in the world. He could be a great ruler of nations, could be the Messiah of the kind that many people were expecting, the warrior king to cast off the Roman oppressors and establish Israel as a great nation, the highest among the nations. He could have power, and money, and palaces, and armies. All he needed to do was to bow down and worship Satan. And yes, he probably could have done it. And he really must have felt that temptation. He was an actor in the world. He was constantly encountering power structures and challenging them. So did his followers. The original creed of ‘Jesus is Lord’ was an act of deep challenge to the state, because it was saying that Caesar is not Lord. And it applies today. I recently read a book by Eugene Peterson, who translated the Bible as The Message, who talks about how deeply subversive is the nature of the kingdom. He’s an American, but writes: “the methods that make the kingdom of America strong – economic, military, technological, informational – are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong”. And he recounts talking to a member of his congregation, a powerful person, and thinking that “if he realised that I actually believe that the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all please. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me.” And Jesus knew this – that the choice is between the power structures of the world, which means violence and destruction and the work of the devil, or the kingdom of God, which means love and sacrifice and hope for the world. And love hurts. But love always wins.

One more temptation to come. This time Jesus was in the place of power itself, in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish world. Standing above the temple, he was offered the chance to show his miraculous self. He could create a scene of great power, to wow the crowds. A man falls, the angels come and rescue him. It would be an impressive experience. They’d come flocking to his side after that. But it would be the vainest of vanity, a seven day wonder. An instant sensation, but disappearing just as instantly. Jesus healed plenty of people, became known for it. We are likewise called to follow him by caring for the sick, seeking their healing. But not in a flash & a bang. Jesus didn’t come to start a branch of Miracles R Us. Yes he would come with great signs, but his ultimate healing of the world would come back in Jerusalem on a cross. Real power.

And so Jesus resisted the temptations of an easy, miraculous route to power and authority. His route to Jerusalem would be the hard one, the rocky road that began in the wilderness, that heard the voice that tried to separate him from God and told it to leave him be. And he told his followers that their way would be hard, that they needed to take up their cross to follow him, that whenever they looked after the least folk, they looked after him.
Image: BiblePlaces.com

There is a temptation to an easy way, even if it’s not the one we know to be right, even if we think it’s for others’ benefit. The voice of the adversary is a subtle one. But we can resist that temptation. We can resist it during Lent. We can resist it even in the depths of the wilderness experiences of our lives. What we can’t do is resist it by ourselves. Human beings don’t have that power. But Jesus shows us that it can be done. We can resist the voice of temptation through his power and we can resist it through his example. We can resist it through the name of Jesus Christ, sent by God to resist temptation and to redeem the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.