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.


Thursday, 13 November 2014


I'm a townie, or at least a suburbanite. I've lived most of my life in (often on the edge of) cities and large towns. I've never had an urge to live in the countryside or a village. Countryside for me means mountains and big lakes, not low rolling hills and thatched cottages.

Moreover, I've never much liked pastoral music (apart from Beethoven's 6th Symphony and even that is far from my favourite of his symphonies). The continued popularity of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, long topping the Classic FM annual listeners' poll, has always baffled me.

However, I've been powerfully affected by the pastoral sentiments of Frostiana, Randall Thompson's setting of seven poems by Robert Frost. The OU Choir, of which I'm a member, performed the suite today, and I've got a lot out of learning the piece. Our conductor, Bill Strang, talked us (and the audience) through the subtle history of the poetry and the music.

The poems are very much pastoral in theme, and the musical setting fits it. They talk of woods, farms, flowers, paths, pastures, cows, stars and villages. They're small scale pieces, local in intent. Many almost feel impressionist: they capture a moment in time and display the scene in detail. Only in a few places do they explicitly address big themes.

The big themes are most prominent at the start and the end of the piece, with settings of the poems "The Road Not Taken" (Frost's famous poem about decisions, of roads diverging in a wood) and "Choose Something Like a Star" (the most abstract piece, about the voice of a star). The latter seemed very appropriate to sing the day after the first human spacecraft had landed on a comet (including several OU scientists). These themes are strong and clear ones, although The Road Not Taken is often misunderstood. There are subtler themes in the five poems in between, and many layers to each of them.

But the overwhelming feel of the piece for me is its pastoral sensitivity. The countryside in question is that of New England - Frost and Thompson both lived much of their lives in New England and were both associated with the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, for whose 200th anniversary the piece was written. And yet it's really striking that several of the poems were written in (old) England, when Frost was seeking to establish himself as a poet (and under the influence of the English writer Edward Thomas with whom Frost formed a close friendship); and that Thompson wrote most of the music while living in Switzerland. So the pastoral scenes are wider than they first appear.

I can't say that Frostiana has made me want to move to the countryside, certainly not around Milton Keynes or Northampton. But it has certainly given me a more sympathetic sense of the value of pastoral life.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Loving God and loving our neighbour

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC, 26 October 2014. Recording available (misses first few minutes) on church website. Main text: Matthew 22:34-46.

Love. It’s a four letter word. And like a lot of four letter words of everybody’s acquaintance, it’s dreadfully overused and largely misunderstood. Our culture is saturated with trite little songs about love. All you need is love. I love you baby. Love is all around. The power of love, a force from above. And so on and on. It’s perhaps a good thing I’m not preaching this sermon around Valentine’s Day.

Because what Jesus was talking about, and likewise what the writers of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that he quoted and we’ve heard read this morning were talking about – it’s a very different kind of love from the trite songs. It’s about something quite different from romantic love. You’ll probably know that the Greeks had multiple words for love, and the word here is agape, the kind of love that God is described as showing throughout the New Testament. It’s the love that CS Lewis described as the highest level of love known to humanity, a selfless love, a love that is passionately committed to the well-being of the other.

And it’s that kind of love that the Shema, the words we heard from Deuteronomy, calls us to love God with. To me, that’s why it’s so very important. I think as Christians we do a disservice to this kind of love by trying to bracket it into a quasi-romantic framework. Let me put it plainly, at the possible risk of offending some people. There’s a lot of expressions of worship, in prayers and especially in modern praise songs, which some people have called “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship. They take the trite emotions in the pop songs and apply it to the deepest possible relationship that any human being can have, with our triune God, creator, redeemer and sustainer. They bring Jesus down from the cross and into the soft focus of a teenage crush.

But we are called to something very much deeper than those teenage crushes. And it’s deeper even than the love we have for a partner, or for a child or a parent. The love between human beings and God that we are called to is an experience of the divine. It’s a taste of heaven in the here and now. It’s what Jesus meant when he promised us life to the full, and eternal life. Because God is love, as the epistle of John reminds us. And so by loving God we are coming face to face with God in the very fullness of God’s self.  As the epistle of John also says, “God is love, and those who in abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”.

How do we do this? Well it’s not easy. Love never is. Relationships of any kind are not easy. They have to be worked at. God doesn’t have to work at loving us, God is complete as love in himself. Speaking for myself, I think God must have quite an effort to love the likes of me, with all my imperfections and all my faults and all the things I do wrong. I could make you a list of all the things that make me unlovable, but it wouldn’t teach you much because everyone here could probably make a similar list for themselves. But God loves us, and remarkably that gives us strength to love God in return.

A few years ago, some of us in this church read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Some people like it, some people can’t stand it. I’m not going to address the central tenets today. But Rob Bell has a marvellous turn of phrase at times. He writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. … Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality. This God whom Jesus spoke of has always been looking for partners, people who are passionate about participating in the ongoing creation of the world.”

Love is a relationship. We are enabled to love God because he first loved us. He has inscribed us on the palms of his hands. We can respond by loving him in return, with all of our being, by bringing everything we’ve got to him. I really find the song Bring It All to Me very powerful in the way it expresses that invitation.

So how do we strengthen that love for God? The 17th century bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, put it this way: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and man by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving Him more and more.”

And there’s another way that we have to follow, and that brings me on to the second half of what Jesus said we should do – not just to love God, but also to love our neighbour as ourselves. To me, this is one of the most important things Jesus says. It goes to the very heart of his teaching, his insistence that while love for God is just as important as it had always been in the Jewish faith, but that to be fully worked-out it also requires love for those around us, for those referred to here as our neighbours.

Now, this passage is so well known and widely perceived to be central to Jesus’ teaching, that it’s sometimes perceived as being quite radical, an extension of Jewish teaching. I have to say I’m not convinced by this. There’s plenty of evidence that what Jesus was saying was a familiar idea in his day. Both his phrases were quotations from the Torah, and we heard them read earlier from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Others seem to have also made the connection between the two phrases, and to have suggested that they summarised the Torah in these two ideas. Indeed it’s striking that when Luke tells of this scene in his gospel, he puts the ideas not into Jesus’ mouth but into the mouth of the person he’s talking to. In Matthew, it’s framed in terms of the Pharisees trying to catch Jesus out. It’s said that there were 613 commandments in the Torah. How could Jesus bring these down to just two?

Whether or not this was something original to Jesus, it’s certainly an idea that’s absolutely central to Jesus’ thinking, that we can only love God if we love those around us.

So we come to the question that was put by Jesus’ interlocutor in the gospel of Luke: but teacher, who is my neighbour? This was something the scholars of his day discussed at length. Who are we obliged to love? What is the boundary upon which we should place our love? In Leviticus, the phrase appears as part of what we might call social teaching – the establishment of a fair and just society, of right relationships. The book of Leviticus has a rather bad name today, as a set of rather harsh and unbending rules, applicable to the people of the day but not to us who live under grace rather than law. Indeed, in just the previous chapter of Leviticus to our one day, we find the text which has been used by some Christians to justify prejudice against same-sex relationships. It’s not an easy book to like. And yet we can see in this passage the start of a very clear statement: for society to work, it needs us to treat those around us well, in the same way that we’d like to be treated.

Jesus answered the question about who is our neighbour, as so often in the gospels, by telling a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now there are many ways to interpret that parable, but to me it’s clear that Jesus is saying that the answer is: everybody, who is in need of help. Our neighbours are not just those who live next door, or in our little area, or in our town or our country. Nor are they just those who are like us. We are called to love everyone, regardless of their politics, or their skin colour, or their nationality, or their wealth, or their sexuality, or whether we even like them very much. We are called to love everybody.

Going back to loving our neighbour, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this wider still – we are called to love our enemies. Now I used to believe quite fervently that I didn’t have enemies, that even if my country chose to fight wars in my name it didn’t make the people of those countries my enemies. But as I’ve got older I’ve come to understand that there are those I disagree with at such a fundamental level that I would have to say that I hate them, at least in terms of the ideas they represent. I hate racism, I hate homophobia, I hate those who seek to choke off immigration, I hate those in power who destroy people’s lives in the name of austerity. My list goes on, and you’ll have your own list. It’s not too big a stretch for me to call those who embody and champion those beliefs my enemies. I was a teenager in Scotland in the 1980s, and we really did hate Margaret Thatcher for what she was doing, or letting happen, to the Scottish industrial economy. Of course, in some ways that was a nice safe hatred. Elsewhere in Glasgow there were Protestants like me, who would have counted me among their number, who hated other Christians simply because they were Catholics, and vice-versa of course. It might not have been as violent as in Belfast, though woe-betide you if you wore green in Ibrox. Loving those neighbours is something that took a long time coming, and it’s not entirely healed. The Orange Order is still marching in Scotland, and they’re really horrible and frightening even if you’re a Protestant. And even if you reckon you’re above all those things, there are those who may well choose to define you as their enemy.

We are called by Jesus to love all these people, to love them to the same extent as we love God, as part of our loving of God. The first epistle of John again puts it clearly:  “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

So who does Jesus call us to love as our neighbours? Everyone. And how does Jesus call us to them? Fully, abundantly, in just the same way that God loves us. Ignoring their faults and even ignoring whether we like them or whether they like us. And by coupling it with the Shema, the central idea of Jewish thought, Jesus says clearly: this really matters. How you treat others really matters. If you treat others badly, you’re not just failing in the code of reciprocity, of the self-interest in treating people as you’d like them to treat you – you’re failing in a religious duty.

How you do it – that varies, of course. For some people it might involve campaigning against injustice, or volunteering at a practical project such as a food bank; for others it might simply be about the way we relate to others, about treating everyone with respect and as a child of God, made in the image of God. And indeed it might involve how we relate to those nearest to us. Knowing how we can and should love our neighbour is a matter of discernment. There’s a Quaker phrase, part of a longer passage, which has been in my head this week preparing for this sermon: “attend to what love requires of you”. Love might require very different things of you to what it requires of me. But it requires us both to see the image of God in those around us, nearby and far away.

Of course we can’t manage it. Loving all these people, all the time, to the extent that God does? Even if they’re horrible, or irritating, or offensive, or smelly, or just because you’re a bit grumpy? Because if this is the summation of the law, then that’s the thing about the law, as St Paul said again and again – we’re going to break the law of God, and yet we’re going to be forgiven again and again. And this applies to loving our neighbour as much as anything else. But we still need to see it as our basic calling as Christians.

Kahlil Gibran wrote that “work is love made visible”. I think it applies to this passage. Relationships take work, and love takes work, but also to show that love, both of God and of our neighbour, takes work, it needs to come out in action.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. Bring everything you have to him, and he will use it to create unimagined goodness in the world. What a challenge, but what a joy. Amen.